Doctors Without Borders

Christopher Heffernan

Photo Credit: jean-boris-h/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The room opened in front of me from the kitchen back to where three floor-to-ceiling windows looked out from Brooklyn to Manhattan, where the stairs for the loft began and where there were people in clusters with drinks, all around talking. I stepped off the elevator and took off my coat, putting it over my arm. Georgette saw me and waved but did not come over and I stood waiting for her. When she looked again I raised my coat and smiled and she put a hand on one of her friends and finally came to me. “Oh, Teddy, you’ve been here so much you don’t need me to tell you what to do.”

“I wasn’t sure if there was some special coatroom for tonight. I didn’t know how you were organizing the place.”

“The coats go in the closet,” she said, opening the door. “Like always.”

I took out a hanger and hung it up. “Who’s all here?”

She smiled. “The gang. We didn’t go too heavy on the food. Cheese plates and a few sausages and things. Take what you want,” she said, leaving me.

A few bottles of wine stood open on the counter and I poured myself a glass of red and looked through the crowd until I saw Claire. She had on a black dress with a sequin belt and a little black purse and every time she laughed she switched the purse to her other hand.

“You should put that down and get yourself a drink,” I said to her.

She looked at me and smiled and kissed me on the cheek. “Where have you been?”

“Everywhere,” I said.

She introduced me to her friends whose names I forgot immediately.

“I’ve already had enough to drink,” she said. “Maybe I’ll have one later but right now it’s a little too much.”

“I hope you had some of the Cabernet. It’s delightful.”

“Jeremy’s here,” she said. “Isn’t that a kick?”

“Jeremy?” I said.

Then she asked about my day. I started to tell her this and that and watched her smile as I spoke but nothing much was going on and I subtly switched things over to her, wanting to know what cases she was working and when she tried to insist that what she was doing was boring, I peppered her for details, laughing at her little insecurities and seeing her face light up as she talked about her office, finally someone actually interested in the incompetent people she knew losing clients as they cheated on their spouses and robbed the petty cash.

Three flights up the back stair was a fire door that the alarm never sounded for where you could get on the roof and see the skyline and see the fireworks unabated. I had been thinking about this all week, knowing about this party and knowing she would probably be here, and figured I could sneak a bottle and two glasses and get her to follow me by telling her there was a secret door and secret stairs and she would know what it was all about but the fun of pretending that everything was a mystery would make things tingly.

“Come,” she said, then put a hand on my arm. “Come. Let’s go in the back.” She led me down the hall where the sound of the crowd out front died away and I was reminded of when I was a child ducking out to lie alone on my parents’ bed at Christmastime, far from everyone, on all the fur coats. Where my child’s mind was warm and buried and could wander through the perfumes of my aunts and the ladies from town my mother knew who would sometimes come for dessert on the holidays. We went to the back bedroom where there was a group of people sitting on the bed and floor in front of Jeremy who stood against the desk with his arms folded across his chest, talking, saying something that he broke off from when we came in.

“Oh my goodness,” he said. “Look who it is. How’ve you been, old bean?”

“Fine,” I said.

“Where’ve you been hiding yourself? We’ve all been wondering where you were,” he said.

I looked around the room and did not recognize any of the people.

“Busy,” I said.

“Doing what? Work can’t take up every moment of the day.” He laughed and then the others laughed and then Claire laughed.

“Actually,” I said, “I was finishing up my application for Doctors Without Borders.”

“Teddy’s gonna save the world,” Claire said, putting an arm around me. “At least the sick people part of it.”

“Really?” Jeremy said.

“Something like that,” I said.

He looked at Claire, then looked at me. “That’s a tough gig.”

“I’ve heard,” I said.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” he said.

I didn’t know what he meant.

“Talk about what?” Claire said.

“When I was in Doctors Without Borders,” he said.

“You were in Doctors Without Borders?” Claire said.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” he said.

He was never in Doctors Without Borders.

“Well, I don’t want to stir up any ghosts,” she said.

“Ghosts?” he said. “That’s all that’s left, I guess. It was a very long time ago. When I was first out of med school and I had all that vigor and thought I would go take on the world. Like Teddy here. But I was an idiot. There’s no other way to say it.”

He was never in Doctors Without Borders. When he was first out of med school he was giving throat cultures to the grandkids of Vietnam vets in some shit-water military town in the California desert.

“They sent me to Africa,” he said.

“Where in Africa?” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “All of Africa is in so much need. Anyway, it’s not a great story, it’s just that there was this virus going around this town and we, the doctors without borders, were there helping. The virus was spreading faster than we could contain it. We had run out of penicillin and things were getting desperate so we had to declare a quarantine until the U.N. could step in and get us some supplies. People started dying. Things were getting scary.”

He looked at Claire. “I was terrified. Everyone was terrified. This little nothing virus from the jungle that didn’t even have a name. It was…” he said, then he mouthed something no one could hear.

“So anyway,” he continued. “One morning, this little boy, Obudon—he was this little guy that hung around the offices—he wanted to come to America and play basketball. He used to make us all laugh. So this one morning he comes to me and he says, Mr. Jeremy, I’m not feeling so good. And I knew. I knew what it was. His sisters and his brother were all sick. In fact, his brother had died. But he just kept on going, just kept on going like a little spark plug. I’m gonna play basketball in America, he kept telling us. I looked at him when he told me he wasn’t feeling well and all I wanted to do was cry. But I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t let him know I was scared. I had to be strong. Or at least seem strong. There had to be some hope for this little boy. Some hope for all of us. Some sort of strength the dying could draw on from the living. To keep us going. It was terrible. Now I knew the offices two towns over had penicillin. But only a little bit. Only enough for them and they were outside our quarantine. So, you know,” he said, again looking at Claire, “I knew what I had to do. I couldn’t take the jeep because that would arouse suspicion, so me and Obudon had to walk the fifteen miles to the offices in the middle of the night and break into the offices and steal the penicillin. Which we did. Fifteen miles there. Fifteen miles back. But my superiors found out and for saving Obudon’s life they put me on a plane back to the States. One way ticket. Gone.”

Then he said, “No more Doctors Without Borders.”

“Oh my God,” Claire said. “Why didn’t you ever tell me this?”

“That’s so crazy,” one of the girls on the bed said.

“Wow, man,” a guy said.

“Excuse me,” Jeremy said, and pushed by out of the room. He went down the hall and stopped in front of the bathroom where he looked at the floor and rubbed his eyes. Claire jogged out after him. She put a hand on his shoulder and patted his chest.

The crowd was looking around me, through the door.

“It’s all lies,” I said. “He was never in Doctors Without Borders, he was never in Africa and I’m pretty sure Obo-whatever-the-fuck is not even an African name. I’ve known that guy forever. It’s all lies.”

“You need to relax,” one of the guys on the floor said.

“Why would he make it up?” one of the girls on the bed said.

“It didn’t really sound made up,” the other girl on the bed said.

“Why would he make it up,” the first girl said, “when he would know that you would know that he was lying?”

“Because he’s that much of a prick,” I said. And I walked out.

“I mean, it didn’t really sound made up,” I heard from behind me.

They were not in the hall and the bathroom door was locked. I punched the door as I went by.

I went to the kitchen and poured myself another wine and then coming out to the living room saw, miracle of all miracles, Claire by herself by the tall windows.

“Hey,” I said, coming up to her, “is everything alright?”

“He was just a little upset,” she said.

“Yeah, the funny thing about that is…” I started to say, but a tall guy with a beard in a black sweater came up to us and handed Claire her coat.

“Thanks,” she said to him. “Teddy, this is Gil.”

“How’s it going?” he said, and stuck his hand out.

I shook it. I looked at Claire, trying to figure out what was happening.

“He’s giving me a ride home,” she said.

“You’re leaving? Why are you leaving?” I tried to laugh. “The night’s just starting. It’s not even midnight. You know, there’s this stairway…” I started to say.

“Gil’s a bike messenger. He’s one of those guys who rides like a maniac through traffic.”

“And let me guess, he’s giving you a ride home on his bike.”

“Ha!” he said. “That would be impossible. There isn’t even a basket on that bad boy. No, no, I have a Vespa that I ride sometimes. You know, I take it out when I want to be casual.”

“A Vespa,” Claire said. “So we’re going. We’re gonna go be maniacs in the street. He’s gonna take me all around.”

“But it’s cold,” I said.

“Not really. I’ll see you,” she said, and waved at me over her shoulder.

I watched them go.

Jeremy came up behind me. “Well,” he said. He put his arm around my neck and we were looking at Claire waiting for the elevator.

“I’m gonna fucking kill you one day,” I said to him.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“You’re gonna end up on my table with a boil on your ass and I’m gonna stick my scalpel in your goddamn ear. I don’t care if I get the electric chair. I swear to Christ. I swear to fucking Christ I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you.”


Christopher Heffernan has had poetry and fiction published in magazines and journals including The Writer’s Journal, Summerset Review, The Believer, Midway Journal, Cottonwood, Talking River, The Broadkill Review as well as the anthology You’re A Horrible Person, But I Like You. In 2015 his book of poetry and flash fiction, Rag Water, was published by Fly By Night Press. Email: christopherheffernan1[at]