All You Can See
Susan sometimes forgets that there are moments in life when it's no longer necessary to stay awake at all costs.
Though she's supposed to be headed toward a relaxing evening and an early bed-time for the first time in over a week, she's already filled her travel mug with fresh coffee which she now realizes was intended for the night shift workers, and she stands there frozen for a few seconds, feeling selfish and wasteful and wondering if she should pour it back. But then she remembers the state of her travel mug, its crustiness from not having been washed since before her trip to New York, and she realizes that, for better or worse, this coffee is hers. And she might as well drink it. Shaking her head in disgust at the entire situation, the mug, the coffee, her straggling hair which she absent-mindedly runs her fingers through now--more an attempt to drag it away from her face than to smooth or shape it, her distraction, untidiness and endless fatigue, she shrugs her purse strap further up her shoulder, and, turning toward the lounge door, takes an inaugural, scalding sip.
At least the entire shift was slow, she thinks. The last thing she needed today was to make a stupid mistake and kill somebody.
Forgetfulness, indecision, self-doubt and castigation. These are only a few small elements of the enormously complicated and dangerous mood that's been incubating within her for the better part of a week, and as she emerges from the dimness of the lounge into the eerily quiet, florescent-lit hospital corridor, she tries to soothe her raw nerves, to quell this burgeoning black mood without actually understanding it, by conjuring the unlikely imagine of herself at home, wrapped in her favorite fleece blanket and settled in front of the tv with a bowl of pretzels and a beer--and a stack of ER paper work. Since the day several months ago when Romano convinced Susan to help out with ER administration, Kerry has developed the habit of leaving tidy stacks of it for her on one of the shelves behind admit, always labeled with a small, yellow post-it note bearing Kerry's neat, hand-written version of Susan's name. And Susan has, in turn, developed the habit of looking for such stacks
without having to be asked, of finishing the work and returning it to its place within a few days.
Quickly traversing the quiet corridor, Susan listens for activity but hears only the solitary, mournful voice of a young child crying. Letting herself slide into a fast version of autopilot, anxious to get out of the suddenly claustrophobic confines of the building around her, she rounds the corner of the admit desk without looking, stubs her toe immediately and loudly on a heavy box sitting in middle of the floor, and belatedly realizes, as she winces then limps petulantly in a small circle cursing softly to herself, that she's not alone--that Randi is there, dressed in a fuzzy, hot pink, sleeveless sweater and skin tight purple pants, sitting still as a statue on a tall stool beside the phone, staring at the open pages of a fashion magazine.
"Hey, Dr. Lewis," she says, barely moving her lips as she speaks.
"Hey, Randi," Susan replies, assuming a more dignified posture but still favoring her sore toe. "Love your outfit."
Without moving her head, Randi allows herself a tiny, acknowledging smile, and Susan begins to scan the shelves for her evening's occupation.
Others might think of this task as onerous and tedious, the endless chart reviews and lists of numbers and niggling attention to detail. But Susan doesn't mind, really. She gets a little extra in her pay check every month--that was part of her agreement with Romano--she's not stupid, and lord knows she can use the money. The move back to Chicago was expensive, and no matter how hard she tries, she can never seem to get as far ahead as she wants or expects to. Plus, it's nice to have a new challenge once in awhile.
And with everything that's been going on lately--Mark's illness and sudden absence from work, Chloe and Suzie's disappearance and Susan's resulting nightmarish, whirlwind trip to find them, even the trouble she's been having with her car which is STILL in the shop and seems to have a new diagnosis and higher price tag every day. Bottom line, Susan thinks as she continues to scan the shelves, finding nothing there but a crock pot still left from the Christmas potluck and a few stray items from the lost and found, she really needs the distraction. If Kerry won't cough up some work for her to do, maybe she should just ask to borrow a stack of Randi's magazines.
"Randi," she finally asks, "did Dr. Weaver leave anything back here for me?"
Randi uses a single, long, red-painted nail to flip the page from a glitzy perfume ad to a photo of a tall, blond, bone-thin model in a shiny black string bikini and spike heels. "Dunno."
"Come to think of it," Susan says, stopping short with a thoughtful frown, "has Kerry been around at all today?"
Randi shrugs a single shoulder. "Dunno," she says again. "I just came on."
"If you're looking for Weaver, she's in her office," Frank speaks up as he emerges from nowhere and reaches behind the counter to gather his belongings.
"Oh," Susan says. "Ok." She stares over Randi's shoulder as Randi flips the page to a glossy photo of a popular and handsome tv actor dressed only in a red Speedo, his darkly tanned skin glowing with health, frozen in a classic swan dive pose above the glassy blue surface of his palm-shaded swimming pool in the Hollywood hills.
"She was looking for you, by the way," Frank says.
"Oh, right. What'd she want?"
He shrugs. "I told her you were busy; she said not to bother you."
As Frank lumbers past her toward the door, Susan frowns and breathes a huffing breath of annoyance. "Thanks for nothing," she mutters, then, taking another long slurp of coffee, she turns and heads off towards Kerry's office.
Susan finds Kerry's door ajar. She knocks lightly and pushes it open.
Kerry looks up from her stack of work, glasses balanced precariously on the end of her nose. "Susan."
"Hi, Kerry. Frank said you were looking for me?"
"Oh. Yeah. I didn't mean to bother you." She sets down the page she was reading, leans back, takes her glasses off and lets them dangle from their beaded string. "I was just wondering what happened in New York. Did you find them? Your sister and her daughter?"
"Yeah," Susan says. "We found them."
"Oh, good," Kerry nods, looking visibly relieved. "What happened? How are they?"
"They're.ok." Susan purses her lips, trying to decide how much to say. "Suzie's with her dad."
Kerry continues to look at her, wide eyed, expecting more information, and for a moment Susan considers sitting down right then and telling her the whole story: the drugs, the police, how wrong she was--the shame of it all. But Kerry never really knew Chloe and there is just so much to explain. And Susan always has this terrible, out of control feeling when she talks about her sister, as if the simple fact of her occasional proximity to her, of their very complex relationship, could put Susan's entire organized, stable life in jeopardy, could make it fall apart at any moment, or worse yet, reveal it as a total sham. She doesn't want Kerry to see that in her-either her fear or her potential for instability. She usually makes jokes to ease the tension and embarrassment when she begins to feel like this, but today she doesn't feel like joking. "To be honest, Kerry," she says, with an apologetic tilt of her head, "I'd rather not talk about it."
"Oh. Ok." Kerry leans forward and puts both of her hands flat on her desk top as if to hoist herself up, but she remains seated. "Well, have a nice night, then. Sorry to have bothered you."
Susan sees it in Kerry's face and cringes: the moment of hurt, the moment of feeling she's trying to reach out but being brushed off. Kerry has been no less commanding or demanding lately, since their talk at the tea shop, but she *has* yelled less since then--at least at Susan. And that's something. Or anyway, a tenuous beginning of something that Susan would rather not jeopardize. So she quickly back pedals, trying to repair the damage. "It's not that I don't appreciate your asking. But it's just. really complicated." Susan edges further into the room and perches herself on a chair facing Kerry's desk. "You know.family." Susan ends with a sheepish smile.
"Sure." Kerry nods. "I understand. Anyway, I'm glad you're back. See you tomorrow, Susan." Kerry replaces her glasses on the end of her nose and looks back down at her paperwork dismissively, but Susan doesn't budge.
"Actually I was wondering if you have any work for me this week?"
Her gaze still aimed at the desk top rather than at Susan, Kerry shakes her head. "I can handle it. I know things have been really stressful for you lately.."
"Well, to be honest, I was hoping for something to do tonight. I could really use the distraction. Just to get my mind off of things."
"Oh." Kerry sits motionless for a moment, considering. "Well, I haven't sorted through all of this yet, but.. Maybe we could work on it together?"
"Uuuuh." Susan pauses, turning the idea over in her head. She shrugs. "Sure. Why not."
"Alright. Well, there's no reason we have to sit here in my cramped office. Cafeteria or Magoos?"
Susan feels a sense of resignation as her imagined relaxing evening begins to erode around her, but one thing she can't bear to give up is at least some version of her earlier vision of fleece blanket, tv, pretzels and beer. Trying to slot Kerry into the picture, she briefly considers asking her if she likes "Fear Factor," but abandons the notion almost as soon as it rises. "How about my place?" she asks anyway.
Kerry raises her eyebrows in surprise.
"If you come over now maybe we can get all of this done in time to get a good night's sleep," Susan adds, trying to sound persuasive.
Kerry nods sharply. "Yeah, ok." They look at each other for a few seconds, then Kerry pulls her car keys out of a drawer and tosses them onto the desk-top with a loud clank.
"Shall I follow you over?"
"Actually, my car's in the shop. I've been taking the el."
"Oh. Then I'll just give you a ride." Kerry stands, quickly divides the papers into several neat stacks, and begins to slide them into her bag.
Taking her cue, Susan rises, shoulders her purse, and retrieves her travel mug from the edge of Kerry's desk. Kerry has given her rides home a few times before, and she has done the same for Kerry, but this will be the first time she's actually invited her in. She does a mental scan of her place and decides that it's in an adequate state of cleanliness, only because she hadn't been spending enough time there lately to mess it up. As Kerry struggles for a moment with coat and crutch, Susan takes the heavy bag loaded with papers off the desk top and shoulders that too, and they move together out the door.
"Busy day today?" Kerry asks as they move slowly down the corridor.
"No." They arrive at the elevator and Susan uses the bony knuckle of a bent finger to jab the call button hard.
"Yeah, I heard it was slow, so I figured you could do without me."
"Mm-hhhm." They stand in silence for a few seconds, then there's a ding, and the door slides smoothly open.
"Did Frank give you much grief today? His attitude has really been getting worse and worse lately."
"No. He was fine."
"Well, let me know if he gets to be too much of a problem and I'll talk to him."
Susan doesn't answer, just pushes a lock of hair away from her face and watches the elevator's slowly flashing numbers. She doesn't want to offend Kerry, but she doesn't feel like chit-chatting either, so she's hoping that this very perceptive woman will read the mood behind her mostly monosylabic responses and quit bugging her. She glances at her and sees that she does seem to have taken the hint: she's turned her face away and fallen silent.
At least Kerry's not someone she feels the need to be cute or funny for, Susan thinks, to charm, impress or entertain. At least Kerry is someone she feels that she can be herself with, if for no other reason than that Kerry is always and only nothing but exactly herself with everyone else, Susan included.
The elevator door slides open, and they emerge together into the brightness of the rooftop parking lot. Susan squints into the light and blinks as she follows Kerry to her car parked in a handicapped spot near the door.
The car is polished to a bright shine, but the passenger's seat is piled high with a stack of cds, a bunch of old medical journals, a scattering of paper napkins, and a few empty coffee cups. Clearly, Kerry's used to driving alone. She props her crutch carefully beside the driver's seat and maneuvers herself in, then leans over and shovels all the junk into the back. Susan slides in on the other side, throws the bag full of paperwork onto the seat behind them, and slots her mug into the drink holder between the front seats.
Kerry settles herself and guns the ignition, and a few seconds later music comes on: funky percussion and a low woman's voice. Kerry reaches out toward the volume control.
"Leave it on," Susan says quickly, without actually having heard the music as anything but noise. "I love this song."
Kerry freezes for a second, glances at Susan, then continues her motion toward the control knob and nudges up the volume, sound rising up like a blessed wall between them. Susan settles more deeply into her seat and stares out the window as Kerry backs carefully out of the parking space and steers the car down the ramp and out into the busy street.
Though the sky has opened wide above her and she does feel herself breathing a bit more easily, leaving the confines of work has so far done nothing to improve Susan's mood, and she feels compelled now to figure out why, to try to right her upset balance before it tips irrevocably out of whack. She does yoga now, and she meditates. She's supposed to be calmer, she tells herself, and more in touch with her feelings--if she's not, then what's the point? She gives herself a mental shake, and, trusting Kerry to lead them on in the right direction, takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and does her best to focus inward.
Immediately, she pictures Chloe when they were kids, trying on their mother's make-up, laughing into the mirror above the bathroom sink, her face marked like a clown's with twin moons of deep red rouge.
She's lost hope, Susan thinks at first. But no, that's not it, exactly. It's something even worse.
She pictures Chloe, funny, boisterous Chloe, in her kitchen in Arizona making a sandwich for Suzie, pausing to smile and gesture widely with a jelly smeared knife, hot yellow sunshine blazing through the window behind her.
She's stopped believing in hope. She's stopped believing that good intentions mean anything--that even the kindest and most decent people aren't capable of doing horrible things. She's stopped believing that good intentions and kindness can triumph over.what exactly. Evil?
She pictures Chloe--her own sister, for god sake, lying filthy and half dead in the dark in that awful bus full of junkies and crack heads.
No, she doesn't believe in evil. Susan shakes her head. She has no idea what she believes anymore.
She opens her eyes again and watches people and buildings flash by as Kerry pilots her shiny silver car expertly through traffic. The shadows are lengthening around them but the sky is still bright. It's a beautiful spring evening, and she knows that somewhere close by, the lake is calm and shimmering with sunset. As they round a curve and pull up to a red light, a rogue streak of late sunshine reflects suddenly and sharply off the side of a glass building in front of them, making Susan turn her head quickly and squint.
When her eyes refocus, she finds herself staring at the side of a newsstand wallpapered with advertisements for porn magazines and cigarettes, and it occurs to her that maybe she should consider herself lucky. She hasn't lost anything real yet, after all. Everyone she knows is still alive.
The light turns green and the car leaps across the intersection with a new burst of speed. Feeling even more confused than she did to begin with, Susan bites her lip and slumps further into her seat. In her peripheral vision, she sees Kerry glance at her then look back at the road again, saying nothing.
If she's going to silently mourn the loss of something indefinable that she hasn't even really lost yet, Susan thinks, she might as well do it with Kerry Weaver, a woman who has lost so much in life without ever saying a word--without ever saying squat about herself to anyone. She briefly wonders if Kerry's stoicism is a product of strength or fear. And then she wonders if strength can actually be born of fear--if that's even possible.
Kerry taps the brakes and glances in the rearview mirror as someone pulls out in front of them. Grasping the steering wheel firmly with one small hand, she uses the other to brace herself on the leather armrest between them, and shifts restlessly in her seat.
"The last time I talked to Mark on the phone, he forgot my name." The words are out of Susan's mouth almost before she realizes she's spoken.
"What?" Kerry reaches over and turns the music down.
"I talked to Mark on the phone a few days ago," Susan says more loudly. "He called me all the way from Hawaii, and then he forgot my name. He didn't forget who I was. I could tell he knew who he was talking to. But I could hear him on the other end of the line not being able to say the word 'Susan.'"
Kerry shakes her head sadly. "It's the aphasia."
Susan bites her lip again and doesn't answer right away.
"He's getting worse so fast we can't even pretend everything is fine for the duration of a ten minute phone call," she says finally, so quietly she might as well be talking to herself. "I'm never going to see him again."
Kerry palms the wheel smoothly and makes the wide left turn onto Susan's street. "I miss him, too."
Susan just nods and fumbles in her purse for her keys. She's sure Kerry knows Mark would never have said that about her.
Susan lives in a third floor walk up, and it's not until they're out of the car and making their way up the sidewalk toward the door of her building that she thinks about Kerry and her crutch and all those stairs. She copes so well, sometimes Susan forgets.
"I'm in 3C," she says with an apologetic smile as they walk in the door.
Kerry just nods and glances up at the sharp angle of the staircase, then grabs the rail and begins to climb. Susan lingers in the foyer, pulling several days worth of mail out of her mail box and sorting through fliers and bills, and trying not to listen to Kerry's laborious ascent, the tap of the crutch, the sound of both feet landing one after the other on each slow step. Finally, when she gauges Kerry must be near the top, she follows behind, and they arrive together at her door.
Susan turns the key in the lock and holds the door open for Kerry to walk through, only realizing as she sees how heavily Kerry is leaning on her crutch that she hadn't even offered to carry the bag full of paperwork, that Kerry had hauled it up all those stairs herself. She clenches her fists, feeling not so much sorry as angry-she has her own problems. How does she always manage to surround herself with people who need help?
"Well, here we are," she says. "Let's get to it.." She pulls her coat off, tosses it on the floor in the corner and begins to move away.
"Susan," Kerry says.
Susan pauses, caught by the gentleness in Kerry's voice.
Kerry takes a step toward her. "Hey," she says softly. "C'mere."
Kerry's hand closes on Susan's forearm and Susan let's herself be drawn gently back. She knows her body is all taught muscle and tension and resistance, but Kerry puts her arms around her anyway, and pulls her close. Her cheek is suddenly beside Susan's, and for a second, her soft hair falls lightly across Susan's bare neck.
Susan has seen her do this with patients. Maybe not embrace them, but be strong and sympathetic and caring. Patients who are really bad off--really hurting. Susan realizes she must truly look like hell.
"I don't think work is really what you need tonight," Kerry is saying while she rubs a flat palm up and down between Susan's shoulder blades, a gesture that seems both sisterly and maternal. "I think you need to just relax. Take a hot bath. Go to bed early."
Susan stands there and lets herself be held, lets her own arms fall around Kerry's slight shoulders, feeling awkward and ridiculous, but also grateful and comforted. Her muscles slowly relax beneath Kerry's touch. This is what she should have done for Kerry in Miami, she realizes now. Kerry might not even have known it herself, but this was what she was asking for when she showed up at Susan's door, sad and uninvited. But Susan hadn't understood. As she lets her head rest for a moment on Kerry's shoulder, she feels something break loose and well up inside her. She allows herself a single, gasping sob before falling silent again. Kerry's hands tighten across her back as she takes a long, trembling breath and releases it slowly.
"You've seen as many people die as I have, Kerry. Do you think it's ever really a relief?"
"Sometimes it is. I think you know that Susan. Mark knows it too."
Susan drops her hands and takes a step back, turns her head to the side and wipes her eyes. "I really need something to do tonight," she says. "Some sort of distraction."
"Well, you can have the work if you want it." Kerry's voice is still gentle.
Kerry gives her a searching look. "I guess I could sort through some of it right now and just leave it for you. Or do you want me to stay?"
"I want you to stay." Without another word, Susan turns and heads into the kitchen. For a second, she imagines them getting drunk together again, but then thinks better of it. "I'll put water on for tea," she says over her shoulder.
Susan dumps the dregs of her coffee into the sink and slides her travel mug onto the dishwasher rack, then turns the burner on under the kettle on the stove and opens the cupboard in search of tea. She pushes aside her favorite herbal blends. Somehow they don't seem serious enough for Kerry.
"I'm sorry, Kerry," she says loudly through the kitchen door. "I don't have oolong. How about Earl Grey?"
"Perfect," Kerry yells from the other room.
Susan pulls two mugs out of the cupboard, monochrome brown to match her mood, throws the tea bags in them, and stands still for a moment, listening to the simmering sound of the water approaching a boil.
Suddenly, there's another sound too. Higher pitched and further away. Kerry is humming, Susan realizes. One of the songs that was playing in the car, something slow and quiet and mournful, but also sweet. Susan braces her hand on the edge of the counter, closes her eyes and listens. Kerry's voice goes on for only a few more moments before it falls silent, but the song continues to loop through Susan's mind--not the words, but the melody, quiet notes, low and lilting.
"Susan?" Kerry's quiet voice is close behind her now. "Are you alright?"
Susan nods without turning around. "Yeah. I'm fine."
"Do you wanna.talk about anything?"
"No." Susan glances behind her to where the other woman is leaning against the doorframe. "But I appreciate your concern, Kerry. I'm glad you're here."
She reaches over and turns the burner off under the kettle and pours boiling water into the mugs. The bitter scent of the tea rises up around them. She hands one of the mugs to Kerry, mustering up a small smile but not meeting her eyes, and watches her turn and walk into the other room again, moving slowly, being careful not to spill.
She's not sure what the song was about, but it was probably a song about love.
To Be Continued
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