“Welcome back,” Carol smiles at us warmly, though with a tinge of sadness. “As you all have most likely read, we are one less in number. Let’s have a moment of silence.” As we dutifully quiet down, I look around the room. Everyone else has shown up, but no one looks too happy about being here, me included. I see the distrust in each woman’s eyes. How are we going to deal with this? This is a trauma group, after all, and what is more traumatic than dealing with the aftermaths of a murder?
“I think this is crazy,” Jennifer bursts out as soon as Carol indicates that the minute is over. “I think the group should be disbanded. We have a lunatic running around. Who knows who he will kill next?” She quickly crosses herself which causes more than one woman to roll her eyes.
“We don’t know her death has anything to do with this group,” Carol points out reasonably. “The police have thoroughly question me about the group, and I think they’re satisfied that no one here had motive to kill Ashley.” From what I’ve read in the papers, I wouldn’t be too sure about that. The papers imply that the police are hot on the trail of the killer who is a part of this group. I look around the room again, scrutinizing the faces. To my consternation, Maria is looking back at me. She smiles and winks. I look her over more carefully. She has thick, black hair pulled back in a simple braid. Her face is devoid of makeup, but she doesn’t need any. Her dark brown eyes are wide-set, and her skin is a chestnut brown. Her lips curve generously when she smiles, which seems to be often. I can see the tops of her full breasts as they peek out from beneath her low-cut t-shirt. I realize that I’m staring and quickly look away.
“I think we should have police protection,” Jennifer says. “I don’t feel safe here.”
“Girl, the police don’t have no time for protecting nobody,” Sharise, the cop’s ‘widow’ says with a snort. “They too busy catching dope dealers and busting up the ‘hood for stupid shit like that.” It’s clear that she’s no fan of the police, even if her dead boyfriend had been on the force. Or perhaps, because of it.
“We are perfectly safe,” Carol says, raising her voice slightly. “As I said, there is no evidence that Ashley’s murder had anything to do with this group.” She glances at her watch before saying, “Since this is a trauma group, let’s explore how we feel about Ashley’s death. Who would like to start?” The ubiquitous pen is in one hand, the pad of paper in the other. I have to give her credit, however; she’s discreet. I rarely think about her taking notes unless I happen to glance over at her while someone is talking.
“Shouldn’t have happened,” Tudd says gruffly, her eyes fixed firmly on something in front of her. “So young. So much life left. Shame.” She subsides after her terse eulogy.
“She was so spirited,” Astarte begins, spreading her hands to the side. “I may not have been on her wave-length all the time, but I appreciated her perspective.” I look at her hard. I don’t trust someone who is so forgiving of someone who made a pretty horrible accusation about one’s husband.
“She’s in hell,” Jennifer says fiercely, daring anyone to contradict her. “She laughed at the church and fornicated with other women.”
“Jennifer, that is inappropriate,” Carol says firmly, pausing in her scribbling. A few heads bobble in agreement.
“You asked how we felt. That’s how I feel.” Jennifer sticks out her chin pugnaciously. She has a point. It’s not fair to ask for someone’s feelings about something and then censor her when she speaks.
“You make me sick,” Maria says suddenly, staring at Jennifer. “How you and I can come from the same background and turn out so differently, I don’t know.”
“It’s because I’m a good Catholic,” Jennifer snaps back, half-rising from her seat.
“I’m Catholic, too,” Maria says defiantly. “Just because I don’t flaunt my rosary doesn’t mean I’m not a good Catholic.” I want to applaud her for standing up to Jennifer, but decide that would be inappropriate as well. Funny how many inappropriate thoughts have come to me ever since my near-death experience.
“All right!” Carol claps her hands sharply. “This is not helpful. Jennifer, you’re right. You should be allowed to express what you feel. However, you must also realize that most people do not agree with you, and there’s nothing wrong with a little sensitivity. Ashley is dead. No matter how much you disagreed with her, you must realize that she did not deserve to die.” The look on Jennifer’s face implies that she doesn’t agree with that statement. I wonder if she’ll be bold enough to actually say so when her face collapses.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbles, her whole body sagging. “It’s just, I can’t believe she’s dead.” She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, and suddenly, she’s like a little girl again. Carol crosses the room and gingerly pats Jennifer on the back. Jennifer sighs, but allows the contact. The meeting goes on from there, jumping from topic to topic as it did last week. I’m not sure how much good it’s doing me to listen to a bunch of women debate issues ranging from abortion to marriage to the workforce. It seems more like a political meeting than a therapy group. Carol must have read something in my face because she seeks me out at the break.
“Well, Rayne? What do you think?” Today, she is wearing glasses and is peering at me intently through them. Even though she is not carrying her pen and notebook, I can practically envision her taking notes.
“Um, interesting.” My standard answer when I’m stalling for time. “Kind of disparate, though.”
“You think there is no connection among the different threads?” She smiles benevolently at me, something guaranteed to set my teeth on edge. “You’d be astounded at how talking about random things can really heal the inner wound.”
“Is that your theory?” There must be skepticism in my voice because she launches into a dissertation of her beliefs at which point, I tune her out. Nothing is more boring than someone on her hobbyhorse who is incapable of noticing that the other person isn’t along for the ride. As a counselor, she definitely comes up short. I fight the urge to clamp my hands over my ears and force myself to politely listen to her.
“…thesis for my book.” I have no clue what preceded the final phrase, but she is looking at me expectantly.
“Fascinating,” I say blandly, hoping she won’t catch on that I don’t know what she’s talking about.
“Thanks! I think so.” She beams at me before circulating around the room. After what happened earlier, I expect Maria to approach me, and I’m not disappointed.
“Hi, I’m Maria.” She holds out her hand and shakes my hand firmly. Her fingers linger in my palm before pulling away. “Please don’t get me confused with Jennifer. She gives Catholic Latinas a bad name.” Maria smiles brightly, dazzling me with her teeth. I nod my head lamely. I’ve had such a hard time lately trusting my judgment about anybody since, well, just since. “Hey, don’t you know I’m trying to flirt with you?” She smiles again, dimples poking into her cheek. “Am I that out of practice?”
I ask her if she makes it a habit to pick up women at her support group, but I make sure to have a grin on my face while I ask. She lets me know I’m the first one, inching closer as she speaks. She wants to know how she’s doing, but I am at a loss for an answer. I’m out of practice, and my recent entanglement with Vashti has me gun-shy. Maria glides over my silence by grumbling about attending group, then looks at me expectantly to pick up the conversational thread. In a panic, I say I’m sorry to hear about her parents. I commiserate on how much it sucks to lose a parent, telling my sad story of my father being killed by a drunk driver when I was a sophomore in college. Her parents were jacked for their car and even though they didn’t resist the thugs who wanted it, were killed anyway. Her eyes glow as she regales me with the details, letting me know that I would not want to be on the short end of her anger.
I tell her how the guy who crashed into my father had eight previous DWIs and got a year for killing my father. A year. He’s out on the streets while I can never see my father again. I can’t think about it for very long or I’ll go insane. Maria is looking at me sympathetically, her hand lightly patting my arm. She lets me rant a bit about the inadequacies of the legal system before telling me her own woes wit the NYPD. She and her brothers and sisters who still live in New York call the police every day but are not seeing the results. The cops tell them they have nothing. We both wonder if Ashley’s father is getting the same run-around, but we know the answer to that. He has money and prestige which should be enough to get him the answers he seeks. Plus, he’s white. However, money and prestige won’t bring back his daughter—neither will the color of his skin.
I venture to ask about the group as she’s an old hand by now. She shrugs, not really into the structure. She likes most of the women, though, especially when there’s yelling. She says it makes her feel like she’s home. We share a grin over that sally. I tell her about my hippie parents who insisted we talk about our feelings during family meetings. No one was allowed to leave until everyone was happy. Sometimes, it would be well after sundown before we had finished. Maria laughs hard at the idea of her family doing something so touchy-feely. She says the fists would fly for sure, and everyone would have to get out of the house. Ah, life in the barrio. I watch Maria as she’s talking, enjoying our banter. I just pray that she doesn’t ask me out as I’m not ready for that yet.
“Ok, let’s all return to group,” Carol calls out, clapping her hands.
“Wait for me after,” Maria whispers before returning to her seat. For the rest of group, I have a hard time concentrating.
“….disband the group?” My attention is caught by the end of what Carol is saying. “Though I firmly believe that Ashley’s death has nothing to do with her participation in this group, I’m getting the vibe that not everybody feels that way.”
“It’s just freaky,” Sharise proclaims, eliciting several nods. “Girlfriend goes off in group then a few days later, someone puts her out of commission. Mighty suspicious if you ask me.”
“You think it was one of us?” Jennifer asks, her eyebrows puckering. “You think it was me? Murder is a sin! I let God take care of the punishment.” As sanctimonious as her statement is, I don’t doubt her sincerity. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Carol taking notes. It intrigues me because Jennifer hasn’t said anything of substance. I start to wonder what Carol does with the notes after group. This is supposed to be kept confidential. Does she lock them up? Does she show them to her husband? Maybe there is something pertinent to Ashley’s death. Not that there was much said in the last session, but perhaps in earlier meetings. I muse about how I can get her to show me her notes without telling her why I want them. I dismiss the idea as ludicrous before focusing in on the group again.
“It is not my way to assist someone on her path at an undue pace,” Astarte chimes in. “She is not going to reach nirvana any sooner this way.” I notice more than one face close down at the mention of nirvana. It’s too bad. I like Astarte, but her New Age dreck is beginning to get on my nerves.
“Was she a lesbian?” I ask the question that just pops into my mind. “I mean, she talked as if she were, but does anyone know for sure?”
“Never saw her,” Tudd says gruffly, her face flushing red. Maria and Sharise are nodding. I assume that means that they’ve never seen her in the community, either. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t—just that she was too young to get into most events.
“I have proof,” Jennifer says, her lips so thin, they have practically disappeared. “She hit on me during the break of one meeting. I turned her down of course.” She is silent for a minute and just as I’m going to say something, she adds, “What is it about lesbians? Why do they hit on women who aren’t interested? I think that’s sick.”
“Men do it all the time,” Sharise retorts, her eyes flashing. “Girl, you mean to tell me you never had some dude pestering you for a piece of that?” She gestures in the direction of Jennifer’s ass. Jennifer chooses to take offense.
“I’ll thank you not to talk about me like that,” Jennifer huffs, folding her arms across her chest. “That’s different. That’s normal. Homosexuality isn’t. It’s a sin.”
“Just because she hit on you doesn’t mean she’s a lesbian,” I interject loudly. “She might have done it to make you uncomfortable. She seems like the kind of girl who would enjoy doing something like that.”
“These days, who knows?” Maria shrugs. “Kids think it’s cool to be queer. It wouldn’t surprise me if she experimented.”
“Why do you ask, Rayne?” Carol trains her eyes on me, her pen scratching away.
“Just wondering.” I shrug, not bothering to answer the question. Truth is, I don’t really have an answer—it was just something that bothered me. For a girl so blatantly sexual, the fact that she was a virgin startled me. Even if she had been a lesbian, however, it surprised me that she had never been penetrated. Just a twist to her personality that I find odd.
“People aren’t what they seem,” Rosie says softly. Since she rarely speaks in meetings, we all turn to stare at her.
“What do you mean by that?” Carol asks in a gentle voice.
“I work in Marin County,” Rosie says. “A housecleaner. You won’t believe what I see.” She falls silent again, still staring at the ground. In the time I’ve known her, I’ve never seen her look higher than waist-level. “I see everything, but I get mixed up. Maybe I don’t see what I think I see. I don’t know.” She stops, her eyes looking at something only she can see. “Maybe I need help to see clearly.”
“We really need to talk about ending group,” Carol says firmly, shifting her weight from one buttock to the other. Apparently, she thinks the discussion has wandered too much and is trying to steer us back on track. Rosie looks crestfallen that she’s been cut off and folds back into herself. “We have five minutes left. Any thoughts?”
“I say we go on,” Sharise says, looking around the room. “I need this group to get through the week. Don’t see why we gotsta pay just because some white girl gets herself killed.” Her words are biting, but her tone is strained—indicating more tension than anger.
“Let’s put it this way. Anyone think we should end the group?” Carol looks around, but no one raises her hand. Not even me. I’m still not sure the group is doing me any good, but I don’t think it needs to be shut down, either. “Then I’ll see you next week!” We stand and stretch. Women begin filing out, but I wait for Maria.
She asks me out for coffee, her grin dazzling. If I’m not careful, I could fall for that grin. I want to say yes, but my voice is caught in my throat. What do I know about her other than her parents were murdered and she is attending a group for trauma? I curse Vashti for making me so untrusting of others and of my own instincts. I can’t even have a cup of coffee with a striking woman without freaking out. I shake my head once and watch as Maria’s face falls. I try to explain about Vashti without giving too much away, but it’s clear by the look on Maria’s face that she thinks I’m just blowing her off. However, she gives me the benefit of the doubt, which is truly kind of her.
“I understand.” Maria rummages through her purse, coming up with a stubby pencil and a scrap of paper. She scribbles something on the paper and hands it to me. “Here are my cell number, my land line, my pager number and my e-mail address. Use any or all of the above if you change your mind.” I gather her info and stuff them in my purse, but don’t offer mine in return. I rarely use my cell phone, and I’m not around the apartment enough to give out that number. As for my email address….Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t give her my information because I want to keep her at a distance. I don’t mind lying to others, but I prefer being as honest as possible with myself. I hurry out the building, catching Carol talking animatedly to someone, I can’t tell whom, out of the corner of my eye.
When I return home, Paris is nowhere in sight which is a relief. It means that he’s starting to return to normal and won’t be hounding my every move any more. While I appreciate all he’s done for me, I prefer to have some breathing room. There are three messages on the machine—one from Vashti, two for Paris. I leave the ones for Paris while fast-forwarding through Vashti’s. I wander to the fridge and grab myself a beer and some leftover pizza. I don’t bother nuking the pizza as I like it cold. I go into the living room and turn on the television. My mind glazes over as I flick through the channels. I allow myself to relax and chill out as I surf through various shows. Next thing I know, it’s ten o’clock—time for the news. Ashley’s murder is still a hot story, if only because her father is such a prominent citizen of the fair state of California. The local news station is doing a feature on her. To my surprise, there is Carol before my eyes. Obviously, they must have taped this bit earlier.