She was two ahead of me in the churchyard line and I thought thank God she’s not right in front of me, involuntarily making a slight cringe-face at the stringy hair and bulging clothes on a body misshapen by fat. My irritable mind assumed she smelled unpleasant, though the wet, cold wind could be diffusing the odor. Among the fifty-odd “customers” remaining, she was the most distinctive, and swaying slightly on triangular legs, so that my self-conscious gaze kept returning. When she laughed in conversation the free, pleasant sound startled me, as if it couldn’t belong to someone who looked like that. I stomped on my own foot as punishment.
Though my first-timer status had moved me ahead of people who’d been waiting before I had even arrived, customers under the distribution canopy were moving more slowly than necessary, due to conversations between staffers and regulars. I was getting chilled. Yet I knew my bitchiness preceded discomfort. Despite two decades of regular hammering, my ego was alive and asserting authority, bless its broken green heart. A few Tuesdays in this line would knock most of the chips off my shoulder. Hell, none of us wanted to be here. I wasn’t special because I was well-groomed and thin, nor because I’d once directed dozens of staff. I was now a colleague of these other hard-luck cases waiting for free groceries. Never mind that I wanted mine vegetal and organic.
Then the male elder between that swaying woman and me was called away. No one shielded my narrow midsection from her offending backside. Her unwashed hair barely bent as her neck turned ahead of her rotating body. The gap between us filled. She smiled at me with her whole face.
We all wore tags in plastic sleeves clipped to our clothes—just like the name tags I used to wear at conferences. Her tag held the number seventy-six printed in bold digits. Seeing the word “new” dangling from my coat lapel, she shared some helpful information I’d been told yet hadn’t really absorbed: that next time I’d be given a number which determined how long I would wait in line, and that it was best to arrive before the food bank opened at nine.
One thing I’m still capable of is talking with anyone who wants to. So I heard some of her story, which included near-death by cancer—the disease I’ve impatiently called a medium-length slog through a muddy park. It now seemed smart to shove my ego out for a figurative smoke. In its absence, I could admire the genuine cheerfulness infusing her mention of previous homelessness and experience with other food banks, as if we were standing on a sunny beach and holding cocktails instead of sturdy plastic totes. While I am repeatedly struggling for a quality of life I can tolerate, this woman seemed truly happy to be standing in line at a food bank. Maybe I’d get there too.
By the time her turn for groceries came I understood why her hair was greasy—she’d developed an aversion to wetting it after seeing her thirty-inch mane hunched over the shower drain like a repulsive rodent. By the time I had my bags of food (including all three languishing packages of organic radish sprouts) I’d passed enough bleached breads, cookies and sugared products to imagine that I might gain weight. As we both exited canopy into the rain, I thanked her for welcoming me and asked her name. I wasn’t ready to hug her, though I knew I would have hugged a more appealing body. I stomped on my foot again before heading to my car. Engine on, wipers slapping, leaning my forehead against the cold plastic of the steering wheel, I hugged myself.