She could barely contain herself, her heels echoed in the now largely empty parking garage. Clio made for her car, fumbling with the key to open the door. She slumped into the seat and put her head down against the steering wheel, breaking out in tears. Clio cried like she’d never before, it all spilling out. How could that woman have been so cruel, she said to herself. She had no right to say those things. And I just took it. I always let people walk all over me. She knows I do good work. I can’t take this anymore, she thought, squeezing her eyes shut.
Clio sat up and looked at herself in the rearview mirror, her face streaked with tears. Leaning over, she grabbed some tissues out of the glove compartment. After wiping her eyes and nose, she started the car and began to drive out.
The snow-covered streets were largely empty. She reckoned most had taken the day off to get a head start on their weekends. It was beginning to snow again and so, she thought how some would be happy they’d left the day before. Pulling into a parking spot in front of a café she spotted, Clio got out of her car. Why go home right now? She was in a horrible mood and really needed to just let off some steam. Anyway, her boyfriend would only be home later in the evening and she just wanted to be alone right now anyway. Her life was in a mess. That’s all she knew for sure.
She walked into the café and realised, there was no one there. She checked the door for the hours to make sure they were still open. But yes, they’d only close at 6 tonight. Checking her watch, she realised she still had a couple of hours. There was only one person working and he was sitting and reading at one of the tables. He looked up and smiled when she came in. She thought he was likely happy to get some company.
Walking over to the counter, she looked at all the luxurious foods, a temptation for even the most disciplined. She smiled at the attendant. “It’s hard to choose.”
“Yeah, there’s quite the selection. But take your time.” He seemed content to wait while she chose.
“Well, I think I’ll choose the cranberry cream cheese streusel. I thought I’d treat myself after the day I’ve had,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Ah, something sweet always makes us feel better,” he said. “Are you eating in?” She nodded her head.
“Yeah. I think I just need to relax, forget the day. What a fool I’ve been,” she said, her face half way between a whince and a smile.
“That bad, eh?” he placed her tart on a plate. “Did you want anything to drink with that?”
“Yeah, y’know, while I’m at it, I think I’ll have a hot cocoa.”
“Sure, go ahead. I’m getting the feeling you deserve it.”
“Y’know. I think I do. There are just those moments when you need to, I don’t know.” He smiled.
“You need a sympathetic ear and to somehow know everything’s going to be okay?”
“Yeah. I think that’s about it,” she said nodding her head and laughing. “Whether that’s the case is another story, of course.” She smiled and took her cocoa.
“You can just go take a seat, I’ll bring your streusel over when it’s finished heating.”
“Thanks.” She went to take a seat by the window. Already feeling better, she shuffled off her parka and watched as the plough went past. Stirring her cocoa, she blew on it and then took a sip. Her mind was awash. How much she just wanted to be done with it. She’d worked at that company for a little over ten years. And she knew that woman was just trying to show her up, trying to make her look bad. Newly graduated, most likely and knowing all the right people. Anyway, she was sure everyone knew the work she was able to do.
“Here ya go,” he said, placing her streusel on the table.
“Thanks.” He’d already turned around to leave, but she called him back. “You seem like a sensible guy. What would you say to someone who’s had enough?” He looked at her, his face appearing like he was thinking. He came back and pulled up a chair.
“Do you mind?” he said.
“No, not at all.” She took a bite of her streusel.
“Well, it all depends on where you’re at. How do you feel?” Her face looked perplexed. “I mean, is this something that’s gonna blow over by Monday and it’s all good? Or, is this something that’s been simmering for a while? So, that’s what I mean. It depends. The solution’s gotta fit the problem, if you know what I mean.” She turned her head, thinking about what he’d said.
“Y’see, I don’t think it’ll blow over. It’s kinda ongoing and I don’t know,” she said, her eyes focussing on some people walking by outside. “I don’t know, I just feel like I’ve had it. But what can I do? I’m really sorry to be bothering you about this. I feel like such a fool,” she said hurriedly.
“Why do you keep calling yourself a fool? There’s no need to say that. You did what you did and like everyone else, you’re just trying to make the best of things.” She looked down and stirred her cocoa, its steam billowing upward.
“Yeah, I know.”
“I get the feeling, it’s a bad habit,” he said. She looked at him guiltily, raising her eyebrows.
“Guilty as charged,” she said, her voice low and barely audible.
“Besides, if you keep saying that about yourself, why the heck d’ya think everyone else isn’t gonna join in?”
They sat silently for a moment. “People always say you’ve gotta believe in yourself. But I guess, I’ve never been very good at that.” She looked at him askance, her eyes mainly on the window. “All my friends, they’re married with children and everything’s just wonderful for them. Here I am with nothing.” She mindlessly shifted some crumbs around the streusel on her plate.
“Hey, first of all, you have no idea whether your friends’ lives are so perfect. I’m sure if they were here right now and we could asked them, they’d beg to differ. And second of all, I’d really question whether you’ve really got nothing. What are the things you enjoy doing?” He stared at her, his eyes warmly waiting for her response.
“I make stained glass ornaments and frames for a hobby.”
“Do you now,” he said, smiling at the admission. “How long have you been doing that?”
“Oh, just for about ten years. I usually give them to friends. It’s just a hobby.”
“Well, that’s just it. Would you say you’re proud of your stained glass hobby?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, shifting forward on her seat. “I love doing it. I’ve just started writing things in calligraphy and other lettering, too.” She waved her hand to emphasise. “Then I frame it with the stained glass.” He smiled as she described the process and some of the poems she planned on using.
“So, talking about believing in yourself, it sounds like you’ve got every reason to do so.”
“Do I?” She looked at him, sheepishly. He laughed.
“I’m afraid you do.”
“I know. It’s just I start feeling better and there’s this voice in me that almost says, I don’t know …” He held up his hand for her to stop, as if to say, leave it to me.
“It says, ‘Whoa … wait a goddamned minute! Where do ya think you’re going so fast?’ Doesn’t it?” She glanced at him and lowered her head. “And you, dutifully, get right back into place. ‘How dare you step forward, thinking you’re doing anything of any use or value. You get back!’ That’s what it says, isn’t it?” She looked up at him, nodding, her eyes moistening. “Listen, you’ve gotta know, you’re not alone. But when that voice tells you to sit bloody back down and know your place, ya know what you’ve gotta say?” Her eyes were focussed on him, not sure exactly what he was going to say. “Well, you’ve gotta say ‘no,’” he said, his finger pressed down on the table, emphasising his point. “And know with all your heart, you mean it!”
“No,” she said, clasping her cocoa between her hands and taking a sip, all the while looking out the window.
“That’s right,” he said, his voice quiet. “I get the feeling you tend to be at odds with yourself. You kinda think you’re doing everything wrong and that’s how it’ll always be.” Their eyes met. She glanced away. “It’s not a problem and nothing to be ashamed about. Not at all. It’s just it seems when a part of you stands forward and states, yes, I’m a somebody, another part of you hastens forward and hushes you, ‘sshhh, no you’re not!’” Her eyes remained on the passers-by. No one came in, though. She was pleased. “You’ve gotta not listen. You are somebody. You said yourself, you’re good at your work. What do you do?” She looked at him.
“Oh, I’m a law clerk at one of the law offices and so, we do research and other bits for the legal team.”
“But you’ve also got this work you do on the side, your stained glass.” He looked out the window for a moment and then caught her eye again. “Y’know, geez, even if you didn’t also do the stained glass, the thing is, you have no reason to think you’re a nobody. What are you doing always comparing yourself to your friends anyway? They’ve got their lives and you’ve got yours. Sure if there’s something you’d like to change in your life, go ahead. But don’t ever think you’re somehow less than anyone else. Your life is just different. Plus, as I said, I know if you spoke with any of your friends, they’d be sure to tell you, ‘no, everything’s not all right.’”
“Yeah, well, I’d love to just tell the people at my job to shove it.”
“Well, what’s stopping you?” Her eyes focussed on him. “I mean, I’m not saying quit completely. Not yet, at least. But maybe there’s a way you can have your cake and eat it too. That’s all I’m saying. You’ve gotta believe in yourself. Don’t worry about what’s happened in the past. Forget about it. Past failures and mistakes, forget ‘em. And regrets, ditto. Forget em.’ You’ve got the courage and determination. So, do it.” They remained, eye to eye, and then he smiled. “So, hey, why don’t you think about it and I’ll go warm up your streusel because I get the feeling it’s probably all cold again.” He got up taking her plate to the front to put it in the microwave.
She looked outside as she heard the light whirr of the microwave. Maybe, she thought. Maybe he was right. Looking outside, her perspective changed from what was going on outside to her reflection and she smiled.
He came back and placed her streusel on the table. “Thanks. For the streusel and everything else, too.”
“My pleasure.” He looked up at the door and smiled. “Gotta go soon.”
“Oh, yeah. Here I am holding you up.”
“No worries. Take your time.” He smiled and turned around, waiting at the front.
Clio ate her streusel, almost luxuriating in every bite. Somehow, it tasted that much better. She felt like she’d had a great load lifted from her shoulders, weight she hadn’t realised she was carrying. She walked to the front, zipping up her jacket.
“Y’know, coming in here was one of the best decisions of my life, I think. I have to thank you for everything you said. It’s meant the world to me.”
“You’re very welcome. It was the least I could do. And just remember, you’ve gotta believe in yourself. You can do it.”
“Thanks. And I love your T-shirt. Everyone can do with a smile. You’re like one of those mysterious helpers in the fairy tales.”
“Maybe so. I never thought of it like that.” She smiled again and then walked to the door, turning around one more time to wave. She hurried to her car, feeling like she had a new lease on her life. It was such a relief.
When she woke up the next day, she couldn’t wait to get to work. Clio’d decided that night before she ’d closed her eyes, sleep beckoning her, that she was going to quit her job. She couldn’t believe she’d do something so radical. But she knew she’d saved enough money to allow her to not work at all for a year, provided she didn’t fly off on any vacations. She knew she wouldn’t and she’d put everything into her stained glass work. Oh, she knew the money would never be as good as what got at the legal office. Still, she’d be free. And why not try.
Clio placed her hands on the steering wheel and remembered how she felt last week, when she was sitting in this parking garage alone. But she felt a thousand times better now than she did then. She’d handed in her resignation, working until Friday. Looking around, Clio couldn’t help but smile broadly.
The first thing she knew she had to do was go back to the café and maybe he’d be working again. She’d realised she hadn’t even asked his name. After finding a parking spot nearby, Clio walked to the café.
“Excuse me.” The young woman smiled, looking up at her. “Hi. I was here last Friday and I was wondering who the man was who was working.” The woman looked at her with a frown.
“Last Friday. Are you sure?”
“Oh, yes. I’m absolutely sure.” The woman looked at her frowning.
“Well, the only reason I know you can’t be right is because we were closed on that day. I think we were closed from Wednesday, right through to Tuesday of this week.”
It was Clio’s turn to frown. “It was definitely last Friday. The man who helped me, really helped me and I wanted to say thank you.”
“Ma’am, one of the fellows who worked here, he owns this place, he was killed in a car accident and we’d closed for his wake and funeral. So, that’s what I mean. It couldn’t have been last week.”
“But I was here and this beyond lovely man served me. He had on this T-shirt with this smiley face on it. He was about 6 feet tall. Dark brown hair. Almost shoulder length.” She showed with her hand. Clio was confused by the growing look of befuddlement on the woman’s face. “I guess I just don’t understand. You look utterly perplexed,” she said, growing more confused with the entire conversation.
“It’s … it’s just because you’re describing Ric or Cedric. He owned the place.” She moved her hand around, as if showing the place. “I mean, it couldn’t have been last Friday you were here. Not if you met Ric and it sounds like you did. It was his wake and funeral.” She looked away, uneasily. “Maybe you’re just mis-remembering. You must be mis-remembering. I mean, as I said, it’s Ric you’re describing, but … he’s gone.” Clio hung her head down, not sure what else to say.
“Thanks. It was likely the week before and I’m just confused.”
“Yeah, it’s easy to do. I do it all the time,” the woman said, notably relieved. Clio nodded her head again, smiling politely and then left. She didn’t know what to think. It didn’t make any sense at all.
She walked outside and looked across the street for some reason. And he was there. It’s like everything else receded, sound faded and he was all she could see. He smiled and then held up both his hands clasped together towards her, as if in celebration. She smiled, as it seemed like it was another nod of approval. Just one last message that she was on the right path. She blinked and the sounds of the street and the bustling pedestrians returned. She looked up again, but he was gone.
Clio opened her car door, throwing herself in and resting her head back. She closed her eyes. Well, she knew she’d entered a new chapter today. What she’ll do is dedicate her next piece to Cedric as a thank you. It’ll hang on her wall as a reminder. She put on her blinkers and pulled out, looking all around, wondering if she’d see him again. Although, she knew she wouldn’t.
Maybe we all do have our helpers when we need them. It’s just we don’t always realise it when we find them, do we. But they do exist.