The next morning, I arrived on the stroke unit before Chloe did. She was stuck in the emergency room seeing a possible admission so I told her I’d start rounding on her behalf. She gave me a quick rundown on the patients and I told her to take her time in the ER while I handled things upstairs. I’m generally well liked by residents, which is probably because of my willingness to do their work for them.
I found myself starting out with Alex Connors’s room. I figured I had to see him eventually and it was better to get it over with. Besides, I preferred Chloe not to be in the room, witnessing my awkward response to him.
Alex looked different today. He had some color in his cheeks and there were a pair of wire-rimmed glasses resting on his nose as he read a local newspaper that was laid out on his lap. He didn’t wear glasses back in middle school and they made him look different. More serious, maybe. Kind of dorky, although admittedly still cute. He smiled at me when I came into the room. “Hi, Dr. Miller,” he said.
“Hello, Mr. Connors,” I said.
“Alex,” he corrected me. Patients sometimes told me to call them by their first names and I generally complied. But I never reciprocated the offer. You can never take down the wall of professionalism. I was always Dr. Miller.
Since he was making an effort to be friendly, I forced a smile. “Someone brought you your glasses, I see?”
“Oh yeah,” he said and grinned. “Eva went home and got them for me. I got tired of everything being blurry.”
“You didn’t used to need...” I caught myself before saying what I’d been thinking. “I mean, how long have you needed corrective lenses?”
“It’s been a while,” he said thoughtfully. “I started wearing them way back in high school. I figured after I joined the Computer Club, I may as well complete the picture, right?”
I didn’t laugh at his joke and Alex rambled on, “Eva hates them though. She says they make me look like a huge geek. She wants me to get contacts. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” I repeated, stalling for time. I didn’t feel comfortable commenting on Alex’s appearance.
“Never mind,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t want to know. If you end up agreeing with Eva, I don’t want her to have more ammunition to make me stick pieces of plastic in my eyes.”
I noticed that his fiancée was absent from the room. “Is Eva at work?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yeah,” he said, a little sadly. I guess he wished she could have been there. Really, I thought she probably should have been. When the man you’re going to spend the rest of your life is paralyzed from the waist down, it’s time to take a few days off from work. “She had a really important research meeting this morning. But she’ll be here in the afternoon.”
“I’m sure she will,” I said with more skepticism than I had intended.
Alex seemed a little taken aback. His brows knitted together and I could tell that I had touched a nerve—he was clearly concerned about the thoughts going through Eva’s head. But he was doing a pretty damn good job staying upbeat. I was impressed and a little irritated. “So,” he said. “What did the tests show?”
“All normal,” I said. Chloe had read me off the results and I had looked at the MRI personally. He had no clotting problems, no vascular abnormalities, and no weird diseases. There was absolutely nothing that could account for the stroke.
“Oh.” Alex raised his eyebrows. “Um, is that good?”
“It’s good,” I confirmed, after a hesitation. “It just means we don’t know why you got the infarct in your spinal cord.”
“Oh,” he said again. He looked troubled.
“Well, you were biking,” I said. “Right? It’s possible you overexerted yourself.”
“I’m 33 years old,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t ride a bike?”
“If you’re out of shape, a bike ride can be a lot of exertion.”
Alex stuck out his tongue at me. The gesture was kind of adorable and I found myself blushing. “Okay, you caught me, doc. I was completely out of shape.” He smiled. “I sit in front of a computer all day at work, and mostly all night at home. The biking was part of my new exercise regimen. I was trying to get rid of the old beer belly.”
I didn’t return his smile. I knew that if not for the history between me and Alex, I would probably have liked the man. Hell, he probably would have been my favorite patient. Maybe I would have even harbored a little crush on him.
I went through another physical exam and didn’t find any change. Alex still couldn’t move his legs at all. I could tell he was really trying to move them, trying to remember what signals he used to use to wiggle his toes, but it wasn’t working for him. “Damn,” he said. His face was red from the effort.
“It’s still early,” I said.
“Yeah,” he sighed, letting his head fall back against the pillow. He was staring at me and for a second, a strange look came over his face, like he was remembering something. My stomach sunk. Did he finally recall who I was? “You want to hear something crazy, Dr. Miller?”
I swallowed. “Sure.”
“When I was a kid, it was my dream to become a doctor,” he said.
Was that all he wanted to tell me? He practically gave me a heart attack. My shoulders sagged in relief. “Oh yeah? What happened?”
He gave me a conspiratorial look. “Well, this is the part you can’t tell anyone, especially not Eva. She’d never quit teasing me.” He paused dramatically. “So when I was in my high school biology class, we got our fingers stuck to test our blood type. And when I got my blood taken, I fainted.” He grinned sheepishly. “I figured if seeing one drop of blood made me pass out, it probably was too much of an uphill battle. I figured becoming a code monkey was a safer bet.”
Despite myself, I laughed. Alex looked very proud of himself for finally getting a rise out of me. Then he pulled off his glasses to clean the lenses on his shirt.
Without his glasses, suddenly he looked like the old eleven year old Alex again. I wrung my hands together as I remembered how I’d be innocently sitting in math class and hear him and the kid sitting next to him snickering to each other. I’d whip around my head and snap, “What?”
“Nothing,” Alex would reply, blinking innocently with a barely suppressed smirk. And as I turned my head back toward the blackboard, I’d touch the back of my head and feel dozens of little spitballs they had tossed into my hair. The two boys would dissolve into giggles as I tried to pick the sticky saliva-encrusted paper from my hair. I grew to hate Alex’s sense of humor and the sound of his laughter. I stared at his smiling face now, feeling my blood pressure rise from all those twenty years of pent up anger and hatred.
“It’s probably better you didn’t become a doctor,” I said. “You really need two working legs to be a doctor, so that obviously disqualifies you.”
Alex couldn’t have looked more shocked if I had slugged him in the jaw. His face turned bright red and he stared down at his legs. When he finally looked back up at me, all traces of humor were gone from his eyes.
“Is there anything else?” I asked him, using my most detached and impatient tone.
“No,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
I spun on my heels and left the room. My hands were shaking as I pulled the door closed behind me. I couldn’t believe what I had just said in there. It was beyond unprofessional and I felt slightly ill thinking about it. Yet the crazy thing was that I wasn’t sorry at all. Not one bit.
I own an incredible apartment. For the longest time, I was avoiding purchasing anything, because I assumed I’d eventually want more space for my husband and children. When I hit thirty and realized that the husband and kids bit probably weren’t going to happen, at least not for a while, I decided I was waiting around for nothing. So I found an apartment that I fell in love with and I bought it. For me.
It’s a one bedroom place but it’s huge. There’s wall to wall carpeting and an incredible view of the city. The apartment was not cheap, but it completely worth it. After so many years of living in Manhattan, I can tell a nice apartment when I see one. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for furniture. Most of my apartment was furnished by Ikea. New, generic-looking furniture that would probably last five years tops.
I was tired from my long day, so I debating ordering a pizza, then decided I couldn’t wait and popped a box of frozen Lean Cuisine into the microwave. My entire freezer was packed to the brim with every offering from Lean Cuisine, most of which tasted very questionable. I was sick of TV dinners, but take out was always so greasy, and it just never seemed worth it to cook myself any kind of elaborate meal.
As I watched my shrimp and rice rotating in the microwave, I heard my phone start ringing. An unfamiliar number flashed on the screen. “Hello?”
“Hello. Is this Rachel?” a deep male voice inquired.
I frowned. “Yes. Who is this?”
“It’s Charlie. Charlie Weinberg.”
Charlie. The guy my mother was setting me up with. I felt my stomach churn. I guess I hesitated a bit too long, because he added, “Your mother gave me your number. She said I could call you?”
“Right,” I said, unable to muster any phony enthusiasm. “Hi, Charlie.”
“Is this a bad time?” he asked.
“No, it’s fine,” I said, glancing at the timer on the microwave. You’ve got five minutes, Charlie.
“So would you like to go out to dinner this weekend?” he asked. His voice was very deep, but it wasn’t deep in a sensual way like Barry White or even an intimidating way like Darth Vader. It was deep like an older man’s voice deepens with age and perhaps too many cigars. My mother had said she thought Charlie was in his late thirties, but I was suddenly very concerned that I might be making a date with a sixty year old. “How about Friday night?”
I guess the old man didn’t feel like I warranted a Saturday night invitation. “Uh, sure,” I said.
“Great.” He sounded relieved. “What kind of food do you like?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Anything.” I’m nothing if not low maintenance.
“There’s an Italian restaurant in midtown that I like a lot,” he said. “I can pick you up at seven?”
“Or I can meet you there?” I suggested, except it wasn’t really a suggestion. I didn’t think someone my mother would set me up with would turn out to be a crazy psycho killer, but you never know so I decided it was better if he didn’t see where I lived.
“It’s no problem for me to pick you up.”
“It’s no problem for me to meet you there.”
Charlie was quiet for a minute. Finally, he got it. “Oh. Okay.”
At that moment, the timer went off on my Lean Cuisine, so I excused myself. There was a time when I used to get excited by the idea of a date, but now they were just painful. Something to get through. I felt embarrassed even being seen on a date. I know it was my mother’s dream for me to have a date to Shauna’s wedding, but the chances that it was going to be Charlie were slim to none.