Only in America

People always ask me what I miss most about the US when I am in Russia. And my usual answer, besides family and friends, is nothing. If I’m trying to be cheeky I may answer something like the free refills or all you can eat breadsticks at Olive Garden, ice cubes in my pop or the nonexistent public transportation system. But in reality, the material comforts available in Russia are pretty much the same as in the US.

But once in awhile the US surprises me with its ingenuity and efficiency (not hard to do when compared to Russia). As part of the onerous business and student visa application, I must include endless paperwork, passport photos, an official entry invitation from the Russian government, and a negative response HIV certificate. Yes, an HIV test. When I applied for my Russian student visa last fall I frequented Planned Parenthood in Lower East Side Manhattan. I had originally planned on going to my regular doctor in NYC but kept putting off the call. The long hours of my job in NYC required me to make the call from my cubicle and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it…

Me: “Umm hi Doctor Berger’s office? Yeah. Um I need to make an appointment.”

Nurse: “Ok. What kind of appointment?”

Me: “You know to check to see if I have mumble mumble mumble”

Nurse: “I’m sorry I didn’t catch that. You need a pregnancy test?”

Me: “Oh good god no. I need a mumble mumble mumble” 

Nurse: “Honey you are going to need to speak up. I do not read minds.”



In order to avoid that awkwardness, I signed up online for the 30-second swab test at Planned Parenthood. Awkwardness free and only $60! I scheduled the appointment for the following Friday, which happened to follow the last work outing, hosted by my favorite reps ever, that I would attend. At the time I thought nothing of it, but as I went to bed at 4am Friday morning after countless negronis, tapas, vodka shots, korean karaoke rooms, champagne and beer, the last thing I wanted to do was hoof it downtown at 7am to make my 8am appointment. If you were ever wondering what is the fastest way to sober up for work after a late night out, just frequent a Planned Parenthood at 8am. Quite sobering, I can assure you.

This time around, due to the more limited PP resources available in Northern Illinois, I decided to forego that route and found a same-day testing facility only 2 miles from my house. I called it up and made an appointment for the next week. A 130% premium on the last test but I couldn’t beat the convenience. On the appointed day, I set out with my directions. I arrived at where the testing facility should be, a series of strip mall buildings in front of a Walmart and found no signs of any medical testing facilities. I called the testing center hotline.

Me: “Hello, yes, I have an appointment today at 1205 Route 31 and I can’t seem to find it.”

Telephone Operator: “Hmm, one moment. Let me find the information of that facility…Oh yes, it’s in the Walmart there. ”

Me: “The Walmart? It’s in the Walmart?”

I parked the car and walked into the Walmart and there it was. One of the little stores behind the checkout lines. I walked up to the desk and checked in with the kind-looking Indian man behind the counter. While I waited in the makeshift reception room, sitting in a cheap plastic chair, trying to ignore the inquisitive stares of the children in the checkout lines and  politely refusing the offers of snacks from the receptionist, I thought about how {expletive} weird this was. An HIV test in Walmart? And by the looks of the literature next to me, a paternity test too? And why does that man keep offering me crackers?. I’m all for convenience but the idea of taking an STD test in the same facility that I can buy fresh produce and a Christmas toy for my 2 year old niece kind of weirded me out. I’m positive that in 20 years we will be doing everything in Walmart, from giving birth to our children to writing wills. Why not? They have the cheapest prices in town and cost is king.

I left the Walmart ten minutes later, my left elbow tender from the test, ruminating on what just happened. Is this a step in the right direction? The consolidation of goods and services in one convenient place? Or does the integration of some of our most private experiences with our most public simply act as a harbinger for our doomed, Facebook-centric society?

I definitely couldn’t answer that question, and still can’t, but I did know one thing. That night at dinner, I would be able to look my father in the eye and tell him that I am HIV free.


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