“Are you Jenny Haenisch?”
The woman’s voice, beside my right shoulder, surprises me. I’m at the cheese counter in the grocery store, the last place I expect to be addressed as Haenisch. I take panicked inventory—hair, clothes, jewelry. Well, hell. This is one of my fallow days—dirty hair, no make-up, baggy clothes. When I go out looking like this it’s a given that I’m going to run into someone I know, so why do I do it? Resigned, I turn to the woman.
Several inches taller than I am, and twice as broad, her most obvious feature is a cascade of thick silver curls. Her expression is thunderous. An old enemy, then. I’ve made a few along the way. If she doesn’t like me, why did she approach?
“Hi,” I say. “Yes, that’s me. Your hair is absolutely stunning.” I’ve lived in seven countries in thirty years, and one thing I’ve learned is how to defuse crazies. Even insane people appreciate a compliment.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
I give a good look, but no, she doesn’t look familiar.
“Sorry,” I say. “I haven’t gone by Haenisch for over thirty years.”
“Mary Lynn Bridges.” She spits her own name out like it’s vile.
Way more than thirty years, then. I haven’t seen her since junior high. She was pretty, with big blue eyes and long lashes, a giantess even as a child. Her hair was glorious, as it still is. She had a right to be upset with me back then because I said something mean about her, but I don’t get why she dislikes me now.
“Are you still mad at me?” My tone is disbelieving. Surely she hasn’t been carrying a grudge all this time.
“Every cell in my body hates you.” Creepy and mean.
“I was thirteen.” I wish myself anywhere but here.
The infraction: In eighth grade gym class every girl was required to stand on a scale while the gym teacher, a scrappy woman with a whistle, would call out each student’s weight, to be recorded by an aid who sat at a desk in the corner. I was shy, an introverted flute-player, obsessed with my weight, and warned daily by both my parents that if I ate I’d get fat. I found the public weigh-in to be humiliating, more so when it turned out that, at one-thirteen, I weighed the second most in the class. The only person who weighed more, at one twenty-eight, was Mary Lynn Bridges. Hovering near my locker, I whispered to myself, “At least I’m not as fat as Mary Lynn Bridges.” Though I said this to make myself feel better, it was shallow comfort. I knew full well that she was several inches taller than I was and could carry the weight. And I was so distracted by the whole painful process that I forgot that the locker next to mine belonged to Sue Webb, Mary Lynn’s best friend. And Sue, who’d heard my callow whisper, couldn’t wait to tell Mary Lynn that I’d called her fat. Before I knew it, I was Mary Lynn’s enemy, and the enemy of her friends, too. People turned away from me in the halls and no one would sit with me during lunch. Philosophically, I took all this as an appropriate punishment for doing something so profoundly stupid.
Time marched on. We went to high school. I made new friends who didn’t know I’d once called someone fat. And I gave the matter no more consideration until right this second, as this past nemesis has me trapped in front of the cheese.
“I hope your life has been hell.” At this point she actually crowds me, so that I have to retreat or get stepped on. “I’ve always hoped you were dead.”
Shaken, I manage to squeeze past her and limp away. (Yes, limp, for my toe remains broken. It’s taking forever to heal.) I pay for my items and make my way to my car. By the time I slide behind the wheel I’m trembling and my eyes are flooded. Really, I ask myself, who behaves that way? I hate confrontation. I hate that she reminded me of that year when no one liked me. It takes several minutes of sitting still and breathing deeply before I’m calm enough to drive. And dammit, she made me forget the cheese.
I’m reluctant to end my outing on such a sour note. On the way home I stop at Dillard’s. Mary Lynn may have impressive hair, but she is a bully, and she’ll never look as good as I do in jeans. I buy a pair of Kutts, which cheers me right up.