Gabriela Bartlett, Saratoga Springs, NY
The first time I remember seeing her was while driving west down Bay Street on my way to the dry cleaners. It was early spring, a Monday. I know it was a Monday or Mundane Day as I liked to refer to the day in which I typically crammed in all of my mind-numbing chores and errands for the week. With groceries in tow, I had the cleaners, bank, and drug store to go when I spotted her.
It was late in the afternoon and the sun was at that awkward angle, hitting just below the bottom of the car visor. The slow moving traffic allowed me to visually follow this tall, wisp of a girl from across the street. At the intersection of Bay and Quincy, the traffic light changed, and she crossed in front of my minivan, affording me a better look. Her feisty red hair, barely contained under a lime green knitted cap, streamed down along her face. A hint of a miniskirt highlighted her striped leggings and combat boot ensemble. From her right shoulder dangled an impossibly small pocketbook, by anyone's standards. Was this pocketbook big enough even for a key and lipstick, I wondered? As a mother of three, I prided myself as an authority on what you could not leave home without.
It was her walk, however, that gave her away. She floated over the pavement like a day old helium balloon heaving under gravity. Her gaze, straight ahead, politely shunned all those around her.
Suddenly, the driver in the pick-up truck behind me sounded his horn and she and I both jerked. As every motorist knows, there are polite taps, but this one was really meant to make me hit the gas. Through the rear view mirror, I viewed the perpetrator as he waved his arms wildly. The light was green, and obviously, he had somewhere to go. My eyes shifted forward again and came to rest on her "Jackie-O" glasses as she shot me, (what appeared to be), a death stare from the curb. I shrugged my shoulders to indicate it wasn't me and then reluctantly moved through the intersection. The light turned red again, abandoning the pick-up driver to simmer in his own stew.
I smiled to myself; she was just as Matthew, my 3rd grader, had described her. How had I missed her until now? Lincoln was such a small town full of quite ordinary people. Until just before the holidays, she had worked as the lunchroom monitor at Lincoln Elementary. Lunchtime for Mathew and his friends had always been the highlight of their day, a time to let loose and banter. Under Miss Bizarro's regime (as they secretly referred to her) things had quickly gone downhill.
She had started in the cafeteria in September, and in less than four months, the mood of the lunchroom had become quite somber. The other lunch monitors tended to be volunteer moms who welcomed the opportunity to view their children in action. They lovingly poked straws through juice boxes and coaxed the little ones into taking "just one more bite." Miss Bizarro did not associate with these women and left all coddling and small talk to them. According to Mathew, she would systematically walk up and down between the tables inspecting half-eaten sandwiches and enforcing her "no sharing of fun snacks" decree. The children knew better than to make eye contact with her, for she would offer visits to the principal's office as one might offer candy to a child at Halloween time.
Mathew had perfected her loud sneer quite well. He would wrinkle his nose, lift his chin, inch forward, and offer up a full set of clenched teeth to deliver a simple but emphatic "eat." For any of Mathew's friend brave enough to mimic her walk while she was not looking, the world was theirs, or at least the world of an eight-year-old boy.
Miss Bizzaro's wardrobe and outlandish hairstyles offered up the only form of lunchtime entertainment left for the boys. I remember the afternoon that Mathew came home scandalized over her black mesh stockings with rips in both knees. This seemed incomprehensible to him since his favorite pair of khakis had recently been retired due to a slight tear in one knee.
"She wears her army boots all the time," he would complain. This protest stemmed, I am sure, from my policy of hiding certain pieces of clothing that Mathew would otherwise wear for days.
"She never ties her laces," he would grumble with eyes imploring me to find a way to get her fired.
Her hair color would shift dramatically from week to week; bleached blonde, fire-engine-red, licorice black. Mathew brought back full reports. She had to be twenty or so. She was not quite an adult but more like a mean older sister.
As quickly as she came, she was gone. Mathew reported sometime in December that someone that "looked like a mom" had taken her spot. Thankfully, for him, the lunch hour was back to its controlled craziness. The kids had already forgotten her. Living in the moment came quite easily for them.
Had the school fired her, I wondered? There was the possibility that she had just simply moved away. People like her did not seem to have many strings attached. She could already be living on the opposite coast, serving daiquiris at some beach bar.
I thought back to our last family move more than five years ago and the overwhelming amount of furniture, boxes, and bags that we had stuffed into 1,400 cubic feet of rented truck space. Now in our new home, it sometimes felt toxic to me to have so much to dust, organize, and justify. Our clothes alone seemed at times to take over the house. Three children, continuous growth spurts and four seasons caused clothes piles to pop up here and there like mushrooms after a few days of heavy rain. There were always piles waiting to be sorted, folded, donated, or officially classified as hand-me-downs. I had recently read about a college student who had auctioned off all of his possessions on eBay. He had only asked from the new owners that they periodically "check-in" with updates on his old belongings. How brave.
As I passed the fire station, I realized that I had missed the turn-off for the cleaners. My knapsack and some of its contents went tumbling off the front seat as I made a wide turn onto South Holmes. At the next light, I picked the scattered items off the car floor and stuffed them back into the bag's deepest compartment. Sixteen years ago when Michael my oldest was born, I had traded in my briefcase for this knapsack. The four compartments had been an attempt to keep me organized, but somehow everything was still always crammed into one. I had yet, now, to make the switch over to a purse.
That night I thought about the girl again. I reflected back fondly to a time in my life when I was single, living in Manhattan and working as an architect. My friends and I, just out of school were so eager to please. Impressionable and so desperate to conform we fell into the corporate game and worked long hours for very little pay. On so many occasions, we talked about abandoning our pressure-filled jobs and morphing into one of those "village kids" we would see while commuting on the subway. Over dinner, we would package up their lives so neatly: wild clothing, fun hairdos, major attitude, and cool jobs.
I had stopped working as an architect with the birth of Michael and now with all three kids in school I definitely felt a need to justify my existence. I would sometimes lay in bed, conjuring up new floor plan designs in an attempt to maintain that tie to another time and place. I had an entire creative side to explore, that for now had been relegated to papier-mâché projects on the kitchen table. How could I step outside that comfort zone?
I next ran into the girl at the local library. She was shelving books on the children's floor. It was during school hours and there were barely any kids to muscle other than the occasional unsuspecting home-schooled child. Peering over the research section, I scanned for project material on China for Matthew, while I curiously watched her go about her work. Her hair now a "Matilda" black was slicked back into a Geisha-type bun. A pair of chopsticks (last night's eating utensils perhaps?) crowned the whole affair. The teal blue fabric of her knee-length kimono gave off a weird sheen under the fluorescent lights. Had she worn this for the kid's amusement or her own? I peered around the corner of the bookrack and yes, the combat boots were in place. She did her walk between the shelves. No one seemed to notice her, not the parents, or the two librarians behind the reference desk. It was business as usual on the children's floor.
I left, wondering, why it really mattered so much to me what she did or wore. I guess part of me rooted for her and wanted to be reassured that people like her could really coexist in this world.
My six-week hair appointment fell on the following Thursday. At 38, my few strands of gray had begun to offend me. I had analyzed (really over-analyzed) the closest shade to my natural hair color; auburn brown with subtle red highlights. These highlights, I felt, set me aside from the other 40 million or so middle-aged brunettes in this country. I entered the salon, determined to finally submit to the hair coloring process. Tracy, my friend and stylist, had brewed my favorite herbal tea.
Sitting in the salon chair, I stared at my reflection in the mirror. Was this as far as I was willing to go? I thought about another hair color that had caught my eye. Six weeks and I could always just go back to my old brunette self. Brazen Raisin. The name gave me just a bit of pause.
"Tracy" I said with a smile. "I want a change. What do you think about Brazen Raisin?" I held my breath, not quite ready for rejection.
"I always pictured you totally as a red-head." She smiled back through the mirror.
I left the salon with a spring to my step. As I walked past shop windows, I caught myself swinging my head like the girl in the old Breck shampoo commercials. The true test would come tonight when the family gathered.
Over dinner, my husband Jack gave me an approving nod. A champion of all my creative efforts, he only drew the line at my sometimes-questionable wardrobe choices (I still owned clothes from the eighties). The kids, usually intolerant of any excessiveness on my part had more of an issue. I was not one to shop for jewelry or use nail polish. I was the mom that on late mornings could get dressed in four minutes flat so that they could be driven to the bus stop. This was a side of their mother not anticipated.
After much assurance that this was just experimental, dinner resumed and the conversation drifted back to knock-knock jokes, homework, and sports. I sat back in my chair and smiled.
A few days later, I dug out my old box of earrings, most of which had not seen daylight since college. I fingered the unusually large silver hoops each encircling a metal cross. I had purchased these during my club years. With some effort, they went through each earlobe. I took this as an omen that the old me was still in there somewhere, just asleep perhaps? The metal against my neck felt cold but invigorating. I pulled my hair back and examined my face in the morning light. Bold red lipstick in the daytime would be fun.
It was Monday, the beds were not made and the breakfast dishes still in the sink. On impulse, I drove to the mall and headed for Magenta, the store of choice for high school and college girls. It was during school hours and the shop, thankfully, was empty. The young and over accessorized girl behind the counter actually looked happy to see me.
"Are you looking for something in particular?" she asked in a routine voice.
"Yes something to go with these earrings," I replied.
So began the start of my new wardrobe and I dare say the new me. The bright colored tops, chain belts, frivolous shoes, and even miniscule pocketbooks, were gently introduced to my family over the course of the following months. The transition went smoothly. My family embraced these changes in me just like the various changes that we had supported amongst each other: Michael's deepening voice, Jenna's new found acne, Mathew's reluctance to play with his toy cars and Jack's graying head.
How could I however, explain these changes to myself? It felt like years of stale air had suddenly left my body; like that feeling of glee you get on that first day of spring when you throw open all of the windows and the drapes billow in the soft breeze.
I slowly began to find that balance between girl and mother. I settled into a new groove and my walk was one of being in the moment.
I did not see the girl for many months. Frankly, I think I stopped looking for her.
The last time I did see her, she was working as a teller at one of the out of the way branches of our local bank. As she took my deposit, I took in her new look with some amusement. She was hardly the same girl with her pearl earrings, French manicure, and brown hair tucked into a neat bun.
"Have a great day." She said with a beautiful smile as she slid the confirmation slip across the counter. Her nameplate necklace danced as it dangled from her cream-colored turtleneck.
"Thanks," I replied also with a smile.
Carly. There, at least finally I knew her name.