An unplanned elopement with Mrs. X

True Tales From Everyday Living

Real life


When I was still in grade school, a girl in the neighborhood eloped with her boyfriend to Elkton. I don't remember her name now, but I do remember how the word eloped perfumed the air of my imagination with romance. The young lovers hadn't simply run away; they had eloped. Moreover, none of their elders could make them come back, because they'd gotten married and had already slept together in an Elkton motel.

Alas, the word eloped has lost its romance for me, now that I'm a registered nurse. In the medical and legal fields, "elopement" is said to have occurred when a patient leaves the building without notifying the staff.

I work with the elderly. It terrifies me to envision someone in my care eloping into a world where the vulnerable quickly come to harm. And so here's the irony in my present situation: Whereas once upon a time I thought elopement was romantic, it seems I've now become the very one from whom the elders are eloping, or rather attempting to.

One particularly trying day, it was Mrs. X attempting elopement. A security guard called to alert me that she'd gone out the front door.

"Go after her!" I cried, my heart sinking to my sensible nurse shoes.

"She won't listen to me," he replied. "And I can't leave my desk."

"Quick! See which way she's headed!" I dropped the phone and took off running -- down one long corridor, down another, down the stairwell.

Mrs. X was long gone, and the security guard couldn't say which way she'd headed. How was he to know that even in high heels Mrs. X could leave a person 30 years her junior standing in the dust?

As I stood on the sidewalk that sunny afternoon in June, out of breath, looking east and west and across the busy intersection into the city neighborhood going south, I sent up a fervent prayer to St. Anthony: This time it's a person I've lost. Help me. Oh please help me find her before something really bad happens.

Pale blue suit, steel gray curls -- miraculously I spied her, a short and sturdy figure, moving far off, moving fast. I was running again, stopping occasionally to catch my breath and call her name, loudly and with authority, the way I used to call my children in for supper. She did not hear, was determined not to.

When I caught up, Mrs. X turned to look at me. Her flushed face lit up with surprise and genuine pleasure. "My goodness," she said, but did not break her stride. "What on earth are you doing here, Madeleine?"

It was such a good question. I let it hang there between us. I put my hands on my knees and took a gulp of air.

Mrs. X returned to my side. She peered down at me, frowning. "You weren't trying to catch up with me, were you?" she asked.

"Yes," I answered. "I was."

"Well, well." She shook her head. "It's come to this."

We were stopped in front of a small house, its porch cluttered with faded furniture. Pots of mixed petunias lined the steps. A rickety trellis, laden with old-fashioned pink roses, leaned off to the side. The air was sweet with the fragrance of childhood.

"You should sit down," Mrs. X said, glancing at the glider on the porch.

"I'd love to," I said. "But I don't know these people, do you?"

She studied the porch. Her eyes moved deliberately across the screen door to the windows, which were hung with sheer curtains, two blind pulls hanging down like delicate earrings. "I don't believe I do."

"That's OK," I said. "I don't need to sit down."

Her eyes were still on the porch. "This place reminds me of home," she said.

"Did you live here in Baltimore?" I asked.

She gave her head a quick shake, as though to jostle the answer forward. "No. We lived in Virginia." Her glance rose to the dormer, its single window propped open with a stick. "We lived in a town with houses just like this one."

"It reminds me of home, too," I said. "But I grew up right down the road, a few miles from here."

"You don't say."

She linked her arm in mine, taking me along as she set out again. She trailed her other hand along the hedge, which was blooming with those small white flowers that would be unremarkable if it weren't for their insistent scent. At the corner of the property, the hedge had been trimmed into a low turret. She stopped here to break off a sprig.

"What do you think it is?" she asked, holding the sprig out to me.

I breathed it in -- not sweet, but not unpleasant either. "I don't know," I said, for it seemed to me the answer lay beyond privet or hedge.

She nodded thoughtfully, as though we'd arrived at an agreeable conclusion.

Back at the front desk they were probably wringing their hands, waiting to hear from me, hoping they wouldn't have to call the police. I had my cell phone in my pocket, but I confess I put off using it until Mrs. X and I had taken in every porch and garden in a one-block square. By then we were both tired anyway, and parched for a glass of tea.

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