Small world. Who’d have thought Sarah Drexel would be working right here in Shiprock? Hell, I didn’t, not in a million years.
I first met her at a coffee shop in Albuquerque four years ago when she was studying Nursing and I was working toward my Masters in Environmental Sciences. The place was packed, and she and another friend asked if they could sit at my table since I was hogging one all to myself. I almost said no but figured, what the heck, I was going to leave in five minutes anyway and head to the university library where it would be quieter.
Before I knew it, five minutes turned to ten and then ten turned into two hours. Sarah’s dark brown eyes and fiery passion intrigued me as she advocated for the imaginary patient she and her friend were assigned to treat for a case study. While her friend was all for drugs, Sarah wanted to know the why’s of the patient’s illness. Family history, current diet, and nutrition. Even their culture.
“Let’s say they’re Native Americans and hooked on those fry breads that we all know about,” she had said. “Did you know that flour, sugar, and lard were never a normal part of the Native American’s diet? It was given to them by the government when they were forced into the reservation. What the heck can you make with all that flour, lard, and sugar and nothing else? So they got creative, and that’s how fry bread came to be.”
“You make it sound like they had a choice,” I’d said and they both looked at my direction as if just realizing I’d never left. “I wouldn’t say that they’re ‘hooked’ on fry bread because it wasn’t exactly a choice. Before they were forced from their lands to go on the Long Walk to Hwéeldi, the Place of Suffering, my people grew their own vegetables and beans and basically had a very healthy diet. Thanks to all that flour, lard, and sugar they gave us, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity have been on the rise among Native Americans for as long as fry bread came to be.”
I can’t forget the daggers I got from her as she lifted her chin and said, “Excuse me, but who the hell are you?”
“Benjamin Turner, Ma’am,” I replied. “Navajo and future Environmental Protection Specialist to Indian lands.”
“But you’re not really full Navajo, are you?” she asked, her brow furrowing. “You don’t look…”
“Native American? No, my mother is full Diné and my father’s Caucasian. German and New Mexican to be exact,” I replied. “You?”
There was that chin tilt again. “New Mexican. Proud and true.”
Her friend looked at her, frowning. “But your dad’s a New Yorker.”
“I grew up here, so that makes me New Mexican,” she said.
I don’t even remember her friend’s name—Amy or Alannah or Allison—for all I saw was Sarah. It felt like I’d been hit by a bolt of lightning whenever she looked at me, meeting my gaze boldly. Not a lot of women on campus did that and I liked that about her. Smart, feisty, proud.
But there’s something different with the Sarah I’m seeing now, more than two years later. There’s still that feisty part of her, true, but there’s also something else although I can’t place it. Sure, there’s an annoyance at running into me again but there’s also something else. It’s an undercurrent. Regret?
I’ll never know for the entire time she cleans up my wound and stitches it, Sarah doesn’t look me in the eye. The doctor’s also busy telling me about the importance of getting a tetanus shot so I really can’t do much but focus on what he’s saying, something about possible side-effects like pain at the site of injection, a fever, and a few other things.
I barely hear what he’s saying. I just want Sarah to lift her gaze and look at me… see me. But she doesn’t. As far as everyone at the clinic is concerned, we didn’t know each other before today.
When another nurse enters the room, it’s only to relieve her and in a blink of an eye, Sarah is gone and my sour mood returns. It worsens when I emerge from the back office, my arm wrapped in a bandage, and I see Colton tapping away on his phone.
Whose idea was it to have me mentor this kid again? Fresh out of college with no experience out on the field, he doesn’t even have a clue about the Diné culture, bumbling around the New Mexican landscape thinking he’s Val Kilmer’s character in that 90’s flick, Thunderheart.
And what was the deal with me letting him get behind the wheel when the kid easily panics at the sight of a roadrunner? And panic he did. Drove us right over the damn embankment and we’re lucky all we got was a gash in my arm.
But as Colton and I step outside and head back to the work truck, its bumper sitting in the flatbed, I really can’t complain. It got us into the clinic where I ran into Sarah Drexel two years after she left without saying goodbye.
* * *
At the office, I change my shirt and get to work. I really don’t have much to do, just a bunch of reports to review and phone calls to make. Forget that my personal phone’s been buzzing with texts from Tanya, a woman I’d hung out with a few times back in Taos. She wants to know when I’m going to be in town again.
Sorry babe. Busy, is all I text back. She replies with a sad face emoji before I shut off my phone and return to work. I’m actually going to be in town. I just have no plans on seeing her.
By noon, the arm that got the tetanus vaccine starts to throb and I’m suddenly not feeling too great. I’ve got a headache and my body is hurting all over. I pull out the piece of paper Linda gave me before I left the clinic. I never bothered to read about the side-effects but now I need to make sure it’s not my imagination.
Most common side effects include redness and swelling around the injection site. Body aches. Fever. Headache.
Great. Looks like I’ve got all the side-effects down pat. I look up to see Colton typing reports and turn off my laptop. Hell, let the kid continue working until five. I’m done.
“You heading out early, Benny?” Tony asks as I slip my laptop into my backpack. He’s one of the specialists who works with me, a fellow Diné.
“Yup. Gonna go home and rest. I need to be up early tomorrow for that meeting at the main office.”
“Got someone to keep an eye on you? That’s a nasty bruise you’ve got on your forehead.”
I scoff. “You volunteering?”
“Heck no, man,” he says, laughing. “Get someone else. One of your women.”
Normally, I’d have a good comeback for Tony but not right now. I’ve got a throbbing headache. “Alright, I’m out. See you guys next week.”
I grab my backpack and sling it over my shoulder. I need to head to the supermarket first before going home. With a fridge that probably only has a six-pack of beer and leftovers from last night’s dinner with the guys from work, I’m going to need to do some shopping. Either I have to figure out how to get food delivered to my apartment regularly or I need to learn how to cook.
I curse under my breath when my arm starts to throb again during the drive to City Market on Highway 64. It’d probably be a good idea to add a painkiller or two to the list of things I need to buy. I don’t like them and hardly use them, but at this point, it doesn’t hurt to have some on hand.
By the time I turn into the parking lot, my mental list of things to pick up has grown even longer. Laundry soap, dryer sheets, soup mix. Hatch green chili sauce—and the best kind at that, if they have it. But at this rate, I’ll probably just pick up a few microwave-ready meals because I sure as heck am too tired to figure out what to cook.
That’s when I see her and my heart rate speeds up and my belly tightens. No longer wearing scrubs, Sarah looks great in a dark blue sleeveless top over faded jeans, her long hair falling over her shoulders as she loads her groceries in the trunk of her SUV.
As I park my truck in the only available spot in front of the supermarket, right next to her SUV, our eyes meet and she frowns even as I can’t help grinning. I don’t even care that I suddenly don’t remember a single thing I need to get inside the store.
Not a damn thing.