Anxiety was the only sensation that reigned now, the only legal tender—sinister, pervasive, standing full weight on the spine. I was afraid I was losing my mind; my body had turned traitor some time ago. But I needed to gather together all my remaining meager resources tonight, because this was the night I had to make a decision. The power of an individual decision.
Ross was giving a lecture in Bridgeport. He felt guilty about deserting me for the evening, but had agreed a long time ago to speak as a favor for an old friend and supporter, and stood vacillating whether to stay or go, silhouetted in the open doorway, brilliantly backlit, the sun setting red and gold behind him; a black-garbed priest wrestling between different righteous paths, a cat that won’t go in or out once the door is opened for it. Hell, he’ll just call and cancel.
Having ulterior motives, I pushed him to go—it was over two weeks since I came home from the hospital, “. . . and I told you, Amanda just went to the pharmacy to get me something and she’s gonna come back here and wait till Maria next door can come by and sit with me for the evening once she gets home for work,” I lied rather too breathlessly. “She left just before you came home.” Which was true. What wasn’t true was that Amanda was going to reappear and that the non-complicitous, uninvited Maria was coming over.
“What did she have to get for you?” he asked, suddenly suspicious.
Damn him. Why couldn’t he let anything go? “Hand lotion.”
“You have a ton of that crap.”
“I have to have something else—the smell makes me nauseous now,” I lied.
“I’ll wait till she comes back.”
“Would you just go? Go . . . I’ll be fine. I’m fine. You’re gonna be late.”
“What’s with the bum’s rush—got your lover in the closet?”
Oh, a joke. I see. Vestiges of the old banter poking through from time to time, uttered as a matter of habit, without charm or gentleness, and received without appreciation. Finally I got him to leave. Actually, I think deep down he was glad for the escape. Go try to save somebody else. He wouldn’t be back home till after ten or so. I figured I had just enough time.
* * *
After several shaky stabs with the key, I managed to lock the front door. The tide was rumbling ominously right behind my ears, eating away at my resolve with every crash. I had not released myself on my own recognizance for some time, and standing out there on the porch, I felt vulnerable to the elements and uncertain. The nights were turning sharply colder; the geese were honking their way south. Once more it was the time of ghosts.
Bouncing my hand along the stone fence, using it as a guide and a support, I made my way on gimpy, unpracticed legs (sitting down a few times without warning) through the advancing twilight down the hill to Ilana Dent’s house. I felt quite high with defiance—I was on a mission—but at the same time ridiculously timid, afraid of being seen even, as if the infirm weren’t allowed free passage or association. I stumbled and half leaned, half fell into the beach plum bramble, startling a resting flock of birds, causing them to burst forth with such a terrifying racket that I wheeled around, grabbing the sharp branches for balance, scratching my hands badly, positive my misadventures had been spotted by somebody, but the street block was as eerily quiet and still as before. Some of the windows of the houses were reflecting the last remnants of the sunset’s glow. In others, the lights had already come on, including Ilana’s.
I’d often seen her, Ilana Dent, while passing her house as I walked home from the corner store. She might be sitting at the kitchen window, shaky chin in the palm of her shaky hand; she might be standing in her back yard staring at the ground. I avoided directly catching her eye, fearful of looking directly at the eclipse, looking directly at the Medusa head of lonely old age. Once engaged, you would not easily escape, turned cold stone bored, trapped in neediness for human contact. Ilana had that fiercely expectant look of one who had waited an unbearably long time to tell someone what she had been thinking. She had been thinking a lot. So I would always slip loose from that noose of a look, sometimes waving vaguely toward her while scurrying off in the opposite direction. But I finally stopped and talked to her one day last year when our paths crossed unavoidably, coming across the ancient white-haired woman, precariously down on her knees as in an attitude of prayer, trying to pry a weed out of a crack in her front walk, her cat asleep on a sunny patch of grass nearby. It was through her cat, Momo, a fat, long-haired beast, that I discovered Ilana’s secret.