A Clarity of Vision
Chair. Table. Coffee cup. The din of conversation. Two girls chatting animatedly around a topic that she can’t quite make out. Otherwise, the silence of people bent over their computers, disappearing like smoke into a parallel universe. She ordered something, anything from the counter. She just needed permission to sit. Much to her relief, no one looked up as she found a seat. Glory was grateful for the anonymity of coffee shops. Two baristas manned the counter, as indifferent to what she ordered as she was. Nothing mattered, and yet, everything mattered more than it had ever mattered before. How was that even possible?
She unloaded her backpack, swollen with her computer, the novel that she was in the middle of reading, the detritus of her life. She was supposed to meet someone here. The anxiety that had been living on her chest like a battleship built up steam. Was it possible that she had forgotten the name of the person she was supposed to meet? And what would happen if she did, if all the dates and times that were cluttered in her head fell away, disintegrated, leaving her empty of all social connection? Would that be so terrible? It was exactly what was happening to her mother, who was in the throes of a crippling dementia.
But no, her brain charged forward into overdrive and she remembered. It was Alex that she had called this morning, her mouth dry and cottony from the anti-depressants that she had begun to take. What she couldn´t recall was whether he wanted to meet her here today, or if she had pulled her desperation card and begged him to come. Did it matter? He said he’d come. She looked at her watch, not surprised to discover that she was early for the arranged meeting. Glory had always liked being early, even when she was an elementary school teacher. She loved the freedom of roaming about her space alone, getting ready, preparing for when the kids would arrive. She’d arrange and rearrange tables, art supplies, even the props she needed for morning meeting that were always tucked into the book corner near her rocking chair and the colorful carpet.
It was only now, when she insisted on being early without a classroom to ready, that she had come to realize that it was never about readying the space. Being early allowed her to get herself ready, to prepare her face, just the way she had watched her mother carefully apply face powder, eyeliner, blush and lipstick before she even allowed herself to go downstairs and fix breakfast. Somehow, without putting on a stitch of make-up, she was repeating her mother’s ritual, the one that had been hijacked from her mother as soon as the dementia took its icy grip on her brain. Now she barely remembered to comb her hair. Glory didn’t want to end up like that, bitter and alone, with a stream of caregivers coming in and out of her apartment, taking away the last vestiges of her freedom.
She opened her computer and closed it. She couldn’t afford to get lost down the rabbit hole of e-mails or FaceBook now. She needed to get ready to see Alex. She hoped she looked all right. In her haste to get out of the house, she had thrown on whatever clothes were scattered on the floor - a warm hoodie and an old pair of jeans. When she and Alex were dating, she was always careful with how she looked. Since they broke up two months ago, she had worn some version of the same outfit every day. Even her co-workers at the library had remarked on the change in how she dressed. She laughed it off, explaining that her work as a children’s librarian involved a lot of floor time, so what was the point of dressing up?
She scanned the coffee shop, looking at all the other women. This was what she did wherever she went. She always needed to put herself up against them, like a measuring stick. Today, she wasn’t the fattest or the thinnest, but somewhere in between, although the bevy of stick-thin girls that had just walked in made her nervous. She was losing points. Now there were plenty of girls that were thinner than she was. Fortunately, very few of the girls seemed more dressed up than she was. She hoped that Alex would notice that and not hold her casual attire against her. She wondered, not for the first time, what the hell she even wanted from this meeting with her ex.
As soon as she took the first enormous bite of her bagel, with the excess butter already dribbling down to her chin, Alex walked in. She hurriedly wiped the butter off her face, embarrassed. She hated being caught with food in her mouth, especially carbs. Alex was a strictly healthy eater. Whenever they had gone out, he had eschewed any form of bread or dairy, making her feel evil for her carbohydrate cravings. And now look at her, scarfing down a bagel as if she had lost any shred of dignity.
Alex looked impossibly good. He was dressed in a pair of slim fitting black chinos and an Argyle cashmere sweater. He bent over her chair to give her a perfunctory kiss on the cheek. She hoped she had wiped off the butter well enough, although there was a sadistic part of her that took pleasure in thinking that he would absorb a carbohydrate through osmosis. He sat down and looked at her expectantly; the ball was clearly in her court. What had she possibly expected from this meeting? That she would beg forgiveness and hope that he would take her back?
“Thanks for coming,” said Glory with a forced smile.
“What’s up?” asked Alex.
“I just…I don’t know…I thought maybe we could talk.” Glory watched his long tapered fingers wrap around his cup of tea. Alex didn’t believe in caffeine either. She picked up her triple-shot latte and drank with gusto. She was going to need all the caffeine that the drink could deliver.
Alex’s eyes narrowed and he pursed his lips. “Haven´t we talked enough?” She knew what he was referring to. They had spent almost a week discussing the pros and cons of breaking up.
“Maybe we made a mistake?” Glory offered this up as a sacrament.
“Glo,” said Alex with a sad smile, “Nothing has changed, or has it?” He stared right at her.
She skirted his question. “I didn’t think I’d be so sad without you.”
Alex nodded. He sat back in his chair and took a slow sip of his tea. And then he just looked at her with those limpid eyes that she wanted to drown herself in. That was the trouble. Alex was a buoy in the violent currents of her inner state. Her friends warned her that she was clinging to Alex more out of desperation than love, but she hadn’t believed them. She had fallen for him from the first moment that she caught sight of him ordering a salad from the college dining hall. She even remembered nudging her friend Tess with her elbow, pointing out that there was something so incredibly touching about a man who knew his way around a salad bar. She hadn’t realized that his familiarity with salads was part of an obsession with healthy eating that would by necessity play a major role in all of their interactions. No, he would not like to share popcorn at the movie theatre. No, he would never want to order a late night pizza or a batch of warm chocolate cookies from the local Insomnia that catered to grad school students.
At first, she admired his will power and the strength of his convictions. Here was a man who would not succumb to normal social conventions, not even when all she wanted was someone to share a large order of McDonald fries with on a rainy Saturday afternoon during study week. Almost as a dare, Glory held out a piece of buttered bagel for him. “Want a bite?” she asked.
Alex shook his head and recoiled in his seat. “Glo,” he said disapprovingly. “Do you really need to eat that?”
She thought about throwing the bagel in his face, but stopped herself. She hadn’t broken up with him because of his obsession with healthy eating. It had been annoying sure, and there were certainly times that he made her feel like a bloated beached whale, but that hadn’t been the deciding factor.
As if he could read her mind, Alex asked her the inevitable question that she had been waiting for with dread ever since she called him up and insisted that they meet.
“Have you changed your mind about us getting engaged?” he asked, his eyes widening with a hopefulness that made her stomach hurt.
The din in the room stopped. She could no longer hear the hiss of the espresso maker or the desultory chatter between the baristas. Her heart was thumping wildly. All she could hear now was his question, playing and replaying in her head in an endless loop, like an annoying commercial jingle that she couldn’t get out of her head.
“Actually,” she said, aware that she was stalling for time. “I was wondering if you’d reconsidered the possibility of us just moving in together?”
Alex shook his head and recoiled from her. This idea was clearly more offensive than offering him a piece of a buttered bagel.
“Glory,” he said firmly, and she knew by the severe tone in his voice that he hadn’t changed his mind about anything. Neither of them had, which meant that they were as stuck as they had been when they officially decided to break up in a Just Salad restaurant in the village. He shook his head.
“What the hell is so important about getting engaged?” she asked. It wasn’t a fair question; she already knew the answer. Alex did everything the right way, from just eating healthy food to only pursuing relationships that would ultimately lead to marriage, a house in the suburbs, and kids, a perfect storm of a trifecta. She wasn’t even sure why she was balking from his five-year plan.
Alex looked at her tenderly. She still wanted to swim in the pools of light in his eyes; she just didn’t want to get engaged. Engagements led to marriage and Glory felt ill equipped to make those kinds of decisions. All she could know for sure is what she felt right now. The future was as blurry as the eye charts in the ophthalmologist’s office; even when she squinted, she was only guessing which letters were on the chart.
“You look tired,” he said, reaching out to touch her gently on her forearm.
She wanted to break down and cry. She hadn’t slept in days. The bagel on her plate was probably the first solid food she had consumed in days. What she felt was a kind of emotional exhaustion, as if she had run her emotions ragged since the break up, and was now jogging in place on nothing but caffeine. She wondered if he’d take her back if she started to sob. Except that everything in her was straining to stay composed. Her mother used to cry whenever she didn’t get her way. And her father was always the poor sap who gave into her as soon as she began to shed her first tears. That’s not how she wanted to have a relationship, or was it? Okay, yes, she was tempted to fall apart so that Alex could enfold her in his arms, making her feel safe and protected. One look at Alex’s sober countenance and she knew that she had too much dignity to use tears to get him back.
Her phone rang. She looked down to see who was calling. Of course, it was her mother, who had not yet forgotten her phone number. She pressed the button to decline the call. She couldn’t handle Dahlia right now.
“You know me,” she said casually, “I always have trouble sleeping whenever anything’s on my mind.”
“So you’re still thinking about us?” he asked, a wisp of hope threading its way into his tone.
She lowered her eyes, embarrassed. She wanted to present herself today as someone who had moved on, needing nothing from him, and now she sounded like a grief-struck lover.
Alex stroked her arm. “We could take it slow,” he said. “A year long engagement is considered perfectly acceptable.”
Her sadness evaporated, as her spine straightened and her jaw clenched. “I’m not worried about what other people will think,” she said with a scathing bitterness that practically scalded her tongue. “But it’s nice to know that acceptability by others is your primary concern.”
Alex got up so quickly that his chair almost toppled over. “That’s it,” he said. “I don’t even know why I came.” He buttoned his coat and carefully tied his scarf before putting on his gloves. She hated his composure. She watched him walk away through eyes that were already blurry with tears. She didn’t want to cry, but the tears were coming anyway. Glory bent her head and pretended to read her book. Despite what she had said to Alex, it did matter to her what other people thought of her. She didn’t want everyone in the coffee shop to know that she was crying over being dumped. That wasn’t the kind of girl she wanted to be.
As a kid, her mother always told her that getting a good education was secondary to finding a good husband. She seriously doubted whether her father was an example of a good husband. While he had provided well for his family, her father had never shown a shred of interest in anyone beside himself. What made her upbringing so painful was that her mother was exactly like her father, so consumed with herself that everyone else hardly mattered at all.
All of her ruminations were broken off by the sound of her cell phone ringing. Again. She picked it up with a knot in her stomach. Of course it was her mother.
“I hate these stupid women, I’m going to fire them,” Dahlia announced with a vengeance that Glory didn’t know was still in her. She went on and on about how she couldn’t stand the caregivers that Glory had lined up round the clock when her mother’s confusion worsened. She wanted her mother safe, while knowing that it would kill her mother to have to be watched all the time, especially by strangers. She didn’t know how to live with those two opposing truths.
By the time she hung up, Glory was numb. Her arms and legs had fallen asleep; she didn’t know if she had the strength to stand. She wanted to close her eyes and sleep, putting her head down on her computer and leaving everything behind. Or maybe she still longed for Alex to swoop back into her life, pick her up and take care of her, promise her that he would never leave her, even if she inherited Dahlia’s dementia. She wondered if that was what had frightened her so much about marriage, Her mother was an obligatory burden to her; she couldn’t remember the last time that she had felt any love for her. If she married Alex, she could become that kind of burden on him, someone he would have to take care of even if he stopped loving her.
Dahlia called back, demanding that Glory fire all her caretakers and let her die in peace. How was she possibly supposed to know how much to respect her mother at a cost to her safety? She could reduce the hours of the caretakers, and make her mother happy, or insist that their hours stay the same, guaranteeing both her mother’s well-being and her fury. This was exactly how she used to feel as a child when she saw the ophthalmologist. He would strap on these enormous glasses on her small face and keep sliding in new lenses while she looked at the eye chart. “Clearer one or two?” he would ask. She couldn’t believe that he was leaving it up to her to decide which lens was clearer. What if she was wrong and he prescribed the wrong lens for her glasses for the whole next year? The more she thought about it, the less sure she was about her decision.
As a kid, the responsibility of selecting the right lens for her glasses seemed monumental. She remembered making the eye doctor show her both choices again and again, and still not really knowing which lens was clearer. And now she was a grown-up, and none of her decisions seemed any clearer. Less caretaker hours for her dementia-riddled mother or more? Should she choose engagement and marriage to Alex or break up with him?
Glory threw her glasses in her backpack. Nothing was clear. She packed up and left the coffee shop, squinting into the afternoon sun.