On a clear December morning, I park the car amid banks of snow and scurry over a sheet of ice to the dermatology clinic. I am on time for my appointment, but the cold air stings.
In the waiting room, the sun streams horizontally through venetian blinds. Tepid air blows from the ceiling. I present myself to a sliding glass window. A woman sits behind it. Apart from her, the place is deserted. I hang my jacket beside the door and wonder where to sit.
A dozen chairs are arranged in clumps. A flat-screen television flickers in day-glow colors and black bars of white text. Popular magazines lie in heaps. Around the room lurk paper plates of cookies, brownies, candy, rum balls, things made of raisins, nuts and dates, and things with swirls of chocolate and caramel. The staff of the clinic must have made them at home.
On a card table, a jigsaw puzzle has been started, a bit of border. The box top shows a color photograph of hot-air balloons of all colors and sizes. They fill the blue sky. The scene is in Albuquerque, warm and far away.
I stand and stare at the jigsaw puzzle. I find a piece of red balloon and fit it in. I find another. I sit at the card table and become absorbed.
An assistant summons me, and I follow her into a warren of exam rooms and offices. The doctor injects a local anesthetic. With a pen, she draws a circle around a lesion on my face. It is near the right eye. She uses a very bright lamp on a swivel. I close my eyes.
The doctor is a young woman who is fluent in French from a college year of study abroad, at the University of Grenoble. We chat in French. She considers which way to cut, what kind of scar to leave. She decides on a line from the corner of the eye, so it will look like another crinkle. The assistant does not understand French. She thinks we are crazy to carry on this way.
I return to the waiting room. I pour a cup of coffee and select a cookie. I crank a venetian blind. The snow and ice outside are brilliant. I eat and drink quickly, as though on a break.
The surgical method is to cut layers of skin at a time, send them to the lab right here in the clinic, and wait for a biopsy report to the doctor, who will stop cutting when no more cancer cells are visible through the microscope. While the pathologist is analyzing, I return to the waiting room. This in-and-out business is tedious, but better than multiple visits to the clinic. I ask the doctor to examine another spot on my face. It turns out to be cancer.
“Je peux l’enlever aujourd’hui, si vous voulez,” she says.
“Allez-y,” I say.
As I sit in the waiting room, a white bandage on my face, other patients arrive. They check in at the sliding glass window, disappear into the warren of exam rooms and offices, and reappear with white bandages stuck here and there. They leaf through a magazine or stare at the television. We do not strike up a conversation.
I work on the jigsaw puzzle. I get most of the border, all the red balloons, and some yellow and green ones. What looks orange on the box top looks brown and sandy on the puzzle pieces. Striped balloons are tricky. Shadows mislead.
The sun outside moves, the waiting room is no longer brilliant, and the hour for lunch passes. The holiday spread of home-made treats is meant for patients like me, patients who are here for a while. I gorge on sugar and banish the thought of nutrition.
By mid-afternoon, the waiting room is familiar territory. During my absences, other patients find jigsaw puzzle pieces and fit them in, but not many. The hot-air balloon festival comes into focus. The pieces that remain are harder. The game has shifted up a notch.
The assistant summons me for the last time.
“You must be sick of us by now,” she says.
“Not at all,” I say from the card table.
“You made a lot of progress.” She nods toward the puzzle.
I try to smile. Because of the local anesthetic, I feel nothing on my face. I don’t know how much skin was removed or how much blood was shed. Reluctantly, I stand and follow.
Under the very bright lamp, the doctor stitches me up. She is satisfied with her day’s work. She instructs me how to dress the wound.
“Plaisir d’avoir fait votre connaissance,” I say.
Despite the overhead lights and the television, the waiting room is dim. The frozen world outside is in shade. I put on my jacket and return to the card table. After I leave the clinic, who will finish the jigsaw puzzle?
Robert Boucheron worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia from 1978 to 2016. His freelance writing appears in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.