Under Other Circumstances
by Angela Kaufman
“Ma’am, do you know why I pulled you over?” the cop asks.
“No.” She stifles panic. She was tired but thought it wasn’t that bad, this time.
“Your license plate light is out.”
She didn’t realize license plates had lights, but doesn’t say this aloud.
“I need to see your license and registration.” License, no problem. That’s always in the same place. She hands it over. Registration, what did that look like again? Rather than saying this, she takes papers out of the glove compartment and rifles through them. The cop is growing impatient. He flashes the light in her face and she winces.
“I have it in here somewhere.” She says. Hoping that as she turns the pages, he’ll say ‘that’s it’ and she’ll know. Like last time.
It doesn’t happen.
“What’s that in the bag?” he asks, flashlight now focusing on her open purse on the floor. Amber bottle near the top.
“Imitrex.” She replies. “It’s for migraines. I have one now. I’m just trying to get home.”
He continues shining the light in her face. Either he’s never had a migraine, or he’s a sadist.
“I guess that explains the sunglasses at night look. Where ya coming from?”
“My step-mother’s banquet hall. Lady Tremaine’s I work there.”
“Fancy place. Must be busy, I heard you all are hosting Henry Charming this weekend. We had to amp up security and everything.”
She nods in agreement. He continues. “You have a little to drink tonight?”
“No. I have a migraine. I get them a lot. I have a brain injury.” Here it comes, she thinks, and he doesn’t disappoint.
“You don’t look like you have a brain injury.” He asks to see her medication bottle, she hands it to him. Under other circumstances she would tell him she wants a lawyer, she may even tell him to fuck off. But her head is pounding. She just wants to go home.
He writes a ticket for the light being out and for no registration. She wonders if her tickets total more than the fine given the woman whose reckless driving had resulted in life as she now knows it.
Home at last, she shuts the door and is back in the luxury of darkness. She slinks down on the couch, takes her medicine and curls up with a pillow over her head.
She tries to tune out the squeaking but it’s no use. Under other circumstances, she would be living in the home she bought, funded by an academic career. Not washing dishes and scrubbing floors at her Stepmother’s banquet hall. Not lying here tuning out the sounds of the mice.
She feels one run across her body and cringes. She wishes they could be potty trained and taught not to walk on her without invitation. She squints and sees two mousey silhouettes on the coffee table.
“I should name you.” She grumbles through the pain. “Jack and Gus.” They are oblivious to her suffering and continue chattering. She forces herself off the couch and stumbles into the kitchen, then returns a moment later.
“I shouldn’t be doing this, but life sucks and you both could probably use a treat.” She breaks a cookie in half and leaves it on the table. Then tries to sleep.
“We need to make sure Ashly stays out of sight.” Miss Tremaine commented to her daughters. She continues “This is a very important event, this could literally make or break our budget for the quarter. I’ve gone out of my way to accommodate her and that so-called disability, but I think she takes advantage.”
“True.” Drusilia comments. “Did you ever notice that she can do what she wants to do, but when you ask her to do something else she always says she can’t or she has a headache? I think it’s not as bad as she says.”
“I think you’ve been way too lenient with her, mom.” Anastasia adds. “I know you feel bad because her dad died in the accident and you try to take care of her, but really when do you draw the line? You don’t need her brand of negativity in your life.”
Ashly may be downstairs prepping food and cleaning the kitchen, but she can hear them loud and clear. Either they never spent enough time in the basement to know that sound carries through the heating vent, or they confuse brain injured for hearing impaired.
She can’t recall what it was like to deal with her stepfamily before the accident. Were they always assholes? Or is it really that difficult being accommodating to someone with a disability?
She doesn’t want to blow the event for them, though. For the most part, she stays out of sight anyway. When she first had to give up her career as a professor, she wanted nothing to do with the offers of her step-mother to work at the banquet hall. She had a degree, after all. Surely she could find work doing something other than washing dishes. But several failed job attempts later, she agreed.
First she tried to be the host. Then part time event coordinator. Both epic fails. She was happier being out of the bright lights and hectic noise of the event hall. It was easier to not have to deal with the constant change of plans and last minute additions she had to deal with as an event coordinator. But the pay wasn’t enough and no matter how many hours she squeezed in, she was just barely scraping by.
Not having to deal with people was also a relief. She used to enjoy interacting with the guests, but having a brain injury meant that after so much time her battery would wear out. She would start to stammer or lose her train of thought mid sentence. Her eyes would begin to hurt. Then her head. She might forget someone’s name even after they just said it. If she couldn’t duck away from the crowd to rest, she would end up in miserable pain, agitated and unable to hold up her end of the conversation.
She often thinks that it’s a lot like the fairy tale of Cinderella, who can go out and look presentable, but only for a short time before she has to flee the scene lest her true nature be revealed to everyone at the ball. Except she hates that story. Marrying up should not have to be the way out of oppression. Denying who you are to pass for acceptable should not have to be part of one’s life.
“We need to talk, Ash.” Miss Tremaine corners her in the kitchen.
“I know. This is a big event, I’ll stay out of sight.”
“That would have been my preference, but fate is not on my side.”
Really? I have no idea what that feels like, she thinks.
Her Stepmother goes on. “Anastasia has become ill. Too ill to take a chance being present tomorrow. Poor thing, she was looking forward to this for months.”
Ash folds both hands into fists. Yes, she thinks, it’s too bad when someone becomes ill and can’t do what they had been looking forward to for months. But Anastasia will recover. She grits her teeth to keep the words back.
“I will need your help upstairs. You’ll need to find something to wear to make yourself presentable. And please, please, I am begging you, try your best to not make me regret this.”
Ash is beyond trying to convince her Stepmother of what she can and can’t control. She could get away with passing for normal, if she hadn’t had to work late tonight, for example. But it’s useless go on explaining. She hadn’t gotten it by now. So she just nods in agreement.
The last time she wore the dress was for a professional gala, back when she had been a professional. She sees herself in the mirror. Under other circumstances, she would be here with a date, maybe a husband. She would look forward to an event like this, knowing she would enjoy the food, music, conversation. The real her isn’t in the mirror, or maybe no longer exists. She thinks she can pass. For a while.
All evening she manages to stay mostly out of sight, helping her Stepmother carrying out menial tasks, greeting and smiling and nodding. The light becomes overwhelming after a while. Despite some enjoyment of the gala, her head is beginning to throb. She thinks, it will be over soon.
“I don’t believe we’ve met, yet.” She recognizes the entrepreneurial tycoon, the founder of Charming Travel, an app that blends Disney-esque amusement experiences with travel planning.
“We haven’t.” She pauses awkwardly, not sure what to say next.
“I’m Henry.” He finally says. So, she realizes, this is becoming a conversation.
“I’m Ashly, Ash, my friends call me. My step-mother is Miss Tremaine.”
“You’re very lucky. Or maybe it’s Miss Tremaine who is the lucky one to have such a beautiful Stepdaughter. Would you like to dance?”
The honest answer, is no. No dancing, no spinning, no more conversation. What she really wants is to go to sleep. But turning down the man of the hour is not good for business. She agrees.
They dance, a little. It may have been obvious that dancing is not her strong suit. Then they talk.
“So, what do you do when you aren’t working with your step-mother?”
She hates this question. The honest answer is 'I have a brain injury and live in a society where in order to survive I need to work three times harder than I am physically able to which leaves no time for any kind of personal life and very little money for anything at the end of the month anyway, so, nothing. Except sleeping. And listening to the mice who live in my shitty apartment. And surviving.’
So instead she says “I work a lot, the rest is not that interesting.”
He orders drinks for them, and she doesn’t bother to correct him and ask for water instead. It’s that time of the evening when conserving energy trumps correcting people. She wishes she could leave now. Rubbing her temples, the headache is advancing. He continues to talk about himself, which is a godsend. The trite questions he asks she can mostly answer in equally trite, vague responses. He doesn’t seem to notice that she is squinting more now. She wants to put on her sunglasses, but doesn’t want to draw attention to herself that way. She wonders how much more of this she can handle. Under other circumstances, she might be delighted to speak to Henry Charming. She might ask for business advice, ask to take a selfie together, or ask about his plans for the company. This would be any professional’s dream come true. But all she can think of now is how to escape.
The server arrives and he takes a sip from his glass, she can tell by his face he is unhappy. He calls back the server and chastises the woman for confusing his order.
“That lady must be retarded or something!”
She can’t conceal her disgust. Fatigue comes with the side effect of lowered inhibitions.
“That woman has been working hard all night and besides, even if she was retarded, so what?”
He blinks. “I just think that if people can’t do a job they shouldn’t take that job away from someone who can do it effectively, mistakes cost money.”
“Well, I have a brain injury, and I’m exhausted and I can’t do the job of entertaining you.”
She thinks she hears him say ‘you don’t look like you have a brain injury’ but it may have just been in her head. She’s already out the door.
She doesn’t bother to show for work the next day. She knows she’s been terminated. There’s a knock on the door.
She opens it and sees a somewhat familiar face. A young man, about her age, with a beard and a hat. Where does she know him from?
“I’m Rob, from downstairs. I know you always wear sunglasses, found these in the stairway. I thought you may need them.” He hands her the sunglasses she didn’t yet know she dropped.
She thanks him.
“Would you like to go out with me for coffee sometime?”
She wants to say yes. She would love to get to know this person. To go have coffee, to even treat him to lunch for saving her having to replace the glasses without vision insurance. But she needs to look for a new job now.
“I would love to. But I can’t I’m sorry.”
Angela Kaufman is an author and freelance writer. Her books include Queen Up! Reclaim Your Crown When Life Knocks You Down- Unleash the Power of Your Inner Tarot Queen (Conari, 2018). She has a professional background as an LCSW and changed careers after acquiring a TBI as a result of being hit by a car in 2009. Her writing often focuses on themes of spirituality, social justice and empowerment. Her website is angelakaufmanauthor.com.