A Night at the Operation

A Night at the Operation by Jeffrey CohenChapter One

Man does not control his own fate. The women in his life do that for him.
—Groucho Marx


Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Train Trippin’ (this week)

“Sharon is missing.”

I looked up from what I’d been doing—playing an addictive little computer game called MacBrickout—and that resulted in a double punishment for me. First, I lost the ball that was knocking out a series of increasingly hard-to-hit bricks on my computer screen. Second, I was now looking at the face of Dr. Gregory Sandoval, my ex-wife’s soon-to-be-second-ex-husband, who was standing in the doorway of my office, uninvited.

“What do you mean, ‘missing?'” I asked. I actually do know what “missing” means, but I was caught off-guard and hadn’t really been listening to Gregory. I try to not listen to Gregory whenever possible.

The thing about Gregory is: I have tried, on numerous occasions, to pretend he doesn’t exist, but there is scientific evidence that he does. The man is an irritant, like a tiny speck of dust in your eye that won’t wash out no matter how much Visine you use.

Of course, he was wrong. Sharon was not missing. I’d seen my ex-wife only the day before.

It hadn’t been a pleasant experience, but I couldn’t blame that on Sharon, nor, even more surprisingly, myself. The fact is that after the age of twenty-two or so, and maybe even before, it’s just no fun to get a physical examination.

I go to my ex-wife’s medical practice for a number of reasons. First, I know that Sharon and Antoinette Westphal, who started the practice, invite only the best doctors they know to join them. Second, it is convenient to where I work and where I live. Third, I get to see Sharon, with whom I have a cordial divorce, whenever I go there.

And last but not least, I still get the family discount. A man paying for his own health insurance worries about such things.

But that doesn’t carry much comfort with it when you’re a man in his late thirties and another man is checking you for signs of testicular cancer. It’s hard to think of much else at a time like that.

“I don’t see anything,” said Dr. Lennon Dickinson, Sharon’s rather disturbingly handsome partner. Lennon, who was not named after Paul McCartney, George Harrison, or Ringo Starr, had dark hair, blue eyes, and the kind of look that makes Dr. McDreamy look like Dr. McDumpy to the ladies. I’m told. Now, he was simply reporting the facts. He hadn’t been named after Jack Webb, either, but his sensibility was similar to Jack’s.

“That’s a little worrisome,” I told him. “Maybe you should get glasses.”

Lennon looked up, which under the circumstances was something of a relief. “I meant, I’m not finding any nodules or striations,” he said. Lennon is as funny as an Ingmar Bergman festival.

“I know, Lennon. I was just kidding.”

He nodded. Yes, that was the price one pays for having a patient who owns a movie theatre that shows only comedies. You have to deal with the occasional joke.

“I think you’re just fine. Get dressed,” Lennon said.

“If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that,” I said under my breath. But I followed his instructions, and luckily, Lennon didn’t try to banter back.

Dressed and dismissed as healthy, I followed Lennon out of the examination room and into the hallway, where four other such rooms were located. One of the doors was closed, with the color-coded “patient inside” flag showing, and that was where Toni Westphal was, I assumed. Sharon was right in front of me.

She smiled her professional smile when she saw me, and spoke in Lennon’s direction. “I assume his heart is still beating,” she said, gesturing at me.

“I didn’t find anything wrong,” Lennon answered. The man’s a carnival.

“That’s only because you’re not a psychiatrist,” she told him, grinning at me a little too hard.

“You married me,” I reminded Sharon. “What does that say about you?”

“I divorced you, too. That speaks volumes.”

I gave her my “droll” face, and moved on. “C’est Moi! on Monday?” I asked. Sharon and I meet about once a week for lunch at a badly named restaurant in Midland Heights, near my theatre and her practice. It’s part of our ongoing effort not to have an acrimonious divorce. Sometimes it’s harder than others, like when she orders a steak sandwich for lunch and I try to mooch the French fries. The woman is vicious in defending her fries.

Sharon considered my lunch proposal. “Monday. I’m not sure. Yeah, I guess Monday will be okay.”

“Don’t be too enthusiastic, or I’ll think you’re harboring feelings for me,” I said.

“Keep dreaming,” Sharon said. She knocked on the exam room door next to her and walked inside before I could think of a witty response, but then, she could as well have stood there waiting for an hour. I had nothing.

Sharon and I had divorced when she’d decided she’d rather be married to Gregory, a choice I’ve never fully understood, but came grudgingly to accept. She had since come to her senses on that one, as well, and was now in the process of divorcing Gregory. But Sharon and I had remained friendly. One night a couple of months before, we’d gotten very friendly, but that had only reminded us of some of the reasons we’d divorced to begin with, and it hadn’t happened again.

Not yet, anyway. A man can dream.

The following Friday, eight days hence, would be the ninth anniversary of our wedding, and even though we were no longer married, we’d decided to get together that evening. It makes more sense to us than celebrating the day we were divorced. We’d had a better party when we got married, after all, and that was worth remembering.

Lennon led me to the reception area, where I could pay my bill and kibitz with Betty, the unbearably attractive receptionist. Betty is the kind of woman whom many men would find attractive, assuming they were heterosexual and breathing. But Sharon has always been an equal-opportunity employer, and talked her partners into hiring Betty despite her being almost unbearably hot. I recall it taking less persuasion with Lennon Dickinson than Toni Westphal. Lennon, in fact, had offered to pay Betty’s salary entirely from his own pocket.

Alas, Betty wasn’t in her traditional seat. “She must be in the ladies room,” Lennon said, displaying a habit for conveying too much information whenever it isn’t requested. “I’ll take care of it. Let me see your insurance card and a credit card.”

I reached into my back pocket for my wallet, and fished out the insurance card. I never use a credit card, and only carry one for identification purposes, so it took longer to find, but I managed. While Lennon was doing whatever it is one does with such items, someone to my left said, “My god, they’ll let anybody in here these days, won’t they?”

I didn’t have to look. “Hi, Grace,” I said. “Still carrying a torch for me, eh?”

“Only to burn down your house.” Grace, the head nurse for the practice—about fifty, attractive and somewhere between thin and heavy—gave me a quick kiss on the cheek by way of greeting. An older gent in the waiting area gave me a dirty look, like I was beating his time. “How are you, Elliot?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out,” I told her. “Ask Lennon.”

“He’s fine,” Lennon said, rapier wit at the ready. He handed me back the ID and the credit card.

I saw Betty come out of the restroom and knock on an exam room door. Betty is studying to become an RN, and sometimes observes or helps out on simple exams. Sharon let her into the exam room. My luck, I’d have to keep looking at Lennon.

I turned to Grace, but she had an odd look on her face, and I didn’t say anything. I wondered whether I’d forgotten to zip up after the exam, but couldn’t think of a discreet way to check.
Grace looked around me at Lennon. Her voice dropped a number of decibels. “Have you asked him yet?” she hissed at the doctor through the glass partition.

“I was just about to,” Lennon hissed back, and then set his gaze on me. It didn’t have the effect on met that it would have had on, say, women.

“Ask me what?” I wondered aloud.

Too loud, apparently. “Shh!” Grace said, drawing more attention from the waiting room crowd than my innocuous outburst had. “Keep your voice down!”

Okay, I could play that game. “Ask me what?” I whispered.

They didn’t have time to answer, because Toni Westphal had walked over, apparently having completed the exam she was doing on a patient. Toni, who’s around forty and exudes a maternal warmth despite having no children, threw her hands over my shoulder and Grace’s, as if we were in a football huddle.

“What’s going on?” she whispered. “Are we planning a surprise party?”

“We were just about to ask Elliot,” Grace said.

Toni looked confused. “Ask Elliot if we’re planning a surprise party?” she asked.

Lennon gave her his most serious look, which is just a little more serious than that of a funeral director on a busy day. I’m only his patient because Sharon won’t treat me and she thinks I should have a male doctor, but Lennon’s bedside manner would be enough to get most patients to burst into tears. I guess the women he treats just look at him and don’t worry about medicine too much. “We were going to ask Elliot,” he echoed.

Toni’s eyes narrowed. “Oh. Yeah.”

I looked from face to face, and found no answers. “Okay,” I said, “Let’s pretend that I just got out of an ESL class, and speak slowly and clearly. What are you people talking about?”

Lennon gestured me closer to the glass, which had a window in it for communication and commerce. “What’s been bothering Sharon?” he asked.

I knit my brow. It’s not hard to do, but the needles sting like crazy. “Bothering Sharon?”

Grace, leaning over to hear us, pouted out her lips. “Damn,” she said. “We thought it was you.”

“A lot of people think it’s me,” I agreed. “What’s me?”

“The thing that’s bothering Sharon,” Lennon answered, with a tone that indicated I was a fool for asking. Of course.

“Are you speaking in code?” I asked. It was worth a shot.

Toni shook her head. “Sharon’s been on edge for a few days, maybe a week,” she began.

“Five days,” Lennon corrected. I think he has OCD.

“Okay, five days,” Toni went on. “She’s not exactly snapping at people, but she’s distracted. And she won’t talk about what the problem is.”

“Distracted? Doesn’t answer you quickly? Seems to be thinking about something else?” I asked, exhausting my synonyms for “distracted.”

They all nodded.

I smiled. “It’s something to do with a patient,” I said. “When she’s deep into thought about a problem that’s puzzling her, she goes to another planet mentally. I’m surprised you guys didn’t know that already. Is there a patient whose case has been bothering her?”

They exchanged a knowing glance, but Grace said, “You know we can’t tell you that, Elliot.” And of course, she was right. Doctor/patient confidentiality, you know.

“Well, I’m guessing…”

I was stunned into silence by a sound from down the hall. Far down the hall. And I could hear it clearly.

Sharon shouting in anger.

“Good lord, Betty, do it right or get out of the room! NOW!”

The door to the examination room opened, and Betty walked out, an absolutely astonished expression on her face. Toni looked at Betty and said, “What was that all about?”

Betty, her lovely face streaked with tears, just shook her head. She pushed the door to the restroom open, and walked in. I heard the lock click behind her.

There was a long silence at the desk where I was standing.

“Okay, so something’s bothering Sharon,” I said.