The Things She Carried
On Sunday, we went to dinner at our favorite restaurant. This used to be our favorite dive – literally a cellar with a raucous bar and tables that wobbled and peanut shells on the floor. But the owner built a new nicer facility, and so now the food is stll good and there are still peanut shells on the floor, but it just isn’t quite as cosy as when it was a dump.
But oh well, things change, and the owner has worked hard and I hope he’s a huge success.
Anyhow, at the table next to us was a young couple. They were very affectionate – especially her. She kept leaning over to caress the boy, and plant kisses on his mouth and cheeks and nose and ears. When people use the cliche, “to shower with kisses” – this girl exemplified that phrase.
I found myself slightly annoyed. And this surprised me, because I have actually extolled the virtues of Public Displays of Affection. We seem to be okay with people staring at their phones in a restaurant, but not with kissing each other. So I reminded myself that these lovers were actually communicating in ways that didn’t involve emojis, and I relaxed and began to enjoy my role as Witness to Ardor.
And then I witnessed something entirely different. Or no… now that I reflect on it… maybe it wasn’t really different at all.
The young woman spilled something.
And with a smile not of embarrassment but of complete composure, she simply got up from the table and took a roll of paper towels from a nearby shelf. And she cleaned up. She moved aside all the dishes and glasses, the silverware and condiments, and wiped down the whole table. She never called over the busy waitress. She just fixed the mess herself.
And she wasn’t done. She tore off more paper towels and wiped the chair, and the table leg. (I didn’t even see what she was wiping, so it could not have been an enormous mess.) And while she was cleaning up, she got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the floor beneath the table.
Then she sat back down and smiled and kissed her boyfriend once again, and finished her meal.
That’s when I knew that this girl did not just possess affection for the boy she loved. She possessed affection for the world. Her sweetness extended to everything. Her PDAs are all-encompassing. And I was not only a witness to young love; I was the fortunate witness to a loving soul.
When the couple got up to leave, the girl picked up from an empty chair at her table an enormous backpack.
This girl could have been off to Mt. Everest.
I didn’t see whether her boyfriend also had such a big backpack. I like to think that he did not. That he traveled light and she took care of everything like she took care of the floor.
And I started to contemplate what might be in that overstuffed huge bag.
There is a beloved (deservedly so) book called “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. It is a collection of related short stories that reveal the souls of the soldiers by the things they carry into war.
I was reminded of this book as I pondered what this amazing young woman brought into the restaurant in her big backpack.
Here’s what I imagined she carried:
A first-aid kit. She would always be prepared with antiseptic and a band-aid. And probably a small vial with antacids and antihistamine and toothache drops. “I have just what you need,” she would say to a woman in the parking lot, as she pulled out the baby aspirin and a fresh diaper.
Dog biscuits. She doesn’t have a dog right now, but she’s always ready in case she meets one on the road. Just to say hello. It’s good to have a treat on hand for a friendly mutt. She goes through a lot of dog biscuits.
Photos of her family. Not on her phone. In a manila envelope with the catch broken off because it has been open and reopened so many times. She has baby pictures of her brother, now in college. She has a photo of her mother in a bathing suit, squinting against the sun. She has a creased and faded wedding photograph of her grandparents, staring seriously at the camera.
And a list of birthdays. She wouldn’t travel anywhere without a list of all her friends’ and family’s birthdays. And a few birthday cards she could pop in the mail. My father kept a list of birthdays. I found it in his wallet after he died.
A smooth pebble from a long ago trip to the beach. She holds it when she feels anxious, and as it warms in her hand, it calms her.
Socks. Specifically, new men’s socks. Three pairs. Whenever she sees socks on sale she stocks up. When she encounters a homeless person, she gives him a pair of socks. Good clean socks are her contribution to making someone’s life just a little better.
Books. You never know when there will be a few moments to read. Waiting in line. Traffic jams. Your companion tied up on a long phone call. Right now she has “Huckleberry Finn” – because she never tires of it; “The Double Helix” by James Watson – because she wants to learn and wants to learn about how you learn; and the Edward Gorey’s “The Ghastlycrumb Tinies” – because…well, why not?
A notebook with a pretty cover and the pages mostly full of doodles. Expanding spirals flowing from a purple pen. Every so often, a page with the beginnings of a song.
And at the very bottom of her big backpack, folded in tissue: an ivory lace dress. A wedding dress. Because her lover asked her, and she said maybe. And when they get to where they are going, she might.