Many years ago now, on a crisp, clear morning in March, I drove down Memorial Boulevard in my old, beige Volkswagen Golf with the radio blaring. The car had been a Christmas present from my boyfriend, Alex. I had been astonished at his generosity, but deep down I knew it was because he had been too embarrassed to go out with a girl so poor that she got around on a one speed bicycle. Alex was from a well to do family and after dating for 6 months he dumped me. This was shortly after our February trip to Florida, paid by his dad, where it had become crystal clear that my values were light years apart from the ones shared by his brothers and their girlfriends. I would never fit in. They were all into Gucci bags, BMW’s and brand names I had never even heard of and made fun of people who were not as well bred, or as my friend Rick had said; as “white bread”, as they were. The breakup had hurt, but he had let me keep the car. And even though it had started to rust and fall apart, it still ran and got me where I needed to go.
As I stopped at a red light, a little old lady with thick glasses and big, red hat, waved at me. I thought she wanted to ask for directions so I leaned over the passenger seat and opened the door. The mechanism to open the window on that side didn’t work. To my surprise she flung open the door and jumped into my car!
“Oh, thank you, thank you! It seems like the bus is not coming today and I absolutely have to get my medicine. Can you take me to the pharmacy?”
“ Eh, OK. But isn’t the pharmacy just around the corner from here?”
“No, not that one. Walgreens. I get my medication at Walgreens.”
That meant driving to Middletown, the next town over, but I had the day off from Sprig Pottery where I had managed to get employment part time, so why not. I should have enough gas for that.
“ Sure. I’ll take you. Hi, my name is Kerstin. What’s your name? “I turned down the sound on the radio.
“ Well, hello Gladys. Nice to meet you! Beautiful day isn’t it?”
“ It’s freezing cold, is what it is. I don’t know what’s so beautiful about that.”
“That’s true. Let me turn up the heat a bit here. But it is sunny and the birds are chirping away so I think spring is just around the corner.”
“ I doubt it. This has been a hell of a winter. The heating bill last month almost killed me and I am so weak I am dizzy. I have not eaten properly for days.”
“ Oh, I am sorry to hear that. What about your family. Don’t you have anyone who can help you out?’
“ My husband is dead. Heart attack. My daughter lives in California, I never see her, and my good for nothing son got arrested for drugs the other week.”
“Geez! That sounds very difficult”
“ Difficult! That’s the understatement of the century! When I woke up this morning I thought of jumping off the Newport Bridge, but it was just too cold.”
Something about the paradox of her last statement sounded like a wry joke, so I laughed. Big mistake.
“ You think it is FUNNY that I want to kill myself!”
“Oh, of course not. I am sorry..I thought… Never mind. I am really sorry.”
I blushed. We drove in silence after that, but in my mind I vowed to make it up to this poor, little, old lady. It did not sound like she had experienced much happiness lately.
Once we arrived at Walgreens, Gladys shuffled out of the car and into the store.
“I will meet you here in 15 minutes!” I called after her. “I have some errands to take care of myself.”
I went into the store next door where I knew they carried some groceries. I opened my wallet which contained 22 dollars and five cents. That ought to be enough. I grabbed a basket and began filling it up with staple products, like bread, milk, eggs, pasta, pasta sauce. Gladys would not be hungry tonight.
When I stood in the checkout line I spotted some colorful bouquets of tulips. Smiling I grabbed the yellow ones. This would most definitely brighten her day.
When I got to the car Gladys was already there waiting for me. She looked impatient.
“ I am sorry to keep you waiting, Gladys. Did you get your medicine?’
“ No. They were out of the kind I needed. And they said my doctor needed to call in the prescription anyhow. Just my luck.”
“ I am sorry. Hopefully you can get a hold of him later today to get it straightened out.”
I opened the door for her and she glanced at my bags as she fastened the seat-belt.
“ You bought flowers I see. Well, some people buy frivolous things like that for themselves, while others suffer. Crazy world we live in.”
“ Well, Gladys. That may be so. I know things don’t always seem fair, but guess what? I actually bought this for you!” I handed her the bouquet and the bag of groceries, closed the door and ran around the car to get into the driver’s seat.
I don’t know what I had expected. Maybe a little surprised smile spreading across her face. But when I looked over at Gladys her mouth was like an upside down U. I was puzzled. Had I insulted her pride? Did she feel like I was making her into a charity case?
I swallowed and drove out of the parking lot.
“ What is wrong, Gladys? “ I finally asked.
“ These are tulips.”
“ Yes. Of course they are tulips.”
“I like roses. Tulips are kind of cheap. Roses have a lot more class.”
I could not believe my ears.
“ It is not really the season for Roses yet,” I tried, straining to keep my voice calm.
“ Where are you going? You are driving the wrong way?”
“ No, Gladys. I am just driving a different way back to Newport, so that we get a change of scenery.”
“ I don’t like this way. This way has stop signs. I like stoplights. Stoplights are much better.”
“Well, I am sorry you feel that way,” I said and kept driving.” This will soon get us back to Newport, where there are plenty of stoplights.”
As I drove, Gladys kept spewing out complaints about everything we passed on the road and seemingly everything else she could think of that was wrong with the world.
With sudden clarity I could understand why her husband may have had a heart attack, why her daughter had chosen to live on the opposite coast and why her son had turned to drugs.
A small part of me was even tempted to drive her to Newport Bridge and offer a helpful shove.
Finally we arrived at the house she had directed me to. A big beautiful house on Kay Street!
“ Wow! That is a magnificent home, Gladys! You live in that all by yourself??”
“ Yes. And the heating bills are horrific!!”
She grabbed the grocery bag I had given her with the tulips sticking out of it and heaved herself out of the car.
“And look at what a sloppy job they have done plowing the streets around here. I could slip and break my neck! “
“After all this I did not get my medicine as I had hoped, but what can I say. Life is hard.” She sighed.
“Well, goodbye then.”
With that she waved and trotted off. I watched her stooped figure climb the stairs of the old Victorian house and enter through the large ornate doorway. She did not turn around.
Eventually I drove back to the house in Middletown, where I was house-sitting for a few months. It was a lovely cottage, but the refrigerator was pretty empty. The cabinets did not offer much either. I dined on Ritz crackers and a piece of cheese. Come Friday I would get my paycheck. Until then I would, no doubt, find a way to get by with a little help from my friends.
Lying in bed that night, I had a hard time falling asleep. There were so many conflicting emotions snaking around in my belly.
I got up and looked out at the stars. Who was Gladys? A mentally ill, rich, old lady who had used me, or a very lonely woman drowning in her own discontent?
Part of me felt hurt, foolish, and taken advantage of. Martyr like thoughts were just a breath away. But something in me knew that if I got snared into the net of bitterness, I would be just like Gladys, and see the world through her suspicious eyes. Everything would look wrong, unfair and ugly. And I realized that if I chose to see life that way, it wouldn’t matter how much money I had. I would never feel rich.
As long as I could remember I had wanted my life’s vision to be about the good and beautiful we humans are capable of creating for ourselves and others. Naive or not, my actions that morning had been in alignment with my values. Gladys may have used me and manipulated me, consciously or unconsciously, but I had stayed true to myself, and that made me feel good. Self betrayal of any kind is way too costly.
With that thought I climbed back into bed, thanked Gladys in my mind for being such a valuable teacher and gave her a dozen imaginary but fragrant roses.