Estrangement

      by David Klein

“It can’t be serious,” Camilla explained. “Because I do a fast 5K and hardly break a sweat. And I know you’re thinking panic attack, but I don’t ever panic. To be honest, now that I’m here, I think I overreacted.”
      She was sitting, almost touching knees, with the renowned neurologist R.D. Clinton. His face seemed sculpted by some long-erupting anger: features uneven, hair wild, skin chalky—an indoors man who doubtless felt his colleagues had overplayed the importance of exercise and diet in achieving longevity, and overplayed the value of longevity as well. He stared at Camilla in a way that felt too keenly penetrating.
      His office was a small windowless room, covered with soundproofing and separated by glass from an enormous scanning machine on the left and another on the right. Behind him his screen saver displayed a cascading waterfall on a brilliant summer’s day.
      Each scanner was penetrated by a table on which a subject would lie immobilized while being drawn under a sort of eye. There, beneath its probing measuring molecules, all ambiguities would be reduced to a single irreducible answer.
      “So, Professor Sorenson,” the doctor answered, with his querulous British accent. “If it’s neither physical nor psychological, you must want me to scan for something existential.”
      She waved him off. “I gave up philosophy for law many years ago—but you meant that sarcastically.”
      “Look, you’re a lawyer, I’m a scientist—not all that different. Trained to follow evidence, and only evidence. We’re bullshit filters. If you have symptoms, you have a problem. If you have a problem, we can name it. What we do down here, it’s vanguard stuff. We can look inside your head in an astonishing variety of ways: CAT scan, fMRI, the PET, the QEEG. Right to what I call the hardware of the soul.”
      He led Camilla into the room on the left.
      “Why this one?” she asked, hesitating at the door.
      “The question is whether your problem is anatomical or functional. I’m guessing functional, and the best test for that is the SPECT scan. It’s completely painless.” He prepared a hypodermic needle. “The scan, nothing. The needle, just a pinch. For the tracer. Radioactive dye. Harmless: your body will excrete it and you’ll be none the worse for wear. Look, you really have to relax and lie down. We can’t do this standing.”
      “Anatomical or functional—what if it’s something else altogether?”
      “Like what,” he said testily. “Theological? There is nothing but what we can scan, but that’s far more than enough. Now why don’t we get this going?”
      Flat on her back in the cold eye, Camilla felt it starting again: that sense of estrangement, of severing from her self, a premonition of nuclear winter. Butterflies with pincers, pulse unhinged. Darkness spread, a suffocating vastness. The machine closed in around her; she was seized by the absolute knowledge that she would live here forever.
      The scanner clanked and the table shifted, and she admitted to herself that the estrangement had been happening with increasing frequency. The first time had come weeks earlier while James was taking his usual evening shower. They were having an ordinary conversation, nothing provocative: the progress of Camilla’s article for the Stanford Law Review; James’s hiring of a new president of underwriting; the ups and downs of Emily’s first semester at boarding school. There was a sudden rush of the sensation that something had collapsed in on her all at once. She thought she’d cried out, but James kept talking over the crashing water. Everything turned alien: shower door, sink, tiling. The man in the shower. She didn’t dare look at the mirror. James stepped out, reaching for a towel, but the water kept crashing in her head, as if arrested by an intelligence, as if this indeterminacy would last forever.
      The machine exhaled tonelessly and the table shifted again, withdrawing her from the shuttering orbit.
      It’s just a problem, she assured herself, breathing deeply to steady her pulse. Another problem to be solved.
      Minutes later she was sitting with the doctor at his computer. “There’s your brain, Professor,” he said, his voice piping with proprietary reverence. A sponge-like figure filled the screen, neon blue with lakelets of pink, thrumming with light. “A sort of cosmos in itself.”
      Camilla, peering inside her head, could rouse no sense of ownership—what she saw resembled a satellite photo of an unnamed planet, puckered, cratered, and spongiform, with convoluted figures like rock formations pressing against the irregular membrane.
      “Do you see a lesion or weakness of some kind?” she asked.
      “Well, it’s a fairly ordinary—okay, right there. Do you see? Along the central sulcus. A bit of an anomaly.”
      Both terrified and relieved to finally have an answer, Camilla studied the image.
      “Significant?” she asked.
      “I’d say not, probably,” the doctor answered. “Possibly.”
      “I thought you knew,” Camilla snapped. “I thought the scan would give you an answer.”
      “Well, it’s an ambiguous finding. Happens all the time.”
      The sac of color seemed to change, to divide, one side forming an insipient character, the other remaining amorphous and devitalized.
      Camilla attacked the doctor for his ignorance. “It isn’t ambiguity you promise, it’s certainty. You promise knowledge. And if this shadow, this indeterminacy, even if you could name it and tell me, yes, it’s structural, what then?”
      “Well, we could medicate. To relieve your symptoms.”
      “But not the flaw itself.”
      “No, but the symptoms.”
      “And I’d still have the problem. And even then you couldn’t tell me, could you, how I got that way? You could say, you have X or Y diagnosis, but not whether the symptoms came first or the anatomy. Whether the scan is showing you the consequence or the cause.”
      The doctor pushed against his chair, colliding with the console behind him. “I’m a mapmaker. That’s all. I point the way to problems so others can go about fixing them. You want more, consult an evolutionist.”
      “But even evolution really only describes, isn’t that true? A land creature, running out of food, becomes a flying creature. But the why of it,” she objected . . . but was distracted by her brain, resonating with color so that it appeared to be breathing, hinting at something she didn’t want to know.
      “You have nothing to worry about,” the doctor answered. “Yours is like every other brain. A nick in the central sulcus, a ding in the parietal. We all have them. They’re meaningless. You are pretty much like all the rest of us.”
      On the screen, the figure oscillated between substance and shadow, formlessness and form. “Why have I wasted my time with you?” Camilla pleaded, rising to rush out. “Why have I wasted my time?”




David Klein has published short fiction and personal essays in Columbia: a Journal of Literature and Art, New York Stories, Film Comment, Art:Mag, and American Jewish Times Outlook. His plays have been presented by Generous Company, the Bucks County Repertory Company, Quaigh Theatre, Changing Scene Theatre, and Ferndale Repertory Theatre.




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