Despite my intention to exact a painful revenge upon Alex Connors, all I wanted to do when I arrived at work on Monday was to avoid him. I couldn’t understand how someone who was clearly such a horrible person deep down could seem so nice on the surface. Every time I talked to him, it was hard to hate him. There were times when I almost forgot who he was, and actually found myself starting to like him. But I needed to hate him if I was going to do this.
I succeeded in avoiding Alex for roughly five minutes after arriving in the hospital. I nearly tripped over him when I was walking past the gift shop. He was sitting in his wheelchair and his face lit up when he saw me. Even after all the bitchy things I’d said to Alex in the last two weeks, for some reason he still seemed to like me.
“Dr. Miller,” he said, grinning. “I’m glad to see you. Did you have a nice weekend?”
I avoided his gray eyes behind the wire rimmed frames. “Um, yeah.”
Alex gestured at the gift shop. “I’m buying flowers for Eva,” he explained. “I feel like I need to… you know… rekindle something.” He smiled awkwardly and pointed to some carnations. “What do you think of those?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Did she just have a baby boy?”
“Oh,” Alex said, blinking. “Oops. Yeah, shit, how come they only have flowers for people who just had babies? What’s up with that?”
“I agree,” I said. “Instead of flowers that say ‘It’s a Boy,’ they should have some flowers that say ‘It’s Pancreatitis’ or maybe ‘It’s a Small Bowel Obstruction.’”
Alex laughed. “Point taken, Doc. So what flowers do you think would be nice?”
“Why are you asking me?”
He shrugged. “You’re a woman, so… aren’t you supposed to know everything about flowers?”
“That’s pretty sexist.”
He grinned. “Sexist but true. Women know everything about flowers and clothing. And of course, if you ever want to buy a computer or a car or some sort of power tool, you’re welcome to come to me for advice.”
I looked Alex up and down. He looked like he’d never lifted a drill in his life aside from maybe in woodshop class. “I find it a little hard to believe you’re any sort of expert when it comes to power tools.”
“Ouch,” he said, mock offended. “I guess this means you’re not going to help me with the flowers, huh?” I shook my head. “Fine, I’ll ask the nice saleslady.”
He wheeled up to the counter and I noticed he had gotten a lot better at maneuvering the chair, which was a good thing because it seemed like he was going to be using it for a long time to come. Aside from his problems with Eva, it seemed like Alex was doing all right, more or less. “Excuse me,” he said to the cashier. “I’d like to buy some flowers.” He reached into his pants pocket with his right hand and pulled out two twenty dollar bills. He held them up to her. “I’ve got this much. I want to spend all of it.”
The cashier, a pretty girl of no more than twenty, smiled. “Well, how about some nice--”
“I don’t know anything about flowers,” he interrupted her. “Just… give me whatever you think looks pretty.”
She smiled again and went off to retrieve some flowers for him. I should have slipped away by now, but somehow I felt compelled to stay. Felt compelled to watch. “So,” I said to him. “How is that going? With Eva, I mean.”
He heaved a sigh. “Not great.”
He bit his lip. “I have this bad feeling…”
Alex was more perceptive than I gave him credit for. “I’m sure it’ll be okay,” I assured him.
“Yeah,” he murmured. The cashier gave him the flowers, which he placed on his lap. He smiled crookedly. “I know it’s dumb to think flowers are going to fix everything, but…”
“It’s not dumb,” I said. “I’m sure she’ll like them.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Hey, are you going to talk to Eva for me today?”
As Grace would have said, it was the perfect set up. Eva was going to come to my office and privately ask my advice on what she should do about her engagement. We’d be all alone and I could say whatever I wanted. Alex would never even know.
“She really respects you,” Alex said. “She thinks you’re really smart. Anything you tell her, she’ll listen.”
God, why did he have to make it so easy?
Chloe was in an irritatingly good mood this morning. As she flipped through the printed patients’ labs, she was actually humming. I was willing to concede that people like Chloe, people who were happy all the time, existed, but how could they exist in the shithole that was New York City? I mean, I loved it here and wouldn’t leave for anything. Yet everyone who lives here seems to be perpetually cranky. That’s actually one of the things I love about it. I feel like I’m in good company.
We were just starting with rounds when I saw Eva approaching us from the corner of my eye. I knew why she was here and I felt mildly ill.
“Dr. Miller!” she said, waving me down. She stopped in front of me and Chloe, panting somewhat breathlessly. “Alex said you wanted to talk with me.”
Before I could answer, Chloe flashed one of her thousand watt smiles. “Mrs. Connors!” she cooed. “How is your husband doing?”
A flush rose in Eva’s face. “He’s not my…” she began. She bit her lip and faced me. “Alex said you wanted to talk to me. And… I’d like to talk to you.” She glanced at Chloe. “In private.”
“Yes,” I said. I cleared my throat. “Why don’t you come to my office at around two o’clock?”
Eva nodded. She looked exhausted, like she hadn’t slept all weekend. Her dark hair was disheveled and a little greasy. I wondered if she liked the flowers Alex had bought her. He’d known that he wasn’t going to fix anything with flowers, which made the whole gesture all the more pathetic. Today I was going to help put him out of his misery. Really, I was doing him a favor.
By lunchtime, I started to panic that I couldn’t go through with this.
I had all these awful memories of Alex. For the last 22 years, every time I pictured him, I saw that mean smirk. He still had the same features now, but somehow he looked completely different. He seemed like a nice guy now. He hadn’t done one thing to indicate that he was a raging asshole. There was not even one hint of the person he had been back then.
But he was still the same person. He was the same guy who said all those awful things to me. He was the one who sent me home crying every day for a year.
Still, it would be easier if Alex could do something to prove he was still a jerk. Just one thing to indicate he deserved what I was about to do to him. Instead, he just seemed like a nice guy who was down on his luck.
I paged Grace to my office number. She called back almost instantly. “You’re having second thoughts,” she guessed before I even said hello.
“Grace, this is wrong,” I said. “I can’t do this to him. You know what he was doing this morning?”
“Pulling down your underwear in front of a large auditorium?” she guessed. “Dropping a bucket of pig’s blood on your head during prom night?”
“He was buying flowers for his fiancée,” I said. “He’s trying so hard to patch things up with her.”
“How can you be so cold?” I cried.
“Are you seriously trying to make me out to be the bad guy?” Grace snorted. “Isn’t he the one who made your life a living hell? I’m just trying to help you, Rachel.”
“Do you really think I should do this?” I said. “I mean, I don’t know if it’s going to change my life or make anything better.”
“I still think you should do it.”
“But why?” I challenged her. “You want me to do this so badly, Grace. Tell me why!”
There was a long pause on the other line. Finally, Grace spoke up. “Okay fine,” she said. “You’re right. I have an ulterior motive.”
“You do?” Despite my previous line of questioning, I was surprised.
“Rach, you’re not the only one who had an Alex Connors in your life,” Grace admitted. “I had several, actually. And all these years later, it still hurts.”
Grace’s voice broke a little on the words. Suddenly, I felt very self absorbed. It hadn’t even occurred to me that Grace had experienced the cruelty of children with as much or more intensity as I had. “Those assholes,” she murmured. “I’m sure I’ll never see any of them again. They probably never even give me a second thought anymore. They just… got away with it. I’ll never have the kind of opportunity you have right now. If you get back at this guy, then…I don’t know, it’ll be for all of us. All of us girls who had some douchebag call us fat or ugly or whatever.”
I heaved a sigh. “Shit, Grace, you should be a lawyer or something. You’re really convincing.”
“So you’re going to go through with it?”
I closed my eyes and tried not to think of the sad look on Alex’s face when he was buying the flowers this morning. I tried not to think of the order for Zoloft in his chart. “Yes,” I said. “I’m going to do it.”
“You’re not going to regret this.”
God, I hoped not.
Eva showed up at my office promptly at 2PM. She was on time practically to the second, which made me wonder if she’d been standing outside the office, pacing and waiting for it to be two o’clock. Which was not too dissimilar from what I’d been doing within the office.
I noticed as Eva settled into a chair that her eyes were bloodshot and mildly puffy with dark purple circles underneath. She was wearing a wrinkled hooded sweatshirt with a large stain on the sleeve. The sweatshirt was big enough on her that I wondered if it had once belonged to Alex, and he had lent it to her in a gallant gesture one evening when she was cold. “Thank you for seeing me,” Eva said in a low voice. “I know it’s not part of your job, but I really feel like you’re the only one who understands.”
I nodded, not really understanding what she was talking about.
She took a deep breath. “I’ve decided to leave Alex,” she said.
I was shocked. Beyond shocked. I’d expected her to say that she was thinking about leaving him. Or that the thought had crossed her mind. The decisiveness in her voice was unexpected. “Oh,” I said.
“I know what you’re going to say,” she murmured.
Eva, you have no idea. “You do?”
“You’re going to tell me that every couple goes through a hard time after something like this happens.” She raised her eyebrows. “Right?”
I coughed. “Well…”
“But it’s not like that, Dr. Miller,” Eva said. “I made the decision last night to call off the wedding and I realized it was the happiest I’d felt in years.”
“Alex and I were never right for each other,” she went on. “I knew it all along but I was so excited about the wedding planning that I didn’t let myself own up to it until this happened. The truth is, he was just carrying the relationship the whole time. And I let him do it because, well… it’s nice to feel so loved. And he did love me.”
I didn’t know what to say. I toyed with a loose thread on my sweater, hoping the whole shirt might unravel, just to create a distraction from this awkward conversation.
“I should never have agreed to marry him in the first place,” Eva said. “But we were in this really romantic restaurant and he got down on one knee, for Christ’s sake. He said in front of the whole restaurant, ‘Evie, I love you more than anything.’ I mean, how could I say no? We’d been together for over four years. And I’m older than he is… I’m 37 and I just kept thinking that this might be my last chance to have kids and…”
Tears escaped from Eva’s eyes and streamed down her cheeks. I was ready this time. I slid my box of tissues across my desk and she grabbed three of them.
“I’m just not sure if I was ever really in love with him,” she sniffled. “I mean, he’s good looking, I guess. But he’s just too…”
I waited on the edge of my seat for her to complete the sentence. This was my validation. She was going to tell me what a jerk Alex was, how he yelled at her, beat her, made her feel awful about herself. And I’d be able to tell her she was doing the right thing without any reservations.
“He’s too nice,” she finished. What the hell? Too nice? What kind of a complaint was that? “He’s too easygoing, too agreeable. There’s no passion. No intensity. How can you have a relationship without those things?”
I waited while Eva wiped her eyes. Luckily for her, she wasn’t wearing any mascara. I guessed Eva was kind of like me, the type of woman who went sans make-up most days.
“You must think I’m the worst person in the world,” she said, looking at me questioningly.
She had such trust in her eyes. Not just trust, but respect. Eva really respected my opinion as a physician and a confidante. This was my chance to either validate her decision or talk her into staying with her fiancé. If Alex had been any other patient, I probably would have told them to stick it out. This was a stressful time, things would get better. Once she left him, after all, there was no taking it back. But I remembered my conversation with Grace and took a deep breath. “Actually,” I said. “I think you’re doing the right thing.”
She was surprised. “You… you do?”
“It’s clear you don’t love him,” I pointed out. “You’re not doing either of you a favor by marrying him if you don’t love him.”
“I know,” Eva said. “But he’s… well, he’s in bad shape right now. Obviously. I mean, should I really do this to him while he’s still in recovery? It will destroy him.”
“So what are you going to do?” I retorted. “Pretend the wedding is still going to take place? You need to be honest with him.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Eva murmured.
Eva was looking down at her hands. She wasn’t crying anymore, but she seemed incredibly sad. “I may not be in love with Alex,” she said. “But I do care about him. I really don’t want to hurt him.”
“Do you have any other option?”
She didn’t look up. “I guess I don’t.”
“You’re doing the right thing,” I repeated, because I knew that was what she needed to hear. She was going to do this. She was going to dump Alex less than two months before their wedding, only two weeks after he had suffered a severe stroke, confining him to a wheelchair. As she had astutely noted, this was going to destroy him.
“It’s going to be so hard,” she sighed. “We’ve got a life together. I mean, we’ve got a house. Maybe I should wait…”
I shook my head. “He knows something is wrong. You’re better off telling him now.” Before you change your mind or chicken out.
“You’re right, Dr. Miller,” she said. She stood up, her shoulders back, a determined look on her face. “I’m going to tell him.”
She held out her hand for me to shake and I discreetly wiped mine on my slacks first to dry the sweat.