The doors to the waiting room are glass and provide the room its only sunlight. As I walk through them, a wall of glass blocks greets me. It doesn’t quite reach the ceiling, but I can’t see over it, even if I stand on my tip toes.
In my line of sight, taped to the wall, are two signs. The one on my right has an arrow and the word “WELL.” On the left, an arrow points to “SICK.” On it, I notice someone has drawn a sad face in red sharpie. Directly above the crying sad face, written in pencil, I see the words “heLp me!”
On the other side of the wall a long aquarium divides the room. It sits atop waist-high glass blocks and stops a foot shy of the ceiling. One end of the aquarium is T’d by the glass block wall. The other ends in a C that is the receptionist desk. Behind the curved desk, two receptionists accommodate the sick and the well from rolling chairs. There’s no wall separating them. They can see each other, hear each other, and if they stick out an arm they can touch each other. Opposite the receptionists, in between the top of the T and the C, parents and children sit and wait, separated, well from sick, by glass blocks and aquarium.
Emily’s not running a fever, but I know she doesn’t feel well. I got the call from school five minutes after walking out of my morning meeting, and I know Nurse Nancy doesn’t send a kid home unless she’s convinced. I take a deep breath and think, as I always do when I have to choose between "SICK" or "WELL," “please don’t let anybody have the plague.” As we sit down, a diapered and croc wearing toddler throws up.
People shift and avoid eye contact while staff helps the mother clean up. I pull out a book and Emily leans on my shoulder. I feel her relax and then go rigid as a phlegmy cry erupts from the corner. “I don WANNA! I don WANNA!” screams the boy. Every third or fourth “wanna” is punctuated by an ear piercing scream. The boy’s crying is fevered and tearless, desperate. His mother doesn’t move.
On the well-side, through the aquarium, I see the distorted face of a father holding a daughter. Each time the Nemo fish zigs, she squeals with delight. I feel Emily flinch each time, but Nemo just seems to zig faster.
In front of us, in the open area between rows, a pre-teen plays “time-out” with his one-year-old sister. Time-out involves running in short bursts and stopping quickly because there isn’t much room to maneuver, as sister chases brother and yells, “Time Out! Time Out! You have to go to Time Out!”
The toddler owns a laugh I can’t help grinning at, but to be heard, she has to use her outside voice. I know it’s her outside voice because her mother uses her outside voice to tell the girl to use her inside voice. After the eighth “Use your INside voice!” I quit counting. When brother picks up sister to pretend put her in time out, sister doesn’t pretend scream. Head back, arms and legs flailing, she bawls, “NONONONONO!”
She’s good at using her outside voice.
From across the room, a boy has a question for his mother who’s sitting next to me. The aquarium doesn't shield the well-side from hearing fragments of his words - between the squeal and the wail and the NONONONONO - because the boy sits four rows away. Mom can’t hear him the first three times he asks, though. In between the other noise and his question, she mixes in her own, “I can’t HEAR you!” and “What?” Neither of them get up.
After the fourth “What?!,” I lean over and, using my doorway voice (not inside, not outside), I tell her “he wants to know if he can play X-Box when y’all get home.”
She just looks at me. I thought maybe an ear was leaking blood and she could see it trickling down my neck. If so, she never said.
Suddenly, a gray blur shoots by. The blur morphs into a woman in cut-off sweat shorts and flip flops. She slaps her hand on the sick-side receptionist’s counter and her shoulder length brown hair stays perfectly in place. Her face is made up as though she’s just come from work, but a deep flush is creeping its way up her cheek. On the outside of her right leg, from her ankle to mid-calf, is a large, black tattoo in the shape of what looks to be the continent of Africa. I squint and see she’s inked a replica of a child’s hand there. Underneath it, in inch-high fancy cursive, is the name Kayle Jane.
“Kale?” I think to myself, “as in the vegetable? Is it supposed to be Kaylee and there wasn’t enough room?” I ponder this as I pretend to read and watch from the corner of my eye.
The receptionist didn’t start, didn’t raise the pen from his paperwork, didn’t reposition the ass in his rolling chair or the bend in his neck. The only things that moved were his eyes, even when she screamed at him to do something about the noise. “Can’t you DO SOMETHING? It’s too LOUD IN HERE!” she huffed. Her back was to the wailing boy, so she hitched her head and threw a shoulder in his direction.
She used her outside voice, too.
The receptionist’s eyes moved from her and then to the boy, but his body didn’t move. And he didn’t speak. She tsked and stormed back to the well-side. Her mumbled, “This is reeDICKalus” fizzles, then evaporates. Wailing sick kid’s mom crossed her legs. Gray blur's outburst prompted no “let’s walk around” or “move to the doorway” action from her, but it seemed to quiet her son.
For a few moments, wailing boy simpered, X-Box boy was amused by his Nintendo DS, and pre-teen quit running from his sister. In this lull, I hear my daughter’s name called. With relief, I pick up my purse and walk to the counter, expecting to be directed to a room. Without looking up, sick-side receptionist asks, “Do you know you’re 15 minutes late for Emily’s appointment?”
Things were happening around me, but I couldn’t hear them. Not the cries and coughs or foot shuffles. Just silence. The silence you find drifting between waves as you stand at the shore.
I say nothing. He starts writing something and the silence between us grows. I remain quiet, still. His writing slows and he pauses. He peers up and looks over his glasses at me. I look back. Another moment, more silence. But now, I begin to hear the cartoon music from the TV above us.
We were evenly matched, but with his experience I figured he had an edge. He blinks first.
Sighing, he lowered his eyes, scrawled one more stroke, and handed me my appointment card without looking back up, “Thirty minutes, max. I think there are two kids in front of you.”
I sat back down. For the first time, Emily asks, “How much longer, Mom?”
“I’m not sure, babe, but you’re doing great and we’re almost there.”
Wailing boy is no longer crying, “I don WANNA!” He’s worn himself out and his sobs have the rhythmic, hiccupping quality all children get after a big fit. Squealer’s delight has turned to terror from somewhere behind the doors as a nurse tries to give her a shot. Sister’s laugh is gone, replaced with tears because the cartoon is over and her brother is bored. He steady kicks the blocks under the aquarium. Kick-Kick-Kick-Kick-Kick. No one stops him and his mother is busy rocking his sister.
I look at Nemo and notice he's still zigging frantically. Watching him move in frenetic, graceless darts, I wondered if the water muffled the noise at all.
I opened my book and tried to get lost in the words. Unsuccessful, I dropped it in my purse and pulled Emily to me. With her head on my lap, I rubbed her back and watched Nemo.
Closing my eyes, I could see Nemo tearing through water. Trapped between invisible walls; unprotected from the relentless din. I listen for the silence between waves.