Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile
By: Matt Mahboub
New York is awake around us. New York is throbbing with life. The park we sit in lies in the shadow of four buildings. It is a haven in the city, a place to escape. The trees, flowers and birds in the park live just as fully as New York, but in a different way. Yellow taxi cabs blur by, honking their horns obsessively as the birds in the old sycamore tree behind me chirp pleasantly. The dried wood of the bench beneath me scratches my legs as I adjust in my seat. I sit next to an elderly woman in a wheelchair, with my mother. People chatter around us, relaxing in the warm New York city afternoon.
“Who are you?” she says, with a smile on her face. She is always happy to meet new people.
“You’re nephew, we’re family,”
“I’m Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile,” her voice floating off as she observes the world around her.
“Nice to meet you, your highness,” I say smiling.
“Do you live here?”
“No. I’m from Albuquerque.” I respond, knowing what she is going to say next.
“Really, I have family in New Mexico, Silver City.”
“I know Aunt Cleo, remember, I’m your nephew.” I state the obvious once more.
“We’re related?” she asks innocently.
I have patience with her. She doesn’t understand. As she sits here in this park with me, she suffers from dementia, a broken leg, and ovarian cancer. She is old and dark, having lived most of her life, chasing her dreams. The dreams she had as a small child of acting in a “big city.” However, I only learn about her fanciful life through her lapses in memory, she tells me erratically when she needs to leave the park for work, or that her housekeeper didn’t work today and she needs to return to her apartment to clean. When she’s in this park, she doesn’t realize she’s 93 and living in a dreadful retirement home. Here, she is young again. She sits quietly for a moment, smiling happily just looking around at the people and the sky. Many greet her as they walk by; she returns their greetings with glee. She doesn’t recognize many of them, but she still talks to them. It isn’t until a short elderly man walks up that her confused responses change to understanding.
“Jim!” she exclaims.
“Hello Cleo,” the adoring old man says gently.
Jim Sobrino is blind, or near it. He is the one person in Cleo’s life who has been there through thick and thin. He is the one person she still recognizes; the only person significant enough in her life to remember. Though he can no longer see the details of her face, he loves her. They have been friends for a long time. At times they were more than just friends. Their story is secret. It can only be gently uncovered by the musky glances given to one another. In these short looks, words are spoken, secret and hidden, a language that only the two can understand.
“Is everything alright Tamara, Matthew?”
“Yes, we are just sitting here enjoying the afternoon” my mother responds gently.
“Has she eaten?”
We look at each other, “No.”
Jim looks at his best friend, his comrade and sternly says, “You need to eat Cleo.” I can tell it hurts him, seeing the one he loves slowly wasting away. The look on his face spills the feeling of his soul, strong, aged, yet fragile. He knows the end is soon for her, and it worries him.
“I’m not hungry,” Cleo snaps indignantly, “I’ll eat later.”
Quickly, Jim responds, “Have you eaten today?”
“Yes,” she lies like a child.
“Oh really,” Jim says with a sarcastic smile on his face.
Jim sits down next to me with a small, elderly grunt. His cologne, a thick musky fragrance burns my nose. Feeling the eyes of someone watching me, I look to Cleo. She is staring at me, smiling her whimsical smile.
“You’re so handsome.”
“Thank you,” I say a little too modestly.
“Who are you?” She is always happy to meet new people.
“You’re nephew, we’re family,” I say simply.
“I’m Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile,” her voice floating off once more, observing the world around her.
“Nice to meet you, your highness,” I say smiling