Do you believe in fate? Are we all meant to find “The One?”
Dear Destiny’s Child,
I’m more pragmatic than romantic. I believe random decisions and coincidences guide our lives, and no Karmic North Star navigates us to one person. A friend drove through Starbucks and her engine overheated. She married the mechanic who rescued her from an angry gang of caffeine addicts. Fate? Probably not. Laziness? Probably. Luck? Absolutely.
I’m “Jane,” the writer of that awkward answer and purveyor of plenty more where it came from.
I write a relationship column for the Phoenix Record, and my real name is Abby Taylor, but “Dear Abby” was already taken in my line of work.
Frankly, you’d think I’d believe in fate, considering that eighteen months ago, a misunderstanding involving a flock of escapee chickens, a television reporter and a plastic spork led to me land this very job.
But I don’t.
I chalk it up to a series of circumstances – some wonderful, others mortifying – because fate simply never could have intervened to recreate the peculiar events that so dramatically changed my life from what it had been 23 minutes earlier on that summer day in Phoenix, Arizona.
An 18-wheeler flipped over on that scorching June afternoon. But this was not your average jackknife; this semi was hauling chickens. Live chickens. And on a quiet Saturday in Phoenix, this kind of thing amounted to big news. Police shut down the entire interstate. Traffic snarled for miles. Crews worked to clean up tangled feathers and mangled metal, and Agriculture Department workers scurried around trying to catch stray chickens.
A gaggle of beet-red faced reporters, including me, huddled on the side of the shuttered freeway to cover the bizarre scene, which could have come straight from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, if only a tumbleweed had bounced by.
A hot gust of wind whipped my hair into my face and chicken feathers swirled around. Puffs of downy feathers clung to my lips like metal shavings to a magnet.
Ppfftt. I tried to spit them off.
It was a TV producer’s dream. It was my nightmare.
On a better day, I’d have made the best of it, swapping chicken puns with the others. “It’s a good thing they plucked the driver out unscathed,” or “That guy’s sure got a lotta egg on his face now.”
But this was one of Phoenix’s trademark triple-digit days, when bands of heat spiral from the concrete and you need oven mitts to open your car door.Plus, I’d eaten nothing since my shift had started at dawn.
The early afternoon sun battered my face and wooziness began to overtake my senses, so I headed over to the Department of Public Safety’s Mobile Command Center —which is really just a glorified RV — to find some water or, preferably, an iceberg.
“You don’t look so good Abby,” said Sgt. Bob Mejia, the Public Information Officer, scrunching his face inches from mine for a better look. His breath smelled like stale coffee and spearmint, which only made me more nauseated. “Not good at all. Hang on a sec.”
He hopped up the RV steps, the screen slamming behind him with a clang that echoed through my aching head. I leaned against the vehicle to wait, the heat of its fiberglass scalding through my cotton blouse, until he finally emerged with a paper cup and a small, plastic spork.
“It’s lemon ice with electrolytes,” he said, as I took the cup and utensil with shaky hands. “We use it for heat exhaustion.”
Nodding thanks, I staggered away from the RV to find a spot to eat the special sorbet, feeling increasingly sick with every step, when a gravelly female voice barked at me.
“Hey! Missy! Are you serious? You walked straight through my shot!”
Caroline Calhoun, a longtime anchor for the local CBS affiliate, who had been demoted to a weekend general assignment reporter, stood with her hands against her hips, holding a microphone in one hand and makeup compact in the other. Clearly furious, she accused me of stepping straight into her shot as she prepped for her 4 o’clock stand-up.
Was she serious? I thought, trying to slurp some lemon sherbet out of the cup with my tongue while showing my indignation at the same time. This woman knew my name, we’d been on plenty of assignments together.
I wanted to respond. But I felt so sick I feared if I opened my mouth to speak, I would vomit.
Most of the television reporters I worked alongside were honest, hardworking folks who shared my passion for this crazy business. But Caroline reminded me of a caricature of a TV personality. She had a helmet of short brown hair, spackled to her head with buckets of hairspray, and makeup caked so heavily on her face I imagined etching a picture in it with a toothpick like the scratch art I did as a child.
I’d draw a chicken, I thought.
She grimaced as she stumbled along the gravel in three-inch high beige pumps, gingerly trying to navigate in the steamy stew of dander, diesel fumes and dust.
“Can you speak? Or are you just an idiot?” she hissed.
That was it. I seethed, pointing the plastic spork at her, trying to will myself to sputter a biting comeback.
But nausea gripped my body, electricity cut through me and splotches of light danced in front of my eyes.
“She stabbed me” was the next thing I heard. Dazed, I lay sprawled unnaturally on the ground, my Spanx in full view with my denim skirt scrunched under my butt, and a narrow river of drool traveling down my chin.
I tried to pull my skirt down and wipe my face with a dusty hand, leaving a smear of dirt across my cheek.
It was not my finest moment, and it was about to get a whole lot worse.
Caroline, hunched in the passenger seat of a satellite truck examining her leg.Mejia helped me up to a more respectable position and motioned to one of the EMTs on scene.
“She fainted,” he said, turning to face Caroline. “And, uh, ma’am, I certainly don’t think she meant to injure you.”
“Oh, she certainly did. We’ve got it on tape.”
Those five words – “we’ve got it on tape” – sunk in like an anchor hitting the floor of my stomach. This was not going to end well for me.
Caroline’s cameraman, Derek, who I’d also seen several times before crime scenes, muttered that he didn’t see an injury, examining a microscopic run in Caroline’s dark tan stockings below her knee.
“Well,” Caroline huffed, “then she definitely tried to stab me.”
A few minutes later, after reviewing part of the video footage that would haunt and humiliate me in the hours and weeks to come, everybody agreed I did not stab Caroline. Or even try to.
I merely crumpled to the ground in front of her, and the ridiculous spoon-fork I grasped brushed her leg before its tiny claws cracked like eggshells and the flimsy thing snapped right in half.
“She’s fine,” Mejia said.
As if there were ever any doubt.
Of course she was fine. How much damage can a cafeteria freebie meant for eating macaroni salad really do? None in bodily harm but, as I soon would learn, plenty to one’s reputation and self-esteem.
As I sipped a Gatorade an EMT had brought me, I angrily found my voice, for better or worse (worse).
“I should have stabbed you,” I spat at Caroline as the EMT helped me to my feet and led me to an ambulance. I yanked my skirt back down toward my knees and was wearing only one shoe for some inexplicable reason.
I had no idea Derek the Cameraman had continued to film and just about everybody else had their iPhones trained squarely on me.
So brilliantly, I kept talking.
“Oh and Caroline, 1989 called and wants its pantyhose back.”
“What’s gotten into you Abby?” Mejia gripped my elbow, whisking me toward a nearby ambulance as Caroline threw a death stare at me. “You’re dehydrated. And you’d better shut your trap before you get yourself in trouble.”
It was too late. I was already in trouble.
Two IV bags of saline and three hours later, I felt better. Tucked away in a curtained corner of the ER, dozing on and off, and with a dead cell phone battery, I lay oblivious to the chaos unraveling around me. Until I heard a man clear his throat and say, “Uh, knock knock?”
I figured it was a nurse coming to remove my IV.
“Yep. C’mon in.”
The man, who looked slightly younger than me and wore a navy suit and preppy yellow tie, peeked around the curtain. I pulled the blanket up to my chin, given my hospital gown had gaps in unfortunate places.
“How you feeling, chief?” the complete stranger asked with an awkward smile. I thought he must be in the wrong room. I still answered him.
“Well, let’s see. I’m in the hospital, accused of assault with a lunch utensil, and I smell like a chicken coop. I’ve had better days,” I snapped. “Who the hell are you and why are you calling me chief? Doesn’t anybody just use people’s names anymore?”
“Yeah,” he cleared his throat and shook his head uncomfortably. “Sorry about that. I have no idea why I said that to you. I guess I’m a little nervous given the unusual circumstances.”
Circumstances? Had he gotten wind of my dangerous, spork wielding reputation? I glared at him, finding him increasingly annoying with each second that he poked his head through the curtains.
“I’m Benjamin,” he said. “I mean Ben. Um, Ben Brown. I’m your lawyer.”
I became the nervous one. Why did I need a lawyer? And why did this random, brown-haired, boy-faced person claim to be mine?
“I’m in-house counsel for the Record. Gretchen sent me,” he explained, referring to my editor and direct supervisor. “When you’re up for it, we need to get back to the newsroom and talk about damage control.”
I considered asking for ID or calling for a psych consult (for him). “Damage control?”
It seemed to finally dawn on him that I had absolutely no idea why he stood there.
He hesitated, and then walked over and handed me his phone, the screen frozen on a paused video.
My intestines tumbled as I hit “play” on the YouTube video.
Four minutes. That’s how long I could bear to watch the clip headlined “Stabbing or Sunstroke?” From Caroline calling me “Missy,” to me, splayed on the ground, my skirt hiked up just enough to see the unflattering dent where my bare thighs met with my Spanx. To make matters worse, my skin looked unnaturally pale from a veil of dust, sweat had glued my long brown bangs to my forehead, and the rest of my shoulder-length, wavy hair poofed around my head like poodle ears.
“I’ll drive you to the paper,” Ben the Lawyer said softly, watching the color I’d finally regained drain back out of my face. “Go ahead and get dressed.”
I closed my eyes tightly. But I couldn’t unsee it. The image had etched itself into my brain like a cave drawing that would permanently remind me of my own sheer imbecility. I sat in silent humiliation, unsure what to do.
Thankfully, a nurse ducked in to remove my IV. I got dressed (all but the Spanx, which I hurled into a bin marked “soiled linens”) and gathered my belongings, sitting to try to absorb the reality of the day.
But before I could blink, let alone think, another head jutted through the curtains. Busy day at the emergency department, I thought, irritated.
Caroline’s photographer, Derek, peeked in, smiling.
Unmoved by his grin, I narrowed my eyes at him. Although he had defended me to Caroline, I suspected his was the footage splashed across the Web.
I cocked my head and raised my eyebrows in the way a disinterested salesperson might do to say “Yes? Why are you bothering me?”
“Hey there buddy,” he said in a calm, near whisper as though facing a feral dog. “How you feeling?”
I eyed him warily. “Exhausted. Humiliated. Angry. Dusty. Oh just come in.”
He slowly pushed aside the curtain and walked in, just a few inches, staying at arm’s length.
Guess I couldn’t blame him seeing as there were probably needles and bendy straws within my reach. Who knew what I might do?
He had short, almost buzzed, light brown hair and emerald green eyes, and wore a “Channel 7” polo shirt, still soaked with sweat from the sweltering news scene. It clung to his attractive chest, which I noticed, despite the fact that I was supposed to be pissed at him and had no earthly idea why he stood there.
He rocked from one foot to the other, apologizing for “the whole incident.”
Why, I wondered, annoyed again in spite of his chest, did everybody keep calling it an ‘incident’?
Stubbing your toe on a nightstand or locking your keys in your car are incidents. Stabbing a woman in the shin for all the world to see should at least qualify as an event.
Derek insisted the online film came from another reporter’s cell phone.
“I’m really sorry. Honestly. I detest Caroline. She treats everybody in the newsroom like her personal servant.”
Just as Derek the Photographer finished the sentence, and just as I was warming up to him, Ben the Lawyer popped back into the curtain-walled cubicle where I, apparently, was holding court.
So very odd, I thought, peering at these two visitors who both were pretty cute, though clearly terrified of me, and each had greeted me like their fraternity brother. Normal people get visits from their mothers when they are in the hospital. But my mother was in San Diego and…
Crap. The thought slammed into my brain and jolted me back to reality. My mother. Surely she’d seen the video.
My phone sparked to life about a minute after I plugged it into Ben’s car charger, alerting me to 11 messages and 22 missed calls. Seven from my mother. I couldn’t bear to call her just yet. The rest were my editor and various reporters and bloggers seeking my comment on “the incident.”
I watched the full, 13-minute video as we drove toward the Record building on the northern edge of downtown Phoenix, where I knew I was about to get fired.
“Still can’t believe she called me Missy. Who says that?” I muttered.
Ben the Increasingly Annoying Lawyer responded: “That’s not our biggest concern, Abby.”
Our concern? I thought, bitterly watching the number of YouTube views creep closer to six digits by the second. “Whatever you say, chief.”