I’m sitting in my office … the back office, with the big window, with a view of the ocean – you know, that one … and I hear the door of the main office open, and an old woman begins speaking to my co-worker Sue, whose desk is in the reception area. Old people often wander in here, because there’s a company down the hall, 501B, that sells hearing aids. We’re 501A, but when you’re old and deaf, sometimes you can’t see, either.
The old woman begins telling a story, about how she’s looking for her real life, which was a wonderful life, a storybook, an opera (she names it, but I can’t remember it now). But then they moved to Florida, before she had a chance to finish the story, and now she’s living this other life, this life here now, which isn’t her “real” life, and she hates it, it’s a terrible life, and she’s looking for the portal that will take her back to her “real life.” Somehow, the number 501A is the key to where the portal is. That’s why she came here. Could we please help her find the portal.
“I know it sounds like I’m crazy,” she says, “but I’m not.”
In the middle of all this, I’m sitting at my desk, rolling my eyes, thinking, “What in the world?” I send Sue a skype message: “What???”
As the story continues, and the woman insists that the portal HAS to be here, I manufacture a visit to the restroom. I need a visual to go with this story, make sure I’m not just imagining things.
She’s a regular little old lady with white hair and a pink sweater, but what I hadn’t realized is that her husband was with her, standing off in the background behind her. (Sue told me later that he kept apologetically putting his finger up to his head, and making “crazy” circles with it.)
I grab the key to the bathroom, and as I pass him, I sort of half-smile a hello. He is staring at me with a completely blank look, shell-shocked, wooden. (This confuses me at the time; he seems unkind, like he’s mad that we don’t have the portal; now I understand his look: he was just trying to get me to understand. And I missed it.)
I get back, and she’s still describing the portal and how it’s supposed to be at 501A, and how she needs to get back to her storybook life. Finally, though, she realizes we really don’t have her portal here. She says, “Well, you know how in Alice in Wonderland you have to go down further into the rabbit hole to find the right thing? Maybe if we just go down a couple of floors, it’ll be in 201A.”
As they left, the husband looked at Sue and said, “My wife is crazy, and my life is hell.”
As they walked down the hall, Sue heard him say, “You can’t keep going into all of these offices and bothering all these people. People are working. They don’t have time to talk to you.”
She said: “But what if it’s the right one, the one we’ve been looking for all this time? Then, I know they won’t mind. We have to keep trying.”
Just breaks my heart, that poor old man.
“For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.”
That is what I saw today.
I wish I’d smiled him a real smile.