The shrill sound of the tea pot screaming shattered Max’s reverie. He was remembering when he and Rosie met forty years ago. He looked down at the cup, breathing a deep sigh, remembering the vision of the two of them rowing down the Charles River that May morning, the night after their first date, the first of many before they married, both of them still in their senior years of college, he at Harvard, she at Radcliffe, a year after the two colleges began sharing courses.
Max remembers the day she walked into the Chaucer class and just happened to sit next to him, mainly because there were no other empty seats. She asked if he minded her sitting there and Max turned and looked around the room. “Well, there aren’t any other seats in the room, so I guess its okay,” he said, pretending it didn’t matter when in reality he couldn’t believe what had just happened.
He remembers her standing at the door, looking around for a seat, remembers her kinky curly brown hair, unlike most of the other women with their long straight hair, their somewhat aristocratic air. He remembers being struck by how different she looked, how she seemed like a fish out of water, so when she sat down next to him, his heart leaped in a way that surprised him, having no idea at the time where this moment would lead.
Max poured the water into Rosie’s favorite mug. He glanced over at her at the kitchen table, staring out the window, her chin resting on her hand. He wondered what she could be thinking about, what she was trying to remember, now that memories were disappearing into the fog of her Alzheimer’s. He dipped the Earl Grey tea bag into the cup, looking down, watching the water turn bronze colored. He knew how strong she liked her tea and how long the bag had to steep before it was just right. He stirred in a little honey then heard the little ping of the toaster oven bell and noticed the orange light go out. He reached for the rye toast Rosie loved. He placed it on the plate with the blue lily enameled in the center. He made sure he always served the rye toast on the same plate because of the way it made her smile. She always said, “Ah, my favorite dish.” He liked it when she remembered little things like that. He had already brought out the raspberry jelly and spread it on the toast. This was their four o’clock ritual, tea and rye toast with raspberry jam.
They would sit at their kitchen table and watch the Blue jays, Yellow-headed Finches and occasionally, Doves come to the feeder. He loved the way the birds made her smile as they watched, quietly. “Oh, look,” she would say, “what’s the name of that bird?”
Max could see by her squinting eyes she was straining to remember. She was trying to form the words, but they wouldn’t come through her pursed lips.
“That’s a Dove,” Max said.
“Dove, yes, that’s it, a Dove,” she said, nodding. Max watched the small smile form on her lips then become a laugh. Her eyes still had the twinkle and her smile still warmed his heart. He reached over and straightened the shawl on her shoulder.
“Drink your tea before it gets too cold, dear,” he said.
“Oh, yes, the tea,” she said, looking at Max. “Thank you,” she whispered. “You take such good care of me.” She smiled and reached for his hand. He lifted her hand to his lips, gave her fingers a gentle kiss. They looked at each other and smiled. She picked up a piece of toast and took a bite, leaving a speck of raspberry jelly on her lip. Max took a paper napkin from the holder on the table and reached over to wipe the speck away. “Oh, thank you, dear,” she said. “This jam is so delicious. What kind is it?” she asked.
“Raspberry,” he answered. “It’s your favorite.”
“Raspberry,” she repeated, “yes, Raspberry, my favorite.”
Max looked at his wife as she took another bite of toast. She looked so fragile in the late afternoon sunlight. He noticed how the sun made her hair look silver and how beautiful she looked when she sipped her tea and remembered the first time they went for coffee after the Chaucer class. It was a month or so into the course before Max had the nerve and chance to ask her because as soon as the lecture was over, Rosie closed her notebook, picked up the heavy Complete Chaucer
and rushed out of the class, usually nodding goodbye to him.
Sitting over coffee at The Nook Café, where they had their first conversation, Max learned she was from Philadelphia, was top in her class at Girls’ High, won a full scholarship, the only way she could have ever attended Radcliffe since her father was a tailor for a dress manufacturer, her mother a part-time librarian. She loved acting and performed in a number plays. Max was dazzled by the way she suddenly started reciting the lines of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, how she became transformed before his eyes as she became the character. Their conversation flowed from topic to topic, an endless number of stories from their lives, their thoughts on everything, how she made him laugh mimicking different people when she told stories, how animated, alive and funny she was, and after sitting there for three and half hours, he was more certain then ever that what he sensed when he first saw her walk into the class and sit next to him, was correct. Rosie was an amazing person and he was completely captivated by her.
“Oh, aren’t those flowers beautiful,” she said looking out the window at the daffodils and tulips she planted over the years, “What kind are they, it’s on the tip of my tongue,” she added, moving forward so she could see the whole row of them by the fence.
“The yellow ones are daffodils and the red and white ones are tulips,” Max told her.
“Oh, yes, daffodils,” she repeated. “What day is it?” she asked picking up her cup of tea and taking a sip.
“It’s Thursday,” Max answered, seeing her nod. “Leah called earlier to see how you were,” he said.
“Leah?” she asked. “Who’s Leah? That name sounds familiar.”
“She’s our daughter,” Max answered, suddenly remembering the time they were in an elevator going to see Santa Clause and a large black man stepped in and Leah said, “Mommy, I don’t like black people” and Rosie said, “Well you picked a hell of a time to tell me,” which made the black man laugh and Max was amazed how quick her mind was, how she made all of our friends laugh when they had people over for dinner. Rosie was the funniest and most intelligent person he had ever known and seeing her brilliant mind withering before his eyes was unbearable.
When Rosie finished her toast, she took a sip of her tea and looked at Max. “That was good,” she said and sighed. She reached over and took his hand, “You’re a nice man.”
“Thank you, dear, you’re a wonderful woman,” Max said, putting his hand on hers, taking it and giving it a little squeeze. “You’ve made me very happy.”
“I have?” she asked, looking at him, as if trying to understand what he said. “Well, that’s nice of you to say,” she added. “I like how you look at me. You seem like such a kind man.”
Max nodded, smiled and moved her hand to his lips, kissed it then sighed, looking at her, their eyes meeting. He picked up her dish with a piece of crust left and her tea cup, took it to the sink, looked out the window at the flowers, the bird feeder then glanced back at Rosie, noticing her eyes narrowing as she looked around the kitchen, concentrating, studying it as if she were in a museum looking at a painting then smiling, chuckling to herself and Max remembered how she loved to cook, remembered her delicious carrot cake, the stuffed mushrooms she made as appetizers when they had guests over and how she hadn’t cooked for the last two years. Seeing the look on her face broke his heart, something that happened almost every day and wondered what would become of her as she faded further and further away from him and their life together.
Max often remembered how passionate their dating became, being together every day, studying together, taking walks, picnics, rowing on the river, making love every chance they had, surprising their parents when they announced they had run off and got married at city hall in the middle of the semester, had a weekend honey moon, how the professor took roll when they returned to class on Monday, cleared his throat when he came to her new name and everyone in the room applauded their reckless abandon.
Finally, after the initial shock and disapproval, their parents met each other and they had a celebration, inviting relatives and friends to a big party, both Max and Rosie glad they didn’t have a big expensive wedding. This party happened the summer after they graduated, not sure what they were going to do to support themselves. For awhile both worked as waiter and waitress at a small café, glad they could work together, but eventually, they went onto graduate school living in a tiny fourth floor apartment on the small teaching fellowships they were awarded. Rosie got her masters in Theater, Max in English and she taught drama at the local high school until Leah was born and Max taught literature and creative writing at the Montgomery County Community College.
It was four years ago, when the symptoms of Rosie’s illness became apparent. It was slow but the forgetting became more consistent until Max had to teach part time at the college and then had to have help before deciding to retire, live on their savings, his retirement fund and social security. Still, he was in debt for the medicines they tried to slow down the disease, knowing eventually, nothing would change the inevitable.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Max said, coming over to the table. “Let’s go to the park and feed the ducks.”
“Oh yes, the ducks, we haven’t fed them have we,” she said, vaguely remembering they often took a walk before dinner.
Max tore up some pieces of bread and placed them in a small paper bag. Rosie was still wearing her shawl and Max was wearing the blue wool sweater she had knitted for him ten years earlier. It was his favorite sweater.
“That sweater looks nice on you,” she said.
“You made this sweater for me over ten years ago,” he said.
“I did?” she asked. “Well, I like how it looks on you. You look so handsome.”
Max laughed because she always told him how nice he looked in the sweater.
At the park, they sat on the bench where they sat every afternoon and threw pieces of bread to the ducks, watching them swim and swallow each toss, hearing the strange quacking sounds they made, laughed at their wings flapping, how they swam under water then popped up.
“I like it here,” Rosie said.
“I do too,” Max said, wondering how long it will be before even feeding the ducks would be impossible, still, as long as he could he would bring her here, knowing one day, this is where her ashes would float before sinking into the dark water.
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