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More Than Just a Kiss (prelude) Meeting in Manhattan

"Sequel to "Anything Might Happen" and prequel to my, "More Than Just A Kiss" series."

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The short-haired brunette named, Gwen Kaplan seemed a little taller than most girls and a lot prettier. Her eyes were a soft, almost liquid brown, the classic bedroom eyes, and that smile of hers managed to be both innocent and yet, somehow, inviting. 

On Monday, June 8, 1970, at 2:30 P.M., New York City time, Gwen Kaplan lost her concentration. While bent over the upturned face of a patient with glaucoma, preparing to place a dilating solution into his eyes, she heard the rhythmic click of hard-soled shoes approaching on the hospital’s tile floor.

It was an uncommon sound. Most staff members favored soft-soled shoes while hospitalized patients wore slippers, and the outpatient clinic was about to close. Curious, she glanced toward the noise. A tall, good-looking guy with a briefcase seemed to be heading in her direction. Judging from his well-cut gray suit, she first thought he might be a doctor. But with his dark, collar-length hair, he looked younger than any resident she knew.

He wore glasses with thick, cataract lenses like some of the older patients. But he sure didn’t look like a patient. Most of them ranged in age from old to ancient and never showed up in business suits.

Puzzled, she watched as he veered right and strode behind the sea of plastic chairs. At the entrance to the ophthalmology ward, he effortlessly opened one of the heavy fire doors and disappeared inside.

“Hey, watch what you’re doing! You nearly got that stuff in my mouth.” The indignant cry snapped Gwen’s attention back to her patient.

“What? Oh, no! Oh, I’m so sorry.” To her horror, the man sported a drop of medicine on his upper lip. Mortified, she reached for a tissue. “Please, let me wipe it off.”

After dabbing away all traces of the misdirected liquid, she finished the interrupted treatment with a series of perfectly placed drops and another round of apologies. “That’s okay, kid,” said the patient. “Its just that you been right on the mark with the other guys. You missing like that kinda surprised me.”

“Me, too,” she admitted, giving him a rueful smile. Students with summer jobs as Nurse Techs seldom got to work in the outpatient clinic, much less administer medications. That’s why she’d been thrilled when Dr. Greenman asked for her that morning and grateful when Mrs. Anding, the ward’s head nurse, agreed. Now she’d repaid their trust by almost putting dilating drops into a patient’s mouth.

The patient, a pot-bellied, middle-aged World War II vet, patted his bald head and winked. “It must have been all this long hair, plus my good looks and Italian charm—that always distracts you pretty girls.”

“That must have been it. But if I want to be a nurse, I’ll have to learn how to resist even those distractions.”

“Don’t worry, I can tell you’re gonna be a good one.”

Before Gwen could thank him, he continued. “There’s just one thing. I don’t think I got any of that stuff in my mouth. But I was kind of wondering if, you know, it’s poison or anything.”

Gwen noticed his worried, little grin and tried to assure him the medicine was harmless. After promising the doctors would see him in just a few minutes, she retreated into the exam room.

“How many more patients?” asked Harold Greenman. The tall, slender chief resident ophthalmologist was perched like a crane on a low stool, filling out a patient report.

For Gwen, the only thing worse than admitting her mistake would be the doctors learning about it from a patient. “Just a couple, unless one has run away thinking I’m trying to poison him.” She felt young, incompetent, and very embarrassed.

Greenman looked up, studied her worried face and then, to Gwen’s surprise, grinned. “Miss Kaplan, Nurse Tech’s do not, I say again, do not have permission to poison any of the patients.”

“Why not?” demanded Hank Epstein, the other doctor in the room. “There’s a whole bunch I wouldn’t mind getting rid of, although Mr. Wilson here isn’t one of them.” He and Mr. Wilson, a middle-aged black patient, were sitting on opposite sides of a small table, both leaning forward into a slit lamp, a powerful magnifying device used for eye exams.

“I’m glad to hear that,” laughed Mr. Wilson.

Dr. Epstein leaned back, his stocky body overflowing the low stool, and rubbed his temples. “I’ve got something you’ll be even gladder of. Did I just say, gladder? God, it’s been a long day. Anyway, your glaucoma seems back under control. So let’s stay on your present medications until you come back next month.”

“Thank you, doctor.” Mr. Wilson stood and shook Epstein’s hand. “I’ll see you then. And don’t you and Dr. Greenman fuss too much at this young lady. She’s been doing a fine job out there.”

As the patient left, Epstein looked at Gwen. “Now what’s this about poisoning a patient? Hell, that’s way too expensive. I bet it’s not even in the budget. Just make him eat in the cafeteria for a month or so. You’ll get the same results.”

“No can do,” responded Greenman. “That would fall under the cruel and unusual punishment clause.”

“Damn VA regs.”

Greenman turned his attention to Gwen. “But, why don’t you tell us what happened?”

Gwen, whose mood had begun to lighten, once again grew somber. “I was prepping a patient and let myself get distracted and almost put a drop of dilating fluid in his mouth.”

“You do know that stuff’s not poisonous, don’t you?” said Greenman.

Keeping her gaze riveted to the floor, Gwen nodded. Having Dr. Greenman question her knowledge, even in his nice way, was making her feel even worse. “I tried to reassure him and he seems to believe me. But he was worried.”

Dr. Epstein grunted as he reached under his stool for a clipboard. “I’ve been told it tastes rotten. But if bad taste killed, the Beverly Hillbilly’s would be mass murderers. Who was it anyway?”

Gwen glanced at the list on her own clipboard. “Uh, it was a Mr. Conti.”

“Oh, hell. Don’t you dare mess with Conti. He and Wilson are two of the real good guys. Both have glaucoma and always show up together for their checkups.”

“So what was the distraction?” asked Greenman, placing the completed form into a folder.

Gwen took a deep breath. “I heard someone wearing dress shoes get off the elevator. I thought maybe I should see if he was coming to the clinic. So I glanced up and saw this big guy in a gray suit. He went on to the ward. The thing is, I couldn’t figure him out. He seemed too young to be a doctor. But he sure didn’t look like a patient either, except he had on glasses with thick lenses, like someone who had cataract surgery.”

“So while eyeing this guy with the snazzy suit and thick glasses, you missed Mr. Conti’s eye. Am I right?” asked Greenman.

Gwen didn’t want the doctors to think she’d been ‘eyeing’ someone, but decided not to debate the point and just made a repentant nod.

Epstein broke in. “Well, I’ve got a hunch she’s just had her first encounter with young Mr. Mark Cahill.”
Greenman nodded. “For once today, you may be right. I remember Mrs. Anding telling me he was supposed to show back up this afternoon. He’s a boarder, Miss Kaplan, not really a VA patient. We let him keep a few civilian clothes up on the ward because he has to go out several times a week.”

Epstein frowned. “If that was Cahill, the moment he’s finished checking in, Anding will pull Kaplan away to take him an admit pack. That means our hard working Nurse Tech will be out of here in about ten or fifteen minutes, max.”

Greenman nodded. “It’s just more proof war really is hell. But in case I don’t get the chance later, let me say it’s been a pleasure working with you, Miss Kaplan. You were right to tell us about the mistake, but don’t let it bother you. I hope Anding will let us have you next week.”

“There you go again,” said Epstein, tossing his clipboard back on the floor, “spoiling the hired help. Next thing you know, she’ll be expecting us money-grubbing doctors to treat her like a real human being.”

“Never happen in this man’s VA,” laughed Greenman. “Okay, bring in another batch, Miss Kaplan.”

As the doctors had predicted, a few minutes later, Gwen was out of the exam room and pushing a small utility cart loaded with items for the new admission, Mark Cahill.

For days prior to his much anticipated return, the staff kept telling her about this big, likable guy from the south. An explosion in Vietnam had blinded him, they said. He’d re-gained some sight in one eye after a corneal transplant by a world-famous ophthalmologist. Now he was staying at the VA while going to the doctor’s uptown hospital during the week.

They also went on and on about how William Taylor, the famous political columnist, was his friend. Taylor, they said, had even come up to the ward one day with Mark’s first pair of eyeglasses.

It was fascinating to think of a celebrity like William Taylor being on the ward. But the chance to meet someone her own age who’d been wounded in Vietnam, was what interested her the most.

All of her college friends were passionate liberals and committed to things such as civil rights, protecting the environment and, above all else, ending the war in Vietnam. Along with most of her classmates, she went to the funeral of Jeffrey Miller, one of the students killed by National Guard bullets during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University.

A few days later, during an anti-war rally at city hall, she was hit on the head while working at a first-aid station. It happened after a fight broke out between demonstrators carrying signs and construction workers wearing hard-hats.

Gwen never knew what hit her, and she wasn't really hurt. What stunned her most was the thought someone would throw things at people working in a first-aid station. The papers later dubbed the melee’ the, Wall Street Riot.

With all her heart, she wanted the war to end and always grieved while watching news of the violence and killing in Vietnam. But, she was also patriotic and refused to condemn the young men sent there to do the fighting. After all, her father, like most of the men in her family, was in the service during World War II.

With few exceptions, the ward’s patients were her father's age or older. Almost all the young vets in the hospital were wheelchair-bound quadriplegics and paraplegics who’d been wounded in Vietnam. She hadn't met any, however. They tended to keep to themselves on their own ward while undergoing extensive rehabilitation. Except for her boyfriend’s two-month career in the Navy, she knew no one her own age who'd been in the service, much less gone to Vietnam.

Gwen liked Mrs. Anding and she’d been looking forward to meeting this new guy. So it was all right with her if the head nurse got a kick out of arranging the meeting, even though it meant leaving the out-patient clinic, putting a set-up together and taking it all the way down to the far end of the hall.

Ward 4 South was a long, straight, well-lighted affair. As its name implied, it was located in the southern wing of the hospital's fourth floor. Near the entrance, a series of examination rooms connected to the adjacent nurses' station. Across the hall were doctors' offices, the patients' day room, plus the supply and linen rooms. The rest of the ward consisted of patient rooms and a large, communal latrine. At the far end of the hall was room 24. Inside was the new patient, Mark Cahill.

When she knocked on the door, a voice with a southern accent told her to come in. Pushing her cart into the room, she paused for a moment at the foot of the bed to say hello, introduce herself, and study the new patient, the only occupant in the four-bed room.

The big guy she saw earlier was sitting on the edge of his bed, unpacking a briefcase. He had on a T-shirt and gray dress slacks. A suit coat, shirt, and tie lay across the bed. With the thick cataract glasses he wore, she couldn't make out anything about his eyes. However, she did notice that his dark brown, wavy hair had a stylish cut.

After introducing herself, Gwen finished pushing the small cart into the room. “I’m sure you know the ward’s schedule and procedures. So I’ll spare you that lecture.”

She put a few items on the lavatory and walked over to where the new patient sat. "I brought some things for your nightstand and a pair of pajamas. I hope they fit."

She handed over the pajamas and began looking for a place to put the other items. “Let me,” he said. He tossed the pajamas on the bed and moved the briefcase off the nightstand. "All that for me and I didn't get you a thing for Christmas.”

"No problem." She gave him a quick smile. "I'm Jewish."

He laid the briefcase on his cloths and grinned. "I'm a Reform Druid myself. We worship bushes, not just trees."

She stopped to laugh, then went back to carefully arranging the items on top of the nightstand.

"I’ve got atrocious eyesight,” he said, “but I'm pretty sure you weren't here when I left last month."

"You’re right. I started a couple of weeks ago, right after school ended. It’s a summer job as a Nurse Tech."

"You must be the person Mattie was talking about. She said someone going to school over at Bellevue was working here for the summer."

"That's me." Kneeling, Gwen placed towels in the bottom of the nightstand. "Two years down and two to go."

"I wish you luck. My aunt's a nurse, so I know you've got your work cut out for you."

She stood, gave him another warm smile. "Thanks, I'll need it."

She returned to the cart, then noticed something and turned back. With a slightly embarrassed smile, she held up that indispensable tool of modern medicine, a bedpan. "Looks like I forgot something."

"Here, give me that," he said. "I'll put it away later. A patient and his bedpan must not be parted."

"Thanks, I think." As she handed over the bedpan, Gwen was surprised to feel her cheeks flush. After a businesslike glance around the room, she asked, "Well, is there anything else you need?"

"With all this," he replied, holding up his new acquisitions, "what else could a man want?"

“Beats me. But if you think of something later, just use the call button.” After another welcome to the ward, she said good-bye and pushed her cart out into the hall.

To her surprise, the stories everyone told her were true. This new guy really was good-looking, easy to talk to, and had a nice sense of humor. But as she walked away from their first meeting, Gwen reminded herself that except for those things, Mark Cahill was just another new patient.

Upon her return, the staff made her tell them all about the meeting. Just as she was finishing, the evening shift arrived and made her repeat the story.

"He seems like a real nice guy, and I love his accent," she said during both summations. "And he has a great sense of humor. That’s probably a good thing since it must be tough having to stay up here all alone, especially when you don't know when you'll be going back home."

A few minutes later, she retrieved her purse and left for the day.

Walking up First Avenue toward her dorm, Gwen couldn’t keep from thinking about the new patient. Why did he go to Viet Nam? How did he get hurt? What were his feelings about the war?

Most of all, she kept wondering how he managed to keep his sense of humor after all the pain and loneliness he’d endured and, in fact, must still be going through.

Just being alone at this time of day was enough to make her feel down. As buses filled with homeward bound commuters passed by, she wondered what it must be like to spend weeks, maybe even months, alone in a hospital room such a long, long way from home.

As she entered her dorm, Gwen wondered if she might be able to help, at least with his loneliness. Who knew, maybe they could become friends.

#

Alone in his room, Mark Cahill stared out the window into the growing twilight. His view was to the northeast. While it was possible to catch a glimpse of the East River, the student nurse's dorm, a short distance away at Bellevue Hospital, dominated the view.

Meeting someone who lived in that dorm had to be one of life’s great jokes, he thought. All spring, he’d heard guys carrying on about all the desirable young female nursing students housed in that impregnable citadel.

Mark hadn’t cared. Having an aunt who was a nurse, he knew the work was hard, not glamorous. And since coming back from Viet Nam, women hadn’t been a high priority. It wasn’t that he didn’t like them. A few had practically crawled into bed with him and he’d been up to the challenge. The thing was, he didn’t want any of the emotional baggage that so often came with sex.

What made meeting this girl so strange, however, was running into Rickey earlier that afternoon and hearing him talk about the new “leg.”

At the time, the last thing on Mark’s mind was some girl’s legs. The hot, seemingly unending cab ride from LaGuardia had been a short jaunt in comparison to the time it took to complete all the admissions paperwork. Once the downstairs processing was finished, he gratefully walked out of the admission's area to the hospital's large lobby.

Once on the fourth floor, he got off and turned right. A nurse and a few patients were the only people in the waiting area of the ophthalmology outpatient clinic. He skirted past it, pulled open the double fire doors, and found himself back in the familiar world of Ward 4 South, the "eye" ward.

A few minutes later, he was rolling up his sleeve prior to the mandatory pre-admission check-up. A hand slammed down on his shoulder followed by a familiar voice. "Hey man, have you seen the new ‘leg’ yet?"

Mark turned around, and looked up at the grinning face of Rickey Freeman. The tall, black, fourth generation Connecticut Yankee had been both his roommate and friend when he first arrived on the ward.

Discharged months ago, Rickey had come back to have his eyes re-checked at the outpatient clinic. "I was talking to a friend in the waiting area," he said, "when I saw you strolling by heading toward the ward."

They began rehashing old times and comparing notes on the condition of their eyes while Mattie Washington, an aide they both liked, checked Mark's vital statistics. The conversation soon got back to Rickey’s original question. Apparently sensing Mark's confusion, Rickey gave himself the task of enlightening his country friend. "It's like this, I got here a little early. So I went looking around for you. No luck of course, since you were still AWOL. But I did scope out a new nurse with an absolutely fantastic pair of legs. Seeing them eased some of the intense pain I felt thinking I'd missed you.”

Mattie looked up from the intake form. "That ‘leg,’ as you call her, is a very nice young girl who's going to nursing school over at Bellevue. She's working here this summer as a Nurse Tech.”

Back when Rickey and Mark were roommates, Mattie's teasing and joking helped break up the boredom and monotony that comes with hospital life. Now she gave Rickey one more verbal needle. "And you should be ashamed of yourself. A married man with a loving wife waiting for you back home and here you are with those evil old roaming eyes checking out the legs of some nice young white girl."

They all laughed as Rickey began protesting his innocence with mock sincerity. "Sounds like a guilty conscience to me," said Mark.

Mattie giggled in agreement. "You're right about his guilty conscience. But I will say this much for Rickey, he may be a dirty old man, but he's also right, she does have pretty legs.”

A few minutes later, Mark was alone in his room, unpacking. A discreet knock on the door was followed by a soft, feminine voice. "Is it safe to come in, Mr. Cahill? I've got some things for you."

Moments after answering with a distracted, "No problem," he looked up to see a young woman in a white nurse's uniform pushing a cart into his room. She paused at the foot of his bed to smile and say, "Hello. I'm Gwen Kaplan."

The short-haired brunette named, Gwen Kaplan,seemd a little taller than most girls and a lot prettier. Her eyes were a soft, almost liquid brown, the classic bedroom eyes, and that smile of hers managed to be both innocent and yet, somehow, inviting.

She took a couple things from the cart and walked over to put them on the lavatory. This movement gave Mark his first chance to study her legs.

Although sitting halfway across the room, even with his lousy eyesight, he felt certain this girl had to be Ricky’s “leg”. They seemed to stretch forever from the hem of her short white skirt down to the matching shoes while her white stockings accentuated their perfect shape.

Returning to her cart, she glanced at him with those melt-your-heart eyes. "I brought you some things for your nightstand and a pair of pajamas.” With an armful of supplies and a bright, friendly smile, she headed his way. "I just hope they fit.”

Now, as he stared out at the Bellevue student nurse’s dorm, Mark told himself the meeting with the girl who lived over there was just a routine encounter. And yet, something was different.

Mark shook his head, turned, and walked to his bed. On the radio, Blood, Sweat & Tears was in the middle of, "Spinning Wheel." Once again, his thoughts returned to the pretty student nurse. After all he’d been through the last couple of years, could that old wheel of fate be spinning his way?

Xxx

For more on Gwen and Mark, check out: stories/romance-/more-than- just-a-kiss.aspx

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Written by Rumple_deWriter
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