“Mrs. Fabres,” his receptionist intoned.
“Send her in,” he said.
The first patients of the morning had the privilege of an identity and a moment to talk with him about what was bothering them; he could even recall a few of their faces as Blanca carefully pronounced their names over the intercom.
It was like that with Mrs. Fabres, who was in her sixth month and whose medical history he remembered without a glance at her file: nothing serious, one or two yeast infections, married, had gotten pregnant in June and was due on March 23. She was very nervous and clearly uncomfortable in the pregnancy, as though being a mother were something anomalous that happened only to her. It was not Dr. Villagrán’s first experience with the absence of a so-called maternal instinct, or the rejection of a fetus or newborn, for that matter.
The visit was quick. Everything was normal in her physical and in the images and report from her most recent ultrasound. Mrs. Fabres even seemed happy.
Next came Mrs. Carmona, who had been a patient for many years and was just in for a checkup. Then Mrs. Manríquez, Mrs. Jorquera, and three or four more whom he couldn’t be bothered to remember as he listened to Blanca pronounce their names with exaggerated sensuality. He preferred to imagine her lips forming the Os, the Us; those same lips that had caught his attention when she came to work for him, so different then, in those long maternity-style dresses with pleats and white lace around the collar. Now she dressed better and knew how to fix herself up, but it wasn’t enough for Villagrán. His inability to maintain interest in things or people had become a trait nothing could change, not even Blanca’s lips.
By lunchtime, the doctor had already used dozens of specula and still more swabs; he had taken countless samples, written prescriptions. He had seen far more women than he would have liked, and the thought that he still had half a day ahead of him put him in a bad mood.
A few months back, he and Blanca would have spent their lunch hour in some motel, going at it furiously. Or maybe angrily was the word. At thirty-five she was still extremely single, and he was so wed and so worn out. Lately, he preferred just grabbing a bite to eat.
That day they went to a vegetarian place on a little side street, one of the least crowded restaurants downtown. Their lunches weren’t what they used to be, either—the legs crossed under the table, searching occasionally for the other’s inner thigh, the plans for their next time, the furtive glances, the laughter. They had trouble finding a topic of conversation. Talking felt unnatural, and sharing conspiratorial winks was even worse. They ate in relative silence and the doctor made no attempt to hide how tired he was. Not of her in particular, but rather of everything (though of her, as well): of all those women who had been opening their legs in front of him more or less nervously for decades, and who no longer seemed to have names, importance, or sexuality; of the volatile situation with his wife, the constant threats of separation and the endless mornings waking up beside her and, worst of all, still in love with her; of the children who regularly got suspended from school or dropped out of college halfway through to sell necklaces in Brazil and send them a postcard every so often; of the smiles and handshakes in conference halls, the congratulations on research presented; of the pharmaceutical salesmen who had more and more patience in his waiting room, and more and more pills in their bags; of ignorance; of the lack of joy in the world, in his life.
Blanca didn’t bother to ask any questions. She seemed tired, too, but Villagrán didn’t know why and didn’t care. They walked back to the office in silence; she sat down to put the patients’ files in order, and he walked to the back without even stopping to kiss her. Standing at his desk, he wondered whether she was crying, but wasn’t actually concerned. He preferred to imagine her lips as she crooned her list of names through that little speaker.
The afternoons were like that. He could only make out the vowels of Blanca’s announcements. She might as well have been reading out a number, a date, or a riddle. The thought sometimes made him laugh.
“Mrs. Cunt Five,” he imagined Blanca saying.
“Send her in. Oh, hello, Mrs. Cunt Five. It’s good that you’re here, prevention is so important, isn’t it? Is anything bothering you? Difficult periods? Good, good. Lay down here, you can leave your clothes on that hanger, heels rest here. Now relax, relax; you’re very tense. This won’t work if you don’t relax.”
Mrs. Cunt Six, Seven, Eight.
He always thought about the jokes his classmates had made when he chose his specialization, and wondered what they would say now if they were in his place, standing in front of what was probably his thousandth vulva. Or was it two thousandth? Three? What they would say if they learned he hadn’t touched his wife in…what, a month? Two months? A year? Long enough that he had stopped trying. He had Blanca, of course, which wasn’t bad, but with her there was always a bit of that scientific curiosity he felt toward his patients. That was never the case with Regina, his wife, which was why he had married her. He had explored her sex as though it were the only one he had ever seen, and it was still unique to him.
“Mrs. Cunt Nine,” he thought he heard Blanca say.
“Send her in.”
“She doesn’t have a file.”
“Fill out her forms, then, and send them in with her.”
He had five minutes to smoke a cigarette and vigorously wave the smoke out the window, past a little sticker that read No Smoking. He thought about calling Regina to ask about her depression, whether her lumbago was acting up, or if a postcard had come from Brazil, but he hadn’t called her during the day for so long that he thought it might alarm her or raise suspicions.
Mrs. Cunt Nine walked in, timidly, holding her own file. He had never seen her before. He immediately noticed her skin: her cheeks were chapped and pink like a baby’s. So were her hands. He did not look down at the name on her file. He enjoyed seeing how long he could talk to a patient without saying her name. He was very good at it.
She spoke vaguely, quietly, swallowing letters. “They sent me… had recommended the doctor… wanted to come for a while now, but… scared because my husband… the pain, though… it was like… hard to explain.”
Villagrán did not interrupt her. Not that he would have been able to; she talked unbelievably fast, almost without pause. He figured that whatever details he had missed would become clear in the examination.
He gave her the speech about hanging up her clothes and lying back in the chair.
She did nothing.
He repeated himself gently, guiding her by the arm to the examination chair behind the curtain. She let herself be led, though she seemed not to be following him of her own free will.
While Villagrán waited on the other side of the curtain for her to get undressed, he began to hope that there was something truly unusual wrong with her. He wanted the skin of her vulva to be like that of her cheeks and hands. He wanted to see something he’d never seen before, to be surprised. Surprise wasn’t part of his life anymore, though so many things could have surprised him: Regina, naked, reaching for him in the middle of the night; an earthquake sending him home early; Blanca not expecting so much of him; not being invited to the next medical conference. But none of that ever happened. Nothing surprising ever happened, so he pinned all his hope on the woman he could hear slowly undressing on the other side of the curtain—one article of clothing, then another, then a third. Then the creak of the examination chair and a few clumsy movements to settle in. It seemed like her first time.
“Are you ready?”
Her “yes” was barely audible: a whisper, practically a breath.
Villagrán washed his hands and put on a pair of latex gloves. He didn’t want to see anything by accident, so he finished his preparations with his back to her. He really wanted the surprise. To turn around and suddenly see it: something he hadn’t seen before. He could tell from her breathing that she was uncomfortable, or maybe embarrassed. Maybe she had said something important before that he hadn’t entirely caught.
He covered her legs with a sheet, looking her steadily in the eyes. She avoided his gaze, pretending to be immersed in the study of one of her fingernails.
“Move down just a bit, to the edge of the chair,” he said.
She slid down as far as she could.
Villagrán lifted the sheet. It was just him and Mrs. Cunt Nine’s vulva: nothing above, nothing below—not her gaze, not Blanca’s voice, not Regina’s lumbago—just him and the challenge and his expectations.
There was nothing unusual about what he was looking at. Irritated skin, faintly reddish hair, labia majora a little on the thin side, a small clitoris. The doctor fought to hide his disappointment.
“I’m going to take a sample now,” he said, flatly. “Try to relax.”
He inserted the speculum and swab as he always did when taking the samples he would later fix on slides with the spray Blanca used to keep her bangs in place. The woman flinched, and Villagrán softly patted her leg to calm her down.
“It hurts,” she said.
That was when Villagrán noticed the secretion on the speculum. It was cloudy, greenish gray, and its smell seemed to want to settle permanently in his nose. He hadn’t realized, before. The woman had probably washed herself thoroughly before coming to his office, trying to hide something that was about to be obvious, anyway. After making the slide, Villagrán began the internal examination. The thought of his hand (his glove) emerging covered in that dark, putrid, anomalous substance turned his stomach.
“Relax,” he said, trying to breathe through his mouth. “Relax.”
It was going well.
“We’ll have to send your sample to the lab,” he said. “You have an advanced infection, probably chlamydia or streptococcus.” She cringed. “Don’t worry. It’s common. But you shouldn’t have let it go for so long. When did the pain start?”
“About a month ago.”
The doctor furrowed his brow.
“Get dressed,” he said with a sigh, as though resigning himself to the idea that his last hope of a surprise had been modestly concealed behind a pair of cheap panties.
The rest was the same as always: write his observations in the file, give instructions about this or that, say good-bye.
The smell still clung to his nose, so when the patient closed the door Villagrán washed his face with soap and water and sprayed his office with air freshener.The smell remained.
“Doctor?” Blanca’s voice came through the intercom.
How ridiculous, he thought, that she still calls me Doctor. Force of habit is more than a figure of speech, it seems.
“You don’t have any more patients today,” she said before he could respond. “Do you want to do the reports on the test results that arrived this morning or, better yet, come have a coffee with me?”
The intention in her voice set Villagrán’s hair on end. He pressed the button on the intercom and spoke into it slowly, so there could be no confusion.
“I want to go home.”
As he drove toward Regina, her lumbago, her dissatisfaction, his own anxiety, and their shared space, Villagrán gave a moment’s thought to Blanca and the obvious way she had bowed her head so he couldn’t see the tear in her eye that she made sure he saw anyway. He didn’t expect a quick commute. It was the worst road at the worst time of day. He gave in to the delay and to a bad show on the radio.
When he got home, he opened the garage door and drove in. He didn’t bother to leave the car out in case Regina needed to drive one of their children somewhere; now that they were grown, they took care of themselves—when they took care of themselves.
He noticed it as soon as he stepped inside. Regina’s coat was missing. So were her scarf and her umbrella. As though his fear were driving him toward, rather than away from, the thing he was afraid of, he walked toward the room where she should have been lying down from her lumbago. The bed was perfectly made. None of the children was home. Her clothes were gone from the closet. Her creams and toothbrush were gone from the bathroom. All of it. The rest of the household, the things they shared, was in perfect order. Impeccable, as always.
He spent the next few hours searching for the note she must have left him, looking in the most obvious places and the least: on the dresser, the kitchen counter, under his pillow, under the rug, in the dog’s bed, inside the books in the library.
He found nothing, and it occurred to him that the fact that Regina had nothing to say to him was almost more painful than her leaving.
He imagined Regina in some hotel or at a friend’s house, or her sister’s. He knew her. He knew she wasn’t coming back, that there would be no trail to follow, and that his children wouldn’t say where they met with her, or when. That he had lost her.
Before going to sleep, but after his fourth whiskey, he realized that he might never forget the pungent, infected genitals of someone whose name he didn’t even know. That those thin labia, reddish hairs, and small clitoris might be permanently lodged in his memory the same way that smell was lodged in his nose. That he might not ever be able to dissociate them from Regina’s absence and the sticky silence of that night, from the moment he finally lost all hope of being surprised.
Heather Cleary’s translations include the work of Sergio Chejfec (The Planets and The Dark, Open Letter) and Oliverio Girondo (Poems to Read on a Streetcar, New Directions). She has a PhD in Latin American and Iberian Cultures from Columbia University and is a founding editor of the bilingual digital magazine Buenos Aires Review.