The Snow Queen
Even as she wrote the words adult diapers, it hurt. When she asked her father whether he wanted anything from the store he shook his head sadly. Then he looked at his wife; she was sitting up in bed, her mouth sagging, staring vacantly at ... at what?
Faye got in her car and drove to the supermarket. She knew the adult diapers and a few other items on her list sold for less at the local Walgreens, but she did not want to make two stops; she had too much to do, thinking, Everybody so looks forward to weekends so they can relax and unwind, but my goddamned life is less stressful when I’m at work. She immediately felt guilty.
Many years before, during the first few weeks after she moved back with her parents in Queens, Faye spent hours both at work and at home calling hospitals, hounding the local police precinct, and putting up posters in an attempt to find Peter. During that time, when she was endeavoring to keep it together—work, searching for her brother, and taking care of her deeply depressed father and emotionally unhinged mother—she tried to be positive. She even managed to be polite and gentle with Howard when he called. She reminded herself over and over again then, and now when she thought of him, that she had known from the beginning what Howard was like. Despite his peculiar ways and his seeming inability to show affection—except in bed—he was a good man. She knew he would never knowingly hurt her or be unfaithful to her or leave her, but there was that void where his heart should be. She had repeatedly told herself that while she could help Howard learn how to interact with people, it would be impossible to alter his fundamental personality. Yes, he learned how to be polite with her friends—up to a point; yes, he began dressing better and noticing his appearance; and yes, he had started to respond in appropriate ways to situations and events that did not directly involve him, rather than ignoring what was going on and the people around him, but that was it. He had reached his limit.
If only Ellen had not called it quits. But it had happened, and then Peter tried to drown himself in drink. What else could I have done? Left him with our parents? Impossible. We had always been so close. Peter did nothing but drink, and he and their father had fought every day, which made their mother cry, so Faye had asked her brother to move in with her and Howard. She thought she had convinced Howard to be patient with Peter. Then, once Peter began working in the bookstore it all went to hell.
After a few months, Faye had to give up searching for Peter because she was no longer able to concentrate at work and because trying to find her brother had became an unbearably painful, fruitless, time-consuming task. She did not know what she would do if she lost her job. At around the same time, despite the fact that her father had been deeply depressed, it was her mother who completely fell apart. On an almost daily basis, at all hours of the day and night, she would scream and throw dishes and tear her clothing and run out, sometimes only partially dressed, in an attempt to find Peter. Twice, Faye and her father had found her at the local police precinct. The first time, the police had locked her, handcuffed to a bed, in a cell because they did not know who she was and they feared that if they did not restrain her she would hurt herself. If Faye and her father had not come for her that first time she police would have sent her to the psychiatric ward at a local hospital. The second time the police picked her up they knew to contact Faye and her father. Then she did begin to hurt herself: she used kitchen knives, matches, and glass bottles, on two occasions causing such grave injuries that her husband had to rush her to the emergency room of Elmhurst Hospital. Weekly visits to a psychiatrist and loads of medication helped to calm her ... and turn her into a ghost.
When Faye found a human resources job at Queens College she resigned from her position at Columbia. It was a step down and it involved a big cut in salary, but she could no longer trek back and forth to Manhattan every day. Besides, she lived in fear that Howard would try to visit her there again. She was not afraid of Howard hurting her or saying something upsetting; she just did not have the strength to deal with his unhappiness and pain and she was afraid that, if he kept on returning, she would eventually give in to him. After all, at the time, she was still a young woman who, despite the turmoil in her life caused by Peter’s disappearance and her mother’s mental state, yearned for Howard’s touch and the reassuring feel of his body next to her in bed and the thrill of their lovemaking. Of course, she told herself at the time, it need not be him. I can find another man, but could she? After roughly three years with Howard she felt connected to him, virtually married to him. As odd as he was, she loved him. In fact, that day, so many years later, as she shopped for diapers for her mother, she thought she still loved Howard. Maybe it’s just that I spent so much time with him, invested so many years in him, but that was then and this is now.
Faye thought about the rules her mother had presented to her on her twelfth birthday. The first one was holding out as long as possible: she had held out until she moved to Manhattan. Now, at this point in her life, she wished she had held out forever. What good had come from any of those sexual encounters? Even with Howard, although he had meant the world to her, in the end, what good had it done her? The second rule involved being very very choosy. Had she been? No, she thought, but who’s to say I would have been better off if I had waited for the perfect man, if he even exists? And, number three, using hand tools. Yes. That is a definite winner. In fact, I have to change all of the smoke detector batteries today. What a pitiful, crappy life. All the goddamned wrong choices I’ve made. She wished her mother had taught her other rules: harden your heart so you can survive when it’s broken; embrace love on your terms from the beginning; care about yourself more than you do others; act helpless so that others can do things for you; learn to forgive and forget, because you may not have a second chance; expect everything you do and every plan you make to go to shit; and be prepared for the fact that, in the end, nothing matters. That would have made a nice even ten, Faye’s Ten Commandments. Makes more sense than The Three Rules of Life, she thought bitterly. As if you can live your life by following rules. That’s what Howard does. He has, or had (she wondered whether he had changed over the years) rules about what to eat, when to get up in the morning, when to go to sleep, what books to read, where everything should be kept, and a million others, which placed him in the category of obsessive-compulsive.
When Faye had moved out of the apartment, leaving Howard behind, she had been so angry and hurt and worried and cold that it made her sick to even just think of him. However, after a while, she came to accept what she had known from the beginning but had been too upset to acknowledge: that none of it had been Howard’s fault. After all, can you blame a blind person for bumping into furniture? Howard was ... Howard. She decided that she should have moved in with her parents temporarily to give herself some time and then worked it out with him.
Why am I thinking of that again? It’s that I’ve reached that age. I’m 57. A dried-up spinster. To hell with political correctness. I wanted to be married and have babies. I’m a goddamned spinster.
Although it was not a new thought, she had begun to think about that more and more, especially on weekends, when she spent most of her time taking care of her mother and cleaning the house and making washes so that her father could have a break, could have a bit of a normal life. She dreaded the thought that even though he seemed to be reasonably healthy he could get wick or die at any time. Then what would she do with her mother? Her father had told her that he would never put his wife in a nursing home, but how would she be able to take care of her mother and possibly her father, and work at the same time? No sense thinking about that now. For the thousandth time, she thanked her lucky stars that a year after she moved back with her parents she had the foresight to convince her father to sell their old two-story house and move to a ranch a few blocks away. That was right before her mother crumbled in mind and body and had to be cared for and watched day and night. Faye had made sure the new owners of their old house and several neighbors had their new address and telephone number, in the unlikely event that Peter showed up looking for his family.
Faye returned from the store and put away the groceries. Then she went to her parents’ bedroom and told her father to go out, meet some of his old friends, go to a movie, anything he wanted to do, but he said he wanted to stay home, explaining, “I should stay with your mother; she seems to be very confused today,” as if she was any less muddled on other days. Oh, well, if he’s content to sit there with her, who am I to push him out into the world?
As Faye walked to the patio at the back of the house to smoke a cigarette, a habit she had picked up during those first frantic weeks after Peter disappeared, she thought, Nice weather; no reason to sit inside and mope. She left her smoldering cigarette in an ashtray on a table next to her chair and went back in to grab her book, Anna Karenina. She brought it out, picked up the ashtray, dragged her chair to a sunny spot, and sat. One long sigh, and then Faye turned to where she had left off the night before. Over the years, reading had become one of her primary sources of pleasure. Little by little, she had stopped reading the popular mysteries, thrillers, and tawdry romances that were the choices of the people she knew. For Faye, it was only classic novels, biographies, and history now. No, she said to herself, as she had on so many other occasions over the years, not because of Howard. After all, that was so many years ago, another lifetime, although my time with him was the only real relationship of my entire pitiful life. That was then; this is now.
Suddenly feeling anxious, Faye put down the book and went inside to check on her parents; they were sleeping side by side on their bed. She stared sadly at them: her mother was frightfully lost and slowly drowning in a bewildering, turbulent black sea of cognitive loss; her father, because he loved his wife, was holding tightly to her, willing to drown too. Although it was a depressing scene, Faye envied them, wondering, Who will be with me at the end of my life? I’m alone now, living in a house that’s not my home. What’s the point? Why bother? Why not buy a gun with three bullets, and end it? She pushed those thoughts from her mind, returned to the patio, found her place on the page, which was, ironically, the scene in which Anna throws herself in front of a train, and, with hot tears blurring her vision, began to read. She stopped and wiped her eyes with a tissue. Then she returned to the page and attempted to read, but her thoughts were elsewhere, in another place, at another time. She was far away, not bound by and imprisoned in her lonely, disappointing existence. She was above the clouds, looking down at mountains, valleys, bustling cities, verdant forests, sandy deserts, and the blue blue sea. She smiled, feeling buoyant.
I’m dancing on a brightly illuminated stage, surrounded by vibrant colors. I’m lighter than a feather and more radiant than an evening star. I’m floating above the misery and disappointment of my earthly reality. I’m gracefully gliding across the stage, inches from the footlights, embraced by all the other beautifully costumed dancers, and my heart is filled to bursting with joy.
I am the Snow Queen, and my home is an immaculate ice castle.