By Amy Goldman Koss
Roaring Brook Press Copyright © 2006 Amy Goldman Koss
All rights reserved.
the overhead light snapped on and my shoulder got one quick shake. Pupkin, who hated the morning wars, jumped off my bed, leaving a cold spot. He followed Mom, his toenails clicking down the hall.
I grabbed a moment of peace until my mother returned to poke me in the ribs in a totally obnoxious way that started the hate stirring. Was that any way to begin a day, with stirring hate and the light burning through my eyelids?
But that's Mom's style, a series of quick, hostile advances, retreats, and repeats to annoy her victim into wakefulness, like a human mosquito. I had to sleep braced for the next attack. And there she was, yanking off my blankets. Hey!
With swearing from me, ragging from Mom, and snarling from both of us, I stumbled to the shower. What was left of the hot water felt great, but then it was gone, thanks to my little brother, Max.
I wiped the steam off the mirror, to see what needed plucking or squeezing, trying to see myself through Jared Peterson's incredible baby-blue eyes. But something looked weird.
I wrapped myself in a towel and called, "Mom!"
"Can't now. What?"
"No, really. Look."
She came, grumbling, "You're late again, and there's no way I've got time to drive you. You'll just have to —"
I cut her off and pointed to the mirror. She glanced at my reflection, cloudy with steam.
"Look at my neck; my glands are still sticking out. That flu was ages ago."
She peered closer at the mirror, then at me. "I'll call Dr. Posner, see if he can fit you in today. Now get dressed and get going. It's almost seven." Then she went back to the kitchen to yell at my brother for something.
second hour I was in Drama class. A girl, Nina, was reading her sonnet with way too much emotion. I was drawing a picture of her for my friend Kay, who couldn't draw worth shit and thought every doodle I doodled was brilliant.
Just as I was putting sweat beads on Nina's brow, a voice came through the speaker telling Ms. Blaire to send me to the office with my belongings.
Nina crossed her arms in a huff at the interruption. She tapped her foot in irritation as I shut my notebook and slid it into my backpack. I was tempted to move in extra slow motion just to see how many times I could get her to roll her eyes.
Kay mouthed the question, "Where're you going?"
I shrugged. Half the time when kids were pulled out of class it was to go to the orthodontist. The other half was because their grandparents had died. But I didn't have braces or grandparents.
My mom was in the office, signing me out. I saw her write doctor's appointment and I remembered my swollen glands. I touched my neck — they were still there. Good! If the doctor's office was crowded enough, this could eat up half the day.
In the car, Mom asked the usual: "How was school?"
She perked up. "Really?"
"It sucked, Mom. It always sucks."
"Please don't use that word."
Traffic stopped to let a fat woman wearing a green garbage bag push her shopping cart across the street. It was hot out and she must've been sweltering in that outfit, plus the asphalt had to be hell on her bare feet. Someone leaned on his horn to either speed the bag lady up or encourage the guy who'd stopped for her to run her down.
"Butt-wad," I murmured.
Mom looked at me, then looked closer. "I wish you'd worn a nicer shirt," she said. She reached over to scrape some breakfast off my sleeve. If I'd let her, she would've scrubbed it with her spit.
Then we were in Posner's waiting room with a little kid throwing a very impressive tantrum. His mom's solution was to keep pointing at the aquarium, saying "See the pretty fishies?" in a very high, very irritating, very fake voice.
Why do people squeak like that at children? Is there some scientific reason? Or is it just to make sure that all kids grow up to despise and distrust their elders?
Another woman was nursing what appeared to be a blanket. There were a lot of sloppy, slurpy noises.
I was definitely too old to be there. The whole waiting room was full of baby stuff and Highlights magazines and chewed-up Dr. Seuss books.
I'd left my notebook and everything in the car, or I might have done a drawing of that weird wire thing with the colored beads, which exists only in doctors' waiting rooms. I wondered what was supposed to be fun about it. All I'd ever wanted to do was get the beads off the damn thing so I could play with them. Maybe that toy — if you can even call it a toy — was meant to teach frustration and hopelessness. Hey, kids! Feeling sick? Scared of the doctor? Well, here are some beads you can't have! Ha-ha!
Mom was chatting up the nursing mother. Why she always has to do that, I do not know. Mom was telling her something insanely boring about my infancy, or my brother's, and I practically wished I was back in school — but not quite.
Then Dora, who I actually didn't hate, took us to examining room 4. She asked me why I was there. Mom answered, "Swollen glands."
Dora asked if I'd had a sore throat or fever. Mom said no.
Dora asked me how long my glands had been swollen, and if they hurt. Mom answered the best she could.
Dora told me to hop up on the examining table. I half expected Mom to jump up there for me.
Dora said the doctor would be with us soon, but I didn't hold it against her for lying. Maybe she was an optimist and really believed that this time, Dr. Posner would make it into the room before I died of boredom.
Mom pointed to the baby scale, like she always does, and told me I used to hate being weighed.
I said, "I know."
She looked at the Sesame Street books, and I knew she wished I'd sit on her lap and let her read one to me.
"Do you think I'll get a shot?" I asked. I hated shots. The worst part about a shot was the idea of a shot, but knowing that the worst part was the idea didn't make the idea any less horrible.
"Oh, Izzy, shots aren't so bad," Mom said. "Stings for a second, then it's over."
She wasn't going to get anyone to sit on her lap and listen to Big Bird stories with that kind of sympathy.
The crinkly paper on the examining table stuck to my thighs. I asked Mom if she thought they recycled it. "You figure they roll out a fresh three or four feet for each patient," I said. "That's a lot of paper. They could donate it to schools for art projects."
Mom wrinkled her nose. "That wouldn't be very sanitary," she said.
I nodded. "You're right. There'd be skid marks from all those itty-bitty ass holes."
"Don't swear, Izzy, please," Mom said automatically.
Many years later, Dr. Posner came in and made a few lame jokes, which Mom laughed at, not because they were funny, but so Posner would doctor me well. Then he asked why I was there.
I wondered if Dora knew that he paid zero attention to the notes she took, day after day, patient after patient.
As soon as he had re-asked all Dora's questions, he felt my neck. "It's probably mononucleosis. Or, as it's commonly called," he told us commoners, "mono. But we'll have Dora take a TB test for good measure. Then I'd like you to run across the street to the hospital for a chest X-ray."
Hmmm. My pediatrician was suggesting that I run across the street?
But, cool. The hospital always takes forever, so for sure it'd be too late to go back to school afterward. I wondered if Jared would notice I wasn't in History.
When Dora came back in with the TB test, I scooted off the table and sat next to my mom. I scrunched my face into her shoulder, closed my eyes, stuck out my arm, held my breath, and squeezed Mom's hand while Dora stabbed me.
Dora teased that she'd seen braver five-year-olds and toddlers with higher pain tolerance. Nonetheless, she gave me a Hello Kitty sticker, as always.
as far as the hospital taking all day, I must've been thinking about the emergency room the time my brother, Max, got hit by a baseball or the time he fell off the skate ramp or when he burned himself so mysteriously or when he drove a nail through his finger. This was different. The radiology department was nowhere near the emergency room, and they took me in immediately.
Mom talked to everyone there, of course.
The Filipino X-ray guy with a tattoo of a lion peeking out under his sleeve moved me around in front of the X-ray machine. His hands were warm through my thin hospital gown. He said something about being Superman, seeing through me, and it's entirely possible that I blushed.
Mom and I waited around for him to make sure the X-ray had worked. But when he came back to tell me I could get dressed, he was no longer smiling or flirty. "Your doctor will call you at home" was all he said, so I figured he didn't like me anymore.
On the way back to the car, Mom asked what time my lunch hour was. I asked, "Why?"
"Because if you missed it, we can pick you up something."
I didn't like the sound of that. "I'll eat at home," I said.
"It's only twelve twenty," Mom said. "There's still almost half the school day left, and I've got to get back to the office." Mom didn't look at me; I guess she could imagine my scowl.
"Please don't make me go back, Mom," I begged. "After all that. Posner, then the X-rays. And nothing's happening today, I swear."
Mom sighed, which in this instance meant I'd won.
She called her office and told John she'd see him tomorrow. Then we went to the Toasted Bun. My omelet was extra delicious since I was supposed to be in Algebra.
"Mono is called the kissing disease, you know," Mom said, extracting the tomatoes from her salad.
Humph, I grunted, mouth full of toast.
"So, who've you been kissing?"
"Just Pupkin," I said. "Well, Pupkin, and this very nice old guy who offered me a lollipop if I'd get in his car."
"Izz, I'm serious," Mom said.
"Me too," I replied.
Mom sighed, again.
It's so unfair, I thought, that I should get a kissing disease without first getting the kissing. Of course, if you could get a kissing disease from hours spent fantasizing, I'd be a goner. Like the bus ride home from the Science field trip. I'd nabbed the seat next to Jared without, I thought, seeming too obvious. We'd talked a little to each other, but what felt even better was talking to the kids all around us, as if we were one voice. He and I talked to them — and I felt all this couplelike we-ness.
A while later, I pretended to fall asleep. I'm a tiny bit taller than Jared, so I had to scoot down to let my head fall accidentally on his shoulder. After a while, he very, very gently rested his head on mine, and it was unbelievably fabulous. A head-hug. My leg hummed, lined up against Jared's, communicating in sex-speak. Every one of my deliriously horny skin cells was practically screaming to every one of his, without a sound. It was so cosmic I could hardly breathe.
I knew that he knew that I wasn't really sleeping and that, any second, we'd turn our faces to each other and we'd kiss and it would be unbelievable. The suspense was murder.
Then Jared snored himself awake. "Oh, man," he laughed, shaking himself, "I guess I passed out." Then he turned around to talk to the kids behind us, leaving a cooling puddle of drool on my arm.
The whole steamy scene had been in my head.
Now I wondered what — if anything — Jared would think when he heard I had mono. Would he be even a tiny bit jealous that maybe I'd been kissing someone?
since she was off from work anyway, Mom figured this would be a good time to pick up the dry cleaning and run fifty other errands. By the time we got home, it was practically as if I'd been in school all day. I couldn't bring myself to start my homework or else I'd have gotten nothing extra out of this at all.
When I checked the clock, it said I still had twenty-five minutes to kill before Kay got out of class and I could call her. That's how I knew it was 2:05 when the phone rang.
My mom answered, and I didn't think anything of it until I heard the strangest moan. An animal kind of moan that made me think Pupkin was hurt. Then I heard Mom's voice, but low and groaning, go, "Noooo. Oh no. Oh no." I ran to the kitchen, terrified.
Mom was on the floor, with her legs sprawled. She was slumped against the counter as if she'd slid down. She looked unnatural and uncomfortable, with the phone still in her hand. The scene was weird, but Pupkin was safe and sound, licking Mom's face. I nearly laughed, but then I thought, Shit! Someone's hurt! Or dead! Dad? Max?
But it was me.
Mom delivered the news from down there. And, as if that wasn't surreal enough, the news she had to deliver was beyond sense. "That was Dr. Posner," she said in a weird, moany voice. "He told me to take you to Children's Hospital right away. Today. Now." She looked up from the floor with a confused frown and said, "He said you have lymphoma."
"Lymphoma? What the hell is lymphoma?" I asked. And I knew it was serious because Mom didn't tell me not to swear. Her eyes were huge. She didn't get up.
"Mom!" I yelled. "What's lymphoma?"
"He said they have much better luck with it now," she answered, if you can call that an answer. Then she auto-dialed my aunt Lucy, and I heard her say, "Lou? They think Isabelle has cancer. Meet us at Children's Hospital. We're going now," and she hung up.
They thought I had what? Then I was on the floor too, as if all my bones had either melted or been suddenly removed.
if the cancer didn't kill me, the ride to the hospital would. Mom's eyes were streaming tears and she was babbling first into the phone at my dad, then just babbling in general. I watched LA go by outside the window and marveled that everything looked so normal. There was the Live Nude Girls sign that made me wonder, when I was little, whether other places had dead nude girls. We crossed the Los Angeles River, which was just a dribble of scum between graffiti-covered concrete banks.
We had never been to Children's before. We could see it now, sticking up over the shorter buildings around it — a Blockbuster, a gas station, a thrift store with a blue '50s prom dress in the window.
Mom wasn't sure where the parking lot was.
A homeless guy and his dalmatian sat on the curb in front of the public TV station, where we stopped for a red light. His sign said, Good karma 1 dollar. OK karma, fifty cents.
I pointed him out to my mom and she grabbed a handful of ones from her purse and frantically waved them at the man, calling, "Yoo-hoo!"
The light changed. The guy had trouble standing up. Cars behind us honked, so Mom crunched up the bills and threw them. Poor guy was going to have to dodge traffic to pick them up off the street.
I wanted to call Kay, but as bizarre as it seemed, it was still too early. How weird, that I'd be in History, scribbling on my folder, sneaking peeks at blue-eyed Jared, and thinking about whatever it is I thought about when I wasn't on my way to Children's Hospital with cancer.
"Mom?" I asked, interrupting her chatter. "Will I lose my hair?"
"Does that say 'patient parking' or what?" she asked, pointing to a sign. "Should I go in there?"
"They said bed," Mom muttered. "They'd have a bed ready. So a parking meter won't be long enough, right? I'd have to keep feeding it quarters all night or I'd get a ticket. Would they ticket a hospital? A children's hospital?"
Tears slid down her face, getting sidetracked by wrinkles and divided into streams. There were no crying noises, thank God.
Bed? Hospital bed? That's where I was going to sleep? How much sense did that make?
the lobby of this hospital was nothing like the one we'd been in that morning. This one was big and bright and decorated to look fun. Who did they think they were kidding?
People were everywhere. Carrying babies. Pushing strollers and wheelchairs. Kids wearing surgical masks. Lots of fat people in tight clothes. I let Mom take my arm. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss. Copyright © 2006 Amy Goldman Koss. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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