I Never Asked for Her Name (Originally published in HotHouse Literary Journal in 2016)
She sat watching traffic for hours each day, dragging her lawn chair to where the grass meets the cement, folding her tired legs underneath the plastic, pointing her toes downward, reliving the days of when she was the perfect ballerina. Every time I drove past her, she was always in the same position sipping from a twisted straw that grew out of an unmatched gas station cup. I had never spoken to her, and from the looks of it, or from what I had observed, I wasn’t the only one pretending as if she were not there. Even though we were not well acquainted, except for the I-feel-sorry-for-you waves I gave her each time I squeezed by, I felt as if I knew her by the stories I had come up with in my head.
When she was a child she lived in the basement of the shoe factory her father owned. The only time he gave her attention was when one of the shoelaces got tangled, and the only fingers that could save the cheaply made string were tiny little girl ones. She would sit and look upward gazing at the slits of light that crept through the wooden trap door. When the slits of light had a shadow over them, the room would grow pitch black and the child saw the light of the sun. The father had to bend over and get on his knees to use all his force to unlatch the door, and once he did he would throw the shoelaces down and shut it again without saying a word. The girl carefully walked to the stairs and said, “Thank you,” while grabbing the tangled mess of a failed attempt at success.
This time it felt different. She saw with her hands that it was not just two or three shoelaces as it had usually been; it was two or three hundred! At first the girl wept because she was a failure before she was even a failure, and then the girl wept some more because she knew that her visits would become less frequent. It would take her days to untangle all the shoelaces, perhaps even weeks. It was the first time that she realized she was trapped; it was the first time that she realized she was completely alone. She took the giant shoelace ball and began untangling. She decided that she would untangle just enough string so she could tie it together and hang it from the ceiling. Surely there was a beam she would be able to tie it on. Surely the shoelaces had enough strength to hold up a small body.
I stopped at that point in the story because it was getting too morbid for me and the traffic had started moving again and I no longer had to look at her. It seemed a little far-fetched, even though the sadness in her eyes matched the sadness of the situation. Or perhaps the sadness in her eyes were spawn from the straightforward fact that she had the most wonderful life and she was heartbroken that it was coming to a closure. It was as if she knew the exact moment her life was going to end, and she wanted to spend every moment of what was left of it thinking about her past while the wind danced across her cheeks. She was watching the end credits waiting for the screen to go black and the static to begin in hopes that the rewind button wasn’t broken. If only it were that easy to time travel.
The biggest problem with time travel is that it could not reverse age, which is what the child discovered when she was no longer a child. She took the machine her great grandmother invented (yes, it was a woman who invented the most fantastic invention in all the world) and started punching in numbers. She thought that if she typed “1954” into the pod-shaped time capsule that was turned into an all-functioning rewind-button-equipped VCR, that she would not only go back in time, but she would also go back in age. She was sixteen in 1954, and I remember when she was telling me this story I had many thoughts about when I was sixteen and how awful it was and if I had to relive it then I would surely jump off one of those boat splitting bridges. She said it was different then, and she said she wanted to go back to the exact moment when she met the love of her life the first time. She did. She went back to that day, that hour, that minute, that second, and when she walked up to him she didn’t look like her anymore; she looked melted. He, of course, did not recognize her and he was very good-looking so he didn’t want to spend any more precious time of his good-looking filled days next to an old seventy something woman. I asked her if she saw herself. She said no. She said two of the same exact people cannot be in the same place at the same exact time or else the entire universe would fold into itself, and when she traveled back to present day, all of the photographs she once had were gone and her wedding ring was gone and her heart was a little smaller.
The traffic started to move again and she waved violently to everyone. Sometimes her wave was more animated than other days. I don’t know why I kept thinking of sad stories. That particular one had started happy, but then it just ended up being a travesty. Did that say something about my life too? Was I a travesty? I looked through my keys searching for the correct one because I had just moved for the seventh time in six years, and I finally found the one I was looking for. I threw my keys on the counter, which slid on the floor. I sat on my couch with the wall staring back at me wondering if I should go talk to her. The stories I formed were my own entertainment while stuck in traffic each day, and if I went and asked her what her true life story was, then I wouldn’t have anything to do but listen to talk radio because that was the only thing on at seven thirty in the morning.
Then a leaf fell on my head.
I did not know where it came from, and as I was looking up, a thousand more leaves came tumbling down making a blanket across my legs and chest. They covered my floor. My couch was gone and my table was gone and my keys were gone. I tried to get up, but I was being held down by a swarm of reds and oranges and yellows. Then one of the leaves went left and right and ascended elegantly upward into a light that was so bright the stars were envious. The weight was slowly being lifted, and I felt as though I could have floated along with them. Each leaf followed that leaf, and soon there were only a few leaves left behind on the floor. They did not move upward like the others; they developed deformities and crumbled. What colors they once bore were irrelevant, and in the end all that was left of them was ash.
I woke up with my skin feeling dry and my mouth craving thirst and my hands brushing off my lap as though something was just there. As my mind slowly reminded me of my dream, I thought it strange and wondered of its significance. I analyzed every aspect of it, and when I came to the conclusion that it meant nothing, I decided to finally visit her.
As I walked past the parking lot of cars, I wondered why I never took a different route on my way to work. I could have gone the other way or left at the stop sign; it seemed like the more logical choice in order to avoid the traffic. I looked one way and I looked another way, and the only cars that I could see were lined up and down the street in a perfect longitude form on the street of the old lady. When I got closer she began to wave to me as if she had known me my entire life. Her delicate face had so many wrinkles that it could write several books. She told me to sit down and I did. She asked me what my name was and I told her. I remember now that I never asked for her name, but I don’t think she even noticed or minded. She recited hours of rehearsed monologues. She told me of her life and it was more magnificent than I could have possibly imagined.
Her father did not own a shoe factory.
She was not a ballerina.
Her great grandmother did not invent a time machine.
But she was in love once, and she told me about the first time her sneakers were thrown over a telephone line, and she told me about how she was the first in her neighborhood to have a color TV. She told me she had not given advice to anyone in a very long time, and she longed for someone to listen. I told her that I was listening, and at the end of her speech said, “You will grow old, too.” As she said this, a great gust of wind blew up from our feet, and not a single leaf was left behind.