The man of my dreams said he wanted me. So why did I send him to be with someone else?

Masks and gloves make me anxious, but not for the reasons you would think.

They arouse lust for the man I could not get.

Rupesh grabbed his wallet and hurried out into the rain as if he was rushing to Target instead of another woman’s arms on Valentine’s Day. He had just admitted that he could no longer suppress his feelings for me, despite having tried for several months. I said I appreciated his honesty, but he had to sort things out with his longtime boyfriend.

I did not tell him that I felt the same way, only twice as strong. I did not say that I had looked at cheap tickets to Greece at Orbitz, and imagined that we were diving on rocks in Santorini and sipping ouzo on the beach. Of course, that was impossible – at first I only had $ 7 in savings – but my daydreams defied reality and seemingly basic math.

I was a 22-year-old daughter of immigrants in my first year of medical school, full of doubt but brought up not to show it. Rupesh was my anatomy lab partner. As he smiled, his forehead waved gently, like the river I fantasized we would live by when we retired.

But I had learned my lesson from complicated relationships: Strength and vulnerability do not intersect. When Rups admitted how he felt about me, I told him not to throw his four-year relationship away over a lab partner with smudged glasses. I did not fight an ounce for him – for us.

“Go to her,” I said, straightening my back and reminding myself that I was a strong woman who made brilliant decisions.

He hesitated and then hurried through the rain to his rusty Toyota Camry. The engine stopped. Fate intervened, I hoped. He looked at me in his rearview mirror. We were too far apart for our eyes to lock. The engine eventually sputtered. His taillights slowly disappeared into the thunderstorm and then disappeared in a flash.

“Blood cells bring oxygen to build new tissue,” a professor had said that morning. “Wounds heal as they heal.”

My heart still had old cracks that had not been completely repaired. I did not want another wound to make me stronger. I could not cope with the thought of having to rebuild my tissues again. But running away was the only person who had ever made me feel stronger without my armor. I was suddenly terrified.

I would chase him down through the dirty sludge. The $ 120 Timberland boots I had just worn were sitting in the corner. At that price, they can fly. But I did not move. The vulnerability of love had burned me before. I would not make the same mistake twice. He had to figure out his own conflicting feelings.

But still … what had I just sacrificed?

Five months before the storm carried him away, we hovered over the generously donated body of an elderly woman in the laboratory. “Here’s the appendix,” he pointed, as his gloved finger accidentally brushed mine. “Here’s the pancreas,” I pointed back, flushing at my stomach flutter.

His rich brown eyes looked over his mask.

“Do you want to have a beer later?” he asked.

I bowed my head as if considering all my invitations. He waited while I pretended to think. “Yes, it should work.”

“After a few months, I could not control the dopamine that flooded my synapses every time he gave me a scalpel. I forced myself to make eye contact at the appropriate length – I was worried that too short would reveal nervousness, and for long would reveal desire.

Murphy’s, the campus pub on Green Street, was our place. Every Thursday, our group of medical students packed into a booth and were happily buzzed on pints by Bud Light. We teased one of our classmates about flexing his biceps, which he wrote on the board earlier in the day. He responded by toughening his beer to demonstrate good esophageal motility.

Rups shone in those moments. His humor shifted smoothly from high-brow to slapstick. I could skip countless workouts because my abdominal muscles were so sore from laughing. His intelligence was the biggest turn-on. And man, he was handsome. A few beers in, he told us that his mother covered his nose with his sari when he was born, afraid that the villagers of their small Indian town would curse its elegance with the evil eye.

But he did not know how to drive a stick. He did not like tennis. He had not read Salman Rushdie or any literature. As ever. Proof, I reasoned, that he was far from perfect.

In addition, he was in a long-term long-distance relationship. He disappeared from campus Friday afternoon to spend the weekend with his girlfriend and then reappeared Sunday night. Our group never met her; we did not even know her name. Rumor has it that they had been having problems for a while, but he never made it to our business.

I did not ask. I was not about to invite another complication into my life. We studied and partyed in droves. When the packages atrophied at the end of our hang-outs, the two of us were left. After a few months, I could not control the dopamine that flooded my synapses every time he gave me a scalpel. I forced myself to make eye contact at the appropriate length – I was worried that too short would reveal nervousness, and too long would reveal lust.

Sometimes I caught him looking at me and then turning his gaze back. Was it longing? Or was there a lump of a carcass belly fat on my cheek? In our situation, you never knew.

But I knew this guy was dangerous. He dragged me silently to the lab when I should have been at the library, a party, or sleeping. How many times could I trace the liver’s blood supply? I think we both knew our lab times were an excuse. We showered formaldehyde-preserved lungs with the attention we could not show each other.

As medical students, we had to be clinical. Essential. Almost myopia. We sought perfection, which we naturally knew was impossible, but we strived for it nonetheless. We learned from our mistakes. We had to. Mistakes are inevitable, but in medicine they are not always OK. If we did not learn the lesson the first time, the consequences would be severe.

I had been the girl staring at her phone. Who came up with excuses when the guy did not call. Ignored the thought of who he was with that night. My last break hit me, but I adapted eventually. Recalibrated. A line from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” became my mantra: “All I have ever learned of love is how to shoot someone who surpassed you.”

I had learned to splice harmful segments out of my genes and replace them with healthy tissue. Rupees were to be spliced.

The author and Rupesh on a graduation trip to a medical school in Hawaii in 2004.
The author and Rupesh on a graduation trip to a medical school in Hawaii in 2004.

Lent by Anita Vijayakumar

During the Christmas holidays, we returned to our childhood home. Thinking of him was torture. Stupidly enough, I had asked to see a picture of his girlfriend before we left. She looked like Katie Holmes from the “Dawson’s Creek” era: sweet on the way to beautiful. I looked down at my dirty scrubs and my cracked hands from hundreds of washes. I thought about my hair that smelled of Purell, no matter how much Pureology I used. Who am I fooling? But the way he looked at me …

It did not matter. I promised to find a new lab partner. Even better, go alone.

When we returned to campus, his smile imploded all my intentions. We started spending more time together under the guise of being friends. But the disguise became flimsy. It’s hard to pretend when the other person’s face accurately reflects your feelings. I kept pretending, but in mid-February he dropped it.

One day while we were hanging out, he looked me in the eyes, as if searching for his future. I did not look away. He said he had feelings for me and then moved in for a kiss. I turned away. I would not be that girl again.

“Go and fix your relationship,” I said. “You owe it to each other.”

He admitted I was right, and then he disappeared into the rain.

I did not know if I was strong or foolish. Probably both. I remembered the lesson I had already learned: Admitting my feelings was a risk. He had revealed his, but so what?

I had previously tried to mix strength with vulnerability. I had announced my dream of pursuing writing as a career, but as the eldest child of immigrants who sacrificed old worlds to find security in the new, it was not an option. I had told an earlier love how I felt. It was also shut down. Risks began to conform to vulnerability more than strength and then shifted completely. Maybe Rups would have been different. But making myself vulnerable to him deviated from the straight and narrow course I had chosen. That would have meant I had not learned from my mistakes.

Still, as he stood in the doorway as he drove away, raindrops fell around me like tears. At that moment, I was driving up the cornfield-filled stretch of I-57, the man I wanted facing me in the anatomy lab, across the booth at Murphy’s, and in my imagination across the pillow, when daylight opened my eyes.

I decided that I could not let the lessons I had already learned be the end of my learning. Some mistakes had to be repeated.

I called him. It went directly to voicemail.

“I have feelings for you too!” I yelled.

I made ten more calls and text messages over the next few hours, but I got no response. He made up with his girlfriend and revived their relationship over our bottle of ouzo. I was just a silly girl holding useless lessons in my hands. I had tried, but it was too late. It was over before it started.

That night when I was crying watching “Dawson’s Creek” rebroadcasts and picking up remnants of pad thai, I heard a knock on my door. There stood Rups: soaked, with a sixpack root beer in one hand, vanilla ice cream in the other. He smiled at my lost jaw. “I’ve heard that root beer float is your favorite.”

The author and her husband during the Pitti ceremony at their 2005 wedding.
The author and her husband during the Pitti ceremony at their 2005 wedding.

Lent by Anita Vijayakumar

He said the rain had turned to ice. The highway was a big risk. He called to tell her; they got into fights. He turned his car around.

“From now on,” he whispered, “my risks are for you.”

I still get shaken when I see Rupesh, now my husband, wearing a surgical mask. The white strings wound behind his ears, the blue fabric pulsating as he speaks.

Sometimes, when our fingers – now unloved – accidentally brush, I am reminded of the medical student who doubted that strength and vulnerability could cross each other. I’m breathing. That was never true. The two feed each other – need each other. My anxiety is now just excitement. My mantra has changed.

Sometimes we have to make the second mistake.

Anita Vijayakumar is a Chicago-based author and psychiatrist. She writes about race, mental health and belonging. Most recently, she has completed a novel about two Indian orphans, their hidden past and their intertwined search for identity. You can find her on Twitter at @AnitaV_K.

The author and Rupesh on a pandemic bike ride in 2020.
The author and Rupesh on a pandemic bike ride in 2020.

Lent by Anita Vijayakumar

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