Maybe it was time to make friends with infinity. A Short Story.
July 26, 2015
THE FIRST TIME HE SAW HER was in Exam Room #2, sitting on the edge of one of the two chairs in that small boxy space, her legs thrust out in front of her crossed at the ankles, her hands clasped loosely in her lap, her shoulders hunched. She was peering straight ahead, yet even in profile, the intensity of the blue of her eyes caught his attention. He paused in the doorway to stare. They were the color of an October sky when the dust of autumn has finally settled and the air is clean and crisp. She was an older woman, but there was nothing withered or weak about her. His stare appeared to register with her, and she turned her head with deliberateness, stopping when her eyes locked on his. She didn’t speak, she didn’t have to. Her raised eyebrow and the cock of her head said: “Can I help you?” Supposedly, that was his question. He felt momentary disoriented as he crossed the room to the other chair, which was at his desk. He tapped his fingers on it for a few seconds, but then sat down.
His day had been humdrum. He was beginning to feel more a factory worker than a doctor. An assembly line of aches and pains filled his days. It made him susceptible at this moment, open to play along, and he replied, “I don’t know. Can you?”
Her response came nonchalantly, “That depends. What’s the matter with you?”
He thought his answer would call her bluff. “Well my friends say I’ve gotten too serious, not much fun anymore.”
Instead, she laughed aloud. “You’ll be happy to hear that’s not terminal. There are lots of pills for that, or so I heard.”
He didn’t want to stop the repartee. It broke this increasing tedium of his days, something he’d not imagined about doctoring back in medical school. “What if I didn’t want to take a pill? What would you suggest?”
“Well, that’s the harder option. You’d actually have to do something.”
Her candor was refreshing.
“Get to the root of things.”
“He paused. He wasn’t quite sure what she meant. You mean something like psychoanalysis?”
She rolled her eyes, a sardonic smile on her face.
“No, more like a ditch digger. You pick up the shovel and you start to dig…into yourself.”
“What’s the difference?”
A tad unnerved by that response, he contemplated reasserting his control over the situation when she said, “I’ve spent decades being honest with myself. How long have you spent?” She dropped her head and looked at him sideways awaiting his answer.
The room was as still as a stifling summer’s afternoon. He felt her stare now as he studied his appointment book. He saw he had no more appointments for the day, no easy way to get out of this situation except lie. And he knew she’d know. He didn’t know how she’d know, but there was something about her he found both unsettling yet intriguing. “I lie a lot.”
She nodded slowly, agreeing. “Most everyone does only they have a multitude of more respectable names for it. It’s boring, though, because it insures that nothing meaningful happens between the liar and the lie-ee.” She chucked at her newly invented word.
“How can you not lie?”
“You tell the truth.”
His voice gave away his impatience. It turned flat. No longer playful. “Surely you realize there are so many things people don’t want to hear.”
“That’s not the problem. It’s your discomfort at being unable to talk with them truthfully that actually bothers you.”
He felt uneasy. He didn’t know where this was going.
She continued. “You see yourself as the one with the answers. Unfortunately in your line of work there far fewer answers than there are questions, and that’s where the lying begins.”
“So in order to be honest, I need to tell people I don’t know what their ailment is or I do but don’t know how to cure it and leave them with that?”
She felt the irritation in his reply, but ignored it. “If you remember, I said, ‘Dig.’” Yours is a more taxing profession than say law, because in law, you can play with the ideas that have already been set down in case studies much like a chess game. It’s logical, open to reason and limited only by the need to adhere to black letter law. You, however, are in a field of endeavor that backs into infinity.”
She tucked her feet close to the chair, stretched up, leaned back against it and clasped her hands behind her head. Her red hair glowed in the soft settling light of the late afternoon as it streamed through a high set of windows to the west. Her unblinking stare rested on his face.
“So I suppose you are waiting for me to ask what you mean by being backed up against infinity.” His response was testy. He was ready to be done with this conversation. He had enjoyed its novelty, but it had gone too far.
“First tell me this, for it’s not like I have all the time in the world to spend with fools,” she said. “You’re annoyed. Do you know why?”
It took a moment for him to push the anger down inside. He wasn’t used to being called a fool. But he also loathed not being able to answer questions. He took a couple of breaths, and as he calmed himself he recalled his once ardent sense of curiosity. His mind drifted back to those early years in pre-med where the wonders of science introduced him to awe. Where had that gotten lost? When had his love for medicine diminished? And yes, why was he pissed? He sensed it was more than the obvious. He stared at the scratched top of the small desk in front of him, shabby but serviceable. He looked around the room and felt for a moment what it must feel like to sit in here sick and praying for relief. His eyes lifted to the beam of light that flowed from the small windows, striking this redheaded woman’s hair and bursting into flaming orange. Then his eyes slid to her face, and he accepted the reversal of their positions. She was the one with the answers, and he was the one who felt sick, with himself, this job, with life. But what could she possibly offer him other than that her questions had led him to what he’d chosen to ignore—all the answers he didn’t have. Hell, he didn’t even know why one person got sick and the next one didn’t. He had broad sweeping generalizations he could offer, but he didn’t know.Yet he always acted like he did. And there the lying began. He snorted lightly and pursed his lips in recognition of what he’d just realized.
“You just bumped up against infinity.” She said this without rancor only kindness. “It’s a big world out there, and the way we’ve been taught to see it, interact with it doesn’t reflect that fact. I was in science years ago, but science got too small, just like God and religion.” She paused. “The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone.” She sung that bit to him. He shook his head from side-to-side looking at her. “It’s a big, interconnected, boggling cosmos out there… and in here.” She pointed to her body. “The rational mind is no match for it.
But think about this. I was reading a book the other day about how we interact or should, perhaps, with the nature of the improbable. Do you know what the law of truly large numbers states?” He stopped scowling for the moment and paid attention. “It implies we should expect a specified event to happen no matter how unlikely it may be at each opportunity. Who would you be as a doctor if you had that perspective?”
The room took on the serenity of a cathedral. The young doctor leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, his hands loose in his lap. The woman continued gazing off into space. It was a comfortable silence.
Something snapped the doctor back from his reverie. He turned his head to look at her. She sat peacefully, eyeing him.
“I never asked you why you were here. Did you come for medical attention?”
“No, I just needed a quiet room and wandered into this one, a less frenetic place than that waiting room. I brought a friend in for help only there isn’t any. They walked him across the lane to the hospital. He’s not a believer in large number theory.” Her eyes mirrored a momentary sadness and then remained soft.
She rose from the chair, ran her fingers through her short hair and then smiled knowingly at the young man sitting at the desk staring at her, again. She crossed the room and stood before him, her eyes now blue as Texas bluebells in this light. He got caught in them once more. Looking at him intently, she said, “Make friends with infinity. You’ll be a lot more fun then.” She winked at him and walked out the door.
He heard her humming a tune he didn’t recognize over the click of her boots on the large square black and white tiles. He sat for a while longer contemplating this strange afternoon. Then before he got up to leave for the day, he pulled toward him his appointment book where he records each patient he sees. He studied the names he’d written there since 8:00 AM that morning. Then he wrote his own name in the last slot of the day.
Christina Carson is the author of Accidents of Birth.