Hot Flash Holidays (18 page)

22

“THIS WAS A BRILLIANT IDEA!” QUEEN GUINEVERE told Zelda Fitzgerald as they stood side by side in Faye’s living room, holding cups of mulled apple cider spiced with cinnamon and cloves and just a soupçon of rum.

“Thanks.” Faye surveyed her party with pleasure. “Too bad Marilyn’s not here.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Polly said. “I’m pretty sure Marilyn is quite happy to be in Scotland with Ian.”

Lucille Ball swept up to them, a cup of alcohol-free cider in her hand. “Faye, this is so much fun! And thanks for inviting the board members of The Haven.”

“I’m delighted to do it,” Faye told Shirley. “I’d like to get to know some of them better. Like old Nora Salter. She’s so cool, coming as Agatha Christie.”

Polly leaned in to say,
sotto voce,
“Look at her over there on the sofa, head to head with Madame Curie. I’d love to know what they’re talking about.”

Faye grinned. “It’s a good bet they’re not discussing their bunions.”

“I had a hard time deciding who I wanted to be,” Shirley confessed. “If you want to know the pathetic truth, I wanted to come as Cinderella. I’ve always wanted to be Cinderella . . . in her ball gown,
not
in her apron days! But since I’m Prince Charming–less, I settled on Lucille Ball.”

“You won’t be Prince Charming–less long,” Faye predicted.

“I’m not so sure about that,” Shirley told her, adding, “Now that I’m single, I can really empathize with you, Faye. You were so brave, dating all those men we forced you to go out with last year. We
thought
we were doing the right thing.”

“You probably
were
doing the right thing,” Faye admitted. “I needed to have a few starter boyfriends. It helped me realize a bad date wasn’t the end of the world, and it certainly made me appreciate Aubrey!”

“I see that his daughter and her husband are here.” Shirley turned slightly, and kept her voice low. “That’s good, right?”

“Oh, absolutely. She’s
got
to see how much of a
couple
Polly and Hugh are—”

“Queen Guinevere and King Arthur!” Polly, who had overheard them, made a little curtsy. “And you and Aubrey are F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. So different!”

“The Fitzgeralds were Aubrey’s idea,” Faye informed them. “He wanted to get his father’s old tux out of the closet. And Polly helped me pull together this flapper costume. I must say I love the way it skims my waist, and shows off my legs. And all the long ropes of pearls camouflage my stomach.”

“You look smashing,” Polly told her.

“Well, I probably look more like Eleanor Roosevelt than Zelda Fitzgerald, but it’s still fun to dress up.”

Shirley adjusted a button earring pinching her ear. “I think you both have your hands full, trying to have your way against Carolyn’s wishes.”

The three women nodded ruefully. Carolyn had come as Superwoman, her husband as Superman.

“What are you three gossiping about?” Cleopatra swept up to them.

“Geez Louise!” Shirley exclaimed. “You look like a million dollars, Alice.”

“It’s true,” Faye agreed. “You make a gorgeous Cleopatra.”

“Yeah, and you’re absolutely radiant!” Polly gushed.

Jennifer and Alan approached. Because Jennifer wasn’t feeling terribly energetic these days, they hadn’t given much thought to their Halloween personae but simply cut holes in white sheets, made halos of aluminum foil, and came as angels. Now Alan had a supporting arm around Jennifer’s waist.

“This is a great party, but we’re going to leave,” Alan said.

Alice’s eyes flew to Jennifer. “Are you all right?”

Jennifer looked embarrassed. “Oh, I’m fine, really. I just have a bit of a headache.” Turning to Faye, she said, “Your party is wonderful, Faye. So clever. And the food’s delicious.”

“Thanks.” Faye looked concerned. “I hope you’re not coming down with a flu.”

Alice put a gentle hand on Jennifer’s forehead. “You don’t feel like you have a temperature.”

Jennifer’s halo slipped down over one ear. “Oh, I’m fine, I’m sure. It’s just this headache, and I’m having a little problem with swollen ankles.”

“Have you mentioned this to your doctor?” Alice asked.

“Oh, sure. It’s all right. I’ll be better when I lie down.” Jennifer waved her hand dismissively.

“Elevate your feet,” Faye and Polly simultaneously advised.

“And Alan,” Alice said to her son, “you wait on her hand and foot, okay?”

Alan made a comic bow. “Absolutely.”

All four women walked Alan and Jennifer to the door. They stood on the porch, waving good-bye, so they were all together when an old truck pulled up and Polly’s son David and his wife Amy stepped out.

“Amy! David!” Polly was over the moon. She didn’t think they’d actually deign to come. “How wonderful to see you both!” She introduced her friends to her son and his wife.

Faye smiled invitingly. “Let me show you both to the drinks table. We’ve got spiked apple cider, and plain cider, too. And let me guess who you are—”

“Ma and Pa Kettle?” Alice’s eyes glinted mischievously. “The Beverly Hillbillies?”

“No!” Amy’s mouth pursed with displeasure. “We’re Charles and Caroline Ingalls!”

Polly looked puzzled. “Um . . .”

“From
Little House on the Prairie
!” Amy looked offended.

“Of course!” Faye rushed to appease the stern younger woman. “That would have been my first guess! I’m so glad you came. How is little Jehoshaphat?”

Polly took a deep breath. Faye’s question was perfect. Amy and David both lit up like lamps, chatting away as fast as they could, describing their son’s latest prodigal achievements.

Finally their conversation ran down and they just stood there, holding glasses of alcohol-free cider, looking slightly puzzled and not particularly interested in their surroundings.

“Come meet Teddy and his wife, Lila,” Alice invited, in a fit of inspiration. “They have a little girl about your son’s age.” Linking arms with Amy and David, she led them into the living room, making a funny face over her shoulder at Polly, Faye, and Shirley.

Beautiful Lila had come as the gorgeous seductress Delilah, with a slinky, revealing gown, bracelets high on her arms, and heavy makeup. Teddy wore a shield, white tunic, and leather thongs. He’d pulled a bare wig on over his own thinning hair in order to look like Samson after he was shorn, and the result was surprisingly attractive. Together, he and his wife looked exotic and sexy.

“Maybe introducing them isn’t such a good idea,” Polly murmured. “Amy is such a little prig, and Lila looks so sensual.”

“Wait and see,” Faye soothed Polly.

“And don’t expect a great friendship to develop,” added Shirley, who was feeling rather pessimistic these days. “They couldn’t be more different.”

Polly helped herself to another cup of spiked cider. “Amy is so damned
pure.
She’ll think gorgeous Lila looks like a harlot, and probably drag poor David from the party.”

“You’re wrong!” Faye whispered to Polly. “Turn around! Look!”

Polly obeyed. The wholesome farm couple and the glamorous biblical lovers were retrieving photos from pockets and purses, passing them around, babbling and bonding as they shared pictures and anecdotes about their children.

Alice returned to fill her own glass of cider. “Well, Faye,” she grinned, “I think we can safely say this party is officially a success.” Her eyes dropped. “Although I am a little worried about Jennifer.”

“She’ll be fine,” Faye assured her.

“I hope so,” Alice said fervently.

THANKSGIVING

23

THE AFTERNOON SKY LOOMED LOW AND GRAY, THREATENING rain. As Alice and Gideon drove along the winding country road, a cold, intermittent wind flickered and gusted, making the fallen leaves heaped in the gutters suddenly skitter and jump like small, darting creatures. Tree boughs, bare and brittle, clattered and dipped toward the car like the animated trees in
The Wizard of Oz.

It made Alice’s nerves itch. She was cranky, when she knew she should be grateful. Damn it, she
was
grateful. She counted her blessings every night as she fell asleep, and reminded herself of them during the day, every day.

First, her sons were happy. Steven, down in Texas, communicated with her more than ever now that e-mail existed, and in January, Alice and Gideon both were going to visit Steven’s family, which she hadn’t done in years.

And Alan—well! Alan loved running the bakery and catering service—something Alice had never
dreamed
he would do, although given how much
she
loved food, why was she so surprised? And she had to admit, Alan was in love with his wife, and Jennifer obviously loved him deeply. They had only one more month to wait for the birth of their child—and here Alice’s breath caught in her throat.

Jennifer had been diagnosed with preeclampsia and ordered to remain in bed for the rest of her pregnancy, which was why Alan was cooking the turkey but Gideon and Alice were bringing most of the Thanksgiving dinner out to the caretaker’s cottage at The Haven. Alice had researched preeclampsia on the Internet, and what she’d learned had terrified her. It was a serious condition involving high blood pressure, protein in the urine, water retention, headaches, severe nausea, rapid heartbeat, and other uncomfortable and life-threatening problems. The child could die—or the mother.

Dear God, please let Jennifer and the baby be okay,
Alice prayed. It was so frustrating for Alice not to be able to
do
something, to
fix
this problem, to take charge! That was what she’d done all her life both at home and professionally, but now she was utterly helpless. And it was driving her totally nuts!

She felt her heartbeat accelerate. Damn it! Deep breaths, she reminded herself. Deep, deep breaths. Shirley had said to breathe right down to her asshole. And think positive thoughts.

All right then. Well, she was healthy, more or less, as long as she took her medicine and exercised regularly and watched what she ate, although the thought of limiting caloric intake during Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed to her like some kind of sadistic joke. Go back to the Gratitude List, she told herself.

Well—
Gideon
! This burly, sweet man driving the car was a wonderful companion, friend, and lover. They had great fun together, playing bridge, attending movies and the symphony, or just lounging around the apartment, reading, listening to music, watching TV. And his health was good these days.

And her friends were amazing. She’d never had such close friends since her school days. She loved the sense of belonging to a group, especially this group, which made her laugh and kept her involved with the real world. She’d been afraid of retirement, fearing she’d feel useless, but with them she had more than enough work to do. She was on the board of The Haven, plus she’d helped get the business side of Havenly Yours set up, although she’d refused to take on the full-time job of bookkeeper.

Now she thought perhaps that had been a mistake. Because with all the richness in her life, Alice still felt a kind of gap, something not sharp enough to be called pain, something more like a sense of longing. She didn’t feel
complete
yet. And she
had
felt complete for great hunks of her life, especially when she was working and raising her sons. But work and intellectual stimulation didn’t fill that void these days; she’d given it her all, and still, even when immersed in calculations for some budget, she’d raise her head from her computer and gaze at the sun on the windowsill, and sit very still, almost
listening,
as if she’d just heard someone whisper her name.

“Alice?” Now Gideon actually did call her name, tugging her back into the present. “We’re here.” He undid his seat belt and peered at her. “Are you okay?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Just daydreaming.” Impulsively, she leaned over and kissed his mouth. “I love you, Gideon.”

“And I love you, Alice,” Gideon replied with a smile, “but at the moment it’s the aroma of the pumpkin pie that’s making me drool.”

“Fickle!” Alice scolded playfully. “Okay, let’s go eat.”

Alan came out of the house, hugged his mother, shook hands with Gideon, and helped them carry in the casseroles and pans.

Alice set the large, wooden salad bowl on the kitchen counter. Without taking off her coat, she hurried into the living room to see Jennifer, who reclined on the sofa in loose pants and one of the Havenly Yours jackets Alice had given her.

“Hello, honey.” Alice bent down to kiss Jennifer’s cheek. “You look beautiful!” But Jennifer’s face was far too flushed, and she clearly was uncomfortable. “How do you feel?” She perched on the coffee table so she could take her daughter-in-law’s hand. “Tell me true.”

Jennifer smiled. “I’m glad to see you, Alice. Poor Alan’s so worried, he’s buzzing around me like a drunk mosquito. With you here, he’ll calm down.”

Alice cocked her head. “I’m sure he will. But you didn’t answer my question. How are you?”

Jennifer’s face grew serious. “I’m okay, I think. It’s best if I just lie here, not moving, but that makes me feel like such a wimp. But if I try to do anything, the nausea and headaches start up again.”

“How’s your blood pressure?” Alice picked up the little home monitor lying on the table.

“We just took it. It’s okay. Elevated, but not dangerous.” Jennifer shifted impatiently on the sofa. “It’s so boring, just talking about my health!”

“Hello!” Gideon came into the room, bending to kiss Jennifer’s cheek. “You look like the bell curve, lying there.”

“I feel more like a hot air balloon,” Jennifer joked in reply.

“Take your coat off, Mom,” Alan suggested. “The turkey’s ready. I thought we’d all fix our plates and bring them in here, so Jenny won’t have to move.”

“Good idea.” Alice squeezed Jennifer’s hand.

In the kitchen, she tossed the salad while Gideon poured three glasses of wine and one of water. As Alan lifted the small turkey onto the platter and began slicing it, Alice watched him out of the corner of her eye. He was moving just a bit too quickly, just as he’d rushed them into eating now instead of enjoying a relaxing few moments of conversation. He was anxious, of course he was; he wanted to get this day over, and the next, and every day until his child was safely brought into the world.
Slow down,
Alice wanted to advise him, but she kept her mouth shut. The last thing he needed was a nagging mother.

Back in the living room, Alan adjusted Jennifer’s pillows, lifting her into a sitting position so she could eat. He brought her a tray with a small plate of food, placed a pillow beneath her feet, then stood back to scrutinize her.

“Sit down, Alan.” Jennifer flapped her hands at him. “Enjoy your turkey!”

The baby wasn’t due until late December. Alice dutifully lifted her fork to her mouth, but worry dulled her senses. Jennifer wasn’t going to last another month; that was obvious. Perhaps she and Gideon shouldn’t have come; perhaps their mere presence was elevating Jennifer’s blood pressure just that little bit more. Should they leave? God, what could she do?

“Did you know,” Gideon said conversationally, “Faye’s flown out to California to have Thanksgiving with her grandchildren?”

“Oh, I’m so glad,” Jennifer said. “I know Faye misses her daughter a lot.”

Thank God for Gideon.
With the focus off Jennifer, Alice’s own blood pressure dropped. She added, “Laura invited her out there for two weeks. Lars’s parents, who’ve moved out there, are going on a cruise, so Faye will have Laura and Megan and the new little baby all to herself.”

“Who’s Aubrey spending Thanksgiving with?” Alan asked.

Alice snorted. “Who does Aubrey spend
every
holiday with? His daughter Carolyn. She’s such a spoiled brat! She
insisted
that Polly come, too, because Polly’s Elizabeth’s godmother.”

“Then where’s Hugh having the holiday?” Jennifer inquired.

“With his kids, which means with his clingy little ex-wife Carol.”

“I wonder,” Gideon mused, sipping his wine, “which is worse, to be involved in family conflicts or to be without a family, like Shirley.”

Alan took a bite of Alice’s salad. “Good, Mom. Where’s Shirley spending Thanksgiving?”

“With Marilyn and Ruth.” Alice thought for a moment. “I’m not sure whether Marilyn and Ruth will be seeing Marilyn’s granddaughter today or not. There’s another difficult daughter-in-law.”

“It’s not Lila who’s difficult,” Gideon corrected her mildly. “It’s Lila’s mother, Eugenie.”

Alan looked thoughtful. “Whatever happened to that guy Marilyn was dating—Faraday?”

Alice and Gideon exchanged glances. Alice had told Gideon about Faraday passing out on Marilyn, and they’d shared a good laugh, but it would be uncharitable to gossip about it. Although it was pretty funny.

Gideon said, “Faraday and Marilyn broke up. Too bad, because he was a good guy.”

“Yeah,” Alice added, “but Marilyn was never in love with him like she is with this Ian guy. With him, she’s really found the love of her life, and she deserves some happiness. She was such a dutiful wife, I think she believed marriage was the same for everyone, sort of like plain bread, necessary but tasteless. With Ian, she’s getting the bread PLUS a great big helping of strawberry jam.”

“Trust you to use a food metaphor,” Gideon teased Alice.

“Alan?” Jennifer’s weak voice interrupted their light-hearted banter. “Alan—I’m going to—” Shuddering, she vomited all over her plate and her clothes.

In a flash, Alan was at her side. “Jenny, honey—”

Alice hurried into the kitchen, returning with a roll of paper towels and a wastebasket. Alan handed her Jennifer’s plate and used a towel to wipe his wife’s face.

“Alan.” Jennifer’s eyes were wide. “I feel . . . terrible. I’m so dizzy, and I’ve got a pain in my side, and my head . . .”

“Hospital,” Alice said. “Now.”

Alan supported Jennifer’s head in gentle hands. “Is that what you want?”

Tears streamed down Jennifer’s red face. “Yes. Please. Oh, Alan, I’m so frightened!”

“I’ll call 911,” Alice said.

“Maybe it would be faster if we drove her there,” Alan said.

Alice bit her tongue just one millisecond to keep from yelling. In as calm a voice as she could muster, she said, “An EMT would know what to do right away. They’d be able to give her an IV. But whichever way you two want—”

“Ambulance,” Jennifer said. “Please.”

24

TOWARD EVENING, THE SKY FINALLY SPLIT APART, showering the New England area with thin, sharp rain-drops that promised to change to sleet at any moment. Inside Marilyn’s condo, it was warm and peaceful. Marilyn had roasted a turkey and set the table with a white cloth, china, and silver. Shirley had brought lots of vegetable dishes and a gorgeous centerpiece she’d made from autumn leaves and a few hardy roses and mums from the grounds of The Haven.

So much beauty, Shirley thought, such luxury! She refused to let herself mope simply because she wasn’t with Justin. Because she wasn’t with
any
man.

She’d wakened cranky, and grumbled through her lonely morning in her empty condo in The Haven’s enormous edifice. Today the old stone building’s elegance and solidity made her feel shabby and temporary. How had it happened, that of the five Hot Flash Club women, she, Shirley, the only one who couldn’t have alcohol, was also the only one who didn’t have a man? It wasn’t fair! She was in the best shape of them all, with her limber, slender body. And she liked sex and loved men more than the others, too; she was sure of that. Plus, the other four all had children and grandchildren to love. Shirley didn’t have any of that. She just felt so
rejected
by Fate!

Still, she’d forced herself to dress up and drag her unwanted, pathetic old body over to Marilyn’s condo, and she was going to be a regular little ball of good cheer if it killed her.

And now that she was here, she was glad. She loved Marilyn, even if Marilyn had just returned from Scotland where she no doubt screwed her brains out with that man she adored, and Ruth was always a pleasure to be around. Shirley helped Marilyn carry in the food, and then took her place at the laden dinner table.

“Well, here we are!” Ruth wore a dark green sweater patterned with autumn leaves. She looked around the table, her wrinkled old face radiant with pleasure. She beamed at Shirley and Marilyn. “The three little figs!”

“Pigs.” Marilyn sliced a tender strip of meat off the turkey breast and lay it, with its golden brown, salt-and-pepper–speckled skin, on her mother’s plate.

“The three graces, I would say,” Shirley amended.

Ruth glanced up from a bowl of sweet potatoes. “Just who
were
the three graces?”

“Goddesses from early Greek mythology,” Shirley told her. “I can’t remember their Greek names, but they stood for um, let me think: Brilliance or Splendor was one. Joy. And something like Optimism.”

“Would you like sweet potatoes?” Ruth held out the bowl. “Were they young or old?”

“Young, I think.”

Ruth spooned pecan-onion-apple stuffing onto her plate. “But with names like that, they could be any age, right?”

“Sure,” Shirley agreed. “Why not?”

Ruth took a bit of creamed spinach. “Oh, Shirley, this is delicious.” She nibbled on her roll, then observed, “Not many girls named Grace anymore.”

“Fashions change.” Shirley helped herself to the stuffing Marilyn had made especially for her, in a pan, with butter instead of turkey drippings. “Not many are named Shirley, either.”

“Nor Ruth,” Ruth said. “Nor Vagina.”

“Regina,” Marilyn quietly revised, using the British pronunciation.

Ruth cocked her head. “And they name girls such strange things these days. Like that beautiful actress with the big lips—Harlot Johnson.”

“Scarlett Johansson,” Shirley said quietly, flashing a smile at Marilyn.

Marilyn didn’t respond to Shirley’s smile, which made Shirley feel awful for just a moment. Did Marilyn think Shirley was making fun of Ruth? But now that Shirley paused to really look at Marilyn, she realized that Marilyn looked tired. Old. Absolutely
dragged down,
a look Shirley saw in the mirror all too often but had never before seen on Marilyn.

“Marilyn,” Shirley said, “I haven’t spoken with you since you went to Scotland. How was your trip?”

“Oh, it was fine.” Marilyn didn’t lift her eyes from her plate.

Shirley hesitated. “Oh. Well, how’s Ian?”

Marilyn made a noise, an odd little moan. Still she would not meet Shirley’s eyes. “He’s fine. He’s busy with his work.” Her chin trembled. “I’ll just get some more gravy.” Lifting the gravy boat, she disappeared into the kitchen.

Bastard!
Shirley thought, suddenly flaming with anger. Men were all alike everywhere; you couldn’t trust any of them. Oh, Shirley knew all too well the signs of a woman betrayed.

Ruth patted Shirley’s hand to get her attention. “Two termites walk into a bar. What do they say?”

“Um—” Shirley forced a smile. “I don’t know. What do they say?”

“Is the bar tender here?” All the wrinkles on Ruth’s face lifted up as she smiled.

“Very funny,” Shirley chuckled.

“Oh, I’ve got lots more of those. Marilyn’s father always had a slew of wonderful jokes. His students loved him.”

Marilyn returned, her face composed, but guarded. Now that Shirley took a moment to study her friend, she realized that Marilyn, who had never been a clothes-horse, looked more—more downright
dowdy
than Shirley had ever seen her. Her gray sweater hung on her—why, Marilyn had lost weight! Shirley sent an urgent glance of concern toward her friend, who shook her head slightly and leaned over her mother. “More gravy, Mom?”

“Thank you, dear. I was just telling Cheryl about your father. He was so handsome, wasn’t he? And as smart, I swear, as Allen Einstein. He could have gone on for a Ph.D., but he loved teaching high school–age students. So did I. We spent so much time concocting experiments!”

What could Shirley do to help Marilyn? God, Marilyn looked so tired! She looked
whipped.
Ruth was looking at Shirley expectantly. “Tell me about them,” Shirley urged.

Ruth’s face lit up. For the rest of the meal, she recounted the pleasures she’d shared with her husband, creating ant houses and aquarium tanks, sweeping nets and rearing cages for the butterflies, moths, caterpillars, turtles, reptiles, and lizards studied in the classroom. Equally fascinating to Ruth and her husband were water fleas, leeches, roaches, and bats. Well, Shirley thought, this explains a lot about Marilyn.

“Mother,” Marilyn said, when she could get a word in, “would you like any more turkey? Or stuffing?”

“Oh, no, dear, thank you. I’m full.” Suddenly Ruth’s rosy face sagged. “In fact, I believe I’m just a little tired. All this chattering away I’ve been doing . . .” She looked at Marilyn, confused.

Marilyn took her mother’s hand. “Would you like dessert now, Mother? Pumpkin pie?” When her mother didn’t answer right away, she suggested, “Or perhaps a little nap? Wouldn’t a little rest feel good?”

“Yes, dear. That’s a good idea.” Ruth’s voice quavered, and when she tried to rise from her chair, her arms trembled.

Marilyn and Shirley jumped to assist her up.

“It’s awful, getting old.” Ruth shook her head. “I hate being dependent.”

“You’re not dependent, darling,” Marilyn assured her. “For heaven’s sake.”

Together they accompanied the older woman into her bedroom. With a sigh, Ruth subsided gratefully onto her bed. Marilyn unfolded the light blanket at the foot and spread it over her mother. Then she and Shirley went out of the room, pulling the door almost closed.

“She’ll sleep for about thirty minutes, then wake up all bright and bushy-tailed,” Marilyn whispered.

“Fine with me. I’ll help you with the dishes. I need to move around, after eating so much.”

Shirley could tell that Marilyn was preoccupied, so they worked in companionable silence as they cleared the table, rinsed the dishes, and stacked them in the dishwasher.

“Coffee?” Marilyn asked.

“Not yet. I can wait till your mother wakes up. But tell me, Marilyn, what’s wrong?”

Marilyn looked guilty. “Oh, dear. I didn’t mean to spoil your Thanksgiving.”

“Nonsense. This is a perfectly fine Thanksgiving. But I can tell something’s not right. Is it Ian?”

Marilyn’s face flushed bright red. Bringing her hands up, she covered her face, but Shirley could
feel
the misery emanating from Marilyn in a dark aura.

“Is it another woman?” Really, Shirley thought, that wouldn’t be completely unreasonable. Marilyn and Ian lived an ocean apart.

But Marilyn shook her head. She grabbed for a paper towel. Her face was streaming with tears.

“Oh, honey.” Shirley put her arms around Marilyn. “Oh, Marilyn.”

“He a-a-asked me to marry him,” Marilyn sobbed.

Shirley drew back. “And that’s a bad thing?”

“No, of course not! But he wants me to live with him, in Edinburgh. And I can’t, Shirley, I just can’t. I can’t leave my mother.” Wrapping her arms around her stomach, she folded nearly in half as she wailed soundlessly. “Oh, Shirley, I love him so much!”

Sympathetic tears welled in Shirley’s eyes. “Here, Hon, sit down.” She grabbed a clean water glass and poured some wine into it. “Drink this. Come on. Take a sip.”

Marilyn sank onto a kitchen chair, took the glass, and drank. She closed her eyes and sat very still. “God. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be such a drama queen.”

“You couldn’t be a drama queen if you tried.” Shirley pulled another chair up close, so she could hold Marilyn’s hand. “Come on, Marilyn, let’s think this through. There’s got to be a solution.”

“There’s not. Really, there’s not. I’ve thought about nothing else the past two weeks. Sharon’s husband’s ill. Cancer. It’s serious.” Marilyn shook her head. “And here I am, blubbering about myself.”

“You deserve to blubber if you’ve met the love of your life and you don’t think you can live with him.”

“Well,
Sharon
can’t take care of Mother. She’s been the responsible one all her life. It’s my turn now. And I can’t put Mother into some kind of—of—
place.

“Why not?” Shirley demanded.

“Oh, Shirley, come on. Ruth’s not gaga. She’s not incapable. She’s just slightly . . .
frail.
Forgetful, sometimes, but usually she’s great. I’d feel like a monster if I put her in an assisted living facility.”

“But there are all kinds of facilities, Marilyn,” Shirley argued. “Where Ruth could be safe, and have friends her own age, and medical or any kind of assistance at the touch of a bell.”

“I couldn’t do it, Shirley. She calls assisted living facilities ‘finishing schools.’ And she’s so happy here. She was such a good mom to me and Sharon. If she were a little more incapacitated, or a lot more forgetful, then maybe . . .” Marilyn shook her head violently. “No. I need to keep her here with me.”

“And lose the love of your life?” Shirley cried.

Marilyn closed her eyes and sagged against the chair. “What else can I do?”

Shirley glanced at the bottle of Burgundy. It seemed to be singing her name in dulcet tones, assuring her that if she’d just take a little sip, or maybe two, this terrible sympathetic pain in her heart would ease. She jumped up and paced the floor.

“There’s got to be some solution. Damn it, where’s the chocolate?”

This brought a wan smile to Marilyn’s face. “The solution would be chocolate?”

Shirley hurriedly rifled through Marilyn’s cupboards until she found a bar hidden in the back. Tearing off the wrapper, she broke it open, handed a piece to Marilyn, and bit into a piece. Her mouth was flooded with soothing, stimulating, glorious, dark sweetness.

“Did you know,” Marilyn mumbled, licking her lips, “cacao trees can develop diseases called ‘swollen shoot’ and ‘pod rot’?”

Shirley’s laughter was laced with relief. If Marilyn could joke at a time like this, she’d be okay. “I’m not surprised. I always thought there was something sexual about chocolate, and of course it would be masculine.” She broke off another piece and handed it to Marilyn. “Now. Let’s consider our possibilities. For one thing, you and Ian could continue seeing each other. Lots of people have transcontinental marriages, why not have a transoceanic one? I mean, for God’s sake, Marilyn, you have gobs of money, why not spend it? You could hire a live-in caretaker, someone your mother would get to feel safe and comfortable with, and then you could visit Ian every other month, and he could come over and visit you every other month. Yeah!” Shirley nodded enthusiastically, pleased with her idea.

“It wouldn’t be fair,” Marilyn said. “Not to Ian, not to me. For one thing, we both have work to do, professional commitments, classes to teach. But actually, Shirley, we’ve discussed this kind of possibility, and we just can’t feel good about it. Ian wants to be
married.
He wants to buy a home and share every day of his life with a wife. He wants domestic
permanence,
and I can understand that.” Tears spilled down her face. “I want him to have that. I love him so much, and he’s been so lonely, and he’s such a lovely man. He wants to plant a garden with someone, and have dinner parties with friends, not pack up a suitcase every month and spend half his time with me suffering from jet lag. And I feel the same way.”

“What if—”

Ruth toddled into the room, leaning on her cane. Her white curls were flattened on one side of her head from sleeping, and her pink scalp shone through. Her face was flushed and her lower lip trembled.

Marilyn sprang up. “Mom, are you okay?”

Ruth reached out and grabbed Marilyn’s shoulder with one clawlike hand. “Oh, dear, I’m so embarrassed, I feel so terrible.” Looking completely mortified, she whispered, “I wet the bed.”

Marilyn patted her mother’s arm. “That’s all right, Mom. I’ll help you change clothes, and I’ll change the sheets. It won’t take a minute.”


I’ll
put on the coffee,” Shirley chirped, “and warm up the pumpkin pie!”

Marilyn and her mother slowly left the room.

Ruth looked up at her daughter. “I think it’s because I had so much to eat and didn’t wee before I took my nap.”

“I’m sure that’s the reason,” Marilyn agreed.

“I don’t wet the bed often,” Ruth insisted.

“No, Mom, of course you don’t.”

By the time the two women came into the living room, Shirley had set out a pot of decaf coffee, and cups and plates for the pie. She helped Marilyn lower Ruth into a chair and set up a little table next to her. Marilyn served the pie.

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