I call her because I’m in the car, and I’m alone, and I am thinking about the meaning of the word “a.” And I’m thinking about this especially because she realized a New Definition of the word “a,” and because she is an editor for Merriam-Webster, and because she is very smart. And because she really did realize a new definition of the word “a,” her definition is Now In The Dictionary.
She being, of course, my sister Emily.
I call her because I am suddenly not entirely sure that I remember accurately what her definition is, and I need to confirm it.
“So it’s ‘a’ as in an article that distinguishes a person in their current state as different from their normal state, right?” I say.
“Yes, that’s it,” she says.
“So, like, one could say, ‘A disheveled Rebecca emerged from the overcrowded ladies room.'”
“Yes,” she says, not commenting on my lame example.
“Like, she’s disheveled right now and that’s because of a recent development, as opposed to her general state.”
“Yes,” she says again, and then commences to so smoothly quote her definition that I don’t realize at first that she’s quoting it: “used as a function word before a proper noun to distinguish the condition of the referent from a usual, former, or hypothetical condition.” That’s verbatim how the entry appears on p. 1 of the 11th edition of the M-W Collegiate dictionary. The example follows the definition (3f): <a triumphant Ms. Jones greeted her supporters>.
My sister came up with that. Yes, she did.
But somehow my successful corroboration of this information is not the end of the conversation. No. We find that we Still Have Things to Say, and so we say them, and we say them, until Long After I have found my space in the Target parking lot and am in the store.
It’s lovely to talk with my sister, and also rare. We are both so terribly busy, you see. But on this evening, she is content to lay aside her work for a moment, and I have had my class unexpectedly canceled, and so it seems that the two of us can go shopping together, if you will, via cell phone.
In the boys’ sock section, she talks with me about old acquaintances. Over in the nail polish, we discuss more of the same. In the potato chip aisle we talk about the beneficial potentialities of Facebook. In the dairy case, we talk about its downsides. While I am admiring the baby clothes, she is telling me about her upcoming spelling bee. And when I am picking out a shirt, we are shaking our heads at our shared tendency to say “yes” to things we don’t really want.
She has to hang up the phone when I reach the check-out lane, and I proceed to load my few items onto the conveyor belt, distracted by the available varieties of chewing gum. I pay for my things and grab the plastic bags by their handles and walk out into the parking lot. Time to hurry home.
But something feels strange suddenly. Suddenly, I have an unexpected feeling, one I don’t generally have when I’ve escaped alone to Target for an hour. It’s nothing. It’s silly. Nothing has changed since I entered the Target, phone to ear, an hour ago. I load my bags into the car and back out of my parking space, heading home.
And I feel lonely.