September 25, 2011
“There are people whose goodness brings them to do this work, and there are those of us who come here for it. Both ways work.”
Amy Hempel, The Dog of the Marriage
It felt like one of the most selfish things I had ever done—leaving my hospice volunteer job in the middle of a shift to fool around with a man I hardly knew, a man who already had a girlfriend—but the point is, I came back. It seems necessary to remind myself of this last fact.
I signed in, greeted the nurses and peeked into the rooms, where the sleeping residents lay curled like pill bugs. The maximum stay in the hospice wing was six months. From what I had observed, at the senior health care center located a block from the I-78 overpass on the border of Jersey City and Hoboken, the turnover rate was high.
Fifteen minutes in, I answered my phone. I looked at the waxy, fluttering eyelids of the woman dozing before me, at the doorway and the deserted hallway beyond—and found myself saying give me ten minutes.
On my way out, I paused again at the nurses’ station. Trying not to sound breathless, I said I had gotten a call from a friend. Most of the patients were asleep anyway, I explained, so I would return in an hour when they were up. Carol, my favorite nurse, looked at me carefully and said in her bright voice: “Ok, we’ll see you in an hour, my dear.” I suspected that she had written me off for the rest of the day, possibly forever, and why not? She had seen volunteers come and go. I had been spending Sunday afternoons at the hospice for only a month, too brief a period to earn the trust of the hard-boiled staff. Perhaps she was right; perhaps I would float through the facility’s air-conditioned lobby with its mauve-and-tan color scheme, its tacky watercolors and acrylic flower arrangements, slip through the hissing glass doors and never come back.
It was July. The day had already cycled through several moods, moving from bright and hot to gray and suddenly cool, a pre-storm wind churning trash in the gutters. I had waited until after the downpour to leave for the hospice. Now, at five o’clock, the sun and heat had returned with such force that warm puddles vaporized into steam. It was the kind of weather I love because everyone just gives up and accepts the sweating. Despite the effort I put into dressing, I always feel slightly disheveled: a button missing from my blouse, frizz upsetting my hairline. I like the heat because it levels the field, in a way.
Filled with panicked euphoria, I got on my bike. Lorenzo had called to tell me he was in the neighborhood. He only had an hour. I sailed through the littered streets of downtown Jersey City, past the stony, medieval walls of the Embankment, past 3 Boys Pizza, past the Music Box Café full of bald Dominican men playing dominoes.
When it came to relationships, I used to apply a set of strict, no-nonsense rules. I’d never cheated on anyone, nor had I ever become the least bit embroiled with someone who was attached. When my girlfriends sung excuses for some guy who had a girlfriend, I had trouble sympathizing.
But. I had broken up with a long-term boyfriend only weeks ago, a kind, brilliant person with whom I had experienced great sex approximately twice. Over time I had yielded to the compulsion to settle down—first I was twenty-seven, then twenty-eight—allowing our bland, chalky intimacy to harden around me like plaster.
I didn’t end things for Lorenzo—the realtor who happened to show me my beautiful apartment when I moved out of the loft my boyfriend and I shared. But with his greasy good looks and arrogant charm, he served as an idealized reminder of what I had convinced myself I didn’t need. When I first showed up for the appointment, Lorenzo’s eyes slid up and down me fast and something like surprise registered on his face. Then he snapped into a countenance of professionalism. But I had seen it, and I had recognized it.
A parody of confidence, is how I described him to a friend. He was old-school Italian, wore a gold watch on one wrist, a wide-link chain on the other. A huge cross around his neck and a pinkie ring. Overcoiffed black hair. An intensity of cologne I hadn’t smelled since middle school, when the boys used to bathe in it. We would have called him a guido, my best friend and I, back then. It was obvious he spent his mornings at the gym. Usually I tried to steer clear of his type: too much testosterone, a poor grasp of irony. But in a sense, every relationship is a reaction against the previous one. For me, after a skinny artist, a guy like Lorenzo always follows.
Earlier that day I had been sitting in room 201 with Miss Norma, an elderly black woman from South Carolina who had wide eyes and baby-fine hair tinged with silver like Spanish moss. Somehow she had drifted northward and landed in the hospice unit here.
The nurses often placed a fuzzy stuffed lobster, of all things, in Miss Norma’s lap for company. When I first asked about her friend, she struggled, annoyed, to locate the word.
“This? Oh, he’s a dog. I mean, a cat. Yes, that’s a cat.”
She was dying of Alzheimer’s, the disease that had also claimed my paternal grandmother. It was partly childhood memories of wandering through the urine-scented hallways of my grandmother’s nursing home and observing residents in some combination of lonely, bored, or vegetative states that brought me here. But it was also my desire to combat a nagging depression that lurked on weekends. I wanted to fill the hours with luxuriously good habits—gardening, biking, volunteering on Sundays. Both ways work.
There were no family photos in Miss Norma’s room, no visitors besides the nurses and myself. Most of the time, she wore an anxious expression above her smooth cheeks, but I had learned it was possible to make her laugh. What I liked about Miss Norma was her attitude, which was often petulant. She no longer spoke in full sentences, but had retained some useful phrases. Once, trying to be silly, I told her the lobster wanted to give her a kiss. Her reply was sharp and to the point: “Oh no, he ain’t!”
I really had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. The application process had been lengthy and bureaucratic—a TB test, a background check, thick booklets filled with hospital codes—but when I asked about how to spend the actual time with the patients, the coordinator gave me a blank look. “Whatever you want to do,” she said, as though it were self-explanatory. “Read, talk to them, sit with them—they just need the company.”
So I was providing company to Miss Norma, and trying not to agitate her. Although Alzheimer’s is degenerative, it isn’t necessarily linear, so I was pleased and oddly flattered when she began to recognize me. “Hi, Miss Norma,” I would say when I walked in. “I’m here to spend some time with you.” “Oh, yeah?” she would reply, her tone challenging but her face soft. “Yeah,” I would tell her, drawing up a seat.
Even after my relationship had ended, I didn’t pursue Lorenzo right away. He often showed apartments in the neighborhood, and at first I enjoyed our flirtation from afar, basking in his unapologetic gaze that sought me out from across the street as I walked my dog. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeming to care too much, and at first, I didn’t. It was fun, and that was all.
One day he asked me to stop by his office to sign some forgotten “paperwork.” I coolly complied, keeping my jacket on as he dashed into the back room to retrieve something: a tin of cookies from the gourmet shop down the street. “For your troubles,” he said with a grin, exposing two dimples. I had complained earlier about the condition of the apartment, and found it thoughtful that he had bothered to follow up. Still, I worried.
What was I doing with this guy? I thanked him and left, ignoring his eyes that accompanied me to the door. What an ego, I thought.
But in the weeks that followed I continued to see Lorenzo and his dimples around. When I finally called, he quickly agreed to meet me, without asking why. I suppose the reason was obvious.
We met after work on a Friday for a dog walk. The late-afternoon sun bore down, causing us to squint as we made small talk: where did you grow up, do you speak Italian, what was your major in college. Although I had assumed he was older, and he had assumed I was younger, we were the same age.
When we reached my stoop, Lorenzo first complimented my eyes—“They’re really interesting, in the light they have some gold in them,” a false observation in any case—and then confessed he had a girlfriend. I was annoyed that this was only now being revealed. “What?” he said. “It was just a walk. Besides, don’t you have a boyfriend, too?” As though there were some kind of mathematical logic involved, something clichéd about two wrongs making a right. “No,” I told him. “We broke up.”
The way I saw it, he had already put in the offer, and I was just taking him up on it. But here he stood looking at me sheepishly, as though I had invented what I felt. I sent him home, surprised at my own growing disappointment. So I had cared.
The rest of the evening I spent drinking with a friend, the two of us imitating Lorenzo’s outer-borough accent and lumbering, bulldog’s gait. But as the night went on, that initial sense of disappointment retreated so gently, with such unaccustomed ease, that I was left feeling not morally righteous but simply unsettled, cheated out of something I felt I deserved. That he belonged not to me but to someone else seemed an even greater indulgence. It was too late for responsible thinking.
“Don’t call him,” my friend warned. I didn’t have to. Lorenzo returned to my apartment several hours later, tipsy but not wholly emboldened. He, too, brought a friend along, and I cringed as our two chaperones tried to find common ground. Finally they went to the kitchen together to refill their drinks, leaving Lorenzo and me to start kissing in the next room. “It’s your call,” Lorenzo said when we paused. But I wasn’t ready. I was still getting acquainted with this new incarnation of me that answered to fewer rules. I didn’t know what she was capable of. Besides, we weren’t alone: I could hear ice cubes rattling in the next room.
After everyone left, I sprawled on top of the covers as the sky began to lighten, not at all sleepy. I was amazed at how it simple it was to reawaken so many parts I had already marked for dead.
My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was nine; her doctor estimated that she had less than a year to live. Instead, she died twelve years later. It was a difficult period for everyone in my family, but perhaps it was hardest on her husband, my grandfather, who often assured my brother and me that she was “getting better.”
Whereas my mother, my brother and I visited her in the nursing home maybe one Sunday a month, my grandfather sat with her most weekdays, stroking her hair and looking into her eyes as she murmured to herself and picked at her stained teeth with trembling hands. Everyone in my family agreed they had been deeply in love.
I wondered now if she had hung on for my grandfather—the way love could lapse into grim obligation. I also wondered if this meant Miss Norma would die more quickly. The word merciful came to mind.
That Sunday, when I met Lorenzo at my apartment, I felt more nervous than I had in ages. It was a sensation that I welcomed almost as readily as desire, after the dull comfort of the past months.
We drank a beer first. For all his toughness, he was as nervous as I was. I teased him about his jewelry, his hair, even his girlfriend—was she big, I asked, would she beat me up?—to deflect from my own anxiety. “I wish I had met you before,” he said, and I saw that he believed this madcap side of me was the only one. That was fine.
He perched stiffly on the ottoman until I convinced him to join me on the couch. Still, he didn’t reach for me until I finally pointed out that the clock was ticking, and so far we hadn’t done anything wrong. “Well, come here,” he commanded, pulling me to him. His chest felt like a wall of bricks. “I’m all sweaty,” I said, by way of apology, as he kissed my neck. “Good,” he replied, and somehow that was my cue to relax. Each next step felt perfectly logical and not at all wrong—his hand on my waist, then my breast, then inside my jeans—and I understood suddenly how easy it was to lose your way. Transgressions were not simply composed of two sides but rather an endless series of small, innocuous choices. This discovery seemed key, like a rite of passage, an obvious lesson most people my age had learned long ago.
For once in my self-policed life, I grasped the value of letting myself off the hook. Perhaps what I had recognized as moral failure in my friends was simply the blind pleasure of indulging the body, or spoon-feeding the heart. The prospect was exhilarating.
Miss Norma needed something to do with her hands. She worried them along the seams of her hospital gown, smoothed its wrinkles and felt for the ties. I wanted to give her something to do, but when I offered her a magazine, I received a sassy refusal. Finally I began holding her hand during my visits.
The Sunday I left the hospice to see Lorenzo, they were playing Michael Jackson on the radio all day. I considered the loop of songs strange, until I realized that it was the first anniversary of his death. When I came back, Miss Norma was awake, stroking the fuzzy lobster on the hospital tray before her. Still reeling from the previous hour, I held her hand and shimmied around the linoleum floor, snapping with my free hand. She gazed up shrewdly. “You gotta feel that beat,” I told her. “And we can ride the boogie.” Certain my moves looked ridiculous, I hoped the nurses wouldn’t come by. As I squeezed her hand, I wondered if I was doing any good at all or just telling myself I was, but either way, she smiled the whole time.
Sarah Fishtein recently received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The New School. She thinks the name of this blog is coincidental–and probably a sign–because she is at work on an essay about the little-known chicken farms of south Jersey in the 1940s, including the ill-fated one her grandparents attempted to start. She lives in Jersey City.
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