Cabinet 2


I have an appointment at the podiatrist in Paris. When I arrive at the public health center, I struggle with the name of the doctor I am meant to see. The receptionist waits patiently; it’s still a racist country. White people allow other white people to have trouble with foreign names.

I am told to go to Cabinet 2. There is a sign on the door that says “Pedicure.” This is really something. I can allow that the French call “jogging” “un footing”; “gastronomy” “le fooding”; but “pedicure” for “podiatrist” just sucks.

The doctor’s name is Rivka Haydoutov. When you try to imagine how you would pronounce it with your best insinuation of a French accent, you see why it was hard. “Hay” doesn’t exist here, as a prefix to words. The doctor comes through a separate set of doors carrying the remnants of her lunch in a pink Tupperware. She is one of those women—there is no way to get around it—with “smiling eyes.” She has coarse, unruly hair that is grey in most places, silver in others. Smooth skin that is only seen on women of a certain age who are themselves, and happy.

I assume that she is Jewish. I always get very emotional around a certain type of Jewish woman, although I am not Jewish myself. Madame…Ongaro? She mispronounces my last name which I never actually changed legally, but which is categorically attributed to me when I am in France even when I insist nom de jeune fille, nom de jeune fille, nom de jeune fille. Yes, I say. Maum. I know I am not going to make it through my appointment without crying.

I have only slept five hours in the last three days. I am hoping to hide this from the doctor. The doctor checks her clipboard. Frowns. Tells me I look ten years younger than I am. You see, I think, it’s going well.

Why have I come here? Well, it’s about the bunions. What an awful, ageist, crusty little word. My mother had them and my grandmother, and the other day I went clamming in Brittany with my husband at the lowest of low tides, and my rubber boot filled with cold water but I wasn’t ready to go back because it was beautiful and there were all these little clams that came popping to the surface if you stomped slowly in the mud—my feet were nearly freezing and when I got to the car and peeled off my right boot and sock, it literally looked like a bald-headed tubular alien was trying to get out of my right foot. So I thought, enough.

I peel my socks off again for Doctor Haydoutov. She puts on blue plastic gloves to touch my feet, which are colder and more yellow than usual because of the not sleeping. She holds one foot in each hand, the way you would two small melons at a market. Hmmm. Why not take them both?

Ecoutez, says Doctor Haydoutov. On va parler. Listen, we’re going to talk. And right away, I well up. It’s like this for me with these maybe Jewish women. These strangers who take the time to get down to business with my soul.

What did she say after? I was doing busy work by then, thinking how am I going to keep myself from breaking down in this public health center, this twenty-euro visit, this place where I am only meant to be for five minutes—a simple consultation, diagnostic, hop!—How could I explain that it’s not just been three days of insomnia, it’s been seven nights, it’s been all my life. That I’ve just come from a writers’ conference—what the fuck is that—and that I get incredibly excited and emotional and so fucking filled with joy when I’m around other writers that I just stop sleeping. That my recollections of the good times I’ve had keep me from sleeping, even though I’m back. That my husband seems suspicious that I met someone but is too afraid to ask me. And that I have.

Doctor Haydoutov asks me what my diet is like. I start with the bla bla bla about how we usually live in the Berkshires and have access to great meat, nuts in the morning, a banana, dark chocolate—then I admit that this past week, however, it was mainly: olives, vodka, beer. She smiles. She does not care about this. What about—she is still holding my cold feet in her blue gloves—when you were young?

And then I start crying. Not sobbing, let’s not exaggerate, but the kind of stifled crying you do in the coach section of an airplane when you’re watching a terrible romantic comedy but somehow at that altitude it all seems so true. What the fuck, I think, do I have to hide from an Israeli podiatrist?

I tell her I was anorexic from the age of fifteen to eighteen. Later, I will adjust this to age thirteen. Then twelve. She breathes a sign of relief and starts giving me a foot massage; reflexology. She is clearly relieved that I didn’t come out with some lame bullshit remark about how I was a vegetarian, which is what we all say when we’re controlling our food intake, us lonely, hard working, spoiled little girls.

And then—please imagine me with my cold feet in her blue hands, nearly four years behind me of people asking me when I plan to have a baby already, my own gynecologist insisting underneath the chandelier in her office that if I didn’t have the child in my arms by my twenty-ninth birthday that it would be too late, too late—please imagine (you don’t need to imagine, actually, I’m telling you) that the fact that my husband wants a baby but is too scared to insist allows me to let too much time pass without us talking about it. That I live in fear during our quiet, gentle moments, that he will say, enough. That the greatest thing I fear in this whole beautiful world is motherhood. Every step about it. And then the grey haired Doctor Haydoutov says, you have done a lot of harm to your body and you need time to recuperate. You need to start preparing your body for a baby.

She sees my expression, feels a spasm in my foot. Don’t you want a baby?

One time, in high school, my next door neighbor and I were drinking Zima on my mother’s yellow couch and talking about the future, about babies, and when I said I didn’t want any, he said that I would be renouncing my biological purpose if I didn’t reproduce, and I still slept with the idiot. Amazing.

It is a terrible burden not to want a baby when you have a handsome husband and a successful life and you’re almost thirty-four. People feel they deserve an explanation. I am not hungry for a child, Doctor Haydoutov. I have years of practice. When I am not hungry, I do not eat.

Doctor Haydoutov kept me in that office for an hour. Later, when I left, there were a dozen other patients waiting outside. She asked if my parents had ever asked me questions or tried to help. I am a steamroller. I don’t let people help. But listen, no. My parents never asked. I’m sure it would not have worked with their schedules, an anorexic child.

I am incredibly sad in the chair in Doctor Haydoutov’s office as she tells me my problems with insomnia and circulation and even the bunions are linked to the period of time when I withheld things from my young body. I remember my mother taking me to the gynecologist when I was seventeen to ask whether the birth control was responsible for my thinning hair and how only four months ago, my mother sent me a care package of thickening hair products she got for free from some beauty care event at her country club. I am mad at that gynecologist and all theother doctors who touched my frigid feet when I was younger and said nothing. That no one, ever, pronounced the word in front of me—are you anorexic? I am so sad people allowed me to get away with the shit I got away with. The doctor asks me how I got out of it, and I say, love. I met someone and I wanted to be happy. We were in college. I wanted to go out for pasta, share a big cookie. We were in love.

Can you imagine. All this from a pedicure. A woman who doesn’t know me when all these people who do keep on going as I crumble because they know I am a serious person who will always show up, who will always get it done. And then this woman, this random woman my husband found in the phone book when I called him in Paris from Chicago—holy hell, my feet—she is the only one to notice. Because in the end, when it is happening, when things are not yet falling apart, but starting to unravel, it is convenient and easy to say nothing. So few people say stop, Courtney. Talk.

Courtney Maum is the author of the novels Costalegre (a GOOP book club pick and one of Glamour Magazine’s top books of the decade), I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, and Touch (a New York Times Editor’s Choice and NPR Best Book of the Year selection), and the handbook Before and After the Book Deal: A writer’s guide to finishing, publishing, promoting, and surviving your first book, from Catapult. Her writing has been widely published in such outlets as the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, and Poets & Writers. She is the founder of the collaborative retreat program, The Cabins and she also has a writing-advice newsletter, “Get Published, Stay Published,” that you can sign up for at More from this author →