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Promise yourself: If they catch you, you’ll deny it. Decide that you will play dumb. Practice seeming confused, insisting genuinely to an invisible supervisor that you were looking for a different file, one that you were asked to get. Realize while laying in bed after your fourth day of work that if you end up doing this, you should do it within the first month, so it’ll be more believable if you do get caught. Reach for your phone on the nightstand and look up Virginia state laws for accessing unauthorized medical records. Read about a podiatrist named Zhang Liu Jie. Wonder how you would do in prison for four months. Start Googling whether prisoners are allowed to have tampons. Fall asleep with the thought that probably you should just avoid it altogether.
Late at night on Wednesday of your second week, spend hours flinging yourself into different but equally ineffective positions on your bed. Feel at least two itches on some part of your body at any given time. Become uncomfortably aware of your breathing for what feels like a solid hour. Open your eyes and stare up into the darkness. Make a face like you are looking at someone who has chosen intentionally to piss you off. Get up.
Have a glass of wine at the kitchen table from a mostly-full bottle in the fridge. Have another. Take the bottle back to bed without a glass and finish it, knowing that this was what you planned the moment you got out of bed to open the fridge in the first place. Fall asleep around four or five in the morning. Wake up at your last alarm at 6:25am, absolutely still drunk. Put on a brown dress with a high collar that makes your neck itch. Don’t put on any makeup. Call a cab. Get to work and walk through the hallways staring at the floor. Try to focus your vision enough to see the thin silver lines that divide up a white speckled desert of linoleum tiles. Get to your desk.
Lean down over the side of your chair and squint to confirm that yes, the silver lines are there after all. Straighten up. Turn on your monitor. Listen to the quiet of the building, since you’re here actually rather early after not showering or putting on eye-shadow. Log in. Settle into the scratchy neck of your dress. Idly open the hospital mega-database network icon. Idly go through three more login screens. Peer doubtfully at a black line blinking at the beginning of a long white text bar.
Look up a name.
If you type in “Mallory Dunn,” open a page with the correct birth year listed and let your eye wander down a table of dates and doctors and pronouncements of the body given in capital letters, strange abbreviations and unknown terms. Bounce off a few words that are staring out from the mass of black-on-beige text, each one like a hostile yet familiar face in the crowds of a foreign market. Like the assassin in a 50s movie you watched once in a dim hotel room. He painted himself orange as if it would disguise him among Moroccans, and chased the man who recognized him down alleyways to send him staggering out into the sunlight, a knife unreachable exactly in the center of his back. Realize just how drunk you still are.
Click print for the one crowded page of the summarized file before you can think about how stupid that is. Rip it from the jaws of the printer. Stuff it dramatically in your bag. Spend all day sobering up and ruminating on horrors of the abdomen. Feel like each woman around you knows by heart a history that is only hers, the details of a long-term relationship, with first occurrences made into legends and knock-down drag-out fights and hard-won victories and silent burdens and the bitter pride of old battle scars. Find yourself stealing glances at shirt fronts: the blank wall of loose blue scrubs, a gentle suggestion of hill and belly-button through pink cotton, rolls of fat jiggling smoothly under a skin of teal jersey. Give up. Sit on the bus without your headphones and listen to your silent abdomen.
Once you get home, remember one Halloween that she spent talking to a tall man in a dapper black coat with a large, elegant nose. Cut out everything but the nose until she is talking up to a tired literary reference. For some unknown reason, go looking for the hat you wore that night. Find it in a downstairs closet at the bottom of a box of gloves, its cheap white fur faded grey, small round ears permanently crumpled. Put it on. Tie the sides under your chin. Sulk, and unknowingly do a pretty good impression of how you looked most of that Halloween. Have a flashback of explaining to the nose that you and a friend (who had left the party) were dressed as characters from a cartoon.
“Is the character a bear? A small white bear?” he wondered.
“No,” you said, “He’s a boy.”
“Did you maybe put on the wrong costume?” ran the nose.
“No, he’s just a boy who wears a hat with ears on it.” No one knew what you were.
Sit at your desk on Friday and repeat under your breath a Biggie Smalls lyric you can’t get out of your head, as you send out some tedious office-logistic-type emails. Sing it as, “I know my mother wished she got a fuckin’ smishmortion.” Tell yourself you’re singing it like that because it makes you laugh. Imagine you and her, still in love, walking to the zoo with a perfect three foot-by-two-foot shmishmorted Biggie. You are each holding one of his hands.
“I’ll make your motherfuckin’ brain warm!” he sings happily as he swings between the two of you. Wonder how much attention that might attract on the streets of San Francisco. Plan to get the whole family discreet wide-brimmed hats. Wonder what the rent is like in her neighborhood. Look up on Google maps how far away the west coast is. Change the route to “Walking” and drop the little orange street-view man at the beginning of a 3,079 mile line stretched across America. Click “begin route.” Stare down a blurry, pixelated arbor of trees.
If you do not type “Mallory Dunn,” type “Louisa Gurman.” Know the exact date of birth because it is an annual source of guilt. Click the only possible file and skim through relatively bare sections until finally you get to a long list of ophthalmologists, the last one from a visit a few months ago, near her current listed address, in Maine. Scroll through a column of appointment dates aligned with a column of myopic prescription diopters that decline against each other in a pattern as exact and unchanging as the glide ratio of a crashing airplane. Stare dumbly at the staggering cost listed for the first two weeks of guide-animal training. Note that, at the very least, her astigmatism has still not shifted since she was fourteen.
The next day at work, walk past a woman wearing a thin tortoiseshell headband. Turn to look at it. Get an odd glance in return. Get to your desk and think suddenly of the smell of new paint and the cold draft from a window blowing directly onto your left side as your sister showed you her first pair of glasses, which were striped bright green and yellow, a child’s tortoiseshell, with bendable rubbery frames so they would not be broken by anyone as small as both of you. Remember a twenty-two-year-old miracle: being handed the glasses unprompted, her uttering, “Put them on.”
Look up at her. Put them on wrong. Sit still when she tells you to, and try not to flinch away as she puts them on for you and then smooths your thin toddler hair out from under the ear hooks. Feel alien weight on your face and look out into twin basins of a warped and sharp-cornered world. Remember how precious and rare it was to be even in this madhouse version of her room. Stare at the space between your computer monitor and your keyboard, the whole world undone under a blur of wine and exhaustion. Picture blinky brown eyes behind increasingly thick glass. Push your tongue into the gap tooth you developed right after she got hers fixed. Wonder what her hair looks like now.
Have a song stuck in your head. Get as far as, “I know my mother—” Put some headphones in and listen to the Talking Heads instead.
Re-check her current address after lunch. Panic when you realize how close she could be to fleeing up into Canada. Picture a black stone house on a hill with a smoking chimney, half-buried in snow. Picture a polar bear creeping bare-toothed up the expansive white towards the house. Never quite realize that you have pictured a cartoon polar bear. Remember what she looked like wrapped up in winter garb, stamping deliberately out into a blizzard, curly hair flying from the sides of her hood. Feel nostalgia for a hard-fought childhood in Alberta together that never happened. Picture her aiming down the sight of a rifle. Make sure each movement is practiced. Keep her hands steady. Leave a squint ambiguously as either anger or concentration. Throw the arrangement of four black lines and a nose that is now the polar bear into an open roar. Place her finger on the trigger. Wait for her to fire. Wait.
In a box of junk from the last room you shared with her, find a photo that has slid sideways in a nickel frame of clunky filigree hearts, and immediately start crying. It is early-ish digital and the details are slightly grainy and wrong—in one spot the pixels have failed to delineate where an incisor disappears into an upper lip. Hold the frame in your lap like a crystal ball and look down into it. Witness your sister at seventeen leaning back against the rail of a boat, the bow cutting pure-white against waves a mess of every possible blue, the island of Crete like a painted tile behind her and her skin more deeply olive than it ever was with you and your parents at home. She is half-smiling. She is wearing a pair of dark sunglasses.
Wear real pajamas to bed that night. Spend the next day doing everything you’re supposed to do for your superiors. Get lunch with some nurses your age. Work in that office for seven years, and get pretty good at your job. Look up only the names of strangers, given to you by other people. Drink wine early enough in the evening that you are never drunk by morning. Befriend a cardiologist named Bill, and eventually name him as the godfather of your son. Never think about small rubber glasses, or a white boat off Crete, or the charging speed of a polar bear up an incline. Work on a computer all day. Never find yourself staring down an arbor of blurred trees. Never map a trail up to Maine.
Anna Bernstein is an undergraduate student at Macalester College where she studies English and Arabic. She currently lives in Brooklyn, like everyone else who grew up in Manhattan. She has a cat with half an ear and a baffling sense of purpose.