Noel says to me completely out of nowhere: “I think you should go see a surgery with Liz.”
We’re at his apartment. My feet are on his lap and he’s giving me a foot massage. Which is not that easy because he only has one hand to do it with. Plus I’m self conscious that maybe my feet smell. Then again, Noel can’t smell. So maybe I should just relax and enjoy the massage.
“What are you talking about?” I say.
He shrugs. “I just think that you owe it to yourself to give it a chance. Don’t you think so?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe.” I’d actually been kind of relieved that my surgery with Elizabeth got canceled.
“Maybe you should give her a call,” he suggests.
I frown. Why does he want me to do this so much?
“I feel guilty,” he says. “You were working so well with her. I wrecked it for you.”
“I told you not to feel guilty.”
“I can’t help it.” He looks into my eyes. “It would make me happy if you did this.”
I pull my feet off his lap. He wants me to do this so badly, it’s hard to refuse. And maybe he knows something I don’t know. Maybe everyone is right. Maybe I’ll go through this surgery and discover it’s my calling.
Or maybe he’s just trying to turn me into someone else. Into the girl he really loves.
“Will you call her?” he asks.
“Okay,” I agree.
I grab at his ankles. “All right,” I say. “Now it’s your turn for a foot massage.”
“I appreciate your use of the singular,” he says.
“Come on,” I say. “I can massage your right foot, can’t I?”
He fends me off. “No way,” he says.
“What? Fair is fair. You got to massage my sweaty feet, now I get to do yours.”
He struggles a little, but eventually has to relent or else kick me in the face. He takes off the brace from his right leg and grudgingly puts in on my lap. The foot isn’t that bad for a guy. He doesn’t have any weird fungus or anything. But there are a few areas that look a bit red from the brace he wears. His ankle hangs down somewhat limply and his calf is very thin. “Can you move your ankle?” I ask him.
“No,” he says.
I don’t know how to respond to that and I’m kind of sorry I asked the question in the first place. Finally, Noel says, “Just forget it.” He pulls his leg off my lap, not meeting my eyes with his.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble.
He shrugs like it doesn’t matter, even though I know it does.
Knee replacement, take 2.
I’m standing with Elizabeth outside the OR. I have to admit, I’m a little excited. I’ve never seen a real surgery before. Maybe Noel’s right. Maybe I’ll love it. Maybe this is my calling.
The patient is already under anesthesia in the OR. Elizabeth brings me into the room and introduces me to the junior resident, Jason. Maybe it’s my imagination, but Jason doesn’t look too excited to see me. Actually, he kind of sneers when we get introduced.
When I get into the OR, a nurse helps me get gowned and gloved. She instructs me to keep my hands at “boob height” and I’ll be fine. I have to admit, there’s something neat about this. I feel important. I’m in a surgery. This is what being a doctor is all about. This is it.
Jason looks around the room, at me and Elizabeth and all the nurses. “Wow, there’s a lot of estrogen in here,” he comments.
Elizabeth looks like she wants to kill him.
The male attending arrives, effectively raising the testosterone level in the room to more acceptable levels, and now the surgery can begin. There isn’t a lot of fanfare or anything. Elizabeth takes the lead: she asks for the scalpel and starts cutting into the patient’s knee. As she’s doing it, I can’t help but think to myself that this is the first time I’ve seen a real person get sliced into with a scalpel. And it’s weird. And not in a good way. There’s actually blood when she does it, unlike on our cadaver.
“Are you okay?” Jason says to me, peering at me above his surgical mask.
Before I can answer, Elizabeth snaps, “She’s fine.”
I am fine though. I’m totally fine. Totally and completely fine. This is just a little weird. But I’m not going to faint or anything. I’m fine. Really.
One of the nurses comes over with some contraption wrapped in sterile plastic. “What’s that?” I say.
“It’s a saw,” the nurse tells me.
And before I can have a second to contemplate this, Elizabeth is sawing through the patient’s bone. There is a freaking saw going through this woman’s bone. I didn’t realize they were going to be doing this. In all our preparation, Elizabeth somehow failed to warn me about this. It’s almost… barbaric. I’m horrified.
“Are you okay?” Jason says to me again.
That’s the last thing I remember before waking up on the floor.
I fainted. This is so embarrassing. I will never live this down. Elizabeth invites me into the OR with her and then I go and faint. The nurse is reassuring me that the patient is fine and that I fainted outside of the sterile field, so I guess that’s a good thing, but god, this is embarrassing. They get me into a chair and the nurse brings me some apple juice like I’m five years old. I feel ridiculous.
Nobody suggests that I try to scrub again, even Elizabeth. I’ll bet she’s totally mortified. I mumble a few apologies and get the hell out of the OR.
I had intended to go straight home, but I run into Noel near the OR. I’m not sure what he’s doing here, but I suspect he was waiting for me. He looks really excited. “Did you like it?” he asks. “Hey, why are you out so early?”
“I fainted,” I admit.
He looks perplexed. He scratches his head. “Really?”
“Really!” I push past him and start in the direction of the elevators. I have to go get my clothes from my locker, then I’m going home to try not to think about this.
“Wait,” he says. He’s trying to chase after me, but he can’t really do it with his bad limp and the cane. “Come on, stop. Or at least, slow down. Please.”
I don’t want him to fall on his face trying to chase me, so I do stop. I turn around and Noel limps closer to me, then grabs the wall to steady himself. “Hey, why are you crying?”
Honestly, I didn’t even notice I was crying. I rub my eyes with the back of my hand. I look away from him.
“It’s okay if you fainted,” he says. “Some med students faint during their first surgery. It’s not a big deal.”
“Of course it’s a big deal,” I say. “You wanted me to be a surgery superstar like your precious Elizabeth. Well, I’m not. I’m not like her at all. I’m sorry.”
Noel’s eyes widen. “Chloe, how can you say that?”
“It’s true. I’m not like Elizabeth.”
“You really think all I want is for you to be like Liz?”
Do I think that? Maybe. I know Elizabeth meant so much to him. He loved her so much. Clearly, she was his exact type. “I don’t know,” I finally say.
He takes my hand in his and gives it a squeeze. “I don’t want you to be anyone else. Especially not Liz. I love you.”
I look into his eyes. I believe him.
“I have to be honest,” he says with a crooked smile. “I’m relieved. I’m glad you hated surgery.”
He nods vigorously. “Becoming a surgeon takes over your life. For me and Liz, it was a calling. I had to do it… I didn’t have a choice. But you’re better off hating it.” He pauses. “Plus… it changes you. You learn to detach yourself. It made Liz into a colder person than she was before. Maybe that’s why she did what she did to me.”
He sounds like he means it. Except it doesn’t make sense. “So why did you want me to see that surgery?”
“Well,” he says. “Because surgery is awesome. If it is your calling, there’s really nothing else like it. There’s nothing else I could have imagined doing with my life…”
We’re both real quiet all of a sudden. It occurs to me that all Noel wants is to be standing in my shoes right now. I wish I could give it to him. He deserves it so much more than I do.
Noel’s Memory Book:
I was lying in bed this morning, drifting in and out of sleep, when my mother called. “Noel,” she said. “Is Chloe there?”
I rolled my head over and saw Chloe lying asleep next to me. She was snoring softly. “Yeah, she’s here.”
“We were wondering,” my mother said, “if we could come by to meet her after church?”
To tell the truth, I’m surprised this is the first time she’s asked to meet Chloe. She’s been showing amazing restraint. I couldn’t say no to her after all she’s been through with me, but I wasn’t looking forward to telling Chloe she was going to have to meet my mother.
Before waking up Chloe, I went to the bathroom to take my medications. I figured I should do it before I forgot, but also, I prefer not to make a lot of fanfare about it. I don’t like to call attention to the fact that I take so many pills. I need to get off some of these meds. But which ones? Every time I try to even taper off one of them, something awful happens. I’m stuck.
After swallowing a round of pills, I brushed my teeth. Sometimes when I’m brushing, I start thinking about how many of the teeth in my mouth aren’t actually mine. A lot of them. A bunch of the teeth in the left side of my jaw got smashed and knocked out of place. I got dental implants a while back since you can’t chew without teeth and I’m a little young for dentures. I guess they look okay, but somehow they feel different than my natural teeth. I’m not sure why.
After I was done, I limped back to the bedroom to rouse Chloe from sleep. She rubbed her eyes and yawned loudly. “Too tired,” she said. “Need more sleep.”
“My mother is coming over,” I said.
Her eyes flew open. “What?”
“Sorry,” I said. “She just called me.”
“She’s coming now?” Chloe looked horrified.
“No, after church. We’ve got a couple of hours.”
Chloe’s shoulders slumped and she dropped back into bed. “Don’t scare me like that,” she said. She curled up with the blanket. “I didn’t know your family was such avid churchgoers.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. I’m not really proud of that fact.
“Are you religious?”
“It’s Sunday morning and I’m not at church, am I?”
She smiled. “Are you Catholic?”
“Protestant.” I shrugged. “But it really doesn’t matter because I’m an atheist.”
Chloe looked impressed. “Were you always?”
“Pretty much. Getting into that accident didn’t help matters though.” I played with a lock of her brown hair. She has incredibly soft hair. “Anyway, I don’t want to talk about it.”
Chloe and I spent the next hour in bed, then took turns in the shower. My parents were going to arrive any minute and I was getting nervous. Which is crazy because I knew they’d like Chloe. I think I was mostly nervous because I was worried they’d say something to make her think I was a loser.
My parents arrived with food. I don’t think my mother is capable of making the trip over to my apartment without food. She had four Tupperware containers in her hands when I opened the door. “Noel,” she said. “This is food for the week.”
Already I was embarrassed. I quickly relieved her of the Tupperware, refusing her offer to put it in the refrigerator for me, although I honestly almost dropped it on the floor. I can walk without a cane around the apartment, but not if I’m carrying four Tupperware containers.
Chloe peeked out from behind me. Mom saw her, and her face lit up. “You must be Chloe,” she beamed.
“Yes, I am,” Chloe said.
My mother looked Chloe up and down and for a moment, much too obviously. Sometimes I think my parents must have been taught manners by wolves. Anyway, I wasn’t worried. I know Chloe is objectively attractive, but not so beautiful that they’d think this was some kind of scam.
“It’s nice to meet you, Chloe,” Mom said. I looked at her face and was horrified to see that she was blinking back tears. I really hoped she wasn’t going to start crying, although I guess I could see why. I think at some point, my parents gave up hope that I’d ever have a normal life or a girlfriend. When I was sitting in my wheelchair in rehab, struggling to swallow a spoonful of food, I really didn’t think this could ever be possible.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Mrs. Andrews,” Chloe replied politely. Then she added, “I have a present for you.”
I was baffled. Chloe didn’t even know my parents were coming until a few hours ago and she hadn’t left the apartment in all that time. How did she have a present for them? When she excused herself to go into my bedroom, I followed her.
“You have a present for my parents?” I asked, confused. “How is that possible?”
Chloe reached into her faded green handbag and pulled out a box of chocolates triumphantly. She shrugged. “I bought them yesterday. I was going to share them with you, but I think this is better for my hips. Do your parents like chocolate?”
“Who doesn’t?” I said. I couldn’t help but smile. I don’t know of too many other girls who would think it’s a good idea to buy a huge sampler box of chocolates just for fun. My girlfriend is kind of awesome. “I love you, Chloe.”
Chloe smiled shyly and stepped into my arms. I had started kissing her on the neck when we heard my parents’ voices filtering in from the other room. I could hear my mother like she was standing right next to us: “Well, that Chloe is no beauty queen, but she certainly seems like a nice girl.”
“Oh god,” I muttered. “Chloe…”
“That’s okay,” Chloe said, still miraculously smiling. “I’d rather be nice than a beauty queen.”
“My mother’s blind,” I whispered in her ear.
“I’m just glad he’s seeing someone,” my father piped in. “Between all his injuries and still being so hung up on Lizzie…”
Are you fucking kidding me? I pulled away from a rattled-looking Chloe and swung the door to the bedroom open. “You know, we can hear you,” I snapped.
My parents at least had the courtesy to look embarrassed.
The rest of the afternoon was less eventful, but I couldn’t get my parents’ words out of my head. I don’t know why they thought I was still hung up on Liz. I’m not. I haven’t mentioned Liz to them in months. I hardly think about her at all, except maybe to hate her.