by Miriam Mandel Levi
Michael shifts towards me on the bed and wraps his arm around my shoulder. I turn onto my side to face him, press my nose to his neck, and inhale his bready scent.
“The sea,” he says.
“The sky,” I say.
After several quiet moments, he says, “What else is there? I can’t think of anything.”
Neither can I. Panic crackles in my belly. Naming items in a semantic category is a common test for older people with cognitive decline, and we’re both failing at it. My eyes dart around the room; nothing blue but a square of sky through the window.
Michael lies so still, I check the rise and fall of his stomach to make sure he’s breathing. We do this in the middle of the night, poke one other to make sure we’re alive. Our first emotion of the morning: relief at finding a conscious companion. Though at seventy we’re considered young-old, we don’t take the next breath for granted.
Michael’s stomach is slack and his chest deflated. Gray hairs cluster in patches across it. As for me, my legs are varicose-veined and everywhere my skin sags. Both of our bodies have aged so disproportionately to our self-perceptions, they hardly seem to belong to us. Nonetheless, I refuse to believe our minds are so addled that we can’t play this simple word game.
“Blueberries,” Michael says, with a loud note of triumph. They’re purple, like plums, but I don’t want to rain on his parade. I do a search of the categories of fruits and vegetables but come up blank.
“Lakes,” I offer tentatively.
“You already said sea. You can’t add other bodies of water.”
“I can’t? River, bay, stream, delta.”
“Tributary, fjord,” he retorts.
“Puddle,” I say. We snicker at our flagrant disregard for the rules.
“Anyway, water only looks blue because it absorbs the non-blue wavelengths and reflects the blue ones,” he says. “That goes for all color perception.”
Is that true? I tend to believe him. My memory for facts is scanty and I rely on his broad knowledge base to fill the gaps.
A hazy, flax sun casts a weak light on the tousled sheets. The fan spins on low, ruffling the chiffon curtains. Despite the breeze, it’s warm in the room and the skin of our stomachs sticks together. I pull back an inch, peeling us apart. But after forty years of marriage, there’s no tearing the adhesive.
In truth, I’m a relative newcomer to this interdependence. For decades, I asserted my autonomy—my “I”—at the expense of our “we.” The less I leaned on Michael, the stronger and safer I felt. I expected the same self-reliance in him though he never cultivated it in the same way. It’s different now between us.
I redirect my thoughts to blue things. Michael chews his lip. Although I consider us on the same team in this game, I can tell it’s a competition for him, one which he doesn’t want to lose. Outside a lawnmower roars, its volume dampened by the distance.
“Lips when you’re cold,” I say.
Of course, he understands. We both grew up in Canada and our childhood memories are steeped in winter: the magic of waking up to a new snowfall, your breath seizing on a cold intake of air, the feeling of helplessness when wet snow slips down the back of your boot.
“Some bodies after death,” he says. I know he’s remembering his first wife who died young from a ruptured brain aneurysm. In the early years of our marriage, I felt like a consolation prize. Over time, I understood he loved me differently—less intensely, perhaps—but deeply and faithfully.
The din of the lawnmower subsides. It’s quiet for the most part. The house has a welcome stillness with the dog gone and the children moved out long ago. I’d always wondered what would be left of our marriage after the ravages of earning a living, raising a family, incidental and willful neglects, daily stresses.
Our friends joked from the outset that we had nothing in common: I was active, he was sedentary; I liked the outdoors, he liked the indoors; I was adventurous, he was cautious. Yet, here we are, reacquainted on the other side of a lifetime. Michael runs his fingertips up and down my arm. It may not have been obvious to others, but it was to me: I felt understood.
“A sapphire,” he says. Then he adds peacock.
His toes fan in and out. He does that when he thinks. He has thick, yellow nails, like an old man’s. Could he be? Am I an old woman?
“Whale,” I say.
That exhausts the category of animals. There are, of course, blue flowers, blue butterflies, and a rich blue marine life whose names we never knew or, if we did, escape us now. Even together we make a lackluster team.
“Remember how Uncle Sam and Aunt Molly always finished each other’s sentences?” I say, kicking the sheets off my legs. He launches into a routine. “Well, we were down at the…what was the name of that restaurant Mol? The Lancaster, Sam. And we ordered a…what was that cut of steak called, Sam? Was it a ribeye? No, not a ribeye, Mol, the other one, a sirloin.”
We laugh at the memory, though more sympathetically than we did back then. Their foibles and the way they leaned on each other for support are more familiar to us now.
When Michael and I were young and went out to eat, I used to remark on the older couples in the restaurant eating in silence. I pitied them; they’d run out of things to say. In retrospect, this was probably not true. With the years, there is greater understanding, less need for explication, an ease in the shared quiet. So much of communication is an attempt to assert oneself, control the other, and reduce discomfort.
“Blue eyes,” Michael says.
“Oh, come on, that doesn’t count. Blue cup, blue socks.”
“Okay, fine,” he concedes. I look up at his handsome profile, receding hair line, the dark circles under his eyes. We’ve been through so much.
When I was young, my mother told me that life was difficult enough, not to choose a partner who would make it more so. But I did, drawn to Michael’s intellect, intensity, and darkness.
“We should have chosen green or orange,” he says. Should I have? I wonder. I dated men in those shades but I don’t think I would have been happy married to one.
“Let’s try expressions with blue,” I say.
“Feeling blue,” he says.
His depression, fury, my years of denial, the dark shadow it cast over our family. My remoteness, betrayal. To this day, I don’t know how we found our way to forgiveness.
“Black and blue,” I say, remembering the hurts we inflicted. Of course, he doesn’t know what I’m thinking. Sometimes I am astonished how, after all this time, there can be such a hidden vastness between us. Then, a moment later, I notice how his legs, once hairy, are now bare and dotted with scabbed mosquito bites that he has picked. And I’m pained at the small, private things we know about each other.
His hand fans across my back. “Your skin is so soft, like it was when I met you,” he says. He has said this a thousand times. I don’t mind; I like hearing it.
“Out of the blue.”
He turns on his side to face me and pulls me to him so I’m nestled in his arms. It wasn’t always, but it’s safe here now.
“What about songs,” I say.
I’m certain he’ll choose “Tangled Up in Blue.” He loves Dylan. But instead, he sings Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou.”
“Well, I’ll never be blue, my dreams come true…”
I chime in and we prolong each syllable as we rise in pitch. “On… Blue… Ba…you.”
“Hey,” I say, pushing against his shoulders and pulling my head back to look straight at him. “We’re back to bodies of water.” He smiles.
“I guess we didn’t do too badly,” I say.
“If you include the non-literal blues.”
“We’re including them, we can be generous.” It’s the only reason we’re here, after all.
We roll onto our backs and I reach for his hand. Not to hold it, just to feel the back of it touching mine.
Photo by Henrik Dønnestad on Unsplash
Perfect for Valentine’s Day! What a wonderful piece, Miriam!
Love love it! The tender sweetness, the movement while lying still, the portrait of a relationship in so few strokes, in the game of words.