Sarcastic wit attempts to guard a threadbare soul.
Unicorns and Redemption
The early morning sunlight splashed through the half-empty glass of water, entering, exiting, circling, much the way I was pondering her latest question. I watched the suspended particles, amoebas maybe, before I offered a response. She took this to mean I must be hard of hearing.
She repeated, “Well, are you going to do the right thing or not?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I thought maybe her naked ring finger twitched. I wondered for a moment if the particles in the water really were alive…“John, I’m waiting“…they were visible, they moved, but maybe they were actually dead, subjected to the activity of their surroundings.
She exhaled a thousand unspoken words, the unspoken part being unusual. Her hands were on her hips and right then I thought maybe she was channeling my mother, God rest her soul.
My left hand went to the top of my head, slowly gliding over my short blond hair, back to front. Finally, I looked directly at her, my girlfriend of three years.
“Yes, I am."
I rose from the kitchen table, walked to the front door, and let myself out.
From the front porch, the sky appeared bluer than I remembered. A bunch of birds were chirping (which I guess some people call singing) and it wasn’t pissing me off. I was really starting to feel better about things when I suddenly had to duck a flying newspaper. At 6’ 2”, I was a big target. It skidded across the porch and thumped against the front door. Good velocity. If I didn’t know better, I would say the paper boy had already sided with Angie, my, well, ex-girlfriend as of thirty seconds ago.
I yelled after him, “No tip for you today, Phillipe!”
He didn’t even turn his head. No respect whatsoever. Probably because I’d never tipped him in the past, but still.
“And tell your parents France called; they want you all back.”
I don’t think he heard that one ‘cause he just kept riding. Anyway, I figured I’d better get moving before the paper came at me from the direction of the front door.
My car started on the first try, so I took that to mean I had made the right choice with Angie, not that I’m superstitious or anything. I pulled away from the curb, not letting my tires touch the little square reflectors that separate the lanes. Okay, maybe just a little.
With the windows down I was enjoying the mild-weather breeze, and I was already feeling like the air contained more oxygen. I mean, has the sun always put off so much light? I know, now I‘m forcing it. I passed close to Phillipe in the bike lane on my left, brushing his handlebar with my side-view mirror. Just kidding. He had apparently crashed all on his own. Karma, maybe. He’ll be fine though, twelve year olds are like memory foam. I could hear him yelling at me as he was trying to square-up the front tire to the frame again.
“We’re not from France. We’re from India, jerk!”
I would have informed him of the occupation and colonization, but I was already too far away.
I pulled into the driveway of the Beverly Hills estate, my home away from home, and parked my Corolla out of sight of the street, as per request of the estate owner, who is also my employer. She was once a semi-famous movie star, so she tells me, and I am her, for lack of a better word, bodyguard. She’s 85-years-old, and honestly, there’s not much body left to guard. But, as they say, it pays the bills. Mostly.
So today she wants me to take her shopping. I’m waiting in the foyer, thumbing through a scarcely known magazine from 1981 called Movie’s Tar (yes, seriously) where she is mentioned for her role in “Bad Cheese,” an even lesser known film about mice that eat radiation-contaminated food and eventually take over L.A.
Anyway, I set the magazine back down as she gracefully descended the grand staircase dressed in a long flowing gown, the room immediately transforming in her presence.
“Jonathan!” she barked from the top of the stairs.
I snapped out of my daydream.
“Get up here and help me down these stairs.”
Maybe bodyguard wasn’t the best job description. Her red polyester pants seemed extra glisteny today.
When I arrived at the top of the stairs, she reached up and cupped my face in her bony hands.
“What’s wrong with you?” she quipped. “Something’s different.”
I stared down at her bright-red lipstick, wondering how I ended up like this.
“Is it my dear Angie? Has something happened to my sweet little Angie?”
I took her hands away from my face. “We broke up, Mrs. Miller.”
With some effort, she approached sympathy. “She left you, didn’t she?”
I went with it. “Yeah.” Now it was my turn to act.
She said, “I never did like that girl, you know.” No acting there.
I nodded, “Thank you.”
She had decided on the old convertible Cadillac today, partly because it was warm enough but mostly because my car was low on gas. We passed Neiman Marcus, Saks 5th, and Barneys NY before hitting the Target in West Hollywood. At the checkout counter, she was trying to set me up with the girl at the register. She looked to be about sixteen. Back in the car, I thanked her for her efforts, reminding her that I was a thirty- two year old man, fully capable of landing my own dates. I’m not a bad looking guy, and I was a good athlete in college. Okay, maybe I could lose a pound or two right now, but I still have all my hair.
“So where to now, Mrs. Miller?” My hands rested on the worn leather of the steering wheel.
“Well,” she replied, “given your current state, how about Johnny’s for a little pick-me-up?”
“Johnny’s the saloon?” I asked with incredulity. “It’s 9:30 in the morning.“
She nodded, attempting to light a Virginia Slim that had appeared out of nowhere. I reached over and snatched the unlit cigarette from her, tossing it into the parking lot.
“Mrs. Miller, where did you get those?”
She sneered at me. “You’re the ex-cop, you tell me.”
We stared each other down for maybe ten seconds. Finally she grunted and slapped the rest of the pack into my open hand.
After my early retirement from the force, which is another story in itself, and then my brief military career, I was turned on to my present job by my good friend Larry Marcum. I’m not sure why I still call him that. Anyway, I’ve been at it ever since. I looked over at Mrs. Miller. She was fuming silently, thank God, and I dropped the car into gear and we headed out of the parking lot. My cell phone rang. I didn’t bother to check caller I.D., I needed a distraction right now, and even a conversation with Oma from India about why my Visa payment was so late would be an improvement. Hey, maybe she‘ll know why Phillipe is such an angry kid.
“John, it’s Angie.” Woops. Forgot about that one.
I paused with the phone to my ear, searching for a response.
Mrs. Miller snapped, “You’re not supposed to talk and drive, Jonathan.”
I handed her the phone. “Good point.”
So we pulled into the grocery store parking lot and I jammed the old Caddy into park. Mrs. Miller was asleep; apparently not even Angie could hold her attention. I feel you, Mrs. M. I wondered for a second if Angie had actually complained her to death. I reached over and pried my phone free of her cold, dead fingers. Just kidding, she really was just sleeping. Anyway, I took it upon myself to pick up a few necessities for her and let her get some much-needed rest. Besides, she looked like an angel with her head straight back and her mouth wide open.
Having chosen to save the planet rather than the trees, I placed the paper bag of frozen dinners on the back seat. As we exited the lot, I accidentally drove over a speed bump too fast, wink, wink. Mrs. Miller woke with a jolt.
“Hey, you’re back.” I smiled. She rolled her eyes. After four years, we have a bit of a strained relationship. We sort of tolerate each other, more out of necessity than anything else. Like, she‘s old and lonely, and I‘m broke and lazy. Hey, almost like we’re married. I love my life.
“So, home for Scotch and scrabble?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, there’s someone I need to visit at the hospital.”
How much do they owe you? “Oh, okay. Which one?” I asked.
She straightened up in her seat. “Just someone who owes me a little money.”
“No, I meant which hospital.” I was seriously considering making my second escape of the day.
We pulled into the underground parking garage of Cedars Sinai Hospital. Plenty of other places I would rather be right now. After the comical communication difficulties between the oriental receptionist and the ever-fiery Mrs. Miller, we were finally riding the elevator to the seventh floor. I decided to get serious for a moment.
“Behave yourself, Mrs. Miller. People here may not share your out-going sense of humor.”
She was glaring at me. Suddenly she smiled. “This place makes you nervous, doesn’t it?”
And it did. For lots of reasons. Not the least of which was it was a place surrounded by death. And I had seen my share of death. Both as a child, with my parents dying before I was ten, and as an adult, in my two previous professions. The doors opened to the tiled hallway of the seventh floor.
I faced Mrs. Miller and joked, “Woom numba serin-oh-oh-fie." She didn’t think I was funny.
I leaned against the wall just outside of room 7005, where Mrs. Never-Let-It-Go was shaking down an old acquaintance. For a moment, it felt like the good old days, like good-cop, bad-cop. But then it really didn’t because I wasn’t feeling much like a good cop at the moment. I took a deep breath and decided this was as good a place as any to let reality sink in. And it did.
“Whaddya doin’ here?” I looked down to where the voice had come from.
She was in a wheelchair, a purple scarf covered her head, and if I had to guess I would say she was about ten or eleven years old.
I smiled politely, “I’m watching the door for my partner.”
“Are you a cop?” She asked.
“Not really,” I replied.
“You look like a cop.”
“Really? Is there still powdered donut on my mustache or something?” I pretended to wipe my face.
She chuckled. “No. You don‘t have a mustache.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, then it must be my rugged good looks and the manly way in which I carry myself then.” I gave her my best chest-out, stand-tall-and-smile look.
She laughed. “No, definitely not.” She was shaking her head.
A deep, raspy cough escaped the room beside me. Her smile quickly disappeared. She pointed at the doorway. “This is Mr. Martin’s room. They say he only has a few weeks left to live.”
I glanced over my shoulder into the room. I was going to suggest they may want to revise that number down after Mrs. Grim Reaper gets through with him, but I held my tongue and just nodded solemnly.
The way she was looking at me was beginning to make me uncomfortable. She cocked her head a little sideways, her eyes were big and blue and clear against her fair cheeks and forehead. She moved the electric wheelchair a little closer to me.
She asked, “Are you here to see him before he dies?”
I broke her gaze and looked at the floor, running my hand over my head, back to front.
“No, my ah, my…I brought someone to see him.”
She exhaled, finally looking away from me. “Well, I hope whoever you brought makes his day a little brighter.”
I pictured Mrs. Miller in his room. “Well, if he likes surprises, then I bet it will be.”
That seemed to make her happy. “I love surprises.” Her little smile was back. “Don’t you?”
“Actually, I’d rather just know ahead of time what’s coming, know what I mean?”
Her smile was gone again. “No, I don’t. What fun would life be if you already knew exactly what was going to happen?” She extended frail arms away from her sides, palms facing the ceiling. “Besides, only God knows exactly what’s going to happen, silly.”
“Where are your parents?” I looked up and down the hall.
She locked her baby blues on me, and probed, “Why are you not happy?”
Really? I gave her my best fake smile. “I’m super-happy.”
She chuckled again.
I continued, “Really, why just this morning I kissed my beautiful girlfriend goodbye and heard birds singing and saw squirrels dancing in the street. Then my neighbor accidentally ran one over, but that just made me even happier.” She laughed. “You know, they ruin your lawn and stuff. Anyway, then I went to my friends house, and we took the top down and shopped and laughed and now we’re here.” I spread my arms out.
She was studying my face. No more words came. It was a long, uncomfortable pause, mercifully broken by the ringing from inside my pocket. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I answered it straight away.
“John, it’s Angie.”
I looked up at the ceiling. Happy, happy, happy.
My new little friend advised me, “You’re not supposed to talk on a cell phone in here.”
“Right.” I nodded, handing her the phone.
She apparently thought that was funny. She put the phone to her ear.
“Hello?” Pause. “My name’s Lucy, who’s this?”
I left to go find a rest room, so I was only able to imagine the rest of the conversation. Standing at the sink, I felt a little ashamed of myself for putting Angie on the phone with Lucy. I mean, Angie’s really immature.
When I got back Lucy was waiting for me, holding my phone in her lap. She held it out for me to take, and when I did I noticed her skin was cool and clammy.
“I’m John.” I dropped the phone into my pants pocket and extended my hand.
She shook it weakly. “I’m Lucy.”
“So,” I offered, “You and Angie bff’s now?”
She gave me a sympathetic smile.
I continued, “I don‘t think you two would get along, really. She’s obsessive about her favorite things, and something tells me you're not into unicorns and Justin Bieber.”
She saw the humor in that. I smiled. Smart kid.
She said, “Well, you might be right about me not being into childish prancing fairy tales…and unicorns,” She snorted with amusement and shame at her own jab, “But,” she became serious, “I truly enjoy getting to know new people.“ She gazed down the hall at nothing. “At the end of the day, relationships are all that matter.”
Her eyes met mine again.
“Jonathan.” Mrs. Miller entered the hall. “I need a Scotch.”
Lucy stared at her in wonder, like most people do.
To Lucy I said, “It was nice meeting you, maybe I’ll see you around.” Usually, when I say something so flippant and untrue, it doesn’t bother me.
She smiled at me with penetratingly clear eyes. “It was very nice to talk to you, John.”
I smiled back and took Mrs. Miller by the arm, pulling her away before she attempted to converse with Lucy. I was trying to escape with what little dignity I might have.
Several steps away Lucy called my name.
“You did the right thing with Angie.”
Pulling into the driveway of Mrs. Miller’s estate I realized I hadn’t been able to keep my mind off of Lucy. I couldn’t believe how much reassurance I had felt from her statement about Angie. My therapist had never made me feel that good and I pay her. Anyway, I grabbed the soggy bag off the seat and dropped it in the kitchen, then went back for the groceries. Just kidding.
An hour later, I woke Mrs. Miller in her recliner, removed the empty Scotch glass from her hand, and set the Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes in her lap. Yummy. Then I did something that even surprised me.
“Mrs. Miller, it’s time I moved on. You're gonna have to find a new, ah, body guard.” My left hand smoothed my hair forward.
She stared at me blankly, which she does quite often. “Well, refill my Scotch before you leave.”
It was mid-day and the sun was shining brightly through the windshield of my car. I was feeling a sense of freedom I had not felt since, well, I don’t remember exactly. I was driving through downtown Beverly Hills where traffic was murder, and I hadn’t even returned the favor when I was flipped-off on two separate occasions. Things were looking up, I thought.
I have a sister in Manhattan Beach who is married with two kids, who I hoped would let me stay a few nights to regain my footing. But first things first, I needed to retrieve my clothes, at least, from my former residence.
I parked around the corner from the little house we used to share. I figured Angie had gone to work, but I wasn’t certain. As I neared the house on foot, I breathed a little easier. Her car was nowhere to be seen. Once inside I began to pack my things into plastic garbage bags. Bieber, Angie’s pit bull, was just staring at me with what I thought looked like jealousy. I poured us both a Heineken (mine wasn’t in a water dish) and we shared a kind of going-away toast. He seemed to like that, so we had another. About an hour into my packing, my phone rang. Yep, Angie. You’d think I have no one else in my life or something. No comment. To avoid having to erase a voicemail, I hit ‘accept’ and set the phone in front of Bieber, who probably would have spoken if he wasn’t so buzzed.
I finished packing and Bieber and I said our goodbyes. Well, I gave him a pat on the head as he was sleeping soundly. Strangely, he looked just like Angie when she slept, eyes half-open with drool running down the side of his face. Anyway, I rewarded his faithfulness as a good dog with a fancy new chew toy that I placed beside him. It was actually Angie’s favorite stuffed unicorn from off of our bed. Won’t they both be surprised. I also left her a note. It read; Got my stuff, give Beiber a couple of Tylenol in the morning. And I was gone.
My sister was so gracious, plus she owed me a favor, so she agreed I could stay for a while. I took that to mean a few weeks, she likely meant a couple of days. She set me up in the playroom, and that evening, after my two little nieces had finished using me as a trampoline, I got a shower and some SpongeBob Mac n Cheese. Hey, at least it wasn’t a frozen Salisbury steak. I was coerced into sitting at the ‘kid’s table’, where I had to sit sideways ’cause the plastic chairs were tiny and my knees surpassed the height of the little table by at least a foot. My brother-in-law thought I looked adorable. In not so many words, I thanked him for noticing. We don’t get along too well, which is another story in itself, which is kind of the theme of my life. Everything is a story in itself. Something to be analyzed at a later date. Put off, ignored, whatever. I carefully picked up my juice box, heeding the warning from both of my emphatic nieces not to squeeze the sides until the straw is in your mouth, and took a long, satisfying drag. I thought of my current status. I thought of Lucy.
I couldn’t fall asleep on the couch in the playroom. Finally, I realized Ken was digging into my back from under the cushion, so I removed him and placed him in the doll house next to Barbie. He looked so satisfied with that stupid grin on his face. What does he know that I don’t? I was a little envious of his perfect little house, with his perfect little wife, in their perfect little bed. Are Ken and Barbie even married? I turned and faced the other direction. Yes, that was better. In the bright glow of a Cinderella night light, I stared at the purple flowered pattern of the couch’s fabric. It reminded me of Lucy‘s scarf.
Four year olds don’t care about morning breath. Yours or theirs. I woke to the creepy sensation that someone was staring at me. And she was. From only inches away. The older of my two nieces was closely studying my nostrils or something.
“Good morning.” I managed, rubbing my eyes.
She squinted and poked at my nose.
I inquired, “You didn’t happen to make coffee, did you?”
“You look funny.” She squeaked.
“I get that a lot.” I pointed toward the doll house, “Maybe Ken over there could give me some pointers.”
She followed my finger and turned.
“Jojo!” She squealed with delight. “I found you!”
She cleared out of my way in a rush to retrieve her formerly missing doll.
“You’re welcome.” I was pretty sure she didn’t hear me.
When I got to the kitchen my sister was plating some scrambled eggs.
“You shouldn’t have, Amy.”
She smiled, tossing the spatula into the sink. “I didn’t, Johnny, they’re not for you.”
My brother-in-law Paul entered the kitchen dressed in slacks, button-up shirt and tie. He stood next to Amy and I could feel his displeasure as he glanced at me.
I said, “Hey Paul, Rogaine didn't work either, huh?”
He instinctively rubbed his bald spot.
“Nice, John.” Now he was glaring at me.
“Are you wearing lifters or is my sister shrinking?” I know, I’m terrible.
He was a D.A., and I had introduced him and Amy back in the days when I was L.A.P.D. I know it‘s hard to believe, but I used to be a poor judge of character.
He picked up his plate of scrambled eggs. “I see you still haven‘t grown up at all.” Before I could point out how I’ve grown to be almost a foot taller than he was, he added, “Still trying to find yourself, I guess. War hero won't carry the day forever, John."
I heard my sister blow out a long, stress-filled breath before I reached the front door.
The 405 was as gnarled as ever, but it gave me time to think, as well as contribute to global warming. My sister had asked where I was going, and in all honesty, I had told her I didn’t really know. An hour later, I parked my car near the same spot I had parked the previous day at the hospital. I informed Mr. Kung Foo Pow (I know, that’s childish and politically incorrect) that I was going to the seventh floor to see Lucy.
The hallway on the seventh floor was busy with nurses and the occasional doctor making the rounds. I wandered up and down for twenty minutes without seeing her. At the nurses station, I was met with some resistance from one of the younger nurses.
“And you don’t know her last name?” she questioned through narrowed eyes.
“No, I uh, I just met her yesterday.”
She stared at me for several seconds, then sort of smiled as if she knew something I didn't.
The nurse, who I noticed was rather attractive, walked around the counter and motioned with her head for me to follow. We got on the elevator and headed up two floors.
I broke the silence, “I don’t understand, why was she down on the seventh floor yesterday?”
She informed me, “Lucy tries to make the rounds every day and encourage as many patients as possible.”
She paused, glancing at me, “Actually she encourages more than just the patients, obviously.”
I shrugged, holding the tiny stuffed unicorn awkwardly in my left hand. Angie wouldn’t miss it, she had dozens.
The doors opened to the ninth floor. The nurse gave a stern list of rules, which I kind of heard, then pointed me to Lucy's room.
The door was open so I entered. It smelled vaguely of antiseptic and was silent but for the steady beeps and hisses found in this sort of place. She was the only occupant in the room, other than a nurse fussing with the machines, and when I reached her bedside I saw she was sleeping. She looked so peaceful. I stood and watched her breathing for a moment; tubes were coming out of her arms and nose. She wore no scarf today, and her head was absent of any hair. Suddenly, her eyes opened, bright and blue and intense.
They focused on me.
A smile. A real smile, free of deception or fear or flattery or anything fake. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.
“Hi, John. I knew you’d come back,” she whispered weakly.
My heart caught in my throat, so I just smiled.
There was a chair against the wall that I slid up close to the bed. I sat and rested my hand next to her right arm. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s like I’m someone else around her, and I know that’s crazy ‘cause I don’t even know her.
“You know me,” I teased, “can’t keep away from hospital food.”
She smiled knowingly, causing me to look away.
“So,” I said, “is it true this place has the technology to make Jell-o into red squares?”
She chuckled, “Yes.”
“They’re illegal in China, you know, but you can have red circles. They won‘t shoot you for red circles.”
She blinked a few times with deeply furrowed brows, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I get that a lot.”
We smiled, neither of us speaking for a moment.
I looked around the room, contemplating with full measure what her presence here meant.
I asked, “Are you in pain?”
“Are you here all the time?”
She nodded. “I am now.”
I took a deep breath and it was louder and more telling than I would have liked.
“Don’t feel sorry for me, John, I’m the one who’s free.”
That was the kind of talk that both disturbed and confused me. Something in me that I didn’t know existed was stirred.
She looked down at my hand resting near hers. Her eyes followed the colored tattoo that started at my wrist and disappeared into the sleeve of my white t-shirt. It wrapped the circumference of my arm, and she began to trace the shapes and forms with her fragile fingers. The contrast between my large, muscular arm and her tiny hand was striking.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s a lot of things.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means a lot of things.”
“You think I’m too young to understand.”
“I’d be willing to bet you’re the only one who would understand.”
“Then tell me.”
I blew out a long breath, rubbing the top of my head. “I got it when I got back from Afghanistan.”
We let silence have its way for several moments.
I said, “Hey, I brought you something.”
“Cotton candy?” She shot back.
“You like cotton candy?”
“Are you kidding? Its only my favorite thing in the world.”
“I’ll try and remember that.”
I held out the little stuffed unicorn.
She chuckled, then reached for it. I placed it in her open palm.
“It’s beautiful,” she tried to keep a straight face. “Every time I look at it, it will remind me of you. And, of course, Justin Bieber.” She laughed briefly before the coughing took over. I retrieved a glass of water off the side-tray and held the straw so she could take a drink. She swallowed a couple of tiny sips. A nurse entered and stood by her bed.
“Thank you. I’m okay now.”
We sat in silence again for several minutes; she was staring at the stuffed animal and I was staring out the window. The nurse checked a chart sitting on the counter under the machinery.
Finally, I asked, “Are your parents here?”
She breathed out a sigh. “My mom is pretty much always here, and my dad, he, he doesn’t come anymore.”
She read the question in my face.
“He wanted a divorce from my mom after I got sick.”
My stomach tightened.
A woman walked in, her brow furrowed when she saw me.
“Hi Mom, this is my friend John.” Lucy told her cheerfully.
Lucy’s mom extended her hand to me. It was warm and gentle.
“I’m Claire, Lucy’s mother.” She pulled her hand back, eying me a bit apprehensively.
“Do you work here at the hospital, because I don‘t recognize you if you do.”
I was at a loss for words. It didn’t seem normal or likely for me to be here. I suddenly felt foolish and lost.
“We just sort of ran into each other yesterday on the seventh floor, but I probably better get going, anyway.” I rose from the chair.
“Oh yeah, Lucy told me about you. She told me yesterday she had met a man with sad brown eyes.”
Her face softened.
“Well, they’re definitely brown, anyway.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“She has a rather unique ability to read people.”
I nodded. “I sort of experienced that yesterday.”
Claire smiled a smile so full of understanding I thought I was in a Disney fairy tale.
“She has an effect on some people." She said quietly.
I just smiled back.
We made small talk for several minutes, with her doing the majority of the talking. Lucy was listening intently to every word, smiling and nodding when she agreed. As Claire spoke, I sensed the same genuineness in her that I did with Lucy. Something confident and caring, something unforced and unconditional. I wasn’t used to it, especially in strangers. But they didn’t seem like strangers at all. And I guess that’s what was drawing me.
Claire touched my arm, “Hey, Lucy needs to have some medications administered for the next hour or so. Would you be interested in a cup of coffee down in the cafeteria?”
“Will you be with it?” My smile was charming.
Claire laughed out. “Yes, I meant together. I need to know what kind of person you are if you are going to be visiting Lucy on a regular basis.”
I stuttered, “Well, no, I…I’m just not busy today. I’m kinda between jobs right now. I don’t know where I’ll be in the days ahead.”
“That’s perfect. We take life one day at a time around here, too.” She smiled, winking at Lucy.
“So, John, how about that coffee?”
I glanced at Lucy, who smiled and raised her eyebrows up and down.
“Sure, I could use some coffee. I didn’t get much sleep, I tossed and turned on top of Ken half the night.”
Even the nurses stopped what they were doing and stared at me.
“No! No, I mean Ken the doll. On the couch.” Still, incredibly awkward silence.
“Barbie’s husband, Ken. The doll. You know, play-toys. My niece’s toys.”
Now Lucy was giggling. “I don’t think they’re married, John.”
Claire was really great. She possessed many of the same characteristics as Lucy. The conversation was infinitely more pleasant than the coffee, and the one hour break flew into two. Her eyes were the same magnetic blue as Lucy’s, and her looks overall, while not spectacular, were attractive. I found myself sharing more than I’m comfortable with, but it didn’t feel uncomfortable. My usual care-free sarcasm seemed out of place with her too, which was a little weird.
“Thank you for tolerating my questioning, John, but I know you understand my protective instincts for Lucy.”
“So you’re saying this wasn’t a date then?”
She laughed. “You can call it whatever you like. I enjoyed it, whatever it was. I need to get up to Lucy.”
She rose from the table. “Give me a few minutes then come and see her.”
“Okay.” I nodded.
So this went on for the next seven months. I went to see Lucy nearly every day, spending time in her room on the rough days, and making the rounds with her on the good ones. Coffee with Claire was a regular occurrence as well. It was such a bittersweet time. I didn’t have the best childhood in the world, and I can honestly say I’ve never loved anyone quite the way I loved Lucy. It was the most unexpected of relationships. I would die for her, and often, at night, I cursed a God I did not believe in for what she was going through. And yet, she did nothing but praise the very God I hated. I longed for death to be an enemy that I could hunt and kill, like I did over-seas. The pending threat couldn’t be eliminated, and that’s what I hated more than anything.
One cool autumn day, Lucy was in a particularly melancholy mood. Claire was reluctant at first, but after my suggestion, she couldn’t resist the excitement in both of our eyes, so she consented.
I lifted Lucy’s frail body from the passenger seat of my car and set her gently in the wheelchair.
“It’s so beautiful,” she was really grinning. We could see the ocean surrounding the pier a couple of blocks away.
“This is Manhattan Beach. And that’s the Manhattan Pier. It’s where I grew up. It’s my home, really.”
“You lived on a pier?” She laughed harder than I did.
We made our way toward the beach.
“I want to feel the sand in my toes, John.”
“You got it, Lu.”
I left the wheel chair near a bike rack on the strand. The beach was mostly empty today. It was in the low 50’s, and we were both wearing sweatshirts and long pants.
I carried Lucy toward the water, stopping before we reached the wet sand. The surf was rough and choppy; the sun was hidden behind thick clouds. The air was heavy with the smell and taste of salt.
I took off her shoes, laid her down on her back and then lay next to her. Staring at the sky, we let the sound of waves crashing and receding engulf us for several minutes.
“It’s going to rain tonight,” I informed her.
She didn’t respond.
“Those are angry clouds,” I pointed, “dark and angry.”
She turned her head my way.
“That’s not anger, John, it’s power, and it’s beautiful.”
I pondered that.
She pointed. “Look, that cloud looks like Mount Rushmore.”
I squinted where she was pointing.
“No, the guy on the end has big ears, and he’s not on a mountain yet.”
She crinkled her nose and shrugged in confusion.
“Never mind. Hey look, a unicorn.”
We both chuckled. Several more minutes passed before we spoke again.
“Can you promise me something, John?” she asked.
I turned my head toward her.
“Don’t be angry when I’m gone.” Her voice cracked with the word ‘gone.’
I fought back tears and nodded, even though I knew it was a lie.
She smiled. “And will you take care of my mom, too?”
The pupils of her baby blues pierced my soul.
“Yes, of course I will.” I managed.
Thunder rumbled in the distance.
“I’m cold.” She began to shiver.
I meticulously removed every grain of sand from between her toes before carefully replacing her socks and shoes. My heart was churning like the clouds overhead.
“Thank you.” She whispered,
“No problem. I hate sand in my socks.”
“No.” She touched my arm. “Thank you for being my best friend.”
I couldn’t stop the tears this time. There was a finality hanging over us, crushing me like the coming weather. I wanted to run away and stay and hold her at the same time. I gently squeezed her hand while looking the other way, hiding my tear streaked face.
It took a few minutes before I was able to speak.
“You saved me, Lucy. You saved my life.”
She shook her head. “I am in the light, John, and you’re feeling the warmth of its rays. His rays.” She pointed upward.
All I saw up there were deep grays of uncertainty.
I blinked away the last of my tears, regaining myself. I was willing to accept and even support whatever gave her peace.
“Well, you certainly are a brilliant, shining ray of light, Lucy.”
She sighed, staring at the sky again, as though I wasn’t understanding something. She had spoken often of her source of hope, and while I didn’t embrace it myself I certainly didn’t hold it against her. How in the world could I? She was just a child for Christ’s sake.
“We’d better get you back before nurse ‘Wha-da-ya-mean-she’s-not-here’ finds out your missing.”
This made her visibly sad, which was something I rarely saw.
“Okay.” She said reluctantly as I scooped her up. When her tiny arms were wrapped tightly around my neck, she whispered into my ear, “But can we at least take the long way back?”
Don’t you know that I would go to the ends of the earth, and even die in your place, if I knew it would save you?
“Of course we can, Lu.” I rubbed her back and started across the sand.
The sky overhead was streaked with pink wispy clouds, as though someone had pulled strands of cotton candy free and let the wind carry them away. I stared at the drifting shapes long enough for my mind to form one into a perfect unicorn. In the background I was vaguely aware of people singing some sort of hymn. When they had finished, I forced myself to look toward them. The setting sun bounced off the lacquered finish of the small black coffin that hovered above a hole dug in the middle of a sea of green. The smell of unearthed dirt filled the air. And although I had only recently found it, my heart felt as though it had been ripped from my chest and placed with Lucy inside the box. I wondered if I should reserve a small piece of it for an unknown future. I looked toward Claire. She sat closest to Lucy, her shoulders heaving in uncontrollable, silent sobs. I didn’t hear a word the man giving the service said. In fact, I left before it was over.
Even though the breeze was cool as I stood in the sand next to the pier in the darkness, I didn’t care. I was replaying the short time I had the privilege of spending with Lucy. Something she had spoken to me a week before she died kept rolling through my head. “Don’t be angry when I‘m gone.” She had made me promise. And right now, strangely, I felt an incredible amount of peace. Unexplainable, and undeniable. Maybe tomorrow would be different.
I listened as waves pounded the sand with relentless force, folding onto themselves in the retreating undercurrent. The residual white foam, like a memory, was the only thing that made it to me, playing softly around my bare feet before receding into the darkness. Normally, I would say the waves were angry and brutal, but tonight I saw them as powerful and beautiful. That was something my best friend taught me. I looked into the night sky and was moved by the immensity of what I saw, as though I had never seen the moon and stars in this way before. I thanked God for Lucy, I thanked Him for the precious time he had allowed me to spend with her. I don’t know if I did it right, but it felt right. As I stood with my hands to my side, someone came up next to me and slipped her hand into mine. It was warm and gentle, and felt like it belonged there. In the tempered glow of the moon I looked down at Claire. Her eyes were tired from crying, but they conveyed a peace in the midst of a storm. A refuge. I pulled her in tight, and we stood like that for a long moment.
Finally, I whispered, “How did you know where to find me?”
“Lucy told me this is where you would be.”
I choked out, “Are we gonna make it without her?” The tears came again.
“Yes, John, one day at a time. And I’m going to need you in every one of them.”
I squeezed her hand tightly. In the midst of the worst possible situation, I was filled with more purpose and clarity than ever. In the midst of pain unspeakable, I was filled with comfort, and for the first time in my life I felt as though, because I had received something I didn’t deserve, I had something to give.
Two years passed since we said goodbye to Lucy. I hug my nieces a little tighter and a lot more often these days. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel pain every day, but little by little I am being healed. As is Claire.
Claire and I did get married, and we recently talked about having kids some day. We kept the wedding small and intimate, which means Claire had a hundred guests and I had Mrs. Miller. Just kidding. I had suggested we decorate in hundreds of little unicorns and hire Justin Bieber to do the reception, but Claire wasn’t really comfortable with that idea.
I added that to the list of things I love about her.