The Japanese Lover
When Irina Bazili began working at Lark House in 2010, she was twenty-three years old but already had few illusions about life. Since the age of fifteen she had drifted from one job, one town, to another. She could not have imagined she would find a perfect niche for herself in that senior residence, or that over the next three years she would come to be as happy as in her childhood, before fate took a hand. Founded in the mid-twentieth century to offer shelter with dignity to elderly persons of slender means, for some unknown reason from the beginning it had attracted left-wing intellectuals, oddballs, and second-rate artists. Lark House had undergone many changes over the years but still charged fees in line with each resident's income, the idea being to create a certain economic and racial diversity. In practice, all the residents were white and middle class, and the only diversity was between freethinkers, spiritual searchers, social and ecological activists, nihilists, and some of the few hippies still alive in the San Francisco Bay Area.
At Irina's first interview, the director of the community, Hans Voigt, pointed out that she was too young for a job with such responsibility, but since they had a vacancy they needed to fill urgently, she could stay until they found someone more suitable. Irina thought the same could be said of him: he looked like a chubby little boy going prematurely bald, someone who was out of his depth running an establishment of this sort. As time went by, she realized that the initial impression of Voigt could be deceiving, at a certain distance and in poor light: in fact, he was fifty-four years old and had proved himself to be an excellent administrator. Irina assured him that her lack of qualifications was more than compensated for by the experience she had of dealing with old people in her native Moldova.
Her shy smile softened the director's heart. He forgot to ask her for a reference and instead began outlining her duties, which could be quickly summarized: to make life easier for the second- and third-level residents. Irina would not be working with anyone on the first level, because they lived independently as tenants in an apartment building. Nor would she be working with those on level four—the aptly named Paradise—because they were awaiting their transfer to heaven and spent most of the time dozing, and thus did not require the kind of assistance she was there to provide. Irina's duties were to accompany the residents on their visits to doctors, lawyers, and accountants; to help them with their medical and tax forms; to take them on shopping expeditions; and to perform various other tasks. Her only link with the clients in Paradise, Voigt told her, would be to plan their funerals, but for that she would receive specific instructions, because the wishes of the dying did not always coincide with those of their families. Lark House residents tended to have myriad religious beliefs, which made their funerals rather complicated ecumenical affairs.
Voigt explained that only the domestic staff, the care and health assistants, were obliged to wear a uniform. There was however a tacit dress code for the rest of the employees; respect and good taste were the order of the day when it came to clothes. For example, he said emphatically, the T-shirt printed with Malcolm X's face that Irina was wearing was definitely inappropriate. In fact it wasn't Malcolm X but Che Guevara, but Irina didn't tell him this because she assumed that Hans Voigt would never have heard of the guerrilla leader who fifty years after his heroic exploits was still worshipped in Cuba and by a handful of radical followers in Berkeley, where she was living. The T-shirt had cost two dollars in a used clothing store, and was almost new.
"No smoking on the premises," the director warned her.
"I don't smoke or drink, sir."
"Is your health good? That's important when you're dealing with old people."
"Anything special I ought to know about you?"
"Well, I'm addicted to fantasy videos and novels. You know, like Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman."
"What you do in your free time is your business, young lady, just as long as you stay focused at work."
"Of course. Listen, sir, if you give me a chance you'll see I know how to get along with elderly people. You won't regret it," the young woman said with feigned self-assurance.
Once the formal interview in his office was concluded, Voigt showed her around the premises, which housed some two hundred and fifty people, with an average age of eighty-five. Lark House had once been the magnificent property of a chocolate magnate, who not only bequeathed it to the city but left a generous donation to finance its upkeep. It consisted of the main house, a pretentious mansion where the offices, communal areas, library, dining room, and workshops were situated, and a row of pleasant redwood tile buildings that fitted in well with the ten acres of grounds, which looked wild but were in fact carefully tended by a host of gardeners. The independent apartments and the buildings housing the second- and third-level residents were linked by wide, enclosed walkways, which allowed wheelchairs to circulate sheltered from the extremes of climate, but were glassed in on both sides to provide a view of nature, the best solace for the troubles of all ages. Paradise, a detached concrete building, would have looked out of place were it not for the fact it was completely overgrown with ivy. The library and games room were open day and night, the beauty salon kept flexible hours, and the workshops provided a variety of classes from painting to astrology for those who still longed for pleasant surprises in their future. The Shop of Forgotten Objects, staffed by volunteer ladies, offered for sale clothing, furniture, jewelry, and other treasures cast off by the residents, or left behind by the deceased.
"We have an excellent cinema club and show films three times a week in the library," Voigt told her.
"What kind of films?" asked Irina, hoping they might contain vampires or science fiction.
"A committee chooses them, and they prefer crime movies, especially Tarantino. There's a certain fascination with violence in here, but don't worry, they're well aware it's fiction and that the actors will reappear safe and sound in other films. Let's call it a safety valve. Several of our guests fantasize about killing somebody, usually a family member."
"Me too," said Irina without hesitation.
Thinking she must be joking, Voigt laughed indulgently. He appreciated a sense of humor almost as much as he did patience among his staff.
Squirrels and an unusually large number of deer roamed freely among the ancient trees of the grounds, Voigt explained, adding that the does gave birth to and raised their young until they could fend for themselves. The grounds also served as a bird sanctuary, above all for skylarks, whose presence there had given the facility its name: Lark House. There were several cameras strategically placed to monitor the animals in their habitat and also any residents who might wander off or suffer an accident, but Lark House had no strict security measures. By day the main gates remained open, with only a couple of unarmed guards patrolling the grounds. These two retired policemen, aged seventy and seventy-four, offered more than adequate protection, since no thief in his right mind would waste time on penniless old folks.
Voigt and Irina passed a pair of women in wheelchairs, a group carrying easels and paint boxes to an open-air art class, and several residents out exercising dogs as careworn as them. The property adjoined the bay, and when the tide came in it was possible to go kayaking, which some of the residents not yet disabled by their infirmities were happy to do. This is how I would like to live, thought Irina, taking deep breaths of the sweet aroma of pines and laurels. She couldn't help comparing these pleasant surroundings to the sordid dives she had drifted through since the age of fifteen.
"Last but not least, Miss Bazili, I should mention the two ghosts, because I'm sure that will be the first thing our Haitian staff will tell you about."
"I don't believe in ghosts, Mr. Voigt."
"Congratulations. Neither do I. The ones in Lark House are a young woman wearing a pink gauze dress, and a three-year-old child. The woman is Emily, the chocolate magnate's daughter. Poor Emily died of grief after her son drowned in the pool at the end of the 1940s. It was then that the magnate abandoned the house and created the Lark House Foundation."
"Did the boy drown in the pool you showed me?"
"Yes, but no one else has died there that I know of."
Irina soon changed her mind about ghosts, realizing that Emily and her son weren't the only resident spirits. She was to discover that many of the old folk were permanently accompanied by their dead.
Early the next morning, Irina arrived at work in her best pair of jeans and a discreet T-shirt. She quickly confirmed that the atmosphere at Lark House was relaxed without being negligent. It was more like a college than an old people's home. The food was as good as that of any reasonable Californian restaurant, and organic as far as possible. The cleaning staff did a thorough job, and the health aides and nurses were as cheerful as could be expected under the circumstances. It took her only a few days to learn the names and quirks of her colleagues and the residents in her care. The handful of Spanish and French phrases she memorized helped win over the staff, who came almost exclusively from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti. Although what they earned did not correspond to the hard work they put in, very few of them went around with long faces.
"You have to spoil the grannies a bit, but always treat them with respect. The same goes for the grandpas, but you need to watch out for them, because some of them get up to mischief," she was told by Lupita Farias, a stocky woman with the features of an Olmec statue who was head of the cleaning staff. Having worked at Lark House for thirty-two years and having access to every room, Lupita knew all the inhabitants intimately. She had learned about their lives, could see at a glance what was wrong with them, and accompanied them in their sorrows.
"Watch out for depression, Irina. That's very common here. If you notice that somebody seems isolated or very sad, if they stay in bed or stop eating, come and find me right away, okay?"
"What do you do in those cases, Lupita?"
"It depends. I stroke them, and they always like that, because old people don't have anyone who touches them, and I get them hooked on a TV series, because nobody wants to die before the final episode. Some of them find comfort in prayer, but there are lots of atheists here, and they don't pray. What's most important is not to leave them on their own. If I'm not around, go and see Cathy. She knows what to do."
Dr. Catherine Hope, a second-level resident, had been the first person to welcome Irina on behalf of the community. At sixty-eight, she was the youngest resident. Ever since being confined to a wheelchair she had opted for the help and company that Lark House offered. She had been living there a couple of years and during that time had become the life and soul of the place.
"The elderly are the most entertaining people in the world," she eventually told Irina. "They have lived a lot, say whatever they like, and couldn't care less about other people's opinion. You'll never get bored here. Our residents are well educated, and if they're in good health they keep on learning and experimenting. This community stimulates them and they can avoid the worst scourge of old age: loneliness."
Irina knew from newspaper reports about the progressive spirit of the Lark House residents. There was a waiting list of several years for admission, which would have been much longer if many of the candidates had not passed away before it was their turn. The old folks in the home were conclusive proof that age, despite all its limitations, does not stop one from having fun and taking part in the hubbub of life. Several of the residents who were active members of Seniors for Peace spent their Friday mornings in street protests at the aberrations and injustices in the world, especially those committed by the American empire, for which they felt responsible. These activists, among whom was an old lady aged a hundred and one, met up in the northern corner of the square opposite the police station with their canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. They held up banners against war or global warming, while the public showed their support by honking their car horns or signing petitions that these furious elders stuck under their noses. The protesters had appeared on television on more than one occasion, while the police were made to look ridiculous as they tried to disperse them with threats of tear gas that never materialized. Clearly moved, Voigt had shown Irina a plaque in the park in honor of a ninety-six-year-old musician, who had died of a seizure with his boots on in broad daylight during a 2006 protest against the war in Iraq.
Irina had grown up in a Moldovan village that was inhabited only by old people and children. She thought of her own grandparents and, as so often in recent years, regretted having abandoned them. Lark House gave her the opportunity to give to others what she hadn't been able to give them, and she kept this in mind as she began looking after those in her care. She soon won the residents over, including several on the first level, the independent ones.
From the start, Alma Belasco had caught her attention. She stood out from the other women thanks not only to her aristocratic bearing but to the magnetic force field that seemed to separate her from the rest of humanity. Lupita insisted that the Belasco woman did not fit in at Lark House and would not last long: any day now the same chauffeur who had brought her in a Mercedes-Benz would come and take her away again. And yet the months went by and this didn't happen. Irina did no more than observe Alma Belasco from a distance, because Hans Voigt had instructed her to focus on people from the second and third levels, and not to get distracted by the independents. Besides, Irina had more than enough to do in looking after her own clients—they were not to be called patients—and learning the ins and outs of her new job. As part of her training, she had to study the videos of recent funerals: a Buddhist Jewish woman and a repentant agnostic. For her part, Alma Belasco would not have paid any attention to Irina if circumstances had not briefly turned the young woman into the most noteworthy member of the community.