“The only way to live, to really live, is to be fully present. To feel something, we must shed our calloused skin. We must burst the bubble of our own little universe of habit and comfort.”
Vera focused on the compact, black notebook the counselor had passed around. My adventure stars here was printed on the hardback cover next to a tiny star image. She darted her eyes around the others in the circle as the challenge was given.
“This task can be approached in many ways. Just open your eyes to what…and who… is around you,” the counselor said as he stood up and began to circle behind the group. “This may begin with something as simple as leaving your phone in your pocket or smiling at a stranger. However, for the next week, I want you to do the opposite of what you’d normally do in everyday situations….break the old mold so to speak. Then write down your experiences in the notebook.”
Vera’s eyebrow lifted, the only sign to the outside world that she heard the words. If she wasn’t afraid of looking like a fool, she would have told everyone that she thought the idea was ridiculous and that there was no way she was participating. But her outrage caught in her throat, coming out as an awkward cough.
But for the first time in a while, her stomach flipped and her skin tingled. Was it apprehension? Excitement? Before she had the opportunity to further examine this novel spark, the meeting was over.
Her shoulders relaxed as she blended back into the activity of the city street. She wanted to call her sister and talk about the challenge. After all, Kat was the one to suggest the group.
“I just think it may help, Vera,” she said during their last telephone call. “There’s more to life than work and holing up in your apartment.”
That was easy for Kat, the eternal optimist, to say. Kat always knew what she wanted, and between her teaching job and traveling the world during summers, she seemed to find it. Even after experiencing the same turbulent childhood as she, Kat managed to charge full steam ahead after life. And she still managed to text her links to articles about social anxiety and find miracle solutions for Vera’s persistently humdrum life. Hence the group and the ridiculous challenge. She appreciated her, though, and was excited that she’d be moving home.
Spotting her bus approaching the stop beneath the graying sky, she decided to wait to call Kat. She climbed in and took a seat by herself a few rows back, passing people all lost on their phones. Settling in, she pulled a novel out of her bag but left it closed on her lap, opting to watch the city scenery as the bus inched along its route. Getting hungry, she thought about the cereal she’d probably eat in front of the television back at home. Do the opposite of what you’d normally do, Vera.
Noticing some shops and restaurants, she realized she hadn’t been to that neighborhood in quite a while. Even though it looked like rain, it could be a relatively easy way to at least attempt the challenge. Then she’d have tried and could tell Kat that. Ignoring the sinking feeling at the thought of eating in a restaurant alone, she exited at the next stop. Seeing a little café with a narrow table and barstools facing to the street, perfect for dining solo, Vera beelined for it before second-guessing herself.
The air carried the comforting, greasy scent of something fried. Vera’s stomach grumbled, driving her inside.
“Hello. Table for one?” the hostess asked. Her choppy, short hair was shaved on one side and showed off a silver, star-shaped earring.
Wishing she had the guts to get such a fashionable and easy hairstyle, Vera motioned to one of the barstools by the window.
“Follow me.” The hostess placed the menu on the table. “Anything I can get you now?”
“Uh…no…thanks though. Uh…I like your hair,” she said. “I mean, it’s really cool.”
The hostess’ eyes brightened. She smiled and reached up to touch one of the cropped, blonde strands. “Thank you so much. My husband isn’t so sure,” she said with a laugh. “He prefers it long, but I decided to go for it. You only live once, right?”
Vera nodded silently, hearing the echo of the counselor in her words.
“Let me know if you need anyth…”
Just then a crack of thunder made them both jump.
“On that note,” the hostess said, laughing, “I’ll leave you with the menu.”
After placing her order with the waiter, she called Kat and relayed all the details of the meeting. “Thanks for the recommendation, but saving that money for our plan would’ve been wiser. That’s more important than this cockamamie challenge. But at least I got a free notebook, a very nice one too.”
“…um….about that. Well, I think you should do the challenge…take some chances. I know this isn’t the best time to tell you, but…”
Feeling her stomach clench, she encouraged Kat to continue.
“It’s just that I’ve met someone, Vera. A very special someone actually. We’re talking about Thailand and teaching for a bit…you know, having some adventures and making a difference. I mean, it’s not all worked out. Just don’t want you to be disappointed if plans change.”
“Are you sure? I know that we…”
As the waiter served her lunch, she said to Kat, “It’s okay…promise. Food’s here. Love you…talk soon.”
Minutes later, raindrops rolled down the café window. Lunch, although it looked delicious, was largely untouched. Vera turned her head to find the waiter and noticed a man pacing behind his table. Dressed for business, he picked up his water glass and emptied what appeared to be only ice-cubes into his mouth. His hand trembled as he returned the glass to the table. She lowered her eyes and turned around.
“Do you have a plastic bag or something?” the man said. “I’m such an idiot.”
“Hold on,” the waiter said before retreating through the kitchen doors. Break the mold, so to speak…
Taking a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, Vera turned back around and looked at the man.
Catching her eye, he began to ramble. “So sorry…didn’t mean to ruin your lunch.”
“I’m late for a job interview. I really need it. I came in here for a quick caffeine kick…ugh, I hoped it wouldn’t rain. I’m just not used to dressing like this, and I don’t have a coat that works. I could have carried an umbrella…well, if I owned one…”
“Oh…” As she looked at his flushed face, she noticed that he was younger than she thought. Probably just out of college. “I have an umbrella.” She reached for her tote hanging on the back of the barstool. “You can have it…I mean…I’m just going home…and the rain should stop soon.”
His face went from panic to hopeful disbelief in two seconds flat. “Seriously? Oh my God…thank you…” Grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair, he practically sprinted over to Vera and her animal-print umbrella. “Can I offer you anything for it?”
“No. Good luck,” she said, “Sorry, it’s not more…well…your style. The umbrella, I mean.”
“Is it okay if I hug you? I mean…you’re practically saving my life.”
She nodded, her face flushing, as he quickly embraced her.
“This woman saved my life,” he playfully yelled to anyone in shouting distance.
Vera waited out the rain-shower, drinking tea and writing in her new notebook. As she carefully drew each letter of her thoughts onto the creamy pages, she wondered how the man’s job interview was going. Then her thoughts turned to Kat’s adventure. Maybe it was time to make her own.
Later, she decided to walk through a park instead of dashing directly to the bus stop. Directly ahead, a man bundled in layers of clothing sat on a bench next to what appeared to be his belongings stuffed into plastic grocery bags.
Cursing herself for not staying on the main street, her first instinct was to turn around. But instead she drifted to the far side of the path to give them both as much room as possible.
“You know what time it is?”
“Uh…yes…” Vera rummaged through her bag, trying to find her phone. She scanned the park, reassured to see that there were other people around, talking and laughing. “About 5.”
“Thanks.” He glanced up at her with fatigued eyes. We must shed our calloused skin.
“Do you need anything…I mean…” Vera fumbled for words as she took a closer look at the man. He wore a faded camouflage jacket with jeans, shredded in the knees. “Oh…are you hungry? I mean…I have half a sandwich here. I didn’t touch it, I promise…”
At this, his mouth twisted into a semblance of a smile. Maybe he was someone who used to smile often, but the firm set of his square jaw quickly returned. “Yeah, I could eat.”
“Uh…okay,” Vera said, glancing at the other half of the bench. “Maybe I can sit with you a bit?”
“Suit yourself,” he said, his tone held a hint of surprise.
Between bites of sandwich, he recounted how much he missed his son. He wasn’t permitted to see him after he lost his job and couldn’t pay child support or maintain an apartment.
As she stood to leave, he took her arm. “Thanks…for the food…but mostly for seeing me…as a human, I mean.”
Inspired, she wanted to write about the experience in the notebook.
“Excuse me,” a woman’s voice called from behind her.
Vera slowed and turned around.
“Whew, finally caught up with you,” the woman said, smiling and slightly out of breath. “I’m Genevieve Parker.”
“I’m a photographer working on some pieces for a show. The light’s amazing right now, so I grabbed some shots. Do you work with the homeless…or…”
“Uh, no, I’m a copyeditor at Shaw.” Vera said, feeling self-conscious and exposed. “You took pictures?”
“Yes, and you’re in some. I know that’s weird. But I’m a good photographer and the shots are amazing. So amazing that I may need your permission to use them publically.”
“It’s okay to send a release?”
“Well, yes. But I’m not sure…”
“We won’t use your name or anything…” We must burst the bubble of our own little universe of habit and comfort.
“Great, I’ll be in touch.”
Continuing to stretch her boundaries, the notebook pages filled with fresh experiences and reflections. She wasn’t as easily caving into fear and worry about what other people would think. In some cases, she’d also like to think that she changed other lives in small ways.
When she received Genevieve’s invitation to a gallery show called Tales of the City, she had almost forgotten about the encounter.
She had no trouble picking Genevieve out of the crowd, a queen bee in a swarm of people. Vera, however, was drawn to one black-and-white photograph depicting a woman she barely recognized sitting on a bench half-turned in the direction of the camera. Rays of light pierced through the gray sky at the top of the image, making puddles and raindrops glisten on tree branches. The woman was undeniably her but with an openness and vulnerability she didn’t know she possessed.
“Glad you’re here, Vera. What do you think of After the Rain?” Genevieve asked.
“Well, it’s amazing, but…yes, it’s amazing.”
“I’m so happy you like it. Follow me.”
Behind a back curtain, Genevieve handed her a check. Stunned, Vera saw it was written out to her. Even more unbelievable was the amount.
“Those moments you took for a stranger changed my life. It’s only right that I share some of my success with you.”
The automatic no caught in Vera’s throat and became a yes. She knew exactly what to do with that money.
And when she pushed back the curtain and reentered the bustling gallery, she continued, buoyantly, on her ever-broadening adventure starring right here.
Jennifer Christiansen, a writer and school librarian, lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two miniature schnauzers. She is an animal advocate, traveler, bibliophile, and lover of all things dark and romantic.