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Authors: Hilma Wolitzer

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BOOK: The Doctor's Daughter
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I laughed, attempting to sound sardonic. “You shouldn’t smoke,” I said with my father’s imperious inflection.
And get a haircut,
I almost added; his dark curls were in a tumult around his attentive face.

He flicked the cigarette into the snow below the porch. “Okay,” he said. “I won’t.”

“Good night,” I told him, and made my way carefully down the icy steps. But this time he didn’t come after me.

As Arthur and I became more deeply involved, the news from Riverdale grew more and more harrowing. Arthur was with me in my bed on Church Street when my father called and asked me to come home. “Daddy!” I cried. “What are you saying?”

Arthur gave me a questioning look, and I threw myself against him. He stroked my back and kissed my hair, while I finished my sobbing conversation with my father.

All they could offer my mother now was palliative treatment, something for the pain, something else for her spirits. It would probably be just weeks now, my father said in a weary, heartbroken voice, and she wanted to see me. Arthur offered to go, too, for the weekend, anyway, but I told him not to, that he needed to study. And I went home by myself.

I was shocked, not just by what had happened to my mother in my absence, but that I had been absent while it happened, and by what I had been doing during that time—writing my passionate little tales, and talking and talking about fiction, that inadequate imitation of life.

My father had referred all of his surgeries to colleagues, and he kept my mother at home, in a hospital bed in their bedroom. He hired nurses for two twelve-hour shifts each day, and he and Faye and I all took our own turns at her bedside. My mother had wanted to see me, but I wasn’t supposed to see her. Don’t look, sweetheart. Come back later, okay?

She had never let me see her scar, either, and I’d finally resorted to searching out post-op photos in one of my father’s medical books, like a kid sneaking peeks at something pornographic behind her parents’ backs. But the photos reminded me most of mug shots—the dispassionate faces, the defeated posture.

I wanted to ask my mother everything I had neglected to ask during those lost, languorous years.
Mother, were you happy? What did you
really want? Have I disappointed you?
But she asked all the questions and they only skimmed the surface of things, as if this were an ordinary spring-break visit and we still had plenty of time to catch up. So I babbled about Arthur and school, and even about the weather, in that weatherproof room—a failed Scheherazade who couldn’t keep anyone alive with her stories.

When the screaming began, only my father and one of the nurses stayed with her. I’d go to my old room, preserved like a shrine to my girlhood, and shut the door. Sometimes I’d cover my ears and even hum, but I could still hear everything, even the pleading, mollifying woodwind of his voice under hers. And, as if we still shared a bloodstream, I always knew the very moment the morphine hit home, temporarily quelling the fire. I wept when I saw my father’s face after those sessions, but I had murderous feelings toward him, as well, because he had let this happen, because he’d let it go on for so long. It took almost four weeks before it was finally over.

Arthur wasn’t at the Cedar Rapids Airport when I arrived. I hadn’t really expected him to be; although we’d spoken on the phone every day since I was gone, I’d never told him exactly when I was coming back. It was a very late flight—we were delayed by a snowstorm in Chicago—and the terminal was empty, except for a few people waiting to meet other passengers. I stood and watched as they embraced and departed. The ticket counters and the car rental places were closed, and there were no taxis on hand. By the time my suitcase came down the chute, only three or four stragglers were left, and soon they were gone, too. I wondered if I’d be able to get a taxi when I phoned, and knew belatedly that I should have asked someone for a ride before the terminal emptied.

Then the door swung open and Everett Carroll came through, stamping snow off his boots and calling my name. He was carrying a small paper sack. I was too surprised and grateful at that moment to ask how he knew when I was arriving. Much later he admitted that he’d done a little homework, asking around and checking with the airline on a regular basis. But then he just grabbed my suitcase and handed me the paper sack.

In the parking lot, he curled his free hand around the back of my neck, laying his claim to me and offering consolation at once. My thighs trembled as we walked, from jet lag, I supposed, and the layover. From longing. There were bagels in the sack, Iowa bagels, and they felt hard and cold through the paper. The heater in Ev’s car was broken and I had to wipe the fogged-up windshield with my sleeve every time we spoke. We didn’t speak all that much, though. When we got to my apartment, we warmed the bagels in the toaster oven and they were wonderful.


“Good morning, M! Alas, no e-mail from you today, just the usual unbeatable offers to refinance my mortgage and enlarge my penis. The new pages are simply splendid! I only have some semantic nitpicking, which I’ll send on. Does Joe have a nickname for Caitlin? Please don’t let it be Cat! Cheers, A.”

Out of habit, I looked over my message to Michael with a critical eye, sharpening my mental red pencil as I read. Three exclamation points—I sounded like a teenager on speed, so I deleted the first two. Then the word
looked startling on the screen, even in that ridiculous context, and why had I commented so plaintively about not hearing from him; he wasn’t my pen pal, he wasn’t
to write to me. I deleted that entire sentence, and the word
from the next one. What was left had the economy of a telegram; the art of letter writing had clearly been sacrificed to the convenience of technology.

I remembered the letters my mother had received from that poetry editor in Massachusetts, and how effortless and friendly they’d seemed. Even his handwritten signature, his carelessly scrawled given name, imparted a sense of closeness between them. “Yours always, Tom.” In comparison, “M” and “A,” in neat, legible Courier 10 font, might have been distant relatives in a Russian novel, and “Cheers” came across as utterly phony and ironically cheerless. I moved the cursor back down to the closing of my message to Michael, deleted it, and typed in “Yours, Alice.”

Ev came into the room, knotting his tie, and I shut my laptop so quickly I caught my fingers. “Ow,” I said, shaking them.

“You okay?” he asked.

Yeah, I thought, except for this one-sided cyber affair I seem to be having, not to mention cancer in my breast and a sensation of disaster right next to it. But all I told Ev was that I was feeling a little achy, which wasn’t completely untrue, and he offered to bring me some tea and Tylenol before he left for work. I waved him away, saying I’d be fine, that I just had to go back to bed and sleep it off.

As soon as I said it, it seemed like a good idea. It was early, not even nine yet, and my appointment at the radiologist’s wasn’t until noon. There was plenty of time. I hadn’t mentioned the appointment to Ev, and he couldn’t really be expected to remember on his own that another year of grace was up. The more casually I treated the whole business, the less spooked I felt by it.

But I couldn’t fall asleep again, so I began rereading Michael’s new pages in bed. During Joe’s moonlight swim with Caitlin, she darts away from him in the water, appearing and disappearing like a silvery fish. Michael wrote, “When she truly vanished years later, I always imagined her in water, swimming just out of sight, out of my grasp, swimming for her life. What have I done?”

I think I dozed off for a moment or two, and then something strange happened: my mother came suddenly and urgently to mind, as if she were swimming alongside Caitlin, a couple of restless ghosts in search of . . . What? Justice? Retribution? Peace? I felt oddly excited and nervous. God, maybe the thing that was wrong with me was a

At ten o’clock I called Violet, with the idea of presenting all of this to her as an actual dream that required her expert interpretation. She relished those rare concessions I made to the role of the unconscious in my life. But after several rings her machine picked up, and I was treated to a few bars of hip-hop followed by Violet’s throaty voice saying, “Hi, you’ve reached Nirvana. Well, actually you’ve missed me, so leave the usual details.”

“Oh, grow up,” I muttered after the beep. Then I called Scott, who worked the late shift at Tower on Fridays, and of course I woke him up. “Ma,” he bleated. “God, what time is it?” He sounded as if he were being smothered with his pillow.

“Time to rise and shine, sunbeam,” I sang, eliciting another, more protracted groan. He’d hated my saying that when he was a child, too, so why was I needling him after waking him up? Before I could stop myself, I added, breathlessly, “Scotty, Dad can’t find one of his paperweights, the blue-and-white swirly one? You didn’t happen to see it when you were here, did you?”

“What?” he said.

“Nothing. Go back to sleep. Forget it.”

“God,” he said again. “What is it, Friday?” And seconds later I could hear that unmistakable even, open-mouthed breathing. Well, at least he hadn’t asked me for any more money.

I took a shower, remembering not to use talc or deodorant afterward. Then I sat down in my terry robe at the computer again. I logged onto the Internet and asked Google to search out
Thomas Roman
There were pages and pages of hits. Someone named Buddy
was selling “genuine” Bible
with authentication from the
Church; a college fraternity home page posted news: “
Roman leaves,
replaces him as Prez;” a literary site offered poems by
Hardy, including “The
Road” and “During Wind and Rain,” with the line “How the sick
reel down in throngs!” And so on. What did I expect to find, anyway? Some of Tom Roman’s letters to my mother were written more than forty years ago; he might be dead by now, too, and I had no idea what I would do if I discovered he was still alive.

But I refined my search, typing in “Leaves Literary Magazine” and “Thomas Roman,” carefully enclosing each phrase in quote marks, and came up with only one match, but a perfect one. Tom Roman—my mother’s Tom Roman, I was certain of it—lived in Vergennes, Vermont, now, and sold back issues of
from his home. I hoped that wasn’t his sole means of support. I placed an order for all of the issues between 1961, the date of his earliest letter to her, and 1978, the year of her death, thinking, that should make his day. Then I opened the “contact us” link and began to compose an e-mail message. “Dear Thomas Roman, you don’t know me, but I believe you were a friend of my mother’s.”

My fingers were still suspended over the keyboard, but I couldn’t think of what to say next. Should I mention my mother’s death? It would be a bizarrely belated announcement: “I’m sorry to inform you that Helen died twenty-seven years ago . . .” And maybe she had written to him about her illness and he’d figured the rest out for himself when he stopped hearing from her. Or maybe he’d seen a notice of her death.

“How is your back?” he’d once written to her, and he’d called her “love.” Their exchanges were personal as well as professional, and there were so many letters from him in that folder. Could they have been more than just friends?

Where had
idea come from? From my own wild imagination, no doubt. Asking after someone’s health was just plain courtesy, and
really a mild and not uncommon term of affection; my dentist’s assistant called
that. And I hadn’t read anything else that suggested a more intimate relationship between my mother and Tom Roman. But there might have been hidden messages, written between the lines, or other letters from him that she had destroyed. A little quiver ran up my spine as I envisioned those letters curling and melting in the flames of one of our Riverdale fireplaces, just as my father came into the room, carrying a Gibson and whistling Mozart.

I was acutely aware of my beating heart, which seemed to be keeping perfect time with the cursor flashing on the screen. Then the phone jangled, and I deleted what I’d just written, hastily, as if I were the one destroying incriminating evidence. “Hey,” Violet said. “What’s your problem?”

“Oh, you got my message. Sorry, I’m just overtired, I guess—I had such a weird dream. Listen, what are you doing today?”

“Working. Why?”

She was always working. I wanted to tell her that I was on the verge of some sort of psychological breakthrough. And I was going to say that I was frightened, and ask if she’d go to the radiologist’s with me, but I found myself unable to say any of that. She would probably end up nagging me again about seeing a therapist, which she’d been doing fairly regularly since my little outburst at lunch. “I don’t know,” I said lamely. “I thought we’d play or something.”

“Don’t you have anything else to do?” Violet said, the ant scolding the grasshopper. “How are the books coming, Doctor?” The question was sardonic and sincere at the same time. Years ago, when I abandoned my own writing, Violet was dismayed, but when I took up editing, she’d deemed it a reasonably healthy defense mechanism.

“Stop calling me that,” I said. “The books are coming along fine, I guess.”

? Don’t you know?”

“Yes, yes, I do. They’re going swimmingly, they’re going like gang-busters, like a house afire!”

“Jesus, Allie,” Violet said. “Call me back when you’re feeling civil again, okay?”

“Sorry,” I said. “Sorry. It’s probably only a little distemper. I haven’t had my shots. And then there was this stupid dream . . .”

“All right then, you’re forgiven,” Violet told me. “I’ve got to go, anyway.” And before I could say anything else, she hung up. The phone rang again immediately, and I picked it up and said, “Talk about
” There was a significant pause before a man’s resolutely cheerful voice said, “Good morning, ma’am! How are you doing today? I’m calling on behalf of your neighborhood Cancer Care drive—”

“Sorry, can’t help you,” I said, briskly. “I have cancer myself.” Then I shut off the ringer on the phone and went back to the computer and wrote, “Dear Thomas Roman, I am writing a memoir about my mother, the late Helen Brill. You published some of her poems in your journal
between the early 1960s and the late 1970s. I’ve just ordered back issues for that period, which might include work of hers that I’m not aware of. If you can offer any personal remembrances, anecdotes, etc. about her, they would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance. Yours, Alice Brill.”

I was definitely getting better at this, at prevaricating and putting out bulletins from my fevered brain. To atone for the former, I picked up my journal and actually wrote a few brief lines about my mother—about her handwriting, the sound of her footsteps, her doubled self at the dressing table mirror—the stuff of a beginning workshop exercise, elements of character, that sort of thing. And I made notes on a couple of incidents: the broken glass on Halloween, a picnic in Chilmark made dramatic by a thunderstorm.

I remembered the only time I’d ever seen my mother angry with my father. She had been at her desk, working, and he called her name from another room. When she didn’t answer right away, he called again, impatiently, and she yelled, “For God’s sake, Sam, what do you
?” I think we were all astonished by her outburst.

I read back what I had written; it wasn’t bad, and it wasn’t really good, but I recognized the particular pleasure of having set something down. Then I yawned; what an exhausting morning it had been. I might have been doing manual labor instead of hanging around in my bathrobe, doodling and being rude on the phone and sending self-conscious e-mails to strangers, like a latter-day Herzog in drag. I stretched out across the bed and settled Ev’s pillows and mine all around me in a makeshift nest. My eyes closed against the bars of slanted light coming in through the blinds. I told myself to just get up and get out of there, but it was like talking to Scott on a school-day morning, trying to force an inert object into action. Time to rise and shine, sunbeam.
Five more minutes, Ma,
he used to beg.
Five more minutes,
I agreed, and slid swiftly down the tunnel into sleep.

When I woke, the room was in shadow, and I could see the mute and frantic red pulse of the answering machine across the room. I was afraid to look at the clock and even more afraid of playing my messages. But I finally did both. It was almost four o’clock, and there were three messages. The first one was from Marsha at the doctor’s office. “Ms. Brill,” she said in the severest of tones. “It is twelve thirty, and you are now half an hour late for your appointment. Please call me
” The second message had come in twenty minutes later. “Hello. This is Mrs. Hernandez, the eighth-floor nursing supervisor at the Hebrew Home for the Aged. Please call me in reference to your father, Samuel Brill.” The third call was a hang-up, the ensuing hum laden with ominous possibilities.

I had missed my mammogram, which was something like missing a plane that might have gone on to crash. I wondered what Mrs. Hernandez wanted. She seemed to be obligated by law or malpractice insurance to inform me of anything untoward in my father’s life, from an ingrown toenail to his sudden death. Her voice was always the same—level and courteous—no matter what she was reporting, and I felt my heart swoop a little, the way it used to when the school nurse phoned about one of the kids.

Yet I called Marsha back first, and began offering excuses and apologies before she could uncoil and strike. “Marsha? It’s Alice Brill. Gosh, I feel absolutely
Believe me, I didn’t forget my appointment. I just woke up this morning feeling so achy, I went right back to sleep. It was like a stupor, I must be running a fever.”
Feel my head, I think I’m burning up.

When I was a kid, it was just the sort of easy lie that was bound to bring on suitable punishment. If you cut school and explained that your grandmother had died, well, then, your perfectly healthy grandmother dropped dead in her kitchen the very next day. I put one hand to my cool forehead and then to each of my neglected breasts in an irreverent genuflection. And I listened, in the requisite docile silence, as Marsha reprimanded me, advising that I would have to pay a no-show fee and couldn’t possibly be rescheduled for another three months. That heartless bitch; did she want a note from my mother?

If my father were alive, I thought, she’d fit me in a hell of a lot sooner.
If my father were alive.
Maybe I really was sick. I meant, of course, if he were still practicing, but that didn’t make much sense, either. I’d never taken advantage of so-called professional courtesy, and even now I didn’t make a plea for special dispensation by mentioning the thickening in my breast. I simply accepted another appointment—in mid-September, a different season—practically promising to engrave the date in my flesh.

BOOK: The Doctor's Daughter
12.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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