There are three people grouped behind the counter – two girls and a boy. They have the look about them that says they’ve just arrived at work and aren’t yet bored with their surroundings. It isn’t a look I wear much anymore, but then...I start my day at 5am.
When someone asks me what I do, not just my title but about my daily activities, I always struggle to explain. I don’t want to sound boring, but I don’t want to lie either. “I process patient and employee occurrences, organize that data into reports and send it out to important people that barely know my name. Something, something, trending...something, something. I also give out parking decals to new employees, process parking tickets and play an exorbitant amount of online mahjong.”
The response is usually a tiny nod followed by a short and uninterested “oh”. And I can’t fault them for it because, if someone delivered that spiel to me, I’d probably react the same way. I receive far better treatment simply by wearing my badge and saying nothing – the corporation I work for generally speaks for itself. “Oh, you work for them! Wow, that’s great.”
I’m wearing dark dress pants and a dark top – colorless but for the light blue photo badge hanging from my neck and the silver sandals on my feet. Dark sunglasses cover my face, masking dark circles. I haven’t worn makeup to work in over a week, nor have I fixed my hair.
“Hey, how’s it going”, asks one of the girls behind the counter.
“Fine, thanks.” I give her my trademark I’m not interested in communicating tight lipped smirk.
“Do you know what yesterday was?”
There’s a secretive sort of smile on her face, one that says she knows a joke that, if I’m lucky, she might just share. The other two edge closer to her, the same smile on their faces.
“4/20”, I say matter-of-factly, handing her my money.
“Yes, but what day was it”, she asks me again, searching.
I wonder if she wants me to say it was Wednesday or if she wants me to lower my sunglasses and prove that I’m one of their brethren. Maybe they’re conducting a survey or trying to find a new dealer.
“National smoke day”, the three of them chorus loudly before I can say anything else.
I can’t help but give them a real smile, simply because they’re so damn happy to be stoned, working in a gas station and conversing with random people. I was like that once. Well, a waitress...but still. I smoked a lot of pot.
“That’s what I said. 4/20.”
They laugh as I walk out the door, delighted. I imagine them making a mark under a tally labeled “Yes” before gearing up for the next customer and I have the sudden urge to actually smoke, to stroll into the dentist’s office with glazed eyes and a cheeky grin and say, “Do you know what yesterday was?” But of course I can’t.
I arrive at 4 o’clock on the dot and am greeted the minute my foot crosses the threshold by the elderly receptionists. It’s a case of they know me, but I don’t know them. Mom works at the pediatric office next door, sharing a parking lot and sometimes a lunch with the crew at the dentist’s. Southerners are a nosy, gossipy bunch so after spending a bit of time with a woman that likes nothing more than to complain about me, they treat me with more familiarity than another office would. And because I often have a “give them what they want and they’ll leave you alone” mentality, I play along, returning their greeting with an equally casual “What’s up ladies?”
“Are you ready”, the tech asks the second I close the door, popping up around the corner.
“Come on back.”
There’s no check in process, no forms to sign, and I follow her down the hall. She takes her time, even pausing to straighten a frame.
I sit on the ugly brown lounger and cross my ankles while she lays out instruments on the connected table. Her white scrub top is too tight, but the blue bra matches her pants quite well. She’s about my age and relatively new, though I can tell they’ve told her who I am and what my connections are before I arrived. She keeps her head down and avoids making eye contact as she moves about the room, saying nothing. “That’s the slutty, ill tempered one”, I imagine them warning her...and I’m probably not far off.
She mumbles that the doctor will be with me in a minute and leaves, never once introducing herself.
I busy myself with looking around at the décor. I’m willing to bet that nothing has been updated in this office, other than the dental equipment, since the 70’s or 80’s. Hideous brown paneling still covers the walls, floor to ceiling, and the posters are so old they’ve turned color around the edges. The front room is even worse – with an enormously puffy, cream colored leather loveseat that looks like it once belonged to one of those larger wrap-around sectionals. My favorite part though is the shiny wooden clock that hangs by the desk. It’s shaped like a large plaque – the bottom dedicated to the gold numbers and ticking hands, the top dedicated to a glossy photo of a young, big-haired Reba McEntire. It’s completely kitschy, but it makes me smile.
“Well, look here!”
The dentist strolls through the open doorway, grinning. He’s gotten a bit round over the past few years and his thick, wayward hair has gone completely grey. He’s the original church going gossip – knows everyone, talks about them and doesn’t care who knows it. His best friend is Mike, a guy who also happens to have been friends with my parents since before I was born. And because he knows about this connection, Mike is his favorite person to talk about when I come for an appointment. He talks about Mike’s demon redheaded wife, Mike’s brief affair with the nanny (who also went to church with all of them), and most of all...Mike’s lifelong torch for my mom.
But today, before he launches into the Mike stories, he decides to grill me for information. I figure he must be getting low.
“So how old is your daughter now?”
“She just turned six.”
“God almighty”, he says, chuckling. “Haven’t had any more slip-ups have ya?”
I raise my eyebrows at him, more amused than offended. “Not yet. So far just the one.”
“Being more careful, eh”, he asks with a grin.
“I suppose you could say that.”
“Got yourself a boyfriend?”
“Well why not?”
“I’m not very good at monogamy”, I reply with a straight face. I’m not exactly sure if that’s true anymore, since I haven’t tested it out in a long time, but it’s the sort of thing he expects me to say.
He throws his head back and roars with laughter. “Honesty! Ooh boy, at least she’s honest! I like that!”
He talks continuously while he x-rays my teeth, asking questions and laughing so hard the mute tech pokes her head around the doorframe. He finally gets to Mike when the cleaning begins.
“Poor Mikey Mike”, he says.
I simply blink and wait, since his fingers are in my mouth.
“I bet he’s real upset that your mom is getting married. Poor Mikey Mike. Is he coming to the wedding?”
“Uh hooo ooooh.”
“Yeah, that oughta be something. I wonder if he’s going to bring that redheaded wife. Oh, poor Mikey Mike!”
I start to count how many times he uses the phrase “poor Mikey Mike” and by the time I rise from the chair, drained of my information and pumped back full of his, I’m at 18.
He walks me to the front desk, leans against it and crosses one leg over the other. “You take care now, you hear? Behave yourself...get you a nice young man.” He grins and slaps me gently on my back.
“Yeah maybe”, I say with a smile.
He shakes his head and clucks his tongue as he walks back down the hallway. “Poor Mikey Mike...”
Even though he’s nosy, I quite like him. I could go to another dentist, upgrade like a lot of people I know that got tired of the tacky old place and prying questions, but I won’t. When they ask why I stay, I tell them that he waves away payments if I need a cavity filled, simply because he likes me and thinks my mother is pretty. And he does.
But it’s also because, unlike most people, when he asks me how I’m doing I can tell that, all gossip aside, he genuinely wants to know. It’s in his eyes. Of course I’d never take him up on it, never show what he’s telling me it’s ok to show, but it’s nice to know I could.
I haven’t been home long when I get a text message from Claire:
“After midnight tonight, I can’t go back in the house anymore. I’d like to smoke one last cigarette on my porch and I’d love it if you’d join me...if you want.”
A week ago they were my family – Claire and her sister were closer to me than my blood sibling that sleeps right across the hall. But because of things that having nothing to do with me, or with those two really, a rift has opened that I’m not sure can be bridged.
I haven’t heard from her since the day her mother received the papers, when she sent me a message that seemed cloaked in anger and blame, then refused to respond to anything I said.
“Tell me when and I’ll be there”, I type back.
A little after ten o’clock my cousin and I slip on our shoes and walk quietly out the door. She’s just as anxious to see Claire as I am.
We walk briskly, shoulder to shoulder, down the gravel road. When we’re halfway there I see her, standing alone under a streetlight in front of the house she used to call home, with her favorite hippy purse draped across her chest and trailing down her side, platinum hair piled atop her head in a messy bun.
My mastiff, Tank, reaches her seconds before we do and she bends to pet him. I can’t help but think about her dog that’s buried only feet away in a yard she can’t visit anymore.
She straightens and we stare at each other.
“Hey”, she finally says.
“Hey”, we reply. She moves to hug my cousin first and I shouldn’t feel slighted, but I do. Our hug is brief, hesitant, and when we pull away she blows out a shaky breath.
“This is hard. Weird.”
I nod in agreement.
“C’mon.” She turns, walks toward the door and we follow, subdued. “It’s so...empty”, she finishes lamely.
She pushes the front door open, turns on the light and walks to the middle of the kitchen. She lifts her arms and holds then wide, dropping them almost instantly in a gesture of futility. I look past her to the living room, but there’s nothing to see. The house is stripped bare and of more than just furniture. There’s no future here, and the past is colored with doubt and fresh paint.
The three of us move to the screened in porch that overlooks the lake, sitting Indian style in a semi circle on the hard floor. The big cushioned swing is gone and as we each light a cigarette, I realize the tacky giant green ashtray is too.
We talk haltingly about what’s happened on either side of battle lines drawn without our consent. As much as we want to keep ourselves separate from the conflict, it’s clear there are things we simply can’t say to each other...and that speaks louder to me than anything we’re actually saying. No matter how close we’ve been for the past eleven years, the fact remains that our core loyalties lie elsewhere.
A few cigarettes and the bare minimum of small talk later, we rise to leave. Her family doesn’t know she’s here and she has to hurry back...and vice versa.
My cousin walks ahead, but Claire and I pause in the kitchen again, facing back into the house.
“This was my home."
I nod, not knowing what else to say. She sighs and walks away. I move to follow, but something catches my eye. On the glass and gold light fixture that used to hang over the kitchen table there’s something green. It’s one of those rubber bracelets, the kind that have words and symbols etched into them for causes and the like. I turn it over to see what it says.
Without even thinking about it, I slip it on my wrist as I walk out the door. It never occurs to me to offer it to Claire.
We say goodbye in the driveway, exchanging another round of short hugs, and promise to call each other soon. I don’t know if we will, but it seems like the thing to say.
My cousin and I walk silently back up the gravel road toward home and I can feel her still standing there, watching. My fingers absently pull on the bracelet, circling round the inside, and that’s when I feel the crack. Looking down I notice the smallest notch in the green rubber and I think to myself, “If you don’t pull on it anymore, maybe it’ll stay intact.”
But I know better than that. I won’t be able to stop touching it, testing it, pulling on it. Maybe that’s why it was hanging there in the first place – maybe they knew they couldn’t stop themselves either.