“I don’t know what to say,” Faye admitted.
she reminded herself.
Carolyn’s cell phone rang. She reached into her handsome leather briefcase and shut it off. “I don’t want you to feel pressured about this. Obviously, this business arrangement stands completely apart from your relationship with my father.”
Faye finally managed to speak. “I’m so glad. I like your father very much. And I’d like to be your friend, too—” She noticed Carolyn’s slight flinch. “—although I realize, what with your baby and running your business, you don’t have much time for friendships.”
Carolyn smiled. “Sometimes I can be a wicked, cold bitch, I know.”
“That’s all right,” Faye assured her. “I’ve met worse. And I like your idea about the note cards. I’ve just started painting again. When my husband died, I—lost interest for a while. But now, well—would you like to come up to my studio to see the still life I’ve set up? And I’ve got some old paintings stored there as well. You might want to look through them, to see if you like something, to give me an idea of the sort of thing you’ve got in mind.”
“I’d love to see them.” Carolyn stood up, eager.
Faye stood up, too, and when she set her cup and saucer on the table, her hands were as steady as if she were holding a brush.
MARILYN WAS DREAMING. IT WAS THANKSGIVING, OR perhaps Christmas—some holiday. She was at a party with her Hot Flash friends, and all their acquaintances, and lots of other people, too. Glamorous men and women laughed and drank Champagne. Marilyn’s mother clutched her arm tightly, afraid of getting lost in the crowd. Suddenly, they were all called in to dinner. Marilyn found her place card next to Ruth’s at a table with a few strangers in a room annexed to the main room. Slices of turkey lay on her plate, but nothing else. Marilyn sneaked a look around the corner of the door into the other room, where her friends sat at a long table laden with bowls and platters of delicious, aromatic food: creamed onions, chestnut stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce.
“Could I have some mashed potatoes, please?” Marilyn whimpered.
No one even noticed her.
Marilyn woke up with a start. It was seven in the morning. She could hear Ruth fumbling around in the bathroom. She covered her eyes with her arm, letting the dream sift back into the recesses of her brain.
“Okay, now,” she said aloud. “That was just pathetic.”
Tying her striped bathrobe around her, she headed into the kitchen to start breakfast. She liked coffee; Ruth liked tea.
Cold rain streaked the windows, and even in this well-insulated building, she could hear the wind moan. Flicking on the television, she curled up in a chair and waited for the Weather Channel to give the local forecast. She never used to watch TV in the morning, or during the day at all, and only rarely watched it in the evening. She had so many research articles to read, or students’ papers to grade. But Ruth liked to have the television on all the time, and now that Marilyn was on sabbatical, she had no papers to grade or committee reports to read. She was supposed to be doing her research, but going to her lab made her squeamish these days, afraid she’d run into Faraday. She’d seen him several times since he broke off with her, and he’d always been polite, but clearly it was uncomfortable for them both.
“Good morning, dear!” Ruth toddled into the living room, clean, clothed, and fragrant with lavender cologne. She pecked a kiss on Marilyn’s cheek, then went into the kitchen to pour a cup of tea. “What’s on the schedule for today?” Ruth stirred milk into her very strong tea and added a teaspoon of sugar.
“I was thinking we’d get our tree.” Marilyn put a couple of eggs on to boil. “But it’s going to rain all day, perhaps turn to snow. Maybe we’d better wait until tomorrow.”
“If it snows later on, we could get it then. It’s always fun to choose Christmas trees in the snow.” Ruth dipped her spoon into the sugar bowl.
“You’ve already put your sugar in,” Marilyn told her.
Ruth giggled. “Oh, did I? I guess I have a sweet heart.”
“Sweet tooth,” Marilyn murmured as she popped bread into the toaster.
They settled down at the table, their eggs in their little cups, the clever egg-slicing device next to Ruth’s plate. It made Marilyn smile to watch her mother attend to the opening of her egg. It was a moment of pleasure and concentration for Ruth as she carefully fit the aluminum ring over the top of the egg and snipped the shell, then neatly lifted off the top bit of egg, revealing the shimmering yellow yolk inside the solid white.
“Perfection!” Ruth said, as she did every morning. She sprinkled salt and pepper on the egg, dipped in her spoon, and nearly purred with pleasure.
This is a moment in a life,
Marilyn told herself.
a good moment in a life that deserves lots of good moments.
She ate her own egg without much noticing its flavor. All food seemed bland these days. All life seemed bland— bleak.
Mentally, Marilyn slapped herself. “So, Mom,” she said brightly, “let’s go to the Museum of Science!” Her mother loved going there.
“Well, dear, actually, I was thinking I’d like to stop in at the local Senior Citizens’ Center.” Ruth dipped a tip of her whole-wheat toast into the eggshell, soaking up every last bit of buttery yolk.
Marilyn stared. “The local Senior Citizens’ Center—is there such a thing?”
“Oh, yes. On Hawthorne Street. Open every day from nine to five. Sometimes in the evenings, too, if they have a speaker.”
“How did you find out about this?” Perhaps Ruth had been scammed by a telemarketer when Marilyn was out . . .
“It was in the
There was an article about it last week. It looks like fun. They’ve got bingo, and arts and crafts, and dances, and programs.”
“Well, great!” Marilyn felt oddly rejected. She felt all snarly inside. Here she’d changed her life in order to take care of her mother, and her mother had made other plans.
Ruth peered over her glasses at Marilyn. “You’d better get dressed, sweetheart. It’s rather late in the morning to be in your robe. You don’t want to acquire slovenly rabbits at this age.”
“You’re right, of course.” Marilyn set her dishes in the sink and went off to get dressed for the day, which suddenly loomed emptily before her.
In her bedroom, she listlessly pulled on trousers and a sweater, vaguely aware her Hot Flash friends would scream at the mismatched colors, but unable to give a damn. What would she do with herself after she dropped her mother at the Senior Citizens’ Center? How much time would she have? An hour? Two? Three? She allowed a mild surge of resentment to surface before reminding herself it didn’t really matter—she didn’t care whether she went in to the lab or not. Her work seemed so unimportant these days.
She forced herself to move forward. “Okay, Mother. Let’s get our coats on.”
She held Ruth’s coat for her, then pulled on her own, choosing the ugly, puffy down one her friends hated, because she was in such an ugly, puffy mood. Ruth gathered up her purse and gloves, Marilyn locked the door, and together they took the elevator down to the lobby.
“You wait here,” Marilyn instructed her mother. “I’ll bring the car around, then come in and get you.”
“I can walk to the car myself, honey,” Ruth objected.
“Of course you can, but I’d feel better if you’d wait for me. The rain’s turning to ice.”
“All right, dear,” Ruth said agreeably.
Marilyn ran through the bitter wind to her car in the condo lot. It was one of those bleak, gray days when clouds drained the world of color. In her hurry to get inside the car, she hit her shoulder,
“Damn!” She dropped her head onto the steering wheel. Deep breaths, she told herself. Take deep fucking breaths! Get your act together, Marilyn. You’re not the only woman making sacrifices on this planet. Think of Shirley—she’s carrying on without Justin.
When she’d regained a bit of self-control, she drove around to the front of the building. Just where she needed to park the car, at the end of the sidewalk leading from the condo, a taxi was stopped, its exhaust spiraling up through the rain like smoke from a chimney. A man stepped out of the cab, pulled up the hood of his raincoat, took the two suitcases the driver handed him, and ran for the condo. He disappeared inside.
Marilyn waited until the taxi drove away, then pulled up and parked in the empty space. She switched on her hazard lights and turn indicator, then ran through the streaming rain.
In the lobby, Ruth stood dry and perky with her red-and-green striped Christmas muffler, matching cap, and mittens. She was chatting with the man in the raincoat, her face bright and animated. In contrast, Marilyn felt drenched and soggy.
“Ready to go, Mother?” Marilyn asked, straining to sound cheerful.
“Not just yet, dear,” Ruth said. “Look who’s here.”
The man in the raincoat turned.
Marilyn’s knees went weak.
“Hello, Marilyn.” Ian was smiling from ear to ear.
“What are you doing here?” Her brain couldn’t assimilate this new information. It was like trying to fit a cookie cutter in a jigsaw space.
“I’ve just come from Boston University,” Ian told her. “I’m taking a position there.”
“You are?” Marilyn felt herself stagger backward. She put a hand out against the wall to stabilize herself.
“I didn’t want to tell you until I knew for sure.” Ian put his hands on Marilyn’s shoulders, steadying her. “I’m moving here. And while I didn’t envision asking you in exactly such a time and place, once again, I’m asking you to marry me.”
“Oh, Ian!” Marilyn’s heart flowered like a poinsettia.
From behind Ian’s shoulders, Ruth said, “There’s always light at the end of a prayer.”
STEAM WREATHED THE HEADS OF THE HOT FLASH Club as they lounged in the fragrant Jacuzzi.
Alice’s tense muscles were melting like butter in the soothing warmth. “Shirley, this was a brilliant idea.”
“Thanks! I thought we could all use a little relaxation time.”
Shirley had invited them for Christmas Eve lunch at her condo. She’d surprised them with a beautifully served salad of field greens and chopped vegetables, and a concoction of mixed fruits. Sparkling water was the only beverage, and dessert was, instead of food, a nice long soak in the Jacuzzi.
Faye patted her bulging belly. “I really appreciate this, Shirley. I’ve been eating so much—you know how it gets during the holidays—everything’s so rich. People drop off gifts of chocolates or homemade fudge or—”
“Pecans!” Polly chirped. “Those wonderful salted, candied pecans!”
“I made a
bûche de Noël,
” Alice told them. “Needless to say, I ate half the icing while I put the thing together.”
Marilyn looked surprised. “A
bûche de Noël
? That’s pretty ambitious.”
Alice stretched her limbs like a contented cat. “I’ve really got the Christmas spirit this year.”
“Yeah, you should see her tree,” Shirley said enthusiastically. “It touches the ceiling. And the
! It’s like Santa’s workshop in her living room.”
Alice grinned. She didn’t feel the slightest bit abashed. “Well, a baby needs so much! And I got quite a few little goodies for Jennifer—you know how emotional young mothers are.”
“Oh, and old nonmothers aren’t?” Shirley teased.
“I got you a few things, too,” Alice assured her. She told the others, “Shirley’s spending tonight with us. I didn’t like the thought of her being alone on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”
“Plus,” Shirley added enthusiastically, “while the turkey’s roasting and Gideon’s watching football, I’m going to access my site on
and show Alice all my prospective suitors.”
“How many do you have?” Polly asked.
“Twenty-two!” Shirley giggled. “I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun!”
“Speaking of beaux . . .” Marilyn pulled up the strap on her bathing suit. “Ruth has a man in her life!”
“How wonderful! Where did she meet him?” Faye asked.
“At the Senior Citizens’ Center. His name is Ernest Eberhart. He’s just her age, and very cute. And wait till you hear how they met! They were in line to go into the cafeteria, and Ernest was in front of Ruth. He was using a walker, and he turned to Mother and asked her to pull his pants up.”
The other women gasped in surprise.
“Well, you see,” Marilyn explained, “he’d just gotten out of the hospital, and he’d lost weight during an operation, so his pants were loose. This was his first time out in public with a walker. He was afraid that if he took his hands off the walker, he’d lose his balance and fall. So he asked Ruth to just hitch up his pants.”
“What did she do?” Polly asked.
“She reached over and yanked up his pants with both hands. Then she said, ‘This is the first time any man has ever asked me to pull his pants
They all shrieked with laughter.
“The saucy thing!” Faye chuckled.
“That Ruth is my role model,” Shirley said.
“Well, Ruth and Ernest and their group are pretty impressive for their age.” Marilyn laughed. “Ruth told me a story, and it’s
Ernest’s best friend, Harold—I haven’t met Harold yet, but my mother has—anyway, Ernest’s friend Harold went to the doctor this week. He’s eighty-six and hasn’t been feeling up to snuff. The doctor told him he has cancer, and has only a year or so to live. ‘In that case,’ Harold said, ‘I want a prescription for Viagra.’ ”
“Good for him!” Alice cheered.
Shirley looked thoughtful. “What’s that saying? It’s better to travel hopefully than it is to arrive.”
“Speaking of traveling,” Marilyn looked at Polly and Faye. “When do you leave?”
“We’re flying down to Florida tomorrow morning,” Faye said. “Aubrey and me, Polly and Hugh.”
“The guy who dreamed up this Christmas Getaway Cruise was a genius,” Polly added. “When I dropped off my presents to Amy, David, and Jehoshaphat yesterday morning, I was in such a hurry I didn’t have time to feel rejected by them.”
“At least Carolyn’s changed, don’t you think, Polly?” Faye asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” Polly agreed. She told the others, “Carolyn and her family—everyone except Aubrey— left for London yesterday. And the evening before, Carolyn gave a dinner party. She invited Faye and seated her next to Aubrey. She told me to bring Hugh, and she placed us next to each other.”
“So your Thanksgiving temper tantrum worked!” Shirley said.
Polly objected, “I wouldn’t call it a
temper tantrum . . .
“You’re right,” Shirley agreed. “That makes it seem irrational. I just meant you stood up for yourself and what you wanted. Sometimes that’s hard to do.”
“Sometimes it’s hardest to do with members of your own family,” Marilyn added.
“Speaking of families,” Faye said, “it was such a good idea, Shirley, to have that Christmas party for the families of the employees of The Haven. Everyone enjoyed it so much.”
“I think I enjoyed it most of all,” Shirley said. “I had so much fun buying presents for all those little kids— and when they saw the tree! And opened their presents! They were genuinely thrilled. All those darling faces.” She patted her chest. “Makes me tear up.”
“This time last year,” Faye said in a musing tone of voice, “you wanted it to be a Dream Come True Christmas.”
“I still do,” Shirley admitted. “I suppose I always will.”
“You’re an incorrigible optimist,” Alice declared.
“But sometimes you’re right,” Marilyn told Shirley, smiling. “I’m living proof of that.”
“Have you and Ian found a house yet?” Faye asked.
Marilyn shook her head. “Oh, with Christmas and all, we’ve had to put the search on hold. We’ll have more time after the first of the year.”
“How does Ruth like Ian?” Polly asked.
“She adores him. But she still insists she’ll only live with us as long as she has a private apartment. She says we need our privacy and she needs hers.”
Alice said, “Lots of places have mother-in-law apartments these days.”
Marilyn nodded. “Good thing. There are about thirty-eight million women over fifty in the United States today. I don’t know how many of their mothers are alive and kicking, but it’s got to be quite a few. Fathers, too. Anyway, if Ian and I find a house we like that doesn’t have one, we can always build an apartment on.”
“Have you decided on a wedding date?” Shirley asked.
Marilyn smiled dreamily. “Not yet. Don’t worry. I wouldn’t dream of getting married without all of you in attendance!”
Alice waved her fingers. “Prunes!”
Shirley nodded. “Right. Time to get out.”
The five women climbed out of the Jacuzzi, went into the locker room, took quick showers, then pulled on their warm winter clothing. They’d entered the Jacuzzi separately, and now as they dressed together, they noticed they were all wearing the same thing: hot pink sweat-shirts printed across the bust with the logo “Havenly Yours,” given to the five by the employees of The Haven and Havenly Yours.
“Look!” Shirley called. “Someone should take our picture!”
“No camera!” Faye faked a pout.
“That’s all right,” Alice said. “We’ll wear these again, in the new year, when someone else is around to get all five of us together.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh-oh, it’s late! I’ve got to run.”
Shirley said, “You go ahead, Alice. I’ve got to get some stuff from my apartment. I’ll be at your place soon.”
“Merry Christmas, everyone,” Faye said as she tucked her hair into a red wool fedora decorated with a green sprig of holly.
“Merry Christmas!” the others chorused.
They pulled on caps, and gloves, and mufflers, and coats. They hugged and kissed, and grabbed up their purses. Chattering and laughing, they rushed out of The Haven to their cars and their busy lives.
And snowflakes drifted down around them like snippets of celestial lace.