(during a period of sleepless nights and change, a dream becomes a tale.)
New York City, where fragments of the past linger in the form of old lovers and friends. They’ve settled here: found love, had children, cut their hair and shaved their beards – leaving behind the dust, the sifted, fine-grain kind that remains unnoticeable on book shelves. Over time the layers become like pages in a novel; blow the dust, and you find yourself in its cloud.
I took my daughter to the City. It was the perfect opportunity to quicken her steps and show her the potential I never seized. We were lavish as tourists choosing a ritzy hotel with rooms named and inspired after old Hollywood starlets. We were given the Joan Crawford room.
The closets were brimming with her personal belongings–an armoire of hats and turbans with oversized feathers and plumes, satin robes with velvet ties, and ball gowns with intricate glass beading or chiffon ruffles. Oh, the jewels, the diamonds, the sapphires and the ivory cigarette holders!
The hotel room was fairly large with two beds and bedside lamps. One bed, she and I would share, and in the opposite bed composed in perfect detail, lay a comatose Joan with painted red lips.
Her nurse arrived in the morning to reapply her lipstick with the accuracy and precision of a surgeon. She mentioned Joan had been in this state for over 30 years; and unlike others in a coma, she had never aged. The nurse had taken it upon herself to serve as guardian of her body, seeing to it that Joan was always cared for and presentable. She explained this while applying a cream of crushed pearls to Joan’s face.
“And this is what makes Joan as youthful as she is!” she exclaimed holding up the porcelain jar.
We fixated on the body. Noticing at once she was, in fact, alive. The ever-so-slight movement of her chest, the irregular breathing, and the twitch of her nose as the nurse dusted mineral powder across her face.
As the nurse packed up her items, my daughter asked: “Do you think she will awaken?”
“Highly unlikely. This is how she wanted it,” said the nurse as she made her way out of our hotel room. “Enjoy your stay, and please do take care of Joan’s items.”
The door closed behind her, and we were alone with the 103-year-old body.
“She looks amazing,” I said, stepping closer to have a look.
My daughter seized the opportunity of my distraction to try a hat I had admired before the nurse arrived. In this act, she revealed she had entered the nymphet period, the cusp before womanhood but still a child. She pursed her lips, straightened her back, and stood like a woman. It was alarming; yet beautiful, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon and fluttering its wings for the first time.
We accepted our comatose roommate without awkwardness or uneasiness much like one accepts the peeling yellow wallpaper in an old estate house. It lends to the character and charm. “Should I wear this to dinner?” she asked as she pulled a gold dress with a train from the closet. It was extravagant but perfect. I chose an emerald turban, a black high collar dress from the 1940s, and a pair of snake skin pumps, which fit perfectly. Joan had size 9 feet
We were slightly distracted by the gasp that escaped Joan’s lips as we left the hotel room, wearing her things.
I wished for the faces of my past, as she and I navigated through the neighborhoods in a yellow taxi especially the one I called bird boy in the days of my youth. During the newness of our romance, I had made the first cut (and several others); the wounds failed to heal, even after 20 years.
Surely, he would have turned the other way if we passed each other on the street.
As they all do.
The departure from my past was abrupt, in the style of Ralph Ellison, at a time when the fires were more fierce. I became invisible like a gray speck on a photograph. It worked to some degree; many had failed to see the gray markings in these old photographs. Invisible, ghost-like, in the same city as these past memories, I strayed in areas where we once roamed as partners. Time had faded the details also undoing the threat of yesterday’s beauty. Yet, he was one who never forgave. The bird boy’s curse existed to remind me of what I had failed to become.
As we neared the restaurant, she was bright-eyed and beautiful. Powerful and dangerous as they always are at her age. Suddenly, I was ashamed for desiring such a meeting with my past. What was I thinking? Wearing another woman’s turban and shoes as if it was reason enough to walk arm-in-arm with my past without question?
The taxi stopped and she was the first to get out. She held the door and grabbed my hand with the fierce excitement only new love could invoke
“Mother, this reminds me of the story you told about wanting to buying a camel to ride to my piano recital wearing a turban and a handful of squash blossom necklaces.” she said as she pulled the door of the restaurant open and held it for me to enter first.
“Yes, it’s quite surreal isn’t it?”
In her eyes, she failed to reveal the failures that had overcome me in this new city. Instead, she beckoned my strengths to walk first into the room of strangers. As I entered, she held the torch with me as we lit the way. In the darkness, the past could not combat her bravery, a gift from her father. She had become the weapon; the chapter that had no room for these old ghosts.
The restaurant became silent and watchful as we made our way to the table. Only the sound of the gold train trailing behind her was heard, like a dragon’s scaly tail emerging behind the beast as it departed from the darkened cavern.