Her parents had moved to a retirement community with low humidity and warm sun. There was tennis and golf, indoor calisthenics and shuffleboard on outdoor courts. There were daily walks and jogging with pedometers, cushioned sneakers with arch supports and bike riding on level ground. There was a Neighborhood Association with a community pool and swimming, and a clubhouse with hobby and gaming rooms. Entertainment was provided with themed nights and disco balls and lectures offering stimulating conversation as an antidote to aging. There were chartered buses for trips to historic sites and malls with all day shopping and lunch. There were free inoculations for influenza, pneumococcal pneumonia and shingles. There was lawn bowling.
“My family was poor. I quit school and worked as a dental hygienist, the office stinking of disinfectant.”
She received a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, as her parents were preparing to move. She had been living at home and working as a teacher, although she hated teaching and hated her students, feeling she had no control over them in the classroom. The more they laughed, talked and pointed with derision, the more abdominal pain, bloody stools and diarrhea she had.
While in the lady’s room she had fainted from dehydration and hit her head on the sink, knocking herself unconscious. She was removed from the premises on a stretcher. Her parents insisted she continue living with them in their new home. She needed time to physically recover, although teaching had also left her emotionally drained with the little confidence she had, shaken.
“I wanted to be an actress.”
She gave up popcorn and other high fiber foods and slowly her symptoms began to dissipate. It was at her parents’ urging she had become a teacher, but knew in her heart, she would never step foot in another classroom.
“When I had saved enough money I left home and headed for Hollywood to live my dream. I was 18 years old, younger than you are now. I got a job as a movie extra but quickly became frustrated. During filming, I always wound up off-camera. One day I discovered a hole in my shoe. I couldn’t shake my poverty. It left me feeling humiliated and defeated despite what everyone had told me were my striking good looks.”
What she really wanted to do was to create alternative music and self-record her own album. She already knew the title: Battered Love. When she had brought Roy home to meet her parents, her father left the two of them standing at the front door.
“While I was living in Hollywood, I met a young man with whom I became very taken and was more handsome than that boy of yours, Roy. On that first date we flew to Hoover Dam to sightsee. I wore a dress with a belt and full skirt. The skirt blew in the wind as though I was dancing. It was before pregnancy ruined my figure. I felt free. We admired Lake Mead and reveled in the dam and the enormity of its power as a hydroelectric source. He explained how the generator worked and I pretended to understand. I ran out of money and had to return home. Before I met your father I worked as a movie usherette. I stood in the dark with a flashlight.”
Instead she found a job working at the City Clerk’s Office in the Records Department, although she often daydreamed about looping tracks. She stood behind a counter with a plastic partition through which birth and death certificates were pushed.
“The first year your father and I were married was wonderful. We were in love and would gaze into each other’s eyes seeing only perfection or at least pretending we did. We shared our frustrations and doubts, our deepest fears. Slowly he began to talk less and less, until finally he didn’t talk at all. I was hurt by his withdrawal but what made matters worse was my attraction to his brother. Whenever we were alone we kissed with urgency and passion.”
She had one friend, Nina who stood next to her behind the counter. Nina was always trying to talk her into buying a tank top. “You dress like an old lady,” she would say.
“For years I yearned for his brother and became light headed and sweaty whenever he entered a room. Once when we were speaking my clip on earring fell down the front of my dress and lodged between my breasts. I laughed aloud and made a silly joke, but I knew he wanted to reach for it.”
If she complained to her parents about the job, they pointed out its good points; the healthcare benefits, an option for early retirement and the pension.
“I had nothing. Other couples held hands or sat close with their shoulders touching, but not us. Other couples continued to have sex and find satisfaction in each other even as the years went by, but not us. Once when ill, your father sat on the edge of my bed. Other than that, I remained alone. In my own house, for years I was alone. I never liked Roy, either.”
On weekends her father woke her early to jog with him on an outdoor track. He was part of a rehabilitation program with other cardiac survivors. She was embarrassed being there and wanted to be someplace else, but wasn’t sure where. The exercise physiologist, who stood on the sidelines with oxygen tanks and a stopwatch, engaged her in conversation. He spoke to her about the cardiovascular system, cardiovascular disease, his experience developing customized exercise programs and survival rates. He added, “I weightlift as a hobby.” He lost interest, when she didn’t respond.
“Our whole family had lousy luck when it came to love. My brother on his wedding night had his bride tell him she was in love with another man with whom she had been having an affair all during their engagement. He never married again. His capacity for commitment was broken.”
Most of her free time was spent watching movies at home. Once she laughed aloud.
“My sister thought her fiancé a mama’s boy. She told him, ‘Either me or your mother.’ He chose his mother. Six months after they broke up, his mother died and he married someone else.”
She also spent time alone in her bedroom where she would try on a pleated skirt made from chiffon. She would look at herself in the mirror. Sometimes she would twirl.
“My oldest brother, with his blue eyes and broad build was handsome. He had his pick when it came to women. He worked in a hardware store and caught a piece of metal in the eye, while making a key. He lost the eye and replaced it with a fake one.”
When done she would hang the skirt up, carefully and put it back in her closet. Sometimes she met Nina at a chain restaurant for dinner.
“I never bought anything for myself. For winter, I only had a car coat that barely covered my backside and left me freezing. The fur on the collar was made out of polyester. You, on the other hand, have a chiffon skirt that hangs in your closet.”
As her mother spoke, she put her hands over her ears.
In the middle of the night, her father woke due to an enlarged prostate and headed to the bathroom to relieve himself. He tripped and fell, hitting his head. She and her mother visited him in the hospital. She watched as her mother cupped his face in her hands and kissed his forehead. He turned his face away. He lingered for a week, looking briefly as though he would recover and then died.
“False hope,” her mother muttered.
In response to her husband’s death her mother joined the synchronized swimming team at the community pool and prepared for an upcoming performance.
“He always held me back,” she said.
She played a supporting role to a woman who had been a diving champion in her youth. She felt marginalized in the routine and hated the color of the rubber swim cap that she was told to wear. The swimming also exhausted her, although she would never admit it. Her legs no longer had the strength they once did. One day after practice, she left and never returned.
They lived together for years, she and her mother. They walked to the community pool together. They swam together. They ate together at the Early Bird Special. Sometimes they sat together, her mother watching a movie with her on the couch. Other times her mother wouldn’t watch, but sit by her side sewing by hand, small quilted purses that she donated to charity. Each day was very much like the last, and over time her skin lost some of its youthful sheen. If she pointed out the dulling of her complexion, her mother would say, “It’s nothing.”
One morning, her mother did not wake. She had suffered a stroke. One side of her body was paralyzed. At first she thrashed around in her hospital bed insulting the doctors and nurses who cared for her. As the acute brain trauma diminished, she became more docile.
She said, “There was a day when I had something in my hand. Now I have nothing. I tried not to grow old.”
Like her father, her mother briefly looked as though she would recover, but the first stroke was quickly followed by a second and she died.
She now lived alone in the retirement community, in the house that had once been her parents’. She didn’t get a cat for company or a dog. She watched her movies and tried on her skirt. Although financially secure, she continued to work at the Records Department for the pension.
One evening she found herself thinking about her old boyfriend, Roy who she had met in a dark movie theatre before the trailers began.
Her father had asked, “What do you know about him?”
“He wants to take me to Mexico,” she had answered, “To a town by the sea, where there are fish tacos sold by vendors. He is also a vice president.” She couldn’t remember of what.
“How do you know what he tells you is true?” her father demanded.
Convinced that Roy was a dangerous man, she ended her relationship with him.
She felt very alone but found comfort in the thought, “For company, I have my other memories.”
Suddenly, she threw her hands over her ears as she realized, “But none of them are my own.”
Down the street, lived a man whose wife had abandoned him, shortly after he received his diagnosis. It had started with a tremor in his right hand so small, that no one had noticed. Then the tremor worsened and spread to his left hand.
He had worked in academia as a college professor. In the course of his career, he had published prolifically and been beloved by his students. Tenure came easily for him and he was given his own lab where he experimented with cats that suffered from hereditary retinal disease. He implanted microchips deep into their eyes, hoping his research would, one day, help the blind to see.
His disease progressed and his muscles stiffened and his movements slowed. His face became expressionless and his speech slurred. His mother had died of the disease when he was a boy, although technically it had been pneumonia. Because of the difficulty she had swallowing, she aspirated into her lungs. He was a researcher and understood science. He knew in the late stages of his disease he would either need a full-time caregiver or have to be institutionalized.
He was forced to quit teaching, despite his devoted lab assistant filling in his sentences and expressing the enthusiasm his face could no longer show. Then the depression set in. It was unclear if his depression was a result of too many dying cells and dopamine depletion or the daily assault of his own incremental failures. It didn’t matter. He stopped feeding his cats. An anonymous tip about the starving of his research animals led to a spot inspection. He was charged with violating animal protocol. After that, his colleagues ostracized him. His wife, who at the time was still living with him, suggested early retirement as a dignified way to exit the university. Besides, animal activists were threatening a civil suit unless the lab was closed.
“There is a Neighborhood Association with a clubhouse and hobby and gaming rooms. There are lectures and dances, bridge games and tournaments, an ongoing poker game played with paperclips. There are cruises at reduced fees due to volume and continuing education. The new house,” she continued, “Has a backyard of colorful ice plants and fruit trees. You only need to step outside to find a lime and the convenience doesn’t stop there. A hospital is located nearby.” Desperately trying to create within him a feeling of hopefulness, she added, “The heat of the sun and the community pool will be healing.”
She had handicapped railing installed in the bathroom and a small stool placed in the shower on which he could sit. No longer able to manage his own buttons, she bought him tee shirts to wear instead. Once she had provided him with all the things she anticipated he would need, she announced her affair. She had met an old boyfriend on Facebook.
“I want light, not darkness,” she said. “I want exuberance not despair.”
She moved with her boyfriend to a small house close to the sea. She was preparing for a marathon and wanted to run on sand.
With his wife gone, he struck up a routine of walking to the community pool each morning, although his walk was becoming more of a shuffle. Interestingly, his capacity to run was uninterrupted as it used a part of his brain as yet undisturbed. As a result, he could often be seen trotting. At the pool, he sat at the water’s edge in a chair of wrought iron. By the water’s edge she also sat, wearing a white cover-up; the material so thick, it was impossible for the sun to get through.
He watched her swim. “You are afraid to put your head in the water,” he said.
She and her mother would keep to themselves when they came to the pool. After she died, no one approached her and she approached no one. Instead, she sat under a beach umbrella alone, surrounded by senior citizens reminiscing about their lives. Out of habit, she listened.
“In our youth my husband and I travelled to France and lived in a youth hostel. He had messianic delusions. ‘I am the living Christ,’ he would say. He was a wonderful man in so many ways, brilliant and kind. He was also crazy. Frightened and fed up I ran away. I travelled to India and lived in an ashram. I travelled to the Great Wall of China and ate dog. Over time, his eccentricities began to soften in my mind and my fear subsided. I began to feel I had made a mistake. I went home but it was too late. He had already found a new woman and discarded his affection for me. For a decade, I mourned.”
“You are afraid to put your head in the water,” he said again to her.
“We were vacationing and decided to go on a trail ride. My wife was on a good-natured horse with a springy gate, as it was half pony. I rode behind her. Suddenly my horse, for what seemed to be no reason, bit the backside of her horse. I was caught unawares with the reins slack in my hands, pulling on the bit when it was too late. Her horse reared up and threw her to the ground. She wasn’t wearing a protective helmet.
‘It will flatten my hair,’ she had said.
Her head hit rock and she died on impact. I had been angry with her for years. Although she had told me from the very start of our relationship, that she had no interest in being a mother, I wanted children.
‘My beauty,’ she would say, ‘Is who I am.’
My hypocrisy was that I married her because of her beauty. She had a large face with dimples and blonde hair that belonged on a billboard.”
“You are afraid to put your head in the water. As a result you hold your breath, which interrupts the rhythm of your stroke.”
“In fact, her face was so beautiful I overlooked that she had the ugliest breasts I had ever seen. I suspect I didn’t keep my feelings about her breasts a secret, although I told myself I did. Whenever we walked past a newsstand, any cover of a magazine with a buxom woman would divert my attention. It hurt her. She gave me not only beauty but joy, and it still wasn’t enough for me. I remarried after her death.”
“Joe,” he said introducing himself.
“Annie,” she replied.
“Retired professor,” he said. “As a matter of fact, my area of research was sight. I explored the mechanisms by which people see, using cats suffering from hereditary retinal disease as my subjects. I had my own lab, lab assistants and was a committee chair and supervisor on doctoral research. I also travelled worldwide for conferences and was a frequent guest speaker.”
“Government employee specializing in official documents,” she replied.
“My career began in Chicago,” he continued. “The first time I was in front of a classroom I was terrified and received awful student reviews. I improved after throwing away my curriculum and teaching only what the students wanted to learn. With that strategy, my popularity soared, was promoted and began work in my first lab. I felt deep empathy for all of my cats, although I gave none of them a name.
I moved to New York City after another university offered me a full professorship and the opportunity for tenure. My new colleagues were a brilliant bunch, although intensely competitive, which became useful as it served to keep me on my intellectual toes. The city itself was exciting and I enjoyed the non-stop pace. There was art, exceptional and life-affirming at The Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, the Frick and still more things of interest with the Subway Museum, Holocaust Museum, Museum of the American Indian and the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island. You could row a boat in Central Park and see a blue heron perched in a tree. I learned where to find the best blintz. A blintz, by the way, is a type of thin pancake filled with cheese and fried and sometimes served with a dusting of powdered sugar. I was at my peak.
My wife abandoned me after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Do you want to know how bad it can get? The other day, I froze and shit on myself.”
“I swam and ate with my parents, watched the fruit trees ripen and went to the mall.”
“When I was at the University, I had a colleague who wore seersucker suits and cowboy boots and had an easy swagger based on flimsy research that quickly became outdated. He developed colon cancer and had to have his bowels re-sectioned. He recovered and returned to the university as pompous as ever, while my disease forced me to give up the work that I loved.”
Joe suggested lunch at a Pancake House. “It’s as close as we’ll get to a blintz.” She drove as his reaction time had slowed and his grip on the steering wheel had weakened. His wife had taken the car key before she left.
As they looked at the menu he encouraged Annie to be adventurous telling her she could do better than the Belgian waffles, her first choice. Emboldened she ordered, “The Tahitian Maiden’s Dream,” a crepe with bananas, sour cream, Triple Sec, sherry, brandy and apricot sauce.
When they were done eating, Annie stood but Joe didn’t. His medicine had worn off and he couldn’t move. He instructed her to find a pill in his pants pocket and put it in his mouth. It was strangely intimate. As they waited for the medication to take effect, their waitress became increasingly impatient wanting to turn over the table to new diners. Finally able to stand, he moved forward slowly, shuffling his feet while Annie held his arm. He was painfully aware the other diners were staring.
“Not good for business,” thought the manager who had recently been promoted.
He wanted Joe to exit more quickly. He took Joe’s other arm and began to drag him. When they got to the front door, the manager lifted Joe like a woman on her wedding day and carried him to Annie’s car. As he was pushed into the passenger seat he wept, remembering his cats.
By the time she pulled into his driveway the medicine had taken full effect. Joe was able to step from the car and walk into his house, although she still held his arm. She sat next to him on the couch. On the mantle and bookcase shelf, she saw framed photographs: Joe hiking The Appalachian Trail, Joe with a backpack, Joe in black tie, receiving an academic honor, Joe with thumbs up in rollerblades, Joe with his wife and a young girl.
“My daughter,” he said. Joe had a daughter. She was surprised. They sat together a while longer.
As she left, Joe said, “We make a great team,” and gave her a wan smile.
They became close friends with Joe relishing the opportunity he had in Annie, to share his opinions and experiences. He had never met anybody who was such a good listener. They spoke frequently throughout the day, the phone calls alleviating some of the tedium for Annie at work. She was also tired of listening to Nina talk about Claude, her new boyfriend.
When she didn’t hear from him all day, she let herself into his house with the key he had given her. He had wanted her to have the key, he said because he felt close to her. In truth, there was no one else to whom he could give it. His wife had refused, not wanting the responsibility. She found him lying on the floor looking dazed. He had rolled out of bed the evening before and been unable to get up.
When the emergency medical technicians arrived, she was informed Joe was severely dehydrated. He was taken to the hospital where he recovered, staying several additional days for observation. He told Annie he was getting sponge baths. As she left his hospital room, she bumped into a young woman who identified herself as Joe’s daughter.
“Why aren’t you taking better care of my father?” she demanded.
Annie had been wearing culottes instead of shorts that day. She had been trying to be adventurous. After meeting his daughter all she wanted to do was hide.
Once released, Joe told her how every morning in the hospital, he woke with an erection and found himself thinking about her. He was elated that despite his illness, he had retained his sexual prowess.
“I love you,” he said and embraced her.
Annie found his body warm, but felt his frailty beneath her hands. She rejected his kiss, turning her face.
“Why can’t we kiss each other?” he asked.
When he got no response he said, “Why can’t we at least hold each other and in that way give each other comfort?”
She had moved away from him and continued to keep her distance.
Angered by her rejection he yelled, “You are no longer young.”
The panic began slowly. At home, after her argument with Joe, she noticed her hands and fingers had gone numb. She tried to ignore it. She became dizzy and started to sweat. She sat down, hoping it would pass. Her heart began pounding and she felt she had no control over her body. She became terrified and was filled with a sense of impending doom. Death seemed imminent. She opened the front door and breathed in the fresh air, hoping to calm herself. Finding no relief she ran through the house at full gait, stopping only for jumping jacks, hoping exercise would dissipate the feeling. It didn’t. She sat herself down in a warm bath, vaguely recalling an article in the Neighborhood Association’s newsletter about hydrotherapy benefitting the mentally ill.
She sat in the tub holding her knees and for a moment knew what she didn’t want to know, what she pretended daily wasn’t true. She was no longer young. Joe was right.
She had to try to do something new, be someone new and rushed from the tub to find the newsletter and looked at the list of ongoing lectures: “Healthy Aging,” “On Being the Oldest Person in the Room,” “Antioxidants and Longevity.” She looked at the classes: jewelry design, macramé, leather carving and drawing with charcoal and pastels. She knew the real purpose of the classes was not art, but to help the elderly keep their grip. She had seen a section entitled “Art” in a catalogue from a local community college. Her anxiety beginning to rise again, she thrust her hands into the kitchen trash and found it. “Preparing Yourself for a Voiceover Career,” “Becoming an Addiction Counselor,” “Italian, I, Italian II, Italian III” and there it was “Art History.” The school was farther from home than she usually travelled, but the thought of the class made her panic stop.
Joe tried to talk her out of going.
“Extension courses are second rate and the professor will be merely an adjunct. He will not have fully read the text.
“The class meets once a week.”
“At night and by the time you return home it will be dark.”
Reading the course description he added, “What use could you have for a ‘Comprehensive Overview of Italian and Northern Renaissance Art’?”
“It was you,” she responded, “Who said art was life-affirming.”
Realizing he could not deter he said resentfully, “The classroom will be overheated and you without a tank top to save you. Besides the projector will break.
She sat in the dark looking at slides and listening to commentary from the instructor on Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Botticelli and Bellini and from Germany and the Low Countries, Van Eyck, Durer and Bosch, Brueghel, Rubens, Vermeer and Rembrandt who impressed her with his courage to paint a self-portrait. At first overwhelmed by the beauty, as the class continued, she felt increasingly alive.
One evening a man seated next to her leaned close and said, “I have testicles the size of grapefruits.”
A woman seated on her other side, who overheard him and worked as a lawyer for a legal aid organization representing battered women, responded, “You’re a pig.”
Later that night Annie thought, “Art history is more exciting than the Pancake House and ‘The Tahitian Maiden’s Dream’.”
She was looking at prints of Titian nudes when her phone rang.
Joe said, “There is a cat in my backyard,” and hung up.
He immediately called back and said, “I have found several cats in my living room, on the couch and hiding behind the armchair” and hung up again.
After a few minutes he called back and said, “It is quite remarkable. There is a veritable clutter of cats sprawling on tabletops and milling about the floor.”
When Annie arrived at his home, she saw there were no cats.
“Do you realize,” he said to her, “That it is not the rods but the cone cells within the retina, that gelatinous lump that determines an individual’s perception of color? However,” he continued, “The ganglion cells cannot be overlooked.”
He paused and then annunciated slowly and with such precision he almost spit at her, “They are all photoreceptors.”
He held his hands up to his head.
“I can’t think with that constant meowing,” he said.
Annie called his neurologist while thinking of Venice. He had given her the number.
It was unclear what provoked Joe’s wife to re-enter his life. It could have been the call she received from his neurologist reminding her how difficult it was for someone with Parkinson’s disease to live alone.
“It is progressive,” he reminded her.
It could have been the shame she felt when their daughter asked, “Is dad able to zip up his own fly?”
Perhaps it was the growing guilt she felt every time she ran with arms and legs coordinated preparing for yet another marathon or maybe she was just growing tired of her boyfriend. They had met in high school, now a long time ago.
“Apply for disability,” Joe’s wife said to him.
She wanted the additional money to help with his long-term care. He refused. He was too proud.
“I was a tenured professor,” he said.
For a moment she remembered the stink of his lab with its cats and litters.
She invited him to her beach house for the weekend. As she drove, he remembered holding her hand under the table at a dinner party. He still kept a photo of her in his wallet from that evening. She had been wearing a dress, black and slinky with high heels.
When he returned home he complained to Annie, that his wife had been overly solicitous and treated him like a child.
“She would not take no for an answer when she offered me chocolate milk.”
“Did you drink it?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
Joe spent the next weekend with his wife and then gradually every weekend.
“She is looking for expiation,” he explained to Annie. “Although, after my diagnosis I was poor company and only wanted to sit alone in the dark.”
His daughter began to visit more frequently and then rented a beach house next to her mother’s.
Joe began to spend more time away, despite not all visits going well.
“My wife became angry when I tripped while climbing the stands at a baseball game. My water bottle rolled away. I was sitting in the sun during the game and became thirsty. She had to get me another one and missed a run batted in.”
He became close with his daughter, although he never mentioned how he had once waited for her all day, only to have her call and say, “I forgot about you.”
Even his wife’s boyfriend was helpful and kind.
He called him, “Joey.”
She sat at a small outdoor table in a wrought iron chair at the community pool, alone. Joe was gone again and when away, he barely called. He explained it away by saying,
“It would be rude to be on the phone while I’m a guest at my wife’s beach house.”
The truth was he was too occupied by her many planned activities. During one of his rare phone calls, Annie told him she was lonely.
He responded, “You wore your youth like a halo.”
When she asked what that meant he said, “You waited too long.”
One of the seniors had begun speaking.
“I was the smallest of my three brothers and not very athletic. My brothers nicknamed me ‘The Cheerleader,’ and I retaliated by…”
Annie put her hands over her ears so she could no longer hear and jumped into the water touching the pool’s bottom. When she came to the surface she realized her face was wet.
Joe was in his backyard getting cuttings from his ice plants and placing them in a jar of water. With the tremors it took him some time to complete the task. The scissors were tricky. He thought Annie could plant the cuttings in her backyard. Every day she would see the same brightly colored flowers he did in his backyard, when he was home.
He walked to her house, his legs thin, his ankles thinner and spindly on which he balanced precariously, twisting suddenly right or left. Water spilled from the jar. The walk was arduous for him and his forehead was sweaty. He wore a tee shirt, shorts and roomy white sneakers and white socks that pulled halfway up his ankles. In a different time and place, the white socks, paired with loafers and chinos, a cigarette in his hand and wavy dark hair would have made him appear stylish, a figure on the jacket of a record album. But Joe was bald and on this day, he had chosen his clothing only for comfort. He knocked on the front door of Annie’s house. There was no answer. He knocked again and then looked through the small vertical window by the side of the door. The house was empty. He slowly turned his body, his neck too rigid to move on its own, to look at the front lawn. There he saw the “For Sale” sign. It took time for Joe to process what had happened. The disease had caused his thinking to slow. A plane passed overhead. Finally he understood.
As he started walking back home he thought, “After all I did for her, that bitch left without me.”
LAUREL SHARON is a psychologist by day and writer by night. She has a background in the arts, first as a classical pianist and then as a modern dancer. She has been published by Carte Blanche. A longtime native of New York City, she looks forward to writing more short stories.