Authors: Linda Wolfe
A brother offended is harder to be won than
a strong city: and their contentions are like
the bars of a castle.
Emily Harper had given up smoking but during her first appointment with Dr. Ben Zauber she couldn't help asking her husband to give her a cigarette. Philip looked reluctant, but he handed her his pack anyway. He knew that new situations made her nervous and that this one was particularly anxiety laden. He knew she didn't want the baby quite as much as he did.
The doctor, leaning forward in his swivel chair, observed in a quiet voice, “Smoking's not a very good idea when you're pregnant,” and Emily nodded.
“I know. I'm just going to have this one.”
“Good. And now let's talk about your weight. You're a little overweight, aren't you? It would be best for both you and the baby if you changed your eating habits, cut down now, right from the start.”
Emily blushed. She had always wanted to be thin and was ashamed of her plumpness. “Of course,” she said uncomfortably to Dr. Zauber. “I'll try my best.”
Philip, hearing the strain in her voice, put his arm around the back of her chair and his gesture alleviated her embarrassment. Grateful, she reached out and stroked the nape of his neck and felt, as she often did when she touched him, a physical recollection of their lovemaking that leaped like a current from her fingertips to her genitals. She wished she weren't frightened of bearing his child.
Her fears had nothing to do with Philip. He was as loyal, as supportive, a husband and father-to-be as she could have hoped to find. But ever since her internist had reported that her pregnancy test was positive, she had begun dreaming of producing monsters, had awakened sweating from visions of a two-headed kitten wailing to be let out of a refrigerator, and a mascara-lashed infant lying in its pram and rubbing at its eyes with scaly thumbs.
Her dreams had so disconcerted her that she had delayed calling her gynecologist, old Harry Mulenberg, for several agonizing weeks during which she kept wavering between wanting to ask him to give her an abortion and wanting him to act as her obstetrician. And then, when at last she made up her mind to keep the baby, she learned from Mulenberg's office that he had had a stroke and was no longer practicing.
The doctor his office had recommended, Ben Zauber, seemed nice enough, Emily thought, but she couldn't make up her mind if she would ever like him sufficiently to confide in him, to tell him her fears, to seek his help in overcoming them. With Mulenberg, she would have had no trouble. Bombastic yet benign, he had always been able to relax her, brushing aside anxieties with an antiquated joke or a torrent of grandfatherly advice. The new doctor looked straitlaced and reserved.
“Any questions?” he was saying now, his voice so restrained that she had to lean forward to hear him.
Philip said, “Well, there's the main one,” and put a comforting hand over Emily's. “Emily wants natural childbirth. Will you honor her wishes? Deliver the baby without anesthesia?”
The obstetrician smiled for the first time since they had been in his office. His smile was tentative, shy. “So that's the main one, is it?” Then he added in his soft-spoken manner, “Yes, of course, provided everything goes naturally.”
“Meaning?” Philip asked him.
“Meaning there are no complications. No dangers.”
Emily puffed deeply on her cigarette and joined the interrogation. Something even more important than natural childbirth had flashed through her mind. “Well, suppose there were dangers. I mean, for both me and the baby.” And then she paused, unable to proceed. She couldn't bring herself to articulate her thought and yet it seemed to her that she had stumbled upon the crux of what worried her most about having a child.
“Yes, Mrs. Harper?” Dr. Zauber asked.
But she felt tongue-tied, superstitious, and afraid that if she asked her question the doctor would consider her an alarmist. Uneasy, she looked away from him, studying his small office, the walls bare except for a meager handful of framed degrees and a single Van Gogh sunflower print.
“You're worried about which one of you I'd choose,” he said gently. “Is that it?” he prodded her.
Suddenly Emily turned and met his heavy-lidded greenish brown eyes. “Yes, which would it be?” she blurted out, relieved that he had phrased the question for her.
Dr. Zauber opened his sleepy-looking eyes wide and spoke more emphatically. “It rarely comes to that. But if it did, there'd be no question. You and Mr. Harper here can always make another baby. Harper-to-be can't make another mother.”
Reassured, Emily smiled and stubbed out her cigarette. “Thank you,” she murmured. Then she added self-consciously, “I guess it was a dumb question.”
“Don't be so hard on yourself.” Dr. Zauber's voice had grown quiet again but Emily found that she no longer disliked its monotonic softness. “Obstetricians almost never have to make a choice between a mother and a baby anymore,” he went on, “but women always think it's something that happens regularly. You'd be amazed at how often I'm asked that question.”
“I guess I'm commonplace then,” Emily teased, beginning to feel more relaxed. “I guess I'm just a statistic.”
“Not at all. Every pregnant woman is different, presents different challenges. It's just the questions that are the same. Come, let's see your differences.” Dr. Zauber had gotten up and Emily noticed how awkward his posture was. Pointing the way to the examining room, he stood with his back hunched, his shoulders stooped.
A nurse was already waiting for Emily inside the examining room and she directed her to the changing cubicle. Emily slipped out of her clothes and into the paper robe left neatly folded on a shelf. Like at the hairdresser's, she thought, and tried to concentrate on the prosaic, for despite herself she was once again tense. She had always disliked being examined.
The nurse didn't help. “Hurry up, Mother,” she called out. “The doctor hasn't got all day.”
But Dr. Zauber didn't seem at all rushed when he came in and joined them. He took his time, thoughtfully prodding her belly, probing inside her vagina and rectum, exploring her breasts. His touch was gentle and all the while he examined her, he talked to her of trivia, asking her how she liked the heavy snows they'd been having all month and whether she'd seen any good movies lately. He seemed tired, she thought once, and was reminded of how Philip often said nonsense words to her late at night just to keep a connection of sound between them until he drifted off to sleep.
Finally Dr. Zauber told her to sit up. “You're fine,” he said. “A little small, but fine.”
“How nice to be called small somewhere,” she joked.
Dr. Zauber looked puzzled and then a shy smile crossed his lips again. He didn't tell jokes like her old gynecologist, Mulenberg, Emily thought. But he responded to them, seemed to appreciate her efforts at lightness. And he was certainly sensitive. She did like him, she decided, and already some of her fears, now that she had found herself a champion in the lists of childbirth, seemed diminished and defused.
Ben Zauber said goodbye to the Harpers at the door to his office and they left, Philip's arm around Emily's shoulders. Their closeness made him melancholy. As soon as they had disappeared down the corridor toward the waiting room, he shut the door, sat down heavily at his desk, and began toying with the pills he kept always handy in his jacket pocket. Experience had taught him that the acute moods of sadness that so often attacked him could be splendidly vanquished by the pills. At times they made him so deliciously tranquil that he could cease thinking altogether and fall asleep on command.
He adored sleep. Sleep was his seducer, his love. He dreamed about it all day long, planned surprise encounters with it, sudden unexpected meetings, perhaps in the back of a taxicab or in a crowded elevator, or a hasty two-minute grab at it in his office while nurses and patients waited outside, unknowing. Sometimes he felt ashamed of his love affair with sleep; like any secret liaison, it might be judged harshly by the rest of the world. Other people, his colleagues, his patients, his brother Sidney, had more acceptable affairs, had husbands and wives, lovers and mistresses, fiancÃ©es, sweethearts, paramours. Ben fondled the pill container, his hand burrowing in his pocket.
And then he caught a glimpse of his watch and felt disappointment invade him. It was only eleven. He had thought it much later. He would have to wait before taking the pill. Just an hour or two, he comforted himself. After lunch he would take his second pill of the day and maybe even have a go at his beloved sleep.
His receptionist Cora was already at the door with his next patient, a woman whose olive-skinned Mediterranean face looked vaguely familiar. “Ben?” the woman said warmly. Cora moved in front of her and handed him her folder. “Ben?” the woman repeated. “Ben Zauber?”
Cora discreetly exited, shutting the office door noiselessly.
“Do I know you?” he asked the new patient, looking up through a haze of drowsiness and seeing plum-colored eyes fixed intently on his. The woman's mouth was wide, her hair an aureole of dark curls. He had seen her before, he was sure, but he couldn't recall who she was.
“It's Naomi,” she announced with a shade of disappointment in her voice. “Naomi Golden. From King Street.” She sighed and added, “I guess I've changed a lot.”
“No, no,” he assured her, embarrassed. With the name, he had at last begun to place her. He had known her when he was a teen-ager, back in the days when he and Sidney and their mother had lived in the mock-Tudor apartment house in Brooklyn. Younger than either Sidney or himself, Naomi had nevertheless occasionally attended some of the same parties to which they had been invited, raucous affairs, twenty or thirty boys and girls from the neighborhood crowding into the radio-resonant living room of someone whose parents had unsuspectingly gone out for the evening. He had always felt uncomfortable at these gatherings, particularly when the lights were turned low and the more daring boys and girls withdrew to the far reaches of the apartment, three or four couples to a bedroom. He recalled that Naomi, like his brother, Sidney, had been one of those who frequently braved the bedrooms.
“I'd have known you anywhere,” Naomi was saying. He stood, and she came around his desk and embraced him. She was wearing an Indian shirt replete with embroidery and tiny mirrors, and around her shoulders was draped a thickly knitted Mexican sweater. She looked like a walking boutique, he thought critically, and held himself stiffly in her embrace. She had always dressed in a scattered, unconventional fashion, he recalled. In high school, she had been given to leotards and black stockings when all the other girls wore angora sweaters and bobby sox, and once, when he was already in medical school and rarely in the old neighborhood at all, he had run into her getting out of the subway, moccasined and voluminously skirted, her throat ablaze with Navajo turquoise.
Still, he was surprised to see her still dressed in what looked like bohemian garb to him. He had heard from someone, years ago, that Naomi had settled down, become a writer, married a lawyer, had a child.
“I'm proud of you,” she was saying now in her husky Brooklyn-accented voice, and waving a hand around his office. “Park Avenue and all.”
He had no facility for small talk. Her energy made him feel tired. “I'm proud of you, too,” he ventured at last. “I heard you're a writer.”
“A journalist,” she shrugged. “I work for a news magazine.” Then she plumped herself expansively down in the chair alongside his desk and grinned. “But as Chekhov said, I may be a journalist now, but I don't intend to die one.”
He smiled. He appreciated ruefulness and regrets. They were familiar emotions to him.
“Who'd you hear about me from?” Naomi asked, returning his smile. Hers was large and lazy. It spread across her face and lingered long before it faded.
“Charlie Enson. I ran into him once. He's a dentist.”
“A dentist! Oh, God.” She made a mock-frightened face and clamped her hand over her teeth. Then she giggled. “But I'm glad to hear it. I always wondered what became of him. And whenever I don't hear about someone, I always imagine that something terrible has happened to them. That they've died.” She turned and looked around his office, her shoulders twisting, her eyes inquisitive. She seemed to be perpetually in motion, perpetually augmenting her words with gestures and bold glances. “How's your mother?” she asked, fiddling with an antique silver chain that dangled down her chest. “And your brother, Sidney?”