She eased into the chair beside him. They had placed him to face out the large window of the community room, and by his locked gaze forward it was hard to imagine he was nearly blind to the snow lazily falling outside.
He was near-deaf as well, so saying anything wouldn’t be very effective. But ever since she had arrived at the home, she had never seen him act out like the others, or complain, or refuse to eat or just generally be stubborn like so many others there. He just seemed to be content sitting, almost as if waiting for something.
She hesitated a moment, then reached out and set her hand upon his. She could detect the faintest flexing of muscles beneath her fingertips as he closed his eyes.
He was 22. A few girlfriends had crossed his path, but left after he made a mistake or they just didn’t find him interesting enough. No major concern, though. He had college to concentrate on, and once he graduated and found his path, a relationship would just come naturally.
He was 34. He listened to his co-workers congratulate one of the interns on her engagement. His prime had passed him, he realized at that moment, but it was all right. There were still years ahead of him to find someone; start a family. The right one just hadn’t come yet, but she would; his friends were confident of that. He was too nice to pass up, they always said, and he couldn’t just spite them all by enjoying that great singles freedom for the rest of his life, right? He smiled and joined the group.
He was 49. The prostate surgery went well; the cancer was gone. But as careful as the surgeons could be, there was still some nerve damage. “It’s OK,” he kept telling the nurses with a sharp grin and wave of his hand. “You don’t use it, you lose it.” The other patient in his room was sent home that night, thankfully, so he could take a night to cry without shame. He was sent home several days later with a better outlook. Sex was a fading ember with people around his age, anyway. Companionship was still possible. That’s what mattered.
He was 61. His co-workers were congratulating him on his retirement. He smiled and nodded his thanks, holding down his desire to scream. They made him retire early. Budget cuts required fresh, lower-salaried meat, and all the extra loyalty and dedication he had to funnel into his career ultimately proved worthless. As they set a pocketwatch in his hand, he briefly thought of strangling his boss with the chain. When he came home that night, he set it beside his bed.
He was 75. His trouser legs rolled up, he combed the beach with a metal detector as he commonly did, to fill the time. He found a golden band sticking out of the sand once. Took it home and cleaned it with the utmost care, then put out a newspaper ad for it. When no one responded, he considered taking it to the police, but something inside him made him set it beside his pocketwatch instead.
He was found at 84; sunburned and dehydrated, lying in the sand. He didn’t know how long he had been there. He couldn’t tell them his address. When they discovered his home, they found decay and deterioration; forgotten mail and food. He was ruled incapable of living independently anymore. There was no family to contact. Only one person at his old workplace recognized his name. He was admitted into the state-run home. They placed the pocketwatch and ring on his bedstand. Occasionally an aide would ask him if it had been his wife’s. When he was lucid enough, he lied.
Now he was 89. When able, he would think back to his youth and his dreams of having someone to be faithful to. He had tried — at least he believed — as hard as everyone else, but in the end time and circumstance had always bested him; removed his pieces one by one from the board until only he was left, and they took pieces of that, too. Like a fool, he had glossed each loss over with compromise until finally, his world a hazy, vague miasma, his core had been chipped away to one single point:
I wish someone would hold my hand.
He never turned his head, but she could feel his hand turning over; rough, worn fingers slipping between her own before closing in a firm, warm grasp.
She squeezed back.
He was 22 again.