blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1



When the Lights Go Down

Rita Loomis had fallen asleep at her own retirement party.

Her colleague Emily Hamilton noticed this from the back of the room, embarrassed for Rita, and grateful for herself. Because until that moment, Emily was sure she had been the most embarrassing aspect of the program. After all, as principal, Emily had hired Rita thirty years ago. And here Rita was departing first? Rita, who’d looked not much older than her sophomores that first year? Granted, Rita was retiring young, just 55, but people could do the math if they cared to: If Rita is retiring, what’s Emily Hamilton still doing here? Goodness, she must be 107 by now, or close to—

Emily was not. She was 61. An active, alert 61. Active enough, for example, that were the impossible to occur—that Emily would retire, that she would allow a party to be held in her honor—she would most surely not fall asleep, not during the requisite slide show, not during the cutting of the sheet cake, not during the presentation of the certificate and frame that they’d spend less than a latté on.

Emily favored a particular spot during mass gatherings in the auditorium (always standing, always back left, near the fire doors). She was on the verge, however, of going forward to nudge Rita awake. But it turned out that Bob Meinert, biology, would get that honor. He was sitting next to Rita. And so when Rita really lost it—let herself slump onto Bob’s shoulder—Emily hung back and watched as a series of questions materialized and dimmed in her head, just like the slides Rita was now missing:

Why hadn’t Rita ever married?

Why didn’t I ever marry?

Did Rita ever have a thing for Bob?

Wait, is Rita—

She was. Dead. Because it turned out that even with a master’s degree in biology and twelve years’ experience teaching the subject, Mr. Meinert could no more rescue Rita Loomis from a massive stroke than the paramedics who soon arrived.

These things happen.

Emily brought up the lights. She locked open the fire doors. She made a path for the gurney. She felt like everyone was watching her, but they weren’t. They were watching Rita leave. Behind them, at the front of the auditorium, the slides continued to bloom and fade onscreen until Emily finally went forward and turned them off.

I don’t want to die.

She could, of course, just write that on the questionnaire since it was true: “What are your goals?” the sheet asked.

But Emily didn’t want to startle anyone at the shiny, antiseptic new gym. She’d watched the facility go up not a mile from school, passing it every day on her way to work. True, she had daily scoffed at the notion that anyone, most of all she, would go there. For one, her townhouse complex had a gym. Free. She’d never been inside the place, but she’d seen the picture on the brochures, and back when she’d served on the owners’ association, it seemed like they were always approving this or that expenditure for the facility. Someone used it.

Yet here Emily now was, about to make her own expenditure and join this completely superfluous gym. But that was the only way, she’d read in a magazine at the doctor’s office (another post-Rita errand): If you pay for a gym, you’ll go to the gym. Besides, the first month was free.

But gyms had changed. It wasn’t just barbells and those odd machines that seemed to place a dozen pulleys and gears between you and the weight—they had all that business at the high school. (When she’d asked him to recommend a gym, Mr. Burbush, the phys ed teacher, had offered her the use of the school’s weight room, which only confirmed her opinion of him: truly dense.) This new gym was like a dance club. Not just the music—and she’d have to see to that straightaway, get the volume turned down and the selection changed—but the lights, the mirrors, the colors. Television and computer screens everywhere, and on sale in a cooler by the exit, a bizarre, tropical-aquarium-worthy spectrum of bottled and canned drinks.

Maybe she would look into her townhouse complex’s gym after all. It was certainly convenient.

“No cheating!” came a voice from behind her, and she turned around, flustered that she’d made so little headway on the form. The saleswoman had asked her to fill it out while she went and fetched a “personal trainer” for an introductory tour.

“Ms. Hamilton,” the boy addressed her, although he wasn’t a boy, of course, not anymore. He was a responsible adult now, had a job—personal trainer—and a name: Tim Prado. Tim had graduated a couple years ago. Emily had an excellent memory, never forgot a name.

“Mr. Prado,” she said. “How’s college? Are you on break?”

“Graduated,” he said, smiling. “About ten years back, I’d say.”

Was she still capable of blushing? That is, did she color, Emily wondered. She knew what blushing felt like, of course. She just was no longer sure what she looked like when she did. But Tim made no sign of noticing; he just kept smiling. Ten years out of school—out of college—and looking well, she thought. She’d never have pegged him for this life—he seemed to be the promised “trainer”—but she’d learned that one could never tell. Tim had begged her for extra funds for the spring musical. At least she thought that’s how she remembered him.

“I saw you looking around there, Ms. Hamilton,” Tim said, “and I thought, that’s just like me, that time I was taking a test outside your office. And you saw me looking around and thought I was cheating.”

“Were you?” she said and thought: Oh, Tim. You may think you have the drop on me, but you don’t, none of you ever did or do. She smiled, but stopped when she saw Tim involuntarily flinch.

“No,” he said. “I mean, I wish I had. I got a bad grade if I remember.”

“Well,” Ms. Hamilton said, having learned long ago how to apply ice after the sting, “I certainly don’t.”

And then Tim Prado blushed.

Emily went ahead and signed up for a full year. Membership plus six months of personal training services. How could she not? They happened to be having a fifty-percent-off special that very day. It wouldn’t have made sense to not sign up, and what was the purpose of going to this fancy gym if she didn’t try some of the fancier things? If young Tim Prado could show her how to, say, climb onto, or into, that standing eggbeater thing or whatever it was and stay balanced, that would be lovely.

Tim had told her that she didn’t really need to finish that initial questionnaire, but she’d told him straight out that her goal at the gym was improving her health. And then he’d asked how old she was—quite impertinent of him, she’d thought, but he’d waited for an answer, not looking the least ashamed, and she’d finally figured out that he had some professional reason to need to know this, that it would affect how he shaped her fitness regimen.

Fifty, she’d finally told him, finding it fun, even necessary to joke. And when he said, wow, she said, fifty-seven, and when he said, quite earnestly, you look fabulous for fifty-seven, she hadn’t really been able to say anything at all in reply. She couldn’t really remember if he’d been a handsome boy—he was handsome enough now—because she never really noticed that, not about any of them. There were so many years of so many students and, other than names, the most information she could ever really store about each was “good” or “bad.” Tim had been good.

So it was strange, really, that he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Perhaps he was gay? Which was fine. For him. She knew people had wondered as much of her: all those years, unmarried. But she wasn’t. She was hard to please, is what she was. It made her an excellent principal and a lousy date. There had been two or three men over the years who had interested her more than the others, and there had been Frank, a shipmate from the first and last cruise she’d ever go on, but in general, the problem with men her age is that they wanted more of a pet than a partner. Someone to tend to, a bit of warmth next to them on the couch while they watched TV.

Frank, yes, still sent the occasional card. He’d not cared about her being so headstrong, not so much as all the others anyway, but that was apparently because alcohol softened everything for him. Everything. Nevertheless, he was a charming man, and such a dancer. That’s how he got his exercise.

Tim made her buy new sneakers. A ridiculous expense. The soles on the ones she had were hardly worn, even after however many years it had been. But Tim seemed serious, and so she followed his advice, bought the sneakers. And the stretchy clothes. And even, on occasion, the drinks. There was one in particular he recommended, and she acquiesced; it didn’t look quite as lurid as the other bottles in the cooler. Truth be told, it did give her a little more pep. At $1.95, she wasn’t going to spring for one every day, but it was nice to see it glowing there in the cooler each day as she left. A treat, ready when she wanted one.

Tim, too. She’d remembered so little about him from his school days, and she now marveled at this. How could this one have escaped imprinting her? He was kind, thoughtful, assertive when appropriate. Always complimentary, and not falsely so. Just last week, he’d said that she was acquiring good tone, and even though it had taken her a bit too long to figure out what he’d meant—surely he wasn’t talking about her humming? Her tan? Her hair?—she’d accepted his kind words gladly. If she were thirty years younger, she’d be trying to figure out a way to get him to ask her on a date.

Good thing she wasn’t, because he figured it out all on his own. She wasn’t even quite sure if it was a date, in fact. But here she was, seated in the grass in the park, listening to a summer concert with Tim Prado beside her. And some of his friends, too. Luckily, none of them were former students. And if they wondered at her tagging along, they thoughtfully said not a whit about it, not even allowing their faces to silently betray what must have been their utter mystification.

But she was the more mystified one. After the concert, there was that reading by that author that he’d thought she’d like (she’d not, but that was beside the point). There was that annual festival in the historic quarter that she’d never managed to get herself to, at least not until someone had asked her along. There were the dinners out. Movies. A play. All of it quite normal, and apparently normal was a big goal for Tim these days.

Tim had had an unpleasantly busy life since leaving high school. He’d gotten a girl pregnant the summer after graduation, had married her, had joined the army to get money for college, had lost the wife and child to another man who wasn’t deployed quite so much, had left the army, had started one school, then another, had tried New York and then Los Angeles. Had found exercise was his salvation. Had found his way back to his hometown. Had found all his old friends were gone.

And then, had found his former principal walking into his gym one day. Imagine that, he said, and she’d tried to, Emily. She’d tried to imagine how it all ran together, how it could possibly be true that, after forty-five years in education, after thirty years as principal, after handing Tim his diploma sixteen years ago, she could find herself sitting not two miles from her house in a restaurant she’d never tried (never would have tried), at a table for two with a man she’d never, ever, have asked out on a date. It was a date.

In the end, it wasn’t when that waiter—actually more than one—asked, or suggested, or insinuated, that she was Tim’s mother. It wasn’t the evenings out with his friends when she finally was able to detect some indecent curiosity, or confusion, behind their otherwise blank faces and smiles. It wasn’t Emily’s friends, either, not the ones in town—indeed, she’d not quite mustered the courage to introduce him around—nor her real friends, out-of-towners, flinty folks she’d met at conferences over the years. That’s where their self-adopted nickname came from, flintsters, because that’s what they were, flinty women who were never, or were no longer, married.

Emily never used the term flintsters herself; she wasn’t quite sure why Myra and Janice, who’d coined it, felt the need to separate them off, like some rare and failing species.

“He’s just a gold digger,” said Myra. Janice murmured assent. They met for monthly conference calls.

“Whatever the county or TIAA-CREF has in store for me,” Emily said, “I doubt it’s enough to attract him. He could do better.”

“He wants a mother,” Janice said.

“Is he an orphan?” Myra said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Janice said. “That’s what they start with, it’s what they all want to end with, men: a mother.”

“He could do better there too,” Emily said, and looked at the clock to see how long it would be before they hung up. And then she sat back and let them do the rest of the talking, because, for all of her gym-going, her toning, her smiling, her laughing, her holding hands, and—my Lord, it had been perfectly wonderful, hadn’t it?—kissing (and more, everything, but she was not, would never be, the type who talked of such), she had to sit down, catch her breath.

Because she’d finally figured out that thing, that thing that had been bothering her all along, that little dark rivulet of something that ran through her every conversation with Tim, their every date. Especially every movie.

And now that she’d figured it out, she’d have to cancel her gym membership, hug Tim tight, kiss him extra close, one final time.

It was Rita Loomis. Rita hadn’t been 61 when she’d died. Not even 57. But death had lurked for her all the same, had come and snatched her after the lights went low and the slides of her life began. She’d had a massive stroke, she’d slumped onto Bob Meinert, who, Emily learned, had loved her from afar, had daydreamed of her head lying on his shoulder, just so, in the dark. And she’d died on him.

We grow up, we graduate, we retire. Old and young, we die. It had always been this way, Emily knew, and that had always been just fine with her. Students might cry and complain, but the facts were facts, and the more facts you knew, the more likely you were to get an A.

But now Emily knew this new fact, that she was in love with a former student, with Tim Prado, who was smooth and handsome, who’d stumbled in his life but now stood and had somehow found it in his heart to court her, woo her, make her heart pump like she’d never known it could.

And knowing that—well, that made dying impossible. Unbearable. And yet, here was Rita insisting she would. Emily could go to the gym every day for five hours, for ten. Emily could eat right and live right and kiss great, and she’d still find herself in an auditorium one day, sitting beside her Tim, holding hands in the dark as the music began, as the photos of her life swelled on screen and her death drew near.

Except it didn’t. She didn’t die, just like Tim hadn’t left and locked the door behind him when she’d told him her real age. All he’d said was, really? And then: you amaze me more every day. Or something like that. They were walking out of the gym at the time. Tim started to set up a date for the weekend.

“Tim,” Emily interrupted. “You don’t understand. That’s old. I mean, this—this is old.”

“I wasn’t the best math student, it’s true,” he said.

“I’m serious,” she said.

“About what?” Tim said.

And then, finally, Emily Hamilton surprised herself. She’d never mastered the eggbeater exercise machine, she’d never gone and bought another of those weird fluorescent drinks, but she did do this, this one startling act: she spoke.

“Serious about you,” she said.

Rapturous young love, rock climbing, fathering and mothering a family—that sort of thing would be left to other, longer—and altogether ordinary—lifetimes.

For Tim, for Emily, for them both, there would be the gym, there would be dinner, there would be the still-electric pleasure of holding hands and discovering how nicely they fit.

But for tonight, there would just be this improbable retirement party, Emily’s very own, complete with interminable slide show. The organizers had asked—actually asked—if it would be okay to include a shot or two of Emily with Rita, in younger days.

Of course Emily had said yes. And she’d liked the result. She’d liked Rita, she’d liked the photo they’d found, one of them smiling, both of them, real smiles, a photo Emily knew and had occasionally wondered about, because she could never remember what was, at that moment, bringing the two of them joy.

But now, with Rita smiling on screen and Tim smiling beside her, Emily knew. Here she was, Emily, and there she was, Rita, and between them now, this moment—who knew how long it would last and who cared—which found the both of them, smiling, standing, aglow, suddenly alive. 

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