Sometimes, we all need to step away.
It’s 3 o’clock, and I’m feeling about as gratefully content as it’s possible to feel in the onset of winter in the far northeast, to be sitting in a booth at the Providence Whole Foods, my face directly poised to catch the wan rays of the failing sun.
If you want to judge, go ahead. My organic chicken curry and I are past the point of caring.
It’s been a long journey to get here.
I walked from Hope Street all the way to Angell, missing the turn onto Pitman, where the General is parked. (The owner of the lot where Jess parks her car threatened, gently, to tow me.) I should have allowed [Jake] to go over the directions with me, like he offered. But I didn’t want to trouble him, or trouble myself rather, with the worry that I might be troubling him.
Even as he offered, I could feel myself begin to fluctuate between what-would-be-betters: to make myself less of a burden than I feel, or to make myself adorably needy. Either way, I feel the risk of giving offense. Vacillating between the two evils, I began to feel motion sickness.
The directions seemed fairly straightforward.
But I got down to Pitman Street and saw the General and felt a flush of love and affection for him, that almost alarmed me. He’s a vehicle, after all, and sometimes is a big pain in the butt, with the quirks of his old age.
But we love the things that require us to take care of them. As long, that is, as they give us what we want in return. It’s such a cozy, reliably capitalistic arrangement.
But the General wouldn’t start.
It seems I’d left the headlights on the afternoon before.
I prayed that God would just let him start, anyway.
But he didn’t.
This journey has grown in me sufficient self-awareness–if that’s the virtue I’m claiming–to keep from spiraling into despairing speculation. It helped that there were a pair of jumper cables under the seat next to me. It was more the confoundedness of the situation–that I’d been so eager to get out of the house and into a coffee shop, where I could be alone, where I could leave Sean and Jess alone, and for a while remove of the burden of myself from everyone (including myself).
But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to blame someone for the frustration of the purposes I cherished. I could blame myself, of course. But what about Jess and Sean, who had told me in the first place to park in the nearer lot and risked my getting towed? And what about Jess’ comment that “You should be fine…nobody’s going to tow you,” which seemed would have contented her until my persistent asking whether her landlord would be okay with me parking there prompted her to call him, whereupon he wanted my car’s make, model and registration number. (Which only leads me to more speculation on what would have happened if she hadn’t called him.) What about the uneasy, passive-aggressive nature of their relationship, which sometimes seems to be so mild-manneredly hospitable and sometimes makes me think that they hate the sight of me, and makes it nearly impossible to ingratiate myself the way I normally would, through conversational charm and quick-witted humor and whatever else I can pull from my bag of tricks? Who at their age lives like that? What are they waiting for to be happy?
I said, “I’m not happy about this” to God, and wondered what it would be like if He were sitting next to me, and I could hear his voice respond to me. Would we fight? Or would I just say what I was feeling and move forward, as His material absence necessitates?
I wandered down the street to a grocery store, where I shopped for a couple of canned goods for the Noon party later and came upon a few folks of somewhat advanced age, greeting each other convivially in the bulk aisle. They were cackling and joking and catching up, and I thought their goodwill-toward-men might be peaking enough to easily solicit pity for my situation.
Instead, they all instantly quelled their voices when I approached them. The one lady unfortunate enough to be caught in my eye contact dropped a mask like a sheet of plastic over her face. She looked like a wax figure. The other two, a man and an elderly woman, kept their eyes down, and continued bagging their coffee beans with the silence of Natty Bumppo stalking a deer.
“I don’t know,” said the lady, when I finished explaining. “Because I don’t have any jumper cables…”
“Actually, I have cables,” I said. “I just need someone to…”
I choked on the distasteful silence between us; the words dribbled impotently into silence.
She stared at me with glazed eyes of a dead fish for a moment. “Bob,” she said to the man, “what would your advice be? Her car battery is dead, and she has cables…”
Maybe it’s superfluous to point out that Bob had been standing closer to me the whole time than the lady explaining the situation to him as I’d just explained it. At this moment, he also submitted to eye contact.
“Do you have Triple A?” he asked me, his voice dubious and tinged with despair…I think he knew how this was going to play out, and his hope of delaying it was already starting to wither.
“I do,” I said. “But really, I just need a jumpstart. I have cables and everything, I just need someone to…” Again, somehow I couldn’t close the pitch.
In a low, resigned voice, he said, “I’ll give you a jumpstart.” I think I saw a little of his soul die, in saying it.
I met him at the front of the store. The elderly lady with him smiled guilelessly, and said “Hello. He’s my son.”
“My name is Chelsea,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
“You’re not parked in the parking lot?” the man asked me.
“No, I’m just around the corner,” I said, “at my friend’s landlord’s house.”
“How long have you lived in Rhode Island?” asked the elderly lady, as I ducked into the back of their Honda Civic.
“Actually, I’m from California,” I told her. “I’m out here visiting a friend.”
“Oh, what school?” she asked. “Brown University? Rhode-Island-School-of-Design-Risdy?”
“Neither of us are in school anymore,” I told her, so grateful for the birth of a human connection. “She lives out here now, and I just came out to visit. Are you both Rhode Island natives?”
“Yes,” said the man. “Where’s your car?”
I directed him around the corner from the store, and up the street, and into the lot behind Jess’ landlord’s place. As the General roared to life, the man smiled for the first time since I’d spoken to him.
“Thank you so much,” I said, willing my face to beam like the sun surely must, even in Rhode Island, at the right time of year. “You really saved my day.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, and his face began to look like that of a very nice man. “Take care.”