1. The Cursing Incident
"You self-centred, narcissistic BITCH!"
Sandra or Sarah yells at me from across my office desk.
"Are you done?" I huff, bored out of my mind by this immature display of drama. Self-centred and narcissist are basically the same thing, right?
"I can't believe I wanted to be mentored by you!" She bellows this time, standing up and crunching the test she failed into a fist, angry tears spilling down her cheeks.
My eyes roll. "Well, you knew what you were signing up for. If you can't prepare and pass a simple test with 100% before a surgery, you can't scrub in. Simple as that. I spelt out every expectation I had of my surgical residents and all my interns on day one. And you signed that you understood what was required from you. If this is too much, you're welcome to quit."
"What? And give you the satisfaction? You probably get a thrill from tormenting us, don't you?" She bangs her fist on the glass desk and I raise an eyebrow, challenging her to break it as it vibrates dangerously.
"Yes, I prey on the souls of young Meredith Grey Wannabes. And I spend the little free time I have plotting to take over the world." There's a snort in the background, which I pay no mind to.
"I curse you!" Sandra/Sarah starts to half cry and half yell. The snorter snorts again and I struggle to keep my composure. "Yeah, you heard me, I curse you. I hope you die alone, you bitch."
"Alright, Serena," the snorter's voice interrupts in his smooth English accent. "I think that's enough."
"You can't possibly be siding with.. with... with her?!" (Newly discovered) Serena shudders as though I'm Satan's spawn. "It's your surgery and we all know you hate each other."
"But you are part of Dr. Owen's team." He corrects the 'her' jest and doesn't deny nor confirm our shared hatred. "Dr. Owen has her protocol. You are her resident. You failed her test. You can't scrub in." James says firmly but then gives her a somewhat encouraging smile. "Nail the next test, yeah?"
Urgh he's an insufferable Nice Guy even when he's trying to be firm. And somehow, Serena simmers down and gives him puppy dog eyes as she dabs the bottom of her eyelids using the handkerchief he handed her.
Who still carries handkerchiefs around in this day and age? James Li that's who. My arch nemesis. He gets to be Mr. Nice Guy while I, an equally, if not more, talented surgeon, am referred to as the Devil in Scrubs. I mean it is flattering that they think of me as highly as the Miranda Priestly's of this world, but either way, I've had to evolve if I want to leave my mark in the medical world.
"Wow, that must be a record," James smirks while we scrub in for his surgery, our hands doing a wash routine we could perform in our sleep.
"What is?" I know what's coming.
"It's only 7am and you've already made someone cry." James chuckles.
"I suppose it's going to be a great day, then." I chirp excitedly.
"My favourite part was when she cursed you."
"Urgh. She could have wished for something worse to be honest. We essentially all die alone anyway."
"Ah rotten luck. I mean we only get one good curse to start off with anyway." He teases.
I wish he was ugly, I think to myself as we stand across from each other over some kids' open chest cavity. I observe him while he works with his magical, healing hands. Hating him would be easier if he looked like a horse's backside. But no. He just had to look like Asian McDreamy.
Specks of honey scatter his brown eyes which contrast dramatically against the jet black hair that is now covered by a scrub cap. Beneath his surgical mask, is a broad nose that is distinct and bold only highlighting his fluffy lips which on its own would already be flattering but just so happened to create the perfect smile with dimples indented into his cheeks because the gods were feeling particularly cheerful the day this guy was created.
And the fact that he's a brilliant surgeon, who has cum laude degrees from Cambridge and Harvard is no nevermind.
It was hate at first sight. Day One of Medical School, this fancy Asian guy from London was allocated as my botany lab partner.
Why botany, you ask. Call it insider's trade, but the creme de la creme of all surgeons take botany as an elective as it hones in on one's dexterity skills.
It was a secret my Aunt Ava, a renowned orthopedic surgeon, had let me in on and I was determined to master it.
Except I really sucked at it.
I by no means had green fingers and I struggled to keep my bonsai alive, no matter how much I tried keeping it in a place with enough light but away from direct sunlight.
"It feeds off your energy," James Li chimed.
I had heard whispers of him prior to his arrival; the professors were all excited to have a legacy and word on the street was that he was as brilliant, if not more, than his mother. It was a battle of the universities and Harvard convinced James to study there instead of Cambridge, which is where he had completed premed.
Up until James's arrival, I was the golden girl of Harvard. I wasn't a legacy, I was on scholarship and I had to work tooth and nail to get to the top, as opposed to having everything laid out on a silver platter by mummy dearest.
James's mom is a famous oncologist, one of whom I greatly admire. Which kind of made me hate James even more; having his mom as a resource no doubt gave him the extra edge and opened up many doors for him.
Doors I had to break down.
So maybe it was presumptuous to hate the guy before I even met him. I already had my mind made up about him and no sooner were we butting heads about everything.
"My energy? It's a plant." I scoffed.
"Suit yourself," he said as he pruned his own bonsai effortlessly, which already stood taller than my rather sad, dreary looking one.
The competition was on, it was a case of my brain is bigger than your brain from the get go and when he beat me in every one of our exams during our first semester at med school, I vowed to work harder and smarter until I got better grades. Which I eventually did. But it was always a two horse race and our classmates enjoyed our jests and snide remarks, the competition. Granted I was the more vocal one. It was tit for tat until graduation where we both graduated top of our year.
I thought I was done with him, until our first day of residency where we were both head hunted by one of the best trauma hospitals in the country, and in sunny Los Angeles no less.
Six years later and we're still grating each other's nipples, competing for the most exciting, gruelling surgeries, trying our best to outwit each other.
The only time James Li and I don't fight and bicker like an old married couple, is when there's an unconscious human body sprawled between us. I took my oath seriously, and so did he. The operating theatre is our unspoken Switzerland. If he's the lead surgeon, I give him his due and vice versa. We may be at loggerheads on the best approach to the operation prior to the surgery but once in theatre, we do what we agreed upon and get the job done.
Except for today, that is.
"What are you doing?" He asks abruptly.
"Repairing the left bronchi."
"No. We can't wire it. We need to use the cartilage from the rib."
"And cause more trauma? It's unnecessary, James."
"Dr. Li. And I'd like to remind you, Dr. Owen, this is my theatre. The entire team agreed this was the best approach."
"I didn't agree." I scoff while continuing my part of the surgery.
"Dr. Owen." He treads carefully, and I see the anger flicker between his eyes. "The evidence proves—"
"Fuck the evidence. You know this is the best approach. You just don't want to admit it because it's me doing it."
"Despite your immense ego, Charlotte, the world does not revolve around you and your godly skills. And I'm not out to get you, either. If you don't want to be a team player then you can get out—"
"I beg your pardon? Are you kicking me out?"
"Well... yes. I mean, I want you to be a team player and stick to the plan, first. But if you can't then, yes, you may leave."
"I'm the best cardio-thoracic surgeon in this hospital and you know it."
"Yes I do know it, but I'll manage just fine without you."
"Ha!" I laugh sadistically. "Fine. I sincerely hope you don't fuck this up, because good luck telling this kid's parents that you kicked me off the team if and when you do fuck up."
"Oh piss off, Charlotte."
"My my my look who finally decided to grow a pair of balls. And it's Charlie, you Neanderthal!"
Our foreheads rest against each other as we physically square off, he's just got an inch or two on me, and I find myself thanking my low-life parents for at least gifting me with a tall figure.
"I've kicked your ass before and I'll do it again!" I growl.
"Oh whatever. I was sick that day and only you, Charlotte, will turn a basic team building self defense lesson into a UFC fight in Vegas!"
"Did you cry to your mamma—"
"Dr. Owen! Dr. Li!" Meera, our chief of surgery, steps into the operating room, fully clad in surgical scrubs with a menacing look between her usually kind eyes. "I have had it with you two! Step away from the patient."
"But Dr. Roopa—" we simultaneously protest before her gloved hand raises up and silences us instantly.
"Enough! I am five seconds away from suspending both of you. Get out!!"
We remove ourselves from the theatre and angrily scrub out, throwing daggers with our eyes but simmered down enough to not utter a word to each other. Perhaps too enraged to do so.
"Wait in my office." Meera commands over the intercom and we trudge to the scented safe space to await our doom.
Truthfully, I'm in a right panic: desperately trying to compose myself but consciously trying to figure out how I am going to fix this. It has never gotten to this point before. We bicker and argue but never at the expense of a patient.
My silent reflection lasts for another hour, the longest of my life, while contemplating how I'll plead my case.
James on the other hand seems cool and collected, having already helped himself to Meera's legendary chai, sitting down on one of the velvety burgundy couches, which honestly has become my therapy couch.
Meera is, without a doubt, the smartest, most hard working person at this hospital. And the fact that she's a woman of colour made it a no brainer when I asked her to be my mentor. She's guided me, coached me and helped me grow as a surgeon. Which has only added to my annoyance when she took James under her wing as well. Apparently his mom and Meera were besties.
I glare at him in his beautiful nicety. I'm always the one bearing the brunt of our feud because how could Mr. Goodie Two Shoes ever get into trouble?
Although it really is the first time he lost his cool to that degree and the honey hues in his eyes are a lot more fiery than their usual cool temperament.
Urgh. Get a grip, Charlie.
My eyes roll in annoyance and he rolls his back at mine. The stare down begins, his jaw astute, my brows knitted together. The heat and intensity gets to boiling point and just as James loosens the top button of his shirt to help him simmer down, Meera stomps into her office, clad in a mesmerising bright pink power suit, saving us from whatever that unnecessary tension was fast becoming.
"Congratulations for not killing each other and making my office a local crime scene," she notes sarcastically in her Indian-American accent. "Although, with the stunt you just pulled in that theatre, killing each other would definitely make my job easier."
Meera glares at us, as though challenging us to do just that, before shrugging and pouring herself a cup of chai.
"Dr. Roopa, I am so sorry!" I begin and she cuts me off.
"Don't you dare, Dr. Roopa me, Charlotte!"
"I'm not the only one who fucked up in there!" I protest and point at James. "If he didn't have to be so pompous—"
"Me? You couldn't stick to the plan! It had to be all about you as per usual!" James retaliates.
"Ah the ballsy display of masculinity continues!" I taunt. "To what do we owe this new found bravado?"
"I've just had it with you walking around like you own the place and bulldozing every surgery."
"As opposed to Mr. Nice Guy walking around like the biggest kiss-ass—"
"Don't hate on me just because people like me."
"Oh whatever makes you sleep at night, Princess."
"Done?" Meera sneers. "Well, now that we've cleared the air, I have an announcement to make; one that I would rather you hear from me than at the next staffer."
James and I hold our collective breaths and Meera continues. "You are looking at the new managing director of the hospital."
To say Meera looks chuffed and proud is an understatement.
"What? Congratulations!!" I chime, while James gives Meera a hug. "You thoroughly deserve it, Meera!"
Wait... my brain catches up... that means—
"So who is the new chief of surgery?" James sits up eagerly, eyes blazing with the same wonder as mine. I've wanted this position since the very beginning! And I'm assuming, so has he.
"I was asked to nominate someone to interview for and consequently assume my current position. However, I've been toying around with an absurd idea, because of my loyalty to you both." Whatevs, I know I'm her favourite understudy. "I was initially at a crossroads since you have each expressed interest in the position, assuming it would have been available a lot later, but the more I thought about it, the more it made perfect sense."
We wait in anticipation, exchanging a quick competitive glance, knowing this appointment will indeed give the appointee the upper hand.
"I have nominated Dr. Li." My heart sinks into the pit of my gut. I'd have much rather taken a bullet. I refuse to look at James, and instead study Meera's face for clues as to why she chose Kiss-Ass James over me, which is when I see a tiny smirk. "And I've nominated Dr. Owen."
James and I finally exchange another glance. He looks confused but I understand it perfectly: we'll be up against each other again but this time it's in the biggest fight of our lives.
"I won't let you down, Meera." I chirp but she snorts, making me doubt myself.
"Perhaps I haven't made myself clear. You are both up for the position. It's an all or nothing kind of deal."
"Equal pay, equal privileges, equal authority." She ignores our silent confusion as we try to process what she's insinuating. "I've known for a while that when you work together, you can make miracles happen. I've seen it first hand. Together you are the perfect surgeon and doctor."
"Meera, you can't be serious." James says the first agreeable statement, which I vehemently nod along to.
"I most certainly am. I convinced the board this morning before that shitshow in the O.R. And then had to convince again to save your sorry asses. So they've given an ultimatum. They have quite had it with your antics and I had to talk them out of firing you."
I'm speechless. James looks paler than usual.
"They agreed. Either you two learn how to work together over the next 6 weeks, which is when the transition will take place, or we get an external person to interview for the position and you two..." she trails off uncomfortably.
"We what?" I ask cautiously.
"Well, we can discuss that at a later stage." Meera avoids eye contact, suddenly rather preoccupied with a file on her desk.
"I need to know the facts now." It may sound demanding but I'm moments away from an anxiety attack of epic proportions.
"They were all present in that gallery. They just bought my idea about you being mature enough to put your differences aside and have a joint position. So there I was, ushering them into the gallery to proudly show off my brilliant protégés only to walk in on you practically throttling each other. In the middle of a surgery. What if the patient's parents were present?"
James and I both shift uncomfortably. What a colossal fuck up.
"My position is now on the line, the one I held with certainty for only a few moments. If you fail to show you can work together and assume chief of surgery, I will lose my position and you'll be fired for insubordination."
"But you just saw what happened in there. You can't possibly think that we could be joint chief of surgery?" James pleads, and for once I'm on his side. "It needs to be an individual appointment, Meera."
"I have meditated about this so it's final."
"You're basing your decision on an epiphany you had while you were subconscious?" I scoff and she glares at me again. I've never had a mother, but I know that's a mom-look.
"Fine. My clinical reasoning, then? Individually you both lack what it takes to be a chief of surgery." Again, another bullet. "Don't look at me like that. I'll explain. Charlotte, you are a brilliant surgeon, assertive, smart and a go-getter, but people absolutely hate you, you have poor bedside manner and you aren't a team player."
"What? My patients love me."
"Patients, yes. Colleagues, not so much. You show no interest in their lives—"
"I have no interest in their lives."
"That's where you fall short. That's why you can't lead as well as someone else would. Case and point, your resident, the one you made cry this morning."
"Serena. Were you aware that she has a sick brother? He's got cerebral palsy and is in a home. He had a bad case of pneumonia this weekend after aspirating. That's why she failed your test. Her mind was elsewhere. And before you argue that she should have stayed at home, she needs this job to support him. You and I both know that you wouldn't have understood if she called in asking for a personal day."
I had no idea. I haven't even taken the time to learn their names properly. I look at James and the news about Serena isn't new, so he was aware of this as well and that's why he mediated this morning's meeting.
"Let's move onto James. You are a gifted surgeon, with skills I haven't seen in my 30 years of practice. You are well liked, amicable, a team player, but you lack the hard drive and firmness Charlotte has."
"I can be firm and hard—"
"The lady doth protest!" I sing and he is instantly angered.
"I cannot work with this woman." He practically growls, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"You have no choice, James. You've expressed interest in this role from the first day we met. You both have. Now is your shot. Learn from each other, become each other's strengths, mask the weaknesses. I have no doubt that together, you will make the perfect surgeon and doctor, and the exact chief of surgery this hospital needs."
With that, she dismisses us.
And cue existential crisis.