I came across her at the grammar school – heard her before I saw her. One of those gruff, grizzly, garrulous voices. She’s shouting at the kids through the high wire fence separating the playground from the street. One boy is summoned and he follows her orders and squeezes his fingers through the fence and meets hers.
‘Give this to my son! Give it to Chris!’
Something shiny is exchanged and the boy lopes across the grounds easily. I walk past her and I wonder how does a woman’s voice get so rough and combative? She stays pressed against the fence and then shouts at her boy ‘Chris! Now you got 50 cents! I’m going! I’m going!’
She catches me at the traffic light and I smile at her. ‘Is he keeping you busy enough?’
She shakes her head ruefully ‘I try so hard to be mad at him, but it’s impossible. I had him late you know. I was 41.’
‘Wow! A real miracle guy.’
‘Yeah, he’s my miracle. I didn’t have nothing, but all my family they had kids and kids.
‘Were you trying?’
‘No! You know how it is? I gave up and all! It’s when you stop trying I guess it happens. I wasn’t even you know, really with his dad by then. My Mom cried when I told her.’
We cross the street and then we stop in order to prolong the story. She’s a great storyteller, but then this is the love story of her life. Every part of her seems stained: her hair dyed too dark, her skin burnt dark under the eyes and the fine lines running into her mouth, her cleavage and over her hands. And there is this great light shining out of her and it’s Chris. ‘And look at him now, he’s built like a quarterback!’ She can’t help but brag.
I’m still thinking of Chris and his Mom as I linger in the vegetable market, sifting through Chilean blueberries, melons and mushy bananas (4 for a dollar!) to freeze for my smoothies. If I was still christian I guess I’d say Chris’s mom was an angel, testifying to me, promising me my baby. But now, half an hour before I have to give a 3 hour lecture on third world approaches to international human rights law, I just think ‘how lovely to see someone so naked in love with their boy.’
There’s my friend serving behind the counter. I know she is my friend because she told me ‘you are my friend.’ When I still taught morning classes I was often the first customer at her till, and this is how we fell in love: commiserating about the dark and the weather, as the Hispanic workers lifted and pushed carts of vegetables, fish and fruit into place. The first compliment she paid me was about my head, perfectly shaped and round, so I could look beautiful even with a boy cut. She turned sideways and said ‘Not Korean. Flat.’ It was true, her head was flat beneath her fine hair. The first gift I gave her was a beaded bracelet my mother had given me. She admired it as I paid and so I slipped it off. She accepted it exactly as a friend should, with an open palm and with hardly a word of thanks. She gives me advice from time to time, to drink beer with my steamed groundnuts and to rub tiger balm into my runner’s knee.
Once, that same winter when we fell in love, she complained about her head. And a few weeks later, I stood before her and saw how pinched her face was. ‘Grace?’ I touched my head. ‘Are you still in pain? Does it still hurt?’ She recoiled from me although she was safe, separated from me by the elevated till a barrier between us. I was frightened that I had hurt us, that I had trespassed and couldn’t retrace my steps. Her face began to collapse as she too lifted her hands and pressed against her ears. She shook her head. No, not the head. She dropped her hands and pressed against her chest, site of the universal heart. ‘My son.’ I closed my eyes, trying to still my own collapse. She waited for me to open my eyes, and then she raised her hands and made the magician’s gesture of releasing a dove gently into the air. We began to cry together, but softly, without abandon, like two women starting their work day, preparing to give orders, discipline others and perform for a judge.