What If There Is a Hidden World
That We Can’t See?
by Eleanor Lerman
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2,
3, 4, 5, 6, 7
I was up early the next day because I had a long way to go. Around six-thirty in the morning, there was a municipal bus that stopped a few blocks away and then traveled down the peninsula and over a bridge, where it passed through some of the tonier towns of Long Island. I was headed for East Isle, where I worked a split week behind the counter of a specialty food shop that always included one weekend day.
This week, my day was Sunday, when people started coming in for breakfast as soon as we opened. I had to be there by seven-thirty, no ifs, ands or buts.
That early on a Sunday morning all the people on the bus — myself included — were low-level service workers. We were headed to shops and diners, laundries and cab companies. Every one of us already looked tired; we were dressed in clothes that never seemed right for the season and shoes that had seen better days. And every time I got on this bus and became the person who smeared cream cheese on bagels and stuffed muffins into a paper bag at the East Isle Bakery Café,
I felt a little more removed from my former life: from the career I no longer had; the people I no longer saw because, as it turned out, they were more work buddies than real friends; from my comfortable apartment in a Queens high-rise that afforded a view of the river and the city that had always been my destination, the city in which I had been successful until the day I was not.
And on the bus I felt old: I was fifty-five, and the only job I could find was not only minimum wage, it was both boring and exhausting, which was a really bad combination. I guess I should have expected that this was going to happen.
The so-called career counselor that had been provided by my former employer after they laid me off had been professionally optimistic but in an off-the-record kind of way personally blunt: I was good at the kind of media relations work I did, but someone half my age could probably do it just as well and bring more bells and whistles to the task in terms of technology and skill with social media. And, they wouldn’t tax the resources of their health insurance plan by needing anything more than basic medical and dental care. No bone-density scans or mammograms yet; no colonoscopies, no shingles vaccines.
The only antidote I’d found, so far, to how bad I felt about my situation was to go surfing. It kept me in decent enough physical shape to prevent me from totally falling apart, and it required a lot of concentration. When I was out in the water, I didn’t think about much except what my brain was supposed to tell my body to do when the next wave broke. Sometimes, if I really got into a zone, I could go all Zen and mindlessly ride the swells until I suddenly found myself on my feet, trying to stay there until I was close enough to shore to jump off and paddle back out again.
But all that was before what this morning, on the bus, I found myself thinking of as my experience, what had happened to me yesterday. It didn’t seem any less weird today than it had when I was on my knees on the beach, panting for breath.
I didn’t particularly want to think about that. I picked up a copy of yesterday’s Daily News that someone had left on the seat next to me and did the crossword puzzle. It was easy; most of the clues were based on TV shows and these days, I watched a lot of TV.
* * *
The bus finally left me off on Main Street in East Isle, a six-block stretch of shops, restaurants, clothing stores, and boutiques with matched awnings and cream-colored brick fronts. East Isle, with its marinas and country clubs, was a decidedly upscale enclave; arriving here sometimes made me feel like I had left a plague zone and was being temporarily admitted to a country where I had no place except as a servant.
I walked from the bus stop to the café under a sky of mixed sun and clouds. There was a freshening wind coming in from south; Bobby was going to have the good surfing weather he had been looking for if he went out today. And, no matter what, he wouldn’t have to violate the prime directive: he was more sociable than me and would be happy enough to join whatever lineup was forming out by the breakers, whether it included local surfers he already knew or not.
As soon as I got to the café and tied on my apron, I was busy. The first customers were mostly men; fathers picking up the Sunday morning bagels and lox and sandwich spreads for the family, but women started showing up soon after, along with couples and bunches of teenagers. I hated them all.
Of course, they didn’t deserve that from me. Maybe they were all-okay, mostly. A little on the snobby side; a little too well dressed for a Sunday morning in their DKNY and Ralph Lauren gear; a little too well manicured and perfectly casually coiffed; and often more than a little condescending to the counter help, namely, me.
But still. I knew that my problem with them was more what they represented than what they really were. At least I was still capable of that, of some self-awareness. I knew there was a class thing going on here with me. This job was the kind of after-school work I did when I was a teenager because my family didn’t have any money. If I wanted something like a new pair of jeans or a record album, I had to buy it myself.
So here I was, in way, back where I started: the poor girl catering to the rich people. And I resented it. But there was more going on than that: when I looked at these seemingly content, carefully tended men and women I saw what I once aspired to, what I had almost achieved, and — as my bus rides constantly reminded me — what I had lost.
And yet, this morning, as I sliced cheese and scooped salads into plastic containers, some thought process that must have been working its way through the back alleys of my mind seemed to harden suddenly into one cold, sharp, and seemingly indelible idea: that even if I was magically given the chance to have everything that had changed in my life over the past year and put back the way it was, I would probably turn down the offer.
It was too far away from me now, too disconnected for me to feel that I could ever really be, again, the person that I had been. This notion was so profoundly troubling that it stopped me in my tracks, and I found myself standing completely still, staring at my reflection in the round steel blade of the slicer.
If it wasn’t my old life I wanted back, then what? Had my soul and psyche — if, in fact, I possessed such things — been rubbed so raw on my downward slide that I couldn’t even figure out what I wanted anymore? Or maybe I thought I wasn’t entitled to want anything at all?
“Christine!” my boss yelled, seeing me standing idle at the slicing machine. “There are people waiting!”
Quickly, I resumed my task, wrapping the cheese in waxed paper and handing it over to my customer, who accepted it with an exaggerated sigh of irritation and walked away. I took the next order but my interior dialogue continued. Again I wondered, was I really that lost? Really that far from hope?
I was almost ready to let my anger answer for me, and it was ready to say yes, when I was distracted by a group of girls who pushed open the front door and walked in, laughing and talking too loud because they all had earphones pumping music into their heads. But it really wasn’t so much the girls who I found myself watching even as I went back to filling orders, it was the man who followed behind them, putting up his hand to stop the glass door just before it swung shut.
At first glance, he seemed fairly ordinary, just a guy with a thin face and sandy hair, dressed in a tan windbreaker, jeans, a pair of scuffed brown boots. But what kept my gaze riveted on him was the look on his face. There was just something about it, a kind of fixed, deeply focused attention that was directed at something he was seeing or looking for, something off in some middle distance that had nothing to do with anything in the store.
He paced slowly back and forth a few times, up and down the length of the store, always with that same look on his face, that same stare directed at nothing that I could identify. No one else seemed to notice him. He walked past people without anyone so much as seeming to feel the air move around them.
Finally, he made one last circuit of the store and began moving back towards the door. I thought he was going to leave but then, just before he did, he turned and looked at me. Or at least, I thought he was looking in my direction and as he did, I believed that I saw some small change in his features, as if he was registering the fact that something, or someone, was in his field of vision. And then he walked out the door.
I thought the man’s behavior was odd, and I almost said something about it to one of the other workers who was nearby, helping at the counter, but I didn’t. I wasn’t sure, anyway, what I would have said.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Eleanor Lerman