Our first encounter was on New Year’s Eve. I was picking up a few last minute good-luck foods for the evening – black-eyed peas, cornbread, pickled herring, grapes – walking from my apartment to the grocer. It was cold. That’s what I remember first when I feel the memory in my senses, when I feel the depth of the memory. I feel how cold it was, how the sharp absence of smells in the air precipitated my noticing the details.
I remember I noticed the last brown leaf hanging from a branch on a small sidewalk-maple, looking like the curled dried hand of a long-dead corpse, give a final shake before falling to the only patch of dirt on the ground. I remember the woolly-pilled shoulder of a woman’s black coat and thinking that must be the spot where a purse strap normally rested. Nose smudges on a Christmas-display window crowded my mind with faces and the ages of their owners.
Caught in the details of my walk as I was, I didn’t look up when I arrived at the entrance to the rotating door at the grocer. I simply stepped into the opening. Even now, it makes me laugh when I picture it. Me stepping directly into the same pie-slice of glass circle that already held Amelia. Both of us pressed against each other, shielded in puffer coats – hers red, mine white – and with my nose smooshed into her pouf of brown hair, we tippy-toed together, enclosed, rotating the half circle, to the opening inside the store. Anyone else would have been angry, but she’d laughed the whole way around and when we tumbled into the store, she said, “That was fun! Shall we go again?” She carried a beautiful red handbag the color of her coat, and I remember thinking how much I wanted one. I remember thinking how much I wanted to be her. I wanted to be fun and carefree like Amelia. I couldn’t find a beautiful red handbag, but I bought myself a red puffer coat that year at sale time.
The next year, probably because of the previous year – no, I’m certain it was because of the previous year – I made the same walk to the grocer on New Year’s Eve. I had broken up with my boyfriend and wasn’t feeling particularly celebratory, but I put on my red puffer coat, pushed my way through the revolving door, and collected the same lucky foods in my basket. I noticed her beautiful red handbag before I noticed Amelia. The red handbag had gotten larger, I thought. More beautiful. It sat casually on the floor of the café, where Amelia sat casually next to it, at a small round table.
We laughed at the coincidence of our two red puffer coats and the same-place same-time serendipity of our meeting, and I ordered a hot chocolate with whipped cream, just like the one Amelia was drinking. I told Amelia that I had broken up with my boyfriend. “You did the right thing,” she said. “Relationships are meant to uplift and evolve.” I felt uplifted by Amelia. I let the whipped cream melt. The chocolate was dark, spiced with cinnamon and pepper. I tasted, really tasted, its nuance. I was evolving. I wanted to be wise like Amelia and say all the right things, like Amelia. I wanted a big red beautiful handbag.
The next year, I didn’t run into Amelia at all, although I went to the same grocer regularly. I wore my red puffer coat all winter. I looked everywhere for a big beautiful red handbag, but found only big red handbags, none beautiful. I did start a new relationship, one in which I felt uplifted and one that seemed to be evolving. I made new friends. Oh, and I learned to make a spicy hot chocolate, dark, with cinnamon and cayenne pepper.
The year after, I celebrated the New Year alone. My relationship did not evolve. I wore my red puffer coat all winter, even after I tore it. I found red duct tape to fix it. The hole was small and near the bottom of the jacket. I wished I had run into Amelia.
So, I don’t think either of us was expecting to see each other this last New Year’s Eve. I’m still trying to make sense of it. I was only at the grocer because I was hosting a party and had to run out for a few last-minute things, more cornbread and one more jar of pickled herring. And I was late. It was cold, like that first year, five years ago. I felt detail-sharp again in the icy air. I had on my red puffer coat.
Amelia was coming out of the rotating door, just as I had gotten to its entrance. We smacked right into each other, two red puffer coats, two red balloons, crashing through the clear blue air, her beautiful red handbag looking even bigger than before, hitting the ground. The latch popped; the handbag tipped to its side. The contents spilled as if in slow motion. Both of us stood for a moment, watching frozen eyeballs spill from her beautiful red handbag. They scattered like marbles on the sidewalk. Blues and browns, greens and grays, translucent, every imaginable shade, each encased in the same beautiful opaque glassy white. We knelt together. “They will thaw in the spring,” Amelia said, scooping the eyeballs with her hands, letting them drop into her beautiful red handbag. “But they are so much easier to carry when they are frozen.” I nodded. I picked up a brown eyeball, dark, almost black, lightning streaks of gold flashing through it.
“Is there another?” I asked.
“Yes. Each is one of a pair,” she said.
I thought of her beautiful red handbag as an ark. I used my two hands to scoop eyeballs, and I held them. I studied each for its mate. I dropped them into the ark.
I want a beautiful big red handbag. I want to fill it with frozen eyeballs.