Thursday night came and went, and when I went out to my car after finishing my charting in the morning hours I saw a single pink rose on my windshield wiper. He was here but I didn’t want to look for him. How easy it was for me to ride out the wave of having a not so secret admirer. Even stubbornly independent, the unconscious part of me reveled in the fact I had someone to protect me or at least care about me enough to see I made it to my car. The night of the robbery still gave my stomach a queasy feeling every time I left the building and with him watching me, I felt safe.
Against my better judgment, I kept leading him on. I purposely didn’t look for him but each night, or day depending on my shift, I would find a lone flower on my car. Each time I would bring it up to my nose to smell its fragrant scent, I would smile. It got to the point that I would savor that flower. Savor the feeling of having someone look out for me, caring about me if even for a little while.
I would find myself thinking about him. About his truthful conversation referring to his music being both friend and foe. I felt the same way about medicine. Knowing at an early age I wanted to be a physician it proved both bittersweet and daunting. I wanted to help people, not spend most of my time fighting the system. There should be a better way. When did my love for medicine turn into more of a punishment?
The night shift being my savior in dealing with bureaucracy, I was unusually bedraggled. It was a weeknight shift but even those seemed to morph into the high acuity weekend shifts of late. The system kept getting worse but I didn’t have the answers. In healthcare, it seemed that if you find a solution to one problem another cropped up in its place. Why did I fall in love with medicine or rather, was I still in love with it at this point?
I halfheartedly considered texting Charlie but knew I only used the release Charlie could give me when I had a rage inside me or felt wronged by an injustice. Right now my sadness in humanity didn’t warrant punishing my body. Not only that, I was still trying to not rely on Charlie at all.
It took me longer than expected to get out to my car this morning as I stayed to hold the hand of an elderly woman who was most certainly there to die. She didn’t think ahead enough to set up a living will or power of attorney for healthcare. No one talked on her behalf so in the end we would try to save her from an unavoidable death and hoped to make her comfortable in the process. So much for dying the way you would want to.
My heart was heavy as I walked to my car and I almost forgot about my abettor until I saw the pink rose under the windshield wiper. The simplicity of the flower in the early light of the day made me smile and then turn a little sad. There was such little beauty in the world for me lately. Instead of getting into my car I stayed longer than intended looking at it without picking it up. Deep in thought, I didn’t notice him coming up behind me. “Are you all right?” Although I didn’t hear him approach, I wasn’t frightened of the sudden intrusion. How quickly I had found comfort in his assistance to keep me safe in this parking lot.
“It was just a long night.” He could hear the fatigue in my voice as I didn’t even try to hide it.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I smiled and finally picked up the rose, lifting it up to my nose. The deep flowery scent blocked out all the others at least for a minuscule moment. I sighed deeply but didn’t turn around. I didn’t want him to see the obvious defeat that I felt.
“There are privacy laws that prevent me from giving any information.” He stepped closer and I could hear the gravel under his feet.
“Then we can talk about something else.” A half-smile, half-frown appeared. I shouldn’t encourage him. There could be nothing between us and by me favoring him, it gave him hope where there couldn’t be. It prevented him from looking for a relationship elsewhere and wasn’t fair of me but I missed having someone to lean on if only for a little while, too tired of going at it alone for too long now.
He noticed me bending, “Just breakfast. You have to eat, right?”
“I don’t eat after the night shift.”
“Then just coffee, or whatever you vegans drink.” I laughed and I knew right then I would give in to his charm. “So?” He stood behind me, far enough away to look friendly but close enough to feel his magnetism.
“We vegans like coffee but the caffeine isn’t good this time of morning.” Even though I couldn’t see him I sensed his disappointment until I said, “But a nice soothing tea might do the trick.”
Before I could talk myself out of it he piped up, “Where?”
We agreed on an organic coffee and tea shop down from my apartment. I parked in the secure parking of my building and walked the couple of blocks to the bustling shop. Commuters stood in line to get their morning fix but there were still plenty of open seats. He motioned me to a back table and led me through the roar of people. I didn’t like him to see the worn-down tired me but the strain of the day proved too powerful to keep up any ruse around him. I didn’t want him to see the real me. If we were to end this, well whatever it was, I wanted to be the one that got away. The mystery woman he seemed to put on a pedestal. Not the real one with cracks and holes.
“I didn’t know what kind of tea you wanted or I would have ordered at the counter.” The waitress came over after watching us sit. I asked for a decaffeinated soy milk chai tea, and he requested a regular coffee and a cinnamon bun.
Noticing my disapproval of his food choice again, he shrugged, “It is vegan, isn’t it?”
I laughed and it felt good even with the dour mood. “Yes, there are no animal products in it but there is also enough sugar to fuel a jet.”
JJ smiled back at me and I never realized how unique his eyes were. Not blue, not green but true turquoise. They shone in the morning light coming in the window, and although he hid behind a veil, I didn’t doubt he could see right through me and it made me a little nervous. What would he think if he could see the real me? More importantly, why did I care? Was it because I always had to be the dignified physician in the community? The respected wife of a man more eager to rise to the top of the food chain than take others into consideration? Regardless of the reason, I knew the gentleman before me had told me more open and honest answers about himself than anyone I had ever met and even with his past admissions, he seemed to be a bigger man than the one I left behind in Georgia.
“So, in my rehab meetings they explained that we would probably exchange one addiction for another. No drugs and no heroin equals sugar and cholesterol. I guess eventually I should give them up if I am serious about getting healthy.” He alluded to the fact he wanted to keep himself healthy for his son. The one who didn’t even know of the extent his paternity revelation had caused.
“Are you planning on talking to him? Your son? Is that why you are working on your health?”
He was quick to answer, “No. He knows about me but still doesn’t ask about me. It is for the best. His father, Quade, the bassist in our band, is a good guy. Like, really a good guy. He wouldn’t do the same crazy shit as the rest of us unless we coaxed him into it.” His eyes widened as almost as if he said too much.
Knowing his tendency for honesty I jumped on it, “And what type of crazy shit did young twenty-year-old rock stars tend to do?”
“Ah... I guess the usual. We fit the mold. Drugs... drinking... women,” he admitted. My mind raced with all the debauchery, and he sighed and almost looked a little pained in his confession.
“Is that where your addiction started?”
The waitress came back with our early morning selections and I waited until the tea cooled before even trying it but JJ dived right into his heroin substitute. “No and yes. I would drink but it wasn’t something I didn’t feel like I couldn’t control. But isn’t that what all alcoholics say? Drugs consisted of pot and the occasional harder drug but nothing serious until I was hospitalized.”
My eyes went up in concern before he quickly continued, “I had kidney stones on tour and kind of freaked out when I was in there. I took more of the drugs they gave me while in there so I could forget I was in the hospital. When I left and went back on tour I used them to get through a performance. But when they ran out the real trouble started.” Fascinated by his honest account of his life, I almost forgot about my drink.
“Quade’s girlfriend at the time, Mackenzie, started to get me more pills, and we would do them recreationally. It worked rather well getting a high without a hangover the next day. Unfortunately, it started to become a habit and eventually more of a need.”
I started to nod at him and then stopped, instead diverting my attention to the piping hot drink in front of me. Sipping carefully, I gave him time to go on. “Mac was a gold digging bitch. She tried to sink her teeth into Quade while still flirting with the rest of us. They met on tour and all she wanted was a man to take care of her without having to lift a finger. She would walk around without clothes on and although Quade hated it, he was too pussy whipped to stop it.” His eyes widened at his uncensored version, “Ah... I mean...”
His stuttering was unnecessary and I smirked a little, “I understand the meaning. Continue.”
More guarded of his words, he went on, “Well, one night the guys left for an after-concert party but I had been drinking too much to function at that point. I didn’t realize Mac put some extra pills in my alcohol and she covered it by whining about some supposed headache to stay back with me alone.” JJ’s eyes took on a worried look as he confessed, “I, ah, wasn’t feeling any pain and when I woke up from my haze, we were already in... ah, congress.” The last word seemed like he had a mental stretch of his vocabulary and I would have smiled at the thought, but I was too baffled by what he said. The drinking and drug combination could have killed him.
JJ cleared his throat and looked a little apprehensive at my silence. “We only had the one night together and I should have realized that Jaeger was mine but I think I was in denial. I basically fucked over my friend and didn’t have the guts to tell him. He ended up marrying her when he found out about the baby and it only added a layer to the guilt. That and the fact he was so happy to be a father. So happy in fact, I blocked out my involvement entirely. I guess it led to all the other shit I did.”
The other shit? He saw my eyebrows raise in another question but before I could get it out he continued, “I took to drinking and partying more to forget. Acting more like a playboy with women. Sometimes more than one at a time.” The last statement made it hard for him to meet my eyes, and he pushed away his plate with his half-eaten sugary confection.
He had been nothing but honest with me. His earlier transgression seemed to concern me, but I should remember that if he was confessing them now it meant he had changed. On the contrary, I had proof he didn’t imbibe anymore. His medical chart showed the drug tests and STD testing for the past several months as proof he had evolved from his party lifestyle.
“So how long have you gone without drugs?”
He looked back up at me, “It will be a year in January.” And then he added, “Same for the women.”
Thinking back to what I saw in his chart I had to ask, “Then why the continued testing?”
If he was offended by my poke into his medical history or my question, he didn’t let on. “Proof. Basically, a line of proof in case I am needed.”
“Needed how?” A line formed on his brow and the light shined brightly in through the window showing on his brown blond hair. As much as a little boy look he gave me with his hard confessions, he also seemed to have the strength of a man while answering.
“Jaeger might need a kidney one day. I am his best chance at it.” Just that. His only purposed in life right now was getting clean and healthy for the chance that he might save his kid one day. A kid that didn’t even care to talk to him.
“Do you still talk to Quade?”
He nodded his head, “Yeah. We talked the night he told me Jaeger knew about me and even encouraged a relationship. Can you believe that? Quade is a good guy. Jaeger is lucky to have him as a father. Not someone like me.”
I looked at the man in front of me in a new light. This one-time addict faced his addiction which in all fairness could have killed him going at it alone, just to make sure his son had a better chance at life than what he had. All without knowing about him. It made me think of his detox and his fear of hospitals.
“Why don’t you like hospitals?”
Again, his candor astounded me, “My dad died in one when I was nine. Cancer of the esophagus or some shit like that. I didn’t understand it at the time, but he was an alcoholic and a smoker. Probably brought it on himself. My mother kept it from us. She always made him seem like this saint or something. It ends up he was the reason we were on food stamps and my mom had to work two jobs to keep us off welfare. It only worked half the time anyway. Growing up in the shit made me bitter.”
It made sense. Esophageal cancer was brought on by alcohol and smoking. “Did you ever smoke?”
He shook his head. “After watching him in pain for most of his long hospital stay, I never started smoking.”
“But the alcohol?”
He nodded sadly and responded, “As I said, I drank but it was another thing I always kept control of whether it was consciously or not. That is until my rehab. I didn’t get treatment at a facility but I go to meetings every now and again. Usually when I find the cravings creeping up on me. I learned one addiction can change to another that is just as bad. I guess my newest is sugar.” He pointed to his half-eaten roll as evidence.
I had to laugh, “Well, I guess it is better than drugs. Sugar does affect the dopamine receptors in your brain much like opioids.”
His mouth twitched and I couldn’t help but think of him as sexy. “I bet you have a whole bunch of medical facts in the fascinating brain of yours.”
Fascinating? Most people were irritated with the medical facts I seemed helpless to keep to myself. “It doesn’t bother you that I promulgate medical facts?”
JJ shrugged and the act showed off his firm upper body. He had more of a slim appearance and I wondered if he worked out. He reported a need for keeping healthy but I couldn’t decide if my attraction to him came from the physician in me or the fact I was so drawn to him by his candidness.
“I kind of like it. I think it is cute.” My turn to smile and I sipped on my tea that had now reached tepid coolness, but I didn’t seem to care.
Wanting to cut the tension his last statement provided, I scrambled for a question. “Is your mother still alive?”
He shook his head and a sadness clouded his eyes. Although I wanted the tension to break, this wasn’t what I had hoped for. “No, she died several months ago. She had Alzheimer’s disease, so she really wasn’t with it for a while. We had her live in her house as long as possible, but we couldn’t guarantee her safety. We moved her to a nursing home when she couldn’t be on her own and shortly after that she died.”
“My sister’s and me. Bonnie is four years older and Tabitha is barely two years younger. They both helped me to sober up as well as Chelsea, the wife of the lead singer of Social Offender.”
Something in the way he said it made me probe, “Are you close to your band mates?”
He sighed, “Not anymore. Brandt, the lead singer and I aren’t really talking. Chelsea watched me on a bad day when I was jones’n for a hit. I told her some of the shit that her husband and I would do before he met her. Some of which she didn’t know and made her husband look, well... kind of bad. You see, Chelsea is the equivalent of mother Teresa, and he kept some shit from her. My plan didn’t work though. She saw through it and wouldn’t let me leave to get high. It hurt her pretty bad though. It didn’t stop her from helping me either. Like I said, Mother Teresa.”
JJ had a hard life. His honest representation made me feel some of my own accomplishments or pitfalls were nothing compared to his. He shifted in his seat with my gaze and I felt guilty. I didn’t want him to think I was being judgmental or worse, pitying him. He didn’t need it. He was more stable than my own crumbling façade although he was yet to see it.
The realization made me more nervous than ever to let this go on.
“I have been doing all the talking and really, I wanted to find out more about you. You said you have family in Chicago?” At the mention of family, I looked down at my tea. I would much rather talk about him and his struggles then to allude to me being anything but the idea of perfection he had in his mind.
“My mother and stepfather still live in Chicago.” Clipped and short. I wanted him to understand the topic was not welcomed, but he continued.
“Do you have any siblings? Where is your father?” He seemed genuinely interested and I thought I should let him know some information since it appeared his life was an open book.
“My sister lives in London with her family. My father is dead.” His eyes widen with the harsh term.
“How did he die?”
“Pneumonia.” Technically it was appropriate for me to say it since he acquired pneumonia due to being a malnourished drunk. Luckily, JJ excepted it and moved on. Some information brought up feelings I would rather keep under the surface.
“Do you go out to see your mother and step father often?” I sighed and wondered how I could divert the topic. I no more wanted to talk about myself, let alone my alienated family, then spend any more time working with Dr. O’Malley and his roaming hands.
“We are estranged. I don’t get along with my stepfather.”
He continued even though he saw my unease. “Why?”
Unable to stop my malcontent I projected on him. “My stepfather? He was a perfidious man that was avarice in nature.” My wall went up. The one I used to distance myself from my past. The one to stop people from getting too close.
Guilt seized me. Here this man was being brutally honest with me and I fought him to expell any and all personal information. I didn’t want to give it out, actually refused to, but I could tell I wounded him by the hurt look in his eyes. He knew too much about me though. It made me nervous. I have never known anyone to understand me like he did. Almost as if he saw through me and I couldn’t have that.
My turn to stumble on my words, “I don’t mean to be so sibylline but I don’t like talking about myself.”
My cold tea held little interest for me as well as where the conversation currently headed. I shouldn’t have come or encouraged this to continue. Rummaging in my purse for money, I gave JJ and excuse. “JJ, it seems I am more tired than I thought and you probably have work to attend to.”
He noticed my diversional tactic but didn’t stop me. Like a caged animal I needed out, and he was appeasing me. “One of the perks of being the boss. Things can’t start until I get there but you are right. You need your sleep.” The look in his eyes told me more than I wanted to know. He gave me space, concerned for me but wouldn’t hold it against me.
Throwing money on the table, I got to my feet. He watched curiously without moving or denying me my retreat. “Thank you, JJ, for your frank discussion.”
Before leaving, he grabbed my hand, “Are you feeling better?” His touch sent sparks through me. I felt the roughness of a hand that had seen physical work versus the softness of my hand. Surprisingly to both of us I didn’t pull back in favor of a caress that meant more to me than it should.
Although I recognized the mutual attraction we had for each other I also knew it wouldn’t be safe. He held a hunger in his eyes and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to see it out in the open. Raw hunger and heat. Of course, it was a wonderment that would never be fulfilled.
Turning back to look in his eyes I answered honestly, “Yeah, I guess I do.”
He smiled a truly beautifully rugged smile, “Whatever you need. Just ask.”
Unable to say the thank you that was on my lips I just swallowed and walk out the door.