Perimenopause, have you heard of it? I heard about it today on NPR. It explains why women go demented as they get older. They compared it to puberty, how you go into it one way and come out of it another. But instead of cue ball breasts and fecund loins this “transition,” as they call it, leaves you fucked in the head.
This is what I want to say to Ralph as we sit in the art gallery with Teddy’s photos, side-by-side on a marble bench designed to torture the buttocks of post-perimenopausal women. Funny how my doctor says I’m fat, yet my ass is as bountiful as a jailhouse mattress. Just another injustice of this brave new world I’ve entered, like the condescending “Miss” that younger men have started using when addressing me in restaurants and shops.
“I could be your grandmother,” I told the new bagger at the Safeway yesterday. “Don’t Miss me.”
I want to tell Ralph about this, too, and how the worst part of being “Missed” is that for a split second I believe it, before I look over my shoulder for someone other than the cranky old bitch it surprises me that I am. I still wake up sometimes with the smell of my childhood bedroom in my nostrils, that sweet smell of an old house, of drying laundry and the lavender sachets my mother made for my underwear drawer. I stretch my legs and curl my toes and listen for long gone voices coming from the kitchen.
I forget if it’s better to talk to Ralph about the past or the present. Lately, time’s been pumping along like an accordion, stretching and folding in on itself. If I nod off in the early evening I have to make a mental list when I wake up: who’s alive, who’s lost, what do I know for sure and what’s make-believe?
“Present and accounted for,” Ralph tells me on his good days, when he notices my eyes have opened.
Now, in this big white room with my brother’s photographs on the walls, I could talk about my mother. How she was a glamorous housewife back when that was one of the better options for a woman. How she liked to tell Teddy and me about the time before we were born, when she went swimming in the river with the neighborhood’s artists and their “artistic” wives. How her friend Ed, the famous photographer, had taken her photograph. I picture my mother like he did: white arms cutting through the inky water, the sun low, humidity curling her hair into a nest at the nape of her neck. Back then the river sprouted tender grass and green frogs and you could sunbathe on the little island that’s now a settlement of ragged tents.
“It’s Jenny.” Ralph says. His finger, thick and gnarled as a knob of ginger, is caught in the exhibition catalog. I tug it free and open the book to the place he was marking.
“Yes, it is,” I say, remembering the doctor’s suggestion to “meet him where he’s at.” The truth will just confuse and frighten him, make him cry and scream until I have to give him a pill. And then we’ll relive it again tomorrow.
“Doesn’t she look pretty?” I say, looking at my own, much younger face squinting up into the camera. My hair’s flying to all corners and half submerged under the sand because I’m lying on the beach without a towel. That was the summer my brother got his Brownie and I learned to drive. I can’t remember if we’d gone to Santa Monica or Venice. Our parents were gone for some reason that Sunday and Teddy had talked me into taking the car out. I can see the floral print of my church dress at the bottom of the composition.
It is just a family photo. Why it was printed in this book, or hanging on the walls of this gallery along with the others is a mystery to me. I knew of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, and my mother’s famous Ed. I knew Teddy too, of course, but only as my jumpy little brother. He passed away last year and I’m still getting used to the idea that he will live on indefinitely in these black and white images of our past.
“You think there’s a photo of the two of us?” I poke Ralph’s coat sleeve with a corner of the book. I hold it between us, front cover on his knee, back cover on mine, and flip the pages forward with my thumb.
But he’s gone, his eyes on a patch of floor, his scarf dangling loose from the knot I tied before we left the apartment this morning. The smell of chicken soup from the lobby sandwich shop is coming off the wool. I put the book down on the bench and look around. There are a surprising number of people milling about, and I have the same disorienting feeling I had at Teddy’s wake. Like I should recognize them but I don’t.
“I wonder who she was.” I hear a young woman’s voice and turn to follow it. She’s standing in front of a print of my beach photo that’s hanging on the wall.
“Did you hear that Ralph?” I say.
Honor Rovai has written for Akashic, The Daily Gullet, Not For Tourists: Los Angeles, GOTOTENNIS and the Awkward literary journal. She recently completed her first novel, inspired by her day job planning galas for the one percent. She lives with her family in San Jose, California.