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Vesta lived alone. She walked across the kitchen, both hands wrapped around the warmth of her coffee mug… the one she'd used everyday for 55 years… dark brown with darker brown flecks… the color of wet earth… the thin rubber soles of her faded blue bedroom slippers rhythmically in turn dragging across the floor, then sticking, peeling off the linoleum, and smacking the back of her heel as she moved with the patience of age into the next step. These sounds echoed through her empty house but went unnoticed by Vesta…. she had always lived alone.
She sat in the chair with a view of the back door… which was open, and the screen door banged insecurely at the frame in the breeze. She sat forward toward the table over her coffee, in anticipation, it seemed, of someone's arrival. But this was always the way. And no one came.
There was a memory of someone coming… a memory that was dreamt up years ago, and continued to be dreamt up until it was as real as any memory of an actual event. He was her husband… at least, in her memory… he was for whom Vesta woke in the morning, and for whom she dressed. For her husband she carefully prepared three meals each day, and tidied the house, which belonged to him.
She sat and worked eagerly each day, never impatient or wishful, awaiting his return.
As if someone had called to let her know he wouldn't be coming just then, Vesta sank back into her chair, her gaze fading back into herself.
"I'm old" she said to herself, startled both by the sound of her own voice and the words that came from her… her voice crackled as she spoke from lack of usage. She'd had this realization many times for the past decade… it's not an easy idea to get used to. Vesta remembered being 6 and dreaming of being double-digits, 10, thinking that would feel so different, but she felt like the same Vesta when she finally reached double-digits. Then, imagining being an adult… she thought for sure, that's where the change came… she would stop feeling like Child Vesta and become Adult Vesta.
And Old Vesta… She doesn't even look like the same person… her hair had changed… coarse and whitish gray, it stuck out off of her head at an angle, like the branches from the trunk on a Christmas tree. The youthful look of her side part and the clip holding back the top, right by her forehead contradicted the oldness of her hair.
Her body had changed, too… always long and lean… stood 5'7 just years ago… she was shortened by age. Her back wasn't exactly hunched… it looked as though she had simply become tired of holding up her own weight… like a tree… she looked strong and stable where she stood, the signs of weather were apparent.
But at that moment, as she sat at the table, seeing the 5 empty chairs around her, she knew she would never change. She no longer anticipated the next stage of life… her health was good…. there was no reason for her to believe she wouldn't make it to the next age milestone… the 90's or even 100's… but she had now changed ages enough times to know that when she got there it would feel just the same.
Vesta was 75 years old… he would have been 76. He had grown old with her. When she noticed her first gray hair at 31, he, already significantly gray, teased her playfully about being old. He was kind, and always appreciated her lovingly prepared meals… he had favorites.
Those were dreams, but he was real, or had been… but she imagined him far longer then she had known him. His grandmother had left the house for him… for his family. When he went away during the war, they decided Vesta would live there, make it warm for his return… fill the house with the smells of home… and they would marry immediately when he returned.
Young Vesta took great joy from her daily chores while he was away. The house was old. His grandparents had lived there and when his grandfather died, 14 years before, his grandmother went to live with his family. She had never been alone.
So the house had been closed up for 14 years. It was just as his grandmother had left it. She didn't bother to remove any of the furniture, only the things she could keep with her at her daughter's house. She knew that one day, her grandson would take the house and all the furniture… she left it as it was.
Vesta spent her days cleaning the interior of the house. His dad came and helped with the yard… it had not been tended to either, and so the wooded area became jungle like. She planted flowers around the porch, and a clothesline just out the back door. With the doors and windows open, the lights and the breeze made the house come alive. It had become a place for living.
There was almost a sense of guilt in the joy Vesta found preparing for her fiancés return. She knew he was risking his life at war, who knew where, gone for 3 months and only one letter so far, a short one, yet she was glad for this time alone, time to practice being his wife without him, to perfect her new domestic role. Several times, the thought slipped into her head that maybe he wouldn't come back and she could always live this way, before she forced it away, willing it never to return.
She rose, leaving what was left of her coffee to grow cold on the table, and began her bedroom-slipper-percussion-walk back to the bathroom. She turned on the bath water, removed her white and blue striped flannel pajamas, with holes at the bottom where they slipped under her heel when she walked, and waited. While the bathtub was filling, she had time in her nakedness to examine her wrinkled body… the softness of her skin that moved around freely now on her bones… she ran her finger up sternum looking into the mirror. She could see her bones there, where gravity had pulled her skin away from the upper parts… she moved both hands above were her breasts had been in her youth… feeling the ribs that protected her heart…
She turned to the side, and noticing the curve in her back, she straightened up, standing almost as tall as she had stood in her youth. She smiled that she wasn't permanently curved… she turned off the water, and holding the rail her would-have-been grandmother-in-law had installed when her husband had become sick, Vesta stepped carefully into the tub.
She was in the tub when she felt the lump… she took her hands up from the water in front of her, splashing herself, hands to her chest, and pushed them downward to wet her body, and there it was. On the left. She only touched it for an instant, but she knew what it was. She wasn't startled, at least, not initially. Her mom had had breast cancer in her 40's, and was still alive at 99 years old. She hadn't seen her in years. Vesta wasn't fond of travel and with the dementia that had taken over completely by the time her mom was 90, Vesta saw no point in visiting.
After finding the lump, Vesta didn't rush to make a doctor's appointment, or call her sister as she might have done years ago, when they were still so close people thought of them as the same person. She sat on her couch-a dirty looking green, with wooden arms and legs- on the far right side, so close to the arm it appeared she was leaving room for someone, and picked up a crossword puzzle book.
With pen in hand, puzzle book open to a completed puzzle, Vesta stared blankly at the page. She thought she was working the puzzle, reading the hint for #1 down over and over…
Three years after the war had ended, Kathryn and Al, Vesta's parents had come to convince her to come home, he wasn't coming back, they said. She knew this was true, but chose to argue… "You just don't want me to be happy" was her response. Even as she said the words she knew that wasn't the case.
Her parents had been helpful, sending money and coming for meals on Sunday, and playing along with Vesta's imaginary life as a wife. His parent's had allowed her to stay… they too lived with the belief that if his home, made so warm for his return, was forfeited, then so was he.
What her parents may not have realized was that Vesta actually was happy. She secretly knew this was what she wished for. She couldn't imagine how life would be if he came home now. Where would he fit into the life she had created?
That was long before her mortality had occurred to her. At 23 you might live forever… even at 75, until now. It dawned on her quite suddenly… it didn't creep up. She would die. Whether from cancer, or from loneliness, the day would come when she no longer existed. The world would be gone to her. The world she had created over 55 years that belonged to her alone. The memories of cooking dinner for dead husbands.
"I should have gone." She whispered to herself, so not to disturb the silence again with her broken voice, and began to sob.
Her head, angled down already toward the puzzle book, sunk further as her cries came from deeper inside, her shoulder curved and bobbed… the letters on the puzzle smeared and the pages thickened together in spot where they had become drenched with tears. Her heart hurt with the thought of an end. It was too late to change her mind, and she had made the wrong choice. One day at a time, without a consideration for tomorrow, Vesta had lived her life married to a dead man. A man whose face she had long ago forgotten. A man whose name she hadn't spoken in decades.
And she would die.
The crying stopped. Vesta tried to take a deep breath, interrupted by little hiccups or spasms from crying… she hadn't had those since she was a little girl… crying because she didn't have anyone to play with… which was unusual then- she had sisters and friends, but now, crying for the same reason, she knew more than ever that people never change.
"Vesta Dominick, what would you like to be when you grow up?" she asked herself with a laugh. She felt renewed from her tearful explosion. She thought back to what she might have answered as a child. "A dancer." Smiling at her response, she stood, puzzle book and pen falling into the space between the cushion and the arm of the couch, stood up as straight as she had that morning, looking in the mirror at her old naked body, and her arms rose slowly, rounded over her head, like a music box dancer. Vesta lifter her heels slightly, and pretended to do ballet, like she had as a girl. It was still fun! She laughed at her clumsy effort, fell back onto the couch in a whimsical way, and slept.