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My job often takes me on the road, more often than not. In the days when I am travelling, my laptop is my lifeline, the one constant in my life. I can often be seen at local wireless cafés, typing away, working on a project while chatting with friends. Being online, having these conversations, brings a certain sense of normality and constancy to my life. Every day for two hours, I log on – the same people are there, and we talk, as if we were in the same room, as if I am at home and they are a couple of blocks away and we could go for coffee at that instant if we wanted to. I could even attend meetings through instant messaging systems, and lead a somewhat grounded life. Internet had brought this into the otherwise unpredictable life that I lead, and for that I will always be grateful.
My present trip was definitely one of my least memorable ones – I had gotten an assignment that had sent me to the middle of nowhere, where the weather was terrible and the night life lacking. To make matters worse, I had a bad case of insomnia. After trying vainly to sleep the first two nights, I gave in and went to yet another café. Better to be tired but satisfied after a good night's worth of work than tired and frustrated from tossing and turning. And, hopefully, the working would tire me enough to get a couple of hours of sound sleep.
At the counter, I ordered something new. I always tried something local that I couldn't have anywhere else – another quirk I have. With my mug of candied coffee (I wasn't so sure anymore I'd be able to catch any sleep, with the amount of sugar I calculated my drink to contain) I sat at the far corner of the café. It was my preferred seating arrangement, as I could keep an eye on the occupants of the room and daydream if I was hit by writer's block.
A woman was sitting in front of me, facing to my right. I smiled at her as I sat. She smiled back. Something struck me about her, something that touched me – yet I couldn't define it. Has it ever happened to you, an unexplainable connection to a perfect stranger, the urge to confide everything in your heart to someone you don't even know, that perfect understanding between two people who logically can't know what the other is feeling or thinking?
I opened my laptop and opened up my music player. I slipped on my headphones and started the music before opening up my work file. After awhile, feeling her eyes on me, I turned my head. Sure enough, she was looking at me with a slight smile. I slipped my headphones off.
"Hi. What kind of music are you listening to?"
"Just some ambience trance music – gets me in the mood to write."
"Would you mind putting it on your speakers? The café's radio is down, and the silence is killing my inspiration."
I unplugged my headphones; the soothing yet upbeat music filled the air between us. "I hope you like it."
"I am sure I will."
"If you happen to have a blank CD on you, I could make you a copy of my favourite ones."
"I'd appreciate it," she said, slipping a CD that was on the table towards me.
We exchanged another comfortable smile and both of us set to work.
It was oddly soothing to have someone else at my side, working on a piece, while I was working on my own. The double sound of keyboards being tapped on in a rhythmic fashion set the tone, and both of us worked non stop for an hour before I realised just how in sync we were.
She typed at the same speed I was; she would pause exactly when I paused; we'd both smack satisfyingly on the enter key at the same time and lean back at the same time. We'd both rub the bridge of our noses at the same time. It was uncanny, and if she hadn't been wearing a wedding band, I would have seriously considered asking her out.
At one point, she raised her eyes towards me and smiled. "I haven't worked this well in a long while."
"Me neither. We might be meant to work together."
"Maybe. Are you a writer?"
"A journalist. You?"
"An aspiring writer. I'm an accountant."
"A writer and an accountant. Impressive."
We both glanced at our screens at the same time. We both felt the need to stretch out the good spell of writing as long as we could. In common, unspoken accord, we went back to work without saying another word.
I looked up again after a long while. My coffee was long gone; so was hers. I offered to get us some refills, which she graciously accepted. I was back in a flash.
"What are you working on?"
"Yes, but loosely based on real life."
"What is it about?"
"A young girl living in the Northwestern Territories."
"Are you the young girl?"
She smiled. "Yes."
"How long did you live there?"
"Seven years. My father is a nurse, my mother a doctor. My sister and I were born there."
"How old is your sister?"
"She's my twin."
"I have a brother. He's older than me, but we look so similar that people often mistake us for twins."
"Do you have any pictures?"
I nodded, bringing the file up. I turned the laptop towards her, and she leaned forward to look at the pictures. As I was recounting yet another family anecdote, she turned towards me with a smile and my world tilted. In this light, there was no way of mistaking the faint outline of the bruise around her eye for anything else.
Something in my eyes gave me away; her smile froze and melted. "I fell down a flight of stairs," she said.
We just looked at each other. I knew she was lying, and I could tell she knew that I knew.
"How badly did those stairs hurt you?"
She shrugged. "I just broke one rib."
"How often do you fall down the stairs?"
Her eyes rested briefly on mine before fluttering away. "Not as often as I used to. I seem to have found my balance."
"How often?" I repeated.
"Once a month, sometimes more."
The anger I had vainly tried to control crashed through me, unrestrained and wild. I hid it – it's not what she needed. "What are you going to do about it?"
"I want to change stairs. I don't like these ones anymore."
"Can you afford to?"
She looked at her laptop, tears filling her eyes. "Not yet."
"I need to finish this book and get it published," she whispered.
Now I knew why she was typing so fiercely. This was more than writing, more than getting thoughts and emotions on paper, so much more than an expression of her inner self – it was her way out.
"I will help you," I said.
"Stairs can be hard to change."
"That's why you will need a friend."
She suddenly smiled. "I don't even know your name."
I laughed, startled. "And I don't know yours."
"Ian." I put my hand out and waited patiently for her to accept it. "It's very nice to meet you."
"You promise to help?"
"Yes." But although I knew I was doing a nice thing, I felt guilty; my intentions were not selfless at all. I couldn't help but wonder and even hope if she'd leave her husband for me. I knew it was a terrible thought to have, but it wasn't like I was breaking them up or anything. After all, he was the one beating her.
She nodded. "Thank you." She turned towards her laptop as I turned towards mine; the writer in each of us was begging to find release in the words and sentences whose outcome we could control on our laptops, a world that we create and can manipulate however we wished it. We commonly turned our attention to our work, finding in it a soothing release Carla soon shattered with three simple words.
"I love him."
The statement, out of the blue, shocked me.
"How can you, after the way he treats you?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I just do."
"Are you going to leave him?"
She nodded. "I can't bear to live like this anymore. But I love him."
"Carla... I want you to promise me that however much you love him, you will leave him. You can't stay with him – he will destroy you."
"I will leave, there is no doubt about that. I hope he will see the error in his ways and repent."
Although I had known it was coming, it still shocked me. "Do you think that could happen?"
She shrugged again. "Anything could happen."
"Don't raise your hopes up. People don't change overnight, and not that drastically."
"What if he does?"
"What if he doesn't?"
"You aren't helping."
"What do you want me to say? You want me to lie to you, to tell you that your husband will change and become a devoted man, when I know very well that the chances of this happening are quite minimal, or non existent?"
But I knew what she meant. I wasn't helping her – I was helping myself. Instead of looking for a solution for her, I was looking to further my own interest, which was to have her leave her husband as soon as possible so that I could pursue her myself. It pained me that she wanted to stay with a man who didn't treat her the way she deserved.
Then again, was I treating her the way she deserved? Instead of treating her like the adult she was and helping her the way she wanted it, I was treating her like a child, making her decision for her that she shouldn't be with the man she vowed to stay with through better or worse. I might not be a wife beater, but I certainly was not being respectful of her.
"The help I need is to find a way of making my marriage work, not of terminating it."
I didn't respond; whatever I had to say wasn't going to help the conversation. Once again, the writer in each of us sought the release of words, and both pounded furiously on our keyboards for a couple of minutes.
"You're right," I said a few minutes later, my eyes glued on my screen. "I am not helping you – I am helping myself help you."
I could feel her gaze on me, burning through my flesh. "Thank you."
We wrote some more for a few minutes. At least, she did – my fingers were poised, frozen, on my keyboard.
"I wish I had met you before my husband."
It was a bittersweet moment. "So do I."
"Maybe, one day..."
She was wavering, when she had been right. I couldn't let my own weakness bring her down. "Maybe. But this isn't the time and place to discuss it. You are married to a man you love, and although things don't look too good, you might be able to salvage it. I have wireless internet access at the moment – why don't we look up support groups in the area?"
"Thank you," she whispered, tears gathering in her eyes.
I couldn't resist – I reached up and wiped her eyes. "Don't cry. After the storm, there is always sunshine. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to come out."
She nodded. "But it will."
I don't know what is going to happen. It has been six months since I met Carla, and all the time that we spend together, on the phone, by email or in person, has only made me like her more. I don't know how this is going to end. She still loves her husband, and he has been seeking counselling. She moved out of her house for the last four months, but she and her husband are talking about her moving temporarily back in.
However this finishes, I know that it will be for the best, because I am not helping her for myself. It is hard for me; sometimes I just want to grab her and run, brainwash her into forgetting about her husband and staying with me. I know I could do it – I can see it in her eyes, questioning herself, wondering what life with me would be like. But it has to be her decision. She has to make it without me interfering. She asked me last week if I was in love with her, and I answered her truthfully – I was definitely attracted to her, and could fall in love with her given the right circumstances (read: if she wasn't married). It's all up to her now – and I hope that whatever she decides, we will both be happy.
Until then, I will continue touring the North American continent with my laptop, trying out different coffees and meeting new people, living life out of a suitcase while restlessly pursuing an objective even I can't name.
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