Ouch! The pain in Dons jaw wrenched the word from his mouth.
Whats the matter? his wife asked, looking up from the morning paper.
They were eating breakfast on the balcony of their third floor apartment, which overlooked the park across the way. My tooth, Don said. I just had a jolt where the dentist took out that molar last month. How come it suddenly hurts again after all this time? He held his glass of ice-cold juice against his jaw.
Its probably phantom pain, Aileen said.
Whats that? The minute it was out, he knew he shouldnt have asked. Aileen was an operating room nurse, and she did things and saw things he didnt like hearing about.
Behind her, thin clouds blurred the sun as she smiled. Its like when we amputate a limb. The patient feels like the missing part is still there. The blood vessels, the nerve endings, the flesh it all feels real.
He could tell she loved her subject she was letting her coffee get cold. I understand, he said, wishing shed shut up, hoping she wouldnt go into the gory details again. Every night when she came home she told him about the operations and the parts they removed kidneys, colons, ovaries; using words like perforated, malignant, gangrenous words that conjured up ghastly images in Dons mind.
Sometimes Aileens involvement with her work gave him the creeps. In their five years of marriage, Don watched her become more intense, always focused on the cutting, rather than the saving of life. From her descriptions, he often got the impression that she liked to picture herself as the surgeon. He never mentioned to her any more about starting a family.
She put the paper aside and leaned forward on her elbows, her steel-blue eyes boring into him. Through the balcony railing he glimpsed a man riding a bike down in the park. Don felt a pang of envy. Want a shot of pain-killer? Aileen asked.
From below Don heard the screech of traffic. Why a shot? She was always obsessed with extremes. Wasnt it more normal to suggest aspirin? He saw himself reflected in her pupils, like her eyes had swallowed him whole, the cold steel holding him captive. He felt a chill crawl across his bones. No, its gone, he lied.
She blinked and shrugged. This morning she was wearing the silver starburst necklace he had given her on their last anniversary. The memory of that night in bed, when she had worn the necklace and nothing else, stirred him now. In spite of her morbid preoccupation with her work, he always found her lovely body intoxicating. A light breeze lifted a strand of her auburn hair and he reached across the table to touch her, but she looked at her watch. Twenty of. Well both be late if we dont hurry.
While Don worked at his desk in the bank, he felt the phantom pain spreading to the back of his jaw and going up beneath his ear. He remembered that yesterday Aileen told him about a tongue operation, and he couldnt get rid of an image of her holding the tongue after it had been severed.
Last night he dreamed she had him on the kitchen table, working on his jaw with an enormous hacksaw. Her eyes glinted as she reached for a hatchet. His head pounded with fear as he screamed, and it woke her up.
Don? She hovered close to him as the nightmare vanished into the shadowy pits of his memory. He saw the blue steel shimmering against the darkened room, her eyes like magnets. He wanted to lose himself in her and cupped her naked breast, but she turned over and pulled the blanket around her. I have to get up early, she murmured.
And now, at his desk, he felt the phantom pain branching into his tongue.
They arrived home at the same time and rode up in the elevator together. After work she always smelled like iodine and ether. The young woman riding up with them smelled clean and fresh. He felt Aileen watching him as he stared at the pretty girl, so he moved closer to his wife. Then he almost doubled over in sudden pain. Yiii!
The young woman stared at him and stepped away slightly. Aileen frowned. Whats the matter with you?
He wanted to thrust his hand into his pants and rub himself in the bladder/prostrate area, but the outdoorsy girl might take offense. Nothing. He forced a smile. A little gas, he whispered. I had chili for lunch.
The pain was centered down near his crotch. He was certain he had either a bladder infection or was getting prostrate trouble. Any pain made him apprehensive, because of all the terrible afflictions Aileen was always describing to him. After the girl got off on another floor, Aileen asked him if the gas was gone. Here, Ill palpate you, she said, turning toward him. Why couldnt she just say, Let me feel you?
He said, No, its okay, Ill take some Tums.
In their apartment he went into the bathroom and looked to see if there were any lumps or swellings. He felt himself everywhere, pushing and moving his soft belly with his fingers. Maybe it was gas after all he chewed some antacids and went into the kitchen.
Aileen was cutting grocery coupons from the paper. Better? she asked. He nodded and stared at her hands. She was using surgical scissors. Her hands were swift and rhythmical, and it fascinated him how smoothly and evenly she sliced into the paper. For some strange reason, he felt aroused by the hypnotic movement of her fingers.
Snip snip. Her eyes looked glazed and far away as she glanced up at him. We had an ovarian tumor today, she said, unfolding more newspapers. Her face was totally unemotional as she told him details of the bloody dissection. Get up, run, he thought, as she droned on.
Pain shot through his groin area again. A seed of suspicion began to sprout. Was she bringing the pain home to him by telling him about the operations? He suspected some mysterious transference was taking place. Was that what she really meant by phantom pain?
A cold sheen of oily perspiration covered his brow as she went on about the tumor. To appear calm, he took an apple from the bowl. When he opened the drawer for a knife, four scalpels were lined up in a precise row. The small hairs lifted from the back of his neck.
Aileen gathered up the coupons. Im going for groceries. Coming?
No, Ill watch the news. He sank into the plush brown sofa and clicked on the TV, still feeling a dull ache in his lower abdomen. After Aileen left, he went back to the kitchen and looked in the knife drawer again. The scalpels gleamed with four reflections of his own face staring back at him in numb horror.
In the bedroom, he searched through her dresser. If she brought home scalpels, what else might there be clamps, needles, ether beside the pain. It was a good name for it phantom pain, because now it was gone again. He found nothing except her stethoscope next to the silver starburst necklace.
With the groceries she brought home pizza and his favorite wine. He watched her as she ate, the long threads of cheese disappearing into her sensual mouth. He wasnt hungry and didnt eat much.
When they were finished, Don put the pizza cutter away in the knife drawer. The four scalpels glittered in the bright kitchen light. Fear inched into his scattered thoughts as he asked, Aileen, what are the scalpels for?
She looked over from the sink. Oh if I have to slice anything really thin, like London Broil. Theyre better than the electric knife.
So there was a perfectly harmless explanation. He had let himself become paranoid, simply because she was devoted to her work. A pleasant warmth from the wine enveloped him. She was rinsing her hands, and he went up behind her and circled her breasts with his palms. She backed up a little into him and said, Why dont we take the rest of the bottle to bed?
At first affectionate and playful, she kept pausing to give him sips from his wineglass. Then heat gripped them both, and he heard the little whimpers she always made in the back of her throat.
Afterward, he felt terribly drained and wanted to go to sleep, but she insisted he finish the wine. Then she leaned over him. Bet you dont have any more pain in the pelvis, she said throatily. She was smiling at him, her face close, and something sinister glittered in her eyes. Its because I put a little sedative in your wine.
He froze. All the emotion and passion he felt moments ago turned to icy sweat. What for?
Just something for your gas, to make sure you wont feel any pain in the scrotum. Her silken, sexy voice had become clinical and cold. He could hardly keep his eyes open. But he had to. He didnt dare sleep, with her ice-blue eyes glinting with that diabolical look of madness.
And then suddenly he was dreaming. He dreamed that she was bringing things back from her dresser and the kitchen. He dreamed that she was touching his pelvis with her fingers, and that the phantom pain had returned. What woke him was the feel of something very cold and wet being smeared around his entire crotch area.
He started to put his hand down there to find out what it was, but he couldnt move his arms. Or his legs. He was tied down. In the circle of light from the lamp, he saw her straddling him, spreading something white and foamy all over his pelvis. She was going to shave him!
Aileen! He struggled against the bandages that held him, but she was a nurse who knew how to subdue patients successfully. He realized she was wearing a surgical mask and her hair was pulled back into a shower cap. There was something shiny around her neck. Was it her silver starburst necklace? He squinted at it in his drugged stupor. No. She had hung her stethoscope around her neck and in some way attached the four steel-bright scalpels to it. As she moved, they danced like radiant prisms. Aileen! he shouted again, writhing against his bindings. Untie me! What in Gods name are you doing?
Please calm down, sir, she said. Youre being prepped for surgery.
Aileen! This isnt surgery! Were in bed. We just had sex. Im your husband. For God sake, look at me!
Doctor, this patient isnt properly sedated. Are you the anesthesiologist? Im going to report you for not doing your job correctly.
Who was she talking to? This wasnt real. Don was sure he was still dreaming and that any second his wife would shake him awake and tell him he was having a nightmare.
He tried to pull himself from the depths of the drug as she detached one of the scalpels. Aileen, stop! He struggled again, to no avail.
She spoke again. We must operate immediately. There are two tumors and hes having recurrent pain all through the scrotum and pelvic area. Her mad, steel-blue eyes came close to his. It will all be over before you know it.
From somewhere below, he heard the screech of traffic. Or was that his own scream, slicing the night apart, over and over?