I spent most of October with a cold, and as the days stretched into weeks, in a low grade panic that it would turn into pneumonia again this year. Then I found this little bit o’ fiction that I wrote when I was sick with pneumonia a year ago. I had forgotten all about it.
No one would have ever thought to call her a fashionista. Never mind last season; her clothes were often last decade. Clean and neat was generally the best she could manage. She just didn’t have the time or energy – or frankly,, the interest – to worry that much about how she looked. What else would you expect after spending her teen years in a Catholic school uniform and her college years dressed practically in drag as part of the Riot Grrl movement? Later, working in a lab, her clothes were always covered by a white coat. Besides, being unkempt was a badge of honor in science, evidence of one’s dedication to the work. Where would she have developed the “personal sense of style” all the magazines talked about?
All that had changed six months ago, when the pharmaceutical company she worked for had closed down its West coast operations and laid everyone off. She’d spent some time evaluating her life to date, and determined to make some changes. An afternoon spent flipping through old photo albums had hardened her resolve. She knew that in middle age one was supposed to look at old pictures and realize that you had actually been pretty back in the days when you were ruled by insecurity. But if she had ever had a nice body, all evidence of it was obscured under baggy jeans and oversized men’s flannel shirts. Her face was hidden under the reflective glare of glasses bigger than her head.
“Is that what people saw when they looked at me?” She wondered that she had ever had a date. Staring in the mirror, she tried to see what others saw now.
“You know, people have to look at you,” she told her reflection.
So, like a good scientist, she began research. She studied magazines, and fashion books before cleaning out her closet. She bought an interview suit and used the pieces as the foundation of a capsule wardrobe. She took photographs of each combination, and taped them onto a calendar to insure regular rotation. She studied YouTube tutorials and mastered a natural makeup look. She committed to never leave the house bare faced.
A random encounter with an old friend at the grocery store assured her she was on the right track. She went home and wrote on her mirror with a Sharpie: You never know who you might run into.
She started interviewing for new jobs. There were a couple of promising leads, but the company she really wanted, DynaLabs, remained elusive. She kept practicing interview skills, making eye contact in the mirror, confident that she would find an opening there eventually.
Then school started and cold season hit. Viruses began to cycle through the house, infecting the children, her husband, and her in turn, mutating just enough by the end of the cycle to reinfect the first ones.
At first her new habits remained strong. She switched to waterproof mascara in response to watery eyes, adjusted her makeup routine to allow for frequent nose-blowing. But once she got really sick, things began to fall apart. She traded skirts and heels for yoga pants and sneakers for a few days, but soon even that became too much. She lay in bed, ignoring email and laundry, wondering if a doctor would be necessary.
She only left the house to take the kids to school in the morning, replacing pajama bottoms with a pair of jeans and covering the tops with her coat. She drove them to the gate, and only left the car for 30 seconds to give each one a hug before waving them in and returning home to bed.
Finally, her fever broke. For the first time in over a week, she slept through the night without waking up in a cold sweat. She slept right through her husband leaving for work and right through her alarm. A coughing fit interrupted a dream she immediately forgot at the sight of the clock blinking beside her; it was fifteen minutes before the school bell.
She stumbled into the kitchen, where her kids were already fully dressed and eating cereal – bless them! She swallowed a dose of cough medicine and hurried her kids out the door. She shrugged her coat over top of her pajamas. She stuffed her feet into a pair of garden clogs and rushed to the car, stopping to cough in the driveway.
Pulling out onto the arterial, she only went a few car lengths before stopping in the line for the light a half mile away. The traffic was backed up all the way from the school to their house.
“Damn! I forgot about the construction!”
The bell had already rung when she found a parking spot a block from the school. She would have to walk the kids in. Noticing her fuzzy slipper-socks sticking out from her clogs, she sighed, “At least the bell has rung and no one will see me.” The sigh turned into a cough.
“Mama, come on,” her daughter whined urgently.
She was almost back to the car when the thing she had feared actually happened.
“Excuse me, hi, do you have a minute?”
She turned around. The mother of her daughter’s new best friend. She had been meaning to talk to her for weeks.
“Hi,” she replied weakly.
“Hi, I’m the Room Mother for our daughters’ class. I’ve been meaning to talk to you and just seem to be missing you all week. Did you get the email about the after school craft club?”
“Um, no, I don’t think so. But I’ve been sick, so I might have missed it.”
She felt her dry lips crack when she tried to smile.
The Room Mother was wearing worn jeans tucked into practical yet stylish boots. Her windbreaker bore the DynaLabs logo. She tried to smile and make eye contact while supressing a cough. The Room Mother was explaining details about the new enrichment activity that she knew she wouldn’t remember by the time she got to the car. The cough medicine was starting to work.
Room Mother’s eyes darted to her legs taking in the fuzzy socks and clogs, reminding her that she wasn’t actually wearing pajamas. She had run out of clean pajamas and was wearing a skier’s base layer that dated back to the era when they were still called “long johns.”
“Well, maybe next month, then. I hope you feel better soon!” said the Room Mother, backing away. “Bye! Feel better!”
She was tucking her hair behind her ear. Her fingers got caught in a snarl as she tried to raise her hand to wave goodbye in response.
“Bye,” she started to say before it dissolved into a cough.