The Side Effects of Placebos

by Karen Wunsch

On an overcast day in December Sophie, thirty-three, had lunch with her dad at a small French restaurant near the Museum of Modern Art. He used to eat there with his parents. She and her dad particularly liked the omelettes. Looking out the window she saw it was drizzling and realized she’d forgotten her umbrella. She knew that although her dad was going back to work and she’d be going home, he’d urge her to take his.

They’d always been close. After her mom died when Sophie was seven, even after her dad started dating he’d be home every night to make her dinner. He loved opera, and he’d tell her the plots. They’d put on their Yankee hats, sit on the sofa eating hotdogs and watch all the games. She’d always been a good student. She had friends and then boyfriends. After college she worked at a small nonprofit that sponsored grants for arts institutions. Then, when she was in her late twenties, the company folded and she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. She had a small trust fund from her mother and decided to try various part-time jobs while she figured out her next move. She and her boyfriend talked about moving in together, then decided to break up. Her dad always made her feel that whatever she did was just fine, but she knew he wished she were settled. Lately when they were together, she’d try to keep the conversation light.

They reminisced about summers when Sophie was a teenager and they’d go to Europe. He’d carry around a bottle of ketchup, which she’d put on almost everything she ate.

She asked as she always did about her dad’s secretary, Mary, who’d been with him for years and was warm and maternal toward them both.
Her dad tended not to say much about his job—he was an accountant—or women he dated.

He said he was thinking about buying an expensive bike.

She encouraged him.

“So what’s new?” he asked her.

She described her latest part-time job, working with a college on revising a grant proposal. She didn’t say much about her other job, waitressing for a small catering company, which she was always vowing to quit.

“So what else is new?” her dad asked, smiling.

She looked at the small vase of wilting flowers on their table.

“Let’s see. What else?”

She wasn’t about to tell him about her recent date who’d actually said—when Sophie tried to be polite about not wanting sex—”You can’t have steak every night, so sometimes you should settle for a burger.”

“Not a lot is new these days,” she told her dad.

They shared a tarte tatin and drank the coffee she always said tasted like pennies. The rain had stopped. She overheard their waiter tell a couple at a nearby table that every day at least one customer said to him, “I used to come here with my parents.”

Sophie smiled. “Did you hear that, Daddy?”

He hadn’t heard.

She worried that—although he was in good health and his hearing seemed fine—he’d die before she could give him some good news.


A few days later Sophie was waitressing at a hospital holiday staff party. She wore her own black pants and shirt and the company’s white ruffled apron. As she passed around hors d’oeuvres, one of the doctors—his nametag said Marty Abrams—came over, took a few shrimp and lingered. Probably in his mid-forties, with curly grey-black hair and surprisingly blue eyes, he was fairly attractive, but wore a wedding ring.

“I think we know each other,” he said.

It turned out that he’d been a volleyball counselor at the sleepaway camp she’d gone to when she was eleven.

“I can’t believe you remember me,” she told him. She wasn’t good at volleyball, had hated camp, and never went back.

He kept hanging around.

“Are you an actress?” he asked her.

She was used to men finding her sexy, in spite of what she thought of as her too-close-together eyes and too curly dark hair. She felt bitter because although there were probably single men around, Marty was the only one who’d talked to her.

He said he was a gastroenterologist and lived in New Jersey with his wife and their nine- year-old twins.

“A boy and a girl. Robin—my wife—says the only bad part is that she only got to be pregnant once.”

Sophie wasn’t sure she’d like Robin.

“I’d better circulate.” Nodding toward her tray, she smiled and walked away. Tom, the bartender, smiled and waved.

Soon Marty was back. She couldn’t decide if he was puppyish and annoying or boyish and appealing.

“Don’t be mad, but I have a question for you.”

She looked at her tray.

“Do you have a significant other? I’m asking for a reason. ”

“Actually, I have to get back to work.” She should have just said “yes.” It was almost time to go. Luckily the hospital wasn’t far from her apartment.

“Wait,” he said. “See that guy over there? In the brown jacket?”

Automatically she looked, but he was half-turned away.

“Ben used to be my intern. He’s a really good doctor and a nice guy and when I knew him he was looking for a girlfriend.” Marty spoke quickly. “I’m not sure what’s going on now, but I could ask.”

She was confused. He didn’t seem to be propositioning her, and he didn’t seem like the type who’d want a threesome. But one thing she learned from her years of dating was that she could be really wrong about men.

But maybe he was sincere. Most people—especially men—didn’t bother to fix people up. Maybe this guy—Ben—would turn out to be the love of her life.

“I guess you could ask.”

While she was circulating with her tray she was aware of Marty talking to Ben. She looked at him once. He wasn’t unattractive, but actually Marty was more her type.

It was almost time to start cleaning up.

Marty came back, alone.

“It turns out he’s engaged.”

“Well thanks for trying. Good luck with your twins.”

Marty looked as if he were trying to think of something else to say.

She walked away.

As she finished cleaning up she sipped the champagne Tom had given her. He wanted her to take home a big bag of leftover hors d’oeuvres

“That’s way too many,” she told him. “I live alone.”


On a Friday in January she’d gone to an aerobics class at her gym and was sitting in a nearby coffee shop going over edits of a grant proposal when Marty came in. She realized his hospital was a block away. As he got in line she hoped he wouldn’t notice her, but he brought his coffee over.

“Hey you,” he said happily.

She was aware of not looking her best—she was wearing her gym tee shirt and sweat pants and her hair could use a washing.

He kept standing there, smiling at her.

“I rarely come here,” he said. “But on Fridays I don’t see patients.” He paused. “I do research.”

She didn’t say anything.

“We’re studying the side effects of placebos.”

She smiled. “Placebos have side effects?”

“Not only that, but even when people are told they’re receiving a placebo, they still report improvements.”

Closing her computer, she indicated that he could sit down.

He talked about “nocebo’s” for too long, but she was interested.

Although they didn’t seem to have much in common—he wasn’t literary, they didn’t see the same TV shows or movies—they talked easily.

“Like old friends,” he said.

The next week she deliberately went for coffee later, and he wasn’t there. The following week she went back to her usual time, and he was.

In a few days it would be the anniversary of her mother’s death. When she told Marty about how her mother had died at thirty-five of a previously undetected heart condition, he didn’t ask a lot of medical questions, but there was something authoritative about his manner that she found comforting.

She could tell from the way he talked about his twins that he was a loving father.

When they left, together, he said, “See you next week?”

She could make up an excuse. But they weren’t together very long. And she liked the coffee.


“Here’s something I used to say to my kids,” he said happily, and held up one hand. “I say, ‘First there’ll be the weekend. And then…’” With the index finger of the other hand, he touched his thumb. “This is Monday.” Touching each of his other fingers in turn, he said, “Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.” When he got to his little finger, he paused. “Then it’s Friday. ‘Pinky day.’” He smiled at Sophie. “See you on pinky day.”

He looked so happy, she smiled.

Pinky Days

Sometimes it took a while, but they’d always find a table. She’d be wearing her gym clothes; he’d have on his hospital ID. Often they’d be the only ones sitting there who weren’t on computers. Whoever got there first would buy the coffee. He’d get a muffin or scone and offer her half. She’d say she didn’t want it, but when he’d put a small piece on her plate, she’d eat it right away.

He tended to go on too long about placebos, but there was usually some interesting fact.

“It’s funny, but I don’t exactly think of you as a doctor,” she told him. “It’s more like you’re a camp counselor who knows first aid and would be great in an emergency.”

He really liked that.

Sophie would say her grant work was too boring to talk about, and that her waitressing job was too depressing, but he’d encourage her and afterwards she’d often feel more hopeful.

He didn’t say a lot about his family. Except for sports, the girl twin was better than the boy in school. Robin sold real estate in their Westchester town and bought a new car every two years. She got annoyed when he’d put the wrong things in with the recycling.

“I don’t blame her,” Sophie said.

After she asked, he showed her some family pictures. Robin had dark hair, was taller than Sophie and wore glasses. Pretty, but not beautiful. The twins were cute, although they smiled as if they were used to posing for pictures.

When Sophie mentioned her dad, Marty always said, “He sounds like a nice man.”

A friend kept asking Sophie if Marty had told his wife about her.

Sophie decided to ask him, but there never seemed to be a good time.

Another friend worried Marty was looking for an affair.

“We’re in a coffee shop,” Sophie would say. “For less than an hour. He’s married.”


She hadn’t met a man she was interested in for several months, and was getting discouraged. She showed Marty her dating profile, and he suggested she add something she’d casually mentioned to him—when she went swimming she’d dive right in the water, even when it was really cold. She took his advice, and the next man she matched with said he’d liked that detail. After a couple of dates, though, they decided it wasn’t going anywhere.

One Friday she was laughing at something Marty had said and before she quite realized what was going on, he took her picture. Although she didn’t usually like photos of herself, and she wished she were wearing something more alluring than a gray tee shirt, she thought she looked pretty good and added it to her dating profile. After that she’d think about dressing in more flattering clothes on pinky days, but each time she’d stop herself. Still, sometimes Marty would keep taking her picture until she’d say, “No more paparazzi.”


She saw a teenage boy in the park giving skateboard lessons to a boy and girl who looked like they could be nine-year-old twins. Another time a man who resembled Marty was with a pretty woman who looked like Robin—but then Sophie remembered that Robin wore glasses. And once she saw another man who resembled him, walking with his small daughter and wearing her pink backpack. Otherwise, as Sophie told her friends, when she and Marty weren’t together, she rarely thought about him.


The college got a grant she’d worked on, and hired her to work on two more. A gay male friend and his partner who were about to adopt a baby girl asked her to be godmother. Her dad bought an expensive bike. And then Sophie met Simon, two years younger, a lawyer. She liked him, and by their fourth date they were talking about places they wanted to go together over the summer. She was thinking about mentioning him to her dad, and maybe Marty—their pinky days could end sooner rather than later—when Simon texted that an old girlfriend had come back into his life.

In April Marty was supposed to take his family to Florida, but Robin and then one of the twins got the flu. On Thursday Marty warned Sophie he was probably coming down with it too.

She decided that if he didn’t meet her, she’d have lunch with a friend or, if everyone was busy, she’d take herself out to someplace really nice.

Marty miraculously recovered.


A few weeks later Sophie was doing errands on Broadway when it started to rain. She’d forgotten an umbrella, but a woman she was walking next to—early fifties, short grey hair, stylish rain jacket—offered to share hers.

For several blocks they chatted about things like the weather and changes in the neighborhood. Sophie realized she hadn’t talked to anyone all day. Jill was warm and had a sense of humor, and Sophie found herself talking about dating in New York. She mentioned Marty.

“Some of my friends worry I’m going to fall in love with him. It’s kind of annoying.”

They walked in silence for a little while.

“Maybe this is a stupid question,” Jill said. “but what if you had a daughter, and she was spending time with a married man? What would you tell her?”

Sophie felt uneasy. “I’m not sure.”

They went back to talking about the neighborhood.

After they’d said goodbye, Sophie wanted to call to her, “Can’t I have a little fun?”


On a Wednesday in June Sophie was coming out of a hardware store not far from Marty’s hospital when she saw him.

They were surprised they hadn’t run into each other before.

“You look nice,” he said.

She was wearing a short skirt.

It was noon, neither of them had eaten, and they decided to have lunch.

He suggested a Cuban Chinese restaurant that one of his colleagues liked.

“Apparently it’s a holdover from the old neighborhood. Nothing fancy, but good rice and beans and stuff like that.”

He looked pale. She realized she’d never seen him outdoors.

The restaurant was dingy, but there were some empty tables.

Near the front window was a murky-looking lobster tank with several barely moving lobsters piled on top of each other.

“I hope they don’t have polio,” Sophie joked.

He didn’t laugh.

He seemed cranky. Maybe he was one of those people who don’t like changing their routine. She realized she hardly knew him.

A waiter brought menus and water right away.

She complained about her waitressing job.

They reminisced about the night they met.

To get to the bathroom she had to go down a narrow and dimly lit flight of stairs. She imagined falling down them. Marty would have to call her dad from the hospital.

Their waiter brought large portions of chicken, rice and beans. Marty gave her some of his plantains. They talked about how they weren’t used to having such a big lunch.

They didn’t even open their fortune cookies.

As they were leaving she tried not to look at the lobster tank. Marty was looking out the window. Suddenly he collapsed to the floor.

“Oh my God!” Sophie knelt down, bent over him and tried to remember how to do CPR.

“I’m okay,” Marty said.

She burst into tears.

“I’m fine. Really.” He got up. “Stop crying,”

She got up. “I thought you had a heart attack.”

No one in the restaurant seemed aware of what had happened.

She’d stopped crying, but her breathing was ragged.

“I’m really sorry,” he said. “This is embarrassing, but I saw a friend of Robin’s walking by. She’s one of these people who never shuts up and I wasn’t in the mood to deal with her. I didn’t really think about it, but I didn’t want her to see me. I’m sorry I scared you. I’m an idiot. Let’s go.”

Sophie didn’t move.

“You mean you didn’t want her to see me,” she said. “And I thought you were dying!” She shook her head. “This whole thing is making me feel dirty.”

“That’s not fair. I would have been happy to introduce you.”

“You’re so full of shit.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said. “It’s been a long week. Let’s get out of here.”

Looking out the window, Sophie thought that the woman could walk by again, or they could run into her on the street. She imagined her dad walking by and seeing them through the window. The restaurant was nowhere near his office, but still. She’d definitely feel uncomfortable.

“You know what?” she said. “I have to go to the bathroom again. You should go without me.”

“I’ll wait. It’s fine if we see her. Really.”

“No. Go.”

“I’m not leaving you here.”

“It’s fine. Go.”

“You’re sure?”


“We’ll still have pinky day?”

“We’ll still have pinky day.”

“You’re sure you don’t want me to wait?”


He went.

That night she lay in bed. She was wide awake. She didn’t want to start thinking about looking for a full-time job. Or if she should take a break from dating. Something else was bothering her. Marty. His collapsing on the floor. She’d been devastated by the prospect of losing him. She realized—she loved him.


Karen Wunsch’s stories and essays have appeared in The Literary Review, Ascent, Michigan Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, and other journals. A collection of her stories, Do You Know What I’m Not Telling You?, has recently been published by Serving House Books.

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