[36] Mrs. Oleander at Windermere House, 1973, Robert Wexelblatt

Mrs. Oleander at Windermere House

She needs assistance to live now. She’s no
longer a she. She sometimes wonders who
she is, what she’s saying when she gibbers.
Where is she then? She visits less often
than she should but more than she wants. Last time
she looked at her puzzled and scared. Nadège,
the Haitian nurse, merrily reported that
she still whips everybody at Scrabble.
She resented being told; felt it was a reproach.
She hates it here, the muffled hallways
freshened with a scent she calls Euthanasia
No. 5, the pathetic garden outside
the triple-glazed windows, that weedy
Japanese maple and sad arc of spirea.
Here there are only shes. She puts her hands
over her eyes. To this favor she must come
warns Hamlet, though Yorick wasn’t a she.
She’s less of a she herself. There were so
many men but now that’s all over with.
She misplaced her libido last year or
the one before. La Change. She whines and knows
it’s maddening but just can’t help herself.
She’d gone through it too, so depressed she had
to take pills. She gripes to Mr. O.
until he finds some excuse to leave the room.
Her dentist frowned. She said her molar won’t
bear another crown. She needs an implant.
An implant, that’s what she called her conscience.
She endures blank days, whole weeks of bleakness.
She dropped the book club and tried binge-watching
but lost the threads. She gave up aquarelle
class and makes pointless trips to Bed and Bath.
She already has more than enough sheets, a
tower of towels, gadgets galore. She bought
a white-noise machine to get some fitful
sleep. Mr. O. did try for a while.
He talked her into a dinner party.
It left her in tears and she swore it was her
last. Cecilia seemed sympathetic but
she caught her hiding three yawns. Her friends play
bridge, do yoga, swim, read bestsellers. They’re
power-walkers, globe-trotters, beloved
nonies and bubbies, adventurous cooks.
She envies the ones whose mothers are dead or
remarried. She wonders who she was, is
now. She wonders who is she. A wife with
a platinum Amex card and a white
Mercedes? The childless daughter her childless
mother can’t quite place? Just the dissolving
referent of a peeled pronoun? She straightens
and steps into the room. She’s sunk in the
big recliner, stiff as a doll. The TV
is advertising a tropical cruise.
She turns, looks anxiously at Nadège and
asks, speaking for them both, Who is she?

 

1973

It was the last gasp of a decade of
doings careening into, stumbling over
one another like a troupe of spaced-out
acrobats. Charisma bred public
homicides, stacked up celebrated corpses.
War ran its fatal course and politics,
once a promising pail of fresh milk, soured.
Renaissance Rock began its decadence,
sinking into Mannerism, glam-disco-punk.
Aquarian rebels climbed to pinnacles
of silliness, sanguine naïfs waking to
each morning as if it were their very first,
thinking they could correct human nature
like some botched rough draft. Their blind hopes and
intrigues, the passions and high trills of the
first three acts settled to a spent finale,
something like the end of Figaro minus
the joy and pyrotechnics. Latchkey kids
endured tiresome, unsettling weekends with
estranged dads, dull weekdays with a depressed
mom downstairs. A retrospective sonogram
might shadow forth a fetus, the curled-up
future sustained on blood obliviously
given, unconsciously received, about
to shudder down a new decade’s canal
into the glare of an unsure present,
one not without aspiration, promise.

On March 5, 1953, Sergei Prokofiev
and Josef Stalin died. Coincidences
come in pairs. On November 22, 1963,
JFK and Aldous Huxley died. That’s
the day the Sixties began. The decade
closed ten years later in a flare of
undoing and novelty. But since we’re
all in thrall to the decimal system
and like nicknames, we call them the Sixties.

It was the year the U. S. pulled its troops
out of Vietnam and the APA
deleted homosexuality from
its Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders,
when the draft ended with the suddenly
quaint democratic ideal of the
citizen-soldier. Universities
ran out of baby boomers, draft evaders,
tenure slots, and Nixon cut off funds for
public housing. The year brought the Yom
Kippur War, the Arab Oil Embargo,
the inflating of inflation, the foolish
war having been paid for by printing cash.
It was the year when the economy
began turning palpably post-industrial,
computers superseding Bessemer
converters. Above all, it was the year
when women rose up, a century
after their fore-mothers turned from freeing slaves
to emancipating themselves. Women’s
Libbers burned bras and jacked up consciousness,
Roe beat Wade, and NPR matriarchs
out reported the hardened network men
on Watergate hearings and Title Nine.
Mothers put their daughters on The Pill,
hoping they wouldn’t take any others.
Now the war was over, it was the divorce
rate that began its decade’s escalation.
Annus mirabilis.

It’s our thing to divide time
and space, then from now, there from here.
We hanker to fix what happens
acre by acre, year by year.

In mêlées it’s hard to say
who’s losing or who’s winning.
Turning-points are tough to spot
when the dancer’s spinning.

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