Cottage cheese

I adopted Faye as a surrogate mother. She was ninety in February and her brain, despite the years, cracks through the night like a whip. She lived in Longmont at The Estates which was quite a name for a retirement community. When I had lunch with Faye at The Estates, I chose the salad option over the hot meals. The salad turned out to be cottage cheese and canned peaches. Faye chose the open roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes. As we entered the dining room, a small table to the left of the door displayed the two hot specials for the day. There was a plate with lasagna and creamed spinach, and a plate with the roast beef sandwich and mashed potatoes. Both were covered with shimmering cling wrap in case anyone tried to have a quick taste on their way in. They were the real thing, only congealed and cold. Everyone who came into the lunchroom stopped to inspect them. Most smiled at the displays, as though they knew them and were glad to see them. Whether on walkers or in wheelchairs or on their own two feet, stooped like bananas, or bent at a carpenter’s right angle, they inspected and smiled, and then went on at their leisurely pace to find a table and wait.

Faye wasn’t pleased with my choice. She was taking me to lunch, using one of her punches on her pink card that were paid for ahead of time, and I could tell she thought my salad choice was a waste of a punch. I ordered a coffee to add some value to the meal. The coffee was cold and was in a cup that could have been stolen from a child’s tea set, it was so small. They didn’t want the elderly getting hyped up, I assumed. Eddy, the Hispanic waitress with the gender-neutral hair and name badge, plopped it down with a tight smile. Eddy was Faye’s favorite waitress though I was not too impressed as I saw Eddy texting and lolling near the kitchen when she could have been bussing or filling waters or refilling my tiny coffee cup.

“Jean, over here,” Faye called, to a woman hunched over a walker wearing a pale pink shirt and matching slacks. A pant suit, I thought.

“Jean, I want you to meet my good friend Georgia.” Faye patted my hand and Jean thrust her walker towards my chair and stared down at my face.

“You’re from Georgia?”

“No, I’m called Georgia.” I smiled at her as though I had explained everything.

“She’s from Australia,” Faye added.

Jean just stared at me with glassy eyes and didn’t say anything. Flummoxed, I decided. It didn’t add up. Things were difficult enough without all this conflicting information.

Faye dismissed her with a head toss. “She’s having lunch with me,” she said.

Jean didn’t smile and moved along. There were half-cut tennis balls on the bottom of her walker-frame legs. Were they to prevent scratching the floor or did they roll better? There appeared to be a great deal to learn about the elderly residing at The Estates.

Faye sipped her water and grimaced. Then she said, “Jean and I normally have breakfast at the big table together. There are five of us and Jean is one. I’m the new one. At least I’m not like that.” Faye cocked her head in the direction of Jean’s slow-moving bottom. “I’m the youngest too. Can you believe that? Eight-eight and the youngest. I don’t normally come down for lunch. I do the breakfast, because it’s included, but I didn’t go this morning because you were coming. The lunch and the dinner…” She waved her punch card at me. That was when I realized I had wasted one of her punches just having the cottage cheese. I also thought that Jean might be upset because Faye was not at breakfast that morning. I detected a presiding air of disapproval in Jean’s retreating bottom and in Faye’s waving hand.

The entire dining hall was filling up. About thirty women and three men. There was a wafting odor of gravy, hair spray and laundry soap.

As though reading my mind, Faye said, “They all lost their husbands. Like me. Though some of them over four or five years ago, not a year and half. I’m the new one here. But this is not my home. My home was…” She cocks her head again towards the window. “You know my home,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

I took her hand and nodded. “It’s going to be alright,” I said, though I was overwhelmed by the place and had an alarming sensation that I couldn’t put my finger on. Something to do with these people all clustered here mashing the roast beef between their false teeth, waiting to die.

Faye’s hygiene had gone downhill since her husband Don had died. It was like she had stopped looking in the mirror or washing her face. She liked the man at the front desk because his name was Don too. I wondered if the front desk Don noticed the white sleep crap caked in her eyelashes.

“Did you come in the front? Did you see Don? Not my Don, but the other one.”

“Yes,” I said, because Don had helped me find her door which was down a rabbit warren of halls. This was the first time I had had lunch with her since moving her from her house, across the road from me, to The Estates. She was not in assisted living. She had an apartment in non-assisted living. She made this very clear every time we spoke.

“Did you notice the carpet change? When you went through the door that said to non-assisted living?” she asked.

I nodded. I was wondering after seeing the sleep crusted along her right eyelid, which was an alarming shade of red and looked like it could be pink eye, and her nails which were so long they were curling in towards her palms and hindered her ability to pick things up, if there might be somebody in charge, in the non-assisted living area, who might help her clean up a little. I didn’t mind that she was messy, though the eye was a little stomach-churning while I tried to swallow cottage cheese, but she was very proud and would be angry if I tried to help her. Surely, someone in charge would notice.

When Eunice sat with us without asking, Faye jabbed me under the table with one of her sharp nails. I looked at her and she shrugged her shoulders at me as though, what can you do. I noticed later when Faye made a point she stabbed her fork towards Eunice through the air. I noticed Eunice noticing Faye’s lack of table manners though it could be that some beef was lodged in Eunice’s throat because she turned a little red and reached for her water.

Faye grew up in Missouri. One of nine children. Her mother raised and plucked chickens after Faye’s father bled to death when his arm was severed at work. He worked for the railway and when I heard about his severed arm all sorts of images came to mind of his limb lying on the tracks or dangling from the huge iron levers they pull in movies to switch the tracks, his fingers still gripping the device. Faye was young and didn’t know the details but, apparently, my imagination did. Eunice, I surmised from her blue and white striped top and well-coiffed hair and red lipstick, might have gone to private school and reminded me of my own Anglophile grandmother who was always preparing for tea with the Queen by polishing the silver and baking sponge cakes dusted with powdered sugar. My grandmother had died in a chair watching out her window for the hunting party in their red velvet coats and the fox. She had sighted them the day before and died while waiting to see them gallop by again.

“How’s Joe?” Faye grinned at me. She had a great smile. It was wicked and wide and contagious. She had cornflower blue eyes that twinkled. I knew the term “cornflower blue” and the color because my mother had shown me Vermeer and his paintings. He was known for using that exact blue. Besides both being painters, my mother and Faye were not alike. My mother was seventy-eight but still painted though she was losing her memory and would forgot that she had told you things within minutes. Faye gave up painting when she married Don and was a practical whiz at dates and times and knew we had lunch every Wednesday at twelve o’clock sharp. She could also tell you the exact number of days and hours that had passed since Don died.

Joe was my boyfriend of eight years and Faye thought he was the bee’s knees (her words). Like Faye I had two children and after a few years of marriage realized my husband was a wayward type (her words) like her first husband and found a better man. Her Don was akin to God. I only met him once.

“You hold onto that Joe,” she told me. “He is a good one,” she said, though she had only known him a few months. Joe had fixed her garage door and helped move furniture around and shoveled mulch with me in her garden. This was before the move to The Estates when she lived near us and tried valiantly to maintain the big house that she had shared with Don. In the year since Don died I had taken Faye to her doctor’s appointments and delivered her groceries and had lunch with her every Wednesday but to Faye, none of my actions counted for much compared with Joe’s.

Even though she knew I worked full-time and was raising my twins mostly alone, Faye believed Joe had not only saved my life, but supported me and my boys. I let her believe this. Good men like Don and Joe, were to be revered and fed. There was something about survival in her worship of men. There was something of gratitude as well. Something I did not feel. Was it from growing up poor and watching her mother struggle after her father died? Perhaps she was very clever. Making a man feel like a man. Acting helpless and fragile without being needy. What man wouldn’t want to be affirmed in such a way? Though the problem I saw with this situation, when you give up your art and don’t earn your own money and take up tolerating football and cooking the elk they kill each October and make sure they don’t do a damn thing around the house but mow the lawn, was that when they die before you—and judging by what I saw around me at the nursing home they will die before you—then you are not only alone but have nothing to do anymore. No one to cook for or talk to. Nothing to pass the time.

I thought about Joe and I wondered what Faye would have said to the fact that he said he wanted to see what I would be like after my boys left the nest before he decided to marry me. She would have probably excused him for that. I was not sure I could. Though my age, forty-seven, had me thinking it would be hard to find another man at this point. My friend Nat, a single mum with two kids, sent me pictures and ages of the prospective guys on OkCupid. Some of these men were very handsome and had traveled and had interesting jobs. One guy that Nat dated a few times ran a Shambhala institute and had studied at Oxford and had ridiculous abs. He told her that if they were to get serious she would have to take every Friday off to practice tantric sex with him. He said it was a ten-hour day, no exceptions, and it was necessary to keep the relationship growing and his sexual urges under control. I told her I would pick up her kids for her on Fridays. She told me she was exhausted just thinking about it. Facebook announced he got married six months later to a woman who obviously had flexible Fridays. I got excited for Nat when she met a new guy. I got curious for myself. Wondering if there was someone out there who might fit me better than Joe. I was positive there were women out there better suited to him. The fact that he liked wholesome-looking women in long prairie-style skirts and wheat-colored hair down their backs was just the beginning of our differences. He loved to watch westerns, where such wheat-haired, aproned women populated the plains. My edgy French films where women had pixie hair and no breasts and were super intelligent put him to sleep. Maybe I had not looked hard enough. Maybe I settled for the safe and steady and the nearby. Joe was the first man who was kind to me after my divorce.

Faye would not agree with this thinking. Faye thought that a bird in the hand was better than two in the bush (her words.) Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t (also her words).

I listened to a podcast while I mowed the lawn—yes, I mowed my own lawn—which talked about marriage. Our partners were now meant to be our friends, our lovers, our therapists, our teammates and interested in the same activities. When Faye was younger, roles were outlined clearly and marriage was for economic reasons and stability. You chose someone who lived nearby and knew your values and usually your family. Nowadays we moved all over the world and got online to meet people and when we married outside our village we wondered why the person was so foreign and so unlike us. Joe and I were not only raised in different villages but on different continents. He grew up in a blue collar, East Coast town where he pumped gas after school. He thought Walt Whitman was a candy. His use of them things instead of those things made my private school brain wobble. Joe had a good heart, he was steady, and always told the truth. But sometimes at night the differences between us seemed so big and insurmountable that I felt as though I was standing on a beach in Australia and he was somewhere across the ocean, not even visible, not even on the same day as me. It seemed I would always be eighteen hours ahead.

My villagers had a very different sense of humor from his villagers. Joe loved to repeat his stories and jokes over and over finding them more amusing in the retelling. My humor was based around the idiotic ironies of being human. Like my Alzheimer-addled grandmother insisting her headstone say she died of confusion. Joe didn’t hear what I heard in a song. Joe didn’t understand the darkness that I swam against daily. Joe didn’t understand the notion that most days were simply hard. But Joe saw that my struggle to keep living was real and he knew and loved me despite this not because of it and perhaps this was all I could ask.

Faye was insistent that I stay with Joe. She harped on about ending up alone and how another person was the only thing worth living for. The fact she had no idea how to pass the time since Don died made me want to join all sorts of groups and activities and take up hobbies.

When Eunice joined us for lunch, I translated to Eunice what Faye said.

“Do you know the oatmeal festival?”

“The what?” Eunice asked. She dabbed at her mouth with her cloth serviette.

“The oatmeal festival,” I repeated, slowly and loud. “It was in Lafayette.” I knew about the festival and I knew what is coming next. I had heard Faye’s stories many times.

“The Timmons.” Faye pointed her fork towards another table. “They moved in the day after me and we were at the oatmeal festival when they were, that’s how we met.” Eunice turned her head stiffly towards where Faye’s fork was directed but apparently seeing nothing, took another bite of her beef. “Don served so much oatmeal. He just kept serving and serving that day. He never ate oatmeal after that. Cream of wheat.”

“The oatmeal festival is how she knows the Timmons,” I shouted at Eunice.

Eunice nodded. “The Timmons, you say?”

“Yes, they moved in the day after Faye.”

Eunice and I started discussing dogs until I felt Faye’s hand on mine.

“You having desert?” she interrupted. Eunice started talking again about dogs and Faye winked at me.

“So, Ray is checking the sump pump at my house because that’s the only thing their inspector found that needs done. They say it will be four thousand dollars.” Faye raised her eyebrows and held up both hands in mock despair. She was talking about the people who were buying her house. The one across the lake from where I lived. She felt no inclination to explain any of this to Eunice.

“Ray can do it cheaper,” Faye said. “I paid the painters a hundred and fifty dollars. And I have a check I can’t cash.” She started to rummage in her purse.

Eunice seized the chance to talk but Faye heard her start and right over the top of her said, “Georgia has her own dog she doesn’t need to hear about yours. I had Ginger. Remember Ginger? Don wanted a puppy and then of course…” The hands go up again and I knew it meant that Don died and left her with Ginger who was a wildly out of control miniature collie that had to be given away. Faye pulled out a big piece of paper from her purse. Bigger than would fit in a regular envelope as though it was announcing its own importance by not being a normal size, and she handed it to me. “See,” she said.

I looked at the check which was from Wells Fargo bank and was in the amount of four dollars and fifteen cents. “Okay,” I said, and handed it back. “So, it’s not worth cashing.”

“NO,” she said, and thrust the check back at me. “Look!” She fixed me with those blue eyes and put one of her talon-like fingernails on the line to whom the check was made out and I read Don Pew. “Oh,” I said. She raised her eyebrows and put it away.

Desert arrived. Eunice and Faye were quick to pick up their spoons. I was suspicious. There were strawberries trapped inside a wobbling case of blue jelly sandwiched between cream precariously balanced on a fluorescent yellow cake. Faye clucked approvingly as she spooned large amounts of the colorful pudding into her mouth.

“We played bridge. Back in Mosourah. But, I don’t, now.”

I was not sure if I needed to be translating this for Eunice but Faye was not looking at anyone as she talked, except the dessert. Somehow she managed to eat and talk. “We took turns at each other’s houses. Me and Georgie.” She patted my hand and grinned her cute grin. “And Pammy and Susan. We took turns hosting. When it was Susan’s turn, me and Georgie arrived first because she had the cashews. We looooved the cashews.” She giggled. “Pammy served jello which we didn’t care for.”

You sure seem to care for it now, I thought. “What did you serve?” I asked.

“You know, I can’t remember. Probably nothing fancy like cashews. They’re not cheap, you know.”

“I know.”

Eunice started to tell me about a recipe that she once had for a dessert but Faye talked over the top of her so I ignored Eunice, whom I watched out of the corner of my eye as she finished what she was saying anyway, though I was not listening.

“I think you can take me back to my room now,” Faye said. She was pushing herself away from the table.

I turned to Eunice. “Would it be all right if we left you here? Faye seems to be done.”

Faye grabbed at my arm. Eunice nodded and said, “it was a pleasure to meet you.”

As we walked arm in arm to her apartment, Faye insisted on observing the carpet. “See how when you leave assisted living it changes?”

“Yes,” I said, as the carpet had indeed changed from maroon swirls to navy whirls. I wondered if the staff had insisted on the residents noting this in case they got lost or confused or if this was Faye’s own quiet affirmation that she was not yet one of the maroon swirl bunch.

“Eunice is in assisted you know,” Faye said. Faye smiled in that what can you do kinda way.

I left Faye and headed back home to fold laundry and start dinner and answer emails. I didn’t usually fold Joe’s laundry as I didn’t think that was my role. Plus, I couldn’t stand most of his clothes. Joe was from a place where it was alright to buy and wear polyester. He bought brown shiny polyester polo shirts and wore them proudly. He also wore slinky grey polyester shorts and sometimes tried to slip into bed in them. In my village, it was a crime to wear polyester. Not only did polyester make you stink, it was the way a man’s balls and dick were highlighted in that shiny slippery material that was not attractive and suggestive of some sort of WWW wrestler or an Aussie Rules player.

Joe loved brands. A good slogan blazed across his chest advertising power tools or a small town in Oregon made him happy. When he visited my country, my eldest sister Natasha took him to some tourist shops in the rocks in Sydney, while I had tea with my aunt.

“Are you kidding me?” I called Natasha, after we got home to Colorado and he got dressed one morning. “You let him buy that shit.”

“He was so excited,” Natasha giggled. “I couldn’t tell him no. I had never seen a grown man so excited about Australian tourist shops.”

“Yes, you could have,” I said. “Do you know what he is wearing today?”

“No.” Her voice quivered with anticipation.

“A big blue T-shirt with the word ‘Australia’ across the back and a huge Aussie flag on the front. And…” I paused because I was laughing, “a hat that says ‘Sydney’ with a picture of the harbor bridge on it. I mean…”

“Oh,” Natasha managed to wheeze out. “He just loves Australia.”

“No, he is a fashion victim,” I said. “And you let him buy that crap and now he wears it all together in case anyone in Colorado misses the fact that he went to Australia. Thanks a lot, mate.”

Faye never asked questions about my life. I wondered sometimes why we were friends except that she loved me and when I called to confirm our lunch the next day she said things like, I might just go to bed now so tomorrow comes faster. No one had ever said that to me before. Plus, she was lonely and I would save anyone I could from what I believe to be the saddest feeling in the world. Plus I loved her.

Faye talked constantly when I was with her. There was never a lull which was wonderful and exhausting. It was as though she had a great deal to say before her time was up. I wondered if Don listened to her or if she had kept quiet all those years. I knew the things she had given up during her marriage to Don. Maybe she had given up talking? I knew she had given up her hometown in Missouri and followed him to Colorado, she had given up her job as a receptionist for General Tires, she had given up her own car, she had given up drinking and I was not sure the reason for this, she had given up painting, she had given up playing the piano, she had given up eating eggs for dinner because Don loved meat and potatoes. They both gave up oatmeal after the oatmeal festival.

The things I had given up to be in my relationship with Joe were as follows: listening to hip-hop music in the house when he was around, buying expensive bottles of wine, eating sushi unless I was alone, watching funny British television because he couldn’t understand what they were saying, playing guitar because he was better at it, singing because he was better at it, laughing at people’s stupidity because he thought that was mean, being self-deprecating out loud, buying beef because we had a freezer full of elk, going out to eat much at all because he hated the noise, hating my stomach because he said he liked a little extra flesh, and scaring my children with my tears.

What I had gained from being in the relationship was being less sullen and moody because Joe didn’t indulge it. I had gained someone who could deal with the tricky landlord and the unpleasant party guest with humor and patience, eating at regular times and waiting to eat together, being more social, understanding football, gaining a friend for my dad, spending days in the woods and camping with someone, trust in another human to do what they said they would do, affection, and becoming less superficial about such things as clothing and looks. Joe was a Taurus. Like a bull he banged doors and broke small objects unknowingly but he was large and loud and present and scared away the things that didn’t matter.

I knew what Faye would say about the things I didn’t have anymore. She would raise her eyebrows and hold up her hands in disbelief. She would explain that having that person with you, to suck cream of wheat through your false teeth with in the mornings, to check the oil in the car, to watch football with, to cook dinner for, to take you to the doctor, to have Christmas and Thanksgiving and birthdays with, canceled out all the crap that I listed above.

On a Tuesday, I took Faye to see Dr. Woods for her knee. I bought a jar of cashews as a gift and she exclaimed about them, her eyes lighting up.

“Too expensive, but thanks.”

Dr. Woods was Don’s doctor and Faye lived for these small associations. Dr. Woods wanted her to have knee surgery. At eighty-eight! He seemed like a scalpel-happy surgeon to me. One who thought he could solve all the problems with cutting. Faye was adamant about not having the surgery when we talked about it but I was worried about how she might cave when she was with the doctor. I had seen her melt into her fragile, helpless state when men were in the room. I wanted her to stick to her guns (her words.) There was no way she would survive surgery. Plus, what for? She wasn’t joining a tennis team anytime soon.

“Remember that you don’t want the surgery,” I said. We were in the elevator. She had her arm hooked through mine. She removed her glasses and fluffed at her hair with her right hand. Her eyelids were caked with dried sleep. I was going to have to say something to someone about the face and the nails.

“I know, I know,” she sighed.

“It’s just that Dr. Woods will try to pressure you. He thinks everyone deserves a new knee and it’s his job to deliver.”

“I can’t do that,” she said. “The recovery. It’s months, I hear. I can deal with a little pain just so long as you’re around. She gave my arm a squeeze. I could get the cortisone shots four times a year, that’s enough.”

Every three months we went to get the fluid drained from her knee and have her shot. Every three months, Dr. Woods talked about the dangers of inserting a long needle into her knee and the risk of infection. He did this with a mocking smile as though he thought we were both ignorant about surgery. When he talked, Faye went to pot (her words), all fluffing her hair and smiling and mute. Dr. Woods and his nurse drained the knee, pulling out blood that had gathered in the injured site. He gave her the cortisone shot and wrapped the leg.

“I guess we will see you in three months,” Dr. Woods said as he stood up and looked down at us. “It could be really easy to get this done once and for all you know,” he said. Dr. Woods was adjusting his glasses, checking himself in the mirror above our heads, and turning towards the door. “Easy procedure, in and out and a few months learning how to walk and voila, good as new.” He looked at Faye with a schoolmaster’s derision. “I have an opening next Monday. Just say the word.”

Faye shook her head no and smiled and held up her hands, her palms facing him in a gesture that meant there was nothing she could do.

Dr. Wood pinged off his blue rubber gloves and threw them at the waste basket as he walked out. The door was open and another nurse was walking in.

“Stubborn old bitch,” he said loudly, to the nurse just outside the door.

Faye looked at me. Her eyes grew wide and big. I thought she might cry. Here was one of the men that she revered, that stood for something in her world, who knew her Don so well over so many years and she heard him calling her a bitch. I braced myself for the impact. I tried to think of what I could say to counter the attack. I turned to her and she smiled and she shrugged her shoulders and said, “That’s what Don used to call me.”

Georgia English is a writer with a Master’s in fiction from Johns Hopkins University. She has published short stories in The Gettysburg Review and several Australian periodicals. She is working on her “memoir.” She calls it auto-fiction more than memoir after winning a scholarship to workshop her pieces last year with Sheila Heti in Denver via Zoom. This piece is from that longer body of work. It is mainly fiction but is based on a friendship she has with a ninety-year-old woman called Faye.

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