Robin sat on a firm, green seat in the waiting area of a rehabilitation centre. She paged through a magazine as she waited to be called in for her last appointment. The day was nearing its end and Robin felt tired. Nauseous, with the smell of trainers and sweat. A heatwave had recently hit the city, and everything was shrouded by a hot, feverish mist. Robin smirked. Only this morning, she had thought this treatment would change her life for the better. She had arrived a mess, her hair tousled, her clothes hurriedly pulled from a pile of laundry. Work had kept her up for most of the night and she had had very little time to prepare. Her first appointment had been with a physician, a tall, middle aged man, for whom she had had to undress and turn around and touch her toes and lie down and pull her knees up and move her head this way and that. Robin had felt like a used car in for repair. She simply hadn't expected everything to be so...so scrutinising.
Then she had met Thomas. A young guy, not unfriendly, who had shown her around a fitness area where she was expected to train every day on a plethora of queer machines. Every one of them had a name and a manual and there was a desk with people taking note on your presence. It all felt so boarding school, so awkward. Worst of all was that she hadn't seen a single person under the age of 50. The only people who were around her age were part of the medical team, which was an exceptionally cruel twist of fate. Yes, Robin thought, I'm an idiot. An ambitious hypochondriac. An oddball. She sighed. This treatment, this centre, it wasn't a step into a new future. It was a cold shower, a farce. She just wanted to go home and forget it ever happened.
As Robin sank into her gloom, a youngish man walked into the waiting area. He was not very tall, though broad in his shoulders, and he had a strange, weathered look about him. Someone, Robin thought, as she observed him from the corner of her eyes, you'd expect to find in the recesses of the city. Someone not unfamiliar with a darker side of life. This of course piqued her interest. Robin liked people with a bit of edge. Faces which spoke something other than normality. She had always harboured a weak spot for a certain type of men. Heavy men. Not the needy ones who wore their baggage with effort and who cried when drunk. No, those who had resigned themselves to it. There was something about people who had taken authority over their past and made it part of themselves. They were difficult. A challenge. Addictive.
The man had stopped and squinted onto a sheet of paper “Miss, eh.. Miss...I don't know how to pronounce this”. “Yes, that's me,” Robin said and she flicked her hand into his direction. “Just say Robin, it's fine.” She bent forward to pick up her bag and stood up from her seat. Then, when she turned and faced the man, she thought she detected a hint of a smile. Yet, the moment she asked herself what it meant, his eyes slipped back into boredom. Then, he turned around and simply started to saunter away. Robin understood that she was meant to follow, but something about his manner made her feel defiant. She looked at his receding figure and her eyes narrowed. He should know better how to welcome people, she thought. She imagined herself doing his job and greeting people with a big smile, her arms wide open with love and acknowledgement - not this flat, indifferent reception. Robin swung her bag over her shoulder and followed, reluctantly. “What are we doing, exactly?” she asked the man's back with a hint of irritation in her voice. He turned his head halfway over his shoulder and said, “I'm going to ask you a lot of questions, that's all”. Questions, she thought, more questions, and she sighed deeply.
Robin followed the man until they reached a door at the end of the hall which he held open for her. She entered a room the size of a shoebox, the bareness of its functionality represented by a medical stretcher which was placed, boastfully, at its very centre. Robin let her eyes travel over the high walls and she felt an unwelcome sense of claustrophobia starting to envelop her. Her stomach slowly tightened with the thought that she didn't really want to be there. Not with him.
Robin sat herself down on the stretcher, pushed the trainers off her feet and pulled up her legs. She observed the man as he walked past her to the computer. He looks so worn, she thought, as if he didn't really want to be there either, as if he had a hundred better, more interesting things to do. Robin straightened her back, “What's your name?” she asked. The man responded, but there was a foreign sound to it that she could not possibly repeat. “That sounds nice,” she said and without thinking she added, “like someone in a fairy tale”. A silence followed and before Robin had the chance to feel ignored, the man let out a loud, short-lived laugh. Robin cringed. He was laughing at her! A ball of anger started to gather in Robin's chest and she decided that this man was not going to receive any further kindness from her. He could ask his questions, she would answer them in the shortest possible way and then she would get the hell out of this creepy little room and return to the sanctity of her home. Really, how rude!
“What are your symptoms?”, the man asked. Robin, still feeling stung, said, “Pain. Do I need to be specific? Pain in my lower back, my knee, my hip”. “How long have you had the pain?” “Oh, I don't know ten years?” He turned to her, “Ten years?”, he looked at her with raised eyebrows and Robin flinched. What had she said? Had it really been ten years? She reconsidered, “Well, it started ten years ago. Okay, just write down five years. I had my first appointment five years ago”. The man's face turned back to the screen, “Five years,” he repeated. Yes, Robin thought, five fucking years, so what. She suddenly felt embarrassed, as if she herself was at fault. As if there was something fundamentally wrong with her. Why was she the only young person in the clinic? Ten, even five years, it suddenly seemed preposterous. Had she overreacted, perhaps? Taken herself too serious?
As the man typed, Robin shifted her position slightly to the right so that she could observe his profile. There was something about his face which she found unnerving. Unpredictable. It made her feel on edge, yet she couldn't tell exactly why. His eyes and mouth seemed kind of dwarfed by his jawline which was heavy and protruded outwards. Yet, when he turned his appearance would change entirely. His jaw would mould back into the contours of his skull and his mouth would set in that peculiar way. That weary way. His features were irregular, she thought, disharmonious even, but they had an unusual kind of charm. An attractiveness. It was a face, Robin thought, you could look at for an indeterminable amount of time without ever tiring of it.
“Have you had an MRI?”, the man asked. Robin did not want to be thrown off balance again. He wanted dates? She'd give him dates. “Yes,” she said, and she threw some numbers at him, using O-hundred denominations as if she were being questioned by an army official. Two can play this game, she thought. The man continued, “Where do you live?”. Where do I live, Robin thought, interesting. “I live in a flat share,” she said. “A flat share,” he repeated, and then, with a strange slur of annoyance in his voice, he said, “In a flat share with your partner”. Robin felt startled. She did not live with her partner. Bill was, technically, her ex-partner, but it seemed kind of strange to say this. What else does he want to know, Robin thought, what I have for breakfast? Whether my periods come regularly?
When he asked her what kind of work she did, it was Robin who got annoyed. She had already answered the exact same questions on the intake form and had gone through them again, one by one, with the physician. It ticked her off that she had to reiterate her personal information over, and over, and over again. Besides, it was none of the his business. “I do a lot of different things,” she said curtly, “I'm an art therapist, I teach, I translate”. “Art therapist,” he repeated, again with that same tone of incredulity – as if she had just made up a profession. His interruption irked Robin, “Why exactly do you need to know this?” she asked. The man turned to her and with surprise she noticed that he seemed a little unsure himself. “Oh it's just...just in case you have to bend a lot, or stand a lot.” Robin locked eyes with him. “Sitting and standing,” she responded and as far as she was concerned, that was all he needed to know.
He continued with questions about her pain, how it felt, how bad it was, and so on and so forth. Almost each and every time he would repeat her answer in that surprised, quizzical manner. It made Robin doubt whether he believed her at all, and, as they progressed, she started to disbelief herself. She wondered whether, perhaps, she had made it all up. Maybe she had given the wrong answers her entire life and that was what had guided her to this place. The wrong place. Then, in the middle of a befuddled explanation about her back-pain he turned to her with a cold expression, almost as if he were angry, and he said, “Can you undress now”. Just like that.
In an instant, Robin's small world which up to then had been safely guarded on top of the medical stretcher, collapsed. Undress? In front of him? Disbelief welled up inside her. “Of course,” Robin heard herself say. Of course, Robin thought. Logical thing to do. Undress. In front of a tired-looking man of about your age who repeats everything you say as if you were speaking in tongues. A man whom she did not like and who didn't seem to understand her at all. A man who had laughed at her. Take off my clothes, right. Absolutely. No problem.
Robin stepped off the stretcher whilst she tried, unsuccessfully, to finish the sentence about her back-pain. Then, she commenced the stripping off of her clothes. Her dignity. Her safety vest. She knew she was flustered and that what she was saying was making absolutely no sense whatsoever. One by one she saw items of clothing fall onto a low bench beside the stretcher. For a moment, she closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. It had been her intention to put up an armour up for this man, and now she had to take it off. All of it. But, hadn't he said that he was only going to ask her questions? She decided to keep her socks on as a last, desperate act of defiance. Though she knew that the sad black socks pulled up over her hairy legs didn't lessen her devastation at all. If anything, they made it all the more real, more excruciating.
In the meantime, the man continued to look at the screen and, when she was ready he lazily turned to her as she stood in her underwear, next to the stretcher. Like a recent orphan. Or a misplaced guerilla. Robin felt humiliated, angry. Under no circumstances would she ever have allowed this disinterested, unsympathetic man to see her this...this vulnerable. And even though she refused to look at him, she could feel his presence. Like an unwelcome pregnancy. Like a heavy, invasive weight. He sat down on a stool and regarded her body whilst Robin peered over his head at a random point in the distance. She was trying very hard not to be there in that room, but to imagine herself somewhere else. Somewhere where people where kind and things like body hair or orthopaedic clinics did not exist. "Can you turn," the man asked. Robin did as she was told without speaking a word, relieved to be facing away. But even with her back towards the man she could sense his eyes tracing along her body, judging her. Her mouth straightened into a tight line. She wanted to shout at him, how dare you!
“Can you bend forward?”, he asked. “As far as I can?” she responded. She was surprised at how casual she sounded. “Sure,” he said. Sure, she thought, I'll show you, you horrible little creature. Robin dropped her head, her shoulders, her hands, and while her upper body lowered down, her bum rose up. Right into the direction of the man. Right toward his eyeline. Then, with a sudden stab, Robin remembered how she had observed yoga instructors expose themselves by making exactly that movement. She shivered as she imagined her vagina, her sacred temple, to be rising up to the man's eyeline. Right about now... “Careful,” she heard him stammer behind her. She came back up with a jolt. This is horrible, she thought, absolutely horrible. She suddenly realised that she had tried to impress him. Him. What on earth was going on? From his actions, however, she deduced that he wasn't very impressed. He simply turned away and left her standing, lost and browbeaten, next to the stretcher. Then, he rekindled with the computer and started entering data. About her.
Robin considered whether this was the most humiliating thing that had ever happened to her in her entire adult life. Sure, there had been other bad moments but at least she had been fully dressed for those. She wondered whether the whole experience of rehabilitation would go down better with a certain amount of alcohol. Perhaps there was a suggestion box at reception. There seemed to be no way she could possibly save this moment. The only reasonable thing left for her to do, was to resume her cross-legged position on the stretcher. So she did. Her decency destroyed, her socks reaching up to her knees, her legs representing the wild hedges of England.
Was there some justice in all of this? Perhaps she could appeal to someone. Some lawyer, on the grounds of personality defamation or basic human decency. Robin tried her best to look at ease with herself. She did not want to care about the dislikeable man who had interrupted her mid-sentence to tell her, entirely without kindness, to take her clothes off. She stared at the wall and wished she was the kind of woman who had an innate type of self-confidence. A French woman, who could stand erect with dirty household gloves on, messed-up hair, an apron, and still demand respect for her femininity. But she wasn't French and she wasn't confident and right now, she felt very far removed from femininity.
The man turned away from the computer and said, “Lets try to trigger the pain”. Yes, lets!, Robin thought scornfully. He moved behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. She noted that they were warm and her body tightened. She did not want him to touch her. She hadn't wanted him to look at her, she didn't want him to put his hands on her and she certainly did not want him to stand so close behind her. The man moved her shoulders to the left and to the right, but it was no use. Robin had already decided that she was not going to cooperate. As of now, she was officially in protest. She would rise up against him and against this treatment. There would be a revolution! She would rally the other patients and inspire them to join the cause. Sporting devices would be burned. Doctors would be stripped bare and shaven. There would be justice, this place was going down and she was going to be leading it!
“No pain?” he asked, there was surprise in his voice. “No pain,” she responded, “I feel nothing”. The man seemed confused. He walked back over to the computer and stood there, adding more data to her file. Robin slouched her shoulders and felt the beginnings of an existential crisis descend upon her. It seemed to her that the whole day couldn't possibly have gone any worse. Unless, of course, if she had died, which was arguably a more favourable ending than the one she was experiencing now. “Is there anything else you want to add?” he asked. Robin lifted her shoulders and turned the corners of her mouth downwards, “No idea,” she said. The next moment, the man's detestable laugh rose and fell in the corner of the room. Robin was silent. It appeared that she was a right scream in her underwear. Ha ha. The man turned, looked her in the eyes and said, with an air which was meant to resemble empathy, “You can get dressed again now”. Then, he turned back to the screen and continued his report.
Robin stretched her legs, one after the other, and quietly, with a small thud, lowered herself onto the floor. She took the yellow T-shirt that she had chosen to wear that morning – when she hadn't yet met the man and hadn't yet experienced the humiliation she felt at that moment. She pulled it over her head, half her boundary was back. All the while, the man stood less than a metre away, blandly going about his business. The man who had put his hands on her and who had laughed at her and who had given her permission to put her clothes back on. And she hadn't even had the presence of mind to refuse. She had followed orders like an obedient child. And now it was all too late. It had already happened. The damage had been done. She put on her trousers, one leg at the time. She felt numb. Any moment now, she thought, she might break down into tears.
As she was bent over her feet to tie up her laces, she noticed that the man was hovering over her. She sensed he wanted to say something, but he waited until she had her shoes back on. His presence pressed on her. It was heavy, invasive. An unavoidable reality. She rose and saw his mouth move, but she couldn't take in the words. Nod, she thought. Just nod, then get the fuck out of here. His arm moved towards her, he held out his hand. Robin's eyes travelled down and without really understanding why, she checked to see whether he wore a ring. He did. With satisfaction she judged it bland and utterly tasteless. A big, clumsy piece of silver. Something a pimp or a gypsy would wear. She shook his hand and noticed the rim of a tattoo under the sleeve of his T-shirt. A man with a tattoo, a ring and a weathered-beaten face. It was like a brother's Grimm fairy tale, her questionable fate being at the heart of the plot.
She turned towards the door. The world suddenly felt like a nebulous cloud, mercurial and purposeless. She put her hand on the door-handle, pushed it down and walked through the fitness area, then down the stairs to the lockers. She took out her bag, the bag she had packed the previous night. She had put effort into that bag, she had wanted to be prepared. Now she felt sorry for the person who had packed the bag. Robin undressed and put her normal clothes back on. Her normal self. But there seemed to be weights hanging on her, they were drawing her down. They wanted to make clear something complicated and inexplicable. She carried the weights with her to work, then home. They accompanied her to her bed and rose with her the following morning. They tugged on her at five o'clock and drew tears from her eyes.
She had to go back in there again. She had to face reality, not some naive hopeful dream, and she had to see the man again. Life, it appeared, had turned against her at last. It had waited patiently, eagerly, until her plans had almost come to fruition and then, two minutes before twelve it had struck. Swiftly and without explanation. Like life does.
© Elzemieke De Tiège, all rights reserved. Please do not alter, crop or copy. Thank you ♥
Please note that this is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.
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