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Does anyone remember the Super Bowl of 1996? I do. I was working at Arizona State University, making peanuts teaching our future leaders. I could afford my apartment, gas for my car, and food. If one majorly bad thing had happened during that time—if my car had died or my rent had spiked—I would have been broke. I wasn’t just low man on the totem pole at ASU; I was the dirt underneath the pole’s base.
So when the Super Bowl descended upon us in Tempe—taking up the stadium of course, but all large areas around the university too—people like me lost their parking spaces. Entire parking lots were closed off for months, and those of us who were displaced were told to either park farther away, like in Tucson, and ride a shuttle bus to arrive at work on time; carpool to arrive at work on time; or take the city bus to arrive at work on time.
While I never tried the shuttle, I did try the other options. In fact, my first and last foray into riding the city bus occurred during this time. One bus ran straight up and down the five-mile stretch between my apartment and ASU; that’s the one I took. The only salient memory I have of these few bus trips is sitting next to a young mother and her tiny baby on the way home, once. The seats up front were more like couches facing one another, not like on a school bus, and there weren’t any seatbelts. That’s where the three of us were when the bus driver slammed on the brakes and the baby jettisoned forward, almost into my arms, kind of like a football.
I flapped my hands and made worried looks, but the baby managed to crawl back onto the seat, and the young mother said nothing. This is how we traveled the five miles to my stop: my watching the baby teeter back and forth on the bus seat, the mother not paying attention, the driver braking and the baby toppling onto the floor, over and over.
I was a nervous wreck by the time I got home. I couldn’t ride the city bus again, so I sucked it up and asked people for favors: please drive me to school. I had two takers.
One was a much-older woman I worked with, the one with a tarantula mole on her neck that she always tried to cover by letting her shirt tag stick up. She was nice enough and treated me kindly, but a year later I would get promoted over her and she would say: “Hate is not too strong of a word for the way I feel about you.” I don’t think we were ever really friends.
The other was Maya, my officemate. Maya was 46 to my 28, an example-setter from the day I met her. Maya had long blond hair, very thick, and she was short with a perfect figure. She was dating a man my age; I was dating a man my father’s age. Together, we covered nearly a century of prospects. Maya would eventually teach me how to serve a proper Thanksgiving meal and to love with abandon, to display freshly cut flowers and start trusting people; I would teach Maya how to climb over the cement wall that separated my apartment complex from our favorite bar. Even trade.
Maya picked me up one morning after I’d given myself a haircut, shearing eight inches off what normally reached the small of my back. I’d tried to get it even. Maya’s was always very long and shiny, and blond. She scowled at me when I got into her car.
“You cut your hair,” she said. She didn’t have to say anything else, and nothing I had to say would have mattered.
I started growing it back that day.
Would the Super Bowl ever be over?
Maya, now my best friend for almost twenty years and a colleague at a different and better school, sits next to me at a department meeting. I turn to gaze upon her loveliness: her long blond hair, her flawless skin, her cute little nose. She set the standard for living up to one’s beauty potential back in 1995 when we first met. She still has long blond hair, but there’s gray in it. I have long dark hair, but there’s gray in there too. I’ve been trying to cover it up with a black Sharpie, but that always washes out. I’m not dying my hair because I hear it becomes brittle. I don’t want to be brittle.
“Is my hair as long as yours now?” I ask Maya.
“I think so, honey,” Maya says, pulling the ends of my hair to the small of my back to make sure. We pass notes during the meeting like kids.
Maya and I sometimes wonder what we’ll be doing for the holidays. People like us—loving but flawed, often alone—check in with one another as if holidays are storms. “What are you doing for Christmas?” might as well mean “in which cellar will you be seeking shelter?”
I ask Maya on the phone last night, when I realize that another holiday is rolling by with no notice, “What are you doing for Easter?”
“Nothing,” she says. “We should spend it together.”
I think of green-bean casserole and super-tall Christmas trees and the rotten robin’s egg I once bit into when I was five, thinking it was a leftover malted from Easter, in June. I think of all the times I’ve taken care of Maya, and all the times she has steadied my own course.
“Okay,” I say, and our spirits rise, the competition of Easter over.
We win again.