Authors: Janice Macdonald
with tradition by relocating, three generations of Benedicts had been practicing medicine in Port Hamilton from the same red barn of a house on Georgianna Street, one block from the waterfront. Sarah’s father had been a general practitioner, seeing patients until the day he dropped dead of a heart attack while Sarah was still in high school.
But all that was changing, Sarah thought, as she took an early-morning walk through town on her way to see Matthew at the hospital. Empty storefronts now dotted Port Hamilton’s once thriving business district. In the years since she’d been away, businesses had come and gone. What was once Betty’s Bakery was now Mombasa Coffee with three-dollar cappuccinos and biscotti in jars on the glass-topped counter.
The Curly Q House of Hair where Debbi worked had once been the old Wharf house. Seeing it now, Sarah tried to recall how old she’d been when she found out that it was going to be demolished to make way for a row of stores. Twelve? Thirteen? She’d tried to enlist Matthew in her cause.
“Can’t they see it’s part of the history of Port Hamilton?” she’d wanted to know. And he’d pointed out the light shining through the warped and rotted boards and the evidence of termites everywhere.
Undeterred, she’d gone from door to door with a petition protesting the destruction.
Maybe Rose was right; maybe she was a dreamer. She’d always had tons of ideas for how things could be better. And not just in Port Hamilton. Deep inside, she had always had this quest for the answer to what would really make her life meaningful. She’d read it in a book, find inspiration in an incredible poem or experience something profound that would totally change everything. Or she’d get on a self-improvement kick about this or that. Yoga, fasting. Whatever. Age imparted some wisdom and she’d learned to keep most of these “answers” to herself. As a kid she’d had no such constraints. Her friend Elizabeth’s mom had called her cute and said she wished Elizabeth cared about such things. Rose had called her overly idealistic.
“Life’s the way it is,” Rose would say. “Things change. Nothing’s perfect. Accept it and move on.” Rose now practiced from an office in an ugly, mustard-colored cement-slab complex on the road out of town. Sarah thought wistfully of the big airy waiting room in the old house, the mismatched chairs lined up around the walls, a table in the middle stacked with kids’ books, most of them her discards. The battered trunk of toys she’d sometimes sneak down to play with after the offices were closed for the day.
According to Rose the house had been inefficient. More practical to have a separate office.
“But I have good memories of that consulting room,” Sarah had said. “Daddy coming up to the kitchen for lunch—”
“His seafood chowders.” Rose had rolled her eyes. “The consulting rooms reeked of squid.”
remember,” Sarah had countered, “was how much more personal it seemed. You and Daddy were part of the community, not sterile strangers in white coats. I think it had something to do with being in the house.”
But Rose had been adamant. “Medicine isn’t the same as it was when your father and I practiced together. It’s much more sophisticated. Diagnostic tests have to be done right away…no room for sentiment these days.”
Sarah pictured Rose, long gray hair curled into an untidy bun, her chunky sweaters, tweed skirts and gray flannel trousers. The thought occurred to her that one day she would probably look just like Rose. She made a mental note to drop by Curly Q, maybe see what Debbi could do. Debbi and her pale-eyed medicinal gardener boyfriend. Somewhere between Rose the traditionalist and Curt, nature’s pharmacist, there had to be a middle ground that would be just right.
Which was exactly the case she intended to present to Matthew, she thought as she reached the hospital.
The receptionist in the administrative suite looked young enough that Sarah wondered whether she might have babysat her at one time. Behind her were three doors, all closed, with frosted-glass windows. Matthew’s name was on the middle door, underneath the title Medical Director.
“I’m here to see Dr. Cameron,” Sarah said.
“Do you have an appointment?”
Sarah smiled. Her palms were sweating. She knew that if she dodged into a restroom to check her teeth for lipstick or her eyelids for rivulets of the Tender Taupe shadow she’d bought on sale at Gottschalks along with the tube of Black Velvet mascara, she would find damp patches at the armpits of the beige Ann Taylor blazer, also bought in the same sale. All purchased on an impulsive and, she realized now, misguided thought that if she looked businesslike as she presented her plan it would seem less like one of the old Sarah’s wild-eyed schemes and more worthy of Matthew’s professional consideration.
“Matthew and I are old friends,” she told the receptionist. She’d considered calling for an appointment, but…come on, she’d known Matthew since they played in the nursery-school sandbox together. When he was forever trying to pour sand down her top. “Could you just let him know I’m here? Sarah. Benedict.” She cleared her throat. “Dr. Benedict, that would be.”
The receptionist smiled. “Unfortunately, Dr. Cameron is doing an emergency surgery. I’m not sure how long he’ll be. Can I leave him a message?”
“I’ll just give him a call,” she said. “No, wait…” She delved into her purse, found a grocery receipt and scribbled a message on the back. Not very elegant, but it put the ball in his court, which she preferred. “If you could just stick this on his desk.”
Outside, walking down the corridor again, she listened to the click of her heels on the linoleum. Two nurses in blue scrubs walked by. One of them, tall and blond, smiled uncertainly as though Sarah was someone she might know. Port Hamilton was small enough and isolated enough, sitting at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, that pretty much everyone knew everyone. But this Sarah with her makeup and power suit was not the bohemian Birkenstock Sarah who had skulked off to Central America after being scorned by her—
“Sarah.” The nurse stopped in her tracks. “Wow. When did you get back?”
“Betsy.” Her archenemy in high school. She was a good fifty pounds heavier than Sarah remembered. “Hi.”
Betsy’s smile faded. “I’m sorry about your husband. I read about it in the paper, and then I saw your mother and she told me. What a tragedy, huh?”
“Thanks.” Frozen, feeling awkward by the sympathy she saw in Betsy’s eyes, Sarah struggled for the right thing to say. “Anyway, I’m… I have to go so—”
“Well, hey, it’s great to see you again.” She hugged Sarah, then pulled back to look at her. “Listen, I know it’s got to be tough. If you ever need to talk to someone, call me. I’m in the phone book. My last name’s Becker now. I married Vinny. Remember him?”
I will be okay,
Sarah thought as she politely said goodbye to Betsy and continued on. Once she was working again, seeing patients, getting back into the swing of things. She would find a place to live, no matter how much Rose begged her to move back home. She would feel strong and whole again, discover a place where the sympathy and pity, no matter how well intended, would no longer make her want to crawl into a hole and hide.
in his office when his administrative assistant put a call through from his daughter reminding him that the school play was at seven and if he didn’t want her to hate him for the rest of her life, he’d better be there.
One elbow on the desk, chin propped in his hand, Matthew studied the framed picture of her—one of many that filled his office—and grinned. Lucy was fourteen, a budding actress and, although she was always listing ways in which he wasn’t the perfect father she felt entitled to, he loved her as much as any father possibly could. The prospect of having more free time to spend with her was one of the more compelling reasons to join CMS.
“I’m supposed to have tarot cards,” Lucy said. “Mom said she’d pick some up, but she forgot. Could you get some for me? Please?” she added in her wheedling voice. “I really, really need them.”
Remembering she was a fortune teller in the play, he asked, “Something to do with fortune-telling?”
“They tell you stuff that happened and what’s going to happen in the future. You spread them out in a cross and then you read them. Listen, I’ve got to go. Don’t forget them, okay?”
“I won’t,” Matthew said. After he hung up, the receptionist—she was very new, very young, and he could never remember her name—stuck her head around the door.
“This lady came in to see you. She left a note, but—” she gestured to his desk, piled high with papers and journals and more than a few empty coffee cups “—I thought you might miss it. It’s on the back of that Safeway receipt right there.”
“Thanks.” Matthew picked up the receipt and glanced at the back.
He saw the familiar scrawl and laughed.
The note read: “So where were you at four o’clock this afternoon anyway?”
No signature. It wasn’t necessary.
she left the hospital and walked back into town, it was not quite eleven, too early for lunch. With nothing more pressing to do, Sarah decided to stop by Curly Q. Maybe work up the nerve to get her hair all lopped off and learn a little more about Debbi and Curt’s magical medicinal garden.
The blonde who checked her in wore heart-shaped earrings and a diamond in her left nostril. The entire shop was awash in red paper hearts. Up the walls, around mirrors and across the top of the reception desk, where they competed with a massive arrangement of red balloons bobbing amidst pink carnations.
“Must be Saint Patrick’s Day,” Sarah joked.
The girl gave her a long look. “It’s Valentine’s Day.”
Sarah smiled. “I wondered if Debbi is available.”
The blonde regarded Sarah doubtfully. “Are you a client of hers?”
Moments later she was escorted to a chair at the far end of the room and seated before a mirror. A towel was draped around her shoulders. Debbi would be with her in a few minutes, she was told. A blond stylist to Sarah’s left, in red jeans and a fluffy white sweater, was telling a customer that Valentine’s Day was the sole reason more babies were born in November than in any other month. To her right, the topic was those clueless types who walk into restaurants on Valentine’s Day without reservations expecting to get a table. “That’s my husband,” someone said. “We’re going to end up eating pizza tonight, just like we did last year.”
Sarah had the strange sensation that she’d landed from some distant planet. Was an aversion to beauty shops genetic or learned, she wondered. Maybe both. Her mother had once calculated the time and money saved over a ten-year span by wearing her own long, untrimmed hair in a knot at the nape of her neck and allowing it to turn iron-gray.
Debbi smiled when she saw Sarah. “I didn’t think you’d really come by. I thought you were just being polite.” In the mirror, her face above Sarah’s was round and doll-like, smooth pink skin framed by a dark shiny bob. Her own face looked angular, Sarah thought, her skin tanned but on the verge of leathery. She felt a tug of guilt for neglecting it. Maybe Debbi had something for rejuvenating forty-two-year-old faces.
“Wow, how long did this take to grow?” Debbi asked, lifting the heavy braid.
“Forever. I keep thinking I want to do something different, but I don’t like messing around with it. “
Debbi’s lip jutted thoughtfully as she unbraided Sarah’s hair. “I could cut some layers into it. Maybe put in some highlights to give it body.” She made a few exploratory moves with the comb. “And you’ve got some gray.”
“Cut it all off and dye it…fuchsia,” Sarah said, only half joking, then lost her nerve. “You know what? Just trim the ends.”
“You don’t want me to cut a little more? Shoulder length would look good on you.”
“A trim’s fine for now.” After Debbi had finished shampooing and escorted her back to the chair, Sarah spotted the row of pictures in Lucite frames on the narrow shelf beneath the mirror. Most were of a dark-eyed toddler with a mass of black curls. “Your little girl?”
“Yeah.” Debbi smiled as she went to work with the scissors. “Alli. She’s two. The terrible twos they say.”
“How is she?” Sarah asked, recalling Curt’s comment about an intestinal problem.
“Pretty good. She gets a lot of tummy aches, but Curt said it’s because I feed her too much processed food. He’s so smart. He wanted to be a doctor, but he doesn’t have the patience to sit in a classroom all day. Plus he’s totally turned off to the way most doctors think.”
“I got that impression,” Sarah said wryly.
“He’s a really good dad. I mean, he loves Alli to death. But he’s got this idea that he can treat anything that comes up and sometimes it kind of worries me. It’s his way or the highway.” Debbi snipped the ends, then, brandishing a purple hair dryer, directed a blast of hot air at Sarah’s scalp. “There’s no in-between.”
“That’s what I want to do,” Sarah said. “Provide the in-between. Conventional medicine doesn’t have all the answers, but alternative medicine can’t do everything, either. I want to have a practice that uses both approaches.”