Six Stops from Senectitude
Leanne massaged her lower back with one hand as she sifted lazily through her mail with the other. A magazine subscription, Mr. Lee’s mail from next door, and a check from her son. She already knew the answer as she childishly tore apart the envelope, but she still let herself wonder if maybe this time, he sent her a short letter too. The white petals of the envelope’s flap had “Here’s September. Take care, talk soon! F.” scrawled on them.
Talk soon. Okay.
Leanne slurped her last sip of lukewarm coffee and placed her lone mug in the sink before walking into her husband’s room.
“Good morning, Mrs. Cole,” a voice bellowed from inside as soon as she opened the door.
“Morning Phillipe,” she said with a smile as she walked to her husband lying peacefully on his bed, and gently touched his thigh. “Good morning to you too, my love.”
Arthur’s eyes did not open – they hadn’t in five years since the accident had forced him into a coma. The doctors had been optimistic the first year, as the rest of his body physically healed but as time went on, they made it clear to the family that, realistically, Arthur may never wake up.
“But his brain never went to sleep in the first place?” Leanne had asked.
“Hm. Well yes, his brain is technically alive. As always, he can hear and understand you, but Mrs. Cole, the chances of him waking up-“
“Yes but if I don’t wait for him to wake up, are you suggesting I willingly and knowingly kill my husband?”
“Ma, come on,” Frederick had clearly understood the situation a lot better than she had.
“No Frederick, I’m sorry, but you can’t hope hopelessly. If he’s alive mentally, it’s only a matter of time till he physically wakes up again. And he can do it at home if keeping him here is too much work. I’ll take care of him.”
And that had been that. The first two months, Frederick had moved back into his old room and helped her every single day. They would make Arthur slowly exercise, holding his limp body in their arms as they encouraged him. He helped her give him baths, change him, feed him, talk to him. And then one day he finally exploded and told her he had to go back to work, to his own life. Leanne hadn’t understood why her son was raging about going back to his life as he stood at the foot of his bed covered in rocket ships, holding the comic magazine he would obsess over as a teenager. This was his life, the rest was an illusion he had created, wasn’t it? Nevertheless, Frederick went back to work so that the money he sent over every month, plus their savings and pensions, could just about keep his parents alive.
After he moved out, Leanne paced herself with all the work, but she knew how to ask for help when she needed it. And along came a blessing in the form of a 5’4 petite, yet surprisingly strong, man called Phillipe. He moved in with them and became a nice addition to the house, but his life revolved around making sure her husband could have a life soon too, so Leanne spent most of her days bored and alone.
“What’s on the agenda today, Mrs. Cole?”
“Well,” she replied, locking her fingers with Arthur’s, and slowly rotating his wrist. “I have to go to the bank to cash in Frederick’s check, and then buy groceries, and make dinner. Maybe return my sister’s phone call. Maybe finish that documentary I started yesterday evening. Probably won’t end up calling my sister. What have you two planned for today?”
“Oh nothing big today. Exercise. Shower. A little trim around the collars. Maybe some reading? And then the big car race this evening. I told him we can watch together.”
Leanne studied the young boy silently for a minute and then said, “All right, enjoy then. Bye Arthur, I’ll see you when I’m back.” Giving her husband a quick peck and Phillipe a reserved wave, she slipped out of the room.
Old age brought all kinds of surprises, such as suddenly being too blind to drive herself anywhere. In fact most of old age has started to feel like slowly watching yourself wither away, literally. The eyesight just… goes. Knees just buckle. An innocent stretch can leave you paralyzed in an uncomfortable position for hours. Its like in your last years, parts of you start bidding farewell long before all of you bids farewell. Leanne always had weak eyes, and before Arthur’s accident, she would still sneak a quick drive to the drug store every now and then. But the horror that had knocked all the oxygen out of her body when she heard a van had crushed her husband’s spine, kept her from experimenting ever again. Instead, she would walk most of the way everywhere now, and by the time she got tired, she would hop on to the next bus. Lugging her large bag of meaningless groceries, Leanne trudged onto the bus, and sat on the empty seat right at the back.
Plopping down onto the rough corduroy, she let out a deep breath and looked around. The bus was not that crowded, because it was 3:22 p.m., which meant most of the children – so at least half of the population – were either on a school bus, in their own cars, or walking. They barely felt the need to use normal buses to go home, which meant there was enough room for her seat, and a seat for her bag of groceries.
From her musty-smelling vantage point, Leanne studied the rest of the people in the bus. Some more old women, some young, a couple of men twiddling their thumbs over their phones, another one bouncing his baby on his large knee, and a girl cradling her pregnant stomach two rows ahead of Leanne. The girl had a thick black bob cut that tickled her chin as she rested her head on the cold glass window. Poor girl, she must be exhausted. That’s the one thing Leanne remembers the most vividly from her own pregnancy; the never-ending fatigue that would drown your bones while the clock mocked you because the whole day still lay ahead of you. Leanne couldn’t see the girl’s face from the back very well, but she could see her small dark palms flatten against her large stomach as she slowly massaged it. The bus then suddenly jolted to a stop, and the girl slowly stood up, her stomach rising in the air before the rest of her. She turned to her side so she could slide out of the seats and into the aisle, and as she turned around, she locked eyes with Leanne.
A straight fringe lent a curtain over her forehead, making her face seem even smaller than it actually was. Younger too. Her large hazel eyes had swiveled around the bus before they landed on Leanne – the old white woman staring at her from the corner. Instead of getting nervous, the girl’s face broke effortlessly into a wide smile that Leanne could not help but return. Then she left.
Two stops later, Leanne got off as well, carrying the groceries on her hip, the same way she would carry Frederick. When she walked into her small, single-story house, Phillipe was standing in the kitchen, emptying Arthur’s laundry into the washing machine underneath the counter. His blonde hair had been pulled back into a low pony, and he had dressed out of his nightclothes into a black button down and jeans. From behind, he looked like Frederick going through his teenage rebellion phase.
“Hello, Mrs. Cole! Good day?”
“Yes Phillipe, decent day. How is Arthur?” she asked, even though she knew the response.
“Fine ma’am. You know, my daughter sent me a letter from Paris! My wife helped her write it, I read it out to Mr. Cole too.”
She had no interest in standing there and listening to a letter in a language she didn’t understand, but Leanne smiled encouragingly and nodded at him. Phillipe unfolded a small yellow letter from his front pocket, parting his lips for a language that sounded like a soft melody.
“She wrote it in French,” he explained unnecessarily, and decides to translate as he goes along. “She says ‘Hello Papa, I miss you. Today in school we learned about families, and I told them my family does not live together because my Papa has to go to the Americas’” – he laughed at her small blunder, and Leanne smiled at his excitement – “’for work, but when he comes back, he will take me to the movies again. Mama says she loves you. I love you.’” Phillipe looked up at her, his face radiating so much light that Leanne had to look away to avoid complete blindness.
“That’s so lovely, she sounds absolutely charming. She’s turning six, isn’t she?” Leanne said sincerely, placing the milk and juice in the fridge.
“She is,” he smiled, resting against the washing machine. “It was difficult for me to leave them behind while I work here, but some things one has to do for their child, you know? France is a beautiful, great country, but I want my daughter to have more than I did. And I couldn’t make that kind of money with my education back home. America is bigger, so it is better for me. But I miss her every day.”
“Yes I know,” Leanne said, folding the last empty grocery bag into a square before putting it with the other extra bags in the drawer. “I’m sure you miss them terribly. You can give them a call from our home phone if you would like.” She exchanged one last smile with him before retreating to her own bedroom.
When you are sixty-eight years old with a back problem, an unconscious husband and an aloof son, boredom begins to feel natural. Leanne could not remember the last time she wasn’t bored. The next day she decided to go for a walk to the park, but about halfway through the circumference she was in too much pain to continue. Instead, she rubbed on top of the stabbing sensation as she limped her way to the bus stop, finally collapsing in a seat half an hour later.
She took long, dramatic deep breaths as she wiped the beads of warm sweat on her pasty forehead, pushing her grey hair back. A vendor at the park had miraculously shown up looking like a mirage, and Leanne insisted on buying his coldest bottle of water. She rested her burning cheeks against the wet, icy plastic bottle and closed her eyes, waiting for the bus to start moving again. Her blue dress was soaked from the back, and Leanne let the sour feeling of first self-pity, and then bitterness towards the self-pity, swim inside of her silently, slowly shaking her head at her own misery.
As the bus begins to move again, she opened her eyes and let them swivel around the bus, landing on a familiar young girl. The pregnant girl from yesterday. Today she wore large, flappy maroon pants and a white top that stretched perfectly over her rounded exterior. She had pulled her fringe back with a glossy black clip and was reading a book out loud in whispers, as if she was reading to someone sitting very close to her. Or inside of her.
As the bus jolted to its stop again, she slowly stood up, supporting her back as her stomach rose in the air, and then dragged the rest of her body behind. While turning around to slide out of the aisle again, her eyes landed back on Leanne, and she smiled. Leanne smiled back.
When Leanne walked into her house a little while later, the landline was ringing through the empty corridors, but no one was answering the phone. She hung her scarf on a stand, and hobbled over to the large phone, settling down on the sofa next to it before answering.
“Hey Ma, what’s up?”
“Frederick?! Oh hello sweetheart! Ohh, it’s good to hear from you!”
“Yeah, you sound good too. Did you get the money?”
“Yes yes honey I did,” Leanne leaned back and stroked the velvet on the sofa with one hand. “Is that why you called?”
“Well yes, I just wanted to make sure the money got to you, no problem. I hate sending a check in the mail Ma, I can just have this money wired to your account and then-“
“No Frederick, please don’t complicate this any further. Your father understood the bank, and paying bills and all of that. I know what I know, and that’s that,” Leanne sighed, and then said, “So how’s work going?”
“Work’s good. Been busy you know? How’s Dad?”
“Dad’s the same.”
“Yeah so, about Dad… I spoke to Dr. Sultan the other day. He said that in the past five years there has been little to no improvement in his condition-”
“Frederick, I don’t want to have this conversation with you.”
“You never do but we need to-”
“No we don’t! You don’t come see your father, you can’t just make decisions for him over the phone. If you want to be a part of his life, you need to come here and do that, come be a part of the family here first!”
“Ma not everything can work the way it used to! I don’t live there anymore, I live and work here, my girlfriend is here-”
Frederick paused to probably curse himself, and then said, “Yes. Hannah. I’ve been with her for a year now.”
“A y- You’ve been with her for a year and I hear about her now?” Leanne felt her fingertips going cold as the blood rushed to her head.
“Come on, please don’t get dramatic about this Ma. Yes I have been with her, but I’ve been so busy, she’s rarely come up when we talk you know?”
“Yes I do Frederick. I have to go now, prepare dinner. Thank you for calling, bye honey.” She hung up the phone and hung her head low, grey waves escaping her bun to cradle her cheeks.
The next day, Leanne decided to go meet Dr. Sultan herself without making an appointment. She knew he would never meet her without one, but that kept the little candle of hope alive in her – that she won’t actually ever have to have this conversation. She donned on her most ‘take-me-seriously’ grey tweed dress, tied her hair in a neat bun and put on pink lipstick that sunk into the wrinkles along the corners of her mouth.
Before leaving, she sat with Arthur while Phillipe took a shower. She read the newspaper out loud to him, making the kind of comments she expected him to make if he could have voiced them.
“Local boy won National Spelling Bee,” she read in a monotone voice. “That seems a little boring to read, never mind that. You know though, our boy called yesterday.”
Folding the paper and placing it on her husband’s side, she continued. “He doesn’t even feel like our boy anymore Art. I don’t know what happened. Remember that joke we used to make? ‘Have one kid, how badly could we mess up?’ Well sometimes I think, having one kid also means how likely is it for us to get it right?”
“Good morning Mrs. Cole,” Phillipe said as he walked back into the room. She nodded her hello at him, kissed her husband softly and left.
To avoid sweating before she arrived, Leanne decided to take the bus the whole way there. She settled into her seat at the back, watching a man dig through his nose and then flick them under the seat. But at the next stop, the pregnant girl got back on the bus, and made her way to the seat next to Leanne.
“Hi,” she said in a soft, yet deep voice as she gently lowered herself onto the seat. Leanne smiled back but said nothing.
The girl looked different today. Her face was wet and shiny, her hair pulled tightly back with several clips. She was massaging her stomach again, but her face kept contorting. Noticing that Leanne was watching her, she whispered, “My water broke at the bus stop. I’m fine, I called everyone I needed to. This bus stops not far from the hospital stop anyway though, right?”
“Ye-yes, but my God, your water broke?” Leanne replied in a hushed, aggressive whisper of her own. “Sweetie, how far apart are your contractions?”
“Seven minutes, maybe six I think. They started off stronger than I expected from the beginni-” she paused to stretch her face out in a grimace, her dark cheeks turning a bloody red until she finally exhaled.
“Okay, well we should be at the hospital in two more stops, so hold on now,” Leanne said, putting one arm around her shoulders and wrapping her fingers around her free hand. “Where’s your husband?”
“Don’t have one.”
“Oh, uh I see. Um then, boyfriend?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Well, the father of the baby?”
“He knows he is supposed to come. I made all the calls.”
“Good, good. Well, you’ll be fine. I’ve had my own son, so trust me. This is the worst part of it all, it’ll be over soon. And then it’s all good from there.”
“Yes. My son and I- well nothing was harder than this.”
“Oh fuck!” she moaned, wincing in pain as she crouched over her stomach, and lets part of her weight rest against Leanna.
A couple of the passengers in the front spoke to the bus driver and he took a detour to the hospital so they made it in time. As the bus pulled in front of the hospital directly rather than the bus stop down the street, a young blonde couple helped the girl into a wheelchair while some paramedics asked her rushed questions. Leanne watched her from the door of the bus, deciding not to get off. The girl looked up at her and smiled her gratitude before the bus pulled away.
Leanne sat in the bus until it took rounds and dropped her back at the stop she had gotten on that morning, her own agenda for the day slipping away from her consciousness. As she walked back home, she thought about the girl bringing a new life into this world at such a young age, without a husband.
Upon returning home, she found her own husband having his beard shaved by a singing Phillipe.
“Oh you are back Mrs. Cole! Everything all right at the doctor’s?”
“Uh yeah, there were no appointments available.” She walked in and sat by Arthur, stroking his long fingers.
“Ah yes of course. Must be hard to meet then. I wonder if doctors ever have time to meet anyone really! Even for their families!”
“I’m starting to think that no one has time anymore Phillipe.”
Phillipe paused to clean the razor as he studied her silently. Crouching back over her husband’s face, he said, “You know, my own Papa was an interesting man. Every evening, we had to sit in his library and read the newspaper together. And after dinner we would eat our deserts in front of the television. He called it family time, all of us had to be there for it. And his father? They had no television or anything, so they used to sit and discuss books together, read together. My wife used to knit with her older two sisters and mother. Families change the way they work, generation to generation, my Mama said. Look at me. I am here in America while my daughter is starting to lose her first teeth. Next time I see her, I won’t recognize her mouth, it will be full of new teeth! Times change, people change, families change, we adapt. But it doesn’t make any one family, or any one person, less meaningful than the other. Don’t you think so?”
Leanne chuckled at the strange man working so hard around the grooves of her husband’s mouth.
“Phillipe, you need to buy an iPhone like Frederick. He says you can use Facewatch… or no what was it? Talk someting? No… Facetime I think.”
Phillipe laughed and nudged Arthur’s shoulder with his elbow jokingly, “Yes Mrs. Cole, Facetime. But no ma’am, I have this phone so I can take pictures, and Adela has the iPhone, so she sends me pictures. No no, I see my family, but I don’t really see them either. But that’s the point Mrs. Cole, it doesn’t matter, because it is still my family. Not any less meaningful, right?”
Leanne smiled and nodded, then used a soft napkin to wipe the leftover foam off her husband’s face. “Well, I’m going to go take a short nap.” As she walked past the duo, she gave Phillipe a fleeting pat on the back.
Her room was a room of ghosts. The ghost of Frederick’s crib was in the corner, which was now the spot for her knitting basket and rocking chair. The ghost of their king-size waterbed bordered their new, hard bed that was much smaller and she slept in alone, but better for her back. But most importantly, as she lay on that hard bed, she felt Arthur’s ghost undress behind her, lay his ghost clothes on the empty armchair, and wrap his ghost arms around her in bed, his ghost nose nuzzled in her rippled neck.
That evening Leanne woke up with a flu that kept her in bed for the rest of the week. Other than cooking and knitting, Phillipe did all the other work in the house, and she had never been more grateful for his loud, slightly overwhelming presence. Finally, on Saturday, she got out of bed and told him she wanted to go for a walk to the park. Of course, the walk to the park inevitably became a bus ride back home, but she was happy to be back on the bus.
Her eyes scoured the familiar and non-familiar faces in the crowded bus until the most familiar face stepped in. It was the pregnant girl who wasn’t pregnant anymore. Leanne watched as she shuffled inside, her face devoid of any make up but still glowing. She let her handbag slip off her shoulder as she sat right in front of Leanne, placing the bulky bag in her lap now that her stomach was out of the way. After a moment’s pause, Leanne leaned forward and tapped her shoulder, and she turned around.
“Oh, hello!” she said with a large, knowing smile. “You’re the lady from last week aren’t you? You helped me through my contractions?”
“Yes, well barely honey,” Leanne replied, blushing immediately. “You weren’t in the bus that long. But how did the delivery go? How’s the new baby?”
“It went well, thank you for asking,” she said politely enough.
“But the baby? Um, boy or girl?” Leanne asked, hungry for details.
“Girl. 7 pounds, red hair. Beautiful.”
“Oooh how lovely! How is motherhood treating you?”
“I’m not her mother, that’s one half of the couple with the wheelchair; did you see them?”
Leanne’s eyes exploded in the form of a response. “Oh, uh yes I did. I sure did. Sorry, I’m so sorry. That must have been difficult. I am sorry for asking so many questions, I just didn’t-”
“No, it’s okay,” the girl replied. “Really. I was a surrogate for the family. I needed to make some money for college, and they were very nice people who needed some help too. It worked out you know, I start school next fall, and they have a baby girl.”
“Yes, well congratulations,” Leanne stuttered and settled back again, unwilling to continue the conversation.
But the girl went on, “Thank you. Good things never come easy I suppose, that’s what my older sister used to say. Plus, no family is really ever normal right?” she snickered slightly and added, “So this girl will have a cool story to tell. And so do her parents. And so do I. I got to meet some amazing people, and now I get to go on to the next phase. It’s slowly all working out, I think. Plus, I’ve enjoyed my nightly glasses of wine again.”
She didn’t wait long for Leanne to say anything, snickering to herself and turning her head to look outside, with headphones plugged into her ears. Leanne didn’t have a lot to say anymore anyway.
Fifteen minutes later, the bus stopped two streets away from her house, so she got off, still thinking about the girl. And Frederick. And Phillipe. And Arthur.
Her house smelled of herbal tea as soon as she walked in. Phillipe had made her a cup too and left it in the microwave with a small note on the microwave door that said: “Good for throat!”
She smiled and walked into Arthur’s room, sipping the warmth that soothed her insides as it made its way down her tightened throat. Phillipe saw her with the cup and smiled.
“Thank you for this. If you don’t mind though, could we have a moment alone?” He nodded and walked out silently.
Leanne set the cup on the table and pulled out her cellphone. 46 messages. It had been three weeks since she had looked at it anyway. Why bother with messages when you can just call the landline? Shaking her head, she slowly dialed Frederick’s number. As it rang, she carefully lowered herself on the soft mattress, and fit her petite body like a puzzle piece around her husband’s, her head on his shoulder, their breaths moving their bodies as they lay in the cocoon they had spent a lifetime together building.