Thursday evening, Anita was late. Would Don notice she wasn’t there? She punched in the security code and entered the Alzheimer’s unit. Dinner was winding down. Don would be ready for the fruit she had brought him. Anita tightened her jaw as she saw Garnet blithely sitting in Anita’s usual seat, the one pushed too close to Don. Garnet leaned her head on Don’s shoulder and held his hand. What was Garnet thinking, commandeering Anita’s husband like that?
Garnet was in her late 70s, about five years older than Don, a bright bird of a woman with shining eyes, flyaway silvery hair and a jittery energy. Her older sister Jeanne, a maiden lady as they used to say about unmarried women, sat on the other side of Don, as usual. Jeanne’s head curled downward, her shoulders hunched, her back bowed. She was the letter C trying to become the letter O.
Usually Garnet sat across from Don and next to her sister. Now she had taken Anita’s seat and had also taken liberties with Don.
Anita’s hands were damp. She felt like slapping Garnet but she reminded herself, “She’s confused. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
“Hi Don, hi Garnet,” Anita said, making her voice calm.
Usually Don looked up and smiled when she came in. That was their moment, the flash of his dimple, the lighting up of his blue eyes, the glorious seconds when they looked at each other and connected. But tonight, he stared at his plate, then placed two green beans into his mouth.
Garnet looked warily at Anita, like a cat guarding its saucer of milk. “And we going to town,” Garnet says. “Then we ate and had some. And we never came toward.”
Garnet laughed. Don laughed. He squeezed Garnet’s hand.
What was so funny? Anita wanted to know. Did Don really understand what Garnet said? Had they developed a secret language while she was at work?
Anita dragged the empty chair closer to Don’s other side. She tapped him on the arm and said, “Hi Sweetie, I brought you some oranges.” Normally, when she tapped, Don looked over. Then she made a production out of opening the Tupperware and showing him the fruit. But tonight he said, “My grandmother gave me these and I don’t matter what.”
Anita frowned. Don had never cared for this grandmother. She was a stern one who never had a loving hug or word.
“Are you thinking about your mother?” she asked. He didn’t answer.
“I gave too,” Garnet said and Don turned to Garnet and smiled.
Anita felt as frosted as an over-chilled refrigerator. Where was the staff? Weren’t there rules about flirting in nursing homes?
Mr. Burns strolled by, pushing his wife in her wheelchair. He talked softly to her, even though her head was bowed and she was twisting a handkerchief. “And here is Anita. Hello Anita, how are you?” he said, in a sing-song voice, like he was reading a Dr. Seuss book.
She wanted to say, “I’m terrible. My feet ache. I had a long hard day at work and now an older woman with no rational brain cells is stealing my husband.” But instead she smiled sweetly and said, “I’m happy to see you both.”
A nurse aide pulled up a chair next to Jeanne and tried to unfurl her hand. Jeanne held tight to the spoon. The aide then slid another spoon into some pureed vegetables and tried to shove it into Jeanne’s mouth. The goo ran down Jeanne’s cheek.
“She’s not hungry,” Anita said to the aide.
“I know. But I have to try. I’m sorry, Jeanne,” the girl said, stroking Jeanne’s arm. “I really am.”
“Maybe Garnet needs some help,” Anita said. “She doesn’t seem to be eating.”
The aide moved over to Garnet.
“Don, why don’t you eat with your fork?” the aide asked.
Anita realized Don wasn’t using his fork because Garnet had co-opted his hand.
Anita ate one of the oranges slices she’d brought for Don. She was hungry. After all, she’d rushed over from work without even grabbing a bite. That was the kind of loving wife she was. But now that Don had fallen for another woman, why should she peel and segment oranges for him. Let Garnet do it.
Leroy walked by, moving fast. Leroy was always racing around. He was a little younger than Anita, in his mid-sixties, with a gorgeous thick silvering hair. His face was scruffy, because he wouldn’t hold still so his wife could shave him. He wore a track suit and tennis shoes. Garnet straightened as Leroy passed by. Then she stood. Her eyes shone, like she’d seen money in the gutter. She left Don and caught up with Leroy, grabbing his hand. He kept moving and she kept moving with him.
Don didn’t seem upset by her abrupt departure. He picked up his fork and took a bite of his meatloaf. Anita claimed her rightful chair. She pushed Garnet’s plate into the middle of the table and used a napkin to clear away the stray green beans and splotches of meat loaf. She dipped another napkin into Don’s water and wiped away the final traces of the other woman. She tapped Don on the arm.
“Hi Sweetie, I’m here.”
He looked at her and his eyes lit up. He smiled impishly, the way he had all those years ago in college when she’d stepped on his foot hurrying past him in geology class. For a moment, they looked at each other deeply. There was her real husband, gazing at her with adoration. Her own love, which she had folded up and shoved into her pockets, surged out and she moved closer to him for a kiss. But Don lowered his head and returned to his food. She sat beside him, waiting until he was almost done eating, waiting to tap his arm again and show him the oranges she had brought, just for him.
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