The “Blue Squirrel” is a fictional coffee shop based on one where I live. In my neck of the woods, we don’t have blue squirrels (I wish), but we have an unusual black variety. Their range extends up into Canada. I see them foraging side by side with grey squirrels beneath our bird feeders. According to Wikipedia, they are a mutant form of the grey. Two greys can’t make a black, but blacks and greys can mate, producing mixed litters. The black squirrel population is growing in northern areas, because they tolerate cold better.
The cute squirrel pix are to balance the disturbing events you and Amber are about to learn of…
33. A Touch of Evil
Amber turned out her bedside light feeling relaxed and happy. It was ten days after final exams, and she’d received all her grades: straight A’s. Her steady, disciplined efforts had paid off. This summer, she would work at the Blue Squirrel and allow herself a few weeks of vacation. Then it was back to to school. Two of the core lab science courses she needed were being offered during the second summer term.
The AFSCME contract had been voted upon by the membership and approved. The team was no longer meeting, but she had sent each of them a card of congratulations, and received from Larry a $20 gift certificate for Krispy Kreme donuts, in appreciation of her volunteer work. Instead of using it, she framed it and kept it on her desk. Every time she looked at it, she thought of Larry, Virgil, Doris, and Dennis. So far as she knew, Dennis still hadn’t quit. Sometimes too, she thought of Conor.
She’d already set up an internship for next Fall with Ray Morland in the university’s legal office; Conor had written her a recommendation letter, as had Dr. Griffith. For her meeting with Ray, she’d dressed in her good suit, with heels and tasteful jewelry, and put her hair in a bun. She was prepared for resistance, but it seemed that the Provost had heard of her project, and taken an interest. Ray was surprisingly anxious to make sure she understood the university’s side of the AFSCME negotiations. They’d had a fascinating talk about the bargaining process, and Ray said he would be willing to let her observe the upcoming negotiations for a new faculty contract, provided the faculty team agreed. If they did not, she could remain in the caucus room while bargaining went on, and provide research support for the university team. Her duties, of course, would include fetching coffee from Starbucks. Ray warned that this time, she would be required to sign a raft of nondisclosure agreements.
Even the concerns she’d felt at the start of the term about her roommate’s risky behaviors were put to rest now. Joan was spending more and more time with Tommy, of all people. Before this semester, Joan wouldn’t have dreamed of sleeping with him, not while there were gorgeous older men like Gerry Jones around. But the two had serendipitously met up during a Polish mass in the Newman Center, and they’d been an item ever since. Tommy seemed to think he’d won the lottery, while Joan was surprisingly respectful toward him. “He’s the only man who’s ever treated me like a lady,” she said.
As for Gaby, Amber had a few nagging worries about her, but that was nothing new. Gaby’s grades were always borderline, and both her combative and depressive tendencies were all too familiar. Still, Amber saw Gaby regularly at the Blue Squirrel, and everything seemed as usual.
Nick’s surgery was coming up in a few days, and this was the only serious cloud on her horizon. Although he made light of her fears, a tiny shard of ice pierced her chest whenever she thought about the procedure. What if something went wrong? The third time she mentioned the matter, her mother said smilingly, “Amber, he means a lot to you, doesn’t he?”
“I guess that’s right,” she said. “We haven’t spent much time together, but we click. The chemistry is right.” She laughed. “It’s ironic. We haven’t even had sex yet. Because of his illness. But it doesn’t matter.”
Her mother nodded approvingly. “I know you’re very busy, hon. I’m glad you’re making time for him.”
Making time for him. Amber realized that she wanted to be around Nick, needed to be around him, no matter what. Did that mean she was in love? She hadn’t even thought about another man in weeks. Yes, there was her little flirtation with Inclusus Amator, who sent her those sexy emails. But that was only a fantasy. Nick was real, and she wanted to be with him. Just before she dropped off to sleep, she decided not to write to Amator again.
Amber was slowly drawn to a waking state by the irritable buzzing of her phone on the nightstand. She checked the time: half past one. The caller was Gaby. With a presentiment of trouble, she hit the answer button. “Gaby.”
“Amber… you picked up. Oh God.”
Amber came to full wakefulness almost instantly. There was something terribly wrong with Gaby’s voice. It sounded as heavy as lead. “What’s happened? Gaby? What’s going on?”
A long silence, and then, “I dunno.” It was as though Gaby had to force herself to speak each word.
“Where are you?”
“The All Night Deli in Fort Washington.” What on earth was Gaby doing there? Fort Washington was about two thirds of the way between downtown Philly and Parnell. Was she stoned? Drunk? Ill?
“Gaby, do you want me to come get you? Do you have your car?”
“My car’s here. I was on my way back, and I just couldn’t keep going. I had to pull over.”
“All right.” Amber was up now. Joan’s door was slightly ajar, and she opened it. “Joan, can I borrow your car? Gaby’s in some kind of trouble, and I’ve got to go meet her.”
Joan looked up sleepily. “Sure. Want me to come?”
“No. I’ll call you if there’s any problem. Here’s the keys to my Vespa in case you need it. The helmet’s in the closet. Gaby, stay on the line. I’m going to throw on some jeans and get my earbuds hooked up.”
In less than five minutes she was on the road. She still hadn’t been able to get Gaby to say whether she was ill, or drugged. Finally she asked, “What were you doing in Philly?”
“I went to see Hector. Mr. Hernandez.”
What on earth? “Why did you need to see him? Was it about your short story portfolio?”
“Yeah. See, he told me I was headed for an F in his class, and if I get a D or lower, I lose my financial aid. So I asked what I could do, and he said I could come to his office hours.”
“In the Blue Squirrel?” asked Amber, confused.
“No, he has extended office hours, after his night class. I started going to his office twice a week.” Relieved that Gaby was finally talking now, Amber said, “Yes? And what was that like? Did he help you?”
“I thought he was nice. He used to push the student chair out so I could fit my wheelchair in there. It’s kind of cramped. We went over the stories and talked about them. He asked me a lot of questions about the… the narrative structure and characterization. And he said my spelling stinks, and why can’t I learn to use spell check,” she added, with a grim little laugh.
“So far so good,” said Amber. “What then?”
“We got to this one story that had to do with my frustration about meeting men. Hector said he understood, but that I shouldn’t be discouraged. He said I was a beautiful woman, Amber.” Gaby’s voice rose. “He said he couldn’t take his eyes off me, whenever he saw me in the Blue Squirrel.”
Oh no. “And then?”
“He kissed me, and felt me up. I didn’t know what to think. I mean, he’s kind of cute, and he made me feel beautiful. I enjoyed it… it makes me want to vomit, admitting that now. And I could have said no, but what if he gave me a bad grade?”
Precisely, thought Amber, thinking that Gaby must have failed the class after all and become despondent. Maybe she’d gone to Hernandez’ apartment to beg him to reconsider. “So what grade did you get in the end?”
“He said it was still a D, but that he would give me an Incomplete instead. Then we could keep working on the stories after the term, until they were acceptable. He asked me to come over to his place. It’s in Manayunk, on the Schuylkill River.” Gaby made a strange noise. It sounded as though she was starting to cry.
“Hold on, I’m almost there. You said the All Night Deli? I see the sign, and your car.” She pulled in quickly and found Gaby at a table in the otherwise-empty restaurant. An untouched slice of pie sat in front of her, with a stainless steel pot of lukewarm water, a Lipton teabag still in its paper cover, and an empty teacup. A server gave Amber a questioning look, and she asked for black coffee and a fresh pot of hot water.
“Okay. So you went to Mr. Hernandez’ apartment. Then what happened?” Amber gratefully accepted the coffee, and put the teabag in the water, letting it brew.
“I got a bad feeling right away, because he took my coat and purse and hung them on a high hook behind the front door. That’s so frigging rude!” she said, with a little of her old spirit.
“I know. Sometimes it doesn’t occur to people that you can’t reach it.”
“Well, it sure as hell occurred to him. But he acted all sweet and kept speaking Spanish to me, calling me bonita and querida. Then we started talking about this story where I described what happens if I’m in my dorm suite and I don’t have my chair near, or I fall with my braces and can’t get up.”
Amber had always wondered about this, but had never dared to ask. She pushed the cup of tea toward Gaby and nodded encouragingly.
“It’s not that big a deal. I just pull myself along the floor until I reach some vertical object. Once I raise myself into a sitting position, I can get back up on my braces, if I’m wearing them. Or I can transfer into my chair. Well, Hector said that we needed to re-enact the scene for him to be able to advise me. He helped me out of the chair, and made me come to him while he sat on the couch and watched.” Amber pictured Gaby laboriously dragging herself across the floor of Hernandez’ apartment. A sick feeling took root in her stomach.
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Neither did I. But he kept coaxing me, and saying how beautiful I was. When I reached his feet and looked up at him, he got this weird expression on his face. First he pulled out his phone and took a picture of me. Then he knelt down and picked me up, and carried me into the bedroom.” Gaby took a sip of the tea, and grimaced. Her face looked flushed, and every so often she sniffled.
“I told him I wasn’t interested in having sex with him, but he got very stern and said I must have known that was the agreement, and it was too late. He said he would help me feel more sensation than I ever had before, and started pulling up my skirt. I didn’t even fight, Amber. I let him do it.” She looked anguished. Amber was shocked. How could this defeated, self-blaming woman be the Crabby Gaby that she knew?
“I don’t see what choice you had, Gaby. None of this was your fault.”
“I just let him do it, because all I wanted was for it to be over so I could leave,” Gaby said dully. “I’ve heard that there are men who think paraplegics are a turn-on. I even met one, once. He was a really sweet guy, nothing like Hector, but he didn’t interest me. Now Hector, he’s a piece of work.”
“Yes. How did you get out?”
“Oh, once it was over, he helped me dress, got my chair for me, handed me my coat and purse. He said we would have another session next week at the same time, and I agreed. He offered to help me transfer into my car, but I said I was fine. I tried to make it home, but I started shaking so bad that I couldn’t manage the controls.”
“I’m glad you called.” The redness in Gaby’s face had increased, and Amber noticed beads of sweat breaking out along her forehead. Suddenly Gaby groaned and put her face in her hands. “God, I’ve got the worst ache in my head.”
“Yeah, and you’re sweating a lot. You don’t look so good.”
Gaby slowly looked up. “Shit. I’m having an AD episode. It’s like a nervous system overload. Whenever something happens where my paralyzed parts would have felt pain or discomfort, the nerves try to tell the brain, but the message can’t get past the damage in the spine. Everything goes haywire. God… this is the worst night of my life.”
“I’m calling 911,” said Amber. “Give me your car keys. Joan and I will come get your car in the morning.” She talked to the dispatcher, identified herself, and explained that her friend was a paraplegic and having an episode of… she looked up questioningly at Gaby, who was slumped in her chair. “Autonomic dysreflexia,” said Gaby.
“Autonomic dysreflexia,” repeated Amber. “And she suffered a sexual assault tonight. A rape. Yes… yes, okay. Hurry, please.”
“What did you do that for?” said Gaby sullenly. Her nose was running profusely, and Amber handed her a tissue. “Now he’s going to fail me for sure.”
“I had to,” said Amber. “You can decide later whether to pursue it. You’re not in your right mind at the moment. Listen, everything is going to be okay. You’re in the pit right now, but you can only go up from here, right?”
“Unless I have a stroke. Or a seizure,” Gaby argued. Amber tried to keep her talking, though Gaby seemed increasingly incoherent. She began to gripe about Dwayne Hammond, demanding to know where he was, and why he hadn’t come to their table as usual.
When the EMT’s arrived, they took Gaby’s vitals and said, “Ms. Golden, your blood pressure is 210/120. We’re going to give you something to help lower it. Let’s get you ready to transport.” Instead of putting Gaby flat on a stretcher, they kept her head elevated. She insisted on bringing her chair, so they broke it down and put it in the ambulance. Amber paid the All Night Deli server, asked her not to have Gaby’s car towed, and followed them to Einstein Medical Center.
By the time Amber had called Gaby’s parents, seen Gaby safely stabilized and installed in a hospital room, and talked to the police, it was well past six in the morning. She drove back to Parnell and collapsed into bed.
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I had to do a lot of research for this one, in order to write about Gaby’s reaction to the rape. When I learned about autonomic dysreflexia, it seemed like a medical problem which might well complicate the physical and emotional impact on a paraplegic person who suffers sexual assault.