I followed the reflexologist inside, sat, and as I bent over to take off my boots, she said, "You have beautiful hair." I wanted to say, "That's because my left pinky toe is very healthy." Instead, I just smiled and thanked her. "Yeah," she said, "I had hair like that when I was young. It was because I drank 6 bottles of beer everyday, ever since I was 16. Now that I am older, I've decided to stop coloring it, keep the gray and cut it short." She ran her hand through her pixie-cut hair and asked, "Don't you think it looks great?"
"It does. It's really becoming." I had told her the truth. She did really look great. She had a happy demeanor and was full of energy. Any kind of hairstyle is becoming on a person like that. I lay on her table and, after putting cream on her hands, she began massaging the bottoms of my feet. I closed my eyes, hoping I could take a short nap.
"Are you from here or on vacation?" she asked.
"I'm just here for one day to promote a book I just published." I said, closing my eyes to give her the signal I just wanted to relax. But obviously she didn't get it. "Oh, that's wonderful. I love books. I read five or six a week. I'm Reading Life of Pi right now. And I write too, for a communist magazine. I started that as a teenager in Czechoslovakia and still do it now."
And from then on she became even more animated. She held one foot with her left hand and kept gesturing with her right. Okay. I knew that was the end of my relaxing massage for sure. She went on. "I left home when I was 18 and traveled all over. I went to Hungary. I had many boyfriends and was a staunch communist. Went and lived in Italy, too, before coming here with my husband. Oh. I hate this music coming from downstairs. I'll have to give them a piece of my mind later."
I started wiggling my toes, hoping to draw attention to what she was supposed to be doing, to no avail. She continued, "I have two gorgeous sons. One went to the Iraq war and I was so sick with worry that I had to smoke a joint every night." I stopped wiggling my toes. She didn't even notice. "My boyfriend was really unbelievable during that time. We went to concerts together. He's a fisherman here. He spends six months with me and six months with his brothers in New York."
I wasn't sure which part of her story I had to listen to: the part with the son in war, the joints, or her boyfriend who is not around half the year. So I picked up from her last statement. "Well do you miss your boyfriend the six months that he is not here?" She shook her head, she was gesturing with both her hands now. "No. I like my space. Why do I want someone with me all the time? I'm perfectly happy like that. You know when my son was about to go to war, I took him to Paris and we had a ball. I told him, 'Listen. You don't have to do anything you don't want to. I have friends all over the world. They can put you up anywhere you like.' But he went anyway. God. I hate this music. Why don't they put on Jimi Hendrix or something?"
She pointed to the wall behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and a large poster of Jimi Hendrix in the midst of a guitar lick with a psychedelic rainbow behind him stared back at me. And people could relax and get reflexology with Jimi's music blaring? Above the poster I noticed a T-Shirt with a picture of Che Guevara pinned to the wall, with a poster of Che to the right of it. For the first time I took the room in. It was full of embroidered shawls and ornate velvet chairs and posters of her idols. It struck me that this woman in her late 60's had decorated her office as if she was both a gypsy and a love-struck teenager. And of course, Che fit right in with her ideology. Che was an Argentinean, Marxist revolutionary, who happened to be a physician, author, intellectual, guerilla leader, and a major figure in the Cuban revolution.
I pointed to the T-Shirt, "I saw Che's T-Shirts all over China last summer." But she was quick to interrupt me. "Oh. No they don't display the shirts there anymore. It seems like some bastard has bought the rights to his image and now production has stopped." And with that, my surreal session with the joint-smoking, rocker-revolutionary-communist-columnist, who happened to be a part-time caterer and full-time pseudo-reflexologist, came to an end, even though I hadn't gotten a massage. But having found her life more than intriguing, I paid for the session and gave her a nice tip. As I left the store, she said, "You look really healthy, but I can tell from your feet that you don't drink enough water. Your kidneys are stressed. It will affect your skin too. Look at mine. It's radiant and beautiful because I drink beer and water everyday. And I don't have yogurt. It's crap. It's bad for you."
I left thinking about this spunky grandma. She obviously didn't fit the traditional image of a woman in her 60's. I was still thinking about her when, a block later, I came upon Pike Place Market. The neon sign that stood at the entrance seemed so inviting, I felt almost compelled to go in. I glanced at my watch. It was 2:30, maybe there was a place inside where I could grab a late lunch.
I went down a few steps and found myself in Pike Place's famous fish market. A crowd had gathered around a big stall that sold fresh caught fish. Of course, this place is most famous for its vendors: they hurl the fish to one another with the accuracy and showmanship of a Dallas Cowboys quarterback. They yell and scream, and the whole place buzzes with excitement. I watched their performance, but for some reason I was most intrigued by a tourist who was trying to photograph a fish midair. Then it dawned on me. About 5 years ago my son, Phillip, had come to Seattle with his dad and had taken pictures of this market too. When he got home, he ran to me and pointed to his camera. "I missed you mom. Since you weren't there with us, I took pictures of the great attractions of Seattle for you to see," he said, brimming with excitement. And among the photos was a shot just like the one the tourist had snapped: A flying fish, and a rapt crowd.
I was exactly where Phillip had stood those many years ago. And as with him, the tourists were all around me. The vendors were shouting. And everywhere there were dead fish, some lying on the chips of ice, and one particularly bizarre-looking dead manta ray, mouth open, spiky teeth showing, hanging down the edge of the stall. Staring at all the dead fish, tears started streaming down my face. I am sure everyone thought I was a bit crazy or had an unusual affection for fish. I'd read that PETA had picketed this place the month before, maybe they thought I was a lone protester left behind. They had no way of knowing that at that moment I had realized how much my relationship with my son had changed in the past five years. Now 17, he would never again take pictures of things just so he could show them to me. He wasn't a kid anymore. While never a rebellious angry teenager, slowly but surely he had separated from me and was ready to embark on his own journey. The most affectionate thing he does now is drop into my home office, put his feet up on my coffee table and say, "Hey. How was your day?" That is what I have to hold on to these days.
The feeling that had dogged me since my plane landed sharpened. It wasn't just that I was on my first business trip; it was also what I was leaving behind. Part of my life had to end in order for another to begin. My kids were growing up. I had to leave home, if only for a day, to have the perspective to really see it. Standing in front of the dead fish, I completely abandoned myself to my self-pitying thoughts, until the little girl next to me screamed at the top of her lungs and ran away.