In her dreams, she’s a teenager again. She has not lived 92 years; she’s young. There’s a reckless feeling—riding in the backseat of a car with the windows open. Trees speeding past. A ball of orange summer sun split by a church steeple. It’s like an amusement park ride, the whole world spinning. She sees herself in the rear view mirror, her face round and healthy and clean. Her long hair blows in thick curls.
There’s a boy next to her, his hand moves under her skirt and she puts her head back laughing, flirtatious. Then he’s about to kiss her, his open mouth. The tip of his tongue touches her top lip with the softest sensation.
And she wakes.
The boy is still there in her head. She remembers he was the first one who ever got close to her, and she was mostly afraid of him. Feared his confidence and intensity and passion. It was partly that she’d never even been close to a boy, never had brothers or boy cousins her age. She listened to his talk about cars and baseball while she sat on the lawn behind their building in the summertime, leaning away from him, running fingers through her hair, sipping Dr Pepper.
It was like he spoke a different language. He had a rhythmic voice, a Northeastern accent. He used words that were mysterious and sometimes harsh-sounding. Goddamn and wicked cool, he said.
She wondered if she could ever be as passionate about things.
He had an unusual German name and black glasses and he spoke with a slight lisp. He had nice brown eyes and fleshy lips, teeth that overlapped in the front. Her father didn’t like him—it had something to do with riding a motorcycle. The kid was off—her father had said. He tapped a finger to his own temple and she’d rolled her eyes away, laughing.
She remembers the attention the boy gave her, and sometimes she felt smothered by him.
But in the dream, she was happy. There were a few others in the car. She tries to remember the faces of people she knew more than 70 years ago. People she liked, people who liked her, too. They all wanted to spend time together.
These days, it’s difficult to enjoy the company of others. Everything feels pointless, talking to people, laughing at their jokes. It’s like she’s underwater most of the time, like she’s in a world that keeps her veiled from the rest of them. They don’t always understand what she’s saying, but they pretend. She knows. They try to make her feel normal.
In the darkness of her bedroom, she thinks: Is it possible that we live our entire lives as frauds? We pretend to care about what people have to say. We make time for friends who annoy us. We do what we think is right.
What a waste.
She’s done with that now. She has always enjoyed her time alone. And there is nothing left to say. She has friends that she’s known forever, since before her husband died, but she feels nothing for them now.
She will never be able to go back to sleep. There’s a woman’s voice in her head. She has trouble remembering. She knows it’s someone important, but most of the time this person feels like a stranger. Then, like a light, it comes back to her: her daughter Sophia, of course. But how could it be her daughter? The girl was full of laughter, forgetful, dreamy. She used to fall up the stairs when she was excited and in a hurry to go somewhere. This Sophia is serious. She dresses in grey skirts and black sweaters. She has chapped lips and worry lines between her eyes. Whatever happened to the girl?
Pushing the covers from her legs, she takes a deep breath, listening. She steps out of bed, barefoot, and crosses her arms over her nightgown. Then, moving to the top of the short set of stairs, she listens to them talk about her.
“She’s in a mood again,” Sophia says.
“What?” the man says. “You went out to dinner? She didn’t cry this time, did she?”
“I feel like a teenager again,” she says, laughter in her voice for a moment and then sadness. “There’s this weird disconnect. I swear I don’t know how long I can stand it.” She holds her breath. “She’s so out of touch.”
“But she didn’t cry? That was goddamn . . . .” The man mumbles. Glasses clink in the semi-dark kitchen.
“It’s just not something you think about, you know?”
“You don’t imagine yourself ever doing this.” A light ticks on above the stove. “I mean, did you?”
“I always knew it was coming,” he says.
“I never want to be like this. It worries me, you know? Your mother was sweet all the way up to the end. She just drank her scotch every day and stayed happy.”
“How did the thing go?” he says. “The assisted living thing.”
“It was horrible.” There’s a long pause.
She waits, listening. Can they hear her breathing at the top of the stairs?
“She said all she needed was a bed and a kitchen. I kept thinking about last time. Every time the woman tried to be nice, she interrupted. I was like, ‘Ma! Don’t interrupt.’ It felt like I was talking to Alice.”
Ah. Alice, her granddaughter. She’s not a little girl anymore either.
She tiptoes back to the bedroom, listening for sounds, movement. She moves to the dresser drawer and takes out a small cloth bag, which holds a lighter and cigarettes. Sliding the glass door open, she goes out to the balcony. She stops, listening again. Waiting there, she’s like a little kid, hiding from them.
Better to just leave the door open. Who cares about the bugs? Remember camping in the middle of nowhere? No tent, just a couple of sleeping bags on the ground. She didn’t care about bugs then either. Things were simple. The man she was with had borrowed a gun, just in case. “Just in case what?” she’d said. Just in case we come across some big animal that needs to be shot. He was a cautious man, and funny. That’s why she’d married him.
But she hadn’t known at the time she was going to marry him.
They’d packed a bag of food and left for the weekend, drove through Culpeper. It was all last minute and spontaneous. Looking for countryside. She had borrowed her sister’s red convertible. He kept teasing her because he had to squat down to get into the car.
They parked on Skyline Drive, and walked up the trail a little ways and put down some sleeping bags and blankets. No one bothered them. The man kept the gun close by, but he didn’t have to use it. He’d been in the army for two years, so she knew he could use a gun if he had to. She was impressed by this.
He was impressive, that man. But it takes years to fall into a rhythm of really knowing someone. There were quiet months when the world was cold and sickeningly dark.
Now she sits on the third-floor balcony of this house. There’s not much to see but neighborhood lights and the two houses across the sloping backyard. Moths circle around the glowing lamps near the balcony. It might be nice to be a moth, she thinks. They live such short lives. She watches how they flicker so close to the light. She has always liked soft yellow and orange lights. These colors are soothing. Maybe she was a moth in another life.
She holds the cigarette in her hand for a long time before lighting it.
Her grandson gave her the pack. The boy has familiar brown eyes. The same eyes as the man from her past: the abandoned trail, the gun, the sleeping bags, talking about the stars, wind in their faces on the way home, the smell of damp leaves. Clips of her life come to her in sudden flashes like this.
The smoke makes her mouth dry but she is instantly calm. She can watch those moths for hours now.
What was that boy’s name from the dream? It was German, Von–something. She thought she was in love with him. He disappeared from her life and years later she’d see him in crowds of people. She would momentarily slip into the past. She’d see someone who looked like the teenager she’d known, as if he stayed the same forever, some kind of Peter Pan, mysteriously young and unchanged. But the mind is interesting. It will let you believe what you want to see. For a few minutes, she’d believe it was really him. And then she’d know the impossibility of it.
She listens to the air conditioners clicking on in houses across the street. Why do people use false air? She has never understood air conditioners. Now she can hear the crickets, loud and incessant. When her husband was alive, they left the windows wide open at night.
She goes back into the bedroom and leaves the door open. From behind her dresser, she pulls a long wooden box. There are worn, dark grooves along the edge of the box for sliding the lid off and on. Inside the box, there are letters, slips of paper, photos, a collection of jewelry. She leans close and takes a deep breath. There is the familiar smell of candles and worn metal.
She pulls out a silver ring which holds a round turquoise stone with a black line running in a jagged Z. There’s something about the ring that makes her believe it is important, but she doesn’t remember where it came from or who it connects to in her life. She has a feeling it was a secret, this ring. She wore it briefly and then put it away. She holds it now in the palm of her hand, squeezing her fingers around it. It is hard and cool in her hand, something solid from the past. So many things are unclear, difficult, fuzzy, but not this ring. It is something to hold.
She hears her daughter’s voice in her head, “Miserable.”
She is disappointed that she has disappointed them. Sometimes she feels angry about it, a deep pang of bitterness, a solid feeling in her gut, like worry. She can’t let it go.
She remembers the girl, her hair worn up in a bun, the curve of her neck.
Sophia wore yellow sundresses. She liked puppet shows.
Then, she stayed out late and made her parents angry. Her father cried with his head in his hands and said, “Why don’t you just settle down?”
We occupy these different bodies throughout our lives. She remembers saying this to a friend once. We move in and out gradually, before we even know what’s happening. It’s a slow process, this aging. And now she knows: the girl is gone. We become used to seeing ourselves in the mirror every day. It happens slowly, but we’re still unprepared for it. It surprises us, who we are, who we become.
She picks a photograph out from the box. It is her former self running on a beach. She can see her hands in the photo are young. Small boned and slender. She has always been delicate, but she was beautiful then, like a child is beautiful. She’s running on the beach, close to the waves. In another photo, she holds her hand out to stop the camera from coming closer. There’s the mysterious ring on her finger and her smile behind the hand. It’s her old smile.
She goes to the mirror, smiling at her image, both hands on the sides of her face.
In her dreams, she’s underwater. There is a calm feeling about it. No worries about coming to the surface for air. As a young woman, she had a thought once that if she was going to end her life, she would do it in water. She’d tie blocks to her feet and let herself sink. She’d let the water enter her body; she’d be ready to die.
When she was a kid, she swam at a reservoir with her family. The sunlight made bright sparkles on the surface like cups of gold. She remembers opening her eyes underwater, looking for the bottom of the reservoir. She could only see green darkness and the dim light shifting above her. Emptiness, she had thought. Simple emptiness.
The man she was with wore the leather jacket and rode a motorcycle. She held onto his waist and rode with him. Her shorts hiked up on her bare legs. She tightened her legs on the turns where the road sped by below them and she looked down to see the concrete, thinking that maybe she’d fall. And the last time she saw him, he had left a note: “I hope all of your dreams come true, like you deserve.”
Moving to the carpeted floor, she leans against her bed and unfolds the torn, yellowed paper. Faded, sprawling handwriting folds out: “I hope all of your dreams come true…” The rest is illegible, as if the pen is running out of ink.
A night bird makes noise near the balcony.
When she goes back outside, she stands at the railing, remembering a time she stayed with friends at an old motel near the ocean. It was before she was married. There were people jumping from the balcony into the pool. The boy with the German name was there. It was the middle of the night. They were drinking bottled beer and bourbon.
She wore the ring with the jagged Z.
A line of people climbed onto the railing one at a time, while the others stayed down at the pool to cheer for the jumpers.
In her head, she’s in line. Her hair is long and whips around in the breeze. She moves to the highest point of the railing. She pulls her body to a standing position on the railing, feels the muscles in her legs tighten, cold metal on the bottoms of her feet. Her toes curl around the edge. She used to go barefoot all summer and the soles of her feet would be black from soot.
There are people around her, behind her and below her, cheering, “Come on,” they say. Her worry dissipates as she listens to their rhythmic voices. They are moths, fluttering around her head and face. Golden moths. They are excited, watching her. She is young and athletic, like a swimmer. They encourage her, they cheer for her.
She feels the familiar tickle in her gut as she goes down.