Authors: Sara Shepard
Brooklyn, New York,
Let me start off by saying that it's all right that you haven't been in touch. I understand how busy your life must be, what with your new job-your sister told me a little about it. For what it's worth, I'm extremely proud.
And I get, too, how life can snow you under so quickly. Even here, I find myself so busy. There are so many activities they encourage us to try, like ceramics, book discussions, tai chi on the front lawn-a whole crowd goes to that, thinking it will work as well as antidepressants. Recently, I took my first tennis lesson. As it gets warmer, I'll be able to practice more and more. There's something very soothing about tennis, especially thwacking the ball against a brick wall all alone.
A lot of things here make me think of you. Not long into my stay, I noticed a starling with only one leg. He managed to get around all right, but it still looked so difficult and painful. I gave him my extra crusts of bread and coaxed him to hop up on my finger. The gray cat started coming around not long after, small and skinny and with a pus-filled eye. I tried to catch her, but cats aren't like dogs-they're slaves to no one. I snagged a can of tuna and an
opener from the kitchen, opened it on the lawn, and hid behind the hedges. It took a while, but the cat finally slunk to the can and eagerly began to eat.
Not long after, there was a terrible storm, washing debris onto the walkways, knocking down branches, cutting off our power for a few hours in the middle of the night. I worried about my animals-had they found shelter? Were they cold? I worried so much, I started scratching the skin on my arms raw, and the staff had to settle me down. The following day, the animals were right back in their regular spots, hopping about, begging for food. It made me realize how much tougher animals are than humans. Kind of pathetic, really.
Since then, the people here have helped me understand why I do these kinds of things for animals, why the tug I feel inside is so powerful. I could have swerved, you see. There was time, a few, fat seconds, where I could have gripped the wheel and wrenched it to the right. I remember, all too painfully, the heaviness of the deer's body, the deafening
of impact. I will never forget that moment, or the moments that came after.
Maybe it isn't true-maybe there
no time to react. But since then, I've lived my life as though there was. So I wanted to write you to tell you that I understand, I think, what you were going through a while back. The way you felt about the military, about the bombing. How you connected it to other things. I know what it feels like to watch something happen and wish, going forward, that you could do something,
, to change at least your world, the people around you, to keep everything close to you safe. But you don't have to live that way, as you've made no fatal mistakes. You've done nothing wrong. I hope you realize that.
And maybe you don't feel that way anymore, anyway-your life seems so different, richer, at least from what
Summer has said. I hope that's the case. I hope that one day, my life will be different and richer, too, but from this vantage point, sitting here in this little room, it's so hard to know.
I sat in the waiting room at the dentist's office. It was a new dentist in Lower Manhattan; I'd switched from my old one in Brooklyn when he moved his practice to New Jersey. The office walls were painted lavender, and there were the typical array of
magazines on the coffee tables. A glossy poster across from me asked, What Are Molar Sealants? Another crowed, Let's Talk Gingivitis! The ceiling fan rattled around, its cords swinging. When I came in, the receptionist announced that the air conditioner was broken. She was very defensive, as if someone had tried to blame her for not knowing how to fix air conditioners. The room felt thick and close. It was nearly a hundred degrees outside and only June.
The door to the back opened, and an assistant in a green smock looked around. âSummer Davis?'
A few fluffy, expectant seconds passed. I knew I should stand up, but I didn't. I wasn't sure why.
âSummer Davis?' the girl called again. She looked at her clipboard, then at the receptionist. âIs Summer here?'
The receptionist swiveled the phone receiver away from her mouth and surveyed the waiting room. âI could've sworn,' she said. I picked at a nonexistent stain on my jeans.
The assistant tugged at her scrub shirt. Down the hall, the dentist turned on the suction device. I heard a tube sucking up someone's saliva. Then, the drill.
âAll right,' the assistant said, pausing to look at what must have been a roster behind the door. âHow about Marion Campbell, then? Marion, are you here?'
And Marion, an older woman whose glasses hung on a hot-pink, charm-riddled chain, stood up gratefully. When the door closed behind them, I considered telling the receptionist that I was Summer Davis, and had been all along. Just to see the look on her face. Instead, I asked her for the key code to the bathroom, which was in the office building's hall. She wrote it down on a Post-it and handed it to me wordlessly, her eyes shifting back and forth, as if it were something very dear and private.
In the bathroom, I pulled out the cell phone my father had bought for me for emergencies and called the dentist's office. âThis is Summer Davis,' I said, my voice sounding churchly and impressive in the echoing tiled room. I told the receptionist I was doing lab work and couldn't make my cleaning. The receptionist's voice, just a few walls away, sounded weary but unbothered. âHow about Wednesday?' she said. I thought for a moment-my father's procedure was tomorrow, Tuesday. It was almost impossible to think of something as mundane as a dentist's appointment happening the day after that, but I told her to pencil me in anyway.
When I hung up, I stared at myself in the spotty mirror, trying to focus on both pupils at the same time. But that was the thing-I couldn't do it. I had to concentrate on one pupil or the other. âThis is Summer Davis,' I said to the mirror. But for one brief, beguiling second, it had been sort of nice not to be.
The Greenwich Diner kept its Christmas decorations up all year, so when I passed through the swinging front door, I was greeted by an animated Mrs Claus standing on top of the hostess stand. Her white hair was in a bun, her delicate doll lips puckered into a smile, and she wore tiny, wire-framed glasses. Her legs moved back and forth, making the velvet of her red pantsuit swish. Beneath that, I heard a small squeaking noise: the plastic of her inner thighs brushing together. I felt embarrassed for her.
Dr Hughes hadn't arrived yet, so I slid into the first open booth and took out my notebook. The pamphlet fell out, the one about the fellowship.
Dr Shea is known for his connections to genetic communities around the world,
said a random snippet.
This was going to be the second time I'd met Dr Hughes, my NYU biology adviser, at this diner. It was the middle of the day, past lunch, so there were only a few old ladies in a booth behind me, all slowly drinking milkshakes. More Mrs Clauses gathered behind the counter, along with Santa and his elves and a toy train. Next to me were a bunch of dog-eared
magazines, including one I remembered on the newsstands over a year ago-Timothy McVeigh in a white sweatshirt and orange prison pants, all ready for his sentencing for the Oklahoma City bombing. He leaned forward, staring at the camera calmly, as if to say,
Why should I feel guilty for anything
? Should He Die? the headline implored.
A waiter leaned down. âCoffee?'
I jumped. âSure.'
âYou startling my students again, Victor?' Dr Hughes suddenly hovered over my table.
The waiter pulled her chair back and Dr Hughes sat. We'd met when I was in her junior-level Principles of Genetics class five months ago. Upon entering college, I gravitated to biology,
barely looking at the major requirements for English Literature or Art History. It was only natural that I would study genetics, as it had been the only thing that had held my interest for years. The first few freshman and sophomore-level biology classes were simple and basic, but once I got to Dr Hughes's level, things became complicated, full of diseases to memorize, case studies, new technical methods by which to isolate DNA, a lot of genotypes and markers and chemicals and a
of problem sets. At that level, we were learning how to look for mutations in a gene, and that these mutations could lead to dire outcomes, impacting not only our general health, but also our behavior and psychological well-being.
I'd studied harder for her class than I ever studied for anything before, gobbling up the information. A few days after the first exam, Dr Hughes had pulled me aside and told me she wanted to meet me here, at this diner. I had never said a word to her before that.
Dr Hughes had stared at me when I walked down the diner's aisle toward her. I was wearing a long skirt, and so was she. I thought perhaps she might be angry that we were dressed too similarly. When I reached her booth, she said, âYou got every question on my exam correct.'
âEvery single question?' I repeated.
âYes. No one has done that before.'
Not the group of Russian boys who sat up front and answered everything? Not the overweight girl in the back who seemed to have the textbook memorized? Not the pale, fleshy boy named Dieter who wore the athletic-inspired t-shirt that said
Watsoncrombie & Crick, Genetics Department
? I was a little bit afraid of people in the genetics class-they took themselves so seriously.
âI'm sorry.' It was the only thing I could think to say.
âDon't apologize.' She narrowed her small, brown eyes. âBut how did you get every question right?'
âI don't know. I studied.'
Her mouth fell open. Apparently, this was novel to her. I had paused, still not sure if I should sit down.
Now, Dr Hughes blotted her forehead with a napkin. âThis humidity is killing me. I need to live somewhere dry. Arizona. Or maybe California.'
âMy brother's in California,' I volunteered.
âLucky.' She clucked her tongue. âWhat's he doing out there?'
âHe's at Berkeley, taking some graduate classes. Or at least that's what he was doing last time I talked to him.' After my father told Steven that my mother had written him a letter, proving she was alive, Steven had dropped his fascination with terrorists, which made me wonder if he truly had linked the two things together. He'd taken off for California that following year. We got letters from him every once in a while-he was taking computer science classes and doing freelance work for various Internet start-ups. Everyone in Northern California, he intimated, was doing freelance work for Internet start-ups.
Dr Hughes settled down and looked at the menu, pushing up the sleeves of her thick, cable-knit sweater. She dressed more like an artist than a scientist, and had stiff, frizzy, salt-and-pepper hair, a long, thin nose, and glasses that magnified her eyes. She liked to yell at people during class, to give impossible exams, to say, on the first day, while passing out the syllabus, âWe move fast because science moves fast. If you can't keep up, I suggest you study something in the liberal arts.' She called everyone by their last name-
Davis, Cameron, Lorie.
She never specified gender, and admitted to me once that she hated how the science departments were disproportionately male.
âYou have any trouble getting down here?' Dr Hughes asked, spreading her napkin on her lap. âI heard there was a water main break uptown.'
âNo,' I said. âI only had to come across the bridge, from Brooklyn Heights.'
âAh.' She held up a crooked, bony finger. âRight. You're in Brooklyn. For some reason I keep thinking you're uptown. So many other students are, I guess.' She leaned forward. âSo. Let's talk about your fellowship application. I got everything. It all looks good.'
I blushed. âThanks.'
âYou have one more class you need to take to graduate, right?'
âIt's just an independent study. I can work on it this summer.'
âYour essays make sense. Your recommendations, of course, are impeccable. As are your grades. If you want to study genetics, Dublin is perfect right now.' She laced her fingers together. âBut there's a problem. You forgot to submit your personal statement. You read the application, right? You were supposed to include one.'
âI read it.' I scratched the back of my elbow, listening to Mrs Claus's plastic body parts squeak. âI justâ¦I didn't know what to say.'
âAnd so you just didn't include it at all?'
âThat's not like you.'
And it wasn't, from what she knew of me. For the remainder of her class, I'd aced every single one of her exams. I loved crossing green flowering plants with white flowering ones and knowing exactly what I would get. I loved locating a mutation on a gene or an indication that a certain gene to code a protein-making enzyme was present.
you want to do this?' Dr Hughes inspected me carefully.
âI do. I think I do. It's justâ¦I don't know. When I see the words,
Write a personal statement,
I just freeze up.'
She dumped some sugar into her coffee, which had magically
appeared before her. âIt's a simple paragraph. Why you like genetics. Why you want to study this before going to medical school. Why this field speaks to you. We're not talking Shakespeare.'
âPerhaps you don't feel comfortable with making a big change like this right now.'
âNo, I am,' I answered slowly. Then, realization wound around me.
I knew this, of course. I shouldn't have been so surprised.
When she leaned forward again, the vinyl booth made a helpless, merciful squeak. âI heard about your father. The type of treatment he's going to try.'
I swallowed very slowly.
âLeon mentioned it to us,' she added.
Leon was my father's partner at the lab. And Dr Hughes's husband was Leon's best friend. That first time Dr Hughes and I met here, she'd asked me if I had any other doctors in my family, and I said my father was a medical researcher, studying melanoma. She let out a note of delight and said what a coincidence; a friend of her husband's did the exact same thing. And then I laughed. âIt's not Leon Kimball, is it?' Dr Hughes's mouth parted and she said, âYes, how do you know that?' And it went from there. Afterward, my father told me he had met Dr Hughes and her husband plenty of times-she often came into the office to say hello to Leon, to pick him up so they all could go to lunch. âWhy didn't you mention it?' I asked my father angrily. âHadn't Leon told you that his best friend's wife teaches in the biology department at NYU? Isn't that something that would stick out in your mind, considering I'm a biology major?' My father had blankly shrugged, telling me not to be so hard on him, that he had a lot on his mind.
âIt starts tomorrow, doesn't it?' Dr Hughes asked gently.
âThat's right,' I answered quietly.
âDoes it make you uncomfortable that we're talking about this?'
I thought-a little sadly.
âWhere is he now?'
âHe's atâ¦home. But, I mean, he's okay. Really.'
âIt's just that, I want you to know what you'd be getting yourself into. This is an amazing opportunity for you, if you want it. But it's a lot of money we're giving away, the stipend and the travel and the tuition. Please don't think I'm trying to pressure you, or that I'm not sensitive to the magnitude of your situation right now, but there are other students who could use the scholarship if you're not interested. And it does mean you'd be in another country for quite a while. It would probably be good to know, one way or another, which way you're leaning.'
I'd known this whole time she could only sponsor one student. There were so many other people begging for this kind of attention.
âMy dad has help,' I said hoarsely. âThere's a woman there, Cora, who is sort ofâ¦I don't know. His assistant, I guess. I mean, she cleans the house, she makes sure he's taking thingsâ¦I don't know what else. But she's always there. She lives there. I arranged it. I mean, I'm there, tooâ¦and I'm going to be taking him to his actual appointments. I guess people wake up disoriented, soâ¦'
I began to pick apart my paper napkin. âIt's not as if he's reallyâ¦
He just gets sad. His brain is resistant to drugs, we think. Apparently they do theâ¦procedure all the time. They say he won't feel anything.'
I trailed off. My voice was shaking too much.
âI know that.' Dr Hughes folded her hands. âIt's none of my business. I shouldn't have brought it up.' She drained her coffee, put her napkin on the table, laid down a few crumpled bills,
and stood. I followed. âYou know what you can handle. I trust you. Just turn in the essay and the statement and I'll put in the paperwork.'