It has happened so often in my life—people thinking that I am someone other than the person I know myself to be—that I have come to believe in a parallel universe where one might be living quite a different reality, with an altogether different personality and lifestyle. Each life is unknown to the other but both serve to further the soul’s growth.
So I was not surprised when Polly told me she had known me 20 years ago in a small town in Iowa.
“You were quite different then,” said Polly in her earnest, pious way as she looked into my eyes with what can only be described as pity. “You didn’t drink at all then, and you attended church regularly, often singing a solo on Sunday nights.”
“I have never been in Iowa,” I said, but Polly went on as if I had never spoken. This often happens to me in conversations, where the other person seems to value their own words immensely while ignoring everything I say, as if my words were quite irrelevant to the conversation.
I had actually met Polly when I was living at Summit Towers, a subsidized living facility in downtown Knoxville. She is very pretty and has creamy white skin, and an old fashioned way of being and speaking that makes her seem as though she has been misplaced in this era and belongs instead in the 1950s. I can easily imagine Polly during the commercials for Queen for a Day, wearing a pale pink shirtwaist dress with a big, swirling skirt, pale silk stockings with the seams down the back, and white patent leather pumps.
“When we lived in Iowa together,” Polly continued, peering intently into my eyes, “you were an example for everyone to look up to. You might say you were the crowning glory of Pinewood, Iowa. Why, you were the president off the Pinewood Junior League.”
Taking my rough, smoke-stained hand, she patted it as though I were a patient recovering from a lengthy illness—or perhaps a terminal patient who would not recover at all.
“Your name was Amy,” she said, smiling wistfully at the pretended memory, and I wondered what glitch in her brain made her fabricate such a story. She even asked our mutual friend, Lance, if he thought I had lived with Polly in another time and place.
“No, Polly,” he said firmly. “I have known Donna for 30 years, and never was there a time when she called herself Amy. Nor, to my knowledge, was she ever in Iowa.”
But Polly was undeterred. I don’t believe she is gay, but she did have a kind of tender fixation on me. Sometimes when we were walking down the hall together she would take my arm, look into my eyes, and say intensely, “I love you, Amy.” At which point I usually just detached my arm and walked away. There’s no telling what she would have done if I had responded with the slightest provocation. Throw me to the floor and kiss me passionately, pick me up and carry me to her apartment? Ask me to marry her? So I was careful never to give her the slightest reason for thinking that I would return her affection in that odd, passionate way of hers. But, in fact, I am quite fond of Polly. She had an innocence and purity about her that made me feel cleansed every time I saw her, as though I had time-traveled back into the ’50s and spent a refreshing weekend at the home of Donna Reed.
Polly also would drop by at odd hours at frequent intervals—she wanted to know if I was all right; she wanted to ask me if she was all right; she wanted to see my animals; or she was just having a panic attack and needed to be somewhere besides alone. This was difficult for Polly, for she was a neat freak and my apartment was filled with junk: old antique windows I had dragged out of dumpsters, clothes strewn everywhere, two cats and a dog. And a plethora of half-empty vodka bottles. But it never seemed to stop Polly—she would sit right down and stay for hours, thinking fondly of herself with a person who never existed, in a time that never was, and in a place I had never heard of.
Polly had only one flaw, besides her addiction to me: She craved marijuana in an insatiable way and, not wanting to ruin her impeccable image, could be seen at all hours of the night, slithering this way and that to find one joint.
“Why don’t you buy quantity so you don’t have to be running around like this searching for one joint every day?” I asked her.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that. It’s an illegal substance, and besides, I don’t really smoke pot, I just like the smell of it,” she said.
Whether or not pot was a necessity for Polly, it was the undoing of our odd, sometimes trying friendship. Polly was fond of hanging out in an apartment that was one of the havens for pot smokers, where you could buy an ounce if you were so inclined. Not being a pot smoker myself, I only visited “the den” once or twice, at Polly’s urging. It was littered with cigarette butts all over the floor, cans filled with butts, and the king of the den himself, Warren. With his long hair, baseball cap, and wide grin, he appeared to be very proud of his position, and despite his young age, wore it well, sitting cross-legged with his high-top sneakers like some sort of Eastern guru.
Inside the den, Polly was transformed. Gone was the gentle Southern woman who spoke often of God and tried to help elderly people on and off the elevator. In her place was an animated, talkative girl who sat draped over Warren’s chair like a beautiful, live ornament. Whenever the bowl or joint was passed her way, she could hardly bear to let it go, so that sometimes Warren would have to take it from her.
It was because of a misunderstanding of Polly’s that her ardor for me chilled and died forever. Having ripped someone off on a minor drug deal, Warren was evicted when they in turn snitched on him. Mistakenly thinking that I was the snitch, Polly lay in wait for me outside the elevator day after day until she was rewarded. She hurled herself at me like some sort of human bullet and threw me to the floor. It was appropriate that my friendship with Polly ended with an untruth, since our entire friendship was based on a fantasy.
I think of Polly from time to time, and once she passed me in her car and waved frantically at me, calling out “I love you, Amy.”
“I’m not Amy,” I called back, blowing Polly a kiss.
“You’ll always be Amy to me,” she said, her voice trailing away as she drove on down Broadway.
So be it, I said to myself. So be it.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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