I'm a young mother and yet I've been feeling very old of late. Perhaps I should use an alternative here and call myself, less bluntly, prematurely experienced, but lofty euphemisms like this would be inconsistent with my down-to-earth New Englandishness.
Yes, strange days are these times that people around me have begun to call the Nineteen-Eighties. Disregarding the fact that my experience of the Nineteen-Forties is merely statistical in nature, I cannot help but notice the fact that by the end of this decade, the fifth I'm enjoying the privilege of seeing between the two incarnations of forever darkness, I'll have turned forty.
Forty. Half-time. Get ready for part two. No turning back. The rollercoaster that never stops, and oh yes is life a bumpy ride.
Not that I have a lot of reasons to complain. Okay, my private life is a mess. Angela Bower, freshly separated, stirred not shaken. A single mother right from the drawing board, you'd think...well, unless you are Ronald Reagan. Because I have made my way into economic independence all by myself, and that's one thing I am proud of. (The other one eagerly looking forward to his first day in that mystical place his friends keep telling him about called elementary school.)
Nothing terribly out of the ordinary, you may think. Then why keep a diary !?
Well, I have to. I must do it. I've never kept a diary, not really, not even in adolescence when a lot of my friends used to have a diary as their most valued social treasure (an item now currently in the process of being substituted, as I understand, for the ghetto blaster). I need to try and make sense of my thoughts, of my conflicting emotions, of my vast array of unanswered questions. Absent an understanding husband or a fine menagerie of good friends, what's left to do but consult with Dr Sigmund Diary ?!
The Nineteen-Eighties started last year. This story started yesterday.
I don't know when it'll end. And even if I did, would I feel better ? I think not.
So here goes.
It was sometime in the run-up to noon. I didn't look at the clock when the doorbell rang, and afterwards I was so lost in thought that I didn't bother. All I remember is that I had just finished my post-shower make-up session. Although it was Sunday and I wasn't planning to go anywhere I still succumbed to my daily routine in the bathroom.
Okay, it's not daily routine. At least not just that. It's also vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas. Can we move on !?
Right. So the doorbell rang. Who could that be ? Mother, was my first thought. On a Sunday, thank you very much. I could picture myself spending my day off listening to Mother updating me in the most graphic terms on her love life (exuberant) followed by a Katyusha bombardment of questions about my love life (nonexistent). To top it off, I'd get the latest broadside of her uber-caustic barbs. Been looking forward to that all week.
So I took my time, put on my bathrobe (I know what you're thinking, and believe me, as long as I'm young and sexy I'll be thinking the same thing, humility be damned, forty and the time to mourn lost youth are coming soon enough), and geared up to face the red-headed maneater.
I walked down the stairs and then, standing in front of my door, was wondering whether it really was Mother on the other side. It hadn't rung again, you see. Mother never likes to be kept waiting. For the teensiest of moments I hesitated, then (down-to-earth New Englandishness, remember) opened the door.
It wasn't Mother. Not even remotely.
I've never experienced anything resembling the emotion washing over me when I was looking into the face of my visitor, and I doubt I'll ever feel that way again upon opening my door to meet a complete stranger. It is impossible to describe this moment using mere words, so I'm hoping you'll understand if I express my recollection of it in a rather one-dimensional way.
I was facing a woman, about my age, perhaps a little younger, dark-haired, very attractive, not exactly tall, who greeted me with a stunningly beautiful smile as she saw me. Nothing out of the ordinary, you might think, what's the big deal. Well, it was something about the woman's mere presence which made me feel uneasy. Something was wrong, I don't know how to describe it, it just felt wrong. I've been thinking about this all night and still cannot make head nor tail of it: I had never met this woman before, positive, but still I was convinced deep in my soul, beyond any doubt, that I knew her. It was like one of those old memories, buried so deep inside the graveyard of your long-term brain functions that no matter how desperately you try to revive it, it stays dead in the ground. Still you know it's somewhere down there, and all you can do after giving up is to hope that it won't return as a Living Dead to haunt you one day.
Plus, women have a way of knowing things on an unconscious yet fairly reliable level in their uterus, something men obviously cannot and could never understand. Needless to say, that's what I felt, too, opening the door and facing the unknown woman.
All these emotional intricacies described above happened within a fraction of a second. Then the woman spoke up.
It was not a question, it was a statement.
She held out her hand. I automatically shook it.
It still felt wrong.
Obviously, the question I wanted more than anything else to ask at that point was "Do I know you". Instead, I could hear myself say:
"Yes, may...may I help you ?"
Incredibly, the woman's already sensational smile broadened even more.
"Actually, no. You can't. But I'm very pleased to meet you..."
For some reason that obviously eluded me, her own words made her laugh. Then she added, like an afterthought:
Despite her use of the good f-word, I didn't feel closer to her nor did it anything to make her presence feel any more right than before.
"I beg your pardon..."
"I've been looking forward to seeing you, Angela. That's the only reason I came. Do you have a little time ? Or are you expecting applicants for the housekeeper's job ?"
She seemed to be very self-assured, because the tone of her voice spoke of determination and something which deep down underneath the shiny surface felt like superior knowledge. Which, naturally, furthered my unease. The idea to employ a full-time housekeeper had crossed my mind, but it's not yet official or anything, yesterday as certainly as it is today. I doubt I've even talked about it to anyone. How could she possibly know about that...
"I'm sorry, Angela. I must warn you. If you're inclined to talk to me, there's a pretty decent chance I'll leave you with more questions than answers. But I'd try my very best, of course, to make it worth your while."
Her language sported traces of an abraded New York accent, which, plus her general physiognomy, led me to guesstimate that she was a Big Apple Italian. Great. That narrowed it down to about five million people.
"Well, I guess I could spare a minute..."
Before I knew what I was saying I was already standing aside to usher her in. As she walked by me into the living room, my schizophrenic feeling that I knew very intimately this person I had never met before became a certainty. Again, I can only very inadequately describe it with plain words, it's like trying to paint the majesty of the Kilimanjaro with a vocabulary that consists only of "rock" and "snow". It was her appearance, her sweet but fresh smell, her body language, her smile, everything was so strangely familiar. Somehow. Somewhere. Deep inside, inaccessible to the conscious mind, like an element of the dreamworld.
And most of all, I realised, it was her voice. That voice more than anything else made me allow her in. Where had I heard that voice before ?
As I closed the door I was reluctant to let go of the doorknob.
When I finally turned around to face her again, I saw that she was standing behind the couch table, running her fingertips over its surface. Her view wandered off, and she was not looking at me when she nodded and stated, in some kind of self-affirmation:
"Yes, you do have a lovely home, Angela."
And then, facing me:
"And you are so pretty. I hope you won't mind a compliment from a sister. It's kinda like stating the obvious, I know, but believe me when I say that I really, really wanted to tell you this."
I was very flattered, but at that point I decided to exercise my constitutional right to down-to-earth New Englandishness, round three. With a superhuman effort I managed to shove aside a mountain of perplexity and shot the only question at her that mattered.
"Excuse me, miss. Would you mind telling me who you are ?!"
She didn't answer me, but walked around to the couch and made herself at home. I knew what that silent gesture was meant to tell me, so I joined her.
As I sat down next to her - more of the same, another wave of familiarity. For Heaven's sake, I felt like I had shared the couch with her a million times. Which was out of the question and not just because I had only very recently bought this thing. It was a bargain, exactly the right thing to drown my frustration about a crashed marriage.
"Angela", my visitor began, "you don't need to know someone when you just want to talk with them. You deal with strangers all the time at your place of work, don't you !?"
"Well, usually", I retorted, "I'd like to know who I'm dealing with before getting down to business." I paused. "Certainly if the opposite party so very sincerely calls me their friend."
The woman laughed again.
"Sorry, Angela. I am so used to calling you my friend that I couldn't possibly think of anything else to characterise our relationship."
I smiled. No reason.
"See", I said, "that's where you and I differ. I could think of a million things to call you - and yet not one. Because to me you're a blank sheet of paper. I've never met you before."
"Are you sure about that, Angela ?"
So she was teasing me. I didn't like it.
"I'm warning you, young lady. If your explanation doesn't contain the words Alzheimer's disease I'm going to be violently ill."
It was meant to sound cool but as is mostly the case with my efforts at cynicism, it fell through. She laughed again, then patted me on the shoulder. Like a long lost friend indeed. Her touch made me shiver, and not in a good way.
"Oh Angela, don't worry. You're not a 76-year-old nursing home inmate, and I'm not here to take you back to Never-Neverland."
"No", I tried again only to fail again, "I'm a 32-year old ad exec, and you're here to tell me I'm canned."
To this, she replied with something I found very remarkable.
"Angela. People at your level don't get canned." Then, very seriously: "They get fired."
I shivered again.
This time the feeling was even worse.
There was no time to process this latest dialogue. Everything about the young woman was out of the ordinary. My internal sensors were constantly picking up strange readings from her (before you ask, yes, I am thinking about attending the next Trek convention). It was nothing strikingly apparent, but her hairstyle was not in any way la mode of these 'ere Nineteen-Eighties (relatively long, but much too straight and natural), her clothes even less so (from my own very subjective - some malevolent fashion pundits would say conservative - perspective her style of dressing was rather tasteless and non-descript): A standard blue jeans without any of the typical elements young people are proud of sporting these days, a nice but much too decently pastel-coloured shirt that you could just as easily imagine on a guy. More, she didn't wear the shirt tucked in.
And anyway, it is early March. Temperatures have been anything but fair and square for people who like to go in rather light wardrobe. If I wasn't mistaken, there was part of a pair of sunglasses peeking out of her shirt's breast pocket. For your information, I've been worrying about Jonathan, who's starting to suspect that this mysterious thing his mother calls "the sun" might just be another resident of the City of Dreams, next-door neighbour with Santa or the Tooth Fairy.
Then, the shoes. I may not be up-to-date on the latest fashion cry, but I am into shoes. I don't know a single woman who isn't. Must be something only a Y-chromosome can neutralise. But Ms Stranger-In-The-Daytime here wore sneakers. At least that's what I think they were. But unlike any mocassins I've ever seen. They were mainly black and looked more like athletic or basketball shoes. The woman had one foot casually on the knee of the other leg, so on the shoe's side I could make out the word "Jordan". Think of that what you will, because it meant nothing to me.
Again, words are an insufficient tool to describe what happened but it's everything I've got. All the wondering about the woman's exterior appearance described above happened in milliseconds. There was no time to process further her appearance when she spoke again.
"Angela. Don't worry, I may be Italian, but I'm not here to make you an offer you can't refuse."
She paused, looking away. My internal sensors (beam me up, Scotty) were telling me that she was struggling, because now we were done with the small talk. Time to get down to business. That's where I obviously felt more at home than she did, and she must have known that. I did what I usually do on Madison Avenue in such situations: seizing the opportunity, pressing my advantage, and trying to gain control.
"Okay, young lady. Party's over. Let's hear it, shall we !?"
She looked at me, smiling, as if having gotten a confirmation she'd been looking for.
"Are you sure you want to hear what I have to tell you ?", she asked, apparently very honestly concerned.
I answered in the affirmative.
Now I wish I'd thrown her out.
She told a very mysterious (or rather, mystifying) story. Before she started, she asked me to keep any questions until the end, no matter how urgently I should feel the temptation to interrupt. A wise precaution, as it turned out, because questions started lining up in my mind like dedicated fans for a ticket sale.
I still wonder, more than twenty-four hours later, how I managed to both follow her story and, simultaneously, further assess her strange presence. I guess if women were able to consciously control their multitasking, we could force a new order upon a men's world.
Anyway. My visitor was obviously in the mood for talking. This is her story recounted to the best of my abilities.
"Angela", she commenced, "What a beautiful name. You know, I never told anybody, but I was seriously considering Angela to be a name for my daughter, if ever I were to have one. So far..." (here she paused and grinned) "...not really a question to be dealt with imminently. Speaking of mothers and daughters, I lost my mother when I was very young. She fell ill and passed away before she had reached my present age. I barely knew her, and only from the perspective of a child. I was never able to sit down next to my mother like I'm sitting down next to you and talk to her the way I'm talking to you. As equals, one-on-one."
Involuntarily I had to think of Mother and how I had scoffed at the prospect of spending time with her when the doorbell had rung.
"Well, what can children do when something terrible like that happens ? They turn to the other parent. Some say that sons naturally tend to be closer to their mothers while daughters naturally tend towards the father. Don't know whether that's true or not, fact of the matter is, there was little else I could do but look to my father for support."
I thought about Jonathan who's facing the prospect of growing up without his father, if for different reasons. The woman was right about her shrewd suspicion. What else can Jonathan do but lean on me ?!
"So what I did was just that. Adapting. Growing up without the woman who gave me life. I guess that's also the reason why I saw..."
She looked me in the eyes, then dismissed the unfinished sentence.
"Whatever. Important thing is, I grew up. With a great father at my side. He was a little too protective of his little girl at times, more so perhaps because I was a single child and had no siblings with which to share the burden of growing up, but all in all I wouldn't want to miss a single minute with him. Certainly in retrospect, now that I've lost him too."
Her eyes wandered off again. Something very heavy was weighing on her mind.
"Knowing what I know now, there are so many things I would have done differently. But would it have made a difference ? Would it have prevented the disaster from occurring ? Or are the wheels of time always moving in the same direction, towards the same conclusions ? Is cause and effect an inevitable Law of Nature ? If I change one variable in the equation, will the result be the desired change in outcome ? Or will my interference make things even worse ? Why are there so many questions and no answers, Angela ? Why ?"
I wasn't sure whether it was supposed to be a rhetorical question, but I was mindful of her earlier request that I keep any attempt at interrupting under control until she were done. I managed to. Barely. As far as she was concerned, tears started running down her beautiful face as she continued.
"So many times did I wake up at night, tearstained, shaken by nightmares. One night I was dreaming about him incessantly calling my name, screaming for help. When the screaming had stopped I turned around in that dreamworld and saw a monstrous wall with gigantic letters in red paint on it that spelled "help me". When I touched it, I realised that it wasn't paint."
She paused, choking up.
"I couldn't go on like that. If it hadn't been for..."
Another thought abruptly cut off and dismissed. It appeared, however, that she was looking upstairs for a second - for whatever reason. Nobody was there, Jonathan was spending the week-end with his grandmother.
"Let's just say, I've had someone to help me survive my father's death. Someone who, in his own way, had lost his father early on. I guess that created something between us which is built to last. We've been living together for quite a while now, although we are not a couple. One of my friends once said we're more like Will and Grace. That about sums it up: More than friends, but less than lovers. So in case you were ever wondering, the Twilight Zone is located on the Upper West Side."
Despite her attempt at an explanation, which made sense, I was entirely at sea about Will and Grace. I figured they were an acquaintance of hers and the person whom she seems to consider as much her room- as her soulmate, and she just didn't think it was of any importance to me to know who they are. But considering her strange appearance and even stranger story I couldn't (and still can't) rule out that there's more than meets the eye to even something so innocuous as names. I knew how she must have felt losing her father, though. I, of all people, should know. Is that why she came to me ? Is that why she called me sister ? Because we're both daughters of lost fathers ? To those unspoken questions she, to my surprise, immediately gave an answer.
"I know what you're thinking, but you lost your father at a very young age. I had the good fortune of having been able to grow up with my father by my side. Still I guess we're both missing something in our lives. Something that can never be replaced."
She must have known me very well, that much was clear. She spoke to me like an old friend, like someone who's shared very intimate and confidential moments with me. Which was ludicrous, because I had never met this woman before, and here she was, exposing her soul's agony to a complete stranger. Still I could not help but feel a lot of empathy with her. I didn't know anything about her father, but I knew her pain. I could almost literally feel it. Something deep inside my soul responded to this woman's words in a way that is beyond description.
"I'm sorry, Angela. May I use your bathroom ?"
"Sure. Go ahead", I answered. I was so taken aback by this everyday request that I only realised that she hadn't asked for directions when she was already gone.
She knew where the bathroom was. Who was she ?
While she was out of the room I did something I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to do. Only when she had left the living-room did I notice her handbag (at least that's what it looked like) which she had left on the table. I knew I had to make a decision quickly. I decided to just take a look.
So I opened up the handbag and peeked inside. Besides the usual darkness filled with female vanities, there were two items of interest. The first one was very peculiar indeed. It was something that sported the brand name "Samsung" (Didn't they make tv sets ? And why was there a display on it, giving me the wrong time - "03:24 PM" - and date - "Aug 24 Fri" - ?). Looking remotely like a cigarette case, you could indeed flip it open; when I did, it suddenly revealed itself to be some kind of walkie-talkie. Relying on my secret background as a Trek fan I'd say it looked very much like a communicator from that show, only it had yet another display on the inside and several buttons with numbers and letters on them which reminded me of a portable telephone, a technology I knew existed (I met a client from Motorola some weeks ago who showed me a prototype which was more like the size of a heavy brick), but this item here clearly was radically more advanced than anything I was aware of.
Was that woman from the government ?
In order to prevent images of Area 51 and flying saucers from popping up in my mind, I put the walkie-talkie back where it belonged. I only had time to catch a glimpse of the other item of interest which I suspected was the woman's driver's licence. All I could make out was her picture and the caption "New York State". Then I heard the bathroom door. I closed the handbag quickly and resumed my previous position on the couch.
When the woman returned, she looked reasonably composed again.
"Nothing", she said as she sat back down again, "a good splash of cold water can't wash away."
Her smile still looked a little unstable but sincere and thankful.
I wished I could have washed away my concerns under a faucet too. What was going on here...?
"You're sure wondering", she continued, "why I'm telling you all this. You're thinking, who is this woman, and what does she want from me ?"
"Something along those lines, yes."
"I wish I could just tell you, give you all the details and instruct you on what you should do when the time comes. But I can't. If I did, I'd make everything worse, and I will not get a second chance. Or should I say third chance ?! I don't know..."
She paused. I decided it was finally time to get some things straight. It was all getting a little to esoteric for this blonde New Englander. So I went on the offense.
"I'm sorry. I'm afraid you're losing me. What in the world am I supposed to do that would help you ? And why are you talking as if you were trying to prevent your father's death from happening ? Did I mishear when you said that he's been gone for some time now ?"
"No, you're very perceptive. As I said, I can't tell you everything. First of all, you wouldn't believe a word. Second, too much knowledge on your behalf would virtually guarantee a failure of my mission."
Ignorance is strength. Now she was talking like a government employee indeed. However, my gut feeling was already wandering away from that hypothesis. Simply because she wasn't the kind of person who would be working for Uncle Sam or, worse, J. Edgar, not a Man in Black. Not at all. She was hurt, suffering, a girl missing her father whom, although forever gone, she still loved more than any living person. I knew how she felt, I used to feel that way after Mother had told me Daddy would never again walk through our door to take me in his arms. True, there wasn't much time to come to terms with this new situation, because Mother broke down and I needed to be the rock of the family. So I continued to carry this burden, unaddressed, all the way through high school, burying it under tons of food, then, when in Harvard, revisited it, dug it out, dealt with it, and, after years of transformation, closed that chapter for good. To top it off, I decided to go through the remainder of my life as an attractive blonde, so, over the objections of my mother, I dyed my hair (but don't tell anyone). I had finally become my own person.
For my visitor it had obviously been the other way around. She had to become her own person first to free herself from a loving father's embrace, for whom she must have been the mirror image of his late wife, then had the opportunity to see her father as an equal, before through some circumstance he was taken from her. This line of thought brought another question to my mind.
"Didn't your father ever consider marrying again ? Not even when you had grown up ? Were you always the only woman in his life after your mother had died ?"
About an appropriate answer to this she seemed to feel the need to think a little longer. To be honest, I don't know why I asked in the first place. If you think about it, the question was entirely unimportant for the subject under discussion.
Or was it !? There was that gut feeling again.
"Angela", she eventually said, "a man like him is never alone if he doesn't want to. But only once did he really consider marrying again. But that one attempt failed. Which is tragic, really, because he loved that woman from the bottom of his heart. And she felt the same way about him."
"And how did you feel about it ?"
She smiled, wearily.
"I loved the idea. To me, that woman was like a second mother. Her son is like a brother to me, and now he's my roommate in New York." She looked away again. "And my rock."
"What's he like, your roommate ? Does he remind you of your father, or..."
"No", she laughed heartily, "he's nothing like my father. But he had already lost his father, at least practically, when I met him, back then we were both little kids, and I guess both having lost someone so close created something between us. That bond served as some kind of lifeline for me when, later on, my father passed away."
"I see. How did you meet him ?"
"Circumstance. We left home to find a better life, and ended up with my father taking a job at that woman's household. Yes, we came from a very low level to consider that trading up. But that's how all of us became the quintessential patchwork family."
"Oh. So you're not originally from the City ?"
"Sure I am. Brooklyn through and through. We left New York, and now I'm back again. After my own marriage failed abysmally."
So there was another parallel with yours truly. I began wondering whether all women shared the same basic experiences in life, as the feminists claim. Sisterhood in victimhood, or something...
I decided it was time to ask about her father's demise, but was reluctant to be direct.
"May I ask how..."
"He took his own life", she said flatly.
That was when I knew that some experiences were, fortunately, still beyond me.
"Before you ask", she continued, "the reason why he decided to end his own life falls into that Can't-Tell-You category. I wish I could say it was my fault..."
I was scandalised at this. What was she saying ?!
"I beg your pardon..."
"It wasn't my fault, Angela. It wasn't anybody's fault. It was the damned wheels of time always moving in the same direction, and no matter what you try or do, you can't stop the wheels from turning. God damned, you just can't..."
Now the tears were streaming down her face again. I couldn't help it: Although we were both certainly not many years apart, I experienced something I instantly recognised as maternal affection for her. I wanted to take her in my arms and comfort her, I felt so sorry for her losses. For Heaven's sake, she'd lost both her parents before their time. No chance to say good-bye to either of them, I guess, and left alone in a world with easily more questions than there ever could be answers.
I didn't take her in my arms, of course. Being close to her was still feeling like two magnetic north poles; although I wanted to hold her, something deep inside kept me away from her.
"But I need to do something. At least I need to try. I only have this one chance, and I'm willing to take it. That's why I'm here. O my God, this is so difficult..."
I had a shrewd suspicion we were nearing a dramatic climax. I was right. I wish I hadn't been, but I was.
She looked at me for a couple of moments, then reached for her handbag - you'll remember, the one with the Star Trek communicator. My heart skipped a beat. But she didn't take out the communicator.
From the final frontier of her handbag's depths she produced an envelope.
That all happened yesterday. I believe I already told you that. Now I'm sitting in my private office, here at home, just a handful of yards away from my living-room couch where what I can honestly call the strangest conversation of my life took place. The woman left about one minute after she had produced the envelope from her handbag. She didn't say much more. Only that it was entirely up to me to decide what to do with the content of this envelope which I, from looking at it, estimated could not contain more than a sheet of paper. When she left she spontaneously hugged me. It felt...again, beyond words. It was not pleasant, it was not...supposed to happen. Somehow. But that doesn't make sense.
She thanked me for listening and for being a friend. She said she felt better, that she was going home with a good feeling, and that she would be cherishing the memory of this day. Then she started for the street. Halfway there she turned around one last time and added something I found remarkable:
"But can you ever really go home ? I guess I'm about to find out."
Then she started down the street. After I had closed the door behind her, I thought about the previous half an hour for a moment, then decided to peek out the window. Strange; there are no side roads in the direction that she went, so I should easily have been able to see her somewhere down the street, but she was already out of sight.
When I woke up this morning I was convinced I had dreamt the whole thing. I spent my day like any given Monday, but upon returning home, Jonathan greeted me the way he's always done since he learned to walk on his legs: he jumped in my arms when he saw me. Nothing out of the ordinary, granted, but today, for no reason I could give, it made me think. Think about the woman and the conversation we'd had. So I came here, unlocked the drawer, and there it was: the envelope the mysterious (or mystifying) woman had given me.
Now it's late at night, my hand hurts from writing incessantly, and the envelope is lying on the desk, directly in my sight. It has been all the time.
I've decided to open it.
I've been wide awake for three consecutive days and nights now. Since I opened the envelope. Which is ridiculous, because its contents don't mean anything whatsoever to me.
As I suspected, it was just a folded sheet of paper. On it there was only a single line, in print:
"Whatever you do, don't hire a male housekeeper."