Chapter 29½: Troubled

(Originally a separate chapter between the current Chapters 29 and 30) 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.”  John 14:1 

©iStock.com/BigshotD3

©iStock.com/BigshotD3

Chris was grumbling his way through Yellowstone. There was no other way to put it. Most of his grumbling was silent, but his obvious discontent had already won him several puzzled looks from Susana.

When the coaches suggested taking a few days to sightsee here, Chris had been excited at the prospect. But that had been before they were engaged and before they set a wedding date—which was now only four months away. Issues in Susana’s extended family had forced the early wedding date, something about expiring green cards and stuff Chris didn’t understand. He was happy to be marrying Susana sooner than he’d imagined, but he was concerned that they didn’t have enough time to arrange a proper wedding by January 6. Not that he cared about the details, he just didn’t want things thrown together in a substandard way.

Besides his concerns about the wedding, becoming engaged had also stirred up his dormant worries about med school. Would he get in? How would he afford it if he did? Yes, he knew loans were available, but he’d also heard about doctors spending twenty years working off the huge sums they racked up by the end of med school. And, with the hours his studies would require, where would he find time to work? The only thing he could figure was to finish this race posthaste, go to work, and start saving.

So, as Susana and the coaches marveled at grazing bison, Chris was calculating that, if all went well, they should finish the race in late November. Of course, there was no guarantee of things going well, was there? As the others admired Old Faithful, it dawned on him that they might run into another delay—snow in the mountains. That even raised the possibility that they would be unable to finish the race before the wedding. And, as they wandered among Yellowstone’s paint pots, it hit Chris: they would soon be called to testify at the trial of Cleveland’s rapist—another delay!

By then, Chris was ready to pack up and leave Yellowstone that very minute. That’s why, when he noticed Susana’s interest in a teenage girl with a limp, he wasn’t sympathetic. As she started to move in the girl’s direction, he caught her hand. “Please don’t.”

She looked at him in surprise. “Why not?”

“Because I know what’ll happen. You’ll make friends and figure out a way to help her. Then we’ll be stuck here for weeks while you do.”

“Don’t be silly. It just looks like a problem adjusting to a prosthetic device. It won’t take weeks.”

He didn’t know how she knew that—he didn’t see any prosthesis—but obviously, she was missing the point. “Okay, so I’m exaggerating. The point is, I don’t want any more delays. I just want to finish this race and marry you.”

“Chris, are you still worrying about the wedding? I told you, my mom and I have everything under control. Besides, I can’t just walk away from someone I can help.”

“Please, Suze. Can’t we talk about this?”

“Of course we can—later. Right now I have a job to do.” She kissed his hand before dropping it to walk toward the girl.

Chris sighed. Susana could be just as stubborn as he was. Furthermore, she didn’t mind changing plans to help someone. She’d already proven that. First she’d hung back three days to help a guy with a pulled muscle at the starting line. Then she’d spent a whole month helping a girl with a broken leg in Arizona. Of course, she’d also accepted some delays for him, but that was different.

He followed Susana and was reluctantly congenial as she made friends with the sixteen-year-old brunette, Dawn, and her mother, Maryann, from Whittier, near Los Angeles. As they talked, Chris watched Dawn closely, but even with Susana’s observation to clue him in, he couldn’t detect a prosthetic device. Nevertheless, it turned out that Susana was right. Dawn had recently had her left leg amputated because of bone cancer. Before surgery, her mother had promised her that, as soon as she recovered, they would take a road trip to wherever she wanted to go. They just hadn’t realized until they got here that Dawn hadn’t yet adjusted well to the prosthetic leg.

Susana mentioned that she had worked for a specialist in prostheses and maybe she could help. She invited Dawn and Maryann to have dinner with them, after which she turned the area between the motor homes into a temporary physical therapy clinic. Frustrated, Chris retreated to Josh’s motor home and plopped onto the sofa bed to read.

Josh followed him in and started putting away the lunch dishes drying on the counter. “Susana’s really good at helping people like Dawn. So compassionate and tender. Good eye, too, able to identify problems and figure out ways to help.”

“Yup.”

“As I remember, it was her compassion that first attracted you to her.”

Josh’s reminder caused Chris to stop reading, although he didn’t look up.

Setting a plate in the cupboard, Josh continued. “You know, it’s not unusual for the things that first attract people to one another to end up becoming things that annoy them. For example, a Type-A guy’s attracted to a laid-back, carefree woman precisely because she helps him see life a little differently. But after they marry, her nonchalance about punctuality and inattention to detail interfere with his preference for order and schedule keeping. So he tries to change her—to make her more like himself—when they would be more effective if they worked together as a team, uniting their different strengths. Instead, they end up miserable and working against each other.”

“You mentioned that before, about trying to change each other.”

“So you do listen when I talk.”

Chris granted him an unwilling smile. “Sometimes.”

He got up and leaned over the table to watch Susana through the window. The collar of her rose-colored blouse fluttered playfully around her neck, the color accenting the happy flush of her cheeks. “But how do you live with the annoying things?”

Josh leaned back against the counter. “First, by focusing on the positive aspects of the trait. Your life may not be as predictable with Susana in it, but it will be richer. In fact, if you take the time to listen to her, you’ll probably learn some things that will help you with your own patients. Anyway, think about it: would you really want her to be less giving?”

Chris slid into the seat, noting Susana’s ready smile as she walked back and forth across the yard with Dawn. “She’d be frustrated, wouldn’t she?”

“Exactly. Another thing that will help is to remember the same principle we talked about before: Dad uses everything for your good. He already sees you as a unit, not just as two individuals. He considers both of your needs. He won’t give Susana a job to do that will negatively affect you. You don’t have to worry about that possibility.”

Chris turned to him. “What’s this about a job? Susana said something like that too.”

“Dad gives each runner a special and unique job to do based on their personality and talents.”

“So you’re saying I’m interfering with the job Doug gave Susana to do?”

Josh nodded. “Yes, kid. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“But—” Chris started to object and then sighed in surrender. “I think I need some wadí.”

Josh went to get the inhaler and handed it to Chris. “Just keep it.”

After using the medication, Chris rose to leave. “Thanks, Josh. What would I do without you?”

Josh caught his arm. “Chris, one more thing.”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t worry about tomorrow’s troubles. Take each day as it comes.”

Chris nodded his understanding, although he wasn’t sure he agreed. He hadn’t gotten to be valedictorian of a large high school class by going with the flow. He didn’t graduate college summa cum laude by trusting fate. And he certainly didn’t win a full scholarship to Harvard medical school by letting someone else take care of business. No, these things came from planning and hard work.

Josh smiled. “There’s a difference between planning for things and worrying about those plans.”

It was freaky how he did that.

As Chris left the motor home to take a seat at the picnic table, he saw that Dawn was already walking better. Susana had apparently made some minor adjustments and was calling out reminders and encouragements as Dawn walked back and forth in the yard. By the time Dawn and Maryann left, Dawn was walking more comfortably and confidently, and both had even become interested in running the race.

Susana sat down by Chris at the picnic table. “You wanted to talk?”

“Yeah.” Putting his arm around her shoulders, he kissed the top of her head. “I wanted to tell you I’m sorry for what I said earlier. You’re a beautiful person, tesoro.”

* * *

Late September found them nestled in the Rocky Mountains at the friendly university town of Missoula, Montana. Chris and Josh were relaxing in the motor home shortly before bedtime when Chris broke the silence with a frustrated chuff.

“What’s the problem?” Josh asked.

“Oh, it’s just that this is only a level-2 sudoku puzzle, which I usually solve in a few minutes, and I’ve been working on this one for three days now. I just can’t figure it out.”

“Let me see.”

Handing it to him, Chris asked, “Do you sudoku? I’ve never seen you.”

“Oh, it’s been a while, but—” Josh’s hearty laugh cut off his sentence.

“What’s so funny?”

Josh pulled a magnifying glass out of a drawer. “Here.” He offered it to Chris with the book. “I don’t think you’ll be able to see it without magnification. Look at that ‘4’ in the third row.”

Chris scrutinized it and saw tiny streaks of ink leaching into the paper from the flawlessly penned-in number.

Breaking into a hearty laugh, he reached for a zippered sweat shirt. “I’ll be right back. Did you know about this?”

“No, she did this one all by herself. Must have snuck in here last week when we went to the store.” Josh tossed him a shirt. “It’s ten to nine already.”

“Yes, Mom—I mean, Coach.” Chris discarded the shirt and zipped his sweatshirt partway up. “It’s not that cold.”

“You really should put on a shirt.”

“I’m fine—Mom.” Chris grinned as he stepped out the door.

Debora answered Chris’s knock. “Good evening. How may I help you?”

Chris didn’t see Susana in the living area of the motor home, so assumed she was in the back. Raising his voice, he said, “I’m here to see a lady about the matter of some sabotaged sudoku.”

Laughter came from the back of the motor home and Susana appeared. Chris nodded a thank-you to Debora and began walking with Susana. “So you finally figured it out,” she said.

“Actually, Josh did. I only saw it with magnification. Good job, though, masterfully done. I worked on that silly puzzle for three days without suspecting a thing.”

“Why, thank you, sir.”

He leaned against a tree. “You know, you’re an awful lot of fun.” He grinned. “For a girl.”

He expected a playful slap, but what he got was a passionate kiss. “For a girl?”

“Yeah, well, girls do have their advantages,” he conceded. He kissed her again and drew her close to his heart.

Susana reached up to kiss him on the neck, and then progressively unzipped his sweatshirt as she kissed his bare chest. Chris soon heard himself emit a pleasurable moan, and a red flag waved in his head. He fought it for a minute, like a trainer trying to get a troublesome lion back in its cage. But the lion resolutely refused to be caged, and he knew his resolve was weakening.

“Suze, stop,” he whispered. He pulled his sweatshirt closed and held her. “Please.”

Susana was quiet for a minute. “I’m sorry. What did I do wrong?”

“You didn’t do anything wrong. The problem is that you did everything right.”

She blushed and ducked her head, pulling away from him. “I’m sorry.”

“No, please don’t.” He drew her close again. “Please don’t be embarrassed. We should be able to talk about this. We’re in love. It’s natural to want to express our love. But—and I’m ashamed to bring this up again—the fact is, I’ve been down this path before. I know how slippery the slope gets from here on.”

He stroked her cheek. “Suze, I made you a promise. In fact, I made myself the same one. And I want to keep that promise. I want you to be able to trust your husband, tesoro. You deserve that much. But we need to be able to talk and work together. I need you to tell me if something I do could be a problem, and I need to be able to tell you the same thing.”

“You’re right. Of course.”

He could tell she had something else to say. “What is it? We’ve never had trouble talking before, don’t bail on me now.”

“Chris, es que …” She hesitated before meeting his eyes. “You want me to tell you if something could be a problem then, right?”

“Please. But English would work better for me.”

She looked down. “As much as I like …” She hesitated, and then abruptly zipped his sweatshirt up to the neck. “Maybe you should wear a shirt when we’re alone. Preferably something without a zipper.”

He nodded. “Yeah, maybe I should.”

When Chris returned to the motor home, Josh, sitting at the table, made a point of looking at his watch.

“Yeah, I know—it’s past my bedtime.” Chris headed down the short hallway.

“Everything okay between you two?”

“Yeah.” Chris stopped, suddenly realizing that Josh knew, or at least suspected, what had just transpired. “How did you know what would happen?”

Josh shrugged. “I’ve been around a long time.”

“Why didn’t you tell me what you meant?”

“Would you have believed me?”

Chris nodded. “I guess I’m not so good at following your advice when I don’t understand it, am I?”

Josh smiled.

Chris turned down the hall. “Next time I’ll wear a shirt.”

* * *

Chris stepped in front of an empty aisle seat to let a lady with a little girl pass. He’d been pacing ever since Susana fell asleep, shortly after their plane took off from Spokane.

The passing girl, an almond-eyed cutie, looked up at him. “Are you …?”

He sat on the seat to put himself at her level. “Am I what?” he asked gently.

“Are you a giant?” The awe in her voice hinted at fear.

He smiled. It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten this question from children. “No, but I guess I look like one to you.” In a whisper, he added, “But the only people I ever eat are bad people who hurt little girls.”

She giggled as she continued down the aisle with her mother.

He turned to look at the center section row behind him where Susana was asleep, her black hair shining against the red upholstery. She looked so peaceful. He rested his chin on his fist as he wondered how she could rest so well, even as they were flying to Cleveland to testify against her attacker, Jason Shadrack McMootin.

Chris was as nervous as he could ever remember being. But it wasn’t him he was concerned about. In fact, he’d hardly thought about his own stint on the witness stand. What did worry him was how this would affect Susana. He’d heard that testifying could traumatize a victim all over again, and he figured she’d suffered enough. Susana rarely complained, but he remembered how restless she’d been after the attack, how she’d cried, how vulnerable and jumpy she’d been.

Wait—had she been the jumpy one, or was that him? Maybe it was both. Anyway, she’d been through enough. They both had.

The girl came back down the aisle. “Are you watching a bad man? You look sad.”

He smiled at her. “No, but I was thinking about a bad man.”

“Don’t worry. Doug cares for the little, little birdies.”She held her hands close together to show how little. “And us too.”

Chris marveled at her simple trust. “Thanks. I’ll remember that.”

That night, in his hotel room in Cleveland, Chris looked up the passage in The Manual that the little girl had referred to. He read it over a few times, understanding its content intellectually, but unable to make it his own.

He’d come to think that Josh’s idea of letting Doug do the worrying had some merit. In fact, it was starting to sound pretty good. Yet he couldn’t figure out how to actually do that. As he reflected on the passage, he pulled out his raberi and played some old runner’s tunes. The familiar melodies soothed his mind until he finally slipped into a troubled sleep.

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