Coming of Age Contemporary Fiction

“You know,” Dorothy said, clutching a mug of milky tea in her papery, purpled hands, “my husband – Harold was his name – had this irritating habit of never quite finishing a cup of coffee. In our fifty-six years of marriage, I must have made him hundreds, even thousands of cups, and without fail he always left a tiny amount, no more than a mouthful, at the bottom. I learned quickly, after a few spills, never to whisk a forgotten mug off the table without checking it was empty. It never was.” She chuckled and sipped her tea, her cloudy blue eyes glancing at the wall just over my shoulder, where I knew, after months of visiting, hung a black and white photo of Harold in his youth. “That’s my husband Harold,” she’d say proudly. He’d given the photograph to her as a sort of memento shortly after they’d met, in the forties. Back then he was a travelling auditor and often had to work away, so their courtship was destined to be a long one. But the wait had been worth it, she liked to remind me, and though the picture had faded over the years, I could see the appeal of his boyish handsomeness, the humor in his eyes, the faint laugh lines already creasing his face.

She turned to tug on the cord of the half-drawn blind that draped the room’s single window, letting in the last rays of late afternoon sun. Dust swirled and danced in the light, a speckled murmuration in miniature. The view wasn’t anything to speak of—a sparsely landscaped courtyard where residents, some in wheelchairs, some shuffling along on Zimmer frames, whiled away the empty hours. Dorothy likened it to a prison exercise yard, minus the barbed wire. She’d told me she preferred to stay in her room, where she could momentarily trick herself into believing it was the lounge of her former home, rather than go outside and be reminded of all the things she no longer had: a garden of her own, neighbors under the age of eighty, the ancient oak tree in her front lawn that Harold had painstakingly transformed into a treehouse for their only child, Richie, whose visits were as fleeting as her memories.

“Do you know that a couple days after Harold died, must be twenty years ago now, I found an abandoned mug tucked in the bookshelf next to his chair? I’d purposely not gone into the study until then… I suppose I wanted to preserve the image of him sitting there, legs crossed, reading whatever novel—usually crime—he was engrossed in. When he was like that I would joke that I could walk in naked and he wouldn’t notice.” I smiled, unembarrassed, as a friend would. To my surprise Dorothy had begun speaking more candidly to me in recent weeks, perhaps sensing I was different from the other university-aged volunteers, most of whom had signed on to the “Befriend a Grandparent” scheme merely to rack up community service hours. I’d seen plenty of them come and go, popping into unsuspecting residents’ rooms just long enough to engage in a few minutes’ forced small talk, all the while surreptitiously glancing at their phones, before announcing melodramatically that they’d better get back to studying if they were ever going to graduate. For me it was different. I’d watched my own grandmother’s demise – first, a broken hip that meant she couldn’t manage stairs; then, in her assisted living accommodation, a fall that knocked her back not only physically, but dented her confidence as well. She was too proud, and too stubborn, to move in with my secretly relieved parents, so was condemned to life in a nursing home, much like Dorothy’s—same stale smell, that unsavory mixture of urine and disinfectant; same overcooked, bland brown food; same blaring TVs vying for attention, Wheel of Fortune in one room battling Golden Girl reruns in another; same well-intentioned but disillusioned staff, who, despite their best efforts, would always be viewed as poor substitutes for the absentee family members, either dead or alive, for whom the occupants yearned.

My grandmother withered and died only months after arriving at Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, a name I couldn’t help but view as sarcastic: what was there to hope for? Apart from the most dementia-deluded residents, they all knew there was no hope of going anywhere other than back to their maker or, failing that, a comfy hole six-feet under next to a beloved spouse would do. Wherever the road led, it had to be an improvement from a life of denture-grade meatloaf and tapioca pudding washed down with tepid tea. What struck me most when I visited Grandma was how few possessions she had: a whole house reduced to a few paltry knick-knacks on a lone shelf, a handful of outdated photographs hung on the same hooks where the ghosts of so many others before them had hung. At the time I was a teenager, too preoccupied with my own life to visit her much, which I regretted almost immediately after she died. There were some questions that only older, wiser people had answers to.

“As I was saying,” Dorothy continued, placing her tea on the side table next to her chair and adjusting the crocheted shawl on her lap, “I found that mug of coffee. Probably the last thing that Harold had drunk before he passed…” She looked almost wistful as she spoke. “And do you know what I did, Mel?” She often confused me with one of the employees named Mel, who, to be fair, was probably only a few years older than I was, still fresh-faced and young, still optimistic. I took it as a compliment, never mind that my name was Rachel.

I shook my head; unlike many of the others she had shared multiple times, I hadn’t heard this reminiscence before.

“I drank it!” she exclaimed, with unexpected gusto. “I suppose I thought it would be like having one final taste of Harold, that it would help me deal with my grief to know that we had drunk from the same cup, so to speak.” Her eyes twinkled as a smile crept into her face. “Well, let me tell you: God help anyone who drinks the dregs of a dead man’s coffee that has been left to fester for days. The milk had curdled, and it was altogether a very unpleasant experience.” Her face puckered into a grimace. “I like to think that Harold, rest his soul, was looking down on me and having a good old laugh at my expense.”

I must have looked shocked at her confession because she leaned forward and reached for my hand. Grasping it, her eyes met mine and she said, “I shouldn’t speak of morbid things in front of you. You have so much to look forward to, my dear. Have you got a fellow?”

Inwardly I cringed, but I tried not to let my discomfort show. I smiled weakly and said, “Oh, well, I’ve had a few, but no one to write home about. It’s tough, you know. I’m surrounded by hundreds of guys my age, but so far none of them seems to understand me…” Then, to my surprise, perhaps because she had been so honest with me, or because I knew, at age 97 her short-term memory was hanging by a thread – a leaf slowly browning, then loosing from its branch and drifting – I talked openly, as though to a lifelong friend.

“I’m sure it’s not the same as when you and Harold were dating” – I cocked my head toward the photo as if he, too, were listening in – “at university, it’s all about big parties, lots of drinking, and, with that…” Feeling the flush of red creep up my neck, I stopped myself and locked eyes with the floor.

“Go on, my dear,” Dorothy said gently. “It’ll be dinnertime soon. You know they feed us at 5 o’clock as though we were toddlers. I may be old, but that doesn’t mean I am blind to the ways of men. Some things never change.”

I took a deep breath and continued. “Well, there was this guy, Jamie, who acted like he was really into me. He came up to me at a party and started flirting – not just mindless drunken small talk… He asked me all about what I was studying, where I was from, my family, that kind of stuff. Like he really cared. I thought there was something in it, you know? That he didn’t just have his mind on one thing—”

“You mean to fuck?” Dorothy interjected, the words delivered so matter of factly it was as though she were asking me whether I wanted one sugar or two in my coffee. 

“Uh, yeah, I was getting to that,” I chuckled nervously. “You’ll think I was so stupid, so naïve; I mean, what was I expecting…?”

“I’ll think nothing of the sort. I wasn’t born yesterday,” she declared. “You can tell me anything; I for one will not cast the first stone.” When I glanced at her then, in the glare of the setting sun, it was as though she had shed years, decades, the creases and folds of her skin suddenly pulled taut, the hoods of her eyes receding, crooked back straightening in her chair, offering a fleeting glimpse of the 21-year-old alive inside. I wished I could have known her then. At least, I thought, I know her now.

“Dot,” I said, referring to her by the nickname I’d heard the staff use, “it was awful, humiliating. I followed him up to a room, we kissed. I thought it would stop there; we’d only just met… he seemed so nice… then, when he tried to go further, I pried his hands off me and ran from the room, out the door, back to my dorm. Turns out he was just like all the other stupid, single-minded college boys. And I know he must have told everyone about it, because now people mutter ‘prude’ under their breath when they pass me. How could I be such an idiot? But I just don’t want my first time to be like that…”

A sharp knock and the door swung open before Dorothy could even acknowledge it. “Dinner in ten minutes,” a sour-faced care worker announced, giving me a sideways glance as she closed it to signal it was my time to go.

I stood, but Dorothy gestured for me to sit back down. “Do you think I’m in any hurry to sit at a table and eat mush with a bunch of old people? What do I even do to work up an appetite these days? No, we need to talk. Please.”

With the intrusion the spell had been momentarily broken. What was I doing sharing details of my non-existent love life with a woman more than four times my age? But as quickly as the thought came, it vanished – an unfair appraisal. Dorothy had known love, and loss; she was certainly more understanding than any of my friends had been. Still, I remained silent, glancing out the window to see the last few stragglers in the courtyard being ushered inside. A memory flashed: of me and my brother playing in the cul-de-sac at dusk, deaf to Mom’s vain attempts to beckon us inside before dark. We’d pretend not to hear until she resigned herself to the fact that she’d have to catch us, then a one-sided game of cat and mouse would ensue, her chasing us until she invariably gave up and promised we could have ice cream sundaes for dessert if we would just come inside please! How many times had we played that game? It seemed like an eternity, like it would last forever. But at some point it had stopped.

“Rachel,” Dorothy said, suddenly recalling my actual name. “Let me tell you about my wedding night. It was many years ago, but clearer than what I had for breakfast today. My mind’s not what it used to be,” she said, tapping her finger on her head. “In those days, of course, most people waited until they were married; there was no greater shame, especially in a Catholic family, of a girl falling pregnant out of wedlock. So, after the ceremony, Harold and I went to a fancy hotel that he’d arranged, and I could tell that he wanted nothing more than to take me to bed. Nor could I blame him – he had been a real gentleman, waiting so patiently for so many months. He even carried me over the threshold, just like you see in movies. But I had started bleeding that morning. How could I tell him that we would have to wait a few more days? It was mortifying, the whole thing. The hunger in his eyes, then the disappointment, my awkward apologies, the restless night we spent as husband in wife in name but not in body. Oh dear, it’s not a memory I cherish,” she said. Her voice seemed to waver, and I sensed that, even so many decades later, she still wished to erase it. “So that was it. And do you know what the funny thing is?” I shook my head. “When we did actually have relations – sex – a few days later, I can’t remember a single detail. Nothing.”

She let out an audible sigh, as though releasing years of pent-up regret. Had she told anyone this before? I would never know, but intuitively I doubted it. Her body sagged in the chair and she closed her eyes. Then, with a start, she opened them and pierced me with her stare. “People always say that the first time should be special, memorable, but for me all I remember is the shame of that wedding night. And what haunts me even more,” she continued lucidly, “I can’t recall the last time, either. I mean, the very last time we had sex. I guess at some point things become so normal, so ingrained in habit, that they aren’t novel anymore. Just as I can’t recall the last time I’d baked Harold his favorite carrot cake, or the last time I folded his laundry, ironed his shirt; the last time I bandaged up a cut on my son, or poured him a bowl of cereal. Or the last time I closed the front door of my own house. But all of those things must have finished, just as certainly as they would have begun. Now all of that is so distant from me I’d give anything for a taste of those memories. We talk so much of the first time as being significant, but what of the last?”

Tears pricked my eyes, and I leaned in close to Dorothy, Dot, touching her arm.

“I’m sorry, my dear… I didn’t mean to upset you with the ramblings of an old lady. Pay no mind to me. Now, what was it you were saying about your boyfriend?”

“Oh it’s nothing,” I replied, just as a voice bellowed: “Dinner time!”

“Would you like me to help you to dinner before I leave?” I asked.

“Yes, that would be lovely, Mel,” Dorothy replied, squeezing my hand.

I stood up, gently pulled her to her feet, and cradled her arm in mine. Slowly, we made our way down the corridor to her designated seat in the dining room. Lowering her into her chair, I leaned in to say goodbye.

“See you next week, Dorothy,” I said.

“Same time, same place,” she replied, a glint in her eye. It was her stock response at the end of every visit.

I smiled playfully, as I always did. “Don’t worry, Dot,” I said. “I won’t forget.”

January 08, 2021 22:24

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