A Lifetime in Twenty-Seven Minutes: Monday, February 20
The letter sat on the kitchen counter for a few days, a visual reminder to call the insurance company and find out if I am covered for this new 3D mammography.
It also sat there for a few days as I calmed the impulse to mark the thing up — “The third sentence here is a comma splice because you’ve hung two independent clauses together with only a comma, which isn’t a strong enough form of punctuation. Yes, I realize you get confused when there’s a conjunctive adverb like ‘however’ in the middle, but you are a major hospital, a professional organization, so try hiring someone who states in his interview, ‘I have a real passion for knowing a complete sentence when I see one, ‘k? AND AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU HERE, YOU NEED TO STOP USING TWO SPACES AFTER A PERIOD BECAUSE THE ERA OF MONOTYPE IS WELL AND OVER. LET ME WELCOME YOU TO 2018, A TIME WHEN PEOPLE BOTHER THEMSELVES TO RETRAIN MUSCULAR MEMORY.”
It also also sat there for a few days because I needed to get elbow-deep in chocolate for a good long while before I could place a phone call to an insurance company.
But finally, it was time. I wanted to get the appointment set, so, my mood stabilized by a square of Trader Joe’s Swiss Dark Chocolate Bar with Whole Hazelnuts, I grabbed the handset for the landline, squinted intensely at the tiny print on the back of my insurance card, and dialed the number for Customer Service.
Four seconds later, rattled, I reactively hurled the handset across the stovetop when the automated woman’s voice shouted into my ear.
Why ya gotta be so fricking loud, Automated Voice? Jeezus.
Scrambling to get the phone back in hand, lest I miss a command, I heard the tail end of Loud Lady’s first request. I needed to verbally identify the role I occupy as a caller: policy holder, family member, medical institution, frazzled wincer, joyful prancer, or unhinged tweeter.
“Policy holder,” I enunciated carefully.
“I heard you say” — Loud Lady caught a mechanical breath — “policy holder. Is this correct?”
“YES.” I wasn’t a good little girl all through elementary school for nothing.
Next, I told Loud Lady my name, gave her my policy number minus any letters, clued her into my birth date HEY DOLL GIMME A SHOUT COME MARCH 25TH, and then, just when I thought I was coasting smoothly towards connection with a human being, LL got assertive and asked me to state my reason for calling: “For example, you can say ‘Benefits.’ Or you can say ‘Coverage.'”
Uh, LL? Could I have a few more options, maybe one that uses the words “mammogram” and “3D”?
Flummoxed, quivery under pressure, I gulped out “Coverage!”
“I heard you say ‘Coverage,'” bitch told me. “Is that correct?”
“YES, BITCH, YES,” I confirmed.
“I heard you call me ‘Bitch,'” LL charged. “Is that correct?”
Oy. If LL wasn’t in my corner, I’d never find out if she’d pay for photos revealing heretofore obscured nooks and crannies of my breastuals. Softening my tone, I responded. “No, that is not correct. You heard me say ‘bewitch’ because that’s what your voice does to me, loud lady whom I am going to call Mavis! I said BE-WITCH.”
Mavis was one unforgiving robotic bitch.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Please state the purpose of your call or say the words ‘Main Menu.'”
Exasperated, busted, ready for a complete reset, I wheezed: “Main Menu.”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you,” Mavis intoned dispassionately.
“MAIN MENU, for fuck’s sake!”
“I’m sorry. I heard you say ‘for fuck’s sake.’ Is that correct?”
“Please state your role as a caller: policy holder, family member, medical institution, dog-housed swearer, revved-up carer, double-dog darer…”
“Policy holder!” I interrupted Mavis’ recitation.
“I heard ‘Other.’ Is that correct?”
“No. Paaawwwwlllissssyy hoooollldddderrr.”
A supressed giggle in her voice, Mavis asked, “I heard ‘Family Member.’ Is that correct?”
“No. Pol. icy. Hol. Der.”
Dickin’ around with me must have been getting boring, for Mavis heard me correctly that time and moved to the next steps in the script. I stated my policy number, all 15 digits of it, leaving out the letters. I told her my birth date HEY HARRIDAN MAYBE DON’T GIMME A SHOUT COME MARCH 25TH, and then, dammit, she asked me to state my reason for calling. “For example, you can say ‘Benefits.’ Or you can say ‘Coverage.'”
Those were just two examples, right? She had to be programmed to accept responses other than those two. Maybe I’d failed last time because I got scared. Maybe this whole thing was as easy as me actually stating the reason for my call.
Digging deep into to my solar plexus for courage, I articulated carefully and prayed to the ceiling: “Does my policy cover 3D mammograms?”
For a second — a long second — a second packed with potential and hope — there was silence. And then. Her voice, thick-sounding for some reason — WAS SHE CHEWING AN OVERSIZE CHOCOLATE-COVERED STRAWBERRY?? — responded.
“I’m sorry. That is not a valid request. Good-bye.”
What?? Good-bye? Stunned, I stood motionless, staring at the blur of my insurance card. Just like that? She was gone? What happened to the second chances promised by Main Menu? What about our history together? What about the times I’d read my policy number, without letters, to her? Did it all mean nothing?
Dejected, defeated, discouraged — my spirit teeming with “D” words — I set the handset onto the counter, slid the laminated insurance card towards my wallet, and laid my forehead onto the butcher block. All I’d wanted was to talk to a real person to ask a straightforward question.
Actually, that wasn’t true. I hadn’t wanted to call in the first place, and I didn’t want to have to ask if I was eligible for the best-possible care. I’m a fair bit of a socialist even on my most-conservative days, so my vision of health care is one where it’s a given that every citizen is equally covered by modern medicine’s umbrella, and also, I’m locked into spiraling distress about half our country’s blind devotion to guns over kids, and one other thing, Mavis, you loud-mouthed dominatrix, I needed you not to hang up on me today because gerrymandering border wall sex trafficking planned parenthood funding net neutrality rohingya genocide
and what if I had been calling with a mental health question, Mavis? What if I’d been teetering on an edge, yet all you cared about was stuffing another berry into your mouth, you flimsy instrument of mechanized compassion?
Wow. I was never going to get a mammogram at this rate, and I always get a mammogram. Because, see, I was born from an amniotic sac loaded with luck. So I get to be someone who has a yearly mammogram, someone who has the option to get a 3D mammogram, someone who has a kitchen and a phone and a counter.
My forehead still supporting the weight of my psyche, I tried to regroup — to stop feeling so overwhelmed by Mavis and all the ills of the world that I froze, passive, into a stance of inaction.
Then, opening my eyes, I saw them. Hanging there. Dangling from my ribcage, winking at the floorboards.
Oh, yeah. That’s what this was about. Making sure my body isn’t currently tracking the same direction as my grandma’s, my great-aunt’s, those women who came before me. Right-o.
Straightening my spine, I pulled my shoulder blades back and looked down at the weighted flesh of my chest, the two skin sacks my lifelong companions, and remembered: I gotta be okay if I want to help anything else be okay.
Grabbing the handset once again, I picked up the insurance card. Squinting at the tiny numbers for Customer Service, I punched them in. As the line began to ring, I moved the receiver away from my ear BECAUSE THAT MAVIS, SHE’S A SHOUTER.
And just before the third, I heard a voice —
a real voice —
belonging to a real woman —
and she wondered how she could help me.