Art by Dane Patterson
Her body was not her own even in death. It was a strange thought to have about a patient in the middle of a code, yet she could not ignore the patient’s gender when the act of trying to save her looked so violent. A clear plastic tube cinched at her mouth. Blood oozed from her groin where a central line had been placed. The relentless thumping between her breasts sent reverberations through her otherwise motionless limbs. It was all getting to be too much, and Kate was growing tired.
“It’s been an hour,” she mouthed to Jake who was standing at the head of the gurney. The patient came from a long-term care facility and wasn’t weaning off the ventilator. What the patient needed was new lungs, but someone—someone of her size and her blood type with all the right paperwork—had to die faster than the patient was dying for that to happen. Kate was sure Jake knew this better than anyone; still, he insisted. Three minutes remained until the next epinephrine injection.
Jake took every patient too seriously, even the crazy ones. He ended every sentence with “please” or “thank you.” Perhaps his insistence on futile resuscitation was also a sort of kindness, a part of a gentlemanly ethos she did not understand. Yet there was a hard edge to it that felt impersonal. He kept on because he needed the patient to come back even if it was just for a few more hours.
“Her body was not her own even in death.”
Kate’s first memory of Jake was the feel of his heat coming up behind her. They were working a shift together on a quiet weekday morning. He introduced himself as one of the new attendings and didn’t try to hide the fact that he was a fresh graduate. He was not handsome, but he had a drawl and an ingrained gentility about him that piqued her curiosity. During the lull between patients, they did what any two strangers thrust together did, which was to discuss where they came from. Jake’s home was Outer Banks, North Carolina, which meant that at least part of his charm could be explained by his originating from south of the Mason-Dixon line. Kate also grew up in the South, except the part she came from did not include debutante balls, cotillion classes, or idyllic summers by the shore. The South she came from was too much time at church, too much time around other Koreans, and summers at her parents’ dry cleaner. It fascinated her that two entirely different worlds could coexist without colliding. Jake intrigued her, yet he remained no more than an unlikely work crush until, a few weeks later, they ran into each other at a pub.
He was alone at the bar, and she was out with her friends. When he saw her, he sauntered over to their booth and squeezed in. At first, it seemed like an accident, his pinkie brushing against hers beneath the table. When she didn’t pull away, he took her hand, and the cool touch of his skin set fire to her blood. People around them continued to chatter away, making jokes. Nothing was different after they touched, yet everything felt different.
It was the kind of night made for foolishness. Outside, snowflakes kept their place in the air. She wanted so much for him to kiss her, but when they arrived at her door—flushed with bourbon and lust—he didn’t try to go inside. He pushed her against the wall and planted his lips on the top of her startled head. He kissed her hair, and there was something so innocent about it that she was rendered speechless.
The reason for his old-world chivalry had a name, and her name was Emma—Em, M. There was so much hesitation and longing expressed by this single letter. After that first night of foolishness, Jake would call Kate sometimes to complain about Em. Em was everywhere—at the library, at her sister’s apartment, out late with her law school friends. Em was seldom there with Jake in the home that they shared together.
Kate would listen, wondering why he bothered to hang on so tightly to something that was dying. She wanted to tell him to let go. He was making her bear the burden of his guilt. So far, she had accepted this dynamic, inadvertently conforming to his ambivalence. But now, with the dead woman there between them that he would not stop torturing, she decided that this all had to end.
“It’s been sixty minutes,” she said loudly enough for everyone to hear.
The room fell silent. Only the alarms on the monitor continued. Jake put an ultrasound probe on the patient’s chest as the staff waited for a time of death.
“It’s moving,” he said. “It’s moving!”
She didn’t believe him until she looked at the screen herself. The patient’s left ventricle moved on its own. It was beautifully simple, that squeeze and release. If Kate had been alone in the room, she would have broken down and cried at the bewildering uncertainty of life. But she was not alone. She was in a room full of nurses, nursing assistants, and paramedic students—many of whom constantly challenged her authority as a female resident—and so she tried to appear unmoved.
“Let’s recycle the blood pressure. Someone get ice to start hypothermia protocol. Where are we with the Levophed drip?”
She carried on.
“Drinks?” her phone pinged as she was walking out of the hospital. It was a text from Jake. She took off her cap and aired out her hair while she considered his one-word proposition. Drinks? The question was simultaneously innocuous and loaded. Who was asking—Jake, the man who had been flirting with her with for months, or Dr. Sullivan, her attending?
They were in the middle of a pandemic and a month into Cuomo’s shelter-in-place order. She couldn’t possibly claim to have plans. Others in scrubs passed by her as she stood in front of the hospital entrance. She started a reply and then erased it.
“Hey,” he said, coming up behind her.
“Whoa, whoa,” he said. “It’s just me.”
Jake pulled down his mask to prove it. For the first time in weeks, she saw his bare face. To her amusement, he now had a mustache, which looked ridiculous. She burst into uncontrollable laughter, and he joined in. By the time they were done, she no longer had any reservations. They walked to Baby Bo’s where the barkeep made them buy a bag of chips and salsa to go with their to-go cups of margaritas.
“Don’t you live close by?” Jake asked when they re-emerged from the dark emptiness of the restaurant. The question was not a question at all. He had walked her home before. He knew where she lived. When she failed to reply, he added quickly, “I know it’s a pandemic and all, but you think I can use your restroom?”
Once inside her apartment, they took off their virus-laden scrubs and changed into their lay clothes with just the half-closed bathroom door between them. Afterward, she led him to her fire escape and laid out her gray tartan blanket. They sat across from each other. She had her back against the wall and he put his back against the railing. Their legs were parallel: close but not quite touching. They were surrounded on all three sides by other apartments. A tree in the courtyard shielded them with its branches. They said nothing as they basked in the warmth of an April evening that already felt like summer. Jake was returning to a version of himself that she recognized, so when she decided to break their comfortable silence, she did so carefully.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Not sure anyone will be okay again ever.”
“I know,” Kate laughed weakly. “But I mean you. Are you doing okay?”
He sighed, took a sip of his drink, and went somewhere deep inside himself before answering her. “Em left a few days ago.”
“What do you mean? Like for good?”
“I don’t know. I came home from a shift the other day and she was gone.”
“Where did she go? Did you have a fight or something?”
“We are always fighting about one thing or another, but that was the weird thing . . . She seemed to be in a good mood for once . . . I thought, maybe, the ice is thawing . . . then, poof!”
“But she must have left a note or something.”
“I only knew she wasn’t abducted because her drawers were empty.”
“So, you haven’t heard from her at all?”
“No, I did talk to her for a minute. I called and called. Sent her messages. No answer. Finally, I called her mom, and she put Em on the phone.”
“Did she explain why she left?”
“All she kept repeating was ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do this.’”
“What can’t she do?”
“The city, the pandemic, the lockdown, living with me in the city during a lockdown, or maybe it’s just being with me period. I don’t know. I wish I knew.”
Kate wanted to tell him that she understood. The past few weeks, she had felt more alone than she had ever felt in her whole life. Yet it wasn’t the loneliness or the fear of death that kept her up at nights. It was the thought of never again knowing the touch of another human being. When their eyes finally met, Kate held her breath. This time, it would not be like the snowy night of their foolishness. They had been through too much to play pretend. This time, it would be real. Real things meant real consequences. But before she could surrender to the moment, a thunderous cacophony of clapping and shouting erupted around them.
“Thank you for everything you do,” chirped a bright voice seemingly out of nowhere. Kate turned to her left and saw her neighbor Claire poking her head out of the window.
“You two having a picnic out here?” Claire asked.
Kate looked down at her phone. It was seven o’clock.
They picked up more margaritas at Baby Bo’s and headed for the pier where twilight lit up the gold and silver undulations of the East River. Chastened by Claire’s intrusion, they sat on the opposite ends of the same bench and sipped their drinks.
“I can’t get used to it,” she said.
“Me neither,” he agreed.
“It’s not about us at all. They just need to make as much noise as possible to let out pent-up frustrations.”
“Do you think she suspects anything?” Jake asked.
“Who? Claire? She’s an ophthalmologist! She doesn’t talk to anyone in our department. Hell, she barely talks to me.”
“You never know. She might come down for consults. Besides, I just don’t want her to get the wrong idea.”
“Right, right,” Kate reached into her jacket pocket to feel for her apartment keys—a nervous habit that she had whenever she felt a sudden urgency to return home, but her keys were not there. She took off her jacket and shook it loose. Nothing. She rummaged in the bottom of her bag and then spilled its contents out onto the bench.
“What’s wrong?” Jake asked.
“My keys,” she replied, distracted.
He lived in a fourth-floor walk-up with a full kitchen, a dining table, a fireplace, and even a small balcony. The place was meant for two people, yet there were no traces of his fiancé anywhere. His things were haphazardly spread throughout the living room: clothes on the couch, computer and books on the coffee table, his stethoscope by the TV. The chaotic lack of feminine neatness reassured Kate. This wasn’t Em’s space anymore.
They sat on the opposite ends of the sofa, just the same way that they sat on the bench outside. After a few minutes of mindlessly flipping through the channels, Jake yawned and announced, “I’m going to sleep. You can have the bed. I’ll sleep out here.”
“No, I’ll sleep here.”
“We can both sleep on the bed. You sleep under the covers and I’ll sleep over them.”
“Why don’t I just sew you into a bundling sac?” she laughed. “No, I’m going to sleep out here. But don’t go. Stay with me a little longer.”
Kate rested her head on his lap. He filled the silence with stories about the women he had dated while he and Em were on their countless breaks. It seemed like an odd topic, but she realized that he wasn’t actually talking to her. He was thinking out loud to himself, wistfully going over paths not taken. She was intrigued but also annoyed.
“Why did you stay with Em?” she asked, cutting him off. “Why didn’t you make it work with any of these women?”
“I didn’t know them like I knew Em. And I’m not talking about knowing her in the sense of knowing what color she likes or whatever.”
“So what do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I feel like I knew Em from the moment she was born.”
Was Jake the kind of man who believed he could only ever love one person? Did he think this made him special? She pushed him down on the sofa. She balanced herself over him on her knees and slowly lowered herself toward him. He sat up abruptly and kissed her. She wrapped herself around him as he stood up. Locked together, they made their way to the bedroom. He threw her onto the bed perhaps more roughly than he had intended. Kate’s crown hit the headboard with a thud.
“I’m sorry!” he cried. “I’m so sorry! You okay?”
Kate sat up and checked the back of her head with her fingers. She laughed.
“I don’t want to kill the mood further, but I have to pee,” she said.
On her way to the bathroom, her leg brushed against Jake’s windbreaker. It was hanging on the back of a dining chair. She heard the clank of metal hitting the wooden floor. She stopped to check what had fallen and saw a glint in the shadows. She bent down and found that the sparkling object was none other than the crystal charm of her own keychain.
“Are you okay?” Jake called from the bedroom.
Afraid he would get up to check on her, she ran into the bathroom, locked the door, and sat on the edge of the bathtub. She forced herself to exhale deeply until her breathing became more even. She opened her hand and studied the object in her palm. The bright light of the bathroom removed all doubt: these were her keys, the same ones that hadn’t been in her bag. Kate nervously fingered the edges of her keys, considering the events of the day in a new light. Suddenly, everything seemed tainted—the resuscitation, their rendezvous in front of the hospital, Jake asking to use her bathroom, the hurt on his face as he talked about Em.
She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she didn’t hear the first knock. The second knock jolted her back to reality.
“You’ve been in there awfully long. Is everything okay?”
She searched the drawers for a weapon. One drawer was full of medical supplies stolen from the hospital. She sifted through the contents—a laceration tray, packets of antibiotic ointments, sutures, medical tape, countless rolls of clean bandages—there! Kate picked up a scalpel, still in its plastic package, and looked at the blade. It wasn’t an eleven-blade that the surgeons used to cut open patients but a tiny and curved sixteen-blade that Kate usually used on small abscesses. She peeled off the plastic and slipped the knife in her pocket before opening the door.
“What’s wrong?” Jake asked.
Kate held her keys by its ring, lifting them up to his face.
“You found your keys!” he said.
“They were in your pocket,” she said flatly.
“You went through my pockets?”
“They fell out when I brushed against your jacket.”
“I must have picked them up by mistake.”
The lie insulted her more than anything else.
“You act like this nice guy,” she said. “You play the part of the Southern gentleman, but when it comes right down to it, you only care about your own problems.”
“Whoa, whoa. Where is this coming from?”
“You didn’t have to do that this morning. You know that woman isn’t going to make it. You’re just making her suffer so you can feel like a fucking hero.”
“Is that what all this is about?”
They stood still for a moment, her in the brightness of the bathroom and him in the darkness of the living room. Then, to her surprise, he walked towards her with his arms slightly raised as though he was going in for an embrace. Startled, Kate took a step back.
“It’s okay,” he said.
She pulled out the scalpel, retracted the plastic cover with her thumb, and pointed it at his neck.
“Whoa,” he said, putting his hands in the air and quickly backing out of the bathroom. “You’re insane!”
Kate did not care what he thought of her as long as he did not try to come any closer. She slipped on her shoes, picked up her things from the bench in the entryway, and shut the door behind her.
Back at her building, Kate reached into her pockets and discovered that she was once again missing her keys. In her hurry to leave, she must have left them on the bench. Kate screamed silently and even contemplated calling Jake. Was she insane? Instead, she sat on the stoop and started looking up hotels on her phone. Eventually, a neighbor who was leaving held the door open for her and she rushed inside. She ran up the stairs to the third floor and knocked on Claire’s door.
“Claire, it’s Kate! I’m locked out!”
The door creaked open. The chain lock went taut. “Oh, hello,” said Claire. She was less enthusiastic now that she wasn’t clapping for her on the fire escape.
“Listen, Claire, I am having the worst day, and I need your help. I’m locked out, but my window should be unlocked. I have a set of spare keys in my apartment. Do you think you could climb through my window and get them for me? Please, Claire, I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t desperate.”
The door closed, and Kate knew the whole world was against her. Claire wouldn’t help her. They were acquaintances at best. But before she could break down crying, the door opened again—this time, a little wider and without the hindrance of the chain lock.
“You can come in,” Claire began cautiously, “but you have to promise me.”
“Yes, yes, I know. I won’t touch anything. I won’t even breathe. I’ll just run through and climb out through the fire escape.”
“No, no, it’s not that.”
“I’ll wear two masks.”
“Just come in.”
She cautiously entered Claire’s apartment, careful not to touch anything. Something alive and moving brushed her shin. She looked down and saw the white fluffball of a Pomeranian.
“But how do you keep him so quiet?” Kate asked. Their building had a strict no-pets policy.
“He’s mute. Born that way, so he doesn’t bark, and he’s small enough that I can hide him in my bag. He’s been shitting inside since the pandemic started. I clean it up, obviously, but I apologize for any smell. You can hold him if you like.”
Kate knelt down, and the dog jumped into her arms and began licking her face. The warmth of his soft belly squirmed against her chest and she felt what she had desperately yearned for since the very first day of the pandemic—the whole of her being lighting up at the touch of another.
Yoojin Na is a writer and physician. She lives in Brooklyn.
Dane Patterson is a visual artist and musician living in San Antonio. His work has been shown internationally with solo shows in New York, Paris, and Singapore. Patterson received a New York Foundation for the Arts Artist Fellowship grant in 2009, and a MacDowell Fellowship in 2010. His work has been included in VICE, n+1, and Hi-Fructose. He holds an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in NYC, and a BFA from Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis, IN.