“Erasing the Past” by Sharon Love Cook When Dorie's older sister Miriam died of a heart attack, Dorie sold the little house they'd shared for the past ten years. She gave away most of the furniture and moved into a huge apartment complex favored by single people. But before she was allowed to move in she had to have Sadie, their old Border collie, put to sleep. Pets were not allowed at Chanticleer Villas. Her colleagues at the college’s Academic Support Center said it was the right thing to do. Sadie was blind and arthritic, obviously suffering. Dr. Steadman, the veterinarian who'd treated Sadie over the years, examined the dog, sighing occasionally while listening through a stethoscope to Sadie's heart and lungs. Finally he said Dorie could be present when Sadie received the injection. With that, he handed her a form, Permission to Perform Euthanasia, and discreetly left the room to prepare the shot. Sadie stood impassive on the stainless steel examining table. Dorie rested her head on the rough fur of the old dog's back. Sadie turned her head stiffly and regarded Dorie with clouded eyes. "I'm sorry, girl," Dorie whispered before leaving the room. The residents of Chanticleer Villas were aggressively social. A newsletter, “Chanticleer Chatter,” distributed by the social director, appeared in Dorie's mailbox. Along with it was a questionnaire regarding Dorie’s profession, hobbies, sports and favorite foods. The information would be used in the upcoming Newcomers' Alley, a form of Welcome Wagon in print. On a Wednesday night Dorie went to a residents' wine and cheese social, paying a $5 admission. The money went into a hospitality account for balloons and flowers for those residents who were hospitalized. Dorie had never known such a healthy, energetic group as the Chanticleer residents; it was hard to imagine any of them sick. When she left for work early mornings, they ran past her in jog suits and headbands, their eyes focused on a distant horizon. Dorie learned that many of the residents worked in the high tech industry in box-like buildings with tinted windows that she passed on the highway. A woman with dark glossy hair pulled into a knot introduced herself. "I'm Ella." She was tanned and dressed in white: Spandex pants, jersey and ballet slippers. "You're new aren't you?" Ella asked, taking Dorie’s measure without lowering her gaze. Dorie at 42 felt old next to the trim, vigorous Ella. She feared she was the oldest resident at Chanticleer Villas. Ella tapped Dorie's arm with a carrot stick. "How'd you like to replace me on the Pool and Parking council? My term’s up. " She sipped from a bottle of Finnish mineral water. "It's really empowering, getting involved. You'll meet some dynamic people." Dorie said she would think about it. Clutching a plastic glass of Chardonnay, she wandered around the room, stopping to listen to three men discuss their workout routines. They wore what Dorie called “gym clothing.” After an hour, Dorie returned to her apartment. She didn't feel quite so isolated and promised herself she would make an effort to socialize again, no matter how boring the activity. She might even meet a kindred soul among the Chanticleer denizens, although she doubted that. She stood in her kitchen with its shiny mushroom-colored appliances. Even the phone was mushroom, although it rarely rang. The week after Miriam's death, her phone had rung constantly. Dorie had felt cared for. Now with Sadie gone, it felt like her past had been erased. She wished she could talk to her mother about her situation. Her mom lived in a behavioral unit at a local nursing home, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. Not long after her admission, her father bought a van and moved to Arizona. Dorie had been surprised by how quickly it happened: one day he was packed and gone. The week before he left, he’d stopped by one afternoon while Miriam was out. Watching him alight from his shiny maroon van, Dorie felt he'd already embarked upon his new life. He stood in the kitchen, fiddling with his key chain while an awkward silence grew. Finally, he’d blurted out: "What do you want me to do, throw away my life just because your mother’s lost hers? Should I stay behind and visit every day even though she doesn't know who I am? Is that what you girls want?" "I can’t answer for Miriam,” Dorie had said, “but I want you to be happy." According to her dad’s letters, he and Betty Ann, his sixty-ish girlfriend, take line dancing classes. He writes: "The recreation center is air-conditioned, but that doesn't stop your old man from sweating like a buffalo." His letters sound happy. When Miriam died, Betty Ann accompanied her dad home for the funeral. They stayed at a motel in town. "Poor Miriam," he said following the wake. “Poor kid.” Betty Ann sat next to him on the sofa and stroked his hand. She wore cranberry stretch pants and a pink sweatshirt. Betty Ann, with bright silver hair, had a nice figure. One afternoon Dorie took her to the mall where they visited a fabric shop. "You must be a good seamstress," Dorie said, watching her examine bolts of cloth. "Believe it or not, I once made my bridal gown and three bridesmaids' dresses as well." When Betty Ann laughed she sounded young. While they were at the mall, her father had visited the nursing home, leaving his cowboy hat on Dorie’s kitchen table. When he returned, Betty Ann jumped up to hug him. Silently they stood in the kitchen, rocking back and forth. Dorie escaped to the bathroom, where she stared out the window at the salt marsh. She thought of Miriam, wondering how she’d have reacted to their father and Betty Ann. Most likely she'd have rolled her eyes behind their backs, making Dorie smile. That was what she missed most about Miriam: her convictions. Perhaps that explained why she didn't discourage Stanley Purrington, a professor in the college’s English department. Stanley was outgoing, the kind of person who would engage anyone in conversation. One day he visited the Academic Support Center to discuss a student’s progress and learned that Dorie had been working with the girl. Three days later he returned. After weeks of progress reports, Stanley invited Dorie to see Tartuffe, performed by the college’s theater department. When Professor Purrington arrived at her apartment, Dorie was afraid he would look askance at what was obviously a "singles” complex. Instead, he looked around with interest. "Nicely made," he said tapping the door frame. Of the mushroom-colored appliances, he said: "Clever.” They made easy conversation during the drive to the college. Dorie had worried about awkward silences, but Stanley kept things light, telling her about former college presidents and their scandals. He was fifteen years older than she, with a fringe of white hair circling a sunburned scalp. Ever the gentleman, Stanley wore a blue blazer and a Madras bow tie. Following the play’s final curtain, Stanley clapped so loudly it hurt Dorie's ears. Afterward, they had a drink at The Crested Lion, a restaurant popular with the faculty. Dorie found herself talking about Miriam's death and her attempts to adjust. She didn’t tell him about waking in the middle of the night calling her sister’s name or her inability to make a simple purchase: Should she buy a Mr. Coffee on sale at the Home Center, or wait until the old one broke down? "Buy it now and store it in the cellar," Miriam would have said. A week later, Dorie found an invitation for a tenants' party on Friday night. Unlimited party punch and healthy munchies: $5 per person. She decided to invite Stanley. It was a warm spring night when he appeared at her door wearing a pale linen sports jacket and cranberry bow tie. They sat on her tiny lanai and drank glasses of Stanley’s Bordeaux before taking the elevator down to the game room. While Dorie had had reservations about Stanley fitting in, he proved her wrong. At the party he questioned the residents as if he were a visiting anthropologist. He listened in rapt attention to accounts of fitness routines. "Well gosh," he said, when someone explained the preparation for a triathlon. "Fascinating group," Stanley said, later at Dorie's apartment. "It's quite remarkable how they keep abreast of our changing culture.” Later, at the door, he kissed her, pressing his thin lips against hers. "You're such fun, Dorie," he murmured into her hair. By late spring, Dorie found herself spending much of her free time with Stanley. She felt comfortable with him, and while he made her laugh, he did not stir sexual feelings. She thought this was because he was older and cultured. She learned he’d been briefly married in his twenties. "What can I say, I was a passionate youth, a hopeless romantic." Tufts of white hair grew out of Stanley's ears. Dorie couldn't picture him as a young man. One Sunday afternoon he took her to visit his mother at a nursing home in New Hampshire. Eleanora Purrington had once been headmistress at a girls' boarding school, Stanley told her, although a recent stroke had robbed her of speech. As Stanley chatted on, Dorie stole peeks at his mother. The woman fixed her fierce blue eyes upon Dorie. At the same time her mouth worked, as though uttering silent curses. Walking back to the car, Stanley said, "I think Mother likes you." One night in June, after watching a college performance of Anything Goes, Stanley and Dorie took a walk along the river behind the parking lot. The night air smelled of freshly mown grass and beach roses. Stanley took her hand. "Ever been to Oxford?” he asked. “In England, I mean." "I haven't traveled much," she was embarrassed to admit. "Miriam always wanted to go to Atlantic City for the action, while I was content to lie on a beach doing nothing." Stanley stopped and looked at her. "Come away with me." He told her he’d finally finished his book on Emily Dickinson and needed a break. “Oxford in the summer would be divine.” He squeezed her hand. “For a honeymoon as well.” She peered at him. Under the dim parking lot lights she couldn't see his eyes but knew he was smiling. "What do you say, my dear,” he asked. “Shall we sign the contract?" Stanley’s proposal shocked her. "Let's keep walking," she said, feeling her heart race. Marry Stanley? They’d never truly been intimate. What passed for sex between them had been conducted in the dark on her sofa after too many drinks. She’d never seen him naked--nor did she want to. They walked back to Stanley’s car. The tree frogs were in full chorus, yet the roaring in Dorie's ears had nothing to do with the night sounds. Before putting the key in the ignition, Stanley turned to her. "Dorie, we're compatible. We enjoy each other's company. I'd like to build a life with you." He put his arms around her and pressed his lips to hers. Dorie waited for the passion to well up between them. She kept her lips glued to his until a respectable amount of time had elapsed. Taking a deep breath, she said, "Let me think about it, Stanley." He rubbed the back of her neck. "Of course, dear girl. Take all the time you need Mother has a beautiful ring in a safe deposit box. We could have it fitted. I know she’d love for you to have it." Dorie nodded, wondering if she'd see the pinched face of Eleanora Purrington every time she looked at the ring. When they reached Chanticleer Villas, Dorie said she would see herself in. When she opened the car door, Stanley put a restraining hand on her arm. "Dorie, listen to this. It’s meant for you.” He closed his eyes and recited: “My soul has ceased its lonely wandering over the harsh terrain of my mind." "Is that Emily Dickinson?" she asked. "No," he said, kissing her cheek. "It's a Purrington original." Crossing the parking lot, Dorie noted the ladders leaning against the pool fence. Things were being readied for the summer; the smell of chlorine hung in the air. It reminded her of childhood days spent at the city pool with Miriam, who hid their bus money inside her sneaker. While Dorie unconcernedly splashed in the water, Miriam had kept an eagle eye on their belongings. Inside the apartment Dorie was overcome with fatigue. She glanced at the clock: it was too late to call her dad and tell him about Stanley. Actually, he wasn’t aware she was seeing anyone. It was Betty Ann who repeatedly asked: “Seeing someone special?” when Dorie called. Now she could barely pull her nightgown over her head. She climbed under the comforter and fell into a deep sleep. Three hours later she woke to the sound of tapping. It came from the hallway, outside her bedroom door. She listened, drawing the comforter around her. The familiar tap-tapping sounded like Sadie’s nails on the wooden floor. Dorie pressed a hand to her chest. Was she being punished for putting Sadie down? She watched the door, terrified it might open. Finally she sat up. “I’m sorry, Sadie,” she said out loud. She swung her legs over the side of the bed. The floor was cool under her feet. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door. Moonlight fell on the sagging velour sofa, one of the few pieces of furniture from her old life. Her exercise bike in the middle of the living room glinted in the moonlight. She was alone in the apartment. She opened the sliding glass doors to the lanai, letting in cool night air. A few stars were out, though fading fast. She gripped the metal railing and looked out at the surrounding buildings, their windows dark. After a while she lowered herself onto a webbed chair and watched as streaks of lavender crept across the sky. Two weeks later, after Dorie had agreed to marry Stanley, he suggested they celebrate at a new vegetarian restaurant called A New Leaf. “Appropriate, old girl,” he’d said on the phone. "I”m not ready to go public," Dorie said, wrapping the phone cord around her wrist. "If you don’t mind, Stanley, I need a little time." "My dear, I'm an old Yankee. I’ve got the patience of Job." It was a sweltering night, a harbinger of summer, when they arrived downtown. Stanley's car’s air conditioner blew warm air. "It was working fine last summer," he said, mopping his scalp with a handkerchief. Dorie fanned her face with a map from the glove compartment. At the restaurant, a turbaned waiter handed them menus. Though ceiling fans kept the air moving, it was stuffy inside the busy dining room. "Thank God we didn't go to a steak house," Stanley said, looking over the menu. When their glasses of mint ice tea arrived, Stanley proposed a toast. Adjusting his bow tie, he held his glass aloft: "Here's to my life’s companion, my lover, my muse.” When Dorie reached across the table to clink his glass, her glass slipped from her hand. It fell, splashing over the table and Stanley’s shirtfront. Dorie jumped up and raced to his side to mop the table with her napkin. “I’m sorry,” she said, her face burning. “The glass was wet.” "At least it's cold," he said, scooping up ice cubes and a mint leaf. She glanced around for their waiter but didn’t recognize him among the turbaned staff. “Let me go into the bathroom and get some paper towels.” “It’s not necessary,” Stanley said, but she was already across the room. Dorie scurried down a long hallway to the women’s bathroom at the end. Mercifully, the room was empty. She locked the door and turned on the faucet, filling the tiny sink with cool water. When she bent to rinse her hands, her reading glasses, perched upon her head, fell into the sink. She fished them out and discovered a lens was cracked. Dorie gripped the sink, bracing herself, and cried. When she was through, she glanced at her desolate face in the mirror. "Oh Miriam,” she said, “what should I do?" She sighed and turned to the paper towel dispenser. As she depressed the handle, she heard: "Get out, Dorie." She glanced around the tiny room. There was no denying the voice; it had been Miriam’s. "My God," she whispered and moved to the window, pulling the curtains aside. A breeze swept in, caressing Dorie's fevered skin. She pressed her nose to the window screen. A fire escape, chipped and peeling, lay beyond. Dorie stood back and tugged at the dusty window. It resisted at first, but slowly, inch by inch, it yielded. She stuck her head out. The fire escape went down one flight to the bottom. Beyond that was an alley running between two darkened buildings. Dorie swung her leg over the sill and tested her weight. The fire escape felt sturdy enough. Grasping the metal railing, she lifted her other leg out. Cautiously she made her way down the rickety steps. At the bottom, she looked up at the night sky and said, "Thank you, Miriam." Tucking her pocketbook under her arm, she ran, haltingly at first, through the alley. She passed broken windows and stacks of abandoned tires among tall weeds. Carried by the breeze, she didn’t slow down. The End
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