Marlene’s daughter hadn’t yet made the appointment for Marlene’s haircut but she would. Tomorrow. Or she would just text her stylist, that might reach him faster. Greta was busy, a clear success by any decent standard a mother set. She brought work home at night, there were multiple flowers plus a new lemon tree on the wrought iron balcony that needed particular care, she had a nine year old son with urgent needs–Demian’s phone wasn’t working again, he had to buy knee pads for dodge ball, his painted turtle just passed away. Life was happening fast for Greta.
Not that Marlene thought her hair was a critical event that required immediate attention. She liked her hair; it had managed to retain some volume, the omnipresent grey was complementary to her pale blue eyes. But Greta had gotten the grand idea that her very expensive personal stylist could “do something” for her mother. Now that she was no longer working. Or married to her father.
“Spruce me up, you mean,” Marlene said with the least amount of sarcasm she could manage. “Maybe make me over. For what?”
Great put hands on hips as she did when a child. “Enhance your best features, those pretty eyes,” she enthused, “give that grey some oomph. Maybe mask it. Help the frizzy waves. Oh, and eyebrows…don’t be resistant, mom. I’ll pay.”
“Oomph?” Marlene repeated, palms held up and looked at Demian. “Eyebrows? What next for this pitiful old lady?”
He shrugged, absorbed by the game on his phone. “I think Grandma looks fine.” His thumbs worked very fast. “You’re not too old, Grandma.”
Her grandson generally championed her. Marlene appreciated it. With a name like that (“He is the pivotal character in a perfect Hermann Hesse novel,” Marlene had told Greta, “so you must read it to know what you’re doing here!” but she did not), no telling what he’d do but he was smart, kind to all creatures, and had imagination as evidenced by the way he decorated his room. On his wall he had drawn an orange car with blue stripes on it. He liked to look at it as he fell asleep. Driving it was himself, of course, and in the passenger seat sat a small dog, a bit like a cocker spaniel, one his mother so far refused to get him. Its furry ears blew straight back in the wind, its long pinkish tongue dangled. Demian had signed and dated it. The only reason Greta had not thrown a fit was that Demian was a good artist. Truth was, gifted.
Names meant something in life, Marlene mused as she retired to her room. Demian might have been Peter, a name she favored for its crisp confidence, although Demian in the book had charisma, wisdom. She might have been a Renalda, a sensuous but proud name she’d read in another story, a trivial novel, but she had admired it ever since. Greta was named after Marvin’s great-grandmother. He’d said it would keep their daughter strong.
He was possibly right. Greta was like a commercial for endurance. Long hours at the ad agency, health withstanding gangs of viruses on trains and planes, a three-time marathon runner, and a single, loving mother. She never had married. She had chosen to have this child “without the interference of a life partner” was how she had put it. Marlene just shook her head. She had fought the good fight during feminism’s firebrand years, had worked all her life and had both fallen arches and piddling pension to show for it but when did having babies become another experiment in self reliance? But it was only a matter of time before Greta would be promoted and then move them all into a newer spacious apartment, so who could complain?
Marlene became a willing grandmother at age fifty-four. The child slept and ate well, exhibited intense focus from the start, and had a face like a Buddha, gently-shaped. She came to see him, if feasible, every other week-end for the first eight years but she hadn’t intended on living with him and his mother. That happened after Marvin decided he never was cut out for marriage and took early retirement, then moved up north to fish happily ever after. Marlene’s bank job had always been duller than boiled potatoes so she’d retired, too. Their modest house was sold, there was a little alimony and money from investments, yet funds were more tight than she’d expected. Greta could use assistance, she said, so moved her in. Temporarily, Marlene repeated often to them both.
“Okay, just your hair,” her daughter said again, standing in the doorway. “I’m thinking next week. Carlton is perfect for cut and color.”
“I have color. Two, in fact, brown and white mixed together making an interesting pale blondish-grey.”
Greta made a little moue with her plump mauve lips. “You agreed to leave this to me. My Mother’s Day gift to you. Please?”
Marlene turned on the retro lamps near the loveseat that took too much space. She slumped into the cushions and picked up a magazine. “I guess I’ll need to trust you.”
But Marlene just didn’t when it came right down to it, not as she’d have liked. The live-in offer was generous and the expedient thing to do–for the short term, until she got her feet under her. Or went back to her hometown. It didn’t really suit her, the schedules they had, the expensive, fussy food she was expected to eat and often shop for and prepare. The way Greta turned on the television every night. Marlene liked the radio so sought refuge in her cramped room (once a small office, now the dining room had to do for Greta’s work) unless Demian wanted to play cards or checkers or draw with her. The perpetual being on call for babysitting although being with her grandson was far more entertaining than anything else. She loved her daughter. But Greta had such a big life plan and Marlene, one that was vanishing a bit more each day.
Marlene felt at loose ends. No husband, house, job. Well, the subtraction of the job from the sum of her life was no loss. Yet who could blame her if there were mornings when the patch of sky she saw between faded curtains had an ominous cast? Or the narrow bed felt much too comforting? It got boring during the day. Watching people zoom by below their fourth story apartment building. Haunting the library until there was a distinct feeling of bloat from overindulgence in the printed word. Walking around the same blocks again. It was true that Demian was a wonder. But grandsons were not friends exactly. Marlene was used to meeting up with Jenny and Cath in a moment’s notice. Now they were an hour away.
There was a mirror above the oak dresser and Marlene stood before it, hands atop her head. Her hair looked…like her hair. It folded in at her shoulders, enough curl to keep it from hanging in a thready hank. In the duskiness of the room, it seemed a warmer color but the grey glowed like sterling in sunlight. Either way, it didn’t matter much. She recalled the bank years when she presented herself as the quintessential professional, the time and effort it took. How she loathed the pants suits and the dresses that required expensive shoes and nylons. She took frequent restroom breaks to reapply her lipstick or otherwise she felt undressed. Her real lips were faded, like rose petals that had lost vibrancy, appeal. She had gotten rid of the suits and twenty tubes of expensive lip color, keeping one for special occasions.
Marlene smiled at her reflection, then waved. Then she bobbed her head side to side as though she was deliriously happy. This sometimes worked.
“Grandma, what are you doing?”
Demian climbed onto her bed so he could place himself behind her image in the mirror. He stuck out his arms and she raised hers. They waved them wildly. It looked like she had four arms.
“Demian! Time for bed!” “Grandma and I are doing something!”
Greta entered the room with her phone in hand. “I already texted Carlton. He said next Saturday at three. I’ll take you. Demian can play with his buddy downstairs.”
Greta beamed at her, eyes lit up with anticipation. Marlene sighed. It came out a small whistle that made Demian giggle as he bounced off her bed.
It was sometime after five o’clock in the morning when Marlene awakened. Two cats were at it, whether fighting or loving she didn’t know, it all sounded the same to her. She sat up until the racket died down, then, wide awake, pushed the covers off and walked to the low window to fling open two little doors to let in the air. The day was starting off with drifting fog, then it’d clear, she bet. A day for a walk down by Pier Park, watch boats come in, barges go out. She’d have a croissant with honeyed butter or a poppy seed muffin and coffee, take her book along. It’d warm up; the spring sky would turn aquamarine like magic. Then it would be crawling with people. She wouldn’t be able to sit and muse over anything with the cigarette smokers and toddlers with their anxious, gabby mothers. She shuddered and yawned. Greta would be up by six, scurrying around.
Then the idea came to her. She stuffed her faded polar bear T-shirt into her shorts, then got her coat from the stand by the dresser. She went to the window and looked down at the fire escape. Marlene had once had to use one during a false fire alarm. She stepped up, steadied herself with hands against window frames, then stepped down, her thigh muscles complaining. The air was so still it seemed to hold its own secret sound. It soothed her. She watched a younger man and an older woman–it could be her a year ago–rushing for the train.
By the time she had climbed halfway down the she realized she had no shoes on. How must she look, a mad woman perched on the fire escape! She went back up the metal steps, climbed back in and put her tennis shoes on, then pulled on her old khakis. Then she scrawled a noted on the back of a bookmark and left it on her pillow: Gone to Pier Park for an early morning stroll and coffee. Don’t worry, back later.
Marlene started again, one foot on the window sill, excitement mounting.
“Where are you going, Grandma?” Demian’s voice sounded serious and it made her pause. She looked back, pointed to the book mark, then put a finger to her lips. Demian read the note.
“Can I come? Please?”
“Not this time, sweetie,” she whispered. “I’ll be back before long. See you after school.”
And then she stepped out the window.
“Grandma! Don’t let mom change you! Got it?”
Marlene looked at him and felt so much love that her body felt strong and mighty, her spirit felt light. She was momentarily concerned she might leap off those steps and fly just to show him how much she could and would do for him. But she let out a chuckle, stepped out again and landed on the metal step with a thud. Demian leaned on the windowsill and watched her gingerly descend. When she looked back at him, he gave her two thumbs up. She waved and took off down the street, coattails flying in the fresh May breeze.
“The best!” he said, then tiptoed back to bed.