It was unseasonably cold and Greg felt the mist in the darkness thicken to a drizzling rain. It looked to be about half a mile off that the first streetlight was catching off the razors of the late crop. Greg felt a clutch in his throat of laughter or a dry sob. How strange, he thought, to be unsure. He slowed his pace. He could hear the boy quickening behind him. The backpack on his shoulders felt heavier at a slower pace. Greg shifted it on his shoulders and the can of shaving cream rolled to the other side of his spine.
He thought of the objects he’d packed in his hurry. He packed his scrubs and suit, his shaving cream and razor, but also the tortoise Montblanc pen that Amanda had given him for Christmas and the novel he’d agreed to read on her recommendation.
When Kristy was still in high school, he’d brought her to the surgery room for Take Your Daughter to Work Day. She’d scrubbed up alongside him and stood in the corner, her arms folded across her chest.
“This isn’t necessary,” she’d said in the car, “My dad took me to work before he moved, so I’m not missing out.”
On the drive home, he’d asked her if she would ever consider med school. “Not on your life. It’s disgusting.”
“No,” she said, “the way that you guys joke around like that while someone’s put to sleep and opened up. As vulnerable as he can be and you’re wisecracking. It’s sick.”
Greg winced and tried to explain the operating room to her. It gets tense, he’d defended, and a little humor helps diffuse the situation. A guy’s shoulders will relax from laughing and just the simple action of it—exhale, breath, exhale—the simple act of breathing could mean the difference of success or failure in the surgery. Keeping a limb or losing a limb sometimes.
The patient had signs of edema and his resident was new at the endoscope and kept snaking it all around. The new guy, clean-shaven and thin, probably not yet thirty, quivered his eyelids involuntary as he struggled. Under the mask, he was probably biting down hard on his lip. The endoscope wiggled like a living thing in the patient’s body. Greg had seen men break down in the room. Seasoned doctors would storm out of the room, cussing and yelling that they couldn’t read the monitor. Young fellows would cry sometimes, or come close. Greg took the young guy’s wrists and helped guide him through the monitor, telling him, “Follow the screen. Just like a Nintendo.”
The resident focused, but he was still holding his breath in shallow releases and gasps of air.
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” Greg said.
Guy wakes up in the recovery room and the doctor says, I have bad news for you and good news for me. The bad news for you is that we amputated the wrong leg. The good news for me is that when we’re done, you won’t have a leg to stand on.
Greg heard the boy rumbling behind him in Kristy’s car and felt the burn of his headlights as the boy rounded the corner. It threw Greg’s shadow long and dark on the gravel. The boy had the radio turned off and it sounded like the car was due for an oil change.
“It’s eleven years old,” he’d told Kristy, “You need to check the oil every time you fill her up.”
Even in his hurry to pack, Greg glimpsed into Kristy’s old bedroom. There was a pair of emerald earrings on her nightstand he’d given her when Amanda had taken her out for her birthday. Greg wasn’t sure why he felt the urge to steal them, but didn’t. He closed her door and left her things untouched.
When Kristy returned to her dorm from her birthday visit, Greg and Amanda sat in the living room finishing their vodka tonics and watching the fire.
“You know what’s funny?” she said, “You and Kristy.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well,” she thought for minute, squeezing her depleted lime into her glass, “she’s great with me now, you know? Like all that teen angst went away when she left for college.”
“You mean she gives you the time of day.”
“She calls. She calls all the time. Last week, she mailed me a Macy’s coupon she’d gotten that she wouldn’t use. She sent a tilapas recipe I said I was looking for. Nice things like that.”
Amanda took a long drag off of her long white cigarette, ashed and said, “But with you, it’s the same. She’s not more than civil. She’s cold.”
“She misses her dad is all. She’s making sure I don’t replace him by keeping me at a distance. They say that’s healthy, even for older kids.”
“Hmm,” she agreed, “there’s something kind of sweet about that.”
A guy wakes up in the recovery room. His girlfriend is there, staring him down cold, just like his ex-wife. He’s just proposed to her and they’ll be married next summer. She’ll be his third wife. The bad news, she says, is that you’re amputated. Remember the sixties? The seventies? You were married to your first wife and those women were young and raw. You’re amputated. Bad news for you. Good news for me is that we moved out of a no-fault divorce state. Your med school loans are paid off. When I’m done with you, you won’t have a leg to stand on.
The boy rolled his window down and leaned over toward the passenger side.
“Hey!” he shouted, “Greg!”
Greg hurried his pace and the car crawled after him. Greg wanted to tell him to mind his own business, his emotional support business he was here for.
He’d watched him in the kitchen that night and wanted to hate the boy. He should have acted more like a man, Greg had thought. A real man throws a punch. A real man doesn’t fetch water and a chair for his girlfriend’s mother when she feels faint.
The boy kept his voice firm and collected. “It doesn’t have to be like this, Greg. I’ll drive you to where you need to go. Please. Get in the car.”
Greg remembered that the boy was studying to be a social worker. He’d told him that when they visited Kristy at school. Amanda adored him. She said she hoped that he and Kristy would get married, but after they’d both graduated and gotten on their feet a little.
“It’s going to rain, Greg. Please get in the car.”
The boy squeezed Amanda’s shoulder while she took a deep breath. The gray smoke from her cigarette filled the kitchen with a haze. Greg stared down at his rum and Coke, watched the ice cubes crack and melt. Strange that they were pouring drinks like this, huddled in the kitchen with the smoke and the smell of liquor and the thick, heavy sober air that magnified the clink of ice cubes, the compulsive tapping on glass ashtrays.
“Tell me,” she’d said, “if this is true.”
He thought Kristy should be crying at least, like Amanda. She was staring smugly into his eyes, her cheeks clenched into a smirk.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he told her.
“Is it true?” Amanda repeated.
Greg said that yes, it was true, each and every one, down to the detail. Angie was meticulously organized. She knew the dates and times of each one.
Amanda broke into sobs and that’s when the boy had fetched her a chair and some water that she drank down in a single gulp. “Kristy said the last one was when she was here for her birthday.”
“You gave her a pair of earrings and two hours later, you’re holding a knife to her throat?”
Greg shook his head quickly. “Not a knife, Amanda. A scalpel. A scalpel is different from a knife.”
A guy wakes up from a strange state of domestic paralysis. It happened fast; one day, he was high on the summer air and the hint of reefer smoke lingering to the blonde hair of the woman in the passenger seat and the next day, he’s married and she’s reading pamphlets for bariatric surgery. He sleeps on the couch until his divorce. He learns to love the sounds his second wife makes her in sleep, her worried murmurings. And then he’s surprised at his own graying, sagging reflection, the untanned skin peeking out around his hairline. Cocktail waitresses call him ‘sir’ and smile without mischief. And then his stepdaughter outgrows her baby fat. Her necklaces fall into a dark cleft under the neckline of her cardigans.
He left the earrings untouched on Kristy’s dresser. He had tried not to look at Kristy as he made his way out the door with his backpack. She leaned up against the refrigerator, glaring as he ducked his head and slung his heavy backpack onto his shoulders.
“Call your lawyer tomorrow,” she called after him, “When I’m done with you…”