I ended up going home at about nine o’clock, but I didn’t sleep much. I tossed and turned a lot, and when I finally fell asleep, I had dreams about Alex. I’m crazy about you, Rachel. No guy had ever seemed this infatuated with me before. But worst of all, after all this time, I was letting him do this to me again. Grace was right: I needed to end it first. He at least needed to think that I had the upper hand.
I meant to go to Alex’s room first thing in the morning, but I was awakened at 5AM by a page to the emergency room, where I had to meet the resident to decide whether we should give a patient a very powerful blood thinner. We ended up giving it, a decision that always left me mildly anxious. One of the first rules of being a physician is do no harm. If I gave someone a medication that ended up killing them, I knew it would be something that would stay with me forever.
I didn’t make it to Alex’s room until well after lunch time. I was scared that Eva had already come and it was too late. I kept my eyes peeled for her as I walked to the rehab unit. She was nowhere in sight. I wondered if maybe she had changed her mind, then decided I wasn’t that lucky.
I knew Eva hadn’t arrived yet by the way Alex’s eyes lit up when he saw me. He was sitting in his wheelchair, his laptop computer on his lap. He lifted the laptop onto the bed as I walked into the room. “Wow, you look great,” he said.
I looked down at my shapeless green scrubs, which I realized to my horror had a bloodstain on the pocket. I was wearing my most comfortable loafers and my hair was, as usual, pinned back in a bun, that had mostly worked its way undone during the morning. I hadn’t bothered to try to doll myself up for Alex, considering the way I knew this was going to go. “Not really,” I said.
“You look all… scrappy,” he said, grinning.
I couldn’t help but laugh. Damn, this was going to be hard. For a moment, I wondered if I shouldn’t take Grace’s advice and try to fight for him. But no. I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t me.
He wheeled closer to me and tugged on my white coat playfully. “I’m done with therapies for the day. I don’t think anyone will bother us…”
I closed my eyes. I had to do this. I rehearsed the words I had come up with during the elevator ride here: Alex, this isn’t working out for me. I just don’t think we’re right for each other. I’m sure you’ll find someone else. In fact, I think you might find someone else later today. “Alex, this isn’t…”
He and I both looked up sharply to see Eva standing at the entrance to the room. I swore to myself, wishing I had managed to disentangle myself from my last patient just a little bit faster. Eva looked fantastic. As opposed to last time I saw her, her hair was shiny and smooth, and she had on fresh make-up. She was wearing a green blouse that showed the curves of her breasts and just a bit of cleavage. I looked down at my own scrub top and considered slinking out of the room now, before things got painful.
Alex regarded his ex-fiancée, a wary look in his eyes. “Eva? What are you doing here?”
Eva glanced at me. “Hi, Dr. Miller. Um, would you excuse us for a moment?”
“No,” Alex said. “I want her to stay.”
“Alex,” she murmured in a low voice, stepping closer to him. I backed away, edging toward the door. “This is kind of private.”
He set his jaw. “She’s staying.”
Eva nodded, unperturbed. She thought of me as a co-conspirator anyway. Little did she know. “Alex, honey,” she began. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in the last week and…” She paused dramatically. “I wanted to tell you that I’ve been missing you a lot, and I… I think I made a mistake…”
“Of course you made a mistake,” he said.
“I know, baby,” she said. She put her hand on his shoulder. “I want to make it up to you. I’m so sorry. I… I love you.”
I couldn’t listen to another word of this. I felt tears rising in my eyes and I ran for the door, nearly getting tangled in the curtains on the way out. I wasn’t going to cry, not here. I needed to find a restroom. I could make it. I just needed to walk briskly and look straight ahead. And think of something happy. Like whiskers on kittens or some bullshit mittens.
Goddamn it. I couldn’t believe the bastard had done it to me again.
I had made it past the nurses’ station when I heard a voice yell my name: “Rachel!”
It was Alex. I considered not stopping, but I somehow felt compelled to turn around. He was wheeling himself toward me quickly, so fast that his legs were bouncing. Eva was following closely at his heels. I wiped my eyes self-consciously. “What is it?” I said, bracing myself for a “sorry it’s not going to work out and good luck” speech.
“Listen,” he said, when he got closer to me. “I need to talk to you, Rachel. In private.”
“It’s okay,” I said. I didn’t want to hear him apologizing for what he was about to do. “It’s not a big deal. It’s fine.”
Eva had caught up to us now and she was staring at us. “What’s going on, Alex?”
It wasn’t just Eva who was staring at us. Everyone was. The nurses, the therapists, and even a few patients. Alex glanced around, clearly self-conscious. “Don’t leave, Rachel,” he said through his teeth.
“It’s okay,” I repeated. Well, it wasn’t okay, but it would be. I’d get over it. Someday. Probably.
“No, you don’t understand,” he said. He screwed up his face and took a deep breath. “You know that I… I think that…” He looked around at everyone watching us and his face turned red. “That… that… your butt looks big.”
I stared at him, vividly remembering our conversation from last week. Whenever I told you that your butt looked big, I was really saying that I was in love with you.
“Alex!” Eva cried. “How could you say that to Dr. Miller?” She shook her head. “Dr. Miller, I am so sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with him…”
Alex was still looking up at me, his eyes pleading. “Rachel…”
I just stood there, not quite sure what to do. Everyone was still staring at us. I felt frozen. I watched as Alex pulled his legs out the footrests and tried to hoist himself up, supporting himself on the counter of the nurse’s station, presumably so he could be face to face with me. He tried for a few seconds, but then gave up. He couldn’t stand, not even for a second. Instead he grabbed my hand and pulled me down into a crouch so he could look into my eyes. “Rachel,” he said again. “Say something. Please.”
“You barely know me,” I said. “You know me for a few weeks, that’s it.”
“I’ve known you for 22 years,” he said. His gray eyes gazed into mine and my breath caught in my throat. “I know you well enough to know you’re the most awesome woman I’ve ever met.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Eva spoke up, her eyes suddenly blazing. She had finally caught on, I guess. “Is something going on between the two of you? I can’t believe this!”
“Shut up, Eva,” Alex snapped at her. “You dumped me a week after I had a stroke. You can go to hell.”
Eva’s mouth fell open. I could see she was considering saying something else, but decided against it.
“Rachel,” Alex said, turning back to me. “I’m sorry, but I don’t care anymore who’s watching. I’ve wanted you for the last 22 years. I’m completely in love with you.”
I could only stare at him, utterly speechless. No man had ever spoken to me this way before. It was like something out of a movie. It didn’t seem possible that this could be happening to me. Me, plain old Rachel Miller, who could never even get a date, who had bloodstains on my shapeless scrubs. It was so romantic, I thought I might burst into tears.
“Please say something, Rachel,” Alex said. He leaned closer to me, a crease between his eyebrows. “Please, Rachel. Please…”
“I…” I swallowed. Everyone in the rehab unit was staring at us. It felt like everyone in the hospital was staring at us. “I’m crazy about you, Alex. You know I am.”
“That’s all I need to hear,” he said. He grabbed me by the waist and pulled me into his lap, and I let out a happy sigh as he eagerly pressed his lips against mine. I had a feeling that very soon, I was going to leave the ranks of the million or so miserable people in this city. I wondered if I’d have to move.
One Year Later
It was hard not to feel insecure when your boyfriend was meeting up with his ex-fiance.
Alex and Eva had finally found a buyer for the house that had mostly sat empty for the past year. Alex was incredibly relieved when he told me the news. “We’re finally getting rid of that goddamn house,” was what he said. He was especially pleased, since he’d been paying both half the mortgage on the house as well as the rent on an apartment in SoHo.
Well, at least he had been, until he moved in with me two months ago.
It was a financially responsible decision. After all, he was spending most nights at my apartment anyway. He already had a toothbrush here and a drawer full of clothes. It was wasteful to keep paying that extra rent. Of course, that wasn’t what Alex said. When we talked about moving in together, he said to me, “I’m miserable any night I don’t spend with you. Why don’t we make it official?”
And ever since we made it official, I’d been waking up to a warm hand on my breast and a man who loved me kissing me on the neck and murmuring, “Oh, Rachel…”
Alex did love me. He told me pretty much every day, and I believed it. Yet at the same time, I felt insecure about him seeing Eva again. When he told me he was meeting with her to finalize the details of the sale, I felt my stomach churn. “Can’t you sign separately?” I asked him.
“I wish,” he said. He made it clear that he was still angry at Eva for what she had done to him back in the hospital. But really, if he was completely over her, why would he still be angry? It didn’t make sense to me.
My insecurity deepened when I saw Alex digging out his forearm crutches and braces for the meeting. As predicted, Alex had regained just enough movement in his legs that he could walk for very short distances, mostly just around the apartment. In general though, he found walking to be too exhausting and he preferred his wheelchair. The only time he walked was a lap around the block with me twice a week, because the doctor told him it was good for his bone density to walk a little and I pushed him. He usually tried to get out of it by initiating “sexy time.”
“Why aren’t you using your wheelchair?” I asked him as he struggled into the braces.
“Oh, you know,” Alex said, shrugging. Not answering the question.
“Isn’t it easier to use the chair?” I asked again.
“Maybe the doorways will be narrow,” he replied, although he had never expressed that kind of concern to me before. It sounded like a lie.
I felt even worse when he put on his best suit. Gray, that matched the color of his eyes. When he stood up, I couldn’t help but get turned on. Alex looked incredibly handsome dressed up, even leaning on his crutches to stay upright. And I’d never tell him so, but I sort of liked it when he had a several inches of height on me.
“I really like that suit,” I said shyly, hoping it might lead to sexy time.
“Oh yeah?” Alex grinned, but he looked distracted.
He crutched over to my full length mirror and examined his reflection. Alex was never one to be obsessed with how he looked, which was probably why he opted for the wheelchair over the braces, even though wheelchairs tended to attract more stares. So it was really weird that he was so concerned with his appearance right now. Obviously, it had something to do with Eva.
He still had feelings for Eva. Of course he did. Even after we moved in together, Alex warned me that he didn’t see himself wanting to get married any time soon because he was still shaken over his last broken engagement. I tried to act like it didn’t matter that I was 34 and my boyfriend didn’t show any eagerness to tie the knot, but naturally, I was a little bothered.
I watched as Alex stared at himself in the mirror. He observed himself as he took a step forward (by no means an easy process). Finally, he hung his head and sighed.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. He backed up and fell onto our bed with a plop. “It’s stupid.”
I sat down next to him on the bed. I took his hand in mine. I remember how when I first held his hand, his palm had been soft, but now it was firm with calluses. “Tell me,” I said. I bit my lip, bracing myself for a confession that he was still in love with Eva.
“I just…” He looked down. “I wish for just one hour, I could not look so… crippled.”
“Stop it, Rachel,” he said. “I know I do. I don’t even care most of the time.”
“You want to look good for Eva,” I acknowledged.
Alex sighed again. “Sort of. It’s like… you know how they say that the best revenge is living well?”
“Well, I want to show her that I’m living well,” he said. “And I know that one of the reasons she dumped me was she was afraid I’d never walk again. So I wanted to show her…” His shoulders sagged. “It’s stupid, I know. There’s no way for me to look normal again, not even for five minutes.”
“It is stupid,” I agreed. “You shouldn’t feel like you need to impress Eva. Who the hell cares about Eva?”
Alex flashed a wry smile. “Says the woman who held a grudge against me for over twenty years.”
He had a point.
“Okay, here’s the situation,” I said, adjusting the collar of his shirt, which was slightly askew. “You look great, crutches, wheelchair, or whatever. But if you feel like that’s not enough, I can go doll myself up to go with you and you can show her exactly how you’ve been living well.”
For a moment, I was worried that my offer wouldn’t be good enough, so I was relieved when Alex’s eyes lit up. “You’d do that?”
After my last encounter with Eva, she’d left some pretty nasty messages on my voicemail. I hadn’t made it a secret that I wasn’t eager to run into her. But it had been long enough, I supposed. Anyway, Eva was the one in the wrong. Mostly. “For you? Anything.”
Alex squeezed my hand and smiled with relief. “In that case, I think I’m just going to use my wheelchair. I don’t have the energy for crutches.”
I watched Alex struggled to pull the braces off his legs. He’d lost muscle mass in his legs but they weren’t too bad. And his upper body had become amazing in the last year. He went from having a slim but relatively soft arms and chest to rock solid muscles. Just running my hand over his firm deltoids was enough to give me a tingle.
In true male form, I noticed Alex had two holes in the black socks he was wearing. While he was still fumbling with the braces, I got up to get him a new pair of socks. Alex never ever bothered to pair up his socks so it took me some searching to find two socks that matched. And in the process, I found something else.
“Uh, Rachel?” Alex’s brow was furrowed and his hand was shaking as he reached for his wheelchair. “What are you doing? Don’t… I mean, I’ll get my…”
I stared down into the drawer, unable to speak. I barely registered Alex’s butt falling into the seat of his wheelchair. He wheeled over to join me by his sock drawer.
“Oh,” he said. “You found it.”
I swallowed hard. “Is this…?”
He heaved a sigh. “You weren’t supposed to find it. I had this plan to, like, set the mood and… this is kind of a mess. I’m sorry.”
I reached down to finger the blue velvet box when I noticed there was a small piece of ripped notebook paper taped to the side of the box. I pulled off the paper to get a closer look and saw Alex’s handwriting.
Do you want to marry Alex Conners?
And there below there were two checkboxes, one for YES and one for NO. I remembered Alex’s grand plan to ask me out when we were kids and I smiled. “Alex…”
“Should I get you a pen?” he asked, his voice cracking slightly on the words.
“I don’t need a pen,” I said. I fell into his lap, partly because my legs didn’t have the strength to stand and partially because I loved him more than anything in the world at that moment. “I love you. Of course I’ll marry you.”
“You will?” He seemed almost amazed.
I lifted my head and kissed him on the lips. Like I said, I’m not big on describing kisses, but this one left me shaking. His aftershave rubbed off on my face and I inhaled the scent of it even after we parted. You know you’re crazy about a guy when just the smell of him gets you crazy. “Yes,” I breathed. “I want to marry you. I really, really do.”
“This is kind of unreal,” Alex said, squeezing my body close to his chest. He shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m marrying Rachel Miller.”
I smiled. “Would your eleven year old self be pleased?”
“Are you kidding?” Alex laughed. “My eleven year old self would give me a high five right now if he knew.”
“You know,” I said. “Maybe eleven year old Alex wasn’t as dumb as he seemed.”
“Actually,” Alex said. “I think he knew exactly what he was doing.”