The lab is a darkroom with the quiet ticking of instruments and the whir of high-powered microscopes. A white lab coat accessorizes your tailored pants and red jacket and you're grateful for your ponytail as you fix the slide in its place and bend to take a look.
You never get over it. The dreadful symmetry of cancer cells, the sheer beauty of malignancy as it blooms: a coral reef viewed through a kaleidoscope.
It's what you tell the premed students visiting the immunology lab. For their perusal, you have chosen blood work belonging to Abigail Madison, a freckle-faced twelve-year-old diagnosed with a brain tumor.
They look up at you, clueless as he lifts his cane and soft-shoes it into the back of the room, a dark figure with arms folded. You play to your audience, showing him the things you've learned.
"Meet Abby," you invite as an amethyst necklace appears beneath the electron scope in the darkened room. Elizabeth Taylor's violet eyes fuse into abstract art and come into focus. "Pretty, isn't she?"
You say it deadpan, as one by one the Princeton freshmen peer at the magnification.
"What do you see?"
After a moment of silence punctuated only by a phlegmy cough and the inhalation and exhalation of a mouth-breather, a girl in the back gives voice to the imagery.
"Sick cells," the student says, succinct. "Skewed cells. It's cancer."
"Good," you say. "Good answer, that is. As for Abby, this chain of purple gemstones is bad news."
Next you show them her PET scan results. Within the framework of her skull is a map of a world.
"Ever see the West Indies from an airplane? That's what it looks like to me." Using a pointer, you indicate shapes on the screen. "Those green blobs are islands relieved by patches of blue water. See the sandy atoll to the left? What is it?"
A few of the students fold their arms across their chests and tilt their heads while others just look at you, expressions perplexed. They don't know what to make of you. Does he? It's too dark to read him.
The same girl speaks up: "A glioma." She pauses, and looks directly at you. "The atoll. That's what it is. Is Abby dying?"
"Points for remembering the patient's name," you walk over to the girl and look at her identification. Take a deep breath. Clear your throat. Remember a time when you couldn't tell a mother that her baby was dead. "No one gets out of here alive, Judith." You force eye contact. "Time of death? I'd say a month. At the most, two. Abby has glioblastoma multiforme."
"The most common form of brain cancer," Judith notes quietly.
"And the most deadly," you finish in the same low-key tone.
"Does she know?" Judith asks. Behind her eyes lurks sadness. You wonder whom she has lost. You think for a moment too long.
House steps up beside you. "Nope," he says. "That's the fun part, the part everyone on the team fights over. Issuing a death sentence to a preteen who just had braces put on her teeth. Telling a little girl who came into this hospital with a dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre that she better make it snappy if she hopes to meet the Gothic hero of her dreams."
The other students cower, but Judith stands firm. "How do they react, when you tell them - terminal patients?"
You open your mouth, but he's got this one.
"Fans of Lost are bummed. They want to know how the show will climax." He turns to face you, ignoring the students. "Some set goals for the time they have left. Knew a guy who planned to try every flavor of ice cream on the market. Think he made it through Ben & Jerry's before he died. People cry. Some 'do not go quiet into that good night.' They rage."
You speak up, eyes on him. "I knew a doctor who could never get it right, giving the bad news. He set a record. Last count, nine patients had punched him. Some bitch-slapped him."
A few students laugh outright. He gives that enigmatic smile.
"The head of our oncology department has a reputation for his delivery. Patients hug him. Thank him." You shrug. "Depends on the patient. Depends on the doctor. It just depends."
You wait for Judith and the other students to take it all in. You can see their minds move.
"I'm sure you have more questions. No, it never gets easier. Yes, you learn to do your job. Keeping your patients informed of their medical status is a part of that job. If you can't handle it, then the best training in the world won't make you a good doctor. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go talk to Abby," you say. "If you go back out through the hallway and catch the elevator, you can take it to the lobby. At the nurse's station, ask for Dr. Wilson. Have a good day."
They trickle out into the brightly lit hall. All except Judith, who backtracks to the microscope and peers at the artistry of Abby's ominous cancer cells.
"You're right, Dr. Cameron," she observes. "It's pretty."
She turns her back to you.
House lurks. "I'll go with you," he decides, tapping the cane to his own internal rhythm. "To tell her."
Abby started out as his patient, and he finally conceded her to Cameron in pediatric oncology.
"I can do it." You slip off the lab coat, and then the red jacket, and you're in a gauzy silken blouse with serious short sleeves.
"No one better," he says, stepping forward and running warm hands over your naked arms. Your body wakes, skin flushes, and even before you kiss him, your lips feel fuller. As if you're ballroom dancing he walks you to the wall and presses you there with his body. His heart beats in his muscled abdomen. His hands drag your face up to his, his mouth commands. You feel your legs relax and part as he props you up. You wish for the pleated red skirt instead of the trousers. You wish for easy access. He rubs his hardness against you. "Should. Have. Worn. The. Skirt." He grunts, pawing at the pants.
Other people matter less. This is what you want. Not an alter and an aisle and a gown. Not promises. Promises end. You want the now. Oh, god. You want this, as his jeans drop to his feet, and fuck me. Your voice gets higher. Shhhh. His tongue licks your lips into silence, mouth gently tugs at your tongue. Wider, he insists near your ear, for me. He doesn't wait - thrusts - so wide and thick and Jesus, like that, right there. His breath; your breath. The catch when he grabs your ass and kneads as he moves deeper inside you. His gasp as you gush, jerking with orgasm, circles of sensation. He would puke if he knew the Peter Frampton lyric that rushes through your consciousness as you cling to him. You kiss his chest, his throat, his face, the line of his jaw. So this is what love tastes like.
You dress. He pulls up his jeans. Abby, you think. She'll never know this.
"If it was me in that hospital bed, you're the one I'd want," he says, pulling your hair back into its ponytail. "You're the doctor I'd want with me."
You choke on the quiet that arises, truth filling the lab.
"She's out of time," you say, and he's close by, solid and warm.
He puts a hand on your shoulder. "Time will tell you nothing but I told you so. Auden, paraphrased. Everyone runs out of time."
"Talk to her tomorrow," he orders. "Give her one more night with Mr. Rochester. Don't be a buzz kill. Come home with me. Make my bed. The new maid Wilson hired leaves some things to be desired. Ha! I know that face. That's the WWWD face."
"What Would Wilson Do? The answer is obvious. He'd equivocate. Later, he'd cave and do my bidding."
"I'm not Wilson."
"Which is the only reason I'm merely an agnostic, and not a card-carrying atheist."
"I'm going to go talk to Abby."
"OK." No joke this time.
"I'll find you later," you promise.
"I'll wait for you. Usual place."
"Order fish tacos. A dozen," You say, suddenly ravenous.
"Fish tacos." He moves toward the hallway. There he turns and looks at you, tired features softened in the low light. "Something to live for."