Hot Flash Holidays (17 page)

“I do, too,” Marilyn agreed.

Alice looked satisfied. “Good. We’ll add it to the business plan. It’s a surprisingly small sum, and I think it will pay off in employee satisfaction.”

Shirley scoffed. “What you mean is, you’re a big ol’ softie, and you like the idea of making life better for workingwomen.”

Alice smiled. “If you want to put it that way. But the directors will like it better it we phrase it in more businesslike terms.”

“I’m going to miss working with you, Faye,” Polly said.

Faye squeezed her hand. “I’ll miss working with you.”

“What are you going to do?” Shirley asked. “Want to teach art at The Haven?”

Faye shook her head. “I don’t think so. Maybe in the winter. I’m in a kind of restless mood these days.”

“How are things with Aubrey?” Marilyn asked.

Faye played with her fork. “Oh, I’m still seeing Aubrey. We have a date every weekend, and we have a great time. Symphony. Ballet. Theater.”

“But Carolyn keeps her father on a pretty tight leash,” Polly added. “I thought she’d realize, when Faye and I spent every day all summer sewing together, that we’re good friends. I’ve hinted in every way possible that I really like Hugh and have no interest in Aubrey. I’ve invited Carolyn and Hank to dinner several times, at my house, with me and Hugh, just the four of us, and I do everything but sit on Hugh’s lap to make it clear that we’re a couple. But Carolyn keeps inviting me to her house for dinner, and
not
inviting Hugh, and inviting Aubrey, but not Faye. I’ve started turning her down. I don’t know what else to do!”

“She’s a very stubborn young woman,” Faye pointed out.

“Well, I’m a very stubborn
older
woman!” Polly retorted.

Shirley asked, “Faye, have you invited Carolyn to your home?”

Faye shook her head. “Carolyn’s so standoffish with me. I know she dislikes me, or at least wants her father to be with Polly instead of me. I guess I’m just being cowardly—but no,” she changed her mind midsentence— “I’m not cowardly. I just don’t have the energy to deal with her.”

“Have you considered taking antidepressants?” Alice had been wanting to ask this question for some time now.

Faye closed her eyes. “I have. But I’m already taking so many pills.” Seeing all the concerned faces, she said, “Don’t look so glum! I’m not suicidal! I’m just— restless.”

“Or
resting,
” Shirley suggested. “It’s only been three years since your husband died. Plus, you’re grieving over the loss of your daughter and granddaughter. Even though they’re alive and well, they’re on the other side of the continent, and really not part of your life. You know how sometimes you get a cold because your body wants to make you stop racing around and spend a few days in bed? Maybe this is the mental equivalent.”

“Maybe,” Faye agreed. “I do feel kind of empty. Like a well, drained.”

“Maybe
you
need to take art therapy,” Marilyn suggested.

“Shirley’s got a point,” Alice weighed in. “You used to paint. I’ve seen your paintings in your house. They’re amazing. I’d love to buy one of your still lifes.”

“I stopped painting after Jack died.” Faye’s face fell. “I
tried
to paint, but everything just was stale,
blah.
I think I’ve lost it, you know? Whatever my gift or talent was, it’s dried up and vanished with my hormones.”

“Are you sure?” Marilyn pressed. “You won’t know until you try.”

Faye fiddled with a button on her jacket. “I’ll think about it.” Wanting to change the subject, she turned to Alice. “How’s Jennifer?”

“She’s getting big.” Alice beamed. “She’s been wonderful to me since the heart attack. She’s made so many casseroles, I never have to cook. The food’s healthy, too. She’s got a little problem with edema, so we’re both on low-salt diets. I call her every day to remind her to lie down, put her feet up, and rest.”

Shirley reached across the table to take Alice’s hand. “Did I ever tell you how much I admire you for the way you’ve handled Alan’s marriage?”

“Thanks, Shirl’. I guess I’m so used to giving commands and manipulating things to fit some work directive, I had to learn how to relax and accept what life throws my way. And thank heavens I met all of you. I couldn’t have done it without you.” Worry flittered across her face. “The damned thing is, now that I’ve let myself be open to Jennifer, I really like her. More than that, I
care
for her. When Steven’s wife had their kids, they were living in another state, and I was glad to be a grandmother, but they were distant, I was busy with work, and I didn’t get as involved. Now that I see Jennifer several times a week, I’m actually getting excited about this coming baby, and nervous as hell every time she tells me her feet are swelling.”

Polly nodded. “I often thought that expression, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry,’ really should be, ‘Love means never feeling safe.’ ”

“No, no!” Shirley objected. “Remember, we’re not going to let fear rule our lives!” She turned to Alice. “I have a number of herbal remedies for edema. Ginger’s really good and can be used in all kinds of recipes. I’ll make up a list you can give her.”

Marilyn looked at her watch. “It’s late. I should get home to Ruth.”

“Give her a kiss for me,” Faye told her. “And make your reservations for Scotland. I’m looking forward to spending time with her again.”

“Me, too,” Polly said.

“But don’t leave until after next Tuesday,” Shirley reminded Marilyn. “We’ve got The Haven’s board of directors’ meeting.”

“Right.” Marilyn beamed euphorically. “I’ll make my reservations for Wednesday morning! I can’t wait to see that man again!”

HALLOWEEN

20

“THAT WAS A LOVELY EXCURSION!” RUTH LEANED heavily on her cane as she and Faye came in from the cold.

“Glad you enjoyed it. Let me take your coat, Ruth, and then I’ll light the fire.”

“Thank you, dear.” As Faye hung their coats in the closet, Ruth slowly toddled into the living room. “I just love this house. It’s like a little bit of heaven.”

Faye smiled. “I’m not sure I’d go that far.”

But Ruth’s praise made her see the room with fresh eyes, appreciating the opulent colors, rich fabrics, and harmonious arrangement of furniture. As Faye moved around her home, lighting the fire, turning on the lamps, setting the kettle to boil, she realized she was more content than she had been for a while, perhaps for months. It was pleasant, having Ruth around. It was not simply that Faye was less lonely; it was more as if her pleasures were doubled, because she saw how Ruth enjoyed the simplest events and objects of everyday life.

Faye stuck her head into the living room. “Ruth, what kind of tea would you like? Earl Grey or apple cinnamon?”

“Apple cinnamon, please, dear.” Ruth’s voice was muffled. She had established herself at the far end of the sofa, slipped off her shoes, and pointed her gnarled feet out toward the fire. Her head was bent almost inside her knitting bag as she burrowed around, retrieving her needles and yarn.

Faye hummed as she prepared the tea tray. She loved it when Ruth called her “dear” or “sweetie.” It made her feel young again, and very little could do that these days. She was reminded of her grandmothers, especially her mother’s mother, who had smelled like lilacs and willed Faye some beautiful brooches and elegant gloves. By herself, Faye drank from a mug, but Ruth was a guest, so Faye brought out her grandmother’s Limoges teapot and cups, and Ruth was thrilled with the thin china and its translucence. Setting the quilted tea cozy, patterned like a plump cat, over the steaming teapot made having tea more of an
event.
It made her stop rushing through her day and relax. She experienced it all more fully: The spicy aroma of the tea. The dollhouse charm of the silver spoons, tea strainer, sugar tongs, cups and saucers. The clarity of the peaceful moment.

“Well, isn’t this just beautiful!” Ruth exclaimed as Faye set the tea tray on the low coffee table. “It’s like being in one of Sargent’s still lifes! Look at the way the firelight gleams on the silver.”

Faye served the tea the way Ruth preferred it, with one lump of sugar, and handed it to her, then settled back in her armchair to toast her own feet at the fire. “Would you like me to put on some music?” This was Ruth’s second night at Faye’s. Ruth had been thrilled to see Faye’s CD collection of classical symphonies, and yesterday evening they’d listened to Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.

“Not just yet, dear,” Ruth said. “I’m rather enjoying hearing the wind howl. It makes me feel so smug, sitting here, warm by the fire. Besides, don’t we need to go over the final arrangements for the party?”

“Oh, right.” Faye pulled a pad and pen from her purse, tucked her fire-warmed feet up under her, and flipped the pad open.

At Ruth’s instigation, Faye had decided to give a “Come as Your Favorite Person in History” dinner party on Halloween weekend. She’d drawn clever invitations and mailed them out, planned the menu—chili, jalapeño cornbread muffins, a green salad, and a Hot Flash cake—and was in the process of making decorations. Construction paper, scissors, and glue were spilled across the dining room table in various states of transformation into moons, black cats, witches, and ghosts.

Faye read over the list. “I’ve got everything for the dinner except the salad bits. I’ll get those on Friday. Oh, and we have to decide on costumes for ourselves. Who are you going as, Ruth?”

“Madame Curie,” Ruth announced decisively. “Not only did she discover radium, she worked with her husband, had two children, and won
two
Nobel Prizes. Oh, yes, and after she was widowed, she was involved in a scandalous love affair.” Ruth smiled. “A real rain essence woman. Who will you be, Faye?”

Faye rearranged her legs beneath her. “I haven’t decided.”

“Why don’t you come as one of the early women painters?” Ruth inquired. “Mary Cassatt? Rosa Bonheur?”

Faye looked deep into her teacup. “I don’t paint anymore, Ruth.”

“Yes, you’ve said.” Ruth contemplated the large, gilt-framed, luminous still life above the fireplace, a bouquet of summer flowers. “You create such beauty, Faye. You have such talent. What a pity you’ve given up!”

Faye bit back a flash of anger. “It’s not that I’ve ‘given up.’ It’s more that
it
gave
me
up after my husband died.” Tears burned her eyes. “I did try. But nothing I did looked right. Everything was just bland. Lackluster.”

“I understand.”

The quaver in Ruth’s voice made Faye look at her. “Are you all right, Ruth?”

“Oh, yes, dear, I’m fine.” With a trembling hand, Ruth set her cup on her saucer. “It’s just that I was trying to build up the courage to ask you a favor, but now . . .”

“What is it, Ruth?” Faye leaned forward, concerned.

“Oh, it’s just silly.” Ruth paid great attention to her knitting needles, her knobby fingers tangling the yarn.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Faye said sensibly. “Tell me, and I’ll decide.”

Ruth peered shyly at Faye. “I was hoping you might paint my portrait.”

“Oh.” This was the last thing Faye could have imagined Ruth would ask.

Ruth blushed with embarrassment, her twisted hands fluttering in the air, as if she were trying to shoo her request away. “I know, it’s ridiculous of me even to think of such a thing. I mean, no one paints portraits of old biddies like me. Well, unless they’re someone
important,
like Queen Elizabeth or Elizabeth Trailer.”

“It’s not that—” Faye protested.

“It’s just that all my life I’ve longed to have my portrait painted. Conceited of me, I know. I’m certainly not beautiful. I never was beautiful. But now that I have a great-granddaughter, I’d like to leave her something to remember me by, and a portrait gives a person so much more dignity than a photograph, don’t you think? I mean, I’m not
someone
to the world, but I could be
someone
to my great-granddaughter. I’d like to give her—what do I mean? An illusion? Something to dream by.” Ruth smoothed the loose flesh of her liver-spotted, bony hand. “Silly old woman,” she muttered to herself.

Pity pierced Faye’s heart. It felt much like a cupid’s arrow, stinging as it filled her, like an enormous invisible IV, with a kind of hopeless love and longing. Faye knew exactly what Ruth meant, because Faye thought the same kind of thing about her granddaughter Megan. She wanted to provide a kind of
message
to this child of her blood and love and history. Perhaps it was a desire bred in one’s DNA, as tightly knit as the yarn in Ruth’s endless scarf.

Faye swallowed a sip of tea, washing down the lump in her throat. “Well, Ruth, if you didn’t mind that it’s not a
good
portrait—”

Ruth looked up, her face childish with joy. “You’ll do it?”

“Of course I will.”

Faye didn’t have a studio in her new home. When she’d bought the house, she was sure she’d never paint again. So the morning after Ruth’s request, Faye walked through all the rooms with a judgmental eye, looking for the best natural light. Megan’s bedroom won hands down, having the most windows and a northern exposure. With a mixture of sadness and satisfaction, Faye set about tacking plain white sheets up over the childish murals she’d painted. She rolled up the flowered rug and shoved it under the bed. She moved all the furniture into one corner, opening up a space large enough for her easel and the chair where Ruth would pose.

She wrestled the armchair in from her bedroom and placed it in the light, then asked Ruth to try it out for comfort.

“It’s comfortable enough,” the older woman said. “But I don’t feel right, with my hands empty.”

“Let’s get your knitting!” Faye turned to go out the door.

“No,” Ruth said firmly. “Knitting isn’t right. And I don’t want to be just sitting here, like a lump on a frog.”

Faye blinked. “Well, then—I’ve got it!” Suddenly she was excited, as ideas swarmed into her mind. “We’ll create a kind of scientific tableau. I’ll have to borrow someone’s microscope, and—and—”

Ruth understood at once. “Faye, that’s a brilliant idea! We’ll search Marilyn’s storage locker. She’s got her old microscope there, and all kinds of equipment. I think she’s saved some of her early nature corrections, too.”

The next day, Ruth accompanied Faye as she rushed around, lugging paraphernalia from Marilyn’s locker, carrying a kitchen stool up to the bedroom, balancing a small end table on two encyclopedias to make it the right height. Finally she had the scene set: Ruth, wearing a shirt and glasses, bent over what could pass as a lab table, a microscope at her right hand, a pen, pad, ruler, scale, beakers, and collection jars at her left. Just behind her, on another table, lay several birds’ nests, a mineral hammer, a specimen box, a pile of books, and a pair of binoculars. Before she began, Faye took a few Polaroid shots to show Ruth, who was delighted with the tableau.

“This is the real me!” she said. “Thank you, Faye.”

Ruth was supposed to move to Polly’s for the last five days of Marilyn’s trip, but Faye asked Polly if she would mind if Ruth stayed at her house, because of the portrait, and Polly gladly agreed. She had her hands full, running Havenly Yours. Still, Polly insisted on providing dinner. Sometimes she arrived with carry-out food; sometimes she brought groceries and cooked in Faye’s kitchen.

In the autumn evenings, the three women sat together, lingering over pork roast stuffed with apples and onions, or scallop bisque and pumpkin bread, indulging in a glass or two of wine, enjoying the light of the candles Polly set on the mantel and the table. Storms shook the windows as the play of shadows cast a dreamy mood. Polly and Faye asked Ruth about her life, and Ruth regaled them with bits of history, the years vanishing from her face as she talked.

“Oh, yes, I had fun as a young woman. I got to wear tipsy hats covered with glitter and beads to nightclubs. Black wool suits with huge splatters of rhinestones on the lapels. Bright red lipstick. Shoulder pads. I danced at The Stardust and The Blue Moon, and—don’t tell Marilyn this, she might be upset—I promised five different men I’d marry them.”

Polly and Faye were shocked.

“Well, dears, it was because of the war, don’t you know. Those brave young men, going across the ocean to a foreign land to fight, not knowing whether they’d come back. I wanted to give them hope. I wrote them long letters and sent them parcels of food I’d cooked myself and gloves and socks I’d knit myself.”

“Did you ever—” Polly hesitated, wondering how to ask this politely. “Were they ever, any of them, um— your lover?”

Ruth looked puzzled. “No, dear. I didn’t have a brother. I did have a sister.” Her face brightened. “Anyway, toward the end of the war, I met Marilyn’s father. I knew at once he was the man for me. We married six weeks after we met.”

Later, after Ruth had toddled off to bed, Faye whispered, “Perhaps Ruth needs a hearing aid.”

“Perhaps,” Polly agreed. “Or perhaps,” she grinned, “she just didn’t want to answer our question.”

21

WEDNESDAY EVENING, ALICE LIFTED A GOLD CIRCLET from its box.

She was dressing to go to the new, noncompetitive, pleasantly low-key bridge group she and Gideon had joined. Last week, for her birthday, her daughter-in-law Jennifer had surprised her with a dinner party and a gift Alice would never have expected: an ankle bracelet.

“I’m too old to wear an ankle bracelet!” Alice had protested, but secretly, she was pleased. She’d never worn an ankle bracelet before.

Now she bent to fasten it around her ankle. Its delicate links and tiny dangles gleamed playfully. She couldn’t help smiling. No one could see it beneath her long trousers, but
she
knew it was there.

During the evening, she remembered it and felt oddly pleased. Her poor old aching feet might be bumpy with bunions and misshapen from years of wearing pointed high heels, they might be tucked away in comfortable, sensible sneakers, but her ankles were still trim and attractive. In fact, her legs were still good. She wanted to go shopping. She would buy some skirts and show off her legs! Distracted by such thoughts, Alice played bridge so badly she and Gideon lost most of the rubbers, but she didn’t really mind.

Although Gideon kept his apartment, he spent most nights at Alice’s, and when they returned from bridge they got ready for bed, even though it was not quite ten o’clock. Usually she enjoyed this comfortable routine, but now as she pulled on her warm flannel pajamas, the ankle bracelet sparkled at her. She felt oddly—
playful.

Gideon was already in bed with a book, his pillows stuffed up behind him. Alice’s book and glasses lay waiting on her bedside table. Alice lifted the covers and slipped in next to him.

“What do you think about Faye’s Halloween party?” she asked.

“Sounds like fun,” Gideon responded absentmindedly.

“I mean, who do you think you’ll go as?”

Gideon lay his book on his lap. “I’m not sure. My favorite person in history? I don’t know. I admire so many men. Frederick Douglass, I guess.”

A hot flash hit Alice. Kicking off the covers, she pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around her knees. The bracelet glinted around her ankle—a little beacon.

“You know who I’d really like to pretend to be?” Alice was surprised at how difficult it was to confess this to the man with whom she shared so many intimacies. “Cleopatra.”

Gideon peered over the top of his glasses. “Cleopatra!”

“She’s not the woman I admire most, but she would be so much
fun
to impersonate. I always thought she was so glamorous and mysterious. Not to mention brilliant and cunning. She ruled Egypt. She seduced Antony with her beauty.” Suddenly Alice was completely mortified— to think she could masquerade as Cleopatra! “I’ve got to get some water.”

In the bathroom she filled a glass, then held it to her neck, cooling off.
Alice, you really are an idiot,
she scolded herself.

She couldn’t even look at Gideon when she got back into bed. “Anyway,” she began briskly, “I suppose—”

“You know, I’d love to go as Marc Antony,” Gideon announced, to her complete surprise.

“You’re kidding!”

“No, I’m not. As a kid, I used to fantasize about being a gladiator. I wouldn’t want to be Caesar—he got assassinated. But I could really enjoy being Antony, especially if you were Cleopatra.”

“Oh, Gideon!” Alice giggled. “This could be fun!”

Over the next week, they indulged in a kind of Egyptian-history orgy. On the DVD player, they watched the movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Inspired, intrigued, they spent a day at the Egyptian rooms at the Museum of Fine Arts. Getting into the spirit of things, they ate in several Middle Eastern restaurants. They visited costume shops, trying on different possibilities, unable to suppress their pleasure as the age-old, childish game of dress-up made them envision themselves anew. They brought home books and videos about Egyptian tombs and treasures. They discussed the possibility of traveling to Egypt to view the pyramids.

Because Gideon had been a schoolteacher before he retired, he suggested they read Shakespeare’s
Antony and
Cleopatra
aloud in the evenings. At first Alice felt awkward, even silly, but soon the power of the story, told in Shakespeare’s intense, opulent language, drew her in. When they read of the extravagant barge with purple sails and silver oars bearing Cleopatra to Antony, Alice was captivated. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to be carried away when Gideon, in his deep, sonorous voice, read the famous lines: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety; other women cloy The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry Where most she satisfies.”

The night of Faye’s Halloween party, Alice stood in front of her bedroom mirror, scowling. She’d insisted on sharing a bottle of wine with Gideon as they dressed. It was one thing to try on costumes in privacy, quite another to appear in front of other people, especially her friends, masquerading as one of history’s most glamorous women. And at her age!

“Ready?” Gideon stepped out of the bathroom, adjusting his armor.

Alice wore a gold lamé tunic, cut low. A heavy half-circle collar of faux gold and turquoise gleamed against her chest. On her head was a wig of hundreds of beaded tight black braids that made tantalizing clicks as she moved. Set in the wig was a gold crown centered with an asp. Snake bracelets wound up her bare arms. On her feet she wore jeweled sandals, and just above, her ankle bracelet. She’d painted her toenails gold.

Gideon wore a white tunic that ended just above his knee. Leather straps of Roman sandals wrapped all the way up his calves, exposing his sturdy, masculine legs. Over his chest he wore a light, metallic shield. A red cape hung from his shoulders. A gold laurel wreath circled his head.

“Alice, I swear, you make a dynamite Cleopatra.”

“Thanks. You’re a pretty snazzy Antony.”

“I like your wig and the headpiece.” As Gideon spoke, he brushed his fingers against her neck. The beaded braids whispered. “And the eye makeup, well, it suits you, Alice.”

She’d borrowed a book from the library and copied the long, slanted black lines that exaggerated the size and shape of her eyes. “Thanks, Gideon.” She leaned against him, studying their reflections in the mirror. “But you know, I’ve learned something. I’m glad I live now, even as a humble wage-earner, rather than back then, even as queen.”

Gideon grinned. “Because we’ve got movies, air-conditioning, and chocolate?”

“Well, yes, but also because we’ve got deodorant, soap, and antibiotics. Did you know, Gideon, in centuries past, people used to have wigs for their pubic hair? Called merkins. Because people had to shave off their hair because of lice, or lost it because of syphilis.”

Gideon shuddered. “You know the strangest things.”

“Marilyn told me.” Alice accepted his embrace, her hair clicking, her tunic whispering as she moved. Wrapping her arms around him, she leaned her head against his chest. “And remember, Cleopatra lived only thirty-nine years.” She hugged her sturdy, stocky friend and lover. “Plus, she never knew
you.

Gideon tightened his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “Alice. What a very nice thing to say!”

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