Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Affective Needs--Chapter Twenty Three

**New chapters posted here on Wednesdays**

Someone brushed my hair from my forehead.
“Ruuuth . . . wake up,” my mother said.
“I fell asleep?”
I felt her hand on my face. “Yes.”
I dragged my eyes open and was surprised by the amount of light in my room. I bolted upright. “What time is it?” I looked for my clock, but the numbers were blurry. I blinked once, twice, and tried to make them focus faster.
“Seven,” my mother said, and got up off my bed. “I have to go. I’m already late, but I didn’t want to leave before I checked on you.”
I stared at her, completely showered and dressed for work, and tried to grasp at the memory of what happened last night.
“You were asleep when I got in,” she explained. “I didn’t want to wake you; it was pretty late.”
I pulled back the blankets—I was still wearing my clothes from yesterday. “What happened?” I asked. “Are they okay?”
Her lips twisted to the side of her mouth and she gave her one shouldered shrug as she shook her head. “As okay as they can be? Really, I’m not sure anyone would be okay in their circumstances. They are safe.”
She nodded.
I swung my legs over the side of my bed and walked to my dresser. “Will Porter be at school today?” I asked as I pulled open the bottom drawer and grabbed a pair of jeans.
“No . . . and neither will you, Ruth.”
This stopped my hands. Confused, I stood up and faced her. “What?”
She stared back with raised eyebrows, waiting for me to catch on.
“Oh,” I dropped the jeans back into the drawer. “I forgot.” Three-day suspensions for both me and Porter.
She nodded, took a step toward me, and kissed my cheek. “I have to go, but maybe we can talk about everything when I get home this afternoon?”
I nodded.
I listened to her shoes on the stairs, the sound of her picking up her keys off the table by the door, the close of the door and then the deadbolt sliding into place. When she was gone, I lay back down on my bed and stared at the ceiling. I felt confused and unsure of what to do with myself. After last night, I had an ocean’s worth of emotion churning below my surface, without the predictable regularity of school to keep me distracted, I worried that a tidal wave of feelings was quickly moving in to drown me. My bed was a rickety raft lost in the middle of the Atlantic.
I got up and went downstairs to make myself a cup of coffee. There was no way I would be able to just sit here all day and stare at the ceiling.

In the small parking lot outside Harmony House, I sat in the front seat of Vader and stared at the house with peeling white paint. I didn’t have an appointment this time, but I had hoped that Samantha would let me see Karen anyway. After everything that had happened last night, I didn’t really feel like working on my honors thesis, but I needed a purpose and a long drive.
Even if sitting and watching Karen watch TV wasn’t much of a purpose.
I grabbed my backpack and got out of my car. The air was crisp and the sun was out. The sky a bright blue that reminded you that spring would soon turn all the brown back to green. Near the house, a collection of stiff green leaves was already pushing out of the dead-looking earth. I wasn’t a flower expert, but they looked like the tulips that had started to sprout in our backyard.
Every time I had come to Harmony House, there had never been many cars. At most six or seven occupying the fifteen spaces available. Today, in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, there were half that many, and I imagined they all belonged to the people who worked here.
Except for the shiny, low slung Mercedes with New York plates. It looked like an expensive silver bullet, and completely out of place on the cracked and weedy asphalt of this facility that survived on state funds and donations.
I wondered if there was some higher-up here to meet with Samantha.
When I walked in the door, there was an older woman I had never met sitting behind the counter. She looked up and greeted me with a warm, pink-lipsticked smile. A mop of loose gray curls framed her face. “Hello. Can I help you?”
I forced myself to smile back even though the heaviness that had settled in my chest made it almost impossible. “Hi. Is Samantha here?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. She’s out today—sick son.”
“Oh.” My arrangement to observe and write about Karen was sort of an under-the-table deal between my mother and Samantha—as long as I let Samantha review what I wrote before I turned it in, I could keep seeing Karen. I had no idea if this woman would let me in. I brightened my smile and shrugged my shoulders like Samantha being here, or not, was no big deal. “I drove up from Trenton to visit Karen.” Maybe if she was thinking about not letting me in, knowing that I had driven a whole hour to get here would sway her.
But I didn’t need to go to the trouble of trying to create a guilt trip for the lady—she waved me right on over.
“She’s a popular lady today.” She smiled and gestured to the clipboard on the desk in front of her. “Just sign in first.”
I walked forward and picked up the pen. There was only one other name on the sheet in the space above where I put my name, date, and reason for visit. The signature was elegant with a practiced precision: Abigail Atwater.
The Mercedes absolutely had to be hers.
I noticed her reason for visit was blank.
“Karen’s in the common room, and she already has one other visitor, so you ladies will have to share her.” She smiled at her folksy joke and sat back down. “Do you know the way back?”
“Yes.” I smiled. “Thank you,” I started walking past the desk and toward the hall that led to the common room. “The other lady.” I stopped and turned. “She won’t mind if I’m there?”
The woman flattened her mouth and swished her hand. “Naw. It’s only some attorney from New York. Probably just making sure we don’t keep anybody chained up in closets or something. You go on ahead. Besides, it’ll look good . . . Karen having a real visitor.”
The attorney. Now I remembered Samantha telling me about the woman from New York who came to check up on Karen. I nodded and smiled and chose to not saying anything else that might reveal that I was, in fact, not a real visitor and I didn’t wait around for her to ask how Karen and I were related. “Okay then.” I waved stupidly and hustled around the corner.
Halfway down the hall I stopped. The double doors to the common room were open ahead of me and I could see several of the other residents sitting at folding tables with cards and games, or lounging in the worn mismatched sofas and armchairs that were grouped around the room. From where I was standing, I couldn’t see Karen or Abigail.
But when I took a few steps closer to the doors and expanded my view into the room—I saw them.
What had I expected? I wasn’t sure. Maybe she looked exactly like I had imagined. Her brown hair was cropped clean and close to her head, and revealed her sharp chin and elegant neck. The expensive gray suit. The black high-heeled shoes that walked that line between sexy and professional. The delicate teardrop silver earrings hanging from each ear that added the dash of femininity to offset the severity of her haircut—none of this was really surprising. Abigail Atwater looked very much like a corporate attorney from New York who drove a very expensive Mercedes.
It was what she was doing in this common room that made me hold my breath. Abigail Atwater belonged in a courtroom, a board room, the executive suite. There she stood tall, commanded a room, made people listen.
But here? At Harmony House, a run-down shoestring facility in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey, Abigail Atwater was sitting at a small wooden table near the window, a piece of paper towel spread over her lap, spoon-feeding Karen applesauce with one hand, and trying to keep Karen’s stringy hair out of her face with the other.
Abigail said something I couldn’t hear to Karen, who, amazingly, nodded in response. I had never seen Karen do anything other than stare at the TV on the other side of the room. Abigail put the spoon down and grabbed her black, taut leather bag from the back of her chair and placed it on her lap. A moment later, she pulled a brush and hair tie out and moved her chair behind Karen’s. She brushed Karen’s hair back and out of her face until she was able to secure it into a low ponytail.
When she leaned forward, her mouth close to Karen’s ear and whispered—I gasped.
My God. I walked toward them.
Karen nodded and smiled.
Abigail pulled another hair tie from her bag and started to braid Karen’s ponytail.
Their faces were in perfect profile to me. With Abigail’s short hair, and Karen’s pulled back away from her face, I could see it. The same sharp chin, the same elegant neck. As I approached, Abigail turned her head toward me, her soft expression hardening as she scrutinized me and tried to assess what I might want.
“You’re her sister,” I blurted.
Not a single muscle in Abigail’s face moved even a fraction of a centimeter. She simply stared at me.
“You’re her twin sister,” I elaborated.
“Who are you?” she questioned me, her eyes narrowed.
For a fraction of a second, I considered a lie. I’m Jenny, I work here. Except something told me that Abigail Atwater was most likely a bullshit-detection expert. You probably didn’t get to be a corporate attorney in New York city driving a super-expensive car by letting eighteen-year-olds get away with misdirection.
On a hunch, I thrust my hand out to her. “Ruth Robinson. Pre-Princeton neuroscience. I’ve been observing and comparing Karen to students with similar cognitive functioning who have had the benefit of education.” I had a hope that she would respect the truth more than be pissed about why I was here in the first place.
Abigail raised an eyebrow at me. “Pre-Princeton? Meaning you’re still in high school?”
I took a breath and nodded.
I couldn’t be sure, but I thought she might have lowered her shoulders a fraction of an inch. She returned her attention to the braid still in her hand and began weaving the strands of hair. “You do know”—her tone was less threatening—“no one is supposed to be studying her. There are protective orders.”
I tried to keep a neutral expression and didn’t say a word.
Abigail looked at me sideways. “That’s good. Never say anything to incriminate yourself.” She took a deep breath and let it go. “High school,” she shook her head. “Lucky for you I feel a deep fellowship with overreaching smart-asses like you—it reminds me of myself. I’ve been coming here for almost a year and no one else has ever noticed. How could you tell?”
“When you pulled her hair back, your face was right next to hers in profile. If you ignore everything else, it’s obvious.”
I shrugged.
Abigail nodded as if something made perfect sense to her. She finished Karen’s braid, tied off the end, and shifted her intense eyes onto mine. “You have questions for me,” she said.
“How could you tell?”
“It’s written all over your face.” She pointed to the table next to theirs. “Pull up a chair.”
I couldn’t believe it. She wasn’t going to report me, or Samantha. She was going to give me even more information. I grabbed the nearest chair and sat down while she moved hers back to the other side of the table.
Sitting there between them, I couldn’t help but look from one to the other. Abigail was impressed that I had noticed, but honestly, if I hadn’t walked in the room at the very moment that I did, I don’t think I would have ever seen the resemblance either.
The other differences, there were just too many.
Abigail pulled out her phone, put it on the table between us, pulled up her clock, and started scrolling through the timer. “I don’t get over here as often as I would like. You have five minutes—my time here is for Karen.”
She pushed start and the digital numbers started counting down. She folded her hands into a neat clasp on the table in front of us.
I stared at her.
“The clock is ticking,” she reminded me.
I glanced at the speeding numbers: 4:47 left.
Where to start?
“Can I take notes?” I started to open my backpack.
“No time.”
She was right. “When did you first come here?”
“Last June.”
“Did you always know you had a twin?”
“When did you find out?”
“When I was eighteen and I could investigate my adoption paperwork.”
“Your adoptive parents never told you?”
“They never knew.”
This confused me. I wanted her to give me more than one sentence responses. I wanted to hear her whole story. I glanced at the timer, 4:06 left. “Why didn’t they know?”
Abigail gave me a look like she was impressed. “Because Karen and I were separated long before my parents adopted me.”
“Why weren’t you kept together? Was it because Karen was born disabled?”
Abigail’s whole head turned sideways—she fixed her penetrating eyes directly on me.
I glanced at Karen. Was Abigail upset because I had used the word disabled in front of her sister?
Abigail reached over and stopped the timer on her phone.
I had done something wrong.
“I’m sorry,” I said, then held my breath and waited for her anger. Of all the adjectives I could think of to describe Abigail Atwater, intimidating was number one on the list.
Abigail stared at her sister for a moment and then turned her attention back to me. “Karen wasn’t born disabled.”
I narrowed my eyes and tried to understand what Abigail was saying, but after several seconds, I shook my head. “I’m sorry . . . what?”
“You think Karen was born this way?” She gestured to Karen, who was staring out the window with a blank expression on her face.
“Wasn’t she?”
Abigail ran her tongue over her teeth and sat up straight. I could tell she was carefully considering what her next words to me would be. “This comparison you’re conducting . . . who is the other subject?”
“A girl at my high school.”
“Who is mentally retarded?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I knew from my mother that was no longer the preferred term. “Cognitively disabled, yes.”
Abigail closed her eyes. “Excuse me. This girl was born with a cognitive disability?”
Now that Abigail was asking, I realized I didn’t actually know—I had assumed so. “Yes,” I said anyway.
Abigail nodded. “Well, now, there is the obvious flaw in your experimental design. My sister was born just exactly the same as me. Sure, our fourteen-year-old biological mother abandoned us in a dumpster outside a crappy Chinese restaurant. But when we were brought to the hospital by the owner of that restaurant a few hours later, we were two perfectly healthy, perfectly developed, perfectly identical twin baby girls.”
My skin had gone cold because of a sick chill of understanding that was washing over me.
“If you want a true experimental comparison, forget your other girl.” Abigail leaned back in her chair. The expression on her face was fierce with hatred for the words falling out of her mouth. She raised her hands dramatically to frame her face. “You are in the presence of Karen’s perfect genetic match.” Her breath caught on the last words and came out as a sob. “Our singular difference?” Her head tilted to the side as the tears ran down her face, leaving dark black tracks across her perfect makeup. “I ended up living with parents.” She pointed to Karen, who seemed utterly oblivious to all of this. “She ended up being kept by monsters.”

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