In the middle of the 9 a.m. newscast I have to leave for work, which is a shame. They’ve just started a story on a heroic rescue in New York. Something about a subway train.
At a quarter after eleven, Sandra di Angelico walks into the store. Her hands are shaking; her breathing is fast and shallow. Nerves.
“What on earth–let’s get you seated, Sandra. Take a load off.”
I grab a chair from a fitting room, carry it into our back office and return to the front counter where Sandra stands. We’re well staffed this afternoon at Marjorie’s Lingerie, so I don’t have to worry about coverage on the sales floor. I place my hand lightly on Sandra’s shoulder and we walk into the office, where I help her into the spare chair from the fitting room. Then I sit in the desk chair and swivel it over to her so that we sit side by side. I take her hand. Her nails dig into my flesh but that’s okay, I don’t mind a little discomfort when I am helping a person through something.
Her eyes are open as wide as they will go, they dart around like she’s trapped, looking for escape. She is so worked up now I can see she has moved on to a whole new level. She’s afraid of her fear, afraid of herself.
When my best friend Doreen got like this, she only had one thought. I learned how to help.
“It’s okay, Sandra,” I say, “you are not going to die. You’re safe.”
In a few seconds the breathing changes. She inhales deeply, coughs, coughs again. She sucks in so hard it startles her and then she starts making choking sounds. I can see in her face that the fear is rising again.
“You’ll be fine. Don’t worry. You’ll get your breath back,” I say.
Asthma, allergies, lung diseases–all kinds of medical conditions can make a person’s breathing go haywire. But I saw Doreen through many panic attacks years ago and I can see the signs now in Sandra. I’m unafraid of her crazy breathing. My job is to help her be unafraid too.
Once the breaths start to come more easily I go to the mini fridge we keep in the office, get out a bottle of water and bring it to her. She twists off the cap and takes a sip. The shaking has stopped. I wait. She will figure out how to get to the next stage of relief. Talk would be fine. So would silence.
“Thanks, Irene,” she says. Her voice is level. “Have you got a bit of time to talk?”
“Okay,” she says, “but how do I explain it to you? It’s mixed up in my head, the stuff from today and the stuff from years ago that has crept up on me today. I have no idea where to start.”
“What’s in your head at this moment?” I ask.
“Corn,” she says.
“All right,” I say. “Start with corn. and let’s see where that takes us.”
“For me, corn means freedom,” she says. “Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?”
“No,” I say. “Go on.”
“Last night,” she says, “Eric and I had Taber corn with supper–Alberta’s best, maybe the world’s best–and after we ate I sank my teeth into the bare cob and broke it into chunks and sucked the juice out. It’s a noisy process, I know that. Just can’t resist that Taber corn juice.”
I don’t know how corn cob sucking leads to panic, but it’s Sandra’s story to tell in her own way.
“Eric likes to see me enjoy my bizarre little corn ritual. He says it speaks of my joyful nature. But thirty-plus years ago, when I was in my twenties–long before Eric entered my life–I lived with a guy named Chris and he was not so charmed by my corn routine. By the way, I don’t suck cob in public–you do understand that.”
“Never crossed my mind you would,” I say. “We’ve all got queer habits that we don’t reveal away from home. Personally, I have a thing about keeping my navel spotless, completely clear of lint. But it’s not something I take care of when I’m out on the sales floor dealing with customers.”
“Right. Well, one night, Chris and I had corn for dinner–it was just the two of us, in the privacy of home–and we had never had corn on the cob together before–and once we’d finished the–you know–conventional part of the eating, I sank my teeth into the bare cob and bit off a chunk. Then, of course, I sucked. Well, Chris blew a gasket, and before I knew what was happening, he was beating the life out of me.”
“Because of your corn ritual?”
“Yeah, supposedly that was a good enough reason. Then lots of things started to set him off–me sucking on chicken bones; me overcooking pasta; me not shifting from second gear to third fast enough.”
“All those were crimes punishable by beating?”
“That and more. He was always finding new reasons to get furious and physical. And he kept finding new techniques.
“Humiliation. Like one Saturday afternoon, we were walking down the street together. I was depressed and not talking. He kicked my ankle.
‘Piece of shit,’ he said. ‘You’re a piece of shit.’ And by then, I believed him.
“How many times did he blacken my eye, break my glasses, berate me for not being a perfect housekeeper? Finally I had an affair.”
“Who could blame you?” I say.
“At first it was a relief to have someone treat me with kindness. But my boyfriend-on-the-side was married too, with three little kids, and I felt as guilty as sin toward his wife. So I broke it off.”
“Must have been tough,” I say.
“It was. And then I confessed to Chris, although I was afraid he’d beat me to death. But here’s the confusing bit. He forgives me, buys me flowers, takes me to dinner. As soon as we get home he changes. Just like that. Suddenly he’s in a silent rage. His face is contorted as if he’s possessed. He punches me full force. Left side of the face. Eye, lower jaw, mouth. I scream, threaten to call the police.
‘About what?’ he says. ‘I’m not doing anything to you.’
‘Go to your own room now,’ he says, and I say, ‘I have no room, only the one we share.’
‘You heard me. Go to your room.’
“I start heading up the stairs, thinking maybe I can reach the phone in the bedroom somehow, but he comes after me, pulls me around to face him. He pins me onto the staircase. Grabs hold of my hair and starts beating my head up and down onto a stair. I’m thinking, This is it, I’m about to die.”
“But you didn’t die,” I say. “You got through it, and you’re with me now. Safe.”
“I break free of him somehow, run down the stairs and out the door. I’m wearing heels but terror carries me down the street. I reach my friend Myra’s house and call the police. They’re good to me and they act fast.”
“What happened before you came into our store today, Sandra?” I ask gently. “What’s brought you back to that awful night?”
“He liked to hit me on the left side of the face. I’ve had surgery for a detached retina on the left eye, that eye has also bled inside, I’ve got a jaw disorder on the left side, I’ve lost three teeth on the upper left palate.”
But how does that connect to today? I’m thinking. Patience.
“Today at the supermarket I had a cashier. I read her name tag. Shirley. She scanned my groceries quickly, packed them efficiently and told me the total, one hundred eighty-two forty-six. Once we were done she thanked me pleasantly. She was a good cashier.”
Still it is a struggle to figure out how this event could have led to Sandra’s panic attack. Best to let her go on without interruption now. She’ll let me know in her own time and way.
“After I left,” she says, “I called the store on my cell phone and asked for the manager. Luckily, they put me through to him right away. I asked if the company had an employee assistance program and he said yes. I told him that I had had fine service from Shirley but was worried about her. The right side of her face was one big purple bruise and I had seen black and blue welts on her neck and upper chest. He said he had just gotten on shift and had not seen Shirley yet, but he would find out right away if she was receiving employee assistance and if not, he would see to it that she did. I said maybe she needed some healing time right now and he said, ‘That could well be’ and he told me this was his highest priority today–to make sure Shirley got support.
“My abuser liked the left side of the face; Shirley’s likes the right. So what has changed since thirty-five years ago when I was assaulted?”
“Well,” I say, “nowadays at least some companies have got those employee assistance programs.”
“It’s a step, I guess,” she says.
She is breathing normally now, although she doesn’t seem to realize it. You don’t notice your breathing unless something goes wrong with it. Then you can’t think of anything else.
We walk back onto the sales floor. Sandra has not come in just to get help catching her breath; she really does need some lingerie–control top tights for the winter. In the past she has told me that she is prone to yeast infections so she cuts out the cotton gusset of the tights with a pair of scissors. That way she can breathe down below.
Later I meet my young friend Julie for coffee at the Bean Wave. She’s wise for twenty-one–for any age, really.
“What would you do if a man started beating you up?” I ask.
“Kick him in the balls, gouge his eyes, call 911 on my cell phone and run like hell.”
“Sounds as if you’ve planned your strategy carefully,” I say.
“Every woman has to,” she says.
“But why?” I ask.
“Because,” Julie says, “those guys are still in business.”
Tonight, I’m supposed to be winding down; that’s what I’ve promised myself. My neck hurts from tension. I make a cup of chamomile tea and sit down with my Chatelaine magazine. I read words but their meaning doesn’t register. I turn on the TV to watch the news. They lead with that New York incident. Finally I learn the full story. A 20-year old man has a seizure and falls on to a subway track in New York. A 50-year old man Wesley Autrey, makes a split-second decision, jumps in, sees the train emerging through the tunnel, hurls the young man into a narrow drainage trough in between the rails. Then he throws his own body over the young guy’s. By now the driver can see what’s happening and reacts, but the emergency brake can’t stop the train fast enough and it passes over them, with two inches leeway between them and the underbelly of the train. They both make it.
What drove Mr. Autrey to do what he did for that young guy? What drove Chris to do what he did to Sandra? I don’t get it. They’re members of the same species. My species.