No Room For Doubt


The small office is bright and windowless. A desk with a reddish veneer (what might be called “mahogany” in a furniture catalogue) faces the door. Behind the desk, an empty chair leans back against the wall. There’s an artificial potted tree in the far corner, a Ficus. Beside it stands a bookcase, filled with thick numbered volumes bound in imitation leather.

My husband and I are sitting on a love seat that crowds the space between the desk and the door. I run my fingers over the densely patterned upholstery - geometric shapes in maroon and green - and wonder who chose to put a love seat in here. The doctor, perched on an armchair across from us, chooses his words with care. Clearly, this room usually used for this purpose; there are no tissue boxes at hand.

On the wall above the doctor’s head hangs a framed poster of a Monet painting, the one of a woman and child walking through a sunlit field of poppies. I think it’s the portrait of Monet’s wife and son. Renoir painted a similar canvas of the same scene. Two friends out painting on a summer afternoon. Summer afternoon: Henry James called them the two most beautiful words in the English language. My husband carved those words into a piece of driftwood one August when we stayed by the ocean. As he whittled, I walked the length of the bayside beach hand in hand with our son, the long-shadowed warmth of afternoon on our backs, then on our faces.

It’s the end of December now, the morning after Christmas, though you couldn’t tell that from inside this room (at first glance, I thought the Ficus had been dusted with imitation snow, then I realized it was just dust). The doctor clears his throat and makes

deliberate eye contact, first with my husband, then with me. I don’t look at him so much as observe him. It’s as if I’m hidden in a mental blind: mother studying doctor in his native habitat. We’re only a few feet apart, but I take him in as though I’m invisible, outside of any responsibility to connect. He’s a baggy-eyed, beaky young man, dark- haired, with a shadow of beard along his jaw. The knot of a red tie pokes out of his lab coat. He’s wearing cufflinks and sneakers. Legs crossed, he maintains professional composure and enunciates slowly, as though my husband and I are not native English speakers. Only his left index finger is digging at the cuticle of his thumb. The good doctor is not good at this. Who could be good at this? I feel for him, but I won’t make it any easier.

Instead, I crouch inside my blind and imagine this man in middle school. It’s one of the side effects of my job; I teach eighth grade English and I can’t help seeing adults as they might have been in early adolescence. The doctor would have been one of the academically gifted ones, socially timid, almost invisible. He would have perfected his invisibility, never protecting those who were picked on. Relived not to be singled out, he would justify his passivity with intellectual hauteur: it’s all so juvenile. He probably had a small group of tight friends. They played games involving alternate realities. He wouldn’t have been good at sports that mattered in school, but was an able skier, perhaps, or a sailor. He collected things, both mental and tangible: facts about electricity and minerals, historical dates, molecular structures, ticket stubs, foreign coins. He masturbated often.

Now I’m being rude. The doctor is giving me a disapproving look, though tempered with patience and possibly concern (the aggrieved are afforded a good deal of

both; it’s hard not to abuse the consideration). He’s taken aback by our calm. He’s wondering if we understand what he has said. The doctor doesn’t know that we’ve already been given the news, that we’ve been told about the little blue cells in Niles’s tumor (the one we thought was a benign cyst), which leave no room for doubt. My husband clarifies this while I imagine the doctor having sex. How does a smart, socially timid sailor make love? He might suffer from premature ejaculation. He would be eager to please, certainly, and possibly sentimental. Maybe he chose the love seat for this room. I turn to look at the desk. There are no photographs, no bobble-headed dolls, no cubes of notepaper or paper clips clinging to a magnetic disc. This isn’t his office. This is not his fault.

I try to explain. We have been through it before. We have just been through it. My mother died nine months ago, I tell him, after a yearlong illness. A different cancer. What I’m trying to say is that I’m tired. The doctor is distracted; he’s glancing around the room. I realize what he’s looking for and pull a handkerchief out of my pocket, wipe at my face, blow my nose. He begins to talk logistics. My husband nods his head. He’s holding my hand. I want it back, but I recall what I’ve read about couples who receive bad news, how some reach for each other and others pull apart, and what that says about how they will cope with their difficulties. I want to cope, so I hang onto his hand. I nod, too. We are the bobble-headed dolls, fixed to our seats, nodding brainlessly as if we agree with our own calamity.