The thing about Dutch is that he’s quick. Maybe the quickest man I’ll ever know. But even he doesn’t recognize me when he answers the door.
“Hey Dutch, it’s-”
There. Now he knows. He only pauses to goggle for half a second after hearing my voice. I wonder if I had changed my voice before coming here if he would have recognized me at all.
“Andrew?!? The fuck happened to you?!?”
Even now, even while confident, he cuts off my sentences before I can finish them without effort. It’s like someone told him everything he would ever need to say in his life, he memorized it, and now like an overeager actor is trying to say it and get it out of the way.
“I got my heart bro-”
“‘Bout fucking time! You want a beer?”
I take my time getting mentally caught up.
“How… how did you know I drink n-”
“Ah, fuck. It happens to everyone. Worried you had cancer or some shit. Come inside!”
“Why would you think I had-”
“Back at the mill we always figured if a guy lost a bunch of weight it was divorce or cancer. Only two reasons, really.”
There’s a new feeling I feel when a woman smiles at me and I smile back, and we just stand there smiling at each other like two smiling idiots. I feel it now when I return my library books. A feeling like I should probably say something.
“Just returning these,” I say, standing there like a sub-human moron.
Yeah, this is too new. I don’t know what to do with this.
“Oh wow, you read these ones real quick didn’t you?”
I think she also feels like a sub-human moron.
This makes me warm inside.
All of the sudden, I realize she must have noticed me when I checked these out the other day. Noticed and remembered. I didn’t even talk to her. It was a different librarian. And it had been busy.
“Yeah… I read really quickly.”
Why does that sound dirty?
For some reason, I have no idea, we’re both nodding at each other. Agreeing with the other’s presence. Like bobble-heads, moving our heads up and down up and down. Reflecting each other.
“You new in town?” she asks, as she prints out the yellow book receipt.
“No, I come here all the time.”
“I’ve never seen you in here before,” she says.
“I used to not look like this,” I blurt out.
Wow, so smooth.
She blinks at me, and stops nodding.
“I used to look… different. Sorry. It’s complicated.”
Leave, a voice in my head says. Leave right now while she still thinks you’re in the Witness Protection Program or something. Under no circumstances explain what you meant by that comment.
“Thanks so much, got to run!” I grab the books and leave.
“See you later!” she calls after me.
Mike’s mother is staring at me surreptitiously from around the corner of the kitchen. She’s making some kind of gesture with her hands that may or may not be used to ward off evil spirits, but it seems racist to notice it or point it out so I say nothing and continue cutting a banana into my cereal. Eventually, she walks out from around the corner and stands two or three feet away from me and stares up at my face.
“Who… who ARE you?” she says at last.
“It’s Andrew,” I say.
“Oh, thank Jesus!” And she does, she clasps her hands together in prayer, and thanks Jesus in her soft songful old island lady voice. “I thought you were a ghost,” she says.
She puts her hand on my shoulder and squeezes as if to assure herself that I am not a deceitful spirit. It occurs to me that she did this the first time we met as well.
“Nope, just me.”
I’m holding a bowl of cereal in my hand now, intending to walk to the kitchen table. She’s there in front of me, a five foot tall obstruction holding me at the choke point between the counter top and the wall. She shows no signs of moving.
“Everything okay?” I ask.
“Are…” she drops her voice to a whisper, “are you sick?”
“Nope, just exercise.”
She squints at me, recalling how active I was last time we met.
“Are you sure?” she asks.
I try not to notice that the guy in the urinal next to me is staring at my face. Until his chin crosses the top of the faux-plastic barrier between the urinals and I feel like I have to take some kind of action. Like I’m a country whose borders have been violated and I’m obligated to mount a response on behalf of my people.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I ask
“Andrew! I knew it was you!” he says in slightly Ukrainian accented English.
“Yup,” I say, still peeing.
“You look so much younger!” he exclaims, also still peeing.
“Yeah, I’ve been exercising a lot.”
“Wow! You look like twenty-five or twenty-four. How old are you, anyway?”
A few more seconds pass. God, we both must have had a lot to drink.
“Twenty-seven,” I say.
“Oh, I thought you were so much older than that!”
The weird thing about looking twenty years younger than before is that I just look my own age now. Twenty years younger is a relative term, seeing as how I used to look almost fifty. A tired and sad fifty.
“Nope, just twenty-seven.”
We shake clean at the same time, which gives me pretty much the weird feeling you get when you realize that you’re walking in lockstep with someone else on accident.
As I wash my hands and look in the mirror, I think about how strange it feels to still be so young. To have had my entire life happen to me and still have so much life left to live. And… to think that I could probably be happy with it if I really, really try.
“See you around,” he says.
“See you around,” I say.
“Grandma! Hey, Grandma! Wait… hey! Where are you going?! Grandma, hold up!”
In an effort to keep up with her oxygen tank rolling down the incline of the sidewalk, my grandmother is moving at a truly awesome speed for an eighty-three year old woman. But she doesn’t even turn her head in my direction. Doesn’t even slow down.
My tiny precious beloved grandmother doesn’t recognize me.
“Grandma?” I say to no one.
I’d been sure she would recognize me. Been sure that she, out of everyone, would not have difficulty knowing who I am. Believed she would recognize me right away and that it would mean I was still somehow the same ol’ Andrew after all.
As I am no longer the type of person to be completely consumed by reverie, I realize it might be somewhat unsafe to stand here and reflect on matters of identity while my grandma barrels down the sidewalk after an oxygen tank she can’t control.
I chase after her, grab her oxygen tank, and slow it down. She looks at me and panics, like she might need to hit me with her purse or claw at my face and run away. But then she pauses, takes a moment to process, and in the completely shameless manner of an elderly person inspects me from head to toe.
“It’s Andrew, Grandma.”
She grunts, suspiciously.
Then, as if nothing is out of the ordinary, she hands me her purse and her oxygen tank and all the other little meters and doo-dads you have to carry around when you get into your eighties. When my arms are full, she turns to walk toward the car and I am forced to keep pace due to the cord wrapped around her nose leading back to the oxygen tank. Every time we do this, without fail, I think of someone walking a dog and have to suppress laughter.
“I don’t know what your mother is talking about, you don’t look that different,” she says, finally.
“I’ve lost eighty-five pounds, Grandma.”
She shakes her head and waves her hand dismissively. It’s the same mannerism she uses to brush aside things like computers, foreign countries, or Republicans. But she pauses partway through the motion and stares again at my stomach. I can tell she’s trying to reconcile it with the fat little boy she used to bring to her house on weekends and feed cookies.
“I need you to take me to get some ice cream,” she says.
“Okay, we can do that,” I say.
“You have to have some too,” she says.