Common Sense Factor

“It is a matter of common sense. Surely, you know that.” His eyebrows are arched and his nose is elevated as he says the words that are drizzled with disdain towards her. The sound of his voice vibrates in the air as if the echo is meant to offer more credence to his know-it-all statement.

“Common sense is subjective, Nathaniel. It’s open to interpretation. It’s based on one person’s perspective and is the accumulation of one’s experiences. But everyone is shaped by different life events.  A rich man or woman can tell someone who’s poor, they shouldn’t steal food because they’ll break the law, and if they get caught, they’ll go to jail. But for someone who’s starving, common sense says that if they don’t eat, they’ll die.”

“You are talking about a specific case. But we are not talking about individuals; we are talking about the general population. It should be the common man’s experience that allows a person to make a decision. That is common sense.”

“You mean – the common sense of an affluent, white man’s experience?”

“I did not say that.”

“Funny – you talk like a pompous white man from the early 1900’s.”

“Why do you believe that?”

“Well, why did you say, I did not say that? You could have said, I didn’t say that.”

“Contractions are a lazy person’s way.”

“They’re more efficient, effective, and relatable. Contractions get the job done without taking up more space than needed. Also, they make words more relatable to the general population.”

His arms are clasped behind his back and he stiffens at the general population comment. “Never begin a sentence with, also,” his voice crackles sharply at her.

It’s exhausting this conversation; watching every word spoken to a man who believes himself the expert on all matters. “Why?” she asks tilting her head.

“It is not proper English. When speaking with others they make assumptions based on your language skills? They will believe you are daft.”

“Daft!” she shrieks with final exasperation.  “Where am I? What time period are you from? So, what you’re actually saying is: I’m dumb?”

“Dumb is a word said by those with little vocabulary skills.  If you are seeking another word – perhaps – dim-witted, would be a better choice?”

A shrill laugh escapes from her. She rubs her right hand over her eyebrow to smooth out the twitching in her eye that commenced with this conversation with Nathaniel. This exchange has already lasted longer than she wanted it to and there appears no hope of a quick resolution on the horizon. “So far you’ve said….”

“Never, begin a sentence with so,” Nathaniel’s cheekbones twitch. She’s sure the twitching in his face is because he’s trying to suppress a smile.

“So,” she starts again emphasizing the word more than ever this time around. It’s as if she’s picking a scab on his leg, and yes, she’s doing it deliberately trying to make it bleed by picking it. “You believe that common sense is derived from a common man’s experience, that contractions are a lazy person’s way, and that I’m dim-witted because I begin sentences with also, and so?”

“The point of my observations about your use of language was simply to instruct you. You must be aware of how others would perceive you in conversation.”

“Others? You mean, you?”

“Well, I don’t mean to sound arrogant…”

“Oh no, why stop now?”

“I do have an Intelligence Quotient (it is better known as the IQ test) that ranks in the same levels as Einstein.”

“Oh, do you? Well, I have a common woman’s brain. And I like it that way. I think it keeps me more likely to assume my position isn’t always correct, and open to other people’s perspectives. You know,” she smiles at him for beginning the sentence with you know because she’s certain he won’t like it, “it makes me more common, and hopefully, a little more connected to others.”

Ellis Island, 1938: He’s A Seventeen-Year-Old Man

20181103_123621

When my husband and I visited Ellis Island last November, I found something I wasn’t looking for there.

What I was looking for, was the first time my great-grandparents arrived and settled in the United States from Greece. My grandfather I knew was born in 1921 in the United States Midwest, and I knew he had several siblings who were most likely older than he was, and I made a feeble attempt to go back twenty years. I figured it wouldn’t be that hard – I would simply go back and search the early 1900’s and late 1800’s for their surname. My rational was this: the last name is fairly unique so it couldn’t be that hard to figure out the first names of my great-grandparents.

But there were MANY people listed with the same surname. And as I had no idea what my great-grandparent’s first names were, it made the task even more difficult. Frustrated, I decided simply to search the passenger lists for my grandfather’s name. My thinking was this: If they travelled back and forth and crossed at Ellis Island as a family and my grandfather was listed as a child with them, perhaps I would know my great-grandmother and great-grandfather’s given names based on association.  (From what I recall, my grandfather’s parents were well off.)

I never found this information. But what appeared before me was incredible. At least, it was to me. His name appeared on a list of passengers in June 1938 with his date of birth and the State he was born in. (It’s frustrating that I know so little of my grandfather’s life, in particular, because he lived next door to us for the first ten years of my life.) But I remember clearly his date of birth and that he was born in the Midwest.

My grandfather was a seventeen-year-old boy. As I sat at the computer and blinked at the screen, I mumbled to my husband, “That’s weird, because I know he fought for Greece in WWII.” It hadn’t occurred to me that even though my grandfather was born in the United States, he might have visited Greece now and again.

As I sat there, I had a vision of my grandfather in 1938: He was a young man with hair slicked back, holding a cigarette between his fingers, (my grandfather was a chain smoker) and he might have made some jokes with his brother that was travelling with him as they waited with thousands of other passengers at Ellis Island.

My grandpa’s whole life was before him. What did he think about back then? Did he meet my grandmother yet? Did he know the long shadow of war was descending across Europe?  Hitler had already risen to power in Germany in 1933. Did they already hear the deadly knock of machine guns and cannons going off again in countries that had barely recovered from the First Wold War?

Or was it simply a trip to visit his parents and other siblings that were located in the United States? Had he decided to relocate to Greece again? So, this might be a final hurrah, a last trip to drink with friends and family, go to dances, and meet young ladies and see where things might go from there?

I don’t know anything about this time frame in his life and little to nothing in terms of what he lived through in the war. And now, grandpa’s been gone for almost twenty years, and my father’s been dead for nearly ten. One night in my late twenties, when my father was alive, he tried to describe the details of what my grandfather had told him he’d lived through in the camps when he was captured by the Germans. I shut it down hastily.  I didn’t want to hear it. It was too dark, too sad, to be discussed. (No excuse, I know now, but it was the night before my marriage.)

My brother did a speech once when we were in primary school about my grandfather’s experience in WWII.  I know that my grandfather told me he was captured a few times by the Germans and managed to escape each time. What I didn’t know – that my brother told me a few years ago when he was still alive – was that one of the German soldiers released him.

The only other story that lives in my mind is this one: My grandfather said that when he was a prisoner in one of the camps the German soldiers took them out for exercise and would march them around in a circle. There was a woman in the group and she fell down once, and two soldiers helped her up. Then the same woman got to her feet and started walking again, only to collapse a second time. The soldiers once again, helped her to her feet. Walking again in a circle with the other prisoners, she collapsed a third time. This time the soldiers did not help her up. They shot her.

I wish I would have listened better. I wish I would have asked more questions. What I didn’t realize as a child was the finality of life – that when a person leaves, they take those stories with them. And just like dust, the life, the stories, the experience of that person dies with them, and is scattered in the wind as if it never happened.

Speed of the Perfect Man

“Whooo!!!” Every rose has a thorn bounces off the interior of the red 1967 Mustang.  Vibrations from the stereo make the words crackle. “She’ll be sorry,” he says to the darkness, stars, and the passing street lights as if these inanimate objects were his friends and would agree with his statement.

Greg Smith. Smith. What a boring name. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with his fourteen babies; Mr. and Mrs. Smith work in retail for the rest of their lives and they’ll both die penniless and alone.  All the time they spent raising those kids will leave them with just each other because their kids will realize what he already knows: Mom and Dad are dull. Every now and then when his ex-girlfriend, Kim, sees him on the street she’ll stare at him because of his toned arms, legs, and chest and she will realize she should never have left him, David Gatrick, for Greg Smith. Yeah, she’ll regret her mistake.

After all, he’s the fun guy, the guy who gets things done, and who lives his life in the fast lane driving at 90 KM/hour, 100, 120 ….

David’s foot pushes on the pedal harder.

She’ll be sorry.

130, 140 ….

David’s life will be so much better than Kim’s.

Proudly, he smiles down at his bulging bicep.  He’s the tougher guy, the smarter guy, the more adventurous guy with his rock climbing, skydiving, and driving fast.  Dave’s a man on the move who’s always going places.

Dave places his hand on the seat next to him and begins to pat the passenger front seat in search of his cigarettes. Eyes glance over to the empty seat next to him for a second too long and his mustang pulls to the left. Fingers placed casually along the steering wheel he jolts the wheel and the whole car shifts back to the right.   But he’s back in his lane. Dave chortles with laughter.

Indestructible.

Hands grapple the pack of smokes and he knocks one out of the package and places it between his teeth.  Foot to the floor, he speeds down the highway at 190 KM while patting his front right blue jean pocket in search of his fire starter. Leaning to the left side, he presses the gas down and the speedometer reads 192 as he reaches into his pocket to pull the lighter out.

Deer.

Between Worlds

Some say that I always had it. Others say that I lost it. Somewhere between dimensions is me. I am a person who is neither here nor there; a person who finds herself between today and tomorrow. Forever caught between the stages of life and death, it is a place that I do not wish to be as I waste away in nowhere.  I never meant for this happen and I would dare say that I am a victim, except it is not true.  Simply, I am a woman who wanders dark paths alone in overgrown woods and in cities you can find me in narrow alleyways among the rotund vermin. This is where my story begins.

Black Moon Rising

Empty bank account, barren fridge, tattered clothes and I brace against the ever-greying windy October skies. Summer seems so long ago with heat that reddened my delicate skin in less than ten minutes. I also miss that yellow fireball that kept me warm. But the sun has shrunk back distancing itself from earth. I shiver in the cold.

Cold has descended on this part of the world. I watch in quiet agitation as the frigid air has turned many people into impatient drivers that press their palms to horns. It’s a scream at the operator in another vehicle for a mistake made or worse yet, just because the palm-pressing-horn-blower left too late and will now be late for work. I know this to be true: because I’m one of those people. This city where cars race up and down streets, parkways, and highways are everywhere. We are in a rush to get nowhere.

This is a difficult time of year for everyone but I dread this month most.  It’s October – a time of year when everything changes; leaves shift with colour and people become more entrenched in back-to-work and back-to-school routines.

But for me, this month is the worst. Triple heartbreaks of loved ones who were diagnosed with something that meant their lives were at risk; or in a cruel sense of irony, one of them I had no idea was sick. He died suddenly with a 3:45 am wake-up call that said he was gone. No time for I’m sorry, or last good-byes. Just a call that said: He died tonight.

Tonight, there is blackness that I have never felt before. I turn my eyes upwards in search of the Black Moon.  I don’t find it. But what I find is a cold breeze that licks my face and sweeps my hair everywhere. The stars are however, brighter than I’ve ever noticed before. My eyes move back to the pavement where I watch as leaves hold hands together and are swept around in circles like Greeks do when they dance.

I secretly wish that I could be the moon and hide away from everything. It seems unfair that it gets to have some time to take a break for one night and then reappear brighter tomorrow. I wish I could get some quiet time: to breathe, to think, to feel. Instead, my days are spent checking off never-ending tasks and to-do-lists that leave me short of breath and stuck on a treadmill.

But maybe, that’s for the best.    

“What’s going on with you?” He asks red-faced and half-smiling at me.

“Nothing,” I answer defensively. I stare down at the ground avoiding his eyes. I hate it when he just pops in unexpectedly.

He’s watching me. I know it. It’s really a silly question on his part, because he knows what’s going on with me. I spin around and revise my answer to his question and in a crisp, growl of a  voice I say, “I hate October!”

“Why?” He asks with that mischievous grin. It’s the same look he had when he knew the answer to the question he just asked, but wanted you to say it.

I’ve decided I’m calling him out and answer, “You know why!”

“I’m not here. You know that, right, kiddo?”

“Yes you are,” I answer lifting my chin in defiance. I’ve locked the swelling tears in my eyes in and hold them back like floodgates. If the floodgates are released it will be a catastrophe. Someone will drown.

“Kiddo, just use your blue, happy-light. That’ll work,” he says chuckling.

I turn and face him saying, “I hate that you know about my blue light.”

“So, you’re not suffering from SAD then?” He’s stopped laughing now and scrunches his face in my direction. I notice the crinkle in his nose. The lingering remnants of mischief sit at the corners of his lips and it’s the same look he had whenever he was making fun of me. His eyes swirl with trouble. He’s a little more red-faced than a few minutes ago and full of life.

It’s the way I remember him.

He just wants me to say it. He wants to hear those words. But he can’t make me do anything now.

“Leave me alone,” I say deflated.

He’s suddenly serious and he softly says, “You know it will be alright, right, sis?”

“Only if I decide to keep going,” I retort. I look down at the ground and stare at small rocks that are sprinkled along the payment.

“October’s a triple whammy for you. But you’re made of tougher stuff.”

My head snaps up in his direction as I square off with him again. If he were here, I would put him in a headlock right now. Or, I would try to. I would probably lose. He was close to 6 feet tall, 200 lbs, and worked in construction. I am 5 feet 2 inches, 140 lbs, and am a slightly pudgy office worker.  He’s bigger and older than me. The cards are stacked against me. But I would try just the same. We’re siblings. It’s what we do. We fight.

My five-year-old has returned and I say, “Why does everything have to be so hard for me?”

“Hard for you?” He questions me in a tone that reminds me of Dad. It’s the tone of: You’re being a spoiled brat.

With his look, I turn my eyes away from him and say, “Sorry, I didn’t mean that.” His words sting me and it leaves the lingering burnt sensation as if I’ve had my knuckles rapped by the headmaster.

When we were kids, I absolutely believed I stood on higher ground than my brother. (That’s the way I saw it back then. I fully acknowledge now, there’s a good chance I was wrong.) But in the last few years of his life, my brother was brilliant, still funny, and much more resilient than me. He also had a better understanding of the world: what mattered, what didn’t, and how not to brood about your shitty luck. And today, he’s calling me out for sounding ungrateful when my life isn’t always that bad: just parts of it. I miss him.

I miss all of them.

“How’s Dad?” I ask changing the subject like my family always does. It’s a defence mechanism: Let’s not talk about the serious stuff like death, loss, and grief.

“Good,” he says quickly and without any hesitation. “He’s smoking as much as he wants to now without you nagging him,” he answers as he swings his head back and claps his hands together. Clearly, he’s entertained by his own joke.

In a few moments, he’s gathered himself and continues, “Oh, speaking of which….” he pauses for a second as he fumbles in his coat pocket, pulls a cigarette out of the package, flicks his lighter open, lights a cigarette, and inhales on it.

I half-smile and turn my head away from him. Mumbling, I sarcastically say, “Nice.”

He deliberately blows smoke in my face and throws his head back in laughter. I can’t smell the tobacco smoke. For that reason, it doesn’t set off my allergies. In that moment, I know he’s right. He’s not here. This realization makes my chest contract and my face crumbles.

I blurt out, “I miss you guys.”

The floodgates have opened.  

His cigarette dangles between his two fingers and rests relaxed by his side. He’s serious and says, “Triple whammy for you, sis.”

I breathe out and watch as white wisps of my exhale float in the darkness as droplets of water tumble down my cheeks.

“Hey, sis?”

I answer in a whisper of a voice as I try to gather my emotions, “Yeah.”

“Tomorrow night, the moon will be back.”

With his statement, I turn my gaze to the twinkling stars that sit above us and use my gloved hand to wipe the dribbling from my nose.  I quietly continue my gaze upwards for a moment longer, and then turn back and look at him. I’m smiling now, and with a giggle, I answer all the questions he asked me earlier that I either gave a smart-ass answer to, or never answered, while also providing a reply to his statement about the moon.

My answer is this: “I know”.

Beneath the Surface

If I could reach her, I would. But there’s a distance between us that I can’t describe. She’s not far from me, but she’s close. Yet, we still can’t touch. The person I write of is a relic who’s always been there but I never noticed; really it should have been as clear to me as raindrops that fall or a rainbow that suddenly appears after a terrifying thunderstorm or sometimes even after gentle droplets.  Or perhaps a better way to describe her is this: She’s always been a slumbering being long dead that was buried a thousand years ago. Only when a new building is built like in Rome and London and hard hat-wearing construction men and women delve below the surface through dirt and mud do they find the stone walls that reveal there was an ancient city thousands of years ago.  Piece by piece, an archaeologist will dig and dust the surface of the stones mapping out a wall, building, or city and other hidden treasures such as pottery, plates, and cutlery that divulge who once lived there. Eventually, the archaeologist might be able to tell you who the people were that lived there, when they lived, and what life might have been like. She is there, always has been, and only with a steady hand, a thoughtful mind, and a strong heart will I find her again.

With Wings, I Am Brave

The ocean wind stretches my hair out. Sea salt air brushes my cheeks with dampness. The feeling is cool against my skin; not a frigid dampness that makes me long to seek warmth by a fireplace or to sink myself into a long hot bath. Instead, it’s a refreshing sensation that washes over me: a glad-to-be-alive enthusiasm.

Arms stretched out beside me, they mimic wings of a plane. I rush forward down the sloping cobblestone path through the same medieval stone gates that Kings and troops passed through for over a thousand years.  Battles were won and lost through these gates; a plan was created in this small port city in secret tunnels not far from this castle to save hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers in WWII. This small town where water bridges two countries is where history lives.

Here, I am free to be me. Few other tourists have made the trip to see this castle. My arms still stretched out I begin to run left to right, then right to left. Repeat. I am carefree and fearless. It doesn’t bother me what other tourists or companions think of me.

I summon the spirits of the Wright brothers who bravely set to launch the first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903.  I am Louis Blériot the first man to cross the English Channel in 1909 where an outline of his plane commemorates the achievement not far from here.  I am Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and who dared to dream to fly around the world.

I am over thirty years old. And today, I am free.

Anywhere

I slurp the icy Pina Colada through the straw and stringy bits become threaded between my teeth. Just then, I watch him swagger by SHIRTLESS. Every muscle in his shoulders and arms ripples as he strides by with confidence in every step. Mouth gaping, I stare at his tanned, chiseled abs.

Damn. I knew I should have gone with a one piece. I am an aquatic mammal nicknamed Ms. Beluga minus the perpetual toothy smile stretched out here on the Hawaiian beach.

Please don’t notice me. Please don’t notice me. Oh no, he’s noticed me. But I’m certain not in a good way.

Or, maybe he has?

“Hi,” he says, “are you using the copier?”

“What?” I stammer spinning around wildly to face the voice behind me.  Embarrassingly, I now know that my printing job may have finished some time ago and I’ve been busted staring blankly at the copier.

“Yes! But all done now!” I blurt out triumphantly and with a glowing smile. It’s my best effort to convince Mr. Davidson that I was NOT daydreaming.

Quickly, I reach for my papers and then with a swoosh, watch helplessly as they sail down fanning out across the worn blue carpeted floor.  “Damn,” I unconsciously mutter as my face burns from so many corporate blunders.

Mr. Davidson is one of the nicest people in our office but has no resemblance to the man I imagined on the beach: red-rimmed glasses, long wavy dark hair that’s peppered with grey, and his beard looks like it longs to be trimmed. On this particular day, Mr. Davidson is wearing a plaid shirt with green pants. Nice man that he is, he helps me gather my pages while chatting with me about a new restaurant that just opened.

I want to disappear. There must be a way to assemble these pages to form a boat so that I can sail away to Hawaii. RIGHT NOW.  Of course, my lack of an engineering degree may prove problematic in the construction. Then there’s the other issue that the paper is much too thin. I’m certain I would sink.

TRAPPED.

***

Parachute strapped on my shoulders, goggles on my eyes, cold wind pushes me backwards onto the plane. I vaguely remember some instructions about pulling some chord but can’t recall the specifics. Right now, I am too busy holding onto the edge of the plane and screaming to no one in particular, “For heaven’s sake’s! I can do this!”

Suddenly, some random clip I saw years ago floods my little brain: I’m remembering back to an incident involving an eighty-year-old woman who attempted a tandem jump and slipped out of the parachute.  Thank goodness it didn’t end badly for her but…

“Sarah, have you submitted your report?” my manager, Esmeralda, asks.  (I’m really not kidding. That’s her name.) Her voice snaps me back to my current location: and that current spot is my stagnant, dry-aired workstation with the black blinking cursor that signals the report is still a work in progress. With two lines written, it’s a barely-there report.

How does she do that? Every time I’m drifting off into fantasy land she comes in and literally “pops” my thought bubble. No fun permitted at work, should be Esmeralda’s work motto.  I could make her a bumper sticker. I’m sure she has a webcam on me. 

“Not yet,” I hesitate and continue, “but it will be ready in the next ten minutes,” I say in my most authoritative, in-control voice, and with my broadest smile. She frowns at me and she instantaneously looks ninety-nine years old as wrinkles crack throughout her face before she saunters out the same way she came in without a further word.

Clearly, she’s impressed with me.

“Yes, why don’t people start early with their bucket lists,” I grumble as I stare at the flashing cursor. I breathe out hard and then try to inhale refreshing air. But it can’t be found here. I sigh. Then I punch at the keys in front of me in an effort to write my delinquent report.

***

It’s late July and I am in Churchill, Manitoba. The temperature is around 18 degrees Celsius and it feels more like a warm spring day than the middle of summer. I am prepping my kayak! I am so excited! FINALLY! I will be kayaking with beluga whales! They are nicknamed “sea canaries” because of the constant whistling, chirping, and clicking sounds that they are famous for making. There are tens of thousands of them out there as they come up to feed, give birth, and take care of their young in the Churchill River. Or so, the “Town of Churchill” website said. It will be a beluga sing-along party.

Belugas have mushroom white faces that are long and yet, round at the same time. Also, they ALWAYS look like they’re smiling. They have the smallest teeth on any whale I’ve ever seen. I ADORE THEM. It seems impossible that they could bite you. Even if they did – their teeth are so small it would probably be like a puppy biting you. Now that I think about it a bit more, sometimes when puppies bite it hurts. They have razer-sharp teeth.

Never mind. Belugas can’t hurt anyone! JUST LOOK AT THEM!

With that, I step my right foot into the kayak and it lists heavily to the right side. I try to step in again but the whole kayak shifts under my weight. I step back. This kayak seems a little tipsy and I’ve never been kayaking before. I have gone snorkeling…

Let’s change that.  I’m standing in front of a mirror in a black, ultra-tight dry suit that I can barely breathe in; but it’s worth it to go snorkeling with the sea canaries. Advantage: it’s much more intimate. Why wouldn’t I get as close to the belugas as possible? I’ll never get this chance again.

Another benefit of snorkeling: I have full coverage on my body. While I can’t breathe, the suit does hold in all my jelly rolls. The best part – NO UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT INVOLVING A BIKINI! My mind drifts a bit and I start to wonder, can belugas accidentally bump you and kill you?

“Sarah, are you ready for lunch?” My best friend Rachel swings her head over my work station startling me. She stares at me inquisitively with her famous Han Solo lop-sided smile as she asks, “Daydreaming again, my friend?”

“Yes,” I mope.

“Where do you want to go today?” I ask her reluctantly.

“Same place as usual?”

“Of course,” I flatly respond.

***

Damp moisture invades my body and sends a small chill down my spine. The wind blows against my face sweeping my hair off my shoulders and it dances on the wind. Large soft snow flakes fall on me and this beautiful city. I am standing at the top of the Empire State building in New York City just before 1 am. With the snow it works in unison with the events that I experienced today to signal the start of the Christmas season.

I look across the city with lights that seem to wink in acknowledgement of me, the first-time traveller. It has been a perfect day: prime viewing of the Macy’s Christmas parade, Ellen’s Stardust Diner for turkey dinner, AND THE WAIT STAFF SANG TO US! I watch the new fallen snow blanket the city coating the buildings with what look like marshmallows, brightening a little more, this already bright city.

“Sarah,” Rachel turns and looks at me. She continues saying, “They’ll be closing the building soon. We need to go.”

“Alright,” I say dreamily.

Rachel stares at me for a long moment, tilting her head, and then she turns to face the New York skyline too. Finally, she turns again to me and says, “Any thoughts on where we should go for breakfast? I’m hungry!”

Still staring out at the view in front of me, I whisper, “Anywhere.”

 

The Remarkable

“What makes you special?” He asks as he pushes his eyeglasses back that are perched on his nose.

“Nothing,” Gwen answers as she gazes out the window of the room where they sit across from each other. Her arms are clasped around her legs. She unconsciously pulls them closer to her chest as she answers his question. Gwen’s bare feet rest on the leather couch and the coldness caused from the air conditioning blasting makes her shiver. Such a cliché: her sitting on a leather sofa and him sitting over there.  It’s what you would expect.

“What makes you different? Unique?” he asks again.

A small smile crosses Gwen’s lips and she says, “One breast is larger than the other.”

Dr. Tadani nods his head and replies, “That’s not that unusual.”

“Great. Even the things that I think, make me special, aren’t.”  Her chin lifts up a little, and there’s something in her eyes. She’s challenging him, trying to prove he’s wrong, and he knows it. But she hasn’t won yet.

“I noticed a scar on your elbow. How did you get that?” he asks resting his pen on his notepad.

“Oh,” she says turning her elbow over and looking at the scar again for the first time in years.  “Fell off my mountain bike cycling down this big-ass hill,” she says smiling at the memory. Hot sun, wind, and dust flew up from the dirt path making it difficult to see. But she’d done that path and hill so many times without one scratch. On that day though, she raised one hand to brush the dirt away from her eyes at the exact moment her wheel lifted up into the air. It was the way she started coming back down. She saw that spikey rock that she should have cleared before her tire nose-dived. It was too soon. She knew it. When she crashed to the ground and skidded along the rocks it hurt. There was lots of blood. Gwen picked herself up, dabbed the wound with a finger for a little bit, laughed it off, got back on her bike, walked up the hill, and took on that downhill slope again. That time she didn’t let anything distract her: she landed perfectly.

“You like to go mountain biking?” the doctor asks.

“I did, when I was younger. I haven’t done it in years now.” Gwen’s eyes turn towards the window again, turning away from the present, and the future. She’s fixated on the past: the good ol’ days.

“So, the scar,” Dr. Tadani says, “is it special to you?”

“Yeah,” she says. “It reminds me of how brave I was and how much fun I had when I was a kid. When…” her voice trails off and a then a few moments pass. “When-n-n thin-ings were good,” she finally finishes through splintered words.

“Does anything else make you special?”

“No,” Gwen says. Her mind is blank. There’s nothing else.

“Nothing?”

“I already told you, there’s nothing.” Her lips purse together locking in words she doesn’t want to say to him. Her cheeks flame hot with rage. Why is he asking these stupid questions?

“What about your paintings?”

“What about them?” she says stubbornly. “I’m not Vincent van Gogh.”

“He was never successful in his lifetime,” Dr. Tadani says.

“I know,” she says miserably at her blunder. She needed a name and pulled the first one out that she could think of. But she knows his story.

“You don’t think you’re paintings are special?”

Gwen doesn’t want to play this game anymore. “I don’t know,” she huffs with annoyance.

“Then why do it? Why paint?”

The hair on Gwen’s arms stand up straight. Muscles around her shoulders tighten. What does he want her to say? Her work sucks? No one will ever buy it?  She’s wasting everyone’s time?

Just like a lioness with her cub, she’s protective of her work. It might not be perfect, but it’s hers. She bore it, nurtured it, and continues to work at it.

“Gwen?” Why do it?”

Gwen releases her legs and plants her feet on the carpet. Back straightens. She sits taller than she’s sat in a long time. “Because, I think maybe I can reach others through my paintings. Maybe I will awaken something in them, and they’ll see what I see. I won’t feel alone. And other people won’t either.”

“That’s the reason for your painting called, Aftermath?” Dr. Tadani asks in a soft voice.

Gwen stares at him. Mouth drops open. She’s mentioned she paints in passing. But, how does he know about that painting? Sure, it’s in a gallery, one of the few she’s sold. But she’s never mentioned it to him.

“It’s a beautiful portrait of what people leave behind,” Dr. Tadani announces. “The woman at the front of the painting seems to be sleeping. That is, until you notice the empty bottles of pills that are beside her. All around her, above her, beside her, are people crying, some shouting, and many of them dressed in black with tears streaming down their faces. It’s brilliant.” He pauses and answers her unspoken question, “I’ve seen it at the new gallery that just opened. My wife likes art.”

Gwen’s head bobs up and down.  Her throat fills with mucus.  She takes a deep breath in, and drops her chin so she doesn’t have to look at her doctor. Muffled words come from her as she sniffles and says, “My mom – she left us a note, said we’d be better off without her. She was wrong.”

Gwen hears the doctor reach for something. A Kleenex box appears before her still downward cast eyes. She glimpses up at him and takes a tissue.

Dr. Tadani smiles at Gwen as gently as he can. Gwen never mentioned her mom’s suicide before. But now a lot of the other conversations they’ve had make sense.

“Have you ever read, Hector and the Search for Happiness?”

Gwen giggles and says, “I saw the movie.”

“The movie was similar. Message was the same. As you probably remember, the basic premise is that we’re always looking for happiness. Hector goes off to find it in the usual places. Studies have been done that show data that you’ll be happy if you exercise, if you’re rich, if you’re not rich, if you do what you love, if you have a family, etc., etc…the list is really quiet endless. Sure, many of those things may work. But everyone’s different. Having a family may not make some people happy, and running marathons every weekend may not work either. After all, no two people are the same. But the book and the movie both say that you need the bad stuff, as well as the good stuff, to be happy and that those terrible experiences allow us to better recognize happiness. That sadness is a necessary emotion too. Not that anyone deserves to be miserable,” he finishes with one eyebrow raised and with one of his rare chuckles.

Gwen smiles back at her spectacle-eyed doctor with the frizzy curly hair and the eight o’clock shadow. She’s still uncertain how the book/movie ties into how she’s special.

Dr. Tadani places his book on the coffee table. “I would go further and say that it’s the sum of all our different parts of who we are that make us special.  Sure, physiological differences in pairs of body parts make you unique. But that, in combination with the scar-clad, mountain biking woman, who paints to raise awareness about difficult issues and tries to connect people through her paintings, well – that’s what makes you special, Gwen.”