The sun was sitting low, cresting atop the surrounding city buildings. The light it issued shone dimly through darkly tinted windows, creating an ambiance you could only find at a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop such as Allison’s Espresso Express. The small building smelled strongly of exotic coffee blends and a variety of toasted sandwiches. The few customers were either mumbling in hushed voices amongst each other or clicking away on cell phones and laptops. Colleen Caraway sipped a black coffee in the corner. Colleen was a quiet woman in her early forties with an athletic build and a soft, smooth face. She was maintaining slow, deep breaths to still her mind. Breathe in…2…3…4. Breathe out…2…3…4. The soothing breaths coaxed her lightly shadowed eyelids to close ever so gently over dazzling bright blue eyes. A long and full set of eyelashes brushed against her bold cheekbones. As her eyes reopened, the spark that often presented itself during work had diminished into a dull glaze that didn’t signify much more than the basic presence of life. Long hair the color of saturated beach sand was pulled into a high ponytail. The strands were neatly sprayed into place to maintain the sleek look even after a long shift. Her work was done for the day, but she dreaded nothing more than her time off and the absence of anything to occupy herself with.
Colleen had been a paramedic for twenty years. Her skills in the field were unmatched by her fellow medics and nothing in her life felt even remotely fulfilling aside from her career. She could start an IV or intubate in her sleep, and even seemed to be at work in her dreams. Once the words “en route” were spoken, her hands steadied, and her brain only registered techniques and steps needed to keep the patient alive. Her calm demeanor, no matter the severity of the situation, was revered by those who worked alongside her. Colleen didn’t feel a shred of doubt when working a patient and functioned with unrivaled surety.
This confidence, unfortunately, did not translate into other aspects of Colleen’s life. She doubted every word she spoke, every outfit she wore, every curve and dimple that made up her body. She drank too many soft drinks and ate too much junk food. Her nail polish was always chipped, and her makeup skills were subpar. Some days she felt too curvy, and other days not nearly curvy enough. A cursory glance in the mirror showed her too many blemishes, a nose that resembled a parrot beak, and a sickly pale complexion. Anytime she was not consumed by the hustle and bustle of her job, her thoughts were eating her alive and racking her with a mental pain she didn’t dare speak of. The dysmorphia that had taken hold had grown into a black, gnarled, no-faced demon pumping self-hatred through her veins. Her credence in herself at work belied her natural demeanor and thoughts.
Colleen didn’t understand why she felt this way. Her parents had nurtured her diligently as a child, her social life had been flourishing, and her intelligence bordered on genius. None of the typical catalysts for such a debilitating mental state had existed in her life. The descent into these thoughts seemed sudden - a complete shock to the system. She couldn’t pinpoint a cause, no hurtful words or particularly traumatic heartbreak. All she knew was that now it felt like complete torture to be alone with her own thoughts. Her mental state had been eviscerated and was slowly losing its necessary life force. Colleen knew how to stabilize nearly every sort of injury and condition besides her own. The clarity that came with staunching the wounds of another became impossibly blurry when she became the patient. She had begun to feel hopeless as if she would be trapped by this demon she had created forever.
The tinkling sound of the bell above the coffee shop doorway snapped Colleen out of her trance. She watched with a wary expression as a middle-aged man entered the coffee shop. He couldn’t have been much older than her, but he emanated the same aura you would notice from a wise elderly man that could tell the tales of old. Peppery black and gray hair poked out from underneath a tattered brown ascot cap. The cap seemed like a drastic contrast compared to the expensive looking long herringbone patterned tweed coat that was buttoned over his torso. Khaki colored slacks and polished mahogany loafers completed his refined look. Even from across the room, Colleen could both feel the warmth from his presence and identify the clean smell of his aftershave. He did not spare a glance in Colleen’s direction as he made a bee-line towards the front counter. The spritely barista bounced to the register and took his order with a bright smile, appearing far too overjoyed for Colleen’s tastes.
Worried the man would feel her eyes boring into him and think her a simpleton, Colleen averted her gaze downward to the steam rising from her coffee cup. She couldn’t shake the feeling that this man was not quite a stranger, but she could hardly trust her own thoughts and assumptions on things like this. She had encountered far too many faces in her days to have a clear idea of who she had met before. Her mind tended to mix and muddle facial features into a chimera of different figures and beings. A complete social ineptitude made it much harder to retain an accurate idea of her encounters through the anxiety she felt during every conversation. Relief washed over Colleen as she reminded herself that she was here alone and did not have to attempt conversation with anyone.
Colleen retreated into the murky bog inside her mind once again. Had it been seconds? Minutes? She couldn’t tell. A bolt of panic caused her body to jerk as she was interrupted by the sound of the chair across from her scraping backward along tiled flooring. Her eyes trailed upward, meeting the kind eyes of the man she had earlier seen enter the shop. There was a gentle smile on his face that immediately broke Colleen’s guard down. When he spoke, she again thought of a wise old man. “Pardon me, ma’am. Do you mind if I join you?”
Colleen took a second to peer around the coffee shop lobby. Noticing an abundance of empty tables the man could have chosen, she felt a pang of annoyance. This man could have picked any of these empty seats! She couldn’t bring herself to be impolite despite her intense desire to avoid social interaction. “N-no,” she stammered, “You’re welcome to it.”
The man lowered himself gracefully into the chair, turning his body forward to face Colleen. He rested his large cup of coffee on the table to free up a hand, which he then offered to Colleen. “Paul Etling,” he said, simply.
Colleen slowly brought her hand forward and completed the handshake with a meek grip. “Colleen Caraway.”
A brilliant smile crinkled Paul’s nose and lit up his eyes. “As I thought! It’s a pleasure, ma’am. What a fine day, do you agree?”
Colleen couldn’t help but study him further for a moment. He seemed more and more familiar to her the more she looked. Strong jaw lines shone with clean-shaven skin, lightly crinkled by smile lines. Crows feet plagued the area around his eyes, but they only seemed to create more character in his features. Although his face portrayed happiness and optimism, something in his eyes let Colleen know that he was not weightless. Yes, there was certainly some baggage there that weighs this man down. Colleen finally stretched her thin lips into a polite smile. Paul had been in dark places. He and Colleen were kindred spirits. Her voice cracked as she tried to speak more confidently. “It’s a fine day, indeed, Mr. Etling.”
Paul waved a hand in dismissal. “Just Paul, dear. Mr. Etling is much too formal and I’d like to think I’m not old enough for that title. The true Mr. Etling is still alive!” His smile turned mischievous for a brief moment before continuing. “There is no need for formalities. We are just Paul and Colleen right now. I wouldn’t say acquaintances. No, not acquaintances. There’s much more to us than that. Colleen, I can see the pain in your eyes, dear. What plagues you?” His eyebrows had furled in sudden concern.
Colleen was taken aback. What had he been talking about? Did they really know each other, after all? Why on Earth would he think she would unload all her problems on someone she had just met? This man was so strange but so warm and polite. Colleen felt that she would be a complete fool to open up to a stranger. She resolved herself to an answer she hoped would curb his attempts at intrusion. “I’m just tired from work, that’s all.”
She could immediately see that Paul was not accepting this answer. He shook his head quickly and continued to pursue the truth. “With all due respect, dear, I have learned the difference between weariness of the body and weariness of the mind. Those are not the eyes of physical exhaustion. Colleen, you likely wouldn’t remember me from a sea of faces. Use that to think of me as a passing angel, if you will. Even if I can’t perform miracles, maybe a little chat could soothe your soul.”
Paul’s face had now turned to pleading, using his eyes to implore her to speak. Colleen couldn’t understand his persistence. Nobody had ever shown concern for her in such a way. She was the caretaker, the soother, the angel. Never had the tables been turned, and she had no idea how to react. She couldn’t bring herself to look him directly in the eye, although she wished she could search those green orbs of his for his true intentions. Swallowing a lump in her throat, she finally formulated a reply. “I just have too much self-doubt. I fail to measure up to society’s expectations of a woman. I suppose it wears on me when I have time to think about it.”
“Could you elaborate a bit? Specifically, on how you fail to measure up.” Paul prodded further.
Drat! Colleen had hoped that answer would satisfy him and end the conversation. No such luck. She drew in an exasperated breath. Irritation was building in her core the further she drudged up her explanation. “Look, sir, if you really must know, I’ve got about a million reasons. I look like an abomination, and I never received the memo every other woman seemed to have gotten. I can’t apply makeup, I dress like a frumpy old woman, I can’t cook or clean. For Christ’s sake, I can’t even have a proper conversation because I trip over every imbecilic thing that comes out of my mouth!”
Colleen’s words were laced with seething tension, but Paul didn’t seem to notice. He had listened intently as she spoke, but he quickly redirected the conversation. His eyes had flicked downward at what she wore, then quickly back up at her. Colleen had forgotten that she was still in her paramedic uniform from her shift, but it had given Paul an easy segue into the conversation. “I see you still have a uniform on. You’re a paramedic, yes? How do you like it, being a paramedic?”
The stressful breath Colleen had been holding in deflated. Finally, she thought, some conversation I can enjoy. “I love it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the hardest thing I have ever done. You see more death than anyone should ever have to, and you learn a huge lesson in the mortality of humans. You learn about grief as you watch families lose a loved one, and you learn your own grief when you lose a patient you truly believed you could save. Or maybe even one you knew in the back of your head you had no chance of saving, but you just had to try. But along with the sad lessons, you learn how fragile life is and how important it is to do what you can while you’re here. When I’m in the field working on patients, nothing else matters.”
Colleen was suddenly aware of how much she had said, and the smile that was now plastered on her face. Feeling self-conscious, she cleared her throat and composed her expression. Paul had already noticed, though. His face was smug and knowing. He had hit just the right nerve. Silence hung in the air while they both absorbed what Colleen had just said. Paul was the first to break the silence. “Clearly you appreciate your line of work. That’s not common these days. Too many people have resolved themselves to careers they can’t stand for the sake of a decent paycheck. It’s a shame, really. I’m glad to hear your enthusiasm for what you do. Now, would you say you’re good at your job?”
Colleen felt momentarily offended by the question, but Paul’s face showed genuine curiosity. She deduced that his inquiry was not meant to insult. There was a moment of hesitation as she considered her answer. “I would say I’m a good paramedic. I excelled in school and training. I’m capable of staying level-headed in a crisis. There are thousands and thousands of factors to consider within a fraction of a second in any given case, but I’ve learned how to think on my toes. I’ve made mistakes early on in my career, most everyone does. No amount of classes prepare you for your first real day on the job. I’m twenty years into it now, though, and I don’t lose anyone unless they are beyond medical intervention at this point.”
Paul and Colleen’s eyes had locked now, exchanging information that had not been spoken aloud. Colleen could see the gears turning within Paul’s mind, and waited in anticipation for what would come next. He had pried her shell open with his questions about her job, and her whole body and mind had loosened in response. Paul had not failed to pick up on this new, more relaxed atmosphere. The advantage was now on his side. He had a debt to repay, and this may well be the only way in which he could settle up. He spoke slowly, carefully constructing what he was asking of her. “My dear, am I correct in saying you lack a feeling of self-worth?”
The discomfort returned. Colleen didn’t appreciate the intrusive questions about her state of mind. “I suppose so, yes. I am not worth much as a woman, I think.”
“Allow me to say, I know the pressure as a woman is immense. There is an ideal in our society of what makes a woman, and it isn’t the slightest bit fair. Realistically, no woman on this planet can possess all the traits they are expected to. In our times, we only see small snippets of everyone’s lives. These snippets are perfected, touched-up, and portray a life worth envying. It’s nearly impossible to retain the mindset that things are not always what they seem when perfection has been normalized and become the standard. But dear…” Paul continued until he was interrupted.
Colleen’s expression was screwed up and soured, resembling the face of someone only just introduced to lemons. “What would you know about the pressures a woman faces?” She hissed through clenched teeth.
Paul began clamoring for the right words. He couldn’t lose the message he was trying to convey, he needed her to understand. “Colleen, my intention was not at all to insinuate a full understanding of your pain. It was an attempt to empathize rather than invalidate or intrude. As a man, I certainly have never walked a mile in your shoes, but I am not blind as a bystander. Please accept my apology. May I ask - and please don’t jump to conclusions - have you ever come across a patient that you decided was not worthy?”
Completely aghast, Colleen’s eyes widened and her mouth formed a large, surprised circle. “Of course not! All the people I get called to save deserve to live, I do not get to make judgment calls on someone’s worthiness. I save everyone I possibly can. They have loved ones, memories, regrets… any one person is just as important to me as the next.”
Paul nodded in agreement and continued towards his point. “So then, dear, wouldn’t the same be true if you were the dying patient? Your life has worth and importance as well, correct?”
Colleen crossed her arms and now looked more like an incredulous teenager. “That’s not fair. My mental health doesn’t discriminate against other people. It only affects me. Self-hatred defies logic and rational thought.”
For the first time, Paul allowed a chuckle to slip out. “Not to rain on your parade, Colleen, but nothing in this world defies logic. Even ideals born out of faith or speculation are subject to logic, even if the logic is that some things may never be fully understood. You must allow yourself to apply the logic, and it won’t change your mindset immediately by any means. Simply put, to deny your own self-worth is to also deny the worth of the many, many lives you have saved and touched.”
“But I…I wasn’t trying to do that! This whole thing isn’t fair!” Colleen huffed.
“It’s perfectly fair. The only thing that isn’t fair is what you do to yourself. Based on what I have seen of you, I can’t imagine hearing you say the awful things you said about yourself to other people. As you said, you do not get to make judgment calls on anyone’s worthiness. That includes your own. What you choose to do with this life and the impact you make… now that is what you should be looking at. You don’t need to look like a supermodel, you don’t need to clean like a maid, and you don’t need to cook like a chef. Those things are superficial. It's important to love yourself and do what you can to bring light to this world. You’re doing the latter perfectly. You fully deserve to do the other as well.”
Paul watched Colleen as a feeling of defeat took over her. Tears had begun to glisten in her eyes and threatened to spill over. Her next words were barely a whisper. “But it’s so hard…”
Paul placed his hand palm-side up on the table, coaxing Colleen to grab it. When she did, he gave her hand a gentle, encouraging squeeze. She was looking downward, worrying that if she looked at Paul’s eyes, she would see disgust at her brimming emotions. When she finally convinced herself to look, there was no trace of disgust at all. Instead, there was a loving and understanding expression staring back at her. A feeling stirred in her that she had never felt before. It felt like…belonging, maybe. It was as if she had realized her place in the world, or the fact that she even had one. A tear dripped from her eye at last, landing with the smallest sound on the lid of her coffee cup.
Paul now moved to grip her hand with both of his. He decided it was time to tell her who he really was, and why he cared so much. He squeezed her hand once more, then rustled around in his coat pocket to remove his wallet. With his hands now trembling, he removed a small slip of stiff paper from a compartment in the wallet. To start, he placed it on face down on the table so that Colleen could only see the plain white back of it. “Colleen, do you have any idea why I chose to come sit with you? Do you know who I am?”
Colleen shook her head slowly in response, and Paul continued. “It was January 3rd, 1999. Emergency medical services were called to a car parked on the shoulder of the highway just south of here. A woman had gone into labor and had no chance of making it to the hospital. When the paramedics arrived, they worked tirelessly to help the woman deliver her baby. Just as the baby arrived, the mother began to hemorrhage immense amounts and went into shock. It all happened so quickly, she never would’ve made it. The paramedic that delivered the baby wasn’t going to let the mother go without fighting, though. She made sure the baby was safe and healthy, got the mother loaded into the truck, and worked every life-sustaining measure she could until they arrived at the hospital. Her body was exhausted and shaking, and when the mother was pronounced dead she cried. She hugged the new father and they sobbed together until they both had no tears left. Later, the father spied her looking lovingly at the newborn baby through the nursery window.”
A chill went through Colleen’s body and as Paul spoke, a movie played in her head. She remembered. That was her, she delivered the baby and tried so hard to save the mother. She looked at Paul with rounded eyes as everything flooded back into her memory. Before she knew it, she was blubbering. “Paul! I’m so sorry, Paul, I tried so hard to save her! I tried!”
“I know, dear. Nothing short of God himself could have saved my beloved Theresa. She was called home. Colleen, you saved my daughter. Theresa suffered a uterine rupture during labor and my daughter could have suffocated. You brought her to me, then you put all you had into trying to bring my love back to me as well. You cried with me and you showed so much care and compassion for us. I have never been more grateful or more touched by anything else in my life. I had never known how to reach you to thank you, but I recognized you immediately when I looked around while waiting for my coffee.”
Paul now flipped the paper over and held it in front of Colleen. It was a picture of a petite, brown-haired teenager. She had the brightest smile on her face that Colleen had ever seen. A glistening graduation gown was draped onto her small frame. One hand held a graduation cap by her side, while the other held a high school diploma next to her stunning face. Her eyes were squeezed shut in a moment of pure bliss. Colleen gasped at her beauty, and at the immediate love that she felt for this girl. Paul now also had tears dotting his eyes, but his face was alight with joy at Colleen’s reaction. “Colleen, this is my daughter, Katy. She’s a spitfire like her mother, stubborn as can be, and as full of light as an angel. She’s nineteen and in college now. I wouldn’t have her here if it weren’t for you and let me tell you, I would never have made it without her. Or without you. The lives you save…well, Colleen, not a thing in the world that you believe you lack can outweigh them.”
They were now both spilling tears freely. They had rejoined their hands and sat together in the sadness, joy, and realization. Several minutes had passed when a familiar beep issued from Colleen’s pocket. She was being called back into work. Paul shot her a look of understanding as she stood to leave. He stood as well and hugged her tightly. As Colleen strode out of the shop with Paul’s eyes watching her, she felt something far too beautiful to describe. She had decided, from now on, to be kind to herself and always remember her worth.
Paul smirked to himself, satisfied with his repayment. He knew he had made a significant impact on Colleen, just as she had on him. As he made his way out of the coffee shop, he found himself whispering, “The lives you save…”
About the Creator
I'm a mom of three that has a burning passion for writing and activism. I'm currently a copywriter for Habit Nest, but I'm on Vocal to branch out further and put more of my own personal work out there. I hope you enjoy them!