I was reading the newspaper (not this one, I confess) when she sank down onto the bench, right next to me.
She appeared young for a college student and was slight of stature. A thin frown creased her face. Her brow was furrowed.
“My heart’s racing; I can’t breathe,” she said, her eyes set somewhere near my shoes. “What should I do?”
Before she spoke, her troubled demeanor hadn’t really grabbed me. She wore a look of tacit unease not at all uncommon among college students during midterm exams.
This girl had, though, chosen my bench (I’d been sitting there for 10 minutes and considered it mine) from a row of empty ones. Perhaps she was a freshman seeking directions, I had first thought. Perhaps she was simply being friendly.
I don’t remember whether I answered her question -- “What should I do?” -- but she pulled out her phone and dialed.
“Dad?” she said.
Her face had changed like a stoplight, suddenly, to bright red.
She explained on the phone in hurried detail what she had said to me.
“Please talk faster, Dad. Just tell me what to do.”
Then she was quiet.
It wasn’t a long call. Once it was over, she asked if I had somewhere to be.
“Could you walk me to Health Services? I don’t think I can make it on my own.”
And so we started walking, very slowly, my arms ready to catch her.
“Has this happened before?” I asked.
“Yes. But never this bad.”
We shuffled through what now was between-classes traffic.
She was a freshman, she told me, and as it turned out, she actually did require directions.
“Do you know how to get there from here?” she said, meaning Health Services.
I wasn’t a great help in this regard, as I (1) wasn’t at my most lucid, (2) am lousy with directions, anyway, and (3) had only been to Health Services once before (I recognize No. 3 is better than the alternative). I told her I did, knowing we eventually would get there, if not by the most direct route.
After a few hundred careful steps, we were outside. The cool air returned some healthy color to her face.
Between her apologies -- “Are you sure you don’t have somewhere to be?” -- we talked. I learned she was from a small town in Minnesota near the Canadian border. Her dad used to be an auditor, she said, but his title had recently changed, though his actual job hadn’t.
She brought up her classes and how she had been in a science lab when she noticed her heart was pounding, her lungs were puffing. She was worried, she said, about what she was missing in lab.
For all the pieces of her life she shared with me, I shared the corresponding pieces of mine. Our conversation steadied my nerves. It appeared to steady hers, too, though her shoulders still seemed to rise and fall with each heavy heartbeat.
She never fell nor stumbled, and for a while, my hands rested confidently in my pockets.
Our circuitous route came finally to the tan, boxy building, and she thanked me. I said I hoped she would feel better. She disappeared through the door, and I started back to wherever I was supposed to be.
That was a month ago.
While I wish I could begin now to write a happy ending, I can’t. It’s not because there isn’t perhaps a happy ending to tell; it’s because I haven’t looked for one. I haven’t seen this girl since the door closed behind her.
I suspect she’s OK; she was relatively chipper when we parted. But I don’t know that. Her condition might have been dire, and she might not be OK now. I don’t proudly admit I haven’t tried to find out.
In the interest of at least partially manufacturing a less somber if not happy ending, I can write that I haven’t heard anything -- the kind of murmurs often heard on a small campus when someone is badly sick or worse.
It’s guesswork, but at a school this size, it’s fairly dependable guesswork. Dependable enough that, as this girl was about to step inside, I made the conscious decision not to ask her name. If anything happens, I’ll hear about it, I thought.
I spent my walk back to school entertaining oral arguments from a cartoon angel on one shoulder and a cartoon devil on the other. She hadn’t asked my name, either, I told myself. Conscious decision or not.
It’s been a month.
I could write the town in which this girl said she grew up, the major she said she was reconsidering, the fact she was chewing gum and the fact she spit it out. But the image of her face -- not a memorizable fact but something intrinsic -- keeps turning cloudier.
I knew it would. The cartoon angel said it would.
But the devil was more persuasive.