She realized she was squinting at the screen. The sunlight, now streaming in the window behind her desk, made it difficult to see the monitor. Earlier in the year, this would have meant it was mid-afternoon and she would have adjusted the blinds to block out the light and continued working. But now, in early June, it meant it was the end of the workday, especially on a Friday. She glanced at the corner of her screen and confirmed that it was almost 5:30.
MJ began the process of saving her work and shutting down for the much-needed weekend. As the computer went through its closing steps, she did the same, closing her notebook to slide it into her satchel, putting files back in drawers, checking to see if the plants needed water, and finally, adjusting the blinds to allow in enough light, but not too much, to bake the office while she was away.
“Where’re you goin’? Cat’s away mice will play?” It was Dr. Wren, William, leaning on the doorframe. “Thinking maybe you’ll get some?”
“Doctor Wren, remarks like that will get you sued,” she responded in a completely unaffected business tone as she finished filling her shoulder bag.
“Well, I guess when you asked me the same question last week, that was different,” he countered.
“Oh, yeah. … Whatever. … No, I’m goin’ to the shore for the weekend. My parents rented a house in Ocean City for the month of June. As far as leaving early is concerned, I’m sure all the patients will survive without a bean counter in the building.”
MJ and William were the only two single people in the practice and had developed a friendship based on their mutual desire to avoid most office conversations that centered on house decor, TV shows, and children’s latest travails.
William was the practice’s newest doctor. At 31, he was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in Philadelphia. His family traced their history in the city back to Colonial times when his ancestor came to Philadelphia as a freed slave. William was the fourth generation in his family to attend college, which made him unique in the Black community. All the males in his family going back to his great-grandfather had been attorneys, and judges, and served in elected office. His grandfather had been a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s.
William broke with family tradition by not attending an Ivy League school , but opted for Duke and a medical degree. Just shy of tall, he had been an All-American diver and the lab coat could not hide his athlete’s physique. Now, working in a pediatric practice in the city’s Chestnut Hill section, he was constantly offered the names and phone numbers of sisters, cousins, neighbors, and friends of patients’ mothers. At first he was flattered by the attention, but after a few months he discreetly requested that the nurses tell these would-be matchmakers to cease their efforts.
One night shortly after William had started working in the practice, their relationship had almost gone in a different direction. The staff had gone “up the hill” to a bar for a going-away party for one of the nurses. As the night wore on and most of the others left, William and MJ found themselves alone, talking about everything and anything. After a few chardonnays, MJ began to consider “making a move.” Before she could though, the conversation became more serious; mutual hidden fears, relationship disappointments for him and concerns for her were revealed and it became apparent that they would be of more value to each other as allies and confidants, than lovers. Since then, the friendship had deepened to the point that sexual innuendos were made by both in almost every conversation, mostly because it did not exist elsewhere in their lives given MJ’s long- distance on again off again relationship with Andy and William’s work schedule.
MJ stood and threw the bag over her shoulder and proceeded toward the door.
“What are your plans for the weekend?” she asked as she headed past him and out the door.
“Stuck here until tomorrow morning, and then I’m not sure after that. Maybe take my bike down to Fairmount Park and do some trails.”
“Well, whatever, enjoy and forget about this place for a couple days. I know I will. See ya Monday.”
MJ waved to the nurses at the front desk as she passed, offering them the requisite, “Have a nice weekend” and backed out through the main door. Being the business manager of the practice, she was the only non-medical person in the office, and thus not compelled to keep the same schedule as the doctors, nurses and the nurse practitioner. Nice in some ways, this also meant she was something of an outsider, a foreigner in their medical community, and someone who really didn’t speak their language. Everyone was cordial and accepting, but other than William, she really had not forged any office friendships since coming to the practice almost two years ago. The nurses and staff were nice, but except for those occasional all-office get-togethers, none of them ever asked her about her extracurricular activities.
Walking outside toward her car, the fresh warm air smelled sweetly distinct from the sanitized air-conditioned environment of the office. It gave her an uplifting sensation as it emphasized that work was behind her and a weekend in the sun was beckoning.
The loud roar of an engine caused her to turn toward the street in time to see a SEPTA bus heading up Germantown Avenue. Looking at the bus she was amazed at the artistic graphics that completely covered the vehicle. An ad was on every square inch and featured a guy leaning backward over the seat and handlebars of a motorcycle, a la Marlon Brando, all black and white except the blue jeans he was wearing. Wow, either being single is getting to me or that guy is the best-looking man I’ve ever seen ... the wonders of Photoshop. MJ kept looking at the bus until it was well up the hill while the image of the model stayed in her mind. …
Her car was parked at the far end of the lot to allow closer spaces for patients and to reduce the risk of dings and dents from the car doors of frantic mothers bringing in their sick children. From the way some of them arrived, one might think earaches and pink eye were life threatening. MJ found it hard to believe that if, or when, her turn came to be a mother, she would be quite so dramatic about such benign ailments.
She grinned as she approached the little car she loved. It was the first brand new car she had ever owned and it was her prized possession. Not only was it fun to drive because of its size and handling, MJ believed it truly reflected her personality. Like her, it was compact with nice design. A deep blue color, it wasn’t flashy, but still caught the eye of other drivers. Good on gas, it was also a very practical vehicle. It had style and substance, just like her.
MJ pressed the key fob unlocking the door and opened it to put her bag behind her seat. She threw her purse to the passenger side as she settled in behind the wheel and inserted the key. Starting the car, she also pushed the window buttons, pulling her door shut when the windows were totally down. As she backed out of the space and headed toward the street, MJ became more enthusiastic about the end of the work week and the start of her weekend. The shore would be fun, the weather forecast was excellent, and she really looked forward to seeing her parents. It would all be perfect … if only she wasn’t doing it all by herself. …
She left the parking lot by the side entrance turning onto the curvy Lincoln Drive that made her drive home fun. Hitting the gas hard, the car jumped forward and reached the speed limit quickly. While she navigated the soft turns in the road, the sun’s rays pierced the canopy of the old trees that lined each curb and caused a strobe effect on her windshield. What a wonderful evening.
Her apartment in an old brick high-rise complex built in the 1920s, boasted a posh address. Located down the Drive closer to Center City Philadelphia, it meant she was headed in the opposite direction of the rush hour traffic. MJ sped up a little and flipped on the radio, louder than usual to blast through the still open windows. It wasn’t necessarily her style to be speeding or playing loud music, but she really wasn’t going that fast and there was no one around to hear the music. Anyway, so what? She was in a good mood and felt like enjoying it.
She pulled into a parking spot on the street in front of her building rather than parking in the secured lot behind it. It would be easier and quicker for her departure later and she wasn’t concerned about the cars or her safety while it was still light.
She approached the front entrance that had the large outer door propped open to the cooling evening air. Gregory, the doorman, was perched on a stool behind a small podium inside the door. The crimson color of his uniform jacket set off his brown complexion and his height and perfect posture displayed a regal air. He seemed at home in the lobby that retained its stately elegance, with well worn oriental rugs over marble floors and rich, dark paneling on the walls.
“Good evening, Miss Malone,” he offered with a polite smile. “Good evening, Mister Church,” MJ responded with a friendly formality. The lobby looked dark after the bright afternoon sun and its silence added to the formality of the room.
The day she and Katie moved in, Gregory was working and he greeted her using her last name. She was flattered that he knew her name but a little embarrassed at the formality. Immediately she asked that he call her MJ. But in subsequent encounters he had continued to use her surname, compelling her to find out his and referring to him in kind. Many times when she came in, she would stop for a moment or two and talk to Gregory, learning more about his personal life (he grew up in the neighborhood and lived nearby), his family (he was married for 35 years with two grown children), and his background (he was a retired Marine Master Sergeant). Despite becoming more familiar with each other, they both stubbornly stuck with the formality of last names. It seemed to have added to their bond. Gregory had developed a protective, paternal attitude toward MJ as his own daughter was about her age. She, in turn, was always mindful that he might be at the front door, which made her feel more secure, but also cautious about coming home too late … or early, or under the influence. Kinda like high school all over.
“Lovely evening, isn’t it?” he offered as MJ went to check her mailbox in the small room off the lobby. “I like keeping the door open to smell all the different blossoms from the azaleas and such.”
“Yes, I noticed them walking in. Too bad they’re not always like that.”
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” Gregory quoted Herrick, with a hint of remorse in his voice.
“Did you park there because you are going out later?”
Chill… he’s not nosey, just concerned.
“Yes. I’m just going up to clean up, change, and pack because I’m spending the weekend at the shore with my parents.”
“That should be nice. The traffic report on the radio sounds like a lot of folks are doin the same. Might be heavy headin’ down.”
“Probably,” she responded as she headed for the elevator. “They’re not expecting me ’til late, so there’s no rush to leave. I’ll let the crazies get ahead of me. Thought I’d leave around nine or so.”
“That’s smart. Haven’t seen Miss Higgins lately. Is she still living with you?” he asked, again out of paternal concern .
“Yes, she has just been working a lot of shifts recently,” she half-lied. Truth was, Katie, her roommate since college and now a nurse, had been seeing a resident from the nearby medical college where she worked for the better part of a year; in the past six months she stayed at his place more than at home. MJ was happy for her, and although she wasn’t crazy about caring for Katie’s cat, she preferred that to sharing the bathroom with her roommate’s boyfriend . Most of her communications with Katie now were via text messages and revolved around ensuring Katie’s parents did not find out where she was spending her nights. The shift work excuse was the default answer.
MJ pushed the elevator button and the doors opened immediately. She entered and hit the number “9” almost without looking. The stately character of the building carried even to the wood-paneled elevator car. This really is a cool place. I wonder if I can handle the rent alone if Katie and Brent decide to live together or get married? The prospect of living alone was becoming more and more likely, requiring MJ to consider her housing options and prospects. With almost all of her friends having moved away or in committed relationships, the likelihood of getting another roommate seemed remote. Besides, the current arrangement with Katie made MJ realize she liked her privacy even though it meant dealing with occasional bouts of loneliness.
The elevator stopped at her floor and as the door opened, she decided to put off further thought on the subject. Katie had not mentioned anything about officially moving out and so long as she left a check for rent every month, MJ could live with the arrangement indefinitely.
She approached the black metal door to her apartment with the key extended toward the deadbolt lock. She pushed the door open and entered the apartment foyer to find Calvin, Katie’s cat, stretching in the middle of the living room floor, aroused from a nap by the sound of her entry. He deliberately padded over to her and walked in a figure eight around her ankles in greeting. MJ was sure he did this out of a sense of obligation rather than affection. He probably figured if he didn’t, she would not feed him.
MJ looked down and scratched his ears, also because she thought she should.
“Rough day lying in the sun, Calvin? I always feel so safe knowing you are guarding the home fires.” she added sarcastically.
The apartment was classic eclectic with Katie’s penchant for the frilly made evident by curtains and pillows that covered the couch and rocker, and MJ’s more contemporary leanings shown in the number of plants and the Danish dining room set. The place wasn’t exactly as she would like it, but it worked and was the price one paid for sharing a living space.
Separating out Katie’s mail from what she had picked up downstairs, she added it to the pile already lying on the table by the door. She proceeded to her bedroom to deposit her own mail, purse, and shoulder bag on her desk, and to change. The cat did not follow her, probably thinking his minimal show of affection was sufficient. Immediately heading for the large wall of windows, MJ pushed one open to get some air moving in the room, making a mental note that she would need to close it again before leaving. Nine stories up, it wasn’t a security issue as much as to prevent a drenching by a possible summer storm. Once, when he was home from Chicago, Andy had fallen asleep in the chair in front of the window after a night out with their college friends. A drenching rain awakened him but not quickly enough to keep him from getting totally soaked. The memory of him sitting there, head back, mouth open, hair plastered to his head made her smirk a little. She could have awakened him sooner or shut the window, but she let him get wet for making her be the designated driver that night. She smiled more at the memory. I need to call him.
Kicking off her shoes, she took a deep breath and did a stretch of her own to work out the last vestiges of the day’s stress and put the whole week behind her. Overall, MJ liked her job, but the people and pace could get tough at times and this past week had been one of those times. A long shower, a change into something light and comfortable, a salad and some mindless TV would get her in the right frame of mind to enjoy the 90-minute drive to the shore later. Sometimes, being alone could be just what the doctor ordered. …
The bag was light. Usually when she traveled, MJ was the classic over-packer, but since this stay consisted of just two days with no major evening events planned, she had only brought a couple bathing suits, pajamas, running stuff, and some clothes for after the beach. Mom would have towels and a hair dryer. Not having too much would give her an excuse to visit some of the shops on the boardwalk for some cute summer items.
Lifting the bag onto her shoulder, she made a final inspection of the apartment from the door to make sure she had not forgotten anything. She had filled the cat’s water and food bowls, and would text Katie to check it before Sunday. After all, Calvin was her cat.
She pulled the door shut, giving the knob a turn to ensure it was locked, and moved toward the elevator. It again opened immediately when she pressed the button and she got in and descended to the lobby.
“On your way?” Gregory asked as she passed his podium. “Drive safely,” he added without waiting for an answer. “Give Mule and your mother my best.”
Any sports fan in Philadelphia was familiar with her father, Mike “Mule” Malone, a high school and college football standout in the early ’70s. An All–American linebacker at Villanova, he had tried out for the Eagles under Vermeil, making it to the final cut. When a pro career was ruled out, he had returned to his high school alma mater to teach and coach. During the next three decades he took his teams to a dozen Catholic League titles and several City Championships. When he had announced his retirement earlier this year, it had made the front page of the Inquirer Sports section. “A legend” they had called him.
“I’ll give them your regards, Mister Church. Are you working all weekend?”
“No,” he responded, “Least ways, not here. Gotta lot of gardenin’ to do, but that is a labor of love.”
“For you, maybe. I think I’d rather lie on a beach. Enjoy.”
“You, too, Miss Malone.”
MJ exited the building and walked quickly towards her car. It was almost nine, but still light. She reached the curb and was about to cross the street when a car approached from her right, going faster than it should with loud hip hop music blaring from the open windows. As it neared she saw it was full of teenage boys. Gangsta wannabes.
“Yo, babe, I’ll take some a dat,” one yelled hanging out the window. The rest of the car erupted with similar remarks as it sped passed. She stood on the curb and did her best to appear only annoyed, despite the fear that had her heart suddenly pounding. Males in a group are absolutely a lower life form.
MJ stepped off the curb and proceeded to her car, casting a brief look back at the building. Gregory was on the step outside the front door, watching her, having seen and heard the car full of kids. She was at once glad to see him there and angry at herself for being panicked by such a harmless event. Sometimes she liked the attention she got for being an attractive, 28-year-old woman. But at other times, attention only made her feel vulnerable and that she didn’t like at all. Men had a lot of guts making that “can’t live with them or without them” comment.
As she reached the car and pulled the door open, she waved back at Gregory and got in. Quickly starting the engine, she then pulled out onto the street as he watched her drive away.