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IN THE MORNING -- A MORNING -- the old woman brought me scrambled eggs, toast, corned-beef hash from a can, and black coffee. Then I took a long shower and brushed my teeth with a new toothbrush. Back in my room, I saw that she'd laid out some of her old clothes for me: a cotton dress from the '50s with a Peter Pan collar, smelling very fresh and good, a pink cashmere sweater that was clean but did not smell fresh, and my own bra and panties. For shoes, some house slippers, which my heels overhung by a good inch.
I shuffled into the kitchen, stretching, and found the nurse washing my breakfast dishes. "You can wait in the garden," she said.
Outside, I sat on an iron settee, then thought better of it and sat on the grass, doing some stretches, feeling blood move. The air smelled sweet. No pool, but a corner fountain with a praying virgin nested in a seashell alcove. I felt the urge to kneel, so I did, and my heart opened. My eyes filled with tears. "Thank you," I whispered.
"I'm not Catholic," the old lady said behind me, the dog prancing around her feet. "I just liked her when I saw her in the garden shop. Are you Catholic?"
I turned and smiled, embarrassed, shaking my head. "No, I'm not anything. Not that I know of."
"Just sentimental then," she said.
"I guess so," I said. Nothing, I thought, could be further from the truth.
"We'll drive you home now," she said brightly, "if you're ready."
The nurse drove the Cadillac, the old woman in the passenger seat, and I sat in the back like a child being driven to church. "It's Sunday," the old woman said. "If that matters. I noticed today because the paper was thicker. Do you do the crossword?"
Had I been gone a whole week?
"No," I said. "My mother used to do them though."
"You should take it up," she said. "It's very soothing at times. Takes you out of yourself." She looked out the car window. "But so many things do."
I gave directions as soon as I recognized where we were, and it wasn't long before the nurse was wheeling the Eldorado into the driveway of the house where I rented a garage apartment.
"I'd like you to come up," I said. "Just for a moment. I want you to see where I live." I'd been growing anxious that she'd refuse, but the old woman heard the pointed note in my voice, gave a nod, and I helped her out of the car.
The steps up to my place are flimsy and creaky, and she put her whole weight on my forearm, walking a step ahead of me. I unlocked the door and let us into the musty room.
She took a turn around, then stopped next to the sofa. She was winded from the climb. I crossed the threshold and stood there, too, looking at the old woman in my apartment: behind her on the coffee table, my lipsticked wineglass, and through the open door of the bedroom, on the floor, the dress I had decided not to wear. She was in the foreground, her purse over her arm, her sweater held over her quavering shoulders by a coppery maple-leaf sweater clip.
She looked at the room, briefly, and without assessment, as if it didn't matter, or wouldn't very soon.
"You're starting over now," she said, appraising me. I was, after all, standing there in her clothes. "It's good."
I stalled -- I didn't want her to go. "But what do I want?" I asked. "This time?"
"What did you want the last time?" She shook a little harder, I thought, then laughed abruptly, a guffaw, like she probably used to make when she was young and flirting over a fence or something. Then her expression sobered. "What do I want? What a useless question," she barked irritably. "Don't ever ask it again. Of yourself or anyone else."
I was taken aback. "I won't."
She smiled. "Goodbye, dear," she said. She gave my arm a pat, and my forehead a last feel. "Good," she said. "Goodbye."
I watched her go down the steps, leaning on the rickety rail and taking them sideways. She waved me away. "No, don't come down," she said. "I like leaving you here." And she tottered off. The nurse helped her into the Cadillac, and they drove away.