Fifty or Sixty Years
Abby Lockhart to John Carter: Next of Kin
Carter finished his phone call and came downstairs. Handing Carter his coat and gloves, Jack said, “Everyone’s already in the cars. How about we walk? Give us some time to talk.”
Carter smiled and nodded, “Fine, Dad. I’d like that. It’s gotten a little crowded around here today. I thought the original plan was for the three of us.”
“It was but you know your grandmother. She likes to invite the whole family, especially on holidays.”
Bundling up and closing the door to No. 59, they set off at a brisk pace. However, instead of heading towards Walnut Street, the most direct route to the Commons, Jack walked toward the river. “I thought we would take the scenic route, maybe stop at the pub for a drink.” Carter nodded his agreement. Clearly Dad had more on his mind than could be discussed in a brief walk
The air was cool and crisp. It had snowed the night before and everything was covered with white. The afternoon sunlight made everything sparkle. For the first time in years, Carter was actually enjoying his visit with his family. Though he had been disappointed at first, he was glad Abby had not come. He needed the time away from her and the time with his family. Though he and his dad had yet to have any serious conversations, it was nice to be with him and feel relaxed.
“Your grandmother is certainly enjoying the crowd.”
“Yes, and it’s not as bad as I’d anticipated.”
Jack laughed, “I know what you mean. It has been good to see my brothers again. It has been awhile.”
“I noticed the three of you seemed to be having quite a good time last night.”
Jack nodded. As the continued walking down Mount Vernon toward Charles, Jack said, “John, I really didn’t ask you to walk so we could discuss the family. Well, not our extended family anyway.” Carter nodded, half anticipating what his father was about to say. “You know our divorce was final about three months ago. Your mother and I aren’t going to get back together.”
“I know I’ve said some things this past year that may have sounded like you were responsible for my decisions.” He stopped walking and looked at his son. “The fact is, I had been thinking about it for a long time. Dad’s death and realizing you were old enough to see the problem . . . I guess it took that for me to have the courage to do what I should have done a long time ago. When I confronted your mother, she made it perfectly clear that she had no intentions of changing. I believe her exact words were, ‘I’m not broken.’ Anyway, I felt I had no other choice but to leave and try to regain some of what I’d lost.”
Carter nodded and put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Dad, I realize that. Mom . . . Mom’s never going to change.”
Jack began walking again, this time more slowly. “Son, I was wondering how you would feel if I started seeing someone.”
Carter grinned, “Dad, I’ve expected to have this conversation before now. Mother is certainly not pining away for you in Europe.”
“I didn’t think she would,” he smirked. Yet, there was no animosity in his voice, just curiosity, as he asked, “Where is she now? Did you get in touch with her?”
“The chalet in Switzerland, with someone named Jean Paul. She sounded rather rushed but she did get my present. I hope that doesn’t upset you.”
Jack smirked and shook his head; “That you sent her a present or that she’s with Jean Paul?” He paused, “I’ve met Jean Paul before. He’s the type who loves to escort rich women wherever they want, as long as they’re paying.”
“I believe the correct term is gigolo.” Carter retorted with a dispirited laugh.
Jack chuckled regretfully, “I believe that you are right.”
Returning to the subject that his father had broached Carter inquired, “So, are you asking my permission to see women in general or have you met someone in particular?”
Jack cocked his head and raised his eyebrows at his son’s perceptiveness. One corner of his mouth turned up slightly, as he answered, “Someone in particular.”
“Someone I met because of you actually.”
“Me?” Carter was surprised.
“Yes, I met her briefly last spring when you instituted the Lucille Knight Fellowship.”
Carter recalled Barbara saying his father had offered to take her to the airport. “You’re seeing Barbara Knight?”
“Yes, though we didn’t start seeing each other until a couple of months ago. I ran into her by accident on one of my business trips. I took her to dinner and . . . the rest, as they say, is history.”
Carter chuckled and scratched his neck. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Do you object?”
He shook his head and replied, “No . . . no, not at all. I just . . . I’m surprised, that’s all . . . I wouldn’t have pictured you two together.”
“She’s so different from Mom.” They were at the corner of Mount Vernon and Charles. Carter stopped and stared at his father. “I don’t know her well . . . I’ve only met her a couple of times but from what Lucy told me, Barbara is very strong, independent . . . she has never wanted or needed a man in her life.”
Jack nodded. “I would say that’s a fair description of Barbara. Maybe that’s part of the attraction.”
Carter nodded and they resumed walking in the direction of the pub. “Is it serious?”
“I don’t know yet. We haven’t been dating all that long and, between her job and mine, we don’t see each other all that much.”
“I understand that.”
“No, John. I don’t think you do. You work with Abby. Barbara and I are lucky to see each other once a week.”
“Working with someone you’re dating isn’t always easy.”
“Son, relationships aren’t easy. That’s why I’m taking my time with this. I’m not sure I’m ready to plunge into another one. On the other hand, I’m not getting any younger either.”
“Will you be seeing her over the holidays?”
Jack nodded. “She’s flying in tomorrow morning.”
Carter laughed, “You are brave. Introducing her to the whole clan at once.”
Jack grinned, “Son, if she’s scared off by the family, I might as well find out early.”
Carter’s tone became pensive, as he said, “That’s true.”
He followed his dad down the steps and into CheersJ. The pub was not crowded. They selected a table in the corner. Carter ordered a club soda with lime and was amazed when his dad said, “Make that two.” In response to his son’s unasked question, he added, “I’m cutting down.”
Carter looked around at the room; it had not changed since his last visit. The place was not as large as the one on the television show but the ambience was the same . . . friendly neighborhood bar . . . dark paneling . . . pool table in the next room . . . restaurant upstairs. As they sat in silence, waiting for their drinks, Carter wondered what other topics Dad wished to cover before they joined the rest of the Carters. The waitress brought their drinks and both men sipped them. At last, Jack said, “Well, I’ve told you about my love life. How are things with you and Abby?”
Carter looked down at the dark mahogany table and took a deep breath. Dad had finally reached the main reason for their conversation. When Carter did not immediately respond, his dad said, “Son, I’m not trying to pry . . . it’s . . .”
Carter looked up at his Dad’s face and fingered his glass. Amazingly, he was not angered by his father’s question. Getting reacquainted after so many years was awkward for both of them. Neither was quite sure how to proceed. Jack sat quietly, trying to interpret his son’s reaction. Jack felt as if he were involved in an extremely tense business negotiation. One wrong move, one wrong word and the whole deal could fall apart. Yet, this was far more important to him than any of his corporate deliberations. Those discussions only involved money. One could always make more money. One could not replace a son. Notwithstanding twenty-plus years of neglect, a tenuous relationship had somehow survived. Jack was longing to strengthen that.
After a few minutes, Carter spoke. “Dad, it’s not that I mind answering your question. I’m not sure how to answer it because . . . I’m not sure how things are . . . between Abby and me.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Carter was stunned. He could not remember his dad ever asking that question before. He was even more bemused when he realized he did want to talk to his dad about it. For the first time in years, he had his father’s complete attention. He scratched his neck as he began, “Abby . . . Abby has a lot of problems. Her father left when she was seven. Her mother is bipolar and Maggie has never stayed on medication regularly.”
“Maggie, that’s Abby’s mother?”
“Um hum. Abby is the oldest; she has one brother that is five years younger. Abby practically raised him. Eric has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder also.”
For almost an hour, John talked and Jack listened, interrupting his son only for clarification. As he sat there, listening to John recount the tale of Abby’s problems, Jack realized how much he and John were alike . . . and different. As he watched and listened to John’s narration, Jack grew more concerned about his son’s relationship with this woman. “Anyway, I came alone because Abby said she was skipping Christmas this year. She wouldn’t even let me put up a tree,” John concluded.
The waitress came by with another round of drinks. After thanking her, Jack turned to his son and said, “You know John, I’ve only met Abby a couple of times but there is something about her that reminds me of your mother.”
John became reflective as he said, “In some ways that’s true.”
Jack continued, “I’ve only met Susan a few times too but she reminds me of your grandmother . . .strong . . . determined . . .very opinionated . . . often independent . . . but immensely compassionate.”
Carter grinned, “That’s definitely true. The strong, opinionated part is probably why they didn’t hit it off right away.”
“But they get along now.”
“Um.” Carter sipped his soda. “Gamma makes no secret of the fact she prefers Susan to Abby. Dad, is that what this is about?”
“Son, I can’t blame you for being skeptical of my motives and I’m certainly not one to be giving advice on relationships.”
Carter shrugged and took another drink. He should have known that eventually Dad would get around to telling him how to live his life. His father’s next words stupefied him. “John, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life. God knows I’ve screwed up my own bad enough. I know you’re accustomed to making your own decisions and, for the most part, the decisions you’ve made have been good. You have had to survive on your own since you were nine or ten; I don’t expect you to want me to tell you how to live your life now. Yet, I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I made either.” Jack paused, “I’d like to give you some advice, if you’ll let me.”
Carter could not believe what he was hearing; his father was asking his permission to give him advice. Shocked by his father’s comments he replied, though not enthusiastically, “Sure, I’ll listen.”
“John, at the risk of overwhelming you with platitudes, I know it is tempting and appears romantic to see yourself as the knight in shining armor come to rescue the damsel in distress.”
“You think that’s what I’m doing with Abby?”
“John, please, hear me out.” Carter nodded, propped his elbows on the table and his chin on his hands as he listened. “I thought I could do that with your mother. From the beginning, my parent’s tried to warn me but I wouldn’t listen. I enjoyed knowing that Eleanor was dependent on me. I wanted to stand up to John and Millicent Carter and prove I was a man. I chose the wrong front on which to take my stand. John, I know she is the only mother you have and you love her. In her own way . . . she loves you but I should never have married Eleanor. I knew she had problems when I first met her; I thought I could replace her addictions. I thought if she had me to help her . . . if she would ever realize how much I loved her; I thought I could be strong enough for both of us. I was wrong. Son, you can not help someone who does not want to be helped. Your mother enjoys living in her bubble. She sees no reason to escape. She’s comfortable there.”
Jack watched his son for signs of indignation. Years of experience negotiating had taught him to interpret non-verbal communication well. Finding nothing in his son’s demeanor but deliberative attention, Jack continued “John, life is full of problems and for relationships to work it takes both partners working together. In the beginning, I think I did love your mother but years of her closing herself off . . . years of her not allowing me in . . . years of her not returning my love . . . whatever I felt for her died, a slow painful death. Or maybe I never knew what love was. John, I realize you always thought of your mother as the tough one but the truth is, she gained her strength by sucking the life out of me.
At some point in everyone’s life they come across a problem that shakes them to the core . . . that makes them question everything they have ever believed . . . everything they have ever been taught. For me, it was Bobby’s death. After Bobby died, I realized, I couldn’t be strong enough for both of us. I had no one to lean on. I had alienated my family when we got married. Mom tried to help when Bobby got sick but I resented her. Dad and I agreed on business decisions but that was all. Instead of turning to them for help, I pushed them farther away. Mom . . . Mom and Eleanor never got along. At first Mom tried but Eleanor rebuffed her at every turn. Finally, Mom gave up.”
Carter had never heard his father speak so openly about family relationships. He bit his lower lip as he continued to listen. “When I returned from China after . . . after the incident with Nadine, I thought, if I followed Eleanor to France, I could reason with her . . . get her to come back home because you needed her. I let her convince me that if I gave her enough time to grieve, she would return. She always had one more reason, one more excuse, and one more need to be fulfilled before she could come home and be a mother to her son. The longer I stayed away, the less strength I had to resist and more effortless it became to stay away. I was comfortable allowing myself to be sucked into the bubble of her existence. I used work as an excuse to avoid facing my problems. In the process, I severed nearly all ties with my parents, alienated my daughter and lost both of my sons. The only things I had left were my business and a farce of a marriage . . . until Dad’s funeral when you had the temerity to force me reassess my priorities.”
Carter smiled faintly and reached across the table, placing his hand over his father’s. The gesture was brief but it brought tears to Jack Carter’s eyes, as his son said, “You didn’t lose both of your sons, Dad, just Bobby.”
Jack cleared his throat. Then, pulling out his money clip, Jack placed the payment for their beverages and a generous tip on the table. Both men stood, nodded to the waitress and walked to the door. Jack held the door for his son and placed his hand on John’s shoulder as they ascended the steps to Beacon Street.
They could hear the carolers singing as they approached the Commons. Turning again to his son, Jack asked, “Mind if I ask one more question?”
“Sure, why not?”
“What happened with you and Susan? You two seemed so happy together. She stayed with you after your surgery, you went with her to New York . . .”
Carter sighed, “New York . . . New York happened.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Dad, Susan’s sister put her through hell. She was back on drugs, she lost little Suzie and didn’t even realize she had lost her. When the police found Suzie, Chloe took her out of the hospital against medical advice and disappeared again. Since then, Chloe has been in and out of treatment programs. Susan worries constantly. I don’t want to be responsible for putting Susan through something like that.”
“You two went sailing on your birthday. You seemed so at ease with each other. The way you looked at her at dinner . . .I thought . . .”
Carter interrupted, “Dad, we’re still friends.”
“Dad, I don’t want to hurt Susan. She doesn’t need another drug addict in her life.”
“Son, you’re a recovering addict. There is a difference.”
“Son, don’t sell yourself short.”
“Back to the platitudes again?”
“Seriously John, I like Susan. She appears to have that perfect combination of strength and femininity.”
“Yes, she does.”
Seeing Doug approaching, Jack said, “Well, they’re sending out the search party. I guess we’d better join the rest of the family in listening to the Christmas Carols.”
Vote for Susan
“I wish I hadn’t blown that summer thing Dr. Carter.”
“You’ll get another chance.”
Conversation between Antoine Bell and John Carter: Getting to Know You“Is this backing off because if it is, I think I prefer butting in?”
“ . . . No, I agreed not to rescue you or help you or fix you. I’m just going to shut up and wait for the car wreck . . . “
“ . . . Everything would have been fine if you would have just come to me in the first place.”
“Well, then, I’m the overprotective boyfriend.”
Excerpts from conversation between Abby Lockhart and John Carter: Walk Like a Man “Sorry Abby, I was right in the middle of a trauma.”
John Carter apologizing to Abby Lockhart about interrupting her cell phone conversation to request that she get a tox screen and insert a Foley catheter during a trauma: Tell Me Where It Hurts
Carter sat in an overstuffed chair in front of the fire in the second floor library. His feet were propped on the ottoman. Through the window he could see the snow beginning to fall again. He looked up as Gamma entered.
“John, are you going to be up awhile?”
“Yeah.” He held up his journal. “I thought I would write a little. Are you going to bed?”
“Yes. I’m afraid the events of today have me exhausted. It was enjoyable though, wasn’t it?”
Carter smiled as he got up and walked towards her. Kissing her cheek, he said, “Yes it was.”
Carter knew Gamma well. She had not come in just to say goodnight; she intended to talk. He helped her to a chair, then seated himself across from her. “It has been along time since I’ve seen you and your father getting along so well. I’m glad you two are close again.”
“Me too,” he agreed.
Millicent knew that closeness had come with a price, for both her son and her grandson. “Did you ever get in touch with your mother?”
Millicent could hear the disappointment and resignation in his voice as he answered. “Yes. We talked . . . briefly. She was busy getting ready to go somewhere with someone named Jean Paul.”
Gamma raised her eyebrows at his reply. Despite her visit last winter, the relationship between Eleanor and her son had not improved greatly. Her expression changed to one of sadness as she said, “John, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay Gamma. She’s been doing this since Bobby died; I’ve grown accustomed to her behavior.”
“John, that doesn’t excuse it or make it hurt less. Everyone needs a mother.”
He patted her hand, “It’s okay, Gamma. In her own way, I know she loves me. Besides, I have you. I’ve always had you.”
“John, there were many times when I failed you . . . times when I did not understand . . . times when we had some terrible arguments.”
Carter placed his hand over his grandmother’s. She could see the gleefulness in his eyes as he replied, “Gamma, a wise old lady once told me, ‘If two people always agree on everything, one of them isn’t necessary.’ You were just letting me know how necessary you are.” She smiled and squeezed her grandson’s hand. “Gamma, I always knew you loved me even when I told you where you could put my trust fund.”
She cocked her head sideways. “John, I never took it away. You always had access to that money.”
“I know.” She nodded. “Gamma, I needed to prove to myself that I could live without it.”
“And you did. John, we were proud of you. You earned your grandfather’s respect by doing that.”
“I know. Gamma, I’ve learned something else too. Since Dr. Weaver assumed some of Dr. Romano’s duties, I’ve been assuming more of the administrative duties in ER. I know about the Scooter Fund.” The merriment in his eyes turned into an impish grin as he said, “You know, I didn’t get a raise this last year.”
She returned his look. “Oh, and you work at County for the money? What do you do with your salary these days?”
“I set up a college fund for one of my patients. He started U of I this year and plans to be a doctor. I first met him when he came through ER on one of those high school enrichment programs. After observing for one day, he correctly diagnosed his neighbor’s child with lead poisoning.”
“Yes, he is. Antoine will be a good doctor.”
“And what will you do if he chooses not to follow in your footsteps? What if he chooses another profession?”
“You mean, what if he is rebellious like me?” he asked with a grin. Millicent pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows. Carter answered, “His scholarship is tied to his grades not his major.” He shrugged, “If he changes his major, at least he’ll have an education. Though he would make a good doctor.”
“Well, I suspect he has an excellent role model. Help me up, please.” He stood to help her and assisted her with her walker. As they proceeded toward the door, she glanced at his journal and said, “You know. One day your grandchildren or your great-grandchildren will be reading those.”
“Then, they will find out they descended from one very confused man.”
She shook her head. “No, I suspect they will discover that they descended from one extremely compassionate man, who, despite his choice of careers, managed to carry on the best of the family traditions.”
They walked in congenial silence to her room, where her nurse was waiting to help her to bed. She turned and patted his cheek, “Don’t stay up too late dear. Breakfast is at eight.” Then she added with a wink, “By the way, I’ll cast my vote for Susan.”
“Gamma, I didn’t say . . .”
Smiling she shook her head, “John, you didn’t have too.”
* * * * * *
Carter returned to the library and situated himself again in the chair by the fire. Opening his journal he began to write.
Christmas Eve, 2002
For the first time in years, I’ve spent three days with my family and I have no desire to leave. I’m actually looking forward to Christmas tomorrow. There are members of my extended family that I could do without but the time with Dad has been great. Abby was right about one thing; I needed to spend some quality time with . . .
Carter paused as he recalled Abby’s somewhat disrespectful reference to his old man. Then, he continued writing.
with my father. It’s been over twenty years since Dad and I were this close. It’s a pity that it came at such a high price. Since my parents couldn’t settle their differences, they have agreed to disagree and go their separate ways. Dad didn’t seem surprised or upset when he learned Mom was in the Alps with Jean Paul whatever-his-name-is.
The talk with Dad today has forced me to reevaluate my relationship with Abby. I’m not sure it’s going to work. No matter what I do, things don’t seem to be working between us. At first, I thought she would change as she became more secure in our relationship . . . realized I wasn’t going to give up and go away. However, nothing has changed. If any thing, she has become more distant . . . more closed off. No matter how hard I try to be a part of Abby’s life, she won’t let me. With no thought of our relationship or me whatsoever, she was considering changing apartments . . . having Eric as a roommate. When I commented that caring for Eric was a responsibility she could share, her response was ‘With who?’ I’ve said I would be there but, other than someone to listen when she wants to feel sorry for herself, I don’t know what she wants. If I don’t offer to help, I’m an inconsiderate cad; if I do, I’m the interfering, overprotective boyfriend.
Boyfriend . . . that’s a joke. Between all the distractions of her family, us working different shifts and her drinking . . . we haven’t exactly been spending much ‘quality time’ together. Oh hell . . . my apologies in advance to the parents of any of my under age descendants who happen to read my journals . . . I haven’t slept with my girlfriend in over three weeks! We didn’t even do it the night before this trip. Of course is this keeps up, there may not be any descendants. Not that Abby and I are considering children . . . Abby’s not even sure she wants children, ever . . . in a way I understand; she’s worried about passing on the disease, but still.
Carter stopped writing as he contemplated that. He knew he wanted children and he knew he could love an adopted child but he definitely wanted children. The thought of a child being defective, as Abby put it, did not frighten him. Life was full of risks but if you were afraid to take risks you might miss out on some of life’s greatest joys. On the other hand, you could get hurt. He stared into the fire as he continued to think about his life. After a few minutes he continued writing.
However, if my life doesn’t change soon, there won’t be any progeny, genetic or adopted, to read my journals . . . and if by some miracle there are . . . try to keep in mind that I didn’t write these for you anyway.
Sometimes Abby can be so sweet and seductive but most of the time being with her is more like trying to make love to one of the trout I pulled from the stream in Aspen. One minute she is laying there unresponsively tolerating my kisses and the next, she is wriggling away, as if allowing me to hold her would result in her death. Why bother to seduce me if she doesn’t want me to touch her? Maybe she senses there’s no real bond, no ‘chemistry’ between us. Sex is just . . . sex . . . physical release but nothing else. Sometimes when we’re together, I watch her, she looks . . . I don’t know . . . bored. I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help but compare. It was never like that with Susan. Whenever I touched Susan, there was always an immediate pleasurable response . . . well, at least on my part. No, Susan felt it too. Only once when I kissed her did she say it wasn’t there for her. Given what happened later, I’m not sure she was telling the truth. We didn’t even have to touch . . . sometimes it was a look or the tone of her voice. It’s not that way with Abby. Sometimes I think I still have that connection with Susan but probably it’s my own imagination.
Perhaps Abby’s not happy with me because she’s still in love with Luka. I’ve seen the way he looks at her. In spite of all his recent conquests, I know he still cares for Abby. I’m not stupid. I saw him follow her into the bedroom at Susan’s the other night. Not that I wanted to be in that room with them . . . too many memories . . . but they were alone a bit longer than was necessary for casual conversation. And of course the music box was from Luka . . . a quaint Croatian village in a snow globe. Okay, so the handcuffs were from Susan but hell, we’ve been passing those things back and forth since . . . since I was in med school.
I can’t be upset with Abby for not loving me. From the beginning I’ve known what I feel for Abby isn’t love. I guess I thought if you work at something long enough, if you try hard enough, it will eventually happen. But Dad’s right. It takes two to make a relationship work. Abby’s wrapped up in her own miserable world . . . I’m not sure there will ever be room for me . . . it’s sad, but I’m not sure there will ever be room for anyone. I’m beginning to believe that Abby is only happy when she’s sad. And though that sounds like an oxymoron, in Abby’s case, it’s a reality. Abby doesn’t know how to be happy and I don’t know how to teach her, especially when she doesn’t want to learn, not really.
Abby’s content to live in the doldrums and trying to convince her otherwise is beginning to affect my work. The constant interruptions and phone calls are distracting. I cant be having long phone conversations in the middle of a trauma. Abby knows that. I can’t be constantly changing my shifts at the last minute or getting someone to cover while I leave to meet ‘Anita Coffee.’ Multi-tasking has always been one of my strong points but Abby . . . Abby demands so much of my time . . . it’s difficult to focus. When I’m working, my patients deserve my full attention. Abby knows that . . . or she should. Yet, the other night when I refused to step out of a trauma to take her call, she got angry. Hell, I managed to get to Nebraska in the middle of a snowstorm and still it wasn’t good enough! At first she appeared relieved to see me but by the time we got to the hotel she was on my case for not taking her call. I know she’s been under a lot of stress with her family but I’m beginning to think Dad’s right. Abby’s an emotional vampire and trying to cope with that is beginning to take its toll. There was no way I could take that call; I was in the middle of a major trauma; a kid’s life was at stake. I will not put a patient’s life in jeopardy to deal with personal problems. I don’t have the right to do that; when I’m on duty, my patient’s deserve my undivided attention.
Carter sat for a moment staring at the fire as he recalled one of their many arguments. They were in the hotel room in Nebraska. Carter had just returned to the room with a bucket of ice as Abby hung up the phone:
‘That was Eric’s attorney. He needs you to testify.’
‘Eric’s behavior. He needs you to say you were treating him, that he had come to visit me, that you suspected he was bipolar and you were recommending a psychiatric consult . . . having him evaluated.’
‘Abby, I can’t testify to that.’
‘Because it’s not the truth. Abby, this is a court martial. I’ll be under oath to tell the truth.’
‘I know it’s a court martial, Carter, but this is my brother we’re talking about. His attorney has a signed form stating that you were treating him and requesting his medical records.’
‘A signed form which you forged. Abby, I won’t do it.’
‘I can’t believe you’re not going to back me up on this. Carter, you saw him. He was manic.’
‘Abby, I wasn’t treating him. I can testify as to the behavior I observed when we were out with him but I can’t say with any medical certainty that he was manic. That night, his behavior did not appear abnormal. I have only seen the guy twice and the night we were out he was drinking. I have no baseline on which to evaluate him. And I will not perjure myself and say that I treated him when I didn’t.’
‘But you saw him the day he was arrested.’
‘Yes, I saw him and I agree, that day, he appeared manic but he was not my patient. I can’t testify that he was.’
‘Carter, it’s not a real court. It’s the military. Their rules are archaic.’
‘Abby, whether or not their rules are archaic has nothing to do with this. Maybe you don’t have any respect for their rules but I do and I’m not going to lie.’
Carter resumed his writing.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to take care of Abby and be the kind of doctor I want to be . . . the kind of doctor I’ve always been. Abby’s a nurse, I thought she understood. When I have someone’s life in my hands, I can’t take phone calls, not unless it is an emergency . . . even then, I can’t just walk out.
Carter stopped and read what he had just written. Was it possible to be the kind of doctor he wanted to be and have a family? Was he expecting too much? He thought about Lucy. She had understood. Could they have made it work? He reviewed his relationship with Susan and the problems they had faced together . . . Gamma’s illness . . . her problems with Chloe and Suzie . . . could they have made it work? No, he thought, you are with Abby now, do not go there.
Carter’s thoughts were interrupted by a soft voice calling his name. “Dr. Carter. Dr. John, I don’t mean to interrupt you but the men downstairs are having hot cider. Alger said you were still up. I thought you might like some.”
He looked up to see Marisa holding a tray with a cup of steaming liquid and a small pitcher. She was young, perhaps sixteen or seventeen and this was her first job. He had only met her a few days ago but already he liked her. Smiling he said, “Thank you, Marisa. That was thoughtful of you.” She sat the tray on the table next to him. He glanced at the clock over the mantle. “Shouldn’t you be going home soon?”
“No sir. I’m staying tonight. I have a room in the servants quarters on the third floor. Alger said it would be safer since I would be working so late tonight. I think it was because the cook was afraid I might not be here on time in the morning. I’m scheduled to serve breakfast and help with dinner.”
She covered her mouth, thinking perhaps that she had said too much. He chuckled at her innocent chatter. “How late are you working tonight?”
“I’m to stay up until everyone goes to bed, sir.”
He smiled and shook his head. “Please, stop calling me sir. You make me feel like an old man. Marisa, you’ve been working since before breakfast this morning and it’s after midnight. Why don’t you go on up to bed. If anyone needs anything else tonight, they are perfectly capable of getting it themselves.”
“With all due respect, sir . . .uh Dr. John, I really need this job. I don’t want to get into any trouble.”
As if he were talking with one of his patients he said, “Marisa, I know you need this job but you also need some sleep. This family can be extremely demanding at times and some of my cousins may not go to bed at all. There is no need for you to stay up all night to satisfy their whims. You’re tired, go on up to bed. I’ll handle it.”
“Are you sure, Dr. Carter because . . .”
Explaining the chain of command in the Carter family could take hours. Carter simplified it by saying, “Marisa, I understand. However, this is Gamma’s house. She and I live together in Chicago. Except for my dad, Jack, everyone else is just visiting. Now go on up and get some sleep. I’ll clear it with Dad and Alger.”
“Thank you, Dr. Carter . . .uh Dr. John.”
He smiled, “Good night, Marisa. See you in the morning.”
Noting the strong flavor of rum mixed in with the spices, Carter shook his head as he sipped the cider. No doubt Uncle Branch had a hand in making it. There were times when his family could be utterly despicable in the way they treated the staff. He contemplated walking downstairs and formally announcing that the servants had retired for the evening, but thought better of it. Besides, he was too comfortable sitting by the fire. Instead he punched his dad’s cell phone number.
“John? Where are you?”
“Upstairs in the library.”
“Are you incapacitated?”
“No just comfortable and I don’t plan to move for awhile. Marisa, the young lady who has been serving all day, brought up some hot cider. She didn’t look well. I sent her up to bed. I thought you could tell everyone down there, if they need anything, they are on their own.”
“Nothing serious I hope.”
“Nothing eight hours sleep won’t cure. Although, she’ll be lucky to get six.”
Jack laughed at his son’s ploy. Something about John’s call reminded Jack of the impish little boy who was constantly conning his way out of trouble. “I understand. You don’t want to face your cousins’ wrath when they learn there is no one available to meet their ridiculous demands until morning.”
He could almost see the smirk on John’s face as he responded, “Why should I deal with the furor? Gamma’s gone to bed. You’re the senior Carter. No one is going to question you.”
“Point taken. I’ll pass the word and be up in a few minutes myself.”
Carter laughed softly to himself as he put down the phone. It had been a long time since he had felt comfortable enough to pull such a stunt with his dad. Carter settled back in his chair, refilled his mug and read everything he had written tonight. He started a couple of sentences then crossed them out. It was hopeless. The warmth of the fire, the cider, watching the snow fall out the window . . . everything reminded him of last Christmas. Even though he was upset about his parents’ divorce, Susan had been there to share Christmas with him. He thought again about his relationship with Susan. Finally, he wrote:
Maybe I’m too romantic, for a guy anyway, but I always thought when I fell in love with the ‘right’ person there would be this intense . . .numinous . . .spiritual connection that would last no matter what circumstances came our way. Maybe I’m deluding myself but, if circumstances were different, I think I could have had that with Susan. I’m not sure I’ll ever have it with Abby.
Carter sat watching the flames dance in the fireplace and sipping the hot cider. He hated to admit that things were not working with Abby. He had thought he could bury his feelings for Susan and make things work with Abby. Yet, Dad was probably right. Both people had to be committed for a relationship to be successful. Carter was unsure if either of them were committed at the moment. Though he had called several times, Abby had barely spoken to him since he left.
He closed his journal and poured another cup of cider. As he set the pitcher down he noticed the cell phone. He picked it up and scrolled down till he found her number.
* * * * * *
Marisa tiptoed past Mrs. Millicent’s door and up the steps to the tiny room she had been assigned for the night. Everyone considered these rooms part of the third floor but technically, they were carved out of the attic. There were two of them. She had been given the smaller one. The room was cozy. The ceiling was slanted because of the roof and there was a small window in the alcove. There was even some wallpaper that covered the ceiling and one wall. The room could have been featured in one of those decorating magazines Mom was always bringing home.
Mom had worked for the family next door to the Carter home for years and knew practically all the servants who worked on this street. When her mother heard the Carters would be spending Christmas in Boston and needed some additional help, she and Marisa agreed that it was the perfect opportunity for Marisa to earn some extra money. If Marisa ever hoped to go to college, she would have to earn the money herself or qualify for scholarships. Mom worked hard and Dad had a small mechanic shop but, with seven siblings, the money they made barely provided food, clothing and a decent place to live. Temporary jobs were difficult to find, especially for high school students. Yet, her parents insisted that Marisa should concentrate on her studies and not work during school. This job appeared perfect. She was hired only to work during Christmas break. However, the housekeeper had hinted that if she did her job well, there was a possibility that she could continue to work part-time and arrange her own schedule. Even when the Carters were not in residence there was always dusting and polishing to be done. According to Ms. Smithers, “One never knew when the mistress might come to visit.”
Marisa had no idea how her mother had put up with working for such people all these years. They lived in a world that Marisa could not begin to imagine. Her first few days were not bad. No one was there but the household staff. She had worked hard and followed Ms. Smithers’ orders: cleaning bathrooms, dusting, polishing silver, making sure there were fresh linens on every bed. It was not difficult work but it did take a lot of time. The home was three full stories, part of the attic and a basement. Every room had to be ready before the Carters arrived. Dr. John had told her that his grandmother had the place completely remodeled a few years ago. Although the integrity of a home built in the nineteenth century was carefully preserved, it had been retrofitted with all the latest technology. There was even an elevator and a home theater in the basement.
Mr. Jack Carter was the first to arrive. He seemed nice enough though a bit aloof. He wanted breakfast precisely at seven. He left the house at exactly eight-thirty every morning to conduct business for Carter Enterprises. He rarely returned until after dinner. On Wednesday evening he brought in a huge Christmas tree and hired a team of people to come in and decorate the tree and the house. It was beautiful. There was not a mantel or stairway anywhere that was not draped in fresh greenery. As Marisa watched the decorations going up, she thought Ms. Smithers would probably need her help most of the month of January just to clean up the pine needles.
Next to arrive was Mrs. Millicent Carter; her private nurse, Martha; and Alger. Marisa was not exactly sure of Alger’s title but clearly, once he arrived, he was in charge. Alger was always polite and never demanding but it was apparent that all the staff was to answer to him. Alger, in turn, answered to Mrs. Millicent except for the times when it seemed as if Mrs. Millicent answered to him. Marisa found that somewhat amusing. Especially when Mrs. Millicent appealed to Mr. Jack Carter and Mr. Jack sided with Alger. Usually the disagreements were over whether or not Mrs. Millicent was well enough to participate in some activity. Things became even more comical after Dr. Carter arrived. Evidently, on matters concerning Mrs. Millicent’s health and activities, everyone deferred to the younger man. It made sense. After all, he was a medical doctor. Still, it was funny to observe the various chains of command. For in every area, except her health, Mrs. Millicent Carter was not contradicted.
Following Dr. John’s arrival, various other members of the Carter family began arriving. There were so many of them, Marisa did not even try to keep up with how they were related to each other. Most of them were polite as long as she did her job unobtrusively. One or two were positively obnoxious. Only Dr. John actually took the time to introduce himself to her and ask anything about her other than her name. And now, tonight he had insisted that she go to bed. Not that this was what she wanted to do all her life but it would not be difficult to work for someone like Dr. John.
As she showered and dressed for bed she recalled their first meeting.
While the rest of the Carters had arrived in limousines, Dr. John arrived in a taxi. Apparently Alger was aware of his anticipated arrival, for he met Dr. John at the door. As he opened the door for the younger man, Alger said, “Dr. Carter. How was your flight?”
“Fine. Are Dad and Gamma around?” he asked as he sat down his bags and began removing his scarf and gloves and handed them to Alger.
“Your father should return in time for dinner at seven and your grandmother is taking a nap.”
Carter nodded, “Good. If no one’s around, I’ll do the same. I had the night shift.”
“Very good, sir. Would you like something to eat?”
He shook his head, “No, I couldn’t resist picking up clam chowder at the airport.”
“At the airport?” Alger repeated disdainfully as he reached for the doctor’s coat.
The younger man had laughed and shook his head as he replied, “Not to worry Alger, the airport snack bar serves clam chowder from Legal Seafood7. Beats airplane food anytime.”
Alger smiled and nodded, “I’m sure it does sir.”
Marisa had been arranging several poinsettias that were recently delivered from the florist when Dr. John arrived. She was amazed at the easy banter she overheard between the younger Carter and Alger. Though Alger referred to him only as sir or Dr. Carter, there was something in the tone of their voices that betrayed a friendly relationship. Turning to her as he put away Dr. John’s coat and wrappings, Alger said, “Marisa, would you show Dr. Carter to his room. His is the large one across the hall from Mrs. Carter’s.”
“Yes, sir. Right this way sir,” she replied as she reached for his bags.
“No, it’s okay, Marisa. I have them.” His smile was warm and friendly and she noted his immediate use of her name. In fact, he commented on it. “That’s a very pretty name. Marisa what?”
He chuckled, “You do have another name, don’t you?” She had not expected him to ask that. “Uh, yes sir. It’s Dawson, Marisa Dawson.” Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a barely perceptible smile on Alger’s face as he listened to the exchange.
“Well, Marisa Dawson, I’m John Carter. Almost everyone on staff, except Alger,” he emphasized as he glanced sideways at the man, “calls me Dr. John. It’s much easier with so many Carters around. Lead the way.” He nodded toward the stairs and followed her up. “I don’t think you were working here the last time I visited.”
“No sir. I just started. It’s temporary. I’m still in school.”
“High-school or college?”
“High-school. I graduate next year in May.”
“And what do you plan to do after graduation?” Before she could answer he apologized, “I’m sorry. I’m grilling you with questions and we’ve just met. You don’t have to answer any of them if you’d rather not.”
“No, I don’t mind. It’s just . . .I didn’t expect anyone to care. After all, I’m just one of the servants and a temporary one at that.”
They had reached the first landing when he stopped and looked directly at her. “Marisa, don’t ever think of yourself as just a servant. Even if your job is only temporary, you are a member of the household staff and the job you do is just as important any other job.”
“I’m sure it’s not as important as yours.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Well, you’re a doctor. You save people’s lives.”
“Some days,” he conceded. “Though being a doctor is not always as glamorous as it sounds. Most of the time, Marisa, being a doctor isn’t all that different from your job. By the end of most shifts I’ve been yelled at, ordered around, spattered with blood, and covered in vomit or urine . . . or worse.”
“Yuck! Where do you work?”
“County General Emergency in Chicago.”
He laughed. “Because I enjoy taking care of people.” As he ascended the second flight of stairs, he asked, “Why did you choose this job?”
“I didn’t really choose it; it chose me. The position was available; I’m not in school right now and I need money for college.”
His tone was friendly as he observed, “So, cleaning up after the Carters is not your life’s ambition?” He was not at all like she had expected. He was so easy to talk to and he appeared genuinely interested in her.
“No offense, but no sir, it’s not.”
He grinned and shook his head. “None taken. What would you like to do?”
“Well, I really like kids. I have seven younger siblings and I spend a lot of time with them. I’d like to teach and . . . never mind . . . it’s a silly dream.”
“You’d like to teach and . . .” he prompted as she opened the door to his room.
“Promise you won’t laugh.”
“I promise,” he said as he placed his bags on the bed and began unpacking.
Marisa took his hanging bag and put his clothes in the closet as she said, “I’d love to write children’s books. My English lit teacher thinks I have the talent. She says if I could study children’s literature in college, and things like child development, it would help. Besides, teaching would give me a stable income if no one wants to publish my stories.”
He grinned widely, “So, I may be talking to the next Dr. Seuss.”
“You don’t think it’s a dumb idea?”
“No, the world needs good children’s literature and we certainly need teachers who love kids. Have you applied to any colleges?”
“I have a stack of applications at home and tons of forms for scholarships. Most of them have deadlines that are coming up soon. My counselor says I need to apply early to qualify for the really good scholarships. I don’t know when I’m ever going to find time to fill them out.”
“Need some help?”
“Dr. Carter, you’re not offering . . .”
“Dr. John,” he corrected. “And why not? I’m here for the next four and half days and I don’t have a lot on my schedule. I’m certainly experienced at filling out forms. When do you get off tonight?”
“I’m going home after dinner. I’ll be back in the morning around ten.”
“When you come back tomorrow, bring your stacks and come early. There’s a computer and an old typewriter in the library. I’ll meet you there around eight. I’m sure Gamma won’t mind. We’ll set you up in there and whenever you get a break, you can work on it. Once we get the first one done, I can type in the standard stuff.”
“Why are you volunteering to help me do this?”
“Marisa, you haven’t met the rest of my family yet.”
“No, just your dad and grandmother.”
“When you meet the rest of them, then you’ll understand. Paperwork will give me an excuse to hibernate in the library. However, my services come with a price,” he winked.
Marisa’s facial expression must have given her away as she thought I knew there was a catch. She had heard stories about rich guys and what they expected; her mother had warned her to be careful. Warily she asked, “What?”
Realizing she had misunderstood, he shook his head and smiled reassuringly, “Nothing like that Marisa. I’d like an autographed copy of your first book?”
She gave a relieved sigh and smiled as she said, “That, I can promise.” Feeling safe and knowing her inquiry was not likely to be misconstrued, she added, “I heard you tell Alger you worked all night. Is there anything else you need before you take a nap?”
“No, just be sure I’m awake by six. I don’t want to be late for dinner. That clam chowder was good but it won’t last very long.”
Marisa had to smile as she thought about Dr. John. He was so different from the rest of his family. He really appeared to be interested in people. I’ll bet he’s a good doctor she thought as she crawled into bed and snuggled under the covers. She would sleep well tonight. Her day was long but she was no longer worried about meeting the application deadlines. True to his word, Dr. John had helped her with the mountain of paperwork. He even offered some suggestions on improving her essays. Now, all she had to do was take them to the post office the day after Christmas. She also understood why he wanted to hibernate in the library. Most of his cousins were snobs.
Why Did You Call?
Even as I wander, I’m keeping you in sight.
You’re a candle in the window on a cold dark winter’s night.
And I’m getting closer than I ever thought I might.
REO Speed Wagon: Can’t Fight this Feeling
“You know you should be careful.”
“There’s a lot of gossip around here.”
“There’s nothing going on.”
“It’s just that he’s a doctor and you’re a med student.”
“Abby, there’s nothing going on.”
“But . . .”
“Uh. Luka tends to not think thing through sometimes and I don’t think it would be good for either of you.”
Conversation between Abby Lockhart and Erin Harkins: Hindsight
Susan was closing the coat closet door when her phone rang. Who could be calling at this time of night? Reaching for it she said, “Hello.”
“Carter.” She was surprised to hear his voice. “If you’re looking for Abby she’s not here. I just got in from my shift.”
“I know and I wasn’t looking for Abby. I was calling you.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing’s wrong. I just wanted to be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas.”
“You called to wish me a Merry Christmas,” she said as she poured herself a glass of juice.
“Something wrong with that?”
“Carter, it’s after midnight.”
“You weren’t sleeping. A guy can’t call his best friend and wish her a Merry Christmas?” he asked innocently.
“Your best friend. Is that what I am?”
His reply was soft, almost seductive. “Always.”
“I thought Abby was . . .”
“Susan, I didn’t call to talk to Abby or about Abby. I called to talk to you.”
Cautiously, she asked, “Carter, are things okay with you and Abby?” She walked to her room and sat on the bed.
“Susan, what did I just say?” His tone was patient but firm. She had heard him use it before with med students when he did not have time, or did not think it appropriate to explain why he needed them to do what he had just requested.
“Okay. Okay.” She paused. “Carter have you been drinking?”
“No, well a little.”
“Susan, I’m working on my second cup of hot cider.”
“Is there another kind? Susan, I’m not drunk, I’m just . . .” he stopped. He wanted to say lonely.
When he hesitated, Susan asked, “Are you still in Boston?”
“Um hum. I’ve spent most of the evening in an overstuffed leather chair, in front of the fire in the library . . . sipping hot cider . . . writing in my journal . . . admiring the Christmas decorations and watching it snow.”
“Sounds very preppy. I’ll bet you’re wearing a velvet smoking jacket too.” She sat down her juice and began to get ready for bed.
“Susan, you know I don’t smoke but you’re close. I’m wearing black silk . . .” Again he stopped in mid-sentence as thoughts of another night flashed through his head.
Pajamas and robe, Susan finished silently. Do not go there, Susan. “Sounds like something out of Love Story,” she joked.
“You know, that movie with Ryan O’Neal and Ali somebody. It took place in Boston. He was this rich good-looking guy and she was the daughter of some poor baker or something. They were in college at Harvard, they fall in love and she dies at the end.”
“Susan, you’re fading out. I didn’t hear the last part.”
“Sorry, I was changing into my pajamas.”
“The pink ones? Flannel or satin?”
“Carter, you’re incorrigible. Flannel. I said they fall in love and she dies at the end.”
He could picture her nestled on her bed in her pink flannel pajamas, although visions of her in pink satin kept dancing in his head. Oh God, he loved hearing the sound of her voice. “Sounds terrific,” he chuckled. “How did I miss it?”
Incredulously she asked, “You really haven’t seen it?”
He laughed. “No, I really haven’t seen it,” he mimicked. “Although, from your description, I’m not sure I want to,” he teased. “When did it come out?”
“I don’t know, probably around 1970 or so.” She plumped up the pillows and leaned back against them.
“Well, that might explain it. Susan, I was born around 1970 or so.”
“Carter, I’m not that old,” she replied defensively. “I didn’t see it when it first came out either. I saw it at a friends house on cable when I was in junior high.”
“Susan, I didn’t call to discuss old movies?”
“Why did you call?”
Why had he called? Obviously she was not buying that he had only called to wish her a Merry Christmas. He had called because he was enjoying Boston and he wished he had someone . . . he wished Susan was . . . the rum was definitely affecting his thinking. Do not do this Carter. You promised Abby . . .he closed his eyes and ran his hand trough his hair. He swallowed. “I called because . . . because I’m enjoying being here. The house . . . the city . . . I’m enjoying everything about it . . . and I . . . wanted to tell you about it.”
He knew his reason sounded lame but it was partly true. He had called because he needed to hear the sound of her voice. He was having a good time and he wanted to share it with Susan. If he had called Abby, she would have spoiled his mood. “Can’t a guy call a friend just to talk?”
“Carter, it’s late.”
Perhaps this was not a good idea. “Look Susan, I’m sorry. You’re right. It is late and you probably need to get some sleep. I’ll see you when I get back to Chicago.”
“Carter, wait!” She could tell by his voice he was lonely. He was enjoying his vacation and Abby was not around to share it or even listen. Susan was not positive but she suspected she knew why Carter had called her and not Abby. He was unable to locate Abby. Twice since Carter had gone to Boston, Susan had seen Abby leaving with Luka. In fact, she was probably with Luka tonight. Susan suspected that Chen was right, Carter’s relationship with Abby was going to end badly and she hated to see him get hurt. However, since she had no proof, Susan decided not to say anything about Abby and Luka. “I have a late shift tomorrow. You’re having a good time. Tell me about it. How are things with your dad?”
“Things with Dad are good. We actually took a walk together down to the local pub.”
“Pub? I thought you were in Boston, not Britain.”
“Well, CheersJ is sort of an Americanized, British place.”
“CheersJ. Like the television show?”
“Um hum. It’s the place that inspired the program.”
He imagined her smile as she replied, “You’re kidding. There really is such a place. I loved that show.”
Teasingly he commented, “Susan, sometimes I think you just love television.”
“Hey, most of the time, my life is pretty boring. Why do you think I’m so willing to listen about yours?”
“Okay, I’m hanging up now.”
“No, not till you tell me about CheersJ.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Everything.” Carter smiled at her reply. He could picture Susan tossing her blonde hair as she said that.
“Well, it’s on the corner of Charles and Beacon, near the bottom of Beacon Hill. The main entrance is below the street, so you have to go downstairs to get in. It is smaller than the set of the TV show and of course there is no Sam Malone behind the bar. But the paneling and the tables are about the same . . . dark wood. There are a couple of other rooms with tables in the back, one room has a billiard table, there’s a nice restaurant and of course, there is the souvenir shop.”
“A souvenir shop?”
“Yeah, so television fanatics like you can buy T-shirts, baseball shirts, caps, mugs, whatever.”
“Carter. And it’s really called CheersJ?”
“It is now. It had another name originally but I don’t know what it was. It’s not exactly the Lava Lounge but I think you would like it.”
“So, if I’m ever in Boston, I should go there?”
“Um hum. Or, I could just bring you a T-shirt and save you the trouble.”
“No, I think I’d prefer a first-hand experience. No Sam Malone, huh? Were there any cute guys?”
“Well, there was me,” he replied playfully.
Susan could imagine the look in his brown moppet eyes as he asked, “Why not?”
“I see you at the hospital all the time. Besides, you’re taken.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. Forget I said it. I wasn’t really looking for cute guys, Susan. I was talking with my Dad.”
“Club soda,” he clarified.
“Okay. So, tell me about your talk with your dad.”
“It was . . . nice.” Susan felt a sinking feeling in her stomach as she recalled another time he had said those same words, using the same tone. She bit her lower lip as she recalled watching him walk away from her that night. Why did things with Carter have to be so complicated? Why could she not just tell him she loved him? Why could she not tell him that while he was in Boston with his family, Abby was probably sleeping with Luka? Susan could not say any of those things because she had become Abby’s friend and she did not want Carter to be hurt.
“Nice. You call me at midnight to tell me what a great time you’re having with your Dad and all you can tell me is that your conversation was nice!”
His tone was serious as he said, “Susan, I don’t know exactly how to explain it. Dad didn’t say all that much, really. Mostly he just listened . . . about my life . . . explained about his. It’s strange. I haven’t had Dad’s full attention since I was a kid. It was . . . nice.”
He had said it again. Susan realized there was much more emotion in that statement than she initially believed. She had to wonder if . . . no that was just wishful thinking. “It’s okay, Carter. I think I understand. I’ve not been close to my parents for years either.”
Susan almost never said anything about her parents other than she was not close to them. “Why not?” he inquired.
“They don’t understand me. Neither of them went to college. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to become a doctor. They think I’m a snob.”
“Because you got an education?”
“They should be proud of you.”
“Um. Yeah . . . well . . . what is and what should be aren’t always the same.”
“No, I guess not,” he agreed sadly.
“Enough of this depressing talk. You said you were having a good time. Tell me something cheerful.”
“Well, the divorce is final and Dad is seeing someone.”
“Dad seems to think so.”
“Are you okay with that?”
“Not that it’s any of my business but yes, I am,” he chuckled. “Dad asked me the same thing. She’s flying in later today.”
“So, you haven’t met her yet?”
“What’s that mean?”
“Long story. I’ll explain later.”
“Okay,” she said slowly. For some reason he was not quite ready to talk about whom his dad was dating. He would, eventually. Susan could wait. “How is your mom? Have you talked to her?”
“Mother, well I would say, allowing for the time difference, Mother is waking up in the arms of some gigolo named Jean Paul. Or, at the very least, she is getting ready to join him for breakfast.”
“Susan, she is in Switzerland with some guy. Dad apparently knows him and that was Dad’s description of him.”
“Carter, he didn’t actually say gigolo, did he?”
“His exact word were, ‘He’s the type who loves to escort rich women wherever they want, as long as they’re paying.’”
“A gigolo,” she agreed flatly.
“I believe that is what I just said, Susan.”
“Oh, well, so far I haven’t heard much about the fun part of your vacation.”
He chuckled. “Have you ever been to Boston?”
“You’d love it. It’s this crazy mixture of old and new, conservative and liberal. They have a history of banning books and electing Democrats. It was originally laid out like a British town and founded by the Puritans in 1630, for the purpose of preserving religious freedom. However, if you disagreed with their particular brand of religious freedom, you had a choice. You could either leave Boston, which is why Anne Hutchinson founded Rhode Island, or you could be hung on the Boston Commons.”
“Umm, not a very tolerant group. I think I’d go with Anne.”
“Wise choice. Though eventually, they got it right. They quit hanging people and started founding different churches. The Puritans also placed an emphasis on education. The same year they founded Boston they opened Boston Latin School and six years later founded Harvard.
“You’re kidding. I didn’t realize Harvard was that old.”
“Boston is home to sixty-three universities and I have no idea how many churches. When you’re walking, it seems like there are college kids everywhere and a church on every corner. Many of the buildings here date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some are from the seventeenth. Scattered among them are contemporary structures. Downtown there is a gorgeous old church that was built in the 1870's. It’s surrounded by fountains and brick walkways. It sits right in front of John Hancock Tower, which is built of reflective glass. When the sun is just right you can see the church mirrored on the tower.”
“Alright, Professor Carter, now you sound like a tour guide.”
“You wanted to know details,” he whined.
“About your visit.”
“That’s what I’m telling you. You need to picture the ambiance . . .old and new all mixed together, covered with snow and decorated with Christmas lights.” Listening to Carter describe it, Susan thought it sounded charming . . . romantic. She could easily imagine herself there with Carter. He continued, “Gamma’s house is three stories and a basement.”
“Is it smaller than the mansion?”
“Um, yeah, I think so. It’s on Mount Vernon Street.”
“Like I know where that is.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of that. Isn’t that where the wealthy people live?”
“Okay, Mr. Gates,” she said sarcastically. Carter laughed. Her tone returned to one of interest as she asked, “How old is it?”
“It was built in the early 1800's”
“So, old and drafty?”
“Not anymore. Gamma completely renovated it a few years ago but parts of it still look like a museum. The house a couple of doors down is a museum. Most of the houses on Beacon Hill are old. Anyway, today the whole family went over to the Commons this afternoon.”
“Not for a hanging, I hope.” He laughed again. “And I thought it was just the three of you.”
“Gamma likes a crowd. There are Carters everywhere,” he added dryly. “But no, there wasn’t a hanging. We went to listen to Christmas Carols. A lot of the churches and civic organizations were performing. All of the participants were dressed in period costumes and they sang songs that would have been sung during their era.”
“That does sound like fun.”
“You would have loved it. It had snowed late last night . . . a nice wet snow. So everything looked like it was covered with white frosting. It looked like a scene from some romantic movie. Anyway, they started with songs like Away in the Manger, which, I learned this afternoon was the first Protestant Christmas Carol, having been written by Martin Luther, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman. They ended with Dolly Parton’s Hard Candy Christmas and an Elvis impersonator. They sang all afternoon.”
“Elvis, you’re kidding!”
“No, he sang ‘I’ll have a blue Christmas with out you. You’ll be doin’ alright with your Christmas of white but I’ll have a blue . . . blue . . .blue . . . blue Christmas.’”
“Carter, there’s a reason you weren’t in the school choir isn’t there?”
“Something about me not being able to carry a tune.”
“Umm. That’s an understatement.”
“Thanks a lot. So, I’m guessing you wouldn’t appreciate my rendition of Handle’s Messiah which is what we went to hear tonight.”
“I love Handle’s Messiah,” she enthused. “But you don’t have to sing it,” she added quickly. “Did they perform that on the Commons too?” Susan could picture Christmas lights reflecting on the snow.
“No, they did that at the Old South Church.”
“As opposed to the Old North Church?”
“Yeah, I guess. Which, by the way, is still standing.”
“The Old North Church?”
“Susan, the whole town is like a Revolutionary War museum.”
“No, all you have to do is follow the red brick path.”
“Like the yellow brick road? You’re not serious!”
“I am. There is a three or four mile walk that takes you past all the major landmarks of the Revolution. It’s called the Freedom Trail and it is marked by red bricks.”
“I must put Boston at the top of my travel itinerary,” she replied flippantly.
Wistfully he replied, “Yeah, you should.”
Noting his tone of voice, Susan reminded herself, he is with Abby now. Do not even let yourself think about it. Trying to break the tension, Susan commented, “I guess the dolls I bought for Suzie would fit right in.”
“What do you mean?”
“I got her two American Girl7 dolls, one for her birthday and one for Christmas. They are these darling dolls that come with stories about different periods in American history. Felicity is dressed like a girl would dress during the Revolutionary War. But she is not as cute as the other one. The other one looks just like Suzie.”
“Um.” He smiled. “Blonde hair and green eyes, like her aunt. Must be a pretty doll.” He should not have called. He kept remembering last Christmas. Carter finished his second cup of cider and poured a third. “Have you heard from Suzie?”
He could hear the excitement in her voice as she answered. “Yes, I talked to her this morning. She had already opened my present and she really liked it. Carter, you should have seen it. Her name is Kit. She was so precious that I couldn’t resist. She looks so much like Suzie.”
“They come already named?”
“Yeah. They’re adorable. I’m boring you, aren’t I.”
“No, not at all. I love hearing you talk about Suzie.”
“It makes your eyes sparkle.”
“Carter, you can’t see my eyes.”
“Well, I have a vivid imagination.”
“I remember.” There was an awkward silence. Taking a deep breath she said, “So tell me about the concert.”
Carter stared at the fire and drained the last of the cider. It would be so easy to imagine Susan there with him. Do not go there, Carter. Susan is your friend; that is all it can ever be. You have made a commitment to Abby, now. Stick to the facts. “Susan, the building is beautiful. The congregation formed in 1669, but the current building was built in 1875. They moved part of the old church to Boylston Street and incorporated it into the new edifice. The exterior is of Roxbury puddingstone and the interior is of plaster with Italian cherry woodwork. The architects were Cummings and Sears of Boston. Notable among the interior features are Venetian mosaics, and stained glass window of 15th century English style.”
“You are sounding like a tour guide again, Professor. Do you really know this stuff or do you just make it up?”
“Actually, I’m reading from a brochure I picked up at the concert tonight. Susan, the whole experience was incredible. The church was lit with hundreds of candles all reflecting in the stained glass and mosaics. The choir and orchestra were amazing. Gamma really enjoyed it. It was nice, you know, to be celebrating Christmas, having communion with my family.” He grew silent as he again imagined what it would be like to have Susan with him.
Susan broke the silence. “Carter, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Susan.”
‘Carter, something is wrong. Have you talked to Abby?”
“I’m fine Susan . . . except . . .” He wanted to add, except you are not here but he kept silent. He had definitely had too much rum. He should not be having these fantasies.
“Except . . . Abby’s not with you.”
“I invited her but she didn’t want to come. I called to talk to her several times but . . .”
“But . . .”
“She either sounded rushed or she was out. I guess that maybe she’s pulling extra shifts or something. Anyway, I’m having a really good time and I wanted to share it with . . . with someone.”
“Did you try to call her at the hospital?”
“You can’t exactly have a long, personal conversation at work.” He glanced at the clock. “Susan, we’ve talked for almost an hour.”
“So, I’m your second choice,” she quipped.
“Susan,” he said softly, “you were never my second choice.” As soon as the words left his lips he knew he would regret that statement. This was not fair, not to Susan, not to Abby, not even to himself. “Susan, you’re right. There was too much rum in the cider. I shouldn’t have called. I’m sorry. I’ll see you when I get back.”
Susan could not believe what she was hearing. God, she wanted to believe he meant what he had said. Yet before she could react, he had backed off and apologized. “When will you be back?”
“I have a shift starting at midnight on Christmas.”
“Yeah, me too.” Susan hated to hang up and so did Carter but the conversation was too intense.
“Say, how’s Harkins doing?”
“You heard about her?”
“Yeah, Peter had a meeting scheduled with Dad and he had to postpone? Then he asked to speak to me. He had a lot of medical questions and things he didn’t quite understand.” Actually, he had asked Carter a lot of questions about Luka, to which Carter had tried to be as evasive as possible. However, he would not be surprised if Luka was facing a lawsuit over the accident.
“Peter Harkins . . . Erin’s father. He handled Grandpa’s estate.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No, I just . . . I’ve heard his name somewhere but I didn’t realize he was Erin’s father. Anyway, they moved her out of ICU.”
“Well, that should make their Christmas better.” Carter paused; it was getting late and he should hang up before he said something he would regret. “Susan, I enjoyed talking to you.”
Softly she replied, “John, I’m glad you called. I enjoyed talking to you too.”
God, did she have any idea what hearing her call him by his first name did to him? Somehow, whenever she said it, it always sounded seductive. No, Susan had no way of knowing because he had never told her. Carter realized it was nothing that she intended; it was his own fantasy. He bit his lip as he tried to regain control of his body and his emotions. “Yeah, thanks for listening.”
“Hey, what are friends for? Merry Christmas, Carter.”
“Merry Christmas, Susan.”
Reluctantly he hung up the phone. With a mixture of dread and anticipation, he would return to Chicago tomorrow night. Why were his feelings so confused? Had his conversation with Dad confounded his emotions that much? He placed his head in his hands. No. He had known before his conversation with Dad that things were not going well with Abby and, even though he tried, he had never stopped loving Susan. His conversation with Dad only helped clarify what Carter had been avoiding. Yet, he had told Abby he was not going anywhere. He had promised he would be there as long as she needed him. Carter would not go back on his word.
* * * * * *
Susan hung up the phone, and said softly to no one, “I love you, John Carter.” She stood and walked over to her dresser and picked up the music box then sat back down on her bed. Peter Harkins . . . Peter Harkins was a name she remembered from her dream. It was a coincidence . . . it meant nothing; it was a silly dream. Slowly she opened the music box and took out the pictures of John. He was so young then. Under the pictures was the jewelry he had given her. Susan had contemplated giving it back but she knew Carter would be insulted if she even offered. She picked up the heart shaped ruby pendant. That had been his gift last Valentines Day. Tears began to trickle down her face as she remembered.
They had both been scheduled to work from noon to midnight and there was a party in the ER. That morning Carter had joked that Valentines was his least favorite holiday. She had known he would not feel like celebrating. Between his run in with Sobriki and all the problems with his family, it was a wonder he could manage to work. She certainly had not expected a present. The party was quiet this year and confined to the lounge. Susan looked for him as soon it started. She found him on the roof, leaning against the ledge and drinking a cup of coffee. ‘Hey, Carter.’
He turned and smiled, ‘Hey.’
She walked over and slipped her arm around him, ‘I missed you downstairs.’
One corner of his mouth turned up as he said, ‘Yeah well, the last Valentines party I attended wasn’t all that much fun.’ He put his arm around her as he sipped his coffee and looked out at the city. ‘Last year, I managed to be off. I spent the day hiding out at the stables, grooming the horses.’ He shook his head. ‘We’re so short of doctors, I told Kerry I could handle it this year.’
‘And are you?’
‘Am I what?’
‘Well, I haven’t killed any patients,’ he laughed sardonically. ‘I’m sorry Susan, I’m not much in the mood for a party.
‘Carter, it’s okay. I understand.’
But she had not understood . . . not totally . . . until later . . . later after he told her about Lucy. That day he had been trying to cope with emotions even he did not understand.
‘Next weekend we have off together, we’ll do something special. I promise.’
‘Carter, don’t worry about it. Hey, I bought you a present.’ She handed him a box of Godiva chocolates. He smiled. ‘My favorite.’
‘I thought you could use a chocolate fix.’
‘If you only knew.’ He grinned and kissed her nose. He opened the box and fed her one. Then took one for himself. ‘I got you something too.’
‘You didn’t have to.’
‘I wanted to. Just because I’m avoiding the party doesn’t mean I need to neglect my best girl.’ He reached in his pocket and pulled out a velvet box.
‘Carter,’ she gasped as she opened it.
‘You like it?’
‘Not as beautiful as you.’
Then he had kissed her . . . a slow lingering kiss that tasted of chocolate. Susan put the pendant back in the box and closed the lid. A few months ago, she had been so positive he was in love with Abby and that Abby was the one he needed. Now she was not so sure. Looking back, she realized his special weekend would have been the weekend they spent at the seminar . . . the weekend she was so angry because he thought she had slept with Mark . . . the weekend she had told him she felt nothing when he kissed her. Why had she not realized that he was jealous and insecure because he thought she had been with another man? Why had she not recognized that Carter was just as afraid of being hurt as she? Susan had never told him what happened with Dix. She had never told anyone except Joe and she had not told him the details. Susan had not had to tell Joe the details, he knew.
That day at the seminar Abby said the only reason she and Carter were not together was timing and Susan believed her. Now, that she had seen them together, Susan knew Abby was going to hurt him. Maybe he did love Abby but Abby . . . Abby was not what he needed. Deb was right about that.
Susan wiped her tears and crawled into bed. Maybe Susan was not what Carter needed either but it still hurt to think of him with Abby. Yet, it was partly her own fault. If she had not been so mean to him at the seminar . . . if she had not told him it wasn’t there for her, if . . . if she had not listened when Luka said Carter was interested in Abby. If he was with Abby now, she had only herself to blame. She was the one who kept pushing him away. But he must love Abby. Why else would he be with her? The tears began to fall again.
Susan had seen Abby with Luka the last few days. Maybe everyone else thought there was something between Luka and Harkins but Susan knew whom Luka wanted. Maybe she was crazy but Susan knew she would be there to pick up the pieces when things finally fell apart. She loved John and she knew she would never love anyone else as much.