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The mistress of medicine

When I married my husband, I had no idea there would be a mistress one day.

When I met the man who would become my husband, he was not yet a doctor. He was 22, a black belt, a waiter in a fancy restaurant, and very handsome. He knew all kinds of things about champagne and paté, cocktails, and sushi.

We met in our college martial arts club. I was 19 and on fire with a newfound power to use my body to make fierce poetry with my hands and feet. He was drawn to that.

I was smitten with his kicks, his cool mix of fighting skills, and his culinary sophistication.

He was a bit of a bad boy with great potential. He was still on the cusp of choosing a direction for his life, wavering between culinary school and medical school.

I told myself I didn’t care what he did as long as he was happy.

But looking back, I had secretly hoped he’d pick medicine — and that medicine would pick him.

Why I don’t exactly know. There were no doctors in my family. I had no idea what it would actually mean to be married to one.

I guess I was drawn, as much as he, to the image of doctors. The hero. The savior. The one everyone would bestow prestige and respect upon. The one everyone would be happy to see. The special one.

I wanted a career of equal prestige and power. Maybe a lawyer or a psychologist, or a writer. Before “power couple” was a phrase, that’s what I wanted for us.

But I knew then there was really no one worthy of more admiration and respect than doctors. At the end of the day, his pursuit of medicine would be our future family’s ticket to good schools, neighborhoods, and any resources we would ever need — especially the best medical care.

This part did turn out to be true.

He would sit in my apartment, studying for the MCAT, while I baked chocolate chip cookies or read books, sighing at the beautiful words, dreaming that one day I might write books as beautiful myself.

Soon after he matched, we decided to get married. He finished his first year of medical school while I finished my undergraduate degree. Two weeks after I graduated from college and another two after our wedding, we drove across the country, leaving my tearful parents in Northern California.

We wrote thank you letters while camping in Banff, driving in our little B52 pickup truck to Chicago for our honeymoon.

Soon after we arrived in Chicago, he plunged back into medical school. It took me a while to find a job as I was well educated but prepared for nothing except “critical thinking.” Potential employers were not impressed with the skill.

I’d sit waiting for him in our South Side apartment, past dark, reading Falkner or something to make me feel smart while the scent of other people’s dinners floated in from the hallway.

When he finally returned home, smelling of formaldehyde, I would glom onto him and pepper him with questions about the body he was dissecting.

How did it feel to be with a dead body? I asked. What was that like?

His answers were decidedly flat. He was tired, and either had no desire or simply didn’t know how to bring me into his life.

It was the first time I’d felt intense loneliness. My bones hurt with the longing to belong to something — school or a profession, our marriage.

No matter how much he showered, he couldn’t completely get rid of the smell of formaldehyde.

This was the beginning of his affair with medicine.

This was when I first learned about his mistress, Medicine.

Medicine is so much more than a profession. You don’t just take a job, you take a vow. If you’re already married, this is a problem.

While I learned, as other doctor’s wives warned me, to put his profession before all else, it was an intensely lonely life. Both for him and for me.

We did our very best, but in the end, our marriage could not survive the presence of the mistress of medicine.

There were other things, too, that broke down our marriage. But from the beginning, medicine weakened our chances, encouraging him to turn off his feelings and shut down to survive.

And we were so very young.

Each night, he returned tight-lipped, with the scent of another on him. Medicine stole his attention and made me yearn for the man I’d met, who was a waiter in a fancy restaurant.

I know there have been many times, too, when he wondered what his life would have been like had he chosen culinary school. And more than once, I know he yearned to have the kind of job you could leave at the end of the day.

But in the end, this is what he was made for. He is damn good at it, the best of him going to his patients every day.

Now, the question is, what will he do next? What will happen when his marriage to medicine ends, which it inevitably will?

Susan Hart Gaines is an executive coach.


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