The Old Woman

The old woman folds the newspaper, carefully flattening each crease with grizzled fingers. Then she rolls it up like a roll of toilet paper, walks to the kitchen cupboard and places it carefully among the others between stacks of dishes and cups and plates.

She never hums anymore. Silently, tediously slowly, she closes each cupboard door and gingerly hobbles through the empty house, searching for…

She remembers her first love, her only love, young and carefree, Irish-handsome. He made her laugh as she wasted sleep talking and dreaming with him. The only man she ever knew who was smarter than she—in some ways. She recalls their first burning kiss, cuddled in the over-stuffed chair in one of the library reading rooms. He put his arm around her delicate shoulders, gently kneading the tender muscles. His hands slowly, skillfully moved down to her ivory breast. Ecstasy without sex, before sex.

Laughing at the psych professor pontificating at the class of eager yet inexperienced students. Expecting all and each to hang on his words, he would speak softly, lulling us into suspended anticipation. Then breaking the silence with his volcanic, booming voice like some demented preacher shouting of judgment day. After class, they giggled at his pompous affectations but also gobbled up stray crumbs of knowledge that dropped from his chapsticked, furry lips.

SHE wanted to BE the professor, while HE wanted home and family. They both wanted adoration, of different sorts. They didn’t argue, even at cross purposes. They didn’t agree, but each assumed the other would succumb to the love.

HE had acquired his own furry lip, after a drunken fall over a chair at the TKE house, to hide a scar he was sure injured his perfect face. It was not soft as it seemed, but bristly when they kissed. SHE did not like it. Bare-lipped kisses were best, scars and all. He refused her the first time; they almost quarreled.

Long, breathless phone calls after midnight, leisurely strolls beneath the elms, the soft, rolling hills stretching out the campus like an old quilt softened with use. Black squirrels cavorting between trees and treats, nibbling and kibitzing through the gentle fall. Skittering leaves, smells of musty earth disturbed by the ebony creatures digging, endlessly digging, burying their feverish meals to stave off winter’s hunger. So perfect, she thought, yet…

They spoke of marriage and babies, she shy but intrigued; he cock-sure, his future guaranteed by well-to-do parents intent on sonny’s career. She was eager, too, but feared her family legacy of defeat and betrayal. She loved him with the abandon of first love. She longed for him as she finished donuts for middle-class patrons and late-night boozers with too much money, too much time. She missed him on long nights devouring her books, questioning, searching, wondering.

She began to miss him even when he was with her. She did not know why. Yet, as winter gave way to new-born spring, her innate fears of commitment and abandonment played on her delicate heart, even as she continued to laugh at his jokes. Dreaming of their life together, hope and wishes, the future blossoming before them like a delicate, violet rose.

One day, letting herself into his apartment, she was startled by noises, voices. Down the hall, she ran in quick, skittering motions like a squirrel avoiding a cat. He was with another girl, sexing vigorously, unaware of her sudden appearance. Gasping, she saw white anger that threw her to the carpet as he, quickly grabbing jeans to cover his shame, sought an explanation unheard by her smothered heart.

The misbegotten, since forgotten bimbo became an accident, a mistake—not about THEIR love, not about HIS love for her, not about HER. Not about anything but lust and thrusting.

She would not look at his lying face marred by that now-horrid mustache. She could not face the coffin future sprawled before her. She never looked at him again.

Clutching at broken bits of love and betrayal, she wandered away that day. She finished all academic demands on her, even as she pretended she wasn’t really there. Perhaps, she wasn’t. At least, only some of her remained after that white blast.

Phone calls of sorrow never reached her, apologies unaccepted. Unbeknownst to her, her brittle mother refused every call, every letter, from ‘that boy,’ ‘that man.’ She never heard his explanations, his apologies, his sorrow. She assumed he had returned to adoring parents who guessed that his romance had soured. They never asked. He was their own true son; SHE must not have proved worthy.

She, meanwhile, sought a cocoon of silence, reading and writing, teaching and seeking truth in other corners, drifting with the halfhearted motions of life. She did what was required, occasionally finding accomplishment. Joy, however, had ended for her that day. She dated other men, laughed at their jokes, accepted their kisses. It wasn’t the same. She was an empty shell, giving herself to forgettable energies, but keeping her SELF aloof, apart from the love-making, life-making.

She never married.

The childless years stretched beyond her as she performed her academic voodoo better than most. She wooed her students with intellectual seduction, intent only on showing them the thrill of reading and writing. Her students, likely, amused themselves by making fun of her just as THEY had done so many years ago. Thoughtless youth, unabashed by loneliness, themselves immune, for a time.

Betrayal, though, for her, was a lifelong hurt. Like an open, suppurating wound, it ate at her soul even as she celebrated other people’s happiness, other people’s small victories. Joy never entered into it, save the momentary blush for others blessed as she had not been. Mirthless laughter and seeming conformity hid her scars.

The freak car accident that ruined her knees ruined, also, like an afterthought, her teaching career. In too much pain to spout wisdom for bored undergrads waiting for happy hour and mindless sex. Fighting lost causes was too exhausting now, made worse by pain that eluded modern medicine, like some archaic curse laid on her by some addled witch doctor.

Now, she mowed and rolled, wandered and sat. She never dreamed any more of her lost love. She never wondered where or how he was. Really. She just was aware of a niggling loss she could not identify.

Returning daily to place the carefully folded and rolled newspaper in the cupboard, she emptied her mind as she read silly stories of drunks and thieves, liars and cheats. They didn’t connect WITH her, didn’t connect FOR her. Instead, she methodically filled the cupboards with the crisply folded, rolled papers. The doors got harder to close. Often, now, she failed to notice papers tumbling out onto the bleached counter tops as she added more papers to the over-crowded shelves.

She whistled now and then. Murmured. Whispered. Hummed a long-forgotten tune from her youth. She prepared for the future with her papers stored carefully in cupboards filled with unused dishes.

One bright spring day, she rose from her unkempt bed and hobbled to the kitchen. Reaching into a drawer for the propane lighter she used for the grill, fumbling with arthritic hands, she finally sparked it to a yellow-blue flame. She then touched it to today’s folded and rolled newspaper and watched as the paper began to devour itself. Using it as a crumbling torch, she lit fires in all the cupboards as piles and piles of newspapers tumbled from shelves, even as their fellows caught fire and fell away, feeding themselves to the fire which began to melt them all away. Some plates were scorched and cups blackened while the fire raged.

She, alone in her chair, mused about college days, carefree abandon, cheerful hope. Birds sang. But not for her.

©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD


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