It was June 24, 1994. A Friday. And it was my last day in Cleveland. I was surrounded by stacks of boxes piled high in makeshift towers. I’d spent the last week shredding papers, dusting, and mopping. Toiling and cleaning was in my blood, gifted to me by my Caribbean ancestors. I was holding a stack of playbills, trying to decide which ones to toss, when I heard a knock at my front door.
“Who is it?”
“Cherie. Inspection time.”
As part of the move out procedure, my landlord had requested that my apartment be inspected. The only thing standing between me and my $900 security deposit was Cherie.
Toiling and cleaning was in my blood, gifted to me by my Caribbean ancestors.
Cherie’s the super; a light-skinned black woman who missed the lesson on the “nod,” rarely, if ever acknowledging my presence. I opened the door and Cherie, nose upturned, remained true to form. Without glancing at me, she made a beeline to the alcove that held my kitchen. The year before, as I struggled to pay my student loans, I had traded down from a spacious two bedroom. I missed my old galley kitchen with the large oven and tons of counter space. There I had turned to baking as a respite from the stress of my medical training.
Cherie opened the refrigerator. Empty. She pulled a few cabinet doors open. Empty. Then with her index finger she scrawled a “C” on the stovetop.
Cherie held her finger up to my face, so close I was able to make out a whorl pattern formed in droplets of cooking grease.
“Stove is not clean.”
Her words tumbled out like a verse from a song, one she clearly enjoyed singing. I held my tongue but I wondered, How many drops of white blood someone had to possess to put a fingerprint of cooking grease in a black woman’s face?
* * *
In the afternoon, I went to University Hospital for my exit interview with Dr. Craig. I’d endured three years of residency training and during that time Craig had ascended from awkward, gangly attending physician to Chairman of the Ophthalmology department. My eyes scanned his family photos on the credenza behind him as I sat down in a chair in front of his mahogany desk. There was one of him in black tie holding his cello. Every year he played in a concert held at the annual academy meeting. He bragged about paying for a first-class ticket for his cello.
I want to fall in love and have my man hold me like that. Like a beloved cello.
With his gold wire rimmed glasses perched on the tip of his nose, Craig flipped through my file. I wondered if there are photos of me in the file. “Before” residency and “after” residency. My “before” face would be narrow but smiling, full of promise. My “after” face—fuller, a soft veneer of sadness peeking through.
What was left of Craig’s hair is dyed shoe-polish black, deftly parted above his right ear and flipped to the left side of his head.
Why doesn’t he shave it off like the brothers do?
He reminded me in size, shape, and demeanor of Big Bird. Dr. Big Bird. I suppressed a snort.
What muppet am I? What muppet is there that is a black girl from Brooklyn, the first American born daughter of Caribbean parents, now a doctor, on her last day of residency, being judged by Big Bird.
The fingering of paper stopped and Craig cleared his throat.
“Umm…. I’m worried about you… umm…passing your boards.”
His words fluttered past me, a winged butterfly of insults. All the things I had worried about flickered on a screen in my mind. I felt as if I was looking through my favorite childhood toy, a Viewmaster, as images of my life in Cleveland clicked by.
Does Craig see these things?
This program had existed for over a hundred years but I was the first black woman admitted for training.
I endured three winters in Ohio with a no-wheel drive econobox.
I was terrified of driving in snow.
Does he see me skidding on black ice?
* * *
Dr. Craig had a favorite nurse, Jane. Jane was a horse of a woman, six feet tall with sturdy arms and legs. She was prone to turning red in the face and crying when he lashed out at her, which was often.
“Wrong—I want balanced salt solution.”
“Raise the infusion bottle. No, lower it.”
“Where’s my diamond knife?”
He issued directives the way my dad cursed, one right after the other, pummeling the recipient and not waiting for a response
* * *
When I first arrived in Cleveland I’d kept up on weekly manicures. Getting my nails done reminded me of New York. Glamorous and cheap. Until one day during my first year of training, Jane pulled me aside at the scrub sink. She tapped the tip of my index finger.
“He says you need to cut your nails.”
I had kept them squared and fairly short. No polish, no decals, no stick-on bling. I did not cheat like the OR nurses who wore clear polish or French manicures. I didn’t dare do like Marie, another resident, a white girl with a bouffant hairdo from the 1950s, who professed to love Jesus but barely spoke to me. Marie had nails so long I feared she’d use one to pluck out an eye. I imagined the case written up in a medical journal, “Enucleation By Fingernail.” Had he sent Jane to talk to Marie?
The following week, Jane stood over me as I peeled open the povidone iodine scrub package. She watched as I used the green spoke tipped plastic applicator to remove what little dirt was beneath the stubs that used to be my nails. She gave me a slight nod.
* * *
I met a man in my first year in Cleveland. He was a dentist in Shaker Heights with skin the color of caramel toffee. He was a tall glass of water at six feet and four inches. He prayed to Allah, didn’t eat pork, and told big tall tales. All these things and his talk about being in Special Forces and plans to become an oral maxillofacial surgeon made the white boys I worked with crazy. He lied and he cheated. Yet I loved him.
In America, people are people. In America, if you work hard you can make it. In America, everyone is valued, respected and worthy. I did not want to ruin America for them.
In my third year he gave me the biggest diamond I’d ever seen. I decided to get the ring appraised.
I had to get it insured. Right?
When the jeweler called me, I was in the clinic between patients, on a phone behind the desk where Sue Ellen, the unit clerk sat. Months before I’d caught Sue Ellen removing patients from my schedule—patients who didn’t want a black doctor. When I confronted her, Sue Ellen rendered an explanation, without any trace of regret or emotion.
“Well Mrs. Bubba is from Virginia.”
Her tone was filled with the exasperation of a mother trying to explain some existential fact to a young child.
I went to my chief resident and complained about Sue Ellen. He looked down at his feet. The shoe stare. The shoe stare was what the white boys I worked with did when I caught them in their shit. He knew.
I went to my hospital chief, Dr. Rappaport. On the outside, Rappaport was quite a beautiful man, tall and dapper. He was always tanned, his salt and pepper hair with every strand in place, gelled and coiffed to perfection. His clothing was never rumpled and he always wore cufflinks and shiny polished shoes. He had a mouth full of straight, white teeth, which was unusual in Ohio. I imagined that although he knew how to use a hammer, he wouldn’t risk chipping his fingernails. With a fake grin, he tipped back slightly in his chair as he twirled his pen and then proffered a peace offering.
“Oh, Sue Ellen is a diamond in the rough.”
I made sure not to raise my voice, or gesture wildly. I tried to not be the angry black woman we both knew I was.
“My tax dollars pay for Mrs. Bubba’s Medicaid. If she wants a white doctor, she needs to pay for that with her private funds and not taxpayer dollars.”
He looked down at his shiny black shoes. His smile shriveled up; his face resembled a dried-up prune.
I was staring at Sue Ellen’s round back, her overly teased brown hair, when I heard the jeweler say, “I’m sorry. This is fake. It’s a cubic zirconia.”
My diamond engagement ring is fake, but Sue Ellen is real.
* * *
I broke up with the dentist. He threatened me, promised to ram his BMW into oncoming traffic. I remembered his guns; hundreds of bullets scattered in the trunk of his car like rice pellets.
Does Craig realize I’d spent the last few months fighting for my life?
* * *
Does Craig know about the doctor who vigorously rubbed his leg against mine during a surgical case, while I looked for veins, arteries, muscles—all pink and sinewy—just like in my atlas?
I turned to Dr. Leg Rub and asked, “Have you been touching me under the operating table for the last five minutes?” In that moment I had felt brave. Dr. Leg Rub was braver.
“Yes. I have.” he replied.
Does he know about Dr. Pepper Pike, widely published, who drove a red Porsche? Every Monday I assisted him. He’d lean over and through his sky blue surgical mask ask, “Can we make zebra babies?”
The night before our graduation dinner he said, “My wife’s coming.” Code for don’t tell. I want to tell him to kiss my black ass. But I don’t say anything.
I was alone at that dinner. The dentist was gone and my family in Brooklyn does not have the time, money, or inclination for such events. I was glad they did not come. It would have been hard to explain all that I had endured in Cleveland. In America, people are people. In America, if you work hard you can make it. In America, everyone is valued, respected and worthy. I did not want to ruin America for them.
* * *
I heard my heart pounding. I heard a voice. It was mine.
“Dr. Craig, how does it affect you if I don’t pass the boards? Do you have to take them for me again?”
Big Bird turned beet red. Then he looked down at his shoes. I got up and extended my hand.
“Goodbye Dr. Craig.”
His hand felt clammy and weak and I didn’t hear his reply. I’d moved on to thinking about moving later and what I had to do to get my security deposit back. One thing I knew for sure; I was not cleaning that stove again.
Ann Arthur-Andrew is a New York City based mother, wife, physician, travel/leisure blogger, and emerging writer. Raised in Brooklyn by Grenadian parents, Ann uses her heritage as a first generation American, to explore issues of family, legacy, belonging, voice, and black womanhood. Ann holds a BA in political science from Brown University and an MD from the Yale University School of Medicine. When not practicing medicine or attending a PTA Meeting, Ann enjoys the piano, reading, cuddling with her dog, or watching movies with her husband and children. Ann can be found online at annarthurandrew.com.
Photo Credit: Rashida De Vore