Shared Empathy – Chapter Ten

Alan went straight to the hospital from Nola’s place. There was a big board meeting on Monday for which he had to prepare everything. Yes, he was still doing the administrative work. In the few weeks after the first time, he scrubbed into surgeries with other doctors, observed but never took the scalpel in his own hands. There was an invisible string holding him back from stepping into the field and take charge. It was like he was trapped in a dream that started over just when he was about to cross the finish line. Eventually, his initial enthusiasm began to subside and he felt like an outsider – someone unwanted, standing in the O.R doing nothing. To cover up the shame, he engaged himself in the managerial tasks once again. He was lucky that he had a knack for administration and management and the hospital needed a representative who was actually a doctor. Because otherwise, he would have no job. He had thought about it several times. What would happen if they kicked him out? Perhaps he could be a chef? He could be a good chef, right?

Later that evening he received a text from Nola, saying that they would stay with him. Well, at least he was going to do something useful. He finished up his work around 8 and went to Nola’s place to pick them up. He couldn’t let that girl be alone in her condition. Alan didn’t know much about her except that she was living on her own and met her a few times in the coffee shop. Nola talked about her various times and he had become fond of her as well. He just knew that he wanted to help her in any way possible. Hosting, organizing, helping out others, these things came naturally to him. Not many people visited his house except for Nola, his parents and brother. Nola was the most frequent visitor and he was also happy to get more time with his best friend out of this deal.

They reached home, Ivana settled in the living room while Alan and Nola set up the guest room and ordered Chinese food. When the food arrived, they all sat down to eat in the living room, TV running in the background.

“So Ivana, I want you to feel comfortable during your stay here, feel free to use anything you want, eat anything you want, and if you feel threatened by this one over here”, he pointed his fork towards Nola, “come straight to me.”, he said mischievously looking at Nola. Nola made a face at him and continued eating.

“And if I feel threatened by you?” Ivana asked, laughing at the two friends’ antics.

“Please, look at me”, he pointed to himself this time, “I’m an angel.” and looked up towards an imaginary halo around his head.

“You simply go and disarrange his kitchen shelves”, Nola wiggled her eyebrows looking towards Alan.

“Nooo”, Alan whined, which made Ivana laugh even more.

“And if you guys get sick of me?” she asked after a pause, looking towards her plate and moving the fork as if she was looking for something.

Alan and Nola got quiet for a second and then Alan said, “Hey, if I can tolerate her I can definitely tolerate you!”

Nola rolled her eyes. “Don’t think too much. That won’t happen, Ok?” She squeezed her shoulder to make sure she understood and was relieved to see her nod and smile in return.


After the dinner, Ivana retired to the guest room while Nola and Alan cleaned up. Then they sat down on the couch to watch TV. Both of them were too tired to actually see what was coming on. He yawned and rubbed his eyes.

“Tired?” asked Nola.

“Yeah… it was a long day. I had to prepare for that stupid meeting on Monday.”

“It was a long day. Feels like a blur now. Can’t believe what happened to her. Isn’t she going through a lot already?”

Alan nodded, “I’m glad she agreed to come.”

“Yeah”, she smiled, “and thank you for coming right away today. She was really scared.”

“You don’t have to thank me”, he purposelessly pressed the remote button. They were sitting side by side, Alan’s legs were on the table in front and Nola was hugging hers to the chest.

“She was quite impressed. She thinks you are a rock star or something”, she paused for a second and looked towards him to the left, his glasses reflecting the TV colors, “you know… you kind of did surgery today, I mean the tiniest part of it but you did it.”

 

He kept looking ahead but stopped flipping the channels. It hadn’t occurred to him until then. Nola asked and he went. Even after that, he had so much to do that he didn’t have time to think about it. Nola was right. He did it. He did not tremble, make a mistake or forget something. It was only basic sutures but for someone who hadn’t even done that in a long while, it was a big deal. In that moment he felt like a warmth has engulfed him after a long, harsh cold and he could finally succumb to it.

“I agree…”

Nola said something that nudged him from his thoughts. “What?” he focused on her.

“I agree. You are a rock star”, she smiled. She had been wanting to say this since she saw him suturing, hands gliding expertly and not a single furrow on his face because he knew what he was doing. She knew Alan hadn’t thought about it yet and she had to tell him that in order for him to realize.

She got up, almost skipping with joy, ruffled his hair and went to the guest room. Nothing needed to be said anymore, they both knew this was going to last. Alan smiled allowing himself to be happy about this moment. He lied down on the couch, closed his eyes and gave in to the warmth spreading in his bones.

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Shared Empathy – Chapter Nine

AN: I am still alive.


By the fifth interview, the high energies she had on the first one were mitigating. On the first one, she was happy to get out, dress up, and do something out of the routine. She could easily ignore the harsh questions – What have you been up to all this time? What are you doing these days? The looks; a mix of disgust and pity, the undeniable pain of rejection. She could say it is only the first time. Now, however, after walking out of the office, which she was sure she was never gonna step foot in again, the comments, the queries, and the facial expressions were all weighing down on her. She took the subway to the coffee shop and began her shift with the same heavy heart. The only difference now was that she looked forward to seeing Ivana. She liked talking to her during the shifts. Ivana was quite mature than her age and shared her artistic sense. She took some time to open up, but after some time had passed, she told her that she ran away from her foster parents and lived in a homeless shelter. She didn’t want to go back to them or the system so she wasn’t going to school as well. Ivana never talked about her parents and family and Nola never pushed her, but she did feel a bond with this girl, perhaps because of their shared experiences with loss and loneliness. It became easier for her to talk about her own life, why being a barista seemed easier and felt like hell at the same time. She did want her to go to school and live like a normal teenager, so she encouraged her to read and offered to help in any way. Ivana also felt easy around her, she was less guarded, and once in a while, she would laugh without any care.

 

Ivana hadn’t come in yet, if she remembered correctly, they had the same timings. She left her a text asking about her but didn’t get a reply. When she didn’t come in the next day either, she called. Despite her saying that she was okay, she couldn’t help but make sure. Thank God she had asked her where she lived and Thank God she had trusted her enough to tell her. In the afternoon, afterwards her shift, she finally went to the Bernard homeless shelter and upon asking several people she found Ivana lying in an old, dreary bed, visible bruises on the forehead.

“What happened to you?”, she announced herself and startled the girl.

Ivana got up quickly and winced in pain. “What? What are you doing here?”

“I had a feeling something was wrong. What happened?”, she stroked her head with a motherly affection which she didn’t know she had and examined the bruises. Most of them were superficial.

“Got beat up”, she replied in a low voice and tried to get away from her. Nola kept looking at her, refusing to just settle for that answer.

“When I was coming back on Thursday night, I got beat up ok!”, Ivana spat out the words. She was irritated and wore an expression that said I don’t want to talk about it. Nola wanted to ask more… who were these guys, was she hurt more but she found it best not to ask and focused on her face. There was an angry bruise on Ivana’s right temple and multiple abrasions on the left side of her face. She was also clutching her left arm.

“Let me see”, she stepped closer, but didn’t touch her yet. Ivana looked towards her, she had seen fear in those eyes, insecurity too but it seemed like anger was masking everything. Or was it just pain?

“Ok. At least tell me how bad it is?”

“It’s fine. I wrapped it up, it’d be fine”, she replied, looking in the opposite direction from her.

She sat beside her on the bed and took in the surroundings. It was a big hall separated by curtains which was merely a separation considering the ragged condition. Ivana’s space included a worn out bed and a plastic table on its side. Beside was a bag which she assumed had Ivana’s things in it. The one pair of shoes which she always wore was set aside. She took a deep breath and looked at her friend, who was looking at her lap. She saw the Ivana she saw the first day she came into the coffee shop. At that moment, she felt like they didn’t know each other for four months. She took in a deep breath and decided to give it another shot.

“Did they hit you?”

“Yeah”

“Because you were alone on a deserted street, easy target?”

“Yes, apparently they thought they’d get something from me. Do I look like I have money! Stupid”, she tittered.

Nola smiled. “Yeah, stupid people, they don’t even know who to rob. That’s like the first step, to find the right target?”, She put an arm around her and squeezed her shoulder, relieved that she wasn’t turned away.

“They didn’t hurt you, right?”, she dared to ask.

After a few seconds, which felt like an eternity to Nola, she looked towards her and shook her head. “He tried to grab my bag. When I resisted, he punched me and I fell. That’s when I got this cut, there was something sharp on wall… I didn’t look. A patrol car came by, he panicked and ran. I ran as well, didn’t want the police to see me.”

“You should have called me sooner”

I didn’t.. I didn’t know that I could… I…”

“You could… You can!”, she nodded her head to make sure she understood.

Now that she was comparatively at ease, she asked again, “Now, can I see that?”

“I don’t want to go to the hospital”

“Let me see and then we’ll decide ok”, she lifted up the sleeve of her jumper and rolled off the cloth. There was an open cut in the middle of her forearm.

“This is bad, you need to get it stitched”, she said furrowing her brows in concern.

“No hospitals, they ask for records, they’ll call social security”, Ivana got anxious.

“I’ll tell them you are my friend, it would be on my record. No one would know”

“I really don’t want to go”, she pleaded.

Nola could see the panic starting to appear in Ivana’s eyes. “Okay, okay, relax. Um…”, she thought about it for a second. “How about if I call Alan. I’m pretty sure he can stitch that up for you. I mean he is a surgeon, of course, he can for heaven’s sake! Is that ok? You won’t have to go anywhere?”

“Yes… I guess”, Ivana agreed and before she could overthink Nola said, “Ok I’ll call him!”

She called Alan and told him everything about the mugging. Alan being Alan, said he would come right away. She took Ivana to her apartment so that they could all be comfortable and have some privacy as well. Ivana agreed with going because as much as she didn’t want to confess she needed a quiet place and she was in pain. She had started to trust Nola, she and Alan both were good to her. She hadn’t let her guard down a hundred percent but it was easy to talk to them, she didn’t have to give an explanation for everything and they knew when to back off.

 

They reached first and Nola let them in. Ivana took a seat on the bed. Nola poured a drink for her. Alan arrived a few minutes later with his medical bag. He waved at Nola and sat beside Ivana. “Hey kid, how are you? Let me see what you got there”, he said, extending a hand towards her bad arm. She unwrapped the cloth and let him examine the wound. As Nola had anticipated, it needed a few stitches. Alan got to work while Nola engaged Ivana in showing her paintings, some of which were hung on the wall beside the bed and some were on the floor. After the arm, he tended to the bruise on her temple and gave her a supply of pain meds and antibiotics.

Alan went back to the hospital and they ordered pizza. It was the first time a girlfriend was over at Nola’s place. She had friends in college but none of them stuck or more like she grew out of them. Initially to avoid their sympathy and eventually to avoid their questions and the feeling of being a misfit.

 

“So… how’s that arm now?”, she pointed her eyes towards the arm and picked up an olive from her piece.

“It is fine. Alan is good, I didn’t feel a thing”, she replied munching on her’s.

Nola laughed, “That’s coz he gave you local anesthesia kid, and well yeah, he is kinda awesome”

“I know that”, she chuckled, “but I mean I didn’t even feel the prick of the needle, he is that good”

“Or maybe you have a high pain threshold”

“Who Knows?”

“He offered that we stay at his place until you are better. We certainly don’t want you to go back to that place and my place is… well you can see there isn’t much space”, she sheepishly gestured towards her room.

“Oh no, no, I’ve taken enough help from you guys”, she shook her head.

“Please, just until you feel better”

“No…”

“But you’ll need rest and care. Ok, just until your arm is healed, please?”

“How much chance do I have of getting out of this?”

Nola looked up like she was thinking and said, ” With me, there is like a 70:30 chance but if I bring Alan then you have none. Because he has great persuasive powers”

“One week!”, Ivana gave in.

“Yay!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shared Empathy – Chapter Eight

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.

Shared Empathy – Chapter Seven

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?”

“We are”