Listen to Your Body
BY ANNE-MARIE KINNEY
It wasn’t as if she didn’t know how to drive a car. One moment Jeanne was on her way home from her twice-weekly yoga class at the YMCA, and the next she was careening up the curb and into a squat blue mailbox that caught her front bumper with an awful thunk. The airbag walloped her, setting her head spinning as she tried to comprehend. She must have made a small error in perception, stepping on the gas instead of the brake, a difference of a few inches, if that. She explained as much to the officer who appeared as she was trying in vain to reverse the Honda out of its predicament. It wasn’t a police matter.
“Ma’am, I’m gonna need you to roll down your window,” the officer said, miming a handle turn. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
Jeanne slapped at the deflating airbag to get it out of her way. “I just told you what happened.” She stretched her mouth around each syllable so he’d understand.
She hadn’t even gotten to do yoga. She and her classmates had rolled out their mats, gathered their blocks and bolsters from the edges of the room, and waited. People drank water and watched the door expectantly. People started rummaging through their bags, checking their phones.
A younger woman, fifty-ish, cleared her throat. “What should we do?”
A woman she recognized for her strange, burgundy hair color volunteered to ask the front desk, returned shaking her head. “Class got canceled? A note on the door would’ve been nice.”
While everyone gathered their belongings Jeanne had stayed cross-legged on her mat, still limber at 79, smoothing the long sleeves of her leotard. She was confident she could teach the class from memory. If she’d volunteered, the others would have followed her lead. But she hadn’t been keen on the idea of doing so much talk-talk-talking.
She’d been thinking of canceling her YMCA membership anyway. The class was the only thing she used it for, and she was increasingly aggravated by the interchangeable series of simian-toed young instructors, all so vocal in their praise of her “commitment.” Good for you! they’d say, and Back again! as if parroting an instructional video on how to patronize the elderly.
When Walter was alive, she’d at least gotten some satisfaction out of complaining to him. Now that she had no outlet for airing these petty grievances, her shoulders felt tighter when she left yoga than when she’d arrived.
She’d almost missed class herself. She’d lingered too long in bed, clinging to the threads of a dream. She’d been on some group museum tour that was moving too fast, being shepherded right past all the art by some unseen guide. She was trapped in the belly of a growing horde, walled in by bodies, by all these vapid faces wholly oblivious to the fact they were in a museum at all, that there might be anything worth pausing to appreciate. She jutted her elbows out in an attempt to muscle through, if even just to see what room she was in, what era, but all she got were quick smudges of color before the faces closed in again, blocking her view.
No. No, it wasn’t even her dream. She’d re-dreamt a dream Walter had recounted to her just days before his heart attack, as he peed and coughed phlegm into the sink. These little ephemera with nowhere to go were burrowing into her psyche to feed on her subconscious. She could choose to find it comforting, but it unsettled her too much, not being able to discern her own dreams, her own thoughts, from his.
Not six weeks ago, Walter had woken up in this bed beside her, and already, she couldn’t seem to smell him. She’d laundered the sheets since then, true. But she hadn’t washed his winter coat, or the slacks he’d re-hung after a single wear. She’d held those to her nose, expecting some trace of his scent, but smelled only acrylic and wool.
She’d gotten up then, finally, gone to the bathroom, scrutinizing the counter for any physical sign—a stray fleck of his Sensodyne toothpaste or a stiff gray hair clinging to some humid corner—but, same as yesterday and the day before, nothing. In the mirror, she looked bloodlet—drained, like a discarded soda cup on the beach. She tried to examine herself a little more fuzzily, eliding the crow’s feet, the soft, slack cheeks she called jowls when she was feeling less charitable. She still looked like herself, didn’t she? And didn’t that count for something?
Now they were unspooling yellow tape across the intersection. Jeanne kept stepping on the gas but the car wouldn’t budge. It emitted a high-pitched grinding noise, the dented mailbox digging its claws into the fender. Come on, come on. She pressed the pedal full against the floor. People were stopping, making concerned faces, but they weren’t concerned. They were taking pictures. The officer gently rapped his knuckles on the hood. She pressed even harder.
Jeanne got out of the squad car in front of her house and slammed the door, mortified in her leotard and leggings, her little towel and mat. She refused to look back at the officer’s smug face behind the wheel as he tallied the credit he deserved for helping out a confused old lady. He could drive away now. Why wouldn’t he drive away? Her hands were shaking. It was the stress of the situation. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t unlock a door.
Starving, she went straight for the kitchen and got herself an opened sleeve of stale crackers and an essentially empty jar of blackberry jam. As she dug a glob off the side, her knuckles getting all sticky, the jar slipped from her grip and shattered on the tile. She washed up and went to retrieve the broom from its hook in the garage, pausing on the steps as she was struck by the great gap where the car normally sat, now just an oil spot. Back in the kitchen, she swept the large pieces of glass into the dustpan, all those sticky slivers getting trapped and hidden in the bristles. But she was too tired to comb them out, and hung the broom back on the wall like that—a hazard or a weapon, waiting.
She was still hungry. But food had become such a chore. She’d been trying to eat her way through Walter’s garden before the whole thing rotted or got decimated by squirrels. Lacking the energy to cook, she ate raw tomatoes like apples and nibbled on unpeeled carrots at the counter. Now those were all gone, leaving only a plot of spindly greens she supposed she’d better get to next.
“You’re getting too old for this,” she’d teased Walter, as he plotted out his raised beds on loose leaf paper. Tomatoes in the back for easy threading through his makeshift trellis of rope and pipe; green beans behind carrots; three squares of greens, their varieties alternating annually according to his whim: spinach, arugula, kale, mustard greens, nasturtiums, chards rainbow and red.
“One of these days, you’re going to keel over out there and I’ll find you like that, buried up to your teeth in manure.”
“Not the worst way to go.”
Jeanne had made her usual face and sat down on the couch, folding her legs snugly beside her as she opened up a magazine. Was this what the rest of their lives would look like? The two of them, just moving from room to room, saying things to each other? She’d watched him hunch down over his notes, the light from the desk lamp reflecting off his reading glasses. He always overdid it. They’d eat as much as they reasonably could but, for god’s sake, it wasn’t as if they had a family to feed any longer. In recent years, he’d taken to washing the excess produce and bundling it up for the surrounding neighbors, who accepted it with gracious bewilderment, he reported, clinging to their front doors. She never went with him to deliver these offerings, couldn’t bear the thought of all those indulgent smiles, the noblesse oblige of the young, as though they were the ones doing him a favor. The remaining spoils of his increasingly onerous hobby were entombed in the pantry, labeled with masking tape and black Sharpie. Who on earth was going to eat all this food, she’d wondered from time to time.
None of these neighbors showed up when he died. They probably didn’t even know—how would they? She didn’t know who on their block had died or had surgery or had babies. They all had fences, and double-paned windows the city had paid for to compensate for the noise from the nearby airport. And she hadn’t found him face-down in the garden, but in the quiet of their bedroom, upstairs and behind walls, as intended by god or no one.
She stared into the fridge, at the indecipherable rows of condiments and stacks of cling-wrapped leftovers, until the appliance began to beep, alerting her to the energy she was wasting. Oh, come off it. But she couldn’t stand to listen to that cheerful beep-beep-beep and pushed the door shut, her stomach still wrung and twisted.
Jeanne unfurled her mat in the living room. It didn’t sit entirely flat on the carpet, but her balance was strong enough to counteract the awkwardness. She switched the input setting on the TV, turning up the volume on the resulting snow, a trick she’d come up with to turn her brain off. She breathed through her sun salutations, then rose up to Warrior 1, following the rhythm she’d internalized. Dog-walkers passed by the bay window and Jeanne trailed them with her eyes. Some nodded at her and she acknowledged them, in her way, with an indiscernible flutter of the eyelids.
She hadn’t yet gotten around to cancelling her YMCA membership, but she wasn’t going to summon some Uber, like her son in Michigan had suggested, wait alone in the driveway for a stranger like an unpopular girl at a school dance. She couldn’t figure out the iPhone he’d given her anyhow, with its face recognition that didn’t recognize her half the time. She’d sooner stay put.
Jeanne was startled out of child’s pose by the kitchen phone ringing. It had to be the impound lot. They’d been calling right around this time for weeks, leaving messages to remind her of the fees that were accruing and the date upon which the car would be considered abandoned. They wouldn’t be able to leave any more. She had no plans to delete their previous messages, so the mailbox would remain full. They’d give up eventually. She pressed her forehead to the mat again.
The yoga instructors at the Y always finished with Shavasana, which they talked through of course, telling the class to get centered and listen to your body and blah, blah, blah, making it impossible to actually do those things. She breathed, eyes closed. Still, some sharp, restless wire seemed to work its way through her joints, poking her at every turn. She could pretend to turn her brain off for a few minutes, but her body persisted in feeling things all the time, and she was so dreadfully sick of it.
She was hungry, of course, hadn’t had breakfast. For the first few weeks after her license was suspended, Jeanne had gotten by on rice and beans from the pantry. Grocery delivery. Her son in New York had suggested that—the same one who’d pushed her to try yoga and look how that had turned out. She was supposed to choose produce without examining it by hand? To trust some teenaged clerk not to pack the canned goods on top of the eggs? She’d sooner starve.
Jeanne closed her eyes under the hot shower spray, rinsing the conditioner out of her white bob, the hair pasted to her cheeks and dripping water down her jaw. She used to obsess over the idea of which one of them would die first. For reasons she couldn’t explain, she always suspected it would be her. She would zone out in the shower, lost in fantasies of Walter finding her conked out at the kitchen table, having choked on an egg white omelet, or having suffered a stroke in a pile of laundry, zapped out of existence by the god she didn’t believe in. Like tonguing a canker sore, she pictured every sudden death that could befall her, with the vague notion that this would stave them off. So far, she was right. For all she knew, she’d already imagined her way into everlasting life. Wouldn’t that be something. Of course, she hadn’t ever pictured a death that couldn’t be contained in a single image. A slow death. That would be something too.
Since it would go to waste otherwise, Jeanne had taken to drinking Walter’s scotch. He kept a bottle in the den, a rare indulgence. Still in her towel, she stepped out to the back patio with a glass two fingers full, a single ice cube. She kept walking, out onto the grass, her hair drying in the sunlight.
The garden gate creaked open as she took a seat on the edge of a weed-strangled bed of rotting zucchini. Bone-dry soil she rarely remembered to water. She brushed it with her fingertips, then dug her fingernails in, pushing down to the still-wetness deep underneath the surface. She felt something slimy and quick, and yanked her hand out, dangling a translucent purplish worm in the web between her index and middle fingers. Setting down her drink first, Jeanne plucked the worm off her hand and flung it in the direction of a preening sparrow a few feet away. The bird dove for it and reared back its head as the worm whipped around, pinched in its sharp little beak. How easy, to be a sparrow. But how much easier, to be a worm.