The Waiting Room

Photo by Lee Friedlander
Photo by Lee Friedlander

We had decided to go to a marriage counselor before we got married. Before we even got engaged. It was Lynn’s idea after I brought up legalizing things. It made sense after two years sharing my apartment. I was not someone who had to think about things three times over and then dissect them with someone else at considerable expense. I generally knew what was good for me. Or what was not, like drinking, which I had given up right before I met Lynn. Lynn didn’t seem so certain about personal issues, had expressed concern about what we’d require if we became a couple on record.

“K. stands for Katarina–it said on Yelp–but I guess that sounds more professional. Or unique. Classier. Or she wants it to look like a man’s name; maybe no gender. Or no one can pronounce her name right–she might be German?”

That’s Lynn. She is compelled to figure all things out in detail, maybe will even ask the therapist at some point even though it isn’t our business. Whereas I think the “K.” is irrelevant. I don’t have any opinion about small things that don’t impact well-being, mine or others’. The office was close and in a turn of the century building, a house, really. The reviews were fine and here we were despite my dragging my feet initially. Lynn picked me up after work. I had been studying for a final in “Ecologically Sound Housing Trends”. I had just read about the concept of “tiny houses”, single habitats as small as three hundred square feet but attractive and livable. I tried to engage her in discussion about it–I thought it was excellent–but she waved it away.

“Weird. Don’t even think about it for us!”

When we arrived, we found a good-looking cat on the burgundy sofa. It stretched front paws to back, then in reverse, then hopped off. It suggested that K. wanted the place to seem more homey, which was fine by me. The therapy session already felt less arduous. I never liked places with glass tables and reflective metal tree planters, fake palm leaves defined by dust, magazines from last year fanned out like a cheap decorative touch. The old cherry wood table was adorned with daisies. No clock, likely on purpose.

“Why would she have a cat?” Lynn’s brow furrowed above her deep-set hazel eyes. “People could be allergic. Or have had bad experiences with them. I hate cat hair on my clothes.” She got up, brushed off her short knit skirt, and sat in a chair adjacent to the sofa. “I hope she doesn’t let it in. I don’t want to be distracted.”

“Well, abandoned already,” I commented. “But I have the cat.”

It–he–had jumped back up but sat calmly on the other side of the sofa, following an invisible speck above his head. I checked his tag.

“Berlin? Huh. Do you think that refers to the city or Irving Berlin? My vote is for the composer. ”

Lynn shrugged and smiled, touched my leg with the toe of her shoe (“mule” she informed me once). She checked her watch, pulled a paperback from her cavernous yellow purse–it’s a big lemony boat with brassy hardware. She began to read, then took a sucker out and stuck it in the side of her mouth and commenced to chew. It made me wince. All that sugar invading well-maintained and polished enamel.

She has purses like you wouldn’t believe. I asked her to count them last fall and she came up with fifteen but said she wanted a new one come spring. Hence, big yellow, which cost way too much. I can’t imagine what she needs to carry in there, a box of tissues for her snuffly nose? She complains about my beat up canvas backpack, ripped by a clasp, permanently dingy after years of carrying books, thermos and lunch, serving at times as a pillow between architecture classes. It has been durable; it blends in with my khaki jacket.

Things don’t matter so much to me. Lynn says I have a lack of respect for them but that’s not true. I just covet different stuff than she does. Lynn grew up with more than most people can imagine. I grew up with enough and some extra. But it’s ideas I hunger for. Ideas that form designs, transforming them into something that can change a landscape, people’s lives, the way in which a city or piece of country can better embrace commerce and community. I’ve wanted to be an architect ever since I was a kid and my father took me downtown Detroit to see where he worked. There were buildings being torn down, blocks of sad, neglected houses, junk piling up in empty lots. But there were also impressive skyscrapers and heavy, ornate buildings made of stone and brick. I’d never seen so many kinds of places; I lived in a suburb. I looked up at my father’s building until I reached the top, sunlight glinting off a thousand windows, blue sky pierced by metal and concrete. I wanted to know how that was made, if people really could do that with their bare hands. The possibilities thrilled me.

Berlin jumped onto Lynn’s lap and she erupted, pushed the cat off. “Bad cat! You need better manners!”

I laughed. She was alarmed by so little.

“Not funny, he pulled a thread in my skirt. Really, Justin, you can be insensitive. Get him away from me, please, put him out.”

I almost explained to her that Berlin pulled a thread because he grabbed the fabric out of panic when she jumped; it was fight or flight but both happened at once. But that was obvious.

“Justin!”

Berlin was batting her swinging foot. I looked at her, the face I had come to love, her lips puckering when she was not amused, her eyes gaining a mysterious depth when she was unhappy or passionate. Her look told me this was serious and I ought to understand. I grabbed Berlin then sent him down a hallway, where he meandered until he rounded a corner and disappeared.

“Thank goodness.” She checked her watch. “Aren’t we waiting a long time?”

“Not too bad,” I reassured her. “No rush, right?”

I didn’t know she disliked cats so much. We had talked about dogs only because the neighbor across our street had a sign out advertising two beagle puppies. I imagined beagles were smart, friendly dogs. Lynn adored dachshunds and terriers. I agreed a beagle wouldn’t do well in our city place. But neither did I want a dachshund or terrier. So the topic was dropped.

The carpet at our feet intrigued my eyes, reds and blues and gold in big interlocking patterns, sort of Persian.It looked familiar and after staring a bit longer I realized it reminded me of my father’s study carpet. His rug was much bigger, covering most of the room so that when you walked in, despite the space being filled with dark woods, books and his desk, it offered a bold cheeriness as light splashed across it. I used to bring in my own books to read while he attended to briefs or tallied numbers.

Once my mother came in with a tray holding a teapot and two cups. I had crept into a corner with my sketch pad and pencil. I must have been nine, the year before they divorced. I heard her habitual sharp words and my father’s replies in a French-accented cadence. He had lived in the U.S. since age twenty-five but the sentences rolled out like silk. He said one thing often: “I can only be who I am.” It was the one thing he advised me years later: “You can only be who you are. Don’t let anyone try to make you into someone else.” I knew he was referring to my mother, or maybe, too, happenings from his youth that formed such a view. Even after she left us he held fast to that credo. I held fast with him.

I felt my throat close up a bit, my eyes prickle. My father hadn’t met Lynn. I had put it off, had told him we might fly to Michigan in the summer. The first year passed, then we moved into the second. I visited him alone because Lynn was too busy at the non-profit organization she ran. All he said was I should think about marriage a long time before I committed. I wanted to keep building a happy, fascinating life. Something sturdy with Lynn.

Berlin walked back in. He looked around as though surprised we were still there, then rubbed against my leg and purred loudly enough to bring Lynn’s head up from the book.

“Again?” she asked.

I picked up Berlin and scrubbed his ears; he butted my hand.

The office door opened. K. Garrett was tall and lean and had an open, friendly face but her eyes were intense, cast their powers over the room and us. Stopped on me a second.

“Lynn? And Justin?”

I stood up. Berlin lept to the floor. Lynn put her book away and smiled, holding out her hand for a vigorous handshake.

I turned to Lynn and then K. Garrett. “You know, I think I’m going home. Sorry, Lynn, but this isn’t for me. I have my answers already. See you at the apartment.”

“Justin?”

I walked away, Berlin trotting after me until I got safely beyond the door.

Channay’s Gifts

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It was nineteen ninety-six, late autumn, raining. The first day she joined our team at an adolescent residential treatment center, it was as if a wisp of a sweet breeze had entered the building. Channay was composed, a bit subdued but soft around the edges, as though she moved in a dream. Her Chinese (we speculated) beauty was startling but she seemed unaware of it, and dressed unobtrusively. Thick ebony hair swayed against her back. Her delicate hands with long tapered fingers and impeccable nails were like birds wafting through the air.

There was a modesty and simplicity about her that vividly contrasted with the raucous, rough teenagers (male and female, different floors) we aided, as well as our toughened team. Many worried she would not be strong enough for the work, that the clients would manipulate and bulldoze her within a week. We needn’t have been concerned; she watched and learned rapidly. She held firm but never raised her voice in response to their heckling of her slight accent or pushing of program limits.

She and I connected easily. Neither of us fit the profile of someone who would work with often violent, abused and abusing, drug addicted, homeless or gang-affiliated kids. Channay was in her late twenties–not so far from my oldest daughter’s age–and not so much older than some of our clients. She had no experience with substance abuse and was finishing her Bachelors degree. She lived with an aunt, uncle and cousins.

At forty-four, I was older than most of our teammates, and remnants of Midwestern suburbia clung to me despite my best efforts. I was working hard to adapt to the environment while deepening my compassion. I had become well defended emotionally and physically. In other words, I was on my way to being more seasoned and had decided to devote myself to counseling. Many people left before after a year. I wondered how long Channay would last.

The months passed. She and I worked together efficiently, updating each other during shift change, and when working together addressing charting, filing and crisis-management (among many more duties). In my groups or alternative school classes, she was a steady counter balance, and always dedicated to the goals shared. The youth came to respect her presence. I saw her self-possession and knew she was much older than her birth age. And wondered why.

Channay was mysterious but it was partly because she valued her privacy as well as others’, I believed. It was a relief. Well-established boundaries and a calm manner meant no high drama, no excuses or infighting with other staff. We had enough of that every moment with the kids. She noted she had worked with youth at a homeless shelter and that was reflected in her skills. Her quick intelligence was a balm. She showed a small smile when I joked a bit, the sort of black humor one adopts when working with daily trauma in others. In time, as things solidified in her job, she relaxed.

We soon worked several grave yard shifts together. There was time to chat as the building turned inward by midnight. For fifteen female clients we were the only two staff so stayed attuned to the dormitory.

“You have children, yes?” she asked me one night.

“Yes, five. My youngest, twelve, is at home. An older son lives here but is more or less on his own.”

“Oh, my, how lucky! Big families make life more, better. I have some cousins here, aunts, uncles.”

“My other three are back east but I hope to see them all together soon.”

“Ah, you miss them.”

“I do.”

Her eyes, dark and large, seemed reminiscent of a wild creature’s: alert, clear. But then they unfocused, closed suddenly.

I finished the last bit of filing, then studied her. The energy had shifted, as though something invisible had entered the room. She was staring at her hands, hair falling over her face, shoulders drooping.

“Channay?” I sat across from her.

She turned to me, lifted her head so that her hair parted a little, eyes searching somewhere else. “My own family–gone long ago.”

The sharpness of her voice stopped me.

“Your parents?”

She nodded. “They died Cambodia, under terror regime of Pol Pot. You know about him?”

I sat down across from her, my breath caught in my throat. The dreaded name flashed in my mind and I nodded.

“They were murdered, nineteen seventy-seven. And my brothers and sisters. The Khmer Rouge stormed our house. My father was a doctor. They didn’t leave professionals like my father alive. They were branded capitalists. This was Pol Pot’s communism. So his men killed them all. Families, too.”

Her face was defined by stillness, her eyes by the sort of agony that cannot be named. I felt myself caving inside. I wanted to touch her limp hands but did not.

“I am so terribly sad for your family, for you,” I mumbled, and begged my tears to recede. Out of respect, I prayed for calmness.

“I escaped. I cannot say how. Ran away so fast…” She took a breath that originated from the deepest regions of her being. “I was later brought here by aunt and uncle.” She picked up a pencil, smoothed it gnawed edges. “I wanted you to know. I trust you  with this.”

There was nothing I could offer. “Thank you.”

She nodded, her mournfulness a thing I could nearly hold in my hands like tears, like blood. Instead, I let my palm graze her shoulder when leaving the room to attend to a railing youth. Another soul with other kinds of nightmares.

One morning Channay came in earlier than usual. Her hair was still damp. I was surprised as she was always readied for work, and told her so.

“Oh, I usually take baths every morning, but usually have time to dry my hair. I slept in a little! Luxury but basic, my bath. I don’t think I could go into this world without a twenty minute bath. It calms me, makes me ready.” She smiled. “I burn candles. Sometimes there are flower petals in the water and I watch them float, smell their sweetness. Such peace. You must try it, Cynthia!”

I appreciated her quiet whimsical side as well as how she valued such simple things. How she smiled from a place of shyness. Her adeptness at handling angry, forlorn youths. We were now friends; the confession of such tragedy cemented our bond. We never spoke of it again but after that night she shared readily about her extended family, the American culture she couldn’t get fully accept but enjoyed after ten years, the traditions she and her family still practiced. Her loneliness and hopes. She did not have the freedom she wanted. She was bound by duty to do as her elders required. She gave much of her money to aunt and uncle. I listened and tried to understand, to accept her lifestyle and encourage her.

Soon after the bath conversation she told me she would be leaving her job. I knew she had been under pressure to marry a man in Seattle, an arranged marriage that her aunt and uncle felt was excellent. She had met him twice. Now the wedding had been arranged. She would marry and go to his home–“a lovely house, he has a great job; I am old to wed, Cynthia”–and there she would be his wife and care for his aging parents, who lived with him. It was a successful match for her family. It was the least she could do.

“It is our tradition. I must go.” Her eyes moistened. “But it will not be easy. Hard work lies ahead. I can do it.”

What about her education? What about her dream of being a youth counselor? I asked her. But she shook her head.

“Maybe one day,” she smiled, then turned back to her work.

I felt her unease in every breath, but her shoulders were squared, strong. I knew she would go, would smile, would do well.

The day Channay left I dreaded the end of her shift. We went outdoors for a few minutes. The sunshine was silky, warm on our faces; spring was ready to envelop our city. We spoke of the time we had spent getting to know one another. Our futures. We promised to write one another. I gave her a card with a poem I had written, which she read, then held close to her heart.

“I have a very small gift for you,” she said.

I opened the box. There were two small mugs with flowers on them. They were designated for the months of May and June, as noted on the bottoms. They were different than what I owned, graced with such delicate designs.

Moved, I murmured my thanks. How could she leave her dreams behind, take from us her generous spirit? But she had more to give elsewhere.

“Now you will remember me,” she said. “You have been a mother and friend to me. I have many good memories to keep with me. Thank you.”

We embraced a long moment and our tears, oh, how they came.

Channay left for Seattle and I stayed on at the treatment center for almost three more years. But I didn’t hear from her. Without her new address I couldn’t contact her. I searched for her name online but didn’t locate her. I wondered if in that other life–beyond what I could share–she had a far different name, something musical on the tongue. Complex. But I also wasn’t surprised she vanished. She went where I couldn’t follow: the way of the traditional Cambodian wife.

One of the mugs sadly was lost long ago but I treasure this remainder, keeping it safe at the back of the shelf. It has pink and white peonies and columbine and is framed in a vivid berry tone. It fits in my hands. It speaks to me of a woman’s courage, her love of others so less fortunate, her unrelenting respect for life. Her haunted soul was a symphony of grief and longing that imprinted my own. Her heart, a deep and shining bowl that held so much with room for more. Her good mind a beacon for others who admired its strength. I was honored, happy to be invited in.

It is almost twenty years since we said farewell. My dearest Channay: wherever you are, I will not ever forget.

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For more information on Pol Pot and the genocide in Cambodia, please see http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~amamendo/KhmerRouge.html