Lois Cloarec Hart
Author's note : I'd originally planned to do a follow-up to last year's Valentine's Day submission, but as so often happens, that wasn't the story that wanted to be written. What did insist on being written is a companion piece to a story I wrote three years ago for “Read These Lips Volume 2—Second Helpings,” ( http://www.readtheselips.com/ ) called To Dance With No Music . The companion story, Animarum , needs the original so the Academy is kindly posting both together for those readers who may have missed the first story.
Any writer knows that gifted beta readers are invaluable. I've worked with two tremendously talented women for many years; my wonderful wife, Day, and my dear friend, California Kathy. I am deeply grateful for their complementary contributions to my stories. By the way, my wife suggests I issue a ‘tissue' alert, so consider yourselves forewarned.
If you'd like to comment on this story, I'd enjoy hearing from you at: email@example.com
Part I – To Dance With No Music
She has forgotten so much. I wonder if the day will come when she forgets me. It seems impossible. I can barely conceive of a time when this love we have shared and revelled in for so long will not shine for me in her eyes. But then, so much of what was once inconceivable has become our daily reality.
She once did the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen, and laughed when I marvelled at her speed and inerrancy. Now, her pencil moves slowly and uncertainly over a book of simple children's puzzles. Often, I will look up from my newspaper to see her staring into space, eyes unfocused and hand stilled.
I wonder what she is thinking. Does she remember? Is she bitter? Does she even recall how we met—sun and shadow, song and silence? We were so different. I had married foolishly and divorced bitterly. She, always more self aware, refused to fall into the trap of cultural expectations. She was a career woman, she declared merrily; the law was her mate, the courts her home. She had no time for the demands of husband and children. And at her assertion, all within earshot would nod knowingly. None could deny that drive and ambition eclipsed all else in her life.
Then I entered her orbit. We came to each other late, already middle-aged and set in our ways. Our friends declared we would never last. Too different to find compatibility, they insisted. Yet we made a virtue of our mismatch. As the spotlight moved with her, I remained contentedly in the wings. Then when the curtain fell and the audience absented itself, we moved together as if our bodies and souls had been designed only for each other. In a deserted parking garage, in our kitchen, in the shelter of any four walls anywhere, she would take me in her arms. In the voice that had dazzled legal experts near and far, she would sing softly, and we would dance.
I had lived small all my life. She taught me the art of living large.
I was keenly aware that those who knew us casually considered me a doormat and wondered aloud what she could possibly see in me. In the early days of our relationship that knowledge hurt, though I said nothing. But my distress ended the night of a dinner party we gave shortly before our first anniversary. By then our roles were clearly defined: it was her responsibility to entertain our guests with her wit and charm and inexhaustible supply of insider stories; it was my job to ensure the practical details of our parties. The arrangement suited us.
I was in the kitchen when the peal of our doorbell signalled a new arrival. I paid little heed. Though her friends were slowly becoming mine too, this soiree was dominated by her peers, the city's legal elite, few of whom I knew. Meeting my friends for a party generally meant an afternoon at the lake with hamburgers and beer.
When the Brie and fruit were arranged to my satisfaction, I returned to the living room, setting the tray on a sideboard. I cast an eye over our guests and looked for empty glasses to refill. When my gaze fell on my partner, my heart fell.
Standing entirely too close to her was a woman I knew well, and loathed. The new arrival had been described as my “competition” by those in our circle who enjoyed a good catfight. I held no such illusions. When it came to my rival, I was not even in the running. She had an exotic beauty that I could never match. She spoke four languages fluently and had earned advanced degrees from several European universities. Her sense of style had been photographed and written about by countless fashion magazines, and her family was descended from Prussian royalty.
I was a dray horse in comparison, and my rival never once let me forget it. She initially dismissed me as a fling—my partner's way of getting back at her for a fight they'd had. It was one of many in their tempestuous on-again, off-again relationship. When our own nascent love affair blossomed and flourished, my rival was astonished at my partner's poor taste and said so loudly and repeatedly. Because both my partner and rival served together on many of the same arts and charitable committees, there was no avoiding the woman, try though I did.
My partner laughed gently at my fears, reassuring me that the other woman meant nothing to her any longer and never would again, that she loved only me. When I was in her arms and in our bed, I could believe her. But when I saw news photos of them at social events I refused to attend, I could not mistake the proprietary look in my rival's eyes or the possessive way her hand so often rested on my lover's back.
I was deeply relieved when my rival left the city on a European tour four months earlier. I should have known her absence only postponed the inevitable. Heartsick, I watched now as she laughed at something my partner said, tilting her head flirtatiously. My distressed gaze slid down my rival's sleek body, encased in a sheath that undoubtedly cost more than a year of my wages. Unable to look away, I stared at her feet, clad in glistening black stilettos that did wondrous things for her long, long legs.
I glanced down at my own feet, shod in flats. I had thought them both practical and attractive when I bought them. Now my traitorous mind fashioned an image of two women floating around a deserted dance floor, locked in an embrace that left no illusion as to how they would end the night. Neither woman in my fantasy wore flats, but one of them wore those damned stilettos.
I closed my eyes in anguish, only to hear my name called softly across the room. I don't know how I heard my lover over the crowd. It should have been impossible. Yet when I looked up, her eyes were locked on mine and her hand was extended to me, beckoning me.
I hesitated. I was uncertain that I could bear any more of my rival's vitriol with any semblance of grace or dignity. I wanted to retreat, yield the floor without a battle, but my dearest would not allow it. When I did not go to her, she came to me, her eyes soft with love and her smile joyful at my presence.
I don't even remember what she said to me, but I do remember what she did. In the presence of her peers and colleagues, those who could facilitate her rise or precipitate her fall in the career that had defined her life, she made an unprecedented and indelible statement. She slid her arms around me and placed a gentle kiss on my stunned lips.
She claimed me. In front of those for whose good opinion she had always practiced the utmost discretion, she defined my place in her life. Given her deep reticence about our love, de rigueur for the times, it would not have surprised me if many in attendance that night assumed I was the maid, hired for the evening's entertainment.
Our invitees were far too well bred to react openly to our kiss. They were sophisticates, and even in an intolerant age, would have considered it jejune to gasp. Though my partner's sexuality had been rumoured, few but those women admitted to her bedroom knew for certain. The hum of conversation barely faltered, but I have no doubt we were later the topic of conversation for all our guests.
If she didn't care, I didn't care. I had no august position to lose, no career in which I had vested my heart and soul. If I lost my clerical job, I would find another. It was not as if she ripped open my dress and made love to me on the dining room table. It was just a kiss, after all—a brief, simple kiss, nothing more.
Yet it meant the world to me. Later, when my rival slunk away and our company departed, I tried to tell her, with words fumbled and inadequate. The look in her eyes told me my efforts were unnecessary. She understood it all—my insecurities, my doubts, my cowardice—and she had defended me in the only way she could.
Speechless with gratitude for her courage, I took her hand and led her to our bedroom. I let my body speak fiercely what I could not say. When at last she lay exhausted in my arms, she whispered of her love, of how there would never be another. Though I never once felt worthy of her gift, I accepted it with shy gratitude.
Did we live happily ever after? No. Over the years there were times we fought, times we stopped talking altogether, times when our lovemaking became routine or rare. Yet I can say with absolute certainty that my only regret was not meeting her when I was fourteen instead of forty-five. Even the day our lives changed forever, that never changed.
She had been a judge for less than five years and already her name was being bruited about for a State Supreme Court opening, though my presence in her life made such an appointment unlikely.
Life was good, but as small everyday lapses evolved into larger memory issues, we both grew concerned.
Alzheimer's, the doctor pronounced, and in that one word, crushed our dreams. She could have stayed on the bench. She had perhaps another year, even two, before any noticed her brilliance had dimmed. But she was fiercely determined not to stain her record. She resigned the day after the diagnosis.
That same day she turned to me, her eyes bleak with despair. She told me, when the time came, to find her a bearable place to abide and leave her there, to go on and live my life without her. I did not even dignify her words with a response, but my opinion of that idea must have been writ large on my face. She reddened, lowered her eyes, and never spoke such nonsense again.
Instead, her intrepid nature immediately reasserted itself. We would see the world, she declared. So we travelled, criss-crossing the globe, and I became the keeper of our memories. I remembered hotel room numbers and train schedules and flight arrangements. I remembered names and places and dates. I remembered old friends encountered and new ones we made on our journeys. The force of her charisma, as always, drew those we met into her orbit. So I remembered the stories she told, gently coaching and correcting if needed or, if it seemed safe, letting her fly without wires.
One evening, as we stood together at a ship's railing watching the sun set in the South Pacific, she turned to me in tears. Before she even spoke the words, I knew this was the end of our travels.
We went home. Our friends who had not seen us for many months were shocked at the changes in her. She, whose fiery legal battles were legend, had grown tentative, unsure of herself, and thus unsure of the world around her. And I, who shrank from crowds, who took shelter in my beloved books, who had played Martha to her Mary for all the years of our union, stepped forward.
I shielded my love, protecting her ferociously even as her mind dimmed and she grew unaware of the pitying stares and sorrowful looks of our circle. A new doctor to be dealt with? I spoke for her. Benefits to be applied for? I wrote for her. Battles to be waged over her legal legacy? I became her staunch advocate.
For the love of my wife, I left my comfort zone in the dust. I think I became the woman she always thought I was—strong in her defence, passionate on her behalf, confident that none could care for her as I could.
These days there are pills to be sorted, bills to be paid, and chills to be chased away with a warm blanket tucked around her weakened legs. I do all these things and willingly, for she has been my life these thirty years and will be until her last breath.
I am not unrealistic. I am also not young, and the wearisome days drain me. I know there may come a day when I cannot keep her at home any longer. I have already begun to investigate assisted living facilities that will meet both our needs, for I am determined to stay with her no matter where she goes.
But for as long as I am able, she will remain in the home we have shared. She finds comfort here, in my voice, in my touch, in finding me next to her each morning. Sometimes she even finds a smile or two.
I am a shower singer, at best, always shy of being overheard, and age has not improved my warbling. But we grew up in the same era, and the old music is familiar and beloved by us both. Now, with her voice stilled, I sing to her. When nothing else can, the music still reaches her.
Sometimes, on unsteady legs, she will rise from her chair and open her arms wide. And as I've done a thousand times before, I step into her embrace. I sing softly until my voice is too choked with unshed tears to continue. Even then we go on, swaying gently to music inaudible, except to our hearts.
Part II - Animarum
I never noticed how thin her hair has grown. When we first met, it was fine, but also as soft and enticing as a rose petal. I nearly scandalized our neighbours in the next box at a long ago concert because I could not stop my fingers from an instinctive caress. She, always more conscious of my position than I, subtly eased away from my touch. For that night at least our secret was kept.
My gaze drifts from her bowed head to the thin, wrinkled hand wrapped tightly around mine. In the semi-twilight of this room, it's hard to know where her hand ends and mine begins. How fitting. From the beginning we have completed each other, though it took me a long time to convince her of that. She was certain that she was beneath me. In truth, the depth of her love and loyalty, consideration and kindness, left me breathless in her wake. My education, my profession, and my social standing were nothing in comparison. She laughed when I insisted that it was so. She said legal scholars would debate my rulings in court and classroom for a century, but none would even recall her name. I assured her that her name was already etched in the Book of Ages in recognition of the grace with which she lived her life.
At least I think I told her that. It's sometimes hard to know what words I have uttered and what words remain trapped in the prison of my brain. I hope I said it. I hope that even without words I still told her how much I love her, how much I appreciated the way she stood by me, and how deeply it touched my soul to see her advocate on my behalf.
A thousand lifetimes from now I will still remember how my shy, reserved partner took Laurel Woods Manor to court and fought for the right to be by my side—literally. She had researched our final residence so carefully, searched for a place that would accommodate our needs and allow us to be together. Thinking she had found it, we gave up our home of 42 years. But with all her care, she could not have anticipated an administrator who hated us, and did everything possible to keep us apart.
I wonder how this woman came to be so filled with bile. What had twisted her heart and mind into ugly, angry knots? Would she have fought so hard to separate us if we had entered the facility merely as friends wanting to share a room for financial reasons? I unwittingly aided her nasty quest. I did not react well when my beloved was kept from my side. I may not have known my own name by then, but I always knew my partner's loving touch. And when that touch was gone for so-called medical reasons, I grew agitated and troublesome. The administrator used that behaviour as an excuse to commit me to the locked ward where my wife could not be with me.
So my sweet and gentle warrior went into battle in the arena I once ruled. She was fortunate that the times and culture changed radically from when we first met, and the judge who heard the case had clerked for me decades earlier. He gave my love a fair hearing. But I think her success was mostly due to the ferocity with which she pleaded our plight. This time I aided our cause. I resisted the orderly who brought me into the courtroom, and kicked at him feebly in an effort to get away. As soon as my love's voice called over the spectators' heads, I ceased my struggle and turned toward her. She led me to a chair, and settled me next to her. Later that night, she whispered that I had sealed the deal when I immediately rested my head on her shoulder and closed my eyes peacefully.
Now her name, too, would be written in law books as the plaintiff who won the decision that required nursing homes to not only accommodate same sex couples, but to provide double beds for all residents who desired them. It was only a lower court ruling, but it was an immeasurable gift to those who cherish their loved one's touch. No longer did they have to lose that small joy due to age and infirmity. My lady in shining armour had paved the way for many others. And the administrator who made our lives hell? She could not bear the thought of us slumbering peacefully in each others' arms. The Manor's residents gave us three lusty cheers when we entered the dining room the day that miserable woman quit in disgust.
Someone is coming into view behind my wife's shoulder. Ah…her mother. How that woman hated me. She was utterly convinced that I had seduced her daughter and set her on the path to perdition. Every year, she made a maternal visit to our city. And somehow every year her visit coincided with legal conferences I had to attend, or a huge stack of paper work which entailed extended hours at the office. It wasn't until after her mother passed on that my love told me how much it hurt when I abandoned her so. I had never considered her side. I assumed, as I had done so often, that because she didn't complain, she had no complaints. It was foolish and unkind, and though I couldn't do anything about my earlier lack of support, I did try to improve. Whether I succeeded or not, is not for me to say. That is for my wife to judge.
It must have shocked my reluctant mother-in-law that her sweet, pliable daughter resisted every tirade, every sob, and every enticement that her mother wielded in order to wrench us asunder. When my mother-in-law finally and melodramatically insisted that her daughter make a choice—her or me—my love calmly opened our door and ushered her out. Then she began to cry, and although at the time I considered the noxious woman a small loss, I knew her mother's rejection wounded my wife deeply. Still, she never wavered, not even when we attended her father's funeral. That was the day her mother refused to permit us to sit with the family. My wife and I sat at the back of the church, listening in silence while others eulogized the father she had once adored.
My beloved grieved her losses for such a long time. With each tear she shed, my loathing for her mother grew. But as I lost my memory…and myself, I also lost my hatred. Perhaps that was a silver lining, though for a long time I could think of no others. There was a time when I regretted not killing myself, thus sparing my love the agony of my decline. I came to know better. I have seen the strength she'd always hidden come roaring to the fore. I know that our trials polished the facets of her soul, and I glory in her brilliance.
Now her mother stands opposite me with an apologetic expression on her face. I nod and she turns her gaze on her daughter. I look down and notice the silver cord that has held me this past week is frayed. I regard it with curiosity, and then understanding. I look up and smile in compassionate concert with the woman who was my unwilling mother-in-law. My beloved's head droops, and she slumps wearily in her chair. Then with a great effort, she pulls herself erect and wrestles momentarily with the bed railing. She lowers it and slides in next to me. It is close quarters, but that's the way we've always preferred it. She rests her head against my shoulder and her hand finds its usual spot on my chest.
Her mother watches us both with an expression of profound love. She's come a long way in the years since her passing. A soft knock at the door sounds and one of the hospice nurses slips in. They've been kind to us here. I am deeply grateful for the consideration they have shown me and my wife. The nurse smiles at the sight of us snuggled together and quietly drapes a nearby afghan around our peaceful forms. Without disturbing my beloved, the nurse leaves as silently as she came in and closes the door after her. She knows we have arrived at a time for serenity, not intervention.
I hear something—a soft, familiar voice. Not many would term it melodic, but it is the sweetest sound in the world to me. Her head next to mine, my wife sings quietly in my ear, an old tune we danced to many times. Her mother and I listen as she catches her breath before beginning another verse. Then, as my beloved's voice breaks and falters, her mother smiles. She bows her head to me, and begins to fade. I gratefully comprehend her gift. We will meet again soon, but this time is mine.
The silver cord is only a single, thin strand now, and I feel a great surge of joy throughout my essence. The wait is almost over. On our pillow, my love has grown silent, but her hand slides slowly up my body until it cups my cheek. There was a time that her slightest touch would wake me, but it's been many days since I opened my eyes even for her. A tiny part of me wishes I could still feel the softness of her fingers as they caress me and slide over my eyelids. But the greater part of me has already left that world behind and awaits our future with eager anticipation.
As her hand stills, the last silver strand parts. I look across the two old bodies entwined and I am thrilled to see my wife standing opposite me with a dazzling smile on her face. Her hair is lustrous and her eyes sparkle with delight. She grins and extends her hand. I take it and together we whirl away, dancing once again and forever to our hearts' music.