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Alicia Schaffer, MS4, OB-GYN

“What draws you to this specialty?” Somewhere in the back nine of my fragmented, semi-coherent response, I wonder if she can tell that I don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. I feel like a ventriloquist’s dummy, propped on a knee, an unseen hand clacking my wooden jaws open and shut, my voice squeaking out from someplace behind my lacquered face. I’m wearing my tattered confidence like a moth-eaten shawl, but I’m hoping she can’t tell. My cheeks hurt, and my mouth is dry. My bed last night was too soft: truly a first-world problem if there is such a thing.

“…and then it was really after my surgery rotation that…” Oh God. How long have I been talking? What is she writing on that paper? Surely I haven’t said anything worth writing down during this endless ramble. I crane my neck a millimeter to the right, angling for a better view, just as she looks up at me. She narrows her eyes slightly. “ …so yeah. I would say that’s about it!” The pitch of my voice climbs half an octave and I stare at the ceiling tiles above me. The corner of one tile is propped up over the flimsy metal grid. Maybe… No. There’s no way my chair is tall enough to reach it should an escape attempt become necessary. I try to stretch my cheeks into a bright smile, but the purpled skin below my eyes just crinkles up over itself, giving me an aura of deranged desperation. Why is it so hot in here?

“And what do you see yourself contributing to our program?” I continue to smile maniacally and add in a bobble-headed nod, as if to say, Yes, of course! I’ve been waiting all day just for this question! This must be a joke, at least on some level, right? I mean, I just met this woman; how could I possibly know what she’s looking for or if I fill that need? I arrived in her city a mere 10 hours ago with my back aching from sitting up straight in the narrow airline seat. I’m not used to good posture anymore, at least not after 3 years hunched in a chair staring at PowerPoint after PowerPoint and filling my memory with such useful tidbits of knowledge as the coagulation cascade and how to wash my hands 800,000 times a day without my skin sloughing off. Why can’t she ask me about that? At least then I could tell her something I know to be true, that Burt’s Bees hand salve is completely worth the excessive $3.00 per ounce.

“Well, I really feel that my experiences as…” I launch myself into the stream of rehearsed babble, trying to balance in that sweet spot between braggadocio and self-effacing all the way into obsolescence. In truth, it’s been so long since I belonged that maybe I’ve forgotten how. I’ve made a career of the uprooted life, scattering seeds and friends and memories from coast to coast. Even home, or the place I’ve always considered home, isn’t anymore. How do you fill a void that doesn’t exist? This question ranks second in my list of most hated and clichéd inquiries, trailing only slightly behind, “Where do you see yourself in insert-arbitrary-length-of-time-here?” There is literally no way to even begin answering that one. My answers are always just about as accurate as a weather forecast a month in advance. Case in point: ten years ago, I was planning on getting a doctorate degree in the oh-so-useful and high-paying field of French and knitting my way happily into childless spinsterhood surrounded by my similarly single girlfriends and our army of cats. The reality? Married for nearly a decade (I know, poetic justice, right?), two kids and two dogs (nary a cat in sight), and, currently, trussed and sweating in a conservative pantsuit in an attempt to make this stranger like me so that I can get my first job as a DOCTOR. Like, for real. With actual, living, breathing patients. You just can’t make this stuff up. Finally, realizing she probably isn’t interested in which cupcake blog I prefer and frankly unsure how I’ve stumbled into discussing this detail in the course of my soliloquy, I force myself to just. Stop. Talking. She’s nodding at me and smiling enthusiastically. Which begs the question: who’s really the weirdo in this scenario?

“Very good. I guess that’s about all I needed to ask. What questions do you have for me?” Oh no. Here it is, the part I dread every time. In the ensuing naked silence, the room is thrown into sharp relief, the propped up ceiling tile mocking me from above and the radiator hissing in hilarity along the wall behind her. She stares expectantly. I open and shut my mouth once wordlessly, muted and fish-like. Blub blub, I think out of the blue, and laughter squeezes my larynx in a threatening chokehold. My mind roars back from the void of white noise and unadulterated sensory input, its gears spinning with a clatter of meaningless minutiae. I think of sitting on the plane, how long it will take to get to the airport, whether the freeway off-ramp will be a right exit or a left exit, which always confuses me because the signs are never very clear. But questions for her? Not a one. I hear myself beginning to stutter out my routine, end-of-day reply, that I’ve already asked all my questions, that everyone has been so gracious and kind to answer them before her, and, gosh, just everyone has been so sweet… We begin to stand and somehow awkwardly manage to shake hands across the desk during the millisecond journey from chair to feet. We mumble thank yous in each other’s general direction, and I restrain myself from reaching out and grabbing the door handle ahead of her. Pretty standard stuff. It’ll take about 45 minutes to get to the airport, I estimate as I collect my purse and coat, including time to return my rental car. Then, a quick bite before the next plane, the next car, the next too-soft bed. Six down, six to go. I’ll drink to that.

Author’s Addendum submitted to IRIS on 3/30/15

The author of this piece was thrilled to match at Indiana University for OB/Gyn residency, which was her first and favorite interview day thanks to an unbelievable amount of Midwestern friendliness and a refreshing (and surprising) lack of self-destructive awkwardness.