Disclaimer: These characters were created by Warner Bros., Amblin Entertainment, NBC, and other people not myself. I don't make any money by writing about them.
Spoilers: Begins in mid-eighth season, shortly after "Bygones" Rating: PG for language and mention of sex Thanks to A.P for inspiration and, of course, to all those who read.
You look into your own eyes in a mirror
and that's all you can see.
Until you notice the window
behind you, sunlight on the leaves
of the oak, and then the sky,
and then the clouds passing through it. from "Permanence" by Lawrence Raab
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures and leadeth me beside the still waters..."
Kerry's mumbled words blend into the collective murmur as, eyes closed, she tries to picture the scene from above: a dark mosaic of hats and hands surrounding the shiny black rectangle of the coffin lid with its fragrant, somber decoration of dark red roses, the mourners all in their best clothes, heads bowed and protected from the hot Florida sun. She doesn't believe in heaven. Not really. But it's how Gabe would see things if...
"...and lo though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
She's not sure he would have approved of the religious tone of things, or of her imagining him a distant, hovering angel, but she feels comforted by the words and the image in spite of herself, and she has no doubt he would have wanted that: for all of them, somehow, to feel comforted.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life..."
He'd been healthy only a few short years ago, her mentor and friend, but his decline was fast, as he'd both dreaded and expected. Still, his death at this relatively young age seemed strange. But no one was going to ask questions. Not even doctors. Especially not doctors--at least not the ones here today. She realized earlier as she joined the small group of mourners that doctors make up the bulk of their number, most of them older and distinguished, close to retirement--people she knows by name and reputation only. His dedication to his work, and his true brilliance, had endeared Gabe more to his patients and colleagues than to his family, which she knew in the end he'd deeply regretted. But his son was here, standing not too far from her, black suited, head bowed like the rest of them. His son was here, at least, with his father's familiar profile, the same long, aristocratic nose. And she'd seen him weep. His grief was real.
"Our Father, who art in heaven..."
She herself has not cried and does not plan to. She knows it's supposed to make her feel better, she's been told that, but it never does. Since Gabe moved to Florida, along with his son, two years ago, she'd only been to visit him twice. She knows it's something he would have understood, her all absorbing involvement with work--her feeling of obligation to both the hospital and her patients, but it doesn't relieve her sense of guilt. Not really.
Usually so stoic in the face of death, she's surprised to feel a catch in her throat now as the service draws to a close and the pastor recites the familiar words: "Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust."
As the funereal silence of the small group gives way to footsteps and the rustle of clothing, she adds her own whispered epitaph: "And they said one to another, behold, this dreamer cometh."
"You know it's a classy hotel when there's a bottle-opener built into the bathroom wall," she'd told Chloe earlier on the phone to make her laugh. And at the time she'd laughed too. At the moment, the entire situation had seemed genuinely funny: being stuck at a budgeting conference with a bunch of stodgy hospital administrators with whom she has nothing in common, in this crappy hotel, in this heat. She was given 3 days off from work to come, and she had been looking forward to it, but now she feels like she's playing hooky in hell. The air-conditioning barely works, and the bottle opener jabbed her in the thigh, hard, when she stepped out of the shower a few minutes ago half blinded by steam. Sitting on the edge of the bed, arms thrown out behind her, gray bedspread shoved aside to expose the purity of clean white sheets, wet hair slicked back, she's wondering what the hell she's going to do with herself on this unseasonably scorching spring evening in a second rate conference hotel on the outskirts of Miami. And she doesn't feel like laughing anymore.
Her shorts are baggy enough that she can push them up now to reveal the place where metal impacted tender flesh, the slow blooming of a bruise there, dark and misshapen: a hidden, unwanted flower. She stares at it and can't help but feel it's symbolic of something--of her life, maybe, or even of herself.
"An unwanted flower is a weed," she says aloud, then laughs, but without humor. When she was a child she was always proud of her bruises. They made her feel rugged. She sometimes even thought of them as beautiful, but in a strange, unsettling way she knew adults would not understand so she never told them. She turns to stare at her reflection in the mirror across the room now, planning to frankly assess her own desirability, but as soon as she sees her 42 year old self, she thinks better of it and looks away. Her face is lined from the Arizona sun and she put on weight just sitting around the house with Chloe between shifts, waiting on little Suzie like an indulgent, high-end nanny, putting band-aids on her cuts and scrapes and wiping her nose when she had a cold.
And her hair. What a mess. Maybe she should just shave her head. She sinks back onto the bed, arms stretched our for the sake of coolness above her, and there's a knock on the door.
"Who is it?" she yells loudly, expecting to hear the answering voice of the annoying, paunchy hospital administrator who had tried to pick her up at the end of the last session that afternoon. What was his name? Rick? Ron? Something. The way he combed hopeless wisps of hair across the gaping, shiny bald spot on the top of his head had made her wonder yet again what the hell she was doing here. At least Romano just lets himself be bald.
There's no answer. Maybe whoever it was, she thinks, decided to leave her alone.
Another tentative knock, and then a voice. A familiar voice. "Susan?"
Jesus. Kerry Weaver. "Kerry?" Susan rises quickly and moves to the door. She opens it and Kerry is standing there looking hot and rumpled, holding in her left hand a paper bag which Susan immediately feels certain holds some kind of liquor, and in her right hand, its stem smashed against the metal hand-hold of her crutch, a single red rose.
"Oh, good," Kerry says in greeting. "I was beginning to think I had the wrong room." She hands Susan the paper bag but, to Susan's great relief, not the rose. "It's beer," she says. "I found some imported German stuff at a weird convenience store down the street. It might actually be good."
Susan accepts the bag and stands there, unsure in this situation what exactly is expected of her.
"Susan?" Kerry says, staring at her squinty-eyed. "Can I come in?"
"Oh. Sure, Kerry. Yeah, come in. Uhm, I didn't even know you were here." Whenever Kerry wears her black business suit the word "lesbian" flashes in red letters in Susan's mind, not like a warning, exactly, but like something that cannot and should not be ignored. Susan is painfully aware of her own attire: baggy blue t-shirt, baggy gray shorts, no bra. She steps aside to let the other woman pass, and since the entry way is narrow, they brush against each other.
Kerry doesn't seem to notice. She breezes past Susan, chucks the rose carelessly onto the room's small desk, props her crutch against the window sill, pulls the dull green and yellow plaid chair over to the air-conditioner and sits in the path of its trickle of cool air, fanning herself.
"Kerry, your hand..." Susan says. A few drops of blood have cut a dark path from her pale palm down toward her blue-veined, slender wrist.
"Dammit. Those damn things were supposed to be de-thorned." Kerry levers herself up and takes a lurching step toward the tissue box on the far side of the windowsill. She grabs a tissue, blots the blood, then takes the rose off the desktop and throws it emphatically in the small plastic trashcan. While she's standing, she takes her jacket off, drapes it across the arm of the chair, and tugs her pale blue shirt untucked. When she sits down, she kicks off her shoes and props her feet up on the bed with a sigh.
Susan watches this whole process still standing by the door and holding the grocery bag full of beer. "Did you present today, Kerry?" she asks, brow furrowed. "I didn't see your name on the list." She's casting about for an explanation to the other woman's odd behavior. Maybe her session had been a disaster. Maybe she forgot her notes and had to wing it. Maybe she tripped and fell down the stairs in front of everyone. Maybe she hit her head.
"No. I didn't attend the conference today. I'm not attending at all, actually."
"Oh." At this point Susan is visibly confused.
Kerry sighs, removes her glasses and rubs her eyes. "A friend of mine passed away a few days ago. He lived in this area. The funeral was today."
"Oh, God, Kerry, I'm sorry." There's an awkward pause during which they try not to look at each other and Susan tries very hard not to think of Mark. "Was it unexpected?"
"Yeah, sort of. Well, no. Not really."
"Uh huh," Susan says, nodding to indicate her clear lack of understanding. "So, wait. You're staying at this hotel, too?"
"No, I'm staying at a place downtown. I just... Susan, I don't know anyone else in Miami."
"Oh." Susan nods again. "Ok." She suspects Kerry thought that if she'd called and asked to come over, Susan would have said no. And she was probably right. She can see the wheels spin in Kerry's mind as she begins to feel that Susan has caught her doing something devious and inappropriate. And mildly pathetic.
"And I thought since I was here," Kerry stumbles on, "I could come over and get an update on the conference proceedings..."
Susan cuts her off with a shake of her head and a world-weary look of incredulity. "Do you really want to hear about the conference?"
They look at each other. "No," Kerry admits, "Not really."
By this point, Kerry looks trapped and awkward. And hot and disheveled and sad. Miserable, really. Susan's face softens. "Listen, Kerry, I don't know anyone else in Miami either, and I was wondering what the hell I was going to do tonight. So, hey, let's hang out. I'm glad you're here."
"Absolutely." Susan gestures to the heavy bag she's still holding. "You want one of these?"
"Yeah, I do."
Susan opens the bag and peers in at the jumble of loose bottles, their labels a colorful blur of incomprehensible German, all of them sweating in the heat.
"They had a bunch of different kinds, so I just bought one of each."
"Oh. Well, great."
"I don't know much about beer, to be honest, but I thought maybe you'd like it."
"That was really thoughtful of you," Susan says, wondering if she suddenly has the words 'working class' tattooed on her forehead. Or worse yet, 'white trash.' What does Kerry think of her, anyway? She pulls out two bottles at random and walks into the bathroom to open them up. She lets the door drift half closed behind her and shrugs quickly out of her t-shirt and into her bra which she'd discarded beside the sink, then back into her t-shirt again. Looking at herself in the mirror, she tries to push her damp, frizzing hair into some sort of shape. *Jesus *, she thinks, and gives it up. Returning to the task at hand, she opens the bottles, each with its own cool sounding thwup, re-enters the other room and hands a bottle to Kerry who takes it without looking at her, obviously still feeling awkward. Susan sits perched on the edge of the bed, crosses her legs, then uncrosses them and takes a swig of the beer. Kerry does the same.
"Mmm, this is good," Susan says, peering at the label as if she can read it. "Those Germans sure know how to make beer." Kerry just nods, and Susan casts about for something else chatty to say. "So if you don't usually drink beer, what's your beverage of choice?"
"Wine," Kerry says, as if it's an obvious answer. "Or vodka. But wine seemed too formal, somehow, and showing up uninvited with a bottle of vodka just seemed wrong."
They smile at each other for the first time since Kerry's arrival, and some of the tension in the room seems to lift. "Beer is good on a hot night," Susan says gamely, trying to imagine Kerry, a petite, middle-aged redhead in a business suit, standing alone in a liquor store, pondering. She lifts the bottle to her lips again, but almost spills it on herself when there's another jarring knock on the door.
Before Susan can react, Kerry scrambles around for her crutch and rises. "I ordered pizza," she says by way of explanation as she breezes past her and pulls the door open. Susan leans back on one elbow, cradling her cool beer against her, and watches the exchange of pizza box for cash.
Kerry walks past her again, balancing the box in one hand, then slaps it down on the coffee table and resituates herself in her chair. After a moment's hesitation, Susan gets up off the bed, sits down on the floor across from Kerry, and, gracefully assuming the lotus position with a sigh, flips back the lid of the box.
"Half pepperoni, half mushroom," Kerry says. "I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
When Susan breathes in the drifting smells of salt, tomato and grease, she realizes that she is hungry. "Pizza and beer. What could be better?" she says, trying not to feel resentful that her hotel room has been hijacked and she has no idea where they're going.
They both eye the pizza for a moment, then Kerry reaches in, digs out a stringy slice and uses both hands to maneuver it to her mouth. Susan hesitates then does the same.
"I don't usually eat this poorly," Kerry says. "Not since I was a resident, anyway." Her mouth half full of pizza, she takes a long swig of beer. "But today I just felt like it for some reason."
"Comfort food," Susan says, her voice full of sympathy and understanding, then, realizing she's touched upon the uncomfortable topic of Kerry's bereavement, rushes on. "And believe me, if you're looking for good food, this hotel doesn't have any better to offer."
Kerry licks her fingers and looks around her at the shabby furniture and wood-veneer desktop. "It's not very nice, is it? You'd think they could have come up with something better for a bunch of doctors."
Susan shrugs. "Times are tough all over, I guess. I was hoping the lurch I felt in my stomach after I ate the shellfish at lunch was just the economy slowing down."
Kerry gives a snort of laughter and takes another long swig of beer.
Emboldened by this easy exchange, and feeling guilty that she isn't trying harder to be supportive, Susan tries her best to dredge up what she learned during her psyche rotation in med. school. "So," she says lightly, "do you want to talk about anything imparticular? Like... your friend, for example..."
"No," Kerry says without even looking up from her second slice of pizza.
"Oh. Alright. Well, what do you want to talk about?"
Kerry takes another long swig of beer, draining the bottle. "What happened with you and Carter, anyway?"
"What happened with you and Carter? I heard you were dating, and then I heard you broke up. So what happened?"
"Jesus, Kerry. I thought you of all people would be above all the gossip."
"You mean it's not true?"
"Well, yeah, it's true..." Susan frowns and glances again at her reflection in the mirror across the room, absentmindedly dabbing a napkin at the corner of her mouth. "Carter and I are really just friends, you know? I mean, when we were dating there just wasn't any..."
"Spark?" Kerry offers. "Energy? Verve?"
"Sex," Susan says. "There wasn't any sex at all. It was very disappointing."
"Oh," Kerry says. "That's too bad." She raises her beer bottle to try to hide her smile, but then realizes it's empty and sets it back on the table.
"The two of you used to live together, right?"
"He rented out my basement for awhile," Kerry says, "and once in awhile he helped me around the house. Or at least he tried to. I think he changed a light bulb once." This gets a laugh from Susan, as Kerry stares thoughtfully out the window at the sky glowing orange from the city lights. "He was good company. Sometimes I miss him."
"You still see him practically every day."
Kerry shrugs. "It's different." She grabs the windowsill, pulls herself up, and moves off to get more beer. "You want another?" She gestures to the bottle in Susan's hand.
"Sure," Susan says, and tips the bottle back to drain it. "Opener's in the bathroom." Kerry pulls open the mini-fridge, waves her hand in front of it, frowns when she feels little to no coolness, and smacks the side of it sharply with her crutch. A moment later, there's the noise of a tiny motor jerking to life.
"Seems like you've got the magic touch," Susan says. "Maybe you should try that with patients."
"You think I haven't?" There's a loud rattle of colliding glass as Kerry shoves the grocery bag into the cooling fridge, then thrusts her hand back in and comes out with two bottles, the slippery necks of both grasped precariously in the fingers of one small hand. "Sometimes it works with doctors, too."
Susan rolls her eyes and smiles as Kerry steps into the bathroom, then reemerges a moment later with the two open bottles. On her way past, she gestures toward a loose sheet of paper on the desktop. "Is that the conference schedule?"
"Yup, that's it," Susan says, accepting a bottle from Kerry, who resumes her seat. "I can tell you about my sessions today if you want, but they were really pretty boring, and I'm sure you already know all this stuff anyway. That's why Romano sent me instead of you, right? To dispel my ignorance."
Kerry shakes her head. "That's got nothing to do with it."
"Well, why then?"
Kerry pries the last piece of pizza off the cardboard box and shrugs. "I've learned not to spend too much time trying to figure out why he does the things he does, but if I had to take a guess, I'd say he was trying to piss me off."
"Why would he do that?"
Kerry shrugs again, her mouth full of pizza.
"I know he can be a real pain in the ass," Susan says, "but are you sure you're not being too hard on him? Seems to me he's mellowed out in the last few years. He can be nice sometimes. And funny."
"He's flirting with you," Kerry says. "You should be careful. He has a long history of sexual harassment and discrimination, and I'm sure I don't even know the half of it. He fired a psyche attending last year because she's gay."
"She was an attending! And he fired her?" She snaps her fingers. "Just like that?"
"He built up a pretty sizable human resources file against her, but it was all bogus. I tried to stop him, but..." She trails off and shakes her head.
"Wow. That's awful."
"Yeah, it was. She was my girlfriend."
They stare at each other. Susan blinks. Kerry chucks the last half of her pizza slice, mostly sauce-smeared, soggy crust, into the middle of the grease-stained box with a flick of her wrist that clearly communicates both weariness and disgust.
"He'd fire me, too, if he thought he could get away with it," she says, "but he knows he can't. So he just does everything he can to make my life difficult..."
She's interrupted by an electronic bleating.
"Excuse me for a second," Susan says as she looks away and rises, moving to grab her cell phone off the bedside table. She glances at the small screen then touches a button and puts the phone to her ear. "Hi, Mark. How are you?" she says, her voice unnecessarily loud and emphatic. As she speaks, her brow lifts and puckers into an expression that combines false levity with concern. She glances at Kerry sitting across the room, then turns her back and focuses all of her energy on listening. "Is everything all right? Mark? Is someone there with you?"
Kerry rises quietly from her chair, folds the pizza box in half with a soft crunch, stuffs it in the trash can, and slips her shoes back on.
"Can you call Elizabeth? What about Rachel?"
Holding the phone tightly to her head with one hand, Susan presses the other hand to her forehead, and doesn't seem to notice as Kerry slides her jacket off the arm of the chair, retrieves her crutch from its place in the corner, moves quietly across the room and out the door.
But she feels almost too tired even to move much less to dive gracefully into a pool of warm water and swim. And besides, she forgot to bring her suit.
There's a knock on the door again. Susan closes her eyes and lets her head sag back for a second, resigning herself to whatever else the evening has in store.
"Come in," she yells loudly. There's another soft knock. She throws her head back and yells even louder this time. "Just come in. It's open."
The door nudges inward a crack, and Kerry's head appears.
"I brought a deck of cards," she says, holding a small plastic-wrapped rectangle out in front of her. "Come on in, Kerry."
Kerry moves through the doorway and uses the heel of her left foot to push the door closed softly behind her, leaning heavily on her crutch. Susan sits motionless and watches her cross the room, this small woman, her boss, with her perpetual, uneven gait and thoughtful frown, her suit jacket back in place but unbuttoned, shirt still untucked, collar crookedly jutting.
Kerry sets the cards on the coffee table. They're orange and blue, Susan notices, and say `Go `Gators.' Kerry sees her looking at them. "I wanted to get you something nice," she says, "but the gift shop sucks."
Susan smiles wanly. As the words `something nice' echo in her mind, she thinks of a silk scarf Chloe gave her for Christmas years ago, the Christmas before little Suzie was born. Marked with a delicate pattern of flowers and leaves that always makes her think of an alpine meadow in spring, it floats in her mind now, a harmless apparition, smooth and gleaming, lifeless and lovely.
Kerry sets two more beers on the table between them, and Susan realizes she must have recrossed the room without her noticing. "Susan?" Kerry says. "Are you ok?" She leans over Susan and peers into her eyes, then reaches out and lightly touches her forehead.
Susan brushes Kerry's hand impatiently away. She and Chloe had seen the scarf in a Christmas display in a store window on Michigan Avenue, a display that had featured strings of tiny white lights and copious mounds of cotton ball snow and had managed to be elegant instead of tacky only because everything in it was expensive. They had both admired the scarf, its rich colors and unusual pattern, and Chloe had sworn she was going to get it for her, but Susan had told her not to, knowing she couldn't really afford it. Had made her promise not to, actually, secretly worrying that Chloe would steal the money from her to buy the gift, or worse yet, from someone else.
"I'm fine," she tells Kerry. "Are we going to play cards, or what? Deal `em up."
Kerry grasps the windowsill and lowers herself onto the floor across from Susan, lays her crutch flat on the floor beside her, and uses her thumbnail to slit open the plastic around the deck of cards.
"Sure." Susan wraps her hand around the neck of her beer bottle and takes a long, cold swallow. She'd found out later that Chloe had borrowed the money from their parents and never paid them back, which had given her generosity its usual dead-beat tarnish. But still, the scarf was soft as only silk can be soft, and the thoughtfulness of the gift had made her cry.
Kerry spends a few moments vigorously and noisily shuffling, then begins to chuck the cards into two neat piles on the table top.
Susan picks up her cards one by one, fans them out, and begins to arrange them into simple patterns of color, shape and number.
Kerry picks up her own cards. "How's Mark?" she asks casually, but with a nervous glance at Susan that betrays real worry. Susan can't answer in detail, and knows that Kerry understands this. "He's been better," she says simply, shortly, the corners of her mouth pulled down. Discarding a ten of clubs, she takes another long draw on her beer and tries to lose herself in the wordless back and forth of the game, Kerry's usual exacting movements and quick decisions alternating with her own more tentative ones. For awhile she's glad to have the excuse to sit together without talking. Glad for Kerry's simple, quiet company, for the comforting predictability of her compulsive lining up of the empty beer bottles into a neat row on the windowsill in her idle moments between her turns, each bottle exactly the same distance from the next, all of the labels turned, of course, to face them.
But finally she can't stand the silence, perhaps precisely because Kerry seems so resigned to it, and she feels herself reaching toward casual conversation again.
"Thanks for the heads up about Romano," she says. "I'll watch myself with him from now on. It's really terrible what he did to your girlfriend."
Kerry doesn't look up from her cards, pretending to be absorbed in the game.
"Did you two break up when she got fired?"
"No. We were already separated by then."
"Oh," Susan says. "Was she your first girlfriend?" She draws a card, glances at it, then throws it onto the pile. "I mean, you used to date men, right? Weren't you even married once?"
Kerry considers Susan's discard and, after staring at her hand for a few seconds more, grabs it, and throws one of her own cards. Glancing up at Susan again, she tucks her cards into her jacket pocket, grabs the windowsill, and struggles to rise.
"More beer?" Susan asks. Kerry nods distractedly, and Susan waves her back down. "Stay put. I got it."
She rises from the chair, rummages noisily in the fridge, then rounds the corner into the bathroom where she opens the bottles then sets them on the counter while she takes a few moments to splash cool water on her wrists.
"You know, Kerry," she says, reemerging, glistening bottles in hand, "I'm sure I wouldn't say this if I didn't have a few of these in me already, but I don't think you would have even brought the subject up in the first place if you didn't want to talk about it. So why don't you just spill?"
Kerry sighs. "Fine," she says. "Yes, I used to date men, yes, I was married once, and yes, she was my first girlfriend," she reaches out to accept the bottle Susan passes across the table top. "There. Happy now?"
Susan shrugs and smiles.
"How much did you just win in the pool?"
"A lot. But I promise I'll donate it to charity."
"Don't tell Randi that or she'll refuse to give it to you. And don't bother putting it in the UNICEF box. It'll just get stolen."
Susan chuckles, but then notices the other woman's pained expression and forces the smile off her face. "Seriously, Kerry. I'm not going to tell anyone. Everything said in this room tonight is just between us. I promise." She chooses a card and tosses it carelessly onto the table top.
Kerry retrieves the card and slides it in among the others in her hand. "Gin," she says, setting one of her cards face down on the discard pile and the others fanned out neatly in front of her.
Susan stares at the cards, her mouth a straight line. "Crap," she says finally, flipping her own cards face down onto the table top with the same air of weariness and disgust Kerry had exhibited earlier when discarding the last bare wedge of pizza crust. Kerry sweeps the deck into a jumbled stack, taps it into order, and sets the neat rectangle down in front of Susan.
Susan sighs, grabs the deck and gives it a cursory shuffle, then begins throwing cards into two tidy piles.
Eager to continue the distraction of the game, Kerry grabs her cards one by one, rearranges them quickly, pulls one off the pile and throws it down in the center of the table.
"So really," Susan says, staring at her own hand brow furrowed, "how was it for you?"
"Dating a woman for the first time. Seems to me that would be a pretty big transition."
Kerry sighs and turns her head to stare out the window. Susan follows her gaze and notices a search light on the underside of the gathering clouds, ghostly white and probing. Probably an advertisement, she thinks, maybe for a downtown disco or an all night used car lot.
"It was surprising, more than anything else," Kerry finally says. "And ... intense. In ways that I definitely wasn't expecting. In ways that I had never experienced before." She stares out the window for a few seconds more, before her gaze snaps decisively back to her cards, and she shrugs. "And then it was over."
As she looks down, a lock of her hair falls in front of her eyes, and she swipes at it with her beer bottle, the moisture from which leaves a dark trail of dampness, a color that reminds Susan of a fox's soft pelt. Watching her squint at her cards, brow furrowed, she can tell she's trying hard to hide it, but Susan can't help but see the pain in the other woman's eyes.
"I'm sorry," she says. "That must have been a really difficult time for you."
The lock of hair falls across Kerry's face again, and this time she blows it aside with an impatient huff of breath. "It's your turn," she says, gesturing toward the discard pile. "Just play, will you?"
Susan throws a card which Kerry immediately retrieves and slides in among her others.
Susan stares at the cards Kerry lays out on the table. "How is that even possible? We've only been playing for, like, three minutes."
Kerry shrugs "You didn't shuffle very well. It's not my fault." She gathers the cards in and begins to shuffle them herself.
Susan shakes her head in disgust. "Jesus, Kerry, how do you manage to be better than me at absolutely everything, including cards?"
"Ok, name one thing that I'm better at."
"Yoga," Kerry says immediately, glancing at her crutch and rearranging herself so she's leaning more solidly against the wall.
"That doesn't count," Susan says impatiently.
"Ok," Kerry says. "You have a better bedside manner, and that's the truth."
"Great. So you're brilliant and I'm `nice.' That makes me feel much better."
"No, really. You can draw people out. Make them comfortable. Make them laugh. It's a valuable skill."
"Whatever," Susan says, waving her hand dismissively in the air as Kerry deals the cards. "I'm winning this time no matter what."
Kerry smiles as Susan arranges her cards and squints at them hard, chooses one and throws it on the pile. Kerry glances at it, then takes one from the stack, her expression turning serious again.
"So now you're dating Sandy Lopez, right?" Susan says casually. "The firefighter?"
Kerry taps the finger tips of her right hand on the table top, her blunt nails making a dull clacking sound, as she studies the cards held in her left. She discards, then grabs her beer bottle, lifts it to her lips and drains it, head thrown back, neck stretched pale and long.
"Kerry, you shouldn't be embarrassed. She seems nice. You two are really cute together."
"We broke up," Kerry cuts her off.
"Oh. Well, that's a shame."
Kerry lays her hand face down on the table, removes her glasses, and vigorously rubs her eyes. "Not really," she says, replacing her glasses and retrieving her cards. "We didn't have much in common."
"She sure is pretty, though."
"Yeah," Kerry says, smiling a sad, nostalgic smile. "She really is."
"My last relationship in Arizona was like that. We had nothing in common--less than nothing, really. But he was so good looking... It was really hard to walk away."
Kerry watches the careful movements of Susan's hands as she makes her play. "I wouldn't have guessed that would be something we'd have in common," she says.
Kerry cocks her head, searching for the right turn of phrase. "Doomed and shallow relationships based solely on physical appearance and lust," she says, her voice matter of fact.
Susan laughs. "Well, when you put it that way, I wouldn't have guessed we'd have that in common either. But I'm not surprised to find out we have more in common than I thought we did."
Kerry takes a moment to rearrange her cards, then draws one and throws one. "He was a cowboy, right? The guy in Arizona?" Susan gapes at her for a moment, incredulous. "Damn that Abby Lockhart! What don't you know about my personal life?"
"I don't know," Kerry says. "You tell me."
Kerry raises a single eyebrow and looks at her expectantly, and Susan realizes that this very private woman has just revealed things about herself that she might never have revealed to anyone before, that given the circumstances she can hardly shy away from this tacit request for equal self-disclosure. But as she frantically scans her mind for some suitable tidbit of personal information, she also realizes how much she herself keeps private, how little she's willing to divulge. "Honestly, Kerry, my life has been remarkably uneventful. You know the life of a doctor--all work and no play..."
"No youthful, ill-fated forays into drug culture? No illicit affairs with married men?"
Susan shakes her head, then shrugs sheepishly. "I dated a shrink once, too."
"Oh, yeah? How'd it work out for you?"
"It was great at first. It seemed like a relationship with real potential. But then he started to get too caught up in his work. And then he got really depressed." Susan wrinkles her nose and regards her cards with a frown. "To be honest, I think working psyche at County might actually be worse than working the ER. Aspirin and band aids usually don't work up there."
Kerry glances at her as she makes her play. "So you broke up because of his work?"
"Not exactly. Actually, we never had a formal break-up. He just disappeared." She snaps her fingers. "One day he was just gone." Susan turns her head to glance out the window, eyes narrowing, mouth pulling down into a tight, shallow frown. "To be honest, I think he was suicidal."
"God. That's awful."
"Tell me about it. I still don't know what happened to him."
Kerry draws a card as she shakes her head sadly. "It seems like it shouldn't be possible, but sometimes people just disappear."
"Yeah, how does that work, anyway? It's crazy."
Kerry throws the jack of spades. Susan snatches it up and fits it into the cards in her hand. "Gin!" She fans them out in front of her, grinning.
Kerry stares at her own cards, then at Susan's cards on the table. "Shoot," she says, eyes wide, "how'd that happen?"
"Oh my God," Susan says immediately. "You let me win, didn't you."
"NO," Kerry says, too quickly.
"I can't believe I am so pathetic my boss let's me win at cards."
"Susan, why would I do that?"
"Because you're nice," Susan says, scraping the cards into a rough pile. "Sometimes," she adds, remembering who she's talking about. Kerry throws her a dark glance, but let's the comment stand. "That's it for me," Susan says. "I quit." Kerry nods, and they both look at their beer bottles sitting next to each other on the table top. Kerry lifts hers to her lips and takes a long swallow.
"So, are you seeing anyone new?" Susan asks. "Now that the lovely Sandy Lopez is history?"
"No." Kerry says, shaking her head. "I think I need a break. Sometimes it's good to be alone, you know? Sometimes I feel like it's what I really need."
Susan nods her understanding as she chews thoughtfully on her lip and pulls at a peeling edge of the label on her beer bottle, the flaking paper of which stains her fingertips silver and blue. "But not tonight," she says finally, softly, glancing up at Kerry who she's startled to find is staring at her, pupils dilated, eyes dark.
"No," Kerry says. "Not tonight."
Susan looks away with a nervous giggle. "Cowboys, firefighters... It's like we're trying to date a list of the things we wanted to be when we grew up."
"I always wanted to be a doctor," Kerry says.
Susan giggles again. "Of course you did."
They both stare at the remaining scatter of cards on the table top. Kerry breathes a heavy sigh. "To hell with them," she says, suddenly emphatic, raising her bottle as if she's just proposed a toast.
"Yeah, to hell with them." Susan says, raising her own bottle high, joining in. "To hell with them all. To hell with love."
Their bottles clink musically together, and they both take a long swallow.
They sit in silence for a few moments, then it's Susan's turn to sighs. "Who am I kidding?" she says. "There's no way I can turn my back on love. I'll be screwing up relationships until the day I die. Shall we drink to that?"
Kerry shakes her head and holds her bottle up to the light so Susan can see that it's empty. She sets it beside the others in the windowsill row. "It's getting late," she says, beginning to lever herself up. "I should really get going."
Susan puts a hand out as if to stop her. "Kerry, I hope you're planning to take a taxi back to that fancy hotel of yours because I am not letting you drive."
Kerry lets herself drop back onto the floor. "I guess I have had a few too many. Maybe there's an empty room here."
"With all of these hospital administrators hanging around? Not too damn likely." Susan says the words `hospital administrators' as if it's an insult, but Kerry doesn't seem to notice. "Why don't you just stay here?"
"Oh, I couldn't. I've already imposed too much."
"It's no imposition, Kerry, really. Stay." She rises as if the decision has been made. "I'll find something for you to sleep in. I think I have an extra pair of shorts."
She rummages in her bag, Kerry watching from her spot on the floor, still leaning against the wall. Susan comes up with a pair of gray shorts and a blue t-shirt and sets them on the edge of the bed. "These should do."
"Thank you, Susan," Kerry says quietly. She retrieves her crutch and uses it and a hand on the windowsill to pull herself stiffly upright. She takes the clothes that Susan put out for her, and they move awkwardly around each other, Kerry retreating into the bathroom to change.
She emerges a few minutes later, and Susan, doing her best not to look at the odd sight of Kerry in shorts, quickly moves to take her own turn in the bathroom. Though she tries to give Kerry a modicum of privacy, she can't help but hear her moving around in the next room, the tap of her crutch on the floor, the squeak of bedsprings, then silence. Susan splashes water on her face and neck and towels dry, then lifts the hem of her shorts and looks again at the bruise on her thigh, an uneven circle of darkness on her pale flesh: something small and hidden, painful and unwanted. And lovely, she admits. Yes, lovely, but in a strange, disturbing way. When she steps out of the bathroom, Kerry is curled up on the edge of the bed completely covered except for a spray of red hair across the white pillow case. All the lights in the room have been turned out, so she's illuminated only by the soft glow from the window, the dark shadow of her small form faintly visible beneath the thin white sheet.
Susan crawls up her side of the bed, covers herself with the sheet and pulls it tight around her neck. She rests her head on the too soft hotel pillow and turns to stare at the other woman's still, hidden form, imagining her heartbeat, the coursing of blood through her veins, the regular movement of air in and out of her lungs. For a moment, she seriously considers pulling her into the middle of the bed and putting her arms around her; she knows they could both use the comfort tonight, the closeness. Or just touching her shoulder, an invitation. But no. They're both drunk. Then she wonders if she should say something. Something reassuring, something to make sure Kerry doesn't regret having confided in her, doesn't fear exposure. Then she wonders what Kerry's thinking, if she might not be thinking any of these things herself, about Susan. Then her mind begins to shut down. And she falls asleep without even having said goodnight.
Susan wakes suddenly out of a deep sleep to the insistent ringing of her 6:30 wake up call. She's surprised when she rolls over to pick up the phone and Kerry is gone. She grabs the receiver, mumbles an acknowledgement, and returns it to its cradle with a series of loud, fumbling clacks, then pulls the sheet over her head.
She lets herself stay in bed for a few more minutes in a half-conscious stupor trying to decide if the fuzziness in her mind is from simple fatigue or the previous day's combination of extreme heat and beer. When she finally pulls back the sheet to face daylight, she sees that one of the empty bottles has been removed from the windowsill row and left on the bedside table beside the phone, the crumpled red rose stuck in its mouth. She reaches over and fingers the scented velvet of crushed petals. Kerry must have fished it out of the trash and left it there. In lieu of a note, Susan supposes. She imagines Kerry standing over a blank sheet of paper, pen poised, trying to compose a message in her mind, something that struck exactly the right balance of gratitude and aloofness. But in the end, leaving the page blank, writing nothing. Because really, what more was there to say?
When Susan finally rose from bed that morning in Miami and reflected on their shared evening of drunkenness, card playing and reluctant self-revelation, she'd expected that Kerry would be embarrassed, that they might feel uncomfortable with each other for a few days. So when they run into each other in the lounge on her first morning back and Kerry only mumbles a barely audible hello before crutching out the door, it's exactly what she's expecting. And when they pass each other in the hall a few minutes later and Kerry fails even to make eye contact, she's not hurt or offended. She's not even puzzled or surprised.
The entire situation reminds her of a coffee shop she used to go to, a tiny, quiet place with great cappuccinos where she always felt like she could sit forever and think, until one slow afternoon when the place had been practically empty and she was feeling listless and bored, when she had struck up a conversation with the young man behind the counter, a man she had seen practically every day for months but had never really spoken to before. They had talked about the weather at first, but slowly it had become a more intimate conversation, a revealing disclosure of personal information: fears and failures, relationships, aspirations and dreams. A boundary had been crossed that day, a door had been opened that could not be closed, and the next time she went to the coffee shop, they'd both smiled and said a familiar hello, but she'd ordered plain coffee instead of a cappuccino to speed along the counter transaction, so she wouldn't feel obligated to stand and talk, or worse yet, have to suffer through an awkward silence. Who was this person to her anyway? And after that, she hadn't gone back. She'd switched to another place which had inferior cappuccinos (the foam was not nearly as thick and smooth), but a steadier clientele and more space. Where she could sit in an out-of-the-way corner and relax. Where she did not know, and did not feel obliged to pretend to know, anyone.
Susan understands this kind of avoidance, and if that's how Kerry feels, she can accept it, though reluctantly.
So she isn't expecting warmth or friendliness. Or gratitude. Or a new sense of closeness or camaraderie. Or even a simple acknowledgement that they had shared a few moments of vulnerability and succeeded in comforting each other.
But she isn't expecting antipathy either. So when just a few hours into her first day back, Kerry chastises her for "mismanaging the board," for "floating too many ICU players"--as if she had a choice, as if her own hand were the wrathful hand of God that had struck down these sick and injured people and brought them here in the first place, Susan is surprised. And a few days later, the next time they're working together, when Kerry yells at her, yells at her, for "tying up" curtain 3 with an elderly LOC she wants to keep around for observation--clearly, for the sake of thoroughness, should keep around for observation, Susan is angry. Angry enough to consider making an obscene gesture at Kerry's retreating back (though she doesn't). And then that same afternoon, when Kerry gives her the old "treat and street" lecture, loudly, in front of everyone--as if anything in life were that simple, much less emergency medicine, as if she hasn't already heard it a million times, she wants to yell, "Hey, lady, I was nice to you. You owe me."
But she just stands there and clenches her fists and unclenches them and takes it. She won't start a fight she can't win. She's no fool.
"Discharge or admit, Susan," Kerry says. "Just do it."
"As if it's that simple," Abby mutters as Kerry walks away. "As if we all haven't heard it about a million times."
"Yeah," Susan says. "Tell me about it." She grabs a chart off the rack now and quickly scans it, hoping to restore her wounded sense of competency and control: Hugo Estevez, 5 year old male, head ache, nausea, apparent photophobia, persistent high fever.
"Probably just the flu," she says out loud to no one as she heads off down the hall. But even as she speaks, a long list of alternate diagnoses begin lining themselves up in her mind. She frowns and sighs, already anticipating what she'll probably have to do.
Why did spinal taps have to be so painful and so frequently necessary?
A few hours later, after discharging her elderly LOC against her best judgment, dispensing with spinal tap flu boy, and referring to a specialist a woman who was either a hypochondriac or the sickest and most undiagnosable patient she's ever seen, Susan enters the lounge, hoping finally for a friendly exchange, needing it, really, but at the same time steeling herself for confrontation and rejection. She's decided that they can be enemies if that's the way Kerry wants it--though she can't imagine why she would--but they will not be uncomfortable strangers. They work side by side saving people's lives. They've known each other for years.
She pauses for a moment in the doorway, then gathers her resolve and moves forward, approaching Kerry's back--straight and firm as usual, and still swathed in her pure white lab coat, never an easy back to approach. Susan has already removed her own lab coat and replaced it with a powder blue spring jacket, and for the last 20 minutes she's been hanging around trying to keep a low profile, waiting for Kerry to look done for the day.
"Kerry," she says tentatively. "You off?"
Kerry glances behind her. "Yeah, finally. You?"
"Yup." Susan shoves her hands into her pockets. "Long day, huh?"
"I enjoyed your presentation this morning." Kerry finally shrugs out of her lab coat, hangs it on a hook in her locker along with her stethoscope, pulls on her own light jacket, a muted beige which makes her look smaller--her actual size, Susan realizes, and therefore slightly less intimidating, and turns to face Susan. "It was very well organized. Very informative."
Susan wrinkles her nose. "Well, thanks, but the material was pretty dry, and I'm not exactly at my best at that time of the morning. I don't know why they insist on scheduling those damn staff meetings for 7 am."
"So we can prioritize our role as physicians," Kerry says emphatically. She turns her back again and slams her locker closed.
"Oh, right," Susan says, her face blank and sincere. "I hadn't thought of that. That's a great idea." Of course Kerry had scheduled the meeting. Shit.
Kerry gives her what can only be described as a withering look of disapproval, and tries to brush past her to the door. Susan takes a deep breath. "Kerry," she says quickly, causing the other woman to pause in her trajectory which could accurately be described as both advance and retreat, "I was thinking it might be nice, after such a long day, to unwind a little before going home."
Kerry looks at her blankly.
"So would you be interested in getting a drink?"
Susan can see Kerry's gaze shift slightly to the door behind her, then back to her face again.
"I appreciate your asking, Susan, but I want to make sure you know that I don't usually drink that much."
It's the first allusion either of them has made to the weekend. "Oh, god, Kerry, me neither. How about a cup of coffee?"
Kerry stands frozen, still indecisive.
"Or tea? Or there's an organic juice bar not too far from here. They have fresh wheat grass. And those blended ginko, soy powder, spirolina super-energy smart drinks, if you're into that kind of thing..."
As Susan rattles on, obviously nervous and trying too hard to please, Kerry's stern face softens into a semblance of a fleeting smile. "A cup of tea might be nice," Kerry says. "Something hot would be good tonight."
Just then, a siren sounds loudly in the ambulance bay outside the window, and a flash of red spins past them and across the wall. "Come on," Susan says, jerking her head toward the door behind her. "Let's get the hell out of here."
She steps aside so Kerry can lead the way out of the lounge, and they walk down the hall together, hugging the wall to stay out of the path of the approaching trauma. As they near the door, it slides open and a gurney rushes past them surrounded by people and loud voices. Kerry stops and looks back. Though she keeps her head still, Susan notices she follows with her eyes the path of the frantic entourage as it proceeds down the corridor toward the trauma room, and she seems on the verge of letting herself be drawn back into the whirlwind. But she doesn't. She just stands there, thoughtfully staring.
"Susan," she says quietly when the trauma room doors swing shut and the noise dies down, "I've been meaning to say..."
"...thank you." Kerry glances at Susan and makes a vague, waving gesture in the air. "For...you know."
Susan feels the tension in her body begin to ease, and she smiles. "No matter what else happens between us, Kerry, we'll always have Miami." She puts a hand lightly on the other woman's shoulder and steers her back in the direction of the door, and they walk together out into the damp spring air.
Outside the fluorescent confines of the hospital corridors, Susan feels more of the tension slip from her body, and she's content to let Kerry stay in the lead. A half hour later, after a circuitous and mostly silent walk involving many twists and turns and more than one dark alley, they finally arrive at what Kerry calls her "favorite tea establishment," and Susan finds herself confronted by literally an entire wall of tea. She quickly settles on simple, straight forward mint and watches while the counter girl, who's wearing a black uniform and fancy white apron but looks about 14, scoops the leaves into a tiny sachet and dunks it in a white mug of steaming water, releasing its delicate scent into the air. Meanwhile, Kerry seems to be enjoying the process of choosing from among 5 different kinds of oolong, sniffing into jars full of brown leaves, and finally choosing the one which Susan thinks smells like burnt tires. Kerry insists on paying for them both, and, hot mugs in hand, they move off together to find a table beside a window gently lit by a string of tiny white lights.
"This place is great, Kerry," Susan says. "After a day in the ER, it's like wonderland."
"It's my secret hideout."
"Well, you're secret's safe with me, since I honestly have no idea how we got here."
Kerry smiles and settles herself in her chair. Placing her mug gingerly on the table top, she quickly and repeatedly dunks her tea bag then removes it, sets it on her saucer and takes a slurping sip of scalding hot tea. Susan tests the side of her mug with a careful finger tip, and, finding it almost too hot to touch, decides to let it sit there and steep for awhile.
"So," Kerry says, a `getting down to business' tone creeping into her voice, "is there anything specific you wanted to talk about?"
Susan shrugs. "Like what?"
"Any problems at work...?"
"No," Susan says quickly, shaking her head. "Everything's fine. I just thought it might be nice to touch base again."
"Oh," Kerry says. "Ok." She pulls a napkin from a stainless steel napkin holder on the end of the table and swipes at a non-existent spill. "You're not quitting are you?"
"No," Susan says quickly, eyes wide with surprise. "No, Kerry." She hesitates. "It's just that..."
"WHAT?" Kerry says slightly louder than necessary when Susan's voice trails off, and Susan realized that in spite of the calm surroundings, they're still a little tense in each other's company.
"It's just that, well, I was wondering if you have any problems with the work I've been doing lately. Or if there's anything I can do to make it easier for us to work together."
Kerry shakes her head and gives her a blank look of confusion.
"It's just that you've been riding me pretty hard the last few days."
Kerry leans back in her chair, tilts her head to the side and frowns at her, an expression not of disapproval, Susan realizes, but of honest perplexity. "Have I?" she says. "More so than usual?"
The question surprises Susan, makes her instantly question her own perceptions and reassess. Had she expected things between them to be different after all? Was Kerry just being her usual self? It's clear from Kerry's reaction that she too is uncertain. The time they spent together in Miami, as brief as it was, seems to have confused them both, Susan thinks. And now neither of them is quite sure how to act or what to do. What was she doing sitting here across from Kerry Weaver in a dimly lit caf anyway? Feeling seriously thrown off balance, she takes what she intends to be a deep, cleansing breath, but inhales the uneasily mingling scents of mint and burnt rubber and feels like she's going to cough. Suddenly the whole situation seems bizarre.
"We both have the same first priority in our work," Kerry is saying when Susan tunes back in. "We both want to optimize patient care--there's no question about that. But you have the luxury of thinking one patient at a time, and I have to look at the big picture. Whether I want to or not. It's my job. And that means sometimes we might not see eye to eye."
"Well, maybe there might be a better way of approaching those situations." Susan says carefully. "I mean, maybe we could discuss things, instead of your always lecturing and yelling."
Kerry just looks at her for a second. "Ok, Susan," she says shortly.
"From now on I'll try to be a better listener. I'll do my best to talk about things and take your point of view into consideration whenever possible."
"Of course. What did you expect me to say?"
"I don't know. I just didn't expect it to be quite this easy."
Kerry smiles and slurps from her mug again. "See? Even I can be reasonable and calm during a friendly discussion over a soothing cup of tea."
Susan smiles back at the other woman, trying to tell herself that everything is fine. "That's good to know, Kerry," she says. "It really is."
Morning of the next day, Kerry is kept away from the ER by a series of meetings, and as senior attending, it's Susan's responsibility to run the board. She feels it's going well, that things are moving along more or less smoothly, but when Kerry finally appears in the early afternoon she immediately creates the atmosphere, without having to say a word, that everything has gone to hell while she's been gone, and now she's faced with the onerous and difficult task of picking up the pieces. When Susan sees her, she's poised to exchange pleasantries, something along the lines of "hello, how was your meeting," but Kerry charges right past her. At first she seems not even to register her presence, but a few paces later she stops and turns back.
"Susan, Mr. Swanson in curtain 2 is your patient, right? The ulcerative colitis?"
"Yeah, he's mine..."
"Get him admitted to medicine within the hour or I'll have to do it myself."
"He's stable, Kerry, and..."
"He's bleeding internally. We don't have the space to keep him here. Get him admitted."
"I tried to, but..."
"I don't have time to discuss it, Susan. I'm sorry. That's just the way it is."
Mouth still hanging open to complete her unfinished sentence, Susan stands motionless and watches Kerry crutch away at top speed, off to her next task.
"So now she thinks you can't manage your own patients?" Abby asks quietly, sympathetically, from the other side of the admit desk.
Susan closes her mouth and slowly shakes her head. "People upstairs fear her and they don't fear me," she says. "She can get things done sometimes when I can't. She's right. That's just the way it is."
She can feel Abby's wondering eyes on her as she grabs a new chart off the rack and walks away, already resigned to letting Kerry manage the situation. That's her job, after all, and she's good at it, so she might as well let her do it. Susan feels angry again, there's no doubt about that, but this time she's not sure who she's angry with. Maybe everyone. Maybe no one. Maybe just herself.
To be continued...