This Man Should Not Be Out by Himself
PETER is eighty-five years old. He has Parkinson’s Disease. But it is snowing and he loves snow. His wife, Mia, helped him on with his boots, an old pair of L. L. Bean hunting shoes that he bought in the 1970s. He cared for the boots by rubbing neat’s-foot oil and Vernax furniture wax into the tan leather uppers. They were the color of chestnuts. Mia laced them then helped him on with his coat, a sixty-year old chamois-lined red-and-black plaid Woolrich wool coat.
“I wish you wouldn’t go,” Mia said, “or at least let me go with you.”
She was fifty and had built a rewarding working life in long-form television and in independent film. playing the part of unconventional women.
“You are that recherché girl we can’t take our eyes off,” Peter told her twenty years ago when she first started and a “role” meant reading from a script in acting classes downtown and on the West Side. “Your part doesn’t matter.”
Peter met Mia forty years ago, on the day he planned to commit suicide. When he saw her, he said, “Oh, shit!’ Seeing her — and if she looked like anybody other than herself then she looked like Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina” or Audrey Tautou in “Amélie.” Mia herself couldn’t help but stand out. A friend of hers in TriBeCa cut her hair in a bob and her bangs short. Her light-olive skin appeared so smooth that one of her acting teachers, during a break, said, “You have never been in the world, have you Mia?”
She put Peter’s gloves in his coat pocket. She reached up to pull a navy-blue woolen kit hat on to his thin silver hair. He took it from her.
“I don’t want it,” he said.
“It’s snowing, darling,” she said. “At least put it with your gloves.
Mia put her arms around him and Peter put his arms around her. They kissed each other good-bye and told each other, “I love you.” The first time they said “I love you” was nearly four decades ago. They’ve never parted without saying it. Never.
Mia watched her husband check his steps as he left. His hands trembled. Starting down the narrow stairway, he held on to the railing with his left hand and leaned against to opposite wall. “I’m braced,” Peter told himself. “Mia would feel O.K. if she saw me.”
He moved his right foot to the top step. “How far away is the step?” he asked himself. Someone was cooking pot roast. He thought the hallway smelled like his grandmother’s on at Sunday supper. He moved his foot till it touched the tread. He brought his left foot to the same tread.
Peter moved into the fourth stage of Parkinson’s. There are five stages. His agility, coordination, reaction times were shot. He could stand with Mia’s assistance. They both knew he would need a walker. They both knew bed would be his world.
He had four flights to walk down. An hour passed before he reached and could open the front door of the building and, with the same care he took on the stairs, he reached the sidewalk. The first thing he did was reach inside the coat, to the back where a pouch once held pheasant from a hunting trip. He brought out a pack of cigarettes, which he hid from Mia, and lighted one. He felt young. He inhaled deeply and thought of his first cigarette. He has stolen one from the housekeeper. He found a spot behind a tree at the edge of the woods where he knew no one could see him. The cigarette tasted better than anything he had ever tasted — better than roast prime rib of beef, better than angel-food cake with buttercream frosting, better than egg custard.
He hated growing old. It was filled with the inability to walk straight. He listed before he ever reached the corner of First Avenue. He and Mia lived on East 70th. He pitched to the right and into the flower man and his display. He righted himself and apologized.
“It’s O.K., Mr. Schmader. You just helped me rearrange.”
Peter turned right onto First. His mission was to reach a coffee house on East 66th. He liked the shop. The first time he went in — and he realized that was one score years ago — he understood that this was his home away from home. The small square room was filled with burlap sacks of coffee beans and a hodgepodge collection of tables and chairs — some square, some round — that the owner had painted in colorful patterns that she thought looked like mosaics.
Peter tipped forward. His upper spine curved. He once stood five-feet-eight inches tall. Age compressed him down two inches. His clothes draped over 125 pounds.
One day, Mia and he walked along Madison Avenue in Midtown. They were about to cross 45th Street. Mia stood a few feet off the curb. That way she could see around parked cars and decide whether to cross or not. She ignored “Walk” lights.
“Come on,” she said.
Peter tried to move with her, but he couldn’t move. He knew that bradykinesia had joined them on their walk, uninvited, though the both knew its appearance was inevitable. Mia crossed 45th. Peter stood rigid, another inevitability of stage four. Try, will, demand it to move forward, his body ignored him.
Mia came back for him and, with the wonderment of esteem for her broken husband, a wonderment Peter lived on, she secreted Peter from bradykinesia paralyzing grip. In a moment, they stood before the windows of Paul Stuart.
“Why don’t we get you a smart wardrobe,” Mia said. “Wouldn’t you like your clothes to fit?”
“It’s a waste, sweetheart,” Peter said.
“But we’d have such fun, picking out this and picking out that. And they love you here.”
He looked at her but he didn’t know what she meant, and the look on his face showed a man trying hard to fit facts together in his brain but they remained as jumbled as the glass chips in a kaleidoscope.
“You bought your tie here for our wedding,” she went on. “You spent weeks researching the finest handmade silk Grenadine.”
Slowly, they moved through the doors and Mia took Peter over to the counter where the store keeps the white Belgian and the white Irish linen handkerchiefs.
“May I see that one?” Mia asked the clerk. He took from a basket a simple hand-rolled hem-stitched linen handkerchief. Pinholes graced the edge.
“Do you remember this?” she asked Peter. “You bought four. You gave one to Sam, one to Teddy, one to Arnold, and one to yourself.”
San and Teddy were his sons, and Arnold was a friend and best man.
“I wish I did, darling,” Peter said. “But I don’t.”
“Darling,” “sweetheart,” “my love,” “mia Mia” — they used terms of endearment from the beginning of their time together. Neither felt self-conscious about saying “my one true love” and other phrases. Peter believed that saying them gave voice to esteem. The voice was conscious: one must think of the words “you are the love of my life.” Then they are more apt, Peter believed, to demonstrate the endearment they just expressed. They had grown up in houses where parents did not hold each other in esteem. They held esteem in high regard — up there with honesty, tolerance, and humility.
After Peter said he wished he could remember, Mia thought the time had come to return home. He did pick out a navy-blue brushed Shetland crewneck sweater and bought it for her husband.
“He’ll wear it,” she told the woman behind the counter where the customers pay, and to Peter, “You should see how handsome you look.’ Mia took him by the hand. There was a full-length three-way mirror near the women’s department, closer than the one in men’s suits. He held her hand as if he feared he might never hold her hand again. He faltered, and she moved forward toward the mirror, then he shuffled. There was a shuffle that assured him he had his shoes touching the ground. Many times, as he took a step, he couldn’t tell how far his foot was from the sidewalk. Then there were times — very few — he shuffled with confidence, with purpose. Holding Mia’s hand on the way to a mirror so she could show him how smart he looked was one of them. To shuffle with confidence, Peter imagined every healthy neuron remaining in his brain focused on shuffling without fear of falling.
They reached the mirror. “See?” Mia said. And he was happy.
“Happy” was not a word his friends used to describe Peter, and Mia was more interested in intimacy and contentment. She had held his hand many times — one of those a lengthy stay in Payne Whitney after Peter had a run of success from his stories. Premium networks picked up enough of them for years-long runs that — with Mia’s acting income added in — they had enough money to buy the house that James Thurber once in West Cornwall, Connecticut, while keeping their tiny apartment on East 70th Street.
She held his hand when a Fifth Avenue psychiatrist diagnosed Peter as bipolar II. “You two know the difference, right?” Dr. Lawton Cummings said. Dr. Cummings did the early research that found lithium controlled mania. He also, with a handful of other doctors, identified the spectrum where bipolar mood disorder lives.
“Bipolar one is the one everybody associates with the term,” Dr. Cummings said. “Gucci and Hermès spending sprees. Weeklong sex debauches in Las Vegas.”
He told the couple that bipolar II was the opposite: very little up and mostly down. That fit Peter’s lifelong experience as well as Mia’s with him. Once, during a period of hypomania, he saw a cedar waxwing, his favorite bird, in the tree outside one of the windows of their apartment. He watched it till it flew away. That was the length and breadth of manic for him.
Success, however, on top of generally living in the darkness of the second sub-basement of the depression garage, tore him apart. He could not enjoy the good. All he could see was a lifetime of self-centeredness that moved like a tornado through the lives of the people closest to him. Therapy and medication only kept his state from worsening. And Mia held his hand.
Early in their relationship, they knew they needed to have a serious conversation. Thirty-five years separated them. What would people think? What matters from differing life experience might come up and perhaps hobble them? What about aging?
They faced these questions and more. People close to Mia urged her to cut off all contact. But the two considered the hurdles before them and decided to move ahead.
Mia thought they should take an Uber from Paul Stuart. They got home and Peter told her to go on up. She thought it was a terrible idea, and knew he was determined to go on, if he could, before a hospital bed arrived. She knew the man she loved was not a magical thinker, telling himself he didn’t have Parkinson’s. She knew the man she loved stood steadfast, and would until he could no longer. What’s more, she knew the man she loved stood out, to her, as good-looking and vital and supportive as when she first saw him and just watched him.
She went inside and up to the apartment. Peter shuffled, with less confidence than he had at Paul Stuart, down to the corner, to Walgreens. He took two pints of Häagen-Dazs Sea Salt Caramel Gelato to the counter. He held the pints, one stacked on the other, between his coat sleeve and the coat itself. He set them on the check-out counter.
“Those are very cold,” he said. “Do you need to keep them that cold?”
He handed the clerk at the register his Walgreens Rewards card. The man looked at Peter and said, “What is this?”
“These are on special, I read, when you use your reward card,” Peter said.
“On special? The gelato hasn’t been on special for a year.”
“Would you do me a big favor? Would you give me a plastic bag? I’m going to put them back but they’re too cold for me to hold.”
Peter turned toward the rear of the store and turning put him off balance. A teen-age girl behind him caught him and steadied him. Then he listed to the right and to the left and shuffled to the freezer carrying the plastic Walgreens bag.