Authors: Ida Hattemer-Higgins
Margaret glanced over it, and then over it once again. The strange show of familiarity in the second paragraph puzzled her. “You and I have not always seen eye to eye.” More perhaps than a medical doctor was in the habit of expressing to a patient.
Margaret took the letter up into her apartment.
She went to make tea, but waiting for the water to boil, pushed by an unseen hand, she came back almost instantly to the whispering letter. She reread it, tracing its grain with her fingertip. The letter gave off a gentle warmth, an oddly bright iridescence. She noticed too, in the letterhead, a telephone number. She took up the phone and dialed.
The answering voice was brittle, feminine.
“I’m afraid I received a letter from your office in error,” Margaret began. “A letter meant for a Margaret Täubner. But I’m Margaret Taub.”
The woman commanded Margaret to hold. Footfalls went clapping—heels against wooden floors, echoes against high ceilings, slamming doors. There was a swish and the phone was taken up again. Margaret found she had been holding her breath.
“Doctor Arabscheilis has instructed me to tell you—if you are the Margaret who lives at Grunewaldstrasse 88—” The woman cleared her throat: “Are you Margaret at Grunewaldstrasse 88?”
“Yes, I am,” Margaret said.
“In that case, she said to tell you expressly that your family name is of no interest to her. She’ll expect you on Tuesday the sixteenth.”
Margaret was astonished.
“I don’t know the doctor,” she said.
“Better you come here and work it out with her yourself.” The woman was businesslike in the usual way.
“No, but thank you, I—” Margaret felt the muscles of her back tightening.
“You’ll discuss it with the Frau Doktor when you’re here,” the woman cut her off. “
” The line went dead.
Margaret did not call back. She sat with the lifeless receiver in her hand for a good ten minutes, maybe more.
By Tuesday the sixteenth, Margaret had in fact decided to appear at the appointment. Since the call to the doctor’s office, the flowers of time had been blossoming, cracking open slowly instead of racing toward death. The key, she thought, was that it had been such a long time since anyone had paid any attention to her, even mistaken attention, and, truly, it must be admitted that despite everything, Margaret was lonely. Now here was this doctor: interested in her fate. She did not yet suspect nor wish for anything more than companionship.
hen she arrived at the doctor’s address on Tuesday, she found she already knew the place by sight. Outside, a small gold plaque screwed to the entryway shone in the sun, and Margaret recognized it. Often when the day was bright and she rode her bicycle north to Wittenbergplatz, the gold of that plaque caught her eye.
The building itself was patrician
, with balconies heavily filigreed, and a cool, damp, white façade.
Margaret came into the courtyard and looked about. The walls were close around the quiet garden, looming and corpulent. But as for an entrance to a doctor’s practice, there was none to be seen. Margaret wandered about the instantly claustrophobic courtyard, her feet sinking into the mossy ground.
At the last moment before she turned about in frustration and went home, she spied a small green door, only as high as her shoulder and almost disappearing in the ivy that climbed the southern wall. Beside it was a sign, also caught in the ivy:
DR. GUDRUN ARABSCHEILIS
Gynaekologie und Geburtshilfe, 3.OG
Dr. Gudrun Arabscheilis
Gynecology and Obstetrics, 3rd Floor
Doctor’s hours all day
Margaret’s eyes glided over the specialties. Funny, she thought. These had not been included on the letterhead. Her eyes flitted over the sign a second time. She thought of running away.
But then—there was something about the wax on the surface of the ivy, something about the damp moss catching its green against her
shoes, something about the smell of the wet stucco (it had recently rained) that made Margaret press the buzzer after all, made her even a little light-headed.
The door chimed, and the lock sprang open with no comment from the intercom. Margaret ducked low to get through. She began to climb the stairs leading to the office.
In the stairwell, a familiar aroma overcame her, a smell she could not describe but which she knew well. At first she thought the smell came from the polished wood of the banister. It smelled of long-ago hardened varnish and dirt, like the smell of human skin after a day outside in the summer city. She heard her feet plodding beneath her and dipped her nose down toward the banister. All in a rush it came upon her: no, the scent did not come from the stairs, nor from the stairwell, nor even from the banister. It came from something within Margaret. It came from the experience of climbing the stairs. It wasn’t the emotion that was triggered by the smell, but the smell running out of the emotion within her. For a moment she forgot the doctor entirely and had a rampant euphoria.
At the top of the stairs she came into an empty waiting room. There was a rubber plant in the corner. The plastic chairs were bright, and white paneling lined the walls. A nurse-receptionist with hair drawn tightly back from her brow sat behind a counter so high, Margaret could not see her face.
“Name, please,” the nurse said.
Margaret had not yet caught her breath. “Margaret,” she said.
name,” the woman corrected.
“Taub,” Margaret said. She went close on tiptoe and peered over the counter.
“Taub?” The woman looked up from her paperwork. Her irritated eyes were ringed by green and golden shadow.
“Yes, Taub.” The practice had a hospital style and Margaret felt a shock of cool.
“I’m going to enter you into the logbook as Margaret Täubner,” the receptionist said.
“But that’s not my name,” Margaret said. Her euphoria of only a few moments before was quickly ebbing.
The receptionist, for her part, thought little of the disagreement. Her head disappeared again. Margaret went higher on tiptoe. The
nurse filled out a form with a calm left arm, not even asking to see Margaret’s insurance card. Margaret tried to see which name the woman had chosen but even tall Margaret could only see the top third of the woman’s body. The woman’s tightly drawn hair pulled ever more taut as she concentrated.
Margaret took a seat in one of the plastic chairs. She waited a long time.
At last another voice, a very loud, warbling voice, called out Margaret’s name, or rather Margaret Täubner’s name, from all the way down the hall.
“The doctor will see you now,” the nurse said. “Fourth door, all the way at the end.”
As she walked the long hallway, Margaret felt an old fear returning. By the time she came into the doctor’s room, however, it had vanished.
All at once in this spacious back room, gone, too, was the feeling of hospital. Here, the ceiling loomed three times her height over her head, and there was nothing fluorescent or sterile about the place, but rather a dark and golden, leathery atmosphere of Wilhelmine brass. Bookshelves nicely laden covered half the walls, and the windows were all but obscured by rich, chestnut-colored velvet curtains with frayed golden tassels. Over the wide, creaking floorboards, well-worn Persian carpets crept. There was a massive oak desk at the center of the room, and only off to one side was the padded doctor’s table with the much-despised metal stirrups. A low steel counter ran along another wall and held two microscopes, several jars of sterilized tongue depressors, boxes of rubber gloves and antiseptic agents in tall, white plastic bottles. On the wall above the oak desk, an antique medical drawing of the human musculature—a male and female figure side by side—was yellowing and curling at the edges. Next to it was a rather fine, large, and dark-toned portrait in oils of a middle-aged man with a watch chain, holding a good-looking infant in white laces to his breast.
Behind the desk sat a woman with an enormous head, so large, in fact, that Margaret stepped carefully farther into the room without being called, trying to see it more closely. The woman’s hair was thick and grey, piled in glistening layers. Her forehead was massive and also glistening with what might have been sweat or might have been extremely healthy skin, Margaret wasn’t sure. Her cheekbones pushed up into the area just beneath her eyes, so that her thickly lensed bifocals rested very high on her face.
She looked up as Margaret entered. Her glasses magnified her eyes out of all proportion to her head—Margaret was faced with eyes as big as golf balls, of a grey-green color, peering out of lashless lids.
The doctor nodded knowingly and seemed to coo ever so quietly under her breath—the airy tones of a pigeon. The woman was old, improbably old.
Margaret also realized, as the woman’s utterances began to amplify, that what had seemed to be cooings were in fact the raspings of a pulmonary disease, emphysema perhaps.
The doctor spoke to Margaret in a voice of croaks and purrs. “My dear, if you’ll undress—we’ll get started. Let’s begin with a general exam. I imagine you haven’t had a Pap smear in a very long time.”
Margaret stepped back in alarm. The doctor seemed to be focusing on a point in the middle distance and did not look at Margaret at all. Margaret spoke up. “I’m not here for an examination,” she said. She looked at the woman. “I should introduce myself. I’m—”
“Of course you are, my dear. I have been concerned for you.”
Now it must be said: these words should have puzzled Margaret, and in any case should almost certainly have been corrected. Instead, Margaret accepted them like a gift.
I have been concerned for you
. Margaret, in her strange state, was so soothed, her loneliness so instantly assuaged, that she was almost willing to go along with the doctor unconditionally from that moment on.
Still, she tried. “I got your note in the mail.” She cleared her throat in an involuntary expression of sympathy with the doctor’s wheeze. “I believe there has been a mistake. I’m not the intended recipient.”
“What if I were to tell you that you are free to be anyone you like?” The old woman moved her hands in the air. She was not looking at Margaret.
“Oh.” Margaret studied her. Secretly, she felt a kind of vindication. Again, it was the choice of phrase: “free to be anyone you like,” that pealed in her ears. She decided she would play as if she were Margaret Täubner for the time being at least. She did not see the harm, except perhaps to the real Margaret Täubner, if that woman could be presumed to desire an appointment with the strange Dr. Arabscheilis.
“Where shall I undress?” Margaret asked.
So they would start with the yearly exam, she thought; so be it.
The sun fell through the muslin curtains inside the heavy, velvet drapes, and lit up the dust motes in the air.
“You can undress right where you are,” the doctor said.
“You don’t want to?”
“Well—” Margaret began.
“Gymnophobia! I remember now. You were always so coy. There is that same screen you used to use, there against the wall. You can unfold it and mask yourself just as before, leave your clothes behind. Then come over here and lie on the table.”
Now it was true that Margaret had decided to go along with the misunderstanding, and that was all well and good. But by this time, surely, the woman should have sniffed out her mistake. Margaret was not Margaret Täubner. This was plain as a pikestaff, even to a very old woman. “I remain interested in your fate,” the doctor had written, but now any imposter was welcomed greedily. And because Margaret did not know the meaning of the word the doctor had used,
, she began to thrust on that term all her fantasies of what was going wrong.
—perhaps it was a fear of self-revelation. She even began to develop an image of this other Margaret T. in her mind. She would have very short hair, she decided, and a habit when she was sitting of holding her handbag on her lap, rather than letting it rest at her ankles.
Behind the screen, Margaret pulled off her trousers. She looked down at the floor and saw that the deep burgundy and intricate pattern of the Oriental carpet disguised years of grime. She was disgusted. She came out from behind the screen, nude from the waist down, and the doctor gestured toward the leather table with its swathe of white paper and stainless steel.
And now Margaret’s nakedness made her even more wretched; her misgivings ducked from her mind to her stomach.
The doctor hurtled to the table and began to adjust the stirrups to their full length. “Legs spread! Feet in!” she commanded. She turned around and went to the cabinets below the long counter, rooted about, searching for something with both hands. Margaret climbed up on the table. She watched the doctor more closely than ever.
The doctor returned and gripped Margaret’s knees to steady herself, sighing melancholically. She screwed the instrument tight. She seemed not to glance at the thing as she did so, her hands working automatically. “I know you’re uncomfortable, my dear, but practically,” she said in a low voice, “you’re very lucky.” Her golf-ball eyes seemed to mist
over again and she gazed into some middle distance that was her eyes’ preferred resting point. Her hands went still, and she again gripped Margaret’s knees. “The speculum of the nineteenth century presented a challenge to the nervous system of much greater consequence than the one you are enduring. It had a system of mirrors and lenses, and the light source, my dear girl, was a lamp flame. These early specula burned a mixture of alcohol and turpentine, and I shudder at the thought of the burns that were occasionally the sad drawback to their use. Knowledge of the inner in exchange for the beauty of the outer, I’m afraid.”
“My goodness,” Margaret said.
“You might well say.” The doctor sighed, her head falling forward as though gone overripe. “Tell me,” she said, “have you become
of doctors in the meantime?”