Tuesday, August 09, 2005

1:09 PM

mood: detached

last night's sleep rating: C

Sitting in my office watching "Days." It's just one thing after another for Marlena, isn't it? Cuddy's admin assistant has been on my case about getting a copy of the department schedule in. I'm sure she figures if she starts nagging me early, I'll get it in on time. How naive. I know when Cuddy's actual due date is, and I'll get it in then. I think this month I'll even slide it in on time, just to keep them on their toes.

One of the nice things about having a small department with a small case load is that scheduling isn't too difficult. I fill in my own schedule, which is pretty easy -- half a personal day for the dentist and I'm done -- and then I turn the schedule over to the minions and let them have at it. They bicker and negotiate for an afternoon, hammer out the schedule, and hand it back to me. I look it over, sign off on it, and stick it in my desk to age until I decide to take it in to Cuddy. All I need is an oak-lined drawer.

The commercials come on and I turn my attention to the conference room. It's always informative to listen in on their haggling for their weekends. Maybe they'll get into a good argument this afternoon. I had thought having the Aussie on staff would make things easier; don't they celebrate their holidays backwards there? Didn't work out that way, though; he was asking for Christmas in December just like everyone else, instead of in June. So much for the old country. At least he's not trying to double up.

"Like sands through the hourglass...." The commercials are over and the Days hourglass rotates on screen. I'm still not used to those CGI titles. It's the same old Marlena, though, with the same old problems and the same men fighting over her. Amnesia? How boring. The demon possession thing was way more interesting.

I hear raised voices from the other room: they're not squabbling over Halloween, are they? I smile and rest my chin on my cane as my attention starts to drift....

I thought for a minute. The rotation calendar wasn’t out yet, but… “There is a chance… that I might be driving home for Christmas this year. Briony's on the way. If I get the time, I’d be happy to give you a lift."

“Thanks, but that’s okay. I know a couple of people who are headed that way, and I can always put a note up on the ride board. We get out the weekend before Christmas, so the timing... Thanks, though."

The schedule came out a few days after I put Eileen on the bus. I stood at my mailbox, ignoring Patel’s quizzical look – I usually just threw half my mail in my bag and the other half in the trash, without reading anything, but this schedule included Christmas. I opened the schedule, looked down to the end of the month, and started scanning names. December 25… R-III… nothing. No G. HOUSE to be seen.

I’d gotten my request. I had Christmas off – and the days before and after as well. No more excuses: I was going home for Christmas.

Patel cleared his throat. I mumbled something, stepped out of the way so he could get to his box, and walked slowly down the hall as I flipped through the rest of my mail. I stopped short when I got to a familiar red flyer with a note above my name: “Of interest? -- JPB. ” I unfolded the flyer. It was for Eileen’s Christmas recital. I smiled a little; for once I had the scoop on Dr. Ball. I looked at the dates on the flyer again, stopped, and pulled the schedule back out. It looked like I could make the evening concert, as long as nobody keeled over at the last minute. As for the Sunday matinee, I’d have to carry a pager, but at least it was a backup option….

I checked my watch and quickened my pace – it was almost time for M&M, and Roderick, my current attending, had an annoying habit of insisting that we show up on time and sit together as a team. Once I was in my seat, though, and the lights were down, I was free to turn my attention to my personal life.

At the moment, my personal life was even more stunted than usual. I wasn’t dating anybody and I didn’t have any close friends, or even that many pals; among my fellow residents I was more tolerated than sought out. Nothing new; I was used to it. I was busy anyway.

I frowned and slouched further into my chair. My father had been nagging me on that very thing the last time I’d seen him: important to build good working relationships… put yourself out a little, be a little more sociable…

That was more than a year and a half ago, near the end of my first year, when I’d managed to get a long weekend off. I’d narrowed my eyes, shouldered my golf bag, and followed him across the green to the next hole.

It was a hot, sunny Saturday and the sun was growing almost as oppressive as the topic. He just wouldn’t let it rest. If you’d just tone it down a little… can be intelligent without being so damn abrasive all the time… I know you’ve got it in you, Greg....

My father was a reticent man, so all this sermonizing was strange for him. I was too angry to give it any thought. I’d only been home for a day or two and I was already thinking about going back early. Things had been tense between my parents for a long time, and the strain in the house was unsettling.

My father saw the look in my eyes and took the hint for a while, but soon he was back to his lecture. Can’t wall yourself off from others… your career is important but it’s not the only thing… He paused for a bit while we added up our scores, smiling with triumph when he saw that the totals meant I’d be mowing the lawn that afternoon. But he picked up where he’d left off as we drove home. I ignored him and stared out the window.

Suddenly I tuned back in – he wasn’t talking about me any more. He was talking about himself: Don’t make the same mistakes I have, he was saying…I cut myself off, I lost perspective, I forgot…end up alone, all my fault...

I turned from the window. “Dad, what are you talking about?”

“Everything. I’m talking about everything.” He glanced at me uneasily and looked back to the road. “When your mother… you know she went to see your Aunt Helen for a week back in March, right?”

I waited.

“That wasn’t a planned visit.”

Sick dread started to grip my stomach.

“Your mother left… because I neglected her. Because I had an affair.”

I stared, as if it were a stranger driving the car instead of my father.

He looked quickly back at me. “She stayed for a few days to think things over. I did some hard thinking too…. I drove up to Helen’s, we talked it over, and she finally decided she’d come back.”

My father -- my silent, boring father -- had done this to my mother. My chest hurt as if I’d been kicked.

My father looked at me again, like he wanted me to say something. Finally, I managed to get something out: “Who?”

He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I came to my senses and broke it off. But do you see – I have years and years of bad habits to unlearn -- ” He pulled into the driveway and I could see my mother stepping out the front door. My father had done this to her and she was acting like nothing had happened. As soon as the car stopped I flung open the door, jumped out, slammed the door shut, and started to run. They didn’t call after me and I didn’t look back.

I ran for blocks and blocks, to a little playground in a wooded park. I ran into the woods until the playground was almost out of view. I stopped to catch my breath. There was a fallen branch on the ground, about four feet long and thick as a baseball bat. I picked it up at one end, barely noticing its weight, and swung it into a nearby tree. The force of the impact crashed through the branch, up through my arms and shoulders, through my whole body.

I hit and hit again and again until my arms were shaking and the branch was in splinters. I dusted my hands off, walked around the woods for a while, and then went back to the playground. I climbed to the top of the jungle gym and watched the trees sway in the breeze until some kids showed up and I climbed back down.

I wandered back home and went straight to the garage for the lawn mower. I did the front and the back, put the mower away, and went inside for a shower. By the time I was finished, it was time for dinner.

We ate in silence. My father looked at my mother; my mother looked at me anxiously; I just looked at my plate. After dinner, I got up, scraped the plates, and started washing the dishes. My mother unfolded a fresh towel and started to dry them.

I was draining the sink when I felt her hand on my forearm.

“Gregory, dear, are you all right?”

I yanked the sprayer and started to rinse the sink. “I’m fine.”

“I’m sorry about all this. But I’m glad you know. I’m doing better… things are getting better.”

“Does Mark know?”

“Yes, he does.”

I nodded, wrung out the sponge, flung it into the basket, and headed upstairs. The temperature was dropping quickly; it felt like a storm was coming. I opened the window for some fresh air and started to pack.

I sniffed. My father was having his after-dinner cigar on the back porch. Usually I went out to join him.

I threw my socks in the suitcase.

Through the window, I heard the kitchen door creak. My father started talking; I could hear the low murmur of his voice, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying and I didn’t care enough to go to the window to eavesdrop. My mother’s voice carried a bit better; as they talked, I could hear a little of what she was saying: a shock… why did you tell him that… darling… the truth… I don’t know… be prepared.... The kitchen door opened and closed again, and a nocturne started drifting upstairs from the piano in the living room.

Dinner, dishes, cigar, piano; maybe they’d put on some records after my mother was finished playing. It was so normal, so like any other evening at home, that it felt like a horrible parody. I flopped back across the bed and stared at the ceiling.

I left early the next morning and hadn’t been back since. So in addition to having a stunted social life, I hadn’t had much of a family life either. I had talked to my mother a few times since then. She'd started dropping hints about a visit back in August. Things sounded good at home; my mother even sounded... happy. In a moment of weakness, I’d asked for the time off and I’d gotten it. I was going home for Christmas. And I was more ambivalent about it than I’d ever been in my life.

I glanced up. The M&M presenter was starting the slides. Guts: boring. I scribbled a couple of notes and went back to my own thoughts.

Three days: December 24, 25, 26. I had long call the day before, so I’d be at the hospital late. I could always leave straight from the hospital, but I still wasn’t sure exactly how much time I wanted to spend at home, and it would be smart to get some sleep. I’d leave first thing in the morning on Christmas Eve.

There. I had my plan. I should be happy – three whole days off for Christmas, three days of home cooking, three days with no megalomaniac attendings or annoying residents or irritating scut monkeys or lying patients. Just my lying father. Apparently my mother had forgiven him, but I’d barely said ten words to him since I left. What was I going to say to him?

I doodled gloomily on my paper as the presenter droned on. You could always count on me for complaining about the pre-Christmas commotion and for wishing the Little Drummer Boy struck by lightning, but dreading Christmas itself – this would have to be a first. This sucked. What had I gotten myself into?

At least I had the concert to look forward to: cookies and a chance to tease the little diva. I thought about the red flyer in my pocket. I longed to pull it out, but Roderick was only a few seats down -- Roderick who’d made it possible for me to get my three days off.

Stupid Roderick. I tried to slump further down in my chair. I looked at the slides again, made the diagnosis in my head, and silently wished for a good throwdown.

The weeks went by. I left a message on my parents’ answering machine; my mother left a reply on mine: we’re so glad you’re coming, we can’t wait to see you, it’s going to be a lovely Christmas…. And two weeks later, I was back in the lobby of the university concert hall, buying my ticket for the Christmas recital.

I was not wearing my white coat this time. I’d driven the junior residents and med students like galley slaves that afternoon so that we’d be ready for report and have everything ready for the evening shift. Even the patients seemed to have gotten the hint; they seemed a little timid that day and none of them developed any time-consuming new symptoms. I’d managed my clinic hours, charting, and every other annoyance so that, for once in my life, I walked out of the hospital at 6:00 PM sharp. I’d had time to eat, get a shower, change my clothes, and arrive at the concert hall on time, so when the usher kid showed me to a seat, I was feeling much more human and much less conspicuous than when I was there last spring.

I looked over the program for Eileen’s name and found it among a couple of the small groups. She was also listed as one of the soloists for the “selected seasonal music” after the intermission, with – oh great: a Christmas carol sing-a-long for the finale, complete with lyrics printed in the program. No doubt that was why the hall was so full. I grimaced and thought about cutting out early until I saw the important words at the bottom: Reception to follow. Were cookies and punch worth sitting through all that holiday cheer? I thought of the April concert, of slinking out early, of Eileen pressing those cookies into my hand… yes. Yes, I would stay. The house lights went down and the applause started as the choir took the stage.

After the full choir sang, the small groups started to come forward. Eileen’s group sang Renaissance motets. The rest of the hall was absolutely silent as the ethereal harmonies shimmered in the air:

O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum
ut animalia viderent
Dominum natum…

After intermission, the choir formed again for the Christmas music. “Winter Wonderland,” some token Hanukkah song about candles and a dreidel, a contemporary thing I didn’t recognize…. There was a little movement as the soloists and small groups got into position, and then the “selected seasonal music” began. They kicked off with “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” continued with “The Holly and the Ivy,” and kept going with some truly obscure Ye Olde Englishe carols. The small groups started coming forward -- Eileen and five other girls sang “O Sanctissima” – and then the choir started singing with soloists. Eileen stepped forward again:

Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen
Aus einer Wurzel zart,
Wie uns die Alten sungen,
Von Jesse kam die Art,
Und hat ein Blümlein bracht
Mitten im kalten Winter
Wohl zu der halben Nacht...

The choir picked up on the third verse. A few more soloists, a few more pieces with the whole choir, and then the director was waving the audience to join in: “Joy to the World”, “O Come All Ye Faithful”… I did not sing, but I found myself softening a bit as the rest of the audience got into it, and only rolled my eyes a little – just for form’s sake – when “Jingle Bells” came up and a couple of choir members started shaking sleigh bells.

Hark! the herald angels sing….

I had to admit, it was good to hear the extra verses again. I used to see them printed at the end of the music when I was a kid, playing at the Christmas recital.

They moved on to “Silent Night.” The choir started singing in parts during the second verse, filling out the sing-along. It sounded… it sounded really nice.

Radiant beams from Thy holy face…

I shifted in my chair. It sounded so nice, it was sickening. Was I the only person in the auditorium who wasn’t singing? Who couldn’t even get excited about the presents-and-food part of Christmas? I felt so alone.

The applause started and the house lights came up. The concert was over.

I sat sullenly in my seat until the crowd had thinned out a little – no sense in knocking myself out so I could stand in the crowded aisle. Finally I picked up my overcoat and headed out.

The lobby was packed -- I couldn’t believe how crowded it was, how noisy with conversation – and nobody was moving, they were all just standing there. I managed to thread my way to a table and collect two sugar cookies. Some child in a long black dress was standing behind the punch bowl. She looked at me curiously as she filled my cup, as if she were trying to place me – I was obviously too old to be a student; was I a professor? I took the cup, nodded, and walked over to a wall. I leaned back, took a bite out of my cookie, and looked around.

Finally I spotted Eileen. She was talking to some other kids, some from the choir and some in regular clothes. A guy in a sweater joined them; I couldn’t see his face, but there was something about his height, about his stance – my hand tightened around my punch cup, and I just managed to stop myself before I cracked the plastic. It was David Kopp.

Another girl came up to the group, and he turned to greet her – no. No, it wasn’t Kopp. God, why had I let myself get anywhere near that baboon and his infernal social life? Eileen was still talking with her little friends; no way was I going to sail in and break that up.

I threw my punch cup away and started making my way towards the door. I was about halfway there when I felt a tug on my sleeve. “Dr House!”

I turned. Eileen was doing her best to look offended. “I’m crushed. Were you really going to sneak out without saying hello? Surely you’re not going back to the hospital. Tell me you’ve at least had some punch?”

“You looked busy. I figured I’d get an autograph another time.”

“Don’t be silly.” She led me back over to the punch table. “I invited you to come. Of course I was hoping to talk to you.” She took the ladle, poured out a cup, and handed it to me. “Did you like the concert?” She poured another cup for herself. “Have some cookies.”

“Thanks, I think I will.”

She looked over the table. “Oh, no… the chocolate ones are all gone.” She put a couple of ginger snaps onto a plate. “You know, if you’d told me which ones you liked I could have set some aside for you.”

“You’re pretty quick with the graft, there, Abney. Sure you’re not a political science major?”

“You’re pretty quick to assume I’m doing something unethical. It’s just cookies.” She led me away from the table. “Sugar cookies, sprinkle cookies, chocolate cookies; we’re buying cookies anyway, so what’s wrong with taking requests?”

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it tonight. If I’m going to pull strings and pick the menu, I should at least be there.”

“Work?” she asked, sympathetically.

“Strippers.” I took a bite of cookie and watched with amusement as her little nose wrinkled up.

“Eww!” She lightly pushed my arm.

“What? Strippers get sick too.”

“All at the same time?”

I shrugged.

“So do the strippers complain about the hospital gowns like the other patients do?”

“Oh, constantly. Wrong color, no feathers or sequins, open in all the wrong places, no place to put money….”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m glad you were able to rip yourself away from all those complaining strippers, even if it was just for a boring concert.”

“I wasn’t bored.”

“You were trying to sneak out.”

“Seriously, Abney, it was a nice concert.”

She smiled. “Thank you. Did you sing at the end?”

“Couldn’t you hear me? I was singing like Nat King Cole.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. No wonder I couldn’t hear you.”

I chuckled a little. “I guess not.” I looked at my shoes for a minute. “So… um… are you doing okay?”

“Yeah.” She nodded a little. “I… I’m doing okay. Thanks for asking.” She looked up. “And thanks for taking me in that afternoon, it was –“

“It was nothing,” I interrupted. “You’ve got exams coming up?”

“Done next Thursday!”

“And then you’re going home?”

“I can’t wait.” Eileen was smiling, but her eyes looked tired and sad. “What about you, did you get your time off?”

“I did. I’m leaving Christmas Eve.”

“Oh good! I’m so happy for you, I’m glad you got your time. How long do you get to stay?”

“I have three days.”

She looked disappointed. “That’s not very long.”

“Welcome to the real world, Abney. No more three-week semester breaks, no more summers off. Besides, three days is plenty. If I stay longer, my mom will have me cleaning out the basement or something like that.”

“And you’d rather be tending to strippers.”

“Oh, tending to strippers is way more fun.” I looked at my punch cup and swirled the ice cubes. “I guess you found a ride home?”

“Yeah.” She looked away. “Friend of a friend. I’ll have to stay a little longer, he has to work, but we’re going on Saturday.” She sighed. “I wish I had a car. I hate staying so late.”

I thought about asking if she wanted to do something on that Friday, but it sounded so pathetic and I was probably on call anyway.

“Would you like some more punch?” Eileen asked.

“No thanks; I’m good,” I said. I drained the last swallow and looked around for a trash can. “I should get going.”

“Are you sure?” She followed me over to the punch table.

I tossed the cup and crumpled napkin into the trash. “Rounds start early. Besides, you’ve got this whole room to work yet.”

She followed me to the door. “Thanks so much for coming. I hope you enjoyed the concert?”

“Of course.” She reached out and took my program as I put on my overcoat.

“I’m glad you could come.” She handed the program back. “Then I guess…we’ll see each other after the holidays. Have a safe trip.” She smiled. “Merry Christmas.”

“You too, Abney. Merry Christmas.”

I pushed on the crash bar and looked back. Eileen waved a little. I nodded and pushed out into the vestibule.

I shivered a little – it was cold outside, and the vestibule felt even colder after the warmth of the crowded lobby. Through the glass doors I could see gusts of wind blowing the snow off the hedges. I pulled my scarf out of my pocket and started buttoning my overcoat. I briefly heard the noise from the lobby again as the door opened and closed behind me.

“Dr House?”

I turned around. “Hi, Dr Ball.”

“I won’t keep you. I just wanted to say hello, and pass on Mrs Ball’s greetings, before you left. I was so happy to see you here tonight. I hope you had a pleasant evening?”

I nodded. “It was a good concert.”

“It was, wasn’t it? There’s nothing like music this time of year. Did you have a chance to meet our mutual acquaintance?”

“Eileen Abney? Yes, I did.”

“Very good. I’ll be trying to catch up with Miss Abney myself in a moment. I’m sure she was glad to see you; it’s always gratifying to see people you know at a concert. And even if you’re not performing, it’s interesting to see who’s there… and who isn’t.

“I’m sure I’ll see you at the Division’s party next week?”

Great. Now I had to show up. “I’ll be there.”

“Then I’ll wait till then to wish you a merry Christmas. Good night, Dr House, and drive safely. It was very good to see you.” He turned and went back inside the lobby.

As the door swung shut behind him, I got another glimpse of the lobby. There was still a good-size crowd inside; the lights, the warmth, the murmur of conversation were inviting; but there was only one person in there I’d had anything to say to and I’d said it all already. I turned and trudged out into the blowing snow.

The next week, I grudgingly put my tie back on to go to Medicine’s Christmas party. Stupid Roderick had arranged things so that all his senior residents could go. He could have at least asked us first, so I could have volunteered to take call. It was the usual excruciating kind of thing; lots of standing around holding a drink, making small talk. I made sure to talk to the people I needed to talk to -- Jennings, Roderick, some of the other attendings – and passed some awkward time with some of the other residents. At least I wasn’t the only one without a date. Once I’d said hello to Dr Ball, my things-to-do list was completed and I ducked out at the first opportunity.

I took a lot of call the next few days, paying the price for my three days off. On Saturday I didn’t leave the hospital until well past midnight. I went up to my apartment, threw my keys and mail on the kitchen table, and stuck a mug of water in the microwave to heat while I hung up my jacket. Back in the kitchen, the light on the answering machine was blinking -- probably a message from my mother. I ignored it and stared at the microwave until it beeped. I spooned hot chocolate mix into the mug until I’d achieved a thick, sugary sludge. The first sip was so good – I was hungry and cold.

What did my mother want now? I hit the playback button on the answering machine and leaned against the counter. The little robot voice announced the time of the call: “Nine. Forty-five. P.M.” Great, I was going to have to reset the time again – my mother never called that late.

The message started. “Hi, um, Dr House? This is Eileen Abney.”

Her voice was soft and uncertain. “I’m sorry to call so late, but my ride -- my ride stood me up today. I’m still in town. I’ve been trying and trying but I can’t find a ride and I was wondering if maybe I could take you up on that ride home, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. I’m staying at a friend’s apartment --” she rattled off the number -- “would you mind calling me here, whenever it’s a good time? Call whenever. Just -- please just let me know if it's okay, so I know whether I need to get a bus ticket or not. Thanks….”

I stared in amazement at the answering machine and then replayed the message to write down the number. I looked at the clock, thought for a moment, and grinned. One in the morning certainly counted as “whenever”, didn’t it? I punched in the number and started counting the rings….

That was so long ago, and so much has happened since then, and yet I still remember how quickly I dialed that phone number. I sit for another minute, thinking, my forehead on my cane, before I remind myself that I'm being stupid and yank my mind back to the present.

Next door, I can see Foreman at the fridge, passing out bottled water. I stand up, switch off the rotating hourglass, and head off into the conference room to see how they're coming along.


Anonymous Benj said...

Can't wait for Christmas and more Eileen! I didn't think she was going to need a ride and I have to know what happens. Love the way you've drawn this friendship and although its AU it totally fits for me that House is a one friend kind of guy. With Wilson now and Eileen fits. Whether she is an old girlfriend or one of those realtionship/friendship things it totally fits. For the record I am far more interested in seeing what happens with her, than Cameron or Stacy on the show. Fluid relationships always interest me more.

Love the Concert - so well done, played the sax (badly) in my younger days and did a lot of those kind of concerts and this was beautifully drawn, I could hear it. Have the whole scene in my head. And little touches like the Duck fight over the schedule- love it.

HouseDad too sounds about right, although I sort of hope Mum is nice, she sounds cool.

Love this Blog because it's so delicately dramatic and so subtle and the care and the attention to detail nails it.

Have been back to read the infarction story again over the last few days and it floors me every time. That's truly great fic- when you can go back and read it and it takes you right in all over again.

Big love for this chapter and I am counting the days til Christmas!



August 09, 2005 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Allison said...

All of these memories of Eileen. It seems like you really miss her if all of these things keep coming back to you. What happened once you dialed the number. I hope that she and her friend weren't upset that you called so late. Oh well.

Perhaps you should go through the box and reflect on everything so that you dont keep feeling stupid for thinking about Eileen. How did you two loose touch? What happened to Dr. Ball?

Eagerly awaiting Christmas

August 09, 2005 6:49 PM  
Anonymous kat said...

Just wanted to say I've spent an enjoyable few hours reading the entire blog. House is a recent obsession for me so I'm still finding gems dotted about the internet of House fiction. This is one of them. Thanks for the entertainment.

August 16, 2005 6:04 PM  
Anonymous Auditrix, your humble author said...

Thanks Benj, Allison, and Kat! I appreciate your comments.

Benj -- Eileen trumping Cam and Stacy? How you flatter me.

Allison -- we'll have to see, won't we?

Kat -- thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read the whole thing (!) Glad you enjoyed it.

August 18, 2005 5:20 PM  

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