The neurology department sent you a form letter asking you to be a resident’s final exam in diagnostic assessment. You wait in the exam room in the tank top and leggings you wore under your jeans.

There is a perfunctory knock at the door announcing the team. They take their places, an older man, a younger man and a woman somewhere between them in age. The candidate, the woman, stands next to the exam table where you are sitting.

“Please begin,” nods the older man to the woman.

This woman has fifteen minutes to figure you out. Even though she is probably only ten years older than you, she reminds you of Eleanor Roosevelt or the prow of a ship cutting through the churning waters. You are instantly on her side.

She tells you her name — “Julia” — and asks you to touch your index finger to your nose while your eyes are closed, and to push against her palms with your palms and the same sort of push-pull resistance stuff with your arms, shoulders, thighs and feet before she takes her light out to check the dilation of your pupils. Your eyes are still seeing colored spots from the brightness when she asks you to dart your eyes back and forth then stick your tongue out as far as possible. She clasps her hands in front of her and begins the litany of questions.

Julia must test your reflexes. You always fail the test because you have no reflexes. It’s a tell.

The time for the exam is going by fast. You’ve been playing by the rules because it’s not your career hanging in the balance. You say, “This is a lot harder than it used to be,” and “Nope, just numbness.” The little rubber hammer for those tell-tale bumps on the knee and elbow is still lodged in her pocket. “I don’t think I have any reflexes,” you blurt.

Your knees are motionless as the hammer’s dull thwacks against them. When Julia looks up, you see in her eyes that she is thinking, thinking, thinking. Maybe she would have done the test anyway but you will never know if she thanks you or damns you over a drink that night.

Julia begins talking about neuropathy and myopathy and dendrons and deficits to her examiner. In the last fifteen minutes she has never spoken your common name. Hearing her speak about what she calls your genetic defect is like hearing the Latin names for weeds. To Julia, your nerves and muscles and DNA are weeds in a flower patch and to you, well, you know you’re not perfect, a bouquet of roses, but a weed and a wildflower can be two names for the same thing.

You don’t pay attention to the name of what Julia is calling your disease. Another missing reflex. She flushes at their praise. She got it right in fifteen minutes.

1998 Flight of the Mind Writing Retreat for Women, Fiction Workshop with Lynne Sharon Schwartz

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