The building is filled with old ladies, some with walkers, some with aides, and many who manage quite well on their own. They are mostly widows, wearing sensible shoes from Harry’s, lots of black puffer coats, and carrying New Yorker shopping bags.
The painter stood in the lobby of 360 West End Avenue, honing his estimate. The building hadn’t been touched in forty years. Still, it had a bit of character left, with its deco hardware, some original furniture, and lighting. Pity, though, when the fixtures fall apart, they are replaced by some modern things that have no relationship to the existing ones. The bulbs are harsher, making the whole thing feel unbalanced. It’s a rental and the owner was not about to spend a fortune fixing it up.
The painter got the job; his estimate was fair and he came highly recommended by the condo next door.
The tenants greeted him, smiled, and praised his work. He felt appreciated.
The women went out every day, even in the rain. They walked over to Zabar’s for smoked fish and traditional Jewish comfort food. Their cooking days were mostly over, and one large portion was enough for two days.
It was a good life, and most were thankful for it. They would flip through their mail and catalogues like CEOs, dumping most of it into overflowing trash bins.
They treated their only doorman like royalty, counting on him for a helping hand and thankful for it.
The painter started a week before social distancing began. He’d gotten to know the feisty bunch who lived there and missed them when they isolated themselves in their apartments. The building seemed to shudder and die. If the painter stepped outside for a smoke, he could see some of them sitting at their windows.
The painter didn’t finish the job; he was asked to leave until the restrictions were lifted.
The ladies in the front of the building watched him as he packed up his car.
Some waved, some smiled, some closed their blinds.
He feared some might die before he finished.
I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and yet I have that metallic taste.
I live in a prison of perfection.
Nothing is ever quite right. Try as I can, the flaws always overpower the intention.
My life with COVID is no exception.
I am worn out from being grateful, I can’t keep the pretense up much longer.
My dear grandchild Ned is helping me out during this period. He is kind enough to shop and run errands. I give him a specific list; he does not follow it at all.
When I start to unpack the groceries, the tension mounts. Everything I pull out of the bag is not exactly what I asked for.
It feels like a plot.
I don’t eat Purdue chicken, especially the breast; I like dark meat. No problem, I’ll feed it to the dogs.
I wanted one potato, not one bag of potatoes, especially if they are not from Idaho. Maybe I’ll make potato salad for my neighbors. Ah, shit! I don’t have whole-grain mustard!
So what’s with Mediterranean-flavored matzoh? Who ever even heard of Mediterranean matzohs? You can’t make a pancake with them, that’s for sure. They can’t leave well enough alone? Pandering to the Italians?
Strawberry is my least favorite ice cream. Ice cream wasn’t even on the list, but if you’re getting it already, why don’t you ask what flavor I like? I whine.
Next time get a mixture of apples. It makes a much better applesauce.
Homemade applesauce has been my treat during this time. God forbid I should use only Macintosh.
And this is me censoring myself.
One night, Ned made dinner for me and dropped it at my door. I saw my neighbor Nancy looking through her peephole. A short, nosy lady, she keeps a small stool by her front door so she won’t miss anything. I know that because once I heard her fall off and scream.
I knew I would not like the dinner Ned prepared: a lone white chicken breast resting on an oily array of root vegetables. Tough as nails, baked frozen, still cool. You’d need a chisel to cut it. I just couldn’t eat it. And I told him so.
My therapist suggested feigning a stomachache next time. He challenged me when I said I am trying to live a “more authentic” life.
A lifetime of complaining and then something unthinkable like COVID comes along, and I wonder what the fuck was I thinking?
The kid was mad at me for twenty-four hours, and I still had strawberry ice cream for dessert.
Most nights I climb into my cozy recliner, wrap myself up in a cashmere shawl, and settle down to play WORDS WITH FRIENDS, an online, interactive Scrabble game with a chat room where you can post a picture in the upper right-hand corner and say “good evening” if you care to.
We are mostly anonymous friends, the intimacy with a silent stranger is comforting during this terrible period of time.
It’s been a savior for me, I’ll tell ya.
On the table a pot of tea, a pad and pencil, a See’s lollipop—I don’t look at the flavor when l grab one. I like to be surprised.
I go to bed promptly at 11 p.m. so as not to disturb my circadian rhythm. Structure is important for me. A reason to get up every morning and face another day of solitude.
I liked my life just as it was. Now I am isolated and lonely and who cares. The altacocker
Regina next door has her grandson shopping for her; I see him dropping off packages while I have to risk my life for a Diet Coke and a bag of Goldfish.
So you can imagine my enthusiasm when Kelvin Walters starts a chat: “Hello, Ellie.” A dumpy, middle-aged man with a Hitler mustache is sitting on a white, plastic chair in a small over grown space with climbing roses, a colorful plastic parrot in a cage, and a white miniature poodle on his lap.
“Hi,” I answer.
“How are you doing today?” he asks. “I’m Kelvin, nice meeting you. I’m playing from Germany. Where are you from?”
“New York,” I reply. “Good luck with the game!”
“How long have you been playing WORDS WITH FRIENDS?” he asks.
“Oh, a long time, off and on, but every night during COVID,” I say.
“I’m new here, I’ve never played before.”
“One tip,” I offer. “When you enter a word, press the little green lightning bolt symbol before you play. It will show your word strength.”
I can always be counted on for some unsolicited advice.
“Thanks. Can I have your email? We can chat there,” he suggests.
“Let’s chat right here,” I say, a little put off by his request.
“How about Hangouts or WhatsApp?” he persists. “C’mon, it’s fun there, we can share photos of ourselves. You’ll see more pictures of my garden and Tootsie.”
That’s a garden? I think.
“We can get to know each other. All my life I have been planning to have a good and loving friend far away from my country who I can travel to be with. If you give me a chance, I promise never to let you down. Trust me, I can make you the happiest woman in the world.”
At that moment I think of my long-dead husband laughing at the possibility of me being sustainably happy.
“I’m God-fearing, honest and humble, giving and caring. I could give you all the respect you deserve. My heart stopped by to knock on your door, please do open it.”
I’m having a terrific evening, sharpening my wit and giggling. I always was a bit of a flirt.
“Okay,” I say. “I will need access to all your bank accounts, a note from your doctor, your net worth, a birth certificate, the German equivalent of a Social Security number, three references, and a picture of your house. Is that possible?”
“Okay, fine. Can I get your email? I will send it right over.”
Don’t expect me to just stare out my peephole like Nancy.
I have found a charming scammer to keep me occupied during these long evenings.
My closest friend Alice, lives in my building. We used to go to Lincoln Center, the Met, and indie movies together. We lunched and shopped, strolled down Broadway, and sat in Central Park. It was nice having a companion so close by. We were always busy, on the prowl for another New York experience. I dubbed us the “Culture Vultures.”
I know all about her rich children; she knows about my poor ones. When I am sick she brings me chicken soup from Zabar’s. Not quite like my mother-in-law’s, but thoughtful and costly.
We’ve spent a lot of time on the phone in the last two months. The pandemic is difficult for Yentas. If nothing happens, the wells run dry. We are held together with culture glue; without it, our friendship is deteriorating.
“You’ve been a dear friend, an inspiration, but you are starting to get on my nerves,” I say.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” she asks.
“Yesterday,” I answer, “you were telling me about a walk you take on a path around the river with your photo club. You social distance and wear masks as you walk around the Esplanade.”
“It’s called the Esplande,” you interrupt.
“The Esplande? A path around a lake is called an Esplanade,” I say.
“No, it’s not, you are such a know-it-all. How do you know what it’s called? You’ve never even been there,” she retorts.
“Are you nuts? There is no such a thing as an Esplande,” I screech with frustration.
“Oh, yes, there is! Take a look at the photo I just sent you.”
Yes, it’s true, there is a photo of a fence with a large, metal sign loosely tied and drooping toward the left side.
Someone has scrawled in black marker…
The Esplande is closed at dusk.
“Are you kidding me?” My voice rises. “Whoever wrote that can’t spell.”
“WE call it the ESPLANDE!” she insists.
It occurs to that we may need a break.
On the other hand, it may have always been this way, and I was too preoccupied to notice.
A few weeks ago I made a big mistake. I glanced back at a woman who was looking at me. I stared long and hard, I did not blink.
The woman looked as if she’d been pulled from the river, dying, maybe dead. Mouth open, aghast; short arms flapping. Scaly skin, wide-set rheumy eyes, and puffing cheeks. I tried to conjure up the woman I’d seen last week but she was gone, gone. Replaced by a giant fish wrestling with a rusty hook. Suddenly a deep, throaty wail—I realize that I am the only one in the room.
“When did this happen?” I ask no one. “Wasn’t I taller?” I ask the woman. She mouths my words.
I wanted to kick the old fart as she taunted me.
The more I stared her down, the less familiar with her I became.
“Ya shoulda known me when…” I say.
And who knew it was about to get worse.
Facials with dried-out scrubs from the Dead Sea.
Manicures showcasing one nice hand. I’m not ambidextrous.
Choppy pedicures. I can no longer see my toes over my stomach.
Massages with a heated wand that never worked, not even as a dildo, as I recall.
Self-inflicted haircuts that ignored the back of my head.
And who cares anyway.
I’d been considering a nip and tuck before all this but that moment has passed.
Now? Now I cover the mirrors, as if someone Jewish had died.
A young couple moved in across the way. I could look directly into their kitchen windows. I noticed them at the beginning of the quarantine. A bit of a voyeur, I watched them cook, sit at their computers, kiss, pace, drink wine, nap, and talk on the phone.
They ate dinner every evening at 6:30. They poured the wine into goblets and used colorful cloth napkins.
I decided to join them.
For one hundred and fifty nights, hidden in my darkened room, I ate in tandem with them. I dressed up, sometimes a dab of old perfume, earrings; just enough to feel engaged.
The painter returned, to a thunderous welcome.
The young couple did not cook dinner.
I ate alone.
Eleanor Windman is a retired interior designer. At 82 years old she decided to start writing to keep old age from blindsiding her—it worked. During, the last three years she has scrambled around to make up for lost time. Classes, conferences, and Zoom have became a way of life. She has been published by the Green Hills Literary Lantern, Steam Ticket, Smart Set, and American Writers Review. She reads her work and lectures locally hoping to encourage seniors to take a chance and try something new.
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