Her Perfume Lingered

a fiction by John K. Adams

Everyone grieved Margaret’s death.

Mandy balked at calling her Margaret though. “Who is this Margaret? She always went by Dottie. That was how I always knew her, for decades. Suddenly, she’s Margaret? Did they even know her?”

Ivan, Dottie’s husband of over fifty years, was bigger than life. He had this old world, never say die, attitude, like a modern Zorba the Greek. If there was no way to do something, he just cut his own path. And dragged Dottie along, like it or not.

Ivan was never one to look back. Dottie would add, “Except to ensure I was keeping up, and had the snacks with me.”

Now, at the funeral, Ivan was declaring ‘Margaret was his guiding light.’

Dottie would have said, “Yeah, guiding light. You know, that thing you hang on the back of the caboose?”

Difficult as things were between them, and they were always difficult, Dottie wouldn’t leave Ivan. She couldn’t. Leaving was not in Dottie’s DNA.

It was complicated. She needed him. She couldn’t stand him. They had so much history. So much she couldn’t forget. Or forgive.

She tried. Dottie planned her escape, many times. But she never followed through. She called it her ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. They had built a life together. But if she left, who could she hold accountable? And there was plenty to account for.

Ivan’s old world view included the man’s birthright to fool around. He was very charming and flirted with waitresses without regard to how it made Dottie feel. Fluent in several languages, Ivan acted as if you didn’t understanding the words, you couldn’t possibly understand. He was like a toddler believing he is invisible because he pulled a blanket over his head. If Dottie called him on it, he would say he was just “being friendly.” It never meant anything – to him.

Dottie never had solid evidence Ivan did more than flirt. But she had plenty of suspicions. Rumors of his dancing at a club while Dottie was home with the babies. Young women knocking on their door, asking for Ivan, who had promised them a ride.

Then there were his untimely layoffs from work. It was never clear why, but again, rumors from HR about sexual harassment were hard to ignore. Dottie summed it up, “Where there’s smoke, someone gets fired.”

Ivan made a great show of cleanliness. He regularly inspected the house, running his white glove over the tops of door frames. Then he’d hold his smudged finger up as proof. She never could satisfy Ivan’s directives on how to iron his underwear.

Even after she got sick, Ivan would scold Dottie if the microwave wasn’t immaculate.

It could always have been worse. Ivan did the honorable thing and married her. But that issue became the core, around which every argument swirled. Though not mentioned for decades, her entrapment/his seduction was always in there, if you wanted to look. After everything she’d been through, Dottie couldn’t let go. And so she couldn’t leave.

Dottie let off steam with her best friend, Mandy. Dottie exercised her gallows humor fantasizing her ultimate escape with tragic death scenarios. She described accidentally drowning because her swimming suit gets caught on the bottom rung of the pool ladder. Or slipping on a banana peel and getting run over by the Good Humor truck. Electrocution by hair dryer when she forgets she is still in the shower. Being smothered by a flock of molting birds. Being crushed beneath a falling hot air balloon. A fatal accident for every occasion.

Mandy was not amused, which enhanced Dottie’s enjoyment.

“I can’t get behind all this ‘I’m ready to die’ nonsense. There’s no future in it.” Mandy refused to live in the past. And she was pretty fond of the present, no matter what was happening in her life. Mandy told Dottie they had a long future to look forward to, shopping for shoes. She told Dottie, “You sound like a character in an eighteenth century tragic romance novel. Camille, or a Dickens character.”

Dottie would smile at that.

Praying for death made no sense to Mandy. “Prayers like that are an affront to God.” Mandy couldn’t understand why Dottie didn’t just leave Ivan.

Dottie said, “I can’t. It’s like we have this symbiotic relationship and need each other, even though we are toxic to each other. Of course Ivan doesn’t see it that way. When we aren’t fighting, he adores me.”

Dottie and Mandy grew up together. When kids, they sat eating hot dogs and talked about roles and relationships. Mandy said she learned more from those sessions with Dottie, than she did at university. It was sad Dottie knew so much but wouldn’t act on her own behalf.

But Dottie didn’t see it that way. Being needed gave her purpose. It wasn’t perfect but she couldn’t deny the part of her which needed to be needed. How could she walk away from that?

All Mandy could say was she hated to see her friend unhappy.

“Being unhappy seems to be part of who I am,” Dottie said. “I’d be unhappy alone too.”

Then Dottie got sick. It was serious and the jokes weren’t funny anymore. Dottie was scared straight. She wanted to live. She fought and suffered through treatments that made her wonder how much she could take. Everyone told her how strong she was. She tried to joke, “I’m just incompetent. I finally get my wish and I’m flubbing my exit.”

Dottie was in the fight of her life. Years of screaming matches didn’t prepare her for this. Mandy saw unexpected changes in her friend. She softened and was vulnerable. Dottie learned to express her needs.

Ivan cared for her, day and night, like no one else could. They needed each other like never before. They were tender with each other. They fell in love once more. And they told each other so. Their last days together made up for their years of strife.

She signed on for experimental treatments. There was always hope. They prayed together. Some days were better than others. But the bad days were hellish.

And then, one day she was gone. Dottie was such an important part of so many lives. People couldn’t believe this rock in their lives had vanished. So many looked to her for strength and common sense.

One day, Ivan met Mandy for lunch. Mandy wanted to see how her old friend was holding up.

“I don’t know, Mandy. I miss her so much. She was everything to me. I needed her. I don’t know how much longer I can continue like this. I think I’d be better off following Dottie. I want to be with her.”

Mandy couldn’t believe what she heard. “Ivan. You were always the strong one. You can’t be serious about wanting to die.”

“She was my strength, Mandy. You know that. You remember that old song, ‘Driving Wheel’?”

“Jackson Browne.”

“Yeah, then you know what I’m talking about.”

That night, Dottie came to Mandy in a dream. It was so vivid. Dottie was so real. Mandy could smell her favorite perfume on her.

When Mandy told Dottie what Ivan said, Dottie grabbed her and said, “No! He can’t be serious, Mandy. I’m finally at peace. I’m free. I’m happy. I’m in Heaven now.” Dottie paused. “I don’t want him to die for me.” Then she gave Mandy a sly look, the meaning of which, only decades of friendship could convey. “I want him to live for me.”

Mandy awoke with a start. She looked for Dottie and then realized it was a dream. But that perfume still lingered.

Mandy called Ivan. She needed to tell him Dottie’s message.

Ivan answered and Mandy didn’t make small talk.

“Ivan, I just had the most vivid dream. Dottie came to me and I told her what you said.”

“Really?”

“Yes. And she gave me a message for you.”

“What did she say, Mandy?”

“Dottie told me to tell you, ‘Choose life!’”

 

 

Marina’s Dream Killer

There, in the rose garden, they took Marina’s money. Seven dollars. And her jewelry, including the aquamarine ring her grandmother gave to her.

The thug with the straight razor kept swiping it through the air, calling her names and threatening to cut her face.

“The ring isn’t worth anything,” she said. “Except to me.” She glanced at the guy with the pistol, hoping for mercy.

The gunman pressed the business end of the pistol against the nape of her neck, forcing her head forward.

“Why are you looking at me? Get on your knees. Now!”

Marina complied and stared at the ground. Rose petals lay everywhere. At her knees, a patch of clover had pushed through the asphalt. Would clover be the last thing she saw?

Pistolman told Razorman, “Pick up her trash. She ain’t got nothin’.” They booked, leaving her to stare at the ground. They didn’t hurt her but they sure left an impression. Marina didn’t cry.

The flowers were gone.

Marina awoke with a start. That same damn dream. It’s been years.

She wished she could forget that day. It keeps coming back when her guard is down.

Marina read once about a culture that taught its children to defeat whatever dream demon was pursuing them. Marina wished she knew how to defeat someone holding a pistol to her head.

She rolled out of bed and prepared for the wedding. She showered as hot as she could stand. Soon the dark fog receded and only dark outlines remained on the clouds of steam. By the time Marina put on her make-up, she felt almost herself again.

The phone rang. It was Marina’s best friend from work, Annabelle.

“Where are you, Blondie? I need you here.” Annabelle was Marina’s supervisor at work. But today was a Saturday. And it was Annabelle’s wedding day.

“I’ll be there. It doesn’t start ’til eleven.”

“But you need to be my Maid of Honor. Carla canceled about five minutes ago. Can you believe her?”

Marina sat. “No, Bellie, I told you. I can’t do that. I’m just a guest. I don’t do all the parading around.”

“You just have to stand up there and look pretty, Blondie. Would it kill you to do that for once in your life?”

“Bellie, don’t be a dog of a manager. I’ll only do it because it’s your wedding. But I don’t have a dress!”

“Don’t worry about that. Just try to look pretty.”

“I always look pretty, Bellie. That’s not the problem.”

Marina hung up the phone and put her hands up to her face. “No…no. Not today… Why today?”

There was an apology text from Jack. Marina wasn’t in the mood and deleted it without reading it. She got dressed and grabbed her gift bag, checked the apartment and left. The black fog followed at a distance.

Marina and Annabelle headed a team of nurses at a hospital ER. They all hung out together on weekends. It was a good team.

Everyone had a nickname and hazed each other mercilessly, establishing camaraderie in the high stress environment. Everyone had each other’s back. No one knew what would come through those ER doors.

Marina could take the joking. And hand it out too. She felt accepted. It felt like home. Not everyone made the cut.

She was known for her nonsensical sayings, which somehow, also seemed to make sense. Her philosophical, “It’s a doggie-dog world” was everyone’s favorite quote.

As Marina drove to the church, she thought about her last conversation with Carla.

Carla didn’t “Bird around the bushes,” as Marina would say. How could she let Annabelle down? She must be quitting.

“You should transfer, Blondie. ER is too crazy for you. Go to someplace calm, like Oncology.”

“It all happened so long ago,” Marina said. “It’s just a dream. I know it’s a dream when it’s happening. It was like a dream when it first happened. I just push through it.”

“Don’t get me wrong. We don’t want you to leave. But that dream can’t be good. Over and over?”

“It doesn’t really happen that often. Not like before.”

The ER couldn’t refuse service so it seemed some people lived there with no place else to go. And when flu season hit, every chair was occupied.

The hours were long. They couldn’t always save the worst cases. But they sure tried.

She half expected Razorman or Pistolman to ride into the ER on a gurney. But they never showed. Though not traditionally religious, Marina sometimes included them in her prayers. Sometimes not. Then it would get so busy, Marina would forget about those two. For a while.

Every day at the ER was different. Shootings and car accidents were the main events and thankfully, rare. But they were real.

Marina was good at handling real. She was efficient and compassionate. She could tend to business while stitching some kid up. Her funny little songs always helped the children calm down and laugh, even when things were scary.

Marina wondered how to get someone to sing for her when it got scary. Like now.

Marina didn’t want to do this wedding thing. Why couldn’t she just be a guest? She was happy just sitting at the back of the church and observing. She enjoyed watching the pomp and ritual of joining two people in matrimony.

She discovered people act differently at weddings than in ‘real life.’ It was entertaining to see past the bells and whistles to track all the pinballs.

Annabelle was ‘Nurse Central’ as far as who made the inner circle, or not. It seemed everything revolved around her.

Except for Marina, Annabelle was the last nurse on the floor to get married. Someone joked Marina was the Susan Lucci of the nurses.

Marina countered that “Susan Lucci isn’t blonde, or a nurse.” She added when she did get married, she “will repent in Leisure. I understand they have a spa there.”

Others said Marina couldn’t get a date for the wedding. But Marina always had a date. Except for the wedding.

Her latest boyfriend, Jack, said he didn’t want to go, “because women at weddings always get ideas.”

Marina simply said, “There’s no fool like a stupid fool.”

Marina sat idling at a long light. Normally she would be impatient but this felt like a reprieve.

At Annabelle’s wedding shower, in the theme of Beauty and the Beast, they had a great time. There was lots of catered food and everyone brought presents. It was a big deal.

Annabelle always called her fiancé ‘my Beast.’ She was crazy about him.

Carla came late and brought an inflatable sex doll as her ‘date’. They played a bunch of risqué games and took turns dancing with the inflatable doll. It was hilarious.

Marina pulled into the parking lot at the church and texted Annabelle. She couldn’t believe she had no date and now was suddenly part of the wedding!

She hadn’t gone to the rehearsal. She felt bleak. Luckily, all she needed was to look pretty. That was easy. She could do that in her sleep.

This church was new to her. Everything had a halo around it. She thought, “Is this what a migraine feels like?”

Annabelle met Marina at the Rectory door, took her by the hand and dragged her down a hallway.

“I’ll give you to Kat, the Pastor’s wife. She’s great. She’ll fill you in. I can’t believe how much there still is to do!”

Annabelle suddenly turned to Marina and hugged her. Then she took her by the shoulders. “I can’t thank you enough for this. I’m going to kill Carla.”

Marina just said, “Happy to help. But wait ’til you get back from your honeymoon”

Annabelle shook her head. “Right!” Annabelle pulled her into the church office and introduced her to Kat.

“Nice meeting you Marina. Have you done this before?”

“I’ve seen about a thousand weddings, but never been in one.”

“I tell you what, just watch me. I’ll sit in the front. I’ll signal you if you need it.”

“Thanks, Kat. I’ll get through it. At least I don’t have to kiss the Beast.”

Everyone laughed.

Marina paused. She pointed at Kat’s flowered headpiece. “I love your tiara. I’ve never seen one of clover.”

Kat laughed, “These aren’t clover, honey. These are baby roses.”

Kat reflexively touched her tiara and Marina saw a flash of blue on her hand. Marina took Kat’s hand and looked at her ring. It was her Grandmother’s aquamarine ring.

“What a beautiful ring.”

“Well, thank you, Marina. Sam gave it to me.”

Kat looked up and Marina followed her gaze to see Pastor Sam smiling at them. He offered his hand as Kat introduced him. Marina knew him and he knew her.

Time and space evaporated and Marina stood again in that long past rose garden, face to face with the gunman.

Marina took his hand and beheld him. She couldn’t breathe. He hesitated and stopped smiling. Marina teared up.

“You are forgiven,” she said hoarsely.

The tension was broken. Sam smiled gently and gave Marina’s hand a slight squeeze. Then he let go.

Kat broke the spell. “Forgiven? What for? Do you know each other?”

Marina shook her head. “He was in a dream.”

Kat laughed. “That must have been some dream.” Everyone laughed but Marina and Sam.

They continued looking at each other. The room went silent. Marina turned to Kat.

“Your ring was there too.”

Kat shook her head. “You dreamed of my ring? What are you talking about?”

Then Sam spoke, very quietly, “Forgiveness is the only door through which we can find true, and divine love.”

Kat laughed. “Amen! Baby! You’re on fire today!” She started clapping and everyone joined in.

Sam continued smiling and spread his arms to include everyone in the room. “Aren’t we all forgiven? It seems impossible, such a miracle.”

Marina laughed and nodded and burst into tears. “Yes! It’s true.”

Marina always said Annabelle’s was the most beautiful wedding she ever saw. It was there she defeated her dreams.

Deja vu

I recently came across a notation of a dream I wrote down years ago. There is no date on it:

The Christmas Thief

A thief stealing Christmas gifts from under a tree is surprised by Santa Claus whose hand thrusts the thief into eternity.

Standing for eternity with his hand on the thief’s shoulder, Santa takes pity upon him where upon the thief ceases to have ever existed but in Santa’s memory.

Residing in Santa’s memory, the thief now is faced with the impossible choice of spending eternity in a frozen moment of guilty revelation or never to exist at all.

What does this mean? I still don’t get it.

Dreams are strange animals.

I once dreamed I by chance met an old friend who I hadn’t seen in years. Most of my dreams are mundane at best and I quickly forgot it.

Then I was in a photography gallery contemplating making a purchase when who should walk in the door but my old friend from the dream who I hadn’t seen in years! I immediately remembered the dream. (That this should have happened in a photography gallery, where captured, frozen moments of time are displayed seems apt.)

It was a perfect déjà vu. Seeing him, I was shocked and amazed and speechless as I kept realizing our encounter was a replay of my dream. But the curious thing was that I acted the same way in the dream. I found myself caught between two worlds, identical yet interacting in my mind as the moments passed. Every time I tried to speak I would get caught in the déjà vu and balk which confirmed the déjà vu.

My friend must have thought I had gone mad seeing me incapable of normal conversation.  Perhaps I had; or one of me had anyway. It is a short circuit of time. The image of a mirror reflecting a mirror is commonly used and is a good but flawed analogy. That sight in a mirror is amazing and it draws you in with a sense of vertigo but it doesn’t create the sense of fragmented time that I felt.

The moment passed but I still puzzle over it. What does one do with such an experience? You can only attempt to capture it in words which are such a pale recreation of that extraordinary moment where you are literally in two places at once but the two places are identical.

It lasted just long enough to make me conscious of the possibility that it might not stop. But it did.