Love Under A Halo by Claire Lawrence

       “We demand fair treatment!”
       Evangelia grinned and kissed my cheek. She picked up her cane and slammed it on the nursing station.
       “Why can’t we room together? We have rights!”
       “Our policy is quite clear,” said Mr. Dupois, the administrator. “We do not accommodate couples.”
       Cane walkers and wheelchair folk gathered. Some smelled of poor hygiene and greasy hair. They were upset—with us.
       “You’re a disgrace,” Mrs. Kensington warbled and pointed a bony finger at us. “Un-natural. Unnatural.”
       “Shocking behaviour!” said Mrs. Bleet, her frothy upper dentures jutting in and out like a rabid dog.
       “I think it’s lovely they’re in love,” said Margie, in a loud voice.
       “Here, here!” said Henry. “The world needs more romance.”
       “How can you say that, Henry Smithe?” said Mrs. Bleet. “You’re a man.”
       Evangelia and I rolled our eyes before we began chanting again.
       The nurse tapped Mr. Dupois’ shoulder. She pointed to her watch. He nodded and straightened his flimsy, grey jacket.
       “If you don’t settle down I’m calling your children, Mrs. Wynnachuk. I’ll have you placed elsewhere.”
       “I can get lawyers, activists.”
       “I can have you out of here today.” Mr. Dupois hissed.
       Evangelia tugged on my blouse.
       “You know I’m a fighter, hun. I fought my whole life.” Her thin voice, thickened with phlegm, rasped. “I’m eighty-two and who knows how much longer I got. Let’s go sit awhile on the cozy couch.”
       I nodded and held her tiny hand, purpled with bruises. I lifted it up and kissed each one. I don’t think I could go on if I didn’t have Evangelia. Our protest was over. With our fingers entwined we shuffled away.
       
       I first met Evangelia while playing blackjack in the games room of the residence. She was a Chihuahua-sized black woman with enormous brown eyes and a pillow of grey hair.
       As a newbie, she was assigned to room with Cecilia, a cantankerous rheumatic who de-manded more square footage than she was allotted. I felt for Evangelia. My roomy was a dud, too. Twice Helena had tried to kill herself with a shoestring ligature. The staff kept her heavily medicated.
       Evangelia had a crack-fire wit and a thunderous laugh. I was pleased to be playing cards with her. Margie asked for a hit, and busted; so did Henry. They went to get a cup of tea. It was down to Evangelia and me. She stared at me intently.
       “You know you’re the reason I chose to come here,” said Evangelia.
       “What?”
       “When I came for a tour, I saw you sitting by the window in the lobby. The sun was shining on your face. You looked magical.”
       “Oh, that’s…” Embarrassed, I shuffled my cards and studied them.
       “I had never seen such a beautiful soul.”
       The warm tone of her voice made me raise eyes. I think I stared at her for too long because she winked.
       Startled at her behaviour, I blurted, “Hit me!”
       “I could never hit you, hun.”
       Her tender remark caught me off guard. I lived forty brutal years with a man who smacked me for making mashed potatoes, for ironing his shirt collar with starch, for watching television. The greatest blessing I received was to find him dead— a heart attack while sitting on the toilet.
       “Hun?”
       My gaze returned to her benevolent brown eyes and coral lips. I pulled myself away, and fiddled with my cards.
       “Sorry, I made you uncomfortable.” Evangelia reached across the table and put her hand on mine.
       The warmth of her soft hand on mine made my heart flutter.
       Was I having a reaction to my meds?
       Evangelia didn’t say a word. She took her hand back and dealt me a card.
       “Where were you in the 60s?” she asked. “I wouldn’t have wasted all my time on the others.”
       “Pardon?”
       “I asked where you’re from, hun.”
       “Manitoba. Lived my whole life on a farm. I moved to Vancouver after my husband died. The kids live here.”
       “Nice on the prairies?”
       “Big sky country. Miles of corn and rye. What about you? Where are you from?”
       “Kingston, Ontario. When I was old enough, I ran to San Francisco and into the arms of poets and such.”
       “And such?” I peek up, avoiding her eyes. Her mouth was turned up at one corner. Was she one of those ladies?
       It’s my turn to lean in. “Were you one of those bra burners?” I whisper.
       Evangelia snorted. “Thought you were goin’ to ask me something else. Yes, I was one of those ladies. I haven’t worn a bra in years.”
       She thrust out her chest.
       My eyes strayed to her free bosom. The sensation I experienced can only be described as electric. It went from my heart and deep into the seat of my pants.
       Evangelia chuckled and gave me another wink.
       “Are you game?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
       Dumbstruck, I lay down my cards and mumbled, “I have seventeen.”
       “I wasn’t talking about cards, hun. I was talking about us, you know, going out and such.”
       I had to excuse myself. What exactly did she mean when she said, ‘…and such?’ I couldn’t understand why I wanted to say yes.
       
       At the book club that night, Evangelia and I ended up on the cozy couch, the others on stiff chairs. Lena said the romance novel was crap. “What kind of woman walks around radiating all the time?”
       My gaze turned towards Evangelia. Her head was covered in a yellow chiffon scarf. Her lips were the split bud of a rose. What was wrong with me?
       The discussion turned to the poetic use of the words penumbra and aureole. We agreed they were unusual.
       Evangelia speaks in a dramatic voice. “My love stifled and withered as shrunken seed, sprouted and bloomed in the presence of the woman’s aureole.”
       “Why didn’t the writer just say ‘halo’?” said Henry.
       “It’s a terrible line,” said Margie.
       “I’m not sure what that even means,” I replied.
       “He got an erection looking at his lover’s nipples,” said Evangelia.
       “What?” said a chorus of voices.
       I was gobsmacked. Henry applauded.
       The group dispersed. It had been a humdinger.
       “Isn’t love magical?” Evangelia directed the question to me. I couldn’t answer. Had I never been in love before?
       
       An outing to the mall meant I was thrust beside Evangelia on the bus. She put her oversized handbag beside the window and pushed her bottom close to mine. I pressed my hand to my chest, my heart was beating so fast.
       “Would you like to join me for a cup of tea?” she asked.
       “Yes,” I managed to say.
       In the food court, Evangelia offered to spike my tea with apricot brandy.
       After several cups, I was giddy. “Do you mind helping me find a bra?”
       We headed off to the shop while I nattered about the weather, my old shoes—I couldn’t shut up.
       “What size do you wear, hun?”
       “Size? I don’t recall.” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d bought a bra.
       “That’s an easy fix,” she said while applying fresh lip balm.
       With several bras in hand, Evangelia pulled me over to the changeroom and locked the door.
       “Undo your blouse, girl,” she said. “Don’t be shy. I know what I’m doing.”
       I felt my face redden. My tired white bra drooped under the weight of sock-monkey breasts.
       I stepped back into the shadow. Evangelia guided me out.
       I moved in close. She placed her hand on the soft crease of my neck. I tilted my head and kissed her fingers. She lifted my hand and placed it on her heart.
       “You all right with this, hun?”
       “Yes.” I could hear the blood pounding my ears. “Yes, I am.”
       We kissed.
       A knock on the door ended the moment, and we giggled.
       On the walk back to the bus, my body floated, anchored only by the grip of her hand. The air had gone thin, and I tee-hee’d uncontrollably. Margie asked if I’d taken too much medication.
       
       We canoodled in secret. Meeting in the library. Disappearing into vacated rooms. Soon, our love spilled over and we didn’t hide. It made sense for us to move in together, but neither of our roommates were willing to switch rooms. Cecilia called Evangelia a lessie-faggot and hit her with a slipper. Evangelia ranted and told the old goat to drop dead.
       Most of the residents ignored our amorous affection, but one lady said she’d call the police.
       “Get a life,” snarled Evangelia. “What we’re doing isn’t illegal.”
       Most of the staff were tolerant of us as long as we were discreet. I didn’t mind. I was euphoric. This was the mad, full-hearted love I’d missed in my life. We would be together forever.
       One afternoon, I kissed Evangelia’s forehead. A shadow fell over her face from the setting sun. It scared me.
       “Don’t ever leave me.”
       “No promises, hun. I’m grateful for all the time we got together. But if anything does happen, you better visit and bring me a flower. Oh, and make sure you burn that silly bra.”
       July brought the heat. The care home air conditioner broke. Evangelia claimed she was burning up and stripped to a frilled, peach slip. One night, I counted her vertebrae with my fingertips. It didn’t occur to me that I could hear her lungs gurgle.
       
       Evangelia died. Just like that. No good-byes. No last kiss. She left me.
       I expected my heart to shrivel. It didn’t. It grew to the size of a grapefruit, then to a watermelon, and ached when I touched it. My love was trapped, with nowhere to go.
       The staff patted my shoulder and gave me tissues. It didn’t make me feel better to have them say that Evangelia was old and had lived a long life.
       The days became endless nights. My grief consumed me. The staff got me a specialist—a smug, geriatric psychiatrist who prescribed drugs. I didn’t take them. I was afraid I’d stop feeling.
       October brought a cold spell and a display of plastic jack o’ lanterns. Children from an Elementary school came and sang about ghosts and bones.
       Evangelia had been gone for two months. I didn’t go to her funeral. I never visited her grave. I couldn’t face the fact that my true love was gone.
       
       One morning, I was putting on my white bra when a wave of grief brought me to my knees. I was drowning. I reached into my drawer and took the prescribed pills, and a few more. If I had had a shoestring, I might have tied it tight around my throat.
       I woke in my bed. Henry and Margie were sitting beside me.
       “Did you try to kill yourself?” asked Margie.
       “I just wanted the pain to stop.”
       “Don’t you think it’s time you visit Evangelia?” asked Henry. “I’m sure she misses you.”
       Margie rubbed my cheek. “Would she want you to curl into a ball and die?”
       “She wouldn’t. But, it’s too late to say goodbye.” I sniffed.
       “My daughter will be here in an hour,” said Henry. “I’m sure she could drive you to the cemetery.”
       I sit up and wipe my nose. “You’re right. I need to see her. Will you come with me? I . . .”
       “Of course we’ll come. We’ll be right by your side.”
       I was going to say I needed someone to hold my bra when I lit it.

Claire Lawrence is a storyteller and mixed-media visual artist based in the wilds of British Columbia. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications worldwide and has appeared on BBC radio. Claire’s art has been accepted by Black Lion Journal, Esthetic Apostle, and Fracture Nuance. She was nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. Her goal is to write and publish in all genres, and not inhale too many fumes from alcohol ink. 

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