As she pushed the entrance doors of the ER, Deb glanced quickly at her watch; she was early, as usual. Her vivid dark eyes scanned the aisle: the ER was busy but, strangely enough, not chaotic. Good. She would have time to make herself a cup of coffee and maybe get some paperwork done. When she had come back after maternity leave Kerry had made it clear that she was still up for Chief Resident only on condition that she would work hard and catch up with what she had missed during her pregnancy. If there was a person who never backed away when it came to test herself that was definitely Deb Chen. So she had accepted the challenge eagerly and now was determinate to prove Kerry she was up to it, even if that meant spending more time on administration and boring paperwork.
“’ Morning Dr. Chen” Randi greeted her without taking her gaze off the computer screen. She was deeply intent on doing a solitaire.
“Uh! Dr. Chen!” she called out as Deb promptly passed the admit desk, “I almost forgot to tell you…you’ve got mail…a letter or something…” Randi said, sloppily holding an envelope with a hand and keeping on clicking the mouse with the other, her eyes still glued to the screen.
“Thanks” Deb replied taking the envelope, probably some invitation to a lecture or a medical conference, and quickly made her way to the lounge. The room was empty. She mechanically opened her locker and put on her lab coat. Still thinking about her schedule she made for the coffee pot. She needed some coffee just to function properly. A muffled sound coming from behind her back made her jump. She turned quickly only to find Malucci sleeping on the couch. She hadn’t noticed him when she had first entered the lounge. He breathed heavily and turned on his side. Deb stared at him, slightly amused: his hair was a mess and he was drooling too. She could not help thinking that when he was asleep Dave wasn’t that bad, though. He had a sort of child-like innocence that he completely lacked when he was awake. Only for a moment he reminded her of John. Malucci moaned some incomprehensible words and grinned foolishly. Deb chuckled softly. He was dreaming about dating all the female staff at County, that was for sure, and given the ecstatic look on his face she could tell he was being successful too!
“ Malucci!” Kerry barked opening the door “What the hell are you doing? Get up! We have some multiple GSW coming in. There was a gang shooting three blocks away from here. We’re getting 3 majors and 4 minors. ETA 3 minutes. Dr. Chen we need you too!”
Malucci turned his back and mumbled “ Just two more minutes, Ma…”
“Malucci! I’m NOT your mother and God knows I don’t wanna be in her shoes whatsoever! In this very moment I feel sorry for her because If you don’t get up immediately and get your ass in the ambulance bay she’s gonna have to grieve for her son’s death!” With that she stormed off.
Dave jumped to his feet, his sleepy eyes looking for his stethoscope that had fallen off the couch because of his abrupt move. Deb picked it up and gave it to him, trying to control her laughter: “ She is in a bad mood, isn’t she?”
“ No. This is just her special treatment for me. The Chief is good at hiding it, but she has a soft spot for me!”
“Ah!” The old black woman exclaimed when the irrigation needle slipped “Could you just pay more attention, doc?”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Wilson” Dr. Luka Kovac said quickly, ashamed as if he had been caught red-handed. In a way he had. He had gotten distracted and he hadn’t realized what he was doing. He had been staring at Abby through the crystal window of curtain three and he had momentarily lost track of time. He felt a bit foolish but he couldn’t help it. Every time he thought that nobody was around he liked spying on her. To his dismay he had re discovered that Dr. Carter seemed to like that either. So he had been staring at Carter who was staring at Abby himself. Lately that kind of triangle had been happening way too often, Luka thought bitterly. It was like a weird game in which he had been dragged against his will. Yet, he wasn’t sure of his feelings about that matter. It was too much complicated. And now it wasn’t the right moment to think about it.
He tried to concentrate back on his patient: “Anyway, Mrs. Wilson, I’m nearly done with this. I just have to finish suturing the cut.” He smiled, trying to sound more caring and compassionate than he actually was. “And then we have to wait for your leg films, of course.”
“But they’ve been taken more than 40 minutes ago! Moreover it seems pretty obvious to me that my leg is nothing but broken!” Mrs. Wilson snapped angrily.
Luka tossed the needle in the trashcan and replied patiently “They’re a little backed up at the moment but I’m sure that radiology will send your films back as soon as possible. And I think you’re leg is broken either, but I need the films to confirm my diagnosis:”
Mrs. Wilson muttered something to herself but Luka couldn’t be bothered to listen to her rant any more. He got the suture-tray ready and then started suturing absent-minded.
He worked silently; his gentle fingers moved rapidly, his mind wandered even more quickly.
Lydia cheerfully broke the silence.
“ Mrs. Wilson’s films are back, Dr. Kovac.”
Luka thanked the nurse and excused himself from Mrs. Wilson. He stepped out of the room and switched on a near-by board. The films showed just what he had expected.
A familiar giggle distracted him from his evaluation. He’d recognized that sound everywhere. He turned and enjoyed Abby’s smile. It had the peculiar effect of soothing him. It was one of the little things that had made him fall in love with her. Abby didn’t laugh that often and maybe that was the reason he loved her laugh so much.
Luka cringed as he realized that Abby was talking with Carter. Again.
Was he jealous? He had never been before.
Not that he thought that Abby wasn’t likely to raise other men’s interest, simply his mind hadn’t gone there. He had never seen Carter as a threat. He had been too preoccupied with his private sorrow to contemplate such possibilities. Sometimes he had wondered why Abby had been wasting her time with someone like him. He knew he still had his issues and he was ready to admit he had been a sort of emotionally crippled man. But after his rendezvous with Bishop Stewart things had changed. For the better, he had initially thought. Now he was beginning to doubt it. He felt like Abby was slipping through his fingers and slowly drifting towards Carter.
Frustrated Luka put the films back in the manila envelope and went back to curtain three.
“ Your leg’s broken indeed, Mrs. Wilson. Someone will fix you a plaster cast. I’ll check on you later.” He said hastily while scribbling on the chart.
Mrs. Wilson noticed his frowning face and gave him a quizzical look, fearing that the doctor’s sudden change of attitude meant some bad news about her health: “Is there something wrong doc?”
Luka looked away from the chart and stared off into space. His reply was nearly inaudible.
“I don’t know, I really don’t know.”
She still remembered his smell. Perfectly.
Deb would have never imagined that such a passing sensation like a smell could penetrate her soul so deeply. But now that sweet, sort of warm and fuzzy smell that only babies have was back to haunt her. A simple Polaroid picture had been enough to bring it back and set free all those memories that she had been desperately trying to forget for the last months. Deb looked at the picture in her hands once more. She could almost feel a physical pain as she kept staring at it. Maybe that was just her eyes way of telling her that staring at the same point for so long wasn’t a good thing to do.
She wasn’t even sure of how much time had passed since she had walked into Doc Magoo’s, tired and distraught after a hellish double-shift. She had been starving too so she had ordered a sandwich. When she had fumbled about her purse for some money to pay the check she had stumbled across the letter Randi had given her earlier. She had completely forgotten about it. She had opened it and she had found a picture of her son inside. He wasn’t her son, she mentally corrected herself. She had never thought of herself as a mother and she would never be one to Michael. That was what she had been repeating to herself during her pregnancy, trying to distance herself in preparation for the moment of separation.
But right after the delivery, when John had laid that tiny baby into her arms she had known that that bond she had so desperately wanted to prevent was already there. She had realized that nothing could ever erase it, too.
And that picture was just a painful reminder of it all. She was sure that James and Linda had sent her that picture to let her know that Michael was fine, to persuade her that she had made the right choice. She wished she could be so sure of it too.
But Michael seemed happy indeed. He was looking directly into the camera eye, smiling gaily. It was one of those wonderful toothless smiles that only 3-month-olds could do.
Her vision blurred as she tried to fight tears back.
He was off at last. It had been a tough day and he was really tired. Luka wasn’t looking forward to leaving the hospital, though. Yosh had called in sick so Abby was pulling on a double-shift to cover for him, and he didn’t want to go home and be alone. He wanted to talk to her. That stupid Carter thing had been bugging him all day long. He wasn’t sure that telling Abby was the right thing to do but he needed to tell someone and Abby was the only person he ever talked to. As he retrieved his coat from his locker he realized he hadn’t made any friends ever since he had moved to Chicago. Except Carol and the bishop, of course, but they were both gone for good.
He guessed he wasn’t much of a sociable person. He was used to being alone, anyway.
His stomach grumbled with hunger but he quickly dismissed the idea of taking something from the vending machines or the cafeteria. He didn’t feel like it at all. And he would have to get out of the hospital, sooner or later. He couldn’t wait for Abby in there all night. He didn’t want everyone to know that he had no one to share dinner with. That was definitely too much even for a foreigner like him: if people had known he had no friends they would have thought he came from Mars, not Croatia. Americans could be strange at times: a few months ago he had killed a mugger smashing his head on a sidewalk and nobody had said a word about it, yet he was sure that if they had come to know about his currently non-existent social life that would have immediately made him look like a psycho. That was how things worked in America and sometimes he felt like he could never really belong there. He shrugged off that thought, and then he signed out and faced the chilly Chicago wind.
“Do you mind if I sit?”
Deb raised her head, startled, and met Kovac’s tentative smile. She hadn’t seen him approaching her table.
“Uhm…hi, Dr. Kovac…”she said clearing her throat as she moved her purse and her coat to make room for him. Luka glanced at her and noticed her sad eyes. He wondered if she had been crying and suddenly felt like an intruder.
When he had spotted Dr. Chen sitting in a booth by the window he had been so happy to see a familiar face that he had immediately walked over without giving the idea much thought. Now he was beginning to regret his hasty decision. Truth was he and Chen were merely co-workers and not even particularly close ones. They still even called each other by their last names and Luka hated that kind of formality. At first it had been the same with Kerry and Mark too; he knew that people use formality when they’re not sure of you.
“ Maybe I caught you in a bad moment. I don’t want to intrude: I just thought you could use some company, I could certainly use some myself.”
“ No, please, sit down. I was just lost in my thoughts” Deb replied quickly and rubbed her face, hoping that he wouldn’t notice that she had been on the verge of tears. She felt strangely self-conscious, maybe because she didn’t know Kovac that well. They had never really talked too, except for the routine discussions about patients and charts.
When a waitress approached the table to take Kovac’s order, Deb sighed with relief. It was really becoming an awkward situation.
Luka didn’t feel at ease too. He wanted to say something but he didn’t know what. He definitely needed to work on his social skills. No wonder he had no friends: he couldn’t even start some kind of conversation! Usually the weather was a good topic to begin some small talk with but what could you possibly say when you live in a place like Chicago? He made a mental note to choose a sunnier place like, say, California next time he would have to move and decided to go for some discussion about their day at work when he spotted a Polaroid picture next to Chen’s purse.
“ Can I…?” he asked gesturing towards the photograph. Deb nodded nervously. Kovac’s out of the blue appearance had caught her off guard and she hadn’t had the time to put the picture away. She furtively glanced at him while he was busy observing the picture.
“Is that your son?” It was more a statement than a question and Luka continued without waiting for an answer. “I was in Croatia visiting my dad when you gave birth, but I heard that you gave him up for adoption.”
When he met Chen’s eyes again it didn’t take him long to understand what was going on with her. He knew that kind of look too well, mainly because it was the same look he had seen in his own reflection for a long time. It was a look of doubts, pain and remorse.
“You’re having second thoughts about that decision, aren’t you?” he asked simply.
Deb frowned and looked at him, struck by such a direct question. She studied his face closely to look for any sign that could tell her that he was judging her or even trying to patronize her. Kovac had sometimes proven with his demeanor towards certain patients that he could be judgmental. This time, instead, his deep eyes showed nothing but concern.
“ It wouldn’t be exact to say that I regret having made this choice, the truth is I’ve never been completely sure that it’s the right one… I feel so selfish giving Michael up for adoption when I have the money to raise him. But I wasn’t planning to have a baby and when I found out I was pregnant I really couldn’t believe it. It seemed so…unreal. I felt kind of helpless. It was like my body had somehow betrayed me and I really didn’t know what to do. But I knew I couldn’t raise a baby. Not now. I couldn’t imagine a way to cope with my work. I’ve worked hard for so long to get what I have now that I couldn’t throw it all away. At this moment my career is my priority, I don’t have any problem to admit it. I couldn’t have counted on my parents’ support too. Well… I know it could seem extremely bigot but they’re Chinese and they have struggled to accept my out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Not to mention the fact that the father is black…. Look at me! I’m a grown woman and I still let my parents run my life!” Deb sighed and her lips curled in a bitter smile. “But who am I trying to fool? I‘m trying to convince myself that I’ve chosen adoption for my child’s sake but I guess I’m just a coward.” She stopped to catch her breath and observe Luka’s reaction.
She felt a bit foolish and slightly ashamed. She didn’t mean to flood him with so many words but she couldn’t have helped it anyway. She was just beginning to realize how badly she had needed to vent. She would have liked to talk about all this to John but when she had learned about his slip up she had thought it would be better not to burden him with her problems too. He certainly had enough of his own. Moreover she had this gut feeling that her paging him to help her with the delivery had played some kind of part in his relapse, so she wasn’t much eager to address any connected issue with him.
On the other hand Luka didn’t seem bored at all; he had listened to her quietly and now he just kept staring at her as if he was slowly taking in what she had said.
Luka slowly began to talk: “ I think you’re too hard with yourself. Being a parent, it doesn’t matter if you become one voluntarily or not, is never an easy thing. You do your best to take care of your children but you always wonder if it is enough… I’m talking out of my experience, I’ve been a father myself…”Luka trailed off as if his own words brought back some painful memories.
Deb suddenly remembered she had heard some rumor about Dr. Kovac’s family being killed in the war. She hadn’t given it much credit, hastily labeling it as nurses’ gossip. She didn’t find it hard to believe now that she was facing his chagrined statement.
Luka looked directly in Deb’s eyes and wondered if he could trust her. He had opened up only with Carol before and when she had left Chicago he had promised he wouldn’t let himself get burned again. But then he had meet Abby and his brief experience with the bishop had given him a new confidence in people too.
Luka shook himself out that kind of reverie and went on: “ One day, during the war, I had to go out to buy some supply for my family. My children begged me to bring them along, they would always do so and you know how kids can be insistent, but I told them no once again. Danjiela, my wife, and me we thought it would be safer if they had stayed behind with her. But soon after I left, a shell hit our house. My wife and my kids were killed in the explosion. It’ s a sad story but I didn’t tell you to make you take pity on me. The point is that I made a choice, the one I thought was the best for my family. I’ve been regretting it since then and I will never stop playing the ‘ if ’ game, but I rationally know it was the best choice I could ever have made. The same goes for you.” Luka stopped and smiled hesitantly. “You know what? Someone once told me that my family had been a gift to me. You must be proud of yourself because you have donated your gift to someone else.”
This time it was Deb’s turn to say nothing and take in what she had been told. She was amazed that Kovac had come up with pretty the same words John had himself used to describe what she had done. It was amazing that they were sharing such personal matters too, since they hadn’t been that much close so far. It was weird, but weird isn’t always bad.
Luka smiled again and she smiled back. She felt definitely better now; it was like she had gotten rid of a heavy burden which had been crashing her soul. Yet she couldn’t prevent herself from starting to chuckle.
Luka scratched his head and asked: “ What’s so funny?”
“ I’ve heard a rumor about you faking to be a priest and giving a patient his last rites. I’ll admit that I’ve found it hard to believe but now I no longer have any problems to picture you doing such a thing!”
Deb burst into a much louder laughter and Luka joined her promptly.
Luka’s pager suddenly went off.
“ I thought you were off.” Deb said while he checked his pager.
“ So did I” he replied. Then he was struck by realization. “ Damn! I was supposed to have a meeting with Kerry and Romano half an hour ago! I’d better consider becoming a priest for real, because after this Kerry will threaten to fire me for sure!”
Deb laughed again and handled him his coat: “ Thank you, Dr. Kovac.”
“ I think you can call me Luka
from now on.”