From the time she welcomed me at the door, it was clear Gloria knew what was going to happen, or it was clear what she thought was going to happen. There was a boldness about the woman that was both scary and thrilling.
“I’ve been worried about you,” she said, “all alone and still mourning.” She had on a loose gold dress with flowers that shivered when she walked. And she wore several big bracelets on each arm. My wife Jean had never worn jewelry like that.
“I’d be OK if I could sleep,” I said.
“You can,” she said. She put on some low music, saxophone music, and brought in a tray with tea and honey and some nutty, raisiny cookies. The lights in her living room were dim and hidden. When she sat down on the couch her slinky dress slid off one knee.
I’d never liked the taste of camomile, but made up my mind to sip the tea politely and make agreeable conversation. I wanted Gloria to feel her tea and her hospitality had been a success. I had no right to impose my sadness on her.
“Have a cookie,” she said. “They’re made from my special recipe.”
I took a cookie and bit off one side. It was a good cookie—buttery and nutty and chewy, with bits of raisin and chocolate, and honey that seeped out on the tongue. The taste was partly in the texture. There was subtlety in the mixture of flavors, a hint of salt with the honey.
“That’s mighty good,” I said. I took a sip of the tea and the flavor of the cookie on my tongue made the tea taste better. “That’s a good combination,” I said.
“It’s one of my specialties,” Gloria said and smiled. In the low lights she was beautiful, not much younger looking than her sixty-eight or seventy years, but beautiful. I hadn’t noticed a woman that way in months. Gloria moved a little closer to me on the couch. The low music and the lights made me think of 1950s movies.
“I think you’re trying to seduce me,” I said.
“A lonely widow has to make the most of opportunities,” Gloria said.
Maybe it was my lack of sleep, or the emotional dimness I’d been living in since Jean died, or maybe it was the tea or something in the cookies, but suddenly I noticed the colors in the living room were more vivid and the lights were mellow as fruit. The flowers on Gloria’s shivery dress seemed to flutter and sway, and the air in the room was warm and golden. I sipped the tea again and it tasted like wisdom in warm drops on the tongue. I could hear blood humming behind my ears.
“I feel better,” I said. My words sounded like they came from another part of the room, but were precise and intense.
“I knew you would,” Gloria said. Her dress had slid back showing much of her leg. It was lightly tanned and smooth.
“Do you have all your neighbors over to tea?” I said.
“The ones I like,” Gloria said. She slipped closer and put her hand on my shoulder. Her hair smelled faintly of almonds.
“So this is my turn,” I said.
“You’re quite a catch,” she said. She lifted my arm and put it around her.
“How so?” I said. She felt so strong and soft at the same time.
“Have you noticed how few men there are here?” she said, and put her cheek on my neck.
“There are a lot of women,” I said.
“Only twenty percent of Halcyon Acres residents are men,” Gloria said, “and look at the shape most of them are in.”
“I haven’t really noticed,” I said.
“I have,” she said. We rested that way for a while. Holding her made me feel connected to things. She placed my hand on her breast. The nipple was hard.
“You are a prize,” Gloria said.
“I don’t feel like a prize,” I said.
“You will,” she said, “when the ladies here at Halcyon Acres are finished with you.”
“You flatter me,” I said. There was a prickle in my veins and a stirring in my lower belly.
“Not in the least,” Gloria said. “Do you see any young men around here? Do you see many older men as fit as you?”
“I’ve tried to take care of myself,” I said.
“Indeed you have,” she said and rubbed her hand across my chest.
“You mean there are affairs going on here at Halcyon Acres?” I said.
“Not enough,” Gloria said. “Too many lonely women and not enough men to go around.”
“I never would have thought of that,” I said.
“Men are such teases,” Gloria said. She moved into my lap. I felt myself getting serious down there.
“And all I’ve seen is people playing shuffleboard and golf and riding bicycles,” I said.
“Riding bicycles is good exercise,” Gloria said. “Wouldn’t you say?”
The air pulsed like a bass string as we led each other toward the bedroom. “You put something in those cookies,” I said.
“They are my secret recipe,” she said as she slid off her dress. Her body was younger than her face.
We made love as I had not done in decades, hot, intense, giant, breathless love. Not the best kind of lovemaking, perhaps, because wasteful, but thrilling because I never thought I would do anything like that again. I’d assumed such a rush and crowding of passion was only a memory, and here I was in Florida reliving a riff of my youth, out of breath, urgent, soaring, hell-bent for relief.
* * *
The saddest thing that had ever happened to me was the death of my wife Jean. I had just retired and sold my interest in the chain of suburban groceries around northern Indiana and bought the condo here, when Jean first began to feel the pains in her hip. I thought maybe she had torn something loose in all the work of moving. The moving was harder than either of us had dreamed. We had lived in the same house for thirty-four years and become set in our ways. There’s a lot of difference between going on a long vacation, and selling up and moving lock, stock, and barrel. But it had been the plan of our middle and late years to move to Florida where we would never have to shovel snow, and the condo outside Boca Raton seemed perfect for our lifestyle. We assumed we would have lots of sunset years. “I want to live where I can play golf on New Year’s Day,” Jean said. Halcyon Acres had its own golf course on the grounds.
But after we got to Florida, the pains in Jean’s hip wouldn’t go away. She put a heating pad on it at night, and tried to ignore the throb by day. We took our clubs and played a round every afternoon, in the glorious winter sun. But Jean’s face lost color and she started to limp. She tried to cover up the limp by walking slower, but the pain in her face could not be concealed.
“I think I must have broken something in there,” she said.
I don’t need to tell you the rest. You know the plot: the regime of chemo, hair loss, the periods of recovery, radiation that left her exhausted, tumor counts, the waits, steady weight loss, the wonderful courage a woman has inside her, the awful sight of her hip rotting away, the pain that requires self-administered morphine, the pain that even morphine can’t reach, the giving in, the final kiss and the end.
I decided to bury Jean in Florida where she had wanted to end her days. I chose a graveyard not far from a golf course, where the stone would get both morning and late afternoon sun. The children and grandchildren came down from Indiana for the funeral. It was a numbing three or four days.
“Pop, did Florida make Grandma sick?” my grandson Willy said. His question suggested he had heard one of his parents say something to that effect.
“Grandma started getting sick before she came to Florida,” I said.
“You’ll be returning home with us?” my daughter-in-law Margaret said.
“Maybe later,” I said. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“You need to be closer to your family,” my son Jason said.
* * *
After they were gone and I had the apartment to myself, I tried to sleep. I knew the thing that would heal me would be sleep—wide, floating, nurturing sleep. I wanted Halcyon Acres to live up to its name. I needed calm and rest. I needed to forget the sight of Jean wasting away in pain, the sleepless nights, the drip of morphine.
But the more I pursued sleep the faster it fled from me. Sitting in front of the television I could feel slumber approach and the sweet fizz of numbness rise in my veins and limbs. But soon as I lay down in bed I was wide awake again, staring into the dark. Sleep was farther away than ever. I got up tired, and went to bed again tired. Sleep would overtake me as I was sitting at the table or driving to the grocery store. But soon as I closed my eyes sleep laughed at me and vanished into the tedium of time.
When I closed my eyes at night I saw Jean’s hip eaten away. When I opened my eyes I saw the gray light of the bedroom with the wallpaper Jean had chosen. My son Jason advised me to take a trip, a cruise, or come home to Indiana for the summer and go to Georgian Bay with the family. But I knew my insomnia would travel with me. I didn’t want to carry my sleeplessness long distances at great expense. Either I solved my problem where I was, where Jean had left me, or I wouldn’t be able to solve it. That was clear to me.
Sleep whispered in my ear like a lover and then disappeared.
* * *
While Jean was sick, some of the neighbors had stopped by to ask about her. But we never had a chance to really get to know many people. And after she died, several neighbors brought casseroles and desserts. But I had the impression the neighbors at Halycon Acres were concentrating on health and living, and wanted to stay away from sickness and dying. And who could blame them? Most of the residents were in their seventies, and a few in their eighties. They had come to Florida to live, not be sick and disabled.
In the weeks after Jean’s death, I stayed away from the pool and recreation room, the golf course and tennis and shuffleboard courts. It didn’t seem right to impose my mourning on the other residents. Many ate in the cafeteria, where they snickered and gossiped till long after the meal was over. But I fried eggs and warmed up chicken pot pies in the apartment, when I did feel like eating. I knew I should keep my grief to myself.
It was in the area of the mailboxes that you were most apt to see people. Residents sometimes congregated there in the morning, as the mail was put up around 9:30. And between 9:30 and 10:00 you would see almost everyone in the condos show up to check their mail and stand jawing in the lobby and corridor opposite the wall of mailboxes. Around the first of the month when social security checks and pension checks came, there was more cheer and socializing than ever.
My closest neighbor was Gloria Swenson. She had visited Jean twice in her illness and brought a basket of fruit after the funeral. Gloria was a widow, like so many of my neighbors. But she had kept her figure and her brown hair. I hated the blue rinse so many of the women put on their hair.
I usually went for my mail around 10:30, to avoid the earlier rush. But one morning in March I ran into Gloria in front of the mailboxes.
“Good morning, Raymond,” she said. “Are you taking care of yourself?” She wore a yellow jogging suit, as though she had just come in from a walk or a bicycle ride. Many of the residents had three-wheel bikes which they took into town or out to the park.
“I’m fine,” I said.
Gloria looked at me, her eyes dark as chinquapins. “You look like you haven’t slept in weeks,” she said.
“I’ve had a little trouble sleeping,” I said.
“I’m not surprised,” she said, “after what you’ve been through.”
We walked back to our wing together and she asked me to come over after dinner that night for tea. “Camomile will help you sleep,” she said.
“Nothing will help me sleep,” I said.
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Gloria said.
All day I worried about going over to Gloria’s apartment. I’d hardly seen anybody since Jean’s death. And I had not been alone with another woman for years. I thought of phoning her with some excuse. Are you chicken? I said to myself. Yes, I’m chicken, I said to myself.
“That was something,” I said to Gloria later in bed and wiped the sweat from my forehead.
“Glad you liked it, sir,” Gloria said. She pushed up against me and rested her leg on top of mine. I felt I was floating in a river of chocolate soda water and the current was soaking through my skin into my veins and sweetening my blood all the way to the tips of my toes. I could see Jean standing on an island far out in the river. She was watching and she was smiling. I couldn’t hear what she said, but she approved of what I was doing.
* * *
I must have slept four or five hours, for when I woke it was almost morning. Gloria was asleep beside me, but woke as soon as I stirred.
“I’ve been asleep,” I said.
“You are beautiful in your sleep,” she said. “I could watch you for hours.”
“You were right about the tea,” I said.
She smiled. “I knew you had a little sap left in you,” she said.
I felt cleansed by the sleep, as though every cell in my body had been scrubbed and was making a fresh start. And then an ugly thought hit me with a jolt.
“What is it, baby?” Gloria said.
“We didn’t take precaution,” I said.
Gloria looked me in the eyes. “Well, I’m pretty sure you haven’t slept with anybody but your wife in years,” she said.
“That’s true,” I said.
“And I’ve been very careful,” Gloria said.
“I hope so,” I said.
“I have,” she said.
We lay in the comfort of our tangled bodies. It was almost morning. I heard a garbage truck in the parking lot whine as it lifted a dumpster.
“But you must be careful from now on,” Gloria said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“You don’t think I think I can keep you all to myself?” Gloria said.
“Why not?” I said. Gloria was a wonderful flatterer.
“The other girls here will be all over you as soon as they hear.”
“Hear what?” I said.
“That you’re a lover,” Gloria said. “And what a lover.”
“I’m not going to tell them,” I said.
“Oh yes you will,” Gloria said. “You’ll tell them by the way you walk into the clubhouse, and the way you flirt with them, and the way you ignore them sometimes.”
“I never was promiscuous,” I said.
“You’re a rare commodity at Halcyon Acres,” Gloria said, “a nice man with a hard dick, if you will pardon my French.”
“I prefer love,” I said.
“So do I,” Gloria said. “But most of us take what we can get. And you’re going to get a lot.”
“You astonish me,” I said.
“You have wandered into paradise, widow man,” Gloria said, and kissed me on the lips and on the ear.
* * *
I did not conquer my massive insomnia at once, but after I began seeing Gloria I started sleeping in wonderful snatches and patches. And because I was sleeping some, and not as numb, I began to work out at the gym two mornings a week. I got out my golf clubs and played a round with Gloria and a friend of hers named Rachel, and Rachel’s husband Richard. Richard had owned a tire company in Cleveland, and we talked about the changes in business since the 1950s, mostly about tax laws and how they affected retail.
“Boys will talk shop,” Gloria said.
“What do girls always talk about?” I said.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Gloria said.
To play golf again was to discover its special rhythms, the drive and then the walk on the fairway, the waiting and watching and standing aside, the deferring to others, the tense pitching and the intense putting, the sunlight on the green and on the sand traps, the glitter of pines and water surfaces brushed by the breeze, the precision and luck of the putt. I began to play well on the sixth hole.
“What did you say your handicap was?” Richard said.
“Raymond was being modest,” Gloria said.
One reason to love golf is that every hole is different, and each hole leads immediately to another, as one minute or hour leads to another. Golf is the metaphor for time, the time of a life. Suddenly I saw how much I wanted to play again, on and on, hole after hole, day after day. I was flushed with desire for play.
I’d read that a golf ball flies so far because of the little pits on its surface. The dimples break the resistance of the air. A smooth ball would not go half as far. I tried to think how they would ever have discovered such a thing. And the way a wedge lofts a ball to plop right on the green and hardly roll seems a miracle.
“Raymond has been fooling us,” Gloria said. “He was really a professional golfer before he retired.”
* * *
In the clubhouse afterward we had gin and tonics and I met a number of the other residents. Gloria had been telling the truth. There were few men around the place. In a room of two dozen residents there were maybe six males, all my age or older.
But the mood was neither gloomy nor restrained. Women returning from bicycle rides into town came to the bar for drinks. Some went around from table to table trading gossip and plans for bridge parties, shopping trips.
Most stopped at our table, and I met Anne and Linda, Hortense and Martha, Prue and Florrie, and a small dark woman with huge brown eyes named Maria. Some put a hand on my shoulder and said they were sorry about Jean’s death. Catherine Steele asked me if I liked bike riding. She said her late husband’s bike was sitting in the storage room and I was welcome to use it. Dannie Purvis, who had been a professor of chemistry, asked if I played chess. And Theresa Thorne asked if I would like to join their book discussion group. Gloria winked at me.
* * *
The next day I got a call from Gloria. “I was wondering if you’d like to come over for dinner this evening,” she said.
“That’s mighty thoughtful of you,” I said.
“You don’t have another date?” she said.
“Only with you,” I said.
“Then I’ll expect you around seven,” she said. “Do you like Chinese?”
“I’ll eat anything,” I said.
At dinner Gloria told me she’d been a secretary who married her boss in Tulsa. He was twenty years her senior, and had died two years ago. Since he had a family with his first wife, most of his estate had gone to his children. What he had left Gloria was the condo, and it was hers for life.
“I’ll never have to leave,” Gloria said as we sat down with our drinks before the picture window.
“Are you happy here?” I said.
“What is happy?” she said. She was wearing lavender pants and a lavender blouse that went perfectly with her hair. “I’d rather be doing things than be happy. I’m so busy I don’t think about happy.”
“Maybe I can learn from you,” I said.
“Maybe,” she said.
Gloria was bold, but she didn’t brag, and she didn’t conceal her humble origins, or her luck in marrying Mr. Swenson.
“I had to borrow a dress to graduate from high school,” she said.
“I couldn’t afford a class ring,” I said.
“And now look at you,” Gloria said.
The gin began to work on me, giving me that light ethery feeling. I hadn’t really enjoyed alcohol since before Jean got sick. I hadn’t let myself enjoy it. We watched the sun set over the palm trees at the edge of the golf course.
* * *
We were having decaf and lime sherbet for dessert when the phone rang. “Must be a solicitor,” Gloria said. But her face went pale after she answered. “Oh my god,” she said.
“What is it?” I said.
She put the phone in its cradle, then quickly picked it up again and began dialing. “Send an ambulance,” she said, “to Halcyon Acres, apartment C-34.”
“What’s wrong?” I said when she hung up.
“It’s Richard,” she said. “He’s had another attack.”
“What kind of attack?” I said.
“He has a bad heart,” Gloria said.
When we got to Rachel and Richard’s apartment other neighbors were already there. Catherine Steele was holding Rachel away from the center of the living room where Richard lay on the shag floor. Dannie Purvis bent over Richard saying, “Just lie still, just lie still.” Richard’s face was the color of wax paper, and his temples were wet with sweat.
“The ambulance is on the way,” I said.
Rachel and Richard must have had people over for dinner, for the coffee table was heaped with plates and glasses, cups and saucers. A movie was running on the TV and no one had thought to turn it off. Presents had been unwrapped and ribbons and paper lay on the floor.
I knelt down beside Richard. His body jerked in mild spasms, little seizures, and he stared straight up at the ceiling. “The ambulance is coming, old boy,” I said.
“Just lie still,” Dannie said.
He kept jerking as if he was cold and couldn’t stop. It was as if he was ignoring us but he didn’t seem to be in any pain. “Take it easy,” I said and patted him on the shoulder.
When the ambulance attendants arrived they lifted Richard gently onto the stretcher and strapped him to the pad. Catherine Steele found Rachel’s purse and she and Rachel followed the stretcher to the elevator.
After they were gone, I helped Gloria and Dannie gather the dishes, glasses, and cups in the living room, and we carried them to the kitchen. We scraped everything into the disposal and loaded the dishwasher.
“Richard was so happy playing golf,” Gloria said as we left the apartment.
“I’ll call the hospital and let you know how he is,” Dannie said.
I thought of all the tires Richard’s company must have sold over the years, the mountains of tires that must lie heaped in junkyards and landfills, in vacant lots, scattered as rubber dust along highways.
* * *
Later, in bed, when Gloria got on top of me, she told me about the death of Mr. Swenson. He had had a bad heart and had been short of breath and short of temper. But after they’d moved to Halcyon Acres he had open heart surgery, and the operation rejuvenated him. He exercised like a young man, and made love like a young man. “Like a young man who knows everything that an older man knows,” Gloria said.
She swayed above me in slow motion. “Buster changed after he married me,” she said.
“We all change when we fall in love,” I said. “Love humbles us.”
Gloria put her fingernails on my nipples. “And love gives us confidence,” she said.
“I wish it could make time run backward,” I said.
“You wouldn’t want to go back,” Gloria said.
“Probably not,” I said.
“I’m in love with the future,” Gloria said as a jolt rippled through her.
“What does the future taste like?” I said.
“Open space with sunlight on wood, and cool air, and a little savor of salt,” Gloria said.
“The future is right here,” I said.
“It finds us, and comes to us.” She leaned sideways so her hair fell on her shoulders. And the look on her face was as serious as the expression of a woman sewing a colorful pattern on a quilt. “We can relax,” she said, just as the phone rang.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro