An Ordinary Woman

2017 Barrett Winner

2nd Place Deborah C. Springstead

Charlene couldn’t recall a specific day or time when she first recognized that she was never going to do anything memorable with her life. It was a realization that had crept up on her slowly over the years. Like the proverbial frog sitting in water that’s being slowly heated, she hadn’t noticed that the water was boiling until it was too late…until she was already cooked.

Charlene was past 60 when she finally grasped that she was never going to set a world record, author a book, or learn a second language. “It’s a relief, really.” Charlene heard herself telling her sister, Shannon, at their weekly brunch date at Rose’s in Detroit. But as soon as it came out of her mouth she knew that it was a lie. She still wanted to do all of those things – and more – but knew that she never would. This unpleasant reality churned in her stomach like rotting fruit.

Earlier in the day an “inspirational video” about how it’s never too late to pursue your dreams, had come through her Facebook feed. So-and-so wrote his first concerto at 57, so-and-so discovered something brilliant at the age of 68, so-and-so ran her first marathon when she was 72. “Those a**holes,” she commented, “are making the rest of us feel inadequate.”

On top of that, Charlene had been recently subjected to an inspirational speech at her Toastmasters club meeting at Ford Motor Company about how Diana Nyad had become the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64. She was probably the best endurance athlete – man or woman – to ever live. “That bitch.” Charlene grumbled to Shannon. Despite her protests, Charlene still admired Diana. Diana was an unstoppable force of nature. Diana, like a movie star on Hollywood Avenue, had pressed her palms into the earth, and left an indelible mark. In contrast, Charlene was painfully aware of being ordinary. Unlike Diana, after she was gone, Charlene would be quickly forgotten.

“So you’re not famous. So what?” Shannon was saying. “You’re happy. You’re healthy. You have a good job, and a husband who loves you. Count your blessings!” Oh yeah, the blessings. “In a way,” Charlene reflected, “it might be easier to come to terms with my shortcomings if my life was harder. Then at least I’d have an excuse. ‘I would write a book except for fill-in-the-blank: the bad marriage, the financial struggles, the damn kids, the cancer….’” Her voice trailed off. Charlene had no one to blame but herself for not doing more with her life, and she knew it. All of her blessings were precisely what made her ordinary life so unbearable. Maslow never mentioned what happens after self-actualization, did he?! Once all your needs are taken care of, then what? Am I supposed to be satisfied with writing checks to my favorite charities, and meditating?

The numerous personal growth pursuits that used to get her out of bed in the morning were no longer doing the trick. Charlene was depressed, and no amount of yoga retreats, forest bathing, or life coaching was going to snap her out of it. Even the Seasonal Affected Disorder light that she had recently installed in her kitchen, which assaulted her eyes with 10,000 lumens every morning, couldn’t penetrate the darkness that enshrouded her. Charlene briefly considered seeing a psychiatrist when Shannon suggested it, but therapy would have been expensive, time-consuming and, in her estimation, had a low probability of working. Fuck Maslow, and his hierarchy of needs. What I need…is an adventure.

She considered – and rejected – a few possibilities. If she were younger, she might have hiked the Appalachian Trail, gone back to school, or joined the Peace Corps, but she was only a few years from retirement, so forgoing her considerable income at this point in her career would have been patently irresponsible. A trip to Iceland was forthcoming but, while fun, didn’t quite qualify as an adventure. Burning man would have qualified if she were in her 20s or 30s, but at this point in her life Charlene had no interest in spending even a few hours, much less a few days, in a hot desert getting dehydrated, and burned to a crisp. What’s more, she didn’t want anyone gawking at her half-naked body, or to see anyone else naked. Ick. Burning Man was definitely out of the question, but the idea got her thinking about recreational drugs.

Despite being a teetotaler, a few days after her brunch with Shannon, Charlene decided to try magic mushrooms. How pathetic that hallucinogenic drugs are the only adventure left open to me at this stage in my life. Nevertheless, she didn’t let her cynicism stop her. Among the plethora of nearly useless information that she had amassed over the years, she had learned that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, increased creativity and relieved depression, which was just what she needed. Moreover, she knew precisely who to ask for some: Shannon’s son, her nephew, Jack. Never mind if the rest of my family finds out. My sanity is at stake.

Charlene’s subsequent side conversation with Jack at the monthly family potluck dinner at Shannon’s house in Ann Arbor was surprisingly mundane. Jack put her right at ease; he acted as if what she was asking him for was perfectly normal. A few expectant weeks later, Charlene swung by Jack’s place in Ypsilanti after her Friday night yoga class, and picked up her mushrooms. She was impatient, and couldn’t resist the temptation to take a dose before she left Jack’s place. I should have plenty of time to get settled in at home before the effects kick in.

Unfortunately, on her way home from Jack’s a beat-up blue sedan drove into a ditch right in front of Charlene’s silver Prius. She stopped to help because she thought that the driver might need medical attention, and she was certified by the American Red Cross in first aid. Is it wrong to secretly hope for a medical emergency? It turned out that the driver was drunk and unharmed, but she stuck around because she was the only witness to the accident and, as such, felt obligated to make a statement to the police.

It must have been a slow night because three police cruisers showed up at the scene of the fender bender. Throughout the fiasco, the mushrooms were in plain sight in a Tupperware™ container in the passenger seat of her car. Charlene kept telling herself to “act normal” which, it turns out, is practically impossible to do when you’re trying. No wonder inmates at psychiatric hospitals have so much trouble getting released! Charlene was on the verge of a panic attic. She was convinced that the police could hear her heart pounding in her chest. However, the police were actually very nice to her while, in the next breath, they were giving the driver of the ditched sedan a hard time.

To burn off her nervous energy, Charlene had started pacing around in the parking lot of the strip mall where they had all congregated, while the police swarmed around the driver of the ditched car like flies around a pot of honey. The police were instructing him to walk a straight line along one of the yellow painted lines, heel-to-toe style. In a pointless attempt to demonstrate her sanity to a blind audience, Charlene absentmindedly stepped onto one of the concrete bumpers, and began walking along it as if it was a balance beam.

As she passed by her car, she glanced in through the open window at the mushrooms, and briefly considered stowing them under the car seat. The absurdity of the situation brought a smile to her face. I’ll bet I could hold out the open Tupperware™ container to one of the cops to offer him a mushroom, and he would politely decline without giving it a second thought. For the first time in her life, Charlene understood that – simply because she was a reasonably attractive, middle-aged, middle-class, white woman – she was utterly beyond suspicion. Being ordinary is a super-power…like being invisible. It’s as if I live in a parallel, untouchable universe.

Charlene’s smile turned into a giggle, which made her feel lighter…ethereal. No one seemed to notice when her giggle evolved into a merry chuckle. Nor did they seem to notice when, like Mary Poppins, she became detached from the law of gravity. Like the laws of the land, the laws of nature no longer applied to Charlene. She took advantage of her newfound power by sailing gracefully from bumper to bumper along the edge of the parking lot, barely touching down in between high, suspended arcs that afforded her a panoramic view of downtown Dearborn. The world was Charlene’s oyster. Anything is possible. Absolutely anything.