My morning run was refreshing. The weather had warmed up even more since last night. I did my hour long round of the neighborhood and got to my apartment as the sun finally burst over the edge of the horizon.
“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” The pizzeria owner says pleasantly as he lifts the metal door protecting his store front. I give him a quick smile and hurry upstairs to avoid more conversation. Once at work, I complete my normal routine. Step through the door, make a sharp right and head to the lunch room at the end of the hall. I put my lunch (marked “Gretchen’s – don’t touch”) in the fridge and pour myself a cup of coffee.
“Good morning!” The sudden appearance of Jodi next to me and her chipper greeting cause me to jolt and spill my coffee as I tilt it toward my mouth. Luckily I move my legs back quickly, head still hovering over the cup, and the black liquid falls on the floor instead of on my shirt. A single drop touching my shoe, but nowhere else. She is standing there smiling at me as if she didn’t see what just happened. I look at her incredulously and then turn and walk away without returning her greeting.
Who just walks up to someone they met less than 24 hours before, scars the hell out of them, and then smiles about it? It’s like she did it on purpose. It’s almost as if she wanted me to dump my coffee on myself. She was wearing a pencil skirt today with a white blouse, maybe my hand should have slipped the other way. I’m not a morning person and most of the people in this office have figured that out and don’t say much to me until we’ve all had some time to get settled in. Jodi will learn too.
Mornings with my mom were the opposite of dinner. She was cranky and irritable. Grab your damn breakfast before it gets cold. Why are you still on your PJ’s? Stop eating and go change. What’s taking you so long? You’re going to miss the bus! I’m not driving you again just because you’re too slow and stupid to get ready on time. You didn’t clean your dish. Get in here and wash it before the food hardens on the plate. One time in highschool I finally yelled back.
“Stop fucking yelling at me!” I screamed in a rage. I had been getting myself to school without her for almost 5 years and she didn’t have to keep making me run wild through the house. That was the first time she ever struck me. It was a hard slap across the face.
“Don’t you ever fucking talk to me like that again.” She said it in a low, tight voice. I held my cheek as it burned and reddened. “You hear me?” She asked staring at me with cold eyes.
“Yes ma’am.” I said quietly and picked up my bookbag just as the bus pulled up. The bus driver gave me a hard look as I got on. I had tried to pull my hair forward to cover that side of my face, but he still saw it. A look of pity crossed his eyes as I passed him and took my seat toward the middle. Most of the kids didn’t even look up when I walked past. Some were even sleeping.
Michael let me get settled into my seat and even gave me a few extra minutes before quickly switching seats.
“Are you OK?” He whispered.
“I’m fine.” I said looking at the window, unable to turn and look at him. There was a hard lump in my throat. I felt like it was choking me.
“Let me see.” He said softly and I felt his fingers under my chin. I pushed his arm away and then he did something that was completely unexpected. He wrapped his arms around my waste and held me, firm, but not too tight.
“I could call someone.” He whispered in my ear. I wipe a tear away from my cheek.
“No. It’s the first time she’s ever hit me and only because I asked for.” I felt one hand move from my waist to smooth my hair. I swallowed hard and wiped another tear away. Why is he so nice to me?
“You didn’t ask for any of this. You were just born. If it’s the first time, she may get bolder and do it again. You can’t let her…” His voice died away when I turned to look at him.
“It’s not her fault. I’ll be fine.” I said smiling softly, the tears and any trace of them gone from my face. I’d learned to hide it well. He looked at me for what felt like eternity. I almost thought he may lean in and kiss me, but the spell was broken when one of his football buddies called his name and he was back in his seat just like that. Talking about the upcoming game that I will never see.
I’m still stewing about the coffee almost an hour later when a meeting reminder pops up on my screen. I hate meetings. Not for the same reasons everyone else hates them (because they’re boring, unproductive, can lead to other meetings, etc.), but because it means I need to socialize. I grab my pen and pad of paper and refill my coffee before heading to the conference room.
There are only two other people in the room so far. They are buried in their phones so I don’t say anything. A few more people file in. The seats next to me still empty until Jack comes through the door.
“Gretchen!” He drags my name out like he’s some sort of announcer. It grates against me like nails on a chalkboard, but I turn with a wide smile.
“Jack!” I say mimicking his style. He sits down next to me and I see Jodi right behind him. She glances around the room and decides to take the seat on the other side of me.
“When are you going to take me up on my offer?” Jack says saving me from having to address Jodi.
“When pigs fly, Jack. I looked at the sky this morning and didn’t see any out there.”
” You just weren’t looking hard enough.” He says winking at me. He had offered to go on a run with me during lunch. I never run on my lunch. I sit at my desk and eat and don’t talk to anyone for an entire hour. I push his arm with my elbow and turn toward the rest of the room. I can see Jodi out of the corner of my eye and realize she is thoroughly confused.