People were starting to fill up the place.
I didn’t have to see the lines of students nor did I have to hear the constant updates from my assistant on what’s happening outside the red curtains of the backstage.
I only had to hear the constant murmur of voices and the light steps on the carpeted floor to know the Film Hall was going to be packed.
I stood on one side as people rushed to get everything ready. People in all black clothes fast-walking (sometimes running) to make sure the event would go without a hitch.
It soothed me, in a way.
It was a welcome distraction and it made me laugh to see the many faces of my members and students; faces of stress and anxiety. Yet that feeling of excitement and thrill was still quite evident. Most of all, the commitment you could see in every step and breath made my eyes soften its gaze and my heart clench just the tiniest bit.
It made me both happy and sad.
“Get ready in a few minutes, Ms. Riley.” I nodded as one of the PA came walking (sprinting, more like it.) towards me before going back to wherever he came from. I slid my hand inside my blazer pocket and felt the torn out pages of my speech.
In the past, I always felt like a nervous wreck before the start of any speech. The terrifying thought of what if I before I could even get to the podium I would trip or what if I lost the power to even move my tongue and make sounds? Those what if’s kept me awake most of the time.
Then, five years later, I can only feel exhilaration run through my veins. The thought of more than a thousand people all paying attention to me fueled my confidence and, in a way, my ego. I was no longer afraid and the lion which was the fear of disappointment was tamed.
Yet now, exhilaration was long gone.
And I couldn’t pinpoint what I felt anymore.
I started mentally reciting the points I wanted to say. The things I wanted them to remember as they go out of those double-doors: the organization history, the vision and mission, the world that was now in chaos and was dependent on organizations that was still sane enough to make decisions.
I was confident that I wouldn’t, at all, forget. Just in case I did, however, I had this small slip of paper ready.
“We’re starting in five! Places everyone!”
I closed my eyes and unlike those members with heart beats pumping and sweat-stained skin, I was calm, collected and, in a way, it scared me.
“Good evening, my fellow artists!” the voice of the host rang through my ears and I knew what he’s saying. I’ve been going to these events for how many years now. I can sleep through the very end and I would still be able to know what’s going on.
I started walking towards the side of the stage where the PA was waiting for me.
It surprised me that every step of my heel still resonated in my ears. The buzz of equipment and the murmuring of the staff should have distracted me from that yet it didn’t.
Why was I even thinking of heels and the sounds they make, anyway?
“And now may we call on the Department of Film Head, Ms. Riley Austine to give her opening speech.”
Thousands of claps replaced the small sound of my heels and irked me to know that I was still thinking about that one thing which should not at all be a mystery.
I took the pedestal that was readied for this purpose and I paused.
Maybe it was to make sure that the audience was silent and listening as they started to end their claps yet I knew that for those small moments of peace, my mind went blank and with it came one realization.
“This week, our organization celebrated Charity Appreciation Week where all activities are dedicated to charities from women rights to animal abuse.” It was automatic. The words came out of my lips without me even thinking about it. I didn’t even realize I had my speech already memorized, from the words, to how I would speak them.
“We have always dedicated ourselves to molding only the greatest of artists but in this age where there is terrorism and poverty, feuds between races and religion, art and poetry cannot stand alone. The world is now hardened to words of wise men and the tears of young children. So, to the people here in this hall, to the people whose hearts bleed for the world, we must make a promise.”
You’re starting to go numb, you know?
My words stopped dead in my throat.
You’ve been doing this for so long. You’re tired.
I realized that people were staring; that they were waiting for this promise of change, of hope.
Yet how can a woman whose heart is still beating, whose blood is still flowing but cannot feel any remnants of being alive preach hope?
I cleared my throat in recognition of the dead air that has surrounded the Film Hall and grinned; though I only felt the tugs of my lips.
“It seems all this talk of the world is getting to me.” People chuckled at my sudden change of demeanor and I knew now was the time to end this speech of charities.
“We must make a promise that in this world we will remain stewards of this delicate gift we call humanity.”
I used to love going to the after-celebration.
If you have young, spirited members, expect a party where music is loud, food is hearty, and drinks were hot to the throat and to the stomach.
Though, I was thankful that the organizers tuned down the music for the invited guests of St. Mary’s retirement home and had juice with a small amount of sugar and food that could easily be digested for their sensitive bellies (though with a small gesture from the bartender, you could get a glass of wine.)
I was mingling with some of the honored guests; trying to make small talk with how their organization was doing and what was their future plans?
Yet, my mind was already in a state where words could no longer be processed nor could I make any response to have a lengthy conversation. Though, they seemed quite acceptant on my state.
One, however, choose to comment on it.
“You seem tired, Riley.” I nodded absentmindedly at my fellow Department Head’s words. Dean Chiato was the Department of Theater Head and was a longtime friend.
“I haven’t been getting much sleep, lately.” I answered before taking a small sip of my wine.
“Is that the reason why you took such a long time saying that promise a while ago?” he said; referring, of course, to my stumble back at the opening speech.
I stayed silent; not wanting to admit the truth as to why I really lost composure.
“Maybe.” I murmured, preferring to look at the disfigured reflection on the bloody red surface of the wine than the steely eyes of Dean.
He always seemed to know if I were lying.
“You’re getting sloppy at hiding things, Riley.”
“Maybe you should teach me again.”
He stared at the space of my shoulder blade, murmuring, “Next time.”
I looked back to see what he was looking at and saw a group of kids shyly entering the open space of the garden. Their cheeks blushing but their eyes staring excitedly at everything.
One child seemed to be trying to find something before her eyes landed on it; causing her lips to grow into a wide-grin.
“It seems she found you.” I said and Dean walked past me; bumping my shoulder in a silent way to say that we’ll talk later.
I stared as he hoisted the small girl up. Her blond curls bouncing and her arms flailing while her giggles resonated throughout the garden. The smile on Dean’s face was irreplaceable.
I started walking away from the scene even though many members started walking towards the group of children from Joseph’s hospital; wanting to be a source of their happiness for the night.
I didn’t know where I was going, really. I just knew I had to go away. I thought of going back home to rest but figured that the silence of my apartment was much too deafening.
So, I walked and kept walking until I found a spot where a small lake was housing a family of dragonflies; trees enveloped it in a circular pattern making it hidden from view. The clearing, it seemed to me, was like a place where the broken can go to for rest; where the conflicted could find peace even if it’s just for a few moments.
Yet as I sat there with pants slightly wet and feet empty of footwear, I realized that on the other side of the lake, I was not alone.
I rose and started walking towards the figure whose height was quite short and whose entire being was bathed with darkness; the moon not offering enough light to make clear his physical attributes.
My feet tingle with every step on the green grass and with surprise I realized, I knew who this was.
In fact, I took care of him.
Alfred Boutch, from Barack and Co. psychiatry; past soldier now released from duty.
Now, I knew why the figure looked so small in the distance as Alfred’s hands started to maneuver the wheels of his mobile chair.
“Took you long enough to notice me.” He said while his wheel chair stopping a few inches away. “What? Didn’t recognize me, Riley?” he asked again; taking my lack of response as an answer. He was still the same as I left him a few years ago. Chopped hair, tan skin, tattooed arms, and grinning smile.
I couldn’t stop myself from hugging him. From taking the air out of his lungs as I rushed towards him with arms open. The holes of his amputated legs never bothered me as I tried to get as much physical contact as possible.
“Whoa, there.” He breathed in my ear; arms wrapping around my waist as an effort to keep me balance. “What? You and Dean broke up?” I released his form to give him a slap on the shoulder. Not enough to sting but enough to know I didn’t find the joke funny.
“There’s no we in Dean and I.” I supplied.
“Sure.” He drawled. “Give it a few more months. Then come and talk to me.”
I stuck my tongue out at him; like a child and maybe I did feel a bit childish.
It was strange how much I acted childish around this man who, admitted to me, killed hundreds of lives with a single bullet.
It was such irony.
“How are you?” I asked as I sat down cross-legged on the grass.
He shifted gears and turned to stare at the lake with surface shining.
“Good. I’m getting by. Taking my meds every day. Doctors are saying I’m making good progress. Might be out in the real world in a few months. It’s exciting, really.”
I nodded; quite happy for my friend.
“But the question is-“ he continued “-how are you?”
I snickered, “Like you have to ask me that?” Everything is still the same.
Same job. Same expectations. Same everything, day in and day out.
“But that’s the problem, isn’t it?” He asked; back resting on his leather chair and arms crossed. Like he expected that I would contradict his statement.
I swallowed to do just that and asked what he meant by it.
“I saw your speech.”
Maybe it was the way my eyes showed panic or the way I held my breath as I waited for his next words. Whatever it was, I saw how Alfred’s expression changed from teasing to sadness.
“You’ve changed.” He whispered. “You’re not the Riley I know. That everyone knows.”
“We all change.” It was such a cliché statement but it was the truth. “The only thing constant in this world is change.”
“Then there’s only one question left, isn’t there? Is the change good?” I didn’t answer.
“I saw how you stopped, you know? I saw the way your eyes went wide like you realized something before it went dull. I’m sure Dean saw it too.” He did. But he’s too busy to ask that question.
“What did you realize?” he asked and it was my chance to change this turn of events.
“I’m tired, Alfred. I was tired while giving my speech. You can’t blame me for pausing and trying to get my wits about me.”
“But it wasn’t fatigue.” He interrupted. “I know that look, Riley. I’ve had it before. Hell, I still have it sometimes. That look of numbness. Knowing that you’ve had enough but you’re still doing everything to make sure it doesn’t win.” He stared at me and, with shock, I discovered I was trembling but not from the cold of the night.
“But it’s winning, isn’t it? The problems are getting too much for you. You’re getting tired of taking care of the other people. You’re getting close to your breaking point. You’re losing your will.”
“Was it like this for you too?” I asked; accepting the fact that this conversation wasn’t going to stop. “Was it like this for you during the war?” He paused and laid back on his chair to, again, watch the lake. Though I was quite certain the waters have not at all changed.
When I was in-charge of Alfred during my service to his psychiatry home, I let him say what he wanted to say, when he wanted to say it. Never did I ask him directly about anything during his time as a soldier.
“In a world, where you kill people at least twice a week. It’s difficult not to get numb. If you’re not numb. You might not make it out alive.” He turned his head to stare at me with eyes small and pupils tired. “And I’m not talking about whether you’re breathing or not.”
I swallowed; trying to imagine myself in that world of valor and chaos. But I couldn’t.
“I’m not lying when I say, I’m tired.” I whispered. “I don’t know why but I’m used to it, you know? The day doesn’t excite me anymore. The work doesn’t fuel my need to be great. The responsibility? I don’t feel anything for it anymore.”
“I wake up because I need to. Not because I want to. There’s so many problems; finances, membership. The board of trustees are being replaced with people who don’t give a damn about the art.” I laid on the grass with body flat. The sky was clear; no stars in the sky and the presence of the moon only made the already upsetting atmosphere more present.
“A few of my members are leaving this month.” I whispered; trying to hold my emotions together as my hands started to curl and uncurl on the grass. “They’re going to try and take their chance in the industry. It should be sad, really yet I don’t feel anything.”
Alfred didn’t say anything throughout the entire conversation nor did he say anything after I ended my storytelling. I thought maybe, he didn’t know what to say.
“I’m leaving for Asia in a few months.”
“What?” I sat up; grass clear on my back and hair yet I didn’t care as the news sprung me to act.
Alfred was grinning; his teasing eyes back from the grave of the past.
“You still felt surprise, didn’t you?” he asked and I felt my cheeks blush from embarrassment.
“Then, it’s a joke?” I asked yet Alfred shook his head. “But, that’s, where you…”
“Fought. I know. But it’s okay, now. I’m okay, now.”
“We’re all going to have that moment, Riley. We’re all going to have that moment where you feel like dead weight with feet and arms. I’ve had it, you’re having it now, and you might have it more times than you’ll like. You’re going to feel tired but you just need to step back and rest. It’ll be okay.”
“What if it, doesn’t?” Alfred didn’t bother teasing me about the way my voice trembled; the way my eyes sting. “What if it never gets better?”
“Then you choose. “ He whispered. “But you need to promise me something, Riley.” I blinked back the tears and focused on his face; his locked jaw and his eyes of resolve. “People will continue to look up to you. They will continue to ask for your guidance and you’ll continue making decisions that may break your entire person. The world will eat out the best parts of you but remember what you always told me back at the home?”
I felt a small tear escape my eye as Alfred leaned forward until our foreheads were touching just the tiniest bit. “Never give them the satisfaction of you becoming like them.”
Alfred closed his eyes and choked out his last words, “So, promise, you’ll change for the better, Riley. Promise me.”