Unlike his friend George, Nick Maier was not impulsive. He actually found routines comforting. So, when construction disrupted his regular nine-block walk from the bus terminal to his office on Monroe Avenue, Nick turned off Broad Street with uneasiness and headed crosstown on Pleasanton. In his years of making the trip, he hadn’t been on that street before. The shops were new to him, as were the food vendors, and coffee trucks. Even the morning sun beaming directly in his eyes was a different experience.
Halfway down Pleasanton Avenue, Nick noticed a tall woman approaching from the opposite direction. But, it was more than just her height that made her stand out from the crowd. Long auburn hair bounced atop her shoulders. A khaki wraparound coat looking like something from the pages of Vogue draped her lithe frame. Her bright smile rivalled the glaring sun.
With less than fifteen feet separating them, Nick squared his shoulders and added a slight grin to his otherwise stoic commuter face. As the distance between them shrank, Nick tried to calculate his next move. Nod? Say hello? Before he could decide, the gap closed.
She met his eyes; offered a brief smile; and then continued as though happiness carried her inches above the sidewalk. Nick attempted to return the gesture, but she was already several steps past him. He paused momentarily, considering whether he should reverse course.
But, the ever-cautious Nick prevailed and he continued to Wilmington Boulevard. While turning the corner, Nick berated himself for not being more like George. Then, he did something completely out of character. He stopped and returned to Pleasanton Avenue where he scanned the crowd for that auburn hair, that tan coat.
She was gone.
For the rest of that morning, concentration proved difficult for Nick. Staring at his computer screen, he imagined that woman walking as if in a slow motion commercial, her every move exaggerated. At lunch, he daydreamed about her. On the walk back to the terminal later that day, he retraced his steps up Pleasanton; hoping she would be there. She wasn’t.
Convinced he only needed to return to the same spot at the same time to find her, Nick Maier took Pleasanton Avenue for the next three weeks, timing his route to mirror exactly when their paths crossed. She never reappeared. Eventually, Nick resigned himself to the fate of the timid: regret for action not taken.
The following months passed as usual. The friends hit different bars in the city. Although Nick enjoyed dating, his mind often wandered back to that morning on Pleasanton. Eventually, the recollection dimmed, though never fully disappeared.
One morning while Nick sipped his coffee, his phone vibrated with a text message from George. It said he had blown his knee out while exercising the previous night and was seeing an orthopaedic specialist later that day. When the friends spoke that evening, George told Nick he needed surgery and elected to have it the following week.
Driscoll Medical Center was the city’s largest hospital and Nick had no difficulty getting there from work to visit his friend. Passing through the lobby, Nick headed towards the elevators; the very same ones he rode when his father spent the last few days of his life in the coronary care unit. Despite Herculean efforts, that tired muscle was just too weak. With both parents deceased, Nick no longer had that buffer against his own mortality.
Pushing the melancholy memory back into the shadows, Nick focused on a poster next to the elevator. Like the dozen others that lined the main corridor, it showed a healthcare professional facing the viewer with a quote about why they chose Driscoll. There was something familiar about this particular doctor in a lab coat with arms crossed.
It was the woman from Pleasanton Avenue.
The elevator doors opened. But rather than step in, Nick stood staring at the poster. He wondered if the woman was actually a physician or simply a stock photography model often used in medical brochures and advertisements. He re-read the quote and its attribution: Dr. Alexandra Welch, Surgical Oncologist. Nick snapped a photo of the poster and took the next elevator to the fourth floor where George was recuperating.
Excited to tell his friend about his discovery, Nick hurried into Room 428. An empty bed greeted him. After waiting several minutes, Nick aimed for the nurse’s station.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Can you tell me where George Samaras from Room 428 is?”
Without looking up from the binder in which she was writing, the nurse responded, “Not in his room?”
“Try physical therapy. Down the hall to the right, second set of doors.”
“Thanks,” Nick replied. He started down the corridor, but stopped and spun back.
“Sorry to bother you again…” Nick said; then waited for the nurse to face him. When she did, he held up his phone and asked, “Is this person a doctor here?”
Instantly, the nurse’s expression went from total indifference to pained concern. “That’s Dr. Welch. But…” There was a conspicuous hesitation before she completed her comment. “She’s on leave.”
It was obvious the photo struck a raw nerve. Nick thanked the nurse and went in search of George.
As Nick approached the Physical Therapy room, he observed a number of people in various stages of treatment, some using wheelchairs, others without. A frail, elderly man tossed a ball to a caregiver. Another, with his leg in a brace, struggled to maintain balance as he moved between parallel bars. At the far end, a female patient in a wheelchair repeatedly pulled a cable that raised and lowered weights on a pulley. Nick scanned the area, but didn’t find his friend. Ready to return to George’s room, Nick noticed the woman who had been lifting weights was now turned in his direction. A flash of recognition lit his eyes, then vanished just as quickly.
A buzz cut now replaced shoulder-length auburn hair. A twisted grin supplanted the smile that had brightened Nick’s morning so many months earlier. Instead of that stylish coat, she wore a gray sweatshirt.
Despite the changes, Nick was convinced it was the woman from Pleasanton Avenue. The perfect beauty that had consumed his waking moments only months ago was suddenly imperfect. Still, his heart pounded.
The woman looked directly at Nick.
Not about to be timid again, he said, “Hello.”
She nodded in reply.
“My name is Nick. My friend George is supposed to be here for rehab on his knee.”
The woman’s crooked smiled attempted to mask the conspicuous droop on her right side. She shrugged, suggesting she knew neither him nor his friend.
“I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to bother you,” Nick said.
She shook her head and whispered in a raspy voice, “No…bother.”
“You look like you’re doing well,” Nick remarked, hoping to jumpstart a conversation.
The woman grinned.
Nick said, “I have to ask. Is that your photograph in the lobby downstairs?”
“You’re a doctor here?”
Yet another nod. But, this one brought a tear to her eye.
Sensing she had difficulty answering his questions, Nick excused himself. “It was a pleasure meeting you. Good luck.”
Without warning, the woman clutched Nick’s wrist; then murmured, “Pleasanton.”
The word struck Nick with the impact of a runaway bulldozer.
“Did you say Pleasanton? Like in Pleasanton Avenue?” Nick asked.
She nodded, and then motioned for him to sit in the empty chair.
“I saw you on Pleasanton Avenue months ago,” Nick told the woman.
“I…think…I…remember,” she said haltingly.
Thrilled, Nick replied, “You do?”
Another nod, this with a smile trying to duplicate the one that had stopped him that morning.
Knowing she had seen him only magnified Nick’s regret of that missed opportunity.
“You know,” he said nervously, “I went back after you that day. But, you were gone. I even changed my morning commute hoping to see you again.”
“Sorry,” she muttered.
The exchange was mostly one-sided with Nick offering short sentences and the woman responding with nods, gestures, and an occasional two or three word reply. Nick kept referring to her as Doctor Welch, until she shook her head, and forced out,
Their impromptu chat ended some minutes later when George Samaras hobbled into the therapy room. “There you are,” he called loudly to his friend.
Nick introduced George to the physician saying simply, “This is Alexandra.” As he stood, Nick asked, “May I visit you again?”
Her eyes said yes.
Over the next six weeks, Nick became a regular at Driscoll. With each new visit, Alex seemed a little stronger, a bit more conversant. Her words came quicker, clearer. One evening, Alex finally told Nick about that morning on Pleasanton Avenue.
“I had just been named to the surgical oncology staff here at Driscoll and was thrilled. Two blocks after we passed one another, a bike messenger came out of nowhere and hit me as I crossed Van Buren. I was thrown to the ground and hit my head. Emergency surgery relieved pressure in my skull. Then, I was placed in a medically induced coma for eighteen days.”
“I vaguely recall seeing something in the paper about a surgeon involved in an accident,” Nick said. “But, I didn’t think it was you!”
“Why would you?” Alex smiled.
Nick stared at the floor thinking, ‘That’s why I didn’t see her in the weeks after that morning.’ He silently cursed himself for being timorous and not stopping her on Pleasanton. ‘If I had, she wouldn’t have been in that bike’s path and she wouldn’t be here now.’
Ever the perceptive diagnostician, Alex recognized Nick’s unwarranted guilt and rested her hand on his. “Seeing you in rehab that day was the first time since the accident that I even remembered being on Pleasanton Avenue.”
Alex’s rehab was a prolonged series of modest advances and serious setbacks that threatened her hope for full recovery. With her parents and Nick at her bedside one rainy Sunday afternoon, Alexandra Welch’s life took a sudden, unexpected turn.
Seven long months later, George Samaras stood alongside Nick and asked, “You going to be okay, buddy?”
“I’ll be fine,” Nick replied unconvincingly before turning towards the overflowing pews of the small church. The lingering scent of incense suffused the air. Women dabbed their eyes with tissues while leaning against men in dark suits. Others wore sunglasses to mask their emotions. None of the nurses, doctors, or other Driscoll staff who once worked with Alex and now packed the aisles ever expected they would be here. Waiting for the solemn procession to begin, Nick stared at the entrance through tears.
Nick Maier watched Dr. Alexandra Welch walk up the center aisle arm in arm with her father. It mattered little to Nick that her slow gait was uneven or that she might never again walk into an operating room. To him, she was no less perfect than she was that morning on Pleasanton Avenue.
Michael Anthony is a writer and artist living in the United States. He has published fiction, poetry, illustrations, and photographs in literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include Storyland, Burnt Pine Magazine, The Oddville Press, and The Furious Gazelle. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay, “Mill Ends,” on the waning textile industry.