Authors: Nancy Thayer
Tags: #Contemporary Women, #Fiction
“Mother,” Marilyn said quietly.
But Faraday encouraged her. “I love kilt jokes! Let’s hear it!”
“Very well. A Scotsman spends an evening in a bar and has rather too much to drink. When he leaves the pub, he passes out on the street. Two young American women notice.
“ ‘My,’ one says to the other. ‘I’ve always wondered what’s under a Scottish kilt.’
“ ‘Let’s look!’ says the other.
“So they look, and glory be, he’s naked as the day he was born. The girls giggle. Then the first one mischievously takes a blue ribbon from her hair and ties it around the man’s sexual reproductive member. They run off, laughing.
“A while later, the Scotsman wakes up. Feeling something odd, he lifts his kilt, looks down, and sees the blue ribbon tied around his hoo-ha.
“ ‘Well, lad,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what you got up to while I was passed out, but I’m glad you won first prize.’ ”
They all laughed, and the shared laughter made Marilyn relax just a little. This was the first Christmas that Faraday had accompanied Marilyn to her son’s family dinner. She wasn’t quite sure what this implied about their relationship. She wasn’t quite sure what she
it to imply.
“Now tell me again who will be there this evening,” her mother asked from the front seat.
“Well, Teddy and Lila and your great-granddaughter Irene, of course, since it’s at their house. And the three of us. And Eugenie, Lila’s mother.”
“But not Lila’s father?”
“No. They separated last year. Lila’s father’s gone off with a younger woman. Lila and Teddy and the baby will spend Christmas Day with Lila’s father. Eugenie got them for Thanksgiving this year, because I got them for Thanksgiving last year. Eugenie wanted them all for herself this Christmas, but now that she and her husband have separated, there aren’t enough bits of time to go around.”
“You need a computer to figure out how to divide the holidays up fairly,” Ruth said.
“Or a psychiatrist,” Marilyn said.
“Still,” Ruth said, “there’s no plague like home for the holidays.”
Faraday looked in the rearview mirror and winked at Marilyn.
The evening blurred past in a flurry of kisses, gifts, Champagne, and laughter. Teddy and Lila served a veritable Christmas feast, Ruth and her great-granddaughter formed a mutual admiration society, and Faraday charmed everyone, as usual, with humorous anecdotes.
Only Eugenie, Lila’s mother, cast a pall on the party. Always aloof, tonight she was especially remote, and no wonder. Poor Eugenie had had the face-lift from hell. She looked like a melted Madame Tussaud’s mannequin. Marilyn could only imagine how horrible this must be for Eugenie, whose extraordinary feminine perfection had been a living advertisement for her ex-husband’s plastic surgery business.
In the car on the way back to Marilyn’s condo, Faraday said, “It was a grand party.”
“My, yes,” Ruth agreed. “Delicious food. And I got to have some time with my great-granddaughter.”
Marilyn leaned forward, resting her arms on the back of the front seat. “What did you think of Lila’s mother?”
Ruth took a moment to think. “Well, Eugenie’s an unusual woman. She reminds me of the Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish. Beautiful, diaphanous, and poisonous.”
“She was even more beautiful before she had that botched face-lift,” Marilyn said.
Ruth yawned. “Well, beauty is only kin deep.”
Back at Marilyn’s condo, Faraday insisted on escorting the women inside, carrying their bags of presents for them.
“It was a lovely evening.” Ruth turned to Faraday. “Thank you for everything.”
“Yes, Faraday,” Marilyn echoed, “thank you.”
But Faraday showed no intention of leaving. “How about a little nightcap?”
Marilyn hesitated. She was yearning to crawl into bed with her new book on plate tectonics.
“You two youngsters can stay up, but I’m going to bed. Good night, Fairy.” Ruth leaned over to kiss Marilyn on the cheek. “Good night, dear. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Mother,” Marilyn said.
Marilyn and Faraday watched Ruth toddle away down the hall.
Marilyn stifled a yawn. “I don’t know if I’m up for a nightcap. I’ve had so much to drink tonight. All that Champagne. How about a cup of tea?”
“Actually, I don’t want anything else to drink, either,” Faraday told her. “I just wanted a little private time with you.”
Marilyn’s heart sank.
Faraday took her hand and led her to the sofa. Once they were comfortably seated side by side, he told her, “I have another present for you, Marilyn.”
Reaching down, he unfastened the metal lid of his sporran.
And brought out a small black velvet box.
“Marilyn,” Faraday said, his beautiful blue eyes shining. “Will you marry me?”
A hot flash that would have propelled a missile to the moon exploded inside Marilyn’s body. She flushed from her belly straight up to the top of her head.
“Oh!” she cried, jumping up. “Hot flash, Faraday, excuse me!” She raced from the room.
In her bedroom, she ripped off her clothes. In her bra and panties, she went into the bathroom, ran the cold water tap, and stood over the sink, pressing cool water onto her face, letting it drizzle down her neck and shoulders. The intense sense of irritation that usually accompanied her hot flashes was multiplied by a power of ten right now. She felt wildly, almost
She gulped cold water from her hands. Soaked a wash-cloth with cold water and pressed it against the back of her neck. And cursed under her breath.
Damn Faraday! How could he
to her! It made her feel so
As her body temperature dropped back into the normal range, her emotions remained on Emergency Alert.
Why was she so panicked? Marilyn asked herself.
Because Faraday had pressed her into an existential corner. She cared for him. She enjoyed his company. She admired him. She shared common interests with him. But never in her life had she experienced that sweeping sense of falling in love so much praised by her Hot Flash friends. Not with Faraday, not with her husband Theodore, not even with that cad Barton, who had introduced her to the sensation of lust.
So late in her life, she
developed a sexual appetite. And Faraday, who was so good, so intelligent, so charming, could not satisfy that appetite. Didn’t even worry about trying. Should she refuse his proposal for that reason? Or accept it, and be thankful any man wanted to marry her at all? She was no beauty, and more than that, she was fifty-four. This might be her last and only chance to have a companion with whom to share the rest of her life. Statistically, this was a miracle. Who was she, a scientist, to defy statistics?
A gentle knock sounded at the bathroom door. “Marilyn?” Faraday whispered. “Are you all right?”
Marilyn grabbed the bathrobe hanging on the hook, pulled it on, and opened the door. “Sorry, Faraday. That was a particularly hot hot flash.”
“Come sit down,” Faraday told her. “I made you some chamomile tea with the valerian Shirley gave you to calm your heart.”
“Oh, Faraday, how kind!” Marilyn said.
“I poured it over ice,” he continued, looking pleased with himself. “So it will cool you as you drink it.”
“Oh, Faraday, how brilliant!” Marilyn told him.
She allowed him to take her hand and lead her back into the living room. She felt like someone being led to the edge of a diving board.
Damn, damn, damn!
What was she going to do?
ALICE HAD NEVER BEEN PARTICULARLY INTERESTED IN domestic matters. Oh, when her sons were young, she’d enjoyed the Christmas folderol, but now she was in her sixties, her sons were grown, and she didn’t feel obligated to make a fuss. So this year, she’d just hung some mistletoe and holly over the doors and windows. After all, her handsome condo, in a restored warehouse on Boston Harbor, had a view like a Christmas tree itself, replete with twinkling lights from boats, cruisers, and planes going in and out of Logan Airport.
Now she slid open the glass door and stepped out onto her balcony. Her beau, Gideon, ensconced on the sofa with the remote in his hand, didn’t ask why she wanted to stand out in the frosty night in her light silk caftan. He was well acquainted with her hot flashes by now.
Actually, she wasn’t having a hot flash, as she leaned on the railing, breathing in huge gulps of cold, fresh air. More like a brain blip. No—more like an interior tantrum. It was as if she had a little Alice living inside her, a cranky miniature troll who was always complaining. Always wanting more.
An Id Alice.
An Id-iot Alice.
She imagined that everyone else in the whole world was probably content right now, sharing Christmas Eve rituals, anticipating tomorrow’s festivities.
Turning slightly, she looked through the glass door into her living room where Gideon was relaxing, zoning out as he watched television. Gideon was absolutely adorable, a great, big man who resembled the Red Sox hitter David Ortiz, or perhaps more accurately, Ortiz’s father. His bald spot expanded daily, and although he tried to watch his diet because of diabetes, he still had a gut slung like a hammock holding a baby hippo. Even so, he was a gorgeous man.
And he loved Alice. Because of a prostate cancer operation, he couldn’t really have sex, but Alice did her best not to mind. Marilyn’s lover couldn’t have sex, either. Faraday didn’t have a prostate problem; he was just impotent. Alice grinned, thinking of Marilyn’s complaints. God, laughter helped.
Feeling slightly less grumpy, she went back into the living room.
“Alice,” Gideon said, “sit down and relax. You’ve been going all day.”
Alice glanced around her dining area. Christmas Eve dinner was over. She and Gideon had finished clearing up. The dishwasher hummed in the kitchen. Nothing needed doing. It was nine o’clock at night.
Sighing, she collapsed onto the sofa. “I think Jennifer liked her presents, don’t you?”
“Um-hum,” Gideon agreed absently, his attention fixed on a taped rerun of Tiger Woods playing golf, the sport Gideon had taken up this past summer.
“And I think Alan and Jennifer were both pleased that
fixed Christmas Eve dinner for
” Alice mused aloud. Alan and his girlfriend, Jennifer, lived in the gatehouse of The Haven, a cozy cottage where they worked together, running their bakery and catering service. Because they were always slaving over an oven, Alice wanted to give them a real holiday. And she had. “I was as nice as pie to Jennifer, wasn’t I?”
“Um-hum,” Gideon said again.
I want him to praise me!
cried the demanding diminutive Alice, dancing up and down in frustration just inside Alice’s left ear.
I want him to tell me
I’m wonderful because I’ve gotten over my prejudice
about Jennifer being white! I want him to tell me I’m a
good-hearted, loving mother, not to mention a fabulous
cook with the intelligence of S. Epatha Merkerson and
the looks of Vanessa Williams!
“I ate too much tonight,” Alice moaned. “I look like the south end of a rhino going north.”
“Drat!” Gideon exclaimed, completely ignoring his cue for a compliment.
Alice glanced at the television. Tiger Woods’s ball had just missed the hole.
You’ve seen that exact same ball miss that exact same
hole at least ten times already!
Alice wanted to shout at Gideon.
You’ve watched every game Tiger Woods has
ever played at least twenty times!
But she kept quiet, musing on her own thoughts.
After a few moments, she said, “Did you see how much Jennifer ate? And she’s still so tiny! This caftan’s comfortable, but it makes me look like a camping tent with legs.”
“Nonsense.” Gideon’s reply was absentmindedly dutiful. “You are a thing of beauty and a joy forever.”
Well, that was a half-assed compliment if she ever heard one. Still, she was grateful for it. “Who said that, anyway?” she wondered aloud.
Rising, she went to her bookshelves. More and more these days, old phrases of songs and poetry popped into her thoughts. She didn’t understand just why. Sometimes she thought it was because great, gaping vacancies had been left in her brain when she retired from TransContinent Insurance, and because nature abhorred a vacuum, her brain was substituting stuff she’d learned about years ago in high school and college. More likely, she was just getting senile. Whatever, she was glad people had gone to the trouble of making anthologies like her dictionary of quotations.
She sat down with the heavy tome on her lap and looked for the word “beauty” in the index. John Keats. Hm. English poet, if she remembered correctly. She turned to the quote and read aloud.
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet
“Oh,” Alice said. “Oh.”
!” Gideon said, as Tiger’s ball flew seventy thousand feet into the air.
Alice burst into tears.
That got his attention. “Why, Alice, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, Gideon,” Alice sobbed. “I don’t know!” But she did know. And because she knew Gideon truly loved her, she sputtered, “I guess it just makes me sad, that’s all. I mean, sometimes I just plain
was lovely once!
loveliness sure as hell didn’t increase! I’m sagging and bagging and bloating! I’m aching and I’m getting too tired too easily, and when I’m not tired, I’m cranky and bored! Plus, I
going to pass away into nothingness someday, and I’m so old, that day is just around the corner!”
Gideon struggled up out of the chair, came over to the sofa, and held her for a while. When she caught her breath and dug a tissue out of her robe pocket, he said, in the kind, sensible tone of voice that had made him such an excellent high school math teacher, “Well, you know, Alice, the poem doesn’t say ‘A person of beauty is a joy forever.’ I believe the word is a ‘thing.’ Like a vase.”
She blew her nose. “That’s a good point, Gideon.”
“Plus,” he added, stroking her back, “you
lovely, every sagging, bagging, cranky old pound of you. You’re downright beautiful, Alice. And I’m changing, too. Look at me. I used to use Head & Shoulders. Now I use Mop & Glo.”
She forced a laugh. How had she ever deserved such a wonderful man? And why in the hell wasn’t she satisfied with her life, now that she had him in it? She gave him a long, affectionate kiss. He held her tightly for a few minutes, then returned to watching television, leaving Alice alone with her cranky thoughts.
The phone rang. She jumped for it.
“Hi, Hon,” Shirley said. “How’s your holiday going?”
Alice curled up in a chair, settling in for a good talk. “Pretty well, I think.” She recounted the evening spent with Alan and Jennifer. Shirley wanted to know every last detail, what all the gifts were, what everyone ate. When she wound down, she asked, “How’s your Christmas Eve?”
“Oh, fine.” Shirley sounded oddly blue. “Justin’s in his office, working on his novel. I slept a lot of the day, since nothing’s going on at The Haven.”
“Wise of you. You’ll be glad you rested up tomorrow.” Alice forced herself to sound sympathetic, and she
toward Shirley. It was just that rat Justin she didn’t trust. “What time do they all arrive?”
“About one o’clock. It means a hell of a lot of driving for Justin, not to mention it took the skills of a UN negotiator to organize a time when both his ex-wives would allow their children to be away from them on Christmas. Justin picks up Angel and Spring in Stoneham at eleven thirty. Then he’ll drive to the Braintree mall to pick up Ben, who lives on the Cape. His mom agreed to bring him that far. Then, about forty-five minutes to drive back out here.”
“And you’re roasting a turkey?”
“I am! I’m even doing it a special way, so it will be nice and tender.”
“Good for you.” Alice knew that this was a sacrifice for Shirley’s vegetarian heart.
“Well, I want them to like me, Alice. We see each other so seldom, and I know their mothers don’t want me, the new woman, to be a part of their lives.”
“No one could not like you, Shirley.”
“Oh, I hope you’re right, Alice. I’d like to think this was the first holiday for us as a blended family.”
Alice squirmed. Shirley’s romantic blindness made Alice as irritable as a cow with a bug in her ear.
Of all the Hot Flash friends, Alice loved Shirley the best. When they first met, Shirley had been a masseuse with a business sense as drifty as the smoke from one of her aromatic candles. With Alice as her mentor, Shirley had changed. She’d taken courses in management and finance. She’d stopped dreaming and actually made her dream of running a wellness spa come true. Alice felt proud of Shirley for all she’d accomplished, and protective of her, too.
Alice had been in charge of personnel for a major insurance company for most of her life, so she’d developed keen instincts for liars, schemers, and bullshitters. And Justin Quale was all of those. She just
it. Alice hadn’t criticized Shirley when she started dating Justin, thinking—hoping—the romance would die a natural death. After all, Shirley was twelve years older than Justin and thrilled that this man, who had a Ph.D. in literature and wanted to write novels, would choose Shirley, who had never even graduated from high school. When Shirley let Justin move into The Haven, Alice had expressed her displeasure in no uncertain terms, although when Shirley hired him to teach a writing course there, Alice hadn’t made too much of a fuss.
But now, something fishy was going on. Alice could
it, just as surely as she knew it when her boys were teenagers and tried to sneak past her with mint on their breath, too naïve to know she could smell the smoke on their clothes.
For all Shirley’s chirpy optimism, in spite of how much she had learned about business and looked and acted like an intelligent, powerful woman, she was really quite vulnerable. In her heart, Shirley believed in fairy tales. Alice did too—as long as they were by the Brothers Grimm. Justin’s princely façade covered the soul of a toad. Alice
it. But what could she do?
“I can’t wait for the kids to see the tree,” Shirley rambled on moonily. “It’s the first time I’ve ever decorated a tree for a family. It’s on the small side, but you know my condo’s cozy, a bigger tree wouldn’t have worked. Besides, it’s kind of cute, how all the presents sort of overwhelm the tree. I’ve spent
wrapping each present.”
“Better have a camera ready.”
“Oh, I do! I’ve told Justin to hand the presents out one by one, so I can photograph each child opening it. I can’t wait to see their faces!”
“I wonder what they’ll give you.”
“Oh, I don’t care. Probably nothing. Christmas is all about
Oh, Alice, this is going to be the best Christmas of my life!”
“I hope so,” Alice said warmly, and she meant it, but as she hung up the phone, her face was creased with worry.