We go to a bar a few blocks from the hospital. I buy the first round, Taub the second. He starts off hesitantly, as if he doesn't fully believe he's allowed to broach the subject of Kutner with another human being. Once he realizes that I am serious about wanting to know, it frees him, and he delves into the vault of his memory, reaching for every story he can recall. I realize he's been desperate to talk about Kutner to someone, anyone who had also known him. His wife has been understanding to a point, but she didn't know Kutner. She could give sympathy, but could not truly identify with his grief. Perhaps he wants to prove to himself that the good times of the past two years were not dreams, that Kutner was not some figment of his imagination.
The alcohol flows freely at this impromptu wake, and so do the stories of the life and times of Lawrence Kutner. Some of them I've heard before: the way Kutner flipped his number from 6 to 9 to stay in the competition for the fellowship and thought no one would notice; House's revenge for the online clinic Kutner had been running under his name; of course, the infamous near-electrocution with the defibrillators used on the wet patient. We both agree that event was probably the moment that clinched Kutner's spot on the team – House had been beyond impressed, as well as perplexed, with this overzealous kid, christening him his "Defibrillator Specialist." Other stories are told that I haven't heard about: we both have tears of laughter pouring from our eyes when Taub tells me what Kutner had done to House's lounge chair. House neglected to share that information with me, probably out of embarrassment for having been bested. I look forward to bringing it up in his presence somehow in the near future.
Of course, the darkness of regret is brought to the surface, too. Taub shreds the label on his beer bottle as he speaks. "I don't have a lot of friends. I have colleagues from my old practice – people whose dinner parties you attend, people you play a round of golf with on the weekends. But I haven't had a friend in years. I never realized there was anything missing until we began talking, opening up." He pauses to take a sip. "I'm not good at being a friend… not a very good friend." He says this sadly, but it's not alcohol that makes him rephrase that idea. There's a shadow of guilt shrouding that small statement. I ask him why he says that.
"Kutner came up with the diagnosis for our locked-in patient. When House approached us in the locker room, he congratulated us on the idea, and then asked who came up with it. I…" He doesn't want to go on, but he's come too far. "I panicked. House had been harassing me, baiting me. He said if I didn't contribute something significant to the case, I was fired. It was my last chance. So I spoke up and said that the diagnosis was my idea. And Kutner…" He's beginning to get choked up. "He just looked at me and nodded, like he was saying it's okay. I was so ashamed at that moment; I just left, without another word." Taub is crying openly now, the weight of this guilt and shame breaking the barriers behind his eyes. "I…I had no idea that would be the last time I saw him. I had every intention of taking him aside the next day, of explaining, apologizing, making it up to him somehow….When he didn't show up in the morning, I thought, I can help him keep out of trouble – I made up some excuse about his sick dog. I thought I had bought him some time with House….I had no idea….if I hadn't said…" He can't go on. He puts his hand over his eyes and cries silently, ashamed of his sin for which there would be no absolution.
I know what he was going to say before he broke down. He wanted to say if he hadn't lied about where Kutner was, House would've sent someone over to his apartment sooner. He wonders if Kutner would still be alive if he hadn't picked that moment to cover for his friend. He wonders if that moment of panic on his part is the reason Kutner decided to put a bullet in his head. I don't know what pushed Kutner over the edge, but deep in my heart, I don't think it was Taub's "misdeed." I lean forward in my earnestness to tell him so.
"This is not your fault. I can't let you lie to yourself like that. I think we all are bearing some modicum of guilt for what happened, but in the end, Kutner had free will. He made a choice. We don't know what was going through his mind; it's very possible this decision had been made long before that particular moment." Taub is shaking his head beneath his hand. He doesn't believe me, doesn't want to hear my rationalizations. But I can't stop. "Kutner, in spite of whatever was going on in his head or in his heart, was a genuinely nice guy who liked helping people. He liked you. You spoke up first in panic – okay. But I don't think he would have hesitated to give you credit. He knew how rough House was being. He wanted you to keep your job."
Taub tries to wipe his nose with a cocktail napkin. "You're probably right about that. And in the end, House knew the truth. He said so the next day. House knew the whole time, and in his own way he was being merciful to me. He knew. That should make me feel better." He looks at me with reddened eyes, filled with remorse. "But it doesn't. I didn't deserve any of it. Not Kutner's generosity, not House's leniency. I still don't. Every day I go to work, knowing I don't really deserve to be there. This job terrifies me."
"Kutner gave you a second chance. You wanted it, so you reached out and grabbed it. But he let you. So…." I search for the words. "Earn it. Make sure that generosity doesn't go to waste. He wouldn't want you to be afraid anymore. Earn the trust he put in you, earn the sacrifice. Let that last favor he did for you count for something." Taub looks like he's contemplating my words seriously. He nods in agreement. He's too choked up to say anything at this point.
We finish our round, and it's nearing midnight. We are responsible, deciding to share a cab. As we silently roll through the empty streets, he finally speaks again. "I wanted to write a note to Kutner's parents. I haven't been able to find the right words." He fiddles with the buttons on his jacket sleeve. "I think I know what to say now. But I wonder if I waited too long."
He looks to me, for either affirmation of his fear, or reassurance that it's not too late. I know what it's like to wonder if my hesitation would have a cost. So I go with the latter choice. "I think you should write to them. I'm sure they would appreciate hearing from you." He nods.
The cab pulls up in front of my building. I pay my part of the fare and get out of the backseat. Before closing the door, Taub asks, "If I brought you the note, would you tell me if it was okay? I mean, you've met them…" I realize he's nervous. He didn't go to the funeral; he has let his silence go on for nearly a month. He doesn't want to cause fresh pain for a grieving family, so he wants to choose his words carefully. But he doesn't trust himself, with his own grief and guilt still so raw. He's looking to me, as someone who deals with grieving families all the time, to help him say the right thing. I say I would be glad to look it over. He smiles, and I close the car door.
As I head toward the front stoop of my building, I hear him call through the open window. I turn back. He simply says, "Thank you." I smile, and the cab pulls away into the night.