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TEA FOR TWO
Dolores Dorn

As I parked my car I noticed a dented, colorless Ford coupe at least twenty-five years old on the front lawn of one of the houses on the sunless Los Angeles street. Except there was no lawn, only a few tufts of dry, yellow weeds on tightly packed gray Earth.
I stumbled up the bumpy, cracked cement walkway to the house. The numbers were crookedly painted in white on a warped brown door. On either side was the same gray earth as the house next door only there'd been an attempt to grow some poinsettias now drooping and the color of old blood. There was no buzzer so I knocked.
The door opened almost immediately. She must have been waiting next to it. I had to look down because she was in a wheelchair. Another one of her jokes! She'd always prided herself on what she thought was her wry sense of humor.
I shook my head and looked down into her Elizabeth Taylor eyes. Even as an adult she resembled Taylor, except her nose was more prominent which made her face stronger. But what was wrong with her left eye? It bulged out of its socket and the pupil seemed to look far to the left while the other eye looked at me. And she looked so tired. Too tired for someone only thirty-five years old.
"What happened?" I asked, still standing in the doorway.
"Brain cancer," she said, "but I'm in remission. I'm O.K. now."
O.K. in a wheelchair? I thought, and hoped this was only temporary.
"I can't use my legs anymore, but thank God I have my hands."
My heart seemed to tighten in my chest and I couldn't breathe for a moment. I fought the sinking feeling that was starting because I knew I couldn't let her see how upset I was. We never showed feelings even when we were children. She used to tell me how proud she was to be English and part of that was to have a stiff upper lip.
She backed up her wheelchair and told me to come in. I closed the door and she motioned me to sit in an old brown easy chair, the only piece of furniture in the room besides a kitchen table. I needed to hold on to something and my hands curled tightly around the arms. The material felt hard, almost like leather. Years of dirt and grease had hardened it. And there was a smell, a damp smell mixed with rancid grease.
She asked me if I wanted some tea. I nodded and she rolled herself to the kitchen part of the room. The water was already boiling and the teacups were set out. As she filled the cups her body was alive from the waist up and totally inanimate from the waist down. Her legs, so thin under her jeans, bent at the knees unnaturally.
"Would you like milk or lemon?" she asked, and added, "I only have artificial sweetener. Hope that's O.K. I've got to watch my weight."
"Lemon and sweetener," I said, swallowing the lump in my throat.
I turned my attention to the room. The sink, refrigerator and stove were all lined up along one wall, cabinets above. All, once white, were now filthy with age, use and lack of care. The streaks of brownish yellow grease on the stove and the ceiling above it accounted for the rancid smell, which the boiling water made stronger.
"Move the piano bench in front of your chair and put the cups on it. It'll be our tea table," she said.
I looked around the room. I hadn't noticed the piano bench and an old upright piano against the wall. There were no pictures, the carpet had been taken up and there was a surprisingly fresh looking wooden floor.
She rolled herself over to our improvised table as I put the cups down and sat back into my chair. She smiled and said, "A tea party, just like the old days."
I swallowed that damned lump again.
"Yes, just like the old days."
Then we were silent. I heard the metallic sound of her spoon stirring in her cup. How could this have happened to her? Two years ago she was living in Santa Monica with her husband and daughter.
Above us I heard a scratching noise, which I hoped was a bird, but knew was a rat. I've got to do something to get her out of here, I thought. As if reading my mind she said, "My roommate is getting married soon which means I won't have a place to live. I thought of getting another roommate but the landlord wants this house for his daughter."
Good riddance to this place, I thought.
The she asked me if she could move in with me... that she'd pay. I had to tell her that I'd split with my husband last year and our house was sold in the divorce settlement. I was staying with friends until the money came through. Sadly I couldn't help her.
"What about Tim?" I asked, "Where is Tim?"
I hadn't even thought of asking about her second husband with all the sad news.
"He left after the diagnosis; said he couldn't take it."
"Yeah," I said, "in sickness and in health."
She shrugged and said on a lighter note,
"Well, here we are, two divorcees, sisters in sin, just like the old days."
I smiled.
"What about your family?" I asked in desperation. By this time her need was my need.
"That crazy family of mine? Even if they lived here I wouldn't want to live with them. No, I want to stay in L.A."
"Your daughter?"
"Yes, and she's into drugs now and I need to be here for her."
"What about Social Services?" I said, beginning to feel guilty.
She gave me a withering look and said, "I - am - not - a - charity - case! I have unemployment and my savings."
And what about when that runs out, I thought, but said, "Well, then, we're going to have to find you an apartment. Any ideas?"
Silence. Then those scratchy noises again. Damn rats and damn all human rats, too. Helplessly I thought I can't get an apartment with her because I'm planning to go to Europe when my money comes through.
Another idea!
"Your first husband, Dil, I heard he's doing well these days."
"Doing well?" she said, "You mean he's making a lot of money writing jingles for commercials. I don't call that doing well."
She was a classically trained pianist from an early age and only jazz and classical music did she consider worthy to make a living by.
"O.K., O.K.," I agreed, "but I heard he's making a lot of money."
"I told you I don't need money."
"No, no, I meant he could help us find you an apartment."
And once he's involved maybe pay for the live-in help, I thought; she can't live alone.
"He's married again!" she said, exasperated with me.
"So what, he owes you. You took care of him and the baby when you played the New York clubs while he was playing with his toy trains on your living room floor waiting for work to come to him."
She sighed and with a twinkle in her eye she said, "It wasn't easy being married to a genius."
We both laughed but I knew that was exactly how she felt about him then.
"Are you still acting?" she asked.
"Yes, I recently got a guest star part on a T.V. movie of the week."
"What about writing?"
"Well, I'm teaching two days a week at the American Film School and I don't have much time."
"Do you like it?"
"Sometimes, but I have no choice because I need the money."
"I'm teaching, too - a couple of kids that live around here. It's fun to watch them grow."
"Will you play for me?" I asked.
"Sure," she said brightly. She loved to play.
As she started I realized she was playing my favorite piece when we were children, Chopin's Prelude in C Sharp Minor. I was reminded of those long summer days when I listened; she played and we both munched on potato chips and Tootsie Fudge.

Dolores Dorn has been acting all her life. She has been under contract with Warner Bros. Studios and Columbia Pictures where she played leading roles opposite Cliff Robertson, Rod Steiger, and Allan Ladd. She was voted the best actress at the San Francisco International Film Festival for the role of Elena in Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya'. A one-act play she wrote recently was produced and thusly reviewed, "'Throw Away Woman' puts a poignant and real face on homelessness in an uncaring court system." She taught for twelve years at the American Film Institute and loves animals of all species.

 

 

 

 
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