Strawberry Shortsticks

Posted on Posted in Fictional

8 years later.

Somehow time had passed, the sun had come up, gone down, the trees, the birds, and even the wind had come alive, then slept. He would fold into it all himself, at times observing, feeling separate, at times unaware of its manifestation and a part of it completely. It wasn’t that it was a perfect life, it’s just that there had been so many perfect moments that it felt that way.

He watched her body expand and contract with each silent breath. With his hand placed on top of hers, he wished his wife congratulations on yet another anniversary. ‘We survived another year’ Joseph whispered to himself. In previous years he had always chuckled and Helen had always laughed heartily, even though they both expected the same line year-after-year. Today, inside a quiet hospital room, Joseph watched the last eight years float by in his memories.

They had loved each other, deeply. They had sung songs together, poorly, had danced together, drank together, had experienced both great joy and great despair together. They had cried, suffered nights of sleeplessness, body aches and illnesses together. Over time they had made each other feel safe in life without ever knowing that they were doing so. They made many mistakes and always forgave each other. They forgot important dates, didn’t meet each other’s expectations, and at times even vented their frustration out at one another. They planned each other’s birthdays and gave each other gifts. It wasn’t that they were the same person, they actually had very different personalities, like stars glimmering symphoniously only when observed from a vast distance.

They had partaken in the miracle of life. They named their daughter Suzy, after Helen’s grandma who had passed the month that the two had met. Suzy was the symbol of their love. When she smiled, their destiny became visible in her eyes. This they believed, but never spoke of as they suspected that all parents must feel the same way about their own children’s smiles: that every child somehow carries the destiny of its parents. Suzy loved the two of them, deeply. She would hold their hands, let go, and hold again, without being aware that she was doing so. The parents always noticed, the soft letting go, and the then grabbing on again. They relished in the idea that somehow Suzy’s love towards them was coded in the fabric of her being.

But it wasn’t a perfect life, and there was always a constant reminder of that. Briefly after they had met, Joseph was visiting Las Vegas for his brother’s 40th birthday party. Although he had given up drinking, the pressure of the celebration had resulted in a few sips then a few drinks and then eventually a few lines. In the morning clippings of memories passed through him: a nightclub, a swimming pool, and a gorgeous woman that now lay unclothed next to him. A sharp pang of guilt sprang him into the shower, he avoided the piercing looks that his reflection in the mirror gave. Feeling a weight he had never felt before he returned back grudgingly to the room and found the stranger stirring. She sensed that she had exceeded her welcome and bolted, leaving no number, no name, only a memory that would remain etched in two people’s minds forever.

Helen had stayed silent at first observing something falling down inside of her. Then came the rage like a beast that had been uncaged. The floor strewn with glass and overturned furniture held up the shattered dream of their lives. Eventually she cried uncontrollably. When it ended, they found a new way to be with each other, like a love that had grown up a little too quickly; a love that accepted the faults of the past, and the sometimes unpredictable anger of the present. It changed the relationship both drastically and subtly at the same time, like a distant star that all of a sudden changes its intensity.

But she had forgiven him, and eventually even confessed the incident to her friends and family without sounding the least bit bitter. When she looked into his eyes on her delivery bed she knew that he still hadn’t forgiven himself, and also that she loved him more than anything else in the world. They had cried together in that moment, partly because they caught a glimpse of how much love existed in the universe. They thanked God in their own ways, for life, for one another, and for the little girl.

They were good people. They weren’t without faults but they were good people. They felt the need to volunteer and donate like most. They splurged upon themselves more frequently than they would ever admit, but they were also always kind to those they met. They lived a quiet daily life but their hospitality would welcome many guests from far off places. At times they complained about their friends, but would also praise them equally later.

They had met at work. Her sister had also worked there and was already friends with Joseph before Helen joined. They didn’t think much of each other at first. She thought that he was strange, always showing up for free food at the potlucks of other departments and then consequently bragging about it later. He thought that she was a tad shallow. They were both extremely awkward around one other.

One day, remembering that her sister had reached out to Joseph for computer related help, Helen sent an email to Joseph regarding a problem that the IT help desk couldn’t resolve. He walked across campus to assist her, as he would have done for any of his friends, and spent several hours trying to resolve the issue. They spent time chatting, mainly about work, and partly about the random artifacts she had placed on her desk. Immediately he sensed that he was awkward around her. His jokes that usually had great delivery now always landed flatly. He was acutely aware of her presence, and sensed that she was also awkward around him.

After he walked away not only did the problem persist but it worsened. Weeks later her entire computer became unusable. In order to stop a temporary error Joseph had switched off the auto-synchronization between Helen’s computer’s My Documents and her My Documents located on the network. The short-term fix went without incident for a few days. Eventually when Helen would try to access files on her own computer she would start to get errors stating that she didn’t have the correct permissions. It took the Help Desk an entire day to undo the weeks worth of missing synchronizations and to fix the problem correctly.

She was extremely annoyed and even sent Joseph a scathing email that to this day he kept in his files. Nonetheless, the deed had been done. Over the days after his initial visit they would interact on a somewhat infrequent basis, partly because she felt grateful for his supposed support and party because he wanted to conquer his feeling of awkwardness around her. He would try speaking boisterously, to build confidence, sometimes in long duration, and sometimes in short. Sometimes he would say very little, sometimes he would attempt to be serious and monotone, and sometimes he would act jovial and light-hearted. Sometimes he would respond to her email communication immediately, sometimes days later. Still, no improvement, nothing he did could shake the awkwardness. He would bump into her in the hallways and would still feel the way he did around pretty girls back in high school.

***

Joseph sat at his desk. The last few months were better than others. It had been four years and he himself was impressed that he had held down a job this long. After grad school, after consulting for a year, he had decided to bolt and take an unprecedented stint with the peace core. After he returned from his two years of service he felt broken in the new world. The feelings of fulfillment he felt in the villages of Uganda were no-where to be found in the developed world. His friends, family and even random strangers had all moved on to bigger and better things. Music had changed, cars had changed, people had gotten married, some had produced kids. Almost everybody was making more money and worse yet were consumed by it. He would sit with his old friends and the conversations had changed. In a previous era it had been about making plans to do things together, and about discussing the nature of things in the universe. Now it was about what everyone wanted to do for themselves. Overnight it seemed the world had shifted from being community-centric to self-centric. The idealism of King, Gandhi and Teresa had all but disappeared behind the billboards. Once he saw a notice in a newspaper for a talk that the Dalai Lama was giving, the notice was placed next to an advertisement for a skin therapy ointment that made you look younger. It sickened him. He withdrew from it all, stopped keeping up with friends and even his family. He would get odd jobs, sicken with the idea that he was providing energy into an engine that just made the world worse, and would quit all over again.

For the most part he was good at what he did. Immediately after starting a new job he would excel. People liked the do-gooder. He was kind, on most occasions, so quickly became well-liked in any new company. His managers never felt bitter when he did finally decide to leave, they all understood his plight, he liked to believe that they felt it too, that deep down everyone struggled to find more meaning in their lives. One manager that he would never forget for her unsuspecting kindness, a short chain-smoking lady that had the gift of a sailor’s vocabulary, actually cried when he announced that he was leaving. She had hired him knowing that he wasn’t qualified, and yet felt a certain love towards him that even she couldn’t understand. He also thought it was peculiar, when his car was in the shop she would pick him up in the mornings for work, when she realized he didn’t own a TV she asked her husband to bring him DVDs that he could play on his laptop. It was a motherly kind of love, and he also felt emotional the day he announced his departure. They stayed in touch for a few years, especially during those moments when his savings would dry up and he once more needed to turn to the faucet of capitalism to quench his thirst for survival.

But now he had survived four years. His friends and family believed that he had finally owned up to his responsibility to participate in society. He knew that it was instead because he had sold out on his beliefs, because he didn’t have the strength anymore to stand up against the forces of humanity. He had given up.

One day he heard a story of two immigrant parents, and how hard they had worked to survive in America. The two had no choice but to accept any job that came along their way. They had worked as janitors, laborers, dishwashers and worse. At times they would take night-shifts and an entire year would go by without them spending any quality time together. He had felt in that moment that his giving in to the forces of capitalism weren’t so immoral after all. Rarely do people have the choice to just quit their jobs and he had been able to do so many times in his life.

He sat staring at his screen. As a way to switch off his anti-capitalistic thoughts he had created a daily structure for himself, he would make a very aggressive to-do list every morning and burn through it until he had to go home. But right now, he was distracted.

He had just helped fix Helen’s machine a few days ago and was looking over the ‘thank you’ email she had sent. It was two sentences long, contained one smiley face, and contained a very nice looking email signature. He read over her fax number, company name, and alternate number. He wondered why anyone would need to put that much information on their email signature but found that everything Helen did was cute. Her entire desk was covered with bright colorful pieces of paper, pictures of cartoon bears, and perfectly crafted hand-writing on carefully placed pieces of post-it notes. Although it didn’t contain any of the color, her entire email signature felt pink to him.

He took 12 minutes and several iterations in responding to the Thank you email. He scratched ‘it was my pleasure’ as the word ‘pleasure’ seemed both inappropriate and eager. He decided with ‘anytime’ and that it was taking far too long to draft a response. He realized that his awkwardness was born in the fact that he cared too much, if this email was for anyone else he would have fired it off within seconds. He felt frustrated at how he felt.

***

Suzy fidgeted on the bed while she chatted away with her parents. Days earlier she had been reprimanded for making too much movement on the bed. Supposedly the movements of the bed hurt her mommy. She of course didn’t believe it, so she would fidget just enough to keep her parents attention but not enough to get reprimanded again. She was hoping that her mom would just get up and come home already. She had asked her mommy to come home, but both parents had given her another grown up answer that she didn’t understand nor believe. Her parents always made up stories to get her to do things. Decades later Suzy would become a nurse and would work in the same hospital that she sat in now. She would remember her mother then, while she tended to her new patients. Suzy would eventually become a mother of her own. Three kids, and of her two daughters she would also name one Helen. Joseph, then a grandfather, would always find himself sitting alone with the younger Helen but would never have many words to share with her.

Now, Joseph watched Suzy on the bed sitting next to her mother. He thought about Suzy’s future but didn’t worry. He knew that despite his paternal role in their family, he had a deep maternal instinct that was already starting to kick in. In the evenings when he would return home with Suzy, leaving Helen at the hospital, he would care for Suzy in a way that only a loving father playing the role of a mother could. He would bathe her, talk to her, cook and feed her, tell her stories and finally watch her for a few minutes as she breathed deeply in her sleep. She would fall asleep in her own room, but these days when he awoke in the mornings, he would somehow find Suzy laying next to him.

The mornings were the same, making breakfast, packing lunch and then dropping her off at school. He was late for work every day these days and always had to leave early but everyone understood. He was still at the same company that he had met Helen at, and the tenure gave him a little flexibility around work-hours, especially during these so-called difficult times. Every evening he and Suzy would return back to the Hospital usually with a gift, some flowers and news of the day. Suzy would talk non-stop for 20 minutes about some new discovery in her world. She would make them both smile and laugh. When she would be distracted by her thoughts, Joseph and Helen would recall stories of their own past.

About vacations they had taken together like the first time they had gone scuba diving together off the coast of Colombia and how Joseph had almost passed out underwater. About how his parents had reacted when they finally met the Asian girl he was dating. How they had done a strange half-bow because they weren’t sure how to greet her. They invariably talked about the infamous scathing email she had sent him and how furious she had been when her computer stopped working. He always laughed and she always blushed a little. He of course then always talked about what he called the defining moment, the pivotal choice he made that one day at work after the everything-on-a-stick potluck. After struggling with the idea for weeks, he had finally asked Helen out when she unexpectedly dropped by his desk with a gift. He defended his pace, saying that he was never sure about how she felt, that despite the emails, the visits and even the gifts, he always felt that she was just being polite. She then in turn also defended herself saying that she couldn’t have made it more obvious, but the truth that she was never sure about him was never revealed. In reality, she was just being polite, and when he had asked her out she had said yes simply because she needed a break from the thoughts that had consumed her that entire year. She felt grateful, however it had happened, that in fact it had happened. Every time he told their story, she would laugh, smile back at him and yet would also remember the past that had enveloped her back then.

***

Helen always had trouble getting in to work. She was never late, but it was always a struggle to make it happen. In each moment of every morning she had to convince herself to keep going. Maintaining an image at work of a hard-working on-time employee was the one solid thing she could hang on to. No-one at work knew her that well, and so no-one could remind her of what she was really going through. It was like being a new person and she would tell herself that countless times. Her sister was the only bridge into the real world, but her sister would never betray the illusion. Helen had noticed that her sister too would become a new person at work: confident, abrupt and quick. Helen would notice her sister dart through the hallways carrying on conversations and always walking too quickly.

Helen had spent months at home. Her boyfriend had decided that he wanted to end things and left Helen without any other explanation. One day they were at dinner, talking, taking in drinks, going to her place, making love, and the next day he came by to tell her it was over. He didn’t respond to any more texts, phone calls or emails. She drove to his place one evening, he opened the door and the only words he said was ‘not now’. A few days later, after more unanswered texts and phone calls, he finally sent her one last text message: ‘have some self-respect’. She never reached out to him ever again, but she was broken in a way that she couldn’t understand. Despite convincing herself that she would be okay, that incomprehensible feeling of something dying inside of her always returned. Days went by, weeks, months and there was still something calling her back to her emptiness.

When her sister finally convinced her to take a job Helen started picking up her life. Now she would spend too much time in front of the mirror, not exactly sure what was wrong but needing to fix something anyway. She wondered if she was too controlling, too smothering, too distant, too timid, too fat, too skinny, she wondered if she wore too much make-up or not enough. With others she found herself not being able to concentrate in conversations, laughing too loudly at times, not loudly enough in others, and never saying the right words. She thought everything about her was wrong. All of a sudden she noticed that she didn’t like her own feet, her knee-caps, the shape of her forearms, the size of her breasts, the length of her neck, the skin on her chin, the depth of her cheekbones, the thickness of her hair, the shape of her eyes, it was all wrong. One night she went out with her friends and although boys approached her friends in the plenty, no-one reached out to talk to her, with the exception of one who eventually walked away when the silence became too awkward.

At first she wasn’t sure if Joseph liked her, but she liked the fact that at least there was someone at work who talked to her. He would send her emails about stuff that wasn’t work-related. They wrote to each other about movies and books they liked. He was very different from any boy that she had liked, he was a reader, liked to volunteer, and didn’t know a thing about popular culture. One time he asked her who Josh Duhamel was and she actually laughed out loud not believing that he actually didn’t know. She suspected that he would probably be really boring to hang out with. She never imagined a life with someone like him.

***

It had happened in the afternoon. Joseph received a call at work from the hospital. His wife had suffered a stroke and was at the local hospital. Days later a Doctor of Indian descent with a very thick accent would tell him that his wife didn’t have long, a few months at best. The Doctor had a very soft soothing voice. Joseph heard the words come from the Doctor in slow motion and it sounded like an ancient prophecy was coming true, as if it was always known that this was going to happen and now the moment had only just finally arrived. The Doctor with his thick accent as the prophet, the creator of destinies, and Joseph as the disciple, the one who has to accept the fate being handed down.

When Joseph went in to greet his wife, he carried a warm smile on his face. Helen, having heard the news herself only hours earlier and despite having known Joseph’s personality for years, was shocked that he was so calm in his behavior. It’s possible that Joseph, in the few minutes after hearing the news, had decided that he would not waste his wife’s last living moments on being bitter, on asking why, or on fighting the inevitable. It is possible that instead he was choosing to give his wife as many remaining loving moments as possible. Or it is also possible that Joseph did always know that something like this could happen, and was only carrying out the duty of what he had long prepared for.

That first day they spent a considerable amount of time not speaking, communicating with each other instead through gestures and silence. As they sat, they both let their thoughts wander to far off places and far off times. Every now and then they would interrupt each other’s day-dreams, bring themselves back into the sterile room, but then would return back to the alternate realities unfolding in their minds. The next few days were quickly taken up by discussions of things that needed to get done. On the fifth day they gave up the to-do lists and from then on just sat and enjoyed each other’s company.

***

Walking through a corridor between several office cubes Joseph shook his head. He was standing in front of a sign that said ‘Anything-on-a-Stick Day Potluck’. He couldn’t believe it, “people at work find the strangest things to celebrate”, he thought to himself. Sure enough, at a nearby table were skewers, kabobs, an ice chest with popsicles, lollipops, and even drumsticks. Having no desire to participate in a potluck for possibly the first time in his three years with the company he walked back to his desk.

Absorbed in his work he didn’t notice Helen come up behind him. It was her first time visiting his cube and at first she was alarmed at what she saw. His entire desk was covered with paper and wires. There were no pictures, no plants, only an explosion of paper and electronics. She was partly disturbed and partly enamored that someone could function like this. Joseph turned to see her looking into him and for a brief moment it felt as if they had known each other for years.

“Today is anything-on-a-stick day” she greeted.

“I noticed” he said. “There’s a potluck going on in celebration isn’t there?” he asked sounding slightly bemused.

“There is” she said, and handed him a thin plastic package.

He held it in his hand, inside were six thin edible pretzel wafers with the top halves covered in a pink frosting. He tried to read the writing on the package but it was in some Asian Language.

“They’re strawberry flavored”, she interrupted. “Strawberry Sticks”.

This was the moment he had been waiting for. Some opening to be able to casually ask her to spend time after work. The pivotal moment had finally arrived. He stared at the package in his hands, looked up into her eyes and overwhelmed with gratitude by this small gesture, only slipped the words ‘thank you’ gently from his lips.

Helen smiled sensing his sincerity, felt the same sincerity towards him, paused, and then slowly turned away.

On the way back to her desk, between their two office buildings, for the first time she noticed the trees swaying along the pathway. She noticed the clouds up ahead, how now they seemed like brushstrokes against the canvass of the light blue sky. She heard birds chirping, and took in the sunlight that was washing completely the world around her. She stopped for a moment, looked up and actually closed her eyes. Tears leaked through her, and for the first time in a really long time she felt utterly grateful to be alive.

That night she threw away all the things that were keeping her tied to her past. She listened to her music loudly, called her parents for no reason, and even started to plan activities for the following weekend.

That night Joseph lay in bed awake for several hours. When he finally fell asleep late into the morning he dreamt of a life he wouldn’t have. About vacations, a little girl, and an untimely illness. He dreamt of Helen, heard her laughter, touched her skin, and felt her presence.

In the morning he sat up, looked at the strawberry sticks now half-finished on the bedside table next to him and smiled. It’s not that it’s a perfect life he thought to himself, it’s that there are so many perfect moments that it just feels that way. The sun comes up, goes down. Birds, trees, and even the wind all come alive, then sleep.

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