We both pull a foot back up to the curb, calculating the narrowed opportunity for dashing across the street. The oncoming cars do not lurch forward. They are not as impatient as us. I look quickly to the traffic sign, for the little LED pedestrian guy. He's flashing red. I look back to the traffic, at the headlights pulling ahead, and acquiesce.
"This would be the night we slip and fall," I say, shaking my head. Cars snake across our intersection.
"That would be an awful way to go," she says.
This strikes me as funny, for some reason. "Yeah," I say. "I'm hoping to give my people a better story to tell at my funeral."
We're both peeling back the beginning of a laugh. Her voice is chiseled, textured. The caliber you wouldn't want firing threats or reprimands.
"I read about an actress who took a bunch of pills, and they found her with her head in the toilet," she said.
"Not in the toilet," I groaned.
"I don't care what people have to say after I'm dead," she said. "It doesn't matter if they know how I died."
"But you'll know!" I insist.
She tosses her head back to free a hearty laugh. I've always had good luck with people who surrender to joy this way.
"I'm not used to your Midwest ways," she says after a moment, and turns to demonstrate a processed, static smile. "I'm from the east coast. When everything is wrong, you see it."
I was told once that, elsewhere, waitresses refer to customers' neat nesting of their own dirty plates as The Midwest Stack. Congeniality, we've got in the bag.
"It's a practiced survival skill," I say.
"The laugh was good," she says. "I've been remodeling."
"One room or everything?" I ask.
The little LED pedestrian guy lights up for us and we step into the intersection. My comrade moves swiftly, clutching books and binders to her body. She stands at about five foot four, with a revolution of graying chestnut spirals bouncing against her shoulders, keeping time with her steps.
She tells me about the broken sewage pipe. The spewing. The contractors. The boxes of everything she owns. She tells me about her unexpected travel to Baltimore and back. Baltimore and back. Her mother is ill. She asks me what I thought about Philadelphia when I visited.
I tell her about the sharp contrasts of neighborhoods, the cantina we ate in with an octopus on the patio roof, the Gil Scott Heron performance, the unplanned beauty of it all.
"I'm heading in here," I say, wanting to hear the end.
"I am too, but it's the other door," she says. We keep walking. She picks up the end of her Match.com story. "So, they told me that, even if I'm telling the guy 'no thank you,' their computer adds the reply to its algorithm and sends more just like him! So, don't be too nice. That's what I learned."
It's my turn to laugh.
I tell her about my online profile. My divorce. My writing. My youth program. The show I'm attending. She's heading to the literary revision panel. We both think of staying in touch, but pull back our feet. So many invitations evaporate once the moment passes. My mother calls it vacation promises; they seem real on the horseback ride along the beach but unlikely once you're back in your real life loading groceries in your trunk.
I go for it anyway, and hand her a card. I'm not in the city often, but when I am I'd enjoy a leisurely coffee and conversation with this lively woman. Our not-near-death exchange felt purposed, somehow. Lucky.
"Oh, good!" she says. She's genuine and enthusiastic. "Email me whenever you like. I'll email you back."
Honorary Fellow, Department of Comparative Literature, University of Wisconsin.
The universe is, once again, impressive. Just last week I was advised [read: threatened] by a close friend to start scouting fellowships. I had nodded, though I wasn't convinced I could. Or should.
Lucky, in the divine sense.
I part ways with my curbside compadre, both us wishing the other a great event. I took to the stairs, no hesitation in my steps. Smiling at the gift in talking to strangers.