“Tell me when it hurts,” the doctor said over my toes. It was a Saturday morning in November. I was at a City MD in Bay Ridge getting glass removed from my foot. In sweats and flip-flops in 35-degree weather, I stuck out in the pristine office.
I was used to feeling out of place. At 27, I’d just moved back to my mother’s house in Brooklyn with an eight-month-old baby. My husband left us, along with $80,000 in debt. I watched college classmates celebrate European vacations on Facebook while I navigated divorce and single motherhood.
I dreaded telling people why my husband wasn’t with me, uncomfortable admitting that my love story had morphed into a trope. It was easier to hide than admit I was struggling. Working from my laptop as an editor, I ignored invitations from friends to meet up and hardly left the house.
Posting a picture of my son dressed as a skeleton for Halloween, I joked, “His uncle wanted him to be Iron Man but we thought the crossover costume (“2019 Tony Stark”) was too spooky even for this holiday.”
Friends responded with heart and laugh reactions. Nobody knew that I’d spent an hour crafting the perfect lighthearted caption that wouldn’t draw attention to my baby’s absent father.
“What a munchkin,” my best friend commented.
“MUNCHKIN on all that candy corn,” I quipped back, though we hadn’t left the house. I’d taken the picture on our front porch before going back inside.
At a “Story Time” class with my son a few weeks later, a bubbly mom asked if I was going anywhere for Thanksgiving. I blurted that my husband was away for work, then felt ashamed for lying. I wanted to be friends and resolved to confess the following week. Instead, I sat across the room from her so we wouldn’t have a chance to talk.
As a college-educated, second-generation Chinese American, I wasn’t supposed to leave a well-paying Wall Street career to freelance in a creative field. It meant I never had a satisfactory answer for conservative Asian relatives who asked, “Who do you work for?”
When I married a bartender, I was determined to prove that a successful union wasn’t only a byproduct of juris doctor and doctor-doctor. Our marriage dragged out long past its expiration date. When my husband finally drove away in our truck, I felt relieved.
My family was thrilled to have me home. My uncle came by weekly to check on me and spend time with his great-nephew. I was astonished to see my austere father run around the house with my son on his shoulders, both giggling hysterically. I mentioned at dinner one night that I liked bread pudding. The next morning, my mom texted: “The bread pudding that you like, does it have cream in it? There are so many recipes. Some need cream, some don’t.”
I was surrounded by love, yet ashamed to be part of the “Boomerang Generation” that went back to living with their parents. Pushing a stroller through Manhattan streets, I imagined people judging me behind their coffee cups. I committed to staying home more.
One afternoon, I dropped a Pyrex bowl while doing dishes. Removing a piece of glass from my foot, I hid the injury from my family. I didn’t want to admit I was hurt. I waited two days, when the cut showed no sign of healing, to ask my uncle for a ride to urgent care.
Lying in the patient bed, the doctor and I exchanged shards of our lives while she dug for fragments in my foot. We were the same age and grew up in the same neighborhood. I shared the woes of chasing after a precocious child and asked why she moved out of Brooklyn.
“I didn’t want to, but we got priced out of our house,” she told me. “My parents still live in the area. They’re both sick.”
I was shocked at how plainly she said it. I’d been so consumed with my divorce, I’d forgotten there were people suffering worse. At least I had a home, and family to watch my son while I got stitched up.
I liked that this smart, gorgeous doctor didn’t want to be pitied, and realized that I didn’t either. I was sick of platitudes like, “At least the baby is little” or “Divorce is always hard.” Neither of us asked if there was anything we could do to help. We knew we’d never see each other again, so we didn’t have to pretend. In that clean, florescent office, I boxed my obsessive self-pitying into statements, tidy and sterile, stripped of its emotional hold.
Half an hour later, the doctor held the piece of glass between her tweezers like a tiny pink diamond. Wriggling my toes, I could feel the splinter’s absence, like I’d been released.
“Do you think your parents will be OK?” I asked. The question hung between us like the foreign body she’d just removed.
“They have metastatic cancer,” she said. Shaking hands, I held hers with both of mine, willing my sympathy to reach her.
I tried to imagine going to work not knowing when I would lose my parents. I’d spent my life avoiding uncomfortable thoughts. Broke, fighting for custody while raising a baby, I was still trying desperately to hide the humiliating dissolution of my marriage from other people.
When it felt like everybody else our age was out living their “best life,” I admired this doctor who had the courage to live in the real world. I was doing mental gymnastics to make my image fit a social media fantasy, not realizing that I still had everything that mattered.
“It’ll be sore for a while,” the doctor warned as I headed for the door.
“I know,” I told her, grateful that she’d freed me both from the glass and my self-absorption.