Monday, March 16, 2009

His Story, Monday Afternoon

It was my second time seeing him and he was draping warm, wet cloths over my feet.

"Relax," he urged me.

"It doesn't come easy," I replied. He raised an eyebrow. "I can tell," he said. "Try closing your eyes. Some people actually fall asleep."

I closed my eyes and tried really hard.

"Make your feet limp," he said, wiggling my left foot by the toe. He ran a hand under my foot in a tickly stroke. It worked. I felt the muscles in my ankle release.

"Good," he reported, going to work on my feet. While he draped cloths, pushed and prodded my feet this way and that, took measurements and did various other doctorly things, he told me a story.

It was about a young boy, a college freshman, a New Yorker alone on a mid-western college campus because his buddies from Forest Hills High School had been drafted and shipped off to Vietnam.

He was bound there too, but a freakish medical condition prevented Uncle Sam from wanting him.

And so, he lived to grow up and become a doctor while they all died young, in battle. Every last one of his buddies from Forest Hills.

The mid-western college experience was lonely without his friends...but something else. It was terrible, he said, lifting his eyes to mine.

And then he told me why.

In a fifth-floor podiatrist's office in Manhattan's midtown, on a cold March afternoon, a silver-haired doctor talks to his patient, telling her about something that happened to him when he was a boy.

The story has the effect of a punch in the gut, forcing a sharp intake of air, a wince, a flood of empathy for the man kneeling before her.

The patient examines the man who holds her feet and tells this tale. She has come because of a pain in the heel of her right foot which he had diagnosed as plantar fasciitis, evidently a common affliction, though she had never heard of it before. He is there to dole out the cure, explain treatment, foot baths, exercises, prepare special implants for her shoes.

And while he works, he talks, spilling his story like so many pills from an upended prescription bottle. The story heightens her sensory awareness and she observes the murmur of Sunday mass in his voice, the vibration of the stripes that run along his dress shirt, the dull thunk of a basketball bouncing on a driveway, the brush of his mother's kiss along his hairline, the shape of a name whispered achingly in the night, the burnished glow of his tanned skin.

She wonders why this story was offered to her -- a forty-year old remembrance of things past. She wonders if he tells this particular tale to all his patients, or just his female patients, or just patients who come on Monday or in March.

The story ignites curiosity about another story he told her last time -- a contemporary, happy story - and she wants to connect the dots between the two, figure out how A led to B.

Pulling on her high black boots a short while later, she finds herself viewing his story in her head, seeing it unfold in slow motion.

When she steps down hard on her right foot, she imagines that the pain in her heel feels like the memory that is still lodged in his heart.

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