She smells like peppermints and chamomile tea, aged cedar, and something I cannot quite name. As I sit across from her in a Victorian needlepoint chair, her smile is full of yellowed teeth and memory. Slowly, gently, she lifts a shaking hand and pats her white hair with arthritic fingers that swell painfully at the knuckles, and she nods.
“I was once Ophelia and Juliet, my dear,” she says, her voice roughened with time and seasoned by years of smoking. “But the real love story; the one you have come to ask me about… well.” With a chuckle that ends in a cough, she reaches forward and takes my pen and notepad. “It cannot be written in words.”
I open my mouth to question and protest, but she silences me with one look. An air of mystery hangs about her, as if the rouge and powder dusting her face are just a mask; as if the lines etched into her skin are only there to disguise the twinkle of youth in her grayed eyes and the twitch of seduction that simmers around her thinning lips.
“He was… a beautiful man.” A smile deepens the creases in her cheeks as she remembers. “And we were in love.”
In the dark of the night, he pushes a ladder against the house, and she peers out the window. Their movements are careful, silenced by the threat of discovery thickening the heated air, quickened by the excitement of new love and fresh beginnings. No one can contain them; no one can understand that they are meant to be. No one knows this but them.
Her father disapproves of him. He is a wanderer, a modern gypsy who traipses from town to town with his case of pens and car full of vacuums. He will sell them to whomever buys, whomever takes pity on his patched suit and worn soles with a few dollars and a wish for luck. She sees him as her knight, her prince, come to save her from the tower that she ahs been locked in. Her father knows that he will abandon her. The only unpredictable element is when.
“It was a forbidden fruit, you see, and that made it all the more sweet.” Clicking her tongue, she pours me a cup of tea, and stirs in too much sugar. “Of course, we did not listen. But then, we were young fools.”
I watch her as the evening sun lights her face with gold; I can see the sadness now, where she has hidden it beneath a happy demeanor. That is her façade, to act as though she is happy with life. She has been dealt a hand of cards that did not win her a prize, but she will never reveal that she is disappointed, never betray that her heart was broken. The regal stance of her shoulders displays pride that was crushed and reborn.
I ask her if she wishes she could go back to him, and she looks at me with bemusement. “How could I go back to him? No…” A heavy sigh rushes from her lungs, and she coughs again. “No, I would never go back.”
He paces the floor, face full of anger and panic. She is sitting on the bed with her hands folded in her lap, her eyes asking him to understand. There are tears running down her youthful face.
“How could you?” he yells at her. “You’ve ruined everything!” His voice cracks, and she knows that beneath the anger, he is just as afraid as she is.
Her apology is not enough, she knows, but she still voices it. Deep down, she wonders if it really is her fault; she could not have done this alone. Should he not carry some of the blame? But she does not say it. It was her job to take precautions, and she failed. She was not as strong as he wanted her to be.
Laying a hand over her stomach, she asks him, “What will we do now?”
He pushes his fingers through his thick hair, and he looks at her. Ever so slightly, his expression changes from panic to poise, and he squats before her. “We will… we will fix this.” His eyes dart from her face to her hand.
Afraid of the answer, she lowers her chin. She cannot look at him. “How?”
There is resolution in his voice as he answers. “You will have an abortion.”
“And so it was,” she says, shrugging her narrow shoulders slightly. “We never had the child.” There is only fact in her tone. Nothing to describe how she feels about the decision.
I ask if she was mad at him, and she vigorously nods. “Oh yes, I was furious. I left him for a while. I wandered the streets and I slept in strange hotels. But I couldn’t stay away from him for long.” She lights up suddenly, and sits a little straighter. “Would you like to see a photograph of him?”
I tell her yes. I cannot imagine what he looks like; she has not described him to me. I think he must be dark and seductive, but the photo she shows me is of a pale, thin man. His nose is a little too long, and his teeth are crooked. Yet there is allure in his thickly-lashed eyes and big hands. There is charm in the way his hat is cocked, the sharp corners of his suit-coat shoulders, the curl of his hair.
“We were never married, you know,” she says, and there is fondness in her voice. “He could not be tied down.”
I ask how it made her feel, and she simply shakes her head. “I was on top of the world. He had chosen me, and that was all I needed then. It was enough, most days.”
Sitting on the hard, unforgiving bed, she stares at the floor and she shakes. Her hair has come undone and hangs about her face limply, much like her life has come undone and pools on the floor around her. At her feet is a letter full of swift and mannish script; words that have no feeling in them, that tell her she is better off without him. That it was never really meant to be. That she will be happier on the stage pursuing her dreams, and he will be happy knowing she is not tied to him.
It is a selfish letter, but she cannot see past her tears. After four years of vowing to follow him anywhere, he has left her in a ragged hotel room with nothing but the clothes on her back. She is stranded in a strange town, and he no longer wants her. It is the only thing that she can think. The only thing that drives her to rise from the bed and make her way to the bathroom. To the pills hidden in the cabinet, the razor still sitting on the shelf.
“I tried to kill myself that day.” She clears her throat and looks down at the photo of him. “I tried to swallow too many pills.” Rubbing over the picture with her thumb, she blinks away a few tears. “But even then, I could not. I spit them out.”
Where did she go next, I ask her, and what did she do?
“I did what any hopeless child does. I went back to my family,” she answers me. “My father did not speak to me for days, and eventually I left again.” Delicately, she dabs the corners of her mouth with an embroidered handkerchief. There is a crumb on her chin that she does not notice. “If it weren’t for my mother, I suppose I might have hung myself. But she understood.” Sniffing, she sips her tea. “She’d married a man much like him.”
Her fragility is fully exposed now as she settles into her chair, as much a part of this home as the dust on the mantle and the smell of old books. She still loves him. I can see it in her eyes; she will never stop loving him, even though he left her. I ask her if my hunch is true, and she simply smiles.
“He was the start of my career, my dear.” Her yellowed fingernails point to the pictures of a young, vibrant woman in costume on the mantle. “If I had not met him, I would never have become the actress I was. I owe him my fame and fortune.”
Has she ever told him that? I ask.
“Oh, no.” She shakes her head sadly. “No, I never did.”
With a deep sigh, she lowers her eyes once again to the picture in her lap, and she taps her chin. “Well, you see… he died. Before I ever got the chance to speak to him again.”
Standing at the freshly upturned dirt, she stares at the gravestone, and she cries. There are still a few mourners there; one of the women wears a bright ring that she recognizes, and it hurts. This is his wife. She knows, because that ring was once hers. The woman is not beautiful, and her body seems shapeless beneath the black shift she wears. What was it that drew him to her?
Stepping up to the grave, she places a rose on the dirt, and his wife approaches. “How did you know him?” the woman asks, her eyes full of tears. “How did you know my husband?”
Shaking her head, she backs away. “We were friends, once,” she answers. A child runs up to the woman’s side, tugging her hand and calling her Mama. It stings to see that child, to remember that it could have been hers, to know that he loved this woman more than he loved her. She does not want the woman to know who she really is.
“Thank you for coming,” the woman says. Then she is overcome by sobs.
Nodding, she turns to leave.
“Wait!” The woman calls after her, voice wobbling. “What is your name?”
Not looking back, she shakes her head. “You wouldn’t know me,” she says. “I was his Ophelia,” she whispers to herself. “I was the one who should have died.”
I ask how he died, she does not answer me. She is staring at something far beyond the reaches of these walls; something in the past, that only she can see, only she knows. When she comes out of her trance, her eyes shine with unshed tears. “It does not matter now,” she says.
I know that she is speaking of something else, but I believe her. It does not matter how he died. She lived, and that is the important thing. Because of him, she became everything she had ever dreamed. Standing, I say goodbye to her, and she kisses my cheek. Her lips are gentle, and I can feel the soft web of hair on her chin. When she pats my arm, there are no more tears in her eyes.
“You remind me of him, somehow,” she says, and it is a compliment.
And as I leave, I finally identify the strange, elusive smell that clings to her skin. It is a comforting smell, a smell that briefly transferred itself to me when she kissed me. It is the smell of old books, of aging wood, of clothes that sit in the attic for too long and love letters written long ago.
It is the indefinable scent of slow decay.
It is death.