I’m in the library studying with two girls in my class named Jamie and Alexis. We’re quizzing each other on anatomy. It seems like every social relationship in med school is somehow based on studying. We’re getting very close to the exam, so nearly every table is occupied by a nervous-looking med student.
I’ve always gotten along with Jamie and Alexis, but now they seem subdued. I think maybe they’re just stressed out until Jamie gets up the nerve to say something to me. “Chloe, why are you dating Graham?” she says.
I’m thrown by the question. Mostly because I don’t know. Why am I dating Graham? Because he’s good looking? That can’t possibly be right. I’m not that shallow. Am I? Oh god, maybe I am.
“I, um,” I say brilliantly.
“I always thought you were really nice,” Jamie says. “But Graham is such a jerk. How can you stand him?”
I look down. I don’t want to answer this question. I don’t want to think about why I’m dating Graham. He clearly doesn’t care about me.
“He’s, um,” I say. “He’s not so bad.”
Jamie and Alexis look skeptical.
“He buys me flowers sometimes,” I say.
Alexis makes a face at me. “You’re dating him because he buys you flower sometimes?”
“No,” I say. “It’s… complicated.”
“Don’t let him take advantage of you, Chloe,” Jamie says.
“And if possible, you should sabotage him on the exams,” Alexis adds.
“You guys!” I say.
I have a bad feeling though. At first I thought everyone respected me for dating Graham, but now I’m not so sure anymore. Anyone I’d actually want to respect me thinks I’m a phony for dating Graham. Actually, I’m starting to think I’m a phony.
I keep thinking of what Elizabeth said about her med school boyfriend. About how he was really competitive and driven, but he always let her know that he loved her. Graham doesn’t love me. I don’t think he ever will.
Noel’s Memory Book:
Technically, I’m a Christian. A Protestant, specifically. My parents are religious. Kind of. Religious in that they go to church every Sunday and for holidays. Religious in that they believe in God and Jesus and all that.
This religiousness didn’t really get passed down to their offspring. Rose is probably the best of the three of us, but Brad and I are both staunch atheists. I was an atheist before I got hurt, but now it actually gets me angry when my parents talk about religion. If there’s a God, why did he do this to me? I mean, I might not have been the nicest guy in the universe, but deep down I’m a good person. I am. I know I didn’t deserve this.
Of course, my mother says the miracle is that I woke up. When I crashed the car, that was fate, not God. He wasn’t paying attention. He was watching American Idol on TV or something.
Once I got out of rehab and was living with my mother, she made me go to church with her on Sundays, like when I was a kid. I didn’t really have it in me to protest back then, so I went. It was pretty awful. First of all, I ended up having to see all of my mom’s friends who I didn’t recognize but who recognized me. And they all talked to me in this condescending voice and told me how good I looked, even though I was sitting in a wheelchair, had scars all over my face, and I was still having a lot of trouble with my speech. I could speak, but it was very slow and I could tell my words were slurred. It was hard for me to even just exchange pleasantries with these women. It was pretty obvious that nobody actually thought I looked good.
Then I’d have to sit through the sermon. It would last forever and I usually didn’t understand a freaking word of it. About half the time, I’d drift off. I’d blame my sleepiness on my medications, but my parents should have realized it was just church boring the hell out of me.
Anyway, the reason I bring up religion is because my mother met some woman in church and she wanted to set me up with her daughter. I’ve been resisting this kind of set-up, but now that I know for sure things aren’t going to happen with me and Chloe, I feel like I should make an effort to date a little. You know any woman who’s letting her mom set her up has got to be a real winner, like me. My mother gave me her number and I called her today.
Her name is Jana. I was really nervous when I called her. I haven’t asked out a girl in a really long time. I guess Liz was the last girl I asked out and that was eight years ago. Plus I know I’m not exactly a catch (that’s the understatement of the year). But I already had a guarantee from my mother that she was going to say yes.
I had already decided I was going to call her once and not leave a message, so I was about to hang up with she picked up the phone. “Hi, it’s Jana,” she said.
“Hi,” I said. “Um, my name is Noel Andrews. My mother told me to…”
“Oh right, Noel!” She sounded nice enough on the phone, I guess. Enthusiastic.
“So, um…” I was having a lot of trouble getting words out. This happens when I’m nervous. All my speech therapy goes out the window. “Do you want to, um, go to… um…”
“Dinner?” Jana suggested.
“Right,” I said, relieved.
“Sure,” she said. “How about this Friday? Do you want to pick me up?”
I didn’t really want to get into an explanation about how I don’t drive because I have a brain injury and if I don’t have a seizure while driving, I’d get lost after about a block. “I don’t have a car,” I said. That should have tipped her off that something wasn’t right. Who doesn’t have access to a car?
But we agreed to meet at the restaurant. I could tell she had no idea about my injury. I wondered if my mother had told her friend, but either way, clearly the information didn’t get passed on to Jana. I’m pretty sure she’s going to figure it out on the date though. Unfortunately, I can’t hide that there’s something wrong with me.
Our exam is in two days. I’m in Graham’s apartment. Actually, I’m in Graham’s bed. He’s lying on the bed studying with his shirt off and I’m nuzzled against his bare chest. I think I’ve mentioned that Graham has an amazing chest. It’s all firm with muscles. I don’t know how he manages that, considering he never goes to the gym and his only recreational activity is studying. I once asked him how he manages to have such a muscular chest and he just looked at me blankly. It’s like he doesn’t even realize how good looking he is.
I can’t really enjoy it. I’m nervous about the test in two days, but somehow I’m even more upset about me and Graham. I don’t know why. From the beginning, I knew it was just a fling between the two of us. But that doesn’t mean I want to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t care about me.
“How do you feel about me?” I suddenly ask Graham.
“Huh?” he says. He doesn’t look up from his anatomy book.
“I said, how do you feel about me?”
“I don’t know,” Graham says, his eyes still fixed on his book. “Right now, you’re kind of annoying me.”
I sit up straight and put my hand over text of the book. “Hey!” he cries.
“I’m trying to talk to you,” I say.
“Now?” he asks in an exasperated voice.
I stare at him.
“Fine,” he says and puts down the book.
I cross my legs and face him. “I want to know what this relationship means to you.”
“I… don’t know how to answer that.”
I stick out my tongue at him. “Like, do you even care about me?”
“What?” he shakes his head. “Of course I care about you, Chloe. Why would you ask me that?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Sometimes you act like you don’t.”
“Well, now you know,” he says. “So can I study, please?”
I cross my arms. “Say there was a train about to hit me. But the only way you could save my life would be to get a failing grade in anatomy. What would you choose?”
Graham stares at me. “Are you serious?”
“Which one would you choose?”
He shakes his head again. “Boy, you must think I’m really heartless. You really think I’d let you die to keep from failing anatomy?”
“You still haven’t answered the question.”
“I’d make a joke, but I think you really mean it,” Graham says. “Chloe, I know I’m not the warmest person in the world, but you must know I care about you a lot, right?”
I don’t say anything. Graham puts his arm around me and pulls me closer to him. “I won’t study anymore tonight if it will make you happy,” he says.
I feel bad all of a sudden. I don’t know why I’m trying to get Graham to choose between me and his grade. “You can study if you want,” I say.
I sort of hope we can go through another round of him saying he isn’t going to study, but instead he grabs the book and resumes right where he left off. Oh well.
Noel’s Memory Book:
I have no memory of my accident. I’ve had to piece together what happened from what I’ve been told. I don’t remember the day I got hurt or actually anything from at least a week before that. And then at least three months after. It’s weird to have such a huge memory gap.
I was on call the night before. I was a second year general surgery resident and ironically, I had wanted to specialize in trauma. Residency rules state that you aren’t allowed to stay in the hospital more than thirty hours in a row, but from what I can tell, I’d been at the hospital at least forty hours. I first-assisted in a Whipple procedure, which is one of those things that a surgery resident can’t say no to. Then I did a consult for a possible acute abdomen in the psych ward for my best friend and former roommate Glenn, who was then a psychiatry resident.
When I headed out of the hospital, I had probably been awake for forty-something hours. From what I’ve been told, I likely fell asleep while driving home and my car spun out of control and hit a tree going maybe 70 miles per hour. I was wearing a seatbelt, but I didn’t have airbags and I smashed my head on the steering wheel and had an epidural hematoma, among other injuries. I was taken right back to my own hospital, where the neurosurgeons evacuated the hematoma by cutting out a large chunk of my skull, which was crushed anyway.
After that, I was comatose for several weeks. The doctors told my family that there was a very good chance I wouldn’t wake up and that they should make some decisions about “pulling the plug.” Organ donation, all that jazz. Then I started opening my eyes and pulling at my tubes. I still have no memories of this time.
I was in this minimally conscious state for about a month. Once again, the doctors told my family that there was a good chance I might not get any better. They talked about nursing homes. It was around this time, I think, that Liz started sleeping with my friend Glenn.
In the next weeks, I start talking a little bit. It’s from this period that I have my first memories from after the accident, although it’s all really fuzzy. I have this vague memory of someone cutting sutures out of my stomach and it being incredibly painful, and as tears welled up in my eyes, I cried out, “Stop!” Then again as I tried to bat away the scissors: “Stop!” My mother was suddenly at my side and she said joyfully, “Did you hear that? He said ‘stop’! He spoke!”
I remember it was very, very hard to speak for a long time. I knew what I wanted to say, but I just could get the words out. I also had a lot of trouble swallowing food. Also, my right arm and leg were completely paralyzed, so I couldn’t walk or use my right arm at all. I also still remember the first time I saw the stump of my left leg, and felt ill at the thought that it was all that remained of my leg. It was ages before I was offered a prosthetic.
I remember being frustrated a lot. Some days I wanted the therapists to just leave the hell alone, but they never did. I’d actually say to them, “Leave me alone. Let me stay in bed.” But they kept cheering me on, trying to get me to do simple things like feeding myself or putting on my shirt, saying, “Noel, you can do it!” Except I couldn’t. You know how hard it is to put on a pair of pants when half your body doesn’t work?
Thank god things got better. By the time I went home from rehab, my speech was light years better, although still not normal. I could eat on my own and wheel my own chair. I used to be grateful for those things. It was easier to feel good about yourself when you’re in rehab and everyone around you has a brain injury and a lot of them are doing pretty bad. But now I’m out in the real world and I don’t feel lucky anymore.
T minus one. The test is tomorrow.
Graham gave me a ride to the hospital this afternoon so we could study together in the anatomy labs. And by “together,” I just mean that we are in the same general room together. Not that we are actually studying together. We started out at the same cadaver, but then I asked him if the cadaver had a hysterectomy because I didn’t see a uterus. He proceeded to inform me that we were looking at a male body, and that was pretty much the end of our attempt at studying together.
The anatomy lab is packed. Ten o’clock on a Sunday night and more than half my class is probably here. It’s sort of depressing. I want to go home and sleep, but I knew that when I came here with Graham, it would force me to stay here and study.
The anatomy teaching assistants have put pins on various structures in the cadaver as sort of a “practice practical” exam. Early tomorrow morning, they’ll go in and put pins on different structures and we’ll have to go around the room to identify them. I’m fairly nervous about this, considering I’m getting a lot of the practice pins wrong.
I’m standing over our own cadaver, staring at a pin in the abdominal cavity. The label says “gastroepiploic artery.” I have no idea what makes this the gastroepiploic artery and I have only the vaguest idea what the gastroepiploic artery is. Claire is on the other side of the cadaver, looking at the same pin, and I’m tempted to ask her. But from experience, I know that if I ask Claire a question, she’ll just sigh loudly and look at me like I’m an idiot. Even if she answers the question, it’s so not worth it.
“So,” Claire says out of nowhere. At first, I’m hoping she’s going to say something about the gastroepiploic artery. “You and Graham, huh?”
I’m stunned. These are the first words Claire has ever said to me that don’t have to do with anatomy.
“Yup,” I say. I don’t know what else to say.
“I was surprised,” Claire says.
“Well,” she says, “you’re not really his type.”
I didn’t know Graham particularly had a type, but I was willing to believe I wasn’t it. “What’s his type?”
“I know he likes blondes,” she says.
I eye Claire’s blond hair, which is pulled back from her face in a perfect ponytail. It suddenly occurs to me that even though Claire hates everyone, she actually talks to Graham a lot. And that’s when I realize: Claire has a crush on Graham!
The whole thing is almost comical. Claire is gorgeous. She’s really beautiful, like a model or something. And somehow this guy she likes is going out with me instead of her. It must be absolutely killing her. And to be honest, it doesn’t seem possible. I’m just as perplexed as Claire must be.
I’m distracted for the next hour, but I don’t get a chance to ask Graham about it until he’s driving me home at 1AM. I am exhausted. At this point, I don’t even care if I pass. I just want the test to be over so I can sleep.
“I think Claire likes you,” I blurt out.
Graham, who looks surprisingly fresh for 1AM, laughs. “Yeah, I know.”
“She told me.”
He shrugs. “I don’t remember. Before you and I were dating.”
“And you weren’t interested?”
He shrugs again.
“Graham,” I say. “She’s gorgeous. I don’t understand how you could not want to… you know…”
“Because looks are all that matter, right?”
“Well, to guys, yes.”
“Thanks a lot, Chloe.” He reaches out and pinches me teasingly on the arm. “Besides, you’re as pretty as she is. You really don’t think so?”
I snort. “Uh huh.”
“Anyway,” he says, pulling into the driveway of the dorm. “If you really want to know, I didn’t want to get involved with Claire because she’s a high-maintenance bitch.”
“So I’m low maintenance?”
Graham pulls a pained expression. “Not lately, no.”
I finally laugh despite myself. All right, I’ve been giving Graham a hard time lately. Chalk it up to stress. I apologize to him and let him kiss me goodnight and good luck.
Noel’s Memory Book:
It’s officially my birthday today. I’m thirty.
My mother wanted to make some special dinner for me, but I said no. I don’t want to do anything today. I just want to mope around my apartment and feel sorry for myself.
I couldn’t stop her from coming by with a cake. She and Dad showed up around dinnertime. I was eating a lasagna TV dinner. Mom saw it on the table and looked sad. “You shouldn’t eat alone on your birthday, honey,” she said.
“I’m fine,” I insisted.
She pressured me into letting her and Dad stay, at least till I was done with my TV dinner so that we could have cake together. Dad looked like he wanted to leave, to be honest. It’s always kind of awkward between us these days. Dad and I used to be pretty close, but not so much anymore.
It’s a little hard for me to talk about this, but when I first got home from rehab, I was still nowhere near back to normal. When I was in rehab, we did work on using the toilet, but I wasn’t quite there yet. When I had to go, I’d tell my father and he’d help me transfer to the toilet. Usually, I made it. Sometimes I didn’t.
When you’re an adult and your dad has to help you get cleaned up because you crapped your pants, that really changes a relationship. I can barely look him in the eyes anymore.
Mom cut the cake and made a big deal out of getting it at some special bakery. I didn’t care. My sense of smell is gone, which means my sense of taste is just as bad. A cake from the grocery store would have been just as good.
She sang “happy birthday” to me, which both Dad and I endured with moderate embarrassment. She didn’t light any candles though. Or ask me to make a wish. I think if she had asked me to make a wish, I would have lost it.