What took you so long?

Welcome. I've been waiting for you to show up.

Monday, June 27, 2011

At the Meraj

1. Mrs. Ada Williams is keeping her grandbaby while her daughter goes to work, she tells me, but she is anxious to go home to Louisiana, soon. She is a small pecan-colored woman with mannish white hair and a slow gait, and every afternoon, ostensibly while the grandbaby is asleep, she walks past my yard to the 7-11 on Norman Bridge Road.

I watch her progress until she disappears into the heat shimmer. The purpose of these trips is to buy one six-pack of Natural Light beer, which is all she can carry -- first in one hand and then the other.

Mrs. Ada Williams has been sleeping on the sofa in her daughter’s apartment since the baby’s birth three months ago because her daughter works days and entertains her boyfriend at night.

I have thought about offering her a ride on these sweltering days, but I wonder what the effect would be on that grandbaby if the lonely woman were able to transport a full case of beer.

2. George’s clothes are stained the color of peanut brittle and the tops of his boots are spattered with whitish, raised spots that could be dried caulk. He drives a ’92 Ford Ranger loaded with second-hand tools, ladders and a shade umbrella that once belonged to a country club patio bar.

I’ve seen him once or twice at the 7-11 buying beef jerky sticks and red soda pop with damp dollar bills from his deep overalls pocket.

But the other day, I heard him speak for the first time, asking the kind Indian lady behind the counter if she wanted the store painted or the windows washed. His voice was full of reedy music and his vowels came from across an ocean or two. As I moved in closer to parse his speech, I caught a freshness like spice, or wind, on his skin.

3. The first time I traded at the 7-11, Rashid swiped my VISA card to pay for the gas I'd pumped and the can of icy Red Bull I was going to gulp as soon as I got back to my car.

“Your name is Gita?” he asked with pleasant surprise. “Are you from India?”

No, I told him apologetically, from Canada, but I did know that mine is one of the most common girl’s names in his home country.

Since that exchange, he and the rest of his family have greeted me with trust and smiles, a sharp contrast to the suspicion they offer everyone else.

The other day, Rashid hired George to put bright yellow lettering on the store’s fa├žade, spelling the name ‘MERAJ,’ and we stood out on the curb smoking together, as if we were old friends or as if I were a visiting, lighter-skinned family member.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Leaving My Girl for a While

Marti’s apartment is in the same Peachtree Street building as Elton John’s. It has become such a landmark that now she doesn’t have to give Atlanta airport cab drivers a street number. She just names the building and they take her there. Although well grounded in reality in some ways, my girl is just insecure enough to crave that kind of cachet.
She has invited me over for lunch, which is being provided by Proof of the Pudding catering. The last time Marti cooked, George Bush-the-Father was president.

“Leave your shoes at the door, Hon,” she says. Instantly I know from the Miles Davis on her stereo that this meal will be more liquid than solid, at least on Marti’s part.
Miles slurs a blue note. Marti slurs a word. Misery likes company.

“It’s early for toddies, no?” I lob, as lightly as I can.

“Sun; yardarm; somewhere,” she tosses back.

If this is about what I think it’s about, I want none of it. I came into this world with but a few nursemaid chromosomes. Over the years, I’ve exhausted most of them, and now I have only enough left to care for a plant -- and a succulent at that. Definitely not enough to tend Marti through another heartbreak.

There’s a golden rule of friendship for women in their middle years and, if I can recall correctly, it goes: Listen generously, talk honestly, lend money for rent but not new shoes and take away her car keys after three drinks. Nowhere is it written that you must become an accessory to her bad relationship choices.

This latest married man who lives at a great distance has leeched her energy in that very particular way such men do. He has become more fascinating to her than flesh-and-blood lovers who live in her own sphere. He eats up her store of attention to persons right in front of her (such as me). He keeps her in a constant state of waiting.
I weigh and measure my own expenditures of time and love toward Marti: Large and manifold.
But now, next to him, this stranger, this intruder if I may say it, I am as interesting to her as long division.

Marti sets out two plates on her honed granite breakfast bar and, in her absent mindedness, two knives apiece. I go for the forks while she dishes out the catered hot black bean quesadillas with salad of arugula and romaine, toasted pine nuts and strawberries.
Miles is slurring more notes and I wonder why, in his later years, he remained an icon.
“He wasn’t even trying anymore,” I murmur, but Marti doesn’t hear. She’s half a continent away, wondering what the married man is doing right now, making small involuntary tapping gestures toward her cell phone as if, by morse code, she can will a text message into existence.

My appetite is gone, both for food and for Marti’s soap operas. It has taken me much time to arrive here and understand that there will always be “a situation” and we will always end up seated in a situation room. Sometimes it will be decorated as a restaurant, sometimes a bar, sometimes her darkened bedroom in which she sobs and I comfort. Change the wallpaper. Lower the lights. Bring in the clowns. It will still be life with Marti.

I push back from the sleek granite counter and find my purse and shoes. I whisper “Later, Darling,” and let myself out.

The elevator door opens and I slip in, ignoring the other occupant while catching a glance at myself in the mirrored ceiling. I look resolved.

The elevator music is “Tiny Dancer,” by Elton John. It occurs to me that the building management has arranged this on purpose, to remind visitors of their most famous tenant.

“Kind of an old song, eh?” says the short man in the large sunglasses behind me. “Bit tired of that one, to tell ya the truth.”

I smile, resisting the urge to turn around.

“Yeah,” I say, “but not to worry. It’ll stay a classic. The world is full of fragile women."