As I crossed the street, I considered how easy this task must have once been for her—a swift inside job. Her house had always been on this hill; she’s the one who had changed. Someday crossing the street would be a feat and a strain for me. This made my legs feel middling even as I stepped. They were in-between wobbly toddler legs and weaker-worn senior legs. For now, here I go.
On the other sidewalk I took out my ear-buds, the ultimate sacrifice—I could have heard anything. I called out, “Ma’am?” (The only other time I said “ma’am” was playing restaurant with my daughter. She’d be the server and I’d be the patron, and in our pretend politeness we would ma’am each other as much as possible. She’d say, “Hello ma’am and welcome to our restaurant, ma’am. I hope you’re hungry, ma’am. We have bananas and milk tonight, ma’am, and pudding, ma’am, for dessert.” I would study an invisible menu and then say, “Ma’am, I’ve decided to have the bananas this evening. And it’s my birthday, ma’am, so I’ll also take your finest bottle of milk.”)
After I’d called out for the woman’s attention, my whole body was on regret-alert. I told myself that hiding behind a parked car and then making a honking sound so she’d think the “ma’am” she’d heard had also been a car honk would be rude, unsavory behavior. I told myself that my ego was like a bread heel.
But when she turned around, I smiled and said, “Could I help you with your groceries?” because once I’ve actually entered into a face-to-face human interaction my teeth and my need to please come out as a reflex.
When Bonnie saw me standing and offering, she did not look surprised or delighted or even startled. She looked like a turtle who’d seen a blade of grass. Oh look, more of the same.
She said, “Well… I wouldn’t mind it” and straightened her body to show she was turning the labor over to me. Her shoulders, at least, seemed grateful to be back in a position that was closer to the sky. She was wearing a purple cotton shirt and beige pants that most likely had an elastic waistband. It occurred to me that a lack of floral print or bold stripes was meaningful at her age, when so many women choose clothes that will force others to see them, if only for a flicker. Her shoes were white and athletic and her face had once gotten a lot of sun—something suggested by the texture of her nose. In the grocery bag closest to my feet I saw a can of beef stew and a package of eggs that had already been hard-boiled. So she was cutting out unnecessary work in some ways, but the stairs had no shortcut. I stood until I realized I was waiting for some fawning appreciation that was not being offered. I thought well, call me Shortcut as I reached for two bags to carry.
She said, “I’m Bonnie” as I passed her on the steps and then immediately added, “Now be careful with that. Set it down gently,” and I could tell she really wanted to say the instruction first but decided to soften it by offering her own name.
I said, “I will.” I knew it was my turn to offer my name, but her ungratefulness coupled with how comfortable she was commanding me without knowing my name made me feel protective of myself and the name I was called by those who loved me.
I set the first two bags on the porch in front of her door. As soon as my foot touched the porch, a dog inside the house lost its mind. I loved and accepted the animal’s anger while hating the animal’s volume level and lack of decorum. Sure, feel it, but don’t inflict it on me.
I asked, “What’s your dog’s name?” as I came back down for another load. Bonnie was still making her way up and I understood, then, why she wasn’t grateful—I had not lifted the biggest burden. The groceries were but a carry-on and the solo flight continued. I hadn’t offered her a piggyback to the top or new knees or a time-machine hop back to ’74.
“Oh that’s Buster. He gets mad when I leave the house. Then he also gets mad when I come back. When I go, he’s miserable for some pitiful amount of time, but eventually he calms down and realizes he’s better off without me… and then moments later I return and ruin it all again. That’s why I always bring home lean meats, so he’ll remember why he keeps me around. I never feed him dog food. I never have, with any of my dogs over the years. I give them a portion of the meat that I prepare for myself. People always tell me I shouldn’t but then they give me no good reason as to why I should stop—not that their reasons would convince me.”
I felt like this was a fact I was supposed to be impressed by or argue against, but I felt resolutely neutral about her dog’s diet so I said, “huh” and grabbed the next two bags. I spotted pears and packets of microwavable rice. The meat must be on the bottom, its raw, natural juices gushing under the weight of the ready-to-eat. The load of smashed flesh, the rowdy dog, Bonnie’s unwashed hair—all unappetizing, all experiences I’d opted into by not walking on. That I could have passed them up made them feel closer, pressed right up against me.
Bonnie called up, “I was in the hospital earlier this week. It was the heat. The people on the news said ‘it’s a heat wave, drink plenty of water’ so I listened. For two days I had a straw between my lips…I go for straws because they remind me of the cigarettes I had to give up—puckering and sucking. But what I did was drink too much water. That’s what the doctor said. He said I went and diluted myself. Potassium and all that? Electrolytes? Peed them right out. So I became depleted and then the heat made me even more dizzy. I got myself dressed before I called the ambulance and I kept sipping water even as I pulled on my clothes. I thought I was doing the right thing.”
I said, “Who knew it was possible to drink too much water?” even though I did, me. Letting her impart this lived-through wisdom felt like a polite rebalance as she was clearly being defeated by the stairs and as I was flaunting my effortless legs. We both needed the years behind her (and ahead of me) to be worth something—a parity of gains and losses. So when she said, “The doctor said eight classes a day is plenty” I said, “Good to know” and not “I’m aware of that, Bonnie, and now I must run away back to safety on the other side of the street where I can enjoy my relative youth.”
I picked up the last two bags and set them on the porch with the others. I could feel Buster’s desperation through the door. The box fan propped in the open window rattled and shifted. In the space between the window’s corner and the edge of the fan I saw, far back into the hole, a black nose which seemed to be saying, “In case you’ve missed the incessant barking, may I also present the point of my face.” Dogs offer no subtlety and I’d rather take a hint.
I descended with a tight smile and horizon eyes to say “I’m done, bye now,” but Bonnie misread my expression as one asking to hear about her recent fender benders.
“I’ve been hit three times since fall. Every time it’s some idiot in a beat-up Honda with a state-of-the-art phone that proved to be too distracting. I used to shriek when it happened and now I just kind of sigh and pray that I don’t have to get out of the car.”
I was standing on the other side of the railing where a steep driveway ran parallel to the stairs. Bonnie must have decided that getting out of her car onto a flat surface and then climbing a hill toward home was better than pulling up closer to the house but risking a tumble-down caused by the sharp slant. I understood her choice—climbing is sweaty but it offers more control than tumbling.
To balance myself on the incline I had one leg pointed out toward the street. I was in ready position to sprint toward ear-plugged anonymity.
Bonnie and her walker were still only halfway up the stairs, having climbed just two more since I arrived. She segued from car accidents to vegetarians to the receptionist at her podiatrist’s office to the lawnmowing habits of her neighbors to the east. Bonnie didn’t think much of any of them—weak and stupid, rude and dumb, lazy and dim-witted.
As she spoke, I tried to decide whether she was offering these harsh, lowly opinions because she was lonely most-of-all and this was simply the best conversation she could muster on short notice or if she was a somewhat negative, combative person by nature—even during her step-zooming years.
The subject then switched to Bonnie’s great-niece who she considered an ongoing disappointment. “I told her I needed a new recliner because the footrest on my old one was stuck in the extended position. So Macy came over and showed me how to find Craigslist on my computer but all that came up was a bunch of dark shabby recliners that were all the way across the river! I told Macy that I don’t need a shadowy underground recliner and that I’d like to buy one from a store with bright lights and delivery trucks. But now that I know how to get to Craigslist, I like to look at the Wanted section. I read through what everyone’s looking for and I say, ‘Well, I don’t have it.’”
I laughed alone. She saw nothing funny about her desire to let people down without even leaving the house. I realized then that she hadn’t asked anything about me, not my name, or which side of the river my recliners came from or what I fed my dogs. I wondered: What did this one-sided monologue of complaints say about her? What did it say about me that I needed not only her appreciation but her interest? She made me feel like I could have been anyone, which is my least favorite feeling, especially when coupled with hostile barking. Why did I come over here? Was I looking for someone to hold my chin in their hands and call me dear-heart? Hadn’t I learned, by then, that I’ve got to hold my own chin and be my own sweet-thing?
I took a step toward the street, perhaps to stop my mind from further examining my motivations, which were looking both flimsy and needy. It felt impolite to leave Bonnie before she got inside, yet it also felt impolite to stand and wait for her to get all the way to her door. I worried if I stood around any longer, she’d start going in on the post office and I’d be stuck listening to her stomp about the price of stamps. My momentum beat out my manners, and I took a couple steps that were decisively away from her. I waved and said, “It was nice to meet you!”
I saw the grump on her face wobble into dejection. She knew that I knew that she wasn’t finished, that there was more to come, and that I had left anyway. She called down a “thank you” to the tune of how-could-you.
I walked across the street while putting my headphones back in. Bonnie was saying something else to me—she was twisted around in my direction and her mouth was moving. I couldn’t hear her, but I waved once more as the Friar told the comic that showing up for someone could be as simple as making sure they feel seen.
As I left, I could feel myself becoming a story of Bonnie’s, maybe one she’d relay to her niece: “This odd little lady came out of nowhere and was too rough with my eggs! Then she left before I could rant about the shelf life of batteries or mumble an offhand, racist comment about the pharmacist!”
Once I turned the corner and was out of her line of vision, I paused the podcast and went over what had just happened. I told the story to myself: I did what I’d set out to do, I helped a stranger. I left Bonnie better off than I found her. She was probably alone because she was unpleasant and has pushed people away—but I showed her kindness. Clearly, yes, of course I was a sweet thing.
At the end of my walk I returned to my family—to my husband and children. For several days afterward I am extra careful in hiding my sharp edges from them—the judgments and rulings and disappoints that taste like Bonnie in my mouth. Instead, I smile extra. I comfort more and touch their shoulders sincerely because they deserve that laser-like devotion but also because I don’t want to end up alone with a dog whose affection is conditional at best. I’ve got to soften and hide the Bonnie in me. I’ve got to condemn my condemnations. I can be stormy and difficult only after I’ve earned it, only after I’ve offered enough goodness and lightness, only after I’ve proved that I’m too lovable to be left alone, defensive but defenseless.
I CONSIDER LEAVING
One day I choose to bypass her street--Not today, when even the wind is bothering me. I make a different turn, walking by other people who surely also need someone but who don’t know me to be a helper, a candidate, a stopper, as one who may see their needing.
I approach a store that sells rugs. It feels like a shop from another time, the way it’s kept to selling one specific item, the way it doesn’t have a dairy aisle or a self-checkout lane. I always admire their window displays—the way some rugs are hanging, some are rolled up, while others are laid out to their intended flatness—a visual obstacle course of opulent textures. I get closer to the storefront and see a small bird below on the sidewalk, feet-up and twitching. I look away then turn back to confirm how horrible it is to see. It must have flown into the window—it thought it was doing the right thing. Every time the bird twitches, I flinch. I get tears in my eyes. I want to scoop the bird up and yet I don’t want to touch it. It wouldn’t understand the gesture, being held, having no prior experience being handled. I wish a fellow bird would come instead, put a wing near the injured head, to usher it through its first experience with dying.
I walk away before it stops moving and hope the tears that came quickly and instinctively are for the bird’s end, for the suffering inside the body it was given, and not for myself, for what I’ve had to see.