Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Between Heaven and Earth--A short story

She was a television stereotype--the fierce medicine woman--a spindly powerhouse who pokes you with urns of pig feet and lichen. Clutching an old spaghetti jar filled with musty brown stems, she walks me through her sprawling home. Every room contains long tables covered with clear jars. Silent daughters organize the pungent merchandise recently harvested from a forest floor. I follow closely. We are discussing the fungus I’ve ingested. Have I taken too much? Bloody Mary (was she in South Pacific?) seems matter-of-fact and her daughters unconcerned. I shouldn’t worry. I am headed for a truly spectacular high.

I wake up reeling. It is 4:30am. Stumbling to the bathroom, I try to remain asleep. To get high on mushrooms in a dream? An altered state within an altered state! I must get back to sleep and find Bloody Mary. But it is too late. The dream is gone. I lie in bed and massage ideas for a short story.

Three hours later I am surrounded by high-end shops in a fashionable Las Vegas casino. Twelve college students, perfect specimens between 20-25 years, huddle close to hear me. The mall is loud. This section has been designed to resemble a Renaissance Italian village. Gondola drivers sing while paddling their obese tourists. But most of the rumble of noise comes from the crowds of happy consumers sipping coffee, eating ice cream, and browsing through expensive leather boutiques.

“The key to flying,” I begin, “is to focus the mind.” At “mind” I bring my thoughts to a still point in the center of my skull. I slowly ascend off the ground. Hovering ten feet above the group, I ignore the shoppers beginning to point. “Flying should be effortless—all that is required is the mental ability to hold oneself aloft. To help with focus, I sometimes start with a movement like this.” I bend each elbow and lightly push down each arm close to my sides, creating a streamlined figure. I rise higher. “To move in all directions: up, down, left, right, or a combination of these, simply dictate this with a CLEAR thought.”

A blond athlete stretches forth his hand and points. “What about this? This is how they did it in that Crouching Tiger movie.” He doesn’t budge. A shy brunette begins to rise.

“Movements are only important if they help you focus your mind,” I say. “Flight comes from the mind.”

“What about this?” The weightlifter is flapping his arms. Others laugh as two more slowly rise and join me hovering above.

“What do you think?” I say with a smile. A few more join the group overhead. “The rest of you keep experimenting. We are going for a practice flight,” I say. I lean forward and the others mimic me. We are now horizontal. I think “forward-up” and begin to glide along the manufactured streets of an indoor Italy. Since flying is a skill that one learns through personal trial and error, I do not lecture much. I do not even look back as I accelerate faster and faster. They will find a way to keep up.

I sometimes like to run personal errands above the ground but today we are gliding for the sheer joy of speed and weightlessness. To fly is not to be a disembodied spirit but to feel one’s body as lean, light, and quick. We dart along the 3rd floor balconies that line the winding streets and I watch the shoppers from above. Bald heads, dark roots. From 300 feet up, everyone looks squat.

I make a sudden turn and quickly duck. The ceilings are covered with a danger--circling fans. We have entered the smoke-filled casino. I want to check my charges but need to keep my eyes focused ahead. Pit bosses flay and there is a sound of sirens. We move quickly above the shuffling crowd. I am desperate for the exit. I want the open air.

The doorways are too low to navigate, so we gently lower ourselves to the ground and walk through. Several of the students have been left behind at crap tables but the remaining few glow with gratitude. We think “up” and briskly rise into the brightness of a clear Nevada sky. My fingers stretch toward the translucent blue--always out of reach. So instead, my eyes drink in the cool and my hands swim in the unbounded space. I push out in every dimension . Pure, clear, infinitude. I am limitless and free.

The soft, female drawl on the other end of the line is always patient, calmly explaining her procedure as my blood pressure rises. I rub my eyes. I’ve been on the phone for an hour, listening to inane commercials repeated endlessly, or even worse, left with no sound at all, wondering if the kind Southern clerk has banished me to phone limbo. After 15 minutes of enforced silence, during which I can neither focus on my writing, nor unkink my aching neck, I am tempted to hang up. But experience has taught me that this would be futile: I would be forced to return to the beginning of the same torture, or abandon the hope of medical care. On a messy sheet of paper I scribble half-baked ideas from my flying dream and wait.

I had finally succumbed to the idea of seeing a dermatologist—having exhausted my experiments with herbal concoctions—but first I was to be tortured with a bureaucratic rack. Kafka could not have come up with a more perverse system. I am told that I need a referral through my Primary Care Physician. But my PCP isn’t in their system. They are trying to fix this problem. Meanwhile, Brian can help me. I am transferred to Brian but receive a voicemail that boots me into an endless ringing line. I call the 800 number again. Lisa answers and wants to understand why my PCP isn’t in their system. “They” are taking care of the problem I say. I simply want to get in touch with Brian for my referral. “Sure, no problem,” says the soft twang. I am dispatched to a different office with voicemail that transfers me to the dial tone. I call again. Stacy answers and wants to know why my PCP…. “Do I have to explain everything? Can I just get a referral from Brian?”

“But Brian can’t give you a referral without the PCP’s approval.”

“But Lisa said…..”

“Lisa isn’t in this office.”

“Do you have a supervisor who can help me?”

“Sure,” sings the drawl.

I wait light years in the silent echo of an unattended phone. Kelly answers and we run the drill. I am persistent and these women are agreeable. They will allow me to waste their time as they waste mine. Kelly calls for Brian. Again the exhausting exercise of pretending to be patient while your morning slips into afternoon. More inane doodles on my indecipherable paper. This morning I was ready to write the great American novel; now I am constructing an illegible suicide note. Kelly returns. Brian won’t talk to me, he can’t help me, he wants me to leave him alone. I try to echo the reasoned tone of my captor. Surely, after several hours of waiting, someone can help me with a referral? Kelly explains a new scheme: we will call my PCP together. But first let’s decide on a dermatologist. I sigh.

It is rather sweet the way Kelly mispronounces the names of towns within 15 miles of my home. We pick one out of the mix and off she flies to battle another bureaucrat while I hold the line. I sit and wait. I am stuck in the torture I hate more than any other--held fast, unable to move, wasting time. Think, Ann, think! I can muster my resolve and concentrate, even with an appliance attached to my ear. I must make this moment count. I find a blank spot of paper and begin outlining a story idea. Crude thoughts accumulate. I gain a small amount of momentum as Kelly returns.

“I have a referral number for you. You can make your appointment.”

“That’s it? I’m free?”

Kelly sweetly drawls goodbye. I hang up, slightly dizzy. I want to finally run to the computer to write about my dreams this morning, but I should first call the dermatologist and make an appointment before this rash goes away on its own. A tired receptionist answers. “Dr. Hudson isn’t a dermatologist. Is this OneHealthPlan?”

“Yes, they referred me.”

“Their records are wrong. Dr. Hudson is an allergist. And she isn’t here anymore. I’m sorry.” Dial tone.
I take a deep breath. No problem. I have the referral number. I will just find another local dermatologist who is in the health plan and make an appointment with them. I’m sure that is acceptable. Especially when your dermatologist isn’t a dermatologist.

I ignore my writing files and jump online. There are plenty of doctors on the plan, I choose three women and write their numbers. Just one more call I coax myself.

Thankfully, the first woman is still practicing medicine but she has a 2-month wait. The second woman has moved. I stoically call the third. Dr. Hoag has a cancellation but it is unclear as to whether she is still in OneHealthPlan. I am told to call my insurance to verify she is a member.

I have stopped breathing. My body feels numb but I propel myself forward and dial. I can be brief. This will be over soon. Helen now answers and I explain that my previous referral was for a dermatologist who isn’t a dermatologist and now I found a dermatologist but we aren’t sure if she is in the plan. Helen listens. “Why isn’t your PCP listed in the system?”

I choke back stomach acid and ignore the question. Can she check if Dr. Hoag…..?

“You can’t use the old referral number for a referral to a different doctor.” Like her predecessors, Helen is professional but she doesn’t have a twang. Her voice doesn’t smile.

“But the old referral,” I weakly counter. We trudge through the same old ground. Helen never loses patience as she explains again and again that my administrative nightmare will not die. I need another referral. The doctor appears to be in the system at another address but she needs to check the current address. She will call me back.

I scream at the dog. My husband calls and I spew forth the acid I’ve been swallowing all morning. I pull my hair and screen my calls. I need a doctor.

In the evening, I’m again surrounded by my students. We fly over broccoli trees and examine the manicured laws as we near Lake Mead. I fly fast. Faster. Stretching myself in the boundless sky. Free.

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