Roger Kaplan was a once a free spirit, a privileged Flower Child of the long-ago 1960s. Now, he’s trying to navigate life as a resident of the Poplar Ridge Geriatric Care Facility. The fading dreams of his youth are forever at war with the reality of his infirmities. Frustrated yet resigned, Roger is just beginning to settle into his final groove, when a mystery woman shows up, reigniting fires he thought were long-extinguished. Irreverent and touching, “Maybe We Danced” is a short story that explores what happens when the Summer of Love runs headlong into the Autumn of Life. —From Amazon
I have long been fascinated with the experience of aging. It doesn’t answer as many questions as it asks. It’s a mystery that grows more opaque with time—at least for a species that perceives its own awareness as immortal. As creatures of the mind, physical aging is utterly confounding to humans. I’m aware that I’m still relatively young, that my perceptions might be limited, or naive, or subject to change, but I envision it as a pilot, mid-air, watching her plane break apart piece by piece. A crash is coming, but that’s for the future. For now, there’s wide-open sky.
In Maybe We Danced, Carla Baku juxtaposes the youthful interiority of former 1960s free-love hippy, Roger Kaplan, with his broken-down exterior. His greatest hits memories include women whose names he’s forgotten, music that no longer comes on the radio, protests over long-resolved wars, and drugs and alcohol he can no longer get his hands on. Now he’s wheelchair-bound with emphysema and tremors. Life in Poplar Ridge Geriatric Care Facility is a series of indignities that he could never have imagined as a younger man, that even the staff who oversees them cannot fully appreciate. Good thing Roger has a sense of humor, which he deploys often, such as when a nurse tells him it’s time for an enema.
‘Kinky,’ said Roger. ‘Don’t spare the lube.’ His morning voice was sandpapery. The one time he had refused the enema, they’d given him a purgative in a glass of ginger ale. He wouldn’t make that mistake twice.
The only familiar aspect of his life in Poplar Ridge is the endless carping about baseball with his pal, Bernie. Roger has no children, no wife, no family to visit, and along with a couple of staff members, Bernie is the only person with whom he has a relationship anymore. Roger doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He’s made his own decisions. He forewent family for a lifetime of freedom. Now, he’s in Poplar Ridge by choice. But when it comes to aging, we don’t actually have a choice, do we? A custom, black leather wheelchair with chrome spokes and a Grateful Dead decal is not a Harley no matter what you call it. The nurses may take care of you, even save your life from time to time, but they are not your family. They just give the enemas and hope you don’t create more paperwork by dying on their shift. Ultimately, Roger confronts aging alone.
Somehow he’d lived his whole life believing that touch, mutual and sweet, was a bottomless well, never imagined such a thing could have a terminal moment. Now he’d wished he’d been paying closer attention, the last time, to mark it.
No wonder Roger becomes instantly enamored with a new Poplar Ridge resident who, in her appearance and bearing, reminds him of the freedom of his youth.
Baku’s success in Maybe We Danced is sharpening the soft edges with wicked details: the smell of piss near the patients’ rooms, “expressions of vacant alarm” on the faces of elderly folks who have to be tied into their wheelchairs just to keep them upright, the taste of bronchodilator meds, Motrin given by suppository, the difficulties of eating fish sticks with a tremor. Nobody wants to read a sob story about the pains of growing old. The alternative, dying young, is certainly worse.
There was a faded mural behind the unstaffed reception desk, a sweeping vista of trees and hills, perhaps the Great Smoky Mountains or some other eastern landscape. This was California and there wasn’t a native poplar tree within two thousand miles, but Roger liked the phony view anyway. Did it really matter what they pasted on the wall? All you have in the end are a bunch of pictures, he thought. Some in a shoebox, some in your head. Hopefully the ones in your head are the good ones.
Maybe We Danced tells us memories don’t die. Meeting the mysterious newcomer brings the past back to life for both of them.
Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries of aging is that even as our future narrows, we humans continue to imagine it.
Maybe We Danced: