A Rainy Day

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, July 1, 2007

I spent four glorious woman hours at the mall, the first chance I've had to shop by myself for myself in probably a year. I'm zooming home now with a trunkload of new clothes that I may or may not return, feeling accomplished, giddy, only barely cognizant of a family that will need feeding. Up ahead, I see one of those pre-cooked chicken places that specialize in gooey, super-fatty mashed potatoes, a family favorite. Life is good.

I turn in, figure on ordering the family-of-four deal which, I already know too well, includes four sides and four mini loaves of cornbread. (Should a woman have so many take-out menus memorized?) It has just started to rain, a summer shower catching me by surprise. I will get wet running from car to restaurant. Actual momentary outrage overtakes me. Why is there no drive-through at this place? A woman is entitled to a rain-free chicken-buying experience, is she not?

I jump out of the car and make a mad dash. An old lady is just arriving at the door. She is wearing a rain hat. A rain hat. The rain hat stops me cold. I have not seen a rain hat in a thousand years. They were a marvel of engineering, all folded up the size of a matchbook. No mother of my mother's generation went anywhere without one tucked in a pocketbook. No mother of my generation that I know has ever worn a rain hat.

I can't stop thinking about this situation. It is all because of hairdos. In the old days, you got a wash, a big 'do with lots of spray, and you had to make it last six or seven days until your next appointment. We have moved, already, to a post-blow-dry world, an era of "products": chemicals engineered to smell like exotic plants we never heard of and that enable us to fix our hair exactly as we want it, when we want it, as we deserve. Rain, schmain.

Inside the chicken place, the woman removes the hat, shakes it, then snaps it so the accordion folds fall back into perfect formation. She touches her ash-blond hair, makes sure it's still all in place, which it is. She orders a single serving of white meat, green beans, potatoes and a carton of milk. I imagine her living in the apartment building across the street. She must have packed the rain hat in her purse, counted her dollar bills, and thought, "Oh, yes, I'll get the green beans tonight."

Next to her, I am a truck of activity and acquisition and appetite and entitlement. I am drenched. I have a car full of new clothes and no time to think about food. I will pay by credit card. I order the super-cheesy spinach side, the potatoes, the broccoli goop, and then, for me, a double Caesar salad because I'm on a diet. I find a spot to sit while they complete my order, cross my legs and dangle my wet flip-flop.

The rain hat lady is standing with her orange tray, also waiting, and I look at her and want to cry. I might pity her, or I might want to be her; it is difficult to sort through. I pity the loneliness I project onto her. I want her rain hat. I want to go back in time and live as I imagined my mother lived, one moment at a time, sensible meals cooked at home, shoe stores with men who came out and measured your feet. No cellphones interrupting anything. I spend so much time lately wanting to turn the clock back and live in a simpler time. It is a fool's errand, a nostalgia mission that leaves out so much that was so wrong. I chose all this. I am freer than any woman in the history of the world. "Do you mind if I sit here?" the rain hat lady says, standing before me holding her completed tray.

"Oh, I'm not staying," I say, standing up, reacting too quickly to her invitation for a dinner partner.

"Sit, sit, sit," she says. "This is my favorite table. The window?"

"I can leave . . ."

"Sit, sit, sit."

She dives right into the potatoes, stirs in gravy. "I'm no one without my potatoes," she says. "Now, tomorrow, I'll go to the lobster place. But I don't eat the lobster. Do you think it's even real?" I smile. She smiles. "Oh, you are just like my daughter," she says. "All busy and running around." I ask her how she knows this about me. She waves her fork at me, laughs.

My food is up. It occupies three large bags, but mostly on account of the huge plastic bowls they use for the Caesar salads. A lot of air. I hesitate to leave the old lady mid-dinner. Would it be rude?

"Go, go, go," she says, sensing my hesitation. She looks at all my bags of food. "You're having a party?"

I tell her no. I tell her there's a lot of air in here. I tell her I'm on a diet. The more I try to explain, the worse it gets. Yeah, I bought too much food. Yeah, I bought too many clothes. I am still not satisfied. I spent four woman hours at the mall, a crash course in: Nothing quite fits.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company