Kak floated in the dream of death, marveling that while it had stolen her body, her intellect was surprisingly intact. Her memory remained sharp and with it, the ability to consider, as a person in a particular and uncharted situation might, what had transpired to bring her here. Perhaps there was a lesson she needed to commit to memory to use in the next life, if there even was one. Was there a time limit? She didn’t know how long her awareness might last in the afterlife.
With this in mind she fixed her thoughts on her past life, placing herself back in the examining room ten minutes before the defibrillator stopped her heart. The angel of death was there. It hovered so near, pressing down on her, that a dialogue with it became inescapable. She knew it then. She’d been on the examining table too long, the paper runner crackling under her shifting weight, not to know the exchange would occur. As uncomfortable as she’d become in the long silence, she preferred it to what came next. When the angel spoke, the poetry of her demise would fall from its gilded tongue and she would be forced to engage it. Anything else would be rude. The angel knew this.
She blinked away the layer of water pooling in her eyes. Her tormentor came into focus then, clear as an image in a camera lens. Doctor Philip Temple. Handsome, charming, well-off. The youngest Radiation Oncologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. If you were going to receive this kind of catastrophic news, wasn’t Philip Temple the kind of angel to receive it from?
Grieve then. She could do that even if she couldn’t stop what was coming. She’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time so often in her short life, at least she could be in the right place at the right time for what was left. Before it was too late, she made up her mind to assume the first stage of grief—
Denial. No. This isn’t happening. It was the logical place to start. After a reasonable period of pinching herself and not waking, perhaps a day, she’d give herself permission to progress to the second stage—
Anger. It isn’t fair! What did I do to deserve it? I want to live! Two or three days of rolling around in her own rage would set her up nicely for the third stage—
Bargaining. I’ll give you anything, God, do anything, if you just get me out of this. That would last a week or two if she was lucky. But sooner or later the realization that God wasn’t making any deals would herald the coming of the fourth and lowest stage—
Depression. I’m so tired of fighting, of hoping, of knowing there’s no way out. It was the end of kicking and heel-dragging. It was the valley of death, and in the shaded depths of that valley, where all of the previous mechanisms that kept you from facing the inevitable ran their courses and failed, came the fifth and final stage—
Getting it straight in her mind relaxed her. All she had to do was concentrate on denial. Begin at the beginning. Say no.
“Kak,” Philip said.
The break in the silence struck like a clap of thunder startling her out of her rehearsal. He’d used her name. It was coming. She shut her eyes, willing herself into invisibility. It was the trick of a child, she knew, but it didn’t keep her from seeking its comfort. The rest would follow now, unstoppable and irreversible. One moment you had your whole life in front of you. The next, the angel said those words to you. Those devastating words.
“Kak, I love your mind, your body, and your soul. Will you marry me?”
She felt the light pressure of his thumbs on each of her eyelids. He gently opened them until her vision filled with his own gorgeous brown irises, mottled in black, the color and depth of espresso someone spilled cream into but hadn’t stirred. They were the first thing she ever noticed about him.
“Anyone home?” he asked.
He removed a thumb. She shut that eye while her other tracked his movement as he reached down beside the examining table. When his hand came back it held a small blue box tied with a creamy white ribbon. Tiffany. All Temple men went to Tiffany.
She jabbed his ribs with a thumb. He squirmed on top of her, his damp stomach sliding sideways on hers. Her back stuck to the paper runner and her legs ached from being wrapped around him. She felt stupid for being led here. For walking into his well-laid plan.
“Nothing?” Philip asked.
He balanced the little box on the hollow of her throat and eased himself to the floor. The exhausted condom dangled from his retreating manhood. He peeled it off and reached over the crash cart wedged in the corner of the cramped room to drop it in the trash can.
“Damn ER renovations,” he muttered. “They’ve got every piece of extra equipment stashed on our floors.”
Kak sat up on the table, catching the Tiffany box in her hand as it toppled forward. Her sudden motion roused Philip. He took the box from her.
“I guess I’m not doing this right,” he said, dropping to one knee. He slipped the ribbon from the blue box in one smooth motion and tossed the lid aside to reveal the ring box contained within. The black velvet cube fell soundlessly into his palm. He rotated it toward her and opened it.
She willed herself not to look. She didn’t have to. She’d seen the geological wonders adorning all the Temple women. Forms of hypnotism, she told herself.
He drew himself up. “Kastle Anne Keen. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Kak swung her legs around to the side of the table, twisting and tearing the paper as she did. She needed to buy time until she could line up properly on denial. “Could you hand me my clothes?”
He scooped up her bra, panties, jeans and sweatshirt in his free hand and held them. “Not until you answer my question.”
Philip kneeled there, naked, gazing up at her, full of anticipation. A thin strand of elastic semen stretched down to connect the tip of his penis to the examining room floor. It was oddly endearing.
If she wasn’t careful she’d lose her place and forget what to say. And if she didn’t say it now she might never say it. The words would die inside her along with the rest of what had been Kastle Keen before the horrible disease of matrimony struck her down.
“Philip,” she said. “I want to write. I want to work in the film industry. I want to be, don’t laugh, I want to be Nora Ephron.”
“Baby, you know I’d never laugh at you. I love your stories. On my knee here, though. Looking for an answer.”
“I’m not talking about a hobby. I mean working as a writer. Working in movies. In Los Angeles.”
If Philip got the clue he was too involved in his mission to show any sign of it.
“You could practice medicine out there,” she said.
This got through. Philip closed the box.
“You could finish your residency in LA,” she said. “Maybe your father knows someone–”
“Kak? How much money have you made writing?”
“That’s not the point.”
“It’s totally the point. We’re making decisions together now. As a couple. And we have to make good ones. We can’t run out to California and chase a dream when we’re already established here in New York.”
“When you’re established here in New York. And what’s wrong with chasing a dream?”
“Nothing. Until you turn fourteen and realize the world is bricks and mortar and flesh and bone.”
This was the Philip she knew, the same Philip who read all 640 pages of Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy as an undergrad but had yet to open the leather bound edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Kak gave him the previous Christmas, his last in medical school. Every time she saw it untouched on the shelf she wanted to scream, It’s about a medical student, for godsake!
“And you want me to drop everything,” he said, “and start over in California so you can make up stories? Come on, Kak. What would you write about?”
It came to this. What would you write about. Not what will you write about. The clever tearing down disguised as reasonableness. And it worked. Philip simply verbalized the doubts that already haunted her. The ones that disabled her so often. The problem was, maybe he was right. What made her think it would happen because she lived in Los Angeles? What right did she have to think of herself as special? Seconds earlier she’d aspired to be Nora Ephron. She flushed with embarrassment.
Philip held the velvet box a few inches under his chin. Inside the box lay the answer to every question of security she could ever ask. She was supposed to want this. A handsome man who adored her. Money. Travel. Family. The envy of her friends. And you could write from anyplace. From a secure life. So why did it feel like death? Why did it feel like ‘yes’ would put her inside the velvet box and bury her? Why did acceptance feel like the end of the world?
Say it. Tell him how it is in your head. Say no.
She took a breath.
“Marry me, Kak. I swear to God I’ll spend the rest of my life making you happy. We’ll have breakfast in Paris and dinner in Tahiti.”
“What about lunch?”
“We may have to eat that on the plane.”
She laughed. Philip was seldom funny.
“Plus,” he said, “We’ll turn a bedroom into your studio and you can write your great American novel or your movie or whatever right here. I thought you told me Ephron was born here, grew up in Hollywood and came back to New York to work.”
“I did tell you that. I’m surprised you remember.”
“So? You’re already here.”
Philip moved the perfect Tiffany box an inch toward her. Kak had still avoided looking directly at it. She told herself to think of something else, to focus beyond Philip, on the only truly useful object in the room. The crash cart. It was like a medical-grade version of the rolling tool cabinet from her father’s shop. Instead of his wrenches, the drawers on these cabinets contained the tools of life support. Epinephrine, atropine, lidocaine, dopamine. Philip showed her every feature the first time they met here.
Atop the cart, presiding over it all? The defibrillator. It could provide a shock to the heart to stop and reset it when the muscle threatened to become so confused and erratic it couldn’t generate a clear beat. Philip had explained it in detail. When the heart couldn’t generate a clear beat it threatened to kill its host. He’d smirked over the television dramas of physicians holding up the paddles and yelling ‘Clear!’ before zapping the afflicted person. No one yelled it, Philip told her. It was a procedure that required calm, precise action. You announced it and made certain no member of the team had contact with the patient.
Philip took her hand. It pulled her out of her thoughts. Maybe he was right. Maybe there was no reason to say no. Maybe her obsession with denial was just the same immature and self-inflicted sabotage she’d always used to penalize herself. And here she was doing it again.
He loved her. Needed her. Once in a while he listened to her. Why was she being so foolish? Was she afraid a comfortable life with Philip would dull her ambition? That she’d be swept into the timelines and priorities of the Temple family and lose her way? That a baby would come and any personal hopes would be sacrificed for someone who needed her more than she needed herself?
“Kak,” Philip said, “I fell in love with you. Not with someone I want you to be.”
Was he reading her mind?
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Am I sure? I don’t know what to do without you in my life. And I would never minimize your natural Kaknacity.”
This was the best version of Philip.
“That isn’t a word,” she said.
“I know. There aren’t any to describe you so I have to make up my own.”
“I need you,” he said. “In my life.”
She slipped off the examining table onto the cold floor and took the box out of Philip’s hand. What if the new life on the other side of the velvet lid could safely hold her old life and aspirations inside it? Was it possible to cheat the fates and keep the best of both worlds? If Philip felt that way then maybe saying yes to this wasn’t really saying no to herself after all.
She took the box from his hand and opened it. A yellow diamond in an oval cut. Three karats with fifty tiny white diamonds in the setting and band. The symbol of Philip’s love and a lifetime of happiness where she ate her cake and still had it on her plate. Or the price the Temples were willing to pay for her soul. Which was it? Was the adventure of finding out worth the danger?
“Kak?” Philip said. He’d cradled her hands in his. In the cool room the warmth of his skin on hers melted the danger. “Are you saying yes?”
Her mind, her body, and her soul. She heard herself say it.
And that was it. Philip asked her to give up her life for him. She said yes. With one word she catapulted herself past the first four stages of grief to where she knew she must eventually end up.
The fifth stage. Acceptance.