On the morning of any date, I wake up with butterflies in my stomach. Even before I remember I’ve got a date, my body is already in pre-date mode. I do things differently in the morning when I have a date that evening, which makes me think that I probably don’t care enough about my appearance on non-date days. One thing I do differently is that I use a real shampoo and conditioner, rather than my usual shampoo and conditioner in one. I don’t know if it actually makes any difference at all, but I feel like the shampoo + conditioner is for people who have given up and don’t give a shit how they look anymore. The other thing I do is to blow-dry my hair, lifting and fluffing each lock of hair with tender loving care instead of just yanking my hair into my usual wet bun. Just to give you an idea of how long it had been since I had a date, there was a thick layer of dust on my blow-dryer.
I wore baggy black slacks with a navy blue sweater to work today, thinking I’d change for the date when I got home as well as putting on make-up. Over the years, I’ve probably saved myself cumulative days of time by never wearing make-up to work. The Freshly Made Up look just isn’t me, and I’ve always felt like women who wore a lot of make-up looked like they were trying too hard.
When I arrived on the stroke unit roughly forty minutes after leaving my apartment, I found Chloe trapped in Mr. Arnold’s room. Mr. Arnold was a 62 year old diabetic with a left middle cerebral artery stroke. He was also hopelessly in love with Chloe. The whole thing was a little embarrassing, although Chloe didn’t seem to mind.
“Doesn’t she look pretty today?” Mr. Arnold said to me as Chloe wrote down his urine output for yesterday.
“Uh huh,” I muttered.
Chloe is the sort of doctor that patients get crushes on all the time. I would say that about 30% of the patients that we’ve had on our service have made comments about her looks at one time or another. Between you and me, I’ve never had a patient tell me I looked pretty. Back when I was in my mid-twenties, they used to comment that I looked “young,” mostly in kind of a disparaging voice, but I don’t even get that anymore. The biggest compliment on my appearance that I’ve gotten in the last two years is when a patient told me he liked the lettering on my white coat.
Alex’s room was the last one on the hallway. I gave my usual single warning knock and then opened the door. Maybe a little too hastily because I caught Alex and Eva in bed together. Making out. Her fingers were laced through his hair as they kissed, and his right hand was cupping her left breast through her blouse. Apparently, they hadn’t heard the knock.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” I said, backing out the door. I did my best to look away.
“No, wait!” Eva cried, pulling away from him and rolling out of the bed. “Don’t leave, Dr. Miller. I’m sorry. We weren’t… I mean, we were just… you know…”
She looked to her fiancé for help, but he simply grinned. Chloe had remarked that Alex seemed depressed, but he looked pretty damn happy right now.
“I’m sorry,” Eva said again, looking very uncomfortable. She nudged Alex and he laughed.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, too,” he said, still smiling and not sounding very sorry at all. “It was entirely my fault.”
Eva nodded her agreement with this statement.
Alex reached over to the nighttable and picked up his glasses. His legs didn’t seem to be moving at all. It had been a week, which was still early, but it would have been nice to see something in the way of return of function. Completely dead legs were a bad sign.
As he slid the lenses up his nose, I noticed a look of disapproval on Eva’s face. I remembered what Alex had told me about her wanting him to get contacts. The truth that I would never reveal to anyone was that I disagreed with her. I thought the glasses were sexy. But I found it interesting that Alex was unwilling to attempt contact lenses to appease his fiancée.
“It’s okay, whatever you were doing,” I said. At least they were dressed. Kissing was allowed, but I was a little concerned about how far this would have gone if I hadn’t walked in on them right then. I found myself wondering how regular their usual sex life was. Did they do it once a week on Saturdays? A quickie every morning right before work? Nightly lovemaking followed by falling asleep cuddled in each other’s arms? God, why was I thinking about this? “Just, um, keep the lewdness to a minimum, okay?”
“Sure,” Alex said.
I felt a jab of jealousy. I remembered how I felt that jab every time I used to see Alex talking to another girl in our math class, back when I still had a crush on him. Especially if it was a pretty girl. It always seemed like girls were flirting with Alex. There was a girl who sat behind him named Cammie, who was always borrowing his math homework to copy. “You always get all the right answers,” Cammie would say, touching Alex’s arm as she returned his homework. “Thanks for helping me out.”
“No problem,” Alex would say with a smile. And I’d analyze that smile, wondering if he was in love with her. I debated if I should ask him if I could copy his homework, if that would make him like me better. After all, weren’t all guys suckers for girls who needed help?
Once Alex started tormenting me, his popularity with the opposite sex seemed to skyrocket. It seemed like he was always talking to a cute girl in the class. It didn’t seem fair that he should get attention from girls at my expense.
Of course, I wasn’t jealous because I was in love with Alex or anything. I was just angry that after he was such an asshole to me, he still managed to fall in love and get married before me.
“How’s your leg doing?” Chloe asked.
Alex pulled the sheets off his left leg, which looked just as swollen as yesterday. “Still kind of hurts. I got some Vicodin this morning.”
“The important thing is that your lungs are protected,” I said. I had called the unit personally last night to make sure the filter was put in. “We can’t do much about the clot without risking making the bleed in your spine worse. You don’t want that, do you?”
“Obviously not,” Alex said with a wry smile.
“I put in a consult for inpatient rehabilitation,” Chloe told them. “If they accept you, then you can go to the rehab unit downstairs and get aggressive physical therapy.”
“You mean to help him walk?” Eva asked eagerly.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I snapped, as Eva’s face fell.
There was a silence in the room. It always got very quiet any time I did anything to puncture their hope that Alex would make a full recovery and walk out of the hospital. Alex was picking at his blanket with his right hand and not looking at me. Every time I was in this room, I felt an overpowering urge to dash any hope they had. Hope is important. When hope is gone, that’s when people kill themselves. Not that I wanted Alex to kill himself, but I didn’t enjoy seeing him rolling around in bed with his fiancée either.
“I was wondering,” Eva said, “if there were any updates on what caused the stroke?”
I shook my head. “All the labs were normal. The imaging didn’t really show any cause.”
Eva’s brow furrowed. “Can I see it?”
I sighed audibly. It was my pet peeve when family members wanted to look at films that we assured them were normal. As if they were going to catch some grossly abnormal finding that we, the trained physicians, somehow missed.
“I could show her,” Chloe offered.
“Fine,” I huffed as Eva eagerly jumped out of her chair. I looked at Alex, “Do you want to see too?”
He looked down at his legs. “Yeah, um, no… I think I’ll pass.”
“We can get you a wheelchair,” Chloe suggested.
Alex’s eyes widened and he shook his head. “No, really, that’s okay.”
Chloe and Eva took off to look at the films, and I lingered behind. Alex was looking out the window by his bed. The flush that had been in his cheeks when Eva had been in bed with him had completely disappeared.
“You know,” I said, interrupting his thoughts, “you’re going to have to start using the wheelchair eventually.”
Alex looked back to me. I thought I might have gone too far and he was going to call me an evil bitch and ask what the hell was wrong with me. Instead, he simply nodded. “I know,” he said. “I’m just trying to let Eva remain in denial for a few more days.”
I was surprised. That was more insight than I had expected from him.
“She’s having a lot of trouble dealing with all this,” he explained. “She’s got this idea that in a couple of weeks, I’m going to walk out of here, fully recovered. But that’s not the case, is it?” Alex was watching my face carefully as he spoke.
“It’s still really too early to—”
“Yeah, bullshit,” he snorted. “That’s what you say, but I see the look on your face when you examine me. You don’t think I’m going to ever fully recover from this, do you?”
I looked into Alex’s gray eyes. “No,” I said truthfully. “I don’t.”
He nodded again. “I appreciate your honesty,” he said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
He added, “Don’t tell Eva.”
Just as I was getting ready to go home for the day, I got a page from Nancy, another nurse on the stroke unit. “It’s Connors in room 11,” she reported. Of course. “We took his Foley catheter out this morning and he hasn’t peed all day.”
That was consistent with the damage to his spinal cord, but there was always a chance his bladder would be spared damage. No luck for him though. Alex wasn’t going to like what happened next.
I could have told Nancy to catheterize Alex and gone home, but I remembered what Grace said about getting a little revenge, and I decided to stop by the unit myself. Not that I was going to stick anything in Alex’s penis, but I wanted to be the one to deliver the news.
Alex was lying in bed, just like he’d been this morning. He looked distinctly uncomfortable, which is probably how anyone would look who hadn’t peed all day. There was relief in his gray eyes when I walked into the room. “Thank god you’re here, Dr. Miller,” he said.
My hands clenched into fists. Despite everything, he actually liked me. How could he like me? It meant I was doing something wrong. “I heard you’re having a problem.”
“Yeah,” he confirmed. “I can’t… you know, pee. I feel like I need to, but when I try, I just… can’t.”
I nodded. “Yes, that’s not too surprising. I’ve asked Nancy to catheterize your bladder.”
“Oh, okay.” Alex’s face fell. “So, um, is there some medication I should take? How long am I going to have trouble with this?”
“It could be permanent,” I told him.
His eyes widened. “Permanent?”
“People with damage to their spinal cord have a dyssynergy between their bladder and the sphincter that lets urine out,” I explained. “There really isn’t any way to treat that aside from catheterizing your bladder at regular intervals. We’ll teach you how to do it while you’re here so that you can continue doing it at home.”
Alex was very pale. It bothered me that Alex always seemed like such a nice guy, which prevented me from some of the satisfaction of delivering this news to him.
At that moment, Eva breezed in the room clutching a brown paper bag with the smell of Ray’s pizza surrounding her. “Dinner!” she announced. She tossed the pizza on the night table and frowned, noting the somber mood in the room. “What’s going on?”
I was only too happy to inform Eva that her fiancé would need his bladder catheterized for the rest of his life, but when I looked at Alex, his eyes were wide and he was shaking his head at me. “Dr. Miller was just taking a look at my leg,” he told Eva.
“Ah,” she said. “Well, I’m going to hit the ladies room, so I’ll give you some privacy.”
As soon as Eva was gone, Alex said, “Thank you for not saying anything.”
I sighed. First he didn’t want Eva to see him in a wheelchair, now this. “You know,” I said, “if you’re going to marry her, she’s going to find out eventually. If your fiancé can’t be someone who supports you when you’re sick, then…”
“She supports me,” he said quickly. Too quickly. “I just need some time. Please.”
It wasn’t my place to tell Eva personal medical information about the man she was marrying. But the whole thing made me wonder about the nature of Alex and Eva’s relationship. It seemed to me that he felt things were hanging together pretty tenuously.