Wraparound Skirts

Leah Browning

Well into the ’80s, I used to run into her at the organic food co-op near my house, buying tofu and broccoli and bottles of sparkling water. She’d become very thin, and so pale that she seemed almost ghostly. She wandered up and down the aisles in her leotards with the layers of bracelets and beaded necklaces and wraparound skirts. At home, she was always barefoot, painting and watering her plants, but when I saw her out she had strapped on some chunky sandals and sometimes a hand-knitted scarf, even in hot weather.

We had known each other years earlier, when our boys were toddlers, and we attended a storytime at the public library. We were both bored at home, isolated, and we bonded over that. She invited me to her house for egg salad that she made fresh, with eggs from the hens she kept in her back yard. Her son didn’t wear a diaper at home—he was also free-range—and more than once we ended up on our hands and knees scrubbing the carpet, but it was one of those things that’s funny, when you’re not alone.

After the boys entered kindergarten, I went back to work full-time and mostly lost track of her. Now Mark was in high school and I barely saw him either, between Speech and Debate and junior ROTC. Her marriage had imploded and as soon as he was old enough, her son chose to go live with his father. Or so I’d heard. They said he was kind of a burnout.

I was divorced, too, but probably for different reasons.

How had it been so long since we were both new mothers? Time is a funny thing.

We ran into each other at the cold case. She was standing in front of the soy milk, looked pensive. “I’m worried about the hormones,” she said. “What do you think?”

Neither one of us mentioned the boys. She followed me to the checkout.

We said goodbye in the parking lot, but then her old Volvo wouldn’t start, even after we tried to jump-start it. I placed the cables back in my trunk. She looked mournfully at her car. It was rush hour, dinnertime.

“I can drive you home,” I said. Something about being near her made me feel as if I were being absorbed by quicksand.

“You don’t have to do that,” she said, and touched my arm. Her hands were very cold.

She was living in a crumbling apartment on the edge of town, under a large tree, at the top of a set of exterior concrete stairs with open risers and improbably close to the tennis court. Inside, there were plants everywhere, almost crowding out the sparse wooden furniture. On the counter was a fresh loaf of banana bread, and I knew her well enough to know that it had been made with stone-ground whole wheat and raw honey.

We sat at the table and drank tea. There was a guitar on a bench nearby, but she didn’t pick it up. Her hair was still long and pale and so straight that it might have been ironed. Sitting among all of the plants with the strands of beads and layered skirts, she seemed like a relic from an earlier time, and I began to feel a little sorry for her, as if she’d been left behind. At a work party, in the bathroom, one of the secretaries from my office had offered me cocaine. I hadn’t tried any, but still. I could have.

There were no photographs of her son, or anyone, and I couldn’t remember if she had ever talked about her childhood or other friends. There was a blank space in my mind when I tried to recall the conversations we used to have, but then it came back. Sleep, food, the pursuit of certain soft puppets. Everything had revolved around the children. It had been a different life, it seemed to me now.

I touched my eye and a bit of makeup rubbed off on my fingers. She shifted in her seat, and the beads clicked against one another.

Lunch had been a quick sandwich at my desk. I was suddenly ravenous.

She leaned forward and put her cold hands on mine. “I can help you,” she said, and I struggled to remember what we’d been talking about. Her eyes, once blue, were a clear, bottomless lake, pulling me under.

All I could think of was a restaurant steak, with a pat of butter and hand-cut fries, and my television, lifeless until I snapped it on and it sprang flamboyantly back to itself, restored. I was nothing like her, I was trying to tell myself, but still, looking into her face was like looking into a mirror.

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