Ram noticed 3 missed calls from the same number. It was his team leader, Dr Ikram, trying to cover for him before anyone that mattered started questioning his whereabouts.
‘Where are you, man?’ he jumped when Ram finally called back.
‘Sorry bro, I’ll tell you all about it but you gotta do something for me alright?’
‘What the hell?’
‘Look I promise, something came up. Just listen,’
‘I’ll stall for 20 mins most. If people start asking I’m gonna tell them you are MIA. That’s it, man,’
‘Yes, that’s it,’ and disconnected.
Ram pressed his feet on the pedals, steadily accelerating; speed limit or not, he didn’t care. He was going to reach Maran as soon as able. ‘Fuck! Why today? Shit!’ he cursed. He was already on thin ice, like a probation period, and it was already starting to crack.
Ram remembered the old days where his vices were smoking weed and DUIs at most.
He did well in school, kept off drugs, thugs and stayed off trouble. His parents made sure of that. He was fortunate to get a scholarship. He left for medical school and gave it his all, with utmost appreciation to every cent.
Ram was exemplary in college. He wanted to fully embrace his Slovakian experience. He was a phenomenal athlete, albeit for medical school standards. He was a ladies-man; a different girl each semester. He had casual relations with locals and foreigners alike, tried their strange cuisine, did a multitude of drugs, and became an amateur columnist for the college weekly. He spearheaded anti-violence protests after he and his friends got racially profiled and were beaten up on the street. By the end of 6 summers and 6 winters, he knew what a broken arm felt like as well as a broken heart.
His background of living in welfare housing only drove his passion. He understood hardship. To him, becoming a doctor wasn’t about driving nice cars or owning huge houses after all the lives you saved. It was to better his only known way of life, to get out that ‘shitty income bracket’ as he would call. His sister followed his footsteps and soon became a civil engineer in Hokkaido, making her own path in fulfilling her passions.
As soon as he graduated, he came home, having a lot to prove. So, when he finally got his job placement, he was at hell-bent on being his optimum. He understood quickly how corporate culture worked and so he blended in, kept his head low, did what the job required of him, left on time as per his shifts, and party in his off days. His younger days had shaped who he was. Now it was all, ‘Work hard, play harder!’
Then Sheila happened.
She drove him nuts. She wasn’t like the others he dated before. She was complex but transparent to read. She was loud and had many opinions but unlike him, she came from a lot more privilege. She and Ram used to text each other a lot. He helped her whenever he could, just to see her smile. They were developing a sweet co-dependence.
She was the first one he told when he was moving out, that it wasn’t Daniel, but more like he just needed the space. He could be honest with her, vulnerable and she would not see him as weak but rather support him nonetheless.
She would come by his house with a pack of six and would have one for his sake while spending the rest of the time nagging at him not to smoke.
As time passed and responsibilities piled on, they started to spend less time with each other. There were nights he would really miss her but at most, there would be unreciprocated texts.
‘Maybe she’s not interested,’ he told himself. ‘Is it because I’m poor? Maybe I have been too sensitive? She doesn’t want a girlfriend, she wants a man. Maybe I gotta work out?’ He would get lost in his mirror, high, usually after work.
But then one day, things just changed.
She came to work with short hair, even shorter skirt and a full-blown make-over, just bobbing her head to whatever played through her headphones. He noticed her from the balcony of the first floor overlooking the lobby of the hospital. It would catch anyone’s eye. It wasn’t a hot new pharmacist, dentist, nurse, nothing. It was his Sheila, but also not her.
‘Yo!’ he said in awe.
During this time, Ram was midway cuddling babies and wiping away toddler snot in Pediatrics, and Sheila was still trying to shake loose of Internal Medicine. Ram knew she had some problems, and she had crossed some dangerous folk, made an error and was going through a 3-month extension penalty. It was amazing to see how she was handling it like it didn’t bother her one bit.
He had a myriad of questions. They spoke many times after that, but he never found answers. Something had happened, he figured. He knew he would get it out of her eventually. ‘Hopefully, it’s not a new boyfriend,’ he reassured himself.
Ram always figured that had made specifically three errors in the Sheila conundrum. There were many mistakes probably in general but these three, he felt were ones that took his sleep. He couldn’t shake loose of the guilt and in the end, they took quite a serious toll on the relationship.
Here was Ram’s first.
They met once, in the same week of the new and improved ‘Sheila’, at the collection window of the pathology lab, anxiously waiting for culture results of two specific infection cases upstairs. None of the antibiotics worked and the patients and their parents were giving up. Cultures would give a slight clue, and hopefully, “Hope”.
‘Mine says MRSA,’ Ram sighed, ‘that needs vancomycin for sure, and that’s repeat drug levels, and a prolonged antibiotics course. This kid is never going home now.’
‘Shit!’ she replied. ‘Mine says, “insufficient sample”. Who the hell took her blood?’ Sheila furrowed her brows, irritated. ‘I got to get to the bottom of this.’
Ram chuckled. ‘Good luck on that.’ Before heading off, she grabbed his lab-coat, hesistant but clearly needing to say something to him.
‘Yeah?’ Ram was curious and she let loose, biting the side of her lip.
‘I got to ask you something,’
A small part inside the boy wanted her to ask a very specific question, or anything to the effect of, ‘you want to go out sometime?’ But that was not what she had in mind.
‘You smoke right?’
Ram never liked anywhere that question ever led to.
‘Can I have one?’
‘You can buy it from a store,’
‘No, I mean right NOW,’
‘In the hospital?’
Sheila rolled her eyes. ‘Come on, I know where you guys go for your little breaks.’
Ram felt uneasy. It was completely out of character for his friend to ask him of this but it meant getting closer to her. Perhaps it was curiosity, and you should never punish that.
Sheila looked genuinely happy and Ram allowed a smile to mask over his guilt creeping in his subconscious.
Months had passed and they would meet in passing and share a chat or two but nothing too serious. Ram and the rest of them had noticed that the smoking was getting habitual, but nobody dared ask her about it. Then, one fine day, events would lead into Ram’s second mistake.
The girls had come back from a trip to Langkawi. There was a lot of noise of post-holiday excitement their chat group, filled with photos and a lot of in-jokes, both willfully or otherwise annoying the others, green with envy.
Ram resisted the urge to prod.
‘Well, maybe I should just do it,’
‘Do what?’ said the tinder-match he was just in bed with. The whole thing left a bad taste in their mouths, not the dinner, not the talking and definitely not the sex. She figured she would score some free ganja from him. Ram obliged, his head the whole time obsessed with Sheila. What was it about this woman? What drew him to her so much?
Ram’s bloated ego came up with a plan with equal grandeur; a huge gesture akin to the romantic comedies of the 90s or just every Indian film ever. He thought of surprising her by asking her out, sharing a dance, telling a joke or two and seeing how it went. Or was a movie and drinks better? Or a walk on the beach? Or just a movie at home? Or the arcade? Do people still do arcades?’
Then it came to him. ‘What’s her favourite thing? Flowers! Right?’ He remembered the photo they all took as a group the first time they all hung out. It was the ‘Sakura’ flowers.
‘Perfect,’ he quickly opened his laptop and started his research.
‘My Grab is here,’ he realised the woman hadn’t left. ‘OK bye,’ Ram walked her out.
‘Talk to her, please. Just fucking tell her already and stop wasting people’s time,’ she scowled before her exit.
Ram was going to do exactly that. A little bit of research and he figured the best place to bring her would be an hour drive away down south to Melaka. They could have the beach, the drinks, and he could pop the question by the long road of where ‘Sakura’-esque flowers grew by the side of the road.
‘So how to get her to go there?’ He started researching a little more and then, ‘Medical symposium, Cardiology update,’ showed up.
Ram snapped his fingers thinking he had struck gold. He grabbed his phone excitedly to text Sheila the details. ‘You wanna go?’
A few seconds later, she replied. ‘Yeah! This sounds great. Let me see if I can get my boss to sign off on this.’
Ram anxiously waited, his eyes glued to the phone. ‘So?’
‘Ram, you do know it’s 1 am. I’ll bother him tomorrow,’
‘Of course,’ he stopped.
Butterflies in his stomach, a racing heartbeat, flustered, like he was a teenager again. ‘Alright, phase two; hotels and dinner reservations.’
Ram did not sleep that night.
A few weeks later, it was all finally happening according to plan. Sheila was equally pumped. They spoke during their smoke breaks about what to bring, where to go, what eateries to find, and where to party. It was accurate to assume that not much was spoken about the actual symposium.
Their phones were littered with ardent text messages to one another, just like the old days. They were having real conversations, not just sharing dull internet memes to prod one’s attention at a lonely hour. Then, something happened.
An accident. A dear friend was hit from the side of his car by a truck of all things. The texting stopped and everything since then was as Ram noted, ‘Tzen, Tzen and more Tzen.’
‘I don’t think I can make the symposium. We are heading to Sarawak to help Tzen out. You should come.’
Ram wasn’t feeling too good that she had made her choice. Upset, he shunned her away. ‘I might have to go. Paid for the accommodation.’
‘OK! You have a good time. Send pictures. Party up. I’ll be so jealous.’
Ram stared at that screen for a long time, with acidic bile burning through his chest. What was he thinking of, asking her out? They had known each other for a whole year and did nothing to express the way he felt. Why would he think she would want him now?
The whole trip he spent in isolation, attending the lectures, drinking in bars, and spending his nights alone in the hotel room. He silenced his phone actively being swarmed in with either work-related texts or selfies from Jenny and Sheila, enjoying their time in the marshes and beaches in the guise of supportive therapy.
Ram ran out of cigarettes. ‘Fuck it,’ he got up and decided to take the drive.
He marvelled at the quaint little charm of the town. There were vendors, hawker stalls, street merchants and lively folk everywhere. Then, he found what he was looking for.
A crowd gathered, where people from all walks of life strolled down the damp lanes, just kissed by the rain about an hour back, enjoying slow laughs and making memories. The flowers on trees, the pavement as well as falling mid air, beautifully graced the entire path; a true paradise envisioned. It was meant to look like the real thing. Ram parked by the side, got out and started a rather heavy stroll, filled with anxiety and a cluttered head. Then, as he was getting deeper and deeper into the trail and fog, the flowers and the gentle breezes, it felt as though he was submerged in, like there was a buoyancy to this place, like he was bathing in it, breathing it all in and out, accepted into its ecosystem; just truly other-worldly.
‘I get it,’ watching the petals twirl inches before his eyes, dancing with tiny raindrops in the soft lingering gusts of wind. Ram watched the leaves fall onto their destinies, pavements, puddles, grass, clothing, hair and headscarves as their partners dusted it off one another, sharing cute laughs and kisses, taking pictures under decorative street lamps for some lighting.
Ram wanted that for himself. He stopped at the perfect tree. He imagined their conversation as they would sit on a long garden bench right beneath, with petals scattered all over it. He would be in his best semi-casuals and it wouldn’t matter what she was in, because everything she had was beautiful.
He would dust her seat off a little for her. She would make fun of him.
They would talk for a bit about how lame all the couples were.
‘Hey Sheila, I…’
‘What?’ and she would draw closer, adjusting her fringe. She would laugh, smirk and tease him to speak despite knowing very well what he would say.
‘Spit it out, Ram,’
He would look into her glowing eyes, watch her pearly canines peek out from hiding, and open his soul to her.
‘You like me,’ she would ruin it. He would blush, and she would notice but would press further.
‘No, I mean…yes… but I don’t think I just like you. Sheila I can’t stop thinking about you. You occupy my thoughts all the time even if I don’t want you there. Every time I take out the phone I want to text you first, see how you are doing, get a word from you before continuing my day because it’s like I need that. You keep me running.’
‘No… not “wow”. I’m in Love, girl. I AM FUCKING IN LOVE. For a very long time, I have made you my whole world, and I’m lost in it, drowning, loving every second. Kill me now Sheila, and I’ll take it.’
‘That’s not a from a movie I know, but damn you are cheesy as hell,’ she would try laughing it off, but in tears.
‘You don’t have to give me answer yet, but I can’t hold this in anymore,’
‘How do you know I…,’ she would stammer but still reciprocate, ‘don’t also already feel the same.’
The would know it’s time to kiss. In that damp fog, there will a warmth eminating from them in their embrace, and even the flowers, above and below would glow bright, cheering for them. Their kiss would take forever, a destined kiss, longing to have happened and the universe finally gave it a chance, hungry.
A twig fell before him, dissolving the illusion. He sighed. ‘My bad I guess,’ he mumbled.
Then there would be the third one, irreversible, painful and only some weeks later.
Sheila was now well into her next department, ‘General Surgery!’ She had finally met the infamous Mr Jamal, a man whom she once only encountered in the hospital lobby while she was clocking out of work. She heard many stories from the nurses, the MAs and from her roommate, Jenny. There were just too many rumours to keep track of, and none nobody could validify. So, she just didn’t bother.
Ram hadn’t spoken to her in a quite a while. Ram was struggling to finish ‘Paediatrics’ and move into ‘General Surgery’ himself. It made his day when he finally did and got to see her again.
‘Hi guys, I’m Ram, fourth posting. I hope to learn a lot and work my best.’
He winked at her, while she smiled from the back in their conference room. She was happy to work with him again, no longer as scared first years, but more seasoned, experienced doctors.
‘Ram is it? Have you seen “Hey Ram?”’ Mr Jamal joked.
Some chuckled, more obligatory than by choice.
‘NO? What? You should man. It’s good,’ he continued. ‘Well, Ram you have a lot to prove. Like everyone else here,’ he boasted, followed by another forced chuckle barely fizzling out.
The meeting was over and there was finally a little for Sheila and Ram to talk.
‘Hey!’ he approached her with an awkward flirty swagger.
‘Yo bro,’ she hit him over the shoulder.
‘Bro?’ Ram had forgotten that most of what he imagined was in his head. He remembered the last time they spoke. He had told her to stop smoking and it left a sour note in their relationship. ‘Oh… erm… you still head up to the roof during lunch?’
‘Yep, I go to a store now. Like you suggested sometime back. “One a day” is just becoming too stupid a rule. If it’s all the same right? How come you don’t anymore? Don’t tell me you quit?’ she laughed.
‘Ha…ha,’ he responded awkward with his hands.
‘You OK?’ she noticed there was something a little off.
Ram spent most of his first few weeks buried in charts and books. He learned pretty quick how the culture shift was quite palpable here than most places. He could feel it within the attitude of all the staff, under the authority of the surgeons and the Head himself that this place was was toxically archaic, and every few weeks the rapid transfer rate of doctors and staff proved it. Nobody could stand it here.
Much to his surprise, he didn’t realize it had been a week since he saw Sheila at work. Maybe she was in the other wards, maybe the HDU/ICU, or maybe just retracting flaps in long protracted surgeries? Albeit his ignorance, the rumour mill never stops churning.
‘Bro,’ Dr Hakimi, team leader stopped him, and gently rested his elbows on his shoulder. ‘Do me a favour would you?’
‘Talk to Sheila. She hasn’t come to work for nearly 3 days. I’ve tried to cover for her, but I’ve been made. Upstairs is on my neck and I’m afraid if this reaches the “Jamal-man”, then we’re all screwed. We can’t get penalised for this, you get me? Do this alright?’
Sheila sat on top a cement ledge, like a junkie, frenetically chewing on what was left of her dying cigarette. Ram noticed two finished packs on the floor. He was the one who called her after what he had heard and she told him to meet her under the freeway of all places.
‘What you mean “what”?’ Ram was getting impatient. ‘What’s with you?’
She started smiling. ‘Shit,’ she felt her empty pockets and gestured at him for a stick.
‘I didn’t bring any,’
‘Come on, you always have one hidden somewhere,’
He saw her come toward him, her hands shaking like an addict. She was really approximate, her denim over her pelvis rubbing against his, her hands going through his pockets. He smelled the ash in her hair pulling at him while he pushed her hands away, suppressing his urges. All the hot-boxing in the car didn’t really help with things either.
‘Come on, Ram’ she kept insisting.
He kissed her, lip to lip.
Time stopped exactly how he dreamt it, for a mere micro-second, then it all went sideways.
She slapped him, hard, bruising his jaw.
‘The fuck was that?’ she retracted her body far away, her eyes and mouth widened, perspiring in shock.
‘No!’ she stayed defensive.
Regretfully, with his palms in the air, he apologized, feeling even worse watching her cry.
‘No, no Sheila, please don’t…Look, people know you’re not at work. I came here to ask you why… That’s it…I just want to know if you’re ok… OK?… You OK?’
She stood quiet, arms crossed, standing like a gazelle ready to bolt away from the crosshair.
‘Sheila, I said I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I misread the signals alright. Talk to me,’
She took a minute to breathe and then spoke, ‘Do you LIKE me, Ram?’
‘Of course, I, … LIKE you,’ He replied. It was harder than he thought.
‘What does that supposed to mean?’
‘I noticed you’re always there when it’s stuff like this.’
‘Like what? What exactly are you talking about?’
‘Problems, Ram. You’re always there when there are problems,’
‘You mean I help you with your problems? Right? That’s what you mean?’
‘Sure,’ she smirked. Ram was beginning to get ticked off.
‘SURE? OH WOW, Sheila, you don’t think I would go to hell and back for you?’
‘Yes, so what? So you get to sleep with me? You think all this was like what? Like I owe you something? Like a transaction? Because you weren’t like this before,’
‘Well, you weren’t like this before? Just tell me, what’s this new you? The smoking? The rogue behaviour. What the hell happened?’
‘So, now suddenly there’s a new Sheila before you, and you want a piece don’t’ you?’
Ram was devastated. ‘What are you even…’ he couldn’t bring himself to finish.
‘You people are all the same. I see the Medical Officers bring you to the side, ask you about your Tinder profile. You rank girls, nurses, patients and even us. Come on, don’t lie.’
‘I don’t. THEY DO. I don’t,’
‘But you laugh along,’
‘I’m trying to fucking survive girl. Why aren’t you?’
‘I DID SURVIVE!’ her hand twitched erratically, bringing her back to the night on that roof where she clung to the edge of her life, trusting her entire weight on an a random inanimate metal bar, whom for that one night was her closest friend.
‘And I am still here. I’m out of Internal Medicine, aren’t I. Julie didn’t win. She tried to kick me out, get me transferred but she couldn’t. I have people on my side too. People who willing to stand up for what’s right. You? You run, smoke and drink and fuck and God knows how many of those girls willingly consented without chemical influence,’
‘That’s enough Sheila.’ Ram moved back a little. ‘Just stop. You’re out of smokes. I know how people get.’
Sheila repeatedly bobbed her head as though she had figured something out.
‘Why are you even here, Ram?’
‘To hopefully get you to come back to work. And maybe even become friends again,’
‘No. I mean… why YOU? Why not anyone else? You ever thought of that?’
‘Coz we are friends. People know that,’
‘Uh-hum, and anything else we have in common there, buddy?’
Ram knew exactly what she was referring to.
‘People don’t like to say the word, because it’s dirty. Almost like ‘sex’ or ‘masturbation’. Say it, Ram,’
‘Race?’ he mumbled under his nose.
‘DING! DING! DING!’ she clapped her hands, pedantic.
‘So, you think you’re being targeted because of race,’
‘We had this conversation once before, you remember?’
How could he forget the time they first shared their first slice of vulnerability with each other by the stairs. It felt like a long time ago when they were still younger, inexperienced, homesick and dreading every day of life.
‘None of us would like to believe it but it’s right there, staring at you. A little black smut in an otherwise pure and white society. They would rather not even have us here. Forefathers fucking fought for independence and here we are, in the streets, begging, stealing, robbing, raping. When was the last time you saw one of us on the billboards or television ads? We only get called on to “represent” if someone is fishing for votes. Even if we do, the lighter skin among us get there first, and that too as an afterthought. Who am I kidding? You’re the same as well,’
‘Tell me, Ram. I have seen photos of all your ex-girlfriends. Not one of them is darker than you. Not one.’
‘Sheila. That’s just…’
‘Preference?’ She chuckled while dramatically clapping.
‘So, it’s ok to have sex with a bunch of different women, but it when it’s time to show her to your mother, you think twice.
‘Sheila, you couldn’t be further from the truth,’ Ram cried.
‘I was right. You were just trying to sleep with me,’
‘No, Sheila. You got it all wrong,’
‘No Ram, I am done. Like… with the whole lot of you. I know…,’
‘What do you know?’
She was finding it difficult, trying to spit out what seemed to be the crux of her argument, her throat steadily closing in on her. A burst of waterworks first escaped, but she braved herself to just let her walls down.
‘I am at the bottom of that list. Worst in the rank,’ she wept.
‘You’re gorgeous Sheila, you have no idea,’
‘Stop patronizing me for once, please.’
Ram allowed the tension to dissipate for a second. He never saw it before but what if she did have a point? Had ‘race’ something to do with it?
‘You come back Sheila, and finish this. Get your full medical licence and leave this place. Go somewhere and find work where you will feel appreciated. I know I will,’
‘That’s what you don’t understand, Ram,’ she was calm and resolute while she said this. ‘THEY really don’t want people like US here. You put on the whitest lab-coat, but your still smut underneath it.’
‘You think I don’t get “race”? Do you think I don’t get shamed for stupid reasons? You don’t think kids used to joke that any of the guys who tarred the roads in the front of our apartment could have been my father cause it’s SOOOOO HARD TO TELL…?’
‘No, I just think you forgot how that felt like.’
‘Some of us actually make it through. Sometimes its “race” but many times it may not be. You know? This is not about YOU vs ME, Sheila, it’s about US vs THEM. And we must do it together,’ he stretched his arm out. Sheila peered at his palms wide open.
‘You just contradicted yourself, Ram. You know that right? Have you ever been sure about anything in your life? Even that surprise you launched at me earlier? It’s going to be hard for me to trust you for a bit. I hope you get that.’
Ram was defeated and a long uncomfortable silence took over. ‘OK then’ his voice crackled. He took one last look at her face, still so beautiful in all that angry red, and turned to his car, his heart ripping to shreds in each stride away from her.
He sat in the car for a moment, just staring at the wheel and the woman in the distance. He noticed a few bikers arrive at the scene, unsavoury looking, some dark-skinned themselves. Sheila too was getting uncomfortable and hurriedly left the scene toward her car. He waited for her to start the engines and left soon after she was well ahead of him on the small road connecting into the freeway.
Ram had arrived three hours later than promised, long past his shift. Ikram didn’t bother calling again. He had much to explain tomorrow but for now, he sat in his bed alone, staring back at his phone, swiping for another match to get him through the night.