When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship
Victor Lodato has a wonderful essay in the NY Times:
“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. . .