Jane Anne Staw
It was a small room and a group of us were sitting in gray chairs, waiting to be checked in. We held our paperwork on our laps, legal-sized sheets torn from our doctor’s pad, each sheet x’ed in a different configuration. Mine had been marked four times, in the boxes preceding tests that dealt with cholesterol and thyroid functions.
Nobody was talking. A woman with short, bristly hair read the morning newspaper. A man in a business suit worked on his laptop. An older woman sitting to my left, her grey hair windblown, looked across the room toward the door. As each person arrived, we signed in—our name and time of arrival--on a sheet held in a clipboard placed at the edge of a counter, which was just behind me. Since I’d been here before, I knew that the man behind the counter would call our name when our turn arrived, asking each time for doctor’s orders and our insurance card. The pace seemed to be slow this morning, and I wondered how long I would be here, how much time I would lose waiting for the technician to extract my blood.
Two additional women came into the room, signed in and sat down across from me. They appeared to be in their early forties. Both had short, light brown hair, and were dressed in outdoor vests and fleece tops. They began talking. One of them had no insurance coverage for the tests and they were trying to figure out how she might minimize the number of venus punctures in order to save money.
Although they spoke softly, and I wasn’t trying to listen, their conversation filled the otherwise silent room, the way air rushes in to fill a vacuum. I noticed that they were dressed much the same, in similar shades of mauve and foam blue. I noticed the softness of the textures of their tops and vests.
I wondered what would happen in a few minutes, once the man behind the counter called my name. First the technician would tie a tourniquet around my upper left arm to make my vein bulge. Next he would clean the site of injection with alcohol. After this, I would feel the prick of the needle as it entered my skin, then the gentle tug, sometimes accompanied by a dull ache, as he attached a blood test tube to the needle. After that I would hear a soft pop, when the technician replaced a tube full of my blood with an empty one. Today, I would leave once three tubes had been filled and he had written my last name on each one.
The two friends across from me were still talking, when the door opened and tall women with orangish-red spiked hair stepped into the room, then turned to a woman who was pushing a walker up the path toward the front door. The two women resembled each other, although the one using the walker was much older, as well as much shorter. And she had brown hair arranged in soft curls around her face.
Once she had maneuvered through the door and entered the room, the older woman stopped to get her bearings. Instantly, one of the women wearing the soft colors jumped up and offered her a seat. The women with the walker protested. There was an empty chair in the corner. But this one is more convenient, the younger woman insisted.
Meanwhile, the man behind the counter called the name “Jean.” I thought perhaps he had misread my name, and that it was now my turn; that I wouldn’t have to wait as long as I had feared. But no, the woman with the bristly hair arose. While she was signing in and registering, the older woman and the one who had offered her a seat installed themselves in their chairs, and once again, all was quiet in the small room.
Then the woman with the walker turned in her seat to thank again the woman who had ceded her the chair. They began a conversation, someone mentioning Valentine’s Day, less than a week away, and the older woman pointed to a heart-shaped, rhinestone pin on her black sweater. Both women smiled.
I thought of Valentine’s Day at my elementary school. The cardboard box, wrapped in red paper, where each child deposited the cards they had signed. The distribution of the cards by the teacher in the afternoon. The wondering. The holding my breath. Would I get any? Would I get enough? Would the popular kids send me cards? Stephen Hickey? Barbara Shultz? Marilyn March? Would their mothers insist that they not leave anyone out? Then finally, the ripping open of the thin envelopes. And the counting. Would I have as many as my best friend Susan? Would I be able to hide my disappointment?
The woman who had accompanied the woman with the walker took the now-empty seat, which faced me. I could see clearly that the two bore a strong resemblance to each other. Their mouths were both wide. And their noses were what in high school we called “ski jumps.” They are probably mother and daughter, I thought.
The mother and daughter continued their conversation with the two women in the soft colors. They discussed what they might do to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year. The daughter and her husband would take the mother to dinner at her favorite restaurant. The other two women, a couple I now realized, were invited to a party.
Several new people had come into the room by now, and everyone was smiling. I decided to compliment the couple on their colors. “Oh, thank you” they said. “It’s just chance.” Then the woman with the walker smiled at me, and she seemed so tiny sitting in the chair in the small, grey room. And so happy. A sprite, I thought.
The man who had been using his computer finished having his blood drawn and walked back through the small room, where we were all sitting, on his way out. “Goodbye, everybody,” he said, as he disappeared out the door.
Then, the man behind the counter called my name. Just before I walked back to the laboratory, I turned to the group in the small room. “See you later,” I said.
“See you later,” the daughter replied. “See you later,” the couple echoed in unison. “Goodbye,” waved the tiny woman with the walker, her Valentine’s pin winking in the overhead light.
I spent an hour or so one recent afternoon at a local café, talking to a former student. The student, who had recently published a book, had been invited to teach at a summer workshop, and asked if I would look over his syllabus. I was very busy at the time, but felt I should carve out an hour to meet with him.
Just before leaving for the meeting, I received a letter from my book agent, telling me that my book wasn’t selling as well as expected. It was a terrible disappointment, she wrote, but perhaps sales would pick up now that it had appeared in paper.
The news was a blow, and left me feeling hollow. I thought of copies of my book, with its paper flower blossoming on the cover, sitting lost on bookstore shelves all over the country. I could see hands moving toward the shelves, fingers reaching inside to extract the books on either side of mine. And I could feel the tug of disappointment, as my book realized that it was to be left behind. Unseen. Abandoned.
I took the long route to the café, winding around several blocks, to delay my arrival. The walk did nothing to revive my spirits. By the time I arrived, I felt wilted. How was I going to engage with the former student? How could I help anyone else when I felt so helpless myself?
The student is a Buddhist and meditation teacher, and the course he will teach involves creativity and meditation. Weighty topics. When I entered the café, he was sitting at a table with a cup of tea and a neat pile of papers in front of him. I removed my coat, then went up to the counter to order myself a drink. I took my time adding milk to my tea, and stirring, then walked back slowly to our table. The café was full, some people alone working at their computers, others in twos and threes chatting and laughing.
For a few minutes after I sat down, the student and I engaged in small talk. I asked about his wife and six-year-old daughter. He asked how my teaching and writing were coming along. Then he showed me his outline. I wasn’t in the mood to talk shop. To stall, I asked him to tell me about his plan and his goals for the workshop. He spoke about using meditation to bring the writer back again and again to the center of generativity.
“That sounds important,” I responded. I recalled the three-month period not long ago when I meditated each day in conjunction with a writing workshop I was leading. How rich that period had been, every day taking twenty minutes to sit quietly and breathe, allowing each breath to enter my body fully, so that I was aware of my chest swelling, my shoulders rising, then settling back down as my lungs deflated, ready for the next breath. How light I felt by the end of each session, how full and empty at the same time. How a smile played on my lips, as I opened my eyes to the room and to my life.
Why, I wondered, had I not continued with the practice? How could I have let fall something that made me feel so good? Dependably. With so little effort. What is it that caused me to lose my way? How might I find it again?
As the student and I talked, I was able to offer several suggestions that I thought might enrich his class. Then it was time for him to leave; his wife was teaching that afternoon and he was responsible for their daughter. As we parted, an uncharacteristic thought passed through my mind: “I wonder if I’ll at least go to heaven for my good works.”
I walked home the direct route, up a boulevard that passes by my house. Halfway home, I began laughing at myself. Thinking about heaven was so untypical of me, raised by a physicist, an atheist, whose religion, if any, was the scientific method. I wanted to believe the thought ironic, but knew that wasn’t the case. Irony is a mode I jettisoned years ago, after moving to Northern California. Growing up and attending college in the East, irony was an art I, along with my cohort, cultivated assiduously. In any casual conversation, you could count on a pun, a bon mot, or a flash of sarcasm or irony every few sentences. If you couldn’t keep up, you were considered dull witted and were quickly left behind.
In California, the people I encountered interacted in a major key. Friends and acquaintances seemed universally positive. I was even once told that I had too many opinions, all negative. So I set out to become more upbeat, polishing the slightest tarnish of irony or sarcasm from my responses and reactions. Saying one thing and meaning another was no longer part of my repertory.
I looked up and noticed a women walking toward me. She was a plain woman, dressed in a wool overcoat covering an ankle-length cotton skirt. Her hair, which was streaked with gray, was parted in the middle and pulled back in a low, loose ponytail. As she drew nearer, I saw that she was smiling.
I smiled back absent-mindedly, and returned to musing on my strange thought. I realized how awful I must be feeling to resort to such a desperate hope. Heaven. How silly of me!
When the woman and I were face to face, she stopped and said, “You are wearing such warm, lovely colors, I just had to tell you. I’ve been admiring them all the way down the block.”
I thanked her and walked on, marveling at such an unexpected and pleasant encounter. Suddenly I felt buoyant, and my pace quickened. Several yards later, I stopped and looked back at the woman, who was quickly disappearing down the block.
“Maybe I am in heaven,” I said to myself. “Maybe I am.”
The man first appeared several months ago in the café where my friend and I meet each Thursday morning. He was slumped in an armchair, dozing. A patina of grime covered his clothes, his matted hair hung in clumps from under the sombrero perched on his head; debris flecked his beard. My immediate reaction was annoyance. Why had he come to my cafe, dragging in with him the sadness and discomforts of the world outside?
The man became a mainstay of the coffee shop, sitting in the same chair week after week, in a well-trafficked zone, dozing, his head lolling on his chest, a cup of coffee on the table in front of him. The coffee shop patrons give him wide berth, turning their heads or averting their eyes when they passed him.
Although each week when I arrived I took note of him, he eventually became a fixture of the place. A quick glance, then he would slip from my consciousness.
Yesterday, as my friend and I talked, he slumbered in his usual spot, when a young mother with her two daughters sat at the table next to us. The baby waddled over to offer each of us a hug. Emma, the older sister, flounced onto her seat and began to tell us about her school. “It lasts a long time, all day,” she said.
Then, as quickly as she had appeared, Emma skipped off toward the back of the shop. As she passed the man, he leaned down and spoke to her.
Emma stopped and replied, leaning her pink-clad four-year-old body into his grimy leg. While she talked, he listened, his eyes wide open for the first time, fixed on her face. His eyes were blue. And clear.
Perhaps now I had an answer to my question. The man sat in this café day after day for the children. It was that simple. He sat there, while everyone cut a wide swathe around him, dozing, his untouched cup of coffee the price of admission, waiting for a child like Emma to awaken him. A child who emanated the innocence and grace even the filthy man in the sombrero once possessed.