I spoke to the gray streaked part of a petite blonde woman, who was bent double sweeping debris into a large dustpan. Whe she straightened, she stood only a fraction of an inch taller than the cart next to her, which bristled with an amazing assortment of cleaning implements. She looked up, her friendly blue eyes meeting mine. I was jolted by the strange familiarity of her gaze.
"You need something hon?"
Her voice sent another thrill of recognition up my spine. I knew her. But how? It must have been long ago. I studied her face for a moment, trying to remember.
She had been pretty once. Delicate bones made her face a sweetly curving heart, and her slender nose was slightly upturned, giving her a saucy air. But her skin was lined and seamed with pain or hard living or both. Her teeth were straight, but heavily stained. Her blonde hair was neatly secured with a pretty barette, but was parched and dry from chemical bleaching.
But those eyes, they hadn't changed. Huge and blue, with secrets behind them. I remembered then, that she had always looked tough, acted tough, talked tough. But those eyes, if anyone had cared to look, had a hidden frailty beneath the challenge that they often held.
But still, her identity; her place in my memory eluded me.
"Um, yes, I'm conducting a meeting at 6:00, but the PDR is locked. I hate to bother you, but would you happen to have keys?"
"I don't, but Daryl does. Lemme run find 'im for you."
I thanked her, and watched as her trim figure trotted down the wide gleaming hallway. It was quiet, but still echoed with the vibrant voices of those who roamed it daily. The stillness did not suit, and I shivered a little, chasing away a ghost that had no name.
Who was that woman??
My volunteers arrived and for the next 45 minutes, I forgot to wonder about her. But as I tidied the meeting room, she crept into my thoughts once again.
Who? Who? Who?
People will often say, "It hit me like a bolt of lighting" And you know, it happens just like that sometimes. It happened like that as I stood there thinking about the years before I met and married my husband.
The empty school reminded me of the Mall afterhours. The same wrongess of quiet, the same echoey emptiness that seemed to be waiting. The same complusion to fill it with something; a voice, a footstep, a presence.
And then it all came back. Her name, her pretty, haughty face, her pugnacious tough girl attitude. And the way that toughness melted into a pool of hurt, just for a second, when she realized that he had only wanted the same thing every other guy wanted.
I remembered scolding him for that. How could he be such a....MAN?
"WHAT?" he had protested. "It's not like I forced her. She'll sleep with anybody. Everyone knows that."
And everyone did.
Why did she never say no? I wondered then, and I found myself wondering again. What drives a woman to give herself so cheaply? I don't think most of them ever even bought her dinner.
I sought her out again to let her know I was leaving, and that the room was closed and locked. She smiled and wished me a good evening. I returned the nicety and turned to leave.
But something stopped me, and I turned back.
"I'm sorry...but...you look so familiar to me. Your name isn't Brandy, is it?"
Her blue eyes grew wide with surprise.
"You used to work at the Peanut Shack in the Mall."
She was clearly thunderstruck.
"That was a long time ago." she said, bewildered.
"Twenty years, I bet. I worked at the jewelry shop next door."
"And you remember me???"
We regarded each other. It was obvious that life had led us down very different paths. She was only a year or two older than me, but looked easily ten or fifteen years my senior. Time had not been kind to her, nor, I suspected, had life.
"I was pretty wild back then."
It was an apology for not recognizing me. Too much booze, too little sleep. And a parade of people always willing to party. I understood. I chuckled to demonstrate that I hadn't taken offense.
"I know. We all were."
I remembered some of the crazy things we had done in the name of a good time. We hadn't been close friends, but we had partied together more than once. And more than once, we had shown up at work the following day, both bleary eyed and green-gilled, bemoaning our stupidity.
It was clear that more than time separated us now. But we smiled at each other as we recalled our younger selves.
She asked me about my children and I remembered then that she had gotten pregnant one crazy, hazy sultry Southern summer. That's when she disappeared from my life and my memory. There was talk that she had gotten rid of the baby, but nobody really knew for sure where she went or what had happened to her.
She hadn't gotten rid of the baby. I don't know what that cost her; a bad marriage, broken dreams, a life interrupted. The price of that decision was written all over her haggard face. But it lit with pride as she told me that her son had graduated from high school with honors and was going into the military.
"He sounds like a great kid." I said.
"He is." she replied.
I wondered if it was possible that my friend, who had treated her so callously, was the father of that boy. It had been rumored. She hadn't said, and he hadn't asked. But a good many young men had avoided her that summer. It could have been any one of them. Or none of them.
She had work to do. She would be mopping floors and scrubbing toilets while I lounged in my comfortable chair with my feet up.
I told her it had been fun running into her. She returned the sentiment. I left her with her cart and made my way to the front doors, listening to my heels clocking hollowly in the silence.
I felt strange. Sad and old. But also...content. Grateful. And ashamed.
I've been feeling awfully sorry for myself lately. Poor little me, with my lost identity and my stay at home woefulness and my middle class boredom. Poor little me with my fifteen year marriage to a loving, loyal man. Poor little me with my challenging, learning disabled children who have a stable two parent family.
I didn't do anything different or better. I was just luckier.
Because although I had a pretty good head on my shoulders even back then, the capriciousness of youth marks us all with it's disfavor from time to time.
I pushed away the knowledge that I could be the one standing next to that cart, and stepped out into the cold, damp night.