by Antoine Valot
The tibia leans, an elegant elongated lily’s corolla. Viewed frontally, its near-perfect symmetry is like the ache of the flower arcing for the bee, a springtime longing for liberation and light. The fibula, lying alongside, ends in a burgeoning bulb, a bud about to burst. Together they reach up to kiss the blunt, humorless femur, a coarse club adorned only by the brutish patella. No matter, for the tibia, languorous, leans forever in love, forlorn.
6:35am. Bathrobe, snoopy bowl, skim milk, froot loops, iPad. Good morning, Jeremy!
The email icon ovulates a nagging 26 new messages. It’s Monday morning after a ski weekend, so one can expect that a lot of tibia fractures came back from the slopes last night. Jeremy revels in the ten-minute luxury of ignoring them, watches a stupid Ren & Stimpy video on YouTube instead. Chuckles and slurps. Froot loop time is sacred.
7:14am. Blue light, acoustic tiles, tang of disinfectant, white walls, white doors, white desks, white floors. Good morning Doctor.
Hubbub. Ultrasound. CT. Ultrasound. CT. CT. Abdomen, pelvis, kidney, aorta, kidney, pancreas. Emergency, oncology, emergency, emergency, pediatrics.
Andre the morning tech is surly and competent. Judy the nurse is all sunshine, confident, positive energy. Working with them, Jeremy gets in the zone, a state of flow, almost, but never quite, staying ahead of the onslaught of phone calls, cases, pathologies, patients, personalities, and bodies, endless bodies. Walking or shuffling, sitting or laying down, pale or dark, red or blue, thin or bloated, steaming or shivering, all different, yet all made in the image of the one in the anatomy textbook.
Every patient’s energy, as they enter the nave of the radiology department, is cotton-padded by Judy, greeting them at the stoup of the hand-sanitizer station, enveloping them in a warm gospel of instructions and reassurance. In the transept, as Andre officiates the rites of setup, they fall into mute contemplation. Andre soon passes behind his lead-lined rood screen, into the operator’s chancel, and the penitent, in silent expectation, holds a breath, and feels the passage of the angel or mercy, or the angel of death, like a silence softly sweeping across their body and soul. In time their scans arrive to Jeremy, like devout supplications, and in communion with the vast all-knowing corpus of medicine, he dispenses absolutions and indulgences, acts of contrition and tickets to purgatory. His head bowed reverently before the light of the high-resolution, calibrated monitor, Jeremy makes the sign of the cross on his trackball, and mutters the sacred arcana of his radiology report into the mike of transcription. Jeremy does not condemn. He does not judge. He listens and sees, he bears witness, he forgives, and renders them all back unto their attending. Go in peace, if in pieces, and sicken no more.
The wrist is the nexus of danger, in posterior/anterior view. Look out! It’s a hand grenade! At the apex of a shattered burst of bony fragments, the wrist grinds its teeth, its crumpled mass like cursed dice in a clenched fist. You’ve pulled the pin! Get away fast! Throw it farther than the blast radius!
11:53am. Sunshine, lunch trays, lab coats, ties, Italian loafers. Smells of food, old carpeting, med students with too much deodorant, boredom and stress. Hello doctor, hello doctor, hello doctor…
Doctor Wooley is a suppurating wound, an ever-bursting abcess, an unwashable taint on Jeremy’s reputation and good name. When Jeremy was new at the hospital, he cozied up to Dr. Wooley, hoping that some of the senior radiologist’s clout would rub off on him. It worked all too well. By the time Jeremy figured out who Dr. Wooley truly was, all his bridges were already on fire.
Yes, Dr. Wooley was sought after, important, and all who came to him treated him with reverence… but that was only due to his role as chief rad, and to the penury of radiologists available on the market. Everybody needs Dr. Wooley… but nobody likes him. Because Dr. Wooley is a consummate douchebag.
Sexist, priapic, lazy, racist, homophobic, negative, disdainful, angry and entitled. But also fake, spineless, syrupy, two-faced, vicious, deceitful and manipulative. Dr. Wooley hasn’t met someone he didn’t want to fuck with, and everything he touches turns to shit.
Dr. Wooley pulls in a high six figures, drives cars that end in “-mer”, and is a major contagion vector for various STDs. Through craigslist and various less-than-legal internet sites, he delights in finding new entrants to the local prostitution industry, ones who haven’t yet heard of him. He’s persona non grata in all but the sleaziest strip clubs in his hometown, in Vegas, and in four other cities where radiology conferences are frequently held. Dr. Wooley is running out of women to mistreat.
But right now, Dr. Wooley is all charm and molasses, slurring his jargon, as he expounds on the intricacies of MR diagnosis, and tells the visiting med students how he, and he alone, is the cure to all the world’s ills. For the last few minutes, his sliminess has put on a tone of gravitas, which makes Jeremy snap to attention, and hurriedly scan the room. Yes, there she is: second row, left of center. Hair pulled back tightly, in full-deck makeup but applied with subtlety, lab coat sized for looks rather than comfort. A young woman who knows how to play her hand. She’s rapt, smiling, eyes locked on The Chief Doctor, hoping to catch the great man’s eye and curry favor. And of course he’s noticed her, and of course he’s looking anywhere but straight at her. She has no idea she’s being played. This could end in disaster.
Jeremy toys with the idea of letting it happen, letting the monster have his way with her, just so he can catch him red-handed, and expose him, or blackmail him… Whatever would force him away from this hospital, and from Jeremy’s life. But it would be useless. Rads don’t grow on trees. Everybody already knows what Dr. Wooley is capable of. He’s done it before, and will do it again. But he won’t put the hospital, or his career, in jeopardy. He’s crafty enough that his victims are always, technically, consenting.
Across the room, Judy is also sitting rigidly upright. She’s noticed it too. Nostrils flared, eyebrows raised, she glares mutely at Jeremy. Once more it will be his job to keep things under control, to put himself between Wooley and the girl, and keep them from being alone together. As the other ranking rad, he’s in the best position to do it… and as the former lone member of the Wooley fan club, and enabler of the despot, he still has much to atone for. Defeated, grim, Jeremy gives Judy the barest of nods. Her eyebrows lower slightly, but her face doesn’t slacken, her eyes keep burning into his. Jeremy drops his gaze and, for the next half-hour, he stares at his shoes.
The skull houses no quiet reflection:
The skull is a mass coronal ejection.
Behind the orbits a funeral pyre:
You’re staring straight into the fire.
Don’t look for thought, it isn’t there,
Only inferno—a solar flare.
5:34pm. Switches, notepads, folders, post-its. iPad, mouse, keyboard, trackball. Collection of plastic pens with twelve-syllable drug names on the side. Whirrs, clicks, taps, rips of Velcro, shuffling of feet in paper booties. Here’s the file, Doctor. Which one? Yes, that one.
Jeremy stands awkwardly and his spine cracks and pops. He reaches for his water bottle. Forty-five minutes of running interference between Wooley and his all-too-willing potential victim have made him late on his afternoon work, and he hasn’t caught a break since she finally left. Wooley has been steadily dumping more cases on him this afternoon, in punishment, and tried to trip him up with missing files, misleading prognoses, and ordering the wrong modalities. Nothing that could be malpractice, but still, more mistakes than could be explained away. Jeremy plods on with his sisyphean case load. To Wooley these files are pawns in a game, but Jeremy still remembers, if tenuously, that all these parts are connected to bodies. Don’t just read the scan: Treat the patient… Treat the patient… Treat the patient.
Now Wooley’s gone home. Jeremy didn’t have to look at the clock to know it. The way Judy’s voice notched up the cheer, the way Andre glides smoothly from machine to control board, like a ballet dancer… Everything is flowing again, which means that, ladies and gentlemen, Anus has left the building.
Almost as if the whole hospital feels it, there’s suddenly a lull in the stream of emergencies. Jeremy stretches. His bloodshot eyes wander and come to rest on the printout of a DXA, a full-body x-Ray to measure bone density. His mind is elsewhere. He hears Judy’s laughter, in counterpoint to Andre’s muffled baritone, in the other room. He can’t catch what they’re joking about.
The woman’s skeleton, on the DXA, is remarkably symmetrical. If it weren’t for the slight tilt of her cranium, that scan could be mistaken for a one of those perfect illustrations from the anatomy texts. Everything laid out cleanly, clearly, just the way it never happens in real life.
Jeremy’s tablet screen goes dark, but he doesn’t reach to revive it yet. He’s enjoying the moment, the warmth of his chair, the sound of his own breath in the dark room, set against the muffled hubbub of the hospital outside.
The woman’s neck is long, elegant. Jeremy admires its curve, and thinks about the giraffe women of Africa, or is it Southeast Asia? The ones who pile up metal necklaces as they grow up, until their necks are unnaturally long. He wonders how those necks would look in a DXA… Obviously, they’d look like metal rings: you couldn’t remove the necklaces without killing them. Their vertebrae must be completely disconnected, floating around…
The woman in the DXA image looks strangely lithe, light, lifted. These X-rays are taken with the patients lying down on a hard plastic table, and their skeletons look as uncomfortable as they must feel… But not this one. She looks like she was floating lightly above the table, her soft tissues firm and taut, not splayed and deformed. And that long neck is accompanied by long, lean limbs. Jeremy thinks of the chopped up photos of that statuesque black model and actress from the eighties, what was her name? Grace Jones.
This woman is not very tall, actually, but her skeleton is lean and long. Under her skin, she’s built small and tall. Jeremy grins at his pun. Only a rad could come up with that, because only a rad can see it. Bones tell a different story about a person than what the world sees.
This woman’s inner story is a beautiful one. The thought gives Jeremy pause. But it’s true: this is a beautiful skeleton. That long neck’s curve is echoed by very graceful clavicles, ample and angled perfectly. The clavicles are Jeremy’s favorite feature in a woman, more than any soft tissues. The cups they make around the throat when the shoulders are thrust forward, like warm soft nests, where the carotid pulses… And as clavicles go, these are spectacular.
The broad rib cage hints at an athletic youth. DXAs are tests of bone density, to detect osteoporosis, so it’s likely that she’s older than 65. But Jeremy avoids looking up her date of birth. This skeleton isn’t sagging, so she’s clearly been keeping herself in shape. Or she has the body type that stays in shape.
Every vertebra is aligned, ideally proportioned to the one above. The pelvis is a textbook case of balance and position: This is a woman who stands tall and straight, on feminine hips. Her feet angle slightly outwards, in a relaxed position: she didn’t put her feet in the straps. Andre would have asked her to, he never forgets. She’s independent-minded, body-conscious, perhaps a bit of a rebel. Strong legs, strong feet… is she a dancer perhaps?
Jeremy has let himself bend down very close to the printout, his nose just inches away, lost in contemplation. The door swings open and Jeremy jumps, almost falling off his chair. Andre stands in the doorway, puzzled.
“Sorry Doctor, did I catch you at a bad time?”
“Uh, no… it’s alright. I was just…” Jeremy fumbles for words. What was he doing, really?
Andre raises an eyebrow. “Do you need some more coffee, Doctor?”
“Yes, that’s probably a good idea… But first, Andre, does this skeleton look particular to you?”
He points to the DXA, and rolls back his chair. Andre shuffles in to look.
“Mineral density looks good. I guess she didn’t really need a DXA… unless you’re worried about the size bias?”
“No, no, I don’t mean medically… I mean… doesn’t this skeleton look particularly good to you? I mean: the proportion, the shapes… Isn’t it kind of … striking?”
Andre looks confused. He slowly turns back to the printout and looks at it again. “I guess? Looks healthy enough… I don’t see any problems…” He turns back to Jeremy. “Is this some kind of test, Doctor?”
“No, no, not at all. I just thought… never mind, Andre. I better go get that coffee.”
7:12pm. Rain like rivers running down the windows. Moving headlights, red lights, green lights, neon lights in the blackness outside. Close up, file away, shut down, log out, gym bag. Good evening, Doctor!
“Sweating out the hospital” is what Jeremy calls it in his head. The thud-thud of his feet on the treadmill, keeping pace with the reggae in his earphones, help his thoughts disappear in delicious, salty, tangy pain. As a kid, he hated running, but on the treadmill he doesn’t feel hate, or love, or anything. Just rhythm and pain, then rhythm without pain, something more restful than sleep.
He’s brought the printout of the DXA with him. There’s something nagging him about it, about the way she stands, or lays down as it were. There’s something about the way that skeleton is held together. The sheet of paper, in a bright red folder, is splayed out on the treadmill’s monitor in front of him, and he studies it, even as his mind empties itself of thought. He cocks his head to the side, like her. He tries to stand straighter, taller, lighter, like she does. Head back, loose, body reaching up, feet barely touching the ground. Pelvis loosely swaying, perhaps? He can’t match her stance.
In front of him a young woman is running fast on another machine, in tight gym wear. She’s tan, lean, and glistening, ponytail whipping from side to side. She’s athletic, muscular and short. Jeremy scans her bone structure, but she’s too narrow-hipped, too short-necked… no match for the perfect skeleton in the DXA. The comparison makes her look grotesque, monstrous, revolting, like a sweaty Minotaur. Jeremy looks away, revulsed. He cuts his run short, towels off, carefully closes the folder, and heads off to shower.
10:43pm. White leather couch, white sweatpants, white t-shirt, white carpet, black sky outside the high rise. Glass window, glass cupboards, glass tabletop, glass of wine, iPad. Peaceful Piano playlist on Spotify. Goodnight, city.
Jeremy stares at her. He found the high-res scan of the DXA in the hospital database, pulled it up on the iPad, and has been slowly panning up and down every bone in her body. She soothes him, even as she keeps him awake. Her skeleton is unreal, impossible. Too perfect to be human. Looking at it makes him pensive. Something is changing inside him, and it’s happening very slowly, very gradually, but inexorably, like a giant upwelling from the depths of the ocean, in super-slow motion. A deep mute bass rumbling.
He looks out the window and the lights of cars on the highway, of planes in the sky, seem to zip by frenetically, like a stop-motion movie. He gives his glass of wine a slow swirl, and watches as the red liquid smear crawls back down the side, thick as blood. The tendons on his wrist protrude, straight as steel t-beams. Immobile, his hand looks as strong as stone, a marble statue of himself.
His thoughts have receded. Jeremy sits as a wave of resolve rises, becomes him. Outside, the sky’s blackness deepens, the frantic flow of cars thins out. The bones on the iPad screen, glowing blue on black, faintly light up his face and his arm.
Hours pass unnoticed.
Continued next week with Day Two…
Antoine Valot does software, performing arts, and fiction. He crafts experiences that empower and delight.