I’m up at 5:00 sharp every morning, work till my clock dings at 9:30, and then it’s off to the Pond. That’s where I like to run, but you need a resident sticker to park out there, so I park at the grocery store lot and then jog over.
When I pulled in yesterday, at about 9:50, two middle-aged men wearing football sweatshirts were standing in front of the liquor store right next to the grocery store. They were conversing animatedly, using their hands a lot, pretending that whatever they were talking about was more important to them than the doors opening at 10:00.
I parked and started across the lot toward the Parkway. I use that quarter of a mile to loosen up, stretching my arms and bouncing my calves a little, but yesterday, before I could quite get going, I saw the woman. Actually, I noticed her car first. It was a “luxury” car, but ten or twelve years old, and its distinctive hood ornament was twisted slightly, like someone had done a poor job of straightening it. It was parked pointing out, instead of pointing in, and the woman was at the wheel, but without her hands on it, and she was sobbing her guts out. She was exploding with grief but, because the windshield was thick, and the windows were rolled up, she was as silent as a fish.
I almost stopped, as I would to help someone who’d fallen, but then quickly understood that I should not. So I pressed forward, being careful to not even look at the woman as I passed. I didn’t stretch or bounce, either, feeling that it would be inappropriate. I just sort of shuffled until I was on the sidewalk, then picked my pace up a little as I headed up to the pedestrian crosswalk.
I crossed the Parkway when the sign changed, then headed around the Pond, and immediately began thinking about the sobbing woman. My first thought was that she’d just received a diagnosis of cancer—maybe not received it at that exact moment, on her cell phone, but that the reality of it had just hit her, or maybe this was her first moment alone with the news, and people cry in cars the same way they sometimes sing there.
No sooner did I have the cancer idea, though, than I decided that I’d probably just had it because of my mother, who was about the same age as this woman, and who got her diagnosis last summer. Not that my mom would have sobbed. Although she’s an endocrinologist, not an oncologist, she knew that her type of cancer responded well to treatment. It wasn’t one of the “bad” ones. My father was also pretty cool about it, and assured me that there was no reason for me to fly 11,000 kilometers, that I should just see her at my New Year’s visit, as usual. By then she was doing well and her prognosis was good. Still, I wished I’d gone.
It’s a fraction over two and a half miles around the Pond, and I either go around once, pretty fast, or twice, at a more moderate pace. Yesterday I decided to go around twice, partly because my work was under control back home, and partly because I wanted more time to think about the sobbing woman.
If it wasn’t cancer, my next theory was that her husband had left her. The woman looked about twice my age—low 50s, I guessed, if you factored out the way her face was twisted with grief—and that was about the right age for it to happen. Divorce is still rare back home, but here … well, a man hits 50 and suddenly decides that he wants to be with someone younger. I’ve heard there’s even a formula for a man to use in selecting a new partner: half his age, plus seven years. So, a 50-year-old man would choose a 32-year-old woman. As a programmer, I liked the idea of a formula, though an eighteen-year difference felt like too much, though I might feel differently if I was fifty.
The divorce theory felt more likely than cancer, and it wasn’t just that the woman was the right age. She was also pudgy in the face, and I thought that could also be part of it — that she’d gotten a bit heavy. Picturing her I remembered that her hair was cropped short, though not as short as my mother’s. So maybe that was part of it, too, that she was somewhat cool and efficient. Her car also had a businesslike feeling — square and solid with tight engineering. I could imagine her husband had decided to look for someone not just younger, or thinner, but someone who was less controlled or controlling.
That got me thinking about my break-up with Lian. She didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, nothing really changed — the relationship just stopped feeling right. If the problem had developed over time, that would have been one thing, but I’d known from the start that she was too straight for me. I’d chosen her because I was lonely and needed to be with someone. Like my friend Jamie said: Lian was Ms. Right Now, not Ms. Right. That would have been OK if she’d gone into it with the same attitude, but that wasn’t the case. Right from the beginning she’d thought that I might be The One. I think she knew how I felt, or didn’t feel, about her but hoped I would grow to love her, or that she could open up and be more what I wanted, but that didn’t work. One evening she dressed more provocatively and it looked silly on her. The night I told her it was over, she sobbed, but not like this woman. Lian was hurt, but she didn’t empty out like the woman in the parking lot. She took it more like my mother took her diagnosis.
Maybe because I felt bad about “dumping” Lian, as Jamie put it, I looked for another explanation, so on my second loop around the Pond I decided that the sobbing woman was an alcoholic. Like the men waiting for the liquor store to open. The timing made sense. It was Monday morning, and liquor stores closed early on Sunday, so if people ran out of booze on Sunday evening they’d be here bright and early on Monday, talking about Sunday’s football games, but mostly needing their first drink of the day. This woman looked like she was from a higher social class than the two men. Judging by the car, she lived in one of the ritzy suburbs across the Pond, but there were plenty of alcoholics in those houses, too, if not more.
Putting the two theories together, I now decided that this was why her husband had left her or, at least, that was the reason he gave—that she was a lush, and refused to seriously address the problem. He was probably a drinker, too, but that wouldn’t stop him from using that as a reason. If anything, it would magnify his complaint.
I pictured the scene. He told her on Sunday night night, and then left. Went to the younger woman. The shock of his leaving caused her to drink whatever was in the house, and need more this morning. But she wasn’t going to stand out front with the football guys. That’s why she was waiting in the car. And why she was so distraught.
Over the last mile and a half I repeated this theory until I was sure it was true. I even came up with a proof. If the sobbing woman’s car was gone when I returned to the parking lot, that would almost surely mean that she’d gone into the liquor store when it opened, gotten what she needed, and left.
I got back to the parking lot at 10:33, and her car was still there. I thought that could mean that she was in the grocery store, but she wasn’t, though I checked all the aisles in both directions. There are a few other stores at that strip-mall, but they’re farther down, and there was no reason why anyone would park where she’d parked to go to one of those stores.
When I came out of the grocery store, her car was still there, so now I thought she must be in the liquor store. Maybe she worked there. Being the age that she was, and with that model of car, I didn’t think she was just an employee. More likely she ran place. But no, if she ran the store she would have had keys and could have gone right in. Also, as a manager, she wouldn’t have taken the chance that one of her employees would see her sobbing in the parking lot. So I went back to my first theory, that she worked there. As a cashier, or maybe as a kind of assistant manager, but not senior enough to have a key. It would make sense that if her husband had left her a few months ago, this was the only job she could get, after years of being a homemaker, even though she had a college education. Maybe she’d also cut her hair at that time, to look more businesslike.
I thought about going in to see if I was right, but I didn’t think I should, especially if she’d noticed me passing in front of her when she was sobbing. I didn’t want her to think I was spying on her. Also, I didn’t necessarily want to know if she was really a cashier or not. I especially didn’t want to know if I was wrong, because I felt like I’d gotten this mystery to a pretty good place, and I had my work to get back to. So I pushed in the clutch and started the car. But then turned it off right away, because I had to know.
As I walked into the liquor store, I looked to my right and there she was, working a register. My heart jumped. Not with alarm, though, but with excitement. I kept walking in, without turning my head. The woman was ringing up a customer, and I was sure she didn’t see me.
I went to the red wine section and picked out a cheap Rioja that I often get. But then I put slid it back into its wood cubby and pulled out a nicer bottle, one that cost three or four times what I usually spend for a bottle. I told myself that it was an experiment. If it didn’t taste all that different from the cheaper wines, then I would know that it didn’t matter, at least to me, or at my age. But if it was rich and wonderful, then maybe I would begin buying more expensive wines, which I could really afford to do, because my work pays pretty well.
I was very nervous as I approached the register in my sweaty tee shirt and shorts. And when the woman turned from her previous customer and made eye contact with me I couldn’t help but react to the shock of seeing her head on, and having her see me. She noticed immediately. First her brown eyes widened, then they narrowed, as she asked herself if I was the same young man who had seen her sobbing earlier. And then her eyes became three-dimensional, let me in, and I could see that she knew the whole story. That I had seen her, that I had thought about her, that I had figured out what had happened, that I had come in to specifically see her, that I’d bought a more expensive bottle of wine because of her. She also knew that I was now thinking that, up close, her short hair looked stylish, not businesslike, and that her little pudginess was fine, that it was sexy. She was also well aware of that other formula, where a 50-year-old woman is allowed to have a man even younger than half her age plus seven.
On my side, I knew that this woman could teach me many things about life, things that my parents had not, by nature, been able to teach me, and that my own nature had so far prevented me from learning on my own. I could say something at this moment. I could say almost anything, and the woman would know what I meant. Or, when I left the store I could leave a note on her windshield, since I knew which car was hers. I would mention the specific bottle of wine I had purchased, and leave her my phone number. When she called, I would ask her if she would like to share the wine with me, and we would drink the wine, and make love, at her house, which overlooked the Pond. And afterward, when she saw me staring out at the water, she would understand what was troubling me.
But of course I did not speak to her in the store, and did not leave a note on her windshield, and will probably not do so tomorrow, either.