I find myself driving my 1995 vaguely black Jetta toward that elusive and seductive place called home. You know the place, it holds you down and gives you everything except peace. Anyway, I decide that I need some….thing, so I let go of the steering wheel, close my eyes and wait. I run into a glib little curb that is just big enough to really do some damage. To the car, not me. Heaving my body out from within that miniscule hovel of a car is no small feat, let me tell you. I think I have early onset arthritis, or so I have diagnosed myself (but I’m almost positive I have every single symptom listed on WebMD). Despite all of this, I manage to free myself, stand upright, and begin to wander to that someplace where someone may see me and actually stop and help me. Whatever that means.
As I mosey down a low-dose pedestrian street adjacent to a residential grocery store at the end of a strip mall, I wonder why I drove myself to this moment. I certainly don’t need this in my life, but I like to put myself in situations to see if I can find my breaking point. Let’s see….I have reached it with the enormity of my own actions (once), possibly with thoughts (twice), but never in a way that really meant something.
Out of my periphery, a large blue van sidles up next to me and moves with my stilted gait. I look over, unamused. A rotund, spongy looking man with a mustache that matches his donut baldness waves to me and rolls down the passenger side window.
“Do you need a lift miss? I think I saw your car back there a ways.”
Wally used to tell me that I needed to bend in directions that I didn’t curve.
“Sure. You can just bring me wherever you’re going.” Easy.
I hoist my indifference into the van full of the geriatric and the semi-infirm. I feel that I have found my people, the ones who know. However, as I stiffly sit down, I am kicked in the face with the concentrated essence of senior smell. You know it—ripe Aspercreme, decaying skin, dentures, and the soft hum of unwashed hair. I take a deep breath I know I cannot hold and lean toward the sealed window.
“Henry? Is that you?” An old lady wearing a long black coat and blue latex surgical gloves leans over and peers. Let’s face it, she looks age-appropriate confused, and I kind of like it. I stifle an arbitrary smile and turn to catch her eye. That’s right, eye. Oh my.
“Well hello Henry, it’s been ages! How have you been?!” I wonder if she will notice that I am a girl. She speaks with a vague British accent, my favorite. (The British part, not the vagueness). I play along.
“I’ve been fine. What’s your name again?”
“It’s Muriel silly.” Muriel smiles and grabs my hand away from me with that gross glove and I feel something slimy. I want to vomit, but instead, I hold her hand. I feel outside of my body as my hand warms to the shape of hers and I gaze out the window. I don’t understand why I can’t be happy enough when I’m around other people. Why I’m always told that I have a sourpuss and keep to myself too much. Lately the days have all been the same and sometimes I can’t breathe. Every so often I wonder if people can see me, or my body, and I bump into them just to make sure.
Wally used to try to get me to laugh by telling heinously bad jokes and then looking at me. I never got the jokes enough to smile. Toward the end, he stopped telling them and the morning ritual of his homemade waffles with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice sweetened with un-natural sugar fell away too. I don’t know which I miss more.
I’ve just about had enough of the old people stench and the weird noises they are making, when we rattle up to the traditional morbid cheer of an assisted living facility – that pert green awning, such a hallmark of class and irrelevance. “This is it - final stop.” Rotund half-glances in my direction while he grunts in an attempt to maneuver the van through the small turn-around. Muriel senses her chance.
“You have to come inside Henry, it’s been so long since we had a good chat.” And with that, the blue glove pushes me toward the automatic doors. Now complicit and driving myself again toward something I cannot name, I wander into Muriel’s world. She leads me down a hallway and into the room she shares with a sleeping lady, a lump in the bed. I tell Muriel I will meet her for dinner in a bit, that I need a breather after such an afternoon—but I don’t mean it.
Sometimes I can feel my heart beating and then I get a little ashamed. Wally used to tell me that the average person’s heart beat an average of 103,680 times a day, and that it beat like someone squeezing a tennis ball. I told him he was wrong—and he took it personally. My heart never beat that way, or that much.
Suddenly I feel the wind of the flip as the lump in the bed whips the bedcovers down to her veiny feet and sits upright. She turns and plainly stares. She and I share undiluted air and falter not at all. There is something about this woman, something I’ve ever only seen in the mirror.
“Do you like it here?” Her voice is older than she is and sits in a canyon.
“I don’t know…It’s easier here….”
I feel a buzz in my bones just then. It grinds itself all the way up through to my skull, leaving a line of fire. A velocity without warning, I understand in the way that an owl and a bear acknowledge each other and inhabit the same landscape. What they take and what they leave do not compete for the sun.
I will try.
I will try.
Jeanna Stumpf asks language to speak up where she cannot.