I had a random encounter with gratitude today.
Maui dawned cool, foggy and rainy, unusual for our island, known for depthless skies and broad vistas. Something about the weather made me sleepy and sad, filled with nostalgia for when my kids were younger and I was a hands-on mom, even those hectic years when I hosted a Thanksgiving feast for up to twenty friends and family. That torch has passed to my sister, with her younger kids and their friends and grandparents arriving. Yes, the holidays are coming, and my children will be three thousand miles away, yet again.
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it, and when I tried to lie in bed until I felt grateful for the day, my usual practice, I just couldn’t get there. So, bucking my usual crazy work ethic, I decided to stay in bed and read a Lei Crime Kindle World novella draft for one of my authors, and the upcoming novel by Holly Robinson, Folly Cove, I’m lucky enough to beta read. Both books were very satisfying. When I finally got up, though, I still had a feeling I don’t get too often.
I was lonely.
I blamed the rain and the approaching holiday. I just didn’t feel like turning on the computer and making myself bang out a couple thousand words on Bitter Feast, because I still wasn’t entirely sure where I was going with it.
I was at the vacantly-staring, doodling, pen-chewing, concept phase.
I got into my gym clothes (all I wear on writing days anyway) and went to the grocery store. I bought a few things I need for experimental lilikoi pie-making for Thanksgiving, and then sat at one of the tables at the nearby coffee shop with my pen and paper.
I sipped my chai latte and stared into space, thinking about the story, pen in hand, notebook in front of me. It was good to hear the sounds of other people getting their pumpkin lattes and two-shot soymilk cappuccinos—comforting to be in a crowd. I doodled some ideas—I want to do something different with this book. I try to do something different with every book, but Bitter Feast will be providing a resting point for a little while in my series, and I want it to feel that way—but exciting, and emotionally satisfying as well. I decided, after much mulling, staring, and note-jotting, that I’m going to include multiple points-of-view from several beloved but smaller characters, something new.
A short, square-built Filipina woman plopped a shopping bag into the empty chair at my table, interrupting my reverie. “I can sit here?”
“Of course.” I moved my grocery bag away from her area. “Make yourself comfortable.”
“I never like go work today.” The woman was frowning, and she had a grain of cooked white rice stuck to her neck. I couldn’t bring myself to mention it. “All this rain. I like stay in bed.” This echoed my thoughts perfectly. In fact, I had already spent the day in bed.
She opened the bag, and to my surprise, took out a uniform shirt for the grocery store next door. “I had surgery not long ago. Cancer. My…” she gestured to her breasts as she buttoned the work shirt on over her tank top.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you all right?” This conversation had gone from zero to intimate pretty fast.
“I hope so. I have my hair back now.” She combed it with her fingers. It was short and thin, but definitely there. “Sometimes I get grumpy.”
“Me too. I didn’t want to work today either.”
“Oh. What you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
She seemed to like that because she smiled for the first time. She sat down, finished buttoning, and leaned toward me. “Then you can tell me some words. What they mean.”
“Sure.” I was getting more and more intrigued with this random encounter. So often, even on our polyglot island, we don’t talk to strangers—especially those in a different racial and socioeconomic bracket. But that’s what I came to the coffee shop for. Human contact in my hometown.
“Aneurysm. Write down what it means for me.” She made a scribbling gesture. I smiled, surprised. I turned over a new, clean white sheet and wrote aneurysm on the paper.
“It’s when a blood vessel wall bursts. Usually in the brain,” I said.
“There was this girl, she related to my landlady. Only thirty, she get little kids. She had one headache, she went doctah and then…whoa, two weeks and she make,” my garrulous companion said, pidgin thickening as she told the story of a young woman’s death. “I get one headache too.” She frowned with worry and rubbed her forehead.
“Probably not an aneurysm.” I printed the definition as clearly as I could. My handwriting isn’t what it was.
“Oh good.” The piece of rice had fallen off, thankfully, as she fussed with the shirt’s collar. “I still no like go work today.”
“Me neither. Are you okay, from your surgery?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I get grumpy, I no like do notting. And I get lonely.” She smoothed her uniform shirt, looking down.
“It’s the holidays. I was lonely too, today. That’s why I came to the coffee shop to work on my writing. Do you have children, a family?” A quick glance at her small, square hands showed no wedding rings.
“I never had. My parents, they gone. My sister, she get kids but they all grown, they too busy.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt guilty for going to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving, bringing an expensive Costco ham and two pies that would doubtless be added to a table groaning with too much food, where I’d have my husband by my side, and we’d be surrounded by extended family and friends. I felt guilty for missing my kids when this woman had so few people at all in her life. “What your name?” she asked.
“Toby. And I know your name.” I pointed to her name tag and said it. It had a full, old-fashioned, queenly sound, and it sat incongruously on her small, sturdy form with its lack of feminine embellishments. I could tell by the woman’s quizzical expression that she thought my name equally unsuitable.
“Toby,” she repeated. “Huh. Well, I gotta go check in. But I come back. You write down more words for me.”
“Okay.” I held my pen poised, ready for anything.
“Wisdom. Attitude. Knowledge,” she articulated carefully.
I wrote the words down.
“I come back.” She bustled off.
I wrote definitions for each of the words as best I could:
Wisdom: having an insight or idea that’s helpful for yourself or others.
Knowledge: all that you’ve learned and know.
Attitude: how you look at things in life. It can change from day to day. Sometimes positive (happy) or negative (grumpy.)You can change your attitude sometimes, by changing your thoughts.
Might as well get my therapeutic oar in, where I could.
My new friend reappeared with a Styrofoam plateful of food: white rice, some kalua pork, mochi, a slab of fried spam, a coconut macaroon, homemade to judge by the scorch marks on one side. I felt worried about her health, looking at the spread.
“Get potluck in the breakroom. You like?” She gestured to her plate.
“No, thanks.” I slid the paper over. “What do you think of these definitions?”
She scanned the paper, scooping up the food and chewing with the speed of someone with one eye on the clock. “Good.” She waved her fork. “You get master’s degree in writing?”
“I have a master’s, but not in writing.”
“My niece, she get one master’s. She live on the Mainland. She brilliant.” She pointed her fork at me. “You write that one down. Brilliant.”
“Means really smart if it’s a person. Means shiny or bright if it’s a thing,” I said, diligently writing. I had enough courage to ask the obvious. “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”
“I rent a room inside one house. Me and my landlady, we cooking one turkey. Sometimes she walk around in just her panty. I no like.”
“Oh. You should tell her put on her clothes.”
“I no like be rude.”
I wondered where to go from that startling disclosure. “Well. I hope you have a good day at work. Looks like it’s going to be busy.” The grocery store had already had long lines, at nine a.m.
She sighed. “Yeah. I gotta go stock da shelves. You write? What kine? Journalist?”
She looked blank. “What subject that?”
“Fiction. Just stories.” My cheeks went hot with embarrassment at this frippery of a job. “It’s fun.”
“Oh.” This seemed incomprehensible to her. She chased the last bite of rice around the plate.
“I’ll pray for you,” I said awkwardly. I wanted to do something for her, and I couldn’t think of what. “That you get better from your surgery. That you aren’t grumpy. That you have a nice holiday.”
“You do it now.” She set the plate down, reached over and grasped my wrist in a surprisingly strong grip, bowing her head. I bowed my head too. The coffee machine hissed and gurgled, the baristas joked, the line inched along. All around us, voices rose and fell. People came and went.
“Dear God, thank you for this special time with this special person. Please bless my sister with your comforting presence. Bring healing to her body and joy to her day. Bring loving people into her life who fill it with laughter. Bless her today, and may we both remember to thank you not just on the holiday, but every day. Amen.”
We looked up at each other, both blinking away tears. She folded the paper with the words and definitions on it carefully and slid it into her breast pocket, giving it a pat.
“Still grumpy?” I asked.
“No. Not lonely anymore, either.” I stood up, picked up my bag of pie makings. I wanted to pinch myself that this had really happened, and yet there she sat, wearing a green aloha-print grocery store uniform shirt, the gold name tag with her queenly name on it shiny as a Christmas star. “Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you for sitting down with me.”
“Happy Thanksgiving. You have a good one.”
“You too.” I waved as I pushed through the coffee shop door and she left for her shift. I feel sure that, no matter who is or isn’t at our respective tables, we’re both a little more thankful now.