I smelled Wanda's perfume the rest of that summer day. It'd permeated the fibers of my shirt and the wall around my heart that protected me from her vicious attacks. Each time the spicy, floral scent wafted up I was transported back to her embrace, back to her words...I have breast cancer...back to her apology for all the terrible things she'd said about me. My unsolicited enemy was now my friend. I couldn't stop thinking about her.
We spent a long time talking outside the elementary school just before Christmas vacation, after we'd applauded our fourth graders' first semester academic achievements. I complimented how pretty she looked in the auburn wig she wore. She fingered the ends with lengthy, French-manicured nails and told me she missed her blond hair. She was getting better though, she said. Her health was returning, no thanks to her ex-husband. In typical Wanda fashion, she spent the next twenty-five minutes talking trash about her ex, how cruel he was to her, how he'd refused to help her in any way through her treatments. I just want to be happy, that's all. Just me and the kids, happy. Her words haunt me.
Four weeks later, Wanda was discovered dead in her apartment. I heard the news as if sitting on the bottom of a pool, the weight of the water pressing down on me, muffling the words. Details bobbed and floated below the surface of my comprehension. A friend was saying they'd found her alone, her body, so the police couldn't rule out suicide or murder. I blinked hard, remembering back to earlier in the day. It was 8:30 a.m. and I was on my way to the gym. I came around the corner lost in my thoughts of how I'd organize my day. Movement caught my eye, and I turned my head as I passed Wanda's house. Her ex-husband, now sole resident of the place, was in the driveway, gesturing enthusiastically at me. He beamed as he waved; I returned the greeting as I drove on.
I could see that giant smile in my mind's eye, and the hair on my arms stood up.
A few days have passed now, and I still can't believe she's gone. That space she took up on the sidewalk opposite me feels empty when I picure her, standing there a few short weeks ago in a long brown leather coat and high heeled boots. She was a tiny woman, especially after enduring chemotherapy, but she was larger than life. Her insecurities drove her to dress provocatively, to stand too erect, to apply evening appropriate make-up during the day, to push back when someone, real or imagined, pushed first. Her personality wasn't compatible with mine, but our energies drew us together. If she was in the same restaurant or school gymnasium or at the pool, I was hyper-aware of her. There wasn't anything obsessive about it, but there was something connecting us. I feel it still.
I wonder at the impact Wanda made on me, and why we shared that enigmatic connection. There is a lesson in our story, and as I work through its meaning I celebrate her in my heart. She died young, before her bumpy road smoothed out. I find comfort in the belief that her objectives for this lifetime were met, and that she's again Home and at peace.
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