A story is just what happens. One thing after the other.
The day before Valentines Day, my friend Susie’s mom, Cessie, collapsed. Susie’s voice on the phone, tremulous, “Do you have any time to come over?” I went to find Cessie on the kitchen floor propped up against the fridge. The cold gray light of February fell over her. She gave me a wan smile, her brown eyes rueful. Her color was pretty good. I sat on the kitchen floor with her, eating oranges. Then we managed to her her scooted on a towel to the living room, where she struggled mightily and finally was able to sit on the couch. Susie was in turns, loving, playful, angry. Who can blame her? Cessie was brave and dignified, despite it all. Despite being seen in all her vulnerability.
Then I went to physical therapy, where, as I waited, I saw a girl with heavy makeup scrolling through her iPhone, slumped in a chair, looking bored. I gave her a sidelong glance–the usual clientel here is over 50. I wondered at her make-up, so masklike-and tedious to apply, and heavy eyeliner seemed to be making a comeback. Why, I thought? I’d never been able to master the stuff. I realized I’d left home without a swipe of powder or lipstick….oh well. I was called in for my treatment, and when it was over, I walked through a room where I saw the girl again, on her knees, fastening a young man’s prosthetic lower leg. She finished, and lovingly smoothed his khakis and rose. The two of them turned their beautiful smooth young faces to the exit. He walked just fine, no one would have suspected his foot was missing. They looked whole, young, insouciant.
Then I went to get Valentine cards. I can’t stand for very long–something called orthostatic intolerance–and yet I did, growing fainter and fainter. I finally scored a great card for my son, and an acceptable one for myhusband. But while I was doing this, a young white woman wearing a red Kroger apron, read cards to a young black man with braided hair, chains, and carefully slouchy rapper clothes. She questioned him gently on the kinds of sentiments he’d like. He glanced around nervously, gestured with his hand, mumbled something I couldn’t hear. She plucked a few more cards, “Okay, let’s try this,” she said, reading aloud the corny sentiments. Then a large black man in a wheelchair rolled by, dressed all in red, including a red baseball cap and stopped to look for cards. An older white woman, the pleasant kind of older woman no one notices, stood looking for cards. She excused herself to walk around the black man, and began to talk with him about her husband, who was also in a wheelchair. The two of them bantered, with loud peals of laughter coming from the man, the older woman holding her middle and saying, “that’s so true, darling, you know.” Finally she sayed, “Well, God bless you,” as he turned to leave, leaving him giggling.
And so it goes. I thought about the assumptions we make about other people, and how they are almost always wrong. I thought of Cessie’s dignity and Susie’s fortitude, and of how easily I had dismissed the fiercely casual young woman. I though about the signals our presentation sends, whether heavy make-up or none, a gangsta outfit, or a bright red baseball cap, of how we put our armor on to step out into a hostile world, only to find, at least in the card aisle at Kroger the day before Valentines–it isn’t that hostile at all.