“Sometimes a sign can be equivocal or even contrary to what you’d expect.” –Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine
My brother, Ben, says that the story starts here, in the Volvo going 80 mph on our way to Chautauqua, New York. I think it started four months ago when Mama died. Or twenty years ago, when she left for the first time. But Ben says no. He says this is The Beginning, and I defer to him because a) He’s six minutes older than me, and b) If it weren’t for my ruse, we wouldn’t be on our way to Chautauqua in the first place.
I’m becoming more and more nervous as we hurtle down Route 79 in the pouring rain. An ominous oil tanker looms in my rearview mirror, while tandem tractor trailers rumble just ahead. I’m nervous because the last person on earth that I want to be doing me a favor–Dr. Mary Worthington–is doing me a favor: making hospital rounds in the ICU this morning so that I could get an early start on our road trip. No doubt Mary will try to negotiate completely unreasonable paybacks for her trouble. Then there’s the real reason my palms are clammy and my heart keeps turning over: I’m afraid that Mama isn’t going to show up.Meet me there, Mama
, I pray, gripping the clumsy steering wheel.
“Are you okay?” Ben asks, glancing up from his Time
magazine. I can’t understand how he is able to read in a moving vehicle without vomiting.
“Why?” I ask, downshifting.
“You look funny. And you’re driving so . . . erratically.”
“I am not,” I say, stamping on the gas as we dodge past the tractor trailer train. I don’t remember much from college Physics except that there’s something about a pressure drop between two moving objects that will cause one of the trucks to suck the Volvo toward it and subsequently destroy us in a ball of fire.
“Promise you won’t get mad?” I ask finally.
“No,” Ben says, turning a page of his magazine.
I open my mouth to confess the truth but he realizes it before I can make a sound. “We’re not going to hear J. D. Salinger speak, are we?”
I shake my head.
Ben laughs, only he’s not happy.
My brother owns about four different laughs. There’s his Courtesy Laugh, a lifeless chuckle as if generated from the wind of a sigh. There’s his Leader-of-Silliness Laugh, which is startling and infectious and reminds me of a bad guy rubbing his hands together and booming moo-hoo-ha-ha
. Then there’s his Don’t-Make-Me-Laugh Laugh, a snicker when he’s doing his best to stay in a bad mood but can’t. And his Disgusted Laugh, which Ben is doing now, something on the verge between a snort and a scream.
I know his noises well. After all, we shared a womb. Laughing-shakes probably rippled through Mama’s belly like electricity.
“Unbelievable, Holly. You made me drive two and a half hours from Pittsburgh–”
“I’m driving,” I say.
“All for J. D. Salinger’s book tour, which doesn’t even exist–”
“He’s a recluse!” I say, as if he’d been on the schedule and suddenly remembered he couldn’t come out in public. “He hasn’t written a book since 1965!”
“Who are we going for?” Ben asks.
“We’re going for Mama,” I say, even though Mama is dead.
“Come on, Holly. Who are we–” Ben stops and glares at me. “Oh, no. Not What’s-his-face.”
In fact, we are going to see What’s-his-face, also known as Joshua Peter, the star of Passing On
, a show where the famous psychic talks to people who have already passed on to an alternative universe and now want to communicate to loved ones back on earth.
“Seriously?” Ben’s voice reaches a baffled pitch. “You dragged me 150 miles to witness this–this con artist waltzing around pretending to talk to dead people? You’re a doctor, Holly!”
“Meaning . . . ?”
“You’re supposed to be logical–and scientific!”
I inform him that a medical education can only do so much to reshape one’s basic psychological makeup. Besides (I think), when it comes to psychics, Ben shouldn’t be so narrow-minded, considering he’s in seminary and believes that God impregnated a virgin who bore a son who performed miracles. Joshua Peter doesn’t even resurrect anybody.
“You need to get out more,” Ben says. “You need a boyfriend.”
This stings more than I want to admit. As an SUV speeds past, spraying us with water, I steady the wheel and point out in a stiff voice, “I could have a boyfriend if I wanted.”
I’m thinking of Matthew Hollembee, a third-year surgery resident who has asked me out on several occasions since we met in July when he rotated through my hospital, St. Catherine’s Medical Center. It’s funny he should come to mind when I honestly don’t know much about him, except that he’s tall, thin, and wears thick, black glasses. I also know that before St. Cate’s, Matthew’s home base was London. And the fact that I’ve never accepted a date with him doesn’t seem to deter him from inviting me out again.
“So why don’t you?” Ben asks.
“Why don’t I what?”
“Want a boyfriend?”
“It needs to be the right person,” I say, feeling unusually prim, feeling like my grandmother Eve, who never stops harassing my brother for “shacking up” with his girlfriend. It still baffles me how my normally gun-shy twin ended up in such a whirlwind affair. They met in New York eight months ago, when Ben still believed he’d make it as a filmmaker and Alecia as a morning news anchorwoman. By June, just eight weeks after Mama died, they’d moved to Pittsburgh together so Ben could start seminary. According to Alecia, my brother’s Calling just happened to neatly coincide with her new job as a reporter for Channel Four Action News (“Alecia Axtel, taking Action for You!”). But this still doesn’t explain why they bought a dining room set and a couch together. (“Relax. It’s just IKEA,” Ben told me.) I can’t imagine sharing my sacred living space, much less buying furniture with another human being, no matter how inexpensive and convenient.
“How will you ever know who’s right if you don’t take a risk?” Ben asks. After a moment, I reply, “What did you think of Matthew?”
“Dr. Hollembee? The guy who saved your life?”
I’m only half exaggerating. In early July, Ben showed up in Saint Catherine’s ER with excruciating right lower quadrant abdominal pain. Matthew Hollembee was the surgery resident on-call that night who helped the attending remove Ben’s appendix.
“Oh, yeah, him. The guy with the thick glasses. He seemed smart. Competent,” Ben says.
“I mean personally,” I say, though the circumstances weren’t ideal for male bonding: a rectal exam followed by laparoscopic surgery.
“He’s nice, Holly. The sort of guy who gets beaten up and stuffed in a trash can in middle school, and now he’s got the last laugh because he’s a surgeon.”
“ENT,” I say, and then add when Ben looks puzzled, “He’s required to do a preliminary year of general surgery, but he’s going to be an Ear, Nose, and Throat surgeon eventually. Fundamental personality difference.” By this, I mean that Matthew is nicer than your average surgeon. Or maybe he’s nicer because he’s British; I don’t know.
“I’m kind of rooting for the guy,” Ben says.
“You say it like he’s the underdog,” I say.
“Every man is the underdog with you, Holly.”
We make a pact outside the amphitheater not to talk before the show starts. Ben has it all figured out. He’s convinced the place is bugged, and that’s why the audience has to sit around so long before Joshua Peter appears. Then, he says, the TV crew listens to the conversations, and Joshua Peter uses the information to fool people.
“I’ll prove it to you. We’ll say we miss someone like . . .” Ben starts snapping his fingers, “Aunt Velma. And then see if he mentions her name.”
“Someone in the audience is bound to have an aunt Velma who died.”
“Really? Velma?” Ben is doubtful, but I put my finger to my lips to make him shut up. We’re approaching the gate of the outdoor theatre, where an older woman is checking to be sure we have day passes. It has stopped raining now and evolved into a humid, sunny August day. There’s something about the crowd’s nervous energy that reminds me of hope. Just as I’m about to mention this, Ben says there’s something about the throngs of people that reminds him of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”
Once we’re finally in our wooden seats, I start to pray, only I feel sort of funny about it. Ever since Mama died, she’s the one I pray to.Meet me here, Mama. Meet me here. Say something to make me understand.
I am talking about the letter I found when I was going through her things after the funeral, a letter written to my mother in 1983, the year she left home for seven months to go to medical school in Grenada. She had applied to school in the United States and didn’t get in. Ben and I were only eight at the time–just six weeks before our ninth birthday. There probably isn’t a good age to have your mother leave, even if you know she’s coming back, but for me, it wasn’t easy. Still, Mama’s departure always seemed justified. She had a Calling to fulfill, no matter where it took her. Only it turns out that my mother was pursuing more than medicine that year. She was pursuing another medical student, Simon Berg.Let the record show Mrs. Bellinger kissed me first
, he wrote in his letter, apparently not knowing that her married name was Campbell.Did you love him, Mama?
I wonder now. If so, why did you come back? Did you always wish, after that, that you were someplace else?
I add that if she’s going to answer any of my questions through Joshua Peter, to please do it in code, so the rest of the audience won’t find out the truth. I never even showed the letter to Ben. At this very moment it’s hidden in a fireproof safe, back at my apartment. I don’t want to ruin Mama’s memory, but I can’t let my questions go.
“Twizzler?” the woman next to me offers. She is sixty- something and has the rotund body habitus of a lady with type 2 diabetes, one who shouldn’t be eating candy.
Wiping my wet eyes, I decline. She takes a bite and remarks as she chews, “It could be a while. I hear he meditates before each show.”
On the other side of me, Ben snorts.
The woman asks us where we’ve come from and who we’re hoping to get a message from.
“Pittsburgh. And we’re not here for anyone in particular,” I say, forgetting to mention Aunt Velma. “We were just curious.”
Excerpted from The Diagnosis of Love by Maggie Leffler. Copyright © 2007 by Maggie Leffler. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.