Saturday, July 11
"Steve?" Sally's voice floats down from our bedroom at the top of the stairs. "I'm almost ready. Are the girls okay?"
"They're fine," I call back automatically, staring into the downstairs bathroom mirror. I give one final tug on my tie, walk out of the bathroom, and step over the baby gate that guards the living-room entrance, separating that space from the rest of our small house like a barbed-wire fence around a POW camp. I survey the scene.
Katie is hunched over her play stove in a corner of the room, rummaging through plastic pots and pans and muttering to herself. Her five-year-old face is set in fierce concentration, and I glimpse what family and friends often comment on but that I myself rarely acknowledge out loud: Except for her dark black hair, which today is set in pigtails, Katie is the spitting image of me — green eyes, an elongated face, and prominent ears. Meanwhile, a short distance away, Annabelle observes Katie serenely from her baby walker, thinking about whatever it is that ten-month-olds think about. She looks every bit as much like her mother as Katie looks like me, with straight, dark black hair, matching dark eyes, and a small nose.
Annabelle spots me, smiles adoringly, bangs happily on the narrow plastic shelf in front of her, bounces up and down, and waves like she hasn't seen me in months. I wave back like an idiot, pumping my hand back and forth with childish enthusiasm. The waving thing never gets old at this age, and I love it. "Hi, 'Bella. Hi, sweetie."
Katie spins around. "Daddy!" she shrieks, running over and wrapping herself around my leg. I love that, too. Who wouldn't? Sure, they're a pain in the ass sometimes — okay, practically all of the time — but I can't imagine why anyone would not want to have kids. "I'm making dinner!"
"Oh, boy. Show me."
She disengages herself from my leg, takes me by the hand, and leads me to the play stove. She solemnly spoons some white Styrofoam peanuts, the kind used as packing material in shipping boxes, from a plastic pot and into a small bowl, which she then hands to me. I poke its contents suspiciously and hold up one of the thumb-sized peanuts.
"Where did these come from?"
"Mommy's box." She gestures toward an open cardboard box sitting near the front door, a recent purchase from an online store. A few of the peanuts lie scattered on the floor around it, carelessly strewn across the cracked linoleum. "Eat, Daddy."
"Katie, you shouldn't be playing with these. They're too small for Annabelle."
"But 'Bella likes them."
My stomach does a queasy flip. "What do you mean, ''Bella likes them'?" I turn sharply to face Annabelle, realizing that she hasn't made a single sound, not so much as a gurgle or a raspberry, since I came into the room, and that her cheeks are puffed out, like a chipmunk with a bunch of nuts tucked in its mouth. She smiles at me again, and her lips part slightly, revealing a glimpse of white Styrofoam.
Annabelle bears my frantic plucking of all of the peanuts — and there are a lot of them — from her mouth with grace and equanimity, never once crying or resisting. When I'm done, I hand her a plastic rattle, which she shoves in her mouth as if nothing happened, and squat down next to Katie, who's flipping calmly through a picture book.
"Katie. You shouldn't have put those things in 'Bella's mouth."
"Because they could have hurt her."
"Why?" A hint of defiance has crept into her voice.
"She could have swallowed them and gotten sick."
Her lower jaw juts forward. "'Bella's not sick. She liked my dinner."
Hard to argue with that. I'm trying to frame a suitable but firm response that doesn't involve complex descriptions of human-respiratory-tract anatomy when the doorbell rings. I check my watch. Right on time. As usual. "Just ... don't do it again, Katie," I say lamely, rising to my feet.
"Okay." She's already flipping pages in her picture book.
I grab the box full of the Styrofoam peanuts, shove it in a nearby closet, and open the front door to find my mother-in-law staring up at me, steely-eyed and unsmiling.
"Hi, Mrs. Kim."
"Steven." She steps across the threshold. I hesitate, and then awkwardly bend over to hug her. She wraps her arms around my waist and lightly pats my back once before quickly withdrawing. She steps back and stares at me coldly.
I shift my weight and cough. "I, um ... We really appreciate you watching Katie and Annabelle tonight for us, Mrs. Kim."
"You're welcome, Steven."
Like a knee-high rocket, Katie launches herself at my mother-in-law, grabbing her by the leg and screaming with laughter. Annabelle beams and bounces furiously up and down in her walker.
Mrs. Kim's face blossoms into a broad smile. "Oh my goodness! What a wonderful greeting!" With Katie still affixed to her leg, she gingerly steps into the room and, with a strength that defies her petite frame, scoops up Katie in one arm and Annabelle in the other. They giggle happily as she whispers to them in rapid-fire Korean.
Sally appears at the bottom of the stairs, her slim figure tucked into a sleek black cocktail dress, looking harried but elegant as she snaps a pearl earring into place. "Hi, Mom. Thanks for coming over." She pecks her mother on the cheek, and they confer briefly on bath, dinner, and bed for the girls. "We should be back by ten."
"Where are you going tonight?"
"We're going to a cocktail party for Steve's work before grabbing some dinner."
Her mother nods approvingly. "Good. You deserve a night out." I'm standing right there, but Mrs. Kim addresses Sally as if they're the only two people in the room.
"Good-bye, Mom." We hug and kiss Katie and Annabelle good night, and a short while later we're in our sky blue Toyota Sienna minivan headed for my boss's house.
"I think your mom is really starting to warm up to me."
"Why's that?" Sally flips down the passenger-side sun visor and starts applying lipstick in the cosmetic mirror fixed to the back of it.
"She didn't mention my weight."
"Or my hairline."
Sally sighs. "Why are you letting her get to you tonight?"
"I'm not." Yes I am. "It's just ... I'm a doctor. Aren't mothers-in-law supposed to, you know, appreciate the doctor thing?"
"She does. It partly makes up for your not being Korean." She's done with the lipstick and is fluffing her black, shoulder-length hair.
I glance at her, chagrined. Such blunt, casual acknowledgment of the only ongoing source of tension in our marriage — her parents' displeasure with their daughter's decision to marry outside the Korean community, a displeasure that two well-adjusted grandchildren and years of stable marriage have done little to diminish — is unusual.
"But not completely."
"No. And never will." She snaps the visor back into place and gazes out the window. "But I think you know that already. Can we talk about something else?"
"Sure." She must be in a philosophical mood or something. As bad as it's been for me with her parents, it's been ten times worse for her. But she's always stood her ground with them. It's one of the reasons I love her so much.
Sally is many different things, most of them synonyms for success, and all of which I absolutely adore: smart, driven, witty, confident. I know most people wouldn't call hers a pretty face — on some objective level, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, I know it's quite plain, really; maybe even erring on the side of unattractive. Thick lips. A nose that's too small for her broad cheeks and wideset eyes. But I can honestly say without a trace of sentimentality that I think she's absolutely beautiful. She has an indefinable charisma that belies her looks, an enviable, innate ability to walk into a crowded room, instinctually size it up, and win over every single person in it with smooth-talking charm. She doesn't even have to try. People like her. All kinds of people. To me, it's a mystical talent, something I wouldn't be able to do if my life depended on it. And a talent that she's always put to good use: Before she had Katie and decided to stop working, Sally had a very successful career as a high-ranking assistant to the head of Human Resources at my hospital. That's how we met.
I try to think of something else to talk about, and my mind drifts back to the Styrofoam-peanut incident with Annabelle. I relate the story, playing down the part about me actually being out of the room when Katie shoved the packing material into her sister's mouth — like a mother bear defending her cubs, Sally can be extremely touchy about anything that even remotely threatens the health of the girls, and my relatively more laissez-faire approach to parenting has gotten me into trouble with her more than once. But when I'm finished, Sally simply throws back her head and laughs. "'She liked my dinner.' You know, Katie reminds me more and more of you every day."
I think about the way Katie looked earlier tonight, bent over that stupid toy kitchen, so intent on what she was doing. "Because she's so smart?"
"Nice try. No. Because she's so stubborn."
"Oh." I grip the steering wheel a bit more firmly.
Sally pats my shoulder affectionately. "I know. You hate hearing that. But it is what it is. Besides, it's not all bad. Being single-minded is what's enabled you to succeed. I mean, you never give up. I love that about you. But it is a real pain in the ass sometimes. Once you've made up your mind about something, no force on the planet will get you to change it. Even when you're wrong. Especially when you're wrong. You know what I'm talking about."
"You're seeing the same thing with Katie?"
"Every single day."
"Surgeons are pretty stubborn. Maybe she'll become a surgeon someday."
"God, I hope not." She smirks.
"Yeah. Well ... you know what they say about surgeons, right?"
"Sometimes wrong, never unsure."
"Shit. Have I used that line before?"
"Just a couple of hundred times. Where did you first hear it?"
"I'm not exactly certain. Probably from Collier."
We ride together in silence for a few minutes before she says, "Your meeting with Dr. Collier is next Monday. Right?"
"What are the chances he's going to offer you a job?"
My insides suddenly bunch up into a little ball. "I don't know."
"Still? Haven't you talked to him about it yet?"
"We really need to stay here in Boston, Steve. Our whole lives are here."
"What do you want me to say?" We're launching into a variation of a conversation we've had countless times before. I know how much she wants to stay in Boston. "The opportunity hasn't come up to talk about it. Besides, I think Northwest Hospital is getting ready to make a firm offer."
"But ... you don't want to work at Northwest."
"The money's good at Northwest."
"That's not what I said. It's not a medical school. It's not what you want."
"How about Harvard, or U Mass?"
"They're not hiring right now." What's left unsaid is that there's only one job I really want anyway, more than I've wanted just about anything else in my life, and Sally knows it: to work at University Hospital and be a professor at University Medical School.
"Why don't you ask Dr. Collier about it tonight? He'll be relaxed. Sociable."
"I'm ... I don't know. Maybe."
"Since when are you so indecisive? You just got through saying how" — she lowers the pitch of her voice an octave — "never unsure you are."
"You don't just go waltzing up to my boss and ask him for a job. It's not the way it works. We're talking about University Hospital. You don't ask to work at University. You're invited. Between med school and residency, I've spent the last nine years of my life busting my ass there —"
"All the more reason for you to be proactive about the whole thing."
"— and I don't want to blow it now."
She drums her fingers along the armrest. "If you don't ask him, how are you ever going to know for sure? Maybe he's waiting for you to show some interest."
I stare at the road and purse my lips.
"Honestly." She sighs, turning back toward the window. "Sometimes I don't know who's worse: you, or the five-year-old."
* * *
Dr. Collier and his wife stand in the spacious foyer of their home in Wellesley, underneath an elaborate chandelier, informally greeting their guests as they enter through the front door. It's been an unusually dry spring and summer, and the mosquito population is light, so the heavy oak front doors are thrown wide open to admit both a pleasant early-evening breeze and the guests streaming across the threshold.
Each year in July, Dr. Collier, the chairman of our department and my boss, has a cocktail party for all of the surgeons that work for him. He and his wife throw a pretty decent party. Beyond the foyer, in a living room with vaulted ceilings seemingly as high as a cathedral's, faculty and residents from my department stand around with drinks in their hands, clumped into groups of varying size and composition. They chat amiably as servers — nubile young women wearing identical white dress shirts and long black pants — circulate with blank smiles and hors d'oeuvres laid out on silver platters. Along one side of the room, a string quartet plays classical music; on the opposite side, a bartender pours drinks from the Colliers' ornate, marble-topped wet bar.
Dr. Collier himself is the spitting image of the actor Charlton Heston. Not the young, square-jawed, noble, 1950s Charlton Heston from the movie The Ten Commandments, but the older, crankier, more blustery 1960s and 1970s Charlton Heston from movies like Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man and Soylent Green. It's much more than just a passing resemblance, and I often wonder if Dr. Collier puts any conscious thought into imitating him. Tall, lanky, muscular, and uniformly bronzed even in the middle of January, his sinewy virility and biting cynicism are matched only by his propensity for spontaneously launching into bombastic speeches.
About the only non-Hestonesque thing about him is his musical preference in the operating room: show tunes. He's especially partial to West Side Story. Imagine watching Colonel Taylor from the original Planet of the Apes cut out somebody's kidney while humming along to "I Feel Pretty," and you'll have some idea of what it's like to operate with Dr. Collier.
Tonight, he's wearing a light brown linen suit and pink dress shirt, no tie, with a pink paisley silk handkerchief neatly folded into the left breast pocket.
Sally and I approach Dr. and Mrs. Collier just as they're finishing speaking with one of the other residents. "Steven," Dr. Collier says, shaking my hand briefly before focusing all of his attention on Sally. He smiles warmly and kisses her on the cheek. "Good evening, Sally. Welcome to our home."
Mrs. Collier is a thin, graceful woman with long brown hair flecked with gray, friendly eyes, and a genteel Southern accent. Looking stylish in a sleeveless silver dress, she takes my hand first, then hugs Sally. Sally gushes over a console table that dominates the foyer ("This wasn't here last year, was it?"). Mrs. Collier beams her approval and responds that no, she only bought it just last month, and launches into a detailed description of the antique store in which she discovered it.
Dr. Collier takes the opportunity to talk shop. "So. Steven. How does it feel to be a chief resident?"
"Terrific, Dr. Collier. I've been looking forward to it for so long, I can't believe it's actually, finally here."
"Excellent. I've been out of town at a conference recently. I understand that you started on service last week, with Luis Martínez as your junior resident."
"Well, you won't find a more industrious resident than Luis. I'm sure the two of you will make an excellent team."
"Thanks, Dr. Collier. I've enjoyed working with him so far." I don't know if enjoy is exactly the right word — I hardly know the guy — but we've had a productive professional relationship over the past week.
"Is he coming tonight?"
"No. He's on call."
"Well. Someone needs to mind the store. In any event, Steven, we're expecting great things from you during your chief year."