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Hanging up the phone a few minutes later, Tory thought about Jane’s comment. She loved her life, but it wasn’t entirely one she’d actively chosen. She’d settled in Bristol because she was happy and comfortable there; she’d traveled a bit because her parents had taken the family off on research trips, or because Jane or her college friends had invited her to accompany them; she loved her career but she wanted... something else. She stumped slowly up to bed, pondering her future. With her teeth clean, hair braided and face shining with drugstore lotion, she curled up in bed with Fiona on the quilt by her midsection, and drifted off to sleep contemplating the directions she might choose to take herself. In the haze of fatigue, her eyelids seemed to be running a slideshow of children’s faces, gardens, swings and pets and herself, smiling and content, with a blurry man in the background. Tall, broad, blond and blurry. That night, she dreamed she was dancing with Max, in a 1950s hospital ward lit with crystal chandeliers, her hair in pigtails and magical ski boots on her feet, with cruise ships sailing by on the Danube outside a never-ending row of Regency windows. She woke up confused and oddly happy.
At the office that day, Dr. Bachman informed her they’d both been invited to Hanover to hear Max van den Nie give a lecture regarding his research projects on the Thursday, two days later. “I spoke to him last night,” her boss reported. “Fascinating. An excellent man. He’s the sort that makes us proud to be physicians.” Tory wondered how long they’d been talking, then went to get Irina Skolnick, suffering acutely as only she could with the onset of what Tory bluntly – and silently – called ‘middle-aged digestion.’
Of course she needed to let the twins know that she’d be in their town in a couple of days. As she hadn’t mentioned Max to either of them since the day of the big snowstorm, they’d let the subject of her putative romance lapse, but she still approached the subject cautiously, and with Emma first. “I expect I’ll drive up with Dr. B,” she said. “So then I’ll need to head home with him, but we’ll probably at least get a sandwich somewhere, and he’d love to see you guys, too.”
“Who wouldn’t?” Emma asked, tongue in cheek. “And the lucky thing will get to, since we’ll both be at the lecture. My fame as the meanest physical therapist in northern New England has reached Dr. Browning, and she’s invited me to join her team for my final practical. If all goes well, I’ll sign on permanently when I finish my master’s. And since everyone in the world is panting for P.A.’s” – Emma used the shorthand for physician’s assistant, the degree Neil was pursuing – “even our useless brother is getting job offers. Wait ‘til they find out he wants weekends, morning and early afternoons off from October through April.”
“You guys totally rock,” Tory burst out. They weren’t usually effusive, but she couldn’t help complimenting Emma. “Jane and I were talking about juggling busy schedules the other day, but sticking with your training schedules and going after hardcore medical degrees is really impressive.”
“What, like we’d let little sister stay ahead of us for long in the academic stakes? C’mon – you know better. Seriously, though, it’s a lot easier when you love everything you’re doing. I couldn’t stick general medicine, but P.T. is really cool and fun and interesting to me. And my training is just pure joy, all the time. Do you want Neil for a minute so you can tell him how uber-awesome he is?”
“Yes!” Neil shouted into the phone a half-second later.
“Hey,” Tory responded easily. “I’m coming up day after tomorrow, to go to an ortho lecture with Dr. Bachman. I’m hoping we can get a sandwich after. Emma’s got the details. How are you?”
“Rumor is I’m uber-awesome,” he answered irrepressibly. “Hey, have you heard from the ‘rents? They’ll be back for Thanksgiving, right? I might bring a lovely young woman I haven’t met yet. Emma’s trying to set me up with some friend of hers, so I need to take pre-emptive action.” Tory could hear Emma shouting in the background, and demanded Neil repeat her muffled comments. “It’s a joke,” he insisted. “She’s pretending this alleged human, already struck by my blinding good looks and sensibly insisting on a meeting, will be less charmed by my dazzling personality. That Emma. Always the jokes.” A few more minutes of silliness, and they said their goodbyes. Tory was still chuckling as she sat down to supper.
Two days later, sitting next to Dr. Bachman as he drove west on Route 4, she felt ready to start giggling with nervousness. It had been a week and a half since she’d last seen Max, and she was unlikely even to speak with him at an event like this, but she felt keyed up nonetheless. What if he did see her in the audience? Obviously he’d know she was there with Dr. Bachman – or had her name not come up? Would he think she was stalking him? She shook her head, hard, to try to clear out the crazy.
“What’s the definition of stalking, do you know?” she asked her boss.
“It’s a legal definition, not a medical one. You should know that. What’s the matter, Tory? Is someone bothering you?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that!” she assured him. “Really, no stalkers anywhere that I know. I was letting my thoughts drift and one of them just came out of my mouth. It was probably because of some TV show.” Tory shook her head again, more gently, resolving to think before she spoke – ‘you know perfectly well that thinking about someone doesn’t constitute stalking’ – and not find herself making awkward, half-true conversation with innocent bystanders.
Dr. Bachman harumphed. “You don’t watch much TV,” he pointed out.
“Well, actually, I get a little binge-y sometimes. I’ve been reading Graham Greene and the going can get rough. After The End of the Affair, three reruns of ‘Law and Order: SVU’ can seem like a relaxing break.”
“I expect this project with van den Nie – what a mouthful – will take up some of your leisure time. Is that going to be okay?”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Tory assured him. “Emma and Neil may get involved, too, and we’ll get some family time. At the least, I’ll learn something I can use on the next one of them to need rehab.” They laughed comfortably together, both very familiar with the twins’ track records.
Thirty minutes later, she was greeting the twins in person in the medical school lobby. In keeping with their distinct personalities, Neil whooped when he saw his youngest sister, and swooped down on her for a bear hug that ended with Tory being swung off her feet and around in a circle. Emma offered a one-armed hug and a gentle buffet in the shoulder, after shaking hands with Dr. Bachman. Together, the four of them headed into a small auditorium that was filling nicely. They found seats together – Tory and Neil in one row, Emma and Dr. Bachman just behind them – and the twins began a whispered argument about the menu for the upcoming Thanksgiving feast. Brussels sprouts were always a point of contention.
Neil was recommending the sprouts be grated and Emma making gagging noises when a handful of dignitaries walked out onto the low stage. The now-full auditorium went quiet as the dean approached the lectern to introduce Max with fulsome praise for his distinguished career. “Does he think the guy’s going to endow a wing 3,000 miles from his home?” Neil muttered to Tory. “I mean, he can’t have been practicing for much more than ten years. I think Dean Vickers must have dredged up every paper he ever read, let alone wrote.”
Tory wasn’t paying much attention to her brother, however. After shaking hands with the dean, Dr. van den Nie – she couldn’t think of him as ‘Max’ after that introduction – stepped to the lectern.
He didn’t waste time with the cliché of an opening joke, but thanked the dean and audience simply and directly, and gave credit to half a dozen students, interns and residents who had assisted with the research. He then introduced the co-leaders of the project, his “valued colleagues, Dr. Caroline Frieder, who is here to answer your questions with me after these brief remarks, and Dr. Joshua Brown, who can’t be with us. He is... in orthopedic rehab.” Dr. van den Nie smiled in acknowledgement of the murmur of amusement, then launched into the project’s background. Tory flipped open her notebook and started to scribble.