I’m sitting on a street bench with my baby. It’s a cold, windy day. A lady approaches us …
The first thing I notice is her teeth. You can’t miss them – set at an impossible angle, they reach out towards you and are many colours, none of them white.
Her posture hunched, she sits next to me and immediately starts talking. Her voice is raspy to the point of a whisper and her aura of stale tobacco attests to why. Her face is weathered, but her hair appears so healthy it would look more at home on a younger, better kempt head. In the hand resting on her lap she’s clutching a bus ticket and a packet of rolling papers.
I have a huge caramel and mango ice cream, which I have been shovelling into my suddenly overlarge mouth.
With her sitting beside me I’m uncomfortably aware of a number of things. I have shoes and a warm coat. I have a baby under my protection. I have a huge caramel and mango ice cream, which I have been shovelling into my suddenly overlarge mouth.
Pointing to her take-away cup, I ask her, “Coffee?”
She takes the lid off, and aims the contents at me. Dried froth bubbles stick to the walls of the cup and a wetter froth floats halfway down on a liquid smelling of cold coffee. It’s still sprinkled with chocolate. She recaps the cup. “Milkshake.”
Pointing to my baby daughter, she says, “Beautiful baby.”
She motions to her own mouth and I understand her to say, “Two top teeth, two bottom teeth.” I think she is talking about a baby. Whose? When? Then she motions to her breasts and I notice that she is very flat there. Double mastectomy?
Because we’re talking now, I can study her face more fully. She has a large oddly shaped mole on her nose and another on her cheek and I worry that no-one might have organised to get them checked for melanoma.
I can only imagine her teeth and gums have rotted away
Now she’s showing me her bottom gum. I can only imagine her teeth and gums have rotted away to leave those scars.
“Do you see the government dentists?”
She nods. They wanted to remove her upper teeth, but she wanted to keep them. “I can’t eat hard food”. She looks annoyed, gestures to the bin, or the park, or somewhere in the distance, and complains that it’s all hard food. I keep eating my ice cream out of a sense of duty. I wonder if I should offer it to her, otherwise I want to throw it in the bin but offering a half-eaten ice-cream seems rude and the idea of throwing good food away in front of her feels very very wrong so I hold on to it.
She points to my earrings. “Pretty.”
What manner of violence?
She tells me she has the same, and shows me her ear which has a gold sleeper dangling from a piercing that’s nearly worn through. She shows me her other ear, and it’s empty of jewellery. It’s almost empty of ear: fjords of cartilage dangle where several earrings have been torn away. What manner of violence?
I understand about one tenth of what she says, and she says a lot. She often spells things out for me with a finger on the back of her hand.
She points to my shoes and comments on how comfortable they look. There’s a cold wind and we’re both looking at our feet. Her pink thongs, about six sizes too small, protect only her toes and the pad of her foot from the pavement. My sensible black sneakers, though starting to die, enclose my foot in a warm and cosy shell. I want to offer them to her; I have a new pair at home I haven’t started wearing yet because my feet are still swollen from the pregnancy and these old ones are stretched and comfortable. But I don’t know her size and the length of her toenails prohibits any closed shoe. Who is to deal with those toenails? I look up the street towards the boutique shoe stores and imagine walking inside them with her to shop. I can’t bring myself to do it.
Passersby stare, repulsed, look away, grimace, look disgusted, it seems that they look at me with pity. I smile back to show it’s a choice to be sitting here learning from this interesting lady, but I know: It’s easier to keep moving forward if you’re intent on your destination and pretend not to have seen. When I am the passerby I try to arrange my face to show sympathy and acceptance but it inevitably shows what I am really feeling, which is as much an internal horror at the need to walk by as an external one about their state. Do people in her situation ever stop being hurt by how other people look at them? I know I am still prone to injury from the way someone is looking at me. I worry that no matter what level of charitableness I am truly feeling, the face I show is what people see and tend to judge themselves by. My ‘resting bitch face’ is rather harsh, and there’s been considerable evidence that the face I try to make to convey sympathy makes me instead appear hypercritical. I privately notch up the priority status on self improvement: drama skills, facial control.
A question or conversation point leads her on a winding tale of delight many times, and sometimes she speaks coherently and then looks into the distance and her speech descends into husky unhearable territory. I wonder if they are reminiscences of real or of imagined joys.
I ask her if she has had any lunch today and she talks about some magnificent chocolate cake ‘they’ brought out, and something, and something else. She looks to me for comprehension, perhaps an answer to a direct question, but I haven’t understood and I don’t know how to tell her that I haven’t. So I start new conversations. She always has something to say, something wonderful or painful to remember on each subject.
I am starting to think about how I should best extricate myself.
My ice cream is now sad and melted from avoidance, and I must throw it away. I cover the moment by asking her if she wants me to get her an ice cream. This animates her but leads her to another story and I don’t know if she has understood my question. I need to leave to pick up my son so I am starting to think about how I should best extricate myself.
We talk on one or two more topics and then she reminds me about the ice cream. I have to lean in to find out her flavour choices: “Vanilla, or caramel”. She points to her cup.
My baby daughter and I enter the ice cream store again, and I juggle baby and blanket and wallet and handbag and money and then cup and spoons and napkins. Outside, I hand over the ice cream to her with a napkin and a spoon and put the spares into her top pocket. I don’t sit down again; I’m about to leave.
Now she’s concerned about something. She doesn’t want to take this ice cream from me without offering something in return: I should give some to the beautiful baby.
“Thanks but she can’t eat it. She’s too young.”
“What’s her name?”
She pulls her sleeve up past a tattoo that reads ‘Nina’.
I ask if her name is Nina and she shakes her head, no.
Someone in her life is or was named Nina. Her daughter? A granddaughter? Was she taken away? What has happened to her?
And then it hits me.
And then it hits me. This woman was once a whole person. A whole, beautiful baby girl, just like the one in my arms. Then something happened to her. Probably a lot of things. The skin of her cheek and the wrinkles around her eyes remind me of my mother, and they are probably about the same age. Making that connection is haunting to me because I want my mum to not ever have to suffer like this woman has. And I want this woman to stop suffering; though, shamefully, perhaps more for the sake of her similarities to my mum than for her own sake.
her growing agitation
She offers her ice cream again to “the beautiful baby girl,” but however much I don’t want to offend, I can’t accept. “She can’t, she can only have breastmilk.”
The lady starts getting agitated, and it was already time for me to leave but now her growing agitation, truly adamant that I should give my baby some of her ice cream, has me unsettled about staying.
I say goodbye, and I continue to think about her until I get home. I write it all down, file the story away, and then get on with my life.
something reminds me
Occasionally something reminds me of her: Some link between her and my mother: similar misfortunes that one escaped from relatively unscathed, while the other did not. Or something in the movement of my mum’s jaw when she talks.
I wonder what family she has.
I think about her scarred flesh. I wonder what horrors she has faced and faces still. I wonder what family she has. I think about my own luck in having a husband who not only supported me through my depression, but also is so interested in me and my welfare, and that of our whole family, that he watches me and can recognise signs that all is not well. Does she have mental health problems and minimal or no support?
She arises in my mind when I’m considering what is next for my old shoes. Still ‘comfortable’, but no longer supportive; it’s time for me to wear the new ones. I can’t donate them anywhere, they’re worn away and split. Should I look for her? But her nails were so long. I throw out the shoes.