“Which purse should I use?” she asked.
“Hmm?” I said politely.
“Could you just help me decide which purse to move my stuff into?” she repeated. “It’s just so hard to choose, sometimes.”
I finally looked up. We’d come to Santa Cruz for big-city grocery shopping, and we’d stopped at a taqueria afterwards. G had kept Orion occupied while I scarfed down two tacos, and now he was eating and I was on baby duty. Orion and I had roamed out of the restaurant, down the sidewalk, and into the neighboring laundromat. When we’d come in it had been deserted, except for one woman of rough middle age. I’d given her the once-over and evaluated her as Not A Threat, then politely ignored her. Now she wanted to interact.
I thought about blowing her off. I’m not proud of that, but I did think about snapping something, grabbing Orion, and taking off. But she wasn’t hostile, and I didn’t get that feeling like she wanted to hustle me, and so what if she did, anyway? I’m a firm believer that “no” is a complete sentence. The worst thing that was likely to happen was an uncomfortable silence after some awkward conversation.
She was holding up two small purses, smiling hopefully at me.
“I like the leopard print one,” I said, smiling back.
“Yeah? It’s just hard to choose, you know,” she said again. She was clearly relieved, clearly happy to have a little human connection.
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
“I’m just trying to put my makeup on, get my stuff together without sitting down,” she explained. There was a lot less bitterness in her voice than you’d expect. “Any time I sit down, the cops tell me to move along, tell me I’ve gotta do that at home. If I had a home to go to I would!”
So that was out in the open. I’d been pretty sure she was homeless, but it’s like asking a fat lady when she’s due – the stakes are too high to be wrong.
We made small talk about the baby for a few minutes.
“Eleven months, huh? He’s the perfect size for his age. I raised four girls. The youngest is at Berkeley on a scholarship.”
“Wow!” I was truly impressed – and heartbroken.
I’m still in the in-between stage where I halfway identify with kids and halfway with parents, and the first thing I thought was how hard that girl’s life is. Can you even imagine getting a scholarship to Cal and your mom’s sleeping rough in Santa Cruz? All the other kids in your classes, their parents work in the South Bay, or the endless fields outside of Fresno, or down in the smoggy LA suburbs, going home to apartments or tract houses or meticulously restored Craftsman bungalows. And you just don’t talk about your family. Deflect. Talk about Dad, maybe, or Grandma who let you stay with her to finish high school, but you just keep your mouth shut when the other girls complain about their moms.
“They’re all grown up and they’re all good people. None of them have ever been arrested or anything,” she said.
“You did good,” I said, and I meant it.
“That’s all that really matters, you know?”
And I did, actually. I’m wrinkly and grey and mostly held together by the scars of my previous mistakes, and I look at Orion and he’s so perfect and full of unspoiled potential. I think all parents feel that way, regardless of how badly they’ve actually fucked up. We’re just trying to do better for the kids.
Then Orion tripped and almost fell. He started to cry, and I picked him up. “It’s nap time,” I explained. “I’m gonna see if my husband is through eating. Nice talking to you!”
I headed next door to get G, and when we came back out to the car, I stopped at the laundromat window and tapped on the glass. The woman was still in there, sorting her stuff on the folding table. She looked up, and that time I made sure to meet her eyes as I smiled and waved goodbye.
I don’t know what the point of this story is, really. Be careful. We’re all so close to the edge. A couple of catastrophes and that could be you, putting on your makeup in a laundromat.
And be cool with strangers, y’all. People just want a little human connection. She wasn’t trying to hustle me or explain herself. She just wanted to talk.