By Marlene Olin
After his wife died, it took Calvin six months to learn how to pay the bills, use the microwave, and launder his underwear. It took another six months to empty the closets and give away her clothes. Though time didn’t heal all wounds, eventually he was able to look at Cheryl’s picture without his chest thumping. He could hear her voice on their answering machine without his heart breaking in two.
“There’s no calendar, no schedule,” said Miriam. “Everyone heals in his own way.”
Each week he sat in her office. And each week, amid the closed blinds and dimmed lights, he released a torrent of tears.
“You were married for over forty years,” said Miriam. “There are emotions to plumb, habits good and bad to recognize, mistakes to forgive and forget.”
“Mistakes?” said Calvin. “You’re talking mistakes?”
He reached for a tissue from the box perched on her coffee table. A pitcher of water and a stack of glasses sat next to it. A bowl of lollypops a few inches away. A professional grief counselor, Miriam was always prepared. Some of her clients were his age, carrying suitcases loaded with anguish and regret. Some were children who had lost siblings or parents. On the walls hung crayoned drawings, each with a telltale empty space.
“You want to talk about mistakes? I outlived my wife. That was a mistake. A huge, fricking mistake.”
Of course Calvin realized that true tragedy existed. Tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Young people died who had full lives ahead of them. People who never had a chance to pursue a career or to raise a family. A sixty-five-year-old woman dying of cancer is not a tragedy, he reminded himself. He was a successful lawyer. He had his children, even grandchildren. Then why, he wondered, did he pray for his own death every single day?
“Do you want to look at your mail?” asked Miriam.
At first Calvin was reluctant to start therapy. Each task was overwhelming. What to eat. What to wear. But the most difficult task of all was tackling the condolence cards. While Calvin fumbled at the most casual encounters, his wife was a people person. Everyone loved Cheryl. Her students at the community college. The teachers on the faculty. Strangers on the bus. Calvin had no idea how he was supposed to respond to these outpourings. His wife had performed a wealth of kindnesses over the years. And each kindness was attached to a story or an anecdote forever imprinted in someone’s mind.
Calvin opened up his briefcase and took out a rubber banded wad of papers. Then he fanned them on the coffee table. Each one was more depressing than the next.
“What about that one?” asked Miriam. “The one you put back in your briefcase?”
“That one? That’s just an invitation,” said Calvin.
He never realized before how social they were. The cocktail parties. The weddings. The business functions. Now it was up to him to bear the brunt of the conversation, to make the small talk that was so easy for Cheryl, the banter that dripped so easily off her tongue.
He fished back inside the briefcase and extracted a thick envelope. “Our college reunion,” said Calvin. “It’s in Boston in September. I’d rather have my prostate plumbed than face those people.”
“It’s only June,” said Miriam. “That’s three months from now. In Miami, we’ll still be plowing through the heat.”
With yet another tissue Calvin wiped the sweat and snot off his face. It was the hottest summer he could remember. Leaves on trees withered and crackled. Perspiration clung. How long had it been since he watched a maple leaf turn orange? Boston seemed a lifetime ago.
They had met in their sophomore year. Calvin was on the debate team and wore pocket protectors and button down shirts. Cheryl wore jeans and flowing blouses, her long hair a tangle of curls. They had absolutely nothing in common. He remembered a smoke-filled room, the smell of marijuana, a plaintive voice twanging a guitar.
“Cheryl would have loved to go,” said Calvin. “She was so good at the “Hi! So good to see you!’ bullshit. And she was never phony. She liked people. She actually liked them.”
“And?” said Miriam.
“Now all I do is explain. I hate the explaining. There’s always someone who doesn’t know. Someone who has no idea that she was sick, who missed the obituary in the papers, who hasn’t heard of her death. I relive it over and over again. It’s exhausting. Positively exhausting.”
Miriam glanced at the clock on her desk. “You think you’re the only one who’s ever suffered a loss? You think you’ll be the only person at that reunion who’s widowed or divorced?” She got up from her seat and straightened the creases in her slacks. “Not by a long shot.”
The invitation stayed on his dresser for another month. Outside the weather was relentless, the air thick, the heat sapping every ounce of energy. The thought of a cool, crisp September had its appeal. Calvin imagined packing a sweater, going to a football game, feeling the wind on his back. In a moment of pure impulse, he filled out the response card and sent in it. He could always cancel. Even after booking the hotel and the airplane flight, he knew he could cancel.
He never expected the repercussions. Within a week, he was bombarded with phone calls from the Alumni Association. There was a reception at the President’s house. A tailgate party after the game. An elaborate brunch. The list was endless. They were worse than telemarketers, hunting him down at the office, on his cellphone, on his message machine at home. And somehow he landed on an email chain linked to dozens of vaguely recognizable people.
Calling all Troubadours! Don’t forget our impromptu sing-along in the quad on Saturday!
Was he a Troubadour? Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Calvin pictured an a cappella group standing awkwardly on a stage. His roommate Ralph was a Troubadour. What the hell happened to him?
Wanted: Intramural Athletes! Report to the new and improved Health and Wellness Facility! See your dollars at work!
Homesick and miserable, Calvin had tried out for the dorm basketball team his freshman year. He was out of shape and out of his league. It was a miracle he didn’t have a heart attack running up and down the court.
Kanoodle with the knishes! See you at the Hillel House on Friday night!
Again, he found himself at Miriam’s, sobbing through an entire box of Kleenex.
“I was no one until I met her. Cheryl was the sun while everybody else was just planets. It took me a whole year to work up the courage to ask her out. When she said yes, I was shocked. I was a pity date. Like community service. Some people feed the homeless. Cheryl for some reason decided to hang out with me.”
The Troubadour roommate had dragged him from one coffee house to another. They sat at small tables and listened to folk singers sing terrible songs. Ralph was a never ending source of embarrassment. He’d mouth song lyrics like they were Scripture. Then he’d stand up and clap the loudest when the performances were through.
But for some reason Calvin kept on coming back. It was a lifestyle he wasn’t used to. Bell-bottom pants. Girls without bras. Political activists who cared more about state of the union than about their GPA and grad school. And Cheryl was always there, sitting off to the side with a group of friends. He found himself going to the coffee houses just so he could see her, to bask in her aura, to watch her flirt and laugh and animate the dead zone that was his life.
“Did you decide what reunion functions you’re attending?” asked Miriam.
“A lot of people have reached out.” He grabbed another tissue. “I’m double and triple booked. Everybody’s dying for details. Everybody think he’s Dr. Phil.”
Miriam rolled her eyes. “Calvin, there are people out there who are fond of you. People who genuinely care.”
He repositioned himself in the seat. “They’re also some people who hate me. I was a real jerk. If you think I have no social skills now, you should have seen me back then.”
There had been one other girl before Cheryl: Sukie Schwartz. Though he’d seen her around campus, it wasn’t until he bumped into her at a coffee house that they actually spoke. If memory served she was a redhead. A redhead with freckles in the most unimaginable places. And one night, for a reason Calvin could never fathom, she ended up in his dorm room. Some groping and fumbling under the covers ensued. Until last week he hadn’t thought about her in four decades.
“There’s this one person – Sukie – who really wants to see me. She keeps on emailing and asking me to dinner.” He counted down on his fingers. “Once. Twice. Three times. She won’t take no for an answer.”
Miriam sat up. “You’re a nice-looking man Calvin. In good health. Successful. Lots of women will be interested. You know that.”
“She’s married but she’s not bringing her husband. Says there’s some unfinished business she needs to discuss. She’s heard about Cheryl. Says this unfinished business has been hanging over her head for years.”
On one of Miriam’s higher shelves sat a row of books. Sex in the Older Adult. The Mature Sexual Being. Sex in the Third Act. She reached up and handed a stack of them to Calvin.
“Time to get back in the rodeo, my friend. If you’re not ready now, you will be later. Count on it.”
There were six more weeks of summer until the reunion. Calvin ran from his air-conditioned house to his air-conditioned office. And everywhere he went he carried printouts of the emails Sukie had sent him. Going to the reunion had been a terrible idea. Just terrible. And now that this wacky woman was in the picture, he itched to cancel even more.
“I’m looking forward to our dinner, Calvin. It’s been too long.”
“Do you think you’re over her, Calvin? Do we ever really get over the loss of our one true love?”
“Remember that night, Calvin? I’ve never forgotten that night.”
By the time September neared, a number of wild and crazy scenarios played in Calvin’s head. Half of his friends thought Sukie was going to seduce him. The other half thought she was going to shoot him dead. As usual, he sought Miriam’s advice.
“I have no idea what to wear.”
He brought two shopping bags with him to her office. Calvin was starting to resemble a homeless person. His pants, he knew, were threadbare. The pits of his shirts were stained. In the past, Cheryl had always picked out his clothes.
Miriam wagged her head as she sifted through a pile of oxford cloth shirts and khaki pants. “You know Calvin. There are other stores besides Brooks Brothers.”
“Now you’re a fashion consultant? You’re my therapist, for Christ’s sake? Can’t you be fucking supportive?”
She dumped the contents on her couch, carefully matching slacks with shirts, ties with socks. While she was working, Calvin paced the room.
“One part of me is excited. And a little flattered. I think Sukie’s going to make a pass. I mean I’m pretty sure she’s going to make a pass. Of course, nothing will happen. It’s much too soon for anything to happen. But still…”
“But still what?”
“But still it’s been eons since I’ve even thought about another woman and it’s kinda nice to know that someone thinks of me in… you know…that way.”
“You’re sixty-five years young, Calvin. Nowadays they consider that middle-aged.”
Calvin walked to one of the children’s drawings and tapped the glass with his finger. “But then again, I was a dick. She probably hates me. I know she hates me.”
He packed a week before his flight, bringing twice the amount of clothes that he needed. A sport coat in case people were dressing up. Jeans in case people were dressing down. A sweater in case it was cold. A golf shirt in case it was warm. For the first time in his life, Calvin went to a fancy salon where they manicured his nails and shaved his beard. He felt buffed and polished, his engine in good working order, his chassis gleaming. He read and reread each of Miriam’s books. He felt ready to tackle the world.
The campus was and wasn’t what he expected. Of course there were familiar landmarks. One or two of the coffee shops were still in business. The ivy covered classroom buildings looked the same as they did years ago.
But there was so much more of everything. Chain stores. Expensive restaurants that no student could possible afford. People of every color blurted a cacophony of languages, wearing costumes from their native countries, trying hard not to blend in.
The hotel he was staying in was new as well. In the lobby, a table with a banner blurting his reunion year was set up front and center. Three elderly people sat behind it. A woman with a large pad searched for his name, coursing her gnarled and arthritic finger up and down a list.
“I knew you seemed familiar. Remember me, Calvin? Psychology 110 freshman year. I sat across from you in the mouse lab. Remember?” She reached under the table and produced a huge sack. “Welcome home, Calvin. We’ve got free water, maps, everything you could possibly need.”
Pinned on her chest was a yearbook photo of an attractive girl with the name Bernice Berenbaum printed underneath. Forty-five years ago this crone with a clipboard had long blond hair, cloudless eyes, and a coy smile. Calvin felt his colon cramp. The blood was swooshing through his ears.
“Thanks so much,” he heard himself say. “This stuff is great. Really great.” Then he walked over to the nearest trash can, and tossed the whole bag out.
The next twenty-four hours were a blur. Platters of cubed cheese. Plastic wine glasses. Rolled meat on a stick. The football game was impossibly noisy – he was sure they didn’t used to be so noisy – with loudspeakers blasting rock music and tipsy alumni screaming the fight song. Drunken students spewed beer from every level in the stadium. Calvin’s back ached and his feet hurt and every hour on the hour he received a text from Sukie, confirming their date for Saturday night.
Seven o’clock sharp. Meet me in the bar!
Red dress! Red shoes! Red everything!
Don’t worry Calvin. I know what you look like.
Do you think I’d forget what you looked like?
I bet you haven’t aged a day, Calvin.
For some people, time stands still.
When he got back to the hotel from the football game, his clothes smelled of vomit and liquor. The soles of his shoes were wet and sticky with substances he could neither name nor identify. Calvin stripped naked and collapsed on the bed. When he woke up hours later, the ceiling was bathed in blue and red, the moon an eyelash on the horizon.
He glanced at his watch. Jesus. Then he ran into the shower, threw on a fresh set of clothes, and hailed a taxi. Ten minutes later he was at the restaurant. And there she was, perched on a stool, swinging a red-heeled foot. Calvin worked his way through the crowd. The room swirled with a smoky haze. In the background, canned dance music pumped to a deafening beat. They shouted over the din.
“I’m late! I fell asleep. Sorry. Sorry.”
“I was early. Really early. It’s okay.”
She looked good, better than good. Somehow her imperfections had improved with age. Her bright red hair was now the color of the maple leaves lining the streets outside. Her bosom was high, her legs long. Calvin’s head spun and his hands tingled. For the first time since his wife died, he felt alive.
“How about if we find a table someplace quiet?” he suggested. Calvin pointed to a corner. “Someplace where we can talk?”
He threw some bills on the counter to cover her tab and wrapped his elbow around hers. She leaned on him as they walked, placing one foot carefully ahead of the other. Calvin wondered how much she had to drink.
“I haven’t eaten a thing all day,” said Sukie. “The wine’s gone right to my head.”
Calvin pretended to glance at the menu. Though it was fifty degrees outside, it was stuffy in the restaurant. He stuck two fingers in his shirt collar and tried to make some room. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so nervous.
“Some game,” he threw out for openers.
She stared at him and blinked.
“The hotel is nicer than I expected. For a campus hotel, it’s pretty nice.”
She blinked again.
Calvin pasted on a smile. He had whitened his teeth the previous week. His grin, he knew, was one of his best features. Its wattage would be hard to resist. “You know, I didn’t think I’d have a good time this weekend. But I’m really glad I came. And I’m really glad that we connected again.”
Minutes slogged by. Then finally she spoke. “I have something to say,” said Sukie. “It’s been bottled up all these years. My husband doesn’t know. My children don’t know. It’s like I’ve been living a lie.”
Calvin reached over and placed his hand on top of hers. Then he unleashed the words he had rehearsed with Miriam, line for line. “I’m sorry if I ever hurt you, Sukie. I was young. Very young and very foolish.”
Sukie looked at him hard and took a deep breath. When she leaned forward, the words tumbled out. “I’ll never forget the night I first saw the two of you together. We were at the place near Copley Square. Remember that place?”
This is it, thought Calvin. The poor woman has been living in a fantasy all these years, pining for me, waiting for the moment that I was a free man. She’s laying herself at your feet, Calvin. She’s ripened fruit waiting to be picked.
“I was jealous beyond imagination,” said Sukie. “Watching the two of you kiss, touch – the way your fingers stroked her hair.”
Maybe they should just skip dinner. Order room service. A vase of flowers on a rolling cart. A set of flutes. Perhaps champagne.
But then she pulled her hand away and gazed up – as if her life were being replayed on the ceiling one frame at a time. A single tear rolled down her cheek and stuck there, plump.
“Cheryl was just radiant!” said Sukie. “Her face. Her skin. Her laugh. Like she had stepped down from Mount Olympus. A goddess in the flesh.”
Suddenly Calvin sensed that they were heading in a different direction. His internal GPS started to reposition.
“I could never understand the attraction,” said Sukie. “What in the world did a woman like her see in a man like you?”
Calvin’s whole body closed up. His jaws clamped shut. His thighs tensed and his toes curled.
“I never loved anyone more than I loved Cheryl,” said Sukie. “And I almost died when she picked you over me.”
When the waiter came, they ordered. Then they ate in silence, ladling their soup with their spoons, stabbing their steaks with their forks, picking absently at their desserts. And when they were through, they walked single file out the door, exiting the same way they entered.
About the author:
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Upstreet Magazine, Arts and Letters, Eclectica, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes. Her previous piece in Ragazine, Volume 10, Number 6, can be found here: http://old.ragazine.cc/?s=marlene+olin