I felt awful about what had happened in Alex’s room. Yes, I was incredibly attracted to him. But what I had done was horribly unethical. I mean, first I’d encouraged his fiancée to dump him, then I kissed him. I wasn’t going to win any Doctor of the Year awards at this rate. If the medical board thoroughly reviewed all my actions over the last week, I would have a lot of explaining to do.
If only it happened some other way. Maybe if I had met Alex on some internet dating service instead of on my stroke service. Or maybe at a party, like how he met Eva. Of course, the fact that I didn’t do internet dating or go to parties precluded those possibilities.
I didn’t know how to deal with this. I couldn’t face seeing Alex again, but I had patients on the rehab unit that I couldn’t avoid. So I did the only thing I could: I called in sick the next day.
I took advantage of my day off, at least. I slept in late and made myself a bowl of soup for lunch, as if I really were sick. I surfed the web for about half an hour and watched some daytime TV before feeling completely and utterly bored. I think that when you work every day, when you finally get a day off, you don’t know what the hell to do with yourself. I had an appointment with Felicia at five, so at least that gave me something to look forward to.
At about one in the afternoon, my phone started ringing. It was Grace’s office number, which I immediately recognized.
“Are you dying?” she asked me.
“What?” I said. “No…”
“You’ve never called in sick before,” Grace said. “I remember once I caught you vomiting in the hospital bathroom when you had a stomach bug. I asked you if you were going home and you told me you still had ten patients left to see. So I assumed if you were calling in sick, you must be at death’s door.”
“Not exactly,” I said.
“So what’s wrong?” Grace asked. “Viral encephalitis? Leprosy? Benign prostatic hypertrophy?”
“My prostate is fine, thank you very much,” I said. “And I’m not sick. Not exactly. It’s… complicated.”
“Complicated,” Grace repeated. “I see. Okay, well, how was Shauna’s wedding?”
“Awesome,” I said. “It was eight hours long and Charlie dumped me.”
“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry to hear that. Did he tell you why?”
“I think it had something to do with my sneaking out to the coatroom and talking to Alex for about an hour,” I said. “And then yesterday… Alex kissed me.”
There was silence on the other line. I braced myself, waiting for Grace’s response. Finally, she said, “Jesus Christ.”
“I know,” I murmured. “It was incredibly stupid. And I told him so. I am never going to do it again. Never.”
“Well, why not?”
That wasn’t what I expected Grace to say. She was the one who told me to get my revenge on Alex to make him pay for what he did to me. Kissing probably didn’t fall into the category of revenge. (Or maybe it did.)
“The big question is,” Grace said, “do you like him?”
“He’s a nice guy.”
“You know that’s not what I mean,” she said. “I mean, do you like him like him?”
“Like him like him?” I repeated. “Are we in sixth grade? Come on.”
“Would you prefer I asked you in a more grown up way?” Grace’s voice was mildly mocking. “Fine. Do you have complex adult feelings of wanting to jump his bones?”
“Yes or no, Rachel.”
I felt myself blushing. “Okay. Yes.”
Grace snickered. “Well, I don’t entirely blame you. He’s very cute. Kind of sexy… those eyes, you know? Yeah, he’s a little messed up right now. But he’ll recover.”
“But he’s my patient,” I reminded her. “I could get in a lot of trouble.”
“I thought you signed off on his care?”
“Look,” Grace sighed. “You’re both single, attractive people. And he obviously likes you quite a bit. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be allowed to hook up.”
I mumbled a response. I didn’t know what to say to her. Grace did a lot of mildly unethical things over the course of her job, including turning up the morphine on patients that she believed in her heart didn’t have a chance of recovering, despite what the families might have thought. Those things didn’t bother her. She had a very well developed sense of morality and she didn’t let what other people thought sway her actions.
“So tell me,” Grace said. “How was the kiss?”
“Incredible,” I admitted. For a second, I allowed myself to close my eyes and remember the feel of Alex’s lips on mine. Over twenty years of pent up emotions was released in that one moment. I would never have a kiss like that again. Never.
I took the train to my appointment with Felicia, arriving fifteen minutes early, which was a rarity for me. I usually was racing out the door at work and arrived at Felicia’s anywhere from five to fifteen minutes late, usually very out of breath. Felicia tried to give me extra time when she could and she never made a comment about how if only I left fifteen minutes earlier, I’d always be on time. I guess she understood that the problems always arise at the moment you’re walking out the door.
I had given Felicia full disclosure so far and I didn’t hold back now. I told her everything: about the wedding, hiding in the coat room while I flirted with Alex on the phone, Charlie dumping me during the car ride home, then terminating with the kiss in Alex’s hospital room and me dumping chocolate milk on his lap.
“Wow,” Felicia said, looking impressed. “You’ve been busy in the last week, haven’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said and laughed. Usually my social life was pretty dead.
“So you’re really not going to let anything happen with Alex?” Felicia asked.
I stared at her. Felicia was the one who had been so judgmental last week when I split apart Alex and Eva. Now she seemed suddenly supportive and almost amused by the whole thing. “Are you serious?” I said. “You really think it’s ethical? I mean, he was my patient.”
Felicia shrugged. “I think it’s a gray area.”
“What’s so unbelievable?” she said. “You’re obviously very attracted to him. And he certainly likes you a lot. Sounds like the two of you have been pining after each other for the last twenty years.”
“But he just got out of a five year relationship!” I pointed out. “It was last week!”
“Clearly, he’s ready to move on.”
I shook my head. “I don’t get you, Felicia.”
She smiled. “That’s exactly what my shrink says.”
My phone rang on the way home and I recognized Alex’s number. It occurred to me that in the seven years that I’d been a physician, I’d never once given out my cell phone number to a patient. It was generally thought of as an incredibly stupid thing to do. The fact that I did it meant that I was either head over heels for Alex or I was getting dumber in my old age.
I held the phone in my hand, contemplating whether or not I should answer. I waited a little too long and it skipped to voicemail. Ah, voicemail… making the important decisions for me.
Alex must have left a message because my phone played a little tune to signify a new voicemail. I felt a little guilty for screening his call. I dialed in my code and played the message. I heard Alex’s voice, speaking in a low, reserved tone: “Hi, Rachel. I just wanted to… apologize for the other day. I’m really sorry. You don’t have to call me back but I just wanted you to know that… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have… well, you know. I feel awful about it. So… yeah, I’ll talk to you later. Or not.”
The wounded tone in his voice tugged at my heartstrings. I should have picked up.
I held my phone in my hand, my finger poised over the button to redial Alex’s number. I wanted to call him to try to explain, but I just couldn’t make myself do it. Maybe in some other alternative universe, there was a chance for me and Alex to be together. But I knew it just wasn’t going to happen in this one.