The other woman toys with her purse strap as it threatens to slip down her arm.
Her question comes as she lifts a paper coffee cup to her mouth. Soon, my reply will go with the cup into the trash, along with the brown cardboard sleeve she’s using to protect her fingers from the heat.
“What kind of work do you do?”
Politeness takes lead until I see how we are strangers in twin situations outside our children’s school, having selected our lives from identical menus. I stop time to taste the question under my tongue. What kind of work is it to be me?
I recall my mother huddled with three children in the load-bearing doorframe of a farmhouse while clouds dripped their runoff on the plains. Outside, spirals formed in the skies and faraway sirens bellowed an eerie alarm. Sunlight strained and emptied from the windows as the basement and my imagination both went dark. The siding and shingles trembled in the rowdy winds, winds that, when gentler, lash my long honey hair across my cheeks and lift tender dandelion seeds off their stems.
Afterward, I remember, our once-mighty swing set was toppled in defeat from the holes it left behind in the grass. Shallow holes, I noticed then, afraid of how sure I had been they were deep.
Later that year, when my parents divorced, I dreamt of those shallow pits and the structure blown down by the storm. My mother was a cold front, and my father was warm prairie air.
In the space of three decades, I have now made a son. To give that boy roots, I dig deeper every day. I drive piles further into sweet and solid earth with the conviction that he will be stronger than the weather. I am a determined builder who is working on constructing a tornado-proof life. In increments of a breath, that is the kind of work I do.
This being the truth, but no answer for the trash can, I travel the distance back to the pavement where we stand and offer her something rote.
“I’m in education. What kind of work do you do?”
She begins to answer, and I brace myself. Could this woman be driven by the same strong forces as me?