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Italians Don’t Swim

Updated: May 1, 2022


THE WOMAN'S SCREAMS penetrated the waiting room door, a tsunami of unbridled anguish so startling that even fish in the aquarium scurried for cover, seeking haven beneath their ceramic caves.

No doubt it was not the first time Dr. Rottenberg’s Bettas and Mollies had heard a patient cry out as he plunged a long needle deep into the canal of an infected ear. But it certainly was my first experience. The woman’s wails continued to gain altitude as my own painful left ear throbbed. I looked at my mother, hoping that, seeing the terror in her little 6-year-old’s eyes, she would sweep me up and run for our getaway car parked on Cooper Street. Instead, she put her hand on my leg and gave it a light squeeze, the kind of gesture that said, “I know you’re petrified, but you’re not going anywhere.”

There would be no grand escape on this day as Dr. Rottenberg, a short squat man of few words and little charm, got to work in his Camden Chamber of Ear, Nose and Throat Torture.

THE SESSION BEGAN with my mother sitting in the treatment chair, then me climbing onto her lap. She wrapped her arms around me, a human tourniquet, so that I couldn’t squirm, let alone run out the door as the doctor prepared to invade my inflamed inner ear with a needle-nose suction device attached to what looked like an upright vacuum cleaner. I was certain the full-body skeleton hanging in the corner of the room was a former patient who literally disintegrated at the hands of Dr. Rotten, as I came to call him. I sat firmly in my mother’s grasp while the doctor made his approach with all the delicacy of a wild buffalo: nostrils flaring as he plopped onto the chrome and pleather stool and rolled his ample self within inches of my poor afflicted ear.

“Okay, let’s take a look,” he said without the faintest attempt to calm the nerves of his ever-so-young and fearful patient.

Dr. Rotten first inserted a small device similar to a metal pastry tip into my ear canal, then he positioned a floor lamp at my side that shone a bright light at his head mirror. A calm before the awaiting storm surge of awful unrelenting pain.

What the doctor saw as he peered into my ear was a loathsome lagoon of trapped pus and blood, a fetid fountainhead of fluid that spilled onto my pillow each night. If there ever was a swamp that needed draining, this was it. And that’s when Dr. Rotten flipped the switch on the great vacuum of doom.

The motor started as a subtle hum, but as Dr. Rotten pressed his foot on a petal at the base of the machine, it began to ramp up. And when he finally thrust the long needle into my already aching ear canal I made a primal sound neither I nor my mother had ever heard before.

It did not deter Dr. Rotten, who keep the needle steady as the vacuum continued suctioning my ear, along with what felt like my entire brain. I was full-out screaming now. Just like the woman I had heard from the waiting room.

“Doctor, don’t! Doooon’t!”

My mother was traumatized and squeezed me as hard as she could. But it did not stop Dr. Rotten. It did not stop the pain.

Then, as reality set in and it became clear there would be no escape, my mother decided the situation called for reverse psychology.

“Say it doesn’t hurt!” she commanded.

At first I had a hard time focusing on her instruction. She kept insisting.

Rosemary! Say it doesn’t hurt! Say it! It doesn’t hurt!”

But IT DOES HURT!

Denial was always my mother’s best medicine. So, when faced with the horror of Dr. Rotten’s assault, she decided screaming something that obviously was not true would be just the right remedy.

BY NOW I WAS CRYING hysterically. Dr. Rotten was unmoved. The machine was relentless in its pursuit of the infectious ooze. There was nothing left to do but wish it true … say it.

At first the words came out as a halting whimper. “It … doesn’t …. hurt. It … doesn’t … hurt.”

As the whirring continued and the fever in my ear grew more intense, my chant grew louder. “It doesn’t hurt!”

Soon I was howling: “IT DOESN’T HURT! IT DOESN’T HURT! IT DOESN’T HURT! IT DOESN’T HURT!

I don’t remember how long the child abuse went on. Time lived only in the monstrous moment. But it was clear that Dr. Rotten would not be satisfied until he had sucked out every drop of viscus liquid trapped in my ear. Only then would he remove the needle and finally turn off the vacuum. Though it seemed as if that moment would never come, at some merciful point it did.

I continued sitting on my mother’s lap, now just a broken, tear-soaked little person. Dr. Rotten told me I was “very brave.” It was the only humanity he showed during the ordeal. And then, with his fat stubby fingers, he roughly shoved a big wad of cotton in my ear.

“Don’t get your ear wet,” he said sternly. “And don’t swim!”

Don’t swim.

Why would I do that? It was February. And even if I wanted to recklessly plunge into a near-frozen lake, there wasn’t a body of water within 15 miles of our suburban New Jersey home.

Besides, my mother would never let me swim. Doesn’t he know Italians don’t swim? Their paranoid and ever so slightly insane Italian mothers forbid it. Much too dangerous. You could die!

As we shuffled back to the waiting room, I was still clinging to my mother. At the front desk, mom paid the bill and the receptionist asked, “Same day and time next week?”

What? We’re doing this again?

“No! Mommy, please!” I wailed.

“Shhhsh,” was all she said. And the deed was done.

As we turned to leave, I saw a slight, middle-aged man sitting quietly with a dog-eared magazine folded on his lap. There was an expression of dread on his face.

He was next.

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