She could only remember him as the man with a kind smile. The rest of his features were always blurred, but his smile stayed in place, forever fixed in her memory.
The first time she met him was in the emergency room, in the hospital where her mother worked as the front desk secretary to the ICU.
Her mother had taken her in through the employee entrance (card-access only), cutting through the lines, bypassing the bacterial gastroenteritis and food poisoning INPTs, the hypoglycemic and the hyperglycemic, the hairline fractures, and the occasional avulsion like a severed finger wrapped in a bleeding dish towel.
“You see what happens when you’re not careful?” Her mother always brought home new lessons from the hospital, admonishing her daughter as if she were the injured party.
She hated going through the back. They always watched her, the ones on the gurneys, as she clutched the silky fabric of her mother’s skirt, following behind like a good little lamb and trying desperately to ignore their judgment.
An ear infection, that’s all it was and really not worth the pomp and fuss. But she’d been ushered in by the EMTs on break, bundled into a trundle bed in a curtained-off room, almost immediately upon arrival. It would be years before she would fully appreciate the privilege.
A lady with a clipboard pulled the curtain back just enough to pop her head in, “Hoy, Manang!” Her excited whisper drew the attention of the little girl and her mother. “Anong nangyari? I thought you were off today.”
“Oh, Eb, kamusta kana,” with a tired smile, the mother gestured to her daughter, who’d decided to tune out their conversation, eyes roving over the assortment of hospital supplies, shelved curiosities and medical paraphernalia, to the side of the room.
Clean syringes. Oxygen masks. Biohazard— A sharp, shrill laugh punctuated the end of Eb’s natter on the previous day’s hospital gossip, startling the girl from her perusal of supply labels and drawing her back into the loop.
Apparently, two of the doctors on staff, both married and with kids, had been caught in an affair with each other and summarily dismissed—or something like that; her grasp of her mother’s native tongue was tenuous at best.
Eb was always good for a story. At least it was enough of a distraction for the girl’s mother; the stories made her smile even if they weren’t completely true—or maybe because they weren’t.
Eb isn’t even her real name, the girl mused silently. That’s just how Mama says it.
“I should get back to the desk,” was Eb’s way of indicating the end to her tabloid report. “I’ll see you on Friday. Feel better, anak!”
With a hasty wave of her hand, Eb was gone, the curtain swaying on its rings in the seconds after she stepped from the room. The girl smiled politely at the pet name and turned to look at her mother, watching the lines slowly resettle on the weary mien, like moisture gradually being pulled from a drying leaf to expose its veins.
Not two minutes had passed when the curtain was swiftly pushed aside by a tall man with a stethoscope looped around his neck.
Okay, here’s the doctor, the girl’s muscles tensed reflexively, and her gaze drifted to the floor to focus intently on his shoes.
Black sneakers and socks with…sprinkled donuts?
She felt her eyebrows rise moments before her eyes followed, her gaze lifting up to the man’s face. His smile was gentle as he turned from her mother to address her directly, “Your mom says you have an ear infection and a pretty bad headache.”
It wasn’t a question, but it sounded like he was looking for a confirmation or maybe just an acknowledgment from his tiny patient. She gave a small, almost imperceptible nod.
“Well, it’s no wonder your head hurts,” he jerked his chin to the left of where she was sitting. “Mine would, too, if I had to deal with that again.”
Glancing down, the girl picked up the Geometry textbook she’d brought along with her almost as an afterthought. She wasn’t actually taking the class yet; Ms. Terri just thought it might be good for her to “get a head start for next year.” The adults were always thinking about next year.
Her lips twitched as she gave another nod, this time with a little more force. Looking back up, she noticed the man was still wearing that same smile.
Her gaze fell back to the sprinkled donuts, but not before she caught the wink he sent her way.
Two separate laughs gently bounced off the hospital’s disinfected floors.
She was much older the next time they met.
It happened at Disneyland; more specifically, in line for the Indiana Jones ride, at the part where the queue starts to snake beneath the false cave opening.
It was a special field trip for the high school’s concert choir and band. They did it every year: first, the annual performance at Disney’s Concert Hall, and then a free pass to the parks.
It was early in the evening, and she’d been running with her friends to catch the 7:30 FastPass time slot for her bestie’s favorite ride. The sprint from Toontown to Adventureland was exhausting, but “bffs” so whatever. Later she’d get Jeb to return the favor by spilling the details on what had happened that morning in the hotel’s outdoor swimming pool.
They had just swung around the looped-off section near the cave entrance, her feet pounding the soft turf to match her heart’s impatient tempo, when a full-day’s exertion slammed into her chest.
She collapsed onto the floor.
Shouts and concerned voices echoed off the cavern’s cool walls. Electric lanterns swung from the ceiling, throwing the shadows into an uncoordinated tarantella, a hazy backdrop to her pain. Heavy lids fell over her glassy eyes, but she could still feel the yellow shafts of light pulsing against her lashes.
Long minutes slunk passed the hour, as her mind bobbed on the surface of consciousness. She barely registered the large pair of hands that gently moved her into a seated position before placing a mask over her face.
“There we go. Take it easy. That’s it, breathe deep. Slowly, there we go…” the steady mantra was quiet and deep. “Your friends say you collapsed on them.”
Squeezing her eyes shut to prevent them from rolling, the girl gave a quick, jerky nod, stilling the motion when she felt her head spin.
With a chuckle, the stranger adjusted her mask, “Well, it’s no wonder. I’d do it, too, if I had to go on that again.” The girl felt his arm move, presumably pointing in the direction of the ride.
A bubble of laughter fell from her lips at the man’s levity, breaking the rhythm of her breaths and fogging up the oxygen mask. The sudden vision of a kind smile danced around the edges of her mind. It was too dark to see much in the cave, so she kept her eyes closed and sat back, wondering about the color of the man’s shoes, the pattern of his socks.