Wading Room


It’s like they cut a rectangle out of the ocean and hung it on the wall opposite the receptionist. Backed in that dazzling blue that you see when a scuba diver swims on TV, it’s filled with oranges and yellows, spots and stripes, and long and short. The fish swim around the same area all day long and as tempting as it would be to think they might get bored, I’m willing to bet they keep themselves entertained by watching all the patients come through the waiting room. And we stare back at the fish because they’re different. Unusual. Distinctive. We’ll never jump in the tank and join in to see what makes them so unique, so we stare until they become common, then look away in boredom or shame.

You would think that the woman sitting across from me would take a page from that book—or at least observe the fish for a bit. There’s one that swims around a rock most of the time. The rock has a big hole cut out of the middle that the fish could swim through, but he doesn’t. If you watch long enough he will, but he makes you wait for it. I call him Tease. The woman could enjoy Tease, but she won’t. She’s been staring at me for the past ten minutes.

I don’t want to look at her too much. If I stare back, I’m afraid she might feel invited to talk. When I first noticed her, I smiled and said, “Hello,” and she returned the salutation, not taking her eyes off me. I feel like that was my chance to say “What the hell are you staring at? You’re freaking me out.” But I missed it. I can’t go back now. We’re both in this way too deep.

I’ve been on the same page of People magazine for the past ten minutes, too. Some article about Bristol Palin and whatever she’s doing to stay relevant—getting married, I think. I can’t concentrate on it because of the woman. I’m going to call her Ernest, because she keeps staring earnestly. It’s a stretch, but I like it.

Ernest is a plain-faced woman without a speck of make-up. She looks sixteen, but I’m sure she’s older. She has sensible shoes and an expensive purse. I check her out and register little details like that. But not her—she keeps staring like she’s going to paint me. I cross my legs and wonder if she knows about me—why I’m here at the doctor’s. Maybe she can read all over my face that my mother passed away and my brother’s turned to drugs—that I can’t seem to stop him or keep things straight anymore. But she must be messed up, too. We’re both at a therapist. I bet her problem is that she’s socially retarded. Anyone who stares like that past the age of five is stunted in some way.

I start to re-consider my face. I look the same. I don’t think I’m a supermodel, but I look okay today–some light eyeliner, a little Victorian Rose lipstick (favored over the louder Crimson). My hair should be fine. I pretend to look in my purse as I scan my shirt for stains, but even that’s clean. I look up again and she stares with her eyes narrowed. I feel a chill, like she’s seeing right through me.

Maybe she thinks she’s psychic and she’s trying to move me.

Maybe she’s studying the awful wallpaper behind me.

Maybe she’s crazy. She must be crazy. We’re both at a therapist.

I re-adjust in the chair, uncrossing my legs. My shoes are nice. Maybe she’s looking at them. God knows I would. But she’s not. She’s looking at my face. She’s sensing something, but I don’t know what. She’s finding out something about me.

What? I think. What are you looking at? What do you see? What’s so goddamn fascinating?! But I just cough a little instead.

The previous patient is coming. I can hear through the receptionist’s sliding glass window of solitude. I close People and snap my purse shut and take one last look at Tease. He must feel my pain. He swims right through the hole in the rock, as if knowing I need the pick-me-up.

“Excuse me,” Ernest says, in a deep rasp that I never would’ve assigned to her.

I look at her, but can’t find even the smallest response. Yes?

The door to the back opens with a slight creak and an older man comes out. He’s in a sweater and he shuffles like my grandfather did when I was a child. He surveys the room as Ernest continues. “You have beautiful eyelashes. They’re absolutely perfect. They’re long, but not too long, and thick, but not too thick. They’re flawless.”

Ernest speaks like an expert in eyelashes. Her tone makes my flawless eyelashes a fact, not a compliment or opinion.

The sliding glass window makes a cascade of muted tones that the receptionist breaks when she says, “Sarah? The doctor will see you now.”


About the author: Pete Phillips

You're at my website. I'm not sure what more biography I can give you.