A sea of SUVs and minivans greeted me as I turned into the plaza. I was overcome with a sense of panic that felt like a huge stone being laid across my chest. ‘Tis the season, I thought to myself. The overcast December day did nothing to relieve my stress. After finding a place to park in what felt like another zip code, I stepped out of my car frustrated, hot, and tired. The cold air slapped me in the face as the slushy parking lot assaulted my already soaking wet feet. How could I be so hot and miserable and yet freezing at the same time? Even though it was an icy late December day, I had abandoned my coat in the trunk of my car hours before. My holiday stress had become my little internal furnace. My cheeks were flushed from the cold and from feeling so overwhelmed. My hair was gathered into a messy ponytail and pulled through the back of a baseball hat – which was only sealing in the heat. Why did I put on this damn hat? My purse felt heavy over my shoulder and my body ached with exhaustion. I was in a hurry, and I looked like it, walking determinedly through the lot with an intense scowl on my face. I had a list of fifteen things to do and I was quickly running out of time. The last days of hurried shopping before Christmas had left me looking, and acting, like a bit of a lunatic.
I trotted through the sloppy lot and began to recognize the soft tones of Muzak Christmas Carols being played through the plaza’s sound system. The noise only bothered me. The annoying melody of White Christmas was soon wiped out by the sounds of whiny children and frustrated, snappish mothers. Great, I thought, just what I need – a bunch of whiny kids and their bitchy mothers who really should have taken them home for a nap an hour ago. The true spirit of Christmas had completely passed me by.
I dashed in and out of Bath and Body Works in no time at all. Two things checked off the list. Yes! A quick trip to the movie theater for tickets for my nephew and that’s one more thing ticked off my list. The Hallmark store? Not on your life. Not the week before Christmas. No way. I just didn’t have enough time. After all, I was busy. I had things to do. Those little ornaments would just have to wait until the after Christmas sale. I was turning on my heel after rethinking the trip to the Hallmark store when I saw her. Oh God, not now. Why me? I had a million things to do. There was just no way I could deal with this right now. More accurately, no way I could deal with her right now. Jill was walking slowly down the sidewalk. She was smoking a cigarette and looking down at her feet as she walked. The world was whizzing past her so quickly, and typical Jill, she hardly even noticed. She was wearing a cream colored ski jacket and dark blue jeans. She always looked like an LL Bean model. Her blond hair was cut shorter than the last time I had seen her. She had that look on her face. The Jill look. The look that says “my life is absolutely miserable and I have nothing positive to say.” I think everyone knows somebody like Jill. She’s the friend that will suck the life out of you like fire sucks the oxygen out of a room. Everything about her is a downer. It had been three years since her engagement had abruptly ended, and yet she still talked about it as if it had only happened last week. She was still as heartbroken, still as confused, and still as bitter. It was as if her misery was her companion now. It was exhausting to be around her. She was a beautiful woman, and she was letting her entire future slip away into a world of bitterness and anger. I could see her becoming a crazy old cat lady. I looked up again quickly, and made a split second decision to duck into the closest store. It was easier to stand in there and pretend to look at things than it would be to stand out there and listen to Jill complain about her loneliness. I waited for about ten minutes and then decided the coast was clear and that it was safe to make my way back out into the plaza to finish my list.
I went on about my day, eventually finishing all of the items on my list, like I always do. No matter what, I always get it done. It’s what I do. I should have felt a terrific sense of accomplishment that I got it all done. Why did I feel so bad? What was wrong with me? Why had this overwhelming sadness settled on me? I hadn’t even talked to Jill, how did she manage to bring me down this way? I saw her face in my head over and over again. That look. That Jill look. Dammit! It was stuck in my head. That damn Jill look was ruining my day. That pathetic, lonely, Jill look. How the hell did she do it?
That night as I was brushing my teeth, I looked in the mirror and saw it. It was right there. It had been there all day. I was ignoring it. It wasn’t the Jill look that was ruining my day. It was the Rena look. As I was brushing my teeth and replaying the events of the day in my head I thought about Jill and I blushed. All alone in the bathroom mirror, I blushed. I was ashamed of what I had done. I had behaved horribly. I had turned my back on a sweet woman who was simply having a tough time getting back on her feet after a loss. I was sick to my stomach. How could I ever fix this? I couldn’t very well call her at this hour and say “hi, Jill, I totally ducked you earlier today because I didn’t feel like listening to you whine, and I’m really feeling badly about it, so I just wanted to call and apologize.” That would never work. That’s not much of a plan at all. Why can’t I just go back and undo it? In a split second I had defined who I am capable of being. I was sick with my newfound knowledge. I decided that the next morning I would send her a cheery holiday note. It was nothing more than an effort to appease my guilt.
As I lay alone in bed that night I thought of Jill. I thought of the pain she had been through. How she had wallowed in it. Had she? Or was she just working it out in her own time? I thought of the pain I may have caused that day. I obsessed over whether or not she saw me. Had she? Had she seen me at my worst? Could she ever forgive me? Did I deserve to be forgiven? In those moments Jill became my mirror. She held up the mirror and let me see the kind of pain I was capable of causing.
Some people wear their loneliness openly. It’s the Jill look. Always looking down, shuffling their feet slowly, never noticing the world around them. Others wear their loneliness differently. They carry lists of things to do, they look through the crowd, complain about tired children, and trot along without really hearing the music. As I drifted off to sleep I realized that’s what hurt so badly.