I notice the name on the waiting room
tab; it’s not a remarkable name,
but one I remember
from elementary school
I remember his heavy brows,
which met in the middle
He had sharp cheekbones and
enraged brown eyes
I can almost hear him crying, the way
he always did when the teacher
grabbed him by the arm and
hauled him out of the classroom
his uniform was always dirty, and his mom
looked like she never combed her hair

But now he’s forty-two and waiting to
see me, the doctor
when I enter the cubicle,
I know it’s the boy I remember
his cheekbones, sharper now, slice
across his ravaged face, which
no longer looks fierce, just
wistful and worn

I don’t tell him who I am,
(that I know who he really is)
I let him show me his ailments,
the weeping wounds and hot red welts
where he’d missed with the needle
he tells me what he needs–to beat it,
this time for real because
thirty years is just too long and
he is tired

I examine him, touching his
wounds with gloved hands,
my hand on his shoulder while I listen
to his heart
it’s strange, touching this person
whom I know but never touched

He scared me in fifth grade, he was
intense and disobedient, and I
compliant and smart and not one
to pay attention to boys like him
I didn’t touch and didn’t talk
to boys like him
but now, I touch
the wounds scattered over
his feet, his legs, his face
I pull my hand back when he winces

Finally, I mention the name of our
our shared teacher
Do you remember me?
he must, for he
bows his head and blushes
and in that moment
we fall into familiar patterns
looking in different directions while
refusing to let our eyes meet again

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"On Being Different"

Rachel Mallalieu is an emergency physician and mother of five. She writes poetry in her spare time. Her poetry has been featured or is forthcoming in Blood and Thunder, New Verse News, Haunted Waters Press, Ricochet Journal, Love’s Executive Order, Nelle and Rattle.

About the Poem

“I practice in a town that’s close to where I grew up. It’s often disconcerting to take care of people I once knew, and to see where our decisions have taken us in life.”


10 thoughts on “Flashback”

  1. The poem fantastic! Thank you. I would wonder, especially given the empathic tone of the poem, if “About the poem “ undermines it. Where “life takes us” is not always, or even usually, due only to our decisions. As the poem implies, it depends on conditions, biology, culture etc. His mother’s uncombed hair. As a physician who with folks w addiction and/or incarceration, I often say, “if I had your life, I’d be here too.” Of course, I follow that with, “Where to from here?” So decisions come back into play.

    1. I totally agree with that! I know his beginnings and it’s not difficult to see how it ended in the now. I was trying to convey how strange it is to know people’s most intimate secrets when you already “know” them for somewhere, but I agree with your assessment.

      1. And you did convey that… very nicely. Thanks for responding to my rant ;-). As you can see, I’m allergic to the “blame game” so often used in regards to my patients. So when I saw the word “decision,” I reacted. Because, yes, it’s decisions, but as you say, it’s so much more! Your poem speaks well to that, as well as the awkwardness of the moment, and I’d love to use it in my teaching.

    2. I agree with Janice so much. Clearly the boy came from an unstable family situation with a possibly addicted mother, and if they had been placed into each other’s households, she might be the one in his shoes. He did not have the good fortune she did.

      1. Yes, and I totally recognize that, which is why I referenced his childhood. I am so lucky! I think my “about the poem” could’ve been more clear. I really was thinking about how strange it is to already know who someone is, even as their darkest secrets are known to me. He didn’t remember me until I mentioned it.

  2. Rachel, Your poem is evocative and haunting. It brings to life the horrors of our heroin epidemic. May God bless you with continual empathy and the gift of healing body, soul, and spirit. For this poem is all about Spirit from beginning to end. MOM

  3. Terry Hourigan, R.N.

    Your story provoked involuntary shudders
    from similar struggles, in and out of my former practice.
    I’m indebted for your leading me back to “Just Mercy:”
    “Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative
    when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who
    haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the
    most meaningful recipients of our compassion.”
    – Bryan Stevenson

  4. Henry Schneiderman

    This is a stunningly effective and touching poem. It so captures the heart of what one feels in the difficult interaction tinged with embarrassed recognition and tact. So grateful that you wrote it and that Pulse published it!

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Call for Entries​

Pulse Writing Contest​​

"On Being Different"