Shared Empathy: Chapter Five

Author’s Note:

Hi, Awesome people. It’s been long! I had this chapter written for about more than two months now but didn’t post it. One coz I was busy, Two coz I procrastinate a lot and three coz I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right.This is my first story exceeding 1000 words. I keep thinking that I’m doing it all wrong and this should have come first or it was too soon for that and blah blah blah. 

But then more than anything I want to finish this story. Although it is a work of fiction, it is personal to me. More than being right I want it to be complete. I guess what I’m saying is: Those who read this story or still want to read this story, stay with me, we might get somewhere.

This chapter is longer but I cut it into two parts. So chapter 6 will be coming along soon.  Also, if you look up, there is a drop down menu for Shared Empathy. If you want to access previous chapters, simply click it.


Alan’s cooking skills were being tested today. He was standing in his kitchen, half bent in front of the oven to check the temperature of lamb roast when the adjacent oven dinged, signaling that the cupcakes were ready. He shut the oven door and opened the other one, took out the cupcakes and put them on the cooling stand. He stood in the middle of the kitchen, his blue eyes taking in the sight if the entire room behind the slightly smeared square spectacles and made mental notes.

Fifteen more minutes for the lamb roast, cupcakes are ready and vegetables are grilled, sitting on the hot plate. The table is set. Everything is good. Stop freaking out. Just then he saw the iceberg and romaine on the counter and realized he hasn’t started the salad yet. Oh, crap! The salad!

His thoughts were disrupted by the doorbell. He covered the small distance between the kitchen and the front door and opened it.

“Hey”, Nola said.

“Thank God, you are here. I need you in the kitchen.”, he said, pulling her in by the arm.

“Alan! I don’t do kitchen, remember?”, she said, pointing towards herself and giving her a look to tell him he has lost his mind.

“I am not asking you to make Risotto! You just have to chop some things for the salad.”, he said putting an arm around her shoulders and taking her towards the kitchen through the living room.

“Ahh, Alan, why are there people in your backyard? People other than your Mom and Dad”, she asked as she saw people standing in the backyard through the huge living room windows.

“Dad! He invited some of his friends in town. You know how he is.”

“You could have told me”. She was still looking there.

“So that you could bail? No. If I suffer, you suffer with me. Here just chop these cucumbers roughly”, he said and started cutting the tomatoes.

“I hate you”, she said making her best angry face, ” Don’t say anything to me if I do it wrong” she cautioned him picking up one of the cucumbers.

“I said roughly. How wrong can you go there? “, He rolled his eyes.

“Alan, who was at the door?”, they heard a sweet familiar voice coming towards them.

“Nola! you are here!”, Alan’s mother said as she came into view and saw her.

“Sarah! Hi, How have you been?” Nola put down the knife and hugged the lady.

Sarah had a kind face and you could tell where Alan got his eyes and kindness. She wore a white floral dress and her gray hair was tied in a bun. She had a slender figure but still managed to engulf Nola in a bear hug which she welcomed gladly, inhaling her motherly scent. She was the closest person to a mother that Nola ever got . Her own mother died when she was just a baby. She often thought what it would be like to have a mother but never really craved for one. Her father had been enough until he wasn’t.

“You put her to work? She just came!”, said Sarah, releasing her with a kiss on the cheek.

“Ma, I need an extra set of hands.”, Alan replied.

“I’m sorry dear. Peter just had to invite some friends. It was a last minute thing.”, she said apologetically looking at Nola.

“Oh no, it’s fine Sarah. I can help”, she smiled and got back to cutting the cucumbers.

“Ma, go be with the guests. Dinner will be served in twenty minutes. You can talk to your favorite kid then.”, he said, turning her towards the living room. Sarah smiled again and huffed at Alan, but went to the backyard again because people were waiting.

“I’m not even dressed properly. You could have given a heads up”

“I wasn’t given a heads up either and you are dressed just fine.”

She wore a chiffon blouse to give a formal feeling otherwise she usually just wore T-shirts and Hoodies with jeans. This, however, felt like a dressy kind of evening. She looked at Alan who was wearing dress pants and a shirt, well, he was always dressed up.

***

They all sat down on the long wooden table in Alan’s backyard, light bulbs hanging over them and a bonfire flickering away at the side.There were four guests; Peter’s business partner, his wife and their kids, a young man and a woman. Alan happily accepted all the praise and proudly watched his dad introducing Nola as his daughter to everyone. He was really glad that his parents loved Nola. It was good to see her smiling and enjoying herself, being a part of the family. She was comfortable with them despite the fact that she hated being around new people.

He had a beautiful relation with his parents. They have always been supportive and kind. They did everything to make sure he and his baby brother lived a happy, healthy life. He became a surgeon and Mark, his brother was studying Physics. Everyone joked that how was a doctor and a scientist born in the house of businessmen. Their relation got affected during the addiction years. It was hard for them to see their first born like that, but they tried to help nonetheless. They thought he was never going to be better after his repeated failed attempts to be sober. Those were the worst times and now he was better and they both thanked Nola for that. They both believed she had a big role in that, and it was the truth that without her help and support Alan wouldn’t have been able to pull through.

***

Eva, the daughter of Peter’s friend, was standing in front of the painting in the living room, immersed in her own thoughts.

“Beautiful, right?”, said Alan approaching her after taking care of the dishes.Nola was right beside him and gave him a stern look.

“Yes, this is simply amazing. I wonder who the artist is!”, Eva replied.

“Right here”, said Alan, giving Nola a slight push on the back.

She smiled and made a mental note of getting back to Alan about this later.

“You are! This  is truly beautiful”, Eva said.

“Thank you. I made it for Alan.”

“Do you sell your work?”

“Ahh, no… I … no, I don’t. It’s just a hobby, my safe space.”

“Too bad because I would love to have it.”

“Hey! It’s mine!”, Alan said claiming his ownership to the painting.

Eva laughed and said, “No, really, you should think about exhibiting your paintings. You are extremely talented.”

“I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about that.”, Nola said.

“Have you studied art?”

“No, it’s just something I picked up very early in life.”

“Great. You know I run a shelter and rehabilitation center for homeless teens, right?”

“Yes, yes. I heard that at the dinner. It’s amazing what you do!”

“Thanks. We have art sessions. Come by some day, if you like.”

“Oh wow. Um, yes, I’d think about that. Thanks.”, she smiled all the while plotting a revenge against Alan for putting her under the spotlight.

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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…

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!”


 

Let me know what you think?

 

Shared Empathy – Chapter Two

Chapter One


“Congratulations Alan!”

He held the plastic chip in his hand and closed his fist around it; securing it. He held it like a safety bar in those crazy amusement park rides and turned towards the group of people sitting in front of him.Some of the people he had come to know with time, some were new. Each one of them had smiling faces and hopeful eyes. If you looked closely you could see traces of damage; some washed away, some washing away, some still clinging.

He mumbled his thank yous all the while searching for a particular face. Then he saw her entering from the door at the far end of the wall. She made her way to a seat in the last row and raised two thumbs-up to him, a big smile adorning her face, a little too big.

She didn’t know this but her face betrayed her most of the time. She didn’t know this but he could notice it most of the time.

He smiled back and was relieved to see the face he wanted to see on this day.

***

“Nola, Thanks for coming”, He said, coming towards her.

“I’m sorry I got late. My shift was till six at the coffee-house, I rushed here as soon as I got free. Congratulations!” she said and hugged him. “I’m so happy for you.”

“It’s okay. I am just happy that you are here.”

Nola smiled the big smile again.

“So, what do you want to do? Three months without drugs! Today we can get high on cheese, grease and restaurant germs. It is such a better high. Trust me!”, She laughed as they walked towards the parking lot.

“How about lasagne from your favorite place and then Ice cream?”

“Yes! No! It’s your day. Your victory. We should go to your favorite place.”

“It’s our victory”, he said putting an arm around her shoulders, “Besides it’s a win-win. Lasagne from your favorite place and Ice cream from mine.”

“Great! But I won’t give you my wafer.” She pointed a finger at him making sure she was heard.

“Yeah Yeah we’ll see”, he rolled his eyes as they both sat in the car.

He rolled the car out of the parking lot and saw Noah waving at him from his own car. Noah had become a friend over the past three months in the support group.

“Small victories”, Noah said making a victory sign.

“Small victories”, Alan waved back and drove towards the restaurant for their celebration of two.

Small victories they were indeed. Tiny steps. Each step taking them closer to healing. The journey was difficult but he was glad to have his best friend beside him. Nola was his driving force, his strength, his beautifully disturbed person. It’s been two years to the night when they stumbled upon each other. They were both running from their ghosts and somewhere along the way they had smacked into each other.

He was so grateful for that one second of honest confession. That one moment in which he took off his mask and showed his damage.Maybe it was because he saw a person in front of him struggling; fighting, wearing her own wounds on her.

“I have a bad past too”

In that instant, he had seen the wounds transform into an armor. He had seen past the fear in her eyes. He had seen empathy.

“You wanna take a walk”, she had said pointing towards the other side, away from the building.

After a long time, he had taken a step forward without thinking anything. Without thinking if he had closed the front door of his house properly or that it was probably going to rain again.

After a long time, he felt okay to just take a walk with this stranger.

***

“This is heavenly !”, Nola said taking another bite of the beef lasagna in front of her.

“Don’t get too high. I don’t want to take you to a meeting. One person doing this is enough.”, he said taking a sip from his drink.

She simply laughed and continued devouring her meal.

“So, did you paint something new?”, Alan asked.

“No”

“Why not?”

“I’m out of black and red and I also need new brushes.Plus I’m picking up extra shifts at the coffee-house. I’ve been busy.”

“I can..”

“No, you can’t.”, she cut him mid-sentence.

“I didn’t even complete my sentence!”, he protested.

“But you were gonna say that, weren’t you?”

“Nola”

“Alan! you are not buying me art supplies.”, she pointed her fork towards him.

“But…”

“We have had this conversation before. I don’t want your help. I’ll buy them myself when I have enough money.”

“You do realize I have a lot of money just sitting in the banks. It would be a gift..”

“Alan!”

“Okay okay”, he lifted his hand in surrender.

“Good”, she said and took a fry from his plate.

“Oh! so you can’t take my money but you can steal my fries!”

“Yes”, she said and they both started laughing.

“How are you ? “, she sighed after laughing too hard and looked at him with meaningful eyes.

“I’m good”, he said and looked down towards his plate toying with the stray bits of beef.

“And?”, she asked.

“And afraid”, he lifted his eyes, now clouded with doubt.

She didn’t say anything just gave him time to say more.

“This has happened before. I have gotten sobriety chips before. Thirty days. Sixty days. “, he sighed.” I don’t trust myself, Nola. I’ll relapse. Hell, you know it. It has happened in front of you too! I’m afraid something will happen and I will lose control again.”

“Yes, this has happened but you have never come as far as three months before. That’s big.”

“That’s what makes it even more scary.”

“Look I know you are afraid. You and I, we are always afraid. But we can’t stop moving forward. We have done three months, we’ll do six months and so on and so forth. We will do this”, she nodded, “Okay, we’ll do this because we want to do this. We want to get better.”

“Yeah”

“Yeah”, she smiled.”If you promise to take me out for lasagne every time you get a chip. I’ll make sure you never go down that road again”, She joked and finished the last bite.

“It’s a deal”, he smiled.

“Can we go for the Ice cream now? Before we get too scared.”
“Let’s not get that scared”, he laughed and signaled the waiter to bring the bill.