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"In the Waiting Room" begins with the speaker, Elizabeth, sitting in the waiting room at the dentist's office on a dark winter afternoon in Massachusetts. While she waits for her aunt, who is seeing the dentist, Elizabeth looks around and sees that the room is filled with adults. To keep herself occupied, she reads a copy of National Geographic magazine. She looks at pictures of volcanoes, famous explorers, and people very different from herself (including naked black women), and is scared by what she reads and sees.
Suddenly, she hears a cry of pain from her aunt in the dentist's office, and says that she realizes that "it was me" – that the cry was coming from her aunt, but also from herself. She imagines that she and her aunt are the same person, and that they are falling.
In an attempt to calm down, Elizabeth says to herself that she is just about to turn seven years old. She compares herself to the adults in the waiting room, and wonders if she is one of "them." She seems to realize that she is, and looking around, says that "nothing / stranger could ever happen."
Elizabeth then questions her basic humanity, and asks about the similarities between herself and others. What are the similarities between herself and her aunt? Between herself and the naked women in the magazine? How did she get where she is? What kind of connections does she have with the rest of the world?
Elizabeth is overwhelmed. The waiting room is bright and hot, and she feels like she's sliding beneath a black wave.
Finally, she snaps out of it. She remembers that World War I is still going on, that she's still in Massachusetts, and that it's still a cold and slushy night in February, 1918.