Just Another Afternoon Stroll

by Audrey Mills

I hoped a kindergartener would run up to me and say “Hey, I think I saw you around when I was a baby!” I hoped a yoga-pantsed, AirPodded mom would do a double take, despite her inability to raise her eyebrows. I hoped the librarian would ask me about the copy of In The Night Kitchen that my family never returned. All I got were tight-lipped smiles from the joggers I bumped into on the narrow sidewalk. I used to turn into old lettuce when I thought about coming back to West U: fragile, limp, slightly sweaty. Either the ponytail girls would see how very cool and French-like I’d become, and it would slow-motion dawn on them that I’d been cool and French-like all along, and then we would all simultaneously make out in the rain…or, they would part their lips in disbelief that the weirdo from Case Street dared to return to their Tiny Boxwoods turf. But, I miscalculated. Of course I wouldn’t run into any ponytail girls. They all have Jeeps now, and there’s no way in Hell they drive back before curfew. All I could do was circle around my elementary alma mater in my sunglasses like a very fancy secret agent. The mulch on the playground no longer stunk, for it was no longer fresh, and they’d put in the type of jungle gym that would’ve been banned when I attended. It was a Baseball Day, so all the dads had changed into t-shirts in their office bathrooms before leaving work early to see Hunter in his little white pants. On the trashcan under the old oak tree, there was a squirrel eating an apple like a human would eat a car-sized, mutant apple. I rang the buzzer by the entrance and looked through the windows in the double doors at the mural of a grinning fat child that lurked under the counter of the front desk. No one answered, but I was close enough to smell the scrubbed floors, which was all I really needed. 

As I walked back towards the sidewalk, I didn’t try to get into the garden I had planted, even though the fence was an easy hop. If the tadpoles hadn’t been eaten by a grackle in their youth, they would be toads by now, with homesteads under the willow tree and children of their own. They would have raised these children right and sent them off to one of the colleges that the streets were named after. In West U, if your kid doesn’t go to a college with a street named after it (with the exception of UT and A&M), you can’t go to any dinner parties for the next forty years, which is unbearable because they all have those good stuffed peppers and also lots of wine. That’s what I’ve heard, at least. My family “wasn’t really the dinner party type”, which is how my parents rationalized rarely getting invited. There was always a high school hallway whisper-whisper tint to every neighborly interaction. The other moms made a pact not to tell my mom about the “good cotillion” or the National fucking Charity League because, of course, there were only so many spots available. Not that we would’ve joined. By the way, you should never let the NCL snatch your cash—80% of the money they raise goes to pay for the custom flower arrangements at their galas. Pretty much embezzlement, but nothing compared to the scandal that went down at West U Elementary a couple years back. The assistant principal got caught with her hand in the cookie jar, so she locked herself in her house, shot her dogs, and held a lighter to the gas she’d trailed along the hallways. There was no obituary, of course. There was nothing at all. Around there, you get real news at the dinner table, not in the papers. I wondered how many others had been brushed aside so that the teeth-whitening ads didn’t have to share a page with something so indecent. Andrew Wang was the only one who got a memorial, because he was the only accident. 

I pushed down the memory of crying under a tree at his service in the school courtyard as I crossed the street to get to Writers In The Round: West University Music Lessons. From what I could see through the front window, it wasn’t littered with dirty food wrappers or crumpled sheet music anymore, which was more unsettling than it had any right to be. Linda Lowe saw me (she always sees you) and swung open the door with the posters on it and hugged me so tight that her bolo tie left a mark on my neck. One of her eyes is closed up now. Maybe she was stung by a bee. She also doesn’t know what Instagram is. She made me stand on the new stage they built and sing “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” under the spotlights so she could film it with her iPad and send the video to a person who knows what Instagram is. Then she asked me to sign the wall but the Sharpie didn’t work so I just pretended to sign instead. I missed her dearly and told her I would try to make it to her concert next Friday, which would be her and five other folky ladies in their sixties sitting in folding chairs and singing about islands they’d never been to. I forgot to go to the concert, but I found the flyer in my car today, and I think I’ll put it up on my wall. I should call Linda and ask for the date of the next one. This time, it’s going in my calendar.