Hot Flash Holidays (2 page)

Alice was amused. “Sounds like she’s going to be a lawyer like her father.”

“I’ve bought so many presents I feel guilty.” Faye searched the other women’s faces. “But isn’t this what Christmas is all about? Giving lots and lots of fabulous presents? Spoiling your family?”

“I think it’s about making dreams come true.” Shirley’s voice was rich with longing.

“First of all, it’s a religious holiday,” Marilyn reminded them.

“And now it’s become one gigantic gimmick for our consumer economy,” Alice weighed in with a frown. “We’re bombarded with ads and sentimental scenes of smiling families around the tree. We’re brainwashed with syrupy Christmas music and completely unrealistic promises that our families will be happy if only little Johnny gets a video game or little Mary gets the right doll.”

“Are things okay with Gideon?” Faye asked gently.

“Why do you ask?” Alice demanded. “Christmas
sucks,
whether I’m happy or not!”

“I sort of agree with Alice,” Polly cut in. “Well, I don’t think Christmas
sucks,
but I do think it’s gotten far too commercialized. And it does raise unrealistic expectations.”

“But where’s the joy in life, without unrealistic expectations?” Shirley cried.

Marilyn cocked her head, studying Shirley. “I’m surprised at you, Shirley. I would have thought you’d tell us that Christmas is a festival of light during the darkest days. That it’s about hope for new life during the coldest season of the year.”

Shirley blushed. “I
do
think all that. But you know, I never got to have children, and my three former husbands were all assholes, so I never had a really
happy
Christmas before. I was never with someone I loved, who loved me in return.”

“So what dreams do you think will come true this Christmas?” Alice tried to sound casual. She knew it made Shirley unhappy, but Alice distrusted Shirley’s beau, that jackal Justin. She just hoped that Shirley understood that this wariness came from her protective love of her friend.

Shirley gulped. She shouldn’t be nervous, she told herself. When was she going to grow up? When was she going to stop being a coward? Hadn’t she proven herself enough already? She’d been the creator of The Haven, and for two years now, she’d run the spa intelligently, just as if she were a clever person with good business sense. Her friends should trust her judgment. They should be
reasonable
about her forthcoming announcement.

Yeah, and pigs would fly out her butt.

This Christmas she was going to give Justin a gift that would change his life. She was
certain
that even though he was twelve years younger than she, Justin loved her, too, just as sincerely. Her Hot Flash friends had to stop fretting. Sure, Justin was handsome, but if he
had
looked at other women—and who could blame him, they were always looking at him!—that was
all
he’d done. He was in her bed every night.

“Well?” Alice prompted. It didn’t take a psychic to know Shirley was feeling guilty. Something was up. “You’re giving Justin a computer for Christmas, right?”

“Of course not.” Shirley faked a laugh and sipped her cocoa, stalling. “He already has one.” What she was giving Justin cost a lot more than a computer.

But that was nothing compared to what she suspected he was going to give her.

“Shir–ley,” Alice wheedled, trying not to sound like a mother looking at a kid with a suspicious bulge in his backpack.

Shirley stalled. “I’m spending Christmas Day with Justin and his kids.”

“He’s got three kids, right?” Faye asked.

“Right.” Shirley held up a finger as she munched another bite of cookie. “Spring’s thirteen, her sister Angel is fifteen. Ben’s ten; he has a different mother from Spring and Angel. The girls live in Stoneham with their mother and stepfather, and Ben lives on the Cape with his mother and grandmother. The girls don’t like Ben and he doesn’t like them, and Justin would prefer to have Ben on Christmas Eve and the girls on Christmas Day, but Ben’s mother insists on having Ben on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and the girls’ mother insists . . . Well, you get the picture.”

“And you think this Christmas is going to be about making dreams come true?” Polly looked skeptical.

And Alice looked downright disbelieving.

Shirley decided not to tell them now. Why should she, after all? Justin was the recipient; he should know about it first. She could tell them later.

“But you see,” she babbled evasively, “I finally have enough money to give really cool gifts! I’ve never had this kind of money before—”

Alice shook her head impatiently. “You’re not rich, Shirley. You’re just solvent, and you’re working hard for every penny you make, and don’t forget, you’re getting older and you need to save for the future. You
are
sixty-two.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Scrooge,” Shirley sniffed.

Faye, playing peacemaker, changed the subject. “Alice, are you spending Christmas with Gideon?”

Alice knew she was being headed off at the pass. But why was she so worried for Shirley when the other three seemed to be perfectly comfortable with Justin? “Christmas Eve, we’re having Alan and Jennifer to dinner. They’re going down to the Cape for Christmas Day with her folks. Christmas Day we’ll spend with Gideon’s kids.”

“You like them, don’t you?” Polly asked.

“I like them all fine.” Alice let out a big fat sigh. “I don’t know why I’m so
cranky
these days.”

“Hormones don’t take holidays,” Polly said.

“It’s not just that,” Alice admitted. “I’ve gotten cranky since I’ve retired.” Seeing Shirley’s mouth twitch, she said, “All right, I was probably cranky
before
I retired. That might be why I was such a dynamite executive at TransContinent.” Alice shook her head in frustration. Her boiling energy, creative vigor, and, all right, slightly anal-compulsive need to get things done right and
soon
had carried her into the top echelons of a major insurance company during the days when most women, especially black women, were thrilled to stop scrubbing corporate floors and become secretaries. Alice had been
someone.
She’d been a
force.
And she missed that.

“You need to find something to do,” Shirley advised. “Something more than playing bridge.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Alice snapped.

“You need a grandchild,” Faye said in a dreamy voice.

“I already have grandchildren,” Alice reminded her.

“But they live in Texas,” Faye persisted, “and you seldom see them.”

Alice gave Faye a level stare. “Faye, you know children are just not my thing. Oh, I loved my sons like a mother panther when they were young, and I took good care of them, even though I worked. I’ve got photo albums full of smiles. But babies in general aren’t my thing.”

“What will you do if Alan and Jennifer get married and have children?” Polly asked.

“Let’s not go there.” Alice still didn’t like Jennifer. And it was
not
because Jennifer was white. After all, her four best friends were white. It was more that when Alice first became aware of Jennifer D’Annucio’s existence, Jennifer had been having an affair with Faye’s son-in-law, Lars.

Now, Alice, she told herself, don’t be so judgmental. The best love she’d had in her life had been with a married man when she was thirty-five. She didn’t consider herself less trustworthy because she’d had that affair, and she refused to let herself think less of Jennifer for her affair, either. Still, she was glad handsome Lars and his family had moved to California, even as she sympathized with Faye, who was
all about
grandchildren, that her family was so far away.

“Oh,
damn
!” Marilyn flew up out of her chair.

“What’s wrong?” Polly asked, alarmed.

Marilyn’s words were muffled as she tugged her sweater up over her head. She clasped it to her chest for modesty, her flushed face and chest clear evidence of the problem.

“I’m so
sick
of these hot flashes!” she cried.

“Me, too,” Faye commiserated. “I don’t understand the
point
of it.”

Marilyn hurried to a window and pressed her burning face against the cold glass. “Nature’s telling us we’re past childbearing age.”

“Hel-
lo
! I
know
that!” Alice grumbled. “I can look in the mirror and
see
that.”

“Nature designed our reproductive systems before human beings had mirrors.” Marilyn grabbed a magazine and fanned her face. “It’s possible that in the evolutionary process, hot flashes once served a purpose which has become irrelevant. Perhaps in fifty years, or five hundred, women won’t have hot flashes.”

“I can’t wait that long,” Polly quipped.

“I know,” Marilyn lamented. “It’s not just the surge of heat I hate. It’s the way it derails my mind. I’m making mistakes when I teach my classes, or I lose my place, or forget what I’m saying right in the middle of a sentence. It’s embarrassing.”

“At least you don’t gain weight simply by breathing,” Faye consoled her. “Aubrey’s taking me out to wonderful restaurants so often, I’m ballooning up again.”

“You look wonderful, Faye,” Alice assured her. “I’ve decided to stop fussing about my weight. I enjoy eating, and so does Gideon, and he likes me the way I am, nice and squashable.”

“That’s fine, as long as your health isn’t affected,” Shirley warned. “Statistics show that the leanest people live the longest.”

“Yeah, but do they have as much fun?” Rebelliously, Alice grabbed another cookie.

Marilyn was cooling down. She pulled her sweater back on and returned to her chair. “I’ve decided to take a sabbatical starting this June. I keep thinking perhaps my brain is just overloaded. I mean, in the past two years my husband left me for a younger woman, I had the most fabulous sex of my life with a guy who turned out to be a creep, I met all of you and joined the Hot Flash Club and the board of The Haven, I became a grandmother, and I started dating Faraday.”

“That’s enough to blow your fuses,” Alice confirmed.

“What will you do?” Faye asked Marilyn. “Take a trip? Write a book?”

Marilyn shrugged. “Before I can plan anything, I’ve got to deal with my mother. I’ll have a chance to see whether she needs assisted living when she’s here over Christmas.”

“Christmas,”
Shirley crooned happily.

Alice rolled her eyes. “How can you be so perpetually hopeful?”

“It’s a choice, I guess,” Shirley told her.

Marilyn leaned forward to skewer Shirley with a look. “Um, you might also add that you have a lover who’s good in bed, and no demented relatives.”

Polly chuckled. “Remember ‘Old Maid,’ that card game we played when we were kids?”

“Oh, yes.” Faye grinned. “There were all kinds of crazy characters who came in pairs. Like Greasy Grimes and Betty Bumps. But there was just one Old Maid. The point was to be the one at the end of the game who didn’t hold the Old Maid.”

“Now the goal is not to
be
the Old Maid,” Alice joked.

Polly brushed cookie crumbs off her bosom. “I’m thinking ‘Old Maid’ was a rehearsal for real life. For example, my daughter-in-law is ‘Princess Insanely Possessive Prig Pot.’ ”

Alice laughed. “Tell us how you really feel, Polly!”

Marilyn giggled. “Yeah, and Faraday’s the ‘Limp Lothario.’ ”

“Sure, they’re flawed.” Shirley spoke up before the others came up with an unflattering nickname for Justin. “But we still love them. We still want them to have a wonderful Christmas.”

“We can’t make other people happy,” Alice pointed out sensibly.

“No,” Polly agreed, “we can’t. But we can do everything we can to set the stage for happiness.”

Faye said, “You’re right, Polly. That’s what I’m going to do this Christmas, for my daughter and my granddaughter and my son-in-law.”

“That’s what we’ll all do for those we love,” Shirley said.

“I’ll drink to that.” Alice raised her mug.

“I’ll drink to that, too,” Polly said, “but first, can I have more Reddi wip?”

2

ON THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, ALL THROUGH the house, Faye wandered in her robe. It was two A.M. She was completely incapable of sleep. This afternoon, her daughter Laura, her son-in-law Lars, and her adorable baby granddaughter were arriving for the holidays. Faye was so excited she was nearly demented.

Megan was three years old now, and Faye was going to give the little girl a Christmas she’d remember always! In her exuberance, Faye had put up not one, but three Christmas trees.

The largest one was in front of the living room window. She loved the way the tree looked from outside, framed perfectly by the window, the lights shining with the radiance of home. She’d decorated it with all the ornaments she and Jack had used when Laura was a child.

The second tree was in the kitchen. Inspired by Polly’s gingerbread ornaments for the tree at The Haven, Faye had rummaged around at the back of her utensil drawer and found her box of Christmas cookie cutters. All day, Faye had baked and decorated in a kind of domestic trance. She’d filled five bags of frosting with different colors and let her much-ignored artistic side go wild as she squeezed smiling faces and silly designs on sugar Santas and snickerdoodle stars for her kitchen tree.

But the
pièce de résistance
was in Megan’s bedroom, where Faye had put a tiny Christmas tree in a pink pot with white bunnies. She’d decorated it with miniature lights and twenty-five fairies. There were twenty-five simply because Faye had made them all herself, out of pipe cleaners, yarn, papier-mâché, and fabric. It had been meticulous, intricate work, and by the time she’d finished the twenty-fifth fairy, her body refused to do more. Her back, arms, and eyes ached from concentrating on such minutiae. She felt as bent and twisted as an ancient Chinese peasant after years of embroidering silks. But the tree, when finished, was
magical,
a little girl’s fantasy of fairies, sequins, tulle, beads, and bows.

Faye could not
wait
to see Megan’s face when she saw the trees!

She hadn’t ignored Laura and Lars, either. Piles of gorgeously wrapped presents surrounded the living room tree, and in the late afternoon, about twenty of Laura and Lars’s closest friends were arriving for an informal holiday party. Faye was making her father’s famous eggnog, which involved a sinful amount of vanilla ice cream and bourbon. The refrigerator was stuffed with cheeses and exotic olives, caviar and salmon. In the early afternoon, she’d start putting together little canapés for the party, just before she drove out to the airport.

For now, since she had insomnia, she might as well set up the dining room table for the party. Maybe that would tire her out and she’d be able to catch a few hours’ sleep. She knew she was in a state of holiday hysteria. Perhaps finalizing a few more preparations would calm her down. Kneeling, she reached into the bottom of the kitchen cupboard to dig out the enormous crystal punch bowl. It hadn’t been used for three years, not since her husband Jack died, and the sight of it released a flood of memories.

She and Jack had been married for thirty-five years. His death had opened the floodgates of a dark ocean in her heart, with powerful tides beyond her control and waves that pulled her under and threatened to keep her there. Her ability to paint the beautiful still lifes and scenes that had once brought her joy and some small renown had drowned in grief, too. Nine months after his death, Faye had tried to paint again, only to discover that her work was accurate, but without soul, vibrancy, resonance. She gave it up. Another enormous loss.

Thank heavens for her daughter and granddaughter and for the love of her Hot Flash friends, her lifelines to the living world.

She rose, lifting the punch bowl to the counter. Had the damned thing always been so heavy? Yes, but she’d been younger, stronger, once. At times like this, her body made her age quite clear. Carrying it over to the sink was such an effort, it brought on a hot flash. She tore off her robe, ran a glass of cold water, and held it to her forehead, trying to cool down.

The gingerbread people smiled at her from the kitchen Christmas tree. Jack would have wanted Faye to go on with her life, to savor every moment of it, to be happy. And she wanted to provide a good role model for her daughter. So she had muddled on as cheerfully as she knew how.

It had been tough, selling the house where she and Jack had raised Laura. It had been like severing the line to a gleaming yacht whose cargo was the domestic reality of her younger life—favorite fabrics, familiar wood, comforting patterns of light falling through windows— and watching it float off into the mists, gone forever.

But the money she’d been able to give Laura and Lars had helped them buy their own home. More than that, it had served as a kind of bridge away from a rough patch in their marriage. Faye would have given up anything to help her daughter.

And this past year of living in the little condo at The Haven had been good for Faye in many ways. She’d learned to appreciate new spaces, new views, new possibilities. Now that she’d settled into her own new little house, she thought she might be able to enjoy quite a few years of contentment. Perhaps, even, of happiness.

She was doing work she loved, teaching courses in art and art therapy at The Haven. She had as full a social calendar as she wanted, cheerfully punctuated at least once a month with a Friday-night Hot Flash Club dinner at Legal Seafoods.

And now she was actually dating.
Seriously
dating. It was amusing, and terrifying, too.

“What would
you
have thought of Aubrey, Jack?” Faye asked, a little startled by the sound of her voice in the silence of the kitchen. “If you want me to stop dating him, you’d better give me a sign.”

She had met Aubrey Sperry this April at The Haven’s spring open house, and to her immense surprise, the attraction between them had been mutual, immediate, and intense. They’d kissed the first night they met, like a couple of hot-blooded teenagers, in the parking lot of The Haven, stretching toward one another over the gearshift of Aubrey’s Jaguar. His mouth had tasted like peppermints, and his fine white hair had been soft as down. His fingers along her neck, his kisses on her throat, had been as delicate and tantalizing as the first drops of spring rain, and only because she didn’t want to startle him did she refrain from shouting out, “Hallelujah!” for her body did feel born again.

But a sharp rapping on the window had startled them. They’d pulled apart to find Carolyn, Aubrey’s only child and extraordinarily bossy daughter, glaring at them, as if she were Aubrey’s mother and was about to yank him out of the car and spank him for misbehaving.

Faye could understand Carolyn’s possessive concerns. Carolyn and Aubrey shared the ownership and responsibility for the Sperry Paper Company, which had been handed down through the generations. No wonder Carolyn had freaked out when, the previous fall, Aubrey had, on a whim, married a much younger woman who had
appeared
naïve and sweet but turned out to be manipulative and mercenary.

In a way, Faye had been part of the chain of responsibility for this revelation. She, Alice, Marilyn, and Shirley, the founders of the Hot Flash Club and of The Haven, had followed their chosen life directive, which was, in a word,
Interfere.
They’d realized that four of The Haven’s clients needed help, so they’d organized a special Jacuzzi/aromatherapy encounter for the women, who quickly became friends, and did what women friends have done since the beginning of time: plotted clever ways to solve one another’s problems. Aubrey’s wife’s deceitful scheme was destroyed, and Aubrey’s brief marriage was annulled.

And Aubrey’s ego was crushed. He was seventy. He’d wanted to be youthful and virile. Instead, he’d been exposed as a fool.

In their most intimate, tender moments together, Aubrey had confessed his humiliation to Faye. He did not go so far as to say that he was anxious about his possible sexual performance, but their initial adolescent lust was cooled by the realities of life and aging. Faye let him know that she could be patient. After all, she was anxious, too.

They’d been dating for almost eight months now, and had not yet progressed past affectionate kisses and fraternal hugs. But that was all right. They’d both been so overwhelmed with moving houses.

Faye had done the lion’s share of sorting through her possessions of over thirty years when, the year before, she’d sold her house and pared down to the bare necessities for her condo at The Haven. She’d sold some of her heirlooms, given stuff away, and rented a storage facility for furniture with which she couldn’t bear to part.

It had been fun for a while, in a clean, crisp kind of way, to live in small rooms on the third floor of a building whose grounds were groomed by professional gardeners. But quickly she realized she wanted to have her own place, with her own yard, her own flowers, her own bird feeders.

So she’d bought this little Cape Cod located halfway between The Haven, where she taught part time, and Boston, with its theater, museums, and art galleries. During the past few months, in a kind of domestic ecstasy, she’d chosen new rugs, new wallpapers, new furniture, and unpacked her treasures from the storage units, rediscovering each beloved possession with a new delight. She’d hung her favorite still life, the painting Jack had loved the most, one she’d painted only a year before his death, above the mantel in the living room. She hoped it might inspire her to return to her work.

So far, she hadn’t set up her easel or picked up a brush.

But in the fall, she’d planned and planted her garden with spring blooms. Digging into the ground, crumbling rich fertilizer into the dark earth, preparing healthy beds for the plump garlic-shaped bulbs, had been a satisfying and deeply sensual experience. She felt connected to the land, as if she’d planted part of her heart among the flowers. Afterward, she was too tired for much more than a microwave dinner and an evening with a book. She didn’t miss the energetic demands of sexual passion, and she very much enjoyed the daily phone conversations with Aubrey.

Aubrey’s relocation had been much more complicated. He, his daughter Carolyn, her husband Hank, and their baby had lived in a magnificent, if slightly Edward Gorey–esque, Victorian mansion riding high on a hill overlooking the town of Sperry. Big as an ark, the dwelling had been built by Aubrey’s grandmother at the turn of the century, when servants as well as family were housed there. Aubrey had his own wing, and Carolyn had hers, and there were common rooms, and a plucky, though overwhelmed, housekeeper, who tried to keep the pantries full and the dust at least rearranged.

But the house was dark and inconvenient. Hank had been the one to suggest they move. He and Carolyn had bought a modern, sleek, practical new house near the mill, where Carolyn was executive vice president. Aubrey, officially president but eagerly easing out of the position, letting Carolyn take over the reins, had opted to buy a handsome apartment forty minutes to the east, in the middle of Boston, on Beacon Hill, near his various private clubs and the restaurants he loved to frequent.

The process of breaking up the Sperry home, which was practically a museum, and would actually become a museum for the town, was a staggeringly exhausting endeavor. The Sperrys had antiques and oil paintings needing expert appraisal, and it all required the services of several lawyers, which of course made the process even more time-consuming. Some weeks passed when Aubrey barely had the energy to phone Faye to say hello before he tumbled into bed.

So it was no wonder they hadn’t yet tumbled into bed together.

It just might prove to be a problem, Faye thought, leaning against the kitchen counter, staring out her window at the moonlight on the snow, that she and Aubrey had not been able to consummate their relationship before they remembered how old, creaky, and saggy they were. Now that they had the time and the distance to regard the matter intelligently, they both had gotten shy about their aging bodies.

Aubrey was such an elegant man, with a luxurious wardrobe and courtly manners, so meticulous about his grooming. He was actually shocked, Faye thought, to find that in spite of his rigorous personal hygiene, his body had betrayed him. Arthritis made him stoop and creak. He had to pop pills or suffer painful indigestion and even so, what he called “dyspepsia” called up embarrassing burps at inappropriate times and often, if he forgot his medicine, made him nearly double over in pain. His beautiful white hair was thinning, his pink scalp showing through, the few surviving strands at the front of his head crinkling and refusing to lie down, waving in the air like survivors from a sinking ship.

Still, he was head-turningly handsome. Faye enjoyed entering a party or the theater on his arm. More than that, she enjoyed looking at him, admiring his aristocratic profile, the way his face changed subtly when he was amused or aroused. Because she was thirteen years younger, she thought she’d be able to shut out the wailing Greek chorus of her own vanity when they ever did get around to making love—especially if they kept the lights off.

What would Laura think of Aubrey? Faye had told her daughter all about him, and Laura had assured her mother she was delighted to know Faye was dating. Aubrey was coming to the little Christmas Eve party tonight and would stay for a cozy family dinner afterward.

Faye imagined it: the four of them around the table, Aubrey charming Laura and Lars as they talked, and adorable little Megan on Faye’s lap. It had been six months since Faye had flown out to California to visit her daughter’s family. Yes, they had “talked” via their web-cams almost every day, but children took shy easily. Would Megan allow Faye to put her to bed? Faye had bought a rocking chair for Megan’s room. Closing her eyes, she conjured up a vision of perfect holiday happiness: rocking her granddaughter to sleep, softly singing the same lullabies she’d once sung to Laura, gazing down at her grandchild’s face, while downstairs the others got to know one another over coffee and Dutch apple pie, Laura’s favorite dessert.

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