Authors: Vincent Lam
TO MY PARENTS, ANDREW AND ROSALIE, AND MY WIFE, MARGARITA, WHO MAKE EVERYTHING POSSIBLE.
“Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.”
SIR WILLIAM OSLER
renowned Canadian physician and educator
HOW TO GET INTO MEDICAL SCHOOL, PART I
DESPERATE STRAGGLERS ARRIVED LATE FOR THE
molecular biology final examination, their feet wet from tramping through snowbanks and their faces damp from running. Some still wore coats, and rummaged in the pockets for pens. Entering the exam hall, a borrowed gymnasium, from the whipping chaos of the snowstorm was to be faced with a void. Eyeglasses fogged, xenon lamps burned their blue-tinged light, and the air was calm with its perpetual fragrance of old paint. The lamps buzzed, and their constant static was
like a sheet pulled out from under the snowstorm, though low enough that the noise vanished quickly. Invigilators led latecomers to vacant seats among the hundreds of desks, each evenly spaced at the University of Ottawa's minimum requisite distance.
The invigilators allowed them to sit the exam but, toward the end of the allotted period, ignored their pleas for extra time on account of the storm. Ming, who had finished early, centred her closed exam booklet in front of her. Fitzgerald was still hunched over his paper. She didn't want to wait outside for him, preferring it to be very coincidental that she would leave the room at the same time he did. Hopefully he would suggest they go for lunch together. If he did not ask, she would be forced to, perhaps using a little joke. Ming tended to stumble over humour. She could ask what he planned to do this afternoonâwas that the kind of thing people said? On scrap paper, she wrote several possible ways to phrase the question, and in doing so almost failed to notice when Fitzgerald stood up, handed in his exam, and left the room. She expected to rush after him, but he stood outside the exam hall.
“Are you waiting for someone?” she asked.
Shortly after they arrived at the Thai-Laotian cafÃ© half a block from campus, Ming said deliberately, “Fitz, I simply wanted to wish you the best in your future endeavours. You are obviously intelligent, and I'm sure you will be a great success.”
The restaurant was overly warm, and Fitz struggled out of his coat, wrestled his sweater over his head, leaving his hair in a wild, electrified state. He ran his hands over his head, and instead of smoothing his hair this resulted in random clumps jutting straight up.
“Same to you,” he said, smiling at her almost excitedly.
She watched him scan the bar menu. When she asked for water, he followed suit. She liked that.
She said, “Also, thank you for explaining the Krebs cycle to me.”
“Any time,” said Fitz.
“I feel guilty that I haven't been completely open,” said Ming. She considered her prepared phrases and selected one, saying, “It didn't seem like the right time in the middle of exams.”
“Nothing in real life makes sense during exams,” said Fitzgerald. He tilted in the chair but kept a straight back. Ming reassured herself that he had also been anticipating “a talk,” and soâshe concluded with an administrative type of resolutionâit was appropriate that she had raised the topic of “them.”
She leaned forward and almost whispered, “This is awkward, but I have strong emotional suspicions. Such suspicions are not quite the same as emotions. I'm sure you can understand that distinction. I have this inkling that you have an
in me.” She didn't blurt it out, instead forced herself to pace these phrases. “The thing of it is that I can't have a romantic relationship with you. Not that I want to.” Now she was off the path of
her rehearsed lines. “Not that I wouldn't want to, because there's no specific reason that I wouldn't, but IâWell, what I'm trying to say is that even though I don't especially want to, if I did, then I couldn't.” The waiter brought shrimp chips and peanut sauce. “So that's that.”
“All right,” said Fitzgerald.
“I should have told you earlier, when I first got that feeling.”
“You've given the issue some thought.”
“Not much. I just wanted to clarify.”
Fitz picked up a shrimp chip by its edge, dipped it in the peanut sauce with red pepper flakes, and crunched. His face became sweaty and bloomed red as he chewed, then coughed. He grasped the water glass and took a quick gulp.
Ming said, “Are you upset?”
He coughed to his right side, and had difficulty stopping. He reminded himself to sit up straight while coughing, realized that he wasn't covering his mouth, covered his mouth, was embarrassed that his fair skin burned hot and red, wondered in a panicky blur if this redness would be seen to portray most keenly his injured emotional state, his physical vulnerability in choking, his Anglocentric intolerance to chili, his embarrassment at not initially covering his mouth, his obvious infatuation with Ming, orâworst of allâcould be interpreted as a feeble attempt to mask or distract from his discomfort at her pre-emptive romantic rejection.
Ming was grateful for this interlude, for she had now entirely forgotten her rehearsed stock of diplomatically distant but consoling though slightly superior phrases.
“Hot sauce. I'm fine,” he gasped, coughing.
There was a long restaurant pause, in which Ming was aware of the other diners talking, although she could not perceive what their conversations were about.
She said, “I've embarrassed us both.”
“I'm glad you mentioned it.”
interested,” she said. “Or you
interested until a moment ago. Is that why you're glad that I mentioned it?”
“It doesn't matter, does it? What you've just said has made it irrelevant. Or, it would be irrelevant if it were previously relevant, but I'm glad you brought up your feelings,” said Fitzgerald. He picked up the menu.
“Don't feel obliged to tell me whether I needed to say what I just said.”
“It was great to study together. You've got a great handle onâ¦on mitochondria.”
The waiter came. Ming felt unable to read the menu, and pointed at a lunch item in the middle of the page. She got up to use the bathroom, and wondered in the mirror why she had not worn lipstickânot taken a minute this morning to look good. Then, she reminded herself that she should have actually taken measures to appear unattractive. Nonetheless, Ming examined her purse for lipstick, finding only extra pens and a crumpled exam schedule. When she returned, they smiled
politely at each other for a little while. They ate, and the noodles fell persistently from Fitzgerald's chopsticks onto the plate, resisting consumption. Ming asked if he wanted a fork, and he refused. After a while, as Fitzgerald's pad thai continued to slither from his grasp, Ming caught the waiter's eye, who noticed Fitzgerald's barely eaten plate and brought a fork without Ming having to ask.
Fitzgerald ate with the fork, and craved a beer.
“We're great study partners,” said Ming, still holding her chopsticks. “I want to clarify that it's not because of you.” She
to get into medical school this year, and therefore couldn't allow distraction. Her family, she said, was modern in what they wanted for her education, and old-fashioned in what they imagined for her husband. They would disapprove of Fitzgerald, a non-Chinese. They would be upset with Ming, and she couldn't take these risks while she prepared to apply for medical school. The delicate nature of this goal, upon which one must be crucially focused, superseded everything else, Ming reminded Fitzgerald. He stopped eating while she talked. She looked down, stabbed her chopsticks into the noodles, and twisted them around.
He asked, “What about you?”
“What do you mean, me?” she said.
“Telling me this. Did you feelâ¦interested?”
“You might say that I've noticed you, but I accept the situation. Priorities.” The imperative of medical school
applications carried the unassailable weight of a religious edict.
“Very well,” she said, as if they had clarified a business arrangement.
The bill came. Fitzgerald tried to pay and Ming protested. He said that she could get the bill next time and she insisted that they should share.
She said, “See you in January,” and left. He had not even put his coat on, and afterwards she felt badly, decided she should have been calm and walked out into the street with him. Not just
She wanted to have done that, to have at least allowed herself to pretend, for the length of a city block, that there was something between them. Except that her cousins and family's friends were numerous on campus, and might notice her and Fitzgerald walking together without any academic justification for each other's company. Not that those of her own age would disapprove, and not that they would do anything less themselves. They would be enthusiastic about such gossip, and it was the talk that could be dangerous.
Fitz struggled into his sweater, took it off again, sat for a little while, and then ordered a pint. There came the relief and ease of the first drink. With this sense of mild well-being, and having abstained completely over the exam weeks, and with no more tests to write and Ming having fled, why not have another? So another beer, and with it the open hurt of feeling sorry for himself. This was the part he liked least, when he
wanted to cling to something. This feeling was a lingering shadow of what he had felt when his mother went away, and reminded Fitz of how his father had become cold except when morose in drink. This was the worst part of it, both familiar and unhappy. What was new to Fitz was that he felt a pain at not having Ming. The pain of rejection was a significant shade different from the longing of desire, he noted, although drawn from the same palette. This sombre phase could generally be gotten through with a few more, and therefore justified the third drink. A washroom break. With the third pint came the brink between anger and the careless release that could sometimes be achieved and was the goal of the drinking. Fitz tried to will himself into this easy release, to tip over the meniscus of anger that grew like water perched higher than the rim of a glass, but it didn't work today. It didn't spill over so that he could relax, and instead he grew angry at his mother for crashing her car, at the doctors for not saving her, at his father for being his father, at himself for drinking, at Ming for being scared. After a fourth pint, the waiter brought him the bill and Fitz paid it with no tip, angry at the waiter for presuming that it was time for the bill. He told himself not to think about Ming because the anger didn't help him deal with the hurt of rejection. He let himself out into the street where it was still snowing, that drifting quiet veil that sometimes persists after a storm.
During the previous month, Ming and Fitzgerald had studied at the same table in the library. For self-identified “med school keeners” (the label was inherently self-designated even for those who publicly denied it), study tables were the monks' cells of exam time. Adherents arrived early in the morning and sat silently except for whispered exchanges. There was a desperate devotion to the impending sacrament and judgment of the exam. The faithful departed late at night, and returned upon the library's opening. At first Ming and Fitzgerald sat at the same table coincidentally, but gradually the third table from the corner window became their table. One day they courteously acknowledged that they were studying for the same examinations, and then later that day murmured about phosphorylation reactions.