I got all the way down to the beach and realized I forgot my book. It's windy and chilly so knowing there is no swimming to be had I turn back around to trek back up the weathered wooden staircase to the parking lot. It's after beach hours so the lot is sparsely occupied.
I'm walking at a slow clip toward the car I had just came from, in my own world of thoughts, when I hear a tiny voice behind me.
"Mommy, is that a boy? It is. It's a boy." in the not-so-quiet "whisper" of a four-year-old.
"Shush, shush honey," the mom answered.
I glance around me absentmindedly and see not another soul in site. This little girl is talking about me. I dare not look behind me but there is no doubt that this girl doesn't know what to think of this specimen she sees in front of her with what looks like women's clothing but no hair. I must have really thrown her for a loop. I'm wearing short green shorts and a bandana halter that reveals my back and bikini straps while my head is covered by my tan cap, which by no means hides the fact that I have no hair.
I pick up the pace, embarrassed for the mother more so than myself and at the same time unable to ignore the twinge of hurt creeping up inside me.
"But Mommy ... she looks like a boy. She's wearing a hat, but it's a boy. Is it a boy? It is. It is."
"No. No ... " the mom awkwardly laughs it off knowing full well that I can hear her child's accusations.
I pick up the pace as much as I can without making it obvious and reach for my book off the car's back seat with a swift swipe. I get my hand around it just in time to be able to shut the door and keep on walking while staying enough steps ahead of the mom and child to not have to acknowledge them. The last thing I want is to end up face-to-face with this surely wide-eyed inquisitive girl and have to answer any questions or confuse her about gender forever.
I make it back to my beach chair and sink in hard. From afar I watch the little girl get back at the sand with her shovel and run around giggling as the waves swirl around her feet. I know she has completely forgotten me as I was probably one of 1,000 things she questioned that day, but I know I won't forget her. So many of us struggle with gender, with appearances, with having the right kind of body, the breasts, the muscles, the V-shape, the curves, but in the simple world of a child it all comes down to hair length. Maybe there's something to be learned from that?
Chemo Talk Over the Clearance Rack
"Are we doing the same thing?"
"Excuse me?" I say as I look up from the $7 sundress I'm fingering on the Marshall's clearance rack to see a woman with deep ebony skin, almond eyes and a raspy voice addressing me.
"I said, are we doing the same thing?" she repeats as she draws her finger to her head and the scarf turban that covered it.
Taken off guard it takes me a minute to register what she is asking me. I reach to my own head and remember I am wearing a navy blue bandana - a surefire symbol that I'm a cancer patient. Then I realize what this is about.
"Lose your hair too?" I reply.
"What kind you got?" she asks, her voice milky and fluid.
I fill her in and she tells me she's got ovarian cancer. We stand there looking at each other for a minute and give each other a knowing nod before returning our glances to the end-of-summer deals on the rack before us.
It's quiet for a few minutes then she says, "My chemo hurts. It hurts so bad."
She's looking at me like I can make it better. Like because I'm going through it too I must know what to say. I have no idea what to say but come back with the only answer that makes sense to me: "You've just got to push through it. There's not a choice."
We lock eyes in a glance of understanding then I drape the $7 dress over my arm and move toward the register.
We're finishing up our dinner of yellow curry and General Tso chicken on the outdoor patio of Meadow Asian restaurant. Maybe it was the spices. Maybe it was the miso. Whatever it was, I will never forget the moment. Walking up the path from the parking lot was my Peppe. My Peppe who passed away two winters ago.
The man had the same labored walk, the same bend in the waist, the same weepy, yet bright eyes, the same stark white hair- thin but expertly combed into style. He wore crisply pressed tan linen pants and a wide plaid blazer in tepid summer pales with brown dress shoes perfectly buffed. An outfit I'd seen my grandfather wear many times on our trips to Tanglewood or Jacob's Pillow for a music or dance performance.
I stared blatantly as he approached and could not take my eyes off him. I put my hand on Craig's and whispered, "Does that not look just like Peppe?" He nodded and locked in on the man as well. He stared right back at me as he approached, a stare I could feel throughout my entire body.
He passed our table and entered the restaurant where he then waited in the lobby for take-out. My throat grew incredibly dry and my eyes welled heavy with tears. Craig was a mirror of myself and we just looked at each other stunned.
The man came back out with his to-go bag and remarked to the host about a flowering bush right behind my chair. Even the shake of his voice was markedly similar to my grandfather's. He stood on the patio right beside our table for what seemed like a solid five minutes, though in reality it was likely only seconds, and we shared another long and powerful stare. He walked away slowly and purposefully before hoisting into the driver's seat of an SUV.
I turned to Craig and said: "If he had stood there for another minute I was going to get up and give him a long hug."
We compared goosebumps and shared several shocked sighs of disbelief at the surreal experience we just had.
I remarked that my Peppe wouldn't show up all dapper to tell me bad news.
The next day I got the word about my cancer-free PET-CT Scan. Now I know he was there to assure me that everything was going to be okay.