When I wake up, it's very early in the morning, and the dull knot of anger is still coiled but ready in my belly. It's a smoldering low fire fueled by bitterness, aching to pounce and consume, just the same way it has every morning for the last two weeks. Except today will be the end of it. Today, the cause of my misery is leaving, and my anger will follow suit.
Throwing the thick, quilted comforter off my body, I rise from the queen-sized mattress and tip-toe my way in the darkness to the bathroom. God, it's so cold this morning! It's the quintessential mid-winter morning in New Hampshire, and it's the day before my birthday. Tomorrow I'll be thirty years old. Tomorrow is the start of a fresh new everything. I'm so eager to begin everything anew, I can taste it, thickly coated on my tongue.
I take a scaldingly hot shower to remind me that I'm still alive, then I ready myself for the day. It's dark and bleak outside, so dark and bleak that normally I'd choose to wear scrubs that have a fun print or bright colors to try to liven up the depths of the blackness. Not today. Not this morning. Today I am voraciously angry. Today is the last day of my embarrassment from this debacle. Today I am a woman betrayed. No, forget the woman part. I am a semi-boss betrayed. Blood ties run deep, and I will never forget that my own cousin plunged this knife deep into my back.
I dress instead in dark scrubs, navy blue and crisp. I look at my image in the mirror after I've tied the laces on my dirty old sneakers, mentally noting that I need to buy a new pair. My cheeks are pale and hollow, despite the heat of the shower. My dark eyes are brimming with both a raw sadness and a simmering anger, an anger that, left unchecked, could very well boil over and lead to either a deluge of tears or an outpouring of sewage from my mouth. My dark brown hair, with the blond half-head of highlights that I pay $95 for every six weeks at an upscale salon, looks limp. I pull it back into a drab, lifeless ponytail and turn away from my reflection. My disappointment mounts.
When I open the door to my attached garage, adorned in a long black wool coat, it's still black outside. There are no early-morning stars overhead. The moon is in hiding. The darkness is thick and velvety. The frigid air sucks the breath from my lungs. I glance down at my unadorned fingers as I open the car door, noting that they are nearly blue with the cold. My fingernails, in stark contrast, are a vivid shade of pink. I can see my condensed breath hanging in the air like a cloud in front of the driver's-side window. I get into the car, close the door behind me, and place the key in the ignition as I simultaneously strap on my seat belt.
As I drive down the street, willing the engine in my car to warm up and the heat to turn on, I notice that the world is silent and still. There is no one on the roads. There are no businesses open. Everything is dark and empty, completely devoid of human life. The rest of the world is still sleeping. Fitting. It is only fitting.
The office is also dark and empty, much like the streets of New Hampshire, as I pull into the office parking lot. I shiver violently as I lock the car door behind me and hurriedly head into the building. I'm so early for work today. It's barely past 6:00 in the morning. The sun won't break for at least another forty-five minutes, more if the weather is bad. At least the last of the snow is disappearing. Snow is pretty when it first falls and blankets the world. Snow is pretty before the roads are sanded, before the trucks and cars and rush-hour traffic have smashed it and tossed it and turned it an unflattering, dirty brownish-gray hue. Once it's no longer pretty, snow is nothing but a grimy nuisance and an ugly reminder of how sad and depressing the winter is in New England.
Because it's so early in the morning, the rest of the staff hasn't arrived yet. No one who gets paid by the hour is allowed in here before 7:00 in the morning. This is the boss's primary rule, strictly enforced. I, however, am salaried. I get paid the same amount of green regardless of what time I get here, how long I stay or how many patients I see. Normally, I wouldn't be here until fifteen minutes before my first patient, or 7:45 a.m. Today, though, is different. Today I want all of the sad and unhappy staff members to see my face as they walk through the front door. I want my presence here to be a staunch reminder to them that I am not their peer but their boss, even if I am not the head boss, and that I deserve some measure of respect, albeit a small amount in their eyes.
The head boss, the big man around this private medical practice, is the same man that I grew up next door to. He was a young kid of fifteen when I first moved in next door with my parents, which was just before my fifth birthday. He always seemed to be amused by me and he never sent me away when I bothered him, even though I was simply an annoying little kid with ponytails and a dirty rag doll or a worn teddy bear trailing behind me. I idolized him. I worshiped him. For the briefest of times, I had a pestering crush on him and sent dirty looks next door, aimed toward all of his girlfriends. None of it ever seemed to bother him.
When he went off to medical school, I was twelve years old. I missed him, but I would get to see him on holidays and on random weekends. Every time he came home, he always made it a point to take the time to say hello to me, even though I was a little kid more than ten years his junior. I continued to worship and idolize him. He made me feel special. And he still does.
Because I was so inspired by him, I too became a doctor, a general practitioner. I followed in his footsteps, applying to the same college that he attended, and later, applying to the same medical school. I didn't get accepted at his medical school, but I did get accepted at one that was even better, so I moved out of New Hampshire and away from New England for four years on my mission to earn my degree in medicine. My neighbor, with whom I had never lost contact, soon became my mentor. I had his phone number etched on my brain. He was the one who helped me through all the hard work and rough times, all the occasions when I wanted to either cry my eyes out or slit my wrists open or throw my stomach contents up. He was there alongside my parents on graduation day. He offered me hearty congratulations as well as a job in his office, to be filled as soon as I completed my one-year general practice residency. He needed another doctor in his private practice, and he would only accept me. I still worship and idolize my boss. I think I always will.
Now I sit at the front desk and await the rest of the staff. Specifically, I'm waiting for my cousin, the Judas.
My cousin, who's two years younger than I am, became a medical assistant around the same time I was applying to medical schools. Once I completed my residency and accepted a job with my neighbor at his office, my cousin begged me to get her a job too. She hated her boss at the time. She used to work for a lovely woman that my boss had actually done his own residency with, a kind older woman with blue eyes and her own private practice who taught in the residency clinic on Fridays. She had recently retired and sold her practice to a young, brash new graduate. This new owner had a nasty temper, a wealth of sarcasm, and a fondness for throwing instruments at the wall and calling his staff every four-letter word under the full moon. Miserable, my cousin turned to me in desperation. Wanting to help family out, I degraded myself in front of my new boss, pleading with him to hire her as my medical assistant. My boss humored me, obliging kindly and graciously hiring her.
My cousin and I were a solid team. Together, for the last two and a half years, we have been an inseparable item, plowing through all manners of medical procedures and treating all sorts of patients with professionalism and humor. I used to have a joke with the punch line that my cousin and I came as a package deal. I fully believed in us; I felt that way to the core...well, that is, up until two weeks ago, when she put in her two weeks' notice. So much for loyalty and for being grateful for family. Those two traits are passé now, ridiculed and extinct.
What bothers me the most is that she hasn't told me that she's leaving. She hasn't told me to my face that she has found another job and is leaving me. The only reason I know anything at all is because my boss pulled me aside after hours on the day she gave him her two weeks' notice. He was the one who told me that she wanted more green than he was paying her, which was a more-than-sufficient hourly wage, and therefore she found another doctor who would pay her more. Those words should have come to me from my assistant's lips - she is my cousin, after all - and not from his mouth. She does not, nor will she ever, owe me an apology, nor does she owe me an explanation, though it would help me swallow the facts a bit more easily. I understand that she needs to do what she has to do in order to make ends meet. She has to make a living, after all. I'm not insensitive. But she owes me that much, and I deserve that much, for her to tell me in person that she's leaving. She hasn't, and because she hasn't, I feel that she's a coward, and I'm angry.
I'm obsessed with my thoughts. They vary between sadness, apathy, and most dominantly, a driving, pulsating, maddening anger. I know that my boss doesn't care that she has found a new workplace. He told me as much, nearly in the same breath that he informed me that my cousin was signing off on her job. He told me that he had another girl in mind to be my assistant, some friend of a friend whose boss is retiring and will be out of a job shortly thereafter. This new assistant will be someone I can work with, someone who will be enthralled with the job and for the chance to work with me, unlike my ungrateful cousin.
Around 7:00 a.m., the members of the staff begin to show up. Like me, each one is dressed in scrubs. The receptionist arrives first, wearing a black-and-white graphic print, toting a large off-label designer shoulder bag that she found at Marshall's last year for $19.99. The nurse-practitioner, tall and blond and dressed in lilac, follows on the receptionist's heels, with a sour grimace plastered on her face. The nurse-practitioner is close with my cousin, and she's obviously distraught about it being their last day to work together. On Monday, she'll have to get used to someone else in my cousin's assistant chair. For her, this is the end of the world. To me, it's an interminably long Friday.
Five minutes later, my cousin, clad in wrinkled emerald-green scrubs, strolls in. She wears a grubby black fleece jacket, shot with lint, over her scrubs, and a vacuous, glazed expression on her face. That, too, is fitting. She doesn't regard my presence at the front desk, she merely walks by me and heads for my operatory. She acts recklessly, not wholly unlike the way she drives her car, which is a five-year-old black sports car with a variegated assortment of scrapes, dents, and scratches. For me, as she walks by without acknowledging me, the evidence builds that she can't wait for the day to end, in which case, I can't wait either. Perhaps I'm simply poisoned against her, but it's a poison she willingly fed me herself.
The office is deathly quiet. There's no conversation, no cheerful words to fill the rooms. There's only a disconcerting, deafening silence that roars in my ears. I close my eyes. I want this day to be over too. I know that once this day is over, I will only have to play nice with my cousin at weddings, showers and maybe funerals. I will barely ever see her again.
The boss's medical assistant arrives. She too is wearing a sour grimace, reminiscent of the countenance on the nurse-practitioner. She's also very friendly with my cousin. Today is a day of sadness for her as well. I find it perversely funny that my cousin and I are the only two who aren't saddened by this day, as we are the two who are immediately affected by the repercussions of the two weeks' notice. For a brief moment, I wonder if I should feel guilty about my lack of enthusiasm and sadness towards my cousin's departure. Then I get ahold of myself and push that thought out of my mind. She's the traitor, not me. She's the one who betrayed me, after I disgraced myself in front of the boss, pleading with him to get her the job. She's the one leaving. I will always be here.
I sacrificed everything in my life to be here. I won't argue that my life is a good one, but it took me a long time traveling down the back roads to get here. During my four years of medical school and my one year of residency, the same five years when all of my girlfriends from college found themselves jobs and husbands, began to have money and babies, I was stuck shelling out massive amounts of green to an institution, studying hard and working my tail off as a student. After graduation, my job still wasn't completed, as I had a residency to finish. Once I finally completed my residency, I was lucky enough to have my boss and a job to go right into, but the bulk of my salary goes towards paying down my student loans. I live a comfortable life and I never starve, but my long hours make me tired and less likely to work out. I have gained weight, thirty-five pounds since graduation, topping the scales at 180 pounds. I'm insecure about my size and suffer from panic attacks in store dressing rooms, so I own very little clothing. (I am, however, the proud owner of a massive shoe collection, but I won't get into that right now.) Having no clothes leads to rarely ever going out, so I don't have a boyfriend and most likely never will. I'll probably never get married or have children. I guess that's okay. Things could be worse, even though I do get lonely sometimes.
Now, sitting at the front desk where the receptionist should be, thinking about my cousin's betrayal and my points of dissatisfaction with my own life, I'm once again overcome by that tsunami of rage and disappointment. I slink towards my operatory, where my cousin is dressing the room and laying out the instrument set-up for our first patient. I notice her pink rhinestone-studded cell phone is glued to her ear. She doesn't notice me, she's chatting away with one of her girlfriends, or perhaps the latest in her string of less-than-stellar boyfriends, about which hot new restaurant or bar to hit after work tonight. Her conversation further fuels my ire. My cousin relies heavily on her circle of friends. She never eats in, but she still has a trim, toned, to-die-for body. She probably weighs at least sixty pounds less than I do. She has a full wardrobe of tight jeans, tank tops, and booty shorts. She's a full 180 degrees away from me, at least in terms of a body and social life.
"Okay," she chatters into the phone, "see ya tonight. Love ya."
It makes me angry that she made plans to go out tonight. I know it shouldn't be a big deal, but it bothers me that she'll be off celebrating her last day at work when it's my birthday tomorrow. I should be the one partying it up. It should be my day and my special night out, and instead she has managed to make this whole day about her.
Since she hasn't noticed me, I stealthily retreat into the hallway. Even this small act on my part makes me angry at myself. Why am I retreating away from her? Why am I so weak and intimidated by her? Why does she have the body and the boyfriend and the social life? Why does the staff treat her like she is something special while they seem to revile me? Words that the head boss says to me often, in private, now float unexpectedly through my head. Nobody likes the guy on top.
As I walk back down the hallway, back to the front desk, my blood burns so violently that I feel like I'll break into a sweat. I pass the head boss's operatory, where his assistant is setting up for the day with a red face and unshed tears in her bloodshot eyes. I pass the nurse-practitioner's operatory, where she looks crushed and forlorn as she straightens her operatory with trembling hands. They're all on her side. They all love her, and they'll all miss her, but nobody will ever give a second thought to me. If it were me, if I were the one leaving, they wouldn't care or think twice about it.
On the computer at the front desk, I pull up my schedule for the day. As usual, it's a long day, but fortunately, none of the procedures require too much focus or effort. Some things, as a doctor, I can do with my theoretical eyes closed. Today is filled with those types of procedures, which, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing. All my brain matter and physical movements, every breath I inhale and exhale, is focused on tolerating my cousin's final day in the office.
I hate her for doing this to me, and I hate myself for allowing her to do it.
The office remains in a mournful state of quiet, with the exception of the constant beeping and chiming coming from that tacky rhinestone-encrusted cell phone that my cousin seems irrationally attached to. This makes me ill. How can one person have so many people trying to contact her so early in the morning? What is so important about her life? It's the day before my thirtieth birthday. Nobody's calling me.
The boss rolls in, more than ninety minutes after my early arrival, and he looks rough. Let me say it again: he looks rough. He looks like he was out way too late last night, partying too hard and drinking too much. For crying out loud. Yes, I know my boss likes to have a good time. I know he's single, he has never been married and most likely never will be. It's pathetic, since he's the one who will be celebrating his forty-first birthday before the year is out. He's not a kid. He's not still in med school, and sometimes, as much as I admire him, I'd like to smack him over the head and remind him of this unfortunate little fact.
"Hey, good morning, everybody!" he announces brightly, tossing his battered and leather-beaten briefcase into the break room. I can tell he's putting on an act, that's how well I can read him. "How's everybody doing today?"
He's greeted by a chorus of silence.
He shrugs to himself, shaking his head wearily. There are two purple-blue half-moons swimming underneath his eyes. "That good, huh?" he asks the silence half-heartedly.
I feel sorry for him. He comes straggling in about ten minutes before the first wave of patients arrive, looking like death warmed over in a vodka martini glass, and no one is paying any attention to him, or even cares that he has arrived. Again, it is fitting. Today isn't about him or me or anybody else, it's all about it being my disloyal cousin's last day in the office.
I cling to my boss because I have no other ally in this place. The two of us huddle together in the break room. Though he doesn't say a word, looking beyond the bruise-like circles underneath his eyes, I can see the sense of hurt and betrayal he feels. He's taking my cousin's leave poorly. He has no idea what to make of this situation. There's no protocol. No one else has ever left this practice.
It's a relief when the secretary comes back and announces that everyone's first patient is out in the waiting room.
This is how the morning continues. Patient after patient, procedure after procedure, spent with me hotly despising my cousin's nonchalance and breathing heavily but evenly behind my mask. I can't focus on anything other than my breathing and the glaring awkwardness in the room. I'm ashamed of myself. I am a doctor. I am a doctor. I should be putting my patients' welfare before my own feelings, but I today can't do it. Any other day, I could, and would. Today is a different animal.
In between each appointment, as I escort the patient out of the operatory and write notes in the patient's chart, my cousin picks up that egregious cell phone and glues it between her ear and her shoulder, chatting away with a different person each time as she cleans up the room, sometimes snapping her gum as she does so. As I write in each patient's chart, I grip my pen with such a fierce frustration that my knuckles blanch a stark white. It's a wonder, as the day drones forward, that the pen hasn't given up and snapped, heaving a deep sigh of relief at the end of its mistreatment.
At lunchtime, a delivery guy, a young kid who can't be any older than seventeen, shows up at the office door. He is burdened with pizza boxes. I later find out that the nurse-practitioner, the boss's assistant, and the receptionist have all pooled their money together and ordered a pizza lunch for my cousin without my knowledge. A feast is laid out in the break room, and my cousin, who almost has to be surgically removed from her cell phone, squeals sharply with delight. She immediately lifts up a slice of pizza, heavy with sausage and pepperoni, and brings it to her lips. Of course. Of course she can eat double-meat pizza with no consequences. If I tried to eat that, I wouldn't be able to fit into my scrubs. I turn away from the celebration in the break room and open up the community refrigerator, where my packed lunch sits on the top shelf. I have a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, no mayo or cheese, with lettuce and tomato. I also have a hard, crisp red apple and a bottle of plain water. Boring. How can I be so fat when I eat so well? How can my blasted cousin eat three slices of meat-laden pizza and be so skinny? How could she leave me, after we've been such a solid partnership?
I hate my life.
After lunch, which I quietly eat by myself at the front desk, lest I be tempted to eat any pizza and balloon up to 200 pounds, I return to my operatory. My cousin is on her cell phone again, rubbing her flat belly and groaning to her lucky conversation recipient, "I ate sooo much pizza just now! I don't know how I'm ever gonna hit that place up tonight with you guys!" She infuriatingly smacks her gum.
Lunch time finishes its painful hour and we return to our patients. It's so close to 4:00 p.m. It will all be over in three hours. This day will be over in three hours. Then my cousin, the same cousin who has stabbed me in the back, proven her disloyalty and disappointed me tremendously, will disappear into the sunset, rarely to be heard from again. It's a comforting thought, one that will sustain me for the remainder of her time here.
The afternoon continues interminably. My stoic facade drains me. It's hard for me to keep up appearances. I'm so close to cracking, but I'm so close to the end of the day as well. I try to focus on Monday. I think about what it will feel like to be thirty years old with a new medical assistant. I wonder what she'll be like. I wonder if she'll decide to leave me somewhere down the road for a better-paying job or a more challenging career option. I don't even think about tomorrow. My thirtieth birthday is an afterthought now.
At 4:00 p.m., the party is officially over.
With great show and flourish, the boss hands my cousin her final paycheck. He hands it to her with a stiff, forced smile playing on his lips, saying, "Well, best of luck at your new job!" I'm surprised that his mouth is open, that he's not actually speaking to her through clenched teeth. I'm proud of him for disguising the disgust in his voice. His actions make me love him even more than I already do. I hate myself for loving him so much and not being loved by him in return.
His assistant, the receptionist and the nurse-practitioner each take a turn enveloping my cousin in an emotional good-bye hug. Tears drip from the assistant's eyes. The nurse-practitioner sobs quietly to herself, letting the fat tears roll down her cheeks unabashedly. The receptionist carries a sad, heavy expression on her face. I look at my cousin and nod my head. I don't do theatrics.
"Good luck with your new job," I tell her in the politest tone I can conjure up. It's the first time the subject has been brought up between us in two weeks.
"Thanks." She gazes at the floor uncomfortably; she can't even look me in the face. Then she pulls her lint-shot fleece jacket on over her brilliant green scrubs, stuffs her purse with her final paycheck, and leaves the practice anti-climactically without one look back.
The rest of the staff closes up the office in dead silence. Well, it would be dead silence, but the assistant and the nurse-practitioner are sniffling violently. I see nothing but tears and red noses between the two of them. I'll have to thank them on Monday for remembering my milestone birthday.
Once all the operatories are clean and the rest of the staff has left the building, leaving behind only the two of us, my boss heaves a massive sigh. It's a sigh so loud he could be exhaling the entire world in a single breath. "Well, that was fun," he utters with a disgusted sarcasm. "Let's not do that again any time soon."
I nod vigorously in agreement, feeling the heaviness of the day slip off my shoulders. "I'll drink to that."
An amused twinkle lights up in my boss's eyes. "Hey, speaking of which, let's go out. Right now." He doesn't miss a beat. He never does. "What do you say? We should really have a couple of drinks after this roller coaster of a day."
"Dressed in scrubs?" I ask with a sudden alarm. I didn't expect this turn of events. I look like...well, not quite like how he looked when he walked in this morning, but close enough. I can't possibly go out in scrubs and old sneakers. I'll get laughed out of the bar.
My boss, obviously enjoying my plight, tosses his head back and laughs. It's the first time I've heard him laugh since my cousin gave him her two weeks' notice. "Oh, you look fine." When he sees that I haven't budged on my stance, his face drops and disappointment creeps into his eyes. "Are you serious? You really won't go out with me? All I wanted to do was celebrate your birthday."
At those words, my heart falls to the floor. It literally feels like my heart has shifted through my ribs and free-fallen to the ground. My boss is the only one who has mentioned my birthday all day long. Everyone else was so focused on it being my cousin's last day that thoughts of my birthday tomorrow flew right out the front door. I'm touched. I'm floored.
I love him. I have always loved him. And I always will.
"Okay. Let's get our drink on." I smile as I admit defeat. It's the first smile that has brightened my own face in the last two weeks.
"Good." My boss approves, delighted. He's such a party person. He'll never grow up at this rate. "Go get your coat and your bag, and meet me in the parking lot. I'll drive."
I nod in agreement as I head into the coat room, throwing on my coat and grabbing my purse. I understand now. I get it. As painful as this lesson today was, it has taught me a monumental lesson. Hurtful events won't bother me forever. They can't. Because life goes on. On to something greener.