I am eight years old. I’m counting holes in a drop ceiling and pretending not to notice a darker boy sitting across from me staring. He looks to be about twelve and non-imposing. He may as well have been a two hundred pound leather-clad punk with a spike-do judging by how unsettled I felt. I concentrate really hard on disappearing into the waiting room chair, fantasizing for the billionth time that I’m a misunderstood young witch who will one day hone my magical powers and wish this all away. I know what he’s thinking and finally I stare back and fake defiance. He’s trying to figure out if I’m a girl or a boy. My Raggs t-shirt and plaid loose boxer shorts were no help. In the early 90s even the most glamorous of movie star actresses were donning both casual men’s wear and men’s business suits as the latest trend.
My hair was cut awkwardly short – like the butt of a bad joke. I had begged my mother for a perm for my birthday. Hoping against hope that if I could look even a little like the other girls in my third grade class they may allow me into their circle at recess. To talk about important things like kissing boys and dirty magazines under their big brother’s mattress, whether or not Mrs. Whittier and Mrs. Gallivant were really lesbians or if it was just a rumor passed down from generations long gone. At eight it didn’t really matter to me that two women would kiss each other as much as it grossed me out that two ladies that old were capable of being sexual.
My mother begrudgingly permed my hair. The medication reacted with the chemicals and it fell out in globs. I surrendered to cutting it all out and being less popular than ever. I think it may have been bitterness on my part but I’m sure mom was secretly triumphant in an “I-told-you-so” sort of way. Both the perm and the aftermath hair-dos became immortalized forever in class photos. The perm paired with a yellow sweater with a black be-dazzled vest, grinning wide in a brief moment of hopeful confidence. The boy cut matched with a vibrant neon flowered jumper in a failed attempt to cancel out my boyish features with the most girlish thing in my closet. The look on my face is apologetic. The smile is forced. Almost as though I’m thinking, “I’m sorry I look like this. I’m sorry I’m not someone else.”
I shift in my seat and pull out an old Archie comic from my backpack. I used my allowance to get a brand new one every week but secretly loved the softened browning pages of the tethered, dog-eared flea market finds the best. Sometimes I’d come across someone else’s name and address written on an old subscriptions page and imagine I was “Miranda Brown 227 Westwood”. Anyone else. Anywhere but here. Her scrawling script seemed exotic and exciting compared to my chunky print with the bubbled dots over my ‘i’s.
I remember last week at the Sunday Flea Market and wonder if the boy thinks I’m dying. Maybe that’s why he’s staring. I mull over the incident again thinking to myself that it’s funny how grown-ups are stupid. Maybe it hurts more when they say and do wrong things because we are brought up to trust that they know better. I followed mom through the crowd trying to ignore the pangs of yearning in my tummy as we passed the fudge table on the way to the comics’ section. We aren’t allowed to stop there anymore. I know better than to whine a begging plea to cheat on my restricted diet. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t shake the thought of the creamy brown scratchy sugary cubes melting on my tongue. It’s no surprise I would grow up to have an enormous sweet tooth. I’d been deprived of all the childhood luxuries. Candy. Friends. Fun.
I heard the big fat jerk ask my mom the question straight out – “Oh, my god. What’s wrong with him? Is he dying!?” Genuine curiosity. Zero compassion. I mean, what if I had been? My poor mother. Later in life I replay that in my head and edit it so that I fake dropping dead right there and my mother screams at him something about being so insensitive that he’d killed me. The guy freaks out and shits himself or something equally as humiliating as how I felt standing there – a little (girl) boy with peaked skin, barely any hair, knobby knees and sunken eyes, bright yellow tubing strung from my ear to my nose pumping in nutritional formula that smelled like how I’m sure dog food tasted. All I’d wanted was three-for-a-dollar comic books. All I’d wanted was to go home and curl up in my sunny room and read until I felt far away. No matter how many times I’d read myself out of my world something brought me back. Crashing pain, or a wave of nausea, or the beeping of the feeding tube’s machine fading battery.
I lost count in the sea of holes on the drop ceiling long ago. It seemed impossible to count. I could never really be sure if I was doing the same spot twice. I started worrying about going cross-eyed and surveyed the strange hallway instead. This waiting room was a novelty. We’d traveled five hours to the city on the mainland to see specialists. It was an all children’s hospital – colorful and inviting – almost like a sterile day-care centre. I thought it was like putting makeup on a snake. Pretty so you’ll look closer – just to trick you into getting bitten. I didn’t know then that very same foreign concrete building would, over the years, oddly start to feel like home. Doctors, nurses, patients, and events that happened there would shape who I became. I’d spent enough time in hospitals by that young age to know that no matter how fancy the toys were or how gaudy the cartoon painted murals, bad things happened here.
A door opened down the hallway and my tall handsome doctor stepped out. For a split second it could be the version in my daydreams. Where he smiles down at me from under wispy glossy black hair and tells me how mature I am for my age and whisks me away. Instead reality opens the door and calls my name. The question does eventually need answering after all.