It was a brick building in the desirable part of town. All the apartments had balconies shaded by forest-green, canvas awnings. Some showcased terracotta pots brimming with flowering vines that cascaded through the open iron railings. A narrow lawn edged the brick exterior. The lobby had seen better days. It smelled musty. A solitary, shabby, stuffed, burgundy chair occupied one corner of the room, positioned beneath a faded oil painting of what must have looked like two angels at one time. The security system speaker for paging the tenants had an “Out of Order” handwritten slip taped over it. Not much use to me. I located the elevator around the corner, pressed number three and rode up to my meeting with her. 301, 302 but where the hell is 303? I hate walking down silent, shabbily carpeted, musty hallways in quiet apartment buildings. It always depresses me. Besides, I was afraid of somebody or something popping out at me from around unfamiliar corners and recesses.
Apartment 303 …finally found it. A hastily scrawled note taped over the door, read “Knock VERY HARD on door”. Either she is asleep, I thought, or she is listening to music. So, following her directions, I banged on the door, feeling a little foolish. The door swung open as she pulled it hard from her side. “I thought you were certainly lost,” she slurred as she swayed a little. My first thought was that she might be drunk.
Proffering the delicate, Middle-Eastern pastries I had bought for her, I stepped into the apartment and deposited my purse and keys on the brown, suede couch. “What will you have to drink?” she asked “Wine, tonic water or tea?” Stating my preference for cranberry juice I proceeded to view the assortment of artifacts exhibited on one wall of the living room. “My travel wall” she explained, noticing my interest. “That is an icon from Russia. It is very valuable, about a hundred years old.” I asked what an icon was and learned something new. “And over there” she continued “is a funeral doll from Bali.” It was made entirely with coins. Apparently when someone died it was buried with the deceased person to make sure of financial security on the other side.
“This is what we eat today….you said you wanted to only nibble.” She set down a large platter with little portions of this and that. Hot rolls, cheese, a bit of pate, a sprig of grapes, two tomatoes sliced and few slices of dill cucumbers. She had set a little round table for us with two small plates, one chipped and the other perfect. I commented on how pretty the perfect one was and asked if it was from England. She merely smiled. The bamboo bead curtain separating the little dining space from the kitchen clattered each time she pushed through it to enter and leave. After several trips back and forth she finally got everything to fit on the table and we sat down to eat.
“You look tired” I remarked. “Did you get enough sleep last night?” “Oh yes,” she quickly came back, “but I did a really stupid thing this morning. I took an overdose of pills…blood-pressure pills. Instead of one I took two.” Her eyes kept closing every now and then. “I’m fine now.” The front of her hair was all white, sort of like Cruella De Ville in the movie “101 Dalmatians”. Her beautifully sculpted face with a high forehead must have once been very attractive. It still was in many ways. Her eyes were dark, piercing and the lids circled with green eye-liner. I could not look into her eyes for too long. They were too intense and gave the feeling that they could win hands-down in a staring competition. She had worn a black, sleeveless, polyester blouse with pink flowers printed on it, a fuchsia-pink slim skirt, which became her still curvy body. She wore heavy, silver bracelets which kept slipping to her wrists with a metallic clanking.
There was an aura of sadness about her apartment. We talked about dreams, especially recurring dreams and she mentioned that sometimes she still wrote them down though she had been more regular in the past. “I can open a dream journal written from ten years ago and all I have to do is read the first two lines and everything comes back to me in detail. Can you imagine that all this material would be lost if I had not recorded them?” “I do not like to believe in reincarnation for two reasons” she said. “Firstly, I am so tired of living that I need to rest. I just can’t see myself doing all of this all over again. Secondly, I am hoping that when I die I get to meet all the people who I loved. My dear husband – I want to see him again, my parents and several other sundry persons I knew. I just want to be with them and not return.” Obviously, reincarnation would not fit into her plans.
Later, we pushed away our chairs from the table and continued talking in the living room, with me seated on the brown, suede couch and she in a rocking-chair. She glanced at the piano and sighed. “Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I play the piano for hours for my husband. When he was alive he loved to watch me play. I know he watches and listens even now. Do you believe that?” So I shared a true story of me once witnessing a Spanish professor playing a very haunting melody on the piano, at a recital, while accompanying his daughter on the violin. I felt his emotion. The melody appeared to have a special meaning for him. Every now and then he would glance up at the studio skylight . Later, while guests mingled I spoke with him. I observed that he had seemed totally oblivious to his surroundings and it felt that he was playing it exclusively for someone he had loved. He shared with me that as a child who grew up in a small village in Spain, a band of travelling musicians would stop there once in a few months and play this melody, among others, on their violins and his mother would hum this particular melody for days after their departure. The day of the recital was the anniversary of his mother’s passing and it was only when he started to play that he remembered that fact.
Clearly moved by my account, Meredith then offered to play a piece for me on the piano. It was a Swedish melody, the words of which she wanted to translate for me. Her husband loved it. It was his favorite piece and they played it at his funeral, because it was a very uplifting piece. “I can’t find my glasses. Oh! I’m really hopeless today.” She disappeared into a room inside and reappeared with her glasses on and some music sheets in her hand. “I’ll explain the words to you. Oh forget it, you are probably not interested.” I pressed on and she willingly translated. “When you are alone at night and the worries of the world are heavy, and there is no one to console you, turn to the tunes (music). It will hold you in its arms and comfort you.” I sat there with eyes filled, feeling so very sad for this beautiful, lonely woman who still missed her husband 20 years after his death. The music was sweet, sad and yet comforting. Her face had changed. She seemed as if in a trance and lost in the music. “Well, I just thought I would play it for you. I knew you would like it.”
I remarked that she was so lost in playing and her reply was “Well, I have played this hundreds of times to myself at night and anytime that I feel like. Lately, I have taped my piano playing…certain tunes that I know my children like, as a memory for them when I die. When we lived in Hawaii, we spent Saturday mornings just sitting around and I would play the piano and one of my sons used to come up behind me and put his arms around me. I have discussed certain things that I would like them to do after I die. I don’t care what they do with my ashes. But then, I want them to go to a lovely place, anywhere, the park or some such place and buy lots of balloons. I love balloons! Money should be no consideration. They have to really buy as many balloons as they can. Then I want them to sit around and talk about me, their father, their childhood, all the memories they have of me and my husband and then release the balloons into the sky and set them free. Don’t you think that is a good idea?”
After making light conversation for a few more minutes, I stood up to leave. Really, she was now falling asleep in mid-sentence and I felt that she needed to rest. She accompanied me to my car. “I always wondered about these apartments when I passed them, never knowing I would visit them someday” I said.
“Well, I wondered about this place too” she reminisced. “When my husband and I came out to California for visits with the children, I used to like this building a lot. It was close to our hotel. When I became a widow, I returned to live here permanently and stayed with a friend at first while looking around for an apartment. I rang the manager’s bell for four days and got no response. I thought I would try a fifth time. I found the manager who said the apartment was vacant as of that day since the former tenant had killed herself.” A cold feeling washed over me. I left then saying goodbye and thanking her for lunch and the music, but chilled as I remembered her parting comment. “Oh I’m okay” she had said. “I think of her often when I use some of the stuff she left. By the way, the plate that you liked and ate from belonged to her ”.