Monday, January 16, 2012
A Short Story
I lie thinking, my right leg propped against the back of the couch. I think about sleep. I whisper the word “rest,” out loud as if he were a friend; a friend arriving with solutions. And before I know it he has arrived. I welcome him inside and fall asleep...
I am awakened by a low rumble. I quickly recognize the sound is my neighbor James opening his front door. Morning. I count the seconds before I hear his door close. James requires seven seconds every morning to close his door. Why does it always take him so long to close his front door? It annoys me. I lift my left arm and weakly twist my wrist to read the time on my watch. 6:32 a.m.
I then hear a window slide open. This would be Alex. She is a quiet, Venezuelan lady, recently divorced. She lives below me. Her domestic noises never annoy me. Alex often leaves a hot plate of arepas on my doorstep. Sometimes I catch her in the act:
“Arepas!” she says, in a commanding tone. “Eat soon while they are warm and put some...um...frijoles on top with, how do you say it...asour cream?”
“Yes Alex! Sour cream. Thank you so much.”
I see few arepas these days. That is okay, Alex is an observant neighbor. She knows something has happened to me and I should be left alone.
After my wedding, I told an old friend from high school my wife and I found “a nice little garret” to rent in a safe neighborhood. He then promptly sent me a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. On the front page he wrote, “To the best of friends, in the best of times, in his little garret with his wife.” I can see that book on the bookshelf right now. Seeing it elicits a painful feeling and I look away. 6:34 a.m.
I stretch out my legs with that wonderful feeling of increased blood flow, and I smile. Like the smile of a tired runner leaning on a friend after a marathon. The smile of survival, curved with pain. 6:35 a.m. I begin to wish it were last night again so I could sleep. Better yet, I wish it were tonight so I could sleep and be one day closer to something, anything.
The morning is bright. The light shines through the shutters and lands in a neat arrangement of parallel lines on the floor. I stare at them for some time. I look at my watch again. 6:44 a.m.
In the past this was my favorite time to go for a run or ride my bike. My shoes have not moved from the closet and my bike has not shifted a gear for many days.
I manage to sit up on the couch. I stare blankly across the front room, bare except for a card table decorated with a half-finished puzzle. I force my arms to push me up off the couch. After the light-headedness of standing clears I walk to the kitchen. I pick the glass Pyrex up off the counter and measure out two cups of water. I place the Pyrex in the microwave for two minutes.
Okay, two minutes to wash my face, brush my teeth, throw off my pajamas, and make sure my backpack has my...wait...no, who am I kidding? I have no where to go today. Or tomorrow.
Today I have no plans. In fact, I have no plans for the next three months when, theoretically, I re-enlist for my last year of medical school.
I let the microwave hum away as I walk back to the couch and sit. I sit and watch again the planks of light on the floor and listen to the soothing hum in the kitchen. But my thoughts are harrassed with memories.
I remember the money wasted in recent days. I think of the time wasted. Addiction is a slave-driver of the worst kind. And I am learning why some men give up family and health in the name of addiction. These men are not selfish. They are imprisoned. I am the latest convict.
The money does not bother me as much as the time. I can always make more money. But I am troubled with time. I heard once after fifty you start counting. I am twenty-eight, and I am counting. Tears well up in my eyes as I look down the hallway of my apartment, forcing myself to remember my wife as she used to look in the morning, fresh after sleep.
“Hey honey. How are you? Did you sleep okay?” she asked every morning.
She was always courteous and positive. Early in our marriage it gave me wonder. How could someone be so nice all the time? And then I learned more about her. Courtesy and optimism were her weapons, forged during a difficult upbringing. She often repeated her favorite motto: “Your future is as bright as your faith.”
I smile as I remember.
Every night I could count on her warm greeting when I arrived home: “Hey honey, did you have a good day? How was it today?” She would then skip up to me and give me a hug. There was little variability is this nightly ritual.
I cannot remember the sound of her voice.
I do remember my hot water in the microwave. I get up off the couch and walk to the kitchen. I open the microwave door, grab the Pyrex and pour my water into a mug. I then get two packets of hot chocolate from the cupboard. I tear them open and empty the powder into the mug, followed by four packets of sweetener and a caramel candy. The caramel was my wife’s idea. And a good one. I take my cup back to the couch and sit down.
I had forgotten to turn the heater on last night and I realize I’m cold. I rest the mug on my lower belly and let the coursing blood warm as it flows near the cup - An old boy scout trick I learned on a camp-out. It feels good.
I sip my chocolate and think over the past few months. Little measurable progress. I attend my counseling sessions and complete the proffered exercises. But addiction remains. I have not touched the guitar. My diary is dusty. The New England Journal accrues, unread, in my mailbox. I no longer enjoy my daily run. And I have stopped attending church. When I look in the mirror these days I force myself to look past my reflection. My eyes sear me with shame.
I sip more chocolate. I prefer it hotter but I have no desire to reheat. The parallel planks of sun on the floor begin to widen. The day is moving on. And I am going nowhere with it.
I feel time pass; literally feel it pass through my chest. In its wake is guilt. I begin to think of my last binge.
Not long ago addiction belonged to my patients. It belonged to those faces on street billboards. It was always compartmentalized safely outside my life. Now it is mine.
As the morning light continues to slide across the carpet, I feel the need to knock myself out. I am tired of the guilt. I gulp down my chocolate. I wipe the corners of my mouth and lay the cup on the floor. I stand up and walk to the kitchen drawer to grab my keys, wallet, and glasses. I can’t see the prices without my glasses.
As I pocket my stuff I make a quick calculation: A few thousand dollars left from student loans and five hundred dollars credit on my charge card - six hundred after last night. I have sufficient. I leave the kitchen, but not before turning on the radio. My wife used to make fun of me for having a radio on that I ignore. “What did that commentator just say?” she would quiz. I never knew. I just like background noise. I walk past the dining table and notice its contents: my phone, a copy of Hunger Games, a Gatorade bottle, some scattered pens, a dirty bowl and a napkin scrunched up in a ball. I think about grabbing my phone, but why bother?
I walk to the front door and my phone rings! What irony in my meaningless life. It vibrates off the table and falls to the floor. That is enough for me to ignore it. I turn back to the front door but as I reach out for the knob, I hesitate. I cannot remember the last time I answered my phone. This morning I will. I quickly rush back to the table and inadvertenly kick my empty cup on the floor. It flies up and crashes into the wall, waist high. The handle breaks into pieces. Agitated at my clumsiness, I look at my phone. Gracie is calling.
“This is Ruben,” I say. I use this introduction to pretend I am too busy to note who is calling.
“Hey Ruben.” she says. “What are you doing now?”
“Just getting stuff ready for the hospital,” I fib.
“Do you work today, Ruben?”
“Always, Gracie. How is the Wii working out for you? Are you past the level you were on when we last spoke?”
“Yeah! I got me a new game. You kill aliens, it’s fun.”
I imagine Gracie saying this with a fat grin on her face. The grin that shoves her cheeks up into her eyes.
“So, what’s up?” I ask impatiently.
“Ruben, I was wondering, can you walk me across street to work today? It’s scary right now. And with cold people are crazy driving.”
Gracie has a habit of forgetting to say “the” in her sentences.
A few months ago I spent three consecutive weeks walking her to work. She fears the walk. Luckily, work is not far; a convenient walk of five minutes even for someone obese like Gracie.
In an odd way I feel glad for her call. Family and friends have since stopped calling and Gracie’s timing is penetratingly encouraging. I agree to walk her to work. “Okay, Gracie. Are you ready?”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t call you if not ready,” she says, chortling.
“Okay, let’s do this, I’ll meet you like last time at your front door?”
“Should we dr..dr...drive Ruben, it’s cold?”
“Let’s walk. It will be good for us.”
With meeting details arranged, I close my flip-phone. Besides receiving a call, it feels good to hear someone say my name, even if it is just Gracie. I walk to the bathroom and grab my hat off the floor. I am not worried about leaving in sweats and a stained jacket. I look at my watch: 7:48 a.m.
I descend the stairs of my apartment. The sun touches my face. The warm sensation is familiar and foreign at the same time. It is cold, but not too cold for Gracie to walk. As if to validate this conclusion I breathe out into the air. No visible breath. Warm enough to walk.
Once downstairs I glance up at my apartment, avoiding eye contact with two people walking past. I walk across the parking lot to the other buildings in the complex. Gracie lives in the far north building with her husband, Steve. Steve’s job begins at 5:00 a.m. He walks two miles to work every weekday. At four miles a day, that is twenty miles of walking in the week. I am impressed.
As I walk to meet Gracie I remember an amusing incident. She found out one evening I was driving my wife to the airport the following day. She asked, “Can I come?”
My wife and I looked at each other; we smiled in meek condescension. I said to Gracie, “sure, but we have to leave by 4:30 in the morning.”
Gracie asked no follow-up questions and we thought she would forget the conversation. The following morning my wife and I both received texts from her at 3:30 a.m.: “Hi, ready to go. Call me now.” She came with us to the airport that morning. Every time we went to the airport after that morning my wife and I jokingly asked each other if we should invite Gracie again.
I hurry past building 900 and 1100 to reach Gracie’s apartment. She has a security alarm sticker on the front door I find amusing because her front porch is full of stuff - easy to steal. Nice stuff too. Cables, satellite dishes, chairs, a dresser, and more.
I knock on the front door and wait twenty seconds. I ring the doorbell, perhaps the only doorbell in the complex. No answer. I am frustrated and slightly angry. Why would Tiffany call me to walk her to work? It’s the easiest thing in the world. She needs to grow up. She needs a life.
These thoughts make me look down at my feet in personal rebuke. “Needs a life, Ruben? Look who is talking.” Tears well up in my eyes. I look up quickly as the doorknob turns and the door swings open revealing a smiling Gracie. She shines through my wet eyes.
“Hey, Ruben, you got here fast.”
“You excited for work?” I ask.
She makes a sound that resembles a starting car. I take that as a “no.” Her sounds confuse me sometimes and I am never quite sure how to proceed with the conversation.
“How’s Steve, Gracie?”
“He’s at work. He has a headache.”
“Is he still on his medication?”
“Yeah, but he don’t do nothing but watch TV all night. Course he has a headache.”
I am pleased Gracie makes the connection between excessive television and headaches. Maybe she will understand her doctor’s advice to learn about diabetic-friendly diets.
She steps outside and turns around to close the door. After the door is shut she looks down into her handbag. She pauses for five seconds. I ask if everything is okay.
“Yeah,” she mutters. Then she opens the door and steps back inside her dark apartment. She reemerges five seconds later and closes the door. “The alarm,” she says, “forgot to set it.”
We walk side by side through the complex out to the main street. We chat about a few things. Mostly I ask about the Wii. She seems to enjoy it more than anything right now. She is also reading a mystery book, she says.
“You like to read Gracie? That’s great.” I hate how condescending I sound. “Does Steve read as well?”
“No, he don’t. He just watches TV all night like I told ya.”
We reach the main street and turn north on the sidewalk. We pass a bus stop where two men are waiting for the bus. One is sitting with his head down, staring at the side-walk. The other is standing beside the bench with both hands in his pockets, trying to keep warm. Maybe it is a little cold outside. Neither one looks up as we pass.
We reach the cross-walk and I look over at Gracie. I sense her anxiety. But with me by her side she presses forward once the signal shows the blue man. Half-way across the street the orange hand begins to flash and Tiffany picks up her pace. I easily keep up with her and we reach the other side with time to spare.
“You don’t have to go on. I’m okay now,” she says. Her work is just across the parking lot.
“Oh, I don’t mind I’ve come this far.”
We continue on together cutting a diagonal path across the parking lot. Behind us the shallow winter sun is rising at its southern angle. The light from it hits our backs, casting tall shadows from our bodies. There I am, slim and tall. And there is Gracie, next to me, her shadow resembling a pumpkin with legs. As we walk I look at our northwest-pointing shadows.
“What if we could trade places with our shadows, Gracie?”
“That’d be cool! But why would you want to do that?” she asks.
“Because then we would all be the same. We wouldn’t have to worry about putting on a happy face for anyone. We could simply exist and function efficiently. And it would equalize all of us. One people, one color.”
I don’t expect Gracie to respond. We walk on for a few moments in silence before she suddenly stops. She swings around, her abdomen striking my thigh, and then extends her arms up and out. Her head is bowed. She looks like a three-year-old waiting for a hug from Father.
“Thanks for walking me, dude!” Gracie then gives me a hug. I can see her saliva-stained shirt come up into my neck. I look up and away and hold my breath.
“Great!,” I say. “Have a good time at work and thanks for calling.”
“No problem. Same time tomorrow?”
I think for a few seconds before responding. “You bet Lauren, best way to start the day.” As the words leave my mouth I realize I mean it.
We part ways. I turn around into the sun to walk back home. I notice my heart feels warm. My shadow is gone. And for a moment, I forget my addiction.