by Mary Grimm
Larissa and her friend (for this is what she calls him) go out to dinner once a month, always the same place. They both like it, so there isn’t any reason to change, her friend says, whose name is Roman. He is six years younger than she is, but according to her coworkers at the museum, they look the same age, probably because Larissa dyes her hair, and Roman has a bushy Bible-prophet beard. He picks her up at six (to avoid date-night crowds) and drives her to the Jolly Chef where the hostess can almost always give them the same table. They order and sit waiting for their drinks, Roman tapping his fingers and sweeping his eyes over the other diners. When they have been served, Roman lifts his glass, tipping it toward her, and says “to the fairest one of all,” gesturing around the room. Larissa smiles, and sips her wine. She likes to hear it, even if it’s patently untrue, and has, let’s face it, never been true, even when her flesh was young and firm and her hair its original color. They ask each other what’s new. Larissa tells stories of the museum, the odd things that people bring in, the set of dolls dressed in leather, the painting described by its owner as a spirit painting done by his grandmother in a trance and purporting to be a map of heaven, the ancient wooden sleigh so large it wouldn’t fit in the museum’s garage. Roman talks about his buddies and their doings – fishing in the summer, bowling in the winter. He brings out pictures of his grandchildren to show Larissa. She has come to know them quite well in their absence, and is able to comment knowledgeably on the improvements in their grades, or to compare this year’s prom dress with last year’s. They don’t always order the same thing, but Larissa often has the braised chicken and fennel, and Roman the pasta alfredo with extra sauce. Afterward, Roman drives her home. Every third or fourth time, he comes in and they have a post-dinner drink (bourbon on the rocks) and sex. Roman doesn’t stay the night any more. He says that he needs his own bed to get a decent night’s sleep. Larissa used to pretend to be disappointed, but now she doesn’t bother.
There’s nothing visible in her house that has anything to do with her son. Whatever is left of him is hidden away, in closets, the attic, the basement. Relics: like the ones they used to display in churches, but these can’t heal. If he were alive he’d be thirty-three, a shadow existence, his revenant growing invisibly older, thinner each year, his tenuous shade coming apart, the strands of him pulling away. Roman doesn’t know that she had a son, nor do the people she works with at the museum. Her coworkers at the office she retired from did, and this is only one of the reasons she was glad to see the last of them.
Larissa is fifty-seven, retired from her job. She worked in an office, in charge of a number of people. There was a lot of email, and birthdays were constantly being celebrated. It’s not important now. She volunteers at a museum several days a week because she likes to keep busy. But she keeps time for her passions, which are: cooking, reading, playing the electronic piano.
Larissa is not sure that she’s a very sensual person. She likes sex, pretty much, but she always feels as if she doesn’t know what she’s doing. It doesn’t come naturally to her.
Larissa had a dream last night, about her father, who in the dream was laying out his ancient tools on the redwood picnic table that used to sit on her parents’ patio thirty years ago. Larissa watches him puttering around, thinking (in the dream) that she should get up and start dinner. Which is strange. Is she her mother? She looks at her hands, stretching out her fingers: they are her own hands, but still she has the restless urge that she should be doing something. When she looks back to her father, thinking that she should ask him what he’d like her to do, she finds that it’s not her father bending over the picnic table, but her son, looking just as he did in the year or two before he died.
Larissa’s mother was very beautiful. Some used to think that Larissa might resent her mother, since she herself was only attractive in an entirely ordinary way, but this isn’t true. Larissa loved her mother. But she dislikes her mother’s sister, who did resent Larissa’s mother for her beauty. Her aunt is still alive at eighty-one, and seems to think this a well-earned triumph over Helen, Larissa’s mother, who died some years ago.
When Larissa drives to work at the museum, she goes through her mother’s old neighborhood, where her family lived when they first came to the city. The houses in the neighborhood are old, the same houses that were there when Helen lived there. Larissa drives down the street where her mother lived. She came here once with her mother, a nostalgic trip. Helen could remember the street, but she wasn’t sure if it was the second house from the corner or the third. Larissa remembers feeling impatient at the time: how could she not remember? The two houses are both white, both with pillared porches and tiny squares of grass in front. One has a chimney that is half falling down, the other a squat tower embedded in its northwest corner. These items seem noticeable and unique to Larissa, but she’s over the whole blaming thing now.
At the museum, Larissa does this and that, a jane of all trades. It’s a community history museum with an eccentric collection, mainly things that people have donated when their parents died and they were clearing out the house. Originally they took her on to do the books, because of her office experience, but she now does whatever comes up. She’s learned how to restore old books, mend vintage clothes, refurbish and retune ancient musical instruments. She’s handy with a screwdriver. She goes there three times a week, but sometimes more often if she’s involved in a project. She is vaguely friendly with the other volunteers and with the woman who has the one paid position, the director. She has a particular affinity for one of the volunteers, Roseanne. She reminds her of Eileen, someone she went to school with, so much so that she sometimes imagines that Roseanne is Eileen.
Larissa is a great reader. She likes to read history – lives of the presidents, for instance, or of significant women like Marie Curie. She likes to read cookbooks, although she hardly ever makes a recipe out of them. All the things she makes are things she made when she was married to her long-divorced husband, or things that her mother used to make. She also likes to read romances but only of a particular sort – Regency romances. She is very critical if the authors don’t get the language or the clothes right. If she wrote a book (but she would never do this), she would write something historical, or maybe she would write a self-help book, which would be practical. Definitely not a memoir, since her life is not interesting. She does think she has some good advice to give people, if people ever listened. Especially women. She thinks she knows a thing or two about being a woman.
Larissa’s son is dead. He’s been dead for quite a while. People have assumed a lot of things about Larissa’s son’s death, some thinking that he died in one of the wars of the late twentieth century – the first Gulf war, for instance. Or they think that he committed suicide, since he was young when he died. Some people are convinced that he died on 9/11, but they are people that don’t know Larissa very well.
Larissa retired early for several reasons. She disliked her job, of course, which goes without saying. She was glad to leave behind a group of people who knew things about her. She gave it out that she was quitting because she needed to take care of an elderly relative, which was a lie. Her aunt, who hated Larissa’s mother, and isn’t all that fond of Larissa, is elderly, but she’s living determinedly on her own in an assisted living apartment. In fact, Larissa won the lottery. She’s kept it quiet though and no one knows it except, presumably, her bank.
Larissa never thinks about her first marriage, not because it was horrible or traumatic, but because it was unremarkable.
The love of Larissa’s life is dead. She didn’t know at the time that Eileen was the love of her life. They knew each other so briefly, so many years ago, but she’s never had that same intensity of feeling again, although she kept looking for it, until she stopped. They thought they’d keep in touch after graduation, but they didn’t. She saw her again at their twenty-year reunion, but although Larissa was still feeling something, she couldn’t communicate it, and she didn’t know if Eileen felt it or anything like it. They exchanged stories of their jobs, marriages, children. Eileen’s life sounded much more interesting than Larissa’s. She never saw her again, and years later, she heard from someone that she had died. The someone who told her is an expriest. He attempted to comfort/counsel her, which she rejected. He may also have wanted to sleep with her.
In her twenties, Larissa lived in a commune, although they didn’t call it that, which she joined because she had always had a fantasy of having an orchard, and the place where they lived had one. She appointed herself the commune’s orchardist and read dozens of books on apples and pruning and grafting. While she was there, she had sex with three people, with different degrees of enthusiasm. One was the founder, whose grandfather owned the farm; he was someone she’d known in college, although they hadn’t slept together then. The second was a woman who reminded her of the love of her life (although she still didn’t know then that the LOHL had come and gone). The third was a boy who stayed at the commune for only a week, and who was the father of Larissa’s son, who is now dead.
When Larissa wakes up in the middle of the night, she calms her mind by counting objects in her childhood bedroom, with the aim of falling asleep before she reaches fifty. Her fingers remember the spindles at the headboard of the bed, carved so that she could fit her fingers into their curves, also the soft crinkly texture of the kleenex dolls she made to play with when she was supposed to be sleeping. The wallpaper was blue, with the heads of Edwardian women with bouffant hair and big hats. There was a vanity table, with a fancy hairbrush, and a mirror over it, which fell down once in the middle of the night. She starts always with the corner of the room by the door, and by the time she has worked her way around to the dresser on the opposite wall, enumerating what was kept on top of it (the music box her father brought her from Germany, the pirate treasure chest where she kept her allowance, the celluloid doll named Caroline that was an antique and couldn’t be played with), she was usually asleep.
Larissa visits her aunt once a month on a Sunday. The place she’s living is called The Willows – it looks like a normal apartment building except that an ambulance is often parked outside. Her aunt’s apartment has only a bedroom, a bathroom, and a visiting area (so named in the brochure). There’s no need to cook, since the residents eat downstairs in the communal dining room, but there is a mini-fridge for snacks. “I see you’re back,” she greets Larissa. “I’ve got a lot to do, you know. I can’t sit around waiting all the day.” Larissa has brought a plant, to replace one of the ones dying on the window sill. Larissa admires her aunt’s brooch, an enameled flower pinned in the folds of her scarf. Her aunt tells her how she got it for a bargain price at an auction many years ago. “I haven’t seen your mother,” she tells Larissa. “Too busy to come and see her own sister, I suppose.” Larissa has stopped reminding her aunt of who has died (which is basically everyone of her generation). Larissa says that her mother might be out of town. Her aunt sniffs, but accepts this, and goes on to tell again the story of how Larissa’s mother used to borrow her stockings and return them with runs in them. “It wasn’t easy to get them during the war,” she reminds Larissa. “She never had a care for her things, your mother.” Larissa won’t go so far as to agree with criticism of her mother, so she hums in what she hopes is an agreeable way. “How’s your neighbor?” she asks. “The woman you play bridge with.” Her aunt sniffs again. “Dead,” she says, shaking her head at this willful failure. “Her daughter came to clear out her things last week.” Some visits, her aunt is willing to tell stories about the past that are free of bitterness and spite. Sometimes, Larissa hears new things about Helen that she didn’t know. That she had a yellow convertible. That she and Larissa’s father courted for years before she said yes. That she’d had her tonsils out and almost died when she was thirteen. Not this visit though. She leaves her aunt before dinner is announced over the loudspeaker, because she can’t bear sitting at the table with her aunt and her tablemates: the woman who always smiles, the woman who talks incessantly about her Uncle Frank, the woman who brings a doll with her and surreptitiously feeds it bits from her plate. When she is in the car, she breathes deeply, feeling guilty and relieved. Would she hate these visits so if it was her mother she was seeing instead? The template of her aunt’s rooms seems to press down on her: she can’t help seeing herself in the bed, in the wheelchair maneuvering into the accessible bathroom, sitting in front of the TV watching endless colorized Turner classic movies. On her way home, as she often does, she goes to the mall and buys something, this time a pair of shoes and an umbrella, which she thinks are probably symbolic of something.
Roseanne, the woman at the museum who reminds her of the love of her life, is not quite one year younger than Larissa, about nine months to be exact. “You were being born that month, and I was being conceived,” she tells Larissa. Sometimes Larissa counts the ways that Roseanne is like Eileen, and sometimes she looks for the differences. They are both slight and blonde, both wear glasses, and are fond of jangly bracelets. Roseanne still works. She’s a teacher, but on half-time now. Her specialty at the museum is restoring old paintings, which she calls freshening up. “It would be a crime if this was a Rembrandt,” she says, “but since it’s not, I can have away at it.” These paintings are mostly lugubrious landscapes featuring waterfalls, sunsets, barns and farm animals, or portraits of dour men and women of the last century. Roseanne takes what liberties she can get away with, putting highlights on the waterfalls, brightening up the ancient clothes, or drawing a suggestion of a smile on the gloomiest faces. This is a secret she has with Larissa. Roseanne has a way of laughing that falls so lightly on Larissa’s ear, a laugh of three notes, descending the scale like birdsong.
Larissa’s son was always happy, or this is how she remembers him. Not that he wasn’t a normal boy. Not that they didn’t fight sometimes, over his clothes, or how late he would stay out. He had three good friends, two boys and a girl, from grade school all through high school. Larissa was proud of him, being friends with a girl, but also puzzled, since that wasn’t the way it was when she was young. His father (or rather, the man who Larissa married) got along with him well, for as long as he was around. If Larissa were to tell the story of her marriage to someone (to Roseanne, for instance), she might laugh, and say that they hardly knew each other. I’m not sure why we got married, she might say. It was a whim, I guess. At the time though, she’d thought of it as a solid plan, her plan to become normal, which meant finding a man and getting married. She would have been more comfortable (a little more) if she’d just been a lesbian, she tells herself. But the wavering between genders was a little too much, not in the slightest normal. Now it wouldn’t make so much difference. But anyway, she married him, and they didn’t hate each other for the time they were together. She felt afterward as if she’d done everything she could. She’d been as normal as it was possible for her to be.
Her time on the commune happened after she dropped out of college. She’d been planning to be a nurse, without somehow realizing that she’d have to watch people bleed. She changed majors and changed again, and then in her second year, dropped out halfway through the semester. Her mother had been confused but supportive. She’d lived at home for a few months, the two of them making each other crazy. When one of her friends, who had also dropped out (for reasons that had more to do with drugs and failing grades) wrote her and said that a few people he knew were going to live on his grandfather’s farm, she had been initially unenthusiastic. He called her long distance and extolled the beauties of the farm, talking about how there were a couple of goats and how they might make cheese, and someone planned to take up quilting, on and on, while she half listened, paging through a magazine while her mother made faces at her, wanting to know who it was. It wasn’t until he mentioned the orchard that she started listening properly. Helen, her mother, was then around forty-eight, still in the height of her beauty, her silvering blonde hair falling forward over her shoulders, her green eyes bright, her long legs crossed, her hand curving around a cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke toward the light from the window.
Larissa’s son died when he was nineteen. It was the kind of death that can’t be blamed on anyone, no matter how you try. He had gone out with his friends (the same friends he’d had all those years) to meet some other friends. They’d been walking across the street in a straggling group, on their way from one bar to another. They’d been drinking but no one was drunk. He had dropped behind to look for his longtime friend, the girl, who was lingering in the door of the bar, trying to get rid of a man who wanted her number, or wanted to come with her. He wanted something, and Larissa’s son was probably thinking of going back to help her get rid of him – this is what the girl told her several hours later at the hospital, crying so hard that her words came out garbled. The driver of the car wasn’t drunk either; she was old, and she was having a stroke. Larissa imagines her face drooping, her mouth crooked, one hand slipping from the wheel as she careened toward the spot on the street where Larissa’s son was standing, ready to be chivalrous if necessary. She hit him square on, so that his body flew some yards into the brick wall of the building housing the bar, several apartments, and a dry cleaners. He was dead on impact, the doctor assured Larissa, as if this was a comfort, and maybe it was.
At the museum, Larissa enjoys most the repairs that must be made on donated clothes. She never learned to sew when she was young, since her mother wanted her to have a career, but she has gotten good at it. She is currently working on a set of early nineteenth-century baby clothes, their whiteness yellowed in spite of having been treated gently with bleach. They are fancier than baby clothes today, with lace and hand embroidery, but less colorful. When Roseanne comes to see what she’s doing, she holds the dress she’s mending to show her. Roseanne laughs and says that she needs a drink.
When Larissa was in high school, she was one of the smart girls, although she doesn’t think she’s especially smart. But she was a hard worker, also a good test taker. Eileen wasn’t one of the smart girl group. She transferred in their junior year, and didn’t seem interested in attaching herself to any of the groups. She spent time with one person, then another, dropping in on the groups at random. No one seemed to mind. Eileen wasn’t beautiful. Her hair looked as if it had been cut by her mother, using a bowl, her eyes were a little small, her body lean and boyish. But people seemed to like to be with her. Larissa did. She was willing to do things like sit on the floor in front of her locker with Eileen, their legs stretched out so that passing girls had to step over them. She agreed to go to the dentist with Eileen because Eileen said that her dentist was probably a child molester (Eileen insisted on paying her $5. Danger pay, she said.) She and Eileen went to the prom together with Eileen’s two much younger brothers (they were 13 and 14) as a protest against the ridiculousness of expensive prom festivities when there were people dying everywhere in the world. They bought their dresses at the Goodwill, and the brothers wore tuxedo T-shirts. None of these things would Larissa have done before, or with anyone who wasn’t Eileen. Still, she hadn’t considered that she was in love. She didn’t realize this until much later, when she hadn’t seen Eileen for years and never would again.
Larissa gradually had started spending more and more time at the museum, more than her assigned volunteer hours. No one minded. The director often stopped to hug Larissa when she saw her, saying that she was the volunteer queen. Larissa liked old things, although she hadn’t known this about herself until now. She liked fixing things. She liked the slightly musty smell. She liked knowing things about people’s lives, the people to whom the museum’s exhibits had belonged.
The boy who fathered Larissa’s son was younger than her, eighteen to her twenty-two. He had limp, soft hair that fell below his shoulders. He asked her to cut it one night, and somehow, her hands on his forehead and ears, the touch of the scissors on his cheek, the brushing away of tufts of hair turned into foreplay. It was a very bad haircut. They laughed about it in bed afterward. He left two weeks later. She doesn’t remember his last name.
Roman finds her work at the museum laughable. He can’t imagine why she wastes her time there. He doesn’t know about the lottery win, and often urges her to get a paying job, at least part-time. He is under the impression that she was pressured into early retirement. Larissa furthers this misapprehension by indulging in pennypinching ways when they’re together. She lets him pay when he insists, and lets herself be seen putting a handful of sugar packets into her purse.
Roman will sometimes talk about what they might do when he is free of his obligations. He likes to speculate grandly about buying a house together in Mexico that they can timeshare out with trusted friends and relatives. He is convinced that no one should die before they’ve done various things like take a balloon ride or go crosscountry on a train. He is currently trying to persuade Larissa that she’d like to take up dog breeding, specifically for guide dogs. He is sure there’s money in it, as well as being a service to mankind.
Larissa hasn’t spent much of the money she won in the lottery. She had a new bathroom put into her house, but it wasn’t an extravagant bathroom. She spends more money than she used to on books, and she refurbished her garden with a raft of new perennials and flowering shrubs. She didn’t replace her car, a five-year-old Toyota, although she bought a new computer and, on impulse, a rather expensive juicer. She didn’t buy a new wardrobe. She went on a few trips after she retired from her job: she went to Canada, to Prince Edward Island to visit the site of the Green Gables novels; on a cruise to Alaska; and to South Carolina to get away from January snow. She thinks of going on a grander trip, to Italy, for instance, but she hasn’t so far nerved herself up for it. She gives more money out to people who beg for it on the street or from the grass verge by the freeway entrance – ten dollars instead of two.
One of the things she remembers about her mother and her aunt is about their gift giving. Her mother never used and often didn’t keep the things her sister gave her. She complained that they were extravagant, or too flamboyant. “Like something a showgirl would wear,” she’d said about a particular silver turban. She gave them away, often pressing them on Larissa, or let them lie in the back of the closet. Larissa found dozens of them, still in their boxes after her mother died. She sat crosslegged on the floor, remembering all the insincere thank-yous, how her mother had smiled gaily, saying “just what I wanted” or “how did you know I needed one of these.” The presents that Larissa’s mother gave her sister were relentlessly practical: an umbrella, padded hangers, a handheld vacuum cleaner. One year she had given her sister underwear. They had argued, not about the gift itself, but over the relative merits of hipster underpants (her aunt) over high-cut briefs (her mother).
Larissa was forty-three when her son died. She was fifty when her mother died. In the years between these two events, she sometimes wished that her mother had died instead of her son. After her mother died, she had no one to substitute.
Larissa met Roman at the home of an acquaintance, in fact, the ex-priest who told her about Eileen’s death. He had been out of the priesthood for years, but he still had the gestures and habits. He had a tendency to hold up his hand, palm out, as if he was conferring a blessing, and he often said “Amen” in nonreligious contexts. The evening had been a get-together for people who had once taught at St. Pius II School. Larissa had taught there only for a year, and only as a sub for someone on maternity leave, but the ex-priest was relentless in tracking down former colleagues. It was potluck, and Larissa had brought a bowl of cherry tomatoes and cookies from a bakery, still in the package. It was then two years after her son had died. She kept expecting to “get over it,” “get closure,” “find some peace” — but this was not happening. She had dreams about her son quite often. Sometimes it was as if nothing had ever happened – pleasant dreams about conversations at breakfast or watching him play soccer, as he had in high school. Sometime they began this way, and then descended into horror, blood beginning to drip into his scrambled eggs as they talked, or a yawning pit opening in the middle of the soccer field which gaped and widened until all the players were sucked in. Sometimes they began bad and stayed that way. The night of the party she had dressed without thinking what she was putting on, not caring much if she went or stayed home. If she hadn’t been able to find her car keys immediately, she likely would have set the wrapped bowl of tomatoes and the bag of cookies on the table by the door and gone straight to bed. But the car keys were there, and she walked out to the car, her mind a blank. At the expriest’s house, she sat on a couch, nodding at people but not talking to the group around her. Roman was sitting across from her on a folding chair. At the end of the evening, he claimed that he needed a ride, and the expriest had volunteered Larissa, since they lived only ten minutes apart. She didn’t think she said a word on the way home. Roman had gotten her number from the expriest. On their first date, he told her that he’d never met a more restful woman.
Eileen and Larissa were only friends in the time that they knew each other, but sometimes Larissa finds herself imagining that they continued to know each other, and that they have had a more intimate relationship that has lasted all that time since then. She finds herself thinking about this when she’s sewing up the hem on some frayed nineteenth-century baby clothes, or regilding a picture frame.
Larissa’s neighbors don’t know her well. She says hello to them, and pretends not to mind when the neighborhood children’s balls land in her yard. She buys girl scout cookies and magazine subscriptions from them when their schools are fundraising. Her neighbor to the west shovels her driveway when the snow is bad, and her neighbor to the east gives her surplus tomatoes when his garden is overflowing. She sometimes thinks, and takes pleasure in the fact that they don’t know her at all, they know nothing about her thoughts or circumstances.
Roman and Roseanne met once when Roman came to the reception for the museum’s exhibit (which Larissa had co-curated), “Our Ancestors, Ourselves.” They didn’t get along, by which Larissa was secretly pleased.
Roseanne and Larissa sometimes go out for drinks on Thursday after their hours at the museum. They like a little bar that is in the gentrified area of the city. Surrounded by cupcake bakeries and little shops that sell arts and crafts or vintage clothing, the bar itself is not gentrified. It has a decades-old smell of beer and smoke imbued into its furnishings, and the clientele (besides Roseanne and Larissa) tends to be solitary old men who hunch over their drinks protectively. The bar menu is not extensive, but they do a good martini, and that is what Roseanne and Larissa order: martinis with gin, up, two olives, heavy on the vermouth. They sit and talk about work and about their past lives, leaving much out. Larissa tells her the story of her time on the commune, making it as funny as she can. Roseanne tells Larissa how she got expelled from college, and how she worked for three years as a bail bondsman, which she describes as “kind of a kick.” It’s dim in the bar, and they lean closer to each other to hear over the relentless oldies playing on the sound system. Larissa has never invited Roseanne to come home with her after drinks, although she has thought about it. The trouble is that she isn’t sure how to go on from there. She sometimes gets a feeling that Roseanne would like her to do this, but she has never learned how to be the aggressor. Would she have to say something? Would she take Roseanne’s hand? She feels a little angry with Roseanne because she doesn’t take the initiative. And then, sex: no matter how much she likes Roseanne, does she actually want to go there?
In her imaginary life with Eileen, they went to the commune together, where perhaps they took it over, making it run more efficiently, making a rota for the chores, for instance. They lay in the grass in the orchard and looked at the stars through the branches. Because Eileen was there, Larissa would not have slept with the father of her son, which is a problem, since she doesn’t want to erase his existence, even in this imaginary world. Somehow he becomes their son, hers and Roseanne’s, in some unexplained conception. When they leave the commune, Larissa gets a teaching job at a prestigious private school, and Eileen finds a highpaying corporate job that requires her to travel a lot (even in her imaginary life, Larissa finds that she wants a little distance). When Larissa wins the lottery, she and Eileen buy a house in Costa Rica (which is reputed to be very cheap to live in). They move there with their son, although he leaves after a few years to go to college at Harvard. Bringing this fantasy up to the present, they are both retired, and Larissa is working on a book about something or other. Not a memoir. Eileen has taken up horseback riding and has her own shop selling Costa Rican crafts.
The ex-priest runs into Larissa every once in a while – in the grocery store or in the park on the all-purpose path. He always asks after Roman, looking smug, as if he is entirely responsible for their getting together. He sometimes hints slyly about a possible marriage. “Even in our golden days, we can find happiness,” he says, sometimes going so far as to nudge her conspiratorily. He always invites the two of them to his next little fiesta, as he calls his parties, and she always says that she’ll try to make it, although she never does. Whether Roman goes or not, she doesn’t know.
When Larissa thinks of her son, she tries now to distance herself, as if he lived a long time ago, as if he were born fifty years ago, a hundred, as if he had been friends with the boy in one of the photographs in the exhibit, “Farming in the Early Years,” his hand on a plow about to be pulled away by a team of shaggy horses. Her son was of middle height (his father was rather short). His hair fell forward over his eyes: he didn’t like to get it cut. When he smiled, Larissa had always had to smile back, even if she was angry. She wants to think that she remembers all of his smiles, but there are so many that she has forgotten.
One day, Roseanne comes in with a gift bag and hands it to Larissa, who takes it with a puzzled frown. “Open it,” Roseanne says, and she does, finding inside a clutter of sample-sized makeup. Roseanne’s cousin sells Avon, and they were having a clear out. Larissa takes out a lipstick: Enduring Sable, in a shimmer finish. “These are all good for a brunette,” Roseanne says, gesturing toward Larissa’s hair. “I can’t wear them.” Roseanne is a blonde, her color shades lighter than her original hair was, she has told Larissa. “I thought of you,” Roseanne said. She pulls out an eye shadow called Midnight Sparkler. “You can wear this when we go out for drinks. We’ll be fighting them off.”
Larissa forgets to bring something with her when she visits her aunt, and she blames this for the unpleasantness that follows. Her aunt refuses to be wheeled outside into the cramped garden although the weather is warm. The aide whispers to Larissa in the hall that she’s been difficult. She refused three times to get her hair washed, even though it’s lank and straggling. Her aunt tells a long story about the director of the assisted living apartments, claiming that she is preventing everyone from going to Mass. Her aunt claims that the visiting priest has been barred from the facility for some dark reason that she refuses to divulge. She tells Larissa again that her mother hasn’t been to visit her in a long time, and that she’s not surprised. Larissa is thinking that maybe it’s time that she move to the other side of the facility, where residents with dementia or more severe health problems stay. She pours some coffee for the two of them from the pot in the communal kitchen space and pretends to drink hers. Her aunt leans closer to her. “Helen was always that way,” she says. “Always thinking of herself, your mother.” Larissa prepares herself to hear again about the stockings borrowed without permission or how her mother never helped with the chores. “She didn’t care about what anybody said,” her aunt says. “Your father was a saint. She led him a dance, you know. Before,” she lowers her voice, “and after.” Larissa draws back. She wants to ask what her aunt means, except that she knows what she means. Her aunt looks at her with satisfaction. “She was brought up better than that. We all were.” She looks at the drooping plants on the window sill that Larissa has forgotten about watering. “I never wanted a man, you know. Too much trouble,” her aunt says. She smiles, so slyly that Larissa wants to hit her, if it was possible to hit old women whose bones are as brittle as plaster.
Larissa likes to go to the bank instead of using the ATM, which makes her nervous. She’s never sure that her card will come back out. At the bank, everyone knows her, and they are endlessly friendly. She sits at one of the customer service desks, and lets the executive vice president handle her withdrawal. She can tell that he wants to ask her what the money is for, but he doesn’t. Outside, the sun is shining. She prefers to carry cash with her. Cash is more comforting than a credit card, although she has those, too. At the mall, she walks up and down, in and out of the stores. Roseanne’s birthday is a week away, which she knows because she looked up Roseanne’s volunteer employee file on the computer in the office, but she doesn’t know what to get her. A scarf? a bracelet? a clutch purse? These are the things that women buy for each other, but none of them seem right. She starts buying things nevertheless, the accumulation of them spurring her on. Something has to be right, hasn’t it? A pair of red shoes. A book on ferns. A paperweight shaped like an octopus, translucent and shimmery. A box of chocolate truffles in spring colors. A lotion containing dead sea salts. The strings of the bags cut into her fingers.
The calendar in Larissa’s office at the museum is a weight on her, the spent and unspent days. It’s an annual calendar, but somehow she feels the press of the years behind this one, pushing on the leaves that say January, February, March. Before Larissa retired, she was less aware of time. Now, she realizes, the months are square and stolid, the weeks a rush of light and dark, the days slotted into them like coffins. All the dead hours.
Larissa’s mother had wanted her to be a teacher, one of the things they argued about. Her aunt had taken Larissa’s side. “Let her have a bit of fun,” she said. “Teachers are poky old things.”
Roman has wanted to take her to the races for a long time, but she had resisted until now, since it seemed silly to her to watch a number of horses run around in a circle. It might be different, she told Roman, if she owned one of the horses, or if she knew the jockeys. There was no reason she couldn’t own a horse, if she took it into her head to do such a silly thing. She could buy a horse, or two horses, and a stable, and maybe her own racetrack. A small one. She sits in the seats high enough up so that the racing park spreads out below her. Her thigh is pressed against Roman’s leg. He had his arm around her for a while, but in the excitement of the race, he has released her, has stood up to yell encouragement at Blue Shadow, on whom he bet fifty dollars. It is a pretty name, Larissa admits. The horses are moving specks from here, their spidery legs scrambling. The crowd wavers and jitters in excitement, their round heads bobbing. Larissa is thinking of other things: her mother, her aunt, her son. The sharp-cut fall of Eileen’s trendy haircut against the navy blue of their school uniform. The expriest who informed her of Eileen’s death had said that he was sure she’d died in Christ. Larissa knows however that Eileen was an atheist, or at least an agnostic, something they had settled between them on the retreat in junior year, when they had discussed the strong possibility that God did not exist. They had snuck out after curfew to talk on the cold sand of the beach, the dark waves splashing at their feet. No one knew where they were, that was the best thing. No one could tell them anything.
Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection) – both by Random House. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.