An excerpt from "The World is a Narrow Bridge"

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Loss/Lost in Translation

Diane Arieff

I stood at the checkout counter at Whole Foods, observing the teenaged cashier who was ringing me up. Her forearms were tattooed from wrist to elbow, heavy with ink like pages from a comic book. She wore rings on her thumbs and was pierced in all the standard places. The low-slung jeans she wore exposed a stomach still soft with baby fat. I was only in my late thirties, but I might as well have been observing her from an alternate universe, light years away. When her cell phone went off, she fished it out of her back pocket and held it to her mouth, still scanning my groceries and sliding them down the conveyor belt while she talked, not missing a beat. Her side of the conversation went like this:

ãWhat do you want?ä

ãMom, what do you WANT?ä

ãI told you not to call me at work.ä
(eye rolling)

ãI donât care. Donât call me at work.ä

ãMom, just stop bugging me, ok? Iâm fine.ä

ãIâm not sure when Iâll be home.ä
(eye rolling)

ãBecause you bug me. Omygod, just leave me alone.ä
(loud sigh)

ãLook, I have to go. I have to GO. Donât call me!ä

It was painful enough to make me wince. My own mother had died just the year before. There were still times I found myself reaching for the phone to call her. Near the end, in one of those suspended hours of time we spent alone together, she squeezed my hand and said, almost sternly, ãWe donât have any unfinished business. I know how much you love me.ä

Her death was still fresh. It had left me feeling skinless and unprotected. One afternoon, when I came across the word ãmotherlessä in a book, I was startled, as if someone had shouted my name.

In one of her published letters, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, ãWhere you used to be, there is a hole in the world.ä Yes, I thought. Exactly. I carried her lines around with me for months.

Grief, I came to understand, is like a fierce initiation rite for the heart. Standing there at the market, I watched the GothPunk girl click off her cell phone and shake her head in irritation. It's possible her mother was uniquely monstrous, but somehow, I doubted it.

She handed me my receipt, uninterested in eye contact. Something welled up inside of me and I stayed where I was, hesitant but determined to step outside the bounds of our transaction.

ãLook,ä I said softly as I tucked my wallet into my purse. My voice shook. ãDonât be too hard on your mother if you can help it. She wonât be around forever.ä A look of surprise flickered across her face, probably because of the audacity of such a thing, this woman she didnât even know, this loopy customer. She shrugged, annoyed with me but playing it cool, and turned back toward the register.

In the parking lot, as I loaded the grocery bags into my trunk, I wondered if I should have held my tongue. I meant to give her some simple but important thing, a small existential ãheads up.ä But really, why should this prickly teenaged girl with a tongue stud have listened to me? I was speaking a language she had no use for yet. From where I stood, on my side of the divide, the message I was sending seemed painfully clear, but it was lost in translation.

Maybe that was how it should be. In a perfect world of answered prayers, no children would ever be on intimate terms with despair. All teenagers would regard mortality and death as distant abstractions, like global warming or the stock exchange.

She should have been kinder to her mother, true. But not for the reasons I gave her. Those she would come to later, in her own time, with her own losses, the way Edna and I had in ours.

The editor of this book, Diane Arieffâs career as a freelance writer and editor began in high school, when she started sending off bad poetry to literary journals and humor essays to newspapers. (The latter sometimes got published.) Formerly an arts editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, her work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Milwaukee Journal, the Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times.

Click here to purchase and hear music from the accompanying CD