When I was twelve, I was in this program that paired kids with elderly people who wanted company. Every week, I visited a woman I’ll call Mary in her overstuffed one-bedroom in a dimly lit facility circled by a sad narrow sidewalk. The whole place smelled like loneliness and mildew and I was depressed by it.
But Mary was upbeat and earnest and she always made me a grilled cheese on her George Foreman grill. We talked a lot about the virtues of that clever grill. The grilled cheese was always on potato bread with American cheese from her similarly yellowing refrigerator. I loved it.
Mary and I had some other things in common, besides appreciation of a good grilled cheese: we both loved Agatha Christie and romantic stories. Hers was the most romantic of all, she told me. Her third husband was the love of her life. He had been in the Navy and he had a sailboat- a real sailboat! And he was gorgeous. The most gorgeous man in the world. Like a movie star except better. Tan and tall and charming and with such a smile! It would make you faint.
“Don’t you dare fall in love with me,” he’d warned her, when they first met, dancing. “I’m on borrowed time.”
They were in their fifties. He told her his doctor had only given him a handful of years to live, a decade if he was very lucky. The problem was his heart.
The problem was her heart. She couldn’t resist. He was the most gorgeous man in the world, she explained to me, in case I’d forgotten.
I hadn’t forgotten. I took a very small bite of my grilled cheese, trying to make it last as long as possible. “But you married him,” I reminded her.
“Oh yes! I did. I married him. And we sailed around the world together on his boat.”
(like this. source)
She gave up her old life to ride the wind with him, and it was bliss, she said. It was the best. It was wild and free and pure romance.
He only lasted five years. And then his heart gave out.
But her heart stayed right there with him.
“He had a smile that would change your life,” she told me, a little misty-eyed. I finished the sandwich regretfully. It had to be done.
She told me the story a few times, and I liked it every time, except that every time I wished that he wouldn’t die at the end and she wouldn’t end up here with me, in this tiny, cluttered apartment with her two yapping dogs with the matted fur and gross breath. I wanted her to be out there, sailing with him, right now.
I had a crush of convenience on a boy I found irritating but acceptable. I had caught him picking his nose in public, but I tried to forgive him so that I could be a better person and learn how to make out. He was not the most gorgeous man in the world. He wasn’t even a man. I brought him over one day, to meet Mary, and she was delighted, but I was kind of embarrassed. I knew he couldn’t compare to her third husband, the dashing sailor. He chewed his sandwich too loudly, in my opinion. He still had braces, so his smile was not exactly going to make anyone faint.
I visited Mary for a couple years, and then she moved across the country to be closer to her grandchildren. I wrote her a letter, but she didn’t respond and sometimes I wondered if I’d somehow forgotten to send it, or if I’d dreamed the whole idea up.
Before she left, she came to my bat mitzvah, and I was glad she got to see me reading from the Torah and wearing my pearly pink gown, which was, I thought, simultaneously mature and like a princess might wear. I faltered, losing my place when I began the last paragraph of the reading and having to search for an agonizingly long moment, but for the most part, I did fine. I felt smart and lovely and full of my own power. Mary didn’t know very many Jews, and she was impressed that I’d said so many words in Hebrew.
During one of our last visits, she showed me a photo of her third husband. I’m not sure why it took her so long to do that. Maybe she’d put them away because it was too painful to see his face, and in packing, she’d rediscovered them. She held the photo out to me, not letting me touch it, because my hands were greasy with grilled cheese.
“There we are,” she said. “And that’s his boat, behind us.”
The photo was bent and it caught the glare of the table lamp so that for the first second, I couldn’t see them at all.
“Isn’t he gorgeous?” she said. “The most gorgeous man in the world…”
I looked closer, eager to finally see the stunning hero of her stories.
She looked like herself in the photo, but obviously younger, wearing a white blouse. She was much tanner, and she was grinning tremendously. The boat was blurry in the background, kind of a lump of dirty plastic, no sails in sight. Possibly they were rolled up? The man beside her was stocky and happy, also tanned, and he was…
Well, he was a middle-aged man. Incredibly old, to me at thirteen. He had wispy gray hair and a friendly face and he looked somewhere between my dad and my grandfather.
She was looking at me expectantly and I became suddenly aware of my rudeness.
“Wow!” I said, as enthusiastically as possible, “he looks just like a movie star!”
“But better,” she murmured.
“Yeah, definitely better,” I agreed.
She smiled, satisfied, and tucked the photo carefully away, as though it were made of something so delicate and valuable that it should be under five inches of glass in a museum.
After Mary moved across the country, I never saw or heard from her again.
Sometimes whole years went by without me thinking of her. But yesterday, I remembered. The sputtering fluorescent lights in the halls. The ancient tiny yapping dogs. The grilled cheeses. The most gorgeous man in the world.
“So did you ever find out what happened to her?” Bear asked.
“No…I lost track of her,” I said guiltily.
She’s probably dead. She was old when I knew her.
It’s maybe stupid, but I like to imagine that she’s out there, across the country by the ocean somewhere, living the next phase of a fabulous life that paused ever-so-briefly in a mildew-y assisted living facility in New Jersey. Maybe she’s gotten back into sailing.
“You know,” I told Bear, “You’re the most gorgeous man in the world.”
* * *
Do you know a most gorgeous man in the world?
Unroast: Today I love my weight. It’s a good weight. It looks right on me.
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