I’ve had this post written and rewritten almost every day since August but I didn’t want to put it out there because it sounded like bragging. I hate bragging. And none of it sounded true, you know? What she said about me. Or maybe it sounded truer than anything I’d ever heard. Either way, Kevin has been so good lately, until this morning. This morning I don’t care what it sounds like. I’m the woman she said I am. I don’t care what anyone thinks. I have a bite mark on my left hand, all my cereal bowls are broken, and in an hour or so I’ll have a large and painful bruise on my back, so here goes.
I don’t go to Shoprite anymore. I know – it’s very sad. It’s like the end of an era, but I got the Target red card and morphed, instantaneously, into a complete loser. You can get everything there! In addition to steak and soy milk I got age defying eye cream and underpants yesterday! And I saved five percent on all of it by using my redcard!!! Loser. That’s me. Loser.
I hadn’t been to Shoprite all summer but one day Kevin says out of the blue, “We go Shoprite?”
“You want to go to Shoprite?” I asked.
“Yeah go Shoprite get cookie.”
As I glanced at him in the rear view mirror he made what we call the “boo boo lip” with begging hands. It was hysterical. So even though it was 6:30 and I had work to do, I gave in and said OK.
I noticed her the moment I walked in. She clapped eyes on me, and started walking toward me like a long lost friend. She had to have been in her 80s and my first thought was “She has mistaken me for someone she knows,” so I accepted her outstretched hands in mine with an apology already prepared in my head.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“Ma’am I am so sorry I think you must have me confused with someone else?”
“Not at all I’m not THAT old. You’re the girl with all the beautiful redheaded children. And one of them is handicapped.”
“Yes he’s here with me. He’s over at the bakery getting a cookie. And just so you know ma’am, no one uses the term ‘handicapped’ anymore. I’m only telling you because it’s considered offensive and I don’t want anyone to take you the wrong way.”
“Did I offend YOU?”
“Not at all.”
“Thank goodness. Everyone your age seems to be offended all the time about everything, it’s nauseating. When did everyone get so sensitive?”
“I’m not really sure.”
“Well, honestly where have you been I haven’t seen you in ages. You know I started doing my shopping on Sundays despite those terrible crowds just so I could watch you.”
Oh yes. You’ve come so far and I’ve so enjoyed watching it all.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“I remember the first time I saw you. You were so sad. You had all three of those beautiful redheads in one cart and I can remember thinking ‘Where is she going to put the food?!’ And then, how can anyone with such beautiful children look so sad? And then I saw him.”
At this point Kevin returned from the bakery.
“He pointed at something,” she continued her recollection, “and you, you said no and he started banging his head against the handle of the shopping cart and the girls started crying it was just awful to watch. Awful. And I can remember thinking ‘For God’s sake just give him what he wants how can you just let him harm himself that way.’ And you put your arm against his head so he couldn’t hurt himself but still you must have known he was going to behave that way when you said no so why did you say no? All those people were staring at you and you acted as if they weren’t even there. Do you remember that day?”
“I do,” I answered.
“Awful, just awful. Does he still do that?”
“No he hasn’t harmed himself in years.”
“I thought, ‘That poor woman will probably never leave the house again and best she shouldn’t with a child who behaves that way it’s dreadful.’ But the following week there you were! I was amazed. I thought, ‘Is this woman insane? Is she out to make some sort of spectacle of herself? I mean really that poor boy it’s sick it’s just sick what she’s doing parading him around like that. Why not keep him home to do the shopping I know she has a husband this just isn’t necessary.’ And at that exact moment your boy started screaming and he screamed the whole shopping trip. I must have passed you a dozen times and there he was screaming and slapping at you and everyone’s staring and again it was as if no one was there you just kept shopping. It went on like that for close to a year!”
“Was it that long?” I wondered out loud.
“Oh yes, longer I think. I thought you were insane. And then one day I was here with Phyllis – she passed on years ago, kidneys went, she drank like a fish. And I said, ‘Oh that woman is here again I think she’s insane why doesn’t she keep that poor boy at home. I would say she’s doing it for the attention but you know she doesn’t seem to notice all the people staring at her. One time he started banging his head against the cart and the whole store went silent you could hear a pin drop.’ And you know what Phyllis said, she said, ‘I think she’s doing it on purpose.’ And I said, ‘Of course she’s doing it on purpose but why? She could leave him at home for goodness sake or just shop in the evenings when no one’s here but she’s here every Sunday when the crowds are so awful attracting all this attention and for what purpose really?’ And Phyllis said, ‘Because it’s hard.’ Now mind you by this point Phyllis had started drinking in the afternoons so when she said that I thought, ‘Oh for God’s sake Phyllis it’s only 10 a.m. but then she followed it up with, ‘I think she’s purposely bringing him out at the worst possible time because it’s hard. It’s hard for him and it’s hard for her. I think you’re wrong about her. I think she knows everyone is staring at her and she knows exactly what everyone thinks of her. I think she’s embarrassed and afraid and probably depressed but she’s choosing to subject herself to this and you, the people judging her, because it’s very hard and maybe she thinks if she can do it she can do anything. Maybe she thinks if SHE can do anything, HE can do anything.'”
And then she started to cry.
“I thought she was drunk,” she continued. “She was always drunk towards the end, but you know she was right. She was right about you. I’ve watched you every Sunday all these years and she was right about you. It’s a shame she didn’t live to see it.”
And then I started to cry.
“We called you ‘the Shoprite lady,'” she said. “Towards the end, when she got very sick I’d go visit Phyllis in the hospital. She thought we were back in high school, kept asking about that beatnick she used to date, Harry Stevens. Anyway, in those few moments of a clarity she’d ask me, ‘How’s the Shoprite lady?’ And I’d catch her up on all your shenanigans. I’d tell her, ‘Oh Phyllis you should have seen it last week he knocked down an entire display of Christmas cookies and then started throwing them at her. He hit some poor woman in the back of the head! And the Shoprite lady is apologizing, and the woman is saying don’t worry it didn’t hurt meanwhile the girls are trying to pick up the cookies and the little boy is rolling on the floor like he’s been shot screaming “sorry!”‘ And you know what Phyllis said? She said, ‘He talks now?'”
By now this poor woman is sobbing so we had to move to the cafeteria and sit down.
“That was my Phyllis,” the old woman went on. “She only ever saw what really mattered. Everyone in that store including me was watching your boy thinking, ‘What is wrong with that woman her boy is completely out of control!’ but Phyllis, Phyllis would’ve been thinking, ‘He talks now. Isn’t that wonderful.'”
It got quiet again.
“She was my best friend. I’ve tried so hard, watching you all these years to see you the way Phyllis would have. A few days after she died I saw you here and your boy was stumbling like he’d just learned to walk. He had bruises all over and he kept ramming into everything like he was drunk. I thought, ‘What is going on he never walked like that before?’ Honestly he must have fallen a dozen times but he never cried: just got back up and kept trying to walk. And again everyone is staring at you like you’re a child abuser and I’m thinking, ‘Stop drawing all this attention to yourself and put him in the cart for God’s sake.’ But then I thought, ‘I see a boy falling because he can barely walk and his mother isn’t helping him she’s just letting him fall and bang into things. What would Phyllis see?’ And suddenly I realized the leg braces were gone. The leg braces were gone and you were allowing him to learn how to walk without them. So I don’t know where you’ve been shopping but you must come back. I’ve missed you terribly because when I see you, my Phyllis isn’t gone.”
“Wow. Okay,” I said.
“Oh wait I’m moving to Florida next week you can shop wherever you want.”
“Oh thank God. Now that you’re moving to Florida, thank god I can keep shopping at Target. Did you know you can save five percent with your redcard?”
“Oh my. Does it have to be red? I think all my credit cards are blue.”
“Um, well, it’s kind of a long story but thank you. Thank you for telling me about Phyllis.”
“You know what she would say?”
“She’d say isn’t it wonderful that the Shoprite lady was gone for so long. You never would have found the courage to tell her about me if you hadn’t missed seeing her so much.”
So here I am guys. Writing this post, watching my left hand swell, feeling the pain in my back, staring alternately at this blank computer screen and the broken remains of my cereal bowls and it suddenly occurs to me: “What would Phyllis be thinking?” She’d be thinking, “isn’t this wonderful?” Do you even remember the last time he bit you: No. Do you remember the last time he broke something: No. And once upon a time these violent rages came out of nowhere, totally unpredictable, but this one was so obviously the result of him not getting enough sleep. And it stinks that he hurt you but if he hadn’t you might not have taken notice of just how far you have come.
Also, they sell cereal bowls at Target. Five percent off with your red card.