“Spreading Our Wings,” she says, patting her red curls. The name tag on her desk reads ‘Tessa Simpson’.
“Pardon?” I am unsure what she is trying to convey.
“That’s the name of the group,” Tessa says with a wide smile.
“I can’t call it that,” I protest. I think for a minute before adding, “You do realize that the initials spell out S.O.W.?”
“It was done that way on purpose,” Tessa assures me earnestly. “Think of all the hard work a sow has to do. Birthing her piglets, feeding them, nurturing them. Watching them get taken away to be used as food. Talk about your traumatic events! How would you get over something like that?”
“You’re kidding me.” I am unsure whether to take this woman seriously. She looks at me for a minute before bursting into laughter. Relieved, I join her.
“Yes, I am,” she confesses, still smiling. She has fine wrinkles around the corners of her hazel eyes which are gazing at me in friendly interest. “I love the look on newbies’ faces when I spin that tale for them. In reality, Carol—Ms. Sayers—just liked the way it sounded and only realized belatedly the unfortunate acronym. I’m the one who thought up the sow story.” Her open countenance invites me to laugh with her, so I do. “Carol should be out here in a minute. Have a seat.” She nods at the wooden lobby chairs. They look as if they would barely hold my weight, so I remain standing. I’ve never been in the A Ray of Hope building before, and like most nonprofit agencies, the building itself is not prepossessing in the least. There are the usual drab paintings on the beige walls. I pray the room the meetings take place in is not this boring. I spy a painting or two done by a kid, which I always enjoy. At least kids put some feeling into their art, unlike many adult artists. There is a coffee machine in the corner with the usual Styrofoam cups. I grab a cup of tepid coffee and stir in plenty of milk and sugar. It doesn’t help; the coffee is undrinkable. I toss the cup in the garbage and finally sit down to wait. The chair is sturdier than it looks.
Ten minutes pass. I am annoyed. Ms. Sayers had asked me to come a half an hour earlier so she could do an intake before the meeting. I know I shouldn’t let it get to me as time in a nonprofit agency is notoriously fluid. I sometimes joke at my agency about them running on CP time, but nobody finds that very funny. They’re a bunch of stiffs who wouldn’t know a joke if it bit them in the ass, though, so I don’t take it personally. I lean back in my chair and try to breathe deeply. There is a tightness in my chest that won’t loosen no matter what I try. I inhale through my nostrils for a count of seven, hold it for a count of four before slowly releasing it through my mouth for a count of seven. I don’t know how I came up with those numbers, but it does the trick nine out of ten times. Wouldn’t you know it, this is the tenth time?
The root of my discomfort is my dislike of groups in general, ‘the girls’ not-with-standing. I also find it daunting the idea of spilling my guts in front of not one, but multiple women. I remind myself that I don’t have to speak if I don’t want to, but that is small comfort. Intellectually, I realize that if I want to get something out of the group, at some point I have to participate. I bolt up in my chair. Some groups make their members speak. What if this is one of those groups? If so, I’m not sticking around. It is one thing about us Californians that I will never understand—diarrhea of the mouth. As a Midwest person I know once said, ‘Back home, you could know someone for fifteen years and never really know what they’re thinking, while here, you know someone fifteen minutes, and they tell you their whole life. story’ My response was that I must be a Midwesterner, then, because I hate people who impart their whole life stories the first time they meet you. Actually, I think it’s my way of rebelling against the openness of my hippie parents.
“Ms. Liang? I’m Carol Sayers.” A voice jars me out of my thoughts. I look up at a slim, forty-something woman with blond hair cut in a fashionable bob and green eyes that gaze at me with friendliness. She holds out her hand, and I rise before taking it. Her handshake is firm, but not punishing. I check her out discreetly. She is wearing jeans and a white Oxford shirt. Not exactly professional, but that’s California for you. Go with the flow, man.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Sayers.” I nod at her foolishly, not sure what to do.
“Please, call me Carol.” Her smile seems genuine and not one of those pasted-on therapist smiles.
“Carol. I’m Rayne.”
“What an interesting name.” Carol ushers me to an office behind the receptionist desk. Once we are inside, she shuts the door. The office is windowless and the size of a broom closet. I find myself fighting for breath.
“Can we prop the door open a bit?” I ask thinly, hating myself for having to ask for something so soon after meeting her.
“Of course.” Carol opens the door a foot. “How’s that?”
“Great.” I sit in a chair across from her desk—it’s the same kind of chair as the ones in the lobby. Her diplomas are framed and hanging on the wall behind her desk—I can’t read where they’re from, but I can just make out ‘BA’ on one of them and ‘MA’ on the other. There is also a certificate that has something about ‘Family’ on it. One of them says Boston College, I think. “Rayne is short for Rainbow, by the way.” I redden under her questioning gaze. “My parents are, were, hippies.”
“Were?” Carol pulls out a pad of paper from her immaculate desk and fishes a pen out of the top drawer. She scratches a note and looks at me expectantly.
“Are. Well, my mother still is, but my father is dead.” No matter how many times I say it, it still doesn’t feel real. After he first died, I kept expecting for it to hit me that he’s never returning. Months after the funeral turned into years; I’m still waiting for that day. It’s surreal bordering on absurd, but I expect to see him again.
“Is that why you’re here?” Carol asks sympathetically, leaning forward slightly. “Because of your father’s untimely death?”
“No! That was years ago. I’m fine with it now. Really.” I am lying, of course, but not substantially. I have learned to cope with the fact of the death of my father. I wouldn’t say I’m fine with it, exactly, but neither am I frozen by it.
“Names are so interesting, aren’t they?” Carol asks brightly, doodling on her notebook. “It’s funny. I use my husband’s name socially, but my maiden name professionally because, well, my husband’s name doesn’t pair up well with mine.”
“What is it?” I ask without interest. It can’t be as strange as mine.
“Terrell,” she says, accenting the first syllable. “I didn’t think anybody would take me seriously as Carol Terrell.” She laughs. I can tell it’s a story she’s told a hundred times and don’t join in. “So what brings you to A Ray of Hope and Spreading Our Wings, Rayne?” She is taking notes the whole time which is making me uncomfortable. I’m not saying enough for her to be scribbling so energetically. It makes me wonder what she is writing in addition to my comments.
“Um, I was involved in a murder investigation a month ago,” I mumble, not sure how much information I want to give. I know she is covered by psychologist/client confidentiality rules, but I still don’t feel comfortable telling a total stranger my business.
“The Lesbian Lothario?” She asks, her tone infused with energy.
“Yes.” I wince at the tacky name one of the murder victims had been dubbed with because of her ruthless ways of taking lovers and tossing them away when she used them up. This despite her live-in, long-term girlfriend.
“That was a fascinating case,” Carol nods her head enthusiastically before immediately lowering her voice to a professional murmur. “So how exactly were you involved?” I hesitate. How much of an explanation do I want to give this woman? I equivocate and give her a bland answer about my roommate knowing the victims and having met them myself on a couple occasions. I can tell by the look in Carol’s eyes that she’s not convinced, and she’s disappointed in my answer. I scrounge my brain for something to add, something innocuous that won’t give away too much.
“Um, my best friend was the main suspect, but he was cleared in the end.” That had been in the paper, so I’m not telling tales out of school.
“Your best friend is a man?” Carol’s tone is carefully neutral, but I detect something there.
“Yes.” I am not impressed with her questions so far. She should know better than to ask yes and no questions of a first-time visitor. Perhaps she picks up on my vibe because she asks a more open-ended question the next time.
“How does it feel to have been so close to two murders?” Again, she is leaning forward slightly, waiting for my response.
“Terrible.” I can’t repress a shiver at the memory of the dead women. I had seen the first body right after she was killed, and it’s not an experience I wish to repeat. I retreat into my shell, feeling threatened by this line of questioning. I have spent the last month trying to forget the whole nightmare; here is this woman asking that I not only relieve the experience, she wants me to recall how I felt. “Getting that close to death is hell. There’s nothing that can prepare you for it.”
“Good, good.” She nods her head and makes a few more scribbles. “Tell me more. How are you sleeping?”
“Not well,” I answer honestly. “I have nightmares almost every night. I wish they would stop.”
“Dreams are our subconscious’s way of telling us things we don’t consciously know or are repressing. What you went through was a particularly terrifying event that can’t be processed logically or rationally. Unfortunately, that means your subconscious has to do most of the work.” Her eyes sparkle as she talks. She really loves what she’s doing, which is rare to see in a social worker or therapist who has been in the business for any length of time. “How did it feel to almost die?” The question comes as a shock since I haven’t mentioned anything about it. Of course, I made every paper and news show, so my face isn’t exactly anonymous.
“That was dumb of me, huh?” I ask sheepishly. “Not telling you right away.”
“It’s understandable, Rayne. You don’t want to be reminded of that night, or be known solely as the woman who cheated death.” I wince again as she recites the inane headline of one article written about me. A tabloid which had somehow managed to snap a picture of me right after I was rescued. It is not the most flattering picture of me. “You have an identity outside of those events. Unfortunately, in our society, people are more comfortable with sound-bites than with in-depth reporting. They’d rather peg you with one characteristic or identity than entertain the possibility that you’re more complex than that.” She looks at me, waiting for a response, but she hasn’t asked a question yet. Finally, she says gently, “How did it feel to almost die?”
“My life didn’t flash before my eyes,” I joke, stalling for time. This isn’t something I have talked about with anyone, not even Paris. The way my mind blanked out at the sight of the gun. My brain refused to comprehend what was happening, that I would soon cease to exist. I was literally paralyzed with fright, and the would-be killer had to physically drag me from my bed because my feet wouldn’t work on their own. Carol is still watching me patiently, though I catch her stealing a discreet glance at her watch. I look at the clock over her head and see that it’s five to seven. Time to wrap this up. “I felt nothing at the time. It wasn’t until after the ordeal was over that I felt fear. My way of coping, I suppose.”
“Your body knows what it needs to survive,” Carol agrees. “Although after an experience like this, it might go a little haywire, jumping at the slightest sound.” She looks at me inquiringly, and I feel myself blushing. “I think that’s enough background for now.” She scribbles a few more notes before standing up.
“What are you writing?” I ask, my curiosity getting the best of me.
“My general impressions and thoughts,” Carol shrugs. “Nobody sees these notes but me. They are confidential.” I am not entirely appeased; I know how confidentiality works at a small nonprofit agency like this one. Where I work, a secret doesn’t stay a secret for very long. I actually heard Alicia, the lead counselor, discussing one of the cases with Esperanza, the person in charge of the teachers. Alicia was describing in detail the abuse the child had suffered at the hands of her father, which should have been kept confidential. Alicia hadn’t even cared that I had overheard.
Carol leads me to a meeting room that is painted a warm yellow. Not lemony-yellow, but more of an egg custard-yellow. There are bright splashes of other colors woven into the yellow. Tacky, but an improvement over the beige walls in the receptionist area. My guess is that they didn’t have enough money to paint every room and sacrificed the lobby, which is a mistake in my opinion. It’s the first place people see, and it’s where they have to wait. It would be nice to wait in a bright, warm room, but who’s asking me? There are tables lining the far wall of the room with the ubiquitous coffee urns sitting smack dab in the middle of one. Regular and decaf. If it’s the same coffee as in the lobby, I prefer not to take my chances. There is also a pitcher of water and a platter of brownies. I cross to the table to pour a glass of water and to grab two brownies which I place carefully on a napkin.
There are eight women in the room not counting me or Carol. They range in age from young twenties to upwards of late forties. Three Latinas, two black women, three white women. I am the only Asian in the room; I hope that doesn’t become an issue. I would peg the Latinas as being from the Mission District whereas I don’t know about the black women. The white women look like Nob Hill or Bernal Heights to me, but that could just be my prejudices speaking. They are all looking at me with frank interest. Most have smiles on their faces but one of the white women—well, girl, really as she’s obviously a teenager—is scowling. She is pretty in that Britney Spears sort of way with augmented boobs a la Miss Spears, only this version is more hardcore than Ms. Britney. I look at her twice to see if I know her from somewhere, but I don’t. I conclude that either she is one of those emo kids who hate on general principle, or perhaps she has a problem with Asian women. One of my sisters stole her man or something ridiculous like that. I wait for Carol to take control of the meeting which she does after pouring herself a cup of coffee.
“Attention, please.” Carol claps her hands to get everyone’s attention. Since they are all looking at me in the first place, it’s not a difficult task. “I would like to introduce our newest member, Rayne. I’ll let her tell us why she is here. Then we’ll go around the circle and everyone will introduce herself and why she’s here.” There is a polite smattering of applause which peters out almost immediately.
“Um, hi.” I stare at the ground. I hate talking in front of a group. “As Carol said, my name is Rayne, and well, I was involved in a recent murder investigation—”
“Shit! Not the dyke murders?” One of the black women calls out. I wince at her use of the term as I don’t know if she is a lesbian or not. “Girl, the community was shook up after that, I can tell you.” I relax, knowing I don’t have to take offense at her use of the word ‘dyke’. I check her out discreetly, liking her fierce cheekbones and long neck. She is packing a shapely body under jeans and a red sweater.
“Is that the one where the girl fornicated with anything that moved?” One of the Latinas who spoke with no trace of an accent. She has wild curly hair that refuses to be tamed no matter how often she brushes it out of her face. She glares at the black woman who just spoke who ignores her in turn.
“Yes,” I say miserably. Is this my fifteen minutes, Andy Warhol? I do not want to be linked to this for the rest of my life. It chills me to think this is the defining moment of my life. “Um, I was at the party where Moira was murdered.”
“So fucking what?” The angry young white woman bursts out. She has a pierced tongue that clacks against her teeth as she talks. When I look at her more closely, her resemblance to Britney Spears dissipates, and she becomes Courtney Love instead. The sneer on her face doesn’t improve her looks, nor does the thick black eyeliner. Then again, I like the natural look, so I’m prejudiced. “You think that makes you all hard or something? Just because you went through some tough times. Everybody wants a piece of the victim label.” There is naked hostility in her voice that I don’t know what to do with.
“Ashley, that’s enough.” Carol doesn’t raise her voice, but there’s a firmness to it that has hitherto been absent. Ashley? This Eminem wannabe’s name is Ashley? You have GOT to be kidding me. No wonder she’s pissed-off—how the hell’s she supposed to get any street cred with a soft name like that? “You know better than that.” She motions for me to sit, and I do so as far from Ashley as possible. The women on both sides of me nod in welcome. “Let’s introduce ourselves. We only go by first names here. Who wants to start?” There is a moment of silence before the black woman spoke.