I come in through the sliding doors of the rambling retirement community and a woman I recognize from the dining room looks at me blandly. "Help. Help. She's trying to poison me," she says of a nurse who stands nearby.
The nurse rolls her eyes. "This is more than I can take," she snaps and storms away.
The paranoid old lady, hair violently thinning, grips her walker and stands. "I don't know what's going on here. This is a scary place."
She makes these dramatic accusations as calmly as if she's instructing her Yorkie to go outside and do his business. There are no exclamation points.
Cued by the nurse that this woman is not to be taken seriously, I am already a flight up the stairwell.
It is a little scary, if you consider old and impending death frightening.
Or maybe, more than perilous, it is lifeless, which is just as terrifying.
Despite the glorious San Diego sun, heavy drapes hang at every window like arms clad in fur pelts. The thickly carpeted hallways smell powdery and musty. They are utterly silent, with only the occasional tread of a pair of SAS shoes and oiled walker wheels passing by.
Behind every apartment door a life ebbs, having been downsized from houses filled with furniture and children and pets with yards and gardens and fruit trees, to one-bedroom spaces fitted with basics – wall hugging chairs and loveseats instead of overstuffed recliners and sofas. A few pots of geraniums on a balcony replacing a sprawling vegetable patch and tractor barn.
Instead of garages bulging with tools and lawn mowers, there are barren carports. And Keurigs sit in the lobby where coffee and tea burbles into styrofoam cups rather than a glinting percolator in a bright yellow kitchen.
The food in the dining room floats in several inches of cream, with fruit-laden Jello and soggy prunes a staple in the salad bar. There are some good rolls, though, and a grill where you can order waffles and cheeseburgers.
Men come up to me in the dining room to measure their height against mine. "I used to be six-two!" they crow. I try not to curl my lip and snap, "This is more than I can take!"
Instead, because J.'s mom lives here and because these men are old, I try to humor them by idiotically nodding and smiling. Still, I can't help but think of Michigan State college boys and how, at parties, they stood on their tiptoes when I walked by.
These men are the same, just on the other side of life.
The staff is large and generally kind and everything is clean.
Max and Claire love it here: the two swimming pools and the fifth-floor Wii and the games and puzzles their grandma supplies them with.
They're not fazed by spotted 80 and 90-year-olds, not spooked like J. or overly contemplative and quiet like me. They're just kids with clear, glowing skin, inexhaustible energy, and acceptance of the different shapes and sizes and ages of the humans all around them.
And, though I'm very much sure the woman who feared she was being poisoned was not, I do wonder about her childhood and middle age and dementia that has her by its ragged claws.
J. and I reassure ourselves: we'll never live in a place like this that smells like cold cream and scrambled eggs, where our neighbors drop dead weekly. We'll be somewhere bright and airy, with a view of the ocean and private nurses (or children) to care for us.
But yeah, who knows? In the same situation, in a place that is overly-upholstered and silent, I might accuse someone of slipping arsenic into my orange juice if it will get me out.