TEN STORIES (II) ‘STEPHANIE’

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As Stephanie loafed through some files at her dressing table, she turned over the happenings of the day in her mind. She‘d been out all evening with Doctor Steve celebrating her promotion at work. They’d gone from strolling on the beach to doing karaoke with strangers at an open air barbecue and drinks joint. Then they’d gone sightseeing at an evening arts festival and had walked the whole length of the journey back home talking about practically everything and anything. It had been one rollercoaster of a night. They’d shared the most intimate of thoughts; an unraveling process for the two on and off friends. Stephanie told herself she loved the version of Doctor Steve she’d seen that night. He wasn’t the presumptive, judgmental, too-busy-to-even-care, puffed up being that had walked into her life and family about a year earlier whose only concern seemed to have been to help her father regain the use of his legs and nothing more. It turned out he was human after all, with fears and hopes and dreams and his fair share of life’s ups and downs. She remembered something they’d talked about at length- their love lives. There was nothing much to hers, he knew about Frank. He’d in fact been the deus ex machina who’d rescued her from been raped that fateful evening, when Frank had suddenly lost control, losing her in the process.

‘So I guess I’ve been single since then, and not searching,’ she remembered telling him. ‘Your turn’

‘Actually, I do have a girlfriend,’ he’d dawdled much to her chagrin.

‘In my head,’ he’d laughed.

‘Really?’ she’d joined in the laughter. A wave of relief, and amusement. There were times when she felt they shared something more than a doctor- patient relationship. And yes, they did. They were great friends. But there were times when she also felt it was much more than that. But she told herself her mind was only being silly.

‘I mean she’s real and existent of course but- I guess- I just, these things, I’m not exactly an expert in these things,’ he’d said reflectively, looking into the horizon. ‘Love caught up with me unawares, and it has really put me in a hard place. I wonder if I’ll ever man up and tell her how I really feel.’

‘Awn,’ she’d taken his hand, more out of pity than fondness.

‘You should totally let her know, before she becomes another’s, for then you’d have to resign to a lifetime of regret.’

Then she’d brightened up.

‘Why are men even scared to talk to a woman? If I was a man, I’d tell a girl the way I feel about her without batting an eyelid. I mean the worst is a no and I can move on at least.’

‘I wish it was that easy.’

‘Let’s make it easy,’ she’d said. ‘An ultimatum! Yes, you have to tell her before…’ Her phone buzzed, interrupting her thoughts. She rushed to the bed to get it.

‘Steph?’ He was the only one who abbreviated her name. For years, she’d rejected the short form from friends and family because it sounded to her like staph- staphylococci.

‘Dr Steve?’ She glanced at the wall clock. Five past two.

‘I’m sorry to wake you at this time…’

‘No,’ she climbed onto the bed, ‘I wasn’t actually sleeping.’

‘Me neither.’

‘I guess the Insomnia is mutual then, Stephanie chuckled as she squatted on the bed.

‘You can say that again. Someone probably put something in our drinks or something.’

She laughed. Silence.

‘Thanks for last night,’ she spoke first.

‘Oh please! I should thank you.’

‘The gifts and all, the time… I had such a great time.’

‘Me too.’ Silence.

‘So are you doing anything? Because I was going through all these files I brought back from the office and-‘

‘Oh. I must be disturbing you then, I’m so sorry-‘

‘No no, I’m just trying to make conversation,’ she allayed. ‘Where are you running off to?’

‘Nowhere actually, I can’t sleep anyways,’ he chuckled.

Silence. Awkard silence.

‘You know, thinking about last night made me realize I might be setting myself up for eternal regret. I mean thinking about what you said, I don’t want to look back in ten, twenty years and wish I’d told the woman I love, I loved her when she’s already with another man.’

‘Oookay,’ Stephanie drooled, not too sure of what to say. She heard him take a deep breath on the other end.

‘I – I – would you please hear me out Steph? And promise me you won’t end the call please?’

‘What’s the matter doctor?’ Her heart missed a beat.

‘I know this is somewhat embarrassing and completely unexpected considering my relationship with your family as your family doctor and most especially as your friend…’

‘Even doctors beat about the bush?’ She feigned anger.

‘Okay, I’ll stop stalling,’ he exhaled. ‘You, you’re the girlfriend I was talking about,’ he dragged each word.

‘What!’ Her hands went through a tremulous feat and the phone slipped out of it unto the bed. Moments of unbalance followed.

‘Steph? Steph please don’t hang up… you’re, you’re still there right? Please hear me out…’

She continued to stare at the phone in bewilderment as the he continued his admittance speech. She could hear him audibly in the stillness of the night, the only other sound being that of the second hand of her alarm clock.

‘I know it’s pretty hard for you to ever think of me in that light but it’s been harder for me to admit,’ he paused for breath. ‘I’ve felt this way about you right from the very start. At first I was scared, I’d never been in love. Then I was angry, love had caught me unawares, I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t ready for what love thrust upon me. If I have been rude and unfeeling and ever treated you shabbily it’s because I was trying to repress my feelings.’ He seemed to be gathering impetus as he spoke.

‘I- I told myself over and again nothing was happening but something was. Then I learnt you were engaged and I thought perhaps I was free but then the engagement was broken off. I’ve had a thousand and one conversations, arguments with you in my head I feel I might be losing my mind. And last night, I just wanted to- to let it all out. And then the things you said, they just- it’s why I couldn’t sleep.’

Stephanie was stupefied!

‘I mean I’ve always wanted to tell you how I felt but somehow I just couldn’t. And if this sounds rehashed maybe it’s because I have repeated it to myself over and again’ He was still struggling with coordination.

‘And really I’ll understand if you don’t feel the same way about me- I mean you’re under no compulsion whatsoever to feel the same way about me, I- I tried so hard to get over this, I did everything humanly possible but I just guess – that – some people come into your life to stay.’ He swallowed hard.

‘I’ve had time to turn it all over in my mind Steph, this isn’t a battle I can win so, I’m conceding defeat.’

She was in tears now, a perfect mixture of befuddlement, anger and indecision.

‘I wouldn’t want this to prejudice my position as your family doctor or your friend, so it’s alright if we don’t share the same feelings. I- I just don’t want to be that man, the one with an eternal regret. And really I want to see this grow, I want us to happen- if the feeling is mutual of course, I don’t want to- I don’t want to- he trailed off.

Stephanie kept staring at the phone. The call was still on, she wondered if he was crying like she was. She liked Steve for what he was, her savior, friend and confidante. But she didn’t know what to make of this.

A quiet knock. Her mother. She grabbed the phone and cut the call.

‘Stephanie dear?’

‘Mum?’ She hurriedly put herself together.

‘I saw your light.’ She came to her

‘Oh! The light? She tried not to meet her gaze.

‘Were you making a call? Are those tears?’

‘No. Yes, I was on the phone with an insomnia ravaged friend,’ she managed a smile.

‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ She held her cheek. ‘You look perplexed’

‘Mum I’m fine,’ she laughed, ‘my friend’s just being weird- something emotional actually, you know I’ve got wells down my sockets,’ she laughed wryly. Her phone began to ring and she hurriedly ended the call

‘Who is it?’

‘Never mind mum,’ she protested. ‘I’ll see my friend tomorrow,’ she sneezed and then smiled. ‘I need to get some sleep now… I’m so sorry to have disturbed the whole house.’

‘No, I was just going by the kitchen to get some water for Chief. It seems our own fridge has stopped working. Remind me to call the repairer in the morning please.’

‘Yes mum.’

‘Now please go to sleep okay, it’s late.’

‘Okay mum,’ she pulled her blanket over her and lay down

‘Goodnight dear, shall I turn off the light?’

‘Sure. Goodnight mum.’

Light off. Door shuts.

Stephanie let out a silent wail and broke into fresh tears.

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