Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Seeing Ghosts

Some things seem bound to happen. Like running into a long ago ex who trampled your tender heart to mangled bits. It’s purely a matter of time when you both live and/or work in the same city.

The first few times it happened with this ex-boyfriend was at events where I was free to move about the venue and hide behind a plant, flee to the ladies room, or leave. Which is what I did. All three times. 

It had little to do with him. I’ve long since recovered from his erratic behavior where he would say how great everything was with us, and then, barely 24 hours later, declare he “needed space” and break up with me. Then, two weeks later, he’d be back. Lather, rinse, repeat, until we finally, thankfully, broke up for good.

It had to do with how I felt about myself. On none of those occasions did I feel good enough about my current occupation or housing situation to deal with this person, or anyone who knew me when I had an office job, my own place, and traveled.

When we dated in the early 1990s I was a full-time corporate treasury analyst, part-time ski lodge waitress, fledgling photographer, and full-time smart ass who regularly packed a bag and traveled on a whim. Recently divorced, I had a great apartment in New England’s second largest city, and was finishing my MBA. Life was shiny, good, and full of potential.

After him, I went on to even better jobs, better salaries, better boyfriends, and more interesting travel destinations. It’s funny how life unravels.

After selling my house and leaving a solid job in Tennessee in 2013 to be closer to family, I was two years into living at Mom’s, taking “closer to family” to a different level than initially envisioned. The only job I could find after 100 applications was part-time and minimum wage, which is where I saw Mr. I-Need-Space. At my pay rate, it would require a lot more than 25 hours a week to afford luxuries to which I had become accustomed and fondly remember. Like my own dwelling. And groceries.

I did not feel fabulous, or even adequate. I was feeling angry and trapped in my own personal definition of failure.

One day, feeling especially burdened by the specifics of life “back home,” my luck in dodging that ex ran out. I was at work, running a register to help clear the line of customers-waiting-to-pay. While finishing a transaction, I scanned the line to estimate my triumphant return to the glamour of clearing the fitting rooms.

There he stood at the front of the queue, looking better than ever, waiting for the next available register. Which appeared to be mine. It was too late to drag out the current transaction with time-sucking, idle chit-chat. We were done. That’s why I was scoping out the line in the first place.

There was always the chance he wouldn’t recognize me. My hair was really short when we dated, and now it’s a few inches shy of my waist. Instead of contacts, I’ve been wearing glasses at work. 

He approached the counter and set down a pair of gloves. He looked me right in the eyes and said, “You should smile more.”

If it was anywhere but my work, I might have told him to shut the hell up. Or playfully asked if he was always so bossy with store clerks. The me he dated a couple lifetimes ago would have blurted either of these without hesitation. The current me felt mostly brain dead with nothing to say.

My flight instinct begged to activate, and if I was anyplace other than the checkout, I would have relocated to the fitting room or a far corner of the building the instant I spotted him. But I was trapped behind the counter.

I said “Hello,” and asked if he’d found what he needed -- standard transaction dialogue. I asked if he was using a store charge card (standard query) and if he knew he could get a discount by opening a store charge (standard query). I finished with “That concludes the company speech,” lest he think I was trying (and failing miserably) at basic conversation. 

While signing for his purchase, he asked, “How is your life?” I almost said, “Terrifying! I just saw a ghost!” The me he dated a lifetime ago would have. The current me is dull around the edges and snappy comebacks are rare.

The life story I could have told includes a recent return home after decades away, travel to three continents and multiple islands, three months in Korea followed by 12 years in Tennessee, and satisfying career chapters in writing and marketing. But I wasn’t going to fill him in on the past 20-plus years or even the past 20 minutes with a line of people waiting. Besides, it hurts to think about my old life, because right now, I lack the means for any of it. And my only crime was moving back home in a crappy economy.

The discomfort of interacting with someone I knew in more successful times led me to mumble something that may not have included any actual words from the English language. He left. The whole thing felt weird, because I felt weird. Like I don’t fit in my own life anymore.

As I was completing the transaction with the customer after him, he reappeared at my side of the counter, stuck a business card on the keyboard, and told me to get in touch with him “so we can catch up.” He left again. Feeling obliged to acknowledge the interruption, I said to my customer, “THAT was a ghost from forever ago,” as I returned to her transaction. 

And finally, the line of customers was gone, allowing my overdue departure to the safety of the fitting rooms.

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