June 17th, 2009

Sea Changes

Callie stalked furtively through the hospital, her troubled face angled downward, actively avoiding eye contact with anyone.  Her eyes focused on the galaxy of silver specks in the cheap linoleum floor under her sneakered feet.  Callie finally spotted a dark on-call room, shouldered the door open, and deftly closed and locked the door behind her.  After exhaling a lungful of pent-up anxiety,  Callie shuffled to a bunk bed as she dug her phone out of her scrubs' pocket.  The phone's neon screen blinked on and Callie's breath seized in her chest for the thirty-second time that day.  No voicemails.  No texts.  No missed calls.  Nothing.  Nothing from Erica.  Erica deserted Callie fifteen hours earlier and disappeared, frustratingly unreachable.

The catastrophic and ludicrous events of the night before seemed like a Lifetime movie Callie regretted watching.  Did Erica really casually dismiss Callie, coolly climb into her BMW, and speed away into an eternal night?  Did Callie, in a fog and rooted to the ground, passively watch her girlfriend walk away in the opposite direction?  Instead of walking towards each other and into a blessed future together, they had recently pushed and pulled each other in opposing directions, clumsily navigating their stormy new romance. 

Flashing back to the night before, Callie remembered how Erica's receding figure, that lone shadow, blended into other nocturnal shadows on the wet asphalt in the eerily desolate parking lot.  Erica, always confident, even borderline arrogant, never hesitated, her step never faltered, and she never looked back, her decision made.  Erica suddenly didn't care enough about Callie to hide the fact of how little she cared.  That smug BMW smoothly coasted away, the red headlights spiting Callie in their red hot fury.  Eventually Callie snapped out of her catatonia and drifted, as if underwater, to her own car but couldn't remember driving home, although she must have, because she woke up twisted around her toilet.  The night's abysmal events culminated in several bouts of vomiting. 

Earlier that morning, Callie unglued herself from the bathroom's icy tile floor and the first thing she did was call Erica.  "Erica, it's me. Please call me back.  We need to talk.  Please just call me back.   I have to go to work but I'll keep my phone on.  Just call, okay?  I love--I'll talk to you later.  Bye." 

Erica never called. 

Now imploding on a bunk bed, Callie slumped over, her elbows on her knees, her fingers frantically scrolling through her phone.  She angrily wiped tears away at the realization Erica still hadn't responded.  Erica always returned Callie's calls and texts immediately.  They were chronic texters, trading silly messages and reminders to smile, helping each other survive their respective arduous days.  Now nothing? Who ignores a message like the one Callie left?  She slipped and uttered the word "love."  Surely Erica detected that glaring slip and still no response?  Callie hadn't intended to say it, the loaded words accidentally tumbling out of her mouth.  Callie groaned, embarrassed by her impromptu love confession, and further ashamed that it went ignored by the confession's target.

Callie roughly combed her fingers through her hair and stifled a sob.  She crumbled onto the bed and curled up on her side, facing the wall.  Her tears pooled on the pillow under her cheek.  Callie couldn't stop crying.  Her eyes had spontaneously welled up at the nurses' station an hour earlier and Callie blamed fictional allergies.  Bailey rolled her eyes at Callie's transparency.  The girl was a mess Bailey didn't have time to clean up.

Callie now hugged herself on the bed and rued her recent spree of mistakes with Erica.  Callie toyed with the idea of time travel, bargaining with the cosmos to turn the clocks back and give her another chance with Erica.  Callie justified her mistakes by citing fear, not malice or indifference, as their cause.  Callie had been so paralyzed by fear, of screwing up something so perfect, that she did exactly that, screwed everything up.  Erica mattered, making every move important, too important, and Callie cracked under the pressure. 

Safely alone in the on-call room, Callie openly wept, sniffling and wiping her nose on her sleeve.  Callie felt cheated, assuming she'd have time to atone for her mistakes.  She thought she had time to learn how to love Erica.  They'd have the rest of their lives to get it right.  Their love was destiny, immune to human foibles.  Callie didn't know how to behave, overwhelmed by this heady new love.  She didn't know she had a finite number of chances with Erica.  Callie felt blindsided, being punished for violating rules she didn't even know existed.

Callie rolled onto her back, stared at the mattress above her, and relived the moment it all fell apart.  She just walked away.  She just walked away.  Callie repeated it in a daze, tasting the appalling words in her mouth.  She just walked awayWalked away.  The unapologetic brutality of that one act gutted Callie.  Callie marveled at the mechanics of a human being capable of such a cruel act, was honestly curious if such a person was made of machine parts, or perhaps classified as a droid or robot?  Callie was all too human, consisting of flesh, but mostly heart.  Her heart would never allow her to walk away from Erica.  Yet Erica conceivably had no problem envisioning a future without Callie.  Callie was disposable to Erica.  That devastating blow caused Callie to clutch her stomach and roll into a tight ball on the bed.  Callie wanted to collapse into herself and disappear, to erase her existence just as Erica had.

So that was their anticlimactic goodbye?  Callie was notoriously bad at goodbyes.  As a child, beloved pets' deaths or school pals' departures threw Callie into a prolonged stupor, alarming her parents.  Every goodbye rattled her, reminding her of the ultimate goodbye, death.  Wasn't every goodbye a death, a death of all the possibilities envisioned at the outset of a friendship, or a death of hope, the worst kind?  Callie refused to believe in never, that anything truly ended.  Erica and Callie couldn't be over.  They had barely started.  Erica had grown necessary to Callie and now she was gone?  A vertigo-like panic whirled inside Callie.  

Overwhelmed by the doom of a life without Erica, Callie squeezed her wet eyes tightly shut and prayed for the ability to shut off her emotions.  Callie sighed, acknowledging the futility of such a wish.  Callie's greatest strength and weakness was her heart.  That heart insisted on falling for Erica, despite Callie's knowledge that Erica could break her.   Callie opened her phone's keyboard and typed a message to Erica.  You broke my heart.

Three days later Callie was sitting at a table in the hospital break room, alternating shoveling peanut butter M&M's in her mouth and feverishly texting, her fingers a blur over the phone's tiny keyboard.  Mark waltzed into the room and paused at the maudlin sight of Callie hunched over her phone, a bleak aura of desperation blanketing her. 

"Hey, Cal!  Whatcha doing?" Mark asked in feigned good cheer as he pulled out a chair and sat next to Callie. 

Callie didn't look up from her phone.  "She won't answer me!  She won't return my calls!  I've left messages.  I've texted her.  I emailed her.  Nothing!"  She abrupty dropped the phone on the table and her hands flew to her mouth in horror.  "Oh my God!  I just thought of something!  What if she's trapped somewhere and she can't get to her phone? Or her phone died and she's--"

Mark gently laid his hand on Callie's tense shoulder.  "Cal, she's fine.  Her phone's fine.  She's receiving the calls and texts.  Her not calling you IS her answer.  And the answer is she doesn't want to talk to you,"  Mark explained, his voice unusually apologetic.  

Absorbing Mark's crushing news, Callie folded her arms on the table and buried her face in her arms, hiding her bawling face.  Her shoulders shuddered violently with sobs.  Mark scooted his chair closer to Callie and rubbed her back. 

Callie groggily raised her head.  "She just disappeared!  How can ONE person decide what happens in a relationship of TWO people?!  She just cut me out of her life!"

Mark tenderly cupped Callie's face, grabbed a tissue, and wiped smeared chocolate off Callie's upper lip.  Mark privately noted Callie's sleep-deprived, zombified stare and disheveled appearance, diagnosing her with a textbook case of a broken heart.  "I want to kill her for hurting you."  Mark swiped another tissue and mopped Callie's tears.  He held the tissue to Callie's nose. "Blow."  Callie did. 

Callie raked her fingers through her unwashed hair.  "I made so many mistakes."

Mark reclined back into his chair and bellowed, "Of course you made mistakes!  Have you ever kissed a woman before?  No!  Have you ever been in love with a woman before?  No!  You never loved anyone like you loved Erica.  This was all new and scary and terribly important to you.  Of course you were going to screw it up!" 

"Um...thanks, asshole.  What are you saying to me?  I'm trying NOT to jump out the window.  I don't need this right now!"

Mark calmly held up one hand to halt Callie's tirade.  "What I'm saying is you are allowed to make mistakes.  Stop blaming yourself for HER decision to give up.  You didn't give up.  She gave up.  That was the biggest mistake in this whole hot mess.  Two complete idiots totally in love with each other?  What did you think was going to happen?  Bliss?"  Mark snickered as he snatched up the bag of M&M's and tilted the bag to pour a pile of the colorful spheres into his cupped hand.  

"You're right!  I may have created this clusterfuck, but she's the one who left!  How could she could give up on us? I guess she doesn't want me anymore..."  A tidal wave of tears choked Callie and she collapsed into Mark's arms.  Mark rocked her and let her cry all over his impeccable scrubs. 

Callie untangled herself from Mark's embrace and blew her nose.  Mark brushed Callie's hair out of her eyes, the chestnut waves sticking to her damp, puffy face.  "I said it before and I'll say it again.  I could kill her for hurting you like this." 

Callie tossed a used Kleenex into a growing mountain of snotty tissues.  "No, it's my fault.  I fucked up.  I pushed her away--"

"She should have stayed and fought for you!  This person who allegedly cares about you took a good, long look at the awesomeness that is you and said, 'No thanks, I'll try my luck elsewhere.'  She threw you away like used Kleenex."  Mark waved a tissue to emphasize his point.  "You deserve more than that.  You deserve someone who'd slay dragons for you!  Who'd fight to the death for you, or at least, you know, take a punch for you.  You are worth fighting for." 

"I'm so NOT worth fight for!"

Mark angled his body to be able to look directly into Callie's watery eyes.  "Callie. She. Gave. Up.  She gave up on you and on the idea of you two together and sadly there's nothing you can do about it.  She's gone. It's over."  

Callie nodded slowly and saltwater tears misted her eyes.  Erica was gone.  Callie was officially undone.  Callie felt like she was drowning and fought to breathe.  "I love her," Callie confessed, her chin trembling.  

Mark squeezed Callie's shoulder.  "I know.  And she loved you.  I know she did."  Mark couldn't deny the connection between Callie and Erica and felt tremendous guilt for being a factor in its demise.  He had to fix what he helped break.

"I feel like I was given love cocaine and now I'm addicted.  I need her.  I crave her.  I'm in physical pain without her,"  Callie whispered, exhausted by her despair. 

Mark nodded knowingly, leaned back in his chair, and crossed his legs at the ankles.  "You're a love junkie.  More specifically, an Erica junkie.  You're going through withdrawal."

Callie's eyes widened and she pointed at Mark. "Exactly!  I'm an Erica junkie!  I was so happy with her, happier than I've been in a long time.  Or ever, really.  I finally found someone, THE someone, and she just disappears.  And the thing is, I let her walk away.  I should have begged her to stay.  So now we're just over?  This isn't the future I dreamed for us.  It can't end like this!  I miss her so much."  Callie submitted to a sob and buried her face in her hands, yelping in pain. 
"You will get through this.  It just takes time.  I know that's the shittiest answer, but it really is the only answer.  Have an M&M.  You'll feel better."  Mark held the near-empty bag out to Callie.

Callie, still weeping, held out her hand and Mark tilted the bag into her upturned palm.  One lonely red M&M bounced out.  Mark inspected the empty bag.  "You just ate a whole pound of peanut butter M&M's?!" 

"Yes!  I need them!  If I could drink alcohol at work, I'd be drinking alcohol.  Candy's the next best thing."  Calile shrugged, pretending not to be embarrassed. 

Mark balled up the empty bag and tossed it into the nearby garbage can, a three-pointer from his seated position.  "Well, you're gonna need more.  You stay here.  I'll get you some.  What are your thoughts on Swedish Fish?" 

"Swedish Fish were Erica's favorite."  Callie smiled mournfully, relishing that tiny, private fact only a best friend would care to know. 

Mark leapt out of his chair, instantly amped by his assignment to cheer up Callie.  "Fuck Swedish Fish!  There's other candy out there.  Better candy!  Don't move.  I'll be right back with a shitload of candy.  I think we found you a new addiction!"  Mark jogged to the door before skidding to a stop.  He ambled back to Callie.  Mark towered over Callie and affectionately stared down at her upturned, radiant face.  Despite being inconsolably heartbroken, chocolate smeared, and in need of a shower, Callie was bewitching.  He lightly kissed Callie's forehead before nimbly turning on his heels and striding out the door.

Months passed.  Erica never called. 

Erica marched out of Callie's tangible life and into her constant thoughts.  Callie couldn't stop thinking about Erica, elevating Erica into an obsession.  Hopelessly hopeful, Callie schemed and plotted various scenarios to win Erica back.  She rewrote their story, always providing them their deserved romantic-comedy ending.

Where did Erica go?  Callie was desperate for news of Erica.  Erica's sudden and mysterious disappearance morphed Erica into a ghost(Callie too morphed into a ghost of herself, wafting through her life bereft and untouchable.)  Erica haunted Callie.  Suddenly the world was overpopulated with tall blondes.  Callie once trailed an Erica doppelganger for three blocks before realizing it wasn't her tall blonde.

For weeks after Erica left, Callie routinely came home after work, climbed into bed, and listened to old voicemails from Erica.  Erica always identified herself in her messages, as if Callie couldn't recognize that trademark voice, her favorite voice.  Most of the voicemails were short, logistical calls, when to meet and where, but her favorite was Erica calling to ask Callie out on their second date. 

"Hi, Callie?  It's me, Erica.  Erica Hahn.  I was wondering if you would like to go out to dinner maybe Friday or Saturday, or even Sunday...or any of the days of the week?  I heard about a really great new restaurant and I'd love to take you there..you know, if you're interested.  So let me know...okay...well...call me back whenever, when you get a minute.  Oh!  And I had a really wonderful time last night...It's Erica, by the way...I think you have all my contact information...so...okay....bye."  

Callie's face hurt from smiling when she first received this message and she still swooned at the timidity and insecurity in Erica's normally commanding voice.  Erica, adorably shy and vulnerable with Callie, ended the call with a breathy "bye."   Callie ached for that nervous and charming girl with the breathy phone voice.   

Callie reread text messages from Erica, a narrative of a friendship blooming into a romance.  Revisiting these pieces of Erica was pathetically self-destructive, but their shared history kept Erica alive.  This archeology of a love affair contradicted what Callie was tempted to believe, that if Erica could so easily abandon her, Callie mustn't have meant anything to Erica.  Was their intense connection a smokescreen for some sordid race into Callie's pants?  Callie craved proof she was loved and had loved once.  Their tragic end didn't negate their blissful beginning.

After the shock of Erica's disappearance dulled, Callie negotiated a new reality for herself, a reality without Erica.  Callie learned not to expect to hear from or see Erica.  Eventually Callie conditioned herself not to startle every time the phone rang, hurriedly answering out of fear she'd miss the awaited call from Erica.  The hardest habit to break was restraining from contacting Erica.  Callie had called tirelessly and sent countless texts and emails, all unanswered.  Surrendering, Callie learned to stop fighting for Erica.  The fight was over and Callie had lost. 

A few months after Erica's disappearance, Callie sat on a bench outside the hospital sipping a lukewarm coffee.  She surveyed the infamous parking lot.  Callie usually avoided this side of the hospital, but recently she inched towards accepting Erica's absence, and sitting here in the daylight reanimated more enchanted moments of their short time together.  Erica had walked on this sidewalk everyday and Callie kissed Erica at that adjacent bench.  Callie's eyes misted, revisiting their fleeting happiness.

Mark had been anxiously searching for Callie, still worried about her.  He scanned the courtyard through the glass doors and spotted Callie on a bench, a solemn figure shimmering in the sun.  Callie, having lost everything, exuded the irresistible charm of the defeated. She begged to be rescued.  Mark bought a chocolate donut and approached Callie.

Mark stepped over the bench and plopped down next to Callie.  "Donut?"  He held the chocolate disc midair in front of Calle's face.

"No thanks."  Callie scrunched up her nose and shook her head.

"What?  The emotional eating part of the grieving process is over?"  Mark waved the donut, trying to entice her.

"No.  That's still in full force, I can't stop eating.  I've gained nine pounds.  I'm a fattie,"  Callie whined, disgusted with her newfound girth.

"No, you're not."  Mark rolled his eyes, telling her what she wanted to hear.  "Fine.  I'll eat it."  Mark devoured the donut in three huge bites. 

Callie watched Mark with a small degree of disgust. "Try chewing." 

"What?"  Mark mumbled, crumbs spraying out of his donut-filled mouth.

They soaked in their sunny surroundings, comfortable in their shared, zen silence.  Mark dared a glance out of the corner of his eye at Callie.  Her heavyhearted grief weighed down her whole being.  Mark felt like he was standing on a beach, watching Callie drift further and further out to sea.

Mark nudged Callie's thigh with his knee.  "How you doing?  You want to talk or not talk about anything or anyone...?"

"Nope.  But thanks though."  Callie sipped her coffee, an excuse not to look at Mark and reveal her not-so-secret pain.  If anyone looked at Callie with sympathetic eyes, she automatically fell apart.  She was working on not doing that.

"It will get better.  I promise."  Mark lifted Callie's coffee cup out of her hand, swallowed a generous gulp, and handed the cup back to Callie.  "Donuts make me thirsty."

Callie traced the rim of the coffee cup lid with her index finger.  "It's not getting better.  It's getting worse.  The more time that goes by and I don't hear from her, the further away from her I feel.  I lose a bit more of her each day.  She drifts further away from me and I'm that much further from the time she was here, when she was mine, and everything was wonderful.  There was that magical time, the latitude and longitude of fate aligned and we were perfect.  I'm never going to get that back.  Ever.  I miss her everyday.  You know, I still think of things to tell her about and I have to remind myself that I can't tell her these things and I get sad all over again.  I miss her face.  Her laugh. The way she'd look at me sometimes...I just miss her more, I guess, the longer she's gone.  I can't stop wishing she'll come back to me.  Every new day without her confirms she's gone forever.  I'm sure she forgot about me long ago, she probably even found someone else already, but she's still all I think about."  Callie's hollow voice cracked and she lowered her head to discreetly wipe her tears on her sleeve.

"Of course you miss her, wish for her return.  Those are normal human responses to a monumental loss.  But those feelings can change shape and become something you carry around with you, not something that ruins you.  She changed you.  Now that she's gone, you have to change again. Sea changes, I think they're called.  Life's full of them, these transforming experiences."  Mark closed his eyes and tilted his sculpted face to bask in the sun's honeyed rays.  Mark belonged on the pages of a glossy magazine, modeling suits or sunglasses.  And he knew it.

Callie slowly turned her head and stared at Mark in disbelief. 

Mark could feel Callie staring at him.  His eyes popped open and he shrugged, a twinge insulted at Callie's shocked response. "What?!"

"Nothing!  Just...when did you become all...self-helpy?" 

Mark swiveled his head and scanned their immediate surroundings before leaning in closer to Callie to whisper conspiratorially,  "If I tell you something, you have to swear it goes in the vault."

Callie nodded eagerly, wordlessly promising to keep his grand secret safe.

Mark exhaled nervously.  "I've been you.  I was once broken by a woman.  Several women actually, but one in particular.  She destroyed me.  Totally ruined me.  She didn't want me and unfortunately, she was all I ever wanted.  You will learn, if you haven't already, that women are diabolical, vindictive knaves.  Women, with the exception of you and my mother, are truly, truly wicked.  Trust no one.  But look at me.  I survived.  Living well is the best revenge.  I'm getting impossibly better looking with age.  God granted me not six, but eight-pack abs!  I don't even work out!   And I have fucked more women-"

Callie held up her hand and winced. "Alright, I get it!  I get it!  I was one of those women."

"What I'm saying is you will survive and there are a lot of women out there, trust me.  I am going to be your ambassador to the world of women.  More like a sensei.  Like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid! You can be Ralph Macchio.  But first, let me buy you lunch.  You're looking too skinny."  Mark winked at Callie, reminding her she was always beautiful, plus or minus nine pounds.   Mark stood up and held out his hand to Callie.  Callie gripped his outstretched hand and Mark pulled her up to stand in front of him. 

"Do I have to be Ralph Macchio?  Can I just be me?" Callie asked, staring up at Mark, the blinding sun behind him making her squint.

"Good idea.  Just be you.  Just as you are."  Mark glared into Callie's eyes.  "But I'm serious about never repeating what I told you.  I'll cut you." 

Callie smiled as Mark wrapped one arm around her shoulder and led her back to the hospital.  

Erica's disappearance necessitated a sea change in Callie.  Her life was a series of sea changes.  Meeting and falling for Erica was one such change.  Losing and mourning her was another.  Callie was just trying to stay afloat.

The void Erica left was vast and irreparable.  No one ever knows the space they take up in another person's life.  Callie reluctantly learned to live with the loss.  She didn't have any other choice.  The loss, always fresh and always painful, gratefully kept Erica alive in Callie's heart, where she suspected Erica would always reside.

Callie vigilantly waited for Erica's return, a stubborn and naive wish, but one she refused to let die. Callie still didn't subscribe to never.  Callie preferred to believe she and Erica were not permanently separated, just indefinitely suspended, destined to find each other again.  Maybe someday they'd accidentally encounter each other in a remote, foreign city, like Prague or Paris.  The two women used to daydream about their global expeditions, constructing a list of all the places they'd visit hand in hand.  Prague and Paris were at the top of the list, Prague for its castles and Paris for its crepes.   

To survive her loneliest midnight hours, Callie would imagine their reunion.  Maybe they'd both be in Prague and accidentally bump into each other in a dusty, labyrinthine bookstore or spot each other across a crowded, smoky cafe.  Their eyes would instinctively lock despite the deafening chaos of the bustling cafe and they'd slowly rise from their chairs.  They'd float towards each other, dodging the chatting coffee drinkers, that cranky waitress yelling out an order, and that behemoth jukebox wailing in the corner.  The din and hum of life would gradually fade into silence and time would grind to a stop.  They'd tentatively meet in the center of the cafe, spotlighted by the heavenly glow of fate.  They'd smile shyly and the world would be new again.  Callie would brush the back of her fingers across Erica's cheek and whisper, "Where have you been?"  And their future could begin again. 
Until then, Callie would just float, waiting for her next sea change.

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