This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect.
And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together: Physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things. -- Leonard Cohen
* * *
When I was a senior in college, I was more lonely than I thought it humanly possible to be lonely.
The year before, I decided that my liberal arts school, which claimed only one hundred students and was based on a colonial farm, was too claustrophobic, and I left the program. I was probably leaving because of a broken heart, too, which happened at the end of my sophomore year, but I didn't admit this to myself. I moved back down south to Massachusetts, returning to my hometown, a mostly-affluent and wooded suburb 26.2 miles outside of Boston (its only boasting point being the start of the marathon). The move was a counter-catalyst. I went from a suffocating academic crowd where everyone knew everything about everybody -- back to my roots, where almost no one knew me at all. I had been an isolated homeschooler in my teen years, and all my homeschooled friends had moved away to college themselves. Now I was alone again, and claimed this as a personal triumph at first. I rented an apartment only five minutes away from my parents' house, and commuted to a state school to finish my education. I twirled pizzas and washed cars and took too many English classes. I nannied three days a week and wrapped the baby up like an enchilada, nestling him next to me in front of a fire and reading Jane Austen. On my days off, I went to morning mass. The church carpet was colored like pea soup, and I was surrounded by old people, with veiny hands.
I liked it -- this ten a.m. mass. When the sun hit the stained glass windows, the light moved colored shapes around the room. It pinned a triangle of blue on a woman's back, and a circle of orange on an old man's wrist. Then a hexagon of green on the priest's belly. On Saturday afternoons I pressed my mouth up against the screen and confessed all my sins, usually ones of the flesh like eating a bag of sour cream 'n onion chips (family sized) and then starting in on the salt 'n vinegar ones on the same night. Or despair, like doubting in God's existence. Or not being patient enough with my younger brothers.
Mass was my only regularity, besides classes and work. Otherwise I kept strange hours. I read Faulkner, Tolstoy, Boethius, Hegel late into the night. I snowshoed at four a.m. I let my oatmeal go cold while I sat on top of my desk and watched a sunrise, penning a poem about my neighbor's chimney smoke -- the smoke moving slowly across the raspberry sky -- and made myself almost late for work. I shoveled waist-high snow, digging out my car and my fellow tenant's, too, because he was dying of cancer.
I walked a lot, and found a strange peace in graveyards. I wore down paths in the Revolution-era cemetery on my the street, and logged names for historical fiction -- Ansa, Mehitable, Sophronia -- but I never finished any stories. I went for runs, but I had to force myself to lace up my shoes. I pounded two to four miles in the woods and pushed myself ferociously, returning to my apartment raggedly breathing, my cheeks like strawberries. But my commitment fluctuated and I made no permanent dent in my figure: I still felt like I was cased in an extra layer of congealed fat. It also took me a year to finish a painting. Still, the few times I sat on the floor against my futon, I would enter almost a fever state. By 2 a.m., my hands no longer looked like skin but like a palette because I would wipe my brush on the back of my hands, even once on the carpet: which left a peacock-tail of blue. The stain didn't matter, though, because my carpet was barely visible: I piled up my clothes on the floor.
I did clean sometimes and tried to make my apartment homey, especially in the beginning. My futon was a burned gold-orange, though hard as slate-rock when I lay down to sleep. I painted bookshelves sage and pine green. I filled milk jugs with bittersweet vines, stacked fir branches in vases, and ferns in pots. I tried to invite people over, to feed them careless stir-fries, but friendships did not stick. When I first moved in, I excitedly dragged my old doll-house to a corner of my living room, and set up the figurines perfectly: the miniature braided rug, the apple pies and flour sacks on the miniature kitchen table. The apartment was the first time I had a space to myself, even a bedroom. Once I roasted a pan of root vegetables, and I thought it looked so beautiful: a riot of dark purple and orange.
Another time, when a neighbor found baby rabbits freezing in a puddle during a rain storm, I incubated them with rags and a box, and researched how to give them warm mash with an eye dropper. When the four babies thawed, they regained their muscle tone and sprang out of the box, making a bee-line for my closet, where they nested in the far back with old dance shoes and baby dolls. I fished them out with a broom and they squealed in a horrible way when I grabbed at their slippery bodies. They kicked and scraped my wrists with their fine nails and escaped back to the kitchen. I sweated and stayed home that day, spending six hours luring them out from under the cabinet. When I finally had them in my hands, they smelled like cauliflower. Sweet and earthy, warm and trembling.
I couldn't name all the feelings inside myself. I had a hard time naming anything in myself, even though I was writing my senior thesis on Faulkner's As I Lay Dying -- forty pages focusing on the eternal death when language disintegrates, when we do not talk to people.
My father visited once to drop off mail.
He stopped at my door and looked at the laundry on the carpet, and the Lays potato chip bag, the art materials, the rabbit box, and Styrofoam take-out boxes. There was no path to the kitchen, at all. He looked at me and said,
"There is something pathologically wrong with you."
I shrugged, but his words cut me out at the ankle bones. Later that week he left a Christmas tree in my living room, big and plumy. He was my landlord, so he had a key.
I realized I needed to stay connected to people, so I tried to visit my friends at my old college. One weekend I got into my car to drive to New Hampshire, only fifty minutes away, but my hands clamped around the steering wheel and went cold and clammy, until I turned around on the highway, ran back up the stairs to my apartment, and opened a bottle of white wine with shaking hands. The first sip calmed me and I dumped the rest down the sink. The bottle was supposed to be for a masked dinner party, a mystery game that night. I sat down on the kitchen floor, leaning against the cabinet doors, and tried to breathe.
I sat there for a long time. I watched the purple afternoon shadows move across the kitchen wall. Then -- suddenly -- a secondary shadow swooped over a cabinet, and I glanced out the window. A blue heron was descending through the trees, and it landed on the roof of my neighbor's house. I stood up and looked down from my third story window. My neighbor's house was tiny, painted a pale pink, with mildewed shutters. Its inhabitant was elderly. The heron was smoky blue and elegant as a candlepin, and it dominated the roof, dwarfing the house from my vantage point. I pried open my kitchen window, as quietly as I could. My neighbor swung open her front door at the same time, and started dragging a trash barrel to her curb. I thought to call out to her, to tell her there was an enormous heron on her roof. But I didn't. I stayed silent in my window, and when she banged the trash barrel onto the curb, the heron lifted up and flapped away heavily, sailing across the tree line, in the direction of Golden Pond. That night I curled up on my hard futon and listened to the television playing all through the night below me, game shows watched by the man dying from cancer.
The next day I was was struggling into my sneakers, to force myself to go for a jog. I was sitting on the floor, and somehow it was hard to push my feet in. I fumbled with my laces, and then kicked off my sneakers entirely. I slid into ballet flats, and drove to Golden Pond.
The facility, a large building of pink brick, was only a mile from my apartment. The sign said "Golden Pond Assisted Living" and I knew nothing about it, beyond that it was a home for the elderly. But I pushed open the heavy glass doors and went straight to the front desk. "Hi, there!" I chirped. "I was just wondering if there were any opportunities for volunteering here."
The receptionist looked up briefly. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, without any sympathy. "The position was filled just yesterday."
"And a young girl, too. Looked about your age and kind of like you. That's too bad." She looked down again, through horn-rimmed glasses.
"Wait, I'm sorry," I stepped closer, "-- the position?"
She started writing. "Was filled yesterday. Yes."
"Oh, I'm not actually applying for any position. I was actually just looking to volunteer."
Then she looked up at me, blankly.
"For just random volunteering," I clarified. "Is there anything here like that? I moved up the street about eight months ago and was --" I suddenly felt my face go hot, for some reason -- "was looking for something to do."
"No, we don't really have random volunteers." She put her tongue briefly between her teeth; chewed it. "You would have to be mentored. Trained. It's a long process. That's why there is an program for one college student per summer."
"Oh, I see. Well, what about -- just sitting and talking with people?"
She looked at me like I was a mosquito. "Um --"
"I just want to sit and talk with people," I promised.
But she said, Sorry.
"All right -- thanks so much, though." I shrugged my pocketbook up my shoulder. "Thanks. I appreciate your time."
Then I turned on my heel and half-ran out back to the parking lot. I scurried across the asphalt, gritty with salt, and threw myself into my car. I slammed the door shut. Then I paused, with my key in front of the ignition -- and burst out laughing. I leaned my forehead against the wheel and almost cried with laughter.
"Well, there goes that." I coughed, sat up, shoved my key into the ignition. "Who actually gets denied from volunteering?"
* * *
A few months later I was hiking with my brother Michael in a woodland called Peppercorn. It was spring, early April.
"Ask me," the seven-year old was begging.
"Okay," I said. "Sweet birch now."
He scampered ahead, and in a minute came back with a slender black switch.
"Amazing!" I told him.
The wintergreen plant, like a miniature tree, dangle its berries like holiday bulbs. He dropped to his knees and picked the berries. I asked him how he knew he was right. Because, he said, when you split the berry open, it is white on the inside.
"White as snow," I agreed. "And what is on the underside of the berry?"
He turned it over. "The mark of a star."
"And what do the leaves smell like?"
He tore the leaves and the scent of mint filled the air -- sharp and Christmassy.
"And all that is how you know it's not poisonous," I concluded. "It will taste like rootbeer and mint gum, too. Now, partridgeberry."
My brother was in second grade, and we played this scavenger game frequently. Ropier than my other four brothers, Michael was sturdy and strong. He had recently lost his front tooth, and it was furling out of his pink gum, frilled like a clam. He was already burned by the spring sun, pink along his forearms. With the berries in his cupped palm, he ran back to me. Partridgeberries look like red pin cushions. I asked him what they tasted like.
Nothing, he said.
We swallowed a berry each, like a starched potato. Now ask me a bird song, he said. But before we could attune our ears to cardinals or titmice, we heard the ringing of my cell phone.
I saw that it was my father. "Hello?" I answered.
"Where are you?" he demanded.
I moved the phone to my other ear and pinned it to my shoulder. "Hiking."
"Oh, great. Great. You're in the middle of woods. So that's what you do -- you visit and you take off and --"
"I'm with Michael," I interrupted. "What do you need?" I could hear another younger brother screaming in the background.
"Paul just spilled a pint of blue paint all over the carpet and your mother is going crazy. She is going crazy. I just can't control anything in this house. I can't control you, I can't control your brothers. Everything is just chaotic and out of --"
"I'll see you soon," I said pleasantly. "Bye." I hung up. I slid the phone into my back pocket and turned to Michael.
"Bud, I have an idea." I put my hands in my pockets and crouched down a little. "I suddenly feel like going for a run. Do you want to go for a run?"
He blinked at me. "To the top of Peppercorn?"
"I was actually thinking back home. You know what we should do? Let's pretend the Wights are chasing us!" My brother knew about Irish folklore, the Aos Sí, and my own version of woodland mythology, but -- my voice rushing -- I painted the story anyway: the Wights were diaphanous, pearly-blue creatures, who lurked in the woodland trees. We had just stolen their gold. "Look, we stole their gold out of this hole." I dropped down on my hands and knees, and pushed my hand between a tree's open roots, into webs and decay. I stumbled back up, my fist closed. "Run, Michael," I suddenly shouted. "Run, run, run!"
He instantly raised a stick in the air like a banner and we darted forward, down the path, two miles to home. Faster, quicker. The hill tipped us forward, our legs eating up the rutty earth, spongy from centuries of mulching by pines. At one point I thrust my arm out to him:
"Here, take some of the gold -- I can't carry it all."
The air smelled wild and cleaner as we descended into the valley, and the world became darker, and the trees higher, and the air cold.
"Oh, no," I yelled, to keep him going. "Their fingers are reaching out for you. Their long hands, bony hands! I can feel one brushing on my back. Oh, it's icy; it's so icy! Kill it, kill it!"
Michael stopped and turned around and slashed his stick through the air, around my back. He hit the air so hard.
I took the chance to breath. "You killed it," I panted, pressing my hands into my thighs. "That one had come too close. My hero."
When we reached my parents' house, a solid Colonial the color of a faded sunflower, everything was quiet within. I walked through the house gingerly, my eyes scanning the carpet. I saw no blue paint, cleaned or cloudy or colored.
But I cleared my throat and came back into the kitchen, two light jackets over one arm, and a pair of toddler's shoes dangling off two fingers. "I am taking the boys out, Mum. Ice cream or Golden Pond or something."
"Okay," said my mother. She did not take her eyes off the dishes.
"Do you want me to take Paul with us, too?"
"Paul is fine."
"Where is dad?"
"I don't know." She gave a hard scrub to the pan. The steel wool almost scratched the surface.
"Oh, okay." I suddenly lolled my tongue around the inside of my cheek. "It's just that I was talking to -- I mean, he called me twenty minutes ago."
"I don't know," she repeated.
"Well, I am taking the boys out."
I drove Michael and Luke to Golden Pond. Spring had flooded the Massachusetts woods, and thawed all the snow, making the small pond swollen. We parked on the gravel drive. I unbuckled Luke from his carseat and no longer felt like a spectacular sister. Or sparkly, or anything. I felt drained of everything.
We walked around the pond, and the woods smelled like wet earth. We stopped by a white gazebo, with a bridge nearby. The boys started picking up rocks and throwing them into the pond. I sat down on a bench and watched them almost vacuously. The bench was wet.
They were gorged on joie de vivre that day. They fed off of each other's enthusiasm, and soon whipped themselves into a froth. I began to watch my brothers with more and more vigilance, and increasing anxiety, as they hurled bigger and bigger rocks into the lake, spinning like whirling dervishes -- and then the baby entirely lost his sense of direction. Luke brought his brown paw back, and flung the glinting missile -- neatly skimming Michael's nose. "Wah!" Michael howled, and jerked back, but I was over there in two steps and caught Luke's wrist in my hand.
"Oh my gosh, stop!" I snapped. "Both of you, stop it right now."
"It didn't actually hit me, Sarah," said Michael morosely, rubbing his nose.
"But I don't care!" I said shakily. I was hanging onto the baby as he roared to free himself. He squatted, pulled against me, squirmed so that he nearly lost his shirt. "Because he almost did," I continued. "He could have! This is getting way too out of --"
Then I happened to look up at a nearby bridge -- at the very moment Luke whacked my leg passionately, flinging himself in the opposite direction to swan-dive for another rock -- and saw something out of a fairytale.
There, standing on the bridge, was a little gnome-woman -- smiling down at the three of us. She was holding onto the railing with one crepey hand; she was shriveled, looked in her nineties, and was wearing dusty-rose slacks. The sun crowned her hair and crept down to her skull, filtering through the puffs of white. It was a Mona Lisa smile, imperturbable, as if we had walked into her woodland parlor. She was only waiting to serve us cattail tea.
I pretended I didn't see her, but I instantly let go of my brother's wrist. "Listen, sweetie, just don't throw anymore rocks," I said, bringing my voice up an octave. The baby dove for the ground, where he dug up two huge stones. "Well, you can carry them," I amended, "but don't throw them anymore." I looked out of the corner of my eye and the old woman was still there, watching us through the veil of leaves. "I just don't want you to split your brother's head open or anything. Okay? C'mon, Lukey, let's keep walking now. Can you hold my hand?"
"No," the baby said simply. He was standing again, staring at the glitzy mica in his rocks.
So I cleared my throat and walked away from him, a hundred feet towards the bridge. Michael followed me at a dawdle, seeming undecided and torn in conscience and desire. But the baby stayed undivided by the water, his belly out, continuing to gloat and fawn over his rocks. Michael hovered near me, not saying anything. Then I could hear small splashes in the water somewhere behind us. Plip. Plop. SLOOSH. Michael looked back at Luke, anxiously.
As we approached the bridge, the woman continued to look down at us, smiling. She was at the very top of the sagitta, like an enthroned saint, an Anne or withered Mathilde. Her lipstick was rose-colored.
"Are these your children?" she asked me.
I noticed that she had an accent left over from 1940's glamour films, honeyed. I was accustomed to hearing this accent on elderly people in Massachusetts: rounded vowels, and the "r's" dissolving to nothingness.
"Oh, no," I said, ruffling Michael's hair. "No, they're my brothers."
She nodded sagely. "I have one brother," she told me. "I have one brother, and four sisters."
"No way!" I now gave Michael's shoulder a rub, but my gesture was more anxious fiddling than affection. "I have five younger brothers myself."
"I have one," she said. "I am going to be one hundred next year."
I protested that this was impossible.
"It's true," she boasted.
"Sarah," said Michael urgently. "Remember Luke."
I asked the old woman if she walked here a lot.
"I do," she said serenely. "I do, every day. I have to keep up my figure."
I told her she was so trim, though.
"Sarah," Michael whispered.
"No, I am almost one hundred pounds," said the woman wanly. She patted her sloped belly, where her dusty-rose slacks were buttoned. "I am getting close."
I scoffed. "I think you look fabulous." She beamed. "And you look like you're seventy."
"Sarah. . ."
The old woman craned her neck over my shoulder, down at the fidgeting Michael. "Your brother wants to leave," she noted. "You know, I have one brother."
I laughed. "Okay, Michael. All right, let's keep going."
"But Lukey," he urged.
"Eh, he'll follow," I shrugged. I could still hear rocks splashing into the water behind us. The woman was still leaning on the railing. Her jacket was pale pink, embossed with darker pink and gold, and it looked like she was surrounded with laurels of leaves. On impulse I asked if she would like to walk with us, too. She agreed, turned, and I followed her. Michael hesitated, flipped back and forth several times, and then skittered after me.
I told her I liked to walk here, too, and when I was younger, my mother used to bring us here after church, with a Dunkin' Donuts' bags of munchkins. We would lean over the gazebo and feed the ducks.
"Sarah!" Michael insisted behind me with greater distress. He was staying close, clipping my heels.
I turned to him. "Ah, don't worry. Luke will follow us eventually."
"But what if he doesn't?"
"Or what if he drowns?" Michael wailed.
I rubbed my nose and thought.
The seven-year old asserted, "I'm going back."
"No, no, I will," I said quickly -- and then our youngest brother came hurtling down the path, full-tilt. Just when he was about to collide with the three of us, he slowed to a cool walk.
"Lucas Douglas, you're not smart," Michael fumed down at him. "You could have gotten lost, did you know that?" He gave Luke a small push. "Left there forever." He meant the scolding, but his tone was kind. "Eaten by coyotes."
"Eh, he'd still be fine." I scuffed my hand through the two-year old's curls. "He's obviously a good shot." My two bloodkin and I laughed, and we all relaxed.
After walking an eighth of a mile, the forest opened, and we passed a large building, pink and entirely brick. It was the Golden Pond Assisted Living building.
"This is where I stop," she said.
Instead of parting ways, though, I followed her up a grassy slope, and we sat down on a bench. It was iron, painted forest green. The paint was beginning to chip. Michael perched on the arm of the bench, and Luke crouched and began to eat dandelions. They are edible, so I let him.
I settled in for a longer conversation, feeling both like the woman would appreciate it, and feeling a need in me I couldn't explain. I wanted to talk with an adult, maybe. I wanted to be nurtured in some capacity, maybe. I didn't know.
"So you live here?" I said, trying to understand.
"Yes, but not for long."
"No?" I reached down and took a stick out of Luke's mouth.
"Because we didn't sell my house," she said proudly. "I am only staying here for a visit. Just a little bit, until I get my energy back. My nephew said it isn't good for me to do all the housework in that big house by myself. I'll go back there after I rest."
I mused on this. "I didn't realize this place actually took guests."
"Oh, yes, they do," she said. "It's a lovely place. So friendly. And they serve waffles with whipped cream in the mornings, and have bingo at night."
Michael leaned down and whispered into my shoulder, "I want to leave now."
"Okay, honey. Yes, soon," I whispered back.
"Besides," the woman smiled, "I lived alone. My husband is no longer alive."
I told her I was so sorry, but she was still smiling. She told me that she met her husband when he was eleven-years old, and she was nine-years old. "And, you know, I didn't see when I first met him."
The back of my neck prickled: this was the start of a story. The sillage of a romance. I egged it on: "No?"
"No," she said impishly. "Not at all. I was under the water."
She told me she been swimming in a little pond called Mill Pond ("Do you know it?" "No, sorry") and I imagined her in a loose swimsuit -- pink with white flowers, and a rubber bathing cap with yellow florets by the ears. He was all elbows and knees, tan like cayenne pepper, wild as a pony. At least that's what I imagined, because she did not see him. She only felt two strange hands on top of her skull and then was pushed under before she could take a single breath, engulfed by sun-warm water, gulping in what tasted like duckweed. She came up spewing and howling, to see a laughing boy, with a shaking bony chest. ("He had three older brothers. The Horton brothers. Do you know them?" "No, sorry," I said.)
Later, she grew into a gangly teen and he pinned a carnation into her first floor-length gown and stabbed her under her collarbone. But they married in 1942 after high school, and rented two small rooms with his savings from working in a garage. She hung bridal-white curtains and they honeymooned for three weeks, and then he was drafted.
"And then I was all alone," she told me. "Oh, of course we wrote letters."
"Were you very lonely?" I asked, reaching down to scoop Luke onto my lap. He squirmed before he even reached my knees, and wiggled to the ground again. I brushed ants off his legs.
"Oh, no," she said. "Well --"
-- at first she was. She fumed, actually. She stormed around their two rooms like a fevered, caged thing. Or she sat and watched the shadows grow long against the walls of their living room, orange as the sun set. Her bed was cold. I knew what these things were like. Then she wrote angry missives to him, expecting sympathy. She had no company, no fun at all, she said. "I was sort of a selfish beast," she laughed. "But in honesty, I had no hobbies and no work. No purpose. I was brought up to cook meals for him and keep house and have babies, but we had no babies and he wasn't home." And in his reply, he upbraided her. Gently, with a few jolly words:
Mary, Mary, Mary. Who says you have to stay in the apartment? Get a job if you want. Go out and have fun like we did in school. I need you to pile up on all the fun you can, Mary, so that when I come home, it's to someone still happy. So you go dancing, you hear? Ring up Stanley and Irving and Joe, and all the other fellows we know who are still home. Tell them Jimmy said they're to take you dancing, take you out to dinner every week. Go dancing, Mary. Dance hard.
The old woman's eyes glowed at she told me this. I crooned, "What a stellar husband."
"He was! He really was." But then she withdrew a little, and the ninety-nine year old woman became defensive. "And he knew I wouldn't kiss anyone," she said primly, "of course."
"Of course," I assented.
She relaxed again -- and oh, she had good times, she said. She jitterbugged and dipped fries into ketchup and bought chocolate malts, always splitting the dime ("So they wouldn't expect anything, just in case"), and watched It's A Wonderful Life. She danced out her anxiety, her ennui, if she didn't eradicate it. And, to add to their nest egg, she joined a factory that mass-produced ladies' hats. All of the men were leaving, one by one. The town was becoming emptied. The money from her husband's savings as a mechanic had dwindled. It became necessary to work, as the war limped on -- the same as for most women. For a few years she glued plastic cherries onto hat bands.
Then in 1946, her husband wired a telegraph that he was coming home. She excitedly took half a paycheck -- half a month's rent -- and splurged on a bottle of apple blossom eau de cologne and a long, lacy blue nightgown which she carried proudly home in a thin cardboard box with scented tissue paper. But when he came home, for three days her husband did not even hug her. He did not touch her, at all.
But on the third evening, she told me, they kissed. For a while their kisses tasted like cherries, like gunmetal, and duckweed. It took them some time to remember they were in the present. On the sixth evening they laughed together, in each other's arms, laughed about something inconsequential, laughed and laughed and then it turned to crying and they cried and cried and cried.
"And then it was good," she concluded. "But no, really, it was good."
Her husband was long-legged and gaunt but she fattened him up again, and she had saved money and happiness and they bought a mortgaged home. But then she could not become pregnant.
She looked up at me with eyes that showed a haunted hollowness, a brief cave, a hunger of bones. Jim claimed in his blithe way that he didn't care, she told me. He held me and said he didn't care; he didn't want one. To this day I don't know if he was lying. I tried to believe him. I still try to believe him.
I agreed that that was all we could do sometimes. Michael sidled up to me behind the bench, pressed his warm body into my arm. "I really want to go," he whispered. He was begging, and I registered his anxiety somewhere on the corner-edge of my mind.
"Okay, yes, yes," I whispered.
"But my mother said I would have been a terrible mother."
"Oh, no," I protested automatically.
"Oh, yes," she grinned. "She said to me, 'Mary, you would have been a terrible mother.'"
"No," I grinned again.
"Really! She said, 'If the baby hit its head on the coffee table, you would lock yourself in a closet.'"
I startled and stared at her. "But why?"
I felt a gentle tug on the back of my shirt.
"Because of the blood," said Mary.
"I don't like blood," she said.
The tug became more insistent, and I returned to 2010. It was Michael pulling on my shirt. I shifted and said, "Well, Mary, sadly we have to get going in a bit."
"So soon?" she said wistfully. "But you know, I have ice cream. I have some up in my room, if you would like a dish. I have strawberry and I have mint chocolate chip. And I have caramel sauce."
I tossed the idea between my hands. I felt a flicker of rebellion -- the desire to go into that pink building, after being denied entrance.
"No. No, no, no. Let's go," Michael almost whined, his mouth almost against my shoulder.
"Turning down ice cream?" I teased back into his ear. But then I looked, and saw that there were tears in his eyes. Guilt suddenly jolted through me. I raised my head and said, "Oh, Mary, I'm so sorry." I lifted Luke onto my lap. "I wish we could. That sounds so lovely, but I actually have to take my brothers home." Then I asked if I could visit her again.
"Do," she pleaded. "Do. I love to have company. It's lovely to have visitors. It already feels like so long since I've seen you."
I registered something like longing in her eyes. I promised her I would come back, and gave her a hug.
In the car, in a notepad in my pocketbook, I wrote down "Mary Horton" to remember. I buckled Luke's seat belt (he had an extra car seat in my car) and had the strangest feeling of being loved, of being nurtured by someone older than me. With so many younger brothers, the role of caretaker often fell on my shoulders, and I knew I was frequently terrible at it. But sweetness flowed through me. Maybe it was even just the offer of ice cream.
"I don't want to visit her," said Michael, when all the doors were closed. He sounded desperate.
"Not you," I laughed, turning on the radio. "Don't worry. Not you."
* * *
A week later -- same day, same time in the afternoon -- I dressed up. I put on earrings and perfume. I hiked around Golden Pond, and found her.
It seemed so simple. Magic. Like it was meant to be.
I walked up to her. "Hello, Mary!" I beamed. "It's so good to see you again!"
"Why, hello! It's wonderful to see you, too," she greeted me.
"I just knew -- I knew you were going to be here today," I exulted. "Some instinct told me. May I sit?"
"Do sit." She patted the space next to her regally. "Of course you can sit with me."
"Oh, no need to move over," I reassured her, sitting down.
She told me, yes, she supposed she didn't take up much room.
"Because you're so trim," I grinned. "You have such a slim figure."
She smiled as if gratified. "I suppose I do."
I laughed widely again. "Last weekend was so perfect, Mary," I gushed. "It was so funny to meet in the woods. I loved bumping into you like that. I needed it, I think."
She was smiling at me, nodding. "That's good," she said. "Are you Matthew's daughter?"
"Are you Matthew's daughter?"
I hesitated. Then I told her, no, I was Tim's daughter.
"You're Tim's daughter? But who is Tim?"
"Tim is my father," I stammered. "He lives in this town." I was studying her, trying to think fast. I noticed her lipstick had been painted on carefully today, now a shade of magnolia. But it was beginning to feather near the creases of her mouth. "Wait, who did you ask about, again?"
I tried to think. "I wonder if I know him. Do I look like him?"
Without touching me at all, she was clawing and hooking me with her cornflower eyes. Staring at me eagerly. "You always looked like him."
Then my sense of reality began to slip. "Maybe I know him," I said, trying to keep the conversation tone light. "Does Matthew live in Moguncoy, too?"
"I'm not sure," she admitted. Then she clarified, "He is my brother." She added, "I have one brother, and five sisters."
The moment suddenly felt very fragile. A few seconds passed, and I understood. "Mary," I stated, "are you asking if I'm your niece?"
She said, "I only ever had one brother. I had one brother and five sisters."
"But are you right now asking if I'm your niece?"
Her eyebrows crooked upwards. "It's just been a long time since you came to see me."
"I'm not -- I'm not actually your niece," I stumbled. "I'm Sarah."
The old woman leaned over, and put her hand on my knee. She told me it had been too long. "You really haven't come to see me in such a while." Her voice was plaintive, childish.
I cleared my throat, hard. I asked, "Do you remember last week, Mary? Do you remember two little boys, and a blonde girl in the woods? When we met on the bridge and my brothers were throwing rocks?"
"You haven't come to see me in almost a year." Her voice was full of tears.
"And we sat on this bench for a bit last week," I insisted. "You invited us inside for ice cream. Do you remember that?"
Her eyes misted. "Why haven't you come to see me in such a long time?"
Then I swallowed.
I finally said, "That's because I've been really busy." I reached over and covered her hand with my own. "Impossibly busy. I am sorry it's been that way, Mary. But I am here now."
She melted into a smile. "That's all right." Her voice became chipper again. "These things happen. Life gets in the way of a lot of things, doesn't it?"
It certainly does, I agreed.
"So much in my life didn't turn out how I thought. Did you know the first four years of my marriage were spent being alone?"
"No," I said, sliding my pocketbook off my shoulder, and asked her why.
"Because of the war." Mary cracked into a laugh. Her eyes had cleared, and it was like a fog opened, and I could see a vast country of memories in her gaze.
Still, I put in, I bet he was a stupendous husband. At that, she grinned at me with gratitude. Already something playful was tugging at my heart. She was skeletal, but joy thundered from her frame. I couldn't resist Mary's spirit.
"Did you know," she laughed, "when I first met my Jim, I didn't see him at all."
Then I knew my cue. I settled my pocketbook on the ground and asked her why not.
* * *
The next week I went to my father and asked,
"Daddy, is Golden Pond a residential community for old people, or just for Alzheimer's patients?"
I was in my parents' kitchen as I asked. I poured hot water into a mug.
"For Alzheimer's patients," he confirmed for me, going through bills in his hands.
"Oh," I echoed, stirring grains of instant coffee until the water turned golden-brown. "I just thought it was assisted living for old people."
"No." He scratched his chin. "I believe anyone there has some kind of level of dementia."
Then I circled the spoon around the rim of the mug and thought.
* * *
Almost every week after that, I found Mary, and we talked.
There was never actually a break-through moment, a parting in the fog, a recollection that I was not some middle-aged blood-relative of hers, but merely a random college girl. I tried to reflect on whether this was wrong or right. I probably should have researched dementia to make sure I was not playing with fire, tangling neurons or doing some kind of damage, but we fell into a routine that did not feel complicated or nefarious at all: I would circle the pond, soaking up the spring and then summer sunshine, and then when I reached the pink brick building, three quarters of the way around, I would look up and see if she was sitting on the bench on the hill.
"Hullo, Mary," I would say, sauntering over to her.
"Oh, hello, there! Are you a visitor?" She would beam up at me. "I do dearly love visitors."
"I am indeed a visitor," plopping down on the bench. "Came last week, too."
"What a sweet thing to do," she would say. "What a sweet thing, coming to see an old woman like me."
I would counter casually, "I always like spending time with you, Mary."
"Tell me who you are again, dear."
"Well, who do you think I am, Mary?"
She would study my face, and then she would look at me slyly. "You're pulling my leg. You're trying to pull my leg. You are --"
And then I would be whoever Mary wanted me to be: her second cousin, her grand-niece, her best friend from the 1940's hat shop. I was often her niece. At first, physical heat washed over me: tangible guilt as I lied. But as time went on, I began to settle into our rhythm with a more and more cavalier attitude, a sort of lightly-played defiance. I eventually stopped trying to find out if she remembered me, and acquiesced to any title. I never actively tried to channel or embody the loved ones in her life: I only accepted whatever name she gave me, and then continued our conversation like myself. And Mary would become luminous. I never actually heard any new stories: she recycled all the ones from the first day -- the war, the hat glue, the blood, the lack of babies, her husband's love, the Mill Pond. The highlights and the mundane, the patchwork of her life.
I knew I was not building a relationship with her in the traditional sense: every week we started from complete scratch. If I lathered any love on her, or she lathered any love on me, it was like a pebble that sank to the bottom of the pond -- the water rippling, then still. The impermanence of it all fascinated me. Our relationship still felt real, even if our words carved no neural pathways in her brain. Those moments we spent together, I believed, were in her heart if not in her mind. And even if they had disappeared entirely in her, the moments were in me: and that counted for something. Each time I visited her, Mary chipped away a small chunk of my loneliness.
One day as I fanned myself in the summer heat, Mary told me, "My husband sent me here, you know."
"I thought your nephew did," I said accidentally.
She looked confused. "No. No, it was my husband. He wanted me to have a break, you see. But he's still at home. Waiting for me."
I murmured something in response.
"I'm going home to him soon," she added.
"Yes," I said, and became worried.
Some weeks Mary wasn't on the bench, and I thought this was understandable. I just looped around the pond and enjoyed the scenery. But as July passed, those weeks became more and more frequent, until finally all through August I did not see her at all.
In early September, in the silky warm sunshine, I looped around the pond three times, walked to the other side of the building to check other benches, looked in the gazebo, and looked around the bridge. Finally I pushed through the heavy glass doors and entered the reception area.
Air conditioning blasted at me and felt unnaturally cold on my skin. I walked up to the counter. My heart was beating strangely, tripping and throbbing, like the throat of a frog. I did not exactly want to be inside that building again. I could already feel my tongue begin to knot, and I knew I wasn't going to speak well.
I laid my hands firmly on the counter, though. "Hi, there!" I began cheerfully.
"Hello." The same receptionist looked up at me, with her brown horned-rimmed glasses. "Can I help you?"
"I was just wondering -- well, I was just wondering if I could visit someone."
She rearranged the beads of her eyeglass chain on her chest. She studied me. "Oh. You were here back in the winter, weren't you?"
"For volunteering, yeah. It didn't work out. But now I just wanted to know if I could visit someone."
"What is the patient's room number?" the woman asked pointedly.
I was taken aback by this question. "Uh -- uh, well, I was hoping you could tell me that, actually."
The receptionist asked, "Name?"
"Right. Of course. Actually, I don't remember." I reached inside to turn on whatever charisma I possessed: any charm that could oil up this conversation, enough to slip me past this desk and into Mary's presence. I started laughing: "I mean, I know her first name. But I don't quite remember her last. . . I mean, let me think. Mary -- He -- Mary Her --"
Haberdashery, Hyperbolic, Hypothermia.
Then I sputtered out an approximation: "Herbert."
"Yes, that's exactly it!"
"Mary Horton. . ." Now the receptionist took her hand off her assignment. She picked up another stack of papers in front of her, and I thought she was going to search for the room number.
"Mary Horton," I echoed again in relief, as if it was a triumph for the two of us, together. "Yes. I remember. That is exactly it."
But she did not share my joy: only shuffled the papers. She actually glared at me. "Am I right in guessing you're not family?"
"Yes. Yes, I'm not." I suddenly stuttered, something I rarely did anymore: "More l-like -- closer to an acquaintance." Again, that compulsive honesty in my anxiety. Heat filled my face. "Well, we talked sometimes the past few months. We sat out on the bench. I moved up the road. I would come and we would sit on the bench sometimes." I was telling myself to stop talking. I pressed my palms flat again into the counter ledge, hard.
"Mary Horton isn't a patient here anymore." She tapped the papers into a crisp square.
"Isn't a patient, or isn't here?" I said. "Do you mean she doesn't live here anymore?"
"No, she doesn't live here anymore," repeated the receptionist.
"Did she go back to her house? She said she would, but I didn't think she would."
The receptionist shook her head.
"Maybe I shouldn't be asking this, but did she get sick and was she moved elsewhere?" I insisted.
The receptionist's fingers stilled on the paper. "Yes. She isn't here anymore," she said, in a much softer voice.
And suddenly I understood, fully.
The receptionist then took her horned-rimmed glasses off. She rested the tip of her glasses against her lip. "Did you say you had been friends with Mary?" Her eyes were creased, but she was studying me more gently. "Did you know her very well?"
"Yes." I watched the eyeglasses against her lip. Then I brought down my eyes; studied her papers. "Well, no, actually. Not really. I sat with her sometimes."
"I am so sorry."
"It's all right. Thank you for telling me." I pushed back from the counter.
"I really am so very sorry."
"I know; me, too. Thanks, though. Have a nice day. Take care. Have a good one."
"It was really sweet of you to visit her while she was going through all that," she added warmly. "I mean, during that whole time."
But I didn't know. I hadn't known. I pushed through the doors, into the early September air: clement, sweet. The heat felt good on my skin. Blood and hat glue and mint ice cream, and no babies. It was true: I hadn't known Mary very well. I wasn't even supposed to be on those lawns of Golden Pond that summer. But her stories were in me now, were in my marrow.
I passed by our iron bench. Its green paint was peeling off the iron.
As she spoke, she had painted a picture of her past for me -- or I lent it colors from my own palette. I imagined once more Mill Pond, a silver mirror in the winter, puddled in the slope between two hills. There was a red cottage and a warped gray barn at the top of this hill. In the winter, they skated; in the summer time, the children swam. Their skin peeled in sunburned pieces, tasting like coconut oil suntan lotion when they sucked on their arms. Their elbows were bony, and the boys' chests were fascinating, bumpy and ridged.
I thought about that hat factory, too. Mary told me she had showed an aptitude for hat assembly and was quickly moved to the decorating room. The milliners worked in a line, down a long wooden table, gluing plastic fruits and flowers to the hat rims. The women brought sandwiches to work every day -- Wonder bread, with cheese, and sometimes just Wonder bread. Coffee was rationed, but the company gave them one hot thermos a day, and once in a while someone sneaked in liquor and for the day, the thermoses were spiked. Sugar, too, was rationed at the time -- as well as butter and cooking oil. But if a woman could scrape things together, she brought in a cake, made with eggs from her chickens. (Though the cake usually didn't have icing.) Mary shared in the treats and the rum, and tried to laugh at the jokes, but said she still somehow could not break into the easy camaraderie. Yet she worked harder than most, and was soon moved to a supervising position.
Mary wrinkled her nose. "But those women weren't nice."
"No?" I couldn't help grinning. "Why not?"
Her face flattened. "There was a girl they always picked on."
This girl was black and very beautiful, she told me. When Mary noticed the snide taunting, she stood up like a queen one day and carried her thermos and sandwich over to the girl, sat down, and ate with her. She started doing this every lunch break, and found that she herself was branded, now the butt of jokes, too. So she carefully put down her thermos of coffee one day, walked back over to the group of women, and with a swipe of her hand, knocked a hat box off the table and entire roll of packaging tissue. The roll bounced across the room and unraveled as she said, "All right! You snicker and sneer all you want. Be as mean as you want, because I pity the husbands coming home to you. I'm going to work every day down here, where people are friendly." And then she also picked up her cherries and butterflies and false begonias and went and sat down next to the "people" -- the one other girl.
Then Mary looked up at me, and her eyes actually filled with tears. "Why are people cruel?" she asked. She struck me as innocent as a child, still confounded by evil in the world -- still hurt, seventy years later. I told her I didn't know.
That day, I loved the jacket she was wearing: it was a brilliant teal, with floss embroidery of spring green and silver. She was wearing a ring of yellow sapphire. Her foundation was porcelain, soaking into the folds next to her mouth, and she had a couple white hairs on her chin, but her lipstick was perfectly applied -- this time a bronzy red -- and her wet eyes were cornflower blue. I scooted closer. "But you're not like that," I said. "Your heart is obviously full of love. Courage and love. And that's what matters, right?"
At that Mary smiled again, and shrugged. "Well," she said comfortably, "at least it made that girl happy."
I thought about this story. . . and other things. . . and nothing. . . as I walked along the curve of the pond, reeds bobbing in the wind, heading back to my car, back to my apartment. The gravel crunched under my feet and I absently snapped off the head of a cattail reed. The cattail was velvety, stiff, fat. I ripped up the head between my fingers, stripped it down to the stem, and then I let all the pieces fall.
The fluff landed on the ground, clung to the gravel, quivered in the wind. Just for one moment. One more breeze, I thought, would take all the pieces away.
* * *
It's still in early draft form and needs to be cut down. So, sorry if there are any boring parts to slog through before I trim it to its final draft. Suggestions? What can go? Anything to be added or clarified?