Asleep in Oak Park: A Late Love Story

I wake up in Julia’s bed in Oak Park to my photo high on the wall. It makes the strange room even stranger. In my room at home in Manhattan’s East Village, a room I share with a roommate, I awake to photos on the frig: the Dalai Lama in a blue baseball cap, composer Philip Glass hugging wheelchair-bound painter, Chuck Close. There are no photos of myself. There are stacks of books and papers by my bed. Unruly self-portraits.

Julia sleeps beside me, head softly against her arm, the way a little girl might sleep. Julia is seventy-seven. There is a constriction in my stomach when I look at her. I want to make morning love to her, but I resist waking her. Julia is a “night person” with sleep issues. She gets to bed not many hours before I awake.

I take sleep for granted. I hit the pillow, and I am out. It makes me oddly envious that Julia’s sleep cycle is chaperoned by her assortment of supplements and pills topped off by Bill Maher’s politics. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

I sit down to a breakfast of humus and toast and bran and milk. (her 81-year-old guy needs his bran.) While eating, I read Julia’s sinfully clean copy of Yoel Hoffmann’s abstract novel, Curriculum Vitae. She bought it because I raved about it. She abandoned it after just a few pages. (My copy at home is grayish black from twelve years of finger marks and embedded food particles.

Hoffmann’s collage of fragments make me happy: There is no limit to the beauty of things that are sad. Like old clay vessels or a wagon’s shaft in a junkyard. Every year the plum trees flower anew, and people whose names are Shtiasni or Dahaan open doors and close them.

I sit down with my squares of writing paper and try to get a poem going. Some broken edges of imagination stir in the right places, but bottom out almost immediately. I take myself to Trader Joe’s located in a cul-de-sac off North Marion. I fill my basket with dark chocolate, milk, strawberries, ground turkey, long fingers of ginger. I love having flotillas of helpful, youthful employees swarm around me like butterflies. They are trained, I imagine, to be on the lookout for the needy looking shopper. My puckered bewilderment spurs these sons and daughters of the Midwest to accompany me wherever I go.

An elderly New Yorker acclimated to invisibility, I am abashed to find myself in this fairyland of kindness. I am overtaken by a kind of giddy paranoia. Have the workers collectively taken note of my ill-fitting upper denture? Or a hand tremor I might be unaware of?

After shopping, I walk. The ritual of walking punctuates my day. It is ritual I share sparingly with Julia who three years ago developed a vestibular disorder that affects her balance and keeps her mostly housebound. I enjoy collecting details to entertain her with when she awakes: the stupendous diversity of Oak Park’s trees for one thing. The Regal Prince Oak, the Shamrock Linden, the Accolade Elm, the Autumn Splendor Buckeye.

In front of my tenement on East Third Street, there is only The Starved Sapling. After Oak Park, it kills me to look at it.

Julia signals the resumption of our relationship at about eleven. She rises renewed from her bed, showering, dressing, putting in her contacts. I catch up with her in the kitchen where she is busy boiling her two eternal breakfast eggs. I give her a kiss and tell her of my wanderings.

All my tree talk amuses her. “You are a New Yorker!” she cries, as if my city were a barren wasteland. Julia once lived in New York. Hated it. Found it soulless, heartless. She extends it no charity.

I remember to tell her, “I visited Tim.”

Tim Fisher, her husband of many years, died of brain cancer. Julia had a swamp cypress planted in his memory in Scoville Park, which houses the town’s war memorial. On the plaque commemorating its World War 1 veterans, my eyes always glom on to the same name: E Hemingway.

“Hemingway didn’t like Oak Park,” Julia informs me. “‘Wide lawns, narrow minds, he said.”

When she is ready, we go for a walk. Her feet are stiff, painfully aimed. They tell a partial truth.

When we come back, she peels off the bed covers. Her bedroom, even in daylight, is shadowy. Her flat, with its many windows, gives you nothing to see. Except her, moving her slender arms slowly like a novice in a monastery. She moves to no one’s rhythms but her own.

I sigh. A blend of tenderness and impatience. Julia looks up. I remove my shoes. I slide them into the shoe closet.

 

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer and poet whose work has appeared in Salamander, Cholla Needles, The Moth (Ireland), Ink Sweat and Tears (UK), Vallum and other publications.