I see her on my walks. She begins as a tiny speck at the end of Beacon Lane. Then we draw closer and I know her by her red wool hat and her bulky coat, and the pace of her walk. She has long hair, tucked into her collar. She wears no makeup, but her features are distinct. Sometimes she's checking her iphone. More often she's simply walking, and when we pass there's a little nod of acknowledgement between us. Now, after more than a year, we sometimes even exchange a few words.
I have my own idea of who this woman is. I imagine she is either in the health care industry or perhaps an interior designer. It's hard to say why I have this impression, except that she has a professional air about her, as well as an intelligent and open face. She seems to like herself and to be quite approachable - although come to think of it - she's not all that approachable, because I don't dare ask who she is. We only ever talk in half formed sentences about the weather. She looks to be about my age. I imagine she is single - or else divorced. Maybe she has a daughter or a grown up son, and now she lives alone. I think she is happy that way.
I should ask her who she is. I should say, "what's your name?" or "where do you live?" But if I were to do that, I suspect she would be startled and taken aback. She wouldn't really like it.
One day I passed her on a different street and both of us were surprised by the encounter. "You're varying your routine," I said.
"No," she answered, smiling. "I always go this way."
Then, later, when we passed each other in our usual spot on Beacon Lane I remarked, "Now I feel much better," and she laughed. And yet I had the sense that I was overstepping the bounds of our normal interaction.
For instance, if I were to ask her what kind of work she does, or to tell her what kind of work I imagine she does - that would be way too much. It would be a breach in etiquette - and we would never be able to enjoy the anonymity of our morning walks in quite the same way.
It occurs to me now, that there are often such neighborhood characters in our lives - people we see doing one simple thing and one thing alone. We want to keep them this way. These ordinary visions ground us. This woman, for instance, sees me walking my dogs every morning and I see her walking too. That's all we see of each other. We may develop a narrative around it. But that narrative is private. And that is enough. For her I am simply the woman with a dachshund and a greyhound - who walks the same route every morning. An odd woman with too much hair and a strange accent. A woman who dresses her greyhound in a coat.
Of course, once or twice I have walked past her with my husband. I could see when she greeted me that this was a surprise - not exactly an unwelcome surprise- but a new piece of information which she was happy to incorporate into her vision of me, but not one she wanted to explore any further.
I have had many people in my life who I've thought of as local characters - people who fill a one dimensional role in my life, and their one dimension reassures me.
There was for instance, the elderly lady we used to see striding up the road at 6 30 am a few years ago, when we drove Elliot to high school. She lives on Westmoreland and I think her husband might have been in the navy, although he's now dead - because I used to see their cars with license plates that suggested a navy background. Her house is as neat as a pin and she wears red lipstick although she must be in her seventies. Her hair is white and full and when she drives past me in one of her cars she always waves. That's because I am also a local character in her life.
When we were stationed in Rome, there was a man who swam laps in the pool at the complex where we lived. He always had a snorkel and hand paddles. He went back and forth, back and forth - for about half an hour or more. He also had a dog with whiskers who sat in the back of his car - and he had a daughter who was terribly thin, and we wondered about him and found him curious and charming - also reassuring.
I am that strange woman who walks a greyhound and dachshund. I often find people waving to me from their cars - people I don't know or recognize. So I guess for them I have become a local character.
In some ways, I feel I am friends with the woman in the red wool hat. She is a fixture in my morning routine. I know her, though only in passing. In passing is enough. If I were to ask for more, something would topple in the balance of our lives. So instead we pass each other by, and say good morning, and sometimes we mention the weather. Then, reassured, we go on.