Short Story Mae and Me
The two years after Daniel’s disappearance felt like a decade. My colleagues and students couldn’t decide whether to treat me like a widow or divorcée. Mae treated me like neither.
When Daniel vanished, he left two women behind. Mae, our elderly landlady in 4A, and me, his wife. She’d somehow come to have an equal claim on him. We both lost him that day. He’d held Mae’s hand as often as mine, each time he led her up the creaking steps to her apartment. Only when Mae and I started to wonder, in a way that ached deep in our bones, if he’d really never return, did she finally have the elevator fixed. She found me a much less suitable companion for the treacherous journey up the stairs.
“Too fast,” she’d say. “You act like we’re losing in a race, Anjali.”
I was impatient, still reeling from Daniel’s disappearance. In the absence of any instructions regarding what he would have wanted, I found myself taking care of this unpleasant woman, whose company I would have happily avoided—entirely possible in New York City. Before Daniel merged our lives, we were strangers who happened to traverse the same bit of floor. Now the skin on our two bodies seared together with the absence of his fingertips, calloused from guitar strings and rock climbing.
Mae was Daniel’s responsibility. I wasn’t the one who struck up an acquaintance with our lonely neighbor. We were both teachers, but he’d been laid off from his school due to budget cuts. Daniel began visiting Mae down the hall and grew indispensable to her. Picking up her groceries, staying to throw a haphazard meal together, reading to her as her cataracts worsened, hooking his arm through the crook of her elbow and taking her for slow, meandering walks around our block. He’d tell her, in poetic detail, of his adventures, from the world travels that defined him before he became Mae’s voluntary caretaker. She had never left the state.
Their friendship didn’t concern me. It gave him something to talk about in bed, much as stories about Mae bored me. I could tell she gave him purpose. The few times Mae emerged from her lair to come to our door to demand Daniel’s help in opening a jar or changing a bulb, we barely acknowledged each other.
Once he was gone, I felt like I should take over and make sure this woman he’d loved would be okay without him.
Besides, focusing my energy on Mae distracted me. It kept me from wondering if Daniel had been taken from me or wandered away of his own volition. Still, even as we talked over tea or listened to her blaring television while I prepared dinners soft enough for her new dentures, Daniel’s low voice whispered doubts in my ear.
“Have the police found anything new?” she asked one night, her loud voice drowning out the contestant’s correct response on Jeopardy.
I shifted uncomfortably, like I did whenever she brought up my missing husband. “I was watching that. Now I don’t know the answer.”
“You can Google it later.” Ever since Daniel had taught Mae how to use Google, it was her solution to everything. “No updates?”
They had scanned each security tape in the vicinity of Mae’s brownstone and any leading up to the entrances of nearby Central Park. Then all the ones close to every bridge in the city. They scoured the Hudson many times over, weeks apart. His body would have floated to the surface by now , Detective Wilson had explained. His more tactful partner reassured us that it must mean Daniel was alive, wherever he was. I still couldn’t decide which was better.
I had to call and tell his mother, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years and had only introduced me to once. Daniel’s father had left when she was pregnant. Needy and demanding Daniel’s constant attention and affection, she rained down verbal acid whenever Daniel couldn’t give her all she wanted and craved from the man who’d abandoned them.
“Always knew he’d pull something like this,” his mother said. “Selfish. Gone and left you just like his dad did to me. Lucky you don’t have any kids.” Her triumphant I-told-you-so inflection was unbearable. I wanted to slap her, not just for her heartless and cold attitude now, but for the years he’d suffered as her child.
It was during his adolescent years that he’d first experimented with cutting himself and his substance abuse problems began. Daniel said he couldn’t go to his mother for help because she treated him like a disturbed monster lurking in her home. By the time I met him, he was a gentle, thoughtful history teacher who had scaled mountains on almost every continent.
“He didn’t pull anything,” I said. “He started getting depressed again after he got laid off. I thought he was doing better after a while, but he wasn’t. He’s gone and you should care because you’re his mother.”
Her long silence on the other end chilled me from my hairline to my toes. Just when I thought she must have hung up, she cleared her throat. “Oh, sweetie. He did a real number on you. Trust me, you’re better off.”
Mae started peeking out her door every time she heard me opening mine after work. Sometimes, I told her I was too tired to join her, but eventually, I was over there more days than I wasn’t.
Soon, Mae began rattling off vignettes of her life’s story, like I was her willing biographer. I came to depend on her tales for relief from my anxiety about Daniel. My fear for him consumed me the rest of the time.
Sometimes, I wondered if Mae invented it all. But that would be too beneath her. Mae’s pride wouldn’t allow her to lie about her glittering and gritty life as a Broadway dancer and her torrid love affair with the director. Embellishment of the details seemed more likely.
“They auditioned hundreds of gals for the part,” she said one time after dinner, “but once I sashayed into that room, Reggie couldn’t remember a single one of them. He couldn’t remember his wife the longer he watched me dance.”
I tried not to be judgmental, though I knew she wanted me to be—a little bit, at least. If I was too accepting of her greatest misdeed and normalized it too much, then her existence lost all its spice, her love all its heady flavor. She counted on that past excitement of their wrongdoing to keep her interesting now, as she and her director had gone on to spend a perfectly boring and happy life together after their affair ended his first marriage. He was Mae’s husband for forty-seven years until his death, and the children they never had left her all alone.
“You and Daniel never faced any obstacles to you being together,” Mae said, waving her hand as she saw me gearing up to protest. “Oh, I know, you were brown, he was white, what would your parents think, and all that jazz—but you kids can do most things you want just fine now. You tell everyone where to shove it and then you shack up together.” She waited. I didn’t interrupt. “Very little can stand in your way. But Reggie and me—”
Mae’s voice trailed off as she fingered a nearby framed photograph of them on their wedding day, like she forgot I was in the room. It was black and white and Mae was laughing in it, gazing up at her husband in a way I never had at Daniel. Daniel made me burn with heat when he held me close, but it wasn’t often that he made me laugh.
“What?” She looked confused and I knew it was getting late.
“Reggie and you. You were talking about obstacles. How you had to walk twenty miles in the snow to get to Reggie and build the chapel yourselves before you could get married.”
“Oh, very funny, Miss. I’m old and you’ve heard it all before. Why don’t you blow it out your ass, wise-guy.” Mae shoved my shoulder hard with an unexpected strength that made me smile in spite of myself.
I started to stand but felt her staring. I was startled by the way she leaned back and spread her arms, baring herself to me like she was naked.
“Reggie made me love him more than the stage and I didn’t think anyone ever could. It didn’t matter that we were different religions, or that he was older and accomplished, and I was just some sassy kid with long legs and feet that wouldn’t stay still. No, Miss, there was a twister picking up speed all around us from the moment I walked into that room and he asked my name.” She shrugged. “No wife of his stood a chance.”
It was when she would get into the sordid particulars, like the time they made love in his director’s chair backstage with the rest of the cast and crew dangerously nearby, that I’d squint and scrunch my nose in disbelief. But as Mae would tell me whenever she detected skepticism, “What do I care about impressing you? Who are you, sweetheart?” Or “You think I’d spend the precious time I have left dreaming up stories to show off for you? Polishing them up before you get here?” Always followed by a defensive snort, as if she, too, began to question the reality of her own history’s retelling.
I had been the first to meet Mae, not Daniel. I’d applied for the apartment when he was still only my boyfriend, so I didn’t bring him along when I went to go see 4B.
When I arrived at the foot of a majestic-looking, bird-shit-stained staircase, an old woman sat in a rocking chair on the landing, yawning. A fly buzzed around both our heads as I walked up to meet her. She swatted it away from a cheek caked in the blood red rouge of an earlier time. Flyaway wisps of snow-colored hair, sprinkled with traces of the rich brunette it once was, framed her heavily lined face. A few strands clung to her forehead, damp with sweat. Her eyes, a steely gray, stared off into nothing.
“Glad you’re a teacher,” she said, grunting as I helped her up out of the chair. We’d chatted on the phone a day earlier. “Means you’ll be quiet, grading and lesson planning, and whatnot.” She pushed her glasses back to the bridge of her nose and peered at my features more closely. “Not wearing makeup. You Indian women are modest folk—that’s good, too.” Her back was to me, as she placed her key in the lock, when she said, “Not that it seems likely, but any obnoxious music or loud sex, and I’ll have your ass back out on the street.”
The building was hot and stuffy when she took me inside. Mae claimed the air conditioner was running, but the oppressive stillness of the heat in the unit was inescapable. It also reeked of Mae’s cigarette smoke, which would go on to curl and wisp out of my vents at all hours once I moved in. She and I gazed around at the small space, pretending together that there was anything more to tour than the room we were standing in already. The fact that I’d be able to reach out and touch the microwave from my bed was not an appealing prospect.
But I was charmed by the rust red and tan color of the old, dusty bricks stretching from floor to high ceiling. This Upper West Side recluse’s haven was also steps from Central Park in the genuine way, not the Craigslist false promises followed by a dozen exclamation points way. It was ideal for my early morning runs with Daniel before the school bells started ringing in our ears and jostling our brains all day. Mae could see all this in my eyes and sensed the hard sell wouldn’t be necessary.
“Well, go on. Take a look around without me hovering, but hurry up.”
The two years following Daniel’s disappearance stretched on like a decade. He still haunted every inch of the tiny studio and any time I caught myself feeling vain and smiling at my appearance in the mirror, he stared back at me from behind the glass, wondering with his hurt expression who I was trying to look pretty for with his fate still unknown. The neighborhood search parties had long since dispersed, his photo was no longer being shared on Facebook, and my colleagues and students couldn’t decide whether to treat me like a widow or divorcée.
An old classmate from my high school, Rohan, reached out to me. He was new to the city and didn’t know anyone. As dinner with him approached, little things like the choice of romantic restaurant and his increasingly flirtatious texts made it start to seem like this was more of a date than a friendly reunion. In many ways, it felt too soon. But Mae didn’t think so.
“You being a shut-in and not getting any won’t bring Daniel back,” she said. Her frankness and embrace of modern-speak helped me to loosen up. “And you’ve never dated one of your own kind, have you?”
I shook my head, ignoring her rude phrasing. Growing up in rural Connecticut hadn’t led to interaction with many other Indians.
“Well, I say go and get a free meal.” She looked me up and down, like she was surveying a beat-up car in need of a wash and paint job. “Maybe a trip to the salon first.”
Mae’s encouragement somehow felt more important than that of my friends. Like if she thought it was okay for me to take a break from my bleak Friday night routine of wine and Netflix alone in Daniel’s old T-shirt, then it wasn’t as disloyal to him as I knew it was.
Rohan and I were dating before I realized it. Six months with him rushed by. He made me laugh. We rediscovered the city that I’d once loved, before it became such a lonely, foreign place without Daniel. We walked the length of the Brooklyn Bridge. We pretended to appreciate an art exhibit at the MOMA made up entirely of text messages, including messy break-up ones. We ate soup dumplings at Shanghai Joe’s in Chinatown and Shake Shack burgers all over the city. We were so busy being tourons , as Daniel would have called us (tourist and moron rolled into one), that my apartment at night was the only place left where I was forced to remember I was a missing man’s wife.
It was on a hike in the Adirondacks that Rohan asked me a serious question I wasn’t anticipating. That night, I dropped by Mae’s for dinner.
When I let myself in and joined her at the kitchen table, Mae was fanning herself with her checkbook. I started to ramble about how humid it was.
“Save it,” Mae said. “I can tell you’ve got something on your mind.”
I was relieved. I didn’t have to build my way up to what was weighing on me. “Rohan wants to move in together.”
Mae stared at me, like she was the teacher and I was her student, searching for the right answer in her eyes.
“It’s too fast,” I said.
“You seem to really like him, Anjali.”
“I know I do. But something’s not right. I need to end it.”
Mae’s impassive face caught me off guard. I’d never had trouble reading it before. “Before you do that, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Her tone of voice made my shoulders tense.
“It’s about Daniel.”
The world stopped turning for an instant and my memory of how to keep breathing did, too. “What are you talking about? Daniel? Has he tried to contact you—”
Mae started clicking her teeth and shushing me in a lilting rhythm, like I was a baby jolted out of a deep sleep that she needed to rock back into dreaming. “No, no, nothing like that.” She sat up straighter. “You know his mom put Daniel’s grandmother in a home once the dementia overtook her and she required constant care? He wanted her to come live with them, but his mother said it would be too hard. Probably would have been.”
“He told me his grandma was dead,” I said, breathing steady again. I was pretty sure Mae was confusing him for someone else. Daniel had mentioned she was getting more easily mixed up as their time together progressed.
“And she was, by the time he met you.” She sounded too confident to be wrong, but Mae was always confident.
“I don’t get what this has to do with—”
“He was closer to his grandmother than anyone,” Mae said. “She was the only one that he could talk to about the darkness. The sadness. How he couldn’t control it anymore. How it always came back.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said, the hurt flaring in my belly and ricocheting like a firecracker. “How could he not tell me any of that?”
“I imagine as young people falling in love, you were often busy doing other things,” Mae said, her eyebrow arched and her smile mischievous. Then it disappeared. “But when he started to get that drowning feeling again, all he could think of that might help to pull him back above water was her. So he turned to me.”
I was embarrassed by the wetness pricking at my eyes and refused to let them develop into tears in front of Mae. “So he couldn’t even talk to me.” I looked at the floor instead of her.
“Wait, Anjali. I’m trying to tell you something.”
I motioned for her to continue.
“He’d started using again. The drugs. A lot.”
I snapped back to attention. “What drugs? Which ones? He said he’d never—”
Mae cut me off with the usual wave of her hand. “Not really the point, is it? Better you don’t know. But that’s why he was over here so much. Didn’t want you to see him like that.” She waited for me to respond, but I didn’t. “It got so bad that he showed up to work one morning, just gone out of his mind. Trying to teach the kids. They fired him on the spot.” She cleared her throat. “That’s what really happened. No budget cuts. No layoffs. It nearly killed him and he didn’t want you to know.”
One punch in the stomach after another stops feeling like anything, after a while. You just go numb and still, hoping it’ll be over soon.
“Is that all?” I asked.
“I never really knew him, did I? I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t make him happy.”
“That’s not anything you did wrong. You were what he needed in other ways. There’s no accounting for what comforts a person once they’re in that state.” Her rough voice was smooth and thick now, warming me from the inside like steaming hot chocolate. “You couldn’t fix him, honey. Neither could I. That’d be like blaming ourselves if we couldn’t cure someone’s cancer. Your husband was sick and he was always doing the best he could.”
In a rare moment of physical connection between us, I felt her hand, all wrinkles, blue veins, and bones, resting on my head. I glanced up to find her standing beside me.
“You and I did the best we could, too,” she said. “He loved us and we loved him. I don’t know what happened to him or where he is, but I do know that.”
I tried to nod, but when I crumbled forward into her thin, weathered arms, they were ready for me. Close enough to inhale the scent of her menthols and brassy perfume, a memory sprang to my mind, one so insignificant I didn’t even know it was buried there.
It was early evening on a sultry day. I’d been out afternoon drinking with some friends as we often did in the summer months. Daniel had said he wanted to stay in to read a book. I stumbled into our studio with laughter on my lips only to find the place empty. Irritated that the funny story I was excited to tell him would be forgotten, I went looking for him at Mae’s. I never had before. When I rapped on the door, I’m sure I must have startled them.
Yet they didn’t change positions to stand up and come let me in. It’s open , Mae had called out, boredom in her tone. When I entered, neither looked up. They were on the gray loveseat. Mae was seated upright but Daniel was curled up like a spoon, his head in her lap, her blue veined fingers combing his golden curls. I stared for a second before glancing over at the television to see what they were watching. It was off.
Was that the day he told Mae the truth he couldn’t tell me? With his soft hair pressed against her sharp pelvic bone in the smoky haze of her musty smelling apartment—the very picture of intimacy.
Suddenly, I felt sick. I extricated myself from Mae’s warmth, stood up, and walked out her front door without another word.
Once all my things were stowed in the back of the U-haul, Rohan climbed into the driver seat.
I turned and made my way back up the staircase to Mae. She was waiting for me. Above her was the home and ghost of a husband I had to leave behind to be able to start living again. I felt awful that it meant I needed to leave Mae, too. She was so tightly and inextricably wound up in my uncertain lingering need for Daniel, as well as the pain and anger his memory inspired, that I couldn’t keep going with her the way things had been. As the women who had lived with, loved, and mourned Daniel together, I couldn’t take her with me or return to her with any great frequency. It would be like staying married to Daniel while trying to make a fresh beginning with Rohan.
“This is just a see you later,” I said. But something of my guilt and hesitance seeped out of my pores, because Mae fixed me with a long look, her nostrils flaring.
“You take care, Anjali.” Set against the background of the looming sturdy brownstone, she looked smaller and frailer than usual.
The following spring, nearly nine months later, I was at the front of my classroom when my cell phone rang. I never answer during a lesson, so I let it go to voicemail. The bell rang and as my students spilled out into the hallway, I glanced at the phone. My stomach lurched when the screen lit up again. It was Detective Wilson. We rushed through the polite hellos.
“We recovered a body from the river.” My hearing dissolved into nothing. I could tell he was still talking, but I missed it. “Anjali? Are you there?”
“Did you hear what I just said?”
“The remains were unrecognizable as any person, so we ran it against Daniel’s dental records.”
I leaned forward. “And?”
“It’s not him. All our other leads have already gone cold. Every person that’s called to report someone that looks like him, that could be him, they’ve been wrong.”
“They’re reassigning me to another case.”
“I don’t understand. Who will be taking on Daniel’s?”
He sighed. “Sometimes, people leave, Anjali. They just run.” For a second, the face of Daniel’s mother smirking was all I could see, but I blinked and she was gone. “I really am sorry.”
When I got home, Rohan was still at work. I gravitated to my side of the shared closet in our bedroom. I had to use a stepladder to reach the purple shoebox I kept wedged in the corner of the shelf on top. It’s where I stored the few of Daniel’s things I took with me when I moved. The rest I had left with Mae or donated to Goodwill.
I rubbed Daniel’s guitar pick with a light pressure at first. It was red with white marbling, like raw meat. I pressed it harder against my fingers, leaving an indent in my skin, like it would make me feel something. Like I’d suddenly know what happened to him and hear him tell me that he’s okay. Hear him tell me why he left. I closed my eyes and placed it against my forehead, trying to listen for him. It was as cold and inflexible as glass.
I waited for the feel of his sandpaper hands to sweep my coarse hair aside and caress my shoulders, for his lips to whisper along the nape of my neck. There was only one person that could ever help me to connect with Daniel again and I walked away from her. I hadn’t even returned to the intersection or the stretch of uneven sidewalk that would put me in too close range of the brownstone I called home for years.
The truth burned in my chest—that Mae had been taking care of me for him, more than the other way around. I returned the shoebox to its place and headed outside to the subway station.
I got buzzed up without a word and wondered for a moment if it was really her letting me in. Afraid of who I might or might not find up there, I paced in the entryway for a bit. Then I avoided the rickety elevator and started climbing the many familiar steps. As I neared the fourth floor, I coughed and noticed the layer of dust beneath my palm on the mahogany banister. I dragged my hand across my skirt, marking myself with the evidence of my neglect. When I knocked, it felt like an eternity before the door finally eased open.
Looking at her for the first time in so long, I felt like an ashamed kid in the corner after my time-out. Contrite with hands behind my back and dragging my feet. “Hey, Mae.”
She leaned hard on her walking cane, her gray eyes blurry behind her thick lenses but penetrating my soul anyway. I don’t know why I expected her to age dramatically since I’d last seen or spoken to her, but she didn’t look too different. I realized that the warmth making my fingers and toes tingle was from the relief surging through me that she wasn’t already dead.
“I’m sorry it’s been a while,” I said.
“Yes. But I’m glad you came.” Mae, to my grateful surprise, didn’t prolong this introduction to our awkward reunion. She turned and shuffled away, leaving me alone in the doorway. “Tea’s almost ready.”
A framed photo of a plaintive Daniel on the wall, beside one of her and Reggie, gave me pause. But it didn’t hurt exactly. I smiled and followed.