May 31, 2011

afraid of what we're made of

I saw the peek of lime green in the mirror before I turned around to take a better look. Arched over a generously bent spine, the polyester lime green blazer against stark white modern architecture grabbed my eye.

"Shit. Ruth alert," I muttered to my co-worker.
"No," she looked at me, no smiles. "Not today. Not fucking today. I can't..."
I shrugged. I leaned over to catch the reflection. Still the crescent of a hump, hinting at her impending arrival.

Ruth is probably the oldest upright person alive that I've come in contact with, personally. That she is still respirating and forms coherent sentences and shuffles herself around Soho (for all intents and purposes, just to keep up said activities in themselves), is a wonder to me not unlike patterns of bee mating or wooden roller coasters. Barely four and a half feet tall, she is the image of the Fear of Death. Decrepit dressed up in a century's worth of industrial-strength mortality. I think I can see the cells breaking down in her face when she talks, spittle trailing with ever more emphasis when you really get her going. Her teeth with ample saliva bubbling between them, the crooked tombstones lining her gums. There's a perpetually open wound, like some sort of scab that's given up healing itself, on her left cheek. Perhaps she keeps scratching at it. At this point it's become a crater about the size of a pencil eraser, the color of dull rust. She doesn't bother doing anything with the maybe four dozen strands of wily white hair that still cling to her skull, hanging limply past her ears.
It hurts to look at her, is what I mean. I'm frightened. Death in a lime green polyester blazer.

But she is sweet, Ruth. Nothing but kind words and flattery for us. She totters over, beckoning the barista to hold her hand as she approaches. I give my coworker apologetic eyebrows because there is nothing we can do. She will arrive and she will fuss over us and get in our faces and not take no, and there's nothing much we can do about it other than kill her probably.

"Oh, it's you!" Ruth exclaims to my coworker. I'm relatively new in the saga of her visits, so I'm often overlooked. "I'm not well! I've been very ill!" She sighs. "But you look so lovely, the both of you!"
I pull my lips thin and smile, looking into her hazel eyes, still watery and curious.

"I know, you haven't been well," my coworker coos. "It's so hot out, you should be at home resting."
"Oh no no no," Ruth waves the words like smoke from her face. "I simply can't stay inside! And I haven't visited with you in so long, I miss you!"

"We miss you too, Ruth," she says.
"And my husband just passed away!" Ruth includes. "He was such a good man. I'm all alone now."
"Yes, we remember. We're very sad for your loss."

Ruth searches the counter in front of her, putting her hands palm down to gain her bearings. She looks at me, noticing that I've been standing there for the first time.
"And who is this? You're a new one!" She smiles. "And very pretty indeed!"

"Aw thanks, Ruth. We've met before though. A while ago," I tell her.
"Yes, she's been here for almost a year," my coworker chimes in.
"My dear, has it been that long?"
"Uh... yup," I say. "That's okay, I'm not around so often as these guys."
"Well you're lovely and I can tell you're very good friends," Ruth says to me, gesturing to the both of us.  I smile and nod.

She asks for a bag to hold her newspaper and complains that the handles are cutting into her skin. She asks my coworker to hold her hands as she speaks with her, leaning in conspiratorially for what a 100 year old woman would consider "girl talk."

Ruth can be trusted to do a handful of things on her visits. One is to ask for a bag to hold whatever it is she's carrying. Another, is to talk about her dead husband. And the other thing is to touch some part of your body when she's talking to you. Your hands if you're lucky, but a cheek caress or combing her fingers through your hair is not an uncommon gesture of hers. The idea gives all of us chills. I had my hair up that day.

I started to tune out, after she grabbed my coworker's hands across the table in between them. I was off the hook.

"... If I didn't have you guys I would just sit at home sad all day. Since my husband passed away, all I have are my friends," Ruth continued.

The idea that a couple of disgruntled store employees are what she calls friends, compels me to near suicidal sentiments. How does a person find a purpose for going on when their only daily respite is a conversation shared with someone who considers it some sort of spooky burden? I would pity her if it wasn't for the next thing she said that explained everything.

"... Sometimes I visit him in my dreams, or he in mine. Each other's dreams! I love that man and he loves  me and that's all there is to it. I will always love him and he will always love me."

If there's one thing you can attest about a dead man who died before he stopped loving someone, you can pretty much confidently argue that he will always love that person. Like, forever I mean.

Staring at this ancient and possibly senile woman who has lived so long that she's starting to take on the shape and texture of tree bark in preparation for returning to the earth from whence she came, I can't fault her for at least living a romantically fulfilled life.

In her day, with a wardrobe filled with all the tropical-colored blazers Bloomingdales had to offer, and some brightly collegiate approach to posh metropolitan living (at some point it came out that she published several books, on what I don't know) and her husband for better or worse, Ruth had achieved the best possible scenario that most of the disenchanted shop girls can hope for in this life we choose to cultivate in a pathologically lonely city teeming with all kinds of antagonistic pressures upon some skewed American dream that keeps us in this station.

She has the kind of love that she believes transcends death. The myth and the marrow. How could you be afraid of anything ever again, with that in your pocket?

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