“I wanna get out of here,” I fretted, when I couldn’t find a quiet corner as the wild shopper’s sound reverberated off of the cinderblock walls (or she had moved like lightning to rows closer to where I was escaping). I surveyed the landscape to see if my friend, Barbara, was done browsing—as I had told her I needed to be home by 2:30 and it was now 2:35, but the warehouse was too crowded and Barbara, too short for me to spot if she was still milling about. I also didn’t know how long she could really go without her oxygen tank, which she had insisted she didn’t need (or couldn’t reattach until an hour after she had smoked that last cigarette), and so we left it in her handicapped van along with the scooter. (My friend was no longer able to drive and I was a total menace behind the wheel of that monstrosity; it was like maneuvering a bus, but I had promised her a day of errand-running and lunch, and this was our last stop.)
Barbara and I met in school—and by that I mean, she was a paraprofessional at the school where I taught English during my last placement, an alternative campus for teens who had been sent to jail or to juvenile detention for anything from drug possession to truancy. Barbara and I had hated each other my first year there but we became good buddies the year her husband had died and she’d retired, a year before I quit outright. We have known each other nearly a decade and my dear friend was now almost blind, and her overall health was on an alarming decline.
“There you are, love,” I remarked louder than was probably necessary when I saw her turquoise blouse in one of two incredibly long checkout lines. She was leaning down with her head in her hands, looking exhausted and I hoped against hope that she wasn’t getting passy-outty. “I’m going to go and pull the van up front for you,” I told her, trying not to be obvious when I scanned her cart to figure how much a load she had found—but the cart was empty except for two plaster mannequin hands that looked like they had fallen off of the metal body. I smiled to myself because this was so like her—to find value and interest in things that others would dismiss as junk. (Still, my friend was a bit of a hoarder and she needed one more doo-dad like I needed another pancreas.)
It scared me to watch my friend’s rapid deterioration; why, on her breakfast table alone I had counted fourteen pairs of glasses with the magnifying lenses (and there were 3 more pairs on every other surface you could imagine: the bathroom counter, the end table in her room, on the coffee table, the island). When she told me about her meeting with the nice lady from the institute for the blind I wanted to default to denial about her painful reality, to pretend her health would improve, perhaps even to whisper false platitudes like, No, you look great! And, it’ll be fine, but, honestly, these details pointed at least to the beginning of her end.
That was the course of life, right? What, in literature, we call the rising and the falling action. Besides, everything cannot always be in front of you--car rides, college degrees, honeymoons, your children’s childhoods--and I have lived long enough where I am glad that many things are, indeed, BEHIND me—like research papers and childbirth. I didn’t peak in high school but I liked my alma mater, I had great friends and a million wonderful memories doing all the theater I got to do, but I think it was so much fun partly because the future was still unknown, looming like a huge fill-in-the-blank game followed by a question mark. You couldn’t, however, make me go back and relive those years for Trumps’ millions. I have no desire for a second childhood or to rehash the past; plus, I have earned the right to stand firmly where I am: learning and growing, but still ambitious. Ultimately, however, I was glad that I no longer lived just for myself, that my ego had been forced to learn the view from the backseat.
As for Barbara, she’s still spunky and funny as hell. I admire her partly because I prefer people who have melted into their lives, making a salty peace with their wet bars, hobbies, and TVs, to the unhappy and venomously sarcastic--and I wish there were more options but after a certain age those terrible extremes are all you’ll see. It’s like going to the store and not finding the product you want or finding it in very limited flavors (and only the instant pudding). There are tons of twenty-year-old optimists but the crowd thins like a hairline as souls age.
“Are you wagging your finger at me?” Barbara teased me at lunch, a crowded Italian restaurant.
“What if I was?” I baited, sad for my friend who had waited all that time to buy those mannequin hands but when she had finally reached the counter the cashier had told her that they weren't for sale (thereby fulfilling the literal meaning of leaving empty-handed). “Don’t make me come over there and show you who’s boss.”
“You trying to make me embarrass you?” she sassed.
“If you think you got it in you,” I countered, wondering what she could possibly come up with amongst the throng of busy eaters.
“Oh, please, stop!” she pleaded in her best old lady voice that made even me nervous. “Don’t hit me again.”