Sunday, August 10, 2008

Remembering Arleen

When I was living in New York, I worked with a woman named Arleen. She was a small woman with dyed red hair, old enough to be my mother and I got on with her amazingly well. I was pretty much the only one in the company that can make such a claim. Most people tried to avoid her. They would go out of their way not to be in her general area. It wasn’t that Arleen wasn’t nice, she was. She used to bake me brownies just the way I like them, a bit undercooked in the middle. I think she adopted me a bit and became a sort of surrogate mother to me at the office. But there was one rule that applied when it came to Arleen. One topic that was never to be raised. One question that as never to be asked under any circumstances. That question was “How are you, Arleen?”

Those four words would initiate a twenty minute download of all her aches and pains. Her toes pointed the wrong way, her arthritis was acting up, the medications to help her sleep were keeping her awake at night , and if she did sleep, then those darned dogs started barking. I used to wait until everyone was gathered around, then ask Arleen how she was just before dashing off for a non-existent conference call. My colleagues hated me for the rest of the day. And not only would she give a detailed answer to the whole “how are you” question, she was one of those women that would sit at her desk in her cubicle (which happened to be right next to mine) and give a running commentary of the entire day. In one long sentence.

But I could handle Arleen. I have always been one of those people that can pretty much say whatever I like, and people tend to let me. I say the things others think and don’t dare say. I don’t know why, but people let me and I know that if anyone else said such a thing, there would be a war. I would just tell her to shut up and that the sound of her voice made my bagel repeat on me and that she was driving me crazy. In the beginning, people would look at me shocked, wondering what was going to happen next. If Arleen had anything, she had a quick temper. But she never took it out on me. I could talk to Arleen in a way nobody else dared and because of that, we created a wonderful friendship. Arleen was just a very lonely woman. She was divorced and her daughter had been killed by a drunk driver several years earlier. Like most people that go through such a situation, she never got over it. It was a topic we would sometimes discuss but I would never pry for details. I gathered from conversation that her daughter was about my age and Arleen thought we would have been great friends.

I always felt sad for Arleen, but I never treated her like everyone else did and she came out of her shell for me. I think I saw a side to Arleen that very few people have. We even got the point where I would ask “Arleen, how are doing? You’ve got five minutes. Go!” She would laugh and giggle and tell me all about her toes and neck aches over coffee and bagels with too much cream cheese and I would cut her off after five minutes and then we would talk gossip. The thing is, she knew she was annoying to people. It was her way of keeping people out of her actual life, away from her real feelings. Once someone dared to peek through the curtains, they would find a wonderful woman, kind and caring and wickedly funny almost bordering in evil.

When I moved from New York, Arleen was one of the people I really missed. Every once in a while her face comes to mind and I wonder how she is doing and I hope she is well. It has been 14 years since I left New York and still I can hear her voice in my head. Tomorrow is my birthday and if she were here, there would be hot, fresh baked brownies sitting on my desk. No note, no card, just the pan of brownies, cooked just the way I like.

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