by Anjali Chacko
University of Illinois at Chicago
As I stared at my former doctor in her casket, I felt my throat tighten and the stomach acid climb up. Mary looked so different from the pictures her family had placed near her body. Her skin seemed thicker in death. She appeared much paler, almost sallow, and her body sagged in all the wrong ways. I joined the procession of mourners and thought about how poorly the makeup artist had done their job. I mean, it was bad—it looked as if someone had just slapped some lipstick all over her face and called it a day. I almost laughed at the thought, but I stopped myself. It’s impolite to laugh at wakes.
“Why Florida, of all places? It’s still within the U.S., so he’ll still have to face the charges of insurance fraud,” I remarked to my wife, Theia. We were discussing the exploits of my primary care physician, Dr. Patel, over breakfast.
Theia paused, petting our dog Gemini, “I don’t know, Lizzie. Maybe he wanted some warmer weather?”
“Well, either way, I have to find a new primary care physician within our network,” I said. I started cleaning my plate off while Gemini nuzzled my knee.
“Don’t you have an appointment with that Dr. Chandy on Tuesday?” Theia handed me her dish and kissed me on the cheek before heading toward the bedroom.
“Yeah, I’m not looking forward to it. What are the odds that I would end up with Mary Chandy as my doctor? Like, who did I piss off?” I said.
“She might not even remember you,” Theia called out. “It has been a while since you’ve seen her.”
“I can’t tell if that’s a good thing. After all those years of rivalry, I think her forgetting about me would be the ultimate blow.”
“Okay, now you’re starting to sound like your melodramatic writer self. It’s just one appointment, and you can always cancel.”
“I’m due for my six-month follow-up though, and you know how rapidly my sugars can rise. Also, you might want to hurry up, or you’ll be late for work,” Gemini had begun to whine, so I quickly gave him some leftover eggs before Theia saw.
“I know,” Theia said, running past the kitchen. “Have fun writing that monthly report,” she called out before closing the door to the garage behind her.
“If that’s even possible,” I muttered. I sat down at my desk and began to work with Gemini lying across my feet.
I don’t think there’s anything more mind-numbing than writing reports for a corporation. All the facts, figures, and data make me die a little on the inside. Self-publishing a book of humorous essays doesn’t pay the bills though, so I worked for a Chicago-based steel company, writing whatever reports they needed, and focused on my book at night.
I knew things could’ve been much worse for me, but I couldn’t help but feel insecure when I thought about my upcoming visit with Mary. She and I had gone to the same Indian Church in Morton Grove. Because we were the same gender and age, people compared us - and I couldn’t compete. She won first prize in our middle school’s short story competition; I won a participation ribbon. She was the president of our junior class; I smoked weed behind the bleachers. She was the valedictorian of our high school; I was “only” in the top two percent. She spoke Malayalam fluently; I could barely hobble together a full sentence. Even now, she was still beating me—I kind of hated my job, and she was a doctor.
While I dreaded seeing her, I also wondered what she had been up to for the past ten years. See, after I failed to convince my parents I wasn’t straight, I moved in with my then-boyfriend and spent the rest of college living in his apartment. I hadn’t had much contact with the Indian community since then, so my appointment on Tuesday would be my first time seeing her in a while. Maybe she has a weird mole now, I thought to myself before returning to work.
Her death still seemed unreal, even as I stood in front of her body. I had the odd urge to hug her, but I instead genuflected in front of the casket. I walked back to my seat, past her dad crying in the front row, his head rested on her mother’s shoulder. I wanted to run out of that room, which felt claustrophobic and hot, but the torture was not over yet: I had to eulogize Mary.
I sat on the cold examining table paper, looking at the room around me while I waited for Mary to arrive. The fluorescent lighting gave everything a yellow hue and the white walls were mostly bare, save for the plaques from Harvard and UPenn. I sighed.
Mary walked in with her sensible heels sinking into the carpeting. Her head was down, eyeing her tablet. She asked me questions about my general health. She typed my answers into her tablet while walking toward me, her eyes never leaving the screen. While she wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my arm, she asked me what I did for a living.
“I’m a writer. Technical stuff, you probably haven’t read it,” I said.
The visit continued like this for a while until she asked me about my sexual habits.
“I’m married. To… to a woman.”
“You can ask Manny for some dental dams if you need them. They help prevent certain communicable diseases, such as—”
“That’s all you’re going to say? You’re not shocked?”
“Everyone at Church knows you like girls. You know how the amachies like to gossip. As I was saying, it can prevent certain communicable diseases, such as…”
It was anticlimactic but also satisfying to have my non-straightness not be a big deal for once. After Mary left the room, I walked to the receptionist’s desk and made an appointment for six months later.
“So, how did the appointment with the great Dr. Mary Chandy go?” Theia asked me over dinner that night. Gemini begged at my feet, per usual, so I slipped him some fish. Theia cocked her eyebrow at me, and I shrugged.
“It went okay. She did know who I was, but she wasn’t bitchy about it or anything.”
“Were you expecting her to be bitchy?” Theia asked as Gemini ran over to her. She shook her head at him before returning her gaze to me.
“I always imagined her that way, at least.”
“Ah, could that possibly be a function of how you felt about her, rather than how she treated you? I mean, had you really talked to her before today?”
“I hate it when you’re right.” I smiled. “Anyway, I have another appointment with her in six months. Let’s see how that goes,” I said.
Mary’s parents motioned for me to come to the podium. I stood up, and suddenly the lights seemed too bright. I felt myself sweat, and then I worried everyone would notice my sweating, so I started sweating more. My dress felt as if it were made of wool, and by the time I got to the podium my intestines were dancing the tarantella. I willed myself not to vomit and began speaking.
The nurse led me into the same examination room for my next appointment. Mary walked in, looking at her tablet, and began asking me the same questions she had asked last time. As she put the blood pressure cuff on me though, she asked me how I write dialogue.
“Mine always comes out so stilted,” she said. “How do you get yours to sound more natural?”
“I’m not the best person to ask,” I said, surprised. “I don’t typically have dialogue in my reports. I could look at something though, if you wanted.”
“Oh no, that’s alright. I haven’t written anything in years,” Mary said. “I used to write more when I was younger. I wanted to be a writer at one point.” She looked up from her tablet and smirked.
“Really? I didn’t know that.” Mary had won that short story contest, but this was the first time I’d heard of any other artistic inclination outside of those competitions. I guess I just wanted one thing to be mine.
“My parents wouldn’t pay for college unless I went to med school, so here I am today.” She walked to the examination table and put on a pair of gloves.
“Did you ever want to be a doctor? I mean, I’m assuming you did, considering your current profession and all.”
“I enjoy the financial security my profession allows me, and I’m a terrible writer anyway, so it’s better that I’m doing this,” She gave me a thin-lipped smile and began talking about the weather. I pretended not to notice.
Everyone seemed to like the stock eulogy I ended up writing, even though I could’ve replaced “Mary” and “doctor” with someone else’s name and profession and it would have been the same. Eulogies are for the living anyway.
When I had finished my eulogy, I walked out of the funeral home and straight to my car. I let my head rest against the steering wheel and wiped my sweaty palms on my legs. My hands were shaking, and I tried to take deep breaths to slow down my heart rate.
About a month after my second appointment with Mary, I was at the store doing some last-minute grocery shopping. The store was filled with people as it usually is on a Friday night, and while I pondered whether I should go gluten-free I noticed Mary plodding down the aisle.
It was weird seeing her outside of the office now, like seeing a teacher at an EDM festival. Her sweatpants had bleach stains, and her hair looked as if she hadn’t washed it in a week. Her flip-flops slapped against the tile as she ambled around the store.
I followed her for a bit, watching as she pushed her cart down the aisles. She filled her cart with wine and kale and proceeded to the checkout.
“Hi! How are you doing today?” The cashier chirped as Mary put her items on the conveyor belt.
The clerk seemed taken aback, but she recovered and asked Mary if everything was okay.
“I’m a thirty-seven-year-old woman who is drinking alone on a Friday night. What do you think?”
The clerk looked at Mary, stunned, while the good doctor’s tirade continued.
“I have no friends. I spend all of my time doing electronic medical records and trying to find ways to make this shit taste less disgusting,” Mary said, pointing to the kale. “I’m so sexually frustrated I could scream, and sometimes I just want to tell my patients to go fuck themselves.”
At this point, the clerk called security and two cops tried to calm her down. They ended up dragging her, kicking and screaming, out of the store. She kept repeating, “Do you know who I am? I’m a doctor! You’ll be hearing from my lawyers!” I watched as they threw her out of the store, the last echoes of her cries dying out.
I chuckled along with some of the other customers and continued shopping.
I read about Mary’s suicide in the news the following week. Mary’s parents called me up a week later to ask me to speak at her wake. I couldn’t say no to them.
“Am I doing the right thing?” I asked Theia later that day while petting Gemini.
“Sweetie,” she said, cupping my face with her hand, “you don’t have to do this. There’s nothing you could have done for her, and you don’t have to try to make up for anything.”
“I feel like I should, especially if her parents asked me. I owe it to them.”
Theia sighed. “What are you planning on saying then?”
“I don’t know. I’m not going to tell them about how I thought she was a massive wad in high school, that’s for sure,” I said, chuckling.
“Lizzie!” Theia said, her eyes wide. “You don’t say stuff like that about dead people.”
“Sorry, I’m just… processing.” I looked down at Gemini. Theia hugged me, and we embraced in silence on the couch until the sunlight faded away.
I managed to keep my composure during the wake, but here, in my car, I could cry as loudly as I wanted to, which I did.
I felt guilty. I felt as if I should have done more for her. Maybe if I’d tried to be her friend rather than her rival, if I’d helped her out in the supermarket rather than laughing at her, if I’d tried to have an actual conversation with her, she wouldn’t be dead right now.
I felt guilty, because we could’ve been in the same shoes, but I got to go home to my wife and dog while she was a mounted deer, stuffed and displayed for everyone to see.
I felt guilty because I was living, and she was not. It wasn’t fair, and it didn’t make any sense, but then again I guess death never does. I wiped my tears, turned on my car, and drove home.
The National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) is the professional association of undergraduate Honors programs and colleges; Honors directors and deans; and Honors faculty, staff, and students. NCHC provides support for institutions and individuals developing, implementing, and expanding Honors education through curriculum development, program assessment, teaching innovation, national and international study opportunities, internships, service and leadership development, and mentored research.