Everyone has large and small regrets in their lives. My largest regret is falling asleep at the wheel. One of my smaller regrets is speaking up for Chloe in the elevator.
Somehow I thought she respected me and liked me. Maybe even… I don’t know. Anyway, I was obviously wrong. How did I misread that so badly? I hate these snot-nosed med students. They think they’re completely above me. I was in their shoes way back when. I studied my ass off for anatomy. I went without sleep for a chance to slice someone open in the middle of the night.
Maybe Chloe is more like Liz than I thought. And that reminds me, why the hell was she talking about orthopedic surgery? What a crazy coincidence. As much as I defended her, I don’t want her to become a surgeon. She’s a nice girl. That would ruin her. Just like it ruined Liz.
I took a quick break at work today to get a drink of water from the fountain right outside the elevator. While my head was bowed down to lap up the slightly metallic-tasting water, I felt someone shove me. Hard. I stumbled, choking on the water. I backed away from the fountain, wiping my face with the back of my curled up right hand as I fumbled for the handle of my cane to keep me upright. It had toppled onto the floor so I grabbed onto the fountain to keep my balance while I looked up to see who had pushed me.
It was Graham, Chloe’s boyfriend. Shit. I guess I had this coming.
“Hey,” he said. He looked really pissed off. He took a menacing step toward me. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
I froze, not sure what to do. Graham was about my height and not a particularly big guy, but he was in decent shape, had two working arms to my one, and two working legs to my none. And my cane was still out of reach. In a fight, I thought he’d very likely win.
“I know you have a stupid little crush on Chloe,” he said. I guess I’m pretty transparent. “But she’s my girlfriend. And even if she wasn’t, you have to realize she would never ever go out with you in a million years.”
Yeah, no kidding. “Thanks for the tip,” I said through my teeth.
“I want you to stay away from Chloe,” Graham said.
“And what if I don’t?”
Graham took another step toward me, but I didn’t budge. All right, maybe he could kick my ass. But that didn’t mean I was afraid of him. So what if I got my ass kicked? I already nearly died once. There was nothing Graham could do to me that was worse than that. Besides, I kind of suspected Graham was full of it. In fact, I was almost 100% sure he was all talk.
“What?” I said, almost smiling. “You going to hit me?”
“I could rip you apart,” he snarled.
“Go ahead, asshole,” I challenged him.
Graham didn’t seem like the kind of guy who let his temper get the better of him. He knew that if he got caught fighting in the hospital, that would be a big deal. Something that could have resulted in him getting kicked out of school. I’m sure I wasn’t worth it to him.
“Just stay away from Chloe, okay?” he said.
He didn’t really have to worry. Chloe made it pretty clear she didn’t want to have much to do with me. But I got some satisfaction out of letting Graham believe otherwise.
Graham and I have been waiting for the elevator to get down to the anatomy labs for several minutes when it finally arrives. Noel is sitting there inside, on his stool, looking bored out of his mind as usual. He looks away when he sees us. He hates me now. I’m sure of it. And I deserve it.
As we board the elevator, Graham reaches out and pushes the button for the floor we want. I almost gasp when he does it. Even Noel looks really surprised. “You’re not supposed to do that,” he says.
“Oh, really?” Graham replies, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Hey, don’t worry, elevator guy. I’m not trying to steal your job.”
Graham is smirking. Noel doesn’t say anything, but glares at him with absolute hatred. Graham glares back. For a second, I’m terrified that one of them might throw a punch. This isn’t because of me. It can’t be. The two of them just clash, for some reason. Graham has been baiting Noel since day one.
The ride is horribly tense. As we get out, I suppress the urge to apologize for Graham’s behavior. I try to catch Noel’s eyes, but he won’t look at me.
“Why did you do that?” I whisper to Graham as the elevator doors close behind us.
“I’m so goddamn sick of that guy,” Graham says. “He’s got some nerve, he really does. Especially the way he acts around you.”
My cheeks turn red. I want to defend Noel, but I don’t know what to say. Graham’s right… more than once, Noel’s gone out of his way to make Graham look bad in front of me.
“I think he’s got some stupid little crush on you,” Graham goes on. “Can you imagine?”
I feel like my face is going to burst into flames. If Graham had any remote idea of how I’ve been fantasizing about Noel, about how cute and sexy I think he is, he’d be in shock. He’s not going to find out though. My fantasies are going to remain just that: fantasies. It’s not meant to happen between me and Noel. I see that now.
Elizabeth is showing me how to scrub. The knee replacement surgery is tomorrow so she doesn’t want me to have any problems. I think she’s more excited about this than I am. I mean, I’m excited, sort of. I just don’t know if surgery is it for me. But I guess I’ll find out.
I’m wearing a pair of scrubs that Elizabeth lent me. We’re actually almost the same size, but I’m slightly shorter and she’s slightly thinner. So basically, I’m a short fat version of Elizabeth. That’s okay. Elizabeth is way too thin anyway.
We stand in front of a sink outside the OR. Elizabeth holds out her raw, red hands. “Once you scrub in on more surgeries,” she says, “you’ll get faster at scrubbing. The first few times, you’re going to be really slow. Probably three or four people will start and finish scrubbing before you finish one hand.”
I like starting out any new task by being told that I’m likely going to suck at it.
Elizabeth opens up a sponge and tells me to do the same. “So for each finger, you need to scrub each third of the finger ten times.”
“Each third of the finger?” I repeat incredulously.
I make some quick calculations. That means I’ll have to scrub each finger thirty times and I have ten fingers. So that’s three hundred scrubs just for my fingers. That doesn’t even take into account my palms and lower arms. The number is probably well in the thousands. I expect that scrubbing may take me longer than the knee replacement.
After we finish the lesson on scrubbing, Elizabeth shows me how to back into the OR with my hands in front of me, then shows me how the nurse will gown and glove me. Then she gives me tips for getting through the knee surgery. By the time we finish up, we’ve been here for over an hour. I can’t believe Elizabeth is spending so much time with me.
“This is really nice of you,” I say.
Elizabeth smiles at me. “I like the idea of more women in surgery,” she says. “I wish I had someone like me around when I was first starting out.” I think she sees a lot of herself in me. I take it as a compliment, but I still don’t quite understand it.
“Well, thank you,” I say.
“Do you want to go get some coffee?” she asks me.
There’s a slight desperation in Elizabeth’s voice. Here she is, a surgery resident and off-duty, and she doesn’t want to go home. I’d think all she’d want to do is get out of the hospital. I can’t help but wonder if it has something to do with that guy she’s engaged to, Glenn. I don’t think I’d want to go home to him either.
“Okay,” I say. “But I want to change. I left my clothes down in my locker by the anatomy labs.”
Elizabeth’s eyes light up. “The anatomy labs?”
“You… want to come?”
Her face flushes slightly. “Well, it would be sort of… nostalgic for me. That’s where it all began, you know. Might be fun.” She giggles. “Hey, is there still that rumor about Dr. Conrad violating the cadavers at night?”
“God, yes,” I say.
She laughs out loud. “I don’t think it’s really true.”
“Probably not,” I admit.
She grins. “All right, let me get my white coat and let’s go.” Then she turns her head and mumbles something that sounds like, “He’s probably gone by now.”
We head over to the academic side of the hospital. I’ve been avoiding Noel since he yelled at Graham, although it’s hard. I’ve mostly been taking stairs. I’ve been getting in great shape. I should have embarrassed myself in front of the elevator guy months ago.
Actually, the truth is, Noel didn’t seem that angry at me. He more just seemed subdued and kind of sad. I feel so guilty about what I said. Noel and I were friends and he’s helped me a lot. I really liked him. I shouldn’t have treated him that way. He didn’t deserve it. The truth is, Graham deserved to get yelled at for being a sexist jackass.
The elevator doors open and of course, there he is. And as he sees me, his face fills with what I can only describe as RAGE. I’ve never seen him look so angry before. Actually, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone look so angry in real life before. For a second, I’m scared he’s going to hit me.
“What are you doing here?” he growls.
I’m about to stammer something, when Elizabeth speaks up, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d still be here.”
I blink my eyes, confused.
“I’m always here,” Noel says. I realize now that he wasn’t staring at me, he was staring at Elizabeth. Huh, that’s weird. “Why don’t you just stay on your side of the hospital and I’ll stay on mine?”
“Look,” Elizabeth says, “you need to be grown up about this. We both work here.”
“Grown up?” Noel repeats, his face turning almost purple. “You want to talk to me about being grown up, Liz? You’re just the picture of a mature adult, aren’t you? Real responsible. Caring. Sensitive.”
“Stop being a dick.”
“Get the fuck out of my elevator.”
Noel takes a step toward her and she flinches. She’s flustered. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but I really want to leave. I’m relieved when Elizabeth turns to me and says, “Let’s use another elevator, Chloe.”
Noel’s head snaps back in surprise. I don’t even think he realized I was standing there. He stares at me. “Chloe, you… know each other?”
My mouth is too dry to speak, but Elizabeth says, “I’m Chloe’s mentor.”
Noel’s jaw drops open. He looks between the two of us, shaking his head in disbelief. He turns his attention back on Elizabeth. “I swear to god,” he says to her. “You stay away from me. I never ever want to see you again.”
The doors to the elevator close. Elizabeth runs a hand through her hair to smooth it out and I can see she’s shaking. She tries to laugh but it comes out sounding strangled. “I… I’m sorry about that,” she says.
“How do you know Noel?” I ask her.
“We were… engaged,” she says.
Oh. My. God. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Doctor Perfect Elizabeth Woodhouse was engaged to… the elevator guy? Is this some kind of joke?
“You remember I told you about the boyfriend I had in med school?” she says. “The wannabe surgeon? That was Noel.”
I ought to be completely shocked, but somehow I’m not. I always thought in the back of my mind there was more to Noel than I thought. Suddenly everything makes sense. That’s how he knew so much about being a med student and how to study for the exams.
Except what happened? Why did he quit? Why isn’t he married to Elizabeth right now? Part of me doesn’t want to know and part of me is afraid I already know.
“Maybe we should get that coffee now,” Elizabeth says.
“Good idea,” I say.
I forget about changing out of my scrubs and we go straight to the cafeteria. Elizabeth buys me the coffee, which is good since my wallet is in my locker and there’s no way I’m going near that elevator again until I’m sure Noel is long gone.
We settle into a table in the cafeteria. Elizabeth cups her coffee between her hands, as if holding it for comfort. “How do you know Noel?” she asks me.
I can’t tell her about how he’s been helping me and the fantasies I’ve had about him. So instead I just say, “Well, I see him in the elevator all the time.”
“Does he seem… okay?” she asks. Her brow is furrowed.
“I guess,” I say. “I don’t know. It’s a pretty crummy job.”
She sighs and brings the coffee to her lips. She takes a sip and closes her eyes. “Noel was the love of my life,” she says. “Please don’t tell Glenn I said so.”
I don’t know what to say to that aside from, “I won’t.”
“We started dating at the beginning of my first year of med school,” she says. “He was my anatomy lab partner. I didn’t want to go out with him at first. I thought he was a huge asshole. But he was really persistent… it was kind of flattering. Finally, he said he wasn’t going to study another word until I agreed to go on one date with him. He almost failed the first anatomy midterm because of me.”
“That’s…” I almost say, That’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard. But it occurs to me that my sense of romance is pretty warped if that’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard. “He was very competitive?”
“Very,” Elizabeth nods vigorously. “Really obsessed with studying and grades. Would cut off his own pinkie finger for an extra point on an exam. You wouldn’t know it from looking at him. He looks… benign.” She laughs. “Actually, I thought he was really cute the first time I met him. It was hard to keep turning him down.”
I take a sip of my own coffee. I’d almost forgotten about it. I’m paying rapt attention.
“He was a great boyfriend though,” she says. “As much as he cared about studying, he cared about me more. I never doubted his feelings for me. He loved me so much. He wanted to and definitely could have been a surgery resident at some prestigious university, but he did his residency here so that he could be with me. So that I could have my dream of doing orthopedic surgery.”
I have a lump in my throat. I have a bad feeling I know where this is going.
“We were supposed to get married at the end of our second year of residency,” she says. “He was so excited. And me… I was in heaven. We couldn’t wait.”
She stops talking abruptly, a far off look in her eyes. “Um, so what happened?” I prompt her.
“After about forty hours of a surgery shift, Noel fell asleep while driving home,” she says. I gasp. I can’t help myself. “He had this piece of shit tiny car with zero safety features that I kept telling him he had to replace, but he kept insisting he couldn’t afford it and that he was a great driver. Plus he spent all his money on my… on my fucking ring.” Her voice comes out sounded strangled. “He hit a tree and the car was crushed like a tin can. He was really badly hurt. Some bad orthopedic injuries, but the biggest thing was the brain injury. When I got the call about his accident, they told me that he might not live through the night.” She paused and I could hear her swallow. “They did surgery, but he was in a coma for a while. When you looked at him, he looked awful. Half his skull was gone. I’d seen a lot of patients who were brain dead, and that’s how he looked. He looked like he wasn’t going to wake up.”
Elizabeth’s eyes fill with tears. She wipes them away self-consciously. “I tried to be there for him, I really did. But it was like he was already dead. I was mourning him. Even when he was opening his eyes a little bit, it just didn’t seem like it was possible for him to improve. After what I’ve experienced, it’s so hard to hold onto hope like that. I always feel sorry for the families who keep these comatose patients around for months and years when they’re clearly not going to ever get better. I didn’t want to be one of those delusional family members.”
She takes a deep breath. “Glenn was Noel’s roommate in med school and they were best friends. He was going to be the best man at our wedding. When Noel got hurt, Glenn helped me a lot. He was a psychiatry resident so he’d had some training in grief counseling. He was really wonderful. And he’d always had a crush on me, I knew that. So at some point when he was comforting me, we started… kissing. Glenn and I fell in love.”
I stare at her. “You’re saying that when your fiancé was in a coma, you started sleeping with his best friend? That’s like some kind of horrible soap opera plot.”
“I know,” she says quickly. “I mean, I felt awful about it. But... it just happened.”
“No wonder he hates you,” I say.
Elizabeth is blushing now. “Look,” she says. “You don’t know what it was like. Noel was a completely different person after his accident. You might have done the same thing.”
I cross my arms. “I wouldn’t have left the man I loved for his best friend while he was in a coma.”
“You don’t know what he looked like,” she says. “The last time I saw him in rehab, he was… sitting in a wheelchair, barely holding his head up, couldn’t speak, drooling on his shirt. Before I first hooked up with Glenn, I sat with Noel in his hospital room, holding his hand, trying to find some sign that he was still in there. But there was nothing. I thought he was gone. You see the way he is now and you wouldn’t know how bad he was. And nobody thought he was going to get any better. He and I weren’t married and I didn’t think it was fair that I should have to be tied to him.”
I can’t believe what Elizabeth is saying. She’s so selfish! I’m surprised Noel is willing to even be in the same building with her. “None of this makes what you did any better.”
Elizabeth frowns. “Well, maybe you’re just a better person than I am.”
“I know I’m a better person than that.”
We stare at each other. I don’t know how Dr. Conrad thought we were alike. I would never do that to another person. Never. I can’t even believe her.
…Or would I? Maybe that’s what being a surgeon does to you. Kills your compassion and your sense of decency. I shiver slightly.
“I don’t think I should come to the surgery tomorrow,” I hear myself saying.
Elizabeth looks alarmed. “What? But we’re all set! You can’t back out!”
“I don’t think I want to be a surgeon,” I say.
Elizabeth stares at me with a hurt expression on her face. “You don’t want to be a surgeon or you don’t want to be like me?”
I’m quiet for a while. Finally, I say, “I don’t know.” I take a drink and finish the last of my coffee. “I think I’m going to go home now.”
Elizabeth looks totally defeated. I feel sorry for her, but I keep thinking about what she did to Noel. How could she leave him when he needed her the most? It must have almost killed him just as much as the car crash.
Noel’s Memory Book:
Every time I see Liz, I’m shaken for days. But seeing her with Chloe and finding out that she’s Chloe’s mentor? That’s a rough one to recover from. How the hell did that happen? Dr. Conrad. It had to have been him.
Chloe had no idea. I could tell from her face. She looked just as confused and shocked as I was. And she never would have said that line about how I “don’t understand” if she knew the whole story about me.
After seeing Liz, I took the elevator down to the basement. Dr. Conrad’s office was down there. Usually I have trouble finding things and get lost about a hundred times, even in this building, but I found Dr. Conrad’s office in about one minute. I know it that well. I banged on the door.
I heard shuffling from inside. “Come in,” a voice from inside called out.
Inside his office, Dr. Conrad was working with no signs of going home any time soon. Just like me: no life.
I’m one of the only one of Dr. Conrad’s students who knows the truth about him. There’s been this rumor forever about him that he fornicates with the cadavers at night. He doesn’t. I mean, I’m 99.9% sure. But like every rumor, it’s got a basis in reality. When he came to visit me in rehab, he told me the whole story right after I told him that Liz had dumped me. When Dr. Conrad was in his twenties, he was married and he lost his wife when she was pregnant. Threw a blood clot to her lung. Because he was studying to get his doctorate in anatomy, she specified in her will that she wanted her own body to be donated to an anatomy lab.
It screwed Dr. Conrad up. He said that now any time he sees a youngish female cadaver, he thinks of her. In an unhealthy way. He said it drives him crazy sometimes. It’s kept him from having relationships and from getting married again. He said he knows that she never would have done it if she knew how painful it would make his life. He loves anatomy and he’s thought of quitting because of this problem.
Dr. Conrad reached for his spectacles on the table. He folded his arms. “So, um, how can I help you, Noel?”
I had been furious when I first came down here, but the sight of Dr. Conrad’s familiar face calmed me down. “Did you assign Liz a mentee this year?” I asked him.
He nodded. “I did. Her name is Chloe Ross. Poor girl, she was really lost. I asked her what she wanted to specialize in and she couldn’t even come up with one thing. Not even one! She sort of reminded me of Elizabeth back then, which is why I…” Dr. Conrad trailed off. He narrowed his eyes. “Oh, I get it. You already know Chloe, don’t you?”
“Anybody else,” I said. “You could have assigned her anybody else. How many surgery residents are in the hospital?”
“It wasn’t about surgery,” Dr. Conrad said. “It was about Chloe. Elizabeth was just like her. So confused and unsure of herself. Now look at her! Chief resident of orthopedic surgery!”
“That’s because I helped her,” I snapped. “She’d have flunked out if not for me. She was too scared to go into surgery until I convinced her she could do it.”
“Exactly right,” Dr. Conrad said. “And that’s what Chloe needs. Elizabeth can provide it for her.”
I shook my head. I didn’t know what to say to that. I guess he meant well.
“You’re in love with Chloe,” Dr. Conrad observed.
“I can see it all over your face.” He smiled. “Just like you were with Elizabeth.”
“I barely know her,” I weakly protested. “And she has a boyfriend.”
“I’ve never known you to let any obstacles to get in your way,” he mused.
“Well, that was before I destroyed half my brain. I mean, look at me.”
Dr. Conrad looked so incredibly amused, I was actually getting flustered. I guess he hit a nerve. The truth is, he’s absolutely right. I may as well admit I’m crazy about Chloe. It drives me nuts to see her with that jerk who treats her like crap.
But Dr. Conrad doesn’t get it. He sees me the way he used to see me. He doesn’t know the way people look at me now. It’s different now. I’m not about to start performing crazy romantic gestures to win Chloe over. When a good looking med student does something crazy to win over a girl, it’s romantic. When the crippled guy who presses buttons in the elevator does it, he gets hit with a restraining order.