GIRL YOU WANT
I met the girl of my dreams last week.
I was away at college in Pennsylvania, attending my residency, a ten day reprieve from the Florida heat, my husband, and my kids.
The first time I saw her, she was chatting on her cell phone in the restroom. I caught her reflection in the mirror and smiled. She didn’t seem to notice or was too wrapped up in her conversation to wave back.
No matter, I thought. I was busy, myself.
The next time I saw her, she was in class, reading aloud a rough draft of our latest assignment. The piece she shared was raw and edgy, and she made no apologies for raising her voice nor did she seem to feel remorseful for speaking her mind.
My eyebrows raised into high arches as she read aloud words I could never utter.
It was brave of her to share something honest, but I blushed when she dropped the F bomb instead of saying “Frick” or “fudge” or even “The F word,” as a good suburban mother would have done. Good moms don’t swear, I’m constantly reminded.
One sunny afternoon, I caught her downtown. She’d gone for a run and had the glistening sheen of sweat on her brow.
I stood in the shadows, the scent of grilled onions and car exhaust wafting through the air, and watched her snap endless pictures of city things I’d taken for granted: turrets on stately Victorian mansions, abandoned bird’s nests, strings of rainbow-colored graffiti. She photographed signs in windows, construction site Porta Potties, withering flowers, and spiky wrought iron grates. Everything seemed to captivate her attention.
Everything, except me.
Late one evening, I ran into her at a party. She was sitting crossed-legged on a stain-encrusted carpet in one of my classmate’s apartment. Originally, I had talked myself out of attending the gathering. It was late, I was mentally exhausted, there was a mountain of incomplete homework teetering on my desk, but that little voice, one hears and sometimes abides by, urged me to go.
So I went. And there she was, sitting on the floor, seemingly relaxed and carefree, not consumed with worry or carpet stains or homework mountains or her appearance.
The shadows beneath her eyes were imagined badges of honor. The cup she held had a half-moon red lipstick mark.
Still watching her, I licked my own lips and sipped my wine. Cheap stuff. Syrupy-sweet. Inferior to the standards of the ersatz sommeliers, aka, mom acquaintances, back in my suburban gated community. This gal drank too much, laughed too loudly.
A bearded dude, wearing an Emo band shirt, sat cross-legged beside us on the floor. He strummed a guitar and sang mournful lyrics to a song I recognized from the radio. Partygoers bobbed their chins and tapped their fingers, keeping time with the beats. I followed along. Mystery girl swayed side to side.
When the song ended, she got to her feet, zigzagged through the crowd, and headed to the balcony.
Again, I followed.
I always follow.
Outside, the air was crisp and held the ghost aroma of distant burning fires. I shivered and turned my back to the wind, regretting having left a warm coat back in my room.
Over at the railing, the wild girl lit a cigarette, inhaled, and slowly exhaled. Wispy white smoke trails coiled up to the sky.
What was she doing? Didn’t she know smoking was bad? Had she seen those scary commercials of people with holes in their throats? Didn’t she care? Didn’t she worry?
I always worry.
The twinkle in her eyes and her playful laugh indicated she didn’t bother fretting over such things.
Back inside the apartment, I positioned myself so I could have a better view of smoker girl. She didn’t seem bothered when I sauntered over and leaned against the wall. Was my proximity too close? Was that socially unacceptable? Suburban moms would have opinions about these things. I never knew where I stood.
Inching to the right, I caught snippets of her conversation. As she retold a story to a small crowd, her hands flailed in exuberant animation. Her voice rose and fell. People leaned in to hear what she said. They were hooked, as was I.
When the crowd dispersed, I made a bold move. I wrapped my fingers over hers and held my breath.
She dipped her chin, lifted it halfway, and nodded.
What did that mean?
The next time I saw her, she was running in the rain. It was the eve of a banquet, and I was late for the formal dinner.
Brave girl was dressed in sleek high heels and a dress with a plunging neckline. Fabric was gathered at the hip with a shiny gold buckle. The dress too revealing, inappropriate for inclement weather, but I watched, mouth agape, mesmerized with the way she splashed through puddles, carefree and giggling. She reminded me of my neighbor’s toddler, dressed in a yellow slicker, blue galoshes, splashing in mud puddles. Brave girl didn’t seemed to worry about her ruined shoes, her flattened hair, her soggy dress, being late for the banquet. The rain seemed to empower her. Transform her. Liberate her.
“Reckless,” the suburban moms would have called her.
On the day of my departure, I bid her a quiet adieu. She was absorbed in her thoughts, packing, jamming, and cramming items into matching indigo suitcases.
“The shuttle will be here soon,” I warned.
Her smile had faded, her giggle long gone. A ghost echo in my head.
Out on the balcony, I watched her take the last drag off her cigarette. She snubbed the stick and headed to the apartment trash receptacle. I followed her in silence, my feet dragging as though hampered by invisible weights. Down the hall, past posters, past stickers, past numbers.
The trash chute’s door opened with a loud groan, and hesitant girl’s hand hovered over the open tunnel, apparently agonizing over what to do with the remaining cigarettes in her pack.
The veins in her clenched fist stood up as she crushed the pack.
She opened her palm, and the pack slid down the chute. The door banged shut. Her hand rested on the handle. She stood frozen in place.
You made the right choice, I wanted to say. They’re bad for your health. Smokers get cancer or holes in their throats.
But these thoughts stayed in my head.
She probably wouldn’t have listened anyway.
The next time I saw her, she was standing in the bathroom. Her cheeks were puffy, her eyes bloodshot, the color of cheap wine and half-moon lipstick marks.
She was unhappy, worried about going home.
“I’m different,” she whispered, leaning toward the mirror.
“It’s okay,” I whispered back.
I gathered her suitcases and double-checked for items left behind.
Everything was in order. Chairs pushed in, refrigerator empty, bedsheets stripped. Nothing forgotten, minus a small pink cigarette lighter.
The elevator pinged, and I ran and held it open for her. When the doors closed, I saw her pained expression in the steel-door reflection.
At the airport, she telephoned a friend.
Perhaps the person on the other end of the line would help melancholy girl relocate her smile.
She’s gone now, and I haven’t bothered to search for her. I’m back with my children, back in a place of suburban insignificance. Back in a gated community where we say things like “Frick” or “Fudge” instead of dropping F bombs. Back to family picnics and family barbeques and playdates, not bohemian parties in urban apartments.
I’m back where we jog on manicured trails and attend Yoga and Pilates classes instead of running in heels through city streets.
I’m back where we attend PTA meetings and soccer games instead of private documentary screenings. I’m back to being Mom, not an individual, the co-head of a household.
I’m back where I belong.
I saw her this morning. The kids were at school, and the rumble of thunder attracted her outside. She stood in the middle of her freshly-mowed lawn as raindrops sugared the top of her head. She’d keyed up the song she heard at the party in Pennsylvania on her iPod and hit PLAY.
“Don’t leave me,” I/she whispered.
“Maybe,” she/I whispered back.
“I’m dying here,” we agreed.
I looked up at the sky, blinked away the falling drops, longing to revive that moment in the rain.
The girl of my dreams was me.