Ilana quickly threw up her own barricade. She was furious at me for even broaching the subject. This time I frightened her. She faced me, blinking rapidly, a dry-eye tic, a subtle symptom of systemic deterioration, her fluttery eye movements making a disconcerting clicking sound. It was hard to look at her.
“See here, why’d you think I told you that—it’s such a great idea you’d copy me? That’s what you think—I wanted to start a fashion?” Her voice was not a good medium for her sarcasm. Ilana turned her back on me and hobbled into the living room, blinking and clicking, leaning on her cane. I followed uninvited. We stood opposite each other, Ilana adamant this would go no further, refusing now to look directly at me though my eyes bore into her. Weak-kneed, I eventually had to sit down on the edge of her sofa.
“This isn’t something you do on a whim,” she scolded, jabbing her free hand at me. “It’s taken over a year to do what I’ve done.” She told me how hard it was not to take all her medicine; how she had to hide it from the caretaker her son had hired, the caretaker who came to the house three times a week to check on her and monitor her medication; how sometimes she’d give in and gulp down the pills she’d tortured herself to save, then not remember the next day or two. How you had to remain focused and keep the pills current because their potency expired over time—she was no idiot; she always talked to the nurses. How she was violently afraid that when the time came, she wouldn’t kill herself, only turn herself into a vegetable. Unable to continue she turned her back on me again, her shaking hand covering her mouth, staring at the curtained window. “I know you’re sick, very sick,” she eventually said. “I’m sorry. But if you think you can just sashay in here . . . I’m an old woman. It’s wrong for you to come here and try to confuse me.”
‘That’s crap,’ I thought. ‘You’re as sharp as anybody.’ The old lady routine. I was not playing games here.
The battle continued in silence. The fact that Ilana had made no inquiry or remark about the raised red scratches that ran up and down my arms and criss-crossed my hands from my falling into the bramble earlier increased the eeriness, two beings isolated in this silent house without a means of common communication. Ilana shook her head, slowly turning toward me, planting her cane in front of her, leaning on it with both hands. “You’re a nice girl, Amy. Go home and let your husband take care of you.”
My head was throbbing; I was fighting waves of nausea, the air so thick and sour, its molecules drawn into the lungs and exhaled so many times, recycled so many times over the decades, I could hardly draw in any oxygen. “Ilana,” I said, picking my words carefully. “Don’t pretend you don’t understand; we understand each other perfectly, that’s why you confided in me in the first place, right? Right? Of course Ross will take care of me. There, you see, that’s just the point, isn’t it? He’ll do it even if it kills him. You were in that hell yourself; you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve met Ross. You know why I have to do what I have to do.”
I fell silent, remembering the time when, left alone at home for an hour or so, I managed to stumble halfway up the stairs to look in at our bedroom where I hadn’t slept for months, spending my days and nights on the living room pull-out couch. Trembling, leaning against the top three stairs, resting my chin on the second floor landing, gazing into the heart of my former world, the gauzy curtains undulating lazily in the shaded summer air, our things mixed intimately about, it seemed both magical and unrecoverable. I refocused on Ilana.
“Ross’ mother died when he was a boy. That’s a wound that’s never completely healed . . . Now he’s losing me. He’s always losing the people he loves; he can’t keep hold of them. If I thought I could alter the conclusion . . . I thought for a while I was getting better . . . that would be different. Ross will never leave me though he can’t find me, can’t see me, but he deserves better than this exile. He’s always deserved better than he’s gotten; it’s something I don’t understand . . .” I was not expressing myself clearly. I was not making a good argument. “It’ll take months for me to build up a stock like yours. I don’t have the luxury of your privacy. Why prolong it? Can’t you reach down and give me the power to free him now, to make my last gesture a gesture of love for a man this lousy world can never, ever repay?”
No response. But the oxygen began seeping back into my lungs, my head cleared, and it all seemed crystal clear to me.
“I’ve been so lucky, Ilana. What makes the ordinary extraordinary, uh? I’m an ordinary person, how did I come by this extraordinary love with Ross. We’ve had some extraordinary times. There was a length of time, Ilana, with our good works and with our love—it filled up everything; we were at the top of the world. The top of the world. The last thing I’ll see, the last thing I’ll know, when I close my eyes for the last time will be those extraordinary times, that extraordinary man. And I could have missed it. I could have been born in another time or place. I could have looked right rather than left. I could have stayed with Michael; I could have gone home. What makes the ordinary extraordinary? I have to find that out tonight.
“I know you’re terrified, Ilana, terrified. Like me . . . But now, I don’t know . . . I don’t know, I don’t think I am terrified anymore, I think I know what I have to do. And understand, Ilana, I’ll do anything, anything . . .”
Momo, driven into a fit of the heebie-jeebies by the incredible tension in the room, flung himself about in the ensuing silence, meowing, jumping on and off the furniture as if receiving electric shocks at each station. Ilana angrily shooed him away, poking her stick at him, but he refused to leave, flopping down in the doorway instead and proceeding to frantically wash himself.
I held my head in my hands. I slowly looked up at the woman across from me. I could see that she just wanted to be rid of me—I’d done all I could. An all-embracing calmness engulfed me, the nausea lifting. It was all on the line. “Ilana, I’m begging you,” I said softly. “An extraordinary gesture . . .”
Incandescently pissed, blinking furiously, Ilana went away and lumbered painfully back with her box. She took the key out of her dress pocket, then put it back. She stood there staring at the box. After an eternity she lifted up the lid; it was unlocked. She rummaged around her precious collection, taking out bottles and containers, holding them about an inch from her face, squinting at the labels, putting them back until she was satisfied, then came over to me and stabbed a bottle into my hand, one of her ragged talons catching me on the palm below the thumb. “Here,” she hissed. “If you’re serious, take eight or ten of these. Just the combination with your own prescriptions should do it. Take’em and get out.” We looked at each other, mesmerized by the enormity of the transaction.
“Thank you. I’ll never forget this,” I breathed.
“You’ll forget everything soon enough,” Ilana observed sourly. “Get out.”