Claire dropped by Mark’s midtown gallery one morning, visibly upset. “I just got the worst phone call from Mom’s roommate.”
Apparently, Solange had gone for a walk in Golden Gate Park and gotten lost. She found the roommate’s number in her cell and texted her. The roomie walked down to the park, found Solange, and brought her home. Solange was perfectly sweet about the whole thing, but the roommate told Claire: Your mother misses work shifts. She can’t remember where she works. Some days she’s fine, has it all together, but on the bad days she just seems lost.
“I don’t mean to pry,” the woman said, “but I think there’s something, you know, way wrong.”
The lapses had started years ago, when Solange still lived in Sacramento. Missed lunch dates. Misplaced keys and wallets. Forgetting where she’d parked her car. She laughed it off, making quips about middle age. Mark didn’t think much of it. Solange had always been absent-minded, caught up in herself, the star of her own absurd cabaret.
Now his daughter stood before him, insisting that it was time to do something. Her mother needed tests. She needed help, their help.
Mark closed his eyes. Claire might be right, but damn if it didn’t touch a nerve. It seemed he would never, ever get past this woman’s place in his life. Just hearing her name sometimes felt like being stabbed in the side.
One good thing to come out of the divorce, he’d decided, was the freedom from obligation. And Solange, bless her fickle heart, never asked for anything. She had at least that much dignity—that and a truckload of pride.
He rose from his chair and hugged his daughter. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I can’t.”
Claire might not understand, but Solange would. Not that she’d ever ask. Anyway, that was enough.
And so Mark stood idly by as Claire made several trips into San Francisco to visit her mother, getting her signed up for health insurance, scheduling appointments and escorting her to them. Finally, after rounds of referrals, the Memory and Aging Center at UCSF delivered a diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s. Solange spoke of putting up a fight, defying the odds, but there were no odds. This wasn’t a bet on chance. She would eventually need an assisted living arrangement, the doctors counseled. It was hard to say just when; EOA developed at different rates. But every time Claire tried to talk to her mother about it, Solange became angry and defensive. She had no plan and seemed unwilling to formulate one.
All of this angered Mark. Solange was colossally irresponsible, self-centered, naïve—oh, the thousand complaints he’d harbored in the years since the split. And Claire, poor Claire, always willing to step in, to try again, to speak reason to this, this, this . . .
Who was he, criticizing a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?
Mark and Claire spoke about it often. Solange’s diagnosis meant Claire had a fifty-fifty chance of inheriting the condition, an entirely frightening thought. More immediately, there was the question of what to do about Solange. Claire wanted her mother to return to Sacramento. She and Mark discussed it one morning in the living room.
“She hates Sac,” Mark reminded her. “And anyway, where would she live? Rents are getting nearly as bad here.”
Claire said nothing, only smiled. Mark felt his ears burning. He hadn’t seen this coming, but he should have.
“Out of the question,” he said.
A long, fiery reply flashed through his head, but he held back. His tirades against Solange upset Claire, and now, with the diagnosis, they could only be cruel.
“She’ll never agree,” he said.
“I think we can persuade her.”
Mark tapped a finger against his coffee cup. “What if I don’t agree?”
She sat forward, elbows on knees. “We’ll set her up in the second bedroom.”
Mark smiled. There was no second bedroom. Claire meant his study.
“It’s just temporary,” she explained. “A year, maybe two. Then we transition her into a home.”
“You really think your mother will agree to assisted living?”
“At a certain point she won’t have a choice.”
True enough. But he didn’t see how any of this could work. Solange still had a few of her wits about her, and she would never agree to any of it.
“I can talk her into it.”
“Solange has never been talked into anything,” he quipped. “She does all the talking.”
“This is different.”
Claire drew in her lip. “She’s scared.”
Morning sunlight illuminated a golden slice of polished wood floor, revealing dust and dog hair. Everything needed a good sweeping. Mark suddenly resented the sunlight.
“We’re the only people she can rely on,” Claire added, breaking the silence.
This was basically true. There was an older sister in Maryland, estranged. Mark hadn’t spoken to her since the divorce. He doubted Solange had, either.
This was all a bad idea, a crazy idea. Solange would never agree, and if she did she’d drive him nuts. It’d taken him years to get over the divorce, to make his peace with it. Selling the house in Land Park, downsizing into the Tower District bungalow, completely reorienting his life as a single parent, a divorced dad. Alone.
Yet not alone. Claire had lived with him through that long and painful time, returning to Sacramento after one difficult year at UC-San Diego. Unlike her mother, Claire didn’t suffer from wanderlust. Coming home had been good for her. She was doing reasonably well at Sac State, not stellar, but holding it together. She’d finish her degree in another year or two—it was looking like the six-year plan for Claire—and then test the job market.
When Claire was young, Mark used to joke that he’d change the locks the day she left for college. But the truth was he was happy having her around. If she were to leave, and one day she would, he would not cherish the isolation. He liked having someone to talk to; he liked cooking dinner for two, splitting a bottle of wine.
In the end, Mark agreed to think it over. Claire deserved as much. But Solange? He had a few ideas about what she deserved. She was, he supposed, just being herself: guileless, defiant, profane. But so what? No one could fault him for turning away. No one but Claire, and that truly meant something to him. More like everything at this point. For her sake, the situation required a certain, specific delicacy. He did not have the words—not yet, anyway—to reject her plan. Of course it would never, ever happen. Which meant that some other thing must happen. Solange’s failure to plan for herself was his chief obstacle at this point.
He needed to see Solange, to talk to her, to sound her out. But he must be careful. Any direct inquiry would be rebuffed. If he were to approach, he’d need a pretense. Something compelling, irrefusable. They exchanged a quick round of text messages. He had something important to discuss about Claire, he said. Nothing dire. He would be in the City next week on business. Could they meet? It was agreed.
On the day, he drove around the San Pablo Bay, coming into San Francisco via the Golden Gate to Solange’s place in the Outer Richmond. A little early, he walked over to Sutro Heights and stood overlooking the ruins of the old bathhouse. He remembered a visit years ago with Solange, scouring the site for bits of blue and green glass which she collected and later arranged into a collage. She presented it to him for his birthday. He remembered being pleasantly surprised by the gesture, and the collage wasn’t bad, either. One of her better pieces. It was early in their marriage. She still thought of herself as an artist.
And then it was time. Solange met him at the door, blinking her eyes and smiling. “Mark! What on earth are you doing here?” She looked thinner, with cheap plastic bracelets on her wrists and a fuchsia headband.
“We agreed to meet.”
He showed her their text exchanges. Her eyes narrowed as she read them. “Oh, yes. Yes, of course. Silly me.” She smiled.
“May I come in?”
He followed her up a narrow, dark staircase to Apartment 2A, which opened into a spacious living room with windows facing the avenue, filling the room with natural light. Billowy couches with bedspreads draped over them bookended a low coffee table. There were paperback books piled here and there, a ceramic tea mug, somebody’s Apple laptop with stickers plastered all over the back. Exactly like a college apartment.
He followed her into the kitchen. “What on earth ever made you come and see me?”
He didn’t feel like spinning yarns. He muttered something about being in town on business and Claire urging him to drop by.
“Did she leave something here?”
“She thought it might be good to touch base in light of the diagnosis.”
“Oh, that!” she said brightly. “It’ll be years before it kicks in. I’m not about to let it slow me down. Now let me fix you a cup of tea, and you tell me how the gallery is doing.”
He rattled on about the gallery. He could tell she didn’t know any of the names he was dropping, though they were good names, names to know, names on many people’s lips; in fact, the gallery was doing well. But she wasn’t really listening, so he stopped.
On every kitchen cabinet were colored sticky notes: bowls, mugs, plates. On the fridge a big fluorescent note: “Solange: rent due on the 5th!” He asked what she’d been up to that morning.
“I did yoga with this teacher I’ve been following. In her forties but so fit. And the most amazing tattoos. Did you ever get one?”
“A tattoo? No. You?”
“Two on my back. This afternoon I’m job hunting.” She regaled him with the tale of her last job, waitressing at a fondue place in the Mission. She’d been let go after a decline in business.
“I thought you were temping,” he said. “A lawyer’s office?”
“Oh, that. You know lawyers. They want you there at nine o’clock on the dot. And I try, I really do, but it doesn’t always happen.” She placed a mug before him. Behind her, the teakettle began its gentle rattle on the stovetop.
“Why not?” Mark asked. “Lots of people in San Francisco have be at work on time, or they’ll be fired.”
“But you know me. I’m not a slave to . . .” She tapped her wristwatch. A puzzled look crossed her face. “This, this . . . hand-clock.”
“Most people call it a watch.”
Her chin trembled. “I know that.”
The kettle whistled. Solange turned off the gas. Then she began opening and closing the cabinets. “I can never find the tea. My roommates keep moving things.”
Mark reached over and pulled open a drawer with a sticky note on it that read “TEA” in Claire’s handwriting.
“Oh, thank you.”
She sat across from him. He watched as she bobbed her tea bag up and down in a precise, sinuous rhythm. Even the way she pulled her tea bag out, wrapping the string around it and squeezing the remaining liquid, was graceful, even mesmerizing. He missed simply watching her. She was pleasant to observe.
“Are you seeing anyone?” she asked.
He shook his head. “You?”
“A couple of guys off and on. I keep it light. But they can be so demanding. You’d think at our age they’d have gotten over the commitment thing.”
He frowned. “Yes, you would think that.”
She gave him a hard stare. “Why did you come?”
“I told you. I thought I should check in after the diagnosis.”
“I’m fine. Can’t you see that?”
He drummed his fingers on the table. “Do you have any sort of plan for what happens next?”
“Do any of us?”
“Come on, be serious.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, here it comes.”
He reviewed what he knew. Claire had signed her up for Healthy San Francisco, the city health plan, but it didn’t cover long-term care or hospice. He’d been researching her options.
Solange raised an eyebrow. “Whatever on earth for?”
“Because you need a plan.”
“Eventually,” she conceded, blowing on her tea. “I’m years away from that.”
“But by the time things take a turn, when you’re . . . Now’s the time to plan, is what I’m saying.”
Solange gave him a patronizing smile. “Mark, darling, it’s really none of your business.”
So far, he’d planned for this. Almost line-for-line. He knew where he had to go.
“Claire is concerned. It’s eating her up. That makes it my business.” He sipped his tea, which tasted bitter. He reached for the milk. “I trust you understand what’s happening. Within a year or two . . . I mean, worst case.”
She picked up a spoon from the table and turned it around in her hand. She shook her head.
“You will need help,” he said. “You just admitted it.”
“I did not.”
“Just a minute ago, when I said you needed a plan. You said ‘eventually.’”
She sat back and folded her arms. “You’re beginning to annoy me.”
“And you’re making this difficult.”
Her eyes flared at him, jaw set tight. “How am I making it difficult? You show up, unannounced, and start making demands on me. For no reason at all.”
Mark pressed a finger to the tabletop. “We agreed to discuss this because our daughter, Claire, is worried. Very worried.”
“She worries too much,” Solange said.
“If you won’t do something for yourself, can’t you do it her?”
“You know what she needs? She needs to finish school. Finish, or just quit.”
Mark gave a little laugh. “Sure, quit and walk away. Just start over, isn’t that the next step? Great advice.”
“She’s wasting the best years of her life.”
“Is that what you call it? A husband, a daughter, a home. Wasting your life?”
Solange threw up a hand. “What do you want from me?”
“I want you to acknowledge this condition, how serious it is. You have no plan, and you’re worrying our daughter sick about it. Claire is concerned—more concerned than you, apparently!”
“Yes,” she said, sitting back in her chair. “She’s like her father, meddlesome and predictable. And in that regard a disappointment.”
Mark seethed quietly, letting the sting throb. He could accept the jab at him, but Claire?
“How dare you,” he hissed.
Solange rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Please don’t tell her I said that.”
They sat quietly, each stewing. Mark found himself studying a corner of the kitchen floorboard, a dark line of mildew along its seam.
“It’s just life, Mark. Things happen. And when they do, people find solutions. New things happen. You can’t control every little thing. That’s always been your problem. You don’t know how to let a person just be.”
He leaned forward, over the table. “This isn’t about me, Solange. It’s about you. This diagnosis is real. And guess what? You don’t get to hit reset on this one. The usual drop and run, it ain’t gonna work!”
She slammed a fist on the table. “You’re not my doctor! Or my shrink! Stay out of it!”
“I’m trying to help you!”
“How are you helping? You came here to insult me. You came to pick open old wounds, your wounds. You’re like a child.”
A nasty comeback rose to his lips, but he squelched it. He knew where all this was headed. He’d been there too many times already.
He stormed out of the apartment, stomping down the hallway, letting the heavy security door slam shut with a resounding thud. He walked for a while in a blind rage, his mind a red-hot tangle. He made his way to a barstool on Geary Boulevard, where he ordered a double whiskey and began to collect his thoughts. He didn’t know what angered him more: Solange’s stubborn rudeness, or his willingness, once again, to step into her field of fire. It had been a mistake to see her, a mistake even to reach out to her, to initiate contact. It violated a cardinal rule he’d set for himself after the split. Damn it, he knew better! He wouldn’t make the same mistake again. If Claire wanted to help, Claire could find a way. He was through.
Mark and Solange each had their own version of what went wrong and who was to blame. For him, Solange’s choices amounted to a protracted midlife crisis. (She hated when he called it that, but what else was he going to call it?) There had been the unfinished business of living, things that, according to Solange, could not be accomplished within the strictures of marriage. These had included the predictable sexual escapades, none of which Mark would have objected to, had he been asked. (He hadn’t been asked.) They included the requisite drifting around: to a spirituality center in Vermont; to a meditation retreat in British Columbia; to an arts co-op in Marfa, Texas. When she returned to Sacramento, she wasn’t ready for anything permanent, not even a lease. She rented rooms in people’s houses, or flopped on couches. She spent a few weeks in a teepee in Grass Valley. Each situation was deliberately tentative, with as few ties as possible. She had become, she announced, “resistant to commitment.”
“Not exactly news,” Mark quipped.
“I mean in new ways.”
“You mean in all ways.”
Mark believed she was experiencing a second childhood. Raised by a brilliant but distant father, a professor of classics, and a mother more attuned to marching on the state capitol than parenting, Solange had enjoyed maximum freedom and she’d done, in her own words, exactly nothing with it. She’d been adrift all her life, searching for the missing puzzle piece. But every time she thought she’d found it, it failed to fit. And so she ran to the next thing. Eternal window shopping, Mark had once explained to Claire. The tumbling tumbleweed, that’s your mother in a—
“Don’t say ‘in a nutshell,’” Claire groaned. “Mom could never be contained in a nutshell. Her life is too big, too expansive for that.”
“Yes, like an oil spill. Messy and toxic.”
Claire rolled her eyes, a curt dismissal she’d mastered at the age of ten. “The only person interested in reducing anything to a nutshell is you. You like compact meanings, small truths.”
“You make me sound narrow-minded.”
She smiled and put a hand on his forearm. “You are narrow-minded, Dad. But in the most adorable way.”
Claire loved and respected her mother, which was her right, but she couldn’t live with her, either. The two quarreled endlessly, the mother incapable of imposing rules on a daughter who openly asked for guidance, for boundaries. And that’s why, in those years of rambling and drifting, Solange left the day-to-day business of parenting to Mark. He gave Claire curfews, balanced meals, limited screen time. When she turned sixteen she got a job sacking groceries. (“Safeway!” Solange protested. “Don’t you know they’re in bed with Monsanto? It’s unconscionable.”) Claire learned to balance her checkbook, paid for her own gas and a share of the car insurance. She willingly accepted it all, keen to learn how “adult stuff” was done.
Claire had never been happy about the divorce. Twelve at the time of the split, she was old enough to comprehend that her parents were unhappy. Solange, always a little too eager to share, explained her reasons for leaving. It was not well received. Mark could do little to help. He understood Solange’s yearnings, perhaps even the need to act on them, but not at the expense of their marriage. Privately, he suggested she be free to roam for a time, to do whatever she needed to do, but to stay married. Solange would not have it. It was she who insisted on the divorce, a final, irreconcilable parting.
What she wanted, Mark finally decided, she wanted for herself. It was not mutual; it was not a good idea; it was not anything other than a wife and mother walking away from her family by choice. Through it all, father and daughter drew closer, united in their suffering, both of them bewildered by Solange’s decision. What can a twelve-year-old know of wanderlust or weltschmerz? Her mother had walked away and left her. What was there to say? There might be reasons, but those reasons wouldn’t make sense to a kid. After one of her many breakdowns, a teenaged Claire confessed to Mark that she had one wish, one desperate dream: for her parents to reconcile, for someone to wave a magic wand and put it all back together again, the way it had been.
Mark tried to explain, in the gentlest way possible, that it couldn’t happen.
Her mother had other plans. He couldn’t explain it, exactly. That wasn’t his job.
“But what if she did come back?”
The look on her face, so frank and vulnerable, too earnest to be anything other than heartbreaking—ah, what could he do?
“I don’t know.”
“So . . . maybe?”
“Oh, sweetheart,” he murmured, pulling her close.
After many moments like that, all handled by him alone, Mark’s hurt turned into bitterness and resentment. Solange was weak and selfish. She missed the best years of Claire’s childhood, the ultimate cut and run. People like that—they didn’t deserve your sympathy, generosity, or tolerance.
Mark sat in his Midtown Sacramento gallery on a March morning, the back windows open to the warm spring air. He loved best the quiet, peaceful hours before the gallery opened at eleven. It was then he could focus on queries, make plans, and see all the possibilities.
He was interrupted by a phone call. A sergeant from the San Francisco police department, looking for Mr. Mark Stroud. Concerning Ms. Solange Stroud. The officer reported that Ms. Stroud had been found beaten, possibly raped, in Golden Gate Park. Likely she’d been there for several hours. There were injuries. Ms. Stroud had mentioned him and a Claire Stroud by name.
As Mark listened, an icy wave washed over him.
“Claire, yes, our daughter,” Mark said. “Have you called her?”
“We have no contact information. The victim has no ID or paperwork on her. I’m working off an internet search at this point. Found you at your place of business.”
Thank God for that website, which he’d paid through the nose to develop. “Where is she now?”
Zuckerberg SF General, the safety net hospital for the homeless in the city. Mark winced at the word. Had she been? Claire would have told him. Or he should have known.
Solange lay in bed, all bandages and IV lines and a cast on one arm, in an open ward. No privacy. She was pretty doped up from the pain meds and slept a lot. When she was awake, tears glistened on her cheeks. Mark dabbed at them with a tissue, whispering comforting words. The nurses came by often, assuring both of them that Solange would be all right. She was in the clear now, and safe. The worst was behind them.
Mark took comfort in their words, and hoped Solange did, too. In all the years he’d known her, he’d never seen her so broken. Even at her lowest moments, she’d always had spunk and zeal. It was what he’d loved most about her. He’d always been attracted to intelligent women, outspoken women, assertive women. Even now, when their love had dissipated and been transformed into other energies, he respected this about her. Maybe that was what shook him so terribly when he saw her in that hospital bed. To see a strong person broken, dispirited, weeping and incoherent with pain . . . it frightened him.
When visiting hours ended, he assured Solange that he’d be back the next day. An attendant pointed the way out. He walked in a kind of daze. The hallways of the trauma ward were lit with buzzing florescent lights. The floors were dull and streaked from the rubber tires of gurneys speeding through, the nicked walls yellow like rancid butter. Emergencies all the time, bodies hurling down hallways in crisis. The smell, a grim mix of sickness and bleach, the stench of injury and death.
From far down a hallway, a solitary voice screamed, desperate and hoarse. “No one’s helping me! Why won’t anyone help me!”
Over the next two days, they pieced together what they could. Solange had been evicted from her apartment in February after falling behind on the rent. No known current address. She’d been flopping on friends’ couches. Then things took a turn. She couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, how she’d ended up sleeping in the park. She had no address book. Her phone had been stolen or lost. Then the attack, of which had no memory. Probably a blessing, the doctors said. The rape kit confirmed there had been a sexual assault.
Mark returned to Sacramento. He had a show opening in two weeks for which he was behind schedule. Claire stayed on in San Francisco, sitting with Solange for every available visiting hour, holding her hand. She called home each night to update Mark and discuss options. They agreed that Solange could no longer care for herself. The days of independent living were over. The question was where she would go. Mark insisted they research every option.
The next Sunday, when the gallery was closed and Mark had a little time, he drove back into the City to see Solange, who looked much better, and have lunch with Claire. He took her to Delfina in the Mission for lunch. Then they walked over to Mission Dolores Park. They sat on a bench at the top of the hill, overlooking the downtown skyline. Kids took turns riding skateboards down the long, curving sidewalk that ran the length of the park, rushing at breakneck speed, spilling out onto Eighteenth Street.
Claire reviewed what she’d learned. The city health plan did not cover long-term care. There were assisted-care facilities for the homeless, but with limited space and availability. The same held true for hospice, when it came to that. “But I will never allow her to—”
“—Of course not,” Mark agreed. “We’ll upgrade her insurance. What’s she got in the bank?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“She must be eligible for assistance through Medi-Cal or something.” He’d do the homework, research their options. He could pay some of it. Hell, he’d pay all of it—though even as he said it, he knew that might be impossible. God bless America, land of cheap guns and overpriced healthcare.
“The consultant says Mom is one of the lucky ones,” Claire said, softly. “She still has family who care. There’s a lot who don’t.”
A skateboarder came screaming down the sidewalk, crouched low, arms spread, sweeping back and forth in wide arcs until his board flew out from under him, spilling him into the grass. A shaved-ice vendor pushing his cart up the steep hill stopped and shook his head. “Tonto estúpido.”
Mark laughed; he wasn’t sure why.
“Dad,” Claire said, “it’s time.”
“Yes, we should get back.”
She put a hand on his arm. “To take her home.”
Mark looked into Claire’s gray eyes, strikingly identical to her mother’s—one of their closest shared features. The urgency of the moment had settled on her, he saw that. A resolve emanated from her, something cool and focused. She was a woman now, twenty-two years of age. She knew what she wanted. She wanted to care for her destitute, broken mother. This meant taking Solange into their home, an impossible and yet somehow inescapable conundrum. The look in her eyes, a fierceness that demanded consent.
They set Solange up in the home office with a cot. She had no belongings. She couldn’t recall where her things had gone, with whom she’d left anything. She entered the house physically feeble, seemingly having aged ten years. She wept frequently. She didn’t want to be left alone. She spent long hours sitting in front of the television watching nature shows or travel documentaries. The old Solange had never owned a television, scoffing at the drones wasting their lives glued to it.
She was not herself, not exactly. And though neither Mark nor Claire said as much, he knew they both were worried: when was that point where the identity slips away, like dissipating smoke? When are you no longer you?
Claire tracked down the remaining friends she could find. A few of them had some of Solange’s things—books, photos, vinyl LPs. A roommate from the apartment had graciously tossed a few items in a box when the landlord evicted Solange in absentia. The rest of it was just gone: Solange’s art pieces; her photo albums; her clothes, jewelry, and books. Even her passport. A life in things, vanished.
Something about all of this—its seeming suddenness, its irrevocability—startled Mark. He’d never told Claire how, after Solange left, he kept smelling her all over the house, the earthy, raw human scent of her. In towels and bedsheets, in the linen closet, in his car. How she left various pieces of herself behind: a bracelet dropped behind a chest of drawers; a pair of panties inside a pillowcase; a pair of her reading glasses in the pocket of his shirt (she was eternally misplacing them). He never told her of finding strands of Solange’s hair, graying and kinky with curls, on his shirts and sweaters, each strand pulling at his heart.
Solange gradually improved, and when she could get up and walk on her own, things took a turn for the better. Physically, her appetite returned. Mark enjoyed cooking for all three of them, big meals that required a bit of planning, especially if he and Claire wanted to eat meat. (Solange was still vegan. She hadn’t forgotten that.) But her spirit was slow to recover. She didn’t want to leave the house. She puttered around in the backyard, tending Mark’s flower beds. She wanted to start a small garden. Mark knocked together a few planting boxes, raised beds for tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce. Solange spent entire mornings out there, patiently tending each bed. They were immaculate, not a single weed to be seen.
During that summer, Solange seemed physically healthy, recovering from the bulk of her injuries. But she moved slower, and her mind continued to slip gears. There were good days when she could hold a conversation, when the memories came bubbling back up to the surface. She was lucid then, but it was never long before the sparkle died out of those eyes and the glassy, half-vacant gaze returned.
Claire and Solange went out a lot together. Shopping (Solange still liked to buy scarves), coffee, the movies. When Mark asked if it wasn’t nerve-wracking, having to keep an eye on her mother all the time, Claire just smiled and said they held hands or linked arms and that made it easy. Mark rarely took Solange anywhere by himself. He saw the hours he spent alone with her as a kind of sentence, only he was in jail, too. Hell, they might as well still be married.
Only they were not married. They were divorced. He had no formal obligation to this woman. All of this was, he privately reminded himself, because of Claire. Claire’s choice, Claire’s wish, and Claire’s authority, for it was she who held power of attorney. When the time came, she would be the one to move Solange into assisted housing.
As summer moved slowly into autumn, Mark asked Claire about returning to school. She said she was taking the next year off.
“You mean the fall term,” he said. She’d withdrawn from last spring’s classes to be with her mother. Taking fall off would make it an entire academic year.
“I know that.”
“But by spring don’t you think . . .” He looked to Solange, sitting at the kitchen table, flipping through a travel magazine.
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m planning to take the whole year off. I don’t want to rush anything.”
“I don’t want to rush, either,” he said, “but don’t you think sooner might be better, in a sense? It’ll be hard later, for her.”
“We’ll move her when it’s the right time. This isn’t the right time.”
“Your life is on hold.”
Claire looked into the kitchen, smiling. “This is my life.”
One afternoon Claire was gone. Mark arranged for an employee to cover his shift at the gallery, but she canceled at the last minute, meaning the gallery was now closed on a Saturday during peak hours. Mark knew it was not a catastrophe in the grand scheme of things, but it needled him. Somehow, by some strange twist of fate, he’d been saddled not merely with receiving his ex-wife into his house, but also babysitting her. The cosmic injustice of it seemed like a personal slight.
Solange was moody and restless, moving between the kitchen and the living room. She couldn’t sit still. She said several times to Mark, “I don’t know why I’m here. Why am I here?”
He explained, again, that she was living with them now. They were taking care of her.
“Claire and I.”
“Where is Claire?”
“She’s out with a friend. She’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
Solange shook her head and frowned. “I don’t know why I’m here.” She walked into the front hall and started arranging a scarf around her neck. “I’m going for a walk,” she announced.
“You want to go for a walk? All right, give me five minutes.”
“I’m fine by myself.”
“No, you are not.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I’m not a baby!”
Pretty damn close, he thought. He looked at the clock. “You need to take your pills.”
“I already took those!”
“Not today, you haven’t.” He showed her the little chart they kept, which she initialed every time so they could all keep track.
“Oh, shove them up your ass.”
It was outrageous, what he was putting up with. From her, of all people. The nurse who visited every two weeks told him that people with dementia often lash out. “They’re frustrated because they don’t understand what’s happening to them. They’ll say things you wouldn’t believe. But you have to remember why it’s happening. You can’t let it get to you.”
Mark’s phone rang from somewhere in the house. He remembered he’d agreed to take a business call, and as he darted off to find his phone, he barked at Solange to stay put and wait for him. He took the call in his bedroom study—it was an artist Mark would be showing in a few weeks. The guy was bickering about his contract, angry about shipping costs—all things they’d already gone over. It took Mark several minutes to calm the guy down and close the deal for a second time.
He returned to the living room and Solange was gone. He searched the bungalow quickly, every room, then the back and side yards. Nowhere.
A sharp stab of panic struck, followed by a flush of anger. He dialed her phone. Straight to voicemail. He got in his car and began driving around the neighborhood, muttering to himself all the while about this fucking bullshit disease and the ex-wife he’d somehow been burdened with . . . again. What version of hell was this?
He found her ten minutes later, thank Christ, clinging to a stop sign on a quiet side street, utterly lost. She was trembling.
“Solange!” he exploded out of the driver’s seat. He grabbed her by the arm and dragged her into the car, aggressively fastening her seatbelt. “What in the hell were you doing?”
“I didn’t know where anyone was. I thought you’d left me.”
The irony of this did not escape him. “I was on the phone. I told you to just stay put. But you can’t do that. You can’t remember what I told you. You can’t remember any damn thing at all!”
Tears streamed down her cheeks. She buried her face in her hands. “Don’t be angry with me.” Those words stabbed at him, quelling his fury.
He got her back to the house, calmed her down with a cup of tea and a nature documentary on the Roku, then sat with himself at the kitchen table. In twenty minutes—hell, in five—she wouldn’t remember any of it. But he surely would. Now he was the one trembling, startled by his own carelessness, his impatience, his pettiness, and his rage.
Don’t be angry with me.
He poured himself a stiff whiskey, sipping it as he stared out the kitchen window at Solange’s garden beds, so orderly and clean. Now he wasn’t even allowed to feel spite. Bitterness, hereby banished. All that anger, years of it banked up, the very thing that had sustained him in those dark years, useless now. Beside the point.
He chuckled miserably. The real problem was what to grow in its stead.
One evening, Solange and Mark sat watching a romantic comedy on Netflix, something recent. A couple sat at a picnic bench on the coast, sipping white wine and talking. The movie was innocuous and saccharine. Mark was only half-interested. Solange turned to him and said, “It reminds me of that summer we spent in Half Moon Bay. You remember.”
Mark sat up, startled. He paused the film. “Yes, of course.”
It was the summer before they’d married. Solange was painting; Mark was working at a local gallery. They house-sat for a big shot art dealer, a summer of long evenings drinking jug wine, watching the sun sink into the Pacific. They were young and hungry, making love in every corner of the house. There was nothing more important to Mark than to keep Solange laughing, this girl with the faraway eyes.
When Solange unexpectedly became pregnant, neither knew what to do. There was talk of termination, or giving the baby up for adoption. Solange insisted it was her decision, her responsibility; Mark shouldn’t feel beholden in any way. Even if she had the child, he needn’t be involved if he didn’t want to. She would never demand that. Oh, the sweet fool! She didn’t know what she wanted.
Mark’s spontaneous marriage proposal surprised them both, but as the words left his mouth he felt absolutely sure that it was the right thing. He didn’t expect her to agree, but she said yes. She said yes! Life, in that moment, felt radiant.
“You remember that little Italian place on Highway One,” Solange said, smiling. “The one with the funny old guy with that big moustache? What did we call him?”
The accuracy of her memory in that moment astonished him. “Il Brontolone,” he said, smiling. The Grouch.
“He was always surly.”
“But who cared. His eggplant parmesan was out of this world.”
“And the wine,” Solange added, “whatever that house red was, served in those nicked carafes. And the tablecloths, spattered with candle wax.” She pulled the blanket up close to her chin. “I don’t suppose any of that is still there.”
“It was ages ago,” Mark said. “Probably all condos and Starbucks now.”
They were quiet for a moment. In a soft, sleepy voice, Solange said, “It was good, wasn’t it?”
Tears swam along the lower lids of his eyes. He reached out for her. She let him put his hand atop hers, resting it there. “Yes,” he said, “it was good.” Gazing into her eyes, he saw the old sparkle, the merry, dancing energy. And then, gradually, like an ice cube dissolving in a warm drink, her gaze turned glassy and unfocused.
She withdrew her hand from his. She asked if he wanted to watch television.
Mark resumed the movie, though he couldn’t focus. He felt awash in many things—memory, affection, but also a deep sadness. For what they’d had, for what they’d shared, for what they could have had. It’d taken him years to recover, years to cauterize the wounds. How strange that she could pierce all of that so quickly, so cleanly, in just a minute.
Such moments were rare, a trick of memory. Tomorrow, she wouldn’t remember what film they’d watched the night before, let alone what they’d talked about. But it meant something to him to know that in the catacombs of her mind she—they—remembered it all. It was locked up there in some vault, inaccessible for the most part. Memories of the good times, when they were happy and in love. Just the two of them, with everything spread out before them. The future was nothing but a bright and breezy promise, and the possibilities of tomorrow shone like a thousand diamonds.
Rob Davidson’s most recent book is What Some Would Call Lies: Novellas (Five Oaks, 2018). His previous short fiction collections include Spectators: Flash Fictions (Five Oaks, 2017). Davidson’s fiction, essays and interviews have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, New Delta Review, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. His honors include a Fulbright Award, multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, and an AWP Intro Journals Project Award in fiction. He teaches creative writing and American literature at California State University, Chico.