The Waiting Room

Narrative Essays // No Comments

You’re dying and you know it. You don’t need tests to confirm it, but you’ve made this appointment, and now you’re sitting in the waiting room, flipping through a book you can’t keep your focus on. I should have brought something simpler, you think. But then, you’ve never had much interest in magazines. The table before you is littered with them: National Geographic, The Economist. But if you can’t concentrate on your book, you won’t be able to fix your attention on op-eds decrying the dangers of GMOs or the plight of the vanishing honey bee. Of course, you feel bad for the bees, but it’s hard to conjure much interest when soon enough you’ll be disappearing yourself.

How advanced is it now that you’re smelling gasoline everywhere you go? For that’s what it is. Not burnt toast or oranges, but gasoline. An olfactory hallucination. You’ve looked up the possible causes—a virus or sinus infection, a blow to the head. But you’ve suffered from none of these in the past few weeks. Then, there it was, plain as day—tumor. And it felt right. Not the good kind of right, but the ominous one. Like you’ve known since the moment you caught that first faint whiff of odor that this is it. The fact that this smell has followed you for fifteen days and doesn’t emanate from any particulate matter only confirms your self-diagnosis, though naturally you play it down, holding onto the hope you’re wrong. Still, you also wish to steel yourself in case of bad news.[1]

You try to return to your book, but can’t.

Who reads Gravity’s Rainbow in a doctor’s office? you think. Then, Who reads Gravity’s Rainbow when he’s about to die; and then, Who reads Gravity’s Rainbow at all?

It’s not that you have anything against the book. If time were unlimited, you’d have no problem finishing. But now that you’re living on the clock—or now that you know you’re living on the clock—what’s the point of grappling with an esoteric eight-hundred-page postmodern novel simply because it’s a book you should read. After all, if an afterlife exists, no one’s going to quiz you on the amorous adventures of Tyrone Slothrop before letting you in. Then again, this line of inquiry is tricky, leading as it does to the hedonistic question: why do anything that doesn’t offer instant gratification?[2]

Actually, you’ve always wanted to read Game of Thrones. That’d be more fun. Especially now. But old habits are hard to break. You’ve always seen yourself as a literary type, and the image persists, even in the face of demise. But why not indulge in some fantasy now? One reads literature to become a better person, to gain insight into how other people think, to learn to empathize with them. And yet, with only a few months left, how much better will you get? It’s a safe assumption that this is as good as you’ll ever be, for better or worse. Which is sad. You haven’t done much to help others. You’ve devoted time to your family. You volunteered once to spend a Saturday helping clean local schools. You did the AIDS Walk.[3]

You can be a downright bastard at times. So why hide it?

Just this morning at the produce store, you’d been standing behind a couple, listening to their conversation, and couldn’t help but give them your opinion.

“You want apples?” the husband had said.

“No, I don’t want apples,” his wife had snapped.

Her response had sounded so nasty, so full of contempt, that you were just as surprised as her husband, as if she’d expected him to read her mind and never ask such a foolish thing.

You spoke in his defense. “What? Is it pesticides? You worried you’ll get cancer? Let me tell you something: on a long enough timeline, we’re all getting cancer. You’re getting cancer, your husband’s getting cancer, and I hate to say it, but your kids will get cancer too. We’re all just ticking time bombs for cancer. And if cancer doesn’t get you, it’ll be a heart attack or stroke, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s. You don’t eat apples, but you eat meat, right? A steak? Some chicken or fish? Cholesterol, mercury, salmonella. And if it’s not that, it’s the booze. You drink wine? Ever take something stronger? Everything in moderation, they say. One day the doctor says a glass of wine here and there is good for you. The next he’s saying it’s bad. Like coffee, right? One study finds it has a multitude of health benefits while the next says it’s poison. It doesn’t matter. Someday something’s gonna get you. So you want apples, you like the way they taste, go get some fuckin’ apples…”

Right then, the three of you stood there, gaping at each other. You hadn’t planned on saying anything. These were just your thoughts. But whereas before, you’d held them in, they came gushing out now. Still, you might have imagined the whole thing. It might be that this didn’t take place. Maybe you zoned out and came to and found yourself staring at them, them staring at you. You can’t know for sure, you might have only dreamed it.[4]

Oh, I’m getting maudlin here, you think. It’s nothing. You’re fine.

But you know that’s not true. You take another whiff and smell gasoline. You’d like to ask the woman sitting across the aisle if she smells it too, but you know she doesn’t. You know there’s nothing but the smell of a waiting room, which smells as all waiting rooms do, of sickness and cleaning products, a strange comingling of medicinal components.

You glance at the clock: 4:15. Quarter past your appointment. Do they keep you waiting to give you time to think? To really get the gears grinding? Of course, they won’t apologize. They’ll apologize for bad news, but won’t apologize for making you wait. Maybe you’ll be relieved to know for sure. No more dread or trepidation. No more wondering how it’s going to happen. You feel hollowed out. You expected you’d someday reach a point when understanding would dawn, when you’d finally know why you were here, what life meant. But that’s not happening. You’re frightened, confused. For a moment, your thoughts aren’t thoughts. You’re solely processing sensory data: the second-hand on the clock ticking, the sound of receptionists shifting in their seats, a patient turning the pages of US Weekly.

Are brain and soul separate? When you lose the body, does your soul go on? Has anyone arrived at convincing answers to these questions? You hope for something more, something beyond, but the questions are too big. It scares you to think there’s nothing but the flesh in this chair. Nothing but a man sitting in a room, thinking. It scares you to think you’re nothing but a man who stands and walks along, as a nurse comes to the door and says, “Mr. Jones? The doctor will see you now.”

[1] If this is it, you’ll quit your job and spend all your remaining time with your wife and daughter. You haven’t been present lately. You’re always occupied with the future, financial matters, work and bills and whether you’ll have enough to pay the mortgage and daycare. Your daughter’s almost two. She has curly hair and big brown eyes, and she laughs a lot. She likes to go outside and run around and look at flowers. One day a few weeks back, you called out of work and took her to the park and pushed her on the swings. You pretended each time she swung toward you that she was kicking you in the face. You’d jump back and make a swooshing sound and she’d giggle and throw her head back. It should have been a great day, but you were preoccupied. You’d received notice from the dentist that you owed them an extra two hundred dollars you thought you’d already paid, and the mix-up set you to worry. You’d called them to clear it up, but they had no record of sending the notice, which left you to wonder where it had come from. Did you still owe the money? Had the woman you spoke to known what she was talking about? Or had they sent it before payment was processed? You’d asked for the dentist to call back and straighten things out, but she hadn’t called back, so you’d gone through the motions with your daughter, all the while fretting over two hundred dollars. It was a large sum, and you couldn’t afford having to pay it again. But now, with the prospect of death hovering, you know you should have paid attention to your daughter, enjoyed the day more.

 [2] And this leads you to think of all the things you’ve wanted to do over the years but put off. At alternating moments, you’d dreamed of being a novelist or a stand-up comedian, and you’d worked at these things. You’d put in the effort to craft stories. You finished a novel. You developed routines. You’d gone to the comedy club to try them out (“I like exercise bikes. They’re the only piece of equipment it’s okay to use when you’re drunk…”). But now that your daughter’s come along, you don’t have the option of going to open mic nights on Wednesday, and you merely tinker with the novel’s revision during lunch breaks at work. It feels like you’ve wasted your potential.

You always thought you’d have more time to develop these talents, but you don’t. It’s a question you’ve often struggled with: how much time to keep for yourself versus how much to give your family. Isn’t it good to have pursuits separate from them? If you’re happy, don’t they benefit? You should have asked your wife for the time you needed to get better at writing. Is it too late? A career in stand-up is out of the question. But one good novel is all you need. Look at Confederacy of Dunces and the posthumous acclaim it garnered. Yet, this is the type of thinking failed artists everywhere use to justify selfishness. In the end, you’ve devoted too much time to failed projects. You’ve read hundreds of books you didn’t enjoy, and then wondered why you read them in the first place. Are you any better off for keeping this time to yourself?

[3] But this lack of altruism has nothing to do with a lack of good intention.

Before you started dating your wife, you’d volunteered to help children learn to read in an after school program. You reviewed worksheets with them, repeating simple words and phrases. It wasn’t difficult, and it went well. But then you noticed the woman who ran the program was attractive. She walked around the room, charting your progress, stopping here and there to offer encouragement. And each time she stopped at your desk, you looked up and admired her pretty green eyes and lush brown hair. You decided to ask her out and she turned you down, and though she’d done so politely, you felt embarrassed and stopped going.

You shouldn’t have stopped for that, you think. And then you think, I should have slept with more women. Not after meeting your wife, of course—you’re faithful and happy—but before you met her. You had opportunities, times it was evident a woman wanted to sleep with you but you turned her down. You always assumed women wanted relationships and not one night stands, and if you didn’t want a full-fledged relationship, you wouldn’t sleep with one, even if she assured you all she wanted was sex. Were you worried she’d become so overwhelmed with passion she couldn’t help pursuing something more? You didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings back then, but now that you’re dying, you don’t give a shit. You should have done it, but you’d tried playing nice, playing against type.

[4] Nevertheless, this is something that scares you, the schizoid “Nothing to Lose” scenario that would make you do something like this. A week before, while sitting in traffic, a man had pulled into the left lane and sped to the front and tried to nudge back in. If I had nothing to lose, you thought, I’d ram him. Ram his car into the fucking wall up there! But your daughter was with you, and you hadn’t yet discovered the tumor. If the car was been empty and you’d known about the tumor, what would you do? In that moment, you dreamed of the look on his face as you hit his car from the side, the sparks that flew from the contact of metal on metal, his hands thrown from the wheel as the force of the blow drove him back. You heard the crunch as his car hit those stones and your hood crumpled against his fender. And it all felt so gratifying. You can’t deny it. If you’re dying—and you mean really dying, as in the tests confirm it—what’s to stop you from acting on these impulses? You’re surprised it doesn’t happen more often, people with nothing to lose refusing to recognize society’s laws, doing whatever they want, whatever pleases them.

Yet, you do have something to lose. If you decide to fight, you’ll lose hair and weight. Your body will become a twisted shrunken husk of what it used to be. Your wife will stand by and care for you, since she loves you. But how far does even the deepest love extend at times like these—times when she’ll have to clean the shit and vomit off you, times when you’ll become increasingly demanding and wear her down? You’ll lose that love, and she’ll feel relief when you die. Both sadness and relief, and she’ll hate herself, and in turn, hate you. You’re supposed to grow old together. You’re supposed to see your daughter become a woman. You’re losing her milestones—prom and graduation, the college years, marriage and grandchildren. Then, too, you’re losing a chance to be in her memories. She’s so young, she’ll only retain a foggy vestige of who you are. Your smell, your warmth, the joy you’ve provided her with—these will fade, so you’re losing her as well.


The essay above originally appeared in Whiskey Island issue 67, 2016.

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