I’m having trouble focusing in lab today. Graham is pointing out the twelve cranial nerves to me within the skull. “So,” he says, obviously trying to sound casual, “when are you going to see a surgery with Dr. Woodhouse?”
“Oh,” I say. “Never, I guess.”
His eyes widen. “Really? Why not?”
I can’t explain to him everything that happened. It would be too weird. Plus I’m pretty sure Noel doesn’t want everyone to know he used to be a doctor. “Um, I just sort of… decided surgery isn’t for me.”
Graham nods his head vigorously. “I agree.”
He actually seems really happy I’m not interested in surgery. It’s pretty insulting. I remember what Elizabeth said about how Noel encouraged her and tutored her to get her into a surgery program. I guess the difference is that he actually loved her.
Noel’s Memory Book:
I still remember the first time I saw Liz again after my injury, about two years ago. That is, it was the first time I remember seeing her, since she got to see me plenty when I was still in a coma. But this was the first time I laid eyes on her since before, when we used to be engaged.
I never bothered to try to win her back. Considering how much I went through to win her over in the first place when I was at my physical and mental peak, I knew it was a lost cause. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I knew there was no way in hell. And there was part of me that so angry over what she’d done to me that I didn’t even want to try.
My appearance was embarrassing to me back then. I had my cranioplasty just a month earlier, in which the piece of skull they removed was replaced with synthetic skull. The stitches were out, but my hair was still mostly shaved and the scar was very visible, plus the left side of my face was still pretty swollen. My left orbit hadn’t been reconstructed so there was no eye on the socket, and I wore a patch over it. In summary, I didn’t look so good. I avoided mirrors when I could.
I wasn’t walking that well back then either. My balance was poor and I was using a walker to get around. Truth be told, I was still relying pretty heavily on my wheelchair back then, but I was determined to return the hospital on my own two feet. Well, one of my own two feet and one prosthetic foot.
The reason I returned was to see my former mentor and the chief of surgery, Dr. Remy. We were going to discuss my future. I had been excited about meeting him, considering I didn’t think I had much of a future anymore. Unfortunately, when Dr. Remy laid his eyes on me, he decided that he agreed. He told me I could work the elevators, just to give me something to do with my days, so I wasn’t just staring at the walls, watching the paint dry.
As I was leaving Dr. Remy’s office, I saw her. Liz. She was coming out of a surgery, pulling the mask from her face, and laughing with another surgery resident. I saw her before she saw me and my first instinct was to hide. I didn’t want her to see me looking like this. When I realized I couldn’t hide, I prayed she might not recognize me. My prayers weren’t answered.
Liz’s jaw dropped open when she saw me. I know people use that expression and don’t mean it, but her jaw literally went slack when she saw my face. Her brow furrowed and I could see the way I looked reflected in her horrified expression.
“Noel,” she gasped.
“Hi, Liz,” I said. I didn’t want to say much to her. My speech still was far from perfect, and I didn’t want her to notice the way my words slurred into each other. Before my injury, I always used to talk fast, think fast, work fast. I couldn’t do that anymore.
“Gosh, Noel,” she swallowed. “You look…” She didn’t finish the sentence. I think it was better that way.
I looked down at her hand and that’s when I saw it. The ring. The one that wasn’t mine, was actually much bigger than mine, that some other guy had given her. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach.
“It’s good seeing you, Liz,” I mumbled to end the conversation.
“It’s good seeing you too,” she said. It was sort of like we had been passing acquaintances, not a couple for five years, about to get married. Maybe she thought I didn’t remember, which made sense considering I couldn’t remember what I ate for lunch an hour ago. But I remembered everything about her. Every second, every moment of our lives together.
As soon as I got away from Liz, I found the nearest bathroom, where I locked myself inside and cried for twenty minutes.
Noel’s Memory Book:
The code for the door on the surgery resident lounge hadn’t changed in three years. I punched it in and heard that reassuring click. Funny how I could barely remember my name some days, but I could still remember the code for the surgery lounge.
The room was empty. I looked around at the worn, ripped sofas and surgery manuals strewn about the room. I felt a sense of overwhelming, dizzying nostalgia. This room used to be my home away from home. Whereas my actual home was the OR and the place where I paid rent with Liz came in maybe fourth after the call rooms.
I used to love this place. Damn it.
I rested my cane against the coffee table, unlocked my knee joint, and sat down on one of the sofas. I sunk right in and felt a spring nick me in the back, just like I remembered. Good old Springy. I shifted and rubbed my back.
This wasn’t a social visit. I checked the OR schedule and I knew Liz was going to be out of surgery soon. I was betting she’d come here. I wanted to talk to her. Like two adults, for a change. I wasn’t going to yell at her or get sarcastic. At least, I was going to try not to do those things.
I forgot that when I used to sit in this room, I’d generally be so exhausted that I’d fall asleep in about thirty seconds. I wasn’t tired right now though. I idly picked up a copy of Surgery Recall that was lying on a table. I opened it up to the middle. When to operate on a triple A (abdominal aortic aneurysm). I used to know this stuff cold. It’s all gone now.
I heard the door open and I quickly threw the book down on the couch. I looked up and was dismayed that not only was it not Liz, but it was someone I knew. It was a resident named Ben. He was in my class, I’d gone out drinking with him a few times, and I remember thinking he liked Liz. But at least he didn’t sleep with her like Glenn did. At least, I hope he didn’t. But who the hell knows?
“Noel?” He looked at me in shock and his face seemed to brighten. Was he actually happy to see me? “What are you doing here? Are you back?”
Ha. “No,” I said. “I’m waiting for Liz. Do you know if she’s around?”
He shook his head, still staring at me. Assessing the damage, probably. Like I said, from a distance, it’s not that noticeable. Up close, there are scars. I saw Ben looking at the splint on my right hand and I suddenly wished I had taken it off before coming here. I think he took a good enough look that he could tell I was never coming back.
“It’s not the same without you,” Ben commented.
“Every class needs an asshole,” Ben said, but he was smiling.
“As I recall, I had company,” I said.
“You were the most fun though,” Ben said. “Every day there was a great story about some ER attending you pissed off. Remember you said you weren’t going to answer your pager anymore until they learned to manage non-operative abdominal pain on their own?”
“Well, I was just blowing off steam…”
“Yeah, except you actually did it.”
Ben was right. I guess I did some pretty brazen things back then. I was really full of myself. It’s hard to believe, in retrospect.
“You should come by more often,” Ben said. “Everyone misses you. We’re going out on Friday night to O’Grady’s. You want to come?”
I shook my head. Even if I could drink, the last thing I wanted to do was hang out with a bunch of surgery residents and get reminded of how my life used to be.
“By the way,” Ben said. “We all thought it was total bullshit what Liz and Glenn did to you. When we were on call, me, Burns, and Goldberg used to take turns paging Glenn at two in the morning to wake him up. It was great. He got his pager number changed but we found out the new number and kept on paging him for months.”
That probably shouldn’t have made me feel any better, but somehow it sort of did. Glenn hated being woken up during the night, which was part of the reason he opted for the cushier lifestyle of psychiatry. “That’s awesome,” I said. I almost asked him if they had done anything to harass Liz, but then I realized I didn’t want to know. I didn’t like the idea of the guys torturing Liz.
Ben and I shot the shit for a little while. It wasn’t so bad. It was actually kind of nice to sit in the lounge and not have to worry about my pager going off, like Ben’s did about fifteen minutes later.
I was left alone again and actually did start drifting off a bit. I guess you don’t have to be a surgery resident to be tired. Plus I get tired more easily thanks to all my meds. I don’t think I could still stay up all night anymore.
Several other residents I didn’t recognize came and went. Thankfully, none of them questioned what I was doing there. Maybe I looked comfortable so they thought I belonged there. Or another thought that just occurs to me is that maybe they knew me and I just didn’t recognize them.
After I was there about an hour, the door opened and Liz walked in. For a second, she didn’t see me and I just looked at her. I have to admit, I still find her really attractive. She looks older and harder than she did when I first met her eight years ago, but I can still see the old Liz I fell desperately in love with. As much as I hate her, I also kind of still love her, if that makes any sense. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop loving her entirely.
I still wrack my brain to figure out why she did it. Why she left me. If situations had been reversed and Liz had been lying in a hospital bed, I wouldn’t have left her side for a second. I would have quit residency to be with her. I probably would have stayed with a comatose Liz so long, that people would have been telling me I was acting unhealthy and needed to move on or at least go take a shower. I sure as hell wouldn’t have been sleeping with another woman three months later.
The only thing I can think of is that she didn’t love me as much as I loved her. I mean, she must not have. I never would have treated her that way.
“Noel?” She was looking at me, shocked to see me here. Don’t tell anyone, but we’ve had sex in this room. It was late and we were both giddy from lack of sleep. When you’re a surgery resident, you have to take it where you can get it.
“I want to talk to you,” I said. I held up my hands. “No fighting. Just talk.”
She hesitated. “Okay.” She gingerly sat down next to me on the couch. She had a little nervous smile on her face.
I cleared my throat. Our eyes met and I felt self-conscious enough to look away. Most people seem to have trouble telling I have a prosthetic eye since I got the new one, but Liz knows about it since she saw me soon after my injury. “Liz,” I said, “I know Dr. Conrad asked you to be Chloe’s mentor. But maybe you could find someone else for her? As a favor to me. Please.”
Liz gave me a funny look. “Is there something going on between you and Chloe?”
“No,” I said quickly. “Nothing is going on.”
“But you’d like there to be?”
I took a deep breath. Finally, I said, “Yeah, kind of.”
Liz was wringing her hands together, looking incredibly uncomfortable all of a sudden. “I, uh, never saw you interested in another girl before.” She looked down at her red, raw hands with her spidery fingers and nubs of fingernails. “Anyway, I think Chloe has a boyfriend.”
“She does,” I admitted. “Plus I look like Frankenstein’s monster.”
I sort of wanted her to tell me that I didn’t look like Frankenstein’s monster, but I guess she couldn’t do that.
“Still,” I said. “Even though I don’t really have a chance, Chloe and I are friends. I like her. I’ve been trying to help her. It’s… weird for me if you’re her mentor. Please, Liz.”
Liz smiled wryly. “Well, don’t worry. When I told Chloe what happened between us, she said she didn’t want anything to do with me anymore. She said she doesn’t want to be a surgeon and she certainly doesn’t want to be like me.”
I thought for a minute I’d heard her wrong. “What?”
“She thinks what I did to you was despicable,” Liz said. She bit her lip and looked down at her hands again. “She’s right.”
I was shocked. Med students are selfish and notoriously obsessed with career. I couldn’t believe she gave up an opportunity to be mentored by the chief ortho resident for… me.
“Listen, Noel…” Liz began, her eyes lifting to meet mine. “I… I just need to…” Before she could finish that thought, her pager went off. She checked the number and swore to herself. “Listen, can we talk later, please?”
I looked at Liz’s narrow face. Her weight loss made her blue eyes look bigger. The fact that I hated her made it all the more painful that I still found her so attractive. I didn’t want to have coffee with Liz while she apologized for ripping my heart out. “No, we can’t,” I said.
Liz’s face fell. “Okay,” she said.
We just sat there for a minute. I could tell she was waiting for me to leave, but I didn’t want her to watch me limping out with my cane, making her feel even more sorry for me than she already did. I really didn’t want her pity. “Don’t you have to go answer that?” I finally said.
Liz nodded silently. She grabbed her white coat off a hook on the door and left the room.
Now that I don’t have Elizabeth, I actually have to figure out on my own what I want to do with my life. When I was with her, I felt a modicum of direction. Yes, I didn’t really want to be a surgeon… or at least, I didn’t think I did. But at least there was someone giving me some guidance. I was ruling it out or ruling it in. Now I’m just lost again.
When I get to the hospital the next morning, I wait for the elevator with Noel inside. I step inside the elevator and look at Noel. He seems different today. Maybe it’s just the fact that I know he was once a surgery resident. But he seems more… I don’t know, confident? And god, he’s cute, even with all his injuries. I don’t know how Liz was able to turn him down back when they were students together.
“Hey,” he says to me. “Liz told me what happened between the two of you. I’m sorry.”
“No need to be sorry,” I say.
“All right then,” he says. “But let me at least say thanks.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll let you say thanks.”
He’s not sitting on the stool. He’s leaning against the wall next to me and I’m suddenly aware of how close he is. I can smell his aftershave. I feel my legs wobble slightly and I grab the railing for support.
“You’re a good person, Chloe,” he says. “I hope you know that.”
I swallow hard. I look up into his face and he’s close enough that I can see those freckles across the bridge of his nose again. I suddenly find myself wondering if he’s going to kiss me. And god, I want him to. He must know that, right? He must realize how desperately I want to press my lips against his…
Oh hell, the door just opened.
Several of my classmates filter inside. The moment’s over and I practically want to cry with frustration. I am pressed into the back of the elevator and I see Noel looking in my direction. Our eyes are locked together.
Noel’s Memory Book:
When I saw Chloe in the elevator this morning, I wanted so badly to kiss her. It was almost painful. But every time I started to do it, I imagined her recoiling in disgust. Or slapping me. Or worse, saying something really patronizing and nice, like that she thought of me as a friend but not like that. The latter seemed like the most likely.
But then I thought maybe she wouldn’t recoil in disgust. I mean, she did tell Liz off after finding out what she did to me. And when I stood next to her, she didn’t back away. In fact, she seemed to be edging closer to me.
All day, I kept thinking about her. I hadn’t felt this way about a girl in a long time. I dated a lot in college, but Liz was the first girl I fell really hard for, and there was nobody since her. You know you like a girl when you spend most of the day hoping you’ll get to see her for five minutes.
I got my wish at six o’clock. The doors to the elevator opened and Chloe was standing there, wearing her coat and clutching a bunch of books to her chest, her glasses slipped down the bridge of her nose. She seemed so small and sweet. “Lobby?” she said.
“Heading out?” I asked her. Obviously she was.
She nodded. “I heard it’s still raining?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “It’s always good weather in here.”
Chloe stuck her tongue out at me. She’s so cute. My stomach kind of flip-flopped. “Well, I guess I’m going to get soaked.”
I had an umbrella tucked away in my locker. “You want my umbrella?”
“I couldn’t take your umbrella,” Chloe protested. “You’ll get wet!”
I shrugged. I’m not even sure why I have the umbrella because I can’t hold it while I’m holding my cane.
“I’m not stealing your umbrella,” she said resolutely.
“Then let me walk you to your car,” I suggested.
There was a silence and for a minute, I wished I could take back the invitation. She thought I was hitting on her and she obviously didn’t like it. I had been too presumptuous. But I had already said it. She looked me over. “Um, okay.”
She said yes. Just like in my fantasies.
In my fantasies, of course, I didn’t have to lean on a cane to balance. I grabbed the cane from behind my stool and we headed out to my locker. Although I kept an umbrella around, I never used it because it’s damn near impossible to hold an umbrella and a cane when you’ve only got one hand that works. I leaned against the lockers as I struggled to open the damn umbrella, steadying it against my right hands as I used my left hand to lock it open. I think my struggle basically sucked all the romance out of that moment, and I realized how ridiculous I was for thinking we were going to have some crazy romantic kiss in the rain. But I could still help her keep dry at least.
Once the umbrella was open, I pulled the splint off my right hand and attempted to position it in my fist. This was not easy. In fact, it was proving to be impossible. The umbrella fell to the ground three times before Chloe grabbed it. “I can hold it,” she offered.
“Okay,” I agreed. I was embarrassed that my attempt at chivalry had failed so spectacularly. Chloe holding the umbrella for us wasn’t romantic. What was next? Was she going to whip off her jacket so I could step over a puddle? It was safe to say that I had completely killed the mood.
It was pouring outside. Chloe’s car was all the way across the parking lot. She huddled against me under the umbrella as we trudged along, my sneakers filling up with water. My right foot felt soaked and my left… well, that one I wasn’t as worried about, obviously. I felt like she must have been able to hear my heart pounding in my chest. As we walked, she was huddling close to me more and more, throwing me a bit off balance, making me wonder if I did have a chance after all. Was she doing it purposely? She had a boyfriend though. Damn, women are confusing.
“That’s my car,” she said, pointing to an old Honda Civic in the corner of the lot.
“Right,” I said.
We walked over to her car. Despite the umbrella, I was soaked. I think the rain must have been moving horizontally. That or my umbrella was too small. I looked at Chloe and she was soaked too. Her dark hair was wet and curling on the ends. At some point, she had pulled off her glasses because they were too wet to see through.
We stopped in front of her car. “Thanks for walking me,” she said, brushing a strand of wet hair from her face.
“No problem,” I said.
We stood there for another minute in front of her car, looking at each other. She continued to hold up my useless umbrella. “You’re really wet,” she noted.
“I know,” I said.
She reached out and brushed away some rain that had accumulated in one of the folds of my jacket. It was such a sweet, familiar gesture. When I felt her touching me, my heart sped up. Everything in my body was screaming out: DO IT, NOEL! KISS HER!!!
The umbrella slipped from her fingers on the ground. As it fell, I leaned forward and pressed my lips against hers.
She didn’t recoil, she didn’t flinch, she didn’t slap me. In fact, she acted like she’d been waiting for me to do this for a long time. Maybe as long as I had wanted to do it. She grabbed the collar of my jacket, pulling me closer to her. I laced my good hand into her wet hair as we kissed and kissed and kissed in the rain.
I have no idea how long we were standing there. When we separated, I was so wet, I might as well have been in the shower. I blinked away the water in my eyes as I tried to look at her. Her hair was plastered to her skull and there was rain in her eyelashes. She looked beautiful.
“Well,” I said.
“Well,” she said.
I cleared my throat. “Um…”
“I should probably go home,” she whispered. “I’m soaked. I feel like I’m going to drown.”
“Right,” I said. “Me too.”
“See you tomorrow?” She raised her eyebrows suggestively.
I took her hand in mine and gave it a squeeze. “Yeah.”
I watched her drive away. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I kissed her. I freaking kissed her. Wow.
I can’t stop shaking all the way home. My head is spinning and my lips are still tingling a little bit. I keep reliving that kiss over and over. Noel… oh my god…
He was so sweet, so nervous. He kissed me like he wanted me so bad. How long had he wanted to do this? How long had I wanted this? I felt the warmth of his body against mine in the cold rain as he clung to me and pulled me closer. Every time I close my eyes, I can see it, I can feel it.
God, that was hot.
I wanted to stay with him, keep kissing him, maybe go home with him. But I knew I couldn’t, not right now, because there’s Graham and I’m not a cheater.
Graham. I stop at a light and the reality of the whole thing hits home. I kissed Noel. Except I have a boyfriend who’s also my lab partner. And Noel’s the elevator guy. This is pretty bad. How the hell am I going to tell Graham about this?
I can’t tell Graham. He’ll go out of his mind. He’ll rip the elevator out of the wall and hurl it across the hallway like the Incredible Hulk.
Actually, no, that probably wouldn’t happen. Honestly, maybe Graham won’t even care. It’s a fling, after all, and we both knew it from the start. Graham doesn’t even really care about me, a fact that he’s made abundantly obvious in the last few months. Noel, he’s crazy about me. Graham could probably take me or leave me. I’m sure his pride will be wounded but that’s it.
As I pull into the dorm parking lot, my cell phone beeps with a text message. I take it out and read it: Take u 2 dinner tonite? Luv, G. I quickly text back that I’m too tired.
All right, Graham does sign a lot of his messages “luv.” But that doesn’t mean he loves me. He definitely doesn’t love me. That’s not even up for debate. Anyway, luv is not the same as love.
Crap, this is going to be hard.