I’m separating the branches of the external carotid artery. Usually my dissections are sloppy, but I’ve actually done a good job with this. Claire and Olivia have wandered off somewhere and Graham is watching me.
“The superficial temporal is the last branch,” I announce to nobody in particular as I tease it apart with my forceps.
Graham leans over my shoulder. “Really clean,” he says.
I turn and look at him. His compliment seems genuine.
“You really know your stuff lately,” he says.
“Thanks,” I say.
“Is Noel helping you study?”
I scan his comment for sarcasm. It’s clean. He must know about Noel’s past. I wonder how he found out. “Yeah, he is,” I admit.
Noel is, in fact, an amazing teacher. He clearly loves anatomy and his enthusiasm is contagious. I can see how it got transmitted to Elizabeth. I still don’t want to be a surgeon though. I don’t think that’s ever going to change.
“Listen,” Graham says. “I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”
Aha. The favor. No wonder Graham is being so nice all of a sudden. Still, it’s worth a lot to keep the peace. It’s a relief to have Graham being civil and not glaring at me across the cadaver anymore. “What is it?”
“Introduce me to Elizabeth Woodhouse,” he says.
Graham and Elizabeth. Hmm. That’s an interesting concept. Part of me thinks she’d hate him. She’s not a fan of arrogance. Then again, maybe not. She liked pre-injury Noel, after all. “Deal,” I say.
As I’m leaving the hospital, walking with Olivia, I see a familiar face standing just outside the building. A woman with dangerously red hair pulled back from a pale face splattered with way too many freckles. Her vivid green eyes are shooting daggers at me.
Noel’s sister. Rose. It’s hard to forget someone who walked in on you when you were in bed with your boyfriend.
She marches up to me, two little pink dots rising up on her pale cheeks. “We need to talk,” she says.
Before she can blab to Olivia about what’s been going on, I excuse myself and tell Olivia I’ll catch up with her later. I can tell Olivia is curious, but since this doesn’t involve her favorite subject (boys), she reluctantly takes off. I follow Rose to a secluded area behind the hospital, where I’m a little afraid she might assault me.
Rose cuts right to the chase. “You need to stop dating Noel.”
“What?” I blink. “Why?”
“Why?” she parrots me. “Why are you dating him in the first place? What’s your angle?”
“Cut the crap,” Rose says. She has such an innocent, sweet face that it’s disconcerting to watch her yelling at me like this. I guess this is kind of what it was like when Noel used to go around acting like such an asshole, back in the old days. “You could date any guy you want. Why Noel? Do you think he has money? Believe me, he doesn’t.”
Why would I think Noel has money? He lives in a shoebox. “I don’t think that…”
“Is this some kind of joke?” Rose asks. “Do you and the other students make fun of him behind his back? Is this some elaborate plan to humiliate him?”
“Oh my god, no!” I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “I’m dating him because… I like him, that’s all.”
Rose frowns at me. “You’re aware he has a severe brain injury, right? Did he tell you that?”
“Yes,” I say. I feel a little embarrassed. She’s right, I guess. I’m dating a guy who has a severe brain injury. What does that say about me? And worse, I think he’s smarter than me. A lot smarter. “But he’s really not that bad…”
Rose lets out a little huff. She grabs her purse, a ratty old green bag that’s sewn together by hand in a few places. She pulls her phone out of the bag and fumbles with it for a minute, then comes up with a photo that she pushes in my face. “This is a picture of Noel at his 28th birthday, just two years ago.”
I know it’s a bad idea for me to look at the photo, but I do anyway. And I have to admit, I’m a little shocked. I vaguely recognize his face, but that’s about it. He’s sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a helmet, a glassy expression in his eyes. Or should I say, eye. The socket where his left eye should be is sunken, the eyelid sealed shut. In fact, that entire side of his face looks swollen and battered. He’s got a white belt across his lap, holding him in the wheelchair, and his sweatpants leg hangs down empty on the left.
“That’s who you’re dating,” Rose says to me.
“He doesn’t look like that anymore,” I insist, even though knowing I’m dating the guy from that photo makes me feel a little like a weirdo. He really doesn’t look like that anymore though. It’s a testament to modern medicine that Noel looks so good right now. “I think he looks… very cute.”
Rose is shaking her head at me in a gesture that reminds me a lot of Noel. “You can’t possibly think that.”
“I do! And he is!” I take a deep breath. I’m tempted to say something not so nice, but I can’t do that, partially because she’s Noel’s sister and partially because I’m much too big a wimp. “Why are you doing this, Rose? Don’t you want him to be happy?”
“Of course, I do,” Rose says, and for the first time, her voice wavers a bit.
“Well,” I say. “We’re happy together.”
She looks down at the photo on her phone again and back up at me. “You really think he’s cute?”
“I really, really do,” I say. “And not just that, he’s helping me a lot with anatomy. I’d be failing for sure without him.”
“Really?” Rose is staring at me in amazement.
“Yes, really.” It’s almost like we’re talking about two different people. When she looks at her brother, she sees the guy in that photo. But he’s not that guy anymore.
Rose shuts off her phone and shoves it back in her purse. The fire has gone out in her eyes and she just looks mildly uncomfortable. “Chloe,” she says. “Please don’t tell Noel that I talked to you.”
I agree to keep my mouth shut, which is kind of a no-brainer. I don’t want to tell him about this any more than she wants him to hear it.
Noel’s Memory Book:
My father came over today to go over my finances. He brought a folder which he’d been using to organize my bills and the payments. As soon as I saw the folder, I felt intimidated. He sat down at my kitchen table and I sat down next to him. I was so nervous, I almost tripped over the chair while trying to sit down. And once I was sitting, my right ankle went into spasms. I looked down at my foot, jumping up and down even within the brace.
“Did you take your medications for the spasms today?” Dad asked me.
“Yes,” I said. I have an alarm on my watch that goes off every time I need to take my pills. I rubbed my calf until my foot stopped jumping. “Maybe I need another round of Botox.” I winced at the thought of those awful injections.
“I’ll have Mom make you an appointment,” Dad said.
I felt my head throb. This wasn’t right. If I couldn’t even make a doctor’s appointment for myself, how could I pay my bills?
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I said.
Dad pushed his glasses up his nose. “If you’re not ready, Noel…”
I bit my lip and thought of Rose saying she didn’t even think I could give consent to have sex. That still stung. “No, forget it, I’m ready,” I said.
He looked skeptical. I don’t blame him. It wasn’t so long ago that I was drooling away in a wheelchair and he’d seen me at my worst. And my memory was still crap and I can barely walk. It was actually surprising he was willing to work with me like this. I think he was humoring me.
He opened up the folder and we went at it. He told me that he set up automatic payment for my rent and my other bills. He showed me how to access it online if I ever needed to do it. He got out my bank statements and we talked about it a little, and I had a few old investments, but it actually wasn’t that big a deal since I have practically no money. I didn’t even have a credit card to worry about. It was scary to think about, but in practice, I thought I could do it. Really, when I can look at things in the complete quiet of my apartment, I can think pretty well.
“You can handle this,” Dad said. “Don’t worry. You actually have a very good understanding.”
“You sound surprised,” I said.
Dad looked taken aback for a second, then he laughed. “Well, when Rose talks about you, she always acts like… well, like you can’t even tie your own shoes.”
Actually, one thing I have a lot of trouble with is tying my shoes. It’s hard with one hand. I mastered the one-handed knot as a surgery resident, but that was using my dominant hand. I just keep them tied.
“There’s something I need to ask you, Dad,” I said.
I took a breath. “Did Rose get divorced because of me?”
“Because of you?” Dad looked surprised. “Why would you think that?”
I was comforted by his answer. “Well, before I got hurt, she was married. And… now she’s not.”
“Oh.” Dad got kind of quiet for a minute. His brow creased. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but that’s not why Rose got divorced. She got divorced because she and Tom couldn’t have kids. It ended up causing a lot of friction between them.”
“They couldn’t?” I hadn’t heard anything about all this. But I guess that makes sense, since I was sort of out of it when all this went down.
“Don’t tell Rose I told you,” Dad said.
Suddenly, the whole thing kind of made sense. Rose couldn’t have kids. No wonder she felt a need to mother me unbearably. Poor Rose. I felt bad for the things I said to her the other night. But then again, I couldn’t just let her treat me like I was an invalid the rest of my life.
Dad was giving me this weird look that I couldn’t really identify. Finally, I said, “What?”
“Nothing.” He smiled. “It’s just that lately you seem like… kind of like your old self again.” He cleared his throat. “I missed you, son.”
I felt a lump in my throat. I wasn’t sure if he was right, but I liked that he thought so. My father had been so distant and uncomfortable around me since my injury, and this was the first time he’d talked to me like he used to.
It’s late. No, it’s not just late, it’s ridiculously late. It’s 4AM. I’m not sure whether it’s closer to night or morning at this point. I slept a little, from 11PM to 3:30AM, so it feels slightly more like morning.
Noel looks wide awake. What’s wrong with him? How can he look so chipper at 4AM? He told me that when he was a surgery resident, he woke up at 4AM every morning. So maybe this is par for the course for him. Also, he mentioned he takes a pill to wake himself up.
The anatomy lab is very quiet right now. That was the point of getting her at this ungodly hour. Noel wanted to help me in the lab itself, but he didn’t want to do it if there was a remote chance there could be other students around. Except with the second midterm only a couple of days away, there were always students in the anatomy lab. This junction between night and morning was the only time when we could come here.
It was deathly silent when we got down the labs, not another soul in sight. Noel left his cane by the door and held onto the tables as he made his way over to our own cadaver. I helped him get on his gloves, but after that, he took over. I’m glad he’s hear to help me, but I’m also feeling kind of intimidated. I sort of know how Elizabeth must have felt around him way back when.
I stand over my own cadaver and yawn. Noel is separating out the branches of the Circle of Willis. He’s wearing a pair of blue scrubs and he looks really sexy. “Focus,” he says.
“Too tired,” I say.
“How are you going to get through your surgery clerkship?” he teases me.
I groan. How was I even contemplating a career in surgery for even a second? Chloe needs her sleep.
Noel gently lays out the two anterior cerebral arteries with his left hand. He’s doing an incredible job with this dissection, fixing a lot of the mistakes we made. “I didn’t realize you were left handed,” I say.
He looks up and laughs.
I frown. “What?”
He shakes his head at me. “You know I’m not left handed, Chloe. I just can’t use my right hand. Obviously.”
I guess I did know that, but I forgot. The way he’s working with his left hand, it’s hard to believe it’s not his dominant hand. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do such delicate work with my left hand.
“All right,” he says. “Now tell me what everything is.”
He’s got the lab manual open as a reference, but I can tell he’s barely looking at it. He knows this stuff cold. He acts like he doesn’t, but he clearly does. Again, I’m intimidated. Here’s a guy who had a severe head injury and he still knows more about the arterial supply of the brain than I do. Just more proof that Rose was completely wrong about him.
After an hour in the freezing cold lab, I’m starting to wake up a bit. Much as I hate being here, this study session is really helping me. I’m beginning to feel a lot more prepared for the exam. We’re moving on from the brain to the neck when I hear the door to the anatomy lab open.
Noel looks alarmed. “It’s probably the janitors,” I whisper.
But it isn’t the janitor. It’s my classmate Jamie, dressed in her scrubs. She looks startled to see us.
“Hey,” she says. “It’s Creepy Elevator Guy…”
Oh hell. Somehow Olivia’s nickname caught on in our class. Jamie at least looks embarrassed after she says it. There are probably a few other people in the class who wouldn’t have had any qualms about calling him that to his face.
Noel looks mildly alarmed. If he could, I’m sure he’d bolt.
“Um,” Jamie says. She walks over to us and looks down at the cadaver. “What are you doing here?”
I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or Noel. I decide to answer. “Studying for the exam,” I say. What else would we be doing in here? Sheesh.
Jamie looks from me to Noel and suddenly her eyes go wide. “Oh my god!” she exclaims. “Is he the guy you dumped Graham for?”
Noel blushes and looks away. I reply, “Yep.”
Jamie looks incredibly pleased. “Wow, that must have killed Graham,” she says. She grins at Noel, “Nice job, Creepy Elevator Guy.”
I laugh and he mumbles, “My name is Noel.”
“Hi, Noel,” Jamie says. “I’m Jamie.”
“Nice to meet you, Jamie,” he says politely.
“So,” Jamie says, “what are we learning about?”
Noel spends yet another hour quizzing the two of us about the neck. Jamie keeps flashing me these looks and I have no idea what they mean, except I assume they probably mean something like, “Why does Creepy Elevator Guy know so much anatomy?” I don’t really have a good answer for this question without telling her the whole story. I am probably going to have to avoid Jamie forever now to keep her from asking me.
When Noel goes to take off his gloves and wash his hands, Jamie leans in to whisper something to me and I’m scared she’s going to ask that question. But instead, she says, “He’s cute.” Then she adds, “So much better than Graham.”
Score one for Creepy Elevator Guy, I guess.
Noel’s Memory Book:
Sonya and I had our second to last session today. I told her how my father had come by and helped me sort through my finances. She looked really proud of me. “How do you feel about it?” she asked.
“Pretty good,” I said. “I mean, I feel like I’m ready.” I hesitated. “Do you think I’m ready?”
“I think you are,” Sonya said. “As you said, it’s almost all automatic. But you’re doing so well, Noel. I think you could do it anyway.”
“Yeah…” I looked at Sonya, debating if I should tell her about Chloe.
“Is there something else?” she prompted me.
“Yeah, there’s…” I blushed. “A girl. We’re, you know, together. Dating.”
“Oh!” Sonya beamed. “Noel, that’s wonderful! What’s her name?”
“I’m sure she’s really great,” Sonya said.
“She’s a med student,” I said.
Sonya raised her eyebrows. “Really?”
“Yeah, and the thing is…” I bit my lip. “I’ve been going over anatomy with her and the information is kind of… sticking. It isn’t the way it used to be. I feel like I can actually learn new information. It’s… weird.”
“Cognitively, you’re not that bad, Noel,” Sonya said. “I’ve told you that over and over. You just need to work on concentration. But your job working the elevator… I think you’re not realizing your full potential. Plus it sounds like you hate it.”
This was something Sonya had said to me before, but I never believed it. But maybe she was right. Maybe there was something more I could do with my life than press buttons in an elevator.
My midterm is tomorrow. I was tempted to just stay home and study all day, or better yet, go to Noel’s to study. But he has some appointment he had to go to and I thought I’d get depressed studying all alone, so I follow Olivia to school. We take separate cars in case one of us gives up early.
The library is packed with med students. They’re perched everywhere, at every table, kiosk, and desk, kind of like a med student version of The Birds. It’s a little frightening. I suppress the urge to grab Olivia’s arm for protection.
As we pass one of the tables, a classmate of mine who I don’t know very well, possibly named Shelby, looks up at me and smiles. Not a nice smile either. One of those “I know something you don’t want me to know” kind of smiles.
“Hi, Chloe,” Shelby says. “Anything going down lately?”
Shelby and her two girlfriends dissolve into giggles. I feel like I’m in junior high school again and the butt of some joke I don’t understand at all. That one was really cryptic though. “What the hell was she talking about?” I whisper to Olivia when we’re far enough away.
Olivia looks a little pale. “Um, Chloe,” she says, “there’s something I have to tell you.”
She looks like she’s about to tell me that she’s dying. Or worse, failing. “What is it?” I ask.
“There’s this horrible, untrue rumor going around about you,” Olivia says.
Uh oh. I have a bad feeling about this.
Olivia’s eyes are wide. “People are saying that you dumped Graham for… the elevator guy.” She gasps at her own revelation. “Can you imagine? Oh Chloe, I’m so sorry. It’s so embarrassing.”
So I guess Jamie told everyone. Of course, that still doesn’t explain Shelby’s joke. Oh wait, “going down,” like in the elevator. I get it now.
“People are such horrible liars,” Olivia says. “It’s despicable.”
It was Noel’s idea not to tell anyone about the two of us. I guess he didn’t want people to be whispering about us. For my sake. I guess it’s kind of a big deal for a med student to be dating the guy who runs the elevators.
Noel’s Memory Book:
Today, after my appointment with Sonya, I did my laundry. An accomplishment, I know.
I suspect the problem was less an inability to do laundry and more a lack of desire to do it. I don’t like doing laundry. Who does? I kind of remember when Liz and I were living together, we divided up the chores and I made sure she got the laundry. I really, really don’t like doing laundry. I think I’m going to be airing clothes out a lot more often from now on. It’s not like you have to wear a new pair of jeans every day. When I was in college, I probably wore pants for months at a time without washing them.
It was harder than I thought, because my landlords, the Marcuses, keep their washer and dryer in the basement, and I’m not great at stairs. I knew I needed to hold on to the railing to get down the stairs, but I also had to carry my bag of laundry down the stairs. Finally, I decided to just toss the bag down the stairs and go down after it. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to get it back upstairs but I’d figure it out later.
I think maybe Rose sorted the clothes by whites and colors, but I just dumped everything in together. I wasn’t too worried. This was not brain surgery, just laundry. It’s not like I have any cashmere sweaters.
As I was dumping in the detergent, leaning against the machine for support, I heard a noise. It was Mrs. Marcus coming down into the basement. I almost never see the Marcuses, since I think they mostly stay in the house. We sometimes pass each other outside and Mrs. Marcus gives me a sympathetic look like she thinks I’m retarded or something. That’s how she looked at me right now. “Noel,” she said in a slow deliberate voice. “Are you doing laundry?”
“Yes,” I said. I think it was pretty obvious from the fact that I was dumping detergent into the washing machine.
“Are you sure you manage?” she asked me. “Do you need help?”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Marcus,” I said.
“You fill the cup of detergent up to the marked line,” she advised me.
“Thanks for the tip,” I said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.
Mrs. Marcus gave me a worried look, then left me to my laundry. I got the machine started and trudged back up to my apartment, clinging to the railing with my left hand. I really hate stairs. I heard the phone ringing as I walked in. I rushed for it, thinking it was Chloe. Her midterm is tomorrow. I think I’m more excited about it than she is.
“Noel?” It was Rose.
“Hi,” I said. I was a little guarded. Rose and I hadn’t talked since we had that fight.
“Mrs. Marcus called me,” she said. “Are you doing laundry?”
Christ. You’d think I was trying to build a nuclear bomb or something. “Yeah, I’m doing laundry.”
“Do you want me to come over and help?”
“No, I’ve got it under control.”
“Oh.” Rose sounded quiet. Sad.
“Rose,” I said to her, “I swear to you, I’m okay. You don’t need to worry about me.”
She didn’t say anything.
“But,” I added, “if you want you can come by sometime. Just for company.”
Rose was quiet for a long time. “Okay,” she finally said. “Maybe I’ll do that.”
Part of me was tempted to ask her for my key back. But I couldn’t do that to her. Baby steps. Or maybe I’ll just change the locks.