I remember when my world divided into male and female, when the girls screamed “Shaun has cooties!” across the playground and flushed with what I thought was anger. I remember being in a... [+]
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When you are a competent old man who lives alone, you can eat what you want for breakfast. This morning I had noodles, or rather noodle soup, a favorite of mine for colder weather. Broth with scallions snipped into it and slippery udon noodles. I swirl an egg into it as my wife had shown me. The steaming soup warms the kitchen. She’s been gone five years now. Died in her chair while re-reading a Hardy novel, Jude the Obscure, possibly one of the more depressing novels ever written. That bright and busy woman loved dark stories. Noodles for breakfast has become a favorite of mine, except when the weather’s hot. Then I walk half a mile to the Russian lady’s coffee house, where they serve good potatoes and eggs.
The coffee house is one of the poles of my social life. The other is the chess club on the little shopping street two miles off. I ride my old bicycle there once a week, rain or shine, to meet a friend who plays as badly as I do, and afterwards we retire, we old retired guys, to the diner next door. The axis between those poles is the tiny garden in front of my apartment, which I can see from the French windows when I sit in my chair and read. My neighbors who know me and my habits wave to me through the window as they stroll past. My lost wife’s empty chair sits on the other side of the book table. When she was living, she would dig vigorously in the garden when the weather was good, followed by the neighbor’s gray-and-white cat. I would sit and read outside at the metal tea table then, if no one else was there.
My wife was no fuddy-duddy, though she looked her age. Of course, she always looked her age, and, like all of us in the shadowlands, she had not always been old. But this gray-haired gal was still quick-witted, and sharp-witted too, with a talent for sarcasm that presented itself with especial vigor when political news flashed across the screen of her laptop. She had been a reporter in her twenties and thirties, and a contract editor till she qualified for Social Security. After that she dedicated herself to reading, plants, the kitchen, and, for some reason, me. But she is gone. The Cajun lady, whom the gray-and-white cat seems not to like, now tends the garden, keeping faithfully to my wife’s arrangements.
The Cajun lady is a problem that I am not sure how to approach. She is a younger woman—and by "younger" I mean in her late fifties now—with bright eyes and a big laugh and no fear of the laugh lines that result. I am trying to discourage her attentions—for she is, almost unmistakably, directing her attentions to me—but I am not really sure I want to. Nor am I sure that I want to let her further into my life. She is working in the garden right now, her dark hair half-hidden by a straw hat, and looking, I must admit, a bit sensual as she crouches catlike to attack some wilting flowers by the little white fence.
Does she do it on purpose? Like all the neighbors that I know by name or face, she is familiar with my habits. This is the time I sit and read by the big French windows, facing the yard and the sidewalk beyond the fence. I return my attention to the book—I am reading Hardy this week, with no fear of mortal consequences—and Jude’s dreary failures somehow put me in mind of the way that Buddhists see ambition as a poison. But then I am old and comfortable and have never wanted to do grand things. My work, when I worked, was necessary but unspectacular; my love was spectacular but quiet; and I have just enough friends to satisfy me without crowding my week. Should love and its pleasant inconveniences remain a memory? My lost wife lives in dim gray reaches of my brain somehow. Would her memory be jealous, when she herself is beyond sensation? It is a stupid question, but one I can’t help asking.
A knock on the door. It is without a doubt the Cajun lady, bright-eyed and a bit breathless from her work. And it is work: the landlord pays her for her labor, as he did my wife. I open the door, and she is there, smiling and muddy-handed, with a streak where she has wiped her cheek. She smiles. "Do you have any coffee ready? I am so tired...." And, stepping out of her big black clogs, in she comes. Her bare toes on the rug, the nails painted red. She follows me to the kitchen, where I make us coffee. A new habit. My breakfast dishes are in the sink; this morning I didn’t wash them right away as I prefer. The Cajun lady, whose name is Nicole, I must admit, peers at them. "Noodles?" she inquires.
"You bet," I say. "Noodles for breakfast. You see, I have become eccentric in my old age."
"Hah!" she snorts. "Me, I had prawns and rice, with chili peppers and a fried plantain. I am eccentric too. Not back home, of course, but here. How do you make them?"
"Chinese style. But not really. A way my wife taught me."
"Your wife," Nicole says, "she was very sweet. You must miss her."
Nicole takes the cup of coffee I hand her and looks up at me, very seriously. "Tomorrow morning, make breakfast for me. I want to try these noodles of yours. The next day, I cook for you. Okay?"
I don’t let myself think it over and tell her Yes.
"Noodles for two, okay," she says.
We toast with our coffee cups. "Noodles for two, for breakfast, coming up."