I strained to whisper a raspy plea for him to stay as he gently held my hand against his cheek and slowly placed a small kiss on each of my delicate fingers.
“Until next time my love. Goodnight.”
My eyes creaked opened to a busty-bold Haitian nurse, who persisted to aggressively shovel oatmeal into my dry mouth. I collected myself after a few coughs, and swallowed my morning medication with some vanilla Pedialyte which was sipped through a bendy straw. I hate vanilla.
“Gonna make you big and strong!” laughed the nurse in a thick accent.
She paid more attention to her reggae-radio than my futile resistance. I think this is how it normally is, friendly jolly faces putting pills in my mouth so often I’ve stopped asking questions. However, it works in my favor; less questions in return for an extra rice pudding with supper. Most days my mind is foggy due to dementia or Alzheimer’s, I forget which. It’s been this way for a while.
However, I am far more than the incredible shrinking woman. I am serene, making do with less. Less is not always more. Yet in this emptying space, space shines and glimmers, becoming visible. Here is a voice behind the eyes of what some may deem diminishment. A gift of presence previously ignored, drowning in the daily clutter. Clarity breaks with scattered concentration. But here every gesture needs intention; each breath has purpose, I am alive with consciousness.
Who am I kidding? Well, at least sometimes I am. Really depends on the day. Hell, I was never meant to be one of those wise little old ladies who enjoyed crocheting little doilies and mindlessly watching reruns of the Price Is Right until my medication made me drool. But hey– here I am –cute as a button. Doctors gave me six months to live almost two years ago; so every day is a blessing. My feet don’t work anymore, but I can wiggle my toes on a good day.
Few things excite me; definitely the Puerto Rican male nurses, maybe my grandkids, afternoon Mahjong with the gals . . . Sometimes my hearing aid rings like a mechanic mosquito, incessantly buzzing a high-pitch two-tone roar. Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. It can be maddening, yet quickly fixed by simply shutting it off. The following silence is very comforting, especially when I swipe some of Dottie Shepp’s pills for fun. She has too many anyways, I’m doing her a favor. Plus I like the way they make me feel. Everything turns fuzzy like peach skin. Things are never truly clear, yet for us oldies there’s no need. I’ve stopped caring a long time ago; I think that’s a good thing. You don’t make it to my age and take yourself seriously in the process. I can’t remember the last time I went to the bathroom by myself. Other than my slow decay in god’s waiting room, things are actually very pleasant.
I spend my leisure time being wheeled back and forth between the dining room and Bingo Hall. I cannot complete my crossword puzzles cause my hands shake too much to put anything down on paper, they have a mind of their own; even when they decide to calm down, the arthritis kicks in. My left hand is thicker but shakier than my right. I don’t get visitors too often, if ever. When they do come I don’t remember who they are anyway. If I’m lucky, he visits once in a blue moon. I’m nothing like the socialite of Clover Fields, Peggy Peterson. She had guys proposing to her left and right, on top of more than enough grandchildren to spare. I couldn’t stand her. Peggy felt the damn need to gloat about it all the time. She thought she was so popular. But I got the last laugh when Death paid her a visit last week. Pardon me, that wasn’t something I should mention.
Now where was I? My daily lucidity is spent in the sunroom surrounded by a group of like-minded loonies. The facilitator patiently asks us a barrage of questions, and we talk in a uniform, round robin manner. It can be painfully droll trapped as a captive audience for rambling tall tales.
“ . . . That’s the time I met Mae West behind the Beacon Theater. She was such a fox, all dolled up. I waltzed over to her at the bar, all smooth and such. She never saw me coming when–”
“I think you mean Rita Hayworth?” The nurse kindly corrected him in a calm demeanor, “Sal Schwartz, don’t you mean Rita Hayworth?” She always repeated our names. We’ve heard this story many times.
“Who? Oh, right. Yes. Yes, this story has a happy ending.”
“It has an ending?!” gawked a wrinkly surprised sourpuss, who only cared about her precious grandchildren who haven’t visited in a few years. Sal’s beady eyes grimaced, giving her a look of bitter disgust, one which normally only comes out of him while watching war documentaries or soiling his pants. I sympathize with her. In my mind that was her way of screaming, “I’m a human being, Goddammit! My life has value!”
By this time, I normally turn off my hearing aid and smile politely. It comes in handy to be deaf, a lot easier that way. The bright yellow walls can be overwhelming so I close my eyes. I pretend to doze off; which is socially acceptable in a place like this. You got to try it!
People my age and younger do their best to recall every single nothing that occurred in their life: conversations, picnics, vacations, baseball stats, what-ifs and many more things of no great importance. Most people my age are dead and not coming back any time soon. I don’t need to remember myself, I’ve spent my whole life with myself. I don’t need to be reminded. When trying to remember my profession, I say I’m a professional vegetable. Hehe. All I know is that I am here, and I’m fine with that. I don’t care about my longtime dentist or daughter’s ex husband. They can leave my mind with ease. When I think of my kids, well, there are pictures of them next to my bed. I think they are my kids and I love them nonetheless. It seems everyone wants to live to my age, but what good is life when your love is dead, and everyone is too busy to visit? The map of wrinkles on my forehead marks history both warm and haunting, sometimes drawing a smile and other times fear.
There are many last goodbyes. During this time I try my best to remember the one thing I hold on to. The only person that truly matters; the man I fell in love with. His memories are the ones I hold most dear. Day after day, over and over, in an effort to keep my brain from moldering, I recite the same fading stories, the good and the bad.
I remember when Timothy Pollock moved into apartment 4-C. I was smitten at first site. He was seven. I was six. First time we met, I shook his hand from behind my mother’s blue blouse cause I was too shy to do it in person. During the day Timmy came to visit, so that’s how I made my first best friend. He was a whole year older than me, but I was taller than him; that really riled him up. Don’t tell him, but I always thought he looked funny; with bright red hair, freckled-snug nose, and a personality like soda pop. His parents were never really home, but when they were; it was hard to drown out the racket that passed through the thin walls. I never realized back then how rough he had it, his unimaginable strength, but it was something I’d always admire. I still can hear the belt crack after each lash. As a Catholic family, my Mother insisted, “God asks us to care for those in need.”
I remember all the fun. Our imagination made a one-room apartment in the Bronx bigger than the whole wide world. As long as we had each other, each day was filled with never ending battles between tiny tin soldiers, and proper two o’clock teatime in our pillow fort. When it rained we swung twigs like swashbuckling pirates, and screamed “Blistering blue barnacles!” whenever getting hit too hard. At night we’d play with jacks by the furnace using the flame to illuminate the shiny metal in darkness. Those games somehow always ended when he was losing and magically the ball would go missing. I fell for it every time.
I remember in second grade recess when I kicked Timothy square in the privates. He asked me if I wanted a “Hershey Kiss?” He popped the chocolate in his mouth and planted a real big wet one on my lips! It was also my first kiss. Shocked, I quickly asked Sister Mary if I could be excused to go to the restroom. Then with teary eyes, I ran all the way home, fearing God would judge me for such shameful indecency. I kissed a boy! How could I! When I got to the home at dusk my skirt was torn and tarnished. To no surprise the news was greeted with my Mother’s fervid disgust. She tore me apart for being so foolish to play around with boys! There was no dinner or radio time that night. I had to wash my mouth with soap and write in my diary “I am nothing but filth” till bedtime. My Mother was only trying to save me. I prayed myself to sleep that night, begging for forgiveness. I was such a little goodie-two-shoes.
I remember the next morning at school, Timmy watched as Sister Scholastica lashed my knuckles with a metal ruler for playing “hooky.” I tried my very best not to cry, but tears managed to break through the levies and flood my cherry flustered cheeks. All day I sat in the corner with a “dunce” cap that had the weight of a thousand sins. Poor little me, I didn’t know any better. Never had I ever been in trouble before –I swear! Well . . . I don’t swear-that’s a sin; believe me, I’m a good Catholic. But what an endless day that was. The final bell that day still reminds me of the church bells on my wedding day. Defeated, I went to my cubby to find some darn Hershey Kisses and an apology note. Sheepishly, Timmy was standing outside the class looking right at me, pretending to mind his own business. In a feverous rage, I tore up the letter and threw the chocolates right at him. It would not be the last time I was that angry with him. If you want to know a secret, you promise not to tell? I ate one of those chocolates, and it was delicious. Real sweet of him, I could never stay mad at my Tim.
I remember Halloween seven years later when I dressed as a witch. My Mother had spent all day making me the niftiest costume with pointy hat and all. I even had a broom! That evening, Timmy and I were right about to go to the Church’s costume parade when Father came home drunk in a dense delirium. He smelled fowl, like the dirty men who slept on the street. My Mother tried her best to calm him, but he just struck her so hard I thought she’d never stand again. His hairy knuckles were raised high like a barbaric war cry. He hit her so hard her head nearly broke the linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor. I’d seen this happen before but never like this. Never like this. I shrieked in terror and pulled at his pants leg begging him to stop. He looked rabid, mad with rage. I knew I was next. My face turned green like a granny smith as he turned to strike me, I tried my best not to scream. I closed my eyes and heard a WHACK. There was blood, and a limp figure gushing from the back of his head, face down. Panting, Timmy stood over him with a cast-iron skillet.
I remember Father’s ungodly lies when the police came. My Mother’s lips were stitched and sealed, while her face was caked up in makeup like a clown to hide the bruises. Any protest on my part was met with more hardship, but how could I possibly abandon Timmy? He was only trying to protect me. But back then, not much consideration was given to teen delinquents. I remember the confusion and anger when learning of Riker’s Island. I remember how scared he looked. I remembered how young he looked the last time I saw him for a long. I remember his face when I told him I loved him. I remember kissing him goodbye.
I remember writing him in the penitentiary. We corresponded for years. I was his escape, and he was mine. We lost our troubles in each other’s comfort. But even the strongest have breaking points. I had my good days, and my bad days. I would say I was happy, most days were filled with meaningless ups and downs in comparison. It was selfish of me to complain about my life. But for Tim, it was all he had. He would ask me for the smallest of details. Once he asked to describe what an expired Little Debbie cake, tasted like after describing my disgust after eating one by mistake. He would beg for updates on the world; anything and everything. I tried my best to comply.
I didn’t have it in me to read his letters. Each letter described the further degradation of my love. At times I would simply throw out unopened letters; it was simply too painful. It was selfish of me, however I didn’t know it then. But Tim’s world scared me. I took longer and longer to reply. Distancing myself from tarnishing the image of someone I once held so dear.
One week no letter came. Then two weeks went by. Then three. The letter stopped. I didn’t think anything of it at first; ignorance is bliss. But then it started eating at me. I still needed him. I phoned the penitentiary, and learned he was no longer there. He vanished. Gone, without a trace. All roads led to confidential information, or dead ends. It wasn’t till later that I’d learn what he didn’t have the heart to tell me.
The next time I saw Tim was four years later. He had gone to war. The boy I knew was no more. His face was hardened through loss of innocence. I was scared. His looming figure had a painful presence. His happy greeting looked as if it took a thousand men to pull his lips apart. I noticed his fists were clenched like a steal trap. I didn’t know if I should run. If he was going to snap, how could this be the love I lost? His closed hands slowly rose.
“Pick a hand,” he demanded.
Confused I complied.
Cold sharp contours created shadows that looked like spotlights shinning on the billboards of old penny flicks, which illuminated stern, yet, gentle slate eyes. I think he smiled, because in the palm of his hand rest a pristine Hershey kiss. Then he kissed me.
By the end of the day, I don’t even know what year it is. Night is always the most challenging. I can hear the world moving from outside my room. The orderlies play cards till the wee hours, making such a hoot. My medication wears off because people just assume I can’t stay awake past ten. My mind begins to fray as soon as the lights go out. I find myself lost within a vague darkness, which invites itself in like a welcomed guest. The lights go out, but the world keeps moving. I am lonely, but never alone. If I am lucky, some nights he comes. I don’t care to reason with it anymore. Perhaps some meds wear off, but I’m convinced it’s him.
“You look radiant,” whispered the shadows.
I mustered all I could to respond with a soft plea for him to stay. But he gently held my hand against his cheek, and slowly placed a small kiss on each of my delicate fingers.
“Until next time my love. Goodnight.”
My eyes split opened to a busty Jamaican nurse, who persisted to aggressively shovel oatmeal into my dry mouth. A few coughs later, then morning medication followed by some chocolate Pedialyte that I sipped through a bendy straw. I hate chocolate.
“Gonna make you big and strong!” laughed the nurse in a thick accent. She paid more attention to her reggae-radio than my futile resistance. I think this is how it normally is– strange fuzzy faces putting pills in my mouth so often I’ve stopped asking questions. It works in my favor; less questions in return for an extra ice cream with supper.