by Valery Krupnik
“Hi, I’m Tia Espinosa,” she held out her plump hand adorned with pearly shells of fake nails and a diamond-encrusted silver engagement ring.
He obediently shook it.
“This way. Step on the scale, please. One eighty-four, thank you. Follow me, please.”
“Have a seat here, I need to take your blood pressure.”
“Don’t matter, whichever you’re comfortable with.” Her smile was so broad that he felt he had heard her say, “honey,” although he knew he hadn’t.
“One thirty over seventy-five, not bad. Any change in medications?”
“Are you still taking the Trazadone?”
“Um, from time to time…”
“Good. Any pain today?”
“Good. Anything else you want me to let the doctor know?”
“Don’t know, nothing comes to mind.”
“Excellent! Your doctor will be with you in a moment. Enjoy, please.”
“Enjoy?” he silently asked her broad back, much like her smile, receding in the doorway into busy nurse life.
Kevin, Kev, as people called him, although he had never asked for or approved of that familiarity, looked around the office, dangling his feet from the uncomfortable examination bed. He knew the “moment” would be five minutes, should he be lucky. He was.
“Hello, Mr. Reinish, I’m doctor Betty Xe,” she held out her brittle-looking hand with closely cut nails, and Kevin gingerly shook it. It was surprisingly warm and firm. He wouldn’t call her pretty. Objectively speaking, he thought her unattractive. A squatty nose above the slightly protruded lips covering unexpectedly large teeth and beneath the cracks of her dark eyes held her plain-looking face centered, like the doorknob on a door, and her shoulder-length black hair made for a simple but becoming finish.
“Um, nice to meet you, Doctor Xe.” Kevin thought to ask about his previous doctor, since he had not been informed of the change of doctor, but decided against it, which seemed wise and practical under the circumstances; he was not going to cancel this appointment only to come back anyway, so what would be the point of asking?
“Do you have any health complaints since the last visit, Mr. Reinish?”
“No, I mean, nothing new, I believe.” He wanted to add that he had already answered this question to the nurse but felt he had taken too long a pause. Instead, he took a closer look at Dr. Betty. Homely as she was, she was a neat and proper woman, her small as if just budding breasts gently cupped by the bra unseen under the neat not too revealing cleavage. In freshness and color, the breasts reminded him of a pair of Asian pears gently held in a carton tray.
“Your vital signs are all good.” I already knew that, thought Kevin. “Do you mind if I examine you?”
Objectively speaking, Kevin was a handsome man. He had heard over the years women say that; three, maybe four women have. “You’re real cute, Kev,” or something like that. Even his ex-wife admitted that much. Looking him up and down before leaving for good, as if taking stock of the property she was vacating, she approvingly noted, “Hey, you’re easy on the eye,” as if she had just noticed it. ”You won’t be alone for long,” she added wistfully. She did not specify how long though. She looked sad and lost like a shelter kitten. “Hey,” he wanted to say, “You’re the one leaving,” but rightly reasoned she had known it.
Kevin wished she had told him why, but all he got was, “It has nothing to do with you, Kev, it’s me,” as if it explained anything. Had she told him she had been seeing someone else… Besides, he thought, why do we say ‘seeing’ when we mean sleeping with and, for that matter, why do we say ‘sleeping with’ when we mean fucking like crazy? That would have brought him, figuratively speaking, to at least some road sign hopefully with a pointing arrow, but her denial of having an affair left him so utterly disoriented that his mind just refused to move, as if on emergency brake, which felt so unsettling that Kevin tried avoiding himself as much as he could. Good thing he had a decent job.
Not only handsome but well-educated with a master’s in computer science from Cornell, Kevin was gainfully employed at Digital Solutions. The expression ‘gainfully employed’ had the right ring to it, like the opening of a symphony. Gainfully employed and single, not in the sense of unmarried but alone, which his wife, now ex, had said would not be for long, but without specifying the units of measurement: days, months, years?…
“Not at all.”
Dr. Betty went to the sink, moving lightly and efficiently like a 3D printer, washed her slender hands, then came back and stuck the stethoscope’s arms in her very round ears. She placed her hand on his shoulder and took the stethoscope’s shiny black ear to his chest, closely listening, as if eavesdropping on a secret. Her lips slightly parted and her eyes squinted as if she were a schoolgirl diligently perfecting her handwriting. Being held by a woman and listened to sent a sweet wave bubbling with goosebumps down his whole body.
Dr. Betty, too, noted Kevin’s handsomeness, his broad shoulders, large hands cupping his strong round knees, the smooth pale skin of his face framed by thick wavy hair and neatly trimmed beard, straight narrow nose, strong jaw cut, and intensely blue eyes widely set under the clean high forehead. She noted it with the observing eye of a doctor, while registering the full thumps of his heart punctuating the deep soundwaves of his warm breathing. His chest with a tuft of hair showing through the v-cut of the shirt was heaving next to her thoughtfully tilted head. Dr. Xe, her husband, had no chest hair to speak of, but she knew it would be improper to think of her husband next to Kevin, so she didn’t.
Dr. Xe was appropriately six years older than her, his hair thinning out at the top, which he neatly combed over. His hair was dark too, even darker than Kevin’s. Dr. Xe was cute in his own way with ears sticking out, a shy narrow smile, and darting eyes he would widen in surprise or attention; he reminded Dr. Betty of a lemur. Most importantly, Dr. Xe was smart. He was making more money than her because he practiced more specialized medicine. Dr. Xe was a proctologist. He took a longer residency, which paid off, as has everything he has done, including marrying Dr. Betty, who at the time had not been a doctor yet, as well as waiting to have a child, the sweet button-nosed, round-faced Celeste Xe.
In his undergraduate years, Dr. Xe was a scholar of Greek philosophy and learned an abundance of Greek names. His interest in ancient Greece was arguably the only thing that didn’t pay off, although he allowed for a possibility that it too, in a long-winded indirect back-door way, had helped him along on his uphill journey. Even long after his undergraduate love of philosophy had bowed its head, clearing way for the Rod of Aesculapius, he was still taken with the ancient idea of traveling to the future backward, watching it unfold in the wake, neatly parted like his combed hair, into things accomplished and works in progress carefully balanced on invisible scales, ones he felt had existed. How else could he have known they were in balance?
“Can you please take a couple of deep breaths for me?”
Kevin obliged, raising his chest and shoulders, feeling her hands a little harder against him, soft and firm at the same time like a promise. He wished to press his lips against the parted hair of her attentively bowed head. He didn’t have to hold back though. His wish deflated like a punctured lung, having not reached high enough in his mind, where thoughts take up a sufficiently clear shape to inform action. Her “for me” made his heart sink as if into an outdoor spa in winter. “Um, I could do more for you than that,” thought Kevin, surprised at where this thought had come from, as if it was broadcast to him by another Kevin. Before he knew it, his mind started unrolling a panoply of strobe images of what that “more” could be, and the smooth pear skin bulging from the invisible bra cups accelerated the roll to a dizzying velocity.
“Everything looks fine,” Dr. Betty sat on a swivel stool facing the computer and Kevin half-way, “All is clear.”
They looked at each other in brief silence, pondering what to say next. Kevin dropped his look to the floor, listening to his skin memory of Dr. Betty’s hands on his shoulder and chest, while she was looking away at the screen searching for clues to her train of thought.
“Oh,” she said as if waking up to the moment, “you’re still taking the Trazadone, is that right?”
Kevin wanted to tell a joke or at least something funny, but only nodded instead. The main reason for the visit, as they both knew and as did Tia Espinosa ten minutes earlier, was to renew his prescription. Had he had a more sophisticated medical condition, there would have been more to talk about.
“How is your sleep then?”
“Same,” he shrugged, “Maybe a little better with time… it’s like hit or miss more or less,” he felt like saying more, “sometimes it’s a hit, others – um, a miss.”
“Ah, that means you’re still having a sleep problem,” she turned away from the computer screen, now squarely facing Kevin, “Just taking medications may not be the best way to help your insomnia. There are other things you can do. Lifestyle and stress management are most important to having healthy sleep. Are you under high stress lately? Or maybe feeling depressed?”
Kevin didn’t know what to answer, as if caught off guard. He could have told this little doctor woman about his wife leaving and how lonely it now felt, especially in bed, waking up in the empty room to see that which he’d rather not, and about loathing going to bed in the first place. Laying it all out before her like on a lemonade stand felt so grossly inappropriate that an invisible Great Wall of China went up between them. So, he said nothing and just kept on listening, hearing disjointed bits of her litany, as his mind was stretching its neck to steal a glance at the pastures beyond the wall of impossibility.
“…it’s important… stress management… regular exercise…” Kevin thought that it was almost four, and her shift would probably end soon, so he could wait for her outside. “…healthy lifestyle… regular activity… time for yourself…” He thought he could just ask when she would be off work or, better yet, take her phone number. “…regular meals… healthy diet…” He could just get off the examination bed, take her by the shoulders, lean into her and kiss her on the mouth, running his tongue over her large strong teeth. “…regular self-care… consistent cardio workout… regular…”
He knew – did not know why or even how he knew – none of it would happen, as he never went out with any of the women at Digital Solutions. He had been patiently waiting for a special sign, not knowing what the sign should be like: that deep inviting look in the woman’s eye, a smile and a hair flip, a tap on the arm, or a burning bush. Staring squarely at Dr. Betty, he was waiting for it, but the sign wasn’t coming, hopelessly stuck at the red light somewhere at a deeply hidden intersection of her intricate mind.
“Regular physical and sexual activity,” a barely noticeable blush that Kevin missed, “….and being outdoors is important for a good night sleep. You may want to make sure there’s plenty of fresh air in your bedroom, and you’re neither too hot nor too cold…” she was going on, looking at Kevin’s long arms flowing into his large hands and outflowing through the long tributaries of his fingers, at his shapely sensual lips tucked between the beard and mustache, not knowing what she was looking at them for or why she was still talking, repeating herself, unable to stop and becoming late for her next appointment. Seven minutes into it, Dr. Betty stood up, a shy apologetic smile briefly flashing across her face.
“I will call in your prescription. When you’re close to running out of the refill, call back here for a follow-up appointment.”
“Thank you,” Kevin also got up, adding assuredly, “Um, I will.” There they stood, their stares lingering, trying to discern something hiding in plain sight, knowing that the time was up and that Kevin must turn around and follow the green ‘Exit’ arrow, which he did.
In the parking lot, Kevin felt crowded by the abundance of cars, mind you, there were about as many as when he pulled in an hour earlier. Still, it made him angry. “I could wait for her here; staff parking is right there by the blue signs,” he thought, pulling out into the street, “I could then surprise her with a bunch of flowers,” he thought, waiting at the red light. “No,” he drove on at the green, “flowers are cheesy. I could just walk up and say, Hi, Dr. Betty, it’s me again, Kevin, um, Kev.”
The town looked insufferably stupid to him as he drove through its intersections with shopping plazas on both sides, even though Kevin knew towns could not be stupid, and only people could, um, maybe…
He was right. Three appointments later, Dr. Betty folded her stethoscope, checked herself out in the office mirror, dabbed a mascara crumb in the corner of her eye, came down to the ground floor and then straight to the blue sign, “Staff Only.” The next thing Dr. Betty knew she was home, hugging Celeste and asking about her day.
Later, Dr. Betty and her husband, the proctologist Dr. Xe, went to bed after Celeste had settled for the night. Walking to the bathroom, she looked back at the bed where Dr. Xe was lying, ready to sleep. Dr. Betty prepped herself, slowly flossing, carefully going around every tooth, as if cleaning a row of china vases. She liked the bright whiteness of her teeth adorning the gums like pearls, oblivious to their excessive presence that made her mouth stick out too conspicuously for the rest of her face. She took time rubbing toothpaste into the tooth sockets, then washing her face, thoughtfully blowing her nose.
Dr. Betty turned the light off and lightly walked to the bed. Peering in the dark at her husband and listening to his breathing, she figured he was not yet asleep, just still. She packed herself under the blanket on the bed’s edge, wishing the proctologist let her be, but does not mind when he doesn’t.
Valery Krupnik’s stories have appeared in Emrys Journal, The New Renaissance, Soft Cartel, Kaliope, Wired Hearts, SLUG Fest, Green Hill Literary Lanterns, and screenplays have received awards at the Indie Gathering Festival. A long-time New Englander, Valery now lives in Southern California, getting used to its sunburning beaches, heartburning wines and tacos, and working on a story collection.