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  • 26. Late in Life

    By Vestal McIntyre

    The author of the wonderful, Lambda Award-winning novel Lake Overturn, just out in paperback, offers us this bittersweet story—a perfectly sketched portrait of onetime lovers jockeying uneasily through the landmarks of their former
    life and selves.

    Acorns popped under the tires of Candice’s car as it wound through the leaf-canopied streets of outer Queens. When it reached the Long Island Expressway, traffic was moving more smoothly than she had expected. One o’clock was still early, even in on a late-August Friday when everyone was headed out to the Hamptons.

    “You took a half-day off for this?” Annie asked.

    “I called in a favor,” Candice replied with a flick of her head. A stranger would think that this and her other pet gesture, a wave of her hand over one eye, were neurotic tics. But those who knew her recognized that they were left over from when she had long, wavy hair that was always falling in her face. Or maybe they were neurotic tics that had just been laid bare by the cutting of her hair, like the bones of her long neck that been made visible by the sinking of her skin. She was approaching fifty. Still, her skin was fresh and her jaw strong. A challenging kind of beauty remained in her large-featured face, even when it confronted you squarely as a road sign, as it tended to do.

    “Well, I appreciate it,” Annie said.

    Candice gave another head-flick, this one accompanied by a shrug of her shoulder. “No biggie. I wouldn’t want some new friend to take you, or some student. Someone who didn’t know Sarah.”

    Well—” Annie said, but didn’t go on. They both knew that it wouldn’t have come to that. Annie had many friends old and new to drive her places since her license had been revoked after a series of fender-benders.

    They were quiet as the neighborhoods on either side of the expressway gave way to walls of green, and overpasses became less frequent.

    “Are you still seeing that fellow, James?” Annie asked.

    “Your memory is starting to go. No. Not for a year.”

    After a pause, Annie asked, “How are Joan and the others?”

    “Fine, fine,” Candice said airily. Then she caught herself. “No, they’re not. They’re all getting dogs. Every time we plan something, someone has to cancel because her dog is barfing on the rug. Susan actually brought hers to tai chi! She leashed it to a tree, and it paced and whined all class long. In the corner of my eye I could see Susan waving at it from Repulse Monkey position.”

    “Upward-facing Dog,” Annie offered.

    Candice patted her hand. “That’s yoga, dear. I’ve told them all, my house is canine-free zone. If you want to stay home teaching Sparky where to poop instead of coming over for lunch, then fine. I hope the conversation’s as good.”


    “I swear, I want to round them all up and put them all to sleep.”

    “The dogs or the gals?”

    “The dogs. Why not? I don’t love them. Is there a law that you have to love every dog?”

    “No, but you can’t blame the poor animals if your luncheons aren’t what they used to be.”

    “Who can I blame, then? You?”

    The old Annie would have volleyed that one back. Together they would have built it into something crowned by laughter. But she had become feeble. Her best feature had always been her big eyes that seemed to implore to be understood, especially when she was explaining an idea. This made her students feel like they could save her just by nodding. But several years ago she had stopped wearing contacts, and the thick glasses she wore instead not only shrunk those eyes but crowded into the lens warped funhouse figures from the world behind her. Annie now blinked those miniaturized eyes at Candice. Her mild smile didn’t falter, but her head turned to gaze out the window.

    An hour later, they took an exit and passed through a small town into the countryside. Out here, Long Island held onto its last bit of charm. Fields here were still used to grow crops, mailboxes were cloaked in climbing flowers, clusters of sleek-coated horses turned their heads in unison to watch the car pass. The old fence posts that ran along the road listed this way and that, held up, it seemed, only by the wire that ran between them. “Left up here . . . ” Annie quietly directed. “Now right.” In a hollow, thick trees threw a night-like shadow over the road. Then they retreated, and it was day again. “Up here on the right. This is it.”

    “Here? This looks like any other spot.”

    “See where people park?” There was a flat area at the side of the road where broken glass glinted in the weeds. “The path starts there,” Annie said, indicating a gap in a mossy, vine-strewn stone wall.

    Candice pulled over and killed the engine. Flicking her head and pushing back her phantom bangs, she asked, “Do you need help?”

    “No, no. I’ve gone down this path a hundred times.” She hoisted herself out of the car and took a shopping bag from where it sat wedged between the two overnight bags.

    Candice was suddenly flustered. “Are you sure? I could help you partway down, then wait.”

    “Nope,” Annie said with a practiced kind of cheer. “I’ll be back. Half-hour at most.” Holding the bag high out of reach of the weeds, she waddled toward the gap in the wall.

    Annie had always been stocky and a little crooked in hip and shoulder. The extent of her daily exercise was the five-minute walk to the subway. It had never been beauty or grace that made women love her. But now as she disappeared around the bushes, she seemed even denser than before, heavy in the step, as if during those endless hours in the study all her weight had settled into her feet.

    Using buttons in the door, Candice opened all the windows. It was cooler here than in Brooklyn, and there was a pleasant nutty flavor to the air. Wind stirred the tops of the trees, and the insects’ drone ebbed and flowed. She took out her book, knowing she would read only a page or two before she fell asleep. Lithium. In the past three years it had done her a great service, but it had robbed her of her chief pleasure, reading by the afternoon sun. Despite her doctor’s claim that it would have few side effects, sleep now waited in every gap in her day.

    All her adult life, Candice had turned down therapists who suggested she try a mood stabilizer. The problem wasn’t in her brain. The problem was in the world, which was run by good old boys who used religion to trick everyone else into maintaining the status quo—tilling the fields, putting dinner on the table every night in the hope of a reward in heaven. Wasn’t that what she and her generation had been arguing in all those chants and folk songs? Must she now give in and take a pill to reconcile her with this world? Was part of growing old betraying your younger self?

    She did suffer, though, more than was fair. At last she had given lithium a test run, and it had worked.

    Even now she would never submit to Prozac or Zoloft or any of those other pills that had turned her friends into happy monsters. But lithium was just a salt. A salt that reined in her rampages and softened her falls.


    Candice was awakened when Annie sat heavily into the seat, mopping her forehead with a handkerchief and struggling to catch her breath.

    “What happened?” Candice cried.

    “Had a bit of a tumble on the hillside.”

    Candice took the shopping bag, which was torn, from Annie and put it in the backseat. The box inside had been emptied and flattened.

    “I should have helped you, Annie. Look at you! You’re covered in dust.” Candice began patting down her shirt, raising a white cloud. Then she froze. “It’s not—”

    “No,” said Annie, “just dirt. I had already scattered the ashes when I fell.”

    Candice swallowed and continued dusting her off, a little less vigorously now.

    “Some water would be nice,” Annie said.

    Candice handed her the bottle and started the car, to get the air conditioner going. Annie drank, then let her head fall back against the rest. After a minute, she sat up and said, “All better, captain.”

    Candice started to say something, to chide her, but found that her throat was constricted. This was how far Annie had come. It was time for a cane, maybe an I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up alert button. A Craftmatic adjustable bed, a Clapper. They had made fun of the commercials together, quoting the velvet-voiced welcomes to old age—Just look at what your AARP membership gets you—and now Annie had gone and reached it. Candice drove, focusing on pretty aspects of the countryside until the lump in her throat went down. Then she started afresh: “So, where did that path go?”

    The words burst out of Annie as if she had been hoping to be asked: “A fishing hole. We used to fish there. There’s the biggest weeping willow you’ve ever seen. Its branches kind of lash the water’s surface, gently. You can watch it for hours. You don’t catch much, but it’s a lovely place to spend a day.”

    “It sounds beautiful.”

    “I can take you if you’d like.”

    “Don’t be silly. It’s your and Sarah’s place. We have our own places.”

    Annie poked her thigh. “Café Loup.”

    Candice took her hand and squeezed it.

    Annie had taken Candice to this cavern of a restaurant on Thirteenth Street after class one evening, and that was the start of their affair. Annie was a literature professor and Candice an adult student, a divorcée slowly meandering toward a master’s degree. Annie didn’t mention on that first dinner that she had a lover at home. Later, when they lived together, Candice would come in from Brooklyn at the end of the day and meet Annie at Café Loup. On the long banquette, editors sat next to their authors and spread manuscripts among dishes and wine glasses. This was the New York Annie had fought her way east to find many years before, one Candice had never imagined growing up in Sheepshead Bay. Once, they had been seated near Allen Ginsberg, and what followed must have been the quietest dinner of their life together. Usually they sparred and joked and talked over each other, but now they said very little, hoping to catch a few words from the poet and his companions. Annie had taught “Howl” for years in her Literature of Protest class. She had taught it to Candice.

    Annie didn’t take back her hand, and neither did Candice. The sun grew red and touched the mottled black line of the treetops in the distance. When they reached the inn and walked into the restaurant, Annie had a noticeable limp.

    “You hurt your leg in the fall,” Candice said.

    “Might have twisted my ankle a bit.”

    “We’ll have to ice it.”

    “Ice will do the trick. It’ll be better by morning.”

    They ate under a sloped, stuccoed ceiling with exposed beams in the little four-table restaurant. There were plug-in fountains humming and bubbling in every nook. After dinner they went to the adjoining office where a teenaged girl checked them in. She had golden skin and black curly hair and wore jeans that rode so low Candice could see where the curve of her belly began to flatten. The innkeeper’s daughter, mused Candice. She spends her evenings here, a summer job. Daytime, she’s all coconut-oiled up on her towel, with boys lined up all the way down the beach. For a second Candice ached for those summers of necking with boys in the woods just out of reach of the campfire’s unsteady amber light. The crackling logs would collapse, and she’d pull away to watch the crazily swirling sparks rise like demons into the night.

    “We have you in rooms four and five upstairs,” the girl said. “The bathroom’s in the hall.”

    “Two rooms?” Candice said.

    The girl flinched.

    “Annie, you’re being ridiculous.” She turned her face back on the girl. “We’ll only be needing one room.”

    The girl looked to Annie, who shrugged.

    “I swear, Annie,” Candice said as she trudged up the narrow staircase behind her, carrying both suitcases, “two rooms. What a waste of money!”

    “Just wanted to do what’s appropriate.”

    “For a radical, you’re such a fuddy-duddy. How many years did we share a bed? Really, Annie, this late in life you should be more worried about what’s left in your bank account than what’s appropriate.


    In the middle of the night, Candice rose and crept down the hall to pee. Then she returned, shut the door behind her, and stood for a while to let her eyes adjust. Annie lay as if in state, with her arms at her sides on top of the blanket. She had always been such a neat sleeper. During spells of insomnia, Candice would sometimes watch her, and feelings of adoration would turn to panic. She wasn’t breathing! She’d shake her, and those eyes would open and implore, and Candice would be caught—crazy again.

    Now she lay beside her and copied her so they were like twin Lenins laid out in Red Square. It wasn’t comfortable to sleep this way. How did Annie do it? Candice took her hand and felt Annie apply a gentle pressure. This made her sleep seem even more like wakefulness, like she was faking it, writing books in her mind as she waited for morning.


    Candice woke in the morning feeling an unnamable, unreasonable anger. She returned from a shower to find Annie sitting on the bed, waiting her turn.

    “You look like a little old lady,” Candice said. “All you need is some pigeons at your feet.”

    “I am a little old lady. I’m little, old, and a lady.” Annie moved to rise.

    “Hold it. I want to look at that ankle.” Candice held Annie’s legs in either hand. The taut, speckled skin was veined with blue like Roquefort cheese. While one ankle showed a little through the puffy flesh, the other didn’t. “It’s swollen. You probably have a sprain. We’ll have to ice it in the car. So much for our walk on the beach. We’d better just head back. I have things to do around the house anyway.”

    Annie sighed. “I suppose I should get back to writing, myself.” Then she shuffled into the hall, leaving Candice to stew. Of course Annie didn’t insist. A walk on the beach meant nothing to her.

    They drove. At one point Annie said, timidly, “You miss your hair.”

    “Why do you say that?”

    “You still push it out of your face, even though it’s not there.”

    “I don’t.”

    “You do.”

    “Well, why wouldn’t I? I do miss it. When I still had my hair, young men would still ask me to dance. Ask Joan. There was one she called Tarzan who kept sending me drinks at the bar, and that was just—what?—three years ago. He couldn’t have been over thirty-five. Big and handsome.”

    “Then why don’t you grow it back?”

    Candice toyed with the idea of telling her that the lithium had made it thin, to see her eyes turn contrite. “Because I’m getting old, Annie, and I don’t want to be some gray, frizzy ex-hippy. Maybe if I moved to Vermont or Sedona, but not here.”

    “You may be getting old, Candice, but you’ll always be younger than me.”

    “Is that supposed to make me feel better? Well, it doesn’t. We were going to have a beautiful day on the beach, but instead you hurt yourself and bring up my thinning hair.”

    “I don’t want to fight, Candice.”

    “Of course you don’t. You never did. You wanted me to do the fighting, while you sat there like some sort of angel or patient mother or something. Oh no, to join in the fight would make me seem less of a nut. Then we would just be a couple arguing the way couples do. But this way you get to play the saint while I’m the hysteric. Yes, just like that, bow your head like I’m going to beat on you. Do you know what an anti-feminist thing that is to do? To put another woman in the position of the hysteric. I can’t believe you get to teach that stuff. Do you still use feminism in your classes? Honest to God, you shouldn’t be allowed. You telling young girls about feminism. The idea. You clearly value men over women; you act like one.”

    Annie sat stiffly watching the road ahead. Sometimes Candice’s rage spent itself quickly like a roman candle, and a docile comment offered five minutes later would elicit a docile answer. But not this time. An ember remained:

    “I’m going to write the department a letter. It really is my responsibility. I should have done it years ago. The fact that I haven’t makes me complicit, in a way. They should know what a hypocrite you are, using feminism in your classes when you manipulate other women this way, forcing us into these old-fashioned roles. Only you do this to me, Annie. All the men treated me with respect.”

    Candice could feel Annie aching to be rid of her, longing for her books in her dim study with its French doors onto the garden, unopenable because they had been bound with vines. What a fitting metaphor. Sarah had humored her wishes to let the vines grow—gentle Sarah. She was so perfectly accommodating that she hadn’t even cut them during the years Annie lived with Candice.

    “Did you do it to Sarah? Did you drive her to fits?” Candice asked. “I know you didn’t before me. You said yourself, your house was quiet as a chapel. But after me? Did you practice the tricks you had invented on me in the meantime?”

    Annie inhaled as if to speak, then let out a long, rattling exhale.

    After a few minutes, Candice removed her foot from the gas pedal. It took a while for the car to slow, and when Annie noticed, she made a little jump. That jump. She said nothing, but now one shoulder rode a little closer to that ear. Weeds made a gentle hiss against the car side as Candice pulled onto the shoulder. She swiveled to face Annie.

    “I want you to answer me. I always let questions go unanswered, but I feel like I owe this one to Sarah. Did you drive her to fits and sit there watching quietly?”

    “For Christ’s sake, Candice, stop it.

    Candice recoiled. Annie’s responses were always so embarrassing, somehow—so abject and real. Why was that? Candice’s own anger was, to her own ear, elegant and rhythmic, like Beethoven. Annie’s was like something hacked up from the bottom of her lungs.

    Candice settled back to wait. To the left of the road lay miles of marsh leading to the Great South Bay. The grasses dipped their fuzzy heads in the sea breeze and cast a rippling border onto the road. To the right, a brush-covered slope led up to a forested hill. Everywhere, tiny gray moths flitted into the air then back into the brush. It was like a paper fight was going on down there. No cars passed. This used to be a busy road before they built the expressway. Candice considered stating her demand again, to let Annie know that she would not drive on until she and Sarah were paid this respect. Annie could be so selfish and small, the way she sat squinting at the road. In her mind she was probably already back in her study. Candice shook her head, adjusted her seat, sighed loudly.

    With a bold step of its backward-bending, powder-blue leg, a bird emerged from the marsh and into the road. Candice gasped when she saw it. Annie looked over and said “Oh!” with delight. The bird’s narrow beak, black and shiny as its eye, curved up at the end, like an ice pick which had been bent by hard use. Its head and body bobbed with a grace that contrasted with its jerky footsteps. There was something human in this contrast. The foot poised with its long toes hanging like a handkerchief before being splayed again on the asphalt. Hang, splay . . . hang, splay . . . went the feet. Each step comprised alternating gestures: demure, obscene . . . tentative, overt . . . dangle, splat . . . dangle, splat. Candice had never seen this kind of bird before. It crossed the border, and the sunlight revealed its head to be not gray, as it had appeared in shadow, but a rich rusty red with a white ring around the eye. “What is it?” Candice wondered aloud.

    “An avocet. An American avocet. I’ve never seen one this close. We’d get them in the back field when we flood-irrigated.”

    “The back field?” For a moment Candice thought she meant the backyard—hers and Sarah’s.

    “In Utah. Growing up.”

    “Ah.” Sometimes she forgot that Annie had grown up in the fields out west. It explained some of her rough-edged naïveté. She could endlessly explore the subtleties of literature, but had a farmer’s love of the concrete when it came to her own emotions. With a tug of sympathy, Candice remembered how she had to tie all the bows at Christmastime—even on her own presents—since Annie’s fingers were too big and blunt.

    The avocet, which was passing close by before disappearing behind the hood of the car, tilted its head to eye Candice, then blinked. A white lid came up from below to cover the onyx bead. It was less like the drawing down of a curtain—as humans did over their eyes—and more like the pulling up of wrinkled trousers.

    Backwards knees, upside-down eyes. Candice emitted a little chuckle of wonderment. She lifted herself to see that the bird had safely entered the brush, then she stared up the car. She would let Annie off the hook. If she was really going to get any housework done today, it was getting late.


    By the time they reached Annie’s house, Candice felt only a hangover of anger, as pressure behind her eyes. She pinched the bridge of her nose as she came around the car to where Annie stood with suitcase in hand.

    “Thanks, Candice,” she said. “And sorry about all that at the end.”

    With a toss of her head Candice made it clear that it was best left alone. “I’ll come in with you,” she said. “I want to take another look at that ankle.”

    “No. It’s fine.”

    “You always want everything to be fine. You’re clearly injured.”

    “I’m fine.”

    “You need to put it up.”

    “Look.” Annie did a circus tightrope walk up the path, holding her suitcase out as a balance, twirled, and walked back. “See?”

    Candice’s giggles quickly turned to sobs. “I worry about you. You’re all alone in that house with all those stairs. What if you fall and break a hip? That’s always the beginning of the end, the broken hip. It’s silly for you to be alone. Maybe it’s time, right? For you to come back?”

    Annie put down the suitcase, drew near, and looked up into Candice’s face. “Kind of late in life to be starting again, don’t you think?”

    “Why?” Candice demanded. You did with her, was her unspoken thought.

    Annie took her by her shoulders. Candice tucked her chin, but her hair wasn’t there anymore to hide her tears. Annie petted Candice’s arms a few times, then took her face in her hands and gave her a tender smile.

    “I hate these,” Candice said, removing the glasses.

    Annie did love her—it was there in her eyes; she just couldn’t take her. She had lived too long in peace and quiet to trade it again for fights and noise and laughter.

    I should have left Sarah alone, Candice thought. The plan had been to selflessly drive Annie out, wait while she spread the ashes, then comfort her over dinner, all without mentioning the dead wife’s name. But Candice always broke her own rules.

    Back when they lived together, Candice had spent a winter doing research for Annie’s book on George Eliot. When it was released, Annie toasted her at a department dinner: “To Candice. She wrote the damn book, you know.”

    As Candice blushed at all the applause and grinning faces, a voice inside her said, You can never say what she said—that you wrote this book. But of course she had said it, again and again. As soon as she had a few cocktails in her at any party, she’d tell some handsome student, “I wrote the Eliot book, you know. Annie just put her name on it.” And in arguments, while the author herself sat silent with averted eyes: “That’s my goddamn book. You said yourself I wrote it.”

    I didn’t write it. She now silently flogged herself with the truth. I didn’t write it. You wrote it.

    Annie kissed her on either cheek. In an utterly kind voice free of any irony, she said, “Find yourself another Tarzan.” She took back her glasses, put them on, and went into the house, leaving her suitcase on the sidewalk.

    Candice stood for a while, arms folded, waiting to greet Annie with a victorious expression when she came back out.

    When Candice and Annie had been together nearly ten years, Sarah, that old lover who Annie had left at home while she took Candice to Café Loup, underwent a mastectomy. Annie started dropping by Sarah’s house—this house—with groceries. When the cancer returned, she took her to appointments. Then Candice came home from work one day to find Annie packing her things. “It’s better this way,” she said.

    Candice baited her to add, I owe it to her, or, I’ll come back after she’s dead. But, of course, she wouldn’t. She was too kind.

    No, Candice now said, she wasn’t being kind. She didn’t owe her. She loved her! It felt good to slap herself around like this. I am unendurable. No wonder they’re all getting dogs.

    At the beginning, Annie would go to Brooklyn once or twice a week and Candice would make dinner. Annie would let off steam about the endless chemotherapy appointments and Sarah’s failing mental focus. They would have sex in the urgent, wrestling way they always had, then Annie would come back here to sleep at Sarah’s side.

    One night, Candice put her foot down. “You’re treating me like your concubine,” she said.

    Annie acquiesced, as she always did. “Right, absolutely. I’m being horrible. We can’t do this anymore.”

    What a fool Candice had been, throwing back that last precious bit of love! She had assumed that Annie would come back once Sarah was gone. Or, when that failed, once her grief had faded. Or, when that failed, once she had spread the ashes.

    She didn’t owe her. She loved her.

    The masochistic thrill of facing facts faded, and Annie still hadn’t reemerged from the house. Candice had half a mind to leave the suitcase here on the sidewalk to be stolen. Or, better yet, to be returned by a concerned neighbor who regarded Annie as a doddering old granny. In her embarrassment, Annie would see that Candice had been right. It was time. She did need her.

    But Candice decided to take the high road. She took the suitcase and put it just inside the front door. As expected, Annie had already closed herself in the study.

    Now righteous, Candice was able to put a new spin on things as she drove home. How condescending it had been of Annie to pat her on the head like that! Go find yourself another Tarzan. As if men were a dime a dozen. Annie had recently told her that she was envious—envious—that Candice could sleep with both women and men. “It gives you twice the options,” she had said, unaware of how callow and insulting and cruel a thing this was to say. Annie had always acted as if everything you needed from life was there on a banquet table, and all you had to do was fill your plate. Always the optimist. Love would be served up again and again in endless courses, all you could eat. Well, for her it was that way; she was born with that kind of heart. So she could afford to sit there, sated and smug.

    Now Candice sat parked before the brownstone, one floor of which was hers alone. Geraniums in the window boxes. Curlicued wrought iron. It would take the strength of hundreds to get her up those stairs.

    Annie would not have been envious if she knew the truth. Candice had to push and fight. Life had not offered her endless servings of love. Only one.


    © by Vestal McIntyre. Used by permission.

    Read more about Vestal’s superb debut novel, Lake Overturn, here!

    • http://www.berfrois.com/ Editor

      [...] Short story: 'Late in Life' by Vestal McIntyre [...]


    • http://www.otbags.com coach travel

      Life is very important, so we must treasure it. We can get endless love in our life.

    • http://www.delicious.com/davidcpo Mildred Mullins

      Outstanding article once again! I am looking forward for your next post.

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