The young couple sitting across from them in the waiting room could have been brother and sister. Both were long and slender—skinny, really—though the boy looked fuller now than when he had been on chemotherapy. At least, they assumed it was chemotherapy. It could have been a transplant. The young man had looked that bad back then.

But they were obviously boyfriend and girlfriend. The older couple had determined this from furtive glances—he over his book, she from her crocheting—and concluded it in whispers. No more than 19 years old, they were sure.

Quietly, the man and his wife remarked how good the boy now looked

Quietly, the man and his wife remarked how good the boy now looked (at their age, they couldn’t yet call him a man)—better dressed than the days when he came to the hospital in baggy tie-dyed pants and loose multicolored T-shirts. In those days, the boy was alone, at least when they saw him. Perhaps he came with her on other days when they weren’t there. Or maybe he came with a different girl. Or, maybe when he had no hair—or future—he didn’t have a girlfriend.

Now the boy had hair. His skin color was swarthy, almost ruddy, and he wore well-pressed jeans and a nicely fitting black polo shirt, with shoes rather than the slipper-like sandals he wore when they saw him back then. “He’s really quite nice-looking,” his wife said.

The man understood the change. During the days when he was bald and green in color (different than the dirty-gray of the boy in those days) he didn’t much care about the way he dressed either, especially on days he came to the hospital to sit for hours in the chemotherapy room, concentrating on holding the contents of his stomach in place. It was a good sign, this new care the boy was taking in his looks. It was a good sign for the man, too, sitting now in tan cargo pants, well-pressed gray shirt, and black sport shoes. They both shared—he and the boy—a new optimism in these post-chemo days. Or so he imagined about the boy from what he was seeing and from his own experience.

The girl was long-legged and lanky. Cute, his wife thought. “Nice, that he’s got a cute girlfriend,” she said. And they both smiled with a sideways look at each other, a bit of the young couple’s romance infecting them as well. The man and his wife shared an appreciation for romance, though they refrained from any public displays of affection.

As he sat attempting to read, his wife by his side, distracted by the boy and his girlfriend, the hallway lined with people waiting to face their doctors and the grim reality of their illness, his awareness drifted outside of himself, and he found himself observing—as if through the eyes of another—the two couples sitting on opposite sides of the hallway.

The other person—the observer—was himself, only younger. He remembered seeing middle-aged and older couples sitting on buses or in restaurants or cafes, barely speaking, he reading his newspaper, she poking at her cake or gazing out the window or searching through her purse or crocheting. He remembered his mother and father, or any of the many gray-haired couples whose fires had apparently dimmed and passions drained, whose once-common interests had drifted down separate paths or had disappeared altogether, replaced by the mundane and boring realities of daily life lived in bodies too weak and fatigued to respond without effort and will.

He remembered his dread of ever being old and dried out like that

He remembered his dread of ever being old and dried out like that, of no longer sharing with his wife the passions of his life or his interests or his worries or his fantasies, doomed to sit silently next to his life’s companion with nothing left to say, no chatter or giggle or caress left to spark their time together, to let others know, as well as themselves, how dear they were to each other.

He sat, with these youthful memories and his middle-aged awareness, comparing the young couple to his wife and himself, an older man late enough in his fifties to be pushing sixty. He reading. She crocheting. Speaking only occasionally, and then only in whispers, and rarely even looking at each other. A pair of Orthodox Jews, he with beard and kippah, she with her hair covered, long sleeves and stockings. Sitting firmly on their own seats, apart, not touching. Never holding hands in public as the young couple across from them did, as young lovers do.

The contrast amused him as he thought how, if he were thirty years younger, he would be filled with judgment and contempt. How he would wish to be the young couple whose passions burned so intensely, who were filled with urgent secrets to say to one another, whose laughter came so easily—though no matter how hard he strained, he could never hear their conversation or the joke that remained hidden from his ears. Joke! No joke caused their laughter, he thought. It was the simple demand of hormonal intensity, like stored electricity, seeking release.

From the perch of his outer awareness, he beheld the other couple, the older man and woman, he and his wife, who rarely laughed in public, though occasionally slight smiles simultaneously crossed their lips, the cause hidden to outside observers.

But who was watching from outside? Only him. Awaiting his turn. Waiting first for the results of the blood test that he, like the boy across the room from him, had taken one hour ago.

The boy had arrived at the hospital shortly before him. They had waited together in the registration line, and again they had waited to get their blood drawn, and now they waited for the results, and then they would wait for their turn with the doctor. The boy was number 158, he 159. The boy would be first.

He looked at his watch. He and his wife had been at the hospital for two and a half hours. It was perhaps the thirty-fifth time in the past two years they had been here. But it was easier these days than when he was receiving chemotherapy. Thank G‑d, those days were behind—though depending on this examination and the results of his blood test, they might again lie ahead.

So intense had his love for her become in their silence, in his withdrawal

Those days had been agonizing for them both. The waiting had been worse. Today, the doctor’s visit would be the end of their waiting; they would afterwards go home. But then, on chemo days, the doctor was only a prelude, followed by six more grueling hours of chemicals dripping into his veins, promising cure, making him sick and ugly.

His wife and he shared those days with the same silence and physical distance that characterized their waiting today. They rarely spoke as he quietly lay there, his awareness withdrawn deep within himself, attempting to mask the sounds and sights of others crowded into the same room enduring the same or worse ordeals. They never touched then, either. And yet, when the months of chemo were over, he wanted to remarry her in this room, so intense had his love for her become in their silence, in his withdrawal, in her faithfulness.

His thoughts were distracted by the nurse walking by, carrying a stack of blood test results. The skinny boy untangled himself from his girlfriend, whose long leg was thrown over his. He quickly unlaced his fingers from hers and jumped up to intercept the nurse. After a brief negotiation, he extracted the blood test results from the stack in her hands, and hurriedly sat to examine them. He turned slightly in his chair and burrowed his head in the paper. His girlfriend looked questioningly at his back for a while, then examined her nails. His head only inches from the paper, the boy’s fingers followed each line across the page. As the man watched, he too knew the lines the boy was reading: RBC, WBC, hemoglobin, neutrophils. Like the boy, the man knew intimately each category, and what the numbers could mean to their futures. To their hair. To the color of their skin. To their time.

The boy smiled, kissed the page, jumped up, and rushed to give the results back to the nurse, who placed the paper in his file, then entered the doctor’s room to place his file on the desk to signal that the patient was ready to be seen.

The man hoped his results, too, were in that stack, though his curiosity, like the man himself, was more tempered than the boy’s.

On seeing the boy kiss the blood test results, both he and his wife smiled. And when the boy jumped up, his wife said without thinking, “Aaallll-right, way-to-go!!” and in that instant the boy looked at her with curiosity, not knowing that she had a son his age. And a husband with the same disease.

When the doctor called the boy to his office, the boy rose and entered. The girl waited outside.

The man stared at his book, but his thoughts returned to him and his wife, and he wondered if their thirty-two married years were obvious? Or their seven children—one married for so short a time that grandchildren still remained in their hopes? Were the bonds visible? Had they left some impression apparent from outside?

Only they knew that just beneath their placid but shining middle-aged surface sat two people deeply in love . . .

Could others see how, though they sat on separate chairs not touching, they sat as close as two people could without touching? From the outside, could one see how the countless tiny strands of their separate anxieties silently knit them together, strands like tiny telephone wires that carried shared intimacies extending from their youth, no less precious or passionate in their present?

No, he thought, these things could not be seen. Nor did they display them. Their lives existed in a zone visible only to themselves, needing no observation or public expression for validity. Their smiles betokened deep laughter belonging only to their privacy. Their jokes needed no telling to engender amusement and delight. And when he laughed at something in his book, she need not know what it said to share the pleasure of his pleasure, regardless of the cause. She had no jealousy of it. He knew this. She wanted his delight more than her own after all these years, and this disease, and the unknown reality of his future and of hers and of the children.

She crocheted. He sat and read. They shared stolen glances at the people around them, sometimes commenting on this person or that, sitting mostly in silence, apart.

In this waiting and anticipation, it was perceptible to no one. Only they knew that just beneath their placid but shining middle-aged surface, barely containing their intensity, sat two people deeply in love, lives and souls intertwined, invisibly sharing their lives and their scars, children and grandchildren, secrets and passions, all intensified by time and the visit that was about to occur.

The door to the doctor’s office opened. The boy walked out, a somber look on his face. His girlfriend stood. They didn’t speak as they walked down the corridor, he slightly ahead, she stuffing something back in her purse.

The husband and wife looked expectantly at the doctor. He nodded his head. They entered his office together.