The clinic looks nothing like what I expected. High ceilings. Gaudy Christmas lights. New age saxophone pumped in from all directions. I follow the nurse through the open floor plan and avoid looking at the patients on the examination tables. She leads me to the far end of the room and smiles. It’s just Thursday for her.
“Can I…keep my clothes on?” I ask.
Another grin. “First time, huh?”
I start to blush but will it back. I remember my accomplishments, my modest yet impressive home in Eden Prairie, the degrees framed in my office, the books on my shelves with my name on their spines. This nurse is maybe six months out of college, and I remind myself I have nothing to be afraid of. “You might say that,” I manage.
“No need to disrobe today,” she explains. “That comes later. Dr. Park will be with you shortly, Ms. Rinaldi.”
I sit on the examination table and swipe emails on my phone, each message from students shocked they’ve received D’s or C’s after missing full weeks of my courses. I’m so absorbed that I almost miss Dr. Park extending her hand. She looks younger than thirty, closer to my graduate students than me, her oval glasses covered in fingerprints.
“Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Rinaldi,” she says in high, pleasant tones.
“Dr. Rinaldi,” I correct her.
“Doctor. That’s right. Of course.” She picks up my chart and taps her chin. “So, this is your first visit with us, correct?”
“Before we begin, do you have any questions?”
I straighten the lapels of my jacket. “Does it actually work?”
She tilts her head. Kenny G launches into an extended solo on the speakers above us. “Does what work?”
“This. All of this.”
She smiles in a way she must think is reassuring. “Absolutely. We’re the finest class re-imaging facility in Minnesota, and this is our ninth year serving the community. We’ve successfully erased thousands of working class memories and traits out of our patients and have implanted close to the same number. Middle class memories, upper class, we tailor a program that’s right for you.”
I’ve read all this online, scanned the many testimonials, but something about the flesh-and-blood Dr. Park saying it makes it feel so much more real. “So, just to be clear, you go in, locate some kind of working class memory or trait I tell you about, and funnel it out?”
“In a certain kind of sense, yes.”
“And then, if I choose, you can replace those memories or traits with aspects that more closely align with middle or upper class experiences?”
“Absolutely.” Dr. Park waggles her eyebrows. “It’s a wonderful process.” She opens the shelving unit behind her and retrieves a thin cylinder resembling a powder blue sex toy. “You tell us everything you want removed and everything you’d like inserted, and then we numb your whole head and slide one to five of these inside of you, depending on how much work you’d like done in a single session. Then you go home and over a weekend your memories and traits manifest themselves in any number of unpleasant but temporary ways. Hemorrhoids. Broken teeth. Jock itch. Warts. You come back forty-eight hours later, we put you under, remove all your manifested issues, and BLAMMO, you don’t remember Uncle Mort’s racist Thanksgiving tirade or how you had to wear Salvation Army hand-me-downs to college. It’s barely more invasive than getting your teeth cleaned.”
I spin the wedding band on my finger. “Have you ever done it?”
Dr. Park pats my knee. “Dr. Rinaldi, I don’t even remember what state I was born in anymore. It’s absolutely awesome!” She removes a pen from behind her ear and brings it to the clipboard. “Let’s chat out your specific needs a bit. Do you want removal, insertion, or both?”
She checks a box. “What specific things do you want removed?”
I pull up my notes on my cell phone. “I don’t want to remember all my class shame from college, all those parties where I wore the wrong clothes, wrong shoes, where I didn’t know how to handle myself around cheese and crackers. I don’t want to remember my mother crying about how we were headed to the poorhouse every few months growing up. Erase all those days at my father’s deli answering calls, serving men in suits from the courthouse, the smell of lunchmeat and mayonnaise and toasted bread in my hair. Take away the nostalgia I have for twangy country music, Willie Nelson, light beer. Take away the confused looks from my family over the holidays when I told them I was studying Italian in college. Take away their refusal to come to my wedding because it was a three-hour drive from home and “too far.” Take away every time a colleague referenced growing up on NPR and summers in Cape Cod and how I smiled and politely nodded but wanted to choke them. Take away the years of being poor, the years of feeling poor, the stress of past due bills, the years without insurance, the realization that everyone I thought was upper class growing up because they owned a pool or two cars was actually just lower middle class, take away how I feel less than everybody else.” I continue for fourteen minutes. “Take away the knowledge that my brother died from a drug overdose.”
Dr. Park nods. “Ok. That’s a lot, but it’s doable. And insertions?”
“I don’t know anything about wine or classical music. Fix that. I’d like to know more about professional women’s fashion, how investing works, how retirement works. Basically, I’m just so sick and tired of feeling like an impostor every single second of every single day.”
Dr. Park nods sympathetically. “You won’t feel that anymore, Dr. Rinaldi. I promise.” She checks more boxes. “What you’re proposing is a bit more intensive than what I usually recommend for first timers. Would you rather we do this over a few visits?”
I shake my head. “No. I’m not teaching during J-Term. I want this done before I start again in February.” This is an excuse, a vague justification, but I know normal people never question the mysterious schedule of professors.
She frowns. “Okay. We can manage that, but are you absolutely sure? You’re positive you want to remove everything you’ve listed?”
“Take it out of me.”
Dinner is a skillet-roasted chicken alongside potatoes and carrots cooked in animal fat. My husband calls this his “working man’s dinner,” and I let him live out this ridiculous fantasy. We never used a skillet growing up or indulged on an entire bird outside of Thanksgiving, and even once spent an entire summer eating the overgrown zucchini my father grew in our backyard. But Henry is a good cook, and that counts for something. I watch from the dining room as he brings me a plate and feel thankful for his stabilizing presence, the way he refills the white wine I pretend to like, the way he punches in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on his phone and how this music plays everywhere in our house on an expensive Bluetooth system Henry is obsessed with. I touch his hand when he sits down. He is and has always been fascinated by machines. I don’t understand any of it—why bury your face in a computer when there are books?—but I love him. I’ve always known this.
He waits until we’re midway through our meal before confronting me. It’s another benefit of his upbringing. Where I grew up, fights began in the kitchen before the sauce was even bubbling. “I know you’re going to do this no matter what I think,” Henry says, “but I wish you’d wait until the conference was over.”
Next week is the Digital Humanities Winter Institute. Henry and a host of other professors interested in the digital from all over North America will embark upon a small Canadian island off the coast of Seattle for a week to learn new programs and debate digital Marxist theory at the University of Victoria. Henry is going to study digital computing and desktop fabrication, and although he’s explained this to me many times, I still have no idea what it means. I scheduled my two appointments with Dr. Park while he’ll be in Canada.
“Henry, I want to deal with this alone.”
“I’m your husband.”
“And I love you.”
“Then let me help you.”
“You’ll help me by going to Victoria.”
He pouts into his food. He’s never known how to deal with my working class hang-ups. He grew up in London where his father is still a reputable hedge fund manager. My upbringing is completely alien to him, and after a few visits back home to meet my family, he prefers it that way. We’ve worked hard to earn tenure here in Minnesota, both at the same prestigious college. He’s in mathematics, and I’m in Italian language and literature. We’ve cast off the shackles of my origins, or I’m at least trying to.
He clears our plates, the Berlioz nearly complete. Then he returns and pulls me up from my chair and slides his arms around my waist. I know he wants sex—it’s been four days—and I want it too, that happy buzz that always follows, how all our problems briefly melt away, but then Henry looks into my eyes and whispers, “What if we have a child? Don’t you want them to know how you grew up?”
We’ve gone back and forth on the baby issue more times than I can count. Sometimes I want one, sometimes he wants one, but usually we both agree it’s not for us. We watch the news, read about climate change, and cannot imagine leaving behind spawn to deal with the calamities of previous generations. I look at my husband and understand some things between us will always remain unknowable. I want to explain to him very clearly that I’m doing this precisely because of the off chance we might have a child. I don’t want that hypothetical baby to ever understand a single moment of what I endured to get here, how alienated I felt in high school—my dreams and aspirations even then so different from my peers; in college—my background and material wealth so miniscule compared to the others; and even now—when I have literally no one to talk to who shares the same cultural touchstones of my youth. I don’t want that child to know any of this, and I need to cleanse myself completely to shield him/her from everything I know I am at my core. But I can’t say this to sweet Henry who believes in me, loves me, adores me, even when I don’t understand why. He’d take it as a personal failure. I press my head into the crook of his shoulder and whisper into his neck, “You’ll remember for both of us,” and I know he won’t and for this I am truly, utterly grateful.
A week later, after depositing Henry at the airport, I drive to the clinic, disrobe, and return to Dr. Park’s examination table. Soon, they’re all around me, angels in powder blue, injecting syringe after syringe into the flesh of my neck. I become extremely calm and can almost feel myself floating above my body. I watch as Dr. Park taps the cylinder that will go inside me to the beat of Kenny G. She winks at a nurse who stretches my mouth open as far as it will go. Then they insert the metal clamp, and I am so drugged and so happy that I literally think, golly golly, which is a catchphrase my best friend in high school, Norma Fernandez, came up with to express ironic astonishment at our teachers, peers, and family. Norma switched from part-time to full-time at Target after we graduated, and although we stayed in touch for a few years after, we gave up by our mid-twenties. I know from Facebook that she now has three sons, and I wonder if she’s ever left the state. Golly golly, I think, as Dr. Park slides the first cylinder down my throat and into my stomach, then the second, third, fourth, fifth. Golly golly. Golly golly. Golly golly!
The Great British Bake Off is my favorite TV show. Henry has rigged our television with dozens of machines I don’t want to understand, our coffee table a fortress of remote controls. But I know what to do to stream The Great British Bake Off, and that’s exactly what I’m doing the morning after my procedure. The Great British Bake Off is a cooking competition where ordinary British citizens compete to win the favor and admiration of two pastry chefs—one, a legendary home cook who resembles an idealized version of a white grandmother, the other, Britain’s version of a hip middle-aged man who is completely insufferable. I’ve never liked American reality TV because there’s so much hyperbole, so much yelling and arguing that it reminds me of my childhood, that cramped home, the screaming matches, the constant fighting over money. But The Great British Bake Off is the gentlest TV show I’ve ever seen. Everyone, even the losers, are praised, and the delicious treats they bake so quickly, so expertly, in their giant outdoor-cooking circus tent look so beautiful that you can’t help but feel pleasure when the grandmother slices into them with her fork. Even the contestants are whimsical, carefree, and make me borderline enraged. Finalist Ruby reminds me of my upper class students, not a care in the world, in love with life, total confidence that they will be successful at whatever impractical enterprise they set their minds to. I watch her and feel envy, pride, rage. I want to slip through the television and tell her how I grew up. I want to ask her how it’s fair that I had to crawl my way to publication and the professoriate in the most undignified fashion possible while she seemed to be born whole on television; pristine and perfect and ready for a new blessing with each new second. I watch fourteen episodes in a row, and then Henry calls from Victoria.
“How are you feeling?” he asks.
I have avoided looking in the mirror, but this is what I know. My feet are covered with warts. Crusty. If I dig in with my fingers or a Q-Tip, I can extract hardened puss, dead skin, I don’t know? But I can’t get beyond the ringed craters left behind. I can barely sit down because my anus is filled with hemorrhoids—the blood in the toilet confirms this—and I briefly considered having a hemorrhoid pillow delivered to our home via Amazon drone. My teeth are in so much pain I fantasize about ripping them out of my skull with pliers. Instead, I’ve read online that if you hold mouthwash in your mouth for three minutes, the alcohol will numb your teeth. So I do that every hour. The joint in my right knee is throbbing. My face is covered with acne. There’s an itchy rash running up and down my back and along both inner thighs. Gas pain stabs my lower abdomen, and acid reflux returns every bite I eat to the base of my throat. This, Dr. Park assured me, is normal. This is the process of my origins rising out of me.
“I’ve never felt better,” I tell Henry over the phone. “I feel really quite beautiful.”
The second procedure is easier than the first. The hardest part is transporting my bloated, disgusting body from our home in Eden Prairie back to the clinic in St. Paul. I’m worried about the car’s upholstery, about the seats, if I will have time to clean it before Henry returns from Canada, face red with the excitement of having learned how to do something new and mysterious with machines. It’s extremely difficult to drive, and I almost call a Lyft, but I can’t bear the thought of someone else seeing me in my condition, so I drive very slowly on the side streets, along Minnehaha Parkway and the ice covered lakes and frosted parks. At the clinic, Dr. Park attaches a mask over my mouth and nose and says, “I went through this too, you know. I wish I could experience it for the first time all over again. You’re lucky,” she says. “You’re so very lucky.”
I wake up an hour later on the examination table, the same sad Kenny G overhead. In the shelving unit I see eight separate jars filled with green liquid, formaldehyde I assume. Little pieces of me swim inside—pimples, warts, broken teeth, fleshy mushrooms that must be working class tumors. There it is, I think. That’s what lived inside of you for so long. But then I remember my dead brother, the deli, Norma Fernandez, and I begin to panic.
Dr. Park hurries over, Starbucks in hand. She sees my dread and waves it away. “It’s okay if you still remember,” she announces, “It’s not instantaneous. Give it two hours max, and you’ll be fine. You’ll be everything you ever wanted.”
I sit up. I feel sore, but nothing more serious than a particularly long day at the gym—something I’ve avoided the last few years. Dr. Park holds up a mirror to show me that I look how I remember, that all evidence of the procedure is already gone, minus my puffy face, the bags under my eyes, nothing a long night’s rest won’t cure. She’s about to extend the curtain so I can dress and leave, but then I feel a tightening in my chest, something new and unexpected, the way Henry describes his occasional panic attacks. I dig my nails into my knees and watch Dr. Park move toward my jars.
“What are you going to do with them?” I ask.
She seems confused and points at the jars. “These?”
“We dispose of them in an eco-friendly way if that’s what you’re worried about. We have an incinerator in the basement.”
The question is out of my mouth before I can stop and consider the ramifications, if this is even what I want. “Can I have them?”
Again, Dr. Park is mystified. “The jars? It’s just medical waste.”
“I know, but can I have them?”
“I’m not sure—”
“I’m taking them. I’ll pay you. Just let me have them.”
Dr. Park blinks. She blinks again. “Okay. You can have them. I’ll have someone bring them out to your car. But don’t blame us if something goes wrong, Dr. Rinaldi.”
I regret my decision before I’m even on 94. I look into the rearview mirror, and there they are, jars of my filth, my imperfections, buckled in like eight hideous babies. I speed and speed and try not to think. Henry is returning from Victoria tomorrow. What am I going to do with these jars? Why would I even want these jars of waste?
In Eden Prairie, I park in our garage, but I don’t remove the jars from the vehicle. Instead, I go inside. I pace the living room. I look upon our shelves and shelves of books. I remove my first book and flip to the photo of me in the back. There I am, I say. I wrote a book. This is evidence. This is my face. Younger, but me. I open my second book and confirm my face there as well. Then I pace, pace more. I go into the basement where Henry has assembled a small wooden wine rack. He’s a fan of the Valenti Norma Etna Rosso, a charming red comprised of grapes grown in black volcanic soil, notes of balsamic and baking spice and blue flower. But I opt for the Clarendon Hills Liandra Syrah—black crimson, peat, bitter chocolate—the go-to glass of perfection I’ve adored all my life since my mother gifted me a bottle at college graduation. It tastes like home, memory, the confidence of everything I was groomed for, and I’m mildly ashamed to drink it from the bottle, but I need to think, need to understand everything I’ve done. I return upstairs and manage to start Henry’s Bluetooth speaker contraption. I cast Tobias Humes’ Poeticall Musicke, a beautiful 1607 cello piece my brother introduced me to last year over dinner and drinks with his young family in the vineyard. I am sweaty. I am confused. I listen to the cello and appreciate its deep notes, the artistry of Humes’ longing. I understand it and always have. I return to the garage and know exactly what I will do even though it’s ten degrees below freezing, even though I am a professor of Italian language and literature and physical labor has been and always will be beneath me. I open the back door, and I put my outer winter layers on one piece at a time—the scarf, the gloves, the parka, the hat. Then I pick up Henry’s shovel and step into the darkness. Everything is quiet, still, just the swirling of flurries, the low-swept vistas of apocalypse. I penetrate the ground with the shovel and push it deeper with my boot. Then I dig and I dig and I dig. I dig deeper than I ever thought possible. I dig a new world there in our once familiar yard, and when it’s ready, when everything is finally ready for me, I return to the car and carry my jars of imperfections one after another to their final resting place. “Goodbye!” I shout. “Goodbye!” I have an instinct to say golly golly, but I don’t know why, so I don’t say it, and instead I chuck the final jar in and bury them one shovelful of snow and dirt at a time until no one anywhere has to know about what I was and what I am and everything I still might become. I stand there shivering and drinking and allow myself to imagine Henry’s hypothetical child and how I will hold that baby in my hands and say I will protect you from all of this and you will never know about any of this over my dead fucking body you will never know about the dirt and the blood and the shit I emerged from you will never know you will never know you will never fucking know any of that dead gone world you sweet sweet child of mine.
Salvatore Pane is the author of two novels, Last Call in the City of Bridges and The Theory of Almost Everything, as well as a book of nonfiction, Mega Man 3. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Indiana Review, Story Magazine, and many other venues. He is an associate professor of English at the University of St. Thomas.
Wayne Wolfson is a California-based artist. For his collages, no digital magic is worked. The old-school method of scissors and adhesive applied by brush to photos which he personally took. Artist photo: “Black Eye (self portrait)” watercolor & paper 5×8.