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If I were writing up case notes on the events that brought me here, the record would start with last year’s Spring Fling—which is pretty sad, since I’d been looking forward to the annual party for a very long time. The function was supposed to mark the end of Elliot’s training, the start of his full-fledged career as an obstetrician, and a new level of participation in family life. Instead of celebrating, though, I was once again making small talk with a babysitter and trying not to cry. My husband was an hour and a half late.
“Sorry about the mess,” I apologized, pitching a couple of Barbie amputees into the hot-pink convertible by the couch. By the time my youngest was born, I had realized I could either have a really clean house or a relaxed and happy home. I wasn’t coordinated enough to do both. I threw another Barbie leg into the car.
Elliot finally called. “Hey. Sorry. We’re getting hammered. I’m still waiting for Anesthesia so we can get a section started.”
“But you’re not on tonight, El.”
“I know, Marti,” he said with exaggerated patience. After twelve years of marriage, what was said was a lot less important than how it was said. Tone trumped content every time.
“Look, Clark had a headache and I told him I’d cover. I’ll meet you as soon as I can.”
“Okay,” I repeated. I knew there was only a fifty percent chance he’d make it.
It was exciting at first, watching Elliot’s career unfold. Very early on, he decided that he wasn’t going to be just good, he was going to be the Best. And he was. Extra hours of research earned him rare coauthor credit in a prestigious medical journal while he was still a student. As an intern, he was chosen to represent the department at a weeklong convention in San Diego. He won the coveted role of chief resident, followed by the only slot in the three-year fellowship program in high-risk obstetrics (an honor that meant Elliot waved off his classmates as they graduated and started real jobs, while he stayed behind and extended his eighty-hour-a-week training). My pride had long since faded into weariness. Emergencies, late-night meetings, and co-workers with headaches all meant the same thing. Elliot was never home, never on time, never available.
“We’re just going to meet at the restaurant,” I said to the sitter.
“Cool.” She pointed to the family photograph on the mantel. “How long ago was this?”
“Couple years now. Nina was probably seven, Poppy three, and—”
“I was stuck in the middle,” Simon offered without looking away from the TV screen. “As usual.”
The photo was very Kennedy Family Vacation. The five of us were beaming, our hair lifting like wings above the clear water behind us, arms tangled around orange life jackets. The kids’ blue eyes matched their dad’s. Summer freckles had hatched on all of their faces. I looked Mediterranean next to them. Elliot had some rare time off that day, and we drove to Maryland for a sailing trip with his parents. He and I held hands while the kids raced around a little island searching for shark’s teeth and sea glass.
“It was a great trip,” I said. “Except on the way back to Annapolis, I got so sick my father-in-law banned me from his boat.”
“Permanently,” Nina said from the sofa, giggling.
“That means fo-evah,” Poppy explained in her mysterious Brooklyn accent.
I kissed the top of her silky head and asked her to pay it forward.
* * *
I eased the van out of the too-tight parking space, then glanced over at the house with its old wrought-iron gate. It sat cheek-to-cheek with other brick homes built in the century before last, all illuminated by gas lamps. The setting was so authentic looking that our block had been used in location shots for two Civil War movies and a TV show. (Which was cool at first and then just a pain in the ass.)
My favorite, not-yet-overhauled Richmond gas station came into view. Its windows were adorned with handmade signs offering “Fresh” Milk and “Free” Coffee with “FILLUPS!” When we first got down to Virginia I’d been confused by the random italics, quotation marks, and exclamation points that sprang up willy-nilly. But then I realized they weren’t grammatical guideposts but cheery decorations, and I loved them all.
I turned onto Broad Street, the former dividing line between historic gentrified Church Hill and historic impoverished Church Hill. There I slowed for a group of well-heeled diners heading to the latest trendy restaurant that had appeared in our neighborhood.
Two hours late, I pulled into Ting’s parking lot.
“Crap.” The only open space was next to the green Dumpster. I gave it a wide berth in case any rats were lying in wait (nothing like having a rodent phobia in this city) and hurried into the restaurant. Once inside, I observed the milling crowd from the landing above the sunken dining room.
All the scene needed was a Discovery Channel narrator.
I watched as a couple of Talbots-clad wives worked a cool breeze through the room. Snippets of their conversation rose above the din.
“This is going to be my last year on the women’s committee. I swear the Pink Ball just about does me in.”
“Oh, you say that every year!”
“I almost strangled the caterer yesterday—”
The matrons’ identical foil highlights caught the light as they nodded hello to a couple of casually dressed female gynecologists wearing matching Birkenstocks. All four of them gave the side-eye to a resident who’d ditched her scrubs for a plunging neckline and fuck-me pumps. The men, too, were interesting. From my vantage point I could see hands patting and hugging, occasionally lingering a tad too long on a bare shoulder or back.
I could have stayed in that spot all night, but then I saw Colby.
She was in the corner, surrounded by admirers. Of course. My southern-belle best friend was born a perfect ten (a fact I generously overlooked) and attracted attention just by being. With her auburn hair and russet eyes, Colby looked every bit the on-air reporter everyone assumed her to be. But she was a print journalist, a rough-and-tumble investigator who used her looks only when it helped her get a story.
I stared hard enough to get her attention. She frowned and pointed to her watch. I smiled and pointed to the bar.
I was midsip when Colby goosed me, sending a tidal wave of alcohol over my skirt. “Whoops,” she said, bending nonchalantly, using her cocktail napkin to pat the wet spot.
“Colby—stop! It looks like we’re shooting a porno.”
She bent in closer to inspect the damage. My light gray skirt had turned transparent. “Here, put my shawl on so no one sees your aversion to bikini wax.”
I handed over my glass and put on the soft, flowing jersey. It was infused with gardenia, her signature fragrance. “Thanks. Sort of.”
“Well, anyway, that’s what you get for being late. I’ve been dying here for weeks. Where were you?”
“Waiting for Elliot.”
“Hmm,” Colby said, employing our most meaningful expression. Hours of conversation were condensed that way. “Hmm” was sarcasm, understatement, and shorthand for say no more.
I drained what was left of my drink. “What’s new?”
Her expression made me tense. “What’s the matter?”
“It just looked like Charlie was coming down with something. But he’s not.”
“Yeah. I took him in. The doctor told me to stop being such a nervous Nellie. He said we’re almost at the five-year cure mark and I’m going to need to remember that kids who’ve had cancer still get regular viruses.”
“Easy for him to say.”
When Colby should have been enrolling Charlie in nursery school alongside Simon, she was taking a crash course in lumbar punctures, T cells, and sterile precautions. Throughout that dismal time, she’d clutched her child in one arm and fought back death and disease with the other. She was my hero.
Suddenly, a British accent carried above the din and with it a nervous energy that rolled through the room.
“Oh boy,” Colby said. “Cover your mouth, darlin’. The shit is about to hit the fan.”
I turned and saw Mrs. Hill-the-First, the recently replaced wife of the OB-GYN Department chairman. She was facing off against her ex and his pregnant trophy.
“I hope she shoots the tiny son of a bitch,” Colby said.
Nigel had had an affair with Leslie (the sexy nurse of my own nightmares), ironically resulting in an unplanned pregnancy. Things might have settled down when he chose Leslie and their unborn child over his existing wife and four children, but Natalie Hill wasn’t disappearing graciously.
“Hush now, Marti. I can’t hardly hear.”
The volume in the room had been turned up, with murmurs of “You look nice” and “What are your plans for the summer?” as Nigel’s obliging subordinates tried to make enough small talk to cover the fight. I thought Colby might shush them, too, but Natalie compensated by shouting. Her drink was rocking violently over its banks.
“I hope this happens to you, my dear. After you’ve given him the best years of your life. He’ll probably have time to squeeze in one more marriage after this, don’t you think?” Natalie rotated to address the crowd with upper-class inflection. “Do you know how the grand doctor left us?”
“She really is out of it,” Colby whispered. “Everyone remotely connected to the hospital knows.”
“It was after we’d come back from the Bahamas. It was a lovely trip really. Blue skies, white sand. The older boys parasailed. On the last night Nigel presented us with gifts. New phones for the children. A gold watch for me. For my retirement, I suppose.” She laughed bitterly. “It wasn’t a week later, I was uploading the holiday photos, actually, when he came home early with his announcement. Pronouncement. Decree.” She paused, leaned in toward Leslie. “Tell me, dear, did you celebrate the pregnancy test? Call your parents with the happy news? Mention that Nigel already had a family?”
I couldn’t see Leslie’s face, but holsters of sweat had darkened the pale yellow fabric around her arms. Suddenly Natalie threw the last of her drink at her ex-husband, triggering a simultaneous gasp from the audience. Nigel calmly took out a handkerchief and wiped his face. He may have been reaching for Atticus Finch, but a blue vein pulsed in his temple and his mouth shrank to a thin hyphen.
“He looks like a small penis,” Colby whispered.
Nigel took hold of his ex-wife’s arm and guided her toward the exit. Up on the landing, Natalie turned around and cried out, “This is my life you’re in, Leslie.” She was bum-rushed through the door.
“That was painful,” I said.
“Dignified with the accents, though. Very PBS.”
“I’ll never get over how fast the divorce went down.”
“He guaranteed her a chunk of money.”
“I know. But still.”
Nigel returned alone. “My friends, I beg your indulgence. Obviously, Natalie is not well. But”—he clapped his mini-hands together—“let’s all continue with the celebration. It’s nearly the end of another academic year and we need to pay homage to our residents and fellows who are completing their training.”
“Too bad Elliot is missing the oh-mage,” Colby said, talking over Nigel. “How are y’all doing?”
“I don’t know. I just can’t wait until he becomes an attending. I am definitely in countdown mode.”
“You have been for years.”
“What makes you say that?” I smiled. “I need a refill. Want anything?”
“Nah. I saw John on his way back to the food table. I want to head him off at the pass. He’s gone for seconds three times.”
I was trying to do the math when two men in tortoiseshell glasses, lightweight suits, and wedding bands came over. The shorter one spoke first.
“Excuse us. We were just having a discussion about this morning’s editorial on that euthanasia case and wanted to get a real live reporter’s opinion.”
I unfurled my hand toward my friend, Vanna style.
“Why, I’m flattered,” Colby drawled, all sorority and sweet tea. “I didn’t write it, mind you,” she went on. “But the paper’s argument rests on the line between no heroics and actually withholding sustenance.” She tried to bring me into the discussion. “Marti, what do you think? When should doctors turn everything off?”
“After a really bad haircut?”
“Seriously,” she prompted.
“I guess I don’t think prolonging a vegetative state makes sense. Death with dignity and all.”
Colby nodded, but I was more aware that the guys had shifted their postures, disposing of a corner of the conversational square. They’d made a triangle and I had been lopped off.
Colby said she needed to go check in with the General.
“The General?” one of the tortoiseshells asked.
“John. It’s short for general anesthesia,” Colby explained to appreciative laughs. Really, she could have said anything and the goobers would have eaten it up. Colby threaded her way through the crowd and planted herself at her husband’s side. They were like jigsaw pieces from different puzzles. Chubby, plain John put his arm around his gorgeous wife.
Of all the couples I knew, the Kusiks were the happiest.
I excused myself and went for a refill. The bar line stalled, mooring me directly in front of the women’s bathroom, from which a sickeningly sweet smell wafted each time the door opened. I concentrated on the unfamiliar man in front of me. He was a couple inches south of six feet, with salt-and-pepper hair, a thick mustache, and hipster glasses. He wasn’t WASPy handsome like Elliot, but he certainly was cute. Craggy-face cute. Tommy Lee Jones in his heyday cute.
When he made it to the bar, he turned and asked what I was drinking. I blushed. He must have been aware of me examining him. “Diet Coke and vodka.”
“Wow. I haven’t heard a request for one of those since college. Of course back then it was Tab and vodka.”
“The Dark Ages,” I said somberly.
He passed me the squat glass with a lime buoy bobbing up and down. “Win Phillips,” he said, extending his other hand.
“Right.” We smiled at each other; our eyes met long enough to warm my face. I had to look away. “Win’s an interesting name,” I said, trawling for the lime. “What’s it short for?”
“Nothing. My parents were very competitive.” He held out his hand for the green wedge. I placed it in his palm, feeling bewildered by the intimacy of the act. It was as if he had bent down to tie my shoe. I wasn’t accustomed to this much notice. He put the fruit on an abandoned dish and we continued walking.
“What’s Marti short for?”
“Martha. Though my brothers call me Martyr.” He smiled and then I blurted, “I’m a social worker. I mean, besides being a doctor’s wife.”
“Where do you work?”
“Oh, I don’t.”
Win laughed and I blushed again. What, I thought, is wrong with me? Why did I tell him that? “Well, I did have a job a couple of years ago at a family service agency. But then I had kids.”
The truth was I had the kids when I had the job. Which was how I lost it. I could never find any help. Whenever a throat was sore, or head lice took up residence, I had to use up my sick days. And that was before the chicken pox struck. Six weeks of calamine lotion. First Simon, then Nina, followed by Poppy. Then my job.
“I’m a social worker, too,” Win said as he set his drink on a table and pulled out a chair for me. “Can you sit for a minute?”
“Sure,” I said. “Where do you work?”
“Actually, I just moved here from Michigan. I’m heading up the new New Moms program at Richmond Medical.”
“It’s kind of an experiment. We got a grant for social work and OB to work together on infant mortality. We’re—and I’m not sure why I’m using the first-person plural since I still have to hire someone—going to be offering counseling services, networking, and job-training hookups. Stuff like that.”
“You’re kidding.” I almost levitated. “My thesis was on infant mortality and poverty. Then after I graduated I helped write a congressional position paper on how to make prenatal care more accessible.” I was trying hard to control my excitement. Poppy was set to start kindergarten in the fall and I had recently begun to float the idea of returning to work.
“Tell me more about this position paper,” Win said.
“It was about the best ways to improve OB services for poor women. Real ways to increase access to care. Things like transportation, babysitting. Stuff like that. I actually interviewed a lot of agency directors from around the country and compiled that information.”
Win nodded thoughtfully.
I had already decided against mentioning that the congressman who got me the job was my father. Dad, whom Fox News once misidentified as Chuck Schumer, was a dyed-in-the-wool arranger. Over my protests, he put in a call to a colleague.
“You’ll take this opportunity and put it to the betterment of others,” my father instructed. “The only time the old boys’ network is valuable is when it doesn’t help old boys. You’ll do good work.”
He was used to people submitting. So I did.
“Hey,” Win said. “You seem like a good person to ask. I had a tour of the hospital a couple of days ago. What’s the story with that VIP wing?”
I rolled my eyes. “Basically it’s a way for affluent people to be hospitalized without having to brush up against the masses. When the VIP wing was announced, people started calling the hospital RichMed. RichWhiteMed. There was an online petition against it. But it didn’t go anywhere because the plan got support from unexpected places. Like some of the black city officials.”
“The argument was that unless Richmond Medical could provide special amenities to self-paying patients who could afford a thousand dollars a night in a hotel-like private room, they’d just migrate out to the suburban hospitals and take their checkbooks with them.”
“So poor people would lose out in the end.”
“Right. Thus the separate wing. I know other places do it, too. But it’s gross. They even have their own chef up there.”
“I wandered over earlier. Even their elevator is nicer. Got any other pointers?”
I thought a moment. “Don’t see Gone with the Wind in a theater. It’s like Rocky Horror with a rebel twist—people throw popcorn when Sherman’s name comes up.” I smiled. “And never, ever confuse enthusiastic good southern manners with friendship. That should cover it.”
He laughed. “Have you ever thought about coming out of retirement?”
“Once or twice.”
He threw his head back and roared.
“What’s so funny?”
“It’s just that I wouldn’t be surprised if you had your résumé in your purse. Next to the cigarettes you’ve got hidden in there.”
My eyelids stretched wide of their own accord.
“I knew it.” He laughed. “You’ve got the telltale signs.”
“Substitute thumb insertion between smoking fingers, incessant foot jiggle. How about helping me get the program rolling?”
Before I could answer, the scent of gardenias filled the air and a perfect manicure reached across me. “Hi there. I’m Colby. Marti’s best friend.”
They shook hands. “Win Phillips. Her future boss, I hope.”
“For a second I thought you were going to say her future husband.” She grinned. “Which would have been less surprising.”
She ignored me and smiled at Win. “Nice to meet you. I’m glad someone’s finally going to make an honest woman out of this slacker. Marti, I don’t believe you mentioned anything about a job.”
“Fast-breaking news,” Win said.
“Well then, it’s a damn good thing I got over here.” She produced her most engaging smile, flashing white teeth. “Being a reporter and all.”
“The Richmond Daily?” Win asked.
He raised a brow. “Interesting editorials.”
“The paper is just to the right of Ted Cruz,” I said. “I only have a subscription because she gives me one for my birthday. Every year. Just once I’d like a pair of earrings.”
“I’m sure we could rig a couple of sections up to your little lobes, darlin’. Hey, listen to this. You know that piece on the architect I’ve been working on?”
“He asked me to read him his quotes a few days ago. He okayed them and I submitted it. Then he called this afternoon and said he wanted to make some changes. I told him I’d see what I could do, but my editor might not go for it. And the guy goes, ‘Oh, come on. We’re hardly talking The New York Times.’”
“Uh-oh.” I laughed. “What did you say?”
“That we weren’t talking Frank Lloyd Wright, either.”
Win asked Colby if her husband was an obstetrician.
“No, an anesthesiologist. He does a lot of OB cases—which is how we always get invited to this delight. John and Elliot have known each other since med school.”
“Elliot’s my husband,” I explained, feeling sort of funny that I hadn’t mentioned him.
Win was about to say something else when he looked toward the door and saw the hospital’s director of social work, Joel Levine, struggling with his coat. A large man who seemed to be caught in his own clothes, Joel looked a little panicky. Win stood and said, “I don’t think it would be very good form for me to just watch. Marti, call me Monday through the hospital switchboard. I don’t know the office number yet. Colby, it was a brief—but I hope informative—pleasure.”
Then he walked toward the door.
“Who was that?” Colby asked, sliding into his chair.
“My new boss.”
“Hm,” she intoned.
A waiter passed with a bowl of wrapped treats and Colby smiled. “Tight-lipped fortune cookies are pretty appropriate for a gyno dinner.”
“You are seriously disturbed.”
“Hello, beautiful women,” Elliot said from behind.
“Hey, you,” Colby said, standing and giving him a hug. “I kept your seat warm.”
I studied his face when he sat. The crease between his brows was practically smooth. He looked happier than he had in a long time. I pulled his hand to my mouth, kissed his familiar fingers. “You are about to become an official attending physician. You did it, my love.”
“We did it,” he corrected.
Which made me feel a little teary. “I am so proud of you, El. So proud and so excited for this new chapter.” I kissed his hand again. We sat in a comfortable quiet as the other guests began to leave. It wasn’t until we got up to go ourselves that I remembered my news. “Hey—something amazing happened before you got here.”
Copyright © 2017 by Erika Raskin