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From "The Old Woman and Other Lesbian Stories" Copyright © 2011 by Q. Kelly
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Jessica's blue eyes gleamed. Mischief pulled her lips back for one of these Jessicasmiles that often caused me to wonder how I ended up being her best friend and roommate. "So," Jessica said, "how about this?"
"Forget it." I had no desire to hear what was behind her sly grin.
"Come on," she chided. "You said you—"
"I know what I said." I had asked Jessica to help me meet people, to help me break out of my cocoon. To help me get over Janet.
Jessica reached for a box of crackers. Nip Chee. What an odd name. Nip chee. Sounded like what would gurgle from the throat of a choking cat. Nip chee! Nip chee!
Real cheddar cheese, no less. Nip chee!
I lowered my gaze to the floor. The supermarket had blindingly shiny floors, and I saw a better use for "Nip chee" than a strangling cat. Say you're walking along, minding your own business, and someone forgot to put out a "Use caution. Floor is wet" sign, and you slip.
"Nip chee!" you might cry in alarm as you slipped.
I eased the crackers of out of Jessica's hands and replaced the box. "Jessica, look. No crazy ideas, okay? Just introduce me to people. Go with me to parties. Normal stuff, you know?"
"In case you haven't noticed, that is what I've been doing. And guess what? It ain't working. The next woman to walk into this aisle, you ask her out. On a date. No fudging about it."
I laughed. "Whatever. No."
"Come on, it'll be fun."
"Yeah, I'll be asking out some ugly homophobic chick or something. No thanks. Or..." My chest tightened. "Or Janet. I bet she'll be the next person."
Jessica sighed and ran a hand through her closely cropped brown hair. "Janet's clear across the country!"
"Thanks for reminding me."
"It's been six months! Have some fun."
I pretended to survey a row of peanuts. But it was Janet's face, her green eyes, her long black hair, her crooked nose thanks to a softball injury, that burned my vision. "I appreciate this, really. You putting up with me and all that. But I'm not going to ask some random stranger out. I'm not you. You know I can't do that."
Jessica shrugged. "Fine. Either you do it, or I'll do it for you."
Indignation swelled inside me. Envy, too. Most people would not dare follow through on such a threat, but Jessica would. "Fine," I muttered. "Fine, I'll do it myself. How do I look?"
Jessica surveyed me. "Wonderful, as always. You're a heartbreaker. The next woman to walk in here is very lucky."
"What? You're great, and you're hot. Start acting like it."
I shook my head and wandered a few steps to the popcorn.
Jessica was at my heels. "Stop that. Stop avoiding."
I fingered a box of diet popcorn and then turned to Jessica. I loved her. I really did, but there were times I wanted to strangle her. It was amazing that we managed to be best friends since childhood, and then roommates. We were complete opposites, both in looks and personality. Where she was short, dark-haired and butch, I was feminine, willowy and blonde. I was shy and passive, while Jessica was outgoing and made friends simply by snapping her fingers.
"Why do I put up with you?" I wondered aloud.
Jessica laughed. "The question is why I put up with you."
"You're not really gonna make me do this, are you? What if—"
"Shh! Shh! Someone's coming!"
A woman turned into the aisle, and my heart stopped. I froze. I wanted to die. Please don't let this be happening. The woman was a tiny mouse of a person. She was a light-skinned black, she was old, and by old I meant old as in she had a slightly stooped walk, wrinkles, a flowered dress, the whole enchilada. At least she did not have a cane. I had dated black women, and her race was not a problem. But her age. Gawd, her age! Ohnonono. Wait a second. Relief washed over me; surely Jessica would not make me ask this woman out. I was saved, at least for now.
Jessica cocked an eyebrow and nudged me in the ribs. "Hunh. Well, have fun."
"This is not funny. That woman probably has memories of the Civil War!"
Jessica snorted. "We had a deal. And, look, she's not wearing a wedding ring."
"Damn it, Rach, what's your problem? What's wrong with meeting new people? This could be a very interesting woman. All you have to do is ask her out."
I sneaked another glance at the oldster. "Fine." I figured the chick would say no. Why would she say yes? So, I'd ask her out and would never have to see her again. It would get Jessica off my back. "Fine, Jess," I muttered. "But you owe me."
I gathered in a deep breath and sidled up to the newcomer. I felt stupid, horribly foolish, all these synonyms: idiotic, imprudent, thoughtless, irrational.
The oldster peered up at me through her spectacles. She had blue eyes, beautiful, deep blue eyes so out of sync with the color of her skin. I was caught off guard and looked down at her stupidly. I was five feet eight inches, and she was a good five or six inches shorter.
"Yes, dear?" she asked.
"Um, ah," I began. "I was wondering if you, ah..."
"Gracious! You have gorgeous hair. Silky and light."
My hands automatically flew to my hair. I felt for strands out of place. "Thank you. Well, see, ma'am, I was..."
The oldster's lips twisted into a broad smile. Her teeth were healthy, white and even. No old-woman pearlies in that mouth. Dentures, probably. "Am I in your way?" she asked.
"You're not blocking me. I was wondering if, well, if you'd, well, could you shake your head for me? Like you're saying no."
"I don't understand."
"Right. I'm not sure I understand, either." Nip chee! Nip chee! I would have to force the words out before paralysis seized me. "Would you like to maybegoouttoeatsometimeorseeamovie, and you can say no, you definitely can say no. I understand completely. So." I jerked a thumb toward Jessica. "I'll just go back and tell her that you said no."
The woman frowned, and bumps crackled my skin. I hated doing this. This sweet, kind old lady must be thinking Jessica and I were playing a joke on her, picking on her, making fun of an old chick. "See," I said, "my friend thought that—it's a long story. I don't want to bore you."
"Are you asking me out on a date?" Eagerness laced the woman's voice.
"Uh." She's not going to say yes, is she? Oh, God.
"Are you a lesbian?" the old woman asked.
"Uh. Yes. Yes, I'm gay. But you're not, obviously, so I'm just going to tell my friend you said—"
"Tell her I said yes. I'll do it."
I misheard. "Pardon?"
She shrugged. "It's on my list of things to do before I die. Go out with a woman. And you're a beauty. You're sweet. Your hair is to die for." She extended a liver-spotted hand to me. "I'm Ada Janelle Smith. Pleased to meet you."
I did not speak to Jessica for five days, but Jessica spoke to me plenty. She told me to get over myself, that I would have fun, learn new stuff, hear interesting stories. Maybe even make a new friend.
I did not care. I did not reply. I was mortified. I hated Jessica. I, Rachel, twenty-five years old and a paralegal, had a date with a geezer who probably had grandchildren older than I. Wonderful. Just wonderful, thanks to Jessica.
I could have called Ada and canceled, but I did not. Above all, I was a nice, polite person, and I respected this woman enough to not break our plans. However, I had never been good with people: kids, teenagers, the elderly, you name it. I could not imagine how my evening with Ada would resemble any sort of fun, for Ada and me both.
I went to see Ada anyway, on my fifth day of not speaking to Jessica.
Ada and I met at seven p.m. at a Chinese restaurant. "You look beautiful," Ada said, and I felt my cheeks flush. I was easily embarrassed. I had spent a good couple of hours fussing over my appearance,although I was not sure why. Maybe to show Ada the respect she deserved. I had chosen my best black pants and a dressy white shirt. My hair was pulled into a bun, but some strands had broken free. I went light on the makeup, as usual. It was just lip gloss and foundation for me.
"Thank you," I replied. "You look nice too."
Ada beamed, and I could not help but smile back. She had a contagious grin, and she did look good. No flowered, old-woman dress this time. She was decked out in a sparkly black shirt and black pants that showed off her small, trim body. She was not wearing her spectacles, and so her blue eyes were more lively and vivid. There was no denying it, though: she was still an old woman.
Over cashew chicken and lo mein, Ada told me about her slave grandmother and the blond-haired master that passed on his blue eyes to Ada and her older brother. Ada married young, at sixteen, and had two children. When she was thirty-two, her husband, Steve, was hit by a car and died.
Ada told me about her children, grandchildren and great-grandchild. Her youngest grandchild was my age, twenty-five. This fact did not mortify me as much as it would have before. For long stretches of time, I forgot I was on a "date" with a great-grandmother. We clicked all night long. Ada 's voice was rich, honeyed, and when she shared her stories, she was decades younger. Age flew off her face. Her eyes sparkled like hell, and I could not get over how blue they were. She truly was a beautiful woman, even if she was, well, old. What became clear as the evening progressed was that Ada did not feel old. She was as vital and energetic as she was at twenty, at thirty, at forty, even though she could not run marathons anymore.
She asked me about myself, but I demurred. My life had been nowhere near as rich as Ada 's. I would rather hear about her, and I said so. She laughed and looked at me in a little, secret way that made me feel like I was the only person in the restaurant. I swallowed some anxiety and asked her if she had told her family about the "date."
Ada giggled. "I sure did. They thought it was a hoot."
"A hoot? They didn't care that you're going out with a woman? A woman young enough to be your granddaughter?"
Ada shrugged and sipped from her Coke. "They know about my list. I brought it." She reached into her purse and drew out a yellowed piece of paper. "I started it when I was thirty-five, but I've added on since then."
I scanned one hundred and nine items, one hundred six of which were crossed out. My heart stirred with jealousy; Ada had done, had accomplished so many things I'd never dreamed of doing. She had made love under the stars in at least ten countries. She had run with the bulls in Spain . She had painted a mural. She had bungee jumped and sky dived (at age sixty, she informed me). She had touched all fifty U.S. states. She had written and published a kids' book. She also found her slave master grandfather's "other" family, all blue-eyed blondes, and befriended them.
The three items that remained on the list were:
Go out with a woman
Find the love of my life
"What's this about finding the love of your life? It wasn't your husband or any of those guys you bedded in those far-flung places?"
Ada 's gaze bore into me. "No," she admitted quietly. "Something was always missing."
I shifted uneasily, unsure of what to say. "You've done a lot."
Ada grinned. "I'm thinking it's time to add to the list again. I don't plan to die anytime soon."
"Glad to hear it."
"Rachel, thank you for a wonderful evening. I've enjoyed your company. Would you like to go out again, now that you see I don't bite?"
Go out again? "How old are you exactly?"
Ada 's lips turned downward in disapproval. "I'm seventy-five. And much more than a number."
"I know." Ada was right. I needed to look past her wrinkles and spots and see her for who she really was. I was not ready to do that just yet, though. " Ada , I like you. I really do. But we're friends. I'm not going to kiss you good night or anything."
There was a flash of anger, of irritation, of something in Ada 's eyes, but it disappeared as quickly as it appeared. "Of course," she said smoothly. "So what do you want to do next time?"
Jessica was eager to hear all about the "date" the minute I walked into our apartment, and I finally broke my days of angry silence. "It went well," I admitted. " Ada 's an interesting person."
"Are you going out again?"
I did not answer right away, and Jessica's eyes widened. Obviously, she had meant the question in jest. "Oh my God!" she breathed. "You are going out again! Oh my God!"
I brushed her exclamations off. "Not like that. Like as friends."
"Nuh-uh," Jessica countered. "You're stiff and tense and defensive. Did you kiss her good night?"
I shoved past Jessica. "No, I did not kiss her good night." I stalked into my bedroom and locked the door behind me. I sank into my bed and stared at the ceiling.
The truth was, Ada had given me one of the best evenings of my life, and I could not stop thinking about her. Her smile, her laugh, her eyes. Her split-second reaction when I said we were friends and that I was not going to kiss her. Ada 's expression had not been borne of disappointment, but borne of the knowledge that I had never, not even for a second, considered her with an open mind.
"I'm a jerk," I whispered. "And I can't wait to go out with Ada again." Interesting, funny, charming Ada . "This isn't happening." I clutched a pillow to my chest. I reminded myself that Ada was seventy-five years old, with liver-spotted hands and a great-grandchild. She would not last more than a minute in bed, would she? What would making love with her be like? She was a brittle, fragile sack of bones. She was a walking heart attack. My thoughts drifted to her list. So full of life, that list was. So full of life Ada was, so open-minded, forceful and bubbly.
For our second "date," a week after the first, Ada and I picnicked in a meadow. A babbling brook meandered nearby, and butterflies fluttered lazily around us. The Georgia spring was swinging into full bloom, and new life was everywhere. This meadow, which Ada called her secret place, was the stuff of romance novels, it really was. All too aware of that, I struggled not to lose myself in the moment or in Ada 's magical bottomless eyes.
I failed, miserably.
Ada told me stories from her girlhood and from her later travels to Paris , London and Prague . She still had sex, had it a couple of weeks ago, as a matter of fact, with a thirty-eight-year-old man. I choked on my sandwich, but a bottle of water helped avert disaster.
Near the end of the picnic, as the sky was turning orange and purple, Ada coaxed some information out of me. I shared what being a paralegal was like. I told her about Janet and why we broke up (she got a job across the country). I told Ada about my haughty WASP parents who still did not accept I was gay. "Imagine them seeing me with you," I said with a laugh.
"Just be true to yourself, to your heart," Ada replied simply. She had a way of talking that made it clear she was not lecturing or judging. "It's your life, Rachel, not their life. It's up to you to spin the magic out of your days."
"Hmm." I glanced at my watch. We had been picnicking for nearly four hours, and the sun was falling asleep. I moved to help Ada to her feet, but she did it fine by herself. I packed up the blanket and basket. Ada did not mention going out again, so in a tentative little voice and with my heart a mess, I asked her.
She fixed her unnatural blue eyes on me and smiled. "I would love to, Rachel," she said, "but on two conditions."
"The first is that you kiss me. Now. The second is that when we go out again, it's a true date. None of this 'friends' crap."
I could not believe I was actually considering her requests. I was, though. Ada was the most interesting person I had met. She was beautiful, lively and intelligent. And yes, I did want to kiss her. I no longer feared her old-woman lips; I had a sneaking suspicion her mouth would be perfect. I did want to go out with her again. But what would people think? My parents, my co-workers, society in general? Even Jessica would blanch. And I still could not imagine myself in bed with Ada . What about children? I wanted kids someday. Perhaps I was thinking a bit too far ahead, but...
Ada clicked her tongue. "Well?"
Confusion frustrated my mind. " Ada , I don't know."
The hurt in Ada 's expression broke my resolve. "Fuck it," I exclaimed, and I swept Ada into my arms. The old woman's lips were soft, her kisses gentle, her tongue the right amount of insistent. Her moans set my body aflame. In that meadow, for fifteen minutes, Ada blessed me with the best makeout session of my life. I was falling in love.
I could not bring myself to tell Jessica that Ada and I kissed, that we were going out again. So I did not tell Jessica. I told no one. And Ada and I went out again and again and again. After one month, we made love, and our lovemaking was different than with my "younger" others, but no less perfect. Just...different. Different wonderful. Different indescribable. Ada had more energy, more gentleness, more kindness, more wisdom than I imagined possible in one human being. She was good to me, good for me—surprising me with treats and little gifts. She was the best thing that happened to me.
Ada taught me how to dance, how to ride horses (yes!), and how to change the oil in my car. She showed me how to slow down and smell the roses and how to find beauty in weed-choked lawns, in one-eyed men and in hairless cats. More often than not, we fell asleep in each other's arms and woke up together.
After two months, I met her family, including her four-year-old great-grandson. I felt right at home, but I knew that soon, Ada would step up her insistence that she meet my family. And she did.
I agonized, and Ada patiently talked me through it. Yes, of course we all want our parents' approval, she said, but it's more their loss if they're going to huff and puff and get uppity. Ada advised me to start "easy" by telling Jessica why I was never home lately, why I had a spring in my step, why I laughed at everything now.
My heart was cold and clammy even as Ada 's warm hands caressed my back and moved to my neck and then to my breasts. My parents would be furious. They would call me stupid. Ada was black. She was seventy-five years old. How much longer would she live? Was my time worth pouring love, devotion and the best years of my life into this woman? In time, her wrinkles would sag with more desperation, her vision would diminish, she would go deaf, and her mind would fail. And forget about children.
I told all this to Ada . She clucked and looked at me with her all-knowing eyes. "It's you, Rachel, you who are asking those questions. You're the scared one. Not your parents. Sure, life is a gamble. It's a risk. You could die tomorrow, and I could live thirty more years. We don't know what's going to happen. Only you know if you love me enough to take this kind of risk, if you're brave enough. Only you know what's in your heart."
" Ada , on your list, you said you wanted to find the love of your life."
Fear tinged Ada 's eyes. It was a new look for her, one I did not like. "And have I found the love of my life?" she whispered.
Tears stole my vision. "I don't think so. You deserve better than me. I'm a coward. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I do love you, but we're not meant to be together."
Ada moved to touch me, to reassure me, to wipe away my tears, but I pushed her away.
I suffered through a ghastly year. If I had thought getting over Janet was hard, getting over Ada was impossible. I saw her everywhere, in the most likely and the most unlikely places—in Jessica's blue eyes, in the outline of a vase at my parents' house, in a bag of peanuts. I carried a picture of Ada and me in my wallet, and I sneaked looks at it every chance I got. Twelve months after Ada and I broke up, I was as miserable as ever.
And then one day at the very same supermarket where Ada and I met, I saw Ada with a thirty-ish Asian woman—a stunning, statuesque creature. They were holding hands and were lost in their own world. Ada looked happy. And younger. I had no intention of saying hello, but Ada called out before I could slink away. "Rach! How are you?"
"Fine," I mustered. "I'm...yeah. Fine. How are you?"
Ada indicated the Asian woman. "This is Kim." Ada went on to explain that she and Kim met six months ago and they were engaged. Ada had not spent her year moping.
I managed a few decent words of congratulations and stumbled out of the store. I ran to my car and cried and cried. I had let the best thing in my life get away. And why? Why? Because she was old? So what? My excuses seemed silly, so pointless now.
Life went on. Time went on, but it didn't necessarily heal all wounds. Ten years after I ran into Ada and Kim in the grocery store, I still mourned Ada , although the raw pain had ebbed into a dull ache. I had dated here and there. I simply could not get over the woman I let escape. I simply could not forgive myself for my stupidity and my fear.
I wondered every day how Ada was, if she and Kim were happy. And, yes, with guilt, I wondered if Ada still lived. I scoured the newspaper obituaries religiously, but I never saw her name. My father died of a heart attack, and my mother ran off with the twenty-year-old pool boy. Jessica, who moved out soon after my breakup with Ada , married the woman of her dreams. Everyone was either dead or happy, except for me. I spent my days drowning in the sea of muck that was my life. Nip chee! I had slipped, fallen, and could not get up.
Then I saw Ada in the snack foods aisle, and my fog lifted. Only for a minute, though. Ada was obviously dying. She was gaunt, a shell of her former self, but she still managed to be impossibly beautiful. Willing myself not to cry, I said hello. Something flooded her features—recognition, love, happiness, relief?
"Rach," she creaked. Her voice was a rasp, unlike her eyes, which were as full of life as ever. "Rachel."
A few tears escaped me, and I wiped them away with the back of my hand. "How are you? How's Kim?"
Ada snorted. "Kim left me nine years ago for some young'un."
I blinked. "Wow. I'm sorry. You two looked so in love."
"How are you?"
"I'm all right."
My gaze slumped to a shelf. "No. I haven't really dated since you. I was stupid."
"Oh, Rachel," Ada said sadly. "Life's too short to keep flogging yourself. We all make mistakes."
I met Ada 's eyes. "I wish I'd known about you and Kim. Nine years ago! Why didn't you tell me? We could've ..."
"It wasn't my place to go to you. Anyway, it doesn't matter now, does it? Cancer. Found out last month. Yes, yes, don't tell me, I should've gone to the doctor sooner. I have three months, maybe four. Won't be able to walk by next week, probably."
I knew in that instant what I wanted to do. What I had yearned to do for the past eleven years. I only hoped Ada would let me. "Please," I implored her. "Let me..." I fumbled, searching for the right words.
Ada understood, and she smiled.
"I'll tell everybody," I went on. "Everybody. Jessica, my mother, her pool-boy lover. I'll shout it from the rooftops! I love you, I love you, this wonderful woman, and I want nothing more than to make you happy. Please?"
Tears shimmered in Ada 's eyes, probably mirroring my own. "I still have two things uncrossed on the list. Find the love of my life and die happy. I'm glad that I can cross them both out."
I took Ada in my arms and kissed her.
The next four months were the best and the worst of my life. I took care of Ada , and she took care of me, even as her health deteriorated and she was reduced to little more than a vegetable. I did not care. Above all, I was determined that she would die happy. And she did, in my arms, with a kiss on her lips and an eternal smile in her eyes.
In the hours after Ada 's death, I was lost. My purpose was gone. I could not imagine having a future. Then I found a letter from Ada , tucked in the middle of her favorite book. Perhaps letter was not the right word. Ada had made a list for me, a sweet little five-item list, although she admonished me to add to it.
1. Live happy.
2. Die happy.
3. Lose yourself in a crazy, spring-afternoon rain in Rome .
4. Get a dog and a cat at the same time.
5. Go to the supermarket. Go into aisle five, where the snack foods are. Ask out the first woman who enters.
I smiled through my tears. This was what I would do with my life: be someone Ada would be proud of. I would keep Ada 's spirit burning.
Three days after Ada died, her family and I buried her. My mother and Sebastian, her pool-boy lover, came. So did Jessica. They held me up.
In the following months, I visited Rome and lost myself in a rain. Italians and tourists huddled inside, but I ran and ran, for twenty minutes. When I returned to the United States , I adopted a mutt and a kitten from the SPCA.
Then, one year after Ada 's death, I was ready to follow the instructions for number five. I went to the store and to the snack-food aisle. It was empty, but my chest was full with tightness. My heart was wobbling with anxiety and anticipation. Who would round the corner? An old woman, like Ada ? A homophobic woman, like one I'd been afraid of meeting all those years ago with Jessica? A twenty-year-old airhead? A plain, mousy Jane? Funny how negative I was. I was still scared.
I waited and waited. No one came, except for a middle-aged man. It made no sense. The time was noon ; the store should be bustling. I waited some more. Five minutes passed. Still a ghost town.
"Hell," I muttered. What cruel, sick irony if no woman showed up. Be patient. She will come. The odds guarantee it.
The laughter of children reached my ears, and there the children were, tumbling into the aisle—boys, four shouting, gleeful boys. They looked about four to ten years old. They were all red-headed and freckled. They bled mischief, as many boys do, and two had chins smeared with chocolate.
I cringed. I hoped the boys were with their father, or at least with a man. I would rather go with a woman who did not have four hollering boys. I imagined what Ada would say. Don't be afraid. Embrace life. Welcome the unexpected.
I gulped. Whatever would happen would happen.
A few moments later came a woman, apparently the boys' mother. She echoed their red hair and freckles, and on her long, lean frame hung overalls spattered with dried blue and pink paint. Was she an artist? Or just frazzled? Both? Her hair was askew, as if she had been electrocuted. She kept pleading with her sons to settle down.
She and the boys wandered closer to me, and I got a good look at her eyes—oh, her eyes! They were a beautiful, painful blue. I knew that blue. Ada 's blue.
I smiled, and I went up to the woman with the blue eyes and the four rambunctious sons.
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