Strangers on a train

Tropicana train
But not as strange as this train.

After 10 years of no contact, I’ve run into Crystal twice inside 10 days. The second time was this morning, on the train. She got on at Rockwell, dragging a big rolling backpack and a portfolio or something and a purse. I watched her, smiling at the sight of her settling herself and her stuff into a single seat. Once she was all settled, she looked up and saw me. She gathered all her gear and came over and sat beside me. “Not you again,” I believe she said.

The first time I’d run into her was at Harvestime. I was running in while Dave waited in the car outside. The parking lot was full and we only needed a couple of things. I saw her as I grabbed a cart. She was checking out. I watched as she rolled her cart full of shopping bags toward me, making sure it was her, taking her in—dressed in black, perhaps even more striking than she was 10 years ago, perfectly arched eyebrows, a bit of a smirk.

That first time, we caught up hurriedly (“Oh, dealing with elderly parents like everyone right now.” “Oh, mine are both dead.” “Oh, I’m sorry.” “No, I’ve got it easy.”), showing pictures of cat and dog, with more parentheticals for pets gone by, the ones we’d had when we were friends.

No more than five minutes, and then “See you in the neighborhood.” I didn’t want to ask too many questions, appear too curious. It would be like trying to befriend a stranger, like picking someone at random in the produce section and saying, “Let’s exchange numbers.” But it felt good to see her and know a little of her life. “Dave’s waiting,” I said, not that she knew who Dave was, and we hugged and went our separate ways.

“Sorry I took so long. I ran into Crystal,” I said when I got back in the car.

“Who?”

“An old friend. My old best friend,” I said.

“Oh…” Dave was still racking his brain, or maybe already thinking about getting back to his painting job.

Then yesterday, on my way to a script meeting at The Perfect Cup, I was too lazy to get out my bike. It was too hot. I jumped on the el for three measly stops, and there she was again. We didn’t need to catch up this time. Instead, we joked about our teeth and the mildly disconcerting things dentists had said to us recently, and just like in the old days, my stop came up way too fast. “See you around,” I said and got off the train.

I was very happy as I walked to the coffee shop, feeling after all this time that we have a comfortable if insignificant place in each other’s lives. With some of my favorite people, that’s the best place to be.

Longing for normal

a sign hanging on a tree
Always and everywhere.

I keep longing for normal, like I’m saving up rewards points. Dave says, “Why waste time on normal, what I want is extraordinary.”

He’s probably right, but the normal I long for will feel extraordinary. I know it. I can’t articulate the feeling, but I know it will be tangible and complete.

Maybe it’s what my mom meant when she’d say, “I got nothing to do today, and that’s exactly how I like it.” I used to get angry at her, willfully wasting her life. But maybe she was just looking for normal. Maybe she thought if she got all the actual living stuff out of the way, normal would seep in, like fog across a bridge.

In my mind, here’s what a normal weekend looks like: Friday night is a movie at the neighborhood cinema. Perhaps a bite afterward. Saturday is errands and small home repairs – cute ones, perhaps requiring dungarees or a bandanna. Then it’s a leisurely dinner with friends. Sunday is a walk to the park, reading on the couch, and cooking a big pot of soup for the week. Don’t tell me how Saturdays are the worst traffic days to run errands, and all the pit bulls are loose on Sundays. This is my ideal. Week after week, when I’m in the middle of doing something I absolutely did not plan for, I think, okay, scrap this. Next time will be normal. Must purchase dungarees.

This weekend was going to be It. Our huge freelance project just wrapped, so we didn’t need to work through Saturday to catch up. No house emergencies, no big plans. We were set. Friday I figured we’d either see “The Descendents” or “The Artist” at the Davis. I warned Dave to be ready. But first I had to go to the hospital because the Katharine Hepburn of Horner Park is ill. So I went there and had my heart broken by the new set of indignities life is hoisting on this most fragile of survivors. Then I stopped at Harvestime for groceries—the clock was ticking but the store was right on the way.

I got home just in time to meet Louella and give her a quick lesson on how to work the Roku and not lock herself out. She’d come to town on Thursday with her ailing dog Lancelot. The downstate vet said this handsome and debonair creature could go at any minute, he has unspecified heart problems and probable cancer in addition to the stomach ailment that had brought him in. “Be prepared, he doesn’t have much time.” Another friend had invited her to come and stay so Lancelot could say goodbye to all his Chicago friends and so they didn’t have to deal with all the stairs at Lancelot’s castle.

But when I stopped there on Thursday Louella was panicking because Lancelot had peed on the rug and her host was upset. She was steam-cleaning an already clean spot for the fifth time, like Mrs. Macbeth, while Lancelot lay very quiet, with that absent look dogs have when they’re close to the end or just temporarily sick. You never know. When I got home Dave said, “They should come here.” We already had Miss Hepburn’s dog Zoe, but she’s not the bullying type, and Django loves Lancelot, so here they were, setting up on a big waterproof sheet covered by blankets and pillows. Lancelot was looking a little better, and Zoe and Django were gentle with him.

We didn’t get to the Davis in time for the early movie, so we had dinner instead, and gelato at Paciugo. Saturday we ran errands, taking Zoe to the groomer, returning a Christmas present, and letting a Vitamix rep at Merz tell us why we might need a five hundred-dollar blender. We don’t, but I got a free mini-smoothie. Dinner was appropriately leisurely with Xeena and Buck at Fin. Then we all headed back and had drinks with Louella and Lancelot, who was now walking a bit, wagging his tail, and eating small morsels.

After Xeena and Buck went home, I did what I always do at the end of the night: gathered up any random cups and glasses to load in the dishwasher before Dave ran it. I pointed to a small blue glass on the coffee table and asked Louella, “Is that yours?”

“Oh yes,” she quickly grabbed it, “I was just going to put it in the dishwasher like you said.”

“No, no, I didn’t know if you were still using it, or if it was Buck’s…” Too late, she’d already rushed it to the kitchen. I suddenly felt like some maniacal hausfrau who must have everything perfect at all times. I tried to mitigate. “Did you want a new glass?” I offered.

“No thanks, I’m good.”

“That glass is so small for water,” I said lamely. I whispered to Dave, “Do you think she thought I was trying to take her glass away?”

He shrugged, like “Why worry about it?”

“I don’t want her to think…” that I’m abnormal. But I am. Because I have this picture of normal, and it includes everything being back in place at the end of the day, as if the humans were never here. Normal means absent, I realize. Fitting so well into the groove that you can’t be seen or heard. Longing for normal is like starving myself to fit into a fabulous dress I have no occasion to wear. I still long for it, but I’m trying to recover.

The peculiar sadness of my potato cookbook

potato salad and mixing bowl
Desaturation makes everything sadder.

I was making potato salad for a bbq. I’ve never made potato salad before, but when I asked what I could bring, Syd said, “Maybe potato salad?”

“Sure.” I got a recipe from a potato cookbook my mom had given me. She’d found it at a yard sale. There was a Christmas card in it, presumably given to the original book owner with the book, or maybe just stuck in to hold a page. The note on the card hints at some kind of estranged relationship, or maybe not, that my mom and I had puzzled over. It doesn’t feel right to reveal the whole thing, but here’s the first chunk (names changed):

“Dear Chuck, Janice, and Arthur,
My appreciations for the New Year:
To Arthur:
–for being born
–for always being yourself
–for melting my heart the first time I held you (at the Jewel)

The note goes on to reveal that Chuck is her son, so my mom and I always wondered, what’s with the Jewel? Was she shopping with her daughter-in-law soon after Arthur was born and the new mom suddenly needed mom-in-law to hold the baby? Or, as we suspected, did Grandma and new mom run into each other at the Jewel, months after the birth, and Janice was like, “This is your grandson. Want to hold him?”

The note goes on to thank the son and daughter-in-law for making her feel welcome and loved, so maybe everything was okay, but still… something seemed off. A little sad. Like, too much detailed gratitude extended within a Christmas card that would have been a lot shorter if everything had been okay between them. Or maybe not. But I tend to read the card every time I open the cookbook, and wonder.

Anyway, Syd said potato salad, so I went to the bookcase in the living room, where there’s the shelf that holds the urn of my mom’s ashes (sealed properly for a Catholic cemetery, though we haven’t gotten around to burying it), and also her prayer book and rosary, and on either side of that little shrine all my cookbooks, starting with Where’s Mom now that I need her?, which she gave me when I graduated college. I pulled out the potato cookbook, re-read the Christmas card, found a potato salad recipe, and stuck the card in to hold the page.

The recipe said three pounds of red potatoes, but I discovered on my Harvestime receipt that I’d bought five. So I almost doubled the other ingredients, except for the mayo and sour cream, because I didn’t want it too creamy. Before I even started chopping I grabbed two glass bowls that have plastic covers. I mixed everything, and the results were okay. Not bad, but not great. Which, sad to say, is the case with most of the recipes in the potato cookbook. Sweet Potatoes Anna, bland. Parmesan-Roasted Potatoes, did I forget an ingredient?

But what amazed me was that I’d randomly chosen two bowls, randomly sort of doubled the recipe (wait, that could be a clue…never mind), and then when I transferred everything from the mixing bowl, the amount filled both bowls exactly. Right to the top but not over it. Is there some part of our brain that figures that stuff out, that calculates spatial tolerances and then safely guides us to the right bowl choice, the right number of celery stalks to chop? Or is it just dumb luck?

It’s another mystery of the sad potato cookbook. On one side, a possibly estranged relationship. On the other, mildly disappointing flavors. And smack in the middle, incredibly perfect storage container results.

My Almost Friendship with a British or Maybe Even Australian Woman

I was at HarvestTime, the smallish and wonderfully stocked and also extremely reasonable grocery store where everyone in our neighborhood, from Viking stoves to WIC cards, loves to shop. Fresh and diverse produce, good organics, surprising treats like warm squares of spanakopita and fresh dolmades.

So it’s Sunday afternoon, so of course it’s crowded. I’ve just gotten my cart and started into the huge produce section. I’ve grabbed a pint of strawberries – $2.49! I see rings of dried figs, which can be either magnificent or too dry, and wonder if it’s worth the risk. There’s an extended line of carts along that side so I can’t get close enough to check them out. One of the carts belongs to a woman who was just ahead of me as we came in. Red hair, plump body that looks even plumper squeezed into tight black capri pants and some kind of fashion tee shirt. She was smiling so cheerfully when she extricated her cart that I assumed she was with someone, mid-conversation. But as we started through the store, her stretch pants jiggling in front of me, I realized she was alone. Something about her made me think Australian. The type that turns out to have this great, unfettered perspective on life and not taking it too seriously, that you feel you could appropriate just by becoming friends with her.

So we’re at the figs, and I could just wait until she or the Korean man next to her makes a selection and moves along, clearing the way. But instead I say, no preamble, just trusting my voice to cut through the shoppers’ din, “Could you just hand me a thing of figs?”

And she hears me like we’ve been friends forever and replies, in a British accent, “Certainly!” It’s almost too easy. My new international friend I met at the grocery store! She’s sexy and confident in her body and her easy breeze lifestyle. British can be as chill as Aussie if you get the right region, Suffolk maybe, or Cork.

She hands me the package of figs and I choose an appellation I sometimes use with my best girlfriends. “Thank you, Ma’am.” I say it with a slight Western twang, so it’s a sign of respect, playfulness, good nature, you name it. But also, I realize a second too late, just as her face changes from sunny look to closed book, it can sound like acknowledgment of an elder. I can’t add, “I don’t mean Ma’am like you’re older than me, because honey I’m sure you’re not,” ‘cause that’s just overkill for a package of figs. And maybe the frown is her just trying to remember what ingredients she needs for her Sunday barbie recipe?

But in any case, there is no more friendly interchange. Although we remain in sync throughout the deli section, dairy case, bread aisle, and even checkout lanes, each setting out our items on parallel counters in perfect time, there are no more easy smiles. I try to catch her eye as we leave with our bags full of food bargains, but nothing doing. Is she as sorry about our lost friendship as I? Is she wondering where the hell some middle-aged woman gets off calling her Ma’am? Should she have worn different pants? Was it cilantro or mint that went into the tilapia recipe?

We’ll never, ever know. My probably British or maybe even Aussie friend is lost to me forever. She’ll never know I kept the figs, which on closer look were definitely too dried out, in my cart as an homage to her. I will eat them as my penance. Next time, I’ll just say Thanks.