It was 3am when Fred walked through the door from the garage. Lauren had heard the garage door open and turned off the TV. She sat on the couch, anxiety feeling like a bunch of dead, dried moths coming to life in her stomach. She faced the TV, not sure where to look.
“Oh, Lauren, you’re here,” Fred said. “I didn’t think you’d stay here tonight.”
She turned and looked at him. She didn’t know whether to smile or glare. “I thought you were getting off at midnight.”
He put his messenger bag across the back of a chair in the breakfast nook and sat down to take off his shoes. “Yeah,” he said, focusing on his shoes and not Lauren. “I got held up.”
She was afraid that if she smelled his breath she’d find that “held up” meant “went out to the bar with the nurses”. That one hot nurse that Fred talked about without provocation, not noticing he was thinking of her. Or maybe, worse, he’d found someone on Tinder or Bumble to get a nightcap with. Any doctor was a catch on dating sites, especially for girls with low-paying jobs like bartending or waiting tables or retail — the kind of girls he seemed to like more than even hot nurses.
Lauren swallowed hard. She was debating asking for an explanation. His shift in the emergency room ended at 12am, and she was hoping she could surprise him at his place. She’d let herself in with the key he left under the planter on the front porch at 11pm and gotten everything ready. By 1am she’d blown out the new candles and drained the bubble bath. By 2am she’d changed out of the new lingerie. She’d been sitting on his couch not paying attention to late night cable TV and debating texting him to see where he was. But she didn’t really want to know. She was trying her hardest not to be too needy.
“We had such a weird case tonight,” Fred went on, his shoes off now. He leaned back against the chair and stretched his arms over his head. “It was crazy. This stripper came in with this super bad flu — really high fever, respiratory crap, all the worst.”
Lauren followed his figure as he stood up to put his shoes by the door. His body drove her crazy. He had broad shoulders, strong arms and a thin waist. He biked everywhere and his thighs were like tree trunks. He was nearly 10 years older than her, but she found him irresistibly sexy. And it wasn’t just because, as an ER doctor, he was loaded, although that helped. He had thick, dark hair that showed no signs of falling out, even though he was going gray at the temples. He was half Taiwanese and half French, and his skin was a clear olive color that turned golden in the summer sun.
She always felt weird when he talked about patients. She thought maybe he was violating some privacy laws. But she didn’t know them well enough to point it out. And she wanted him to keep talking to her, any chance she could get. It was worse that he’d prefaced that this patient was a stripper. It made her wonder if he’d been attracted to her. She found her thoughts racing about what the woman must have looked like. How had he known she was a stripper? She couldn’t bring herself to ask.
“Her roommates brought her in,” he went on, opening the fridge and pulling out a green bottle of sparkling water. He twisted off the top and took a big swig. “I figured she’d just waited too long to come in so it had gotten complicated, but they said she’d only been sick the past day or two.”
“Is she okay?” Lauren finally asked.
“Oh, sure, yeah, she’s in the ICU now,” Fred said, gesturing with the green bottle and walking slowly toward Lauren on the couch. “She’s on a ventilator but she’ll be fine. It was just super weird.”
“It was definitely the flu?” Lauren asked.
“No, actually,” Fred said. “Her test results hadn’t come back yet by the time I left. But I’m just guessing. It’s flu season. Same symptoms, you know. Usually only old people have bad reactions to the flu. And babies. And it’s not usually this fast.” He shrugged.
Lauren looked at her hands. She’d torn her cuticles to shreds, her least favorite anxiety reaction. Her thumb was bleeding. She put it in her mouth against her tongue to stop the bleeding.
“Is it contagious?” she asked. She thought if she could focus on the facts of the case she could keep from feeling worse about how he hadn’t come home on time tonight. He hadn’t promised her he’d be home; he’d just told her his shift got off at midnight.
“Probably not anymore than the regular flu,” Fred said. He sat on the back of the couch over her. “And we both got our flu shots so we should be ok. Her roommates were fine.”
She felt him watching her pick at her fingers.
“What’s up?” he asked her, seeming innocent.
She took a minute to think about how to respond. They’d had a fight about this three months ago when they’d first decided to try being monogamous. Anytime she wanted to get closer to him, he seemed to pull away. If she got jealous of that nurse he was always talking about, he told her she was being crazy. If she wanted to know where he was so late after work, he brushed her off. He spent so much time on his phone when they were together, and would hide it from her if she leaned over to look. Sometimes it was Twitter — he was obsessed with following politics and news stories and would go on rants against people all the time. But sometimes she thought he was chatting with other girls.
She’d caught him talking to an ex-girlfriend on Snapchat. The girl had moved to Paris or something, and they’d only broken up because of the distance. Lauren had gotten a glance of the snap the girl had sent — it was a sexy pose, alluring, not something you send to a guy you’re not trying to seduce. Lauren went high order, yelling at him for cheating on her and asking how many other girls they were. Her explosion embarrassed her. He’d explained he hadn’t seen anything wrong with a little titillation because he wasn’t actually having sex with anyone else. But now he hid his phone from her all the time.
“So where were you after your shift ended?” she asked slowly.
He sighed. “Honestly I was there late,” he said, playing with a couch cushion and not looking her in the eye. She noted that he was probably lying. She tried not to smell his breath, but there was alcohol on it.
“Did you go out with that nurse?” she asked pointedly.
He looked up at her. Her heart froze and her stomach jumped up in her throat. Finally he sighed again and stood up. “Yeah,” he said, “a bunch of us went out for a drink after the shift.” She closed her eyes. “But it wasn’t like a date. It was me and Chase and a few others, too. Some of Chase’s friends. Honestly.”
Lauren shook her head. “You could have just said so,” she said, her eyes still closed.
“Frankly,” Fred went on, “it didn’t seem like a big deal.” He stood next to his bag, opening it. “And now I’m exhausted, and I want to go to bed.”
Lauren felt like she was avoiding too many red flags. He was definitely cheating on her, she thought. He was too skittish about relationships. Why was she still there? She felt like she needed to go home to her apartment in the city, but the trains wouldn’t be running often right now, and it was cold. But she was also terrified that he’d kick her out for being a snoop or not trusting him.
He headed toward the stairs with a piece of paper in his hand. “You coming?” he asked.
She swallowed hard and looked at her nails one more time. “Sure,” she said. She knew she wouldn’t sleep a wink, but she couldn’t face any of the other options. She stood up and turned off the light on the table next to the couch and followed him up the dark stairs to the bedroom.