A Hand to Hold
A bottle of water stands just behind my right leg and a tiny brown pill sits in my left pocket. A pill for depression. A pill I'd been taking every day for a month.
I sit occupying a chair. I'm at church, but not really. I'm thinking about the pill in my pocket and I'm thinking about her, the reason it's there. I'm just watching church. I'm not participating.
The faint smells of coffee and hairspray collide with hushed whispers of lunch plans and weekend exploits. The air feels clean and crisp. Our pastor stands below the dark polished wood of the raised podium near the front row. He announces that this will be a special story time for the children of the church. With a smile, he invites all the kids in kindergarten through the sixth grade to make their way to the front of the auditorium.
Children shuffle quietly to the front and, without instruction, create a boy's side and a girls' side. The lectern serves as the border between blue and pink. The pastor turns his back to us and begins his story, acting as if the children are the only people in the large room.
A bouncing patch of lacy yellow passes through my peripheral vision. Walking alone in the aisle, ten yards from the group of gathered children, is a young girl. She looks too perfect to be real, more of a doll than a person. Tight curls of auburn hair fall just above her glassy brown eyes. Small, pouty lips are surrounded by pudgy crimson cheeks which nearly hide her chin. A yellow dress, a size too big, sways from side to side as she slowly walks, head down, towards the front of the church.
I stand at the doorstep of a quaint brick house in the heart of residential Kerman. The streetlights are just turning on as the sun slips silently into the horizon. I take a deep breath. My hand shakes slightly as I ring the doorbell. The solid red front door creaks open, and Carol, Amber's mother, lets me in. I have been over to the house a few times before and met and talked with her more than once, but I still feel tongue-tied in her presence. “Hi Ms. Vasquez. Thanks for inviting me tonight,” I manage to mumble.
“You're a very brave boy,” Carol says with an excited look in her eyes. That's all she says. She takes my coat with a smile and points me to the back of the house, where I will find Amber.
I walk slowly through the entryway, past the kitchen, to the sliding glass doors that lead to the backyard. I slide the door open and step onto the patio. The sweet smokey smell of barbecue meets me immediately, along with the stares of an entire extended family I have never met. They sit at several tables on the grass. I smile back at all of them, not knowing what else to do.
“There you are,” she says, as she slips past relatives seated in plastic chairs. She rocks up onto her tiptoes, wraps her arms around my neck and squeezes. For a moment, I feel safe. Our hug ends much too quickly. She takes my hand and pulls me a few steps away from the others. Our backs now face the audience. “Please don't be nervous,” she whispers. “I know they'll like you. I like you.”
We turn, and she leads me by the hand to the first table of guests.
The sway of the yellow dress slows as the little girl nears her destination. She is late, and she is becoming aware that she is alone in the aisle. She bows her head and hunches her shoulders, trying to make herself as small as possible, so she won't be seen.
The little girl reaches the front row of adults and stands staring at the two teams of children sitting on the steps. She had bravely walked down a lonely aisle only to find herself on the wrong side. A few feet away sits the enemy, the pack of boys. Her dress and long hair make her unwelcome in their territory. Their eyes dart back and forth from the storytelling pastor to the yellow clad intruder. The boys quickly scoot together and fill up any gaps that may look like an open invitation for the little girl to sit down. The story teller stands with his back to her, in between the rival clans, deep in story. She dare not enter the story teller's line of sight, interrupt him, and reveal her tardiness.
She turns to face the crowd of adults. Her eyes move from face to face, looking for someone familiar, someone to help. Her plump bottom lip quivers and her eyes narrow. A tear forms and grows in the corner of her left eye, and slides down her long black eyelashes. It hangs for a second before it falls, dripping lightly on the front of her yellow dress, staining it a darker shade.
Too scared to cross the crowd of boys at the front, and too far along in her journey to find her way back to the safety of her seat, the little doll stands helpless, paralyzed by fear.
She is alone, lost in a crowd of faces she's never seen before.
We're at a camp site near Pismo Beach. We're camping with two families I've never met before. Shadows leap across Amber's face. From where I'm sitting, opposite her, the campfire seems to dance below her eyes. I'm in a rickety lawn chair, nursing a beer and half-listening to a hunting story her father tells. I had only met him once before. Amber lives with her mother, so trips to see her father were rare, and important.
I don't belong there. I have no hunting stories. I have no history with these people. I know their names, but I'm not sure they remember mine. My only link to them sits across from me, illuminated by the orange glow of the flitting flames. I'm not sure if she remembers my name either.
My eyes seek comfort in the face that I know. I watch her laugh at her father's story, and reminisce with the others. She even tells stories of her own. I am never a character in these stories. Her eyes move across the circle of campers, and they always seem to skip past me.
The fire begins to die down, and we all head back to our separate trailers to get some sleep. We roll out our sleeping bags without saying a word. My eyes try to catch hers, but she still won't look at me. Our hands move noisily across the slick surface of our sleeping bags as we make these crumpled canvas rolls into beds. For a moment our hands touch and we both stop what we're doing. Goosebumps shoot up the back of my arm. I slide my hand under her palm and move my fingers forward until they're interlocked with hers.
For a moment she lets me pretend that she still loves me.
Her fingers slip from mine and resume their work making her bed.
Defeated, I unzip my sleeping bag, crawl inside, and lay down without a word. Amber turns off the lights and slides into bed next to me. We lay back to back, sharing warmth in the frigid January night. Within minutes she's asleep. I can feel her back press gently against mine with each sleeping breath. She's so close. As she exhales the touch is gone. I lay awake all night, anticipating each breath. Living and dying with each touch.
In the morning it's more of the same. We eat breakfast in silence, and then help the others pack up their supplies. We say our goodbyes, make sure everything's packed, and then it's just the two of us in the car.
“How are you feeling?” I ask.
“Fine,” she says, never taking her eyes off the road.
That's all we say.
We arrive at my house and I take all my things from her car, placing them on the front porch, and then return to the driveway to say goodbye.
“I love you,” I say.
“Good bye,” she says.
She steps up into her car, starts the engine and drives away.
A few days later she said good bye again, for the last time.
“Sarah,” I hear whispered from the steps near the podium. The little yellow-dressed girl hears it too and quickly spins on her heels. Tears fly from her eyes as she twirls. An older girl has emerged from the group at the front and is moving quickly towards Sarah, whose feet are still frozen to the spot near the front row. She is just a little bigger than Sarah. She has the same curly auburn hair and beautiful brown eyes that I’d seen pass me in the aisle earlier.
They are sisters. Older sister takes younger sister’s hand and leads her through the boy’s territory, past the eye line of the story teller, and into the land of little females.
They find an empty spot to sit, but there isn't room for both of them. Sister sits down, and with much effort, she lifts Sarah onto her lap. The tears still fall from her glassy brown eyes, landing softly on her dress.
When they are situated, the healing begins. Sister gently smooths and adjusts Sarah's dress until everything is in the right place. She pulls back the hair which tears had glued to Sarah's big rosy cheeks. Her fingers softly wipe away the little drops of moisture that run down Sarah's face and stain the yellow fabric of her outfit. She gently rubs the little back in front of her and leans in close to baby sister’s ear to whisper something comforting. They both smile.
The story teller finishes with a short prayer and sends the children back to their seats. The two girls walk hand in hand down the aisle toward the back of the auditorium. Sarah smiles up at her big sister who leads them back to their seats beside their parents. As they pass me Sarah's sister looks my way and smiles.
I smile too.