Dr. Jan Ralwinski sat calmly in her high-backed chair, smiling warmly at her patient, who was sitting in the comfortable recliner across from her. Out of all the patients she has seen over the years, there was no one with whom she has grown closer than the young woman who was lying across from her.
She had known Andrea McAfee for close to six years and watched her grow from a shy, self-conscious little girl into a smart, independent, and outspoken young lady. Dr. Ralwinski clearly remembered the very first meeting she had with Andrea back in October 2003, a few weeks after she endured one of the most devastating tragedies in her life. She first learned about Loree McAfee through her parents, Amos and Alisha McAfee who started seeing her after losing their eldest daughter in a senseless act of gang violence. Many people considered Dr. Ralwinski as a shrink or a psychiatrist, but she preferred to think of herself as more of a grief counselor. It was true, she has dealt with many cases of death and loss of loved ones but most had become disenchanted with reality from their ordeals. This was not so with the McAfee family. Although they were naturally stricken with sorrow, they were a very resilient family and she commended them on their heartfelt attempt to keep on living despite losing a key member of their family. Andrea was no exception.
A fish tank, about three feet long sat against the wall. The tank contained five fish; two GloFish Tetras, an angel fish, and two colorful clown loaches. Although the fish and the tank were the property of the office where she worked in Forest Hills, Dr. Ralwinski had made it her personal responsibility to feed the fish on a daily basis. She recalled the first meeting with Andrea, after she was introduced to the doctor by the parents. “Hi Andrea, my name is Dr. Ralwinski but you can call me Jan or Janet if you want,” she had said. She always wanted to make her patients, especially the younger and the more vulnerable, feel at ease.
“Ok.” was all that came out of Andrea’s lips at the time. The doctor directed her into the office.
She knew Andrea was shy and would not speak her mind right away. Her shyness gave her away immediately when she saw Andrea looking around at the psychiatric diplomas, degrees, and other credentials.
‘She looks so alone and lost’, she thought when she finally invited Andrea to sit. There was a sofa in the room, a large recliner, a smaller chair, and the high-back chair the doctor used. It was a kind of test to see where her patients chose to sit. If they sat closest to her, they were open. On the far end of the sofa, they were distant. The small chair, meant they felt small and insignificant. The large recliner would be chosen by a patient who felt competitive with the doctor. During Andrea’s first sessions, she chose the smallest chair.
It didn’t take a doctor to realize that Andrea had been quite close with her sister and while she was still numb from the tragedy, she also had a very hard time trusting others. So Dr. Ralwinski was aware of how important it was to gain Andrea’s trust. That first meeting was painfully awkward on Andrea’s part, until she noticed the fish tank.
“Are those yours?” she had asked.
“They most certainly are. I feed them and take care of them every day,” she replied, showing Andrea the different multi-colored fish.
The doctor smiled as she saw Andrea’s eyes sparkle with awe and excitement over the fishes in the tank. “If you want, I could let you feed them one day,” Dr. Ralwinski said.
“Really? You’ll let me feed them?” Andrea asked, surprised.
“Of course, dear. I’ll show you how to feed them.” Dr. Ralwinski said and she went over to the fish tank with Andrea, explained how to sprinkle the fish food on top of the tank and also explained how the filter in the tank had to be changed at least twice a month so the water could remain clean.
Just like that, the ice had broken between the doctor and Andrea and for the first year or so, when she was visiting almost daily, she would feed the fish before their sessions. The grief counseling sessions began with little more than just asking Andrea how her day went and discussing whatever Andrea wanted to talk about. Before long, Andrea saw Dr. Ralwinski as more than just a psychiatrist or a common doctor. She saw her as a friend, someone in whom she could confide whenever she wanted to vent about her school or her friends.
As the years passed and the more Andrea matured, the closer their bond became. Here it was, six years later; the year 2009, and although Andrea still fed the doctor’s fish, she found herself sitting on the sofa right next to Dr. Ralwinski, indicating trust and personal contact. Dr. Ralwinski always allowed Andrea some time to gather her thoughts and start the conversation but her session with Andrea was nearly over and she had an appointment with another patient who was waiting in the lobby. Dr. Ralwinski decided to initiate the conversation.
“So how’s school going?” she asked. Andrea continued to look up at the ceiling. She remained silent for moment before replying.
“School’s ok I guess. Senior prom’s coming up soon.” she said. The doctor smiled, raising one of her eyebrows.
“So have you decided who you’re taking to the prom yet?” she asked with a laugh.
Andrea shook her head. “I don’t even know, Jan. These guys out there now are just so, I don’t know, basic. They keep trying to stay tryin’ to spit the same rap game to me. Besides I don’t even know if anyone’s gonna ask me go with me anyway, you know what I’m sayin’?” she asked.
Dr. Ralwinski couldn’t comprehend Andrea’s words. Andrea was a very attractive young lady. She was fully developed with long legs and beautiful brown complexion and thin lips. Whenever Andrea smiled, anyone could feel her warmth and sincerity. She couldn’t understand why nobody would want to go to the prom with her.
“What about Sean?” she asked, referring to Andrea’s longtime friend Sean Hawkins.
Andrea looked at Dr. Ralwinski. Surely she couldn’t be serious. Sean was like a brother to Andrea because they had known each other for so many years. She put him in the same category with her other friend Vanessa Roberts, who was almost a sister to Andrea. Of course nobody would ever replace Loree, but if anyone came close, it was Vanessa. They told each other secrets, they knew each other’s tendencies, favorite foods, bad habits, and ideal men. Sean did not fit the description of their ideal men.
“Nah, it would be like going with my own brother. Besides, he’s probably going with someone else anyway.” Andrea replied.
She knew the doctor was trying to help her, but she hated how everyone expected her to be her older sister. She couldn’t be Loree, no matter how hard she tried. She may have had her beauty but it was her personality that was totally different from Loree. It made her uncomfortable when people made comparisons between the two. Loree had been her own person and had her own identity. Andrea was still in search of that identity and was still attempting to find herself.
“But the prom’s not going to be for another month so I’ve got plenty of time to choose,” she added.
“Yes you do. Don’t rush things. Always take your time. Just focus on school and saving up for college.” she advised Andrea.
But the prom wasn’t Andrea’s only problem.She was experiencing a very unique problem, one that might have had other people thinking that she was mentally unstable.
“Jan, I’ve been hearing her again,” she said abruptly.
Dr. Ralwinski stopped smiling momentarily and looked Andrea right in the eye. Jan knew full well who Andrea was talking about.
“You heard your sister again?” she asked. Andrea nodded her head, positively answering the question.
In the last few years, Andrea had been experiencing moments where she would have visions of her sister; in dreams or odd times when she felt she heard Loree speaking to her as if she was still alive.
“I know it sounds crazy and all, but I keep hearing her voice. It could be a dream or reality. Last night when I fell asleep, she appeared again and she was giving me a message. I couldn’t hear the message, her voice was muffled, but she was speaking to me frantically, like she was warning me about something, but I don’t know what she’s warning me about,” Andrea explained. The doctor nodded her head. “Do you believe in life after death, doctor?” she asked.
Dr. Ralwinski has always believed in a higher power, but not to the extent that Andrea seemed to believe it. Dr. Ralwinski was always a proponent of evolution, natural selection, and natural death. In her opinion, when someone died, they were gone. But from previous experiences, she knew that people coped with death in different ways. While some people slipped into a state of obscurity and helplessness, others would claim that their loved ones would come back as spirits or ghosts and communicate with them. It all sounded absurd, but Doctor Ralwinski knew Andrea long enough to know that she wasn’t going crazy or insane. Andrea probably sensed the doctor thought she was crazy too, but she continued anyway.
“So I’m sleeping right? And suddenly I’m in some kind of dream state where the room is all white. I don’t see anything. No tables, no chairs, nothing. All I see is a door with a gold knob. Before I can breathe out a word, the gold knob turns and I see her come out. She’s wearing a long white robe or shroud, I couldn’t tell because it was kinda blurry,” she explained. “But it had to be Loree. I recognized her voice. There she was, alive and clean, no bullet holes, no blood…” Andrea’s voice trailed off, as she felt the all too familiar lump in her throat and her eyes welled with tears. It took her a moment, then once she composed herself, she continued. “She came close to me but we didn’t make any contact or anything. She was telling me something, but even though she was close, I couldn’t make out what she was saying. It was some freaky stuff but at the same time, in a weird way, it felt good knowing that she was watching over me,” she continued.
“Honey, you know that dreams are our thoughts or our innermost desires coming out in a state of sleep. They show that you are still thinking of Loree.” Dr. Ralwinski said. She reached into her office desk drawer for a prescription pad. “I think you should take this medication. It helps with depression and anxiety.” she added.
Andrea took the prescription the doctor handed her. “So you think I’m crazy, huh?” she said furtively.
Dr. Ralwinski smiled. “Not at all, Andrea. When we lose our loved ones so early in our lives, we always wish they were still with us. I’m just concerned about your health and making sure you are getting enough of sleep and exercise,” she said.
Andrea stood up from the couch. She walked over to the small wall mirror the doctor had in her office. A lost, insignificant girl looked back at her. Both she and her parents agreed that she did not resemble her sister. Loree was lighter in skin tone and she was more developed at age eighteen than Andrea. Andrea was slimmer but she still displayed flashes of her late sister’s attitude and individuality. She didn’t know why but she hated when people compared her to Loree, in their attempts at comforting her. She would always smile and say thank you out of courtesy but the comparison still bothered her.
I’m not Loree and I will never be Loree. She wished people could understand it and let her heal and move on. Dr. Ralwinski walked over to Andrea and placed her hand on her shoulder gently. She knew the session was over.
“Make sure you get plenty of rest and if you ever need to talk about anything, feel free to set up another appointment, ok?” she said. Andrea nodded to show that she understood, before she picked up her school bag and walked to the bus stop to get home.
Early the next day, Andrea and Vanessa were walking to school. On the way there, Andrea noticed her friend seemed distracted. She had headphones plugged into her Mp3 player and she seemed to be enjoying whatever music was playing more than being with her. This frustrated Andrea, since she had been talking to Vanessa about one of her co-workers at Johnson’s, a clothing retail store located in Forest Hills.
“Girl, are you even listening to me? So I’m working over by the lingerie section right, and this chick Gloria comes walkin’ up to me tellin’ me that they need assistance over at the cash register,” Andrea vented. “I’m like ‘Girl you see me busy ova hea’, why you can’t call anybody else up front? Better yet, you get behind the register and ring someone up once in a while,” she continued.
Vanessa laughed. “Damn girl, you probably shoulda told her ass off right there. That’s what I would’ve done,” she replied while still dancing to the sounds from her mp3 player.
“Girl, who are you listening too? I wanna know who you turnin’ up for,” she said grabbing one of Vanessa’s headphones.
Vanessa reached out in an attempt to grab her headphones back. “Come on, Drea why you gotta be like that for?” she protested, even though she was laughing.
Andrea carefully placed one of the headphones in her ear, listening to the flowing rap lyrics:
She callin’ me Papi cuz she like how I flow/Rub it nice and slow like Usher, she already know/Runnin’ game all day, she gone be callin’ me T.O./I ain’t the type of nigga that be sweatin’ any hoe.
Andrea listened to more of the song. His flow was legit but he was no different than any other rapper who was out there rapping about how many times they had sex. But for Vanessa’s sake, she pretended to like the music.
“He’s nice. Who this be?” Andrea asked. Vanessa looked at her friend with a shocked expression.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know who this is. You supposed to be the music expert and all that, and you don’t even know one of our own?” she asked.
Andrea shook her head. “Nah I never heard this kid before,” she said. Vanessa rolled her eyes. “This is De’Von Franklin girl. He ain’t all well known yet, this is one of his first albums that he made,” she replied.
“Oh ok. Well he can flow alright. But who does he have singin’ the break, cuz they couldn’t hold a note if it had a handle.” Andrea replied.
Vanessa stared at her, her eyes enlarged in what seemed as a failed effort to suppress her laughter over the cut of Andrea’s jib toward De’Von’s background singers.
“You know he signed over at that new label, Metro Records. They big all over Queens and I hear they be all in the clubs and bars looking for talent,” she replied. “You know, if you sing at one of them amateur nights that they have, you never know who could be there from Metro,” she added.
But Andrea shot the idea down quickly. One of Andrea’s special gifts was that she had an amazing singing voice. Unfortunately the only people who knew about her voice were Vanessa, Sean, and a few other classmates of hers, not counting her church.
“Nah, I ain’t on a level like that. Besides, I sing for myself whenever I feel some type of way,” Andrea said.
Vanessa didn’t believe it for a second. “You got a great voice. Whenever I visit your church on Sundays, you always be getting all the solos,” she said.
“Yeah but that’s different to me though. I’m singing for the pastor and his congregation, who won’t judge you, no matter how bad you sounded,” Andrea replied.
At the same time, when they crossed an intersection, they were joined by their friend Sean Hawkins who came up and surprised them from behind, wrapping his long arms around their shoulders in jest. Sean was wearing a Yankees authentic jersey and Nike athletic shorts topped off with a New York fitted baseball cap. The overhead hug came too quick and sudden for Andrea, who recoiled.
“Uh-uh somebody is way too happy this morning. What happened, did you finally get some?” she asked. Sean’s smile and jovial expression disappeared when Andrea made a subtle, but effective jab at his virginity.
“I see you got jokes. Nessa, tell Stella ova’ there she need to get her groove back,” he joked back. Andrea laughed, rolling her eyes at him.
She could remember when she first met Sean in junior high. He was a small, chubby boy who was always laughed at by the other kids. Even Vanessa and Andrea poked fun at him for a little while. But at some point during their time in the sixth and seventh grades, they became friends. They later became great friends after Andrea lost Loree and just as she was beginning to lose a grip on life, Sean and Vanessa eased her pain. They heard her silent cries and pleas for compassion and understanding and without hesitation, they responded. When nobody else, other than Dr. Ralwinski, was there for Andrea, Sean and Vanessa stood by her. They had been inseparable ever since and as they matured over the years, they’d watch each other’s transformation.
Vanessa, who had grown out of her stutter and her lisp early on in their relationship, had grown into her body and became a beautiful woman with olive-colored skin and long braided hair. She had also developed a talent for doing hair and has done Andrea’s hair on many occasions. Sean eventually shed his fat and developed muscles and athletic attributes, lending his talents over to play basketball for junior high school and eventually at Richmond Hill High School. Sean played junior varsity basketball his first three years at the school and finally broke through the varsity ranks at the school, averaging eleven points and six rebounds a game. As the season wound down, the Lions’ record did not qualify them for the state tournament but Sean had enjoyed a breakout year. Unfortunately, he found himself under the shadow of the only two other players to average more than him, Jake Alstead and Michael James. Both players had received their letters of intent and were going to Lehigh College and Iona College on scholarships. Sean had yet to receive his letter of intent.