It never fails. Every morning someone calls too early and wakes me from a peaceful sleep. "I didn't wake you, did I?" they always ask when I pick up, even though I sound like I've just had my larynx removed.
This morning it's Carolyn who calls: "How was the MCAT?" she wants to know. Yesterday, for 12 hours, I took the MCAT, which is the standardized test required for medical school admissions.
"Let me put it this way," I reply. "One day you're driving along, roof down, Chopin on the CD player, and BOOM! Out of nowhere, some drunken driver hits you, and you end up in the ER, bloody and dazed and in need of emergency surgery. You don't know the surgeon, but he's about to slice you open. Does it really matter whether or not the surgeon can determine the difference between Hellenistic and Hellenic art? Because the MCAT people think that Future Doctors of America should know this kind of thing." Carolyn thinks I'm still half-asleep, confused. She asks if she should call me later.
"I'm not confused!" I explain. "The people who write the MCAT are confused! They put science passages in the verbal section--glaciers and Jupiter and stuff--but they didn't put any verbal passages in the science section. I mean, in the biology section, they never asked, 'If Virginia Woolf had hypoglycemia, the effect on her literature would be ...?' "
After we hang up, I get out of bed, go to the window, and see a platoon of Range Rovers lined up the entire length of my block. Must be an open house. I live in Brentwood, around the corner from Nicole's infamous condo and Monica's father's telegenic home. You'd think this proximity might deter people from the neighborhood, on karmic if not practical grounds, but the real estate market is booming here. I stare at all the couples climbing out of their sport utilities and consider going running. Consider cleaning my office. Consider editing the magazine piece an editor's been asking for. End up reading the Sunday Times and comparing the number of best sellers my publishing house has relative to all the other houses. I lie in bed and screen my calls all morning.
Around noon, I'm off to brunch, then hiking, with two friends--a doctor and a writer. The doctor tells me that when he took the MCAT 10 years ago, he freaked out, because he realized that everything he'd worked for, his very future, would be determined by the 10 passages staring up at him from the test booklet. "I just panicked," he says. "Suddenly my whole life came down to those 10 passages." This friend is a cardiac surgeon now, and I ask him how he manages to stay calm when instead of 10 test passages, a person's exposed chest cavity stares up at him each day. "Well, that's completely different," he replies matter-of-factly. "The MCAT was life or death for me, but during surgery, I'm not the one on the table."
On the way down the mountain, the writer, who also happens to be my ex-boyfriend, mentions that yesterday he met the woman who just moved into the apartment across from his. She's the daughter of A-list celebrity parents, but she's Asian and was adopted. Apparently, she was with the agency that brokered the Soon-Yi adoption, and the two baby girls came over on the same plane. Mia Farrow chose Soon-Yi, and this other actress picked the neighbor. Later, when my ex-boyfriend was chatting in the neighbor's apartment and saw a picture of her fiance, he quipped, "Well, he's a lot better-looking than Woody." She gave him a quizzical look. "You know, you could have been the one who ended up with Woody." Now, on the trail overlooking Bel Air, my ex-boyfriend tells us that he meant it as a comment on the capriciousness of life, that it was misconstrued by the neighbor. "Do you think she's angry?" he asks. "Well," I hedge, "I don't think she'll be asking you to water her plants when she goes out of town."
After the hike, I take one of those long, careful showers that single people take before a date. My bathroom smells like fragrant wildflowers, but somehow I end up smelling like organic chem lab the day we fermented alcohol. My date, Matt, had seen me at a party last week, but we never actually spoke that night, because he was with a woman and I was with a man. We assumed the other person was "unavailable" and, let's be honest, who needs more friends, especially attractive ones you may want to sleep with? I was looking forward to the date, because Matt went to Harvard and I went to Yale, so we knew each other's classmates, and we've had two great three hour phone conversations in the interim. Matt sort of annoys me on the date, though. At one point we're in a parking lot, looking for a space, and even though there are several spaces, Matt insists on finding one right next to the entrance. But by the time we get to the entrance, all those spots are taken, and when we circle around to take the passed-up spaces, they've all been taken too. Now I realize that this is sort of a metaphor for what I struggle with in my life, when it comes to choosing boyfriends, or jobs, or entrees in a restaurant--I'm always wondering: How close to the ideal is close enough before you decide to turn the wheel and pull in to a space?
Lori Gottlieb is Los Angeles-based writer whose first book, Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self, is forthcoming. She is currently applying to medical school.