There are six piles between us on the counter, a line drawn between two sad and tired women chatting on the surface––dangling rods into each other’s waters but careful not to catch anything of too much weight or substance.
“She still won’t accept a cashier’s check?” Her smile is half pointed upwards in a way that must’ve been sweet and slightly mischievous as a child and borderline seductive later on. Now, this smile is declaring her attention to detail, her care, and how foreign she is to this position she’s taken on only recently. A bank teller.
We have piles––stacks––of cash between us, more than either one of us has ever been given for anything we’ve ever done. Once a month I come to draw from this well, and it’s always more money than she’s authorized to give, and she always has to quietly, almost with pride, apologize that she needs the manager’s approval for the transaction. She’s still untrained in other areas too, she’s made clear. She seems comfortable not being seasoned like the other tellers, perhaps even relieved to be restricted to a number of transactions, to be protected from herself, from mistakes, from sensitive financial information.
I shake my head in response to her question—“No,” I say, “No. She insists on cash only.” I am ashamed that I have that much to draw from every month, I am ashamed that I am not revealing the whole truth about why it has to be cash, but also know that we both know why people accept only cash. I’ve come to dread this monthly trip to the credit union down the street from my house and having to ask for a lot of money and sometimes also for the balance, which she is authorized to do, and on a bad day when the balance is low I try to understand where all the money has gone and she gets up slowly and walks to the printer with a back that’s far too bent forward for someone her age and with that kind of smile, and she comes back and hands me the print-out of the transaction even though I can access it standing in front of her on my phone. I come every month for this amount of money and all I have to do is make sure I don’t lose the cash by the time my father’s Filipino savior comes to my house at the end of her shift to collect her wages.
I look into her deep blue eyes, trying to imagine a time when she was less washed out of herself, even though I feel in my gut that she’s never been more herself than now- I see an awakening in her, and I begin to connect the story-dots in my head explaining why this middle-aged woman is suddenly a sweet, eager bank teller, out of nowhere. And I imagine with precision that she’s divorced recently and had to take on a stable job with health insurance after years of not having to work, and that she’s enjoying every minute of being something she never in a million years thought she’d be. And especially enjoying it because she knows she’s not good at it- not good at numbers and keeping track- but she says she’s very social and likes to talk to people who come in.
She likes it so much that we’ve been talking for fifteen minutes now, and the branch manager has opened up a window next to her, and the line is getting long- almost around the corner and touching the coffee/mocha/tea machine that my kids like to use when I drag them here because it’s such a novelty. With stacks of money she’s counted and placed in the space between us out in the open for all to see, we’re talking about the schools our kids attend, what we used to do, how she got here, and yes, I was right, a divorce- and the part that surprises me is that her ex is kind and isn’t giving her a hard time as they’re divorcing. And I tell her of my friend whose husband is dragging her through hell and back as they part their ways and I wonder if I feel worse for her or for my friend because yes, my friend is residing in hell but she’s alive and kicking and beautiful and were she to get a job at a bank now the whole branch would be filled with her light but this teller that I’ve now seen once a month for a year at least is dim, but yet so sweet and kind and I can’t help but think that he left her for someone with thick bones and a strong back and that she said “yes, I understand” to him when he sat her at the table that night after their daughter was in bed because she knew already, though he’d never know she knew. The wife he thought he had didn’t know such things and if she did, he wouldn’t have chosen another.
I, too, didn’t really know, didn’t really see her, I then realized. And all this time, with the money between us, and the talk of how we had kids later and me twinging because I actually started early and shuddered at the thought that she sees me as her peer in age with her dark sagging eyes, I realized as I heard my phone vibrating with messages reminding me that life was more than talking to the teller about my father’s caretaker who had to leave her child in the Philippines to escape an abusive husband years ago, I realized that she was not holding me there as I thought she was, the long line forming and the branch manager looking to the side at us. I was worried for her that she was so unmatched for her job that she was going to lose it by talking to me in that gentle voice with the perfect rounded words, that she was in a way holding me hostage by leaving all the counted-out money on the counter between us. I realized in a moment that she had already done her part and completed her transaction as the teller and that like every time, it was my turn to take each stack of bills and pile them one on top of the other and place them in the envelope she had courteously provided me with, sitting next to the money, without even having to ask of I needed one.
It was me who was holding us up by missing the cadence of the transaction that typically happens without losing a beat: the money is requested, the money is approved, the money is counted by hand and out loud just for me to hear, the envelope is provided, and then it’s my turn to gather, say thank you, and leave.
I had gotten part of her story right, but most of it, the important part, was all wrong.