WEDNESDAY: The Boyfriend

BY KATHARINE O’FLYNN

Copyright is held by the author.

ON MONDAY, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, Roland Edgerton, retired professor of classics and amateur watercolorist, active member of the Westmount Artists Studio, painted at the Studio’s rented space, a large open loft in St.Henri. One Monday, when Roland came in, he found the floor space next to his occupied by a young woman. Or perhaps not so very young, but far short of Roland’s 82 years.

She was “into photography” she told him. She photographed little bits of things, she said. She showed him her work. Roland assumed they were blots of coloured inks, until she explained: carrots, celery, broccoli, all backlit and magnified many times. They looked like fairytale jungles.

“Interesting colours,” Roland said politely. But was it art?  He thought not; these images were machine-captured, not created.

The newcomer, having perhaps expected more praise than she got, turned away and started tapping on her computer. Her name was Marilyn.

Marilyn was at her worktable again on Wednesday and on Friday, and through the following weeks. She worked hard; Roland would grant her that.

His fears that she might become a chattering nuisance soon proved unfounded. She greeted him when he came in, then not a word till the middle of the afternoon when she made tea. She always offered him a cup. He began to look forward to these tea intervals. They would sit back and talk about their art as they drank. She told him she was working on a new commission.

People were buying her work? Roland was impressed despite himself.

He knew he wasn’t a real artist himself, but Marilyn’s occasional tit-bits of praise when she looked over his work pleased him, helped him believe that his art was more than a filling in of idle afternoons. Her suggestions were useful. It was exciting to know that even at 82, with faculties deteriorating, he was getting better at something.

Then, one Wednesday, he had one of his dizzy spells. The floor swung up and down, the windows rocked at sickening angles. He eased himself over to the wall and slid down to a sitting position, careful to keep his head from moving.

Marilyn was kneeling beside him in a moment. “What’s happened? Are you in pain? Shall I call an ambulance?” She held her cell phone ready.

“No. Inner ear problem. Balance gone. Be all right in a while.” Sweat was dripping from his forehead, down his nose. He wiped it away with a trembling hand. At least he wasn’t going to throw up this time.

She brought a glass of water. “Thank you.” He sipped greedily. “These bouts come,” he managed to explain. “They pass. I’ll be fine soon.”

She cleaned his brushes, put away his paints.

“Thank you.” He sat and waited for the floor to straighten itself out. Eventually, he was able to lurch to his feet.

Marilyn helped him into his coat. “I’m going to drive you home,” she said. They made a cautious way down the three flights of stairs, and across the parking lot. He clutched her arm shamelessly.

“Is there someone at home?” she asked, drawing up in front of his building.

“I live alone,” he said.

“Then I’ll come in with you.”

She made him a mug of tea. “What about food?” she asked.

“Meals on wheels. I’ll microwave one later. I need to sit for an hour or two.” He was grateful to be in his own armchair, his head resting against its high back. “Thank you very much indeed for your help.”

“Don’t mention it. What’s your phone number? I’ll call tomorrow morning to check on you.” She left her own number beside his phone. “Call if you need anything.” And then she was gone.

He sat still, still through the long afternoon.

What would have happened to him if she hadn’t been there? What if it had been a heart attack? Or a stroke? Such things happened to people of his age.

Soon he’d have to give up and move into a seniors’ home. He’d hoped to wait until he turned 85. After all, he was in good health generally, for his age. He was sensible. He had friends and hobbies. He got out most days. His nieces looked in on him regularly. They saw to it that he was always included in family celebrations. He wasn’t a poor old man wasting away alone, quoting sad poems by Rilke.

The thing was, he valued his independence. He always had. That’s why he’d never married. It wasn’t that he didn’t like women or that he hadn’t found a woman willing enough. He’d had plenty of opportunities. Curiously, when he thought of those past loves now, it wasn’t the women themselves who came to his memory, but the scenes of the seductions: an afternoon in Aix, shutters closed against the sunlight, lovemaking as sweet and languid as the air; basement apartments in Montreal or Vancouver, a mattress for a bed and the blue scent of marijuana in the air; a hillside in Scotland, not noticing the dampness and the chill and the discomfort till afterwards; in later years bourgeois bedrooms with en suite baths. How long had it been since the last time? Ten years?  More? It was sad to think one never noted the last time, for how could one know it would be the last?

When he returned to the studio, he brought flowers for Marilyn to thank her for her help. It only annoyed him slightly that she insisted on photographing them.

The next day she had the blooms all in bits and mounted on slides that she was photographing. Click. Click. Click.

She gave him a print of the shot she considered the best. That evening he set it on the table by his armchair. Was it any good? Did he like it? He wasn’t sure. But it was a kind gift.

One afternoon soon afterwards, they both worked late at the studio. The idea of returning to a microwaved meal alone in his apartment depressed him. “Would you care to have dinner with me this evening?” he asked. “I know a nice place on Notre Dame.”

“That sounds great,” she said. She made no phone calls before leaving; she too lived alone, he deduced.

Sitting beside her in the car, the old thrill of wining and dining an attractive woman came back to him. Roland wondered if he might venture a good night kiss later. Or was that too close a proximity for his aged body?  He settled on a romantic kiss of the hand.

The next Friday they went out again. And the next. Dreams and desires, long stifled, half forgotten, began to stir in him. Of course, he would never recapture the passions of earlier days. But an autumn walk, arm in arm, along the paths of Mount Royal and a cup of tea afterwards: surely that was feasible. An occasional evening at the theatre. And — dare he imagine it? — at night a soft body to cradle warmth into his.

One Friday as they walked to their table in the restaurant, a woman greeted Marilyn and she stopped a moment to chat, laying what was surely a possessive hand on Roland’s arm as she did so. At a pause, she introduced him. “This is my friend Roland,” she said. Roland’s heart thudded with surprised joy. She hadn’t said “boyfriend” exactly, but it was obvious that’s what she’d meant. He hadn’t felt so happy for years. He was an old man, but even so, adventures still lay ahead for him.

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