I spent the rest of the day feeling terrified of repercussions from the karma police. What I had done was pretty awful. I felt so ashamed, I didn’t even think I could tell Felicia about it. You know you’ve done something bad when you’re too embarrassed to tell your shrink. True, Eva had already made the decision to leave Alex. But I had encouraged her, and furthermore, I had encouraged her to do it.
Alex was already on antidepressants. What if this pushed him over the edge? What if he did something to hurt himself? I’d be at least partially responsible.
With that thought in mind, I paged Dr. Joe Cantrell, the attending on the rehab unit. I was embarrassed about what I was about to do, but it had to be done.
“Yeah?” Cantrell barked into the phone when I picked it up. He always answered pages in this particularly unpleasant manner.
“Hi, Dr. Cantrell,” I stammered. “This is Rachel Miller, with neurology.”
“Uh huh,” he said impatiently.
“I’m calling about one of your patients,” I said. “Alexander Connors?”
“Um,” I said. I took a deep breath. “It’s my opinion that he should, um, be placed under suicide watch tonight.”
“Suicide watch?” Cantrell snorted. “What the hell are you talking about, Miller?”
“I think he might be a risk.”
“I really think he’s not.”
“Did he say he had thoughts of hurting himself?” Cantrell pressed me.
I considered lying, but I didn’t want to make matters worse. “No, he hasn’t.”
“Well then,” Cantrell concluded. “He’s fine. Anyway, his girlfriend sleeps in his room most nights anyway.”
“But she told me she’s leaving him,” I blurted out. I added, “Tonight.”
There was a long pause on the other line. I never got the sense that Joe Cantrell cared much for his patients, but I’m sure he also didn’t want a death on his service. Especially when he’d been warned it was a possibility.
“I guess I could put a sitter on him for tonight,” he agreed, still sounding reluctant. “To make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. I didn’t think I could live with myself if I came to work tomorrow to find out Alex had slit his wrists during the night. That wasn’t the kind of revenge I wanted.
I was so terrified of seeing Alex again that day, I snuck out through one of the hospital’s deserted side stairwells, an area that some of the other girls in my residency used to say they wouldn’t enter without a rape whistle. Granted, the stairwells were kind of empty and mildly spooky. But the truth is, I don’t think I send out vibes that make men want to rape me. They might try to steal my purse, but I feel fairly confident I’ll never be raped.
With startling predictability, my mother called just as I walked in the door to my apartment. I tossed my purse on the kitchen counter and answered the phone. Now that I had Charlie under my belt for the wedding, I felt safe.
“Congratulations, honey,” Mom said. “I heard Charlie is coming on Sunday.”
I felt a flash of annoyance that my mother was congratulating me on getting a date, but I pushed it aside. “Yep,” I said. I wasn’t about to tell her about how I spotted Charlie with another woman on Saturday night. Just thinking about that was still painful.
“Shauna didn’t want to leave a seat for you to bring a guest,” Mom mused. “But I told her that you’d find someone…”
I was very glad that I hadn’t been present for that particular conversation.
“So it sounds like you and Charlie are hitting it off,” she said.
I mumbled something, punctuated by a cough.
“Is that a yes, Rachel?”
“I don’t know,” I finally said. “I’m not sure if he’s my type.”
“Your type?” my mother retorted incredulously. “Tell me, Rachel, what exactly is your type?”
I didn’t know what to say. For some reason, an image of Alex, staring at me with his gray eyes through his wire-rimmed glasses, popped into my head. Alex, my first crush. I hated to admit that I still liked the way he looked, even so many years later. If I had a type, I guess he was probably it. Of course, a lot of good that did me.
“Not Charlie,” I finally replied.
“Why are you so picky?” Mom sighed. “Don’t you want to get married?”
“Mom, I am really not in the mood for this,” I said. “Look, I got a date to the wedding. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“I want you to promise me you’ll give Charlie a chance.”
I sighed. I was tempted to tell her about Charlie’s Saturday night date and how he wasn’t all that interested in me, but I didn’t feel like fighting anymore. “Fine.”
After we hung up, I went to the fridge to raid my stash of Lean Cuisine, but decided that everything looked revolting. Shrimp scampi sounded so good, but I’d eaten enough boxes of it to know that the shrimp were hard and fishy, and the butter tasted artificial. I made the snap decision to go get pizza downstairs. I deserved it.
I looked at my watch and noticed it was nearly seven o’clock. I wondered if Eva had broken the news to Alex yet. I wondered what she’d say to him, how she’d tell him. How do you break up with someone you’ve been with for five years?
I closed my eyes and pictured her sitting down next to him and putting her hand on his knee. Alex, I just feel like this isn’t working anymore.
His face would crumple in surprise. What? What do you mean?
I love you, but I’m not in love with you. Isn’t that what they always said in movies? “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.”
Eva, don’t do this to me, he’d plead. I love you. Don’t leave me.
Well, she’d say. Okay, I guess I’ll stay.
I opened my eyes and frowned. God, even in my fantasies, I couldn’t win with Alex. Why did it seem inevitable that no matter what, he was going to get the better of me?
The next morning, I showed up on the late side for rounds with Chloe. My intention had been to take my time during the stroke unit rounds, take a nice leisurely lunch, then possibly around five o’clock, make my way down to the rehab unit to see Alex and my other patient down there. I hadn’t heard anything about a patient throwing himself out the window, so I guessed Alex had survived Eva’s break up speech.
I could only hope he didn’t guess what my hand in it had been. I didn’t specifically tell Eva not to mention me, but I hoped she wouldn’t. And even if she did, I could downplay it. Alex seemed to trust me.
Then again, part of me wanted him to know. I wanted him to know that little Rachel Miller, the overweight, ugly, flat-chested girl who sat in front of him in sixth grade math, got the better of him. I wanted to see his face when he found out. I wanted him to be sorry for what he had done.
Regardless, I almost had a heart attack when Alex wheeled up to me while I was standing at the nursing station on the stroke unit, getting nursing report with Chloe. His voice, which was usually very nice and friendly, was almost a monotone. It’s what psychiatrists call a flat affect. “Dr. Miller,” he said.
Chloe, completely oblivious as usual, flashed Alex a huge smile. “Hi, Mr. Connors!” she said. “It’s so great to see you again. You look wonderful!”
He regarded her for a second, then turned his attention back to me. “I’d like to talk to you,” he said.
“I, um, I’m kind of busy right now,” I stammered, shuffling through some papers to emphasize my point. “Maybe in the afternoon…”
“I’d really like to talk to you,” he repeated, his voice firmer this time. It wasn’t a request.
Oh god, he knew. Shit.
“I can wait,” Chloe offered, trying to be helpful. “The conference room down the hall is empty.” I shot her a look, but it was too late.
“Great,” Alex said, still staring at me, his face impassive. I checked his eyes for signs that they were bloodshot or swollen from crying, but saw none. He seemed completely composed, which was what frightened me the most. I was scared of getting yelled at or losing my job, but I was actually a little physically frightened as well. Alex’s legs might have been out of commission, but his right arm worked fine. He could still slug me.
We went down to the conference room at the end of the hall and I hesitated before closing the door. Yes, I was a little bit frightened of being alone with Alex. But I was more frightened of our conversation being overheard. I had done something wrong. Not the kind of blatant offense that would cost me my medical license, but the kind of offense that would cost me the respect of my colleagues and possibly my job.
I sat down across the conference table from Alex. He wheeled up to the table, and placed his hands where I could see them, his fingers balled into threatening-looking fists. He already had calluses developing on his hands from the wheels of his chair. He was still staring at me, very quietly. I could now see the anger in his gray eyes. It was definitely there. He was trying to hide it, but he was furious. I hoped he was furious at Eva, but I suspected he was furious at me.
“Eva left me,” he said.
I feigned surprise. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Why are you acting surprised?” he said. “You knew, didn’t you?” And thus ended the short-lived career of Rachel the Actress.
“Um,” I said.
He was still staring at me. “You’re the one responsible for that thug standing outside my door all night so I didn’t off myself, right?”
“Um,” I repeated. Very eloquent, Rachel.
“Unfortunately,” Alex said, “the guy showed up before Eva got around to breaking the news. He sort of helped things along though.”
I swallowed. “That’s… unfortunate.”
“Eva was nice enough to tell me how helpful you’d been,” he said, the sarcasm seeping into his voice. He was definitely angry at me. There was no mistaking it. “She said you quickly reassured her she was doing the right thing. How nice.”
I was afraid to say anything. Alex looked like he wanted to kill me.
“Let me ask you a question, Dr. Miller,” he said. I wanted to look away but his gray eyes held my gaze like a magnet. “Why do you hate me?”
“Ever since I got here, you’ve been a complete bitch to me,” he said. The way he said the word “bitch” brought back memories and suddenly he sounded exactly like the old Alex, the one who had made my life miserable. Finally, I felt validated. He was the same person he’d always been and I felt confident that I had done the right thing. He deserved this. “I thought maybe that was your personality. Maybe you’re just a coldhearted bitch and that’s how you are. Except all the other patients… they rave about how nice you are, how friendly and optimistic you always are. So obviously, it’s just me. You hate me.” He raised his eyebrows. “Right?”
I felt my cheeks burning.
“You’re not arguing with me,” he observed. “So obviously, I’m right. You hate me. Now tell me why.”
I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t get the words out. I broke eye contact with him and looked down at my hands.
“I mean, I may not be a saint,” he went on. “I’m not some kind of… I don’t know, peace corps missionary or whatever. But I don’t get why you’d hate me.”
“Because you’re an asshole,” I heard myself saying.
His jaw dropped open. “What the hell are you talking about?” he said. “I’m an asshole? What did I do? I’ve been… I mean, I’ve always been a nice guy. Even when you were acting like a bitch for the last two weeks, I was always nice.”
“I’m not talking about the last two weeks,” I said quietly.
There was no turning back now. I had to tell him.
Alex was staring at me now, utterly baffled. He still had no idea who I was. Even with the same name, the same face, he really didn’t know. “What are you talking about?” he said.
“You know me,” I said.
“No, I don’t.” He shook his head. “I swear, I’ve never met you before last week.”
I pulled my brown hair out of the bun I had been wearing it in today and it fell loose around my face, like the way I used to wear it when I was eleven. “Rachel Miller?” I reminded him. “Taft Middle School? Sixth grade math class?”
For a moment, his face was still blank and I was seriously worried he really wasn’t going to remember me. I couldn’t believe it. I knew it was an awful long time ago and clearly the memory meant very little to him, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that he might not remember me at all. But then to my relief, I saw the recognition dawning in his eyes. But instead of looking angry or ashamed, his face lit up. “Rachel?” he breathed. “Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s you. It didn’t even occur to me that you were… I mean, you look so different!”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. What the hell was going on? Did he have absolutely no memory of what he did to me?
“That’s amazing!” He was gushing now. “I haven’t thought about Taft Middle School in years. Rachel Miller, wow.” He looked me up and down. “I never would have pegged you for a Long Island girl.”
“No way,” he said. “You’re just not the Long Island type… you’re too, you know, tough. Plus you don’t have any accent.”
“Neither do you,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but I worked on getting rid of it.” He grinned at me for a moment, lost in all the good memories from years ago. Then the smile slowly faded from his face and was replaced with confusion. “But… I don’t get it, Rachel. Why do you think I’m an asshole?”
“You really don’t remember?” I said through my teeth.
He shook his head, still looking baffled.
“You don’t remember how you made my life a living hell?” I reminded him. “How you… you teased me every day, you called me names, and… you threw spitballs at me…”
“I threw spitballs at you?” Alex’s eyes widened.
“Practically daily,” I snapped. He had caught me off guard with his selective memory, but I was back to feeling self-righteous. The fact that he wasn’t denying that he did any of these things made me all the angrier. “What you did to me was… it was horrible. It was unforgivable. I was traumatized for years over the things you said to me.”
He blinked. “You were?”
“Yes, I was.”
“I really didn’t think I said anything that bad to you.”
“Well, you did.”
“What exactly did I say?”
I was furious at the thought of trying to reproduce the things he said to me. “You know what you said.”
He stared at me, his brow furrowed. “Wait a minute,” he said.
I folded my arms across my chest. “What?”
“Let me get this straight,” he said slowly, carefully, deliberately. Like a lawyer building his closing arguments. “I made fun of you a little bit when we were eleven years old, and because of that, twenty years later, you decide to completely destroy my engagement when my legs are paralyzed and I’m under your care?” He paused. “Did I get that right?”
His tone of voice was no longer friendly and happy to see old Rachel Miller. I swallowed. My anger had faded a bit and was replaced by anxiety. “I didn’t destroy your engagement,” I pointed out. “You and Eva were already… I mean, you know she was…”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he hissed. “Are you out of your fucking mind? What kind of person destroys someone’s life for something they did when they were a child? You’re a fucking doctor!”
Alex punctuated this statement by slamming his fist against the table. The sound was so loud that I jumped in my seat. He was furious. And the truth was, he kind of had a good point. What I had done was really unprofessional. Maybe I had reasons for doing it and I didn’t believe they were as crazy as he thought they were, but anyone who heard the story would surely see things his way.
“I’m reporting you for this,” he said. “I hope you lose your fucking job. You deserve to. You’re a fucking psychopath.”
“No, please don’t,” I begged. I grabbed Alex’s arm. “Please don’t do this.”
He shrugged me off roughly. “You made your own bed.”
“I could talk to Eva again,” I offered. “I could tell her she’s making a mistake.”
“Talk to Eva,” he mused. “That sounds wonderful, since you were so helpful the first time around. What are you going to do this time? Tell her to suffocate me in my sleep?”
My shoulders sagged, defeated. Alex wheeled himself away from the table, his eyes still filled with anger. Right about now, I was having a lot of trouble justifying what I did, even to myself.
“Look,” I said to him. “Go ahead and report me if you want. But the truth is, Eva came into my office to tell me she was leaving you. I didn’t tell her not to, but she had already made up her mind.”
Alex’s eyes narrowed. “You’re lying.”
“It’s the truth,” I swore. “I mean, I’m giving you a pretty full disclosure here, right?”
He hesitated, considering what I was saying. I don’t know what Eva had told him when they broke up, but I think he must have realized that it couldn’t possibly be entirely my fault. But maybe he didn’t want to admit it to himself. It was easier to blame the whole thing on me. “I don’t believe you,” he finally said. He started to wheel himself out the door, but in his haste, his footplate crashed into the doorframe. He quickly righted himself, and made it out on his second try. He gave me one last look. “I don’t ever want to see you again, Rachel.”
And just like that, my career was over.