Shared Empathy – Chapter Four

Links for previous chapters.

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three


Nola watched the milky brown foam coming towards her over the loud whoosh of the coffee machine. She placed a lid over the thermal cup and turned around to hand it to its customer. She received a thank you to which she replied with a plastic smile. It had all become a routine now; plastic cups, plastic thank yous, plastic smiles. It was very difficult in the start. She never really thought she would grow up to become a barista.Then again nobody really does.People have big goals, big expectations and so did she. She dreamt of becoming the right hand of her father in his business and now she was afraid of even the word business.

She sat on a low chair on the other side of the counter so that only her head was visible to someone sitting in the cafe. This time between breakfast and lunch, when most people were busy at work or at home, was dull for her. Only a few wandering souls came in during this time. So, she usually just sat on the chair and doodled on a little blue notebook her father gave her on her fourteenth birthday. There were things she hung to like life depended on them and this book was one of those. It was from the times when everything fell under the category of “good”. Good people, good times. As she drew broken lines on the paper she thought if this is how it will be for the rest of her life. Coffee, doodles and fake pleasantries. Will she ever get out of this?

Ring of the cafe door forced her to get out of her thoughts which she welcomed and stood up to greet the customer. A teenager was an unusual customer at this hour.
“Hi, How can I help you?”, Nola said.
“Do you have cold coffee?”. The girl looked like fifteen or sixteen. She was wearing faded blue jeans and a grey sweatshirt and nervously pulled the sleeves in her hands.
“Yes!”,Nola replied. She had a strange need to ask this girl if she was okay. Teenagers are always nervous and jittery she thought to herself and realised that she wasn’t. Her shaky days showed their face in her 20s. She punched the code for one cold coffee on the cash machine and handed the receipt to the girl. “That’d be $2.00”, she said and received crumpled bills taken out from the jeans pocket.
“Coming right away”, she said and turned around to make her coffee as the girl gave her a half-smile.

Nola made smiley faces for only three people from her customers. The old guy with kind blue eyes who always reminded her of her father. He aways called her “sweetheart”.The lady who worked in the office building opposite the coffee-house. She always wore an honest smile and told her little details about her day in the two minutes they spent together. And Alan, there wasn’t any other reason except that he was her best friend.

But she made a smiley face on this girl’s coffee hoping it would make her smile and it did. It seemed to ease her. Her face showed new-found courage and she asked,”Do you guys have jobs here?”
“Um, you would have to talk with the manager. We have a boy of your age working here maybe he can work something out for you too.”, Nola replied.
“Thanks, I will.”, she said and walked out of the cafe leaving Nola alone with her noisy mind.

***

She unlocked the door to her apartment and entered in. She had rented the cheapest place she could find. The neighborhood wasn’t exactly the kind one wants to live in. The people were shady and sometimes scary. She had received several lectures from Alan about how dangerous it was and he could arrange a place for her to live but she had proudly declined.It was a 250sqft room with an attached bathroom. On the left corner was  a shelf with a stove and small refrigerator which the renter had called a kitchen while describing the details to her. A single bed was placed on the right corner in front of the window overlooking the street.Next to it was a side table covered with paints and brushes and an easel. The wall opposite to the window had the door to the bathroom and next to it was a cupboard.

She tossed her body bag on the bed and sat on its edge with an exaggerated sigh. She didn’t like to cook and usually had microwave or frozen food. Whenever she wanted fresh food she went to Alan’s. Because that’s what Alan did. He cooked in his free time and fed whoever came to his house like an over loving grandmother. She didn’t want to eat frozen food and dismissed the idea of going to Alan’s place because she was going to his place tomorrow to have dinner with his parents.

She lied down on the bed, the moon above her lit her face and once again her mind charged up like the bright neon signs on the building opposite to hers.

What the hell am I doing?

She had many plans for her life but this was never the plan. Being purposeless and helpless was never the plan. She realised she needed to do something, needed to get out of this sinkhole but she simply didn’t have the courage. Just like she knew she needed to get up and eat but she didn’t have the energy.A single tear rolled down her cheek blurring her view in a river of blue, green and orange. She closed her eyes.

Tears rolled down faster and so did her thoughts as she wished to drown in the river; sleep, forget.

Coffee beans, doorbell, plastic smiles,spilled paint, Alan’s kitchen, the sting of Iodoform, machines, tubes,doodles, court notice, flairs. beep beep beep beep…

Monsters in my soup

They sat in a contributed silence. I read it somewhere and I remembered it sitting on the dinner table. Everyone was there; contributing to the silence. Everyone is very good at it. Me too. I might be the perfect one. So, everyone was doing that except me. I was expertly pointing out every smelly odd-looking monster that could be swimming in the soup bowl while others were silently swallowing them whole.
Why wasn’t I contributing? .This scares me.”

“Maybe you were more scared of choking on the silence than choking on the monsters in   your soup.”

Shared Empathy: Chapter Three

Here are the links for previous chapters.

Chapter One.

Chapter Two.


 

She was sitting on the subway seat holding a canvas, carefully wrapped in black plastic paper, between the inner edges of her sneakers. Her dark brown bag was placed on her lap, it’s flap covered with colorful flair buttons. They had her favorite quotes and different illustrations on them. It was a hobby from her childhood that was still a part of her life and she loved it. 

She was looking straight ahead as blank walls traveled with her. She passed two stations before reaching the one close to Alan’s house. It was his birthday today. He said he would bake a cake. The painting was for him.

Her station came and she got up putting the bag on her shoulders and tucked the painting underneath her left arm. As she got out of the station into the open, cold air hit her like bird wings flapping vigorously and pushed her shot hair away from her face. She instinctively wrapped her right arm around herself.

The weather is in sync with my heart. Great, she thought.

She wanted to go straight home from her shift and do nothing.But it was Alan’s birthday and they planned this dinner a week ago. She didn’t want to let her friend down, her only true friend at the moment. She walked from the commercial street into the neighborhood in which Alan lived.His house was on a five-minute walk from the main commercial block. The air changed its quality just like the scenery. It wore more refined clothes in this part of the city.

The sun turned a shade of orange as she knocked on the front door. She could feel her brows scrunched, cheeks tight and tensed. She patted her cheeks and gave herself a pep talk , Smile and relax. When you reach home, you’ll be too tired to think about anything. Isn’t that what you want?

Alan opened the door, “Hey!”, he was wearing an apron and an oven mitten in his right hand.

“Hello chef!”, she entered the house, eyeing him and smiling widely.

“I did promise you a cake”, he exclaimed shutting the door behind him.

“I knew I liked you for a reason. Happy Birthday”, she said handing the painting to him.

“A painting for me! Well, thank you, Picasso!”

“Oh please!”, she said and made herself comfortable on the couch in the living room.

Alan placed the painting on the center table in front of the couch and went to the kitchen behind the living room. Alan’s kitchen was miraculously decorated just like the rest of his house. He had a good eye for things and an exquisite taste. This was something he inherited from his family; good taste and money.

How would my painting look among these meticulous showpieces? It was a bad idea. She pushed the thought away thinking Alan has never boasted about his wealth with her. He was the most down to earth person she had ever met, not only with her but with everyone. He was always respectful of her and never looked down on her.

“So, are your parents coming?”. She could hear him pouring juice in glasses behind her.

“No they couldn’t come today but they are coming on the weekend.”

He handed the glass to her sitting on the opposite side of the couch.

“I already ordered Pizza. By the time we are finished cake would be done, I know you like it hot so it would be fresh out of the oven. Open the painting”, he said and went to the kitchen to quickly check the cake.

When he came back, Nola was sitting in the same place staring into space.The painting, now unwrapped, was on the table.

“Okay! So, what did my personal Da Vinci made me”, he said picking up the canvas.

“Personal Da Vinci! Really!”, She rolled her eyes.

Alan saw the painting.There was a surgical tray with tools neatly placed on it. Two hands, one resting on the tools; palm flat, one slightly raised in the air like it was ready to pick a tool. They reflected a person of great skill, strength, and wisdom.The background was plain white with just a hint of texture in it. The hands stood out the most, every shade every line, every vein, every scar evident like they were important enough to be seen. Tools, in a dull steel, stood beside them like a supporting character doing his best.

Alan kept looking at it. He knew Nola was watching her, expecting a response but he didn’t have any words.

Sensing it, Nola spoke,”I made this to remind you who you really are. What your true passion is.”

“I didn’t know surgery could look so beautiful.”

“You know it. You’ve known it for a long time now. You’ve felt it.”

Alan shook his head in negative.

“Yes! You have just forgotten it.”, Nola said.

“I don’t think I can go back, Nola. I am an addict. I can slip anytime. I have put patient’s lives in danger before. I can’t do that again. I am better off working on the administrative side of the hospital.”

“Yes, you can. You just need to remind yourself that. You are recovering from the addiction already. The chips are increasing in number.”, She looked towards the fridge on which Alan put all his chips and smiled.

Just then the door bell rang indicating the arrival of Pizza. “Saved by the bell”. He got up and placed the painting on the side table.

“Pizza is here!”, he closed the door behind him and placed the pizza on the table. He brought soda cans from the fridge and opened them, placing one in front of her and one in front of himself. Nola opened the box and served a piece to each.

“Thank you, Nola. I get what you are saying. I will try my best.”

“You will”, she said with her mouth full.

Alan laughed and dived into his own.

“So, how was your day?”

“It was great!”, she took a sip pf her drink and flashed her teeth.

“Ahan! You came a little late. Weren’t you gonna get off at four?”

“Yeah but then I went to the apartment to change and get your painting. That damn thing isn’t very easy to carry you know.”, she laughed again.

“You know that you have a tell, right?”

“What?”, she flashed the big smile again.

“That right there! That smile is a little too big for your face.”, he said.

“I always smile like that.”, she replied.

“Did something happen at work?”, Alan was consistent.

“No”, she sighed realizing there was really no point in lying. Alan had caught her like always. “Yes… maybe.”

“What happened?”

“An old friend of Dad’s came in the coffee-house and recognized me”

“And I guess he said things.”

“Yeah… about my father and his friendship, our family business”, she sighed,” and how I ruined it”

“He didn’t say that.”

“But that’s what he meant.”

“Nola, you give me a painting and a big speech about how I need to move on. You need to do that too. You need to forgive yourself.”, nodding  his head repeatedly as if it would help change Nola’s outlook.

“How do I forgive myself for the fact that I ruined my whole family business and my father died because of me”, despite trying her voice was breaking down.

“He didn’t die because of you”, Alan insisted.

“He was so stressed. If we hadn’t gone bankrupt we would’ve given him better treatment.”, tears were brimming her eyes now.

“His cancer had progressed, Nola. It was only a matter of time. Stop blaming yourself for everything.”

“He was miserable and broke in his last days and it was all because of me!”

“You made some wrong choices in the business, yes! but you certainly are not responsible for his death.”

“I am responsible for his discomfort!”

“You will not listen to me will you!”

By now their volume had increased considerably and both were sweltering; one in agony, one in consolation. Both had forgotten their meals. Silence prevailed and the only sound was that of heavy breathing.

After a few moments, Nola spoke,”  I am tired Alan… I am tired of being so weak,so wrong. I don’t want to cry anymore.”, as a tear finally made it past the shoreline of her eyes.

“You are getting better, you are. Look at how you handled the situation. You didn’t run away. You panicked, you felt bad but you didn’t run away”, he tried to show her the bright side.

She smiled wiping the tears from her face, “But  it did take a lot of convincing to come here. All I wanted to do was curl up and sleep.”

“See, you didn’t give in to the anxiety. That’s a big thing. Besides, you weren’t gonna leave your best friend alone on his birthday. Nope.”, Alan grinned and picked up his piece from the plate.Seeing him, she remembered her forgotten plate and resumed as well.

“You know now that I’m thinking, I haven’t had a major panic attack since I met you. You are always there to calm things down. You are good for me”, she was genuinely smiling now.

That’s how she first met him, in the middle of a chaos. She had to go to their company’s office one last time to take care of some administrative work. Their company was auctioned off and bought by a larger company. They were stripping down all the old stuff and making changes. She barely contained herself and as soon as her work was over she ran out of that building while every regret, every loss came crashing down on her.She had been embarrassed about it for a long time after that. No matter how many times Alan told her not to.

Oven dinged signaling that the cake was ready. Alan stood up, he was relieved to see that she had shared with her.

“Always at your service, Madame”, he bowed, ” Right now your cake is ready.”

***

Nola was ready to leave with a big plastic bag of Tupperware containers. Alan had packed her the remaining cake and pizza. She was standing on the doorstep trying to manage her own bag and the plastic one.

“Alan ! you are no less of a granny”, she shook her head, laughing.

“Shut-up. You’ll thank me tomorrow.And thank you so much for the painting. I love it.”, He smiled.

She smiled back and gave him a hug.

“And thank you for not shutting me out.”

“Thankyou for allowing me to speak. Happy Birthday again!”. She turned around and stepped outside into the night illuminated by the faint glow of fancy street lights.

“Don’t forget to leave a text when you reach!”, she heard from behind.

“Okay, grandpa!”


 

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