Authors: Nancy Thayer
Tags: #Contemporary Women, #Fiction
NEW YEAR’S DAY
NEW YEAR’S DAY DAWNED WHITE AND FRIGID AND only got worse, as a howling wind blew tiny stinging bits of snow, like grains of sand, against buildings, trees, and cars, and into the eyes of anyone foolish enough to brave the elements.
The Haven was officially closed, most of its windows dark. But the lights were on in the locker room, and in the beautifully tiled Jacuzzi room, the hot tub bubbled and steamed. Five women in bathing suits were sinking into the healing heat of hot water and good gossip. Although they often phoned one another, the Hot Flash Club members tried to keep their juiciest news and latest crises for an occasion when they were all together, so they could all weigh in with opinions, argue, and brain-storm. But the holidays had thrown them off schedule. They had a lot to catch up on.
Marilyn held her mother’s hand until Ruth was securely seated, her head resting against the back of the tub. Ruth wore one of Marilyn’s bathing suits, and Marilyn couldn’t help but think she was seeing the Ghost of Christmas Future in her mother’s body. Like Marilyn, Ruth was slender, and for a woman in her eighties she was in good shape, but the top of the swimsuit hung loosely over her shriveled breasts while the tummy section bulged out in a little round pudding. Ruth’s skin was freckled and wrinkled, creased like tissue paper, and beneath the fragile covering, her green veins wound around her bones like vines over a trellis.
Ruth’s toenails were yellow, thick, and hard as ice cubes. Marilyn had cut them for her this morning, and painted them with the polish she had in the house only because her Hot Flash friends insisted she use it from time to time.
“I’ve always liked my toes,” Ruth had confided. “I think of them as ten friendly little companions. Hello down there!” she called. Wiggling her toes, she responded in a squeaky voice, “Hello up there!”
Okay, she’s senile,
Ruth continued, “You and Sharon liked your toes, too, when you were young, remember? You used to draw faces on your toes and make little caps for them out of bits of yarn or foil.”
Marilyn slapped herself in the forehead. “You’re right! We did!”
Memories flooded back: Long afternoons in the Ohio summer heat. She and Sharon had spent hours painstakingly drawing faces on and dressing each other’s toes, tying bits of ribbon around them as neckties or tutus. Then they’d lie side by side on the grass in the shade of a tree, holding musical revues, making their toes dance while they sang songs they’d heard their grandmother sing. “Five foot two, eyes of blue,” or “Hey, good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’.” Did anyone sing those songs anymore?
A door opened up in her mind. Marilyn felt she could step through it and reenter those summer days, which shimmered green-golden and fresh and sounded like little girls giggling. The innocence, the happiness, the
ness of it all swept through her. She remembered how she’d been especially fond of one of her birthmarks, the brown one on her left thigh. It had looked like a piece of a miniature jigsaw puzzle.
“Marilyn?” Her mother’s voice interrupted her thoughts.
“All done!” Marilyn stuck the brush back inside the bottle and tightened it.
Later, as they drove to The Haven, Marilyn thought how her mother was a living repository of memories. When Ruth was gone, who would remember, who would care, about Marilyn’s girlish toes?
Now, as Ruth bobbed in the Jacuzzi, she kept letting her feet float up so she could admire her painted nails. Marilyn noticed how Ruth smiled every time she saw the perky spots of pink peek up through the water.
“Did you have a nice Christmas, Ruth?” Alice asked.
Ruth’s face lit up. “It was
We spent Christmas Eve with Teddy and Lila and my adorable little great-granddaughter, Irene.”
“Was Eugenie there?” Shirley asked.
“She was, indeed,” Ruth answered. “We could hardly pry little Irene out of her clutch.”
“And guess what!” Marilyn looked at her friends with a grin. “Eugenie had a
” Seeing Polly’s puzzled face, she hastened to explain, “I know it seems callous of me to be silly about another woman’s bad face-lift, but Eugenie is so superficial and critical and such a terrible snob—”
Shirley was glad Marilyn was so chatty today. She loved her friends and, as always, loved being around them, but sooner or later she was going to
to tell them about her gift to Justin. She let herself sink deeper and deeper into the water, so that her mouth was submerged and only the top of her head from her nose up showed.
“You’ve got to tell Faye about this,” Alice said. “After all, she ‘worked’ for Eugenie.”
“I wish Faye were here now,” Polly said.
“I do too.” Shirley slid up out of the water so she could talk. “I told her we’d be glad to pick her up, or even go to her house so she wouldn’t have to deal with traveling in a car. But she said she really needed to rest.”
Marilyn frowned. “Still, it’s not like Faye not to come out. I hope she’s okay.”
“I think she’s depressed,” Polly told them. “I saw her Christmas night for dinner at Carolyn’s house. When we had a chance to talk alone for a while, she told me that her daughter’s pregnant again.”
“That’s great!” Shirley looked puzzled. “That should thrill Faye.”
“It does, but Faye also learned that Lars’s parents are moving to San Francisco so they can be near their son and his family. Lars’s mother plans to help Laura when she has the new baby, so they won’t have to hire a nanny. Faye feels horribly left out. She almost started crying when she told me.”
“Oh, dear, poor Faye!” Marilyn’s face crinkled with worry.
Shirley tried to be optimistic. “Good thing she’s got Aubrey to keep her occupied.”
Polly considered holding her breath and sinking to the bottom of the tub. She wanted to share her discomfort about the whole Carolyn/Aubrey business with the Hot Flash group, but now, in the soothing intimacy of the hot tub, she decided to ignore her worries. “Yes, Aubrey seems quite smitten with Faye.”
“How was your Christmas?” Shirley asked.
“Well, let’s see.” Polly was glad to change the subject. Playfully, she cocked her head, pretending to search her memory. “Well, I
set my house on fire just when my daughter-in-law arrived.”
“You set your house on fire! Oh, Polly!” Marilyn’s mother looked horrified.
Polly waved her hands in the air. “It’s all right. No one was hurt.” She didn’t want poor Ruth to have a heart attack. “Some greenery on the mantel caught fire. It was quite spectacular for a few moments, but only one wall was ruined. Well, and the other walls and ceiling were smoke-damaged. Fortunately, my insurance covers it, so I’ll have the living room repainted. The problem is, it gives Amy one more reason to stay away from me.”
“What’s the matter with that girl?” Alice shook her head impatiently. “She sounds loony.”
“I know,” Polly agreed. “I’ll never understand why David married her.”
Ruth piped up, “
never understood why Marilyn married Theodore. He was always such a pompous little rooster.”
“We got Teddy out of the marriage, Mother,” Marilyn reminded her.
Polly leaned forward. “Marilyn, what did Faraday give you for Christmas?”
Marilyn very busily adjusted the strap on her Speedo.
“Oh, boy,” Alice chuckled. “This is going to be good.”
“Oh, Alice!” Marilyn slapped the water in exasperation.
“Come on, out with it,” Alice coaxed.
“Oh, no!” Marilyn was turning red all over. “I’ve got to get out for a minute.” Pushing herself up, she left the steamy room.
“Those hot flashes make her miserable,” Ruth told the others. “She’s forever pulling off her clothes. I told her she should call herself Dixie Rose Lee.”
The others looked confused.
“Gypsy!” Shirley cried. “You mean Gypsy Rose Lee.”
“That’s what I said.”
Marilyn returned, slightly less flushed. “I’ll just sit out here for a while.” She folded herself Indian–style on the tiles.
“So,” Alice prompted. “You were saying . . .”
Marilyn made a face. “Faraday asked me to marry him.”
“Oh, my God!” In her excitement, Shirley popped up like a piece of toast. “That’s so wonderful! Oh, Marilyn!”
Alice yanked Shirley back down into the water. “Calm down, Shirley. We don’t know whether Marilyn accepted.”
“Well, of course she did!” Shirley responded, indignant. Then she saw Marilyn’s face. “Didn’t you?”
“Well,” Marilyn hedged. “I told him I needed some time to think about it.”
“But why?” Shirley asked. “Faraday’s so cute! And he’s fun! And he likes all that scientific stuff you like.”
“True. But—” Marilyn glanced sideways at her mother. “You know, he’s got a little problem in the, um, romance department.”
“Do you mean he doesn’t satisfy you sexually?” Ruth asked, turning to look up at her daughter.
“Well, Mom!” Marilyn blushed again.
“I think you’re right to take your time,” Alice weighed in. “What’s your hurry? It’s not like we’re young women who’ve got to worry about ticking biological clocks. You can’t have any more children. You’re not getting married to get away from home or satisfy your parents. You should only do it if you really want to.”
“But if you don’t accept,” Polly added, worriedly, “he might be insulted or hurt. He might start seeing someone else!”
Ruth stirred in the water. “You know what they say. Marry in haste, repent in leisure wear.”
“Well, look.” Alice’s voice took on its executive tone. “If the only thing holding you back is Faraday’s sexual, um, incapacity, then be an adult and try to find a solution. There are some excellent medicines for that kind of thing.”
“True. But every time I try to talk with him about this, he stonewalls me.”
“Tell him it’s a condition of getting engaged,” Alice suggested.
Marilyn nodded slowly. “I could do that.” Lifting an eyebrow, she subtly nodded in her mother’s direction. “It’s all so complicated.”
Polly got the message and changed the subject. “So, Shirley, how was your Christmas?”
Shirley squirmed. It was now or never. Actually, it didn’t
to be now. Actually, her financial affairs weren’t really any of their business. Except, of course, they were, because her Hot Flash friends had invested, some more than others, in The Haven. It would all come out one way or the other, anyway. She just had to be brave and tell them. But she was already so filled with negative energy, so envious of Marilyn because Faraday had asked her to marry him! And envy was a destructive emotion.
“Boy, do you look guilty,” Alice remarked.
Shirley considered simply sliding down into the hot water and staying there. Instead, she pushed her wet hair behind her ears. “Justin gave me diamond ear studs!”
Polly peered at the little gems. “Beautiful!”
Marilyn reentered the water. “Did his kids like their presents?”
Shirley brightened. “They did! But oh, my gosh, wait till you hear about my gourmet Christmas dinner!”
As Shirley laughingly told them about the disintegrating turkey, Alice settled back against the Jacuzzi, adjusting herself so one of the jets hit her right in a sore spot in her back. The heat mellowed her out, and she was just beginning to feel ashamed for thinking ill of Justin, when Shirley said:
“. . . so I want to tell you about it. It was kind of my Christmas present to Justin, but more than that, really. Remember when I said I thought this Christmas should be about dreams coming true? How we’ve talked about this time of our lives being about making dreams come true? Well, you know Justin’s written a novel, but he hasn’t been able to find a publisher.” She held up a hand. “Just wait! It’s hard to find a publisher. You all just don’t have any idea.”
“You’re right,” Marilyn agreed. “I’ve heard some of my MIT acquaintances talk about this. It’s a real struggle to find a publisher for fiction. There are so many people writing excellent books these days.”
Shirley threw a grateful smile Marilyn’s way. “So my present to Justin was money. Enough money for him to get his book published, and to get a good cover designed for it. And later, I’m going to give him enough money to promote and publicize it.”
For a moment, the only sound in the room was the burbling of the Jacuzzi jets.
Then Alice asked quietly, “How much money did you give him, Shirley?”
Shirley’s shoulders drifted up toward her ears and her voice went little-girlish. “You have to understand. He’s investigated this. He’s checked around. It’s not cheap . . .”
“How much?” Alice persisted.
“Ten thousand dollars,” Shirley admitted meekly.
Alice exploded. “Ten thousand dollars! Girl, where did you get that much money?”
money, Alice!” Shirley shot back defiantly. “I saved some from my salary over the last two years, and I got the rest on credit card loans.”
“Are you nuts?” Alice was volcanic.
“Justin’s going to repay me as soon as his book starts selling.”
Alice shook her head angrily. “And what if no one buys his book? What then?”
“I don’t see why you have to be so pessimistic,” Shirley argued.
“I can’t do this.” Alice hauled herself up out of the Jacuzzi. “Shirley, if you’re going to think with your crotch, I’m not going to remain involved with The Haven. I’ve invested too much of my own time and money to see it jeopardized.”
“You’re crazy!” Shirley cried. “This doesn’t jeopardize The Haven! It’s
But Alice strode out of the room, leaving behind only wet footprints on the tile and four women sitting in stunned silence.
Ruth spoke first. “Oh, my.”
Shirley was white. “Should I go after her?”
Polly and Marilyn looked at each other helplessly.
“I don’t know,” Marilyn said. “I wish Faye were here.”
“I think you should let her have time to calm down,” Ruth advised. “At the retirement community, some of us tend to fly off the hamper more than others, due, I believe, to hardening of the arteries, or feeling cranky because of some physical ailment.”