Aspect of a Stranger

Trigger warning: Mental health issues

            He was quietly sitting in the blue swivel rocker when Mary came into the waiting room. It smelled of soggy umbrellas and of that indescribably clean scent all waiting rooms have. She’d had a long day at work, was bone tired and just wanted to get this appointment over with and go home. She struggled to shrug out of her wet coat, tossed keys into her bag and sat heavily in a straight backed chair not far from the man. She nodded in the man’s direction and then busied herself with finding the latest People magazine and pulling her phone out of her bag to check messages. She wanted to be polite but let the man know she didn’t want to be bothered. She figured he’d go in to see his counselor soon. Mary leaned back and patted a hand through her brown hair, even though it was beauty parlor perfect. Her feet ached, but she dared not to take her shoes off, even for a few moments. Appearances.

            The man in the rocker watched Mary with a slight smile. He tapped his foot in time to a music only he could hear and moved almost unobtrusively side to side in the chair. He was a youngish man who wore a red flannel shirt, softened and a bit tattered from many washings. His sneakers were dirty and worn. He fingered an orange rabbit’s foot key chain. Mary kept a peripheral eye on him even though she desperately wanted to ignore him. Sighing, she thought he seemed to be everywhere these past few days. The coffee shop on Orange last Monday. The grocery store near the mall. The parking lot at Kmart last week.

Finally, he spoke, “Hi.”

            “Hi,” said Mary.

            “Nice evening, huh.”

            “M-mm-hmm.” Mary had not taken her eyes off her phone. Go away, she thought.

            “Have a lotta messages, do ya? You look like an important lady.”

            Mary glanced up, a bit irritated, but maintained her composure at the interruption.

            “I’m, I’m not really important. Just tired. A bit tired.

            “Oh, yeah, me, too. Long day.”

            Mary clicked off her phone and opened the magazine. Concentrate, she told herself as she flipped randomly through the pages. You are an important assistant to a CEO, and this man does not matter.

            “Forgot to look at the light.”

Mary stopped and abruptly looked up at the young man. “Pardon?” She really didn’t want to engage with him but natural curiosity overcame her sense of feigned poise.

“Didn’t look at the light. Just ‘bout got clipped by a red Toyota over there on Prince. I’m okay, though.” The man looked down and became quiet almost as though he was waiting for a judge to hand out a sentence.

Mary allowed her face to curve slightly in a sympathetic gesture and then, figuring her social requirement met, continued reading. He should quiet down now, she hoped.

“Yup, I’m okay though, I’m okay, I’m okay.” The man continued to murmur to himself as Mary shook her head, trying to erase him from her mind. She turned the page in the magazine, and carefully crossed her legs. Now she could hear the man humming to himself in a low monotone.

Just then then door opened, and Mary’s counselor, Rhonda, peeked in. When she saw Mary, she had an apologetic look on her face. Mary began to get up and gather her things.

Rhonda held up a hand as though to keep Mary in her seat. “I’m so sorry, Mary,” Rhonda said. “I’m going to be at least twenty more minutes. Running late. Want to reschedule?”

Mary reseated herself and released a sigh loud enough for Rhonda to hear. “No, I’m here now. I’ll wait.”

Rhonda creased her forehead slightly, only feeling a bit guilty. “You sure?”

“Yes, of course.”  

“See you in a few then,” said Rhonda, closing the door.

Mary reopened her magazine and thought she had no choice but to wait. She had cancelled too many appointments already. The story on Brad Pitt’s new movie lay across her lap like an inconvenience.

“That your counselor?” asked the man. Mary forced herself to refocus on him.

“Yes.”

“That’s good. Bet she’s nice.”

“Uh-huh.”

Suddenly, a short, frazzled-looking woman pushed into the waiting room holding on to a little girl’s hand. Behind them skulked a twelve-year-old boy who immediately tossed himself into the nearest seat away from his mother and sister. He slouched down, splaying his big feet out in front of him, took out his cell phone, and began to text rapidly. The mother sat down and placed the girl on her lap in one smooth practiced movement. She barely glanced at the boy but looked at Mary as though she was hoping she didn’t know her. The girl began tugging on her mother’s sleeve, and whined, “Toys! Toys, Mom! Mom.”

The mother’s eyes darted quickly around the room. “I dunno, sweetie,” she said.

“But Mom!” The little girl slipped off her mother’s lap. “I wanna play! Mom.”

“Shush, Hannah, geezus!” said her brother suddenly, never taking his eyes off his phone.

The man in the flannel shirt had been watching the three with cursory interest as though he considered them a respite from the room’s desultory silence.

Mary looked up. “There’s some in the other room,” she said quietly.

The mother leaned toward her. “Excuse me? Were you speaking to us?”

“Yes. Toys. The other room has toys.” She pointed to the smaller waiting room next door.  “In there. There.”

The mother’s eyes followed her arm.

“Oh! Hannah!” she said. C’mon, let’s look.” She jumped up and seized the girl’s hand, heading toward the door as if she couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. She bumped her son’s legs. “Jason!” The boy, somewhat reluctantly retracted his legs, and without looking up continued his text as he walked out, miraculously not bumping into the door frame.

Dan had a bemused half-smile. Mary pretended to read again, barely looking up as the boy left the room.

“Boy’s like a robot,” said the man. “He’s like that movie, Wall-E.”

Mary flinched and looked at him. “What?”

“All gonna end up like that movie Wall-E. D’you remember when they got on the spaceship thing and all the humans were fat and laying on the beds with the computers attached? You know the one. People were so big like pigs they couldn’t walk or nothin’ just floated around. That’s where these here kids is headed. Wall-ee. Wall-ee. Wall-ee.”

His voice emptied out of the room. He looked down and fiddled with his key chain. Mary had no idea what he had been talking about, but she noticed the key chain had no car or house keys on it, only small ones as though for a locker or a file cabinet. One key looked like an old diary key, and it had a bit of red string on it. The red string triggered something in Mary’s mind but she shook it away. The man saw her staring and quickly stuffed his keys in a pants pocket. Almost compulsively, she reached for her purse, feeling around until she located her key chain. Good, she took a breath. Still have them.

“How long this place open tonight?” he asked.

Mary looked at the words in her magazine and then at her watch. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Hope at least til nine.” He sighed.

At the far edges of Mary’s consciousness, something moved, but then she blinked it away and wondered how much longer she’d have to wait for Rhonda to come for her.

The man began to hum to himself again. He stared at Mary’s magazine, and she could feel his eyes looking right at the words she was trying to focus on.

“Ho-kay,” she breathed to herself as she looked up. When she did, the man dropped his eyes immediately and looked vacantly at the pile of magazines and newspapers on the center table. Mary managed to feel a tiny spark of pity for him and said, “Sometimes the wait is interminable in here, isn’t it?”

“Huh?” The man snapped his head up, crinkled his eyes and regarded Mary intently for a few moments. “What d’ya mean?”

“I mean. It’s boring just sitting here.”

“Oh, ah. Don’t bother me none. Don’t bother me none a’tall.” He started fidgeting with his hands, rubbing and rubbing them as though he had pain in them. The he noticed Mary looking and stopped, shoving them into his pants pockets.

“What’s yer name? If you don’t mind me askin’,” he said.

“It’s Mary.”

“Oh yeah. Your counselor said that, right?”

“Yes,” said Mary with finality. She had finally deigned to speak to him, so she asked, “What’s your name?”

“Dan. Just Dan.” He looked down.

The door opened, and an older man popped his head in and scanned the room. Mary could feel Dan stiffen a bit. The man glanced at Mary and asked, “McMoyers? Jean?”

Mary shook her head.

“Thanks,” the man said and retreated down the hallway. Dan relaxed again and settled back in his chair.

In spite of herself, Mary’s curiosity finally got the better of her, and she wondered if she dared to ask Dan about his counselor. It certainly would be out of her personal protocol. She sniffed to herself and straightened her skirt, aligning her shoulders back against her chair. No she would not ask.

“Wonder what the heck that thing’s for,” said Dan.

“What?”

“That roundy little machine that’s in every room here. On the floor. Plugged in, see it?”

Mary followed his gaze to the floor and saw the white noise machine on the floor near the door.

“Oh!” said Mary. “That’s a sound machine.”

“Yeah, but if you get quiet, it don’t sound like much to me.”

“I think it’s supposed to mask outside noise or something like that,” said Mary. She wasn’t really sure why there was one in the waiting room.

“Mebbe it’s supposed to keep us calm in here,” Dan said. “That’s kinda funny if ya think about it. I mean, here we are, all waiting for someone to talk to like that little machine’s gonna make a difference.”

Mary inhaled sharply. “Who are you seeing? I mean, who’s your counselor?”

“Oh, ah…it’s a…forget his name, something with an S, I think,” mumbled Dan. “Scuse me. I need some water.” Dan got up slowly and walked over to the water cooler.

The door opened again, and a young couple walked in, half talking, half arguing about the time of their appointment. As soon as they saw Mary, they stopped and quickly took seats, shrugging off coats and bags just as Mary had done earlier. The woman nodded at Mary, but the man pulled out his phone and never looked up at her. For some reason, Mary was beginning to feel restless. It had to be more than twenty minutes. Where was Rhonda?

“Don’t drink that water,” Dan said, crushing a small paper cup in his hand as he returned to his seat.

“What? Why?” asked Mary.

Dan leaned in towards her in a conspiratorial fashion. “They put stuff in it,” he whispered. “Better stick to yer own bottled stuff.”

“What are you talking about? The water from that cooler?”

“Yup,” said Dan, leaning back in his chair and nodding.

Mary shook her head to clear it, but the look on Dan’s face unsettled her. He looked tired and faded somehow, like an old towel that had been relegated to the rag pile. She inhaled deeply, and the door opened, and Rhonda finally appeared in the doorway. “Ready?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Mary as she gathered her coat and belongings. She glanced over at Dan.

“It was nice meeting you.”

            He looked startled for a moment, but smiled. “Oh. Oh yeah, same here.”

            Mary began to follow Rhonda down the hallway to the end of the building, and as usual, she had to hurry to keep up with the taller woman who wore thick reading glasses on a chain which she kept in her hand. Rhonda stopped at the doorway of her office and beckoned Mary with a nod of her head, almost like a school principal to a recalcitrant child. Mary sighed as she plopped down in her usual chair. She kept her coat and belongings on her lap instead of carefully placing them on one end of the sofa across the room. Rhonda noticed Mary’s edginess and paused a moment before striding to her desk. She said, “Again, I apologize for keeping you so late tonight, Mary.” Rhonda opened a thick file and sat down. Then she peered more closely at her client.

            “Mary, are you all right?” Rhonda asked. “You seem rather distracted.”

“Fine. I’m fine. Long day. Long day.”

“Is there anything in particular that happened today that you would like to talk about?”

“Dan. I’m worried about Dan,” said Mary, not meeting her counselor’s eyes as she gripped her coat tighter.

“Who’s Dan?” asked Rhonda.

“The man in the waiting room. I think maybe he needs help or something…” Mary trailed off.

“Well, he’s here, isn’t he?” said Rhonda. “That’s what we do. Help people.” She shuffled papers from the file, pulled one out and looked at Mary.

“But he was sitting there before I came, and he didn’t get called in.”

Rhonda sighed. “Maybe he was waiting for someone to finish their session.”

Suddenly, Mary stood up. “I don’t think so,” she said.  

Rhonda looked perplexed at Mary’s behavior. “What’s wrong, Mary? I’ve never seen you like this.”

“I don’t know. I have to go,” said Mary, moving to gather up her coat and purse. “Sorry. Bill me.” She dashed out of the door and back to the waiting room. Rhonda hurried after her, but was not quick enough to stop Mary from opening the door. Inside the room was the young couple- the woman reading a novel, and the man still talking on his cell phone.

“What happened to the man sitting here?” said Mary breathlessly. “He wore a red flannel shirt, remember”? She pointed to the empty swivel rocker.

The woman looked up from her book. “We’ve been the only ones in this room for over twenty minutes, at least,” she said. The man put a hand over his phone and nodded in agreement.

“It’s just us,” he said.

            Rhonda put a gentle hand on Mary’s shoulder and led her back to the office.

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