Debbie stepped into the elevator and saw the new resident, Max, leaning down and whispering in my ear. She grabbed him by the shoulder and pushed until he stumbled out into the hallway.
“Sharon doesn’t want you hanging around her!” she shouted in her warbling girlish voice.
“What in the hell are you doing?” I said as the doors crept closed. The elevators moved as slowly as the residents in Denver Golden Acres.
Nobody here is in a hurry for anything, so that’s just fine.
“I think they call it taking out the trash.” Debbie said. “Max gives me the creeps.”
Some people make fun of Debbie’s voice. They say she sounds like that television chef— Julia Child? I always liked her voice. It was the biggest part of her and sounded young and strong.
“Do I look like I need you to run my life!” I straightened up and looked down at her with my eyelids half-closed.
Debbie stepped back and looked up at me. Like my little poodle Petey does when he’s made a mess on the floor. I had to get home to feed Petey; he’d be hungry. Then I remembered that Petey died a long time ago. Funny how those old memories float up and seem more real than the now.
“I’ve told you before. We’re not exclusive. I really like you, but I was stuck with Dan for forty years, and I’m not getting stuck again.” I liked what Max had been saying to me; if I’d been twenty years younger, I’d be blushing.
Debbie patted her hair on the sides, trying to get the white wisps to lie down. A nervous gesture she used when she didn’t know what to say.
Being my best friend was one thing. Letting her be more than that would be harder. Other than Dan, there was only one other man a year before we’d met. I’d never had the kind of worshipful devotion Debbie showed, and it did appeal to me. It had taken me weeks to accept that I had these feelings for another woman; if I couldn’t be honest with myself by now, when would I ever have the courage? Debbie had wanted me from day one.
She tried to take my hand in hers as the doors to the elevator slid open.
“No.” I shook my hand free. “I’ll see you tomorrow at breakfast.”
“Please, Sharon, let’s go back to your apartment so we can talk about this,” Debbie begged.
The last time we talked alone at my place, we’d wound up on my bed wrapped in each other’s arms, lips together with our hands exploring each other like teenagers in the backseat of a car. We’d stayed fully dressed, but it was intense, and I knew she wanted to go farther.
I remembered her soft lips against mine and how she kept her eyes open when we kissed, and I almost agreed.
“Tomorrow,” I said and walked past the half-dozen residents who sat in the hallway watching the world go by. We call this Gossip Hall because anything that any of these residents sees gets repeated everywhere almost immediately. This grapevine gets watered daily with rumours, speculation, and outright lies. It gets news out faster than the PA system here at the Golden Acres Senior Lifestyle Community.
I made it into the dining hall early the next morning. A handful of walkers lined the area of the corridor we call the parking lot. Once a resident made it to their table safely, a waiter would whisk the walker out into the hall and then return with it at the end of the meal, leaving room for the next diner to weave unsteadily between the tables.
I came in at seven instead of my usual seven-thirty. I’d been awake since four-thirty and had grown bored sitting in my room watching Fox News. I missed the days when I could sleep in, when my body and brain let me hit the off switch for a full night’s sleep.
I missed the days when I woke up next to Dan even more. I’d nuzzle his neck and wake him, breathing in his scent of Ivory soap and suntanned skin. We’d have a little private time before we both went about our days. Sometimes we made love, but more often we just held each other and talked about our day to come or reminisced about great times we’d had together in the past. I called these our “stolen mornings” because we took them for ourselves before we gave in to the needs of the day.
People think that having your body fail is the most difficult aspect of getting old, but for me the loneliness hit hardest. The connections we spend our lifetimes building are snipped off by disease, death, or simple geography. I think of them as broken kite strings, and the people I once loved and connected with sailing away like kites in a storm.
I looked around the dining hall for somebody to sit with. Ken and Marilyn shared a table at the end of the room, but I didn’t want to talk golf or grandkids, so I settled into a table by myself near the big picture window with an easy Sudoku book and a cup of coffee. I’d order breakfast after Debbie joined me.
I had barely settled in before Max swept into the chair opposite me.
“I’m reporting her,” he said. No hello. No good morning.
“Good morning, Max. Reporting who, for what?” I knew what he meant; I wanted to hear what else he had to say.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. Good morning, Sharon. I’m reporting your girlfriend. I’m reporting Debbie for physical violence. She can’t push people here. It’s dangerous.”
“Max, you can’t be afraid of little Debbie. A big strong guy like you. I’ll bet you were in the military, weren’t you?”
“I was in the Navy, but what does that have to do with anything?”
“You have that look, that military posture. Where did you serve?” I’m hoping to distract him and make him forget his complaint about Debbie for a bit. If Max is like most of the residents here, once he’s forgotten something it takes a long time for it to come back.
He started blathering on about being on a destroyer in the South Pacific and how he lost some of his hearing due to the noise of the cannons, or something like that. I really didn’t pay much attention. I didn’t have to. He’d keep going until he lost his place. He finally wound down after telling me how his ship sank from under him, the circling sharks, the screams of his shipmates, and how he was rescued just as he went under for the third time. Typical war story. He’d probably sat behind a desk for the entire war.
“Would you like my English muffin?” Max asked. We all agreed that the English muffins, lightly toasted and drenched in real butter, were the best thing on the dining room’s breakfast menu. They refused to give seconds, doling them out like a miser paying his bills.
“Yes, thank you!” As he slid the muffin onto my plate, I saw Debbie come into the dining room. She wore the indigo dress that made her look ten years younger and ten pounds lighter. Debbie had touched up her hair, and I had trouble swallowing when I saw her. I expected her to fuss or shout about me sitting with Max, but instead she walked right past us as if we were part of the furniture. She moved out of my line of sight, and I heard her trill, “Hello dears!”
I couldn’t even see who she was sitting with. Here I was trying to talk Max out of getting her in trouble, and she decides she’s going to snub me. We’d had breakfast together every day for the last four months.
Max practically crowed, puffing his chest up. I felt like I was eating breakfast with Popeye.
I took a nibble out of the muffin that Max had given me and put it back down.
“Thanks, Max, I’ll see you around.” I couldn’t stay with Debbie chatting to somebody else behind me.
He grabbed at the sleeve of my blouse as I stood up. I yanked it out of his gnarled hand and gave him the stare I used on the eighth-grade boys I taught when they misbehaved. It worked on all ages.
“I was just about to ask if maybe you’d like to see the three o’clock matinee with me. They’re showing Tootsie. I heard it’s really funny.”
He hadn’t seen Tootsie! Had he been living in a cave?
“Might be fun.” I pretended to think it over. “Okay, I’ll see you there.”
“No, I’ll pick you up at your apartment and walk you there,” Max said, “It’s the gentlemanly thing to do.”
Yes, walk me to the recreation hall, right through Gossip Hall to make sure that everyone in Golden Acres knew, I thought. But I agreed. Let’s see how Debbie liked that.
Max showed up wearing a blue blazer with a carnation boutonniere. He’d trimmed his silver hair and mustache and smelled of English Leather aftershave. I had to admit he looked great—tall, straight, and smiling. He handed me a single red rose.
Max put my hand in the crook of his arm and walked me towards the rec hall. When we hit Gossip Hall where a dozen residents sat chatting, the conversation stopped for a beat as they took me in. As I walked down the aisle with Max in one hand and a long-stemmed rose in the other, I knew that everyone would know by dinnertime.
We found great seats about halfway back near the middle. Max asked if he could get me a drink or some popcorn, and I said a bag of the popcorn would be nice, even though it was usually stale.
Debbie came in while Max fetched the snacks. She was alone, and I worried what I’d do if she wanted to sit with me. It would be awkward, but I’d give Max the brushoff. Then a step behind her came Lillian, giggling like a little girl. Lillian, who always wore tight jeans and those red cowgirl boots with a matching red scarf. I knew the scarf hid her ugly turkey neck. She bragged of having dark Latin eyes, but I thought they were the colour of a television screen with the power turned off. Lillian put her hand on Debbie’s shoulder and whispered something in her ear that made Debbie smile.
I’d find Debbie after the movie and explain everything—tell her that I was trying to get Max to drop his complaint against her, that I’d had breakfast with him for her sake.
I refused the popcorn that Max brought, and he shrugged and dug in himself.
I really wasn’t paying much attention to the movie, as I thought about what I’d say to Debbie afterwards. Then Max sat up like he’d been poked with a stick. I wondered if he had gout or another ailment that caused sudden pain; most of us had twinges or aches.
“What the hell kind of movie is this?” he whispered.
I looked up at the screen and saw Dustin Hoffman shaving his legs and putting on makeup and women’s clothes.
“What do you mean?”
“Dustin Hoffman’s putting on pantyhose and earrings. Come on. I’m not staying here to watch some piece of transvestite filth!” He hissed as he stood up and pulled me out of the darkened room. I couldn’t tell if people around us were amused or surprised because I needed all my attention to keep my feet under me as he dragged me along. His grip on my arm was so tight that I thought it might leave a bruise.
I jerked free when we got out into the hall.
“You hurt me!” I told him.
“I’m sorry. If I’d known what kind of movie that was, I’d never have taken you to—”
“I’m sorry, too. Sorry that you’re such a small-minded, bigot. I threw his rose against his chest. “And if you want to complain about Debbie, go ahead. I’ll deny she ever laid a hand on you. And I’ll bet you were nothing but a pencil-necked pencil pusher in the war.
His face turned red, and I waited for him to explode in anger. But he just sneered and said, “I guess the rumours are true: You’re one of them!” and turned on his heel.
I turned to see Debbie staring at me with her eyes glistening. Neither of us said a word. I took her hand in mine, and we walked together back to my room.