SUMMARY: Maybe it was all just John Carter's lesbian fantasy, even if he was
long gone, but that didn't really matter anymore.
Again and again, for k. And for Jess, because she makes things beautiful.
It's not that I ever asked for a happy ending.
He was never a prince, and I'm certainly no princess. The last time I
seriously expected to ride off into the sunset, I was seven and it seemed
like my mother was going to get better, for real this time. But I think we
all remember the moment when we realized that stories are just stories, and
that fairy tales and real life don't mix.
All I wanted, honestly, was a clean goodbye, a clean break, where I could,
don't know, touch his cheek and feel superior and tell myself how I was
better off without him. I had it all choreographed in my head, because
life's taught me well enough to be prepared for goodbye at the moment of
hello. I would touch his cheek, probably, or his forearm, and I'd shake my
head in that supportive, disapproving, nostalgic-for-better-days kind of
way, and I would tell him once and for all that I never really loved him.
But if I've learned one thing in this life of mine, it's that if anything
ever goes the way I want it to, the whole world is going to come crashing
down around my feet.
His grandmother died, first of all. She'd been getting frailer and frailer,
ever since she hit that girl with her car, and Carter first diagnosed her.
She lost consciousness so often that after a few months, it hardly seemed
noteworthy anymore. They had an in-home nurse, of course, twenty-four hours
a day, and since it was Carter, they had a doctor on call, too. When his
parents split, right after the Christmas when Benton left, Carter's father
came to stay with them, and he was always calling and worrying, and it was
driving Carter crazy.
I found him a few times, out by the water, crying or trying to cover it up.
To his credit, I guess, he didn't go back to the drugs, because even he saw
how cliché it would've been, how easy, and a drug overdose would've just
been overkill. He started smoking at some point, and I would catch him out
near the El tracks, leaning against metal poles and emptying packs of Camels
and Marlboro Lights. I would cup my lighter in the wind, and he would put
his hands around mine, and it would be like we'd been doing it just like
that for years, like we were old smoking buddies.
It was maybe overly moody and fodder for a movie on TNT or something, but
for a little while, it seemed like it was something that made some amount of
sense. He'd helped me when I was chasing my mother across the fucking
country, kept me from completely losing my mind, and it felt like one of
those karma things, where everything comes back again.
Of course, it wasn't the same, because Susan was there, and she was all over
him, and I was engaging in some sort of temporary insanity with Luka.
Overcompensating. Susan had practically moved in with him, and he was
grateful, sure, but she never really understood that what he needed. He was
falling apart and leaving pieces all over the place, he was practically
bleeding through his clothes, and she was making him waffles and following
him around like she was worried he'd jump.
The whole divorce hit him pretty hard, too. That was hard for me to figure
out, and probably hard for Susan, too, because neither of us has the most
well put-together family in the world. I pretty much think you're successful
if, at the point, you can claim to know who your parents are at all, and if
you've come to grips with the fact that you and your family are just not the
same thing. Part of his whole self-identity was tied up with this little
I mean, it's not like he didn't know that the whole thing was a ruse, with
his parents, but he wanted so badly for it to be true. People are funny like
that. We can fool ourselves into believing anything if we want it enough.
I guess it all really hit a sort of breaking point, at least a quiet one,
when Benton left. So his parents were getting a divorce, and his grandmother
was probably dying, and this guy who'd been his mentor since he was
practically a teenager was leaving to go have some sort of normal life with
his girlfriend and his kid. And this woman he'd been in love with for years
came back and reminded him of what it was like to be young and swept away.
So he'd started sleeping with her, and they started coming in together in
the morning. He forgot my birthday, got her a dozen roses for hers, laughed
all the time and told me all the time that he was so glad he had me. So glad
he had me, because I understood him. And I would nod, you know, and tell him
that I was there for him. He started drinking his coffee like Susan, with
enough sugar to make your teeth hurt, but he started smoking my brand of
cigarettes, and that was something at least. I stopped trying to quit.
Maybe Benton got him thinking about all the opportunities he'd missed. I
mean, just planted the seed, and it grew and grew, and Greene left, because
of his kid and getting divorced from Dr. Corday and everything. So, it was
Carter and a bunch of new people, and Weaver, and then she got moved
upstairs to a bigger office with a lot of fanfare.
They were going to make him chief of emergency medicine, and one day, we
were leaving at the same time, and we walked together to the El. He looked
down the street and said to me, "I'm not going to take it."
I guess, in retrospect, I wasn't surprised. I mean, he loved County, as
fucked up as it was. This was the kind of emergency medicine he wanted to
do, with the blood and the guts, the GSW's and the stabbings, and all of it.
But, I mean, it was like his parents. He thought they were perfect, and it
was okay that he was this doctor in this inner-city hospital, because there
were perfect things, put together things. He could be out there, because
there was a core of sanity somewhere.
But that all went to hell, and Benton left, and Susan was a vegetarian, for
God's sake, and I sort of nodded and said, "Yeah. What'll you do instead?"
He said, "I think it's time to make some sense of everything." The
"Northwestern," I said. He nodded, and that was it. He asked me if
he was crazy, throwing it all away, and I told him that he was the only one
who could decide if he was throwing anything away, but that if I ever
decided to go to med school, for real, I would make sure to take his class.
He said I'd make a good doctor, called me Dr. Lockhart. Said I could be more
than I let myself be, and even when he said it, he knew I was going to turn
it around on him. So I didn't say it, and maybe I wish I had, just to let
him know that I didn't actually approve of him running off.
I'd gone to his grandmother's funeral, and not just because it was the right
thing to do. Or maybe it was just because it was the right thing to do, and
Carter had seen me there, and then a month later, he'd told me he was
leaving, and I guess that's how it was supposed to be.
Things don't work out like we expect them to. I never got to tell him how
much better I was than he was, and by the end, I probably didn't believe it
anyway, if I ever had. And I never got to tell him that I never loved him,
or that I'd always love him, or anything, because he was so busy being his
own source of drama.
So he left. And maybe you'll be surprised if I tell you that this story
isn't really supposed to be about John Carter at all. It's about me, and
it's about Susan, and the most depressing thing is that you couldn't tell a
story about either of us without telling a story about him.
Because this story, of course, is supposed to be about what happened once he
So, Luka and Susan both were promoted to way out of their league, until they
were masters of their domain, and they probably would've been sleeping
together, just to complete the circle, if I hadn't gotten to him first.
That's probably when it became some sort of serious competition between
Susan and I, because she knew Carter had told me about his plans, and that I
knew he hadn't told her.
I wasn't about to apologize for being more than nostalgia, and he sent me an
email that said they'd put "John Carter, MD" on the door of his office, and
that must mean something big, right? He emailed me and told me he was
getting published again, and that his students were brilliant, and that he
was happy, but I didn't believe him. Because I'd seen him at County when
everything seemed the most hopeless, and he was always the one jumping in
with every fiber of his being and trying to convince us all that he wasn't
just some kid, even though nobody thought of him that way anymore. But he
was still a first year intern somewhere in there, worrying that people were
going to laugh at him or tell him he didn't know how to intubate or
something basic like that.
So I couldn't believe that he was happy, but I took him at his word and told
him we were all proud of him, when really people were angry because he'd run
away. And one day, Susan came up to me at the end of my shift, and I was
pulling on my coat because winter was just getting started again, the second
winter since Carter left, and she asked me if I still talked to him.
I didn't lie, because it wasn't worth it, and because, honestly, I liked her
well enough. She's a damn good doctor, and I've been here long enough to
respect that above almost anything, because to be a good doctor, you've got
to be a good person. It's one of those things they write inside a greeting
card, congratulating you on your graduation from med school, but it's true.
She was leaving, too, and so I asked her if she wanted to go somewhere so
that we could talk. She was dying her hair a darker color, and she was
wearing a dark blue turtleneck, and even after a long shift, she looked sort
of clean-scrubbed and rosy-cheeked. It was easy to figure out what Carter
had seen in her. She said she knew a place, and it was a bar near the
hospital that I'd never been to before because it had always been too great
of a temptation.
She bought me a cherry Coke, with half a dozen maraschino cherries with
stems floating in it, and she had a White Russian, and I wasn't even
tempted. I was sort of afraid she would end up crying, and that I would have
to comfort her, and I wasn't prepared for that. We sat at a table out of the
way, and I smoked a cigarette, and she didn't say anything disapproving.
She said that I probably wouldn't understand why she'd come to me, after all
of this time. She was wrong. I understood completely. She had fallen in love
with Carter when she came back to County, and he hadn't fallen in love with
her, and she wanted someone to remind her that she wasn't going crazy, that
she was justified. She didn't really have any friends in Chicago, and I knew
Carter probably better than anyone left did.
I told her that he hadn't left because of her or in spite of her. She hadn't
factored into his decision either way, and that probably hurt her more than
it did to think that he hated her and was just running away. She wanted to
be at least that important, and she wanted to ask me why, but she didn't.
So we talked about John Carter, and that's how it started. She talked about
how he was back when he was still a med student, when he was bumbling and
adorable and brilliant, and how she'd had this tumultuous love affair with
Mark Greene, and how she'd left to be with her sister and the baby. She told
me how she came back because of Greene but stayed because of Carter.
I told her about Obstetrics, and how I was a med student for twenty minutes
once, how Carter kept trying to get me to go back, maybe so he could be my
Benton. And because it seemed like the right thing to do, I told her about
my mother, and about how we chased her, and how Carter saved her life when
she was trying so hard to get rid of it. I didn't cry, because there's no
reason to cry about it. Because I'm too tired to keep crying about it,
wondering when she's going to come back, on my doorstep or in a body bag.
But Susan understood running away, I guess. I was on my third cigarette,
chain smoking, and she took it from me and put it out in the black plastic
ashtray. She asked, but it wasn't really a question the way she said it, if
I had been an alcoholic, and I said that I was still an alcoholic, I just
hid it well. She toyed with a cherry stem I'd left on the table and nodded
like I was sharing some sort of deep, dark secret. I asked if Carter had
She said that he'd never wanted to talk about what happened to him and Lucy,
or what happened afterwards, with rehab and everything. But that once he had
said that if it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't have made it as far as he
had, wouldn't have stayed clean for so long.
She turned to me, put her hand on mine on the table in this really Lifetime
melodrama sort of way, and said, "I just wanted to know him like that." And
I didn't want to feel bad for her, because I figured that I was already
involved enough in the situation as it was, but she didn't give me a whole
lot of choice, with her wet eyes and cold fingers.
All I said was that I was sorry, and then she kissed me, which in and of
itself was pretty unbelievable, but even more so was the fact that I liked
it and didn't stop her. It sort of made some sick kind of sense. Neither of
us could get him, so we'd each try to get the closest thing, which just
happened to be one another.
Her mouth had this twinge of alcohol, but I didn't want a drink as much as
wanted to keep kissing her. We were sitting on the same side of the table,
looking out into the bar, and she slid her chair closer to mine. I thought
of Carter's name on the door of his office and how he was bound to get a
wife perfect enough to fit that picture, and I kissed Susan back harder,
biting at her lower lip until she made this whimpering noise at the back of
her throat that made my stomach twist.
I'd done this thing with women once or twice, and clearly so had she, and
her fingers dug into my thigh. And when I couldn't help it anymore, I
laughed, and she didn't even seem offended, just laughed along with me.
"If John Carter could see us now," I said, and sort of expected her
a drink, nod, and that would be the end of it.
But of course, things rarely go as we expect. She touched my cheek, brushed
the hair that had fallen out of my French twist back behind my ear. I was
wearing these ugly black pants that I kept thinking I should get rid of, at
that moment more than ever, and a purple shirt with white buttons, and right
then, this seemed really important to me. I realized that I didn't remember
the last time I'd shaved my legs properly above the knee.
She asked if I wanted to forget about it, found that spot under my ear with
her fingers like she already knew the answer, and for a second I wondered
what the hell was going on with this universe.
So I said, "No," and she kissed me again, but really softly, like
it was a
test. Her hand was still near my face, and I guess she was waiting for me to
prove something to her, maybe that this wasn't just about John Carter or
some sort of strange lesbian fantasy he might've had. She wanted to make
sure this wasn't going to turn into something that we'd need to see a shrink
about. I held her wrist, sucked on one of her fingers. Whatever hand lotion
she was using tasted terrible, but it didn't really matter to me at that
And she moaned, quietly, but it was definitely a moan, and what could've
prepared me for that? Her eyes closed, and her eyelashes were still really
pale, even if her hair was dark, and she said, "Oh, Abby." And at that
point, since I clearly was not going to take her, or whatever the proper
term for it would be, on the table there, or in the bathroom, I stood up and
asked if she wanted to pay for a cab because I didn't want to take the El.
She laughed, and we left and got a cab, and I was pretty much silent because
I was too busy concentrating on the way she was sliding her fingers up the
inside of my leg, and then I realized that the pattern she was tracing was
her own name. That almost made me laugh, but she was teasing me, and I was
wet, and I decided that laughing at her was probably not the best course of
So I turned towards the window and watched the lights as we passed them,
blurring in to one another when we would get going, and then straightening
themselves out when we hit a traffic light or a slow turn. I wondered if she
would taste like the hospital in strange places, like her ankles or her
bellybutton, and I wondered if I would find out.
Her apartment was nice, really clean and tastefully done. Her couch was
forest green and overstuffed, and she had a cat that was afraid of strangers
and ran under the bed, refusing to come out, even when Susan knelt down at
the foot of the bed and tried to coax him out. I was standing in the door,
halfway into her bedroom, and she had one hand up on the white comforter to
keep herself balanced. And she looked up at me, and she said, "Well, this is
I helped her up from the floor and kicked off my shoes. I sat down on the
edge of the bed, and she sat down next to me, and all of the sudden, she
couldn't look at me without blushing. I asked her what was so funny, said
that I liked her apartment, that it was just like her. She asked, "How's
that?" and I told her that it was straight-forward.
She thought this was funny, and she laughed and looked down at her bare feet
against the wooden floor. I told her that I didn't mean it as an insult,
that after all this time playing games, it was an attractive feature. She
didn't say anything, just looked up at me and leaned forward so that I would
kiss her, and then she pushed me, but gently, back onto the bed and said she
liked the way my hair was so dark against the sheets.
So that's how it happened. She did taste like the hospital some places, but
between her legs, she was bright and sour, and I could still taste her under
my tongue the next morning when I woke up, sprawled across her bed wearing
nothing but my panties. She was sitting at her kitchen table, having a cup
of coffee and wearing a tee-shirt from Old Navy, and she smiled when I
She said that she could get me some clothes, but I just stretched my arms
over my head and said that I was fine if she was. She laughed, and it was
this really low, honest laugh, and she asked if I wanted coffee.
So, we drank coffee like that, and we went back for our shifts, and though
it didn't make any sense, it happened like that a couple weeks later, and
again, until it was pretty much every other night, or every night. It was
okay, because Luka and I weren't seeing each other anymore, but one day,
this new doctor, a tall, pretty boy with a muted Brooklyn accent, asked me
if Dr. Lewis and I were a thing, and all I could do was shrug and say, "Your
guess is as good as mine."
She asked me about Carter one morning, over toast and the Sunday paper,
asked if I'd talked to him recently, and I said that I hadn't. She smiled
and said that she hadn't either, and I asked her what she was so happy
She looked down and said that she was glad that this wasn't just because of
him, and then she asked me to pass the blueberry jam, and that was that. Our
fingers touched when I handed her the butter knife, and she smiled really
brightly with all of her teeth, and it was nice, because she didn't have to
say, "I love you," and when I kissed her, she tasted like wheat bread and
And it didn't even matter that this wasn't a real fairy tale, because I got
to lick the jam off her fingers, and in the end, there isn't much more that
you can ask for.