There’s time to think about the life that comes
after the tanning bed. Instead of cancer
and blue light, the August heat will gust
in from the parking lot, tremulous, through
the waiting room, the long slow afternoon.
I won’t be naked in a box full of lightbulbs,
the heavy lid just inches from my nose,
or dozing in a strip mall, a thin-walled stall
that holds the machine and the timer.
The digits wink down to the future when
I'm out. I will race to get dressed.
The present still pressed between hot glass,
The door chime clatters in my wake.
In minutes, I’ll fly past shoppers
at the grocery store. They are standing still
as I weave a cart around their clusters, their lists.
Meanwhile I am unbelievably raising my arms
overhead to pinken in the warm embrace,
practicing for the mammograms, the MRIs
I’ll have someday. Scan here and here.
Miss young and proper and just breaking a sweat
in this room with a number on the door.
There’s time to think about the life that comes
When I can’t write, I dream. Then I write my dream:
1. My dog scratched up my scalp and face. She didn’t mean to. I debated going to the emergency room. The scratches weren’t bleeding and were hidden by my hair.
2. The hospital was in midtown Manhattan. The nurses were lined up behind plexiglass teller windows. At first, they wouldn’t admit me because my driver license had expired.
3. I decided to use my time in the waiting room cramming for two college finals that I somehow needed to retake: Calculus and the Novels of Jane Austen.
4. I picked a name for my unborn daughter: Hera. Sure it has some negative connotations, but I’d tell her only the good stuff about Hera. “You’re the queen of the Gods,” I would say.
5. In the interest of accessibility, the hospital had no stairs, only long tiled ramps of dark chocolate brick. These long ramps made me more tired and slow, somehow, than stairs.
6. Then I had sex with my uncle in the waiting room.
This was like a "Greatest Hits" of all my nightmares: test-taking, incest, bureaucracy, pregnancy and weird architecture.
The kids across the street, they know what goes on. Five of them, chanting, “Lemonade for Sale,” they come running like they’ve been waiting for me all day. Cynthia and Miguel and their prim little cousins from Oklahoma.
“Its a hundred degrees out here, you know that?” I said. They were already crossing the pavement, barefooted, carefully bringing me a thin plastic cup. Yesterday I peed into a cup and it looked like this.
“Don’t drink it!” shouted the oldest. “Its nasty!” But even he crossed the street to see me.
The little ones crowed, “It's good!”
“Don’t drink it!” he said again.
I drank it. The lemonade was warm and sweet— the only flavor of Kool-Aid I can bear. Granny used to mix it in a scuffed crystal pitcher and let me turn the wooden spoon.
“What did you put in here?” I asked. “Did you poison it? Did you spit in it?”
“Nooo,” they giggled. I paid them with two quarters.
There was a green tarp strapped over the neighbor’s car. It filled with the hot breeze and lifted.
“Look at that.” I said. It hovered and strained against the twine. “We put that tarp on there because her windows are down.”
“She don’t have the keys,” said Miguel.
“Where is she?” asked the cousin.
“She’s sick.” He is thirteen and he thinks he’s grown.
“She’s in the hospital,” I said.
“In the head,” he insisted.
“She’s just old,” I said. “She needs someone to take care of her.”
“In a nursing home?” says Joseline. She’s so small, I forget she’s ten. Not a baby. Why do I lie to kids?
My other neighbor opens her door a crack and waves a dollar bill. “Y’all selling lemonade?” she croons.
They scream with delight and run to fetch the money. I’m free to get out of the driveway and into some AC.
The last thing I see is Joseline’s mother yelling for them to come inside this instant. They are visiting from Oklahoma, but they already know the story. One neighbor is sick in the head, the other is even worse. Where did they get the idea to sell lemonade? They know this isn’t that kind of neighborhood.
Twice in one night I got called “lady.”
I was standing in the Kroger parking lot on Metropolitan gawking at a minor car wreck. A small white 4-door had turned the corner way too fast and jumped the curb. It plowed up the sidewalk and landed with an awful cha-chunk on an elevated concrete manhole. I think. What did it land on? It was hard to tell. All four wheels, no three, no four again, were suspended above the ground.
It was like seeing a rainbow. I needed to share it with someone, anyone. The driver of the car tried reversing, then revving the engine. This only caused the wheels to spin stupidly in the air and the car to wobble on its mount. It was bad to laugh, but I laughed. I scanned the parking lot for fellow witnesses, someone who might have a clue what to do.
“Excuse me,” said a voice behind me. “Can you tell me the way to Buckhead?”
“Oh my God. Did you see that?” I said.
Here was a skinny young Mexican guy with braces. He had not seen the accident so I gave him the eyewitness account. Meanwhile, the driver and his family descended their dangling Taurus and three Burger King employees started across the asphalt. Maybe they were planning to lift the car?
The kid, Arturo was his name, was mostly unphased. He was anxious to find the Marta station and get back to Buckhead.
Feeling guilty maybe, about the stranded family and their busted up Taurus, I offered Arturo a ride. “You’re not going to kill me, are you?” I said. “I’ve got a hammer.”
He giggled. “Oh no!”
I asked him questions as we headed towards Stumptown and he answered in broken, lisping English. He was starting at Emory next month. His mother was in Mexico, his father in Brazil. Near University Ave, I heard him on his cell phone telling his roommate, “This nice lady is giving me a ride.” That’s funny, I thought. I’m a nice lady, giving him a ride. He probably would’ve got mugged on Marta.
Later that night I drove deep into Kennesaw, down a dirt road searching for a stranger’s house. “Billie” and I had arranged a transaction on Craigslist and because of my detour with Arturo, it was now dark. I hadn’t expected the dirt road, the series of ramshackle trailers and outbuildings. Where am I? I thought. Lord. Again, I was thankful for the hammer.
I was met by Samuel, a stocky Mexican dude with his name sewn on his shirt. He introduced himself and Pedro the chihuahua.
“Billie’s not here,” he said, “She went to the store. She said some lady coming by.”
It took me a second to realize that I was “some lady.” Funny how old it made me feel, how detached.
Brandi lives in exile in Virginia. I always tease her about moving back to Stumptown someday. She came in town last weekend for a family event and we had a chance to catch up over black beans and rice on Ponce de Leon Ave.
“Do you run into people from high school a lot?” she asked. Like this is a major consideration when choosing a state of residence.
“Oh no, not really,” I said. “But I do keep in touch with a few people from high school and I see them.”
The real answer to this question is yes. I run into new friends and old strangers so much I hardly notice. Brandi's husband and I went to high school together. I was raised around here. I went to college here. And church. And I married someone from high school and our parents went to the same high school. and our brothers and sisters. You can see how it starts to feel like a very small town, especially if you set foot in a mall or a Wal-Mart. Worlds collide.
For some reason I said, “I don’t really run into anybody. I just go to work and to church and that's it.”
This afternoon I got an invitation to a baby shower for an old girlfriend from high school. Further back, in fact. Nikki and I met in kindergarten and even our Dads were boyhood pals. I didn’t recognize her married name in the return address, but I remembered the blue handwriting on the envelope. (At what age do you study your friends’ penmanship and practice your coolest handwriting? 6th grade? I bet its not just the future typography freaks that do this.)
I last spoke with Nikki at our high school reunion. And before that, it was maybe 6 or 7 years since we talked and even longer since we had anything in common. The invitation struck me as a shameless request for gifts. I tossed it in the trash before it the guilt could set in, but it was too late. I tapped coffee grounds on it, covered it with lemon rinds and soggy paper towels.