Because he lives near the hospital where I work, I spend every Wednesday evening at the apartment of a 78-year-old man who has emphysema. He waits for the sound of my key in the lock. As soon as I step through the door it begins: harassment, jokes, evasions, lies.
“What did you do today?” I ask him, dropping my bag and kicking my shoes off onto the rug.
“I walked the dog.” He sips at the air and exhales while he talks. I know he hasn’t left the apartment. His dog has been dead for several years.
I head for the kitchen and line up the pills he’s supposed to be taking: the alpha-blocker for prostate, the blood-pressure meds, the simvastatin for high cholesterol, the vitamins, the baby aspirin. This last is a challenge: he’s insulted to have been prescribed a children’s chewable.
“You’re later than usual today,” he says. I hear him shuffling from the rug onto the linoleum behind me. His apartment consists of two small bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, and a carpeted hallway that smells of smoke. He used to smoke. “Busy day at the clinic?”
I pull the plastic off two microwave dinners and refuse to answer.
“I used to lose track of the days,” he says. Both his hands shake as if he were trying to open a pair of jars. “But not anymore. You probably never lose track. I bet you always know when it’s Wednesday.”
“Are you asking me about my job?”
“No,” he says. “That’s not a job.”
I pour him half a glass of Ensure, which he ignores.
“It’s vulgar,” he says.
“It isn’t vulgar.” Of course we’ve been over this before but because of his age and his selective memory I revive all the usual arguments: Mechanics take their own cars apart. Dental students rehearse in each other’s mouths.
“It’s not your mouth they’re staring at, is it?” He picks up his pills and swallows the first one, his spine as stiff as a crochet hook. “I hope you aren’t doing it for the money. How would that be different from prostitution?”
During an earlier and more experimental period of my life, I briefly dabbled in prostitution, but he doesn’t know that.
“Hey. What’s the difference between deer nuts and beer nuts?” he asks.
The microwave dings.
“Deer nuts,” he says, beginning to laugh without making noise, “are under a buck.” I open the refrigerator and locate a beer. I try not to think about the evening ahead of us.
“Ever seen mothballs?” he asks.
“No. The food’s ready.”
“It isn’t easy,” he says. “You have to lift those tiny wings.”
I put the two dinners and two forks on the enamel tabletop, then drink at least half of my beer before sitting down.
He gradually eases himself into his chair. His expression sours. “You don’t need to come here anymore if it’s so unpleasant.”
“Fine. I won’t.” I put my napkin on my lap. The Salisbury steak in its rectangular compartment is completely tasteless; I chew it as if it were a piece of gum. “Are you going to eat anything?” I ask. “Or are you just going to sit there?”
A couple of his thick, blunt fingers reach for my beer. “When your mother died,” he says, “you apparently lost your sense of humor.”
“I never had a sense of humor, Dad,” I say.
It isn’t exactly hard work, being a professional female patient. Every Wednesday at 3:15 I finish my classes (Introduction to Biology, Writing 2, and Family and Consumer Science) at the community college, then drive across town to the medical school/hospital complex, where I park in the visitors lot, flash my ID badge at the entrance, and head for the clinic. I strip off my clothes and stash them in a locker. I wash up. Then I put on a blue gown printed with shooting stars, and take my place on the paper-covered table in Exam Room 9.
The students and interns trickle into the room in groups of two or three so they can learn from each other. They’re training in OB-GYN, in family practice, internal medicine, emergency medicine, even pediatrics. Some, as soon as the door closes behind them, are nervous laughers (where’s the hidden camera?), as if they suspect they might be the objects of a joke. Others, usually the women, are annoyingly reverent. I’ve seen plenty of hands tremble when they reach for the cotton bow to untie my gown.
There is a proper order to these things, a protocol.
“May I look at your breasts?” Against the protocol. (“I’m going to examine your breasts” is preferred.)
Eye contact with several fingers in the vagina? Against the protocol.
Icy speculum? “Take that out right now and warm it under water,” I say.
It’s my job to teach them and to correct them. They’re the ones with the knowledge, the brains, the future salaries. But for now, in a marvelous one-of-a-kind reversal of roles, I’m the one in charge. “Introduce yourself,” I say when they forget. “Start again. Shake my hand, then wash your hands—not the other way around.” I remind them to ask me about my allergy to latex. I tell them to describe what they’re doing and to be straightforward, even to imagine that the patient, who can’t see what they’re doing (I have a mirror but I don’t always use it), might be blind. “Now I’m going to guide your left foot over here. Let your knees fall apart. I’m going to cover you with a drape, across your thighs.”
I don’t let them neglect or forget anything. I tell them to remember it alphabetically: breasts, cervix, ovaries, uterus. Lying on my back, I take them through it, one exam at a time. “You’re pinching,” I say. “Move your left hand.” Some of them are half-asleep on their feet. They work like dogs.
My mother died of ovarian cancer. My father called me (I was living several hours away with a friend) to say she wasn’t feeling well; she was dead a month later. My father and I spent the week in which she was nearly comatose on morphine arguing in the hall outside her room.
I told him I was going to move back home. But my father and I couldn’t live together, so I would find my own apartment. I had decided that I wanted to take some classes, maybe go to college. “I’m hoping you can pay for my education,” I said. “I know you set some money aside.”
“You’re standing here asking me for money,” my father said.
A woman in scrubs steered a gurney around us.
“What happened to your other plans?” he asked. “What happened to traveling around the country, doing drugs and getting arrested?”
“It was a misdemeanor,” I said.
On the other side of the door, which was ajar, my mother’s head was thrown back; her mouth was open. She appeared to be swallowing daylight, filling her body with as much of it as she could hold.
“She’ll want to know what you’re up to,” my father said. “You could go ask her what she thinks.”
Through the half-open door I watched my mother summoning radiance from all four corners of her room: from the window and the tile floor and the diaphanous hanging curtains and their silver rings, all the light in the world assembling itself and funneling toward her.
“It’s too late for me to ask her anything,” I said. A thin wire of rage lit up within me. “You should have known she was sick.”
“I’m not doing so well myself,” my father said.