Day One – A red and white tape stretches along the curvaceous corridor, like a scene of crime. I cannot think of crimes – I must focus – I am here to save my life, I think. The whine and blast of the thing that may indeed save my life is all around me and the women I share this space with. Assembly lines. Sit. Stand. Change. Wait. In. Out. Next. Repeat.
When it’s my turn, two young women escort me in. They have cheerful faces and lilting voices. I wonder if they work at Woolies on weekends as they ask me how I am and the plans I have for the rest of the day. So normal. So many women.
Inside the tunnel room a bed of sorts. A machine with paddles. I lie down and am lifted up and shifted about and numbers are called out and everyone runs away – like they do at the dentist when they x-ray your tooth before regretfully informing you it cannot be saved.
I am alone in this terrifying space I have never encountered before. And in my ears, Errol Brown whispers – you sexy thang. It brings me back briefly to my body and I wonder if they will let me take this unutterably ugly blue gown and put sequins on it. I believe in miracles, continues Mr Brown, where you from, you sexy thing? I close my eyes and he croons. The paddle thing churns around, the whine and blasts echo down the corridor where the next woman waits. The cheerful women come back in and lower me. I have twenty-four days to go.
Day Five – The lovely woman in the white turban nods at me. Sheesh, she mutters. Groundhog Day. I grimace in sympathy. We’re practically old friends now. We know each other’s names because the woman behind the police tape calls out each name clearly. Even mine. See, it’s not that hard. Anyone can pronounce it. Inside the ‘treatment room’ after the young ones run away, Cat Stevens informs me it’s a wild world. I agree. Oh baby, baby.
Day Six – So many people in the room today, including a red-haired young man. I stifle anxiety and wait for the café-style chatter to ease. They wave me towards the plank, and the boy comes to stand beside me. I’m sorry, I say, looking into his clear eyes. Would it be possible for you to swap with one of the girls? He looks back, nods, leaves the room. A grim-eyed woman takes his place. I’m in trouble, I can smell the coffee she’s had to leave. Afterwards, she informs me there are men ‘on the team,’ it’s not always possible to swap, there are rosters in place, what exactly is my objection anyway? She becomes grimmer with every sentence she bites out. Eyes as cold as the room she scolds me in, she says she will ‘make a note’ of my objection to men. Eighteen days.
Days Seven to Fifteen – I have two ‘reviews.’ In the first, the radiologist seems empathic. Asks how I’m going. I murmur how, despite the note made of my request, there’s been a man in the room each day. The doctor nods, agrees it is entirely reasonable for women to request women in the treatment room. He’s been to positive communication classes, I can tell. Nothing changes. I notice the women walking away from the station as I walk towards it. Coincidence. Mentally I dub them ‘mean girls.’ Adele tells me I almost had it all. I couldn’t disagree more. I read a review of Porochista Khakpour’s memoir on the day the machine breaks and I wait in my non-sequinned blue gown for an hour. Different illness, different health system, same shit. Porochista recalls gripping a paramedic by the arm and telling him not to take her to the racist people. I tell my husband I don’t want to go back to the mean girls. His face rearranges into the same planes as the day our cat died. The face that says – I cannot change this for you.
Day Sixteen – It is the morning after the Bourke Street stabbing. The Sudanese woman shifts slightly in her seat, edging closer to me. I move my elbow towards her and we touch, briefly. Today no names are called out. The man just nods at the African lady and she rushes into the change room. I try to beam solace, entirely approving of Enrico today because he’ll be your hero baby – he will kiss away your pain.
All the days after – Claustrophobia is a bitch even when we are family, and I’ve got all my sisters with me. The panic increases each time. I learn not to respond when they ask how I am. I’d caved in once and told them about swollen eyes and exhaustion and insomnia and they said, perfectly normal, nothing we can do. So, why ask? I learn that the mean girls and the wispy boys are called ‘therapists,’ a term which strikes me as being as satirical as the choice of music each day. I learn that my body endures, even when I don’t. And yes Natalie, I know the perfect sky is torn – because I’m all out of faith.