She had been suicidal all her life. If she had spoken of it to anyone, even herself, she would have said her subconscious or maybe unconscious was trying to kill her. She was never sure why, but well aware that one never entirely knows one’s own deep dark interior, though she had always found sin to be alluring. She neatly made it not her fault but not anyone else’s fault, an eerie compromise between her intentions and her victimization. She didn’t want anyone else involved, but she liked it there on the threshold, going back and forth.
And that’s where she had lived since the accident broke her back. It was a banal incident — she had fought with her husband, gone off in her flashy little car and, blinded by anger, drove over a cliff. They didn’t find her for a day or so because she couldn’t be seen from the road. She was unconscious during the rescue and only woke up in the hospital, resentful at leaving her dream world for this other place of pain and demands where the only good thing was the pain meds.
She also took steps, devised little strategies, to avert any actual suicide attempts, though now that she was in her eighties and widowed, living in a wheelchair, the flirtation was beginning to be serious. It was necessary not to tip her hand. (She had been as good a card player as dancer.) Since she had caretakers, the obstacles were also stronger.
At the moment she could hear Clara Marie, her part-Chippewa helper, rustling around in the kitchen and then the sound of the boy’s voice. The grandson was what she lived for: his dimples, his flashing eyes, his wild ideas. He was quite different from his father and she could not see how he came from such a plodding mother.
The boy often brought her small gifts: a peacock-colored scarf, pearl earrings, a magazine folded back to a Blackglama ad because he thought of her that way, looking out over a ruff of fur with painted eyes. She told him tales about better days when she had been the most popular dancer at the ball, so many swirling dances with so many handsome men. When she dozed, which she did often, the ballrooms where she had worn fine gowns and real diamonds mixed with the dances in the old movies that she watched on television. Lost in the lovely oblivion she danced among the clouds and stars, mixing history and places between Anna Karenina and Ginger Rogers. If she were lucky and had enough pain meds, she’d only return to reality late enough in the afternoon that the boy might be there.
This time she thought she heard two male voices in the kitchen talking to Clara Marie. Impatiently, she rattled her wheelchair to remind that boy she was waiting. When the door to her bedroom burst open, there were two boys. It took a moment to understand because this boy was dusky and black-haired like Clara Marie but she had no young sons, just girls and more girls, all destined to take care of others.
“And who is THIS?” She held out her arm, half-reaching and half-pointing. Laughing, the young man, bowing, took her hand and kissed it! She was immediately smitten. It was a long time since that had happened.
“Grand-mére, this is my best friend! We’ve brought you a gift!” It was a small tape player, what they called a “Walkman” and it had a small headset which the boy put on her. “Be careful. I don’t want my hair messed up. Just because I’m only sitting here doesn’t mean you can play with me. I still have my standards!”
Claude Francois (that was his name) turned on the little player and she was surprised to hear dance music, HER kind of dance music, playing through the headphones as though the orchestra were right in her head. She could not help smiling. The two young men grinned at each other and then took each other in their arms in the waltz embrace. They didn’t need to hear the music to keep the beat and she raised her own arms as though she, once again, were leaning against an immaculate tuxedo, wearing a full-skirted but low-cut dress, moving round and round so quickly that her long flashing earrings swung out from her neck.
Dark Claude Francois and her golden grandson were perfectly matched in height and synchrony and for a moment were locked by their gaze. Then they saw that she was swaying her arms and — keeping the step rhythm — came to each side of her chair. Now they moved her around the room, which was carpetless for ease in rolling the chair, and it was like actually dancing, a three-some this time. She caught glimpses of them in the big dressing table mirror as they passed and they were splendid. All three laughed and laughed.
Then they were panting and had to stop. It was time for them to go. She kept her dignity by being stoic when they kissed her cheeks, forbidding herself to smile for fear of it becoming a grimace. When the door had closed she ripped off the headphones without regard for messing up her hair and threw them across the room, which dragged the little player along, clattering. She heard the big motorcycle fire up and roar away.
They had not quite had to courage to tell her, but she had sensed what they were going to do, so she was not surprised when later Clara Marie remarked, “Those boys will be happy in San Francisco.” How could she begrudge them their freedom? She herself did not intend to stay.