A girl whose mother is hospitilized stuggles to make connection with those around her.
I watched the shiny bald patch on the top of Mr. Findlay's head bob back and forth as he reviewed the outline I had prepared for the Independent Study Unit he'd assigned a week ago. In order to avoid having my work critiqued in front of a quiet classroom full of other students, I had waited until just before the final bell rang to approach him. As the minutes ticked by, I began to regret this decision and wondered if there was any way I'd be able to catch my bus. All the other students had filed out quickly when the bell rang and now I stood alone, waiting.
I glanced up at the clock on the wall and my blood pressure rose a little when I saw what time it actually was - almost 3:45! I may not miss the bus if he finished up soon but I was definitely going to have to jam myself into the crowded bus; I knew well how quickly it would fill up, especially on a Friday afternoon. Mr. Findlay's head was suddenly still and, when he didn't look up from my papers, I was afraid that he might have fallen asleep. It wouldn't be the first time.
Our Sociology class involved mostly assignments that required us to work alone or in groups; there wasn't much lecture involved and Mr. Findlay was known for falling asleep in his chair, head tilted back and mouth wide open. Normally his own snoring roused him and after taking a look around to see if the class had noticed (we always pretended not to), he would look down and continue to read one of his new-age philosophy books or he would patrol the classroom to make sure we were doing what we were supposed to.
I contemplated clearing my throat loudly as I had no intention of waiting until he woke himself up but it wasn't necessary. He looked up at me as he handed me my paper. His pale blue eyes, framed by large, thick-rimmed glasses, looked too small for his chubby face.
"It looks good Samantha," he said finally. "I look forward to seeing the finished product."
That was it? He had examined my two-page outline for 20 minutes and that was it? No feedback, no critique? I guess I shouldn't complain; he had basically chewed up and spat out the work of the two students before me but I had hoped for at least a little constructive criticism. Not one to rock the boat though, I simply smiled and thanked him for his time before spinning around and walking quickly out the door.
By the time I'd made it down from the third floor and into the main hallway of the school, I had broken into an all-out run. I had 13 minutes to catch the bus and if I kept this pace up, I might even get a seat. I pushed through the front doors and turned sharply around the corner of the building, cutting across the lawn instead of following the walkway. I looked ahead of me toward the bus stop and I could see that there were only a few people lined up.
I remember a sense of relief flowing through me just before I felt something soft wrap itself around my left ankle. Being airborne was the strangest feeling, as I sailed through the air in slow motion and then came crashing down on the hard cement of the walkway I had only second ago decided to ignore. So there I was, sprawled out on all fours, the scrapes on my hands and knees stinging and my cheeks flaming. Of course I had decided to wear my kilt that day; the school uniform only afforded me a few options and, although the kilt wasn't my favourite, it was much more comfortable on hot days than the thick grey pants which were my only other option. I bit down hard on my lower lip to suppress the sob that so desperately wanted out.
Realizing that my impromptu acrobatics had drawn the attention of most of the student body who were now staring blatantly at me, some not even attempting to suppress their laughter, I struggled to my feet and examined the damage to my hands and knees. The scrapes were not very deep, barely even bleeding - somehow that wasn't much comfort.
"Hey, are you alright?" The male voice came from behind me and I turned.
He was only slightly taller than I but it was enough that I had to look up to see his face. His dark green eyes quickly scanned my face and completed a quick survey of my body as if looking for any serious damage, and then, seemingly satisfied that I would live, rested on my face again.
Although there was a slight smile playing on his lips, enough to reveal the existence of dimples on either side of his mouth, there wasn't any mocking in his manner; he seemed genuinely concerned. His friends, however, who were standing in the background, were laughing so hard they had to lean against the brick wall of the school for support. The green-eyed stranger followed my gaze and then took a step toward me and to the side a little, blocking my view of his friends.
"Are you alright?" He ran a hand through his already disheveled dark hair.
I took a deep breath and nodded. "I think so." My knees were screaming otherwise but I wasn't about to complain to him.
"Sorry. I shouldn't have left my bag on the ground." He held up his backpack as evidence of what had just happened.
My eyes drifted from his face to his backpack and then back to him; my brain had decided to abandon me for the moment and I had no idea what he was talking about. My heart, on the other hand, was in overdrive, compensating well for my lack of brain function. It was hammering so hard in my chest I was afraid he might actually hear it. I attributed this to my fall and the attention it attracted.
"You tripped on this," he clarified, shaking his backpack a little before slipping it onto his shoulders.
"Oh. That's okay." Something about the way he was looking at me made it impossible for me to form even a single complete sentence. My heart was determined to distract me. I looked around to find that we no longer had an audience, so why was my heart still trying to beat out of my chest?
The sound of the bus making its way around the corner left my brain only one more opportunity to let me down, and of course it took it gladly. "My bus." I pointed stupidly over at it as if to show him what a bus was. I wondered vaguely if it was possible for a person to live without a brain because I was definitely considering evicting mine.
The green-eyed stranger opened his mouth to reply but before he could, I turned and walked quickly away. No "Goodbye"; no "Thanks for being the only person actually concerned about my well being." I just walked away as quickly as my injured knees would allow.
Safely securing a seat on the bus, I stowed my backpack below my seat. I tried desperately to resist the urge to look back through the window at the green-eyed stranger but in the end I lost that struggle. He was standing with the two boys who had been laughing at me; I recognized them as Greg Timken and Andy Rainall. Greg was the captain of the boys' swim team and Andy was his right-hand man; the two were rarely seen apart. I didn't know either of them personally, although I had been in several classes with Andy. They ran with a different crowd than I did. (My crowd consisted solely of my best friend, Melanie.) The green-eyed stranger was exactly that, a stranger to me. By no means did I know everyone in school by name but I had attended St. Aloysius for three years and I was sure I would have remembered his face if I'd seen it before. I watched as he talked to Greg and Andy. All three of them had the tall, lean swimmer's body; although Greg was taller than them both, he was also the skinniest. He had shaved his head in Grade 9 as an initiation onto the swim team and had kept it that way ever since. I wondered if he liked the way it looked or if he thought it improved his performance in the pool. Andy, on the other hand, had a full head of red curly hair and a face full of freckles to match. The few times I'd seen him without Greg he had smiled and said hello but the rest of the time, he acted as though I didn't exist. And then there was the stranger - I wish I had thought to ask him his name - whose dark hair, shining green eyes and friendly smile somehow made him look like he didn't belong in that particular trio.
It was not like Greg and Andy looked like bad guys or anything - nobody really could while wearing grey dress pants and button-down white dress shirts - but they didn't give off the friendly approachability vibe that the stranger did.
The bus whined as the last few passengers squeezed their way on and the doors finally shut. The stranger looked back and although I know it's unlikely that he could pick me out of the crowd at that distance, I could swear that our eyes met and that he was still watching me as the bus drove away.
My cell phone began to ring just as I was dabbing a spit-soaked tissue onto my sore knee in an effort to clean it up a little. I reached down under my seat and pulled my phone from where it rested in the front pocket of my backpack and looked at the number on the screen; it was my dad's cell phone. My heart rate accelerated slightly. There could be a million different reasons why he might be calling me but my brain was conditioned to always expect the worst news and in my family, the worst news could be really bad. I took a deep breath before answering.
"Hey dad, what's up?" The brightness in my voice sounded phony, even to me. Fortunately, the static created by my dad's ancient cell phone masked it nicely.
"Hey hun. I've got some bad news." I analyzed the tone in his voice as best I could. Was this "Your mom is in bad shape; meet me at the hospital," kind of news or "We are out of cookie dough ice cream," kind of news? Both would fall into the "bad" category as far my dad was concerned. I couldn't tell. His voice sounded far away, as if he were speaking from inside a tunnel and, combined with the static, I was barely able to make out the words he spoke, never mind the intonation behind them.
"Ok. What's going on?" I asked finally. My fingers felt suddenly sore and I realized that I was gripping the edge of my seat so tightly that my knuckles were white. With effort, I loosened my grip.
"I've got to go out of town for a few days, maybe a week. There's some big problems happening at the Montreal office and they've asked Mike and me to come and help sort it out. So we're driving up now." He had only been back for two days since his last business trip and I could tell he was disappointed that he had to leave again so soon, but his attempts to subdue his excitement were also obvious. My dad was a corporate lawyer and, up until a few months ago, he had been working out of the Toronto field office, reviewing and processing contracts or "paper pushing" as he referred to it. Since his promotion, he had been traveling all over Ontario and Quebec getting "in the thick of it" for the first time.
I hated the idea of spending another week's worth of evenings and the weekend alone but I knew there was nothing he could do about it. "No problem, dad. Have you told mom?"
"I called her this morning and explained." All traces of excitement faded from his voice. Leaving my mom for a week bothered him even more than leaving me.
He cleared his throat and continued. "And I spoke to Miriam; she's going to go see her tonight and I was hoping you could make it over tomorrow?"
Saturday mornings were reserved for my mom and dad's "alone time". If she was feeling up to it, he would take her out for breakfast and then for a nice long walk. I could tell he felt bad about missing it.
"That's not a problem, dad. Are you sure Miriam's okay with visiting tonight? I'm on the bus so I could stop by now." Normally, dad and I split up the afternoon and weekend visits so that one of us was always at the hospital to sit with my mom.
Miriam was a volunteer we had met when we first visited the Canadian Metal Health Association for some information about community programs. She helped us identify some groups and services that were available to us should we find ourselves in need of assistance or information. My mom took an immediate liking to her which was a rare thing in her current condition. Being a retired flight attendant, Miriam had some amazing stories about her 30 years of travel experience and my mom was fascinated by them. They spent a good hour talking that first day they met, as dad and I sat by and watched in stunned silence. Ever since then, Miriam had been a part of Team Drake and has visited my mom or taken her out for coffee at least once a week.
"Miriam insisted. She also wanted me to tell you to feel free to call her if you need her for anything." Dad was delivering the message but he knew that there was almost no point; although I liked Miriam very much, I never felt right about calling her and asking her to help with what I felt was my responsibility. My dad would never argue with me about this because I'm sure he felt the same way.
"Ok," I replied. "Be safe, dad, and come home as soon as you can."
"I will, hun. You're the best." This was his usual way of expressing gratitude to me; he was never one for mushy speeches or heartfelt confessions.
The next morning my knees were feeling much better. There hadn't been much bleeding and after giving the wounds a good clean, I had covered them up and spent the evening on the couch watching Gone with the Wind. Now that the redness had faded, there were only a few scratch marks and a tiny scab on my left knee and I was relieved that most of the evidence from yesterday afternoon's encounter with the green-eyed stranger was fading - most of it. The one aspect that I couldn't manage to shake was the image of his face and the effect it had on my body. Every time my thoughts turned to him (four times before breakfast) my hands became clammy and my heart raced; only a very deep breath and a conscious effort to think about anything else could remedy it and even then, only temporarily. I tried to concentrate on my plans for the day. I would pay my mom a visit at the hospital, maybe take her to the cafeteria for breakfast and then come home and maybe get some chores done. No one could ever accuse me of having too much excitement in my life. I dressed and washed my breakfast dishes and then I was out the door.
As I made my way down the sidewalk, limping slightly as my knees protested every time they were required to bend, my mind kept conjuring up the same image over and over again. I shook my head and tried to focus on anything else: my sociology assignment, my upcoming Math test, the growing list of chores waiting for me at home, but my rebellious mind kept dragging me back to the same place. His large, dark green eyes, carelessly perfect dark hair and warm welcoming smile. I didn't know his name; I had barely even spoken to him but somehow the green-eyed stranger had managed to imprint himself onto my brain and was beginning to wreak havoc. My life had no room for the type of feelings he had begun to stir up. I reminded myself that I hadn't made the best first impression and the chances of us running into each other again weren't that great. I was surprised by the feeling of disappointment that this thought elicited.
There was a young girl about 12 or 13 years old already waiting at the bus stop. She looked me up and down with all the subtly of a charging bull in a library as I limped toward her. I averted my eyes to avoid making eye contact with her. I knew that she was silently critiquing my choice of grey sweatpants, red windbreaker that was two sizes too big (it belonged to my dad) and dirty running shoes that I had recently trudged through the back garden in on a weeding expedition. My hair was piled on top of my head because I hadn't bothered to shower. My naturally pale face looked even paler because of the dark circles under my eyes, and the lack of make-up probably didn't help much either. I had to admit that I deserved a harsh critique but I hadn't slept well that night. Visiting the hospital didn't really provide much motivation to look my best, either.
I was standing beside the bus shelter, pretending to read the schedule when my cell phone began to ring. Mel's phone number flashed up at me and I smiled. Her Saturdays were usually spent going out with various cousins and other extended family. Maybe I was going to have some company this afternoon after all.
"Hey Mel." My voice sounded strained and tired, even to me.
"Hey, you sound horrible. What's up?" Mel had a way of always sounding happy and well rested, even though I was sure she had just rolled out of bed.
"Nothing, just have to run some errands for dad," I lied. There were many reasons why I hadn't told Mel about my mom being in the hospital or the condition that put her there, but all the rationale in the world couldn't completely eliminate the pang of guilt I felt every time I lied to her. "I didn't sleep well last night," I admitted quickly, hoping she wouldn't ask about the details of my errand. Mel could always be counted on to ask hundreds of questions; she definitely had an inquisitive mind.
I sighed. "I just kept dreaming all night and waking up every few hours."
"Dreaming about what?" She sounded intrigued and I instantly regretted sharing this information with her.
My dreams had been filled with images of the green-eyed stranger. The dreams began with me watching the events of yesterday afternoon unfold in slow motion, including me spiraling through the air. As soon as the green-eyed stranger approached, though, it was as though I was sucked back into my body and I was looking out at him. He reached up and touched a scrape on my face that did not exist in reality and the contact made me shiver. My body was frozen, aside from the shiver, as his other hand reached up and cupped my jaw. Slowly, painfully slowly, his face moved toward mine, the gap between us closing inch by inch. Just as his lips were about to touch mine, I gasped as the breath I had been holding burst out. I was awake in an instant, breathing so hard that I was sure I must have been holding my breath in reality, just as I had been in my dream. This was just the kind of thing Mel wanted to hear but I couldn't tell her. She would never understand how extreme my reaction had been to that dream! If I told her that my head had been spinning for hours after I woke up, that my brain felt violated and confused by the actions of the stranger, that my heart had actually ached afterward, would she understand?
"I don't really remember," I lied, erring on the side of caution, as usual.
"Well that's no fun." Mel sounded very disappointed and I wondered if it was because she really wanted the details of the dream or if it was because she knew I was holding back. She didn't call me on it though. I had the feeling that she was getting used to me keeping her at a distance and I often wondered why she stuck around me at all.
"Sorry. What's up anyway? You're up early." I looked at my watch; it was only 8:30am. Mel didn't normally join the living until much closer to noon on weekends.
"Mom's got her book club or something coming over this afternoon; she's making me help her clean up." I could almost see Mel rolling her eyes and I had to laugh. Because my house always afforded us much more privacy, I'd only been to her house a few times and it was always spotless. It was the kind of home that had beautiful furniture and the perfect amount of accessories, vases with colourful fresh flowers and more cushions than anyone could ever need, yet you were almost afraid to touch anything. I always walked, sat, and of course, ate as carefully as I could to avoid leaving any mark of myself on anything.
"Anyway, I should be free around noon and I don't want to be here when her friends get here. Want to go to the mall or something?" she continued.
The mall - not my favourite place to hang out. It was always crowded with other kids, many from our school. Mel would get stopped frequently by people who were in her classes and they would talk to her and nod politely in my direction. I preferred to stay at home, sunbathe out in the backyard or watch a movie, but Mel spent most Sundays at my house, studying, so I couldn't blame her for wanting to get out and socialize a bit.
"Sure. I'm already heading in that direction so why don't I meet you in the food court at 12:30?" I suggested, quickly calculating in my head how long the visit with my mom would likely take.
"Sounds good," she agreed. "See you then." And she was gone.
My bus, as if on cue, turned the corner and approached slowly. I let the girl beside me on first and then took a seat near the back. I was just putting my bag on the seat beside me when my phone began to ring again.
I pressed talk without looking at the caller id. "What did you forget, Mel?" I asked, laughing.
"Sam?" My dad's voice sounded confused. "Is that you?"
"Sorry dad," I said. "Thought you were Mel. Is everything okay?" I was instantly suspicious about this uncharacteristically impromptu phone call. He wasn't the type of dad to be checking up on me. If he was calling off-schedule, something must be wrong. Alarm bells started to go off in my head.
"The hospital called me a few minutes ago and told me your mom isn't up for visitors today. She's going to have a session with a new psychiatrist." His voice was flat, emotionless, and I knew that meant he was trying not to sound worried or upset.
"Is she okay?" I asked, my pulse speeding up as my body began to go into panic-mode.
"She's fine; she just had a rough night. Everything's okay," he said with conviction, as if he was trying to convince himself as well as me.
"Okay. Well I'll call the hospital this evening and see if I can get mom on the phone," I offered.
"Thanks Sam. I'll try too. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Bye dad," I said before I hung up the phone.
The bus continued its slow trek along the familiar route to the transit centre at the mall. I was supposed to meet Mel at 12:30; what on earth was I going to do for four hours? I looked over at the girl who had been waiting at the bus stop with me; she was still staring at me out of the corner of her eye. I looked down again at my clothes and realized that I was in no shape to be seen in public. Mel would die of embarrassment.