Noel’s Memory Book:
I’m so angry, I could spit.
Why, Liz? There are a dozen elevators in this building. Why mine?
She looked surprised to see me in here, like she’d completely forgotten I work here. Maybe she did. She’s so caught up in her own little world. So self absorbed.
She was wearing scrubs. Liz always looked great in scrubs. I could see the outline of her breasts under the green scrub top. Can’t help but think back to when… no, stop it. I’m not going to think about that. I don’t care what’s under Liz’s scrub top and I’m sure she doesn’t want me thinking about it either. She had indentations on her face from the face mask and cap she’d been wearing recently. The fresh out of surgery look. The most beautiful look in the world.
She looked tired. Actually, she looked kind of terrible. Older than she actually is. She’s almost thirty, like me, but looks at least five years older than that. She’s got gray hairs. Liz has gray hairs, I can’t believe it. I’ll always think about her as being 22.
And the rock on her finger, it’s the size of a Buick. It makes her long thin fingers look tiny. It makes her raw red hands look less raw and red. The rock I gave her was tiny by comparison. No, it was just tiny. Objectively tiny. I still had to save up for months to buy it, between my loans and my crappy resident’s salary. She used to thread it into the drawstring of her scrub pants during surgeries. It’s in my sock drawer now. I should return it but I haven’t gotten around to it.
Liz looked surprised to see me. Oh gee, Noel, what a SHOCK. I didn’t know you worked here. When she looks at me, I know she’s able to see all the scars. She knows about the ones hidden by my hair, on my chest, and what my legs look like under my pants. She knows my right hand doesn’t work. I can’t hide anything from her.
“What floor?” I asked her.
“Twelve.” Of course. Surgery.
She pulled her hair out of the ponytail, shook it out and put it up again. “How’s Glenn?” I asked.
“Good,” she said.
“Wonderful,” I said. “I want the two of you to be really good. I want you to both to be so damn happy.”
I turned away from her. I can’t even look at her anymore.
Three years ago, this is what happened: Liz was gowning up for a fixation of a femur fracture when she was paged. The scrub nurse returned the page for her, and tapped Liz on the shoulder, told her she needed to talk to her in private. Liz yelled at the scrub nurse, said her time was too important and she didn’t want to be bothered. The nurse then told her in front of the entire team that I was down in the trauma bay, unconscious, intubated, probably about to die.
I can imagine her face when she saw me. I’ve seen photos of what I looked like. I had a tube in my throat and one in my bladder. The left side of my face was completely smashed, destroyed, my skull in pieces. As an orthopedic surgeon, I’m sure she could take one look at my crushed left leg and knew it was beyond salvage, but that was the least of my problems. If all I lost was a leg, I’d probably feel bitter about it and have no idea how lucky I’d have been.
I still wonder, did she look me over like a surgeon would, assessing the damage, deciding what was worthy of repair? Did she check my one remaining pupil for signs that it was still responding to light? Did she rush to the bedside of the man she’d intended to spend the rest of her life with, hold my hand, and cry? Did she cry at all?
All I know is that she wasn’t crying when she called my parents to tell them to come to the hospital to say goodbye to their youngest child.
And then I wonder at what point she gave up on me. When she saw me half-dead in the trauma bay, did she already know it was over? Was she already planning the next guy to spend the rest of her life with?
She didn’t even wait a year. Not even six months. I wasn’t even worth six months to her.
Whenever I see Liz, I feel disgusted. I loved her so much once, but I think I hate her now. I should quit this job. It’s not like I need the minimum wage. I’ve got disability. Then she’d be out of my life for good.
When I come out of the lab today, I notice that I don’t feel the immediate urge to shower in bleach. This is progress! As I come out of the bathroom from changing, I think that maybe this med school thing is going to work out. Maybe this isn’t too…
Hey, what’s that paper in my mailbox?
Oh GOD, it’s the quiz. Oh no…. I am not ready to see that. I need another week. Another month. Or maybe they could just show me the quiz after I graduate.
No, I have to be a man about this. (Or really, a woman, but seriously, that just doesn’t sound right.) I need to look at the test. I need to find out what I don’t know so I can do better next time. I mean, it’s just a quiz. What’s the worst that it could be? I don’t think I got a…
Oh hell, I got a 38.
There’s a mean distribution posted on the wall, but I don’t need to see it to know that a 38 out of 100 is not a good score. All right, the mean was 75. Great. I feel better now that I know I’m three standard deviations below the mean. That was helpful information. So helpful, I’m going to cry.
I can’t even look at all the red pen. I just stuff the paper into my book bag and head for the elevators. Graham and Claire are both waiting for the elevator to come as they compare their exams. They study together a lot and there’s already a rumor going through the class that they’re hooking up. As I awkwardly stand next to them, feeling simultaneously ugly and stupid, they don’t even acknowledge me. I can’t help but glance at Graham’s score: 97. I don’t know how I could hate him more than I do at this minute.
“…so unfair,” Claire is saying. “I should have gotten full credit for that question.”
Poor Claire. What did she get—a 95?
The elevator doors open and there’s Noel. I consider waiting for another elevator, but then I get inside. Noel and I haven’t talked since that day at the vending machine. Graham looks kind of annoyed to see him too. He’s said a few not so nice things about Noel and his inability to press the right floors. Luckily, we’re all going to the same place this time. The lobby.
“I wonder,” Graham says to no one in particular. “Do you think I got the highest score on the quiz? I think I might have.”
Okay, maybe it was possible to hate him more. I really want to smack him upside the head.
I look up at Noel. He gives me a half-smile and rolls his eyes so dramatically that I’m sure Graham must have noticed, but he’s so self-absorbed that he doesn’t. Despite everything, I lower my head and snicker. Graham looks at me, confused. If you can’t laugh, you’ll jump out the window. I’m really glad the bad tension between me and Noel seems to have dissolved.
Noel’s Memory Book:
The med students are divided into three groups: the ones who stare at me, the ones who try not to stare at me, and the ones who don’t give a shit about me.
By age 22, which many of them are, their brains are developed enough that they know it’s rude to stare. It’s just that a lot of them still aren’t mature enough to actually stop themselves from doing it.
Why do they stare? Because I’m not much older than they are and my job is something so basic that they must wonder why I’ve been hired to do it. Or maybe they notice the scars on my face or my screwed up right hand or the way I limp around with my cane. As much as I try to convince myself these things aren’t obvious, I know they are.
When I was in 4th grade, there was a boy in my class named Patrick who was disabled. I still don’t know exactly what was wrong with him, but he walked with forearm crutches and his speech often came out garbled. He frequently left the room to go to special classes of his own. None of us talked to Patrick or wanted to be friends with him, and he mostly kept to himself. After my injury, when I became aware enough to realize how garbled my own speech was, I couldn’t help but think of Patrick. I worked hard at it, trying to speak clearer, not wanting to spend my life sounding like he did. I don’t think I do anymore, but who the hell knows. I get the feeling when the students look at me, they see someone like Patrick. That’s why none of them talk to me.
I think the med students like having me around. When things get really bad for them, they know it could be worse. They could be pressing buttons in the elevator. At least they’re in med school. They think there’s no way on earth they’ll ever end up like me. Not possible. I’m in another category, another life. They have no idea. Drive carefully, kids.
And then there’s Chloe. Chloe is the first med student I’ve come across who looks at me like I’m a regular person. And when I look back, she smiles. Her roommate might be prettier than she is, but when she smiles, she’s really beautiful.
Ever since that awkward encounter at the snack machine, she’s been avoiding looking at me, but today I made her smile. I rolled my eyes at one of her arrogant classmates and she lit up. I think things are back the way they were. Between us, that is. I like her. But I’m aware that nothing could ever happen with her. So I’m going to wear my hand splint.
Noel’s Memory Book:
Chloe looked sad today. She came into the elevator and she had that defeated look. It’s too early in the year for her to look so beaten down. I looked at her fingernails and they were torn to shreds. Extremely positive Fingernail Sign.
I knew I had to say something to her. She kept glancing at me with an expectant look on her face. I’ve told her things before that have made her happier. I could do it again. I just have to keep reminding myself that there’s nothing between us. She’s never going to fall in love with me or anything like that. I’m not the guy I used to be. I can try to be her friend, but if I try anything more, she’ll freak out. Or worse, pity me.
“Don’t quit,” I said to her. I don’t know why I said it. But I knew what was going through her head.
“What?” she said. She looked up at me with her wide brown eyes and pushed her glasses up on her nose. They were always sliding down her nose. It was kind of cute.
“I mean,” I said. “You look like you’re having a bad day.”
“Oh, yeah,” she mumbled. “Kind of.” She shrugged like it was no big deal, even though it was obviously a big deal.
“Why did you come to med school in the first place?” I asked her.
“To help people,” she answered so quickly that I couldn’t help but laugh. She looked offended, but she was also smiling. “What?”
“Nothing, you’ve just been really well trained,” I said. “You realize that you’re already in med school. You don’t have to interview anymore for your spot.”
“Oh.” She blushed.
“So tell me the real reason.”
“The real reason?” Chloe bit her lip. She was really thinking about it, which amazed me. You don’t start thinking about why you’re going to med school weeks after you already started. I knew my reasons ten years before I applied, when I was just 13 years old.
I was volunteering over the summer in a hospital Emergency Room. Mostly, it was pretty boring. I always thought that the ER was exciting like on TV, but it was actually pretty dull. Lots of stomach pain, lots of fevers. Not too many gunshot wounds.
But every once in a while, a major trauma would roll in. I would stare in fascination as a patient would be rushed into the ER, bleeding, unconscious, the works. I’d watch as they’d intubate the patient, assess their injuries, and rush them to the OR. If the surgeon knew me, he’d let me observe from the back of the room. I’d watch as the surgeon would slice open the patients, stop the bleeding, and save their lives. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.
I decided that summer that I wanted to be a trauma surgeon. I wanted to have patients delivered to me on the brink of death and save their lives. I got to do it for a short time and I was pretty good at it. Then it ended up being me on the table in the trauma room, bleeding and unconscious. They sliced me open, stopped the bleeding, and saved my life. Except sometimes I wish they hadn’t.
“I didn’t want to do anything else, I guess,” Chloe said. “So my dad—he’s a doctor—said I should be pre-med. And… here I am.”
I didn’t know what to say. It’s hard to believe someone could make this kind of a commitment without feeling the passion that I used to feel. No wonder she’s miserable.
“That’s a terrible reason, isn’t it?” She looked a little panicked.
“That’s okay,” I said. “It’s better than if you said you were here because you wanted to make money.”
That brought a small smile to Chloe’s face. Eventually, I’m sure she’ll figure out what she wants to do with her career, but in the meantime, she’s probably going to be pretty unhappy. I need to look out for her, make sure she doesn’t jump out a window.