The doctor’s waiting room smell like toilet bowl cleaner. Meredith sat uncomfortably in a chair molded from plastic, cushioned with a thin layer of synthetic rust-colored material the texture of burlap and bolted to three identical chairs before the row was broken by a featureless table on which were strewn a handful of magazines. There were more seats beyond that, and an identical arrangement on the opposite side of the room. The hands of the clock on the far wall said 10:24 A.M.
She had no intention of touching the magazines, all of which looked well-thumbed and at least two months old. Handling the pages that had been groped for weeks by the sweaty, coughed-upon hands of sick people… The idea gave her a queasy shudder in her abdomen. She had no reading material with her, and there was no TV or radio in the waiting room. She stared at her fingernails. They weren’t very entertaining.
On the other side of the magazine table sat an old man in black cargo pants and a black safari jacket. His arms were crossed over his stomach and he leaned forward, rocking slightly. Meredith hoped those weren’t the signs of nausea. He was more than old, she realized; he was very old. The hair sprouting from his ears was almost thicker than the few strands stubbornly clinging to his spotty scalp, and his eyes were lost in a corduroy sea of wrinkles. His lips were moving but made no sound.
Across from Meredith sat a chubby woman with an infant in her arms, swaddled so completely it might have been wearing a baby burqa. The woman was peering into the blanketed bundle, her unconscious smile waxing and waning. Some people are endlessly fascinated by their own offspring. Meredith had no children, so she didn’t know if she was one of those people, but she suspected she was not. Still, a baby had to be more interesting than fingernails.
The thin older lady in the far corner of the room was the only one browsing a magazine, although from the severe way she flipped the pages she seemed more to be judging the contents and finding them wanting. Her squarish glasses were the size of cathode ray tubes, her makeup was precise and meticulous, and her hair was dyed strawberry blonde to hide the gray and hairsprayed back into a simple straight style. For a moment, Meredith entertained the notion that it was actually the woman’s hair that smelled like toilet cleaner.
The only sounds in the room were the constant electrical hum of the clock and the fluorescent lights, and breathing: the old man’s shallow breaths punctuated by the consonants of his silent monologue, the wordless cooing of the chubby woman to her baby, the dismissive snort from the thin woman’s nose as she flipped the pages of the magazine. Meredith couldn’t hear her own breath along with the other three occupants in the room; was she really that silent a breather? Or do people learn to tune out the sound of their own breath? Experimentally she inhaled more deeply, and was rewarded with the soft whish of air passing up her nostrils, and a tickle of dust. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand and set it back in her lap…