Escape Velocity

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.


It seemed like such a wonderful opportunity when Donna first heard about it. She could still be there when the kids came home from school most days, and the money wasn’t all that bad. Most of all, she could be a therapist again, she could try out some of the new things she’d read about on the Internet. She “lurked” on a couple of listservs that were full of other therapists discussing clinical issues and the nature of practice in the 90s and it all sounded so exciting. Donna hadn’t touched a patient or written a note since ’84. 

She opened the door to the PT department carefully. A bank of mirrors covered the far wall, reflecting a ceiling full of light. Before her eyes could take in her surroundings, she was struck by the noise. Somewhere nearby feet were pounding on a treadmill and a syncopated clanking of metal jolted her a bit. She felt her heart beat rise just slightly in response to the bustling atmosphere. “This must be the Wellness Center Gymnasium,” she thought. “I guess the PT Department is through another door.” 

Donna wandered through the maze of machinery and exercise mats that lay exposed to the glaring light and finally found a door marked “Director of Rehabilitation Services.” She knocked, and after a long moment a weary voice said, “Yes?” Assuming this meant she could open the door, Donna entered gingerly. 

To her mind, there was a difference between the look of a busy, productive workspace and one that revealed the worker had been overwhelmed by the weight of their work. This room needed a word beyond “clutter” to truly describe it, and it took a moment for Donna to get her bearings. There was so much paper strewn across the desk that it seemed to melt into the stacks resting unsteadily on the floor. This had the effect of making the edges of the furniture disappear, and Donna was initially uncertain where she might move without encountering something unexpectedly hard. The stacks of paper also leant the room an out-of-kilter look, like an illustration by Dr. Seuss. She felt mildly dizzy, and instinctively began breathing deeply in an effort to calm herself. She hadn’t expected this. 

“Can I help you?” The voice from behind the desk was oddly disconnected from the question. Clearly, help was not really being offered, and the tone would have more easily fit the words “Why are you here?” The voice was also genderless, and belied no particular age. Donna looked around in order to add some visual clues to the identity behind the voice, but wherever she looked, there was only more paper. It seemed to shift about in response to her gaze though she couldn’t sense its movement. From every angle of sight the paper blocked her view and appeared as if it had always been there, flowing through the room endlessly and silently like some sort of white, viscous river. 

“Be careful,” said the voice, “if you enter all the way you might get caught in the flow. It’s probably best if you just stand in the doorway. We can do this from there.” 

“Do what?” asked Donna. 

“Why, conduct your interview of course. You’re here about the part time job, aren’t you?” said the voice. 

“Well, yes,” said Donna. “I was looking for something that would allow me to be home in the afternoon…” 

 “You got your license up to date?” the voice interrupted. 

 “Oh yes, “ said Donna, “and I’ve taken a few continuing ed cours…” 

“Fine, fine,” the voice broke in. Donna could tell by its tone that it was losing interest. “Be here Monday. The secretary will show you where to hang your coat.” 

Something in the back of Donna’s mind began to grow. It felt familiar, and though nearly forgotten, its nature was so strong in her that the whole of it appeared in the moment it took for her raise her chin, startled at the unexpected turn of this conversation. She could feel her cheeks grow red and her heart pound. Through a quickly drying mouth she said, “Is that it? You only want to know if I have a license? Doesn’t it matter to you that…” 

Her words began to bounce off the wall of paper that now surged toward the door and Donna knew that no one in the room could hear her. 

She backed toward the gymnasium, still feeling the rage she experienced at the dismissal from the director and cracked her elbow on the edge of a square post connected to an elaborate pulley mechanism. Hiding her pain, Donna turned sharply to avoid the shin- high corner of an exercise mat only to stumble against two large “exerballs.” They bounced off another piece of elaborate equipment and then began to float toward the lighted ceiling as if drawn by a small tornado. Donna followed them with her eyes and then felt compelled to reach forward into this vacuum. She knew it would lead her away from the noise and the harsh light. Suddenly, all of this was perfectly familiar to her. She was aware that she could enter this vortex and achieve the escape velocity necessary to get away from the department she had entered so willingly a few minutes earlier. She knew that if she stayed she wouldn’t find anything other than machines and exercise mats. The therapists here couldn’t be distinguished from the support staff, and the patients had no names, only diagnostic numbers pinned to their backs. Donna didn’t have to stay this time, she’d seen it all before and knew that reaching into the tornado, she would soon waken safely in bed, the sound of her teenager’s clock radio down the hall announcing another day.