Here is another of my short stories about an older woman who is determined to stay fully involved with life, in spite of the challenges. I envision Montreal as the setting for the story.
Emily felt a little stiff as she climbed the steps to the restaurant, but she made a point of keeping up with the young couple ahead of her. Saturday evenings were lovely at the restaurant. Musicians came to entertain the patrons. It was only a cafeteria, but a nice one with wholesome food. Emily liked cafeterias because she could eat just what she wanted and not feel self-conscious about staying long after she’d finished her meal.
Two young men played flute and guitar duets. Some of the melodies were familiar, though she didn’t know the titles of most of them. The traffic on the street below was muted; the melodies drifted above the soft clattering of dishes and whispered conversations. The flute player looked like the sort of young man she’d have liked for a grandson. The smile he gave the audience between pieces was not conceited, and his flute had a sweet tone. If she had been young, she would have hoped he’d notice her.
Over the musicians was a garish painting of a woman with two heads. The pictures in the restaurant changed every few months. Emily studied them to see if any would speak to her, but most were hard to understand. Sometimes she could admire the colors or a whimsical figure. Both faces of the two-headed woman grimaced, although one was young and beautiful. The artist must have been very angry, thought Emily.
Emily placed her book and umbrella conspicuously on the table so no one would take her seat while she went for a second cup of tea. She always had three cups of tea with her dinner. Her little rituals, like the sliver of pie with the third cup, were part of the joy. “Don’t you feel guilty taking up a whole table?” her neighbor Laura had asked recently. Emily had told Laura she’d feel more guilty not getting out to enjoy life—and what was she supposed to do, stand all through her meals?
At a nearby table, a young family with two children finished their dinner. The girl and boy had started a game of rock-paper-scissors while their parents listened to the music. Emily had played the game when she was a girl, all those years before. The woman was sturdy, not beautiful but healthy and self-possessed. Her husband watched her as she watched the musicians. The little boy, the younger of the children, whispered to his mother, and the family cleared their table and left. Emily saw them pass on the sidewalk below, each child on a parent’s shoulders.
Three girls sitting in a corner of the room stared worshipfully at the young musicians. One of the girls was heavy, with long dark hair; she wore a startlingly skimpy pink top over her jeans. Her companions were slim and attractive, a gift of their youth. Emily wished the heavy girl would realize that she was lovely, too; it pained Emily to see young people trying too hard to be accepted.
Among the many couples were a man and woman of nearly her own age. The man had plenty of white hair; Emily liked a good head of hair on a man. The woman was smartly dressed in a blue linen suit that didn’t even look wrinkled. She had artistically draped a gauzy scarf around her neck and anchored it with a gold sunburst pin. To Emily’s mind, the most fashionable women were the ones who used scarves and jewelry dramatically. Emily felt her own attempts at fashion flare were notably unsuccessful. She always looked so prim: the perfect slim little old lady whose only extravagance was her refusal to wear sensible shoes. Oh well, she didn’t much mind. She was hardly unique.
During the day Emily saw many other older women alone. Independent old men were somewhat rarer. This morning, walking along one of the city’s most fashionable streets, she had passed a woman with jaundiced skin and dirty, torn clothes. How long could the woman survive—certainly not through another long northern winter. How long had the woman survived in the streets, with nobody?
Strictly speaking, Emily had nobody, either. Most of her friends had moved in with children or found a retirement home to suit them. Emily kept up with her friends, but she rarely got to see them. An only child who had never married, Emily didn’t find it strange to be alone.
On Saturday mornings in mild weather, she visited the open-air market near her apartment. She never tired of seeing the rows of flowers and lush fruits and vegetables, or of watching women from the city’s ethnic neighborhoods buy the ingredients they’d combine in a thousand different ways. She had so many places she liked to visit, especially the bookshops near the university. Tonight they’d be open late.
Fifty and more years ago she’d walked near the university with her young men. She’d had her opportunities, but in the end she chose none of them. Without a husband and children, she’d had more freedoms than most women of her generation. Summers she had traveled, teaching herself to read a map and to make her needs known in other languages.
Young women who live alone have an easier time as old women, Emily believed. She knew women who wouldn’t leave their apartments after dark, who were afraid to ride the Metro. Until they were old they’d never been alone. They didn’t know how to learn self-confidence now.
The evening world was a world of couples and companionable groups. If she wasn’t on her guard, the useless melancholy would find her. She was lucky not to be hiding in her apartment like so many of the others.
The young men were playing another familiar melody. Her parents would have liked it here this evening. Her father had loved music, and her mother had loved people. It would be easy to be sad; they’d been gone so long. The hardest times were early in the morning and late at night, just before sleep. The trick was knowing which memories to let in.
When she was twenty, she’d had long hair, and at least a couple of boys had thought her pretty. One had wanted to marry her. They’d picnicked by the river and played duets on her parents’ old upright. Silly girl—it had seemed so important to her to be pretty and to have a fiancé. But he’d had a temper that she knew one day he’d turn on her, so she had broken the engagement.
Her parents had paid for her to go back to college when she was twenty-five. Already she had a teaching degree, when many girls of her time never had a chance to go past high school. The master’s degree made her more determined to be an independent and strong woman, but then she turned thirty and the longing for a child grew more instead of less. Still the men were not right for her, and she turned forty and moved forward into spinsterhood. She had a career and parents who loved her and never pushed her to be like other daughters. Nearly every fair Saturday night up through the summer of her forty-fifth year, the three of them had gone together to hear the orchestra play in the park. The smell of warm August nights still carried on its fragrance the memory of her family and those Saturday evenings.
It was better not to walk down the street where she’d grown up, at least not to pass the house after the lights were on and Emily could glimpse the life going on inside. It was too easy then to believe her life had ended in another era.
She wouldn’t let herself feel like an intruder in the young people’s world, in the world of couples. From where she was sitting, Emily could see the old couple holding hands under their table. She turned and looked at the girls. They had so much life to get through.
While Emily was finishing her third cup of tea and slice of walnut pie, the musicians put away their instruments. Maybe in one of the shops she could find a good copy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She’d never read enough from the reclusive poet who shared her name. In her master’s degree, she’d concentrated on Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, never realizing then that no man, no matter how perceptive, can prepare a woman for the life she will live.
Near the bookshops she would watch young people milling around outside their music clubs and hear their rhythms spill out on the sidewalk. The floating flute and guitar melodies mustn’t make her forget that life still drives forward.