The scent of hot yeast and sugar was thick as I walked to the bus stop. I supposed it was from from a commercial bakery, radiating relentless information downwind without being seen. Along with uniform slices of the whitest bread, I imagined cookies — bleached flour and sugar, eggs from caged hens, artificial vanilla and butter flavorings. In those moments after leaving the public aid office, I couldn’t imagine ingredients in their more natural states, or conglomerates of thought that would care about such things. I waited under a shelter for my bus, angry that the smell of awful food had made me hungry.
The caseworker at the office had been pissed off about something. That was obvious by the curt expression she shot at me when I rounded a corner and asked if she was the one who had called my name, and later by the way she expected me to understand her truncated sentences as if I knew everything that she knew and should spare her the aggravation of having to make it clear.
She found my file in the computer and became one more person to tell me that I didn’t put anything down for rent. I told her, as I had everyone else during so many other visits, that I owned the house. This time, I gave her the monthly total of my property taxes and homeowner’s insurance, the only expenses they allow for besides gas and electricity. I hoped that giving the information in a new way would clear up the trouble that had been going on since January. She added the figure to my file, and refused to let me hand her the copies of receipts they usually ask me for. I tried hard to give them to her, but she was adamant. I realized it wasn’t her job to add anything to the paper file. I would have to come back again when the next letter requested them.
I dared to ask if she had any idea how soon a new letter might come. She glowered and sighed out, “In a couple of weeks,” as though the air behind her words would keep their volume from reaching that of a scream. But the sound was insidious, creeping slow like the sting of a paper cut.
Later, as I waited for a bus, smelling what passes for bread and cookies at the edges of food deserts and wondering why the left side of my head was beginning to throb with pain, a woman who had also been waiting in the office while I was there, came to stand at the opposite side of the bus shelter. She wore earphones and fiddled with the dial of her mp3 player, and soon was twitching and singing lyrics to the trace of tinny music I heard leaking out past her earbuds. Her tuneless voice sang, in very explicit language, about what she wanted her boyfriend to do to her, all night, every night. I watched, hating her careless, loud voice and body language that said I didn’t matter, or that no one did. Her eyes never once met mine.
I wondered what it would be like to live that way, without a filter dependent on propriety. I know what it’s like to make a mistake, to feel awful about it, exposed and sorry — but to barrel through public moments with extreme selfishness, without giving any thought to those who can see and hear me? I can only imagine that way of being. It seems seductive, definitely freer than I am. More and more I find myself wanting to taste that way of being, let it roll over my tongue and inform my actions, but wanting to reserve the right to spit it out, and that can’t happen. A head injury can’t be given back, or a poison, or a state of birth. I’m stuck being who I am.
After a while, at the bus stop, I looked away from her and reached into my purse (ostensibly to see what time it was, but probably to do anything but be still during her less than musical barrage.) When I opened my bag the aroma of Zum lavender/mint bath salts wafted out. During the Mother’s Day weekend at Whole Foods, the company’s representative was giving out sample packets good for one bath. I’d appreciated it more than she could have known. I don’t take baths, couldn’t if I wanted to, but I was keeping the packet in a drawer at home while I waited for the right time to use the salts in a foot bath or two. The fragrance that lingered in my bag diverted my attention to something pleasant as I tried to disregard bureaucracy, obtrusive awful behavior, and the artificial sweetness tightening around me like a vise. For a moment, it helped.