On the day I turned thirty years old, it rained. It was an oily, April rain that slipped like silk against the skin. This kind of rain made cars and semis and SUVs collide and made news helicopters hover above the highway in search of a story. The radio traffic report said that four cars and a truck bound for the Long Beach Harbor had piled one upon the other earlier this morning. One person had been killed. That forced me to grip the steering wheel tight. Forced me stop tailgating the station wagon ahead of me.
My mother, in the passenger seat, had whispered, “Those poor people,” as we crept up another clogged freeway that had only suffered from a fender-bender.
We entered the Women’s Health Clinic ten minutes late for her appointment. Relaxed, I leaned against the check-in counter, thankful for many things: a safe arrival, decent medical insurance, and a peaceful waiting room with nice art, soft light, and clean chairs.
My mother told the receptionist, “I have a ten o’clock appointment.”
The receptionist, a Mexican woman with pitted skin, consulted a scheduling book. “Genevieve Barrett?”
Mom nodded. “Sorry I’m a little late.”
The woman shrugged—she didn’t care. “How are you today?” She reached for registration forms in a hanging file folder inside her desk.
Mom said, “Same ol’, same ol’.”
Not true. Mom had cried in the car for several minutes after I had parked. Clutched her purse to her chest and said between sobs, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m tired of coming here.”
“I know,” I had said.
“I’m so sick of needles and that I.V. I’m sick of hurting and... and...”
“I know, Mom, but—”
“No one understands,” Mom had snapped. “Why is this happening to me? What did I do?”
She didn’t want an answer, especially from me. She already knew that God rained on the good and the bad. He gives. He takes. And that’s that. Ask Job.
“We’re late,” I had said. “We should go in and get it over with. Sitting here is just gonna prolong it.”
She had nodded, then wiped her nose with a tissue. “I didn’t mean to snap. I’m just...”
She sighed and sunk low in her seat. That burst of energy had cost her.
“I know,” I had said.
“I’m better now.” She had dabbed the corners of her puffy eyes with tissue, then opened the car door. “I’m much better now.”
But then she had trailed behind me in the parking lot, an inmate on her way to the electric chair.
And now, here we stood.
The receptionist slipped the tip of her tongue into the gap between her two front teeth. “Ten dollars, please.”
I handed the woman two five-dollar bills.
“Such a nice place,” Mom said, more to herself than to me. “Not like Mercy. That place will make you worse before making you better.”
She said this every time we came here. She was right, of course. This hospital was comfortable. No chaos. No violence. No police hovering over handcuffed men in the corridors. No talk show announcer shouting from a staticky television, ‘Big breasted babes go bra-less on today’s Ricki Lake,’ cuz there was no T.V.
Instead, the theme from Phantom of the Opera whispered on hidden speakers. The tranquility made the rapid beating of my heart slow to its regular pace. I even hummed a few bars.
Since Mom’s job didn’t offer premium medical insurance, she could only afford that scary HMO where the shot, the stabbed, and the infected congregated for mediocre medical treatment and were then sent home still bleeding, crazy, and contagious; where rude nurses barked at patients, and doctors feared those teeming masses and their suffering.
“It was awful there,” Mom whispered. “I’m so glad I listened to you.”
“It shouldn’t be too long,” the receptionist said.
Mom and I found two seats together.
Three other couples were waiting to see their doctors. Marrieds, I assume. The men held their wives’ hands. Their wives flipped through People or Us. They were white. Affluent, perhaps, if you measured wealth by fine-grained leather, titanium diving watches and yellow diamond solitaires.
I took Mom’s hand and squeezed it. “You’ll be fine.”
She smiled, then tugged at the worn handle of the Gucci purse that I had bought her years ago. She took that bag everywhere: church, Target, chemotherapy. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was a knock-off. But maybe she didn’t have the heart to tell me that she knew that it was.