© Kristine Simelda, 2019
Snow is falling outside the lobby of Fond Memories retirement home. A brisk wind blows huge flakes up against the revolving glass doors where they pause as if pleading to get in before melting in disappointment. Believe me; they’re the lucky ones.
For them the end comes quickly. But once you’ve been taken prisoner by extended care, longevity feels more like a curse than a blessing. Abandoned by our families, robbed of our dignity, we old folks are condemned to a life of boredom, pills, and pain. It’s as if some evil warden has tacked an invisible message on the bulletin board:
ATTENTION SENIORS! THERE WILL BE NO MORE FUN HERE ON EARTH!
We’re expected to forget all about worldly pleasures of yore, like skating on moonlit ponds, or floating on the sea under the topical sun, or making love any way, any day. Well, I for one refuse to surrender and not remember! And since the name of this moldy institution is Fond Memories, what better way to pass the time than by recalling pleasantries from the past? I’d be willing to bet every one of us has a fascinating story to tell if only we had the courage to share it.
Humph. Entertaining ourselves by telling our stories might have been a good suggestion, but what I failed to realize was that most of us seniors revert to extreme fantasy in our old age. You’d be amazed at some of the tall tales that get passed off as the truth around here. So far this week we’ve run away to join the circus, been held captive by aliens from outer space, and beaten the odds at Vegas. And as if all that wasn’t outrageous enough, today it’s my turn to pander my stories from paradise.
Wrinkled faces atop feeble bodies gather around my hospital bed in search of deliverance from the tedium of assisted living at exactly ten o’clock. Rheumy eyes sparkle, chapped lips part, and sagging ears strain in anticipation of transportation to a warmer, more welcoming place despite our pathetic situation.
“Looks like it’s going to be a slow day for visitors on account of the snow,” says Julia, the nice old lady installed in the bed next to me. “How about spinning us one of your spicy yarns from paradise to get our blood flowing?”
I wink. “No problem. As we used to say on the island, ‘The Carnival’s not over until the last lap.’”
Actually, I did live on a Caribbean island during my pre-menopausal middle age. But these folks aren’t interested in the day to day particulars of what it was like to lose my cultural identity and surrender to unfamiliar whims of nature and fate. Except for a couple of disparaging old men, they want to hear a fairytale, a carefully embroidered lie that begins with ‘once upon a time’ and finishes with a happy ending. So who am I to disappoint?
“Once upon a time, there was a forty-five-year-old woman who outwardly enjoyed an ideal life. She was married to a handsome man, lived in a lovely home, had a good job, and two grown sons she could be proud of.”
Julia squeals. “I’ll bet that woman was you!”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I say craftily.
Julia cocks her head like an expectant dog waiting to catch a bone.
“The woman should have been happy, yet when she looked inside her heart, she felt something was missing. So she left her husband and her home and her family to search for a more meaningful existence.”
“She was a self-centered bitch!” Harry, a half-deaf gentleman leaning on a walker hollers.
I smile. “Let’s just say she traveled the world looking for a lifestyle that better suited her disposition.”
“Yeah. What was so wrong with that?” asks Julia.
“Ayen,” I say in Creole. “Nothing.”
When Julia giggles, her trust and her innocence spur me on. “When our heroine first laid eyes on the island, she thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. The emerald green mountains, crystal clear rivers, and thundering waterfalls spoke to her like nothing ever had before. The fragrance of the tropical flowers and the balmy sea breeze saturated her senses and captured her soul. Not to mention the handsome Creole people. They were so healthy and happy that she decided to make the island her home. So she gave away all her material possessions and moved south.”
“Why in the world would she do such a thing?” asks Ethel, an ancient snob bedecked with gold jewelry.
“She wanted to be free,” I say.
A sour puss in a wheelchair gives me the raspberries. I think his name is Walter.
“It’s true,” I insist.
What is the problem with these old folks, anyway? Have they forgotten the thrill of starting over, the excitement of embarking on a grand adventure? I decide to bypass the peanut gallery and speak directly to my roommate.
“Julia, can you imagine living in a house without glass or screens in the windows, without locks on the doors?”
“Ah,” she sighs, “fresh air.”
“The shutters of the woman’s seaside cottage were always open to the sun and the trade winds, and the bamboo curtain that served as a door parted for anyone who cared to enter.”
Ethel frowns. “Like who?”
“The parade of local characters that visited was both colorful and amusing, especially a good-looking young Rastafarian who was eager to entertain the fantasies of a middle-aged white woman determined to go native.”
“Her boyfriend was a black man?” Harry asks obtusely.
I nod. “Yeah, man. He was a genuine West Indian.”
A look of total bliss wraps itself around Julia’s desiccated face, but I notice Ethel has started to drift off. Best I pick up the pace before I lose the rest of my listeners.
“Our heroine and her paramour had just finished another extraordinary round of early morning lovemaking when they heard the conch shell blowing the signal that fresh fish were on sale in the village. She wrapped her tanned body in a printed sarong, he pulled on a pair of cutoff jeans over his bare bottom, and they strolled hand in hand down to the beach to inspect the catch. There were many tantalizing species on display. They selected a large grouper, which she grilled with slices of plantain and rings of pineapple for breakfast. Then they stripped off their clothes and fed each other chunks of ripe mango, and she prayed that the juice dripping onto their naked bodies would help them stick together.”
Julia giggles like a child tickled ruthlessly, but the Walter is not amused. Grumbling something about my being a damned liar, he rolls his wheelchair down the hall toward the washroom.
“She left her lover sleeping and went for a swim in the sea. Tropical fish surrounded her while she snorkeled amongst the vibrant corals. As she emerged from the sparkling blue water, frigate birds and pelicans swooped overhead. Wandering the streets of the village on her way home, she stopped to chat with anyone who had something interesting to show or tell. Reggae music pounded along with her heartbeat in the shop where she purchased a bottle of local rum.
Harry snorts. “Probably an alcoholic.”
“Back at the cottage, a heavenly aroma greeted her. Her Rasta boyfriend, who was an excellent cook, had reinvented the grouper in a Creole sauce for supper. He relieved her of the bottle and kissed her in the style of the French before putting the finishing touches on the dish. She was relaxing in the hammock on the veranda, awaiting the legendary green flash, when he appeared bearing two coconut shells awash with rum punch. As she sipped her drink, he lowered his body beside her. She opened like a flower when he loosened her sarong. It was hard to say which was more brilliant; the flash of the sun as it sank into the sea or his smile as he nuzzled her bare breasts.”
Now I believe I have everyone’s attention. Even Ethel is wide-awake.
“When he tipped her gently from the hammock, she was as moist as the sea breeze and he was as hard as the tiles. Food forgotten, they lay side by side moaning in pleasure while moonlight danced uninhibited over the waves.”
Clapping her hands like a toddler, Julia pulls the sheet over her head. Walter returns from the washroom, followed by Melody, a young black nurse, pushing a cart loaded with what passes for food around here. While I wait for my lunch, I gaze out at the winter wonderland and take a sip of chemical water from a bent plastic straw.
“We used straws to drink punch from a coconut shells on the island,” I muse, remembering.
Melody grins as she adjusts my pillow. “I’ll just bet you did.”
“Did I mention there were flying fish leaping in the sea and fresh fruit falling from the trees?” I say, pushing the soggy food around my plate with my fork.
Melody pats my bony, age-spotted hand before swishing on. “You sure do have a great imagination, ma’am.”
She’s right, you know. I always did have a vivid imagination. Still, I knew how to draw a line between true and false—that is, up until now. But since I’ve been hanging around the rest of these impostors, I’ve noticed that I, too, have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction, especially in the realm of yesteryear. Locked in this concrete box, breathing stale, recycled air, memories have a way of adjusting themselves to fit the mood of the moment, to the point that forgetting is sometimes a blessing.
Truth be told, I’m hard pressed to remember that Rasta man’s name.
Most folks nap, play cards, or watch TV after lunch, but the storm has intensified and we invalids are off balance. The lights blink, and then they go out altogether. When the generator kicks on, a friendly fire springs to life in the artificial fireplace, but apprehension hangs in the air. A nervous audience regroups around me. Even Harry and Walter seem anxious to hear more of my story from paradise.
“A few years later, the woman moved away from the seaside and bought an abandoned estate in the mountains that needed lots of work,” I continue. “Luckily, her next boyfriend was quite the handyman.”
“What happened to the Rasta man?” asks Harry.
“He got his Green Card and moved to the States.”
Julia has dreamy look in her eyes. “But did she really love the handyman?” she asks.
One glance at her tucked alertly in her bunk gives provides the answer. “Of course she did.”
She snuggles down deeper in bed, apparently pleased.
“Life in the country was sweet. Coconuts, avocados, and citrus abounded on the property, so there was no danger of starving to death. And when they were thirsty, they drank clear, cool water from the river.”
Walter sucks his teeth. “I’m surprised she didn’t die of dysentery,” he mumbles.
“The handyman had plenty of energy and was ready and willing to help her renovate the old wooden house and restore the land. She appreciated his enthusiasm, and was forever finding appropriate ways to compensate him—new tools, work boots, a pick-up truck—”
“How was the sex?” asks Harry.
But in reality keeping the handyman satisfied was almost as exhausting as trying to keep my stories straight while entertaining these pitiful seniors. Julia appears to be fast asleep, so I decide it’s time to disable the happy ending once and for all.
“But paradise had its price,” I say, sighing.
Ethel arches one of her painted on eyebrows. “What do you mean by that?”
“The woman wanted too much. She continued to invent projects when she should have been content with what she already had.”
Walter is delighted. “Naturally,” he says.
“The house and the garden were looking good, but all that water from the river was wasting, so why not build a swimming pool? The handyman only needed to mix about a hundred bags of cement by hand. And since there was so much unused pastureland, why couldn’t she have a horse? All he had to do was fence in five acres and build a stable. And while he was at it, why not add on a guest cottage now that eco-tourism was in style so she could have someone more like herself to talk to?”
Harry nods. “Same old story—insatiable woman takes advantage of hardworking man,”
There is grumbling from the other members of the posse while they consider his point. Walter deliberately passes gas and then pilots his wheelchair down the hall again. Ethel and her entourage, who have probably decided the story sounds too much like real life, follow him.
Only Harry, who is perched on the edge of his walker like a vulture waiting to pounce, remains. “Needless to say, the handyman soon became disillusioned,” I say confidentially. “No matter how hard he worked, the woman always demanded more. When he brought his friends home to enjoy the fruits of his labor, she made it clear it was her place, and she made the rules.”
“Let me guess. No smoking, no drinking, and no carousing,” says Harry.
“Correct! But the lovely lady who owned the neighborhood rum shop was more than delighted to welcome him and all his thirsty partners. Needless to say, our heroine was furious. Yet the more she ranted and raved, the longer the handyman stayed away. Eventually he moved in with the local lady, took over the rum shop, and sued the white woman for the loss of his time and his talent. Bankrupt and humiliated, she left the island and ended up locked in a dreadful institution that reeked of urine and bleach.”
Harry pounds his walking apparatus up and down in mock applause and clomps away.
“Have a nice day,” I holler after him.
When I check the clock, I’m surprised to find there are still three more hours until dinner. I spend some time rearranging the ugly synthetic nightgowns in the metal drawer beside my bed wishing I could trade them in on sexy sarongs. Lord knows I try to keep my spirits up despite my depressing surroundings. But I still resent the way my children whisked me away from the sun-drenched tropics (for my own good, they said) and installed me in this gloomy dungeon. That’s the younger generation for you. They think they control how the world turns with their money, gadgets, and technology, but they know nothing of the ways of the heart. One thing for sure, people on the island would never abandon a close relative to the care of total strangers. They had too much respect for their elders, no matter how inconvenient or embarrassing they might become.
Well, the good news is that I forgive all of them—my children, my ex-husband, the Rasta man, the handyman, even Walter the cynic, Harry the heckler, and Ethel the snob. Why would I make waste time wallowing in resentment now that it is so short?
As I watch the counterfeit flames dance merrily around the fake logs in the fireplace, I begin to feel sleepy. I roll over to face the wall anticipating the blessing of a catnap. Whew. It’s a good thing Julia wasn’t awake when I related the unhappy ending to the heckler. It would probably kill her if she ever heard a routine liar like me tell the truth.
I toss and I turn, but sleep just won’t come. When I peek over to see if Julia is awake, I notice the blanket covering her body is completely still—no twitching, no snoring, not even rhythmic breathing. “Julia, are you alright?”
I press the button for the nurse, and after what seems like an eternity, Melody glides into the room. I point at Julia. “She isn’t breathing!”
When the nurse peels back the sheet, my roommates face is an unnatural shade of blue. Melody checks her pulse and shakes her head. I watch helplessly while she administers CPR. Someone calls for an ambulance, but it’s delayed because of the weather. By the time the paramedics arrive, it’s too late. A gang of voyeurs assembles by Julia’s bedside as they attend to her body. I am so dismayed that I lash out at the nearest living person.
“Take a good look, Harry! You caused this with your habitual cynicism! Let’s just hope that Julia had already passed away before you goaded me into actually telling you the truth!”
Harry bows his head and turns away.
“I’m so sorry, Julia,” I whisper after he’s gone. “I didn’t mean any harm. I just wanted everybody to feel like there was still a reason to be alive . . . and then I blew it.” Tears roll down my cheeks. “You were a good friend and a great listener. Even though I’m sure you suspected my stories were too far-fetched to be true, you never let on; you stayed right with me all the way to the end.”
When a male nurse rolls the gurney bearing my roommate’s body through an exit reserved especially for such purposes, I call out so everyone can hear. “But maybe the story doesn’t always have to be so dramatic. Maybe a happy ending can consist of a simple pleasure like a soft pillow or a kind word, even if things didn’t turn out as expected.”
Julia’s body disappears from view when the metal doors, propelled by an icy wind, slam shut. The snow that has blown inside the room swirls around the foot of my bed as if bidding me farewell, and then it rises as luminous vapor in the suddenly balmy air.