In early 2006, Yohanna was a hundred years old. I was 24, but I felt a lot older, as if I had lived too much too soon. I was running on empty. I did not find the company of my chronological peers satisfying, which is why I had started volunteering at the retirement home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That's where I had met Yohanna, the 100-year-old Frenchwoman.
Yohanna was tall and wore a short dark wig. I only ever saw her in pant suits. Her face was doughy and lumpy, as if it had been made of wax and had been placed too close to a heat source before being rescued. The thick downward folds of her skin gave her a permanent scowl. Her skin itself looked bloodless. Her voice was low and sometimes unclear, it was often hard to follow what she was saying. Her fingers looked bloated and shook often, her hands had age spots like freckles, and under the bright nailpolish her nails were surely yellowed and had stopped growing. Like her surroundings, she smelled of napthalene and floral airfresher. Sometimes lavender. Always overpowering.
Yohanna wasn't the sociable type. She mostly kept to herself in her room, or you could catch her shuffling down the hallways. That's where I first met her. It was my first day at the retirement home, and the head nurse was showing me around. She saw Yohanna from afar and whispered to me that she was from France. I had studied some French at university, so I sprang up to Yohanna and tapped her on her bent back. She spun around and gave me a hard look that almost silenced me. Bonjour, ca va, I managed to say. She immediately began muttering in French, too softly and too fast for me to understand. She almost sounded like she was talking to herself, catching up on some conversation she had left off the previous week. Plus lentement s'il vous plait, I said, asking her to please slow down. She eyed me harder. Je suis Khadija, et vous? I asked her. She rambled on in French, and then suddenly switched to heavily-accented English so fast that it took me a second to realise it. She looked at me even harder.
I introduced myself to her once again. She asked me how old I was, and I told her. She suddenly became very friendly with me and started telling me about when she was my age. She said in those days the soldiers would come to her town in France and dance with the local girls. (She often spoke of soldiers, I don't know what soldiers they were, maybe World World II?) She placed one hand on her hip and bent her knees and jiggled her shoulders to show me how they would dance. She stopped dancing just as soon as she'd started - she said she would've taught me those steps except that I was too young and the steps were too risque and the girls had been 'bad'. If these were the days when her complexion had some blood in it, she might've blushed. And we were friends.
I followed her around the rest of the day listening to her stories. She told me how she'd met her husband who had been much older than she was. She said she had never paid attention to boys or love until the day she locked eyes with the man that was to be her husband. He looked at her and she looked at him across a distance between them. That was it, she had told me, something intense was felt between them. She clenched her fists trying to find a word for what it was that they had felt that day, but she couldn't find one, and I didn't need her to. They got married soon after.
She once showed me a picture of her husband, a small black and white studio photograph of a kind-looking man in his early 40s with a round face and a Hitler moustache. I asked her for more photographs but she said she didn't believe in keeping any. Memories were enough, photographs were just things according to her.
She did fish out a photograph of herself a few weeks later. She had allowed me into her room, and I was sitting on her bed beside her. The bedspread was white with pink flowers on it, a very British tea set print. She suddenly put a small black and white photograph in front of me, not saying anything because she wanted to see my reaction, raw and instinctual.
I didn't recognise the woman in the photograph. She was incredibly beautiful though - a dark-haired woman with long hair loosely tied away from her face, full lips with dark lipstick on them, very 1940s. Her eyes were large and bright, her face was full and glowing. She was sitting under a wall in a button-down shirt, looking straight into the camera. What a beautiful woman, one of those who could not see her own beauty, the best kind. You could see it in the demure look in her eyes as she shyly looked at the photographer, as if it was not her usual habit to look people directly in the eye. A soft, effortlessly beautiful, healthy, fresh-looking woman.
I turned to the skinny old woman with the molten face and the pant suit hanging off of her bones, the photograph still in my hands. Is this you? I asked in disbelief, you're so beautiful. She waved her hands in dismissal. Oh I was nothing, she said. But she looked pleased.
Then she suddenly remembered her dead husband. She told me how much they had loved each other. The tough old woman who prowled the retirement home on her own and never betrayed any emotion suddenly welled up. Her voice began to waver. It had been 40 years, she said. Her husband had died 40 years ago. Then her voice strengthened again and her back straightened as she declared with pride that she had never loved anyone since.
She got up and pulled his photograph out of her dresser. She lovingly stroked his face as she told me how she had started shrieking at his funeral when his casket was being lowered into the ground. Her family had had to hold her back. I don't know when she came to America or how many children she had had, but she definitely had one daughter in Tulsa. She had put Yohanna here in the retirement home because it was tough for young people to take care of their parents, what with how busy they all were with their own lives and jobs and children. I had seen Yohanna calming another lonely old woman at the home with that explanation.
And then Yohanna remembered that she needed help with a CD player. She started rummaging through her closet and pulled out a portable player, holding it like the frighteningly unfamiliar piece of equipment that it probably was to her. A CD was still in it. Someone had helped her set it up so that she would just have to press the play button, but something had gone wrong and she wasn't able to listen to her favourite music anymore. Music was pretty much all she had of her past life now, and I could see how helpless she felt around this new piece of technology.
I wasn't very confident about my hardware skills, but I saw that the player was set to radio, so maybe all I had to do was turn the knob to CD and hit play. I did, and soft music floated out of the speakers almost unexpectedly. Yohanna clasped her hands and then reached out to hold mine. Her hands were clammy. I could feel the loose flesh and cold skin hanging off of her bones. Oh my darling, she exclaimed, thank you! She took a few long steps across the room as if she was dancing with a ghost. The music played on. I would listen to this blessed song over and over when I was young, she almost sang to me, thank you, thank you. Por ella, she trilled along with Julio Iglesias.
I smiled awkwardly not sure how to receive her gratitude over such a small task. I didn't even know if I was supposed to join her in the dance, she was swaying to the song with her eyes shut. I felt like I would be intruding, so I decided to just sit there and watch an old woman escape to a happier time.
I did ask her once, how would I know if a guy really loved me? You will be able to see it in his eyes, she had said, he will not be afraid to show it.
I made my mom meet her once at the home. My mom was visiting me for a few weeks, and by then, Yohanna had become my escape from the world I was living in. I would spend time with her every weekend, listening to her stories and asking her questions about life that everyone else seemed to just be lying to me about. I took my mother straight to the home and made our way to Yohanna's door. Yohanna was happy to meet my mother. She immediately started saying something to her in her heavily-accented English. My mother, all 5 feet of her 60-something self, froze with a terrified smile on her face as the tall thin Yohanna adjusted the short wavy locks around my mother's forehead, telling her to take care of her hair like a mother would. I noticed how young my mother looked in front of Yohanna, and then I realised that Yohanna was probably as old as my mother's parents would've been. Maybe even as old as one grandmother of hers. I began talking to Yohanna, and pretty soon I noticed my mother asking me, almost desperately, to leave. Once we were outside the home and back to the living world, my mother told me she felt frightened inside the home and that it smelled funny, like a beautiful farce for the barely living. She remained agitated about the whole experience for the rest of the day.
I met Yohanna every weekend for a couple of months. The first thing I would do every visit would be to find her and start talking to her about things. She told me once that she noticed I was a lover of beautiful things. I had been happily holding a flower then. Once I had held the door open for her and had insisted that she go first despite her feeling awkward about it. She tried to make me change my mind for a minute, and then she came close to me and looked into my eyes with that crazy look she would sometimes get and told me that I was a good person, a very good person, and that some people would take advantage of it, so it was important that I knew when to stop being good and with whom.
Once I met her after an interval of two weeks. I flew around the home, all smiles and happy to be back, asking the residents and the staff where Yohanna was. They said she was in her room. I made a beeline for her door and knocked on it. Yohanna opened the door slightly with the chain locked and peered at me suspiciously with one eye. I started - I was not used to Yohanna looking at me with that kind of a hard look, as if she was being aggressive just to protect herself. It's me, Khadija, don't you remember?
She didn't. I never went back to that retirement home again. I didn't have it in me to start over.