They were bombing us. I was certain. I listened for the smashing of glass, sirens, the rocketing of flames. The dogs yelped and jumped into bed. This is the one. The one to do us in. Some time coming. The world undone. Disaster. Dis-astra. A star coming apart. Aren’t we all made of stars? And isn’t it so? Awful, strange, and kind and certainly absurd how in these moments we disembody, how the mind takes flight. I found myself, beyond myself, thinking of the heroine in that one novel, what was it called now? It was set in London. No, Dublin. Awful mistake. What was it called? I read it years ago. Forgive me. She leaves her family. They’re always leaving their family. There’s a long scene on a ship.
Champagne. Eclairs. What was that book? Dammit. No matter. Anyways. The flitting of the mind. Some evolutionary function, no doubt. Something or other that they’ve discovered. I was never the scholar. That was my husband. Always with a nose in a book. Always needing to be the first in-the- know. He read the whole paper before brushing his teeth. Congregants would pop their heads into his office — everyone wants a piece of the rabbi — and they would see him buried in some book, and mesmerized by such concentration, they would swallow their small questions, knowing in the face of such Talmudic effort, it would wait, it must wait, never realizing he was probably reading the latest Fuentes or Perec. He loved the Latins and French. Never bothered to learn either language, though he threatened constantly. Anyways, there was an earthquake this morning and my children didn’t even bother to call.
It was the one in 1994 that almost did us in. The epicenter was in Northridge. A fitting name. At the time we were living (what five miles away?) in Encino. It happened at 4:30am on the dot. The time children are born. I’m sure someone was birthing and then the world imploded. Sixty people died. Freeways collapsed. Cost the city of Los Angeles thirty billion in damage. With a B. It felt like a monster lifted up The Valley and threw it back down. Everything fell off the walls, everything came flying out of the cabinets. I screamed and screamed and couldn’t stop screaming. Artur ran in from the other room (we were already sleeping separately) and cut his foot on a shard of glass. He blamed me for the cut, never saying outright, but I read it in his face, in the way he picked up his fork and placed it down before lifting it again, hovering before his red red mouth. Swallowing his words. A man of measure. Priding himself on being the logical, contained one. I couldn’t sleep. I saw a therapist. My heart would race and I would sweat and sweat and when I did finally manage sleep, I would have nightmares of the roof falling in on my childhood home. Westchester, NY. I miss you so. I told Artur I wanted to move; I couldn’t continue to live on this fault line he insisted on calling a home. But of course we couldn’t or didn’t, different sides of the same coin. Those were difficult years. My resentment grew teeth. Artur, true as ever, played oblivious.
I was forty when we left Jersey. Left all our friends to start over. Again. Artur called me dramatic. Though of course we moved for him. He was offered the opportunity to head a fancy, Botox- nose-in-the-air congregation in Sherman Oaks. I had just cut my hair. It didn’t go over well. I’m certain the women thought I was a lesbian (they wouldn’t know fashion if it were shit on their shoe). But I’ve always been something of a loner and to them I might as well have been from the moon. But there I was, ensnared in the diamonds and eyelashes and breasts, comfortable and composed, talking with the junior rabbis and board members, as if I’d known them my entire life. They must’ve thought I was quite the tart, chatting up their husbands but if they weren’t going to talk to me, I wasn’t going to talk to myself, now was I?
I’ve lived here now almost thirty years. Where has the time gone?
It’s not surprising how my mind jumped right to a bombing, what, with the state of the world today. Look what happened in Paris last week. Just terrible. It didn’t use to be like this. We’ve gone mad. Such blood lust. And my children couldn’t even bother to call. I’m sure with the technology today they can get messages or alerts or something on their handy phones. I would hope they’ve set up something with their mother living alone thousands of miles away. They’ve managed to find their way back East. They hate when I bring it up. Sarah especially. Just like her father. Thinking I’m dramatic. “I’m not going to call you after every little tremor mother,” she said. And I love my children, I do, more than they could ever know but they’re not reliable. It’s not their fault. It’s part of the generation, part of this changing world, you understand? It used to be we raised our children and as we aged they took on the responsibility of caring for us. A family, yes? Likely chance now. They rather pawn you off to some home, lock you away, never hear from you again. Society treats the aged like dinner guests who’ve overstayed their welcome. Into the night with you. Awful. The horror stories I’ve heard on NPR. I’m always listening. The least we can do is stay informed. People my age give up on the news, saying it’s too depressing. Who are we if we cannot bear witness? I even have one of those apps that allows me to listen while I shop for my groceries. Much better than whatever nonsense they’re playing at the grocery store. Unbelievable how loud the world has become. I asked the manager, a real brute, much too much masculine energy, if he could turn it down. “I’m sorry miss but the volume is fixed,” he said and turned away from me. Off to the next thing. Just how we are. No attention span. No care given. Two thousand television channels and all we want to do is click click click.
Strange to say but Artur has been dead two years now. I’ve grown lonely. I want to spend time with someone. Go for coffee, a film, play, museum. I do these things on my own, I’ve never allowed myself to be a recluse, but a little company would be nice. This has been my first time alone. From the womb of my parent's home to college and into the waiting arms of Artur. He was my first and only and I was his third because he served overseas. How things have changed. Then there was only marriage, now it seems but an option and not a very good one at that. On the radio I heard that eighty percent of second marriages end in divorce. If you’ve done it once, I suppose. Both of my children are divorced and remarried. Adam’s second wife has children from a previous marriage as does he. The post-modern Brady Bunch. A swinging time during the Holidays. I haven’t seen them in years, though every year there’s a half-hearted invitation on my answering machine but what am I going to do? I can’t fly anymore.
Forget marriage. What about all this sexuality? I listened to a program that made my head spin. All these pronouns and acronyms. AEIOU and sometimes Y. Sorry. Bad joke. I’m about as far left as you can get but all I could think listening to the program was what arrogance shown by these young people. Speaking as if they’ve discovered something. We’ve landed on the moon. I remember the Free Love movement. I walked Montmarte and saw the transvestites. Marquis de Sade was some time ago. Someone had to lay the foundation. Shoulders of giants and what not. Someone had to sacrifice. Long before all this social media.
But yes, I have a date tonight, even at my age, especially at my age, with Eladio, the parking attendant at my local grocery. He’s awfully handsome and we have the most interesting and involved conversations. When we see each other we just light up. He has this small, inward smile, as if he were whispering a naughty joke. He gives the best hugs, warm and tight, and smells of fresh laundry. He’s demur. Genteel. Courteous in the way Hispanics are that Americans are just not.
A cougar, is that what they call them? He’s only a few years younger. Doesn’t wear a ring. He has a son up in Washington, a daughter in Texas, and another daughter here. He paused before mentioning his wife. Ovarian cancer. Eight years ago. His eyes welled and he fell into himself. I put my hand on his shoulder, an awkward gesture for I’m a bit taller than he. It was the first time we touched. He brushed at his long eyelashes and I decided to hug him. He felt like thunder in my arms. I forced a kiss onto his cheek and told him he was a good man. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t do such things. I was so flustered I forgot to buy groceries. Just walked back to my car with empty canvas bags. I drove away cursing my foolishness. It was too much. The cancer, the gesture, the kiss. My lips tingled all day from the bristles on his cheek.
I avoided the parking lot and drove out to the Whole Foods in Sherman Oaks, which was of course filled with congregants wishing to reminisce about Artur. These were the same people who stopped by after his death with a plate of inedible food and after half a cup of tea, suddenly remembered other matters more interesting and pressing than a grieving lesbian.
I about lost it when Artur died. Sure the kids flew in for a week, though quickly turning from bereft to burdened. They would sit with me and their eyes would glaze over, thoughts elsewhere. Anywhere but here. Here has always been tough for my kids. Unable to remain present. They grew up with television, so everything is periphery, even their mother.
Artur’s last years were a steady decline. His body wasted away. He complained constantly about his head, chest, stomach. He developed a walking pneumonia; carried a cough that sounded as if it might rip him apart. I worried constantly and listened for a thud. He couldn't keep food down except for turkey slices and saltines, which I figure he did to spite me for trying to feed him soup and vegetable juice. I took him to every imaginable doctor: Western, Eastern, Caribbean. They all said the same thing: your husband is depressed. But that was a word that never entered our household. Artur’s father had committed suicide when Artur was only a child. Artur had no issue using the words: selfish, asshole, coward but couldn’t form his mouth to: manic, schizophrenic, depressed. I avoided the conversation and had been for years but at some point, watching the man you’ve lived with the last forty-four years starve himself, enough is enough. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Had he the strength he may have thrown a lamp or smashed a plate. He never raised a hand to me but he yelled in my face. He hadn’t the strength for that either. I sat on the edge of his bed crying. He saw my tears as a burden as he always had, connecting them with something inexorable about the female condition. I pleaded with him to see a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist, friend. Someone. Anyone. He had a coughing fit. With considerable pain, he rolled to his side and stared out the window like a petulant child.
I couldn’t avoid Eladio forever. I decided to stop acting like a teenager and instead act as if nothing had happened, for nothing had. A kiss on the cheek? It’s the way the rest of the world says hello. It’s only strange in this puritanical country.
Now when we see each other it’s all hugs and kisses. I was so embarrassed for having avoided him, all those weeks, that when he asked where I had disappeared to, actually he said vanished—how elastic the English language becomes when it is one’s second or third tongue—I lied and told him I came down with a terrible flu. Immediately I regretted so as his face turned with concern. “Next time you call me,” he said, “And I will bring you soup.” Never mind that I didn’t have his number. I’m certain he would’ve been horrified to know how my heart swooned at the idea of him bringing me soup in bed. Even now, just thinking of it, makes me blush.
And whatever you may imagine, I do not feel guilty for my feelings. For the entirety of my life I’ve been calm, contained, a character in an Austen novel. Of course I was loyal to Artur, never a second look in any direction. I was never even tempted and when I was given a compliment, I took it for what it was, a set of words that did not end in another’s bed. But in return for fidelity was loneliness. Marriage is work. A tired and true phrase. It takes intention and attention and at some point, Artur gave up. I think he had it in his head that he’d done enough, that he’d created some kind of reserve, you know, that he could pick from whenever our love felt hungry. It was a skinny love. Malnourished. And it always seemed to come down to the life he provided, the mortgage he paid, the car I drove. Towards the end the only time we talked was when we argued. So no, I do not feel guilt. No matter how my children try. I’ve attempted discussing dating with Sarah. She told me it wasn’t an appropriate conversation.
After Artur died all I did was clean. I rearranged every room. Changed them completely. Clearing air. I drew myself a chart, a plan for each day of the week. This here. That there. With sanity go my family. I let the kids take what they wanted and the rest went to charity.
The house emptied. I’m sure they resent me for it. Sarah came to visit. Her yearly check-up. Has mother cracked yet? She walked the living room, touching the new couch, new lamp, new table, her fingers twitching as if she were an appraiser. She asked, “Why aren’t there any pictures of dad around?” She said it as if it were an after-thought, some whim, as if her question were just to fill the silence. It’s hardly a matter, her face said. But of course she cared, she always cares; she’s always ready to be slighted. It’s from her father, so ready to be disappointed by the world, eagerly sticking out her chin in order to prove some cosmic point. I pretended not to hear and asked about her translations.
She’s the spitting image of me. Blessed with thick eyebrows, a gift from my Sephardic father. I see it much more in Sarah than Adam. That tinge of the exotic. When she was young, she told her friends, she was adopted, that she was actually Venezuelan. In college she decided to study abroad in Venezuela. In the corner of my heart reserved for pettiness, I hoped she would hate South America and it would serve her right for being embarrassed of her family. But no, she loved it, and ended up living there for years. Artur lived with her briefly during a sabbatical. His Spanish did not improve.
It’s late morning and I’m out for supplies. Last week I invited Eladio to dinner. I went and asked him in person. None of this texting nonsense he seems to insist upon, sending acronyms and parenthetical smiling faces. In a way, it’s endearing. In another, it drives me up a wall.
I went mad trying to decide what to serve. I didn’t want the meal to be over the top where he would be put off by the effort. Although when did effort drop from fashion? When did we become embarrassed of hard work? However I don’t want to come off as needy, an old maid listening for wedding bells. It’s just a dinner. But it can’t be any dinner. A fine balance. A baked potato won’t do. I thought of soup. A corn gazpacho. Maybe a curried butternut stew. But it didn’t seem enough. Chicken too boring. Steak too much. I flipped the pages of my recipe books. It saddened me to see how many of them focused on practically, the feeding of a family. I sank into the couch. I felt tears coming on for the conceded years. Regret is part of growing old. And then the flight of the mind. A memory of a week Artur and I spent in Cyprus. We’re sitting in a cafe. The Mediterranean shimmers before us. Salt and mint are in the air. There’s a breeze. I put on my sweater. Artur picks from the bowl of olives. He spits a seed at me and we laugh. The lamb kebabs are divine. Afterwards, I stir sugar cube after sugar cube into my coffee. The sun begins to set, as we explore our own thoughts in silence, watching the birds glide over the water. Artur places his hand on mine; it is remarkably warm.
I’ve decided to make lamb kebabs with a tabbouleh salad, crisped potatoes, and a slices of apple on the side. I don’t often drink but for such an occasion, I thought it important to buy a bottle of wine.
It’s an hour before Eladio arrives. I’ve opened the bottle to let it breathe. I’m slow roasting the lamb. I’ve put in the potatoes. The tabbouleh is chilling in the fridge. I taste the apple. Not sweet enough. I’ll drizzle honey over them.
I’ve decided on a bit of makeup. Lipstick. Some shine about the eyes. Just enough. The oil I’ve rubbed into my skin is scented with rose hips. I’m giddy. I’m glowing. I’m not sure what to do with myself. I’ve had a glass of wine. I’ve put on a Brubeck album. I love Desmond’s saxophone. Soft like a grey skies. Like warm coffee. I pull a sheet over the dining table. I thought to put a flower down but a candle is enough.
It’s seven o’clock. The potatoes are golden. The meat tender. It smells good in here. I smell good. The table is set. Two forks. Two knives. A bit much but I want him to know this is special for me. My first date in almost fifty years. I pour myself another glass of wine. Calm the nerves, Ruth. I feel like a character in a play. No matter. I wonder if he’ll be wearing a tie. I hear a car. Instinctively I run my hands down my dress. Yes. I decided on the dress. I purchased it years ago in the City. Upper Westside no less. I can’t believe it still fits, strange how I’ve managed to keep my figure without all that conventional exercise. Track suits and those little pink weights? Never in my life. I’ve worn tights underneath for modesty. It’s a lovely dress though. A deep blue with little crescent moons. Still quite in style after all these years. But yes the car. I haven’t forgotten the car. I’m a deer in headlights. I move and position myself far enough from the door to make sure it doesn’t seem as if I were waiting. Terrible to wait. The moment passes. The car pulls away. Must’ve been the neighbors or kids driving around smoking cigarettes.
Ten past the hour. Traffic is awful these days. There used to be an actual rush hour. Now, you hardly know. All hours seem a mess. I heard on the radio, in LA, there are more car accidents per year than children graduating from high school. Scary. Really scary.
Fifteen past. I check my phone again. These fucking things make us even more anxious.
Eighteen past. The dogs are upset. I worry it may be another earthquake. They come in pairs. My heart is racing. Catch your breath, Ruth. Catch your breath. I want to call Sarah but she’ll just be nasty with me for waking her. She has a newborn. Adopted. She gave up being an ex-pat bohemian and settled down as if that were the truly revolutionary thing to do. I still haven’t met the child. She acts as if I were never a mother, as if sleep deprivation were made just for her. It’s better I don’t call. I don’t want to cry. Instead I laugh. Like this is all some game with myself. I don’t remember the last time my makeup ran. I won’t allow that. No. Give the dogs some treats Ruth. That’ll calm them down. Maybe it was just a squirrel. Or a rat. The Valley has a terrible rat problem.
Twenty-three past. I’ve never been stood up. Not once. Is this what it feels like? What kind of fool was I to believe it could be anything more than a kiss in a parking lot? He must have a girlfriend. Maybe the whole thing with the wife was made up. And what? I was going to date a parking attendant? We were going to go to museums and French Cinema? This never would’ve happened had we not left Jersey. Our friends would’ve taken care of me. They would've been over every night. We would’ve played board games; gone to shows in the City. I would never have been alone.
Twenty-nine past. I’ve lost my appetite.
Thirty-five past. I’ve decided on another glass of wine. Sheba is licking my fingers. I’m sprawled out on the couch. I don’t care if the meat dries. I’m going to throw it away. I hope the rats enjoy it. Someone should. I’ve thrown my wrist watch across the couch. Turned off my phone. I shut my eyes. Leave me here. I’m no good. Fools rush in and all that melodrama. Foolish Ruth. Yet the doorbell rings. It can’t. It can’t ring. I’m a character in a play. That isn’t my doorbell. The wine has turned me dizzy. No matter. I stumble to stand. Who built the door so far from the couch? No one will be there. This is a play. I open the door. Eladio looks bewildered. A lost doe. What must I look like? He’s out of breath. He’s wearing a tie and smells of cologne. He looks terribly handsome. Apologetic. He wouldn’t have dressed up if he didn’t like me, right? My heart betrays me, again. He’s carrying tiny yellow roses. His words are too fast, too slanted with his accent, to catch. He shows me the oil on his hands. Car trouble. Car trouble. I’m dizzy. It’s not unpleasant. I’m so sorry, his refrain. He leans in, hands behind his back, and kisses me on the cheek.
It is the middle of the night and the house shakes. At least I think it does. It’s difficult to tell. Sometimes I’ll walk out to the pool and look for ripples. Seismologists say there are earthquakes everyday, though often we don’t feel them like dreams left unremembered. The dogs lay undisturbed. Eladio lies beside me on his stomach, breathing softly, his fists curled like an infant. I asked him to stay the night. We didn’t make love. I told him I wasn’t ready — a strange thing to feel at my age. A gentleman through and through. I settle into the curve of his body. I kiss the point where his spine meets his neck. I can’t help but smile. I press into him. The house shakes again.
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