My anatomy exam is today. My stomach is doing butterflies. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Oh my god, what if I throw up during the exam? I will never live that down. Graham will dump me and I’ll have to drop out of school. I’ll have to get a job folding jeans at the Gap.
I arrive at the hospital and press the button for the elevator to take me down to the basement. It arrives but Noel’s not inside. He must be in the other elevator. I let it go and wait for the other elevator to come. When I see him, I feel a rush of relief.
“It’s the big day, huh?” he says, his green eyes meeting mine.
“Noel,” I say, grabbing his arm. He looks surprised but I can’t make myself let go. He’s wearing a T-shirt so I can feel all the reddish hairs on his forearm against my palm. “I’m freaking out.”
“Chloe, listen to me,” he says. “You’re going to do fine. I told you, Conrad always repeats questions. You did the old questions, right?”
“You’re going to do fine,” he says again. His voice is very soothing. He’s got the confidence that I’m lacking. “Everyone gets scared before the first exam. I promise, you’re going to pass.”
“I promise,” he says firmly.
Obviously, he can’t promise me anything. But it makes me feel better when he says it. I feel my shoulders relax slightly.
The elevator doors open on the floor of the library and several of my classmates filter in. I move into the corner, but I keep eye contact with Noel. He never talks to me when there are other students around, but as I leave the elevator, he mouths the words, “Good luck.”
About twenty minutes later, I am standing in front of my cadaver with a clipboard. Structures in each cadaver have been pinned, and each pin is labeled with a number. I am supposed to identify each of the numbered structures. Dr. Conrad explains that we will have one minute for each number, then we will move on to the next station.
“I think you all know how this works,” Dr. Conrad says. He smiles at us. “All right, good luck, everyone. BEGIN!”
I look down at the first labeled structure. It’s a heart. Wait, no, they probably want something more specific than that. It’s a ventricle. It’s the right ventricle.
Triumphantly, I write down my answer. I look up at my classmate on the other side of the cadaver and flash him an optimistic smile. He looks like he wants to strangle me.
Noel’s Memory Book:
I still remember my first anatomy exam. I came two points away from failing it.
I fell in love with Liz on my first day of anatomy. She was my lab partner. She hated me. She thought I was obnoxious and full of myself. I was both of those things. I couldn’t stop being who I was, but every day when I looked at her across that dead body, I knew this was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I had never felt anything like that before.
I asked her out a few weeks into the year. I was really confident back then, thought I was the shit. So I was surprised when she said no. “Why not?” I asked. I had never been turned down by a girl before.
“I don’t think we have anything in common,” she said. She started talking about how all I cared about was my grades and my career. She thought I didn’t have room in my life for a girlfriend and that I’d probably treat her badly.
I tried to convince her, but she wasn’t buying it. I asked her out again and she said no. At a party, I tried to approach her when she was drinking, thinking her guard would be down. It wasn’t.
Liz pointed out that there were plenty of other girls out there, but I didn’t want any of them. I only wanted Liz.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. I told Liz that if she didn’t go out with me, I was going on strike. I wasn’t going to study anymore until she agreed to grant me one date.
I kept my word. I didn’t read my anatomy textbooks or the manual. I went to lab, but I pretty much had no idea what was going on. We had a quiz that I failed by an impressive margin. I made a point of letting Liz see my quiz grade.
“Noel, why are you doing this?” she asked, furrowing her brow in her cute little way.
“Because I want you to see that I care about you more than my anatomy grade,” I explained.
“You’re wasting your time,” she said. “You should study.”
The day before the first anatomy exam, Liz still hadn’t agreed to go out with me. I was completely unprepared for the exam and I was starting to wonder why I had done this to myself. Usually I was a pretty levelheaded guy. Doing some crazy romantic gesture for a girl wasn’t really like me. But I’d never met anyone like Liz before.
That night, soon after dinner, Liz showed up at my door. She was crying. “Please study,” she begged me. “I don’t want you to fail because of me. Please.”
“Will you go out with me?” I asked.
“Yes, yes!” she cried. “Now will you study?”
“Sure,” I said.
I stayed up all night studying for that exam. By the morning, I was just barely prepared enough to swing a passing grade. Unfortunately, Liz wasn’t so lucky, but I didn’t know it at the time.
We had our first date a week later. Four years later, we were engaged. In six months from now, she’s marrying another guy.
I get back to my room and Olivia is crying. Her mascara is running down her cheeks. “I failed,” she sobs. “I know it. I definitely failed.”
“I’m sure you did fine,” I say.
“Don’t try to reassure me!” Olivia snaps. “I know I bombed it! I’m sure of it.”
Honestly, I am feeling a little confident about the exam. I don’t think I did well or anything, but I feel like I passed. Just like Noel promised, several of the questions on the exam were ones I had seen before. I was able to answer those easily. I think I did okay.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Olivia cries, curling up into a little fetal ball on her bed. “This constant studying, these exams… it’s too much!”
“It could be worse.”
Olivia makes a face at me. “At least you have a boyfriend. No guy wants me. I’m going to die alone.”
“All right, you’re being ridiculous,” I say.
“It’s true,” she sniffles. “I’ll have to, like, marry Creepy Elevator Guy and we’ll live in a cave or something.”
I wince. She still refers to Noel as Creepy Elevator Guy. If she knew some of the fantasies I’ve had about him… well, she’d be somewhat surprised, to say the least. I should probably defend him. I should explain that he’s actually a very nice guy. That he’s smart and he gave me advice that probably helped me to pass my exam today. Also, he’s kind of sexy.
Actually, I probably shouldn’t say that last bit.
We are starting the Head and Neck section of anatomy today.
Up until this point, there’s been a green cloth covering our cadaver’s face. I don’t know where the cloth came from, but I thank whoever put it there. I didn’t want to look a dead body in the face.
Today we’re removing the cloth. I’m freaking out a little. I got to the lab early, before any of my partners arrived and I’ve been standing there, psyching myself up. Graham arrives and gives me a funny look. “Why are you just standing there?” he says to me.
I’m embarrassed. “No reason.”
Graham then yanks the cloth off the cadaver’s face. Well, that was easy.
The guy’s face is as gray as the rest of him. His eyes are closed, thank god, and his nose is smooshed into his face. I thought this was going to be harder than it is. Much like the rest of him, his face doesn’t seem real.
Graham flips open the anatomy manual. “Do you want to start peeling the face?”
“Oh god, no!” I cry.
He shrugs. “All right, I can do that. Do you want to cut off the scalp?”
“Um,” I say, “not really.”
Graham frowns at me. “Well, what would you like to do?”
“Sit in the corner and watch?”
Graham flashes me a really condescending smile. No wonder he doesn’t want to study with me. He must think I’m a complete idiot. Why is he even dating me?
“Hello there.” It’s Dr. Conrad, sneaking up behind me again. I remember again what Olivia said about thinking he was sexy. He is kind of sexy, I guess. I don’t think he’s married or anything, which is how the rumors about him and the dead bodies probably started. “You’re starting to work on the face?”
Graham nods. “I was just about to start peeling off his skin.”
Dr. Conrad looks at me. “Chloe, what are the branches of the facial nerve?”
I close my eyes for a second and recall a mnemonic I learned last night: To Zanzibar By Motor Car. “Temporal, zygomatic, buccal, mandibular, and cervical.”
I glance over at Graham, who looks shocked. Dr. Conrad smiles at me. “Excellent, Chloe,” he says. He adds, “Did you contact Elizabeth yet?”
“Yes, I did,” I say. “Thank you.”
When Dr. Conrad moves on, Graham says to me, “Who’s Elizabeth?”
I hesitate. “Nobody.” I don’t want to tell Graham that Dr. Conrad assigned me a mentor in the surgery department. He’d totally make fun of me. I’m sure he’d think it was ridiculous that someone like me was even slightly considering surgery.
We’re dissecting the pharyngeal muscles today. When Olivia and I arrive at the lab, Graham and Claire are both hovering over our cadaver’s jaw. I’m not very excited about this, but at least we’re not dissecting the eyeball today. Ugh.
“Hello, ladies,” Graham says to us. “You’re just in time. Claire here is going to enlighten us all about swallowing. It’s a subject she knows a lot about. Claire?”
Claire looks pissed off. “Go to hell,” she says to him. She storms off.
Graham grins at me. He looks really proud of himself. “Claire’s in rare form today. I spent the last fifteen minutes scheming a way to get her to leave. Pretty good, huh?”
The three of us having been taking turns coming up with ways to insult Claire enough that she’ll leave us alone. It’s surprisingly not difficult.
“Well, now who’s going to enlighten us about swallowing?” Olivia pouts.
“I’ll do it, of course,” Graham says as Olivia and I dissolve into laughter. Some days, anatomy lab can be kind of fun. Med school isn’t so bad.
God, I wonder what I got on that test.
Noel’s Memory Book:
Am drunk. Can’t see straight.
Going to throw up now.
Noel’s Memory Book:
I’m hungover. I haven’t been hungover since before my accident. I have a pounding headache. I need to take something for this. I’ve got Vicodin in the medicine cabinet. Two should do it. Maybe three.
So my date last night. Not good. Obviously.
I caught a cab over to the restaurant to meet Jana. I was very nervous. As I said, this was my first date in eight years. Also, it’s hard for me to tell how I come off to new people I meet. I’m not sure how noticeable my injury is. Sonya and I really worked on my speech and my enunciation is much better. But in addition to the word finding problems that I had, I also had issues with the rhythm of my speech. When I started talking again, everything was a monotone. She had to help me learn how to put inflections in my speech again. I still don’t know if I sound totally normal.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I spent a long time figuring out what to wear. I don’t own much “nice” clothing anymore, but I have a few dress shirts and pants. I never really had a great sense of style. I used to have Liz pick out my outfits for me when we were doing anything special, but I obviously can’t do that anymore. As I was rolling up my pants leg to attach my prosthetic, I had a sudden premonition that the date wasn’t going to work out. How could it? This girl had no fucking clue what she was about to walk into. If she had any idea that I was attaching my left leg to my body at this moment, she’d call and cancel for sure.
I got to the restaurant early and waited in a chair by the hostess, hiding my cane behind the seat. When Jana walked in, I recognized her from her description of the red dress she’d be wearing. Jana was actually sort of pretty. She wasn’t like a model or anything, but she was pretty enough that she didn’t need to get set up by her mother. She was maybe early thirties. Nice blue eyes, trim figure. Of course, I couldn’t help but compare her to Chloe. Chloe is younger, of course, and much less sophisticated. Jana seems a lot more confident in the way she carries herself. I don’t think Jana would have a positive Fingernail Sign. Her fingernails actually looked perfect. They were shiny and painted pink.
Jana’s eyes met mine and she must have recognized my own description of the brown jacket I’d be wearing. She walked over to me and maybe it was my imagination, but she seemed pretty pleased with what she saw. Or maybe “relieved” would be a better word. As I said, I don’t look scary or anything. I look okay from far enough away.
“Noel?” she said. She had a nice voice, kind of husky, sexy.
“Right,” I said. “You must be Jana.”
I got to my feet, locking the knee joint of my brace as surreptitiously as I could. Jana offered me her right hand to shake. I can’t do that since I can’t use my right hand. I subverted the whole thing by instead clasping her hand in my left hand. At the time, it probably seemed like warm gesture or something. I wasn’t wearing my right hand brace, even though I’ve been wearing it most of the time at work now.
Of course, the whole thing was kind of an exercise in futility, considering I had my cane balanced against the wall and in a second she was going to see me walk. I wanted to leave the cane at home, but I knew I couldn’t walk well enough to go without it all evening. I even tried for a few minutes in my living room, to see if I’d miraculously gotten much better at balancing, but I hadn’t. So I brought the cane. When I grabbed it from its place against the wall, I could see her eyes widen and I quickly mumbled, “I hurt my knee last week.” Then added, “ACL tear.” She seemed to buy it, even though if I had an ACL tear, I’d be on crutches probably, not a quad cane.
The hostess led us to our table. The fact that I was nervous was making my muscles tighten up or something and it was actually getting very difficult to walk even with the cane, to the point where I wished I had my forearm crutch, although that surely wouldn’t have gone over well. There were a few moments when I was scared that I would actually fall, but through some miracle, I stayed on my feet. I was really relieved when we were finally seated.
“So I wasn’t clear on what you do,” Jana said to me, trying to make conversation.
For a minute, I was tempted to lie. I had already lied to her once. But what was the point? “I, uh, operate the elevator at the hospital,” I said. “Because, you know, there are a lot of people in stretchers and stuff, so it helps to have someone to hold the doors.” That was how the job description was initially presented to me. Really, it was a pity job, because they knew me and they felt sorry for me. Maybe it would have been useful if I could have done that, but when I was in the main part of the hospital, I used to get all the elevator buttons mixed up and everyone kept missing their floors. So they tucked me away on the academic side of the hospital, where I’m useless but can’t hurt anyone.
“Oh, that’s an interesting job,” Jana said, although she looked very unimpressed.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a bank vice president.”
So she’s a bank vice president and I press buttons in an elevator. I wondered if it would help if I told her I used to be a surgeon. But then I’d have to explain why I’m not anymore.
The waiter dropped a basket with a loaf of bread on our table and I made the stupid mistake of attempting to take some of the bread. I reached for it with my left hand but it didn’t come free right away, so I instinctively reached out and steadied the loaf with my right hand like I usually do. Jana saw and her eyes widened. She looked at my face again and I could see this time she was taking in all the scars. I guess she figured out my story about the ACL injury was bullshit. I lowered my eyes. I wanted to crawl under the table.
I opened up my menu with my left hand. I was keeping my right hand under the table for the rest of the meal. I wasn’t giving her another chance to get scared off. The bad news was that it was one of those menus that was a whole dense page of writing, much of which appeared to be in Italian. It was overwhelming. With the noise in the restaurant and the stress of having Jana looking at me and the time pressure to pick something before the waiter came back, I was having a lot of trouble focusing on the menu. I mean, I can read. That’s not the problem. But unless I have complete quiet, I can’t read more than a sentence without having to read it over and over again.
The waiter returned much too soon. He asked me what I wanted and I blanked. It needed to be something I didn’t need to cut with a knife. Well, this was an Italian restaurant. “Lasagna?”
“We don’t have lasagna,” the waiter said.
How was it possible an Italian restaurant didn’t have lasagna? “Um, spaghetti?”
Are you freaking kidding me? “Just, you know, with tomato sauce.”
The waiter kind of looked at me, but thank god, he accepted that order. Jana was staring at me though. It was really awkward after that. I half expected her to get a call from one of her girlfriends with an emergency that would require her to rush out. That would have been great, actually. Instead, we both had to sit through this date. I don’t think it would have gone good anyway. Jana wasn’t the kind of girl I like. She was too upscale. If I were Billy Joel, I’d be writing a song about her, you know what I’m talking about. And she was obviously looking for someone a lot better than me.
She did a pretty good job of faking it though. She asked me polite questions about my parents and my siblings. I did my best to answer and repeated the same questions for her. Mostly I had to concentrate on trying to eat the spaghetti, which is not the easiest pasta to eat with your left hand. Why didn’t I say ziti?
When the check came, I instinctively reached for it. I always paid the checks when I went out with Liz. Except now I don’t have a credit card. I did have enough cash in my wallet to pay the bill, but as soon as I saw the numbers, I felt overwhelmed. I had no idea how to calculate the tip or figure out how to count out the money to leave.
I stared at the check for about five minutes before Jana said, “Do you need help?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
Basically, I handed over my wallet and she figured out how much cash to leave. This was not my finest moment.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Not for anything in particular, but I felt like I had to say it.
“It’s okay,” Jana said. “I mean, any single guy over thirty, there’s always something wrong with him. I’m used to it by now.”
Ouch. But yeah, she was right.
There wasn’t even a pretense of my saying I’d call her. There was no point. I also got the feeling my mother wasn’t going to have any more dates for me from her church.
During the cab right home, I got really depressed. It was a bad date, but there wasn’t anything I could have done to make it better. How can I ever hope to impress a girl if I can’t even figure out how to pay the check? That’s it, I’m screwed. I have zero chance of ever finding a girlfriend. I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life.
“Hey,” I said to the cab driver. “Can you pull over in front of that liquor store for a minute?”
I bought a bottle of vodka, then got back in the cab. I haven’t had any alcohol since before my accident. I’m not supposed to, but I really didn’t care anymore. I needed something to make me go numb. When I got home, I poured some in a cup. I didn’t bother to cut it with juice or anything. I took a sip and my throat burned. Pretty soon after, I felt a little better about the whole date with Jana.
The next thing I remember is being woken up by the door to my apartment opening. It was Rose. My head was killing me and just the sound of the door shutting closed was agony. I had been sleeping on the couch and my whole body ached. I was completely dressed too. I had even left both my prosthetic and my KAFO brace on overnight, which I’m not supposed to do.
“Noel?” Rose looked confused. “Were you sleeping on the couch all night?”
“Er,” I said. I glanced over at the dining table and saw the bottle of vodka was still there. About a quarter of it was gone. Wow, I drank a lot.
“Noel!” Rose cried. “Were you drinking?”
The loud sound of her voice set off the pain in my head. I lowered my face into my hands. “Kind of.”
“How could you do that?” Rose said. She was really upset. “You just had a seizure a few weeks ago! You know you’re not supposed to drink!”
I couldn’t listen to this. I buried my face into the fabric of the cheap couch. “Please get out, Rose.”
“No, I’m not leaving,” she said. “You feel like crap, right? Well, good. Maybe you won’t do it again.”
“I’m an adult,” I said. “I can do what I want.”
“Noel,” she said. Her voice got a little more gentle. “I don’t think you realize quite how impaired you are. You need to listen to me, okay?”
You don’t realize quite how impaired you are. I wanted to protest, but I was scared she was right. Jana figured it out pretty quick. As much as I sometimes feel like my old self, I know I’m a lot different. I guess I need to try to remember that.