Qiaohui and Jeremiah

Qiaohui and Jeremiah

It surprised both of them when it happened. Jeremiah, stretched out on the couch after the others had gone, gazed up at Qiaohui as if he were seeing her for the first time, his eyes terrified and tender, inflaming her with lust she’d rarely felt, even in high school or college. Without a word, she eased him off the couch and lead him into her bedroom.

Afterward, entwined in each other’s arms, they burst into deep, complicit laughter. Two sophisticated, cosmopolitan, closet virgins in their early twenties, grinding their way through their first year of medical school.

In those days, everybody would gravitate to Qiaohui’s apartment for the sweet and sour chicken she gracefully garnished with chopped scallions and sesame seeds, or the slow-cooked beef and broccoli she ladled like an experienced sous chef from a big crockpot onto individual plates of hot spring noodles. If she wasn’t cooking, there’d always be leftovers from the multicourse feasts she invariably found time to prepare in addition to assimilating the gargantuan reading load on immunology, hematology, the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, etc. mandated by the faculty at Einstein.

It seemed natural for Qiaohui to sit people down and feed them as she’d done years earlier for her brothers and sisters while her parents worked long, grueling hours feeding the hungry patrons of their Mandarin style restaurant. Their patrons never seemed to get enough of their delicately spiced fish and meats served with sweet and sour sauce and fresh vegetables. Although she was the middle child of four children, in between an older brother and younger brother and sister, her mother always treated her as if she’d been firstborn and named her Qiaohui which means wise and skillful in Mandarin. From the moment her little girl entered the world, her mother somehow knew Qiaohui could be entrusted with the nurturing and well-being of others. “After med school, I thought I wanted to do surgery,” she told me, “but in my gynecology rotation, I became fascinated with emerging medical technology and cellular growth. Today, I do fetal ultrasounds almost exclusively. They send abnormal ones to me.”

Before they slept together, Jeremiah was courteous but never showed much interest in Qiaohui. He hung out with the others in her apartment and made occasional small talk but a part of him remained elusive. Once Qiaohui tried to loosen him up with lyrics from an old Seventies song by Three Dog Night: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, he was a good friend of mine,” she crooned as she pulled him into her arms and tried to dance with him while the others joined in the singing: “I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine.” Jeremiah stood there in Qiaohui’s arms and let out a sheepish grin as the others broke into spasms of laughter.

Another time when everybody was watching the Super Bowl, Diana who shared a cadaver with Jeremiah in anatomy class and made no secret of her taste for casual hookups plopped down on his lap. As she snuggled up to Jeremiah, he just dozed off, amidst the din of the others cheering the Patriots and booing the Rams in between mouthfuls of Qiaohui’s salmon burgers.

After Diana and the others left, Qiaohui found Jeremiah chomping on a left-over salmon burger from the fridge. “Any Tsingtao?” he asked with an endearing grin. That was the night Qiaohui lead him to her bed. The next day he moved in with her and the following year they married.

As they pursued their studies, it took Jeremiah longer than Qiaohui to choose the kind of medicine he wished to practice and he was never entirely clear on why he’d chosen medicine, to begin with. “You can make a good living,” he told Qiaohui. “You do what’s expected and you don’t have to be a brainiac Ph.D.” When she pressed him on why he eventually chose internal medicine, he told her with a sadness in his eyes she’d never seen before, “I just wanna keep people from suffering.”

They came to me ten years later. Qiaohui pert, engaged, Jeremiah somber, shoulders sagging, as they sat on the couch before me. By then they had three children: five-year-old Trina, three-year-old Annie and newborn Gabriel. “What a joy Trina was as an infant,” Qiaohui told me. “The delight in her eyes as I held her. She’d raise her arm and point to things around me. I’d smile proudly at her, she’d take in my smile, then gave it back to me.”

“What a show,” Jeremiah said, suddenly brightening. “She took little morsels of food from Qiaohui’s fingers and made soft, gurgling sounds. Sometimes she chewed on my finger. She could bite even then like her mother,” he added, grinning at Qiaohui. “It amazed me how open she was to everything around her.”

By the time Trina turned five, she’d filled a drawing book with figures of Annie and Gabriel so detailed and delicate that they amazed Qiaohui. “They’re my patients,” Trina told her mother serenely. And three-year-old Annie squealed with delight at every opportunity to feed Gabriel, giving voice to the nurturing side of her mother.

Jeremiah was astounded by Trina’s ability to create images of Annie and Gabriel that appeared to him like lattice and filigree. And he delighted in munching on salmon burgers with his two little girls. Though his son was still a mystery to him, he was somehow reassured by Qiaohui’s suggestion that they name him Gabriel. “A fitting name,” she said with her usual understated grace and competence, sensing Jeremiah’s unspoken wish that his little boy would become the guardian angel and protector of the family.

It all changed the morning Jeremiah and Qiaohui noticed the café au lait splotches on Trina’s leg. “Neurofibromatosis, Qiaohui explained matter of factly, as if she were speaking to a patient. “A genetic disorder that causes tumors to form on nerve tissue. It can develop anywhere including the brain and spinal cord. The tumors are usually noncancerous but there could be hearing loss, learning impairment, loss of vision and severe pain. At that point, Trina was three and thriving. Her Pre-K teacher told us she’s precocious.”

“It hangs over me like a storm cloud,” Jeremiah said.

“He’s on Lexapro.”

“Keeps me from puking my guts out every morning.”

“You never talk about what you’re feeling,” said Qiaohui.

“You want me to feel happy!? Dopamine’s a fucking luxury. They should put it on a bumper sticker.”

“I never said I needed you to feel happy.” Qiaohui turned to me in frustration. “Last week we were in the car. Jeremiah was driving. The kids were back in their car seats. Another driver suddenly cut into our lane. Jeremiah sped up to him, grabbed an empty IV bag from the hospital and threw it at him.”

“I just snarled at the guy. It wasn’t that big a deal.”

“You yelled and cursed at him and almost lost control of the car. I was terrified for us and the kids.”

Jeremiah’s face hardened as he turned to me. “You’re doing it all wrong she tells me and she can’t even fucking drive.”

“He almost killed us and then acts like I’m persecuting him. The rest of the time he’s on autopilot. We’ve stopped having sex. He has more fun masturbating than with me. The last time I told him he was sexy, he told me I’m sexy when I fart.”

“I was joking.”

“Is it a joke when they laugh at you for using up all the toilet paper in the hospital?”

“That one’s not as good as mine.”

“See what he does! Then he tells me he’s afraid to lose me but can never say why he wants to be with me.” Qiaohui’s eyes welled up in tears. “Yesterday Trina told us: ‘Mommy and daddy, you need to love each other. ”

When they came to me today, Qiaohui pleaded, “This time you have to tell him.”

Jeremiah stared at her for a long moment. “I just remember fragments. My father was driving, my mother beside him. I was almost four. My sister Mary and I were in the back. She was still a baby in her car seat. I only remember what my parents told me. A car slammed into us and my sister’s side took most of the impact. They spent a long time in the hospital with Mary and left me in daycare for a week, maybe longer. I remember staying in a corner most of the time by myself and never played with the other kids. When the nursery teacher tried to play with me, I ignored her. Whenever one of the other kids got upset or cried, I’d start wailing for no reason. Mary was permanently brain damaged from the accident. She’s been in assisted living since her teens. She’s now in her early thirties.”

“What comes up for you now as you talk about it?” I asked Jeremiah.

“It’s all a blank.”

“And when you saw other kids crying?”

“I’m sure I got upset but I can’t remember feeling anything.”

“It must have been terrifying for a four-year-old boy suddenly dragged away from his mom, dad and baby sister, surrounded by strangers.”

“Jeremiah’s tone softened and his face grew heavy with sadness. “I’ve always felt I have to be flawless,” he said. “When Qiaohui reminds me to do stuff, I kick myself because she has to remind me. But it’s weird, I never feel like this at work. I’m fine with my patients, even their crazy relatives. It’s like I’m two different people.”

“What do you feel like when you wake up in the morning?”

“I’m exhausted like it’s the end of the workday. Sometimes I want to puke my guts out. I remember a dream I had a while back. I was falling into this giant black hole. I just kept falling and falling. There was no bottom. I woke up in a sweat. Qiaohui tried to calm me but I ran to the bathroom.”

“What feeling comes up now with the image of that black hole in your dream?”

“Nothing. The Lexapro blocks it, almost.”

As he spoke, I imagined what it’s like to walk in Jeremiah’s shoes each day, alone surviving on the edge of things. When his stomach is full of Qiaohui’s mandarin beef and broccoli, he’s afraid of indigestion. When it’s empty, he’s afraid he’ll never eat again. The only time he realizes how crucial Qiaohui is to his well-being is when he’s pushed her too far and is terrified he’s about to lose her. The only perfect joyful moments he has been with his children, like me with my patients.

“Yesterday, Trina watched me fascinated as I laid pieces of chicken in the Sous Vide,” Jeremiah said. “She knows the meat has to be finished in a fryer and she got pissed when I wouldn’t let her do it. ‘I’m five years old!’ she growled. I promised her, next time. Annie insisted on tasting the chicken before it went into the fryer. I gave her a morsel she shared with Gabe who chewed it, then he gurgled, pleased with himself.”

Qiaohui pulled out her cell phone and played a video she’d taken of them in the kitchen.

As I watched the scene, seeing the joy in Jeremiah’s face, I realized that when he feeds his kids, he’s vicariously feeding himself.

“Ever let yourself taste and savor the chicken the way your kids do?” I asked.

“I never think about it.”

“Imagine the juicy chicken infused with garlic and Chinese five-spice, on your tongue, against your teeth as you chew, the tangy sweetness that fills your throat as you swallow.”

Jeremiah gave me the bewildered half-grin he usually puts out when I speak to him like this. “You’re weird,” he answered.

Qiaohui smiled and shook her head as she often does when I talk to him this way, then her face swelled with sadness.

After they left, I fell into a reverie of Jeremiah late at night slipping into his children’s half-lit bedroom, gazing at them, counting their breaths, careful not to wake them. He looks into a bedroom mirror, sees a stranger smiling, and suddenly realizes he’s smiling at himself.

My thoughts turn abruptly to the antique mahogany table I keep in the room where I see patients. Years ago, I installed a thick plate glass on the surface to protect the mahogany. It never occurred to me that the glass was much too thick, even for the sturdy legs that supported the table. And the glare of the glass actually blurred the rich, subtle tones of the mahogany. Somehow, a long time ago, I’d become obsessed with the notion that the mahogany had to be shielded. One day the table’s legs suddenly collapsed under the oppressive weight of the glass. I rushed in near panic to find a craftsman and paid for the necessary repairs. Now that the legs have been restored, I steal a moment each day to gently caress the bare mahogany with my fingers and take in the reddish-brown glow of the wood. Sometimes I break into sobs.

Jeremiah has never cried in the entire time I’ve known him. Will I ever get him to cry for the beauty, beauty lost so long ago to himself?

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