The winter I was sixteen, I took to eating cold cuts almost exclusively. After a fall semester spent hollowing out bagels and stripping the bread from sandwiches, I suppose this was the next logical step toward my most efficient possible way of eating: all protein. I bought my meals by the quarter-pound at the deli counter in the supermarket, or pre-sealed in plastic at the corner bodega, and ate on the streets, just walking from place to place, even though it was bitter cold in New York and my fingers numbed without gloves.
I was staying with my grandmother for winter break, at her apartment on the twenty-first floor of a building in midtown. Technically it was a studio, but it had been converted with strategically placed bookshelves. I slept on the pullout couch. The city was a gift from my parents while they Christmased with my brothers in Athens (Georgia) and the dog sitter kept our Sheltie, Ruby, company at our home in Larchmont. I’d lost a lot of weight that year, and my mother had been reluctant to let me out of her sight, but I was very serious about musical theater at the time, and my father had arranged for me to see several of the big Broadway shows.
Back at school I’d let everyone think I would be helping my grandmother, doing chores around the house, like carrying groceries back from the supermarket and administering insulin shots to the diabetic cat. That my grandmother needed help would have been unconvincing to anyone who knew her. At seventy, she saw more friends than I did, and it was not uncommon, when I got home from wherever, to find her on her hands and knees, rubbing a wet paper towel into the rug (the cat was pretty well incontinent). Most days she was running off to lunch plans or a hair appointment, and it left me very free to see my shows and wander the city with my headphones in. I don’t know if my parents told her to watch my eating, but she never said anything, and I adored her for that.
I’d just returned from a matinee of Mamma Mia! the day I found some other, smaller old woman in my grandmother’s living nook, trying to feed Temptations to the cat. She must have been in her eighties, at least, with hair like the inside of a stuffed animal. Maureen Howard, it turned out, was an acquaintance from the building — third floor — and she’d taken a bad fall.
“I got up middle of the night to use the bathroom.” She spoke softly, but in a way that conveyed a good deal of effort, as though her voice had to pass through several walls inside of her. “Next thing I knew …” — with one blue-veined hand she simulated falling, drawing a shaky arc through the air and swatting her other, open palm — “Splat.”
“On that hard floor,” corroborated my grandmother, just returned with fifty fresh towels from the laundry room.
“It’s stupid. My legs, I don’t know,” Maureen said, looking at the floor. “I get dizzy.” Her son was getting a flight back from his family’s ski trip, but since Maureen’s dizzy spells were still happening, the doctor didn’t think she should be alone. The sleeve of her housedress had fallen up her arm and I could see the bruises, which were a far deeper violet than any I’d ever had.
My grandmother gave Maureen an assortment of washcloths with which to clean herself up. With the water running in the bathroom, my grandmother stood by the bookcase, two fingers pressed hard to her lips.