Standing in front of me in a dress I’d never before seen her wear, Chris, my wife, asked, “Does this make me look fat?”
Being an old hand at fielding such questions I responded, “No dear, you look more lovely than usual, whom one would think, in and of itself, was unsurpassable!”
Letting out a peal of girlish laughter, the kind of laugh that had been one of the many things I found so attractive about her, my wife leaned in to kiss my cheek but faded away before she could. Hey, when she’s happy I’m happy! It had been a little over a year since Chris had died from cancer, and there’s rarely a day that her ghost does not appear before me. Typically, she’ll ask me or tell me something we’d spoken about when she was still alive. I miss my wife.
Yesterday when she had paid another visit, Chris began by telling me, “You know it’s been a while since we had the Schantzes over for dinner. You should call Gus and invite him and Lorraine over to the house this Friday.”
“What, you want to try killing them with your cooking again?” I teased. Chris was never much of a chef, although she did tirelessly try. It was just that pots and pans were not her best friends and ovens and burners must’ve had it out for her. Because she not only burned the food but would inevitably finish cooking whatever she attempted to with a new blister or burn somewhere on her hands or arms.
Again, she laughed, then said “But if you don’t mind, please don’t open a bottle of wine. You know how Lorraine gets after a few glasses.”
“Not a problem, my love—your presence is always intoxicating enough for me,” I replied. This was true because (and I know it’s corny) I liked just about everything about my predeceased spouse. And once more, like yesterday and all the days since my wife passed away, she faded from existence before having the time to plant another one of her wonderful kisses on my always-ready-to-be-kissed-by-her-cheek.
I not only hated that she was dead and gone but that when her apparition returned for these all too short visits it would only remain for seconds. And there was so much I wanted to tell her before she’d fade away again, and that I should’ve told her while she was still alive; so, so, so very much. Sure, I use to tell my wife how much I loved her and how much I cared. I just never took the time while we both had it, to tell her, as simply as I could, the meaning of those too-few precious days that I had her in my life.
I should’ve told her while she was alive, or during these frustratingly limited visits, all the things I neglected during the all too short span of her life with me. But there just never seemed to be enough time to put into words and toss it out for her to hear. I wasted so many hours cracking jokes and trying to make her laugh or talking about things that, when I now look back, just didn’t really matter. I never found the way to tell her—that is until today—just how much she meant to me.
So, here’s the plan. The next time her ghost visits I’m going to say to Chris the most important three words I’ve ever spoken to anyone at any time. Some won’t understand the significance of the phrase. That’s okay because I know she’ll get the message behind that trio of words when shared: keep doing you. I just need to be sure Chris hears them before her spirit fades forever.
I guess that the way Chris and I met was the way many couples do: by chance. Maxine and I had called it quits after five years. She kept the apartment. I moved out of our moderately sized two-bedroom home on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan to a cramped studio cracker box on the Lower Westside. That would’ve been about March 2007, if I not muddling up the date—which I’m more than likely to do now at my age—and meant I was then 53. I’m now 67, and Chris died from cancer going on two years. Her twin daughters were born 18 years ago.
Both girls just entered college but still live at home, which is a welcomed blessing for this old widower. When Chris died in 2019 the three of us were devastated. I tried my best not to let them know just how much I wished I’d simply passed on the same day as she. Yet, as any widowed parent will tell you; there are days you thought you simply couldn’t continue carrying on with the daily and empty façade of stoicism and strength. But the girls were only 16-years-old and grieving at least as much as I was then. So, I somehow managed to take one breath after another, place one foot in front of the other, and step-by-step to carry on.
May I introduce you to Chris’ daughters? Like their mother, both girls have beautiful titan-red hair and green eyes. Depending on the lighting at any given time of the day or night, and like their mother’s, their titan-red hair could appear to be a flaxen dark-blond. And their eyes shifted to deep hues of hazel. Dear God, not a single day goes by that I still don’t miss the deceased mother of my stepdaughters. Their names are Anja and Noika. Anja’s the older of the two, having only been born a few minutes before Noika followed her into this world. Almost the way the nearly inseparable two navigate the world now; wherever Anja leads Noika always follows.
Chris had been born in Croatia. Her Christian name was Cvijeta, which in English means flower. When she came to America, and in order to assimilate more fluidly within our society, she renamed herself, Chris. Chris’ first husband and the twin’s biological father, Jan, was born in Poland. Chris’ and Jan’s daughters were named after each of their respective mothers. Anja means one whom God has favored. Noika, as Chris told me, was actually a typo on the birth certificate of Jan’s mother (the “i” was accidentally placed in front of the “k” instead of following it as it would usually be found for anyone named Nokia, and the name Nokia implied its bearer was a seeker of knowledge). Jan died in a car crash in 2005 when their daughters were two-years-old, leaving Chris to fend for the family on her own.
Now, upon reflection, perhaps it wasn’t by chance the way Chris and I met, but by the divine intervention of one who God favored and the misspelled knowledge seeker. For you see, one Saturday in 2007 when I was inside the rundown digs I was inhabiting on the Lower Westside, softly singing with my guitar a song played only for myself I heard what sounded like tiny voices outside my studio apartment door singing along. So I sang a little louder. Those voices also rose to a volume equaling the level of my own.
Leaning the guitar against the wall I went to the door, opened it, and spotted two tiny red-haired girls sitting on the lowest step of the stairs between my landing and the one above, looking up at me with big green eyes.
“Please—” said Anja,
“—play it—” followed Noika,
“—again!” this word was spoken in unison, and the two then giggled in unison as well.
Well, what was I to do except prop the door ajar and move my chair into the open doorway? I grabbed the guitar before sitting down facing in their direction, and the three of us resumed singing together again. But this time we sang without the obstruction of a closed door separating us. Neither of the little girls knew the lyrics, but that didn’t stop them from repeating the words a few beats behind what I’d just sung, or making up their own. They not only sang along with me, but they did it with a fortissimo and gusto far larger than one would have thought could be contained in such small bodies.
When we finished that song I asked if they knew “Old McDonald”. Like two synchronized, carrot-topped bobbleheads they nodded as they giggled.
“—he had a—”
“—eeyi-eeyi-ooh!” Once again each of the girls spoke a word or so alone, and then together in unison by the end of their sentence.
We sang “Old McDonald” until we ran out of the animals found on his farm and ended it with a final, rousing cadence of “eeyi-eeyi-ooh!” At that point I heard the door of an apartment on the landing above mine opening, a few footsteps coming down the worn-carpet stairs. Then, I was looking at someone who made my heart skip a beat or two: Chris.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized, “are they bothering you?”
“—we’re helping him sing his songs!” they spoke in agreement before adding, which I was now learning, their trademark cascade of girlish giggles.
“—music too!” said once again in conjunction before tittering.
“—eeyi-eeyi-ooh with us!”
The pretty red-haired mom took a seat on stairs behind her daughters, placed a hand on each of their shoulders, and then looking at me with a smile, simply said, “Okay.”
Well, what could I do except to resume with now all four of us “eeyi-eeyi-oohing!”, and the occasional laugh, or giggle.
After several songs, Chris stood up and said, “Come on girls, that was fun, but it’s time for your supper. And thanks for keeping these two scary monsters entertained. But, before we go, may we ask your name?”
“It’s Steve,” I replied, rested my guitar on the hardwood floor, and then stood up to see them off.
“Well, Steve, you’ve certainly sung for your supper, so if you don’t have any plans why don’t you come up and eat with us? I see you’ve already been introduced to my Anja and Noika. My name is Chris, Chris Wójcik. It’s nice to meet a new neighbor in this old building.”
Assuming it was simply a polite but insincere invitation, and not wanting to be an intruder upon their family’s evening meal, I was about to lie and say, “No, I have something I have to take care of. Thanks, maybe another time.” But before those words were out of my mouth I felt Anja’s itsy-bitsy hands wrap around my right one, followed by Noika’s wrapping around the other.
“And bring up your—”
“—guitar, ‘cause you still—”
“—got more work to do!”
Doing as told, and amidst a chorus of excited chattering and laughter, I was led up the stairs by these three wonderful women. Next I walked through their door, and into the heart of the most beautiful adventure my soul would ever embark upon.
Entering the apartment for the first time that Chris and her daughters lived in I noticed two things; it was clean and well kept, but not overly so. Unlike mine, there was no dust on the tables or other surfaces. There were a couple of toys and children’s books here and there on the floor, but the floors, again unlike mine, were spotless. Yet like mine, there appeared to be no one else living there with them.
Chris told me it would be a few minutes before supper was on the table and asked if the girls and I would sing some more while she added some finishing touches to the meal. Still remembering “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter Paul & Mary, I led off with that. In awe, the two redheaded munchkins listened to each verse in silence, but when the chorus had rolled around for a second time, and every chorus thereafter, they knew enough of the words to sing along. And from the kitchen, with the slightest hint of a southeastern European accent, and in her pleasant mezzo-soprano vocal range, Chris joined us on the choruses.
So, this is what having a family feels like. And I liked how it felt. “Puff” was followed by “Ol’ Susannah”, next “If I Had a Hammer”, and then Chris announced supper was ready. On the kitchen table four plates, napkins, cutlery, and glasses had been placed. In the middle was what resembled a baked lasagna and a tossed salad in a large wooden bowl with oversized wooden utensils (one of which I’d employ years later when Chris was convulsing on the floor of the home someday the four of us would inhabit).
“Steve, would you like wine with your meal?”
“Mommy, if you and—”
“—Steve have wine, can—”
“—we have Coca-Cola?”
“Well, Steve hasn’t said he’d like wine, so that all depends on him, doesn’t it?”
I caught the look of teasing mischief in Chris’ eyes as she’d rested the fate of deciding each age group’s beverage squarely and solely upon my shoulders.
I teased in return, “Well, maybe we should all just drink water...”
“No, Steve, no—”
“—Mommy likes the wine—”
“—drink the wine, drink the wine!”
With a loud sigh and an exaggerated shrug of my shoulders, what else could I do but say, “Okay, wine and Coca-Cola it is, I guess.”
This was rewarded with cheers and applause before Chris got up to get the wine she kept on an upper shelf and away from tiny hands. I mean, what else should this bashful, blue-eyed, often befuddled and bewildered boy from Baltimore do but acquiesce to the desires of these three lovely ladies seated along with me. Returning, Chris handed me the bottle, and I noticed she was wearing a modest and simple wedding band on the ring finger of her left hand. Fishing out a single pop-top can of Coke from the refrigerator she divided it equally into the girl’s two empty glasses.
I twisted the screw top from the bottle and poured each adult a conservative serving of the alcohol. Holding up her glass to offer a toast, Chris and her daughters exclaimed, “Živjeli!” I didn’t know it at that time but had pretty much surmised, it was a foreign word for “cheers!” Later I learned it was Croatian. A serving of lasagna along with a pile of salad greens was then passed first to me, then a plate to Anja, one to Noika, and finally, Chris served herself.
Looking down at my meal I noticed that whatever was layered between the broad lasagna strips had oozed out and left the pasta lying limply like; well, like soggy wet noodles on the plate. The tomato sauce, thin as a weak broth, was now soaking and wilting my salad. The twins, who had been studying me with interest, spoke once again, albeit somewhat sadly.
“Sorry, but Mommy’s—”
“—a good cooker.”
Chris blushed a deep shade of red, much richer than that of her tomato sauce, as she looked down uncomfortably.
So, what else could I do? I put a forkful in my mouth, chew faked sounds of savoring the food, and then somehow forced myself to swallow it.
“Umm, umm, now that’s really good. I believe I’ve never been fortunate enough to taste anything better than this!”
“—care what he eats!”
To this, we all erupted in laughter and the momentary tension dissipated.
“Or maybe Steve is a really good guy with nice manners who doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by saying things that could,” Chris told them as she beamed my way with gratitude.
“No, no, no! In fact, if you girls aren’t going to eat yours and it’s okay with your mom, maybe she’ll let me take what you won’t eat so I can have it for breakfast in the morning.”
With that remark, the identical pair of tiny redheads commenced cleaning their plates. Afterward, their mom said we could sing her another song while she did the dishes, but then it would be bedtime for the four-year-olds. Not knowing how long Chris needed for the clean-up I suggested we sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”. When we were down to the eighteenth bottle she was out of the kitchen to pack the kids off to dreamland. I thought it was also my cue to go. Chris then surprised me, which I soon learned was something she could often do, by what she said next.
“Steve, would you mind grabbing what’s left of that wine while I put these two rascals down for the night? I rented “Pan’s Labyrinth” from Blockbuster if you want to stay a little longer to watch if you’d like. And I don’t want to finish the wine alone.”
Okay, I admit there was a hint of hesitation when recalling the wedding band. But that ring didn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a husband still actively in the picture, right? Anyway, what else did I have to do for the rest of this night; except take my guitar back to my nearly empty apartment, my completely empty life, and sit all by myself staring at the four walls? Plus after the tots were tucked in the first thing I’d ask was about the ring and a spouse.
So, after a quick but heartfelt hug from each Anja and Noika, I replied, “Heard that’s a pretty good film and I’ve wanted to see it. Sure, I’ll grab the wine, so hurry back.”
After all, what else was a lonesome man living all alone in a lousy lonely studio apartment to do, but to take a chance on happiness?
To be continued…