Before I tell you about a remarkable thing that happened in my unremarkable life, I have to fill you in on some background so you can appreciate it. For instance, I don’t think you could really comprehend my triumph without knowing Joan and Martha. Not that I would wish that on you. If you lived here with us here in Eden Grove, a retirement community of 120 quadraplex units, you would have met Joan and Martha. They would have made sure of it. Joan and Martha pride themselves on knowing everyone. How the three of us ended up living here is a story that could be told in a complicated way, but really is simple. None of us had anywhere else to go and nobody but each other to rely on for company. Martha moved in first; I followed Martha; Joan followed me. I guess none of could think of a better alternative.
Martha is my step-mother-in-law. She’s only eight years older than me because she was a lot younger than my late husband’s father. Doug (my husband) hated Martha; he thought she was after his inheritance. He was right, but it wasn’t much of an inheritance and Martha considerably brightened up family gatherings. She is and always has been a platinum blonde, who wears silver hoop earrings, slews of silver bangle bracelets, and a silver anklet with a charm on it that says, “Let’s play footsie.” She jingles like a belled cat. Martha is more than a little overweight, but it’s hard to guess her exact level of obesity as she wears muumuu-type garments all the time. And lots of make-up. Martha came to stay with me while her place in Eden Grove was being painted, and my towels were never the same. Her fingernails and toenails always match, thanks to that Vietnamese nail salon in town. Martha’s the only one of the three of us that cooks at all, so we forgive her a lot in exchange for her Swedish meatballs and mocha cheesecake. And she’s a damn good cook. She’s incredibly bossy, especially with me. Maybe she still sees me as a daughter-in-law or some other subordinate creature.
Joan was my best friend from college, and we’ve remained close for over fifty years. She moved here from Virginia when her husband choked on a steak he had grilled himself and died. Joan is as tiny as Martha is big and has a neat figure which she shows off by wearing as little as possible – which is very little indeed in this Texas heat. As I said, she does have a nice figure, but no one over seventy should show off that much skin. Believe me, no matter how protected your life has been – and Joan has been sunning herself by the pool in bikinis for decades, so protection has been minimal – no one wants to see those wavy wrinkles and coalescing brown spots. She has a patch on her thigh that is spreading to resemble a map of Africa. Really. And yet she wears shorts and tank tops constantly. Joan has always had bright red hair, but in the old days it didn’t use to fade to pink after too much time in the sun. Joan needs a hearing aid, but won’t admit it, so we all go around bellowing at each other like we’re in a wind tunnel. Even when she’s not with us, Martha and I end up yelling at each other from habit. Yikes.
Obviously, we’re all widows, as are about half the folks in this place. Another large group are married and that leaves a few, just a few, widowers or divorced guys – some of whom are probably gay. This all means that among the females there is steep competition for partners – at least for those of us who are interested, which does not include yours truly. Joan and Martha never go to the clubhouse, the fitness center or the pool without full regalia – make-up, jewelry, the new muumuu or spaghetti strap top. Just in case there is a man there. I wear my mix and match selections from the L.L.Bean catalogue in sizes a little larger than I need because I like my freedom of movement and don’t like to wear a bra, but don’t want to be obscene about it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love these ladies, but we have a basic disagreement. I am really glad to be old. I had a tough life – not as in utter poverty or constant illness, but tough as in constant aggravation. My husband was an irredeemable idiot. I loved him, of course, but he did not age well. My son started out well, but eventually became a chip off the old stupid block; plus he did the worse thing any budding irredeemable idiot can do: married a wife who thinks he is fantastic. I tried hard to make things work with my family. and generally I did keep the peace, but I am tired. It takes a lot of energy to live in a marriage, a family, where you are always worried about someone blowing their top. Being old, being the survivor – they called it the “relict” in the old days – suits me well.
But here’s the rub, Martha and Joan are constantly after me about staying young, remaining active, looking my best. They can’t believe I won’t color my hair; they buy me ridiculous clothes for my birthday. If I want to stay in for an early evening with an old movie, they make fun of me. Their idea of a fun evening is to go to Giggles – it’s a bar across from the strip mall on the way into town. A lot of older people go there, so the music isn’t too bad, although it is loud. Martha and Joan dance with each other and any man whose eye they can catch. Mostly they come home alone though, but often not until after midnight. I hate it. Sometimes when there is a reason to celebrate, I go. But mostly I am content to stay home. I hear all about it the next day though. They don’t realize that they have stayed at the party well past closing time. So to speak.
It’s not that I am inactive. I go to the gym and the pool a lot more than either of them; I drink less; I take a lot less pills. But they still beat up on me.
“You can’t just give up,” Joan would complain with her hand on her little hip. “You can’t just stay in the house and give up living. You have to have spice in your life to keep you going.”
“I’m not looking for a man. So yes, I’ve given up sex, if that’s what you mean by spice. But I haven’t given up living.” Why I even enter into this argument is a mystery to me.
“It’s not just about sex. It’s about making the most of the rest of your life. Really living. Not crawling in your coffin before you have to.” Martha says this as she waves her arms and jangles her bracelets. She is trying to conduct my life the way one might conduct an orchestra.
“I think at my age I should be able to do what I want,” I would retort in my strongest voice.
Then they would practically respond in chorus. “There you go talking about your age again. As long as you think of yourself as old, that’s what you are going to be.” They nod at each other in their mutual wisdom. I shrug.
“To each her own,” I say, and we go off for a morning walk to the coffee shop at the corner, where there is long discussion of the single men in our neighborhood.
They always begin with Ted. Ted is tall, silver-haired, hard of hearing, and the proud walker of two rescue Greyhounds – one white, one gray. Ted is a widower (natch) and seems perfectly happy with his dogs. He is also an aficionado of trains; it is the one subject that you can get him chatting about easily. He has an old train switch light rigged up as his outdoor lantern and apparently has model trains in his garage, forcing him to keep his old Honda in the driveway. Martha and Joan have boned up on trains, but it has done them little good.
Harry is divorced. He is bald and wiry and tends to wear bicycling shorts that leave little to the imagination. He is affable enough, but clearly not interested in women. Maybe he leans toward men, but there is no real evidence of that either. He doesn’t have a dog, so is not out in the neighborhood that much, but he does like to sun himself at the pool – gets very brown which can’t be good for his skin and wears a little Speedo which excites the ladies. Needless to say, there is never a chaise empty next to him at the pool.
Arnie is the real mystery. He has a collie and a Mercedes. And he travels a lot, with a penchant for European river cruises. The ladies are always offering to keep Lassie, but he demurs and puts her in the kennel. Wise man – Joan has a cat and Martha hates dogs. When asked who he is traveling with, he always says he is joining friends, but gives little detail. Speculation abounds. Everyone thinks he has money. If he had real money, I say, he probably wouldn’t be living in at 1300 square foot two-bedroom unit at Eden Grove. While Ted and Harry occasionally show up at Giggles, Arnie never does. He is also less likely to show up at the potlucks or cocktail parties at the clubhouse. If he goes to the pool, it is to swim, after which he dries off and goes home. None of us have ever been in his house. Martha brought him Christmas cookies last year but didn’t get through the front door.
There are other men around, but some have regular girlfriends, some have told Martha and Joan to get lost at some point or another, and some are so decrepit they need a caretaker more than a love interest. The men get talked about a lot, but nothing ever comes of it. Once in a while, Martha or Joan (more often Joan) gets lucky at the bar and takes someone home. They also went through a period of dating through Match.com, but that led to some unfortunate incidents. Not attacks or anything, but there was one time when Martha arranged to meet her “date” at a restaurant; he walked in, took one look at her, and walked out waving “sorry” over his shoulder. Never would I submit myself to that. I remember the dehumanizing phenomena of the college mixer – I don’t need any more of that in my life.
Anyway, Martha and Joan were dismayed by my attitude, but didn’t give up on me. Once or twice I gave up on them for a few days, storming off and distancing myself from their constant battering about my defeatism. But they are my friends, and everyone needs someone to talk to.
Well, here’s what happened a couple of months ago. The three of us were out walking, and we met Arnie and Lassie and had a brief chat about the weather, the latest newsletter from the Eden Grove association president, and the new restaurant that had opened up next to Giggles. I had some opinions about the newsletter, but Joan and Martha carried most of the conversation. Later, when we were having scones at my house and watching The View, the phone rang. When I said, “Well, hello Arnie,” the television went off and I had their full attention. It was Arnie asking me out to dinner. I accepted the invitation for the sake of my audience, with every intention of reneging before the event.
Well, they were flabbergasted. The men they met at Giggles never took them out to dinner. Their foreheads were furrowed. What was wrong with Arnie if he were interested in me? There I had stood in my old lady sneakers, baggy crop pants, and five-year-old Bean tee shirt, and I was the one who got the call! Had he made a mistake? They asked if I had had any interactions with Arnie that they didn’t know about. No, I said and wondered what kind of interactions they were envisioning.
I bet you are wondering what happened. I didn’t go out with Arnie that time, but he asked again a week later, and I had dinner with him. We had a nice time, but I made clear that I was only interested in friendship. And that was fine with him. He takes me to dinner once a week and I cook for him once a week. Lassie has learned to like coming to my house. There has been some talk about a cruise together, but with separate staterooms. That would be a little pricey for me, but we’ll see.
I thought Joan and Martha would drop me cold after Arnie became my friend. Jealousy is a powerful emotion. But not so. They seem to think I must know something they don’t – or maybe they’re hoping Arnie has some friends. They still drop by to watch The View with me and are a little less liberal with their criticism of my appearance and habits. They are desperate to know if Arnie and I are having sex; the truth is that neither of us is interested. The closest we get are foot massages, and even then, I make Arnie keep his socks on. Old feet are really nasty.
Twice a week is about all Arnie and I can stand of each other, but our secret is that we don’t push for more. And I think Arnie’s glad that no one asks him about his love life anymore, and he doesn’t have to fight off the ladies. And I’m glad that Joan and Martha more or less have given up trying the “youthenize” me. So goes life at Eden Grove. It’s not a Cinderella story, but it is, at least, humorous. Nobody my age believes in “happily ever after” anymore.