I had run out of the house in such a rush that I worried as I approached Neil Stillman’s office that I had forgotten something crucial, like my bra. Since I was trying to go for the non-crazy look, I carefully smoothed out my hair, redid my bun, and put on my most sane expression before knocking on the door.
Neil Stillman had the kind of office that I hoped to have one day if I didn’t end up getting fired. It was gigantic with more diplomas and awards on the walls than I have fingers and toes. Every surface available to sit on was made from leather and I could see my face in the polished surface of his marble desk. And best of all, he actually had windows. Neil Stillman himself was an academic-looking man with a lean build and silver hair that I’ve always thought made him look very distinguished. I thought about telling him that now. A compliment never hurt.
“Hello, Rachel,” he said.
I quickly wiped my hand on my pants before taking his. I was studying his face, trying to gauge how angry he seemed. Maybe this offense was only worthy of a warning.
“Why don’t you have a seat?” he offered.
Have a seat. That meant bad news. In movies, people were told to sit down when someone was about to deliver awful news. It makes me think of all the times I’ve delivered bad news to patients and family members while standing up.
“Rachel,” he began, “how long have you been running the stroke unit?”
“About two years,” I squeaked.
Neil nodded thoughtfully. He leaned back in his seat, still staring at me. “The thing is,” he said, “we’re thinking about expanding over the next year or two. Adding another dozen beds.”
“Do you think you’re up for the task?” Neil asked me, raising his eyebrows. “You’d get a second resident, of course, as well as a significant salary increase, and…” He paused dramatically. “A bigger office.”
I blinked. Was this seriously why he called me here for this meeting? To promote me? “Of course I’m up for it,” I said. “You know you can count on me.”
Neil’s face broke into a smile. “I know I can,” he said. “You’ve never disappointed me once, Rachel.”
I really couldn’t believe it. I came in here thinking I would be reprimanded or even fired, but instead I was on the brink of a major promotion. And my god, I wanted that promotion, if only for the bigger office. Just one more reason not to let this get screwed up. I had to do whatever it took to make things right with Alex. I would grovel if I had to. Offer him money, goods and services. I’d do anything, whatever it took.
Fortunately, Alex saved me the trouble of having to look for him. As I turned the corner toward my office, I saw him sitting in his wheelchair, scanning the hallway, presumably on the lookout for me. When I first laid eyes on him, I stopped instinctively, and considered turning back. As much as I had wanted to find Alex and make things right with him, I didn’t feel ready to do so right this moment.
I watched him for a second, before he saw me. His reddish brown hair was curling a bit more on the ends now that he was past due for a haircut, and he had a stubble on his chin that reminded me that he was no longer the baby-faced eleven year old I’d known all those years ago. He was a man now, which he confirmed as he tugged on the collar of his T-shirt and I could see the dark hairs of his chest.
The therapists had shown him how to shift his weight in his chair in order to prevent skins sores and I watched him do it now. His legs moved when he lifted himself up, but then settled back into place. He still couldn’t move his legs at all, not even one twitch. No matter what the outcome was with Eva, good or bad, I knew that he wasn’t going to make a completely recovery from his stroke. He was probably going to have to depend on a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He knew it too, I’m pretty sure.
Alex lifted his gray eyes to meet mine and I was busted. I clutched my purse to my chest, still not sure what to say. I wondered if he was coming here to tell me personally that he’d reported me the hospital’s medical director and I was being fired.
“Hi, Rachel,” he said in a quiet, subdued voice. I missed the respect in his voice when he used to call me Dr. Miller, but I guess it would be weird now, considering we knew each other as kids. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
I nodded wordlessly and unlocked the door to my office with shaking fingers. I pushed past him, dumped my purse on my desk, and sunk into my chair. Alex was struggling a little to get through my doorway, which was just as tiny as the rest of the office. Hospital wheelchairs are not exactly compact. He had to grab the edges of the doorway to help himself get through. I thought about trying to help him, but I just couldn’t make myself do it.
Once he was inside, I closed the door behind him, not wanting anyone else to hear what he was going to say to me. He had to stop short of my desk because there was a chair in the way and after one feeble attempt to push it out of the way, he gave up. He sighed, crossed his arms and looked up at me. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, which made him look more like the old Alex, the one who had made my life miserable all those years ago.
“Listen,” Alex said. He lowered his eyes and played with the hem of his Mets T-shirt. Suddenly I remembered that he often used to wear a Mets cap during recess in school and my stomach churned. “The reason I’m here is… I want to apologize.”
I stared at him. That was the last thing I had expected him to say. I had expected to be on my knees groveling by now. “What?”
“I just…” He bit his lip. “I was thinking about what happened all those years ago. Remembering some of the things I said to you. You’re right… I was an asshole. I’m embarrassed just thinking about it. I said some really awful things to you.”
“That’s true,” I said.
He smiled crookedly. “If it makes you feel any better, I got it just as bad as you did that year. I remember some eighth grader pushed me down a flight of stairs and I sprained my wrist. Oh, and I got punched in the stomach. Couldn’t eat for two days.”
I felt a twinge of irritation that he’d compare the damage he did to me to a sprained wrist. He still didn’t get it. “Yeah, I guess everyone is a jerk in middle school.”
“I guess so.” He took a breath. “But the thing is, I really didn’t mean to be a jerk to you. I mean, I had no idea what I was doing was bothering you so much. I really didn’t. I thought… I don’t know…”
I frowned at him. “What did you think? You thought I liked being made fun of every day?” Easy, Rachel. He’s apologizing.
“Well… yeah,” Alex said with a nervous laugh. He shrugged sheepishly. “I thought… you know, it was kind of like flirting. You were so cool about it. I thought…”
What was Alex getting at? “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“You knew I had a huge crush on you…. didn’t you?” His gray eyes met mine and his face turned bright pink. “I mean, I thought for sure you knew. I thought it was obvious.”
What? I was so shocked, I couldn’t even speak. Alex Connors had a crush on me? That wasn’t possible. It wasn’t physically possible. But looking at his face now, it was clear that he meant it, that he wasn’t just messing with me.
He started babbling: “I thought you were really cute and I’ve always had a thing for smart girls… and you were definitely a lot smarter than me. You always got higher grades than me on the math tests. And I just thought you were… really cool, I don’t know.”
“And that’s how you thought you were supposed to flirt?” I asked incredulously. “The things you said to me…”
“Hey, I was eleven years old!” he cried. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I didn’t know how to talk to you, so… that’s what I did. I was just trying to get your attention, I guess. Whenever I told you that your butt looked big, I was really saying that I was in love with you. I mean, I never even really thought your butt looked big. I swear. I thought you had a pretty nice butt, to be honest.”
“So let me get this straight,” I said skeptically. “Your butt looks big equals I’m in love with you. That correct?”
“Something like that,” Alex mumbled. “Look, this is all pretty embarrassing for me to admit. Can’t you appreciate the effort I’m making?”
I leaned back in my seat. I felt shaken by Alex’s confession. All these years, I had thought of him as this awful guy who made it his mission to destroy my life. When in reality, my mother had been right: he was just paying attention to me because he liked me. Was that really possible? I still wasn’t sure if I believed it. Plus it would mean my mother was actually right about something.
I noticed Alex was giving me kind of a funny look. I tolerated it for a minute, before demanding, “What?”
“I just can’t get over it,” he mused, shaking his head. “Rachel Miller. After all these years. I just can’t believe it’s really you.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, grinning at me. “It’s just kind of cool, that’s all.”
I felt my lips gradually twitching up into a smile. It was kind of cool to realize that Alex had liked me way back when. Yes, I looked so different now that I was apparently virtually unrecognizable. But still. It gave me a little burst of self-esteem.
“Anyway,” he went on. “Thanks for calling Eva last night.”
“Oh.” Now it was my turn to blush. “How did you…?”
“She called to yell at me for siccing you on her.” He rolled his eyes. “You were right, by the way.”
He looked away. “She was going to leave me no matter what. Her mind was all made up. I knew it all along, I guess. I just wanted someone else to blame.”
Once again, I was at a loss for words. “I’m sorry,” I said.
He shrugged. “It’s probably for the best. She was right—I was carrying the relationship practically the whole time. She was never that into me.” He sighed. “It just sucks to get dumped though, especially now.”
I tried to conjure up things other people had said to me the times I got dumped. “You’ll find someone else.”
Alex looked down at his legs and snorted. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
I wanted to say something else positive, but I knew it was going to be empty words. He was right that it sucked that Eva dumped him in this condition and I wasn’t terribly proud of my part in the matter. He was also right that between rehab and getting his life back on track and being disabled, he probably wasn’t going to be meeting any women any time soon. He was almost definitely going to end up in the unfortunate situation where the woman who dumped him was going to find someone else before he did.
“It’s okay,” he said quickly. “I’ll be okay. You don’t have to get the big guy to watch me again tonight.”
I blushed. “Sorry about that.”
He smiled wryly. “What are you talking about? I’m touched you were so concerned for my safety. Especially since you’re apparently not my doctor anymore.”
“I thought signing off was appropriate,” I explained, still blushing.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he murmured. “So… does that mean you’re not going to come visit me anymore?”
There was something mildly suggestive in his voice. Maybe it was unintentional on his part. Or maybe I had just imagined it because he had confessed he had a crush on me when we were eleven. That was probably it.
“I’ve got some other patients in rehab,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll see each other around the hallways.”
Again, maybe it was my imagination, but he looked really pleased by my response. “It’s really nice seeing you again, Rachel,” he said. “Really.”
Strangely enough, he was right. It was.
To be continued...