She Knows

She’s always smiling, always, even when she isn’t taking the order.

Two fish tacos, no salsa.

Which I rarely have to say, because I’m a frequent flier at this tiny taco shop on the corner.

She knows.

But she isn’t smiling. She’s staring solemnly off to her right, looking for an answer in some ethereal card catalogue.

I have an idea about what the question could be, courtesy of the local newspaper stacked outside the glass entry door. The namesake matriarch, who’d started the taco shop almost 4 decades ago, was tragically hit by a car and killed a few days ago.

Maybe that’s why the lady behind the counter is sad.

Maybe not, though.

Maybe she’s sad because her son is sick.

Or maybe because she didn’t have a son.

Maybe because she got into a fight with her partner.

Or maybe because she didn’t have a partner.

We rarely know, do we? What burden the other may be carrying, what internal dialogue may be waging battles between their reason and imagination. And sometimes the other wants to be heard, sometimes just to be left alone.

And so these questions swirl around my own interior as I wait in line to order. When she looks at me with soft, wet eyes and asks ‘Two fish tacos, no salsa?’, I nod and wonder how to tell her that I recognize she’s in some kind of pain, and it’s not my business, but I’m sorry.

I just want her to know.

She passes the receipt over the cash register, and I touch her fingers for a moment longer than usual, until she catches my eye.

I hold her gaze and bow my head. The corners of her mouth raise ever so slightly as she bows her own.

‘Gracias.’

She knows.

I Belonged To A Gym Once

I belonged to a gym once.

In 1994.

I’d just moved to New England, mostly because that’s where I’d wanted to go to college. I hadn’t been accepted to the dreamed-of Ivy League school nestled in the New Hampshire foothills, so I settled for a studio apartment over a bar in Boston, 20 feet from Fenway Park.

Back then, resumes lived with cover letters, in actual envelopes with stamps. I sent out a lot of those missives, to addresses listed in job-seekers’ books and want-ads, and a few weeks later got a call back from a mutual funds company on Federal Street. I started working there a few days after my interview, at the hefty salary of $19K a year, which didn’t even cover my rent.

I’d never lived that far from the Pacific ocean, and with few reasonable sub-freezing winter surfing options, I sought out a hydric alternative. Bally’s had just opened a new gym with an indoor pool, in a suburb 40 minutes away by train, so I rode out there one late autumn Saturday morning, fell for the sales pitch, and signed up for the $24.95 a month plan.

I did a few sit-ups on the rubber mat in a corner of the main workout room, under the sideways supervision of regulars engaged in comparative competition. Overhyped encouragement from the headset-mic-wearing trainer leading the aerobics class drove me to the pool, where chemicals leeched into my pores and burned my eyes, to which I attributed my inability to stay in my lane.

I never went back.

Instead, I started bundling up in two pairs of sweats and a parka every morning before work to run along the Charles River, where I’d imagine a dog at my side, tugging at the leash and tripping through my feet. That image shined like a beacon through the dark, lonely winter and late-arriving spring, until I quit my job on Federal Street in early summer and headed out I-80 to find the source of light.

But I’ve told that story before, in books and talks.

I ran with a different dog this morning, over two decades later, give or a take a couple of weeks. We bounded down the draw behind the house, the rhythmic glimpses of her ears flopping through waist-high grass serving as a different kind of beacon. I stopped to listen for the spring creek’s song, barely audible now, and put my hand on my heart for that old dog, the one I dreamed of while running along the Charles River, the one I found off I-80 in Utah, the one I did most of my growing with, until she died in early July over a decade ago, a couple weeks after my birthday.

This time of year.

The little yellow dog was waiting for me, fifty feet further toward home, her head turned toward me in expectation, but her body turned toward joy. She pounced and I took off after her, laughing at some of the things we do when we’re learning to be the people we’re supposed to be.

I belonged to a gym once.