A Love Song for the Sad Man in the White Coat – excerpt
A Love Song for the Sad Man in the White Coat – excerpt
MUDr. Simon Mráz, PhD, assistant professor at the First Faculty of Medicine, Charles University in Prague, sat at the center table in the lecture hall, drawing stick figures on his notepad. Instead of his usual white coat, he wore a dark gray jacket that itched uncomfortably around his neck. He squinted at the paper, fighting drowsiness.
Four minutes to half past seven.
It was still mostly dark outside. Who the hell came up with the idiotic notion doctors should learn to rise early? They were no fucking bakers. He felt last night’s long run in his thighs and calves. Even his shoulders ached. He’d overdone it again.
A stick figure scratching its ass. A stick figure showing a middle finger to the public.
Two minutes to half past seven.
A stick figure biting another stick figure’s leg.
The giant lecture hall was barely half full of pale, haggard medics. Simon felt genuinely sorry for them. He wouldn’t pass the test they were facing. A significant part of the horrendous amount of information he had once forced into his brain cells was long forgotten. He didn’t even remember how he had managed the pressure of the last few exams in med school. Thank Evolution for selective memory. There had been a lot of coffee, cigarettes, and fear of choking involved, for sure. Today, he was on the other side. Nobody questioned his knowledge anymore, and this wasn’t even his field. He was just filling in for another assistant professor, playing the guard dog.
He should feel relaxed, detached. He couldn’t.
He scanned the familiar crowd of students and pretended not to look for a certain face. Simon saw him only yesterday in the cafeteria, partly hidden by the crowd, and let himself look longer than he was supposed to. He remembered the curve of the boy’s neck as he bent over the counter. The vertebrae protruding, tendons disappearing under the dark, soft hair on the nape…
Simon blinked his eyes shut and opened them again, eyeing the clock. The fool was going to miss the test. Arrogant punk. There was nothing Simon could do to get the boy out of the mess if he was going to consciously skip the exam.
A stick figure standing on its head. A stick figure biting its own leg.
One minute past half past seven.
Simon could feel the eyes of the students on him. How long could he drag it out? He’d give him two more minutes.
Two more stick figures—punching and kicking each other kung-fu style.
Simon put the pencil down and pretended to count the printed exam forms.
Four minutes after half past seven, the door creaked and Simon’s head snapped. There he was, the infamous Mr. Chrs. His hair stuck out in all directions, he had purple circles under his large glassy eyes, and there was a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead. He’d obviously run here. Old, black Pink Floyd T-shirt, threadbare dark jeans and his usual red sneakers were in place. A great-grandfather of all messenger bags hung over his shoulder; his hoodie was tied to it in a messy knot. He looked thinner than he was because of the paleness and apparent fatigue in his face. The clockwork tattoo on his arm was prominent as he held a paper mug in his hand. He smiled crookedly. The two almost-white circles in Matěj’s otherwise navy blue irises made it difficult to look directly into the young man’s peculiar eyes. And he was out-of-this-world beautiful. Simon thought so, at least. He dropped his gaze before it weirded him out completely.
“Glad you could join us at last, Mr. Chrs,” Simon muttered dryly, gathering the stack of papers.
“Oh, so sorry I’m late, Dr. Mráz. I was getting you coffee. High on sugar, right?” The laughter in his student’s voice made Simon fight his own smile. A few muffled snickers could be heard through the hall. It was not the first time Matěj Chrs had been deliberately inappropriate toward Simon who always had to pretend he didn’t find it refreshing.
Simon put as much sarcasm into his voice as he could muster this early in the morning. “How considerate of you. Sit down, we’re getting started.”
Matěj left the coffee on Simon’s table, winked at him and turned to sit in the generally avoided first row. Simon went through the annoying routine—walking the rows, distributing the exam forms, explaining the rules everybody knew by heart after more than five years in medical school.
“Turn off your phones and do not open the folder until I tell you. You have forty-five minutes. Anybody who speaks, turns their head around or taps Morse code on the table is out. An answer we can’t read is considered incorrect. You need a score of at least seventy-five percent to be admitted to the interview and practical exam in January.”
The rustling of papers and clothes filled the hall, and it sounded like rain. Simon could have closed his eyes and imagined the droplets of water cooling his face. Instead, he sat back at his table facing the rows of nervous students. “Go ahead.”
Every head in the hall bent over the papers and the symphony of scratching pens commenced. Simon scanned the working students for a minute and then went back to his stick figures.
A vomiting stick figure. Surprisingly realistic. How refreshing.
He heard a sigh from the front row and lifted his eyes carefully. The whole room was engrossed with the formidable test in internal medicine. Only one student was focused on Simon, smiling silvery-blue eyes looking at him expectantly. Simon frowned. The beautiful, troublesome Mr. Chrs arched one black eyebrow and pointed his pen toward the coffee mug on Simon’s table. The movement was quick and small, but Simon immediately zeroed in on the mug filled with the allegedly sweet drink. There was a tiny folded piece of paper taped to it. Simon looked back at Matěj, but the young man already seemed to be busy with his test. Simon scanned the room. Every single one of at least forty heads was down.
Simon ripped off the piece of tape and hid the folded paper in the center of his palm. He took a sip of the coffee trying lamely to cover his movements. To his own horror, his hand was shaking visibly. Shit.
The coffee was black, bitter, no milk, no sugar. Damned smart-ass. Simon almost chuckled and then muffled it as a cough at the last second. None of the forty-plus students looked up. The curiosity was going to kill him. Forty-one minutes left.
He fumbled with the paper in his palm, feeling the texture. It was a square, no more than two centimeters. What had the boy done now? Simon tried to open it with one hand under the table. It slipped between his fingers and fell to the floor, next to his right shoe.
He scanned the room again. Nobody was looking at him. The sound of pens dancing on papers was a steady hum. He dared not look at the man in the front row. Feeling like an utter and complete idiot, he knocked his pencil down intentionally with his elbow, paused briefly, and then bent and retrieved both the pencil and the tiny square of white paper. Simon could hear Matěj Chrs smother a laugh when he straightened, the tortured old chair squeaking under him.
He stared at the terrifying white square before he finally opened the note. Nobody else sitting in the hall could see it between the mess of other documents on his table. He’d just risked drawing more attention to himself trying to hide it.
The handwriting was tiny but steady, perfectly legible. The one fateful sentence turned Simon’s neatly organized world into a medieval battlefield.
Are you wondering the same things as I am?
Under the short line was a mobile phone number.
Simon’s heart hammered; he could feel the heat climbing up his throat and flooding his face. Oh, fuck. He crumpled the piece of paper in his suddenly sweaty palm and swiftly put it in his pocket. He took another sip of coffee but coughed on it, spluttering a little on his stick-figure-covered notepad. Fuck, shit, fuckity fuck.
Was Matěj baiting him? Would Simon end up a laughing stock for the entire faculty as the sleazy queer who hit on students? There were maybe four people in the whole university staff and hospital combined who knew he was gay. It was nobody’s business. How did the guy find out? Was Simon really that transparent? He considered himself out of the closet but he didn’t exactly broadcast his sexuality wherever he went. Not that closets had any relevance in his world. Simon felt already like a Russian doll based on how many times he had to out himself. There were still so many walls and doors left. However, the general student population did not know. There was no reason for them to need to know.
Maybe the young man had paid an equal amount of attention to him during the past year…
He could feel Matěj watching him and slowly, warily returned his gaze. Matěj was looking at him in earnest, questioning. His eyebrows drawn together, the corners of his beautifully curved mouth tense. He seemed…nervous? Hopeful? When the realization hit, Simon gripped the edge of the chair under him as if needing an anchor. The young man was genuine. He meant it. He was waiting for Simon’s reaction and biting on the end of his pen. He had the guts to watch Simon make his decision right there. In the middle of an exam, no less. The audacity of the man! Simon admired him for it, envied him even. He managed an almost inscrutable smile and pointed toward the papers on Matěj’s desk. Matěj narrowed his eyes at Simon but returned to his test.
Simon spent the next thirty minutes arguing with himself. Matěj was what, twenty-four? Twenty-five at most. It meant seven years’ worth of an age difference. This was Czech Republic. Liaisons between teachers and students used to be only frowned upon; nowadays it could severely damage Simon’s career. He was gay, so of course the rumors and general judgment would be hundreds of times worse. He could end up mummifying chronic schizophrenics in some small-town madhouse in Slovakia. It was so not worth it.
Did Matěj Chrs really expect Simon to take such risks? And what did it say about Simon as a professional that he was even considering it? They’d eyed each other for months, admittedly, but the signals could still be misread. Simon should ignore it. Pretend it never happened. Surely, Matěj would get the message and back off.
Are you wondering the same things as I am…
Smooth, clever. Matěj was brilliant, but Simon knew that already. He’d spent the whole spring semester watching and analyzing Matěj like a subject in one of his studies. He’d catalogued an impressive amount of detail about his blue-eyed, tattooed student. They were equally intriguing and distressing.
The exam was over, all the tests stuck in a neat pile on his table. Many students lingered in the lecture hall, chatting excitedly as they packed their things. The test today would decide if they’d be admitted to one of the finals. Kind of a big deal. Not an appropriate time for pranks or private matters.
Simon felt Matěj’s eyes on him as he gathered his books and papers and stuffed everything into his oversized bag. Ripping the page from his notepad, he threw the stick-figure drawing into the bin under the lectern and left hastily as if he could outrun his own desire. The tiny crumpled note burned a hole in his pocket.
Ten minutes later, he stood squinting in the cold winter drizzle, enjoying the feel of it on his face. He lit a rare cigarette and stalked toward the metro station. No amount of nicotine and self-harm could soothe him. It was in direct opposition to everything he was aspiring to be, but he was going to do it anyway.
For once in his overly organized life, Simon was going to reach for what he craved.