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The Pursuit of Alice Thrift
Elinor Lipman


Ray told the waitress that I had talked him out of a nose job and he’d done a complete one-eighty: He went in wanting one and came out a new man.

“Because she likes it the way it is?” asked the waitress. “Because when she looks at you she doesn’t see the shape of your nose but the content of your character?”

“Nope,” said Ray. “None of the above.”

“I don’t know him at all,” I said.

“It was an office visit,” said Ray. “I came for a consultation. And now I’m buying her dinner because she saved me ten thousand bucks.”

The waitress looked thoughtfully at her pad and said, “I’ll be right back with your drinks and your appetizer.”

I told him, “Everybody has a procedure on their wish list or a scar they want to show me.”

He asked if plastic surgery was more lucrative than the regular kind.

“It can be. Not if you volunteer your time and pay your own expenses to operate on the poor and the disfigured.”

“You do that?”

“I hope to.”

“I’ve seen those doctors who fly planes into jungles. The parents of these deformed kids walk, like, hundreds of miles to bring their Siamese twins to some American doc to separate, right?”

“Hardly that,” I said. “That’s major, major surgery, with teams of—”

“Maybe I’m mixing up my 60 Minutes segments,” he said. “But you know what I mean—the freaks of nature.” Our waitress returned with the wine and said she’d be back with the appetizer combo platter. Ray raised his glass. “Here’s to you, Doc, and to your future good deeds.”

I said, “I don’t understand why you wanted to have coffee with me, let alone a full-course dinner.”

“You don’t? You can’t think of any reason a guy would want to see you outside the hospital?”

I said, “If this is leading up to a compliment, I’d prefer you didn’t. I wouldn’t believe it anyway.”

He reached over and turned a page of the menu so “Pesce” was before me. “Doctors—they watch what they eat and they know about good cholesterol. What about a piece of salmon?”

I said fine, that would be fine.

“And here we go,” said Ray as the waitress made room on the table for our oval platter of deep-fried, lumpen morsels. “I’ll have the usual,” he said, “and the lady will have the salmon.”

“Cooked through,” I said.

Ray winked at me and said, “If she looks at it under the microscope, she doesn’t want to see anything moving.”

“Remind me what your usual is …”

“Vingole,” he said. “Red.”

The waitress asked if she could at some point talk to me in the ladies’ room. It would only take a sec.

“Ask her here,” said Ray.

“Can’t,” said the waitress. “She’s gotta see it.”

I said no, I couldn’t. I was in training. I wasn’t qualified. I’d only rotated through plastic surgery. No, sorry—shaking my head vigorously.

“Are you okay?” Ray asked her. “I mean, is there, like, an infection?”

I was immediately ashamed of my lack of even basic medical curiosity. Here a civilian was saying the right thing, exhibiting a bedside manner that years of schooling had not fine-tuned to any degree of working order in me. So I said, “Is something wrong, or did you just want to show me the results?”

She turned away from Ray and whispered, “One of the nipples. It looks different than before, a little off-kilter.”

“Did you call your doctor?” I asked.

“I’m seeing him in a week. So I’ll wait. It’s probably nothing.”

Ray broke off a piece of bread and dipped it into a saucer of olive oil. “How long could it take, Doc?” he asked.

THE NIPPLE WAS fine—merely stressed by an ill-fitting brassiere—but it gave Ray an early advantage, establishing him as a more compassionate listener than I. He was now drinking a glass of something that looked like a whiskey sour. Mathematically half of the appetizers were awaiting my return. “How is she?” he asked.

“Fine. But I’d like to explain why I resisted. It’s not like the old days. The hospital’s malpractice insurance doesn’t cover diagnoses based on quick glances in the ladies’ room.”

He smiled and said, “She could sign a release that said, ‘My patron at table eleven, Dr. Thrift, is held harmless as a result of dispensing medical advice to me in the ladies’ room of II Sambuco.’”

I said, “If I seemed a little cold-hearted—”

“Nah. You’d be doing this every time you left your house.”

I might have expanded then on my life: That when I left the house, it wasn’t with an escort at my elbow, introducing me left and right as Dr. Thrift, surgeon. I didn’t socialize. I worked long hours and went home comatose. The hospital was teeming with people who wanted to talk, idly or professionally—it didn’t matter. My day was filled with hard questions, half-answers, nervous patients, demanding relatives, didactic doctors. Why would I want to make conversation at night?

“Speaking of your house,” he said, “you never answered my question about roommates.”

“I have one,” I said.

“Another doctor?”

“A nurse, actually.”

“Are you friends?”

“We share the rent,” I said. “But that’s the extent of it. Occasionally we’ll eat dinner or breakfast together, but rarely.”

“How’d you pair up if you’re not friends?”

“An index card on a bulletin board. I think it said, ‘Five-minute walk to hospital. Safe neighborhood. No smokers.’”

“How many bedrooms?”

“Two. Small.”
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