The Shallow End
My mother keeps moving, vexed, from one side of the gate to the other, looking for some kind of cleverly-concealed electronic panel with which to page the school. After four fruitless cycles of this, she moves back over to me and places a hand on her hip, looking defeated.
“Well, I’m out of ideas,” she sighs.
It’s certainly an impregnable-looking gate, and it’s kind of puzzling to me that it would be closed like this at the start of the school day. This is the only entrance I can see, though. I take a step forward and push lightly on the left door. It opens, without any resistance at all.
Mother blinks at me. “Oh, I thought we tried that already.”
We kind of stand there awkwardly for a moment, before I decide to end the tension and head in. Mother follows along silently. I won’t tell anybody about this if she won’t.
Inside the gate, there’s a paved path surrounded by some impressive and fairly expensive-looking landscaping. It’s more like what you’d see at a golf course than a school. With what I’m given to understand about Yamaku’s funding, it’s almost certainly professionally maintained.
I’ve always loved natural beauty, but this isn’t really my style. I prefer nature preserves and arboretums to any kind of heavily-engineered landscape architecture. This sort of stodgy aesthetic tends to go over well in retirement centers and nursing homes, the kind of place where caged finches are put on display in day rooms for the lukewarm amusement of geriatric spinsters in squeaking wheelchairs.
Well, Yamaku ought to have the “wheelchair” part down, at any rate.
That’s a nasty thought, though, and counterintuitive. I wanted
to be here. For all intents and purposes, this is where I belong, at least for the time being. It’s unrealistic to be unhappy just because this place can’t make me forget I have a problem.
My mother makes a comment about the buildings looking nice. I nod in agreement. They’re certainly different from what I’m used to. It gives me hope that there are other pleasant surprises to be found here.
We got here early, so there are a handful of students walking to their morning classes, but not many. I don’t get a good look at any of them, but from far off they look okay — no girls without faces or conjoined twins or anything like that. It’s kind of reassuring. I’d probably feel like I was trespassing otherwise.
Before long, the path forks and I realize my mother and I are going to have to part ways. I need to head down to the main building, while Mother’s going to bring my belongings to the dorms before heading home. This is… probably the last time I’m going to see her for a while.
Well, it’s not as dramatic as all that, actually. She said she would visit on the weekends if I wanted, and I’m sure I will, eventually. I certainly enjoyed our outing yesterday. Anyway, Mother doesn’t maintain a busy schedule by any means.
Even though I’ve already resolved not to think of this as a momentous occasion, it doesn’t stop my mother from pulling me into a loving embrace, cradling me in her arms and whispering reassurances into my ear, like I’m still a kindergartener. It’s a little embarrassing, and there are undoubtedly bemused students watching, but I don’t have the stamina to resist it. And, frankly, I have to admit it’s sort of nice, after all this time. I can’t help but think about how finite these moments are, especially now.
“Mother… I’ll be fine,” I finally say. “I’ll be sure to call you this evening.”
She pulls away, and the air that fills the space between us feels cold against my skin. She doesn’t look at all troubled, but there’s a sort of amateurish quality to her mannerisms, as though this is the first day of a new job.
“Is there anything you need me to get you before I head back home?”
I shake my head in the negative. “If I think of something, I’ll call you, I promise.”
She sighs, and gingerly runs a hand through my hair. “I guess we’ll see each other later, then.”
Not wanting to drag this moment out, I nod and smile, resolutely turning toward the main building before she can present me an opportunity to gaze morosely at her.
As I stand in front of the distinguished-looking building, I feel as though I’m overlooking something significant, but this isn’t the time or the place for navel-gazing. It’s a pastime I’d be best-suited to giving up entirely, were such a thing possible.
The handle of the front door feels light against my fingers. A surge of anxiety flares up inside me, and I try to focus on my reflection in the glass window. The newly-golden streaks in my brand-new haircut. The immaculately-applied premium cosmetics. The sparkling moonstone earrings. My white gold claddagh ring and silver charm bracelet. All the blessings my mother rained upon me yesterday.
Who is that girl?
I think, trying to force sincerity upon myself. Wow, she’s totally cool
My reflection quirks an eyebrow, as though wordlessly asking if I’m an idiot. Oh, to hell with this. I open the door.
A tall, sloppy-looking middle-aged guy is looking straight at me as I head inside. I suddenly realize from his side of the door, he could have been watching me making faces at my reflection in the window. Just like clockwork, I can feel my face going crimson.
“You must be… um…Daijou… Daito…”
“Daidouji,” I interject, trying my best to meet his eyes. They’re weary ones.
He nods, and shows no reaction to his obvious failure to remember more than one character in my name. I get the impression that these sorts of encounters are something he’s good at through repetition, not any kind of social savvy.
“…Daidouji. It’s nice to meet you. I’ll be your homeroom and science teacher. My name is Mutou. Welcome.”
We shake hands, though mine is practically tissue paper.
“The head nurse wanted to see you for a brief check-in. You’re here early, so we can get it done now, if you like.”
This seems like one of those illusory options. “Ah, y-yes,” I stammer. “Since we have the time, and all…”
Mutou nods again, a little too vigorously. “Well, then, if you’ll just follow me… It’s actually back outside. It’s the next building over.”
He holds the door open for me to head out, and the morning sun shines down on me once again, a little bit earlier than expected.
It’s a surprisingly brief walk down a paved path from the main building. I actually hadn’t realized this was a completely separate structure, at first glance. There’s not much distinguishing it from the rest of the Yamaku architecture.
“This is the administrative building,” Mutou explains tiredly. “There’s nothing ‘fun’ about it, but try to keep it in mind, since the nursing staff has their offices here.”
He’s not a good tour guide, but I suppose he doesn’t need to be. Truthfully, I shouldn’t get attached to him, because he’s going to despise me as soon as he discovers how bad at science I am.
As we walk inside, he leads me to a door and loudly raps on it before I get a chance to examine the placard. A muffled voice chimes back from inside, so Mutou pushes the door open and walks inside. I’m not sure what to do, so I stand in the hallway until I’m called in.
“I’ve got that new student here to see you,” Mutou says, brusquely, to a man out of my field of vision.
“Oh, cool. Great timing; I’ve actually got her file in front of me right this minute. Send her in,” a much younger man’s voice says from behind him.
“Send her in…?” Mutou turns around, bewildered, to discover me still standing in the hallway.
“Oh,” he says, walking back in my direction. He gestures to the door with his thumb and forefinger. “Go ahead, this is the Head Nurse. I’ll wait outside until you’re finished.”
He slumps against the wall of the hallway, looking bored, and I nod dumbly and enter the room. It smells faintly of latex and antibacterial soap.
The man in the office chair is surprisingly young-looking, and handsome in a coltish way. He’s got these vivid blue eyes with a lively and sardonic bent to them. It’s a little jarring. I feel cold air on my lower lip and wonder how long they’ve been parted.
“Um, good morning,” I offer weakly.
The Head Nurse grins, and it’s so mirthful that a part of me wonders if I’m at the right school, after all.
“Hi there! Nice to meet you. I’m the Head Nurse, like he said. Feel free to call me ‘Nurse,’ though, everyone does.”
He’s holding his hand out, and I move to shake it, managing to give a firmer handshake this time around.
He leans back into his chair and gestures to an open binder on his desk. “So,” he says nonchalantly, “Iwanako Daidouji. Chronic arrhythmia and a related congenital heart deficiency. Ah, and it looks like you needed a neurothekeoma removed, too.”
He gestures for me to sit down in one of the other chairs. I’m more than happy to do so; hearing about that neurothekeoma is starting to make me feel sick all over again.
I realize he’s been silent for a few seconds. Is he waiting for me to affirm what he said? It’s all in the file, right?
“That’s… that’s correct,” I say, my voice barely greater than a squeak.
He nods. “Right, well, I’m sure you’ll hear all about the school grounds soon enough, so I just want to get you up to speed on a few things.”
He explains to me the medical facilities they have available, and reiterates the 24-hour staff on hand that I think my parents said something about.
Another silence. Those blue eyes are like searchlights, chasing down my own. “Well, that’s very reassuring,” I finally say.
He doesn’t respond right away, and his eyes narrow. I’m not quite sure how to take it. I wasn’t being sarcastic, or anything.
Finally it breaks, and he turns back to the file. “Well, then, it looks like you’ve already got your medications, that’s good. Don’t forget to take those. Other than that, do you partake in any kind of, ah, athletic activity? Maybe… naginata-jutsu?
It’s a joke. I know how to force myself to laugh at a boy’s jokes, so I giggle politely, though I think thus far I’ve been a little too laconic for the gesture to convey any real sense of sincerity.
As for athletic activity… No. I’ve always been terrible at sports. I never liked them, either.
“Definitely not,” I answer.
He nods, as if that was what he was expecting. “Well, at any rate, any kind of concussion to your chest area could be very dangerous to your heart, so I’m going to have to recommend you stay away from any activities like that. For now, anyway.”
He scratches his head, looking pensive. “The previous heart attack wasn’t caused by a concussion to the chest area, was it…? Your file doesn’t say.”
The question feels uncomfortably invasive. I find myself breaking his gaze to stare down at my lap, considering how to handle the question. It’s a crime, how obvious I’m being.
Another pause, but he leaves me be and looks back in his file. “Well, still, you need to keep your body healthy, so a little exercise will help with that. You got that nasty myxoma excised, so if you had dyspnea problems before, they should be a lot better now.”
I don’t want to hear about that
anymore. It’s horrific.
“Just take it easy for a while,” he continues, “brisk walks, light jogging, that sort of thing. Or you could swim, even. Did Mutou mention the pool here?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know how to swim, though.” And, anyway, there’s that whole swimsuit issue to deal with.
He chuckles. “Don’t worry about it. Just walk around in the shallow end. I wouldn’t want you diving or swimming laps right now, anyway. You shouldn’t overexert yourself.”
I give him a wan smile. “I know.”
His expression gets more serious. “Absolutely no risks. Take care of yourself. And, ah, there’s one more thing.”
He looks a little uncomfortable.
“You know you can’t take oral birth control, right?”
Did he just
I stop dead in my tracks, and look up at him, aghast. “Wh, what?”
He holds his hands up in the air, as if to defend himself from a beating. “No, I didn’t mean… I’m just letting you know, with the medications you’re taking, that sort of thing really isn’t an option for you. Even if there weren’t any adverse effects from taking them with your medications, they’d still by their very nature exacerbate your condition, so… just keep in mind that you need to use a different form of—”
I nod vigorously. “I understand.” The easiest way to end this conversation is to acquiesce to everything.
The Nurse sighs, obviously glad he’s gotten through that part. “Good, that’s it then. Come to me if you need anything.”
“Y… yes. I’ll be sure to,” I stammer, standing up from my seat considerably faster than feels natural. Bowing forward politely, I wish him a nice day and exit from his office as quickly as I can without breaking into a run.
I’m starting to feel nauseated. I know he was looking out for my best interests, and that is, after all, why I’m going to school here — but I wish, more than anything, that birth control was a subject he’d elected not to touch upon. That was a lost cause, though; there was never any chance he wouldn’t
mention it. It is, after all, a very significant complication of my condition. One I’ve been aware of for a long time now.
Making love will kill me.
Oral birth control will kill me. The exertion from lovemaking might kill me, hypothetically. If I were to become pregnant, though… I’d absolutely die.
I learned that two months ago. My cardiologist explained to me that it’s not medically recommended for women with my condition to have children. Even if I somehow made it all the way through pregnancy, I’d have virtually zero chance of surviving the final stages. My heart is just too weak to carry me through it.
Even on the most fundamental level of being a woman, I’m broken. Nonfunctional. Inadequate. The Nurse unintentionally reminded me of that. Forced these thoughts back to the forefront of my consciousness, so that I don’t forget how much of a piece of glass I am.
And now, in this state of mind, I’m expected to introduce myself to the people I’m going to spend the entire year with.
…I already want my mother.
“Are you finished?”
I turn my head and realize Mutou’s still waiting for me out in the hall. Immersed as I was in my own thoughts, I’d forgotten he was there, or even where I was.
I’m in too sour a mood to do anything else than nod. I feel like garbage. Starting the day out by seeing the head nurse was a horrible idea. If my condition is allowed to be the center of attention for even a moment, its gravity swells up and sucks everything into it. I just want to sit down and stare at a wall for a few hours.
“Well,” the teacher says, realizing I don’t have anything else to add, “We should head back to the classroom. Everybody should be waiting.”
I spend the next couple of moments focusing on my own breathing as he opens the exterior door and we exit the building.
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