I had lived in the neighborhood only a few weeks when I first began to notice him. My house was on a short street of just five houses and George lived at the far end. For exercise he would walk slowly to the end of the street, then back again, leaning heavily on a cane. One day while I was walking the dog I stopped to talk to him. He was short and stocky with tawny skin, wisps of thinning hair slicked down on his head. His speech was slurred and difficult to understand because he had a thick eastern European accent and, I soon learned, also had been affected by a stroke.
Over a few weeks, in the course of many conversations, he filled in the details of his life. When I met him, George was in his 70s, widowed, and a retired physics professor from Johns Hopkins University. He was born and raised in Hungary where his father had been a renowned psychoanalyst, a contemporary and a rival of Sigmund Freud. George still lived in the house where he and his wife had lived for many years, the house where they raised their daughters. The daughters had moved to distant cities and he still missed his wife. “My life is so lonely without her,” he once told me, his eyes filling with tears. She had cancer and died just a few years before, prior to his stroke.
Because he walked so slowly, if I saw him from my kitchen window, I knew how to time his walk so I could catch him on his way back. Often I would take out the dog or go to the mailbox, just to have a chance to talk to him. This pattern continued for a couple of years. We talked about the weather, the neighbors, our families, or his health. When the weather was bad or when he traveled, I sometimes went weeks without seeing him.
Two years after moving to the house, my husband left me. When I told George, he was shocked and said, “I can’t believe it. But why?”
“Another woman,” I replied.
“But how could he? How could he leave you? You’re the queen of the neighborhood.”
Salve for a broken heart. To know that this charming man thought I was worth having somehow helped to lessen the grief, the intense pain of the loss and betrayal.
When the divorce was final, my house had to be sold. George kept telling me how the neighborhood wasn’t going to be the same without me. The day before the movers were to arrive, George left a message on my answering machine, saying he needed to talk to me before I left. From the sound of his voice, I thought something was wrong so I quickly called him back. He said, “I want to see you. Can you come to my house this evening at 7 o’clock?”
We sat in his living room among the photos of his family. We chatted about my new place and how hard it was for me to leave the house I loved. All the while I was worried, wondering if there was something wrong with his health. Why did he need to talk to me? What was the urgency? I braced myself for bad news, but he said nothing. When it was time for me to go, he walked me to the door and hugged me. “I love you,” he said in that distinctive George voice that sounded like Henry Kissinger on sedatives.
“You’re so sweet, George,” I said, “I love you too.”
“No,” he said, “I mean it. I really love you.” I was already at the brink of intense emotion because of the move, but now this sweet old man was telling me he loved me. That was the urgent message he had for me, the thing he had to tell me before I moved away.
I searched for something to say to him but couldn’t find the words. Now, several years later, I realize how much courage it took for him to say it and I wonder what he was thinking. If only the right words had come to me at the time. If only I had found the perfect thing to say to him. I would have told him that he was such a dear man, sadly the wrong one at the wrong time, that he warmed my broken heart, that he made me feel worthy of being loved, and that I would treasure this moment.
But I just said, “Thank you, George. I’ll miss you.”
The next day I, the queen of the neighborhood, moved away. I never saw him again and recently heard that he died. Rest in peace, George. I love you too.
George was a simple man, yet exotic in his own special way. And he warmed my heart. Sort of what this couscous recipe does. This is another one of my own inventions that continues to evolve. I never make this the same way twice, but here’s a basic version.
1 can (32 oz) whole tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves chopped garlic
2 medium chopped onions
2 – 3 baking potatoes, washed, cut into 1/2-inch chunks with skin on
2 carrots cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1/2 bottle beer
1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Simmer uncovered in large pot until potatoes and carrots are tender, about 45 minutes.
4 chicken breasts—precooked and broken into large chunks
1 pound hot sausage (I use chicken or turkey andouille) cooked and cut into slices
1 can (16 oz) garbanzo beans
1/2 cup sliced calamata olives
Simmer 20-30 minutes.
Cook 1 package couscous and serve chicken mixture over couscous.