Nine Perfect Strangers - Liane Moriarty



“I’m fine,” said the woman. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

She didn’t look fine to Yao.

It was his first day as a trainee paramedic. His third call-out. Yao wasn’t nervous, but he was in a hypervigilant state because he couldn’t bear to make even an inconsequential mistake. When he was a child, mistakes had made him wail inconsolably, and they still made his stomach cramp.

A single bead of perspiration rolled down the woman’s face, leaving a snail’s trail through her makeup. Yao wondered why women painted their faces orange, but that was not relevant.

“I’m fine. Maybe just twenty-four-hour virus,” she said, with the hint of an Eastern European accent.

“Observe everything about your patient and their environment,” Yao’s supervisor, Finn, had told him. “Think of yourself as a secret agent looking for diagnostic clues.”

Yao observed a middle-aged, overweight woman with pronounced pink shadows under distinctive sea-green eyes and wispy brown hair pulled into a sad little knot at the back of her neck. She was pale and clammy, her breathing ragged. A heavy smoker, judging by her ashtray scent. She sat in a high-backed leather chair behind a gigantic desk. It seemed like she was something of a bigwig, if the size of this plush corner office and its floor-to-ceiling harbor views were any indication of corporate status. They were on the seventeenth floor and the sails of the Opera House were so close you could see the diamond-shaped cream and white tiles.

The woman had one hand on her mouse. She scrolled through emails on her oversized computer screen, as if the two paramedics checking her over were a minor inconvenience, repairmen there to fix a PowerPoint. She wore a tailored navy business suit like a punishment, the jacket pulled uncomfortably tight across her shoulders.

Yao took the woman’s free hand and clipped a pulse oximeter onto her finger. He noted a shiny, scaly patch of reddish skin on her forearm. Pre-diabetic?

Finn asked, “Are you on any medication, Masha?” He had a chatty, loose manner with patients, as if he were making small talk at a barbecue, beer in hand.

Yao noticed that Finn always used the names of patients, whereas Yao felt shy talking to them as though they were old friends, but if it enhanced patient outcomes, he would learn to overcome his shyness.

“I am on no medication at all,” said Masha, her gaze fixed on the computer. She clicked on something decisively, then looked away from her monitor and back up at Finn. Her eyes looked like they’d been borrowed from someone beautiful. Yao assumed they were colored contact lenses. “I am in good health. I apologize for taking up your time. I certainly didn’t ask for an ambulance.”

“I called the ambulance,” said a very pretty, dark-haired young woman in high heels and a tight checked skirt with interlocking diamond shapes similar to the Opera House tiles. The skirt looked excellent on her but that was obviously of no relevance right now, even though she was, technically, part of the surrounding environment Yao was meant to be observing. The girl chewed on the fingernail of her little finger. “I’m her PA. She … ah …” She lowered her voice as if she were about to reveal something shameful. “Her face went dead white and then she fell off her chair.”

“I did not fall off my chair!” snapped Masha.

“She kind of slid off it,” amended the girl.

“I momentarily felt dizzy, that is all,” said Masha to Finn. “And then I got straight back to work. Could we cut this short? I’m happy to pay your full, you know, cost or rate, or however it is you charge for your services. I have private health insurance, of course. I just really don’t have time for this right now.” She turned her attention back to her assistant. “Don’t I have an eleven o’clock with Ryan?”

“I’ll cancel him.”

“Did I hear my name?” said a man from the doorway. “What’s going on?” A guy in a too-tight purple shirt swaggered in carrying a bundle of manila folders. He spoke with a plummy British accent, like he was a member of the royal family.

“Nothing,” said Masha. “Take a seat.”

“Masha is clearly not available right now!” said the poor PA.

Yao sympathized. He didn’t appreciate flippancy about matters of health, and he thought his profession deserved more respect. He also had a strong aversion to spiky-haired guys with posh accents who wore purple shirts a size too small to show off their overly developed pecs.

“No, no, just sit down, Ryan!