by Michelle Ross
That’s what the physician at the orthopedic walk-in clinic writes in his exam notes when I go in for X-rays after jamming my toe into our new oven. I learn this soon after leaving the clinic, when I access my digital medical records via a link sent to my inbox. The exam notes are one uninterrupted block of text: “Pleasant female not in acute distress. Well nourished. Left hallux shows prominent swelling. Point tenderness at fracture site…” I pause at the “well nourished,” too, but a quick Google search assures that this note is a relevant and routine assessment of patient health—the point being that I am not malnourished, that my fractured toe isn’t partly the result of bones deteriorated from lack of vitamins and minerals. Fine. But what useful information does “pleasant” communicate? Pleasant is for so-so weather or for a not-terrible ride on a city bus. Pleasant is for a child who does not scream or scribble on your walls.
I recall that Seinfeld episode in which Elaine can’t get a doctor to examine her rash. The notes in her chart peg her pleasant’s opposite: difficult.
I suppose that “pleasant” is like “well nourished” in that the point is to communicate that the patient is not the opposite. In other words, that I, unlike Elaine, do not exhibit a deficit of pleasantness.
What my friend, Jet, texts back when I text her about the “pleasant female” in my exam notes: “What that tells me is that the doctor you saw was male.”
What my husband, Finn, says when I return from the clinic: “’Pleasant’ is nice. What’s your problem with ‘pleasant’?”
“Pleasant” is not a word Finn would use to describe me. This I knew well before the hard look he gives me now.
He’s annoyed that immediately after my unpleasant reaction to the new oven, my interaction with a stranger earned me this stamp of approval. He’s annoyed, too, that here I am again perceiving as an injury something he deems a nice gesture.
“It’s judgy,” I say. “What does my being pleasant or unpleasant have to do with the diagnosis and treatment of my broken toe?”
Finn shrugs. “My objection is that the word is too subjective. What is pleasant to one is often enough unpleasant to another. Also, you cannot accurately judge a person’s character in one brief interaction. His notes should read, ‘Patient’s behavior was pleasant during this examination’ or ‘patient seems pleasant.’”
I notice now that Finn removed the big red bow from the oven while I was at the clinic.
I say, “Of course, another important consideration here is that circumstances can easily render a normally pleasant person unpleasant. Being in great pain, for instance. Why do men expect women to be pleasant always no matter their circumstances?”
Finn sighs. He says, “It’s a really nice oven. Top of the line. You cook a lot. You’d been complaining about the old oven not holding its temperature. I genuinely thought you’d be happy.”
I like the oven just fine. It is a nice oven. The problem is that a household appliance that we would have bought regardless does not make a good twentieth anniversary gift.
But we’ve already been through all this. All this is how I broke my toe.
Instead, I say, “What’s that smell? Is the oven on?” I’ve been scrunching my nose up at a weird burnt chemical smell, but I’ve been too fixated on the doctor’s exam notes to interrogate it.
Finn explains that the owner’s manual said to heat the oven to 500 degrees for a couple of hours before cooking anything, to burn off any toxic chemical residue. “I took care of it while you were out. You think this is bad, you should have smelled the house an hour ago. Hence the open windows,” he says.
“So, when we turn the oven on again, this smell will be eradicated? When, for instance, you cook dinner for us, our food won’t taste toxic?”
I can count on one hand how many times Finn used the first oven we owned. He’s a terrible cook.
Finn smiles. “Could be a few days before the new smell is entirely gone. Maybe we should turn the oven on for a few more hours, eat takeout while the newness burns off entirely.”
“And you’ll go pick up the takeout while I sit on the porch and elevate and ice my toe?”
Finn fishes his phone from his pocket. “Thai?” he says, and I nod.
Then he says, “How dare that bastard call my wife ‘pleasant.’”
“Thank you,” I say.
Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections: There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award; Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (2021); and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (2022). Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and will be included in the forthcoming Norton anthology, Flash Fiction America. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review.