My Anesthesiologist by Cynthia Adam Prochaska
Cynthia Adam Prochaska opens her essay “The Anesthesiologist” with an experience familiar to all readers: the moment when you see someone out of context, you’re sure you know them, but can’t quite remember from where. Near the end of the essay, she describes another familiar experience: the moment when you want to approach someone you don’t know well and say something, but the opportunity passes and you don’t. “I will not yell or tug at his flannel shirt and pour out my heart,” she says, after recognizing the anesthesiologist she’d encountered briefly in the hospital. She wants to tell him of her sadness, her loneliness, but “that’s not what anesthesiologists are for.” Prochaska employs anaphora in a continuing list of what “I will not tell” the man she encounters outside the movie theater, closing the paragraph with what she will not tell her husband. Though “all I wanted was to tell my husband what happened and how frightening it was,” “I wanted to cry,” and “I wanted to howl,” she lets her husband and son sleep in the car after she picks them up at the airport: “It wasn’t the time or the place to say these things and I would have to wait.”
When Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola called their book on creative nonfiction Tell It Slant, they referenced a poem by Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant — / Success in Circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise.” As Prochaska explains in her author’s note, she didn’t want to “drag” readers through a “harrowing” account of her third miscarriage. Instead she followed the writer Jim Krusoe’s advice to “start stories with the strange moments that leave you scratching your head as a way in.” A “weird kind of confluence of events”—the weather, a visit to the same movie theater—recalled her glimpse of the anesthesiologist, releasing all she hadn’t been able to express at the time. “The Truth must dazzle gradually,” Dickinson counsels. Prochaska gradually builds up a complex web of memories to capture the truth of feelings she suppressed but can’t forget, focusing on the stranger who’d treated her kindly during the loss of her child, “as if I were a lost child needing reassurance.” —CRAFT
I see my anesthesiologist at the movies and it surprises me in the way that seeing someone outside the setting you know them does. There is a prick of recognition and then my mind scrambles to place him. A stab of familiarity while I wonder why I am thinking of blue cotton pajamas. Why I feel like he has touched my forehead or stroked my arm, or spoken to me in the way he speaks to someone who is hurt. I stand on the pavement outside the Royal Theatre a little dazzled by the gray, cloudy glare and think. My brain is still half in the movie, a matinee, about a slacker who drinks White Russians and wears a patterned cardigan like a robe. But I place the anesthesiologist quickly enough when he turns to look at me. A few nights ago, he was standing over me in the ER, counting me down into total oblivion, during the Saturday night graveyard shift. I remember his face, square jawed and handsome, as a harbinger that everything would be okay. I was having a miscarriage, the last of three over several years, and my husband and son were out of town for a spring break the doctor had forbidden me to go on. A friend had driven me to the hospital and my mother was coming. But now I am back in that in-between time, when I was alone, reliving that gush of blood that left trails through the house and soaked the largest towel we owned.
“You ought to give up, dear,” one of the ob-gyn nurses told me on intake, as if I had started climbing a mountain and needed to turn back.
She saw my tears, the pallor of my face, and the way I suppose I’d been tensing, mentally willing the pregnancy to stay. It was my husband’s wish really, for a child to serve as a sibling to our son.
“I don’t want him to be an only child,” he’d said, and somehow, even though I was just returning to something that felt like my life, I was on board.
What I hadn’t signed up for, was this.
Outside the theater, the anesthesiologist recognizes me. I see a spark of something in his eyes. An “Oh shit, a patient” kind of look. Something akin to thinly veiled panic. He looks tired, like he could use some sleep.
In the hospital, when he asked what I had eaten, I said, “Four Cheetos and a carton of yogurt four hours ago.”
I felt embarrassed by my dietary deficiencies, like I was confessing something wicked, even though I was proud of the yogurt.
“That’ll be okay,” he said.
I was baching it, getting ready to cook myself dinner when it happened.
I wonder if looking at me now, he sees a woman who couldn’t sustain a life inside her womb. A woman who had miscarried twins separately within a week of each other, the second the night he was on duty. A woman who wasn’t pregnant long enough to think of names. I wonder what he was told in the operating room before he patted my arm and told me I would be okay, as if I were a lost child needing reassurance. I can imagine the doctor saying, “Let’s rock and roll,” after I was out. Before performing the procedure to scrape out any tissue that might be left behind. I wonder if they talked while I was asleep, what music they played over the OR speakers, or if silence enveloped them like a blanket.
The anesthesiologist is wearing a worn jacket and tennis shoes, and looks younger in the daylight. He is in his thirties maybe and I am close to forty. He does not wave at me or smile but I see an almost imperceptible nod like he is aware of who I am five days later. I want to say, “Hey. You were my anesthesiologist in the hospital,” and offer to go for coffee, but he is turning away and it’s not something you just yell out in public. I wonder if he liked the movie, which I wasn’t fully tracking. I wanted Fargo with its quirky characters and loopy sensibility. Somehow, this seemed stranger, more masculine and drug fueled. I feel a dull ache in my abdomen, which I’ve been told is normal, a kind of crampy soreness. I have to go home and do the taxes since they are due next week and my husband says it’s my job since I got an additional week off. I was too tired to fight him.
I want to tell the anesthesiologist about Vasquez Rocks, where I went with my husband and son yesterday. How the rocks were reddish and the place seemed empty instead of beautiful. How I know Star Trek was shot there as a stand-in for a planet that wasn’t ours. How I felt sad I couldn’t appreciate the rocks, and their craggy peaks from centuries of geological sculpting. The weather was overcast, like it is today and somehow, that ruined it for me. I had to chase our son, even though the doctor had said to take it easy, since my husband was taken with the clouds and wind that swirled around us.
I want to tell the anesthesiologist these things but he is turned away. Shaking off the dreamlike cast a movie always imparts. Walking with purpose to the sidewalk of Colorado Boulevard, the main drag of our town. I want to call out, but the moment has passed. I realize I am tired of feeling alone. Tired of feeling shaky and nervous, since the pregnancy felt different from the beginning—like it wasn’t meant to be. I was in my office at work with a student when I first realized I was pregnant and something was off. My husband was out of town on business. The student, a boy with a tender heart, went to the campus store to buy me a candy bar, the only thing that he knew to do, even though I never told him what was wrong. I remember the yellow wrapping with blue words and how that candy bar felt like a gift of great proportions.
I see the anesthesiologist head in a different direction from where I am going and decide to let him go. I will not yell or tug at his flannel shirt and pour out my heart. That’s not what anesthesiologists are for. I will not tell him how my mother came and cared for me, and took me for lunch at a famous Mexican restaurant a half an hour away. How I ordered crab enchiladas, the same thing I ate in my twenties on my first night home after spending a month in the hospital when I broke both my legs in a car accident. I will not tell him how two days after this last miscarriage, I picked up my husband and son from the airport and all I wanted was to tell my husband what happened and how frightening it was. But he fell asleep a few minutes after getting in the car. “I’m so tired,” he said since he’d been caring for our son single-handedly for the last few days. Our son, too, all thirty pounds and three years of him, curled in his car seat and dozed off. I wanted to cry, as I drove onto the on-ramp leaving the airport. I wanted to howl and say something, like “Notice me,” or “You have no idea,” but I stayed quiet and let them sleep. It wasn’t the time or the place to say these things and I would have to wait.
I do not see the anesthesiologist get into his car, since I have headed in the other direction. I open the door and lift my leg into the driver’s side. I will go home and replay moments from the movie, and think how strange it was to see him there. Then, that night I will think of how the anesthesiologist might be helping someone else, saying tender words, counting them back, and hoping they will forget they ever saw him.
CYNTHIA ADAM PROCHASKA was born only hours after her mother, a poet, attended a Great Books meeting. Cynthia’s work has appeared in Santa Monica Review, The Florida Review, and the Los Angeles Times. Her stories are also anthologized in LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers and Literary Pasadena. For many years, she was a professor of English at Mount San Antonio College. Despite her occasional misgivings, she is working on a memoir. Find her on Instagram at @cynthiaprochacha.
Featured image by Denise Jans, courtesy of Unsplash.