God On a Harley
I’LL BE THE FIRST TO admit I never understood why they call it The Garden State. I especially didn’t understand why, after a seven-year sabbatical on the West Coast, I actually felt happy to be back in New Jersey. After all, everyone pictures New Jersey with the noxious, industrial fumes hovering over the turnpike in Newark rather than the lush, autumn foliage of the Garden State Parkway. Our state is the butt of every joke on the late-night talk shows, and never do they mention what a good sense of humor we have for enduring all
the derogatory remarks. They also wrongly assume we Jersey-ites have a collective inferiority complex from living right next door to New York, the city that never sleeps. No matter. We’re not the ones who got bombed by terrorists either. Maybe someone finally figured we’ve had enough hard luck.
Let the critics laugh. We have something New Yorkers will never have, the Jersey shore. Anyone who’s spent even one moonlit or sunlit hour here, will tell you how it can stir the latent romance that dwells in even the most cynical New Yorker’s soul. Jay Leno and the gang can make all the “Joisey” jokes they want, but that’s because they’ve probably never seen it when the white surf is pounding the salt into the evening air and the moon looks like an orange English muffin popping out of a toaster of clouds.
That’s how it looked the first night I drove along Interstate 95 and finally pulled up in front of my new apartment complex only five blocks from the beach. I’d made the arrangements from Los Angeles over the phone and had driven cross-country in only four days. For some reason, I’d felt an urgency to get back to
all that was familiar to me, and credit cards and fax machines made that kind of a move incredibly simple. Expensive maybe, but incredibly simple.
In a way, it even felt good to be back in the old familiar corridors of Valley Community Hospital. In spite of dire warnings from West Coast friends who said I’d have a hard time getting a nursing position, thanks to the rampant “downsizing” of hospitals lately, I immediately got a job. Ironically, I was hired back into my old position of three-to-eleven Charge Nurse on the Surgical Trauma Unit. Even though I was suffering from a world-class case of nursing burnout, there was a certain comfort in the familiarity of the well-worn hallways and stairwells that held so much history for me. I felt something like a battle-weary soldier who found himself inexplicably drawn to the trenches and foxholes where, at one time, he had fought for his very life.
During the fifteen years of my nursing career, I’d worked in hospitals all across the country in a never-ending search for a nursing job that didn’t deplete my very soul. I never found one I could bear to make permanent, and now it
seemed, I had come full circle. I was back where it all had started, and the memories, most of them unpleasant, intruded like uninvited guests. I must have walked at least a million miles through these old, paint-chipped corridors and climbed the back stairs enough times to circle the moon. The gray, cement-block walls were the same ones I’d leaned against many a night, so bone-tired that my back felt like a pack mule and my feet felt like two dead clumps of flesh hanging off my ankles.
But there had been an up side too. I’d managed to fall in love a time or two in this old, crumbling House of Wretchedness. Oh, those were the days. Stolen kisses in empty elevators. Steamy moments in deserted stairwells. Faces obscured by surgical masks with eyes that said things that lips never could. Love among the ruins. Irrepressible love that sprang up among the drama and agony of an inner city hospital, like blades of grass that manage to push their way through and thrive in the cracks of a concrete sidewalk. I was young and romantic then. I had dreams of falling madly in love and
getting married. Dreams that died a painful and lingering death.
Now here I was again, back in the ring for round two, but not at all prepared for it. I comforted myself with the fact that at least I was older and hopefully wiser now. I would never allow anyone to stomp on my heart again, the way Greg had all those years ago. I had put all those feelings to sleep long ago, seven years ago to be exact, and I didn’t want anyone trying to revive them. No heroics for this old heart. Just leave it alone and let it die of natural causes. At least it didn’t hurt anymore. Cardiac euthanasia, I supposed.
Every time I start a new job, I force myself to get off the floor and have my dinner at a table like a civilized human being, instead of taking hurried gulps of food between watching cardiac monitors, signing off charts, and paging doctors. My resolve never lasts longer than the first week, but I always start out with good intentions.
It was only my third day back, so I was still intent on actually taking my allotted thirty-minute dinner “hour.” I rounded a corner and
entered the hospital cafeteria, which was now called the dining room in a pathetic administrative attempt to compete with other hospitals for patients, or “clients,” as they were now called. The sign over the door and the furniture may have been new, but the entrée was still the same old unidentifiable chicken dish they’d served seven years ago. It might even have been the very same chicken, for all I knew. I watched passively as a morbidly obese, pimply-faced, young man wearing a chef’s hat plopped the bland looking hodgepodge onto my plate. I paid for my poison and took it to a window seat in the far corner of the room, secretly glad that the six o’clock rush was long over and that I wouldn’t have to be sociable with anyone. I just wasn’t in the mood.
I was either temporarily spaced-out or having some kind of petit mal seizure as I stared blankly out the badly smudged cafeteria window. It wasn’t until I felt a rather large hand trespassing on my shoulder, accompanied by a familiar male voice, that I was able to break my thousand-yard stare out into the sultry June night.
“Christine,” an awestruck voice uttered softly.
Greg Anderson. I recognized his baritone even before turning around. It was a voice that, seven years ago, had sung me love songs, whispered X-rated sentiments into my eager ear . . . and dropped a hand grenade into my heart.
I knew I’d have to run into him sooner or later, I had just hoped it would be later. I hadn’t prepared a speech yet, though I’d rehearsed at least a few dozen different versions during the endless ride through Texas on Interstate 10. None of them said exactly what I wanted so much to communicate, namely that no man had ever wounded me the way he had and that I hadn’t been able to love anyone else since the day he pulled the plug on our relationship. I had watched from my window that day as he drove away, and I’d had to bite the drapes to keep from begging him to come back. I wanted him to feel very guilty now for his lack of commitment to me, but not guilty enough to rule out seeing me again.
“Greg.” I smiled, doing my best impression of someone who has moved beyond the pain
and on with her own life. I hooked my foot around the chair next to me and shoved it away from the table. “Sit down. Please.” I beckoned with what I hoped was a new and alluring maturity.
He seemed relieved to encounter graciousness as he lowered his gangly six foot frame into the chair beside me. I suppose he expected the verbal daggers I used to hurl at him in the old days, but seven years is a long time, and I wanted to prove to him how far I’d come in all those years. Besides, I didn’t want him to know how much it still hurt to look into those warm hazel eyes of his or that he could still hypnotize me with just a glance.
He was wearing the uniform of a trauma surgeon; green OR scrubs, blue, paper shoe-covers, and a matching blue surgical hat that did nothing to hide the unfamiliar gray hairs at his temples. Good. I was glad he had some gray hairs now. I hoped maybe he was balding too. Of course, I would have liked it better if he’d had an expanding waistline to go along with the gray hair, but his waist looked just as trim as ever, maybe better.
“You look great, Christine.”
He was lying. I must have gained at least ten pounds since he’d last seen me, and the years hadn’t been nearly as kind to me as they had to him. Surely he had to notice the little fine lines around my eyes that no amount of moisturizer could erase.
“So do you,” I lied. Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t a lie. He actually looked better than he ever had, but he still had some serious explaining to do if he had any thoughts of rekindling our relationship. I had no doubt it was safe to assume that passion like ours didn’t just evaporate into space. In fact, I felt little stirrings for him already, and I was certain he must be feeling them too.
He began making superficial conversation, but I might as well have been in a soundproof booth offstage. I didn’t hear a word of it. I was too busy flashing back to the days when Greg had loved me, or so I had thought. It was during his internship and I had been an experienced trauma nurse who taught him everything he knew. It was always like that with interns. They came on board so humble, so willing to learn, so respectful of nurses and grateful for the things we could teach them. By July 1 of the
following year, however, when they magically turned into residents, they usually forgot our names and from then on, treated us like the brain-dead patients we cared for.
But not Greg. Our relationship had been very different right from the start. We had worked side by side every day in life-and-death situations, and panic had become a way of life for us.
It is common knowledge among nurses and doctors that there is something electrical, almost sexual, about working in emergency situations. The adrenaline starts gushing, body temperatures rise, and pulses pound. Add a little testosterone to the mix and you have a recipe for romance.
Something about those chronic adrenaline rushes and daily exposure to so much human suffering makes you face your own mortality, and it’s not a pretty sight. You want to deny death and to confirm that you, at least, are still alive. You slowly notice that you are starting to lose the ability to feel emotions, and you desperately look for ways to prove that it’s not so.
Greg and I reaffirmed one another’s feelings and “aliveness” many times over the three years we worked together. We fell in love over
an intubation tray one night when our forty-seven-year-old patient with an aortic aneurysm bottomed out on us. It was the first time Greg had ever had to intubate a patient without the reassuring presence of his senior resident. I tore open the tray for him and though we both knew I was far more experienced at this sort of thing, I stood back and talked him through the finer points of the procedure. Even then Greg had the “good hands” that would someday make him a successful trauma surgeon and he got the tube positioned properly, as efficiently and effortlessly as any senior resident. The only hint of his inexperience was the triumphant smile that glowed on his face as he reached for the Ambu bag and began bagging the patient as if he’d done this at least 100 times before.
After the patient was stabilized and we had time to catch our breath, we exchanged satisfied smiles and we both knew that some kind of meaningful bond had just been formed. He invited me to the little hole-in-the-wall pub across the street to celebrate when I got off duty at eleven thirty, and that’s how the whole thing got started.
All of our senses seemed heightened by the
urgency of our work. Our admiration and love for one another quickly took root in the fertile field of crash carts, central lines, and ambu bags. It was the beginning of a three-year love affair, and it was all so passionately perfect . . . until the day I brought up the subject of marriage. That’s when all the courage he’d shown cracking chests, running codes, and talking to malpractice attorneys, completely deserted him. Greg Anderson was obviously capable of great things, but commitment wasn’t one of them.
Why he had never mentioned this little matrimonial-phobia to me three years earlier, when there was still a chance for me to get out with my sanity intact, I will never know. I do, however, suspect it had something to do with the fact that he knew how stubborn I was and that I would have ended our relationship right then and there had I seen him for the commitment coward that he was.
Greg said I was “headstrong.” I said that’s one of the reasons he loved me. He agreed, but he said that’s also one of the reasons he wouldn’t marry me. Of course there were lots of fights and dramatic overtures, but in the end, I
threw up the white flag of surrender and left Valley Community Hospital and Greg. I hoped they’d be miserable together.
I’d just heard about a new kind of nursing called Travel Nursing, where you work for an agency and take short-term contracts around the country. I decided it sounded like the perfect balm for a broken heart, and I set off to live the life of a tumbleweed, drifting from city to city. Of course I ended up putting down roots in the first place I was assigned. Los Angeles looked awfully good to me after a lifetime of East Coast winters and the laid-back California lifestyle wasn’t exactly repulsive either. But I’m going off on a tangent here.
Now, here I was, staring into Greg’s inviting hazel eyes again and trying to squelch the little seeds of hope that were sprouting in my heart. That’s when I noticed the shiny gold band on his left hand, and needless to say, my heart-stopping realization wasn’t lost on him. I could see he was uncomfortable and, for once, speechless. He just smiled sheepishly while I gawked.
“Who?” I asked, barely able to coax the word past the lump in my throat.
“I don’t think you know her,” he said, shifting uncomfortably in the metal cafeteria chair.
“Try me,” I challenged. I had to know, even if it killed me. It almost did.
He couldn’t even look me in the eye when he said the name. “Anna Ranucci,” he mumbled with an insincere grin.
“What?!” I was horrified. Angry. Destroyed. I couldn’t halt the words that began spilling from somewhere deep in my gut. “You mean you wouldn’t marry me? Me who loved you? Me who was your very best friend in the entire world? You said it was because you were afraid of marriage, then you go and marry some . . . some . . .”
“Hold it, Christine,” he said defensively. He raised those engulfing eyes to look at me and simultaneously softened his tone. God, he still knew how to play me. “Look, you have every right to be angry. I understand that . . .”
“You don’t understand anything!” I interrupted angrily.
He cut me off. “Look, Anna’s a good person. You might even like her if you got to know her . . .”
“Don’t make me puke,” I warned as my fury
took over. Anna Ranucci? Of course I knew Anna Ranucci and he knew I knew her. She had been the staffing coordinator all those years ago, and Greg had heard me complain about her many a night. She never liked me because I was always threatening to call 60 Minutes and have them do an expose on the horrendous staffing shortages of Valley Community Hospital. Anna Ranucci?! She wasn’t even pretty. She wasn’t even smart. She was just a typically frumpy, submissive secretary with a fancy title.
Oh, I guess maybe that explained it. Maybe Greg was threatened by strong, intelligent women. He certainly wouldn’t be the first successful man to marry a wimpy, brainless, subservient woman. How come I never noticed that about him before? Maybe I would have toned down my attitude a bit, had I known. Nah. What was I thinking? Besides, Greg had always acted as if he admired my rebellious streak. Had he just been humoring me for three years?
“I guess old Anna must have some other kind of talent,” I said cattily, “cause God knows, she doesn’t have a brain.”
Surprisingly, he took that comment without
batting an eye. Obviously, he had decided not to fight with me no matter how insulting I got.
“Look, Christine,” he said in his softest voice ever. “I’m happy now. Can’t you just be happy for me?”
“No, Greg, I can’t!” I retorted, embarrassed by the tremor in my voice. “And you’ll excuse me if I don’t send a belated wedding gift.” I always resort to sarcasm when I’m feeling vulnerable.
“You still switch to sarcasm when you’re feeling vulnerable,” he noted with an amused smile. I hated him at that moment. Then I hated him even more when he added, “Look, Christine, I have you to thank for it really.” He noticed the shock that must have registered on my face and quickly added, “I mean, if you hadn’t fought with me and made me see how childish I was being about marriage, I wouldn’t have been ready for Anna when she came along.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Now I’m definitely gonna puke,” I said, wishing there were more people in the cafeteria to witness my rejection of him.
Greg’s beeper picked that convenient moment to go off, signaling him back to the OR so he could make more money than he ever could spend, simply for doing the work he loved. Some kind of masochistic streak emerged in me, and I dug hungrily for the sordid and painful details of his life before I would let him leave.
I learned that his bride of three years was now pregnant with their third child. Somehow, I couldn’t picture Anna Ranucci pregnant with anything but bureaucratic ignorance (I refused to call her Anna Anderson—that was just too painful).
I pictured them making love in the master bedroom of an oceanfront mansion. It was a far cry from the steamy, passionate nights I’d spent with Greg Anderson in his stuffy little on-call room, between stat pages to the trauma unit. I even remembered how that damned beeper would go off at all the wrong times and how we laughingly nicknamed it “CI,” short for “coitus interruptus.”
The feel of Greg’s warm hand covering mine brought me back to my miserable present moment
and the fact that we both had to get back to work. He leaned in to give me a perfunctory little kiss meant for my lips, but I turned my head just in the nick of time, forcing it to crash-land on my cheek. I could have sworn I heard him chuckle as he strode confidently out of the cafeteria, and I wondered when he had lost the frenetic dash of the intern.
I sat there for a moment, immobilized by the intensity of my emotions and overcome with pain at seeing him again. Worse than the pain, though, was the slow realization that one ten-minute conversation with Greg had just completely erased the therapeutic effect of seven years away from him. Had I learned nothing in these last seven years? Had I turned my life upside down and moved a continent away, only to find that my heart had stayed behind?
I allowed the futility and the hopelessness of the situation to wash over me. Apparently the damage inflicted on my heart all those years ago was irreversible. It was like being in a Code Blue when everyone is working feverishly to save the patient and all you hear is that flat, monotonous tone of the cardiac monitor signaling that there is no electrical activity in the
heart. It’s over. Thank you very much, everyone, but there’s nothing more we can do.
Suddenly, I was filled with rage. I hated Greg Anderson at that moment and I hated my pathetic life.
I needed a drink.