“So, I think it’s time.”
Dr. Bryant peered down at me, a wisp of cropped blonde hair sweeping over her stethoscope. Looking into the face I knew so well, I allowed myself to indulge in the comfort of familiarity, of tradition. I knew the sleek metal frame of the instrument and the peculiar way in which it wound around her jutting, Grecian neck. The cold, grey instrument had always struck me as fitting with the sterile white of her scrubs, yet contrasting with the children’s hospital teddy bear logo.
I looked up from the patient health questionnaire—“Do you have at least one friend that you can talk to?” “Have you ever attempted self-mutilation?”—to find an unusually severe look on Dr. Bryant’s face. What could possibly be the problem? It was Oct. 14, and I had come to the pediatrics department of Georgetown University Hospital for my mid-October flu shot—just as I had done every year since the age of two. Never before had Dr. Bryant interrupted my questionnaire time. She had broken tradition, violating the unspoken agreement between us. I determined two possibilities: I had accidentally checked the “pregnant” box again, or the hospital had run out of flu shots. I debated the options.
“It’s time,” she continued, “for your shot. Do you want pink or yellow?” I relaxed, if only temporarily. She was referring, of course, to Band-Aid colors. The age-old difficulty: The pink ones featured pictures of Betty Boop, but the yellow ones came with pull-off fuzzy stickers. I went with Betty, attracted to the assured, flirty confidence of her gaze. Immunization injected, accessory attached, I figured Dr. Bryant’s earlier breach of our little ritual had been a fluke. I returned to the waiting room, Dr. Bryant at my heels. “You’re 18,” she said stoically, “and we’re a children’s clinic. So, I think it’s time. I made a list of doctors that we recommend for our graduates.” She left me stunned and stinging from rejection as she exited the waiting room, her blonde ponytail wagging behind her.
I sank back into an olive green love seat, feeling an overwhelming appreciation for its familiarity. This was my chair: the chair that was always vacant because of the way the caramel-brown innards spilled out of a slit in the cushion.Yet my feelings of comfort were tainted by those of dejection. Cheeks flushing at the injustice, my misery grew into embarrassment and then bitterness, and my fingers involuntarily began to pulverize the stuffing. This love seat, over the years, had absorbed me, and I had made my mark on its fabric (literally—stomach flu, sixth grade), but I would be forgotten. I only became aware of my behavior when a bemused girl of 16 or 17 caught my eye. Why could this room continue to be hers and not mine? Because of the year or so between us? A year was all that separated us, and yet the distance between us was insurmountable. No longer able to rest in the chair, I shed a few final tears and bowed out of the clinic.
The chair in the Broadway Room of Lerner Hall was clean and firm, sterile and simple. I sat among hundreds of other chairs, with a rigidity that matched that of mine. I conformed to its frame, whereas the love seat had conformed to my frame. This chair was just like every other chair in the room, and I, its guest, was just like every other adult waiting in every other chair for a flu shot. No one was there to check up on me, and no one would notice if I decided to leave. No one inquired as to my mental state, or my chronic earaches, or my potential preference for a Band-Aid color other than the standard nude. I was a part of something much larger than myself. I was an anonymity.
As I sat in that chair, I realized that being uprooted from my haggard love seat wasn’t the worst thing possible. It was in that room of strangers that I began to relish the fierce independence of the anonym. It was a newfound power: I could absorb, rather than be absorbed. There lay a strange and dangerous comfort in the notion that I could exist as an observer after having been in the spotlight for so long. The brittle blue chair in Lerner would retain no trace of its guest. It was not a dwelling point, but a jumping-off point—an object of coldness that forced me to turn elsewhere for engagement. With no questionnaire in front of me, no olive sofa below me, and no blonde ponytail to cling to, I turned instead to the vibrancy of Broadway and wondered, for the first time, what might have existed beyond the windowsill in my hometown, had I been able to absorb it.
“Caitlin B.,” they called, and I leapt up to claim my spot in line. The stragglers to my side eyed the potential vacancy of the chair that was not, in any way, mine. I briefly considered the chair’s next occupant, taking comfort in the fact that this chair, unlike the love seat in Dr. Bryant’s waiting room, would belong no more to him than it had to me. I swung my bag over my shoulder and let a stray slip of paper fall, ever so innocently, onto the hard blue surface. By the time I felt the familiar prick of the needle in my upper arm, the slip had blown aside, folded and torn.