Making Connections



“Morning, Luka,” Mark said.  “Feeling better today?”  Even though he knew the answer.

 “Yes, thank you, Mark,” Luka lied smoothly and watched as Mark accepted the lie for what it was.  Luka had spent a long sleepless night in the chair in front of the TV, half-paying attention to the flickering images, whipsawing between happiness and guilt.  It started when he permitted himself a single happy memory of waking up with Anna and then he spiraled into a bout of self-recriminations.  What had he been thinking?  He clearly hadn’t been thinking, hadn’t been thinking at all and now he had to find a way to live with it.  It was bad enough he had behaved so badly, did she have to be such a nice girl, too?  It would be easier if she weren’t so nice, he thought.  It would be easier if he could believe that she was one of those girls who had a different man every night.  Surely she did.  She must; what kind of girl takes a man home like that?  If it hadn’t been him it would have been somebody else, he told himself.  She was fast, and he had merely been obliging.  He tried to think that, but in spite of her behavior with him it didn’t fit.  Besides, he had been the one to give in to his urges at the first available opportunity.  If anything, he had been the one who had slept with her simply because she was there.  He had used her, plain and simple, and here he was trying to make her into something he didn’t really think she was.  He was the fast one, not her.  Then he chastised himself for being so low as to try to cast her in that role when she had been so gentle towards him.  Then he smiled to remember her softly kissing his eyelids when she had thought he was asleep.  And so it went through the night until his head pounded.

He had noticed it was morning when those ubiquitous relentlessly cheerful morning shows had started.

He dragged himself off to the shower and stood under the spray until it scalded him.  Dressed for work.  Drank black coffee.  Got on the El and cringed at the memory of his brusque departure the day before.  Forced himself to the hospital.  Greeted Mark.  Lied. 

Mark thought Luka scarcely looked better than the day before.  He clearly wasn’t sleeping, he looked as bad as he did in those first days after Carol left, after the shooting at the school and the fight with Benton.  At the time Mark had thought the school shooting had triggered some sort of post-traumatic stress in Luka, but then he heard about the girl with the baby from Cleo and rapidly shifted opinion.  Luka probably took the baby harder than the shooting or the fight with Peter.  Mark had seen Luka interact with mothers and children and pregnant women enough to know he had something that went far beyond a soft spot for them. A lot of the nurses found it endearing how he was drawn to them, but Mark thought they were missing something important. The fact was Mark thought a lot of the nurses would find it endearing if Luka kicked small puppies as long as it was Luka doing it and Mark thought that blinded them to some important realities.  He wasn’t so sure it was a healthy rapport Luka developed with those patients.  It was as if he were constantly trying to reclaim his family.  To hear Cleo tell it, he had bullied that girl as if it had been his own child dying in her womb.  It wasn’t healthy.

I look like hell because it’s what I deserve, Luka had said.  What was that supposed to mean?  He hadn’t meant to say it out loud, Mark knew.  Talking to himself.  Mark was starting to wonder if Luka wasn’t getting a bit too close to the edge for his patients’ good.  He was a good enough doctor, but Mark wasn’t sure how clearly he was thinking these days.

Mark looked Luka straight in the eye.  “Glad to hear it,” he said, playing along.  “Dinner then.”  If Luka were going to lie to him and expect him to play along, then Mark would play hardball.  Either admit you feel like shit or suffer through dinner, Kovac.  You don’t get it both ways.

Luka sighed.  “Dinner.  Yes, sure.”  It felt like he was scheduling his own execution.

He made it through the day by jumping on patients as fast as they came in.  Mark kept him under a watchful eye and Luka felt it.  He knew he had to keep it together enough to make Mark stop thinking he was a ticking time bomb.  The funny thing was, he really wasn’t.  Not as far as the hospital or the patients need be concerned.  The one place he would always keep his head was here.  Hadn’t Mark figured that out yet? They needn’t keep a watchful eye on him in the hospital. Home was another matter, but here he was as reliable as Kerry.  It constantly surprised him that Mark hadn’t figured that out.  Still, he understood Mark’s wariness.  Mark had caught him talking to himself at least twice yesterday.  And Luka knew what he must look like.  He didn’t imagine his appearance had gotten any better between his morning shave and now.  Some sleep would help.  He had tried once last night, climbing out of the chair and walking to his bed.  He stood there looking down at its sudden vast emptiness and simply couldn’t get into that bed alone.  He had turned on his heel and returned to the chair.  And there he had stayed.

Tonight, he thought, I’ll get some sleep.  Maybe a beer or two with Mark and Elizabeth will tire me out, he thought.  Though he was tired enough already.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t tired, he just needed some help getting over the edge, but that half-world between wakefulness and sleep was too heavily populated.  Marija.  Jasna.  Marko.  As he passed from one world to the next they reached out and grabbed him, holding him between day and night.  The trouble was, he liked it there.  That was when he could talk to them, share his new life with them so that they could be with him in it. He would stay in that half-world, telling them stories.  He would tell the children about the buildings downtown, they were so tall it was like being in the valley, it was nothing like home.  And they dyed the river green once a year.  Really, I’m not kidding.  He told Marija about his work, his colleagues.  He had even told her about Carol and the girls one night in the darkness.  He thought she had frowned.  Ah, Luka, they’re not yours, she said.

Mark tried to keep Luka in his field of vision as much as possible.  He certainly seemed fine once he got his hands on a patient.  He wasn’t so sure about the moments in between, but he had his head on straight when it counted.  Maybe this was one worry Mark could let go of.  Dinner would tell him more. He was going to force it out of Kovac if it killed both of them.  He knew Elizabeth thought that was a bad idea and would spend the evening running interference, she had as much as said so last night.  He belatedly decided a one-on-one would have been a better idea, but there was no way he could muscle Elizabeth out of dinner now. 

Well, even if Mark learned nothing over dinner, it was at least a bridge to Kovac.  He couldn’t stay out on the fringes like this.  It wasn’t good for him and Mark was starting to think it wasn’t good for the staff either.  They were starting to invent tensions that didn’t exist, and god knows they had enough problems right now without inviting trouble.  Mark doesn’t like Luka, Luka doesn’t like Mark.  Luka had come between him and Carol.  Kerry favored Kovac.  Mark sighed.  Some people have too much time on their hands, he thought.  A friendly dinner would put a lot of wagging tongues to rest if it achieved nothing else. 

In the afternoon Mark passed Luka in the hallway and said loudly, “Still on for dinner, right?”  Luka nodded and you could have knocked Haleh over with a feather.  Well, that’ll spread the word, Mark thought.  And I’ve locked Kovac in good, too.

Luka sighed.  I guess there’s no getting out of it now he thought.  He threw a glance in Haleh’s direction and tried to look remotely happy.  If he looked as bad as he felt, she probably thought he was about to get fired.  That got a chuckle out of him, and Haleh wrinkled her eyebrows in obvious confusion.

 Mark was fixated on taking Luka for “great Chicago pizza,” so after work the three of them piled into a cab and fought the traffic on Michigan Avenue down to Gino’s East.  Mark and Elizabeth bickered over whether taking the El to the Chicago stop and walking over would have been faster until Luka asked if they’d gotten married without telling anybody.  It sure sounded like it, he said with a wink.  It was as much collegiality as he was going to muster until somebody got a beer in him.  Mark and Elizabeth exchanged glances and quieted down until they got to the restaurant.

 Once they were seated Luka said simply, “I have no idea.  Order whatever you want and I’ll share it.”  He was exhausted and didn’t have the energy for social niceties.

Mark ordered a pitcher of beer (“and hurry, please”) and a large stuffed spinach “pie” with sausage and mushrooms.  Luka wrinkled his nose.

 “Too late, pal.  That’s what you get for refusing to read the menu.”

 Luka grinned.  “I’m sure it will be fine.  You have no idea what I’ve eaten in my life, Mark.  As long as the beer’s good.”

As if on cue, the waiter deposited a pitcher and three glasses.  Mark poured.

Luka downed a long stream of beer.  It wasn’t Tuborg, but it would do.  The three sat quietly contemplating their beers and making mild small talk for a good quarter of an hour.

“I can’t believe Carol never took you here,” Mark said finally.  Elizabeth shot him a sideways look and Luka caught it and smiled. 

 “It’s okay Elizabeth.  I can hear her name without falling to pieces,” Luka said a bit too sarcastically.  “I’m sorry.  That came out sharper than I meant it.  I just meant you don’t need to step around the subject.”

“Well, one never knows with you Luka,” Elizabeth replied, and Luka thought she sounded a bit more British than usual.  “The strangest things can set you off. One can’t figure you out, you get so attached to the strangest things.”

“Yes.  I’m tricky that way.  I get so attached to things like nurses.  And kidneys,” Luka replied in his own too-heavily accented English.  “But you have a fondness for kidneys too, don’t you?  And doctors?” he said playfully.  “One never can tell what us foreigners are going to attach ourselves to, eh?” he finished conspiratorially and got a laugh out of Elizabeth.

Mark watched the balance of power shift.  Well done, Luka, he thought.

“Remind me not to leave you alone with my girlfriend for too long,” Mark said.  “You just made common cause against me much too easily.  I think you’re far too persuasive with women.”

Elizabeth laughed and smacked Mark playfully on the arm.  Pricked by his conscience, Luka’s temper flared before he could catch it.

“I do one stupid thing, everybody thinks I’m this kind of man.”

Mark and Elizabeth turned in unison.  “It’s a *joke*, Luka,” Elizabeth said.  “Okay, that’s it Kovac,” Mark said at the same time.  “What the hell is going on.  Nobody thinks anything other than you are the most reclusive man alive.  You’re downright monastic. And you’re clearly going through some personal hell right now and believe it or not there are people who would help if you’d let them.”

Luka laughed out loud.  “Monastic?  What a choice of words, Mark.  Did you do that on purpose?  Monastic?  No, they kicked me out a few days ago.  I guess that’s why I’m in, what did you call it, my personal hell?”

“Luka,” Mark began impatiently.

“Hold on,” Elizabeth interrupted.  The waiter was setting their pizza on a stand next to the table.  “Everybody eat a piece of pizza,” Elizabeth commanded.  “Never go to bed angry, and never start a fight hungry.  Eat.”

Luka looked at Elizabeth and she rose a notch in his estimation.  “You should have known my wife, Elizabeth,” Luka said gratefully.  “You sounded just like her just now.  Of course, she was usually speaking to the children in that tone,” he continued with a smile, “but I guess Mark and I qualify.”

Luka never mentioned his family and the almost off hand nature of the remark caught Mark off guard.  He looked at Luka in awkward silence.  “You had two children?” Elizabeth asked.

Luka hesitated.  “Yes.  Jasna and Marko,” he replied before biting off a mouthful of pizza. 

“Well, you and Mark do qualify as children sometimes,” she replied jokingly.

Mark looked at Elizabeth.  Elizabeth to the rescue.  Bringing her had been a good idea after all.  He smiled at her and kissed her cheek.

Luka swallowed.  “My Jasna was the older.  She inherited the Kovac stubborn streak.  Whenever she pitched a tantrum Marija would say, she sure is your daughter, Luka, no doubt about that. Marko was an angel. Clearly my wife’s son.”  Luka shook his head.  “If I didn’t know better I’d say my wife had found a nicer man to make that bundle with, but of course I’m joking. A man couldn’t ask for a better wife.”  He bit off another mouthful.  Marija, he thought, you were perfect, and it made him smile.

“How long were you married?” Elizabeth asked.

His manners had completely deserted him at the sight of food. Luka answered between chews.  “We married in 1985.”  He had long ago learned that reply responded to the question without actually forcing him to answer it.

“But you must have been so young!” Elizabeth sounded surprised.

“I was twenty.  She was nineteen. I just couldn’t wait anymore.  I felt I’d waited an eternity already.  I’d set my heart on her years before.  You know how it is when you’re young, everything’s an eternity.  I still don’t know how I convinced her father I’d be a good husband to her, I was going to medical school, I didn’t have a job, I didn’t know how I’d support her.  I just knew I had to marry her.  From the minute she let me take her for a walk by the ocean, I knew I had to marry her.  Somehow I convinced her father to give me her hand.”

“Of course you did, Luka,” Elizabeth said. “Anybody can take one look at you and see you were born to be a family man. I’d think a father would be happy to trust his daughter with a man like you.  It must have shown even then.  What a father you must make, Luka.”

“Elizabeth…” Mark cautioned.

Luka glanced at Elizabeth, then to Mark.  “It’s all right, Mark.  It’s not that I don’t like to talk about my family, or pretend I didn’t have one.  That idea is insulting to them somehow.  If I don’t speak of them often, it’s just because I know it makes people uncomfortable, especially Americans.  Nobody here knows how to speak of the dead.  It’s like you’re afraid to.  Not you personally, I mean Americans.  It’s different at home.”

Mark thought of his dad.  Luka had been one of the few people besides Elizabeth to give him more than a perfunctory “sorry about your dad.”  It had seemed strange at the time since he and Luka weren’t what anybody would call close, but Luka’s words of sympathy had been more genuine than even Carol’s now that he thought about it.  Only Elizabeth had surpassed Luka in genuine compassion.

“Maybe you’re right about that.  I’m sorry if I’ve never given you the chance to speak of them.”  Mark thought of Rachel, how he loved talking about her, how he’d brag about her soccer games to anybody who listened and some who didn’t.  He thought of Luka having his own beloved Rachel and was instantly sorry for every question he’d never asked.

“I spoiled my Jasna something awful.  You know how it is with daughters, eh, Mark?  You want to give them the world and they look at you with their sweet faces and you just know you’ll die the day that little girl falls in love with another man and gives that look to him instead.  I must have broken my father-in-law’s heart, eh?  Taking his little girl, and she was still so young.  I don’t know, Elizabeth.  I loved my kids.  I watched Marija watch me with them.  I think I pleased her in that way, she thought I was a good father, I made her proud like that.  I was good enough to keep her wanting more kids, anyway. But it’s hard to rate yourself as a parent, Elizabeth.  You’re sure you’re never good enough, isn’t that right Mark?”

“True,” Mark replied.  His chest ached at the thought of losing Rachel, and for the first time he really considered what it must take for Luka to get through the day sometimes.  He didn’t know if he could do it himself.  Even imagining it caused him physical pain.  “I’m always worried I’m screwing up with Rachel.  Generally you rely on other people to tell you you’re doing a good job.  Your own parents.  Your wife.  A friend or two.  Doug used to say I was a good dad, not that Doug would’ve known back then.”  Mark watched Luka for a reaction.

“One question, Mark, and then I’ll stop.  Will he be a good father to those girls?”

Mark considered the question.  “Two years ago I might have said no, or at least I’m not sure.  But Doug’s father died a few years ago, and he found his way back to Carol, and he started changing.  It took him longer to grow up than most, but he grew up eventually.  If Rachel ever comes home with a man like Doug was five years ago I’ll change the locks and rip the phone out of the wall.”  Mark chuckled and shook his head.  “You I would let in the house, by the way.  No, today, I’d have to say Doug’s a good man.  Yes, Luka, you don’t have to worry. He’s loved her for what, ten years?  Fifteen years?  I can’t even remember a time they weren’t Carol-and-Doug.  He’ll treat all three of them like queens.”  Mark suddenly realized he had gone too far.  Luka didn’t need to know all of that; he had tried hard to court Carol, and in fairness to Luka, she had given him hope after all.

“Well then,” Luka said and took another large bite out of his third slice.  Mark and Elizabeth looked at each other.

“Luka, when was the last time you ate a decent meal?” Elizabeth asked.

“Ah, there you go like my wife again,” Luka said to deflect the question.  Elizabeth bit, but Mark didn’t.

“Luka.  When did you last eat properly?”

Luka sighed and closed his eyes.  “Two nights ago.  Pasta.”  He couldn’t resist a small memory of Anna in his shirt on the living room floor.  I really messed that up, didn’t I?

“Alright, Kovac.  Out with it.  What’s up?”

“It’s nothing, Mark.  A moral lapse on my part.  Nothing life threatening.  And not your business.”

“You’re not eating and you’re not sleeping.  Do I need to worry about patients, Luka?  If so, it’s my business.”

“You tell me Mark,” Luka replied.  “You watched me all day.  What do you think?”

Mark was cornered on that one.  Luka had been great where patients were concerned and Mark knew Luka knew it.  And Luka knew Mark knew it too.

“Okay, you’re right.  For now,” Mark conceded.  “But try to choke something down a little more than every other day, will you?”

Luka nodded with his mouth full.  Mark grabbed another slice while there was still something left.  “Elizabeth, grab some more now or it’s going down the Croatian black hole,” Mark said jokingly with a nod to Luka.  Okay, Kovac, I’ll drop it for now, he seemed to say.  But I’m watching you.

They finished the pizza in silence.  Mark stood up.  “Speaking of children, I promised Rachel I’d call her before her soccer game tomorrow and I think it’ll be too late when we get home.  And you’ve got me feeling especially sentimental about her tonight.  Do you mind if I disappear for a few minutes?”

“Call your daughter, Mark,” Luka said warmly.  He pushed aside a small taste of grief.  If things had been different, he thought, maybe Jasna and Rachel would be friends.

*  *  *  *  *

Luka lie awake in bed going over the evening.  He had actually enjoyed himself a bit.  It was good to share dinner with somebody again, a little conversation.  It had been a long time since Carol left. 

It had been interesting watching Mark and Elizabeth as a couple; they didn’t hide their relationship at the hospital but they certainly maintained a professional rapport at work.  Over dinner he had been able to watch them relax and relate to one another in a different way.  Elizabeth in particular seemed quite different out of the hospital. Not at all the same woman who had stared him down from the elevator doors.  He recalled her playful swat at Mark’s arm, the way she had laughed at him.  He was starting to think they were more well suited for one another than he had given them credit for.

But spending the evening with a couple had been hard on him.  Sitting alone on his side of the booth.  Being on the outside of that certain type of laughter that passes between a man and a woman.  When they had said goodnight at his transfer station, they went on home together, and he came home alone to this empty apartment and this empty bed.  I am tired of this empty apartment and this empty bed, he thought.  He thought of Anna for the hundredth time.  Of how absurdly happy it had made him to say “good morning” to her.  To wake up and have somebody there to say good morning to.  He briefly wondered if her were infatuated with her or just the idea of her, the idea of a woman he could hold.  He wondered again if he hadn’t in fact used her quite badly.  But that doesn’t make it easier for me to stop thinking about her, he thought.  I liked her from the start, he told himself.  Surely there is something more there.

He had to find her again, if only to find out.


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