"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


Growing Pains

Growing Pains

“Show me your ID,” I commanded, a gin and tonic sweating in my palm.

He shook his head, smiling. “You’re the most skeptical person I’ve ever met.” Reaching for his wallet, he pulled out his medical school ID. At my incredulity, he took out his license as well. It was true, this man in front of me, with his backwards baseball cap and his “birthday boy” pin, was actually a practicing doctor of medicine–had been since 2015.

I scrutinized the birth date. 1987. Newly 31. I looked him up and down.  “Are you sure you’re really a doctor?”

He laughed. I went home with him later that night. I was 21, a junior in college. Whatever we had, it began with an expiration date. In late April we met; in early June I would be moving to New York for an internship. On the way home from the bar he asked me how long I had before I was leaving.

“Why? Are you going to miss me?”

My question was ridiculous, but he only smiled. It became a refrain throughout our time together.

“Are you going to miss me?”

“Maybe.”

“Are you going to miss me.”

“We’ll see.”

“Are you going to miss me?”

“Yeah…I’ll miss you.”

What was I really asking him? “Will you think of me?” “Do you care about me at all? “Does this mean anything real to you?” Could it, with all the extenuating factors built into the space between us?

“Does my age bother you that much?” I asked him once.

“Not at all,” he said, which I’m sure was a lie. “Does my age bother you?”

I touched his cheek. “No, not at all.” And I’m sure he knew that was a lie too. It wasn’t the age difference as much as it was that our lives were so different. Late one night, I asked him what he was like in high school, and he looked up and breathed out a laugh: “That was a long time ago...My 10-year college reunion is next year.” We talked about the next five years instead, and we never acknowledged the fact that in five years I’d most likely be in graduate school or working an entry-level job, while he’d mostly likely be married, maybe even a father. There were a lot of things we never acknowledged.

Medicine was our common ground. The doctor was often exhausted, juggling overnight rotations in addition to his clinic hours, but he spoke about his patients with a gentleness that touched me as a former patient and daughter of a patient. “You went into medicine for the right reasons,” I told him once. “Not for ego or status, but because you genuinely care about healing your patients.” My fingers skimmed his jaw. “That’s important, you know?”

I thought I knew a lot of things that I didn’t.

Sometimes I think what I liked best about the doctor wasn’t the medicine, but how comfortable he made me feel, how open I could be with him. I asked him about his patients, and in return, I told him about getting sick in high school, how developing an autoimmune disease made me love kidneys. “They’re the underdog of all the organs,” I said, running my fingers across his forearm. He laughed and touched the side of my nose. That May, in the few days we had left before I moved for the summer, I celebrated three years in remission; in a strange way, it made me feel closer to him. I even told him about my dad, about how much I worried about his renal cell carcinoma returning, about how I didn’t know if moving to New York while my dad continued to battle cardiovascular issues made me a terrible daughter.

On our last night together, I brought the doctor up to the roof of my apartment. The building was basically empty, all the residents gone for the summer, and we sat and watched the skyline from our different vantage points: doctor and college student. What was he seeing? The end of a summer fling? The beginning of August when I would be back? I protested when I noticed him taking photos of me laughing against the railing, but I was secretly touched he wanted to keep a memory of me, and this night, around.

“Do you think you would have liked me if we had met in college?”

Surprised, he laughed and tightened his arms around me. “You wouldn’t have liked me...I was shy around girls back then. You would have been too cool for me.”

I tilted my head, squinting at him in the dim lighting. His slightly crooked smile made him look boyish. “I don’t think that’s true at all.”

Later, hours past midnight, I dropped the pretenses and said to him, “I’ll miss you.” He didn’t respond for a long time. He was lying behind me, kissing my neck. I was staring out the window, the dorms across from me lit up with the shadows of students moving around. Finally, he kissed my back and whispered into my shoulder: “You’re going to have so much fun in New York.”

In the morning, I drove him home. Tucked into my glove compartment was a cheeky greeting card, a raunchy limerick that I had written printed inside. As I drove, I played through grandiose fantasies about our final goodbye and what I would say when I handed it to him. In reality, I was double-parked on a cobblestone street and all I got out was: “Open this... when you think about me.” I handed him the envelope. A large white truck lingered behind us, waiting to get by. “I’ll see you…?” I looked at him.

He took the card, his smile warm and surprised. “Yeah, I’ll see you around,” and then he kissed me once more and hopped out of the car.

At the next stop sign, I idled. Feeling small and stupid, I finally understood; on the roof, he had really been seeing the girl next to him on for what she was: someone he could never have a future with.

I moved to New York later that week, filled with anticipation for what I thought would be my “big city summer.” Instead, every morning I was plagued by the distinct feeling of only “playing adult,” clocking into an internship where I felt inept, donning business casual clothes that felt like costumes, praying that I was getting it even half-right. Is that all the doctor saw me as too?

“I just don’t want to end up some anecdote that he brings up at a future—maybe at his future—bachelor party,” I told my best friend Dani.

We were sitting on the terrace of the apartment I was subletting in New York. Around us, a group of children were having a boisterous birthday party. “I don’t want to be the ‘Oh, that time I banged the 21 year old co-ed’ story.” I watched an eleven-year-old fall off her scooter.

“I don’t think you’re just that to him.” She looked at me. “Do you?”

I didn’t answer. What did I genuinely think? What I sense most keenly from our time together is my own desperation: I was a rising senior, and all around me my peers seemed like they were seamlessly falling into their futures, while I didn’t know what I was good at or even what I wanted to be good at. I felt both like I was growing up too fast and stagnating, suffocated by my parent’s expectations of what I should do and who I should be. All l I wanted was to run away to New York, but as an only child, I didn’t know if leaving was selfish. I needed someone with credibility to tell me I was doing the right thing, or at least that I wasn’t a terrible person for needing it. And–have I mentioned?– he was a doctor.

That first night, after we got back from the bar, I remember the tendrils of sobriety that crept in while I surveyed my room–the empty liquor bottles I had fashioned into vases, the posters from Etsy tacked onto the walls, and then him laying in my bed, next to a stuffed animal. Was this really happening? When he left at 3 a.m., I gave him my number, unsolicited, and felt okay with that fact that maybe I would never hear from him again. But then he kissed me for a long time at the threshold of the door and slipped something down my robe. “To remember tonight by,” he said, smiling and disappearing. I reached down and fished out the birthday boy pin he had been wearing. I hung the tchotchke on a clothespin I used to display photos, and when I moved a few weeks later, I packed it in my luggage and took it to New York. It sat on my desk, one of the first things I saw each morning before work.

The doctor and I didn’t keep in touch after my move, and the last time we spoke, I learned he was back together with his ex-girlfriend. I wasn’t surprised by the news, but I am pained by how young I must have seemed to him, how pathetically earnest and eager to please I was. I wanted to be something he could look forward to after a long shift, an exciting distraction from the stresses of his life. How can I be surprised that a distraction is all I ever became?

I don’t presume to know what the doctor felt or what he thinks now, but I see all the ways in which I misconstrued his kindness as something that it wasn’t. Pining for him tethered me to the present: it gave me something to look forward to in those last months of junior year, days marked by my overwhelming sense of self-doubt. Later, in New York, missing the doctor allowed me to avoid worrying about my father’s ailing health, distracting me from my guilt over running away when all my dad wanted was to spend some more time with me. I wonder if I miss the experience of the doctor, the experience of seeing myself through someone else’s eyes, more than I actually miss him. Or maybe I just miss the experience of seeing myself through what I thought were his eyes, a point of view clouded by all the expectations I foisted onto him: I thought I wanted to be his escape, but he unwittingly became mine instead.

After my internship ended, I moved back to campus, where I used to harbor this fantasy of running into him again. It would be somewhere mundane, like a grocery store, or a CVS. There’d be a brief moment of recognition, of shock, and then his warm half-smile. He’d say something about how I looked older, and I’d reply with something witty and poignant. We’d both laugh. But even in my fantasy, I never did get farther than that one scene; no part of me thinks we end up together.

I still let myself wonder what the doctor’s up to: if he’s working on a particularly interesting case, if he’s happy, if he kept those photos from the roof. The birthday boy pin sits somewhere deep inside my closet, and I keep meaning to get rid of it. I stumble across it every once in awhile when I’m digging around for a forgotten scarf or a crumpled blouse. Each time I catch a glimpse of the silky ribbon, I think about what would have happened if I had never given the doctor my number, if he had only remained a handsome stranger I met at a bar. He could have just been a story I reminisced about with my best friends. But I stopped talking about him with my friends awhile ago, and I never did get rid of that pin.


Sabrina Qiao is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies English with a minor in journalism. She has previously been published in The Write Launch, The Mighty, Silver Needle Press, and Red Cedar Review. Twitter: @sabrinaluqiao

Cover photo by Valentin Antonucci on Unsplash

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