What Do You Have To Show Me?
Karen Wunsch | Fiction
Simon was drawn to Pippa’s dating profile because she was pretty—dark eyes and longish brown hair with bangs—and her name sounded like she’d be good in bed. Thirty-four, a year older than Simon, she described herself as a part-time English professor and full-time poet. Googling her he found her poem, “Hannah and Otto,” in a journal. He hoped it would be erotic, but there was a dwarf and a teal blue calf, and he had no idea what was going on. But he was a dermatologist and didn’t read a lot of poetry. He also found Pippa’s Rate Your Professor profile. Her students said that she was an easy grader, and although Simon knew this had nothing to do with sex, he was hopeful.
She suggested they meet in the late afternoon at a Starbucks near her apartment. When he saw her, at a table full of books and papers, wearing a tee shirt that showed her breasts were small but full, she was prettier than her picture. He couldn’t tell what she thought of him. His dark curly hair was receding and he could have lost ten pounds. On the other hand, women liked his blue eyes and were impressed he was a doctor.
As Pippa cleared her stuff off the table, he noticed how almost everyone around them, most on computers or phones, looked like they’d been there all day. The whole place seemed worn and tired and not very clean. Although over the years he’d bought coffee at various Starbucks, he couldn’t remember ever sitting down in one. This one, on the far East Side of Manhattan, was particularly depressing.
“Should I get us coffee?” he asked Pippa.
“I’m sort of drowning in tea, but get yourself something.”
There was a long line. “Actually, I’m okay.”
At the table next to them, a man Simon’s age was being interviewed for some kind of job by a young woman whose arms were covered with tattoos. When Simon occasionally interviewed someone for his small office staff, it was in the spacious midtown office he’d inherited from his father, also a dermatologist. Simon would be behind his big mahogany desk, and the candidate would be across from him in an armchair.
“So what kind of poetry do you write?” He wasn’t going to bring up “Hannah and Otto.”
Pippa blew her bangs off her forehead. “Personal?”
He suspected she was looking for someone artistic.
He wanted someone he vaguely thought of as more exciting than Kathy, who he’d decided was too conventional. He’d recently broken up with her after almost a year because the next step would have been for them to live together. He’d had enough therapy to be aware he was rebelling against his own conventionality: he’d been a top student who still thought of certain words as SAT words and of nights before a workday as “school nights”; after briefly considering a gap year after college to travel and consider his options, he’d gone right to medical school and then chose his father’s profession. He also wanted to sleep with more women, although not necessarily a lot more, before he got married.
“What’s the one thing you like best about being a dermatologist?” Pippa asked him.
Although many women would be eager to hear about Botox and SPFs in sunscreen, she didn’t seem like the type.
He talked about helping adolescents with acne, adding that he was thinking about giving up cosmetic procedures.
She nodded approvingly.
“So you teach college?” he asked her.
“Two classes. I’m mainly a poet.”
He wondered what she lived on.
They talked about online dating. She hadn’t done it much either.
“You were one of the few men who didn’t say he likes trying new restaurants and going to the movies. And then they add, ‘But I also like to stay in with Netflix and a bottle of red.’”
He laughed, although he liked all those things too. He’d talked about biking.
Pippa said she wasn’t a biker.
He shrugged. “Actually, I hurt my knee, so I’m taking a break.”
He couldn’t think of anything else to say and, apparently, neither could she.
Several people coming and going said Hi or Bye to her.
“You’re like the mayor here,” he murmured.
“I try to come every day.”
He felt sort of sorry for her.
He excused himself to go to the bathroom. There was a long line, and he didn’t feel like waiting.
Back at the table, Pippa was just staring into space. Was she composing a poem?
“I can’t believe there’s only one bathroom,” he told her. “Is that even legal?”
He hadn’t meant to be funny.
“I should be going,” he said. He wished he could go for a bike ride.
“Actually, can I ask you something?” Pippa blew her bangs off her forehead. “This is probably crazy, but are you doing anything tonight?”
“No,” he said slowly.
“It would be kind of a favor.”
He just looked at her.
“Today’s my mom’s birthday, and she’s coming in from New Jersey and we’re going out to dinner. This is sort of wild, but if you came—you wouldn’t have to pretend you’re a serious boyfriend, or anything like that— just seeing me with a doctor would be like the best present I could give her.”
Simon wondered if he should be insulted that she was asking him to have dinner with her mother.
“And if you’re there she won’t talk about things like how she’ll pay for me get my eggs frozen before it’s too late.”
Simon was pleased that unlike Kathy, Pippa apparently wasn’t worried about her biological clock.
“Anyway,” she said, “I totally understand if you don’t want to do it.”
He almost made up an excuse. But it was probably a good restaurant and Pippa would be grateful and maybe they’d end up in bed.
As soon as he got to the restaurant he saw a woman in her sixties sitting alone. She resembled Pippa around the eyes and mouth and wasn’t unattractive, with grey-blonde hair, blue eye shadow, and a bright blue dress. He didn’t see Pippa.
“You’re Pippa’s mom?”
“Is something wrong? Did something happen to Pippa?”
He was annoyed that Pippa hadn’t told her he was coming. “Everything’s fine. I’m a friend of Pippa’s. Sort of a new friend.”
Giving him a big smile, she said, “I’m Marjory,” and gestured for him to sit down.
He’d give Pippa five minutes, and then find an excuse to leave.
Marjory said she was a psychotherapist.
He had a feeling she’d have a warm, supportive manner.
After he said he was a dermatologist, they talked about Botox and sunscreen.
“One more question,” Marjory said. “When my dermatologist comes into the exam room, he always asks, ‘What do you have to show me?’ It’s sort of funny when you think about it, like when we used to have Show and Tell in school.” She gave him another big smile. “I was wondering if you say anything similar to your patients.”
“That’s funny, because my dad was a dermatologist and he’d say the exact same thing. And I guess I say it too.” He was moved to think about his father, who’d died several years before.
Pippa was there. “Sorry. The subway was a shit show.” She looked mainly at Simon.
Her dark coat seemed big on her and when she took it off she was wearing a sleeveless dress although it was November. There wasn’t a lot of cleavage, but she looked sexier than she had in Starbucks.
As she went on about the subway, she barely looked at Marjory. He hoped he wasn’t in the middle of some mother-daughter . . . what his dad would call a mishegas.
Pippa ordered wine, drank it quickly, ordered more and, when their food came, pretty much stopped talking. He felt like telling her that Marjory was a nice lady and had a job that helped people and probably gave her a good income—Pippa could learn a few things from her.
Marjory was talking about a play starring Matthew Broderick, who was married to Sarah Jessica Parker, who was somehow related to her and Pippa.
“Now she’s going to tell you how short Sarah Jessica Parker is,” Pippa told him.
He wanted to tell her to grow up. He couldn’t remember ever being so annoyed with someone he barely knew.
Marjory mentioned other movie stars who were short, like Tom Cruise and Daniel Radcliffe.
“Daniel Radcliffe was Harry Potter, right?” Simon said to Pippa.
“Right,” she said. “Actually, I’ve heard him on podcasts. He’s pretty smart.”
“I rarely listen to podcasts,” he said.
“Neither do I,” said Marjory.
He thought the food wasn’t worth the money, but it was pretty good. He’d get through the rest of the evening and then come back with a woman who’d be more grown-up than Pippa.
When Pippa went to the bathroom, Simon tried to be subtle about checking his watch.
Lowering her voice, Marjory told him how Pippa’s dad had died when she was five. “She adored him.”
Simon wanted to say that was no excuse for spoiling her mother’s birthday.
Marjory finished her wine and poured herself a little more. Simon couldn’t decide whether to have another glass—it was a school night.
“I probably had too much to drink,” Marjory said, “but can I tell you something?” She leaned toward Simon. “Pippa can be moody, but she’s really a wonderful person.” She finished her wine. “Can I tell you something else?”
Pippa was back.
She blew her bangs off her forehead. “What are you two talking about?”
“Nothing bad,” Marjory said.
They talked about the food. There were a lot of silences. Pippa didn’t want dessert. Simon was going to order something for Marjory’s sake, but she quickly said she didn’t want anything either. Simon let her pay for him.
Saying goodbye to her, Pippa burst into tears. “Sorry, Mom. I’m having a miserable time with this new poem. I know it’s no excuse. I love you. Happy Birthday.”
Marjory seemed happy enough, but Simon agreed that a poem was no excuse. He’d take Pippa home, and that would be that.
In the Uber, Pippa turned to him. He could smell her perfume in a way he hadn’t been able to in the restaurant. “I owe you an apology too. You were great. I could tell she was having a good time. In spite of me.”
When they got to her building, a run-down looking brownstone on the far Upper East Side, she said, “Do you want to come up?”
Inside her small studio, she didn’t even turn on the light but started taking off her clothes.
Their sex was the first he’d had since Kathy. Pippa seemed to enjoy it too. When he came back from the bathroom afterward—the door wouldn’t close unless he first raised the toilet seat—she’d turned on the light and was sitting cross-legged on her bed with a clipboard on her lap.
“I got so involved with my poem, I didn’t mark all the papers I have to give back tomorrow.” She had a small blanket around her shoulders—her apartment was chilly.
“Do you want me to go?”
“Do you want to go?”
He thought about it. “I want to stay.”
Usually he’d pick her up at Starbucks. If she’d had a good day, which mainly had to do with whatever poem she was working on, she’d be interested in whatever he talked about, give him flirty smiles and, taking off her boot, move her foot slowly up his leg. When they left, she’d wear her backpack and he’d carry her canvas tote bag, heavy with books and papers. Often she’d stop at Duane Reade, a drug store he disliked. The one she went to was dingy and under-stocked and he was surprised by how, on many items, the small independent drugstore he went to was cheaper.
Although his apartment was much bigger and in a better neighborhood, Pippa preferred hers because her books were there. She’d stop at the fruit and vegetable cart on her corner and buy something. She didn’t cook. When they ate out he’d be pleased that unlike other women he’d dated, Pippa didn’t order only a salad.
He couldn’t get over how, unlike his overheated office and apartment, her apartment could get chilly. Her kitchen was tiny, and one of the few cabinets was blocked by the fridge and couldn’t be used. There was no bathtub. None of this seemed to bother Pippa. Apparently writing poetry made everything else in her life all right.
He envied her.
“I like my work, but sometimes I feel stuck,” he told her one day.
“Is it as if you’re waiting for, say, a local subway, but an express comes and you take it for a few stops. But then you have to wait again for the same local. And when it finally comes, you wonder what you actually accomplished?”
“I guess so.” He was intrigued by the way she looked at things.
“I know this is really stupid,” he told her, “but when I bike I stop at Stop signs even if no one’s crossing.”
She took his hand and kissed it.
She rarely talked about her job, for which she had to travel to one community college in Queens and then to another in the Bronx. She was badly paid, few of her students were English majors, and every semester she wouldn’t find out until the last minute if there was enough enrollment for her to have a course.
“Is that even legal?” Simon asked her.
She laughed. “Actually, the long subway rides give me extra time to write.”
He wasn’t surprised to learn she supplemented her income with interest from a trust fund.
He liked it that she was so different from the other women he’d dated. She exercised only sporadically and didn’t drink Diet Coke. She’d had a long affair with one of her college teachers who was married but had made her want to be a poet. One night when Simon and Pippa were talking about nothing in particular and she suddenly took a deep breath and blew her bangs off her forehead, he imagined that one day, they’d have a dark-haired child with bangs.
“Sometimes I worry about what you see in me,” he told her shyly.
“For starters, my mom really liked you!”
This became their little joke.
After two months he nervously asked if she’d agree to take a break from online dating. She said she’d already done it.
Sitting cross-legged on her sofa, with the small blanket around her shoulders, she started reading poetry to him. She favored women like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who he secretly thought of as whiny. Another problem was that once Pippa started reading him one poem, she’d come across another and say, “You have to hear this!” That would lead to another, and sometimes she’d go on and on until they’d be too exhausted to have sex.
The poem he liked best, short and about eating a plum and kind of sexy, was written by William Carolos Williams, a physician.
“See,” Pippa said happily. “You do like poetry.”
Although he’d occasionally worry she’d bring up “Hannah and Otto,” she never read him her own poems.
When he’d get to Starbucks and she’d be just sitting there looking miserable, he’d know she’d failed to salvage a bad writing day. He’d ask if he should go. She’d say yes, no, maybe, I don’t know. She wouldn’t want more tea. He’d have coffee—he got to like having caffeine at the end of his workday—and he’d try to concentrate on one of his medical journals. He began to recognize baristas and steady customers. Once he saw one of his patients on the bathroom line.
Pippa would stare into space, occasionally sighing or blowing her bangs off her forehead. When he’d eventually ask what she wanted to do about dinner, she’d say she didn’t care. He’d suggest various restaurants. She wouldn’t be in the mood for anything. Her fridge had little besides fruit and vegetables, often rotting. Once he left work early to shop for groceries and he made them dinner. It was hard to work in her small kitchen, and everything was under or overcooked. Pippa ate absentmindedly and said it was fine.
Sometimes she’d say, “Maybe fucking will help.” It rarely did.
They didn’t fight, but small things, like the sound of her podcasts, began to annoy him. He’d rarely have heard of any of the people being interviewed, and he’d find the drone of their voices going on and on about themselves unpleasant. Although Pippa wasn’t as critical of him as his other girlfriends had been, he wondered if she was so involved with her poetry, she just didn’t care as much.
One of the few times she was annoyed with him was when he took her to the small independent drugstore near his apartment so she’d see for herself how much nicer—and cheaper—it was than Duane Reade.
“But I don’t mind overpaying,” she said.
Mainly she suffered over her poetry.
He’d tell himself that whatever was getting to feel stale about his job, it was way better than being a poet.
One night she called him—usually she texted—crying so hard he thought it was some medical emergency. Finally he understood that she was discouraged because her
poems kept getting rejected.
He said he’d be right over.
In the Uber he reread “Hannah and Otto.” He still couldn’t understand it.
When he got to her apartment she’d stopped crying. She asked if he wanted to read her poetry, and handed him a folder.
Even the titles, like “Limnal Dreams,” “Terra Cotta Clown,” “Ellipsis #9,” were discouraging. And even when a line seemed to make sense (although sometimes, for reasons he didn’t understand, these lines were in quotes), he couldn’t see how it connected with whatever came before or after. He tried to reread a few of the most confusing poems; almost immediately he’d stop concentrating. In the end he had no idea what even one poem was about.
Pippa had been marking papers in her bedroom while he read in the living room. She came in as soon as he finished.
“You hate them!”
He made a fumbling speech about how he wasn’t her ideal reader.
“I only ever got one poem published.” She started crying again.
“Can I ask you something?” he said. “When you get a poem published, do they pay you, like, by the word?”
She smiled. “Most journals don’t pay. A lot of them make you pay to submit to them.”
“Is that legal?”
She laughed. After a while she rinsed her face and found two clementines that weren’t rotting.
As they ate them she cheered up.
He was frustrated he didn’t have the ability to help make her poems at least clearer.
Shortly after what Simon thought as the poetry crisis, his friend Adam, an anesthesiologist, suggested they meet for dinner at a popular steak house. When Simon saw him waiting at the bar—Adam was gangly and, especially in his baseball cap, boyish looking—he had an impulse to give him a hug, but he just said, Hey. They hadn’t seen each other since Simon met Pippa.
The restaurant was crowded and they were seated near a large, noisy table of young men who seemed like finance types. Adam showed him pictures of his new baby. Simon showed him Pippa.
“Cute!” Adam said.
“She’s a poet.”
“That’s something different.”
They drank whiskey, ate big steaks, and talked about work and a few doctors they both knew.
Simon wanted to tell him how sometimes he worried Pippa was what his dad would call a little meshuga, about her poetry.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “It’s really hard to get poetry published.”
“I don’t know how to say this,” Simon said—he’d had more to drink than usual and he wasn’t used to eating so much—“but sometimes, with Pippa, I wish…this is going to sound really weird.”
“You know how Pippa has bangs? You saw her picture.”
“Pippa has bangs.”
Simon wished he’d never said anything. “This is crazy, but sometimes she blows her bangs out of her eyes, and there’s this moment when her forehead is…bare. And, this sounds really stupid, but sometimes I wish I could ‘freeze’ that moment. It’s like . . . a moment in time? You don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s not your fault.”
“You don’t like Pippa’s bangs?”
Simon pictured Pippa’s face. “They’re fine. Her bangs are fine. They’re her bangs.” Maybe he was turning into some kind of jerk. “I’m not even sure what I mean.”
“You know what?” Adam was slurring his words. “You sound like a poet.”
Simon was embarrassed and vaguely flattered.
It was April and Pippa’s birthday, and Simon would be taking her to a trendy restaurant. He’d pick her up at her apartment, and she’d be wearing a black dress he hadn’t seen but she promised was sexy. He’d had a great time at a lingerie shop looking at nightgowns, and found a short filmy one he really liked. But he worried it was more for him than for her, and he hadn’t bought anything yet. That morning he got to work early so he could catch up on paperwork and go out later to shop.
He enjoyed being at his office when no one else was there. The wood-paneled rooms had high ceilings and casement windows that got afternoon sun. There was a kitchen and a still-functioning water cooler his father had been proud of; Simon made sure it was always filled. He still wore his father’s lab coats, cut more generously than what was currently available. He was sad to be down to his last few.
It was an unremarkable morning. He identified a Lyme disease rash. An older elegantly dressed woman had what he was pretty sure were bedbug bites. He did cryosurgery on a screaming child’s warts. Following his father’s rule that if he hesitated about something even briefly during an exam, he’d send the patient to a specialist, he told a new patient to get his thyroid checked. Passing the kitchen, he saw his assistant and his receptionist, both older women, drinking coffee and chatting. They were cheerful and friendly, but he suspected they found him awkward. Kathy had stopped by once, and he’d been pleased they could see how attractive and stylish she was. He wondered what they’d think of Pippa.
At noon he went out, bought a hotdog on the street and window-shopped as he ate it. In the window of an antique store he saw a big black shawl draped over an old-fashioned-looking steamer trunk. The shawl was embroidered with a bouquet of scarlet flowers loosely tied with a green velvet ribbon. There was a silky-looking black fringe all around that reminded him of Pippa’s bangs. He found the shawl a little granny-like, but he was pretty sure Pippa would like it.
At first the saleswoman wasn’t sure it was for sale. She called someone to find out, and it turned out to cost a lot more than he’d planned on spending. But maybe one dull night Pippa would tell him to close his eyes, and when he opened them she’d have the shawl wrapped around her naked body. Very slowly she’d take it off. She’d touch the fringe to her erect nipples and then, taking out his penis, she’d slowly move the silky strands up and down, barely touching the skin.
For all that to happen, though, he’d have to wait for her to have a good writing day, or for a magazine to publish one of her unreadable poems. What she’d probably do was
wrap the shawl around her shoulders as she sat cross-legged on the couch in a tee shirt and sweat pants. She’d be hunched over a clipboard or staring miserably into
space. Of course he could buy her the sexy nightgown, too.
But he liked the idea of having to choose: it seemed symbolic
or metaphorical, or something interesting that never would
have occurred to him if he hadn’t known Pippa.
Karen Wunsch’s stories have been published in The Literary Review, Ascent, Columbia Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many other journals.