*written a couple weeks ago*

Everything is gray.
It’s raining outside so the sky is the color of wet cement. It stretches on for miles, a grayish expanse of nothing that looks like I feel; dull, cloudy, lifeless. It’s raining but I don’t care. I’m dressed down, my favorite sweats and a Howard hoodie. No makeup. I could care less about my hair. Come to think of it, there are many things I could care less about today.

The house is empty and quiet but I find myself tiptoeing through its rooms, careful not to disturb the stillness, as if I am somehow intruding in my own home. I guess I could be.

I sit on my bed for the longest, tugging at the hair at the nape of my neck, pulling it, twisting it around my fingers, yanking it loose from the low ponytail gathered at my hairline. I feel so heavy, my limbs dead weight. I can’t seem to move.

I finally make it to my truck, I say hello to it like I do every morning, my keys in my hand and my eyes to the ground. I sit in my car awhile before I start it up. I feel outside of myself, like I’m floating above my head watching this life I’m trapped under. I don’t even remember where I’m supposed to go. Where am I going?

My brain is fuzzy. I barely remember the drive. Somewhere on 10 a Dodge falls in front of me. I remember considering one before I got my truck. It’s pretty nice, I note, with the exception of the Hampton plates on the tag. Everyone makes mistakes I guess.

By now I’ve switched lanes as the traffic slows up ahead. I find myself beside the Nitro on the passenger side. There’s a little boy in the passenger seat, big curly hair taking up most of the window, reaching and straining to make himself taller to see what was causing the traffic to stop up ahead. He catches my eye and waves, mouthing the word hi. I wave back and hope it doesn’t look as pitiful as it felt. He drops his hand and cocks his head to the side looking at me curiously. At that moment, the man in the driver seat catches my eye. I give a half smile and put my eyes back on the road.

It’s a blur the rest of the way to the mall, the edges of my vision blurry with tears that I refuse to allow to fall. I’ve been counting the days since I last cried and I’ve got a good streak going. I won’t break it. I get out of my car and hurry into the low roar of the busy mall, hoping it’ll silence my head.

Everyone walks in pairs or groups. Heads thrown back in laughter, all smiles and touches, conversations mixing together and floating over my head.

Today, I feel alone in the world.

I sit in an oversized chair and watch the people walk by. I sink back into the green cushions until I feel invisible. I remember what it was like to been seen, to be called. I remember being touched, to share laughter. Now most days I feel like an apparition, a ghost of my former self, floating right past people but never seen, no one even bothering to reach out and touch me and see if I’m real.

Something gets tangled around my legs. I look down and it’s the little boy from traffic, smiling up at me, one tooth missing from the front.
“Youretheladyfromthegraycar!!!!” he says in one breathless tumble of words. His daddy (I can tell from the resemblance) catches up with him.
“I’m so sorry,” he says at me, flushing deep with embarrassment right up to his gray eyes.
“It’s okay,” I reply and I realize that it’s probably the first time I’ve smiled genuinely in a month, maybe more.
“Hey!” the little one breaks in. “Can you help us? My daddy gotta buy a present for my Auntie Jackie and he don’t know WHAT he’s doing.”
“Hush lil’ boy. I got it under control,” this second part directed at me.
“But dadd-eeee this is the THIRD mall we’ve been to and you still haven’t bought NOTHIN’!” The father looks at me sheepishly.
“Well, that part is true,” he replies and I giggle as the little one tries to pull me in his direction.
“Comeonpleasehelpusplease,” he says his words falling over each other.
“Let her go J. I’m sure she has people she needs to go meet.”
“Actually,” I reply, “I’m-” ahem- “alone.”
“Oh.” And he sees something in my eyes I think that makes the muscles in his face go a little slack. “Well, I really could use the help if you don’t mind.”
And just like that I’m recruited to help pick out Auntie Jackie’s present.

We walk, J between us talking a mile a minute, his father, D, keeping up with his conversation. I know if I closed my eyes I wouldn’t be able to figure out who’s the kid and who’s the parent. They’re sweet together, like a commercial or a Hallmark card. Except they’re real, and they make me smile.

I find myself falling into all the sales questions I ask at work; How old is she? What does she like? Is she outgoing or conservative? Price range?

Before long we narrow it down to jewelry. After having me chime in and model a few pieces, we decide on a simple diamond necklace. After it’s wrapped up we decide that we should reward ourselves with food. We wind up at CPK, J sitting next to me talking happily to himself and entertaining himself with some crayons. D and I are talking, the usual surface banter people share when they’ve just met. He loves sports, naturally because he has a penis, so we turn our attention to the TV. Before long the convo drifts into topics a little more personal. I give him the highlights of my life, careful not to give away too much emotion either way about any particular topic I touch. He asks me if I’m single and a part of me bristles at the thought that he might be hitting on me, but the thick platinum wedding band on his finger says otherwise. And D doesn’t seem like the kind of man who cheats. And certainly not in front of his son. I tell him about Psuedo, a smile tugging at the corners of my lips despite myself. He chuckles at my story of how we came to be. When I tell him why I call him Psuedo, his chuckles turn into all out laughter.
“That is so hilarious,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman with commitment issues.”
“Well,” I reply, “to be fair, you’ve probably never met anyone like me.”

The conversation continues on, us eating, me stopping every couple forkfuls to inspect what new markings J has made on his 5 year old masterpiece. The plates are cleared, and D orders us another round of drinks. J has caught the itis and curls up underneath my arm yawing and stretching and I’m pretty sure he’ll be asleep before 5 minutes pass. I rub his back like my mama used to do me, and before long I hear him snoring lightly below me.

“You’re good with him,” says D to me, watching his son with so much love in his eyes that I long for a camera even though it wouldn’t capture what I’m witnessing.
“Well, I love kids. He reminds me of my brother when he was younger.”
“You got any?”
“Um… I dunno how you Hamptonians do it, but I’m not popping out babies just for the sake of having a baby daddy.” We laugh so loud the other patrons turn and glare. All day we’ve been finding off key and interesting ways to insult the others choice of school. Gotta love that rivalry.

“So,” I start, still chuckling, “why isn’t your wife helping you pick out Aunt Jackie’s present?” The muscles in his face go slack. He suddenly looks so sad. I try to back peddle because I think I’ve said the wrong thing and the expression on his face is about to break my heart. I start to stammer out an apology and he cuts me off.

“It’s okay,” he murmurs and his whole voice, his whole body language has changed. He starts to tell me about her, Y, about their lives together. How they met in high school, were inseparable, went to Hampton together where he proposed. How she had J unexpectedly but still got through med school. How they waited til after she got an internship at Memorial Herman to be near her family to get married. How they were married only a month before she died. He chokes up as he tells me about some coked up teenager stabbing her repeatedly with a pocket knife, and her bleeding to death on the floor of her own hospital, all because she stepped in to stop a fight between he and his girlfriend and he was too high to comprehend that she wasn’t attacking him. Without even realizing, somewhere along the way I’ve started crying.

I’m fidgeting in my seat because I can’t stand to see someone in so much pain. He tells me how after she died, he pretty much lost it for awhile, and I can certainly relate to his temporary insanity.

“How are you still upright and walking and… breathing?!?” He chuckles lightly.
“My grandma locked me in her house for 2 days,” he replies.

He goes on to tell me about his feisty grandmother who took it upon herself to snap him out of his downward spiral so she kept him at her house for 2 days, cooking for him, and making him talk, giving him encouragement and advice, and telling him he was being an ass. We laugh out loud at that once again drawing the looks of other tables.

He says, “I remember the last conversation we had. That’s what really turned it around for me. It was a little before midnight and we were sitting outside on her back porch. I was asking her why all this stuff was happening to me, what I did to deserve to lose Y. She turned to me and said, “You’re on fire right now. You always were hard, like metal, never did really bend at just regular old bangs and scrapes. You’re being molded. When you set metal on fire, it becomes pliable, the parts that are weak fall away, but everything else joins together, becomes one thing that can be molded into whatever it’s gone be. You’re on fire right now. But soon you’ll find yourself cooling down, settling into what you are supposed to become.” I never forgot that,” he continues, looking off into space as if he’s watching the moment play back on air. “It made me feel less hopeless. Every time it got so hard that I thought I couldn’t bear it I’d remind myself of what she said. Right at midnight she turned to me and said, “Its a brand new day. How will you walk it?” and then she left me alone on the porch. I stayed up for awhile, making promises to myself, to God, to Y, that I haven’t broken since and intend never to. The next morning I woke up and Grandma was gone. She left me a note telling me to close the gate behind me when I left. In red lipstick on the mirror of course.” We laugh. After the laughter subsides he looks at me intently for a moment. I feel naked under his glare.

“You look like you’re on fire right now,” he says.
And I start to cry.

In a breathless mumble, everything pours out of me, everything going on, everything that’s happening, that has happened to me the last few years. I’m crying at a table with a stranger and giving up information I barely tell a soul. He lets me talk myself silent.

“You’re on fire right now,” he says gently, “let the weak parts fall away.”

I nod, embarrassed that I’ve said so much, that I’ve cried, maybe that I’m even in pain. J stirs underneath me and I turn my head to wipe my eyes.

“Daddy, I dreamed about ice cream!!!” We burst out laughing. Since he had a dream, we have to get him ice cream.

In the parking lot we say our goodbyes and I get in my truck, distracted and feeling off center. Once I get onto 10 I realize this is the strangest day I’ve ever had, bonding so much with a stranger and not even bothering to exchange contact info. Airplane talk I guess.

It’s still raining and I struggle to focus on the road. Before I know what’s happened, the eighteen wheeler in the lane to my right is coming over on me because a small red car has cut him off and he doesn’t have time to stop before he runs it over. I swerve hard into the emergency lane which is luckily very wide at this point of the highway and hit the gas to pass the rest of the length of the truck in case he decides to keep coming over. When I hit the gas my tires hit a puddle and my car starts to spin. I take my foot off the gas and turn the wheel into the direction of the spin. I start to pray.

When the car finally stops, I regain my composure enough to survey the scene around me. I’ve hit nothing. But the emergency lane has narrowed a bit so if my car were a foot to the right, I would’ve been hit head on by oncoming traffic. Several feet behind me, I see that the truck did in fact hit the little red car as well as the black car that was in the lane behind me. It looks like a crushed soda can. I feel queasy when I realize that had I not sped up to spin out, that would’ve been me.

Today could have been the day I died.

I lean against my car until I notice a Dodge Nitro reversing in the emergency lane back to where I am. D jumps out a few feet away and runs the rest of the length that separates us.
“You okay?” he screams at me and all I can do it point to the black car, where I should have been. He hugs me tightly and I realize I’m shivering, but I don’t feel cold. I feel like maybe I’m unthawing. He turns me loose and looks me square in the eyes.
“Today is a new day La. How will you walk it?”

I get it.

I nod and turn to climb in my car. I merge back into the lane, giving my eyes to the rear view mirror only once to acknowledge D is there and smile. I drive away, my eyes focused on the road ahead.

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