I am making circles over the words YES and NO on a sheet of standard 8 ½ x 11 because six months ago, a dentist ruined my second molar. Let me fill you in: I didn’t know him. He had only been my dentist since I moved to Oregon the year before. He said I had a cavity. I asked him to fix it. I hadn’t felt any pain in the tooth until I left his office, but the pain continued for a month, and when I called to ask why, the dentist said he didn’t know. He invited me back. He shaved down the tooth in his office, hoping to reduce the pain, but he had ruined it. My molar was no longer recognizable. When I ran my tongue over the tooth, it didn’t feel like something my body had made. I looked for a new dentist.
Which brings me to this waiting room, to this leather couch.
On the intake form, the words YES and NO are divided by a forward slash and below a set of instructions: Indicate which of the following you have had or have at present. I’ve circled NO twenty-five times, paused, and circled it another sixteen. I return my pen to the only line I’ve skipped, where it hovers undecided—YES seems a fraudulent, dramatic choice, but NO would be an outright lie.
I want to tell the truth; this form resists it.
I don’t know when I started to consider it a violence to ask another person where they come from, but at some point I noticed how people struggle over the question. A long pause, a wrinkled brow—the violence is as common as the occasional bruise.
Ask—Where are you from?—and see the discomfort.
I’ve felt it too. The blood came from my veins and pooled at the surface. The purple and yellow linger for too long before fading back into my tissue. That’s all I know.
My answer could be Omaha. That would raise no suspicion. But I could also say Stromsburg or a teeny tiny town or a farming community of 1200. I could skip the specifics and just say I’m from Nebraska because it’s far away from us now, and we have only just met. Like me, you probably didn’t stay put long after high school or college, and like me, I am sure your answer is shifting, depending on the day or the rainclouds or who is asking. Still, you try to understand my life through pins on a map.
You have said: Hi. What is your name? Where are you from?
You have meant me no harm.
But the violence lies in the separation—the pin divided from what happened beneath it. When I name a place, you form an assumption even though where I am from is as much a set of experiences as it is that place. I am as much water as I am bone. I am as much memory as I am space and time and blinking eyes that record it all. What I mean is ask me about the things I have experienced. Ask me about their weight.
Maybe the trick to avoiding the bruise lies in a kind of precision. Because when I ask you where you’re from what I am really asking is: Who are you?
When I lived in Omaha and answered Stromsburg, you might ask if I knew Caleb. I would say, Yes! His dad is my dentist. And you would think, good—we have something in common.
Maybe you would have believed we could relate because we both knew someone from the same place. You wouldn’t realize you had given yourself away. The question of a small town is not the one you’ve asked. If you knew that kind of community, you would have asked something more appropriate. You would have asked: Who are your grandparents?
I know Caleb’s grandparents. I know that his grandmother wrote History of Stromsburg in 1972, that his grandfather suffered dementia and one time wandered down the street into my garage. I was alone and his words were so unintelligible. I know when I delivered hot meals for the local church, after a certain point in their convalescence, his grandparents stopped answering the door. I left the food on the porch. Yes, I know Caleb, but not like you do. I know one of his front teeth is fake.
But, you haven’t asked anything like that.
You have asked where I’m from.
The name of my hometown only tells you so much. Perhaps Caleb’s father, the town dentist, could have served a useful example of what it was like to live there. Every six months, he mailed me a postcard, even though his office was barely two blocks from my front door. On the day of the appointment, I would walk those two blocks—past the church, past the high school, past the library—to sit in the waiting room.
His office used to be a house and still looked like one. The only art on the walls was taken by a local photographer, his sister-in-law, Sandy. Down the wood-paneled hallway, I walked past portrait after portrait of people I knew. The dentist’s secretary had worked at that desk my whole life. She still does. She still keeps the records in pencil. If it was close to her lunch hour, we might have walked in together because we would have shared a route to the door. She would have said, How are your parents? At the end of the appointment, she would know that, of all the choices, I wanted the purple toothbrush.
The purple toothbrush. Does that tell you who I am?
The longer I live away from Nebraska, the more I’m from Omaha. The syllables slip from my mouth with regularity, with rhythm. When I give this answer to my new Oregon dentist, he reminds me they have a great dental program at Creighton University, a college neither one of us attended. Creighton University is all he knows about Omaha, so I try to correct his assumptions. He nods; I describe the interstate, downtown, my favorite restaurant.
When he feels he’s spent enough time getting to know me, he gets straight to the point. The new dentist says, I’m looking at your intake form. You’ve marked YES for cancer or tumor but NO for chemotherapy and radiation.
He asks, how?
He asks, why?
Now, I think, we’re getting somewhere.
Had I wanted to tell him about a city he’ll never visit? Had I wanted to talk about anything but this? My dentist doesn’t need to know where this happened to my body, but he needs to know what did. What happened is this: I went in for one thing and they found another. I had a tumor on my ovary, and now, it is gone. I’m trying to find a way to mold you the best possible answer.
In Omaha, I asked the dreaded question too many times before I understood the inevitable pause and the narrowing eyes. Other freshman at the University of Nebraska would just say here?… implying that most people from Omaha never leave. This made me realize my supposed metropolitan university was more like a small town than I could have imagined. It was a commuter campus where everybody knew everybody. At least I understood how that kind of community worked.
But, I was always so afraid. Of ending up in a dangerous part of town. Of merging into the four-lane roads. Of getting myself irretrievably lost. More than once, I called a friend to map a route and read it to me over the phone because mine didn’t have internet. Everyone I knew then hated it—the panic, the complaints. I had to learn the layout of the streets by memorizing my cardinal directions.
Soon, I thought of myself as a city person with a certain city-mindedness and a city boyfriend who himself commuted to campus. I loved eating cupcakes with him at the little bakery at 10th & Jones and having dinner on every patio in the Old Market. I loved feeling capable, existing inside something so big. I was becoming aware of the pull—like home was two places, like I had two competing identities.
That’s simplifying things. But it was new to feel this way.
We were going out for pasta in the city, and my boyfriend was buying—his treat. I had spent the weekend at home, that small town two hours west of our college, with plans to make it back in time for dinner. I didn’t want to be home. I wanted to be in Omaha.
I wanted to be in Omaha so badly that I left my parents’ house and tried to drive through a snowstorm in white-out conditions. Three miles from Stromsburg, I ended up somewhere I was pretty sure wasn’t highway anymore. Panicked, I stopped driving and called my dad. He found me down the highway in the ditch. He brought me home. He may as well have told me that home was not where I was headed. Home was this experience, this place the storm was keeping me, and I would forever be an outsider to the place—the person—I wanted to be. I cried in my bedroom for two hours, what would have been the length of the drive.
In one way or another, I learned the question of a city: What do you know? You have to prove your assimilation with names of streets, bars, friends. When someone in Omaha asks, Do you know Caleb?, and you’re from the city, you nod your head and say, Yes! We both live in midtown. Omaha is so small!
I don’t live in the city anymore, but close to one million people still do—that’s half the population of the state. More people are moving from the rural to the metro every year, threatening the livelihood of small towns. Kids leave for college and never come back. The new dentists graduate from Creighton University and settle into their lives in the suburbs.
What I know about Omaha is that it has changed since I’ve been gone—my favorite restaurant burned down, my favorite bakery has three locations—but so have I. I had a surgery I didn’t anticipate. Three bright incisions marked my abdomen. Sloppy patches of clear paint held my skin together in the places it opened.
The farther I get away from an experience, the harder it is to see clearly. The boundaries of the city expand, threatening to devour the state and empty out the Missouri. I lose sight of the particulars. The two-hour drive. The sharp turn south. Those last four miles, following the semis and the smell of feedlots, drifting to my parents’ front door.
I have not fallen out of love with my first dentist. He knows me better than that. His son can’t fake being from a city either. Amazing, how our dentist has kept in his little office an oral history of our entire lives.
To both Caleb and me, he has recommended braces. Our dentist has kept track of even the teeth we lost as children. He can predict through x-rays the problems in us that will arise. He knows how to prevent most kinds of decay. It is more than a statement of where we are from—it is an understanding of where we are headed. He can see into our futures through the open mouths of our past selves, our parents, our grandparents.
At the end of every biannual appointment, my first dentist, who was also the minister of a local church, would say, Can I pray for you?
Always, I’d say yes.
When I left Nebraska, it was a pain to transfer my records, not just dental, but my entire medical history. It was a pain to fill out intake forms. But I found that as a new patient, doctors really wanted to get to know me as I was, as an adult. I forgave them the paperwork for that kindness. A thorough doctor has small-town sensibilities. She asks you to list not only your history, but that of your entire family.
The question sounds familiar: Who are your grandparents?
I could tell her about Dot and Laird, who lived in Stromsburg all their lives. If he had the choice, my father might have been born into this family, but my grandparents adopted him when he was five. Thirty years later, there I was, their first grandchild. They bought my parents a camcorder and said she should remember what it was like.
I watch the tapes sometimes when I’m home—the erratic dance parties, the bathtub monologues—and think about the fact that once, I only ever had one home—one body without blemish or scar.
When I was six, my grandmother died of leukemia, and my first grade teacher sent me potted lilies. Cancer—of the bones, of anything—had been hard to comprehend. But I am used to answering otherwise, evading questions, telling new doctors my dad was adopted, and saying of my medical history: I don’t really know.
I don’t really know. The new doctor in Oregon said, that’s okay. She read through my pile of paperwork, and I described my symptoms: some unusual bleeding, nothing major, no pain. During that first visit, she referred me to a specialist, who could talk me through my concerns—I thought what a thoughtful recommendation.
Meeting a new doctor is funny. They will want to make a personal connection with every patient, but they keep a tight schedule. They want you to feel better, but they need to make firm and critical recommendations. So in that way, meeting a new doctor can be an experience of unspoken tension or inappropriate guilt. Who am I to be taking minutes from someone so busy, someone I don’t know?
All I know is someone made a mistake while scheduling my appointment with the specialist. At the hospital, I told her the paperwork was wrong. The description she read—an abnormal pap—didn’t match my records. I tried to explain what I needed. I tried to explain who I was, but for the longest time, I sat alone in the cold examination room. When she finally found the mistake, the doctor put away her instruments. We talked about my referral. We talked about me, off paper.
The first question of a doctor’s office has to be open-ended: Why are you here?
Why I was at the hospital became more clear the more time I spent in it. At first—to figure out what was wrong. She listened to me describe the symptoms and scheduled me for an ultrasound, which became two, which became three. And after three, the doctor reported she’d found something—an unidentified mass, an unidentified growing mass inside a cyst on my right ovary. This mass, she said, was unrelated to those symptoms. Still, she said, let’s take it out and see what it is.
Before the surgery, I had already decided how things would end. The results, I knew, would be dire. I was convinced of my fate and on my way to a party, wearing a Halloween costume—an orange T-Rex jumpsuit made for a child. I was both human and dinosaur, alive and fearing my extinction. I had spent the entire day online in a pit of self-diagnosis. I realized the inevitability—not the first time I thought about dying, but the first time it got personal. It was the first time I felt a real and present threat.
After too much booze I whispered to my husband—who I met in college, who took me out for cupcakes, who moved with me far away from his home—I could die?
And he said, I am here for you—the answer of our relationship.
The question of a phone call home is: How are you? I said I was fine and waited as long as I could to tell my parents about the surgery. They would ask why. I would say I don’t know. They would say I’m sorry. I would say it’s okay. It will only take a few days to be okay. I said, most things we survive.
The things I knew: the procedure was called an oophorectomy, was called fertility-sparing, was similar to the removal of an appendix or gallbladder.
The question I asked them before hanging up: Has anyone in our family had ovarian cancer?
And let’s say the answer was Yes. Yes. Your grandmother, Dot. Who I thought died of leukemia. Well she did—my mother said—but that was your other grandmother. Her own mother, who lived a long life despite the cancer, shingles, and diabetes. The girl in the videotapes had confused her grandmothers’ diagnoses. Remembered it that way—grown up, lived in the city, moved across the country—for twenty years.
In any case, we decided this fact was not important, coincidental, perhaps, but my grandmother’s medical history meant nothing for mine. My father was adopted. There was no way his mother’s cancer could be my own.
The place I am from is one I’ve built. It used to be smaller. What I mean to say is where I am from is precisely the pinprick on the surface of the story, which is different every time I tell it. Sometimes I don’t need to refer to the map. Meaning shifts depending on the day. As does memory. As does the road home.
My hometown dentist is no longer my dentist. He is a story I tell when I feel far from myself. I know telling it has given me away.
What I mean to say is the tumor was both malignant and benign, an uncertainty only until it was gone, a prayer only until it was resolved. Was anything resolved? On this form, I can’t mark YES and I can’t mark NO. I will always need to tell more of the story.
Where I am from: an experience. A place. A garden. Our little plot in Omaha and the seeds my husband and I planted in our first backyard. The peppers matured so late in the season, and by then we had already moved out of state. 47th & California—when the address was ours, we called it Dundee by the skin of our teeth.
He went home the first time without me. I couldn’t get away, but he called me from the past. We talked on the phone. He was driving. He was describing the new buildings that had gone up in the months we’d been away. He said, I’m at our front door, told me about the wreath and circled the block, working up the courage to get out of the car. He parked by the dumpsters. Our peppers were still in the yard.
Are they ours?
I said yes.
I said no.
He had already picked them all. My husband put the peppers into his suitcase inside a Ziploc bag. He brought them back for me. Nothing crumbled, broke open, or oozed. Their skins did not break. Grinning, he held up the perfect peppers in our new kitchen for me to see. I grabbed the bag from his hand and replaced it with a pepper. And then another. And then another. I sank in my teeth. We sat together by the sink in our apartment, devouring them raw.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Erica Trabold is the author of Five Plots (Seneca Review Books, 2018), selected by John D'Agata as the winner of the inaugural Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Passages North, and elsewhere. Erica writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon.
Stromsburg is located in East-Central Nebraska on Highway 81 in Polk County. Stromsburg is 100 miles from Omaha, 65 miles from Lincoln, and 50 miles from Grand Island, Nebraska. Stromsburg is 1,629 feet above sea level and lies in fairly level terrain. Stromsburg is bordered on the south by the Blue River. —History of Stromsburg: 1872-1972