They carried her out yesterday -- the old woman -- in a zippered-up dark green bag like just another piece of trash. I saw them stick her in the back of a fat-bellied ambulance and drive away, no sirens. The street was quiet yesterday, so quiet I almost heard a bird sing, or could have, if it'd have been spring. I looked across the street after she'd gone, at the house on the corner that had always seemed so big, with its oak-shaded wrap-around porch and vine-covered walls (in summer), and it seemed small. The tree was nude now -- it was the dead of winter. The vines were as bare as brown wire. I noticed, for the first time, that the house needed re-painting. Its mustard yellow was faded and peeling. From long habit, my gaze drifted to the upstairs bedroom window -- but, of course, the old woman was not there. She is not there today, and she will not be tomorrow. The window stared back at me dumbly, like a socket without its eye, and I turned my gaze briefly to the sky, and wondered about the weather, and went back inside.
This morning, like every morning, I went out to get the paper. The new boy isn't so good with his aim. Twice the paper has landed next door, and once last week it was up in the willow. I saw a bit of blue plastic peeking out from under one of the holly bushes -- the plastic reminded me that it was supposed to rain. As I bent over to retrieve the paper with one arm, I nodded and waved at the old woman with the other. It wasn't until I raised up to acknowledge her stare that I remembered that she wasn't there. I am so used to her silhouette, though, that in the second before I remembered, I saw her.
Eyes play tricks. They fill in gaps. There's a scientific word for it that I learned too long ago in college. I saw the old woman because I was expecting to see her, like I'd seen her every day for the past thirty-five years if I bothered -- but then I remembered, I blinked, and she was not there. The window was empty, stark and square. I shivered in my bathrobe, but not from the cold -- it was from a feeling of emptiness in the pit of my soul. I felt like a table with three legs, or even two. It's a cliche, I know, but still true: I didn't know how important she was, until she was gone. I had come to rely on her, like on the sun. I clasped the edges of my bathrobe together with one hand and exhaled slowly -- one long puff that crystallized into a cloud of frost and hung in the air before me. When I was a child, I would take long drags of freezing air and send smoke-rings into Winter. But I am a child no longer. I lowered my gaze, turned around, and went back inside.
I've never been to England, but I imagine if I ever went I would fit right in. I take tea at ten and tea at two, and any time in between or after, and especially whenever disaster threatens. I set a kettle of water on the stove to boil. It's a delaying tactic, I think. I remember I bought a cup of tea in the hospital cafeteria, right before my husband died. It was Lipton's, and too strong. I remember I came home that day, alone, in a taxi, because it was dusk and I was wearing sunglasses -- I didn't want any light -- and I couldn't see well enough to drive. I paid the driver and he drove off and I stood there in his cloud of exhaust for I don't know how long, at the foot of the sidewalk, at the house I'd lived in since college. I was lost. My two feet hovered on the cement path in my one good pair of high-heeled shoes. I was on tippy-toes. Whose house was this? I didn't belong there. What if they found out? I've read up since, on panic attacks. I've come to dissect my every aberration (my father was a psychologist, so of course I suspect lunacy runs in the family). That day, I think -- standing in front of my house, one small, confused point in space not daring to move or make a sound -- was the closest I've ever come to true panic. Eventually I began to teeter on my foolish heels (I had probably been holding my breath). My whole world collapsed down to the sound of my heart beating -- a strong, quick rhythm. Too quick. Then racing. Until, audibly, it began to slow. It got louder and louder -- but no. I slowly realized that this was a new sound, coming from outside of me, and I followed it out of the fog. It captured my attention. It was the old woman, across the street, rapping on the window she never seemed to leave. I looked up at her, confused, and she pressed the palm of her hand to the glass, nodded, and smiled sadly down at me. And like a benediction, that simple gesture saved me.
The kettle screams. I take it off the heat, pour water over leaves, watch the water darken. I used to use loose leaves, but lately I cheat. I buy teabags -- single servings, packaged-up neat -- for their ease. All those years as a typist, putting my children through college, my fingers danced nimbly over keys. I don't begrudge them their rest now, if some days they don't want to unbend. I add a sugar cube, gently stir it in, and bring the cup -- still steaming -- to my lips. It is like a kiss. It soothes, for a moment. And then knowledge settles in: that woman had been a bookend, holding up my life -- every day by the window, attendant with her eyes. "I see you," since I had moved to the neighborhood, eight months pregnant and five months married, right after college. She saw that all was well when I brought my babies home from the hospital. She watched them grow, like me. She saw me send them to school and even saw the youngest one's bridal guests arrive last year, for the shower. With my husband dead and my babies gone, she had become my anchor. This street has changed -- all the others have moved out and in, up and down. They are new and young. Only she had remained, as had I. So it seems odd to say, but I never talked to her, didn't even know her name, until today. On the lower right-hand column of page 7, Section B: