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I Am 37
Forty three seconds after the phone call ended, I still had the cell phone in front of my face. The timer on the call keeps going. For whatever reason, my phone doesn’t go to the dial tone just after a call ends, but takes a minute or so to register that the call is over. A few more seconds. In thirteen seconds, this call will end. Life will never be the same. The person I was before this phone call will be in the “B.C.” zone of my life and the time after that dial tone starts to ring marks the “A.D.” In two seconds, the life I return to will never be the same.
Dial tone. I punch the button to make it stop. And there, just in front of me, is Christian. His face on my cell phone background, his goddamn perfect face and brilliant teeth he was so anal-retentive about keeping white, stares back at me. The cockiness that both fascinated and disarmed me in college lingers in his smile. The man that began as my study buddy in Psych 418 who became my best friend. Who became my boyfriend. Who became the boy I brought home for Thanksgiving. The boy who became my husband, and the father of my daughter. His eyes boor into mine and I can’t put the phone down. We hold the glance until the backlight fades to black, asleep.
I look up and catch a glimpse of myself in my laptop screen. I look the same. The same glasses I always wear to work. My hair still looks pretty good even though it drizzled this morning. My face is contorted by tears.
My body continues to react, while my thoughts remain untouched. I’ve always been this way. My body is always the first to react, while my thoughts lag behind. From my teenage years, I always emerged unscathed from serious situations, what with Jake’s issues and my parents enraptured in each of their own causes. I made it through, resilient and seemingly prepared for the real world. In the real world, I was never warned, tragedy and hardships are plenty and strong. What makes them easier, though, is a best friend.
Christian was mine. I force myself to look around the office and make a list of everything in the room that was ever his. My matchbook-sized office on the fourth floor of the Boston Children’s Hospital barely manages to hold my L-shaped laminate desk and a spinning chair that any chiropractor would loathe. Three of the four walls are covered in pictures; I always wanted a picture wall, and now I had one. At least seventy items are tacked onto the eggshell-colored walls, my favorites stuck just over my desk for me to see quickly.
The first is a printed copy of a shot of Jake and me from years and years ago. My super-curly hair sitting like a cape on my four-year-old back. My mom perched a crown of fake daisies on the tippy-top of my head, matching the quaintly perky yellow of my sundress. I have my arms wrapped around my baby brother with his scarred and fragmented lips. His eyes, brilliant and staring out of the frame, oddly attract attention away from his cleft lip. As a child, I hardly even noticed it, and focused on my own playing or trying to get him to stop playing with me. I watched my baby brother grow through the years and learn how to better use his tongue as his mouth kept changing with each surgery, retainer, and appliances. I think about him still in Miami with his girlfriend and the way he always shies away from answering any questions about their relationship, embarrassed to tell me anything beyond that she’s “amazing.”
The second is of my parents and me. We paused for a moment after a theater performance in high school while I raced up and down the hallway just outside the cafetorium, posing for a picture here, having a quick hug there, offering a heartfelt thank you just over there. My forehead shines with sweat under the costume makeup and my arms struggle to fully grasp the two bouquets of flowers in my arms. My mom and dad lean over each of my shoulders, grinning proudly. They were always amazed at how at home I could be one person – eager and talkative – while at school, my personalities split into the girl who barely raised her hand in class and the shy but powerful theater girl.
The last picture stares me in the face. I’m holding my daughter, a pudgy 9-month-old, and beaming into the camera in my mom’s hands. Christian stands just behind me, seeming to tower over me even though he barely has four inches on me. He isn’t looking into the camera, as though he forgot it was even there. Instead, he’s looking at our daughter. His eyes are locked with hers as he reaches a hand towards her, letting her delicate baby fingers wrap around his one gargantuan finger by comparison. I’ve always considered myself a master at reading Christian’s expressions; I always matched his sarcasm and wit because of my skilled ability to keep up with him. That look in his eyes was something I had never seen before we had her. When he looked at me, it was always kind and bemused, but the look he and my daughter shared was something beyond my ability to put into words. And I loved that.
My heart wrenches as I looked at the two of them, sharing that bond I always envied but didn’t want any part of. I realize with a heavy heart that I will never see the two of them sharing that look again. In a second wave of tears, I loudly release all of the pain and anguish that comes with losing your better half, something I hoped would face me in my golden years, when the end wasn’t so far off and I wouldn’t have to live for very long without my loved ones. This fate, I realize with cold gravity, was far worse.
My legs and arms begin to vibrate painfully and I am forced to stand. Now I was simply at eye level with him and my baby, seeing the snapshot of a memory not so long ago. I couldn’t be there anymore. My body shakes against my will, and my sobs scraping the inside of my lungs. Throughout me wailed a long, empty cry of loss. I throw my fingers into my hair – something I haven’t done in years – and pull miserably. A few strands tear into my fingers and wrapped into knots. My life is over. Over.
I kick at the ****ing swivel chair and it falls over with a clatter that my cries still seemed to overpower. I throw myself backwards against the heavy wooden door and just wrap my arms around myself. And then I just stand there, my right arm wrapped tightly around my torso and my left hand over my mouth, just trying to calm myself down. Finally, my howls soften into a pitiful weep. How could I do this? How was I expected to go home, go to sleep, and wake up in the morning, ready to come back to the real world?
I hadn’t seen Christian in five days; he was at a family get-together in Chicago I opted out of after much pleading. His was so eager to show me off to his a**hole twin cousins who pretended to doubt my existence. He wanted to show off his ray of sunshine daughter. I begged him until he let me out of it. It was just a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving and I’d just met almost everyone in his family, except the cousins. Standing there in my suffocating office, I thought about our conversation and how much I so desperately wanted out. Goddamn it, Christian, why did you have to go at all?!
A sudden, piercing ring of the plastic telephone on my desk makes me jump. I stare at it for a few seconds, hours, years; clear my throat, and reach a shaky hand towards it.
“Amy?” the hospital director, Mark, asks quietly. “Is everything okay? A few people on your floor said you were… making a lot of noise.”
My throat closes up and the bridge of my nose begins to burn. I clutch the phone with the best of my ability, making sure not to let it slip. I manage an honest, “No. Everything’s not… okay. I think I need to go home.”
Mark clears his throat. “Um, okay. How many kids did you have let to work with today?”
I breathe a shuddery breath. “Uh… I think, uh… t-two.”
“Want to me call Krysta?” He seems reluctant. “She’s in today; I’ll page her.”
The tears burn at my eyes again. “Please.”
I hang up quickly and grab at my things, shoving them hastily in my bag. I had to get out. I had to get the f*** out of here.
I slam my office door behind me and make headway for the stairs, speeding down the four floors until I find myself in the unofficial lobby, just by the cheapish theater Mark had put in just for me and my program. Drama Therapy. Psychology and theater were always major parts of my world, and knowing the hospital vibe, I wanted to tie the two together using my wonderful double-degree. My connections with Mark spanned back to the end of my high school career, when I met him through the Miami Children’s Hospital. When I looked him up after college, he started the Drama Therapy branch just for me. Christian and I were the primary hospital theater directors. We taught the kids scenes and gave them easy monologues. And we did plays; we put on at least four musicals together and our daughter was growing up on show tunes.
I catch myself lingering by the theater, running my fingers over the poster I made only two days ago for this year’s musical. I was so excited to show it off to Christian in the curtained kiosk. My heart throbbed. I can’t think about anything but leaving. I tear myself away and charge through the doors, all but running to the parking lot, jumping into my crappy car – Christian took the better car to the family thing. I absently remember that I left a few books in there. What about your family, idiot? My brain hisses at me. I just force the thoughts out of my brain as I pulled out of the lot; I have to keep living. My body pangs again.
It’s raining again. Fitting, I think wearily. My body aches from my outpouring of emotion. I know it isn’t over yet, but I’ve always been a defensive driver, even when I sat in the front seat while others drove. This route seems so much longer than it’s ever been; I fume with unshakable frustration and indescribable solitude. I almost feel Christian sitting next to me laughing at my angry face. All my life people have laughed at me when I was upset, why shouldn’t my husband? The sobs begin welling up inside of me again.
I pull onto the concrete and throw myself out of the car, locking it haphazardly behind me. I fumble the with the handle of the door and charge into the establishment, pushing past the front desk, through the back curtain, and standing in the middle of the Day Care I send my daughter to.
She spots me from across the room and toddles over, a triumphant smile on her round little face. Her brown eyes glisten with babyhood even at four years old. Her hair looks like mine, but the color is different; she has her father’s auburn hair, a carbon copy of my own young ringlets in a redder version. Without a second thought, I reach down and scoop her up into my arms, bury my face in her hair. She smells like crayons and Elmer’s glue. But mostly like her daddy. I lower to my knees and just keep holding my baby as the sadness leaks out of me. Everything I was dissolves into her gorgeous hair, and everything I am going to have to be for her slowly begins to build up inside me from the charred remains of a shiny black car just outside of Chicago.