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.”

REMEMBERING AUNT BECKY

Dear Aunt Becky,

Mom and I are both writing letters to you. Mom thinks it might help us. I hope so.

I want to say how grateful I am for all those times you took me to practice for basketball, volleyball, and ice hockey when mom wasn’t able to. Too busy she says now, inching her way up that corporate ladder. She’s sorry she bailed on you last time for lunch. Stupid, useless meeting, she said. It will probably be in her letter.

I’m thinking back Auntie Becky to when I was five years old and at soccer. Do you remember that?  You drove me to practice that day and I got kicked in the face by a soccer ball.  I tried so hard not to cry.  But I did cry. Blake’s mom called me a baby not just once, but over and over again. She said:  You shouldn’t play if you can’t handle getting hurt. 

Aunt Becky, you heard her. I know you did, even though you always denied it. I saw you walk away and left me standing there by myself as Blake’s mom rubbed her eyes, whined like a baby would, and stuck her lower lip out. I was so mad at you at the time because you abandoned me like that. Then a soccer ball thundered across the field from the sidelines and crashed into her glasses. Her spectacles became slanted on her face.

Blake’s mom looked around, not sure where the ball came from. You strode across the grass, arms swinging by your side, nose elevated and said: Sorry about that. I was just checking the balls to make sure they weren’t too low. We have to make sure they’re inflated enough for the team.

Blake’s mom was angry with and you and screamed, you did that on purpose! And you said, who me? Don’t be so paranoid. But I guess you shouldn’t come out to cheer your kid on if you can’t handle a little punch in the face by a stray soccer ball.

Blake’s mom scowled at you.

We went for ice cream afterwards.

I always knew you were there for me. That’s why a couple of years ago I called you when the first guy I ever liked Eric, brought me to my the Spring dance and dumped me there. Eric was all nice and sweet at our house buying me a corsage, pinning it to me, and then us chatting together when we were in the backseat of his mom’s car. But when we got there he wanted to dance the first song with Felicity. He asked if it was alright with me. I wanted to be a “cool” girlfriend and thought it’s only one song, so I said, sure. Felicity was taller than me, with bigger breasts, and juicier lips. They kissed during that song. I ran out of the gym in tears and called you.

I didn’t call mom and dad. Because you were my best friend and the one I could always depend on. When you got there, you said that you were going to go onto the dance floor and pull Eric out by his ear. I begged you not to. Instead, we went shopping. You bought me a new pair of jeans and a shirt that I could wear that night. Then we had dinner and saw a movie.  After dinner you said, I need a cigarette.

I shouldn’t have bothered you about smoking. I just wanted you to stay forever.

Aunt Becky, I’m furious for a lot of reasons. One reason is because you drove me to basketball practice on Tuesday night, stayed, drove me home, and that I forgot my bag in your car.

I’m also angry that the last thing you said to me was: I’ll see you on Saturday. Well, I saw you on that Saturday. But you weren’t you.

Someone decided that your hair should be curled; your face was white-white with red blush marks streaked across your cheeks that made you look like a clown. There was red lipstick on your lips.  Your eyes were closed and your fingers were weaved together. They sat on top of your chest.

It wasn’t you.

Why did they do that? Why didn’t they put you in that black cocktail dress that you loved so much? You know the one. It was the one you wore to every occasion. And they should have used your light bronze gloss instead. You hated red lipstick.

I’m sorry Aunt Becky I didn’t get too close to you the last time I saw you. I couldn’t.

After you dropped me off on Tuesday you should have gone home and had a glass of red wine from Australia with Uncle Pat. Then you probably would have had another cigarette in the garage. Uncle Pat always disliked your silly habit. He banned you from smoking inside for his health and the health of others.

You should know that Uncle Pat insisted that he help with the wooden box. His wife, he said. He looked like he was being crushed by the weight of the coffin; shoulders were hunched forward, and his eyes were red-rimmed.  Uncle Pat looked as if he prematurely aged ten years that day.

Not that you were heavy. I remember the way Uncle Pat picked you up, twirled you around, and threw you over his shoulder. Auntie, your head bobbed up and down and you snorted with laughter and said: I’m not your cavewoman! Uncle Pat always said: caveman-meet-feminist-smoking-hot-woman. Caveman-win-woman-with-caveman-charm.  

I forgot my bag in your car. I had a report that was due the next day.

When I called you on your cell phone, you turned your car around.

I told Mom, it’s my fault. Stupid bag. Stupid report.

Mom says it’s not my fault: That man was drunk. He ran that light. It was poor judgement on his part. The rest of it: Becky being at that intersection, at that time – just bad luck.

I dreamt last night that we were laughing and walking on a beach in Australia, (Remember? You said you would take me when I turned 18?) sun setting, salty waves crashing on the beach lulling me into a sense of blissful peace. For no reason, you stopped all of a sudden, smiled at me, and gently kissed me on both cheeks and walked away towards the ocean.

I started to scream and cry: Aunt Becky, where are you going? You can’t leave me here by myself! You brought me thousands of miles away from home, and I have no idea how to get back! I stomped my feet in the sand and asked you: How could you do this to me?

You turned around and said: Call your mom and dad, or Uncle Pat. I would love to stay, but I can’t.

You gave me one last wave and a smile. Then I watched you wade into the water. I watched right until your head disappeared over the waves.

I waited on the shoreline for a little while longer, hoping you would come back.

When I finally turned around and looked behind me, mom was there. I ran towards mom crying so hard while screaming something towards her; but I slurped on my words and they were a jumbled mess of: Becky, not here, ocean. I made absolutely no sense. Mom immediately took off in a sprint towards me. As we got closer, I could see that Mom was crying just like me, and her arms were outstretched. When we reached each other, she didn’t even hesitate – she wrapped her arms around me tightly.

It’s been a few months and mom and I are closer now. But, I still miss you. I felt bad telling mom that, but I did. And she said: Of course you do. Great people are missed.

We’re both writing letters to you and burning them. Not because we’re trying to purge the thought of you. That will never happen. But this gives us a chance to say the things we didn’t. Mom also thinks that if we burn the pages they will float to heaven and it will be as if we’ve mailed our letters to you. I don’t know if it’s true, but the thought makes me smile.

Love Always,

Cassie

In The Rain

Water drips from my hair, my cheek, and the end of my nose. Where’s my umbrella?

“Why do you walk so far?” Marie asks. Then she blurts out, “Parking’s available closer to the office.”

Should I tell her? Or will it create a moment of: I can hear a paper clip hit the carpeting on the other side of the floor?

My friend slipped off a stool. It wasn’t a bungee jumping incident or skydiving accident. She’s short, and wanted to get oregano from the top shelf.

“It’s a good form of exercise,” I say.

Part II: If I Could Only Breathe

Part II:

What a mess.

Beth was always a slob who never took her domestic responsibilities seriously. But then again, she never took anything seriously: not cleaning our home, not as my wife, or our wedding vows. Selfish. High-maintenance. Drama Queen. Those are the best words I can think of to describe my “beloved”.

“Beth?”

Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Gulliver’s Travels, Outlander, 50 Shades of Grey, The Alchemist. Her books are recklessly spread across the floor as if she’s had a temper tantrum and tossed them across the room.  That wouldn’t bother me if it were just her stuff. But my reading material is twisted together with her garbage: The Wealthy Barber, MONEY Master the Game by Tony Robbins, Losing my Virginity by Richard Branson to name a few.  I’ve never realized until now how different we are.  I’m made of the real stuff. I work hard to get things done. Beth is all about the fluff.

“Beth?” I say more impatiently. My wife dislikes me. But she normally at least shakes her head with annoyance in my direction when I say her name. Or for that matter, ask her any question.  I stop. Not one muscle flinches from her body. Not one hair moves on her head.

It’s quiet.

If there’s humming from the lights, I don’t hear it. If there’s a fly bumping along inside of a light fixture, I don’t hear that either.  My fists open and close. Trying to do what? Pump fuel to my heart?  I don’t know. Why am I panicking? I’m sure she’s fine.

“Beth, stop playing games!” I shriek at her uncontrollably. Her body is spread out on the multi-coloured Persian rug we purchased from Turkey a couple of years ago when things were still good between us.  There’s no response from her.

Weird.

My heart thumps like lightning does igniting fear in me.   I stumble over our books that impede my way as I scramble to Beth’s side.

“Beth!” I scream. My hands shake her limp body.

Wide-eyed, terrified eyes peer back at me. Beth’s skin is blanched like chalk. Her eyes remind me of a woman I pulled from a car at an accident a few months ago. It was the same night that Beth told me about her affair with Ross.

“Beth, hang on!” My voice shakes with terror as I fumble for my phone. It tumbles out of my hand and lands on The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness. I grab my cell and punch at the keys mumbling, “Goddammit, it’s three numbers! How can dialing 911 be so difficult?”

“Momma!” Alvina screams as she enters through the wooden doors of the den.

No, no, no, no! Alvina, don’t see this! “Alvina, please stay back, honey!” I bellow to her.

Like mother, like daughter, she disregards what I’ve said. Now, she’s sobbing while holding Beth’s hand looking up at me with tears galloping down her round cheeks as her lower lip trembles whimpering, “mommy, mommy, mommy…”.  I could barely stand to see Beth’s wide, terrified eyes staring back at me. To see Alvina, my only daughter, like this –

“Police, fire, ambulance?” a controlled voice says through my cell phone.

“Ambulance!” I shriek.

One Moment, Please

“I’m suffocating.” Her eyes are wide. Hands rest limply by her side. She’s taken on the “look” as if she’s nearly drowned and was saved by some heroic passerby.

The man seated across from her scribbles something into his notebook. One eyebrow arched, like he does, he asks, “Physically, or figuratively?”

“Both,” she answers swiftly. Her voice is thick like overgrown trees and shrubs that will slow a hiker down in the woods.

His eyebrows arch towards the ceiling. He asks, “What do you think is causing you to suffocate?”

“The pace. The rat race. Crushing responsibilities.”

“Responsibilities? Such as your job?”

“Yeah,” her voice wavers. Quietly, she ponders how much more to say.  Of course, he picked up on the job immediately.  But there are other things. Responsibilities don’t only lie in a job. It’s everything, and at the same time, nothing at all. Will he think her a selfish whiner? One of those petulant children stomping their feet, screaming, “GIVE ME THAT! I DESERVE IT!”

This is a safe place, where she can say anything, right? That’s what she’s been told by him, and by others. With a sigh, her words tumble out in a rush, “I worry about being late for work, my boss thinking I’m slacking off, my neighbours thinking I’m lazy because I don’t garden more.”

“Are you slacking off at work?” His voice is a rhythmic hum as small dots of dust float up in the air as if there has suddenly been a gust of wind knocking them off of the bookshelf, books, or the oak coffee table in front of her.  But the two of them are barely moving. They sit there, talking. The shared words may mean something, or nothing. They’re digging, trying to get to the root of the problem. The thought comes to her of things she’s read about London and Rome where construction workers begin to dig and find burial sites, or ancient Roman ruins.  Who wins? Does the past get to keep the space? Or does the future, knock over the past?

She snaps herself back to the now.  “No, I don’t think I’m slacking off. I mean, I have days when I could do better.” There’s a pause as she waits for the moment of judgement to pass. She’s certain that’s the case. Will it matter if she says one more thing? She decides, why not? Finally, she adds, “I’m just so tired sometimes.”

His eyebrows knit together. Index finger rises, and pushes his eyeglasses up to the bridge of his nose.  “I think we all have days we can do better. After all, we’re human.” He stops talking for a moment. It’s a tactic of his to force her to consider the words he said.  “So, you’re not slacking off at work. Is there anything else you can do differently in the morning?  Maybe, leave earlier so you’ll have more time to commute to work?”

“I try to leave earlier most days.” She bristles as her arms fold defensively in front of her.  “I could skip my Starbucks run, but I don’t want to.” Eyes suddenly fill with tears. She knows what he’ll say next. He won’t get it, and will try to reason with her. Explain to her that it’s the most rational decision.

“You go to Starbucks every day?” His voice seeps with an incredulous tone as his hand begins to swivel and swirl around as the pen he’s holding stops and starts, racing from left to right, jotting notes down in his notebook.

“Yes, even if I really don’t have the time, and I’m already running late.” Stopping herself, she breathes out and then adds, “because I want just 30 seconds, maybe a minute of relaxing.” Her words rush out in a flurry. She needs to explain herself before he stops her. Make him try to understand her position. “I do the mobile order every day. But it’s the 30 seconds of running in and I hear the old time music, and the baristas are SUPER busy, but they’ll still take a moment to acknowledge me with a smile, or a hello. Then, sometimes all these people are in the coffee shop who are having conversations, reading their books, or sitting and sipping their coffee. All I think, I would love that. That’s how life should be.”

“How life should be?” He peers at her through his spectacles as wisps of hair fall forward onto his forehead.

“Yes,” her voice is emphatic. Hands wave in the air making small circles, “life should be full with books to read, feeling the warmth of sunshine and heat on your face….You know – sipping beverages and chewing your food properly, and when you have an indulgent delicious dessert savouring the lemon, chocolate, or cinnamon taste in every bite.  Versus shoving food into your mouth in between stop lights, while eyeing other cars suspiciously as if they’ve all conspired together to leave at the exact time you did, because they want you to be late for work.”

“Do you believe that?” His pen pauses on the paper. He reclines back and uncrosses and then crosses his legs waiting for an answer.

Paranoid, she imagines him writing.

She throws her head back, laughing at the question.  “No,” she answers.  “But it feel like I’m in a race with everyone else, and I need to get as far as I can quickly, to give myself the best chance of making it to work on time.”

“Have you thought about going to Starbucks after work?”

She snaps, “I’ll never go.” More than ready for that question, she didn’t hesitate. He’s not the first one to ask her that.

Eyebrows furrowing together, he remembers back to another conversation they had, and asks, “Is that why you take short trips?  Because you think you’ll never have the time to take longer vacations?”

Nodding her head, voice rattling a bit, she answers, “I know I won’t.  So many people say: I can’t go now because I don’t have the time or money.  I’ll go later, when the time’s right and I can do a bigger trip.  But for a lot of people, it never happens. I’d prefer one minute at Starbucks if that’s all I could have. I would prefer two days in New York, if I can’t afford five days. And if I never have two weeks off to go to Australia, I’ll do one week. I don’t want to wait for the perfect time, because one day, I won’t have any time left.”

Deconstructing Stupid

“Alright everyone, take your seats.” It’s said with a certain level of gravity Mr. Bryson seldom uses.

The kids wiggle into their seats as a quick hush descends over the classroom. There’s an unending pause that lingers in the air -; it’s the same weightiness found in churches when members of a congregation perched on wooden benches wait for an inspirational sermon to be given by a priest or a minister.

“Tom,” Mr. Bryson says. “Are you on your phone?”

“No, Mr. Bryson,” Tom lies as he casually scoops his phone into his Under Armour sweatshirt pocket.

“Well, if it’s already away, there’s no point getting it out for this exercise. Everyone else, get your phones out.”

The students wonder: is this a joke? They glance around at each other waiting for someone else to make the first move. After a few moments, someone grabs their knapsack, and there’s an echo of rustling bags being shuffled around as other kids slowly reach for their cell phones. Once found, twitching fingers are poised and rest lightly on their telephone keypads as they wait for further instructions.

Tom casually removes his mobile phone from his pocket. Mr. Bryson stares at him. There’s an exchange of glances between them. After he can’t handle it anymore, the boy averts his eyes and focuses on the desktop in front of him.

“I can’t believe he’s letting us use our phones!” Jenna whispers to her friend Beth who’s seated in the desk beside her.

“Yes, I am,” Mr. Bryson answers. His voice cracks through the noise that consumed the air with the movement of books, bags, and low murmuring of voices. Everything halts instantly.

“We were going to continue to talk about The Giver today. But I’ve decided to do something different.”

The tranquility returns. It lasts so long a buzzing fly’s zzzz is loud and long enough several children spin their heads around in search of the annoying insect.

“As everyone knows, I was a monitor in the schoolyard at break today. When I was outside, I heard a word that I feel should never be used.  The word was…”

Mr. Bryson’s arms were protectively folded in front of him as he casually leaned against a wall in conservative “teacher dress” of beige dress pants, and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. But he breaks away from the standard dress code with his funky red tie with Rubik’s Cubes on it. His attire is a reflection of his teaching style: strict when required, but otherwise, cool and jovial.

With the incomplete, unspoken word that hangs on tethers in space, he turns his back towards the class and grabs a piece of chalk. He scribbles STUPID on the chalkboard.  Once he’s finished writing the word, he tosses the chalk and it hits the ledge with a gentle thud.  The sound ricochets throughout the room. It’s louder than Mr. Bryson intended.

“Okay, that’s the word that was used in the schoolyard. Does anyone know the meaning of it?”  Mr. Bryson asks as he paces back and forth with uneasiness like a caged lion at a zoo.

Sixty-two dilated pupils stare at him.  Heads begin to turn in all directions. A low-level whisper begins as everyone poses the same question, “was it you?”

Mr. Bryson nods his head in answer to the question no one will ask him directly. He leans backwards and adjusts his tie. Quietly he says, “It was no one in this room. Thank goodness.”

Silence.

Time passes.

There’s a small cough.

Otherwise, nothing else is said.

Not one child raises their hand.

Finally, Mr. Bryson says, “If you don’t know the exact definition, that’s okay. Let’s brainstorm together.” He spins on his heel and snatches up a piece of chalk. With impatient fingers, he stands ready to write.

Hailey’s hand shoots up into the air.

Mr. Bryson points at her and says, “Okay, Hailey. What am I writing?”

“People say it when you’ve done something wrong.”

Done something wrong, Mr. Bryson writes, “such as?” He asks Hailey.

“If you… Spill your drink!” She offers.

“Well, that sounds like an accident to me. But we’ll put it down. Because you’re right – people say it in those situations.”

“Okay class, let’s go! You can just shout out your answers. Better yet…” He faces the students. Placing the piece of calcite down he continues, “I’ll give you five minutes. Just come up and write on the board what you think the word means. Or, you can also provide examples of where you’ve heard it said before. The examples might help us figure out the definition. ”

A line forms and the students write:

When another person in a car cuts you off in traffic.

When you don’t know the answer to a question.

When you chase your ball into the street, and forget to look both ways for cars.

When you forget your gym clothes. 

It’s a name that’s called.

They call you stupid when you talk about becoming an Olympic Figure Skater when you grow up.

Stupid is the opposite of smart.

When you tell somebody something, like a fact, and it’s wrong.   

When you wake up late for school.

When you fail a test.

When you trip on a curb…

***

Mr. Bryson quietly skims some of the sentences written on the chalkboard. It’s obvious to him these were things either said to the kids, or that they’ve heard.

“Wow,” Mr. Bryson says as the last student places the chalk down and returns to his seat. “We’ve filled up the board. Okay Tom, do you have your phone out?”

Tom stares out the window for a second. When he faces Mr. Bryson again, his cheeks are crimson. With a snort of laughter, Tom answers, “yeah.”

“Okay, can you look up the definition of the word for us?”

“Already, did it,” Tom says raising his chin proudly.

“Great!” Mr. Bryson’s head is bent downwards as he grins at Tom. “Can you read it to us?”

“It says, having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense,”[i]  with hands over his mouth he says in a muffled voice.

“Okay,” Mr. Bryson responds. He quietly stands in front of the chalkboard and writes the words Tom said.

Mr. Bryson walks to the middle of the room with rows of desks on each side. He turns to the right, waves his arms at the students seated there and says, “You guys, google the definition for intelligence. And you guys,” he says turning to the left and motions to them, “look up the definition of common sense. As soon as you find it, raise your hands.”

Tap, tap, tap…..

There’s a steady clicking sound of buttons being punched into phones. Moments later, several hands rise up into the air.

“Brianna, give us the definition of intelligence!” Mr. Bryson shouts.

“It says the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.”[ii]

Mr. Bryson races to the board and scratches the words onto it.  “Okay,” he says with his back to the room as he casually spins his white flaky writing instrument around between his fingers reminiscent of baton-twirling girls at parades. Without turning around, Mr. Bryson says, “Liam, I think you were first? What’s the definition of common sense?”

Liam nearly drops his phone when he hears his name. The poor kid stutters, “ah sorry….okay, it says, good sense and sound judgement in practical matters.”[iii]

“Excellent!” Mr. Bryson says. He scrawls the definition onto the board. When he’s done, Mr. Bryson drops his white scribbling stick on the ledge. Facing his students he asks, “Does anyone see a problem with the definition of stupid?”

There’s no sound except for the steady hum of lights above them. Everyone holds their breath as they wait for the answer.

Mr. Bryson stares at the sea of wide-eyed blank faces.

“Intelligence is something you acquire over time. Some people have a natural ability in certain areas such as art, mathematics, or maybe science. But in order to develop a natural ability,” Mr. Bryson starts to walk up and down the rows of desks and continues, “you need to have access to education and the right teachers. Any ideas where this might not happen? Where kids might not get a chance to learn?”

“Third world countries,” James announces.

“Right again! Third world countries! Do you think it’s fair to use that word to describe people in those situations?” Mr. Bryson asks.

Each student’s head moves from right to left, signalling, no.

“Good. We all agree to that.” Mr. Bryson’s words are slower now as he considers each one carefully. He places his hands in his pockets and calmly strolls the wooden floor of the room as if he’s in a park on a warm summer’s day and says, “but what about when someone can’t learn because they’ve had a terrible teacher?”

Small snorts of snickering reverberate throughout the room.

Mr. Bryson’s eyes glisten in recognition of his joke. He waits to see if anyone is brave enough to answer the question.

No one says a word.

Finally he says, “No, it’s true. Just like in any job, we have some mediocre teachers. I try not to be one of those.”

A low chuckling sound quietly sweeps across the room. Some kids nod their heads in Mr. Bryson’s direction. The students are thankful for Mr. Bryson’s honesty: no one else, not another teacher, principal or parent – has ever admitted such a thing before.

After everyone stops laughing, Mr. Bryson says, “Here’s something else for you to consider… What happens when a good teacher who’s used a method for a long time, still can’t teach a kid something? Any ideas?”

Samuel says, “You need to change your teaching methods.”

“We sure do. Sometimes teachers don’t realize how they’re teaching might be wrong for a particular student. So we need to adapt our methods in order to help those kids. Is it fair to use that word to describe someone, when the person may learn things differently?”

“No,” the kids whisper together.

Mr. Bryson calmly walks back to the chalkboard and places a hand underneath the word saying, “words matter.”

He states it as a fact. It’s not a point to be debated.  

He waits a second and adds, “This word – is a value-based judgement word. It’s dependent on any number of factors. Who taught the person? Where the person lived? What kind of teacher they had?”

“Even the common sense factor in the definition of the word can be argued. It might be common sense in North America to look both ways before you cross the street, so you don’t get hit by a car. But in some countries, where there are few cars, maybe you need to be more aware of hippos hiding in lakes that want to trample you.”

Laughter bounces across the room.

Mr. Bryson waits a moment, and then continues, “I’m being somewhat funny. But I’m serious too. What you think is common sense and matters here, might not be important if you live somewhere else.”

“As for this one,” Mr. Bryson says pointing to the figure skating line, “sometimes people will use name-calling as a way to force another person to conform. They want the person to pick a reasonable career because the chance of success might be low, and if they do succeed, they will have done something that seemed impossible. But you can’t let their negative comments stop you. People dreamed of travelling to the moon, and wrote about it, way before it happened and were ridiculed for it. Without those dreams, without those books, without those scientists – we as a world may never have gone to space, to the moon, and now we’re looking at going further into the universe.”

Mr. Bryson gingerly picks up a chalkboard brush, and using his other hand he places a finger beneath the word and quietly says, “This word… is a word…that should be erased from our vocabulary.”

With a slow wipe of the brush, Mr. Bryson, makes stupid disappear.

[i]  Stupid. Retrieved October 5th 2017, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/stupid

[ii]  Intelligence. Retrieved October 5th, 2017, from  https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/intelligence

[iii]  Common Sense. Retrieved October 5th, 2017, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/common_sense

The Sum of All Parts

I prop myself up on my elbow leaning heavily into the mattress. A second later, I slump down onto my bed as if my elbow were a car jack hoisting the rest of me up, until some malicious person came along and kicked at it, and the whole car came crashing down. It’s important to fix the wheel, because without it, the car won’t roll.

My head and right hand dangle over the edge of the bed. Eyes glaze over staring at a mixture of clothes littered on my floor: blue jeans, black and grey dress pants, a rainbow assortment of long-sleeved blouses, and rock t-shirts. Too weak to stand, too exhausted to sit up, and I can’t do anything about the mess. The pungent smell of three day coffee-booze mixture envelopes my nose. Here I lie, helplessly stuck gazing into the pile of too many unwanted clothes, while my aged favorite drinks that no longer smell the same, conspire to offend my olfactory senses. A burning sensation begins in my chest, spills into my throat, and spreads so far it pushes into my ears.

Who knew burning could last so long?

Do You See Me?

***

This short story was originally published online with Potluck Magazine in July 2015. The link can be found below:

http://potluckmag.com/july-2015/2015/7/19/do-you-see-me

It was also my very first publication in a literary journal.  Start the dance music.

***

My two day unwashed hair is greasy, face dotted in red and white pimples as I stand at the counter with yellow-egg splotches dribbled down my white t-shirt, combined with brown dusty crumbs from the last customer’s toast. I push my black, grease-stained skirt, apron-wearing-hip against the counter. The pocket of my apron holds runaway home fries, escapees from a plate earlier this morning. On my uniform I have all the essential elements of a great Canadian breakfast. If I get hungry later, I can snack on my clothes. I grab the coffee pot that contains the steaming black tar, lean in to ask a customer in my soft spoken, customer-oriented voice, “More coffee?”

I come from a large family consisting of me and my five siblings: Debra, Rob, Joseph, Cynthia, and Brad.  I am one of the middle children. Last Saturday night, I spent the evening scrubbing my mother’s bathtub, sinks, and toilets. My mother has been recently diagnosed with colon cancer and is in treatment. Cancer and chemo stole my mother’s energy. Cleaning is now an impossible task for her. Our father is gone; the victim of a Christmas heart attack last year.

My sister, Cynthia, called as I was leaving the house to ask a favour.  Cynthia is divorced and has crossed the eight-month line. She has started to shop for a new husband. Her husband, after six years of marriage, decided one night he didn’t want to be married anymore and left. It was that simple for him.

Cynthia is convinced that this new guy is “the one” and begged me through desperate tears to babysit her daughter, Kendra. As I hesitated in providing her with an affirmative answer she began rambling about the unfairness of life: a husband who abandoned her and their child, changing his mind without warning after an agreement was made in marriage and words. Cynthia proceeded to paint a picture of her date, Henry, like this: countless child-friendly dinners out with Kendra, trips to museums as a family, and she spoke at length about a planned trip to New York which Henry will finance. But, on that particular Saturday night, it was just to be the two of them at the Keg Steakhouse. Unfortunately, the babysitter that Cynthia booked for the evening developed a spontaneous case of the stomach flu, a common occurrence for THAT babysitter.

Cynthia’s daughter, Kendra, is a five-year-old, adorable little girl. According to Cynthia, all of my other siblings were busy. Rob was swamped at work managing competing projects for his company; Joseph had a date with his model-girlfriend. The hand model demands Joseph be on time, must not cancel scheduled dates under any circumstances, and Joseph pays for all their outings even though they are not in a committed relationship. The youngest in our family, Brad, broke his leg two weeks ago riding his motorcycle on slippery streets which were covered in rain that later froze when the temperature plummeted in the evening. Brad said he wanted just one more ride before the season ended. He can barely walk to the fridge. But, he’s lucky to be alive. That reminds me – I need to make Brad some food. McDonald’s wrappers littered his apartment intermingled with the odd empty potato chip bag when I saw him on Tuesday. His friends think they are helping. He will be three hundred pounds before that cast comes off.

Debra never picked up the phone when Cynthia called. She never does. To be fair, she works full time as an administrative assistant at a hospital and has two children. Debra is constantly shuttling her children to various extra-curricular activities: piano lessons, guitar lessons, volleyball, basketball or swimming – the list is endless.   After shuttling, Debra can be found up to her elbows in soap suds scrubbing the pots and pans from dinner. Kevin, her husband, works full time too, but prepares healthy dinners for his team. That’s what he calls them – a team. After the children are in bed, Kevin will help Deb clean the kitchen.

I secretly think Kevin uses the time in the kitchen as an excuse to be with Debra. I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions, Kevin whistling while wiping counters down or drying dishes. (No man is ever that happy to do housework.) But, he will also make soap boobies or a penis in the dish water when Debra isn’t looking. When he has built a sudsy penis, inevitably, Debra will stick her hands in the water breaking the penis in two. On cue, Kevin winces and screams, cradling his private parts in horror. A small smile crosses my face. What a clown – and a good guy.

That left me to babysit. Babysitting and cleaning toilets on a Saturday. I love Kendra, but sometimes I just want to stop. Stop it all. No more working, cleaning, cooking, or babysitting. But, I know what will happen at work if I stopped. Grumpy, old, grey-haired, wrinkled, cane-wielding-Gertrude will have me fired.  She will stroll into this diner, demand her coffee, and when I don’t respond, will tap her cane three times on this black, slippery floor (she says she does it to get my attention) and scowl demanding to speak to Rudy, the manager. Words like incompetent and inefficient will roll off of Gertrude’s tongue. I’ve heard it before.

I’m sure Gertrude doesn’t really need the cane. I suspect she carries it as a weapon to beat unsuspecting victims, (no one would be suspicious of an old, defenceless woman) or to trip innocent people as they walk down the streets for malicious fun.

Does anyone see me?

I am a thirty-six year old, University-educated woman. I only completed University through student loans and hard work. I am not smart. I’ve been told. While the other wealthier, brilliant, students clubbed on weekday and weekend nights, I sat in my room studying text books convinced it would get me somewhere. And here it is. I am like the 1980’s, red rose wallpaper on these walls.

I am just part of the old decor.

I’m circling the black, grunge-ridden floor of this diner with red sticky booth seats. I watch as Allison wipes the syrup from her blonde, blue-eyed, toddler daughter’s face.  I check my other customers; Brian and Dan are in expensive grey business suits today and both wear their lucky Italian ties. They discuss another sub division planned in the area. Family and careers are juxtaposed in this world. I have neither.

Am I just a waitress, cleaner, cook, babysitter? I’ve covered all the domestic roles except the one I really wanted:  to be a mother.  After multiple miscarriages and a visit to a fertility specialist she said your odds of successfully conceiving a child and carrying it to term are less than 20 percent.  

I’m losing on all the front lines.  

In terms of career, how did I end up here? Failure again, is the correct word. In my past, I have held several administrative positions at companies with each company folding faster than the one before. There are signs when a company is in a downward spiral: employees diminish through lay-offs or resignation, vacant offices increase, funds for necessities such as office supplies decrease, and there are many, many, closed door meetings. I bounced out of each company quickly, locating a new opportunity shortly before my pink slip arrived. The last time, I was not so lucky.

Unemployed. It sounds like a dirty word: worthless, undesirable, down-sized. I was off for a few months and then everyone, with the exception of my husband, told me I should just take anything. Family and friends said: certainly you can wait tables as you did in University. Some money coming in is better than no money. My husband was the exception, encouraging me not to settle too quickly. But, after a few months enduring relentless, you could always work at McDonald’s jokes (why does everyone think that joke is so damn funny?) I took a waitressing job. Here I circle, one year later.

This is the middle of my life where I should have most of my shit together. And yet, I have nothing; no career, no children, and no house. I am biologically deficient in every way – not smart, and unable to reproduce. If natural selection is always at play, it has determined my genes to be inferior. How can I argue?      

I circle. If this were the end of my life, I would hope at my eulogy, I would be described as a good and kind daughter, wife, sister and friend. Oh God – please don’t say, what made her really happy was cleaning, cooking and serving. I swear, I will come back and haunt that person. All joking aside, my real concern is this: does anyone know who I am?

I blink back tears as I place the coffee pot back on the burner. I want a different life, but how do I make it happen? There are bills to pay, family and friends that depend on me. I want to change my life, but how? How much of my life do I give to others, and how much am I entitled to? What is the ratio?  90/10? 50/50? 30/70?

I know part of how much I give depends on how much I offer. But, I wonder – if I took care of me first, was happier, healthier and less resentful, wouldn’t I be able to help others more?

Or is that just the selfish?  What happens if I took the $15,000 in my RRSP’s and travelled for a few months to relax and think about what I want to do with my life? I hang my head down and put my hands on my face in an effort to hide the tears that swell in my eyes. Physically, emotionally, and financially bankrupt; I am spent. 

I have other plans. Here’s an example. What if I used the $15,000 in RRSP’s to buy property on the outskirts of the city in the hopes in ten or twenty years a developer will purchase it for a subdivision?  As already proven, the area is in a boom phase for residential building. It would be a long shot. I know. But I might be financially secure in my later years.

I hate this job.  I should quit right now. Walk out those doors today and find a Monday to Friday job that pays more than the $19,000 I made last year, tips included.

If I quit, do I include the waitress position on my resume if I want another administrative role? Is it true that it’s better to do something versus nothing? Or, if I left it on my resume, does it demonstrate to potential employers that I lack ambition?

Who am I kidding though? I wouldn’t quit on Rudy. Rudy, the owner, defended me against cantankerous Gertrude when she declared me incompetent, shuffled my shifts around to accommodate my mother’s sudden and various medical appointments, and I am always called in first if another waitress calls in sick. He’s a wonderful boss. I know I’m lucky in some ways.

As I uncover my face, I see her white hair. GERTRUDE. How long has she been sitting there? 

“Hello dearie,” she says as her head is tilted and she taps her cane three times on the floor. “Where’s my coffee?”

I grab a cup and saucer and pour the morning brew.

“Is there something wrong?” She asks in her squeaky, kind, grandmother voice.

It’s just a trick, I tell myself. Don’t fall for it. She doesn’t care. “Absolutely nothing,” I say with my head raised and a reassuring smile.

“Good. I was concerned I would lose the worst waitress that I’ve ever met.”

I stare at her dumbfounded, purse my lips together as my jaw locks up. God, I hate her.

Gertrude smiles at me, her eyebrows are raised as she tastes the black, caffeinated, poison.

Now that her brain is on, there will be no end to her comments. Trust me, I know what I am. She doesn’t need to point it out.

Gertrude places her coffee cup down on the saucer and stares at me for a long moment. The smile evaporates from her face as she drops a card on the counter and pushes it across to me.

“I give you a hard time Tammy, because I know you can do more than this. Maybe you’re tired or lazy, or possibly both, beaten down by life’s complications. But, don’t waste your life away. My daughter, Pamela Radder, works for an employment agency. You should call her. I’m sure she can find you another job better suited to your education and skills.”

My mouth gapes open as I stare at her in disbelief.    I hesitate for a moment wondering if she is playing some awful joke on me.

Gertrude’s eyes are steady, lips have narrowed, shoulders and jaw have tightened. She looks serious.

Softly she says, “Listen, I’ve lived a long life – and mostly a good one. I was married to a wonderful man for forty years.” Gertrude take’s a deep breath as if she’s about to go under water. I watch her grey eyes get misty like a foggy day. Then, she exhales and the fog dissipates.

She continues, “We have two beautiful, successful children who take care of me now. I am also blessed with three grandchildren. But, just like you, I went to University then settled into low-paying jobs after graduation. My husband, Daniel, was in a car accident shortly after we were married and we had two small children to feed at the time. I worked anywhere to pay the bills.”

Gertrude chokes on more tears that have gathered again at this memory. Her voice is thick. She is drowning. The tears fill her lungs making it difficult for her to breathe, let alone talk. I know. The same thing happens to me when I talk about Dad.

With more determination she clears her throat with greater force, sits erect, pushing the painful memory back.  She continues, “Daniel eventually recovered and became a successful businessman. After he was better, I gave up on any chance of having a career, too tired by footsteps I had already taken. My husband was a modern man for our time and he encouraged me to pursue the things I talked about when we first met.”

“He sounds like a wonderful man,” I say, not knowing what else to say.

For a moment I think about my husband. He was the only one who told me not to go back to waitressing. He said I could do more.

“Yes,” she says. “He knew me better than I knew myself. I was a fool who flatly refused to think outside the box, as the saying goes nowadays. I regret not listening to him. Life is short and time is finite. You will eventually run out of time.”  I am experiencing too many feelings in this conversation: confusion, anger, sympathy and sadness. Just like Mount Vesuvius, there is red hot lava boiling up in my head. An eruption is inevitable. I suddenly snap at her, “You said I was incompetent!”

“You’re alright as a waitress. But I know you’re unhappy. I wanted to give you some incentive to find a better job!”

Gertrude pauses and looks down at the counter for a moment. Then, she raises her head, as her eyes meet mine, she sighs, and says, “I was trying to get you fired. If you lost this job you would be forced to find something better. I’m sorry, I was wrong. I should have just told you that you could do better. You’re a smart girl Tammy. You deserve more.”

She pauses, eyes locked on me. “I heard about your father, your mother’s illness, and your brother’s accident. It’s a small town and everyone talks. But no matter how hard it is, you should always push forward even when the deck is stacked against you.”

With a sudden, widening, lop-sided smile, she adds, “You don’t want to turn out like me, do you?

A snort of laughter erupts from me. Then, my face flushes hot with embarrassment. My laughter is an admission of guilt; all those unkind thoughts that I had towards Gertrude. Oh god, I’m an ass.

I place my hand on top of hers and quietly say, “No, I wouldn’t want that.”

I bite my lower lip and pause for a moment to consider her words. I hesitate as the card stares back at me, beckoning me to take a chance. I consider my other options. They are zero. I pick the card up and slide it into my apron.

I turn around and reach for the coffee pot on the burner. I ask Gertrude, more gently than ever before, “More coffee?”

“Yes, please.” Gertrude says with her chin raised, sparkle in her eye, as she beams at me with a look of satisfaction.

Happy

The company Clinique offers the following two scents: Happy and Happy to Be.

My pointed elbows swinging around in my haste to get ready one morning, I bump Happy off the counter and watch as he topples off, onto my square-tiled ceramic bathroom floor. In the few seconds before impact, I secretly pray that Happy might make it.  Maybe, the bottle won’t break. Catastrophe averted, I will smile and think: yeah, how lucky am I?

The glass smacks to the floor and I watch as the bottle splinters into a jigsaw puzzle of bits of smaller and larger pieces.     

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Sadly, Happy to Be suffered a similar fate months earlier.  

The overwhelming scent of too much Happy burns my olfactory senses, smothering me.

I see my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Lines cross my forehead, laugh lines flatten, nostrils burn, eyes run cold with this thought:  I’m not even allowed to own a bottle of perfume called Happy!  I am pissed with the irony of it all.

This reckoning causes the image in the mirror to begin another transformation. A new set of lines map a different network on my face. I break into pieces like Happy, scattered at my feet. I can’t watch it happen and for my own protection; my head falls forward avoiding my reflection.

I sob, wishing for happiness instead.     

***

First published in The Commonline Journal. 

http://www.commonlinejournal.com/2016/03/happy-by-penelope-s-hawtrey.html