In Which I Am An Unreliable Historian and Claim To Have Never Smoked A Cigarette or Had More Than One Sexual Partner–Ever

The older I get, the less well I get along with medical in-take forms—never my favorite. A few years ago I was answering a series of questions in an office owned by the local hospital.
“Do you feel safe in your home?” The nurse asked.
“Pretty much so.” I answered. I figured the question was based on my address on the town’s somewhat funky westside. “I mean, I wouldn’t walk around alone in that neighborhood at night,” I added blithely. “But I’ve got nice neighbors.”
Turns out she wasn’t interested in real estate. No, this was a question about domestic abuse. Now, I’m all for the discussion, but I’m not sure I or anyone else would answer the question presented that way by a stranger.
Then again, I’m prone to outright lying. A few years ago, I was having scary symptoms and figured, in my usual morbid fashion, that I was a death’s door. So I told the truth on an intake.

Do you smoke cigarettes? Of course.
Drink? You bet.
Do street drugs: Ditto.

Well, maybe not the exact truth. I was exaggerating in one direction. For example, I do smoke—about half a pack a year. No one really cared, I assume, but I felt compelled to err on the side of confession. About twelve hours later, when anything worrisome had been ruled out, and I knew I’d live to fight with the insurance company about my bill, my answers were different:

Do you smoke cigarettes? Of course not!
Do you drink? Never!
Street drugs? What are those?

It turns out, I’m not alone. A friend in the medical field says this has a name: “unreliable historian.” In fiction, we call it the unreliable narrator. Which I am.

Recently, on a routine visit to a new practioner I was confronted with all of my resistance.

I left “race” blank on the form. Anthropologists don’t believe in it—Hitler did…I know where I stand on that scale. Hispanic surname made me pause. My mother’s family was expelled from Spain in 1492. My maternal mitochondria, swabbed from my daughter’s cheek and sent to the Human Genome, says we have the most common European type…from Spain. But really I couldn’t check yes.

Then, three options for sexual preference: men, women, both. Illustrated with little gendered stick figures. I froze. It felt safest to leave it blank. Sexual preference: none.

Now, widowed or married? Here is where I wanted to check both, but had to chose. It didn’t seem nice or fair to my first husband, may he rest in peace, but I had to check “married.”

Then, on to number of sexual partners. I’ve been married twice, and have the average baby boomer checkered past. But at this point I couldn’t keep my lies straight. I checked “one.” That seemed innocuous. I looked at my answer. There was something that didn’t feel right. Which of my husbands didn’t count? But believe me I was in no mood to remember my sexual partners—to miss those I’d loved, to resent those who hadn’t loved me, to wax nostalgic, irritated, morose. So “one” it was.

I don’t know who my one partner is. I don’t know if I’m a smoker. I can’t tell if I’m Spanish. I don’t remember if I inhaled. I don’t know if I lie because I’m a writer—or am a writer because I lie—or can’t tell the truth because I hate forms.

One thought on “In Which I Am An Unreliable Historian and Claim To Have Never Smoked A Cigarette or Had More Than One Sexual Partner–Ever

  1. love this! poignant, funny and OH! so true. glad to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t fill out standardized forms ‘right’ 🙂 And this: “I don’t know if I lie because I’m a writer—or am a writer because I lie—or can’t tell the truth because I hate forms.” Thank you.

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