The Ghosts that We Knew – Chapter 6, 1986

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Chapter 6: Elinor


The psychiatric treatment was difficult for Elinor, but the physical therapy was even more painful. Learning to walk again after breaking so many bones and spending weeks on bed rest was excruciating.   Muscle atrophy was a condition Elinor had never heard of before the accident. After the accident it was a condition she hoped to never experience again. The only thing that helped Elinor through the physical pain of her sessions was thinking about numbers – the one area that had always made sense to her.   She often found herself counting ceiling tiles, floor tiles, the dots on the wallpaper, the squares of the windows panes – anything within her line of vision. She’d count them horizontally and then vertically and then multiply, divide, and simplify them until every surface of the room she was in had a lone digit associated with it. This practice distracted her from the debilitating pain and sorrow she felt on a daily basis. After months of therapy passed, Elinor finally began to move forward. I didn’t see Elinor (and she didn’t see me) for quite some time after the fire.

Originally Elinor was attending MIT in Massachusetts studying mathematics and engineering. It’s not often that someone dreams of growing up to study numbers and statistics for a career, but it was a challenge that Elinor always loved. Elinor had loved numbers since the first time she learned to count to ten. Numbers were black and white and orderly – no gray area. She’d never been comfortable with gray area. For Elinor, numbers were a puzzle that she could always figure out. This was proven time and time again as she was named top “mathlete” at her school year after year and would compete in area competitions. She also earned a perfect score on the math section of her SATs – an accomplishment that had garnered attention from most of the Ivy League schools. She was thrilled when MIT offered a scholarship. The accident and subsequent hospital stay left her physically unable to attend school for two semesters. The mental trauma left her unable to do much of anything for even longer.

When MIT informed her parents that they’d need a definite decision on whether she would return to their school or not, she decided against it because it was too far from home. She half-heartedly opted to study business at one of the schools in the city. She would be less than thirty minutes from home. She needed to be near her parents (for emotional and physical reasons) so it made the most sense she rationalized.

Her family often reminded her that a business degree would allow her to still do a lot of the work she wanted to do. Knowing how to work numbers equaled an accomplished business woman her mother would encourage her knowingly. And besides, everyone knew that Elinor had developed great business acumen early on – at the ripe old age of eleven actually. She had the most successful Girl Scout cookies sales in her whole state not once, but two years in a row. This was due to her delegation, organization and marketing skills, not the whole door to door spiel. Elinor discovered that the key to a successful business was setting goals and then finding good people to go along with a good product. At eleven, her parents, older sister and even younger brother had been recruited. Studying business (finance mostly) would enable her to still use her math skills, and perhaps in a few years she would feel strong enough continue at another school or study additional curriculums.

When almost a year had passed, Elinor began to turn a corner. She was living back at home and her daily routine was developing more normalcy. Physically she had long given up the wheelchair and even walker and was walking with only a slight limp now. In fact she could walk the fourteen steps to the bathroom, 25 steps to the kitchen and even the 146 steps from her car to her first class at school with no issues. She kept a journal of the number of steps it was to every location she visited daily so that she could track her progress. There were those days that she’d overdo it and suffer from residual leg and back pain, but those were occurring less now. When she’d soak in a warm bathtub to help ease the pain, she’d trace the many scars from the surgeries. But even the angry red lines that resembled a railroad map crossing her abdomen, pelvic bones and hips were beginning to slightly fade.

Mentally she was also making great strides. She was sleeping more hours at night and the nightmares were beginning to be fewer in frequency. The therapy sessions gave her hope and she felt that maybe she had been given some sort of second chance at life. For months it had been difficult to accept that she was the sole survivor of such a horrific accident. Witnessing the boy she loved, her best friend, and another good friend die in such a violent way was sure to leave scars that she would deal with for the rest of her life. There were many days that she in fact wished she had died along with her best friends. But she was getting better each day.

Elinor discovered that the decision to move back home with her parents fulltime and attend a local university turned out to be a good move. She met people quickly, loved her new professors and could still seek the solace of her mother on difficult days. Classes were going well and she was on track to graduate early. She thrived at school; she loved the feel of being in the classroom and learning new things.

During her last year of college, she met a silly but endearing graduate assistant named Chuck Lewis. Elinor was tutoring freshman level math in the library twice a week. When her tutorial sessions would end, she spent time researching big corporations within driving distance to apply for internships. She would read up on local companies, write down their addresses and then use her mother’s typewriter to draft letters to them in the evenings.

Chuck – the grad assistant – had two semesters left to complete his Masters in Literature. His thesis was, according to him, “giving him hell”.   He also spent most afternoons at the library on campus staring at several volumes of research material. The spiral he used for notes remained untouched a lot of those days. Part of that was due to writer’s block (something he would struggle with for years to come) and part due to the girl at the next table who always looked so determined and focused, and perhaps a little sad. Chuck would watch her in the glass walled private tutoring rooms at the library. She was always so sympathetic to whatever remedial math student she was teaching that day.   Elinor was petite, a little on the thin side. She had auburn hair and a handful of freckles across her nose. Elinor had once spent an entire summer chronicling the number of freckles that seemed to continue to multiply across her nose and cheeks. She was terrified that by the time summer ended her entire body would be a speckled mess and starting junior high would be a horrible experience. In the end (after much research and monitoring), she discovered her mother was right – they would come and go depending on how may afternoons she spent at the pool. It was rare to see Elinor in the sun without some sort of hat after that. Even on this day she wore her White Sox baseball hat with her wavy thick hair hanging loosely through the back of the cap. When she finished with her tutoring session she grabbed several resource books, the latest finance and business magazines and ferociously began to take notes. Chuck had smiled and said “hi” to her on several occasions but on this day he decided to take a chance at a real conversation.

“So I noticed you do tutoring a few days a week?” Chuck commented. He stood next to Elinor as she was stacking magazines in the crook of her left arm.

“Oh, hey. Yeah. I tutor math students.” Elinor answered unsure of his intentions.

“I’m horrible at math.”

“Well, there is a sign-up sheet outside the main office in the mathematics department. You could sign up for some tutoring.”

“Ok.” He said and then paused trying to think of something else to say. “I’m Chuck”.

“I’m Elinor” Elinor shook his outreached hand and suddenly felt awkward.

“I’m actually an English graduate student so I finished my math requirements years ago but I see you here often and wanted to introduce myself.” He paused again. “I’m being weird, huh? I’ll just go back to my table and leave you alone.” He smiled uncomfortably.

Elinor couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face and felt her cheeks flush. She hated that he could probably see her blushing. “Oh, well, it’s nice to meet you. You’re not bothering me at all. I’m just copying down some information, no biggie. What are you working on?” she asked trying to sound casual and hide the excitement in her voice.

Dating wasn’t easy for Elinor initially. Since the accident, she was most comfortable with routine. After the accident everything was referred to as the “after”. There were days that she dreamed about returning to the “before”. People’s lives shouldn’t be defined as before and after she often thought. Elinor and her mother became extremely close while she was living back at home. It was not uncommon for her to spend most of her Friday and Saturday nights at home with her parents watching a movie. Some weekends they would sit on the back patio and grill burgers or order a pizza and play Gin Rummy. She helped her mother plan neighborhood parties and they would attend book club together, meal plan together, rearrange the living room furniture and choose new curtains together.   Most girls Elinor’s age were doing one of two things – trying to get their boyfriend to propose or getting drunk on cheap beer and throwing their panties on stage at the latest hair band concert. Elinor was content to compare fabric swatches to paint colors in order to get the best coordination to the living room couch. At some point, Elinor’s parents realized that she would eventually need to regain her confidence and spend time with her own friends – they encouraged her, but never forced it. The day Elinor came home after spending several hours talking to Chuck in the library and announced to her parents that she thought she had a date, they were just as excited as she was.

Chuck had tried to go the “cool guy” route and ask Elinor out to play tennis with him. He actually was NOT a tennis player but his roommate was and his roommate seemed to really “get along” with women. He figured he could borrow the roomie’s racket and wing it. Elinor admitted that she had been in an accident several years before and agility and sports just weren’t her thing.

“Oh. Well. Dinner and movie then?” Chuck asked, thinking that was the most expected (and therefore not very exciting) first date ever. He mentally kicked himself for not thinking this through more. He had however, worn a clean pair of jeans and showered that day. Now he was starting to sweat and he nervously clicked his ball point pen open and closed.

“Only if you let me pick the movie, you can choose the restaurant” she answered and gave him a smile that let him know that maybe his suggestion wasn’t as bad as he thought. She reached over and put her hand on his, not to show affection but to stop him from annoyingly clicking that pen.

“Really? Okay, yeah, cool!” he consciously put the pen on the table and tried to act as if it was not a big deal that the girl he had a crush on had agreed to go on a date with him.

Chuck picked her up the following Friday night. She really wanted to see When Harry Met Sally but since he had mentioned he was dying to see Dead Poets Society (she figured it was because he loved literature so much) she chose it instead. It had been a long time since she had been on a date; no one since Paul. Her nerves nearly got the best of her. She spent extra time getting ready and even applied make-up – something she rarely wore. Her parents confirmed that she looked great and encouraged her to relax and enjoy herself. A couple hours later, she started second guessing if she was even on a date or if this was just a friend thing. They were about halfway thru the movie and Chuck seemed riveted with what was on the screen – he barely noticed she was there. Granted all the recent movies she had gone to were with her Mom and Mom’s friends, but she did remember being in High School and barely seeing any of the movies she and Paul had gone to. She didn’t want Chuck pawing at her, or even to put his arm around her for that matter, but she thought it was odd that he didn’t even seem interested in trying. She tried to concentrate on the movie but found herself counting the small floor lights that lined the aisles along the seats of the theater. One, two, three, four – as many as she could see. As much as she wanted to go home and sit in the living room with her parents and watch TV, she convinced herself to stay and make the best of the evening – even if she was only gaining a new friend.

When the movie was over, Chuck suggested Bennigan’s for their dinner, and that was just fine with her. At dinner they talked about the movie. He talked about his roommate and the craziness of never knowing what he’d walk into when he got up each morning. Chuck was from a town about 2 hours away, he wasn’t very close to his family but not estranged either. His father suffered with serious Type II diabetes and Stewart’s mother was his full-time caregiver.

“I see them at Easter and Christmas generally. I call them the Holy visitations.” He laughed at his joke and sipped his beer. “Hey, are you sure I can’t order you a beer? Maybe a margarita?” He looked around for their waitress. Elinor spotted her right away; she had counted twelve buttons pinned to her vest when she’d taken their drink orders – she must be the “flair” leader at this particular restaurant.

“No, I’m good with diet coke. I don’t really drink since the accident.” She nervously straightened her shirt. I should not have worn this shirt, she thought, it shows way too much cleavage.

I love her shirt, Chuck thought.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Would you rather me not drink?” Crap, what a bonehead I am! Her friends died in an accident after they’d all been drinking. She’s totally not going to go out with me again.

“No! Of course not! It’s just a personal thing for me. Alcohol gives me headaches but I do have a drink every now and then.” He’s going to think I’m a prude. Maybe I should order a shot?

By the end of the date they fell into an easy conversation. Elinor shared that she still lived at home and was very close to her parents. She loved to cook and was a homebody for the most part. They both talked about school and their upcoming graduations and what they hoped to do afterwards. Elinor was hoping for an internship that would end with an offer of a full time position. She had done research on several companies in the area. Her grades were nearly perfect and several professors had written reference letters for her raving about her attention to detail, organization skills and talent for numbers. Chuck was most likely going to take a position at the university teaching lower level English if he could ever get his thesis written and published. He hoped to eventually find a job writing editorials or features for the city paper and of course write the next great American novel.

Elinor had a good time after she relaxed a bit, she noticed how cute he looked in his plaid print Polo pullover and Levis. He had taken extra time to spike his hair and shave; he was much more attractive than she had noticed before at the library. Chuck was easy to talk to and made her laugh – a lot. He could perfectly imitate a lot of the professors at their school and the stories about his roommate were priceless – the guy obviously had quite a few lady friends and wasn’t ashamed to let Chuck (and all the neighbors) hear his private dating activities until the wee hours of the morning.

It was late when they finally headed to her house (midnight was late for her) and she knew her mother would be up waiting.   When he pulled into her drive, he shut off the engine and asked if she’d like to hang out again soon. She had been noticing the vacuumed creases in the floor mats and how the dash had been freshly wiped down with Armor All. It was silly to think earlier that this wasn’t a date; no guy cleaned his car like that for a friend. He had admitted at dinner that being a graduate assistant was about the lousiest pay one could have (forcing him to live with the infamous roommate). She knew she’d like to see him again but felt bad about the cost of dinners and movies. She asked him if he’d like to come over that Sunday and have dinner with her and her parents.

The fact that this girl was asking him to meet her parents after one date never fazed him. In fact, he was mostly thinking about Elinor’s cooking hobby and all those new recipes she had been experimenting with recently. As a poor grad student, he rarely had a home cooked meal. She seemed like quite the chef and, more importantly, he found her adorable and he actually felt a flutter every time she laughed at his jokes. He wasn’t used to a girl this pretty that would actually sit and listen to him. The dates he had recently gone on, which weren’t many, had been discouraging to say the least. Elinor didn’t mind that they hadn’t gone to a fancy expensive restaurant. They had watched the movie and shared an intellectual conversation about it afterwards. Most of all, he realized right away that she was sweet and smart, she was a prize. He walked her to the door and gave her a quick awkward hug. He leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek but she turned at just the right time and his lips landed on her mouth. The kiss was quick but warm and soft. He reluctantly pulled away and they smiled at each other shyly. “See ya Sunday Ellie”.

And after that, they spent every Sunday together.


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