map Senescence

by Shelley Berg

Published in Issue No. 281 ~ October, 2020

In October, when the temperature was eighty-five degrees, Sarah put on a blue wool turtleneck, turned the air conditioning in her car to sixty, and drove to the grocery store in search of fall. She turned right when she spotted the red-leaved trees—not exactly towering over the single-story stucco houses, but rather stretching on tiptoes above them. They weren’t sugar maples, but they would do. The trees and their scarlet foliage lined the street and waved her through as if she was the queen of the homecoming parade.

For three blocks, it was proper autumn.

Senescence was the term, she remembered from graduate school, the last stage in a leaf’s life, where its nutrients were reabsorbed, and its color changed before it died. But the term also applied to people, to the process of becoming old, of being old. It seemed unfair to Sarah that for leaves, they were at their most beautiful toward the end, their most desirable. And for humans, it was exactly the opposite.

The word senescence should apply to moving, too, Sarah thought. It could describe those deciduous types of people who, upon relocation, immediately shed their old lives, reabsorbed them, to grow into their new. Sarah hadn’t expected to be related to such persons, but in just two months, one by one, her family had fallen under the California spell. Her daughter was on the path to becoming vegan. Her husband was talking about surfing lessons. Her son had asked for a skateboard for his birthday. Sarah was the last to hold out, but she was holding fast. She had been raised to resist that sort of conformity with every fiber of her being. Or her clothing. Or whatever tool she had at her disposal.

When she arrived at the supermarket, which was half the size of the suburban grocery store she’d shopped at the previous seven years, she continued her fall foray. Into her cart went fifteen pounds of the Washington apples sold in paper totes to make them look just picked. She would work her way through them over the following days, baking apple bars, apple crisp, apple pie, just as she had every fall. And she would use the lard pie crust recipe—not vegan, not even vegetarian—passed down by her mother and her mother’s mother and her mother’s mother’s mother, Sarah’s great-grandmother. The one who at sixty-eight put her head in the oven instead of the two pies she’d just made. Prudent, she had left the unbaked pies on the counter to be served at her funeral, along with a note for freezing instructions if the service couldn’t be held within a few days.

Sarah would post photos of her baked goods online to assure all the friends she’d left behind that she hadn’t changed. That nothing had changed. She made up photo captions while she maneuvered through the narrow aisles of the supermarket: “When life gives you apples, make an apple pie.” “All I’m missing is an apple cider doughnut and you.”

Sarah had forgotten that detail about big-city groceries—the narrow aisles. She kept having to pull her cart over to let people pass. They seemed to have a purpose in a way she did not, and none of them noticed her in her turtleneck sweater. She’d forgotten that about big cities, too. Anonymity. Indifference. Or was it the acceptance of differences? Maybe she had reached the age of female invisibility. Sarah’s grandmother, the daughter of the oven woman, had warned her about this. After you turned fifty, people looked through you more than at you.

“Even when you have tits as nice as mine,” her grandmother said. When Sarah looked shocked, her grandmother had laughed. Sarah hadn’t inherited the ample bosom from her mother’s side of the family. “You’re better off without them, sweetheart.” She was right. Her grandmother’s “tits” had killed her when she was sixty-nine before she could do the job herself.

A woman with a cropped tank top and peacock blue leggings nearly collided with Sarah in the grains and international aisle. Sarah pulled her cart up short a moment before they would have crashed and hit her hip on the cart handle in the process. “Oops,” Sarah said, in admonishment, as if she was talking to a child who had been going too fast. The woman was practically a child. Sarah waited for the woman to respond, to acknowledge that she had stopped for her, but the woman merely changed directions, spun off, as though she was a running back and Sarah a linebacker. Sarah snorted, suddenly indignant. She was probably late for a yoga class.

“You’re welcome,” Sarah called. A tall man carrying a shopping basket glanced up and frowned. Sarah flushed. She’d said it too loudly. Californians didn’t like such petty irritation.

It was her first time living on the West Coast, but it wasn’t her first time moving. She’d fled her hometown for college shortly after high school, and then moved again for graduate school. After she married, she’d moved a third time and a fourth. They’d moved a fifth after their first child was born, and then once more, seven years later, after their second child was born. Most of the moves had been risers in her husband’s career, each tread that much higher up. And whenever they arrived in a new place, and she was solidly next to him, she thought she could see that much farther. And that many more people could see her.

And then this move. It was as if one of her feet still dangled in midair, reluctant to support her. What if this move was the last?

The man carrying the basket—filled with rosemary, shallots, and two packages in brown butchers’ paper—stood a few feet away from her. He must have been about her husband’s age, but fitter. He was handsome, and she was aware of him as she stepped in front of her cart, pretending to study the legumes and rice while she waited for her embarrassment to subside.

“They don’t sell French lentils,” she remarked. She offered it as an odd sort of apology. She was a gentle lentil eater, as her daughter would say. Not a shrew.

“No?” the man asked. The blond hair on his legs and arms was white against his tan. His fingernails looked as though they’d been buffed. He stepped toward her and perused the shelves. “Well.” He seemed genuinely concerned. He pointed at the top shelf. He wore a wedding ring. “Just use brown.”

“Oh.” She shook her head. “No. Brown are completely—”

His laugh came as a burst, almost a bark. Even his teeth were polished. Sarah blushed. He was teasing her, coaxing her out of her obstinance, giving her a way to redeem herself. He waited for her to reciprocate, to contradict his original impressions of her. East Coast Sarah would have known what to say, but West Coast Sarah was frozen, and the man’s smile faded to a papery dryness. He studied her, flicked his eyes around her neck as if he recognized that she was going through something—some blue sweater thing.

“Try the bulk aisle,” he said. “You might find them there.” He took a step back. Her mother had told her how self-deprecation endeared you to people, and complaining drove them away, especially men, especially your husband, even when you were completely justified.

For a split second, she felt a small fissure in her defenses. She need only reach out and lay her hand on the man’s arm, look him meaningfully in the eye. Her mother had told her this was often all it took. Sarah blinked and nodded and blinked again. The man turned and began walking away. “Thank you,” she said, too quietly for him to hear.

The carts were small in proportion to the aisles. The conveyor belts at checkout were also small, and Sarah loaded hers twice to fit all of her groceries, much to the sighing of the customers behind her who were buying only a quarter of what she had. But she was shopping for four. She had a family to feed. She looked around for the man from the aisle but didn’t see him. Maybe she was glad.

The cashier wore a short-sleeved shirt the color of matcha powder. He was at least half her age. “Did you find everything all right?” he asked.

Sarah nodded and didn’t mention the lentils.

On the walk to her car, a rivulet of sweat ran along her spine and turned cold. She had been planning to try a new bakery on the next street over, but she’d lost her nerve. She used the navigation system to find her way back to the house. It took her on a different, more direct route than the one she’d taken there. This time she drove past palm trees.

Her mother had moved only once in her life, from the town she was born into the town Sarah was born in, and she never left, even after Sarah left. Even after Sarah’s father left. Her mother had stayed, enduring the glares from her neighbors at the town’s only supermarket, ignoring the comments said not too loudly, not too quietly, as she waited in line with her back turned. She hadn’t complained. She’d made her bed, she said with some pride and laid in it with too many others. Sarah’s hometown became unbearable for her mother only when people stopped glaring, stopped whispering when she was no longer perceived as a viable threat. And then Sarah’s mother had gone so far as to prove the indifference. She backed her car up to a snowbank in the parking lot of that same supermarket, blocking the tailpipe, and killing herself by carbon monoxide poisoning on a Thursday afternoon, while her neighbors walked in and out of the store.

By the pool, Sarah wrote e-mails to her friends. It was noon for her but pick up time for them. She pictured them huddling together against the cold wind that tunneled around the elementary school, waiting for their children to be dismissed. She pictured a circle with a circumference that was one person smaller. These were the persons to whom she had given the snow shovels, the roof rake, the leaf blower. The same persons who’d professed their envy and admiration. They were hopelessly jealous, as they’d said, of the sunny weather, her brave new adventure.

But they were the brave ones, and she the coward. She could have fought to stay, put her middle-aged foot down. Instead, she’d bent under her husband’s ambitions, let them carry her away. She’d left, afraid of what time and boredom might turn her into.

The leaving was easier.

The leaving was always easier.

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Shelley Berg's stories have appeared in Passages North, Confrontation, The Carolina Quarterly, where she was also interviewed for their website, Every Day Fiction, and Phoebe. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.