Gloria


1. BED

Four-poster queen. Bought after Daniel and the dog died. First Daniel, then Harpo. The king, lumped by their tossings and slumbers, became an intolerable expanse. Gloria considered a replacement full, but too much of a comedown. Besides, you never knew. She was only eighty-one when Daniel died. Now that she’s ninety-one a full would do. Although she still keeps an eye out, notices the presence or absence of a wedding ring. Not that absence equals availability. Recently she’d checked out an Old Geezer waiting for the bus in front of her high-rise. No ring. New to the neighborhood. Or maybe just visiting? Probably just visiting. Old Geezers don’t move except to nursing homes. She’d guessed he was about ten years younger than she.

She lies on her side, hugging an oversize pillow under her arm to keep her gimpy shoulder from collapsing inward. “Spooning,” said Gilda, her physical therapist. Medicare gives Gloria seventeen PT visits a year. Seventeen golden Gildas. Gilda would like Gloria to sleep on her back. “Much better for your spine.” Gloria has tried, with only rampant insomnia to show for her efforts. She imagines Japanese sleeping on tatami beds, bricks under their heads. Gilda’s not asking her to go Japanese. “If you must sleep on your side… ” Gilda tries hard not to be judgmental or disapproving, but every now and then Gloria detects a tangy underscent in the sweetness that is Gilda. Bitter lemon beneath the primary infusion of blackberry musk. “If you must,” the stress ever so gentle, “must sleep on your side, put a pillow under your armpit, like spooning.” “Spooning?” “Yes. Cuddling, snuggling, like when a guy curls up behind you in bed, wraps himself around you.” “Oh my, that’s been a while.” “For me too,” Gilda says.

Shoulders. Arm. Pain. Everyone has a different explanation. Sara, the masseuse she saw before starting therapy, thought it was simply a matter of tight muscles. “Well, if you really want to have arthritis… ” she said when Gloria brought up the possibility. The other Sarah, the Sarah with an “h”, the personal trainer her daughter Zoe had hired, said it was all because of Gloria’s bad posture. “Whole left side fucked up,” she claimed. Only she didn’t say “fucked up.”

A part of her likes her infirmities, the attention they garner. If only they didn’t hurt. Physical therapy is the best, even when it hurts. It’s the only carnal contact she gets, apart from her daughters’ hugs. Sabrina is more attentive than her sister, but her hugs are quick and perfunctory. Hi-Mom, bye-Mom hugs. Zoe, always the more dramatic, gives her long, tight squeezes with loud, smacking kisses on both cheeks. My God, where would she be without them? Gloria feels a sudden rush of love, a rush as deep and intense as her first out-of-belly holding of their puckered little bodies.

Daniel’s shoulders were hunched, even as a young man, perhaps as a boy. Same for his brother. Teenagers walking around with the posture of old bookkeepers. His stoop irritated her when they began dating. Gradually it became acceptable, almost unnoticeable, and then endearing. She’d see him walking along, shoulders permanently rounded, neck scrunched up so his head could face directly forward, crown of curly hair parallel to the ground, and think, how sweet. Her heart would skip the proverbial beat. She’d tried to straighten him once, at the beginning. “Doesn’t it hurt to walk that way?” she’d asked. “Not in the least.” He’d been mildly surprised by the question, tolerating her efforts at his self-improvement with gently dismissive humor, as he would tolerate the antics of a puppy nipping at his heels. Learning to let him stoop was one of the great lessons of her life.

Old Geezer’s shoulders were hunched.

Gloria rolls over to the getting-up side, the side nearest the door. Daniel’s side. She commandeered it after he died. Quicker route to the bathroom. Harpo still alive and sharing the bed, but he didn’t object. He always had the middle. Most of their dogs had the middle. Living contraceptives. Daniel’s joke.

Getting out of the high four-poster has become a challenge, one she keeps a secret. Ten years ago she would stretch the length of her body while still supine, delighting in the coming-to-action of rested muscle and sinew. Now she rolls carefully to one side, attentive not to press too hard on the gimpy shoulder. She swings her legs sideways. They dangle almost to the floor. They used to reach the floor. Or did they? Getting out of bed was one sweeping motion, automatic, thoughtless. She pushes her torso to verticality, stretches her left arm out onto the bedside table for balance and stands. A deep breath and she totters off to the bathroom.

2. RUG

She’s careful not to trip on the hall rug, a hand-knotted Tabriz, deep mustard yellows and wine reds threadbare softened. She and Daniel bought it at a yard sale in upstate New York on one of their weekends in the country. Her daughters want it removed, want all rugs removed. “Wall to wall would be so much easier. Cut down on noise too.” Noise? Age takes care of that. Gloria hasn’t acquired a hearing aid, but it’s on her agenda.

At what point did the act of walking require all her concentration? She prefers to think of it as mindfulness, Buddhist mindfulness. Mindful walking. Do all arthritis-riddled aged become Buddhist by necessity? Being in the moment a matter of survival? Distraction a luxury? Inattention fatal? Spirituality by fiat. It’s the closest she’s come to religion despite almost being born in the cathedral of St. John the Divine during Christmas service, the only time the family went to church. Her mother was singing at top voice Glo . . .oh. . .oh. . .oh. . .oh. . .oh! when contractions accelerated. She rushed off to the hospital mid-excelsis, before Deo.

Imposed mindfulness is not all bad. Gloria has rushed through life. Deep breathing left her impatient. Breathe in: LET. Breathe out: GO. L E T G O. A mantra that April, a neurotic, angry Yoga teacher, once taught her. Living example of its inefficacy. Her cheery name didn’t do her much good either.

Even now Gloria reads too fast, just as she used to make love too fast, wanting to get to the end, worried everything wouldn’t turn out right. Maybe no orgasm, maybe the beloved protagonist dies, dies young, dies horribly, a suicide maybe, or fatal accident just as she or he has finally found happiness. Happened to someone whom someone she knows knew. Fell in love with a wonderful woman and was hit by a truck. “Never have I been so happy,” he’d said. ”Never did I think it possible to be so happy.” Well, guess what? It wasn’t possible. Kaboom. Life over in an instant. Would he have had time to think in that instant? Realize such happiness is not possible? His thought? Singular thought. No time for plurals. No plurals when you’re hit by a truck. Kaboom. Over. Nada. LET GO. No choice there.

She hopes Old Geezer won’t be hit by a truck.

Mostly she makes it on time to the bathroom in the morning, but yesterday she didn’t and had quite a dribble to clean up. She doesn’t want Nella, the big Irishwoman who comes to help out, to be aware of her little accidents. Nella would tell the children and then it would be the old folks’ home. The cleanup took some time. All the bending and swabbing and drying. Everything takes time. “Aren’t you bored, Mom?” her daughters ask. “What do you do all day?” “Oh, I keep busy enough with this and that,” Gloria replies. Survival, that’s what she does all day, survive. It takes up a lot of time when you’re ninety-one.

3. SASH

Bladder emptied, she traverses the Tabriz rug again. Safely back in the bedroom, she eases into her bathrobe, gimpy left arm first. Ties the sash. Arthritic fingers still do the job. The sash is patterned with hearts. White, yellow and pink outlines of hearts. Other hearts filled in: blue, pink, red and green. Small hearts, all the same size, an inch at their widest, scattered topsy turvy up, down, sideways against a dull gray background. The background a shade darker than the gray of the bathrobe, a long-ago thrift shop find that was missing its sash. Gloria filched the strip of sprinkled hearts from a wraparound she gave Nella. No one would notice the mismatch. Anyway, who sees her in her bathrobe? Not even Nella. Gloria makes a point of being dressed when Nella arrives at 10:00. Not because of the sash deprived from the wraparound she gave her. No. Because Gloria knows that Nella, hired by her daughters, is there to spy on her.

4. CURTAINS

Gloria draws open the off-white, Home Depot curtains on the window side of the bed, her getting-up side before Daniel died. She has an intimate view of the new couple in the apartment on the fourteenth floor of the annex across the airshaft. She’s on fifteen. They have no curtains. A row of rooms — bathroom, bedroom, living room, kitchen — all with big windows opening onto the airshaft and not a single shade or curtain. Gloria figured it was because they hadn’t gotten around to putting them up, but it’s been a month now. They seem oblivious to being on display. They’re in the bathroom, as usual this time of morning, the same time Gloria draws open her curtains. The woman, hugely pregnant, smoothes oil over her extended belly, the man rubs deodorant onto his raised armpits. Not acts of exhibitionism. Clean-cut Americans they are. Her bouncy ponytail, his crew cut. Energetic movements. Even pregnant, she doesn’t waddle. Gloria has named them Sally and Nick.

When she and Daniel lived on 20th Street, a gay couple directly across the street from their eleventh-floor apartment danced nude in the evening under bright overhead lights. Not cheek to cheek dancing — Gloria knows the double entendre — but great leaps and twirls, balls and dicks jiggling and flapping. That was exhibitionism! No underarm deodorant involved. Gloria thought of asking the men to put up curtains. Sabrina and Zoe were six and four. But she reminded herself that she was an open-minded, progressive mother who wasn’t going to have her children grow up thinking nudity was a bad thing.

Sally and Nick are getting dressed. The day has begun. The building staff is below, hauling garbage. The men yell in Spanish. Gloria is taking Spanish classes once a week at the Jewish Senior Center. She’s not Jewish and the instructor is not Spanish, but the center is only three blocks away. She gets there on her own, despite the protests of Sabrina and Zoe. Learning Spanish is better for lubricating rusty mental cogs than the prescribed crossword puzzles, which have no other use, as far as Gloria can see. With Spanish, she will understand what they’re shouting at the bottom of the airshaft.

5. TV

In the kitchen she turns on the TV. A small, old TV, screen slightly convex. Its mechanism protrudes back over the counter, occupying prime kitchen real estate. It was always the radio in the morning when Daniel was alive. Switched on the moment one or the other entered the kitchen. After he died, Gloria began turning on the TV for breakfast, the one the two of them had watched only when they ate dinner in the kitchen. Not a deliberate decision. Just what she did.

Sally and Nick watch a lot of TV. On a big flat screen about the size of their living room window. Gloria can see the picture as clearly as if it were in her apartment. In close-up, the faces are much bigger than Sally and Nick’s. No sound in either case. Perhaps in summer. This morning in the kitchen he’s talking, gesticulating forcefully. He’s standing. She’s sitting, looking up at him through her wire-frame glasses, ponytail bobbing. She hopes they aren’t having a quarrel. He’s pulling a flat pan of something brown and crusty out of the oven. Seems he’s the one who does the cooking.

Old Geezer shuffles into Sally and Nick’s kitchen. So that’s where he’s visiting! Or perhaps he’s come to stay.

6. COFFEE

She’s had to give up caffeinated coffee, but allows herself a cup of decaf in the morning. So what if she drops dead a few months early. A brain scan showed three mini-strokes. Three black spots, pinpoint size. She wouldn’t have seen them had the doctor not pointed them out. She wasn’t aware of having had strokes. She went for the MRI because she was afraid of losing her mind like her mother. Medicare paid. She didn’t tell Sabrina and Zoe. Normal for your age, the neurologist said. At 91 she doesn’t want to be normal for her age.

Sabrina would have her drinking only herbal tea. Loose tea. She’s against tea bags. The ecology. “Such a waste, Mom.” Whatever. Gloria puts the tea in the little round strainer, courtesy of Sabrina. She screws it tight, but leaves still escape and float on the watery surface. Just greenery. Organic. Serene. Can’t do any harm. She misses her strong afternoon cups of Lipton with heaping scoops of white sugar. Gloria buys what Sabrina tells her isn’t poison, but sometimes she buys things that are poison. When she can’t get out of bed anymore she’ll eat only poison. Cheese Doodles, Fritos, Hostess Twinkies, Oreo cookies, Strawberry Pop Tarts. She’ll die happy.

She’ll bring Sally and Nick a pot of chicken paprikash, Sabrina and Zoe’s favorite dish. They’ve banned cream from their diets, but now and then it’s “Mom, make chicken paprikash.” Ultimate comfort food. A culinary hug. She hopes Old Geezer likes chicken paprikash.

7. CHAIR

Back in the bedroom she notices a chair in Sally and Nick’s bedroom. Maybe not new, but a chair moved within Gloria’s cut-off view of the room. A large, plushy, brown rocking chair at the foot of the bed. A chair to nurse the baby in the middle of the night. So they’re not going to take the baby to bed to nurse. Responsible parents.

Gloria imagines sitting in the chair with the baby in her arms. Or on the new white sofa in their living room. (They’ll soon learn the folly of a white sofa!) When the baby’s born, she’ll ring the doorbell and offer to help. She can’t be trusted to walk with an infant. Yet sitting holding the baby would be helpful. Coos and grunts as she cradles the chubby little girl in her arms. Gassy smile. Sweet smell of baby piss. Even shit smells sweet when you love a baby. Gloria used to lift her babies up high to smell their diapered derrieres. Time for a change? Seems so. She never knew how much she could love before her babies came. She would have died for them without a second’s hesitation. Would she die for them now? Sure, she’s old, going to die soon anyway, but it’s not the same.

Do Sally and Nick know if it’s going to be a boy or a girl? Would Gloria have wanted to know the sex of her unborn babies? She was certain she was having girls despite everyone’s saying they were going to be boys because she carried way out front. Sally is carrying way out front. It’s probably a boy. Gloria would prefer a girl. She’s glad she had girls.

The other day she met Rudy, her downstairs neighbor Lucy’s boy. Lucy had just bought the Poang chair that the girls gave Gloria for her last birthday. A reading chair that turned out horridly uncomfortable. Lucy called Rudy to carry it downstairs, but he didn’t answer the phone so the two of them went to get him. Gloria didn’t need to go along, she just likes to see people’s homes. You can tell a lot about people from their things and how they’re arranged.

Rudy, a big lump of a teenager, was asleep on the sofa in front of a darkened laptop. The entire half hour of her visit the boy never stirred. Playing possum? Can’t blame him. Why should a teenager meet an old woman? If he pretended, he did a good job of it. Gloria watched to catch a flicker of movement. Nada.

“Like a bump on a log,” Gloria’s mother used to say. “Don’t sit there like a bump on a log.” Gloria pays attention to bumps on logs on her daily walks in the park across the street. Gray, brown, pink, orange swells of mushrooms, some small as pinheads, others big as upside-down teacups. Bumps of bark, protective scabs where a tree has suffered injury. Moving protrusions — scurrying insects, slithering worms. Metamorphoses. Emanations from within, attachments from without. Daphne emerging from a tree trunk in the statue by Bernini. Ovid in rewind. A bump on a log is not a bad thing. Gloria will think of the boy downstairs as a bump on a log awaiting metamorphosis.

8. ELEVATOR

The other day Gloria met them in the elevator. Going down. A sudden stop on the next floor and there they were, fully clothed.

Sally’s face was not as Gloria’d expected. She’d imagined a pert round face with a rosebud mouth to match the merry swish of her blond ponytail. She was unprepared for the strong jaw line, broad forehead, big-toothed grin.

“Rachel,” Sally said, extending a hand. “My husband Ezra.” Gloria hadn’t thought Jewish either.

“Gloria,” she said, and offered to help should there be an emergency.

“That’s huge,” Rachel responded. Not something Sally would have said.

Old Geezer was not with them. Gloria was relieved, and surprised to be relieved.

9. BATH

She loves her morning bath. Perfumed, oiled, bubbled, Epsom salted, straight up. Most of her life she took showers. No time for baths. She eases herself cautiously into the tub of hot water, its surface shimmering and slick from the J & J baby oil she’s poured into it. She’s thankful she can still manage this alone. She can’t if she’s fearful. Fear is fatal, hesitation lethal. She’s had special handles installed to grip as she gets in and out, along with rubber daisies glued to the bottom of the tub. It was Zoe who insisted on the daisies. “Mom, otherwise I’m taking out the whole damn tub.” Gloria doesn’t like the daisies, thinks they’re unsanitary, hard for Nella to clean. Nella loves to clean bathrooms. One day Gloria caught her scraping between the tiles with a wooden toothpick. “Not necessary,” she’d admonished.

“Germs, Mrs. Carter, germs. You can’t be too careful!”

Sabrina and Zoe would have a fit if they found out about the baby oil. As it is they don’t approve of Gloria taking baths. “Mom, it’s way too dangerous. What if you fall? It could be a whole day before someone realizes what’s happened.” Fat chance. Sabrina calls promptly at 8:30 every morning, on her cell phone on the way to work. Zoe does the evening shift, usually at seven, just at the beginning of Gloria’s HBO program. Then there’s Nella who comes every other day from ten to noon. Gloria figures that on Nella’s alternate days if she fell in the bath promptly after Sabrina’s call she could go for ten and a half hours before anyone noticed. No use thinking about it. She’s not going to be found naked and helpless in the tub or on the bathroom floor.

She may well drown in the bathtub, but it won’t be by accident. Her suicide of choice. Got the idea from her friend Nancy. Second try for Nancy. The first, pills and plastic bag, but the pills were too few and the plastic bag too loose. Second try, pills and whisky and a full tub of hot water into which she fatally slid.

Gloria has been stockpiling pills. Ambien, Percodan, Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Trazodone, Tylenol P.M. She hides them in the cups of bras she never wears. Sabrina and Zoe know she never wears bras so they won’t be tempted to dig them out should it be necessary, God forbid, to dress her.

Daniel liked her without a bra. Almost to the day he died, he’d come up behind her and slide his hands under her clothes to cup her breasts. One more thing she misses. She imagines Old Geezer cupping her breasts with his bony hands. It’s not a pretty picture.

Gloria will have sunk beneath the waters — pearls that were her eyes — long before her daughters have to dress her. A bubble bath? Perfumed? Lovely. But not yet, definitely not yet. Last year, when they discovered a “thing” on her left lung, she realized how much she wanted to live. The “thing,” innocuous, collaborated.

What to wear? She will not be naked. Gross, as her daughters used to say.

A flowing white nightgown. Ophelia style. No flowers though. Wet, the nightgown would cling, but it might balloon up. She’ll experiment. Lucky she never got fat. She’s been careful about that, although when she lies in the tub her belly rounds gently up to the surface of the water. A hillock where there used to be a gentle valley. Pubic hair, thick black bush, gone. Lucky she still had a bit left before Daniel died.

She will time it so Nella, not one of her daughters, finds her.

Hoarding pills saves Gloria from Substance Abuse. She’d grown especially fond of Oxycodone during the last flare-up of arthritis. Slow seep of soft surrender. Languid letting go. She’d stay awake as long as possible. Prolong the pleasure. Savor the drift towards sleep. Deep sleep.

“How old are you?” the doctor had asked. Young doctor. Barely out of high school.

“Well then, take as many as you want.” He didn’t say, “as many as you need.” “As many as you want.” Maybe there’s truth in right-wing talk of death panels. Kill off the old biddies.

Substance abuse. Substance. Substantial. She has a substantial income. She’s a woman of substance. She does not abuse substance. “Take as many as you want.” Who does he think she is?

10. PHILODENDRON

The leaves on the hanging philodendron in Sally and Nick’s bedroom droop wrinkled and brown from neglect. How is it possible to kill a philodendron? Their only plant. The stuffed rocking chair at the end of the bed has been moved, if not discarded.

Was the baby stillborn? Not even a squinting glimpse of the delivery room? Or had she lived a moment under the bright lights. Her life a moment of fluorescent consciousness.

Daniel died an old man in his sleep. An afternoon nap, Gloria in the next room. “A good death,” people said. Gloria wishes she had been curved beside him, spooning.

Old Geezer is gone. Just as well, she thinks.

Turning away from the window, Gloria walks around her bed, through to the hallway where she treads mindfully over the worn Tabriz, noting the felt padding peeking out from under its fringes.

Julia Ballerini is a 72-year-old historian of photography and a retired professor. She is avidly writing fiction, an ambition long deferred.

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