Trouble – Part One: The Disappointed Writer
July 18, 2013
“I’m sick and tired of watching half-naked people dancing around pretending they’re exercising,” Alice told me when I visited a few days ago.
Because she can’t easily distinguish one voice from another any more, and because the captions scramble by too quickly for her to read, she often finds herself watching television programs in which dialogue isn’t necessary. Half-naked people pretending to be exercising don’t have much to say to one another.
“I’m sick and tired of Geico insurance commercials,” she continued.
“It is hot enough for a lizard in here,” I said, thinking of a lizard photo I’d just sent a friend.
New Guinea. That was the place for lizards. Not here. A film of sweat had formed head to toe while I was putting away the groceries I’d brought and gathering up Alice’s laundry.
Alice shook her head. “I’d turn on the air conditioner for you but it makes the room so cold.”
“Aren’t you hot?” It had to be 90 degrees in that apartment.
“I’m never hot,” she said. “You know that. If anything, I’m too cold.” Her voice had a cranky tone, low and barky.
“Okay.” I mopped my face and neck with a tissue.
There was more she had to tell me. A faint westerly breeze she referred to as “the wind” had made it impossible to take a walk that beautiful day because her hair would have been mussed.
Next, she led me to her closet and explained that she was no longer going to wear her favorite style of blouse, the tailored shirt with three-quarter length sleeves, because her bare arms look “goofy.” She tossed one blouse after another onto the bed.
She’d searched hard for all of them in Goodwill or stores at the mall. She’d yanked each one from the racks with a look of glee. What a shame to let them go.
“Your arms do not look goofy,” I said. “Maybe you are a little bit vain.” This was not the thing to point out if I was hoping to lighten her up, but, in my defense, my brains had turned puddly from lizard-level heat.
“YES, I AM VAIN!” she snapped. “Anyway, you can wear these.”
“No, I can’t,” I said as gently as I could. The comment about vanity had been a mistake, that was plain, but I did not want her to expect to see me in these blouses. “Pastels are your colors, not mine. And I don’t wear that style.”
She turned to me, furious. “There is absolutely no reason you cannot wear these blouses.”
I quickly invented an excuse to leave because when Alice gets like this there is no me in the conversation. This is an echo of something long ago in our relationship, something I once took personally but now, aware that it isn’t, won’t tolerate.
“I’m going home,” I said. “Brio will need to go out by now. I’ve been away for a long time.”
Later that night on the phone, she was calm, quiet, and sad. “I wish I was back in my own little house in Iowa.”
“What would you be doing back in your own little house in Iowa?” I asked.
“I’d be just sitting there. By myself.”
“Aren’t you sitting by yourself right now?”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t have to get up tomorrow and go eat meals with Nadine.”
At last the real source of the day’s bad mood came to light. I was surprised. She’d had her disappointments with Nadine, but she’d never before mentioned wanting to turn around and go back home because of her.
From the beginning, neither of us had thought the relationship would ever be what she’d had with Irene or Celia, or even Linnea, her last dining room partner, whose daughter had moved her across town before the friendship had a chance to really get underway. But she and Nadine had liked each other at first. They’d bantered easily, even in notes when the din of the dining room became too loud for Alice to hear her:
Nadine: I’d give a dollar for a good night’s sleep.
Alice: You can’t get one that cheap.
Both raised as Protestants, they saw themselves as fish out of water in a Catholic facility with its statues and crucifixes. Neither could figure out, they admitted to one another during lunch one day, the identity of the statue residing on the top of the chapel, arms outstretched, head bowed. Was it Mary? Jesus?
“Maybe it’s Joseph,” Nadine had suggested.
“It’s hard to know,” Alice said. “They all wear the same clothes.”
This innocent observation of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph all wearing the same style of clothing, one still popular in the Middle East today, struck them as outrageously sacrilegious and sent them into fits of girlish laughter.
One night, confused by the jazzy but hymnal sounds coming from Mirabel’s piano in the Fireside Room, Alice wrote a note asking what the woman was playing.
“She’s playing ‘I Believe,’” Nadine wrote back.
“I don’t believe it!” Alice replied, and Nadine laughed.
Since Nadine was a newcomer and appeared to have a sense of humor, Alice gathered together the newsletters with stories she’d contributed and gave them to her to read. Nadine returned them all the next day.
“I enjoyed them,” she said. This encouraged Alice to tell more stories about her poor but happy childhood, her big family of sisters, her amazing mother, the time she fell off a buggy, Nebba the cow, the night she’d joined Martha to collect coal that had fallen from trains, and so forth.
Nadine reported that she’d grown up in Milwaukie, Wisconsin. She’d been widowed at sixty-two. She had four children.
Alice’s new table mate was not a storyteller. Of course that was a disappointment, but the first sign of real disgruntlement appeared a few weeks ago. Laundry Edie, editor of the newsletter, came to their table in the dining room to introduce herself to Nadine. After exchanging a few words of greeting, she asked if Nadine knew she was sitting with a writer. Nadine seemed surprised.
“Why no,” Nadine said, shaking her head. “I haven’t.”
Alice stared at her. What could this possibly mean? Nadine had read them all, and recently. Had she forgotten? Or was her voice a little dismissive, implying they weren’t worth remembering?
“It’s not easy being a writer,” I’d responded, trying to reassure her. “This sort of thing happens to authors all the time. People read and they forget. My closest friends sometimes forget what I’ve written. I forget sometimes what I’ve written. I’ll pull something out of a file folder and read a big chunk of it before I remember that I wrote it. Maybe it was two years ago or ten or even twenty years ago, but I wrote it and forgot all about it.”
“But she’d just read those stories,” Alice said. “Not ten years ago.”
I got her point, but I’d been so happy when Nadine was assigned to sit with her because, after long months without Celia, at last she had someone to talk to, someone from the Midwest and close to her own age, someone she’d liked. I hoped Alice would forgive Nadine’s slip of the mind or tongue or whatever part of the woman had slipped, and I’d thought maybe this incident with the newsletters would blow over. But now I saw that it was only the beginning.
(Part Two coming soon, so don’t go forgetting Part One.)