“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.