When I woke up the next morning, my apartment was still. The air wasn’t moving. Outside there were very few cars. Mr. Tipps was snoozing at the foot of my bed. The silence was a heavy blanket that enveloped and warmed me. I curled back in under the covers and closed my eyes, drifting back into a velvety soundscape outside of time, place, other people.
In the deep recesses of my mind, where I rarely dared to visit, I heard an insistent voice commanding me to open my eyes. I sighed slowly and gazed at my phone. 10 AM! I was supposed to be at work by 8:30 for a staff meeting and I had an intake interview scheduled for 9:30. My heart beat furiously as I catapulted out of bed, called Nancy, and started the shower.
For the last couple of weeks, I’d nearly missed appointments, but this was the worst so far. As I brushed my teeth, I waited for Nancy to answer. “Come on, come on!” I mumbled as I put the phone on speaker, opened the shower curtain so I could hear it, and jumped in under the spray.
“Jen? Are you OK? Didn’t you hear the phone? I called you a gazillion times.” Nancy’s voice was laden with concern.
“Sorry, I must’ve shut off my phone last night. I didn’t hear the alarm—”
“I’m glad you’re OK. I was on my way over to check on you when—”
“Nancy, is the new intake still waiting? Can you offer something to drink and say I’ll be there in about 15 minutes?” I rinsed the soap off my body.
“Anne saw the patient already. Just get here safe, OK? I’ll make some coffee for you.” Nancy whispered into the phone.
“You’re a gem, Nance!” I whooped.
“All right, then.” She laughed
As I got off the elevator, I raced to my desk and threw down my briefcase, coat, and purse.
Nancy handed me a note. “Anne would like to meet with you in her office right away.” She strained to sound casual, but I could see the rims of worry around her eyes.
Feeling very much like I was being called to the principal’s office, I dragged my tail down the hall.
“Come in, Jen.” Anne opened the door.
“I’m so sorry for being late this morning. I wasn’t well last night. Mostly dazed, possibly from a fever, and I shut off my phone. I haven’t had much sleep recently but that’s no excuse. I promise that it won’t happen again.” I gushed in one breath. My chest felt tight as I exhaled.
Anne sat very still. She took a deep breath and studied my face with her warm, chocolate eyes. “Jen.”
I withered under her gaze. I swallowed hard to push back a rising lump.
“Jen. We can’t champion the virtues of mental health if we don’t avail of them ourselves. You’ve been late a lot this month. You’re distracted and you’ve handed in incomplete reports for the past couple of weeks. Are you being honest with yourself?”
“Who has time for this reflective peacenik shit?” my defensive inner voice demanded.
“I can get a hold of myself. What if I–?” I babbled.
Anne leaned forward. “Jen. You’re a professional. You know what I’m going to say. You’ve got 2 weeks of unused vacation. If you need more, I’ll make arrangements. We all care about you at the office. Go home. Figure this out.” Anne rose from behind her desk. She put her hand on my shoulder and stared down, her eyes softened, her lips in a half-smile. I imagined that this was the expression that a caring mother would make.
As I packed up my stuff, Nancy breezed in. “Can I help you? I’ll water your plants while you’re…away.” Her hands fluttered as she watched me. “Listen, if you still want to go to the church function, let me know. No pressure—” She put up her hands.
I changed into my pajamas and plopped onto the couch. But nothing on TV held my attention. I rummaged through the couch cushions for my phone and texted Bernadine. Hey, I’m off today. Wanna play hooky together?
Very busy today. Are you ok?
Why do you care? I typed. And then corrected it: Why?
Called you several times last night. Was afraid you’re avoiding me.
My insides prickled when I read that. Was I becoming one of those friends? I stared at the screen for a few minutes.
Of course not. BFF.
I don’t want to keep upsetting you. But the last few times we’ve gotten together, you’ve been so sad.
A warm wave of guilt passed over me. I’ve been unfair to you.
I don’t want to make things worse. My presence upsets you too much.
As a snarling hiss unleashed inside me when I read those words, I realized that she had a point. Maybe I needed to take time for myself.
After a few minutes, I texted Olive ewe.
Olive ewe 2.
I took out the receipt with Al’s handwritten note. I’d stared at it for hours when I brought it home. My little sliver of being close to him, no matter how fleeting. How did he know that I’d be there? Why was he in NYC and not contacting me? Is that why Bernadine had been trying to reach me earlier?
She would’ve told me right away, wouldn’t she? But I’d been such an awful wreck lately, maybe she’d thought I couldn’t handle the information.
Mr. Tipps jumped onto the couch as he patrolled the living room. My presence was throwing off his inner clock. He pushed his face close to mine, screwed his eyes shut, and yawned.
The two of us napped together for hours.
Later that week, Nancy picked me up at my apartment for the Church fundraiser. She glanced around the room. “Looks really comfortable. Certainly, nicer than—” She bit her lip and reddened.
“–Than you pictured? No wine bottles lying around?” I finished. “It’s OK, we both know the truth. You can just say it.”
The pungent smell of overcooked barbecue chicken clouded over me as we walked in. The event was held in a converted barn in a park in Queens. Bales of hay decorated the corners, scarecrows perched on top, and pumpkins adorned the shelves. A stage was at one end.
Bingo night was even duller than I’d imagined. The elderly ladies in front had trouble hearing the numbers and letters. The long-suffering, forbearing volunteer sitting on the stage repeated them louder and louder at least three times. Some of the players busied themselves with flirting with the priest and giggling whenever he walked over to them.
Nancy peeked in my direction often to make sure I wasn’t bored, so I put on a fake smile for the duration.
An old man sitting in the back yelled out Bingo! Everyone just pretended he’d won as he shouted out his numbers. The priest gave him a gift certificate for a nail salon down the street and then climbed up onto the stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen! We have a surprise guest who has honored us with his presence today! Please welcome our next county legislator, Mr. Gary Dooley!”
There was polite applause. Gary and my mother waved at the crowd as they walked to centerstage.
“Jen, I had no idea. I didn’t know they would be here!” Nancy’s expression was frantic.
My mom spotted me in the crowd, pointed, jumped up and down in her stilettos, and called the priest over.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have another special guest.” He pointed at me. “Ms. Jen Osher, thanks for coming to our humble fundraiser. Please come up here and join your family!” He beckoned.
I’d been sitting in a back corner with Nancy, with my head down. When my mother yelled, “Jen, Sweetie!”, I rose. As I took a couple of steps toward the stage, a powerful force kept me chained to the table. “Don’t want to rain on your parade.” I waved and sat back down.
Gary’s face turned an ugly brick red. Through clenched teeth, he spoke into the microphone to the priest, “Jen’s just shy. She wants the grown-ups to run the show. As always.” He turned to shake hands with the priest.
Nancy leaned over and whispered. “He’s a scary guy, that Gary.”
- : Thriller/family drama