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Authors: Carol Cassella

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BOOK: Oxygen
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Joe is at the end of the bar and he’s thrown his electric yellow parka across the next stool to save it for me. My lemon drop stands on the polished counter. I sit on the damp bar seat and point to the two emptied shot glasses in front of him. “That won’t fix it, whatever it is. So why aren’t you working tonight? Seems like every time I look at the schedule you’re on call.”

“You’re one to talk. I think you beat my hours this month. I’m just trying to pay off all my creditors.”

“Financial or romantic?”

He lets out a short, sardonic chuckle.

I sip the sweet martini over the sugar-crusted rim, looking for whatever opening he needs. “Joe, if you’re going to drag me out of my bathrobe into the rain to console you, at least let me hear the truth.”

“Oh, it’s no one thing, really.” He grins his crooked, almost sad “Joe grin” that has always made me want to protect him. “Maybe just that. Too much work.”

“Is it Claire?” I ask.

He draws circles in the water droplets beading up on the dark mahogany bar. It’s funny. I didn’t understand him nearly as well while we were lovers, but now that the risk of heartbreak has been removed, Joe can tell me almost anything. Almost.

“She wants to cancel our trip to Mexico. Says she’s too worried about leaving her kids with their dad. I don’t believe her.”

“I ran into her a couple of days ago. In the cafeteria.”

He nods. “She came up to drop off my cell phone—I left it at her house.”

“She said something kind of funny—I’m not sure I should tell you this….” He glances up at me and I know I can’t back out now. “OK. She said she didn’t think she was as good at rescuing you as I was.”

“Rescuing me, huh.” Joe pulls his parka back onto his lap and fumbles in the inside pocket, then he pulls out a cigarette. “Pass me those?” He reaches across me toward a book of matches resting in a black plastic ashtray.

“No. I will not help you start smoking again. Smoking doctors! I should drag you through an emphysema ward. Will you remember this woman when you’re plugged into a ventilator?”

“I used to work on an emphysema ward. And yes, I will remember this woman.”

I can’t help but smile, even though I know he’s sincere. Joe is hopelessly appealing to women, and hopelessly attracted only to the few he’d never be able to handcuff in marriage. I’ve begun to doubt that he genuinely wants to marry, so his choices conveniently fulfill his secret dreams more than his conscious ones. I reach up and put my middle three fingers across his unlit cigarette and fracture it into a V. He pulls out another one and lights it anyway, squinting and drawing a deep draft of smoke and air into his lungs. He clasps his hands in front of his chin with the cigarette pointing up like a candle on an altar.

In the enormous gilt mirror hanging over the bar I see his face reflected back at me through the amber columns of whiskey bottles. “I never really saw Claire as being right for you for the long haul, if you want my opinion—and you may not.”

He turns to look me full in the face, like he’s either affronted at the offer of my negative opinion, or too curious to miss a word. “The long haul? Why not Claire for the long haul?”

“She’s too domestically frivolous for you. She doesn’t have an anchor.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“You need somebody who just makes you
she’s on the verge of deserting you—not someone who really will.”

“You give me no credit for all the maturing I’ve done in the last two years.” His eyes are smiling, but there’s a bite of truth to this that makes me blush. He signals the bartender and crushes out the stub of his cigarette. I hear the soft thump and clicks of a cue ball splintering open a game of pool.

“I’ll turn forty-two in sixty-three days,” Joe says.

“So which is bothering you more right now, Claire or old age?”

He shrugs. “Maybe just an old age spent alone.”

“I don’t know, Joe, old age can stretch out for a long time if you’re spending it with someone you only really liked for a few years of it.” I lean over to take a sip of my drink. Now I catch Joe watching me in the mirror.

“Maybe you like your own company better than I like mine.”

“What shocking insight coming from you! You must have gotten back into therapy.” The line makes him laugh, which is probably why he called me out into the rain tonight. I ask the bartender for the check and push my half-emptied drink in front of Joe, the curl of lemon rind tossing like a tiny boat in a big sea.

“Just doing my best to support our psychiatric colleagues. Come on, I’ll walk you home. You look exhausted.”

exhausted.” I take my glass out of his hand and sweep out the lemon curl, lick off the last bit of sugar and wind it around his left ring finger. “There. You and I can have a lovely and long marriage of consoling talks and shared season tickets, and never have to watch one another floss our teeth.”

He turns to me with a serious look. I see a haggard tug around his mouth, a strain that I haven’t noticed in my own gloomy preoccupation.

“So how are you holding up with all of this investigation? Have you heard anything?”

I gently place the glass on the bar and compose my face, look up at him, look into his eyes, look all the way through him to find an answer he doesn’t have, no one has. “I’m not supposed to talk about it. You know that. Especially to you—another doctor.”

He shrugs. “Darryl Feinnes talked to me for ten minutes before I was totally dropped from the suit.”

“Sure, but you’re an anesthesiologist. My partner. Anything I say to you can be considered discovery. Maybe we really should get married, then you’d have immunity and I could pour my soul out.”

He doesn’t smile. I look down to break his gaze. He covers my wrist with his left hand, the lemon curl still encircling his finger. If I look up again, I will cry, and he knows that.

“I’ll walk you home,” he says, graciously leaning over to pick up my coat so I can avert my face.


By the end of May
the sun is coming up early enough that I no longer fix my breakfast in the dark. I wait for eggs to boil and bread to toast, sipping coffee while I watch the sunrise, mirrored pink and orange on the still snowy Olympic Mountains. It still excites me, coming from Texas, to stand at my downtown living room windows surrounded by concrete and steel, this urban compactness of humanity, and see such splendor so detached from civilization. Sometimes I look across at the peaks and try to imagine the cold, the deep crevassed glaciers, inhospitable and threatening and glorious.

I try to move back into the rhythm of a normal life. In the evenings it’s light until after eight o’clock, and I begin running again after work. It has always been my preferred form of exercise, but one I drift out of in the dark rainy months of winter. I pack my gym bag in the morning and change before I leave the hospital, then drive to the Arboretum, or the shores of Lake Washington, or the serpentine bike paths winding through the University District and Lake Union. If I run long enough, far enough, fast enough, I become too fatigued to think about anything except the next breath, the next bend and what might lie beyond it.

Donnelly calls one evening when I have just walked in the door, sweaty and rejuvenated after five miles along the waterfront dodging T-shirt vendors and tourists and an occasional alcoholic curled in fetal self-protection on the broken sidewalk. My hands start to shake when I hear him say the word
I grip the receiver and prepare to explain why I didn’t insist on getting Jolene’s records from Yakima before I put her to sleep, why I didn’t insist she see a pediatric cardiologist if I had the least suspicion, why I didn’t tell him I was worried about her heart the minute it occurred to me so he could repair my defense. Then he blithely continues, saying the autopsy report is probably taking longer than usual only because it contains nothing significant. Nothing to worry about. He’ll be sending over some more forms to sign but the suit won’t be resolved for months—I should relax and get on with my life.

I thank God we are not talking face-to-face and sink onto the floor still holding the phone, connected to a dead line. But over the next few days I almost unconsciously appropriate his banal assumption, persuading myself that Jolene’s heart was fine, and my paranoia is born of bad dreams.


The hospital schedule becomes more fragmented as summer approaches, surgeons taking off chunks of time for children’s graduations and family vacations. Those left behind work later into the evening, picking up the slack. Joe and I seem to be vying for those rooms—hours my other partners are willing to pay us to cover so they, too, can see the sun.

Fritz Leyman, a urologist, has drawn the short straw for his group this week, and we are working together in room 9 for fourteen hours of scheduled operations. I like Fritz. He joined the staff about the same time I did, and I’ve gotten to hear the unfolding of his five children’s lives ever since Daniel, his oldest, was ten. Now he’s graduating from high school.

We’re in the middle of removing the right kidney from a fifty-one-year-old financial planner whose executive corporate health plan paid for a whole body CT scan as part of his routine physical. They found a mass, and he chose Fritz as the surgeon to remove it. The patient is healthy and slender, which makes all of our jobs easier. There is a lull as we wait for Pathology to examine the mass and tell us if it’s cancer.

“Why did you decide to take this out?” I ask him. Both of us know that it’s almost certainly a benign growth.

“I talked to him about the likelihood that this was never going to cause him any problems, and the risks of the surgery, not to mention the time he’d be out of work. He listened and decided to leave it alone. Then, a month later, he comes back and tells me he hasn’t slept a full night since his CT scan. Keeps waking up and wondering if it’s growing, keeps looking at his pee to see if it’s different. He finally got so convinced he had something fatal, he wanted it out just to put his mind at rest. So here we are.”

The pathologist calls back into the room to tell us there is nothing suspicious in the mass, and Fritz starts to close him up.

“Don’t feel bad about it, Fritz. The CT scan did diagnose a problem—fear of death. So now you’ve returned him to a happy state of denial for another decade or so.”

Fritz laughs.

The day winds through prostate biopsies and resections, bladder tumors and kidney stones. My patients are personable, resilient men, some surprised to see a female anesthesiologist, all looking forward to fixing their medical problems and getting back to the day-to-dayness of their lives—a monotony often more appreciated after illness. It is the kind of day that can restore the pleasure and gratification I used to enjoy in my job.


When I interview my next-to-last patient, he confesses to having eaten lunch and we have to postpone his surgery, so I have an unexpected break—time to go to the cafeteria and still give a few of my partners a moment out of the OR.

The cafeteria aisles are narrow and crowded with clinic patients trapped in wheelchairs and walkers, rushed doctors and nurses reaching through the waiting lines of other customers to grab wobbly Jell-Os or domed scoops of drying carrot salad cooling on beds of ice. I pick up a yogurt and wait at the cashier behind a frail woman with thinning orange hair who plucks coins from her change purse with intense concentration. I wonder if I will look like her someday.

On the way back to the operating rooms I detour through the hospital lobby just to stand for a moment in the sunshine. For the first time in weeks I find myself looking forward to the weekend. Maybe I can convince Joe to go kayaking. He’s in the heart room today. When I walk in I inadvertently startle him—he drops a syringe on the floor and I hear him curse. For the fleetest moment I see annoyance in his face when he looks up.

“Hey, I’ve got some time before my case starts. Do you want to get out for a few minutes?”

“How come? Fritz usually packs the day as tight as possible.”

“Yeah. My last patient ate lunch so we had to delay. And I swear I didn’t feed him.” Joe and I have a running joke on hectic days that we’re going to open a McDonald’s in the pre-op area so somebody will eat and we can cancel their surgery.

“I’m gonna go without for now. This guy’s heart is working on twenty percent, and I’ve had a hell of a time with his blood pressure.” I look up at the monitor and scan the multicolored lines of light streaming across it in waves of arterial pressure, venous capacitance, ventilation, oxygen saturation—colored ribbons floating against a dark sky, as ephemeral as the life processes they tally. The surgeons are quiet, talking only when they need more retraction or another instrument. No wonder Joe seems tense.

I lower my voice. “OK. Come with me to the Arboretum Sunday? It’s supposed to be sunny.”

His eyes are the deepest blue, almost navy around the perimeter—a lovely sight to wake up to, once upon a time. He must be tired; his right eye is just slightly off center. Once he told me he actually put his amblyopia to good use in college. He could carry on a conversation with one girl in the cafeteria, and simultaneously observe another girl he liked more sitting at another table.

He shrugs one shoulder, and seems to warm up. “Let’s go flying. We can take a picnic up to San Juan, huh? Give me a call after you wake up and we’ll see what the weather looks like.”


“Flying?” he mimics in falsetto. “Hey now, don’t go wrinkling up your nose that way.”

“You can’t even see my nose!” I clap my hand over my mask.

“I don’t need to see it!”


Sunday dawns cloudless and mild, blooming into one of the brightest and warmest May days I can remember. At this time of year the
New York Times
usually bumps the latest war from the headlines to broadcast sunbathers in Central Park, while Seattleites are still wearing wool. Joe swears it’s the best of days to fly. “A monkey could fly a plane on a day like this. I might even get you to fly.”

Joe lives in a contemporary condominium rescued from the former classrooms and laboratories and study halls of one of Seattle’s oldest schools. It caps the city’s highest hill. A century ago horse-drawn trolleys were dragged up the steep slope using weighted pulleys. Now the neighborhood of Queen Anne perches like a floating island of domesticity above the scurrying masses of downtown. His building is surrounded by renovated turn-of-the-century homes, their tiny yards stuffed with plastic slides and climbing gyms in bright primary colors; tricycles and parked strollers clog the cracked and pitching slabs of sidewalk.

I ring his condominium from the front entry and wait, then ring again. Finally he buzzes me up and opens the door in a ragged bathrobe, his hair still wet from the shower.

“Hey. Sorry I’m running behind. You should have used the extra key. It’s still in the same place. Have a seat.”

“I forgot about the key. Take your time. Mind if I grab a Coke?”

I sit on the couch in his living room while he gets dressed. The room is sunny, almost too warm, collecting the eastern and southern light. A typical bachelor’s flat, even at this stage in his life. The walls are bare except for a few framed pictures of his airplane and a large reproduction of Gustav Klimt’s
The Kiss
, its mixed planes and textures reflected in the glass dining table. An earlier girlfriend gave him that, probably his cue to flee.

Beside the couch a stack of anesthesia journals is mixed in among yellowing
Mother Jones
es and bookmarked biographies of various dead men: Ben Franklin, Da Vinci, Freud, Jim Morrison. His bicycle leans against the dining room wall, the calligraphy of its scuff marks lacing the white paint. The furniture is limited to what’s functional and necessary, as if he’s expecting to move again. In truth it always left me feeling hollow when I stayed with him.

In the corner is his most prized collection, vinyl LPs of jazz classics and early rock. I know for a fact he’s spent endless Saturday mornings combing garage sales to find these. When we were dating I was dragged out of sleep—and away from my personal goal of reading the arts section of the
New York Times
with fresh cinnamon rolls—to cruise foreign corners of Seattle looking for some hidden cache of Sonny Rollins or Hank Mobley. It was a good way to learn about a Seattle I otherwise never saw, but maybe an example of the better aspects of staying single.

His home is noticeably absent the slew of family photographs that fill my mantelpiece and library shelves. I met Joe’s mother only once, when she came to Seattle for a medical procedure. She needed a stent placed into one of the arteries supplying blood to her heart and Joe, her only child, convinced her to see a cardiologist he knows here. She struck me as hesitant, pausing between her words and phrases as if she might withdraw them should I disagree, as if someone had convinced her that her opinions could never have an impact on her world. It surprised me, in a way. Joe’s sarcastic wit and intellectual aplomb seem to have bloomed as a contrary reaction to his upbringing rather than as lovingly fostered traits. He never talks much about his childhood. His dad died years ago—the opposite of my own parental loss. I used to wonder if this truncated family left him more reluctant to have children of his own. It was a discussion we were never quite ready for.

Half an hour later Joe comes into the living room carrying a canvas backpack filled with crackers, dried apricots, leftover Ezell’s fried chicken—my favorite—and a stainless steel thermos. He smells like pine soap and has nicked himself shaving; there is a fleck of blood on the cuff of his shirt. He has slipped in the small gold bead of an earring he wears in his right ear when he’s not at the hospital. The first time I spotted it, that tiny piercing had seemed like a flashlight beam shining in a dark closet, exposing hidden rooms and unexplored spaces tempting me forward against my better judgment.


Joe squeezes my hand as he pulls out onto the runway and waits for clearance. He sounds different talking into his headset, a clipped song in the shorthand lingo of flight. My breath jumps high into my throat when we leave the ground. He banks out over the sound—the city looks like it’s cupped inside the protective palms of encircling peaks: the eastern Cascades and western Olympics, the northern and southern volcanoes of Mount Baker and Mount Rainier. From this height the geometry of bridged lakes and islanded ocean sprawls like a rumpled quilt in greens and blues. It’s worth the price of fear.

He goads me into holding the copilot wheel and I’m almost surprised by how responsive the plane is, so easy to skate across ripples of air. The plane shivers in a patch of light turbulence and I grip the wheel and look at Joe for help. He groans and clasps his hands to his head, then tumbles sideways into the space between us. Gravity turns over in my chest and I scream his name, let one hand leave the steering wheel to reach out to him, discover him shaking with laughter, thrilled with the effect his fake attack has produced, and soon I am also laughing and he has to take the wheel back from me.

We rent bikes and end up in an open field above the beach overlooking the straits. Joe spreads the blanket in the full flood of sunlight that’s turning the entire meadow yellow-green. There is enough breeze to soften the sun’s heat, enough heat to coax a drowsy relinquishment of time and responsibility. He opens the backpack and pulls out the thermos and two plastic cups. In the sunshine his face is reflected across the cylinder as a distorted caricature of himself, blurring the clean, proportioned angles of his jaw and nose, the reddish gold hues of his hair and skin that stand in such contrast to his dark humor. He was easy to fall for.

“Cheers.” He holds his cup level with his eye, lining it up with the horizon of ocean and sky, the mountains now rising through the plastic as peaks captured on a golden lake. “Look. Now I have Mount Olympus right in the palm of my hand. Probably about how we look to God, or at least to an alien spaceman. Perspective, Marie. It’s all about perspective.”

BOOK: Oxygen
3.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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