The other day I was at the grocery store when I passed a woman who smiled and said, “Hi! How are you?”
I had no idea who she was. I knew that I knew her though, and even knew that I liked her. But how did I know her? And how well? How often did I see her, and where? No idea.
It’s a horrible feeling, to be staring at someone’s friendly face and wondering, Who are you?
“What have you been up to?” she asked me.
Does she know a lot about me, or a little? Have we talked about our lives? I chose a vague, neutral response: “Oh, you know, getting over Christmas.”
She agreed. She was too.
“It’s nice to be out without the kids,” she continued.
Oh! She had kids! Young? Older? Did I know their names? Had I met them? I just smiled, nodded. I still didn’t know who she was.
Although I might be tempted to blame this temporary amnesia on my advanced age, I can’t, really, because it’s been happening to me occasionally for the last ten or even fifteen years. I’ll run into someone unexpectedly, in public. They know me. They’re glad to see me. And I can’t place them.
It’s embarrassing and confusing—waiting for a clue, keeping up a front, smiling while inside I’m in a state of panic.
I’ve had this happen a lot with former students. I don’t worry so much about that; in seventeen years of teaching English to international students, I’ve taught a lot of people. They meant a lot to me—but I can’t possibly remember every face, every name.
This woman at Kroger though—I had to figure it out! After she left, I finished shopping, went home, and put away my groceries, all the while working on the puzzle of who she was. As I said, I knew that I liked her, that we had conversed in a semi-intimate way.
I took some deep breaths. I tried to think of all the places I frequented in town, where I would have had a friendly, speaking relationship with an employee. Was she a nurse at my doctor’s office? I didn’t think so. But someone like a nurse.
I spent about an hour and a half letting my mind search around for the answer, and trusting my intuition. I knew it was in there somewhere.
Then, suddenly: the dentist’s office! She’s the hygienist! That’s got to be it. And luckily, I’ve got a cleaning appointment in a week, so I can confirm it—I hope.
If I stay calm, I can usually find the answer to these puzzles—including the classic, “Now what did I come in the kitchen for?”