Rita Ciresi: an Excerpt from The Doctor’s Wife

Chapter One: The Art of the Hand

The minute I enter the hospital I know I’m lost. There’s an East Tower and a West Tower. A North Pavilion and a South Pavilion. This atrium, that atrium. I don’t dare stop one of the harried men and women rushing by in sneakers and scrubs to ask for directions. And I would sooner die than ask anyone wearing a white coat where I’m going.

I make it a point to avoid doctors. But last week I got a phone call from a secretary at Yale: “We’d like you to come talk to our first-year medical students about how visual artists observe the human body. . . or something like that.”

Or something like that sounded dubious. But since it paid five hundred dollars, my answer was not yes, but yes!

The course syllabus the secretary sent me revealed the class was one of those touchy-feely, team-taught affairs aimed at making med students more compassionate. Each week a different physician got paired with a ballet dancer or soprano or poet; together, the two were supposed to explore the intersection of medicine and art.

The doctor I got coupled with was a hotshot hand surgeon–and so handsome that when I called up his photo on the school of medicine website, my roommate and first cousin Nicki let out a long wolf whistle.

“Can I come to class,” she asked, “and pass out your pencils?”

“Don’t be so shallow,” I said (licking a bead of drool off my lower lip). “He’s just a doctor.”

“He’s a surgeon, Lydia.”

“So he knows how to sew.”

“Is he single?”

“Aren’t surgeons all serial divorcers?”

“Maybe you can catch him in between wives.”

I stared at Dr. George Robertson’s chiseled face which–truth to tell–was starting to take a hold on me. “I don’t date doctors, Nicki.”

“Correction: you don’t date doctors yet.”

“Besides, surgeons are full of themselves.”

“They’re also flush with money,” Nicki said.

I shut the lid of my laptop–very carefully–because last month it had come unhinged, and the repair shop had dinged me 180 dollars to fix it.

“If I cared about money,” I said, “I would have gone to B-school instead of art school.”

Nicki shrugged. Like my two older sisters, she had gone to work as a secretary at Yale straight out of high school. She now booked more money in three months than I made all year traveling between four different colleges to teach figure drawing. Whereas Nicki’s health insurance included both dental and vision, I paid for my Blue Cross/Blue Shield–with its frighteningly-high deductible–out of pocket. After I laid down my half of the rent, stocked up on groceries, and made my car payment, I had just enough left over to buy a new Chapstick.

So for the rest of the evening, as Nicki sprawled on my bed, scissoring her legs and throatily whispering, Open wide. Say ahhhhh. Does it hurt when I touch you here? I valiantly tried on more than a dozen outfits, trying to figure out which blouse and skirt gave my artistically stick-thin figure the kind of curves any man–never mind just this Dr. Robertson–would lust to get his hands on.

This is what happens when you’re twenty-seven years old and haven’t been touched in one year, three months, two weeks, and four days (not that I was counting minutes).

* * *

After crossing a pedestrian bridge and snaking my way down another long corridor, I finally reach the room where I’m supposed to meet Dr. Robertson. Auditorium A is so overly-air conditioned that I shiver the minute I walk in. I place my beat-up portfolio on the table next to the imposing lectern, outfitted with a microphone and computer and bewildering stack of audiovisual components. This is a classroom made for science, in which the teacher lectures rather than leads discussion. But Dr. Handsome is nowhere to be found.

I shade my eyes against the brilliant fluorescent lights and look out on the cantilevered seating. Then I swallow nervously. There must be more than one hundred students staring back at me. Unlike my studio art majors–who have neon-pink hair, multiple tongue piercings, and tattoo sleeves–these medical students seem so clean. And polite. And punctual. A girl in the front row actually tells me, “Thank you for visiting our class today.”

“It’s my pleasure to be here,” I say. Then I take a deep breath and confront the lectern. I’m no slouch when it comes to computers. But this shit is seriously high-tech.

I turn back to the students. “Could someone help me–?”

An Asian kid jumps right to it. As he connects my flash drive to the equipment and warms up the projector, I crinkle my nose. He may look clean. But he smells like death warmed over. . . or maybe kimchi?. . . no, the stiff frog pinned down on the foam board that I had to dissect in ninth-grade biology. Yes, the nauseating smell emanating off this kid is formaldehyde. Half an hour before class, his pale, long fingers probably had been poking around in a cadaver.

I tap on the microphone. Set up my Power Point Presentation. Then–just to get into his good graces–I also call up the Power Point presentation that Dr. Robertson’s secretary sent me in advance.

Meanwhile it’s ten o’clock. 10:05. Then 10:07. The students are getting restless. So restless that I say, “I guess I’ll get started without–”

Just then the auditorium door swings open. “Where’d you go to med school,” a loud voice hollers, “the Virgin Islands?”

The door slams shut. I blink.

“And good morning to you, too,” I tell the closed door.

The students laugh.

Out in the hallway the hollering continues. “Why don’t you just tell the patient to bring a shovel into the E.R. so she can dig her own grave? Come on. Use common sense. What would you do if this were your mother? Or your wife? No. No. Keep going. You’re getting warmer. Bingo. Now go do it. And don’t off her.”

The door swings open and hits the wall. In comes the voice. And suddenly every kid in the room is sitting up military-straight.

I consider myself a pretty good judge of human character. So I feel like I instantly know this dark-haired burly man who sports a five o’clock shadow at ten in the morning. My father would call him a bruiser. He’s the kind of guy who barks rather than talks. Pisses with the door open. Refers to women as tail when he’s sober and pussy after just one drink. But insult his mother and he will punch out your lights.

Yet there’s one thing off about this picture. He looks like a linebacker in a tutu, because his sweaty, disheveled scrubs are ballet-pink.

He glares at the students–as if to say, the first one of you to make a comment about this limp-dick color I got on gets thrown outta the program. Then he glares at me. “You the artist?” Without waiting for a yes, he plows ahead. “So this is the artist. . . who’s here to talk about. . . . what are you here to talk about?”

I swallow. “How medical students can improve their observational–”

“Et cetera. Give her your undivided attention.” He looks down at his phone–grimaces–and heads back for the door.

“Wait,” I say. “Doctor whatever-your-name-is.”


I bite back a laugh.

“With a Y,” he sharply adds.

“Where’s Dr. Robertson?” I ask.

“Stuck in surgery.”

“But–wait–where are you going?”

“I don’t play with crayons.”

“But I need your help–”

“With what?”

“The ugly hands.”

“The ugly hands,” he repeats–then looks at the students, who oblige him with a titter.

“I mean, deformed hands,” I say. “Diseased hands. Or whatever you call these photos that Dr. Robertson was going to show the students.”

Dr. Payne pauses to take me in–all the way in–with his dark liquid-y eyes. “Show me.”

The doctor and I do not share the same concept of personal space. As I bring up the presentation on the computer, I feel his breath in my hair and his body–heavy, insistent–looming over mine.

“God, you smell good,” he says in a low voice. “Like a doughnut, you just eat a doughnut?”

His words get picked up by the microphone. The students dissolve into laughter.

“What’s your problem?” Dr. Payne calls out to the auditorium. “You’ve never seen a man and a woman flirt with each other before?”

I turn around so fast I almost knock my nose against Dr. Payne’s nose–crooked and obviously once broken. “I’m not flirting with you–”

“Well, I was with you–”

“–and I don’t like doughnuts.”

My voice (also amplified by the microphone) sounds far too defensive, as if Dr. Payne has accused me of a much more heinous crime than the innocent one I have committed. I live next door to a Dunkin’ Donuts. And I am rattled by the fact that this bear-like man has moved in so close to me that he can pick up on the sugary smell that–in spite of all my efforts to purge it–seems to have permanently seeped into my clothing.

I point at the computer screen, which reads:


Diagnosis of Common Ailments/Systemic Diseases

Based Upon the Appearance of the Hands

copyright George Robertson, M.D.


“Sit down,” Dr. Payne gruffly says. “I got this.”

I take a seat on the empty left-hand side of the auditorium and pray to God I won’t get called on. Because Dr. Payne does not teach his students. He harangues them. First he points to a pair of blondes in the bottom row. “You. No, you, on my right. In the braid. Or ponytail. Or whatever you call your hair. Tell me one thing I can discover about a patient just by copping a look at his hand.”

“If he. . . if he. . . ”

“By all means, take your sweet time.”

“. . . has arthritis?”

“Brilliant. And you–on my left–what can I find out if I touch his hand?”

“If he has poor circulation?”

Dr. Payne clicks the remote. On the projection screen appears a close-up of yellowed nails sunken in a vat of flesh. “What are we looking at here?”

“Osteoarthritis?” someone calls out.

“Why do you say that?”

“The joint’s enlarged?”

“What else might we see?”

“An inflammatory disease?”

“Such as?”

“Crohn’s? Lupus?”

“You, in the back: why’s the fat pad yellow?”

“Excess salt?”

“Which indicates–?”

“Renal failure?”

“Or?” Dr. Payne points to the closest thing to artsy-fartsy in this room, a girl with a shaved head, plaid shirt, and Doc Martens. “You: Give me an answer that doesn’t have a question mark at the end.”


“Spoken like a doctor. Thank you.”

On and on Dr. Payne goes, badgering the students to look closer at the ugly hands until they find the clues for viral infections, vitamin deficiencies, ingested poison, frostbite, kidney failure, and the names of obscure pharmaceuticals that cause blue nails. He walks up and down the aisles of the auditorium, getting right up in the face of the boys, hovering above the girls, pointing the remote at the most clueless kids as if he could turn them off with a quick click of the button. “Did you read the patient’s chart?” he asks. “Did you ask this poor schmuck’s wife which erectile dysfunction medication he took an hour before? What tests would you order? Congratulations: You’ve just wasted ten thousand dollars. Ever hear of a little thing called a stethoscope? Listen to the patient’s heart. Heart first.”

A flicker of disappointment crosses Dr. Payne’s eyes when he reaches the last slide. “I guess that’s it for the ugly hands.” He holds out the computer remote. “Back to you.”

“Thanks.” I stand. “You can get back to work now.”

“I’ll stay.”

I give him a dubious look.

“I like art,” he says. “Besides, I might learn something.”

I take the remote. Dr. Payne settles into the chair I’ve just vacated. I have the disconcerting feeling he is thinking, mmm, warm seat.

I call up my own Power Point presentation on the computer. Since I never lecture in the classroom, my voice sounds unsteady and unnatural as I launch into my semi-memorized speech. “When Dr. Robertson’s secretary first asked me to speak to you about what physicians and artists have in common,” I say, “I initially thought that lecture should take about five seconds–tops–to deliver. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw the overlap between medicine and art–or at least the type of art I do, which is called figure drawing.”

I hit the remote. Slide one appears on the screen, a full-body drawing from Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica.

“The doctor and the artist both begin with the study of anatomy,” I say. “Both strive to get a picture of the whole through observation of the parts. You hold a scalpel; we hold a pencil. You have a corpse–that you dissect bit by bit–and we have a live model, that we build up, bit by bit, on the page.”

To illustrate my point, I show them ten stages of a figure drawing and explain how the artist first marks the proportions of the body, then outlines its basic shapes. I point out that the model’s thigh becomes an oval, her breast a sphere, her pelvis a box-like shape. “Now that there’s a clear outline of the model,” I say, “the artist needs to soften the angles, following the curves of the body, add shading and texturing so the viewer sees not just any female figure, but this particular female figure.”

I pop through the slides until I end up with a full-length portrait of a strikingly attractive young woman. Her face is turned away from the viewer. She stands with one hand on her hip, right leg turned out. Her spine is straight and her breasts are so gorgeously formed they beg to be touched.

The auditorium grows so quiet I can hear some of the girls–who probably are comparing their own thicker, squatter bodies to the model’s–sighing. The longing on the boys’ faces is palpable.

“Who drew that?” Dr. Payne asks.

“I did.”

“That’s beautiful,” he says.

“You mean she’s beautiful.”

“Well, hell. Yeah. But I mean the way you drew her.”

I feel myself blush.

“You got any more to show us?” Dr. Payne asks.

I now wish I didn’t. But I hit the remote and run through the same steps until what’s projected onto the screen is a full-frontal of a young man. As my cousin Nicki would say: This guy’s got the goods.

The girls give me knowing smiles. All the guys in the room–including Dr. Payne–shift uneasily in their chairs.

“That’s some job you have,” Dr. Payne finally says. “Staring at good-looking people all day.”

“Not every body is this good-looking.”

“We’ll vouch for that,” Dr. Payne says.

The students–who probably are thinking of their corpses–laugh nervously.

“These models happened to be dancers,” I say. “Most of our subjects are just ordinary people.”

I show them more realistic depictions of the human form–a series of life drawings that I’ve done of pregnant women. Fat men. Old ladies. I point out the slope of the belly, the bulge and sag of the breast, the waddle of the neck, the whisper-thin ankle. “Every human body has something odd, or off, or interesting about it,” I say. “The point is that artists and physicians can’t just take a cursory look at our subjects. We have to really see whatever it is we’re looking at.”

I blank the computer screen.

“So now comes the fun part of our class.” I unzip my portfolio and slide out a stack of newsprint and a box of Faber pencils. “You guys all get to be artists. Find a partner and take fifteen minutes each to draw your partner’s hand. Try to get down on paper exactly what you see and afterwards we’ll discuss the observation process.”

The auditorium fills up with groans and protests: I don’t know how to draw. I never took art in college. I never took art in my entire life.

Dr. Payne immediately comes to my defense. “Quit your bitchin’ and do what the teacher tells you to do.”

Two by two, the students pair off–most by turning to their neighbors. The dorkiest ones–who probably grew up being the last chosen for phys ed softball team–reluctantly stand and look around to see who’s left over.

I pass out pencils and paper. As I come back down the aisle, Dr. Payne says, “Guess you’re stuck working with me.”

“I thought you said you don’t play with crayons.”

“Those are pencils you’re holding.”

I hold one out to him.

He shakes his head. “Draw me.”

Part of me wants to re-punch his crooked nose. But another part wants to find out who broke it. So I make Dr. Payne sit in one of the chairs at the teacher’s table in the front of the auditorium and sit down opposite him.

“Give me your hand,” I say.

“Right or left?”

“Whichever is non-dominant.”

He offers his left–broad, thick, hairy, bare of a wedding ring.

“Careful,” he says. “It’s insured for five million.”

“I’m impressed,” I say.

“As well you should be.”

“That was sarcasm. In case you missed it.”

His hand is warm. And a little sweaty. I inspect his worn knuckles and bulging veins, then turn over his palm. His skin has the pinched, drained look of someone who does not drink enough liquids and beyond that, is forced to hold his piss for eight hours at a time.

“What are you, a fortune teller?” he finally asks.

I let go of his hand. “Rest it on the table.”

“And then what?”

“Leave it there.”

I sit down opposite him and reach into my beat-up leather purse.

“What’s that?” he asks.

“My sketchbook.”

“Looks like a diary.”

“It’s a visual diary.”

“What do you draw in there?

“Things that interest me.”

“So you’re saying I interest you?”

“I’m saying I like a hard surface. Behind the paper. When I’m drawing. Now be quiet.”

“I can’t talk at all?”


He lets out a little whistle. “You’re a bossy woman.”

“Deal with it.”

A faint scar on his forehead–which I suspect he earned at the same time as his broken nose–flushes red. But he shuts up.

I fold back the spine of my sketchbook and with quick, broad strokes of the pencil I construct the flat plane of his hand. The jut of his thumb. The broad nails, which seem to be smiling up at me.

I won’t be drawing all of him. But I’ve developed such a sharp eye hiring figure models that it takes my imagination only two or three seconds to strip the clothes off a man. So I know–without even asking Dr. Payne to peel off his incongruously feminine pink top or drop his even pinker pants–that his hairy hands are the harbinger of a hairy chest and back, and his thick neck promises thighs so thick they could be called haunches. And yet I also know there’s always some surprise hidden beneath the clothes of every man or woman. Time after time I have seen models drop their robe and reveal the unexpected thoracic scar, the odd bulge in the calf, a mysterious dent in the chest, nipples swollen to the size of silver-dollar pancakes, a goofy-looking outie bellybutton.

I wonder what surprise Dr. Payne’s body holds. Then wonder why I wonder it.

* * *

After all of one minute of silence, Dr. Payne looks out on the students. “Those girls sure liked your picture of the naked guy.”

I suppress a smile. “There was a lot to like.”

Dr. Payne makes a dismissive ffft sound. “And every randy-andy in this room got a hard-on when you showed that picture of the girl.”

“Including you?”

“I still got moving parts.”

“So I see.”

He looks down–with alarm–at his crotch.

“Your thumb,” I say. “Hold it steady. You keep drumming it against the table.”

“Sorry. I’m not used to sitting still. Or sitting anywhere.” He stretches his legs, and out of the corner of my eye I catch that his black sneakers are discolored at the toes– from what bodily fluid, I don’t want to know.

“My feet are killing me,” he says.

“That must be hard to stand all day.”

“I gotta lose some weight.”

I say nothing. Which Dr. Payne obviously takes as an insult.

“I eat on the fly,” he says. Defensively.

“That’s understandable.”

“And I sleep odd hours.”

“Of course.”

“You try doing that and not packing it on.”

“I didn’t say you were overweight.”

“The word is fat.”

“You’re not fat,” I say. “You’re mesomorphic.”

“That makes me sound like a caveman. And don’t say if the shoe fits.”

So I don’t. But as I continue sketching, I keep thinking about that diorama on the second floor of the Peabody natural history museum, which shows a Neanderthal man in a leather loin cloth loping along, holding a club, while behind him trails a wild-haired woman clutching a child to her bare breast.

Dr. Payne shifts in his chair. Yet again. “Don’t you want to know why I’m wearing pink?”

“You seem eager to tell me.”

“I lost a bet. With the nurses. That I could go twenty-four hours without losing my temper.”

“How long did you last–half an hour?”

“Eleven hours. But then I threw a stapler.”

“At a nurse?”

“Nah. Just an intern. Hey. Joke. I tossed it on the floor. Piece of shit deserved to die. So I had to donate a thousand dollars to the Susan G. Whatever Foundation. And wear pink for a whole week.”

I laugh. In spite of myself. “You actually look good in that color.”

“Are you putting me on?”

“It plays up the contrast between your hair and your skin.”

“Well, you’re the artist.”

“Yes,” I say. “I’m the artist. And you’re the hand surgeon who can’t keep his hand still.”

“I’m not a hand man.”

“Oh. Aren’t you Dr. Robertson’s–um–resident, or whatever you call it–?”

“Do I look like his bitch?”

I don’t know much about medicine. But I know it operates on a strict hierarchy, and Dr. Payne–who obviously is much higher on the totem pole than I thought he was–now looks pissed enough to toss another stapler.

I try my best to smooth things over. “So what kind of doctor–”


I frown. “–are you?”


“What does that involve?”

“Whatever sick shit people do to one another and themselves.”

“Like, shootings?”

“Yup. And stabbings. And shaken babies. And husbands who beat their wives to a pulp–”

I bite my lip.

“–and wives who give it back.”

“How so?”

“You can do a lot of damage to a guy with say, a rolling pin. Never mind a knife. That’s where Robertson is right now–re-attaching a guy’s hand. His wife cut it off with a meat cleaver.”

I gasp.

He sighs. “People are animals.”

“I know that.”

“How does an artist know that–”

“I grew up here.”

“Fair enough.”

This acknowledgment–that New Haven is the murder capital of New England–wins us a moment of silence, during which we both can hear my pencil scratching on the sketchbook as I map the veins on the top of his hand. Which bulge. Aggressively.

“You don’t look like an artist,” Dr. Payne says.

“What makes you say that?”

“You have on a shirt. That buttons. Instead of like, a leotard. Or a–what do you call ’em, those things that peasants used to wear–tunics. And you don’t have that jewelry.”

“What jewelry?” I ask. As if I don’t know full well what he’s talking about.

“You know. Made outta stones and bones.”

As I keep drawing, Dr. Payne ticks off a long list of stereotypes about artists–which truth to tell–are mainly on the money. According to him, all artists do yoga. Eat wheatgrass and locally-grown honey. And don’t bother to carry health insurance.

I’ve never done yoga. I don’t like honey. Don’t even know what wheatgrass is. And my health insurance premium is so high as to send me to an early grave.

“You have a lot of preconceptions about artists,” I say.

“Like you don’t have a few about doctors? Come on. I can tell. You think you know me.”

“I know your type,” I say.

“And what is my type?”

“Are you always so combative?” I ask.

“I’m usually worse. So go on. Try me.”

I shade in the negative space between his fingers and the table. “All right. You drive a flashy car.”

“It’s just a Lexus.”

“And wear ugly shoes.”

He stretches out his legs even further. “Hey, these are hundred-dollar Nikes–”

“And screw nurses in the broom closet–”

“I can guess what kind of dumb-ass TV shows you’ve been watching.”

“–and think you’re God’s gift to the world.”

“Got that right, sister.”

“I’m not your sister.”

“I wouldn’t want you to be. Besides, she was sweet.”

I note the was. And continue shading the negative space between his hand and the table.

A minute later he says, “M.S.”


“My sister had M.S. That’s what you wanted to know, right?”

“I’m sorry.”


“Is that why you became a doctor?”

“One of the reasons. And for the record, I don’t do nurses.”

“So who do you do?’

“Lately? Myself.”

I look him straight in the eye. When he doesn’t turn away, I laugh. “You know, I’ve never met anyone quite like you.”

“Two minutes ago you claimed you knew me.”

“Maybe I made some assumptions.”

“Okay. Maybe I made a few about you, too.” His voice is hoarse. Semi-apologetic. Like he’s just pounded me six inches deep into the mattress and then has to ask, What’d you say your name was again?

And then–to my alarm, as I fear he’s read my mind–he actually says just that: “What’d you say your name was again?”



“Mark what?”

“Payne. My name.” He points–with his right hand–at the ID clipped onto his scrub pocket. The photo is recent. And shows him not smiling.

My face grows warm. For some reason knowing his first name–or maybe just the thought of not addressing him as doctor–seems intimate, as if I have placed my hand on his bare chest and felt the slight swell of his breast, and underneath, the beating of his heart.

“Tell me something,” Mark Payne says. “About what you said before, when you were explaining how you draw. You really see men in shapes?”

“What do you see,” I ask, “when you look at a man?”

“I don’t look at guys.”

“I wasn’t implying–”

“You mean a patient, when I look at a patient?”

“An ordinary man, walking down the street.”

“In New Haven?” He shrugs. “I guess I measure him up. Figure how fast I could take him down.”

I raise my eyebrow.

“I mean, if he were threatening me,” Mark says. “Or my wife or children.”

My pencil skids on the paper. “You’re married?”

“You see a ring on this finger?”

“Hold still.” I reach for my kneading eraser and rub out my error. “You could be the kind of guy who doesn’t wear one.”

“I wore one.”

“Or takes it off–”

“I kept mine on.”

I keep quiet, until curiosity conquers me.

“So how old are your kids?” I ask.

“I don’t have kids.”

“But you said–”

“They’re hypothetical. Yours?”

“I’m not married,” I say.

“You don’t need to be married to have kids. These days.”

“I think you do.”

“That’s not very bohemian of you.”

“Didn’t we already establish that I’m not bohemian?”

“So you want kids?” Mark asks.

“That’s a personal question.”

“That’s why I asked it.”

“Why don’t you have kids?”

“I wouldn’t be divorced if I did.”

“You mean you fought with your wife–”


“–about having children?”

“I mean I would never–ever–walk away from my own kids.”

“Maybe you wouldn’t. But other men might.”

“Might. You should see how many mothers come into the E.R.–all by themselves, no guy in sight–dragging three, four, five kids behind them. Or the crap-ass dads you do see. You wouldn’t treat a dog–no, a rat–the way some people treat their own children–and what the hell are you doing?”

I have leaned over. My face is about two inches from his hand. “I’m examining your. . . um, epidermis.”

“What for?”

“Your skin is very dry.”

“Do you know how many times a day I have to wash my hands?”

“Probably as many times as I do.”

“And how many hours I’ve been on duty?”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Are you kidding me? Sleep deprivation affects everything from your hair down to your toes. And not for the good either.” Mark juts his chin out at the students. “These kids look too well-rested to me.”

“Aren’t they just in their first year?”

“I don’t remember sleeping much my first year. Of course, I didn’t take wimp-ass classes like this.”

“You don’t think doctors can stand to be more compassionate?”

“You think we’re all assholes?”

“No, I–”

“Or maybe you just think I’m an asshole?”

“Well, I–”

“Sometimes asshole gets the job done.”

“Granted, but–”

“But what?”

I have no idea what. So I bite my lip. “Those students are terrified of you.”

“I don’t mind keeping it that way.”

“Fear isn’t healthy.”

“The hell it isn’t, when you have to do what we do.” For a second, he is on the side of the students. And then he once again becomes their tormentor. “You kids making progress out there?” he calls out.

There is laughter. Groans. And one of the guys has the nerve to call back, “Are you?”

Dr. Payne hooks his thumb at me. “She thinks I’m pretty in pink!”

My pencil skids on the page. I close my journal and stand. “Time’s up,” I announce. “Pencils down. Everybody bring their work up here.”

We gather around the table, and the students sheepishly hold up their crude drawings. There’s laughter. Ribbing. “That was hard.” “That was fun.” “That was cool.” “Your hand looks like a monkey’s claw.” “Your hand looks like it belongs to an alien.”

Mark reaches over and plucks the sketchbook from my hand. He flips to the sketch I’ve done, admires my draftsmanship (or maybe his own hand?) before he turns it around and shows the students.

“Now this,” he announces, “is art.”

The students regard my drawing. Then applaud.

The last time anyone clapped for me must have been high school choir concert. So I’m beyond flattered. I’m truly touched.

As Mark hands back my sketchbook, I hear the Asian kid–who is standing right next to me–sniff the air. “Dr. Payne is right: You smell like doughnut.”

I sense all the male med students standing behind me move closer and breathe in the cinammon-y smell of my blouse.

Mark looks alarmed. “Party’s over,” he says. “Get back to your books.”

I have to hand it to these medical students. They really know how to follow orders. They immediately turn in all their pencils. And thank me–without prompting–for sharing my art. Afterwards, half a dozen crowd around Mark, clearly hoping to sidle into his good graces. He shoos all of them except for the girl in the butch cut and Doc Martens. He gives her his phone number.

They leave. And so it is just the two of us. I slide the extra newsprint back into my portfolio. I take the time to put each of the pencils back into the box one by one.

“Thanks for sticking around,” I say.

“My pleasure.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t get buzzed. Or paged. Or whatever you call it.”

“Yeah.” Mark Payne consults his watch, thick and black as a shotgun. “What do you know–a whole hour has gone by in New Haven without some asshole shooting another.”

Then his hip buzzes. He frowns. “Spoke too soon.”

He plucks his pager off his scrubs and glances at the display. “Goddammit.” He nods at my sketchbook. “Save that drawing for me.”

“But how will I–”


He disappears through the fire doors as quickly as he came in, a blur of pink scrubs and black Nikes. If he were a cartoon character, there’d be wind drawn in his wake.

Suddenly the auditorium seems intensely empty. Cold. And unwelcoming. I power down the computer, pick up my portfolio, and hurry to avoid the inevitable gift of street parking in downtown New Haven: a traffic ticket.

By the time I make my way back through the maze of the hospital to my Corolla, I realize I’ve forgotten to stop by Dr. Robertson’s office to pick up my check.

Then my cell buzzes. I toss my portfolio into the backseat and pick up.

“Hello?” I say.


“Hello?” I repeat.


I’m about to hang up when a man–whose voice is high and reedy–says “Dr. Payne says he has your check.”


“Say what?” I ask.

“Dr. Payne says he has your paycheck and to meet him at–” The voice falters, then calls out, “What time?”


Mark calls out: “Seven-thirty.”

The voice continues: “Dr. Payne says seven-thirty at–?”

“Tre Scalini,” Mark adds.

I hold the phone away from my ear. On the one hand, I take offense at being asked out to dinner by a gay nurse. Or orderly. Or whoever this proxy is. On the other hand, Tre Scalini is hands-down the best Italian restaurant in New Haven. And I really need that check to pay my rent.

“Tell Dr. Payne,” I say, “that if he wants to go out with me, he can pick up the phone and ask me himself.”


The nurse clucks his tongue. “She’s being difficult.”


“Put her on speaker.”

I hear a hollow echo. A whooshing sound. And what I suspect is muted laughter.

“Lydia!” Mark hollers. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Having dinner with you?”

“Without the question mark!”

“All right. Having dinner–”

“That’s what I like to hear. Meet me at seven-thirty.”

“Why don’t you pick me up?”

“I don’t have time to pick you up.”


“Are you operating on someone?” I ask.

“What do you think I’m doing–flossing my teeth?”

I am about to hang up–because performing surgery and talking on the phone seems even more dangerous than texting while driving.

“Use valet parking!” Mark calls out.

“What for?”


Mark mutters something that sounds like, Fuck. Suction. Then hollers, “Use your head. You’re a single woman. This is New Haven. The lot isn’t lit.”

The line goes dead.

Ah, yes. This is New Haven. I’m standing on the street next to my unlocked car. A scruffy guy with a gold tooth is coming at me, with a bottle of Windex and a rag in his hand. And in the rearview mirror, a meter maid approaches.

I hop in and gun the engine.

Read Rita’s Interview about The Doctor’s Wife, her novel in progress.