Book: Open Heart (Choices)
Pairing: Dr. Ethan Ramsey x MC (Dr. Zyra Lewis)
Summary: When Ethan is faced with the issue of Gwenyth Monroe, he has to come to terms with his rule of conditions. This rule has him further contemplate his feelings for Zyra and how he responds to her return to Boston. His response will affect the direction their relationship will head.
Rating: Teen+ (language, adult content)
Author’s Note: There are some story elements from Book 2 that are incorporated in this chapter.
Previous Chapters: Open Heart Fic Archive (see Series)
Word Count: 8019
I hold up my hand with my palm facing forward, blocking the lens of a camera.
“I’d advise you to get that camera out of my face,” I order with a threatening glare at the cameraman.
The man’s face is shocked. His glance flicks towards the young, blonde woman in the hospital bed. He then turns his intrusive device in the direction of Hirata and Mirani, who appear to be a bit more inviting, or, in regards to Mirani, more conflict-averse.
Gwenyth Monroe, her file reads. Every time I have read that name, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of anger so hot, that I literally feel it spreading through my body like a wildfire. If I were more inclined to think nonsensically, I might believe I could literally set the papers I’m holding in my hand on fire just with my touch alone.
But one question lingers: How could she do this to me?
“We’ll find another way,” I had told my resident. But I should have known that would not have ended her crusade due to her unwillingness to let things go. There are more ethical solutions that wouldn’t have compromised our principles and the very principles of this team. I’m certain we would have been able to find an alternate solution. But now she’s not here to even take responsibility for this mess she has created. I can’t put blame on her for her current absence, but I can put blame on her for the current predicament.
She not only deliberately went behind my back, but she put me in a situation where I felt humiliated in front of Naveen.
Naveen had approached me this morning with this new intake, assuming I had known about it. I had to mask my shock when the realization of the situation hit me once I saw the name of the patient. I also had to omit my lack of knowledge of this woman being recruited by my team, in this case, by a resident whom I thought I could trust.
I am trapped between the anger towards her betrayal and the shame of not being able to manage my team.
What would Naveen think if he knew I had members of the team going rogue? It would be further proof of my incapability of leading the team that he single-handedly created for the very opposite purpose. Our focus is on helping those who have difficulty paying through insurance, income, or both. Not catering to the rich. I’ll be compromising his vision… again.
Naveen had already chewed me out about the contract with Panacea Labs, putting one additional hurdle in the way of looking into making the team publicly funded, so that those who do have the financial challenges for their health care will not have to pay. Even though he understood I made the choice to enter the contract to try to save his life, I still feel there is some lingering tension remaining between us. I don’t know if he has yet to fully forgive me. It’s a conversation I have avoided.
I also never told Zyra the full truth about going to the Amazon. Zyra believes it was because of her. And it is true. I never lied to her about that. But I also never mentioned that the other reason was due to my fears of failing Naveen. I failed him when I couldn’t diagnose him. It shook my confidence in my abilities to the point that I had temporarily quit. But now, those insecurities have lingered and I don’t have the full confidence in myself. It is why fleeing to assist the W.H.O. in the Amazon became a time of reassessment for a fresh start with both Zyra and Naveen.
But now with this decision taken from me and putting myself and the team in this complicated situation, I’m left with my fears coming true. I’m not good enough to run this team, which Naveen shouldn’t have entrusted to me. I am leading it to its doom afterall. And there’s also the fears I had in regards to my feelings for Zyra.
I observe Ms. Monroe as she speaks into the camera, fawning sympathy from her millions of followers. This woman is not the profile of a patient meant for the diagnostics team. I feel the papers crinkle in my hand.
Now I’m left with questioning my trust for my resident.
Everything has conditions. Everything. Even with her.
It takes a while for my muscles to relax. They have been tight all day, and I can already feel a usual ache in my shoulders and neck. The couch in my office isn’t a place I would describe as relaxing. I purposefully ordered one with firm cushions, as I don’t want to become too comfortable at work. Becoming comfortable leads to becoming too lax. My patients don’t have time for that.
My laptop is sitting on my thighs. I have yet to open it as my fingers drum against the lid, my thoughts weighing heavily on Zyra. I can’t sit here. I get up and move to one of the chairs at the conference table. I finally get settled, but all I’m doing now is staring at the homepage of Pictogram. To diagnose Ms. Monroe, I’ve decided to go through all of the products she sampled for her followers and make a list of chemicals she had come in contact with. But I’ve come to find out that I can’t access her account without creating one of my own.
My phone, which is laying next to my laptop, rings. I look down and see it’s Dad. I frown regrettably, even guilt lurks beneath, as I do what I have been doing all week: Ignoring his calls. I turn my phone over with the screen facing downward.
I then hear the door open and I look up, seeing Harper.
“Glad to have caught you,” she says as she stops and places her hands on the back of one of the chairs opposite me. “About Mr. Rodriguez and the CSF leak, I’m going to hand him off to Dr. Shadid. I have a full load this week, so I won’t be able to do the surgery. She’s one of my best neurosurgeons, and I trust her with it.”
“I trust you to make the best call for the patient, Harper,” I reply matter-of-factly and then turn back to my screen.
Mr. Rodriguez came to us right before Zyra left. Apparently, the conservative treatments, such as bedrest, weren’t effective and Harper recommended surgery, to which Mr. Rodriguez agreed.
But of course this case makes me think about her.
It was Zyra who had diagnosed him, unsurprisingly. She has proven to demonstrate the potential I saw in her application when I recommended her for the program, and when I saw her in action during her intern year. But when she had diagnosed Naveen’s mysterious illness, something I couldn’t even do, I knew I had brought in the future of diagnostics. Ever since joining my team, she has proven herself time and time again, and when she diagnosed the Governor’s son just by looking at him, it was in that moment when I couldn’t help but realize how her intelligence, her compassion for patients and others, and her prowess as a doctor are what attract me most to her. At this rate, I know one day she will be my equal as a diagnostician, perhaps even better. But I still can’t help but feel that pain of betrayal that twists around in my gut every time I am reminded of her, regardless of my attraction.
How can I try to understand my feelings for her if I am beginning to lose my trust in her?
“Ethan?” I believe I hear Harper calling out to me but, with my mind distracted by the thoughts of my resident, it fails to register completely. I then feel my arm being squeezed, which finally breaks me from my temporary zoned-out state. When I come back to reality, I see that Harper has taken a seat in the chair with her hand lingering on my arm.
I roll my shoulders and crack my neck. “I’m sorry, Harper. It’s been a long day.”
“I can see that.” She gets up and stands directly behind me, as she begins to massage the knot out from my shoulder. I tense at her touch at first, but then relax under its familiarity from long ago. “You are quite tight. What has you so stressed?”
The answer is complicated, but speaking to Harper about Zyra will only make me more tense. And I already suspect that she is aware that there was more between me and Zyra last year. That is another conversation I am avoiding.
I lean forward away from her. I feel her release her hands, which were beginning to rub up along the nape of my neck. If I had let her continue, her hands would have moved forward to my temples, her fingers running circles against them. I would then close my eyes, lean my head back against her chest, and yield to her. She would then lift my chin, her eyes meeting mine, which would now be half-opened in a relaxed daze. Her eyes would provide further comfort in the way they hold onto my vulnerableness. Our lips would then meet in an upside down kiss as her fingertips still against my temples and begin to travel slowly down my neck and under the collar of my shirt, to massage along my chest. After our years together, her actions are obviously predictable, but at a different time, I would have welcomed it, even wanted it.
She pats my shoulders tenderly before sitting back down across from me.
“I can’t help but notice you’re taking a curious interest in social media now.” She changes the topic, while motioning towards my laptop.
“It’s for research for a patient, but I’m trying to make an account,” I admit as I click through various links.
“Ethan Ramsey on social media, I can’t even fathom the idea.” A light chuckle escapes her. “Here.” She turns my laptop towards her and begins typing. “You can use my account. I trust you to log out when you’re finished.” She glances up at me a few times between her typing. “You know, Pictogram is quite useful, professionally. You should look into it. Maybe even see how physicians use it, not just with patients but also for networking and educating the world.”
“I read an article about the use of social media by physicians last year. It was longwinded and failed to provide a convincing argument,” I refute.
“Well, it looks to me you are in dire need of it now.” She turns the laptop back in my direction. I then feel her hand against my cheek followed by her lips, kissing me softly. “Whatever is troubling you, I know you will figure it out.”
I freeze against her affectionate touch, as I refrain from even making eye contact. She leaves my cheek with a lingering warmth that feels foreign against my skin. Her touch, her kiss, doesn’t give me any of the comfort she probably expects.
My mind immediately goes to the warmth generated between Zyra and me as I held her hand on the stoop outside her childhood home. It’s as if our cells were in sync with producing the energy needed to create the heat between us. And it felt honest.
I then hear Harper’s voice again.
“But try not to resort to something illegal, like stealing hospital resources,” she states with accusation, as she stands to leave.
“Harper—” I begin, readying to argue.
“Well, what you do no longer concerns me,” she cuts me off. “I’m no longer your boss. But don’t act out due to desperation. Be the sensible, rational Ethan I know.”
After she leaves, I stare at the empty space where she had stood. There’s some truth to what Harper just said. I need to not make decisions based on my emotions. But can I easily just ignore what happened between Zyra and me back in Colorado and not only Zyra, but also her family? Zyra was already struggling so much to not let me in, and once she finally did, I had given her hope again. Just by going there, I also gave it to myself.
But I can’t allow my mind to contemplate everything and what it may mean. I need to focus on Ms. Monroe. The condition.
It’s been almost an hour since I began searching and logging each product with its corresponding ingredients. I remove my glasses and pinch the bridge of my nose, squeezing my eyes shut in hopes to erase my fatigue and irritation. How many more lip balms and concealers do I need to subjugate myself to? I rub the back of my neck before I continue with the research. Hopefully, her toxicology results will show some connections and lead me to a diagnosis.
I sip on my lukewarm coffee as I continue scrolling. I stop on a video labeled Follower Questions: My Greatest Fear 🙈. Even though I doubt this post will provide me with any clues, I can’t ignore it. Even the smallest detail into her life can be significant into identifying a lead.
I click play. Ms. Monroe appears to be outside, sitting on some patio. She dons a sun hat with a light breeze ruffling her hair.
“Hi, everyone! Thank you for sending me so many interesting questions to answer. Today, I’m going to answer one that really made me think.”
I roll my eyes, waiting for something superficial and self-indulgent that’s been representative of every post I’ve seen so far.
“This is from at applejacks925. What is your greatest fear?”
I scoff. Losing all my sponsorships and realizing I have no real talent or skills to better the world.
The influencer turns away from the camera and tries to appear as if she’s pondering the question, playing it up for her millions of followers. She exhales one long sigh and then faces the camera.
“Falling in love,” she finally answers, her eyelashes fluttering. “I’m really afraid of falling in love. I think I’ve been in love before. Maybe.” She giggles. “But that true, romantic, head-over-heels, soulmate type of love is really really scary.”
Really? Is her vocabulary this limited too?
“I guess when I think about it, I mean really think about it, what’s really scary is allowing yourself to be vulnerable around another person. To actually trust someone to the extent that you are fully and completely open with them.”
Her tone begins to sound sincere.
“You all follow me and I share everything with you. But there’re some things I still keep to myself. Everyone does in a way, you know? And sometimes I wonder if there was that special person, someone I love more than anything and trust more than anyone, would I be able to share it with them easily? That’s what’s really scary. Would they still love and accept me if they knew things about me or saw me do something out of the ordinary? Or would they run away? Love is scary and finding someone who loves you is really hard. First of all, am I lovable? How do you know if they’re the one, for example? How do you learn to trust them with your life? How can something so strong be so real to so many people in this world?”
She gives a thoughtful smile to the camera. As she does, the image of Zyra enters my mind and begins to haunt it all over again.
“Well, I do hope I find someone who will know me better than I know myself. And I know a lot of you may also feel this way. So leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts. Are you afraid of falling in love? If you have experienced this all-consuming type of love, were you scared? How did it turn out? Please let me know!”
This type of love Ms. Monroe is describing doesn’t exist because there is no scientific basis for it. Love isn’t about soulmates or being all-consuming. Love is a practicality that comes with a partnership. It’s a trust between two people who find practical means to establish a relationship, such as compromise and commitment. There are feelings of appreciation, respect, and consideration, which are all built on the amount of time spent together.
But for the briefest second, I begin to question this belief. But this doesn’t address these new, unknown feelings for Zyra.
“And finally, if you’re looking for love, what would be the best lipstick to wear that will attract their attention?” Ms. Monroe holds up five sticks of different colors.
And there it is.
I slam my laptop shut before the video even finishes. I slammed it first in annoyance at the manipulative play to advertise those products. And second in anger at myself for beginning to ponder what she was saying.
There’s no biological basis for soulmates. Something like love doesn’t make sense and everything has to make sense. I then sigh. But my feelings for Zyra don’t make sense.
My phone pings. When I turn it over, I see a text notification under two missed calls and a voicemail from Dad. I concede and swipe to open the text. It’s from Zyra. My chest immediately feels tight.
ZL: I got a flight back next Monday. I arrive at 9:20am. Can you still pick me up?
I read her text multiple times, as I contemplate my response. I can’t tell her what has happened. Not yet. And definitely not through an impersonal text.
The morning did not turn out as I had planned. And the events have been on replay in my mind all day.
I’ve just finished a long shower, but I haven’t been able to pull myself away from the mirror. I ignore the chill that settles against my bare, damp skin. I ignore the droplets that slowly stream down my face as they fall from my wet strands of hair. One begins to enter my eye, but I don’t blink or wipe it away. I just stare. The face that is currently looking back at me is unrecognizable. It is an image of a monster, a troublemaker, an insecure, fickle, temperamental jackass who only brings constant pain to the one person he never wanted to hurt. But it seems to be a pattern with this fucker.
Today was the day I picked Zyra up from the airport. My plan was to prepare her for tomorrow by talking with her about Ms. Monroe. Because I still hold strong anger towards her, I practiced what to say during the drive there. I wanted to sound understanding, but also explain how betrayed I felt. I wanted to be honest with her about my feelings and the trust issues that her decision has created. But I also wanted to tell her that I still hold feelings for her and to ask her for some time for me to work through these feelings.
But I couldn’t do that. And, understandably, she wouldn’t give me the opportunity to even explain myself. Why should she after the stark contrast in my behavior from how I greeted her at the airport to how I spoke to her in the car?
My anger got in the way, and all I did was say the wrong things and push her away again. But the worst part of it was how somber she sounded. It would have been better if she had yelled at me, but she never did. Not once. She was more disappointed in herself for falling again for this fickle asshole’s tricks. I don’t blame her. After everything that happened in Colorado between us, I’m sure she was expecting to come back to that same man. She almost did because the moment I saw her coming towards me on the escalator, I had forgotten her betrayal and my anger and my condition. And when I had the chance to hold her, I began to question if my anger towards her was even worth it. I wanted her closeness. I wanted to figure things out with her. I wanted to allow whatever feelings that happened between us in Colorado to continue.
But once I let my mind wander, I couldn’t focus on the good. I could only focus on that damn condition. She betrayed me. That was the reality. In my mind, Colorado didn’t matter. What happened at the airport didn’t matter. What mattered was Gwenyth Monroe and Zyra Lewis. All I could do while driving her home was feel the anger return and me trying to do my best to keep it at bay and rationalize it.
Fact. I’m her boss. She’s my resident. That takes priority.
Fact. Zyra did something that has made me question her trust.
Fact. If I can’t trust her, I can’t try to understand or even explore these feelings for her.
Fact. Everything has conditions, and Zyra has shown me hers.
But now, I regret it all. I regret going to Colorado because I did exactly what she accused me of: I disposed of her. If only I didn’t get the address from Trinh the night after I purchased the airplane ticket. If I didn’t have the address, I probably would have called the entire trip off. But I had to go to Donahue’s. I had to be on my phone trying to search for her parents’ address online at the exact moment Trinh approached the bar to order another drink.
“Hi, Dr. Ramsey,” she greeted with that same jovial smile.
I knew she was Zyra’s best friend. If there was one person who knew where Zyra was, Trinh would be that person. So as she waited for Reggie to get her drink, I asked her about Zyra.
“Oh, she’s doing as well as anyone would after losing a parent,” she explained, her sad gaze lowering.
“I wanted to send her family something as a condolence,” I lied. “Would you happen to know the address of her parents’ home?”
Trinh’s face lit up. She pulled out her phone and ranted on about Christmas and Christmas cards or something while she scrolled for the address in her contacts. I honestly wasn’t paying attention to her reasoning for having the address. She wrote it down on a napkin for me. As a thank you, I bought her drink. When I was left alone reading the address, I hoped Trinh wouldn’t disclose what I did.
And now I know she never told Zyra because knowing the address was one of the first questions she asked when she saw me standing at the doorstep.
But that no longer matters. I had gone. I had gotten Zyra’s hopes up even after she had been so reluctant to accept me. And what did I do in return? Confirm her very fears. Again. And the worst part of it all, I did it when she lost a very important person in her life. She was already in pain and I turned the dial up even more.
I’m still looking back at my reflection. My eyes trace along the beard on my face. Zyra always admired it, and because of that I had kept it for her. Perhaps that in itself is evidence enough of how important she—and her opinion—is to me. But it’s also the beard that belongs to the face of a man who doesn’t deserve her or her trust. She shouldn’t have let me off the hook.
So I’ll give you what you want. Erase and reset, right? Colorado never happened.
All this time I’ve been angry at her and feeling her to be untrustworthy when the fact is that I have been the untrustworthy one all along. I’ve shown Zyra one condition after another, while she was only doing her job and doing what I had taught her: patients come first. She also acted how I would, going against administration when she knew they were wrong. In this case, I was wrong. So fucking wrong. I took it too personally and that was due to my own ego and pride.
I’ve been too stubborn and afraid to go outside my principles again due to the outcome with the contract between the team and Declan. And that fear has gotten in the way of the fight for our patients and now of my relationship with Zyra, both professionally and personally. She puts so much faith in others, but she misplaced her faith in me. And that wasn’t on her. It was on me.
But the most frustrating aspect of all of this is that I understand why she did it. The same reason she did everything she could for Mrs. Martinez. Deep down, I already knew. I could already predict Zyra’s behavior the moment I had told her no. She’s a fighter and will fight for our patients to the very end, even if we may disagree on the methods. So in my mind, I believed she had betrayed me. But she didn’t. She saw an opportunity and she took it. And it’s something I would have done if I wasn’t so afraid of failing Naveen again. I gripe about how others who I used to be close to have changed, like Harper and Tobias, but I fail to acknowledge my own changes that have led to these conflicts.
All I do is fail the people I give a damn about. I failed Naveen. I failed Zyra. And I’m failing Dad, whom I’m still avoiding.
I am the type of person that she accused me to be: A coward. And after everything I’ve done to her, I don’t understand how she never swore me off earlier. I selfishly needed to keep her in my life even if it meant taking control of the situation and showing up in Colorado without her knowledge. Even if it meant leading her on with our mild flirtations, while I still was conflicted about how to understand what exactly I’ve been feeling for her. Even if it meant opening up to her about my parents and letting her be there for me. She was right again, though. I took her for granted and used her because I was afraid of losing her. But after what occurred today, I’ve lost her for good. There’s no going back and trying to make amends to the point of starting over. We’ve started over one too many times instead of having a real conversation about what the hell was actually going on between us.
How can I look in the mirror every day and accept that I have afflicted additional pain to the one person I…? Even as I ask myself this question, I still can’t even define how Zyra means to me. All I know is that she was so damn important.
I’m rational. But I end up doing an irrational thing.
I pull out my clippers and begin to shave it all off, hoping to erase the face of a monster.
I’ve been cursing under my breath all day. Not only have I’ve been frustrated due to the lack of knowledge about Zyra’s current situation and worrying relentlessly about her, but now I have to contend with the very fact that the same woman has betrayed me.
I try to drown out the distraction as I make my rounds updating my patients. Ms. Monroe is last. I still have yet to find a diagnosis for her symptoms, but Mirani has been assisting me with making a log of her product history. We are hoping that the reason has to do with an unknown poisoning. That’s a theory I plan to explain to her. But once I enter her room, she’s turned over on her side away from the door. I can hear her sniffling. I also hear the click of her phone’s camera shuttering.
There are no cameras, as I had requested, due to hospital policy and patient privacy. The last thing this hospital needs is to be sued by an unsuspecting patient caught on camera and streamed for the world to see. But that doesn’t keep her from documenting with her phone.
I do not approach further inside, but turn around on my heels and head straight for the nurse’s station. I grab a box of tissues, return to the room, and pull up a chair next to Ms. Monroe’s bedside. She turns over onto her back and meets me with eyes full of tears. A glum smile falls across her lips as she begins wiping at her eyes.
“Hi, Dr. Ramsey,” she greets while still sniffling. I hold out the box of tissues towards her. She grabs a few and begins dabbing her eyes and nose. “Thanks. You’re very kind.”
“Hello, Ms. Monroe. I would ask how you’re feeling, but I believe I can make an accurate assumption,” I state sympathetically.
“I’m just really scared,” she says while blowing her nose. Shen then tries to relax, holding her ball of tissue in her hand. I pick up the trash can at her bedside and let her toss it in.
“I understand, Ms. Monroe. Having an undiagnosable illness can be quite frightening, but I assure you that you are in good hands.”
She looks at me a bit more hopefully. “Dr. Lewis did say Edenbrook had the most renowned diagnosticians in the country. It’s why I came here.”
Just hearing Zyra’s name alone brings an unsettling sensation in the pit of my stomach. Even my mouth becomes dry at the thought of her.
“She was correct,” I say, keeping my tone stable and professional.
“Where is she? I thought she would be the one to help me personally.”
My brow furrows and I lean forward in the chair. “She had an emergency. I apologize.”
“Oh no. Is she okay?” Her eyes grow big and round as she waits for my response.
“Yes.” It’s the only answer I can give without disclosing Zyra’s personal information. But even so, I feel my jaw clench at wanting my own answer to Ms. Monroe’s question.
“That’s good then.” I see her cheeks immediately turn red. “Anyway, it’s not every day you get to be taken care of by a really hot doctor. It would’ve been really cool to show all my followers how hot the doctors are here.”
This woman appears to have no filter. After what I witnessed when I first met her and after reviewing her social media posts, she’s prone to an overabundance of self-disclosure even when there is no camera present.
“Ms. Monroe, please realize that the care you are receiving is based on decades of training and experience from some of the top doctors in this country. Our appearance has no basis on the outcome of your care.”
“Wow. Very serious, too.” She nearly begins to laugh but then catches herself. Her amused expression drops. “I’m just trying to find something to distract myself from my fears. I’m sorry.”
I understand. I can actually relate. “There’s nothing to apologize for, Ms. Monroe.” My mouth quirks up into a friendly smile reserved for my patients. “You do what you feel can help.”
She heaves a sigh. “It’s hard because I don’t have my cameras. I know you said you didn’t want them in here, and I get it. But as you can see, I don’t have anyone here. My followers, well, they’re my people. Wouldn’t you want your people beside you when you’re scared?”
Her glossy eyes meet mine and it looks as if she’s about to cry again. But I contemplate her question before answering. “I actually went through a very scary situation last year. And I did have someone there with me.”
“Did it make you feel better?”
I’m here. Zyra would usually say as she placed her hand on top of mine. Unconsciously, I begin to rub my thumb across my knuckles.
“I’ll tell you what, you can have your cameras in here under one condition.” I see her perk up in her bed. “Keep them on you. Don’t point them out into the hallway or in my direction. For any nurse or a doctor from my team, ask for their permission first.”
“Oh, thank you, Dr. Ramsey!” She immediately picks up her phone and takes a selfie. Then she types something. I observe her and begin to question if I made the right decision. “I’m just letting my followers know. One sec.”
Of course. I will never understand the popularity of so-called social media influencers and their obsession with recognition and fame. It goes against everything that I believe in because I do not do the work I do for the recognition and fame. My priority is in helping others, so how do these influencers actually help people? If Zyra were here, she would probably challenge my beliefs and explain some of the positive outcomes of influencers. That’s the type of woman she is. She’s able to find the positive in almost everything. I can’t help but feel a melancholy longing for her and for the way she challenges me. Then I realize—
I miss her.
Ms. Monroe shows me the post, which snaps me out of my thoughts. All I do is nod and then change the subject to the matter at hand.
We talk some more with me explaining my theory to her, which only makes her even more afraid. After reassuring her, I leave, order some toxicology tests, and return to my office.
I see Mirani still at work, but there’s another person sitting at the table with him. They’re conversing about something, and when I enter, the last thing I hear is Mirani asking, “Ethan did what?” They both laugh, but stop once they notice my entrance.
“Hi, Ethan,” he greets as he stands up. But he doesn’t move.
I’ve been ignoring Dad’s calls for weeks ever since he told me Mom wants to see me. I want nothing to do with that woman who left us when I was 11. And I don’t trust her intentions. All I know is she probably wants money from me. But Dad has never stopped loving her, even though she broke him. And I’ve always resented him for it because I could never understand why he could still love her after everything she had done to not only him but also to me. That woman has no right to show up in our lives whenever she wants, trying to have us at her beck and call. But Dad has always been willing to take her calls. I know he would take her back if he could, but she is nothing more to me than a stranger, and I want to keep it that way.
“I’m going to go grab lunch. I’ll continue this when I get back. It was nice meeting you, Mr. Ramsey.” Mirani waves at Dad and then leaves, giving us the office to ourselves.
“I’ve been trying to call you,” Dad states once we’re finally alone.
“I’m sorry, Dad.” I sit down in the seat next to him. He returns to sitting. “I’ve been overwhelmed with work.”
“Is that all?” Dad gives me a worried look.
I sigh and run a hand through my hair. “No,” I begin to confess. “I’ve been avoiding you.” I see how hurt Dad’s expression turns.
Dad is quiet for a moment, his head lowered in contemplation. “I always knew you were still angry, but I thought it was with her, not with me.”
I’m not ready to have this conversation. His words arise within me my own shame and I get up and walk over to brew a cup of coffee. “Want one?”
“Ethan…” Dad sighs. “This isn’t the first time you’ve avoided something.”
I freeze, my hand stilling on a mug. “Dad.” It’s as if my voice has turned into my 11-year-old self.
“What’s really going on?”
Dad came all this way to see me because I couldn’t pick up the damn phone. Now I have no choice but to finally be honest with him about how I feel. But I don’t know where to start. I’ve been avoiding this conversation for most of my life, and now that I’m faced with it, the idea of finally being forced to answer, to be honest with my father, scares me.
I drop my hand, leaving the coffee behind and return to sit next to Dad. I drum my fingers against the table, unable to make eye contact with him. “Dad, I…” I finally look up to meet his gaze, his eyes readying for an answer. “I just can’t understand how you could still love her after everything she did to us.”
I don’t think you have to. It’s your dad’s heart. He gets to take as long as he needs to heal, even if that’s forever.
And there she is like clockwork. My mind recalls the words she told me after confiding in her about my feelings towards Dad. She always gave me an additional perspective to consider, but this one is too difficult for me to even understand. My mother left us. That was the condition for me to never want to see her again. But for Dad, how could her leaving not be a condition? How can she hurt him and humiliate him and he still claims to love her?
“Love is complicated, Ethan. I thought you’d know that by now.” Dad places his hand on top of mine and pats it.
Love? I frown, unsure of what he just stated. He doesn’t know I’ve never been in love because I don’t believe in it. I’ve dated numerous women before, but Harper was the first real long-term relationship I’ve had. And it was more in a practical sense. We complimented each other in many ways. We admired one another and appreciated each other’s companionship. But we were also mature enough to realize when it didn’t work. And that was due to the respect we had for each other. But the type of love Dad is referring to is not what I’ve experienced. And with Mom leaving him, it is further evidence that it does not exist. I’m not about to go into detail about my beliefs on love. Not now. He wouldn’t understand.
I shake my head. “Dad, I guess I just wanted to matter.”
“What do you mean?”
I exhale sharply, collecting my thoughts. “Because you still loved mom, it made me feel as if what she did to me didn’t matter to you. And so, I’ve felt I didn’t matter to you.”
My gaze flicks towards Dad, but it refuses to settle. But what I see on his face is an anguished shock. His mouth is agape, as if unable to speak the words to respond to my admission.
“Ethan, I had no idea you felt that way. I honestly thought we got along well for two guys who didn’t have much in common.”
“Well, I… think it’s put a distance between us. I’ve felt I haven’t been able to get to know you because of it.”
“Because I still love you mother?” His voice begins to break.
I lower my head and nod.
“Can I be honest with you too, son?” I raise my head, meeting Dad’s gaze. “I’ve noticed that you do this with a lot of your relationships.”
I furrow my brow. “What?”
“You tend to find something that keeps you away from them. Tobias, for example.”
“Tobias wouldn’t grow up.” I scoff loudly. “He constantly had to make everything a competition instead of focusing on what matters.” My voice is tinged with irritation.
“Well, that’s how he approaches things. Not everyone approaches things the way you do. I think you sometimes forget that.”
“Dad, it’s not my fault he can’t let go of a grudge. And it’s something I’ve made peace with a long time ago.”
“I see. But all I’m trying to say is, maybe people change and you should be open to that. You can’t resent people to the point of ruining a relationship because they made a mistake.”
“Mom leaving us was not a mistake.”
I hear the door slide open and Hirata enters. She pauses at the doorway.
“It’s fine, Hirata.” I wave her in and then stand and turn to Dad. “Can we continue this conversation later? I’m still coming this weekend. I’ll make sure to bring those treats Jenner likes.” I don’t want to leave things tense between us.
After walking him out, I return to my desk, scrolling through Ms. Monroe’s Pictogram feed to continue the log. Hirata is working on another case on the whiteboard.
You can’t resent people to the point of ruining a relationship because they made a mistake.
Dad’s words are the only thing my mind lingers on as I type information into the spreadsheet. He wouldn’t understand about Tobias and how I even tried to reach out. And my mother… But it’s not on Tobias or on my mother where the words have a lasting effect. All my mind can focus on is Zyra and how whatever type of relationship we had has been left in millions of broken pieces of unsaid words and unresolved feelings.
Have my conditions damaged my relationships? Am I now doing the same with Zyra?
Any anger I feel towards her is now swallowed by guilt. If I truly believed that Zyra had betrayed me, I am as much of a coward as she claimed me to be. I know that woman. I know who she is as a doctor. Of course it would make sense for her to find a solution to our budget issue if it meant sacrificing some principles to prolong our services for the people who have nowhere else to turn. That is who she is, and I’ve been acting like a spoiled child because she was right all along.
Our relationship is already engulfed in flames. If I hold this condition against her, then there is no chance of trying to put out the fire and save the foundation. And if I truly understand her actions, there is no true condition, and I can extinguish the flames before they burn everything we’ve built to unusable ash. But even if there were a condition, do I even want to risk losing her more than I already have? Could I make an exception to my rule just for her?
The last relationship I tried saving was with Tobias. He was once important to me in a much different way. The dissolution of our friendship was on both of us. But he refused any reconciliation. If I tried reconciling with Zyra, would she do the same thing and reject me? In this case, our current dissolution is all on me, but I have this fear that her rejection and losing her would hurt more because I…
“Ethan, are you OK?” Hirata asks. “You’re pounding on your keyboard pretty hard.”
I look at her confused expression and nod. “I’m fine.”
It’s the first night I’ve been back in my apartment since Zyra had left. When I flip on the lightswitch, I look around, and the emptiness of the apartment is unsettling. I immediately head to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of scotch. I would have made my regular visit to Donahue’s, but once I saw Zyra sitting in a booth with some of the other residents, I decided to leave. I didn’t want to cause a distraction. Or perhaps that was too presumptuous of me to think.
She had returned today. Naveen told me yesterday, which I felt was late notice, but between Mirani (Zaid) and myself, we were able to catch her up on her work and schedule. But the Zyra who returned was not the Zyra I remembered seeing that day she stormed out of my office, leaving me with increased blood pressure and even more uncertainty than I had prior.
The moment I saw her through the glass door, I froze. She looked so frail and malnourished. Even her white coat hung too large off her body. Her complexion looked a shade lighter. Her cheeks were sunken, her hair longer and straighter. I could see that she had lost some hair, too, and she was trying to hide it with the ponytail.
What happened to you?
I then realized I also probably looked worse for wear to her. I didn’t want her to know my overwhelming worry for her had kept me from going home at night. That trying to distract myself with work was the only way to try to make it through the days without her and without knowing what had become of her. It was the only way I knew to avoid my lingering, destabilizing concern. Even Naveen didn’t know much. Her emails to him were brief and focused more on the job.
But seeing her this morning gave me all the information I needed. She has not been taking the loss of her father well. And I don’t blame her. I quit and nearly wanted to drink myself to death when I believed Naveen was dying. But to actually lose Naveen or even my own dad, I couldn’t even imagine what Zyra has been going through this past week. And a large part of me wishes I could have been there at her side to support her. If I had gone to Colorado, would it have made a difference?
But that no longer mattered. What mattered was the woman waiting for me to let her into the office. Once I did, I hesitated at the door because I was debating whether to embrace her, hoping it would help, or to let things remain as they were, awkward and uncertain.
Even though she may have appeared different, her witty banter proved that the same woman was still there. That alone helped ease the physical tension in my muscles and the emotional tension that hung in the air between us. I had left her there alone in the office, not only to clean myself up, but to figure out how to approach our reunion. I hadn’t slept well the night before. The anticipation of seeing Zyra again kept me up. Also, my back ached from that damn couch. Even now it still does. I can feel the strain as I’m leaning forward against the kitchen island. But the scotch should kick in soon.
Because I couldn’t help her, I thought I could be there for her then. The beef jerky. The coffee. The condolences. But she didn’t want to elaborate, which I understood, so I did not fish around for anything. I waited. Our conversation was more amiable than I thought and I resisted reaching out to her. It was what had set the fire in the first place. But I hadn’t expect her to reach out to me, and for that moment, things between us seemed to have gone in reverse, as if the entire argument never happened. But we’ll have to talk about it at some point, if I want to fix things between us.
I was nervous on bringing up the issue about Ms. Monroe, but once I began speaking, no anger towards Zyra or the situation remained. In its place was appreciation for her decision and for her. Having her back, even though part of her was still hesitant towards me, made me realize one thing: I’ve now begun to see her in a truer light.
I meant what I said that she was my equal.
She’s my equal in more ways than I realized.
I smile against the rim of my glass as I finish the last of my scotch.
For the first time, I have finally been able to describe my feelings for her, and it doesn’t frighten me.
Author’s Note: Some of the dialogue between Ethan and his father was taken from Book 2, Chapter 8.