Her hand must’ve been on my shoulder for a few minutes before I realized she was there. Chipped lavender nail polish greeted blurry eyes that couldn’t quite process what they were. Then the soft white of her knitted cardigan created a snow laden road that lead me to the beginning of a wrinkly face that was fighting ceaselessly to retain its youth. Her eyes were a bright blue tinged with seawater grey and looked beyond the tears that had stained my cheeks an angrier red than the acne already coloured them. Her hair was neat, not lavish, and tied in a simple bun behind her head. A basket dangled from her other arm with nothing but honey and soymilk resting within.
“Cheer up, dear,” she said, her fingers tightening gently on my shoulder. “It might never happen.”
I could tell that she wanted to say more. Something behind those piercing eyes of hers lay a truth that she wanted to share. But a lifetime of politeness was a tough shackle to break and instead she tightened her free hand into a fist, the only sign of the frustration that raged within her.
As a flash of guilt moved from one corner of her eye to the other, she dropped the only hand that had touched me in three months and made off for the cereal shelves two aisles down.
Wiping my eyes and throwing the now sodden roll in my hand back into the shelf I had plucked it from, I abandoned my trolley filled with Doritos, Twirl Bites and Golden Crunch biscuits and desperately sought freedom from the few nosier customers that had paused in the middle of their mundane routines, to ogle the freak that had began sobbing mercilessly out of nowhere.
Irony. Spending a lifetime wanting to be seen – to be noticed – and then running away when you are.
The car door wrenched open easily – this morning the ice had given it a fairer chance at resistance – and slammed shut loudly. Resting my head on the cool leather of the steering wheel I tried to let myself cry again, if only to bring the sweet relief of release.
But nothing happened.
Where a few moments ago I could have wept a river that flooded the supermarket and everyone in it, now I could hardly muster a tear if I jabbed myself in the eye mid-yawn.
“Why do you have to be so cruel?” I asked myself.
Something was different though I knew that for sure. The woman had seen me. She’d taken time out of her day, not to gawk, but to talk. I was no one to her, less than no one. In a supermarket other customers aren’t people, but hindrances designed to walk slowly down cramped aisles, let loose children with sticky hands to throw lemons at underpaid students just trying to earn a living and, most infuriatingly of all, abandon their trollies at awkward angles while they peruse fancy yoghurts despite knowing they’ll stick to Müller Corner; so you have to push it out the way yourself, only to be met with a disapproving tutut like you were raiding their purse for drug money.
She cared. She cared enough to tell me ‘it might never happen’. She didn’t have to do that.
“What might never happen?” I asked myself as an elderly couple looked suspiciously in the steamed up car window and tittered to each other that I must be insane.
I’d spent a lifetime asking myself the wrong questions. Why me? Why do I feel so wretched? Do I want to be here anymore? But I had never asked what I was anxious about. Nor had I thought to entertain the idea that it wasn’t my fault. But she had. That stranger with the purple nails and the mysterious eyes. She’d managed to ask herself a question that had eluded me for years.
What is he so scared of?
And that was the beginning of recovery.
Months passed. So did three doctors, five psychiatrists, twenty-five different types of medication and countless hospital appointments. Two suicide attempts punctuated my journey to wellbeing, like little full stops that ended one age and began another. Each time I pulled myself from the ashes, a phoenix more beautiful and stronger than I had ever been before. The medication made me ill, made me lose weight, made me gain weight, made my head hurt and put me in coma-like sleeps that no Prince was on his way to counter with a kiss. I smiled a thousand times – I counted – and rewarded myself with a day free of medication. Hey, what did I need it for? I was getting better.
A job turned into a career, a fling into a relationship and my heart swelled with the pride of getting stronger. I was healing myself. I was beating this monster that lurked inside me and made me cry in the bread aisle of supermarkets. I was winning.
I’m a winner.
Then one reward turned into a few, then a few more. Soon I’d abandoned the drugs all together – addiction be damned – and was making it on my own. A strong independent person that didn’t need no drugs. I graduated counseling. A hundred odd likes on a status and a boozy night out later and I was on my own now. That’s fine, I told myself. Look at me, living and shit. I could cry again, too. I wept when I saw news footage of a tsunami in South East Asia and a dog was clutching a stray shard of house for dear life. I cried when I watched a sad movie and true love never got its way. I sobbed harder when true love did because my own true love had not. But hey, what did I need a partner for? I was winning.
I’m a winner.
Promotion followed hard work and soon my work/life balances was definitely tipped in one side’s favour. Responsibilities piled up, stress took hold – its talons sharper than any eagles ever could be – and something began to resurface, an old acquaintance I had defeated long ago.
Her hand was on my shoulder again.
The nail polish was a subtle brown, freshly applied the night before and unchipped. She wore a cardigan still but this one was a darker brown, which complimented her nails perfectly and reminded me of the falling leaves outside, all gathered in large piles that only blew away in the wind. Her face had grown older though not by much, a testament to her daily regime. Only her eyes remained the same, yet even they were somehow different.
“You shouldn’t be crying still,” she said solemnly as tears welled in her own eyes.
I knew then that she wasn’t talking to me, but someone else that she had lost. A son perhaps? Or a husband? I didn’t know. But no amount of politeness was going to hold her back now.
So she did what she wished she had done to that vital piece of her heart – her soul – that was now gone, and pulled me into a hug so tight that it almost pushed all my broken pieces back together.
“But as long as you are, you’re alive,” she whispered as she let the fractures of who I was pull apart from each other once again.
They were a little closer than they had been before, I knew. Just a millimeter, maybe less. But I was definitely a little more whole for that hug. A little more alive than I had been before. And a little step closer to being truly well again.