Geriatrics

I was seventy-seven come August,
  I shall shortly be losing my bloom;
I’ve experienced zephyr and raw gust
  And (symbolical) flood and simoom.

When you come to this time of abatement,
  To this passing from Summer to Fall,
It is manners to issue a statement
 As to what you got out of it all.

So I’ll say, though reflection unnerves me
  And pronouncements I dodge as I can
That I think (if my memory serves me)
  There was nothing more fun than a man! 

“In my country”, he said in a soft, steady voice, “they used to burn widows to death on their husbands’ funeral pyres.”

“‘Used to’ is the operative word, I hope”, she answered lightly, masking the chill his comment sent through her.

True, she had felt like she wanted to die after she understood that her husband Stefan was absolutely, irrevocably dead. She’d fought the whole thing on every level, hadn’t really accepted the death – so sudden – until the burial was over and everyone went home. And then she mourned. But nearly as soon as her grieving started, she understood that she would come out the other side, forge a new life, find new, if less exuberant, joys.

But she sometimes felt as if the people around her, even within her own family, didn’t think she had that right.

Sanjay hadn’t missed her reaction. “Of course. Big thing for the British, you know – human rights for women.”

Grim smile. But she felt his concern and loosened up. He signaled one of the waiters and asked him to bring her some of the special Indian tea, with rose petals in it.

Sanjay owned the restaurant. It was a modest place, but Celia had been coming here for years – her boss and most of her office staff liked it, and so did she. He already knew she loved the tea – the steamy, milky, rose-fragrant tea that always seemed like a dessert to her.

Celia had talked with Sanjay before, of course. Occasionally he had sat down with the office group when they were there – he said he’d always liked NGO people. Once when a meeting had been scheduled there, Celia had arrived a good half hour ahead of everyone else, and Sanjay had kept her company. He was a quiet, thoughtful man, extremely sensitive to the feelings of others, and Celia always felt good after talking with him.

So here she was, suddenly a widow at fifty-seven, an only somewhat stimulating job in an environmental NGO, and two grown children living at home. Things could be worse, she had to admit to herself. But – still – she felt so comfortable talking to Sanjay, and it cheered her so.

In the next few weeks, she stopped by the restaurant frequently. If she missed a day or two, he’d call to see if she were alright. Sometimes he’d call to let her know about something special they’d be serving, and she’d stay there for dinner, eating at the owners table with Sanjay. Once when he knew she was sick, he visited her at home and brought her a special passion-fruit tea to help heal her.

Her kids were funny about Sanjay’s attention to her. At first they seemed to think it was “cute”, nice that their widowed mother had a “gentleman caller”, a new friend, someone to talk to. But as they caught the notes if romance in their mother’s voice, they registered surprise, almost shock. Her daughter Isabel came very near to a blunt “Aren’t you a little too old for that?” Her son Andre, more fun-loving and ultimately more understanding, grinned, “I thought it was strictly white meat for you, mom!” White meat, dark meat – ha! She’d heard that from a couple of her raucous friends too. Stefan, of course, was white, was Spanish, was first her mestizo love before he was her husband. But now, after thirty years of marriage, many good times and a few bad, he was gone. And she was alone, with no one to be loyal to.

As the relationship between Celia and Sanjay intensified, so did that between Isabel and her boyfriend Joey. Once or twice, when Celia stayed late in the restaurant and Sanjay brought her home, the two couples arrived at the house at the same time. This seemed to amuse both the men, but made Celia feel just a little bit awkward, and seemed to anger Isabel. “Mother”, she’d complained in her whiny kids voice, “why so late?” Celia didn’t bother to point out the obvious – that it was the same time for both of them.

One Sunday afternoon, when Celia had had a nice nap and had just made herself some tea, Isabel came into her room and announced that they needed to talk. There was an edge in her voice that made Celia a bit nervous. But no, it wasn’t – on the surface, anyway – about Sanjay. It was about Joey.  He and Isabel had decided to marry in March, and was that alright? Because Dad hadn’t been dead a year, of course, but at least it was a new calendar year. And maybe it would be better, she thought, just in case, well, in case anyone else got any ideas. Because after all it was Celia’s husband who died, and so if anyone was going to get married, it had better be one of the kids first!

To Celia it sounded like Isabel was shouting inside, “me first, me first!” – a cry out of childhood. Yes, thought Celia, she probably misses her father more than she will admit – and thinks her battle against Sanjay amounts to sticking up for Stefan.

And so the wedding plans started. These were to take almost all Isabel’s time, but Celia, wisely she thought, tried to stand back and be supportive without getting caught up in the details.

Nevertheless, the tension in the house was palpable. Not surprising, Celia told herself over and over again: weddings are always tense for the family – too many decisions, too many extra expenses, too many jagged emotions. Take a widowed mother and an extra-uptight daughter, and a few issues between them, and what have you got?

Sanjay, of course, was one of the issues. He himself began to sense this in the ice in Isabel’s voice, if she happened to answer the phone when he called. So he stopped calling and waited instead for Celia to drop by the restaurant in the late afternoon, after work, for a little “tea and sympathy”, she would say in a brittle voice. The milky, rose-petalled tea, and Sanjay’s presence relaxed her. She’d enter the restaurant really hyped, all ready to blurt out the latest Isabel issue: “She called me this afternoon in the middle of a meeting, would you believe, because Jana’s mother made some remark about the bridesmaids’ dresses. ‘The nerve’, she said, but Jana’s been her friend forever. When I tried to calm her down, she asked why I always take everybody’s side against her!”

Sanjay would listen and shake his head, and then search her eyes to try to ferret out her feelings. It was the look that calmed her, and the fact that he listened – and maybe the smell of incense and the quiet of the empty restaurant. She would sit, and he would send for the tea.

The restaurant was closed on Sunday, and three weeks before the wedding, Sanjay asked Celia to spend the day out with him. He planned to drive up the coast a ways to see about the eucalyptus trees a friend was raising, and he wanted to pack a picnic and eat somewhere along the shore. Yes, said Celia, yes, if only to get away for a while. Weekends could be bad.

She waited till Sunday morning to tell Isabel she was going out for the day, and then she did so in as causal and off-hand a manner as she could muster. Isabel’s eyebrows flew up and her vocal chords pulled taut, but she stopped herself from speaking. Celia could well imagine her eyes rolling as she told her brother later on, “Mom’s gone out to look at some silly trees with her restaurant man, what’s his name . . .?” She knew Sanjay’s name perfectly well, of course, had known it for years, but somehow was always forgetting it these days.

The day was sunny, fresh, beautiful. Celia felt her spirits lifting almost as soon as the house was out of sight. They were quickly on the coastal road, and the bay glittered in the sun. Celia felt as if she might levitate in the morning cool, and sat smiling in the front seat. Without taking his eyes off the road, Sanjay glanced sideways at her, and felt a grin spreading across his own face. Strange, he thought – take two mature people, one a widow and one a man who somehow never found the right woman to marry, put them on the coastal road in a car with the windows rolled down, on a sunny day, and somehow you’ve got two teenagers. Hmm – on second thought, more like two teenagers falling in love.

The L word. He’d always been afraid of that one, always, in the shyness of youth and in his profound sense of being different, always.

But there was Celia, smiling too.

An hour or so later they arrived at the home of Sanjay’s friend Mr. Nicolas. The road had veered a few hundred meters from the coast by that time, and the inner side was planted as far as the eye could see with eucalyptus trees. It was breezy even here, off the coast, and as the trees rustled in the wind, there was no mistaking the fresh aroma. “Vicks”, Celia could almost hear her daughter saying. “Why would he want to have a Vicks tree around?”

But one whiff and Sanjay was on a riverside in India – a village which he had only visited, but in which his father had been born. Mr. Nicolas had prepared seven rather large “seedlings” – about three feet tall – for him to plant around his house in the city. A portable piece of the home from which he still drew his identity!

They chatted with Mr. Nicolas for a good hour, had a tour of the “grounds” – saw the seed beds of the eucalyptus and the neem tress, and a collection of herbs that he grew – chili peppers, Vietnamese mint, basil, oregano – and sat down to drink some fresh buco juice. They arranged the trees on the floor of the back seat of the car, bracing them between some kilo packets of fertilizer, and took off.

Within a few kilometers they were back on the coast. The plan was to go north for another half hour or so, to a point where there was a good look-out, and an interesting coast, and picnic on the basketful of goodies prepared at the restaurant the night before. They found the promontory with no trouble, and sure enough there was a low rail around the look-out point and a rickety old picnic table with a nipa roof sheltering it. No one was around. As they got out of the car, Celia felt her spirits soar even further: she had always loved seascapes. Peace!

Sanjay pulled out vegetarian samosas and some chicken pakoras just for Celia, some chapattis, a good dal, and a spicy vegetable curry – the clear-year-nose-type Celia always protested wasn’t appropriate to the climate. “Too stimulating. How can you stay cool when they actually make you sweat?” But she was learning to enjoy such curries anyway.

Sanjay had also packed in a very Filipino fruit salad – bland, sweet, creamy – perfect after the spices – and he’d also put in a large thermos of the famous rose water tea, icy cold now, and of course, without the milk and cardamom of the hot version. What more could anyone ask.

Strange, thought Celia, their relationship had grown so much during the ten months since Stefan died, and their conversations had become so intimate – yet they had never been truly alone like this. She had begun to rely, really depend, on dropping into the restaurant in the late afternoon, drinking tea, and sometimes nibbling something nice – owner’s choice – and talking with Sanjay. Michael, the mainstay waiter – he’d be called a maitre d’ in fancier places – would bustle around quietly, and sometimes there would be customers, but no one would bother Sanjay. He and Celia would sit there talking quietly, sometimes lightly, sometimes not. Sometimes their eyes would lock in a long unembarrassed gaze, but they never touched. Hmm.

They ate, and chatted about the new eucalyptus trees, Mr. Nicolas’ garden, the drive, the sea. Celia suggested climbing down to the sea: there were some irregular steps dug into the cliff side, and loose roots and trees to hold on to. Down they went!

At the bottom Sanjay reached his hand out to help Celia make the last little jump. He didn’t let go. They gazed at each other in mutual consent, and then he drew her close to him and kissed her sweetly, gently.

And that was all. Celia felt that anything could have happened then, but Sanjay, as usual, was cautious and thoughtful. But he smiled, and so did she.

They walked. “Celia”, he started. How could she not know what he was going to say? “Anything’s possible”, she said. “Let’s wait a little and see.” He nodded.

She got home in time for supper, and sat smiling to herself – which of course both children noticed. They gave each other a knowing glance, but, thank goodness for small favors, thought Celia, said nothing.

The wedding drew closer. Celia’s dress came – it fit perfectly – and helped her get more in the mood of the thing. She noticed Sanjay’s name on the guest list: good, another potential issue avoided. In fact the couple actually invited Sanjay to join them in the restaurant where the reception would be held when they went to sample the possible dishes.

Inevitable the day came, with its double load of excitement and tension. Somehow Celia managed to sleep late, until nearly 9:00, so that when she came down from her room, the household was bustling. Isabel stood in the middle of the sala in her wedding gown, the couturier hovering around with a handful of pins. Tuck here, tuck there – final fitting. “There you are”, said Isabel in a voice that was meant to sound light-hearted, but carried a definite edge. “I thought you might sleep through the whole thing.”

Celia just smiled. “Have you eaten, dear?”

“I guess so”, said Isabel. “Anyway, I had coffee. There’s so much to do!” She made some modeling motions to show off her gown, and sought reassurance from her mother. “What do you think?” Nice, ha?”

“Beautiful, dear.”

The beautician came at noon, to do their hair and make-up. Isabel bathed before this ritual started, and then sequestered herself in Stefan’s old air-conditioned study so she wouldn’t sweat. Celia made sandwiches – it would be at least two hours before it was her turn. But, ever the mother, she wanted to make sure Isabel had enough nourishment before the wedding so that she wouldn’t faint. (Celia had seen that happen twice – once because the bride was pregnant, and once because she had been using diet drugs rather intensively to get in shape for the wedding. That second girl had actually died right there. That’s when Celia had decided once and for all that there had to be a limit to female sacrifice.)

So mother and daughter – and beautician – ate cheese and pesto sandwiches and drank tea during the Great Hair and Make-up Ritual. They were ready by four – the wedding was scheduled for five – and here was the couturier to give a final check to their dresses. Perfect. 

  Andre and Celia – and Joey, of course, and his parents – were all at the church on time. Celia ran last minute checks on the flowers, the bridesmaids’ dresses, etc. Isabel was to leave the house at five, to be fashionably late, and at 5:15 the bridal car pulled up in front of the church. Isabel stayed in the car, waiting for the signal from her maid of honor that all was ready. Joey marched in with his parents and stood at the altar. Then Andre and Celia walked down the aisle with Isabel, to “give her away”. Celia had always hated that expression, but there it was.

It was a wonderful wedding, especially, thought Celia, if you don’t mind the “love and honor and obey” part too much. Very traditional. It did make her think of her own wedding, and she did get a bit teary-eyed. But it all went perfectly.

And then there was the reception. Most of Celia’s old friends and office mates were there, and Stefan’s cousin – he was Celia’s only local in-law – and of course Isabel’s friends, from each stage in her life – the old neighborhood, high school, college. Celia knew Joey’s parents, of course, and some of their friends and relatives, and she had heard of many of those she didn’t know. So she was busy greeting people and catching up on news. Sanjay sat with her officemates – he was comfortable with them – but he kept an eye on her, and whenever she looked his way, she caught his glance and they both smiled. She was too wound up to eat well. 

At last Isabel and Joey stood up, and started the traditional round of all the tables for picture taking. Celia excused herself and went to sit with Sanjay and her own friends. She sighed deeply, finally feeling as if she could relax.

Within a few minutes Isabel and Joey were there, standing behind Celia, and everyone at the table crowded together for the picture. A few people smiled their thank yous to Celia and left almost immediately after the new couple had moved on.

Celia, leaning her now throbbing head on her hand, said to Sanjay, “Vacation! I need a vacation! Away! I need a beach!”

Sanjay took a conspiratorial pose and moved closer. “Celia, let’s go to Port Barton now. We can collect some clothes and take off – come back tomorrow. Let’s!”

“Yes”, said Celia, immediately. Yes. And she would remember ever after that this was Sanjay’s suggestion – Sanjay the cautious. Let’s go, now, drive to Port Barton in the dark of night, and sleep – sleep together – to the sound of waves. “Yes”, said Celia, “Let’s go.”

She took her son Ander aside and told him where they were going, just so he wouldn’t worry. He looked confused, then surprised. Then he grinned, and nodded. And the couple was off, a good twenty minutes ahead of the bridal couple.

Less than an hour later they were hurtling down moonlit roads, heading for Port Barton. Sanjay knew just where he wanted to stay – a little inn run by a friend – and he had sent a text message that they were coming. It took them nearly two hours to get there, during which they alternated between animated talk of the wedding and this guest and that guest, and thoughtful silences. During those silences, Celia kept smiling, basking in the sense of abandon and freedom she felt. They had just walked out, she kept saying to herself. That easy!

Sanjay kept wondering how Isabel would react when she found out her mom had left, but he didn’t want Celia to worry about that, so he said nothing.

And then they were there, and in their room and alone together. “Come”, said Sanjay, putting his arm gently around her shoulders, “let’s go out and look at the sea.” He took her out into their own little terrace, and there was the moonlit sand and the endless sea. Peace! She smiled and touched Sanjay’s face. “Are you sure, my love?” he asked gently. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Yes”, said Celia with her whole heart/mind. “Yes, I’m sure.”

They kissed gently, right there on the terrace, and then entered the room, and slowly undressed each other and made unhurried love. Celia was lost in his sweetness and gentleness – nothing else existed for her – no past, no widowhood, no wedding. Only here, only now. For Sanjay, Celia was all there was in the world.

They drifted together into a long and peaceful sleep.

Celia woke up in the sunlight of day with a thoroughly contented smile on her lips and an old Dorothy Parker poem dancing in her thoughts, something about a little old lady in lavender silk who had just turned seventy-seven and had this to say about life and love:

I think if my memory serves me,
There was nothing more fun than a man.

But it wasn’t just “fun”, though Celia – she so needed the sweet, caring elements of Sanjay’s love that had been missing from her life a good deal longer than Stefan had been dead. Ah yes, she and Stefan had had a good marriage, but after twenty-five years or so, naturally most of the sweetness is gone.

Celia stretched and smiled, waking up slowly like a thoroughly contented cat, until Sanjay came in from his walk on the beach and sat down on the bed. He searched her eyes. “How do you feel about everything now?” he asked tentatively. “Great”, said Celia. “Fine, I’m happy. How about you?”

“I’m fine, dearest,” he said. “What do you think’s going on at home? Will Isabel ever forgive us?”

“Of course,” said Celia. “Anyway, she’s got other things to think of now. Maybe she didn’t even notice we left.”

“Dreamer”, said Sanjay.

And then again she read the question in Sanjay’s eyes. “Let’s just wait and see, love, see what happens.”

“That’s good”, he said, stroking her cheek.

*  * *  * * *  * * * *  *

“And here we are”, said Celia, white haired and seventy two, talking to the young college girl who described herself as a writer, on the terrace of a neat little pension-restaurant in Port Barton. “No, we never married. But we come back here for a weekend a couple of times a year. It’s only here we stay together. But it’s been good, these past fifteen years. And I though widows weren’t allowed to be happy.”

The girl smiled and thanked Celia, said she had to be going, and slipped back down the beach to her friends. “Hey guys,” she said. “Wanna hear a nice geriatric love story?”

It takes some people a long time to find their true homes. Susan Evangelista moved to Palawan in 2000, at the age of 58. Born in Detroit, Michigan, she first came to the Philippines in 1963, and was on the faculty of the Ateneo de Manila for thirty years before the move to Palawan. There she taught in the State University (PSU) and founded, with her daughter, Roots of Health, which is a growing NGO dedicated to providing education and services to further the Reproductive Health of the women and young people of Palawan.

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