The room kept going in and out of focus. That was why she did not notice him at first. All she could pay attention to was the way her hands and feet kept going cold, hot and then cold again — all happening in step with the alternating blurring and clearing of her vision. She had expected emotions: sadness, anger, regret, foreboding, guilt, relief, anxiety … She had prepared herself for all those things. She had not prepared herself for a physical response. Moreover, she had not prepared herself for a physical response and the absence of emotion. How could her imagination have led her so far astray?
The man finally caught her attention, simply because he was a man.
“You can’t be here,” she said, almost accusingly. She tried to ignore the way his facial features were clear one moment and then foggy the next. She even blinked a few times to clear her vision and brushed at her cheeks, expecting to find fresh tears there. Tears were the only thing she has ever known to blur her vision in this way. But her cheeks were dry. Of course they were. She felt nothing. Emotionlessness cannot garner tears.
“I’d like to stay if that’s alright,” he responded. He settled more into his chair, unbuttoning his coat and releasing a sigh of contentment.
She found the way he’d “asked” annoying. The words he had said formed a question, yet he said them with no inflection in his voice at the end. His request was not really a request at all, but a statement. He was forcing his presence on her, and she’d experienced enough of feeling put upon lately that even this slight transgression sickened her to her stomach. She looked away from him, absorbing the blow of yet another physical abnormality in silence.
A nurse came into the room and called a name: “Susan?”
She watched a slender woman, pale with an authoritative haircut contrasted by a terrified facial expression, stand slowly. She wavered for a moment, as though she might realize she was not Susan and sit back down, but found her resolve and approached the nurse. Susan smiled meekly and offered up her hand to shake the nurse’s. The nurse accepted Susan’s fragile attempt at normalcy, although it was obvious form across the room that Susan was able to do little more than initiate the greeting. Once Susan’s hand was in the nurse’s, it became a dead weight, and the nurse was left to complete the handshake alone, pumping the dead weight of Susan’s hand awkwardly. The nurse participated in the botched greeting with a neutrality that suggested she’d executed such handshakes before.
Since neither the nurse nor Susan commented on the man’s presence in the room, it became immediately clear that neither of them could see him. In fact, this should have been clear earlier to the woman with the hot and cold hands and feet. None of the other women in the room had reacted to his entrance. However, she had been so preoccupied with her body’s betrayal that this reasoning process had not occurred to her at first. When it did occur, she failed to feel any sort of alarm, nor did she question whether what was happening was real. These were things she would have done on any other day. But not today. Today the distinction between real and imagined, right and wrong, life and death–things she once saw as clearly delineated and in opposition of one another–seemed meaningless. Amid blurring vision and cold feet, did any of that matter?
“Did you have any trouble getting in?” the man asked.
She blinked at him slowly, waiting for the man to realize that this waiting room was not the sort of waiting room where one is supposed to make small talk to pass the time. However, no realization came. So, she answered: “No. My partner drove me.”
“No,” he said, tuning to the window and gesturing outside. They couldn’t see out because the blinds were drawn shut, but you could hear the yelling and screaming all the same. “I was referring to getting inside the front door.”
She shuddered and rubbed her hands together for warmth. Moments ago her palms had burned, but with the reminder of walking into the building they went ice cold. “It was horrible.”
The man allowed his eyelids to flutter shut slowly, and it occurred to the woman for the first time that he looked tired. Concerningly so, in fact. “I’m so sorry.”
When her vision blurred again, this time it was due to tears. She felt them splash out of her eyes and onto her checks like two tiny dams breaking. “Please … don’t.”
He gasped slightly, realizing the woman’s distress. “No tears, today. Today is a happy day.”
She had looked away from the man in shame when he offered his apology, but now she turned back to him in rage. Tears sloshed from her eyes rather than merely dribbling out as they had moments ago. They erupted sloppily from her eyes like milk from an overfull pail in the hands of a reckless milkmaid. Her hands and feet went hot. Her vision cleared. “You sick fuck,” she growled at him. “How dare you?”
The man blinked at the woman in disbelief, energy draining from him visibly. “I just want you to be happy.” His voice was barely audible over the yelling and chanting outside.
The sincerity of his intonation gave her pause. “Happy?”
He nodded quickly, desperate to restore the fragile peace between them. “Every ending is just a beginning in disguise.”
The woman smiled. She sank back into her seat and sniffled. The room blurred again, harsh lines going soft and indistinguishable. “My grandmother always used to say that.”
The man nodded and chuckled.
It occurred to the woman that this man knew her grandmother. As soon as the idea entered her mind she knew it was true. In fact, she asked: “… Nana Kate?”
The man laughed and shrugged. “Yes and no.”
It would have been reasonable for the woman to feel embarrassed since she had just asked a man no one else in the room could see if he was, in fact, her dead grandmother. She felt no embarrassment, however–just contentment. And this brought her to tears again. She was feeling something for the first time since she had made this appointment days ago, and that something she was feeling was a good thing. “I didn’t expect to feel good for a long time. I thought I would never feel completely good again.”
The man listened quietly, nodding. The woman could not meet his eye while she spoke. She hadn’t even shared these concerns with her partner in all the late night talks they’d suffered through together over this. She’d put on her analytical façade and made pro-con lists, letting the barest surface of her emotions seep through only in moments that felt so pregnant with them that it would kill her to keep them all in.
“What does that make me?” She shredded a tissue damp with her own tears as she spoke, relieved to be able to feel the man’s gaze on her even though she could not meet it. “What does it say about me that part of me feels happy in the midst of all this?”
The man’s eyes lingered on the window frame, and he exhaled heavily as the yelling and chanting outside reached a crescendo. Everyone’s eyes in the room turned to the front door. They waited.
The woman who entered was evidently tall and beautiful on a normal day, but today she walked as though she might collapse in on herself. She walked as though she wanted to collapse in on herself.
“She’ll feel better in a few minutes. It’s just the walking in past those people. It’s hard. They make you feel like you’re an animal, you know?” Nana Kate’s granddaughter attempted to comfort the man in his obvious concern.
The man nodded slowly, clearly unconvinced. He began to fidget a bit in his seat, watching the collapsing woman make her way to the sign-in desk and begin the process of checking in. As promised, the woman did indeed begin to improve visibly as the front door shut, cutting off the screams from outside. When she took her seat in the waiting room and began to browse through one of the outdated magazines with feigned nonchalance, the man redirected his attention back to his initial companion.
“I could do it, you know?” the woman set the question out tentatively, feeling her feet go warm again and watching the room come back into focus a bit. “It wouldn’t ruin my life.”
“It wouldn’t?” The man asked with genuine curiosity, which the woman appreciated. It felt like no one had really asked her how she felt in ages. When people did ask it always seemed like they had already decided what the answer should be without her.
“No,” the woman responded honestly. She released a hitched breath. “This is me being selfish, I suppose. I want more time, but I don’t need it.”
“What’s selfish about wanting your life?” Again, the man asked with genuine curiosity.
The woman scoffed. “At what cost?”
“Are you asking what your life is worth?”
“I’m saying it’s not worth more or less than someone else’s.”
The woman’s heart sank. For a moment, she thought she’d had an ally in this. For a moment, she’d thought someone else would be able to put into words what she knew was right deep inside but could never explain to anyone else. She couldn’t even explain it to herself. She just knew she had to make the appointment. She couldn’t bear not to. This man will never understand, she thought. He can’t. And it’s not his fault.
Just as she was about to kindly end the conversation and wait for her name to be called in silence, the man spoke again. This time he put his hand gently over hers: “True happiness is a form of energy …”
“… which means it can’t ever be created or destroyed.” The woman finished the sentence almost automatically. Although it may not have been the obvious answer for most people, the woman was a chemist. That fundamental rule about energy sat at the very core of her. It was the basis of her understanding of the world.
The man patted her hand to acknowledge her train of thought. “When your theory goes to shit, go back to the basics.”
The woman could not remember the last time she’d laughed until she’d cried. The last person she expected this man to quote was her Ph.D. advisor. She’d sorely missed his endearingly neurotic witticisms after he died several years ago, but she thought about them less and less as time went by, and this one in particular had almost escaped her memory entirely.
As she laughed, the woman’s hands and feet settled back to a normal temperature, and the world melted back into its normal form as her vision cleared. That was it, wasn’t it? All this concern about her happiness coming at an unimaginable price. All the nights spent wide awake wondering what special place in hell was reserved for people who would pay such a price. But what if it was as simple as the basic theorem she’d known for decades: Energy is neither created nor destroyed. Maybe today was not about making or destroying anything at any sort of cost. Maybe things were just changing form.
The woman met the man’s eye for the first time and they smiled at one another, holding hands until the nurse came for the woman.
“You’ll be alright now?” the man asked as the woman’s name was called.
She nodded as she released his hand. “Even better. I’ll be happy now.”
“That’s all I can ask.”
The woman stood and followed the nurse out of the waiting room. She turned back to wave at the man before she turned the corner, but he wasn’t looking at her. She caught a glimpse of him checking his watch and exiting the front door quickly, as though slightly late for another appointment.
“Alright, love,” the nurse said, motioning to a procedure room. “This is your room.”
The woman stepped inside and put her purse down tentatively, looking to the nurse for an idea of what to do next.
The nurse’s face became concerned. “Second thoughts?”
“No,” the woman said resolutely.
Someday, she would be a mother. Someday, that idea would make her happy. But that day was not today. Today, she was happy to go back to basics, and let things change form.