When I arrived on the rehab unit the next morning, I was relieved to see that Alex was back in his usual good spirits. He was in his wheelchair this time and it looked like he and Angie were working on improving his mobility. He looked light years better than he did during his failed attempt at walking when Eva was still in the picture. For starters, he was smiling rather than looking pale and faint.
“Dr. Miller!” He raised his hand to wave at me.
“Alex, focus!” Angie scolded him.
I came over to him and pulled up a spare seat so I could talk to him face to face. “So what are you working on?” I asked.
“Wheelies,” Alex said. He spun the wheels of his chair to demonstrate how he could lift his front wheels off the ground. He looked very pleased with himself.
“He’s really doing great,” Angie told me
Alex beamed. “See?”
“Nice job, Mr. Connors,” I said, stumbling a bit on his name. It felt weird calling him that now.
“I told you,” he said in a teasing voice, “you can call me Alex, Dr. Miller.”
I blushed and glanced over at Angie, who had blessedly stepped aside to give us a few minutes to talk.
“Listen,” he said. “I was wondering if you’d be willing to come by my room a little later. My parents are visiting and they want to thank you and give you some more food.”
He flashed that sweet boyish grin that had pulled me under his spell 22 years ago. “Please? It would mean a lot to them.”
It was hard to say no to a request like that. After all, I didn’t have much to do today. “Okay, I’ll come.”
“Great,” he said. He glanced at Angie anxiously and leaned in close to whisper to me, “If you wouldn’t mind, please don’t mention any of the things I said to you yesterday. I’ve been trying to convince them I’m okay about the whole Eva thing and I don’t want them to think that I’m… you know…”
I thought that considering everything he’d been through in the last few weeks, Alex had done an amazing job keeping a stiff upper lip. It was kind of sad that he didn’t have anyone around that he felt comfortable telling his real feelings to.
After rounding on the stroke unit and grabbing a quick lunch in the cafeteria, I made my way back down to rehab to see Alex. As I walked into the rehab unit, I noticed something incredible: I didn’t hate Alex anymore. In fact, I was sort of looking forward to seeing him. Like Eva said, he was… nice.
Alex’s parents were in the room when I arrived. His father, to whom he bore a striking resemblance, was lounging in a chair, reading a newspaper. His mother was perched at the side of his bed, ready to pounce the second I walked into the room. Alex himself was sitting in his wheelchair as usual.
“Rachel Miller!” Mrs. Connors exclaimed as I walked into the room. “Well, isn’t that a coincidence! Alex told us all about it.”
I felt my cheeks burn as Alex shrugged helplessly. I would have preferred it if he kept this little revelation to himself.
Mrs. Connors rushed over to me and pushed a Tupperware container into my hands. I no longer had Chloe to pawn it off on, so I was forced to accept the box. I’ve gotten a lot of small presents from patients over the years, and while I’m always flattered, I’ve never once gotten a present that I haven’t wanted to immediately toss in the garbage. “It’s fruitcake!” she declared.
Fruitcake. I didn’t think that sort of cake actually existed outside of mythical holiday dinners. Although I’d never had one before, I wasn’t particularly eager to try it. I imagined a bunch of ground up strawberries, apples, pears, and other fruit molded into the shape of a cake. “Thank you,” I said, trying to sound sincere.
“No, thank you,” Mrs. Connors gushed. “You’ve done so much for Alex since he’s been here. He keeps raving about you.”
“Oh?” I suppressed a smile.
“I don’t really,” Alex said. Now his cheeks were red too.
“I have to tell you, Rachel,” Mrs. Connors said, dropping all pretence of calling me “doctor” now that she knew I went to middle school with her son. I felt a little like I was eleven years old again. “When Alex told me it was you, I knew who he was talking about immediately. I heard him talking about you all the time when you were kids. You must have been really good friends.”
Alex’s face was really red now. He had the kind of fair complexion that couldn’t hide a blush for anything and he knew it. He couldn’t even look at me. “Yes, kind of,” I replied on his behalf.
“Actually,” Mrs. Connors went on, giggling to herself, “I think you might have been his first crush, Rachel.”
Mr. Connors, who had been obliviously reading his newspaper until now, spoke up too: “Yeah, I remember you saying that, Bette. That Alex had a crush on some girl named Rachel.”
“It was very cute,” Mrs. Connors tittered.
“All right, that’s enough, Mom,” Alex interrupted. He cleared his throat. “You’ve thanked Rachel like you wanted… now didn’t you say you wanted to head out before the rush hour traffic?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” she teased.
“God forbid,” Alex said, rolling his eyes.
The Connors were surprisingly good natured about his request. They kissed him goodbye and Mrs. Connors winked at me as she headed out of the room. It wasn’t lost on me that they hadn’t mentioned Eva once the entire time I was in the room.
“They’ve decided to pretend Eva doesn’t exist,” Alex said, as if reading my mind. “They think if they mention her name, I’ll fall apart.”
He looked at me a long time before shaking his head. “No, I think I’m okay. Mostly okay.”
“Really really,” he said. He sounded like he meant it, although I wasn’t sure if I believed him. “It was hard to have that happen to me, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I think that ultimately, she was right. We weren’t good for each other.” He sighed. “I guess I just got overexcited because it was the first long term relationship I’d ever had.”
How was that possible? Alex was good looking! “How is that possible?”
Alex raised his eyebrows at me, looking mildly amused. “Excuse me?”
“I mean,” I stammered. “You’re… not… awful looking or anything.” Smooth, Rachel.
“Gee, thanks a bunch,” he smirked. “Well, in high school I was really obsessed with computers… oh, and I joined the math team too, so I basically committed social suicide. And college, more of the same. Then I went to grad school to get my masters in computer science. I mean, you realize computers are basically woman-repellent. I wasn’t big on the whole clubbing or bar scene either. I think the kind of girls who are looking for a guy in a bar aren’t looking for guys like me.”
I stared at him, amazed that he had just articulated the exact reason why I never went to bars to meet men.
“I probably wouldn’t have even met Eva,” he said. “Except my friends dragged me out to a party every month or so. I’m more the stay at home and watch movies type, but they told me I wasn’t going meet anyone sitting in front of the TV, eating pizza and watching Ghostbusters on a Saturday night.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, other than, “I love Ghostbusters.”
Alex grinned. “When I was a kid, I had a crush on Janine, the nerdy secretary.”
I couldn’t help but think that it would be a lot of fun to sit around and watch old movies with Alex on a Saturday night. I imagined us sitting on my sofa, his arm slung around my shoulders, his body warm next to mine…
“Anyway,” he said, interrupting my stupid little fantasy. “Was it fun watching my mother humiliate me?” he asked. He mimicked her voice: “You were Alex’s first crush.”
I laughed. “Well, at least she didn’t break out the toilet training photos. Or is she saving that for the next visit?”
He grinned. “Hey, you made a joke.”
“Is that surprising?”
“Sort of,” he admitted. “You’ve been a little… stiff around me. I understand why, but… I’m glad you don’t hate me anymore, that’s all.”
“Yeah, me too,” I breathed.
We were both quiet for a minute. I looked down and noticed Alex nervously playing with the hem of his shirt.
“So what are you up to this weekend?” he asked me.
“Sister’s wedding in Long Island,” I replied. “I’m a bridesmaid.”
He smiled. “Wow. Exciting.” He hesitated. “You have a date?”
I nodded. Thank god for Charlie. I was glad Alex wouldn’t have to think I was some loser who couldn’t get a date to my little sister’s wedding.
“Oh,” he said, the smile on his face wavering slightly. “Well, good. Good for him.”
“It’s nothing serious,” I added.
He raised his eyebrows at me. Why did I say that?
“Listen,” Alex said, clearing his throat. “I know weddings can get pretty boring, so, you know, if things get really slow, let me give you my cell number. You can give me a call and I’ll… I don’t know, I’ll read you some dirty jokes from the internet.”
I laughed. “Dirty jokes from the internet? That’s the best you can come up with?”
“Okay, fine,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ll, um, I’ll read you some passages from the Bible. How’s that?”
“Which part of the Bible?”
I smiled, but didn’t answer. Instead of waiting for a reply, he reached out and grabbed the newspaper his father had tossed onto the bed along with the pen he’d been using to do the Sudoku puzzle. He scribbled down ten digits on the margin of the newspaper and ripped the scrap from the rest of the paper. He held it out to me. “Seriously,” he said. “Take my number.”
I looked down at that scrap of paper. It was one thing to visit Alex in his room when I was here anyway seeing other patients, but calling him on his cell phone crossed a line. If I called him this weekend, that would mean we were more than just doctor and patient. What, I wasn’t sure. But there was definitely something that felt a little inappropriate about the whole thing. But if we were “old friends,” then I guessed it was okay. More or less.
Regardless, I found myself reaching out to take the phone number from Alex’s hand.