“Psst… Andrej … Andrej … vstávaj.”
My eyes fluttered open. It was mostly dark in the bedroom. From the hallway, some yellow light was intruding through the cracked door and over my mother’s shoulder. She shook my arm. She always made sure that my eyes were open before she switched on my bed-stand lamp.
“Daj mi 5 minút … just five… just five more minutes.”
She’d usually give me that, then come back to shake me roughly if I my stubbornness threatened to make me late. I had swim practice that morning. It was early summer in the Midwest.
“Get up now. You’ll be late to the pool.”
Her soft, soothing voice conspired with the cozy predawn quietness of our house; together they made the warmth of my bed difficult to relinquish.
“Okay, I’m up, I’m up.” I sat up on the edge of my bed for a while with my eyes closed.
Nowadays I’m never up before dawn if I don’t have to be. When I am, my mother’s gentle persistence seems far away. Back there, I had been too tired to make observations about my condition in life—to proclaim woe-is-me for having to be up so early. I could just lie back down and count on mother to stir me in time. I loved swim practice, anyway—and school.
Now, early morning is always a time of day associated with a certain mind-state. Hopeless nostalgia, maybe. I’m slow today; they demanded that I begin fasting 12 hours before my physical exam.
But even in my bitter fogginess I can manage a shower. And even with the hot water running down my hair and over my eyes I can make out my fingers against the gray-blue tiles lining the shower stall.
They’re cold to the touch.
At the pool, I stood next to the rest of my peers, shivering beneath the public shower-heads during our mandatory rinse. A dim fluorescent light made the wet wall tiles glow aquamarine. They echoed the voices of the other swimmers. Some kept to themselves like me. I never said much to anyone until I made it into the water and adjusted to the temperature. We’d all float there, bobbing up and down, clutching our arms for warmth as we waited for our instructor to arrive.
I’m always surprised by the volume of people who get up to ride the bus in the early morning. At this hour, the area surrounding the stop is scattered with human fixtures: one stará waits off to the side with her shabby shopping tote; in the parking lot nearby, young people are rubbing their hands together while their engines warm up; and a robotník is hurrying toward a running car with two tall cans of beer. It’s too early not to keep alcohol and power tools mutually exclusive, I think.
I look down to my feet as I draw in my shoulders and pocket my bare hands.
We started swim practice with warm up drills. With our hands on the pool edge we extended our feet out to kick. Then, with our feet on the edge of the wall, we extended our bodies and practiced freestyle strokes and breathing. Facedown in the water, I heard only a muffled cacophony of my instructor’s guidance, splashing water and wind. When we stopped I sat in the water, breathing heavily and wiping the chlorine from my eyes. I loved feeling my submerged lungs expanding underwater to draw in the air hovering just above the surface.
The sun was already starting to come up when I made the transfer to the tram. Now, in the warmth of our seats, few of us can ignore the brilliance in the sky. Our distant orange orb is shrouded in every shade of morning red, pink and purple. The variegated rays are mingling with the scattered cloud cover. I only take my eyes away when the time comes to exit the tram and continue on to the hospital.
After inquiring at the information center I find the office I need.
The young nurse remembers me from the phone and compliments my speaking ability as she hands me a small tube to urinate into. I’m cold, so it’s difficult to complete the task at hand. The diagrams in the waiting room didn’t cover this.
In another small room, the nurse straps a tourniquet around my arm and tells me to awaken my veins by making a fist.
“Boy, your hand is cold, ” she says, jokingly rubbing it between hers to rouse my passageways. When the intended vessel finally rears its head she quickly spears it with the hypodermic.
“Is it going?”
“Slowly. Did you eat this morning?”
She pulls the needle and covers the exit wound quickly.
“Go into the waiting room and drink some water. Then we’ll try again.”
She preps my other arm and takes a good amount of blood from it. The pinch wasn’t as bad on the left side. Platelets—I keep thinking about the word platelets and what one actually looks like.
After the blood drawing I am led to an older physician who asks me general health questions. She’s hardly as concerned as the nurses. Yes, I smoke. No, I’m not sexually active. She skips the testicular exam. Maybe it’s not required in this country.
I’m sure it’s not personal.
I had been quiet in the showers, and during drills, because I was nervous about the test. We were to tread water for thirty minutes. As our instructor led us to the deep end I wondered if I was physically capable of staying afloat that long. The pool bottom sloped dramatically when we got to the middle, so I didn’t have much time to think about it.
Once we started, I tried to ignore thoughts about how good it would feel to exhale completely, relax my muscles and sink to the bottom. The time passed quickly. After the whistle blew, and I was still afloat, I told the instructor that I could have stayed up much longer. I felt strong.
I was a little kid then.
I’m on now to radiology for the chest x-ray. This building is changing my whole mood. I’m just inside the front doors and I’m lost. The haphazard placement of all of the offices in this hospital is striking.
How do people find their way?
I check in at a window where an English-speaking doctor directs me to the x-ray room. I knock twice to no answer, so I sit down on a stale leather bench to wait. The handmade sign over the nearby doorway indicates the way to radiology with a scribbled arrow. The gray tiled walls remind me of those moments in the locker room at the pool when I shivered beneath the showerhead just before practice.
The scene has nightmarish undertones.
The x-ray technician finally summons me into a narrow anteroom and asks if I speak the language. “Then strip down to your waist,” she says. In the yellow light I remove my jacket, shirt and necklace before stepping into the examination room. It’s outdated like the others.
She walks me over to a board, tells me to face it and then pushes me up against the surface hard enough to make a sound. “Put your chin there, stand still and don’t breathe.” I hold my breath while I brood over her cold manner. She’s disappeared somewhere. Where am I? Does anyone know that I’m here, getting medical treatment in an old, blue-gray building buried deep in this old, blue-gray city?
The sky had turned overcast while I was treading water. On days like those, at that time of year, a cold breeze chilled you when you exited the water in the morning. It was the kind of chill that made you despise the thought of jumping back into the pool. I passed on the after-practice fun on the diving board, opting to stand under the hot water of the shower until long after the chlorine had been rinsed away.
On the walk home, I put my headphones in and looked around at the austere grayness of the day. It was more like an evening in late fall than lunchtime in early summer. Within the safety of my home I would forget about this unpleasant juxtaposition.
The technician finished up and came out of hiding to dismiss me. She’s hardly sentimental about the high probability that we’ll never see each other again, so I’m quickly returned to the fluorescent light in the corridor. It’s desolate. A young doctor finally comes to tell me that I can leave. On my way out, I pass through a dim-lit hallway where empty stretchers line the blue tiled walls.
Looking out of the tram window, I feel like I can cry.
Out on the open sea, the water is warm. I am floating there . . . drifting. I’m far enough out that the waves have yet to crest, so I bob up over them as their energy passes beneath. The cloud cover is just thick enough to gray out the sun; and it’s just sparse enough to create a blinding glare. I’m focused on my breathing, and my form, holding my arms out horizontally and pushing my cupped hands back and forth in broad underwater strokes. I kick out my legs in rhythm with my arms. It feels like the ocean is doing most of the work.
I squint to make out my surroundings. Far off, on the shore, shrouded shadows move about like Persian apparitions. I’m not sure that they’re real. They’re scurrying about but heading nowhere; they’re there, and then they’re not.
The palm trees are oddly inanimate.
At once, the clouds break over the beach to let in a concentrated beam of sunlight. The dark figures evaporate, replaced by people lounging under umbrellas. Yes, those are people there on the sand.
The schism in the cloud cover widens, spilling more sunlight onto the seawater’s surface. The shimmer sharpens my vision. I am swimming vigorously toward shore without gaining ground. I am looking back to where my feet rest on the pool’s edge when the light suddenly fades to a blinding white . . .
“Andrej…vstavaj. You’ll be late.”