by MARY ELIZABETH LEACH RAINES
It was the early 1980s, and I was driving to the East Coast to reconnect with a man whom I hadn’t seen for years. In my youth, what a crush I’d had on this sweet unsuspecting fellow! He, however, had never shown the slightest interest in me beyond that of a cordial friendship.
Now, more than 15 years later, I was going to visit him.
And his wife.
And his children.
Before I proceed any further, let me interject a disclaimer: I am not a shallow woman. I hold in disdain the kind of people who focus on superficialities and appearances. To me, a janitor has the same worth as a CEO; an 85-year-old grandma with a face full of wrinkles and hairs on her chin wearing K-Mart sweatpants is just as important to me as the latest hot Hollywood star boasting jewels and a designer gown.
Speaking of Hollywood… While working some years ago on the set of the TV show West Wing as a Professional Background Actor (translation: as an extra), I had the pleasure of meeting the show’s star, Martin Sheen. Sheen was an activist and a good guy. He’d even been jailed for his activism. He refused to discriminate against anyone; he treated his producers no differently from the way he treated me.
One night, when the cast was being transported some distance for a shoot at an airport, rather than use a limo, Sheen hopped into the van that was carrying all of us extras.
He plopped down right in front of me, sitting next to an old wizened fellow.
“Where are you from?” Sheen asked the man amiably.
“I just got out of prison,” the old guy answered. “I’m on parole.”
“No kidding!” exclaimed Sheen happily, clapping the man across his back. “Me too!”
His enthusiasm was not fake. He was simply the kind of person who refused to buy into status or appearances.
That being said, it was my intention to appear as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as I possibly could at my reunion with The Unrequited Crush.
Why did I care so much how I looked for a man who had never even seemed to notice that I was a girl?
Well, if my host were to see me in all my splendor and appreciate the alluring vision I presented, and if he were, as a result, to experience even the slightest pang of regret at having never seized the opportunity of indulging in me when he’d had the chance…I certainly wouldn’t mind!
As for his wife, who was a talented and smart woman, my stunning appearance wouldn’t do any damage to her either. It could only serve to boost her confidence, since my former not-beau had chosen her when he could have had me, the jaw-droppingly gorgeous female! How could she not feel good about herself?
Talk about win-win-win!
The only problem—and it was a daunting one—was that of looking jaw-droppingly gorgeous. As soon as the date for our reunion drew near, I knew that I had work to do, for I am not a natural beauty. External devices would be required.
To this end, I deliberated for hours about exactly how I would style my hair.
I went on a crash diet.
I bought new underpants.
The rest of my wardrobe fell into place when a friend offered me a hand-me-down blouse. It was an expensive silky blouse that was quite flattering on me. I had no idea how she could part with such an exquisite garment. (I would, to my great dismay, find out later.)
The day of the meeting finally came. I dressed both with excitement and immense care before the long drive, wearing the new underpants, pulling on my sexiest open-toed high heels and, of course, putting on the flowing blouse.
It was a dreadfully humid day, so I decided that I wouldn’t attend to my makeup until I got close to my destination. Granted, I looked a little pasty-faced, but that was preferable to arriving on the doorstep of my youthful love interest with smeary lips, blotchy rouge, and raccoon eyes from melting eye-makeup.
I patted down the natural frizz of my hair, and then sprayed it mercilessly until it was as hard as the aluminum siding on a suburban tract house, hoping to close off all possible escape routes for even the smallest bit of fuzz. Just in case, though, I stuck a few bobby pins in my hardened hair at weird but key places. I would remove the bobby pins when I put on my makeup.
And I was off!
After several hours, my gas gauge began dipping down near the empty mark. I was driving on a crowded turnpike skirting New York City, so I exited into the designated gas station. Self-service had not yet become the norm, and this station was one of the kind where attendants still pumped the gas for their customers.
Do ever I miss those gas stations today! In most respects I am an ardent feminist, a woman’s libber from way back, but I’m sorry: pumping gas is just plain unfeminine.
I am not the only evolved woman who believes this. A childhood friend of mine named Joyce Jillson actually wrote a book once called Real Women Don’t Pump Gas. It was a clever response to another popular book that came out in the 80s called Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche.
In her book, Joyce drew a chart that showed the highlights of a woman’s life. Almost at the top of the chart was losing your virginity. At the very top? Telling your friends you lost your virginity.
Here is something interesting about the author. She eventually became an astrologer, and she was one of the astrologers whom Nancy Reagan secretly consulted while hubby Ronald was president. She also chose the astrologically fortuitous date for the release of the movie Star Wars.
I knew Joyce before her astrology days. She lived next door to me when I was in the third grade. We didn’t have blogs back then, but we did the next best thing: Joyce and my sister and I put our heads together and created a neighborhood newspaper. We tried diligently to sell copies to people on our block; they only cost a nickel, but our readership never went beyond about five people. We put out two editions before we turned our attention to something else.
Back to pumping gas: Joyce was right. It is not something a woman should ever have to do, at least not this woman.
First, whenever I pump gasoline, some of it always seems to dribble on my shoes.
Second, my fingers wind up smelling like Exxon instead of Shalimar.
Third, I always feel icky when I have to grab onto a nasty gasoline pump handle that untold others have held. God knows where their hands have been!
So. It was a relief that someone else would be pumping my gas for me on this special occasion. I was especially glad because of the open-toed shoes I was wearing. It doesn’t feel good when gasoline drips through one’s nylons onto one’s toes. (Probably you have to be a woman to understand.)
The gas station attendant sauntered over to my car, and I rolled the window down. He was a scowling young black man wearing a grimy bandana across his forehead. His sweat-drenched tank top revealed muscular arms, and he spoke in a thick inner-city dialect which I couldn’t understand. He looked like he might be the member of a gang. A really mean gang.
“Yeah?” he muttered in a surly voice. At least that’s what I think he said. His attitude meter was set on high.
“Fill ‘er up,” I said with a perky smile, pretending to be oblivious to the fact that he was scowling at me.
Racial prejudice was rampant in the early 1980s. Integration was still a recent concept. Mainstream role models like Obama and Oprah were young and unknown, and The Cosby Show, which, aside from one's feelings about Bill Cosby's transgressions, would accomplish more to delete bigotry from people’s minds and hearts than any law could ever hope to do, wasn’t even on the air yet.
It was a really rough time to be black, young, and male.
I watched this gas-station attendant with growing compassion, thinking about how hard it must be for someone like him to find a job that paid a decent living; obviously pumping fuel in a dumpy gas station on a congested turnpike would be no one’s deliberate career choice. It was probably the only work this poor guy could find. His life must be lousy. It wasn’t fair.
Unfortunately, I became smitten with the insane urge to make it clear to him that I understood.
We liberals do that sometimes.
When he had finished filling the tank and came to take my money, I launched an energetic barrage of sympathetic chatter at him.
“Wow, what a hot day,” I said, oozing empathy as I opened up my purse. “It’s got to be tough working in this kind of heat…”
I beamed my best “I’m-not-prejudiced” smile at him. He avoided making eye contact with me.
Determined to connect, I kept on chattering. Words spilled out of my mouth at a rapid pace.
“…Have you worked here long? It can’t be easy to find a job these days. Do you live in New York? Do you commute from there?...”
He didn’t answer. The more I chattered, the further he pulled away. The further he pulled away, the more desperately I tried to draw him in. I would prove to him that I was no bigot! I would make him see how much I cared, damn it!
“…because I don’t know what I would have done if I’d run out of gas on the turnpike in this heat. When it’s so hot outdoors, you must feel absolutely exhausted at the end of the day…”
As I blabbered, the observer part of me stood off to one side, utterly aghast.
“…Or maybe not. Maybe you don’t get tired. I mean, look at your muscles…”
Yikes. Now I not only had to let him know that I understood him and had compassion for him, but also that I wasn’t hitting on him!
“…Oh, it's not that I’m staring at your muscles!” I giggled, my voice artificially high. “I just said ‘look at your muscles’ because they show how strong you are, you know, so you probably don’t get tired as easily…”
I was floundering, unable to extricate myself, sucked so deeply into the whirlpool of my own fatuous jabbering that I had no choice but to persist.
“…and because of how much you’re sweating...but wait, now. I don't mean that you’re sweating too much! No way! It’s so hot! Hey, I’m sweating too. Everyone’s sweating. We’re all sweating…”
Avoiding the onslaught of the well-intended words pouring from my mouth, he held himself as far away from me as he possibly could, taking my money with a stiff arm. There was something peculiar in his facial expression; I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As he started to hand me my change, he made very sure not to touch me, or even to brush my hand by accident.
“…Why, thank you for the change. No, no, no, don’t be silly. You don’t have to count it out for me. I trust you…”
And that was a lie, because I didn’t trust him. I felt compassion for his circumstances, I’m sure his path had been difficult, I would’ve liked to have given him a break, but that did not belie the fact that he was a menacing-looking man and by no means did I trust him.
On and on I rambled as he gave me the last of my change. Despite the fact that my mission had failed, despite the fact that I knew how goofy I sounded, I couldn’t stop talking.
Maybe it was the heat.
The guy’s expression, meanwhile, had compressed into something so unreachable that I’d have had better success at getting on a flight to the moon than of establishing any sort of rapport with him.
With crude mercy, kind of like shooting a crippled horse, he finally put an end to our mutual misery by stalking away from me right in the middle of one of my long, rabidly rambling sentences. He shook his head as he walked away.
Defeated, humbled, but mostly relieved, I called out a final weak goodbye and reached for the key to turn on the ignition. As I did so, I glanced at my reflection in the rearview mirror—and I saw, to my horror, the vision I had presented to the young man at the pumps.
See, in those days I needed glasses to drive. I owned some fashionable aviator-style glasses, but they were so bottom-heavy that whenever I wore them, they left deep red creases in the middle of my cheeks. The indentations would remain on my face for hours, looking like fiery wrinkles.
Needless to say, in my guise of being a spectacular beauty, I wasn’t going to wear glasses while visiting the former desire of my heart, nor did I intend to appear at his front door with dark red gouges in my cheeks.
So on the last rest stop before this one, when I went to the bathroom, I’d grabbed two large handfuls of toilet paper before exiting the stall. In the car, I had shoved these wads of paper mindlessly under the bottom rims of my glasses to protect my cheeks. Then I promptly forgot about it. As I gazed in the rearview mirror, I saw that the toilet paper was still there on my cheeks, two big crumpled puffs of it, with tails of perforated squares streaming down both sides of my face.
Furthermore, my gorgeous new silky blouse, which I was wearing for the very first time, had somehow become unbuttoned. That, it turns out, is why my friend wanted to get rid of it. I’m not talking about one or two buttons here. All the buttons had come undone. The blouse had slipped back to the sides, fully exposing me in my bra.
There sat I, grinning too hard and chattering like a crazed blue jay at that poor guy, with toilet paper wafting over my cheeks, bobby pins stuck in my hair at weird angles, and my open blouse fluttering in the breeze...
I imagine he tells his friends about me to this day. Maybe I’m on a blog somewhere.
(c) M. E. Raines, 2011
(c) M. E. Raines, 2011
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