by Andrea Witzke Slot
THE WORST THING about being old—and I mean the kind of old that reduces a person to the faintest clamour of final, cataclysmic efforts—is the way people talk to you. The way they speak with such measured force, every move and word loud and sharp as the corners of the now-invisible furniture and windows and doors that frame this human life. I see their faces through cataract clouds, but I know what they do. It’s worse than having my own son wipe my bottom or brush my teeth. I am beyond dignity and repose. I don’t give a damn about dignity and repose. But I do mind the way they talk to me.
My son’s wife will be here soon. To dress me. I have not spoken to any of them for weeks—not, anyway, with words that can be understood by anyone but me. My daughter-in-law tells me on the phone, ‘Remember, Mother—.’ She stops, takes a breath, and begins again, marking her words, ‘You—must—not—go—back—to—sleep.’ She pauses. ‘Do you hear me, Mother? Mother?’ Another pause. ‘I—will—be—there—soon.’
I cannot respond. I cannot think of anything I want more than sleep. I try to place the receiver back on its cradle. I miss and know the receiver lies on the floor, far beyond my reach.
I melt into my fatigue and do not mind it. It is luxurious always being on the brink of sleep. Perhaps this is the most sensual stage of life, the time in which we need our lovers most, when sleep and wakefulness merge into the other, the line between the two becoming the thinnest of permeable membranes.
I sleep long and deep, my lover’s smooth skin cupped into mine. Is it my hand she holds? Is it our clothes that lie on the floor? Our bodies sliding in and out of the curves of the other? It is New Year’s Eve. A New Year’s Eve as I used to know it, Sophia kissing me—where are you, dear?—will you hand me my gloves?—my children asleep in their beds, my husband Frank asleep on the couch.
Then, like that, this person, strangely familiar, is beside me, leaning over me, putting the receiver back where it should be. I cannot think what she wants, or why she is here, or where Sophia has gone, but I am grateful that she tugs at my soiled panties, pulls them off of my damp legs and carries them away between pincer-like fingertips. This woman bends me upright, pulls off my gown, slides a bra onto my naked figure but I do not shiver despite the cold air on my skin. She clips something at my back and pulls a too-large blouse over my head, doing up my buttons with an abruptness that is frighteningly efficient, moving my body this way and that, and finishing with a tug of a skirt over my legs. The stale odour of urine puffing in the air around me.
She is not young herself anymore, this woman who touches me, who does not want my answers, who dresses me, who puts my heavy shoes on my heavy feet. Such a tedious exercise, putting on one’s shoes, tying one’s own shoelaces. Going barefoot would surely bring more joy into this world. But that would never be allowed, was never allowed. Not in my culture, not in my family.
The drive is long and dark but the music they play is low and festive.
These two people talk to each other in the front seat while I stare out the window in the back. My son, too, is changing and ageing. I see the heavy wrinkles at the back of his neck, the awkward tilt of his head, the wreath of grey that sits atop his head, and yet he is the same child I held in my arms, that same snailed infant who cried himself to sleep night after night. How often he used to cry, in my arms, in his crib, when just there on the floor, sitting with toys scattered around him. I hear him, that man, my baby son, crying. I have few memories. I swim in an ocean of water with no knowledge of what is up or down or near or far. But the funnel of light cuts through to the shoals. Moments of clarity that burst through me like a school of fish swimming past. Like that of my baby son crying. Sophia has come to help me with this baby who never stops crying. She is there when Frank is not. There or not, Frank is absent. Always absent.
Sophia is smiling, reaching for my hand, as I stare at the back of my son’s grey head. I laugh a little at Sophia and she smiles back at me, squeezing my fingers. Where are your gloves, dear? Did we leave them behind? I believe one might even call that a giggle, Sophia says. I squeeze her hand and she bends toward me, kissing my neck, and I laugh again.
The woman in the front of the car stares at my son with her eyes wide open, her mouth moving, forming some word or another.
I am taken into a house. This house is full of people. It could be any house, any family, any children. I feel no connection to these people and yet I feel they want me here. The youngest come near and kiss me at the urging of adults. The soft fluttering of their kisses is soothing. As good as sleep, the softness. A baby is held up to me and I lift my shaking arms out to it. I want to hold the child, smell her close to my skin.
They all laugh. ‘I don’t think so, Mother,’ a man’s voice says.
The child is taken from me, her warmth lingering on my hands.
I find myself being led to a chair in a corner of light and noise and kaleidoscope colour, where I sit and stare, am allowed to be with them. There is a shimmer of sun and shade around me. The adults talk to me occasionally. But mostly they talk about me. Their whispers are not even whispers.
‘She is no longer eating,’ my son says.
‘So what are they doing about it?’ someone else says.
‘I’ve told them she needs some kind of protein drink, but god knows what goes on in that home when we’re not around.’
‘She can’t even swallow, can she? Look at her. She’s worse than Granddad now.’
‘It won’t be long,’ echoes in the room, from behind, from in front, from the side.
‘Once the ability to eat is gone, the next is the breathing,’ my son says, and then pauses, sighs. ‘A matter of weeks—maybe even days—at best.’
‘We need to think about the funeral, you know. How we’re going to get everyone here.’
Someone from far away says, ‘Well, at least she making it into another year. That’s something.’
I listen and nod. I cannot see them when they stand so close (and block the light), but I do not dislike their touches on my arm. I try to talk, but my voice is strange and full of echoes, and the words do not come out like words. They are more like round balls of musical sound. Any distinction of self that I have made—or found—over my first fifty years has been gradually reversed in my second.
The crowd around me eat and drink and give me sips of something cold, something milky, like one might give a child. Children play and run past. The adults are getting drunk and festive and dance with one another. I sit and watch through nebulous light. I am as much and as little as another piece of furniture in the crowded room. It is hard to see in such a crowded room. Sophia? Where are you, dear? I feel a hand on mine, a light squeeze of my fingers. The gloves, dear. No need to worry, she laughs.
Through a haze of light, as if I have burst above the water for a breath of air, I make out my belongings scattered comfortably about this house. It is all theirs now: my paintings, my photographs, my books, my letters. I am glad to no longer keep track of such things. I am glad to no longer look at my paintings, only to wish that I had taken more time with each piece, worked more precisely. I am glad to no longer look at my books, only to wish I had read them more carefully. My secrets are few but monumental—to me in one way and, to them, in another. Secrets shielded, secrets slipping between my hands and the hands I can no longer touch. Can they see Sophia’s name scrawled all over my life? Was it me who erased you, dear? Not to worry, she says.
I want to lie down. I need to lie down; of this much I am sure. I somehow manage to will my body to do the things I ask of it, but it is obstinate in its response. It replies in half-hearted answers to my requests.
I begin to try to pull myself up from my chair, hoping no one will notice my movement. I do not want to fall in front of them. There would be a fuss and it would ruin their good time.
Someone is beside me, putting her arm in mine, and I am relieved to be loaned the use of her strength. This person helps me up and together we walk slowly into a dark hallway. This woman asks three questions of me, questions to which she neither needs nor seems to expect an answer, ‘What do you want, Mother? What do you need? Do you feel okay?’
How can I answer when the only word I can form is no? And even that word they don’t seem to understand.
‘I want to lie down,’ I think I say. I want to rest for a while. I want to melt back into sleep—real sleep—Sophia’s warm arms around me, her hands resting in mine, her thighs against mine, her stomach curled up against my back, her feet sliding between mine in exhaustion and bliss, where we alone know this. Where we alone exist.
And in this moment, my desire seems to reach some point of obscure harmony in this noisy home. I move forward and forward, my feet shuffling beneath me, and I am thankful for the help of this woman at my side, a woman who is not Sophia but who touches me on the arm as I feel my body moving toward something, away from something.
This woman speaks loudly, calling backward to someone, ‘I don’t know where she’s going.’ She laughs and turns down the volume on her voice, saying softly, ‘Mother, it is almost the new year.’ We enter a darkened room. ‘Another new year,’ she says again as she leads me to the bed. ‘Don’t you want to be with us for the countdown?’
‘No,’ I mouth through the fog. My vision is unclear, yet how delicate it feels. I can hear my breathing amplified, uneven, blocking the noise, the memories, the distant light.
I am in a bedroom, near a bed. And with such sweetness I lie down, and I am rolled forward and back. Someone—Sophia?—puts my feet on the bed and unties my shoelaces. With relief, my feet are free of the heavy shoes.
‘You’re going to miss it, darling,’ someone says. Sophia?
‘We so wanted you to be there,’ another voice says.
‘We don’t know what to do with you anymore,’ the voice says, sad for what she must be
missing. This woman sticks her hand down my backside. ‘God, you’re wet.’
‘Two minutes!’ someone calls in the distance.
Go, I say. Go. You mustn’t miss it.
‘I can’t miss it, Mother. I’ll change you soon, I promise. I just don’t want to miss it—’
‘I can’t miss it, darling,’ a voice echoes. ‘I’m sorry—’
And she is gone, and the room is dark and lovely and smothering.
The door is only partly closed.
Talking, laughter, intermittent exclamations of delight as if some charming magic trick has just been performed in front of their eyes, sounds being swept into the room and pulled out again, the sound rising and falling with the rhythm of waves. I am granted sound only; the sight of the ocean is impossible, far beyond my reach.
I cannot swallow my own saliva now. Every turn is an effort, but I hear them. I can feel their voices like hands, moving beneath me, on me, in me.
I cannot breathe without effort, an effort that is far beyond desire, that is far beyond sleep.
My lungs are forgetting how to pull in air. My body is forgetting how to rise to the surface.
I cannot call out, nor do I want to call out.
I feel sleep washing over me, joining the repertoire of sounds, inside me, outside me.
The lightest of waves, pulled by the moon and the atmosphere, are washing over me, through me, at me.
And through the merging sound, I hear a raucous countdown begin. I can sense the fever, the excitement, so much anticipation, accelerating. And in the noise of my body, my mind, I cannot keep from counting with them.
I realize, as if it is another memory, that I must not miss it. I must leave this bed. I must leave this drowsy exhaustion that settles inside me like a cloud of sand that drifts downward in the calm of an ocean after a storm.
I must not miss it.
I melt into the web of noise, and yet I get up and go. I go to them. Through the darkened room, through the cracked doorway, through the lightening hallway, through the counting, I go.
I have no desires and yet I am where my desires take me, inside the room where the captured joy is. And into Sophia’s laughter and hope and arms, I slip. I am there and here, and filled in their noise.
And together we dance, and we laugh, and we kiss. With her, with them, inside them, I dance, and I laugh, and I kiss.
They do not kiss me back. For it is so quiet. So strangely, deeply quiet.
I feel something slipping from my hands, something rolled gently away from my fingers, I feel skin on skin, her skin on mine, mine on hers, mine in hers.
And together we dance, we laugh, we kiss.
Andrea Witzke Slot writes poetry and fiction and work that crosses genre boundaries. She is author of the poetry collection To find a new beauty (Gold Wake Press, 2012), and the forthcoming Ministry of Flowers (Valley Press, UK, 2020). She has won prizes with Fiction International and Able Muse, with her winning pieces described by Eugenia Kim as having “a rare and satisfying command of storytelling” and by Harold Jaffe as “meld[ing] compression, humor, keen intelligence, and social awareness in a savory 300 words.” Recent poetry, fiction, and hybrid work can be found in such UK and US journals as Ambit, Acumen, American Literary Review, Amaryllis, Compass Magazine, Mid-American Review, Southeast Review, Under the Radar, and Queen Mob’s Tea House, among others. An American expat and permanent resident of the UK, Andrea lives in London where she is a contributing artist with Fiona Lesley’s Poetry Exchange, a British Podcast Silver Award Winner for Most Original Podcast. Her website is www.andreawitzkeslot.com.