What Can We Keep
This is the question created for us: what can we keep? Tonight, trees bend beneath snow like women beneath the weight of their hair, and the stars huddle in the sky as if we'll always be alive...
The rotating red lights of the silent and empty ambulance splash rhythmically across her as she sits on a bench outside the back entrance to the ER. Her shift ended almost an hour ago, but even as she prepared to leave, she felt compelled to remain in the margins of the controlled but frantic bustle, in the shadows just beyond the bright lights where the commands barked by familiar voices can be distantly heard but not quite understood, to reflect and decompress from her hectic day before facing the incongruous empty quiet of home.
Abby pushes her way through the ER's swinging doors and approaches, blue scrubs hanging loosely from her hips and shoulders, lit cigarette in hand. "Dr. Weaver? Are you ok?"
Kerry pauses before she answers, fighting a familiar rogue impulse to bum a smoke. She and Abby worked together on a trauma earlier in the day, a car accident involving a family, the death of a parent, the broken bodies of small children: images impossible to quickly set aside. Kerry sometimes wonders, though she's never asked, which images from their life at work cling most persistently to her co-workers' thoughts, which reappear most often in their dreams. She wonders now, again, if these lingering apparitions might be something unspoken they all hold in common, a kind of darkly lurking shared army of the mind.
"Yeah." Kerry finally responds. She notices the reemergence of sirens from the loud back-ground noise of the city. "Yeah, I'm fine." She pulls herself upright with her good leg and crutch, and shoulders her bag, heavily laden with work. "Thanks for asking, though. See you tomorrow, Abby."
Smoke lingers in front of Abby's mouth then drifts up into the damp cool air of this spring evening in Chicago. "Ok, see you." Listening to the sirens grow closer, she drops heavily onto the bench left empty by Kerry's departure and watches the other woman's uneven gait until she rounds the corner toward the el stop, and she's gone.
Kerry didn't take on another boarder after Carter left--or rather, after she kicked him out. The salary increase that came with her promotion to ER chief meant she didn't need the extra money, and she could afford to hire someone to do the few bits of maintenance her place required. Besides, she liked having her domestic space to herself, the simple, uncluttered peace of it.
And then there was the complicating presence of Kim, and then Sandy....
As she climbs the steps to her front door tonight, she knows there will be no light on to greet her, that the house will be quiet and dark.
Since Sandy's death, almost six months ago now, the quiet and dark have taken on a new depth, a new feeling of permanence--of both loneliness and comfort. Kerry is a loner by nature. She's a person of great compassion--she wouldn't have dedicated her life to County ER if that weren't true, but she's never been described as a "people person," and her inconsolable sadness at the death of her partner was tempered, at least, by her ability to sink back into her own life, into her own solitary routine: her early mornings of slow preparation, her evenings of classical music, an hour or two of paper work, and then a good book before bed.
She unlocks the door and steps in, switches on the hall light and glances at her reflection in the mirror on the wall beside the door: the fading red of her hair, the deepening lines around her eyes. The emotional weight of the last few years has sometimes been overwhelming, and she knows the signs of age in her face have been earned, that they hold both an authority and a dignity she can't deny she likes.
When she enters her living room, she notices the light on her answering machine is blinking. She dumps her bag and her coat on a chair, and flips on an end-table lamp which throws a gentle circle of light around itself but fails to completely illuminate the corners of the room. She hits the play-back button on the machine, and as it beeps and begins to release its secrets, she moves toward the kitchen to fix herself a drink.
The first two calls are hang ups. Probably tele-marketers, she thinks. Then a familiar voice cuts into the semi-dark.
"Hi Kerry. This is Kim. Kim Legaspi."
Kerry immediately stops what she's doing--rummaging in the back of the liquor cabinet for gin. She moves a few steps closer to the machine and stands perfectly still.
"I don't know if you've heard, but I'm back in Chicago again. I've been here for awhile. I thought of calling you when I first came back, but I didn't want to bother you--I guess I thought we'd eventually run into each other anyway...."
Kerry listens for an indrawn breath or sigh in the long pause that follows, but hears nothing.
"I heard about your partner a few weeks ago," the message continues. "I read about the fire in the paper back when it happened, but didn't realize the two of you were together until I finally heard through friends of friends. If I'd known, I would have called sooner. I wasn't sure if you'd want to hear from me, but I wanted you to know how sorry I am. What she did was very brave." There's another long pause. "This is hard, Kerry. I guess... I guess that's all I want to say for now. Umh, if you'd like to reach me, my home number is 555-2834. You can call anytime, and if you don't want to, I understand. You take care of yourself, ok?"
The machine clicks, and there's the whir of the tape rewinding.
Kerry stands still for a few more moments, caught in the uneasy overlap of the bright light from the kitchen and the table lamp's weaker glow. When she moves back to the kitchen, she first grabs a pen off the counter and jots down her ex-lover's number on a scrap of paper, then returns to the task of fixing herself a drink. A few chunks of ice clink into a glass. She splashes in tonic, adds a wedge of lime and finally finds the gin in the back of the cabinet between the whiskey and rum. She realizes even as she's doing it that she's trying--for whose sake if not her own? to pretend that everything is normal. To pretend that this woman hasn't succeeded in catching her off-guard again--that even just the sound of her voice doesn't still have the power to make her pulse quicken, her knees go weak.
Still standing at the counter, she takes a long drink from her glass and then refills it. When she was a child, juniper bushes grew in the cool soft earth behind the house, and she can never drink gin now without thinking of them, the special slick sharpness of their branches, their tiny, hard, bluish-green berries. Sometimes in the heat of the long, sleepy days of late summer, the dogs dug shallow holes around the bushes' roots and rested there, snoozing and dreaming, in the low sprawling shade and loose dirt.
She carries the full glass carefully into the living room and slumps into the chair beside the lit lamp. She opens her bag, pulls out a stack of charts that need her attention, and piles them onto her lap.
The question is a tiny point of brightness in the back of her mind. Should she call her?
Her eyes begin to sweep across and down the first chart, her pen poised to leave her signature in the space at the bottom.
When she met Sandy, she'd stopped thinking about how long it had been since she'd last seen Kim--stopped keeping track. "Move on," Kim had said--less a suggestion than a command. And Kerry had. But as she signs the chart now, her mind begins to count months and years. It's been a little over five years, she realizes, since she and Kim split suddenly over the trouble at work. Almost a full five years since she last saw her. Since her sudden, unexplained disappearance. And now she's back.
Things are so different now. She feels like a different person.
She sets aside the stack of papers, realizing she won't be able to concentrate. She presses strong fingers into her temples and rubs circles there, trying to release the building pressure. It's something Sandy had been especially good at, massaging the tension from Kerry's tight shoulders and from her brow with its deepening lines at the end of a stressful day. Making a joke when Kerry had begun to take things too seriously. She tries to take comfort in imaging those hands on her shoulders now, their loving touch.
If she knows that Sandy and I were together, Kerry thinks, she must also know that it wasn't a secret, that I'm out now.
Along with the usual deep stab of sadness brought on by thoughts of her lost partner, she can't help feeling a sort of grim satisfaction.
That Kim knows about Sandy must also mean that Kerry has been the subject of gossip. "Friends of friends," Kim said. Who could those people be? Other doctors? Did Kim still have contacts among the hospital staff? Though Kerry no longer has a secret self to hide, she still doesn't like to think of her life as being quite so public and discussed.
She glances at the blue numerals of the digital clock across the room. It's past 9 pm already. If she's going to call tonight, she has to decide quickly. The time for friendly phone calls is waning. Maybe it would be better to wait a few days.
When Kerry thinks back to that time, to when she first met Legaspi, she feels now, more than the pain of loss, a deep embarrassment at her behavior then--she'd felt both paralyzed by fear and giddy with desire for Kim and as she remembers it, had several times completely lost her grip on dignity. She also feels a twinge of the anger she felt back then--strongly and for a long time, at having been left so abruptly, without warning or any real explanation. The cold silence. The dismissiveness.
Without intending to, almost--though not entirely--against her will, Kerry slips into a silent reverie, remembering how Kim had talked to her that first time, how she'd whispered words of encouragement and understanding, how her body had moved beneath Kerry's touch, how Kim had held her late into the night until they'd both fallen asleep. Those are the painful memories and what she still finds impossible to understand. Though she knows she was very wrong not to try to protect Kim from discrimination, not to do more to support and defend her, she's still baffled when she tries to comprehend how such tenderness had so quickly turned to venom.
The phone call. That voice.... She has to sneak up on this if she's going to do it at all. With a hooked finger she plucks the wedge of lime from her glass and munches its bitter seeded sourness with a frown, stands with her now empty glass in hand and moves toward the kitchen again. She sets the glass in the sink, spits the masticated lime wedge into the trash, wipes her damp lips with the side of her hand, and moves in a line which, if continued, would take her back to her chair and her stack of work. But then she veers over to the phone and grabs the receiver. She feels her heart rate quicken as she dials the number off the scrap of paper she palmed on her way past the kitchen counter.
One ring. Two rings. The pauses between rings seem long. She's not home, Kerry thinks, feeling both disappointed and flooded with relief.
The soft voice is familiar, even after so much time has passed. Kerry feels suddenly punched in the gut--has no air to speak.
She finds her voice in time to save the moment. "Hi Kim. This is Kerry." She does her best to make her voice sound casual, steady. "I just got your message, and wanted to say thank you. It was really thoughtful of you to call."
The pause on the other end of the line, she doesn't fail to notice, is at least as long as hers had been.
"Kerry. Wow. I guess I didn't really expect to hear from you. Well, how are you? Are you doing ok? This must be such a hard time for you."
"It is. It is a hard time." Grief is such a difficult thing, she thinks, to casually discuss. "I'm fine, though. Really."
"You're tough. I remember that about you."
Kerry doesn't know how to respond, feels torn. She's warmed by the familiarity and affection she hears in Kim's voice, and the concern, but the warmth brings with it a new jolt of anger and a pang of fear. Now there's a long, uncomfortable pause and she begins to think the phone call was a mistake.
She falls back on small talk. "So what brings you to Chicago?"
"Oh. I actually didn't stay away for long. I tried California, and it was beautiful, just like everyone says it is. But my life's here, really, all of my friends, my family...." There's a catch in her voice and she trails off, then starts up again. "When I came back I heard through the grapevine that you were seeing someone new. I was happy for you, that things seemed to be working out...."
As curious as she is, and protective still of the privacy of her life with Sandy, Kerry restrains her urge to ask for the names of Kim's sources, afraid it will be taken as a sign of renewed paranoia. Instead, she steers the conversation safely away from herself. "So, what are you doing now?"
"Private practice. It can be satisfying even though I don't necessarily get to work with the populations I'd most like to help. After County, I decided I really needed to be in control of my own life."
"Well, that's understandable."
There's an uncomfortable pause again, the sense that they're both trying to work their way around old hurt and anger. Kim is the first to speak.
"Kerry..." the rise in her voice suggests the gravity of what she's about to say. "I'm sorry about what happened. I've been wanting to say it for a long time, but thought it might just be better to let it all lie. I know I really turned your life upside down. It was a hard time for both of us, but it was wrong of me to just walk away."
Kerry feels the weight of the conversation settling on her chest. She stares silently into the semi-dark of her apartment.
"So, I'm sorry."
Kerry continues to silently stare.
"Kerry?" Her voice is a bit sharper now. "Kerry, are you still there?"
"Yes, I'm here." She takes a deep breath and sighs into the phone. "I'm sorry, too, you know."
"I felt terrible about what happened...."
"I know you did. You said so in your letter. I know how you felt. I know."
Each of her words falls heavily into five years of silence. Kerry wonders if this will be the end of it. If this should be the end of it. One small moment of emotional release, one small bit of satisfaction--more, she admits, than she ever dared hope for, and then pull shut the door again. But Kim speaks up now.
"Hey, umh, can I buy you dinner sometime? I'd like to see you."
"Sure," she says. "Yeah, I'd like that. Dinner would be nice."
They discuss time and place, make plans and say their polite good-byes. Kerry puts the phone down and takes a few deep breaths.
She knows she looks older now, that there are superficial differences which might, when she sees the statuesque Legaspi, seem unfortunately important. But there's so much more than that.... She can be honest with herself about the depth of the changes she's gone through. She's overcome her fears, embraced life and those around her in ways she never had before. She's loved a beautiful woman, made a life with her, and buried her a hero.
The house is still full of pictures of them together.
And she's still standing, she realizes, alone here in the semi-dark. She drops heavily into the nearest chair. It occurs to her now, a blunt revelation almost indistinguishable from the creeping approach of exhaustion, that time has passed for Kim too, that she will have changed. Even, perhaps, as profoundly--could it possibly be true? as Kerry herself.