(This short story appeared in XCONNECT, Print Edition & Online, September 2005.)
Honey was standing in the foyer of her Upper East apartment, looking at her hair in the mirror above the mahogany console, and she noticed dull grays, like unwanted weeds in the garden, intruding upon her carefully cultivated sunflower blond. Her home, this place, it had been her home for thirty years or more. The doorbell then made a sound, and while the ringing reminded her of a melody, it also caused her brain to shudder, straight down to her toes.
No. No one had been rung up. She was mostly sure. Thank god for a good solid deadbolt. She would take a hard look through the peephole, make note of the culprit’s features, and then call Security. She put her eye up to the glass aperture.
Omigod! It was he! Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.
“Just a mi-nute.” Her voice, which she rarely heard these days, was sing-song. She went back to the mirror again. A fright, and no time to do anything about it. She would have to open the door, or he would leave. She pinched her cheeks and fluffed her bangs. Under other circumstances, she might have asked herself how she could have let things go this far, but whole body memory moved and excited her, and propelled her back to the door.
She freed the safety chain from its brass channel and leaned her shoulder against the door to oust the lock. Restraining herself as much as possible, she flung open the door upon Mishka, who stood relaxed in a gray overcoat, unbuttoned, revealing his body, noticeably trim for old age, in black slacks and a maroon turtleneck. His silver hair gleamed under the hall light, his smile one with a bit of hopeful mischief.
“I don’t give up so easily. And, honestly, I thought maybe you weren’t okay in some way. So I took the liberty.” It was not just any delightful, Russian accent. It was his.
The door was barely closed when he took her into his arms. She was folded within the opening of his coat, and the smell of fresh air clung to the wool. The heat of his body warmed her. She wanted to say…
“I …I …”
There was so much that she wanted to tell him, that she had been doing strange things, like sitting on the kitchen floor in a carpet of popcorn, that someone seemed to be always stealing her purse, that the sidewalks and buildings could go to jelly and there was no way to take a step and nothing to lean against so she would just stand for what seemed like hours outdoors in the same spot until everything went solid again. She wanted to tell him how terrifying it was to feel lost, not only that time she left Manhattan to find her mother and did get lost in the snow, but, and this was almost worse, right here in her apartment, when sometimes she could not even find the front door. Well, given long enough she could.
“You don’t have to explain,” he said.
But she wanted to tell her story, only everything jumbled in her mind, and she did not know how to start. If she could only find that first word, maybe the rest would unravel. He held her safely within the firm circle of his arms, his mouth pressed to the crown of her head. Then she let his lips light on hers. Tenderness held in the doorways of their mouths, which she hoped would unlock the words, but the most immense effort left her mute. She caught a tang of mint and a husky, tempered scent.
“Did you miss me, Honey, … the way I missed you?” he asked.
She was sure she knew what missing was, even though she could not always remember what it was she missed. But she did remember. That one time. How divinely…
Kind concern on his face veiled a deeper longing.
“You don’t need to say anything.”
His eyes shone, and then she fell into them, as though none of what her brain reached for really mattered, because this is where she belonged. He was still waiting.
She smiled the yes she could not bring to voice, then followed him as he led her, by kissing and walking her backwards, through the living room into the bedroom, where she helped him help her off with her clothes. She took her blouse from him and held it against her midriff. He laughed while he tried to tug it from her. She laughed and let go of it. He made a misstep. Agile, he recovered.
The mauve duvet was free of wrinkles. She pulled it back, crawled under the cotton blanket and sheet. He hung his coat over the chair. His sweater and slacks he laid on the seat. Silver hair floated over his golden apple skin, and she already knew again what she had known just once.
He climbed in beside her. She burrowed into the snug cave of the bedclothes. A hand caressed her shoulder and dawdled there. It traced the shape of her, down to her elbow.
That time. The time he took her, after hours, backstage of the theater where he worked, and fixed the lighting on the set so it looked like real moonlight shining into a real barn. Even under that light, his skin had looked golden, like the hay she found, afterwards, in her hair.
He pressed his thumb under her wrist, lightly anchoring it, and stroked the top of her hand with his fingers.
He asked, “Are you sure?”
He waited, so still, ready, she felt, to withdraw his hand, step out of bed into his clothes, and go quietly. If needed.
Oh, the loveliness of recollection. If only she could tell him just one detail of what she remembered. Hadn’t she shouted it to the rooftop of her brain? This damn disease. Between the inner visions and her vocal cords, there was nothing.
Her own knowing would have to suffice. So she nodded, and lifted her lips. But he stopped stroking her wrist and started talking.
“I became afraid that I couldn’t handle this. Us. But then, I had to ask myself, could I give you up?”
He went on about how, when she did not return his messages, he thought she did not want to see him anymore.
Messages? Her mind searched her mind for messages.
How much it hurt him that that might be so. He had even gone to Saul’s more than once, okay, more than twice, in the hope of running into her. He had eaten cabbage soup alone in the same booth where they had met.
“It’s so easy to let people go, to think someone does not want you. I would console myself: here, here is my work, the theater, my sculpting, my weaving.”
Yes, she remembered, he wove beautiful scarves and shawls. She had bought one on consignment at Myrna’s. The first time she had met him was when he had spotted it on her, while she stood bundled up in line at Saul’s. Somehow he had gotten her to join him with her own bowl of cabbage soup. It was his eye charm. A blaze of tropical blues and greens. And it amazed her that a man could be an artist instead of a businessman. It amazed her he could be working at anything at his age, and with such gusto.
“But the work somehow has to be done. What can I make, that I have not already made? Yet all of it, it no longer feels like enough. But how can that be? I’m eighty-two. It has to have been enough. But it isn’t.”
She reached up, out from under the covers, and stroked his head. His eyes were the same refreshing pools. His warm breath caressed her face as he spoke.
“Then the memory of what happened between us kept coming up, over and over, as though something so unbelievably exquisite would just not let go…do you remember how we pranced through the wardrobe racks? Found a pair of farmer’s overalls for me? And you in that peasant skirt? The silly beauty of it all!…I go to sleep with the thought that surely this will be the night that will take me. I am way too old to fall in love. Maybe you’ll take this the wrong way. I kept thinking that it really is too late for you, too. But none of it, not any of the whole weight of reality, if you will, changes the bald fact of feeling. This, I’m almost ashamed to say: I want so much more. With you. And then I knew, despite the total hopelessness of it, I don’t know…maybe because of it, I don’t know…I don’t know anything, but I just had to….”
His eyes filled. She touched the corner of one until it released a drop onto her finger.
“Mishka,” she said.
She moved closer, right up against him, into the round cradle of both his arms. She wrapped hers around his neck. His private smell swirled in her brain. The barrel of his trunk rose and fell in spasms and shook her to tears. Body to body, she heaved with him in rhythmic sorrow, joined her moist cheek to his in commingled weeping, until her heart emptied, filled, and fused with his, until the whisper of skin and creak of bones gave way to a roll of trembling and pleasure and unmeasured peace.
They lay damp, tangled, sucked together—she could not help thinking—like Chinese cellophane noodles. In complete rest, she let herself be carried along by the soothing rustle of his breath, amazed to be relieved of the need to speak, as though everything to be said had been said.
After a while, he spoke. “I’m going to take a shower.”
With her eyes closed, she drifted in bed to the gurgle and splash of running water, grateful for…something.
Then the sound of water stopped. She heard a thumping in the pipes. The walls rattled, and her mind went blank. Her body, immoveable, not tired but as though made of rock, lay dense and vacant.
Honey opened her eyes, shocked to see a man standing beside her bed, naked from the waist up, his skin slightly beaded with water, her blue bath towel tied around his waist, the red stripe falling to his knee. All systems on alert, she sat bolt upright, pulling the covers to her neck.
“Y-you. Who are you?” Her own voice startled her.
The half-naked man laughed a short, choking laugh. Where did he come from? What was he doing here? A wave of nausea rolled inside her stomach, while her heart thumped above it, harder and faster.
“I don’t know you. Get out of here.”
The man cocked his head in casual disbelief.
How could this be, her talking? Thoughts into words? It was beyond impossible. And how had he gotten in? Her door was bolted and chained, always, and she was on the fourteenth floor. It simply wasn’t allowed. She could feel her tremors begin, her elbows starting to flap, like a bird. She squeezed her arms hard against the sides of her trunk to stop it.
He stepped up to the edge of the bed, sat down in the damp towel, and laid a hand on one of her knees poking up under the covers.
“Honey, calm down. It’s okay. It’s me, Mishka.”
Honey—how on earth? How did he know her name? Was this a disease trick? Could she know him and not know him?
Her throat constricted. No, she’d never laid eyes on him. And even if she had, he would not be here, good God, like this. He could not know her name. But he was saying it again, over and over.
She felt dizzy. She fought to focus. Jewels, she’d give him her jewels. Then, a flush traveled up from her feet, her legs, her trunk, rose and exploded red hot on her face. She screamed.
He reached for her with both arms outstretched. He was going to grab her neck. She would be strangled in her own bed. Pulling the sheet free and flinging it around her body, she scrambled to standing, slam up against the headboard.
“Get out! Right now!”
The man stood up, alarmed. His jaw dropped. She screamed again. He was not moving. The color seeped out of his face. His eyes clicked wide open and stayed there, unblinking.
“Honey, no! Don’t lose me. Please, it’s me, Mishka.” He leaned toward her again. “We just…don’t you re-…?”
More and more, as loud as she could, a full body siren. Then he backed away again, made a great effort to compose himself.
“Okay. I’ll go.”
He yanked on a pair of black slacks, which was laying on her chair. Of all places.
“See, I’m getting dressed.” Maybe he really was going. He had to keep going.
He struggled with a maroon sweater while crying to himself, “No, oh, dear god, no.” When he had gotten it on, to her he said, “Please, Honey, come back, oh, please.”
She took a big breath. And more words came out.
“Hurry up. Or I’ll call the police!”
He grabbed his socks out of his shoes and stuffed his bare feet into them. His body was buckling at the knees, at the waist, and he was moaning. She picked up the water glass from her night table and threw it. It missed him and shattered against her dresser. He stumbled backwards out of the room. When he looked in again, he was trembling, and tears were streaming down his face.
“I’m going, I am. But Honey, it’s just the Alzheimer’s. You’ll remember. You will. You’ll remember it was me. Your Mishka.”
When she heard the front door shut, she rushed to it, threw her weight against it, and turned the deadbolt. Her breath held in her chest. Through the peephole she could see him standing in the hall, hiking on his overcoat. The man glanced back toward her door, imploring. She moved the door chain along its slide as quietly as she could. He covered his face with his hands. Then hands and head together fell to his chest. She heard the elevator trundle open. He lifted his head, and wiped his face with one sleeve. Then he disappeared into the elevator.
Honey let go. What she exhaled smelled of terror. She took in a huge gulp of air and expelled it with relief.
Oh, boy. She was sure going to give Security a big piece of her mind.
Her breath huffed on for several minutes, until it settled.
Then she looked as at herself in the mirror, and wondered, why she was naked in the middle of the day, and what a bed sheet was doing crumpled on the foyer floor.