“You don’t recognize me, do you?”
She’s smiling at me, a good smile, the kind of smile that lights up the inside of your head like a pinball machine going off. Until she asks that question.
It’s like a tilt, or the game being unplugged. And now you’re instantly uncomfortable. Because the other person recognizes you.
Why, because that person cares enough to have remembered you. At least that’s the first thing that always comes to mind for me. You cared enough to memorize my face. I’m a dick for not doing the same.
Folks try to cover their asses in a situation like this. One response to help ease a conscience is, “I’m not good with faces.” What you know to be true is “I’m not good with your face because I could care less about you, certainly a lot less than you care about me.”
I put down my sandwich. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”
“That’s okay, I don’t blame you, I’ve changed a lot. Grown way up. I was just a little kid when we knew each other.”
This eases the guilt, but it really doesn’t help with any kind of recognition.
“Do you want a hint, or do you want me to tell you?”
My sheepish smile, my shake of the head meaning I’m so sorry about this. Please tell me, please.
She laughs. “I used to come by the record store all the time. After school. I was in seventh-grade. You always gave me free records.”
“Of course, yes, I remember you now.” This is kind of true.
“You should. I only had one leg then.”
Of course, now I don’t have to lie. I could never forget her.
People with disabilities – well some of them don’t even like that word. They want the term to be “differently abled.” But I worked with students with disabilities for 24 years, and I guarantee you the vast majority have no problem with the word.
People with disabilities don’t want people to feel sorry for them. If you do, then you’re attributing negativity and therefore contributing negativity to that person’s situation. You’re also exhibiting, unknowingly, a position of power over that person, implying that you’re better than that person because you find the disabled life to be a lesser life, that the person is not living to life’s full potential.
I gave her the free records, this girl with one leg, because I felt sorry for her.
Every week we would receive a variety of what are called cut-out albums. The corner of the album cover is notched indicating that is not salable. Additionally, most record labels paste a huge sticker across the bottom of the album cover indicating that it is for demonstration only and is not for sale. These albums are for playing in the store to promote the album and jack up sales.
Every week she would come in on her crutches. I felt sorry for her, so sorry that I’d give her a choice of any album she liked. Sometimes two if she had a hard time making a choice.
Actually, I did this with other customers as well. In those cases the reason was that by giving free albums to them, I hoped to gain their loyalty to our store. Good will is a good thing in retail. You generate it by doing things like giving away freebies. In turn, these folks buy records from you. It’s great PR. I would do this with displays as well. Posters, free standing props, mobiles, anything that customers admired, I’d give to them in hopes that they’d spend more money in the store.
But not her. I didn’t want to take money from her. Of course she would buy other records, but that was not why I did what I did.
“I’ve got two now,” she says, rapping her knuckles against the artificial leg under her blue jeans.
I hardly know what to say. “Oh, good, that’s good, I’m glad for you.”
She laughs. “Me too, you better believe. I still limp a little bit, but technology is amazing now. This is about as close to a real leg as I can imagine.”
“Please sit down,” I say. She does.
“So did you move back to Madison?” she asks.
“No, no, I just came to visit. The old stomping ground, you know.”
I immediately regret having said that, but it doesn’t seem to phase her.
“So you don’t come back here often then.”
“No, not really. This is actually the first time in 34 years. I’m really surprised you recognized me.”
“You look the same,” she says. “Gray hair’s the only difference I can tell. Plus you’re wearing that aloha shirt. I thought you were crazy to wear those in the middle of winter, but I always thought it was pretty cool.”
“Thanks, yeah, it was kind of crazy,” I say, “and you’re right, I would never have recognized you now. You have definitely grown up.”
“Plus no crutches,” she reminds me, laughs.
“I’ve had some small world experiences in my life,” I say, “and this one is right up there. I came here to West Towne to see what it looked like nowadays, to see what store was in the place where the record store used to be. I decided to eat lunch in the food court here, and here you are.”
Small world stories. Sometimes it seems the majority of my life is a stitching together of those coincidental moments.
“I forget,” she says, “this place is so huge. “What store’s there now?”
I laugh, shake my head. “Nothing’s there now. It’s empty. There’s a for lease sign on the front door.”
She nods. “I eat here a lot,” she says.
Being lonely. Boy, to eat here all the time. Probably doesn’t even cook. I know that lifestyle well.
“So,” I ask, “then you still live around here?”
“Yeah. Literally a stone’s throw from here, if you’ve got a decent arm. Just across the street.”
“Is that where you lived back then?”
“Yes, it’s where I was born and raised. I never really left, never lived anywhere else.”
Instantly I feel sorry for her again, picture what a lonely life she must have led, must still lead. It’s tough to live with a disability, how it sometimes can limit your life experiences. Geez this poor kid.
She continues. “I don’t know if you knew, but my dad died right after I was born. Then my mom got real sick when I was in high school. She passed away while I was in college. I inherited the place.”
If I felt sorry for her before, it’s worse than that now. Sorrier than sorry.
“So when I got married, we decided to live there. Then I raised all of my children there. Now they’re off doing their own things. My husband and I are empty nesters.”
I’m relieved. This is wonderful. She did find happiness. Good for her.
“How about you?” she says. “You still live in Hawai‘i?”
“Yes. Yup, I’m still there.”
“Me? No. No, I never married.”
She looks at me and . . . I know that look. Now she’s feeling sorry for me.