Misquoting T.S. Eliot

Our third runner-up in the 2022 Great American Fiction Contest: At 60, Evelyn is stuck in the past. Is it too late to open her heart?

Painting of a woman in ballerina shoes
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Evelyn had a past, though few who only knew her now could conceive of it. She told the younger ones at the office — the people her own age simply avoided her — about the long, black hair and ivory skin she had been so proud of in her youth, and her passion for a good book and dusty, used bookstores full of treasures. She told a few particular individuals about the way she would hold court with her friends and even — she liked to think — an admirer or two — at the dinner hour at college, perhaps embellishing a bit as she was known to exaggerate when she got going with a good story. That time had been so long ago, yet it still felt so vivid she could touch it.

Mindy came up to Evelyn’s station behind the reception desk. Evelyn liked Mindy, though few others did. Mindy was awkward and anxious to the point she made everyone around her nervous, a fluttering little bird, though she was a pretty young woman. Evelyn was convinced that people simply didn’t understand her. She had an inkling though: Mindy just hadn’t figured life or herself out yet.

“What’s new, chickadee?” Evelyn asked, peering over her reading glasses.

“Oh, I just need some supplies,” Mindy said. She looked at the book on Evelyn’s desk, her eyes curious as she tried read the title upside down.

“Poetry,” Evelyn said.

Mindy’s face was blank.

Oh Christ, didn’t anyone read poetry anymore?

“It’s a book of poetry. There’s one that I particularly love that I know by heart.”

Mindy shifted into her hip, waiting for Evelyn to go on.

Tears filled Evelyn’s eyes as she shared the words of the poem. “‘I grow old, I grow old, shall I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled? Dare I eat a peach?’ Do you know which poem that is from?”

Mindy shook her head. “I think you’re going to tell me, though.”

“T.S. Eliot. ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ One of the greatest poems of all time by one of my favorite poets. It’s about, at least from my reading, about someone afraid to live with gusto.”

Mindy’s faced settled. She was a nice girl, really. Maybe a little unsophisticated and gangly for her age, but that would change over time, without a doubt.

“Well, I don’t know it, but it sounds nice. Maybe I’ll look it up.”

Evelyn smiled her most gracious smile. “Yes, I think you’d like it.” A cautious woman like Mindy should know about Prufrock. She handed Mindy the staples she wanted and then looked at the clock. Only a few hours until class. She couldn’t wait.

Ballet was her refuge — her one physical pleasure, just for herself, and had been for years, the thing she looked forward to after working hours in front of a computer in this mind-numbingly dull, cubicle-filled office, dutifully trying to fit herself into the box people expected of her. It was on one of these such eternally slow afternoons that she realized she had conformed exactly to the contours of the box, not even quite reaching its upper corners, in a life so small and measured it felt to her as if it had become almost inconsequential.

But in her heart, she had lived. Oh, she had lived.

She knew she was a bit on the stout side now. She was sixty, had short gray hair, and wore flat shoes for her arthritic toes. But she thought her purple progressive glasses and green dime-store readers gave her a touch of edginess that other women her age lacked. And when she had been in her early twenties, well, that was a different story.

She remembered intense conversations in the university cafeteria, late at night talking about Poe, Kant, and the great existential writers. Other students talked about football and who was banging who, but she, Evelyn, liked to think herself above such banality.

She had never been one to have more than a few friends, so she didn’t feel the need to share with anyone about how she had fallen in love with one of the ones who stayed the longest. The one who sat with her at the table drinking coffee long after everyone else had left. Marcus, who often leaned and touched her arm, sending a sizzle of jazz up her arm as they argued over whether post-modern literature and art just starting to come on the scene — it was the 1960s, after all, with Andy Warhol and all that — were more intellectually interesting than modernist works. She, for one, preferred the explosion of sensuality and color and vibrancy of the latter and couldn’t stand the meaninglessness of form over substance.

His eyes were deep brown, brimming with humor — even silliness — behind his gold-rim glasses. He had curly dark hair and a strong nose, which she liked to think looked vaguely aquiline. And he would come out and say things that utterly surprised her. He would be in the middle of some long rant about the war in Vietnam when he’d suddenly mimic, without missing a beat, one of John Cleese’s silly walks from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. She couldn’t help but burst into a giggling fit, which just egged him on to be sillier and sillier. The two of them talked and laughed long into the night, and then he’d walk her back to her dorm.

They often talked about the reprehensibility of America’s role in Vietnam, which had devolved into a long succession of television images of boat people struggling to find somewhere safe to call home.

There had been other, secret loves that she had held deeply in her heart over the years. How could she not? But when it came down to it, she was afraid. She remained silent about passing infatuations, which came and went like a snap of a finger. People didn’t need to know every little detail.

She sighed loudly, then picked up a newspaper to read in the last half hour of work. Most of the higher-ups had departed already. No one would care if she snuck a few minutes for herself. She scanned over the headlines. It was mostly dismal and depressing. But the new president — Obama — perhaps could bring in change. She hoped.

She threw the news section on the desk so hard it made a loud thump. A few heads popped over the cubicle walls. “Everything okay?” someone asked.

“Fine,” she said, with just a touch of crank.

She picked up the arts and style section. Then she saw it. Marcus’s face. Right there in the paper. At some sort of fundraiser for cancer. She hadn’t even known he was still in town.

* * *

She remembered he once tried to kiss her on one of those walks back to the dorm. It was a cold, brisk night, well past twelve, with only the streetlamps to light their way. They passed a group of hippies smoking pot on the quad and the smell was deep and sweet. One of the kids picked at a guitar, his eyes shut. As they walked closer to the dorm, the path grew quiet. The trees cast ghostly but lovely shadows on the packed snow. She shivered in her coat.

“Cold?” he asked.

“A little,” she said.

“Here, let me warm you up.” He wrapped his arm around her waist. Warmth flushed through her abdomen.

“You’re so pretty,” he said. He peered into her face and leaned in to kiss her.

A sudden shyness seized her. She froze.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She pulled away. “I’m fine. But we should get back to the dorm. It’s really late.”

Later, she thought about what would have happened if she had let him kiss her. She couldn’t fall asleep until shortly before it was time to get up. She knew, absolutely knew, that she would have another chance, another time when she would be more bold. But somehow the opportunity never came up. But she had known, clear through to her bones, that he had if not loved, at least felt something beyond friendship for her, too. And that had been enough; at least it had had to be enough, for her. A thirty-year career as a social worker in D.C.’s most impoverished neighborhoods didn’t lend itself to romance. She had had a few friends, here and there, a career. She had helped people. Not everyone was meant for love, she had decided. This job at the association helped her pass the time. What else was there to do?

Evelyn’s eyes lingered over the newspaper. An uncomfortable clamminess threatened to overwhelm her. Could the entire romance with Marcus have been only a product of her own fevered imaginings?

She glanced around to make sure no one was spying on her, then folded the newspaper to get a better look. He was still handsome. Dark hair now gray, but the same, smart grin that had dazzled her all those years ago. He didn’t seem to have a wife on his arm, but that didn’t mean anything, really.

She did wonder, though, what he was like now, after all these years.

* * *

At 7 p.m., she stood at the barre in a steamy ballet studio, trying to warm up her body slowly. This small studio was the place she loved most anymore, rich with the smells of rosin, baby powder, leather ballet slippers, and just a hint of sweat. Here she could always come back to herself. It was unfortunate she had come to ballet so late — in her mid-thirties. She had always thought she had the mind and soul of a dancer.

She bent her knees into a plié and felt her knees crack. It hurt to do anything anymore. She didn’t know what to do about it.

With her at the barre tonight were Diane, Caroline, Cal, and Steve. A small group: the regulars, a motley assortment of middle-aged bodies of varying degrees of fitness.

Sergio, the instructor, snapped his fingers in time to the beat of an up-tempo Chopin waltz as he strolled past the line at the barre. Evelyn tried to focus on her feet as he walked by her. There was something roguish about him — with intensity behind the eyes that seemed to know everything about her without her saying a thing.

Sometimes, at home, when she would listen the final pas de deux from Swan Lake, or perhaps the concluding scenes in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, she would sip a glass of pinot noir and imagine herself in the studio, rehearsing the choreography with Sergio as her partner, his hand slipping occasionally to touch her breast as he held her in his strong, muscular arms. They would be alone, together. It sent a wave of electricity up her body to think about it.

But tonight, after class, nursing her glass of wine, she thought of Marcus. It had been years since she had really thought about him. She wondered how he’d turned out. They were no longer in their twenties, as yet unformed people who would be — for better or worse — molded by the vicissitudes of life, but Marcus looked like he had done all right for himself. He had his picture in the paper, and still looked, well, he still looked good. She wondered what he’d think of her.

She knew she had lost the slim prettiness of her youth, but still, she took care of herself. She wondered.

Evelyn knew where this was going. She was going to look him up. She walked over to the bookshelf holding her most beloved books. She pulled down Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and ran her fingers over the faded red cover. She remembered Marcus and she had both loved the story — no debates about that. The dragon bookend with the jeweled eye twinkled at her. “What?” she asked him. She turned off the light and walked to her bedroom with a lilt to her step.

* * *

She was ready when Mindy came off the elevator.

“What is it?” Mindy asked, looking around as if confused at the sight of Evelyn’s expectant face.

“I’m wondering if you can help me with something.”

“I’ve just got coffee and breakfast — could it wait until later?”

“It’s really important. But I don’t want to rush you,” Evelyn said. “Take your time.”

She tapped her foot in impatience as Mindy vanished around the corner. She might as well try to figure this out herself.

She took a deep breath and googled Marcus’s name.

There were photos, all kinds of them. She didn’t want to pry. But she did want to reach out and say hello, to see if, perhaps, he still felt something for her.

She shouldn’t. She knew this.

“What was it you wanted?”

Mindy’s face peered at her. Oh, Mindy. Such a dear girl. She must have wolfed down the sandwich.

“Well, I’m looking up an old flame,” Evelyn said.

“Oh.” Mindy said, looking embarrassed. “What do you need me for?”

“I don’t really get this Facebook thing. I don’t know how it works. Will he know that I’ve looked at his page?”

Mindy laughed. “No, he won’t know. Why? Are you stalking him?”

“Stalking?” Evelyn stood up from her chair. “This is not stalking. I just thought that I’d send him a little note, to see if he’d like to get together for a drink some time. That’s all. Nothing scandalous, believe me.”

Mindy hesitated. Her eyes met hers, with an unusually perceptive look for such an unsophisticated and artless young thing. Mindy looked like she could see right through her. “You know, it wouldn’t be so awful if it were scandalous. Maybe you could use a little scandal.”

Evelyn didn’t know what to say to that. She sat back down. “Is there a way to just send a note without embarrassing myself?” she asked.

“Sure,” Mindy said. “Here, let me. Could I have your laptop? Come around on this side and we can look at it together.”

Mindy’s fingers typed with dexterity, bringing up pages and images in rapid succession. “Here,” she said. “There’s an email address, and you can send him a message through this app, too.”

“How did you do that?” Evelyn asked.

Mindy shrugged. “It’s easy. Just tell him what you want to say, and push send,” she said.

“I know how to send an email,” Evelyn said.

“Tell me how it goes,” Mindy said, smiling.

* * *

Her hand trembled as she draped the blue cashmere scarf around her shoulders and pinned a silver moon on the front. She looked at herself in the studio’s dressing room mirror. Not bad for sixty-one, almost sixty-two. Her knees felt as if they wouldn’t hold her as she walked out into the lobby.

Steve was there, talking with Sergio.

“Who-hoa! Someone is dressed for a night out,” Steve said.

She had not wanted to tell anyone what she was up to. Steve looked her up and down, and the corners of his mouth twitched up, his eyes inquisitive. She would feel rude if she didn’t explain herself.

“I’m getting together with an old friend for a quick drink.”

“A special friend,” Sergio said, laughing. “You look lovely, Evelyn.”

Steve looked down at the floor, then caught her eye. “I hope it’s wonderful,” he said, somewhat stiffly.

“Thank you,” she said. She was touched they even noticed. Evelyn had never really thought of Steve as a man before. He was just one of those people who took ballet to stay in shape and, yes, they often laughed and joked together a bit, but she assumed he was married or in a relationship or maybe gay. She knew he had been an accountant for years before he retired, but not much else. His gray hair and demeanor did make him look distinguished, she noticed. She stopped herself. Why was she even thinking about Steve on her way to meet Marcus?

Outside, honeysuckle’s sweet smell wafted through moist evening air, and the sky — brightened almost royal blue from the city lights — seemed potent with magic. She could hear the kids drumming on the backside of empty buckets a few blocks away near Dupont Circle in insistent, staccato rhythms. It made her want to throw her arms up in the air and dance with abandon, feeling the beat of the drums as if it were in tune with her own body. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend she was twenty, when life was still ahead of her, full of things yet to be. She knew Marcus was married; this wasn’t about having an illicit affair with a married man. At least she didn’t think so, though she wasn’t sure what would happen.

They had arranged to meet at a coffee shop a few blocks down from the ballet studio. It was a cozy little place with books scattered on small coffee tables, with menus handwritten on chalkboards and a barista with green hair brewing coffee behind the counter.

She opened the door and walked in, then continued right past Marcus. She had been picturing him as he was forty years go.

“Evelyn?” he called out, as she circled the room looking for the handsome young man who had stolen her heart. But of course, that man no longer existed. Even though she had seen his photo, she wasn’t expecting this man who looked so much smaller, thinner than she remembered him. She wondered if she seemed equally smaller. He still had that deep baritone, though. That hadn’t changed a bit. She walked over to him.

Marcus stood up and clasped both of her hands in his. “What a wonderful surprise to hear from you,” he said.

“I just wanted to see you. I hadn’t realized you were still in town. I have many fond memories of our philosophical conversations.”

“We did like to talk sometimes, didn’t we,” he said.

Evelyn wasn’t sure what to say next. She took a deep breath. Small talk would have to do, at first. “I thought you moved to New York.”

“I did for a few years. But now I live in Mclean with my wife Sandy in a townhouse. How about you?”

“Oh,” she said, waving her hand. “I live in a small, bright apartment with a view of the trees in Glover Park,” she said. “It suits me.”

“Really? I’m surprised our paths never crossed. Any children?”

“No.” she said. “You?”

“We had two daughters. They’ve grown now. One lives up in New York, the other in Columbia, Maryland, not far from us. We have five grandchildren. Would you like to see some pictures?” She dutifully looked at his daughters, his wife, his grandchildren. It appeared he had led an absolutely ordinary — but full — life.

Marcus shook his head. “I can’t believe we haven’t run into each other at least once. Washington is a such a small town. You know Sandy lived in Glover Park for a while, too, years ago, before we were married.” His face lit up. “We actually met at a beer tasting there. She loved Washington and the city life, too. For me, it was love at first sight. It took her a little longer,” he laughed. The softness in his eyes told her everything she needed to know.

“And you have a bunch of grandkids, too,” she said.

“Yes. Life is good,” he said, sitting back in his chair.

Yes indeed. She could feel her hopes sinking, transforming into an amorphous blob that slipped out her feet and glommed out into an invisible but dark, bilious puddle. Then some long-unacknowledged ache in her soul detached from a place where she hadn’t even realized it was holding on and floated away.

She attempted a smile. “I’m so glad. I often wondered what had happened to you,” she said.

“What about you,” he asked, leaning forward. He looked like he really wanted to know.

“I’ve been well enough,” she said. What could she say, really? She didn’t attempt to ask if he had ever had feelings for her, if he had even actually wanted to kiss her more than that one time. It just didn’t seem right, after all this time.

* * *

In ballet class the next evening, Evelyn tried to focus on the ronde de jambes at the barre. She was struggling. The exercise included sweeping port-de-bras that circled toward and away from the barre to beautiful, sad sad sad music. It made her feel teary. She couldn’t focus. She realized her face was wet with tears, and deep sobs threatened to erupt at any moment. And then she gave up the effort. She leaned into the barre with both arms and sobbed, her shoulders shaking. She didn’t even care what the others thought.

The music stopped. Sergio, Carolyn, and Steve stood in a semicircle around her. “Are you all right, Evelyn?” Sergio asked.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said. “Just feeling a bit weepy.”

Steve touched her shoulder with his hand. “Things didn’t go so well last night?”

She shook her head, unable to speak.

“We all love you, Evelyn,” Sergio said. “Your date is an idiot.”

She smiled and tried to pull herself together. Focus. She could get through this class if she remembered her feet.

Later, as she was preparing to walk out, she saw Steve in the lobby. He must have been waiting for her.

“So, Evelyn, I’ve been wondering.” He paused and she looked at him. What did he wonder? He started again. “I wonder if you’d be interested in getting a cup of coffee with me sometime after class?”

Evelyn pulled herself to her tallest height. “I don’t need your pity, Steve.”

“Why do you think I would pity you?” He shook his head. “It’s hard to get out there at our age, and you did it. Kudos for you for doing that.”

Her cheeks flushed. “It wasn’t a date,” she said.

He looked puzzled. “Then what was it?”

“I just wanted to know if he ever had, possibly still had, feelings for me. I thought he did, long time ago.”

“Well, did he?”

“If he did, he has long since moved on. As have I.” That was, in fact, the truth that mattered, she knew now.

“I have been wondering for a while about asking you if you’d be interested in having coffee with me or a drink some time. No pressure. Just to see how things go,” he said. His voice was almost gentle.

Evelyn felt an old flush of discomfort that felt familiar. She peered into his eyes. She hadn’t really noticed they were a deep blue. They were kind eyes, but were they the eyes of someone she could long for? She wished things had been different in her life, that she had let someone in on the rises and shifts of her heart, instead of always soldiering on as if nothing mattered much at all, certainly not matters of love. But there was no reset button; she couldn’t go back and change time.

He reached out his hand. She stared at it for a long moment. Could she?

I grow old, I grow old, shall I wear the bottom of my trousers rolled …

Steve smiled. “I’m not completely awful, you know,” he said. He shrugged and gave her a crooked smile, but he held her gaze with a boldness that for a moment made her forget to breathe.

He shifted on his feet and touched her arm briefly, while he still held out his other hand.

A violent sensation blew threw her, carving her open to a force that she recognized, dimly, if only from her own imaginings. Oh heart, she murmured. Joyful, passionate, life. She could see images tumbling one after the other in a long spiral with Steve and her, beautiful her, at the center. A life suddenly full of lingering, slow kisses and joyful romps and laughter, oh, such raucous, gut-busting laughter, and yes, the inevitable periods of melancholy, too, the losses and heartbreaks she knew would threaten to wring her out until she was completely undone.

And underneath rested something luminous, like an iridescent pearl on a string, emanating from her heart in a steady, gentle pulse, whispering Yes.

No, she didn’t know if things would work out at all. The possibility of it potentially working out in fact terrified her. But.

She extended her arm and grabbed with the force of her entire being the warm flesh of Steve’s hand before she could change her mind. “Let’s go now.”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. This story seemed to touch on most ranges of emotions we have in life. Uncertainty, awkwardness, what will other people think, the hope of lost dreams reaching across decades unscathed even if deep down we already know that’s not possible. Our thoughts closer to the surface often win out.

    We know we’ll be disappointed somehow, but have to experience it first hand just on the off chance we may be wrong. Knowing is often better than not knowing, and lets us appreciate who and what we have in the present day to move forward. Thank you, Pamela. Hopefully these comments don’t disappoint. I actually saw and heard the beautiful and haunting ‘Pretty Ballerina’ video by The Left Banke (from ’66) just 2 days ago.

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