Modern Love New York Times Essay Contest House

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Watching her walk away, though, in her velvet slip-ons and wrinkled blouse, I felt a strange pang, a slow pin of sadness that I suppose could best be described as loneliness. Suddenly I was dashing into the dirt road to say that I was sorry, that she had caught me in the middle of work, but that, yes, I would enjoy seeing her garden.

“Not the gin and tonic?” she said.

“Sure, that too,” I answered, blushing. And before I could suggest a visit the next week, she said: “So I’ll see you in a few hours, then. Shall we say 4:30?”

I had to admire her sense of time. Next week is for someone who can afford to put things off. Austin, in her 80s, surely felt no such luxury.

“I liked your face,” she admitted later, telling me she had spotted me at the mailbox.

As she poured the gin, I told her I had seen her at the mailbox, as well, and liked her face, too.

“I wish I had better eyebrows,” she said. “They used to be fabulous.”

Her garden was astounding, like something dreamed rather than planted, a mad-hatter gothic in which a lawless grace prevailed.

At dusk, the deer arrived, nibbling the crab apple blossoms. We had been talking for hours, slightly tipsy, and then we were in the kitchen cooking dinner. A retired psychologist, Austin had traveled extensively, spoke terrible Spanish and worse French, and was a painter now. She had had two husbands, the second of whom died in this house, in a small bed in the living room.

“That’s what I’ll do,” Austin told me. “This room gets the best light.”

We turned to the windows, but the light was already gone. That we could be quiet together so soon, and without strain, felt auspicious.

“So you’ve run away from home?” she said at one point.

From the beginning, there was something about our interaction that reminded me of friendships from childhood, in which no question was off limits. On religion, she claimed to be an atheist. I admitted to being haunted by the ghosts of a Roman Catholic upbringing. She said her sisters believed in hell and worried about her soul. Austin, though, seemed afraid of nothing, least of all death. I said I was still afraid of the dark.

“Living alone,” she said. “It can make you funny.”

I laughed but changed the subject, telling her I would like to see her paintings.

Later, crossing the road back to my Craigslist sublet, I wondered what I was doing. I reminded myself of my plan: hiding out, staying in the dream of the book. I wasn’t here to socialize. After years of work on a single project, I was in the final stretch. I could finish a draft in a few months and head back home.

Besides, if I wanted a friend during my retreat, I would find someone my age to throw back beers with. Gin and tonics with an old lady in her garden? That wasn’t in the plan.

But there I was the next weekend having dinner with her, and then it was every weekend. Sometimes we went out to a restaurant or hiked in the mountains. Austin’s older friends seemed confused.

“Is he helping you with the computer?” one asked.

When I first started talking about Austin to my own out-of-town friends, they assumed I had found a new boyfriend.

“Austin’s a woman,” I would say. “Besides, she’s in her 80s. She’s just a pal.”

Even as they replied, “That’s cool,” I could almost hear them thinking: “Must be slim pickings out in Oregon.”

What was perplexing, I suppose, was not that two people of such different ages had become friends, but that we had essentially become best friends. Others regarded our devotion as either strange or quaint, like one of those unlikely animal friendships: a monkey and a pigeon, perhaps.

Admittedly, when I would spot us in a mirror, I saw how peculiar we were. This vivacious white-haired imp in her bright colors and chunk-style jewelry sitting with the dark-haired man in his drab earth-tone sweaters and Clark Kent glasses. Maybe I looked like some nerdy gigolo or this elegant woman’s attentive secretary. If we made no sense from the outside, it didn’t matter. We were mostly looking at each other.

One night, Austin chatted about her life as a middle-aged wife in academia. “I completely missed out on the wildness of the ’60s,” she said.

I told her I had missed out, too.

“You weren’t born yet,” she said. “Or hardly.”

Often we cooked together, as we had that first night, after which she would show me whatever painting she was working on. At her request, I also started reading to her from my book-in-progress. We gave each other feedback; our work improved.

When my six-month lease was up, I renewed it. The novel wasn’t finished. Plus, I couldn’t imagine a better neighbor.

Before I knew it, three years had passed. I was writing seven days a week and spending most evenings with Austin. Sometimes she had spells of vertigo now, and when we walked together she held my arm. Often she couldn’t find the right word for something. When she wanted to keep away visitors so she could paint, she hung a sign on her studio door: “Do not destroy.”

Soon the headaches came, and more jumbled language. “I need to screw my calls,” she said, meaning she needed to screen them.

We laughed, then sobered. Tests were scheduled.

Now she is eight months into what the doctors say is a quick-ravaging illness deep in her brain. They say there is no stopping it. A year more, if she’s lucky. Even as I refuse to believe this, I prepare for it.

How? By keeping my promise to her.

A few months before her diagnosis, Austin had attended a wedding. She showed me a copy of the vows, which had been distributed at the ceremony — a detailed list. I read it carefully, at Austin’s bidding. We were sitting in a car, waiting for our favorite Thai restaurant to open.

“I never had anything like that with the men in my life,” she said, pointing to the vows. “We loved each other, but we didn’t have that.” She was crying now, something she rarely did.

I took her hand and said, “Well, you have it with me. Everything but the sex.”

At which point, the monkey kissed the pigeon.

That night, I had an odd realization: Some of the greatest romances of my life have been friendships. And these friendships have been, in many ways, more mysterious than erotic love: more subtle, less selfish, more attuned to kindness.

Of course, Austin was going to die long before I did. That’s not what this is about. This, I have come to understand, is a love story.

Austin continued to paint for several months more, fractured, psychedelic self-portraits in scorching colors. Her best work. Lately, though, she is tired and hardly leaves the couch. I sit with her, at the opposite end, our legs intertwined.

“Read to me,” she says.

When I tell her the book is finished, she tells me to read her something new. But whenever I do, she promptly falls asleep.

I don’t leave, though. I stare out the window. Austin was right. This room does get the best light.

Recently her hair has thinned, but she has a shock of white up front that a friend’s daughter has dyed with a streak of fuchsia. She looks like some punk girl I might have dated in high school.

She had a bit more energy the last time I came to visit and said: “Oh, Victor, I had the most wonderful dessert yesterday. Peaches and Connecticut. Have you ever had it?”

“No,” I said, smiling.

I loved the idea of it. Two things that don’t seem to go together. Monkeys and pigeons. Peaches and Connecticut. Unlikely, yes — but delicious beyond measure.

Announcing our 4th Modern Love College Essay Contest. See nytimes.com/essaycontest for details.

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Want to hear a sick joke? A husband and wife walk into the emergency room in the late evening on Sept. 5, 2015. A few hours and tests later, the doctor clarifies that the unusual pain the wife is feeling on her right side isn’t the no-biggie appendicitis they suspected but rather ovarian cancer.

As the couple head home in the early morning of Sept. 6, somehow through the foggy shock of it all, they make the connection that today, the day they learned what had been festering, is also the day they would have officially kicked off their empty-nestering. The youngest of their three children had just left for college.

So many plans instantly went poof.

No trip with my husband and parents to South Africa. No reason, now, to apply for the Harvard Loeb Fellowship. No dream tour of Asia with my mother. No writers’ residencies at those wonderful schools in India, Vancouver, Jakarta.

No wonder the word cancer and cancel look so similar.

This is when we entered what I came to think of as Plan “Be,” existing only in the present. As for the future, allow me to introduce you to the gentleman of this article, Jason Brian Rosenthal.

He is an easy man to fall in love with. I did it in one day.

Let me explain: My father’s best friend since summer camp, “Uncle” John, had known Jason and me separately our whole lives, but Jason and I had never met. I went to college out east and took my first job in California. When I moved back home to Chicago, John — who thought Jason and I were perfect for each other — set us up on a blind date.

It was 1989. We were only 24. I had precisely zero expectations about this going anywhere. But when he knocked on the door of my little frame house, I thought, “Uh-oh, there is something highly likable about this person.”

By the end of dinner, I knew I wanted to marry him.

Jason? He knew a year later.

I have never been on Tinder, Bumble or eHarmony, but I’m going to create a general profile for Jason right here, based on my experience of coexisting in the same house with him for, like, 9,490 days.

First, the basics: He is 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, with salt-and-pepper hair and hazel eyes.

The following list of attributes is in no particular order because everything feels important to me in some way.

He is a sharp dresser. Our young adult sons, Justin and Miles, often borrow his clothes. Those who know him — or just happen to glance down at the gap between his dress slacks and dress shoes — know that he has a flair for fabulous socks. He is fit and enjoys keeping in shape.

If our home could speak, it would add that Jason is uncannily handy. On the subject of food — man, can he cook. After a long day, there is no sweeter joy than seeing him walk in the door, plop a grocery bag down on the counter, and woo me with olives and some yummy cheese he has procured before he gets to work on the evening’s meal.

Jason loves listening to live music; it’s our favorite thing to do together. I should also add that our 19-year-old daughter, Paris, would rather go to a concert with him than anyone else.

A Conversation Between Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Her Daughter

When I was working on my first memoir, I kept circling sections my editor wanted me to expand upon. She would say, “I’d like to see more of this character.”

Of course, I would agree — he was indeed a captivating character. But it was funny because she could have just said: “Jason. Let’s add more about Jason.”

He is an absolutely wonderful father. Ask anyone. See that guy on the corner? Go ahead and ask him; he’ll tell you. Jason is compassionate — and he can flip a pancake.

Jason paints. I love his artwork. I would call him an artist except for the law degree that keeps him at his downtown office most days from 9 to 5. Or at least it did before I got sick.

If you’re looking for a dreamy, let’s-go-for-it travel companion, Jason is your man. He also has an affinity for tiny things: taster spoons, little jars, a mini-sculpture of a couple sitting on a bench, which he presented to me as a reminder of how our family began.

Here is the kind of man Jason is: He showed up at our first pregnancy ultrasound with flowers. This is a man who, because he is always up early, surprises me every Sunday morning by making some kind of oddball smiley face out of items near the coffeepot: a spoon, a mug, a banana.

This is a man who emerges from the minimart or gas station and says, “Give me your palm.” And, voilà, a colorful gumball appears. (He knows I love all the flavors but white.)

My guess is you know enough about him now. So let’s swipe right.

Wait. Did I mention that he is incredibly handsome? I’m going to miss looking at that face of his.

If he sounds like a prince and our relationship seems like a fairy tale, it’s not too far off, except for all of the regular stuff that comes from two and a half decades of playing house together. And the part about me getting cancer. Blech.

In my most recent memoir (written entirely before my diagnosis), I invited readers to send in suggestions for matching tattoos, the idea being that author and reader would be bonded by ink.

I was totally serious about this and encouraged submitters to be serious as well. Hundreds poured in. A few weeks after publication in August, I heard from a 62-year-old librarian in Milwaukee named Paulette.

She suggested the word “more.” This was based on an essay in the book where I mention that “more” was my first spoken word (true). And now it may very well be my last (time shall tell).

In September, Paulette drove down to meet me at a Chicago tattoo parlor. She got hers (her very first) on her left wrist. I got mine on the underside of my left forearm, in my daughter’s handwriting. This was my second tattoo; the first is a small, lowercase “j” that has been on my ankle for 25 years. You can probably guess what it stands for. Jason has one too, but with more letters: “AKR.”

I want more time with Jason. I want more time with my children. I want more time sipping martinis at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Thursday nights. But that is not going to happen. I probably have only a few days left being a person on this planet. So why I am doing this?

I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.

I’ll leave this intentional empty space below as a way of giving you two the fresh start you deserve.

With all my love, Amy

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