10:35 a.m. She was already five minutes late. I reclined into the plastic blue chair outside her office and raised my eyebrows at the receptionist. “Just a five minutes more,” she mouthed slowly. She displayed a wide toothy grin as I nodded comprehension. I let out an exasperated sigh. I wish the firm would let me do more than just manage business proposals to other small groups. Exactly twelve minutes later, the phone rang at her desk. She nodded towards me as she batted her false eyelashes before putting down the phone.
“Okaaay, she’s here.” She rose from her seat and waved towards me frantically as if I couldn’t see her properly. I rolled my eyes. “You,” She pointed at me. “Can go in now!” She gestured towards the glass door.
“Thank you.” I stood up and ventured towards the door grateful to finally escape the receptionist’s awkward stares. I gently knocked as I rearranged the plan designs I was holding.
A thin freckled woman settled into her chair and motioned for me to take the one opposite. “Valerie Knight.” I shook her hand. Just a matter of time before she realizes. “And you are Marcelo Barrett, right?”
“Marc Barrett.” I replied. I refused to take the name my father had chosen. As far as I was concerned, he had severed all ties with me when I was seven. She’s staring. It was a matter of time before her face would turn pathetically apologetic like all the others who knew.
“Sorry for the delay. I was busy at another meeting.” She sounded very tired. Her glassy blue eyes met my almond ones for a brief moment before they flickered to the plans I had placed on her desk.
She smiled. “Well, Artemis Group is very proud to undertake this collaboration with Crystal Designs.” Something was off. Hadn’t she noticed? She cast occasional glances at my slightly flattened nose but continued speaking to me normally. “Mosaic Down Syndrome.” She opened her mouth and shut it simultaneously. I focused on the design at hand avoiding the flushed look on her face.
“I—I’ll bring the plans I have. It’s in the cupboard inside.” She opened a small door to her left and the rich earthy scent hit my nostrils. I bent over the desk to confirm the thick fumes rising from the grey incense sticks in a tiny silver glass inside. “Sorry if the smell bothers you.” She returned holding a stack of folders.
I shook my head gently. “Sandalwood, right?”
Her eyes widened. “Yeah!” Mom had loved incense. She had first brought the box of sticks home on my fifth birthday.
“Look here Marcelo,” she cooed, waving the box. Mom had loved Dad dearly and always called me by the name he’d proudly selected before he knew his son would come with an unexpected friend: Down Syndrome.
“What’re those for?” I’d asked her.
“Honey, this is going to help everyone relax. Think of it like…a nice home holiday! It’ll make us all feel much better. ” She said, kneeling down to caress my cheeks.
“So he won’t hit me anymore?”
“Honey, Dad loves you. He just forgets sometimes.”
“That I have Down’s?” A weak smile played around her lips. She never answered. And I never believed her.
I studied Valerie closely. I realized I had begun counting the times she pushed her glossy black hair behind her ears when she concentrated. Her full lips began to look appealing. No! This can’t be happening. She’s normal. This isn’t going to work out. I willed my senses back to the fragrance. I hadn’t smelt sandalwood since my mother had died. I had loved it but it rekindled only unwanted memories. “It helps me with my anxiety. Great for meditation.” She pressed her pen to her lips. “How—how did you manage? Down’s…I mean.”
“My mother was a strong woman. My father left when he realized I needed special assistance. Was always ashamed of his Down’s son.” I pattered out a rhythm on the side of the table. I was never much of an emotional person but I struggled with coping after Mom’s death. I refrained from speaking about it but somehow I found myself spilling everything to Valerie. It didn’t matter that she was simply a business acquaintance I had just met because I had no more family anyway. “My mother spent her life making sure I would be able to live a full one. Though I must say I was one of the lucky ones. Not too many cognitive symptoms. No congenital heart defects.”
“Oh.” What she really meant was: Well that’s why you seem normal. But I didn’t condemn her for being a typical person. She was more understanding than regular audiences come. The dense fog diffused across the room increasing the woody aroma. Mom told me sandalwood would calm Dad’s abusive behaviour but I wasn’t easily fooled. I knew it was to soothe herself in the midst of everything.
“Well you’re very strong to overcome all of this.” I genuinely returned her uplifting smile.
I had to be strong. I had watched my father come home drunk in the dead of night and hurl abuses at my mother. It was me. I was the Down’s child. That’s why he took it out on Mom. And there was nothing I could have done. Except maybe cry. But I couldn’t. I could only channel anger. I wasn’t normal.
“Can I ask you a question? You don’t—you don’t have to answer it.” She awaited my approval. “Why are you doing this? I mean…you are much more qualified to be doing just this. I’ve seen your qualifications. You could go much higher.”
I had been Crystal Designs’ pity tool to sign collaborations for many years. No one wanted a Down’s patient to manage the typicals. The demand was always higher for normal people. I was the lab specimen which depicted the firm’s inspirational move for ‘abled disabled’ as I preferred to call it. “Would I really get that chance?” She faltered.
11:45 a.m. “I must leave now. Do consider our proposal, Miss Knight.” I rose and deeply inhaled the scent once more. Mom.
“Valerie.” She grinned. “Do join me for coffee soon, Marc Barrett.” She accompanied me towards the door. “And if you would like a box of sandalwood, I have loads of them. Just give me a call.”
I bypassed the receptionist without a single glance. For the first time I walked out feeling normal. I’d conversed normally with someone who wasn’t a doctor. I’d proven to someone that I was capable. I was going to have my first potential date. All things normal people took for granted.