I used to want to be a writer. Would you believe that? I would force myself to sit at a typewriter for hours, creating nothing but blisters and cramps. I would hold a pen like I held my scalpels, trying to cut excess adverbs from my sentences, the way I cut cancers out of a brainstem now. Cancers, on the whole, are easier; the difference between grey-pink healthy tissue and slick brown sacs of mutated flesh is obvious, but the difference between a good sentence and a bad one changes with each story. It was all too complicated for me, and I gave up.
Not that I don't still like to tell stories. When I lie awake at night, I don't think about the little girl whose aneurysm I clipped, or the old man whose cyst I removed. I don't think about how I'll have to be ready for an operation tomorrow, my hands steady and my vision unblurred. I fall asleep thinking of knights on quests, sworn enemies and star-crossed lovers, of epics I have the imagination—but not the skill—to create.
At first it was soothing. I'd accepted that my writing career would come to nothing, and had settled into my role as a saver of lives. The soap-opera, spaghetti-western tales that flashed through my head would take away the stress of the days, would replace my nightmares of shaky hands and dead patients with dreams that were more fantastical, if not more benevolent. I told myself that they were purely for escape, even though I sometimes sleepwalked through examinations, and even though I still felt most alive at night with my stories.
I would drift off in the middle of an operation, forcing the nurse to poke me or jostle me, sometimes resuming the operation herself. It happened more than once, as I was staring at the wrinkles of a patient's brain, imagining that it was a valley of stone, with a tribe lost to the centuries wandering within its folds.
The nurses whispered. It made my patients nervous. The director of the hospital wanted me to quit. I promised them I would get better. I went to therapy, I stopped reading novels, I even went to a professional retreat in the Bahamas. And I found a new way to make the stories I had in my head come to life.
Today, I am treating a man who works in marketing. His name is Spitz. He wears brown suits and very thick glasses, and he worries about his hair thinning and whether his wife really likes him, you know, as a person. He has come here because he has ferocious headaches. The psychologist who referred him to me says that they probably come from the pressures of his job and his gripping marital problems. She asked me to run a few routine tests on him, to assuage his hypochondria. I told her I had found a tumor. She is one of the few doctors in the city who still believes my diagnoses.
There is no tumor, but there is a small abrasion in the adrenal gland. I suture it. I make a few small, strategic incisions in the frontal lobe. When Spitz wakes up, he will no longer have headaches. He will not have a wife. He will believe himself to be a secret agent in the pay of the United States government. His secretary will be the agent he is assigned with. She will be blonde. I haven't decided yet if he will be on the run, in disguise. It might explain the glasses.
Tomorrow I will treat an eight-year-old girl with epilepsy. My hands will not shake, as they often do when I operate on children, but will make the incisions in her temporal lobe with precision. When she walks out of the clinic, she will no longer have to live in fear of her own brain. The fear will come from outside, not from within her; the city streets will be dark woods, each passing stranger a wolf in an overcoat or a haggard witch hurrying home to her chicken-legged hut. It will not be her mother who escorts her silently home, gripping her little girl's hand tight as she drags her through the crowds, but a sullen ice queen under a spell that will be broken when the woods melt away and the wolves turn back into men.
Next week, I will be removing an aneurysm from the brain of seventy-five-year-old man. He was a referral from a friend, a very cowardly surgeon who will not operate on the old or very infirm, for fear that they will die under his scalpel no matter what he does. I'm not afraid to operate. Of course, I will have to meet with him soon for a consultation, to determine his symptoms, learn about his dreams, figure out what kind of story to give him. The old have different stories from the young. Perhaps a war story, one of self-sacrifice, patriotic glory, with decoration and pride at the end. But only if he has never served; for a story to work, it must be unreal. The brain will recognize a familiar situation and twist my scenario to suit what it knows. I would hate for one of my well-plotted stories to turn into an ugly flashback, a thing of blood and mud and the smell of mustard gas.
I will watch them go, imagining that I am seeing what they see, that my neurons have been as artfully rearranged as theirs. I almost envy them their new realities, which I know will be seamless and satisfying. I always cut very carefully.