We all hold on to poignant bits of conversation, melodies and lyrics we find meaningful, scenes of beauty or horror that refuse to be buried. As we become older, we discover it’s easier to recall long ago moments than it is to remember freshly experienced ones. I can sing most of the lyrics of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” both Gladys Knight’s lead AND the Pips accompaniment, but I have to think hard to remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday.
Something I’ve not forgotten is a brief conversation I had three years ago with a person who spoke a lightening bolt’s worth of words in a matter of seconds. In relating this anecdote, I’ll not use this person’s real name. I’ll refer to her as “A.”
The conversation occurred in May, 2017. I was in a banquet room in a Center City Philadelphia hotel, attending the 50th reunion of my high school graduation. Many of the women in my class, the 211th to graduate from the Philadelphia High School for Girls, had accomplished achievements that were expected of us from Day #1.
“Welcome to the ninth grade at Girls’ High. You will find our graduates in every country of the world. Starting today, begin thinking about the university you want to attend four years from now.” Each September the school’s Principal delivered those lines to the incoming freshman class.
Girls’ High graduates young women geared to become successful practitioners and leaders in their chosen field. The school’s hallways host the footsteps of future artists, educators, musicians, writers, filmmakers, university presidents, bio-medical scientists, judges, White House speechwriters, art museum curators, cultural foundation chairpersons, and so on.
Because I anticipated hearing about my classmates’ heady achievements, I was startled when several women asked if I’d seen “A.” Had I noticed how much weight she’d lost? Their questions puzzled me.
Why was “A’s” weight loss so remarkable to women who valued academic and career achievements more than one’s body size? Would these same women notice I’d gained weight? If so, my vanity hoped they’d say to themselves or to each other, “But she still has that sweet smile.”
I’d seen and talked with “A” two years earlier when a dozen of us 211’ers met for lunch and a mini-reunion. She was as she’d always been, tall, slender, and the owner of a great laugh. I recalled her description of her family’s return to the U.S. following her career in government service. That career involved residing in foreign countries for years at a time. She spoke about her work with such enthusiasm.
Curious about “A’s” reported weight loss, I hoped she wasn’t in the throes of an illness. I kept looking for her, but I failed to catch as much as a glimpse. Perhaps she’d lost so much weight that she was now only a slim silhouette of her former self. Maybe she was reduced to a shimmery hologram.
Halfway through the afternoon’a rituals, I joined the line inching its way alongside the buffet tables. Eureka! I was standing directly behind “A.” I called her name and she turned around and hugged me. I tried not to stare, but I found it impossible to ignore the change in “A’s” appearance. No longer simply slender, she was now toned beyond belief. Her arms could have stunt doubled for Michele Obama’s.
When I asked about her diet, she explained that in addition to limiting meat and simple carbohydrates, she and her husband had thrown themselves into a daily conditioning regimen. They were exercising with a religious fervor.
“I’m glad you’re in front of me because I’m going to watch which foods you put on your plate, and I’ll make the same choices,” I said. I glanced ahead and knew I’d have to ignore the bread basket and the huge bowl of potato salad awaiting us, whispering my name.
Imitating “A,” I filled my plate with various salad greens decorated with a few cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, ribbons of onion, and a mini-carrot or three. I fantasized distracting “A” and raiding the bowls of cheese chunks, whole wheat croutons, and the pièce de résistance, a modest size piece of chicken. Who could object to a portion of protein?
“A,” I said as we got close to the dazzling array of salad dressings, “I don’t remember you ever being overweight. You were always slim.”
“A” nodded. “Yup, but I wasn’t fit.”
“May I ask, what was your incentive for losing weight and getting in shape?”
“Trump,” she said. “My husband and I want to be ready when it’s time to run.”
Of all that I saw and heard that day, the photos of grand-children and stories of interesting careers, the remembrances of the four years we spent at GHS, the funny and tender memories of our deceased classmates, it is “A’s” explanation of her weight loss that continues to reverberate in my mind.
In the spring of 2017, five months after Trump’s inauguration, “A” and her spouse visualized a time when it might be necessary to leave the U.S. in order to survive. They were preparing for their exit.
I try not to think of the unthinkable. If I have to forego eating potato salad, croutons, and rolls, let the sacrifice benefit my health instead of enabling me to flee a despot. I hope my former classmate’s vision of the future was/is not accurate, but Girls’ High girls are very intelligent and you can find our alumnae in almost every country of the world.
PLEASE VOTE FOR BIDEN/HARRIS BECAUSE INDEED OUR LIVES DEPEND ON IT.
©Renée Bess 2020
Renée Bess is the author of five novels and the co-story collector of an award-winning anthology, OUR HAPPY HOURS, LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BARS. Her next book, BETWEEN A ROCK AND A SOFT PLACE, is scheduled for publication (Flashpoint Publications) in February, 2021. She blogs here at Women and Words the fourth Thursday of each month. http://www.reneebess.com