TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
I’m at my table by the window, watching, without wanting to, other tenants rush off to work, bundled up against the frigid morning—running to catch the T, or starting their cars, warming them up in the parking lot before they take off for offices, stores, banks, schools, hospitals, wherever, just the way I used to, not so long ago. The only work I’m doing now is on my first cup, Maxwell House Master Blend, and a True Blue, lit with the last match from a splint book picked up at Grab & Go. I’m enjoying the first drag, if not the scenery, when, like an alarm, my phone rings. I check the time. Just past eight. I let it ring a few more times. It’s got to be Cassandra, my firstborn. This time of day, she works on her to-do list, at the top of which is my name, my life, her plans to make it better scribbled underneath.
“Mimi, there’s an open house tomorrow at that new seniors’ complex, Squantum River Living.” She’s breathing hard, like she’s just won the Powerball, but me, I could spit fire.
“Squantum River Living,” I echo. Just read about it in the Patriot-Ledger, in a special senior living section. Plus she already sent me a brochure.
“It’s a great new place for seniors, subsidized too.”
I swear, at times like this Cassandra’s voice works on me like a dental drill.
“Let’s go. It’ll be fun.”
“I already know all I want to know about that place.”
Squantum River Living, an environmentally friendly low-rise development with three wings and solar panels on the roof. Three wings. What kind of creature has three wings? One wing is for the so-called active, independent living; the next is for transitional living, meaning one foot in the grave; and the last is an assisted living part, meaning they’re only too happy to help you put the other foot in. After that, I figure, they can dump you into the river that runs through the property. Squantum River. No fuss, no muss. If you’re lucky, you’ll just float away.
“Squantum River Dying, that’s what they ought to call it.”
“You’re so negative.”
Evicting Mimi from her home: a pot boiling on Cassandra’s front burner ever since I lost my federal civil service position over at the VA Hospital in Jamaica Plain. Since I began living on a fixed income, fixed just above the poverty line—enough so you can survive, but not enough to have much fun—Cassandra’s been trying to get me out of here.
“You’re going to be broke in a couple of years.”
“My money situation’s not your problem.”
“It will be when you don’t have any.”
“MYOB,” I say, louder than I intended, but maybe the high volume will get through to her.
Instead, she starts sniffling. I made her cry. I’m so cruel to her, one of my many sins, my shortcomings. Not that my apartment is so great. Just three rooms—not enough space for many visitors and certainly not enough for a family party. But it’s in a sweet garden apartment complex called Centennial Square, near downtown Quincy. I’m on the lower level—below grade, I think they call it—so the view isn’t all that great, but the rent is cheaper. Plenty of windows, though. Those in the living room are level with my chest. Mostly what I see are my neighbors’ feet when they’re rushing off to work and home again. But it’s mine. All mine. I don’t have to share, and I don’t have to take care of anyone else. The slightest little problem I have and Duffy, the super here, will come to fix it. A more reliable guy you couldn’t find anywhere on the South Shore. I come and go as I please. No one criticizes me.
“Next question, baby.” I’m nicer this time, certain Cassandra’s got another item on her list or she’d have hung up by now.
“Did you get the questionnaire?” She’s still breathing hard, as if the future of the planet depends upon my answer. “The questionnaire,” she repeats, louder, like I’m deaf instead of only dumb.
“Oh, Mimi!” she wails in a way that tells me I’ve failed, yet again, to meet her standards of behavior and intelligence. “You’ve got a mind like a sieve.”
“Do not.” I picture one of those utensils, full of little holes, with a scalding liquid—soup, say—pouring through and the big chunks getting stuck. “It’s just a senior moment. I’m entitled.”
“Next thing you know, your senior moments will be stretching into days and you’ll end up like Aunt Lillian. Anyway, you know darn well what I’m talking about, Aunt Patty’s questionnaire. For the family history. The genealogy, a gift to our children. She sent it out last week.”
Right, right. It comes back to me. My sister Patty, egged on by one of her grandsons, a gifted little prince—her words—came up with a plan to write our family history. Patty, of all people, who can’t even write a postcard from Disney World.
“Oh, sure, the questionnaire,” I say, though I haven’t actually seen it. Most likely it’s in the basket of mail on the table by my front door. With the ads for lube jobs and commemorative coins from the Franklin Mint, and solicitations from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
I’ve got a system: At about four each afternoon, I walk out to the foyer of my building and pick up my mail from its locked cubby. Back in my apartment, in my own little foyer, I drop it all into a basket, a pretty basket with apples printed on it. Unless I have an overwhelming urge to open something, which I rarely ever do, it goes into the trash bag on Monday night when I’m on my way out to the Dumpster. Cuts down on clutter and wasted time. The system works, as long as you remember to look for your rebates and Social Security check.
“Look in that pile by your front door.” Cassie, bossy as always. She’s like my ex, thinking that she, and she alone, can make the world run smoothly. “It’s probably in there.”
“OK, sure. If it’s there, I’ll call you back.”
I hang up and finish my coffee and have another smoke before checking the mail. I’m in no hurry, in no mood to obey Cassandra’s commands. I’ve got to take her in small doses, like bitter medicine for a chronic, low-grade pain. Besides, the last thing on my to-do list is Patty’s genealogy. No interest in it whatsoever. I’m not the type to get all hot and bothered about the past. I look ahead, pride myself on it. Whatever might befall you, get over it, move on. That’s how I’ve lived my life and raised my girls. Or, rather, how I’ve tried to raise them despite the constant undermining influence of John Francis Xavier Malloy, aka Jack, said ex.
The basket’s on a table in the hallway with a mirror hanging over it, both the table and mirror left behind by the previous tenants when I moved in here fifteen years ago. I finger through the mail. A flyer for Senior Fun Day at a local wellness center, another for golden-age tai chi classes at the Y. Lubricate your joints! Improve your balance! Find serenity! Oh, and that damned brochure for Squantum River Warehouse for People Past Their Use-By Date. No questionnaire. Typical Patty—a day late, a dollar short.
That’s when I catch sight of myself in the mirror. Is that woman really me? A fading brunette, well padded, and well past her prime. When I flip on the hallway light, it’s worse. Mimi, all alone. Mimi Malloy by herself. Then, behind the old me, I see the shapely brunette I used to be, the one with the tiny waist and the dimpled smile, the one Jack Malloy fell in love with oh so long ago. Maire Sheehan, aka Mimi. Little Mimi, I love you so.
The mirror whispers something I’ve known for ages: I’m no longer the fairest of them all. Not a by long shot. Jowls around my chin line. Love handles, but no love. When I lean in closer, I find that one long hair, a whisker, growing out of my chin on the left side, white and thick as thread. I pluck it every couple of weeks, but it grows back every time. Sometimes I forget til one of my daughters sees it, screams, and goes running for the tweezers.
I flip the light back off.
Back when my daughters were growing up, I was the envy of all the other mothers. Oh, Mimi, how do you do it? they raved after every one of my pregnancies. That shape with all those little girls.
Chasing after children, all day, every day, I used to joke. That’s my diet plan. The truth is I didn’t dare gain an ounce. Gaining weight was not an option. A month after every birth, as soon as I stopped bleeding, Jack wanted me back in my straight skirts and high heels, my white maillot if it was summer. His fantasy was that I could be mistaken for Liz Taylor. I never dared to let myself go, which is exactly what my daughters have accused me of ever since I left him. Oh, Mimi, you’ve really let yourself go.
* * *
All women lose their looks. Sooner or later. It’s inevitable, like sun in morning, moon at night. No female escapes, no matter how much time or money she’s got to spend on herself. Most women, though, lose their looks in bits and pieces, a wrinkle here, an extra pound or two there, then the drooping boobs, the sagging bottom, the thinning hair and thickening waist. But me, I lost them all at once—here today, gone tomorrow—the same way I once lost a good watch and then a pair of rosary beads Jack had given me, no clue about their worth until I realized they were gone for good. I was forty-nine, hadn’t even started the Change, when they cut me open and scooped me out like an old fruit. My female organs, turned into medical waste, carted off in a red plastic bucket to be incinerated who knows where. It was all those babies, six, Jack wanted me to have and then left me to care for—one of whom, Malvina, the nurses held inside me, squeezing my legs together until the doctor showed up twenty minutes later. The trouble with my girl parts started then. So they tell me.
But I didn’t let myself go. Never, ever let myself go. If I let myself go, what would I be left with? Nada. Instead, I was erased. No more wolf whistles when I walked along the beach. No men making way so I could get into line ahead of them at the bank or the post office, or helping me put the groceries into the car. They didn’t see me anymore. I’d disappeared.
* * *
The mirror’s some type of fake filigree, with gold, curly things around the edges, not my taste at all. I reach for it, wonder why I haven’t thought of this before: Take the damned thing down! Who needs reminders? I’ll put up a pretty picture, say of children picking flowers in a meadow. I’ve seen some nice ones at Kmart. Or an arrangement of my grandkids’ school pictures. That’s it! Right here in the front hall. That would shut my daughters up, all their complaints about how I don’t display the grandkids’ pictures properly. That I don’t show enough interest in the grandkids, don’t love them enough.
I get my stepstool from the kitchen so I can grasp the mirror better. It weighs a ton. The wall behind it is pure white, the rest of the walls tinged yellow from my True Blues. “Imagine what they’re doing to your lungs!” Cass would say if she were here, and then probably make a note of it to share with her sisters. I lug the mirror into my bedroom, stopping every couple of steps to catch my breath. I rest it against my bed while I look for a place to store it.
My bedroom has a big closet all along one wall. I use the closest half for my everyday things and the far half for storage, which is plenty for me. I’m not a saver or a keeper, not a pack rat like most of my sisters and my kids, who cannot bear to part with anything. I have a place for everything, and keep everything in its place. No skeletons in my closets, nor any dust bunnies, either, thank you very much. Crazy clean, my daughters say. I prefer to say I travel light.
I slide open the door on the far end of the closet. Click, the sensor light goes on. Love it! Plenty of room for the mirror. I’m sliding it in when a drop of water hits my head. I stand there for a minute, waiting for another, just to prove to myself that I’m not loony. Sure enough, another drop falls. This time, it hits the mirror. Splat! It slides down the glass, reflecting itself. Another hits my head, then another. Raindrops keep falling on my head.… One of my ex’s favorite songs. I look up and see a wet stain in the upper corner. I look down and see the carpet’s sopping wet. Good lord, we’ve sprung a leak! Probably in the bathroom of the upstairs apartment.
I let go of the mirror, go into the kitchen. I keep the number of our super right by the phone. Dick Duffy, a World War II combat vet, a widower and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. I dial him up, get the answering machine. I give him my name and my apartment number, though no doubt he knows them both by heart. “I hope you’ll get here soon,” I say. “I don’t want to be swept out in a flood in the middle of the night.”
Copyright © 2014 by Julia MacDonnell