Hello! For those three of you who are still checking in on my severely anemic blog, I send you greetings...and apologies. I won't make you jealous with the reasons why I've been MIA, but suffice to say it involves my vocation, a hospitalization, my son's new mode of transportation, a graduation, a girls mini-vacation, all the -tion words you can think of basically. Oh, except masturbation. Unless you count that case I was on where I had to listen to three full days of details about that very topic. File that under "strange but true", friends.
So just when you thought it was safe, I'm back. This time, I thought I'd introduce you someone who I, myself, haven't even had contact with in over 15 years, but she's been on my mind. Her name was Cora.
Lemme give you a little background. In 1990, I moved to Norfolk, Virginia. My husband was a proud member of the U.S. Navy and I gathered up my cosmetics and hair products and moved myself down to the largest Naval base on the east coast. I found a job at a medical school and was able to find an apartment that was "cozy, charming, and with character" (read: small and old). Although my husband would leave a few months later for "Operation Desert Storm", I was determined to make the best of being a landlubber in a strange town until his return.
If you are a child of my generation, you may remember "Melrose Place". You know how they lived in that uber-cool apartment building? Stucco walls and courtyard with a pool? Well, the place I found was sort of like that. Emphasis on "sort of". It had the stucco walls, but the tenants weren't nearly as fashionable, there were weeds in the courtyard where the pool should have been, and there was a "manager", Mrs. Shockley, (and I use the term manager in the least effective sense of the word) who I'm pretty sure was skimming some Benjamins off of the top when she asked that we all pay in cash because it was easier for her to just send one check to the property owner. I have no proof of her embezzlement, because I was too busy being impressed by her vast array of Mrs. Roper-style muumuus.
A one-bedroom apartment was available on the third floor so I put pen to paper and signed a lease. I was looking forward to making this little plaster palace home for at least the next year...or longer if good old Mrs. Shockley was ready to cut a deal.
It wasn't too long after I moved in my casserole dish and curling iron that I heard a knock on my door. I had a neighbor! A friendly neighbor! I was so excited! That was the day I met Cora. The one-and-only, Cora. She was also a 20-something Navy wife, having moved from Ohio just a few months before I arrived. I was happy to know that, with all the time I'd be spending alone in a strange town, there was someone in a similar situation just right across the hall.
In the beginning, we would say hello at the mailbox or while passing in the hall. I noticed that they didn't seem to have a car, so I offered to let her know when I was running out and she could tag along. She was sweet and seemed grateful.
Having grown up in a great little suburban town in Maryland called Joppatowne, I guess I never realized what a homogeneous place it was. I kinda feel like everyone there was "middle-class". We all pretty much were of the same means and lived very similar lives. Cora was about to teach me a lot about how, without my ever knowing it, I had lived a pretty sheltered life.
Living on low-ranking enlisted Navy pay meant you had to get creative with the food budget. I was lucky to have lived in a house where my mom, too, had a grocery budget but was still able to put a nice meal on the table each evening. With my list and coupons, I took Cora to the not so appropriately named grocery store Be-Lo. (About which I would soon coin the phrase, "I don't know why it's called Be-Lo because their prices Be-High!). She opted to share a cart with me, which was fine. I tossed in some produce, bread, tuna, meats. With each item, she'd say, "Wow, are you really going to cook that?" This went on for about four aisles, my adding items and her just following along.
That was, until we reached what she called "potted meat". Quite frankly, I had never even HEARD of "potted meat" until I had to duck as she threw about 36 cans of it in the cart. It's only 25 cents, she exclaimed! I hated to harsh her mellow, but I had so many questions. Meat? In a can? And in a 2 ounce can at that. This is when I knew Cora had a LOT more to teach me about life. And "meat".
It wasn't long before Cora started greeting me after work. The minute she heard my footsteps coming upstairs, like a lovable puppy excitedly wagging its tail, she'd wait by my door. In the beginning, it was fine. But I would be lying if I said that some days, I wished she was more like a cat.
Getting to know each other meant that she also felt more comfortable calling me at home and at work, in addition to the personal visits. Keep in mind that these were the days before caller ID (and, thank God, before cell phones). You never knew who was going to be on the other end of the phone until you heard their voice and it was too late. Just when I thought I'd slipped in unnoticed, the phone would ring and it was....Cora. Here's how one of our conversations went:
Cora: "Hi, neighbor! What are you doing?"
Me: "Oh, just got home from work. How was your day?"
Cora: "Good. I watched soaps and played video games."
Me: "Wow! Sounds fun! Did you need something, because I'm really --"
Cora: "Actually, yeah. We're having hot dogs and beans for dinner and I was wondering if I could borrow some hot dogs and beans."
Me: "Um, sure. Let me see what I have. Come on over in a few minutes."
Okay. As I said before, I was raised in the suburbs, so the very idea of borrowing something from a neighbor isn't foreign. But I gotta tell you, we NEVER, EVER borrowed the main dish and the side dish. I mean, are you REALLY having hot dogs and beans for dinner if you don't actually HAVE any hot dogs and beans? Cause in my world, you're just having hot dog rolls.
And the requests didn't stop there. Cora's husband had some sailor buddies that were going to be staying with them for a few weeks (one of which I would later come to find out she left her husband for, but that's a WHOLE other blog post). She was fretting about getting the place in order. I had just stencilled a border on my walls(STOP laughing right now. It was in back then, I swear) and she wanted me to give her quick-and-dirty seminar on how to spruce up her place as well. With stencilling brush and acrylic paints in hand, I went over and gave it my best shot. I did one wall and then left her to her own devices for the other three, fully knowing that this would probably be the event that would lead to my never being offered to renew my lease with Mrs. Roper.
A few days went by and Cora called again, this time asking to borrow a lamp and a chair. Again, where I come from, you borrow sugar. Maybe borrow a cup of sour cream. Even a lawn mower if yours is on the fritz, but furniture? By this point I'm thinking that Ohio is not a part of the United States.
When I went to bring the lamp and chair over, she asked me to come in and see her stenciling work. She said she knew it wasn't the best, but she didn't care since she was only renting. Now I am FAR from Martha Stewart, and I'm certainly not perfect, but I also will say that I know a straight line when I see it. Her stencilling...well, it sort of gave you the impression that she either (a) was hitting the bottle when attempting this project or (b) she has undiagnosed vertigo. That floral pattern had more waves than Ocean City.
The requests went on...she borrowed a table (which I should have expected because it was crazy for me to loan her a lamp with nothing to put it on) and a phone. She borrowed food. I was excited for her when she branched out from the potted meat and said she was actually using her oven, but of course that meant she had to have me come over to peek in her oven and see if I thought her Tuna Helper was fully cooked.
And although I joke about it, the requests really didn't bother me much. That was until her husband went out to sea for three months and she asked if I could do her a favor. She wanted to know if I would take nude pictures of her to send him. I don't consider myself a prude, but to ask someone you barely know to photograph you in all your glory, it just struck me as odd. Well, that was until she told me that she had her mother take the last set of pictures.
I could go on and on with my Tales of Cora. My husband left for six months, her husband returned. I helped her decorate the building and make a special dinner. Obviously I had underestimated the aphrodisiac qualities of "potted meat" because, within a month, she told me that she was pregnant. I was happy for them, but I'll confess that I thought I should probably buy a few cans of baby formula so Junior could get a meal or two...at least until she realized babies can't eat Tuna helper or meat in a can.
My concerns were validated when I offered to pick her up from her first doctor's appointment. She got in the car and I asked how it went. She said that everything seemed to be fine and that she actually learned something! I can safely say that, for as long as I live, I will NEVER forget her disclosure, "You know, I was sitting on the exam table waiting for the doctor and they had a poster on the wall. I was looking and looking. It was like a poster of all your lady parts. I couldn't believe it because I never knew there were three holes down there!"
I'm pretty sure this was when I heard the gravel from the shoulder of the road hitting my car because I had blacked out from sheer fright. This is a woman who is giving birth to another human being...a little person she will be responsible for the feeding and care of, and she has NO idea of how many holes she has "down there". Forget that she had never had a driver's license, forget that she borrowed the main dish on her dinner menu, forget that she was married to a man that insisted on answering the phone in the voice of cartoon characters, at that moment, it all paled in comparison.
And all these years later, I do wonder what she's doing now. Is she sleeping on a mattress borrowed from a neighbor? Did her son become a rebel vegetarian? When we last spoke, she had left her husband for his friend, was trying to get a driver's license, and had decided that she wanted a career. And of all things, she wanted to be a mortician. It was the LEAST frightening thing I had ever heard her say.