Every Secret Thing
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"Interesting," the ophthalmologist said, rolling away from Cynthia Barnes in his wheeled chair, like a water bug skittering for cover when the lights went on in the middle of the night.
"Not exactly my favorite word in a doctor's office." Cynthia tried to sound lighthearted. The metal apparatus was cold and heavy on her face, and although it wasn't literally attached, she couldn't help feeling as if she were in a vise. Each flick of the doctor's wrist -- Better here? Or here? Here? Or here? -- seemed to tighten the machine's grip on her.
"Good interesting," he said, rolling back to her. "Now, is it clearer with the first one or" -- he flipped something, inserted something, she had never been sure what he was doing -- "or this one."
"Could I see those again?" She sounded tentative, even to her ears, which shamed her. Cynthia still remembered what she was like back when she was always sure about things.
"Absolutely. This one" -- the letter O, bold but a little wavy around the edges, as if it were underwater -- "or this one." This O was not quite as bright, yet it was clearer.
"The second one?"
"There are no right answers here, Cynthia. An eye exam isn't a test." He chuckled at his own wit.
"The second one."
"Good. Now is it better with this one or" -- another flip -- "this one."
"The first one. Definitely the first one."
She felt a little glow of pride, then embarrassment for caring at all. She had arrived at the doctor's office on a wave of apologies, having skipped her annual exam for the last three years, despite the friendly little postcards that arrived every spring. She was AWOL from the dentist, too. And she might have passed on this eye exam, if it weren't for her younger sister's sly observation that Cynthia was squinting more often these days. "You keep straining like that, you're going to have one of those little dents," said Sylvia, who had never forgiven Cynthia for getting the one pair of green eyes in their generation. "Better reading glasses than Botox."
Cynthia had almost snapped: Get off my damn back, I've earned that dent. Instead she had made this appointment with Dr. Silverstein, who had moved to the northern suburbs since she saw him last.
Satisfied, Dr. Silverstein swung the machine off her face, returned her contact lenses to her, along with a tissue to catch the saline tears that flowed from the corners of her eyes. He was younger than she, it dawned on her. He must have just been starting out when she first went to him thirteen years ago. She wondered how those years had treated him, if his life had gone according to his expectations and plans.
"Well, I've seen this before, "Dr. Silverstein said, smiling so broadly that his dimples showed, "but I've seen few cases as pronounced as this."
Cynthia was not comforted by the smile. She had known too many people whose expressions had nothing to do with what they were about to say.
"What? What?" I'm going blind, I have a tumor behind one of my eyes, which explains the headaches. But she hadn't told Dr. Silverstein about the headaches. Should she?
"Your eyes are getting better, Cynthia. We see this sometimes in people who have worn contact lenses for a long time. Nearsightedness improves. You've been having trouble focusing on things because your contacts are old and pocked by protein deposits, not because you need a new prescription."
"What about reading glasses?"
"Good. I've heard that if you get reading glasses, your close-up vision gets worse and worse."
"Ah, yes, that old wives'tale. It doesn't quite work that way." Dr. Silverstein picked up a model of the human eye, which Cynthia found disgusting. She hated to visualize what lay beneath the fragile veneer of skin, always had. She was nauseated at the sight of flattened squirrels and cats in her eighborhood, and a passing glimpse of one of those surgery shows on cable could send her into a near faint.
"There's a muscle that controls the lens of your eye, if you will. It gets rigid with age ... " His voice trailed off when he realized Cynthia was staring over his shoulder, refusing to make eye contact with him or his plastic model. "Anyway, no reading glasses yet, just a new contact lens prescription. These should be ready in a week. Should the nurse call you at home or at work?"
"Home. I haven't worked in years."
Dr. Silverstein blinked, suddenly awkward. He was one of the people who had never had a chance to say, "I'm sorry," because the tragedy was almost a year in the past by the time he saw her at her annual exam. Cynthia's life was full of such acquaintances, well-meaning types who had been left stranded by the tenuousness of their connection. Doctors, mechanics, accountants. She remembered the April immediately following, when Warren asked the accountant how one calculated for a dependent who had not survived the calendar year. Did they take the full credit, or did Olivia's death mean they had to prorate the deduction? For Warren and Cynthia, who had already asked a thousand questions they had never planned to ask -- questions about burials and caskets and plots and the scars left by autopsies -- it was just another dreary postscript. The accountant had looked so stricken she had wanted to comfort him.
She was beyond that now.
Excerpted from Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman. Copyright © 2003 by Laura Lippman. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.