An excerpt from THE JOURNEY HOME:
“Come join us, Antoinette. You know you love the music.” The nurse had been insisting for minutes now, in spite of Antoinette’s quiet, continued refusal. Again, she shook her head no, tightening the collar of her housecoat. “Jeffrey will be there,” the nurse said, teasingly.
“You know he’s really into you, right?” Antoinette shuddered at the thought of Jeffrey, or anyone, being “into” her. She was sure Jeffrey was a perfectly pleasant man – she couldn’t recall his face right now – but the last thing she wanted was that kind of attention. It was better if she kept her distance from everyone. She wasn’t sure what would happen if she tried to get to know someone at this point.
Antoinette still liked her room. Her pictures were here, along with other things she recognized. She didn’t like the other side of the door anymore, though. Too many confusing things. Too many things she wasn’t sure if she knew. Too many people who were friendly to her but might just be trying to take advantage of her in some way. She had everything she needed right here. The nurses would bring her food after a few minutes of trying to get her to eat in the dining room, and she had all the company she could want right here.
“Maybe tomorrow, Diane,” Antoinette said quickly.
The nurse tipped her head to one side. “Now, Antoinette, you know my name is Darlene. And you say ‘maybe tomorrow’ every day.” The nurse moved toward the calendar attached by a magnet to the refrigerator. “Now let me see – yes, it says right here that ‘tomorrow’ is today!” Darlene or Diane, or whatever her name was today – Antoinette was certain they kept changing it on her – held out her hand. “Come on, Antoinette, we’ll dance together. Everyone loves to watch you dance. You’re so graceful.”
Antoinette stood from the couch and sat on her bed. “Maybe tomorrow. I mean it. I need to rest now.”
The nurse let out a huge sigh, her shoulders rising and slumping in exaggerated fashion. “Okay, Antoinette. I’ll leave you alone this time. I’m not going to leave you alone tomorrow, though. Ice cream social tomorrow – and I want to see you there eating a huge sundae. I’ll put the whipped cream on it myself.”
She left after that, which made Antoinette feel much, much better. She always felt so much pressure from this nurse. The other one – Jane, Judy, Angela, something like that – was much nicer and much more understanding. For a long time after the nurse left, Antoinette stayed on the edge of the couch, thinking a little about tomorrow’s ice cream social and all the people who would be there that she wouldn’t recognize, and then not thinking about much. Finally, she stood up, removed her housecoat, and slipped into bed. The sheets hugged her and she warmed to their embrace. As she did, she let her mind drift, knowing it would take her someplace she truly wanted to go.
. . . Today they were walking on a New York City street. Antoinette recognized it as the neighborhood near their first apartment, the place they rented after they married sixty years ago. It was late spring, the sky was clear, and pedestrians bustled around them as Antoinette and her husband walked at their own, very steady, very relaxed pace.
“It’s a beautiful day for a walk,” she said, “don’t you think, Don?”
He took her hand, kissed the back of it lightly, and kept his clasped with hers as they strolled. “It is most definitely a beautiful day, Hannah.”
Virtually from the moment they met, they’d called each other “Don” and “Hannah” after the couple played by Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in Easter Parade, the movie they saw on their first date. Antoinette was already in love by the time she went out with him for the first time – they’d been flirting for weeks – and when he took her dancing after the movie and called her “Hannah,” Antoinette was pretty sure that he felt the same way. From then on, he was her “Don” and she was his “Hannah,” and they never used their given names to address each other except on the rare occasion when one of them was very, very angry.
They stopped at a store window so Antoinette could admire a blue chiffon dress. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?”
Don slipped an arm around her waist and put his face close to hers. “It is, and you would look remarkable in it. But I’m afraid it’s too expensive.”
Antoinette turned to face him, which put their noses inches from each other and made her chuckle. “Too expensive? But we don’t even know what it costs.”
Don kissed the tip of her nose and then took a couple of steps backward. “I’m afraid I do know what it would cost. You see, the price of the dress itself wouldn’t be the issue. The issue has to do with the neckline.” He gestured toward the store window. “Do you see how much of your shoulder would be left exposed? As you well know, Hannah, I become senseless with desire around your bare shoulders. That means that, to the price of the dress, we would have to add the fine I would pay for lewd public behavior if you ever wore it out of the house.”
He grinned boyishly at that point, and Antoinette shoved him playfully. “That is the worst excuse ever devised to avoid buying me a dress.”
“I’m just being practical, darling,” he said, still smiling and taking her hand to continue their walk.
They stopped at an electronics store where Don ogled a new radio the way she had ogled the dress. Antoinette tried to come up with an excuse for not buying the radio that was as sappy and romantic as Don’s had been for not buying the dress, but her cleverness betrayed her. They left the store without the radio, anyway. In this case, Don really was being practical. They had a comfortable life, but they certainly didn’t have the luxury of purely frivolous expenses. The radio in the living room was a perfectly good one, certainly good enough to dance to.
After a cup of coffee and a slice of blueberry pie at Horn & Hardart, they started back toward their apartment. The afternoon had left Antoinette feeling very much at ease. Her muscles felt smooth and her skin warm. Their pace, which had never been rapid, slowed even further, as though they were wading through a pool of the chocolate sauce Don loved for her to make for his ice cream.
Don again raised her hand to his lips and kissed it softly. “I think a nap might be nice when we get home.”
She squeezed their hands, which he still held to his face. “Mmm, sounds inviting. Let’s stop to get groceries for dinner now so we don’t need to go out again later.”
“A nap sounds better.”
“Now it sounds better. When we wake up afterward and you’re famished, you’ll wish I started dinner.”
She turned him toward the market a block from their apartment. She wanted to cook something scandalously rich tonight. A gift for Don. Something to assure him that afternoons like the one they’d just spent were unspeakably precious to her. She chose leeks, cream, and chicken. She remembered noticing that they were low on butter, so she put some of that in her basket as well. Wild rice would be a surprising accompaniment, something that even seemed a little on the naughty side. And the asparagus looked very good.
When they got back to the apartment, Don took to opening the mail while she melted leeks in butter and seasoned the chicken. She was browning the chicken in another skillet when Don came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.
“Smells delicious,” he said, kissing the side of her face.
She turned the chicken with a fork. “It’s going to taste even better.”
He kissed her again. “Do you know what would be even more delicious?”
“The nap we were talking about.”
Antoinette could tell from the feel of him that Don’s mind was on anything but napping. “Are you so sleepy that you can’t wait for me to finish getting this in the oven?”
He kissed her neck now, which left Antoinette feeling as melted as one of the leeks. “I’m very, very sleepy.”
“Dinner won’t be as good if I leave it now.”
“I can live with that,” he said, as he began to unbutton the back of her dress and Antoinette began to forget about dinner . . .
The memory faded, but not the sensations that had accompanied the memory. The wonderful, deeply satisfying sensations. Antoinette pulled the sheets up around her neck. Feeling the warmth of his presence in the place she had created for them, she drifted off to sleep. Today had been a very good day.