I get to the hospital early the next morning. I press the button for the elevator and naturally, the one Noel isn’t in comes first. I have to wait for two more to go by before I see him and I feel a little silly, but it’s worth it. “Chloe!” His whole face lights up.
I step into the elevator and we stare at each other for about five seconds before Noel moves toward me and starts kissing me. He backs me into the wall, his left hand sliding up the small of my back as we make out. He briefly takes his hand away to press a button on the wall and the elevator comes to a halt. Ah, the perks of hooking up with the elevator operator.
I’ve never made out in an elevator before. It’s really hot. All I can think of is I don’t want this to end. It’s all I can do to keep from unbuttoning his shirt, except I know I really can’t do that in here.
I run my hands through Noel’s reddish brown hair and my fingers encounter the scar on his skull. It’s longer than I thought it was. It goes all the way from his front hairline, circling over his scalp and ending at the back of his neck. Noel notices I’m feeling it and he jerks away, alarmed. “Sorry,” I say.
“It’s okay,” he says. He studies my face for a second. “I should probably restart the elevator, huh?”
He grins and runs his hand lightly along my chin. “I’m sure there’s somewhere else in the building that we can fool around later…”
He reaches out for the buttons on the elevator and then hesitates. His brow furrows and he looks a bit troubled. “Chloe,” he says. “We need to keep this quiet between us.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you tell Graham, you shouldn’t tell him that you’re leaving him for me,” Noel says. “You shouldn’t tell anyone.”
“You afraid Graham will come after you?” I tease him.
“I’m not afraid of that,” he says quietly.
I guess I know what’s he’s getting at. I’m sure I’d get a lot of flack if people knew I was dating Noel. It’s not glamorous to be dating the guy who presses buttons in the elevator. It’s sweet that he cares about me enough that he wants to protect my reputation. “Don’t worry so much,” I say, as I kiss his neck.
He releases the brake on the elevator and I feel us moving again. I stand next to him and I feel his hand creeping under my shirt, sliding up my spine. All the little hairs on my body are standing straight up. Then the doors open and he pulls away.
Oh hell, it’s Graham.
“There you are,” Graham says. He smiles at me as he steps inside. I wince as he puts his arm around me and pulls me close for a wet sloppy kiss as I try not to cringe. I don’t want Graham to kiss me or even touch me anymore. I look over at Noel who is shaking his head at me. “I want to take you to dinner tonight.”
“Dinner tonight?” I croak.
“Yeah, there’s this new Thai place I want to check out,” he says. He plays with a lock of my hair. “You’re not busy, right?”
“Actually,” I say. “I have to…” Think, Chloe, think! “Do the laundry.” I immediately blush at my lame, lame excuse.
“You are not blowing me off for laundry,” Graham says. “The laundry can wait till tomorrow, can’t it?”
“It can’t,” I say regretfully. “I’m completely out of underwear. I’m wearing my last pair right now.”
I hear a snort and look up to see Noel just barely concealing his laughter. Graham gives him a dirty look. “You want to mind your own goddamn business, elevator guy?”
The two of them are glaring at each other and I pretty much want to crawl into the heating vent. I’m not the kind of girl that two guys fight over. Really, it’s unusual when one guy likes me. I have no idea how to handle this and I have a bad feeling I’m going to make a complete mess of it.
Noel’s Memory Book:
Usually I hate my job. It’s boring and it’s depressing. Well, it’s depressing because it’s so boring. And the med students… I hate them. I really do. They’re so stuck up and they look at me like I’m a piece of dirt on the sidewalk. That or they’re patronizingly nice to me. Either way, I don’t think any of them know my name.
But today somehow I didn’t hate them as much anymore. The girls at least reminded me of Chloe. It’s not their fault they’re in med school. I mean, they’re trying to do something good with their lives. They could just be investment bankers if they wanted to make money.
By around four, I hadn’t seen Chloe anywhere, so I went to the library to look for her. I try to avoid the library in general, because all the med students stare at me when I’m limping around the rows of books. But my desire to see Chloe outweighed my self-consciousness.
I slept on my knee wrong or maybe it was the weather, but it was aching a lot today, which meant I was walking even worse than usual. I was leaning more heavily on my cane, and there was one point when I was walking into the library when I had to grab onto a table to steady myself. I could feel everyone staring at me, and that’s when I felt the tap on my shoulder.
“Are you okay, sir?” It was a woman with cropped gray hair and a badge that declared her to be a library staff member. She looked vaguely familiar to me, like I had seen her a lot back when I’d been a student here. Maybe she even recognized me, who knows.
“I’m okay,” I mumbled, not wanting to draw further attention to myself. But when the woman didn’t move on, I realized she was waiting to see my ID. She didn’t think I belonged here. She thought I was some vagrant from the streets, wanting to use the medical library.
I let go of my cane and fumbled for my ID badge in my pocket. I was shaking a little when I handed it over to the woman, who nodded and ushered me along. So much for not calling any attention to myself.
I had to do a lap around the entire library, but I finally found Chloe sitting at one of the desks in the back. She had her dark hair pulled into short pigtails and she was peering at a book through her oval glasses. She looked adorable. I scoped out the area for a minute before I approached her, to make sure none of her classmates were in sight. I didn’t want them to see me talking to her. She had enough to worry about without being the butt of Creepy Elevator Guy jokes.
When she saw me, she smiled wide. I walked over to her and pulled over the closest chair so I could sit with her. But as much as I wanted to, I didn’t kiss her. “Hey,” I whispered.
“Hey,” she whispered back.
“So how did Graham take it?” I asked.
She was quiet. Not good.
I frowned at her. “You told him, right?”
She bit her lip. Great.
“Are you planning on telling him?” I tried to keep from raising my voice, but I was a little annoyed.
“Yes, I am,” she said.
She bit her lip again. “Look, this is going to be hard on him.”
“Yeah, getting dumped sucks. I know all about that.”
She looked down, playing with her highlighter pen. Does every med student in the country own a highlighter pen? “I just need time.”
“You can’t date both of us, Chloe,” I said. I closed my eyes. “Look, I know he’s in your class. If you want me to step aside, I will. I won’t bother you again.”
I had been rehearsing that line in my head. It wasn’t easy to say to her, but it had to be said. I didn’t want her to feel like she was stuck with me, just because we kissed a few times.
Thank god she seemed alarmed by my offer. “No, I don’t!” She shook her head vigorously. “Noel, I just need to figure out how to tell him. Please.”
I took a deep breath. “Chloe, you know I’m crazy about you, but I can’t be with you if you’re still with him. It’s not right. So when you tell him, let me know.”
I walked away from her. It was not easy and not just because I’ve got two bum legs. But I’ve got my morals and I just can’t mess around with another guy’s woman. Even if that guy is Graham.
I have to be honest: I don’t know if she’s really going to leave him. I want her to. Obviously. But she’s got a lot of reasons to stick with him. I’m sure it’s fun dating Graham and I’m sure her parents would like him a lot better than me. She doesn’t even know half the things wrong with me. I don’t even think she realizes how screwed up I am, or else the choice would be a lot easier for her. But I’m selfish so I won’t tell her.
I have to tell Graham we’re breaking up. I don’t know how, but I’ve got to tell him. I would actually sort of rather hurl myself off the top of the hospital, but it must be done.
Honestly, a small part of me considered taking Noel up on his offer. To end things with him right now. But as soon as he said it, my stomach clenched up. When I’m with Noel, I feel happy. I feel comfortable and at the same time, I feel like I want to rip his clothes off. Graham isn’t the love of my life. I owe it to myself to see things through with Noel.
After Noel leaves, I start looking for Graham. I want to get it over with. Part of me is kind of hoping I’ll catch him making out with Claire or something, so I can leave guilt free. But not Graham… he’s not a cheater. He’s studying all alone in one of the empty classrooms near the anatomy lab. When I walk in, he looks up and smiles. He has no idea what’s about to happen.
“Chloe,” he says. “You change your mind about dinner?”
Dinner… hmm, maybe we should go to dinner. Then I could tell him while he’s got some food in his stomach. “Er,” I say.
He stands up and tries to put his arms around my waist. I squirm away. He snickers and tries again, but I’m still resisting. “Chloe,” he laughs. “What are you doing?”
“Stop, Graham,” I say. I put on my most serious face. “I can’t…”
He frowns. “Can’t what?”
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“Do what anymore? Med school?”
Of course. Graham immediately thinks I’m quitting med school, rather than quitting him. “No, not med school,” I say. “This. This relationship.”
Graham’s jaw falls open. He’s shocked. I have this feeling that Graham never got dumped in his life. I mean, who would dump him? He’s so handsome. And he’s smart and suave. But then again, he’s so complacent, I can’t imagine him breaking up with a girl. I wonder how his relationships ever end. I feel like if I hadn’t done this, we’d have just ended up dating through all of med school, then breaking up when we landed residencies in separate states or something.
“Are you serious?” he finally says.
I play with the zipper on my coat. “Yeah, I am.”
“But… why?” He really looks baffled. Honestly, I feel sorry for him. In our entire relationship, I think this is the most I’ve ever liked Graham. Ironic. “We’re great together.”
“It’s… a lot of things,” I say. “But mostly, I just think we’re not right for each other. I mean, you’re never going to love me.”
“Of course I love you,” Graham says. He sounds like he’s telling me he loves Diet Doctor Pepper or something.
“No, you don’t,” I insist.
He’s looking at me funny. “Is there someone else?”
I hesitate and his head snaps up. Oh god, why did I hesitate? Why didn’t I just say NO? I’m an awful liar. I could never be a spy.
“Who is it, Chloe?” he says. “Tell me. I deserve to know.”
“Is it Jared?” he asks. “I saw Jared talking to you in lab the other day. I know everyone thinks he’s hot or whatever. Is it him?”
“No, it’s not Jared. Graham…”
“Is it Eric? Is it Peter?”
He starts systematically naming the guys in our class, one by one. I get this sinking feeling and I realize he’s not going to give up so easily. He knows there’s another guy and he wants to know who it is. He’s relentless.
“Please,” I say. “I’m not seeing anyone else in our class. I swear to you, Graham.”
He frowns at me and suddenly something dawns on him. His eyes widen. “Chloe, it’s not… the elevator guy, is it?”
“Oh god,” Graham says. His face has gone pale. Desperate. He grips my arm. “Please, Chloe, please tell me you’re not leaving me for the elevator guy. Please don’t do that to me…”
I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to lie to him. He’s going to figure out the truth sooner or later anyway. “His name is Noel,” I finally say.
Graham sinks into his chair. “Unbelievable,” he mutters. “I never would have guessed it. Never. Not from you.”
I feel awful. I’m suddenly gripped by the urge to take it all back. Haha, never mind, I’m not really in love with the elevator guy. I was just punking you, honey! Graham always treated me… okay. He never did anything awful to me. I wish it could have ended some other way.
“I don’t deserve this,” he says, as if reading my mind. “This… public humiliation.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
I almost wish he’d get really angry at me but he doesn’t. He just looks so hurt. God, I’d rather be dumped than do the dumping any day of the week.
I go straight home after that. I’m tempted for a moment to find Noel, but I just want to be alone right now. I need a night to absorb the end of my relationship.
Noel’s Memory Book:
I’ve been in a fight once before. It happened during my intern year. A lot of that year is still kind of fuzzy to me, but I remember this really clearly. My senior resident was named Jack and we didn’t get along that well. I thought he was a crap resident and he thought I was too cocky for an intern.
We had an argument over this kid in the ER. I thought the kid had appendicitis and I wanted to operate. Jack disagreed. I went over his head, called the attending, and got the kid to the OR. It turned out I was right and the kid got better as soon as we took out his appendix.
I can’t say I was gracious about the whole thing. When Jack and I were sitting in the lounge post-call, I made a comment. Something along the lines of him being an idiot and not knowing what he was doing. Yeah, I was kind of a jackass.
Jack suddenly got up off the couch and said, “That’s it, Andrews. I’ve had enough of your bullshit.”
I stood up off the couch too, but I couldn’t believe he was really going to hit me till he actually did it.
We were about the same size and pretty evenly matched. Equally tired. We both got in one really good punch. I hit him in the gut, but I guess I didn’t hit the sweet spot or maybe he saw it coming, because he recovered surprisingly quickly. Then he hit me in the face, right in my cheekbone, which ended the fight. Meaning, he broke his hand on my face. I had a hell of a black eye and Jack ended up with a boxer’s fracture of his fifth metacarpal. Just to show how big a dick I was, I fought to scrub in on his surgery when he got it pinned.
Everyone felt kind of bad for Jack because he couldn’t use his right hand for a few weeks. Even I felt a little bad about it, even though I still believed I hadn’t done anything wrong. Little did I know that a year later, I’d permanently lose the use of my right hand.
Anyway, that was my one fight. Where I was 26 years old and in pretty decent condition. I’m only four years older now, but not in nearly as good condition. So it kind of sucked when I was on my way to work this morning and Graham came out of nowhere and shoved me about five feet backwards.
I was right outside the elevators on the academic side of the hospital. He must have been camped out waiting for me. Graham always seemed like a pretty mild mannered guy, so I was surprised to see the way his eyes were blazing. I guess Chloe told him. Would have been nice if she gave me a heads up.
Amazingly, I was still on my feet after that. My balance is crap and sometimes it feels like the wind is enough to knock me over, but somehow I managed to keep from falling over when Graham pushed me. It was something of a miracle, although I did drop my cane.
“I’m going to kill you,” Graham growled in a low voice.
Shit, he looked mad. Earlier I didn’t think there was any way Graham would really hit me, but now I wasn’t so sure. His hands were balled into fists and his hair was disheveled. He looked like he hadn’t shaved this morning. He usually looked pretty put together so this was kind of unsettling.
I didn’t know what to do. I could have tried to pick up my cane and make a run for it, but I literally can’t run anymore. Also, I didn’t want to be a wuss. If Graham wanted to fight me, he deserved a fight. I faced him, my own left hand balled into a fist. I didn’t think I could throw a decent punch with my left hand, but I could try.
Graham wasn’t punching though. As he came closer, he shoved me again, this time hard enough that I stumbled back against the wall. My balance really wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t hit him.
He started coming at me again. This time, I don’t know how, but I braced myself against the wall and repeated the move that didn’t quite work on Jack: I buried my left fist in his gut. This time I guess I hit the sweet spot. Graham doubled over and collapsed to the ground. “You asshole,” he gasped. Could have been worse. I didn’t punch him in the testicles.
I unlocked the brace on my knee and lowered myself to the ground next to him. I was scared he might try to hit me again, but it looked like the punch had taken a lot of the fight out of him. “Sorry,” I said.
“For what?” Graham said, wincing with pain. “For punching me in the stomach or for stealing my girlfriend?”
“Uh, both, I guess.” I had never stolen anyone’s girlfriend before. I’d stolen surgeries from residents before, but never a person.
Graham looked at me and shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t get it,” he said. “How the hell could she pick you over me?” He looked down at my right hand, which was in the splint, then at my cane lying on the floor, then back up at my face. “What’s wrong with you, anyway?”
I figured I might as well tell him the truth. He deserved it. “I was in a car accident,” I said. “I was a second year surgery resident when it happened.”
Graham’s eyes flew open. “You’re Noel Andrews?”
I frowned. “Yeah…”
“Holy crap, I heard about you…” Graham looked amazed. “They changed the work hour rules because of you. I heard you were almost brain dead and institutionalized. In a nursing home.”
Great, is that what happened to me? “Obviously not.”
“You look okay,” Graham observed. “More or less. Why don’t you go back to residency?”
“I can’t,” I said.
Graham didn’t say anything more. He’d seen me fumbling to press the right buttons in the elevator. He got it.
He stood up, wincing slightly. “Be good to her,” he said. He gave me a hard look, then he limped away.
Maybe Graham wasn’t the worst guy. I have to admit, I don’t hate him nearly as much as I did when I first saw him with his arm around Chloe.
I decided not to go to classes today. I couldn’t deal with facing Graham. He seemed so upset yesterday. I was a little scared of what he might do. But it’s a dilemma because I want to see Noel and I realize that I don’t have his phone number or know where he lives.
In the evening, my phone rings. It’s an unfamiliar number. “Chloe?” It’s Noel’s voice. “It’s me.”
“You got my number,” I say, pleased. He’s resourceful. “How did you get it?”
“I can’t reveal my sources,” he says. He hesitates. “All right, Dr. Conrad gave it to me.”
I smile. “So you want to come over?”
“I don’t have a car…”
“You don’t?” I’m shocked. I don’t know how anyone could not have a car. I’ve been driving since I was maybe five years old. How does he get back and forth from work?
“Right, no car,” he says flatly. “Do you… want to come here?”
Fifteen minutes later, I’m pulling into Noel’s driveway. The house he lives in is large but homey, and there’s a white mammoth car already in the driveway that looks like it belongs to someone very old. I get out of my car and go around back to Noel’s apartment. The lights are out. Did he take off when I said I was coming? I knock on the door and am met with silence. What’s going on here?
“Chloe!” I hear Noel’s voice.
I look in the direction of the sound. He’s coming toward me, out of a little patch of woods behind the house. God knows what he’s been doing there. “Hi,” I say.
“I thought we could take a walk,” he says.
“Um…” I hug my jacket close to me. If I knew he wanted to walk around, I would have worn something warmer. It never gets ice cold around here, but it’s pretty chilly at night.
“Here,” he says, pulling the black fleece scarf off from around his neck. I accept it and feel warmer right away. “You up for it?”
I nod and start to follow him into the small woods. As we walk between the trees, I have to admit, I’m a little scared. I suddenly realize I don’t know very much about Noel. And he’s got a head injury. What if he’s dangerous somehow? Okay, I’m being stupid. But don’t you read the papers? Crazy stuff happens! Then again, I can see the way Noel walks and I’m fairly sure I could outrun him, if it came down to that.
“You’re shivering,” he notes. He stops and pulls me close to him, into the warmth of his open jacket. “Is that better?”
I say something along the lines of “Mmmmm….”
He leans forward and kisses me on the forehead. I raise my head and our lips meet. He unbuttons my jacket with one hand then slides his way inside. A minute later, we collapse onto the grass, our walk forgotten.
I’m not sure how long we lie on the grass, kissing, talking, and trying to keep each other warm. There’s a full moon in the sky and there’s something really romantic about the whole thing. I guess that’s what Noel had been going for. He’s actually making an effort to impress me. It’s kind of a shock to my system after Graham.
As we talk, I look at his face in the moonlight. He looks young, even for his age, with his reddish hair and sprinkling of freckles. I notice the white scar again that’s under his left eye and sit on my hand to suppress my urge to touch it. I look at his green eyes and notice something a little off. I can’t quite identify what. “Your eyes…?” I say before I can stop myself.
“The left one’s fake,” he says.
I gasp. I can’t help it.
He looks a little hurt by my reaction. “Maybe I shouldn’t have told you.”
“No, it… looks pretty real, that’s all. I’m surprised.”
He lowers his eyes, self-conscious now. I feel a rush of sudden affection. I try to reach for his hand and instead feel the fabric of his splint. He pulls his hand away. “I’m a mess, huh?” he says.
“No!” I insist. “It’s not a big deal. Really.”
He sits up on the grass. He’s giving me this really long look. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “Really. I’m kind of wondering if you can handle it.”
“I can handle it!”
“Can you?” He raises his eyebrows. “You want to know why I don’t have a car? I don’t have a car because I can’t drive. I had my license yanked when I got hurt. If I tried to drive, I’d probably get lost after about two blocks. And I have seizures, so there’s that. And my legs are barely functional…”
He lowers his head. I can see his eyes look wet. I move closer to him, kissing each of his cheeks before reaching his lips. Noel’s right—he’s kind of a mess. But I’m stupid and in love.