I was walking through the mall the other day, memorizing the route, getting ready to be old, when a woman waved from one of the ten thousand shoe stores. “Hey! How have you been?” she bellowed.
“Fine!” I answered, because that’s what you’re supposed to answer. No one wants to hear about your prostate or that battle with the neighbor over the property line or the fact that every single aspect of your decrepit life is going to Hell in a hand basket. That’s not why they ask. They ask because they want to hear you say the word fine. People like hearing that word. “Fine,” I answered.
In truth, I was not doing fine.
I was at the mall.
For me, an ideal shopping day is going out to the backyard, digging a large hole, pulling from the ground an old lamp, rubbing the lamp to make a genie appear, asking for three items from my list then going back into the house where no one cares how I am.
As I said, I’m getting ready to be old.
The woman at the shoe store, not satisfied that I am, indeed, fine, had more questions. Waving me over, she said, “I heard you moved!” There I was, trapped. She had me. Obviously, she was someone I knew, or someone my wife knew or someone my sister knew or someone I went to jail with or someone who listens to the radio show and is delusional and it was becoming more and more apparent that I would not be returning home to where no one cares how I am anytime soon.
God, I hate the mall.
I applied a smile and sauntered past the pumps to look this creature in the eye, as my father taught me lo these many years ago. Nothing. No recognition. No flashbacks to high school. No facial features that rang a bell. I had no idea who this person was and so went post haste into my ultra-polite-and-generic mode.
“It’s been so long!” she said. “How do you like your new place?”
“Great,” I replied. “We really like it.” Who is this person?
“See? I told you you would!”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “You were right.” Who are you?
“We’re thinking about moving,” she offered.
It was a clue. She said “we”. We’re thinking about moving. We. Which one of my married friends had a wife I couldn’t possibly remember meeting? None. Which of my lesbian friends had a lover I couldn’t possibly remember. None. Which of my sister’s lesbian classmates had a cousin who was married to –
“Bob wants to get out of the city. He doesn’t like where we are now.”
He’s not the only one, I thought. Bob. Bob. Bob. How many Bobs do I know and which one of them could possibly be married to this? None. It was hopeless. The worst part of the encounter was that had I walked away after “fine”, I would have been, by that point, back to where no one cared how I was. But it was too late. It had turned into a challenge. And just like Rubik’s Cube, I knew deep down inside I would never be able to solve the puzzle, but my ego demanded I give it a try.
“So, Bob wants to move, huh?” I asked. “I can see that.”
“Oh, yeah,” she answered. “Have you met Bob?”
There comes a point in every one of these random encounters at which a decision must be made. One has to choose between truthfulness and politeness. The honest path would have been to admit that not only had I not met Bob, but I, in fact, did not recall ever meeting whatever this woman’s name might be, per chance.
I chose the other path.
“Oh, sure. You didn’t know?” I asked. “We met at the thing. How is he?”
She answered that he was fine, avoiding any details about his prostate or the border fight with the neighbor. And then she asked the question that would change my entire day. “How’s Andrea?”
I, of course, had no idea how Andrea was, because I, of course, know no one named Andrea. However, this mall person standing before me somehow connected me with Andrea, and whether she was imagining her to be my wife, lover, proctologist or borderless neighbor was unimportant. What was important was that I, indeed, was not as senile as I thought. I did not, do not, never have, known this person or her mall shoe bag.
All bets were hereby off.
I paused for a moment to gather my thoughts.
“You didn’t hear?” I asked somberly.
She placed her hand on my shoulder. “Oh, don’t tell me,” she said, sympathetically.
I looked down at the South Hills Village linoleum. “Yes,” I replied low as I shook my head slowly.
“No!” she protested.
“Yes,” I repeated. And as I turned to walk away, I added, “Ask Bob. He knows all about it. He knows all… about it. All about it.”
As she stared with a puzzled look I walked down the hall toward the Spencer’s Gifts, the exit and my freedom. I gave her a little wave goodbye, whoever she was. And just as I was about to push open the glass barrier that stood between the real world and me I heard her ask, “Have you done something with your hair?”