The boring places where obsessions are born

Louis B Mayer with Phillipe De Lacy child star watermark
My great uncle Louis B. Mayer with silent film child star, Phillipe De Lacy. Early 1920s.

“At some point, while I was still on the article’s first page, the young man hopped into the doctor’s office. I kept reading. He would need stitches for sure. The receptionist kept typing. It occurred to me this would be the perfect gig to write your novel. Answer the phone, greet the sick and wounded, then block it all out and keep typing.”

In the spring of 1994, I was sitting in a doctor’s office surveying the magazines neatly stacked on a table next to me. It was a Saturday morning and my three-year-old daughter was home with her father. The doctor’s waiting room was as drab as they get in Australia: ‘hard-wearing’ carpet (a euphemism for ugly) and grey walls plastered with the usual assortment of posters about dangerous freckles, immunization, smoking and the like.

In Australia, doctors are not the same money-spinners they are in the U.S., so your average suburban GP’s office, and especially one in an older neighborhood in Canberra, the nation’s capitol, would be drab, uninspiring, and not where you would expect a life-changing experience to occur.

As I sat there waiting to be called into the doctor’s office, the elderly receptionist typed away at a solid pace, looking down narrow reading glasses at the typewriter. She was entirely uninterested in me, or the young man with what looked like a hastily bandaged foot, leaking blood along one side. The amount of bright red blood was alarming.

He had come in about ten minutes after me, wincing with every hop on his one good foot. Why he hadn’t gone straight to a hospital emergency room, I had no idea. The receptionist removed her glasses, stood up and peered over her desk at the bloody bandaging. She matter-of-factly informed me that the boy would be next.

Sure, I said, and glanced at him but he looked away quickly, as if he was sorry to have taken my place. Or maybe he was ashamed for whatever led to his injury.

This made me wonder how he had hurt himself, but I knew it would remain a mystery and now I had no idea how long I would be sitting here waiting for the doctor. I rifled through the selection of magazines and paused to more carefully examine a front cover featuring a beautiful smiling woman with her toddler daughter on her lap. The cover line trilled about her brilliant career, so I went straight to the page and began reading.

The woman was a lawyer, had just become a barrister, and was juggling the demands of a growing practice with marriage and the couple’s first child. This was all very topical: I too was juggling a career with my first child, also a toddler. I wondered if this woman and I would be friends if we lived in the same city. Perhaps we would meet at a local mother’s group and our daughters would play together.

At some point, while I was still on the article’s first page, the young man hopped into the doctor’s office. I kept reading. He would need stitches for sure. The receptionist kept typing. It occurred to me this would be the perfect gig to write your novel. Answer the phone, greet the sick and wounded, then block it all out and keep typing.

I finished the article and laid the magazine on my lap. I wondered what the woman and her little girl were doing right at that very moment. I had asked my husband to help our daughter tidy her room and maybe take a walk to the local park for some fresh air. Perhaps this mother was doing something similar with her little one. Maybe they were out shopping?

I went back to the magazine, flicking around the pages but got the odd sense that something was not right — the cosmetic ads seemed strangely off-key. Hmm…? I flipped back to the front cover to read the date. The magazine was from 1980, it was almost 15 years old.

I was entirely knocked off my axis and all I could hear was a strange pulsing, like my heartbeat in my ears. I would not have heard the office door slam closed, even though I sat right next to it; or the boy grunt as the doctor stitched his wound. I saw the receptionist on the phone. I never even heard it ring. I felt incredibly disoriented.

The woman I had just read about was no longer at the beginning of her career, she was well and truly in the middle of it. She would have fought hundreds of cases. She would have had crushing losses and terrific triumphs. Her office would be well lived in, with files stacked high. She would have a reputation. She would have made good on the large salary and her wealth long-established.

Unlike doctors in Australia, as in the U.S., lawyers do make fortunes and the sky’s the limit. Maybe she had even managed to fit in another child or two into her jam-packed life and built an empire and a family.

Her daughter, the cute chubby blue-eyed toddler, would be in her first year of university. Perhaps like her mother she was studying law. Or maybe they had their tussles on this and she had pursued an arts degree. She might be an older sister, have a boyfriend, had her first kiss long before, and was someone’s best friend.

I had truly thought these people were walking the same plane as me, but they weren’t. Instead of being just a handful of years older than me, the woman was a generation older than me. Instead of being a sweet little one, like my daughter, the toddler was now a young woman.

Somehow, it was this moment in the doctor’s office that my love of our family’s photos was born, though it would be years before the collection would come into my life. But that experience primed me to obsess over each photo and their exact point in time. In turn, they have given me hours of wonder and deep connection.

Years later and I just can’t get enough of the small details that make up the lives captured in that moment, like an ancient drop of amber with a creature scooped up for a millenia. These moments become the epicenter of my research and the essays I write.

Time is the ultimate continuum — the past, the present, and the future exist on one infinite line — and yet we are only ever in the present, in the moment.

I will never stop wondering what that woman and her daughter are doing right now.

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.

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