"You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep Spring from coming." - Pablo Neruda
She's met his grandmother before. Several times. But never like this.
It's a spring benefit, and John, feeling particularly beholden since...well, since Chase, is obligated to attend. He doesn't say in Chase's stead, but he thinks it, and he doesn't invite her to come, but she thinks she should.
She's certainly not letting him go alone.
She makes the decision easily, and then worries about the implications of that. It doesn't make her uncomfortable, necessarily. If she were going as his date, maybe then there'd be the nervous flickering of self-consciousness, and doubt. But she's not. So she refuses to feel either. She's just a friend.
That romantic revelation she'd opened to on Christmas, in the dying embers of a day filled with wine, and surrounded by the sleepy sentiment of home, had vanished with the snow. That is to say, it came and went with an astonishing lack of predictability, leaving a maze of great, dirty puddles she's finding impossible to navigate. But they definitely weren't dating.
There had been a moment when...almost. A brief afternoon when it had been more than a possibility, but before the day was done, she'd thought of Philadelphia, and talked herself out of it over a cold buffet, and a conga line through the most sobering party she'd been too. Though not the most sober.
But it all worked itself out, in the end. They were still close. It wasn't like before. Things had changed so quickly, but they were still close.
Before, he'd come to her house with breakfast before a shift, or he'd meet her at changeover with coffee, and once, even after things started going to shit, he woke her in the ER, in those lonely hours before dawn when the presence of another human being is a necessary reminder that the world still exists, and he'd brought her a doughnut. A doughnut that she'd magicked into scrambled eggs, toast, and orange juice with a few simple words. Generous or foolish, she took advantage of him, because he liked being needed. Because she liked being wanted. Because she knew he loved her then, and no one ever got hurt over breakfast. Dinner would have been a different matter.
But not even twenty-four hours later, after the disaster with the autotransfusion – it wasn't even about the transfusion – she made her first conscious decision to reevaluate where they were going.
He'd lied to her. Again. And the fact that it happened, and kept on happening didn't make it a mistake. It made him a liar.
The problem was clear.
But the impetus for his behaviour wasn't. What did he have to lie about? What did he have to hide? What was he so fucking scared of?
He'd always been aggressive in traumas. He'd fight until the fight ceased to be a battle, and became an exercise, then a formality, then a hypothetical. He'd fight with a pyretic determination that grew more fervent as hope grew more distant. It was a battle of attrition he somehow had resources to devote to time after time. He was exciting to watch, and he was exciting to work with.
But he always tempered that edge of steel with compassion. Stripped of it, in the face of injustice, when his decision to keep up the fight looked more foolish than wise, he suddenly appeared childish to her eyes. She hadn't realised his authority was so tenuous, but there he was, sitting in tears on her doorstep, tucked against the wall, and the first thing she wanted to do was tell him off for getting his coat dirty. He was Paolo, coming to her with his first broken heart. He was Hank, with a report card he wanted to hide. He was Nicky, and Vito, and Leno and all the times they needed her to tell them everything would be alright. He was Marco. But unlike her brothers, who grew up reaching, and asking, and demanding care, he sat there, his head down, and his hands empty in his lap. And it wasn't because he'd withheld the blood.
It was because he lied.
But this sudden, timid confession confused her. He wasn't shy. He wasn't bashful. He was freely, comfortably tactile. He never hesitated in giving, or receiving touch. He was a doctor. He laid hands on. But he had no idea how to share his grief beyond confessing his own guilt. Something in him, or in his past had convinced him that sorrow was private, and unsightly, and penitents unworthy of comfort. When she realised he'd sit there all night, but he wouldn't ask for help, she took his hand in hers, and held on, because she wanted to lead him out of the despair he was far too eager to resign himself to.
Even if he denied it. Even if he closed himself off, and ran away, and said he was okay. Even if he was a liar.
It was something Max had never done. Would never do. He was always so ready to speak the truth, especially when no one else would, overwhelming her with it, and demanding she listen. Anna, I'm a drug addict. Anna, I need your help. I need you to help me.
And she would.
Suddenly, she felt the sting of being back in Chicago, as sharply as she felt its winter wind. Back to eighteen hour shifts, and microwave dinners, and considerate thought. The completion of her evaluation of John Carter had lead her to the very logical, and firm conclusion that she really needed to get out more. She missed Max, and she missed cheese steaks, and filling that void with tales of Carol's sex life, and evenings with the most eligible pathological liar the close quarters and long hours of the ER could provide her with was probably not the way to long-term happiness. And John was very young.
She forgot that sometimes, because he was also very smart, and very capable, and a very good friend. But even though they reconciled on the staircase that night, he continued to ring in the New Year with plenty to remind her of this fact. From his enthusiasm over Chase's arrival, to his embarrassment over a silly nickname, to the way he'd fussed over the spider bite that wasn't, and then how he'd sulked and shied away like a yearling in the face of her own discovery of Chase's drug abuse, denying it with so little conviction she was sure it was an invitation inside.
She'd pulled him aside in the hallway as a gesture. She'd wanted to warn him, to offer her help, to share the burden her shoulders were already accustomed to bearing. She knew exactly how convincing the addict's confession and plea for absolution could be. She'd fallen for it again, and again, and no matter how sincere the call for help, it was always a misery to endure the responsibility of answering it. Failure was more likely than success, and John felt all his failures so keenly.
But this battle didn't have to be a failure. He had the resources he expended so freely on patients, and she was determined he should use them for himself. But it's hard to man defenses from outside the keep, and he committed so completely to deceit and subterfuge it was nearly impossible to know what position to fortify. So how much help could she have been?
She'd spent the better part of ten years in a hospital, and in all that time she'd found nothing quicker at forging iron strong bonds than being violently puked on together in the pursuit of care giving. But that night at Chase's apartment had been surprising in many ways.
She'd been surprised to discover herself in a building with a doorman, and wide, artfully exposed brick hallways long after her shift had ended, the sweat from her palms wilting the crisp paper bag full of medication.
She'd been surprised to see the blank fear painted over John's features when he opened the door, his typical congeniality abandoned in the face of what she saw as bad luck, but what John seemed to regard as high tragedy.
She'd been surprised to see the blond-haired, white-toothed trust fund baby writhing and combative.
She was surprised she pitied him.
Chase's withdrawal was exactly what she'd expected.
John's was not. Maybe it should have been.
But they'd survived that night. He'd admitted he was as in over his head as she'd predicted, and she'd smiled, and asked him, “What are friends for?” And thought it settled.
Perhaps she'd been trying to draw the line, to define a safe space for them to relate to each other as intimates, because after Christmas, she knew what he wanted, and she was afraid she wanted it, too. But she couldn't give it to him. Sex was one thing, but confidence, confession, the type of absolution people find in the exchange of hopes and fears? That was another thing entirely. And she couldn't give him both. But in that single night – and, she suspects, in most others – there was one he needed more than the other. He just didn't know how to ask for it when it didn't come physically; as though that kind of connection was the only way he knew to gain access to the communion he craved.
He wanted it desperately.
John was painfully open. His walls were high, but they were made of glass and he looked out from behind the divide, separate from exhibition beyond. It was true, he loved without expectation. His desire, however, was as transparent and as thin as the skin of the wrist, revealing the clear vascular blues and reds that run beneath.
He couldn't make the distinction between head and heart that she relied on to govern her, and she was perpetually bothered by the fact that John seemed unable, or unwilling to separate the two. He needed to understand that sometimes you didn't have to commit totally. To your patients. To other people. To anything. Of all people, he should know that. There was a space between surgery and medicine. There was a space between care, and devotion. And there was a space between friends, and lovers. There were a lot of distinctions he seemed to struggle with.
And when she watched him watching Chase in the MICU, just last month, promising with a shallow grin that he was okay, she saw that he had no idea the distinction between duty and responsibility. So she reached out to him in that way he never learned to ask for.
Just one touch, and she could see him crumple, his angular features buckling under the burden of guilt that wasn't his to carry.
Now, she loves her family, but she's her own person, and she really thinks that at some point, John should be, too. So when she saw this fragility come over him at the mention of his family, she wanted to be mad. She wanted to believe that someone who could diagnose a pheochromocytoma, and stand up to Kerry Weaver, while still remembering the importance of a takeout lunch date could also tell his family to shove it on occasion. But when she went up after her shift ended at midnight to check on him, she could tell from the way he tucked his chin and looked up at her through his lashes, that he'd knuckled under to whatever demands his grandparents had made. God, she thought. He's just a kid.
And right then, he didn't need a lover, or a doctor; he needed a parent.
So she took him home. She made him some soup, and she sent him to bed. There was a small, wicker chair in his room, something he'd never have purchased for himself, and she wondered how it was that it came to sit there beneath his window, in just the place his eyes settled before unconsciousness. She sat on the edge of the bed, pressing the tension from his neck, and tracing wide circles on his back, wondering but not asking about it. He finally fell asleep to the sounds of mourning doves and enterprising cardinals, while she slipped quietly out. And like a dream, they'd both forgotten about it by the dawn.
At work, someone, it might have been Malik, told her that February is known as the coldest month. She's not made a study of it, but it sounds true, and February '98 had borne it out. John froze her out. She'd taken him to bed, sort of, and then he stopped calling. He stopped dropping by with dinner. In March, he went home after every shift without loitering around to catch her, and now, as April rolls slowly towards May she realises she can't recall the name of the takeout place he likes so much. He still drives her to journal club, but they don't laugh at bad drivers, or sing along to the radio like they used to. He says he's not sleeping, and she guesses he's not eating much either.
She thinks she might be overreacting because she's been keeping her eyes wide open to catch him slipping. To catch him in that brief moment when exhaustion, and worry are faster than he is, and his walls crack, and chip away at the mortar, the glass bricks grinding each other to sand. But just when she's about to pin him, butterflied under her intense scrutiny, someone calls for him and he flits away, and no one else seems to notice him running, except her. So maybe she's imagined the bruises beneath his eyes, and maybe he's been too busy to return her calls, and maybe she's crazy but she's not letting him go alone tonight.
The practical side of this John Carter Situation presents itself rather dramatically when Carol asks her just before lunch what she's going to wear.
“Wear?” she asks. She hadn't really worried about it. There were a few old skirts in her closet, and she still had a pair of black dress pants she wore as part of her uniform when she used to seat tables in college. Nothing new, not much first hand, but everything was serviceable enough.
“Yeah,” Carol says. She's got that condescending smirk she's been perfecting on Doug Ross for years, and now practices casually on challenging patients, and clueless friends. “You know you've invited yourself to a formal gala, right?”
“Gala?” she repeats, dazed.
“Anna, are you kidding me? You saw his grandmother's house.”
“I thought this was for charity!” She protests, throwing her head back like a diver looking to the surface, and the promise of oxygen high above. She can feel the sudden tension of a neglected duty tighten in her lungs like carbon. The night's not even begun, and already she's unprepared, with very few possibilities presenting themselves as a solution. “I've got a skirt; my blazer,” she continues, her offer sinking lamely beneath the rest of the conversation.
“It's an event, Anna,” Carol says. “A charity event. That means you can't wear a blazer.”
She tosses a handful of Reese's Pieces in her mouth, and drags the little bag closer to her perch behind the desk.
Mark walks by, skirting behind Anna to place one chart in the rack, and pull the next. He's heard a few muddied lines of the conversation through the noise of the admit area, enough to make him curious, and he leans in.
“What is it?” he asks.
“Anna's going to the Carter Family Benefit Concert tonight,” Carol says. Anna can practically see the capital letters.
“Ah,” Mark says. “Should be pretty swanky.”
He sounds like her father asking about the where's and when's of parties, trying to impart his own encouraging enthusiasm with all the legitimacy slang spoken by anyone over sixteen can offer.
“Yeah, only problem is it's a formal event, according to Carol.”
Someone else bumps against her shoulder, and she glances behind her to see Randi dodging bodies, going for the phone.
"Sorry," she says, inching around her.
There are always people flowing in and out of the admit area, but now they're starting to linger. Snatches of Anna's predicament catch various ears, reeling them in with the promise of good gossip material. Doug enters, flashing his teeth, and immediately ducking his head, as though it's physically impossible for him to refrain from flirting, but keenly aware she hates it. Connie, Chuny, and Malik circle, smelling blood in the water and making no effort to disguise their eavesdropping. She's standing between the desks as people move around her like a stone in a creek, which is sort of how she feels – stuck, and useless.
“Let me guess,” Mark drawls. His attention, at least, has been reclaimed by the new chart in his hands. White pages flip into the dusty yellows, and pinks of triplicate forms, and other diagnostic charts. “Nothing to wear?”
She shrugs, clenching her jaw into a sardonic smile. “Yep.”
“You know, sometimes that's just the thing," says Doug. He's wiping a line from the board, so he can't see the glare she throws at him, but he can imagine it. His deep, self-satisfied chuckle is joined by a delighted cackle from Carol.
“Carter sure wouldn't object,” she crows.
Anna blushes. Her ears prick with heat, and she tries to fight it by maintaining eye contact with the top of Mark's head. She shouldn't be blushing. There's nothing to be embarrassed by. She and Carter are friends. Friends, and she knows this because she sobered up, and he shook it off after Christmas, and everything else. They've an unspoken agreement.
“I get the feeling his grandmother might,” she says.
“Well, then who are you really going for?” Doug says. When he turns to face her, he's just as brazen as ever, and he trots away before she can launch anything more vehement than a haughty stab of her chin at him.
Mark offers a conciliatory pat on the shoulder, and a “Wish I could help,” as he passes by. “Just stick close to the bar.”
Chuny, Malik, and Connie disappear en masse, sharks amongst the fauna of the emergency room, Anna thinks. They've got all the stealth, and cunning of predators, and right now Anna feels like she's had a bite taken out of her.
Her shoulders droop, and she lets her arms hang loosely at her sides. It's funny how resignation looks a lot like relaxation. It certainly doesn't feel like it. She's this close to admitting defeat and cancelling. It was impulsive, and theoretically altruistic, but maybe, she acknowledges, maybe it was more than a little bit voyeuristic. Maybe she wanted to see how the other half lived. Maybe she wanted to confirm her own bias. Maybe she wanted to see John Carter's dirty little secret, and maybe she could use it to condemn him. Or save him.
The maudlin thought repulses her. She got enough heroics at work. She'd better just cancel.
But then John emerges from Exam One with the same slumped shoulders, and same loose stride, and she recognises him as kindred in this moment. She grins as he draws nearer. His returning smile is prompt, but it's weak and dies quickly, guttering like a drowned flame. He passes a list of orders for Randi to call in, and grabs another chart. She watches him as he walks off, but he doesn't look at her. No, she doesn't want to save him. She's thirty years old, for God's sake. She's not that naive. But she is a pretty dab hand at stitching wounds.
In for a penny, then.
“Carol,” she pleads.
Carol's long since turned back to her work. She's absorbed in time cards, nursing hours, and overtime pay, having retreated with the rest of the staff, oblivious to the outcome of Anna's private struggle.
“Carol,” she calls again, letting her voice keen with desperation. “You've got to help me.”
Anna scoffs. And waits. She's got nothing more to offer than her own need.
There's a pause, broken only by the crunch of candy, and Anna's determined hope that Carol has something for her. The conversation is swinging in the breeze. Luckily, Carol has a bit of a paranoid eye for dilapidated structures, and the driving need to patch them up. Comes from having a mortgage before you're thirty.
She spins the stool, her hands pushing along the laminate edge of the counter, and studies the resident before her. Anna's resorted to rubbing one hand along the length of the clipboard, the metal conducting the nervous electricity of her movements across its surface, and into her other hand, completing the circuit. At first, Carol appears concerned, but as she licks the melted candy coating off her forefinger she's struck by inspiration. She tilts her head, and the harsh fluorescent light of the ER glints off her eyes.
“I've got an idea,” she says.
Strangely, relief is not the first feeling Anna is hit with. Carol's aggressive. Carol's determined. But Carol is also a little bit of a sadist, and though she may be drawn to a fixer-upper, her idea of renovation more often than not involves hammers and crowbars.
But her options are limited. The clock is running down, she's having palpitations just imagining the plaintive strains of Beethoven, and Bach, and as they say: time is heart muscle.
Elizabeth has lovely taste.
“My father bought it for me,” she laughs, the silky fabric hanging from one hand, and draping over the other, cradled like a child in her arms. “For my graduation dinner. It's his taste.”
“Still nice,” Anna says. She's somewhat awestruck, torn between the disbelief that she's being given something so precious, and the disbelief that she's going to put it on. The last time she got dressed up was probably Paolo's wedding, and even then she'd argued for a pantsuit. “My dad got me insured on his car for my grad.”
“Well, that sounds eminently more practical.”
Elizabeth smiles, and hands the dress over. Her pleasure is all in her eyes, as her cheeks press them into delighted crescents.
“Go, try it on.”
Anna slips into the bathroom. There are no hooks on the back of the door, but she doesn't want to break Elizabeth's trust in her by pooling the gown on the counter while she strips, so she simply stares at herself. Holding the gown. In the mirror. Her problem is solved when she spies the shower curtain behind her, fastened to a rod standing above her head and running the length of the bath. Perfect. She hooks the neck of the hanger over it, and the dress drops away from her hands.
It's satin, and green, and falls in straight, heavy lines even her untrained eye recognises as a mark of beauty. She takes a deep breath.
The back is plunging, the straps are thin, and the fabric shifts sideways across her legs. She can't say she feels comfortable, but when she looks in the mirror her stomach twists like it's Christmas again, and she's satisfied. Her heart beats a little quicker, and she searches her pants' pockets for the little diamond studs she'd brought from home. They were her Nonna's, and her one small vanity. She'd inherited them in college, but never had a reason to wear them before now.
She folds her clothes, being careful not to make eye contact with her own image as she stows the remnants of real life in her bag. The tile is cool beneath her feet, and she flexes her toes to better grip the ground beneath her.
Elizabeth is waiting for her in the living room when she emerges, opening the door as little as possible to disguise her entrance. Reclining against the sofa, she's perusing a book, but she's excited more interested in Anna. She wants to see the transformation. Anna laughs. She's more than a little uncomfortable to be standing there under her scrutiny, and very conscious of the delicacy required when wearing someone else's dress while in their presence. And in their home.
But Elizabeth has no such compunctions.
“Oh,” she breathes. “You look beautiful.”
“I feel a bit silly. You sure I'm not going to be overdressed? I mean, it's a benefit. Not a ball.”
“Believe me, I've been to enough benefits – it's perfect. And your earrings are darling. Pin your hair up, and you'll knock John dead.”
“You know that's not why I'm going,” she says. Please, let one person listen.
But Elizabeth's lips curve into the knowing smirk she excels at, and asks, “What about your shoes?”
She's at his door by six. A short, humiliating ride on the El has made a strong case for buying a car of her own. Or at least renting one, though at this point a permanent alternative to this temporary public parade seems reasonable. However, when she's standing in his doorway, watching as he fixes a real, proper bow tie with practiced fingers, she uses the experience to her advantage.
“Go home, Anna.” His voice is strained with the force of the command.
“Come on,” she goads. “You're not going to make me go back on the El alone, dressed like this, are you? Once was enough.”
He moves through the spacious apartment with all the vigorous haste of anxiety, and irritation. Good. Let him be irritated, she thinks. Let him be honest, at least.
“Well,” he says, now throwing on his wool overcoat, and whipping a silk scarf around his neck with a sharp snap. “I'd rather put you through that than this evening.”
“You're not putting me through anything,” she promises. She twists in place, her borrowed heels scuffing the floor as she tries to alleviate the ache that has already settled deep into the bones of her feet. “I'm putting me through it.”
“And I wish you wouldn't.”
There's a pause, and he's caught looking at her. His face isn't quite blank – his mouth is slightly open, as though in an invitation to speech, as a gate is opened to a visitor, but he doesn't say anything. His gaze is steady, and she pulls her shawl a little tighter.
Finally, he clears his throat, and turns his head. His voice crackles like embers, as he says, “New dress?”
“Borrowed,” she says. And then: “It's Elizabeth's.”
She throws the credit away, absolving herself of as much involvement as possible. There's a dress code. She doesn't want to embarrass him. It wasn't her idea. Oh, this old thing? I only just threw it on. Anything, to prove her objectivity tonight.
“You look beautiful.”
The words are muddied, and delivered more to the floor than to her, so Anna chooses to smother the compliment, as well.
“Elizabeth said the same thing.”
“Won't your boyfriend mind?”
And it doesn't matter that she's in heels that throw off her balance, and launch her four inches higher than she usually stands; it doesn't matter that her hair is only staying tucked and pinned through sheer force of will; it doesn't matter that she's in someone else's dress. If he ran right now, she'd chase him down and choke him to death with her own recycled pashmina.
“I don't have a boyfriend,” she says, quite firmly. Neither concurrent, nor prospective at this rate.
“Could have fooled me,” he mumbles into his collar.
“Why do you do that, Carter? Do you want to fight?”
He shrugs, like he's thirteen, the only proof that he's not being that he manages to refrain from thrusting out his bottom lip in a full on pout. But it's a near thing.
It's going to be a long night. She really doesn't want to make it any longer.
“Think of this as making up for the banquet,” she mutters.
Then, out of nowhere, he laughs.
It's quick, and he kills it as fast as he can, but they've both heard it.
“I don't think anything can make up for that night,” he says, and in his voice there's something like an apology.
“On the upside, it's given us ammunition for years.” And there's the forgiveness.
“You think we can use it to negotiate for a private yacht next year?”
“I think we should try.”
There's the little sounds of stifled laughter, and the whispers of fabric blending together in a way that somehow draws more attention to the larger silence that envelopes them. Smooth, long-fingered hands slide into leather gloves. He flexes and the leather cracks, while she looks around his apartment, so different from her own. So much stands out that she hadn't seen before. There are high ceilings, and expansive windows. The walls are dark, and even though there are chips in the paint, and scratches on the floorboards, it's so beyond her means that even they somehow speak of luxury to her. The very fact that they're noticeable suggest their general scarcity and incongruity with the rest of the space.
John's being very careful to not notice her noticing all this, regarding her with thin lips, and sombre, speculative glances as he forces down the webbed ridges of his gloves between his fingers. She can't quite gauge his mood, but it doesn't really matter. He can be as brusque as he likes. He can shoot off smiles as tight, and precise as his stitches, and just as unsightly against the pale, drawn flesh of his face, but until he can face her without the desperate snapping of a cornered hound, without the biting but poorly executed personal attacks that speak more of pride's last stand than his own conviction, she's not buying this act.
“John,” she says.
Her voice is soft, and he can't look up. “Hm?”
“John,” she tries again. “Look, if you really don't want me to come tonight, I won't.”
“I don't want you to come tonight,” he says. He twists his wrists to bring the gloves up under the cuffs of his wool jacket. An unmasterable shock of hair stands jauntily over his brow, separate from the rest which has fallen to in a tidy side part. With the one exception, every other strand sits in military formation against one another, and she recognises the sweep of a comb in their stance. Not his fingers. His hair's getting long. He's been meticulous in his preparations for tonight, exacting control over as much as he can. But he still won't look at her. So she gives him one more chance.
“Okay,” she says. “But you'd be a lot more convincing if you told that to me, and not the floor.”
There's a short, sprinting inhalation as he raises his head. His chin overshoots the axis of the horizon, and he quite literally looks down his nose at her. Finally, there's eye contact. Even if she's trying not to roll her own eyes at how obviously defensive it is. The trick is to stay open, stay honest. Don't give him anything to weaponise.
He looks every bit his family name, except that he's biting his lip so fiercely that the skin beneath it is white, and the muscles of his jaw press outwards against his cheeks, altering the topography of his face like the lonely peaks of mountains surrounded by deep, empty valleys. No words escape from there, though she thinks they may be echoing inside his head.
They stand toe to toe, staring at each other. He's a little too close, using his height to try to bully her where his voice can't. But she knows this game. Her jaw is equally set, and her countenance as determined. His determination though, is not as strong, and it flickers. Before it falls away completely, he breaks his gaze, and ducks discreetly around her.
On the threshold, he turns back. He reaches for the door handle, and angles his body in a way that invites her to precede him.
“There's a car waiting outside,” he says.
But there's no car. There's a limousine, which really isn't the same thing at all. It's actually very different. It means a very different thing to all sorts of people. But apparently to him, it's all the same.
“I hope you didn't spend your lunch money on this,” she says, examining her reflection in the window.
John chuckles, the sound rolling at the base of his throat.
“No. It's Gamma's treat.”
“Ah,” she says. “I didn't realise you could buy penitence.”
“Really? I thought that was the basis of Catholicism.”
After this jab - which, she thinks just sort of slipped out - his upbringing feels the need to make an appearance at last, and he opens the door curbside for her, offering his hand in support. She fumbles a bit with her skirt, and even though she wants to comment on this ridiculous Old World gallantry, she doesn't. Instead, she grasps his hand with her fingertips as she lowers herself to the seat, and tucks her legs in. He shuts the door, and goes to meet the driver waiting for him in the street.
Inside, it's quiet. Like a library. Everything's upholstered in fabric that holds a stain, but is all, unsurprisingly, spotless. Then, the muffled stillness of the car is breached once more as John slides in next to her. The door shuts, and the quiet is replaced with a thick silence. Humid, without the benefit of sunshine.
They don't speak. Unlike the open, skeletal structure of the cabs she occasionally takes, but can rarely afford, this limousine is designed for isolation. No car horns, no foreign radio hosts, no road rage, nothing infiltrates the metal capsule she's encased in. Even, or maybe especially, private conversation seems discouraged, though the only person to overhear them is reduced to a dark smear behind the driver seat window, like a ghost on an x-ray. What John calls “schmutz”.
She can see him, in her head, squinting at a film posted on the light board, his nose dipping dangerously close to the image as he struggles to identify a mass. Right there. See?
He cocks his head to the side, looking for the tell-tale sign. He's getting lost in the ephemeral swaths of white. He's missing it.
“It's probably just schmutz,” he says.
Schmutz. Where did you hear that?
She wants to grin at the thought, but that seems contraindicated too, so she purses her lips instead.
John's sitting with one hand in his lap, his thumb picking at the cuticles of his fingers. The other lies midway between them, braced against the seat. That's the one that catches her eye. She's fascinated by it.
She likes it's shape, it's prints, the way the skin slides over bird bones. It would be so easy to slip her hand into his. To grab it, and hold it in solace. But solace for what, she's not quite sure, just that John seems to be mourning something. So she refrains. She presses her own hands together instead, pulling her fingers through the vice of her palm, feeling her own fine bones grind together. A clutch, so aptly named, would better bear her anxiety, but she doesn't own one of those either.
Now, too late, she wonders what fire she's decided to walk through. John's silence is painful, and she never believed that it was possible for a sentiment like that to feel literal, but it does. She's weathered tense silences, and angry, sullen ones. She's given the cold shoulder, and created an icy quiet other people have been too afraid to break. But none of those are like this. It's not that she feels out of place – not yet, though she's sure that will come – it's more like the ache in your throat when you want to speak, but know you shouldn't. She's not certain whose ache is stronger in this case. And she's not sure what he wants to say. Unless it's a sincere apology, or an honest confession – not an excuse, but an explanation – she's not sure she cares.
If he's worried she's intimidated, or frightened, or otherwise overwhelmed by the situation, like Cinderella at the ball, he can calm down. She's met his grandmother before. Aside from the ridiculous trappings of wealth, and the antiquated airs it gave license to, there doesn't seem much to fear from her.
It's only John's tension, and John's anxiety, and the weight of John's expectations that are making her nervous. This imaginary burden of privilege is obnoxious, and exactly what makes her hate people like this. People like him. And it's irritating her that his tight-mouthed misery is so palpable as to be contagious.
So he lost his trust fund. So what. He's still riding in a limo.
The tenderness she felt a moment ago is erased. The humid atmosphere suddenly seems to acquire the sucking bogginess of a swamp, and it's significantly less attractive. She shifts her body toward the window, and John must feel the change as well, because he too turns away. The cool satin of her dress slips across her thighs, a soothing caress she doesn't notice. Sentinels of silence on upholstered thrones, they peer out opposite windows.
“You need to just relax,” she grumbles when it's too much, just on voice enough to be heard.
He breaks his vigil to look at her.
“What?” His throat catches on the first consonant, making it sound like sorrow. A strange, momentary shock kicks at the back of her head, and she worries he might be crying – actually crying – over his grandmother's stupid party. She glances over to verify this, and sees his eyes are dry. Her brow lifts. She blinks at his open, expectant face.
“Just relax,” she repeats. She spreads her hands, flexing her fingers wide and pressing downwards to communicate this. It's a double act that she not only hopes will calm him, the same way she calms patients by pressing them to rest, but it also pulls the cramps from her fingers which had, until now, been twisted and clenched in her lap.
“I am relaxed,” he says, smiling. His voice is still that thick, resigned tone, and the muscle that leaps from his jaw to his neck and across his shoulders betrays him as it races for cover beneath the confident lines of his tux.
“You could have fooled me,” she mutters.
“You're the one who wanted to come,” he responds in turn.
She grinds her teeth and doesn't respond. He wants to fight, he wants to fight, she repeats in her head. Stop feeding the pigeons. But he's still talking.
“You wanted to come,” he says, “And I can't quite figure out why.”
His voice grows louder, as he grows bolder, pushing hard for a reaction.
“I thought you hated this stuff. I thought you hated my kind of people. I thought we were all selfish, self-centred, opportunistic, fat-cat liars.”
“No, I said you were a liar,” she snaps. It's not in her to concede the field. “And I haven't changed my mind about that.”
“Then why bother wasting your time?” He demands, like she's right. Like he agrees with her assessment. And she hates that most of all.
“For you, Carter! I'm coming for you.”
There's silence again. They stare at each other, both still angry, but he's having a hard time finding something to volley back. He's missed her service, and now she dismisses him with a toss of her head. The flashing lights of headlamps beckon as they pass along the roadway, and he turns away again, and she can feel a piece of hair come loose as she, too, goes back to the world outside her window. She shakes her head.
“Frankly, I'm starting to regret that choice right now,” she says.
And he says, so she can barely hear, “I know.”
He may want to fight, but she doesn't. Slow, deep breaths. She exhales, and reaches out behind her. Without looking, she finds his hand. It slips around hers as easily as she knew it would, and he holds on.
The horrible tension of before dissipates, thank God, but a new type of fear settles over her as she sees the lightning strikes of flash bulbs, and hears the thunder of parading crowds up ahead. As they pull up to the curb, she feels her shoulders go rigid.
Okay, now it's a little intimidating.
Beside her, John clears his throat in a very specific and deliberate way. Apparently, he feels the need to apologise. Again. She drops his hand. This unexpected assault on her fortress of confidence is draining her reserves. She's feeling vulnerable, and she can't let him talk while in physical contact. It's that detachment thing she's been working on with him, but once again, he fails to recognise her discomfort, and he takes her unmooring from him as a straightforward adjustment for comfort. He's got a steep learning curve.
“You know, I'm not as pathetic as I've made myself out to be,” he says. He's donning the aristocratic grace he wears like armour. She saw it before, briefly, at his grandmother's house. So my family has a couple bucks, so what? It's frighteningly nonchalant in the face of absurd riches. And she's seen the same thing in trauma – that nonchalance. That uncaring, heartless disbandment of bedside manner when something's gone wrong behind the scenes with him. It's not a good sign.
He's grinning. “In fact, I'll have you know that tonight, you're stepping out with the most eligible scion of Chicago's first family.”
“Lucky me,” she replies. She smiles back at him, but the lift in her mouth is not in her voice. He hears that.
“Actually,” he says, abashed, and the admission comes in spilling over the levies. “I'm honestly kind of relieved you're here. You'll spare me some of the customary criticism of my folks. You're saving me.”
I know, she thinks.
“You bet your ass I am,” she says.
There's a massive push of people surging towards the entrance of the hall like a tide, their course so slow as to be almost invisible, but irresistible in its movement nonetheless. While Anna looks at it clinically, like a scientist, her interest an academic course in the comings and goings of the waves so she might understand enough to master them for a report, John regards it like a sailor. He gauges the wind, straightens his cuffs, and turns his sails to catch the fairest wind he can.
“Shall we?” he asks.
His arm is around her waist, and they skirt the velveteen ropes that keep one kind of people on one side, and another kind of people on the other. For the first time, she's on the other. But they're moving like thieves, stealing up the carpet and through the doors before any flash of light catches them in the act. Through the doors, and she thinks they're home free. Then John's hand squeezes her side, and his fingers dig into her flesh through her gown.
She's met his grandmother before, and this time isn't much different. Once again, she's on her terms, on her ground. And once again, Anna can feel her back prickle with the heat of her inspection. With one quick, contemplative blink that John must've inherited, Anna sees that she recognises her.
She may have left the leather jacket at home, and the curls of hair that halo her face soften her features, but she hopes the sway of her hips and the peculiar manner that John is wrapped around her prove the spirit which drove her to a confrontation in the sanctity of his ancestral home has brought her here tonight.
She hopes his grandmother notes the steel in eyes that meet her own without apology, and catalogues the long stride of this girl which carries her slightly ahead of her grandson. A sword and shield. If there's a battle to be fought – and from the sparking tension Anna can feel pricking holes in the air around her, it seems likely – then his grandmother may have the higher ground, but she has the sun at her back. This encounter may be inevitable, but she's prepared. Prepared enough for both their parts.
“John,” his grandmother says, her mouth curving in a respectable, condescending smile as they approach. “I was beginning to wonder if you'd make it.”
“Nice to see you again, Gamma,” he responds. His arm leaves Anna's waist to embrace his grandmother, and he kisses her cheek like a child before stepping away, and resuming his position at Anna's side.
The appearance of their united front is not lost on his grandmother, either its guardedness, or its intimacy. She regards them curiously, but makes no comment. Holding her gaze, Anna smiles politely as his grandmother greets her with a nod. So far, so civil.
Before they can speak again, another body joins their party, and the air grows still and cold as John straightens in his grandfather's presence. His chin is up, but his eyes are evasive and faltering.
“Ah, perfect timing,” Millicent Carter intones smoothly, opening the conversation to her husband. “John's managed to grace us with his presence, tonight after all.”
From any other person Anna would be able to understand the implied criticism without question, but the warm elegance of his grandmother's voice, and the steady gaze with which she regards her grandson makes Anna run the remark over again in her mind to be certain she heard correctly.
There's no mistaking the ice in his grandfather's tone, though.
“Has he?” It's not a question, it's a challenge.
John dips his head in stiff acknowledgement.
Before the word has died between them, his grandfather has dismissed him, and is speaking again. Black eyes fix on her.
“And who are you?”
Well, that strikes her as remarkably rude, though no one else seems to notice. But she's well-armoured against old, white men, so she squares her shoulders, and extends her hand.
“Hi,” she says, with all the briskness that gets her emergency room consults in less than six hours. “I'm Anna.”
John jumps in to fill the void of proper etiquette, but his grandmother rides high over him.
“Grandpa, this is -”
“Dr. Del Amico is a co-worker of John's at the hospital.”
“Indeed,” he says. He may be as closed-off as anyone she's ever seen, but it's clear enough that he's thoroughly unimpressed. “Are you involved with the charity?”
“No,” she says. “I – ”
“I asked her to come.”
“And who invited you?”
The blood drains from John's face, leaving the dusky pallor of complete exsanguination in its wake. He fumbles for a reply, and Anna can hear his throat seize around each attempt at an explanation. They are fast losing control of this encounter. In fact, she wonders if they ever had it to begin with, or if even the the sun is hot enough to thaw the winter that exists between family.
“Gamma, I mean, I thought – I wanted to – I...”
“Millicent,” his grandfather says, addressing his wife. His eyes pass over John like empty space. “They're waiting for you to begin the address.”
He straightens his already immaculate suit, preparing to depart.
“Good to meet you, Ms. Del Amico,” he says, with a quick nod.
“And you, sir,” she replies. She wants to correct his address of her title, and of his grandchild, but the ice is so thin she fears any misstep might plunge them into depths from which they'd only drown. So she says nothing.
John, however, tries again.
“I'll wait for you backstage, Millicent.”
And he strides away without a backwards glance.
For a moment, no one speaks, varying degrees of shock slowing the recovery of sense and sound. Finally, John turns back to his grandmother. She, alone, appears untroubled by her husband's remarks.
“Gamma, I –”
“He's angry, John,” she says. “Not just about your cousin – although, I'm not certain he'll ever forgive you for that – but about the family. He wishes you would at least consider his request. As do I.”
“Gamma, I'm sorry.” He's firm in that, at least.
“Not now, John. We'll discuss this later.” She pats his arm with detached fondness. “It was good of you to come,” she says. Then, with a nod, “Dr. Del Amico,” and she passes away through the crowd.
They watch her for a minute, until they lose her from their sight, and John begins to fidget beside her, swiping at his mouth.
“Do you want to go? We could just go.”
The ice of their recent exchange is melting, and Anna finds her frozen shock boiling away. She's incensed. She's insulted. He should be too. And it makes her bold.
“No,” she says. “I don't want to go. Do you want to go?”
His brow furrows.
“There's really no –”
And he's cut off again.
“John? Is that Johnny Carter?”
A woman with hair the same shade as his grandmother's but worn with the pragmatism of business, as opposed to the flourish of legacy, is smiling at them from over the shoulder of another well-cut jacket.
It's forced, but John grins at her as she approaches. He plants his feet, and Anna wraps an arm around him for added security. Just in case. Apparently, her efforts are appreciated. She feels his muscles tighten along the soft skin of her forearm as he shifts to pull her further into him.
“Mrs. McCallum,” he sings in greeting. “Mrs. McCallum, this is my friend, Dr. Anna Del Amico. Anna, this is Mrs. McCallum. Her husband is Senator McCallum, and a good friend of my grandparents.”
“Oh, Rose, please, John. You know better,” She beams at him, rosy cheeked, and jovial as though he were her own sweet son, before she acknowledges Anna with an equally warm handshake. “How do you do, doctor?”
“How do you do?” she replies, the vowels feeling comical coming from lips unused to their shape.
“It's so good to see you, Johnny,” she burbles, sincere joy sparkling in her eyes. “It's been far too long. I think the last time I saw you was at your family's Christmas Banquet, oh, three years ago now?”
“Must've been,” John replies. Anna's sure he has no recollection of this.
“Do you know Johnny from school?” Mrs. McCallum prompts, turning to Anna abruptly.
“Oh,” she begins, startled into a reply. “No. Actually, we work together at the hospital.”
“The hospital?” she replies, and now it's her turn to be surprised. She looks back at John in confusion. “You're still at that place? I thought that surely your grandfather would have found you a place with The Foundation, by now.”
John drops his head, the implication of her response scoring a hit against his poorly constructed defenses.
“I'm sure Grandfather has, Mrs. McCallum, but I'm not interested in finding a place with him, I'm afraid,” he says, and he conjures some of his old defiance to gild the fine edges of civility.
“Oh,” says Mrs. McCallum, nonplussed to silence. Her decidedly unfavourable opinion is clear and irrevocable. But she's rescued from the awkwardness of acknowledging this by the winding path of a young girl with a silver tray. “Would you like a glass of champagne?”
“I'd love one, thanks.” And John smiles, the slight forgotten but not forgiven, as he hands one flute first to Anna, before claiming another for himself. Alcohol – the finest social lubricant.
The rest of the evening passes in a series of similar exchanges, the ease of conversation increasing as Anna's concern shifts from her hair, and her posture to the pain in her feet, and the location of wait staff with o'er d'oeuvres. The quality of the staff is such that Anna rarely finds herself empty-handed, and John's glass never seems to empty. Various people of import and breeding pass by them, all with a word for John Carter, the Prodigal Son, or John Carter, of the Silver Spoon, but none for the doctor, the student, or the friend. They all trot by, superior, and smug, and oh, so happy to advise or help. They smile, and he smiles back, but there's never anything behind it. It's just schmutz, she thinks.
And at the end of the night, after the concert, and the speeches, and the food and drink are done, John stands outside, bright-eyed and cheerful, saying goodbye to one family-friend after another. She watches him waving, and laughing in his neat suit. There's something innately refined about him, something delicate and fantastical. He looks like he was cut from a storybook with sewing shears; long, sharp lines with acute angles lit by the soft glow of the hall behind him. The prince. The heir apparent. The perfect grandchild.
Of course, neither of his grandparents are present to see the culmination of their paternal efforts. But Anna is. And she wonders what long-vanished tender ministrations fostered the kind of devout loyalty, and love John has for a family she's only known to be heartless.
How did John come from this?
She shifts in his arms, drawing his attention downwards. His smile and laughter are easy, and he gives her a squeeze. In this moment, he seems happy. Looking at her, he seems happy. His eyes are a little glassy, and she catches flashes of them as he spins, and twists to wave off yet one more family friend. Now, she wonders how much help he's had in erecting this thin visage of contentment.
They wind their way toward the car, John navigating the social tides, while she guides his steps. Before they reach the street, he's promised himself to enough dinners, and events, and family gatherings to occupy him from now until next Christmas. Caught up in the trappings of it, the handshakes clinging like spiderwebs, she goes with him, getting dizzy, and finding herself agreeing to a few appearances of her own.
Eventually, the rush dies down, the roar of the crowd hushed by the undulating purr of traffic, and comfortable street noises. Anna inhales the crisp spring air, catching the tang of diesel fuel, and open water in its flood, as it dissipates the cloying breath of the theatre.
“Whew,” she exhales. “Is it always like that?”
“Hm?” he says, saluting someone else in the distance. “What?”
“I said, is it always like that?”
Like after a concert, her ears are full of cotton, and she lifts her voice, trying to hit a volume she can't quite gauge.
John grins, and sways towards her. His feet stumble off the curb, then back on it as he regains his footing, waving at their driver as he steadies himself against the car. The hollow thud of metal rings out, as he smacks his hand on the trunk in a playful rhythm, and he whistles the tune of some rock song filtered through the haze of liquor.
“Is what always like what?” he asks.
She juts out her hip as he nears her, crossing her arms. It's not a trick question.
“That,” she says, thrusting her head towards the hall. “Is that always like that?”
“Ah,” he breathes. He lifts his chin, and looks at her through hooded eyes like some ancient sage. His reply is suitably succinct, delivered with the gravity of her Nonna's proverbs. “Yes,” he says. “It's always like that. Though usually I'm not as lucky in my choice of date.”
It's just what she expected. But it's not what she meant to ask.
The trick to the question comes to her now. Was it always like that? Was his family always like that?
Did they always dismiss him, belittle him, and talk over him until he relented under the sheer persistence of their demands? Did they always expect him to choose duty without the possibility of praise? Did they want him to be their man, instead of his own?
This behaviour, the way John bows beneath it, it couldn't be a new thing.
Chase did it too. Teasing John about medicine, telling him to blow it off for lunch, then taking the liberty to phone in his own prescription for John to fill. It's a wonder John managed to speak up at all.
Be he had to have, she knows. At some point, John stood up, and told them what he wanted. He was a doctor, despite everything. That steel of trauma - somewhere inside him it's there. So even though his cousins thought it a joke, his parents thought it a waste, and his grandparents were convinced it was a particularly childish phase, he'd made it through med school. He'd made it through a year of surgical residency, and still trusted himself enough to start over. Anna's not sure she's ever loved anything so much as John loves medicine.
He's smiling at her more broadly than is strictly decent for the hour, evidently finding amusement in her sombre contemplation. The sheer audacity of his expression is infectious, and she can't help but return it, the melancholic ruminations on his family banished from her thoughts.
“Are you alright?” she asks. She's expecting this facade to shatter any second, ushering in the return of the sullen boy she arrived with. But it doesn't. In fact, the only thing that wavers is his balance; the toe of his shoe jams against the sidewalk, curtailing his gait, and tumbling him into her arms. “Whoa, easy there, cowboy.”
She grips his arms at the elbows, as he examines the sidewalk for something to blame.
“Those cracks really jump out at you, huh?” she offers.
His head bobbles like a daisy in a breeze, and he smirks. He's not so far gone he can't hear the affectionate mockery in her voice. The moment drags on, until she realises they're just staring at each other.
His regard is more focused than hers, and she squirms under his scrutiny. The serenity of his gaze suggests some sort of profound, alcohol-fueled realization, but she only wonders about it for a minute before he shares the conclusion he's reached.
“You're beautiful,” he says.
The heat that races across her face has nothing to do with the weather. They're too far south for a midnight sun.
“And you're drunk,” she replies, breaking eye-contact, and the bridge of arms between them.
He tilts backwards, as she pushes away, then forwards. Like a Weeble, he wobbles, but he doesn't fall down.
“I am,” he agrees, his eyes slipping shut. “I am drunk.”
Good. Step one is acknowledging that you are the problem.
She tucks her chin. His open acceptance and bald honesty are as funny, as they are rare, and she's happy to indulge him even as she leads him toward her own non-negotiable remedy.
“You should go home.”
There's no change in his expression, save a small cocking of his head, and a few rapid blinks. It's the same rapid processing of the unexpected she saw in his grandmother's face earlier, and the same affectation she's seen in him before. She was right – it is inherited. Or learned. Though probably everything with this family is rooted in blood.
“I don't want to go home,” he says. It's just that simple.
“Well, you should. It's late; you're tired. It's been a long night.”
All good arguments. But none of them convince John.
“I don't want to go home,” he says.
“Yeah, you do,” she prods, grabbing him by the elbow and pulling him toward the car. She's reaching out for the handle when he slips her collar.
“I said, no.”
He skips away from her, chortling like he's done something terribly clever. But it's only pissing her off.
“Come on, John. It's late.”
“No. I don't want to.”
“You really should.”
He shakes his head. She's not listening. She's not giving him a choice. He's still protesting, he's still refusing, and he's backing away from her, looking for his exits.
“I don't want to go home,” he repeats. The joy in his tone is rapidly descending into anger. Every time he speaks, it becomes more of a challenge, an act of rebellion. “I don't want to go home.”
There are still people milling about - not many, but enough - and she's not in the mood to defuse a scene. He's not a toddler, and she's not his mother, and it's way too late for this shit.
She ducks in front of him, trying to catch his eye, reaching out.
“No,” he says, twisting away. He bends his arms, and they come up unconsciously raised like boxer's gloves, but he's too unsteady to be dangerous in his stance. “No, I said I don't want to go home.”
The limousine they came in is sitting in the street, and the hemorrhage of guests leaving the hall has slowed to a trickle. The driver, who John knows by name, and so who she assumes has been with him, or with the family for a while, stays silent in the car. He must be able to see them, he has to see John tripping, and fighting, and know he's in distress, but he doesn't get out of the car. She's looking for help, and finds only an audience, and she thinks that's got to be pretty poor service, to let your employer flounder like that in public. But then what does she know about drivers?
At least she knows something about Carters. They like to have their way.
She throws her hands up in submission.
“Okay,” she says. “Okay, you don't have to go home. What do you want to do instead?”
So much for non-negotiable.
She's never been to a real hotel before. She's slept on couches, and in hostels, and one summer she and her best friend stayed in a bunch of motels as they drove up the east coast. The Langham in Chicago is something altogether new.
John swaggers up to the front desk, and comes back with a key-card and a smirk. The slim plastic glints beneath the chandeliers, as he wiggles it his hand. It catches her eyes, bait and hook, and she follows him up to a suite with two bedrooms, a bathroom the size of her house, and a parlour.
He tosses the card on the table that hugs the wall of the entrance way, and they pass like jocund ghosts by the darkened mirror above. There's a freedom in his step, and the almost manic elation of earlier is back.
“This is great,” he laughs. “Isn't this great?”
“It's something,” she says. Skepticism sits high in her voice, buoyed on the surface of shallow excitement. Hadn't he just come to her a couple weeks ago asking for advice about a loan? “Isn't this place pretty expensive?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he says.
“This your grandmother's treat, too?”
“No, I'm still cut off.”
“Well, Gamma and Gramps didn't seem in a particularly forgiving mood tonight, did they?”
No. They definitely didn't. Which just makes this room a ridiculous extravagance.
He's nonchalant as he strips down to his shirtsleeves, dropping his suspenders, and rolling his cuffs. How can he be so clueless?
“Then should we really be here? This has to be half your paycheck,” she says, annoyed.
“I don't have a paycheck, either.”
She's stunned. It has to be a lie, another lie, but this whole, sudden pronouncement hits with the force of truth.
And she feels like a total idiot as she stands there in silence. How did she miss it so completely? She didn't just miss it, she joked about it. She knew about the trust, that wasn't a surprise, but she didn't believe - no, there was no way he'd depended on it solely for money. It was just an allowance. And anyway, he was getting a loan. He had to be getting a paycheck.
But she remembers the ramen, the dinner dates with Doug Ross, the abrupt end to the breakfasts, and the slightly unkempt look to clothes she now realises he can't afford to have dry-cleaned every week. She'd thought he was just being careful. She'd thought he was trying to take some responsibility for his life, to get out from under the grasping talons of his family. She hadn't thought he'd thrown them off altogether. She at least thought he had a back up.
It was supposed to be a maturation, not an emancipation. And definitely not a childishly belligerent consignment to destitution. What was he thinking?
He's laughing at her confusion. It's not wild joy, but he definitely sounds amused. And she gets the joke. Oh, yeah, in the abstract, the irony is pretty funny. But not here, not right now. She's never lived with money, but she has lived without, and the joke doesn't entertain for very long.
“You're not being paid? Then what is this? Where's this money coming from?”
“Next month's rent.”
“The last of it.”
He sounds utterly unperturbed as he hovers over a sleek, black stereo system. The nattering of disc jockeys bursts from stereos mounted against, the wall, making them both start in momentary fear. John shushes the voices, chiding them as he spins the volume lower and lower.
When the racing beats of her heart once more drown out the music, she speaks again.
“And then what happens after the rent money is gone?”
“Don't know,” he replies, cycling through stations, and pausing to listen between each, waiting for something to catch his mood.
“I guess I'll go crawling back. Make Gramps happy.”
“John – ”
“Hey, it's spent now,” he says. “Let's just enjoy it for tonight. We should dance.”
He makes poverty sound so easy, but she couldn't leave him in the lock up over night, let alone leave him to the streets.
But she can give him this one night. It's been kind of shit, so far. At parts. Who's she to keep it from ending on a good note?
A slow song comes over the radio, and she steps out of her heels so her tired feet won't trip. But his finger keeps pressure on the button, seeking something else. The upbeat twangs of an old electric guitar fill the room, and John smiles. A soft huff of laughter careens out from his mouth, as drunken in its canter as he is. He digs in his heels, raises his arms, swings his hips, and looks absurd.
His eyes are closed, which is both brave and foolish since it's not clear his equilibrium can compensate for that at the moment. As the song picks up, and the chorus echoes the excited entreaties of the the singer, she feels her own body begin to sway to the music. Her feet shuffle along the short, abrasive threads of the carpet, her skirt catching as she moves, and it's she who stumbles first. The short fall, and the sharp stop of her recovery incite a small gasp that tumbles into a fit of giggling. John opens his eyes to see her straightening, the trailing lengths of her gown now folded up and away in her hand. She curtsies in her regained grace, and he extends his hand in an invitation she hesitates only briefly in accepting. Maybe taking off her shoes wasn't such a good idea.
She's not a dancer. She goes to clubs sometimes with friends, but bars and pubs are more her scene, and she's rarely been anywhere that requires anything more complicated that a shake and shimmy. So John's arm around her waist, and his hand clasping hers level with her shoulder feels odd and formal in this darkened hotel room. He rocks them back and forth in a quick two-step. Even intoxicated, he's still more lissome than usual, and it's her feet that trip, and step on his. But his body is sturdy against hers. He rights her every time with an ease that makes her feel competent. An ease that's come from long hours of study, and hundreds of evenings of practice. There's a dedication in that she recognises. One that isn't born out of duty, but devotion, and she realises she's found something else that he loves.
A rush of gratitude, and the satisfied flush of privilege fills her, and she takes a step closer, into him. He presses his hand wide against the small of her back. The fabric sticks to the warmth of his fingers. Their steps slow, and his shoulders hunch just a little, crowding her. He drops his head to her shoulder, and she can't hear the music anymore. Her focus shifts to the dark, green pinstripes of the wallpaper across the room, and the erratic gusts of her breath that ruffle the hair just behind his ear. As far as she's concerned, they're swaying in silence, in space. Her eyes are open, she can't breathe, and she knows what happens next.
He turns his face into her neck, and then she feels the heat of his mouth against her skin. He kisses her.
As a child, she was always very sensitive to touch, and aware of the control it could exert over people. Being the only girl didn't preclude her from the unspoken but intense competition that exists between siblings, and for a long while, as the oldest, she dominated. She was taller earlier, and she was stronger. Her only weakness was her tenderness. She coud take a punch, but a pinch sent her to her knees, or to her mother. And she still remembers how Paolo and Hank would tickle her until she cried. So it's a learned reflex that causes her to tuck her chin and bend her neck now.
But the touch at her neck doesn't tickle. She's not laughing. She's not even breathing. He kisses her again, climbing, and again where her jaw meets her ear. And she leans back, her hand against his shoulder pushing him away as she finds leverage. Her body is bent, like a reed in the wind, and she feels her pelvis press against his. They stand so close, his hand still hot and tight on her spine, and their legs winding together in a single stem.. If he were to step away now, the equal and opposite reaction of her body would only drop her back into his arms.
But he doesn't step away. And neither does she. He looks at her through doe-eyes; sleepy, contented, and deeply thicketed. There's a peace in them, as much as there is a fragility, that she wants to touch. So she moves in slowly. She doesn't want to startle him.
It's been several hours since his last glass, but there's wine on his lips, and she can taste the sweet bite of merlot that still stains his tongue. She thinks that maybe its not the drink, but maybe this is purely him, and she wonders if she should be worried that she's developing such an expensive palate.
As he moves against her, the focused aggression she's seen in traumas she's finding impossible to recall is put to a gentler use. But it is just as consuming, and she can feel it viscerally, in her gut. Eagerness, and care vie for expression in his mouth, and his tongue, and his lips, and she lets him press his advantage. She encourages it, matching him with her own desire.
Like peeling apart the entwined strands of a braided rope, she pulls her hand from his. There's a a spot that begins at the top of his spine, at his hairline, she knows, and she presses her nails against the skin there. Raking them upwards between the fine ridges of tendons, she feels him shudder in her arms. A sigh snakes up from his core and is murmured in her ear. He sags against her. The palm at her back pulls away. His hands, pale with shock as his body pumps blood to his centre, manage to defy the tug of gravity as he lifts them to cup her face, clumsily taking in a few loose strands of her hair.
He kisses her again, and steps forward, but they're a tangle of limbs, and she has nowhere to go except backward. The edge of the bed is up against the back of her thighs, imprinting it's line across her legs. She clutches at the wilted cotton collar of his shirt as she falls backward. He stumbles, then follows her down. There's some inelegant bungling about as they attempt to sort limb from limb. John leans over her, finally, braced against the mattress, bolstered on one arm. Just as he's poised to settle, she flips him. The bed dips and groans as she sits up, her legs on either side of his hips, her hands at his head and her hair falling out of its strict coif to curtain their faces, shielding them in a temporary alcove.
He lies pinioned beneath her like a butterfly, gazing up with a lazy smile. She grins, a positive wolf, predatory and coy in a way that keeps the adrenaline flowing but kills any nervousness that arises at the sudden separation of their lips. They can see each other now. Hungry fingers tear at the buttons of his shirt. She laughs, the sound hoarse and foreign from the night air, and she leans down to snatch another kiss from his lips.
But something more than altitude has shifted. His answer to her demand is less desperate. It's not chaste, but it is sweet. It's innocent. It comes from a place governed by profound clarity, not blind lust. And it's terrifying. Suddenly, she realises who she's straddling, and who she's not, so she withdraws. Her knees brush his as she slips off the bed.
She hadn't thought of Max at all, tonight. Not since John mentioned him in the doorway of his apartment. She hadn't thought of him at all.
It's alarming, and terrifying, and John's sitting up watching her with a frown on his face.
Concern. He's concerned for her, and she hears that first. Which makes her response, and the explanation he deserves but she can't offer all the more difficult to construct.
“I'm sorry, Carter,” she says. “We can't.”
Great, she thinks. Choose the cliche, choose the lie. Hypocrite.
He's leaning back on his elbows, and his legs hang over the side of the bed like they hung from her couch at Christmas. His hair is mussed like it was then, and it still excites her, only now it's better. Because it's hers. She did that to him. He's flushed, and tousled because she's made him that way. A firecracker spins, like a Catherine Wheel, up through her stomach and into her chest. But her brow furrows, and she presses her lips against one another to forget the touch of his.
His face falls with hers, and he looks confused. He's not hurt yet, but he's going to be. She turns away for just a second – just a second to compose herself.
She hears him ask, “Why not?”
“You're drunk,” she says, facing him again, and he smiles because they've already been through this.
“And it's late.”
“It's after midnight. It's early.”
“I have a boyfriend.”
It isn't fair. It isn't even true. And her rueful smile does little to soften the blow.
She's not with Max. She hasn't been for almost a year and a half. The truth is, she has no objective reason to end this, and only a vague, ill-defined fear to prevent it from happening at all. But there's nothing she can say to John; no honest counter she can offer, and evasion is becoming more difficult with every passing second they stay suspended in the aftershock of this moment.
“You kissed me,” he says. “I'm confused.”
He collapses against the pillow, rubbing his hands over his face, and through his hair. His watch catches on the tangled threads she can still feel between her fingers, and across her palms; the heat at the roots, the cool silk of the tips. She looks away to find focus in something else. She can't think when she's looking at him, and she needs clarity right now.
Maybe she had more wine than she thought, or maybe she caught insobriety from the cordial of his tongue, or maybe the effects of intoxication are the same no matter the poison, because the lush headiness of Friday nights in college is overwhelming her. The moonlight spins in kaleidoscope fractals over the floor, and sends shadows leaping up the walls and onto the ceiling like Peter Pan. John sighs, the expulsion of air cloaking the frustration that growls at the back of his throat. He yanks the cord on one of the bedside lamps, breaking up the moonlight, and vanishing the forgiving, Neverland visions.
“I'm sorry, Carter,” she says.
“I need to use the bathroom.”
He's gone long enough that she starts to worry. Long enough that her feet start to feel cold, rather than sore, and she's pulled all the pins from her hair so it falls in limp, post-party curls at her neck. She wants to call out, to ask if he's drowned himself, maybe, like her mom used to speculate when she was late for school. But it wouldn't be funny. She's the one who put an end to their games when she'd obliterated his side in bad faith. She doesn't feel as though she has any right now to exact a response from his sorely tried patience, and devastated armies .
But eventually, he does come out. Droplets of water course down from the peaks of matted hair, and he looks awake, if not quite alert. The pink tip of his tongue slides out between his teeth to lick away a beaded line of moisture above his lip, and he shakes his head to try and waken some degree of sobriety in himself.
She catches herself staring before he does, and the realisation sparks a question to stave off further speculation.
“Do you want to talk?”
He squints at her in the dim light of the room.
“Honestly? Not really.”
“Okay,” she acquiesces. What else can she do? “Do you want me to leave?”
The answer's so long in coming, she's almost relieved to hear his voice. And she's surprised by it, too.
“Then what do you want to do?”
“I don't know,” he says. He sighs. It's obvious he's tired. The evening is catching up with him, and his long minutes of bathroom meditation have resigned him to the heaviness of defeat. It's with very little expectation and some small, self-deprecating irony that he speaks again. “Do you want to look at the stars?”
Something jumps a little in her chest, and she's touched. He's so prosaic in his minor romances, she wants to laugh. Yet the veiled earnestness of his request almost makes it novel, so instead she nods her head.
Moonlight spills across the balcony, and over the summer chaises that have been laid out to catch the sun. That strikes Anna as optimistic, even in the daylight, as it's been rare that the pale head of the sun has emerged from the cover of clouds for longer than a minute or two, this past week. But the sky is clear tonight.
She shivers in the open doorway. Spring still hasn't decided if it will stay or not, this year. John comes up behind her, draping the heavy, down comforter from the bed over her shoulders. It's so cosy she doesn't even feel guilty about dragging the white cloth of it over the floor, and onto the balcony.
They lie on the chaises, and John bluffs and cheats his way through the legends behind at least three constellations, before he calls the Big Dipper the “Big Spoon”, and fails to identify the north star at its tip. Squinting her eyes, she sits up on her elbows and calls him out.
“It was pretty impressive, though, wasn't it?” he asks her.
“It was,” she says. “Completely untrue, and so totally worthless, but yeah, when I didn't think you were full of shit, it was kind of impressive.”
She gets up to look over the height of the railing. Chicago burns beneath them. The illuminations of its inhabitants glisten and spark across the black lake like flames, and each light becomes a new star, constellations bursting forth over the city grid below. She almost can't tell the earth from the sky. It's beautiful. It's a perfect night.
John comes to stand beside her, his head still tilted to the heavens. She shifts her elbow as he draws near, making room, leaving space for him to join her, leaving just enough that they won't have to touch. She studies his gaze, then looks back at the city, smiling at her own whimsy.
“We're almost looking at the same thing,” she says.
He follows the trick of her hand as it rolls across the grid like a magician's, pulling stars from the skies and conjuring them in the streets. His eyes shine when he sees it.
“Ah,” he hums. “These are constellations I actually know.”
She knocks her elbow into his. She keeps crossing lines, like she can't stop herself.
“Oh, yeah? Impress me. For real, this time.”
His fingers draw quick lines between buildings, connecting this one to that in blurry cartography. She stares so long, and so hard at his map that her vision begins to smear like the trails of light in photographs. To her, every road, and every structure seems too similar to distinguish, and when she swings her body around to face another direction, John's hand on her shoulder, and his arm extended outwards in front of her to align her perspective, the skyline somehow stays the same.
But John picks out addresses and streets easily, and the city glows under his study. The Carters have been here a long time, she knows. Chicago is their home. She can see it. He's illuminated by it.
“That's Northwestern,” he points. “And if you go down this street, turn here, and then along here, there's...”
He trails off. His finger holds steady on the apex of an unimaginative, square building. She turns to face him, thinking he must be stumped at last. There is some limit to his knowledge of the streets, after all. But his mouth is open, not in consternation, but in encouragement. There's something he wants her to see, so she looks back. She looks closer.
“Oh, my God,” she says, as realization strikes her. Laughter bubbles up and she can't contain her delight. “That's County!”
“And I still have no idea where we are.”
She nudges him again, to bring him into the joke, and manages to coax a grin from him. It races across his face for the briefest of moments, teeth flashing, before disappearing beneath the aporetic curl of his lips.
“Then I guess you'll need me for a little while longer. If you ever want to make it back to work.”
“I wouldn't go without you.”
The night quietens as the game reaches its natural conclusion. They stand shoulder to shoulder on the brink between a tense silence on one side, and a companionable silence on the other. Both of them are too afraid to see on which side the other stands.
From the balcony, the noise of traffic is reduced to a gentle hum, the comforting lullaby of the city, and even the rollicking whistling of wind from the lake is silent tonight. She listens to him breathe beside her, and she wants to ask a question.
“How come you don't have a paycheck?”
“How come you're not getting paid?”
“I told Weaver I didn't need it,” he says. Then he chuckles, leaning over the rail, dangling from his ribcage and folded arms. His feet kick at the stone tile. “Kind of a mistake in hindsight, wasn't it?”
“Kind of,” she agrees. “Do you need it?”
“Oh.” She shrugs the blanket higher onto her shoulders. “Did they pay you in surgery?”
“Yeah, but they weren't going to let me switch if I didn't give up my paycheck.”
Her mouth drops, and the righteous indignation she feels on his behalf is immediate, and unfeigned. It blossoms along the ridges of her breastbone, and shivers along her arms. “What? But they can't do that! You matched.”
He chuckles, plucking at the swaths of fabric. “I'm sorry. But you look like an irritated owl. It's kind of adorable.”
She fights a smirk, but it peeks out anyway.
“You matched,” she presses.
“I didn't. It was outside the match. I waited too long to make the change. First, Anspaugh wouldn't let me, and then...”
“I couldn't make up my mind. Before that, before I went to Anspaugh – I couldn't choose. I loved surgery, and I wanted to be great at it, I wanted to make –” He cuts himself short, stumbling over what she suspects is a name, but he forges ahead before she can speculate on whose. “But I never would have. I should have realised it sooner. It just wasn't me. So Weaver let me stay outside the match, as long as I covered my own salary.”
It's astonishing, that he could sacrifice so much. Not that residents were well recompensed, by any stretch of the imagination, but for her, it's a lifeline. It's her livelihood, and safety net.
He senses her surprise, and takes it for resentment, tripping over words to redeem himself, to explain.
“I couldn't stay there, and it wouldn't have been a problem if Chase hadn't – I mean, if I hadn't messed up with Chase, and the clinic...well. Never mind.”
“Did you tell your grandma you weren't being paid this year?” she asks.
“Does she know?”
“I don't know,” he says. But that's not quite true. “I don't think so. Maybe.”
“What about your parents? Maybe they could –”
“They're not really inter – they're not really around much, you know? My dad already thinks I'm a freeloader, anyway. Or he did. I think he thinks I'm just an idiot, now.”
Idle hands pick at the young leaves of the shrubbery adorning the rail, crafting perfect circles, and tearing the bits into green, spring snowflakes. They spiral over the edge, the lightest, most temperate blizzard she's ever witnessed. She stills his hands with one of hers, entwining her fingers in his.
“John Carter,” she says, “You're a mess,”
“Very true.” He turns his palm over in hers, so they stand face to face in prayer, measuring the width of her hand against his. “Smart of you to stay away. You really dodged a bullet on this one.”
“I really did.”
They smile at each other. She's lying. She knows he is, too. How could he not be? That's what he does. And for the first time, she thinks that maybe he's onto something with that. Except it makes her stomach cramp, and she can't maintain the deception long.
“Well, if you ever need a home-cooked meal, my Nonna and step-mom are desperate to have you back.”
“And if you ever feel the need for some public humiliation, and vintage wine, you know where to find me.”
She frowns, while he smirks. He doesn't think she's serious. Fair enough. It's an out, and she's too scared to stay in that moment of vulnerability for any longer, to insist on her sincerity, so she takes it.
“You know, if we do the wine first next time, it could be fun,” she says, tossing her hair. Pieces of it stick to the remnants of her lipstick, so she drags her forefinger across her cheek, hooking the wayward pieces, and tugging them back in place.
Not all parties cooperate, and she can feel the tickle of a few steadfast strands roll against her lips. She swipes at them a couple more times, before John reaches out without thought, and tucks the offending locks behind her ear. His hand traces the length of her jaw before dropping off at her chin. She's looking at him, and he's looking at her, and his eyes are so dark that she knows no one will see her if she kisses him again.
Then he blinks. He clears his throat, and his eyes lose their depth, becoming bright enough that she can see herself reflected in them, but nothing behind that.
“'Fun', and 'family' are normally not two words I associate with one another,” he teases, and it's an honest laugh that chases the pronouncement, because for him, it's true. It's an inconsequential, but amusing observation made in response to her sincere invitation. It's flippant. Easy. He doesn't hear the tragedy in it, but she does.
She loves her family.
He does, too, but she loves her family. It's different.
Her family is from Philadelphia. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States fifty years ago. They came for themselves and for their children, for a better life, and for the American dream.
This country was built on the blue-collared worker, and the Del Amico's have broad backs. They know what can be purchased with sweat. And they know that a home can't be bought. So even when they didn't have enough money to buy everyone their own bathroom, or even their own bedroom, they still made a home. They built it around each other, and a hundred little memories: pencil marks against the wall to measure the growth of eight children; chipped tiles behind the kitchen counter from where someone's dishes missed the sink; that creaky seventh step that every single one of them had forgotten to avoid at least once while engaging in some verboten activity.
When she was young, her dad worked twelve hours a day, and her mom took two part-time jobs to keep she and her brothers in clothes. She helped out as best she could. She swaddled, and she warmed bottles, and she did the dishes with the aid of a kitchen stool until she could see over the counter on her own.
And when her parents divorced, the home survived. They each found other loves, and other interests, and lives outside of each other, but they never lost sight of what mattered. Their family was their reason for living, and Anna knew in her heart of hearts that that was no exaggeration. She, and Hank, and Paolo; Nicky and Vito; Raffi, Joe, and Marco – as far as their parents were concerned, they were the sun, and moon, and every constellation in the sky.
And to her, Mom and Dad were the gods that placed them there.
Because they had dreamed. They never went to college, but her parents had dreams. That's what America was good for, they said, and they passed that dream onto their children. You can be whatever you want to be. You can have that little house, with the white picket fence, and 2.5 kids. You can be an astronaut. You can be President.
When she became a doctor, her father cried. My daughter – a doctor! She remembers how embarrassed and pleased she was when he spent the whole afternoon making long-distance calls to brag.
And even though she still sometimes imagines the mansion, and the servants, and the million clever efficiencies John takes for granted, she mostly tries to imagine what people dream of when they have everything.
She thinks she's finally got it.
So when they lie down on the bed to steal a few hours of rest before the sterile halls of the hospital shut them away from the fantasy of this evening, she turns away to face the balcony, the city lights streaming through the glass of the French doors. For her, they're stars, and she can still see the constellations of heaven on earth in their twinkling. They represent the aspirational dreams her parents reached for in this country, the dreams they built for their children, for her. But for him, they're something else. When he sees the lights, he sees the city. He sees hundreds of homes, glowing with the warmth of family he's never been close enough to toast his hands by.
And she knows he sees that light in her, and she knows that she could share it, and the sky with him all at once. But she also knows that it would not be easy. So she turns away because she's afraid to lose sight of the stars by looking toward the ground, and she turns away because it's frightening how easy it is to be in love with him.