WARNINGS: Character death. May make you hungry.
SPOILERS/CONTINUITY: Consistent with canon up through "If I Should Fall From Grace," at which point this splits off into its own little universe. However, it does take into account season 8's actor departures, and incorporates several season 8 plotlines. The story begins in November of 2001.
SUMMARY: Weaver finds a use for Friday nights; Lewis spends quality time with redheads; Greene sails away; and everyone knows everything.
FEEDBACK: Stat. I prefer private e-mail.
SERIES/SEQUEL: I've got something in the works, but for now, this cheese stands alone.
ARCHIVING: Yes to list archives and Mmm... Doctor. Anyone else, ask and ye shall probably receive. Please leave my disclaimers and notes as written.
DISCLAIMERS: ER is the intellectual property of Constant C Productions, Amblin Entertainment, Warner Brothers Television, and probably some other faceless corporations. _The Hobbit_ is by J.R.R. Tolkien. "This Is Just to Say" is by William Carlos Williams. The song lyrics belong to their respective writers, as detailed in the notes. This original work of fan fiction is copyright 2002 Mosca, and I'm givin' it away for free. Therefore, I'm protected in the USA by the fair use provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976. All rights reserved. All wrongs reversed. It must be Eagle Man!
NOTES: There's a lot of influences on this story, most notably Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing; Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant; Grace Paley's "I See My Friend Everywhere"; and Sara Oberman's "Getting Fucked Is Hard Work." And Sports Night.
The chapter headers are excerpted from the following cheesy pop songs, respectively: "Swan Dive," Ani Di Franco; "Say Yes," Elliott Smith; "Deathly," Aimee Mann; "I'll Take the Rain," R.E.M.; "Lake Shore Drive," Aliotta and Haynes.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: So many, you'd think I'd won an Oscar. Thanks, first of all, to my astounding triumvirate of beta readers: k, Ellen Milholland, and Katisha. I've said it before, and I'll say it again thanks for giving me the job."
"We needed good doctors," said Kerry. "You're one of the best ER doctors I know." As usual, she said it so matter-of-factly that it didn't feel much like a compliment.
Still, Susan blushed and changed the subject. "Who is that guy?" she said, pointing down towards the sexy paramedic.
"Oh, him? Larry something. Flirts with all the nurses. They think he's cute; I think he's a prick."
"Good to know, either way."
"Susan. I was wondering. Would you like to have dinner tonight? Our shifts end at the same time, and I thought it might be nice to... catch up."
"Sure," Susan said, forcing a smile. "I'd like that."
"Anywhere you'd like to go?"
"Oh, I don't know. I guess-- someplace really typically Chicago."
"No pizza is worth waiting in line that long. How about Italian Village?"
"Gone downhill. All three restaurants; it's like they're cursed. Besides, we'd never get a reservation on a Friday night. What about Berghoff's?"
"Hmm. Meat and beer. Sounds tempting."
"Want me to make the reservation?"
Weaver glanced at her watch. "Are you supposed to be on break now?" she said.
Susan headed back to the ER without answering. Weaver didn't try to keep up.
The Berghoff was packed with the usual combination of tourists and locals. They'd been assigned a cramped table which, when the maitre' d saw Kerry's crutch, he tried to refuse to give them. "Will we have to wait longer?" Kerry said. The maitre' d nodded. "You're very kind," Kerry said, "but we'll take what's available now."
When he was out of earshot, Lewis asked, "Do people do that to you all the time?"
"He was trying to be nice. I'm used to it."
"I think it would drive me crazy."
"It does when they don't back off, or they talk to me like I'm four. He's one of the good ones, trust me."
"I'll take your word for it."
"There's some benefits. I get cabs faster."
The waiter came, allowing Kerry to once again avoid the gamut of questions that no one ever asked her. What was wrong with her leg? Had she always had the crutch? And, circularly, why would she never talk about it? There were all kinds of rumors and jokes and legends that floated around the ER, but nobody seemed to have the nerve to ask. Kerry enjoyed them more than the secret itself. It wasn't much of a secret, really. But listening to Chuny and Haleh whisper about how her disability was cosmic retribution for some evil deed-- that was golden. A little depressing, but golden. Besides, it was none of their damn business.
The two of them ate sauerbraten and drank beer. Lewis told Kerry about Arizona. Kerry told Lewis all the useful gossip about the rest of the staff.
"So Elizabeth used to date Benton, who's now with the supermodel pedes resident?"
"Straighten it out. There'll be a quiz."
Lewis had bought a little house in Edison Park. "I like having trees," she said. "And a lawn." Kerry had recently sold her house and bought a condo in one of the skyscrapers near Sheridan and Thorndale. She'd tired of shoveling snow and battling raccoons. Since Carter had moved out, everything about the house had been an irritation: the water pressure that died suddenly, the mice that invaded in winter, the air conditioning that supercooled the bedrooms but left the living room sweltering. She had fallen in love with her condo association and underground parking lot, and she'd gladly traded her trees and her lawn for a view of the lake.
"Carter lived with you?"
"For a while. I kicked him out when I was appointed chief of the ER, but we were about ready to kill each other by then anyway."
"I never would have thought," said Susan.
"Neither would I," Kerry said, "but it worked out for a pretty long time."
"Sounds almost like a relationship."
"He was my tenant," Kerry said. It came out strangely defensive. "He's going to have a fit when he finds out I sold the house," she recovered.
"You haven't told him yet?"
"I was... waiting for the right moment."
As they stood outside the restaurant, waiting for taxis to opposite sides of the city, Dr. Lewis touched Kerry's shoulder. "That was-- that was fun," Lewis said. "Let's do it again sometime."
"I'd like that," said Kerry.
"How about next Friday?"
Kerry wasn't sure what to say, and a cab pulled up before she could come up with anything. "Go ahead," she said to Lewis, who got into the cab and disappeared into the evening traffic. Lewis's new haircut looked awful, Kerry mused, but she was still gorgeous. Always would be.
Dr. Lewis marched up to Kerry at two o'clock on Friday afternoon, bearing a well-examined copy of Chicago magazine. "Are we still on for tonight?" Lewis asked.
"Oh, I'd-- I'd forgotten about that." She'd been avoiding it. As pleasant as it was to be friendly with one of the other doctors-- as pleasant as it was to have a doctor around who actually liked her-- this was going to get complicated. Even if Kerry never said anything, the attraction would still be there, in the room, all the time. She didn't have time to go out on platonic dates with someone who was inevitably heterosexual.
"Have you ever had Ethiopian food?" Lewis said.
"Ethiopian food. Have you ever had it."
"Oh, um... no."
"Neither have I. There's a place in Wrigleyville that's supposed to be great."
"This is why I love Chicago," Susan said as she sat down.
"No Ethiopian food down in Phoenix?" Kerry said, balancing her coat on the back of the chair. Outside, icy winds were swirling in from over the lake. The cold weather had caught everyone unprepared: despite the fact that, without fail, Chicago froze every winter, its residents insisted on believing that this year, it would be sunny and mild. The first cold snap of November always looked like this: people hugging themselves in autumn jackets and wishing they'd brought a scarf or just stayed home with a ballgame and their central heating.
"Look at this place," Susan said. "It's freezing out, and the restaurant's full. All different kinds of people, too."
Kerry responded with a tight, shy smile and began studying the menu. "I'm thinking of just closing my eyes and pointing," she said.
"Sounds like a plan." Susan flipped through the pages. "Wait, look, they'll do a combo where they pick for you."
"Sold." Kerry slapped the menu shut.
"Hey, this is interesting," Susan said. "It says in the menu that you can show someone you love them by feeding them. I like that idea."
"Me too," said Kerry, knowing that she was going to spend the rest of the night trying to convince herself that Susan wasn't flirting. This was the way Susan was. Nice. Interested in things. Not interested in Kerry, at least not in that sense. Kim had once said that it seemed to her like Kerry had a place, a physical place in her body, where she kept all her feelings. Kerry imagined herself wrapping all of her desire and conflict into a tight ball, covering it with aluminum foil, and storing it away in that place. It was safe there.
The meal was odd but good: lots of lentils and indeterminate vegetables and sauces that were bright green or adobe red. It took a while to get the hang of picking things up with the flat, soft bread, and they made fun of themselves as they dropped food or got sauce on their fingers. They were washing it down with Red Stripe, as for some reason Jamaican beer seemed to be the drink of choice in this place. Kerry liked the idea of this, of having a social life. "We should do this every week," she said.
"You know what?" said Susan. "We should."
Kerry arranged the shift schedules so that both of them would always have Friday evenings off. Things got giddy on Friday mornings, when they started planning where to go. Rules emerged: they had to go to a different place every week, nowhere obvious, nowhere trendy, nowhere full of tourists, nowhere owned by Lettuce Entertain You. They started trying to outdo each other, finding gems in far-flung neighborhoods or in the suburbs, turning up dingy storefronts with amazing food. Susan found herself with a Palm Pilot full of restaurant names and a locker full of back issues of Chicago magazine and clippings from the Friday section of the Trib. She'd never imagined Kerry Weaver as a fun person, but this was fun. It was something to look forward to.
She picked up bits and pieces of information about Kerry's past. There were rumors that she'd had a secret girlfriend, but they seemed sketchy and vicious. Malik insisted it was one of the hospital's staff psychiatrists, a woman who no longer worked at County. Susan asked Carter about it, because Carter knew these things. He'd replaced Doug Ross as the nexus of all gossip. "Something happened," Carter told her. "The other woman moved to... I want to say California. And Kerry took three weeks' vacation at about the same time. Which is, you know, not normal."
"But you don't know what happened?" Susan said.
"Nope," Carter said. "Kerry wouldn't tell me." He sounded disappointed, maybe a little resentful. Like he felt that he deserved to know.
Susan could have asked Kerry directly, of course. Kerry might even have told her. But the fact of being friends with Kerry made Susan want to stay as far away from the topic as possible. People seemed to assume that Kerry had some ulterior motive in their friendship, and for all Susan could know, she did. If nothing else, Kerry had terrific need for a professional ally.
And there were times, during their dinners, when Susan noticed a look in Kerry's eyes that seemed familiar. Kerry's mannerisms disguised it, but it reminded her of the way Mark had once looked at her. One early morning, at the end of a long overnight shift, Malik joked, "So, Weaver's really putting the moves on you, huh?" Susan laughed the comment off, but a few minutes later she was in the drug lockup, not quite sure when or why she'd gone there, her back against the heavy wire of the cabinet, catching her breath. Kerry would never say a word, wouldn't take that risk. Susan decided she was happy about that, because she didn't know what her answer would be.
If Kerry felt something for her, then, fine. Susan wasn't going to make the first move, but she was going to pay better attention. She'd let herself get a little lost in Kerry's wry humor and strange pieces of knowledge, Kerry's hands, Kerry's mouth. She wasn't going to try to fall for Kerry, but she wasn't going to stop herself, either.
"Carter has a crush on me," Susan said. They were eating in what had to be the tiniest, grimiest tandoori place on Devon.
"You're surprised by this?" Kerry said.
"Not really. I'm kind of rolling it around in my head."
"Is it mutual?" Kerry was tearing up naan bread into too-small pieces.
"I don't know," said Susan. "He's a good-looking guy, but... every time I look at him, I see a shaggy intern dropping suture kits all over the place."
"He hasn't changed," Kerry said. "Except that now he's a shaggy chief resident."
"Yeah, how did that happen?"
"A decision to hire the most competent rather than the least controversial?"
"Don't act like you didn't have a hand in it."
"I picked the wrong person on the first try," Kerry said. "I should have trusted my instinct. He even gets my paperwork done."
"You make him do your paperwork?"
"He does it on his own. He says it relaxes him."
"Whatever works, I guess."
"I guess so."
"I feel like I've landed in Bizarro World," said Susan. "Carter's an adult, Mark and I can't even have a conversation anymore, and you..." She stirred the sauce in a depleted curry dish, looking for stray vegetables. "Well, we didn't really know each other that well the first time around, did we?"
"No. Not really."
"Well, here's to second chances."
The week of cold had been a fluke, and warm weather lingered into late December. Every morning, Susan would look out her bedroom window for snow, but there was nothing on the ground but ailing grass. Most days, there wasn't even frost. At night, it would rain, and the sidewalks would flood. The only good thing about December in Chicago was the sight of fresh snow. Without that, there was nothing but chilly winds and bad traffic.
About half an inch finally fell two days before Christmas, enough to make everything glisten. She'd wanted to go to California and spend the holidays with her sister, but no seniority meant no time off. She spent Christmas Eve in the ER, pumping stomachs and patching up Christmas-light burns. It was a relief when, at two in the morning, Abby shut off "25 Beloved Christmas Carols," muttering something about a security hazard.
Cold set in, but not snow. Naked brown grass lined the highways. Susan's house was lonely and freezing at night. She thought about getting a cat, but she would have felt guilty about leaving it alone during her long shifts. Chloe called every week, begging her to come out to California. She thought about it.
Mark took Susan aside one day, with the concerned, slightly cross-eyed look he got when he was worried about a patient or Elizabeth was five minutes late meeting him for lunch. "Is-- is something going on between you and Weaver?" he asked, his voice wavering a little.
"What do you mean?"
"It's just that I've been working a lot of Friday nights lately."
"Yeah, listen. We've-- we've gotten into the habit of going out for dinner on Fridays. Kerry approves the schedules; she makes sure that we're both available. If it's a problem..."
"Susan, it's... I don't mind the Friday shifts. I'm just worried that you're getting into something--"
"Oh my God, Mark, you didn't think... We're friends. That's all. We go out every week for a couple of hours, and then we go home," she said, hoping she was convincing him. She wasn't doing such a good job of convincing herself. "I would do the same with you if you weren't so busy with your family."
"I just didn't want you to..."
"I know you don't like her, Mark. I know that things happened at this hospital while I was gone, and that I'll probably never even find out about most of them. I--"
"Susan. She's not a... she's not a good person."
"I think you're wrong about that," she said.
"Susan, you don't know. You haven't seen... The first chance she gets-- the first chance she gets to screw you for her own benefit, she will do it."
"Well-- well, maybe this is different."
"She does it to everyone, Susan. Eventually."
"I don't know, Mark. The person you're describing, that's-- that's not what I see. And maybe you're right, and I'm only seeing what I want to see. But people are complicated, and people change."
"They don't change that much," he said.
"I've changed that much," Susan said, and she walked away from him. She had patients waiting.
The next Friday's dinner was at a slightly tacky Rogers Park Mexican place. Susan impressed Kerry by ordering in Spanish. The margaritas were perfect, and by the time the busboy cleared their plates away, they'd each had at least one too many. Susan had spent the whole evening trying to figure out whether Kerry was attracted to her-- hell, she'd spent most of the past month-- and Kerry had either been utterly oblivious or utterly ignoring it. Now, though, the tequila seemed to have worked its magic. "Is something wrong, Susan?"
Susan fumbled for an answer. "Mark pulled me aside earlier this week," she said, giggling, "to tell me that you-- that you are not a good person." She hoped she was laughing hard enough to make it clear that she thought he was being ridiculous. She added, "He was very concerned."
"I think it's only right that you should know," Kerry said. "I'm a terrible person. I set kittens on fire and bite the heads off small children."
"Glad we cleared that up, then."
"Honestly, Susan. Mark and I have our differences. He's so easygoing, and so genuine, and I-- that's just not how I am. He thinks I'm cold and self-serving, and I can understand why he thinks that. I don't have any illusions about what people think of me at County, but the truth is that we can't all be touchy-feely all the time because someone's got to run the place. Mark is a great doctor, and he's invaluable. But he doesn't understand that."
"I know," Susan said. "I mean, I figured."
"It's good to know that someone in that ER finally does."
"Aren't you glad Mark made you hire me?"
"He didn't make me. Made it impossible for me not to, maybe." Kerry reached across the table and took Susan's hands. "But I am glad."
Susan pulled her hands away like they were on fire. "Can you... excuse me for a second?" She bolted towards the ladies' room.
Once locked inside, she leaned against the travel poster of Oaxaca that decorated the bathroom wall, and she caught her breath. She had her answer, for what it was worth. No idea what to do with it, but she had her answer. She faced the mirror and fussed with her hair. The dye had dried it out, and it would never lie right. "Shit," she whispered sharply.
She would finesse this. She would make it okay, make it go away. Susan and Kerry didn't have a shift in common until midmorning on Sunday. That gave Susan almost thirty-six hours to figure something out. She washed her hands, then dried them until they felt red.
"I'm sorry, Susan, I--"
"Don't worry about it." They paid the check quickly, got in their cars, and went home to opposite ends of the city.
Saturday morning, Susan woke up to the white glow of winter sunlight. She switched on the TV, decided that CNN was too much for her brain to handle, and found the Powerpuff Girls on the Cartoon Network. It reminded her of her niece, who spent most of her waking hours parked in front of cartoons. In Arizona, it would be sunny and warm. Arizona Februaries weren't all that different from Arizona Augusts: it was the difference between too hot and ridiculously hot. She'd never gotten used to 80-degree weather on Valentine's Day.
Today was the ninth, so Valentine's Day would be Thursday. She knew what she had to do. Thursday would be miserable if it didn't work, but she couldn't stand to ignore her friendship with Kerry until it went away, which seemed to be the only other possibility. And if it did work out, which she thought it just might, well, then, she'd have someone to kiss on Valentine's Day for once, wouldn't she?
Kerry managed to avoid Susan all day Sunday, and she thought she was doing pretty well on Monday evening until Susan took her aside. "We need to talk," Susan said and pulled her into the staff lounge.
Kerry shut the door behind them. "I'm so sorry about Friday, Susan, I was a little drunk and I-- I'm sorry that I made you uncomfortable."
Susan had that little laugh, the "everything is all right, and isn't the world funny?" laugh. "It's not the first time someone's made me uncomfortable," she said. "I'll get over it."
"I want you to know that... that I've really been enjoying our dinners together. And I wouldn't want anything to get in the way of that."
"Me too. I mean, me neither." Susan laughed again. She was fidgeting, Kerry realized. "Kerry?"
"Are you attracted to me?"
Kerry knew she should have seen it coming. It was one of those things she knew, and planned for. And then it would happen, and all the planning in the world would go out the window. It was, as she understood it, something like the relationship between Lamaze classes and giving birth. "Um... Yes. Yes, but Susan, I would never let that get in the way of our friendship."
"I-- I've been thinking about it all weekend, and I didn't want you to think I was angry with you, or--"
"I'm sorry for avoiding you," Kerry said. "Most people aren't so open-minded."
"Well, I'm glad we cleared that up."
"Is that all, Susan? Because this place is packed with chest pains, stomachaches, and 'I think I'm coming down with something's."
"Yeah. Thanks." Susan turned towards the door, then turned back. She put her hand on Kerry's crutch arm. "No. No-- no-- I want to kiss you."
"You-- you what?"
"I want to kiss you."
"Oh," Kerry said, and they looked at each other for a long moment: Kerry at Susan like Susan had suddenly started speaking Martian, and Susan at Kerry like Kerry was sucking the life out of her. "Here?"
Kerry put her crutch hand on Susan's hip. She closed her eyes and found Susan's lips with her own. When she pulled away, Susan said, "Let's do that again." And they did.
2. I'm in love with the world
through the eyes of a girl
who's still around the morning after
What was surprising, really, was how little things changed. That Friday, Kerry picked a caf in Andersonville where they could look moonily into each other's eyes without attracting anything more menacing than knowing smiles from the other customers. The place was quiet for a Friday night, probably because everyone in town had spent all their money the night before.
"Whose turn is it to pay?" Susan asked when the check came.
"No, it isn't."
"If you knew, why did you ask?"
Susan raised her eyebrows, grinned, and reached for her purse.
"Susan, do you want to-- to come to my place for-- coffee or something? It's only a few blocks up, and--"
"You know I'd love to."
They had to take separate cars back to Kerry's building. Kerry had come straight to the restaurant from work, while Susan's shift had ended at four. Susan drove like she was in the Batmobile, so by the time Kerry got to the garage entrance, Susan was already arguing with the parking attendant. Kerry rolled down the window. "Relax, Pedro, she's my guest."
"Stay away from this one," Pedro said. "She's trouble."
They went to the elevator and up to Kerry's apartment without saying anything. It had unnerved Kerry at first that they were quiet together. Susan had picked up on it one day, and she'd said it was restful, not having to fill all the space up with words. After dinner that night, Kerry had sprawled out on the couch for two hours with medical journals. That night, she noticed how loud her fridge was.
"Wow," Susan said when they'd gone into the apartment, "this place is huge."
"Huge and empty."
"I think it looks nice. But then, my decorating ability never got any more sophisticated than College Student."
"Thanks. You-- you want some decaf?"
"Yeah, that'd be great."
Kerry got the coffee going and went back into the living room. Susan had settled into the couch. "We should talk," Kerry said.
"Yeah, we probably should."
"If-- If you're doing this because you feel sorry for me, or if you're out to 'discover your sexuality,' Susan, I don't want any part of that."
"I'm doing this," Susan said, "because you're cute."
"I'm 38 years old. I think I've grown out of being cute."
"Were you a cute little kid?"
"I had red pigtails, freckles, and big front teeth. And a crutch. I looked like something out of a brochure."
"You'll never know."
Susan was looking at Kerry like she was trying to imagine her as a six-year-old. Kerry felt shy, being looked at with such intensity, and she raked her fingers through her hair. Susan reached forward, to touch Kerry's face, and Kerry pulled away instinctively. "What?" Susan said.
"It's-- I don't know."
"Yes, you do. You want me to tell you what's on my mind, and instead, I'm--"
"Honestly," Susan said. "When I was in Phoenix, I grew up a lot. I started meditating, doing yoga... I learned-- how to look at myself. One of the things I figured out-- one of the many things-- is that I'm attracted to women. Men too, but... anyway. It's not anything I planned to ever act on. But it was there. And then-- and then you showed up."
"I just-- wanted to know what I was getting into."
"I have no idea." There was a long pause, with Susan twisting her hair in her fingers and Kerry glancing compulsively towards the kitchen. "C'mere," Susan finally said.
Kissing Susan was nice. Like she knew what she was doing. She tasted like lipstick. Kerry's mind was about to catalogue all the reasons why kissing Susan Lewis wasn't a good thing to get into the habit of doing. She pushed those thoughts into the realm of background noise and concentrated on Susan's tongue, which still tasted a little like garlic.
"I should go," Susan said, when half the couch cushions had been kicked to the floor and the coffee was getting cold.
"You don't have to."
"My next shift starts at four in the morning. I need to get some sleep."
"You-- you could stay here. I've got a spare room with a bed in it, you can--"
"No, no, I'll go back home--"
"Please. I want you to stay here."
Susan kissed Kerry's cheek gently. "I probably ought to go to bed now, then."
"Bedroom's just back that way. Bathroom's on the left."
"Sorry about the coffee."
"Who needs coffee?" Kerry said.
Susan was laughing as she headed towards the back of the apartment. Kerry found her crutch and gathered the cushions that they'd scattered around the room. By the time she'd turned off the lights and the coffee pot, Susan had already climbed into the wrong bed. For a minute, Kerry watched Susan, who was curled up, probably pretending to sleep. If Susan was going to accidentally-on-purpose fall asleep in Kerry's bed, well, Kerry wasn't going to kick her out.
The traffic on the Drive was a mess, and Kerry dashed in at two minutes to seven. Susan was behind the counter, looking smug. "How's it going?" Kerry asked.
"Crowded, but no major traumas," said Susan, handing Kerry a few charts. "I'm sorry I didn't wake you before I left, but I had to get out at 2:30 so I could go get some clean clothes."
"You woke me. I just didn't say anything." Kerry made a show of examining the charts, in case anyone was watching. "You know I would have shown you the guest room if I'd wanted you to leave."
"We really shouldn't be having this kind of conversation in public," Kerry said.
"You're right. Call me later?"
"Did you drink the coffee?"
"The coffee. I left it last night. Did you drink it?"
"I'm sorry. I thought you wouldn't mind. I had a Thermos in the car."
"I don't mind, but-- did you drink it cold?"
"I reheated it."
"You reheated my coffee?"
"Yeah," Susan said. "It was good."
A gurney came speeding by, accompanied by two paramedics, a few nurses, and one of the new residents. "Guy stuck his hand in the Cuisinart," the resident shouted.
"I'm gonna go do my job," said Kerry. "I can't believe you reheated coffee. There should be laws against that."
Susan was more careful after that. She was careful never to mention that she'd microwaved coffee, and she was careful about keeping things quiet. She re-learned how to flirt without flirting. The two of them had a secret language of smiles and gestures. Whenever both were in the ER, which was enough of the time to drive Susan crazy, there was a dialogue running between them. And either the gossip mills were unusually sneaky, or no one else noticed.
There were a few close calls, of course. Kerry knew all about stealing kisses in the handicapped stall of the ladies' room. Once or twice, they'd had to huddle there for a suspiciously long time when someone had come in to do legitimate business. There had been one day-long, re-infectious giggle fit. The closest call came the morning after Susan had spent a night in Kerry's apartment. Susan had left her bra behind, and Kerry put it in Susan's locker with a bow tied around it. Which would have been terribly cute had Luka Kovac not wandered in just as Susan was finding the bra and doubling over with laughter.
It was safe, somehow, keeping things quiet. Kerry made it clear that she didn't want their relationship to become common knowledge among the staff, even as an open secret. She said that her experience with Kim had given her a healthy fear of losing her job because of her sexuality. Sure, everyone knew she was a lesbian, but no one needed concrete evidence of that fact. And of course, everyone still assumed that Susan was straight. Straight until proven queer. That was what made it safe for Susan: not having to have the talk with Mark, and the talk with Carter, and the talk with whomever else developed coping issues with her sexual orientation.
Partially because they were being so secretive, they stuck mostly to Fridays. It got harder and harder to see Kerry almost every day but only have her one evening a week, plus maybe a morning if neither of them had an early shift. Susan realized that she wanted Sunday afternoons and Tuesday nights, all the spaces in between work and Fridays. And that was how she knew she was in love.
Susan began studying the shift schedules. She needed a day when they both got off work early and went back in reasonably late. It took a couple of weeks to find one. Kerry made up for the Friday nights with ugly overlap and odd hours during the rest of the week. Finally, there was a Wednesday when they were both off by ten, and, almost miraculously, neither was due back in before noon the next day.
"I want you to go somewhere with me on Wednesday night. Say yes." They were in the staff lounge, whispering and watching the door.
"I'm on till ten that night," Kerry said. "I'll be exhausted."
"And then you're off until seven Thursday night."
Kerry sighed. "Where are we going?"
"You'll like it. I promise."
"Come on, Susan, you know I hate surprises."
"I got tickets for the midnight improv show at Comedy Sportz."
"See? You tell me things," said Kerry, "and I say yes."
"I'll pick you up at eleven," said Susan. "You're on my way."
Susan didn't talk in the car on Wednesday night. It seemed like she was trying to stare down the red lights. Like she was in a hurry, even though they had an hour to get 30 blocks down Halsted. At the show, she laughed like she was trying to be polite.
It was two in the morning, and Kerry was starving. They meandered through Boystown for a while, looking for the all-night diner that had wonderful eggs. Susan looked through the dark shop windows instead of at Kerry. "What's wrong?" Kerry finally said.
"No, you're not."
"All right, I'm not," said Susan. "But I can't tell you."
"You can tell me."
"I know, but I said-- I said I wouldn't say anything to you."
That narrowed it down to one of about three things. "All right."
"It's-- Mark's sick again," said Susan.
"The-- the cancer?"
"Mmm-hmm. He went in for an MRI, and..."
"Oh, God, Susan," Kerry said. "I'm so sorry." Kerry held her for a long time, standing on the sidewalk in the March wind. They were outside a gay club. It was late enough that the outside crowd had dissipated, but it must have been Disco Night indoors, because Gloria Gaynor was belting "I Am What I Am" over a techno beat. Kerry could feel Susan's tears soaking into the collar of her coat. She kissed Susan's hair softly.
"I-- I just-- He says he's got maybe three or four months," Susan said. "Three months, and that's it. No more Mark. How do you-- how do you wrap up a whole friendship in three months?"
"I don't think you do."
"Me neither." Susan sniffled.
"Here," Kerry said, "I'll take you home."
"No. I want some wonderful eggs."
The club's bouncer was watching them anthropologically. "Hey," Kerry said to him. "Isn't there a diner somewhere around here?"
"There's one a couple of blocks up, and take a left on, oh, I think it's Aldine, maybe? Kind of little and dark. Is that the one you're thinking of?"
"Yeah, I think that's the one. Thanks."
"Sure," he said. "Are you gonna be okay?"
"A-- I've got a friend who's sick," Susan blurted.
"I've been down that road," the bouncer said. "Good luck."
Susan managed an uneven smile. "Thanks."
The diner was where the bouncer said it was, on a side street off Halsted. It had a diner menu and diner food, but it looked more like a bar. Even in the middle of the week and at this time of night, there were a few drunken clusters of gay men, winding down from a night out. In one corner, six female police officers sat at a round table, laughing. It was the kind of place where straight people didn't go, at least not on purpose.
"The first time around, Mark didn't even tell me until after the surgery," Susan said. "I told him if he ever got that sick again without letting me know, I'd have to kill him."
"Hey, it worked for a whole year."
"Maybe longer," Kerry said. "People beat those prognoses all the time."
"So... I should pretend I don't know anything about this?"
"He specifically asked me not to tell you. He knows that as soon as you find out, you'll make him stop working, and I don't think he's ready for that yet."
Kerry shook her head. "The last thing we need is doctors having seizures in the middle of a trauma."
"I'll talk to him," said Susan. "I'll talk to him, okay?"
It was one of those nights when Susan wasn't sure what was worse: the insomnia or the nightmares that came when she did drift off. She told herself not to lose sleep over the inevitable. But this was a deeper pain than meditation could soothe. It was realer than anything she had come to believe. Four months, and most of that spent losing his mind slowly, soaked in morphine. That was all he got.
That was all anyone got. A life.
Kerry was curled on her side, hogging the covers. Compulsively, Susan felt for Kerry's carotid pulse, held a hand near her mouth to feel the slow breaths. She kissed Kerry's temple, then stretched and rolled out of bed. Watching the lake would calm her down, she hoped.
Kerry stirred. "You leaving?" she said groggily.
"No, I just can't sleep."
"All right." Kerry sunk her head back into the pillow.
Susan rested her elbows on the sill of Kerry's living room window. Below, joggers swarmed the path along the edge of the beach, sweating against the wind. That wind was stirring up the lake, too, and the gray-white waves crashed fiercely against one another. The sky was overcast, but the sun glared through it. On days like this, Lake Michigan looked like an ocean. It went on forever.
She got herself a glass of water, and she finished it still standing in front of the sink. If she tried, she could still get in a couple of hours of sleep. Even well-rested, she'd still be a mess at work. She hoped Mark wasn't working this afternoon. She wouldn't be able to look at him without falling apart.
Susan went back to the bedroom. Kerry was lying on her back, her eyes half-open. "Your insomnia is catching," Kerry said.
"Didn't mean to wake you," said Susan.
"I'm a light sleeper."
"I've noticed." Susan crawled back into bed to give Kerry a peck on the forehead.
"You aren't gonna let me go back to sleep, are you?"
"I was thinking about it, but now that you mention it..." Susan stroked a lock of hair back from Kerry's face. It seemed almost an insult to Mark to do this now, but Susan wanted the distraction. She needed to feel good for a few minutes.
They had decided to take things slowly. That had been the plan, the one they'd laid out the day after Valentine's Day. They'd rethought that plan two weeks later, on the Tibetan rug in Susan's living room. It wasn't that they lacked self-control: they just kept choosing not to exercise it.
It was midmorning-- the microwave clock had confirmed it-- but it felt more like dawn. ER schedules would do that to a person. Bright white light shot in between the curtains. They kissed lazily, sitting halfway up with one shoulder each against the headboard. Kerry had round breasts that stayed up of their own accord, the right size to fit perfectly in the palm of Susan's hand. Susan could trace one with her thumb and make Kerry sigh in spite of herself. Kerry slid a hand down the front of Susan's sweatpants, and Susan knew she was getting taken first this morning. It was hard to argue with that. Susan had been wet, anticipatorily wet, since they'd started kissing, and Kerry's fingers, flicking her clit, felt like tongues. Susan kept her hands on Kerry's breasts, on her back, like she was trying to feel useful. But it was hard to do anything but breathe when she was coming against the push of Kerry's thin fingers inside her.
The air was cool. Susan felt like giving as good as she got.
"So, I heard you're sleeping with the Wicked Witch of the ER," Carter said, cornering Susan by the board.
She almost dropped the chart she was carrying. "Who calls her that?"
"Everyone but you."
"It's one of the clues."
"Clues that you're sleeping with Weaver." Carter scrawled something on the board, in the wrong color, taking up two columns.
"Get a life, Carter."
"There was something about a bra in your locker..."
Susan could feel her cheeks go red. "Oh, no."
"Other than you, the only people who could've gotten into your locker without breaking down the door are Romano, Weaver, and Jimmy, the head of maintenance," Carter said. "I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume the best-case scenario."
"You do that," Susan said. She picked up a chart. "Ooh, constipation in Curtain Two!" She handed the chart to Carter. "Have fun."
"Weaver's been caught being nice to the staff at least three times in the past month. You two should really be more careful."
"Well, we would if we had anything to be careful about."
"You do that thing where you have sex with your eyes."
"We do not!"
"So you admit it."
"I'm not admitting anything," Susan said.
"But you're not denying it."
"Listen, Carter. Would you mind keeping this quiet? It would really-- I mean, Kerry's not that comfortable--"
"Susan," Carter said. "Everyone already knows."
"What do you mean by everyone?"
"Everyone," Carter said with a sweep of his hand.
"And we are all very, very grateful that Weaver is getting laid."
"You say it like I'm performing a public service."
"You are performing a public service," Carter said. "I mean, why else-- why-- Weaver-- she's--"
"Are you jealous?"
"I'm... a little disappointed," he said. "I thought--"
"Oh, God, Carter, if you thought I was leading you on..."
"It was... more wishful thinking than anything else."
"You could have told me," Carter said.
"I wanted to. Kerry didn't want me to say anything to any of the staff."
"No, that you're..."
"You never asked," said Susan. "Constipation. Curtain Two."
Mark resigned in late April, on one of the year's first truly beautiful spring days. Kerry was glad to see the end of this meta-psychological battle. She'd had to act like she didn't know he was sick, of course, and he had to act like he didn't think she knew, even though he knew she knew, because he knew (but had to pretend he didn't know) that she was involved with Susan, and both of them knew that Susan couldn't keep her damn mouth shut. Kerry's cold war with Mark Greene had gone on so long that, in and of itself, it didn't bother her anymore, but this round was making her head spin. He said that he was just taking medical leave. She knew to start placing want ads for a new attending.
She hated that everyone knew about her and Susan. It was inevitable, in this place, but with each day she'd held off the gossips, she'd persuaded herself that she could keep doing so forever. Susan had told her how Carter had figured it out. How he'd had to tell everyone, like it was the best joke he'd heard in a long time. It made Kerry feel careless. She could have protected herself better. Protected Susan better. There was something Kerry could have done to keep Carter from piecing the evidence together until she was ready to handle the situation.
Now, everyone grinned when she walked by, like they'd cracked her shell. Like they'd discovered that she had a heart, and like they could know what was in it. And she was rough on them: demanding and critical, even more than usual. She needed to regain her distance.
She wheedled some extra payroll money from Romano and brought in two new attendings, three residents, a med student, a desk clerk, and a nurse. Most were just replacements, or people to fill long-vacant positions, but the influx of staff made the ER feel full and efficient. The army of ignorance lasted a full 48 hours before they were duly informed of the entire sexual history of everyone who worked in the ER. Kovac spent a week putting the moves on the prettier of the two female residents before he realized that she was engaged. Everyone worked fewer hours and got more sleep. Patients came in sick and left feeling better. At the mid-May department-heads' meeting, Romano commended Kerry on whipping the ER into shape. The compliment seemed only slightly backhanded.
3. Just don't work your stuff
Because I've got troubles enough
No, don't pick on me
When one act of kindness could be deathly
Kerry didn't let just anyone into her kitchen. She was picky about cooking utensils, not just about choosing them in the first place, but about how she washed them and how she put them away. She had the neatest fridge Susan had ever seen, and she would scowl when Susan would so much as take out the milk for a bowl of cereal. Leave a dish in the sink, and Kerry would be in a foul mood all day. So Susan couldn't help but read meaning into the fact that Kerry had asked her if she wouldn't mind peeling some carrots.
Kerry was making lasagna, because it was one-thirty in the morning. There had been a four-car, one-semi wreck on the Kennedy. For some reason, this had possessed Kerry with the desire to make Italian food. It seemed like Kerry had been expecting to spend the evening alone with her kitchen, but she hadn't kicked Susan out yet. When she needed to be alone, Kerry was not above sending Susan back to Edison Park. Maybe, tonight, she wanted someone to cook for.
"Should I chop them?"
Kerry was fussing with parsley. "Oh, um, no, I've got to boil it down first and then run it through the food processor."
"So I should..."
"Slice them. Not too thin."
"How thin is not too thin?"
Kerry came over to Susan and took the knife from her hand, cut a quick slice to show her the width. "Like that."
Kerry kissed the back of Susan's neck. "You're-- you're pretty tonight."
"Thanks." She'd just worked a fourteen-hour shift. Her hair was flat, her eyes were heavy, and her clothes clung to her wearily. But she was pretty now.
After the carrots, Kerry had Susan cut celery and onions, but wouldn't let her near the tomatoes. Kerry finally got the proto-sauce going on the stove. "I've got to just leave it for a while," she said. Susan had already made for the couch and turned on CNN. Kerry lay down on the couch, her head in Susan's lap.
Susan stroked Kerry's hair. "You know, we could just go to bed," she said. "Throw everything in the fridge and finish tomorrow."
"I can't do that. It'd keep me up all night."
"You'd be surprised."
Kerry sat up. "I'm gonna go take my contacts out. Would you mind giving the sauce a stir?"
After that, Kerry was busy with spinach and ricotta and noodles. She approached cooking with the same sort of focus and sensitivity she used on her patients, occasionally calling out something like, "There's oregano on the top shelf of the spice rack, on the left." At an apparently arbitrary point, Kerry pronounced the sauce done and enlisted Susan to help her pour it into the food processor. "Here--" Kerry said, trying to support the bottom of the pot-- "just tilt it a little--"
"I'm gonna drop it. Wait."
They managed to transfer everything into the food processor without burning themselves or spilling sauce all over the floor. Susan considered this a major accomplishment.
"You got some on your shirt," Kerry shouted over the food processor's happy churning noises.
Susan looked down. A red drip cut down the left side of her white shirt. She took the shirt off and ran cold water over it in the kitchen sink, but the stain only faded to bright orange. "Damn."
"Dry cleaners should be able to get it out."
"I'm gonna go change." Susan went to hang the wet shirt over the towel bar in the bathroom.
She'd brought a t-shirt to sleep in. The words WALK FOR A CURE ran across the chest in pink block capitals. Below, in smaller block letters, it added, "1998 PHOENIX AREA BREAST CANCER WALK-A-THON." Between the two lines of text was a drawing of a pair of sneakers tied with a pink ribbon. The thin cotton had shrunk the first time Susan had washed it. It had been Susan's yoga class shirt for a couple of years, and time and Tide had rendered it translucent. It strained across Susan's breasts, and the dark circles of her areolas showed through the fabric.
Kerry liked this shirt a lot.
Susan was on her way back to the kitchen when her pager went off. She unclipped it from the belt loop of her slacks. Multiple trauma. Great.
In the kitchen, Kerry was standing over the half-assembled lasagna, scowling at her own pager. "They've got to be kidding," she said.
"Wrap it up and put it in the fridge," Susan said. "We'll have it tomorrow."
"Can you do that? I'm going to find you a sweatshirt."
"What?" Susan said. "Oh."
"That shirt is obscene," said Kerry. "Beautiful. But obscene." Kerry stole a kiss before heading towards the bedroom.
Susan covered the lasagna pan with foil and found space for it in the fridge. She hoped this wasn't the wrong shelf. Kerry came back with a gray Northwestern Wildcats sweatshirt, which Susan dutifully threw on. "Let's go," Susan said.
"As opposed to what? I mean, who are we kidding?"
Kerry sighed. "We can take your car. You drive faster."
Naturally, no one batted an eye when the two of them walked in together. Kerry intercepted Kovac and asked, "What's going on?"
"There was a bomb in a gay nightclub."
"There were a lot of injuries, but most of them aren't too serious, and most of those went to Loyola or Lakeside. Only two major traumas, and we just stabilized one for surgery. But about thirty minors."
"Thirty?" said Susan.
"There were over 300 people in the club at the time," said Kovac. "The police think that the bomb was behind the bar. It sprayed glass everywhere and set fire to the alcohol, and then the electrical system."
"Still," Kerry said, "you had to call both of us in for this?"
"It seemed rude to only ask one of you."
"Well, next time, page someone who's slept recently," said Kerry.
Kovac just grinned. "Carter and Aquino could use some help with the other trauma."
"I'll take care of that," Kerry said. "You two deal with the minors."
Two hours later, the ER had been restored to usual levels of insanity. A homeless man was standing on one of the chairs, reciting the Gettysburg Address. There was a small puddle of something or other outside the staff lounge. A well-dressed woman, clutching the hand of a howling preschooler, was losing an argument with Randi. "Carter?" Kerry called. "Have you seen Susan?"
"I think she's with a patient."
"Do you want me to... quietly take over?"
"That would be helpful."
"She's your ride home, isn't she?" Carter said.
"And you could take the El, but you're worried you'd never see your sweatshirt again?"
"You know, you look exhausted."
"Thank you, Carter."
"How long have you been on?"
"18 hours, minus the one I got off between traumas," Kerry said.
"Want me to stay until one so you can get some sleep?"
"You don't have to do that. I'm-- I'm fine."
"I've got things under control," he said.
"Thanks," Kerry said softly.
"But you've got to actually sleep. Not whatever you were doing--"
"We were making lasagna."
"Oh, so that's what they call it now."
"Carter, why are you doing this?"
"You look tired."
"That's not what I meant."
He grinned. "I know."
Susan marched out of one of the exam rooms. "Ready to go?" said Kerry.
"Let her sleep," said Carter.
Kerry's first words when she went on shift were, "Would someone get maintenance down here and clean this up already?" The puddle in front of the lounge had become a small pond. She looked up as a fat drop fell from the ceiling to add itself to the puddle. "And fix the fucking leak?"
"I've called twice already," Randi said.
"Romano's looking for you."
"Good for him," Kerry said, trying to navigate around the puddle, into the lounge.
"He's been down here looking for you six times this morning," Randi said. "Or seven. I stopped counting."
"Did he say I should go up to his office when I came in?"
"Not in those words."
"Then he can wait a little longer."
"Who can wait a little longer?" Kerry could have sworn that Romano had one of those teleporter things from Star Trek. And complicated surveillance equipment.
"Oh, sorry, Robert. Randi was just telling me that you were looking for me."
"Can we talk?"
"Sure, just let me run to my locker."
"It would've been nice if you'd told me you wouldn't be in till one."
"I was short on sleep. Carter covered for me." She edged around the puddle. The lounge door swung open just as she reached it.
"Jesus Christ," said Carter, in the lounge doorway. "Hasn't maintenance cleaned that up yet?"
"Apparently not," Kerry said.
"See you tomorrow," Carter said, splashing through the puddle.
"Oh, Kerry, I told maintenance not to respond to any calls from the ER until you got here," Romano said.
Kerry slammed the lounge door. She took a clean lab coat from her locker and put it on. Then, considering the situation, she fixed her hair, checked her lipstick, and dripped some Visine in her eyes. She knew how to play this game.
When she came out of the lounge, a custodian was mopping the floor, and two repairmen were waiting with a ladder. "Shall we continue this in my office?" said Romano.
"Okay," Kerry said, trying not to make it sound more like, "I hate you." Romano talked in the corridor and on the elevator, but Kerry had long since learned how to tune Romano out. It was the only way she could keep from decking him, sometimes.
Romano shut the office door behind him. "A while ago, Kerry," he said, "we agreed that one of the best ways to screw yourself as an administrator is to let your personal life interfere."
Says the man who upset a day's surgery schedule so he could operate on his dog, she said to herself. "I still think that's true."
"Well, showing up to a trauma call with your girlfriend isn't exactly the best way to uphold that policy. Especially when she's wearing your shirt."
"Poll the patients we treated last night," Kerry said. "I can promise you that not one of them noticed."
"Kerry, you know that's not what I'm concerned about."
"The staff's known for months, Robert."
"And whose fault is that?"
"We were careful," said Kerry. "They figured it out anyway."
"Sure, you were careful. You were careful like you wanted to get caught."
"And do you know what happened when we did get caught? Nothing. People talked for a couple of weeks, and then they moved on to Mark being sick and Yosh's new boyfriend and whatever the hell else."
"You got lucky."
"I know my staff," said Kerry.
"You know this is going to ruin your chances for career advancement."
"Maybe," she said evenly, "every once in a while, I think about something other than my career."
"Well, then, she'd better be a fucking racehorse in bed, Kerry, because--"
"Oh, come on, Robert, you know that's not what--"
"Isn't it? Honestly?"
"No! It absolutely isn't! It's--"
"Yeah, right, you fell in love. Whatever. Go have ten million of her babies, Kerry, if you can figure out how."
"So I break it off, or you're going to do what? I haven't done anything that goes against hospital policy, much less anything you can fire me for. Staff here frequently date their colleagues. Your associate chief of surgery married one of hers."
"It's not the same, and you know it."
"If you try anything, Robert, I can show a pattern of discrimination that will cost County millions in legal fees and bad publicity. Your problem is that you can't get rid of me, and you know it."
She leaned on her crutch. "I'm waiting."
"I had such high hopes for you, Kerry," Romano said, shaking his head.
"I had you hand-picked," he said. "You were going to fix things up. Run things the right way. I was so relieved to find someone in this place who thought like I did."
"I don't think remotely like you do," Kerry said.
"I have since realized that."
"Well, good, because--"
"I have spent my career in a closet," Romano said. "A fairly small one, as a matter of fact. And now, I am coming out of it to you."
"Robert, please-- please don't play this game with me."
"This isn't a game," he said. "I want you to know where I stand."
"And did you think for a second that I might not want to know this?"
"Too late now."
"So what am I supposed to do with this?"
"Kerry, go and have your little love affair. As long as you keep running the ER like you have been, and as long as you don't do anything incredibly stupid, there's nothing I can do to stop you. If and when the trustees pick up on you and go ballistic, I will back you up and protect you to the best of my ability."
"Thank you," Kerry said softly.
Romano just cleared his throat.
"So-- so I'll assume that-- our conversation stays in this room."
"Do what you want," Romano said, opening the office door for her. "It's not like I can get rid of you."
Mark was having a good day. Some days, lately, the tumor would affect his mood, Elizabeth explained as they waited for him to get ready. He'd get disoriented and compulsive, brush his teeth a dozen times before coming to bed. Or he'd be irritable and pick fights with everyone. One evening, Elizabeth had come home to find him shouting at the baby. And of course, his language came and went. He'd perseverate over words suddenly vanished from his vocabulary; he confused things like verb tenses and prepositions, "this" and "that," "I" and "you." He still seemed to understand everything that was said to him, and it upset him when he couldn't respond. Elizabeth told Susan all of this clinically, icily. "Just so you'll know what to expect."
But today was a good day. Mark had gotten out of bed without resistance, Elizabeth reported, and insisted on getting dressed and shaving on his own. His motor skills were still intact, and on the good days, he refused to be anything but independent. He'd been humming all morning, even, although Elizabeth couldn't for the life of her figure out what the tune was. "He's excited about the ballgame," Elizabeth said, then added, "He's excited about seeing you."
"All done," Mark announced, grinning, as he marched into the kitchen.
"Then let's go," Susan said. He took her hand, which surprised her, but she didn't resist. Elizabeth was fighting for a smile.
Susan didn't want to bother with parking at Wrigley Field, fun as it was to spend $15 to leave your car in a Taco Bell parking lot, so Elizabeth dropped them off at the El stop in downtown Evanston. "Ring me on the way back, when you get to where you have to switch lines," Elizabeth instructed them.
The El train was still empty enough that it was easy to find seats. Susan told Mark about a few of the more colorful recent patients-- the elderly diabetic whose prosthesis had disappeared for an hour, the gaggle of prep school girls with poison oak from their smoking hideout. She told him about the new staff, and the ways Carter and Chuny had found to fuck with their heads. She told him about Yosh's new paramedic boyfriend and the sniping contest between Abby and Luka.
He laughed. "Nothing changes," he said.
She took the risk of telling him about the gift she'd bought for Kerry's birthday: a Mapplethorpe photograph of twin lilies.
"Still dating... her?"
"You know I am."
"Please," Susan said, and she laughed because it hurt.
Their seats were over third base, a little high up, but with a good view. Mark had some trouble reading the scoreboard, but other than that, Susan barely had to help him follow the game. Sosa hit a home run, igniting the ballpark in cheers, but the Rangers ended up winning. "I never turned into a Diamondbacks fan," she told him on the way back to the El. "I think I like having my heart broken."
"Chicago girl," said Mark.
"Mark, what the hell was I doing in the desert?"
She laughed and hugged him right there in the middle of the sidewalk on Clark Street. He hugged her back so tightly that she thought he might be terrified of letting go. "You always gave the best hugs," she said.
"B-b-better than Kerry?"
"I just said."
On the El, he started to get restless. "We should be home already," he kept saying. He said it quietly enough not to attract attention, but it distressed Susan. It was as if there was another person, someone who wasn't Mark at all, trying to take him over. Trying to erase this person that she loved.
He fell asleep in Elizabeth's minivan, his head on the empty carseat. "If you need any help," said Susan, "let me know."
"I don't need anything," Elizabeth said.
"You don't need anything, or you don't need anything from me?"
"I don't need anything," Elizabeth repeated.
"I never slept with him," Susan said.
"I never said you did."
"But you thought we did."
"I assumed, yes, from the way he talked about you..."
"We didn't. Not even close," Susan said. "We spent years looking at each other, waiting for the other one to make the first move... and neither of us ever did."
"It shouldn't make a difference," Elizabeth said.
"It shouldn't. But it does, doesn't it?"
"Yes. It does." Elizabeth leaned suddenly into the horn. "Asshole! People turn right on red in this country!" The car ahead of her made a tentative right turn.
Mark stirred. "We're not home?"
"Not yet," said Elizabeth.
Kerry knew that something was going on, and that the staff weren't going to tell her what it was. Nurses gathered in small clusters, not giggling, but conducting serious conspiratorial discussions. Kerry thought she saw Kovac dash into the lounge, but he was gone before she could even find out whether it was him. It seemed like people kept trying to steer her away from the waiting area. But Kerry was used to being left out of these things until she had to put a stop to them or clean them up, so she didn't bother to ask.
Abby stopped her in the hallway at ten minutes to midnight. "Carter's throwing you a birthday party," Abby said. "At the admit desk. In about ten minutes."
"Oh, is that what it is?" Up until now, she'd made a point of not telling anyone when her birthday was. Apparently, the information had leaked.
"I thought you'd be less likely to kill him if you knew in advance."
Carter wasn't the one she was about ready to kill. Kerry smiled. "I'll act surprised."
She made sure to happen by the admit desk ten minutes later. Everyone on shift had crowded behind the desk, and they greeted her with an out-of-tune chorus of "Happy Birthday." She smiled wryly and took it.
Carter offered her a white Chinese takeout box. "It's the real thing," he said.
When she opened the box, she knew what he meant. "You went all the way to Oak Park for shrimp fried rice?"
"Luka picked it up after he finished his shift."
It had been one of the unspoken rules that develops when people live in the same house: if one of them got takeout on the way home from work, they had to get enough for the other person. There was a little Chinese place called Jade Dragon a few blocks from where Kerry had lived, and Carter had bought his dinner there at least once a week. Always the same things: shrimp fried rice, kung pao chicken, sweet and sour pork, egg rolls, and almond cookies. He'd leave it on the kitchen table, because he was afraid to put anything in her fridge. "You got... everything?" she said.
"The usual stuff," said Carter. "Even the almond cookies."
"There's cake, too," Lily said. "Haleh left it, since she got off at four."
"No candles?" said Kerry.
"We thought you'd yell at us for lighting fires so close to all the charts," Yosh said.
"Besides," said Lily, "no one knows how old you are."
"Come on," Carter said. "I've got to show you your present."
"You-- you got me something?" Kerry said.
"Yeah, well, we all chipped in."
"Really," Kerry said, "you didn't need to do all this."
"Yes, we did." He led her towards the waiting area. "How many birthdays did you have that nobody even knew about?"
"I-- I never expected anything."
"Maybe you should have," Carter said.
There was a TV in the waiting area. A real TV. Presumably one that worked. "I've been trying to get a TV here for a year," she said.
"I know," said Carter.
County was the only major trauma center in greater Chicago with no TV in the waiting area. There had been one once, years earlier, but it had been vandalized and never replaced. Kerry had brought it up at meetings a few times, but Romano had sniffed that there weren't even enough funds for basic needs. He didn't spend nearly enough time in the ER to understand that pacifying the people in chairs was a basic need.
"The cabinet locks up all the controls, so the patients can't play around with the buttons until they destroy it," Carter explained. "It's got a VCR and, believe it or not, a DVD player." He handed her a key. "Open it up."
She unlocked the cabinet. Inside lay a small stack of DVD cases. "You guys got me Muppet movies?"
"And 'The Best of The Muppet Show.'"
"How did you..."
"The hospital paid for three quarters of the TV. We collected for the rest, and for the takeout. We ended up with money left over, so we got you the, um, Muppets."
"You got the hospital to pay? I couldn't get them to pay."
"A bunch of us went up to Romano's office and threatened to stage a sit-in."
"You should have seen the look on Romano's face," said Carter.
"Who did this?"
"Everyone who was on shift." He ticked off the names on his fingers. "Abby, Chuny, Malik, Yosh, Lydia, a couple of med students, one of the maintenance guys, Shobha the pedes resident, Jose, Susan--"
"Susan was in on this?"
"Everyone was in on this."
"But she didn't--"
"This was all my idea," Carter said. "I promise."
"Please tell me you didn't leave the ER abandoned."
"I think we left Linh, the new attending, down there, with Amira and that new nurse whose name I can never remember. In case something really bad happened. But it was a slow day."
"Do you have any idea how lucky you were?"
"Romano caved in twenty minutes."
"'I am Henry the Eighth I am, Henry the Eighth I am I am,'" Carter sang.
"And he gave you money rather than firing you."
"This was after the list of well-considered reasons why a TV would reduce mishaps caused by restless patients awaiting treatment, and the accumulated evidence that the board tends to withhold needed funds from emergency services in order to pad the higher-revenue departments of the hospital, to the detriment of patients. And the thinly veiled suggestion that if he didn't get the board to allocate some discretionary ER funds, we might as well not be there, for all the good we can do without systems upkeep."
She looked down at the DVDs in her hand. "I can't believe you got me all these Muppet movies."
"Only the first three. They're not so great after 'The Muppets Take Manhattan.'"
"How did you even know I liked The Muppets?"
Carter grinned enigmatically. "Lucky guess."
The ER stayed slow that night. Unless they had something better to do, which wasn't often, Kerry let the staff sit in chairs, eating takeout and watching The Muppets.
It hadn't occurred to Kerry to give Susan the night shift, too, so they could nap together in the afternoon on Kerry's birthday. These were not the things that had gone through her head when she had sat down with Carter and Haleh the previous Wednesday to make a schedule that would at least keep the staff from rioting. If there wasn't a note somewhere-- saying that somebody needed a Monday morning to go to the dentist or a Thursday evening for those symphony tickets they'd had forever-- not even a thought crossed the schedulers' minds. Susan had told Kerry to make sure that they were both off by five, and the note for the pertinent day read, in its entirety, "KW-- SL-- off 5P." Kerry was sure that she wasn't the first person in the history of shift scheduling to forget her own birthday.
The coldness and the vastness of her own bed surprised Kerry. They seemed to do that a lot lately, when Susan wasn't around. Kerry fell asleep with her glasses on, reading the Tribune.
Susan woke Kerry with a kiss. "What time is it?" Kerry yawned.
Susan checked her watch. "5:30."
"You just got here?"
"Mmm-hmm." Susan sat down on the edge of the bed. "Did you sleep all day?"
"I guess so." Kerry realized that she must have awakened at some point, briefly, because her glasses were on the nightstand, and she'd folded the paper on the empty pillow on the far side of the bed.
"You slept through your whole birthday," Susan said.
"I saw the first seven hours of it." Kerry knew she was smiling. "Was there any cake left by the time you got there?"
"Yeah. Carter hid a piece in the back of the fridge."
"I'm sorry-- sorry you had to miss the party."
"Fried rice and Muppet movies? No, I think I showed up for the good part."
"And what would that be?" Kerry asked, even though she could tell from the look in Susan's eyes that she was going to get eaten out very soon.
"The part where I make you scream so loud your neighbors complain to the condo association."
Kerry pulled Susan onto the bed and kissed her. "I like that part," she said.
Kerry was just in a little satin nightgown, and she wasn't in it for long. She'd been shy about her body at first with Susan, hiding her leg especially, but also the compensatory muscles in her right shoulder and arm, and the rough, thick skin on the heel of her hand. She'd had one boyfriend who had inadvertently ended their relationship when he'd mentioned that he'd been eager to get her naked so he could see what was wrong with her leg. Susan was the only lover Kerry had ever had whose relative disinterest in Kerry's disability was genuine: Susan knew its nature and origin, had seen Kerry snap on her brace on the bad days when her knee wanted to turn inward. But Susan didn't explore the situation beyond that knowledge, just seemed to accept it as part of Kerry's body and move on from there. She held Kerry's left hip now, crossed Kerry's body, dug her teeth into the curve of Kerry's deltoids. She would leave deep purple marks that Kerry would have to hide under a turtleneck the next day.
Kerry caressed the gap of bare skin that had emerged as Susan's shirt rode up. Susan's belly was a tender spot, and Kerry could feel Susan's breath quicken against her own neck. Susan fretted about the extra fat that had settled around her stomach and hips; she'd stand naked in front of the mirror and complain that all the yoga in the world wasn't getting rid of it. Kerry couldn't make Susan believe that she loved that softness. Kim had been all bones and hard angles. Susan, she could hold close, sink into.
Kerry threw them both off balance trying to wrestle Susan out of her shirt, and they were rolling around on the bed, laughing, because once Susan lit up with giggles, it was impossible not to follow. Susan was wearing a bra that hooked in the front, which meant that she'd been gearing up for this all day. Kerry ran her tongue under the edge of the lace, then undid the clasp with her teeth, which made Susan laugh harder. That became a gasp when Kerry took one of Susan's nipples into her mouth. Kerry ran her hands down Susan's sides, towards the waistband of her chinos, but when Kerry started unbuttoning, Susan whispered, "No. You're the birthday girl."
Susan kept her lips at Kerry's ear; she sucked on Kerry's earlobe, then swirled her tongue inside with a fervor usually reserved for other openings. Susan was good at that: she could fixate on a finger or the inside of Kerry's knee, and it was like she could draw all of Kerry's nerves to that point. She had good timing, too, dotting kisses along Kerry's jawline, then nipping a trail down one of the tendons in Kerry's neck. Tomorrow would definitely have to be a turtleneck day. Susan circled her tongue in the hollow of Kerry's throat, and she brushed Kerry's clavicle languidly with the tip of her tongue. Kerry felt hot and impatient, but at the same time content to close her eyes and find out where Susan's mouth would go next.
Susan began just where Kerry's breasts started to rise from her chest, drawing a spiral with the blade of her tongue. When she reached Kerry's areola, she made little flicks with her tongue that grew sharper and sharper. Kerry arched her back up towards Susan's mouth, sighs rising from deep in her throat. Susan did the same thing to Kerry's other breast, and this time it felt like slow motion, like she'd never reach the center. When she did, she stopped much sooner, then pressed a hard kiss into Kerry's sternum. She continued the hard, wet kisses down Kerry's belly, stopping for a brief, almost joking, lick around her navel. Finally, Susan started teasing Kerry's clitoris with the tip of her tongue, and even the soft graze of front teeth on the hood. It hardly took anything to get Kerry off at this point, and Kerry was moaning maybe not loud enough to wake the neighbors, but a hell of a lot louder than she usually let herself go. Susan could keep Kerry going for a long time, with her soft lips on Kerry's clit and that thing she did with the flat of her tongue that Kerry didn't even understand, and the ripples of orgasm kept coming until Kerry was dizzy and white with sweat, and Susan buried her head in Kerry's stomach. Kerry was pretty sure she was never going to move again, and she was completely sure that she didn't mind.
4. We cling to this
and claim the best
if this is what you're offering
I'll take the rain
Susan made the trip up to Evanston a few times a week. At first, Elizabeth had bristled at Susan's visits, but eventually she'd come to accept that Susan cheered him up. "He's lost his sight completely now," Elizabeth said when she'd let Susan in. "He failed the light test with his right eye yesterday, and again this morning."
"Shit," said Susan.
"It's what we knew would happen."
"Doesn't make it any easier, though, does it?"
"I suppose not," Elizabeth said coolly.
"Is-- is he awake?"
"The pain keeps him from sleeping soundly. He'll probably wake up when you come in."
The strange thing was that Mark didn't look all that sick. He'd refused chemo and radiation when the cancer had come back, saying that he'd rather die comfortably than suffer side effects for a few extra months. He was still eating on his own, and Elizabeth was reluctant to place him on a morphine drip until absolutely necessary. It must give her some comfort, Susan thought, to give him the medication herself. He lay in his own bed, head propped up on a few pillows, apparently dozing.
"Hi, Mark," she said. "It's Susan." He probably couldn't understand her, but he still seemed to recognize familiar voices. She took his hand, and he stirred. She'd brought The Hobbit to read to him-- it made a strange sort of sense to bring a book that he'd loved as a child-- but she'd gotten into the habit of talking to him for a while first. She'd open the book when she ran out of things to say.
"We got five transsexual prostitutes with syphilis today," she said. "A couple of them were really, you know, convincing. One of the med students didn't realize, and he practically ran out of the exam room screaming. So I had to take over. When I was examining one of them, she asked me if I was family. At first, I didn't know what she meant, but she said something about always being able to tell these things. And the sad thing is, the first thought that crossed my mind was that she was a plant. Like, the hospital was trying to entrap me and get me fired. Which was stupid, but you know... So I told her I was. And she said that meant she was in good hands. The whole thing was-- I don't know, I fell in love with this person, and all of a sudden I'm part of this secret society. But it was sweet. It was sweet of her. Some days it's good just to have a patient who's not yelling at you.
"Kerry and I are going to the Taste tomorrow. She forgets her own birthday, but she manages to get us both Wednesday afternoon off so we can go when the crowds aren't so bad. I wish-- I wish you could have understood what I-- what I see when I look at her. And it hurts me that you won't. It hurts me to know that you set her up over and over because it was so easy to break her, and I hope to hell that her side of the story is skewed, because if you enjoyed it, then-- then you're not the person I want to think you are. I always thought you were better than that, Mark. She's not that strong, Mark, and when you cut her until it bled, it hurt her, and it wasn't funny, and it wasn't fair... I hope that if I could hear it from you, I'd feel differently, because I'm sure as fuck not impressed with you now. And I want to be. Maybe I had some idealized picture of you in my mind that you never lived up to in the first place, and maybe I still have that, because the worst thing about this is the fact that I can't stay mad at you."
She kissed his forehead, and he whimpered a little. "Motherfucker," she said. She sat down, and she opened the book she'd brought. "'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.'"
It was one of the more liberal trustees who called Kerry first. He managed to call while Susan was at work and Kerry wasn't, which was lucky, considering how little time Susan had been spending in Edison Park lately. Bob McCormack was concerned. He drew out the word "concerned" like it was the word of the day on Sesame Street. He was concerned about some of the trustees' attitudes towards her openness about her sexuality. He was concerned about press and community reactions to a lesbian ER chief. He was concerned about how she'd hold up if there was a strong reaction. He wanted her to know that he supported her. He thought she'd done good things for the emergency department and for the reputation of the hospital.
"Are you trying to get me to resign?" she said.
"Of course not," he said. "I just want you to know what the situation is here. There are voices on the board who aren't comfortable with--"
"So I ought to just learn to be sensitive to their intolerance?"
"Well, of course not."
"I'm sorry-- I-- of course it's not your fault that--" She took a deep breath. "It seems sort of ridiculous that my personal life is even an issue here."
"I agree with you," McCormack said. "On the other hand, you've made a rather controversial choice."
"It's who I am," she said.
"I'm sorry. That was a poor choice of words."
"Yes, it was."
"I'm just worried that you might not be handling this as discreetly as possible."
"I think I'm better off being open with my colleagues than lying to them," she said.
"What about dating them?"
"Oh, for Christ's sake--"
"Some of the trustees might have an easier time... accepting this if you weren't romantically involved with one of your attending physicians. That's all I'm saying."
"I see," she said through gritted teeth.
"You might want to distance yourself from Susan Lewis."
"I'm not sure-- I'm not sure I'm prepared to do that."
"It's something to think about."
"I'll... give it some thought. Thank you." She hung up before she could act on the urge to find Bob McCormack in the phone book, drive over to his house, and bludgeon him with her crutch. She took one of the throw pillows from the couch and hurled it at the window that faced the lake. For a moment, before the pillow bounced off the shatter-resistant glass, it looked like it might sail over the crowded beach and land gently in the water.
There were ways around this. If it became that much of a problem, she could help Susan find another job. Kerry still had some friends at Rush-Northwestern, and Evanston had to be hiring, what with the renovations. Or they could move out to Vermont or up to Madison, somewhere no one cared who you slept with. There were options. There were options other than breaking up. Kerry would never have imagined herself in a position where she would sooner move to Wisconsin than end a relationship to save her career. If it got to that point, she rationalized, there wouldn't be much to save.
And it wouldn't get to that point. There was no way the trustees could justify it. She had too much seniority, and while her record wasn't unimpeachable, there was nothing bad enough to hurt her. One suspension for defying Romano on moral grounds; one investigation for a medical error determined to be the residents' fault. Sure, they might be able to dig up Jing-Mei Chen, but Chen flew off the handle even more readily than Kerry did. Besides, Romano had said he would back her up, and he'd given her enough rope to hang him if he went against that. Carter and Kovac would support her: strangely enough, with Mark gone, she seemed to have good rapport with all of the attendings. And Susan-- Susan would tell them where they could stick it, and with such charm that they'd think she was complimenting their ties.
The torture lay in the waiting. The paramedics had just phoned in: incoming multiple trauma.
"He's asleep," Elizabeth growled when she found Susan at the door.
"I can come back later," Susan said.
"He'll still be asleep," said Elizabeth. "Who am I kidding-- if he did wake up, how would anyone be able to tell?" She sighed. "You can sit with him for a while, if you want."
"Thanks," Susan said. By now, she knew the way to his bedroom. He looked gaunt and peaceful. She couldn't stand talking to him anymore, so she just sat, stroking his hand, watching his slow breaths. If he didn't die of a stroke, he'd gradually overdose on morphine, but he didn't seem to be ready for either of those yet. His heart beat. His lungs rose. He hung on. The home-hospice nurse noted, eerily, that he might make it to August.
When Susan had had as much as she could take, she tried to slip out quietly. Today didn't seem to be a good day to disturb Elizabeth. But when she came down the stairs, she found Elizabeth tucked in a corner of the living room couch, crying softly. "Are you all right?" Susan said perfunctorily.
"I'm fine," Elizabeth sniffled.
"All right, then, I guess... I'll see you in a couple of days."
"I'm not 'fine' at all," said Elizabeth.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything."
"Do you-- do you need something? Because I could get you something to eat, or--"
"It's all right," Elizabeth said. "Go home."
"Are you sure?"
"Oh, I don't know."
"I'll-- I'll get you some takeout or something."
"You really don't have to."
"I'll be back in ten minutes," Susan said. She spent the next fifteen lost in residential Evanston. Finally, she found a barbeque place, a dim, yellow-painted counter operation that made her feel like the whitest person ever born. It smelled of grease and heaven.
"I-- I got all this chicken," Susan said when Elizabeth let her back in.
"Let me see," Elizabeth said. She cracked a smile when she saw the full brown-paper grocery bag. "That's a lot of chicken."
"Well, I thought-- for Rachel."
"She won't eat it. She's a vegetarian."
"I'm afraid not."
"I got potatoes," Susan said. "And cole slaw. Maybe she'll have that. Oh, and there's biscuits..."
Elizabeth took the lid off of a Styrofoam container. "Is this macaroni and cheese?"
"Um, maybe the nurse is hungry?"
"What about you?"
"Oh, I should get home, I--"
"Are-- are you sure?"
"Do you not want me to go?" Susan said.
"No, it's-- Peter's taken Ella for the day, Rachel's gone off somewhere... It isn't right for me to lay all of this on you." Elizabeth's eyes were welling again.
"I guess I can stay for a while," Susan said. "I mean, if you--"
"I'll be fine."
"Should we eat here, or in the kitchen?"
"I'll-- I'll go get some plates," Elizabeth sobbed, but she seemed to be laughing at the same time, like everything was so complicated that she couldn't settle on an emotion. "These paper ones that they gave you will soak right through."
Elizabeth ate like she hadn't had anything all day, although it might have been just comfort and relief. They didn't say much at first. The only thing they had in common was Mark.
"He'd always brighten up when he heard it was you on the line," Elizabeth said, apropos of nothing.
"Hmm?" Susan said through a mouthful of chicken.
"He'd drop whatever he was doing," Elizabeth said, "and dash for the phone, yelling, 'Tell her I'm coming! Tell her I'm coming!' Like you'd hang up in disgust if he didn't pick up immediately."
"Tell me there's not some sort of story behind this."
"When we were both in med school, he once left me on the phone with his roommate for half an hour. Turned out he forgot about me and went to the laundromat."
"And you stayed on the line?"
"It was important."
"I'd imagine so."
"The funny thing is," said Susan, "I can't remember what it was I was calling about."
"He probably would," Elizabeth said.
"You're right. He probably would."
They were both staring weepily into space when Rachel came in, reeking of cigarette smoke. She filled a plate with potatoes and macaroni and disappeared wordlessly into her bedroom. The faint throb of her music leaked into the living room.
"He was so in love with you," Susan said.
"I remember the first time he told me about you. He said, 'There's this gorgeous new surgical fellow from England. I'm pretty sure she hates me.'"
"We probably hadn't spoken more than a few words to each other."
"He was like that," Susan said. "If he thought someone was attractive, he immediately assumed that she'd hate him."
"Isn't everyone like that?" said Elizabeth.
"Well, except for the people who totally aren't. The guys who try to pick you up while you're examining them."
Elizabeth smiled weakly. "Right."
"Elizabeth-- are-- are you all right by yourself? I really-- I hadn't planned to stay this long. I've got a seven o'clock shift tomorrow..."
"I understand," Elizabeth said.
"Are you sure you'll be okay? Do you want me to do the dishes or anything?"
"You've done plenty," Elizabeth said. "And Peter and Cleo should be here any minute."
"You can-- you can give me a call if you need anything," Susan said. "Ever."
"Thanks," Elizabeth said softly.
Susan saw herself out. She was already in Rogers Park by the time she realized that, rather than heading west towards her house, she was winding southward on Sheridan Road, towards Kerry's building. There were a million places to take a right turn-- she could grab Touhy or Devon without having lost much time-- but she watched herself ignore all those traffic signals and keep hugging the lake.
The attendants in the parking garage of Kerry's building knew Susan's face, and tonight Pedro didn't bother with the formality of asking who she was coming to see. Kerry had given her a key to the security door, and another to the apartment itself. A man stepped into the elevator with her, and he greeted her like she lived there.
Kerry, on the other hand, wasn't expecting her. "Oh," she said, when Susan let herself in. "I didn't-- I didn't think you were coming over tonight."
"I don't know," said Susan. "I guess... I didn't really want to be alone."
"I'm sorry. I've got a meeting with the department heads tomorrow and I've-- I've got to make sure I don't bite anyone's head off."
"I can go," Susan said.
"No," Kerry said, getting up. "You don't have to go." She held Susan's hips and kissed her mouth gently. "You don't ever have to go."
It was high noon, and the ER was mobbed. Even for late July, it was ridiculously hot. Children and the elderly were passing out from heat stroke. Two hours earlier, an eight-year-old had drowned in a municipal pool during his day camp swimming lesson, after another child had held him under; Kerry had restored him, painstakingly, to a permanent vegetative state. There had been three non-fatal gunshot wounds since sunrise, one of which had probably robbed its teenage victim of the use of her legs. And then there was the woman who delivered in the hallway, the bleeding parasailor, and the Jehovah's Witness who had passed the time by handing out pamphlets to the other patients. The day was turning into a parody of itself.
"We need to talk," Susan said, dragging Kerry into the drug lockup.
"I got an interesting phone call this morning," Susan said.
"Can we talk about this later?" said Kerry.
"You're on your lunch break," said Susan. "I told Conni and Frank to tell everyone else that you're not allowed near any patients till one."
"Do me a favor and never do that to me again."
"Quit keeping things from me, and I won't have to."
"I-- I-- I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, you do too."
"No, actually, I don't."
"Then why am I getting phone calls from lawyers, asking if you've sexually harassed me?"
"Is there some kind of investigation going on?" Susan said.
"I-- Some of the trustees aren't thrilled that I came out. I had no idea it had gone this far, I--"
"You could have told me."
"I didn't-- I didn't want you to worry."
"You didn't think I would have worried anyway?"
"I don't know," Kerry said. "I thought-- on top of everything else--"
"Kerry," Susan said. "I can handle it." She kissed Kerry's forehead.
"So what did you tell him?"
"The truth," Susan said. "That I came on to you. That I couldn't resist you."
"Oh, you did not."
"I did," Susan said. "I yelled at him. I gave him this whole lecture on privacy."
"Sometimes you amaze me. You know that?"
"Yeah, I get that impression."
"It's-- it's nothing," Kerry said. "The business with the trustees. It'll... blow over. I'm sure."
"I... think it will."
"Kerry," Susan said, "what if it doesn't?"
"Then we'll work something out."
"What does that mean?"
"It means-- it means we'll work something out. The two of us."
"Good," Susan said, fingering Kerry's hair. "That's what I hoped it meant." She kissed Kerry gently. Kerry kissed her back. The kisses escalated, like they were fighting for the last word, until Susan had Kerry pushed back against the shelves, and the bottles of medicine were rattling in their boxes. For about half a moment, Kerry considered using the rest of her "lunch hour" for a cafeteria run.
The MVA came in at midnight. An SUV full of drunken teenagers versus the guardrails of the Edens, plus a BMW that had plowed into the SUV's rear, and a bonus fender-bender, the result of rubbernecking. Susan was trying to set the broken leg of one of the teenagers. "We're almost done," Susan kept saying. "We're almost done."
"Bullshit," said the girl.
Susan's pager buzzed. It was probably Chloe, forgetting the time difference again. She popped the girl's shin back into place. One of the first-year residents was assisting, and Susan told him to put a cast on the girl. "I'll be back in a minute," she said, yanking her pager from her belt loop.
It was a text message. "MARK GONE," it said. Just like that. She had to give Elizabeth credit for economy of words. She ran down the hallway to the bathroom; nurses and residents called out demands, but they sounded like a foreign language, like white noise. She locked herself in the handicapped stall of the ladies' room and wept into her hands. She checked her watch: it was 12:23 AM. He'd seen twenty-three minutes of August.
5. When it's four o'clock in the morning
and all the people have gone away
it's just you and your mind and Lake Shore Drive
tomorrow is another day.
Susan kept expecting to wake up from the funeral. She kept thinking it was one of those dreams where a friend dies, your strongest, healthiest friend, and then you wake up and call them, even though it's the middle of the night, to make sure they're still breathing. Elizabeth had asked her to be a pallbearer, so she'd had to come to the funeral home first, even though the service would be at the graveside. The funeral home had horror-movie dark wood paneling, and she had to wander for a while before she tracked down the rest of the funeral party.
She was the only female pallbearer, and she'd bought a black suit in order to blend in with the others. "You look so butch," Kerry had teased her, seeing her in it. Kerry probably wasn't going to show up. Susan had convinced her to assign a different attending to that shift-- to keep her options open-- but Kerry said that if she hadn't been welcome at Mark's wedding, she doubted she was welcome at his funeral. This made sense, and besides, Susan knew she only wanted Kerry there for selfish reasons. She wanted someone to hold on to.
Doug Ross hugged her and told her she looked great. They'd never been close-- Susan felt better acquainted with Mark's cousin Brad from Fort Wayne-- but there was something about that hug that made the world stand still for a moment. "You look good, too," she said. And everyone was there, and the funeral director started giving instructions and handing out white gloves and corralling everyone out to the parking lot. She sank into the plush seat of the funeral home limousine and watched sprinklers whirr over the suburban lawns.
She'd been assigned to the middle, on the right side. She balanced the coffin on her left shoulder and reminded herself, "This is Mark I'm carrying." The graveyard was in Skokie, across the street from the mall. Mark had chosen it months earlier, when he was still fairly healthy: he said it would encourage people to visit him, because they could do their shopping first and then stop by. The comment had seemed morbid then. She hadn't yet conceived of the possibility of crunching graveyard grass under her feet while she sweated in her new black suit. She hadn't conceived of knowing how heavy her friend was when he was dead.
The pallbearers lowered the coffin onto the scaffolding that would later ease it underground. As Susan stood up and recovered, she saw Kerry, hidden in the middle of the crowd around the gravesite, standing with Carter and Carol Hathaway. It seemed inappropriate to smile at a funeral, but Susan did anyway. She didn't think Mark would mind.
"No, Chloe, I can't--" Susan was in Kerry's living room, pacing back and forth, arguing with her sister on the mobile phone. Kerry was in the kitchen, cleaning out the fridge and trying not to listen.
"If you need money, I'll... No... Because I'm happy here... Yes, even the weather... Because I am... Well, of course it does, but I wouldn't go to California even if I weren't... No!... Because this one's different... She is... Oh, please... We-- we even talked about kids-- Chloe, this could be it. This could be my life. And I can't give this up just because you're 42 years old and you haven't figured out how to live on your own yet... I can't, I... Don't hang up, Chloe. Don't you dare-- fuck."
"What is it this time?" Kerry called from the kitchen.
"Oh, the usual. She got fired again. Were you listening?"
"You-- you were shouting into the phone-- I--"
"You were listening," Susan said. She came into the kitchen and kissed Kerry. "I guess... I guess I did want you to hear those things, then. I know I don't always... say them to you."
"I think we both have that problem," Kerry said.
"Have I ever even told you that I love you?"
"I-- I'm not sure."
"Because I've been in love with you for ages, and I don't think I've ever managed to tell you."
"It's all right," Kerry said.
"No, it's not! How long have we been together? Nine months?"
"What are you counting from?"
"From... from the Ethiopian restaurant."
"Oh, that doesn't count."
"It does too!"
"I-- I guess it doesn't matter," Kerry said.
"I guess not."
"I-- um-- I..."
"What?" Susan said gently.
"It's not important."
"If you say so."
"Kerry," Susan said, "you never have to say anything. I know. I'll always know."
"It's not that, it's-- Susan, we never talked about having kids."
"We did so! We had that whole conversation about how we'd both always wanted them and never..."
"That's not the same," Kerry said.
Susan was peering into the fridge, which was still open. She pulled out a sagging Styrofoam takeout container. "What is this?" she said.
"Oh, God, I don't know!"
Susan opened the container. "It looks like pasta. With shrimp in it."
"That must be from that place downtown... the one with the--"
"The one last month?"
"Throw it out! Throw it out!"
"No, I think we should keep it in the back of the fridge. Then, someday, instead of a scrapbook, we'll have leftovers to show our children. 'And this is from the time back in 2002 when...'"
"That's truly disgusting, Susan."
"Fine," Susan said. "I'll throw it out."
"Susan, when's the last time you went home? To your house?"
"It's been... it's been a couple of days, actually."
"Why don't you-- why don't you-- you could just move in here, already."
"Are you... serious?"
"I'm-- well-- you spend all your time here anyways, and--"
Susan threw her arms around Kerry. "I thought you'd never ask." Kissing Kerry, she kicked the fridge door closed.
"Kerry, can I borrow you for a minute?" Romano was leaning against the admit desk, his arms crossed.
"Robert, it's a zoo in here, and we've got another trauma on the way. Can it wait?"
"Certainly," he said, loping towards the elevator. "I just thought you might want to hear some good news for a change."
She was going to let herself walk into this one. "We should... probably discuss this in the lounge."
He shut the door behind him. "It appears your job is secure," he said.
"I never thought it wasn't."
"Come on, Kerry, you must have noticed the little investigation that the trustees were carrying on," he said. "I voiced my objections to it, but it happened anyway."
"I... heard a few things."
"We live in a world of narrow minds, Kerry."
"I'm assuming they didn't find anything," she said.
"Word is, they abandoned the investigation. Your... friends came to your rescue."
"Someone must have leaked the situation to the gay press," Romano said. "The board of trustees received over 500 letters and e-mails threatening demonstrations and legal action if there was any indication whatsoever that you'd been let go because of your sexuality."
"I-- I didn't know anything about this," she said.
"I didn't think you did."
"So it's all over? No more calls to my nurses, asking if I've propositioned them?"
"I certainly hope not," Romano said. "We can't afford to lose you."
She looked away from him. She wished there were something interesting going on in the hallway, or something weird taped to a locker, so she could pretend she was just distracted. There was something about the way he was saying all this. She'd worked with students and residents long enough to know when a presentation was worded to disguise some mistake or a stroke of blind luck.
Romano had to be thoroughly pleased with himself about this one.
"Is there anything else?" he said.
"No-- you wanted to talk to me, Robert."
"Good," he said. "Because, as you put it, it's a zoo out there. And last I checked, you're still the zookeeper."
Susan filed her nails every day. She probably could have gotten away with every few days, but it felt better to make a ritual out of it. She'd sand down the sharp edges and the rough places, make perfect half-moon shapes below the line of her fingertips. Then, she'd rub moisturizer into the skin: something she'd done anyway, before Kerry, but now it was part of the drill. Upkeep and maintenance.
Being with Kerry had changed her hands. Now, she put on gloves at work not just for sanitary purposes, but to keep from sharing her hands with anyone else. A patient would shake her hand, or her father would pat it, and she'd feel like asking, "Do you know where that hand has been?" She covered her hands in sterile polyurethane when she didn't need to, to avoid the violation.
The first time she'd gone all the way in on Kerry, she hadn't meant to. They'd been together a couple of months, and Susan could get four fingers in, no problem, but she had trouble folding her knuckles under. She'd get stuck. Kerry had magical collapsible hands; she could tuck her index finger and pinkie under her middle two fingers, and all of the bones in her hand would follow. Susan, however, was not a born contortionist.
It had been a warm spring night, very late, after a dinner after 7-to-7 shifts. Kerry had been so relaxed in her hips. She'd pushed so hard against Susan's hand that those knuckles had slid right in. It was more comfortable for Susan to let her thumb follow, and she was inside up to the wrist. Kerry came quietly, but she came for a long time. The two of them made jokes about Kerry's marathon orgasms anyway, but this time Susan thought she might have to pull the plug, or they'd be at it all night.
It wasn't that she minded. It was just that once you were in, you were in, and there wasn't much moving you could do. Susan had tried pulling Kerry close with her free arm, kissing her neck and her breasts, but with a fist inside her, Kerry was usually beyond the point of noticing. It seemed inconsiderate to let her mind wander. Most of the time, Susan would concentrate on feeling Kerry come. She'd center herself in one hand, draw in the contractions of Kerry's muscles, the sweet slickness of the membranes of her vagina. She had found that the power, the intensity of it, aroused her. And Kerry would smile, when it was Susan's turn, and say, "You're already ready for me."
This wasn't in any way meant to diminish the role of tongues. Susan had come to realize that she had a tongue built for eating women out. All those tricks she had grossed people out with in grade school-- touching the end of her nose, rolling it into a cloverleaf-- had found their proper use. There were places she could go with the tip of her tongue that not even fingers could do justice. But tongues were for lazy sex after long shifts, for just one more time before they both seriously had to get ready for work, for ten minutes in the ER ladies' room before anyone would notice that both of the attendings on duty were strangely missing. Tongues were easy, and for everyday. Hands were for special occasions.
Susan's father had finally agreed to meet Kerry. She suspected that her mother never would. Henry had told her on the phone that he would always love her and be proud of her, no matter what, but that he was having a hard time with this. Susan guessed that it was good that he was trying. She'd said to Kerry, offhand, that it must be easier not having parents to tell, but it was the wrong thing to say. Kerry's parents would never know. They'd never have the chance to try like Henry was trying.
She hired a real estate agent to put her house on the market. Because she wouldn't have to buy another home, she'd probably be able to pay off the rest of the mortgage with whatever she got for the house. There weren't a lot of things to get rid of, since she'd purged herself of most of her unnecessary belongings when she'd moved back to Chicago. There wasn't even enough for a yard sale-- just furniture and redundant kitchen supplies. She found a homeless shelter eager to take almost everything she didn't need. It might take a while to sell the house, with the economy the way it was, but she wasn't going to bother with the pretense of living there anymore. She got her mail forwarded to Kerry's address. Kerry's condo association rewarded her with a resident parking pass for her car, and the DMV registered her license plate so she could use Kerry's disabled sticker. It was their address, now. Their condo association. Their free parking at metered spaces.
There were days that felt like nothing had changed. Maybe it was that she'd made so many changes, so many times, that she could reconfigure herself and still recognize her own face in the mirror. She doubted that anyone could see much difference between who she was now and who she'd been in Arizona. Except, maybe, Kerry. Kerry could kiss her hands and know where they'd been. And she wondered if that wasn't the heart of the matter.
The plums in the back of the lounge refrigerator would be just about right today. Kerry had bought them at Dominick's, rather than at the farmer's market, because they were such a beautiful rosy purple. But they'd been underripe, so she'd hid them in the lounge, where people would see "WEAVER" in black marker on the paper bag and know to stay away.
Carter was at his locker, getting ready to leave. "What are you looking for?" he said.
"Oh, I-- left some plums in here."
"And you expect to see these plums again?"
"I put them in a bag with my name on them, and--"
"And nobody's that stupid," Carter finished.
"I was worried that Susan might get at them," Kerry admitted. "I wanted to let them get ripe."
"You let her near your fridge?"
"It's... her fridge now, too. More or less." She found the bag wedged in a corner of the bottom shelf. "Here they are."
"When did that happen?"
"What? Oh-- um-- I-- asked her to move in a couple of weeks ago. It's been... sort of a gradual thing."
"Well... congratulations," he said.
"Thanks," she said. "Want one?"
"Want one what?"
"I thought you weren't even sharing them with Susan."
"I didn't want to share them," she said, "because they weren't ripe yet." She handed him a plum, and he hesitated, but he took it.
"Thanks," he said.
She wasn't really supposed to be on break, and Carter seemed to forgive her for wolfing down her plum wordlessly. The truth was, she'd almost forgotten about the plums altogether. They were sweet and drippy now; it would have been a shame to lose them.
"I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox," Carter said.
"I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox," he repeated, "and which you were probably saving for breakfast."
She didn't know the first two stanzas by heart, but she recognized them now. "Forgive me," she said with him, "they were delicious so sweet and so cold."
"I memorized it in high school," he said. "And... I don't know. Plums. Icebox."
"I love that poem," she said.
"I didn't know that."
"Why would you?"
"I don't know, I just thought-- I mean-- how long did we live together and never..."
"Admit that we're friends?" she said.
"Something like that."
"I'm not sure."
"When are you off?" he said. "Seven?"
She nodded. "Susan's got the night shift."
"Why don't you... give me a call when you get off work? We can see a bad movie... make snide comments..."
"Get kicked out..."
"Maybe I'll do that," she said. She tossed her plum pit in the trash. "There's a plum left."
"All yours," he said.
Mark was gone, but Susan was still driving up into the suburbs to see him. She'd cut him the last of the tulips in the garden. Even to a grave, it seemed rude to come empty-handed. She hadn't planted the tulips, but they'd come up anyway, a legacy from her house's previous owner. And she'd be passing them on to the next owner, assuming the tulips came back.
On the graveyard's winding paths, she had to drive slowly. All these dead people under the grass, and every single one of them had been a person that someone now missed. A person that someone used to love. Some of the graves were lined with wilting impatiens or overgrown geraniums. They looked like little beds, with someone asleep underneath.
Grass was starting to poke through the dirt of Mark's grave. There wasn't a gravestone yet, just a little plastic sign with his name on it, like a bookmark. Next to it and the mostly-bare dirt, the tulips looked extravagant. "Don't go yet," she said, because it was useless. "I still need you." When he was dying, she'd felt strange talking to him, because she knew he couldn't understand her. Now, it felt like he heard every word. She had the dreams where he was still alive and trying to tell her something, and the days when she'd see a tall, skinny man with thinning hair and have to remind herself. He seemed more alive now than he had when he was actually around. Certainly more than he'd been when she'd lived in Phoenix.
Her mouth felt parched, and she couldn't cry. "How long do you want me to stay?" she said. He didn't answer, but she knew that now was too soon to leave.
"Susan?" she heard behind her. The voice had an English accent: it had to be Elizabeth.
"I'm-- I was just leaving."
"No, it's all right," Elizabeth said. She was carrying a squirming Ella. "I'm here too often."
"I don't think you could be," Susan said.
Elizabeth set Ella down on the grass. Ella was old enough to walk, but not old enough to get very far. Susan said, "She's getting big."
"That she is," Elizabeth said. "I suppose it's what they do."
"He's proud of her."
"He was, yes."
"He still is."
"If you believe in that sort of thing."
"I do," Susan said.
Ella had discovered the tulips. She picked one up and marveled at the bright color for a while, pulling at the petals with her fat hands. When she raised it to her mouth, Elizabeth was over her in a second. "No, no, sweetheart, don't eat that." She produced a toy from somewhere and occupied Ella with it.
"Should I leave you alone with him?"
"Only if you're ready."
"I'm all right," Susan said. "I can always come back."
"It's not as if he's going anywhere."
Susan smiled weakly at the joke. "I'll see you," she said.
She decided she might as well drop by her house and take a couple more boxes over to the apartment. Kerry was working until seven. Their apartment would be silent and dry-cold from the air conditioning. Maybe she'd run out for some groceries: Kerry's meticulous fridge-door shopping list had gotten long enough that Kerry was squeezing items into the margins. Something to get her out of that empty apartment.
It was too beautiful a day for errands, though. When Susan had brought the last box up and plopped it in the spare bedroom, all she could see was the sunshine. She took a small stack of medical journals out onto the balcony that adjoined their bedroom. Some days in early summer, the lake made the air smell fishy, but by September, that cleared up. She had an hour or two before the mosquitoes launched their assault. She leaned back in the deck chair with Annals of Emergency Medicine. The apartment didn't feel empty at all. It felt unimaginably full.
"Well, there's that Cuban place," Kerry said.
"Ugh," said Susan. "Heavy."
"I thought it sounded good..."
Susan was messing with her Palm Pilot. "Malaysian! In Chinatown!"
"You really want to drive through downtown on a Friday night?"
"Maybe," Susan smiled, "I want to spend more time with you."
"Now, how am I supposed to respond to that?"
"You're supposed to say, 'Yes, please, get caught in traffic.'"
"Yes, please," Kerry said, and kissed Susan. "Get caught in traffic."
"D'you want me to call?"
"Yeah. I'll... just be a minute."
Kerry sat down on the bed. Her leg had been fine during the day, but work had tired her out. On nights like this, putting on her brace seemed like admitting defeat. Before Susan, she would have stayed home.
"Kerry, is 8:30 all right?" Susan called from the living room.
"They don't have anything earlier?"
"That's fine, then," Kerry said. It meant they had about half an hour before they had to leave. Late reservations made strange little pockets of time: even if there were things she needed to be doing, if there was half an hour until she needed to leave, there was suddenly half an hour with nothing to do. She had bills to pay, journals to read. They could figure out where to put that rug that Susan had transplanted from her house. Or they could have sex. It was funny to have sex on the list of options, just another thing on the list of things to do with her time, even if usually it was by far the most attractive thing on that list. To have someone around, most of the time, who could make love to her and wanted to, with whom it was comfortable and fun and usually somewhere between pretty good and mind-blowing-- Kerry hadn't realized she'd wanted that until she had it.
The sun was setting, and Susan had closed the living-room curtains to keep out the glare. Susan was sitting on the couch, doing something on her mobile phone. Checking her e-mail. Kerry came up from behind and kissed her on the back of the neck.
"Everything okay?" Susan said.
"Hang on a second." Susan pressed some buttons on the phone. "Okay."
"Okay, come here and let me fuck you," Susan said. "Unless you've got that look in your eyes because you want to talk about resident evaluations."
Kerry let Susan pull her onto the couch. "I have a look in my eyes?"
Susan just kissed her, reached up under her shirt and flicked her nipples through her bra. One of the things they had learned about the couch was that it was difficult to keep from rolling off of the couch, and Kerry gripped the armrest while Susan unbuttoned her pants one-handed. When Susan went down on Kerry, she still had her hand on Kerry's breast, and she played absently with the nipple as she ran her tongue in long strokes like a cat, teased Kerry's inner labia with the tip of her tongue. Kerry let go of the armrest and held Susan's shoulders while she came.
Susan kissed Kerry's hips and the inside of her thigh along the edge of the brace. She slid up Kerry's body and kissed her mouth deeply as she rolled underneath Kerry. Kerry unbuttoned Susan's shirt and unclasped her bra. She ran her tongue over Susan's breasts while she reached up Susan's skirt to get her nylons and panties out of the way. Kerry started to lower her head, but Susan said, "No. Fingers?"
Susan had an affection for Kerry's hands that Kerry obliged without understanding. "The lube's in the bedroom," Kerry said.
"Just do what you can."
Kerry stroked Susan's thighs, teasing her, and returned to kissing her breasts. Kerry felt like she could explore those breasts forever, the delicate areolas and the salty skin, the place where they began to curve under. Kerry nudged Susan's legs farther apart and found her clitoris, searched for the sweet spot that would make Susan gasp. Susan was wet already, and she drew Kerry's fingers in easily. She might have taken a hand, but without the lube, Kerry didn't want to have to try to get it out afterward. Susan pressed hard against Kerry's fingers, and she came with short, high moans.
"We've got to get going," Susan said when she'd recovered.
"You should change."
"Shouldn't be hard. Most of it's off already." Susan gathered up her clothes. "I think my bra is missing."
"No, you've got it."
Susan disappeared into their bedroom. Kerry followed her in and claimed the bathroom: washed her hands, fixed her hair. Her shirt looked like it had come through intact. If Susan didn't spend the next year picking out clothes, they might even be early for their reservation.
They caught the elevator, got Susan's car out of the garage, and hurried down the few blocks of Sheridan before they had to crawl in Lake Shore Drive traffic. There is a brief period on Hollywood Ave., where several streets converge and become the beginning of the Drive, when the traffic faces straight into Lake Michigan. The last light was abandoning the sky over the lake, towards what might have been a beautiful sunset if it weren't hiding behind the skyline. The lake glowed orange with reflected streetlights. Buoys flashed red and green, and the Navy Pier ferris wheel spun with a thousand tiny white bulbs.
Susan had her right hand on the gear shift. She merged onto the Drive, into the crowd of cars. Kerry brought that hand to her lips gently and kissed it wrist, bones, knuckles, knuckles, fingertips.
"What was that?" Susan said.
"I don't know," said Kerry. "It just seemed like the thing to do."