Belongings

By Janet Flora

I am looking at my friend Beth’s boots on the floor of my closet; it’s less than a month since she has died—I wonder if I should wear them today. It’s early October, perfect weather for boots. I think of all the times I saw her in these black, lace-up, round-toed boots. Sometimes she wore them with leggings and a long sweater or a short, pleated skirt. Even while she was undergoing chemo, she never looked like a cancer patient. She never lost her hair and always wore it short, deliberately dark at the roots and platinum at the tips. There are more of her belongings in my closet.

Last night, Beth’s husband Don invited guests to their apartment to choose an accessory, an item of jewelry, or a piece of clothing—anything we wanted to help us remember her. When her diagnosis of lung cancer was made, it was already fourth stage … Beth who never smoked, Beth who lived well and holistically and took herbs and vitamins and who had become a licensed acupuncturist just two years before her diagnosis. Perhaps that’s what helped her survive slightly more than five years with weekly rounds of chemo. In the world of cancer, she was known as a responder.

Now, strolling around Don and Beth’s Manhattan co-op holding a glass of Chardonnay, I wonder if I can really take something—or just admire Beth’s belongings set out like an intimate, upscale, sample sale.

On the dining room table, pairs of sunglasses are arranged in an optical display. Several are large and oval, a few have colored frames like crimson and mustard. Was it the black, oval frames that she wore when I first met her and Don more than 12 years ago in our building lobby? I remember our first conversation. We discovered that we both lived in the K-line apartment—me on the eighth floor and they on the sixteenth. I was carrying a vintage, bedside lamp.

“Where did you get that?” Beth asked, her eyes growing wide and reaching out to touch the milky, glass base of the lamp.

“Upstate at a yard sale.”

“I love a treasure hunt!” She told me about an antique bench she found at an auction that needed a little work.

“It was more than a little work,” Don said, joining the conversation laughing. “It took me a month to refinish it.” I learned that Don was a contractor and had renovated their apartment, as well as Beth’s office two blocks away. I was glad when they invited me to a cocktail party a few weeks later. That was the beginning of many dinners, shopping excursions, and later when Beth became an acupuncturist, treatment sessions. Unless I had a date, mostly it was the three of us during our times together. Somehow that never felt awkward, while they were each unique, they were a unit.

Now, standing at her dining table, I pick up a pair of reading glasses that are still attached to a neck chain. The magnification is 1.75, the same as I wear for reading. Sliding the chain around my neck I feel the glasses rest at the top of my breasts.

I think about the last time I saw Beth. It was less than three months ago when she gave me an acupuncture treatment in my apartment. She had closed her practice two years after her diagnosis, but would still see some friends and patients at home. When I greeted her at the door and hugged her, she did seem frailer than usual. I thought of asking if she wanted to postpone the session. Before I could she was setting up her needles on my coffee table.

“How is your back?’ she asked.

“Better than last week. Almost feels perfect,” I said, feeling guilty at my good fortune of straining it during an exercise class.

“Let’s get to work,” she said looking at me with her hands on her hips as she put on the same glasses, which I just took from her dining table.

I got up on the massage table she gave me when she closed her practice. She told me it would always be useful. Then she pushed a needle near my clavicle and another between my thumb and forefinger and twisted them until I yelled, “Ouch sadist.”

She laughed and said, “That’s when we know it’s working.”

I don’t know what Beth was thinking during those treatments. Sometimes she would report the results of a test, or a change in her chemo cocktail, or sometimes that she and Don had a good weekend in their country house. But it was reportage, no complaining. Sometimes I was thinking: yes she’s frail, but she’s still giving treatments and going to the country. She has already defied her prognosis; she could go on for a long time. But that was the last time I saw her, and I wish I had hugged her frail body a little longer.

I notice it’s not just the sunglasses that are so meticulously arranged. There are scarves folded lengthwise, one overlapping the next like cloth napkins for guests at a fine dinner. Beth loved scarfs and would wear them artfully around her shoulders, or on her neck, or sometimes like a headband. At another corner of the dining table there are pieces of jewelry. Standing next to me is a woman holding a sterling silver Elsa Peretti bean on a chain.

“It’s such a simple, classic necklace,” I say.

She seems startled, then smiles. “Yes it is. I was with Beth when she bought this; we studied acupuncture together. She bought this for herself when we graduated.”

“Would you like me to fasten it for you so you can see how it looks?”

“Sure. Thank you.”

As I close the clasp she picks up a hand mirror that has been set out on the table. We both stare at the necklace in the mirror.

“I don’t know,” she says, more to her reflection than to me.

“It looks great on you.”

Turning away, she waves to a woman coming through the front door, then glances back at me and says, “Thank you.” As she walks toward the woman it seems as if she is covering the necklace with one hand.

I recognize the pair of dangling, yet casual, sterling silver earrings I always admired on Beth. She unsuccessfully helped me try to find a pair. Placing my hand beneath the table edge, I sweep the earrings into my palm and close my fingers tightly around them, as if I’m afraid someone will see.

Don is standing in front of a corkboard hung on the wall between two armchairs. The board is a collage of pictures, which include Beth’s baby and graduation photographs. There are many of Don and Beth together. There are duplicates of most of the photos so guests can take one or more if they choose. Two women stand listening and watching, as if on tour in a museum as Don gestures toward the photos.

Don sees me and motions me to join them. I learn that the two women were Beth’s chemo nurses.

Annette, the petite, blond nurse, removes one of the pictures from the board and asks Don, “Is this your wedding picture?”

We all look over her shoulder as she holds it.

Tanya, the African-American nurse examines the picture, and then says to Don, “You were babies.”

“I was eighteen; Beth was seventeen,” Don says.

Beth was 57 when she died; Don is one year older. They had been married 40 years. In the photo they are barefoot standing in front of a pond. Beth’s hair is brown and waist length. Don’s hair is almost as long. He still wears it long, although now to his shoulders and it’s gray, but his smile is the same. I realize at this moment we are all smiling. Don excuses himself.

I look from Tanya to Annette, “Quite an evening, isn’t it?” I say.

Annette notices the glasses hanging around my neck and says, “Beth always wore those to treatments. She would read a lot, and then when she got too tired, Don would read to her.”

“Don never missed a treatment,” Tanya adds.

It was just last week when I saw Don waiting for Beth in their car, which was double-parked in front of our building. He was taking her to one of those treatments.

I knocked on the car window startling him. “How’s it going?” I said.

He shrugged. “In the beginning they say you have more good days than bad days. Now we have mostly bad days.”

I wanted to say something soothing, but knew it would sound hollow, and Don was no longer looking at me but instead a skateboarder who just jumped onto the curb without his feet leaving the board.

Then he turned to me and said, “If I’ve learned anything living with Beth’s cancer these last five years, I would tell everyone to stop looking at phones, tablets and screens and go enjoy their bodies as long as they could.”

As I now stand with Beth’s chemo nurses I say, “Yes, I know he never missed a treatment.”

Anita joins the nurses and me by the corkboard. I make the introductions. Anita has lived down the hall from Don and Beth since they moved into the building. She would often have lunch with Beth and take walks with her when Don was working. She helped arrange this evening.

“Ladies,” she says, “come into the bedroom. There are more things to see in there.”

We all move into the bedroom in procession. There is a rolling rack of clothes, organized into dresses, tops, pants, and outerwear. The woman who selected the Elsa Peretti silver bean is admiring a long, black cape on her friend. She is still wearing the necklace. More of the female guests are tentatively examining clothes on the rack.

Anita says to me, “You and Beth must have been the same size. Look at this Armani shirt.”

I stare at it for what feels like minutes. Finally, I slip it on over my t-shirt. Anita pulls me toward the mirror on the closet door.

“It looks great,” she says.

“Yes, it does,” I say, almost in a whisper.

I see Annette holding a tweed pea cap; she tries it on, and Tanya nods in approval.

Along the baseboard of the wall is a line of Beth’s shoes, heels, ballet flats, and the black, lace-up boots. I know Beth and I wear the same shoe size. I pick up one of the boots; they remind me of a construction worker’s except for the feminine size.

Anita approaches me from behind and says quietly, “Put them in here,” holding a black nylon tote open.

I obey and deposit the boots along with the Armani shirt. But I worry if one item serves as a memento, do several turn me from friend to predator?

The guests are beginning depart. I find Don and say goodnight. He peeks inside the tote and smiles. For the first time this evening, I wonder if he and Beth had planned this event together.

 

Now on this cool, October morning, I decide I’m not ready to take each step today in Beth’s shoes. I do however, hang the white Armani shirt in my closet leaving extra space on each side so it’s easy to spot, and I can get used to seeing it among my own belongings. Once I’m dressed for the day, I clip on the sterling silver earrings. I like that I feel them brush the skin just beneath my earlobe. I remember how hard Beth tried to find me a pair.

Finally, I take my own reading glasses from a red, leather case and replace them with Beth’s. It’s in this moment I see that without any of these things I would never forget Beth, and it did not matter what I took or left behind. The real gift was the evening itself.  It was a final tribute where we all got to celebrate her life, her style and her treasures.  Her belongings will always bring me comfort; they are tangible proof of the living, breathing friendship we shared. More importantly I’m grateful for the unique ceremony that taught me something greater about loss, remembrance, and how we measure what we give, what we take, and what is left when one person is gone.

 

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Janet Flora holds an MFA in writing from the New School. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Yalobusha Review, Sanskrit, and The Willow Review, which won best prose award in 2004. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Orleans Review, and North Dakota Quarterly and several other journals. Many of her stories and essays can be read on her website JanetFlora.com. She lives in New York City and teaches for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.


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