I huddled down over the candle as if my life depended on it. Pou laughed as I shivered uncontrollably. Neither of us had anticipated the arctic storm that had blown in over night. The outside temperature had dropped to 17 degrees by morning. We’d both come in from work to find not much difference between the outside temperature and the one inside.
“Are you using the candle as a heater?” he giggled.
“My hands are freezing,” I shivered.
“The heat’s on now,” he said as he placed a blanket over my shoulders, “You’re such a drama queen. It’s not that cold inside.”
“Maybe not to you,” I said, “I don’t have as much insulation as you.”
“Is that another fat joke?” he said as he sat next to me on the floor and gave me a playful shove with his elbow.
Smacking him in the back of the head, I grinned, “I don’t make fat jokes, but since you went there….”
“Don’t make me knock the shit out of you,” he raised his hand.
“Pshsh! Really, Pou? Really?” I cocked an eyebrow, “You know I’ll smack you around like the bitch you are.”
Unable to maintain the mock antagonism, we both burst out laughing like we’d always done.
“You’re warmer now?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” I smiled, “or maybe I’ve just gone completely numb.”
I stared back at the three flames flickering wildly of the surface of the red candle wax and tried to imagine they were a blazing fireplace. It was the same kind of candle I’d bought him as a housewarming gift. He’d been buying them ever since. I loved the cranberry mandarin fragrance. It must have grown on him, too.
We were unlikely friends on the surface. I would have never pictured it a year ago when we first started working together. My first impressions of him weren’t exactly favorable. In fact, I couldn’t stand him. He was loud, vulgar and had absolutely no sense of tact whatsoever. We hardly spoke the first few months of my employment.
My earliest real memory of him still makes me laugh. I was walking through the backroom on my way to my station. He was standing about ten feet in front of me so that I’d have to pass him on my way out. As I approached, he said something offensive (I can’t remember exactly what). Wanting to retaliate, I shot a rubber band I’d had on my wrist in his direction. I had meant it to go over his head, but it struck him square in his left eye. Luckily, his eye suffered no permanent damage.
The event, however, set a precedent that dictated how we interacted from then on. Even my nickname for him, “Pou” was the result of one of my completely inappropriate jokes about him being akin to a Poo Poo platter – not the kind served in Chinese restaurants. Somehow, in between all the verbal and physical sparring, we had managed to become friends.
I was surprised at how much we had in common and even more surprised at how much I grew to trust him. We liked the same kind movies, tv shows and music, had similar attitudes about society, religion and life in general. I think he understood, on an instinctual level, my need for permanence and something “normal” as well as my fighting the knowledge that such things would probably never exist for me.
My adoption, the events that followed and my adaptations to them had shaped a perpetual alien who would always long for a home without knowing how to exist in one. What had my youth and marriage taught me other than that it was all an illusion? The people I’d trusted the most had lied to me time and time again so much so that they seemed to have believed their own lies. The worst part was that I’d played an active role in the deception.
How do you weed out and fight self deception? Despite the constant reminders, dad had always maintained he saw me no different than my non-adopted brothers and sisters, yet there it was:
“Well, I guess your dad figured if a blood daughter could do something like that, then an adopted daughter wouldn’t have any problem doing something just as bad.”
“What are you thinking about?” Pou asked, nudging me out of my trance.
“Everything, I guess,” I answered.
“You thinking about that shit with your dad again?” he asked, “I hate when you look depressed like that.”
“Trying not to think about it, actually,” I breathed, “I’m trying not to think of anything at all, but it’s not working.”
“You need to figure out what you want to do,” he advised.
“Oh, I know what I want to do,” I replied, “It’s getting there that’s the hard part. I just want to have something normal and stable – like I’ve always wanted. Why does it always have to be like this?”
“You can cry if you want,” he said as he put a hand on my shoulder, “I won’t think any less of you.”
“I don’t want to cry,” I said even as a tear welled up in the corner of my eye.
“Why do you always hold it back?” he asked.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop if I don’t,” I answered, “I don’t want to be weak. I’m tired of being weak.”
Tired. I was tired of being sad, tired of being angry and sick of being hurt. I’d just turned 40 a few days prior and felt enough was enough. Just when I felt I’d taken a step forward, something would happen that made it that much harder to try. Some might say that life was just like that, but did it have to be?
“But there are days,” I whispered, “that I just don’t want to try anymore. It’s like a constant battle where the odds just get more and more out of my favor.”
“Yeah, yeah, you say that until you get really pissed off,” he laughed, “You don’t know how to exist any other way. Besides, you have the kids to think about.”
“I know, but sometimes it just feels good to say it even if I don’t really mean it,” I smiled, “Know what I mean?”
“You can be such a dumb ass,” he jabbed, “You’re not weak, and this will just make you even stronger in the end.”
What did terms like “weak” and “strong” mean in my world anyway? It took a certain kind of strength to cry, a certain kind to keep it inside, another kind to fight and still another to walk away. Weakness in one person’s eyes might look like strength to someone else. The dual nature of existence strikes again.
“I want chicken,” he declared suddenly.
“Raaandom!” I sang out, “You and your stomach…”
“I can’t help it,” he groaned, ” when I’m hungry, I can’t think of anything else. It’s a man-thing.”
“Man-thing, my ass,” I laughed, “It’s a Pou-thing.”
It was also a Pou-thing to make me laugh when I didn’t feel like it.
“And you call me a dumb ass!” I said as I hit him in the shoulder, “Where are we going to get chicken this time of the morning?”
“True,” he sighed, “I’ll get something here. We can get chicken later.”
“By then you’ll want something else,” I yawned.
“You’re warm now?” he asked as he patted my head.
“It’s amazing how warm you can feel just by staring at a candle flame,” I whispered, “After a while, you just stop feeling the cold.”
Maybe I really had gone numb. At that moment, I felt nothing at all. Not the cold, not the stress of the last year – nothing. Apathy was my temporary pain killer. It was my signal that mental and physical exhaustion were about to set in.
“You’ve been up for almost 30 hours. You should sleep a little before you head home,” he looked concerned, “The kids are in school. You have time to rest a little.”
The all-nighters had become too common. It seemed like at least twice a week, I was going whole days without sleep, 5 hour energy drinks barely keeping me upright.
“Sleep is a waste of time,” I replied, “I’ll sleep when I need to.”
“Stop thinking about shit,” he frowned, “You need to slow down.”
“If I slow down, I’ll stop,” I yawned, “I may not be able to pick up momentum again.”
He knew if he kept me talking long enough, I’d fall asleep sitting upright. Lately, I’d even caught myself dosing off standing upright. Something I’d not thought possible even thought I’d heard of people doing it. I didn’t want to sleep because I knew there were things I needed to do. I dreaded waking up to find those things undone.
He put a burly arm firmly around my shoulders. “Slow down,” he whispered, “Sleep.”
Too tired to resist, I leaned my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes.
“You’re a good friend, Pou,” I yawned.
“Shut up and sleep,” he replied, “It’s all going to work out.”
“I know it will,” I smiled, “It’s getting there that I’m worrying about.”
It wasn’t long before I felt myself falling. I tried to keep the image of the candle flame in my mind, tried to capture the warmth and the comfort of a good friend. I wanted to take them with me into the unpredictability of my dreams. It was one of the few times I let my guard down and a time I knew my subconscious would take me places even I feared to go.