It’s a waiting room like any other, that standard doctor’s surgery set up with the mismatching furniture and a pithy offering of well-thumbed women’s magazines.
It greets you with an encompassing, inexplicable hush, perhaps the result of those awful hard-backed chairs that make everyone sit up so straight and formal, and the guests mutter to their companions in whispers and haste to mute their squabbling children or stab at their bleating mobile phones.
Except it’s not an ordinary doctor’s surgery and today’s visitors know that. Their heads roll on their shoulders and their eyes are pendulums in their sockets, searching for a clue as to what planes may lay beyond this particular purgatory. Perhaps a few specs of blood on the lurid yellow wallpaper, the remnants of a Jackson Pollock reproduced by a gushing wrist? Claw marks then, a snapped nail embedded in the plaster, a testament to some wild thing’s last grab for freedom? No? Bars on the windows, bulletproof glass at the receptionist’s station? No. Nothing. Just a couple of painfully restrained posters embellished with stock photo-people in sadness-connoting positions; heads pressed against rain-splattered windows; black and white and composed with a single tear leaking down one cheek; staring with rigid dignity into the empty distance.
Today’s three visitors are Celia, the young woman, overdressed as if for a date, and John and Margaret, the old couple, overdressed as if for church. John shifts in his seat, makes a dash for a magazine, slaps it back down again, picks his nails and yawns, flicks his eyes over the girl’s bare legs. Margaret elbows him in the ribs, hisses for him to not crease his suit, crosses and uncrosses her stocking-clad legs. She holds a purse primly in her hands, but her fingers hover skittishly over its metal clasp.
Celia is still, sunken almost petulantly into her chair. Her arms are crossed over a burgundy top that spills out a triangle of pale cleavage, and her two companions both note how the inky black of her extravagantly curled hair brushes pleasingly over the white flesh; John fleetingly, with embarrassment; Margaret with raised eyebrows, licking her back fillings.
The women are sat opposite one another, and smile beatifically, defiantly, when their eyes meet.
The younger of them is almost disappointed by the room’s unremarkable decor; she had expected a snake pit, a cuckoo’s nest, a cage to stifle the audacious, the dangerously creative, the non-conformist. The elder is relieved; such an in-formidable room could only front in-formidable patients with in-formidable problems.
In the corner of the unremarkable room is an unremarkable door. Their three lines of vision avoid it as if repelled by a magnet.
White strips of light bleed through the dusty wooden blinds from the window behind Margaret, igniting her white bouffant hair like a halo.
“Why are you here, then dear?”
Celia clears her throat, sits up a little straighter.
“Visiting my, er, partner”.
“We’re here visiting our daughter,” John blurts, and Margaret’s head snaps towards him, eyes narrowed with vehemence. When she turns back to the girl, her smile is reapplied as carefully as her demurely pink lipstick.
“Not visiting her — not like that. She works here — an internship. She’s studying to be a doctor -” she stumbled “- a psychologist. She’s giving us a tour”.
(We are visiting her like THAT she’s mad our little girl has gone mad oh.)
“I see”. Celia noted the edge of panic in the woman’s powdered face with a faint disinterest.
(Don’t look at us like that, we were good parents. Perhaps John graced a bar stool once too often and perhaps I swallowed the odd pill with my glass of wine at dinner but she was a good girl, a happy girl, it wasn’t us that did it.)
“So how did you and your boyfriend meet?”
(My lover took me by the wrist and led me into a darkened lecture hall, whispered terrible, acid things into my ear, licked my neck, pulled me onto the teacher’s desk and devoured me, spat me out something new.)
“We met at university.”
(It was her university that did it, that worked her too hard and flaunted all those slutty student lifestyles in her face. She was always so studious, so quiet, girls nights in and books, all work and no play.)
“Oh lovely, another student. What do you study?”
(We don’t study, we crawl inside of Plath and Lowe and Sexton, my lover’s ilk, my lover’s compatriots, and we wind our bodies around their words, the margins blotted with bloodied thumbprints.)
“English and American Literature.”
There is a second of silence, marred by the whir of a passing car that momentarily blots out the creeping fingers of light from the half-opened blinds. On a poster behind Celia’s head, in the brief half moment of darkness, Margaret reads;
“How well do YOU know your neighbor?
Every forty seconds, someone commits suicide.
Sometimes, it only takes one person to save a life.”
The car passes. The room is flooded with light and silence again. With its return is the sudden deafening crack of footsteps on linoleum, footsteps coming from the nowhere and everything behind that door. It takes a second for their ears to swallow the sound, a second for their minds to digest it, to understand its’ awful meaning.
The breath is punched from their chests. Three sets of eyes share a fast, panicked exchange, thoughts swarming behind them like clouds of angry bees.
(We burned each other like preparing a shot of tequila, with lines of salt and ice.)
(It was my fault I was cold and unkind and jealous of her youth I held her at arm’s length.)
(Oh please don’t let Margaret cry, I won’t be able to bear it if she cries.)
The door flings open. A nurse stands in the doorway with her hand on the solid oak, bespectacled and frowning. The visitors are all yet to breathe.
“Who’s here to visit Jane Dowe?”
They share a final, reluctant smile, the couple and the girl, sat in their stiff chairs with sinking hearts; and then all three of them stand up.