Chapter one from "Doctor" a Work in Progress

         A Maine June. 85 degrees in the sun, but in fact only 75 in the shade or along the coast. Guests at the pool seem perfectly comfortable in swimwear. Others stroll to the beach in Polo shirts and shorts. I, on the other hand, am zipped-up in a sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers with a furry lap-warmer named Bunny, an 11-year-old, hand-me-downed shih tzu to keep me warm.
         It’s worth it, though. The water, the sky, the clouds. Kennebunkport is the textbook definition of beauty. It’s a view I’m paying $425 a night to see from the comfort of my room. And yet, it seems distant. Muted, somehow, like I’m seeing it on TV or in a movie. During the middle ages, Europeans thought the Earth was flat, and everything that reached the edge of earth fell over like a world-sized waterfall.
         My body feels sluggish and heavy like a bloated whale carcass drifting at the surface of ocean, adrift and slowly towed by the current toward the murky seabed at the bottom of the world, and yet my mind’s trapped back at the hospital, where, rushing from code to code, droplets of perspiration drip down the inner rim of the N95. The trapped air feels humid, making it hotter and more stifling. Patients in the ICU rock forward and back as urgently as 70 times per minute, gasping for air, their lips as blue as the dead. They clutch at their chests and yelp about angry bees, swarms stinging their lungs.
         Patients and more patients, many sedated, intubated, ventilated. The dead covered, bagged, refrigerated. They cry, alone. Die, alone.
         Bunny jumps from my lap to the bench, the warmth between lost to the vacuum. A chill raises goosebumps over my thighs. I shiver. Bunny, on the other hand, pants and lays with her paws splayed out, making me envious of her warm, silver coat. Every morning since we arrived two days ago, I walk Bunny on the path, and we sit here 15 minutes before completing the rest of the loop around the perimeter of the property. Bunny has come to know this bench is the half way point; she knows to stop. Later when we get back to the hotel, she will snuggle with me in bed until it’s time for more food or another walk.
         “Georgie?” A voice calls.
         My body freezes. I know that voice.
         I turn—it is him. Marc. Our lives have been separated by, what—30 years of divorce? He’s black, 6’ 1; his tight dark curls have turned an ash grey. He now sports a mustache and beard, which I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined, and even more shocking, he walks with a slight stoop. Marc was once a lanky 160 lbs, but now he has a paunch and looks closer to 230. Four in ten Black men aged 20 or older have high blood pressure. Risk of a stroke is twice that of white men. Marc fits the profile.
         “I thought it might be you,” he says. Without the slightest hesitation, he comes toward me.
         Should I stand? Stay seated?
         Excited about the prospect of making a new friend, Bunny leaps onto the grass and wags her way over to him.
         “Oh, hi,” he says, leaning to pet her. She jumps into his arms. Licks his face. “Wow. Okay. Thank you.”
         It’s too late for dread, and yet, my stomach feels as if I swallowed a 10 lb. dumbbell. I’m paralyzed, watching from outside myself. This can’t be happening. How can this be happening?
         “Cute puppy.” Marc hands off Bunny.
         “She’s 14.” I hug her in my arms.
         “You know those Asians,” he says. There’s a brightness about Marc that causes me to squint. I keep my gaze trained on the top button of his Havana shirt, the stone colored khakis (he finds jeans loathsome), and polished, always polished, dress shoes. “‘kay if I sit?”
         Yes. No.
         “Of course.” I shift over. “Goodness, I hardly recognized you, what with that mustache and—”
         His chin tips up with pride. He fingers the beard.
         “Rodent on your face,” I say.
         “Oof—Not the scruff! Anything but the scruff!” Marc says, but he’s laughing. The resonant sound could always melt any frost. I used think it magic. Now, I find it vaguely discomfiting.
         “You haven’t changed a bit, Dr. Wong,” he says.
         “Even with my hair?” At 56, I refuse to color it. Ma points out I look older than she does, but, fine, so be it.
         “I was talking about your blunt—” he stops himself. “Your witty manner.”
         Ah, my veracity. A trait he loved when we first met, but later found distasteful and “inappropriate.”
         “If you hadn’t mentioned it, I wouldn’t have noticed, ” he says, “although, I’m sure your mother has plenty to say about it.”
         “She says I look like a Pau Pau.” I roll my eyes. “A great aunt.”
         “I know what it means.”
         “Of course.” The sight of my greying hair may cause Ma to shudder, but what she fails to understand is that, rather than it being a positive attribute, my neanimorphic visage has likely been a major factor stymying my professional growth, especially in terms of job promotions and career advancement. “We need someone with leadership ability,” they said.
         “Ma says I’ve lost weight,” I say. “So at least there’s that.”
         “How is Ma?” He shakes his head. He knows Ma’s obsession with weight and beauty. Some things never change.
         “Ma is Ma,” I sigh. Miserable.
         He frowns and shakes his head.
         Is that judgement I see? As difficult as Ma can be, I feel suddenly protective. I glance behind me to see if he’s with anyone. Wife? Children? Across a long expanse of grass, a woman in a swimsuit and coverup steps out of the Colony Hotel, a grand building with white, clapboard siding, a cupola atop its pitched roof, and a porch wrapped around the entire exterior façade. She follows the path to the pool at the south side of the property. At the north end is a puttering green. This bench stands halfway with Bunny between Mark and I. Jaw open, her tongue curls upward as if to curl its underside.
         “What are you doing here?” I ask Marc.
         “I’ve been coming here every summer from the time I was 6, ” Marc says.
         Of course. This is the place. Marc came with his parents and sisters. I was never invited, even after we got married. To rub salt in the wound, it turned out Natasha, his ex-girlfriend, and her parents “just happened” to vacation with them, possibly even sat on this very bench together.
         Marc must realize his mistake because he quickly switches the conversation back to me. “What are you doing here?”
         That’s a good question. What am I doing here?
         “Vacation?” I say, embarrassed now to be alone. “With Bunny.”
         A part of me blames Jeff, Amy’s first husband, who recommended this place. But another part wonders why I chose Maine. I should have realized. How did I not realize? Then again, Maine is a large state. How silly to think it should be off limits simply because Marc summers here. But that pre-supposes that there was intent, and I’m pretty certain my only motives were to get some R&R and if I felt up to it, consider taking early retirement.
         Marc’s leg starts to shake. He notices that I notice and stops. How many times have I told him he’ll shaking away his good luck?
         Hugging the shore, a giant yacht races south. From where we are, it’s soundless.
         “I seem to recall you once saying you’d never get a dog, what with the hours of a surgeon,” he says, petting Bunny.
         “I’m PEDs now.” Meaning, of course, I have a lot more time. Nothing’s as intense as surgery, especially during residency, which was what I was doing when we first met. “I recently started an integrative medicine department.”
         “Congratulations.” His brow twitches. Pity. Last he knew, I was still fighting to be a surgeon. Now, he knows I lost that fight. Even more humiliating, he assumed after all this time that I hadn’t re-married, and that there was no significant other in my life to care for a pet should I suddenly get called into surgery—and he was correct, of course. Shame pricks like a hot rash over my cheeks. What a loser,” as Amy used to say.
         “Initially, Bunny belonged to Amy,” I say, clearing my throat. I leave out the fact that Ma walks Bunny; she lives with me, now. There’s been enough humiliation for one day.
         “Ah, Amy,” he says. She stayed with me the summer Marc and I met. She was an impulsive, self-indulgent, sexually-active tenth-grader. I was a studious, responsible, 26-year-old resident at a New York City teaching hospital.
         “She’s divorced like the lot of us,” I say. “In her case, it was twice, but with her judgement, who knows what the future holds? Anyhow, Bunny was supposed to stay with me a couple weeks, but, well, you know Amy. And, well, here we are.” I lean over and nuzzle the top of Bunny’s head. “Right, little girl?”
         “That’s too bad,” he says. “I always liked your sister.”
         “Well, it was one fiasco after another, the second guy worse than the first, which, when I think about it, is hard to believe, given what a pompous, arrogant—”
         “So you like him.”
         I glare at Marc, then realize he’s teasing, and feel my face flush. “She’s always been utterly reckless, so really it’s no surprise.”
         “It must have been difficult to watch.”
         “Train wreck.” I can’t help but think about the hospital and the disruptive patients we now see on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. The woman last week who yelled obscenities when asked to wear a mask. The father, who, irate by the long wait, manhandled one of our nurses. “But, then again,” I sigh, “what’s not these days?”
         Perhaps it’s my tone—the resignation in my voice—because his brow twitches, and then it’s as if his casual gaze switches out for a more lawyerly lens. He’s in corporate law and has an eye for small print and minutia. I never felt comfortable when he looked at me like that before, and now, familiar with the sensation but out of practice, I feel even less so.
         “It must have been such a tough year,” he says. Meaning, of course, us healthcare workers. If only people could know the full extent of the disease’s punishing grisliness. The hospital identified its first COVID case March 1st of last year. By July, we had cared for more than 17,200 patients who had contracted the virus. There was a day we lost ten patients in one shift, and forced to take on another shift due to staff shortages, I had to deal with a Trumper calling me “China virus” and demanding to be seen by another doctor. That night, I wanted to go home and get into my own bed, but not even that was possible because I didn’t want to risk exposing Ma. Alone in the hotel room that night, so exhausted I felt wired, I wondered which was worse—the virus that was killing people? Or the festering hatred growing like an aggressive cancer?
         “You okay?” He asks.
         “Fine. As fine as can be, I suppose.” I used to believe medicine saved lives; that my duty was to help others. But China virus. Something in me died that night, and as I laid in bed, staring at the shadows on the ceiling, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the disease was a symptom of something larger, a manifestation of an illness eating away at the soul of this country, one that would eventually kill us all. “Let’s just say I’m not especially confident in humanity right now.”
         “Oh, G—” he sighs. It’s an endearment only he has ever used.
         There’s a tug in my chest, and then it’s like a locked door slips open. Heat swells from the backs of my eyes. Don’t, I tell myself. Crying won’t solve anything. But who am I kidding? That was the Georgie before I met Marc; the woman since sheds tears in her big boss’s office, right there in front of him, when he explains the new Chief needs to be “dynamic” and someone with “character.” For the first time, I understood something that should have been clear all along: my place in the order of things was to be a grunt. To forever be a grunt.
         “It’ll be okay,” Marc says, embracing me.
         The oaky scent of his cologne. The feeling that we are long, lost friends; and that I, Georgianna Wong, can be special, possibly even engaging. I look at this man, this man who once left me, and it strikes like the force of a blunt trauma how alone, how lonely, I have been.
         I sob for who knows how long—a minute? Five? Fifteen? When I’m calmer, he releases me, but averts his gaze, giving me a moment to collect myself. I use the hem of my sleeves to dry my eyes. “Goodness,” I say, mortified with myself. It’s the first and possibly only time I’ll ever see Marc again, and I’m sobbing. “I’m being such an idiot.”
         “You’re not an idiot,” he says, and then I remember he grew tired of my self flagellation. He referred to it as emotional manipulation.
         I’m about to apologize, when he says, “You’re a dork.” He says it seriously. At first, I think he’s angry, but he grins: he’s gotten me again.
         Wisps of hair blow into my face. I have it tied back in a ponytail, but even with it up, frizz and broken strands stick out. Perhaps I should have followed up on Ma’s suggestion to see the hairdresser. If I looked in the mirror, I would see what looked like a dusty aura around my head. Ma being Ma refers to this as fungzi, the lunatic. She bought me a blue-haired troll, a doll she rolled back and forth between her palms until its hair stood on end around his head. To her shock and horror, I proudly replied, “Finally a doll that looks like me.”
         “Paddleboarding,” Marc says.
         “Excuse me?”
         Marc points at the couple standing on what appear to be surfboards, paddling north with long oars.
         “Interesting,” I say, though the point of such an activity doesn’t seem clear. “You have one of those?”
         “I do,” he says.
         It must be something he does with his wife. Their children. Despite the fact that he swore nothing was going on with Natasha, she is the one I picture on a board beside his, and as irrational as it may be, my chest tingles with fiery betrayal, a burn that radiates up to my face. Of course he would have lied. Knowing Marc, he would not want me to suffer by knowing the truth. Natasha was perfect, after all. She was his sister’s best friend. She was attractive, wore makeup, and had long wavy black hair. She was thin, buxom, and tall. Natasha was the only person our age who wore Chanel no. 5, which I identified only because my Grandmother did, too. When we took family trips to D.C. or Atlantic City, the overbearing stink made me car sick. To this day, the smell made me nauseated and gave me an intense headache.
         Natasha was from one of the top African American families in New York City. She was part of a popular sorority. She frequented balls and fundraisers.
         “I could use a bowl of ramen right now,” Marc says, rubbing his belly. He’s remembering our nightly grad school study breaks in the early 90s. We’d meet at the med school cafeteria, which, strangely enough, was one of the first places in New York City to serve a decent bowl of ramen. “Remember the night we met?”
         “I remember you being extremely chatty.”
         “I was trying to get your attention.”
         Heat rushes to my face. I bite my lip.
         “It’s true, he says. “I thought you were cute, but then—”
         “I wasn’t?”
         “Oh, will you stop? I was awed.”
         “Marc!” I suddenly felt I was wearing a button-up shirt with a collar slightly too tight.
         “Don’t you remember? Some guy had an allergic reaction.”
         This feels vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite recall the incident to which he is referring. My memory has deteriorated, most notably in this last year.
         “His friend nearly killed him doing the Heimlich.”
         “Oh, yes, wasn’t it anaphylaxis? It was one of my med students, wasn’t it?”
         “That’s it! You ordered the friend to put him down, then very calmly and matter of factly stabbed him with an Epi-pen.” Marc guffaws. “And the friend? Poor guy. You called him a moron.”
         “I most certainly did not,” I cried. “I would never say such a thing.”
         Marc rubs the dampness from his eyes. “We were so young,” he sighs with nostalgia.
         I feel myself smile. The sea and sky feel vast and infinite. When I glance at Marc, however, his glassy eyes droop with—with what?—Is it sadness? And for a moment, there’s a empty vacuum, and then it’s as if I’ve stumbled over a step I hadn’t realized was there. It’s only a split second, but the timing is off, and by the time the brain registers, it’s too late. You fall from the sky and land with a destabilizing crunch to the spine, only in this case, the sudden tweak occurs there just beneath the breastbone, possibly not in the atrial or ventricular sectors, but right there at the pulmonary valve at the center of the heart. For a moment, the pain is so pure and staggering, I am without words. Marc is correct. We were young. And now? Now we are young no longer.
         “Well, anyhow, ramen’s no longer on the menu,” I say, and when his eyes round with dismay, I add, “New manager.” Meaning, of course, not Asian.
         “What? That’s sacrilege!”
         His leg starts up again, but this time, he catches my gaze, and two of us laugh. Race was a subject we didn’t mention around our grad school peers, who were mainly white. But Marc and I related to issues that came up in similar ways. It was given we’d have to work two or three times as hard as our peers, however, we believed our drive, confidence and ability was equal to or greater than the sum of our potential opportunity and success. We were, in essence, proof of the American Dream.
         “In his defense,” I say, “there’s a lot more competition in the area these days.”
         “At 2 in the morning?”
         His cellphone buzzes. He sneaks a peek before answering. “This is Marc,” he says, and I assume it’s the office. But he glances back at the hotel, responding in yes, no answers, and I suspect it must be her. The wife. Natasha.
         In the distance, I think I see storm clouds. Bunny and I should finish our walk and get back to the room. But Marc beats me to it. Even before his call is over, he’s on his feet. When he hangs up, he asks me about the length of my stay, and I tell him we leave Sunday. Meaning, we have four days left.
         “I’ll catch you later, then.”
         “Of course.” I force a smile. How can he be so casual and flippant? Doesn’t he care that we may not see one other again?
         Bunny watches Marc jog back toward the hotel. I try not to look, but Bunny’s perk up and my gaze automatically follows. Of course Marc glances back and catches me watching. My face burns, and I can’t tell if it’s the sun or my utter state of mortification.
         Marc waves before disappearing into the building.
         Layers of dense, sooty emptiness around me fall away like a discarded winter coat. The ocean air feels crisp. The breeze whistles in my ears. The world seems brighter, the colors more vivid. Last year, inundated with patients, I put off seeing the optometrist. I didn’t realize my sight had deteriorated so severely. It had occurred bit by bit, day by day, going virtually unnoticed. With new glasses, however, everything suddenly came into crisp focus.
         It’s like that. I notice a fishing boat I hadn’t seen earlier. A plane’s exhaust tracks cutting upwards through the sky. A seagull bobbing at the surface of the water.
         Bunny hops from the bench and barks once to order, “walk!”
         “I’m coming,” I say, following her. “Goodness, when did you get so bossy?”
         The path takes us through a wooded area. Pines at least 150 feet tall tower into the sky, their needles, green and full, blocking out the sun. The abrupt change from hot to cool causes me to shiver. The ground underfoot is soft and covered in brown, tamped-down needles. Bunny investigates the different scents like a detective uncovering new clues.
         “Come,” I tell her, but she takes her time, sniffing the moss, a fern, a row of mushrooms.
         “Don’t eat that,” I say, and she moves on.
         It’s so quiet, I am again aware of my own heart. Right there, beneath the breastbone. A beating closed fist, A workhorse that will pound 115,000 times before the end of the day. The sheer wonder of the human body. For me, it has been proof that something larger, more complex, more knowing, exists; that things happen for reasons beyond what we can possibly know. Something loosens, and I feel a rising sensation from chest to throat. Could it be hope? Surely, after all these years, it can’t be I still love him. That I’m still in love with him?
         I swallow. Of all the places I could have gone to rest and recuperate, why here? Marc never told me the hotel where they stayed. Had he? The path curves around a tree trunk the circumference of a small pond. At the other side, 100 feet before the copse comes to an end, there’s sunlight. My fear dissipates. We both live and work in New York City where we managed not to run into one another all these years, and then here, at a hotel in Maine of all places, our paths literally collide. I don’t believe—no, not even unconsciously—I had any intent to set things up to meet him. But what are the odds?
         We step out from the trees into the open. Ahead, I can see we are nearing the hotel’s main building. The warm sun feels healing, and in fact, I know its ultraviolet rays are interacting with proteins in my skin that convert to vitamin D. All these facts and figures. How trivial they seem now. I can’t help but laugh.
         Goodness. When was the last time I laughed? Data shows it’s good for the heart. It reduces stress and gives a boost to the immune system.
         There I go again.
         I approach the hotel. As stately as the beach side may be, the facade street side is unremarkable—a circular driveway and parking lot. Marc. Still as beautiful as the day I first met him. I scoop Bunny into my arms, and as I enter, check if anyone is behind.
         No one is there.

Christina Chiu is the winner of the James Alan McPherson Award for her novel Beauty, also a Kirkus Best of 2020 pick. She is also author of Troublemaker and Other Saints. Troublemaker was a nominee for a BOMC Stephen Crane First Fiction Award, and winner of the Asian American Literary Award. Chiu’s stories appear in Tin House, The New Guard, Kweli Journal, Washington Square, The MacGuffin, Charlie Chan is Dead 2, Not the Only One, Washington Square, Down by the River; she has won literary prizes from Playboy, New Stone Circle, El Dorado Writers’ Guild, The APA Journal: “In the Heart.” Her story “Waves” was nominated for the Pushcart. Her essays appear in Electric Literature, Next Tribe, Publisher’s Weekly and Poets & Writers. She curates and hosts The Pen Parentis Literary Salon and New York Writer’s Workshop’s Let’s Talk Books. She is a founding member of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Chiu received her MFA from Columbia University.