Sometimes TJ's voice on the phone is what keeps Amal from losing it. TJ's a message from another universe, a calmer, chiller, more fun universe. One Amal is going to live in someday. But towards the end of his last year of med school, heading into the match, even that stops working. The nightly phone calls turn into Rant City, population: Amal. And TJ. Who stays with Amal in Rant City even though he knows how to hang up the phone.
"It's gonna work out," TJ says, halfway through another epic verbal exploration of the looming disaster that is Amal's life.
"You always say that," Amal says. He wishes he'd kept count, actually; it'd be nice to know that TJ has said that 3,334 times or whatever. It has to be at least that.
"I'm not wrong."
Amal tries to sit on the couch even though his legs want to pace. In the end, he compromises with them by kind of half sitting, his butt right on the edge of the couch like he's about to take flight. "You're not right. Jesus. My parents don't talk to me, Sangeeta's staring down the barrel of an arranged fucking marriage and it's my fault --"
"She'll be okay," TJ says. That's kind of a weird thought, actually; TJ knows Sangeeta now, knows her as a person. Amal's sister sees his boyfriend more often than he does. Because she lives in fucking Boston instead of being in Berkeley or wherever he'll be stuck doing his residency when, inevitably, none of the programs want him and he has to scramble for a match and ends up in Alaska or somewhere. "She won't do anything she doesn't want to do."
Amal's standing up again and he didn't make the decision to do that. "And -- fuck -- the match, TJ, what if I get somewhere in California? You can't come back here. What if I get bumfuck nowhere, USA?" He put those programs waaaaay down on his list, but he put them there. Anywhere is better than no match.
"We had good times in bumfuck nowhere," TJ says. Amal hears the click of his lighter, his deep first drag on the cigarette. When he comes back, his voice is purposely cheesy, like a waiter faking a French accent. "Ze fuck part of bumfuck nowhere was especially choice."
"You're not going to want to live there, though." TJ is not a Midwestern kind of guy.
TJ laughs. "You seriously think I'd give a shit? If I've got a roof over my head, and enough to eat, and something to do, and you? I fucking win."
Amal blinks. "You, uh. You think so?" He runs his free hand over his hair, which he apparently tortured into standing straight up somewhere during his rant.
"You have no idea how much," TJ says, and he seems to mean it.
Kazuo has some pretty strict rules for customers who faint when they stand up after getting their tattoo. "Whoa," TJ says, catching Yasmin, one of Josh's customers. She wasn't on the table that long, but some people get like this afterward.
"Whoops, sorry," she says, and giggles nervously. She's a Brown student, TJ knows, a freshman, and her tattoo is a butterfly.
"'Sokay," TJ says. "How about some water?"
"Nah," she says. "I'm fine."
"Yeah, but there's degrees of fine." TJ opens a bottle of water and puts it in her hand, and she takes a drink automatically. "We like our customers to leave in top-grade, first-degree, premium fineness."
Yasmin giggles again, but she doesn't say anything. She looks a little hazy around the eyes; TJ's learned to watch them. He reaches for a chocolate chip raisin granola bar.
"Hey, do you have any food allergies?" One lecture from Amal on the joys of anaphylaxis and he'll be asking that question for the rest of his life.
"Cats?" Yasmin says.
Yeah, she's not tracking. TJ opens the granola bar package and hands it to her. "How about you eat some of this?"
"I'm not really hungry," she says.
"Yeah, but let me tell you a secret I learned in my years of ninja apprenticeship." TJ leans in close, makes sure he has her attention, and then nods wisely and folds his hands together. "Grasshopper, if the food is free, eat it."
Yasmin smiles -- she is the smiliest customer they've had all week, and TJ does sort of wonder what she's like when she's stoned. Or if she is stoned. But she takes a bite.
TJ feels the still-strange glow of someone successfully cared for, a job well done, and starts preparing the joke that will get the next bite down her.
Amal can't stop thinking about it, though. The match controls his future: where he'll live, where TJ might live, if he even gets to be with TJ at all any time in the foreseeable future. His list is submitted, which in TJ Land means it's time to stop worrying. In Amal Land, though, that's when the worrying starts, when it's out of his control.
And it's a problem. He did think about TJ when he put together his list, of course he did. Even though a voice in his head kept telling him that maybe TJ wasn't going to want to move. He's been in Providence for almost a year, after all. He likes Kazuo and he loves tattooing and the city, and Amal wants him to have that almost as much as he wants to have TJ around.
It'd be nice to live in Providence. Sangeeta would be nearby, TJ would be there, Amal wouldn't have to expect him to move -- but nice isn't something Amal can expect from life. It's not how things have worked out so far.
The final year is grinding onward, and it feels like it's grinding Amal up. It's not just the work -- he's used to it, and nothing's going to be as hard as pulling through last year after his week of unauthorized vacation -- it's the worry. In a few months, he'll be somewhere different, far from Kavi, far from Steve and Doug and Emily and his entire study group, which has cohered into a unified mass of stressed, smelly, exhausted med students by now.
It's going to be different. It will probably be worse.
When he expresses this sentiment to TJ, though, TJ laughs. He's been doing a lot of that lately. "Man," TJ says. He hesitates, and Amal can pretty much hear him thinking down the phone line, considering what to say, which means it's going to be a doozy. "You know, I used to wonder," TJ finally says. "I'd look at the Berkeley kids going to school, sitting in McDonald's, making out at the park, and I'd wonder if they just shit rainbows, they had it so good."
"Nah," Amal says. He's on very comfortable ground here; he was one of those kids. "They worry all the time. About high school, about their friends, about looking like idiots, about getting good grades, about getting into the right school, about making their parents proud, about not fucking up and destroying their chances and having their parents embarrassed to talk about them."
"I never would have figured that." TJ says.
"Can't imagine worrying that much?" Amal can believe that about TJ. It's like he has the gift of just not worrying about anything.
"Never would've guessed that people who have so much nice shit are just freaking out about maybe not getting more."
Amal blinks, stunned. He's. That's. Wow, he's being an asshole. "I'm sorry," he says. "I'm a shithead."
TJ's already moving past it. "Want to hear about my best customer this week? Or my worst one?"
"Definitely worst." Amal considers, measures his tension level against his sleep deprivation. "Then best."
"The best Bad Idea Tattoo yet," TJ says, and starts his story. Amal finds himself choking with laughter by the end of the conversation.
The worry treadmill doesn't start back up until he's off the phone again.
"TJ, phone," Geneva calls.
TJ hesitates, trying to think of an excuse. The thing is, he doesn't get phone calls. Not at home unless it's Amal. Not at work. And he likes it that way. Good news does not come by phone.
"TJ," Geneva calls again, poking her head around the corner. "Phone."
Too late to duck into the back now. He takes it from her and says, "Graceland Tattoos."
"TJ, hey." Sangeeta sounds stressed, but it's Sangeeta, so already this is going better than TJ thought it would. "Sorry, I know you're busy, but, uh, my old landlord finally gave in on the security deposit thanks to Ari's awesome letter writing skills. But he won't mail it. And she's in Chicago and I can't get down there this week at all, so…"
"I can pick it up, sure." TJ reaches for a sheet of paper.
"Thanks," Sangeeta says. "He's such a fuckbucket, I swear." TJ cracks up. "What? He is!"
"I'm gonna tell your brother you talk like that," TJ warns her.
"Oh no, anything but Amal knowing I can swear. Did you know he taught me to say 'poop' when I was two? He thought it was hysterical, so he'd laugh and laugh, and I didn't say anything else for a week and Dad's still" -- she hesitates, then carries on -- "mad about it."
Amal's father's still mad about a lot of things. TJ won't touch that topic, though. "Bet it still works," he says.
"Yeah. Maturity comes slowly to the firstborn," Sangeeta says, fake-wisely.
TJ snorts. "What about us onlyborns?"
"You never mature at all," Sangeeta says confidently.
"And yet I'm going to get your check for you, so give me the fuckbucket's address." Sangeeta reads it out, and TJ copies it carefully. "I'll bring it up to Boston on Monday," he says.
"Thanks, TJ, you're a lifesaver," Sangeeta says.
"TJ's Lifesaving Service: always available for critical missions, fuckbucket optional."
Somewhere during that night's phone call, Amal starts talking about the worst part of his day. He's working in the ER, is the thing -- the bad parts are really bad, frantic bad. The kind of bad that leaves him shaking after his shift is over. TJ listens through the whole thing and then asks him, "You sleeping much?"
"Sure." Amal's sleeping less, but that's what you do when you're in medical school. That's what it's like. You wake up every morning with a list of everything you have to do that day, and you don't sleep until the list is done.
Or until you fall asleep in the library at midnight. Amal's done that a few times. A few times this month, actually.
"But are you actually sleeping?" TJ says
"Sometimes it's not such a good idea," Amal says. "Sometimes I'm so tired if I went to bed I'd just lie there and think about how much I'm fucking up."
"Maybe you should go to bed right now, then," TJ says, and Amal can hear in his voice that he's shaking his head.
"I want to talk to you," Amal says. He doesn't say if I don't I won't be able to sleep, but it's true.
"Talk to me and go to bed," TJ says. "Cuddle up with the phone all nice in bed."
And Amal wants to argue, but it's too tempting. He falls asleep ten minutes later to the sound of TJ's voice, and he's not even sure what they're talking about anymore.
TJ switches on the radio he picked up at Goodwill for background noise and fixes himself a quesadilla. When he's done eating, he checks the clock. Amal calls when he's done at the library or with his study group, so it's usually after two in the morning TJ's time. That's fine; tattoo shops don't exactly open first thing in the morning. Or even first thing in the afternoon.
TJ washes up -- working in a tattoo place has made him kind of anal about keeping shit clean, which would shock the shit out of Michael or Val. Thinking about them -- thinking about Michael -- makes TJ's head a little noisy, a little tight. He stubs out his cigarette and lights another, heads out onto the little balcony that makes this room a major find, moves back in and starts thinking about weed. He's out, and he's saving his money these days, so he wasn't going to buy more until payday, but probably he could call Roman, get something early.
The phone rings, and TJ's on it before that first ring is done. "Hey," he says. Amal's the only one who ever calls him.
"Clin Pharm is kicking my ass," Amal says. "I think pharmacologists are vampires. They never leave their basement lair, there's no windows in there, and no one notices that they never sleep. It's basically the perfect setup."
"I assume you're already wearing a cross."
"I'm Hindu, it's not going to work for me."
TJ considers. "Nah, I'm pretty sure it's the vampire's religion that matters, not yours."
"So if I get turned into a vampire, people are basically screwed?"
"Don't go let them bite you," TJ advises. "Vampires suck."
"Bullshit. They are clearly the best undead," Amal says, using his I-have-this-argument-already-won-in-my-head voice.
"Can't travel very well," TJ says, checking points off on his fingers as he thinks them up. "Don't like good food. Gloomy fucks who only listen to whining in minor key -- wait, are you already a vampire? Shit, I even let you bite me. Am I a vampire now?"
"Feel any cravings for the blood of the sheeple today?"
"Only in ALDI."
"Not clinically significant," Amal says. "Hey, I'm a jerk, I never even asked: how are you?"
TJ considers it. "Pretty good," he says.
"You hesitated, though."
"Thinking about -- stuff. Michael. But that was earlier."
"Yeah," Amal says. TJ can tell he wants to ask, but he doesn't. "You want to hear about the vampire chief?"
TJ realizes he's smiling. "Shit, they're organized? We're fucked."
"Start stockpiling wooden stakes, Buffy," Amal says, "because the evil of the pharmacologists is legion."
TJ settles into his chair a little deeper, takes a drag off his cigarette, closes his eyes, and just lets himself sink into Amal's analysis of the profoundly fucked-up nature of pharmacologists, whatever the hell they are.
"T minus 7," Amal says.
"Thought it was a week from today," TJ says.
"Right. T minus 7."
"Oh no, you can't pull that bullshit on me. I watched The Right Stuff twenty fucking times in one week a few years back. T minus is never in days. Even the monkey knew better than that." TJ sounds exactly as dismissive as Amal deserves, given that he's fucking with an honored space tradition. Amal's ashamed of himself.
"T minus" -- Amal checks the time, does some quick calculations -- "about 156. For my actual match. If I have one."
TJ doesn't bother with the 'if I have one' part. "About? Steely-eyed missile men everywhere are ashamed of you."
Amal laughs. "You watched Apollo 13 that week too?"
"Nah, that was back a ways. I was 10 the year it came out, and we didn't have any heat that winter, so I'd sneak in the back door of this dollar theater. Played almost all winter."
Amal tries to remember what he was doing that year, the year he'd been 12. He can't remember, but he does remember seeing Apollo 13 in the summer, with a big bag of popcorn and Milk Duds and nine-year-old nerdface Sangeeta shaking with joy in the seat next to him.
He needs to stop unloading on TJ all the time. He's always complaining when he should just be fucking grateful. "Sorry," he says.
"Amal…" TJ trails off, and Amal can hear him moving around, hear some faint noises in the background. It's weird, actually -- Amal's never seen the place where TJ's living now, but he has a sort of sound picture of it, from listening to TJ moving around in it on the phone. So Amal knows TJ is moving out onto his balcony to stare at the traffic. When TJ starts talking again, he's using a different voice. He says, "All right, there's a thousand things that have to happen in order. We are on number eight. You're talking about --"
Amal chimes in with him. "Number six hundred and ninety-two," he says, in perfect sync. They laugh, and then Amal stops. "Except we're not," he says. "Maybe that's what's getting me. We're on -- oh, maybe seven hundred and seven." Seven days to go, Amal's brain reminds him, totally unbidden. Amal's brain needs to shut up sometimes.
"Then we're just that much closer to that water in the South Pacific," TJ says.
"But you don't know that. We could -- bounce right off the atmosphere. Never get home."
"We still have this part, then. Better enjoy it, huh?"
Amal blinks. Enjoyment is the furthest thing from what his life is right now. He's talking to his boyfriend, who can't even visit -- he's got four more case notes to write up before bed -- he's exhausted -- his whole fucking future is out of his hands --
TJ sighs. "Stop it," he says. "You're here now. I'm here now. This part right here isn't shitty."
Amal squeezes his eyes shut and tries to focus. On -- not focusing. It's a very TJ way of mind. "Okay," he says. He hesitates. "Hey, I have Apollo 13."
"Yeah? Put that shit on speakerphone," TJ says.
Amal falls asleep that night after they lose the moon, but before they make it home. When he wakes up, his phone's still on -- shit, the bill -- and TJ's turned on some music. He hears "Come Mister tally man, tally me banana/Daylight come and me wan' go home" before he hangs up the phone.
"It's funny 'cause it's true," he says out loud to his empty apartment. He's smiling a little as he packs his shit up for a day at the library. T minus 150, now.
TJ stands in the middle of his room, trying to figure out what he forgot. He's a master of getting halfway there before he realizes something important: that he doesn't have any money, that he can't actually work the fucking digital scale, that he fell in love with his ride to Providence.
Amal is a hell of a worrier -- an over-worrier, an Olympics-caliber, weapons-grade worrier -- but at least his panic at the beginning is useful. Panic when you're already committed is less great. So before TJ leaves for the train to Boson, he waits.
Right. Sangeeta's check. He slaps his forehead, grabs it off the mirror where he stuck it two days ago, and heads to Boston.
"Fuck, yes, I am a responsible member of society," TJ says as he's walking toward the station. Gets him a look from a tourist couple, but it is only right they should have the chance to appreciate the excellence of TJ mark 2.
Or 3. Maybe 4. He's been through a number of editions. "I contain multitudes," he tells a passing college student.
"Right on, dude," the guy says, and they fistbump. Nothing like a good fistbump to set you up for a day of train travel, getting lost in Boston, and eating vegan food. Check, train fare, fistbump: TJ is now ready.
I got matched.
thuoght u get news Fri?
I do. They tell us we got a match two days ahead. On Fri they say what it is.
this was dsigned by sadists
I am aware.
"For the thigh? Nope," Kazuo says, glancing at the drawing.
TJ's whole body goes hot. He says, "Yeah, just something I was playing around with, not anything big." He reaches for the paper, but Kazuo won't let go.
"See," Kazuo says, and flattens the page against his thigh. He's not actually much with words -- not at all, and it's been weird, learning to work around someone silent without filling that silence up. Still makes TJ's brain feel weird sometimes, but he's gotten pretty good at figuring out what Kazuo means.
This time, it takes a few seconds; TJ's brain doesn't want to work right now. But he gets it. "Shit," he says. "It'd be pointing straight at your balls." Then he remembers Kazuo isn't going to laugh -- shit, he misses having an audience -- and says, "And it'd also stretch like a motherfucker. Most positions, it wouldn't look right."
"Yes." Kazuo considers. "I like this." He lays his fingers on the pattern on the phoenix's shield. "This," he adds, and touches the flames.
This is something else TJ doesn't know how to take. But he does know how to keep working. He knows the master at that. He picks the drawing up; he'll take it back to his room after this, redo it. Again.
Failure's dangerous. TJ's always known that, always known it costs so much that it's safer not to try. But he has plans for this phoenix, if he ever gets it fucking done. He has plans. So he's going to try again.
Part of him is starting to think maybe this time, he won't get burned.
Match Day dawns chilly and nauseous. Amal wakes up before he planned, so he forces himself to go for a run. He can't find out anything until ten, anyway, and that makes him luckier than the poor bastards on the east coast, who have to wait until after a lunch they won't want to eat.
At eight, he gets a text from Connie: Feeling queasy, heightened sense of anxiety, general malaise. Differential diagnosis?
Only possibility is Match Day Fever, Amal sends back. You'll recover within 24 hours but you'll never be the same.
Don't know if I should lol or cry.
Works out the same either way. Amal stares at the text for a minute before he clicks send. That's something TJ would say, he thinks. No. He knows what TJ would say. He adds, So you might as well lol. There. That message is definitely TJ-flavored.
For the next hour, he gets messages from almost everyone he knows, seems like: Sangeeta, Steve, Kavi, Doug, Emily. Min texts him some inscrutable ASCII pictures that he spends too long trying to parse, Hector sends him a quick Good luck and see you on the other side.
Amal's trying to stay away from his computer -- and the NRMP website -- but he sits down by 9:30, just to check his email. He deletes most of it -- spam, ad, spam, something from Facebook. He opens the one from Hayong; it's just a link to a picture of a sad-eyed cat that says I CAN HAS MATCH NAO? across the bottom.
The other one's from Radhi. It says,
Amal writes back:
Mom wanted me to tell you she's thinking of you and she's proud of you. So, there's that. :)?
And I'm telling you: I'm proud of you and it's going to be fine. I'd tell you not to get all Anxiety Boy, but that's a lost cause, so just don't give yourself a heart attack before you even get your match placement, okay?
He hesitates for a long minute before he adds,
I swear I won't die until I get this fucking degree, so breathing is going to keep on even if you don't tell me to.
And then it's almost ten, and then it's really ten, and Amal is logging into the website with shaking hands. He has a match, he reminds himself as it loads, so he's good, no matter what comes up, he'll be fine, Texas is great, Kansas is fine, even Alaska --
Tell Mom thanks.
And then he's in. He stares at the screen in unblinking terror for a second before the words make sense. Dana-Farber. His first-ranked choice. He's going to be an oncologist, and he's going to start in Boston.
Boston. Less than an hour from Providence.
"Thank you, Match Gods," Amal whispers, and dials TJ.
TJ picks up almost before it has a chance to ring, but his "Hello" is the same as usual.
"DFCI," Amal says.
"Boston!" TJ says. Amal dragged him through weeks and weeks of interview anxiety and ranking anxiety, so he isn't surprised that TJ remembers, but -- he is flattered. It's. It's nice. "Excellent."
"God," Amal says. He'd collapse back in this chair except it would definitely fall apart and he'd end up on the floor, maybe with a head injury. "This is not what I expected."
"Expect the worst: the Amal Chakravarthy motto," TJ says.
"It'll all work out: the TJ Freeman motto," Amal counters.
"We both got to the same place," TJ points out.
"To -- Dana-Farber Cancer Insitute?"
"I met a lady who has a tattoo place up there in Boston, I'll call her this week. Sangeeta probably already has an apartment all picked out for us." TJ laughs. "I don't get the fancy degree, but I do get the same living quarters. Voila! Same place."
Amal feels a little light-headed. "I'm really fucking lucky," he says.
Amal takes a deep breath. It's like -- he's been gritting his teeth, waiting for Match Day to punch him in the gut, and now there's no punch, but that just means -- "Fuck, I've got a lot to do."
"Have fun," TJ says.
Amal laughs. "Ha, yeah. The last year of medical school: definitely the most fun a human being can have."
"You have to do it, so you might as well enjoy it."
Amal looks around his apartment, at the sink full of dishes, the pile of laundry by the front door, the dust on every surface except the couch, the coffee table, and the phone. He's been kind of letting things go a little. "Yeah, but first I think I'd better clean up some."
"Fuck cleaning. You're packing, man. Much better vibe."
"There's a whole dance for it," TJ assures him. "I'll show it to you as soon as you get here."
And Amal really has to go -- he's got to text people, call people, and somewhere in here DFCI should be calling him to assure him that wasn't just a fever dream -- but he likes the sound of it. "Yeah," he says. "I'll be there soon."