I came home from Thailand ten days ago and I am with Brian. Brian is three years old. We’re keeping a pink balloon in the air.
“Mary Lorraine, what grade are you in?” Brian asks out of nowhere. He bops the balloon with his head.
“Bri,” I say mid-lounge, I punch the balloon back to his side. We’re both taking the game pretty seriously. “I’m not in any grade. I’m out of school. I’m finished.”
“Then,” his face twists and contorts and I can tell he’s working something out in his head. I kick the balloon because he doesn’t go for it. “Then why do you still live with your mommy?”
I go into a ten-minute rant about our generation and the job market and what college did to us. Brian is in the corner, bouncing the balloon against the wall. He isn’t even facing me. Suddenly the balloon floats over to my side. I don’t notice. I’m still talking. It hits the floor.
I cry, “That one doesn’t count! I wasn’t paying attention. It didn’t count.”
I’m looking at him now. He’s cradling the balloon in his arms. “Bri,” I plead, “Can’t we just start over?”
He shakes his head no.
I don’t mention how when I left Thailand I was given two and a half hours to leave. Two and a half hours to pack up my life, which was a year and half deep, to say good-bye to my village and to get on a plane. Two and a half hours. I only told that story in full once, to Erin, in a coffee shop in Manhattan.
“So,” I concluded, our coffee cups drained, “I feel pretty… out of it.”
“Yeah,” she gasped, “I mean obviously.”
“I’m just confused right now,” I said and went to finish off the piece of cake we were sharing. “So,” I said looking back at her. I suddenly needed to stop talking about this, it was making me feel funny. “So, how are you?”
The day after I came back from Thailand heavy rains plagued New Jersey. There was flooding. Basements filled up with water. I thought it was funny people were making such a big deal out of it. It reminded me of a typical day during monsoon season. So, when my mother asked if I’d pick up potatoes for dinner I put on my rain gear and got on my bicycle. I biked through town and to the south side, up South Avenue. I turned into the grocery store, wove around idling SUVS and parked my bike under and awning. I bought the potatoes. Hung the plastic bag on my handlebars and biked home. When I walked into the kitchen I was soaked through.
“What on earth are you doing?” my mother asked alarmed. “Why didn’t you drive?”
Why didn’t I drive?”
I didn’t think of it.
You have to understand I’m not trying to be eccentric here. I’m just trying to Be. In as honest a fashion as I can. Only recently has this been translating into more and more of an erratic sort of behavior. I swear though, I am not trying to be eccentric.
Two days after I came home that boy shot up all of Virginia Tech and I sat on the carpet cross-legged watching the 24-hour news reel. I would make snacks in the kitchen, bring them into the den and keep watching the story line unfold like the movie CNN made it into. I was entranced. I liked talking about it.
“I can’t believe it either. It’s awful,” I’d hash over with mothers while waiting in the coffee line. It’s an easy feeling. This horror.
I help my mom in her classroom because I have nothing else to do.
“Thank god Mary Lorraine,” a teacher says in passing. I’m in the hall making bracelets with students for Mother’s Day, “You came home safely.”
I was pretty safe there, I think. I smile and nod.
“Must be so nice to be back,” everyone I have seen says to me like a tree full of hungry sparrows.
Must be so nice to be back.
Must be so nice to be back.
Must be so nice to be back.
“Bet you won’t take this country for granted again,” someone laughs. Smiles. Pats me hard on my back. It makes me cough once as if I had been choking. “Yeah,” I say regaining myself. Laugh a little. Smile. Retreat behind my mother. “Oh, we’re so happy to have her,” mom starts up. I look at my shoes. I’m five years old.
There are some major changes that have happened while I’ve been gone that’s for sure. The one I notice the most is this; it’s the basic, primal, size-up question that I have known so well for the last four to six years.
It’s the, “Where do you go to school?” question which has now been replaced by the, “What do you do?/Where do you live?” question.
“When did that happen?” I ask my friend, Zach, after in horror I had to answer, “Nothing. With my parents,” to a girl I haven’t seen since high school. She was dressed neatly in a skirt and boots with long, blow-dried hair.
“You’ve missed a lot,” Zach says dryly.
The second question is posed mostly by my parents to the most random people. “Does he have a friend for Mary Lorraine?”
I wasn’t up for grabs a year and a half ago. So that’s another change.
I was at an underground bar on the Lower East Side last Wednesday night. The bar was mostly empty. It felt like a smoking lounge. Dark oriental carpets and mahogany bookshelves and tea cups instead of cocktail glasses. There was a transvestite standing alone by the bar and I noticed him looking at me. He was older, probably in his forties. He wasn’t flamboyant. He wasn’t trying to stand out. He was wearing a white blouse and a black, long skirt. Plum lipstick. A brunette wig with thick bangs. He kept fiddling with his drink.
I stood up from the table to get another Jameson and Ginger, he approached me shyly as I leaned against the bar.
“Hi,” he said in a deep voice.
He smiled and asked, “Do you know the name of this bar?”
“The Toy Factory, I think,” I said, “something with the word ‘toy’ in it at least.”
“Right, that’s what I thought. I just,” he started to spin his straw nervously, “I thought this would be different.”
I wasn’t sure what to say.
“I just feel silly.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I’m dressed like a woman,” he said flatly. I imagined him climbing onto the elephant in the room and I smiled fully and warmly and I loved him for it.
“I’m not trying to stand out,” he said.
“You aren’t,” I said and tried to reassure him. But I was lying. He did stand out here.
“I’m just afraid,” he said looking into his drink, “that I don’t fit in here.”
If I was a braver sort I would have hugged him then. I would have grabbed his hand and we would have run out of this unmarked bar, we would have run out the back alley and into the rainy night. We would have run through the dark traffic and exhaust and lights. We would have run until we found the place where the city ends and the forest begins.
But I didn’t do that, of course. I don’t even know if that place exists.
Instead I said, “I wouldn’t worry.” I paid for my drink. And I walked back to my table.
He stayed at the bar. Standing alone, mostly peering into his drink. And soon after he left.