I never text and drive. I assiduously abstain from all Chapstick-checking, hair-fixing, last-minute primping as soon as I get behind the wheel. Friends and family have informed me that I am the slowest driver in Springfield; the slowpoke crawling down Lawrence at 28 mph.
Nevertheless, about once a week, I lift my fingers from their clenched rigidity at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel to wave. Not a quick wave; its full windshield-wiper action for a good nine seconds.
To whom am I waving? Not to the police officer who, instead of ticketing me, zooms around to pass me. I’m not waving to a friend in another car; I always think it’s too personal to stare into other cars as the inhabitants are usually picking their teeth or rocking out to T.I.
No, I am waving to the guy on the corner of Iles, dressed in bright orange. I wave to the Statue of Liberty dancing on Wabash.
I wave because I want them to see me. I want the Little Caesars guy to know his sign-twirling and energetic dancing make me smile. I wave to the old man standing outside on Saturdays because I want to give him back some of the cheerfulness he gives out all day. Sometimes I wave just in case. Just in case the lady on Veterans in a huge purple suit has had it with her job, her family, and her non-existent friends. I am trying to inject a little happiness and goodwill into the world, just like someone once did for me.
In ninth grade I, like everyone else, had a few days when everything went wrong. Only one stuck with me, perhaps because when it ended, I realized the world was a little less wrong than I thought.
It was soon after my parents told me they were divorcing. My sister had been hospitalized for a month, my violin teacher had just succumbed to cancer, and I was ready to collapse with stress. But I woke up every day and pretended nothing was wrong. I laughed with my friends at school and threw myself into clubs to keep busy. To stay fit for tennis and get ready for track, I started running.
Usually I felt like I was constantly waving a sign, inviting people to come talk, trying to catch their interest, just like the people advertising, when I really felt like I was breaking down inside. When I ran, it was different. I could jam in earphones and not have to smile. I could hurry past without wondering or bothering about anyone. I could look at faces without desperately hoping they would smile back or show signs of recognition.
So when I got back to an empty house after forgetting a lit assignment, not having a group partner, not being missed despite being gone the day before, and wiping out in a slippery pile of leaves, I decided to run. I couldn’t face holding up a sign anymore, even if it was just for me.
As I pounded through Washington Park, feeling my taut smile relax into a more realistic pant, I noticed only one other runner. She was wearing blue sweatpants and for some reason I thought it was my friend Rachel. Before I knew what I was doing, I unclenched my balled-up fingers and waved vigorously, holding up my invisible sign.
She didn’t wave back, probably because she wasn’t my friend Rachel and didn’t know who the crazy person waving was. The perfect end to a humiliating day.
But near the exit I saw the woman again. My face flushed as I drew nearer but it was impossible not to glance at her. She wasn’t ignoring me. She wasn’t flashing an embarrassed smile. She was waving. Full windshield-wiper motion, accompanied by a broad grin. This, from a woman I had never even seen until twenty minutes ago. My face creased into a reciprocal smile, not a reflexive answer but a truly grateful laugh. I ran home having made peace with the world. I smiled at my parents, finished my homework, hugged my cats, and went to bed knowing that something would be good tomorrow, even if it was only someone’s friendly wave.
So I forgo my driving cautions to wave. I wave because I never know whose day it may brighten. This I believe.