Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction -Honorable Mention judged by Khanh Ha. Read his comments here.
What Was I Saying?
I wake up. A young man is on top of me. I feel the rhythm of his body as he fills up the space inside me with his exuberant thrusts.
The only sound in this darkened room is the young man’s breath, which I soon realize is a counter-beat to the whish from the hallway, where the oxygen machine is delivering air to the other residents—especially those who have trouble breathing.
It comes to me, what is happening. I do recall my grown children moving me into a nursing home. I was assigned to a wing for those who are losing their memories or have already lost them. I saw old men and women tied to wheelchairs, looking into space, perhaps seeing something beyond, out in the universe.
I hoped I didn’t look like them.
My children gave me a list about myself: you can’t find the trolley home; you forget what to buy in the grocery store—you go to buy bread and come home with toothpaste. You leave the stove on overnight. You leave gas flames burning. You ask a question and get an answer. Ten minutes later, you ask the same question. Mother, you kiss strangers.
In the midst of all this remembering, I realize that, in the present moment, of which I am conscious, my body is responding with pleasure to this encounter. It has been some years since I have engaged in an intimate human exchange, so this juicy feeling and the actual physical contact comes as something of a surprise. I am moist with excitement. It’s miraculous. I congratulate myself. How human it is of me to wake up for sex.
It’s so human of you.
I move with abandon, enjoying a refreshment of sexual memory in this moment, separate from any other and yet linked through time.
Once, during a rendezvous with my Kevin, I looked up into his face and didn’t know who he was. I knew I knew him and his body well—that much was evident—but his identity, personality and relationship to me was a blank. I decided to pretend I knew who he was until I found out the particulars. Later, when it came to me that he was my beloved of thirty years, I worried about myself.
I started noticing how, at lunches or dinners with family or friends, I’d be in the middle of a story, and, zap, I’d lose my thread of thought. What was I saying? What was my point? I knew I was headed somewhere, but where?
I found myself following my fingers with my eyes. I fluttered them in the air—words taking wing, butterflies lifting, floating away.
My skillful listening also lost its way. Another person, a friend, was telling me something fascinating, when, wham, I had no idea what he was talking about. I had no context. What happened before this? Who were the characters? Were they “real” or imagined? The story was irretrievably sucked away. It disappeared.
If I’d been stoned, my forgetfulness could have been explained. But being or not being stoned had nothing to do with it. My mind was adjusting its own altitudes, creating hungers in its own organic garden.
I breathe in the fresh and pleasurable smell of the young man’s musky sweat and spicy deodorant. For him, I am just a body. I realize that. I also realize that the young man initiated this sexual act with me because he thought I wouldn’t know the difference. He barely knows I’m here. So it’s a rape, really. But I’m not thinking of it that way. He’s gentle enough, and, clearly, he’s in a desperate state of dire human need for contact. I believe I will let the poor man see this through and find some modicum of relief. It occurs to me that I, too, might let loose, let go, fly free.
Since I’ve left the conventional human experience and am living on another plane, I give myself permission to see this through the lens of my own transformation. In no way do I justify rape, but I am treating this as an opportunity for my own enhancement. I accept that this sexual act might be my last, or at least my last conscious one, so I am determined not to interrupt until we both are finished. I hope I make it to the end still awake.
I stir and ride the flow. Electrical charges intensify and fireworks shoot through me, relaxing my cells—fingertips to toes. I haven’t used my voice, at least not that I recall, for a long time. But when the young man is lying on me with the wonderful soothing weight men have, like satiated babies, fully released from all that tension they carry in their bodies—and when I, too, am spent, with the bonding hormones triggered in my body flowering into nurturing feelings of love—I speak clearly and easily.
“Well, this has been a nice surprise, Elmer.”
Don’t ask me how I know his name because I can’t remember, but the fact is, I know it. I say, “I lost track of sex except for when I’m naked and young as a jay-bird. So, I thank you.” I think of saying, “I like it better being here than in a dream,” but I’m not sure if that is true—since a dream also happens and you feel it—so I stop speaking.
The young man named Elmer rises up on his elbows and looks at me with the terror of having been caught, identified and spoken to by a corpse come alive. His big eyes open so wide, they stick to his eyelids. Something shifts in his face, and I believe that in this moment, he sees me and realizes my presence as an actual living woman underneath him. I imagine that his mind is exploding.
He backs away so quickly that he almost forgets to pull out his penis and take it with him. I squeeze and hold, feeling it go as the rolled edge of the condom, slick with come, slips out of me. He stands at the end of the bed, pushes his slippery member into his boxer shorts and zips up his pants.
As he tucks in his shirt, he speaks in a trembling voice. “I’m sorry, Miss T, but, telling you like it is, you had your legs spread, and I just wanted to put it in a little bit.”
I’m still pensive as I speak again, “It makes me remember other times and places, somewhere behind me or on the outer edges.” My skin feels satin. Purple and red colors glide around the young man.
“I know it might sound crazy, but I don’t do this. I don’t have sex with people who haven’t said okay, but when you spread your legs that way, I….”
“I can’t say I blame you.”
“Somehow I got it into my head that you actually might like it. I know it’s wrong, but I convinced myself. I’m sorry.”
“I accept that apology. Next time, ask first.”
“You know, I like taking care of you in here. You’re nice. You smile even when you don’t know how to lift your fork to your mouth.”
“I do? Should I be glad about this?”
“Miss Teagarden, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, and I really, really, really hope you’ve forgotten this by tomorrow. Please forget all about it.”
His young, earnest expression strikes me funny. I hear my own laughter. “Don’t worry, young man. I will have forgotten it in five minutes.”
I find that what people call “minutes” or “hours” has nothing to do with time. That clock there? It has nothing to do with time as I know it. My time is in my mind and beyond it. Without measure. My kind of time isn’t “time” as I used to make of it. It’s a substance, a vibration. I float in it. I move through.
I have days I don’t recognize the faces of my beloved children, but I feel their spirits hugging me when nobody’s looking. Not that anybody would see their spirits if they looked. Living in the invisible, I forget about the frantic activity of the mind, the striving for purpose, and the desire for control that I have abandoned.
But then I have days when I see my children and know their names. I know them. I feel them near me.
I see my son by the ocean, far from here. He’s playing in the sand with his wife and children, putting flags around the moat of their sand castle. Their sweet sounds of hilarity lift and carry me. Dionne packs a picnic basket and adds a bottle of wine and a bottle of apple juice. They’re in their car, coming to visit me.
I sit up in my bed and hear myself laugh out loud along with them.
My daughter Chloe, sitting next to my bed, knitting a turquoise and green cap for me, looks up. “What’s happening, Mom?”
“Would you mind helping me spiff up for our visitors?”
“Sure thing.” She gets out a brush. “Who’s coming?”
“Your brother Oliver. He’s driving here from the ocean with Dionne and the children. They’re getting close.”
Chloe holds the brush above my head with her school-marm look. “No, no, Mom. No, no. He’s on vacation. Oliver’s at the shore. This is only their second day. He’s not coming now. He’s not arriving for another week. He will be coming then. They’ll all visit you soon.”
Even though she doesn’t believe me, she brushes my hair, which sticks up like chicken feathers. She dabs a little moisturizer on my face. She shows me a mirror, but I don’t recognize the woman pictured in it.
“Oliver’s here,” I report to Chloe. “He’s parking the car across the field. Oh, what a nice red shirt. He’s carrying a picnic basket, Dionne’s carrying a smaller basket, and the kids are carrying little buckets to show me what they’ve caught. Here they come across the field.”
I float across the field with them, enjoying their banter, the energy linking them one to another as they walk along.
“Mom, I don’t want you to be disappointed, but they’re not here. You’re imagining it.” Chloe kisses my cheek and begins knitting again.
She knits and purls half a row before Oliver walks into the room with his sunburned family. He’s wearing a new red shirt and the children are carrying pails with rocks and little creatures inside them scratching the sides to get out. Gracie and Jasper holler for me to look at what they have. Oliver sets down his picnic basket to hug Chloe, while Dionne uncovers banana bread squares and wraps her arms around me.
Chloe is crying into Oliver’s chest. “I can’t believe it. She saw you coming. Mom even told me what you were wearing. I don’t understand it. Did you just park and walk across the field? This is incredible.”
Oliver and Dionne nod yes, and they all begin to compare notes. I’m more interested seeing the little crabs Gracie and Jasper caught at the beach and listening to how they plan to return them to their ocean home that night.
My son kisses both my cheeks. “Mom, I hadn’t had a chance to tell you we were going to Cape May, so I wanted to tell you in person. It seemed a perfect day to see you.”
“I’m so happy you came. I loved that big sand castle, too.”
“The sand castle?”
“And the flags and moats.”
“Sometimes it happens,” I say as I smile at my son.
Then I remember the young man. I add, “Sometimes it’s a little jarring at first.”
I tend not to talk too much about things invisible to ordinary life. It confuses people. Me, too. Most of the doctors say “hallucinations” are part of The Disease of Alzheimer’s. But what they call Disease, I call the Door to the Next Stage. If I think about it, this so-called disease is simply an early exit from the drudge of doing all the counting and keeping track of things before our bodies die.
Really, who cares if we forget appointments? Or wear diapers? Or can’t remember how to get dressed or comb our hair? I’m getting over it. My body will catch up to my mind and turn to dust soon enough. For the Big Exit, not one of us gets to take along our teeth or our glasses. Not even our eyes. At least now we still have bodies, even when we forget what to do with them. We have our feelings, and, occasionally, our thoughts. Of course I didn’t choose to lose my mind or to leave it behind, but I figure, now that I’m here, I’ll notice when I can and see what I find. I’ll practice my flying and see where I go—without clocks or timing or counting fast and slow.
Kathryn Watterson has written eight books, three of which have been named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times. She’s also written articles, essays and stories, which have appeared in TriQuarterly, Fourth Genre, The Santa Monica Review and other publications, including The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. She’s been teaching Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania since 2003.