Then by Chelsea Vitone

Running breathless, the wind whipping her hair behind her, she was exhilarated. Branches whizzed past her face, grabbing at her clothes and stray hairs. The crisp morning air filled her lungs, burning as she flung herself down the path. She could hear his footsteps close behind her, stumbling over roots and snapping branches. She burst into the clearing and whooped victoriously, spinning on her toes to face him. As he came lumbering into her arms, grabbing her playfully around the waist and pulling her to the ground, she jolted awake and stared up at the sky, pocked with clouds.

She lurched upward, the cheap paperback sliding off her chest onto the grass. Had she fallen asleep? She must have. The sun was lower in the sky than she remembered and the throng of people along the road was thinning out. The Wednesday farmer’s market always attracted a crowd. On the bench beside that shaded her, David and Shannon sat staring at her, then a knowing look passed between them.

“You ok, Mom?” David asked, starting to get up.

“Nightmare, Charli?” Shannon asked furrowing her brow into a look of concern.

“What,” She said, “can’t a girl take a nap?” She pulled herself up against the trunk of the tree and dusted the grass from her thighs.

They walked ahead of her on the way home, arm in arm, occasionally glancing back at her; she pretended not to notice. The corner of a page poked out of the top of her shoulder bag, the hospital’s letterhead stamped across the top. She folded it gently back into the bottom of the bag, it would have to wait until later. The sidewalk was only wide enough for two, so she contented herself to follow behind. At the next block, they made a show of looking at the sea-glass display in a shop window, but she knew they were allowing her to catch up with dignity.

She was startled by her reflection as she passed the window nearest to her, something that always seemed to happen nowadays. It was no accident that there were no mirrors in her home; the only reflective surface left was the one inch margin of her coffee table not covered by the lace runner. Even that tended to be marred by coffee rings from David’s mug, he never had seemed to pick up the habit of using her cork coasters; she made a point never to look down as she wiped the glass clean time and time again.

The autumn breeze lifted a strand of silver-gray hair and it curled across her forehead. She let it play across her age softened skin, tickling her nose and across the lines at the corners of her eyes, formed by years of laughter. The old woman staring pensively at her from the shop
window was a stranger though, an unfamiliar vision that time had dropped unceremoniously onto her. Throughout her 20s and 30s, she remembered always wondering when, or if, she would ever feel like an adult rather than a 17 year old impostor in a grown woman’s body, and at 73 she was still waiting for the answer. She shrugged at her reflection, tucked her wild curls behind her ear and turned up her coat collar, walking with the wind toward home.

Her legs ached by the time she reached the front door, but she thanked them for getting her home, thinking of all of her friends hobbled by kyphosis, once delicate spines malformed by the hump that shrank them, or the ones who could barely walk a block without getting winded and weak. David held the heavy, wooden door open for her and she studied herself against him, holding his arm as she kicked off her clogs just inside the door. She breathed in the scent of home, sandalwood laced with floral hues, blown in from the window open to the back yard garden. She always loved how the smell of David’s cologne lingered in her upholstery between his visits, and here he was to renew it.

She sank into her armchair by the picture window, clicked on the heating pad at the small of her back and methodically rubbed her hands along her thighs, willing the pain to subside. These were dancers legs, or so she’d been told all her life. She pointed her toes toward the ceiling, flexing her quadriceps and marveling at the muscle that remained under the withered skin. Although she’d never set foot on stage, those legs had earned their tone twirling on dusty barn floors, racing along soccer sidelines, and carrying her up anything with a summit.

“I am a strong, capable woman” she muttered under her breath, gripping her knees. She dropped her feet and smiled, feeling silly for defending herself to no one, the room was empty. Being a widow had its upsides she supposed, glancing at the empty chair beside her, no one there to laugh at her foolishness. Harold would have told her they’d be dancing legs till she died, maybe he was what had always kept her feeling so young.

She fished the worn leather-bound album out from the space between her chair and the wall and smoothed her fingers across the cover, caressing the gold embossment 1963. Flipping through page after plastic page, the time between the present and past seemed to blur. In her mind, she saw Harry eyeing Arnold skeptically, doubting his ability to photograph their wedding, when normally he was behind the lens himself. The Shirelles played over the speakers as girls swayed hopefully in pastel dresses and men smoked cigarettes in clusters along the walls.

Harry had barely left her side since they’d been pronounced husband and wife, and even now he was toe-tapping to the beat with a drink in one hand and the other wrapped around her waist. As Arnold slid past, shutter clicking, Harry whipped her around and dipped her low. The camera flashed as he nuzzled her cheek and she let out a snort of laughter.

Her finger traced his jawline in the black and white photo. She felt a girlish giggle bubble in her chest as she could almost feel his freshly-shaven face against her cheek again, smelling his King’s Men aftershave. She pulled out another volume, and as she flipped forward, decades flashed before her eyes, her pregnant belly swelling through the trimesters donned in a ridiculous variety of floral mumus; newborn David, red-faced and wrinkled; gap-toothed grins; first days of school; herself in cargo pants, knee deep in the community garden; David on tiptoe kissing her cheek; Harold mugging for the camera, with his own slung around his neck. She watched his hair thin, the colors fade, their faces growing wrinkled as she neared the back cover of the book.

Finally, the last page stared up at her. The banner stretched across the top of the frame, Happy 50th Harry and Charli. He had recreated her favorite wedding photo by spontaneously dipping her and burying his face in her neck, eliciting the same chortle as when she was 22. Just behind Harry, David, his face wrought with poorly disguised panic, his arms outstretched in case his 76 year old father’s arms failed as he held his bride. Always such a worrier. She wiped away a tear that had slipped out of the corner of her eye and sighed. Where had the time gone?

She shuffled the leaves of lettuce around on her plate, stabbing the cherry tomatoes passive-aggressively. David sat beside her shoveling ranch sodden lettuce into his mouth, swallowing quickly in order to hold his train of thought.

“It’s a nice place, she would be comfortable there, around people her own age, doing activities that are age appropriate” he said, dabbing his mouth with his napkin, “It scares me to think of her out there kayaking” he said, gesturing toward the Chesapeake. He said it like a dirty word. I’m right here, She screamed in her head, look at me! She wanted him to tell her what she knew he was thinking; it scared him to watch her age alone. He was scared of losing her. She wished they were alone so that he might let her wrap him in her arms and tell him it would be ok.

She watched as Shannon’s eyes shifted from him to her, then back down to her salad. Charlotte almost enjoyed her unease, the tense body language. Shannon was…how would you put it…hight maintenance. The life she expected from David left not a minute to spare for his own pursuits, let alone for her, his own mother.

“I’m just fine David,” she said, searching his face, hoping for eye-contact, but his eyes stayed focused on the plate in front of him. Things had been so different since Harold died. The heart attack had come as a shock to both of them, and now she could tell David felt as though she was left without a protector. The two hour drive from Richmond had been just long enough the night Harold died. The guilt of missing his father’s last words was a burden David hadn’t seemed able to shake.

As her only child, she knew he felt obliged to take up where his father left off. She admired his sense of responsibility to make sure she was cared for, but she was no china doll. She had thrown away every pamphlet he had left conspicuously on the table in the front entry, all bedecked with smiling elderly people with white hair and tanned faces. He just didn’t know how to do this, he didn’t really know her at all. She thrived in the brisk ocean air, hiking through the wetlands of the Chesapeake. She had invited him and Shannon to join her time and time again, but his firm kept him anchored in Richmond and Shannon was anchored to David.

He pushed back from the table, holding out his hands for their empty plates and carrying them to the sink. She watched him as he stared out the back window rinsing the dishes; she would have paid anything to know what was going through his head; an only child with one parent left. They should have had more than one, if for no other reason than to lessen his burden. If only she could have seen this far ahead. He looked so much like his father. Tall and thin, but all lean muscle. She watched his jaw clench and unclench and smiled sadly at the habit he’d picked up from watching Harold work in the darkroom all those years. He was always so damn controlled. Intense concentration led to grinding—like father, like son.

“What do you think Charli?” Shannon asked quietly, watching David’s back. “Dave just worries that he can’t be closer.” The facade of concern wore thin when stretched between the two of them. Charlotte knew that Shannon would have been relieved to see her tucked away in a home, a quick phone call away, leaving her husband free for her leisurely pursuits.

“Richmond is only a couple hours away sweetheart,” Charlotte said, “I have a life in Suffolk, friends, this house…” Her eyes roamed the crown molding along the ceiling. Harry had hand painted it, the minute detail visible only to a trained eye. She swallowed the resentment that rose in her throat as Shannon shrugged resignedly.

“Dave made your favorite vegetable lasagna,” she said in a feeble attempt to lighten the mood. “I saw those zucchinis in the garden earlier, wish we would have shopped out there instead of Kroger.” Charlotte chuckled obligingly and thanked her.

David came back with the steaming casserole dish cradled in his oven-mitted hands.

“Lasagna a la Charlotte” he announced to no one in particular. She watched his hands move—cut, wedge, scoop—and resisted the temptation to reach out and hold one, just to feel him love her again. The way he used to when he needed her, when he would slip his hand surreptitiously into hers after school as soon as they rounded the corner, out of sight of his friends.

What little conversation there was dwindled as dinner drew to a close, the kitchen buzzing with thoughts no one was saying. Shannon cleared the table and David wandered into the living room, settling into Charlotte’s chair, his gaze drifting out toward the sunset. Charlotte sat at the table, listening to Shannon sing softly to herself at the sink. Folding and unfolding her hands, she couldn’t stop thinking. Was this her life? Is this what it had come to? This is how it would end, living along the margins of the lives of the people she loved? She thought of her time abroad; teaching, guiding, building, working. She had been relevant. Here, she sat in her own home and felt like a ghost, gone before she was gone.

Charlotte stood slowly, smoothing the wrinkles from her pants. Shannon dried her hands and walked past her, into the living room, perching on the arm of the armchair and draped her arm over David’s shoulders. As they whispered to each other, Charlotte slipped quietly out the back door. She pulled her adirondak chair to the edge of the porch, leaving Harold’s alone against the wall. The cantaloupe colored clouds swept across the evening sky and she closed her eyes, letting the breeze wash over her. The juniper scented air refreshed her and she began to feel peace settle into her bones.

Fishing around in her shirt pocket, she smiled as her fingers found their mark. She pulled out the tightly-wrapped white joint and trailed it slowly under her nose before balancing it delicately between her lips. The tip flared angry-red as she sucked the first drag into her lungs, holding it as long as she could, then blowing a stream of thick smoke into the air, burning her throat. She stifled a cough. David wouldn’t approve.

After a moment or two she began to feel it, the ants crawling across her brain, the relaxation that only came with these moments. She was pain free. The bone-deep ache slowly moved to the periphery of her consciousness as she took another hit. Osteosarcoma. The word floated in her mind’s eye like a mantra, but she simply smiled at it now. Acceptance, wasn’t that the last stage of grief? Maybe she was making progress after all. She stood slowly and looked back into the house. David and Shannon were flipping through the album she’d reminisced over a few hours before. She watched Shannon wipe at a tear that had tracked its way down David’s cheek. She decided then that she wouldn’t tell him, she couldn’t. She refused to regain her relevance through pity. She would never be able to enjoy him if his actions were rooted in guilt.

She lowered herself back down into the chair, stretching her legs out in front of her and took another drag, letting the smoke curl up around her face. She exhaled slowly, watching her breath move languidly among the azaleas, little pops of color between the haze of smoke. She watched her breath float up and out of the yard, becoming part of the sky.

She might have been dozing, maybe just lost in the fog, when the screen door hinges creaked behind her. The roach of the joint lay smoldering on the arm of the chair and she stifled a laugh, knowing it was too late to hide the evidence. She heard his footsteps move toward the back of her chair and knew he was looking down on her. After a moment, came the sound of Harold’s chair being dragged into place beside her.

“What am I gonna do with you,” David sighed as he settled in next to her. She did laugh at that. It burst through her clenched lips and she let out her trademark snort as the sucked the air back in through her nose. She peeked sideways at him through watery eyes, still shaking with laughter and was relieved to see he had a halfcocked grin himself.

“We used to have fun, didn’t we David,” she asked, gripping the armrest of his chair as if it were his knee. “I was a good mom.” she said, her smile faltering. Even she couldn’t tell whether it was a statement or if she was seeking affirmation.

“You are a good mom,” he said, leaning forward and balancing his elbows on his knees. “I just don’t know how to keep you…” he paused searching for the word. “Safe? Happy? Healthy? You pick.” He said, rubbing his chin. She thought back to the late-night discussions when she and Harold had sat knee to knee on their bed, brainstorming about how to foster David’s growing need for independence, while still keeping him safe. She laughed again thinking how life is so cyclical. Now they’d come full circle and it was his turn to navigate that territory.

“This is just good practice for when you have babies” she said, half choking on the unexpected lump that rose in her throat. Grandchildren. Grandchildren she would never meet. Her chin quivered and she raised a hand to stay it.

“And I suppose I can depend on you to remind my fictional children to ‘just say no’” he said pointing to the roach. “Pot mother? Seriously? When did this start?”

“Oh, a few months ago,” she said, waving off the concern in his voice like she was batting a gnat.

“It’s that guy across the street, isn’t it? Calvin something?”

“Oh Jesus, David. I’m not scoring drugs on a street corner!” she laughed.

“Then what? I’ve never seen you smoke weed before…except…that one New Year’s Eve in the garage…”

“You shush!” she looked around conspiratorially. “You promised me you’d never say a word to anyone about that! Including me…ever again,” she playfully swatted his arm. “I have a prescription, alright?” He angled his chair toward her.

“Prescription for what?” he asked.

“I’m 73 sweetie,” she said vaguely, “I don’t need a reason.” They sat in silence for a few minutes. Both of them watching the sky fade to a sable black.

“Dave, it’s 8:00.” Shannon’s voice called through the screen in the kitchen window. David checked his watch and shook his head.

“It’s getting late,” he said, but didn’t move.

“I understand David,” Charlotte said, “I know you have your life. I appreciate you letting me be a part of it…when you can.” As if he’d been waiting for her permission, David stood, heaved a sigh, walked under the newly-lit porch light and into the house. Charlotte sat, chewing her lower lip, willing herself not to cry. It always felt loneliest in the night. She heard the car start in the drive way and felt the dull ache start in her chest. She took a shuddering breath, listening to the engine fade. The fireflies began winking in the grass, calling out to possible mates and thinking of companionship she let her eyes fall closed. The door hinges creaked again, and she jumped, her eyes flying open in surprise. Looking over her shoulder she saw David’s silhouette backlit by the fluorescent porch light. Her heart was pounding in her chest. Was it adrenaline or hope?

“Turn off that light, would you David?” she asked, turning back toward the bay. The porch went dark, but the night lit up. He crossed the porch, a shadow in the dark and settled in beside her. He popped open a crocheted blanket, folded it once, and spread it across her lap before leaning back in his chair. She smiled at him in the dark, thanking him wordlessly. He reached across the gap between their chairs and grasped her hand, holding it firmly in his. His skin was warm and rough, familiar against hers and she squeezed it tight. Feeling his pulse beat against her wrist said everything he couldn’t seem to say with words.

*Chelsea Vitone is a Senior at the University of Washington Tacoma, double majoring in Writing Studies and Communication with a minor in Environmental Studies. She is an avid environmentalist who loves writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. With two sons, 7 and 4, she is endlessly inspired.