The three of them were drinking and zinging haphazard barbs at various political figures (who of course could not respond), and generally commiserating about the unholy state of the world. It was cool enough to wear jackets, but they still preferred Mel’s patio–that’s what she called it, despite it being a rectangular, cracked slab of concrete with tufts of weeds winning out. Mel was a natural yard keeper, she said in self defense once. Veralynn and Kat waved her off, retorted that it was simple if benign neglect, case closed.
Kat got up to grab another bag of lime favored rice chips from a grocery bag, then popped it open behind them, startling Veralynn, who reacted strongly.
“Please do package opening in the kitchen–that was a bit irritating!” She chugged her remaining beer and reached for another bottle.
“Hardly a big noise–but we are loud, the neighbors will be peering over my fence in a few, then lobbing things next.” Mel said, eyebrow raised. “Anyway, I like that Kat leaps and gallops to the kitchen for more food. That’s the spirit! Even if it is shameful junk food.”
Mel had thought about suggesting that they needed to meet elsewhere awhile, it was becoming a point of contention for the Johnsons across the alley and was wearing her out, all the clean up. Soon they’d be forced indoors by winter rain. She shivered thinking of those temps and pulled muscled legs close to her chest. She considered one more beer, but three were likely enough.
Kat giggled–she became a giggler as alcohol relaxed her– and plopped down with a sigh, pushing three chips past her toothy smile, giving off a strong beam of her mischievousness. Her lips were one of her better features–perpetually colored candy apple red, and then those expensive teeth nearly glowing day or night. And long limbs, dancerly and lithe. She must have been a persuasive real estate agent before the kids were born.
“Well, they’re only envious–or dreadfully sober,” Veralynn said, pushing a sweep of dark hair from her forehead.
The others laughed at that, and munched on chips greedily.
But the last phrase echoed in her head. Which was in fact more dreadful–a hangover or no hangover? She was the senior technical writing editor for a large company–she freelanced, as well–and sometimes on Thursday mornings, the morning after they drank, the words she had to read zigzagged or receded. Thank goodness she was good enough to not be badly chastised–yet. It had been hard to jockey for such a good position.
They clinked bottles–Mel had grabbed one more–and settled back for a last few minutes. They all had early morning obligations, they reminded each other once more–it was only mid-week for two of them. Veralynn only worked four days a week at last. But they liked their sessions (our therapy, Kat thought, and I need these desperately), each Wednesday and again on Friday. It helped smooth the wrinkles that had begun to etch about their forty-ish faces, to ease pressures of their busy lives. It was their little club.
They were finally talked out–work, relationships or lack thereof, kids (Kat’s two plus a husband), health goals (Mel was into taekwondo), emotional balance (much was left unspoken but all had their troubles) and maybe toss in supplemental topics like books, films, art, spiritual well being–if they had time. No one wanted to lean too much toward intellectual discourse at their drinking sessions, they had agreed from the start.
As Veralynn was compelled to note, “Drinking and rigorous intellectual activity–that is an oxymoron, ladies. We must use this time to drown our tiny sorrows and act foolish.”
So they said goodnight, quick hugs all around. Kat and Veralynn left as Mel placed bottles in recycling and wiped down counters, turned out the kitchen light. She watched Kat’s SUV drive off with Veralynn beside her, Mel’s hand lightly pressed against the living room window. The window pane fogged under her nose. It was getting colder already out. How she loved the sun’s heat…
The house was so empty after their gatherings, it crowded her with its silence. Since Bill had left her when she’d fallen asleep last spring, nights were the worst.
It was Thursday, getting late. Veralynn finished up a last proofread of the document and switched off her computer. It was nearly 9 pm and everyone else had left, as usual, except for cleaning staff whose vacuums ripped apart the stillness. Working four, ten hours days meant she was at her desk for twelve–she was always trying to catch up. She put her shoes back on, grabbed her tan leather tote and coat. She would not take work home this time, she’d had enough.
The long drive from city to suburb was an easy one at this hour. Her mind ran over meetings of the past week, assignments, documents still needing touch ups. As she passed three bars, one after the other before she got on the highway, she felt the old pull. Tomorrow she could sleep in, after all, unlike her friends. She exited and pulled into a half-filled parking lot.
The Royal was anything but, yet its worn black leatherette seats and amber lighting, the three pool tables at the back, the nostalgic music that played and the usual line up of regulars at the bar,–it held an odd allure. It was suitably rundown, in a cozy way–at least when she felt ragged from work. Nobody was impressed with her professional manicure, expensive haircut or–of course, they hadn’t seen it–her luxe condo. They had come to accept her as an off-type–a visitor and just enough friendly–and her money was good as anyone’s.
Sid leaned on the bar, a towel bunched in one reddened fist
“What’ll it be, Vera, whiskey neat?”
“That’ll do it.” She put elbows on the marred black counter, chin in hands then half-turned her head. They were all engaged in chatter and drink–she didn’t know many that night except for a couple who lifted their palms to her and a guy at the end of the bar, Nels, who was usually there. He was a guy she didn’t really like or dislike, but she felt his eyes on her often and she didn’t return his gaze. She only nodded if unavoidable as she passed by on the way to the ladies’ room.
The rest were the usual. A small bunch of older men, four younger to older women, three hearty guys in work shirts and flannel who also preferred the counter. One by one, most eventually noted her presence and raised a glass. But no talk. Tonight they had their eyes on the flat screen above them.
Veralynn did not have the attention span, nor the interest. Newsy stuff with a sports review blared on. She sipped the whisky, accepting its rich burn. About half a glass finished, she realized she hadn’t really wanted or needed a drink. She wondered why she’d even stopped. It was just a habit–she had begun to come by two or three times a month, always Thursdays. It had been precipitated by a change of bosses, a tougher, surlier one, and by end of the work week she was running on empty and a bit raw. Yet, that was seven months ago. Now she was attuned to the new rhythm, and brusque Glenn Hannon had come to appreciate what he called her “backbone” for sticking to her decisions and her fastidiousness in editing. She had her eye on a promotion but wasn’t sure when, so she kept up the long hours.
Sid paused on his way elsewhere. “Got what you need? All ok?”
“I’m good, thanks, just realized I don’t need to dawdle.” Her shoulders ached, her eyes were computer- bleary, her stomach rumbled even more since the whiskey.
He gave a short laugh; only that Vera used words like “dawdle.” He kind of liked that.
“Gotcha, catch you next time.”
Veralynn left the drink, shoved off the bar stool and started across the room.
So did Nels.
As Veralyn exited, she felt him by her elbow; he nearly touched her andhis presence seemed sloppy but intense. She moved away though not too fast, lest she offend him. He always seemed the more offendable type. She wasn’t up for any of it; she wished him away.
“Always wanted your full name,” he said in his low, smoke-roughened voice. “Number. I seen you come and go, wondered–why’s she coming here? What’s her game?”
Veralynn approached her car and was ready to beep it unlocked. “No game, just a drink now and then after work.” She glanced back at the bar entrance. No one there. He’d began to crowd her between her car and the next.
“Hey, you can’t look at me when I talk?” His words spattered out, he was wobbly on his feet, calmed a bit as he looked over her Mustang. “Nice wheels…”
She turned her face a little toward him. He was not quite a foot away. “I know who you are, a longtime regular, right, Nels? I bet everyone knows you and you know them.” She offered a sideways smile and beeped the car, hand on the door handle, tote snug to her body, all senses blazing.
“Yeah, that’s right, this is my neighborhood.” The words were drawn out, almost slurred but he tried hard to speak clearly. “Yeah, everybody but you….waltz in, waltz out.” An arm with hand wiggled in the air for emphasis. “I says to myself, Nels, she’s something this woman, one drink and gone, no friendly chat, no how d’ya do.”
She could smell his breath, sour and thick with drink, a lack of dental care. His sandy hair–what there was of it– was slicked back, and baggy pants hung a bit too low, shirt opened to a dark t-shirt. She thought, he’s likely harmless, he’s an aging drunk, but it didn’t help. Her only choice was to very fast open her door. She slid in, jammed key in ignition. But Nels’ hand caught the door edge, and it didn’t close–his hand was lodged.
“Just wanted your pretty hand, don’t crush my fingers!”
But Veralynn didn’t want to shake his hand. And she did not want it stuck in her door as she slammed it again and took off, either, so she opned the door a bit to shove her large, overstuffed leather tote hard against his hand and wrist–and because of the drink, being off guard, he staggered backwards.
She started the car, put it in drive and peeled out, but not before she heard Nels yell: “No friend of mine, are ya, damn good riddance!”
But she thought, as she shook all the way home: what if he had gotten in my car? Or what if I had slammed the door on his hand and half-dragged him with me onto the highway? What was she even doing at an established neighborhood bar where she was politely–usually–tolerated? But she liked it there, more or less. Well, it was about her drinking, that’s what. Not being neighborly. Another convenient pit stop at end of week where drinks were cheaper, no one bothered her, no pressure to say the right witty things.
Until Nels called her out–even if he was dicey about it, even if he had other ideas.
There was only fear with her filling that night. And finding solace in a drink didn’t enter her mind. She took a long hot shower, bathroom door locked. It wasn’t that bar, not really. There had been other bars, other unnerving encounters. This it had hit her differently. She could be anybody; alcohol leveled the playing field, as they said in articles she’d skimmed.
It was a long night of nattering in her brain.
In the morning, after a night of rooting within her covers and tossing about with pillows, Veralynn made a decision.
She splashed cold water on her face, ate a slice of toast, and called Kat, then Mel.
“You’re not sick? Why, then? It’s a Friday and we always meet Fridays… Jamie is on kid duty tonight as usual and I have stuff to tell you all. Geez, Veralynn, don’t do this to us, we’ve been a trio of best friends, and it’s just not right to beg off entirely. I need these nights out, you know? We need them! I mean, no offense, I like your place, but without the booze, what will we actually do? Not the same, lady.”
The call to Mel went better. Maybe.
“Well, I saw it coming, Veralynn. You just haven’t had the heart for the sessions, lately. I can’t say it has been the best highlight of my weekdays lately, either. I mean, I am trying to get healthier since Bill took off, and taekwondo is a rigorous sport, as you know. I am fully committed to it and also cycling on week-ends with my bike buddies. I always indulged in my beer, but it’s starting to feel hypocritical, you know? I need to clean it up. But meeting without our usual drinks–though I appreciate the offer of your home, believe me!–I don’t know…Let me call Kat, see if I can convince her. I mean, Veralynn, calling it ‘the sober club’ sounds a little…off-putting, I have to say. No one is an alcoholic here. We’ve called our nights ‘our sessions’ for ages–for a reason. I’ll see what I can do, no promises.”
Veralynn turned on the first gas lit fire of autumn in the marble fireplace–it had rained and threatened more– at 7 pm. She’d arranged on a white platter the cheese wedges and crackers, plus pumpkin spice mini-muffins (courtesy of deli and bakery). She had stocked up on seltzers and made hot water for tea. She put on Tony Bennet’s newer CD with Lady Gaga on it–his voice could soothe anybody–and put on grey cashmere lounge pants and top. She felt excited but nervous. She couldn’t recall one single time they had met that there weren’t alcoholic beverages of some sort.
They had met in a classy bar opening downtown, introduced by a friend who knew Veralynn from a gym in her old neighborhood. That friend had moved out of state shortly, but the three of them kept on meeting. Becoming better friends was easy, despite Mel being very attached to Bill then, as well as being a high school math teacher; and Kat having been long married to Jamie, a mother of twin boys–once a high end real estate agent, longing to return to it one day. They had things in common, like classic and foreign movies, Italian and Asian food and novels that had strong female protagonists. And micro beer. Well, any beer. They moved to meeting mostly at Mel’s house–it was centrally located, cozier–and drank, talked, laughed. Even shed a few tears together. And they felt grateful to have those times.
They’ll come, she thought, nibbling at a cracker, trying not to eye her clock. They’ll come to their senses if they’re honest about things, finally see we don’t need alcohol to be friends. They wouldn’t refuse to visit just because I’ve decided it isn’t in my best interests to drink, anymore… would they? A couple hours with no drinking, just talk? Not a big deal. It sounded so good to her the more she thought it over.
But Veralynn began to pace before her full length windows on the tenth floor at 7:20. She felt tense, anxious, worried as 7:20 became 7:30. She checked her phone multiple times–nothing. Maybe it had been a stupid overreaction to Nels’ sloppy, leering, behavior. It had scared her enough that she knew she’d not return to the The Royal. Or any other bars. They had seldom served her well, in the end. She got too drunk and had to call a cab while leaving her Mustang overnight–risky; she’d had near-run-ins with those who became belligerent because she hated bullies and said so; she’d had many men following her with drinks in hand, bribes for a one night stand. I am a competent career woman, she’d wanted to yell; I just need a decompressing night of drinking not a man or a fight or greasy bar food.
She hadn’t told Mel and Kat about last night. She wanted to have them there to share these concerns– last night’s experience being one of too many that had made her wonder about benefits versus disadvantages of drinking. Now she knew–like she woke up with the clear solution to a heavily nagging problem–it was not what she wanted in her life, and she wanted to tell them why. And find out how they felt, bottom line, about alcohol in their own scheme of things.
Could they do that with her, learn more about each other– and enjoy differences as well as commonalities? There was one way to find out–sit together minus alcohol. But if they didn’t they felt it a waste of their time or foolish or boring so did not come–well, then, maybe they weren’t interested in sincere connection. She’d just have to live with it somehow. Veralynn felt that certain about her choice.
At 7:45, Veralynn put away the cheese and crackers and cakes. “Rude, just rude,” she complained aloud. “How could they be so inconsiderate? Just one call!”
She padded to her bedroom, got her quilt and the novel she’d begun to read and settled deeply into the sofa. Then she stared at the fire, hugged the quilt closer, a heaviness clogging up her chest and mind. Maybe I need that drink, anyway, she thought, but bit her lip, closed her eyes until the impulse passed. She listened to the rain pelting her windows, grew dozy.
When the buzzer went off, she nearly threw off the quilt. She went to the intercom with its screen and view of the main floor entrance.
“Oh! What on earth?…”
She buzzed to allow entry, then stood by her half open door.
In pranced Kat with a huge pizza box in each hand, and Mel followed with two bottles of sparkling cider.
“How do you like that?” Mel said. “You get all cozied up and we’ve been tromping about in a chilly drizzle. Here, I brought a deck of cards, in case we decide to play rummy or something…”
“It took way too long to get the pizza, really sorry, Verlaynn–we went to Rico’s, it’s Friday night, you know.” She put her face close to the boxes, sniffed aromas of cheese, onions, tomato sauce with sausage and bacon. “Well, we wanted to surprise you, too!”
Mel stepped forward, held up her phone and pulled out a cord from her coat pocket. “My phone needs recharging, it went dead.” She looked around. “I have missed the bright lights and that wide angle view of the city from up here, Veralynn.” She held out her arms as if to embrace blur of lights within the rainy scene.
“I’d about forgotten how fantastic your place is–and we have a fire burning… how perfect is that?” Kat ran over and sat right down, long legs stretched before it, a gazelle settling into the gentling dark.
“I can’t believe you finally came,” Verlaynn said as she plated pizza and poured cider. “I had given up….if you’d called– well, I am such a doubter, aren’t I?”
She put the plates down. Her chin fell to her chest, eyes blurred with the tears of sudden relief. There came an rising of deep affection for the women before her, so different than she was, but willing to stick by her. As she had hoped. As she was prepared to do for them.
And then came arms about her. Of course they were there–even late. They had been friends for five years; they’d always said they’d be friends, no matter what or where they were. Until they became wrinkly and tottery–and that seemed such a long way off.
They gathered at the coffee table by firelight, wolfed down the pizza with swigs of sparkling nonalcoholic cider when Kat said, “So–tell us what happened.”
Mel added, “And what we can do to make things a little better.”
Veralynn took a deep breath. “I came to the understanding last night that I need to be sober. I have come so close to being caught up in bad events, and I bet you’ve had scary times, too. No, wait–if I am honest here, I’ve lived through things I’ve not even told you about. Because it’s embarrassing. Or too frightening to recall. And it has nearly always stemmed from alcohol. My drinking has been less and it has been more. And I think it has to end before it gets just worse.” She looked up at their intent gazes. “Maybe not you–but for me. Just for me.” She crossed her hands over her chest. “But this guy last night–Nels–he helped me wake up to facts…”
They were not a little stunned. Pizza was pushed aside, glasses set down.
Veralynn laid before them a story of alcohol taking up more and more of her time, her life’s design, how it had taken things, maybe even relationships, from her. How Nels had scared her badly. How grateful she was that she had not drunk more than usual and had driven home safely.
She needed it to change.
“Will you honestly be able to be my friends without the booze? I do want to offer more good times to you.”
Mel and Kat looked at each other a long moment, then at her.
That’s how the Sober Club started. Plus a homemade Friday night dinner made if they had desired and time. Mel and Veralynn met every time they could, swapping homes for meetings every other week. Kat came, though, as she could. She was beginning the process of a return to real estate; there were Fridays she just couldn’t make it. At least that’s what she said. Veralynn was inclined to believe her; she’d become more serious about her career goals after the night they’d talked so openly.
Mel had already been headed toward a no drinking lifestyle. She loved her beer but she loved a healthier, active lifestyle more. And it was a relief to get her house back on Wednesdays.
“Plus, it was getting tiresome in the middle of the week with us getting half-crocked–and neighbors talked this past summer, snide remarks, funny looks as I took took out the garbage, that sort of thing. I’m a teacher, after all, and now that classes have resumed, I need a clear head. I need to set an example, too. Three high school students, maybe more, live on my street!”
It wasn’t always relaxed at first, nor the same idiotic fun. But in time no one minded not drinking. In a few weeks, they even forgot about it and did other things–went to the movies or out to eat, for a walk even in evening rain, to a concert. It was more often that Kat randomly came and went; they thought it likely she drank with her husband, with real estate friends after a deal was closed or at open houses. But that was alright. When she did come over, she looked great and sounded even better and it seemed she had her pre-motherhood independence and spark back. She never mentioned their old drinking sessions; she was just glad to catch up with them.
They seemed to bring to any table more fascinating, engaging, funny stories. In the end, sharing more of those was what carried them forward as they kept the Sober Club going. That, and the well tested bonds of affection they made a priority to protect and strengthen.
The light is failing or it is my eyes. Treetops and meadows blur. I am staring at something I cannot quite pinpoint, far off. Maybe it is only the changing of seasons, dark months torn open by sun, a shock that threatens to blind me. I blink a few times and scenery disappears even when my eyelids stay open. But another second or two and eyes refocus; I identify all I know so well. I am tired despite being up only four hours, since six o’clock.
I sit here after I scour the third of five bathrooms as always on Monday mornings for Idina. Sometimes for her husband, Richard. The room needs airing. This house is ancient, walls have absorbed everything that has been here, which is not to say the place smells badly most of the time–I wouldn’t tolerate that–just full of markers from past and present. It has all been updated, more or less. But still, it bears history heavily. Every room is the same. Vast, crumbling more than not yet exquisite to us all. Damp, yes, marred even when I am done. It’s what you would expect after over almost two hundred-fifty years.
The weather is dry today so I will open every window I can manage unless Idina snaps her fingers at me, gesturing at the shutters. Some days she feels ill with dyspepsia and cannot bear breezes carrying varieties of earthy scents. Some days she is just irritated with life. Then all is haunted by shadows and all the old things here and her family. But usually she smiles or nods in passing, hair swaying. She knows I am excellent at housekeeping, better than she could ever be if fortune turned and she had to take up my duties. But that won’t happen. Richard keeps her secure and can still make her laugh when he isn’t travelling. I help this aging place survive.
I see the cat, Tip, sharpening his claws on a fig tree. There is a bird not far away but Tip is lazy. He watches me all day long as I scurry from one task to another, his long black tail curled about his rotund body. He yawns at me when I try to get him to move so I can sweep. He is like many men I have known, comfortable and arrogant enough to ignore his duties and often me. But Tip’s small white-edged ears turn this way and that, tuning in to my whereabouts. He follows me from room to room, often. Unless he is captivated by mice, only as he pleases.
The grazing cows in the upper pasture send out their throaty moo,moo into warming air, their very simpleness making me glad the sun is shining and that I have ten minutes to sit. I close my eyes and listen to them. Bees (or is it those mud wasps) working hard. The creek tossing and turning its silvery sounds.
We were friends once. Idina and I. My parents farmed down the road and her parents travelled. They left her and brother, Anton, with Carolina, the nanny. There was a good-sized staff that ran the house and until Idina was eight she believed (or acted as if she did) they were extended family members, there to help out. I had to tell her the truth. She looked up at me–I was and still am taller–and frowned as if I had given her a sour candy that she had believed sweet. She asked Carolina to explain it.
“Right, as usual,” she said the next day. “I don’t know how you know things, Celia.”
“It’s because I get to live with the animals and climb trees. Living in a big house keeps you from real life.” I tossed a rock. “Ma says, anyway.”
“Your ma is sort of funny and smart but don’t tell my mama.”
“Because your ma milks cows. She’s a farmer’s wife.”
I didn’t like to think what she meant but she took my hand and pulled me along to a small pond where we watched salamanders appear and disappear under water. Then we had tea all our own on the side terrace. Never once did she act as if I didn’t belong there despite my ma being a farmer’s wife. Her parents tolerated it as long as they didn’t have to witness much, I thought later. I kept her occupied, whereas the older Anton, the heir, had a friend from private school he brought home during vacations.
We played together into our early youth, usually when her parents were gone. Caroline was like a big sister and let us roam, one eye on us and one on either her books or the gardener. Idina had her studies in the library and I went to village school half-days because my father liked that I could read so well and do maths. But it ended when mother bore her sixth squalling, soft-skinned infant and they needed help with him. I was fourteen and lucky I had managed classes that long.
At seventeen, I was asked if I would be interested in assisting the estate’s two older housekeepers. It was easy, so I stayed. I didn’t like farming very much and was not about to marry anyone I knew. This despite my father’s obligatory lectures on advantages of a reasonably friendly wedded life–he knew someone who had a nephew or a grandson or there was a visitor at the neighbor’s, why not be introduced? But he did like the added money I gave them. My mother said nothing, knowing as I did that, either way, I would not be free. At least at the estate I could have my own neat, tiny room overlooking the wild wooded acreage. I saw the sun spread its vivid palette along the tree line in morning. My few tattered books were stacked close by, my trusty companions. Peace at the end of the day rather than the chaos of half-raising my mother’s children. I promised to visit the farm every month or two and have managed that overall. I do love them.
Idina left a few months after I began my work. She married and spent the better part of a year in Italy with her husband, Richard, a businessman and vineyard owner. Soon, it was just like her parents, as if she couldn’t find a true spot to roost. We chatted less easily and frequently; that was natural. Our childhood days were far behind us.
I am the same, strong-bodied, curious-minded but she has become someone else. An even richer man’s wife than her own mother (who then was more often staying in Paris with her husband while he invested in a resurrected perfume business. Perfume!). Idina has lived twenty miles away at Richard’s manse sometimes, and then at the family home for reasons about which I speculated. Richard is still not as attentive as I know she needs. I watch her face when with him and it ripples with longing and disappointment. After her father passed away last year, her mother stayed in Paris. The house was to be sold. Idina refused to go along with that, arguing with an officious, portly Anton and their mother, now white-haired and distracted. After that she returned here for months at a time.
Of course I knew why but I never give away anything. They were never that well suited, Richard with his minions holding forth at their place all hours of day and night from what I’ve gathered from others; Idina with her rebelliously empty womb and passion for art, music and need for order. She seems more frail each passing year. It makes me uneasy but I can’t help her now. And would not be asked.
I know my work beckons, but Tip is playing with a grasshopper, I think, and the light has turned caramel, the air balmy. It seems as if I would rather neglect things. Idina won’t fuss, as long as I get tasks completed by the time I turn in.
Perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up. The thirtieth. It had long ago seemed a fairy tale age, a time when one would have settled in once and for all. Children gathered as they did around my mother, soon to be replaced by grandchildren. But beyond that, a purpose that offered tangible and other rewards of some kind. A more incandescent quality to living, does that sound ridiculous? It might have unfolded like that but the possibilities shrink. I embraced the position of housekeeper at eighteen and in three months knew the work so well I could do it without thinking. So I thought of what I had read before breakfast or what I wanted to jot down later, poetry coming in quick groupings of imagery. Wondered over the insects and birds that claimed plants and trees as I hung the wash. The nature of God as I surveyed the workings of our celestial realm yet had few names for all I did not understand and needed to know intimately.
Now I feel empty-headed too often. As if no one resides there, only a shadow of who I was. It terrifies me.
The latest thoughts have been of finding a way out. But how? To what? I haven’t met one suitor in well over four years. The ones that came and went were dull-witted, irresponsible, even unattractive. The one man on staff who is single and closest to my age is turning silver-haired. He is prone to jokes that grow longer and worse with each telling. He would be overjoyed by my company if I had any small part to give. I cannot bear the idea.
I am not content, anymore. If I ever was. How do I know what I want when I have never been given the chance to seek more than what I have? Yet I dream that I am educated, perhaps a teacher and also writing and if there is love it comes with interchange that uplifts mind as well as heart. How many other women feel the pull like a sea tide must feel? I worry it will drag me away and leave me with no good fortune at all.
Tip rolls over in the grass and gazes up at me, sinuous tail dancing, then is up on all fours and gone. I hear someone calling for another, a cook’s helper perhaps, for luncheon. The breeze skims my arms. I close the shutter in time to bar an interested wasp from entry, then move on.
The hallway is still. At the end and to the right are Idina’s rooms. I hesitate, then straighten my shoulders and set out to see if she is up yet, will tell her I am ready to clean her washroom. As I round the corner, she opens the bedroom door, hand to chest as if deep in thought, then looks up and stops in her tracks.
“I was just thinking of you.”
She held out her hand and I went to her.
“Did you need something?”
Her face is pale and her slender hand is at her throat. “Come in my room.”
The drapes are drawn as usual and her bed is a mess, twisted sheets revealing her night of sleeplessness, pillows on the floor.
“Sit down, Celia. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
She’s always had a thin face with sallow skin that made her deep brown eyes seem larger, irises warmed with a cast of gold. But now her skin is more antique ivory, her lips pale as well and quivering. I look down at my folded hands. She is not well.
“We never talk anymore.” She leans toward me a little.
I give her a small smile.
“Well, I don’t like it. We were best friends for so long, then we were not even allowed to see each other, anymore. Foolish of our parents. The older generation always thinks it knows the best thing. When it’s all just what they are comfortable with, what is correct in their eyes.”
I don’t disagree as that would be rude but she was much less interested in being a friend, too. My mother thought it sad I had lost Idina’s friendship and vice versa. But this is a first in some years, her being personal. I sit still.
“I want us to be friends again, Celia. Can we find a way to do that in this house, these times?”
I start, sit up straight and stare at her so hard she lowers her long eyelashes.
“Maybe I’ve made a mistake.”
“You’ve made a mistake? No, not at all. It’s just. Well, it’s been twelve years since I came to work for your family. You. I’m not sure what you’re needing from me.”
Idina gets up from the chair, walks to the window, parts the sumptuous blue curtains, a swirl of dust entering a stripe of sunlight that appears. I feel a twinge of embarrassment, my cleaning not being up to standard. She doesn’t notice. She opens the curtains and her face is flooded with that rich light I love this time of year.
“I’m pregnant. And I’m afraid.”
“Oh!” I feel a surge of giddiness and then unease.
She stays at the window, but turns back to me. “I don’t know how I can do this. I’m quite alone. Richard doesn’t seem that desirous of children or of me, anymore. He doesn’t know yet. He’s travelling again.”
“Ah. I see.” Energy traverses spine and neck, turning into a shiver.
“Do you? Because I’m not sure I even can! It’s a mess, really. He’s gone all the time, he may have other….interests…I can’t bear to think how I will manage.”
Idina sits down again and reaches for my hands. I cover hers in both of mine and feel her deflate, her body crumple against the chair.
What do I want to ask? Do you still love this man? Are you having other health issues? Are you going to be alright? Of course not, she is a wreck as well she should be. After all the years and here we are again, our childhoods so gone we can barely see them. Yet she needs me.
I try again. “What is it you want?”
Idina’s head lowers to her hands. “I just need a true friend.”
Now, you might think that after all these years I would have heard these words and felt once more welcomed, been relieved, look forward to her company. Instead, I release her hands and pull myself up tall. I am filled with sadness and anger.
“Now? You now want me close, Idina? When trouble strikes you feel I should come running as when we were ten? These are adult complications that intimate friends share… I don’t know you, really, not at all. I have been a housemaid passing, soundless, while you have come and gone, lived your rightful and separate life. I agreed to this, the money has made a difference; I have had some good times here. But it has worked because we set a boundary long ago. We have kept to our separate stations. It is too late to be such close friends as you desire, way too late.”
She begins to cry, hiding her face in her hands. How small she looks in her periwinkle dress, her finely woven grey shawl. I have to root my feet to the floor to not reach out to her. I am not the carefree child who has boundless love. I am a pinched and aching and restless woman, given to flights of fantasy, given to dreams that may never come true for me. She has had choices, not so many, but more. She has had love, not the best perhaps but years of companionship. She now has a baby coming. To nurture and cope with day and night. I know all about that after years of being my mother’s hands and feet.
All I want is out.
“I’m sorry, truly I am. I can’t be a nursemaid, caring for your surprise child. I can’t hold you up through thick and thin now. And I don’t want to clean toilets and dust libraries whose books I cannot even take the time to read even if they were available to me. I have to take my own life into my hands. I must do just that when you find my replacement. You were a good friend, once. We were there for each other, once. But now we live lives so far apart that they do not intersect in a way that has meaning for me. I’m not a friend for hire, Idina. You do need care and help. But that help is not me.”
I touch her shoulder–I want to put my arms around her and cry with her even as I want to go–but she bats my hand away. Uncertain and fearful of what I have done, I hesitate. Then Tip scratches at the door. I let him in. He trots in with a small brown mouse in mouth and carefully lays it at my feet. I am glad to see his efforts have paid off and more so that he has brought his victory to share with us. With me, in fact. I turn to Idina but she is still weeping as if she will never stop. But she will.
Tip is at attention, looking satisfied and neat as a pin. He purrs as I smooth that fine old head.
“Good job, old fellow. Quite the catch. But I have my own work to do. You’ll have to show your mistress.”
Tip picks up his mouse and walks out the door with me, then runs down the winding stairs. I pull it shut and hurry to the next room, chin up, chest opening as I catch the heady scent of spring from somewhere beautiful.
We called them The Twins although they weren’t sisters and didn’t appear to be that much alike when you got invited to sit at their table. The only ones who really enjoyed that were those of us who hung out at Rolf’s between auditions or shoots. With their well-cut, old fashioned hats and suits they elicited whispers and looks but we were arty types, people who risked our psyches every day for our dreams. We could find virtue where others saw irrelevance or annoyance, I thought, and wished to be tolerant. I was pulled to them. I found their generousity of spirit a balm after the hurt left by my parents’ disapproval of my career choice.
Eliana and Roe, short for Roella, told someone who objected to their always snagging the corner table they were cousins of the owner by marriage and thus, entitled to it. When asked later about that, they denied having said it. They could be outrageous like that, but with elan. They were a fixture at least three days a week around lunchtime.
They had lived together for twelve years, since their husbands passed away. Eliana was from Argentina and Roe, from Pittsburgh by way of Germany, but they had each ended up in Seattle. They looked like over-dressed, snooty dowagers even when trying to be friendly, Frank said. No, said another, more like two worn out basset hounds in discarded vintage wear, a new guy said, and that sealed his fate, never allowed at our lunch tables again. There may have been some truth in it; we just didn’t want to be unkind to two people who adored the arts and expressed genuine interest in our affairs, creative and otherwise. Besides, I appreciated their decided flair and was intrigued by their togetherness.
Frank and I had been close like that once, two peas and all that, but by then less so. He was an actor, I, a model, both of us struggling but determined. I was succeeding a bit more; he was becoming harder to enjoy. We often met at Rolf’s after auditions, joined at times by Viveca and her insufferable boyfriend, Mr. Harper, a supposed playwright. When he saw The Twins, he said, “Lesbians, what else?” with a dismissive flip of his hand. They were theatre people; I in a way was, too, with my play acting for cameras. We lived in altered realities and felt removed from mainstream earth people. But I didn’t think The Twins were gay. No matter; I was on a sharp learning curve those years.
After the older ladies had chatted several times with us, then asked to join them twice, they told us the story of how they met thirty years before. Roe first gestured to the waitress for a big pot of coffee and cookies for all. Eliana lit her first cigarette, then turned to Roe, the inscribed sterling silver lighter aloft to fire up hers. They seemed to inhale at the same time, sat close together, their lotioned and buffed fingers poised in the air.
“I was to meet a neighbor downtown at Pike Place market but she never showed,” Eliana said with a soft, lilting accent. “So I was musing over vegetables. Hills of tomatoes, mounds of green and yellow beans and bunches of radishes that looked so perky with those red skins and hard, white hearts. I was reaching for the biggest bunch on the top near the back of a wooden box and my hand collided with Roe’s. She was after the same bunch!”
Eliana looked at Roe and Roe raised her eyebrows.
“I saw them first,” Roe continued. “I eat a few radishes daily, with or without salad. They keep my palate fresh. They bring a little spice. I’ve found more ways to use an odd radish here and there so when I see a perfect bunch–”
“And when her hand hit mine, it quite hurt. ‘Pardon me, so sorry’, I said, but Roe still didn’t back away. I grabbed hold of them, gave them a yank and took them to the cashier’s table. Roe followed.”
Roe elbowed Eliana.”I was not about to let her get away with those. ‘Wait a darned minute’, I told her, ‘we have some business to discuss. First dibs when I saw them before you got your paws on them.’ But she did not relent. The cashier was annoyed, there was a line behind us and we were fighting over a bunch of radishes.”
“So we split them!” Eliana said triumphantly.
“Equitable arrangement,”Frank noted.
“So you just shopped together?” I encouraged them as I eyed the plate of lemon bars. I was trying to avoid the extra pounds that sugar loves to leave me since I had more “go-sees” for modelling jobs in the morning. But hunger was gaining and food shopping sounded adventurous.
Eliana stubbed out her cigarette and took a lemon bar, nibbled a bite, then broke off a piece for Roe, who took the entire bar. Eliana shrugged. “Not at all, dears. We two some spicy Italian sausages at a food stand and sat on a nice painted bench on the street. The weather was so blue and sunny it demanded we bask in it and talk. We chattered on for a couple of hours.”
Roe took another cookie and placed it in Eliana’s hand. “We hit it off. Same age, similar tastes. Both our husbands were in business–mine ran a paper products company; hers owned import/export–and we all became fast friends.”
“Well…not exactly. Raoul was not the social type. Arnie was more of a conversationalist. A braggart compared to my humble love. What an odd couple.” They both giggled. “They mostly got along by playing cards and smoking cigars as they listened to music. Thanks goodness, they did both like a little jazz.”
“Big band, usually. Arnie started to appreciate tango near the end and Eliana taught us some gorgeous moves…” Roe was perilously close to veering into full nostalgia but snapped out of it. “She and I sat in the kitchen after we cleaned up and enjoyed a couple coffees, planned our next outing. So it went from A to Z like that: strangers to very best friends. And when our husbands died, I sold my house and moved into her bigger and, I must say, smarter house. Consolidated assets in a few ways. We live quite nicely, thanks to Eliana’s business profits and my financial acumen.”
“Yes, a good German, she has to be practical about everything and it’s worked out so well. I would have been a sorry old lady without Roe there to keep my spirits up. Raoul was such a lovely man. But Roe will quite do for companionship and sheer entertainment.”
Frank was on his third lemon bar and I was getting resentful. He leaned closer. “They didn’t die at the same time, did they? I mean, that would be hideous. They weren’t so close, you said.”
I kicked his leg under the table and snatched the last cookie.
Eliana’s eyebrows dipped further down and her round face caved. “How odd to say that! Yes…they were in an auto accident. On the way back from Spokane. Arnie had a convention to attend and Raoul went along to see an old friend from Buenos Aries who taught at university in Spokane. It was a four-day event. On the way home a truck–what did they call it? A nightmare.”
“Jack-knifed, El… a Mac truck jack-knifed and the driver lived, even with spilled gasoline that caught fire. Our husbands did not.” Roe looked down at the napkin she had folded into thirds, and now into halves and sighed.
Frank and I didn’t know what to say. He really could go too far, say things off the cuff as though he was in improvisation class. That was what did us in.
“My apologies,” he said, chagrined.
“No matter now, dears, we have gone on well enough,” Eliana said. “So tell me about your ‘go-sees’, Marisa. How many today?” She lit another cigarette and inhaled lightly, licking a lemon bar crumb off her peachy lower lip.
“Only two. I have a chance with the make up company but not, I doubt, for the swimsuit ad. Not their type.”
Roe looked shocked. “Not their type! What can they want when you are blue-eyed, raven haired, ivory-skinned skin and svelte?”
“I second that!”
Frank still admired me some days but who cared?
Roe lit her own cigarette this time and leaned forward to pat my hand. “They’re missing out. You must know you’re quite the beauty. Why, you could be Eliana’s lovely granddaughter with your coloring and style.”
Frank about choked on his coffee–he was going to say something stupid about my style, I knew it– but then spotted Viveca in red heels as she strode in with Mr. Harper. He excused himself but first bent over and told me he’d call after his hot audition the following week. I smiled to assuage his insecurity.
“Hi, Twins!” Viveca called out and the women returned the greeting. They didn’t care for her so much, they told me. Viveca was so addicted to the sound of her own voice they hardly got to speak. They liked having an exchange with others.
“Anyway, as Roe was saying. My daughter, Maria Teresa, she married a Brazilian and all three have moved there.” She produced an embroidered handkerchief and dabbed her nose.
I stayed another half hour, listening to their stories about being young wives and mothers (Roe’s sons lived in Alaska and New York; she’d visited but they were so busy), telling them about my modelling jobs and going to the Black Forest in Germany the previous year. That made Roe so happy–she had lived the first five years of her life just fifteen miles from there–she offered to buy me lunch the next Monday, which I agreed to since it was a gracious gift.
But when I entered Rolf’s with a bouquet of flowers, The Twins were not there. Roe was, sitting at their spot as usual. She was shredding her napkin and letting her cigarette burn away in the clean glass ashtray. I sat opposite her and she startled.
“What’s up? Is Eliana not able to come?”
“Eliana sends her apologies. She’s at the travel agency. Then visiting a realtor’s office.” Roe placed what was left of the napkin over her mouth to stifle a cry.
“What? This doesn’t sound good.”
She crushed the cigarette. “No, not so good! But I should have known. She has been talking about going home awhile –missing Maria Theresa and little Arianna.”
“You mentioned the grandchild last week. I thought Eliana looked sadder than usual.”
I felt like an interloper. What did I understand about the ladies and their concerns? They knew so much more about life. “I mean, Eliana always seems melancholy to me…and then when you said that, she sort of teared up.”
Roe slowly pulled another cigarette from its package and rooted for a lighter in her crocodile handbag. I got a matchbook from my purse and lit it for her, thinking cigarettes were more like accessories.
She smiled at me. “Eliana’s a real class act, you know, much more than I am. And a good heart. My very favorite person after my husband.” She turned to look out the window at the congested street and took a deep drag and coughed. “But we all have to do what works best. Right? Right.”
For the first time I saw remnants of the woman she must have been, someone who worked very hard and kept a firm hand on things, was a devoted but realistic wife and a stern, loyal mother. Someone who cared about quality in food, in possessions and endeavors, and certainly people. All kinds of them, even us young adults with our arrogant self-delusions, our fragile egos. Roe could not feasibly have a breakable heart. She was far too accepting, and more yielding than apparent, in the end.
“Lovely flowers, so kind!” She sniffed them. “Now how about lunch?” She pushed the ashtray away. “Nasty habit. I think I”ll stop if she…goes.” She closed her eyes a second, then raised her hand to the waitress, shaking her wrist so that her gold bangles rattled pleasantly. “Don’t tell her I got emotional. She will go if she must, but you can’t really sever deep ties like we have. Now tell me about your week. Trips coming up? Maybe next year an escape to Brazil! We’ll both go, shall we?”
Anything seemed possible with the marvelous Twins. Gratitude filled me. I threw all caution to the wind and ordered a burger with avocado and bacon. I split it with Roe, then we each had chocolate mousse.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson