A two-part story, inspired by my parents and a line from the Yom Kippur liturgy.
The hardest thing, Nora thought, was the silence.
She thought this many times over the course of a day. She thought it when she woke and the other half of her bed was empty. She thought it when she made her solitary breakfast, when she sat with it at the table and tried to interest herself in the front section of the New York Times. She thought it when she came in from grocery shopping—for one, now—or from a doctor’s appointment, or anywhere else she happened to spend time away from the condo. Church, a friend’s house, her daughter’s. Time away was good when she could manage it. But she always had to come back.
Fifty years, she thought now as she slowly dressed for Sunday morning mass. She found herself listening for the small sounds she’d become accustomed to over five decades of marriage, even though she knew she wouldn’t hear them. The faint creak of floorboards under Nicholas’s slippered feet, the running of water in the kitchen sink as he washed up their breakfast dishes, his slightly off-key voice warbling along to an aria he’d found on WFMT. They both loved music, especially opera. Nicholas, a pack rat of epic proportions, had amassed a huge collection of recordings: Jussi Bjoerling, Giuseppe di Stefano, Frederica von Stade, Maria Callas. Aria collections and whole operas, both. She could listen to them herself, of course. That would break the silence. But it wouldn’t be the same.
She eyed her reflection in the mirror, hairbrush in hand. Her hair needed tinting again. Just long enough to cover her ears, it had paled over the years from dark auburn to the color of straw. Only the barest copper hint lingered, like a washed-out watercolor. Her eyes were too bright in her flushed face, and she blinked the brightness away with a flash of irritation. Nicholas wouldn’t want her moping. He’d understand it, but hate himself for having caused it. If he were here now, he’d… That thought produced a shaky laugh, a mirthless sound. If he were here, I wouldn’t be feeling like this.
She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She looked like what she was: eighty years old, alone and grieving and wishing to God she was neither. She gave her hair a last touch-up and went into the hall to fetch her coat.
The walk to St. Anne’s got her blood moving, the brisk spring air invigorating and the sounds of Sunday morning—passing traffic, birdsong, the echo of church bells—a welcome relief from the empty quiet of the condo. A cat trotted across the lawn of the rambling Victorian house at the corner of Lake and Maple. Well-fed and with a collar, it clearly belonged to someone. “You should get a cat, Mom,” her daughter Sarah had said last Thursday when she came over for lunch and to help clear away the last of Nicholas’s things for donation. “I know how much you and Dad missed Guildenstern. Maybe it’s time for another.”
“Cats just get old and die,” she’d said, in a tone meant to warn Sarah off from further persuasion. She meant well, Sarah did. But she had her husband, her two boys, her work, to fill all the hours in her day. She didn’t, couldn’t, understand.
Mass was a comfort, the familiar songs and prayers wrapping around Nora like a favorite sweater on a chilly afternoon. Father Joseph made a point of greeting her afterward, a gentle smile on his moon-round face and his blue eyes full of sympathy. Just enough, not so much as to be overpowering. How long had she and Nicholas known him? Ten years since he’d been pastor here? He had a soft spot for old movies, evidenced by the “Nick and Nora” joke he’d made when she and Nicholas introduced themselves after Father Joseph’s first mass. Nicholas had let it pass without even an eye roll. She knew Father Joseph missed Nicholas too. It helped, a little.
“Getting by all right, Nora?” he said now, hands briefly clasped around hers.
She attempted a smile. “Well enough. Some days are easier than others.”
“If you need someone to talk to…”
She knew what he meant, though she couldn’t see the point of it. Talking wouldn’t bring Nicholas back, or fill that damned silence. She’d never been that kind of talker, anyway. Things happened, you acknowledged them and then you got on with life. Her motto. Get on with life. It had always worked before. “Thank you, Father, but I’m not sure that’s what I need.” I need Nicholas, she thought. I need to turn back time to when he was well and we listened to Tosca and planned trips to Venice and Florence. Foolish thoughts. She smiled good-bye to Father Joseph, walked slowly down the church steps to the street, and headed toward the condo. With only herself in it, it was hard to think of it as home.
She stopped off at the grocery store for milk, and was halfway up the front walk with her purchase when she heard a rustling in the bushes nearby. Ornamental evergreens, they lined the walkway and were home to various forms of wildlife: birds, mice, even a fox she’d once seen darting beneath them. She thought the rustling might be the resident family of cardinals, and went closer to see if she could spot them. No flash of red, though, or any bird sounds. Instead, a frantic shaking of branches and a flash of brownish-grey.
Rat? was her first thought. She set the milk down and half-crouched, as much as her eighty-year-old knees would let her, for a closer look. If they had rats, she would need to call the city so Animal Control could take care of the problem. The brownish-grey shape was hard to see beneath the dark green. Keeping her hand well out of potential biting range, she grasped an evergreen branch and eased it aside. The shape of a head came clear for a moment, then the flash of an animal face as the creature glanced up. Not a rat. Feline, green-eyed, one ear badly torn.
The cat hissed and retreated further under the bushes. Nora let the branch go and straightened slowly. Animal Control, definitely. The poor beast had clearly been in a fight, got bitten, was probably carrying heaven-knows-what. She picked up her milk and headed inside to make the necessary call.
Indoors, she put the milk away and went to the phone. And stood there, hands in her coat pockets, while five seconds crawled by. She turned, went to the cabinet that held everyday dishes. Took a saucer from a short stack. Set it on the kitchen table, got the milk back out of the refrigerator, poured a little into the dish. Then carefully picked it up and went outside.