I know it’s hard to for people to take me seriously when I’m blaming an eleven-year-old boy for wrecking my social life. But that’s exactly what Alex did. Maybe he didn’t directly ruin my life, but he started me down a one-way path that resulted in my current state of loneliness.
In high school, I was painfully shy. If it were socially acceptable to style my hair to completely cover my face, I would have done it. When my breasts finally developed, they were an embarrassment to me. They were too lumpy and asymmetrical. The left one was bigger than the right. Instead of wearing sweaters to hide my lack of a chest, I was now wearing sweaters to hide my blossoming chest.
You probably won’t be surprised to know I didn’t date in high school. I wanted to. I saw the pretty girls in the hallways making out with their boyfriends between classes and I felt overwhelmed with jealousy. It seemed so easy for those girls. The closest I ever came was Evan Zucker in my senior year physics class, a painfully skinny kid with hair so red it shouldn’t have existed in nature. He used to call me almost nightly with questions about the physics homework, despite the fact that I noticed his grades on exams were higher than mine. (Actually, I think he went on to become a physicist.)
The last day that senior prom tickets were available, I remember Evan mentioned it to me. He caught up with me before class and pointed to the kids selling tickets in the hallway. “Last day to get tickets,” he remarked.
I waited a beat, wondering if he was going to ask me to the prom. He didn’t. “Prom is dumb,” I said in my best 17 year old angsty voice, channeling Courtney Love.
I remember Evan blinked and looked a little taken aback. I always wondered if maybe he really had wanted to ask me to the prom and my declaration that prom was dumb discouraged him. In any case, I spent prom night at home, making brownies then eating them while watching Nick at Nite. There was a Get Smart marathon on.
When I got to college, my freshman roommate Connie took me clothes shopping after we’d been living together for about two weeks, at some trendy shop where nobody was over age 25, including the salesgirls. She kept plucking stringy little hot pink tops out of the clothing racks and holding them up to my chest. “This would look so good on you, Rachel,” she breathed.
I looked down at the glittery lettering on the tank top that read “naughty girl” and gasped. “Um, I don’t think so,” I said.
My friends saw me as a challenge. They would say, “Rachel needs to me set up!” They would ignore my protests of, “Oh, no, she doesn’t.” I would make them swear not to set me up, then I’d somehow end up at a dinner with a “coincidentally” single guy along who was clearly meant for me. I remember one guy, I think his name was Roger, whispered in my ear mid-dinner, “Ugh, I think we’ve been set up.”
“I know,” I said, blushing with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
“We should get revenge,” Roger said, nudging me in the arm and grinning.
“Mmm,” I murmured, blushing deeper at the thought that being set up with the likes of me was a revenge-worthy offense. At the next break in the conversation, I made up an excuse and went home alone.
After my first year of med school ended, I attended a party with a fair amount of alcohol available. Nobody drinks like med students and I managed to throw back a few beers, which downgraded me from frigid to simply uptight. It was in this compromised state that I was approached by my former lab partner, Joe “What’s the beating red thing?” Hoffman. A lot of male med students are very attractive and smooth and good at getting girls, but Joe was none of those things. However, we were both quite drunk. We spent the better part of an hour laughing at how incompetent we both were in anatomy lab. When Joe suddenly kissed me and invited me back to his apartment, it didn’t even occur to me to say no.
And that’s the story of how I lost my virginity at age 23.
Joe called me a few days later, but sans alcohol, the conversation felt stiff and awkward. We went out on a dinner date that involved a lot of long pauses in the conversation, but improved significantly when we decided to split a bottle of wine. When Joe called me for another date, it occurred to me that the only way we could be a couple is if I became an alcoholic, so I decided to spare both of us some AA meetings and told him I was too busy.
“Too busy doing what?” Joe had challenged me. “Classes are over for the summer.”
“Too busy washing my hair,” I had retorted. I thought my answer was kind of funny, but he never spoke to me again.
After I dated Joe, it occurred to me that I really didn’t have much in common with most men, beyond the fact that our parts fit together. Avoiding men was actually much easier than trying to date them, since I didn’t have the kind of looks that caused me to get approached very often. I attempted internet dating and fix ups for a little while, but I really didn’t like it. It’s so much easier to just be single than to delve into the pool of losers out there.
After my encounter with Eva left me with shaking hands, I scheduled an emergency appointment with my shrink Felicia. I got out of work at 3:35 and was at Felicia’s tiny, dimly lit waiting room by 3:50. There’s no receptionist in the waiting room. You just sit down, pick up a magazine, and wait for your therapist to come get you. Usually the waiting room is empty, but today there was a guy maybe in his late twenties sitting there with a magazine. Even after all this time, I still feel self-conscious being seen in the waiting room of a psychiatrist.
I sat down in one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs, too jittery to even pick up a magazine. The guy looked up from his copy of People magazine and smiled at me. I groaned inwardly. Making eye contact with other people in the psychiatrist’s waiting room was a definite no-no. I guess this guy didn’t realize that.
“This is my first time here,” he remarked to me.
Oh god, I couldn’t believe he was talking to me. Talking to people in the psychiatrist’s waiting room was an even bigger no-no than making eye contact. I smiled tightly at him, hoping he’d get the hint that I didn’t want to talk to him.
“It always seemed kind of weird to me,” he went on, oblivious to my discomfort. “You know, seeing a shrink. But I guess everyone does it these days, huh?”
I muttered something. I eyed the entrance to the waiting room, willing Felicia to appear.
“I’m John, by the way,” he said, holding out his hand to me.
I stared at his hand. Touching someone in the psychiatrist’s waiting room was an extremely big no-no and exchanging names was just short of insanity. I knew it was rude to leave him hanging, but I waited a beat too long and John withdrew his hand. “Oh, I get it,” he said. “You don’t want to shake hands with some nut job in the shrink’s waiting room.”
I blushed. “Sorry.”
John shrugged and for a second, I really envied him. He just put himself out there and seemed completely unperturbed by the way I had snubbed him. He went back to his magazine and I considered apologizing further but at that moment, Felicia appeared at the entrance to the waiting room to collect me.
I love Felicia’s office. It always feels so warm and homey to me. In typical shrink-style, she does have a couch, but I’ve never actually laid down in it. I sit on the right side of it and just sink into the soft cushions. Felicia sits opposite from me and behind her there are four bookcases stuffed to the brim with books. Some of them are psychiatry books, there are a lot of fiction books too. I’ve actually borrowed a few books from her over the years.
“So tell me, Rachel,” she said, leaning forward as she talked to me. When we first started out, she used to take notes, but now she doesn’t anymore. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
Felicia knew who Alex Connors was. I’d talked about him many times before. I knew she’d appreciate what I was about to say. “My new admission today was Alex Connors,” I said.
Felicia looked appropriately surprised. “You’re kidding,” she said. “To the stroke unit? Isn’t he only in his early thirties?”
“He had a stroke in his spinal cord. It was kind of a freak thing.”
“Wow,” Felicia said. “Poor guy.”
“Poor guy?” That wasn’t the response I had hoped for.
“Well, he had a stroke,” Felicia pointed out. “You don’t feel bad for him?”
“I don’t,” I replied honestly. “A lot of really nice people end up on my service. Alex is a jerk. I’m sure the way he treated me as kids was just the tip of the iceberg.”
“You don’t know that.”
I sighed. “Whose side are you on?”
“I’m on your side, of course,” Felicia said. “But I think you should consider the possibility that Alex Connors isn’t the horrible human being you’ve made him out to be.”
“How could you say that?” I asked her angrily. “You don’t understand what he did to me if you could say that. I mean, where have you been for the last seven years?”
“Rachel,” she said. “You’re an extremely rational, intelligent person in every other way. You’ve got to get past this. Whatever Alex did to you, you can’t let it destroy your self-confidence.”
“Too late,” I said.
Felicia smiled at me. “So after all these years, what did you say to the guy?”
“Did you tell him off?” she asked. “Explain to him how much he hurt you?”
I frowned. “Well, no.”
She shook her head. “Why am I not surprised?”
“The thing is,” I mumbled. “He doesn’t know it’s me. I mean, he didn’t recognize me.”
“And you didn’t tell him?”
I hung my head guiltily.
“Rachel, most people don’t get this kind of opportunity,” Felicia pointed out. “You can talk to him rationally, like an adult. I’m sure he’d apologize.”
I wasn’t so sure. It’s been my experience that people don’t tend to like to apologize. But that wasn’t the reason I was afraid to say anything to Alex. What I was most scared of was that when I asked him why he had been so cruel, he would tell me that I was so ugly, he hadn’t been able to help it. Then he’d look me over and tell me I hadn’t changed in twenty years. That was my big fear and I couldn’t say it out loud, even to Felicia.
“I can’t do that,” was what I finally said.
“Well, regardless,” Felicia said. “I think the most pressing question is whether you can continue to serve as his physician. Are you going to provide him with optimal medical care?”
I snickered to myself as I remembered what Grace had said about daily rectal exams. But that wasn’t me. “I think so,” I said.
Felicia raised her eyebrows and for a moment, I doubted myself. But I’ve never acted unprofessionally in my life and I wasn’t about to start right now. Maybe providing good medical care to Alex would help me get over what he did to me all those years ago. Somehow.
As soon as I got home, my cell phone immediately started ringing. I saw my mother’s number pop up and my stomach sunk. I had completely forgotten that I had an appointment scheduled this afternoon to be fitted for a bridesmaid dress for my younger sister Shauna’s wedding. This was the second time I had missed an appointment and I predicted this incident was going to be heralded as evidence of my lack of reliability for years to come.
I answered the phone and braced myself. “I’m sorry,” I said, before she could tear into me.
“You’re sorry,” my mother repeated. “You know, this is the second appointment you’ve missed. Shauna’s going to be really upset.”
“There was a patient who was sick,” I lied. “I couldn’t leave.”
“Don’t make up stories, Rachel,” Mom said. Damn, how did she always know when I was lying?
“Look, I’m sorry,” I said again. “Really. Things got busy and I just forgot.”
“You know, Shauna has appointments nearly every day, trying to get things in order for the wedding.”
I wanted to point out that Shauna was a teacher whose day ended at 3PM every day, but I suspected that would make matters worse.
“What can I do to make it up to you?” I said, wanting to end this conversation. “Anything you want.”
I expected her to read off the date of the rescheduled appointment and make me swear on a Bible that I’d be there, but instead she reacted with glee. “You can go out on a date with that man I was telling you about last week.”
I frowned. I had forgotten all about that. I never would have made such an open-ended promise if I remembered she had a man she wanted me to go out with. Up until now, I’d actively avoided being set up by my mother. It felt so pathetic going out on a date she arranged for me. But then again, my baby sister was getting married in a month and I didn’t even have a date to the wedding. Maybe I needed to revise my definition of the word “pathetic.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Really?” My mother sounded shocked.
“Yeah, sure,” I sighed.
I listened patiently while Mom fed me the details on the man that she evidently believed would be my future husband. His name was Charlie, he was in his late thirties, and he worked as an accountant. He’d never been married. The way my mother knew him was that she played bridge with his mother. They were certain we’d hit it off.
“Is Charlie okay with his mother setting him up on a date?” I asked.
“Of course!” Mom said. That response disturbed me a bit, but I let it slide. I needed to be more optimistic. Maybe this guy Charlie would be great. Maybe he’d be the love of my life. Maybe a year from now, I’d be the one planning a wedding.