The Woes of a Hesitant Houseguest

by hot robot nurse

There was something about the apartment that made her edgy. The word for it, if there was a word, eluded her.

Sitting on the fire escape, her only refuge, cigarette in hand, Neela couldn't pin it into description.

It wasn't because of that man--what was his name? Adam? Eddie? Something--who had knocked in the door, the abusive husband neighbor man who'd blackened Abby's eye. What a gruesome event. Neela had heard the story, told with Abby's usual sardonic, dark humor: 'Oh, it's no big deal.' It was, after all, the Abby way. Saying it without saying it.

Neela drew in on the cigarette, making a face. Marlborough. Being a true Englishwoman, she preferred Parliments, but, when in Rome... No, it wasn't the man, the threat of him or the idea of him--he was long gone anyway--but something else. Something about the space, the arrangement, a combination of the two. It was a feeling of alienation, but not quite; trepedation, perhaps?

Neela shook it away, snapping the cigarette end over the side of the railing, watching it fall to the sidewalk below. She'd chalk it up to her hatred of being a guest, of feeling like a guest, of becoming burdensome. Abby's kindness, however genuine, was a hard cross for her to bear. Her, Neela, independent, driven... Left floundering in a strange city, sleeping on a bumpy brown couch in the house of a woman ten or so years her senior.

This was not where she was supposed to end up. Years ago, when she'd looked ahead, she'd seen herself quite clearly. Now, even the next week was a blank, blurry slate. It depressed her. The sun was falling over the rest of Chicago--busy, working Chicago, Neela reminded herself--and the wind had kicked up some. Neela shivered in her sweatshirt, wondering if perhaps she should go inside. But no, she couldn't bear the emptiness of the apartment, the silence, her odd fear of even touching anything that wasn't hers. Her stomach growled but she didn't dare open the fridge, thinking it rude. She'd kept asking permission until Abby got fed up.

"Yes, you can use the telephone," she'd said, voice tinged with indignance, "for Christ's sake, Neela. You're not calling Japan."

For Christ's sake, Neela.
The words had stung her in a way she hadn't expected. Entered into her without permission.
She sat on the fire escape, metal grating cold on her rear. She wasn't going in there.

Neela didn't look right with a cigarette. It reminded Abby oddly of those postcards with dogs in clothes, the greyhounds with the somber faces. Maggie had a few on the fridge for a long time, a scene from Casablanca and one from... What was it, Gone with the Wind? Probably. There was something fundementally wrong with them, she'd always thought, the effect jarring yet compelling all at once.

Abby watched as Neela took a pull on her smoke, exhaling a long, drawn-out sigh. She was curled up just outside the window, knees tucked in her sweatshirt against the cold. The light of the streetlamp brushed her cheek, illuminating it orange and she seemed pensive, drawn up in herself.

Abby wrapped on the window.

"Hey," she said, louder than she'd intended, "I've got dinner."

Neela perked up, then subsided.

"I... I don't think I'm hungry," she replied.

Abby rolled her eyes.

A lie.

"Popcorn chick-en..." she sing-songed.

"No, really--"

"American biscuits, guarenteed to give you cholestorol problems for the rest of your li-ife..."

Neela was cracking.
Abby opened the window, offering her a hand. Surprisngly, Neela took it, her small palm cold against Abby's, and stepped over the sill. They ate in front of the television watching a silly sitcom, chicken bucket between them. Neela sat demurely, hands in her lap. Abby suddenly imagined her in some hoity-toity British academy, not a hair out of place, practicing the art of being invisible. Sad. Sad, but funny.

Abby shook the chicken at her.

"Have some," she ordered, "or am I going to have to force you?"

Neela looked startled. They locked gazes for a moment before Neela shook her head, dipping a tentative finger into the bucket.

"Thank god," said Abby, giving the younger woman a small dig in the ribs, earning a small smile--a smile she relished.

Neela chewed her food slowly, methodically, like she was re-learning how. Her eyes shone in the light of the television, reflecting back pinpricks of blue in their darkness. If she was Good Child, Abby, of course, was Mother, was always Mother. But this wasn't Maggie. This was Neela. Her friend.

"It's good, isn't it?"

"Yes," Neela said, once she'd swallowed, "thank you."

They returned to the sitcom.

Half watching, Abby stole looks at the woman beside her, taking mental notes. Clenched jaw, curled hands, eyes straight ahead. She sighed.

"Neela, look..."


Abby reached across for the remote, flipping the TV off with a 'click.' "What's the deal with you?"

Neela looked at her blankly.

"You're..." Abby stopped, started again, "you're so... Nervous. What gives?"

Neela shrugged, suddenly Scolded Child, long-lashed lids closing bashfully.

"I'm not good at this," she mumbled.

"Not good at what?"

"At being a guest."

They looked at each other.

"Neela," Abby began, "look, if I didn't think I was up for a 'roommate' or whatever this arrangement is, I wouldn't have offered. Plain and simple."

Neela screwed up her nose, unconvinced.

Abby sighed, tried again.

"Seriously. You may hear otherwise, but I'm not the most sympathetic person you'll ever meet. Patients, sure. Other people? Not so much. Not if I don't want to be."

Neela nodded.

Abby cocked her head, watching Neela's face. She, in turn, seemed to be watching Abby's, eyes very wide, so wide Abby almost laughed at her earnesty. She held it back.

"Do I strike you as the type who does things when she doesn't want to?" she asked.

"No," Neela replied heartily.

"Good, then. So calm down."
"Calm down," Neela repeated, letting her breath out, "calm down."

Her nervousness was charming and, quite honestly, utterly unamerican. It was refreshing--frustrating too, but cute nonetheless. Abby placed a hand on her shoulder, only half surprised when Neela jumped at the touch.

"First," she said, making sure she had her gaze, "you have to relax."

The kid was brought in on a gurney, pale as the sheets he sat on. The paramedics had cut the seam of his wide-leg jeans, exposing a length of bone jutting from his thigh. Blood soaked the bedpad, a bright, real red against the olive drab of his pants, the muted tones of his overcoat. He said nothing, sweat coating his hairline, breath fast.

"Skateboarding accident," the EMT told Neela, as she trotted in time with them, "he was jumping a ledge with some buddies."

"I--I broke my leg," the kid mumbled, gesturing vaugely at the wound, "I... I broke it."

The second EMT shook her head.

"Idiots," she muttered.

They pushed the kid into trauma two, lifting him as a team. He winced when they set him down, albeit gently, on the fresh bed. "What have we got?"

Abby, stethescope across her shoulders, appeared in the doorway. Neela looked at her gratefully.

"Compound fracture," she said, "and perhaps a bit of shock."

She watched Abby size up the kid; he couldn't have been more than thirteen years old, a bit on the short side, and scared out of his mind.

"Hi," Abby said, "I'm Dr. Lockhart. What's your name?"

"Ramsey," said the kid.

"Ramsey," Abby repeated, jotting it onto her chart, "and how did this happen, Ramsey?"

"I.... I went for the ten-stair and I missed," he said, near tears, "am I gonna walk?"

"Not... Not for a while," Abby said, gently peeling back a flap of trouser to get a look at the injury. Stooping, she began to flush the wound with saline, clearing the area. Neela watched her as her purple-gloved hands worked their magic. Gravel and dirt made a small river on his flesh, soaking into the gurney sheets. Finally, Abby stood, popping the gloves off.

"A clean break," she said to the kid, "you're lucky."

"Sure," he muttered, gazing down at his mangled leg, "sure."

He closed his eyes, miserable.

"Are your parents here?" Abby asked.

Ramsey shook his head.

"At work?"


"We're going to have to call them if you need surgery," Abby said, "do you have a way to reach them?"

There was a palpable pause and, as if in slow motion, Ramsey's face crumpled. Three big tears ran down the length of his cheeks, dripping into the collar of his shirt.

"What are you going to do to me?" he squeaked, drawing in a ragged breath, "I--"

He fell into Abby so hard she nearly keeled over backwards. Gathering the boy in her arms, she slid herself onto the bed, cradling his limp torso against her.

"Hey," she said, and Neela could hear all the thousands of cigarettes in her voice, "hey."

Her hand ran along the upper ridges of his spikey head, soothing him. Neela, standing dumbly by the supply cabinets, drew in her own breath, watching. For a moment, Abby and the kid looked like mother and son, Abby's long fingers bracing his back. In the sterile, brusqe ER, such displays of comfort were usually foregone for professional pleasantries. Out of Abby suddenly emerged the Virgin Mary Neela had stared at for years during her parochial school education, long dark hair framing her face. Abby even looked like that Mary had, a Mary in green scrubs, gaze full of sadness and strength and knowing. Neela felt her eyes tighten, something weighting them, and she looked away, breaking the spell. Ramsey, crying-tired, lay back on the gurney, rubbing his face with his hands. The room was silent.

"Neela," Abby said finally, clipped tone in place of her soft one, "call surgery."

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