(The excerpt below is as told to one of my characters, Dante.)
Several years ago, Dante had once had a conversation on a train with a woman who mesmerized him with a little story. She noted that some people were charming because they were unpredictable–and sometimes, in spite of it. Seemingly, no matter what, when you were with them, you always ended up having what might most charitably be called adventures: usually small, but always exasperating. Nothing ever went as planned; even less than with most people: You would start off on a perfectly prosaic trip to the laundromat, and end up in Peru.
The woman had a beloved—and charming—friend who somehow brought her to Peru fairly often. And rarely to a mysterious city gleaming of gold, but to a eighth-rate hotel opening onto a sticky alley in a strange little town, where the woman’s job was to translate for the friend—with gesticulation and small stick figure drawings.
Dante loved metaphors, and was delighted as his companion described herself as trying to escape her repeated fate, but nothing would do. Not even living in another city was sufficient, because the other was an old and beloved friend, after all, and the woman would visit. Besides, the friend was kind-natured and generous to a fault. She never meant anything by it. She would always cheerfully assent that the planned activity for the afternoon was merely the laundry; nothing more, nothing less. At most, she might hint that the airport was on the way.
But the woman on the train had learned to be wary. She would tell herself firmly that she would never go to Peru again; in fact, she would remind her friend that the hotel had been really frightful. (The friend would shrug and laugh merrily, and say that she enjoyed meeting really interesting people.) The woman knew that they would be driving past the airport, so she would brace herself, holding fast to her little purse with the laundry quarters. In vain would she invent excuses: She was completely out of clean clothes; she lacked airfare; had no holiday time; allergies to things in the jungle; a deep-seated phobia of customs officials; a psychic prediction that she would die in the Andes.
All these would be brushed cheerfully aside: Her friend had an outfit or two she could loan—and she could always do the laundry later; she would pay for the airfare; the woman could call in sick; they could pack antihistamines; she would get the woman a teddy bear for customs; and maybe the Andes the prediction referred to was a factory filled with the chocolates. And off they would go, the woman unhappily peering out of the window at the ground, hoping that maybe this time the hotel would not be dreadful; but it almost always was.
After Dante had done laughing, the woman soberly said that her eventual homecomings always had two features in common: She always, always swore that she couldn’t possibly be enticed away again–and her laundry had never been done.
But one evening, she had finally escaped Peru:
In this real example, she had been visiting the friend, and had unsurprisingly gone on a Peruvian excursion which had lasted just long enough for her to miss her last train home. And so, she would be stopping overnight; although, of course, both greatly unwanted and unplanned. (She had noticed that many Peruvian visits did this, and she had also noticed that these occurred after politely refusing an invitation to prolong her stay.) But there was no fixing it, and so she and the friend had been driving back to the house, when the friend said that she had promised to get a hanging geranium for her mother’s porch, and announced that Glory Gardens was just a short way away.
Glory Gardens, the woman explained to Dante, was an impressively vast superstore chain in her area. They had everything desired by anybody who had so much as brought home a kindergarten radish in a milk carton. The woman adored gardening herself, and knew that if she were to go in, she would leave all her money in their registers. And no, leaving her wallet behind wouldn’t much help. She knew that the smells and colors would turn her into a happily brainless animal with acute ADD, and that she would wander around all night, petting things. So she cheerfully told the friend that she would just stay in the car, thank you.
Her friend assented, but when they pulled into the lot and turned off the car, the friend—who indeed had been driving for a bit—said, “Get out of the car; I need to walk for a while.” The woman obediently got out of the car, it not occurring to her that she was about to be locked out of it. She did note in the back of her head that the sentence had been just like that, voiced in the imperative, which was annoying, but it was a pleasant summer evening. A little stroll around the quiet lot would be nice enough. She had driven distances, and knew that sometimes you needed to stretch your legs.
Thus, she was a little surprised when the walk arrowed straight from the car to the door of the store.
The woman found herself thinking, “No-o-o. No, this can’t be happening. She knows very well that I really don’t want to go.” But there they were. And in the doorway, the woman resolutely ignored the colors and smells, and the large sign saying “SALE!”
Once more, she firmly reminded her friend that she didn’t want to go into Glory Gardens.
“I need to get a geranium.”
“Do you really need me along just to pick up a geranium?” (The friend gardened herself, so fortunately had no excuse for needing a native guide.)
“No,” admitted the friend, with a chipper and affectionate smile. ‘It’ll only be a minute. Come on!” The woman smelled peat moss. She knew that she was at the very threshold of Peru. For the second time that day. She felt very tempery.
“No. Really.” (“In my mommy voice,” she told Dante.)
“OK,” said her friend, perfectly cheerfully. “You can just wait on the bench outside, then.”
The woman did so, while noting that, although it was a lovely night, and she was not in the store, she was in fact on Glory Garden’s bench, and not comfortably in the car, which had been her plan.
Her friend soon emerged with the geranium, and the woman sighed to herself, as they headed back to the car. She asked, ”Um, just what part of ‘I don’t want to go into Glory Gardens’ didn’t you understand?” Her friend failed to understand the question. She looked amused and quizzical, and shrugged with a laugh.
The woman persisted. Finally the friend—who was, after all, an old friend—admitted that it had never actually occurred to her that she had ever been doing anything at all, except “offering options.”
“I opted,” the woman said wryly to Dante, “not to go to Peru.”