Her husband died on Saturday night. I didn’t want to talk to her but she caught me on the walkway to my mother’s apartment so I had no choice.
“He passed on Saturday.”
“Pauline, I’m so sorry- “
I gave her a weak hug because she had a funky smell.
“He’s not suffering anymore. He’s in a better place.”
She seemed fine. I wanted to cry. But I knew deep down that it wasn’t anything personal because nowadays I cried for anything.
“They took him to the hospice on Thursday and he was throwing his arms at the paramedics and I didn’t even get a chance to kiss him goodbye. It was on the doctor’s orders because they knew I couldn’t take care of him anymore.”
“You had no choice, Pauline. You did everything you could.”
“He pooped his pants on the last day and I had to clean it up. It was such a mess. Know what I mean?”
“He’s in a better place,” I said, realizing that this conversation could go on for at least half an hour.
I was so close to the door but didn’t want to be rude. Besides, her husband just died. So, I made up my mind to let her talk almost as much as she wanted but the second I notice the conversation was going round in circles like she’s prone to do, I will start inching towards the door. Little by little I will drag my foot closer to an escape.
“Rosita from the association helped me with everything.”
“That’s good Pauline, I’m glad. I was a little worried.”
She lowered her voice and said, “E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.”
“Every single thing I needed to do but couldn’t do because I was a mess, she helped me with. I had him cremated because that’s what Al wanted. He always told me he didn’t want his body in a casket so people can stare at him.”
“So no funeral service?”
“NO-PE, nothing, none of that. And guess what Habibi?”
“Al paid for everything himself.”
“Wow, how did he manage that?”
“I had no idea how I was going to pay, and you know how expensive dying is. So, on Monday I’m going through his things and I find a J-A-R filled with cash M-O-N-E-Y.”
“A lot. Al use to go to the casino twice a month; I would let him go. I didn’t like going cause it gets so smoky there and I’m allergic to smoke. So, he would go around 2 o’clock and sometimes he would come back with at least F-I-V-E H-U-N-D-R-E-D D-O-L-L-A-R-S.”
“So, he was saving this whole time?”
“Yes, and guess what else?”
“Lay it on me.”
“It was the exact amount I needed for everything.”
“I’m so glad you’re doing good Pauline.”
This was my opportunity to make a break for my mother’s but the door opened and I was now in the middle of the two. Oh great. Now my mother was giving Pauline her condolences from her walker. My poor mother, how strong she remains. I had to endure their conversation for ten more minutes at least.
“Anything you need Pauline, you let us know, okay?” I said.
“Will do, Habibi.”
“Yes, anything,” my mother repeated.
I smiled and closed the door, or else it would go on and on and on.
“Poor Pauline,” my mother said.
“Poor Al,” I said.
“Thank God you cut her off, she would have talked your ear off; but poor woman. I will keep an eye on her.”
“You need to keep an eye on each other,” I said, then put her take out Chinese on the kitchen counter next to the oven.
“Are you staying?”
“Nah, I’m gonna meet up with Ray at Flannigan’s. It’s Friday ma, I’ll see you tomorrow and Sunday for grocery.”
“How’s work? You seem stressed.”
“Work is work. It is what it is. We’ve been pretty busy but it’s about to calm down by next week and I’ll get to relax a little bit.”
“Busy is good. I pray for you and that company every night.”
“Thanks ma, look, I gotta get going darling.”
I kissed my mother on the forehead, and after making sure the door was locked behind me, I headed out to meet my buddy at Flanny’s. On the twenty-minute drive, I did shed a tear for that poor bastard Al. He didn’t look too good in the end. The week before they took him to the hospice, Pauline asked me to come and help her move him from his wheel chair to the couch where he liked to sleep. He wasn’t all there. He couldn’t talk and he was out of it, just slumped on the chair, with a urinary catheter attached to the bag on the side – it wasn’t a pretty picture to say the least. Al was huge, a good 6 feet and he weighed a ton. At this point in my mid-life, I had turned into a weakling due to lack of exercise. Pauline had his left side, and I had his right side but Al just slumped down more, he wasn’t helping us any. I was getting impatient; the apartment was around 80 degrees and it smelled of piss, and I was sweating my balls off. We tried once more, and still couldn’t move him.
We decided to get a neighbor to help us. Pauline ended up asking a young, bulky looking kid who was probably not older than 20 and with his help were able to move him into the couch. As we tried to lift him, Al tensed up his body like a statue but it was too late he was laying there now like a very old baby – the Benjamin Button from that Brad Pitt movie.
It was a depressing scene and I was very self-aware of it; the smell, the heat and the humidity inside the apartment felt toxic to the spirit. Then Pauline had us lift the coffee table next to the couch so he wouldn’t roll to the floor in the middle of the night. This was all so sad, so very fucking sad. I felt for her, I really did. She was a poor, lonely old lady that never had kids and hardly had anybody so I tried to help once in a while.
Me and the kid said goodbye, and as I walked to my car that night I remembered thinking that it was probably going to be the last time I would see poor Al, who had moved to South Florida with the only wife he had ever had, to work at the airport as a baggage handler while Pauline worked as a nurse at a local hospital. They left everything in Chicago: a nice house; close friends, and family, to start over down south because of the better weather and cleaner air and palm trees, and cocaine cowboys, and Cuban refugees at the wild southern tip of the USA.
So, as I got closer to the bar in my Toyota Yaris, I said out loud, ‘we’re all heading that way – what’s so depressing about that?’ Might as well drink and eat some delicious wings and ribs while you still can. No?
I saw my buddy Ray waiting for me, standing next to one of the fish tanks behind the hostess stand and we got a table, and I didn’t mention any of this depressing tale. Then two pitchers later and a belly full of pork, I noticed she had sent me an e-mail – the woman of my dreams — the love that enters and leaves my life at her own will; the woman that I would drop everything for; the one that had my heart completely; the fucking bitch Lucia.
What did she want? My drunken spirit asked. Oh yeah, she still had some little boyfriend that she had while still wanting to mess around with me. How many times did I have to declare my love, while she ignored it to say that ‘she missed me, everything about me,’ but we could only be friends.
I confessed to Ray right then and there that I was recycling again when he noticed my change in demeanor.
“You don’t need that girl man. You need someone that’s only going to love you, man!”
“You’re right, you’re right, she’s just my- “
“You’re what man?”
“How can I say this?”
Our server arrived to take away some plates.
“How are you guys doing?”
The unstrung guitar feeling of my heart coincided with the simple, yet direct question, causing me to look at my buddy to acknowledge that we both wanted shots in order to take this little Friday night to another level. Shots might make me cry, reminiscing about this broad but I’m a crier, just call me THE CRIER.
“You know what, Bethany- “
“Geez man,” Ray said, laughing.
“Shots,” I said, gazing longingly at Ray.
“You want shots?”
“Yes,” Ray said, slamming his hand down on the table.
“We have free Fireball shots when you order dessert?”
My face; my whole body cringed, and I looked over at Ray liked if we were a really boring, gay couple: “That’s too much sugar, honey.”
“That is a lot of sugar,” Ray said looking back at me and then at Stephanie:
“Do you have anything that goes down smooth, but doesn’t taste like candy,” I said, not really looking at Stephanie. She was too cute; I didn’t want to cry again.
The girl made a face, “How about Baby Guinness shots? Coffee Patron and Baileys? Always goes down smooth and you get that tequila kick at the end.”
“Let’s do it! Thank you, Stephanie!”
We both laughed, and started picking at what was left of the fries. The first shot went down so well, and it really picked up my mood.
After the second shot, we went back to talking about the love of my life, my Sally, my woe of a tale.
“Bizarro ‘When Harry Met Sally’ – that’s who we are!”
“No man, you and I are Angus and Malcolm.”
We both did the air guitar.
“I’m talking about that girl.”
“Oh yeah,” Ray said, “Stay away from her!”
Stephanie brought a third round of shots with water.
We both looked at them for a moment. My eyes were getting wet, but I wasn’t going to cry. I had cried on the way here. No more crying. I am so done with crying, and then I thought about the e-mail she had sent me. Why did I love her? I didn’t remember anymore. But how did I know I loved her? I had no idea? We’ve never even had sex; all we did was make out. She made me laugh a lot and I found everything she ever did adorable; every mannerism, the sound of her raspy voice, her ugly little bony hands which I longed to hold in mine. But I guess if we would have worked out and gotten married, I would have grown to hate those same mannerisms and cutesy things she did – right? Who the fuck knows, for I had never married. I wasn’t really confident that the grass was actually greener on that side. Whenever I got lonely, I always thought about that, that no matter what position in life you are, like a lot of humans you’re going to find something to bitch about.
We finished talking about her. I didn’t bring her up again. I didn’t go into much detail either, even though out of all my buddies, Ray knew exactly how I felt about this girl. We were too tipsy now so we called it a night. So light weight in our old age—SAD! Oh well, but what can you do?
I got home to my apartment and my two cats, (residue from a previous affair to a married woman) to watch a little TV around 2 am. Then I went to bed and kept waking up due to acid reflux from all that damn beer and pork. It was Saturday morning, and I tried forcing myself to try to sleep the entire morning so I kept going back to bed. Had some Alka Seltzer and tried to focus on sleep until I slept for a couple of hours and then got a call on my cell phone which I had left in the living room.
I always left the cell phone on, in case there was an emergency with my mother, but I wasn’t sure who was calling me at this time and looked at the name and it was her — my Sally. Calling me at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday. For a minute, I thought about not picking up. She actually had done this before but the last time, I didn’t pick up. This time, I felt like I should, and finally get to the bottom of this obsession that we have with each other.
I picked up the call and she said: “Hello.”
“Hi,” I said.
“How are you? I’m sorry it all became a mess. I didn’t know this is how you felt still. I thought you were over me; I thought we could be friends.”
“If I would have gotten over you that fast, then it definitely wouldn’t have been love. But I was in love with you. I’m still in love with you, and all you do is come in and out of my life, manipulating me.”
She was now crying, quietly.
“Yes, we need to talk in person and square all this away. I don’t want you to hate me. Please Habibi.”
“Where are you? Are you in Hollywood at your sister’s?”
“No, my sister lives at my parent’s now. We’re all staying at my parent’s in Hialeah. I’m helping her take care of the baby. I took a year off work.”
“You’re not teaching anymore?”
“It’s just a year off until I figure out what I want to do.”
My mind was blank for a minute or so and then realizing the dummy I was for her and had always been and the entire decade I’d been waiting for her, and saw myself driving down there to pick her up.
“We don’t have much time Habibi.”
“Okay, okay, text me the address again,” I said then switching the lights on in my place and watching my cats jump on the table to get fed.
“Do you have a pen?”
“Yes,” I said, grabbing a scrap of paper and pen and wrote down the address.
“Okay,” I said, hanging up, and feeling my head banging from the hangover.
I showered fast, fed the cats, and grabbed some old nun-chucks from under my bed just in case this was some kind of insane set up, since I was indeed going down to Miami; didn’t want this little misadventure to turn into the latest ‘Florida Man’ headline.
Driving down in my little yellow Toyota Yaris that I loved some much, I started contemplating on the extent of my idiocy. Was I born this way? It’s Saturday morning, and I’m driving down to Hialeah to pick up a girl who’s used me as her emotional crutch for at least a decade. When did we meet again? We met sometime in August of 2010 at some club in Downtown Miami. She saw me across the club and pointing her little finger at me, asked me to come over to her. I was about to, but I didn’t, I nodded and asked her to come to me instead and she did.
That little moment led to a phone number, and an incredible first date and then more dates with absolutely no sex. Then she ghosted me and her Facebook status changed to “In a Relationship” and I got really sore about it. Then add to this, one of my nephews got sick and eventually passed away. Then she came back into my life because she was having problems with her boyfriend apparently, and like the fucking idiot moron that I am, I took her back. And this time, I wasn’t living at home with my mom, so I really tried. I took her to see Elton John and even paid a ticket for her girlfriend. We also went to see Billy Joel together. And still nothing. She went back to the boyfriend.
Then I started an affair with a married woman I used to work with and tried to forget her. But she would contact me out of the blue sometimes. We even ended up meeting again in Miami Springs where we confessed our love for each other, and then the next day she went back to the boyfriend again and I went back to my affair. It was all so ridiculous. She’s probably an alcoholic with some kind of issues, but they couldn’t be daddy issues cause her parents were still together so none of it made sense. And what excuse did I have? I was just a dumb, lonely, wannabe screenwriter trying to find someone to love me because apparently, I did have many daddy issues. Oh, well, que sera, sera…now I’m on my way to see her again…like some kind of dumb heroin addict…but this one was addicted…to love that…wasn’t there….
I used my phone maps to find her parent’s house. I always get lost in Hialeah. The sun was rising now, and this Saturday was going to be beautiful but you could hardly tell by my hung-over face. As I pulled up slowly in the yellow beast I see her—ahoy there, and there…she… is now standing outside her parents’ house just like on our first date eight years ago.
I unlock the door and she gets into the car and we both start laughing uncontrollably.
“Just drive. Anywhere. We don’t have much time. The baby is going to get up soon and my sister is going to be home around 8.”
“Okay, I guess we could go to Denny’s or someplace like that.”
“Let’s go to Starbucks.”
“Starbucks isn’t open yet; it’s six AM.”
“Then how about a bar? There’s that pub in Miami Springs. They serve coffee at bars.”
I looked at her like if she was crazy and as she gave me the stare back, we both exploded in laughter.
“See,” she said, “This is what I miss. I miss this.”
“I miss it too but you have a boyfriend and I’m in love with you.”
She rolled her eyes.: “I thought you were over me.”
“Over you? How am I gonna be over you, when you’re like my great ‘what may have been?’ You’re my ‘what if?’”
“I’m you’re what if? Oh please.”
“I’m sure that’s how you think about me? I mean don’t you ever wonder that? Don’t lie to me.”
She didn’t say anything.
“There she goes – silence speaks volumes. Have you ever heard of that?”
She smiled like a cartoon character, uneven but adorable.
“Just answer me this- “
“There’s the pub,” she said.
I pulled into the parking lot that was completely empty.
“Oh please,” I said, “Let’s just go to Denny’s and grab some breakfast.”
She nodded and I drove the next street over to the great American diner.
Standing outside the parking lot watching her go before me, I started feeling that great feeling of anything is possible again. She looked beautiful even from the back. It was weird; she looked exactly the same. She was so my style. I wanted her so bad and she knew it, I was a total sucker for her, a kind of suckerfish if you will.
My stomach was cramping as we walked in and I immediately realized I would need to take a ‘deuce’ in a little bit. Mental note moron: No coffee for you yet. Just order O.J.
We got a booth and I sat across from her, because I didn’t want to be forward in anyway, I wanted to keep her guessing. I got the O.J. and she got a coffee and then we sat there looking at each other and broke out into laughter again. Then all the feelings came back because they had really not gone anywhere, they were just in hibernation like those goddamn hibernating bears. Looking into those eyes again made me thankful, even if she wasn’t mine right now, I belonged to her in some way and she knew it and I knew it and I was pretty much screwed like the first day we met.
I thought of Pauline and Al; would Lucia take care of me when I’m old and decrepit? Was this real love? It has to be some kind of love or something.
“What’s on your mind?”
“Did I ever have a shot? Like was there a brief window when we could have been together?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Really? I actually had a shot. So, what happened?”
“It’s complicated; I was going to school when I met my boyfriend and it just happened.”
“What just happened? What about me?”
“It’s complicated Habibi.”
“Things got complicated.”
“I don’t understand you; yet you still reach out to me like what? Every two years?”
The waitress brought her coffee and my Orange Juice. She didn’t add any sugar or cream but just took a big long sip and then bringing the cup down in front of her, looked at my face. I looked at her eyes, and she tried to avoid my eyes, but I could tell there was some kind of love inside them for me; it was undeniable. Sometimes you just know, and I knew that’s what it was.
“I’m happy,” she said, “He’s so good to me.”
“I didn’t ask you if you were happy or how he treated you; I’m glad he treats you good. But we’re, here right? Right now, after all this time I’m sitting across from you and you’re looking at me with that adorable smile I love so much.”
“Habib stop, I need a friend, I’m happy.”
“Keep telling yourself that darling.”
She shut up, shocked; and sat back still studying my face. Why am I like this? Am I addicted to longing and emotional pain? I hardly even knew her but there was still some weird connection that we had. It was all inexplicable but I could feel it in my bones: her love for me.
“We don’t have much time,” she said.
I didn’t care. I was over it. I was hung over and I needed to take a shit and now we didn’t have enough time – well, we never have enough time honey. I love you, but we’re always running out of time. Love is a really dumb thing if you think about it; people will avoid it like the plague because they’re afraid of some truth that will be revealed about them. When you truly find the “right” person, it’s not any of that Nicholas Sparks shit, it’s quite simple, true love strips all the fake personality traits you invent because it reveals you to yourself. Think about it? Only when you’re truly in love is when you don’t care what your friends think. This is the person that you chose, and has chosen you and now you are two instead of one, and like a bizarre mirror of each other and that’s why when you meet a couple that fit, like two puzzle pieces don’t ever ask why they’re together; and it’s not sappy love shit because they fit so good it’s like they have always been like that. There is no, ‘why is she with him?’
Is she afraid that if she and I were to be one, that it would reveal something about herself, it would leave her vulnerable? Is she trying to convince herself that I’m the type of guy she could be with? Who the fuck knows? All I know is that I love her, and I wasn’t really sure why.
“We’re going to end up at the old folks’ home, you and I,” I said.
I had her laughing now.
“You find that funny, huh? Is that when you’re finally going to give me a chance?”
She snorted and laughed some more.
“Are you going to make me beg for it at the Century Village Retirement community? Well, you know what? If I have to wait that long, then I will. Totally fine with that. Just get ready, because I’m a have a lot of Cialis and I’m ready darling, I’m so ready for that nasty, old people sex like in that ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ cause those old folks, they know how to make love and you just get ready because at that age there aren’t any more consequences.”
She was laughing uncontrollably now and I was happy once again. And that’s how I knew that I was in love because I could just sit across from her and that was all the oxygen, I needed from her for everything else would be the cherry on top.
And that was that. I went to the bathroom and relieved myself and we headed back to her place. About three blocks from her house, Billy Joel’s ‘You May Be Right’ came on the radio like if God was sending us a message. We both broke down in laughter at the same time; this was the song she always requested when we used to go to the piano bar in the Grove.
She was laughing in the passenger seat, and I was crying in the driver’s seat. Not sure if she noticed the water coming out of my eyes but she kept on swaying to the music and laughing and glowing and being the woman of my dreams, my what if? She will remain frozen in my memory as my ‘What if?’.
Which all of this, really just led to real question; the only one that really mattered — if we had actually ended up together would she have wiped my ass at the age eighty-five? Would I wipe her shit at eighty-five? I knew the answer to that one for I would happily with tenderness and affection and all the nurtured love of a life time, wipe her ass clean and change her diapers and clean her babble and feed her. Oh, yes, I would, yes siree I would.
This was originally published in the Expat 4 anthology.