Right Now

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


“Sir. Sir?”

My head turned back from the barroom window where I’d been staring.

”I’m sorry. What did you say?”

The waitress gestured at the margarita with extra salt around the rim that sat, untouched, across from me.

I’d been sitting at the table in silence, alone, for nearly half an hour. It was nearly 11:00 PM on a Tuesday evening. We were the only two people in the bar.

“Excuse me. I didn’t mean to bother you. I asked who the extra drink was for.”

“Umm… it’s for my friend R.”

“Are you expecting her soon? I can bring a fresh drink if she’s on her way.”

“Oh. That’s very nice of you, but…”

I paused and cleared my throat.

“No. She won’t be coming. But… thank you.”

“Of course.”

She hesitated.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry… but is your friend OK?”

I bit my lower lip and closed my eyes, then took a deep breath.


It was an unusually cool and cloudy Saturday afternoon in June as I walked with hunched shoulders to the office garage, where I was parked just inside the gate.

I had just finished an abbreviated version of my standard workout routine at the gym across the street. Typically I would park at the office on Saturday mornings and hit the gym for a 90-minute workout, (or more, depending on my mood). I would then either walk a half-mile to the local art-house cinema or catch the train and head downtown to one of the theatres there.

But today was not a routine Saturday. My sister’s son C, who is my godchild, was celebrating his fourth birthday, so my brother and his wife held a party for C in their backyard. They’d planned for a pool party, but the blustery winds forced a change of plans.

The workout was a slog, although I managed to complete the full 90 minutes. I hadn’t been sleeping lately, and it was catching up with me. I was toying with the idea of skipping the movie and simply going home, but I knew I wouldn’t relax even if I did.

I heard the garage door open behind me and hastily tossed my gym bag into the back seat. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone, or to even see anyone. I fumbled my keys as I tried to make my escape before whoever it was showed up at the door. Cursing to myself, I bent down to look for the keys. Naturally, they had bounced halfway under the car. I strained to reach them without actually making contact with the oily, grease-stained floor.

Suddenly I saw two small feet appear on the other side of the car, followed by the sound of a female voice tentatively calling out.

“Hello? Are you OK over there?”

“One second,” I grunted as I stretched my arm. I snagged the keys a moment later and popped up like a jack-in-the-box on my side of the car. I looked across in the dim light.

“Oh, hey, R.”

R, and I, while not friends precisely – not even work friends – were at least nodding acquaintances. She’d been hired by my group about six months prior as an AA. I’d been there for 18 months, working first as a technical editor and, more recently, writer. I had taken the job after finally aborting my plans to move to upstate NY.

R was stunningly beautiful. As in “men-walk-into-telephone-poles-as-she-passes” beautiful. I’m ashamed to admit that it was likely one of the reasons I had never really taken the time to get to know her beyond saying hello in the hallway when our paths crossed. Someone that good looking couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to say, right? Nor would she be interested in anything I had to say. Why would she? She could be with anyone she wanted. Or so I told myself.

“Hey. What are you doing here on a Saturday?”

I gestured to the gym bag in my back seat.

“Gym. What’s your excuse?”

“Oh, I’m interested in learning about what the QA team does, so I got them to set up some test environments for me so I can mess around.”

“That’s a good way to do it,” I said. “It’s how I learned CAD. And now that I think about it, it’s pretty much how I learned tech writing too.” I thought for a moment. “Basically, I was too stupid to know you’re supposed to go to school for a year to learn each of them.”

R tilted her head.

“Why would you say that? You taught yourself something most people spend a year in school learning how to do? That’s pretty cool.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

“Thank you. But, hey, you too,” I said. “I mean, giving up a Saturday – even this one – “ I gestured to the gray skies outside – is pretty impressive.”

She shrugged.

“I don’t know. I usually try to catch up on my sleep on the weekends, but I couldn’t stay asleep today.”

“Insomnia?” I shook my head.

She nodded and pulled under her eyes.

“Forget about bags under the eyes; I have luggage!” There was no discernible difference in her appearance. She was still dazzling.

“I don’t know about that, but my condolences. Insomnia sucks.”

“You too?” she asked.

It was my turn to shrug. She leaned forward and peered across the car.

“Yeah. You have the look.”

 “I guess I’m used to it.”

“Haad it for a while?”

I nodded.

“How long?”

“Oh, let’s see.” I pondered it for a moment. “Well, I can remember being awake when my father came home from work at midnight in our first house, so…”

I did the mental math.

“Since I was about four or five, I guess.”

“Four years old?!?” she said, disbelieving.

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember he’d come home and watch all of those old detective shows – you know, Kojak, Mannix, Barnaby Jones… all of them.”

She shook her head.

“I don’t know any of those.”

“Really? Not even reruns? Where were you hiding?”

“Russia,” she said, grinning. Her eyes crinkled. She had dimples, I noticed. “That’s where I was born.”

“No kidding?” I asked. “You don’t have any accent.”

“Yeah, we moved here when I was ten.”

“Do you still speak Russian?”

“I do.” She rattled off something indecipherable.

“What did you just say?”

“I said it’s always nice to meet a fellow insomniac.”

“’As you make your bed, so will you sleep.’ It’s a Russian proverb. My mother tells me that when I tell her I have insomnia.”

“Sounds harsh,” I said, laughing.

“Well, you can interpret it to mean that you’re responsible for your bad decisions… or it can mean that you didn’t do a good job making your bed. She means the second one.”

She paused.

“I think.” We were silent for a moment. I could hear the wind whistle in the trees outside.

So,” she said. “What’s your story? If you’ve been tired this long it must be from screwing up your life and not from forgetting to square the sheets on your bed, right?”

I hesitated.

“I’m sorry,” she said immediately. “That was a really stupid thing to say. I barely know you, and even if I did…”

“No, it’s OK. It probably is both, to tell the truth.”

“At four years old? C’mon. What could have been going on at that age to make you be up all night?”

“Everyone has their baggage,” I said after a moment.

She nodded almost imperceptibly, more to herself than to me. We looked at each other.

“OK,” she said after a moment. “I don’t know about you, but I think we met today, right here, right now, for a reason.”

“So do I,” I said, nodding. “Something bigger than both of us, you mean.”

 “Exactly!” she said, speaking rapidly. “I’m Russian and you’re clearly Irish. This is right up our alley! We can’t help ourselves with this mystical stuff!”

“Yeah. By the way, I apologize – my leprechaun is off today.”

She giggled.

“Oh, that’s OK. Anyway, I want to keep talking. But I’m freezing my butt off, and you’re shivering, so could we get a cup of coffee and then go inside?”

And so we did.

***

We wound up talking for well over six hours that brisk June afternoon, only stopping because we were both on the verge of fainting from hunger.

Without delving into details, it was an intense conversation, as you would imagine a six-hour conversation would be. As it turned out, there were striking similarities in our families and how we related to them.

In retrospect, the intimacy of what we talked about amazes me; as R pointed out, before that day we had likely never spoken more than 10 words to each other. I wasn't one to open easily to anyone, let alone a near-total stranger. (At that point in my life I wasn't capable of opening up to anyone, truth be told. Myself included.)

But somehow I knew instinctively that R not only could be trusted, but that she understood. Because she was a kindred spirit.

"Everyone is damaged," she said. "It's what you do about it that matters."

Near the end of our long day together, there was a lull in the conversation. She started to speak, hesitated for a moment, then continued.

"OK, we barely know each other, but I'm going to way overstep my boundaries here anyway. You can tell me to mind my own business if you want and I won't be offended. But..."

She paused.

"I think you have something - or a bunch of somethings - that you need to talk to someone about. You may not even know what they all are. But... I think you need to talk to a professional about them. And I say that as someone who was in the same boat.

"The company has a program that lets you call anonymously and make an appointment with a therapist for up to ten sessions. I think you should consider calling them. Like, tonight."

I was silent. No one in my family had ever seen a "shrink." Or admitted to it, at least.

"I don't need that f***-ing s***," said one my member of my family, making a dismissive gesture. "A bunch of whiners crying about stupid s***. Boo f***ing hoo. Just shut the f*** up and deal with it like everyone else."

I shook my head slowly.

"I don't think I can do that," I said.

"Yes you can," she said, her voice firm. "Have you ever gone?"

"No," I admitted.

"There's nothing to be afraid of, if that's what's bothering you. All that nonsense about head-shrinking and all that stuff..." She shook her head.

"It's a place where you can feel completely safe to say whatever you're thinking or feeling. They're not allowed to tell anyone what you say."

"No one?" I didn't know that.

"No one," she said. "Not your boss, not your wife, not your parents... no one. That's how it works. That's *why* it works." She was staring at me. "If you're willing to dig deep. And I think you are."

"How do you know that?"

"I just do," she said. And for some reason, I believed her.

I said nothing.

"It's OK to be afraid," she said, her voice soft. "It doesn't mean you're weak, or broken. It means you're human. It takes a lot of courage to decide to talk to someone about whatever it is that scares you the most. Just remember that. OK?"

"If you want me to be there when you call, I'll do it. If you want me to go with you when you go to your first appointment, I'll do that too. I promise."

"But... why? You don't even know me."

"I know enough," she said. "And someone did the same for me. So... how about it? What are you going to do?

"What's it going to be?"
       
***

We were sitting in the office of a therapist a few miles from the office. True to her word, R came with me. When I told her the only available appointments were in the middle of the work day, her reply was succinct: "So?"

"So... what do I do when I go in?"

"Just... talk. That's all."

"About what though? That's what I'm asking."

"You'll know when you get in there."

"But how?"

She threw up her arms in mock exasperation.

"Wow, and I thought I worried a lot! You need to relax. Seriously."

She reached over and tapped my leg with her fist.

"It will be fine. I promise. Just... tell the truth. Even if it hurts."

The door opened. The therapist, K, a woman in her late 30s entered the waiting room.

"L?"

I took a breath and stood up.

"Here goes nothing," I said to R. I turned to K.

"I have to go back to work after this, so I'm guessing you'll work the body? That doesn't leave bruises."

R rolled her eyes. K smiled warmly.

"I can promise unequivocally that I won't hit you today."

"How about if I don't have the co-pay?"

She opened the door and gestured for me to enter.

"I guess you'll have to take that chance, won't you?"

I looked back at R. She smiled her crinkle-eyed smile, waved, and mouthed "good luck" as the door closed behind us.

***

An hour later, we were in R's car, headed back to the office. After several minutes of silence, she looked over.

"So... I don't see any bruises. And you seem to be walking normally. So no one was harmed in the course of this session, I take it?"

I shook my head.

"Nope. I made it out unscathed. This time."

"'This time.' So you're going to go back?"

"I am."

"That's good."

I looked over at her.

"Don't you want to ask what we talked about?"

"No. It's none of my business. But I'm happy to listen if you want to talk about it. I won't tell anyone."

"I know."

"Just thought it was worth mentioning again."

We drove in silence for a few moments.

"It wasn't anything like I thought it would be. I didn't even have to lie down on a couch."

"Well, that's because she was real."

"That's what she said. She thought it was funny when I asked though. But in a nice way... I like her."

"That's good. It's more important that you trust her, but liking her helps that a lot."

"She basically asked a bunch of questions about my family, what I do, stuff like that. And why I came to see her."

"What did you tell her, if you don't mind me asking?"

"That I wasn't sure. But finally I said I guessed it was because I wasn't sleeping."

"What did she say?"

"She asked when it started. I said when I was four years old."

"And what did she say to that?"

"Nothing. She just nodded. But later she told me she was expecting me to say a few weeks, or a month."

"When you said you wanted to come back, right?"

"Yeah. How did you know that?"

She grinned.

"Takes one to know one."

"Oh, right. I keep forgetting."

"She didn't say anything when you told her because she wants to see how you feel about it. If she reacts a certain way, it might influence what you say. Or don't say."

I looked over at her again.

"How old are you again?"

"23."

"How'd you get so smart?"

She shrugged her demurral. But there was something almost eerie about her maturity in many respects. I'd never met anyone quite like her. 

We pulled into the office parking lot.

"So when's your next appointment?"

"Next Friday at 3:00."

"OK. I'll make sure I don't have any appointments."

"Thank you... but I think I can take it from here."

"Are you sure? I'm happy to go with you."

"I know you are. And I really appreciate it. But you've already done plenty."

"OK. Offer still stands though. Anytime. And you can come by or call me at home anytime if you want to talk. About anything."

I opened my door.

"R?"

"Uh-huh?"

"There was one thing she said as I was leaving... she told me I have the saddest eyes she's ever seen."

She nodded, almost imperceptibly.

"Yeah, you do. They give you away, you know."

"Oh."

"That isn't a bad thing, by the way," she said, not unkindly. "You can't keep everything bottled inside you. Secrets will just eat you up if you let them."

I thought about that for a moment, then simply said, "Thank you."

She winked as we entered the lobby and headed for the stairs.

"Let's go, blue eyes. We've got work to do."

***

As fate would have it, within a matter of weeks R and I were both working on the same project. I had been hired as a technical editor shortly after scuttling my plan to move, rather than as a technical writer. I took the job simply because I needed one as soon as possible.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Professionally, I learned a great deal about writing by working as an editor first. And personally, I'd lucked into a group of exceptionally nice, friendly, hard-working people who were always willing to help a newcomer learn the ropes. This was my first "real" job, and their help in learning how to negotiate the workspace was invaluable.

After 18 months, I suddenly found myself working not only as a writer, but as the sole writer on a small but high-profile project. The previous writer had accepted a transfer to a different project; I was basically the only warm body that was available, so I got the job by default.

The same scenario also resulted in R getting the chance to work on the same project as a tester (QA stands for "Quality Assurance," for those of you not conversant with the acronym-happy high-tech lingo). The project, while small in scope, was receiving a disproportionate amount of attention because of its potential - and because it was months behind for a variety of reasons. In essence, R and I were thrown onto a sinking ship to see what we could do.

I'm happy to say that we both jumped on the opportunity with a vengeance. R, as it turned out, was a natural at testing. She knew intuitively how actual users would expect the software to work. Just as important, she was able to convince J, the veteran programmer who had written the software, why this was the case and why we needed to fix it accordingly. This is no mean feat; programmers are not known for their humility as a group. While J was unusually affable, he still had a considerable ego (and rightly so), but R's natural charm led to him believing it was his idea in the first place.

As for myself, I was surprised to find that I actually was good at being a writer. I knew what to include in the documentation I wrote and, equally important, what to leave out. Fortunately, this was a project aimed for the most part at casual computer users. I would simply think about whether my father, who was proud of never having turned on a computer in 40 years as a police officer, would be able to understand it.

I also found that I had previously-untapped people skills. Getting review comments from insanely-overworked colleagues is difficult under the best of circumstances; getting them for a small project that was months behind and for which they had already invested a great deal of time with no results was near-impossible. But somehow I was able to manage it.

One day my manager, M, came by my cubicle to ask about a particularly nettlesome feature that had thus far resisted all attempts to find a solution.

"I'm afraid to ask," he said, "but how are things going with the Feature That Shall Not Be Named (TFTSNBN, as we jokingly referred to it)? I have a manager's meeting, so I need to figure out spin on why we should bury it."

"Actually, I was just writing you email with my draft," I said.

"Wait - we have it working?"

"Yeah," I said innocently. "I set up a meeting with S and P this morning and we figured out a workaround."

"S and P were in the same room?" he said in disbelief.

"Yeah. What's the big deal?"

He laughed.

"They can't stand each other." He looked at me in wonder. "How did you do it?"

"I don't know," I said. "I was talking to S about our favorite Beatles songs, and I mentioned that he and P both picked the same song. Then I said we should have a meeting to talk about it - and maybe TFTSNBN if we could squeeze it in."

"And?"

"And he laughed, called up P, said I was in his office, and that we should get together and figure out TFTSNBN. So we did."

"Wow. Maybe we should ship you off to the Middle East."

I shook my head.

"Can't - I burn too easily."

I heard R guffaw in her cube.

"You are a bit on the pale side," M said. "Even if it is October."

"I'll say. People can white balance their cameras when I take off my shirt at the beach."

R laughed again, harder this time, as did M.

"I'll take your word on that if you don't mind. Good work, L! Really. You're doing great."

"Thank you."

No sooner had M left than R appeared.

"Sorry if I was interfering with your meeting, but you were funny!"

"Oh, thanks."

"No, I mean it. I had no idea! Why don't you show this side of your more often?"

I was troubled by this. I didn't think I was keeping my sense of humor under wraps at work. I tried to keep a low profile - I was still the new kid on the block in most respects - but R was different. If she of all people thought I was keeping my personality under wraps, then maybe there was something to it.

"Penny for your thoughts," she said.

I shook my head.

"Nothing," I said, and smiled. She smiled back.

"Well," she said. "You're just full of secrets, aren't you?"

***

"Whoa - what the heck happened to you?"

R was staring at the crutches leaning against my office wall. My right foot was in a cast, resting on a chair.

"Remember how you mentioned your foot was bothering you last week?"

"I had a bone bruise - wait, that's right! You said your foot hurt too! So you went to a podiatrist, I take it. What did they say?"

"Stress fracture on the ball of my foot. Apparently guys don't usually get them where mine is."

"That's where mine is. Weird. And yeah, the doctor said it's a common problem for women."

"He told me the same thing. But I have a high instep, as it turns out, and..." I gestured to the cast. "This is the result."

"That's tough. How long are you on the disabled list?"

 "At least six weeks. Why?"

"Bummer. You know I'm going on vacation next week, now that we've shipped?"

"Uh-huh."

"Well, I decided to fly to Vancouver, then drive down to Seattle and San Francisco. A friend lives there. And I was thinking it would be fun if a few of us went."

"Bummer. Driving and walking up hills are sort off limits at the moment with one leg. But thanks for thinking of me. Any other takers?"

"So far, everyone said no but K."

K was another tester. I didn't know him all that well, but he seemed affable enough on the few times we chatted.

"Well, keep me posted. And bring back some salmon, OK?"

"Will do."

"Alive, needless to say."

"Needless to say."

***

"So, I set up an aquarium for the salmon you brought back, so feel free to stop by with them anytime. I charged it to your business credit card, but I figured you'd be OK with that."

I was standing at R's cubicle. It was the Monday after her vacation ended. She had just arrived and was taking off her coat. She didn't seem to notice me.

"Hey, earth to R... you there? How was your trip?"

She never looked up.

"Fine," she mumbled, then turned her back to me and sat down heavily. "I have to check my mail."

This was totally unlike R. I always teased her about how annoyingly chipper she was in the early morning hours, something unfathomable to a confirmed night owl like me. I shrugged.

"Sure. No problem. Looking forward to hearing about your adventures though. And I have a whole week's worth of insults I've been saving up for you."

No response. I chalked it up to jet lag as I hobbled back to my cubicle. She'll be her usual self tomorrow, I was sure.

Only she wasn't. She barely spoke to me, or anyone else, the entire week, and even then it was only about work matters.

S, a mutual friend and one of R's closest confidantes in the office, came by on Friday while R was in a meeting.

"Has R said anything to you about her trip?" she asked.

I shook my head.

"Not a word. You either?"

"No, and I've asked a few times. She literally walked away the last time I asked."

"Really? That's totally unlike her," I said.

"That's why I was hoping she might have said something to you. I know you two are close."

"I have no idea what's going on," I said. "And I don't want to push her. Maybe she' s just overtired, and she'll be back to normal next week."

S shook her head. I didn't believe it either.

"Something happened," S said. "I don't know what, but something definitely happened."

"Well, I think we've done all we can do for the moment," I said. "When she wants to talk to someone, she will."

S nodded.

"I hope so. I'm worried about her."

"Me too."

***

It was nearly 7:00 PM that same Friday. I'd gone to the gym to ride an exercise bike before I headed over to a friend's house to watch a movie she'd rented. In the garage, I realized I'd forgotten my laptop battery. Cursing my forgetfulness, I headed upstairs to retrieve it.

After picking it up, I was headed down to my car when I heard a voice call out.

"L?"

It was R. Surprised, I maneuvered over to her desk.

"Hey, you," I smiled. "Why aren't you tying one on over at The Cheesecake Factory?"

A small group of us would head over to the bar there on Friday afternoons for a few hours to end the week. R's order was so predictable - a margarita with extra salt around the rim - that the bartender had it waiting for her every Friday. I marveled at how someone so slight - she barely weighed 100 lbs., if that much - could put away several of them over the course of an evening with no ill effects.

She shrugged. She looked pale and drawn.

"Didn't feel like it."

She looked at my backpack.

"You must have plans tonight, right?"

Something about her tone told me she hoped I didn't. I shook my head.

"No," I said. "I don't."
  
She looked so small and vulnerable that it nearly broke my heart.

"So... you want to go grab something for dinner?" I asked her.

She looked relieved for the first time all week.

"Yeah. But... not next door," she said. Not where everyone else is, she meant. "If that's OK with you," she added.

"Of course," I said. "We can take my car."

***

Fifteen minutes later we were settled into a secluded window-side booth at a quiet restaurant a few blocks from the office. We looked out at the city skyline across the river, shimmering softly in the cool early spring drizzle.

R made small talk while we studied the menu and placed our orders. After our drinks arrived - R politely declined my offer to buy her a margarita - we sat in silence. I knew enough to let her take the lead.

She looked into her Diet Coke for a long moment, then looked up at me.

"Sorry I've been such a bitch all week," she said.

"R, you haven't been a bitch," I said. "But I've been worried about you. We've all been worried about you."

"Really?"

"Well, yeah, of course," I said. "People care about you. I care about you. And it's obvious something is wrong."

She stared at her soda again.

"R, you can tell me anything. I promise I won't tell a soul."

"I know that." Her voice was small and fragile. I was reminded that in spite of her maturity, she was still only 24 years old.

She took a deep breath.

"It's about what happened on the trip," she said hesitantly.

I nodded. She closed her eyes.

"It wound up just being K and myself. We flew to Vancouver, where my cousin is going to college. We hung out there for a few days, then drove to Seattle with my cousin and spent a few days there. And we had a great time. Then she went back to Canada, so K and I picked up our rental car to head down to San Francisco."

The waitress arrived with our food. As soon as she was out of earshot, R spoke again.

"L... it was so horrible."

Again she couldn't look me in the eye.

"R, I'm sorry. I don't understand. What was horrible?"

She took another deep breath.

"The hotel."

"You mean the hotel was bad?"

She shook her head.

"No. I'd called and made reservations before the trip started. But when we got there, K got really angry."

"Why? Because you booked ahead?"

"No...." She tried to pick up her soda. Her hand was shaking so much she could barely hold it.

"R, please tell me what happened."

The words came out in a rush.

"K was furious because I'd booked two rooms."

"Well, what else were you - "

And suddenly I understood.

"Oh, Jesus, R."

"We were in the parking lot, and he said he'd get the bags while I went in and got our room squared away. And I said, no, our rooms.

"And... he just exploded. He said he just assumed that the whole reason I invited him was... was..."

My throat was tight.

"L, he screamed at me for what felt like hours. He asked me what other reason I thought he would have for making the trip, and that I led him on, and that I was a p**** tease..."

I was literally seeing red spots, such was my fury.

"That motherf***er," I said, my voice tight. "That goddamned, f**ing motherf***er."

R didn't hear me. I don't think she even knew I, or anyone else, was there.

"Finally it was over, and we went inside and each went to our rooms. But then it all started again in the car the next day when - "

"Wait - the next day? The next DAY?" I said, almost shouting.

The waitress and bartender looked over at us. I leaned closer to R. stunned.

"You mean to tell me that he didn't leave that night? R, why on earth didn't you kick his sorry ass out of the car when he showed up the next morning? What were you thinking? My God, he could have - "

I stopped. R was crying softly. Suddenly I felt like a horse's ass.

"R... I'm sorry. I was totally out of line just now. I have no right to judge you. I have no idea what I would do if that had been me."

"I didn't make him leave because... I don't why," she said. "I guess I was scared. Scared he wouldn't leave. Because I knew I couldn't make him leave. And..."

"And what?"

"I think maybe I could see why he felt that way. And it was my fault."

I was incredulous.

"You mean it was your fault for not telling him up front you weren't going to sleep with him?"

She nodded.

"Why on earth would that be your fault, R?"

"Because he's a guy," she said, surprise in her voice.

"And you think that this..." My mind reeled with epithets. "...this piece of s*** has a right to just assume that you'll automatically sleep with him just... just because?

"R, in no way, shape, or form is what happened your fault. OK? It wasn't. He had no right whatsoever to think that. And neither does anyone else."

"You don't understand," she said, her voice weary.

"Understand what?"

"L, this happens all the time."

"It does?"

She nodded. Her matter-of-factness was unnerving.

"R, I... I don't know what to say. I'm so, so sorry."

"L... why can't guys just like me for who I am? Why does every guy think I'm just a bimbo?" Tears were streaming down her face. "Just because they think I'm pretty, they assume I'm an airhead and that I'm... easy." She nearly choked on the last word.

"R, I promise you... not all guys think that."

"Yes they are."
She was staring at her drink again.

"R," I said quietly. "R, look at me. Please."

She looked up. I said a silent prayer that I would get this right.

"Do you consider me a friend?"

She nodded.

"Of course I do."

"And do you think the only reason I want to be friends with you is because you're beautiful?"

"No."

Well, then," I said softly. "I guess that every guy doesn't feel that way. Do they?"

The pain in her large brown eyes seemed to fade just a bit.

"No... I guess not."

"I can't speak for anyone else but me, but I'll tell you what I think when I see you. Are you ready?"

She nodded.

"Yes, I see someone who's beautiful. Beautiful on the outside, but much more important, beautiful on the inside. You're one of the kindest, sweetest, most big-hearted people I've ever met. 

"You're also one of smartest, most intelligent people I've ever met. Look at yourself; less than a year ago you were an administrative assistant. And now you're the lead tester on one of the biggest projects in our group. With no formal training or education! Do you know how amazing that is?"

R sniffled.

"L, you're going to make me cry again."

"Tough," I said with mock fierceness."Because I'm going to tell you something else I see."

I pointed out the window.

"I see that out there, somewhere, right at this very moment, is a guy who's already hit the jackpot. And you want to know why he's hit the jackpot?"

She nodded.

"Because he's the lucky guy who's going to get to spend his life with you. And he doesn't even know it yet."

R was crying again. But this time I wasn't alarmed.

"Do you really think so?"

"Of course. And here's the best part: all you have to do to find him is to just be yourself. Because you're pretty incredible."

R sniffled and dabbed at her eyes.

"Thank you, L."

"You're welcome. It was easy, because every word of it was true."

"Not just that. Thank you for... everything."

I reached over and squeezed her hand.

"Anytime. And I mean anytime."

We looked at each other for a moment.

"Oh, God, I must look like such a disaster," she said suddenly, reaching for her pocketbook.

"Not to worry; that's why I had you sit there," I said, gesturing.

"But everyone who walks by outside can see me," she said, perplexed.

"Right. But they can't see me."

For the first time that week, R laughed. It was one of the sweetest sounds I'd ever heard.

***

"Happy Birthday, L!"

R stood in front of me, birthday hat on her head. She held a cupcake with a lit candle in one hand. She had her other hand hidden behind her back.

"Thank you, R! I can't believe you remembered it!"

"Well, your birthday is only five days after mine."

"That's true." I'd drawn R a comic strip for her birthday, featuring what I called the "R-to-English" dictionary, listed a small sampling of R's unique expressions and their meanings.

"Also, you've been stopping by my cube every day for the past month to write down how many days are left on my whiteboard."

"That's also true. Actually, I'm not so impressed now."

With a practiced sigh and eye roll, she held out the cupcake.

"Make a wish and blow it out."

I did.

"Well? Did your wish come true?"

I looked exasperated.

"Do you see Cameron Diaz sitting in my lap?" I eyed the cupcake critically. "I think that thing is defective."

"I'll file an SPR right away," she said, giggling. "But first you have to close your eyes and hold out your hands."

I did, then opened one eye as she was bringing her gift from behind her back.

"You aren't a bounty hunter on the side, are you?" I asked.

"What?"

"You know, you aren't going to slap on a pair of handcuffs, right?"

"Would you just do what I asked, for God's sake?!?"

"Fine, fine," I said as I closed my eyes again. "You just never know who you can trust. At least promise you'll split the bail money with me afterwards."

"If it will get you to shut up, then yes."

"There. Now see how simple that was?"

A moment later I felt her place something in my hands.

"OK, you can open them now."

I looked down and saw a small, intricately wrapped box.

"I wrapped it myself," she said as if reading my mind. "Go ahead, open it up!"

I did, careful not to rip the paper or ribbon. I opened the box. Inside was a small, intricately carved elephant. It was lovely.

"In Chinese culture the elephant is a symbol of good luck, prosperity, and wisdom," she said.

"That makes sense. I'm smart enough to know how lucky I am, because I'm going to become prosperous after I sell it tonight."

She smacked my arm.

"Seriously, it's really beautiful, R," I said. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. When you're gone you can look at it and think of me."

I had told R about my plans to move to Seattle in the fall. She was the only person in the office who knew.

"I won't need an elephant to do that, R."

"You makes me nervous when you get serious."

"Sorry. Can't be a smart ass 24/7."

"But you try."

"R, I'll think of you every time I look at it."

"Promise?"

"Now you're the one making me nervous, R."

"Just say you promise."

Something about her tone struck me. I nodded.

"I promise."

"Good."

Just like that, her mood brightened.

"So, are you going to eat that cupcake by yourself?"

I laughed and reached into my drawer for a plastic knife.

"Nope. Half has your name on it, five-days-after-her-birthday girl, so pull up a chair."

***

I moved to Seattle several months later, and, as can happen, R and I fell out of touch. The business group with which we both worked was shut down barely a month after I left, and R left to join the team's former manager at her new company. I heard through mutual friends that she quickly moved up to become the lead tester, which didn't surprise me at all. I kept meaning to track her down and catch up, but never got around to it.

I was sitting my favorite coffee shop reading the Sunday paper on a warm afternoon in early June. I'd just finished a contract and had the week off before my new assignment started.

It was nearly 5:00 PM, and I was absorbed in a story about the Mariners when my concentration was suddenly broken. Startled, I looked around, trying to determine what had caused the interruption. The other patrons were all going about their business as if nothing were out of the ordinary, so after a moment I shrugged it off and resumed reading.

I was home on Tuesday night when my phone rang.

"L, it's S."

S was my former co-worker and a good friend of R's.

"I'm afraid I have some awful news."

She took a deep breath.

"R was returning from a trip up north with her friend M on his motorcycle. They were on the Expressway just before reaching the office, and the car in front of them came to a dead stop for no reason. M slammed on the brakes, and R..."

Her voice faltered.

"R was thrown off the back of the bike and over the side of the bridge."

I couldn't process what she was saying.

"Wait... so... she's OK, isn't she? She's just in the hospital, right?"

S's voice broke.

"She's gone, L. She died on impact.

"L, I'm so sorry you have to find out this way. I just realized you probably had no idea, and I didn't want you to find out by reading it online, or to have someone tell you the next time you visit."

The blood was pounding in my ears. This couldn't be real.

"When did this happen, S?"

"Sunday night, just before 8:00 here."

The exact time my concentration broke in the coffee shop. Jesus.

S told me that R had been buried that morning, and said that there were many people from the old team at the services.

She filled me in on the past few years of R's life. The last years. I knew about her professional success, but I was happy to hear that R had met someone, and had been with him for an extended period.

"She was such a sweet, caring person, and yet she had such a hard time finding someone special," S said.

"I know," I said. "I hope he treated her like a princess. Because that's what she deserved."

"Yes, she did," said S.

There was silence.

"Thank you for calling, S."

"You're welcome. You meant a lot to her, you know. I'm sure you already know that... but... well, I just wanted to let you know."

"Thank you, S."

"You're welcome. Goodbye."

I hung up the phone. My gaze drifted to the nightstand beside my bed where the elephant R had given me sat, implacable.

I walked over, picked it up, and squeezed it as tightly as I could until I could no longer stand the pain.

***

The waitress sat, shaken. After a moment she cleared her throat and wiped a tear from her eye.

"So that's why you ordered..."

She gestured to the margarita. I nodded.

She stood up.

"Excuse me. I'll be right back."

She returned with two fresh drinks and placed a $20 bill in front of me.

"Please, let me pay for these."

I started to protest, but she raised her hand.

"I insist."

"Thank you," I said.

"I'd be honored if you'd let me propose a toast," she said.

"Of course."

She picked up one of the fresh drinks. I picked up the other.

"To R. And to friends we'll never forget."

I raised my glass.

"To R."

***

Later that night, I lay in bed. My Aunt B had passed away several years before, shortly after I'd moved to Seattle. While we were close, we weren't exceptionally so. Nonetheless, I soon found myself talking to her regularly when something was troubling me. I could sense her presence, and invariably felt better after talking with her.

Auntie B... my friend R died two days ago. And... and... I don't know what to do.

Why don't you talk about it? came her reply.

I... I don't have anyone here I can talk to.

Well, why don't you just talk to R, then?

Of course.

Auntie B was always right.

So I did.

I told R that I hoped she was OK, and that I already missed her terribly. I asked if this meant that I didn't have to worry about her pilfering my piece of birthday cake from now on, and heard her wonderful laugh.

After a few minutes, I was finally fading.

R, I'm falling asleep here. I just want you to know... I love you, and I'll never forget you.

Suddenly, the phone rang. Startled, I sat bolt upright.

Who could possibly be calling at 1:30 in the morning? I wondered.

I picked up the phone.

There was no sound but the dial tone.

A moment later the caller ID began to flash.

I pressed the button.

There was no name.

A smile slowly crossed my face. I shook my head, reached over, and turned off the light. I was asleep in moments.

***

"Wow," said M. "That really happened?"

"It did. I swear."

"R was clearly very special," said M.

"She sure was."

I could hear the faint hum of traffic outside M's office.

"So... now that you've told me about H and R," said M, "do you any insights about how they're connected in your mind?"

I looked out the window, gathering my thoughts.

"Well, they were different from all of the other women I knew."

"Mm-hmm. And how were they different?"

"I guess... I guess that they were the two women - the only two - who accepted me for who I was."

M nodded, pleased.

"Exactly," she said. "They liked you just as you were. With no reservations."

"Just like you," I said.

She smiled.

"Just like me."

"And if they were able to accept me..."


Her kind smile grew wider.

"Then it can happen again," I said.

"Yes," she said. "Yes, it can."

***

As was the case with my previous post <ADD LINK>, I struggled for a title for this one as well. As it turns out, I realized that, once again, a Van Halen song perfectly captured the spirit of what I was trying to say.

For a band best known, and deservedly so, for the guitar pyrotechnics of Eddie Van Halen, "Right Now" is an unusually thoughtful song:

Right now
It's your tomorrow
Right now
It means everything
Right now
Catch that magic moment
Right now
Tell me, what are you waiting for?
Turn this thing around
Right now
It means everything

R lived every day of her too-short life fiercely, and with a palpable joy that was infectious to all of us who were lucky enough to knew her. I still feel her presence today, nearly a decade after her passing.

H, in her quiet way, embraced life much as R did. She saw something in me that I wasn't able to at that point in my life, and did her utmost to help me recognize it. That I would not - could not - is in no way a reflection on her uncommon kindness and grace.

I'll have to live with the knowledge of what I lost with H for the rest of my life, and hope that if I should be blessed enough to meet someone as extraordinary as her again, I'll be brave enough to follow her lead and take a leap into the unknown. I can think of no better way to honor her, and R.


5 comments:

Jessica Lyn on February 23, 2012 at 1:59 AM said...

Still reading, but I just got to the part where you mentioned J the programmer and how programmers are not known for their humility.. no offense taken here!.. I am, afteral, a programmer and my name does in fact start with a J.. made me laugh.. just saying.

Jessica Lyn on February 23, 2012 at 2:33 AM said...

Well.. I go from laughing to now crying my eyes out. I now know why these posts were so very hard for you to write. I know it's been over a decade since she passed but I'm sorry for you're loss. R sounds a lot like my good friend J and I couldn't imagine losing her in my life.

I seriously can't stop crying. At least I have no makeup to ruin just yet.

Kelly on February 23, 2012 at 4:13 AM said...

Thank you, Jess. I'm glad you have a friend like R. I quite literally would not be here today if it wasn't for her. I still talk to her today.

I may start tagging my types of posts as "Makeup-Friendly" or "Better Invest In Kleenex." :c) Fair warning: there's a Kleenex one coming up. But not for a while (yes, it's yet another epic, from the way it's shaping up...).

On a lighter note, the next two are much more comforting. "Kitty To The Rescue" is guaranteed to make you smile. I promise. Oh, and no programmers were insulted in the writing of that blog post... ;c)

Leslie Ann on February 12, 2013 at 4:50 AM said...

For a technical writer, you pack an emotional wallop, girl.

Cassidy on February 12, 2013 at 4:55 PM said...

@ Leslie: Thank you, hon.

This was pretty wrenching to write, to be honest, although Why Can't This Be Love?, the preceding post, was the most difficult of them all. I was utterly drained, physically and emotionally, after finishing them. (I wrote them as a pair.) It's much better now, but I'm still haunted by memories of H, and what might have been.

I have one more of these autobiographical posts to write, about reaching puberty and realizing the truth about myself, even if I couldn't admit it to myself until less than two years ago. I've been wanting to write it since I finished these, in fact... but I know I'm not ready to go there yet emotionally. I know I *have* to write it in order to heal... but I also know how painful it's going to be. But I'll do it; I have to, as it's part of the healing process.

Thank you again for the lovely comment, Leslie.

Hugs,
Cass

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