The rooms of my townhome were lonely when my son left for university, those rooms absent of his intelligent yet feral boyishness, the male version of everything I could possibly pour into him in the time available to me. Yet he had always been his very own person. He had his own humor, his own style, his own way of seeing the world, his own way of moving through it.
On the day he left, I had put everything I could of mine into his car, everything he cared to take – my old guitar my parents gave me years ago, a clothes’ steamer I had just bought for myself but that he liked using, food, drinks. I stood with my dog on my balcony while he drove away. I cried while descending on me was a new feeling, something alien and unwelcome.
The only other times I had something close to such a feeling was several years previous, a month after separating from my husband, having scrambled to get funding to rent a loft apartment. How empty I had been. And I slept on a pile of comforters in my bedroom until my furniture arrived. Years later, the sense of emptiness returned when I was diagnosed with cancer. The loneliness of treatment was immense and impenetrable, like a silent judgmental father, watching, waiting, providing no answers or guarantees.
In summary, as I sometimes saw it on my darker days, the middle years of my life had seen me without my spouse, without my health, without my son.
I felt sorry for myself when my son left. I considered myself to be dull and banal for even feeling this way while I also thought of my son driving away to be with his friends. I looked up “empty nesting” on the computer and found descriptions of the dangers: depression, weight gain, loss of purpose, a messy house, a messy appearance.
I would have to force myself to do things, no one would be around to know if I cleaned the kitchen, made my bed, even fixed my hair and makeup. I would be doing things only for myself. And like many of my friends, I had grown up within a subculture of expectation. My ex had always told me, in criticism, that I was “externally motivated,” never one to do much unless someone would be around to witness the outcome.
That night, I closed down the house, shutting the downstairs bedroom door, the door to the room that I had thought to make into my study one day but it was still a bedroom. I wondered why I even bothered to close the door. But I always did that, even if there was no reason to protect someone’s privacy or keep anyone away. I generally liked closed doors inside a house. On the second floor, I turned off all the lights except for one I kept on through the night, one beside the sofa. I turned off the electric fireplace and blew out the candle.
On the third floor, I closed my son’s bedroom door and my own bedroom door, settling into a night in bed beside the blue light of the computer, a somewhat sad state of affairs maybe but it wasn’t so bad either. There was no one to consult with and I could watch whatever I pleased, or browse the web, or write a story if I couldn’t sleep. I could stay up and leave the light on until all hours.
Before I knew it, the hour reached midnight and I was hungry. I pulled on a robe over a matching gown, a set I had bought as consolation for seeing a child off. I slid my feet into house slippers, also a recent indulgence. I would make cocoa. I hobbled down the stairs on arthritic knees made worse by the chemo of years previous.
When I reached the second floor, the floor housing the living room and kitchen, I spotted something surprising, just out of the corner of my eye. I could have sworn it was a woman, tall and blond, large and solid, stepping down the stairs to the guest bedroom, her hair brushed back like mine, her elbow bent as if she were carrying something in her hand, a hot mug of tea or milk. She looked just like me, I mused, for a moment.
I scurried to the landing, there was no one, nor were there signs there has been anyone. But I could swear she was wearing my peignoir set but in a darker color, the other set I ordered, and she wore slippers, like mine. Was she carrying a cup of cocoa?
I summoned my dog to accompany me to the first floor, but she stood on the upper level and watched me as I motioned for her. I relented, going on, making my way down.
I opened the first floor bedroom door quickly, as if to quell any dread or hesitation. But there was nothing. No one. I checked the front porch. It appeared someone had been sitting on my outdoor sofa, though that happens sometimes. People will come and sit there because they find it inviting. I arranged the cushions back to where they were.
I checked the garage. It was open. I had left it open when I went out to do errands earlier that day! Anyone could have easily accessed the house!
Yet if anyone wanted to harm me, they would have done it by now.
I closed the garage door. Maybe whoever it was had appreciated the extra toothbrushes and toothpaste, the towels and soaps I kept in the ground floor bathroom.
That I wasn’t more bothered puzzled me. That I actually was more interested in being of use to someone, more interested in that than in my own safety alarmed me slightly, but actually not that much.
What had been the most painful thing, years earlier when I landed in my empty apartment midlife? What had given me the sense of landing in a painted concrete mausoleum? What had made me feel dead and ineffectual, invisible to the outside world, no more use than a corpse? That sense of my own disconnectedness and uselessness! No one needed me!
And now, someone needed me!
I wondered if she would speak to me or at least write to me if I jotted down some questions. I threw a load of towels in the wash so they would be fresh. I began a loaf of bread.
It was about 1 a.m. I lay down on the sofa. I awoke to the alarm I had set for the rising dough.
The woman was sitting in the chair opposite. She had been watching me doze off, my small dog in the crook of my arm.
My dog began to growl, a sound she rarely made. She wasn’t much of a watch dog. And how had she missed this woman coming into my living room?
“Who are you?” I said. “What do you want with me?”
My earlier thoughts about helping her were displaced by my current alarm at her proximity. She had come into my space when I was vulnerable. What had she planned to do? I had thought she was exactly like me, but on closer inspection, she was much younger, she could have been my daughter. She could hurt me, I thought. She looked physically very strong.
She brought her hand to her mouth, mimicking eating. She wanted the bread I was making.
I had her lie down on the sofa while I put the loaf in the oven. Her hair was fine and long like mine had been at that age. She had no ring on her finger though by the time I was her age I was married and pregnant.
“Where is your family?” I said to her, hovering over the couch like an attendant nurse. I handed her a cup of juice, leftovers of my son’s favorite drink.
She drank but did not answer, only laid down again. When the loaf made a hollow thump under my nail, I took it out of the oven and wrapped it up in a tea towel. I handed it to her, along with the bottle of cranberry juice. She took it and went downstairs but by the time I hobbled down to the ground floor, she was gone, leaving the front door open a crack, the same carelessness I had shown in leaving the garage door open.
Who was she, this young woman who didn’t care to close my door or care what I wanted, who didn’t speak?
I checked the toothbrush in the bathroom. She had used it. I could smell the shampoo and soap, sense the dampness of the room.
She had left wearing my gown and robe, a pair of my slippers. I remembered the story of a friend who had previously been homeless, how he was forced to move from place to place at night so no one was wise to him. Why hadn’t she stayed? Did she not believe I would protect her?
Yet I felt less lonely. Less useless. Less dead. I would leave the door open a crack for her the next night. The morning after, I bought more flour and yeast and oil. I would add cranberries and nuts to some loaves and cheese and herbs to others. Maybe there were other homeless people who wanted my bread, others who could use it to stay full and warm at night. I stocked up on gallons of juice and water.
At the oncologist’s that afternoon, I was told my recent test showed rampant issues.
The cancer had returned.
Very soon, I would die.