Masks and gloves make me anxious, but not for the reasons you might think.
They evoke longing for the man I couldn’t have.
Rupesh grabbed his wallet and stormed into the rain, as if rushing to Target instead of another woman’s arms on Valentine’s Day. He’d just admitted he couldn’t hold back his feelings for me, despite months of effort. I said I appreciated his honesty, but he had to work things out with his long-term girlfriend.
I didn’t tell him I felt the same, just twice as strong. I didn’t mention sitting on Orbitz looking for cheap tickets to Greece, imagining ourselves cliff diving in Santorini, sipping ouzo on the beach. That was impossible, of course—I only had $7 in savings to begin with—but my daydreams defied reality and, apparently, basic math.
I was a 22-year-old daughter of immigrants in my freshman year of medical school, doubtful but raised not to show it. Rupesh was my anatomy lab partner. When he smiled, his forehead rippled gently, like the river I imagined we’d live by when we retired.
But I had learned my lesson from complicated relationships: strength and vulnerability do not intersect. When Rups admitted how he felt about me, I told him not to throw out his four-year relationship because of a lab partner with dirty glasses. I didn’t fight for him, for us.
“Go to her,” I said, straightening my back and reminding myself that I was a strong woman who made brilliant decisions.
He hesitated, then hurried through the downpour to his rusty Toyota Camry. The engine stalled. Fate intervenes, I hoped. He looked for me in his rear-view mirror. We were too far apart to close our eyes. Finally the engine sputtered. His taillights faded into the thunderstorm, then vanished in a flash of lightning.
“Blood cells bring oxygen to build new tissue,” a professor had said that morning. “Wounds get stronger as they heal.”
My heart still had old fissures that had not fully healed. I didn’t want another wound to make me stronger. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to rebuild my tissues. But driving away was the only person who ever made me stronger without my armor. I was suddenly terrified.
I wanted to chase him through the dirty wet snow. The $120 Timberland boots I just wasted were in the corner. They might fly for that price. But I didn’t move. The fragility of love had burned me before. I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. He had to sort out his own conflicting feelings.
But still… what had I just sacrificed?
Five months before the storm swept him away, we floated over the generously donated body of an elderly woman in the lab. “Here’s the appendix,” he pointed, his gloved finger accidentally stroking mine. “Here’s the pancreas,” I pointed back, frowning at my fluttering stomach.
His rich brown eyes peered over his mask.
“Would you like to grab a beer later?” he asked.
I tilted my head as if considering all my invitations. He waited while I pretended to think. “Yes, that should work.”
“After a few months, I could no longer control the dopamine flooding my synapses every time it passed me with a scalpel. I forced myself to make eye contact the right length – I was afraid too short would reveal nervousness and too long would reveal desire.
Murphy’s, the campus pub on Green Street, was our place. Every Thursday, our group of med students packed up a booth and buzzed merrily over pints of Bud Light. We teased one of our classmates about straining his biceps, as he wrote on the board earlier that day. He responded by puffing his beer to demonstrate good esophageal motility.
Rups beamed at those moments. His humor transitioned seamlessly from elitist to slapstick. I was able to skip countless workouts because my abs were so sore from laughing. His intelligence was the biggest turnaround. And man, was he handsome. After a few beers, he told us that his mother covered his nose with her sari when he was born, afraid the villagers in their small Indian town would curse its elegance with the Evil Eye.
But he didn’t know how to drive a stick. He didn’t like tennis. He hadn’t read Salman Rushdie or any other literature. As ever. Proof, I reasoned, that he was far from perfect.
In addition, he had a long-term relationship at a distance. He disappeared from campus on Friday afternoon to spend the weekend with his girlfriend, then reappeared on Sunday evening. Our group never met her; we didn’t even know her name. They were rumored to have been in trouble for a while, but he never made it our business.
I didn’t ask. I had no intention of provoking another complication in my life. We studied and partied in packs. When the packs atrophied at the end of our hangouts, the two of us were left alone. After a few months, I could no longer control the dopamine flooding my synapses every time it passed me with a scalpel. I forced myself to make eye contact the right length ― I was afraid too short would reveal nervousness and too long would reveal desire.
Sometimes I would catch him looking at me and then averting his gaze. Was it desire? Or was there a blob of belly fat from a cadaver on my cheek? In our situation you never knew.
But I knew this man was dangerous. He quietly pulled me to the lab when I should have been in the library, or a party, or asleep. How often can I trace blood flow to the liver? I think we both knew our lab times were an excuse. We donated formaldehyde-preserved lungs with the attention we couldn’t give each other.
As medical students, we had to be clinical. decisive. Almost nearsighted. We sought perfection that we naturally knew was impossible, yet strived for it. We have learned from our mistakes. We had to. Errors are inevitable, but in medicine they are not always okay. If we didn’t learn our lesson the first time, the consequences were dire.
I’d been that girl staring at her phone. He apologized when the man didn’t call. Ignored the thought of who he was with that night. My latest breakup knocked me out, but eventually I adapted. Recalibrated. A line from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” became my mantra: “All I ever learned from love is how to shoot someone who surpassed you.”
I had learned to splice harmful segments from my genes and replace them with healthy tissue. Caterpillar had to be split.
During the Christmas holidays we returned to our parental homes. Thinking about him was torture. Stupidly, I had asked for a photo of his girlfriend before we left. She looked like Katie Holmes from the “Dawson’s Creek” era: cute on the way to beautiful. I looked at my dirty scrubs and my chapped hands from hundreds of washes. I thought of my hair smelling like Purell no matter how much Pureology I used. Who was I kidding? But the way he looked at me…
It didn’t matter. I swore to find a new lab partner. Better yet, do it alone.
When we got back to campus, his smile imploded all my intentions. We started to spend more time together under the guise of friends. But the disguise grew weak. It’s hard to pretend when the other person’s face exactly reflects your feelings. I kept up appearances, but in mid-February he dropped it.
One day, while we were hanging out, he looked into my eyes as if he was looking for his future. I didn’t look away. He said he had feelings for me and then came in for a kiss. I turned around. I wouldn’t be that girl anymore.
“Go fix your relationship,” I said. “You owe each other that.”
He admitted I was right and then disappeared into the rain.
I didn’t know whether I was strong or foolish. Probably both. I remembered the lesson I had already learned: admitting my feelings was a risk. He had revealed his own, but now what?
I had tried to combine strength and vulnerability before. I had announced my dream of making a career out of writing, but as the eldest child of immigrants who sacrificed old worlds to find security in the new, that was not an option. I had told a former love how I felt. That was also closed. Risk began to resemble vulnerability more than strength, then shifted completely. Perhaps Caterpillar would have been different. But making myself vulnerable to him deviated from the straight and narrow course I had chosen. It would mean that I hadn’t learned from my mistakes.
But as he stood in the doorway as he drove away, raindrops fell around me like tears. At that moment, I was driving the cornfield-laden stretch of I-57 the man I wanted across from me in the anatomy lab, across from the booth at Murphy’s, and, in my imagination, across the pillow as daylight opened my eyes.
I decided that I couldn’t let the lessons I had already learned be the end of my learning process. Some mistakes had to be repeated.
I called him. It went straight to voicemail.
“I have feelings for you too!” I shouted.
I made ten more phone calls and texts over the next few hours, but got no response. He made amends with his girlfriend, reviving their relationship with our bottle of ouzo. I was just a foolish girl with useless lessons in my hands. I had tried, but it was too late. It was over before it started.
That night, as I tearfully watched reruns of “Dawson’s Creek” and plucked the leftover pad thai, I heard a knock on my door. There stood Rups: soaking wet, a six-pack of root beer in one hand, vanilla ice cream in the other. He smiled at my open jaw. “I’ve heard root beer floats are your favorite.”
He said the rain had turned to ice. The highway was a big risk. He called to tell her; they got into a fight. He turned his car around.
“From now on,” he whispered, “my risks are yours.”
I am still shocked to see Rupesh, now my husband, wearing a surgical mask. The white cords wrapped behind his ears, the blue fabric pulses as he speaks.
Sometimes, when our fingers – now without gloves – accidentally stroke, I think of that medical student who doubted whether strength and vulnerability could intersect. I take a breath. It’s never been true. The two feed each other ― need each other. My fear now is just excitement. My mantra has changed.
Sometimes we have to make that second mistake.
Anita Vijayakumar is a Chicago-based author and psychiatrist. She writes about race, mental health and belonging. She recently completed a novel about two Indian orphans, their hidden pasts and their entwined search for identity. You can find her on Twitter at @AnitaV_K†
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