I wake up to a peculiar feeling at my forehead. When I touch the area gingerly, I am horrified to find the front of my hair in curlers and I hasten to rip out the plastic rollers. I want to just throw them everywhere, but I know better. With my luck, next time I get out of bed, my walker will hit one and tip over and take me for another fall. This time it might be my hip and we all know what that means for someone my age.
This nursing home gave me a packet of literature when I moved in, consisting half of rules and regs, half of doom and gloom. Just a single stat has stuck with me: One in five people 50+ die in the first year after a hip fracture. I’m not 50. I’m 81. I’m a goner if I tumble.
I decide to hide the curlers under my pillow to use as projectiles in the event that my welfare and identity are again attacked by these well-meaning straight people. When I say “well-meaning,” I’m talking about what they think of themselves. It doesn’t reflect my experience at all. To me they are the embodiment of all the hetero crusaders who believe in Noah’s Ark. They can’t imagine that any woman would really want such short hair, let alone sideburns. So, they’ve mostly kept me away from the hairdresser, and when Nance sneaks me in for an appointment, I find out they’ve forbidden the hairdresser to use the buzzer on me. That’s why the top is long enough for them to stick in curlers while I was groggy following a little dental procedure yesterday.
“Oh, you’ve got wavy hair now,” Lucinda gurgles with the exaggerated smile she utilizes when entering any room, “Isn’t that lovely. Suits you.”
“Got a hand mirror?”
“Yes, of course. Hold on.”
She slips out of the room and comes back with a cheap plastic mirror. She tries to position it towards my head but all I can see is the machine behind me with the bleeps or the mostly empty closet. I reach out my good hand. “Here, let me do it by myself.”
My eyes never make it as far as my hair. They stop at their first glance. Lipstick. They have put lipstick on me. The very last thing I would ever apply to my lips short of arsenic. The slimy stuff made of pig shit which is supposed to be sending out the contradictory message: Come on over here and run your lips in this foul gunk.
It took years for me to convince Nance to stop wearing lipstick. She still insists on it for any big public gathering. Even worse, for fancy social events she also dons high heels. To me, heels are for the bedroom only. “If you can’t run away from danger in them, don’t wear them where danger lurks,” is my mantra – which exasperates my femme friends. And as all lesbians our age know, the world outside our door cannot be relied on. I can’t count the times she ignored me over the years. Now it’s no longer an issue between us, but not because of any compromise. Because of her hammer toes.
I grab a tissue from the box on my bedtable and begin to rub my lips. “What are you doing?” Lucinda asks sharply. I don’t answer. This isn’t the first time they have done this to me and it isn’t the first time I resisted.
You’d think that at 81 with over 60 years of dykedom under my belt – well, I don’t wear belts anymore because I don’t know whether to put them over or under my belly – you’d think people would let me be. Let me be me. Leave my look alone. Stop trying to mold me into a girly girl. You’d think that after women’s liberation and #MeToo and the Women’s March and glass ceilings in shards, they’d get their stereotyping hands off my clothes and my face and my hair. But no, still the same ole same ole.
When Nance and I decided that she could no longer care for me at home, we asked our niece-by-choice Penelope to take on the exhausting job of finding a place close enough for Nance to visit and decent enough for me to survive. Penelope’s husband Pete did the research of narrowing the list down to five and she did the visits.
“Tell them I’m a dyke,” I instructed her. “I don’t want no surprises.”
“I’ll tell them you’re a lesbian. The word dyke will horrify them, if they’ve ever heard of it in the first place.”
At 81 with over 60 years of dykedom under my belt… you’d think people would let me be.
Serene Manor won the opportunity to torture me and I’ve been here for five months already. I have not adjusted well. They have decent policies on paper, but they also severely underpay the carers, overwork them, and fail to train them in all those fancy policies.
Lucinda has lasted longer than most. Perhaps because she is white they don’t treat her quite as bad. Perhaps she’s more desperate. I know she’s got the most important attribute a carer can have: very thick skin. Either that or she takes a high-dose anti-anxiety prescription. Nothing disturbs her, nothing upsets her, nothing penetrates her brain. She walks around the halls with that inane nodding smile and ignores every complaint we make.
It wasn’t really such a “little” dental procedure. They actually pulled all my teeth. I’ve been losing them one by one in the last couple of years. It’s the gums. I lack some mineral or vitamin that keeps the gums lively. There’s nowhere to anchor a bridge. And I can’t be doing a dozen implants. Eating’s been getting hard. So they pulled them all and will give me a set of shiny whites by and by. I’ll have liquids for a couple of days and then some sort of temporary chompers while they whittle the new ones.
I drink the tasteless tea and schlurp some sips of the smoothie Lucinda brought me, but it too was a bit gross. Then I nod out.
Nance is kissing my cheek when I wake up. I can see the sun is high in the sky, but I can’t understand how I slept half the day away. “It’s the residual effects of the gas the dentist gave you,” she says, leaning over to rest her cheek on my chest.
I tell her about the beauty assault I experienced and she boils. “I’ll just have a word with Mrs. Lake.” Grabbing the two canes she now uses for walking, she shuffles off to the manager’s office.
I open the paper bag she had plopped on my stomach as she ran out. Inside was a bagel and cream cheese – a treat so rare it had taken on the patina of fine gourmet cuisine. But then I remember – no teeth! No bagel. The coin must not have dropped for Nance either.
I dive back into the bag. A lovely pint bottle of fresh-squeezed orange juice will hit the spot. And a box of my favorite candies – don’t judge – Dots, which I will be able to suck without the teeth.
On her return we have a good laugh about the bagel, which Nance proceeds to devour – “It shouldn’t go to waste.” And then she clatters over to close the door before climbing aboard my bed for our daily cuddle. She stretches out over the covers, nestling into my armpit and I embrace her.
The door opens. No knock, no shout. We pay a shitload of money for this lack of privacy, I’ll tell ya. The midday shift has started and this stranger has replaced Lucinda.
“What is going on here?” she asks. Her face is flushing, as is her neck and chest, so the giant cross with the crucified man that she is wearing seems especially bright.
“And who are you?” I ask.
She ignores my question to impose one of her own. “Are you related?”
How many times in our lives have we been asked that question? No matter that I am dark and large and square and that Nance is petite with bright white hair that used to be red and freckles and green eyes. People have always been able to see we have a special connection. It never occurs to straight people that we are lovers.
I ignore her question in turn. “Who are you?” I ask again. My words are plopping out in a post-surgery tumble. Being surgically defanged will do that to you. “And might I request that you knock before entering my room. I’m not in a coma, you know.”
By now Nance has sat up and transferred to the chair, which she moves up against my bed, staying as close as possible.
The new attendant approaches, warily. “Mary Marie,” her name tag says.
“This is my partner, Nance,” I say. “And what can we do for you?”
“I believe there is a rule against visitors getting in the bed,” she says, glaring at me.
Nance intervenes. “Nope, no such rule. There’s a reason we pay an extra $1,500 a month on top of the usual sum for this private room.”
“So that it will be private,” I say, as Nance slips her hand into mine.
“Well, we will see about that,” Mary Marie scoffs, and leaves without doing whatever it was that she came to do.
Suddenly, the lunch-time music begins piping through the speakers, summoning those who are still mobile to the dining hall. Next we have our daily recording of “God Bless America.” Were others standing and saluting in their rooms? Patriotism with lunch? It is an eccentric choice, we think.
Then “Turn, Turn Turn.” Nance and I hum along a bit unconsciously. We used to love this song until it became the nursing home anthem of doom.
“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die”
I look up to see Mrs. Lake at the door, still open since Mary Marie had failed to shut it on her huff out of here.
“Was there a bit of bother here?” she asks.
With my mouth so sore, Nance instinctively takes the lead. “We confirmed with you before we came here that we would not be facing any homophobia and that we would be welcome.”
Mrs. Lake nods, her face serious. “She’s a temp, you see. Two of the girls called in sick so the agency sent her over.”
“Temp or no temp, we are not prepared to pay the big bucks in order to be insulted.” Nance tried to inject her words with a bit of righteous outrage, although we have had such conversations endlessly since we came out in the 1980s after having been together for twenty years already. Our openness was not something we took lightly. It was definitive. We decided then that there would be no more skulking, no more shadows, no more keeping an extra bedroom and pretending it belonged to me when straight people entered our home. No more slipping photos of hugs at secret parties and snuggles on the beach into the drawer, away from hetero-eyes. No more visits to relatives who insisted on introducing us as “work colleagues.”
“Well, I’ve assigned her to North Hall. She won’t be coming by here again.”
A bald head pops over Mrs. Lake’s shoulder. It’s Pete, Penelope’s husband. “Just going downtown to court,” he says in his lawyerly baritone, “and wondered what might soothe your mouth. Are you allowed to have sherbet – or is that too cold? I thought I’d stop on my way home from work.”
Mrs. Land backs out to make room for Pete at our door, and flees. Nance fills Pete in. Although he chose law, he had really wanted to be a rabbi. He shivers slightly, saying, “I don’t care about her necklace,” he said. “I do care about her rude intrusion. Shall I have a word?”
I shake my head and Nance speaks up. “Mrs. Land moved her to a different part of the property where, we must presume, there are no gay people to offend her.”
Pete hugs Nance and leans over to give me a quick peck on my forehead, as he does at least three times a week before continuing on his way to the courthouse.
“I’ve got to go, too,” Nance says. “Amy’s delivering the groceries in an hour.” Before I had to leave our home, shopping had become a dreaded chore. We found a shopper who took our list and brought us the bags. She came right in and took everything out, piling it on the kitchen counters and on the table so that it was easy for us to put away. We tipped Amy 35% of the bill. She was a single mother who shopped for about five different households each day in order to support herself and her kids.
Penelope had worried about this. “Now that you have this great whopping bill for Serene Manor, perhaps you could save a few pennies by letting me do the shopping.” She did enough for us. We turned down her offer.
“Love to Amy, please.”
“Of course. See you later.”
Suddenly the room is quiet. Nance and Pete and that Mary-Marie and Mrs. Land – my god, when they rip every last tooth out of your face it seems to invite a circus. The pain is getting bad. I try to stick it out – Nance never understands where this stoic streak comes from – but it gets worse. I ring the bell.
Mary-Marie turns up.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be in my room,” I say as sternly as I can muster with this ripped-up mouth.
“Everyone else is in a meeting. They don’t invite the temps. I’m covering until they return.”
Again, that deep flush passes up her chest, where the strung-up man sparkles, past her cheeks and onto her forehead. “My goodness,” I think, “this woman has all the feels.”
“While you’re here, I need pain pills.”
She checks my chart and unlocks my prescription box, giving me acetaminophen with codeine. She goes into my bathroom and comes out with a glass of water. As she approaches, she stumbles and the water splashes all over my hair and face. Mary-Marie bursts out crying, crumpling to the floor holding her face in her hands.
“It’s just water,” I say, unhappy to be the one comforting her.
“I know it’s water,” she says sharply between sobs, looking up from the linoleum for about a second. “No, not the water: it’s Sister Georgina.”
Has she lost her mind? Suffered a concussion? “Sister who?”
She shakes her head back and forth. “Apologies,” she says from the floor. “It’s the shock of tripping.” She continues to sit there weeping, fingering her cross and mumbling something, perhaps a prayer. I think I discern a family in there: I hear “Father” and I hear “son” and I hear “help me.”
Never have I longed for Nance’s return more. Even in the best of times, even with my own acquaintances, I am beyond reluctant to play social worker. Nance is the one who oils the hinges of our public lives. But Nance won’t be back for hours and I don’t want a limp bigot all over my floor.
“Do you need to talk to someone about this Sister-Whoever?” I am about to suggest that she confide in Mrs. Lake, when she begins to speak.
“Sister Georgina.” She chokes on each phrase. “When we were caught at the convent, she said that I had forced myself on her. But no, no, I hadn’t done that. She was the teacher. I was young, innocent. But I did love her. They threw me out. She’s still teaching. I’m repenting. It’s a terrible sin.”
She places both hands flat on the floor, digs in her toes, and hikes herself up, ass first, grabbing onto my bed to steady herself. Without looking my way, she runs out of the room and, as I learn later, out of Serene Manor. I can hear call-bells from various rooms ricocheting around the unattended hall until the staff meeting finally ends.
Sue Katz's business card identifies her as a "wordsmith and rebel." Her writing has been widely published on the three continents where she has lived, worked, and roused rabble. Her books and stories now focus on elders, often with LGBTQ characters. She has been a martial arts master and has partner danced with women more than her feet could bear. Visit her here and on Facebook.com/sue.katz or Twitter: @suekatz.