9 January, 2018
He was dissecting a cat when I arrived for the interview. The lab-coated doctor sat hunched over the splayed legs of an immobilized gray kitty. I looked away. This wasn’t what I had signed up for. He was supposed to be a neurologist, not a vet.
“You the gal they sent to take Mary’s place?” He spun his stool around to face me, the sharp instrument still in his hand. His words were broken by a slight accent. I glanced toward him, relieved to find that his long torso blocked all but the cat’s tail.
“Yes, Mary, your secretary,” making clear that the typewriter was my tool, not the scalpel. Whatever would I do if he asked me to assist him? I was an English major, for goodness sake. “You need a typist while she’s on maternity leave, right?”
The doctor tossed his lab gloves into a bin and shut the door between lab and lobby, leaving the dead cat and the smell of formaldehyde behind. A Swede with thinning gray hair, glasses, and a narrow face, he was tall in an awkward, gangly kind of way—like an adolescent boy whose trousers, no matter how new, always land inches above his ankle. His name was embroidered in red script above a pocket stuffed with pens. My eyes passed over his bulging Adam’s apple and landed on a grin.
“She’s part of my research project.” The doctor nodded toward the closed door.
I’d just finished my college freshman year and was working Saturday mornings as a receptionist at the EEG lab of the university’s medical complex. Filling in for the doctor’s secretary was a fulltime summer post with a much-needed salary increase. As far as I could tell, my older sister Sandy was the sole breadwinner in our family, and how much could a twenty-two-year-old secretary earn?
Mother was enjoying the single life in Miami Beach where she’d gone to reclaim her runaway second husband. Any jobs Mom held during her four-year-and-counting stay barely covered her own living expenses. Our father had left a decade ago. His ten-dollar weekly child support checks disappeared on the stroke of our eighteenth birthdays without even a goodbye note… kind of like his earlier departure. My full scholarship covered tuition, but we’d turned down a student loan meant to cover the rest. Debt wasn’t something our family did. Luckily, I was able to live at home.
“I’ll show you around,” he beckoned, walking ahead in his size big shoes. I followed, wobbling in my two-inch heels. It was the mid-sixties and young women in the Midwest didn’t sport jeans or pants yet, but wore skirts, blouses, and even stockings if it wasn’t too hot.
The quick tour revealed a reception area offering a desk, file cabinets, and one cracked leather armless chair for the random visitor. Patients were seen at the medical school’s clinic. A worn, brown carpet led into a tiny office that boasted a narrow window offering an encapsulated view of the high-rise buildings that made up the venerable medical complex. The desk was populated with stacks of paper, journals, and books. A credenza stood similarly cluttered, but for a framed photograph peeking out from the piles as though vying for the doctor’s attention. It showed a younger man, one arm circling the shoulders of a curly-haired woman, and the other holding a gap-toothed little boy.
“My wife and son. He’s 14 now,” he offered, pausing to acknowledge his family. “They’re in Stockholm all summer.” Looking back at me, he waved his hands around the space. “And this is where I do all my great thinking and writing. Your job is to keep me organized and type up my notes.” Would he be joining them? This was to be a summer-long position. And I needed to get all those paid weeks in. A muffled siren from outside signaled the arrival of an ambulance.
“When can you start?”
* * *
I soon settled into a routine. Each morning I’d leave the apartment my sister and I shared and walked the few blocks to the Delmar bus, my brown-bag lunch in hand. A written assignment in the doctor’s scrawl would welcome me to my desk. I’d start pecking away on the IBM Selectric, stopping to take an occasional phone call. During my lunch hour, I’d roam the gentrified neighborhood shops, landing at the local Left Bank bookstore—browsing but not buying. Libraries were my go-to place for books.
I missed the camaraderie of the EEG lab: Laughing with the young female technicians, or greeting apprehensive patients who were about to have their scalps treated like pin cushions to map brain activity for migraines, epilepsy, or worse. Here it was just the doctor and I. He’d be in the clinic most mornings and in the afternoons, he holed up behind closed doors reading. As I had been forewarned, the doctor was not much of a conversationalist. “Hello,” “goodbye,” or explanations of assignments were his offerings. So, I was surprised when I returned from a lunch stroll to be welcomed by his loud greeting and a vase of yellow roses.
“Your boyfriend dropped those off,” he announced from his desk chair as I entered, as if he had been waiting for me to return. Wow. Billy had never given me flowers. We’d met early during my freshman fall semester. With oval brown eyes, dark hair, and olive skin, he was a Jewish Omar Sharif who came equipped with still-married-to-each-other parents, a three-bedroom ranch house, and membership at the local synagogue. By that summer we’d begun our journey skipping down the yellow brick road to happily ever after. We’d made it past holding hands to making out in the vinyl-clad front seat of his car. And now he’d sent me flowers.
“Uh, I didn’t bring you flowers, Renee,” Billy declared on the phone when I called to thank him that evening. “I mean, not that I wouldn’t have liked to. Why would that guy tell you that?”
That guy with the M.D., PhD?
“Must be his weird sense of humor,” I puzzled. What was I to do? Scold the doctor? Laugh with him at his prank? Relax and enjoy the flowers? Should I feel flattered? Other than high school dance corsages that always pricked when pinned on, no one had ever given me flowers. Much less a dozen roses. I said nothing. Over the next few days I‘d watch the buds stretch and bloom, petals open wide to embrace a brief life, their perfume filling the office. Later when hardened, curled leaves dropped onto the patient notes I was typing, I tossed the flowers, washed the vase, and placed it on top of the file drawer. An arrangement of pink roses arrived the next week and I was greeted with the same story. Should I ask Billy again? Maybe he actually had sent these, not wanting to be outdone by the doctor?
“No Renee, I did not get you flowers this time either. I’m sorry. I love you, but I don’t have money for roses right now. I’ll pick you some from my mom’s garden if you want. You sure you want to work for this guy? What’s with him?”
“Oh, he’s harmless. Just having fun. Likes to joke. The work’s easy; the pay is good. Should cover all my textbooks and supplies.”
I didn’t add that I loved getting roses and enjoyed the attention. After the second dozen roses had died, I found a collection of Winnie the Pooh books on my desk, still wrapped in their original cellophane. The day before I’d completely missed the doctor’s reference to Eeyore when describing a patient.
“What, you don’t know Pooh and Tigger and Christopher Robin?” This gift the doctor acknowledged. I read the entire four-volume collection of charming stories that night. Years later I would read them to my young daughters.
The surprises continued. One morning I walked out of my apartment building and the doctor was out front in his ‘60s Chevy sedan, waiting to drive me to work. He lived in a nearby suburb where many professionals owned homes because of the good public schools. My sister and I were in the apartments clustered on the fringes—many populated by medical students on a budget.
“I got a late start, so I decided to save you some bus money,” he explained, leaning over to open the passenger door. Had he gotten my address from my job application? No matter. Maybe I wouldn’t mention the ride to Billy. He might not have understood how nice it was to be driven somewhere without having to ask. Our family had never owned a car, unless you counted the few months we lived with our stepfather before he too walked out. Sandy had just started saving for a Chevy Nova.
Growing up, destinations had been limited to those on bus, or streetcar lines, or within walking distance. My attendance at social events or club meetings was dependent upon begging a ride from friends, knowing I couldn’t reciprocate. My surprise at seeing the doctor’s car, despite its mud-splattered tires and scratchy seat covers, turned into delight, not skepticism. I was reminded of those long-ago Sunday afternoons when my father pulled up to the curb in his ‘50s lime green Plymouth, with the rounded roof, for one of his twice monthly custodial visits. I’d dash out and jump into the front seat eager for the fun adventure to begin. Until the day he stopped coming.
“Thanks!” I slid in. The doctor didn’t say much on the short trip, but it didn’t matter. The car ride was much better than the crowded bus where I’d stand, hanging onto an overhead strap, bouncing off other passengers at every jolt.
My longest conversation with him occurred when he invited me to lunch midway into the summer.
“Do you like Miss Hulling’s Café?” he asked as he popped out of his office, another unanticipated gesture. His morning pick-up hadn’t recurred, though I’d still paused and looked.
“Sure!” I could easily abandon the American cheese sandwich and banana I’d packed that morning. We walked the few blocks; I had to hustle to keep up with the long strides of this man who was at least a foot taller than I. Grabbing our trays—mine piled with roast beef, mashed potatoes, and a chunk of corn bread; his with bratwurst and sauerkraut—we sat down at one of the Formica tables. The red plastic chair squeaked as I pulled it close.
“So, is Billy a good boyfriend?”
Luckily the potatoes slid down my throat, silencing my gasp.
“Um, yeah.” Not really sure if we shared the same definition of good boyfriend. “Yes!” deciding to sound more enthused as I buttered the bread. “We like the same things. Movies. The Muny opera.” Did the doctor even know about the summer musical troupe?
“Do you go to the Muny?” I asked, trying to redirect the conversation.
He shook his head. Should I ask him about his wife? His son?
“Tell me about Sweden,” I cut up the roast beef, ignoring the unfamiliar smell of pork from his plate.
“Oh, it’s lovely. You should go,” gripping his knife and fork in the reversed manner Europeans use. He popped a chunk of meat into his mouth.
I stirred the mashed potatoes with my fork feeling their hot steam on my face.
“So, is Billy romantic? Does he send you love letters?” He reached for the salt shaker.
Love letters? Did a Valentine’s card count? Billy sent as many letters as flowers. “Uh…no.” Was Billy romantic? We kissed often. He said he loved me.
“Love letters are beautiful.” He attacked his sauerkraut. “You know Swedes believe in free love.”
Free love? This was a few years before the 1968 summer of love, and flowers in your hair. I was an eighteen-year-old virgin sipping lemonade.
“You finished? Let’s get some ice cream.” He scraped his chair back. I followed through the revolving door.
As we launched onto the sidewalk toward the local Velvet Freeze, the doctor took my hand. His large fingers wrapped around mine with an unexpected gentleness. I hesitated and looked up. He was staring straight ahead and hadn’t missed a step. Should I drop his hand? Would he be angry? Did I want to? I wasn’t frightened, just surprised. Sexual harassment wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary back then. Rape wasn’t mentioned out loud. The words weren’t screamed on headlines or TV; social media didn’t exist. Doctors were educated professionals. I felt safe. The summer sunshine offered comfortable warmth, not the usual sizzling, unbearable heat common to the Midwest. Orange day lilies in full glory lined the curb. Men, women, and children strolled the wide sidewalk. What did they think of us? A graying suited-up man holding the hand of a teenage girl? Or did they even notice? Were we such an oddity? For a doctor and his employee, the behavior was an anomaly. But a father out with his daughter? How sweet.
I ordered a chocolate nut fudge ice cream cone; he had chocolate mint.
The next morning, I arrived at 9:00 as usual, called hello to the doctor, who grunted a good morning. An envelope with “Renee” on it, written in his familiar script was on my desk. I opened it.
‘Each morning I listen for the sound of your footsteps coming down the hall toward the office. I eagerly await the moment you open the door. Your arrival fills me with such joy and tenderness. I so love your blue eyes, your soft blonde hair. I long to kiss your pink lips.’”
The letter dropped from my trembling hands landing next to that day’s stack of patient notes and the doctor’s instructions. I grabbed my purse and yanked open the office door, heard it click shut behind me. My heels clattered on the hardwood floors as I ran to the elevator and rode down to the first floor, relieved to find the red and white city bus still at the curb, promising me a ride home. I displayed my student pass to the driver, turned down the aisle, and collapsed into one of the empty seats before me. As the bus groaned away, I looked out the front panoramic window at the giant buildings comprising the complex: a consortium of hospitals, clinics, and one of the most revered medical schools in the country. I was a mere speck in that landscape. Leaning my head against the cracked black leather seat, I cried. For the money? For the roses? For me?