1. Waiting Room
Muzak earworms a song so deep into your subconscious that for weeks afterwards: hum, hum, hum. And it’s Juice Newton. It’s Steely Dan. The Girl from Freaking Ipanema. The golf magazines, the parenting advice and this-is-your-future gunmetal hair, pages moist and crumpled like leftovers from someone else’s bathroom. Saltwater tanks flash exotic plumage—a mirror of the unnamed diseases I fear I have. Plants barely hanging on, leaves shriveled brown at the edges, stalks dry as chalk at the bases. But worst is me. In a doctor’s office, I am hypervigilant, tuned into the pulsing, ticking micro, and I get, well, nervous.
Now when I write nervous what I mean is six-alarm panicked. Accelerated heart rate, darting eyes, sweaty everything—clammy knees, sticky ankles—dizziness, a snowball of mania. From the minute I’m parked in the waiting room, I plan, I plot, working out the logistics of just how long I have to keep it together for before I can make a break for the exit.
My math brain is protozoa small, but this equation is locked in: panic = high blood pressure. Doctors check that stat. Every. Time. Soon as you step off of the +5 lb scale, they strap on the cuff and make sure your heart’s A-okay. And though I’m calm as a sleeping cat when I’m in my car, at home, anywhere else, in the office I’m Captain Panic, ready to fight white coats and other blood pressure-taking assistants single handedly with my 186/122 mischief.
Tranquil thought machine. That beach in Mexico, crystal waves tapping my shins, sun freckling my arms, umbrellaed Mai Tai in vacationing hand. Sex—not abstractly, not wouldn’t it be nice if—but my-neighbors-must-hate-me-for-Saturday’s-legs-behind-my-head-scream-in-another-language move. Fields of majestic bulldogs. Oozing grilled cheeses.
Then overtalk. The weather is too warm/cold/wet. Japanese internment camps must have been terrible. I love Rihanna even if she can’t really sing. There. I said it. Babble on about anything to keep my mind off of the test I’m about to fail. And maybe that’s it. Test anxiety. The problem, of course, is that all the studying in the world can’t keep me from a magnificent red F on my chart.
Get Freudian. Tap the irrational, scrutinize the childhood: my prepubescent love of getting blood drawn, watching the secrets of my insides spill out. Scour the Morrissey-riddled teen years when I had shamefully bad teeth and a weekly appointment with my decrepit dinosaur of a dentist, fear of nasal hair and the touch of old men, yes—not doctors in general. (Sidebar: current dentist looks like Scorsese—eyebrows like Hickory Tussock caterpillars. General practitioner is a dead ringer for Groucho Marx. Psychiatrist a doppelganger for Mindy Kaling. I take what I can get.)
First attack. The Echelon Mall in South Jersey. Addams Family pinball—good show, old man!—sucking down Mt. Dew with my then-boyfriend, when in the fury of a multiball, he passed out. I got him to come to, theatrical slaps to the face and all, and then he did it again. And again. My virile, skateboarding hunk of man-candy passed out three times in a row, which made me feel like the lights were going out on me too, the curtain coming down fast and hard. Don’t know why. Who psychosomatically loses consciousness? But when I think about what happens in the thick of my panic—what’s really at the gooey center—it’s fear of losing control of my body, of the world slowly fading to black and waking up with a cartoon lump on my head, a tooth knocked out, my dress flung embarrassingly high up over my waist. Until that day at the mall, I was sustaining myself on the invincibility of youth. Afterwards, and I mean for all of the years to follow, I’ve lived in fear.
Surfing the net one day, I landed on a top nine list of the most fantastic toy commercials from the ’80s. As I steeped myself in nostalgia for the simpler times when a can of He-Man slime or Koosh Ball was enough to make me happy, I got to number six on the list and felt my blood pressure rise—a tickle at the base of my neck, my upper lip a brushstroke of sweat. And then it clicked.
Fucking Milton Bradley.
6. Game Time
Operation, as the box reminds, is the game “where you’re the doctor.” Sam, the inept patient, lies wide-eyed as twitchy children’s hands attempt to remove such anatomically correct parts as the “bread basket,” “wish bone,” and “wrenched ankle.” And if your tweezers should slip, if your hand should graze the metallic casing of an organ: ERRRRR. Sam’s nose blazes Rudolph red, the buzzer sounds, you jump out of fear, and your friends laugh at you. Another round of positive self-esteem.
I loathed this game when I was a kid. Refused to play it for the most part, but when we visited my grandmother’s condo, it was the only option. Something about her place also produced titanic pockets of static electricity, so I’d get zapped every time I touched a railing, a doorknob, another person, and then I had the added illusion of getting electrocuted when my brother insisted on playing Operation.
(A) The Concept: Anyone can operate. Isn’t that a glorious life lesson? Don’t know who you played with as a child, but a round of Operation with my brother was like watching Mengele at work. He might use the given tweezers for a round, but sooner than later he’d experiment with his Swiss Army knife, a fishing hook, and once—the last time we played—matches. Sam never stood a chance.
(B) The Original Cover of the Box: Two doctors at work with the help of a pair of open-mouthed, rosy-cheeked children. Quack #1 smokes a cigarette from a 1940s-styled holder held just inches away from the patient’s face. His eyes are swollen, tiny globes of stressed blood vessels; clearly he’s been tapping the Nitrous tank behind him. Quack #2 sports fuchsia socks and boxer shorts, his head with the clichéd Einstein coif hovering two inches from poor Sam’s crotch, mouth agape. These are the pros. A drug addict, a potential rapist.
(C) The Patient: Can you picture him? Sam is the most pathetic human being ever: The Everypatient. No control over what’s being inflicted upon him, awake during surgery, the worst haircut in the history of haircuts (the Moe from The Three Stooges), vulnerably naked and overweight, suffering from both a broken heart and butterflies in his stomach. But his most important characteristic: he looks positively panicked. Open mouth, eyes broad with impending doom, his nose fiery when the doc comes near him. My blood pressure soars and my thoughts scream when the white coats approach me. He also has writer’s cramp. Sam and I are one.
Maybe I was just a jumpy, impressionable kid or didn’t react well to shocking buzzers sounding every time I made an error, but Operation seems like an exercise in sadistic Pavlovian conditioning: make a mistake, scary alarm sounds. To play, you have to repeat your negatively reinforced behavior. Where else in life does this happen? If you burn your hand on the sizzling fajita skillet, you don’t reach for the greasy chicken and peppers again a second later. Theoretically, a perfect game of Operation would make no noise, all of Sam’s parts removed quickly, accurately. But no commercials for the game show concentration, silence, and applause at having mastered the art of surgery. No. Instead, a team of kids dressed as shrunken doctors botch everything and laugh as they do. It’s almost as if, if the players did it all perfectly, it wouldn’t be as much fun. Laughter is fun. And the laughter only comes in this game when you hurt the patient.
Because my panic is clearly wrapped up in fear of loss of control, and that stupid game and its evil buzzer are about the same—from the patient’s end—maybe I need to do something I can control to exorcise this damned demon. Used to have a serious phobia of tarantulas. I bought one; fear gone. Was terrified of flying; got a ticket to Greece. Scared of getting hurt; said I love you first this time. Maybe I should buy Operation and master it, become a surgical wizard capable not only of removing the organs without a sound, but also with my eyes closed—or with my feet. Practice extracting the “bread basket” while cruising down the highway, letting nothing—not even speed traps—distract me. Work on Sam’s “water on the knee” with my right hand while stirring homemade marinara with my left, all the while chatting on the phone. Yes, if I can master this game so that no matter my distractions, no matter what else I’m doing, I never have to hear that damned you’re wrong buzzer again, then maybe I can get over this panic. Perhaps if I can do it while seriously distracted, I’ll gain enough faith that a trained doctor with only one task—no marinara—will be able to perform well enough for me to calm the hell down, for my internal alarms not to sound.
And I’d like more than anything I can think of never to hear them again.
LISA NIKOLIDAKIS received her PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Chautauqua Review, Harpur Palate, Necessary Fiction, Newport Review, River Styx, Press 53’s Open Anthology Awards (1st Place, Creative Nonfiction), Night Train, and The Citron Review. She has recently finished her first memoir.