Dug this one out of mothballs; I actually met this lady in May but just haven’t had time to post until now. Enjoy.

The train was delayed–they didn’t say why–so Mary and I talked about lonely.

“The thing is,” she began, “as long as you don’t know you’re lonely, you’re not. But once you realize it, you’ll always be lonely.”

I blinked at her logic. “So if I just don’t think I’m lonely, I’m not, but if I do, I can’t be anything else?”

She smiled. “Exactly. Once you find out you’re lonely, it’s a permanent condition. But you learn to like it–being lonely isn’t the worst thing that can happen.”

I gazed into her face for a moment. She wouldn’t let me take her picture for sculpting. “Not a chance,” she’d said, “You should have asked 20 years ago.” So I was trying to memorize her features and the thing I kept coming back to was June Cleaver, or maybe Della Street.

She was slender, late fifties or early sixties maybe, and she took pains with her makeup. Her hair curled carefully about her face in a puffy style more common to a 70s matron than a new century office worker. She wore a trim pink suit with a cream-colored blouse, black pumps, pantyhose and discreet jewelry.

She wouldn’t have looked out of place in Iowa, but in Portland she stood out like a, well, pink-suited, sensible-pump-wearing woman in Portland. Intrigued, I’d sat beside her on the MAX. She eyed me suspiciously for the first couple of stops but when I complimented her brooch–garnets and opals–she smiled and settled in for a chat.

She worked downtown in what passes for a Portland skyscraper, as a secretary (“executive assistant,” she corrected primly). She hadn’t planned a return to the workforce, but four years ago had no choice.

Before that, she’d taken care of her husband, kids and house. Same old, same old: Her husband realized he loved a coworker more than his family, and that was that. Their Hillsboro home was sold (“at the top of the market, thank God”) and the proceeds divided.

“Both kids were in college,” she said, “so it really wasn’t a big deal.” A sad flicker in her eye hinted otherwise, but I didn’t contradict her.

She bought a studio apartment in town with a nice view of the mountains (“I paid cash, so no mortgage. I love it.”). She traded in her old furniture for something more suited to a bachelorette lifestyle (yeah, she actually said that) and landed a job assisting a guy who “really wants a mother, but I shouldn’t say that.”

The homemaker to junior employee transition wasn’t easy, but she’s had a promotion, couple of raises and she’s doing okay. The kids visit occasionally (from Seattle and Philadelphia) and she likes her job. “Likes. Not loves, likes,” she said.

She’s not sure how long she’ll keep it, though; sales are down. Her ex has one more year to go on support payments and she’s assured a percentage of his 401(k) and pension, but returns on both have dropped alarmingly. She’s not sure what she’ll live on if her job is gone and he or his new wife lose their jobs. They could become difficult about that precious last year of support and the wife is already grumbling about her share of the dwindling retirement funds.

The ex told her this week that his company’s teetering on bankruptcy, so she’s trying to prepare. “No more shopping trips for fun, and I canceled my vacation. But,” she sighed, “They hire old ladies at McDonalds, so I don’t guess I’ll starve.”

That’s when our conversation turned to lonely. “I was lonely for most of my life, I just didn’t know it,” she said. “You know how you can live with someone and not realize they’ve changed? It was like that. My husband and I, we just became different.”

She stopped, looking to me for a response, but there didn’t seem to be much to say. I nodded. “He had his work and his friends, I had the kids and my friends. Like we lived in foreign countries. I visited his country, he visited mine, we had some good times, but it was just visits.”

She shrugged. “I’d wake up at night and just look at him and wonder why he was there. I was all by myself but he’s snoring right there. I didn’t KNOW I was lonely. I just knew there was something missing.”

Her delivery was practiced, as if she’d been reciting this regularly for years. It struck me that she was working through her life and making sense of it, and for some reason needed to do it, over and over, out loud.

That meant she needed a sounding board; I was a nodding ear for her tale, but not much more. And so I stayed silent.

“When he told me he was moving in with his girlfriend, it was like a relief. Oh, I was upset, really, really upset and betrayed, but also…you know the feeling when company comes? You love having them there, you have fun together, they’re good guests…but when they leave it’s such a relief to get your house back?”

The train started up again; I nodded and uhm-hmm’d encouragingly. “Well, my marriage was like that. He was like…” (a tiny bit of venom now) “he was like a mosquito in the bedroom. Until you shoo it out the window or slap it you can’t really get a good night’s sleep.”

“I don’t mean I was happy that we split up, but at least I had my life back. If I’m not happy now, it’s my fault. I want to go out, I just go. If I want to stay in bed, I stay. If I want to dress sloppily,” and she eyed my Portland-casual attire, “I do.”

I ignored the implied reproof. “But there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely, isn’t there?,” I asked, “Are you sure you’re not just talking about being alone?”

The train slid into Pioneer Square, past the interminable chess game with its spectators, and she gathered her things. “This is my stop. You take care now.” And she disappeared down the steps.