by Yurina Yoshikawa
Clara lies down horizontally inside what looks like a science fiction sleep capsule, wearing nothing but a thin paper gown. She stares up at the white plastic ceiling, though it’s so close to her face that maybe it’s less of a ceiling, more like a lid to a coff—
“Ms. Hoshino? We’re about to start,” the technician says into his mic. “Try not to move.”
She’s about to utter “Okay” and decides against it, fearing it would count as movement. The machine starts with a low whirr and she wonders whether 35 is considered young to be getting a CT scan. She also feels too young to be 35, though she was the first in her friend group to get married at 26 and have a child at 33—which happened to be the same life trajectory as her own mother, who is currently healthy and thriving (as far as Clara is aware). Her job title starts with “Senior.” Her son is in daycare. She tips well at restaurants, partly because she used to work in one and knows how little they get paid, but also because it makes her feel like an adult. This, she thinks, closing her eyes, is just another adult thing to check off the list.
The sound from the machine grows louder, which is something she didn’t expect because these things are usually silent in movies and TV shows. This machine is supposed to find something they missed in previous ultrasounds. She can’t wait to know the results and simultaneously dreads it. She wonders how many people with chronic pain just go about their days popping pain killers, never knowing the source or the cure to their pain, which may or may not go away—
The noise switches to a repetitive thumping, like electronic dance music (though she never listens to this kind of music). She thinks about saying something to the technician but she’s too stunned to open her mouth. This is how it’s meant to be, she repeats in her head. Trust the experts. She tries to be positive. Like Tom. He’s always optimistic. He would say something like, Enjoy this. See, it’s like music, not noise. It’s like you’re out clubbing. Just as she allows herself to settle in, the noise turns to something like a combination of a police siren and a warped version of what dial-up internet once sounded like.
Clara’s mother is a fan of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music and might appreciate the comparison, except Clara hasn’t told either of her parents about the scan, the pain, or any of it. She doesn’t want to worry them. They video-chat once a week and everyone always looks their best. They talk exclusively about good things, happy things, funny things—
“Just a couple more, hang in there.”
So that counted as one scan. Okay. She wants to see what time it is. She’d hoped to use her lunch hour on this appointment and sneak back into the office like nothing happened. The sounds are becoming more familiar now. Maybe she can keep lying here, close her eyes and fall into a brief—
“You’re free to go.”
The machine stops and her body is slowly ejected from toes to head.
“Everything okay?” the technician asks.
No. “Yes.” She manages to smile the same charming smile that got her this far in life. She gets on her feet and follows him out the door. This technician has a good posture. He looks like he works out. He’s probably seen the insides of so many people that he’s figured out how to never end up inside that machine. Clara feels awkward shuffling through the hallway in this thin paper gown. As he leads her back to the changing room, she gathers up the courage to clear her throat and ask, “Did you see anything? A cyst or a tumor or—”
He doesn’t look up from his clipboard as he says, “The doctor will call you today.”
Clara realizes, looking a beat too long at his voluminous hair and smooth-skinned face, that he’s probably younger than her.
“Do you know what time the doctor will call?”
“It’s usually within the hour?” He sounds apologetic. “I just run the machines.”
She’s on the subway platform and her tote bag is heavy with her copy of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. She made it through the first three books and was just starting Book 4, “The Part About the Crimes,” which so far reads like a list of homicide after homicide. It’s getting to be a lot to take in, especially after the month she’s had with the pain—abdomen? ovaries? lower back? head?—and the countless doctor’s appointments, two separate ultrasounds, and now the CT scan. The more information the better, as Tom would say. She knows not to worry just because they ordered a CT scan, but she also knows that healthy people typically don’t get CT scans.
“In October, too, the body of another woman was found in the desert…”
Every time a doctor or a form asks her to rate her pain on a scale from 0 to 10, she hesitates before circling 7 or 8. She associates 10 with giving birth to Mickey without an epidural. She thought she could power through the pain. After all, her mother gave birth to her without any painkillers, so if she could do it—
That’s all in the past. She has no regrets about the birth—why would she, Mickey turned out alive and perfect—and her body continued to recover, as most women’s bodies do after birth. It was just that somewhere along the way, Clara had forgotten what her body had felt like when it was completely painless or even relaxed. When her period returned, it was heavier than it used to be, but that was normal, right? She was a working mother, so of course she’s always tired. Muscle strains are normal under these circumstances. So what, she’s not getting regular sleep. Nobody does when they live in this city. Nobody would circle 0 on the pain scale, would they? In her best moments, she might be a steady 3 or 4, not high enough to warrant any doctor’s appointments. But as the pain kept growing, it became impossible to hide it from Tom, who was the one to make the first call to the doctor’s office. The more information the better.
“The body, which was in an advanced state of decomposition, was facedown…”
She has to go back a page to figure out what happened. She keeps losing focus. She works in Communications, and her job consists mostly of writing press releases, so she reads novels as her hobby that could also feed into her becoming a better writer. She typically devours long novels, reading them while riding subways like the one that’s approaching—
She pauses reading to step inside and of course, all the seats are taken. She leans against the opposite door and opens the heavy paperback anyway, wanting to immerse herself in the words of this world that isn’t hers. Still unable to focus, she glances around at the other passengers, some of them asleep. Nobody here has any idea. She looks healthy on the outside, probably. She doesn’t want to perform her pain just to get a sympathy seat.
The subway screeches to a halt between two stops and the conductor makes a garbled announcement that sounds like static. The lights flicker, goes pitch black for a split second, and turns back on. Something about this feels familiar. After experiencing the CT scan, even the subway feels like something that’s scanning her.
They remain in place without any indication of when they’ll move again. Clara remembers the shock of her first subway ride when she first came to New York for college, after years of living in Tokyo where trains are never this loud and the conductors are quick to apologize for any delays or disruptions. In New York, she immediately felt that her senses were being attacked from every direction—smells, sounds, sights—but as with most things in New York, she quickly grew to love the dissonance, found comfort in the faults and imperfections. Or so she told herself. Now—
Clara takes out her phone and her son’s goofy smile fills the screen as she presses her thumb on the fingerprint scanner. Mickey. Of course he’s always on her mind. (Of course, he also isn’t.) Strange, this business of being a mother. It is what she is, it is a part of who she is, it is her identity and also separate from it. It is everything, it is nothing. But of course, it’s everything.
She has to re-scan her thumb a few times. It’s never in the exact position it needs to be in. She’s happy to keep looking at his face, tiny teeth, those glistening eyes. Finally, the phone unlocks and she’s surprised to find cell service. The train must not be too deep underground. She ignores the 30-something new emails on her work account and clicks on the daycare app—so modern—where she not only pays the monthly tuition, but can chat with the teachers and parents, and most importantly, view photos and videos uploaded almost daily. (“We’re discreet with our own phone usage,” the teacher once explained. “We don’t encourage any screen time…”) How ironic that the parents are so plugged in while paying a premium for their children to have a screen-less education. She clicks on Mickey’s photo from lunch and has to suppress herself from tearing up. Look at him. 18 months was both small and big. He could sort of say “Twinkle twinkle little star” and do the hand motions. It’s almost enough to make her forget—
The subway starts up again without warning and she catches herself on the pole, straining one of her side muscles. She loses service again. She opens the Bolaño and closes it, no longer in the mood. She faces the other way towards the window this time to see her own reflection, staggered and pale.
After a decade of living and working in this city, her body knows to move on autopilot from Times Square back to her office on 5th Avenue. Move through the narrow crevices between the packs of tourists, ignore the knock-off Elmos and Statues of Liberties, plug in her earphones and listen to her favorite playlist consisting mostly of Amy Winehouse. (Right now it’s “Back to Black.”) She pushes the volume up until the phone vibrates to warn against hearing damage and she pushes it up anyway, just to drown out the noise from the streets. She looks two blocks ahead, anticipating when to stop and when to rush. Her phone vibrates a different kind of vibration and she knows what it means, and when to look down without bumping into anyone—it’s her assistant asking where she is—and she knows to use voice command to respond while walking (“on my way back, lunch ran late”). The emails rise up to 36. At the traffic light she scrolls through them, each one claiming their own urgency. (“I died a hundred times.”) Don’t they know that none of this actually matters? None of this will matter when—
The music stops. Her phone rings. It’s Tom.
She asks him about Minnesota, where he’s a production coordinator in the middle of a 5-week film shoot for a nature documentary on a type of bird called the woodcock. He described his work as both busy and slow. Sometimes Tom, the director, and cameraman will sit in a tent for hours waiting for the woodcock to come into view, but they have to stay awake and quiet the entire time just in case. The three of them make a good team, apparently. They travel around the country accomplishing beautiful shots of hard-to-find creatures, and there are always more to find. He’s good at his job, and it’s because of this job that they are able to live in New York. (Her job, despite the glamour of the office and location, barely covers daycare and groceries.)
He asks about the appointment and Clara decides to take the long route through Bryant Park, despite the time.
“I don’t know yet. The doctor’s going to call with the results.”
There’s a pause, and she thinks about checking the signal when he asks, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m walking back to work.”
“You should take the day off.”
“It’s just a few more hours. Then I’ll pick up Mickey and—”
“It’s fine.” It comes out more aggressively than she intends. This is her favorite park in New York. She hasn’t seen Tom in so long. A violinist plays Vivaldi in front of the library. She had gotten used to the rhythm of life without him in the apartment, having the queen size bed all to herself, bathing Mickey alone every night. It’s possible she’s allowed herself to forget how to talk to him.
“You know, maybe this is your body’s way of telling you to slow down. Take a break.”
The light turns green and she crosses from the park towards her building.
She can hear Tom sighing. They’ve had this conversation before, and it always ends with the same sigh. Tom has suggested moving away from New York. Anywhere that’s quieter. Clara can’t fathom it. She still has loans to pay off from her master’s degree. Her job title begins with “Senior.” It’s not something to toss away just because of some pain that could go away once they find out what it is and how to stop it. Because it will stop, the pain will stop, it can’t possibly go on that much longer.
“I have to go.” She hangs up and fishes around the bottom of the tote bag for the ID badge so she could swipe to get in. The Bolaño keeps getting in the way.
Her phone rings again. It’s the clinic. She stands in the lobby as she answers. “Hello?”
“Hi is th—Shhhhhhhhh—Ms. Hosh— mmmmmmmm — calling — tchkkkkkkkkkkk — mrwwz — sults, do you have a moment?”
“Yes. Wait, what? I’m sorry, I can’t—”
The line is dead. She goes outside the building again and calls them back, only to be met by an automated voicemail. She follows their directions and punches in the numbers to get her to the right representative. The music-on-hold is some beachy bossa nova and she hangs up, knowing it could be a long wait but also because she can’t stand the music. She takes her earbuds out and leans against the marble walls of the building. It’s not as loud as she thought it would be. There’s a family—mom, dad, and a girl who might be 3 or 4—waiting at the crosswalk to get to the park. The girl can’t seem to stop moving. She jumps, tugs on her father’s arm, twirls in place, looks up and back down at her sneakers. Clara watches them until they get to the other side safely. Her phone rings again, but she allows it to go on just once—just one more—holding onto this moment for as long as she can.
Yurina Yoshikawa holds an M.F.A. from Columbia University and teaches fiction and non-fiction writing at The Porch Writers’ Collective. Her writing has appeared in NPR, Lit Hub, The Japan Times, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2020 Tennessee True Stories Contest and a 2021 recipient of the Tennessee Arts Commission. She has lived in Tokyo, Palo Alto, and New York before settling down in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband and two sons. For more information, visit www.yurinayoshikawa.com.
Photo: Chris Yang/Unsplash