Vol 9, Num 20 :: 2010.11.05 — 2010.11.18
Their youngest daughter snaps open a black, ballpoint pen and puts it to the whitewashed wall above the restaurant booth. Next to a scribbled declaration of love for some stranger and under the ample buttocks of a graffitied nude she hashes out their names and encloses them in a lopsided heart: “Dave + Lenore.” When she is finished, she sips at her tonic water and photographs the wall’s latest defacement with her cell phone camera.
The tonic water is mostly ice, a little lemon, but she ordered it as a show of respect for Dave and Lenore’s grandson — her nephew and godson who leans against her in the booth — and his almost two years of sobriety. It’s also a symbol of her own forbearance. Earlier in the day she’d told us how well she was doing: “Like, only one joint this year. I’m serious, guys, that’s really good. That’s really good for me.”
Still, during our few free minutes on this day, we’ve ended up at a bar. It’s Skippers, where the grandkids were taken when they were too young to understand the slurs on the walls and the stain of alcohol on the throat. We park Dave and Lenore’s red Chevy sedan in the back of the lot, tucking it between rows of pickups and low-riders. Inside we order oysters and fried mushrooms and squeeze into the smallest booth in the place, a corner where we are one anothers’ walls, and where strangers won’t approach us. Strangers live outside of our fortress. Strangers don’t inhabit the muffled, lavender rooms where we spend most of the day; rooms where the hours are counted in how long Lenore has slept or when she took her last medication or how long it’s been since she vomited it up again. Strangers will look at this scribbled tribute on the wall and not know whether Dave and Lenore are a one-night stand or two hearts sutured together.
They are, of course, the latter. Misfits in their own families, they began clinging to each other like life vests more than 50 years ago. After a few starts and stops there was a wedding, teaching jobs, and three daughters in their modest home in the New Jersey suburbs — daughters who have had their own children, their divorces, their great loves, their surgeries, their addictions. There were travels by car, plane, and boat: India, Morocco, Greece, Peru, Turkey, France, and all 50 states. There were regular tickets to Vegas. There were years of retirement in Florida, years of cruises and pedicures and yoga and fishing. There is a condo in Maui with plumerias in bloom and friends from a “clothing optional” community called Paradise.
But there is also his Parkinson’s: the spread of a beard across his face and the slowing of his footsteps from answers to question marks. And, finally, there is her cancer, handed over last year like a speeding ticket, like a sudden, unwelcome reminder of the limits. It rides its road through her blood, her lungs, her gums, and her tongue, as eager for life as she is.
Last night she sat in her recliner, washed blue by the light of the television, and made a pronouncement: “Sometimes I think David and I loved each other so much that we were exclusive. You’ve all been through a lot and I feel like we weren’t always there enough for you because we were so attached to each other.”
Their youngest daughter chided her. “Ma, why would you say that, Ma? You were, like, peaking while we were going through our problems. You should have enjoyed life. You did. Don’t say that.” We were, admittedly, sorry confessors.
This afternoon, when the only sound in their stucco townhouse was tick of the clock on the kitchen wall and the hiss of her oxygen machine, the thin strand of her voice came from the bedroom: “David.”
He shuffled out of his office where their life’s verse is painted on the wall — “Eat your ice cream while it’s on your plate” — and into their room, to the side of the bed where she has slept for half a century.
“What’s happening to me?” She asked.
There was a pause, some whispers, then his rising, torn bellow of a wail: “I love you! Okay?”
They whispered some more. He turned her over. She slept. She woke. She called for him again, and he was there, as he always has been.
In the booth at Skippers, their youngest daughter’s phone rings, cracking the cave of our quiet. “Yeah Dad, everything OK? Yeah, we’re just at the store. We’ll be home soon.” We pick our way over the beer-glazed floor and through the pickups and low-riders in the parking lot. We aim the Chevy sedan home toward our fortress.
Hours later, when we are back inside the lavender rooms and dinner is over and Lenore is in her recliner that is angled so that she can watch Dave do the dishes under the yellow kitchen light, their youngest daughter clears her throat.
“Okay, I’ve got a confession to make,” she says. “We did go to the grocery store tonight, but we also went to Skippers. You remember Skippers, Ma? Yeah, we went to Skippers. We went to Skippers, and we wrote your names on the wall. We wrote them there: Dave and Lenore.”