Complete darkness, save the twinkling dancers along the Milky Way. Night punctuated only with the chant of cicadas and the chirp of crickets. This was the stillness Genevieve had dreamed of, longed for and gone in search of. From her comfortable, tasteful urban home to this: lying on her back, arms folded behind her head on the pillow of this sparse, though freshly made cot. At least her surroundings were still. Here. At night. Alone, except for her faithful cocker spaniel, Boo, snoring gently at her feet.
“Why are you here?”
The question had startled her as she settled down with her lunch tray at half past noon. She looked over at the young woman who was already picking at the turkey sandwich on her plate. She seemed to be no more than eighteen years old, thin – almost gaunt, with wispy hair framing her square face.
When Genevieve didn’t answer immediately, her table partner repeated: “Yea, you. Why are you here? You could be doing something else, couldn’t you?”
Genevieve tried to gather her thoughts quickly, as she cleared her throat. “Well, I was doing something else before I came here,” she ventured.
“So, what were you doing?”
Genevieve briefly summarized her life: demanding, successful profession, public service, weaving her husband, children and grandchildren into the bigger picture. As she did so, she was conscious of her attempt to downplay the privileged cards she had been dealt. “But somehow it wasn’t enough…” her voice trailed. Embarrassed, she stopped mid sentence.
“Not enough,” the young woman spat! “You ungrateful bitch.”
Genevieve flinched, instantly realizing her immense mistake. Not enough were horrid words to use when defining her life.
“That’s not what I meant…” She was at a loss.
“Well then, what did you mean?” Eyes flashed.
Genevieve tried a different approach. “You know, we don’t even know each other’s names. I’m Genevieve.” She smiled as invitingly as possible. Her table partner’s face remained unmoved.
“Thanks for that! Your name sounds just like your life! Beautiful. Rich. Comfortable. Great for you.” Her words may as well have been laced with icicles; they froze the soul. She didn’t offer her name in return.
Alright then, Genevieve moaned inwardly. This is going well.
“What I meant about ‘not enough’ is…”
“Oh never mind! You’re here because we are your ‘project’. Helping us will somehow make you feel better? Kinda like ease your guilt or something?”
Genevieve’s spirit sank. This honest, perceptive stranger had pierced the core of her heart, and both women knew it!
Now, lying in the safety of dense blackness and utter stillness, Genevieve has no choice but to confront her own heart. She knows exactly what she had meant to say earlier. She had wanted to convey that she longed to do more than she had been doing with her life up to that point. Be more. Connect more deeply. Make a difference. She chides herself fiercely for seriously squandering this opportunity.
She stretches, pulls the covers up to her neck, and Boo rouses just enough to resettle at her side.
She forces her eyes to close, but sleep does not find her. Her mind churns. Why was she here? Had she seriously thought she could make a difference? She, who had been afforded every opportunity and had sometimes not even been forced to suffer the consequences of youthful folly?
The women and girls who were here had lives that were so far removed from hers that she hadn’t even been able to articulate her own choices and desires. She had thought they were noble. But, were they?
A frown settles over her face – no one sees. It is dark and she is alone. Pondering. Confronting. Allowing each twisted motivation, inflated self-assessment, awkward perception, stilted conversation to pass by for her observation, like auditioning actors on a stage. But, each actor is judged according to the same twisted, inflated and awkward criteria that defines the actors.
“This is futile,” she breathes audibly as she determines she must sleep at least an hour or two before rising for another day at the ranch.
When day breaks, she keeps her eyes down as she approaches the main buildings. She wants to avoid any non-verbal invitation to an unwanted confrontation as she walks in search of one of the camp psychologists. She waits her turn.
“May I have a few words with you?”
“Of course, Genevieve,” Ellen, the gracious graying woman beams as she leads the way to her small, somewhat rumpled camp office.
“How are things now after several weeks here?” Ellen begins.
Without warning, tears escape Genevieve’s tired eyes as she summarizes her dreams, hopes, experiences and culminates with the soul-baring interaction of the previous day. Ellen listens until no more words come. The silence between them is life-giving rather than uncomfortable.
After some minutes Ellen asks simply, “Have you changed in the past weeks?”
“Profoundly! Yes!” More silence; minutes pass uninterrupted. “I guess that’s a good thing. I needed to realize that nothing in my life has positioned me to make any difference here whatsoever.” She wipes tears from her eyes and turns to gaze out the window at the sun rising over the baldcypress that line the entrance to the camp.
“Nothing?” Ellen whispers.
Minutes of silent pondering pass.
“I can’t think of anything. No.”
“Where does your desire to make a difference fit in?”
“I’m not sure. I’m not doing a very good job.”
“You know, Genevieve. You’re a person who’s used to getting results. Measurable results. Practice harder; be more focused; implement new techniques. You know when you’re doing something right. Now you’re in a position where you’ll have to wait for results. Give yourself time, darlin’.”
As they rise to head toward the cafeteria Ellen embraces Genevieve. “Thanks.” Her voice is gruff through the frog in her throat.
Time – time indeed. Time to evolve into a new person herself. Can she spare the time?
I rarely “continue” a flash fiction story, but after several email exchanges with a reader over the past days, I’ve decided to delve further into Genevieve’s story. Click here for the prequel.
© Julia Penner-Zook, 2015
photo credit: gettyimages.com