I’m old. I know that now, if I didn’t before. No, I don’t think I did before. Maybe I thought the wrinkles were cracks in the mirror. Maybe I attributed the sagging skin to mood or bad weather or gravity pulling particularly hard today. I know now. I’m old. God, I’m old. You showed me that, with a glint in your eye and your laugh, the one that sounds like the roar of a Cadillac. I don’t even know if anyone even drives Cadillacs these days.
I don’t even know how I managed to stay na´ve all this time. Surely my admission into Hell’s own old age home should have given me a clue. Hell’s own… I should be making that up, but I’m not. I live in Hell, Michigan, and I hate it here. Fifty years ago, I wouldn’t have even glanced at this town. Fifty years ago, I would’ve been in a billion different places, and now I’m here, in this godforsaken cigarette stain on the face of the world. When I say that around Caro – Caro’s my daughter, I should tell you – she blushes and goes silent. I know she feels guilty for leaving me here, like a spare tire, like an old, rotten scarecrow, and she shouldn’t. It’s not her fault that she and Joel can’t keep me – keep me, like I’m a dog or something! I know better than anyone that life is a spiteful old bitch who’ll taketh before she giveth. It’s not Caro’s fault that I have to stay in Hell, and live in this place, and eat my dinner with all the Six-Feet-Unders, who dribble like kids. That’s what I call them: the Six-Feet-Unders. I swear to God, they die twelve times before they get out of bed in the morning.
Back in the day – God, I sound old just saying it – I would’ve offed myself before I was seen dead in a place like this. Their idea of a party is pot plants and some half-dead Roger or Alfred tapping out Tea for Two on the organ. I hate the organ. No, back in the day, I would’ve showed them something, something with style and pizazz and sex – huh, as if that word is ever uttered around here. I’d show them a throw-yourself-around-the-room kind of shindig. The kind of thing where you wake up and you don’t know if you’re dead or alive or which way is up, and you can’t even recognise yourself in the mirror. They wouldn’t be able to stand it.
Caro would say I’m being difficult. I tell her, always, that difficult is filling up a stage; difficult is making three thousand people wipe away their tears with the sleeve of their shirts. I say to her, when I’m in the whisky daze, particularly then, I say, “Caro, honey, you don’t know difficult. You live in a little, plastic American dream, picket fence and all, and even when the money gets tight, you still get to watch I Love Lucy on the 26-inch screen. You wouldn’t know difficult if it bit you, and, baby, I hope it never does.” She rolls her eyes. I guess no one watches I Love Lucy anymore.
Anyway, this isn’t about Caro. This is about you, really, if I’m going to be honest, cross my heart and such. You make me feel ridiculous even for saying it, and I’ve always hated you for that, I always have. From the first day I saw you, your nametag all shiny and new – the new helper, the guy from AquaFit, the one who’s going to show all us old diddies how not to drown – I felt ridiculous. It’s hard holding on to your dignity in a place like this, with people like this, with food that tastes like someone’s already digested it. Somehow I had kept mine, but from the minute you walked in the door, whoop, there it went, out of my hands and into yours. You were all strong and young and capable, and I think the Six-Feet-Unders would’ve tackled you down and tried to suck all that out of you, if they hadn’t been so empty of passion. I tell Caro all the time, if there’s one thing I’ll never be, it’s passionless. To be passionless is to be like an orange with all the juice sucked out.
And I resisted you, for the first few months at least. Every time I saw your name on the noticeboard advertising your classes in the big, sterile indoor pool, part of me spat at you and all the Six-Feet-Unders, and all their silly, self-obsessed kids who think that aqua aerobics is a good enough substitute for human compassion. I heard your voice, big and clear and echoey, yet, somehow, sweeter than the sweetest thing, sweeter than honey. After weeks of hearing that voice, thick like some syrupy French desert, I peeked my head round the door, and saw you, and then I saw you again and again and again…
God, I never thought I’d be a groupie. I thought I was better than people who live through other people, who were tied to other people. I always knew how to pick ‘em, the lovesick ones, with their hands eternally wrung, their minds eternally wishing, their hearts strangling their bodies. I never wanted to be one of them. “It’d be like being dragged down to the ocean floor,” I used to think. And now…? Now I think that it’s the thing that keeps a drowning girl from dying, but never lifts her above the water. Worse than dying, because you have so much to live for.
I went to your Thursday class. You didn’t notice me amongst all the flabby grannies in billowing pink swimsuits. I got in the water and copied the movements you showed us, and I felt so damn stupid and so damn old. I felt like you were laughing at us, framing us as a perfect picture of ‘What Not to Become’. But every Thursday I went, and every Thursday I got older and deader. Once, you told me I couldn’t smoke in the pool area, and I said “what else do you think keeps me from drowning?” You laughed and told me to put it out, and I did. I regret putting it out.
And as time went by, you started to know me – not the real me, mind you, the older me, the one that’s suffocated in this old age prison. When one of the inmates died or got sick, we’d eat together in this little corner of the refectory that no one but us ever visited. I started to know things: the names of your sisters, what your favourite type of pasta is, how you nearly went to the Olympics that one time. Dangerous little things that people should only share when they’re young and have enough to exchange. I never felt like I had enough to give you in return for all your little charms. So one night, many months after our first meeting, I told you everything I could, gave you everything I had, by the light of the fake candles on the table, and you listened like you were drinking in my every word. I told you how good I was, way back when. I told you how crowds would stand up when I walked into a room, how people would sell their cars to get tickets to my show, how the Hollywood Bowl lit up with a million tiny cameras when I walked on the stage. I told you how men would die to get my picture, women would curl their hair to look like mine, my voice was on the radios, my face was in the newspapers, my life was the life of an angel. I told you how terrifying it was when people stopped coming to see me, when cars became more important than my shows. I told you how I never saw the end coming, not ever, and I didn’t know why because I should’ve, I should’ve known. When it came, I was left to burn out like a summer campfire after everyone’s drunk too much and gone to bed. And I wish I could’ve been wise enough to do myself in over drugs or drinks – better than rotting away after nobody wants you.
I told you all this, and you looked at me like you were seeing me clearer than anyone ever could. And the next week, you packed up and left for the Olympic trials, without a word, not even a sign on the noticeboard.
Some days, when the Six-Feet-Unders are tucked up in bed or at church or pulling out the grey prickly plants from the vegetable garden, I flick through the channels on the TV, to see if you’re on any of them. I haven’t seen you waiting at the starting blocks, ready to one, two, three, GO! I guess I haven’t been looking that hard. If I could, I’d tell you how stupid you are. You think you’re gonna burn bright? You think anyone, anyone at all, will remember your name after you’ve given them one record-setter, or one fancy dive? They’ll desert you without even noticing. I tell Caro, I always do, that there’s no bigger bitch than a crowd. Nothing worse than a thousand, million people screaming your name. No one cares about the Olympics in Hell, Michigan, anyway.