“Is this your grandson?” people sometimes ask Austin when she’s out with me.
I love watching her vanity prick up, the way she serenely tilts her small white head and refurbishes her southern accent to correct them. “No, honey. He’s my friend.”
At this point, folks usually smile tightly and turn away, perhaps worried there is more than friendship going on between the old lady and the younger man seated at the bar or strolling through the supermarket, giggling like teenagers.
Why we’re giggling, I couldn’t tell you. Often our mirth seems fueled by some deep-celled delight at being together. Friendship, like its flashier cousin, love, can be wildly chemical and, like love, can happen in an instant.
When I met Austin, I was in my early 40s and not looking for a friend. I had come alone to this small Oregon town to finish a book. So when a bony, blue-eyed stranger knocked on my door, introducing herself as the lady from across the way and wondering if I might like to come over and see her garden — maybe have a gin and tonic — I politely declined.
Watching her walk away, though, in her velvet slip-ons and wrinkled blouse, I felt a strange pang, a slow pin of sadness that I suppose could best be described as loneliness. Suddenly I was dashing into the dirt road to say that I was sorry, that she had caught me in the middle of work, but that, yes, I would enjoy seeing her garden.
“Not the gin and tonic?” she said.
“Sure, that too,” I answered, blushing. And before I could suggest a visit the next week, she said: “So I’ll see you in a few hours, then. Shall we say 4:30?”
I had to admire her sense of time. Next week is for someone who can afford to put things off. Austin, in her 80s, surely felt no such luxury.
“I liked your face,” she admitted later, telling me she had spotted me at the mailbox.
As she poured the gin, I told her I had seen her at the mailbox, as well, and liked her face, too.
“I wish I had better eyebrows,” she said. “They used to be fabulous.”
Her garden was astounding, like something dreamed rather than planted, a mad-hatter gothic in which a lawless grace prevailed.
At dusk, the deer arrived, nibbling the crab apple blossoms. We had been talking for hours, slightly tipsy, and then we were in the kitchen cooking dinner. A retired psychologist, Austin had traveled extensively, spoke terrible Spanish and worse French, and was a painter now. She had had two husbands, the second of whom died in this house, in a small bed in the living room.
“That’s what I’ll do,” Austin told me. “This room gets the best light.”
We turned to the windows, but the light was already gone. That we could be quiet together so soon, and without strain, felt auspicious.
“So you’ve run away from home?” she said at one point.
From the beginning, there was something about our interaction that reminded me of friendships from childhood, in which no question was off limits. On religion, she claimed to be an atheist. I admitted to being haunted by the ghosts of a Roman Catholic upbringing. She said her sisters believed in hell and worried about her soul. Austin, though, seemed afraid of nothing, least of all death. I said I was still afraid of the dark.
“Living alone,” she said. “It can make you funny.”
I laughed but changed the subject, telling her I would like to see her paintings.
Later, crossing the road back to my Craigslist sublet, I wondered what I was doing. I reminded myself of my plan: hiding out, staying in the dream of the book. I wasn’t here to socialize. After years of work on a single project, I was in the final stretch. I could finish a draft in a few months and head back home.
Besides, if I wanted a friend during my retreat, I would find someone my age to throw back beers with. Gin and tonics with an old lady in her garden? That wasn’t in the plan.
But there I was the next weekend having dinner with her, and then it was every weekend. Sometimes we went out to a restaurant or hiked in the mountains. Austin’s older friends seemed confused.
“Is he helping you with the computer?” one said.
When I first starting talking about Austin to my own out-of-town friends, they assumed I had found a new boyfriend.
“Austin’s a woman,” I would say. “Besides, she’s in her 80s. She’s just a pal.”
Even as they replied, “That’s cool,” I could almost hear them thinking: “Must be slim pickings out in Oregon.”
What was perplexing, I suppose, was not that two people of such different ages had become friends, but that we had essentially become best friends. Others regarded our devotion as either strange or quaint, like one of those unlikely animal friendships: a monkey and a pigeon, perhaps.
Admittedly, when I would spot us in a mirror, I saw how peculiar we were. This vivacious white-haired imp in her bright colors and chunk-style jewelry sitting with the dark-haired man in his drab earth-tone sweaters and Clark Kent glasses. Maybe I looked like some nerdy gigolo or this elegant woman’s attentive secretary. If we made no sense from the outside, it didn’t matter. We were mostly looking at each other.
One night, Austin chatted about her life as a middle-aged wife in academia. “I completely missed out on the wildness of the ’60s,” she said.
I told her I had missed out, too.
“You weren’t born yet,” she said. “Or hardly.”
Often we cooked together, as we had that first night, after which she would show me whatever painting she was working on. At her request, I also started reading to her from my book-in-progress. We gave each other feedback; our work improved.
When my six-month lease was up, I renewed it. The novel wasn’t finished. Plus, I couldn’t imagine a better neighbor.
Before I knew it, three years had passed. I was writing seven days a week and spending most evenings with Austin. Sometimes she had spells of vertigo now, and when we walked together she held my arm. Often she couldn’t find the right word for something. When she wanted to keep away visitors so she could paint, she hung a sign on her studio door: “Do not destroy.”
Soon the headaches came, and more jumbled language. “I need to screw my calls,” she said, meaning she needed to screen them.
We laughed, then sobered. Tests were scheduled.
Now she is eight months into what the doctors say is a quick-ravaging illness deep in her brain. They say there is no stopping it. A year more, if she’s lucky. Even as I refuse to believe this, I prepare for it.
How? By keeping my promise to her.
A few months before her diagnosis, Austin had attended a wedding. She showed me a copy of the vows, which had been distributed at the ceremony — a detailed list. I read it carefully, at Austin’s bidding. We were sitting in a car, waiting for our favorite Thai restaurant to open.
“I never had anything like that with the men in my life,” she said, pointing to the vows. “We loved each other, but we didn’t have that.” She was crying now, something she rarely did.
I took her hand and said, “Well, you have it with me. Everything but the sex.”
At which point, the monkey kissed the pigeon.
That night, I had an odd realization: Some of the greatest romances of my life have been friendships. And these friendships have been, in many ways, more mysterious than erotic love: more subtle, less selfish, more attuned to kindness.
Of course, Austin was going to die long before I did. That’s not what this is about. This, I have come to understand, is a love story.
Austin continued to paint for several months more, fractured, psychedelic self-portraits in scorching colors. Her best work. Lately, though, she is tired and hardly leaves the couch. I sit with her, at the opposite end, our legs intertwined.
“Read to me,” she says.
When I tell her the book is finished, she tells me to read her something new. But whenever I do, she promptly falls asleep.
I don’t leave, though. I stare out the window. Austin was right. This room does get the best light.
Recently her hair has thinned, but she has a shock of white up front that a friend’s daughter has dyed with a streak of fuchsia. She looks like some punk girl I might have dated in high school.
She had a bit more energy the last time I came to visit and said: “Oh, Victor, I had the most wonderful dessert yesterday. Peaches and Connecticut. Have you ever had it?”
“No,” I said, smiling.
I loved the idea of it. Two things that don’t seem to go together. Monkeys and pigeons. Peaches and Connecticut. Unlikely, yes — but delicious beyond measure.