by Deidre Woollard
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Dr. Mumford’s eyes are concerned and caring. We’ve come a long way in one short month. The walls of his office—once strange and foreboding with their odd abstract paintings—are now familiar. My eyes travel along the artwork tracing one red brushstroke, like an artery, through a confusion of fractured shapes. "I feel a little unethical here, because of, you know, your situation." He is older than I am, but young enough to still fumble with his words when discussing death.
"You’ll know first, right?"
"When the lab brings back the results this week, yes. But not before. That’s why I wanted to ask."
"Hal, if I decide not to find out, will you?"
"Emma, as a doctor, I am obligated to take care of you." He peers around the corner to see if his secretary is at her desk and then pushes the door with his foot so that only a sliver of light from the hall remains. "I won’t if you don’t want me to, darling," he whispers, touching my knee and sliding up the length of my thigh in a gesture that is both compassionate and sexual.
"I’m not sure I can handle it. I thought I would want to know if I have the gene but maybe it’s better not to. You could just keep the information and not look, couldn’t you?" I rest my fingers over his hand, drawing comfort from his warmth.
"Emma, you have to let your primary care doctor know about this."
"I don’t want this on my record yet." I wonder if he thinks I chose him by chance, that our sudden love affair has nothing to do with my need for a neurologist. Maybe he looks in the mirror and doesn’t see his thinning hair or the birthmark that covers nearly half of his face, the red stain like wine seeping into a white tablecloth. Birth. Mark. When I saw him at the informational seminar on revolutionary new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, I felt a spark of kinship. We arrived here on Earth with one point against us.
"Your history is in your file. When the father has Huntington’s chorea, it is highly possible that the child will not be infected. She must have talked to you about this."
"But it’s not probable. You didn’t say probable."
"I never should have let you talk me into this."
"Thank you very much, Dr. Mumford," I say in a loud voice getting up to go. "You’ll advise me when the results are in?"
"Certainly, Ms. Ballard." He stands and faces me. "I’ll call tonight, my darling," he whispers as he helps me put on my coat.
As I leave, it occurs to me that Dr. Mumford is getting too close. I had hoped his wedding band would keep him from becoming attached. A few brief encounters and he is already speculating about clandestine weekends away and leaving his wife once his children are older. "I’m date-stamped, remember that," I said firmly, as he dressed in my bedroom that first night. He shrugged and gave me one of those post-sex moony smiles that I now recognize as his besotted look.
This was supposed to be simple. I had always promised myself that when I turned thirty, I would take the step of knowing if Daddy’s disease would become mine as well. The isolation of the gene that causes Huntington’s chorea allows me to know my own destiny. The origin of the disease is deceptively simple, a mere error in a nucleotide sequence leading to a slow disintegration of brain cells. What starts as barely noticeable emotional disturbance proceeds inexorably to a full neurological breakdown. There is no cure and no real treatment beyond easing the symptoms. The test is implacably logical: the number of mistakes in the sequence directly correspond to the age that the disease will attack me. Not only will I know the if, I will know the when. I have memorized the clinical jargon from medical manuals and I remind myself of the facts repeatedly. It’s easier than remembering the lingering horrors of my father’s death or imagining the gradual descent into helplessness that will mark my own.
Once safely ensconced in my new leased Land Rover, I check my cell phone messages. As a pharmaceutical rep, my life takes place on the road more often than not. At Celecor Pharmaceuticals, we test many drugs but none that are slated for Huntington’s chorea. Small-time genetic disorders don’t get the funding that the more widespread or more celebrity-driven diseases get. A doctor once told me that I was lucky that the gene for Huntington’s had been isolated. He was naïve enough to imagine that the potentiality for a cure would provide the impetus for research. Celecor has multiple drugs in the pipeline for depression, arthritis, high cholesterol—each only marginally better than the one currently available. As patents run out, we must flood the market with newer drugs promising better things. Until now, I never worried too much about the science end of things. My job is to charm doctors into recommending our drugs. So much of what is prescribed is what is advertised. My car is full of various trinkets emblazoned with the logos of our drugs. You wouldn’t think that a person would be willing to walk around town sporting a tote bag with the words ‘Reselex—for occasional vaginal dryness’ on it but I manage to give away quite a few of the things. It’s easy to be appalled by the power of free merchandise but the truth is that I liked my job very much until I became obsessed the possibility of my upcoming demise.
On my voicemail, Anita from marketing has left a message about a batch of asthma drug note pads for me to pick up, and tells me I have missed a marketing meeting. Lately things have been slipping my mind. Is this a symptom?
I swing out of the parking lot in my hulking steel cage of a car. When I drive, I make sure my seat belt is fastened. I want the death that is allotted to me. Whenever it comes. Wissenstrieb is the German word for the drive to know. I wonder what the term is for the drive for ignorance. Through my twenties, I played with denial, but now foreknowledge of death haunts me. I feel mutated, not just by my possible illness but also by my ability to catalog its mastery over my body. I am a superhero of sorts, Death Girl. It seems a sign of advancement to contemplate facing death before hitting middle age.
The irony of the fact that no drug can cure me is not lost here. I am so tired of making the rounds of doctors’ offices in my powder blue business suit passing out free samples and cookie baskets. Instead, I meander around town as if I have no job and nowhere to go.
When I can put it off no longer, I drop by the office. My desk is layered with dust and the mail is stacked in a thick pile. I’ve always hated being in the office so I keep no personal stuff here. My revved-up nature is more suited to roaming from place to place than to desk jockey work. And despite my fluency with cell phones, PDAs and Blackberry pagers, a simple desktop computer can completely flummox me. It’s only now that I am realizing my restlessness was really a running away from a future I can no longer ignore.
"We missed you this morning," says Scott from behind me.
I turn to face him and force an apologetic smile onto my face. "I forgot. I’m sorry. I’ll be at the next one." Scott. If I weren’t a woman tortured by the prospect of an early death, I’d be pursuing him with quiet stealth.
"Em, those meetings are an important component of our sales strategy. Teamwork is key to the success of the organization." Scott rests his forearms on the wall of my cubicle.
"I know. The salesperson is the arm of the starfish. The starfish can always regenerate a new arm but the arm cannot function without the starfish."
"So you do pay attention when I talk." His tan face crinkles into a boyish grin.
"How could I not? You are so riveting."
"Very funny. Now, I need you to come in Thursday morning so I can give you a new laptop. We’ve come up with a great PowerPoint presentation on Ostensor, the new arthritis med."
"I’m better at the straight face-to-face. Docs don’t want to see me give some boring lecture." I grimace, picturing myself lugging a computer bag over one shoulder, its weight slowing my stride.
Scott’s voice drops to a whisper. "Em, your numbers are down. I think a new strategy might be in order." His teasing tone is replaced by concern and my stomach sinks. "I’m sure this would help."
"Whatever you say." I feel the blood drain from my face. Could I lose my job too? My grip on things is slipping and I can’t be certain what is causing it, the imagined illness in my body or its effect on my mind.
"Hey, it’s no big deal. We’re just looking at options. We’ll get those numbers right back up to where they need to be." Scott reaches over the cubicle wall and touches my shoulder. Instinctively, I raise my hand to his shoulder and we stand ridiculously linked for a long moment. He’s nearly a foot taller than me and our shared gaze feels like a solid thing. "Right, Thursday," he says, giving my arm one last squeeze before moving back through the forest of desks.
The next night, Dr. Mumford takes me to dinner in a small Italian restaurant five towns from home. We’ve been here twice before, which in our limited span makes this our place. The waiters already know us and suspect that we are newly-arrived rich. I am just the type of woman a man like Hal would chose as a second wife, pretty but radiating a nice-girl trustworthiness. We always order pinot noir and fettuccini primavera.
"I think tonight, I’ll have the Alfredo," I tell the waiter, overriding Hal’s order.
"You know that’s heart attack on a plate," he cautions after the waiter steps away.
"Does it matter?"
"Emma, this is too much for us to handle alone. I’m not going to give you the results directly. It’s unethical."
"You don’t care about me." I look down at the linen tablecloth and then up at him. "You said you would help me." I keep myself from reminding him that having an affair with me is not exactly ethical either.
"Darling, I care about you very much." His voice drops to a whisper. "I played tennis with Peter today. He says if I was willing to give Patty custody and the house, it might be pretty simple to get out of my marriage."
"I should get a boob job. Do you know a good boob guy?"
"Emma, your breasts are heavenly."
"Thank you. They don’t decompose, the implants that is. I like the idea of that. A skeleton with fake tits."
"But we’d have to live with them."
For how long? The unasked question hangs between us while I sip my wine. Somewhere some geneticist may already have the number, that devastating sum of genetic errors that adds up to my appointed hour of decline.
Later that night, after Hal leaves I can’t sleep. In the beginning, when we had sex, I would be so tired that if he didn’t turn off the light before he left I would wake hours later to lamplight and regret. I have told myself over and over that this is a transaction—my body for his knowledge. The truth lies somewhere in the middle ground.
These sleepless nights make me long for the father I never had. Daddy remains a shadow figure, an idea of someone tall and strong that I cannot remember but am unable to forget. I have seen pictures of myself as a bouncing tow-headed toddler, waving from my perch atop his shoulders but it never has seemed real. The father I knew was bedridden and uncommunicative, sliding ever deeper into a world I could not fathom. I hunger to own my father’s death; we should share this. Any normal person would be hoping and praying that the test would come up negative. I want that too. But Daddy’s life seems all the more jewel-like for having ended so early. I wonder what I will wish for at that moment of pre-knowledge.
On Thursday morning, I meet Scott in his office. We hunch over his desk, heads nearly touching as his fingers fly over the keyboard. "See, it’s really simple, you just hold down these two keys to advance the frame."
"I’m not going to remember all this."
"That’s just the shortcut, there’s also a pull-down menu."
"Wow, you’re a geek in disguise aren’t you?"
"I did tech support in college. You can also link it up to a monitor or an LCD panel if you’re interested."
"I think it will be all I can do to turn the thing on."
He shows me how to shut down the system and then packs it up in a zippered bag. I enjoy watching him; his hands are gentle as he makes sure the computer is secure. By the window, he has a whole set of seedlings lined up to catch the hesitant spring sunshine. The sweetness of those fragile plants nearly moves me to tears. I’m not used to being so emotional.
"She’s not out there, Scott." I pick up the silver stress balls from where they nestle in the silk box on his desk and roll them around in my palm.
"What are you talking about?" He wraps the power cord up and tucks it in the outer flap of the bag.
"Your perfect girl, she doesn’t exist. The trick is to take advantage of love where you find it."
"You’re awfully philosophical for a Thursday. What’s going on?"
"I’ve been doing some thinking lately. Thanks for the computer. You take care of yourself." If I am sick is there even a reason to come back here? I nearly run for the door, lurching toward the handle.
"Emma, would you like to go out sometime?" He spits the words out fast, as if sensing that I might be slipping away..
"Maybe." I let the word hang in the air like a scent trail as I close the door behind me.
For a married man, Hal seems to have a lot of free time. He shows up at my house after dinner. "What are you doing here?" I ask as I busy myself with the last of my dinner dishes. Something in his silence feels heavy and compelling.
"You know, don’t you, Hal?" I put my hands flat on the counter to steady myself.
"Who are you asking?"
"You, you idiot, who the hell do you think? Don’t torture me." I can barely catch my breath. All the familiar furnishings of my apartment, the oak table, the watercolored pears hanging on the wall, seem foreign to me.
"Me as your doctor, or me as your lover?"
"Don’t play cute. Please."
"I’ll forward the tests to your doctor and she can discuss it with you."
"Oh, God. How long do I have, a few months, a year?"
"Emma, darling, it’s standard procedure."
"Give me the paper. I can take it."
"I can’t do that. I thought you should be aware that the results are in."
"Is it in your pocket?" I step forward and shove my hands into his coat.
"Stop that," he says but he lets me search until I come up with the envelope. I hold it loosely between my fingers as if it might burn me.
"I can’t look. Just tell me."
"Call your doctor. Please." He tries to take the envelope but I hold it away. "I can’t do this with you. I thought I could but I can’t. I don’t think we should see each other anymore." He is flushed, the white side of his face nearly matching his wine-colored birthmark.
"Because I’m dying or because I’m going to live?" Either answer seems plausible and the only way to know for certain is to open up the envelope and reveal the truth. But it is easier to wait, with the flap held closed and stare at him instead. What import can I take from the crease of his brow, the downward slant of his thin lips?
"Because you used me," he says in a strangled voice. "I knew you only came onto me because I could do this test for you and I thought I was fine with that. We both would get what we wanted. But I care about you, Emma, and I know you will never care for me." His eyes shine with tears and my first impulse is to hold him but I won’t let go of the envelope. I extend one hand out to tug at his sleeve but he easily brushes it away. "I can’t tell you not to look at the results. It’s only fair you get what you worked so hard for. But as a person who loves you, I’m asking you to give me the envelope back and go through your doctor."
"I can’t." The test means more to me than he does and he sees it on my face.
"Goodbye, Emma," he says softly and disappears back into the night.
I sit on the bed for a long time. The envelope rests on my legs so lightly that I have to close my eyes and concentrate to feels its weight on my thighs. A breeze could blow it right out the window. I wait until the sun has risen and tentative filaments of morning light fill the room before I unfold the paper and look inside.