The pale blue sky was promising as the old woman peeked out of her window from behind her yellow curtains. Wilma drew the dusty curtains and admired her view: the dark waters of the Thames, the pastel rusted arms of the bridge, the frenzied gaits of the passer-by. She turned and glanced around her small studio, hands resting on the sill that was now behind her. The walls bore a creamy white colour, they were bare and as of yet undecorated; her small pink suitcase was still unpacked in the corner by the door, the only colour in the room besides the faded curtains behind her. To her right was her kitchen, crammed hastily between her bathroom and her only storage closet, whose door was slightly crooked. To her left sat her bed, squeezed between two creamy but stern walls. To her back was the large window, which stared out at the flowing river, the twisting streets, the rickety bridge. A faded white desk sat beneath it, crowded with stacks of pictures, papers and tourist maps that she had unloaded from her cavernous purse when she had arrived earlier this morning. Her new keys lay there too, and she remembered knocking hesitantly at the address scrawled on the back of her plane ticket to collect her new set of flat keys from the landlady. Even though it had been five in the morning on a Saturday, the kind looking English woman had offered her a cup of tea. She declined graciously (she had hoped it came off as such) and went next door to 1 Cheyne Walk to inspect her accommodations for the next month.
She could scarcely believe that this was her life now – a mere two days before, Wilma had been celebrating her seventieth birthday in Los Angeles. She had gone to the Neiman Marcus by her apartment on Roxbury Drive on her birthday to buy herself a new dress. The people there treated her as though she were a child who could not do anything for herself: Can we get the door for you Ms May? Do you need any help in the dressing room Ms May? Would you like someone to walk you to your car Ms May? No matter how many times she declined, though, they insisted. “Humph,” She grumbled to herself under her breath on her walk back home, “Insisting is just their cheap way of feeling good about themselves for helping out an old woman like me.” She despised using the word old to describe herself, although some might argue that her nineteen forty-five birth date lives up such a word. At seventy, Wilma was strong and lively. She walked every day, taught water aerobics classes at the local senior fitness centre and completed the crossword every day. She was sharp – mind and body alike.
At her seventieth birthday party, her son and daughter, Benjamin and Marilyn, had visited her. The day was warm and balmy, typical of Los Angeles in May. They brought her presents – a new smartphone from Ben and a solid black one-piece swimming suit from Marilyn – and sang her Happy Birthday, but at the end of the night, Wilma was flipping through an old photo album, longingly looking at pictures of her and her husband. William has passed five years ago now, and it had not escaped Wilma that she was a changed woman from when she first met him. Looking back at the photos of when they were first together made her see in a different light, a new light, just how much she had changed – how her hopes and dreams and desires were so much different than what she told herself they would be when she aged.
She was twenty-two then, young and vivacious, graduated from college with an art degree and freshly back from travelling Europe, her own paintings rolled up and stuffed into her bursting suitcase. She had sworn that past year, while wrapped in a young Italian’s arms on a gondola in Venice, that she could never get married – there were far too many men in the world and not enough time to kiss them all! And when she arrived back in San Francisco in nineteen sixty-seven, the world seemed to agree with her. But William did not. He, it was made charmingly clear, wanted her all to himself.
Much like her romances in Europe, hers with William had been a whirlwind. They went to parties together, they walked promenades together, they sailed together, they slept together. She remembered that day as though it were yesterday: they were at her parent’s beach house in a small alcove in some bay whose name escaped her now as it always had then. Wilma had woken up in a twist of blankets; she opened her eyes and pale morning light streamed into the blue room. The air was a haze of linen scent and a more musty smell that could only be attributed to their two bodies that had inhabited the cabin for a fortnight now. She pawed around her bed, but William was nowhere to be found. After a moment of fortifying herself for the move outside of her linen-strewn chamber, she sat up and swung her legs over to the side of the bed. Her feet retracted for a moment after they touched the cold ground, but soon planted themselves firmly on the wooden floors as she stood up and stretched, her arms lifting up the old button up that she wore to bed – a token from Jean, the Frenchman she had met in Nice. Stifling a yawn, she walked into the small living room, a swath of white and blue décor in an ode to nautical fashions, and lightly called his name: “William?” Her voice then was husky and deep, a trait she picked up from the French and their cigarettes. Her long blonde hair sported a grown out fringe and soft, sea salted curls. Her eyes were deep shades of green flecked with gold and surrounded by smudged out black eyeliner, a remnant of a beach party two days earlier. Her soft feet padded on the cool wooden floors of her parent’s cabin. “William?” She called again, this time louder than before. She crept into the kitchen, a charmingly messy jumble of ceramic mugs and mismatched plates piled into the small sink.
A breeze tickled her bare thighs and she turned around. The French doors leading out to the beach were wide open, light blue curtains waving lazily in the wind. And at the end of her line of vision stood William, framed by beige sands and sea green ocean. A smile flickered onto her pink lips and she followed him outside, mesmerised by his mere silhouette. She found him on the shoreline, barefoot and smoking a cigarette, his grey eyes full of sea foam and white waves. He was of average height, but he was slender enough to look as though he towered. He wore a thin white button up shirt, untucked and flapping in the wind over a pair of white boxers that she had bought him.
“Hello,” She said to him, her voice rose slightly to be heard over the crashing of the waves. She took the cigarette from his lips and held it up to her own, inhaling and turning her gaze to the sea to match William’s own.
“Good morning, my big bold hawk.” Wilma smiled at William’s nickname for her, a name that emphasised her strong will and her bold nature. But mostly, it was to poke fun at the mushy couples whose nicknames for each other were “little dove” or “sweet sparrow”. William turned to look at Wilma and she remembered their gazes meeting, his crooked teeth peeking through his parted lips as he returned her smile. She was almost as tall as him, standing resolutely at five foot nine. He was six feet tall, and when he held her, she held him back. He once told her that that was what he loved most about her, that she did not collapse into his embrace, that she held her own and held him up in the meantime. She was independent and she found a man who loved that about her, who didn’t try to wean her off of it like so many other men had tried to do, but instead encouraged it.
She inhaled his cigarette again, her hair streaming behind her in the wind, her eyes crinkled against the pressure. They were to go back to San Francisco tomorrow. Wilma had another art show and William had a job managing a theatre to get back to. Their little paradise was at its end and they would soon return to their shared apartment in the Haight neighbourhood. It was cheap and it showed on the peeling walls, the warped floors and the smell of mould that could not be scrubbed out. But it was theirs. They had only known each other for about two months, her having gotten back from Europe two months and two days ago, but such was the nature of the times – love was not to be put on a waiting list, it was to be seized upon, passionately and wholeheartedly.
“Wilma,” William had said, taking her by her two shoulders and wheeling her around to face him. “I have a question for you.” He took from the front pocket of his shirt a cigarette box and, turning it upside down, he withdrew a smooth stone, white and pearly and still damp from the ocean’s grasp. He took her hands and wrapped them around the small stone. “Will you marry me?”
Wilma remembered his eyes at that moment. They were grey and shiny and she could see her own reflection in them. She looked windswept and carefree and shining and – happy. She felt the stone trapped between her two hands and for a moment she reminded herself that that was what marriage is like, to be trapped, to be caught, to be caged. But she looked at William’s face and knew that her former twenty-two year old self was wrong. William is marriage and William is to be free, to be in love, to be myself.
Wilma looked at her left hand now. It was wrinkled and had countless age spots. There was a long black hair that grew out of an old mole. But nestled into the folds of her ring finger was a slim silver band with a pearly white stone settled on top of it. She suddenly felt alone in her bare empty flat. She sat down on her rusty bed and wondered why she had bought the plane ticket to London. If I felt alone there, of course I’ll be alone here, She thought glumly, her head cradled in her hands as the old bed creaked under her weight. Why did I come here, on some young fool’s dream?
She hadn’t really realised it until she looked through the faded pictures that night on her couch, but she hadn’t left the country again after her youthful romp around Europe when she graduated college. William promised to take her around the world, but his passions were in the San Francisco theatre scene, and after their children were born so soon after they were married, her meagre artist’s salary and his similarly small theatre one simply could not keep her dreams afloat. That is not to say that she had a bad time in marriage, in motherhood, but when she turned seventy, all alone in her apartment, she found herself looking back on a life with dreams not fully recognised.
In truth, it was the Neiman Marcus employees who did it, treating her as though she were some old helpless woman. As she walked back home with her cottony summer dress in tow, she argued with herself, trying to prove that she was not an old woman by any means. Her children had made it worse too. She knew that they came by in obligation nowadays, not because they wanted to see their vivacious mother. That made her wonder: was she even vivacious anymore? Was she bold? Was she fiery? Was she anything like that woman who William had fallen in love with, that day on the beach so long ago?
She went to bed going through her old memories like a frustrated librarian sorting through dusty index cards. She sat up. I’m old! She realised, knowing that nobody makes allusions to librarians anymore. Oh my god, I’m old! She ran to her closet and looked at her clothes: pantsuits, velvety athletic suits, dresses in dry cleaner bags. She panicked. How could I let this happen? She asked herself as she ran to her kitchen and threw open the cabinets, revealing stacks of cans of chicken noodle soup and a large bin of Ovaltine. She thought back to her conversation with her children that past evening. Sweet gods, I talked about the good old days – the good old days! She didn’t know how she had gotten to this point. Flipping through old photo albums, she saw the story of her life spilling out before her in the form of dusty, faded pictures. She had gone to college, she had gone to Europe, she had climbed mountains and sailed boats and smoked marijuana and had art shows and found love in a creaky old cabin by a tumbling, roaring ocean. I’ve got to find another adventure, She thought, tearing through the years of her life that had become old sweatpants and weary eyes.
In a rush of her old boldness, she picked up her new phone that Benjamin had gotten her and dialled. Ring, ring, ri—“911, what’s your emergency?” The dispatcher asked her. “I’m old!” She cried back, dropping the phone to her lap when she heard the tired sigh and the click that told her that the call was over. She calmly answered the call back seconds later in a falsely dignified voice, assuring them that there was no actual emergency. For them anyway, she thought ruefully to herself. As she sat on her old couch made up of a kaleidoscope of colours weaved in various scratchy yarns, she wondered what she should do. An idea struck her. She went back to her room, got on her hands and knees and peered under her bed. She withdrew an old shoebox and, opening it, she sat on the floor with her legs crossed and took out the frosty pictures that lay within.
There she was, with her newly shorn fringe and bouncy blonde hair, off to board a plane to Rome. She was smiling and waving at the camera. She wore a short colourblocked dress in pink and orange. She carried with her a small pink suitcase; she had bought it because it matched her dress. She remembered that she went to Rome with an empty suitcase, save for two changes of clothes. She had wanted to come back with it stuffed to the brim of European trinkets. And that she did.
Another picture showed her posing in front of the Trevi Fountain, her eyes closed and her hand frozen in time, throwing a coin into the glistening waters to assure her return to Rome, as legend had it. In the next photo she was laughing, bent over in amusement at the scene that played out in front of her – the couple next to her had gone and fallen into the fountain themselves! She smiled at the memory and at what her Roman ragazzo had mused to her in his thick accent: “Maybe this means they will never even leave Roma!” She laughed again and ran to his embrace. He whispered into her ear, “Maybe this means you should fall into the Fontana, too.” She was supposed to leave Rome the next day, and she did, waving goodbye to her handsome ragazzo as she boarded a train to Venice. He ran alongside the train, shouting that he loved her in his sweet accent and later in his native tongue.
In the next picture she was on a bridge in Paris, arms crossed and leaning to look over at the Seine. A Parisian pumping an accordion, mouth wide open in the middle of a forgotten song, stood beside her. Her look was pensive, her eyebrows knit together in apparent thought. She remembered this day; it had been her last before she was to board a plane home, leaving behind Jean and the month of memories that they had forged together. His next shot of her showed her looking towards him, her head tilted sideways and a slight smile curling on her lips. She wore a striped shirt and a black miniskirt with short black boots that she had bought in Italy, made of genuine Italian leather. The accordion still wheezed in the background, this time the instrument was pressed together and the singer was sucking in breath for an upcoming loud burst of song.
Jean had walked with her from the Notre Dame down the Champs-Élysées to the Eiffel Tower, begging her to stay. “I will take you all over the world,” he promised, “From Paris to Munich to Stockholm – and we will end in London!” Wilma sighed, wanting those things more than anything else. But she said sadly back to him, “I want to go all over the world more than anything,” And Jean perked up until she added, “But I can do it myself. I just need to go back to my home for a while and get things sorted out, make more money, sell more art. Then I’ll be back, you’ll see!” She sounded optimistic, but falsely so. Jean patted her hand, settled in the crook of his arm, “Alright, mon chéri, just promise that you won’t go off and get married. Then you can come back and we can travel the world together.” Wilma smiled at the notion and said, “I promise I won’t get married, I promise I’ll travel the world and I promise that when I do, you can come along.”
That’s it! Wilma was still sitting cross-legged on her floor, even though her legs and buttocks had long been sticking with pins and needles. I’ve got to finish seeing the world! In a flurry, the pictures from long ago were hastily stuffed back into their shoebox and shoved under the bed. Wilma grabbed her phone and this time dialled the number for an airline. After a long wait and an earful of dull elevator music, a customer service representative helped to put her on a flight to London – departing the next morning at nine o’clock sharp. “Thank you, thank you!” She giggled into the phone, before hanging up and rushing to her closet. She looked over her outfits again: pantsuits and athletic suits and old cottony dresses in clingy plastic bags from the dry cleaners. She frowned. “I can’t wear any of this to London, they’ll think I’m some old retired American.” You are some old retired American, a voice in her head reminded her. “I know that,” She snapped aloud, “But they needn’t!” She laughed and closed her closet doors after taking out a simple pair of black cigarette pants and a forgotten striped shirt and an old pair of black boots. She folded them neatly and placed them next to her pink suitcase from so long ago that she had taken out from under her bed. She placed a toothbrush inside of it along with her hairbrush, her makeup and her shoebox full of pictures. Then she zipped it up and stood it upright, the shoebox clanging to the bottom. She set her alarm clock to five thirty in the morning and went to sleep, her dreams of London and accents and airplanes.
Of course, She thought to herself, tucking into the thick layer of blankets that came with her newly rented flat. I came here to prove that I am who I think I am. I’m a brave, bold woman.
And I’m not old. Smiling at her own wit, she drifted off into a jetlagged sleep, surrounded by the white walls of her new flat, her pink suitcase glimmering in the corner.