PARALLAX: Does It Hurt? By Nate Haken

PARALLAX: Seeing the same thing from two different points of view renders three dimensions.

According to Wikipedia, parallax is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight. The essays contained in PARALLAX reflect the same displacement. While the shift can be uncomfortable or jarring or even unrecognizable, a new reality is created from the old.

Morning streaks of rain darkened hospital windows.  People wandered halls. I waited for an elevator with two cops and a man with a stringy blond beard handcuffed to a stretcher who was yelling about how the fat man shot him.  The two cops didn’t say a word. Just wheeled him in when the doors slid open.  I waited for the next one.  Pedro was there when I got to the sixth floor.  I was supposed to shadow him all day long as part of my training at Cook County Hospital.

“Roger that, I’ll be right there,” he barked into his phone.  I trotted to keep up with him.  “This is a five-thousand-dollar phone, man.  This is a good fucking telephone.”

In the ER, Pedro moved from bedside to bedside, interpreting from English into Spanish into English into Spanish.

A woman was sitting on a bed with her leg extended.  There were many multicolored bumps upon her leg.  “Ask her if it hurts,” the doctor said.

“Does it hurt?” Pedro yelled at her, staring at my feet, as the doctor was still finishing his sentence.

“My leg,” she said plaintively.

“Yes, my leg. It hurts,” Pedro said with a tone just as pitiful.

The session was short.  When the doctor rolled his eyes, Pedro rolled his.  When the Puerto Rican woman gripped her head in frustration, Pedro held his own and bemoaned God’s unfaithfulness and neglect.

We pushed the curtain aside and stepped back into the strip.

“You have to be aggressive, man,” Pedro said.  “Especially with the old ladies.  They’ll talk and talk and never say a thing.  They’ll start at the end and go to the beginning.”  He shouted to illustrate his point. “Where does it hurt?” he shouted.  “Like that,” he said.  “Keep them on target.”

All day long, Pedro interpreted.  He was fast.  He interpreted faster than people could get the words out of their mouths.  He stood to the side, staring at the floor intently as he interpreted, gesturing with the gestures of the patients and the gestures of the doctors, pointing to his ear or his leg, shrugging his shoulders, or lifting his hands into the air.

The doctors were fast too.  They spat their questions with arms crossed, quietly: “Is she dizzy?  Dizzy likes she wants to fall down or like the room is turning? No that doesn’t answer my question.  Does she have a headache? Shooting pain or throbbing pain?  When did it start? When, a while ago? A year, an hour, a day, or what?  Ask her why she’s here.  Is it because of the headaches or the dizziness?

For lunch we got coffee out of a machine.  We stood in the cafeteria by the door and drank the coffee as fast as we could. “We get all kinds in here,” Pedro said to me.  “This is the place to be if you got a bad problem.  It’s no good if your problem ain’t bad though.  Don’t come here if you have a cold.” He threw his empty cup at the trashcan.  “This is a good place to be if you’re shot or have a broken bottle up your ass.”

By the end of the day, all the Spanish-speaking patients in the ER knew who Pedro was.  Dozens of people lying on stretchers, sitting in wheel chairs, or hobbling about looked hopefully at him whenever he came around a corner.  Among the crowds of people, some were always looking hopefully at Pedro.

Over the years, I interpreted for sick people, torture survivors, and political asylum seekers; jails and courts and hospitals. It’s always a little bit of both, but to tell the truth it’s hard to know sometimes if you make things more better or more worse. I remember the last time I did it, sitting across from the woman telling her prison story to the psychologist. I’ll never do that again. I was never good like Pedro.


Nate Haken was born and raised in Nigeria. He earned an MA in international communication at American University’s School of International Service and has been an interpreter for refugees and asylum seekers in the United States. Haken works at a think tank called the Fund for Peace, analyzing and forecasting violent conflict. His fiction and haiku have appeared in several journals, including Sojourners. In addition, his story “Leach Pad” won Third Place in Narrative’s Fall 2009 Story Contest. Haken lives in Maryland. Find him at @natehaken

One response to “PARALLAX: Does It Hurt? By Nate Haken

  1. Good read. In the line, “It’s always a little bit of both, but to tell the truth it’s hard to know sometimes if you make thing more better or more worse.,” should “thing” be plural? Feel free to delete this comment.


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