March 27, 2001
by Debbie Lindsey
When did I begin to look more like my mother and less like the girl in my high school yearbook? I am not alone in my insecurities. This impending soiree designed to celebrate the class of '72's collective mid-age crisis has everyone pausing before bathroom mirrors eager to glimpse a reminder of youth.
I will be retaining fluid the night of my class reunion. My monthly bout with womanhood will render me bloated and grimacing as my ovaries are attacked by what feels like a pack of wild dogs. I will spend most of my evening digging inside my purse for tampons -- just how many can you fit inside an evening bag?
If lucky, folks will be too enthralled by the chronic hormonally induced pimple on my chin to notice my response to the question, "So what do you do?" If not so lucky, they will regain concentration in time to hear "... waitress at Vat-O-Gumbo", but will have missed the "... and I've been writing for a local publication and intend to be involved in the next Mayoral election..." Yep, they will hear only the word WAITRESS and visions of a gum chewin', slang slingin', high school drop out in grease stained polyester will emerge before their eyes. Which brings me to the next problem -- I did drop out. Will I be escorted out by security? Is there some outstanding warrant for my arrest by the three squad cars called to campus the day of the illegal sing-along and third shift lunch violation. I liked to attend all three lunch periods despite the interference it gave my Algebra and Spanish classes. O.K., I neglected to mention my subversive behavior as a hippie and my rather liberal use of certain words that depicted my school principal in various stages of sexual intimacy.
My image as diner trash will be assured as I arrive by Greyhound. Riding the Grey "Dog" is a humbling experience -- the taxi driver's look of disdain when you say: "To the bus station, please" hobbles your pride. It is not flattering to be regarded as bus trash by a man in need of a bath, whose cab is adorned with a wild cherry scented deodorizer Jesus swinging from the rearview mirror amid sun-bleached Mardi Gras beads.
Packing my anticipation along with enough make-up to nudge time back 25 years I braced myself for the journey. I began to feel optimistic as my cheerful taxi driver, a real talker, entertained me with stories of his father's indictment over a little video poker misunderstanding.
I arrived at the bus station with time to indulge in the ambience of the Greyhound dining facility. A mere one dollar tip to the coffee counter cashier elevated my financial stature. Apparently this was her first gratuity in sometime and I became her new best friend. Still enjoying my feigned status as a wealthy world traveler I settled down with a Wall Street Journal I found left behind in the taxi. My bench companion was a slightly restless man with a southern drawl common to men in seersucker. This gentleman lamented to no one in particular that "New Orleans is a rough city you know... That's where they have the Mardi Gras you know..." Then there was talk, again to no one in particular, of lost luggage, a gun, and kindly assistance from someone who "...Looks like Sammy Davis Jr., you know, but he's not, he's the bus driver...could pass for Sammy Davis Jr." I began to hope that Sammy Davis would be my driver but they were bound for Baton Rouge -- poor driver.
My driver was no Mr. Davis -- his skin was whiter than his teeth and his short sleeves were rolled up twice at the cuff suggesting an ample supply of more paleness. He welcomed me aboard "his" bus as if I were a dinner guest at his home. If he could pretend so could I. I settled into a Lazy Boy recliner rather than a stained seat with a broken recliner latch and duct tape upholstery repairs. The smells of potted meats and chicken wings magically became orange glazed pork roast while the canned soft drinks changed to fine wines. I was grateful for the bus driverís hospitality.
We traveled along highways that lead to a place I generally preferred leaving. I realized that even as a fetus I knew I wanted to leave my hometown and the years lived there only strengthened this desire. So, when I finally left Mobile at age 34, 1 did so with the enthusiastic rebellion of a teenager going off to college. The hometown apron strings were long ago frayed when I cut them. While I raced across state lines to my new home I did not notice the roots I left behind and would not see them sprouting until after my parents died. Sentimentality is often born in death.
The "Grey Dog" handed me over to Mobile on schedule and smelling of disinfectant and fried chicken. My girlfriend, Sylvia, was enduring the ambience of the bus station when I arrived. We saved our hellos for her car and quickly left.
In need of some fresh air and open space I decided to visit Mom. The chances of Mom lingering about a dreary graveyard with a bunch of strangers were slim. She most likely would be with Dad, whose ashes were retired off the pier of a beachfront resort. Why not spend eternity vacationing? Yet, this place made Mom seem accessible. While not cheerful and mainly symbolic, the cemetery does offer tangibility.
I must admit discomfort in seeing my family name -- my name -- on a head stone. No time to dwell on this, I had much to catch Mom up on. Settling down I leaned back against the marble and chattered away. After much gossip, kisses, and pats to the headstone my friend pointed towards another marker to my right saying, "Isn't your mom's name Veronica?" Once again I had embarrassed my poor mother. I apologized to whoever I was sitting on and sheepishly started over again... with Mom this time.
That evening I swapped a cemetery for a jazz bistro in my attempts to resurrect the past. Sylvia and I journeyed through our high school yearbooks with her leading the way. She remembered all that I had forgotten. I felt more of a connection with the bartender than the faces I spent four years with. I was a stranger to my past. It was at this moment of memory lapse that the jazz trio began their performance with John Coltrane's rendition of "My Favorite Things." Twenty-six years ago my love affair with jazz and with my high school sweetheart began with that piece of music. I was no longer sitting in a bar with Sylvia -- I was in Russell's yellow Formica kitchen enjoying his parents absence, left over pot roast, and borrowed music from the transistor radio. My tie-dyed shirt, freshly homemade and still damp, was slowly turning my skin purple as it did my mom's washing machine earlier that day. That purple dye would continue to haunt my family's laundry all summer long. Listening to the trio, the years began to slip from me just as my clothes had that night for the thrill of newly discovered sex. In remembering Russell, more faces were reintroduced to me. Russell would not attend this reunion, nor did he attend his own the previous year. Before the weekend was over I would discover that suicide had made him a permanent neighbor of my mother. To my parents' chagrin, Russell had been the recipient of my virginity -- I hoped that would not be an embarrassment in the Hereafter.
Despite being escorted by John Coltrane into my memories, I still felt like a stranger among the ghost of my past. So, by the time Saturday night came I was feeling like the date you drag to these affairs -- detached and bored. I was standing before the hotel mirror once more trying to will a more youthful face when Sylvia arrived. She joined my reflection and we observed the montage before us. Together we saw the hit and run of drugs; battles lost then won with alcohol; too much sex and too little sex; pregnancies wanted and unwanted. There was an unspoken knowledge that as we stood looking more battles were brewing: Cells playing cloak and dagger with cancer and hormones on the brink of betrayal. And that is when I saw it: The strength. We no longer looked like naive tourists in a foreign land. We were locals; we had earned our residency in life. We looked pretty damn good and were ready to give "time" a kick in the rear.
That night we kicked time until it stilled. The frats and the hippies, the jocks and nerds swapped photos of children, tales of careers and memories of youth. We shared compliments and cocktails with promises to do this all again in five years.
The next morning, eager to return to the quirks of the Quarter, I dressed in my favorite thrift store apparel -- a faded black dress, so inappropriate for Mobile, so perfect for me. My taxi would arrive soon. While packing my clothes I packed memories to accompany me. My hometown may be bland but I figured a little white rice always compliments a spicy meal.
It was Sunday morning and downtown was quiet in a way the Quarter never is -- this I would miss. The taxi pulled up to the Grey "Dog" terminal with its moat of cigarette smokers. Those long awaited cigarettes were being bummed, lit, and sucked on with great passion. The taxi driver let me out and said he'd hoped I'd enjoyed my stay. I was surprised to hear the sincerity in my "Yes".
Once inside the terminal -- an annex to Hell itself -- I looked about for a seersucker suit or someone to distract me until my "limo" arrived. My full attention then fell upon a familiar farewell.
A woman in her twenties was saying goodbye to her parents -- a goodbye the daughter took so casually; a goodbye the parents took so seriously. They would miss her more, and knew the value of limited time. She would know this only when too late. Like me, she was always rushing to get on with life, yet stepping over it to get there -- never pausing to see it.
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