It made perfect sense to me that Dr. Horton’s office was just across the street from the hospital and only a few blocks down from the display window of the run-down medical supply store, where someone had set up aluminum crutches, two different models of wheel chairs, and a cast booty the color of pure blue sky. I would take a close look at the display window every time we drove by, and while I took some strange pleasure in the objects, they mostly made me sad.
Dr. Horton’s office was farthest from the street, the last door in a long row of doctor’s offices in a two-story brick building with shiny brass knockers on the doors and white dormers around the upper windows. Old trees bent over the edge of the parking lot and bowed toward the door, casting shadows at my feet and dropping leathery pods on the pavement in the fall that looked like giant string beans. Lined up on the other side of the fence were rows and rows of Army trucks, the kind with green canvas stretched tightly over steel ribs to make a roof. They seemed old, the paint on the cabs washed-out and chalky, and I imagined they’d been to war before and carried men over dusty roads to battle.
My mother parked as close as possible to the office door so that I wouldn’t have far to walk. When she opened the door, an invisible bell rang once somewhere beyond the waiting room walls. The room was dark and the air smelled like our basement, cool and earthy. On a mid-summer day, stepping out of the heat and the sun flaring off the windshields and the chrome, I felt as if we were entering a cave: ceiling low, windows small and high, dark wood-paneled walls glowing like honey in the lamplight.
In the waiting room, I’d play with the wooden fire truck, look at Ranger Rick magazines, or study the framed picture of Dr. Horton standing knee-deep in a wide, blue river, dark mountains on the horizon. In his outstretched hands he held a shining fish that looked as thick as my leg, its body green and yellow and pink, its tail just the tiniest bit curled. The nurse would lead us to the examination room, and Dr. Horton came in soon after, carrying an open manila folder and looking at some papers through glasses shaped like half moons fallen over. He was tall, with a thin face and a long beard that was gray in places. When he looked up he smiled and seemed glad to see me.
“So your ears are hurting you again, huh?” he would ask, putting one hand on my knee as he spoke. I’d nod. “Let’s take a look.” His voice was kind, low, and gravely like water running over stones. He’d reach for the scope, the one with the tip that looked like a Hershey’s Kiss, and gently turn my head with his hand, his palm cool and dry against my forehead. Then, as he asked me about school or Christmas presents or my brothers, Dr. Horton would gently ease the black tip straight into my infected ear. The clean white paper underneath me crinkled as I shifted my weight, and the scope sounded like a small animal nestling in close. When he was partway in, he’d ever so carefully turn the scope, as if he were rounding a corner in my ear to get a look inside.
Even as a young child, time gave me trouble.
Mrs. Latendra was a tall, crane-like woman with a large hooked nose and brittle red hair that spun from her head like old cotton candy, but I liked her anyway. I have a vivid memory of her standing at the front of the room with a yellow cardboard clock face in her hands, pointing the black arms at the times that would be easiest for us—three o’clock, four-thirty, quarter past one—and then calling on all of us to tell.
“What time is it,” she asks, “when the big hand is on the six and the little hand is on the twelve?”
“Twelve-thirty!” we shout.
We watch her grab the longer arm and move it up the clock face until it’s pointing straight up toward the banks of fluorescent lights humming in the ceiling, a half an hour traveled in a single second.
“What time is it when the big hand is on the twelve and the little hand is on the one?”
“One o’clock!” we all cry out.
I shout along with the others, but there’s a question that’s been forming in my mind that I want, no, need to ask. Mrs. Latendra, I know, is going easy on us. She’s only asking us the very simplest times. But what about all the other times, the ones that are harder to tell? Why isn’t she asking us those?
“What time is it now?”
“Four-thirty!” everyone calls out, except for me. I raise my hand instead. Mrs. Latendra cocks her eyebrows in my direction and calls on me.
“Those are the big times,” I say. “But what about all the other times, the ones in between those times?”
I think I am being perfectly clear. Not only that, I think that I’m catching Mrs. Latendra in some kind of trick, the way she’s going easy on us and making us think we know how to tell time. I guess, in a way, I’m showing off, telling the teacher that I know more than she expects me to.
“Well, of course, there’s twenty past two and ten ‘til three and times like that. We’re just practicing with these times first.” I’m trying hard to read her tone, but the only thing I can tell is there’s none of the pleasure I was expecting. Since she thinks she’s explained things enough, she looks down at the clock face to see what time will be next.
“But what about the times in between those times?” I ask her, pressing on. She glances back in my direction, a puzzled look on her face. Now I’m not so concerned with impressing her as I am with getting the information I need—I really want to know how to tell time, and for that I need to know the names for all the times we haven’t been learning. All the in-between times.
“Well, there’s twenty-seven past two, and six minutes before three, times like that. But we’re just focusing on these for now.” There’s a hint of impatience in her voice now, which makes me suddenly nervous, less sure of myself, but I’m committed to hearing an answer that satisfies me.
“No, I mean the times in between those times,” I plead.
“Well, there are seconds, but we can’t be bothered with those right now.” Her tone is final. The discussion is over.
But I am not satisfied. At the end of school I will approach her wide gray desk stacked with papers and lesson plans and a neat row of books sandwiched between two gun-metal gray book-ends, and I will ask her once again to tell me the times in between the times we’ve been learning. “I can’t really learn time,” I will tell her, “unless I know all the times.” Since she doesn’t have a lesson to get through, she will be more patient with me, straining hard to understand, so hard her pale, lightly freckled brow will furrow and I will feel as if I am trying to describe the most obvious thing in the world to her and somehow failing. Then she will explain seconds again, how the seconds make up minutes, the minutes hours, and when I tell her I need to know the times in between the seconds, she will say that we don’t really need to tell those times. I will insist, again and again, that I won’t be able to really learn how to tell time unless I learn them all, and something about my stubbornness will make Mrs. Latendra call my mom that evening and ask her to come meet with us at the end of school the next day.
After school my mom will come to Mrs. Latendra’s room, and all three of us will sit around the same desk, and my mom will vouch for what Mrs. Latendra is telling me, will try to interpret for Mrs. Latendra my seemingly unanswerable question. I will tell my mom over and over again, “I need to know all the times.” They will both get frustrated trying to explain, and I will feel the mysterious question in me, this deep need to know, slowly lose out to their uneasiness and my sorrow.
“Yes,” I will finally say. “I think I understand.” But I don’t. Instead, I will be left feeling as if telling time is something no one, not even the teacher, really knows how to do.
Earaches are a mundane affliction, among the most common childhood illnesses, a result of the fact that children’s ear canals often run parallel to the ground while adults’ are pitched on a downward slope; without the help of gravity, fluid collects and breeds bacteria in millions upon millions of middle young ears worldwide.
Now, at over twenty years removed, I can only remember my ears hurting at night, when everyone else in the house was asleep and I lay awake alone in my bed. In memory, it’s as if the pain materialized out of thin air in the darkest, quietest hours and then vanished with the light that streaked through the Venetian blinds at dawn, tiny whiskers of dust tumbling through. Of course, I know this isn’t true. My ears must have still hurt when the sun came up, must have hurt when my mom was driving me to the doctor’s, hurt even when Dr. Horton was easing the scope in for a look. But I don’t remember—it’s as if the day pain has been selectively erased, blotted out by the so-called healing tincture of time.
Here’s what I do remember: the unsettling quiet of my house at three o’clock in the morning; the moon coming in through the window and spilling an eerie half-light on the bedroom floor; the baseboard heater ticking very fast, and then slower and slower until it stopped, like a timer running down to zero; my brother in the bunk above me sighing in his sleep as if his heart were breaking.
And of course, I remember the pain. My ears would get infected, clogging with a yellowish-orange wax that made them buzz with a pain that could be a little different each time. Sometimes the hurt bled down from my ears into the hinge of my jaw bone and all the way down to my throat, making me feel as if I might throw up. Other times the heavy, dull pain throbbed inside my ear with a worse again, better again, rhythm that matched the beating of my own heart. The worst was when the pain felt like a hot needle being pushed slowly down into the moist, delicate workings of my inner ear. Then I’d lie on my side and face the wall and cry, the tears popping one by one as they hit the bottom sheet.
When I was younger, I would get up and knock on my parents’ bedroom door, and my mom would step out in her nightgown, unsteady on her feet and squinting in the hallway light. She’d give me children’s aspirin, set up the heating pad on my pillow, and then tuck me back into bed. But the heating pad never really seemed to work, and most nights the aspirin were as good as blanks shot in the air. I’d cry some and my mother would sit up with me and rub my back and tell me she was sorry but that there was nothing she could do until tomorrow, when we could see Dr. Horton and get medicine. It hurt to see her proven so powerless to help me, and that hurt, on top of my pain, only made the ordeal worse. Gradually, I stopped waking her up and began taking care of myself, taking two chewable aspirin and pulling the heating pad down from the hallway closet myself.
Sometimes, as I lay awake, I would think of the color poster in Dr. Horton’s office, the cut-away illustration of the inside of the ear: the pink tube leading past my ear-drum and down through a tiny jumble of bones (didn’t one look like a turkey’s wish bone?), finally ending in a pink snail-shell whirl right next to my brain. I knew there was no way to escape the pain; it was somewhere deep inside, pressed tight against my thoughts and crowding them out so that the pain—the throbbing, the heat, the sharp needle twisting all the way down into the pink tube—was all there was. On the worst nights, when my earache was so intense that I would clench my teeth to stop myself from banging my head against the wall beside my bed, I would pray not for the pain to end (I knew it wouldn’t) but for the night to pass quickly and a new day to begin. Lying there alone, the whole house dark, my family as far away in sleep as if they were in some foreign country, time slowed just shy of stopping. I knew my ear was hurting, and I knew it was going to keep hurting, on and on and on through the night.
My ear is hurting, I said to myself, and it’s going to keep hurting the whole night. But when I thought that way, the pain got worse, as if multiplied by the long lonely night, until it was almost unbearable. Over time I realized that the more I focused on the pain and darkness before me, the worse off I’d be. After all, how could you bear a very bad pain plus the idea of hours and hours of more of the same? Gradually, I forced myself to stop thinking of the long night ahead of me, refused to look at it. Then I tried not to think of the near future, the hurt that waited for me in the next minute, even the next few seconds.
Eventually, I realized that I could, if I concentrated especially hard, make the pain last for just the shortest time. My ear is hurting right now, but it’s only hurting for this one moment, I said to myself, paying attention to the throb and the heat as if they were just then appearing out of the blue. I focused on the pain I was sure I actually felt, not the pain I had felt or was going to feel, and tried as hard as I could to notice the instant when that pain vanished into the past for good. My ear is hurting just this one moment, I said again, forcing myself to believe, to feel, that my earache was a brand new hurt every instant.
Soon the moments of pain were slipping through my attention to them almost as if they had never existed. Almost. The pain was still there, keeping me up with it. But if I concentrated hard, the moment when my ear actually hurt got shorter and shorter until pain existed only along one single, razor thin line of time, and on either side, where the past and future usually sat, stretched two wide-open spaces instead. Each instant passed, each pain disappeared, so quickly. Who could say what would happen, who could say what had happened? There was just the single moment of pain, there, then there, then there, so fleeting, so slippery, so much easier to bear.
Of course, I couldn’t have articulated any of this. I didn’t need to. Pain made me a precocious student of time, each middle ear infection a new lesson on the uncatchable instant. In pain I saw that the past and future were ideas, abstractions that could be rewritten or erased, and that only the briefest present, the shortest pain, was real. I must have sensed, too, that I was somewhere inside those lightning moments, that what or who I was lived just as briefly, was just as uncatchable and undeniable as the pain itself.
And pain taught me this: the moment was so fleeting, so thin, so close to invisible, that even a teacher might not know how to name it or even realize it was there to be named.