In Between and Neither
How strange, I think to myself. My life so far has been filled mostly with people who don't know or don't care about my troubles, causing me to live a life which is so far removed from what society deems to be its standard of 'normal' that I had almost forgotten what it's like to actually feel anything... pleasant. I guess. The contrast between first getting beaten up by Bruce and his crazy gang of thick-skulled morons and then waking up to the caring face and soft arms of Catherine couldn't be greater. Pain, be it physical or emotional, is something I have gotten used to during the past years. Having to suddenly deal with kindness is very confusing even if it is so very pleasant at the same time.
I sigh, then let my gaze wander over the groups of students who are also sitting in the school garden on benches like me, on the grass, or are walking around. Everyone is in a group of two or more, and everyone looks like they are having a great time. Normal lives. Normal pleasantries. All so easily wiped away by the many hardships in life, and so bitter to those who can only look on. I'm well aware of the fact that I'm sitting all alone on this bench and that there's no one in this entire school who I'd call a friend or even an acquaintance. Except... I feel the hint of a smile pull at the corners of my mouth as I recall Catherine.
Getting up, I take care to ensure my clothes are in order as well as my bag. Even if nobody at this school could care less about my existence, that is no reason not to look properly dressed and very much presentable. Walking through the throng of students I manage a glimpse back at the bench I just got up from. It's still empty, amidst a sea of occupied benches. I shake the unpleasant thoughts out of my head and resume walking.
As I make my way down the hallway towards the school infirmary, I find myself relaxing, which isn't something I often allow myself to do in public places. I know very well the risks of letting down my guard. Yet meeting Catherine like this during breaks is really the highlight of the day. I mean, I do live with my mother, and she does care a great deal about me, but being involved directly has taken a great toll on her as well, combined with the divorce of my parents a few years ago. It's so refreshing to talk with someone who isn't directly involved with my troubles, and is kind enough to allow me to unload some of it onto her shoulders.
Moving around a corner, I suddenly bump into something very solid. Startled, I move a few steps back and look at what I ran into. As I notice the leering face of Bruce I feel my heart sinking. At least I'm inside the school this time, but... these corridors are really empty during lunch time.
While I go over my options, Bruce sneers at me, giving me a look which would not just turn milk sour but would probably make it decompose on the spot. He motions the few guys who are standing behind him to start moving again. As he walks past me he turns his head towards me and semi-whispers: “Don't think you are safe. Freak.”. Then he's gone.
With my knees positively softening now that the immediate threat has left the vicinity, I do feel worried at Bruce's threat. He probably got a very stern speech from the principal on beating up other students, and only didn't get expelled because nobody would actually testify about his direct involvement. I feel worried that he has found or is working on another way to get his revenge.
My positive mood of earlier quite ruined by now, I continue to the infirmary. Knocking on the door, I hear Catherine's usual high-spirited 'come in' in response. Opening the door and gently closing it behind me again, I turn around and see Catherine busy writing something at her desk. After waiting for a few moments she turns around to face me. Seeing the expression on my face hers quickly changes from sunny to worried.
“What happened, Alice? Don't tell me Bruce...” She lets her voice trail off. I nod in response.
“He threatened me just now. Said that I shouldn't consider myself to be safe just yet.” I quickly summarize, sounding much more calm than I feel inside.
Worry turns into stormy, as Catherine says: “What is his problem with you anyway? Did you ever do or say anything to him which might have caused this?”
I shake my head. “I never talked to him or even came anywhere near him since I started at this school.” Sighing, I resume. “I think the only reason why he is after me is because he wants to use me to reinforce his leadership. It's not like I haven't been bullied before for being different at my previous school.”
At Catherine's questioning look, I tell her about how being gifted and 'weird' was reason enough to get teased and surrounded by dozens of fellow students during primary school, to the point that they actively tried to make my life miserable by trying to cut me off when I was riding home on my bicycle and such childish things. As I hear myself speaking a voice in the back of my head is marvelling at how incredibly horrible my youth has been, with none of the usual comforts.
“I guess I can't really remember a time when I didn't feel out of place and bullies weren't picking on me.” I conclude, with a wry smile.
Catherine doesn't say anything, just gets up from her chair and moves towards me to take me into an embrace. Folding my arms behind her back, I feel the fatigue of having to keep up this facade of strength overwhelming me while the first tears start making their way down my cheeks.
“Was there ever a time when you really felt happy?” Catherine asks me after I have calmed down again. We are both sitting on one of the infirmary beds, sharing a lunch package Catherine made.
I ponder on this question. “I guess that I felt happy while consumed by the story of some book I was reading, I guess. I always liked losing myself in a kind of fantasy world, away from this life to a place where those with the fewest options could wrestle themselves up to become the hero of the story, maybe because of some kind hidden gift, magical or otherwise.”
Looking at the rays of the afternoon sun's playing across the white wall opposite me, I admire the tranquillity captured in such a simple scene. Looking down at my lap, I notice that I'm nearly done with the sandwich I have been eating. Stuffing the last bits into my mouth, neither of us talks for a while.
“I guess I have a kind of gift as well.” I smile bitterly. “Just not one which will make me into a hero. Maybe it's more of a curse. I feel like I do live in this world, but not completely, as though I am... out of phase, I guess.”
As I glance at Catherine to see whether she is going to reprimand me again for talking negatively about myself, I see that she is just staring off into the distance, her sandwich forgotten. Suddenly she seems to realize that I'm looking at her when she startles a bit. Looking at me, she smiles and says: “Sorry for not paying attention there for a bit. I was just thinking of something.”
While finishing up our lunch, Catherine suddenly says: “I'm sorry for asking all these questions, Alice. It's just that... I'm curious about some things. If you don't want to answer any of them, just say so.”
Feeling puzzled at this sudden apology I just mutter that I don't mind it and that I'm glad I finally have someone to talk with about these things. For some reason things suddenly feel very awkward between us. As the uncomfortable silence persists I desperately try to think of something to say, but without luck. Then suddenly Catherine breaks the silence.
“I guess what I really wanted to ask you was whether you have ever felt happy about this life, this reality you have found yourself in.”
I'm surprised by how strained Catherine's voice sounds while she speaks these words, as though she has to exert a great deal of control to not let emotions overwhelm her. Considering her words, I respond, carefully: “No. From the moment I was old enough to remember my feelings, I do not remember a time when I was not captured by some fantasy world when I actually felt happy.”
Speaking softly, Catherine responds: “You said before that you regret having been born like this. Do you still feel that way?”
For a few moments there is just silence, with the faint sounds of a clock somewhere and the shouts of a few excited students outside the only things interrupting this strangely solemn atmosphere.
“The part which cries out for help, for recognition and love, that part of me intensely regrets having been born like this, yes. But another part of me... I guess I could say it yearns for beautiful things, things full of warmth and care, while recognizing the things I did gain by having been born. Things which are good.” I answer, while wondering what has gotten into Catherine that she is acting so strangely.
As we look at each other, Catherine suddenly grabs my hands and holds them tightly.
“Alice... there is something I need to tell you. I can't tell you here, though. Would you want to come with me to my place after we are both done for today?”
Staring into Catherine's eyes I don't know what to say for a moment. The intensity of her emotions is so strong that it seems to overwhelm me. All I can manage is to nod in agreement. Then suddenly it seems like the whole atmosphere around us deflates. Gone is the intense feeling of something important covering us like a thick blanket. Instead it's just the usual infirmary and it's just Catherine and me sitting on a bed, sharing lunch. Even the intensity is gone from her eyes as she smiles at me.
“It's a deal then. I'll see you in a few hours.”
Just two classes until school ends for today and they can't pass quickly enough as far as I am concerned. My seat is at the back of the room, next to the window. The girl who sits next to me is very much a loner as well, and I don't recall us ever having exchanged anything more than the most basic of sentences. I kind of like it this way. It's not like she could be my friend or anything. No one could. Except maybe... again that smile tugging at the corners of my mouth, accompanied by a sudden warm feeling. I look away for a moment, to the scenery outside. It's a sunny, warm day today, with only the slightest hint of a breeze. The perfect summer weather. The perfect weather to visit a new place. The perfect weather to be with friends.
Feeling like this, it's more obvious than ever to me that I have never had anyone around with whom I have had a connection like this. Unfamiliar yet so very tantalizing. Happiness, shared feelings, the end of loneliness, the beginning of a new life... Maybe, it's all too early to tell, I realize as a sudden darkness creeps over my heart. Why would I suddenly be granted happiness and a relief from everything I have been through, after all these years filled with nothing but people rejecting me and living in forced solitude? Does it even make sense?
As I shake my head a bit to clear it, I realize that the teacher is finally finishing the class. Sweet freedom is at hand. Without wasting a single second I put my belongings into my bag together with everybody else and get up from my chair after which we all shuffle out of the classroom. As usual I keep my eyes down so that I don't have to meet anyone's eyes. It's only now that I am consciously aware of this, after Catherine being the first person I can remember with whom I did not feel the need to avert my eyes. To avoid contact. To stay isolated.
Out of nowhere a crazy thought suddenly occurs to me, what if I was to tell more people about what is going on with me? Maybe they would accept me the way Catherine accepted me... letting go of this thought and pushing it away I reprimand myself for even considering such a silly thing. There is no way such a plan would ever work. It would just worsen the rumours about me and make every nut like Bruce want to get a piece of me to show how tough they are. No thanks.
Slipping between groups of slowly walking students in the hallway, I make my way towards the exit. After putting my books into my locker I nearly run outside, into the bright sunshine. Just outside the gate I can see Catherine waving at me. She's wearing a light-green pastel-coloured summer dress, which I haven't noticed before because of the white coat she was wearing in the infirmary. I think it suits her very well.
It's only after getting into Catherine's car that I suddenly begin to feel quite nervous about what might be coming. I realize that I have no idea what Catherine might want to talk about with me which deserves this level of privacy. Part of me is screaming at me to get out the car right this instant before Catherine gets in and the opportunity is lost. It has to be a trap of some kind, right?
Yet no matter how hard I try, I can not come up with a single reason why Catherine would want to do anything harmful to me. I can not imagine her having some kind of nefarious plan involving me, only her wanting to share something sensitive with me which she wouldn't feel comfortable doing elsewhere. While I squash the last panicked feelings I find myself wondering what this thing could be.
Then Catherine gets into the car, turns the ignition key and off we go. The paranoid part of me goes back into its dark hole to pout while I look at the sights flashing past while avoiding looking at Catherine. I do love the sights of summer: all the bright, living greens and the feeling of warmth and comfort both physically and emotionally. Together with spring, summer is my favourite season. I am, however, grateful for the fact that Catherine's car has airconditioning. Even my love of summer has its limits.
As the seconds pass, the awkward silence is really getting to me. Glancing over at Catherine I see that she is focused firmly on the view in front of her, although from the tense way she grips the steering wheel it's obvious that she is bothered by something. I guess I'll find out really soon now what this might be. Hopefully it'll be over soon and it won't be anything weird or uncomfortable. I don't mind surprises, but I dislike things which make me feel all sad or upset inside.
After what seems like an eternity we drive into a beautiful street lined with trees on both sides. Catherine parks the car at the side of the road and unbuckles her safety belt. Slowly, as though waking up from a long dream, she turns towards me and smiles: “It seems we have arrived.”. I nod and begin to unbuckle my own safety belt.
As I get out of the car I feel surrounded by the tranquillity which reigns in this street. The slight breeze causes a gentle rustling of leaves while the air smells clean and very pleasant. Maybe it's all the flowers people in this street have in their front gardens. Whatever the cause, I find that I like the feeling of this street.
“This way, Alice.” Catherine says. I walk around the car and follow Catherine to a house at the other side of the road. With its light-blue window and door frames and a front garden filled with flowers it fits well with the rest of the street. I feel myself relax a bit more. It's hard to expect anything terrible to happen at such a pleasant location.
The path leading to the front door of Catherine's house is made from irregularly shaped rocks which have been fitted together to form a relatively smooth surface. I think it's a nice touch. The house itself looks well-maintained even from up close, with a definite homely air about it.
Fetching her keys from her bag, Catherine opens the front door and turns towards me. “You first.” She smiles warmly. As I enter the hallway I find my gaze drifting towards the many personal touches. Not excessively decorated, just a few things here and there. A picture here, a little something there. Closing the door behind her, Catherine puts her bag away.
“The living room is there on your right.” Catherine says, moving towards the indicated direction. Feeling very awkward, I follow her.
As expected from the outside of the house the living room is very light and spacious. Comfortable couches form an inviting sitting area, while a dinner table fills the other side of the room. Here too personal items give the place a very pleasant atmosphere. I already feel a lot less awkward.
“Do you want to drink something?” Catherine asks, pulling me out of my observations. “Maybe we can have tea together?” She suggests. I nod and manage to squeak out something which sounds like a 'yes please'. Maybe I'm not that comfortable yet after all. While Catherine heads for the kitchen, I sit down on one of the couches and try to breathe slowly while trying not to think too much about what might be coming next. Tea does sound good. I wonder which kind Catherine prefers.
A few moments later Catherine returns with a full tea pot and cups. She smiles.
“I hope that you like green tea? It seems to be the only type I have right now.”
“Green tea is fine, thank you.” I stammer while Catherine puts the tea pot and cups on the coffee table and sits down on the couch opposite of mine. After noting that it'll take a few more minutes for the tea to be ready, Catherine remains silent. An awkward silence falls.
Suddenly remembering the intense look in Catherine's eyes earlier that day, I decide to just ask the question.
“What is it you wanted to talk about, Catherine?” I ask, trying to sound as non-imposing as possible.
Catherine looks up from her dress with which she had been fidgeting and I'm shocked to see a sudden depth of pain, of raw emotions in her eyes. She shakes her head a bit and sighs softly.
“It's something I haven't told anyone yet... and very few people know about it. The reason I'm telling you, Alice, is that I think you should know.” She starts. I swallow, not liking the seriousness in her voice.
“You see, I haven't always been single. Years ago I was in a relationship, married even. My husband of the time was very kind and gentle and I thought we would become the perfect family. So when I found out I was pregnant I was overjoyed. Even during the less pleasant parts of the pregnancy all I could think of was how happy the three of us would be together, with our child growing up, going to school, making friends, having birthday parties and everything. That's when it all fell apart.
“I gave birth at the local hospital. Right after delivering, I was still very much on the edge of passing out from the effort and pain so I didn't notice right away that they were taking a long time before showing me the baby. When they eventually did, I remember feeling so delighted at how perfect it looked. Yet when I mentioned that they hadn't told me yet whether it was a boy or a girl and half-jokingly said that they better not hide it from me or I would have to unwrap the covering from the baby and look for myself, everyone in the room, including my husband, just looked at each other. That's when I realized something was wrong.”
Sighing deeply, Catherine closes her eyes for a moment, as though trying to get rid of the images telling her story has made her recall. Suddenly she looks so very worn and fatigued. I dare not to interrupt her story, but when she remains sitting like that for a few moments I ask: “So what was wrong?”
Catherine opens her eyes at my words. As she looks at me she manages a thin smile.
“As they told me at the hospital, my child was intersexual, specifically a so-called hermaphrodite. This meant it had both partial male and female reproductive organs, and that's why they couldn't tell me whether it was a boy or a girl, as technically it was both.”
I notice that Catherine talks about her child in the past tense, but dare not say anything.
“The doctors asked my husband and I what we wanted to do. Would we want to surgically make the child into a boy or a girl? Both options were possible, so we just had to say the word. Yet when I looked at my new baby while it was resting in my arms, I found that I could not make myself choose either. Just looking at it, I realized it was fine the way it was. There was no physical deformation, no health risks, there was absolutely nothing wrong with my beautiful child. That's why I refused to let them operate.”
A single tear slides down Catherine's cheek. “Sometimes I think I should have let them do it after all.”
I'm feeling very confused at this point. Not just at the news that Catherine had been married, even had a child, but what really makes my head spin is that she had a child which was almost exactly like me. Part of me feels sick at the realization that apparently something went horribly wrong with this child, thanks to it being intersexual. It is a painful reminder of my own situation.
Then Catherine resumes, her voice trembling at this point.
“My husband didn't agree with my choice. I knew he was raised by fairly strict Christian parents, but I thought he wasn't like them. He always seemed so open and tolerant of things. That he had to become just like that with our child.... I couldn't understand it, and he didn't understand me. We argued a lot. I maintained that there was nothing wrong with our child, while he insisted that it was unacceptable, that our child would have to be either male or female. That both just wasn't an option.
“After a few weeks I found out that he had arranged behind my back to have me declared unfit as a parent, so that my child could receive surgery. I had a lawyer immediately deal with this. Yet that didn't solve it. My husband and I got into worse and worse arguments, started sleeping separately and began to live almost independently from each other. Then one night I woke up from the sound of the front door slamming shut.
Catherine closes her eyes again, as if to shield herself from the sight of something horrific only that for her these images are all in the past. Tears are now flowing unchecked down her cheeks. After a few moments she continues, her voice a choked whisper. I find myself moving in closer to hear every word, feeling very disturbed at Catherine's story so far.
“When I went to check out the house, I found that my husband's bedroom was deserted, apparently what I had heard was him leaving the house. Then I noticed that the door of my child's bedroom was ajar. I guess at that point I already knew what had happened, but I had to look anyway. The moment I saw how the coverings had been disturbed I ran towards the crib, but it...”
Catherine covers her face with her hands and starts sobbing uncontrollably. Shocked, I get up and move to sit down next to Catherine. Wrapping my arms around her, I try to comfort her somewhat, much like how she comforted me before. What a strange reversal of roles, I find myself thinking.
At first Catherine doesn't seem to notice my presence, then she leans in against me, seeking comfort there. She lets her hands drop into her lap and begins to relax somewhat as her sobbing subsides. I can feel the tension leaving her body. After a deep sigh, she opens her eyes which are now red-rimmed from all the crying, and smiles weakly at me.
“Th... thank you for comforting me, Alice.” She says, then hugs me. As I use my hand to wipe away the remaining tears from her cheeks I tell her: “You don't have to continue your story. I think I understand it all now. I... I'm sorry you had to go through all that, I...” My voice falters as I fail to find the right words to say. Handling a situation like this isn't among my specialities. I feel that all I can do is make it clear that I understand and share Catherine's pain.
Catherine sighs again, then sits up straight.
“No, I have to finish this story. I must. I'm sure you understand why.” I nod.
Taking a deep breath, she continues.
“When I got to the crib, it was already too late. Apparently my husband had taken a pillow and used it to smother the baby. That's why I didn't hear its cries. Anyway... I got officially divorced shortly after that, and never saw or heard anything from my ex-husband. I wanted to see him punished for murder, but the police claimed that there wasn't enough evidence to support the theory that it was him who murdered my child.”
Catherine wipes away a few fresh tears as she smiles bitterly.
“I really don't know how I got through the period after that. My dream of a happy family had been shattered, my child murdered, and the house I lived in tarnished with so much darkness. I first wanted to move to a completely different place, but I didn't have the money for it. My job as a nurse barely allowed me to afford to pay for this house. After a while I began to realize that I shouldn't leave this place, that it's still the place where I'm closest to real happiness. After meeting you, I think that feeling was very much correct.” Catherine finishes, as she smiles at me.
At that moment I feel something break inside me as well and almost without realizing it I throw myself into Catherine's arms and start crying. Happiness, sadness, relief... so many reasons to cry. And finally someone to share it with. Both of us.
By the time my sobbing has turned into mere sniffling I realize that Catherine is holding me gently and is slowly stroking my head. For some reason it feels completely comfortable and natural. I close my eyes in happiness as a weak smile plays around my lips. It's so very quiet in the room now. I can feel myself almost drifting off. In the distance I hear a clock ticking and a few birds outside lazily chattering. There is nothing to disturb this sensation of peace. I can't recall ever having felt as comfortable as I do at this very moment. I sigh softly.
“Thank you... for telling me.”
I can imagine Catherine smiling her angelic smile as she responds: “No, Alice. Thank you.”
I just nod and say, smiling: “You're welcome.”
Author: Maya Posch In Between and Neither – Part 2 Date: 2010/02/09