I ran into Glenn today in the cafeteria. The cafeteria: where physicians and elevator operators can mingle like they’re of the same species. Glenn was buying a large greasy cheeseburger and a plate of French fries, which kind of explains his waistline. Glenn was a little doughy in med school, but now he’s practically obese.
Glenn’s aged badly, to the point of being almost unrecognizable from eight years ago. Not that I should talk, I guess, but despite my face being smashed, I think I still look more like I used to than he does. Aside from the weight gain, he lost a lot of hair. He looks kind of like the bald friend on some sitcom. Sometimes I really don’t get what Liz sees in him. Part of me wonders if she just stays with him because she feels trapped.
I literally bumped into him when I was getting a soda. I gripped my cane to maintain my balance and held onto the food counter. He looked surprised to see me and I was kind of surprised to see him too.
He came to visit me once during my rehab at the hospital in the time I remember, and he tried to explain about Liz so she wouldn’t have to do it. When he came into my room, I was sitting in my wheelchair, trying to eat the mashed up dinner they brought for me. My face hadn’t been repaired yet, and I felt self-conscious about both that and the way my empty sweatpants leg hung down where my left leg used to be. Even though my brain was messed up, I understood that Liz had left me for him. And I hated him, because he looked normal and he could walk and eat real food and he was fucking my girlfriend.
Glenn could have pulled up a chair to talk to me, so that I could have looked him in the eye from my vantage point in my wheelchair, but he didn’t do that. He stood, hovering over me, forcing me to look up at him. “Noel,” he said to me, in a slow gentle psychiatrist’s voice. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes,” I said. I wanted to say more, but I also felt self-conscious about my speech. It was too slow and the words always seemed to get garbled.
“Who am I?” he asked, testing me. I hated that he did that.
“Glenn,” I replied.
“Right, exactly,” he said in a really condescending voice. “Noel, I came to talk to you about Liz. Do you know who she is?”
“Yes,” I said through my teeth (the ones I had left). I had already decided that if he asked me who she was, I’d take a swing at him.
“The thing is, Noel,” he said. “I know Liz was very important to you before. But people grow apart. The two of you were growing apart for a long time. Even though she still cares about you, she doesn’t love you anymore in that way. That part of your relationship with her is over. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I felt overcome with rage, so much so that I shoved the tray in front of me hard enough that it toppled to the ground, spilling mashed up beef everywhere. Glenn took a step back, surprised. “Fuck you!” I screamed at him, not caring anymore how slurred my words were. “You stole her from me, you asshole!”
A second later, a staff member appeared at the door to my room. My stomach clenched and I knew I’d just earned myself one of those pills that would knock me out for the next twelve hours. I looked up at Glenn and saw that he was smiling at me. “Stole her from you?” he repeated. And he laughed. It wasn’t a mean laugh exactly. “Come on, Noel. You don’t really think that, do you? Even if I weren’t around, she still wouldn’t be with you.”
I didn’t want to believe he was right, but maybe he was. As much as I hate to admit it, Glenn’s words stuck with me. Had Liz and I been growing apart, like he said? Had being surgery residents devoured our relationship?
I guess I’ll never know for sure. But I do remember that during that first rough intern year, Liz was the only thing that kept me going. When I was exhausted, overworked, and miserable, I thought of her and I felt happy. She was my whole goddamn life.
So I do think Glenn was wrong. But on the other hand, he did steal her from me pretty easily.
To make matters worse, he then leaned forward and said in a sympathetic tone, “By the way, Noel, you really should start wearing an eyepatch. It’s pretty hard to look at your face.”
And just like that, he crushed any hope I had that I’d ever be attractive to a woman again. Even just looking at me was painful for him. The best I could hope for was to not look like a Halloween mask anymore.
As I looked up at Glenn’s round face today, I remembered that moment clear as day, like it happened yesterday. And I despised him.
“Hello, Noel,” Glenn said to me. He still talks to me in that slow, deliberate way. I’m not sure if he was talking to me like a brain injury patient or a mentally ill patient. I’m not sure which way would be more insulting. “How are you?”
I felt like spitting in his smug face. I can’t believe this guy was once my best friend, the person I trusted and confided to on a daily basis. He really changed. Becoming a doctor and getting some confidence really made him into an ass. “I’m fine,” I said.
“You look well,” he said. “Your speech sounds almost normal again.”
“Gosh, thanks, Glenn.” I felt my left hand ball into a fist. I successfully punched Graham the other day… maybe I’d feel better if socked Glenn in the gut too. I could always chalk it up to my brain damage.
We stared at each other for a minute. His left eye twitched slightly.
“Well,” he said. “I’ve got to get back to the ward. I’ve got patients to see.”
He was shoving it in my face: the fact that he’s finished his medical training and I never will. Sometimes I get the feeling that after everything I’ve been through and everything he’s taken from me, he still has some crazy desire to show me up. As if that’s a challenge anymore. Apparently, he spent five years being jealous of me and Liz, and I guess it wore on him. At some point, he clearly started hating me.
Dr. Conrad and the anatomy teaching assistants graded the tests fast this time. He announces during lecture that they’ve been graded and are currently in our mailbox. A buzz emanates through the room. Everyone is really nervous. I can tell things are going to get physical at the mailboxes.
I don’t hang back this time. I’m dying to see my grade. Maybe I even got in the eighties, which would be a high pass. That would be amazing. I’ve got my fingers crossed.
By the time I get to our mailboxes, there’s already a huge crowd. I watch them, debating how aggressive I want to be. Graham passes by me and grins, “Chloe, if you want to see your grade, you can’t just stand there.”
“So I should push everyone aside?”
“Yes,” he says. “Obviously. Screw ‘women and children first.’ Be a man, Chloe.”
I laugh as he follows his own advice and dives into the crowd. He’s right. I’ve got to just push my way in there. Be aggressive. Isn’t that what being a doctor is all about?
I start to push my way into the crowd and immediately I get an elbow in my ribs. All right, this is definitely going to result in some war injuries. But I’m not going to give up. I want to know my grade, damn it!
I elbow and duck my way through the group of anxious med students. At one point, I almost slip and fall on my ass, but I make it. I’m at my mailbox. Hurray!
Now I just have to look at my grade.
I don’t prolong it any further. I grab the paper out of the box and I see the grade circled in red at the top: 91.
Oh my god oh my god… I got honors in anatomy!
My knees feel weak. I can’t believe it. After failing three quizzes in a row, I’m getting honors. I could say it’s because I’m so awesome and I definitely did work hard, but the truth is that it’s all because of one person.
I look up at the entrance to the room and I see a flash of red-brown hair. It’s Noel. He’s waiting around to see how I did. He won’t come in here with all the med students, but like he said before, he wants to see my face.
I don’t hesitate. I elbow my way back through the crowd to where he’s standing. The rumors about me and the elevator guy have died down a bit but I see a few people are looking at us with interest. “Chloe,” he says. “I won’t stay. I just wanted to see…”
“I got honors,” I say gleefully. “Because of you.”
His face lights up. “Hey, that’s great! All right, I’ll just go…”
He starts to walk away, but I won’t let him. I jump into his arms and hug him. Well, I mean to hug him. That’s how it starts out. A second later, my lips are on his and we’re kissing. Not just kissing. We’re basically making out right in the hallway, in front of half my class. I can’t keep my hands off him.
When I pull away, I whisper in his ear, “I love you.”
Noel’s shaking a bit. He looks the happiest I’ve ever seen him. “I love you too, Chloe,” he whispers back.
I look around and several people in my class are staring at us. Claire is about two feet away from us and is outright gawking. Usually she looks so pretty, but with her jaw hanging open, she is downright unattractive. “Chloe!” she screeches. “What are you doing?”
I just laugh. The whole thing is so ridiculous. I lace my fingers into Noel’s and we walk out together.
I knew this was coming, but I still feel sick to my stomach when I get home and find Olivia waiting for me. She is sitting on her bed, like she’s been waiting for me here for hours. She looks really upset. I kind of want to make a run for it.
“Creepy Elevator Guy, Chloe?” Olivia says. “Are you serious?”
I blush. “You know that’s not his name. His name is Noel.”
“You made out with Creepy Elevator Guy in front of the whole class,” Olivia says, shaking her head. “What… why…?”
“I’m in love with him,” I say simply.
She gasps like I just stabbed her in the chest. “You are NOT in love with Creepy Elevator Guy.”
“His name is Noel,” I say through my teeth.
“He’s mentally challenged,” Olivia says.
“Oh, stop it. He’s not mentally challenged.”
“He is!” she insisted. “He’s brain damaged from some horrible accident. That’s what I heard. He’s got a huge scar on his head. That’s why he’s working the elevators, because it’s the only job he can do.”
I want to say it’s not true, but it kind of is. I mean, Noel was in a bad accident and did have a brain injury. But that doesn’t mean he’s mentally challenged. He’s really not. He’s forgetful, but that’s not really the same thing. In fact, he often makes me feel like I’m mentally challenged by comparison.
“Look,” I say, “you’re not going to convince me to leave Noel.” I pause for effect. “I mean, how do I know you’re not dating the janitor or something?”
Olivia looks aghast. “I would never date the janitor.”
“So you’re a snob. Congratulations.”
“Oh, get over yourself,” she sniffs. “You’re just as big a snob as I am. I don’t know why you decided to slum it, but I think you should quit it. Nobody is going to respect you if you’re dating the elevator guy.”
Olivia’s comment makes me angry, but it’s the same comment that Noel made. He agrees with her. I’d like to think in this day and age, you can date whoever you want and it’s no big deal, but obviously I’m wrong. Dating the biggest asshole in my class brought me respect. But dating Noel is something I’m supposed to conceal.
Noel’s Memory Book:
I was trying to shelter Chloe from her whole class knowing about me and her. I don’t know why she blew our cover like that. Yeah, there were rumors. But now everyone knows.
She doesn’t seem to care though. And the last few days, I’ve been coming to the anatomy lab at non-ridiculous hours and I’ve been helping her. Mostly we’ve been going over the brachial plexus.
What’s crazy is that other students have been listening in too. Yesterday, I had like five students gathered around me, listening in as I talked about the muscles of the upper extremities. It kind of felt like my first year of med school again.
Then this morning, Dr. Conrad got in the elevator with me. He said, “Noel, I need to talk to you. Can you come to my office?”
Apparently, he knew all about what I’d been doing with the med students. For a minute, I was worried he was going to yell at me and tell me to stop. But instead he said something that surprised me: “How would you like a position as an anatomy teaching assistant?”
“What?” I thought I was hearing wrong.
“I can’t pay you much,” Dr. Conrad said. “But I know you don’t make much working on the elevators either. Quit that job and work for me.”
I stared at him. “I can’t.”
Dr. Conrad peered at me through his spectacles. “I don’t know who you are,” he said. “The Noel Andrews I met eight years ago never would have used the word ‘I can’t’ so superfluously.”
“Look,” I said. “It’s one thing to do some informal teaching with Chloe and her friends. But a real teaching position… I mean, for one thing, I’m not qualified.”
“You graduated from medical school. You’re an MD.”
“I just can’t,” I said.
He was looking at me with a furrowed brow. How could I explain this to him? The thought of getting hired to teach made me break out in a cold sweat. I couldn’t do it. Any pressure and I’d fall apart. I decompensated in stressful situations.
“Fine,” Dr. Conrad finally said. “It’s your life, Noel.”
There was a long pause. I could almost feel Dr. Conrad’s disappointment. He’s done a lot for me over the years. Unlike Liz, he’s always been there for me. He actually came to visit me every week when I was in rehab. Since my injury, he’s been more like a father than my own father. He always made me feel like I had a shot at getting back to the way I used to be and he never talked down to me. He never stopped believing in me, for some reason.