It takes nine quarters to do a load of her laundry, the older woman whom I have helped every week for a year-and-a-half. Today, I’m worried that I might have to do two loads, in which case, I’ll be a quarter short and have to take the elevator back up to her apartment, let myself in without letting the cat out, retrieve a quarter from the roll she keeps in a cup. The cup is next to an empty instant coffee jar. She’s slowly filling the jar with pan drippings and food waste. Usually she freezes it but sometimes she forgets. I can smell it when I walk in but this time she tells me it’s the bacon she forgot in the drawer of the fridge, now dumped in the garbage which I will empty later. Either way, I tell her, that corner of the kitchen stinks. I don’t want to have to get another quarter.
I don’t want to mess up. I dropped her vintage trashcan on the tiles the first day I worked for her and the bottom broke off. She said she was sad. She’d had it for a long time. I spent the evening super-gluing it back together. Now I am folding laundry and find I am missing one sock. I tell her sheepishly, “I lost a sock”. That’s not mine! She laughs when I hold up the single one. It will be even funnier when I find a thong in her laundry next week.
Sometimes I remind myself that I’m not her social worker. I am her friend and she pays me to do laundry, take her shopping and empty her trash. I try not to count the number of underwear she hands to me from behind the bathroom door, chatting away about the biography of FOX founder Roger Ailes, tossing panties into the basket. Seven would be the proper number if she changed them every day since I help her on Mondays. Not that I’m counting. I notice that the bathroom trashcan I fixed is exceptionally full of soiled Depends this week. There’s a new pair of pajamas in the hamper. She bought them before Christmas but wouldn’t wear them. I always wait awhile, she said, I don’t know why. It’s not my place to judge – she’s still recovering from food poisoning. The throwing-up late at night scared her but she didn’t want to call her niece. Probably shouldn’t have frozen and refrozen those shrimp she bought for half-price at the deli. But really, what I’m probably smelling is the bacon.
I am fifty-seven years younger than her. People ask if she is my aunt. Today we decided I was family. She tends to stop talking to her family. They’re neurotic. How did I ever make the cut?
Her wireless printer isn’t working. I restart her MacBook Pro. The Internet is on but the laptop doesn’t recognize the printer sitting two feet away. I’m thankful my friend doesn’t have memory loss, unable to recognize people two feet away. We call her provider and get a nice young man on the phone. She tells me her password. He tells me the one they have on record starts with a “p” instead of a “t” in their system. She says, “No, it doesn’t”. Her age trumps my age plus the young man’s put together so we change the password to a “t”. I explain what happened and reset the printer. She tells me the internet provider must be incompetent. I say they made a mistake and didn’t hear that she said “t” instead of “p”. That’s what I mean, she says, they’re incompetent. The printer spews out a test sheet. “You’re a miracle-worker!” she exclaims. I take it.
Our relationship revolves around food. When she broke her wrist, I noticed the bites she’d taken out of the wedge of Manchego in the cheese drawer. Paper towels and spent nebulizer vials littered the counter along with cough-drop wrappers and some egg stuck to a plate. I am constantly washing my hands. Her cat had a cold that I was aware of every week I cut her nails – the cat’s. I am supposed to please take some of the butterscotch birds-nest cookies that she made home. She is trying to watch her weight. . . at 93-years old. She tells me the same stories every Monday. The food waste jar is a little more full but not much is different from last week. Of course she is watching her weight – what else is there to watch when you live alone?
She knows I like it when she says “please” even though I know she doesn’t take me for granted, unlike the woman at the grocery deli counter who constantly feeds us cheese samples and then reminds us of her name so we can tell her manager what a great employee she is. One time, she asked us to take home a card, fill out a survey and call a number to say how great she was. I wouldn’t do it but my friend did. Now we’re in the car headed home and my friend tells me she’s annoyed. The seatbelt alarm beeps. She reaches over her shoulder impatiently and pulls the seatbelt around her chest and lap. The alarm annoys me but the grocery store is only a block from the condo. Mostly, I’m annoyed that the deli woman called me “sweetheart” but instead I say, “She gave us a good deal on the Manchego.” We pull into the condo parking lot, right up to the door. I try again. “Maybe it’s her way of being competitive?” Silence. Beep. Beep. Beep. My friend lets go of the seatbelt she never fastened. She looks out the window, asking, “Did you grab enough quarters for the laundry? It should be ready now.”
I can’t read the last item on her grocery list. “It looks like you wrote ‘tractor'”, I tell her. She comes around to my side and puts on her glasses. She can’t remember what she wrote. We try to think of things she usually buys that start with the letter “t”. Turmeric? Triskets? Table….something? None of them work. Then she remembers. Thermometer. “Oh. Did yours break?” I ask her. No. Her eyes twinkle. I used it on the cat. “You don’t want to use it again?” No. Get me another one.
After I retrieve six cans of wet cat food and dump them in her cart, I meet her in the meat section of the grocery store. She’s looking at scallops. I tell her they are $14.99-a-pound. Too expensive, she says, The hell with it. I love it when she swears and she doesn’t notice the people around her smiling.
We can’t guess what we’ll be like when we’re old. How many friends we’ll have, how many days we’ll be sad for not feeling loved. I can’t imagine living alone with just my cat and a bird. A bird that she’s trained to put his head near the bars so, when she sticks out her tongue, she can lick his head. He likes it. She sticks her tongue through the bars again and tells me to try it. “I can’t,” I lie, “I’m allergic to birds.” Besides, he tries to bite me when I get too close.
She finished a painting. She will send out an email announcing that it is for sale. She thinks she still needs to make money even though her family pays her rent. The graphic designer whom she’s never met, only emailed, is helping her with an email blast. So far the design has been all wrong with the photo of the painting too far to the right. I write an email to the graphic designer explaining what she wants. He makes the changes but now she’s angry because some of the email addresses she sent to him were taken off the list. I ask which ones. She shows me: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. I tell her those are not their personal email addresses. Yes, they are – they email me every week. I explain that it is not actually the real person Glenn Beck or the real person Ann Coulter emailing her. It’s their staff; they don’t actually hit “send” to send her an email every week. She tells me that’s dishonest of them and she will tell them that personally. She sends off one email each to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. I nod and pick up the used paper towels from around the copy of Ronald Reagan’s biography she is reading.
I accidentally bring up gun control. She says she doesn’t think that controlling access will change the fact that people are just stupid. She tells me she doesn’t think gun control is actually a good idea at all. I forget that she’s not one of my liberal friends and tell her I’ll see her next week.
She’s in the hospital. I take the opportunity to throw away her instant coffee jar full of grease and food parts. I’m a meat-eater, she always tells the butcher, unless she’s telling him how she likes an all-beef wiener that’s thicker than his. She’s not really into length. Length is over-rated in wieners. He’s dark but I saw him blush. He gets her whatever she wants now – chicken quarters, ham hocks, pork-butt. All because of the wiener comment. I’m laughing to myself as I feed the cat and throw out the jar. She’s in the hospital for a fall and a crack to her head. They’ll just keep her overnight. The first thing she notices when she gets home is that I threw her food jar away. Now what’s she supposed to use? The next instant coffee jar is still over half-full.
They’re out of Nutrisse Golden Blond hair dye when we get to the grocery store so we go to Walgreens. I hate to tell her that the dye doesn’t make a difference on her thin white hair. So I don’t. There was one time she died her hair the color of salmon flesh. I didn’t tell her that either. Does she need shampoo? No, but she needs wart remover. And she tells me to grab two boxes of hair dye. Please. She remembers to ask nicely this time although really, she’s paying me but we’ve established that our relationship works better when we’re kind. I drop the hair dye into the basket, two boxes plus wart remover. That’s the way things go – you don’t know when you’ll get to Walgreens again so you’d better stock up.
Her car was stolen a year-and-a-half ago. The police recovered it and her family retrieved it from impound. They stalled on the repairs, hoping she’d decide not to drive. She tells me that she has learned how to hold her head just right so she can see and thinks she will drive soon. I know this would be dangerous. I tell her that I’m happy to drive her around. She says thanks but, You don’t understand how frustrating it is not to drive. I just spend my life waiting for people. Now I try to call her when I’m running late.
She would like to meet a man. I notice a gentleman younger than her but much older than me talking about painting near the avocados and mangoes. He’s an artist. He paints too and is kindly interested in meeting my friend, another artist. She sits up straighter in her electric cart, the one I’m always helping her navigate after she almost took out an entire shelf of pickles in the condiment row. He gives us a card and we promise to email. I mention that maybe he will be a good contact because she’s told me she’d love to have a man, but just for a few days, nothing long-standing. I tell her she could probably pull it off. She’s charming and knows what she wants. I could never do it, let a man see my body. I’m too vain. I used to have a fabulous body. Now this. She points at her denim shirt. I tell her she could turn off the lights. She looks at me and shakes her head as if to say, There are lessons, young grasshopper, that you still have to learn.
She emails the artist from the vegetable section. He compliments her. She looks at his website and doesn’t like his work. She writes back that he is very prolific. He writes back that we should have coffee and thanks her for the compliment. She’s stunned. He thought “prolific” was a compliment, she says, throwing her hand in the air and shaking her head. She says she would be happy to have coffee if perhaps I am interested in him. She means romantically. He’s probably forty years older than me. I thank her graciously but tell her no. I realize that her state of aloneness will not change and she’s more okay with that than I am.
A handsome older gentleman wearing a blue bike helmet – still fastened – holds open the glass door of the donuts display so that I can collect two apple fritters for her. She doesn’t even notice him, sideswipes a French bread display in the electric cart and goes to look at the manager specials for cheese. I am her acolyte, following behind her in this year-long tradition of buying groceries and saying nothing, moving things out of the way of her electric cart, pretending I am blessed.
I’m trying to figure out what all this is building up to since she’s obviously not dying. She tells me she needs to make some money, sell a painting. We revisit the 1980’s when she landed a textbook design deal. It was her big break. Now she lives in an apartment overlooking downtown. Not much changes from week to week. She took another bite out of the Manchego and griped at me for throwing away the food jar full of grease while she was in the hospital. I apologize and tell her there was no more room in it and it smelled. She shrugs – she just wants me to know that she noticed it was gone. Ain’t no memory loss there. Which is my point – nothing’s changed.