When I came to see Alex first thing on Monday morning, he had a large slash across his jaw line. The cut was an angry red color and I winced just looking at it. “What happened to your chin?” I asked him.
“Oh,” he said, fingering his jaw. “Yeah. I had a little shaving accident. The occupational therapist was able to keep me from bleeding to death though.”
I smiled involuntarily. I looked over at Eva, who was staring listlessly out the window. I suddenly felt compelled to offer her one of my Zoloft tablets.
“Dr. Wexler is on the phone with rehab,” I told them. “They might even take you as early as today.”
“Wonderful,” Alex said. He looked over at Eva, who was still looking out the window expressionlessly. She barely seemed alive. “You can tell Eva is really thrilled. She’s just about ready to leap right out of her seat. Right, honey?”
Eva didn’t reply and Alex sighed. I didn’t quite understand how in one weekend, they had gone from making out in bed to barely speaking. Maybe Eva had dropped the act.
“Did you get any movement back in your legs?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Yeah, nothing. But on the bright side, they’re not any more paralyzed, right?”
I moved closer to Alex and picked up his limp left leg. As I place my fingers around his quadriceps, I noticed a slight flickering of his eyes. Suddenly, I realized he was looking at my breasts, which were concealed perhaps less than usual in a maroon button-up blouse with the top button open.
This was not the first interaction Alex had ever had with my breasts. I still remember standing with my friend Jenny by my desk in math class waiting for the bell to ring while Alex walked past me. I don’t think I’d ever noticed a guy staring at my chest before, but I could almost feel Alex’s eyes directed at my fledgling breasts.
“Hey, Rachel,” he said. I looked up at him, and my stomach lurched as he smiled. “You and the blackboard have something in common.”
My friend Jenny actually giggled and my cheeks burned bright red. That weekend, I made my mother go out and buy me the first of many collections of thick, shapeless sweaters.
Years later, as a teenager, I sprouted some more respectable breasts, possibly my best feature. One might even say they were pretty big. At the very least, Alex seemed to be appreciating them right now. He actually seemed to be having some trouble tearing his eyes away.
I cleared my throat loudly and Alex snapped out of his cleavage-induced trance. He knew I knew what he’d been doing and he flashed me a sheepish grin. He glanced over at Eva, who fortunately for him was still staring out the window, completely absorbed by some guy trying to mow the grass right outside the window.
“So,” he said, “what’s rehab like?”
“They work you pretty hard,” I told him. “You do at least three hours a day of therapies. Physical therapy for mobility, occupational therapy to help you get dressed and showered, and they’ll help you to learn how to transfer into your wheelchair yourself.”
Alex nodded, but Eva seemed suddenly alarmed. “Why does he need to be able to do that?” she asked. “He’s going to walk, isn’t he?”
“I don’t know,” I said for what felt like the millionth time. Eva just heard what she wanted to. “But you have to be prepared for the possibility that he won’t.”
“He will,” Eva said confidently.
“I might not,” Alex spoke up.
Eva glared at him. “You won’t if you keep up that attitude! Don’t you want to go back to work?”
Alex shook his head. “I’m a freaking code monkey. I could do my job from a wheelchair.”
It was the second time I’d heard him use that terminology and I was still confused. “What’s a code monkey?”
Alex grinned. “I’m glad you asked.”
“I hate that term,” Eva said, rolling her eyes.
“Basically,” he said, “I write computer programs for a living. Software. Mostly pretty mindless and uninteresting stuff.” He sighed. “Not exactly what I had in mind when I got my masters in computer science.”
“It’s a very good job,” Eva said to me.
Alex looked wistful. “I did get an offer to work at a really interesting start-up company last year…”
“At half the salary,” Eva pointed out. “If you were lucky. Honestly, that was the stupidest—”
“Are you seriously going to start this again, Eva?” Alex interrupted her. “I did what you wanted and turned them down, didn’t I?”
The two of them glared at each other for a minute. It was tense. I guessed I wasn’t going to see the two of them cuddled up in bed again any time soon.
Thankfully, Chloe appeared at the doorway at that moment, looking breathless. “Dr. Miller,” she said urgently. “Dr. Cantrell is on the phone.”
Joe Cantrell was the rehabilitation attending. It was a perfect excuse to slip out. “Please excuse me,” I said, flashing Chloe a grateful look.
Generally, the attendings for rehabilitation units are thought of as being nice, caring people. Rehab is a slow, patient process. Unfortunately, Dr. Joe Cantrell has proven himself to be the opposite of that. Even in his sixties, he’s remained a huge hardass. If I ever have a stroke and I get accepted for rehab as an inpatient, I’m hoping I don’t end up with a guy like Dr. Cantrell barking orders at me.
“Hi, it’s Dr. Miller,” I answered the phone. Despite the fact that I’d known Dr. Cantrell for years, we still addressed each other formally.
“This patient, Connors, is unstable,” he barked into the phone. “You’re sending us an unstable patient.”
“He’s completely stable.”
“He’s got a blood clot in his leg!”
I gritted my teeth. I knew there were probably lots of patients on the rehab unit with blood clots. “He’s got a filter,” I said. “He’s fine. Very stable. Young, motivated… he’s an excellent rehab candidate.”
“We’re willing to take him,” Dr. Cantrell said. “But we want you to consult daily on his neurological issues.”
I cursed to myself. I understood why Cantrell wanted me to keep consulting. The rehab unit would get paid for having the patient in one of their beds, but I would be the one managing his care. Of course, Alex was an easy patient and there wasn’t much to do, and it was in his best interest to go to rehab. I couldn’t explain to Dr. Cantrell the real reason why I didn’t want to keep seeing him on a daily basis. “Fine,” I said through my teeth, frustrated that I had just bought myself another several weeks of Alex Connors.
This Monday proved to be as busy as all the others and I found myself rushing around to see my old patients, new admissions, and a bunch of consults from the emergency room. Just after one, my stomach started making rather loud grumbling noises. I don’t know how some physicians, like surgeons, manage to go through an entire day without eating. By half past one, I was ready to devour my own hand.
I snuck away when things seemed temporarily quiet and went to the cafeteria to grab a sandwich. The line for food was long and I felt angry at the thought that none of the people ahead of me had as much work to do as I did. I glanced at my watch, hopping up and down on each foot, which is my little Native-American dance to make the line move faster.
“Hi, Dr. Miller.”
I whirled around at the sound of the vaguely familiar voice. It was Eva. One of my pet peeves is being bothered in the cafeteria by patients or their family members. It was one of the reasons I often ate in my office.
“Um, hello,” I said.
“Sorry to bother you,” Eva said. She sounded like she was almost on the verge of tears. I looked at her face and noticed she appeared even more haggard than last week. She had circles under her bloodshot eyes and her hair was slightly disheveled. I wondered when the last time she showered had been. “I just wanted to thank you for all you’ve done for Alex.”
“Oh,” I said. “You’re welcome.”
She lingered and I realized with a sinking feeling that there was more she wanted to say to me. “The thing is,” she began, “I feel like Alex isn’t very… I don’t know, motivated?”
“What do you mean?”
“He doesn’t even seem to care that he can’t walk,” she said, her eyes flashing with anger. “When I mentioned it to him, he just said that it ‘might’ happen eventually. Like he doesn’t even care. I mean, we’re supposed to get married in two months! I don’t want him to be in a wheelchair for the wedding!”
Eva’s attitude struck me as incredibly selfish. But then again, I’ve seen a lot of family members react to a stroke in a less than graceful manner. I guessed Eva was getting anxious about the idea of tying herself in a legal ceremony to a guy confined to a wheelchair. I didn’t completely blame her. “Rehab will make Alex work very hard,” I said. “But even with hard work, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to walk again. It’s up to how well his nerves recover.”
Eva frowned. “Well, what do you think the chances are that he’ll be able to walk by then?”
I looked her in the eyes and told her the answer she didn’t want to hear: “In two months? Very unlikely.”
Eva’s eyes welled up with tears. “Wonderful,” she muttered.
“Maybe you could postpone it?”
She shook her head. “We’ve spent so much money… the invitations are already out…”
I looked at the head of the line, willing it to move faster so that I could escape from this conversation. I sensed Eva was about to unload something big on me. Part of being a physician is dealing with patients and family crying in front of you. Sickness can be emotional. But I couldn’t deal with it during my lunch break and definitely not from Alex’s fiancée.
“Dr. Miller,” she said, “is it common for couples to have… problems after something like this?”
“Um,” I said.
“It’s just that,” she leaned in close to me, close enough that I could see the hairs standing up on her neck. “He got the catheter out on Friday and… and… yesterday, he wanted to have sex.”
I stared at her, horrified that she had just said that to me in the middle of the cafeteria. I did my best to hide my reaction. “Uh huh…”
“And I said to him that it was crazy, that he’d overexert himself and make himself worse… right?” Eva was looking at me carefully.
The answer to her question was probably not. But instead, I nodded, “That’s right.” Then for good measure, I added, “Also, a lot of men become impotent after injuries to the spinal cord.” That was true. It wasn’t just a lie to be spiteful. Although it kind of was.
Eva blinked. “Oh, I had no idea that was a possibility…”
I nodded solemnly. “Yes, it’s a big problem.”
“Well, he didn’t seem to have that problem yesterday,” she commented. I felt my face turn red. This food line really needed to move faster. There was now only one woman ahead of me and she couldn’t seem to decide what kind of cheese she wanted on her sandwich.
“The thing is,” Eva sighed, “the reason I didn’t want to do it wasn’t because I was so worried about him. I just… didn’t want to.”
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “It’s just that… Alex and I have been together for five years and I know marriage is about for better or for worse, but… I mean, this really falls into the category of ‘for worse.’ I hate to say it, but I feel like it’s a little more than I can handle at this time in my life.”
I frowned, not sure what to say.
“I’m beginning to think he’s not going to recover from this,” Eva said. I could see her searching my face for a reaction. “And I’m wondering if… if this marriage is the best idea…”
So she was actually thinking about leaving him. Doing the unthinkable and dumping her fiancé in his time of need. If that was the kind of person she was, Alex was probably better off without her. But I guessed that if she left him at a time like this, it would just about kill him.
I looked into Eva’s eyes and I saw the power that I had over her. She was listening to every word I said. I was her authority figure, the omniscient neurologist. I could end their engagement.
After over twenty years, I could finally have my revenge.
“You have to think about yourself,” I said. “A marriage is a binding commitment and not something you should do just because you feel obligated.”
Eva nodded solemnly. “Right,” she said.
“I think you should rethink the wedding,” I said. “And probably also rethink your entire relationship.”
“I see…” Eva murmured, her brow furrowed in deep thought.
She bought every word I said.
“I’m a horrible person. I deserve to be fired and… and thrown into the Hudson River.”
Grace listened sympathetically as I spewed venom about myself. We were sitting at the small tavern two blocks from the hospital, where we sometimes grabbed drinks together after a long hard day. It was a dark, smoky location, mostly frequented by residents and young attendings from the hospital. The beers were cheap, which was great if you were a destitute resident, and the Buffalo wings were amazing.
Grace and I had been coming here since we were in training, and back then, we spent our fair share of time checking out the male residents. We could always pick out the surgery residents by the fact that they were still in their scrubs and sometimes had creases on their faces where the surgical masks had lain all day. Surgery residents were always men and they were always adorable. We would hold private contests between them, deciding who had the cutest butt, the nicest hair, etc.
We still looked at the cute surgeons, but didn’t discuss them anymore. We were older than they were now and it felt a little pathetic. It occurred to me sometimes that in all the years we’d been coming here, not one guy had ever bought either of us a drink. I knew that this tavern was also a place where male and female residents met and hooked up, but I’d yet to experience that. I was never the kind of girl who got hit on at a bar.
“You’re not a horrible person,” Grace assured me. “What you told her is absolutely true. Nobody should get married because they feel obligated.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t think I would have said that to the fiancée of another patient. I probably would have encouraged them to work it out.”
“You know what your problem is?” Grace said to me. I raised my eyebrows, waiting to hear what my problem was. “You get too involved with your patients. You have to be more detached. Like me.”
“But all your patients are intubated and unconscious.”
“Exactly how I like them,” Grace said, taking a swig of her beer. Grace always got a Corona with a lime in it. I knew her taste in alcohol and food almost as well as I knew my own. Sometimes I wish we were lesbians so Grace and I could hook up and live happily ever after together. Despite Grace’s weight problem, I think I could be attracted to her, if only she weren’t the wrong sex. Maybe someday a man would get to know Grace the way I did and fall in love with her. “By the way,” she added. “How was your mother-approved date on Friday?”
I mumbled something that was a cross between “fine” and “all right” and “awful.”
“That good, huh?” Grace said, grinning at me.
“Not many sparks,” I said. “But I don’t know. I’m kind of sick of looking for sparks.”
“Sparks are overrated.”
I shrugged. “Well, it doesn’t really matter because he hasn’t called me again.”
“It’s only been… what, three days? He’s still within the window.”
I shrugged again, trying to play it down. The truth was, I was kind of hurt that Charlie never called me, even though I hadn’t liked him that much. If a guy like that didn’t like me, I really had no hope.
“Actually,” Grace said, “you look kind of… dressed up today. Not your usual bland attire. Whose benefit is that for?”
I blushed. “What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know, you look nice.” Grace grinned. “Is that for Alex?”
Grace eyed me. “You know what? I think you’ve still got a thing for him.”
“Don’t joke about it.”
“There’s a thin line between love and hate, Rachel,” she reminded me for the second time.
I didn’t believe that. I had spent a long time hating Alex and that wasn’t going to change. If I was dressing up for his benefit, it was just to show him that the girl he made fun of in middle school was capable of looking good.