By Alissa Bennett
I suppose it was in early 2006 that I began to understand something had changed. It wasn’t anything that I could identify at first, just a series of subtle shifts that indicated that I was shuffling slowly into middle age. There was the New Year’s Eve party in Bushwick to which I wore an inappropriately transparent minidress and cowboy boots. “Is that your MOM?” I heard another guest screech as I vomited alone off of the rooftop. There was an incident in a midtown Sephora when a salesgirl recommended a concealer formulated for mature complexions, and a car-service driver who put on the Temptations after I told him his music was giving me palpitations.
I spent much of that winter neglecting my Match.com profile and calling out of work sick, canceling dinner plans and avoiding my friends so I could scrutinize my appearance in a Conair Illumina tri-paneled mirror that I’d hauled around since high school. Holed up in my increasingly catastrophic room, I found myself frantically switching through each of the mirror’s four settings, strobing my face with its flickering atmospheric simulations. Day, evening, office, evening, home, office, evening, day, home. I noticed that the office option made me look much worse than I ever imagined, as if my face was a pile of dirty dry cleaning left on a counter for strangers to inspect. I found some solace in the evening setting, a rosy light that called forth old and young things in equal measure. It brought peace to close my blinds and light my room with it when I applied my acid peels.
I ordered an elastic face strap from the back of a Star magazine that promised to lift and tighten even the most stubborn sloping jaw lines. I stuck scotch tape to my forehead. I purchased a handheld microcurrent device and a conduction gel designed to electrocute my face back into something familiar. When I bothered to show up at the hair salon where I rented a chair, I would spend much of the day staring at myself while doing a series of increasingly baroque facial exercises that I hoped would tone and tighten; it took dedication, the experts said. You cannot rewind the hands of time overnight.
“I dreamt of Pompeii that night, of bodies turning to stone under a blanket of lava or ash or whatever it was. I dreamt of myself frozen forever, twisted into the shape of a decorative sconce, installed permanently on the wall next to Ruthie’s TV.”
Walking home one night, I listened to the sound of the metal end of one high heel clicking across the pavement, its plastic cap lost to the filth of a city that no longer felt hospitable to my sagging life. I followed a well-dressed middle-aged woman with a dowager’s hump for several blocks, reluctantly leaving her only to stop in a health-food store for a cleansing green juice.
“You look great!” I yelled with sincere passion to this hunched specter in skintight black jeans and a boiled wool Comme des Garçons blazer. She glared at me for a moment before returning her gaze downward. Maybe it hurt her back to say thank you, I thought. I made my way into the store and ordered a sixteen-ounce I Dream of Greenie.
“I threw in some parsley to help you with those bags under your eyes,” the ponytailed loser behind the counter told me. “It’s your kidneys, you gotta clean out the kidneys.” I felt my hand rise to my face and threw a $10 bill down on the counter with the kind of disgust that only the elderly can muster. “Fuck you,” I hissed. “You fucking pervert!” I ran out before he could respond and gulped down all of the juice, then threw the empty plastic cup at the shop door. But as I did I wondered if he was right, if maybe all I’d been missing this whole time was something as simple as parsley.
• • •
Once I’d made it halfway up the stairwell of my sixth-floor walk-up, I could hear the theme song to The Golden Girls echoing through the hallway. It meant Ruthie was home, and I felt distaste rising like bile in my throat as I fit my key into the lock.
Ruthie was a forty-five-year-old freelance bookkeeper who spent her afternoons drinking red wine from a Happy Days thermos and whittled away her evenings watching reruns on Nick at Nite and Lifetime. We’d lived together on Third Street for nearly ten years, but I felt no affection for her. She was depressing and mousy, shot through with an unintentional cruel streak that I felt indicated an undiagnosed mental disorder.
Despite the fact that we were the same age, I’d always felt at least a generation of difference between Ruthie and myself. She was pallid and misshapen and her forehead was sliced through with creases that exposed the lies she told about how much she loved her “life.” She looked like a gigantic leather shoe that had been worn out in the rain, and it was a terrible shock when our building’s super once asked me if we were identical twins.
Ruthie had her crayons out and was defacing an adult coloring book when I came in. Her hair hung in great greasy clumps, her bangs combed down to meet overplucked eyebrows in an approximation of a 1940s pinup look. She wore a vintage robe with a large cursive “L” embroidered on the front, a relic from a year-long romance she’d had with a swing dancer who called himself Johnny-O and sometimes rode a unicycle. She’d maintained a slovenly devotion to this look for years, and though there were no more boogie-woogie championship weekends in the Catskills, she seemed to remain somehow trapped in 1999, perpetually waiting for Johnny-O to roll up in his saddle shoes and scream her name.
“Every time I see a unicycle, I just have to see if it’s him,” she told me once as we walked to a Bed Bath & Beyond.
“You have something on your robe,” I said, sitting next to her on the couch.
“Shit. ‘Comforting Beef Stew,’” she said, scraping at the blob with a chipped nail. “It’s in the Crockpot if you want any.” Ruthie was always cooking something in her Crockpot. ”Wine?” she asked, smiling, holding out her thermos.
”Ruthie,” I said to her, “Do you notice anything different about me?”
“Different like what?” she asked.
“I mean I’ve been going to this new dermatologist, and I just wanted you to look at me and tell me if you see anything that looks different.”
“Well,” she hedged, squinting her eyes and licking at the inflamed skin above her top lip, “you look like . . . kind of red.”
I got up and stomped toward my room without looking back at her. “Good night, Ruthie. Please do your dishes tonight.”
My Illumina’s day setting confirmed Ruthie’s observation: I was red. And as I inched closer I spotted a new pocket of fat hanging pendulously under my chin.
It’s strange to chart your decline in an unchanging surface, and as I lay down on the mélange of laundry covering my bed, I began thinking about the differences between landslides and cameras, about how time ravages us all, though some things stay the same. I dreamt of Pompeii that night, of bodies turning to stone under a blanket of lava or ash or whatever it was. I dreamt of myself frozen forever, twisted into the shape of a decorative sconce, installed permanently on the wall next to Ruthie’s TV.
• • •
“I purchased pastel twinsets and orthopedic shoes. I found beige-colored imitation leather purses at the Salvation Army and hitched them in the crook of my arm without irony.”
It was a poorly plotted plan, I suppose, an idea that bordered on farce. But it began by letting myself go. I stopped exercising and ate plates full of heavily salted frozen lasagna. I threw away my moisturizers and drank liters of ultra-high ABV beer while gazing into my Illumina, using the day setting to apply dollar-store makeup as unflatteringly as possible. It’s not that I exactly wanted to be old. It’s just that I was at the end of my rope, the end of an endless stream of first dates and sculpting foundational garments that had strangled my forties. I suddenly felt choked by any shoe that featured high heels or even laces, assaulted by the barbed-wire waistbands of the stretchiest of jeans. I was an exhausted person who deserved some kind of break.
I’d seen ads for Briarbrook for years before I finally began to pay attention to them, to wonder if maybe what I needed was a few months of 5 p.m. buffet dinners and penny-ante card games. Maybe I would find some kind of well-being making potholders and playing backgammon and eating vanilla pudding out of plastic cups. Briarbrook wasn’t a nursing home, after all; it was a community of lively and mature people who had paid their dues and were interested in “discovering everything that life had to offer.” I printed out a picture I found of some residents playing an indeterminate lawn game, and I pinned it to my mood board. In my shakiest, most geriatric-looking script I wrote: “THIS COULD BE YOU.”
I purchased pastel twinsets and orthopedic shoes. I found beige-colored imitation leather purses at the Salvation Army and hitched them in the crook of my arm without irony. I learned that a thin layer of latex affixed to my face with a warm blow dryer erased the last remaining evidence of youth in my complexion, which exhaustion and poor nutrition had already done their best to eat away. It was shocking how easy it felt to release myself from the bondage of sexuality, to drift away on a sea of sentimental memories about milkmen and holiday oranges.
I told Tammy, my salesgirl at Ricky’s, that the short, cropped gray wig looked fine. No, I didn’t want to try on Paris Hilton’s platinum fall. I did not want Angelina Jolie’s sexy waves. I gasped when Tammy presented me with a Bettie Page–brand clip-on bang that reminded me so much of Ruthie that I would not have been surprised to hear it speaking in her voice.
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” I told Tammy. “I don’t need all this. I’m a confident woman . . . Do you have prosthetic noses here?”
• • •
“Eventually I came to understand that one cannot just move into a retirement home.”
Eventually I came to understand that one cannot just move into a retirement home; there are application processes and Medicare numbers, social security reviews and mandatory down payments. That’s when I thought about my Aunt Ellen again for the first time in years.
Seventy years old and wealthy from leading a miserly life, Aunt Ellen, a pinched and withered woman, lived alone in a single-level ranch house in Woodbridge, New Jersey. Since we were children, we had all known about the little safe in her closet, covered with tablecloths and old sweaters, packed with wads of $100 bills that grew to such a hoard that the door would no longer close, money that was truly begging for liberation.
I cooked up a pretense to get myself through her front door in early May. I told her that I’d given up my dream of hairstyling and had finally gone back to college to finish my bachelor’s degree. I said that I had developed a new passion to become an oral historian and to gather the stories of the elderly.
She put out tea and canned shortbread cookies and looked me over sternly. “Forty-five and back in college? A little long in the tooth, aren’t you, Erin? At your age, you’re going to live in a dorm?”
“No, Aunt Ellen, I’m not going to live in a dorm. I live on Third Street in the city, remember? I live with my fiancé. His name is Robert, and we are very happy.”
“I haven’t heard about any of that from your mother. She’s tortured thinking you’re going to die alone in that cold-water flat of yours. She said she thought you were going through ‘the change’ and that it was turning your brain to mush.”
“Will you excuse me, Aunt Ellen?” I said. “I need to use the ladies’ room.”
Equipped with Aunt Ellen’s driver’s license, her social security card and enough of her cash to last me a year, it was easy to find a place close to Briarbrook—a boxy, beige furnished rental. No one at the realtor’s office batted an eye when I produced $15,000 in cash from my straw handbag.
“Old people are always doing this shit,” I heard the broker, Annie, say to a colleague as she counted out the bills in another room.
“I’m old, not deaf!” I yelled out, and the words sounded sincere, almost truthful.
My new apartment in no way resembled the Avalon that Blanche and Rose and Dorothy shared on The Golden Girls. There was no lanai, no oversize pottery, no shell-printed settees on which to contemplate my new life. But it was clean and quiet, and I slept comfortably each night on a Craftmatic Adjustable Bed. Every morning, I rose at six-thirty and walked to a local park, where I read Mary Higgins Clark books and drank decaffeinated coffee from a Styrofoam cup while waiting for the Briarbrook residents to make their morning journey up the hill to the gorge. Lugging their collapsible easels and watercolor kits, their fishermen’s caps listing in the breeze, they would bicker their way past me, complaining about humidity or the empty bottles teenagers discarded in graveyards at night. “They’re pigs,” they would say. “No respect.” “I’d disown Stevie if he ever turned out like this.” It was comforting, and I found myself nodding in agreement.
It was in the neighborhood luncheonette that I first encountered a Briarbrook resident named Martin. He had a waxy dignity about him, and I found the rubbery sag of his earlobes and the hair that grew in tufts from the tip of his nose oddly alluring.
“You’re not at Briarbrook,” Martin said, sitting down next to me at the counter. “We’re technically not supposed to eat here, but I can’t stand beefsteak Wednesdays.”
“Oh, I just moved to the neighborhood,” I told him. “My name is Ellen. I came here from New Jersey when my husband died.”
Martin seemed to sense nothing out of the ordinary about me, and though I could tell that he liked me, my body and face seemed to inspire no special interest in him, no awkward stares or incidental touches. After some weeks of Wednesday lunches, he said he was pleased to invite me as his guest to Night of the Arts at Briarbrook.
“We’ve got to get you out of that house, Ellen,” he said. “You can’t live your life all closed up just because Robert died. We can’t give up on everything just because we’re old.”
I wiped away a genuine tear and fished in my purse for a Brach’s hard candy. “Do you have any Xanax or whatever?” I asked.
“So will you join me for Night of the Farts?” he asked, and though this kind of humor would have repulsed me coming from a younger man, it had a certain ring of dignity when Martin said it.
“I got nothing better to do,” I said coquettishly, holding out my hand for the Xanax clasped in his knotted fingers.
“Just friends, Martin,” I warned him that evening when he picked me up from my apartment.
“You’re too young for me, Ellen,” he said, winking, before helping me into my seafoam green windbreaker and escorting me down the block. “I’ve been to seven Nights of the Arts, and every single one of them is more terrible than the last,” he said as we walked together, my arm in the crook of his. “Stay away from Joyce Davis. Never met a meaner girl in my life.”
Briarbrook was everything I’d dreamed. There were imitation Tiffany lamps and floors covered in billiard-green industrial carpeting. Cheerful staff members in pastel polo shirts held out cups of nonalcoholic punch and paper plates of Cheez-Its. There was a library full of mysteries and classics that no one under thirty now had the attention span for, overstuffed floral chairs and oak tables accented with laminated weekly schedules.
“Come this way, Madame,” Martin said, leading me through a throng of jealous-looking elderly women.
“Martin!” a blonde in a forty-year-old pink satin evening suit said. “You just get better and better.”
“Sure, Joyce. Thanks a lot.”
“See you for cocktails in the dining room after?” she asked. “I’m sure you can bring your friend if you’d like . . .”
“Going to see the show now, Joyce,” he said. As we pushed past her, I felt a surge of pride.
The recreation room was hung salon style with watercolors. Most of them featured the gorge, but there were also a number of shabbily rendered African violets and a cross-eyed-looking child who I assumed had been painted from memory.
“I want to show you something,” Martin whispered, walking me over to a framed painting that rested on the ledge of a small easel.
I looked at the image, a woman in a powder-blue blouse reading a book on a park bench. It didn’t matter that the wig had been rendered a little crooked or that the hands were as big as baseball mitts or that the lips smudged into a watery dribble sliding down the chin.
“It’s a painting of me!” I said, my eyes dampening and my speech beginning to slur from the fifteen milligrams of OxyContin that Martin had given me before we left the house.
“It’s you all right, Ellen,” he said. “I call it Amapola. But you’re only seventy. So you probably don’t even remember that old song.”
“You’re right, Martin, never heard of it,” I said. “Hey, I’ve got a pack of Marlboros and a six-pack of Bud Lite back at the house. What do you say we blow this place and play a game of gin?”
“You make me feel young again, Ellen,” he said.
“It’s Erin,’ I told him, hooking my arm in his and walking him toward the door, ‘and goddamn, do I have a story for you.”
Alissa Bennett is a writer and the co-host of the podcast The C-Word, with Lena Dunham. Bennett is now at work on a book of essays that examine desire, fame and consumption via lots of Hollywood memorabilia.