We walked out through the back door of the unit to the hall where the lockers were kept. They were in plain sight in the hall between the ICU and the rest of the hospital, so the facades were wooden with built in locks instead of the cheap gunmetal grey that could be found in most of the staff lounges in the hospital.
“Lucky number twelve,” Garrett said as I dialed the combination to my lock.
“It is to me,” I said.
“Really? Twelve is your lucky number? I was only kidding when I said that.” His voice was a bit lighter than it had been in Emil’s room, but still just as deep and smooth.
“Not exactly. My lucky number is ninety-three, but if you add the nine and the three you get twelve.”
“So I can keep twelve, then?” he asked, now smiling.
“Why, is that your lucky number?”
“Since I was seven. I can’t even remember how it came to be that way. I think that one day I just decided that I liked the number twelve and that was it. From then on, every time I got to pick a number, it was always twelve. Sports jerseys, bets on the games at the casinos, you name it.” He smiled as we walked toward the cafeteria. “What about you? Ninety-three isn’t a very common number.”
“In my family it is.”
“Your whole family has the same lucky number?”
“Yeah, I guess we do. It’s a bit of a long story.”
He nodded, but thankfully, he didn’t press me for details, and I let it go. My emotions were a little close to the surface, and I really wasn’t up for a Sally conversation right now.
“So how long have you been a nurse,” he asked me, as we got onto the elevator. I reached over and pushed the “G” button, and the doors slid closed.
“Five years,” I said.
“All of them in the ICU?”
“Yup. Born and bred there. It’s all I’ve ever known. I like to think I’m good at it, so for now I’ll stay.”
“Well, I’ve spent my share of time in hospitals with my mom, and I’d say you’re pretty good at what you do. You know how to talk to people. Not every nurse can do that. It’s a shame. I think it should be a job requirement.”
“Thanks,” I said, as the elevator door slid open. We got out and made a few turns, finally reaching the turnstiles at the entrance to the cafeteria.
“You’re right,” he said, smiling, “I never would have found this place. That’s going to take some getting used to.”
We each grabbed a tray and plastic utensils. Garrett stopped and stared, bewildered at the different stations. Central Medical is a big teaching hospital in one of the wealthiest counties in the state. We didn’t have separate employee and visitor cafeterias. Instead, we had one large cafeteria that had everything you could possibly want, from sushi to kosher food. The sushi was made off-site and brought to the hospital daily. By six o’clock at night, the case was nearly empty.
“Okay, let me give you the tour so you know what your options are. To the left on the back wall are the beverage cases, and after that is the fresh fruit. Straight across from us on the far wall is the equivalent of a home cooked meal – roast of the day on the slicer, veggies, starches and soups of the day. Next to that is the grill where you can get burgers, grilled cheese and stuff like that. They also have French fries and chicken nuggets there. The next station is pizza. It’s thin crust, and could give the local pizzerias a run for their money.”
“To the right,” I continued, while Garrett’s eyes widened, “is the sandwich bar and just past that is the salad bar. They also have things like yogurt and cartons of milk and orange juice. You’ll see the small refrigerators in between the main stations. And if you’re really desperate, they have coffee, just past the salad bar, but that’s only for an emergency. It isn’t very good.”
“This is unbelievable,” he said. “I was thinking I would get a sandwich out of a cooler and a soda from a vending machine. Even then I figured I was being optimistic.”
“Welcome to Central Medical Center,” I said. “If you think this is good, you should come back during the day shift. At lunch they have a Panini station and at the center island they have local restaurants come and prepare the special of the day. It brings variety to the hospital employees and visitors, and it’s good advertising for the restaurant. A nice little win-win for everyone.”
Garrett finally settled on a chicken sandwich and fries from the grill, and I managed to find sushi that I liked and tacked on a salad from the salad bar. We paid and walked into the seating area to find a table.
“Really?” I said, “What part felt familiar?”
“I feel like I’ve sat down at this table with you before. I remember looking across at you and seeing the soda machine in the background.”
“I was in your déjà vu?” I asked, surprised.
“Yeah. Why, do you think that means something?”
I was suddenly reluctant to share what I believed about déjà vu. “I’m not so sure I want to say. You’ll probably think I’m crazy. My fiancée gets all freaked out when I talk about psychics and things like that.”
“You’re trying to tell me I’m psychic?”
“No,” I laughed.
“No,” I laughed again, “definitely not.”
“Then why would I freak out?” he asked rhetorically.
I stared at my sushi as he took a bite of his sandwich. He would probably think I was an idiot if I told him we were destined to meet and my credibility as a nurse would be shot.
“You’re not going to tell me are you,” he said, breaking into my mental debate.
“I probably shouldn’t get into anything too personal, seeing as how I’m your dad’s nurse and all.”
“So you’re telling me that you being in my déjà vu is personal?”
Oh no. “That’s not what I meant, it’s just that I guess sharing my thoughts on déjà vu are personal and I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea and then worry that I’m crazy and shouldn’t be taking care of your father.”
My voice trailed off.
“I should just stop talking now. I’m only making it worse.” My face was beginning to flush – the redness creeping into my cheeks.
Garrett laughed – not in a mean way, but it a way that disarmed me because it said I was being silly.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t mean to laugh, but I didn’t realize this was such a big deal. I was only making conversation.”
“Well,” I said, “it was very nice of you to pretend to be interested.”
“I wasn’t pretending. I actually am interested. I just didn’t realize that my interest would make you uncomfortable or I wouldn’t have said anything,” he soothed in his deep voice. “I always thought déjà vu was due to some kind of dizzy spell or lack of oxygen to the brain or something like that. Who knew it was related to psychics?”
“I’ve read a lot about psychics and the afterlife and what happens to our souls when we die.”
“Cheerful subject,” he teased.
“Coping mechanism,” I said simply. “One of the books I read explained déjà vu in a way that made sense to me, so I adopted it as part of my beliefs.” I looked back up, wondering if I dared to go on. His face was soft and his eyes warm. He didn’t interrupt me or talk for me, so there was no way for me to judge what he was thinking. By now I would have known if Marc was interested or not and I would have adjusted my response accordingly. With Garrett I was in unfamiliar territory.
Finally the silence got to him.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I took a deep breath. “Just making sure you’re not going to bolt for the door and have me replaced as your dad’s nurse. You’re sure you want to hear this?”
“Do you promise you won’t run away screaming? That would be embarrassing.”
“And you’re not going to have me replaced?”
“Hannah, relax. Psychics don’t freak me out. I really want to hear your explanation about déjà vu. I’ve always wondered, and no one ever had a good answer. I’m actually intrigued.”
Intrigued. This was different. I was used to eye rolls and short tempers when it came to my theories on the after life. It was the one time that it was convenient for Marc to suddenly be religious. In my opinion, Marc was Catholic-lite. Church on Christmas and Easter, and psychics and ghosts were sacrilege. The rest of his life was as secular as it gets. I’ve done nothing but struggle trying to share this side of me with Marc for the past seven years. Now, I was sitting across the table from Garrett, a near stranger, and he was intrigued.
“Okay, here goes.” I paused, collecting my thoughts. “I believe in reincarnation. I also believe that we all have a reason for being born. The bottom line is that our souls come to Earth to have an experience that will allow us to grow and mature. Also, we tend to travel in groups, which explains why some people seem more familiar than others when you first meet them.”
“I noticed that about you. I was trying to figure out where we had met before,” he said, “but maybe it’s just that I knew you in a different life.”
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better about telling you this.” I teased.
“I’m not. Honestly. You’re not the only person that I’ve had this happen with, either. My college roommate was the same way – oddly familiar even though we’d never met. We’re still friends to this day.”
I thought about this. Even if he was saying these things just to be polite, at least he wasn’t making me feel like a freak. This was a nice change.
“Maybe you were brothers in a previous life,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” he said, smiling. “I wonder how we knew each other.”
It was a rhetorical question but I found myself wanting to answer it.
“Is there more to your theory?” he asked, breaking into my thought. “I’m not sure how this explains déjà vu.”
“I’m getting to that,” I said, smiling, coming back around to the present. “Remember how I said we came to Earth to gain experience and mature?”
“Well, I think that before we’re born we get together with the group of spirits that we travel with through our lifetimes, and we make plans for how we’re going to accomplish our goals while we’re here. Say, for example, you need to learn patience. Maybe five of your spirit-friends agree to come back as your children so that you can experience what it’s like to be the parent of five. Or,” I shrugged, “maybe you need to experience a major loss.” My voice caught in my throat and I stared down at my napkin.
“Mmmm,” he said, and I relaxed into the sound of his voice. I hadn’t realized how high strung I’d been today. We sat there in silence for a minute, my thoughts wandering back to Sally and what it took to deal with losing her. I always wished I knew why she had to die so young. It’s one thing to believe that everything happens for a reason. For years I’ve let my mind stop there, accepting it as the explanation of why we had to suffer something so terrible, but in reality it would be so much easier to know what that reason was. Then I could decide for myself if the reason really justified the means. I hated not knowing. This thought brought me back to the point of the story.
“So,” I continued, “we make plans, but when we’re born, we don’t remember them. And we have free will, so anything can happen. We can make choices that totally send us off course, either delaying us, or causing us to totally fail in accomplishing our goal for this lifetime. On the other hand, when we’re on the right track, sometimes our conscious mind links up with our subconscious mind, and we have déjà vu. It’s like a little glimpse of the map with a caption that says, ‘You’re on the right track, just keep going.’”
I looked up, and Garrett was staring at the table, his eyes unfocused, obviously deep in thought. I couldn’t read his face. Was he really as open-minded as he said he was, or was he looking for a polite way to get away from me? I was kicking myself for not keeping my thoughts in my head. Marc was right. I was a freak.
“So you think it’s possible that I planned to lose both of my parents in the same year?”
I was shocked that he was taking this so seriously. Trying to get over my mental stutter I thought again about what he had said.
“Your dad’s still here,” I reminded him.
“I’m not so sure,” he said flatly. “But even so, it feels different thinking that this is part of some plan. Less random, I suppose.”
I nodded in silent agreement. “If there’s one thing I believe, it’s that everything happens for a reason. I used to think that if I was patient, I’d meet back up with the people who have already died and I’d finally know for sure what those reasons were. And then I realized that when I die, all of these trivial human things won’t matter any more, and the reasons I’ve waited for so patiently will be meaningless.”
“That’s depressing,” he said with a crooked smile, his eyes flickering up to meet mine.
“Tell me about it,” I smiled back. “I’ve never really tried to explain this to anyone outside my family. My mother and my sister have roughly the same beliefs that I do, so we don’t talk about it much any more. And like I said, my fiancée isn’t interested. I don’t bother to bring it up around his friends, because he makes a big deal about my freaky ideas. It’s embarrassing.”
“Why would he do that?” Garrett asked.
“I think he’s just insecure with his own feelings about death, and the idea of it just creeps him out.”
“So why would he embarrass you about it?”
“I don’t think he realizes that I feel that way,” I said. And here I was, back to defencing Marc, again.
“I’m sorry. I’m not trying to upset you,” Garrett’s voice softened, and I realized that his words were sincere. “I just find it hard to believe that he would act that way and not realize that he was making you upset.”
“Yeah, well, that’s Marc,” I sighed in resignation.
“And you’re sure you want to marry him?”
Geez, that was a personal question.
“Of course I’m sure. Besides, it’s too late to back out now; the wedding is only two weeks away. People are already sending gifts.”
“If you haven’t said ‘I do’, it’s not too late,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“But I don’t want to back out. Marc and I are perfect for each other. I think I’ve found my soul mate.”
“I think?” he said with one eyebrow raised.
“I have,” I corrected, putting on the most sincere smile I could muster. Why was I always defending my relationship with Marc?
Garrett sat thoughtful for a moment, leaning against the back of his chair.
“Are you ready to walk back up?” he asked.
I glanced at my watch and started when I read the time.
“I should have been there five minutes ago.”
Garrett stood, picked up our trays and deposited them on the return carousel. From there we retraced our path to the elevator in silence.
“So what about your friends,” he asked as we waited for the elevator to arrive.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“What do your friends think about your déjà vu theory?”
“I told you, I don’t bother to bring it up around them because of Marc.”
“I thought those were his friends,” he said.
“Same thing, in this case. I was never much good at keeping my own friends. I wasn’t close enough with anyone from high school to bother staying friends with, and I only had one college friend who I bothered to keep in touch with.”
“And what does she think?” he asked.
“She’s married to Marc’s brother, so she falls into the category of ‘people-I-don’t-share-my-theories-with’.”
“So if you don’t talk about this stuff with your family, your friends or your fiancée, who do you talk about it with?”
“Random strangers, it would seem,” I said, cracking a smile. It hadn’t occurred to me until now that Garrett probably had enough on his mind, without my babbling about my stupid theories. But then, it was his own fault for asking so many questions.
“Strangers, perhaps, but maybe not so random,” he said, meeting my eyes as he pushed the silver button that opened doors to the ICU. His eyes were gentle and understanding, not harsh and dismissive. Why didn’t I have this with Marc? He was my soul mate. He should be able to listen to me better than this stranger I hardly know.