Recovering from your injuries distracts you for a while. You focus on the physical sensations, observe changes, track your body's progress as it repairs itself. Close call, your physical therapist says, and she congratulates you on your luck. Soon it'll be as if nothing had happened, and you'll be back to normal.
On the first day without pain, you can't get out of bed.
You put the cd on a shelf. You'd listened to it three times, the day after the wedding, and you had laughed and covered your face (track six), grinning like an idiot alone in your apartment. Track six on repeat for an hour or more, until the cumulative effect had left you feeling nervous and giddy and overwhelmed. You were a girl, and a boy wrote a song for you, a boy you could have loved. You took it out of the stereo when you didn't hear from him for several days, and then after...after goodbye, you put it away.
Could have loved is what you tell yourself to make it easier. Sometimes, it almost works.
Your mother begs you to come home for a visit, and you can't find any reason to resist. Your family drives you round the bend as always, but after the first week, you never want to leave. London is not Chicago. There are no sudden stabs of memory around any given corner. There's nothing at all to remind you of anything that's meant a thing to you for the last five years. The memories there are older, dull-edged and safe. And if you don't quite remember how to be you there anymore, you think you might relearn.
By the end of the second week you're so homesick you can't bear it, and any thought of staying is discarded for good. You scowl at your nephews as they run underfoot. You have a row with your father that ends in you screaming "I'm not a child!" as if you were sixteen. The lack of touchstones isn't comforting for very long, and it doesn't keep you from worrying about him anyway. You call British Airways and move up your flight. London is not Chicago. There's nothing there that means a damned thing.
You take as many surgeries as will possibly fit into your schedule. Sometimes you don't go home for days, satisfied to catch a few hours of unconsciousness in the surgeons' lounge when you finally hit the wall. For a while you're the indefatigable superwoman of the surgical floor. You're intimidating, even a little bit scary, and you like it. The streak lasts until Lucien breaks it. It's an unremarkable procedure, the amputation of an infected right foot from a patient with diabetic neuropathy. You've already scrubbed when he tells you you won't be needed.
"I don't understand," you say, and you really don't at first.
"You can't keep up at this pace forever. Just...sit this one out, okay?"
You get it then. "I'm not going to fucking fall apart," you snap.
"I know," he says, and there's something like pity in his voice.
Tony tries to 'be there' for you, and once you almost let him. It's familiar, and you've had a few drinks, and it doesn't really matter now, does it? But you stop yourself, you stop him when his hand is under your shirt. You shove him away when you start to feel sick to your stomach, and you know it's not the booze making you sick. (You haven't had that many drinks. You're still yourself, no matter how much you might not want to be.) It's a sudden wave of nauseous guilt, and it almost knocks you over, it hits you so hard. It makes you angry to feel guilty, to feel you're betraying someone who doesn't even want you anymore, but you do. Maybe it's retroactive guilt, for all the times you hurt him this way and pretended you didn't even know. You stutter out an apology, not certain to whom you're delivering it, just an empty and repeated "I'm sorry" to the air, and you walk all the way back to your apartment in the cold.
You don't drink much anymore. You don't even want to. You used to drink too much anyway, the two of you always did, because you were young and the consequences were manageable. But the idea of being drunk--being so vulnerable, so out of control--is a little repulsive now. Nothing good ever comes of it. Nothing good ever comes.
You were sober when you kissed him, though, and you hang onto that, even though you probably ought to let it go. It only makes you think of what you should have done differently, what you really wanted to do, which was ask him upstairs. But that wasn't sensible, and you were trying so hard to be sensible then. It was complicated, after all. There were other people involved. You'd made a mess, and you needed time to sort it through. And you have to be careful with important things, you have to be deliberate, or you're only inviting disaster.
There was that moment, though, in the time between him moving cautiously away from you and you leaning in toward him again, when you thought oh, this, this is what it feels like to know what I want.
You let that moment pass then, threw it away, but you hang onto it now. Maybe to hurt yourself, or maybe just as a reminder that everything you've ever done in the name of staving off disaster has only brought disaster home to you.
Still, it's something. You were sober when he kissed you.
He was careless with so many things, himself most of all, but he was so terribly careful with you.
You keep a calendar in your head, of surgeries and follow-ups, rehab and therapy, exams and fittings and rehab again. You read the right journals, and for a while you even take notes. You don't want to think of him the way you saw him last, emptied of everything but pain.
Hesitantly, you write a letter. It starts off polite, detached, clinically curious. Halfway down the first page, you ask him to talk to you. You write please. You try to tell him you know a little of what it's like to be abruptly and permanently separated from something you'd depended on to always be there. You know what it's like to still feel it even after it's gone. When you read it over it sounds condescending and desperate, and you throw it away in disgust.
Katey Alvaro goes to see him once. No one tells you this, no one would dare, but you overhear it in the cafeteria and almost drop your tray. You almost throw your tray. It's your anger more than the news that takes you by surprise. You flee, outwardly composed until you reach the stairs, and then slam through the fire door as hard as you can. You don't even make it to the roof. You just stand in the corner, back against the wall, and refuse to cry. It's not fair, it should be me, and maybe that's true, but so what? You've been waiting for him to reach out, and now he has, but not to you. Damn him anyway, then, if that's how it is.
And you feel like shit, you feel like the worst person in the world, because you missed Michael, you still do, but you don't think you ever missed him this much.
You spend Christmas with Abby and Joe. You don't make as much time for her as you should, but you're both busy, and she doesn't seem to mind. It's a lovely holiday, though quiet and a little sad. Abby obviously misses Luka terribly. Joe is growing so fast, becoming an amazing little person in a new way every day, and all without his father there to see. But there are pictures and videos, emails and long distance calls. After the new year, there'll be another visit to Croatia. Luka calls while you're there, and you can see the peace on Abby's face when she talks to him. She helps Joe hold the phone to his ear and laughs at his very serious toddler conversation. They say their 'I love you's, and say their goodbyes, and a little while later the sadness falls over Abby's eyes again. It's the hopeful sadness of a temporary separation. She knows that one day, Luka will come home. Some hateful little part of you resents her for this. Maybe you really are a narcissist after all.
It gets better, but there are bad days. Once, whilst transporting a trauma patient to the OR, Tony makes a joke and Morris laughs. And because it's a bad day, you find this offensive, almost unbearable. You glare at Morris as if he's some kind of traitor, even though you know that's ridiculous. Circumstances change, people get used to each other, and really, you and Tony are fine now. When you see him flirting with Katey Alvaro all you can do is laugh. You wonder which one you ought to warn, if you cared.
There's a psych resident called Dennis who asks you out three times. You finally say yes because there's no reason not to. Abby makes a joke. "When I suggested you might want to start seeing a shrink, this wasn't what I meant." She's probably not entirely joking. Dennis doesn't fluster you, and he doesn't make you laugh. When pressed for adjectives to describe him, 'nice' is about all you can muster. He doesn't know much about you, and that's all right. One night over dinner he tells you about a paper he wrote in med school on the long term mental health ramifications of trauma surgery and recovery.
"For a lot of patients it's textbook Kubler-Ross," he says. "Denial, anger, depression, the whole deal, even for minor operations, even for people who just lose a few toes to frostbite..." and he keeps talking, while you scrape your fork against your plate and bite down on the words shut up, I know this, everyone knows this, just shut up. You don't order dessert, and you don't see Dennis again.
May comes around, and you wish you could quit the world for four weeks. Turn off your phone, lock yourself away, stay in bed until June in the hopes of avoiding whatever horrible thing is bound to happen. Two years ago you'd become a widow without ever having had a marriage. Last year...well, there wasn't really a name for it, was there? You couldn't even call it a bad break-up. Maybe you could finally get over it if you could give it a name. You have to get over it someday, don't you? You can't walk around feeling half-hollow for the rest of your life.
The month passes by without the world crashing down, though it does shift. Joe turns two, and Luka comes home for good. Abby comes alive again before your eyes. When you see the three of them together the lingering resentment disappears, and it's impossible to feel anything but glad.
No one ever mentions him anymore. Not only to you, you're fairly certain, but at all. When you're down in the ER you still hear names like Weaver and Carter, and others who've been gone even longer, people you've heard of but never met. You can't remember how long it's been since you heard his name. It's as if he never existed, as if he was your imaginary friend.
That's why it's such a shock when Frank asks you, "So, do you ever hear from Barnett?"
Abby looks up from her chart and waits for you to react.
"No. Are you genuinely interested, after a year's gone by, or are you just asking to be cruel?"
"Neela," says Abby, and she puts her hand on your arm.
"Sorry, was that hostile?"
"A little, yeah, but--"
"Neela." She grasps your elbow and turns you around to face Chairs. It's just Greg standing there, talking to--
For a moment, you forget how to move. You forget how to breathe.
He looks good. He looks like himself, unlike the last time you saw him. He looks like the man you know. You will him not to notice you yet, because you're not finished staring, and you're not ready to speak. But he does look up, and when he catches your gaze...it's still there. Something's still there of the way he used to look at you.
He walks toward you--with a new gait, and the aid of two sticks, but he walks--and stops in front of the desk. Too far away. He seems timid, unsure, so you begin.
"Hi, Ray." It sounds strange at first. It's the first time you've said his name out loud in a very long time.
You smile, really smile. Your eyes well with tears, and there's a song you can't get out of your head.