Smiling to Himself

When exactly did doctors become younger than me, wondered Pete. Pete could accept that almost every professional associated with his children’s lives was younger than him, the teachers, the speech therapists, the nurses at the pediatrician’s office, not to mention the pediatrician herself. But his doctor too, when had he become his dad?

It wasn’t that the new guy wasn’t good or thorough or professional, but he looked like a high school student or maybe a cast member from Glee. He certainly didn’t shave. Was he even old enough to drink?

“Hey doc,” Pete asked, “are you old enough to drink yet?”

The doctor smiled. Jesus, was he wearing braces? No, thank God.

“I am not old enough to drink,” the doctor replied, “but I will be old enough to vote when Obama is up for re-election, so that’s cool.”

Cool. Pete said cool all the time, but were doctors supposed to say it?

“Okay, Pete,” the doctor said, pulling on a rubber glove, “you’re forty now, buddy, and I need to check that prostate.”

“Really, you couldn’t have given me warning before I got here?” Pete asked. “A post card maybe, or a text, how about a comment on my Facebook page, isn’t that how you guys communicate with each other?”

“Would you have come in?” the doctor asked.

“No,” Pete said, smiling to himself.

“There you go then,” the doctor said. “Now please bend over the examining table, and trust me, this is way worse for me than it is for you, but I took an oath, and I am going to uphold it.”

As Pete stood there, bent over, he wondered how it had all come to this? How he had ever decided to starting coming in for annual physicals, much less turned forty? He was tempted to say, “you using the whole fist, doc,” but figured the doctor was too young to get that reference.

“All done Pete, take a seat man,” the doctor said, pulling off the glove.

“Is that it?” Pete said, hopping back onto the examining table.

“One more thing,” the doctor said, sounding more serious, somber even.

“Yeah,” Pete said, “is everything alright, you look serious. Is this about my ED, because I would like to have that treated if I could. Maybe that nurse at the front desk could help me out?”

“Here’s the thing,” the doctor said, still serious and ignoring him, “you’re forty now…”

“You have to rub that in?” Pete said.

“Sorry, but you’re forty, and with your family history of cancer, especially your dad dying so young…” the doctor said.

Oh yeah, that’s why he was so focused on getting his annual physical: his dad never had been, motherfucker. Pete was happy not to think about his dad if he didn’t have to, and it’s not that his father had done anything wrong to Pete or anyone else, but he had died, and that sucked, so it was easier not to think about him at all.

“…anyway,” the doctor continued, “I hate to say this, I really do, but I want you to get a colonoscopy.”

“You know doc,” Pete said, “I think the prostate exam is all I can really handle today.”

“I know you’re young for it, but I’d feel better, and honestly, it’s not as bad as you think. The prep is the worst part by far.”

“Easy for you to say,” Pete replied.

“True that,” the doctor said, “here’s your prescription, for the solution you need to drink the night before.”

“Sweet,” Pete said.

“Live long and prosper,” the doctor said.

Pete gave him the Vulcan hand sign, though he had considered doing something else, and got on with his day.

Pete’s boys were watching Pokemon. His wife was talking on the phone. And he was slowly eating a coronation chicken salad sandwich from The 3rd Coast, savoring every bite, every raisin and pear, every spare drop of curry as he stared at the jug of solution on the table in front of him. It was foreboding, enormous, like one of the heads on Easter Island. But it would be fine, right?

His job was to drink the entire jug, cup by cup, every twenty minutes until it was gone. After that, gravity would take over.

Pete poured the first cup, gulped, closed his eyes, pinched his nose and chugged it. It tasted like vomit mixed with salt, brine, and a touch, a small touch, of cherry. He knew he could do this.

The twenty minutes between cups started to pass faster and faster and every cup went down harder and harder. His stomach was gurgling, but nothing was happening, not yet, and maybe not ever. Maybe he was the rare guy who was immune to the solution’s effects.

His wife put the kids to bed. He drank the last cup, victory, and nothing, no movement, no nothing. It reminded him of when he used to take hallucinogenic mushrooms. There would be the opening stretch when they didn’t seem to be working, but they were and at that point you had to sit back and try to prepare for a ride that was due to start any moment.


What the fuck was that Pete thought? That was a much bigger gurgle than before. Pete ran to the bathroom, skidding on a Pickachu doll, sliding, almost falling and pulling at his pants, praying he wouldn’t have a problem getting them off.

Pete hit the seat and braced himself.

“Hey, you alright?” his wife shouted.

“When it’s time to go, it’s time to go,” Pete shouted back, repeating a line his father always said when comparing death to going to the bathroom. When exactly had he become his dad again?

An hour later Pete fell on the couch sweaty and exhausted; his wife moved over to the chair.

The next morning, still drained, Pete decided to walk over to the hospital. The air was refreshing and Pete started to believe that maybe he had been through the worst of it.

After Pete checked in, the receptionist, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen, handed him a space-age looking beeper like the ones they gave you at Cheesecake Factory and told him they would beep him when they were ready.

“Do you have any questions,” she then asked, dimples popping and chest swelling.

Pete looked at her low cut top and big smile. She looked more like a hostess than a medical professional. When had going to the hospital become like going to a chain restaurant? Is this where everything was heading, sameness, homogeneity and youth? Was this change? Was it an improvement? What was it?

The beeper suddenly went off in Pete’s lap. He walked to the door and another pre-pubescent extra from Gossip Girl guided him to the changing room.

“Just put on a robe, keep your shoes on, and then exit into the waiting room, alright sir?” she said, before adding, “unless there is anything else I can do for you?”

For a moment Pete wondered if she would be willing to join him in the changing room, his wife would give him a pass on a day he was facing his mortality, wouldn’t she? The he remembered the current state of his stomach, his age and the great likelihood that this woman wouldn’t have slept with him at any age.

“No thank you, I’m fine,” Pete said, walking into the changing room.

The waiting room had chairs lining the walls and one television mounted high in the air showing The View. The room was empty but for one older gentlemen in the corner reading The Economist. He was distinguished looking, classy, with his hair neatly combed to one side, tortoise shell glasses and beautiful loafers on his feet. He somehow even wore the ill-fitting hospital gown as if sitting in a spa.

He reminded Pete of his dad. Well, no, that wasn’t accurate, because while it occurred to Pete that had his dad lived, he would have been about the same age as this guy, his dad had not been this refined. Pete’s dad had grown up in New York City, the son of garmentos, and though they had been successful and his father had done well, he always came off as a hustler, looking to make a deal, and just so Jewish. Pete hated thinking that way, and his dad wouldn’t have been happy about it either; he couldn’t stand self-hating Jews.

And yet, with his wild hair, the ever-present trace of a Brooklyn accent, and the way he would buy two slices of bread in the cafeteria by his office and then take onions off of the salad bar and call it lunch, he had always been an embarrassment to Pete: no sophistication, and nothing to teach Pete about being a professional or a man.

But this guy, this classy, sophisticated dude across the room, he would have taught Pete some things, and maybe he still could. Pete wondered if he could draw him into a conversation, find something to bond over.

Pete looked back up at The View. They were discussing health care reform. His dad would have loved what Obama was trying to accomplish with health care reform and his efforts to support the middle-class and the poor. The greatest country in the world can’t take care of its most vulnerable, he would say, we should be ashamed.

His father would have been disappointed as well, though, in Obama for not going far enough with the banks, immigration, gay rights and the war, mad that he wasn’t pushing more, needling more and throwing his weight around.

Still, he never would have allowed anyone to criticize Obama either. He would have reminded people where we had been, that it was racism regardless of what you called it, and that racism undermined everything good, and potentially good, and that would never change.

Pete continued to watch The View as Elizabeth Hasselbeck started to rail on how health care reform was being shoved down American’s throats with little to no discussion and no room for legitimate dissension, the same Elizabeth Hasselbeck who would never have to worry about paying a bill, much less for health care.

Obama’s picture then flashed across the screen. Pete look at Obama and then at the older gentleman who had put down his magazine and was looking at Obama as well. Pete decided to say something, this was his chance, but the older gentleman spoke first.

“Well, they got what they wanted,” he said, sort of talking to himself, but not really, “they wanted a socialist government and they got it. They wanted a Nazi for a president and they got that too. Goddamn fascist.”

Pete didn’t know what to say, how do you respond to that?

“He’s trying to help people,” Pete finally said, “lots of people, it can’t be easy.”

“What’s next,” the guy said, “the Goddamn immigrants and then the banks? Just let it be, things are working fine.”

“Do you really think that?” Pete said.

“That’s right,” the guy replied. “Did you know he wasn’t even born in this country?”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Pete said.

“Don’t fall for it kid,” the guy said. “The blacks and Jews are trying to take over. The country is going to hell.”

Pete thought about how his dad would have punched this guy in the face, but how Pete couldn’t, wouldn’t do more than he had. Pete also thought about how ultimately he was a pale imitation of his father, and that life constantly had a way of reminding you of this no matter how much you liked to pretend otherwise.

For a moment, Pete wondered if he should say something else, anything, but the guy had already picked up his magazine again, leaving Pete to ponder not only his inadequacies, but his colonoscopy, something he was suddenly looking forward to and maybe even deserved.

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Ben Tanzer is the author of the books Lucky Man, Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, Repetition Patterns and 99 Problems. He also oversees day-to-day operations of This Zine Will Change Your Life. He is currently watching SportsCenter, but upon his deathbed, will receive total consciousness, which is nice. Ben Tanzer’s third novel, You Can Make Him Like You will be released by Artistically Declined Press on April 12, 2011 and is currently available for preorder.

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