Gosh, it’s hot! She thought while waiting for the bus. New York City should never have summer. Always fall! Just fall!
Her mind automatically went to their date the evening before. It was a hard to come by date. They had both been miraculously off for the weekend and stolen some moments from the drudgery that they called life and career. He had kissed her and held her in his arms for the first time in many weeks. She had talked about something that wasn’t medicine or residency. They had even briefly ventured to discuss living together but had quickly changed the subject. It was scary to live together when they had no time for each other.
They had met in a whirlwind moment and become each other’s. And then had stuck by each other’s side. Even though life was crazy.
She remembered the first time she had seen him. So sure of himself, bubbling with knowledge and confidence. He was confident even when he was wrong. She wondered why she was so nervous even when she was right.
His confidence was attractive. He wasn’t a particularly good looking man and she wasn’t a particularly pretty girl. In a life where medicine becomes the biggest belief system, things like physical attraction become secondary. Sometimes all you want is someone who gets it. And he got her.
She had apprehensively watched him introduce himself as the second year resident the first day of her internal medicine residency. He appeared so sure of himself that it was comforting and scary too. Comforting because she hoped and prayed and even believed that she’d be as assertive as him when she was a second year. Scary because every ass hole she had ever met was a cocksure, overconfident and full of himself man.
He extended his hand,
She smiled nervously and took his hand,
He smiled patronizingly,
“That’s a mouth full”.
“Well, that’s my name”, she said, annoyed at this observation but her inner shy and self-conscious girl immediately took over so she said hurriedly,
“But you can call me Maggie”.
“I was going to call you something else anyway. Margaret is too much to say”, he said again, obviously ticked off at her defense of her name.
She stared at him unable to believe how arrogant that comment was. How could he just change her name?
He walked off.
He was her upper year and she was sure to run into him. This thought made her insides cold.
Her first day had already started on a bad foot. Apparently!
“That would be five dollars and sixty cents”, the woman at the cafeteria counter said in her soft, welcoming voice.
She pulled out her wallet from her pocket. She knew she had twenty dollars which should cover this nicely. And she had a credit card too.
She opened the wallet. The twenty wasn’t there anymore. She checked her wallet frantically. Then without any reason she started searching her pockets knowing that there was no money there.
The line behind her continued to grow.
Embarrassment crept on her. Her cheeks were blazing and she could feel everyone’s eyes on her.
“Can you take my credit card?” She handed the woman her card.
The woman shook her head.
“We only take credit cards if it’s more than fifteen dollars. You can get more food and bring it up to fifteen dollars”.
How simple for you to say, she thought wryly, how easy for you! I’m borrowing money from friends until my first paycheck comes in. But how easy for you to say that I spend fifteen dollars on a meal.
“I can get that”, a man said from behind her and before she could object he had swiped a card at the counter and was leading her out of the cafeteria. It was Jason.
She came out with him into the large eating area. She couldn’t make eye contact. She was embarrassed and angry. Why did he save her? She didn’t need to eat that badly!
“Let’s sit here”, he seemed to always be in charge.
She sat down and stared at her tray. Somehow her salad and soup seemed insignificant and not appetizing at all anymore.
He was eating fried chicken and its smell made her want it.
He looked at her. Her quiet demeanor intrigued him.
“This doesn’t taste that great”, he made a face.
She looked up. He was grinning.
She grinned back.
“I’d trade my soup and salad for it any day”, she said cheekily.
“Okay”, he said, swapping their trays, “then swap”.
Maggie didn’t say anything. She felt like he had caught her stealing glances at his lunch and had given her his tray so she’d eat something nice.
“Yum”, he said, obviously able to enjoy food in any form, “this is good”.
She smiled at his obvious relishing of the food and started eating the chicken.
“Maddie, right?” He said, trying to get it right.
“Maggie”, she corrected him politely, “Remember Margaret? Mouth full?”
“I remember”, he said, rolling his eyes, “Do you think I just randomly called you Maddie?”
“I don’t know”, she said truthfully, “I feel people don’t remember my name because it’s so common”.
“That’s not true”, he said between mouthfuls, “Margaret is a very unique name. Not sure why you changed it to Maggie”.
She sighed. He imitated her. She laughed. He smiled.
“So where are you from, Maggie?”
“Actually”, she hesitated then decided to just say it without a lot of shame and apprehension, “I’m from this area. I’m from the Bronx”.
“Oh wow!” He said, his eyes lighting up as if this was very unique information, “Isn’t it great to never have to leave home?”
Yes, I guess! She thought. But when you’ve grown up with alcoholic parents and an absentee brother you want to run as far away from home as possible.
He peered at her intelligent face. She had an oval face with dark blue eyes. But something about her face was interesting. Very interesting. He looked closer and actually her eyes weren’t one color . She had blue-green eyes. And in the center she had a little pink in both.
“You have heterochromia iridis”, he said excitedly.
“Yes! My mom has them too”.
“Is she as pretty as you too?” He blurted.
Maggie blushed but recovered rather quickly.
“Not as pretty”, she said with a laugh.
He laughed too. He was momentarily embarrassed at his exclamation but was grateful that she didn’t let it get awkward.
“So where are you from?” She asked him.
“San Antonio, Texas”, he said.
“Wow! And you like it here?”
“Winters are bad”, he admitted. “I’m a Texan so I hate winters but I love New York. My parents waged money that I’d be home before the year was up but guess they don’t know how scrappy I am”.
“I’ve never been to another state”, she confided, “so I’ll take your word for it”.
He laughed again. Easily. Like this was nothing .
“If you have this weekend free then you are invited to the Poconos with us. And don’t worry about anything. Scout’s honor”.
I’d love to, she thought sadly, but I don’t have two pennies to rub. I’m camping out in my parents’ porch until I get my first paycheck and make a move out of there.
“Maggie!” He said, sounding and looking serious but with a twinkle in his eye nonetheless, “If you start to look so sad each time I talk to you then I’ll have to get someone else to speak on my behalf. Would you like that?”
She laughed. Openly and like she wasn’t used to it. He watched her in amusement and went back to eating his soup.
She ate some more of the chicken and then decided to be truthful.
“Actually”, she hesitated then decided to rip the bandaid, “I’m living with my parents until my paycheck comes through. I kinda take care of them too so I’ve had to keep my evening job until I come into some money”, she laughed self-deprecatingly.
He tried to understand why she needed to tell him this when all he had asked was if a trip would be a nice way to start residency but decided to let it go.
“I see”, he said contemplating a way to phrase something, “So they won’t let you come with us? It’s six of us. And three of them are interns so you’ll find people from your class. May be make some friends too? It’s not a bad idea”.
She laughed again. He was a Texan, alright! Straightforward and direct.
“They let me do everything”, she said, smiling more broadly than she had so far, “You talk like we are in the 1950’s”.
“Yes”, he smiled, fascinated by how she could be shy and opinionated at the same time, “I do talk like a man from the 50’s sometimes. I’m trying to get better. Hoping for a feminist to come along someday”.
“Why is it up to feminists to fix men who can’t stop living in a time warp?” She asked innocently. He knew she was baiting him but gladly took the bait.
“Because we men are so helpless”.
“But a feminist would think that helpless men would seek help and get better actively. Not passively wait for a poor feminist to come along and make it all understandable for them”.
“Well”, he said, pretending to be thinking, “I am actively trying to make it all understandable by asking a feminist to come on a weekend trip with me but she won’t budge”.
She laughed again. Somehow this was nice. A man, cafeteria lunch, he paid for her food. This could be the closest I’d ever get to a date, she thought ruefully.
“Can I be honest, Jason?” She said tentatively.
“Never ask if you can be honest. Just be it. But shoot”, he said like a big brother.
“I don’t have any money”, she said, embarrassed at this confession but feeling lighter all the same.
“Hmm”, he considered this for a few minutes, then said, “If you were coming as my date I’d gladly pay for you but you’re not my…..”
“Oh yeah, of course”, she cut him short turning red and staring at the table.
“But I can loan you some money”, he said, taking a swig of his soda. “We are going to use my car so that’s ten bucks for gas. One of my friends’ parents have lent us their cabin for the weekend so that’s free. But we have booked a few canoeing things and some other stuff. That is fifty bucks per head. Then food for the weekend would be about fifty bucks per head. That includes any beer or wine. So I think a hundred bucks should cover you just fine”.
She had never heard anyone do such quick math.
She considered his offer. Maggie had had so much rejection that it was hard to accept that another human had asked her to a friends’ trip. She had never had friends. A handful of people had tagged along with her through life but they were more like sounding boards and mentors. She had never had friends. People she could go to the city with. People she could share bad relationship stories with. People she split restaurant checks with. People who kept her secrets. People who were her age.
Come to think of it, she had never been in a relationship either. Unless you counted one that had lasted for a full week before he took her virginity and moved on to his next quest. And then intimacy never touched her.
Life! It hasn’t been fair, she thought. Why is it particularly unfair to some people?
“If you take this long to think over a fun thing then I can’t imagine how long it takes for you to dress up for work in the morning. Something tells me you haven’t had a lot of fun lately”.
Lately? She became rueful again. I have never had fun. When you work four jobs besides school and always scrambling to get by, fun doesn’t make it to the list.
Before she could say anything, she heard him speak again. She looked up. His tone had changed.
“I’m saying this as a friend”, he said, shadows of late nights and responsibilities and residency fatigue in his eyes, “Grab fun while you can during residency. It doesn’t come by easily. If I were you I’d jump up and say yes. You don’t have to worry about spending. I’m a farmer’s son. I will take every penny that I loan you. Don’t think I’m going to be nice just because you’re my friend. Let me know what you decide, okay?”
She stared at her hands. Her whole life was a colossal attempt at having fun and running into misery instead. When you grow up with bickering parents who become nastier with alcohol you can’t have any fun. She grew up in a blue collar neighborhood after living in one of the best neighborhoods of New York City . Her brother left home when he was 12, Maggie 8. She had been on her own ever since.
“Can’t believe I have a friend”, she said gratefully.
“I’m everyone’s friend until they piss me off”, he said magnanimously.
She smiled a sad smile. He kept drinking his soda.
“I think I could come with you”, she said while thinking of leaving her folks for a full weekend which was rare. She had gone to medical school in town also so she had never had to leave them. All her clinical rotations had always been in the area.
“Great!” He flashed a quick smile before assuming his brusque, senior resident manner, “Now did you check on the blood sugar for Mr. Wallace?”
“Yes”, she said calmly, “It was okay”.
“What was the number?” He asked casually.
“I don’t remember that”, she said, embarrassed at her lack of attention to detail.
“145”, he said, savoring her self-consciousness and feeling slightly proud of himself for being a diligent second year. “Remember numbers. We chase them for a reason. Sometimes. Sometimes they don’t mean anything”.
Soon it was time to go home and she stood at the bus stop, the warm June sun unforgiving.
“Hop in”, Jason commanded.
Smiling she leaned forward and said almost apologetically,
“I take the bus. I live not far from here”.
“Okay”, he said, thinking how unsure she always was and wondering why that was, “this car goes to places that are not far from here”.
She couldn’t help laughing. Wordlessly she got in.
“Where do you live?” She asked curiously.
He laughed sardonically.
“Nope! Haven’t made my money yet. Where do you live?”
“I live in Parkchester”.
“That’s not a bad place”.
“Actually”, she said, feeling a little more confident, “it’s really not. It’s an okay place to live”.
“I live in the Bronx too”, he finally said, “Close to the train station”.
“I know that area”, she said enthusiastically, “It’s a great place. Everything is so close”.
“It is”, he agreed, “So you said you’re living with your parents until the paycheck comes in. Have you found a place?”
“Yes”, she said, “actually I’ll live in the area across from the train station”.
“Wow!” He said, suddenly realizing that they could be neighbors, “That’s where I live”.
She didn’t know what to say. She had never been with men, particularly men with a job or a career. There had been so much dreariness in her life that anything that didn’t look like her normal looked so strange. Jason looked strange too.
He stole a surreptitious glance at her. Were girls sometimes this quiet? He hadn’t been with many romantically but had had a lot of sex and they usually were chatty and talkative in bed. He had never met anyone like Maggie who constantly just drifted off into silence and looked like they were afraid to talk.
She directed him to her home and got down as they got there. He knew she wasn’t going to ask him in for a drink. She just didn’t seem the friendly type.
“Hey”, he said, leaning forward and stopping her in her tracks as she was making it to the door, “So today is Thursday. We are leaving for the trip Friday night so tomorrow. Give me your cell number so I can stay in touch”.
She gave him her number.
“I’ll text you when I get home. This way you’ll have mine too”. He said.
She nodded. Somehow the trip had seemed like something in the distant future when he had mentioned it during lunch.
He sped off.
She entered home. If a hospital looked cleaner and more welcoming than a home then it was something to reckon. She looked with disgust at her mother, Caroline, sitting in front of the TV with a half eaten bag of chips and a beer in her hands. It struck her as rather subtle of her mother to just be drinking beer. Usually she had finished a bottle of wine by the time evening rolled around.
But somehow staying angry with Caroline wasn’t easy either. She was an alcoholic but she was a happy drunk. She saw Maggie come in and as was her custom, she extended a hand to her.
“Give mommy a hug”, she commanded lovingly.
Maggie walked up to her, peering at her green-blue eyes with the pinkish center.
“What have you been up to?” She asked softly as she hugged Caroline.
The older woman shrugged.
“Nothing much”, she sighed, “David had a panic attack so he needed my wine and now I’m stuck with this dusty old beer”.
Oh, so circumstances prevented you from shaving off a bottle of wine. I thought you were trying to quit. She thought sadly.
“Did you eat something?” She asked Caroline.
“Yes”, she said, “Ate half this bag in the morning and now trying to eat the second half. But I don’t feel hungry”.
“Mom”, she scolded her mother, “I cooked for you. You like broccoli and beans, don’t you?”
Caroline waved away her concern.
“I saved it for you”, she said, “I don’t do anything for you. Wanted to do something for you on your first day of residency. But couldn’t. I had no energy left. After I finished all my paperwork for the clients I had no energy left so this is my little thing for you, baby”.
Caroline started crying. Maggie felt her eyes getting wet too.
“Don’t cry”, she bent low and cradled Caroline’s head in her hands and cuddled her, “Where’s dad?”
“Not sure”, Caroline hiccuped, “Must be upstairs. He is just so worried about this new deal”.
Living with fully functional alcoholics is a strange world to live in. It’s like you watch your parents be completely inept at some things but then be complete wizards at what they concentrate their efforts at. Sometimes Maggie wondered if they drank because they both had worked very stressful jobs since their youth. David Smalls had been a real estate agent since the age of 22 and had become very successful by the time he was 25. He was one of the most successful businessmen in his prime. He had inherited his father’s modest real estate agency and turned it into a successful firm by sheer work and dedication. Caroline had been a waitress but then went to school to study business and opened her own restaurant on Lexington Avenue. She poured her sweat and blood into her restaurant and after a few years sold it to another businessman for ten times its original worth. She then became a consultant for the restaurant industry and became an authority on hotels and motels particularly.
Unfortunately their success came with a lot of partying and may be because they were both susceptible to it, alcohol soon became more important than much else. Their kids were being watched by nannies and baby sitters and they would both drink themselves to oblivion at parties.
They were very successful then when they were at their peak, partying their health away, gambling their money off. Maggie and her brother Scott went to private schools and were very good students. They rarely saw their parents but had a wonderful woman who raised them, Mrs. Davenport, who made up for most of the absenteeism of their parents.
Maggie remembered the good days. And the bad days. When her parents had debt due to drinking and reckless spending. They kept making changes to their lifestyle to stay afloat. Finally Caroline and David moved to the Bronx to provide for their kids while saving for the future. They had to work and so they still worked. They had managed to put Maggie through college. They didn’t miss Scott who left home when he was still a kid.
Caroline now worked as an online consultant for sinking hotel businesses as part of a company that specialized in this. David sold auto insurances over the phone which wasn’t as lucrative as real estate but was a job nevertheless and paid the bills.
Maggie had still had to have jobs all her middle and high school. She had to work in order to afford lunch money and clothes. She was a bookworm and even though their public library wasn’t bad, she couldn’t find some classics there. She worked four jobs on the weekends and worked at the same McDonald’s for most of her middle and high school.
But she hadn’t minded anything. Working hard had become a way of life. It had become a means to all she wanted.
“Hi, Dad”, she found him in his room, in his pajamas, sipping on a glass of wine in a way that was dainty and macho. She felt a rush of emotion for him. He wasn’t perfect but he listened and because he had really started from the bottom just to return there a few decades later, he always had great insights.
“Hey, baby”, he smiled, “How’s business?”
“A guy asked me to come to a weekend trip to the Poconos”, she blurted the highlight of her day.
David Smalls had been a heartbreaker in his day. Together Caroline and David made a fabulous couple. Class, intelligence and love oozed from them. They were really into each other. Even though they both drank themselves to sleep every night, sometimes Maggie was proud of how they kept it together and afforded this house and their bills.
He smiled at his intelligent and somewhat eccentrically pretty daughter. Maggie had never disappointed him. But then she had had to grow up before her time. She had taken care of him and his wife so much that she had lost her childhood and now was wasting her youth taking care of them.
“That’s a great idea”, he smiled some more, then said nonchalantly, “Just the two of you?”
Maggie laughed. Her laugh rang around him. She was life’s biggest gift and it hurt him that she was living a life that he had never thought his kids would.
“No, Dad”, she swung by his neck like a little girl, “a few other people are coming along too. There are seven of us”.
He relaxed visibly. She loved her father for this very quality. He never let people see him sweat. He was a force of nature in his own way. He had fought some dark days and had come out relatively unshaken.
“I would love for you to go. Do you know we used to have a cottage in the Poconos?”
This was news to her but she knew her parents were wealthy socialites in another time and had properties scattered all over.
He got up and pulled out an old album.
“Come here”, he beckoned for her to come over.
“Look at this”, he pointed to a toddler Maggie running to Caroline in a picture with Scott in the background. Her brother hadn’t been a part of their family for years. It seemed strange to see him in a picture with her.
“These are the Camelback Mountains”, David said proudly, “Top notch property. The best. We lost that too”.
He shook his head sadly but Maggie had been looking at something else.
“Dad! What are these?”
“Those are snow tubes”, he said, glad to have a distraction, “You should do it when you go in the winter. It’s a lot of fun”.
“Yeah”, she said wistfully, “May be we can all go in the winter”.
“May be”, he smiled, “the Canadians call it a toboggan and other funny names. Don’t tell your mom but I had a Canadian girlfriend in Nova Scotia who was just the best initiator to the Canadian ways”.
Maggie laughed. It was so like David to add tidbits of his once fabulous life to everything.
“Broccoli and peas, made by Maggie, saved by Mommy”, Caroline singsonged from the door.
They laughed as they saw Caroline with an apron on, balancing a tray of food while clearly struggling with her balance that was off from all the beer she had had before.
Maggie brought the tray inside. She said grace like she always said for all three of them.
They ate quietly. They made an odd family but all that they had ever had was each other.
And Scott, Maggie thought with a little pang, and Scott. Dear God! Please help Scott find his way back to his family.
She kept saying grace over and over.
After dinner she felt too tired to do anything. She noticed Caroline washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen and was tempted to help her but also had an early morning. She went to her room.
There was a message blinking on her cell phone.
It was a simple message with an erotic quality to it. May be because she had never been with many men, may be because sex had happened just a few times without any emotional or even much physical connection, may be seeing a man have it together was so rare that she felt attracted to him.
But there were more pressing things. She had to pack for a weekend trip and had no idea what to pack or how to pack. She fleetingly wondered if she should back out of the trip but then decided to use her regular bag to pack her limited clothes in.
Growing up she had envied her classmates’ wardrobes. She was four when they had to become cautious with their spending, six when her parents declared bankruptcy. And then it was hustling. Constant hustling.
She shrugged off her thoughts and rummaged into her closet savagely. She couldn’t find anything. She had a few tank tops that were too worn out to wear in new company.
Finally she gave up and pulled out some T-shirts and shorts and threw them in her bag. Unsure about the next day she went to sleep.