Yesterday, I went to do a trade show for work. It was a small, regional show, and so I went alone instead of with a colleague. Walking into the university gym converted into an exhibitors’ hall surfaced all my old scabs of awkwardness in crowds. I imagined running back to my car in safe retreat, and making the two-hour trip right back home.
I set up my table – it was done in a few minutes – and waited for strangers to deign to stop and inquire about my wares. It is always the worst part of exhibiting, sitting there with frozen smile, pretending to not care whether people fail to meet your gaze as they hurry past. Trade shows were not made for the sensitive. I fantasized about an easier way to make a living – hiding in a box, perhaps, if only that paid well – and tried to busy myself with the shuffling of papers purposefully from one side of the table, then back again.
It was not helped by the fact that my boyfriend had slept over the night before and I’d had too much to drink in my exuberance. The fog settled somewhere in the vicinity of my brow ridge. It was that shot of blood orange vodka, I chided myself, taken near the end of the night when I should have been spacing my drinks out with water instead. It had seemed like such an adventurous idea at the time. But the next day it hung, anvil-like, on my head, and I felt rickety and ill-used. On the uphill walk to the gym, arms laden with catalogs and bins, my heart had given several curious, laborious jumps, and it had made me dread a deteriorating cardiac condition. I felt vulnerable and weak.
It probably didn’t help that on the drive there I’d been listening to the audio book of The Children of Men, by PD James, that classic about a society where no children have been born for more than twenty five years. She described the mounting dread so expertly: what are we if there’s nothing after us? And what is our individual death if not the end of humanity, for us? Although the book describes a death to the human race that hasn’t happened, in some ways it has shades of our individual death, which does. The thought did not improve my mood.
It was in this state that I sat in the gym, waiting for the day to be over.
But I have pretty unique luck in trade show placement, and the woman manning the booth behind me – also solo – struck up a conversation. She had gorgeous green eyes, her hair shaved on one side and falling fashionably near her eye on the other, her honey skin smooth and lovely. We talked trade show stuff at first: how was the foot traffic? Were we expecting another run? We had a compatible conversational style, and fell into an easy banter. I began to feel less alone.
Somewhere in the conversation I mentioned my guilt at leaving my children, that pervasive, constant background hum in my life. Snow was on the ground, and they’d both forgotten their gloves. The idea of them walking home without them ate at me, even though they’re both old enough to know better.
My trade show neighbor could relate on the mother-guilt topic, and we discovered we both had children a year and a half apart, hers a bit younger than mine. We talked of the shared experience: being pregnant or nursing for a big chunk of important early years of adulthood, and how they passed by in a haze, and how we wondered where they’d gone now. The talk rambled easily through the baby years, and then back to our birth stories, the memories of the fear and joy and amazement about what our bodies knew what to do when it counted.
I love those unexpectedly intimate conversations with strangers.
It gave me comfort, this common humanity. It helped me sit up straighter, breathe in deeper. My body felt frail that day, the fear of its decline heavy on my lap, but remembering its moments of strength and miracle-making made me feel stronger. The reminder that women all over the world can connect on that level uplifted me. Remembering that I’d always have these stories to parcel out and share with other women, like sparks for a fire, gave meaning to a directionless day. I wasn’t sure if I’d done any good, sitting small in my chair, until a fellow traveler wished me well and told me she’d once walked a path similar to mine. With death heavy on my mind, talk of birth balanced out my feelings.
It might have been the Gatorade, or the pleasantly unexpected early departure time, but as I carried my items back to my car, I felt a spring in my step. Yes, old age is coming for all of us and death is the one inexorable truth. But it felt good to hold it off and tell it: not today.