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’Tis The Season
Looking back at a year of simple joys from an uncommon friendship
The text message, that telltale sound, usually comes around 9:30 p.m. I know who it is: Joey. I smile before I even read it. Sometimes there is a bit of family news or a question about what I had for “din din,” but the close is the same, “You locked in over there, all doors and windows?” I message back a “yes,” though I occasionally leave a window cracked to get some night air. That I don’t confess unless I want in response Joey’s standard affectionate disapproval, “Oh pshaw you,” warning me about the spiders or the bad guys who might sneak in while I am in deepest slumber. These messages are my virtual tuck-in, and I am in the habit of waiting for them every night.
Joey is the caregiver who was hired in the late summer of 2011 to look after my husband, Karl, who died the following August. I wrote about Joey last Christmas, describing how he had stayed to look after me as he had looked after Karl. The piece struck a chord; in the months since I have received more questions regarding Joey than anyone else I have written about in print. “How’s Joey?” they ask. “You guys still together?” I have even had Hollywood inquiries suggesting our story would make a great movie.
So it seemed to me an update was in order. The response to Joey says something about this city, the loneliness and how we look for the unexpected miracle of a connection that becomes something larger and more permanent than you could ever imagine. You initially have so little in common, and yet that person fills the big hole, the hugest in the universe, with his joy and tenderness and strength. He somehow pushes you (that would be me, the grieving widow) back to stability and sanity, though as Joey cheerfully has said on any number of occasions, “I think it’s time to call the men in the little white jackets.” Making me laugh at myself is one of his attributes. With him I made it through the holidays—my first Christmas in 45 years without Karl.
By January it was clear to both of us that I could manage. We started hunting for a new situation for him. I was stricken at the thought but knew it had to be. Luckily Joey landed nearby, in a house in Santa Monica, hired by a psychiatrist in her fifties to tend to her aging parents, who had just relocated from Miami. As we all know, proximity is paramount in this mammoth city. I was thrilled he would be close and that I could see him regularly. Our friendship had a chattering dailiness to it that I had become used to.
He looped me right into his new world, with texts and phone calls and stopovers. He brought the aging couple to my bungalow. My dogs went mad with glee when they saw Joey; they had become as attached to him as I had. The old man smiled; he was gentle and still totally lucid. The woman, clutching her purse and decked out in makeup—red lipstick and black eyebrows—was fairly scattered. She could be charming but also occasionally rude and very possessive of her 91-year-old husband. She didn’t want him looking at a younger woman. (How the vanities persist, the jealousies.) All of them spoke Spanish—or Spanglish, sentences that started in one language and finished in another, so I was mostly able to follow along. When I got lost, Joey would throw me a linguistic lifeline. Five months after he started caring for the couple, the father collapsed in his arms and was pronounced dead at the hospital. Joey called. He was shaken. There were tears in his voice. Another death so soon.
I think about these caregivers from points south, like Joey, from Belize, or Marisa, the Filipina who helped with my mother. Theirs is a tough way to make a living. They are a grace note among us, moving into our cottages and condos and shiny new mansions, bringing their accents and skills and kindnesses, becoming part of our families at the darkest time. Often when they move on to someone new, the previous attachment frays, save for the occasional call or Christmas card.
That wasn’t going to happen with Joey and me. Maybe it’s just chemistry, when you find someone who’s from your planet even though you were born in different eras and different countries and, let’s be honest, at different ends of the economic scale. Call it L.A. serendipity: the chance meeting in a giant metropolis and there is that click, and you are elementally tethered to a person. Joey and I like to eat the same things (beans and rice are at the top of the list; he taught me never to soak my pintos, a transgression I had been committing for decades) and watch the same silly TV, preferably House Hunters International. Joey is a sucker for the Real Housewives of … programs. Those I could do without.
He has stayed in Santa Monica with the new widow, who sometimes treats him as she did her husband and doesn’t want him being overly friendly with me. We have our funny little trio. When they come for a meal or to hang out in the yard, or I pop by her daughter’s house on a walk to the beach, the widow is lovely and sweet for a while, then can turn grumpy and sharp-tongued. I wish Karl were here. He would find the whole matter comical, but he would get it and be happy Joey is around. It was uncanny how much Karl noticed in those final days. He knew me so well. We had talked about the unfathomable awfulness of being on the earth without the other one. Even as he weakened, I think he pushed to stay around longer to help me adjust to the idea—I know he did—to make sure I would be OK. He watched me with Joey, saw our bond, our affection. I don’t think he would be surprised by our continuing friendship.
Sometimes Joey’s mother comes over for our gatherings, thus easing the triangulation. She is like her son; she has his warmth and rare emotional acuity. She makes the best salbutas—patting the masa into thickish disks that are then fried to a crunchy-but-soft-in-the-middle perfection. We hug when she leaves, and she tells me she loves me. I say, “Me, too.”
When I need someone to roam the city with me for a given article or to pick up a piece of furniture, say, from storage, Joey arranges to have some free time, and off we go. We might take a detour to eat at one of his favorite Belizean restaurants or end up on Sawtelle, lunching on the soup dumplings and scallion pancakes that have bewitched us both. We chat about everything: the neighbors and the dogs and what’s going on in Washington. Joey is a news junkie; we talk about Obama’s pronunciation (this business of dropping the g) and Michelle’s clothes (Joey gives her a B; me, too).
Christmas is coming, the second without Karl and the second with Joey. We are already discussing decorations. Last year Joey wound strands of multicolored lights around the rose arbor and the windows. I left them up, to the amused concern of many a friend who’s suggested that it might be time to take them down because people might think I was losing it. But I said the obvious: They were cheery to come home to, softening the blow of the emptiness inside. Joey and I are also relieved that it’s one chore we don’t have to tackle again.
Meanwhile I have put in my order for his mother’s tamales, which she made for us last year. They are huge and beautifully wrapped in banana leaves, rich with meat and vegetables. This will allow me—and whoever wants to come—to hop onto the freeway on Christmas Day (what joy is that, so few people out) and drive to his sister’s rental house in South L.A. to pick them up. There will be multiple generations, all of whom I now know, the toddlers dressed to the nines in their fancy outfits (some of which were bought by Joey at Ross Dress for Less, with me as fashion consultant). We will sit and laugh and cluck at the toddlers. Joey will walk me to the car. We will wish each other a Merry Christmas, and I inevitably will tear up, and he inevitably will say, “Pshaw you. I will check in later.”