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[My name, omitted]. You need to drink more water.

My head snaps up — a little fast — from picking at the paper covering the table. My nervous tic to block out the sterile smell. My doctor can’t be more than a few years older than me, definitely no more than thirty-five. I think that’s why I trust her. She’s not fresh out of med school. But she’s also not been around the block so many times that her face has lost its kindness. I shouldn’t be this restless; I’m grateful to have her. It takes years to find someone that doesn’t freak you out — especially in this case. Especially if you’re a lady.

But I’m doing that thing I do when I know I’m being scolded for my own sake. So I’m buffering out the space between us with all my little motions: fidgeting, picking, shame.

I do the same thing when I’m in the car and I feel like whoever is buckled in next to me might be about to drop a bomb. I drum the steering wheel like a hi-hat and click the volume, up and down, incessantly. The button creaks: one higher, one lower. Terry Gross, one higher, one lower.

I used to do the same thing — the same incessant wriggling — when I’d be next to my boyfriend in bed, and the other shoe was about to drop. It was usually something I’d asked about, confirmed, weeks earlier. As he told me he couldn’t make it, I’d rub my forehead creases like I was scrubbing with a Mr. Clean magic eraser. Next time. I didn’t say much; I’d just scratch my tattoos as if they were scabs to be freed from.

I carry variations of all these tics with me into the 10x20 office. Plucking away at the 1-ply tissue that keeps my gown-clad bum from the table is, if nothing else, something to do while The Doctor in Her Eighth Year of Practice tells me I really need to drink more water, because, it’s making things worse.

I laugh. It echoes and bounces back. It hits me like I flexed before a flu shot.

I know - I’m kind of a camel, right? I sit up a little straighter, to assume my role as the sardonic patient about to make this revelation into a bit. I proceed to tell my Mr. Rogers-level patient OB-GYN my theory: that the old — and possibly haunted — bathrooms of my high school put the fear of God in us; we couldn’t possibly fathom drinking water under the circumstances. Lest we have to venture into the pink tiled bathrooms of St. Joseph’s Hall — which used to be an orphanage before it was a fine, educational institution — and confront a ghost or two. No. We did not pee during passing periods.

The right corner of her mouth turns up at this; I think it’s a smile. Like, a lot more, she insists, more firmly.

She’s clicking through her computer now, looking at spikes and dips in the labs. The beauty of stacking all my doctors into one university hospital system — like a big old turkey club with booster shots — is that the data stays in the pipeline for years. So she sees this has been happening not just for the past 365 days, but the 365 before that. To say that I’ve been not drinking enough water, to the level of breaking things, for at least a thousand days might be a conservative estimate. Seeing the fuzzy digital dots from over her shoulder reminds me that my RBI for functioning while things are also malfunctioning is high.

It’s all connected, she tells me. The stress. The water. My kidneys. The stones (not Rolling.) The hormones. The stabbing, nauseating jolts that have sent me in and out of the doors of every specialist between Pasadena and downtown LA.

It’s not going to fix everything, but more water surely help.When I stand up from the table after she’s gone, I leave a big, ripped indent in the paper. The tatter-y pieces that I’ve torn into confetti follow me out like a bridal train as I pass the nurse’s station. I don’t make a follow up appointment; I like to wait for them to chase me down.

* * *

I dial my mother as I back out of the parking lot. I’ve turned down the radio, the local indie block blanketing the mornings; it’s a little fuzzy, ‘cause I’m up near the mountains. The frequency is probably better one decimal higher. I’d prefer to drive home listening to Wilco, scratchy or otherwise, but I connect to Bluetooth with duty.

Not endometriosis, I tell her. She makes a meal out of exhaling into the receiver, so clearly, she’s relieved. It’s not that she’s concerned about the immediacy of this diagnosis, or lack thereof; she’s more holding out hope that I’ll change my mind, and want kids. I wish she could have seen me cackle ten years before, when the rheumatologist said he wanted to minimize taking too many x-rays around my lower back. Because they were close to my abdomen. You know, for when you have children, he explained, draping the heavy blanket over my torso.

I stifled my dark chuckle, and wriggled deeper beneath the weight. Oh no. Take all the x-rays. I’m not worried.

My mother asks me if they know what “it” is, then. I gloss the details and tell her it’s more shit with the kidney stones. Another meaty breath crackles through the car speakers. I guess I forgot to tell her about those too. She’s absolutely perplexed, wondering how on Earth those came for me. She sounds even more baffled than when she watched on, years ago now, as they ran me through the pristine white donut of a CT scanner. Looking for the radioactive dye milkshake I drank that morning. Looking for why I kept telling the neurologist that it felt like there was a heartbeat, in my head. It’s like, a thunk thunk thunk feeling, you know?

He didn’t know. The Best Neuro Guy in the West Suburbs saw that I’d had two MRIs just for concussions though, so maybe that’s why he didn’t reply with the same, thick incredulousness as my mother. It tends to make people feel worse when you show how surprised you are that they’ve been suffering.

As I merge onto the freeway, southbound, I can feel my energy dwindling. I do not want to talk about how I need to drink more water. The Doctor in Her Eighth Year of Practice has already told me, in so many words, that the life I save might be my own. I tell my mother I’m about to hit a dodgy patch of service and that I will call her back.

I turn the radio louder and click the creaky button up one notch. I am seeking one decimal higher, a crisper frequency. I find that Jeff Tweedy’s voice is long gone, and now Andrew Bird is singing about archipelagos. I concentrate on the sound, clear and piercing against the dull tick of the turn indicator — it may be enough to convince myself to become an island. Enough to convince me that to be submerged and saturated will be better than dry, parched, and cracking.


image: Aaron Burch