Pauses and Moments

Rumblings from the lane next to the off-ramp.

From Embarrassment to Endearment

People as pain-relievers

At an off-campus drip-brew (pre-barista) coffee shop, he met the woman who would retrieve him.

At the time, he was sitting across from another woman, a young woman; a very young woman whose distractions and peeves were multiplying into increasingly small and disparate decimal points.

He had stumbled into an offhand friendship with the young woman, a fellow math department adjunct. Intelligent and fetching, she was, nevertheless, a complex fraction. And, too, there was quite a divide: Her twenty-something fixations were beginning to wear on him. So while enjoying her aesthetics, he had assumed what he presumed to be an avuncular connection; which did not preclude his formulating images of her mother and grandmother--who might be as visually pleasing, in their own vintage ways.

Yes, he had been flattered by the young woman's overtures and her company. Still, the two of them are odd numbers: she could only be six or seven years older than his daughter. There were more than 30 years, probably more than 35 years between them. Still, it was good to have a reason to escape the chaos of the community college whose hallways, cafeteria, and video-game rooms were replete with high-school hijinks and foolery; dissonant decibels and mindless misconduct.

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In the table-for-two next to them was a woman decades closer to his mortality table. He surveyed her fingers: no nail graffiti; no rings; no rings at all. A statement or an oversight? He surveyed her hands and wrists: veined but not blotched; an unpretentious watch was strapped to the hand that swiveled a paper coffee cup.

She was reading one of those distinctive Scribner Library paperbacks. The cover: black print on a green placard, set against a forest of gray. Thin volumes priced at $1.25. Large volumes priced $2.95. In the satchel slumped over in the empty chair facing her, files of students' compositions and several Penguin classics with their distinctive orange spines. English Comp, he guessed.

On an impulse that surprised him, he greeted her. Something had possessed him, prompted him to be courteously forward. He was not especially social, let alone socially opportunistic. He surprised himself.

Perhaps he was seeking a respite from his table-mate's high-frequency rapid-fire non-stop filibustering that sought to condemn and gerrymander all the worlds she sought to occupy and escape.

So, to the bookish woman at the adjoining table he ventured, "Escaping from campus chaos?" She didn't look up right away. Absorbed by her paragraphs, she was not inclined to immediately disengage. Not rude, just a clear sense of priorities. But upon punctuating a paragraph-concluding sentence, she looked up; first at him, then at the young woman across from him, and then back to him. She nodded, and replied, "a retreat from cacophony."

He included his young tablemate in the follow-up conversational equations. While the young woman managed polite smiles, her train of complaints had been de-railed as he continued to engage with the neighboring table.

As to the English Comp teacher, as he now thought of her, he remembered passing by her classroom. Her composure, her presence, had registered with him. She would not be rattled and could rattle (and dismember) if provoked. Tempted, he resolved to route himself to pass by her classroom in the coming weeks.

That was nine months ago, prior to the diagnosis.

Nine months later, in the hospital recovery room, nurse Regina checks digital and graphing monitors often; and she monitors his facial expressions and his breathing. She has observed him and listened to him; measuring his coming out of it, in ways that no device or apparatus could.

As the anesthesia wore off and the reality of the invasion set in for a range of nerve ganglia, she asked him about his pain. She wasn't troubled by his occasional moans and whimpers, which he tried to suppress. With the approval of the surgical-oncology resident, she gave him a bit of intravenous relief, and explained that its palliative effects would only last for so long, and that he should not hesitate to beckon to her if the discomfort and pain became less manageable.

Regina delayed her mid-afternoon "lunch break" to look in on him. She curtailed her late-afternoon "lunch" to see him through the mitomycin ordeal.

In a matter-of-fact and yet most comforting tone she said, "Not so bad. You're feeling better, now, right."

Later that same day, with a sense of triumph and profound gratitude, he slid off his hospital gowns ; putting a semblance of troubles out of sight.

From precisely-labeled plastic sacks, he retrieved his still pressed khakis and his still freshly-laundered Oxford button-down-collar shirt. He replaced his non-skid hospital footwear with real socks and the well-grounded MBT lace-ups.

Recovering himself, if only sartorially, he pulled on a days-of-yore V-neck sweater (elbows patched) and slung his barn coat over a shoulder. Setting his internal gyroscope, he took a few steps forward and back to test his longitudinal posture. Regina smiled approvingly to survey his vertical prowess - his steadiness and gait - as part of the discharge protocol. "That's a good look. Suits you."

He is wheel-chaired to the curb where the English Comp teacher awaits by the side of her Oldsmobile 98 - in her parlance, GM Baroque.

Their nine-month tenure, dotted with occasional intimacy, has sustained a confident and confidential friendship. Still, twenty minutes into the ride from the hospital, he is mortified by the need to relieve himself.

The English teacher is not fazed. Her straight-ahead focus is accompanied by encouragement: "Go for it," she says in a comforting and comfortable voice. He tries to stifle moans and gasps, and whimpers. Finally, there are sputtering pulses of relief; trickled, bounced, spurted, bounced, and then trickled into the paper cup she had providently provided. It reminded him of the coffee cup she had been nursing when they first met in the brew-drip coffee shop, nine months earlier.

Joseph H. Cooper, J.D., teaches media law, film, and literature at Quinnipiac University.

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