Studies in Airports was Penn’s first manuscript. He’d taken the stories to the copy place on a disk and had them printed then bound with a black, plastic spiral, but his guidance counselor refused to consider hanging around an airport making stuff up a real internship anyway. Still, he’d learned a lot more than he did proofing ad copy for the Rockaway Gazette, which is what he’d done the following summer. And he’d gotten a lot more writing done.

So reading and writing in Rosie’s hospital waiting room was something he was long practiced for: lots of crying people, lots of pathos, the heights of tragedy, the heights of relief, which looked a lot like the heights of tragedy, and lots of that odd paradox he’d observed at Newark International that lay at the heart of waiting—that even when what people were waiting for was the worst news of their life or the best, even when the waiting was heavy with implication and consequence, waiting people still transformed into cranky toddlers, impatient and frowning and red-faced infuriated with vending machines that dispensed the wrong thing, and kids who did not use their inside voice. You’d think people in a hospital waiting room would be kindred spirits, compatriots, like soldiers who’d served together, fellow citizens of a hollowed, harrowed world, but no, mostly they avoided one another’s eyes and heaved great passive-aggressive sighs in one another’s direction whenever someone had the audacity to get attention from the nurses first.

Penn wooed and studied, watched and listened and made notes for stories. He read. He wrote. Rosie would emerge every few hours, sometimes blood-spattered, sometimes vomit-splashed, always frazzled, always exhausted and red-eyed. Always rosy. And always glad to see him in spite of her protestations. And these were many: Aren’t you uncomfortable out here? The chairs are gross, and the food is awful. Do you know how many germs are in hospital waiting rooms? Do you know how weird a place this is to read literary theory? Didn’t I tell you I don’t have time for a boyfriend? Wouldn’t you like to go home and get some sleep? One of us should. Wouldn’t your living room be preferable? The risk there is so low of someone coming in with a gunshot wound.

At first Penn wouldn’t write about the sick kids and their sick parents, the kids struck with cancers and heart diseases and accidents and violence in their homes, the parents struck with sick kids. Sick kids defied all narrative theory he’d ever known. There was nothing redemptive about a dying child. There was nothing that could be learned from a kid coming in shot or beaten that made it worth a kid getting shot or beaten. This had always pissed him off about Romeo and Juliet, its ending platitude that at least the feud was laid to rest and the fighting families had come together as if this somehow made it worth losing their teenagers. As if Romeo and Juliet would have been willing to die just so their parents would get along.

When Rosie came out just after two one morning and collapsed into the seat next to him, too exhausted to feel surprised, never mind grateful, to find him still there, Penn took her hand gently. “Romeo and Juliet didn’t give a crap whether their parents got along.”

“Sure.” Eyes closed. Probably not even listening.

“In fact, Romeo and Juliet thought it was kind of sexy that their parents hated each other.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“They weren’t willing to die to put an end to the feud. They were willing to do anything to live. Juliet died so they could live. Romeo killed so they could live.”

Rosie nodded. “What’s your point?”

“There’s nothing good that can come out of a child being sick.”


“There’s nothing that makes that fair or worth it.”

“No, there isn’t.”

“It’s narratively insupportable,” Penn explained.

“It’s weird how little narrative theory there is in hospitals,” said Rosie. “Yours might be all there is.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m here,” said Penn.

The waiting room stories weren’t the ones that stuck though. Some nights later, Rosie arrived for her shift to find Penn already installed in the waiting room. He was typing furiously on his laptop and didn’t even look up as she scooted through on her way to rounds.

“Figured out a new narrative theory?” she asked on her way past.

“New genre.” He barely looked up. “Fairy tales.”

“Sure,” said Rosie. “Because nothing bad ever happens to kids in fairy tales.”

Her shift was twenty-eight hours. Penn sat and wrote for every one of them. They took a coffee and breakfast break together toward dawn. Penn tried every flavor of corn chip in the vending machine. When she emerged the following night, changed back into street clothes but with something alarmingly viscous tacking her bangs, Penn had closed the laptop and was writing marginalia about the progress being made in Pilgrim’s Progress.

“Come on,” said Rosie.

Penn looked up, a little bleary-eyed himself. He might have been napping between words.


“Dinner,” said Rosie. “Then bed.”

He was awake.

They went to the Eggs ’n’ Dregs Diner, despite its coffee being about as good as advertised, because they served the best late-night waffles in town. Rosie talked about her patients. She talked about her program, her fellow residents, the attendings, the nurses. She talked about the difference between medical school and medical practice, between what she’d thought being a doctor would be like and what it in fact was, between anatomy textbooks and actual anatomy.