A woman seeks out my husband daily and shows me how to be better at loving

There is another woman in our town who loves my husband. Her name is Pam. Every time she sees him, which is sometimes five days a week, when they part ways she raises her crumpled hand in the air and says, “I love you, Todd!”

Todd always replies, “I love you, too, Pam!”

One day over breakfast he said to me, “That’s what I’ve got, you and Pam. The people who tell me they love me.”

I laughed, about to protest, for surely this wasn’t the case. There were obviously more than two people on earth who tell my husband, “I love you.”

But then I stopped laughing because I realized that what he had said was true. His parents are dead. He never had siblings. His son does love him but doesn’t say those three words. I believe that my daughters, his stepdaughters, feel something like love for him, but they don’t say those words to him, either.

“I love you, Todd” — that’s me, and Pam.

The first time I met Pam, she stared me down hard from under the brim of her ball cap, the front of which was emblazoned with her name in puffy paint. She wore wire-rimmed glasses and an oversized navy-blue windbreaker. Her short grey hair poked out from under her pink hat. Her watery eyes locked on me and held.

“Who’s that?” she asked Todd suspiciously.

“That’s my wife,” he replied. “Her name is Kim.”

Pam regarded me, unsmiling. “What’s she doing here?”

“She’s just visiting,” said Todd.

Pam has a hard time with new people, Todd explained. Change isn’t her favorite thing. Some people she never warms up to, especially if they’ve been the same ones who have dismissed or corrected her. Pam can miss social cues, overstay her welcome. Sometimes Pam needs to be reminded that not everybody at Todd’s Baskin Robbins store wants to have a long conversation with her. Sometimes she needs to be encouraged to move on with her day, to leave the store and its bright pink walls and oldies music and clean white tables and waffle-cone smell. After a while, Pam needs to find somewhere else to go.

Not all of Todd’s employees have the skills to do this kind of encouraging easefully. Feelings are easily hurt. Pam doesn’t forget.

“Everyone loves you, Pam,” Todd says to her sometimes.

“No, no, no, they don’t,” she says, pursing her lips, shaking her head, eyes to the white tiled floor.

Todd’s Baskin Robbins store sits in midtown, near the busiest intersection in our medium-sized city. Midtown is thick with traffic and all different kinds of humanity. During the day, it’s busy and loud. At night, it can be unpredictable and daunting. Pam lives in a group home nearby, we’re not sure exactly where. When Todd bought the store five years ago, Pam came with it, as perhaps his most regular customer.

Before she comes into Baskin Robbins, Pam visits the Taco Bell next door. She typically spends more time there, Todd says, having her meal. She always sits at the same table, in the corner by the cash register, with her back to the window. Then Pam ambles her way around the building and through the parking lot, navigating the steady stream of cars exiting the drive-thru. Sometimes she pulls a little cart behind her, which she parks on our front patio before she comes inside the ice cream shop, making the bell on the glass door jingle as she enters.

“Hi, Todd!” she says.

“Hi, Pam!” says Todd.

For years, Pam’s order was a single scoop sundae. Vanilla ice cream with hot fudge, whipped cream and a cherry. Something changed about a year ago. These days, she orders a single chocolate chip cookie. Warmed up in the microwave, 79 cents. She likes to pay with $20 bills. When she doesn’t have a $20 bill, she gives Todd a pile of bills and coins until it equals $20, and he gives her a $20 bill, and she gives it back to him, and he gives her change after the 79 cents.

For most of my life, people like Pam made me uncomfortable. One time in the seventh grade, I smiled at a boy from the skills center. The next day he came up behind me and wrapped his arms around me and wouldn’t let go. He was strong and I was scared. After that, I wasn’t really sure how to be. I didn’t know how to respond to people with so many untamed emotions. I wanted to be polite, but was afraid that I would be consumed. What if I got trapped? What if he wanted to hug me every day? I couldn’t find my boundaries. Especially with someone like Pam, who I might see over and over again, I feared encouraging any kind of attachment. I didn’t want to offer affection that might get out of my control, or that I couldn’t take back.

Todd is really good with Pam. When he was in college, he worked in a group home caring for people with Down’s Syndrome. It was an unlikely job for him — a handsome, smart frat guy who lived a charmed life and was used to getting anything he wanted. But that job came, and he took it. With Pam, he’s kind, but sets clear limits. I’ve learned a lot, watching him. More than once he’s walked up to Pam as she stood a little bit too close to customers at a table, put his hand on her shoulder, and said, “It’s time to relax, Pam. Find your table and let these people talk amongst themselves.”

“I was just telling them things,” she replies, but she listens to him and returns to her table, and her half-eaten cookie.

My husband isn’t quick or easy with affection. Most of his employees admit that they are a little bit afraid of him. Though it is not his intention, he is often perceived as prickly. Even with the people he’s closest to, he isn’t hasty with his “I love yous.” I throw “I love yous” around in the dozens a day, like candy off of a parade float, plentiful, easy to give away. Not him. He doesn’t have many tight friendships. He says that’s because who he shares his time and energy with really matters to him. He doesn’t like superficial relationships, wasted energy — he wants depth and meaning. He wants his love to count for something.

Pam and I may be the only two people who say, “I love you, Todd.” But it’s equally true that Todd only says, “I love you” to me and Pam.

Before Pam, I would have said I was the one in our marriage who was better at love. I might have even said that my husband wasn’t very good at love — at least, that it didn’t come easy for him. But watching Todd with Pam has changed my mind. He is kinder and more accepting of Pam than I have ever been able to be. Todd lets Pam in, while still taking care of himself and the others in his care — his employees, his customers, me. Watching him with Pam is witnessing someone make room for a tiny slice of love they weren’t looking for but came anyway, and why not accommodate it? When love appears, there’s no good reason to turn it away.

I was in the store a couple of weeks ago when Pam came in. She spotted me over the ice cream dipping cabinet and her eyes lit up.

“Hi!” she said. “I love your books!” I don’t know if Pam has ever read my books. I don’t know if Pam reads. But once she got used to me, warmed up to my presence and decided I was okay, every time we see each other, the first thing she tells me is that she loves my books.

“Have you ever been to the state fair?” she said next, her voice full of wonder. But she wasn’t really looking for an answer. The state fair is just one of the things she says, like how she loves my books. She’d already moved on to the music. Her hands were raised to the song playing on the oldies station, her hips wiggling in a little sway from side to side.

“You’ve got moves, Pam,” said Todd, laughing.

“I’ve got moves!” she said, throwing a hip. Pam smiled her crooked smile at me and asked, “Does your husband have moves?”

“Oh, yes, he does,” I replied, laughing, and the three of us boogied for a few moments to Aretha Franklin.

We don’t know where Pam goes each day, after Taco Bell and Baskin Robbins. Todd has seen her once or twice at the bank, exchanging bills and coins for fresh $20 bills. I’ve never seen her anywhere except Taco Bell and Baskin Robbins. But I haven’t been looking, either. It wouldn’t be hard to follow Pam, to learn more about her life. Her days can’t be that big.

But for now, Todd and I had to go. We were on our way out, to errands and kids and deadlines and dinner. At the door, we turned. “I love you,” Pam called out, still dancing. “I love you, Todd!”

“I love you, too, Pam!” he said. And that’s when it hit me: Besides Todd, who tells Pam “I love you”? Do the cashiers at Taco Bell, or the tellers at the bank? Someone at her group home?

Maybe they do. Maybe they all do. Maybe Pam has more “I love yous” in her day than Todd or even me. She would deserve that, because she’s the bravest of us all. Every day, Pam marches out into the world, or at least into midtown, and throws love around. When you’re willing to do that, some of that love has got to roll back in.

Pam pointed both of her crooked pointer fingers our way, her hips swaying. “I love both of you,” she declared.

“We love you, too, Pam,” I replied, and my husband and I left the store and its bright pink walls and oldies music and clean white tables and waffle-cone smell, and moved out into the world and on with our day.

“Pam Says I Love You” was originally published in The Timberline Review, the literary journal of The Willamette Writers Association. See timberlinereview.com.

Fifth-generation Oregonian and writer, editor, publisher, author, mother. Essay is my favorite form. Beach is my favorite place. kimcooperfindling.com

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