I'd never seen her at Fifth and Jackson before. Rose's squat profile was instantly recognizable, her silver hair backlit by the storefronts opposite.
"Hey, Rose," I said, looking down through the gloom at her stroller.
"Hey, Nate," she replied, hobbling a step forward. Quickly, knowing I've turned her away before (read here and here for the backstory on this), she said, "I got a new stroller but it has broke wheels too."
She may not have been able to see my face in the darkness from out there, but I smiled with my voice. "That's okay, thanks for getting a new one. That's what counts."
"It still has a problem."
Rose stepped in keeping pace with the glaciers of old, cursing the nerve pain which shot through her swollen legs at each step. Glaciers with nerve pain would move slowly. She still demanded the front seats be lifted in a particular fashion I can never remember. I really ought to write it down. Tonight a young male passenger– don't say the youth never help their elders!– helped her out for me.
I couldn't see her as we carried on our way, but could hear her just behind me. Snatches of another life drifted within earshot; I strained for the details. She was ready to go home, she sighed. "I got up at 4am… 'cause when people are in pain they make a lot of noise. He's been in a lot of pain." She kept saying "he," and I never got an answer on who he was; only that he was a vet, and someone special. I said that's a hard life, being a vet, and she didn't disagree. He was going in for surgery, she said, he went in for surgery, but he's okay now.
"I'm glad he's okay."
"I'm gonna take care of him," she remarked. "He's not gonna do anything to me."
The silences, the barest sentences, and the lifetimes behind them.
"You can sit down! It's safer to sit down!" she hollered at an Asian man, trying to be nice. Genuine negativity is contagious, but so too is genuine positivity. I caught a glimpse of her craggy face in the mirror, her grey-blue eyes still blazing in late age. I'm sure she fit most people's definition of pretty at some point in her life. Does she reflect on her past, as I do, when the pain is not as strong? Sleepless in the wee morning hours, lying in repose, a reverie between the ceiling and ourselves. I hope there are good memories. It's a solitary act, and something we all share.
"Getting operated on…" she was saying something about medical procedures. Then a thought on housing, how they're gonna tear her house down, putting up condos instead; I can understand that frustration. "They need to be more kind to me." Her grumbles mingled with the gentle hum of the electric bus. Then I heard her, and I heard her again. She said it more than once: "everybody just needs to be loved."
We Americans are a vocal sort. We wear our emotions, our opinions, fear, anger, ignorance– loudly, on our sleeves. But there are things even we don't bray out to the world.
I believe loneliness is the premier element of the human condition. No other state of being is experienced as pervasively. It doesn't matter how popular you are. We are individuals, and we process things away from others, deep within our own minds, and that is always and ever a singular act; how many millions of thoughts will you never share with anyone, because they were too esoteric, inconsequential, hard to contextualize, or private? We brush our teeth, tie our shoes, and hang up our clothes alone. We crave acceptance and love, or at least acknowledgment, from others in an effort to combat it. It's not quite up there with the fact of death, as the motivating engine for all human action, but it's close.
But we don't ever talk about it.
We wax and whirl about the subject, and because the condition is universal, we understand each other anyway. We talk about relationships, goals, psychology, and desire, but we never discuss it bluntly in relation to ourselves. "Everybody needs to be loved" is a valid statement on its own, but it's also code for something else, something deeper and more personal. I heard it in her plaintive voice. I know that feeling too.
As she left: "Nate, I'm glad I got to see you tonight." She apologized she couldn't ride further, and explained that she really did need to go home. She took forever. That's fine, I said. Then she hollered into the wind, her cry reaching through the closing the doors, me turning the wheel out to pull back into traffic. She was yelling more nice things. So nice, perhaps it's good I didn't hear them.
Some days later she was at the Andover Street bus stop. She was surrounded amongst her things in the bus shelter, camped out for an afternoon siesta of sorts. She didn't want the bus, but waved her hands upon recognizing me. She called out, repeatedly, until she knew I heard her: "thank you Nathan, thank you! Thank you, Nathan!"