“Do you mind if I sit down? I’ll only stay a little while.”
This is how Odette makes friends. She takes the bus down Western Avenue to Lincoln Square. She looks over all the occupied benches, and all she sees are good people, potential friends. She picks one out, and she makes an unassuming entrance. That’s how I imagine she does it, at least. I didn’t see her movements until she was right in front of me.
“I promise I won’t disturb you,” she said.
In the following moments I mentally checked out of the book I was reading. I thought of the 80-year-old Yugoslavian woman I had met during a walk last December, who had stopped me mid-stride and called me back to her. Having only been in Chicago for a little over a month, I was hungry for new perspectives, and my 15-minute conversation with that woman stayed with me. That’s why when Odette, who looked to be in her 80s and spoke with a French accent, sat down next to me mere days before I am to move back to Minnesota, the sense of full-circle serendipity was not lost on me.
Odette adored the kids running through the square, every last one of them. Whenever one came near our bench, she’d break off the conversation and try to engage the child by holding out her hand. One baby reached toward it, and Odette was thrilled. Within five minutes I learned that Odette has two grown children, both in their forties, who have never had kids.
“But you never know,” she said hopefully.
Then she turned to me.
Do you have children? Are you married?
When I said no, she asked for my age.
“You are young and cute. You won’t have trouble.”
Just like my nameless friend from last year, Odette seemed oddly preoccupied with my love life. I can’t fault her for it. Finding a husband mattered a great deal more when she was my age than it does today. She must have been worried for me, because after a while she looked at me and said, “But you will marry someday, yes?”
Odette was reaching into her handbag.
“I have something. It is not for you, but I have something.”
She pulled out a plastic grocery bag, and from it she revealed a small carton of orange juice with no label.
“Do you know Tony’s?”
“The grocery store? Yeah.”
“That’s where I go. I get these in packs of six.”
It didn’t look like real orange juice – its color was a bit off, and it was suspiciously devoid of pulp – but Odette looked thoroughly pleased with herself for discovering these cartons and having the foresight to keep one in her bag. Later she pulled out a banana with a look of delight, as though she didn’t expect it to be there.
“What do you do?” Odette asked me.
I felt weird calling myself a writer at my age, so instead I said, “I write.” I’m not sure that’s any different.
Odette liked this. She told me she’d been a beautician her whole life, but had always thought it’d be nice to write. She told me about her friend who is a writer and who has had his name in a magazine, and would I like to give her my number so he can give me advice? I asked her what magazine he wrote for, and she didn’t know. I gave her my number, and she gave me hers.
I told Odette that I’m learning French, and that I hope to go to France someday soon.
Vous parlez un petit peu de Francais!
Un petit peu, oui. I know I need to be fully immersed in the language if I want to really learn it, I told her.
Odette was a nanny in London, and that’s how she learned English.
“Exactly,” I said. “You had no choice.”
Odette’s son lives in California with his wife. Her daughter lives in Holland with her husband. Odette lives in Chicago with her 23-year-old cockatiel.
“Do you ever think about moving back to Paris?”
“No, no. Everyone has their own families now. And I am an American now.”
Odette had moved to Chicago at the urging of a friend. Then she married a Greek man who eventually left her with two young kids.
“He was the one who wanted to get married! He kept asking me and asking me until I finally said okay.”
“What made you say okay?”
“I was getting older. I decided it was probably time.”
Odette and I had our share of silent moments, too. We’d turn and look out over the square, the fall sun spilling across the middle of it, leaving the edges cool in shade.
Some days, she told me, it’s hard to find things to do.
“You don’t think about not having company when you get old. You don’t think about how it will be.”
Several times it seemed Odette was attempting to wrap up our conversation. After every little while she would say that she’s glad she came here today and that we met.
“You are very interesting to talk to,” she’d tell me. “I like what you are doing.”
To date, nothing has been more validating than having this French woman -- who has had 80-some years to live in Paris and London and Chicago, and to get married and divorced, and to raise kids alone, and to work nonstop, and to retire alone in a big city, and to reflect on it all and take stock of her wins, losses, and regrets -- tell ME that she finds MY life interesting.
“Maybe I’ll see you again soon?” Odette asked as she got ready to leave for real.
“Well, I’m moving back to Minnesota this weekend.” I hated that I hadn’t mentioned it until now.
“When are you leaving?”
“And what is today?”
“That doesn’t leave much time.”
Still, Odette said maybe she would see me again sometime, and she told me to call her if anything exciting happens for me. I imagined myself on the phone with her, struggling to pick out words through her French accent.
We waved to each other, and she turned to leave. Halfway across the square, she turned back to wave again. I picked up my book and opened it at the bookmark, on which I’d written my new friend’s name and number. I looked up once more. Odette was smiling at me from across the square.
On the drive home I was stuck behind a 4Runner with car paint on the back window. It spelled out “Sigma Chi recruiting vehicle” in bright colors. There were polka dots everywhere. All I could think about was how garish it was, mockingly incongruous with where I’d just been.
This is where Odette has to live, I thought.
This is where Odette has to live, I thought.
Odette will be fine, of course. She's been living here a while. She has other friends whom she met just as she met me, and she’ll find more, I’m sure. She’ll continue to open herself up to the small neighborhood square, and she’ll continue to see only what’s good in people. I just hope nobody lets her down.