Kayla’s life was upended when Great-Aunt Bertie fractured her second hip and stayed at the nursing home, then rehabilitation services. But that was nothing compared to the current state of matters. Fractures and rehab are manageable for stubborn old women, it turned out. After Bertie decided to move in with her often absent nephew an entire state away, Kayla felt adrift in two time zones, the past and present all at once. She could not find her bearings. She kept hearing Bertie call out for her and simultaneously had to answer a student whose voice bot more insistent.
“Why?” She had implored one more time the last week Bertie was there. “I only teach twice a week this term and we’ve always managed. We can get someone to come in when I’m not here if needed.”
Bertie sniffed, more due to great colonies of dust that refused to stop rebuilding in her home than the present topic. “Nelson has a sprawling but one-story house, as we’ve discussed, Kayla. My house is an impediment for me at this time. I ought to sell but I don’t always do what my financial adviser advises. A few months, a year at most with Nelson and I’ll be back. Likely.”
“You’re not the least convincing. It sounds as if you’re absconding and worse, maybe giving up.”
Bertie stomped her cane hard on the worn pine floorboards.
“Have you ever known me to give up a fight? You’re a fine one to make such pronouncements, taking care of me for five years now when it was supposed to be one or two at most. The left hip was almost nothing, this one a trial. But even a medium heart attack did not take me down long and when you willingly arrived, there was plenty to do as well as the completion of your degree. You stayed after your Bachelors, then got your Masters, good for you. And then remained well after I needed you, I might add. But we both know it was an auspicious arrangement.” She eased forward in her seat just a little and winced, masking discomfort with another impatient thunk with her cane’s rubberized tip.
“Yes, a perfect arrangement until now.” Kayla’s voice caught in her throat and a lightly freckled hand went to her chest, then fingered bronze-colored beads she had worn to work over an old ivory cotton sweater.
Her hands always did something, wound and unwound a strand of hair, drummed lightly on any hard surface, twiddled a pen or pencil. The rest of her was just as still as a watchful cat whose tail nonetheless twitched. But for her there was an underlying anxiety never quite quelled. Others said that, although she was reserved and to herself, she was in quiet command of students, at meetings, under pressure. She often seemed much older than twenty-seven. They also entertained an alternative judgment: rather cold. Kayla sensed rather than heard what they said at Crane Community College as she elbowed her way around student hoards and faculty groups chattering away, making her way out and back home.
Bertie’s home, of course. Which her Great-Aunt was now abandoning. And her.
Bertie had more she might say to her Great-Niece but she knew better than to utter a tiresome homily–at any time. She was not a giver of wisdom, a corrector of wrongs, a font of inspiration. That didn’t mean she didn’t know a few worthwhile things.
Kayla had remained sheltered a bit too long, that’s what Bertie had surmised. The girl had now hidden long enough in Bertie’s comfortable home. So much education to acquire, such a varied amount of duties and care needed for the Great-Aunt and who else would do the job she did impeccably, with longstanding love? All that was true. But who cared for whom in the end? Bertie, a long retired mathematician, had been a widow for twenty-odd years before Kayla had come to live there. She’d been a boon, aided in more speedy healing of this or that health matter. But Kayla rarely if ever went out with a co-worker or anyone else, did not attend concerts or see a movie or go on even a short day trip by herself. They took long, dawdling drives like two tired oldsters. When she got the college position to teach sociology, she worked and came right home. Cared for that big groaning house and Bertie, a mere (but sturdy) twig in comparison yet also admittedly creakier than desired.
Bertie, at least, had begun to yearn for a change of scenery as well as another floor plan. Enough was enough. She was entertained by the company of her mildly flamboyant nephew and his artsy wife. There weren’t such stairs there to take her down. They’d be glad to have her since they’d become the antsy retired, already weary of so-called fun travels to exotic places.
Bertie was definitely leaving, then finally gone. Who knew what the future brought? Kayla could stay as long as she liked, the bills would be dealt with, but she’d be fending for herself.
That young woman was never going to see life’s shining and confounding facets without getting out there and discovering them.
The first week was so terrifying Kayla thought she’d have to call in sick, but staying alone there for more than a day would only make things worse. She was used to getting up and making them a tasty breakfast, sometimes taking a tray to Bertie’s room, or setting the dining room table with a third-best, flower-strewn tablecloth. It started the day off so well. Now it started with a halt and a slump.
And then she had errands or class, then was back for lunch to check on Bertie who might be dozing over a book by a living room window or out in the garden yanking at various green or brown stems with great enthusiasm, despite weakened hips. One thing came after another, everything orderly, reliable. At night they would sit by the fireplace and read classics, poetry and sociological studies (Kayla) or natural sciences and history (Bertie) or watch a public television series. Occasionally a movie they could agree on. Bertie would crochet badly but happily. She always said the same thing at end of day; “Sleep well, the sun rises too soon for young and old alike.”
Kayla should be exalting in this new freedom, nonetheless. Let loose of an old lady who could be cantankerous if in pain, even just slowed down, more opinionated than Kayla ever thought to be or lost in her own interesting thoughts. But Kayla forced herself out of bed and got dressed, made an ordinary if semi-palatable breakfast and went to her work and faked it the best she could.
It was true, her adult life had been Bertie, college and then teaching and that was it. It hadn’t been her intention but the longer she stayed, the better it felt and her Great-Aunt had been amenable. It puzzled and hurt her that her elder had determined to stay with the long missing Nelson. But it must make sense at age eighty-three.
People at work did ask her who she was dating or what were her plans, and she smiled enigmatically (she hoped), changed topic or said something obscure and acceptable. So when it appeared she was not in such a rush to leave her desk at end of her day two weeks in a row, she got a few looks. She had no intention to no become chatty, though Tom Heinz cast a sharp eye her way, mouth opening then shutting as he hurried on.
“So what do you have going on that you’re here late again? You and Bertie on the outs or what?” Wanda asked as she paused between coffee runs. She drank more coffee than was advisable despite living “clean”, as she put it, both utter mysteries to Kayla.
“No, just have things to catch up on, all the grading we have to get done.”
“The bane of teachers! But you usually get right out and come in early, if needed.” Wanda gulped a draft of rancid coffee from her stained mug, frimaced. “She’s okay, isn’t she? I meant, she’s all mended, right?”
“Of course! She’s just visiting for a few months, a nephew, that’s all.” It just slipped right out, such personal information! But she smiled, a no-teeth exposed sort of smile.
“Ah, I see,” Wanda said and smiled back. “Left you to your own devices, did she?” Then she wandered back to her desk humming, sipping from her bargain store mug.
Kayla shook her head–what a character she was while also aggressively smart–and wondered what the woman could possibly know about her life. Yet it struck a chord. Wanda could be strident, quick to make inferences and blunt. They went back to work. Later, Wanda sidled by and a hand grazed Kayla’s shoulder which startled her so that she swiveled in her chair and stared at the woman in muted horror.
Wanda pulled her hand back, crossed her arms before her chest then asked, “Want to go for a drink sometime or dinner?”
“I can’t possibly, you know that, I have to get back to Bert–oh, well…” She looked up at Wanda, whose right eyebrow was raised in a starkly drawn arch. “No thanks, not tonight.” Not any night, Kayla thought as she went back to work.
On the way home she noticed streetlights were already on. Autumn had arrived in all its burning glory and faded now, and soon would come winter’s onslaught. She pictured a fire flaring and crackling in the massive fireplace, how comforting it would be again, and then sadness rose up on the crest of a ghastly wave. She had to pull over and let tears fall, but only a moment. Bertie was only visiting, she’d get tired of their fun and games soon and be back. Wouldn’t she?
She drove home and parked in the driveway. How monstrous that house was, how excessive a home for even two or three or more! How could this have escaped her so long? The many dark windows closed her out with their blank stares. She must leave on a few lights each day. She must get take-out food tomorrow. She must get a dog. No–dogs were forbidden in Bertie’s house if not professionally obedience-trained or left unattended for longer than ten minutes.
Kayla started to shake though it wasn’t yet unbearably cold. She was shaking in her heavy grey socks and worn black leather boots because her life felt like quicksand so many moments without Bertie.
And no one was there to save her. No one. Only herself. And she was trying and it was not quite enough.
The third time Wanda asked her out to dinner, Kayla agreed because she was so sick of eating take-out Thai and frozen chicken tenders. She just didn’t feel like making a tasty meal. But she might like eating at a restaurant. She might not fully like Wanda, but it was better than no one sitting across from you day after day, night after night.
It was a contemporary eatery where hip younger adults went to dine and drink. It had a generous vegetarian menu which Wanda liked, and meat enough for Kayla to order something. After they did so, Kayla looked around at the boisterous crowd. Most were drinking as they ate, something that seemed unnecessary. Wanda had ordered a beer and one for Kayla although she said she wasn’t much of a drinker. But this label was excellent, Wanda said, why not try it?
Maybe it would quiet the quaking in her diaphragm, Kayla thought as she watched Wanda’s burgundy red lips move rapidly. Her ears were on overload already. Why did people like this environment? What discourse could happen in such a place? It made her think of earliest college days, when too many crammed in a booth. The purpose had been less about conversation and good food and more about filling up residual emptiness, hunting for a potential partner, erasing the bad day or night before. She got that though she denied it even as she saw it.
Wanda waved a hand before her face. “Yoo hoo! You here or not? When was the last time you ate out and where did you go?”
“Oh, we never ate out. Maybe on a Sunday if we didn’t feel like cooking, but that was unusual. Let me think. Embers–for steaks, I think.” She took a sip of beer and swallowed without wincing.
Wanda grabbed her own beer. “That old staid place! It’s high time you discovered the great foodie scene here.” She held up her bottle, waited for Kayla to clink hers, then sat back. “I’ve wondered about you a long time, you know that? You’re the mystery person in our department. Everyone has a theory about you; no one knows anything. I tell them you have great depth but choose to keep it hidden.”
Kayla took a fast sip. This was not going to be about personal revelations or she was leaving. “Is that right? What makes you think so? Never trust your first impressions.” Turn it back on her and lead her astray, that was it.
“Your classes, for one thing. You must manage to make Intro to Sociology fascinating–your classes always fill up fast. And your other one–what is it?–has a waiting list this term.”
“Societal Impact on Women’s Life Goals.”
“Right, that one, sounds good. Tom said he stood at your door one time, opened it just a tad and listened to much of your lecture. He was surprised by how you interact with the students, and they, you–so easily. Impressive, he said. And seems like he’s always looking your way now.”
Kayla bristled. “I hadn’t noticed. Anyone can pop in if they just ask me. I love sociology and found I have a knack for teaching despite initial misgivings about doing it for a career.”
“What misgivings?” She leaned chin on hand, streaky blond hair swinging about her face.
“I thought I’d do research…I guess I still can.” She felt a sweep of heat up her face and then agitation came zooming back, so took a big bite of food. She’d not said even this much to a colleague before. It wasn’t their business, how she felt, what she desired, other than how it might impact department goals. It had to be the beer and convivial atmosphere. She felt disoriented all of a sudden, needed to finish her turkey and bacon burger and leave.
“I know what you mean. We get derailed sometimes. Like me. I started in this direction later than most as my husband was ill a long time. I never got past this job so now am wondering what to aim for again or if I should just stay on…”
Kayla felt herself recoil. Boundaries, weren’t they important, anymore? But she agreed they both had experience with sickness and care taking. “I sure hope he’s better. You’ve never acted worried, just self-assured. You have a lot of great ideas and energy.”
“Yeah, I do make my presence known. ” She looked at Kayla, eyes gleaming. “He died a year before you arrived–was it really two years ago? Married four years, though.” She took a long swig.
“I am sorry, Wanda. Truly”
The burger suddenly felt like too much but she ate it, anyway. How did they get to this intimate stuff already? She never would have thought someone like Wanda had had such a terrible loss. She drummed her fingers on a thigh, sipped, surreptitiously checked her watch. So much emotion in one night.
“Thanks, it’s okay, things have a way of changing again. I’m dating a little, not from the college though. You?”
“No, not in a long time. I like being on my own. That is, I used to hang out with Bertie, spend time with a couple of her friends, all such smart ladies and gentlemen. And often have been alone. It’s okay that way for me, I am a solitary creature despite my interest in groups of social beings and their behaviors.”
“Naw, can’t be that okay.” Wanda dug into her salad. “I don’t imagine that much time alone with a very elderly lady is so good for you– you really think so?”
Kayla released a long sigh. She felt warm inside and out, no longer too empty or too full; the crowd seemed more settled, their voices a drone of contentment. It was alright being there. More than decent.
“Maybe not. I grew up in a small family, then went to college, and when Bertie asked if we could work out an arrangement I thought for two seconds and agreed. Really, she helped me. Gave me free room and board to just keep an eye on her and house matters. And she is not dull companion, believe me. It was a perfect solution for us both. Or maybe still is.”
Wanda chewed her kale, radicchio, avocado and tomatoes, looked thoughtful but waited.
“I miss her, more than I expected. She was more involved with my life than I knew. Or vice versa.”
“Well, you love her. I get it. She loves you. That’s the whole thing. Or it might be, ultimately. Worth thinking over and debating, anyway.” She shrugged luxuriously and sat back, satisfied.
Kayla leaned into the table, hands expressing her thoughts as she spoke. “But also, maybe I’m just lazy or don’t know what to do outside of work, work, work. Or my rotten anxiety curtails a life that works well and seamlessly like most seem to do. Like yours despite your challenges.”
“I seriously doubt that, all of it. You have what it takes, you just got too comfortable. You know how common it has been to do what you’ve done, right? For centuries women have taken care of others, of their elders. Not a bad thing, no. But there is more for us than that, right? And I was where you are, in a way, with my cancer-ridden husband…life just upends us and we have to redirect ourselves, figure out each next step.” She laughed as if it was some sort of epiphany. “Kayla, life never gets easier, it just gets more familiar, you know? You’ve had a door pushed open. So now what?”
Kayla narrowed her eyes at this woman with the too blonde hair and dark eyebrows, with her pronouncements, suppositions. And she felt such a wave of relief she was afraid she could faint, but sat up straighter.
“Walk through it…and maybe that’s what Bertie was offering me. Not just changing up her care plans. She was so ahead of her time, after all, a respected mathematician for forty-eight years. She knows how to be alone and how to not be alone.”
“Exactly. So make the most of this, I say! Get out more to art and history museums, films, restaurants, author readings, take a trip, go on a mountain hike! Let others become a friend, Kayla. And so you know, I can go hot and cold, I’m not all that together. But for sure you will not sink. If you think you might, give me a holler, we’ll go out for a beer and burger. Well, veggies for me.”
She winked at Kayla, which sure seemed presumptuous, as if declaring an actual possible friendship. But it was pleasant, too, Kayla thought as they paid their bill. She found herself laughing as they forged a path through sidewalk throngs to find her car window. It displayed her first parking ticket. The time had passed so quickly.
The house seemed to be glowing when she got home. For a minute she thought Bertie had come back without advance notice and she hurriedly put the car in the garage. But, no, the house stood empty, she could feel it’s expansive, worn elegance wanting company even as she walked toward the door. She had left a few lamps on so windows were radiant with amber light. Kayla turned the lock with her key, walked in, thought how lovely it would be to light a fire and read a few sonnets. How she might possibly swing a simple dinner for two or three colleagues around upcoming holidays.