It's eleven o'clock in the morning and you are already buzzed. But it's okay, because you're just one more nurse at a medical conference and you can disappear into the crowd. Nobody is going to know that this is how you usually are at this time of day. Nobody is going to lecture you on how you're throwing your life away, or tell you that what you're doing is dangerous. Nobody will try to pretend that they understand what you're going through, what you've been through, all the while giving you that slightly superior look that says that they would never fall into such a state. No, here you can just be one more conference attendee who's had a little too much to drink with lunch. Nobody needs to know that for you this is a steady state.
You walk to your room, down the long hallway of the once luxurious hotel and speculate on how good a deal someone on the organizing committee must have gotten from the owners and how they couldn't possibly have checked the place out before they signed on the dotted line. The carpet smells and it's torn and pulling up in places, and the wallpaper's peeling. You think maybe you need another drink so that you won't notice things like that. There's plenty to drink in your room.
A door opens and a face that you don't want to see pops out. "Margaret, sweetheart. I thought I'd eat lunch in. Why don't you join me?"
Doctor Callaway is shit-faced again. Every time he gets drunk--usually at the Christmas party and on one of these junkets--he hits on you. And every time you make a scornfully amused sound and keep on walking. You may be a lush, but you have your standards.
"Hey, baby, come on. I just want to get to know you better. I'm a really nice guy. Give me a chance."
You don't even dignify that with an answer, just keep walking. Your room is at the end of the hall, where all the cigarette and pipe smoke congregates. At night, when people are having parties in their rooms, the smell makes you gag. You never go to the parties, even though you are invited. You'd rather drink alone. You know that's not a good sign, but it's better than going home with someone new every night, which you used to do when you still thought you shouldn't drink by yourself.
There's a note stuck under your door and you pull it out. You can predict what it says. "I noticed you in the radiology lecture. Join us in room 211 at 6 pm for a party." Or at least that's what the last note you found said. Funny thing though. You didn't attend the radiology lecture--it was just the latest in a long line of come-ons. And not a very clever one. You wadded it up and threw it away. You know this note won't be any different. You don't even unfold it, just set it on the table and reach for the bottle of vodka.
Vodka is good, doesn't leave a smell on your breath, or so you like to pretend. But you know all alcohol smells. Reeks, in fact. Reeks like Korea did. The scotch in the officers' club, the gin from Hawkeye's still, the cognac Charles used to break into when he couldn't stand it anymore. Booze...booze was the smell of Korea. The good smell, or at least the less bad one. It beat the smell of blood and guts in the O.R. Was a hell of a lot more pleasant than the smell of urine and shit from the latrine when the wind was blowing the wrong way. Or of rotting garbage from the dump when the wind blew the other wrong way. Sometimes they burned the garbage. That was worse. The smell got in your head, lingering for days after they stopped burning.
Your phone rings bringing you back to a present that doesn't include burning garbage and latrines. You ignore the ringing. No one you want to talk to here, no one that matters. You left anyone that mattered back in Korea. Not that you knew it at the time. You were looking forward to getting home, even excited about your next posting. And stupidly happy to get away from the people you'd just spent the worst years of your life with. You thought you wanted normal. You thought you wanted mundane. And for a while normal was wonderful, mundane was beautifully dull. But it was a few weeks after you got home that the flashbacks started. In the O.R. at the worst possible times. You'd be handing a doctor a scalpel and you'd get a flash of memory. Pierce or McIntyre asking you to "Hurry it up, sweetheart." Or Colonel Potter or B.J asking in a far more gentle way that you hand them this or that instrument. Sometimes it was Charles or Frank you saw. You'd look up to hand Doctor Brody or Doctor Sinclair an instrument and they'd be gone and you'd be back in Korea and it would all come rushing over you. You thought you were covering it up, after all, you could do your job in your sleep. You thought nobody was noticing that sometimes you were very far away, even if only for a second. But then one day Henry Blake stood in front of you and you started crying.
You blamed your behavior that time on a family crisis and your supervisor seemed to accept that. She was an understanding woman, was sympathetic to how difficult it was to be away from home. Of course she'd never served, didn't understand just how far from home you'd actually been. Korea was something that had happened to other people. She had no idea what it was like, neither did the other doctors. Not one of them had been to Korea so they couldn't possibly understand what you saw the next time you flashed back, when you looked down at the routine appendectomy that you were assisting with and saw a belly full of shrapnel. That was when you started dropping instruments.
They transferred you out of the O.R. soon after that, put you into internal medicine where you took temperatures and blood pressures and asked the patients things that the doctor would just ask them again. They made you see the staff psychiatrist too. You're pretty sure that he didn't believe the stories you told him about Korea because the more you talked the more he looked down at the pad he was writing on and the less he looked at you. You realized that he thought you were exaggerating. That the gore and the blood and the other horrible things you talked about couldn't possibly be real.
But they were real. You lived them. You can still taste the way the air in the O.R. deposited tiny particles of dust and blood and body parts on your tongue when you weren't masked. How you had to learn not to gag at the smell of guts, literal guts--the psychiatrist had nearly rolled his eyes when you tried to explain what that meant. Intestines, livers, stomachs, a virtual anatomy lesson on the floor, on your operating gown, on your skin, even in your hair. You wished, not for the first time, that you could share those memories, let him and all the others that thought you were just a little bit "off" get a taste of Korea. Get a whiff of the smell of day-old gangrene. Or see a man holding his insides together with his own belt. Or listen to a soldier scream because of the pain in his leg--a leg you'd watched the surgeons cut off hours earlier.
But you can't share the memories. The people that you could share them with are all gone, scattered around the country the way you'd always known they would be. Klinger tried to pull the group together for a reunion. You meant to go, but at the last minute chickened out. What if they didn't understand you either? What if they were all okay and you really were "off"? You just couldn't take that chance. The idea that you were normal, if only within that small special group, was what kept you going, what kept you sane.
Or as sane as you could be, under the circumstances.
You reach for more vodka and your hand brushes the note. You give up trying to ignore it, unfold it. It doesn't say what you expect. It says, "I'm here. I need to see you. - Hawkeye, room 410." You nearly drop your glass; you do spill most of the vodka out of it. You put it down before the rest is lost too. The note says the same thing no matter how many times you read it. He's here. He needs to see you. It's from Hawkeye. He's in room 410.
You're up and grabbing your key and you've made it to the door before you have time to think about it. But as your hand touches the doorknob, your brain kicks in. You can't do this. It's not smart.
It may not be smart, but you don't care. You walk back to the table, grab the bottle of vodka. He can provide the glasses. You hurry down the hall, ignoring the looks from some of the other doctors as you wait for the elevator. They're going up too, and they eye the bottle in your hand, check you out in a way that in the past might have pleased you but now just irritates you. You decide not to say something sharp, something cutting. You keep your eyes on the floor markers and the elevator hits four and you get out and walk down a hall that also smells like smoke and has wallpaper that peels.
When you get to his door, it suddenly strikes you that he might not be in there, or he might not be alone. Maybe he meant for you to call him? You try to stop your hand as it falls to the door but it's too late, it lands with a dull thud. Not quite a knock, but more than silence. You consider running away, going down the hall and round the corner to the stairwell that will take you safely back to the second floor where you can drink your vodka in peace.
The door is swinging away from you before you realize that he has opened it. He doesn't say anything, just stands staring at you. You hold up the vodka, "I come bearing gifts." It is a stupid thing to say but he doesn't seem to notice. He stares at you and you stare at him and you realize that his eyes are darker than you recalled and his hair is streaked with gray but his smile as it slowly spreads across his face is the same as you remember. It's mischievous, unrepentant, and boyish. But as you start to smile back, you realize that you can also see a trace of something else, something that haunts him. You wonder if it is the same thing that is haunting you.
"I saw your note," you say, wondering why the only things that are coming out of your mouth are stupid.
"And yet here you are." He is teasing you and you realize no one has done that for a long time. He reaches for the vodka, "And you brought a friend. How thoughtful. She can talk to my pals." He gestures to the table where you see several bottles waiting. "Can I offer you a martini?"
You know better than to mix, but a martini sounds good, so you nod. Hawkeye could probably offer you hemlock at this point and you'd take it. Somehow, since you left the 4077th, he has become synonymous with salvation, and you know this is a both a silly and dangerous notion. To invest one person with that much responsibility isn't fair to him or to you, but that doesn't stop you from doing it.
He hands you the drink and you take too big a sip and almost choke.
"Go easy, Margaret. This isn't the good stuff like we had in the Swamp." He grins and now you can see even more things that aren't happy in his eyes, in the strained lines at the corners of his mouth.
"Are you all right?" you ask and he nods quickly. You recognize the gesture. It's a deflection, a refusal to answer the question any more than is necessary. "Pierce, you're not all right."
He takes a sip of his drink, does it much more successfully than you did. When he finally looks up he says, "Why do you say that?" and it is as if he is asking you why you think it will snow in August. He is far better than you at covering up. Always has been. You imagine that talent comes from playing the clown, much harder for people to see through the jokes. Unless they know you.
And you know him. Better than maybe even he believes. "Maybe because I'm not all right either. I recognize the look." It isn't what you meant to say. You meant to say something witty and clever but instead you tell him the truth and it shakes you that he has broken through so quickly without even trying. You don't know if he even wants to hear this. But you think about the note. "And you said you needed to talk."
He gets a glint in his eye, the old "I gotcha" look that is so familiar. "I said I needed to see you."
"There's a difference?"
He laughs, the sound is brittle. "Seeing you doesn't imply talking."
You take a long drink; his words hurt and you suddenly wonder if he just wants what all the other doctors seem to. "My mistake," you mutter.
There is silence then, and you fill it by finishing your glass and getting up. You wonder whether it is bad manners to take the vodka back with you and suddenly don't care. You reach for it but he grabs you, pulling you off balance, down into his lap. He is holding you close with one hand, the other is running down your hair and you realize it has been a long time since anyone touched you. You hear someone moan, and it takes you a minute to recognize your own voice. You try to push away; you're angrier than you've been in a long time but his mouth is already too close to you and you raise your head and press your lips against his. This time when you hear someone moan, it isn't you.