Saying Goodbye to Myself

by

05/07/2003

1 Columbia Pl, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights

I met her on the Brooklyn Heights promenade the day I turned thirty.

“Pardon me, but would’ja help me up?” she said, holding out a gloved hand. The stains on the polyester were yellow, the rest of the glove so white it was vein-blue, the color of cheap wedding dresses. I rose from the bench I’d been sitting on for the last hour in the chill November air wondering if I should marry Carlos, the Ecuadoran plumber I’d been dating. I took hold of her hand. She was tiny, but she hopped onto the bench so blithely that we both came to sit simultaneously on the worn wooden slats. I folded the paper I hadn’t really been reading and placed it prudishly on my lap. She sat close to me, then fidgeted.

“It’s still damp,” I said, meaning the bench. It had rained that morning.

She shifted a fraction and slid a wrinkled paper bag under her. Squirmed, and grinned. “I’m sitting on my medicine bottle.”

“That can be uncomfortable,” I agreed.

She was quiet, staring at the Manhattan skyline as though it had suddenly snuck up and surprised her. Then her face fell. “I’m singing today.” She took off her gloves, finger by finger, and folded them in her lap. “In the choir. If you can call it a choir.” She gestured over her shoulder in the direction of St. Francis College and gave me a knowing look. “Senior citizens. I used to be a soprano.” She shook her head. “Not any more.” She kept folding her gloves. I noted her tiny feet, beige woolen pillbox hat, and brassy clip-on earrings, one of which was sliding off. “You get older, your voice changes. It’s more an alto now. But I won’t learn the alto parts. No sir. The soprano’s the melody.” She unclasped her handbag, fussed among wadded tissues, and brought out a dark-looking sandwich. Pulled apart the ziploc baggie between shaky thumbs, folded the plastic back like a banana peel, and took a bite. Then she brought out a small bottle of apple juice and unscrewed the cap. It made a popping sound. “Pepperidge Farm cinnamon-raisin,” she explained.

I knew that bread. “That’s good with melted—”

“I lightly toast it, and then put cottage cheese.” She took another bite. Her orange lipstick had been applied outside the lines and her cheeks were chalky with beige pancake makeup intended to cover age spots the size of nickels. I touched my cheek, then moved my hand to my neck. Pinched the skin. Pulled it.

She looked across the promenade at a group of St. Francis College students moving briskly along the geometric woodwork of the boardwalk. A few professors walked slower, more stooped, like lost souls wandering among a mob of curiously speeded-up movie extras. She coughed lightly, then a little louder. Then she hacked, sending bits of cottage cheese flying. Her light-blue eyes were mucus-y, the pale lashes stuck together in spears. “Damn bronchitis,” she said, and took a sip of apple juice. “I was born in a cold-water tenement, no heat. You put quarters in to get the gas. Took baths at the bathhouse.” She gazed across the water as though she could see the Lower East Side from here. “Two brothers. Older one an investment banker. Younger one sailed boats.” She smiled at the memory, and peeled back more of the Ziploc baggie. “Both dead,” she said, and with a shaky fingertip flicked away from the bag a small black insect that had landed there.

I nodded, then let the nod peter out. Sat upright, then collapsed a little. “Men are unhealthy.”

She chewed. “Heart attack the one.” She swallowed. “Stroke the other.” She knocked on her chest. “Me, I’m fit as a bone.” Bits of cottage cheese rolled daintily down the front of her yellow wool coat. She brushed them away. “Born at home. That’s how it was. You saw birth. My mother was a farm-girl. From Russia. My father was a tailor, the best, could make any garment. Anything you could wear, he could make.” She chewed. “Ended up a labor organizer.” She looked at me, steady as a horizon. “I’m Shirley.” She didn’t hold out her hand. We had already shook. “My Jewish name is Sarah, but all my friends in high school called me Shirley.” She gave me a full-blooming What-are-you-gonna-do look. “That’s the way it was,” she said. “Ach, what’s in a name? A name by any other would still smell as sweet, right? That’s Shakespeare.”

I smiled, my own Shakespeare about as accurate.

We studied the way the Manhattan skyline clashed with the Brooklyn Bridge. The old and the new.

“My granddaughter recently gave me a book about lesbianism,” Shirley said. “She thinks I don’t know about it. But I read books, oh let me tell you. Last one was about two boys and a girl, just a…regular girl”—she made her sound like a grade of motor oil—”who wanted to get pregnant. One of them was going to help her. You know. As a friend. Then something happened…” She shrugged. “I got halfway through.” A chunk of cottage cheese tumbled out of her mouth. She picked it off her lap, looked at it, and and ate it. “But I finished that other book. You know. Whatsit. Memoirs of a Geesha-Girl.”

Memoirs of a Geisha, I thought. Memoirs of a Geisha. I panicked. I didn’t want to get old. I wasn’t used to it. Young was all I knew. But I looked in the mirror mornings and could see it happening. I spent small moments like these saying goodbye to myself.

“The Japanese. They sell virginity,” she said, raising the apple juice bottle. “Imagine that.”

I looked at her wrinkled face and wondered if she had a husband.

“So this geesha-girl, she opens a tea-room after the war.” She shook her head. “But it wasn’t the same.”

“No,” I said. “Things change.”

“My granddaughter lives in Seattle,” she said. Then shrugged and gave me a Hey-you-try-talking-that-girl-out-of-something look. “I visit sometimes. Hate to fly, though. Oh, that going-down gets me every time.” She chewed the last of her sandwich, crumpled up the baggie, and placed it on the bench between us, where it slowly unfolded like a flower. “Married a half-Japanese. Once, when I visited, he made that Japanese food, that…” she searched for the word. “Rice. Rolled up in leaves.”

“Seaweed.”

“Huh?”

“Seaweed,” I said. “Sea. Weed.”

“Seaweed,” she said, stood up, and farted, easy as pie. “Can you imagine?” She looked at me so intensely that I actually spent a moment imagining seaweed. Then she sat down. “I like plain food. But they were lapping it up.” She smiled, allowing them their strangeness. She reached underneath her for the small paper sack she had been sitting on. Her fingers described a lump inside. She nodded, satisfied, and put it back beneath her. “When they saw I wasn’t eating, they made me a special spread. Bagels, lox…” She thought for a moment. “Cream cheese…”

“Weather’s bad there,” I said, then quickly looked at her. “Isn’t it?”

She stared at me evenly. “It rained every day.”

The wind whistled along the iron railing and the autumn sun twinkled off the office buildings. That morning, I had made a birthday resolution. To have more fun in life. I wanted to walk down the streets and straight into red DON’T WALK signs because I am too busy laughing to notice. I used to do that a lot. This was my one true resolution. To be more happy.

Shirley shifted and slid the paper sack out from underneath her. Opened it and grinned. “Look where my pill is.”

I peered inside. Jumbled at the bottom of the sack was a medicine bottle, a safety cap, and one blue oval pill. “Want me to get it?” I said.

“Yeah, wouldja?”

I reached inside. She held the orange bottle firmly in her gnarled hand while I dropped the single pill in. It flipped over like a Mexican jumping-bean. She snapped the safety cap quickly on, like she had just caught a junebug. “Gotcha.”

“When did it happen?” I said.

She looked up. “Huh?”

“Your brothers.”

She blinked at me. “About the same time the freckles across my nose turned to age spots.” She tucked the medicine bottle into her handbag, then spotted the book sticking out of my bag.

“What’s that?”

“Oh this…” I pulled it out and displayed the cover. “It’s called Housekeeping.”

Housekeeping?” She sounded appalled. “I think cleaning, I think mopping…”

“It’s…” I flipped the pages and tried to think how I might explain. It was about a little girl who always felt a bit lost. “It takes place near Seattle,” I said. “Cold. Floods. Frost on the grass, even in summer.” I turned the book over and stared at the back.

“It rained every day I was there,” Shirley said, eyes flat, fishlike. Then she gestured at Manhattan in general. “So what about men?”

“What about them?”

“You’re young.” She looked at me.

“I’m thirty,” I said.

“Just a baby,” she said. “People are marrying older these days.” I checked my hands. Still freckles. “You’ve got time. You’re still pretty, a girl like you.”

That made me uncomfortable. I had never had the kind of face anyone would call “pretty.”

“The other day I was walking around. From the expressway clear to the water. There’s a pet store I go to.” I imagined Shirley pressing her nose against the glass. “The puppy had been sold, but a young girl, about your age, started talking to me. About the puppy, I don’t know what kind…” She waved her hand. “A mutt with floppy ears.” I caught my reflection in the crystal of my wristwatch and realized I’d be looking into those same eyes when I was eighty, when I’d get a call saying someone I knew had died. “The cage was empty, just full of newspaper. So we started talking. Then walking.” Shirley paused. “She comes over to my house once a week now. We make dinner, play Scrabble. She takes me to the doctor…” She raised an eyebrow and gave me a Just-betwen-you-and-me look. “I think she’s got a little nervous problem.” She leaned back. “That’s okay.” In Shirley’s universe, nervous problems were allowed.

I stared at her dyed hair and false teeth and wondered if I’d be like her someday, Master of the Universe, wandering around picking up people. Everyone I had once known dead. Tonight Carlos would make me a special birthday dinner. I thought about how easily he made me laugh, and how that would stop someday.

Shirley stood. Her face came to only five inches higher than mine. I studied this tiny crest-jewel of non-discrimination. “Get up,” she said. “I have to go.” She had already put on her white gloves. When I stood, I found I could see the entire crown of her hat. I took her hand and together we started along the promenade, then along another path that angled out like a ray towards Cadman Plaza Park.

“I was married once,” she said, taking my arm more firmly.

“Forty-five years.” I pressed her tiny gloved hand between my elbow and ribs, worried she might slip away like a square of paper on a windy day. “The world’s full of eligible men,” she said. “They all don’t have to be a…” she gestured back at the promenade, “…college professor. What’s wrong with a plumber? A carpenter? It’s nice that counts.”

I glanced at the Brooklyn Bridge, at the office buildings towering over it that, if you looked really hard, didn’t really clash at all. And I felt a sudden aeration in my heart, like chocolate mousse. It was nice that counted. In my universe, I would allow plumbers.

I looked to Shirley for confirmation, but she just shrugged. “I’m singing today. I need a donut.”

I guided her across Cadman Plaza to a small coffeeshop on the other side. We entered into well-lit warmth and the chatter of multiple conversations. I raised my hands in greeting to everyone I didn’t know. It was the first real birthday party I’d had in years.

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