About three weeks ago I went to the dermatologist. The waiting room was an oasis of calm cleanliness. It’s not what I’m used to. I suspect living in London has taught me to accept a general state of shabbiness, especially in public places. I am at the dermatologist to get a growth on my nose removed. It’s something I’ve wanted to get rid of before, but in London I needed a referral from my doctor to get this little thing seen to. It might seem straightforward enough, but it was an exercise in exasperating bureaucracy – and I never got around to it.
Here, in the United States, getting the growth removed took less than an hour and only $200. I have no insurance, so I’m immensely glad not to be slapped with a huge bill. But I still feel uncomfortable every time I show up to a place where the receptionist asks patiently, ‘Do you have insurance?’ Saying no makes me feel irresponsible and, rather oddly, like a leech sucking the system dry. I don’t know why I should feel this way because I am paying for my treatment on this occasion.
My discomfort doesn’t end in the waiting room. I’m ushered into an inner office where I wait for the doctor to see me. He takes one look at my growth and says he’ll take it right off with a scalpel, but he’ll also do a biopsy to make sure it’s not cancer. As he prepares for this procedure, he says: ‘Wow, you have an interesting face. It’s unusual.’ His assistant adds: ‘Yes. I think it’s what you would call exotic.’
Exotic? I’m feeling a bit like a tropical flower that’s wandered in from the jungle. Is this how the Mona Lisa feels while tourists snap photographs from every conceivable angle? To make matters worse, this conversation is taking place while they both poke my nose.
‘You’re right, it is exotic,’ says the doctor, as he takes out a needle and injects it into my ‘wannabe mole’. I fake a laugh, trying not to betray my discomfort.
I have a follow-up appointment yesterday, and I’m inwardly cringing when my doctor and the same assistant walk into the sterile room I’ve been put in. ‘I remember you,’ the assistant says enthusiastically. I’m thinking, ‘Great, just what I wanted.’ They once again bring up my exotic looks, but then the conversation veers in another direction.
‘So, what do you do?’ says the doctor, trying to make conversation and put me at my ease. (He’s failing spectacularly.)
I really hate this question. It’s innocuous enough when you have a job and a purpose to your days, but when you spend most of your time trying to keep your children from destroying your mother’s house and each other, I feel like it’s loaded with potential misunderstanding.
‘I don’t have a job right now.’
‘So, what were you educated in?’ he persists, looking down at the book I have resting in my lap. It’s trashy, by the way, so I cover it with my hands.
‘Right now it seems I was educated to look after two kids,’ I reply with a straight face. This gets me a few laughs.
The doctor then launches into a lecture about how studying is important for meeting someone who is your equal. I suspect his children have been taught that anything less than a career in medicine, law or engineering is really not worth pursuing. I remember my dad, who is an engineer, once saying something similar when I told him that I was going to get a degree in communications. His look can only be described as crestfallen.
‘I don’t think you have to be educated to be intelligent or meet your equal,’ I say. He appraises me carefully, but I’m not sure what he is thinking.
‘Goodbye, Mom,’ he says, as he shakes my hand. I want to scream, I’m not your mother, but it’s useless to protest about this. I’ve encountered it many times before.
I leave the doctor’s office and replay the strange conversation in my head. Why should it matter to me what he thinks? Why should it matter to me that I don’t know what to answer when people ask me what I do, especially in professional spheres? It shouldn’t matter at all, but it leaves me feeling like I’ve tasted something bitter.
Next time someone asks me this I might tell them I am a hand model. I’ve always had good nails.