It’s been raining all day. I wish it had started a day earlier. But as luck would have it, there hadn’t been a drop.
The clients had been asking to keep the windows open, so I did. I should’ve said “NO” or lied that the windows wouldn’t wind down.
Sofia wouldn’t be now drowning in mucus. And I wouldn’t be counting the minutes to the end of my shift, only four hours thirty six minutes to go.
Now I’ll drop this lady off at the mall and get myself a cup of strong coffee there. I barely slept last night. Sofia kept waking up. The starting cold was bothering her, and I was cursing myself for being such an idiot eager to please everyone.
But Sofia was not the only reason I was up all night. I was replaying in my head my last row with Diana.
It was Sunday and she was making dinner. I was watching a football match, sprawled on the sofa and sipping beer. Our team was beating the Paraguayans. My high was interrupted by Diana’s loud scream.
I dragged myself to the kitchen. Not saying a word, Diana stuck out her bleeding index finger. She looked pissed off alright. Then, she looked at the knife and sighed deeply.
“OK,” said I picking up the knife, “in strips?”
“Yea,” mumbled Diana and went to bandage her wound.
Of course I forgot about the damn strips. All I could think about was the game and I chopped the vegetables up in tiny pieces.
“Didn’t I ask you to cut them in strips!” howled Diana when she came back.
“You’re such a pain!” I shouted hurling the knife into the sink, “Does it really matter? You just love to nag me! Cut your veggies yourself!”
I rushed out of the kitchen and flopped back on the sofa to watch the rest of the game.
About half an hour later Diana put a steaming frying pan in front of me. She did it with a deliberate loud bang and left the room. She was wearing a red raincoat that would not button down – she was seven months pregnant.
“Where are you going? It’s getting dark out there!” I shouted at her back.
“So what? Does it really matter? I’m such a pain in your ass!” and then she added “You shouldn’t worry: all the maniacs and killers are watching your f*cking football now.” She always had quite a weird sense of humor.
The underground parking here in the mall is great. What’s even better is that they have family toilets which I need so desperately now – to take a leak and change Sofia’s heavy diaper.
Some ten minutes later Sofia is dry, not counting her runny nose, and it’s time for a snack. I am pressed for time, so I drop in the first café on the way, the closest one to the restrooms. I put Sofia on a couch without taking her out of her car seat and sit down next to her, a baby bottle with formula in my left hand and a paper cup with expresso in the other. Sofia is sucking her formula sluggishly: instead of the usual two hundred and ten milliliters, she barely drinks forty. I am trying to eat my chicken and bacon sandwich. It looks like I’ll ask to pack it as a take away – my lunch break time is over.
My next client is already waiting to be picked up by the exit on the twelfth street. She is wearing a short jacket, ripped jeans and open high-heeled shoes. She is not dressed for the weather, I would say. In each hand she is carrying a large “Zara” bag.
Having settled comfortably in the back seat, she puts her wet umbrella on her left and the shopping bags on her right. Then she starts shouting into her mobile phone:
“Hi, can you hear me now?”
The person on the other side probably couldn’t, so she starts shouting even louder. However, what she is saying now is totally incomprehensible because something I always dread in such situations has just happened. Sofia, who has just fallen asleep, wakes up and starts crying.
The girl puts her phone away, and leaning over the back of the front seat, looks down at screaming Sofia.
“Why is she crying?” she asks.
“You woke her up,” I say.
“Sorry, I didn’t notice you have a baby in the car. Is she your daughter?”
“Yes,” I say, hoping that our conversation has finished, but to my dismay, the girl is curious.
“Why are you driving with your baby in the front seat? Is there no one to take care of her?”
I still can’t get used to this question, though I hear it about twice a day. One client out of ten is tactless enough to ask it. It’s almost always women who do.
I hope that I won’t have to use the usual spiel I have ready for these kind of situations. But, unfortunately, every time I repeat the same thing like a parrot:
“The thing is that my wife had to go back to work after her maternity leave a month ago,” I say, trying to keep calm, “and it’s hard to find a babysitter. We don’t have any family, so she stays with me. “
I hope my white lie is convincing. It has to be, everything I say is true, or would be so if I changed “we” to “I”. But I prefer to say “we”. “I” would provoke more questions I am not ready to answer.
“Do you know anyone who can babysit?” I ask her, just in case.
She shakes her head and sits back.
“Listen,” she says, “Are you sure that your daughter isn’t sick? Mine is screaming like this only when she’s in pain.”
Keeping my left hand on the wheel, I touch Sofia’s forehead with my right one. Her forehead is feverish, but I don’t want “the ripped jeans” to know about it.
“She is fine.”
She doesn’t trust me, she leans over the front seat again and touches Sofia forehead with a habitual gesture.
“She has a fever,” says the girl. “Do you have anything to give her?”
“No, I don’t.” I confess.
The girl gets back to her seat. She says nothing for the rest of the ride, and her silence weighs heavier on me than her loud talk. I sense her disapproval and I can almost hear her think what a terrible father I am.
Would she report me to the social services?
“Hey, driver, wake up! You passed my house! Didn’t you hear me shout “Stop!”?
I must say I didn’t hear a thing.
Luckily I didn’t drive too far, and there’s nobody behind me, so I can reverse.
“Can you wait a few minutes? I left my wallet at home,” she announces.
She’s been away at least for seven minutes. When I decide that she forgot all about me or she could be on the phone calling the police or social services, she reappears. There’s money and a small plastic bag in her hands.
“Give her this. Just a few drops to bring down the fever.”
I would love to tell Diana about this. She loved such stories, strangers helping others always touched her deeply.
No, I probably shouldn’t. Otherwise, I’ll have to tell her that Sofia is sick, though she might already know about it anyway…
All my other clients hardly say a word. My last passenger is wearing a lilac scarf. Diana would love it. Once, I bought her a similar one. I think it was on Saint Valentine’s Day. I still remember how upset she got when she left it behind on a bus.
Sofia falls asleep almost in the driveway. I am taking the car seat out with great care, hoping that she’ll sleep all night through in it. Sometimes miracles do happen! I put Sofia on the floor in the bedroom and go to the kitchen to finish my sandwich. The fridge is empty safe for two beer cans and one shriveled lemon. Tomorrow is my day off. Eating the sandwich, I am trying to make a shopping list in my head.
The initial letters of the groceries should form Diana’s full name:
“Dates, ice cream, apples, nectarines, avocado, sausages…”
For some reason, the supermarket turns out to be very far away and to get there I have to walk through wet sand along a beach. Suddenly, I realize that I am in a new, unfamiliar place. And, of course, there’s nobody to ask for directions – there’s no one on the beach. My rucksack is hanging loose behind my back, the baby carrier is on my chest. It seems that Sofia doesn’t like sitting in it. She’s kicking me and screaming loudly. “She might be hot,” I think and suddenly remember that I left without the sunscreen. “I must go back,” I say to myself and turn back, but then I understand that it doesn’t make any sense – my house (or hotel?) is not even visible on the horizon. Suddenly I am overcome by a terrible fatigue. I decide to lie down on the sand and have a nap. As I’m taking the baby carrier off my back, I hear Diana’s voice:
“Take Sofia to the hospital!”
Sofia starts coughing loudly and I wake up. I rush to the bedroom, stumbling on the furniture in the dark and knocking the chairs over. I grab the car seat with Sofia and the bag with all her “changing stuff” and go the car.
Adjusting the car seat, I sense an unpleasant smell coming from Sofia. Her face and clothes are stained with some white substance. Then I realize that she has vomited. I take Sofia out of the car and carry her back to the house. On the way home she throws up again. This time it’s not just Sofia’s clothes, I have to change mine as well.
On the way to the hospital Sofia is coughing a lot, and I am afraid that she’ll throw up again, but luckily the trip goes smoothly.
The children’s emergency room is almost empty. There’s only a young couple with a five-year old boy and even a younger couple, both of them are in their twenties, with a girl who is about the same age as Sofia. The boy is sitting with his head resting on his mother’s shoulder and breathing heavily. His mother is stroking his head and whispering gently into his ear. I turn away no to burst into tears.
I am rescued by the nurse who comes to announce the girl’s name, “Valeria Camacho Arenas.” The only girl I knew with the same name was my pre-school classmate. I am curious where she is and what she looks like now. Then, twenty five years ago she was a plump funny girl with curly auburn hair.
Sofia coughs again and I lean to check whether her cough has had any consequences. There’s a bad smell again, but this time from a different place. I take a diaper and wet wipes out of my bag and put them in the car seat, just on Sofia’s lap.
Sofia is crying – she is uncomfortable lying on a stiff changing table. She looks insulted; her eyes are full of righteous rage.
As soon as I pull Sofia’s pants up, her name is announced. Sofia is examined by an aging female doctor with dark wrinkled hands and tired eyes.
“You girl has got a rhinopharyngitis,” the doctor says, “It’s nothing to worry about,” she adds glancing at me.
I am leaving the examination room holding Sofia in my hands. I left the car seat in the restroom. I have to go back to pick it up.
I buy the medications for Sofia in the hospital’s pharmacy, and I drive home. The doctor said that Sofia should stay at home for at least three days, which means that I’ll have to ask for two additional days off. Hope they will understand.
Sofia falls asleep and I think about what I will be doing these three days. It’s obvious, that I’ll stay in. For a start, I‘ll hit the sack. It’s the first thing I am going to do as soon as we get home. Then, I’ll order the groceries over the phone and cook food for the whole week. Then I’ll watch some TV to catch up on the news. But the most important thing I have to do during this unplanned vacation is to draw my wife’s portrait.
I used to draw pretty well and I even worked as a street artist for a while drawing portraits in pencil. It was many years ago, in my first year of art college, when my parents were still alive. At the beginning of the second year my parents died in a motorbike accident. The only legacy they left me was their small house, which I had to sell to pay off their debts. I dropped out of college and went to work as a waiter in an Italian restaurant. I was making nothing, so I decided to drive a cab instead.
I want to draw Diana’s face only, trying to show that expression she had when listening to someone: very focused, but somewhat sarcastic. I will hang it on the fridge, under the Eifel Tower magnet. I don’t even remember where we got this magnet from. We’d never been to Paris.
I want to feel her piercing look every time I am in the kitchen. I want these attentive black eyes follow my every move, exactly the same way they did a month ago, before that day when Diana accidentally saved the life of a sixteen-year-old idiot who had decided to commit a suicide.
The rain intensified and I thought that if there had been such heavy downpour that day, Diana wouldn’t have walked home from work. She would have taken a bus, as always, and arrived home okay. But it was a wonderful warm evening and Diana felt like going for a walk.
That very evening some girl decided to commit suicide jumping out of a window. Why didn’t she look down first?
We’re at home at last. I move Sofia into her cot and lie down beside her. Listening to her snoring I fear it will be another sleepless night, even if she sleeps through the night. I am trying to make a shopping list in my head again, hoping that it will help me to fall asleep. Having reached the last letter of Diana’s family name, my thoughts switch to the list of errands for the next three days. Suddenly, I am struck by the thought:
“How can I make plans after all that has HAPPENED?”
“You have to, my dear, you have to,” Diana replies.
It means that I am sinking into sleep at last.