Jude the maintenance man and Sarah the activities director were having an affair. The relationship sparked at the back of the nursing home where they loitered on the loading dock. They shared smoke breaks together, exhaling and holding their cigarettes like they were fragile instruments, fortifying them for an afternoon of mopping and BINGO.
I knew about the affair because of my office’s proximity to the back of the building. The office also acted as the storage room with a cage filled with Ensure, Depends and other ailing elderly supplies. I wondered why diapers and old people formula was so precious that it required a padlock and cell. Was the nursing home administration concerned that the ancient inmates were going to riot and loot the place? I’d seen the pureed food the kitchen staff molded to look like a turkey leg and sweet potato. If the old people were going to steal anything it would be the chance to gnaw on a piece of steak one last time.
I was only twenty-three years old, recently recruited to be the volunteer coordinator for the nursing home and I was struggling with my new reality of a $10 an hour job, still living with my parents, who were also my only source of social engagement. The physical therapist at the nursing home was spreading rumors that I was a lesbian because she thought it was odd I never went on dates. And I inherited this horrible after-school program, the Magic Mix where elementary school kids visited the elderly residents in an attempt to integrate two generations that belonged sixty years apart.
There was no magic in this mix. Mostly boys, they would commandeer empty wheelchairs and gurneys and barrel down the hallways, oblivious of the residents slowly shuffling to the solarium for a movie or the chapel for communion.
My liberal arts degree was useless in corralling the kids. I yelled at them to settle down, doled out ignored time outs, tried to enlist the help of Sarah or Jude who wanted no part of the magic I was making. I even mentioned the children’s poor behavior to their parents when they collected them to take home.
At the time, the only saving grace in my life was my 1992 teal green Toyota Celica, my first adult purchase and the only enclosed, private space I could hide in. I was driving it, peeling into the nursing home parking lot when I witnessed Jude and Sarah embracing. I pretended not to see the loading dock exchange. I gave a wave and scurried up the steps to my closet.
Eventually Sarah started complaining about Jude at lunch. The activities room was cleared out of residents and the crafts table turned into a makeshift lunchroom. I’d sit with Sarah and the two social workers Amy and Sheila and we listened to how Jude was too controlling and that he started calling Sarah at home. Sarah’s husband was getting suspicious.
Meanwhile, Amy the social worker was having her own personal drama. Her husband was the mayor in town and he was seen fraternizing with a blonde at the local bar. He’d come home late yet Amy insisted it was because he worked so hard for his constituency.
Sheila heard from the physical therapist that I was a lesbian.
“I’m not a lesbian,” I assured Sheila.
Sheila had just gotten married, bought a house and a golden retriever. She also had a roving eye. Literally, her right eye wandered around in its socket.
“Have you ever thought about being a lesbian?” she asked me, staring at me with an odd smile.
“I think I might be a lesbian,” she revealed to me, her eye twitching.
I started spending more time in my caged storage room. I created an outreach program teaching old age sensitivity training to schools to get me out of the office. Want to know what it is like to have glaucoma? Have the kids walk around with goggles lathered in Vaseline. I disbanded Magic Mix much to the dismay of the parents. The nursing home administrator summoned me to her office. Parents were calling to complain about the program ending. They were relying on it for their after school care.
“I don’t think we should be a baby sitting service,” I explained to my boss, “these kids have no interest in the inmates. I mean the residents.”
I didn’t belong at this nursing home. I never knew what to say to Madeline, a fifteen year resident who called me over to mumble incoherently at me. I suspected she was looking for an accomplice to help her escape. Or George, a corporate attorney who now sat in his room alone with no visitors. Or Albert, the aging dwarf that stared at me. Every night I’d flee to my car, happily lapping up fresh air, running away from the scent of old pee, and the sight of Sarah, Jude, Amy, and Sheila eyeballing me. I was running away, eager to find a different life, far away from aging and endings.
One day I bumped into Jude in the hallway. He was long faced and droopy. I had noticed that he and Sarah were no longer taking their smoking breaks together. Sarah was also applying to other nursing homes for a new job.
Jude’s big eyes were like a laser beam, stopping me to chat.
“Sarah broke up with me,” he choked.
I thought he was going to cry when an 86 year old man pushed his wife in a wheelchair past us. The man visited this woman every day. Some days were tough. She was confused, didn’t recognize her husband of sixty years or recall that they had made a long life together. Other days, she sat beside him during painting or music. They’d hold hands and fawn over one another like young lovers. He’d tuck her into bed every night and be with her every morning for breakfast.
“See that Jude,” I gestured to the couple, “That’s love. That’s heart break.”
Jude was unmoved by my point and continued down the hall to buff the floors. Amy eventually had two kids with her husband and Sheila left her husband, took her dog and fell in love with another woman. I don’t know what happened to Jude and Sarah, but I do think about the residents of that nursing home often. Their fragile, forgotten lives. Their long goodbye to life, the memories and the love they cultivated for decades.