She was just walking into the Payless, minding her own business, clutching her wallet. I saw her toe catch the edge of the curb, the rest unfolded in quarter time. The jolt traveled through her body, rolling up from her feet, throwing her torso forward, sending her wallet flying, ending with a look of shock and fear on her face.
She hit the concrete silently save for the whoosh of air from her lungs. She landed like a flung pillow, in a quiet thud and puff. I got to her just as time sped back up to normal.
"Oh, ma'am! Are you OK?"
Her eyes took a second to find my face, and then she nodded, insisting, "I'm fine; I'm fine," but I think she was talking more to herself than to me.
"Let me help you up," I said. She had hit hard on her right hip, and I was more than a little worried she might have fractured it.
"No, go on now, I'm fine, I just...I don't know what on earth happened. I just tripped over nothing! How stupid." She was struggling to right herself from her side, find her wallet, and get up. I squatted in front of her.
"Do you need me to get help? Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine," she insisted again, and I started to suspect what hurt most was being stranded like an upturned turtle in the middle of the shopping center.
"Here," I said, offering her my right hand to hers, arm-wrestling style. "Take my hand." She protested for a second, but then relented. I grasped her hand firmly. Then I saw she was scrabbling around with her left hand on the sidewalk, trying to push herself up. I crossed my left hand over and said, "Here, take my other hand, too." She obeyed. I braced myself for her weight and said, "Now you can pull on me as hard as you need to, and I'll help you stand up."
I felt the bones shift beneath the tissue paper skin on her hands and her grip tightened. For a split second, I worried if I'd be able to hold her weight without losing my balance, but she was light as a child. I imagined I was picking up a bird, hollow-boned and fluttering.
"I'm so sorry," she kept saying once she was on her feet again. "I feel so stupid. Wasting your time."
I tried to protest--I mean really, what's so important that I can't spare three minutes to help someone up?--but she cut me off abruptly. She pointed at the curb. "I mean look at that! How did I not see that?" and then, with a venom that surprised me, she said, "I'm an idiot!"
"Hey!" I said, as good bit more sharply than I'm used to talking to grandmotherly women I don't even know. "Don't talk that way about yourself."
Her eyes met mine. I watched the tears well up as she tried to blink them away.
"We've all tripped over curbs," I said.
Then she was a flurry of apologies, shrugging off my hand and shuffling into the Payless as quickly as possible. I kept a hand under her elbow just in case, and opened the door for her.
I think I know how she felt. I wasn't lying--I've tripped over plenty of curbs. Most of mine had Y-chromosomes. And I know what it feels like to be lying there on the hard ground, disoriented, hips hurting, ego bruised. I know what it feels like to look back at that curb you didn't see and realize from this new dirt-high vantage point just how obvious it really was.
I know what it feels like to think I am an idiot!
I turned to resume my jog. I put my earbuds back in, and this song started:
I also know what it feels like to have friends see you going down in slow motion, stretching their hands out to you, helping you gather up your belongings and pull you back to your feet. Friends who say Hey, don't talk to yourself like that! and We've all been there.