be well by mpeonies

21 Feb

Alfred brushed over his hair with his palm, feeling the lightness, the near baldness, his age. He was sixty-five now, and felt as if the first half of his life sped by, while the latter moved as slow as water. He threw on his black corduroy blazer now, pinching out the few specks of dust. He made sure that every button of his dress shirt was done, and threw himself a serious grin in the mirror, as a parent would do to a troublesome child.

It was his birthday today, and family would be there. Loud aunts with big mouths and smiles would be there. Shy, tiresome cousins would be there. Sara would be there.

Most of everything at the party was as he imagined. The platters of butter croissants and cheese finger sandwiches, his favorites, sat in the light of an otherwise dimly lit room with gloomy floral wallpaper—the kind that made you feel you were in a rundown motel. But Alfred wore a smile, making noises of content as he munched on the food. He never paused in his eating, of course, so as to avoid actual conversation with relatives. It was easier for him to laugh, mouth closed, occasionally spurting out crumbs, giving hugs and handshakes all at once. Alfred always felt there was something fake about relatives, about himself in relation to them especially. He could not tell them he was a lonely man, spending half of his days wandering and sleeping, doing annoying puzzles, wondering where his life had gone, that he was a divorcee and his wife had left him because she had become bored and tired. Instead, he gave the semblance of a freethinking, clumsily brash man. He laughed a lot, and never cared to be sincere about it, but it got him pats on the back and things were better that way, he thought.

But one of his aunts, the one that planned the party, had invited his wife. She entered the room an hour before the party’s end. Alfred took a few minutes to make meaning of her appearance. It had been a year, but she seemed more fragile. Her walk was faster, but the lightness of it suggested that she had lost weight, energy. The long strands of her grayish hair still highlighted the glow of her face. Her eyes were as young and brown and big as they always were. They never changed. Alfred dropped his sandwich onto a platter, pushing aside an aunt who had been chattering to him for maybe an hour now, and raised both a hand and a smile at his wife.

“Sara!” he screamed.

She fixed her hair and looked down, timid and overwhelmed. Alfred smiled and laughed aloud, “Oh! Too old and wrinkly to look at now, am I?!”

Sara raised her head, and glared at him, as if she was opening her eyes for the first time. Alfred felt her glare. It was something between pity and guilt. Alfred returned a sad smile, something between pleading and confessing.

“Happy birthday, Fred,” she said loudly. Alfred took Sara’s hand lightly into his, and began to walk around the room. His Aunt Sandra was standing near the table of food. Alfred headed there first, and immediately reached over for another sandwich. He smiled, mouth closed.

Sara stood on his side, holding a worried look. Aunt Sandra posed questions, giving no time for response, returning to her own reflections, thoughts, and the rumors she had heard. Looking over at Alfred, Sara recognized the look of anxiety that sat on his face. And she, too, reached over for a sandwich and placed it in her mouth. And the two went on the rest of the night, clearing the platters of food and staying silent, occasionally giggling at their own folly.

At the end of the night, Sara was ready to leave. Alfred walked her out of the house, and the two said nothing as she stepped into her car. Before closing the car door, Sara looked straight ahead and then looked down with a sudden burst of laughter. “I think I might explode from all the food…” she said. Alfred joined her in laughter.

“Be well, Alfred,” she said with a sad drop in tone.

“I’ll try,” he shrugged.

Then, Sara left. Alfred walked back into the house. There was the sound of trash bags ruffling and glasses clinking together. There was chattering.

An aunt remarked to another. “Aren’t Freddie and Sara so adorable? They even eat the same, did you see?”

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4 Responses to “be well by mpeonies”

  1. ingridfnl February 21, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    This was really beautiful and sad. I love the eating as a way of not talking to people. I love that Sara came…

  2. jadamthwaite February 21, 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    Ah, that was both sad and uplifting at the same time. I loved how in tune with each other Sara and Alfred are even though they’re separated. And I love their approach to avoiding conversation!

  3. Parenthesized February 25, 2010 at 4:40 am #

    I like that you acknowledge one of the more ignored realities of divorce, of how much one still knows the other person even if it feels better to pretend they never existed.

  4. phoenix.writing March 7, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    This was actually really sad, but I liked the … whimsy (almost the right word, I think) of the eating steadily so that their mouths were always full so that they didn’t actually have to talk to the relatives–and the resultant near explosion at the end, given that they must have been eating solidly for hours, lol.

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