“So what’s wrong this time?”
After my encounter with Alex Connors, I had called an emergency lunch with my best friend in the hospital, Grace Tucker. Grace worked as an attending physician in the ICU, and I’d been friends with her since we were both naïve little residents. Actually, I’m pretty sure Grace was never a naïve anything. Even as a kindergartener, I suspect she was bossing everyone around.
Grace and I usually met up in her office. Grace’s office was as painfully tiny as mine with barely enough room for her many diplomas and certificates on the wall: college diploma, med school diploma, medical school honors society, Intern of the Year, Resident of the Year, diplomat of the Board of Internal Medicine, certificate of passing her subspecialty training in critical care. Unlike me, Grace never wore a white coat. She had earned herself a reputation as a hardass bitch in the ICU and she didn’t need a white coat to command her authority.
“Come on, spit it out,” Grace said. “I’m a busy woman. My residents are apparently complete idiots who can’t treat a paper cut.”
I took a bite of the brownie I had treated myself to, as promised. “It’s this new patient, Alex Connors,” I said. “He came in over the weekend. Anterior spinal artery stroke, around T6.”
“What, is he being a pain in the ass?”
“No, he’s nice,” I said. “He’s young, only in his early thirties…”
“Is he cute?” Grace asked.
One thing Grace and I talk about a lot is Men. She’s just as single as I am and probably dates even less than I do, which is an achievement. We act like it’s Grace’s career that gets in the way of her social life, but we both know it’s not. Grace is overweight. Really, really overweight. And she’s not the kind of woman who would be gorgeous if only she lost a few pounds either, although she does have nice hair. I love Grace though, and I think any guy who passes her up doesn’t know what he’s missing.
“It’s not about him being cute,” I said. Okay, the truth was that, yes, Alex was cute. Of course he was. But that was all beside the point. “It’s not that,” I said. “The thing is, I know him…”
Grace raised her eyebrows. “Go on.”
I sighed, resigning myself to telling this story. “Alex and I went to middle school together and he was… incredibly cruel to me. Used to tease me a lot. He’s just an awful, mean, horrible person.” I swallowed. “I know I’m supposed to take care of him and get him better, but honestly, all I want to do is strangle him.”
“Wow,” Grace commented after a long pause, “you are even a little crazier than I thought you were.”
“Thanks,” I said, chewing a bite of the dressing-free salad I had purchased to balance out the brownie. What the hell was I thinking ordering a salad with no dressing? “So what do I do? I hate this guy.”
“Don’t you feel sorry for him?” she said. “I mean, the poor guy is, what, a paraplegic now? Isn’t that punishment enough?”
“Maybe,” I said. “But he could be recovered in a few months. Knowing his luck, I’m sure he will be. This is just a speed bump for him.”
“Well,” she said thoughtfully. “If you think about it, you’re in a pretty enviable position.”
“Rachel, for one of the smartest women I know, you can be kind of dense sometimes,” she said. “Let me spell this out for you. This guy Alex made your life miserable for a year. And now here you are, the doctor in charge of his care. And best of all, he doesn’t even know who you are! You can finally exact your revenge.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Grace giggled. “Maybe some 3 AM enemas? Daily rectal exams? Be creative.”
“I can’t do that!” I cried. “It’s totally unethical.”
“I think it’s a gray area,” she said.
“I’m not going to do anything like that to him,” I insisted. “I can’t.”
Grace shrugged. “So you’re just going to be a bitch to him while he’s on your service? Like that’s any better.”
She had a point. I had been rude to Alex and his fiancée and it was very unlike me. But that was something that I couldn’t control. I couldn’t bring myself to be nice to Alex. However, intentionally doing things to hurt him was a whole different ballgame.
We heard a pager go off, and both Grace and I automatically jumped to attention. “I think that’s you,” Grace said.
I glanced at the number on my pager and recognized it from the stroke unit. Grace offered me her phone to use and I returned the call. One of the nurses on the unit picked up the phone. “Dr. Miller?” she said. “The new patient, Connors? His fiancée says she wants to talk to you.”
“Oh?” I said, my mouth dry. “Um, did you page Dr. Wexler?”
“No,” the nurse insisted. “She says she wants to talk to you, Doctor.”
Oh god. Alex must have figured out who I was. They were going to reprimand me for being unprofessional. I was going to get fired. And before I even had the chance to order Alex a 3AM enema.
I told the nurse I’d be right there and I excused myself from Grace, who clucked her tongue at me about doing the resident’s work. I raced down to the stroke unit, rehearsing a speech feigning ignorance about knowing who Alex was. They couldn’t really accuse me of anything. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was innocent.
When I arrived on the stroke unit, Eva was waiting for me at the nursing station. I was relieved to see that she didn’t look angry. Her dark hair was pulled behind her head in a messy ponytail and she looked tired. I decided that she wasn’t particularly pretty, but might clean up well, like if she put on a sweatshirt that wasn’t wrinkled or something. Right now, she was clearly not at her best. “Hi, Dr. Miller,” she said. “Thank you for coming here so quickly. Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”
The conference room at the end of the hallway was thankfully empty. Eva took a seat and I sat down next to her, preparing to answer her questions. She opened her mouth, but before she could ask me anything, she burst into tears.
I stared at her in shock, not sure what to do. To buy some time, I stood up and brought a box of tissues over and offered them to Eva, who accepted gratefully. “I’m sorry,” she sniffled. “It’s just been a really hard weekend.”
I nodded sympathetically. I looked down at the diamond on the engagement ring on Eva’s left hand, which was nowhere near as big as Chloe’s. I remembered reading in the social history that Alex was a computer programmer. I wasn’t sure what kind of salary he made, but obviously not as big as Steve’s salary.
“Money’s been really tight lately,” Eva said, as if reading my mind. “We just closed on a house last month and we’ve been renovating it. And the wedding is in two months and that’s cost a fortune…”
Alex and Eva, buying a house, having a dream wedding. Was I supposed to feel sorry for her or something? What next? Were her diamond shoes too tight?
“I don’t know what we’re going to do with Alex out of work,” she said.
“Apply for disability,” I said. A good disability plan would cover his full salary for quite a while.
“Yes, but…” Eva bit her lip. “Do you think he’ll eventually be able to go back to work?”
“He works with computers, right?” I said. “That’s a sedentary job. Why wouldn’t he be able to go back?”
“Because…” Eva’s eyes filled with tears. “He can’t do anything right now. He can’t even get dressed himself…”
“That can all be addressed in rehab,” I reassured her.
Eva wrung her hands together. “Dr. Miller, do you think that he’ll…”
I knew what she was going to ask. I’d heard the question a thousand times before. I could have completed it for her, but I didn’t. “What?” I said.
“Do you think he’ll be able to walk again?” she asked in a small scared voice.
That’s what they all wanted to know. Will I be able to walk? Especially someone as young as Alex. The answer was that I didn’t know. Right now, he sure couldn’t.
“Initially, he’ll need a wheelchair,” I said to her. “Maybe if he gets some more movement back in his legs, he might be able to walk on a very limited basis with braces and crutches.”
“Braces and crutches?” Eva’s face was pale.
“Well, he can’t move his legs,” I reminded her.
“But… won’t that get better?”
“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully.
For a moment, I worried she’d start crying again, but instead she leaned back in her seat, looking dazed and overwhelmed. I reminded myself that Eva wasn’t the one who had been mean to me all those years ago. But then again, if Alex was an asshole, the woman engaged to him couldn’t possibly be that wonderful.
What was Eva thinking? I bet anything she was thinking that she had picked wrong. She had gotten engaged to Alex and put all her eggs in his basket (so to speak), invested in a house with him, and now a wedding. And he had screwed her over. Maybe even worse than he screwed me over. She’d thought she was going to have the fairy tale ending, but instead she was stuck with a fiancé who couldn’t even walk anymore.
I guessed that she was also thinking about her wedding in two months and how maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that they hadn’t gone through with it yet.