(This short story appeared in RiverSedge, Volume XVIII, No.2, Fall 2005.)
On Valentine’s Day, Honey Stein shuffled around the day room of the Alzheimer’s Unit in a pink sweat suit, while Lydia and Joyce, in their white uniforms, cleaned up an arts-and-crafts project. Other residents drifted away and out through the double door arch. Dangling from Honey’s fingers was the product of her morning’s activity, a paper heart.
The top of the big folding table that had been specially erected looked like a 3-D collage, scattered with bits of construction paper, red and pink and white, rolls of ribbon, fat and thin, small scissors with brightly colored plastic handles, buttons in all sizes and colors, bottles of glitter sparkling in iridescent shades of magenta, gold, turquoise, and silver, little glass jars of sequins, and a line-up of squeeze bottles of white glue. The same materials littered the floor under chairs pushed this way and that, as though a whole crew of people had been suddenly called to something urgent. Two residents sat at one end, holding their big, hand-made hearts. Lydia gathered art supplies from the table and put them in a box. She had hung a rope like a clothesline across the wall.
“Frankie? Want me to hang that up for you?” she asked the woman with the red heart. With a beneficent smile, Frankie held it out to her.
“So pretty. I have a good spot for it.”
Lydia stood on a chair and clipped the red heart to the line with a clothespin. Strips of pink ribbon streamers hung from its ragged sides.
Honey took a seat on the sofa and put her heart in her lap. It was white with a pile of glitter hanging onto a glob of glue. She didn’t like it. She wished she could have done better. She should have made a sequin border. It needed a bow. She looked away from it, straight ahead, just as a man appeared in the doorway, casually dressed in black slacks and a cashmere V-neck. Shining silver hair capped his head. All the way across the room his bright eyes burned with blue fire. He was carrying a bundle of flowers and a small box.
“Honey,” he said, coming up to her without hesitation. A body blush warmed her. He was a nice looking man, unusual, distinctive, and somewhat forward. He sat down beside her. He seemed a little worried but with good cheer. “I brought these for you.”
A funnel of cellophane and green tissue swaddled a bouquet of velvety, wine red roses and fragile, white Baby’s Breath. Baby’s Breath, something within her made an announcement. How did it get that name? she mused in wordless wonder. It was a weed. It detracted. Roses did fine by themselves.
He held the flowers out to her. She did not take them.
Joyce left the table where she was still packing the supplies back into their storage box.
“Oh, we’ll put those in a vase for her.” She offered her arms to the flowers. “They are gorgeous, Mr. . . . ?”
“Petrovsky, Mishka Petrovsky.” He offered his hand from under the bundle. Only after he shook hers did he release the bundle.
“Mr. Petrovsky. A pleasure. Oh, Honey, what a lucky gal you are.” Joyce held them up to her nose, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. “Mmm. Lovely.”
Then she held them out to Honey to smell, saying “Mmm” again.
“Mmm,” said Honey.
“I’ll set them in your window sill.”
“Thank you,” he said to Joyce.
Then the spot where Joyce had stood with the flowers was empty and only the heady scent remained.
From her perch on the chair, Lydia called after Joyce. “Now don’t you leave me with this mess.”
Joyce’s voice carried in, from down the hall, “Back in a minute. We still have to do the cupcakes.”
He was sitting on the sofa a respectful yet intimate distance from her.
“Honey, it’s so good to see you. You look well. Are you doing okay?”
A rhythmical drumbeat of knowing and not knowing pulsed in her. He was . . . oh! . . . who? . . . was he . . . someone . . . for sure . . . or . . . maybe . . . yes . . . maybe . . . a person. Hmm. A good looker.
“Well, I wish I could have visited sooner. I got caught up with my weaving, trying to get a last batch into the stores before the weather warms up and people don’t want to buy them anymore.”
He fidgeted with the box in his lap. It was wrapped in gold foil and tied with a red bow.
“No, that’s not it. What am I saying, my scarves? I could just as well say my photographs, my sculpting, my bonsai. It wasn’t any of that, Honey. It was . . . well, you know how I am . . . about hospitals and places. I’m just not good at it. It scares me.”
His eyes were searching hers. . . . that way!. . . was he . . . ? Something solidified inside her, became a great dense core of being, like a boulder when the waters gather up from the sea into a wave, completely submerge it in foam and spray, then recede to reveal it again to the sky. She was freshened, visible.
“Good.” He heaved a sigh of relief. “There. I said it.” His shoulders rose and fell. “It scares me. It really does.”
She wanted to touch the soft cashmere of his sweater. She half reached for it. Her arm remained suspended. She drifted in the sense that the quality was in the feel of it. Then her arm dropped.
“So it took a long time for me to come round. Longer than it should have, of course. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
His eyes were moist. Such a blue. Like aquamarines. And so sincere. He was a nice man.
“And here. I brought you a little something else.”
He held out the box. She kept her hands in her lap on her white heart. She looked down and fingered the spot of glitter, slippery over the skin of glue.
“I thought it would be a special thing. For Valentine’s Day. Shall I open it?”
Honey held up her index finger. Pinpoints of glitter stuck to the whorls. When she rubbed her thumb against her finger, they did not come off. She stared at it. Her finger was a coiled path imbedded with a rainbow of shiny stepping-stones.
“I’ll open it for you.” His nervous fingers untied the red bow. “You’ll like it, I think.” The cellophane tape came away easily and the gold foil wings of the wrapping fell open.
“I hope you will. It’s my pretty good guess you will.”
His hands were small but broad. His fingers, knuckled with miniature clouds of silvery hair, thrilled her for a moment, and then another. He lifted the lid of a small, square candy box and turned it around towards her. Inside were nine fancy chocolate truffles, each one with a white chocolate heart iced on top. His eyes blinked as he searched her face for a response. She smiled.
“Oh, I knew you would like them.”
Honey took one and bit into it. The dark chocolate spread its thick pleasure in her mouth.
“May I?” he asked, pointing to a piece. He was asking her something, so she nodded. “Well, I confess, I did bring them to share. That was the point. I would have brought champagne, too. You know I would have.” The skin around his eyes crinkled with the mischief of a little boy doing his best to be compliant. “But they have their rules.”
He picked out a candy and held it up. “We can have a truffle toast.”
Honey’s half-eaten piece teetered and oozed between her fingers.
“Here’s to love, Honey. I always think of you with love.”
“Love,” she heard herself say. She enjoyed her voice, as she would a rare and welcome visitor. She popped the rest of the chocolate into her mouth and sucked on her fingers.
Just then a nurse entered the day room pushing a man in a wheelchair. Honey smiled when she spotted the yellow-and-red striped bowtie coming toward her.
“Margaret!” the man exclaimed.
Honey got up from her seat, her white paper heart fluttering from her lap to the floor. She walked straight to him, leaned down to make eye contact, and stroked his shaved and sunken cheek. She adjusted the bowtie a tad and patted his knees.
“See, here she is, Sidney,” said the nurse. Honey took the handlebars from her.
Joyce was just returning. A look of concern came over her face. Honey had a vague sense of unease, as if she had done something wrong, but Joyce went past her, up to the man on the sofa. He stood for the nurse, bent to pick up the white paper heart, glitter glob and all, then straightened. Honey turned the wheelchair around back in the direction it had come.
“You know, Mr Petrovsky, I have to be frank with you. Sidney here . . .that’s his name, poor guy, . . . his wife died.” Joyce turned so she stood side by side with him. “The woman had taken care of him for years at home. We see it all the time, but it’s still so sad. And in his case,” here she lowered her voice but Honey could make it out, “he was too far . . . well, you know . . . he just couldn’t understand. So if we reminded him that she had passed away, it was as if he were hearing it for the very first time. He could do nothing but cry for his Margaret.”
“Margaret,” called Sidney.
“Here I am,” responded Honey, leaning round to show her face to him.
“Until Honey stepped in just like this,” said Joyce. “It’s her longest phrase, ‘here I am,’ one of her only ones now. And it put an end to his grief.”
Honey gripped the handlebars, heaved her weight forward, and the wheelchair with Sidney set into motion.
“We can’t tell for sure if she really thinks she’s his wife. But for practical purposes . . . I mean practical in this setting . . . well, I don’t know how else to put it. She does act that way.”
That way, Honey’s mind repeated. Toward the double doors and hallway beyond she set her focus. And pushed.
“I understand,” the man said.
“And you? You’re her . . . ?” Joyce asked.
“Friend,” he said, holding the paper heart in one hand and the box of candy with two empty nests in the other, “just a friend.”