First date—Lisa and I take her Miata to a tree-named street near the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans. Puddles are everywhere. Rain remains until evaporation rather than draining off because the city is below sea level. We park and walk in Dee’s door. A damn good, fast-paced, irreverent country song is playing. Lisa’s best friend says it’s NITTY GRITTY by Southern Culture on the Skids. Dinner is shrimp in Indian sauce, excellent. After plenty of bourbon (Lisa) and three beers (me) we leave and stop at the rear of the car. We kiss.
“What do you say we go to my place or yours and cuddle?”
“Cuddle?” I ask. “That’s charm—”
“I say yes.” And thus began a torrid relationship.
That kiss was two years ago. Tonight I work the chemistry lab at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. I came to the big city to be near Lisa and envisioned walking, sightseeing and holding hands at museums, theaters and Lincoln Center with coffee stops in the afternoon and martinis at night. In fantasy we barhop the Village, dress for the Rainbow Room and stroll through the leaf-budding in Central Park. Reality is she’s serious about a lawyer she’s dated for months and—with sixteen hour days, seven days a week interning—I don’t have time to polish my shoes; pointed out by the attending in Obstetrics.
My being here puts Lisa in a tough spot.
I’m not busy for the first ten-minute span since eight this morning. The whirring in my head dissipates; the centrifuge has been idle for an hour. Tuesdays and Thursdays, six to midnight, I work this lab to pay rent—nine-hundred monthly for a subterranean cubicle with access to a stove, sink, commode, work table and a stall meant to be a shower. Despite the ban on overnight guests, it’s a bargain because I have the visual use of a large room with stored furniture and racks of a former tenant’s art.
I pass on the microscope. After two weeks in the lab with a spare moment now and then, I’ve examined just about everything I can think of, including the forgery tracers on a twenty-dollar bill and the hind leg of a mosquito, so I gaze out a fourth-floor window at a lit-up helicopter landing on the East River. Forty-five minutes and I’m out of here. Most desired is going home and hitting the sack. Least desired is going to Tribeca and meeting Lisa for a nightcap at Edward’s to assure her that it’s okay to let our love dwindle. Thanks to Psychiatry, next on rotation, I start at ten tomorrow watching videos of interns presenting patients. The thought of two hours extra sleep has me—I want to hear that phone right now about as much as the horrid clamor from an alarm clock. “C-lab. Ross Avery speaking.”
“Bidwell, here. I’m sending up a sample. Need a CBC and a type and cross-match for a transfusion.”
“Have to get the supervisor’s permission, sir, on the CBC.”
“And I suppose you have a reason.”
“Lab closes at midnight. Anything afterward has to be approved overtime.”
“There’s an infant in ER,” says the agitated senior resident. “Botched tonsillectomy, sent home too early.”
“With just a qualitative, sir, I can have it to you in an hour. No need to call the super.”
“No shortcuts. You go right ahead, Mr. Avery, and make that call. I’d like nothing more than to step on some administrative toes.”
I do the work. Get home to Grand Street at two-thirty. Would have been two-fifteen but I closed my eyes while sitting on a bench waiting for the subway. I didn’t call the super. I phoned Lisa, apologized and made a breakfast date on West Broadway near her job.
Go-cup of coffee in hand, I’m out the triple locks and in five minutes I sit in a window booth waiting for Lisa. I look at the menu but know what I want: the Spanish omelet, heavy on salsa like the jukebox blaring out. Wearing a white ruffled blouse and black skirt today, Lisa enters the West Broadway diner. She got a haircut—extra short but still yellow, together with blazing blue eyes and coral lips of a plentitude serving no purpose other than adornment. She’s a magnet and most eyes here are made of metal.
“Baby, you’re crying.”
“I love you,” I say.
“Stop there. Let me savor the thought. I’ll have tea.”
I get the waiter’s attention and mimic the up and down motion of a teabag over a cup. I wait to speak until the end of a Latin remake of GET OFF OF MY CLOUD. “You look great. Love your hair. Still running?” I eye the slope of her breasts—can’t be ignored.
“To Battery Park and back every day. You?”
“I take the stairway at the hospital when there’s no emergency.”
“Once a week?”
“No, daily—to lunch or dinner, for sure.”
“You do look rough around the edges, but handsome, my god.”
“Remember me this way, Lisa. In a year I’ll feel like I’m forty.”
“That’s fourteen years in twelve months. By the time you’re a resident, you’ll be the age to retire in that little Keys town you like so much and we’ll breakfast on yellowtail and hash browns twice a week.”
“We?” I ask.
“You’re not out of my long-term plan, darlin. No cream, thank you,” she directs the waiter. “And I hope I’m not out of yours.”
I order the omelet—need the protein. Lisa orders cereal and a banana, then asks if I’ve read the paper. “No,” has her telling me about a bouncer stabbed to death at an East Village nightclub when he tried to enforce the ban on smoking in restaurants and bars.
“You won’t like it.”
“Try me,” she says. I pass the fork with omelet. She takes the bite, chews. Her face wrinkles. “Too spicy.”
“Not spicy enough,” I blurt.
“I say po-tay-tow.”
“And I say po-tot-tow,” I reciprocate.
“I say to-may-tow.”
“And I say let’s do. Let’s really call it off.”
“That’s cruel.” Her eyes drift.
“I’m sorry, Lisa, but I’m suffering. I can’t spend time with you. And there’s your boyfriend—Duncan—who can. I support you in that. I hear you talk about CATCH ME, HOW TO SUCCEED and DRIVING MISS DAISY, about Le Cirque and the Union Square Café. You go to bookstores, flea markets, Little Italy and you talk about the place settings you bought in Chinatown. I feel like Manhattan is the Earth and I’m a weather satellite.”
“You’ll have time off,” she comforts. “Mark will be here in what? A month?”
“That—I’m excited about. But being with you, Lisa, is crushing. I’m twenty-six, toxic with hormones and no outlet. My immediate future invites groin-induced emotions in a hospital stairwell with a nurse or other female prisoner. I say we stop seeing each other. Let’s give it three months, then if we feel like it, we’ll go to dinner, go out for a drink. My life is rich because of you. Memories will keep me wealthy.”
She rises, bends, kisses me and walks away.
Getting to the door takes her an hour, so it seems. I see her in black satin at a New Orleans symphony, then see her tossing horseshoes barebreasted on the beach. I move to another window and watch her cross West Broadway. She stops, turns and I suppose she’s remembering along the same lines I am, for a hand moves from a hip and presses a puckered mouth.
I went to bed early last night so I’d be on my toes at ten assisting the attending, Dr. Albert Hague, with elective heart surgery expected to last five hours for the patient, Paul Donnelly, a TV personality, but two hours for Dr. Hague (thus me) who will replace the aortic valve with a natural-tissue valve from a pig. Dr. Perkins, the junior resident, starts the sternotomy at eight-thirty. Glad I don’t have to be there. I hate the smell and sound of the saw cutting through breastbone. At yesterday’s skull session Hague warned me: “Above all, keep your hands on the retractors so I can keep an eye on them.” Will do, maestro.
Here at home I sip Peruvian organic at six-thirty in the morning. I assume Mr. Donnelly about now is undergoing a urine test for overall health, a blood test for a platelet count to assess coagulation, an EKG for the heart’s electrical activity and a chest X-ray to give the surgeons a layout of the heart and lungs, an assessment of the overall terrain.
Mark’s been here three days. He didn’t make it in April; arrived in mid-May. We’ve had a good time, but no all-nighter yet. That’s tonight. I don’t work tomorrow. The senior resident is paying back a favor: that two a.m. blood analysis on my time. I’m due double-shifts as soon as my Tulane buddy is gone, but a gift horse doesn’t get its lips rolled around me. I didn’t hear Mark coming down the stairs in the wee hours, but heard the toilet flush. I went back to sleep, like blowing out a candle.
I bolt the triple locks and I’m bound for the 6 train at Spring and Lafayette. I left Mark a note: “Pete’s Tavern at six to begin Blue Sapphire Gin expedition. Will call your cell if otherwise.” I can’t believe my good fortune: going somewhere in the evening that has nothing to do with a white coat and white slacks. A light raincoat serves as camouflage. Early on I learned there’s no end to the assistance requested of one wearing colorless garb.
Today is trash day. Black bags leave little open sidewalk.
I wait at the curb. I have a good spot in front of the crowd. I compete for my space. I am assertive. My street look closes people out. Seven in the morning and I suspect Mr. Donnelly is being shaved from neck to groin. He’ll be painted with an antiseptic, iodine solution, then draped. Through an IV in the forearm, he’ll receive sleep medication. Meanwhile, out here on Broadway a cabby tests the stamina of what very well might be a replacement of a worn-out horn. He’s blowing at me. I give a shit. I’ve got the light.
Mark saw Madonna and Child at the Metropolitan, then met me for lunch yesterday. Said he wanted to check out my job site. He had another motive, for sure—fixing eyeballs on Tonya McBride, the R.N. who befriended me and I mentioned her to him at the White Horse Tavern. Her mother is Japanese; father is Irish. She’s a dark beauty. I planned to invite Tonya to lunch, but a patient died from pancreatic cancer and the hospital gave her the day off.
I descend the subway stairs. Mr. Donnelly should be fast asleep by now and getting a Swan-Ganz catheter inserted into his jugular vein, to be threaded to the pulmonary artery connecting the heart and lungs. The catheter measures oxygen levels in the blood and gauges pressure in those vital organs, plus delivers medication. Oh my, a babe is in front of me. I slow my pace so I won’t pass Her Hindness and forfeit the view. I’m in love for the first time today. I’ll fall in love again on the train or walking those four long avenue-blocks on 26th St. New York may not have the most per capita of the most beautiful women in the country, a distinction likely held by a university town in Florida or California. Still, passing by three thousand females, I’m bound to be awestruck by a dozen anatomical prodigies. Thank god they never smile, say hello or make eye contact. Arriving at the hospital, I’d be emotionally exhausted.
With sticks for legs and bricks for breasts, my current infatuation waits for the train doors to open. Were she wearing a nurse’s uniform, I’d swear she were Tonya whose dazzle prompted me to do a pretty stupid thing. I’d been at the hospital three days when the babble and raised eyebrows (male and female) at the coffee machine suggested my first rotation in the surgery ward on the eleventh floor would be visually exhilarating. Tonya returned from vacation my fifth day on the job which did not involve use of a scalpel. With a pencil I took notes of what patients felt like when they arrived and felt like after their abdomens had been opened. I needed a place to tidy my notes in preparation for a skull session with Dr. Myers that afternoon. To go to the library on the fourteenth floor, I would have had to stiff-arm my way onto the elevator or wait ten minutes, so I chose the nurse station with all the accoutrements of an office and no one was there.
I was filling a notepad when Tonya appeared and introduced herself. We talked about Tulane, New Orleans, about her living in Atlanta inside the ring. She asked how I was finding things and I chirped, “Perfectly.” For lack of more to say—her wanting to talk on, I assumed—she quoted the rule which attending doctors and residents must obey: “stay out of the medicine closet. Your entry could get me reprimanded, even suspended,” she warned, “and you would be on the blacklist of every nurse on the ward.” The mention of “entry” spewed gasoline on my libido. Then she asked if I were going to Dr. Hildebrandt’s birthday party at the Hairy Monk at six. Thrilled by her curiosity about my future whereabouts, I nonchalantly sharpened a pencil in the electric sharpener as she complimented Monk’s grilled eggplant sandwich. I failed to comprehend why she chuckled. Beset by her beauty, I blocked out what must have sounded like a beebee tossed into a fan. “Third and 25th,” I echoed and went to write it on a yellow pad when I noticed the pencil point was still dull, but the erasure end was sharp.
Transformed from dirty to sterile, I enter the bustle in OR-C, the big operating room on Bellevue’s 11th floor. All I see of Mr. Donnelly is a square foot of splayed chest. I feel tingles, thinking he has ten people here on a beeline to assure his best health. “What are you thinking, Dr. Avery?” the scrub nurse asks as we all watch the rhythm fade, the heart coming to rest.
“Less blood than a delivery,” I answer, rather than tell her I’m glad to be here, getting what I’ve worked for, for seven years, while missing Lisa, and craving the tasty carnality of that blond, blue-eyed, rounded Juliet, the flame of my twenties. I know the concerned nurse isn’t seeking my epitaph on the dwindling of a torrid relationship. She’s following operating room protocol requiring a rookie to speak occasionally so others can gauge his or her equilibrium. It’s a headache for the surgical team when someone vomits on the patient or faints to the floor.
Four-thirty and I’m dressed in party clothes. I stash my whites and travel bag in a locker and punch in Mark’s cell.
“Hey, bud. Where are you?”
“Just left the Guggenheim,” Mark answers.
“What’s the word on the Thannhauser Collection?”
“That will take an hour.”
“Count on it. And also a gin and tonic waiting for you at Pete’s Tavern. Need directions?”
“From Union Square,” he says, “where to?”
“East to Irving, then north four blocks to 18th. Want a table outside or sit at the bar?”
“I’m a bar man,” he answers. “And do us both a favor. Invite Tonya.”
“Yeah?” > “Yeah.” > “Already have.”
I sit at the bar and sip the 1864 house ale known as, “a pint of Pete’s.” In five minutes I’ve learned that the guy next to me services the heating and cooling at the Flatiron Building. He slurps beef/vegetable soup and swears it’s as good as his momma makes when she’s sober. Also learned that McSorley’s, a Cooper Square bar rivaling Pete’s pedigree, now serves two beers for the price of one and attracts young rowdy males with burr haircuts.
Eager for Mark’s arrival, I step outside and head in the direction he’ll be coming. I read a menu posted on an iron railing above the sunken entrance to Verbina’s opening in an hour with Moroccan lamb strudel and Quinoa crusted chicken breast. Lisa and I enjoyed the monkfish scaloppini; seems like a year ago, but just ten weeks. I pass by a bust of Washington Irving, by school kids handing out fliers, by windows offering segments of a shiny wooden floor, a basketball court. I could live in this neighborhood in six years, if I were to mimic Dr. Hague and perform two heart surgeries five days a week, nine months a year.
But there’s a better if.
If every once in while there were a moment matching this one, I’d live a charmed life. I’ve no concern about where I’ve been or where I’m going. Of singular importance is here and now—a feeling beer-prompted, but not beer-produced. Friendship is the generator; a best friend, Mark, and a new friend, Tonya. There’s no Empire State Building, Chrysler, St. Patrick’s Cathedral or other extravaganza to gawk at. No famous person diverts the view. I simply walk along a street with city lights in bloom. The canna lilies couldn’t be prettier. The smell of coffee couldn’t be tastier. Low buildings harmonize with the waggle of flesh, cloth and steel advancing on sidewalks and street. A bus bench seats a flutist with a yellow dog (shaggy too) and the music man’s piping is ever so crisp. Still, some things remain dull, beyond the reach of optimism, such as the cab passing three teenage girls with raised hands flapping (bad tippers, no doubt) and stopping for a well-dressed gent with a lifted finger.