“Excuse me, Miss?”
“Yes?” Kate stared in disbelief at a woman in her fifties who was now standing in front of her, but who, a moment before, had not been anywhere in the room. She spared an accusatory glance toward the unmarked door behind the woman’s shoulder before returning to her lined face.
“I was wondering if you would help me.” The woman’s words had a slight slur to them, as though she had indulged in one drink too many. “My boyfriend is coming to visit me,” she said, gesturing limply toward the row of windows. “He’s bringing me a present…I have to go and get a drink of water. Will you let me know when he gets here?”
A drink of water? She had noticed a drinking fountain when she had first surveyed the layout of the room; it was farther along the wall, wedged between two couches. “Sure.”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you so much!”
Kate watched her walk over to the fountain and fumble with the cup dispenser, before she managed to coax it into surrendering a miniscule Dixie cup. She took another few seconds to position the cup so it was directly underneath the spout, and several more seconds to locate the best place to push the button with her thumb. Although Kate knew it was the meds that were fogging the woman’s brain, making her reflexes dull and her movements tentative, by the time she heard the tinkling of a thin stream of water as it hit the bottom of the cup, she was so exasperated that she had unconsciously scooted forward in her seat, a second away from jumping up and filling the damn thing herself.
A tapping sound caught both Kate and the thirsty woman’s attention. A man with a dark crew cut and boyish features was gaping at them through one of the windows, a huge grin on his chubby face.
“That’s my boyfriend! He’s here!” The woman finished her drink and, balancing the used cup on top of the fountain, walked as quickly as her medicated legs would carry her to the closest round table. She grabbed the back of a surrounding chair and dragged it behind her until she reached the window. As Kate watched, the woman awkwardly climbed her way into a standing position on the seat of the chair, nearly losing her footing twice in the process. She couldn’t resist the temptation to take another surreptitious look in the direction of the aquarium. This time, one of the nurses had noticed what Kate believed to be a dangerous maneuver, but to her amazement, did nothing more than smile and say something indiscernible to the other nurse, who looked up from her paperwork and smiled as well.
“Unbelievable,” she said under her breath. She decided to remain on the edge of her seat in case she had to rush over to help the woman, who, she was sure, was going to come crashing to the floor at any moment.
The woman twisted the lever and unlatched the window, pulling it toward her. The partially opened pane forced her feet to move to the edge of the seat and she wobbled slightly before stabilizing her footing again.
“Hi, honey! How are you today? Did you bring me a present?”
The man smiled and stuck his hand in the breast pocket of his shirt. He pulled out a chocolate bar and handed it to her through the gap.
“Oh! Thank you, honey! I’m really thirsty now. I have to go get a drink of water. I’ll see you later.” She pushed her face just far enough through the opening to allow her beau access to her puckered lips, which he gleefully kissed. Then she smiled and waved goodbye to him from her perch on the chair. He mirrored her farewell, turned around and walked across the expansive courtyard to an identical building on the opposite end.
Kate guessed the woman’s boyfriend was a resident from the men’s ward who had somehow managed to get grounds privileges.
The woman stepped awkwardly down from the chair and walked slowly toward her. Kate smiled as she approached. “That was my boyfriend,” she said proudly.
“Yes,” said Kate.
As she watched the woman make her way to the fountain, she understood for the first time that, regardless of what illnesses, handicaps or other failings that may befall people, they were still people. No one in the ward had asked to be crazy; she was certain insanity never made anyone’s “What I want to be when I grow up” list. But in spite of being plagued with an incurable affliction, the thirsty woman managed to retain her humanity by living her life in the best way she could, and finding happiness on her own terms.
“Kate?” The nurse was standing in front of the unmarked door; her mother, smiling a bright, medicated smile, was standing next to her.
Seeing the nurse again reminded Kate that she had failed to bring her any magazines. Admittedly, reading some stupid article about fashion or another superstar going through rehab for the fourth time would have been far less interesting than what she had witnessed during the past…she glanced at her watch…had it really been over an hour? Kate stood up and walked across the room to join them.
“I’m sorry we took so long. Sofia, why don’t you and your daughter go and have a seat so you two can chat for a bit.”
Dressed in a pair of fuchsia slacks that were a size too big for her slight frame and a matching flowered blouse, her mother shifted her weight from one foot to the other while her eyes scanned the sofas. Then, still smiling, she walked with determined strides to the closest vacant one and sat down. Kate followed and sat down as well, putting distance between them.
She didn’t recognize her mother’s clothing. The garments were cheaply made and polyester wasn’t a material she normally wore. Kate figured the hospital must have supplied a few changes of clothing, since her mother had most likely been transferred directly to the ward from jail. She was sitting with her back rigid and her hands clenched in her lap. Kate looked into her mother’s shining eyes and wondered if she knew she was wearing someone else’s clothes. After a minute passed in mind-numbing silence, Kate decided even mind-numbing small talk was preferable. “Hi, Mom. How have you been?”
More mind-numbing silence.
“So…are they treating you okay, good food and all that?”
Another minute passed and Kate glanced at the entranceway, hoping Hillary’s mother would choose that moment to walk through the door and claim she had errands to run or something so she could go home. She didn’t.
Kate looked around the room and caught a glimpse of the woman whose bizarre romance she had witnessed a few minutes earlier. Then she returned her gaze to her mother, who, even though she was being lulled into pacification by Lithium, Prozac, or some such drug, seemed equally uncomfortable. Kate suddenly felt like a complete asshole and the worst daughter in the universe.
“Hello, Sofia.” Hillary’s mother had returned, accompanied by the nurse.
“Oh. Hello…” Sofia glanced at her daughter; Kate quickly mouthed “Gladys.”
“I got a little carried away with some filing and I was worried Kate would be left by herself after your visit, but since you’re still visiting, I’m glad I didn’t hurry back.” She beamed at Kate’s mother.
Kate glanced at the nurse, who gave no indication they had only been “visiting” for five minutes.
“Well, Kate, we’d better head out. It was great seeing you again, Sofia.”
Her mother stood up quickly. Though she was still smiling, she eyed her daughter with uncertainty.
Kate stared back at her for a moment, reached a decision, then stood up and wrapped her arms around her mother.
At first, she didn’t respond. Then tentative hands patted Kate’s back, followed by a soft embrace.
“I love you, Mom,” Kate whispered in her ear. She gave her mother a final squeeze. Then, her vision blurred by tears, she followed Mrs. Butler out of the ward.
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