All of which takes the pressure off; no one here is burdened with finding the loves of their lives. The cafeteria’s complex pecking order may recall high school, but relationships don’t have nearly the same all-consuming nature as when residents were younger. Of those now dating, only Henrietta and Herb have moved in together, despite the economic advantages of double occupancy. For the most part, people don’t feel the need to alter their lives substantially. “I want a little peace in my life for the first time in 70 years,” Roosevelt tells me. “I want my space, and I want freedom. And I finally got it.”
Bridget, a tiny woman with cherry-red hair and an Irish accent, met her ex-boyfriend Nelson a few weeks after moving into Flushing House when they were outside the building waiting for Access-a-Ride. (“How romantic!”) “I had my eye on him,” she says. “He wasn’t a good-looking man, but he had nice lips.” Things progressed quickly from there: “Your time is limited. When you reach 80, what have you got to lose?”
However, when Nelson left the facility to move in with family who could give him more care and asked Bridget to come with him, she was more “levelheaded.” She had already been married and knew what it was like to tailor her life for a man. Why can’t it just be about having fun?, her thinking now goes. Bridget has since become something of a flirt. She prefers to spend her time in the company of men and particularly likes one named Jim, who has so far been unresponsive, even after she tried bringing him his favorite dessert, sugar-free cookies. “He’s like a stone,” she says. “I can’t move him.”
One evening a few months ago, Flushing House’s nightly poker game was shaping up to be a lively one. This is where Al fell in love with Sally. The only permanent player not in a couple was Doc, who usually deals. “Full house!” Al announced at the end of one game.
“Ooh, Albert, that’s beautiful!” Sally proclaimed.
“Uh-huh. Can I have all that, please?” he asked, swooping a stack of dollar bills toward his end of the table and then looking over to Sally. “You’re rich, sugar.”
“Oh, thank you, sweetheart,” she purred.
“Oh, get me a shovel!” Rita exclaimed in mock disgust. She met her husband, Irving, a World War II vet, at an upstate weekend retreat for older singles after both of their previous spouses had died. (“We like to say they ran off together,” she says. “To heaven.”) They married in their seventies and moved to Flushing House a few years later.
Someone asked Roosevelt, who had just joined the game, why he didn’t come in to play earlier.
“I got caught on the outside with one of the residents.”
“With one of the women?” asked Irving.
“Yes. She wanted to confess to me.”
“Her love or what?” Rita smirked.
Roosevelt grinned back at her. “I don’t want anybody hanging on my arm.”
“Roosevelt, you got a line of bullshit that will sink a ship,” Irving boomed, then he suddenly grew pensive. “Let me tell you something, just to be honest with you. If I didn’t have Rita backing me …” He didn’t complete the thought, but then he didn’t need to. It was clear he relied on Rita’s care, which was why their last trip to Atlantic City had been so hard. They’d been given a room with a Jacuzzi, and Irving had wanted to get in. “I wanted the two of us to go in there to see what we could do,” he said, looking over at Rita. “But when it came to trying to get in, I couldn’t lift my foot up high enough to get over. And if I would have gotten in, how am I going to get out?”
“That was supposed to have been a handicapped room,” Rita jumped in, protectively. “It wasn’t a good room.” (A few months after I met Irving and Rita, Irving passed away.)
Sally gripped Al’s arm. Their relationship was still hot and heavy at the time. Yet when the cards were put away, they headed back to their respective rooms. No matter where they are as a couple, they’ve never spent the night together, though Al has wanted to on many occasions. “She has a really tremendous bed with pillows, beautiful linen. My bed, she almost fell out of! I had to hold her.” But Sally values her space and her rest.
From their own beds, like high-school sweethearts, they’d usually call each other from under the covers. But their conversations, as Sally recalls, were anything but sweet. “When we’d talk on the phone, I’d say, ‘If anybody is listening, their ears will burn off!’ ”