You were always difficult. Still are.
He was fairly anxious before entering the O.R. The scrubbing brushed off some of the nerves, with it came the realization that he missed it and was surprised by the automatic curt nod upon Dr. Sullivan’s welcome. It was natural, professional like he hadn’t been away from surgery for five years. After that, there was a mask to hide the face and besides no one was actually looking. Relieved to know all the steps to the procedure there were a few moments where it felt like all he needed to do was pick up the scalpel and everything would be normal again.
It was until he walked out of the O.R, that the gloom began to set in the pit of his stomach and the relief was replaced by doubt again. By the time he came home, he was sure that this is the farthest he should go and if he actually picked up the scalpel again something would go wrong. He would forget a step or his hands wouldn’t be steady enough. A part of him knew this was just doubt speaking and another part knew he was losing the battle. Take the plunge, move to the other side, jump off; all those metaphors kept making appearances as well. But that was the thing; despite knowing everything, here he was still standing at the same point.
Alan spent the rest of the day doing nothing. Nola came by to cheer, during which time he deliberately kept steering the conversation towards something other than the supposed small victory. He didn’t want the attention and the praise because he still felt the same – like the day before today. Except for the few moments in the O.R where the past seemed irrelevant. She also announced that she finally got an interview call and would be going for it in the following week, which he was happy to know and hoped that they both had something good waiting for them.
When she left, Alan dug up his refrigerator and started making a stir fry of everything that was available, even though he just had dinner. This is what he did when he needed a distraction. The sound of the knife hitting the cutting board, slight hum of the burner, and the sizzling somehow kept the storm in his mind locked away. He wanted to tire out and go straight to sleep. So, when done with the stir fry, he started making a cake because that took time. By the time the cake was rising in the oven, all the drawers were rearranged and all the shelves clean and shining.
There was a reason the freezer was always full. The stir fry dish was now packed away into small containers ready to go in the freezer, the cake waiting on the cooling stand. After looking at it for several minutes, contemplating what to do with it, he thought; I’ll take it to my AA meeting tomorrow.
When he finally hit the bed, the storm was a mishmash of anxious thoughts swimming in his head, but the body was tired enough not to catch up with them. It was a dreamless night but upon opening eyes to the bright morning sun, a single thought hit him. He wanted to go back to the O.R. He didn’t want to be standing at the same point anymore.
Every passing day I feel more alone.
What she couldn’t say, poetry did.
Found in high spirits, found scared.
Silence speaks more when we’re together.
You didn’t get the protagonist’s part.
You are my biggest trigger, love.
Luna’s coffee shop – Nola looked up just before pushing the door to enter her workplace. She did that daily, unconsciously checked if she was entering the right place. Maybe it was because she hated working there, or after working there for a while now, she still didn’t feel that she belonged. She walked towards the staff entrance not looking around at all. As she reached the small locker room and put her bag inside her locker, Dan came from the kitchen back door.
“Good. You are here. There is a new girl. Boss says you have to guide her around.”
She nodded and took off her jacket, wondering who she’d have to deal with. She wasn’t in the mood. Well, she was never in the mood lately. She entered the kitchen and found the girl standing near a shelf looking around. It wasn’t a big kitchen, but housed all the baking equipment and utensils. The boss was a middle-aged lady, who loved baking and this business had worked for her. The only reason Nola was still surviving this job was because the lady was kind, straight forward and didn’t fuss around for nothing.
As she came closer to the girl, she realized it was the same girl who came in some time ago. The nervous teenager. She got the job.
“Hey, you got the job”, Nola smiled at her and was a little surprised that it came out genuine.
“Hi”, she looked less nervous than the previous day. She was wearing a blue hoodie and jeans, black today.
“I am Nola and I’ll guide you around. It isn’t very difficult to work once you get the hang of it”, she handed her a red Apron printed with the shop’s name and gestured her to come towards the main counter separated by a glass partition.
“Thanks, I’m Ivana”
It was afternoon and there wasn’t much rush. Dan looked up from his phone when he saw her coming and went away, handing over the shift with a nod. One more girl was working the evening shift with her.
“This is Sophie and that was Dan. Just observe me for today and ask anything you want. Ok? You’ll be doing the evening shifts mostly I suppose?”
“Ahh, no I can do mornings too.”
“Ahan, no school?”
“Um, no, no I am not going to school,” she looked away and Nola could see the hesitance in her eyes, “for now”, she added.
“Ok. That’s Ok”, she smiled and tried to make her feel comfortable. Stupid question Nola. She could see it wasn’t an easy question for the girl. She regretted bringing it up because she knew how bad it felt to be asked the questions you didn’t want to answer.
They spent the rest of the day like that with Ivana observing her. It got busier in the evening. Ivana was good at learning that she could tell and she seemed much more at ease now. As they packed up their stuff to leave, Nola felt that she should ask her how she would be going home. After all, she was a kid.
“Uh my friend is picking me up”, she put on her jacket. “We can drop you home or something?”
“No, I mean it’s fine. I’ll walk. It is not that far. Plus, I wanna catch some air”
“Ok, if you are Ok”, she smiled and started walking outside. The boss always closed up the shop half an hour after it was closed to the public so she just walked out of the door with Ivana by her side. Alan’s car was parked outside, she waved her goodbye and went towards the car.
“Hey”, she said, buckling her seat belt.
“Heya, kid. Who was that?”
“New girl. First day. Ok, so what was so important that couldn’t wait till tomorrow?”
Alan put the car into drive and moved towards their usual restaurant. The place that had the best lasagna and not many people for this kind of unplanned talk out sessions. Alan had texted her earlier in the day that he wanted to meet up.
“I’m going for it tomorrow. I talked to the chief and he said I could come and observe. You know, to get into the whole thing. I’m just so nervous.”
“The great Neurosurgeon Alan Miro, nervous!”, she imitated an incredulous look and tried to match a voice too but she wasn’t much of an actor.
“Ok, that just made me more nervous”, he said and Nola chuckled.
They arrived at the restaurant and went inside. They actually had a table and the waiters knew them. Nola really liked it. They sat at their table which just got free and ordered the usual.
“It’s gonna be fine”, she said what Alan wanted to hear trying to make it look as natural as possible. She didn’t think her words would do anything. If it was going to be bad, it was going to be bad. But she tried to be a good friend. Maybe her words did help him somehow.
“You think?” he said and didn’t wait for her to answer, “it’s just I know it won’t be bad. I’m just observing. It’s not like I’ll be doing any actual work. But still, it’s been ages. It’s just overwhelming I guess and a little embarrassing too. I was an attending and now it feels like I am an intern all over again”
“I know what you mean”, Nola responded. Most of the time she was good at giving positive advice to other people. All it took was some good energy and she usually had it for other people, especially for Alan. Today, she was just down herself. Their food arrived and they dug in.
“Did you look for something?” She was dreading this question.
“Don’t ruin my diner please”. She made a face. It’s been two weeks since they made that promise. Alan has been keeping up with it. Hence, the emergency meeting. She had been keeping up too and looking for jobs. Online, on the newspaper, but every ad made her feel like she couldn’t do it.
Alan kept looking at her, so she spoke, “I looked up, I am looking. Ok.”
“Good”, Alan knew when to not put pressure on her and she was grateful for that. They continued eating in silence for a while. She didn’t have anything to fill in the silence today. She was running low on positivity. Very low.
“Promise not to laugh at me if I call you tomorrow to tell you that I passed out in the O.R or something”, Alan said with such seriousness that she started laughing.
“You are laughing already”, He couldn’t help but smile and turned a little red.
She controlled her laughter and took a sip of her drink, “I won’t. I promise”
“That just means you believe I will pass out. Damn it. You are the worst. I came here looking for support”, Alan had his sheepish face on and tried to sound mad but failed.
“What do you want me to say? I’m a bigger loser than you are. I don’t think I have a right to laugh at you. At least you are trying. You’ll be fine. In fact, you’ll come back smiling. And the next time you’ll even start doing the actual thing. You just need to go back”
Alan took a long sigh and put down his fork. He was nervous but a part of him wanted to go so maybe it won’t be that bad. He tried to tell himself repeatedly that he was sober now and he wasn’t going back in that hell hole again. That much he was sure of. He reminded himself that he didn’t actually kill the kid and he should give himself a chance. You never know if you never try, they say. What could go wrong? But the fear was still there, telling him he wasn’t trustworthy enough.
“We are losers, aren’t we?”
They all settled in the living room once the guests were gone. Sarah and Nola sat on the couch, Peter took the armchair on their right while Alan perched comfortably on a big cushion on the floor. They talked and caught up on each other’s lives now that they were alone.
“Stay the night, Nola. We get to meet for so little time”, said Sarah.
“Oh no, Sarah. I can’t. I have an early shift tomorrow. In fact, I should get going if I have to catch the 11 o’clock sub”, Nola replied getting off the couch.
Alan quickly got up too and said, “You are not staying but that doesn’t mean you are going alone at this hour. I’ll drop you.”, and went into the kitchen.
Nola opened her mouth to argue, but chose not to because there was no winning here. She looked at Sarah and shook her head, smiling.
“Well, I did one thing right with this son of mine. He’s right, you should go with him. It’s late”, said Sarah.
“You did most of it right”
“Hey! I did my part too”, Peter chimed in.
They all laughed at this and Nola picked up her bag hanging it across the body. Alan came carrying two bags which she knew contained packed food from the dinner. “I’m gonna put these in the car”, he said, and went out the main door.
“Okay, guys I had a lovely time. You should visit more often. It’s always great to have you here”, she said with a tinge of sadness in her voice. They had really become like her parents now and she always missed them after their visits.
“Honey, you should come to us sometime. I’ll ask Alan to bring you”. Peter put an arm around her shoulders and walked her towards the door. Sarah walked right beside them.
“Yes, Nola when will you come?” asked Sarah and her eyes lit up at the thought of having her children over.
“Probably never”, said Alan as he shut the car door, parked on the front porch, and came towards them.
“I’d love to come. Well, if your son brings me!”, she shoved Alan in the side.
“Oh great, put that on me”. They all laughed and their voices echoed in the lobby.
“Promise me you’ll come”, Sarah hugged her tight.
“Okay, I promise. Someday”, Nola said, hugging her back.
“Careful Ma, she is isn’t as innocent as she looks”
“Don’t you tease our daughter, young lad”, Peter said as he put an arm across Nola’s back for his goodbye hug.
“And promise me you’ll find him a nice girl before he loses all his charm”, said Sarah.
“I can find myself a nice girl, Ma!”
“Can you?”, Nola laughed, “He has already lost his charm, Sarah. There is no hope.”
“Oh please”, he rolled his eyes, “Let’s go before you ladies get more humiliating”
“I love you, bye”, she waved at them as Alan dragged her out of the house.
“We love you too. Take care.”, they said in unison and watched the car roll out of the porch.
“Dad asked me today if I would ever go back to surgery.”
They were in the car now. There was no heavy traffic but the roads weren’t completely empty either. The car was moving smoothly on the main road matching the mood outside.
“What did you say?”
“I said I don’t know”
“A part of me wants to go back but I don’t really know how”
“You know it, Alan. You just have to trust yourself for that”
He took a left turn. The car slowed down a little as they passed a busy street. After a few seconds of silence, he said, “I don’t though. I don’t Nola. I don’t trust myself. You know I don’t have a bad childhood or a particular incident to blame this on. It was all me. And I know, I know this is a wrong thing to say. But, I guess it gets easier if you have something to blame. I started taking drugs because I wanted to try them. I was fascinated by the idea of them. I thought I had it under control until I lost It.”, his face was flushed and he gripped the steering tighter, “I got dependent. Started making mistakes in the O.R, missed steps in examinations and then that day…”
He was called in for an emergency on his day off. A 14-year-old had come in with a head trauma. There was a brain bleed that needed to be clipped immediately. Alan always took calculated doses during work hours, he only splurged when he could. That day he just rushed to the surgery, his daily intake forgotten. Four hours into the surgery, he started getting irritable. He started losing the steadiness in his hands and snapping at the nurses. He lost his focus and nicked the wrong place which caused another bleed.
Alan froze. He knew what to do but he was too numb with fear and more than that the reason for his behavior. The assistant doctor and nurses asked him what to do and shouted the boys dropping vital levels at him, but he was unable to shake off the realization that it was happening because he didn’t take the drugs.Thankfully, the assistant snapped him out of his trance, adrenaline kicked in and he stopped the bleed. The patient survived but he could have died.
He took pride in what he did and the fact that a child could have died because of his folly became his regret. He started fearing surgery. Drugs were the reason for his downfall but now they became his solace. Instead of getting help, he used more to forget. The thoughts that the boy could have died didn’t leave him except when he stuffed his body with drugs. He was the spinner of his own cycle and he couldn’t stop spinning. Three years after that he was still struggling between wallowing and failing at rehab, then he met Nola.
Nola knew this story. He talked about it just once before. She let him be. They drove in silence for the next five minutes.
“That patient didn’t die”
“He could have”
She looked out the window. She didn’t know the right words to make him believe. She knew his condition. She was living it herself. When the regrets are haunting you, nothing makes sense. The night grew quieter and so did the car. They drove like that until they reached her apartment building. He parked the car on the side of the road and looked towards her. She looked back and turned towards him, folding one leg underneath her.
“It’s in you, Alan. Surgery is a part of you, you didn’t lose it. You lost control for a while but you have it now. You’ve been sober for more than six months. That’s the longest you’ve gone. You know you want it. Give it a try.”, she uttered every word with force making another attempt before she pushed too hard.
“Will you give it a try?”
“Give what a try?”, she asked back and straightened up again to face the windshield.
“A job. Not a lousy job at the coffee bar. One that’s worth your potential.”
She laughed loudly and looked away, doubt evident in her eyes. “I can try to find you a nice girl. At least your mom would be happy”
“That’s the best you could come up with for deflecting”, Alan shook his head, easing up a bit.
Nola opened her mouth to reply but Alan cut in, “Let’s make a promise”
“What promise?”, she looked at him incredulously.
“That we will both do it. You’ll look for a job and I’ll start surgery”
Nola started laughing.
“Why are you laughing?”
“For a second I thought you were gonna go – Let’s make a promise to marry each other if we reach forty and are still single”
Alan couldn’t help laughing himself and shook his head.
“You watch those cheesy romantic movies all the time. Who knows what you might say”
“I do not!”
Nola raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, I do, but that is not happening. I will find a nice girl, okay! Or… my mother will.” They both burst out laughing again.
Alan took a long sigh. “So you promise?”
“Okay, I promise. Maybe it is the only way we’ll move forward”, Nola said it before she could stop herself. She felt a butterfly of fear flutter in her stomach but ignored it.
“Good. Now take your food and get out of my car.”
She took the bags from the back seat and got out of the car. “Thank you, what would I do without you.”
“Probably starve to death”, he said and watched her walk towards the building.