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Mile Markers

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Read Chapter Four of The Angel's Guardian!

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How could she put a label on such a vast swath of time and all the life she had lived during it?
But Elizabeth knew: it wasn’t so vast. It wasn’t even the blink of an eye.
Twelve years. The traumas of yesterday were still there: deep, pink, painful scars on her spirit. They had interfered, all in their turn: a failed three-year relationship with a pilot, and then another, also three years, with a travel writer. The last one was with an executive event coordinator for a Las Vegas casino. It too lasted only three years.
They were good men, all. Honorable and faithful and reliable. She loved all of them. It was she who ultimately caused the relationships to break up. Those tender spiritual scars were too much to overcome.
Trust was very difficult for her. So was her rage, which simmered deep down and occasionally flared. So was her fear of abandonment. That was probably the worst one. She had always felt unwanted; and when she was a child, she had been, in fact, just that. It manifested in her adulthood as burning jealousy and crippling fear. All three men eventually complained that she was suffocating them.
She needed help and knew it. She tried psychotherapy, but that was worthless almost from the off. She couldn’t forget the horrible sessions she endured with a fully licensed and certified psychologist who, when she was thirteen and fourteen, forced her weekly on her knees to pray for forgiveness, who leered at her, who liked to touch her bare knees or, twice, place his palm full on her butt as she left his office. She remembered looking up at those framed pieces of paper announcing his brilliance and competence and education. He had lots of them. He was a highly respected member of his profession and the community, a church leader, a “Christian.”
Desperate for help, she tried psychiatry. Her last boyfriend finally insisted on it; but the psychiatrist was heinously expensive and after fifteen minutes did nothing but declare that she was “clinically depressed” and promptly wrote her a prescription for antidepressants and sleep medication. When she informed her boyfriend that she wasn’t going back, he broke up with her a week later.
She was damaged goods. She feared that she was so damaged that she’d never find lasting love, that love wasn’t meant for people like her.
She had moved from Auntie’s home to Las Vegas, then to Denver, and then, just two years ago, to San Diego. With the last move she brought Madelyn with her, who was struggling with health problems and increasingly lonely. Elizabeth bought a small two-bedroom condominium in Mission Hills and helped get her settled in. She got her involved in community projects, and with the local seniors.
Madelyn was a natural at meeting people, and very soon reported feeling much happier. She took care of the condo while Elizabeth was flying, and formed a seniors’ bridge club, which became a popular biweekly happening. Elizabeth, when possible, joined them. The club was comprised of three men and nine women. They enjoyed telling filthy jokes and bringing hot food in porcelain dishware, and bragging about their grandchildren. They were as kind a group as Elizabeth had ever known.
Still, she felt like an outsider, despite their continual attempts to make her feel comfortable and welcome. She was single: all their kids, most her age or close to it, were married. Their kids all had kids; Elizabeth felt sure she’d never get to the point where adopting one ever seemed realistic. Her life was Madelyn and work and her boyfriends, who, if she was honest with herself, which she was on occasion, always came third. It was a contradiction she was fully aware of: they couldn’t move an inch without her having a jealous fit, but she wanted to be left free to prioritize other things and people ahead of them.
“You’re going to have to let go and trust,” Madelyn said a few years ago.
“Easier said than done,” replied Elizabeth glumly.
“Always,” said Madelyn. “Always.”
“Sometimes I feel destined to remain single the rest of my life.”
“Not a bad way to go,” said Auntie. “I got married at eighteen and divorced at thirty-four—a year younger than you are now. I’ve never looked back. I can tell ya, love, it has been a wonderful ride. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I had my opportunities. I nearly remarried when I was forty. But he couldn’t handle my independent streak, and so out he went.” She threw her thumb over her shoulder for emphasis.
“You never had kids,” said Elizabeth.
“Didn’t want ‘em,” returned Madelyn with a sure shake of her head.
Auntie shrugged. “It just wasn’t my path. I paid for it, too. It got me kicked out of the church I was goin’ to. My girlfriends, who didn’t stay friends much longer, couldn’t understand me. Life was makin’ babies and livin’ in some big house in the suburbs and plannin’ the evenin’ meal and pickin’ up the hubby’s underwear. It just wasn’t for me.”
“Didn’t you ever get lonely?”
Madelyn smiled sadly. “Sometimes, yes. Very. The fear of loneliness is a piss-poor reason to marry someone, though. I wasn’t going to do that to anyone. Karla was the same way. We had too much backbone for the menfolk.”
She laughed after a moment of considered quiet. “Screw ‘em.”
“I’m damaged goods, Auntie.”
“The first step is admittin’ it. You just did. The second is sheddin’ the shame of it. There ain’t no one alive who isn’t damaged. Fix what ya can, sweetheart. The rest? To hell with it.”
Madelyn watched her from across the kitchen table. “You’re wantin’ another man, aren’t ya? Someone different than your current beau.”
Elizabeth was still with the event coordinator and thinking of moving in with him. She shrugged.
“What’s that shrug mean?”
“It means that I don’t know,” complained Elizabeth. “Henrik is a good man. He wants to get married and have a family. It all sounds so good—on the surface, you know?”
Madelyn offered an understanding smile and waited.
“I’m supposed to want that!” cried Elizabeth. “That’s what I’m supposed to want: a man and a house and a family. But something inside me … it keeps pushing me away! I just wish I knew what direction it wants me to go! All I know is that moving to San Diego and bringing you along was the right thing to do. There was no question about it. But I thought …”
“You thought that once you got that decision down the rest of your life wouldn’t stay so gray and wishy-washy.”
Elizabeth sighed.
“So let’s go with what you know. Let’s start with that—movin’ to San Diego. It had to happen. You said it yourself.” She held up her hands. “Now what?”
“Exactly,” murmured Elizabeth. “Now what?”
“Is it time to change careers?”
“No. No!
“It looks like you’ve got another solid there,” said Auntie. “Move to San Diego? Check. Keep flyin’? Check.”
Elizabeth gazed blankly down at the table. “Why didn’t that occur to me until just then?”
“Don’t know. But let’s move forward. Seems to me that you’ve got two good, solid signposts. Any ideas on ones that might be comin’ up on the horizon?”
Elizabeth didn’t want to say it, but knew she had to, especially in front of Madelyn, who seemed able to sniff out any personal issue she feared airing out.
“I need … I need to talk to someone,” she said quietly.
“Another psychiatrist?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know! It’s … both! How can that be?”
Auntie took a sip from her mug, sat back, and crossed her arms. She studied Elizabeth with a squint. “Is it a signpost?”
Elizabeth sighed and dropped her head to the table with a quiet thump and groaned, “I don’t know ...”
“Yes, you do. Look at me, baby girl. Lift that pretty head and look at me. C’mon …”
Elizabeth sighed and looked up. A long moment passed in silence.
“Is it a signpost?”
Elizabeth felt for a moment that she was no longer in control of her person, because she discovered that she was nodding. The movement of her head was very slight, almost imperceptible. Still, it was unmistakable. She groaned again. “I do not want to see another psychiatrist!”
“Correction,” said Madelyn, holding up a finger. “You don’t want to see just any psychiatrist. You want to see that one.”
“Which one?”
That one,” repeated Auntie.
Elizabeth was befuddled. “Which one?”
“Exactly,” said Madelyn triumphantly. Before Elizabeth could blink again, Auntie said, “That one. When your heart says ‘That one!’ you’ll know. ‘That one!’ You’re gonna have to keep goin’ till ‘That one!’ shows him- or herself to you. No huntin’ for referrals, no talkin’ to your girlfriends, no leafin’ through the Yellow Pages. ‘That one!’ is gonna be comin’ to you, sweet girl. You said it yourself: it’s a signpost. All you gotta do is keep on drivin’. No detours, no side trips, no lookin’ askance. The psychiatrist is comin’ to you!
Elizabeth nodded unsurely.
“You told me about that song of yours and how it came alive for you in the hospital those horrible days, right?”
She nodded again.
“You didn’t dismiss it. You held to it. And when you needed it most, it blossomed in you. That’s what you called it—‘blossomed.’ You said that, remember? Well this ain’t no different, child. It’s called faith. This is the real deal. It ain’t easy. It never is. Y’hear?”
She always noticed the distinguished-looking Japanese gentleman each time he boarded the plane. He was an inch shorter than her and probably in his late forties or early fifties. He had kind eyes and wore finely tailored suits. He always boarded at LAX and always took the red-eye back to Tokyo, which she had worked for several months now and loved. He sat in first class, always alone.
His ritual never varied. He’d refuse dinner but take a glass of white wine. While sipping it, he’d open his briefcase and pull out a small CD player, earphones, and a hand-held notebook, which he’d scrawl in seemingly at random. He’d stop after a couple of hours, take a nap, then wake to ask for a glass of orange juice, which he’d drink after using the bathroom. He’d return and when breakfast was served he’d eat. Then, more notes with the earphones on. Eventually he would simply sit with the player running. Elizabeth thought she heard classical music coming from it once, but wasn’t sure. She was walking past him; he looked up, smiled, and said, “Hello.”
She didn’t know if he knew English until then—the eighth or ninth time she’d seen him. She saw him twice a month, sometimes three times.
He had an air of quiet grace about him. It was obvious he had a lot of money, but that wasn’t what granted him that grace. It was the serenity behind his eyes, and his comportment, and the way he carried himself or did the smallest things like reach into his briefcase. There was patience in him as deep as the ocean he flew over.
The next time he boarded, she was working in the plane’s galley. He spied her, smiled, and nodded, then walked on. Another attendant working next to her, Mary, commented, “There he is. What a sweet man. He always takes this red-eye.”
“I wonder why,” said Elizabeth, watching his back as he made his way toward his seat.
“He likes routines, that’s for sure,” said Mary with a shrug. “Ever notice that he never eats dinner?”
“But always asks for white wine and then orange juice? Yeah, I have,” said Elizabeth. “He always uses the bathroom at the same time too: about 5:15—”
They had spoken together. They stared at each other, then laughed.
“I wonder what he writes in his little notebook,” said Mary.
“I’m sure it has something to do with his job.”
“Investment banker,” said Mary, squinting. “Something with piles of money. Did you notice that he’s unmarried?”
Elizabeth was surprised she hadn’t noticed that. She vacantly shook her head.
“A sweet older man with lots of style and money. You could choose worse,” said Mary, raising and dropping her eyebrows suggestively.
Elizabeth chuckled. “No.”
“Why not?”
“Because I just broke up with my last boyfriend and I am definitely not interested in getting involved again anytime soon. Besides, I’m sure he’s a great guy and all, but I prefer my guys to be taller. Bald is nice too.”
“But … money!” whispered Mary with a grin. “Mo-ney! Those are Armani suits he wears! Do you know how much they cost? You could quit your job and move to Tokyo and wear a kimono and oil his feet when he gets home!”
“Not interested,” snickered Elizabeth. “I’m not looking for money. And I like this job. I like it a lot. What I want ...” She thought of her porcelain angels. “What I want is my angel.”
“Your angel? Who’s that?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Don’t know yet.”
“Maybe it’s him! How do you know unless you try?”
“I know,” said Elizabeth.
She had just said good-bye to the mysterious Japanese gentleman at the gate at Haneda Airport when the co-pilot appeared behind her.
Elizabeth,” he said. “Just got an urgent message for you to call home.”
Elizabeth got another attendant to take over, and then hurried into a darkened gate down the concourse. She pulled her cell from her suit pocket and dialed hurriedly. A man answered.
Elizabeth,” he said. “This is Jason Gimby from the bridge club. I’ve been waiting for your call. I’m so sorry, Elizabeth. Your Aunt Madelyn has died.”
Elizabeth dropped into a seat without realizing it. She felt dizzy and nauseous. “What ... happened?
“Doctors think it was a stroke. A big one. We don’t know yet. She didn’t answer the door for our bridge game. Gordon saw her in the kitchen. We broke in and called the ambulance, but … I’m so sorry, Elizabeth … she was gone. The doctors think she’d been there more than a day.”
She stood at the grave of Madelyn Kayling Stores and sobbed. It was next to Aunt Karla’s and Owen’s.
The cemetery was deserted. There was no one here but her.
Her family was gone. She had no one. No one.
The shadows were deeper and darker than ever before.
The day, as it was the last time she was here years ago, was blustery and cold. She didn’t care. She fell to her knees, then to her side on Madelyn’s fresh sod. She curled up and bawled and held for all she was worth to Auntie’s confidence that she was on the right path, the right “highway.”
She wasn’t worthy of love. She wasn’t worthy to have her angel. She was damaged goods. She was just a goddamned flight attendant. She was thirty-seven and unmarried. She couldn’t have children. She couldn’t “land” a man. She couldn’t maintain a relationship. She couldn’t let go of her past and its heartbreak. She couldn’t let go of the anger and hate she felt for her parents. The shadows weren’t out here, in the world: they were in her, in her heart! And because of that, her angel would never come, never, never, never!
She beat the ground with her fist and wailed in the grass. She didn’t care if anyone saw her. She only wanted to be with Auntie in the casket six feet below.
She was a failure, a fraud, unwanted and unloved. Forever.
The days and weeks of the next six months blew cold and gray against her spirit and left dark circles under her eyes and a colorless pallor to her cheeks. On more than one occasion she found herself nowhere near her home but in the middle of San Diego, having walked to the Washington Street trolley and boarding the southbound Blue Line. She’d get off at some random point and wander aimlessly up and down the streets. She’d stop at an intersection and come to herself and glance around. How did she get here? What was she looking for?
When she couldn’t come up with an answer, she’d walk on.
Her work was her only lifeline, and she clung to it like a survivor from a capsized boat would to a rope thrown down to her. She became like a robot: hyperefficient and quick and effortlessly helpful. The smiles she gave the passengers were broader and brighter than ever before. Even the mysterious Japanese gentleman noticed, and added six new words to the one he had exchanged with her months earlier:
“You are most helpful. Thank you.”
She went to thank him back, but stopped. He wasn’t smiling, but staring at her very intently, as though he’d intuited her pain and was probing for its causes.
She broke her gaze and gave the weakest smile she’d given any passenger in months, then hurried to the bathroom, where she locked the door and melted into a weepy puddle of goo.
The red-eyes were always very quiet. The plane could carry over three hundred passengers, but rarely were more than a hundred on board. Often it wasn’t half that; and this flight, two weeks after she ran for the bathroom, there was almost no one on board save him and a smattering of travelers in business class. The gentleman had no seatmates. He wore a blue suit with red tie, one she’d seen him wear before and was one of her favorites.
As she poured him his routine glass of white wine (he didn’t even have to ask for them anymore), she found herself saying before she could stop herself: “That’s my favorite suit of yours. It looks really good on you.”
He looked up, surprised. “Why, thank you.”
She went to leave, but he said: “Please. Won’t you join me for a few minutes, Elizabeth?”
She was shocked he knew her name, but then chastised herself: You’ve got a name tag, idiot! Of course he’d know your name!
There were no tasks to do that she hadn’t already done twice, and the plane was already overstaffed given the number of passengers, so she smiled and said, “I’d love to.”
He stood and let her by. (He always sat in an aisle seat.)
She sat in the seat next to his. He unbuttoned his blazer and sat again. As she watched, he took a considered and quiet sip of wine.
“If you don’t mind me saying so,” she said delicately, “you are a creature of habits.”
“It is necessary,” he replied, setting down his glass. “I have a terrible fear of flying. To combat it I force myself to follow a very strict ritual. It keeps me distracted and brings its own sense of safety and comfort.”
He adjusted himself so he could look at her more squarely.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to take you off your routine!”
“There is no need to apologize. Talking is good too. I’m not naturally gregarious, and so rarely make the first move in social situations. For that reason many have mistaken me as off-putting or haughty. I am neither.”
He sipped more wine. “Where are my manners? I am Isao Akimoto. It is good to meet you, Elizabeth—”
“Finnegan,” she said, and took his outstretched hand.
“It is very nice to meet you finally, Elizabeth.”
“And you,” she said, distracted by how nice his hand felt. “May I ask what you do?”
“For a living, you mean? What makes me board an airplane a few times a month and fly to America and back?”
She nodded. He released her hand and took another sip.
“I am a consulting psychiatrist for the University of California Los Angeles Medical School. Forgive me, Elizabeth, but you look shocked. Have I said something to offend you?”
She shook the shock away. “No! No! Forgive me, Isao. I was … was … I just wasn’t expecting that occupation.”
She nodded sheepishly.
“There is something about psychiatry that bothers you?”
“No,” she said quietly, staring at her lap. “I …” She shrugged and shook her head.
“You’ve been seeking mental health services but haven’t found an adequate match.”
She held up. “I’ve been a little … depressed lately.”
“I have noticed,” he said gently.
“You have?”
“I’m a psychiatrist. I know the signs.”
Elizabeth chuckled without humor. “And here I was thinking I was doing a good job covering it up …”
“Oh, you were, you were!” he said, reaching for her hand and giving it a squeeze. “I’m just very good at my job. I am certain you’ve got everybody else snowed.” He winked conspiratorially.
“I love this job,” she said. “But it doesn’t allow for depression. And if you add a few pounds, you’re more often than not fired.”
He listened but didn’t comment.
“Which for me is a double-whammy.”
He grinned. “Ice cream?”
She smiled guiltily and nodded.
“Let me guess: rocky road.”
“Pistachio mint chip. Ben and Jerry’s. I’ve been going through pints of it.”
“You carry it well,” he said. “I have noticed no change in your physical appearance.”
“Thank you, Isao.”
“Don’t mention it. So, Elizabeth, what has gotten you down? Mind sharing?”
“Oh, please, no,” said Elizabeth. “That wouldn’t be right. Besides, I cannot pay you.”
“Psychiatry is my job,” replied Dr. Akimoto. “It is what I do for clients. You are not a client. You are my new friend. I am not your shrink; I am your new friend. Friends listen to each other and help each other with their problems. So, please: what is making you feel so down, Elizabeth? Please tell me.”
Where was she to start? There was so much, and it was so overwhelming, and it had lasted such a long time that if she started talking now she knew it would take the rest of the flight and probably most of the next one before she aired everything out!
So she said simply: “My aunt died recently. She and I were very close.”
“I am so sorry for your loss,” he said with slow emphasis. “I intuit that she was your teacher as well, and also a parent. Is that correct?”
Elizabeth nodded numbly. “And a million other things.”
“Tell me something she taught you.”
“Wow. Hmm. That’s a lot.”
“Pick one.”
“She taught me independence,” said Elizabeth after a time. Thinking of their conversation about highways and signposts, she added, “She taught me to trust my instincts.”
“Why don’t we honor her right now? Tell me: What do your instincts tell you about this moment?”
“Right now, you mean? With you?”
Dr. Akimoto shook his head. “No. By ‘moment’ I mean this little swath of time, the last six hours or so, and the six coming. What do your instincts tell you?”
“I ... don’t know,” said Elizabeth, puzzled.
He studied her. “The worst thing about depression is that it clouds the present. It’s fog. You can’t see clearly, and you fear that the fog will never lift. Try this: take a big spiritual breath and as hard as you can blow as much fog away as you can and tell me what you see.”
“How … how do I do that?”
“Think of a time when the skies of your being opened and all of life was before you in all its glory. Close your eyes. Go on. Good. Now: have you had a moment like that one?”
Elizabeth, her eyes closed, nodded. The song she had clung to all her life was right there. She recalled that precious moment in the hospital when it lifted her higher than she’d ever been before and since. She let it fill her.
“There it is,” said Dr. Akimoto. “It is written all over your face. Now: tell me something about this tiny little moment in your life. Something real. Do not think, just speak.”
Elizabeth responded immediately. Or something inside her did, and it simply took over her vocal chords. In any event she heard herself say, “The sun is coming. The fog will not last much longer.”
She blinked her eyes open, surprised.
As he approached on his way up the aisle to the exit, she smiled and said quietly, “Isao—thank you.”
He reached into his suit coat pocket and pulled out a clear, square plastic case. Inside it was a CD or DVD. He handed it to her.
“What’s this?” she asked, holding it up. The disc inside wasn’t labeled.
He smiled and winked. “Let’s call this DVD a big, big fan to help blow away that fog.” He shook her hand with his free one. “I will see you in three weeks.” He glanced at the disc, then back into her eyes. “Keep it. I’ve got another copy at home.”
He released her hand, gave her another wink, and walked off the plane.
There was a DVD player in her hotel room. She pulled up a chair, turned on the television and player, put the DVD on the tray, and closed it. She grabbed the remote and turned the volume up as the TV screen went from black to a live-action picture of a stage in a darkened amphitheatre.
Japanese announcers were talking quietly. She couldn’t understand them. A public address announcer said something, and the audience, whom Elizabeth couldn’t see, applauded politely as a pretty little girl, nine or ten years old, violin and bow in hand, walked meekly from behind a curtain onto the stage.
Japanese script appeared on the screen. Elizabeth couldn’t read it. The little girl took her place at center stage and brought the violin and bow up to the ready. She hesitated, then began playing.
Elizabeth recognized the piece immediately. It was Beethoven’s Violin Romance No. 2. The symphony backing up the little girl must have been recorded, because there was no one behind her. She was by herself.
As Elizabeth watched, the girl transformed. No longer meek or shy, she commanded the violin as though she had invented it, or as though it had been gifted to her by the gods themselves. She glanced once into the camera, and Elizabeth, without realizing it, dropped the remote.
This was no mere child, no. This …
This was an angel.
Elizabeth, shaking, pushed herself off the edge of the seat to her knees, where she watched as the girl brought the symphony to a close and lowered her violin before bowing. Those meek, shy eyes returned.
At first there was no applause. The shocked silence in the auditorium was solid, substantial, and lasted at least ten seconds. When applause came, it did so haltingly, as though the audience couldn’t believe what they had just heard.
A deafening tsunami of sound overwhelmed the auditorium a moment later. It was applause raised to ecstatic prayer, to unrestrained praise.
The announcers, barely audible over the din, kept yelling the same name over and over: “Yaeko Mitsaki! Yaeko Mitsaki! Yaeko Mitsaki!”
Yaeko Mitsaki.
Elizabeth, on her knees and just able to see through tears, applauded too.
The fog was gone.

Chapter Five