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Who Knows Best?

Saturday night, I shuffle down the hall toward the nurses’ station to pick up the chart for my last case before the end of my shift. The nurse at the desk gives me the rundown: “Room three, bed two, looks like his arm’s broken.” I nod and head down the hall.

“Doug?” I ask crossing the threshold without even bothering to look up from the chart. “My name is Dr. Kelley, I’m your attending physician. Let’s take a look at these X-rays.” I approach the foot of the bed and the smell of rubbing alcohol and pine sol is replaced by a wave of booze and cigarettes. It rips my attention away from the chart and I finally look at my patient. His eyelids are drooping; he smells like a fraternity house; he has mud smeared all down the front of his t-shirt and jeans. I sigh as I walk to the light box and clip the X-ray photos into place. “Want to explain how this happened?” I ask as I point to the visible fracture of his ulna and another small crack on his carpus.

He slurs through his story of trying to slide down the handrail of the porch staircase. He made it down, he said, but when it came time for his dismount, he stumbled and landed on his arm. “Yeah it, was pretty badass until I biffed it into that mud puddle.” He almost seems proud of himself until he sees the judgmental look I’m giving him. Between 10 p.m. and midnight, a lot of my cases are injuries suffered by drunken college kids from Purdue, kids trying to show off. This kid is no exception. “I don’t do dumb shit like this often,” he says as he tries to redeem himself. “I was just celebrating because I got into grad school.” He lifts his eyebrows, as if to ask me if I’m impressed. I shake my head and get to work setting the bone and putting on the cast.

After about ten minutes, I clean up the extra gauze and start walking toward the door. “Wait, aren’t you gonna sign it?” he asks. I turn back around and pull a Sharpie out of my lab coat and scrawl Dr. Kelley on the light blue fiberglass. “You forgot your phone number,” he says when he looks at the messy black scribble then back up at me. This isn’t the first time I’ve been hit on by a patient. I’ve gotten a marriage proposal from a middle-aged man hopped up on painkillers after being in a car accident. We just humor them when it happens. I bend down again and write “911.”


            What with Catholic school, college prep high school, and then liberal arts college, med school, residency and the 4-p.m.-to-midnight shift in the E.R., I haven’t had that much time to date. Seriously. My experience with dating has almost exclusively been school dances. I haven’t been on a proper date since 2007 and it’s 2010.

I’ve never been in a serious relationship, and I’m 32, about to turn 33. That’s halfway to 65, halfway to senior citizen tickets at the movies and 15 years past AARP membership, my mother’s voice says as a tiny version of her appears on my right shoulder like in a cartoon. She’s so good at that.

Since I finished my undergraduate degree she’s been giving me this subtle advice. I understand that she only does it because she cares about me and she doesn’t want her daughter to make the same mistakes as her. But Christ almighty does she have to constantly bug me about it? She’s always me if I’ve met any nice guys lately, or if I’ve made any plans to settle down.

Come on, when she had me she was the farthest thing from settled. She hasn’t told me many specifics about her twenties but she named me Rhiannon for the Fleetwood Mac song, so I’ve got a pretty good idea. She didn’t even settle down until she married my stepdad last year. She and my dad broke up and got back together more times than Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall.

I was on the phone with her once when I mentioned a boy who liked me that I planned to let down easy. “I’m going to stay friends with him, I just don’t want to date him,” I explained.

“Well, what’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing,” I replied. “He’s nice and fun to be around. He has a nice smile.”

“Well, why don’t you want to date him?” There was no convincing her. He liked me, so that should have been enough.



 “Hi, is this Rhiannon Kelley?” he says on his end of the phone. He has a nice voice, deep, but not rough. “It’s Doug, from the other night. The ass with the broken arm.” He’s calling me on my emergencies-only direct line at the hospital; they paged me to the nurses’ station to take this call. The nurse who gave him this number is going to get an earful. “First of all, I want to apologize for the way I acted. I was rude and I’m sorry. But I won’t apologize for hitting on you.” I roll my eyes and hold the phone to my ear with my shoulder and open up the chart in my hand on the ledge of the nurses’ desk. “Want to meet up for coffee tomorrow morning around 10:30?” I sigh and turn to lean my back against the wall.

“Will you hold on a second?” I press the hold button and put the receiver down on the ledge faster than he can respond so I can weigh the pros and cons. Con: He did something totally stupid and ended up in my emergency. Pro: he’s sweet and, fine, I’ll admit it he’s dreamy. Con: He’s young. He just got into grad school which means he hasn’t even graduated yet. Pro: He’s interested. How many times have I been asked out in the past couple of years? “All right,” I say, “Greyhouse on Northwestern Avenue tomorrow.” We go over a few more details before I hang up. I’m surprised, I actually feel giddy.


Where is he? He’s probably not coming. What was I thinking? This was the dumbest idea I’ve ever had. I sit at a table for two in the back corner of the coffee shop. I’m the one wearing the University of Michigan sweatshirt. I told him to look for it. He shouldn’t have a problem finding me; at half past ten on a Tuesday morning the place is pretty much cleared out save a few college kids who don’t have early classes and a couple stay-at-home moms in their velour sweat suits, gossiping about their homeowner’s association and P.T.A. I don’t want to look anxious, so I flip through the newspaper I bought with my latte.

I hear someone clear his throat so I look up and there is a young man clutching a paper cup standing in front of me. “Yeah, hi, here, sit.” God, he looks young enough that I could have been his babysitter years ago. Maybe I was. He says he grew up here in West Lafayette like me. He starts talking about his days at Central Catholic and his intramural soccer team. “How old are you?” I interrupt him to ask.

He tells me he just turned 22. He’s a pre-vet major about to graduate from Purdue and he’s already been accepted into vet school there. He just keeps telling me about himself like my question didn’t even faze him. I stare at him and nod at the appropriate times while I daydream into the future. I imagine my cousins’ laser pointer eyes poised on me over ham and mashed potatoes at Christmas dinner when this kid sits downs next to me at the table.

“How about you?” he asks, and I respond with, “Yeah, totally,” and he looks completely confused. Shit, he knows I wasn’t paying attention.

“Jeez, I didn’t think I was that boring,” he says in a snarky but playful way. I put my chin in hand and look up at him through my eyelashes. There’s no point in trying to redeem myself; my face already matches the bright red of the coffee cups. “I was trying to ask you how you decided to be an E.R. doctor.”

“I thought the male doctor’s were all going to look like George Clooney,” I say flatly. He looks a little confused. “He used to be on show E.R.,” I try to explain. He shakes his head; he still doesn’t get my reference and my joke is losing its punch by the second. In his defense George Clooney hasn’t been on that show in ten years but how could he not remember one of the highest rated T.V. shows of all time? Finally it dawns on him.

“Oh yeah, my mom used to watch that show when I was a kid,” I have to hide a cringe as the words pass his lips. He just associated me with his mother… I think I might vomit. I know I have to fess up.

“I’m sorry,” I begin, not sure how I’m supposed to start this conversation. “Doesn’t this weird you out?” He cocks his head to the side like a puppy. “I’m ten years older than you, and it freaks me out.” He opens his mouth but I cut him off before he speaks, “Please don’t start with the ‘age is just a number’ song and dance. I’m looking for something serious… someone serious and you have to understand that.”



I parallel park my car outside the Lilly science building where Doug is assistant teaching summer school intro-level biology when I realize I haven’t been on Purdue’s campus in years. The new students are here for orientation and all of the freshman are sporting crisp new “Class of 2014” t-shirts. I watch them as they walk around in packs carrying folders full of event schedules and campus maps. I remember when I was that age, I think then stop myself. When did I get old enough to say that?


My cell phone yanks me back to reality. “Doug” with a little red heart emoticon next to the name says, “Are you almost here? Meet you in the lobby.” I see Doug coming down the hall as I walk through the double doors and waddling along beside him is a porky English bulldog. I down at the dog and then up at Doug with an inquisitive look on my face.

“Rhi, this is Sarge,” at the sound of his name his slobbery mouth drops open and his tongue falls out the right side. “He’s my boss Professor Connolly’s dog,” Doug continues, “I thought we could go get a sandwich and have a picnic on the Memorial Mall so he can run around a little bit,” he looks around, quickly checking to see if anyone else is within earshot. “He’s a little overweight,” he whispers, cupping his hand around his mouth as if to keep Sarge from reading his lips.

“Do we have to keep it a secret from him? He can’t understand you.”

“Dogs can understand about 160 words,” Doug starts to explain as we walk out the door and down the sidewalk. Before I know it I’m not even listening to what he’s saying, I’m only paying attention to how his face lights up and the way he waves his hands around while he talks about what must be every animal he’s ever come into contact with because his mouth seriously hasn’t stopped moving since we started walking. I tune back in when we cross State Street just in time for him to circle around to what made him want to be a vet.

“When I was ten,” he begins, stopping briefly to make sure I’m paying attention, “I rescued a baby squirrel from my grandma’s cat.” Are you freakin’ kidding me? “No joke, I even tried to put a Band-Aid on him where Licorice’s teeth broke the skin.” If I’d just met him I’d probably think he made this up just to get girls, but he tells the story with so much enthusiasm and he doesn’t leave out a single detail. I don’t even care if it’s true or not, I’m totally buying it. “Ever since then all I’ve ever wanted to do was help animals.” An awkward pause follows his story because all I can muster up as a response is a swoon. There is no hiding it; this guy gets to me. Sometimes when he talks to me I act like I’m fifteen again and I just met Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell.

He stifles a laugh and keeps talking, “You never told me why you really wanted to be an E.R. doctor.” It’s only fair of me to share my story, even though it’s embarrassing as hell.

“You have to promise not to laugh,” I say.

“This is gonna be good,” he replies and makes himself comfortable on a park bench and lets Sarge off his leash.

“Promise?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.


“Okay, well, I always knew I wanted to be a doctor but I decided I wanted to work in the E.R. my junior year at Michigan on my best friend’s twenty-first birthday…” I rehash the details of the night I can remember and even those are pretty foggy. “We started out at a bar and after we got wasted we went back our dorm room. When we got inside she collapsed on the futon, her eyes rolled back in her head, and she stopped breathing.

“I vividly remember this part because as I screamed ‘Lindsey! Lindsey, wake up!’ I kept thinking to myself ‘oh my God, I killed her! It’s two a.m. the day after her twenty-first birthday and I killed her!’ I seriously felt like I was going to throw up and shit myself at the same time. I was too drunk and too busy panicking for the next thirty seconds to realize that she started breathing almost immediately after she stopped. It wasn’t until after I heard her snore that I calmed down enough to shake her and wake her up.

“She asked me, well more like slurred at me, ‘Whas a matter wiff you? Juss lemme sleep.’ Then she pulled the blanket off the back of the futon and covered her top half and kicked off her high heels.”

“I don’t get it,” Doug interrupts, “Why did that make you…”

“Let me finish,” I interrupt him right back. “I was just getting to the good part. Anyway, basically I tried to take my heels off while standing up and my knees were still shaking, lost my balance and face planted into my dresser and broke my nose. Our R.A. had to drive me to the E.R. The doctor that fixed me up, Dr. Tucker, she promised she wouldn’t tell my mom that I was drunk when I broke my nose when she had to explain what happened to me on the phone. She was one of the nicest ladies I ever met. Even though I was crying hysterically she was so calm and collected that she talked me down. She even called me a couple days later to check up on me. From then on I basically wanted to be her. I wanted to be able to help people when they were the most panic stricken just like I was.”

Doug is biting his lip, trying not to smile; “So it looks like I’m not the only one who’s partied a little too hard, eh, Rhi?” he completely loses it and busts out laughing. I shove him a little but then I can’t help but laugh either.




I walk through the front door of my mom’s house without even knocking, “Mom? Where are you?” I yell from the entryway.

“In the kitchen, Hon!” She yells back, “Dinner’s almost ready!” I try and go have dinner with my mom and stepdad every Sunday. I go to the kitchen and head straight for the cupboard where Mom keeps the plates and glasses; I get three of each out and put them on the counter. I dig three forks and three knives out of the silverware drawer and start setting the table. Force of habit, I guess. Dave, my stepdad, is already sitting in his usual spot reading Consumer Reports with his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose like a school librarian. Sometimes I wonder how a spitfire like my mom ended up with a guy as dry as Dave.

“How have you been?” Mom asks placing a plastic salad bowl and a half empty bottle of ranch dressing on the table.

“Fine,” I say as I reach for one of the cherry tomatoes on the top. Dave closes his magazine and puts his glasses in his shirt pocket.

“That’s good,” she says from the kitchen with her back to me. She pulls a pan of lasagna out of the oven. She’s trying to butter me up I can feel it. She only makes my favorite when she has a lecture planned. “Will you grab the hot pads?” She calls to me. “The stone ones so I can put this on the table.” I do as she asks and try to mentally prepare myself for what’s coming next. Have you met any nice guys lately?

“What did you do this week?” She asks. She sets a pitcher of iced tea on the table and sits down in the seat across from me.

“Nothing,” I respond putting my napkin in my lap and reaching for the salad tongs. She raises her eyebrows but doesn’t make eye contact with me. Apparently that wasn’t the response she was looking for.

“Really?” Here we go. “Janice, you know Janice my friend from high school, you used to babysit her daughter, Kate. Well, Janice told me that Kate is at orientation at Purdue right now and she thought she saw you come out of one of the academic buildings with a young man and a dog.” The jig is up. I’d been able to keep Doug a secret for three weeks.

“Have you met someone? Don’t roll your eyes at me, I’m your mother and I want to know.” Dave looks up from the work he’s doing on his plate. Even he knows what’s coming up next is sure to be a can’t miss moment. I take a long pull from my glass to buy myself some time.

“Yeah, I have actually. Looks like all your prayers are being answered.” I don’t mean to be so defensive. I just want to keep Doug all to myself, I’m scared if I let my mom anywhere near him she’d put him through an interrogation that rivals the Spanish Inquisition. She’s about to retort when Dave breaks his silence.

“Marcy just let the kids have their honeymoon phase.” Most people would hate it if their stepdad butted into their relationship with their mother but right now, it’s greatly appreciated.




I keep my eyes closed tight like he tells me to. He walks backwards in front of me, leading me into my apartment by both hands. “Okay… open!” The living room has been transformed into the most romantic, magical place I’ve ever seen, complete with twinkling lights and a few lit candles.

“I can’t believe you did all this for me,” I say, tears welling up in my eyes. “33 isn’t even an important birthday.”

“It’s the first birthday I get to spend with you.” Doug shuts the door behind me and takes my purse. “Go change out of your scrubs and put on PJs. I spent your entire shift setting up this evening’s festivities, and I’ve got a very specific plan.” I come back from my bedroom and find a Chinese takeout feast laid out on the coffee table in front of the couch. He motions for me to come sit next to him and presses play on the DVD player remote.

The opening measures of “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith start playing. “Dazed and Confused? My favorite movie… you remembered.” This guy is too good to be true.

After the movie, I nestle myself into the crook of his shoulder and feel him kiss the top of my head right before I fall asleep.

The sun coming in through the window wakes me up. I have expected to wake up and find it’s still April and the last six months have all been a dream. The calendar on the wall that says it’s Saturday, October 23rd and the man sleeping on my couch prove me wrong.




“Hi, Honey!” my mom squeals as she opens the front door on Thanksgiving Day. I step inside, leading Doug by the hand. My mom gives him a once over as he walks past her to take our coats to the back bedroom. “He’s certainly… handsome,” she says once he’s down the hall. I know she’s offended that I haven’t let her meet him yet but this is what I was trying to avoid. I don’t know why she won’t just come out and say it. He’s a little young for you, Sweetie.

In no time Doug has the whole table laughing at the story of how we met, so far so good. It seems like he already has Dave’s approval, they spend a good chunk of the meal talking about how the Indianapolis Colts have been playing this season. I can’t tell what Mom thinks, her famous poker face keeps me guessing.

After dinner while we wash the dishes, Mom lectures me about how I shouldn’t be fooling around with a boy when I need to be looking for a man, someone I can settle down with; I’m not getting any younger. I keep silent and look forward to conceal my eye rolling. I look out the window above the sink and see Doug playing football with my cousins. A gooey little smile spreads across my face. “Oh Lord,” Mom says as she catches sight of me, “you’re already in love with him.”

“That’s alright,” Dave says as he brings some coffee cups to the kitchen from the living room. “He can stick around for a while.” Thankfully, Mom has never questioned Dave’s judgment, not in front of me at least, which makes these out of character interjections really work in my favor. I turn to him and mouth Thank you.




“What do you mean, you aren’t coming to Christmas?” I scream across my living room. “You’ve been three years in a row! Everyone will think something’s up if you don’t come.” We shouldn’t even be having this fight. He can’t back out on me like this. He seemed so excited when my stepdad asked if he’d be joining us for Christmas dinner again this year when the four of us had dinner last week.

“It’s your mother,” he barks at me and slams himself down into the armchair by the window. “She cornered me when you were in the living room helping Dave with the T.V.”

“What did she say to you?” I ask through clenched teeth. My blood is nearly boiling at this point. How could she do this to me? She has no right to interfere in my relationship, not like this.

“She told me you need to be with someone who wants to settle down and get married, not a kid.”

I lie down on the couch and squeeze the bridge of my nose between my thumb and index finger. I stare at the textured white ceiling, mustering up the courage to ask him.

“Well, do you want to marry me?”

“Rhi,” he starts then stops and lets out a sigh. I don’t want to have this conversation any more than he does, but his hesitation stings. We’ve been together for over three years now. Everyday he tells me he loves me, and he lives in my apartment, but he doesn’t want to marry me.

“Get out.”


“You heard me, get out.” My voice turns icy cold.

I hear his voice saying things like “Come on, Baby,” and, “Can’t we talk about this?”

“Do you not get it?” The memory of our first date comes back full force. I told him I was looking for something serious. There’s no use trying to hold back the angry tears that stream down my face one by one in hot little drops.




I haven’t spoken to Doug in three days when my phone rings. I look at the caller I.D. Mom. Great, the last person I want to talk to.

“Hello,” my voice is scratchy; I almost don’t recognize it.

“Have you been crying, Sweetie?” She should know… it’s her fault. I let her hang in space for a while. “Did something happen between you and Doug?” I can’t take it anymore. I tell her that I know what she did. I tell her if she hadn’t pounded marriage into my head for so many years I wouldn’t be feeling like this.

“Do you love him?” She asks. Of course I do. “Were you happy the way you were?” I was. “If you’re happy, that’s all that matters.” When did she come to that conclusion? Obviously not before she destroyed my relationship. “Honey, if marriage isn’t for you and Doug then you can’t let what I want for you stand in your way.”

I have to wonder what made her have this sudden change of heart, and then it dawns on me. “I guess you could say Dave helped me see the light. He saw the way you two looked at each other.” We say good-bye and I know what I have to do now.

I scroll through my contacts until I land on the one I need to talk to. I start typing a text: Will you come home now? I’m sorry. I send it to “Doug” with a little red heart emoticon next to it.

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