With this idea in mind, Meredith began to purge her belongings during those last few weeks – selling most of her furnishings to the other tenants in her building and donating the balance to a shelter for battered and abused women located near the school – thereafter, there wasn't much left … having sold her mother's house several years earlier and been through a similar process, she knew the ropes. In the end, all that remained were two boxes of her mother's beloved journals, some of her jewelry bequeathed to Meredith at the time of her death and one box of photos, belonging to both women. All of which was stored under her desk at the library – and no one cared – she doubted anyone even noticed her things there, neatly labeled with her name in her recognizable scroll – stowed and out of the way of everyday life – just as they would have been in an attic or a basement.
And so, with her plan in action, she carefully organized her new class and work schedule around the idea of redefining the phrase, 'living on campus' – by applying for a locker at the gymnasium where she would store her mother's jewelry, her clothing (both clean and soiled) and her toiletries – all with the intention of showering there in the morning and evening. Which worked for her, after all she had to shower and even if the stalls were cold and drafty and the warmth evaporated from her skin as soon as she turned the water off – she was clean and presentable – and that's all she really cared for. She had no one to impress – and that was the point, to remain unnoticed – she was merely in survival mode. Plus, there was this one thing, this small luxury … a clear diamond in the rough … a sliver of a silver lining … yes, it was true, this horrifying idea did come with one perk – a fresh towel for each shower – and even better still, one she wasn't required to launder.
With her idea in mind, she asked to be reassigned to the late night-early morning shift at the medical library research desk where she had worked for the last three years, claiming a scheduling problem forced her into it. No one asked her for further details or second-guessed her decision to change shifts as most of her coworkers – including Sissy, perhaps her only "friend" in town – knew she was tight with money and 'really needed the job'. In fact, most of them were happy to give up their one designated night of the shared-shift, one that Sissy had long-since tried to convince the school they didn't need. But for the time being, Meredith was damned glad they didn't approve the cut because it afforded her the opportunity to sleep a little here and there when no one was around – just catnaps most of the time, right at her desk – and just as she had expected … no one cared or noticed.
She also orchestrated her class schedule with a couple opportunities each week to take a long nap – which she would have in any one of the free research rooms that could be found within the library or even on the sofas placed throughout the expansive buildings – students did this all the time – simply napped, closed their eyes on a book – and if it was fine for them, it was for her too. No had to know she 'lived' there … and no one did – she just blended in – and actually on those days when she caught up with her sleep for two or so uninterrupted hours, she felt more like a regular student than any other time … including the time she spent in the classroom.
And so far – almost three weeks into this new redefined way of life – she wasn't any worse for the wear, her energy seemed to be fine and in truth, she had been operating under some pretense of duress since the moment she entered medical school – having a chronically ill parent or being homeless – the cause didn't really matter … she operated well under pressure, or so it seemed. Her grades remained good – above average – and that's where she would keep them, for that was her modus operands – she would rather tread water for her whole life than to sink – and nothing, not the passing of her mother or even being homeless would deter her from graduating first in her class this June.
Presently, Meredith walked along the last arterial street from the gymnasium to work – having just showered for the night, the air felt cool against her flushed cheeks – she pulled her wool cap down over her skull, her damp dirty blond hair underneath, she wrapped her coat even tighter around her still, all in an effort to preserve her inner heat. She turned and walked up the large case of steps, the expansive library stood in front of her … the pillar of education – the warm invitation of dull fluorescent lights and dry constant heat just ahead now – the large sliding doors opened and that familiar blast of hot air slammed into her … she was home.
Glancing now at her watch, she decided to make a quick stop at the auxiliary cafeteria located on the main floor lounge area of the building before heading upstairs. There, she could grab a cheap sandwich to take with her, hoping there was at least one turkey and cheese on wheat left with her name on it. She made a beeline for 'grab-n-go' sandwich case where she surveyed her choices and found exactly what she was looking for, she smiled. An open window just above the case allowed a cold breeze to push its way through and just like that – she was chilled to the bone, with her coat already open – she was defenseless against the cold that somehow seemed to inhabit her now.
She shivered, turning now to search for something to warm her up. She focused the selection of soups for a beat – none of which appealed to her and were too expensive anyway – she crossed the area and thought to grab a cup of coffee, but again didn't want to spend the money – food was literally consumable and she didn't have money to consume – every choice she made seemed to be about money lately. Stifling her inner desire for coffee now, Meredith settled for a cup of hot water (free) – to which she added a slice of lemon (free) and two packets of honey (also free) – there … something hot, she surmised with a smile. She fit a lid to her cup and retreated back toward the cashier, fished the cash from the front pocket of her bag, said 'thank you' to the woman about her age and went off to work.
She was exhausted …
… and it was only 9:00 PM.
Her shift would end at 5:00 AM …
… her first class was at 8:00 AM.
With any luck, it would be a slow night – hopefully she would get some studying in – and when her shift was over, even more hopefully she would be able to skip off to an empty room on another floor in the building and sleep for a couple of uninterrupted hours before heading off to class.
All was quiet and warm as Meredith stepped from the elevator onto the research floor, what used to be her home away from home had simply become her home – in a matter of weeks – she began to feel this way every night – that she arrived home – as soon as she stepped over the threshold over the elevator, she relaxed. Yes, all was quiet and inviting and calm and peaceful. Her raging heart slowed down for a beat ... and she was home.
She began to feel this way, even over the weekends now when she would just hunker down during the daytime to study and nap interchangeably in one of the private study rooms … and work there by night. She already had her favorite rooms scoped out – those tiny pockets off the beaten path, far and away from the bathrooms or elevators – those rooms located in the back, lost within a sea of books and papers, illuminated only by the dim fluorescent lights. Home.
She turned now and walked down the main landing area toward the research desk – she spotted Sissy engaged with a student, her short gray bob swung freely around her perfect heart-shaped face, her round spectacles unable to conceal her the sparkling interest in her eyes behind them – Meredith smiled; Sissy was an educator by trade – a librarian for over thirty years – her knowledge of medicine education and publications was truly incredible. Plus, she had this way of making whoever she was talking to feel special because she truly was engaged and interested. She held eye contact and never wavered; listening intently before she asked for more information … all the while she made thoughtful suggestions. She was a great listener. The student departed and Meredith made eye contact with her friend, her soft brown eyes exuded the warmth and experience she had come to expect after so many years of knowing each other.
"You look tired Meredith," she greeted with a warm smile, failing to mask her concern.
"I am," Meredith breathed, walking around the large desk. "But I'm okay, just busy," she offered.
She came to stand next Sissy, set her sandwich and cup down before she shrugged her overstuffed backpack from her shoulders. She flipped her desk light on and then her computer before she made eye contact with her friend.
"I know, I know," she soothed, moving her hair from her face. She sat down at her desk. Meredith logged into her computer. "Can I get you anything before I go?" she asked, her voice soft, her question sincere.
"No, I think I'll be fine – I hope it'll be slow – it would be nice to just study … one more day down," Meredith muttered, her heart quaked.
She really needed Sissy to leave, all too often Meredith felt the urge to come clean to her trusted friend – she wanted to crumble and cry and breathe and stop hiding inside of her own books and the stacks and stacks of publications around her – but she never did, she still lacked the courage to say it out loud.
She lost her place.
She was homeless.
Saying would surely make it her reality – and right now, it was just some alternate universe – a suspension of time and space that didn't really matter at all. She just needed to survive.
On her own.
For five more months.
On that thought, Meredith pulled her small desktop easel calendar forward. She glanced at Sissy who chuckled, shaking her head. The calendar – held back by a paperclip – displayed a different Impressionist painting each month. Sissy of course knew that Meredith had a strong liking for the Impressionist works, especially those of Degas and Renoir, so it made for a great gift. What Sissy didn't know was that it so happened, Meredith's all time favorite Renoir painting was featured for the month of June – the month of her graduation – a fact Meredith thought was a sign that everything might be aligned by the time graduation rolled around. She made an 'X' through the square, effectively marking the day … finishing it off, even though – the days really never ended or began – days were slowly beginning to seep into nights at this point. Meredith yawned and pushed the calendar back into its place.
Sissy turned her computer off along, but left her light on. She stood and put her hand on Meredith's shoulder. Meredith looked up to find her friend's worried eyes. Her smile was sincere, her round face slightly flushed as she slipped her coat on. "Call me if you need anything," she instructed. "Charles is traveling, so it's just me at home …," she added before she fished a small plastic container from her bag sitting on the desk. "Here are some muffins for you – bran, the kind you like best – please eat breakfast, Meredith … you're not eating enough, I can tell," she surmised gently.
Meredith stood and gave Sissy a hug. "Thanks Sissy," she whispered, her heart trembling, still unaccustomed to acts of genuine kindness or affection coming from other people. For she had lived under a veil of avoidance for a long time, never seeking love from her own mother … until it was too late. "I'll see you tomorrow night," she smiled, trying to hold it together for a brief moment longer.
Sissy surveyed her once more before she slipped her bag over her shoulder and winked at Meredith. "There's a couple of pending items in the date folder – neither are urgent, so if you have some slow time and don't feel like studying – feel free to close them out," she instructed.
"Will do and thanks – for the muffins – for … everything," Meredith replied evenly.
Sissy smiled and turned to go and just like that … Meredith was alone and all was quiet again. Likely Sissy would call her in a couple hours before she turned in for the night, it seemed to have become the older woman's routine ever since Meredith took the shift – for she was worried (and this was no secret) that Meredith spent too much time alone – often pointing out that she should try to get out more now that her mother had passed away.
Meredith looked through the container and smiled, Sissy really did make the best bran muffins and somehow her small gestures meant something – they made her feel like she wasn't truly alone – even though, the sense of loneliness Meredith carried within her was made from more than just these last few lonely years of spending her free time with her mother – it was a lifetime in the making – it was in fact her earliest childhood memory.
Her eyes became glassy and her shroud of loneliness cloaked her now – making its canopy for the long night ahead – Meredith pushed the container aside and got busy, deciding to tackle those couple of pending items, knowing it would help Sissy out tomorrow when this desk was typically flooded with desperate students. As she worked her way through the electronic archives now, she let her mind wander for a beat, secretly wondering if "her couple" would show up tonight, as they typically did around this time of night. She sighed and shook her head, her eyes falling on the calendar once again.
She grabbed it and unclipped the pages – leafing quickly to June – resting her eyes on the dream of … something … as it came to her like it did every time she looked at the painting, "In the Garden" ("Dans le jardin"), circa 1885, by her beloved Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Meredith was captivated by the painting in the same way now as she was the first time she laid her eyes upon it. The thing about it was – the man and his obvious adoration or obsession or lust or steadfast longing for the woman – who was perched within his embrace, boxed in … no doubt drawn to her man, soaking his affection up … her eyes soft, her gaze lost in some dreamlike state.
And even now, as Meredith became lost within the lovers and his worship of her and her apparent acceptance as his idol – she always wondered what it would feel like to be her, this woman who had captivated a man – who drew his attention without making the first (and only) move like she used to. And even though her bouts of lonely one night stands ended a long time ago, those old feelings of solitude never really departed, rather they took up residence. In truth, it had been a long time, perhaps her lifetime, since she had been noticed by anyone.
Meredith sighed, allowing herself to bask in the lovers' station for a moment longer – June wasn't that far off now, June was attainable, June, June, June – she closed the pages and clipped the calendar back to January. She took a sip of her lukewarm water-lemon-honey-mock-tea and eyed her sandwich, literally her last meal of the day. Thank God for Sissy's muffins she mused, acknowledging that her friend's gesture saved her more than just money … but from a bout of extreme loneliness too.
She eyed the sandwich and went back to her work, she'd eat later. Focusing now she found one of the reference materials in the date file, she electronically clipped it and sent it to her printer and began to look for the next item, watching from the corner of her eye as she spotted her couple' situate themselves at their usual table. Her mind floating to the Renoir for a beat before she watched the man and woman in front of her now – their obvious love and tolerance for one another evident by their untamed demonstrativeness, their playful banter – they were a modern day version of the couple portrayed the painting. They were in love.
They were about her age and she was captivated by them and much like the painting, she had watched them – looked at them – for years. She noticed the woman first actually – with her long blond hair and bright blue eyes and a body to die for, she was feisty, she had an untamed fire – and seemed like she wouldn't take shit from anyone. She was bright with her perfect smile and perfectly rosy cheeks – resembling a model than a college student – but none of the former drew Meredith to the woman to begin with because as bright as she was – she was incredibly serious too and there were times when her eyes would cloud over with acute sadness and seclusion, like she had seen more than her fair share of tragedy, like no one in the world could understand her – and in that small way, Meredith felt like she knew her.
And if the woman was a tigress – well, then the man was her tiger with his dark eyes, no-nonsense demeanor and seriously defined facial features to boot, he was the quintessential playground bully, he'd grown up fighting for himself – a tiger and a jock through and through with his chiseled body and keen brown eyes. Meredith could tell from his stance that he was perpetually ready for a fight, he kept his defenses erected like the wall of a safe – nothing could get in it seemed – noting besides … maybe the tigress. Meredith first noticed him several years ago too, perhaps around the time she first noticed the woman. She watched many women flock to him – smiling, offering small bits of themselves to him (much like she might of a long time ago) – but it was clear from the beginning, much like the man in the Renoir, he didn't have eyes for anyone else.
Over time Meredith watched the man fall for the woman from afar without ever saying a word to her … and within those private moments of his, he became less of a tiger and more of her prisoner. Until one day his wall was dismantled and he finally smiled at her; his whole face changing as he did and Meredith imagined he looked a lot like the boy he might have been a long time ago. And from that moment on – they were together, they were a couple – and they became "her couple", much like the lovers in the Renoir.
And so she watched them now – all these years later – as they settled down to study – the woman in a fit of laughter over something her lover said to her – his serious brown eyes locked on her blue ones, they were oblivious to the world around them, perhaps their troubles in life were over or they simply found someone to absorb some of their history so they weren't so sad or lonely or serious anymore. Whatever it was about them, whenever they were around … Meredith realized that she missed the warmth of a man and that she quite possibly desired companionship like theirs.
For as often as they made her smile inside, it was true; Meredith longed for someone to – notice her – just like the tiger noticed the tigress or the man was innately drawn to his lover deep within the canvas of the Renoir.
Meredith closed her eyes for a split-second now, she heard the man growl with laughter and she smiled and a stock image of the Renoir floated in her mind's eye – June, June, June was almost here, the Renoir was almost here – all she had to do was survive … all she had to do was go unnoticed … be invisible … until June.