It was she who brought up tinder, not I.
We took the same bus to work and over a long winter our relationship had evolved from eye contact avoidance to nodding hello, onward to smiling, easily advanced to the morning, “Hello, how are you?” ritual, plateaued at brief conversations and then crescendoed to regular, momentous, and highly personal revelations. I knew she was divorced, had turned fifty on her last birthday, worked for Wells Fargo and had no belly button. Or at least those were all things she had told me about herself; I had not confirmed any of them, including the purported missing belly button.
One day back in January when Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn had all been visible in the morning sky we had been sitting opposite one another when she leaned across the aisle, pointed to my paunch and said softly, “You missed a button.”
I raised my eyebrows and replied, “Pardon me?”
I try hard not to say, ‘What?’ when I miss something. ‘What’ seems crass, uncouth, barbaric while, ‘Pardon me?’ is elegant and charming. I make an effort to be genteel whenever possible.
She leaned forward, extended her finger directly over my bellybutton and wiggled it -her finger, not my bellybutton, that is. “Your shirt,” she said, “you missed a button.”
I looked down at the straining white fabric. I had purchased my Calvin Klein dress shirt over a decade ago at a time when I was taking good care of myself and had been relatively sleek and fit. The tapered, athletic style had complemented my then slim form but either the shirt had shrunk or my belly had grown. In either case -and it was definitely the latter- the fabric now pulled tightly across the skin that covered the excess of adipose tissue beneath my navel and the button that previously lived directly over my naval had become dislodged in the half hour or so that had elapsed since I’d gotten dressed and ventured out into a cold, dark Des Moines winter. The AWOL shirt button was allowing my hairy bellybutton to play peek-a-boo through my shirt and poor Winsome had been subjected to a sight few would find endearing.
My head jerked back a bit in surprise and I placed my hand on my belly and rubbed it as though it were a magical lamp and that my rubbing might cause a button shaped genie to appear. This attempt at conjuring was unsuccessful and in response I called the MIA fastener an uncouth word- I said that I try to be genteel whenever possible, I did not say that I succeed.
“Have you got the button?” Winnie asked. “I have a needle and thread in my purse.”
“The button?” I responded. “No. Or, at least I don’t think so.” I again patted my belly in an absurd attempt to make the wayward button reappear so that it might go back to performing the function of graciously keeping my shirt shut; a function which I had assumed was its lifelong career goal. The button’s decision to leave, like my ex-wife’s, came as a complete shock to me though both departures had been preceded by unraveling.
I looked down at the bus floor, turning my head to the right, the direction from which I had entered, and to the left, the direction that I had not traveled. Alas, no button danced on the ground frantically waving its arms and shouting, “Here I am! Save me! Save me!”
“No,” I repeated, “no such luck.”
“What about sewn to your shirt?” she asked. “Are there any spares sewn to the bottom?”
This was genius on her part. I did not know the answer but I knew there very well might be extra buttons sewn onto my shirt. I pulled my shirt head -if the back of a shirt is the tail then common sense dictates that the front is the head- out of my pants and, behold! There, as prophesied by Winnie, were two buttons sewn and waiting. “How quaint! My shirt buttons have understudies,” I quipped. Pulling a tiny Swiss Army Knife from my coat pocket I declared, “I even have scissors.”
Winsome opened her purse and shoved her hand deep into the recesses of the Brobdingnagian bag. Some people carry clutches, some handbags, and others use backpacks but Winnie carried a satchel befitting Mary Poppins: I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d pulled a coat-rack and umbrella out of there. Her hand danced in its innards like a squirrel crossing the road; herky-jerky and without apparent reason, but it emerged with a small sewing kit encased in a plastic coffin that held black and white thread on two tiny, rectangular cardboard spools along with two #5 needles.
“Would you like me to do it?” she asked.
Using my Swiss Army Knife, I had carefully snipped the button from my shirt head and clutching it carefully declared, “No, thanks. I can manage.”
The corners of Winnie’s mouth descended for a moment, her eyebrows rose and then her head leaned slightly to the right while her right shoulder moved perceptively skyward. She handed me the sewing kit and declared, “Ye shall reap what ye shall sew.”
I cut off almost a foot of white thread and repeatedly tried to thread the tiny needle. Part of gentility is to not openly complain when fate and circumstances conspire against one and thwart one’s actions despite valiant attempts. Winnie watched with a bemused smile, extended her hand and asked, “May I?”
Frustrated by my lack of success I had to bite back a terse response. I reminded myself that Winnie was the solution to my problem, not its cause, and I smilingly extend the needle and thread back toward her while declaring, “Please. If you would be so kind as to thread the needle I think I can go on from there.”
Winnie took the offered sewing accoutrements, reached again into her voluminous bag and, after pulling a pair of reading glasses from its recesses, perched them on her nose. She then sat in her seat and smiled at me as she looked over her glasses.
“What?” I asked.
“Patience,” said she.
“Patience?” I asked.
“Patience,” she repeated.
The bus decelerated to pick up passengers and Winnie used our minutes of immobility to deftly thread the needle. She held onto it while the passengers filed by and then handed the threaded needle back to me. “All yours, big boy.”
“Andre 3000,” I retorted. She tilted her head to the side in response and I added, “You know, Outkast? Big Boi and Andree 3000?” I sang a little bit of “Hey Ya” but Winnie’s ever deepening brow assured me that she either didn’t know the song or couldn’t recognize my decidedly white bread version.
I just shrugged and looped the needle through two of the button’s four holes three times. I was determined that this was one button that would never again leave me.
I tried to sew as unobtrusively as possible; convinced that no one wanted to see the pasty white belly of an overweight, middle aged man first thing in the morning. The motion of the bus, low light, lack of reading glasses, -I kept a pair at work- and poor angle of attack conspired against me, thus making sewing my button a monumental endeavor. My earlier self admonishment prohibiting deep sighs was insufficient impediment to restrain me from growling my displeasure. Winnie looked at me, held out her hand and said, “Let me.”
I let her.
She patted the seat next to her and I moved from the groom’s side of the bus to the bride’s. She bent over me in a rather suggestive way and I resisted the strong temptation to moan. My discretion was not so much chivalrous as it was self-protective. She had a sharp object that she was repeatedly poking at me and I did not want my sophomoric humor to increase the odds of an ‘accidental’ jab.
As it turned out it didn’t matter because our eyebrow raising tableau didn’t last. “You’ll have to unbutton your shirt,” she declared. “I can’t work like this.”
“Unbutton my shirt? And just hang out here for the whole world? Really?”
“Unless you have a better idea,” she said.
I didn’t. I unbuttoned and said, “Well, I guess everybody’s got a bellybutton. Except Adam and Eve of course.”
Winnie stopped sewing for a second and stated, “I don’t,” and then got back to the job at hand. “There,” she declared, “all done.”
“Ah. Well, I guess that makes you an angel; twice,” I answered, buttoning my shirt back up but not tucking it in. “Once for fixing my shirt and once for not having a bellybutton. Angels would be naval free.”
Winnie laughed and said, “That wasn’t a joke. I really don’t have a bellybutton. And I’m no angel. I was born with a bellybutton but it was removed during surgery.”
Listen, I know that there are people in this world who get some pretty outlandish plastic surgery performed on themselves. Gills added to necks, horns to foreheads and yes, bellybuttons removed, but as Winnie had no visible tats I did not have her pegged as someone who had undergone extensive avant garde body reshaping. And okay, okay! ‘Visible tats’ while riding a bus in an Iowa winter meant none showing on her face, neck or hands; but still! I just didn’t view Winsome as someone who would go to such extremes.
“You had your bellybutton removed? As what?” I asked. ” A protest against our mammalian heritage?”
“What?!” Winnie responded. “No! I had to have abdominal surgery and it was removed as part of the process. Collateral damage. People really have their bellybuttons removed for cosmetic reasons?”
“So I’m told. Folks get horns, scales, gills, Frankenstein neck bolts added too. The more, um, let’s say, ‘eye catching,’ the procedure the better for a lot of people. Takes all kinds, right?”
“That it does,” she said, head turned to the side and left eyebrow raised. “No. Not me. I miss my bellybutton.”
So, while Winnie had seen mine I hadn’t seen hers; or her lack thereof as is the case. The mysterious case of the missing button had occurred back in the dark, dark days of January but thankfully winter was mostly behind us having progressed to that terrible tease of a month known as March.