Adrift in a Sea of Plenty

Nineteen days into voluntary isolation, I reach to the back of the freezer for some ginger and discover two bags of sweet pepper, one green, and one red. It’s Christmas! Like many trapped in this stagnant lull, I have put on some weight. The more I focus on making do, the faster I eat down my stash.

I picture five strangers in a floating prison with four gallons of water and three weeks of rations, stonily regarding the infinite, blue seascape. Conversation long ago exhausted, their eyes shift from the tarp covering their meager supply to the deepening lines in each other’s faces, and back to the sea of undrinkable water.

My browser feeds me news of asymptomatic ballplayers and senators testing positive for Covid-19 while the untested hoi polloi hover in limbo, staring at their kitchen cupboards. A family in Freehold, New Jersey, my childhood stomping grounds, is paying the ultimate price for honoring their Sunday dinner tradition. The matriarch and three of her eleven children have died, while others wait out their infection.

In the absence of community testing, we assume that we and everyone around us are carrying the virus. All are guilty until proven innocent. And, should we test negative, that status evaporates when we touch the next community-accessible hard surface, or pass downwind from someone with a dry cough.

The only rational response is to distance ourselves. Bob and I bang around our little dingy, embracing each time we cross paths. We’ve shrunk our world to house and yard, meandering from our news feeds to the garden, to the refrigerator. We subscribe to a spring CSA and start planting potatoes.

This morning I wake from a dream where I am hugging an older woman in a red dress, a familiar stranger with whom I’ve formed an instant bond. What I wouldn’t do for a hug from an outsider.

The United States took action too late. Our curve will look like most other countries, a hockey stick of terrible decisions, drastic action, overwhelmed health care, and triage. I click on a satellite image of two limed trenches in an Iranian graveyard, while our hospitals draft guidelines for who to turn away. The governor extends North Carolina school closures to mid-May. Many of our friends are now sidelined from work, while friends and family in healthcare, food service, and delivery scramble to keep up.

As the sun bears down, the water lures you from your rubber seat. The cooling relief quickly turns to panic when you feel the first bump of a fish against your dangling legs. You claw your way back into your life raft and watch the salt crust bloom across your arms. The fins appear, and you try not to lick your lips.

~*~

On the weekends, we break our quarantine for a walk at the dam. We’ve altered our route as more people take advantage of the park. We test the breeze, doing our best to stay upwind of other strollers. Like us, many take calculated risks: the occasional trip to town for supplies, dinner with the folks, or a walk beyond the confines of home.

I’ve given up my Tuesday walk with Shelley and Amy. Instead, we text and talk on the phone. I compensate by walking out our back gate and disappearing down the trail into Tami’s woods. At my destination, I stand on the big rocks and regard Stinking Creek, hoping to see a deer come down to drink, or perhaps another human being. On the way home, I stop and sit on Carl’s bench, beneath that stately beech. Sometimes I lie back, staring up at the beyond, thinking about what I’ll do with those peppers when I get home.

More than a Vector: What Covid-19 Taught Me About Social Distancing

Venetian Plague Doctor

I set my flip phone on the table and look out a freshly-washed window at our greening lawn. It is Saturday, day four of my self-imposed covid-19 retreat, and plan-canceling has become second nature. I was able to say “No,” to grocery shopping, buddy strolls, and a writing workshop.

Bob and I had a pivotal discussion after dinner on Tuesday. At first, I thought he was kidding, but the set of his face assured me he was serious. He’d been watching the virus sweep over the globe, affecting his co-workers and their clients for weeks. “I’m only suggesting we limit our exposure and wait it out. See what happens,” he said.

“Okay, I’m with you,” I said, struggling to catch up. “I am, after all, an introvert.”

Earlier that day, I had spent $100 on groceries, and now it was time to sit tight and eat down our larder. “It’ll be easy, I assured myself. “It’ll be fun!”

We have long been a nation of two, so reducing our social profile would be easy. Bob works from home, I’m retired, and we have access to an arsenal of social media tools. Ignoring the lump in my windpipe, I began re-framing my commitment. It would be a relaxing mini-retreat cleverly disguised as our civic duty, not solitary confinement. We’d merely be removing ourselves from the vector pool. It would be like a second honeymoon.

“What’s on our list?” Bob asks this morning.

“Well, we’ve got our Dam walk . . .”

We are running our of winter projects. The pollinator garden we topped off with compost last weekend is settling nicely, and the frogs are happy. We should probably plant out the last of the spider lily bulbs we got from Whitney. If we felt ambitious, we could work on replacing the crawl space door. And we could spend an hour wiring chicken wire onto the garden fence.

Instead, I sew the heels shut on my wool socks, and we drive out to Jordan Lake. We step between the guard rails onto the worn path towards the tailrace. The water is much calmer today, the whirling gull vortex replaced by a solitary blue heron. The sun bounces off everything, the distant trees one-dimensionally stoic. A man with a long, black ponytail tosses a net as a cormorant rises, flapping wildly.

Back home, we tackle the overflow in our garage, unearthing a set of rusting pipe-wrenches that Bob plans to restore. We play tidy-up for a little while before coming inside to gorge on popcorn. Bob retires to a sunny bedroom with the last chapters of In Cold Blood while I sit in a rocker on the front porch and get caught up with my brother, Johnny.

Later, I open the chest freezer and pull a bag of homemade seitan cutlets from the top shelf. We could eat out of here for a month! Additionally, we are packing an extra ten pounds of flour, ten pounds of dried beans, a cupboard stocked with canned goods, five pounds of rice, and four pounds of pasta. The garden weighs in with collards and carrots, and there are squash and sweet potatoes from last fall. And, in the refrigerator, we’ve got four quarts of mayonnaise and more than a dozen eggs from Ted and Helen’s chickens in the fridge.

So far, our social distancing project has been quite bearable. Tomorrow promises more of the same: a little exercise, a bit of puttering, and some heavy snacking. The tightness in my throat is long gone, and I’m feeling good about doing my bit to slow the spread of Covid-19. Additionally, we’ll likely stay healthy, and are in no danger of losing weight.

What the World Needs Now

Two couples hover over us, shifting their feet, blinking at the waitress, the women clutching their purses. Our waitress again sweeps her hand in an “L” across the table. Ten minutes earlier, we had been in their shoes, having walked in with our friends, Scotty and Diane. We, too had stood, questioning the waitress, looking over our shoulders at our friends being seated in a far corner of the cavernous room.

I returned to the task at hand, picking up the miniature golf-sized pencil, rolling it between my fingers, considering an answer to a one of the more challenging skit suggestion prompts. I choose my words, and press the soft point into the paper, looping my letters with bold strokes.

Only after the new arrivals strip off their coats and take that first sip of beer, do Bob and I initiate conversation. The older woman sitting across from me says she has lived here all her life, covering her mouth to hide a nervous giggle. Her eyes blaze like a dog inside a fence. “Wow,” I said, “I would love to learn what you know about Pittsboro.”

She moves her hand, revealing the bitter set of her lips, and I pick up my glass of water wishing I hadn’t said that. I think about the Confederate statue recently removed from the courthouse a hundred yards from our table, about the weekend flagger protests and the arrests. I fiddle with my pencil, at a loss to bridge the gap.

Our salads emerge. Mouthing a hard wedge of pale pink tomato, I bite hard into my upper lip and put down my fork. Bob orders a second cider. The man seated across from Bob volunteers that he lived in Buffalo for seven years. “My mother’s from here,” he says, helpfully stacking our salad plates.

Hoping Bob won’t mention Nicaragua, China, or Ghana, I scan the crowd in search of allies, realizing I look like a mustang trapped in a pen.

We are here for the Valentine Weekend Dinner Theater which will feature audience-suggestion comedy with a local improv troupe called The Poor Excuses. Bob has already been tapped for participation in a skit by his former colleague, Ellen, the troupe organizer.

“Promise you won’t back out.”

“I won’t.”

The Poor Excuses take the stage, and when they mention audience participation, the woman sitting across from me shoves her chair back from the table. “I won’t,” she says, and the younger woman sitting on my left echoes her sentiment.

“Seriously?” I ask.

“Oh yes, I’ll get up and walk out the door.”

More distance.

The troupe asks for a volunteer to describe a memorable date, and Bob raises his hand. A few minutes later, I am watching the troupe play out one of our first dates, a hike up Bear Peak with a few creative features thrown in for fun. It’s uncanny watching actors portray us in one of the defining moments of our early dating life. “Bob” suggesting we take the back way down the mountain, an adventurous shortcut I’m not terribly keen about. Improbably, we run into Timothy Leary, and he gives us something to eat. Then we plunge down the backside of the mountain through the brambles. We end up in a horse pasture. Romance ensues and the room is awash in laughter, the ice broken.

Each skit is preceded by several requests: “I need a setting,” “I need something you might find in your purse,” “I need an embarrassing bodily function.” The diners wave their hands and shout, “A Zoo!” “Boat anchor!” “Flatulence!”

Long before the evening is over, I realize that all six of us are having a fabulous time, eating, and elbowing each other, and that the whole room is united in laughter. We are no longer natives and transplants, or southerners and northerners. And it occurs to me that what the world needs more of is fart jokes, plain and simple.

Voices From the Past

You settle into the plush, cold seat and reach for the safety belt. Without thinking, you poke a key into the ignition. Oliver whines and you wait until you hear the engine purr before pulling the car into reverse.

For some time now, you’ve been on the lurk for a cassette player. Your collection of poorly-labeled tapes includes a forty-year-old recording of you and your brother, Bob, road tripping up the Texas panhandle one new moon night. Another tape features an after-dinner chat with your father’s mother, your Nana, from when you lived together in the ’70s. One includes Christmas carol duets sung by your mother and brother Michael. There are cacophonous family dinners, and skits the boys performed at the Farmhouse long before leaving the parental nest. You haven’t listened to them for years.

Sitting behind a red light last week, you take notice of a slot above your car radio. You stop at a thrift store and pick up a tape, push it in, and are stupefied when Roy Orbison’s voice erupts from the Subaru’s speakers. Back at home, you search for the long-silent cassettes and find them, six of them, nested inside a blue and brown Chapel Hill Toffee box.

You’ve brought the box with you, and after navigating backward without running into a crepe myrtle and shifting into drive, you choose a tape. A woman’s voice begins describing the cassette’s contents, and you think, “That’s me.” A moment later, you realize you are, instead, hearing your mother’s voice. She made the recording in 1998 and has included a road trip with Michael, his visit with Nana, and brother Joseph’s tour of Auschwitz.

When you tell your mom, while chopping greens, about how you confused her voice with yours, she starts singing. “We are Siamese if you please… “The effort makes her cough. You lower the volume and continue cutting out collard stems with a short, sharp knife, stacking the leaves on the far side of the board. She recovers and says, “Remember that? We used to sing it together on City Island.”

“Oh yes,” you say, as you always do. Sometimes you sing along, but not today.

She tells you that people couldn’t tell your voices apart when you sang together, a detail that seems new to you. Time has a way of bending memories.

It begins to snow, and your phone rings. Shelley is on her way home from Apex with time to chat. You tell her how you discovered the tape deck and mistook your mother’s voice for your own. How old was she?” she asks, and you know the answer without counting. “My age, exactly.” You stare out the window at the falling snow.

There is a place in that same tape where your brother, Michael, is talking to Nana in the nursing home. You lean in towards the console even though you know the sound is coming from the speakers near your feet, trying to discern the muzak-muddled words. “You look the same,” he tells her. “You always look the same.” Her response is inaudible. He continues talking, amicable, cheerful, philosophically nostalgic. “Even though I’ve changed,” he says, “I’m still the same Mike.”

“Do you remember Camille? She talks about you a lot,” he asks, and straining against your seat belt you hear the familiar croak of Nana’s voice. Now Michael is saying, “They’ve got you tied down or I would take you for a walk.”

Your feel trapped between life and death, suffocated by all those years, and wish you could walk into that gleaming room and set her loose. You remember your last visit to the nursing home, when you got her up and walked those loud and sterile halls together. You look away, out the windshield, wishing you hadn’t moved out west, knowing you couldn’t have played it any other way. Michael starts talking about food, about what a fantastic cook Nana was, and saying that if he lived closer, he’d whip her up some of his famous stew.

You arrive home and pull the car into the garage. You’ve planned the groceries, your social calendar, and menu for a snowy weekend and won’t need to take the car out again until Monday. Leaving the toffee box behind, you walk towards the house, distracted by the echos in your head.

Don’t Look Now

We have reached the pissy part of winter, the cold, unforgiving phase I want to believe won’t happen year after year. “Don’t look at me,” Shelley says, which of course, makes me turn my head. It’s 26 degrees with a breeze — feels like 19 — and she is laughing, only her eyes visible, with a knit hat to her eyelids and her blue-grey scarf up over her nose. I wrestle my red pashmina into service, wishing I had thought of this first.

Although it crossed our minds to weenie out, we are walking early morning laps around Rock Ridge Park. We look like bank robbers, but there is no one to see us, no one dumb enough to trade chapped skin and dry sinuses for chit chat and exercise.

Bob and I get up in the dark and retire in blackness. The sun ditches us before I finish pulling dinner together, so I turn on the lights and pull the drapes. I feel cloistered, but what can you do? My kitchen lights up like a diorama when it’s dark outside, and I prefer no one see me poking around the stove in my fluffy socks and tired flannel. Lit up like this, we look like Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack in their Tralfamadorian zoo cage, only not as young or sexy.

Bob sees me rush to the window and raises an eyebrow, so I let him in on my diorama bias. “You don’t look in people’s windows, do you?” he says, and I have to confess that I do. As a child, I took voyeuristic pleasure in what I glimpsed from the back seat of Dad’s Ford on the way home from Sunday dinner at Nana’s. I entertained myself with stories about the people watching TV, getting ready for bed, and working in their kitchens. Illuminated windows still draw my attention, even when I’m behind the wheel.

Only a few days ago, after a week of open-window weather, I brushed aside willow oak leaves and pushed Cylindra seeds into the loamy soil. I’m not a risk-taker by nature, but the stakes are low. Either they’ll sprout and flourish, or they won’t. We’ve got lots of beet seeds, way more than we’ll use this season. Working my way westward, I planted Detroit Dark beets, May Queen and Buttercrunch lettuce, and smooth-leaf spinach.

We’ll see if they make it. Time will tell. Hopefully, I’ll make it, too, through another dark winter without too many people seeing me at my worst.

Heartspace, a Review

In 1919, when my grandmother went into labor with her first child, the doctor put down his bag and asked her to remove her panties. Horrified, she crossed her legs, pulled up her night shirt, and pointed to her protruding naval. “What do you want with my panties? The baby is coming out here,” she said.

100 years ago, we knew more about how to lay out our loved ones than we knew about giving birth. Now we’ve got it the other way around.

Death is one of those things, perhaps the only one, we will all do and only once. It is final, and solitary, and something we don’t talk about.

Heartspace: Real Life Stories on Death and Dying tackles this problem head-on with honest and true tales of death as told by the survivors. It is a quilt woven from many perspectives. Here is the mother and daughter at vigil in a hand-built cabin, here the father — ninety and counting — in denial, and here the tragic death of a first-born son.

I was a death virgin when death came to my neighborhood. Many of us were, and we were blindsided. We helped each through the process and eventually came to terms with death. My story, along with many others, are in this book.

If you think you might die one day, or know anyone who plans on dying, this book is for you. We owe it to ourselves to get comfortable with the inevitable. Let Heartspace show you the way.

2020 Vision

I open our refrigerator this morning to get out the beans, the rice, the greens — required first meal of the decade — and consider throwing everything out.

In one of Gretchen Rubin’s books, she mentions a woman who completely empties her refrigerator on the first day of the year. No exceptions. Out goes last year capers and ketchup, and all those jars of jelly drabs. No more leftovers, bread, lettuce, or butter.

I love fresh starts, but all those years in The Clean Plate Club, using bread heels to wipe the last bit of stew from my little green bowl, make it impossible for me to waste food to prove a point.

Since moving to the south, Hoppin’ John has become our chosen first meal of the new year. Eat Poor for a Day, Prosper in the New Year, as the saying goes. Rice for riches, peas for peace. This year I made the dish with heirloom Yellow Eye beans from Purcell Mountain Farms, Amy’s delicious hand-harvested wild rice, and collard greens from our backyard garden.

Another way to step forward into this new year is to get out in the woods with my neighbors. Today we’ll define and widen a connector trail that completes a loop around the perimeter of Tami and Lyle’s ample property. Lyle will deploy his tractor. I’ll bring loppers and gloves, and we’ll spend three hours bonding outdoors before walking to their big-windowed home, glowing and spent, for a shared meal.

To round out the day, I’m going to put in writing my intentions, something I do every year, even the non-decade starting ones. A lot of people think resolutions are too constraining, or that they exert pressure where pressure need not be. But drill down, and I usually find that they do have goals, only they don’t want to call them resolutions. Fair enough.

Call it resolutions, intentions, hopes, dreams, or goals, here is my vision for the year ahead:

2020 will be my Year of Anonymity. I will use this year to further retreat from my outward-facing persona and into my inner landscape.

Since retiring in 2019, I have already stepped away from many outside obligations. I’m no longer interested in trying to be someone on social media or in representing anything beyond my little life here with Bob. In 2020 I plan on dwelling in a non-virtual world of my choosing, close to home, focused on polishing a close-to-the-bone, high-quality lifestyle.

As Bob toils away, strapped to his desk in one last, mind-numbing push to feather our retirement nest, I bustle about, growing and cooking real meals, and fluffing pillows. I spend hours deep-diving The New York Times and The Atlantic, gathering fuel for insightful porch-sitting and dam-walking conversations.

Towards those ends, here is my shortlist of 2020 Resolutions:

Daily Sentence, in which I challenge myself to write one stellar sentence describing an event that stands out in my mind from that day.

Analog Sunday, in which I challenge myself to pull out my sketch pad and create something during a day-long browser hiatus.

All the other stuff — the reading list, weight goals, push-ups — none of these need to be pinned down, regulated, managed, or recorded. I’m past that, beyond having to hold myself accountable. 2020 may not just be my year of anonymity; it might kick off a decade of rebellion. I’ll begin by opting out and see where that leads.

May you enjoy a prosperous and self-affirming year, also!

 

Happy Birthday to a 117-Year Old Woman

Dear Nana,

You would have been 117 today, a possibility which wouldn’t have crossed my mind had I not read Neenah Ellis’ If I Live to be 100 – Lessons from the Centenarians, a series of interviews with men, women, and couples between the ages of 100 and 117.

While some of the interviewees were bed-bound or under the care of others, many still lived at home. One woman had feisty red hair that made me think of your stylish cut and color, and this woman got up every day and rowed across the lake behind her house unless the weather got in her way.

Another woman got up every morning and made breakfast for herself and her husband, also 100. “Sadie can’t sleep past six o’clock,” he said and, having timed his wife on the morning of the interview, was able to boast that they had sat down to eat only twelve minutes after he and his wife got out of bed.

I picture you at 117, making your way downstairs to feed the dogs before stepping outside to ponder your gardens. I imagine you sitting in the shade of your plum tree, your fingers idly resting on a canine, or napping in your green chair, the latest copy of Newsweek spread across your lap and the sun spilling from the picture window over your left shoulder. In my mind’s eye, I see you gather a hunk of chives and clip them with your kitchen scissors to snip into a bowl of potato salad.

If I live to be 100, I am reasonably sure that my day will pulse with purpose much the same as yours did. You taught me how to keep everything moving along, high and tight, loosely organized, and comfortable.

Yesterday I met three individuals and my friend, Linda, in her living room. We were there to discuss strategies for Drawdown, a direct line of attack on climate disruption formerly known as climate change or global warming. However you frame it, we desperately need to stop spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and encourage carbon sequestering, or Drawdown. I know you would be front and center regarding this movement, cheering for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg, and encouraging your grandchildren to take action.

As Linda prepared hibiscus tea in the other room, I enjoyed some light, pre-meeting conversation. Talk of tea led to talk of Kool-Aid, which led to mention of Jim Jones’ cult massacre. Emboldened by how quickly we had skidded onto this deliciously thin ice, I noted the absence of Kool-Aid and new sneakers. “I think we’re probably not going to get beamed up today.”

The younger woman in Linda’s living room raised a quizzical eyebrow, and someone explained how the members of Heaven’s Gate in San Diego, dressed in new shoes, swallowed applesauce laced with fatal levels of phenobarbital and left this world in the spring of 1997. We paused, and I peered out Linda’s ceiling-to-floor windows at the pines, imagining the approach of that spaceship, the light growing more intense until we were all suddenly whisked away into the ether.

“Would you be ready if this was the day?” I asked, turning the question over in my mind. In my 30’s I wanted to live forever, but now I’m not so sure. Someone answered, “No, I still have things I need to take care of, so I don’t leave too much of a mess.”

But I could see myself letting go, staunching the flow of my newsfeed with stories of melting glaciers, coastal flooding, war, protests, and political upheaval. But, as long as I’m here, I know my To-Do ticker tape will keep pushing me out of bed every morning. There will be articles to read, letters to write, chives to snip, and in the spring — because summer is coming, there will be garlic to harvest.

Channeling Grandma

In a few weeks, Bob and I will arrive on our daughter’s doorstep and welcome her new baby, Evelyn Fox, to planet earth. She’ll be two months old, born in October to Emily and her husband, Tyler. For a few days, we will fuss over Evie and her older brother, Nolan, and attempt to ease Emily and Tyler’s burden as new parents.

I have vivid memories of my grandmother, my mother’s mother, arriving a day or two before Mom was released from the hospital with her latest newborn. Grandma’s clean, starchy aroma preceded her, and there she would be, her long, white hair pinned up and the crinkle of a smile behind a pair of unadorned wire rims. She would set down her small, smooth-sided suitcase containing a starched white uniform — day-wear for the job ahead.

My younger brother, Johnny, and I would move forward tentatively and give her sturdy stockinged legs a light embrace, our eyes never leaving her avocado-colored bag. After greetings, Grandma would reach down and trigger the scuffed brass locks, lift the lid, and pull out a package of Chicklets. We stood, excitement scarcely contained, hands extended in humble reverence. Shaking the green pillow squares onto her calloused palm, she distributed two each to Johnny and me, and when he was old enough, Bobby — the big kids who knew how to chew gum without swallowing it.

Sufficiently sanctified, molars already at work piercing the candy gum coating, we would wander off to play or do homework depending on the season. Grandma would go upstairs to change out of her traveling clothes, tie on an apron, and get to work, the sound of her white thick-soled shoes reassuring on the gritty kitchen floor.

For a few days, order would assume its rightful place, everyone relaxed and well-fed, while Grandma swept the remnants of chaos from our home. By the time my mother arrived, all would be calm, laundry caught up, and a hearty stew simmering on our four-burner stove. Mom refers to her mother’s postnatal visit persona as “the eye of the hurricane.”

Mom would ritualistically hand the flannel-wrapped child to her mother, and Grandma would peer at him, arching her neck to inspect his fingers and toes. Her smile of approval made Mom glow with pride, Dad hovering casually in a doorway, one eye on the proceedings as was his custom. Grandma would nod at my mother her secret signal of “I’ve got this,” and Mom would sigh in grateful exhaustion and retire to her room.

I have waited a long time to pay my Grandma’s legacy forward. Somehow I missed out on little Nolan’s early days, but soon I hope to make up for that. Inspired by my Grandma, I envision myself cooking and cleaning, homing in on the rhythms of their household, and helping out where help won’t be intrusive.

I imagine Bob and I making it possible for Emily and Tyler to get the rest they so need at this time, while getting to know little Nolan and Evie. We’ll find out what they like to eat and how they like to play. We’ll see what attracts their attention, take them for walks, read them stories, and cook mashed potatoes and gravy.

When it came time for my grandmother to leave, the family would gather around the ’54 Ford Sedan, both women wiping at their eyes. Dad and Grandma would disappear in the direction of the bus station, Mom would go back to bed, and the baby would sleep on for a while before waking.

Johnny and I would stand, blinking at the disappearing car for a minute before turning to each other. Then we would climb the stairs to the room where Grandma had slept and find the bed turned down, sheets freshly laundered, her scent lingering with a sense of calm purpose. As the house below roared back into anarchy, we would find our compensation prize on the nightstand: a pristine box of green chicklets.

Waiting for the Light to Change

I lay in the dark, roiling in the emotions of my last dream. If Bob were to ask, as he does most mornings, I would say, “I dreamed I lost my purse.” If I were in a hurry to get my caffeine fix, I’d stop there and get up. Instead I stretch my legs into our down comforters and dig deeper.

I dreamt that I was standing on a crowded New York sidewalk waiting for the light to change, talking with a tall woman in a long, red cashmere coat that matched her lipstick. I’d met her before and was searching for her name, watching her lips move without hearing her words. A woman on my left, younger and shorter, spoke. What a coincidence, I thought. I know her, too.

I nodded to the woman on my left and glancing right, roped in the woman in red. And then, I surprised myself by pulling out a name: Mary. The three of us were fully engaged now, so I pulled out some earrings and put my black-handled faux alligator purse on a patch of sidewalk, careful not to set it on a wad of chewing gum. We held the shiny baubles up to our ears and inspected each other. Time stalled as the crowd thickened around us.

And then in an instant, the woman on my left stepped on to a bus, the light changed, the tide of human bodies was unleashed, and Mary disappeared. I reached for my purse, and it was gone. I plowed through the river of feet and heads, searching in vain for the woman with the bright red lipstick. I ran back to the corner where we had stood, like a hound that had lost the scent.

My wallet, phone, change purse – everything vanished in an instant. I didn’t even have a quarter for the payphone, so I could call Bob and say, “Quick, cancel my cards.”

Later, in a daylit hotel bathroom that felt exactly like our airy bathroom in the Belizean rain forest, I stood before the mirror, trying to insert an earring into the pocket between a lower canine and my gums. The ornaments resembled top-heavy letter openers. I thought that if I could get three of them in there, they would support each other, like when I wedge multiple serving spoons in the plastic cup that hangs off the side of my dish drainer. One spoon will topple out, but three take up enough space to prevent that.

I wasn’t having much luck. The first earring kept falling out, slicing my gum before I could pick up a second one and wedge it in there. I looked at the blood in the mirror and saw Mary’s red lips, her pale skin framed in dark hair, and her beautiful red coat.

Satisfied with how I’ve rescued the remnants of my dream, I open my eyes. The light is thicker now. I have no idea what this dream was about, but I’m glad I took the time to capture the mood and the colors, even if their meaning eludes me — happy that I waited for the light to change.