What's Within by by Millicent Eidson

In 1980s Manhattan, veterinarian Faye Simpson visits her friend in hospital, and reflects on their relationship; by Millicent Eidson.

The brain cyst glows on the radiologic film hanging from metal clips over the light box. No one, even without medical training, can miss that foreign aberration, an invasion. Like an ostrich egg - fleshy insides encapsulated by a shell. My skin prickles - everything within the sterile room is clammy, including your fingers, cradled in my bare right hand.

Holding the discarded plastic glove in my left, I glance back to the ICU window - no one catches me breaking personal protection procedure. They require a full mask, gown, and gloves since finding the three-centimeter purple lesion - like raisin road-kill - on your back. Your outrageous Halloween costume last month didn't expose its ugly threat. I can't ask you about it - you've been unconscious since I raced to Mount Sinai.

An hour earlier, I was on my way to cheer as you marched in the Veterans Day parade - our tradition starting with last year's externship. As my keys turned the second of three locks on the Greenwich Village loft door, the phone rang and I rushed back in to hear the nurse, in a sibilant Spanish accent, say you're hospitalized. When you collapsed at the Eternal Light Flagstaff in Madison Square Park before the marchers stepped off, they called - my name and number was in your wallet.

Your soft Jheri curls, coiffed like Lionel Richie's, caress my pale palm. You take inordinate pride in grooming the precise edges of your goatee. I tug down my mask and kiss your lips. First time.

At sea with conflicted impulses, I anchor against the brick wall at The Town Pump on a July Saturday. This evening, crowds will overflow Ft. Collins's oldest and smallest bar, but the lunchtime mood is peaceful.

My fingers tap the table and I sip a Coors while waiting for my pharmacology professor. Dr. Abelman left the invitation yesterday on the answering machine. I haven't seen her in more than a year, since my Colorado State University veterinary school class moved full-time to the teaching hospital on a different part of the campus from the academic buildings.

She sweeps in, olive-skinned face broken by an expansive, ruby-lipped smile. With a flip of her multi-hued skirt, she skips over. Heart racing and hands twisting, I admire the dark waves caressing her shoulders.

Like a Bird-of-Paradise, she nests within the opposite chair. "Faye, thanks for meeting me."

"Dr. Abelman, nice to see you too."

Her delicate hand placates my restless one. "Please call me Devorah. I'm not your teacher anymore." Hazel eyes squint and her forehead wrinkles. "How are your senior clinical rotations?"

My skin is white and freckled - quite a contrast with hers as I pull my hand away to adjust the comfort of brown-framed glasses against my nose. "I relished ophthalmology. Maybe I have a crush - the resident, Dr. Ortega, is gorgeous."

Why do I reveal that? She's not a girlfriend. As she frowns, my posture slumps.

"Is your break during fall or spring?" She ignores our awkwardness and continues the lunch catch-up.

"Fall - two externships are confirmed." Relieved to recover a professional footing, I share the details. "Late-August through September at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. I'm hoping for more information about their Epidemic Intelligence Service - EIS - on-the-job training program."

Her face is solemn. "Two years ago at his inauguration, President Reagan said, 'Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.' Is this the best time to consider a federal career?"

After nodding to acknowledge her warning, Talladega 500 NASCAR engines roar through the room when the bartender switches on the TV above the line of liquor bottles.

My head leans closer and my voice rushes on. "In October, I fly to New York City for six weeks at the Greenwich Village Cat Clinic. The two placements will help me decide between a public health or clinical practice career."

"Any vet can be a clinician." With one hand shoving the salad aside, the other perches over my palm. "You were one of my top students, and should aim higher."

Skin flushing from the warm pressure, I brush my short hair to counteract the heat. "Not sure what you mean."

"I grew up in NYC and recommend it highly." She beams a magnetic smile. "No pets, so I'm unfamiliar with that Village veterinary practice. However, despite the federal funding cuts, my canine temocillin research grant continues for another year. The results should be informative for treatment of human infections, and our team could use one more assistant."

After taking a large swig of Coors, I brace for my refusal. She's a Ph.D., not a vet, but one of the few female faculty members, and could be a mentor. Working with her pulls me in a way I don't understand.

My strawberry blonde curls are flat and knotted like the fur of a soaked Red Persian. Used to the wide-open western skies, I've never been doused with monotonous, cold autumn rain like the last two hours, dragging my green suitcase on the metal handcart through LaGuardia, buses, and subways.

I stumble across the doorstep of the MacDougal Street clinic - the room is spacious. Wooden cages and tables, gigantic bags of food, anesthesia machine, x-ray and laboratory equipment crowd the space. And the unfortunate smell of cat pee. No separate rooms - what if an animal escapes during an exam?

You step forward, hand extended. Smooth, mahogany skin and movie star teeth. Tall, dark, and handsome - you fit that cliché to the max.

"Faye? We're happy you made it. I'm Robert." Your voice is deep and sexy, like a blues singer. Electricity sparks as our hands touch. "Not Bob or Rob or Bobby or Robby. Let's meet the staff."

Marilyn, the twenty-something Goth technician who promised a bed in her loft, tosses a bag of baked potato chips that I tear open. Then an exquisite prima ballerina glides through the front door with a yowling Abyssinian.

"Cats are never happy when they find themselves here, by car, bus, or subway," you explain. With reluctance, I put the snack down and lick my teeth clean.

"Hello, I'm Dr. Foster, and this is Dr. Simpson."

I don't contradict you, but my eyebrows rise. If you want your clients to think I already graduated, it's your decision.

"Mr. Fosse thinks Rudolph is blocked again," she says, turning to leave. "Call Bob when you have some answers."

As I open the door on the carrier, the Abby backs away, hissing. You put strong hands on my shoulders and stop me from reaching in. "Let me wrangle Rudolph - picked up a few tricks from the Viet Cong in Nam. Take the pan and gently squeeze the bladder - we don't want it to burst."

You control the animal like a mom-cat, firm grip on the back of the neck. I'm successful at the urine sample, and your mesmerizing grin returns. "Good work, Dr. Simpson. They must teach you some clinical skills out there in the Wild West. And Rudolph will dance again."

After showing me the specimen under the microscope and injecting Rudolph with an antibiotic, you pass around the mask on the helium gas used for anesthesia. Marilyn and the NYU student join in, their voices high-pitched and hysterical. I want to be 'with it,' but we're more conservative in Colorado, and I decline.

Brilliant red and gold speckles the street sides and tree limbs. October is a magical time in the City when the sun filters through the monoliths. The pervasive odor of human waste is intermixed with the musky warmth of dying leaves.

Weeks of work and learning go by in a flash. You hate surgery, so you refer clients out and I'm not getting much practice, until a Seal Point Himalayan with glaucoma embeds his nails in the wooden table, sable tail swishing. His left eye is a vivid blue, but the right one is swollen, cloudy, and draining.

The elderly owner is frantic. "The drops aren't working - Huey won't cooperate."

I stroke the beautiful cream fur and the cat warms up, shoving his smushed face into my hand. "Removing the eye is an option. The operation isn't complicated, and indoor cats do quite well with only one."

The planes of your cheeks are rigid as you touch my arm to interrupt. "However, AMC, The Animal Medical Center, is available for further clinical consultation."

The older woman scrunches her face and rummages in her handbag. "Let me think about it."

After she departs, I clean up the table, then dart a quick glance. "Sorry if I stepped on your toes mentioning surgery."

You lounge in a client chair. "Is that a special skill?"

"Ophthalmology was my favorite rotation - enucleation isn't challenging. I'll call the resident I worked with to review."

"Go ahead if the owner agrees."

My belly flutters - I can't believe you support it. What am I getting myself into? Although you won't participate, I still need your advice.

"Do you know where I could find a prosthesis to replace Huey's eyeball and prevent a sunken appearance?"

Your laugh is benign. "Sorry, can't help. Check with AMC."

Working with you has my hormones on overdrive, but Paul Ortega's voice from Ft. Collins revs my engine. He's gracious, treats me like a colleague, and verifies that I remember the procedure with accuracy. Then I hop the subway. When the pony-tailed AMC tech brings me to the storeroom, I gulp. There are a dozen size options for the small, black silicone balls. Dr. Ortega said nothing about sizes.

I lift my glasses and rub my face. "Which one do you recommend for a cat's eye ball?"

"Eyeball?" The tech's tone sounds confused. "That's not how we use them."

Now I'm the bewildered one. "What are they for?"

He assesses me with a skeptical glance - apparently, I'm an out-of-town rube. "Castration makes people nervous, especially men. The guy chooses the size, usually the maximum, so his pet maintains a stud image. Or the wife sneaks the cat in and wants the same appearance as pre-surgery, so he won't notice."

My hand covers my mouth to hide a giggle. Must not be enough demand in the Rocky Mountains to teach us that little trick.

To celebrate Huey's successful operation, I subway up to the TKTS booth at Times Square and buy a half-price evening ticket to La Cage aux Folles. Later at night, after sprightly music, drag queen dancing, and warmhearted performances, I bubble with glee and head down into the City bowels again. When I set a heeled foot on the corroded stair illuminated by a single flickering bulb, a cop across the street breaks his stride. He glowers at my youthful face and white dress baring petite gams - clinic clients think I'm in high school - and yells, "What the hell are you doing at this time of night, girlie? Want to get yourself killed?"

He's right, the transportation system and streetscapes are seedy - as I turn my head, XXX clubs are on every block. Guys on the curb lured in customers when I strolled to the subway entrance. How else will I get home? After my first week, when a mentally ill guy impeded my way to the market, I learned to handle myself, avoid eye contact, and go around trouble.

Regardless of the risk, I continue down into the subway. It's too far to walk and I'm way too tired. In addition to Huey today at work, there were too many spays and neuters to count. You still hate surgery, even simple ones, and hid in the lounge to read veterinary journals and war novels.

Marilyn is cat-sitting uptown for a Broadway star, so I anticipate coming home to an empty loft around the corner from Stonewall Place, birthplace of the gay and lesbian movement. With exhaustion from the workday and late show, I pant after three flights of stairs. The door opens before I finish turning the key, and then it's pushed closed from the inside.

My imagination, right? Snuggling in my upper bunk is a priority, but the short hairs on the back of my neck bristle. With a hand on the knob, I call out through the thin wooden door. "Marilyn, are you home?"

No sardonic, Bronx response. On twitching legs while squeezing the hand rail, I slide down the stairs to the chill night air. Couples and groups celebrate the evening and drift on by, providing a comforting sense of normality. What should I do next?

I pace in front of the red brick building, pausing to lean against the ironwork. As my breath slows, I step across to the newsstand. "Can I use your phone to call the police?"

After telling my story, the dispatcher's rough voice says, "Lady, you've been robbed. Wait for an officer."

Within fifteen minutes, one of New York's finest shows up, bulky as a tank and grumpy like he needs a cup of coffee, or something stronger.

"I'm probably paranoid - not a city girl."

The grizzled patrolman shakes his head. He's working on a five o'clock shadow, and scowls. "They come in from the fire escapes - you interrupted them."

I'm sweating and hang back as I follow him into the stairwell.

"Wait here," he says when we arrive at the loft door. After using my key to unlock it, he lumbers down the hall to survey other rooms. My bunk bed is immediately to the left, and the empty binocular case lies on the blanket.

He's right.

"No one's here." His arm waves for me to enter. Drawers are open in Marilyn's room and the living room floor is littered. "Anything missing?"

While swiveling my head, I massage my neck. "Not sure, I'm visiting. My binocs are gone, but I didn't leave any cash here."

The fire escape gloats outside the kitchen. "This window isn't secure. Tell the owner to beef 'em up. Drug addicts grab enough to sell and keep going, although they can repeat if it was easy."

As he exits the front door, he turns. "You did good, kid. But watch your ass."

Robert, I'm falling for you and the kitties, but the Big Apple might not be worth it.

"Can you handle the clinic?"

You never ask me to meet the clients alone. I'm forlorn - booked for a flight to Colorado tomorrow, but reluctant to leave. Back to a student role, bottom of the totem pole.

My voice is high-pitched. "Sure, but in a pinch?"

You flash that engaging grin, and I know exactly what you'll say. "Call AMC," we answer together.

"My First Marine Division marches today in the Veterans Day parade. Come over to Fifth Avenue during lunch - maybe you'll see me. Afterward, I'll meet you here, and we'll eat out to celebrate your exemplary externship."

At our early evening dinner, the Sautéed Cervaux - fried sheep brains - taunt me from the gleaming white china. I never spotted you in the masses of uniformed soldiers, and the lunch break didn't allow time for food. I'm starving, and these glistening organs are not breaded to disguise their origin. They match animals I necropsied in Pathology, with ridged gyri and shallow sulci fissures, but lemon scent is an improvement. Broiled steak doesn't resemble a cow enough to turn me off, but the brains do the trick.

My fingers twirl an edge of the lace tablecloth as Edith Piaf wafts through the cozy rooms from overhead speakers. The flowers in the etched crystal vase are extravagant - Anthuriums, Calla lilies, Heliconia, and orchids, with a few gardenias, my favorite fragrance. The undergrad job at a florist pays off.

After you said the name of the restaurant this morning, I pulled out my one blousy, black silk frock, but I'm still a hayseed at a cotillion. Vile barely-cooked organs and muddled mind - my smile is forced when you return from the restroom.

"I didn't see your uniform. When were you in Nam?"

You ease into the Parisian woven bistro chair with the air of a panther. "Sixty-nine, seventy. Fit enough after thirteen years to still wear it," you add, as you straighten your spine like a proud Marine.

"College started as the war ended, so my classmates missed it, blessed be. Was it horrible?"

With enthusiasm, you dig into the dinner before answering. I pivot away to avoid the slices crossing your lips.

"Can I say it was good? I was crew chief of an amtrac - amphibious tractor - hauling grunts and supplies, and did guard duty south of Da Nang. Made a man out of me, and my Dad was proud."

My unbidden thought is, Did you kill anybody? I'm not confident enough to let it slip. "Did it disrupt your education?"

He waves the silver fork with a chunk of brain in front of my face. "Not hungry, or a chicken-livered coward?"

I lie. "Sorry, snacked all day. Where did you go to vet school?"

"Tuskegee, for undergrad, too, interrupted by eighteen months of service. I was the first in my family to attempt college, and struggled with pre-vet courses. After failing organic chem, I dropped out and enlisted as an alternative to the Army draft. Wanted to be a jarhead, like Dad."

Asparagus melts in my mouth, and the rice mixture has a piquant, salty bite. I ignore the brains.

"How did you end up owning the Cat Clinic?"

"After Southeast Asia, I had to get the hell out of Alabama - the world is a wonderful and wild place. This Modern Gomorrah appeals to my need for adventure. AMC offered an internship and residency. Within two years, the clinic was for sale, so I got a huge loan and bought it."

Your bass voice sounds amused. "Never thought I'd specialize in felids, but I relate to their high-horse edginess."

My lips release a deep sigh. "I'll miss spending so much time with them." And you, too, barrels through my consciousness.

"Are you considering practice?"

Not a job offer - you're more direct. But reserved - before tonight, I never heard of your family or where you're from. You never mention friends or someone you're dating.

Setting my fork on the plate, I toss out a lure. "Cat practices are in large cities, which aren't welcoming to a single female from Colorado's eastern plains. There was the burglary last week at Marilyn's. And I almost got arrested on a Boston Salmonella outbreak during my CDC externship in September."

"Do tell, girl." Your long body is more relaxed here, compared to the clinic. Navy blue-clad limbs stretch into the aisle on the shiny black and white tiled floor.

"On a Saturday, when we finished our hospital calls to find more cases, we pushed at the doors in the downtown health office building. They were locked and set off a blaring alarm. We found the nearest phone and tried without success to contact a local colleague at home."

"Boston cops answer the alarm?"

"They pounded on the outer glass doors, screamed their lungs out, and aimed their guns. I couldn't make out words, but the blood vessels exploding out of their florid faces had clear meaning. We dressed casual and one guy was a Black dude, like you. Not sure if that made a difference, but they sure were apoplectic about three young people locked in a building."

You hold up a hand, with elegance, to summon the waiter. Beignets and berries for dessert - those I can eat. The offending brains vanish.

After a few bites, you ask me to complete my Boston saga. "So when's the 'almost arrested' part?"

"We called police headquarters, who couldn't locate the building owner in Cape Cod. So they ordered us to find an open window."

"Now this is getting scary." Your eyes are merry, faint laugh lines at the corners, as you enjoy my distress.

"When we shouted from a fourth-floor window, a fire truck clanged up under us. Crawling on the shaky, extended yellow ladder, with no safety harness - that was terrifying."

"And at the bottom?"

"Seven o'clock, eerie evening, beefy cops scrutinizing our drivers' licenses and CDC IDs. The curious crowd was scantily clad, like call girls or drag queens. I heard a sigh of disappointment when we weren't arrested, although a few applauded. Found out the area is the red-light district - hookers galore." I grimace in disgust - my church says they'll suffer eternal damnation.

Your lips turn down and you lean away - disappointed in my story ending. How did I offend you?

After signaling for the check, you examine each flower stem. "So we're too exciting here in the city."

"CDC needs to confirm if I can join the two-year EIS training program - primarily for physicians so it's hard for vets to get in. I don't have any clinical offers."

Unlike you, I'm not straightforward - my fingers are crossed that you'll know I'm fishing.

You promised to meet after the Village Halloween parade. I caught a bit of it last year during my externship, but was queasy with its vulgar excess. I'm still a Broadway fan, and the dazzling gay characters on the stage are delightful, but safely distant. For the green extern I used to be, the flashing bare skin and bawdy posturing in the parade was too much. This year is better - one year wiser and removed from my Pentecostal upbringing in Greeley, Colorado.

Under the massive Washington Square marble arch, I huddle and shiver - should have worn a warmer coat than my dungaree jacket. The air is fresh and sharp after the misty rain cleaned the streets this afternoon.

Drag queens swarm the park - I've never seen so many glamorous girls. A Nubian princess slinks toward me. She's draped in a golden gown, short enough to reveal shimmering tights on shapely legs above six-inch spikes. Cascades of thick artificial blonde hair stream front and back over her shoulders to her waist. The dress is cut low to expose a gorgeous décolletage.

My narrowed eyes move upward to full, iridescent green lips with gold moles attached at each side as dimples. Her eyelids are plastered swatches of sparkling green and white. Those inky eyes are enchanting - and you extend your hand like a graceful swan.
"Randy Roberta, my dear, so happy to see you tonight."

We wander to the nearest dive. With a golden arm draped over my shoulder, at your six and a half feet in heels and my five foot three, we're Lurch and Wednesday Addams, but better looking.

The Cure's 'One Hundred Years' blasts from the speakers as we collapse on plush cushions. The lyrics are appropriately morbid for the gloomy holiday. I try to stop quivering as the radiance of an electric heater loosens my contracted muscles.

Your forehead touches mine and you raise your voice over the din. "What's your poison, sweetie?"

I take in the rowdy patrons and make a choice to avoid their excess. "Pepsi. After a lengthy day managing measles at the health department, I need a kick in the pants."

You clasp the young barkeep's hands in both of yours. "Make mine a Slippery Nipple, Sambuca and Bailey's." Your fingers scratch under the flaxen tresses. "Head's already killing me - can't make it any worse."

I tear at my nails - bad habit, but I'm unsure how to make conversation with this intriguing newcomer. My hand strokes the buttery leather of the stiletto tipped on the table. "And your feet - can't imagine these are comfortable."

You moan and stretch one arm to rub an ankle. The other hand caresses the shoe and holds it up to flash in the fluorescent light. "Only wear these beauties a couple times each year, for this parade and Gay Pride in June - amazed I made it here without falling.

Taking a hefty shot of my caffeinated drink, I probe. "So this," I wave to take in the whole outfit, "isn't a frequent night out?"

"Sorry, darling. Staid and ordinary like you see me in the cat clinic three hundred sixty-three days, loud and glamorous on two. Can't risk discovery by doing it more."

It's difficult reconciling your exotic beauty with the Marine who paraded in uniform last year and the athlete who completed the marathon two weeks ago in four hours during a heat wave - me hugging you at the finish line.

Your lips come close to my ear as your slender fingers hold my chin. I'm unclear who stimulates me more, you as Robert or Roberta.

"Is this all too much, Faye, with your conservative religious background?"

We're much tighter since I moved back end of July after graduation and the CDC orientation in Atlanta. The federal salary is low for veterinarians, but I'm grateful to be assigned for two years to the NYC health department. Working for you on Saturdays provides a nice supplement, and a way to keep up my clinical skills. Although you've been my guest at social events, we're not dating. I wish we were, but you're too circumspect for that. Now I know why.

My skin flushes - I've been silent for minutes. Can't make you worried I think any less of you. "Only admiration, Roberta." I lock your eyes and make an apology. "Wondered why you kept ignoring my passes."

Your fingers trace my own. "Wish I could swing your way, Faye. You're too attractive not to have been snatched up by someone."

My hand grasps yours to stop its careless stroking - your touch is too tempting. "I could say the same about you, and you're older."

"Impossible - isn't safe to be out, or committed. Could ruin my career, or make me a target. You think your family and church are conservative - try being a Black Southern Baptist homosexual."

After waving at the cute bare-chested bartender, you order a second drink. But with your next question, I'm still the cat under exam. "What's holding you up?"

We never talked so openly. Your Roberta side is easier to relate to, despite the overwhelming perfume and creepy wig.

"I spent too much time mooning over you, and the hot ophthalmology resident last year. He was helpful on the phone with the glaucoma patient, but once I was back in the hierarchy, it went nowhere."

With a paper napkin, I wipe moisture from my forehead. Someone needs to turn down the damn heater. "I should be happy he honored the informal code of conduct."

Two dancing or stumbling Broadway queens jostle our table and both drinks slosh into our laps.

"I'll walk you home," you say like a real gentleman, or gentle lady. I'm renting from Marilyn near Stonewall Place again, a convenient location for getting down to the health department on Worth Street each day.

To avoid shredding the sparkly tights on the pavement, you discretely tug them down and I slip them into my backpack. You sashay barefoot carrying the golden heels, making it easier for us to hold hands. The nylon mane tickles the back of my hand as you bend your head.

"It's hard making relationships in a new place, but you shouldn't stay celibate. Despite what your family told you, it's not healthy."

The fog thickens, but we dawdle. The night is too romantic, like a fantasized evening in Paris. You spin me in a delicious dance by my fingertips.

"There was someone last year, when I got back to Ft. Collins."

The wig waggles, threatening to fall off, as your face lights up with excitement. "Give me all the gushy gossip."

"One of my female professors came onto me. She tried to recruit me for a research study before I did my externships here and in Atlanta. Last spring, she invited me to hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. My final semester and exams filled most of my time, but I went along. She's beautiful and amazingly smart - grew up in Brooklyn, by the way."

"Anything happen?"

I wipe damp curls out of my eyes. "Only first base. Too creepy - the professor thing - although it's common. One of my classmates had oral sex with her advisor because he wasn't getting it in his marriage. Dr. Abelman argued I was only a couple months from the diploma, but I couldn't handle her flirtation when I was so beguiled by Dr. Ortega and you."

We reach the front porch of my building, and are inclined to prolong the evening just a bit. The lights are out on the third floor and I assume Marilyn is asleep. After squatting on the stoop, our bottoms are soaking wet. You chuckle and wrap your arms around to keep me warm.

"Maybe you swing both ways?" Your tone is encouraging, not judgmental.

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"No matter how much I love you, I'm not sexually attracted. Only guys float my boat. But some people can be excited by men and women. You know - bisexual?"

That never occurred to me, although it could explain things. My congregation preaches that gays are sucked down into hell. Will I go there quicker?

At Mount Sinai, I put the mask and glove back on, afraid to be kicked out. They allow me to stay next to your bed for hours while the lab tests are run. Three years ago, the New York Times ran an article about the rare cancer in homosexuals called Kaposi's sarcoma, which resembles your lesion.

Despite how close we've become, you never talk about your sexual contacts. After making plans to meet like last year for the Veterans parade, you admitted to fevers and headaches since our soggy Halloween. I assumed you caught a cold. Now I'm flattened almost on the floor with fear you might be suffering from this new acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which they're calling AIDS.

As the morning dawns stormy with streaks of lightning, I remember to call Marilyn. At my request, she uses her key to your place, but rings back at the nurses' station that she can't find information for family members or other close friends.

My watch says 11:17am when you stir. I dozed off - can't account for the twenty-four hours by your side. Your lashes flutter upwards, but your fearful gaze says you don't know where you are. Or you do, and don't like it. The audible beeps from your heart monitor increase, but the bouncing green light is normal rhythm, from what I remember in cardiology. A middle-aged nurse rushes in.

"He's waking up - good news." She pushes me aside to move closer to your face. "Dr. Foster, you're in Mount Sinai, and your friend Dr. Simpson is here. How are you feeling?"

"Not sure." Your speech is understandable - maybe not a stroke. Like the morning's flashes from the rocky weather, my nerves burn with joy and gratitude. I was afraid you'd never be conscious again. Medical professionals are our own worst enemies - we know too much about what can go wrong.

An older male with an imperious stride and a bristling milky mustache bustles in. He checks your vitals and asks simple questions to verify your orientation. Every word from your lips triggers a thanks to heaven.

"We've completed multiple tests, including for antibodies. I assume as veterinarians, you both know what those are."

Yeow - how patronizing. I nod to appease him.

"The antibody test to the HTLV-III/LAV virus which appears to be associated with AIDS has only been available for a few months, but you tested positive, Dr. Foster. Your skin lesion is the gay cancer - Kaposi's sarcoma. And you appear to have an opportunistic infection - there are antibodies to the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, probably the cause of the brain cyst."

"Brain cyst?" Your words are slower but crystal clear.

"Nurse, did no one show him the film?" She shakes her head with a fearful expression.

He jerks it from the clips and brings it close to your eyes. "Right here, you can't miss it. We need to operate."

Your chin dips - perhaps in agreement, but I don't think you understand.

The doctor seizes the nurse's upper arm and draws her to the door. "Check the schedule and get the O.R. ready. Make sure everyone is scrupulous about procedures - it's still not clear how AIDS is spread."

Alone again. "Thanks for being here," you mutter.

"Robert, do you want brain surgery?"

If you say no, I can rush out and put a stop to it, at least temporarily. My mind focuses on the immediate parasite threat. AIDS is so new, there's no treatment, and an uncertain but scary prognosis.

"An operation of this magnitude is hazardous for function after you recover. You can be paralyzed or unable to speak."

Your head twists on the white pillow, and your voice is more distinct. "We shouldn't be surprised a vet's infected with Toxo."

Do you regret those sheep brains last year? People ingest the parasite in undercooked meat. But infected cats shed oocysts in their feces, leading to accidental ingestion by those cleaning the litter box. Pregnant women are advised to let someone else take over the duty, to prevent severe fetal damage. How many litter boxes have we changed?

"Robert, not getting treated will be dangerous too, so I hope the nasty doc comes back with antibiotic options. As a cat specialist, you may remember that Toxo is the leading disease in TORCH, the abbreviation for organisms linked to birth defects."

"Not a concern of mine."

My skin feels hot with embarrassment. "Sorry, I'm not awake - racking my brain for useful information. The Lancet published a report of a Spanish gay guy with Toxo. He visited here and got symptoms like yours, before AIDS was recognized."

"But likely connected."

I stand to stretch and inhale, hoping the oxygen revives my neurons. "Last year, there was another article about patients with acute encephalitis from Toxo. Some were homosexual with acquired immunodeficiency. Within the past year, our CDC newsletter, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report - MMWR - described Toxo in Canadian and U.S. AIDS cases, although I think ours were hemophiliacs. Not an issue for you?"

"Dodged that bullet - healthy as a horse before this. Faye, I'm fading and the headache is worse. Can we table this discussion?"

"I want to check with the doctors."

As your eyelids droop, my fingers contact the switch. Your dark curls glisten before I turn off the light. You're gonna be mad if you can't keep up your grooming.

My health department supervisor approves a vacation day, so I'm curled up holding the phone on Marilyn's comfy arm chair with a bright orange afghan, knitted by her aunt, around my shoulders. I can ask for sick leave, but it's for me or family. Aren't you family?

Devorah's voice is sweet and seductive. Nobody's nerdier than a pharmacologist, but that woman's charisma never quits. I ask if she knows of new drugs under evaluation for Toxo in AIDS patients. She promises to research it, and wonders if I'll visit my parents in Colorado for Thanksgiving or Christmas. My ticket for December was mailed by the travel agent, but now with your illness, everything's as evident as a black cat at midnight. I can't leave you to face this alone. Perhaps only to enlist assistance, I promise to see her when I'm back west.

Marilyn's holding down the fort at the clinic. She's checking for AMC interns to work shifts. I'm too new with CDC to accumulate much vacation time and aren't eligible for extended time off to help beyond the weekends.

I can't abandon my EIS assignment. In addition to measles, influenza is heating up - not unusual in the fall. Last week, I collapsed to the chair as my Pennsylvania counterpart described the rabies death of a rural twelve-year-old. Choking when he tried to eat, running away from the hospital. His final days were barbaric - shivering and gagging, hallucinations, and violent yelling. Hunters and sports trappers in his area clamored for prophylactic immunizations, worried about raccoons, foxes, and skunks. We have those animals in the City. But he might have died of bat-variant, and bats are everywhere, including our buildings.

Every day, my job brings something new and exciting. They need me, and I love making a difference. When working with you to maintain my clinical chops, I help one patient at a time. But statistical skills from my University of Northern Colorado master's degree program, prior to vet school, are in demand. I can research and develop prevention and control programs - have an impact, like guidance for AIDS and Toxo. Should gay men give up cats, or take extra precautions with litter like pregnant women?

My day off is devoted to you. After a quick shower, I don purple pants and blazer over a colorful striped blouse. With my reddish hair and freckles on every square inch of skin, I might as well flaunt that end of the color spectrum. Your closeted flamboyance inspires me. In the middle of the day, the subway isn't crowded as I navigate back up to the hospital.

The grumpy doctor isn't available. When turning down the hall toward your room, I collide with the timorous nurse, who says, "He's in surgery."

My jacket makes me hot and I yank it off, holding it with one arm. "Surgery? Not Robert."

"They consulted with Dr. Foster, who agreed to get the abscess out. He said he had a lot to live for, and wanted to get back to it."

Damn it, Robert, why didn't you wait for me? I'm giving you options, a fully-researched picture. Even Devorah committed to help. For someone who hated doing surgery, you gave into the hospital's desire for it quickly. Can we hit the brakes?

Like the physician did this morning, I clutch the nurse's arm. Are we all overbearing with those who don't go to medical school? Full of ourselves, but what the hell.

"When did they go back - is it too late for more discussion?"

She pries my fingers away. Although she took it from the doctor in her hospital, she won't take bossing by me. "The operation started an hour ago. You're just a vet - why do you have all the answers?"

That's right, I don't have them. My mind can't adjust to this new normal in your life, our lives. No family is here, no lovers - did anyone try to reach them? There's only me.

The nurse guides me to the chair in your room, and her voice softens. "They couldn't wait. Dr. Foster's headache intensified - he was in unbearable pain. Then he became paralyzed on his right side and unconscious during the neuro exam."

All in a few hours while I was home, making calls. Why didn't anyone find me? But I was on the phone, and you were alone - I can't handle that, should never have left your side.

My limbs are like lead weights, gluing me to the seat. I drop my right hand to push myself up. "Let me call his clinic and update his staff. Some of them may want to come here."

As I pick up the black receiver, Imperious Surgeon sweeps in. He pulls off his green gown, cap, and gloves and shoves them to the nurse. "Dr. Simpson, I'm glad you're here. Dr. Foster seized, and we lost all brain activity. He didn't make it."

No, not you. No one is more in love with life - this disease can't take you away from the world, and me. Your cats can't kill you.


  1. A throwback to the early days of another pandemic. Interesting mix of first and second person perspective...makes the ending feel quite haunting, almost like Robert can still hear Faye after he's already passed.

    1. Thank you so much! (I'm slow at following back to find comments.) Yes, the experimental structure was a lot of fun to write. I'm happy to know the feelings it generated for you!