Copyright is held by the author.
AMANDA HAD come to expect to hear “sorry” multiple times a day, each of them meaningless. Particularly in the South where she had been raised, particularly from women who would apologize for multiple things, often mysterious and frequently for nothing that was their fault. They apologized for dropping things, for passing too close in the supermarket aisle, for their children’s perfectly acceptable level of noise.
This was to such an extent she had resolved not to use the word “sorry”, or apologize in general, as her own personal stake in the new year. This had caused some trouble with her co-workers, particularly the men whom she could sense had often come to expect this social exchange. What often followed was an effluvium of near hostile confusion circling their heads after close encounters did not produce any apology from her. Despite these moments, though, she had gotten a few weeks without breaching this internal agreement.
Then the tall, handsome boy bumped into her on the bus and apologized, and she felt that he was sincere, that it did indeed mean something. He turned away, not wishing to bother her beyond the brief moment they had unintentionally touched. She watched him, feeling the word “sorry” hang over him, as if he embodied it rather than spoke it.
This was something to which Amanda was also accustomed; the three friends she was going to meet were divorcees, women who had rid themselves or been discharged by their husbands. Each had been in the role of wife so long that they were no longer certain of what it meant to be themselves. Exploring that territory was difficult going and the fog upon that land so heavy feeling lost was inevitable.
Amanda didn’t care to see it in her friends, though. She admired each of them for different reasons, but the pathos of their current positions now produced a contempt in her that decency did not allow her to acknowledge. In this young man, though, his pall stretched out when they had touched, casting a net on her, pulling her behind him. She had always been a keen observer of human behaviour, a people-watcher, a note-taker, and she found herself stepping off the bus, telling herself it was an excuse to do something other than meet her friends.
Despite the suit he wore, bedraggled after a day’s travel, he led her along a sidewalk in an increasingly lower-class neighbourhood. The homes in it were not uniform in size or shape, built before the conformity of planned neighbourhoods, but what each of them had in common was a lack of care. Paint peeled, gutters clogged with leaves, windows cracked and dark, screens often askew. Whatever weighed on the young man didn’t seem to emanate from this, though, as he paid more attention to the cracks in the sidewalk than his surroundings.
The square white house that he eventually stepped into was much the same as all the others, its lawn a testament to neglect, weeds and crab crass jousting for space. He crossed the street to it. Amanda did not, perching herself on the opposite side to peer into the home’s one lit window.
Through it Amanda saw an old woman, sitting in an easy chair in a way that suggested she rarely moved. She seemed to be made of heavy materials, her frame squat with a low center of gravity, her slouching shoulders and flat hair lit only by a television’s light and a single incandescent bulb. When the young man entered the home Amanda could see the old woman’s mouth move with speech. Summoned by whatever words she had spoken, the young man moved into the room to stand before her, careful not to impose himself between her and the television.
Amanda couldn’t hear, but the old woman’s dull eyes came to life with a flinty anger as she spoke. It was clear she was berating him, chastising him for whatever task he had been set out on, possibly before she knew if he had succeeded or failed. His failure was clear, though, as he was diminished by his elder’s words, shrinking him until he might ball up on the floor.
By the way he was dressed, Amanda guessed he had been out searching for a job, a process she knew to be hard enough without having your home a place where your rejection would be amplified. So when the old woman shook her glass at him and sent him forth on an errand she could have run herself, Amanda felt a nearly overwhelming urge to tell the young man that she was sorry. Sorry for him, for his difficulties, for the cruelties of life in general.
It was an additional cruelty that the deal she had struck with herself did not allow her do that and she felt her lips seal themselves in a dry compression as she crossed the street. If he recognized her from the bus, he didn’t say, but he noticed her standing on the sidewalk. This stopped him in the middle of the green grass of his home and he stared at her.
No matter how long she stood there, though, whatever stranger she bartered with in her soul refused to let her apologize. Eventually, her unmoving frame caused the boy in front of her to say, “I’m sorry, can I help you?”