ENCOUNTER WITH YESTERDAY
By: Susan Lindsley
The conference room hadn’t changed. Even the walls retained their yellow nicotine stains, and the folding chairs had yet to gain soft seats. I had been away from the college at least three thousand yesterdays. I had not returned to the campus when I came home two months ago to bury my father.
Today I was here to listen, not to speak. Tomorrow would be my hour at the podium. I took a chair against the wall, beside an older lady who glanced at me, smiled, and introduced herself.
“I’m Heather Wilson,” she said, and turned half-way to face me. “I taught physics here.” Her gray hair was cut short, only her natural wave keeping it from looking severe. Wrinkles lining her face told me she had been long retired.
“I’m Susan Dixon. I’ll report on my research tomorrow. I hope to get a grant here to work on my Ph. D.”
“Dixon?” She frowned. “I knew someone who married a Dixon.”
She turned to face me fully, as I did her.
“My god, you look just like her.”
“Ginny Jackson. Well, Dixon. She married Professor Dixon here at the college. He died two months ago.”
“That’s my mom.” But my eyes are blue, and mom’s were black as an Indian’s. I had seen pictures of her taken when she was in her early twenties, and we did indeed look alike when I was that age—I too wore my hair cut short and combed back. Still do, in fact.
But what would she have looked like at 50? Hair gray as mine? And as straight? More wrinkled than my face was trying to get? She’d been dead now almost 40 years, since I was almost ten.
As a lesbian, I didn’t worry about what straight people thought about my hair. Perhaps mom had not cared either. I remember her as not too feminine, and at times she took the practical way rather than the womanly, feminine way.
“You knew her?”
Professor Wilson looked away and at the wall across the room. Her eyes seemed to lose focus. She obviously was watching something from the past. I remained silent for a moment, and finally had to interrupt her thoughts.
“Well? What can you tell me about her? I was only nine when she died, and at that age wasn’t into genealogy or family history or even parental history.”
She turned back to face me, and then I saw it in her eyes, in the straight-forward stare, the slight twitch of her lips, the movement of her head. Was she closeted? If so, would she come out to me? Maybe I should open that door.
“I reckon you know I’m a lesbian,” I said.
A woman who was coming toward us paused at my words, looked around the room, and moved away.
“She thinks it’s catching,” I grinned as I nodded toward the retreating back.
The professor threw back her head and laughed, not a ladylike laugh but a roar of delight and fun. Not bad for an old lady I thought as curiosity turned to admiration. Maybe she was closeted, but she had life by the balls and wasn’t going to let it dominate her.
“Let’s skip this and go get a cup of coffee or a beer. I’m buying.”
“On a retired teacher’s salary? Maybe I should do the buying.”
“On a prayer for a grant? I’ll buy. C’mon.”
I followed her to the door, and as we went down the hall, she looped her arm into mine. We kept up a rapid stride down the hall, two soldiers who knew the other had faced similar battles and also won.
“There’s so much I want to tell you, but I’m not sure you’ll want to hear it.”
“I want to know any thing.”
“Let’s go to Spacy’s. We’ll talk there.”
Spacy’s is a small, intimate bar and grill only a block off the college campus. We were there in only a few minutes. The entire distance, she kept her arm locked into mine. I wondered if she wanted to prevent my escaping, or if she was clinging to something from the past.
Once we placed our order—I took the opportunity to have toast with my coffee—I sat back, and with my hands clutched in my lap, I met her gaze.
She had the bluest eyes I could imagine. Like the sky on a cold winter day or the sea when it lay still and deep with sunlight dancing over it.
“Well? Was Mom a lesbian?”
Surprise captured her face for an instant, and then her wrinkles became a smile of pure joy.
“Yes. Oh, we were not lovers, but we traveled together, she and her lover with me and mine. We toured everywhere. Life was safe then. Men flirted but didn’t force, didn’t use date-rape drugs, respected us if we said ‘no.’ Women could be old maids if they chose, and could be teachers. And had freedom.”
“But you had to be in the closet. There’s no freedom there.”
The joy fell from her face.
“Yes But to both. We could live together and call ourselves roommates. Today, two women who share a home are called ‘queer.’”
“Well, that’s true. Can you tell me about Mom?”
“I want you to meet someone. She is—was—you mother’s lover for many years. From their teens until your mother’s marriage.”
“Hmmm. Mom was 34 when they married. That would be close to 20 years.”
“That’s right. Evelyn never took another lover. Never got over your mother.”
“She’s still living? She must be close to 90.”
“Yes. She’s in the nursing home. I want to take you there, let her see you, let you talk to her. She can tell you of the delight in their lives. Of the delight your mother had in life.”
“I remember her life as drudgery,” I said.
“Married life usually is. You willing to go meet Evelyn?”
I nodded. We went.
Like every nursing home I’d visited, this one bore the faint smell of urine mixed with the odor of cooking and cleaning chemicals.
On the third floor, as we stepped from the elevator. Two resident ladies snoozed in wheelchairs by the reception desk. Heather asked the monitor about Evelyn.
“She’s having a bad day. Can’t seem to remember much. You want to come back tomorrow?”
Heather shook her head.
“No. This visit can’t wait. C’mon.” She pulled led me along the hallway.
We entered a room that smelled of lilac. Drapes pulled across the windows blocked the sun, but the gap between them let in a stream of light. It fell on the dresser, just to the side of the TV, and showed me two photographs. One could have been my own portrait taken in the past few days. Same hairdo, same touch of gray along the temples, except I knew Mom’s eyes were darker than mine. I stepped closer, pushed the straight chair toward the bed to get it out of my way. The other photograph showed two women, probably in their early twenties, leaning on a sign post and bundled up against the snow that surrounded them. Mom with someone I knew. Her friend. Their faces were filled with laughter. Their breath condensing created a mist around their heads. The sign post read, “Deadwood, 40 miles.”
I stepped back and looked toward the bed. A thin figure lay asleep, her back toward the door.
Heather leaned over the bed, touched her shoulder, and said, “Evelyn? Turn over. Somebody’s come to see you.”
I slipped over to Heather’s side before Evelyn turned over. And recognized her. The face in the picture, the woman we visited from the time I could remember until Mom died. She squinted at me.
“Ginny?” Her eyes focused on me and a hand, trembling, reached out.
I took it and felt her fragility. Saw her skin was only parchment. Felt the coolness of the old dry skin. Saw the liver spots that had replaced the suntan of youth. Felt her ligaments straining against the skin.
What could I say? That my mother was dead? That she had left her love of 20 years for my father?
I heard Heather’s soft footsteps as she slipped out.
“Yes, Evelyn. It’s me.”
“Oh, my love, you came to see me.”
“I wanted you to know I care, Evelyn.”
As the ancient face smiled her joy, her skin softened into millions of wrinkles but the expression was that of a lover’s greeting. Ecstasy flooded her eyes. Her hand shook mine as if in affirmation of some unspoken vows.
She heaved a great sigh and then whispered, “Oh, my love, my love.” She pulled my hand to her and gently pressed her parched dry lips to my fingers. Then with her eyes closed, she wrapped both hands around mine and pulled it under her chin.
I reached my leg back and toed the straight chair closer to me, close enough I could sit and not withdraw my hand.
This is the woman my mother loved above all else, I thought. So then why did she leave Evelyn to marry my father?
“Do you remember that time we wanted to go swimming in Yellowstone lake? We were supposed to be waiting tables later, but we went skinny dipping and some tourists came by. Do you remember?”
“Yes, I remember.” What else could I do? Deny this lady her memories? “We got ourselves into trouble that day, didn’t we?”
“I should say so! Why, one of those tourists thought someone had been killed by a bear and went screaming off to get a ranger. Too bad for us he was in hearing distance. Remember how we had to hide under the bushes along the bank?”
She waited for my memories that did not exist. In the silence I heard another resident cough and another call out “Henry? Henry? Where are you?”
“I remember. I remember how cold it was too.”
She laughed. Even in her late eighties and confined to the bed, she laughed with the delight of a child on Christmas morning.
“Oh what fun we had. If they hadn’t been at Yellowstone that summer, we would have frozen in that lake.”
“Didn’t they come looking for us?
“Of course they did, silly. Don’t you remember? When they heard someone had been killed and eaten by a bear, they hiked down to the lake. Oh, we were so lucky they had long coats in those days. Can’t you see us trying to get back to the lodge without clothes?’
“Kept us from skinny dipping, though, didn’t it?”
“Only that summer. Your sister Sharon sure is a good swimmer. Where is she? Did she come home this year for Thanksgiving? I always thought her roommate up there in South Dakota has been more than just a roommate. Don’t you think she’s one of us?”
“I don’t know. She’s never talked to me about it.”
“She wouldn’t. She’s so serious. Scared of her shadow, she is.” Evelyn took a deep breath and when she released it, she smiled again, lifted my hand to her lips, and kissed it, her lips cold and dry. She then pulled my hand to her chest, which looked flat as a thin man’s under the sheet.
“She should have. Her being older and a lesbian, she certainly should have talked to you. But she was so scared of someone finding out.”
“You never said she’d talked to you.” What in the world had my aunt Sharon told her?
“No, she never did. I’d have told you, darling. But all those times she pretended to have a boy friend. Seemed like a different one every year. Until that William came along.” She paused and I remained silent.
Who was William, I asked myself, trying to think back to the few times I’d even seen Sharon.
Evelyn continued. “William. He had a thing for Cole Porter and went around singing his music all the time. I think he was in love with that composer, and everybody knew he was queer. But Sharon kept William around for years as her date when she came home. They would sit on the porch swing and smoke and he would sing those songs like he was making love to her right there on the porch. It was plain pitiful. She should have had more gumption. Where is Sharon?”
“She died,” I said before I thought.
“Might-a known it. She wasn’t one to keep herself going. Whatever happened to that little girl of yours? Where is she?”
“Oh.” I was lost for a moment. Where was I? Right here talking to you, Evelyn, but I couldn’t say that. “She’s off at school.”
“Of course she is. Just like you, always studying. She’s such a pretty little thing. Remember how she would jump in my lap and ask me all sorts of questions, as if she thought I hung the moon?”
In the silence that followed, my mind turned back over the yesterdays, to the lady always in slacks, with a long cigarette holder, short hair, and laughter that rang in my ears long after we went home. Evelyn. Aunt E. I did think she hung the moon, polished the stars and sprinkled the dew. No matter my question, she knew the answer. How high the empire state building. Why the full moon looked so orange and so big when it rose and so little later at night How to sit in a saddle, back straight, shoulders level, double reins clutched lightly but firmly. I couldn’t have been more than five that first time she put me on a horse with Mom watching and smiling.
I envied her the freedom and self-confidence she radiated. I remembered the looks that passed between her and Mom, looks of passion, joy and exuberance. A lover’s gaze into a lover’s soul.
She was the one, I suddenly realized. The yellow roses. Always a single yellow rose on Mom’s grave. No matter when I went, at random, on her birthday or any holiday, there it was, held firmly in a tiny sterling vase. Until four years ago. I had to shake my head to return to the present.
“Didn’t you hang the moon?”
“No, silly.” Evelyn smiled. “But I was so glad she thought I did. I loved that girl. I wished you had brought her today.”
“I wish I had too.” If only she could understand, but I didn’t try to explain. The memories held her, memories that I couldn’t shatter.
“You were pregnant with her when you told me you were going to get married. It seems like only yesterday. Oh, if only it had been yesterday. Now girls get pregnant and tell the baby’s father to get lost. But back then, you had to marry him.
“Remember that night you told me?” Her whisper brought sadness into the room. “We went out to supper at the Club. You had just joined the club on your own. We ate four-inch thick filets, so rare they were still cold in the middle. And after dessert you told me. But what dessert! They had this new chef from France and he made the most wonderful chocolate mousse. We were drinking coffee when you told me.
“Oh, how I hurt that night. Your words turned my stomach into a pain I thought would never end. I knew you wanted children, but I thought it was all just talk. I never thought you’d leave me. But you said you were pregnant and going to get married. I wanted to die right then rather than face empty years without you. Oh, Ginny. I’m so glad to see you again. It’s been so long.”
“But we had a lot of time together, Evelyn. It wasn’t as if I just went away.”
“But you did go away. Years ago.”
Evelyn turned her head back to get a better look at my face. Then she frowned and used her grip on my hand to pull me closer.
“Ginny?” she questioned me as if she didn’t know who I was.
“Is it really you?”
“Of course, Evelyn.”
She lay her head back down and looked at the ceiling. The frown seemed to deepen.
“But he killed you.”
“Who? What do you mean?”
“That man. Why in the world did you have to go marry him? WE could have made do and reared the girl.”
I remembered Mom saying once that she always wanted two children. I was not the only one, but the only one who lived. Her second died while an infant and the third one killed her in childbirth and died with her.
“I wanted children. Don’t YOU remember? I wanted two children.”
“But why him?”
“I thought he was smart.” What else could I say? Father had an international reputation for his research in astrophysics. I was hoping to get back into the university now to take another major, to earn another Ph. D, and to continue the research that stopped suddenly with his death only weeks ago.
“Posh. No man has your brains. He wasn’t worth it. He killed you….”
Her voice trailed off and she turned to me again, reached both hands out to grip my shoulders, and lifted her upper body until her face was against mine. Her skin felt like paper. I felt a tear roll down the cheek against mine.
“What is it Evelyn?” I whispered.
She smelled clean but old. Lilac scented her gown.
“You’re dead, Ginny. That means I am too. I have missed you so much and now we’ll be together forever. I love you so much.”
I held her frail body against my chest. She barely whispered her final words, “Oh, Ginny, Ginny. I will love you even after forever has become yesterday.”
What treasures we exchanged. Evelyn gave me Mother. I gave her Ginny.