Portrait of an Old Lady
New short fiction from author Elizabeth Crane.
Old is maybe not fair. Older. Older is fair. Old enough to walk the streets of the city and think, where are all the people our age? We’re well nigh past middle age. We know our faces look different, but we look in the mirror and sometimes, a lot of times think, Still got it. We have our own sense of style without the words age or appropriate attached to it, we rock gray hair or we don’t, but when we look for the rest of us we can’t find you. You look 12, or 30, or 80, which is when we go Oh shit. The older we get, the more different people of the same age look. You might be looking at us and thinking 80, even though we are sure we’ve still got it.
But we’re older than most people now. We like our faces in a way we never did when our skin was on tight; we walk a line between trying to change beauty standards by aging naturally and won’t say never on cosmetic surgery. Models in magazines look the age that they are, which is to say, not old enough to afford head-to-toe Gucci. How did we ever imagine them as adults, how did we ever not see them as toddlers playing dress-up? We no longer know who you’re trying to sell this to other than not us.
The older we get, the more different people of the same age look. You might be looking at us and thinking 80, even though we are sure we’ve still got it.
We understand how nostalgia works. It’s about the past. But our old days don’t feel like old days yet, they seem like a year or two ago, like yesterday, like five minutes ago. You can’t have nostalgia for things that happened yesterday. Hear us out: the fifties and the early sixties of our youth looked very different, like okay yes, those were clearly different, very long ago times. Thirty years ago is before we were born, not the 90s. Start getting misty about the 80s and 90s and especially the 00s! and all we can think is about the impossibility of that seeming different, or far away, or not new, low-rise jeans aside. We still remember the first time you called our old clothes vintage, and how young we were then, and clothes newer than that are now called vintage, and frankly, it still stings. Now even our names are vintage. Babies are getting our old-fashioned names, and we’re not talking Rubys and Roses, we’re talking Debbies and Judys. We’d have thought more non-gender-specific names would be catching on, but maybe that’s not a surprise after all.
We can still do anything we used to be able to do. We can still do anything we used to be able to do, right? We can wear bikinis if we so please. Women our age run marathons. They climb rocks! We don’t, but plenty do. Can we stand on ladders in the driveway? We think we can, but this begins to fall into a category of things we should maybe reconsider. If we were never the rock-climbers, no matter how self-sufficient we believe ourselves to be within the context of the types of lives we live, falling down is not always the pick yourself up dust yourself off event that it was when our bones were less fragile.
We still remember the first time you called our old clothes vintage, and how young we were then, and clothes newer than that are now called vintage, and frankly, it still stings. Now even our names are vintage. Babies are getting our old-fashioned names, and we’re not talking Rubys and Roses, we’re talking Debbies and Judys.
We have elders, some of us, who need various things in the way of assistance. We find that we may need occasional assistance, more assistance than we did when we were twenty and needed no assistance, like if we break a bone or have a minor procedure (so many minor procedures now) and are willing to ask for that help. We are not yet at that age where you think you need no assistance again, where you walk out of the room without assistance because your assistance maybe went to the bathroom or something, and you are certain you’re fine, you’ve walked out of rooms thousands of times without aid, but you aren’t always fine now, you fall down in the living room and no one knows when you’ll be fine in another room and when you won’t. That’s why you can’t leave the room, Grandma, that’s why that button is around your neck, Grandma, remember? We know that day is ahead but we are still somewhere between patronizing and being patronized.
We might want less sex than we once did, we might not care about sex because it’s been so long, we might not know how we feel about sex because it’s been so long. We might want more sex, and we might want all kinds of sex we never had when we were younger, kinds of sex we had no idea were kinds of sex at all until our long marriages ended and our new partners said they wanted to try this one sex thing they hadn’t done and this one sex thing turned out to be so spectacular that we can’t believe we wasted so many years on much, much less spectacular sex things. We also know that wherever we land in this arena, is fine. We know that a lot of ways to be are fine now and we wish we’d known that sooner.
A year or two ago we dated! So much! We dated waiters and hipsters and B-movie stars, lots of them, we dated younger men when we were actually still so young, and we did this without technology! Okay, we had landlines. But you know how we met? We just met. A year or two ago we got married. A year or two ago we had our ten year anniversaries, our fifteen year anniversaries, our twenty-fives. A year or two ago our marriages ended. A year or two ago we made out with an old boyfriend, but it was too soon, and a year or two ago there was a pandemic, and then there was still a pandemic. There’s no meeting at all. And if you have the fortitude required for dating apps, you’re a sturdier soul than we are. We pray just meeting comes back somehow.
We might want more sex, and we might want all kinds of sex we never had when we were younger, kinds of sex we had no idea were kinds of sex at all until our long marriages ended and our new partners said they wanted to try this one sex thing they hadn’t done and this one sex thing turned out to be so spectacular that we can’t believe we wasted so many years on much, much less spectacular sex things.
We are past the mid-point of our careers, even if we started late. We have tenure, we own our own businesses. We’re at or near or just past retirement age, but it’s too much to even think about, if we’re so lucky that we even have that as an option. Some of us had bright careers early that we don’t have now, some of us were happily never in the workplace and some of us are going back to school or are trying to start over, but some bullshit never changes. Not a good time in this field. They went a different way. You’re overqualified.
Our children are mostly grown, some of us are grandmothers, some of us just could be. Our children have our problems, they have their own problems, they have fewer problems, they have problems that didn’t exist back when we had problems. We tried so hard to parent so they would have no problems. But the world exists.
We don’t have guilty pleasures, we just have pleasures, and we’ll listen to both Mitski and Billy Joel openly, and know that it’s your problem if you think one of those artists isn’t cool. Sometimes, we’ll hear a name often enough to know that that person is a movie star, but we would never be able to identify them, and we are sure we’ve never seen them in a movie even if we have. Most of us don’t even hear you when you say words like 4chan or reddit, but we rule on Facebook, or we once did, and now we renounce it, but it has to be one or the other. We like everything because we like you and we see you and it’s no trouble, and also we like getting likes, who’s kidding who, though we don’t lose sleep over our like numbers, because we can actually like ourselves now.
We are wise, so you tell us. It doesn’t feel like that. It feels like we make fewer poor choices now, in the poor choice range of guys we’d never date in a million years, to impulse purchases that hang in our closet, to trying to please family members and friends and the world before we try to please ourselves.
Some of us have chronic conditions, some of us have recovered from illness, some of us haven’t. We who are still here miss the ones who aren’t in a way that is our ongoing condition. We have lost people our own age, in other words, too soon; sisters, brothers, cousins, best friends, and we can’t talk to them now, we can’t tell them we ran into Howie from pre-calc wearing a MAGA hat, they can’t get on the first train back to life to spend the night with us when our dad dies, we can’t ask them for their Dutch baby recipe, we can’t be petty about our exes partners with anyone else without impunity. So we talk about them, often, maybe too much for your comfort, which is not our problem.
We look back on all the younger versions of us as though we are our own elders. We look out at those younger than us now with this same care.
We flash back, lately, an unbidden déjà vu of random scenes from our lives, good ones and less good, behind that Upper East Side bar we got fired from about a week after we started because we didn’t bring in customers; gleefully trudging snowy intersections with our friends, on our way wherever, didn’t really matter; looking up at the night skyline from the back of a taxi on our way downtown; subway rides home at three am from that guy’s apartment whose name we quickly forgot; the soap star we met at Lucy’s who told us we looked like a model and we were too many drinks in to call bullshit; crossing campus as a professor for the first time, the first time we sat in our office that had an actual door; that awful week in the 80s when we worked at Tavern On the Green and got fired for wearing white socks; sweet first kisses on street corners uptown and downtown; that time we saw our obnoxious ex on 1st Avenue and 12th St, many decades later, the one who thought he was smarter than us, and opting against our long-held dream to mention how many books we’ve written; seeing the round Paramount theater marquis every time we pass that corner even though it’s long gone, seeing a lot of movie theaters and coffee shops and favorite bookstores that are long gone, knowing something beloved and long gone used to be right around here somewhere, understanding that you might belove something else that’s long gone in those very same spots. We are mostly me, but we don’t think we’re only me, finally. We feel a mix of things about this—fondness for those times, fondness for who we were then, or who we weren’t yet, a tenderness toward ourselves we didn’t have then, so busy we were hating our bodies, or so beset with our perceived misfortunes, so consumed with wondering how—or if—it would ever work out for us, gratitude for the times that it did, for this moment now. We look back on all the younger versions of us as though we are our own elders. We look out at those younger than us now with this same care. We are past the age of ‘you’ll understand when you get older’, with that layer of ‘we know better’. No one knows better.
We are not yet old enough to wish things were the way they used to be, to declare that things were better way back when, even though sometimes there are too many yogurt choices at the grocery store and remember when you either liked the original flavor of a cereal or you just liked a different cereal? We avoid phrases like nowadays or in our day. It’s still our fucking day. Who said it was your day? We’re right here, having days. We know things were never better or worse. Things were different and the same both, and we can wrap our minds around that. Maybe we’ll be the first to know this forever.