The next morning proved very busy for the stroke unit. We had a new admission with a bleed whose blood pressure was shooting through the roof and got me nervous enough to contact Grace in the ICU. Chloe arranged to transfer the patient as I fielded questions from the anxious family members. I ended up escorting the patient’s stretcher to the ICU, just to make sure everything was taken care of to my satisfaction. Grace eventually had to shoo me away, promising she’d take good care of my patient.
“You are amazing, Dr. Miller,” Chloe said to me when I returned. “That family was freaking out and you completely reassured them.”
I shrugged off her praise, although it did make me feel a tiny bit warm and fuzzy inside.
“I want to be just like you someday,” Chloe said. Maybe gunning for a good grade in the rotation? “All the patients love you. Except…”
Thankfully, Chloe didn’t finish her “except.” We both knew exactly what exception she was talking about. Chloe never did understand why I treated Alex the way I did.
When I arrived on the rehab unit later that morning, I got a surprise: Alex was walking. Well, that’s what it looked like initially but then I realized he was just standing and not walking. The physical therapist Angie had him standing between the parallel bars. He was holding the bars with shaking hands while Angie supported him. He was wearing shorts and I could see the hip-knee-ankle-foot orthosis that ran up the length of his legs to his hips. But even with the brace and Angie supporting him, he looked very unsteady. Eva was standing next to him, looking delighted.
As I came closer, I was surprised by Alex’s height. Eleven year old Alex had only a couple of inches on me, but it turned out adult Alex was just under six feet tall, a full half a foot taller than I was. As I came closer, I could see the jagged cut on his jaw from when he sliced himself shaving, as well as the new stubble on his chin. He was wincing with the effort of keeping himself upright, and his biceps were bulging. For a second, I felt compelled to reach out and caress his slim chest, but I quickly pushed that odd thought out of my head.
“I see you’re standing,” I commented rather lamely.
“He’s doing wonderfully!” Eva exclaimed. She was smiling for the first time in at least a week. “Isn’t he, Angie? Isn’t he doing really great?”
Angie just shook her head, obviously having been coerced into the ambulation trial. “He hasn’t been able to take any steps,” she said. That was no surprise, considering he had zero movement in his legs. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what the point of this ridiculous experiment was. With no movement in his legs whatsoever, it was a waste to even try to get him on his feet. The time would be better spent teaching him how to manage with his wheelchair.
I looked back at Alex, who didn’t seem to be doing that wonderfully at all. He looked very pale and there was a line of sweat across his brow. “Are you okay?” I asked him.
“No, I’m not,” he admitted. He looked at his therapist. “Angie, I think I’m done. Can you get me my chair?”
Angie looked at Alex’s face and made the same assessment I did. She quickly grabbed his wheelchair and slid it behind him just in time for him to collapse into the seat. He looked ill, which wasn’t that surprising if it was his first time standing. His blood pressure probably wasn’t able to tolerate it after all the time sitting and lying down.
“What happened?” Eva cried. “You were only standing for five minutes! You give up already? He should keep going, right, Angie?”
“Look, I feel like shit, okay?” Alex snapped. He rubbed his face with his hand. I was a little worried and signaled for Angie to get the blood pressure cuff so we could see how he was doing. I noticed as Angie was taking his blood pressure, she flashed him a sympathetic look and rubbed his shoulder reassuringly.
“You’ve only got an hour and a half of physical therapy each day,” Eva said. “Angie was doing an amazing job with you, and you’re just… wasting it.”
“I’m sorry,” Alex mumbled.
“You’re never going to be able to walk for the wedding at this rate,” she said.
“Well, so what?” he said irritably. “Who cares if I can’t walk at our wedding?”
Eva looked horrified by this response. She continued to look horrified, even after we checked Alex’s blood pressure and found it to be in the acceptable range, although his pulse was slightly rapid.
“Don’t you want to walk down the aisle with me as a married couple?” Eva said. “Don’t you want to have our first dance together as a married couple?”
Alex shrugged. “I just want to get married.”
“Well, it’s important to me,” she sniffed. “So when I see you not even trying…”
“I was trying…”
“For five goddamn minutes!”
Alex’s face was no longer pale—it was bright red. “That was the best I could do, Eva.”
“So you don’t care,” Eva huffed. “You’re okay with never being able to walk.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I want,” Alex shot back, his voice laced with sarcasm. “I’m 33 years old and I would like to spend the rest of my life in wheelchair. That’s my goal.”
They glared at each other. I didn’t see how on earth they were going to end up getting married in a month and a half.
“Tell him, Dr. Miller,” Eva said to me. I blinked and stepped back, wondering how I got dragged into this. Angie had somehow managed to slip away to do paperwork. Smart girl. She must have sniffed out the argument brewing a mile away. “Tell him how important it is to a woman to have everything perfect at her wedding.”
Oh god. Alex was looking up at me, his eyebrows raised, waiting for my answer.
“It’s, um…” I stammered. “Weddings are, um, important to women.”
“Exactly!” Eva said triumphantly.
Alex sighed. “I don’t know what you want from me, Eva. I’m doing my best. What do you want me to do for you?”
“I want you to try harder,” she said. “I want you to work at this harder than anything else you’ve ever done in your life. I want you to get up and walk again. Right now!”
I watched Alex’s face. He looked defeated. “Okay,” he said quietly.
Eva smiled and leaned in to hug him. “I’m going to go get Angie again!” she said gleefully. “I bet you’ll be walking by the end of the week!”
Eva scurried off, leaving me standing next to Alex. I watched Eva talking excitedly to Angie, using large hand gestures. Alex flashed me a pained expression. “How long does the denial phase typically last?” he muttered.
“It depends,” I said.
“It’s not that I don’t care,” he said. “I really do want to walk again. I mean, of course I do. But I can’t even move my legs, so what am I supposed to do? Anyway, I can still do everything important from a wheelchair. I can eat, I can work on my computer, I can hold a conversation, I can…” He lowered his voice a notch. “Fool around.”
I blushed and looked away, not wanting to hear any more details about that last item. Eva had already told me more than I had wanted to know.
He shook his head. “After she realizes I’m not going to be able to dance with her at our wedding, then what?”
Then she dumps you. I wasn’t sure if Alex realized that denial was the only thing that was preventing Eva from walking out on him.
“Dr. Miller,” Alex said. He was looking at me with his eyebrows scrunched together. I remembered that expression. It was something he used to do in sixth grade, which I had found incredibly cute before I started hating him. “I was just wondering… do you think you could talk to her?”
“Talk to her?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I mean, just to explain to Eva that… well, you know… that I’m trying my best. And that I still might not be healed in time for the wedding.”
“Um, sure,” I said. Every time Alex put his trust in me, I felt a little twinge of guilt. He had no reason to believe that his doctor would betray him.
He smiled at me, but there was something sad there. At that moment, I didn’t hate him. I felt kind of sorry for him. And maybe something more than sorry for him. He was, after all, still awfully cute. Not that I was really thinking about him that way. I had my exciting date with Charlie tonight, after all.
Angie returned to give walking another try, and I drifted away to write my note. I heaved Alex’s chart out of the rack, remember how thin it was back when he first came on to our service. As I flipped through the pages, I noticed a recent physician’s order: it was for Zoloft, the same antidepressant that I was taking.
I looked back up at Alex, struggling to get back on his feet. I wondered if Eva knew about the Zoloft, or if she cared.
I must have been more nervous about this date with Charlie than I had thought I was, because I spent the better part of an hour in front of my closet, trying to figure out what outfits would give me the best chance of having a good date. My college freshman roommate Connie was a big believer in the luck of the wardrobe. I remember her shuffling through her closet when she was first unpacking her bags. “These are my lucky shoes,” she announced, holding up a cute little pair of strappy black pumps. It turned out she also had lucky panties and a lucky bra. “They really work,” she swore to me.
“Really,” I said, not pointing out that perhaps the fact that she was extremely pretty was the source of her incredible luck with men and not a pair of panties with cherries on it, which I found extremely ironic considering how often those undergarments came off in the course of any of Connie’s given dates.
Of course, I wasn’t hoping to get lucky with Charlie or anything like that, but I was hoping to score a date to my sister’s wedding next weekend. This was absolutely my last chance not to go solo. If he didn’t agree to go with me, the entire reception was going to consist of everyone in the room casting me sympathetic looks. Poor Rachel, alone again. And there would undoubtedly be at least one attempted set-up between me and an unmarried male guest, who would be over the age of eighteen and under the age of eighty. I wasn’t sure I could handle that.
Unfortunately, as I looked into my closet, I really felt hopeless. Forget lucky, I didn’t even have any sexy clothing. The reason for this is simple: whenever I buy something blatantly sexy, I always feel too embarrassed to actually wear it. When I moved to this apartment and I was clearing out my closet, I decided to just throw out the drawer full of sexy clothing that I would never wear, which contained such items as backless slinky dresses and skintight jeans. Usually I opted for the bulky sweaters and slacks, but every year or so, I would buy something that was actually sexy, in some crazy notion that it might change my life.
I couldn’t help but think that my wardrobe used to be a lot more exciting before my path crossed with Alex’s 22 years ago. It was the eighties, so I forced my parents to buy me oversized shirts and neon-colored stretch pants. But after Alex came into my life, I was a lot more reluctant to take a chance on a creative outfit, knowing he was guaranteed to make fun of me. “Nice green pants,” he’d comment. “Did someone vomit on them?” Sometimes he didn’t even comment, but just snickered and pointed at me. By the end of that year, I was mentally sorting my clothing into the items that would get me made fun of and the ones that wouldn’t. I could never break the habit.
These days, I didn’t have anything in my closet that would attract snickers from an eleven year old boy, but nothing that would cause Charlie’s heart to speed up in his chest either. I finally settled on a blue blouse and a knee-length black silk skirt. I sorted through my shoes and dug out my one “sexy” purchase in the last two years: a pair of knee-high black leather boots. I’d seen women wearing them in the streets last winter and bought them on impulse. I remember admiring them on myself in the deceptively skinny mirror in the shoe store, and that lying bitch saleslady said to me, “They look great on you.”
Even as I was whipping out my credit card to pay for the shoes, I had a bad feeling I was never going to wear them. As I tried them on now, I was reminded of how they ended up at the bottom of my pile of shoes—my legs had neither the length nor the shape to pull off that kind of look. Instead, I opted for my usual black pumps. Easy Spirit, of course, because who needs bunions? Charlie baby, get ready for the night of your life.
I guess I did good, because Charlie smiled when he saw me come down to the lobby. “Wow, Rachel,” he said. “You look incredible.”
“Thank you,” I said, cringing only slightly when he leaned in to kiss me on the cheek.
I intended to return the compliment, but when I looked Charlie over, the words stuck in my throat. His scarce hair was disheveled, like he hadn’t brushed it that day (although admittedly, it was windy outside). He was wearing tan slacks that appeared to have a stain near the crotch. But what really threw me for a loop was realizing that his red polo shirt was inside-out. At first I wasn’t sure and thought maybe it was some odd style where the seams were on the outside, but then I noticed the tag, which confirmed my suspicions. How does an adult who presumably has years of self-dressing experience manage to put his shirt on inside out without noticing? Clearly the guy didn’t even look in the mirror before coming out to pick me up.
Charlie was secretive about where we were going, so I followed him into the taxi as he gave the driver directions to the upper west side. I sat back in the taxi and I debated whether I should clue Charlie in to the fact that his shirt was inside out. In general, I think it’s rude not to tell someone when you notice something like that—for example, if they’ve got spinach stuck in the teeth. I’m always furious to learn that I’ve been walking around all day with a bloodstain or something on my white coat that nobody bothered to tell me about. Yet it’s equally embarrassing to point something like that out to another person. During the entire cab ride, I couldn’t stop thinking about his shirt and debating what I should do. He already was pretty quiet—I was worried if I told him about the shirt, it might render him too embarrassed to even speak to me.
The restaurant turned out to be a vegetarian Indian place where there was no menu—you were served a five course meal that varied day to day. Although I wasn’t disappointed, I felt like the choice was a little presumptuous. Charlie hadn’t asked me if I liked Indian food and I didn’t even have a choice of menu items. As we walked in, he grinned at me and said, “I hope you like spicy food!”
As I sat down across from Charlie, feeling disappointed that he hadn’t pulled out my seat for me, I wondered if maybe I wasn’t being too picky. About men, not restaurants. It occurred to me that before Charlie, my last date was six months earlier. Six months. And I felt as little chemistry back then as I did now. Charlie and I didn’t really mesh nor have anything in common, aside from both being in our thirties and single. He liked classical music, I liked oldies. He liked documentaries, I thought they were incredibly boring. I was waiting for Charlie to say one thing that would cause me to excitedly remark “me too,” but that moment never came. The best I could say was that his tremor was greatly improved from last week, which meant he was either more relaxed or he had swallowed a beta-blocker prior to our dinner.
“So you’ll appreciate this story,” Charlie told me, as a spicy dish that contained lentils arrived at our table.
I raised my eyebrows, mildly intrigued.
“I went to a hairdresser for the first time ever this week,” he said.
I stared at him. Was he joking? Charlie had almost no hair. “Oh.”
“Well, I could have done without the Indigo Girls music and the hairdresser talking to me,” he said. “But I think she did a good job.”
Isn’t there some kind of unspoken rule that a balding man shouldn’t do anything to draw attention to his hair? Especially on a date. I now found myself unable to keep from staring at Charlie’s bald pate, which had about ten hairs total sprouting from it. “Yeah,” I said simply.
“When you’re dating, you have to make an effort,” he said. He winked. “So this was for you.”
Finally, I had enough. I swallowed the bite of naan bread that was in my mouth and said, “Charlie, there’s something I have to tell you.”
He frowned. “What is it?”
“Your shirt’s on inside out.”
For a moment, Charlie looked so confused, it was almost cute. Almost. Then he looked down carefully, as if he thought I might have been tricking him. I watched as a flush rose in his cheeks. Well, at least he was embarrassed.
I hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask Charlie about the wedding by the end of dinner. We took a taxi back to my apartment and he got out to walk me to the door like last time. When I felt his hand on the small of my back, I had to resist the urge to jump away from him. “Rachel,” he said to me as we stood in front of my building. He was gazing into my eyes. I read recently in some online article about dating that when a man looks into your eyes, it’s a sign that he really likes you. “I had a great time again tonight.”
“Me too,” I lied.
He leaned in for his kiss. This time he slipped me a little bit of curry-flavored tongue. I tolerated it for about five seconds before gently pulling away. “Charlie,” I began, “I was wondering…”
He smiled and I had a bad feeling he thought I was about to ask him upstairs. I quickly added, “I was wondering if you would come with me to my sister’s wedding next Sunday. In Long Island.”
Charlie looked surprised. And disappointed. “Oh,” he said. “Uh… Sunday?”
“At three o’clock,” I said.
“Oh,” he said again. I watched his face, sure he was going to say no. “Um, all right. I guess I can go.”
I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. “Thank you!” I cried, throwing my arms around him.
Charlie grinned. “Glad to be of assistance,” he said. He leaned in and kissed me again. “Hey Rachel, do you feel like a little coffee upstairs?”
My face burned. Quid pro quo, he probably was thinking. But I don’t play that game anymore. “I don’t have any coffee in the house,” I said in a firm voice.
Amazingly, clueless Charlie who came to pick me up with his shirt on inside out figured it out. His face fell, but he nodded. “All right,” he said. “I’ll see you on Sunday. I’ll call you and you can give me directions.”
I felt guilty. It wasn’t like Charlie was propositioning me for sex. I could have let him come upstairs and made out a little on the couch. After all, he was dragging himself all the way to Long Island for me. Maybe that’s the sign of a “keeper”: a guy who is willing to go with you to your sister’s wedding in Long Island, even though you won’t let him into your apartment.
That night, I had a crazy dream. In the dream, I was making rounds at the hospital as usual. The patients were coming to me with their usual issues: arm pain, incontinence, hating the hospital food. Finally, I got to Alex’s room. He was lying in bed, just waiting for me. I took out my stethoscope to listen to his chest, and he pulled off his shirt so that could have better access.
As I placed the diaphragm of the stethoscope against his warm skin, he said to me, “I took my shirt off, Dr. Miller? Aren’t you going to take off yours?”
I laughed, like it was a joke, but then he was suddenly unbuttoning my shirt. And then he was pulling me to him, closer and closer, until his lips were on mine. And even though I knew I hated this man with every fiber of my being, I kissed him back. I let him run his hands against my bare skin, cupping my breasts, licking my neck. I had never felt so turned on in my entire life.
I woke up covered in sweat.
I sat in the darkness of my bedroom, feeling very confused. The dream had felt so real that it took me a moment to convince myself that I really was in my own bed and not making out with Alex Connors. When I had reoriented myself, I lay back down in bed and mentally replayed the details of the dream over and over, not quite wanting to let go of the feeling I had when Alex was kissing me.