Sylvia Moves In
Winona’s grandmother, Sylvia, is queen bee of the Grande Oaks Active Seniors Community out on Long Island. Her lovely cottage, purchased by Winona almost ten years ago, is a happy place and with Mr. Hines, her longtime boo, they wile away the hours playing Monopoly, sipping Chivas Regal, and running to Atlantic City whenever the mood strikes. But then Covid-19 hits with a vengeance. And Sylvia’s perfect world falls apart.
I get the call just two days after breaking up with Riccardo. My grandmother Sylvia and her boyfriend, Mr. Hines, are both stricken with the Covid-19 virus. They’ve been taken by ambulance from their home on Long Island to Presbyterian Hospital on East 68th street. Within 24 hours, Mr. Hines is dead. Sylvia, on a ventilator, is fighting for her life. I can’t go to her. I can’t see her. All I can do is camp outside the hospital and argue with cops who refuse to wear masks but want to know why I’ve been sitting on this bench all afternoon. “My grandmother is up there. Where else would I be??”
Sylvia is tough. She always has been. And she pulls through. But she can’t go back out to Long Island. There’s still more recovery for her to do. When a nursing home is suggested I don’t think twice about it. I make arrangements for her to come home with me. A hospital bed and a lovely nurse named Fiona is installed in my master bedroom and I sleep on the convertible sofa in the guest room next door. It’s also my office so it actually works. But WINONA, INC. hasn’t had bookings in three months. A handful at best. Who needs a fucking office?
Painting by GEORGE CONDO
Sylvia starts to regain her strength. And a severe case of foulness that grows nastier every day. Nurse Fiona is replaced with Nurses Marguerite, Lucille and Cassandra. Sylvia’s chewing them up and spitting them out like pumpkin seeds and when she gets tired of shredding on them, she turns her high beams on me. But I’m missing my man and kind of in a bad mood myself so we’ve had some squirmishes, Sylvia and me. Don’t worry. I haven’t gone Baby Jane on her. Not yet anyway.
But she’s pushing a bitch real close to the edge. At least one plate of food ends up on the floor almost daily and in less than a month, I’m rolling up and trashing the fine, Tibetan rug in my bedroom! I don’t know when she started this shit but I swear she’s putting the screws to me. Directly. Not her nurses. Me. And what in the hell did I do?? So the night a saucy plate of spaghetti and meatballs land just inches away from her pretty pink Dearfoams, I leave the mess right there. All night. She probably doesn’t sleep a wink but she asked for it. Right? Well yeah. Okay. That might be a little bit Baby Jane-ish. But that’s the last time food finds it’s way to my floor.
I have Katz Delicatessen’s world famous chicken soup trucked up here from downtown. What does she do? Spits out the first spoonful. The broth is salty and the noodles are mushy. Fine. She used to love Melba’s on 114th Street. Couldn’t get enough of them. But now she says their braised short ribs are underseasoned and overcooked.
“Really?” I ask, chomping on a mouthful of fabulousness. Hmmmm. “Well I’ll just call them right up and issue a formal complaint, Your Majesty. Right after I lick this plate clean.”
Once she acquires an Air Hawk power chair Sylvia becomes mobile. Yay! Now she gets to spread her joy all over the building. Whoever ends up on the elevator with her bunches her panties by the time they get to the ground floor. She argues with Caitlyn at the front desk, the doormen, the chauffeurs, she even fights with maids of the other tenants. And she never bothers to tell me she’s rolling out. Oh hell no. She just disappears while I’m in my office and then I get the inevitable phone call.
“Ms. Warner? Come get your grandmother. Please.”
My circuits are jammed. I don’t know what to do. I ask her doctor if maybe she’s had a stroke. I mean, she’s always been feisty. But Miss Thing threw her shoe at me yesterday! What in the Naomi Campbell is going on? Dr. Nang shakes his head. “I see this type of thing with many patients, Ms. Warner. Your grandmother is angry. She misses her friends, being in her own home and living her life. How long was she and her boyfriend together? Over ten years? And now he’s gone. No funeral. No goodbye.” He shakes his head again. “She’s depressed and she’s angry. Who wouldn’t be?”
While I’m sad and horny missing Riccardo, for all intents and purposes Sylvia has been widowed. And I’ve got to do better. The next day I select a caftan for her to wear, the bright and colorful kind she likes. I help her to put on earrings, her precious diamonds, her favorite gold cuff and a little mascara. In the foyer mirror, I tie a pretty head wrap over her hair and we head out with a picnic lunch to snag a table in the building’s gated courtyard. The fountain is on, the sky is bright blue, there’s a sweet breeze blowing, it’s a gorgeous day.
Sylvia perks up once the sunlight hits her face. She’s come a long way in her recovery, in spite of her shitty attitude. And she’s looking mighty fine today, sitting here nibbling on cold chicken and pasta salad. Nothing like that scary old witch who rolled through the building lobby last week terrorizing everybody. Taking a sip from the small cup of scotch I’ve poured for her, she leans towards me and whispers, “A man over there is staring at me.” I turn to look but she stops me. “Don’t be obvious,” she says and then, “Oops. I think he’s headed this way.”
I pull my mask up over my nose and mouth and tell her to do the same as the man, on a cane and assisted by a teenage boy, walks slowly to our table. His brown eyes are twinkling above his standard-issue surgical mask. I can almost see his smile behind it. “Aren’t you Sylvia Warner from CityMeals on Wheels? We volunteered at the same facility about ten years ago. I’m Simon,” he says before lowering the mask to his chin. “Simon Baladashi.”
Sylvia smiles. She remembers him right away. “How have you been, Mr. B,” she says. He sits down at the table next to ours and in-between bites from a super deluxe Z Grill sammie, he tells us all about his son and daughter-in-law, two bigtime cosmetic surgeons, and how he, a widower, moved in with them last year after a stroke. He leans towards Sylvia and admits, in a loud whisper, that he doesn’t care for the arrangement. She cocks her head and gives me the side eye.
“Go on and say it,” I tell her before excusing myself. “You don’t like living with me either.”
It’s been a pretty good day. That evening, after lights-out for Sylvia, I open a bottle of pinot grigio and get ready to videochat with Belle, Desi and Lourdis. It’s been three months since our last Thursday night at the Peninsula’s rooftop bar—our spot—and I miss my sisters like crazy. Poor Belle is literally trapped out in Queens with her foul-to-the-core mother. Look. She’s smoking again. Desi is sequestered downtown with Truman, doing that monogamy thing whether he likes it or not, and Lourdis, in the Village, is rolling solo. She put her last squeeze out soon after I let go of mine. Such a copycat.
When they ask about Sylvia I tell them how much she hates my lavender scented candles, how everything I watch on television is trash and how she complains every morning about the motor on my Thermador refrigerator keeping her awake all night. In the meantime, I can hear her snoring like Godzilla through the walls. “Her doctor says she’s mad at the world,” I tell them. “But today she ran into an old friend and that seemed to cheer her up.” I give them the 4-1-1 on the widower, Mr. Baladashi.
“That’s your answer right there, hunni.” Lourdis says. “What Grandma Sylvia needs is a man.”
“Stop,” I say. “She just buried one.”
“Well, now she needs another.”
Mr. B invites Sylvia to lunch. “We’ll play Monopoly,” he tells her. It’s her favorite game. With his great-grandson Thomas, they drop by to scoop her up. That shirt, though! It’s crazy on the eyes. But Sylvia always did love a peacock so he gets extra points right out the chute. There must be an Old Dude’s code—never let a lady drive her own wheelchair—because he insists on pushing her, to the elevator, through the lobby and out to the table he’s got on reserve in the courtyard. It gets around fast and some are oooweee-pissed about it. Mr. B, apparently, is hot stuff for the ladies of a certain age in the building. Who knew?
Painting: REAL LIFE by COSTAL IARCA
Sylvia orders several new caftans from Saks and goes through every bottle of perfume on my vanity before choosing Viktor & Rolf’s Flowerbomb. She polishes her toenails and rummages through my mask collection. Yeah. She’s still got game. After their third date, she rolls back in with a 24-piece box of Godiva truffles nestled in her lap. I call Lourdis and we can’t stop laughing. “That’s gonna be you, girl,” she screams. “That’s gonna be YOU!” Then there’s the flowers. Delivered almost every day. It broke my face the first time I read the card and realized they weren’t for me. Tulips. Big, colorful gladiolas. And lavender arrangements that smell like what? My scented candles. But guess who’s not bitching about that now?
While in the kitchen early one afternoon, I hear the front door open suddenly and Sylvia’s power chair motor. She left with Mr. B and Thomas not even an hour ago.
“Hey,” I call out. “What are you doing back so soon? Have a fight with your boyfriend?”
She blows right by me and rolls toward the bedroom. She doesn’t say a word. All I see is the back of her head. I start to follow after her when the doorbell rings. Oh-oh.
Painting: CHARITY by JOSEPH HOLSTON
Through the peephole I see it’s Dr. Baladashi, Mr. B’s son. The scrawny doc is frowning at me over his black, space-agey N95. “I would like for you to keep your grandmother away from my grandfather,” he says when I open the door. This is how he kicks it off. But last night’s anger-management session with my support group has spared him. He doesn’t know it but Zoom has just saved him from the beatdown of his life.
“Whatever do you mean?” I ask calmly. “Has something happened?”
He hems and haws and then finally blurts out—“I just caught them upstairs. They were in his bedroom pleasuring one another!”
Painting: CHRYSALIS NO. 230 by CAT TESLA
All kinds of kinky, geriatric shit go through my head and I just can’t help it. I burst out laughing! Get after it, Oldtimers! Then the elevator door opens. It’s Mr. B! He scurries out, sees his son and starts apologizing. “I’m so sorry, Winona. He shouldn’t be here. Benjamin, what’s wrong with you??”
But I’m dying to know all the dirty deets.“Mr. B, what were you and my grandmother doing??”
Benjamin cuts in. “Things they shouldn’t be doing!”
“Who says they shouldn’t?” I ask.
Things heat up fast. We’re going back and forth about two grown people having the right to do what grown people do when Sylvia appears in the foyer. And OMG! Miss Thing is walking!
“Everybody just shut the hell up,” she says and holds her hand out to Mr. B. When he shuffles passed me I smell Flowerbomb all over him. He stands next to Sylvia and she waits, watching attentively as he buttons his shirt and tucks it in before cupping her hands in his.
“We’ve got news for both of you,” she looks at me and then at Benjamin. “When Dr. Nang says it’s okay for me to return home, Simon will be joining me. We’ve decided to become roommates!”
Well. It ain’t over til it’s over, is it? Only my grandmother Sylvia would roll out of the Grande Oaks Active Seniors Community with one man and walk back in with another.