Continued from Part 1
My heart sank, when I first caught sight of it. How could such a beauty, such a lithe and alluring woman, be so confined? How could she walk through the rigorous paces of each day, strapped into that form, wedged into an obligatory, vertical position like some collapsed invalid on an upright gurney? I was incensed, I was outraged. Who was it, who’d prescribed this rack for her, and what cruel fates had twisted her form to the point of requiring this physical affront? I couldn’t bear the thought of such beauty forced into any position it didn’t naturally wish. Surely, there must have been another way to right her posture. Surely, she shouldn’t have to stumble through life like a fractured bone strapped into a splint. But as I watched her in the weeks following my discovery, I saw no sign of her doing without her brace. I saw no relief for her.
And my heart sighed. Once I knew the brace was there, I began to notice her little struggles through the course of each day… as she clamored up the steep bus steps, and wrestled with her large, designer attaché in the confined spaces of the bus and office building. I overheard her telling inquisitive strangers that her brace was due to curvature of the spine, scoliosis. She’d developed it as a teenager, she told them as we stood in line to board the bus. My mind raced with questions about how a person developed such a disfigurement, and what could be done about it. I pondered the ways she could relieve her back of its burdens and what exercises might strengthen her contorted frame.
One day, while washing my hands in the ladies room at work, I heard a dull clanking in the stall behind me. Looking in the mirror, I recognized her shoes. I could hear her breath heavy, the sighs of long-standing frustrations slipping from her lips. If I’d had it in me — and had she given me leave — I would have scaled the stall wall, lifted her out of that brace and carried her through the rest of the day in my arms that were strong from lifting heavy weights. But when she emerged from the stall to wash her hands, her face was set, composed, and she daubed at her makeup and calmed her flyaways as though all were well.
Perhaps it was all well for her. Or perhaps it wasn’t. It hasn’t been well for me since I learned about her. My outrage has proved durable — and perhaps to my detriment.
One morning while riding to work, my thoughts became almost compulsive. Speculating wildly about her life, her appearance, her emotional state, her daily comings and goings, the workings of my incensed, inquisitive mind became nearly palpable in the closeness of the bus. She seemed to sense me, and closing her Wall Street Journal, she turned to the side ever so slightly to catch sight of who was watching her. She couldn’t turn the whole way around, for her brace was wedged into the back of her narrow seat. So she pulled out her compact mirror and opened it to discretely peer behind her. When she did, I and a handful of men on the bus lowered our gazes and pretended to work on our memos for that day.
I focused on my paperwork, sensing her watching me in her compact mirror. Sure enough, when I looked up again, her look was still trained on me, curious and inviting. The seat beside her was empty. While she held my eye, she motioned for me to take the seat beside her. Come here, said her look. I want to talk to you.
I hustled to gather the contents of my bag and reach the proffered seat, but just as I gathered the last piece of paper under my arm, we pulled into the final stop on our route and more passengers got on. The seat was snatched up by a portly woman in a tartan suit. I overheard her exchange a few polite nothings with my would-be hostess — then suddenly they recognized one another from a firm they’d both worked at, years ago. I caught drips of the conversation, as their animation added to the flurry of busying on the bus. We were nearing the city, and laptops were being closed, papers shuffled, breakfast bar wrappers stuffed into empty styrofoam coffee cups. As the two women up front chatted, I felt myself being watched. Sure enough, when I looked up from my paper, she was eyeing me closely with her compact mirror, pretending to preen as the woman beside her ran down the roster of former coworkers she’d seen now and then.
As her portly guest talked, she held my gaze via her compact mirror. Who are you? her look asked. And what do you want from me? What do you need?
Answering back, I thought, I only want to know you. I see you everywhere, and yet we never speak.
What would you say?
I’d ask you questions.
What? Ask, and maybe I’ll tell you…
What is the pain you carry? I thought. What is the burden you bear? Is your fine job, in all its high-profile, executive glory, not what you want for your life? Would you rather be a nurse, a landscaper, a concert pianist, an elementary school teacher? How have you gotten where you are today, and was it your idea in the first place? Or has someone else’s expectations landed you here? Your face sometimes twists as you struggle with opening a stubborn door, or bend stiffly to pick up a piece of paper. I’ve been wanting to ask, to inquire, to plumb the mystery of such a beautiful woman in pain.
Of course I notice. How could I not? I want to open the doors for you, to use my own strong back to retrieve your dropped things. It’s not glamorous, it’s not perhaps proper, but I want to usher you to the biggest stall in the rest room, then block the bathroom door, so no one can overhear your struggles. I want you to know that there is one person in your life — however distant I may be — who would never saddle you with the heavy weight of insistence on “success”, “performance”, impose on you unwarranted anal-retentive policies of perfection.
Then you are alone, she signaled to me, turning to the woman beside her for an instant to nod and acknowledge her conversation. When she turned back to me, she was more guarded, less curious.
But I pressed on… I want you to know you’ve succeeded in your quest for the ideal, that you are excellent in every way you’ve ever hoped to be. You are an angel barely disguised, and you don’t have to keep your fine job, your expensive things, or even your long hair just to please others. Maybe if you gave up your determination to exceed others’ expectations, I wanted to say aloud, you’d no longer need that brace. And maybe you wouldn’t have to keep your tresses to disguise it.
I’ve worked and waited a long time for hair like this — A job like this — A life like this.
But it burdens you, I insisted. I want to lift your burdens and your pain onto my own back, my own broad, strong back that I exercise each week without fail, and give you some solace from your discomfort. I want you to know you aren’t alone, that there is another who knows your plight and won’t shrink from facing it. Give me a chance, I thought almost aloud. Give me half a chance to show you what it is to laugh and dance and sing and not give a good goddamn what anybody else has to say about it. Just let me in, and see what your life could be like.
At that, she snapped the mirror smartly shut and turned her attention to the woman beside her. As the bus pulled into the depot, I watched her tug her leather briefcase onto her lap and smooth her hair around her shoulders; I longed to be in the seat beside her, to reach out and caress her tresses. She seemed familiar, so familiar, for such an aloof and belabored creature. And as all the commuters lined up to file off the bus, I watched her lumber down to street level with a mixture of longing and despair. All eyes were on her, as she crossed the street and entered our office building, Through the glass panes that fronted the structure, I saw the security guards greet her with wide smiles.
It’s been months since I saw her last. I hear she got a promotion — and that step up the ladder has lengthened her work hours. I rarely see her on the bus anymore. Now and then I catch sight of her in the halls, as she visits her old cohorts or checks on their progress, now that they’re her subordinates. When we pass each other, she barely acknowledges me. But now and then I can elicit some faint glimmer of polite recognition from her set features. And I can never help but turn to watch her go, her chestnut locks shimmering — even under the fluorescent insult overhead.
How alluring she is. How lovely, how sublime, how troublingly compromised. Every burden should bear such beauty.