Authors: Paula Marantz Cohen
Carol was thinking about May’s apartment during her expedition to Mizner Center. Although shopping among her set was generally an activity severed from the concept of need, Carol, in a form of self-imposed handicapping, preferred to imbue it with a purpose. She liked to have something in mind that she was looking for: a better loofah to remove the dry skin on Alan’s back, a binder that would keep Adam’s math worksheets in better order, a red-orange bag (with less red and more orange than the one she had) to go with the tie-dyed sequined top that she planned to wear to the Hadassah breakfast next month. The possession of a shopping goal did not prevent the purchase of a myriad of other items, fortuitously discovered in the
course of that search, but the goal had a way of focusing and fueling the expedition in a way that was personally satisfying. To find the item in question was to achieve a success, modest though it might be, while not to find it was simply to leave it open for some future expedition and to add to the eventual pleasure of finding it. Either way, there was satisfaction.
On this occasion, Carol was looking for something to add a little style to May’s apartment. She wasn’t exactly sure what she was after, but she knew she’d know it when she saw it.
Entering one shop specializing in lacquered murals, Carol was greeted by a youngish woman in black stretch pants and a long sweater embroidered in silver thread.
“Gorgeous stuff,” said Carol, nodding toward one large canvas in gold and hot pink with turquoise accents on the far wall. “I’d kill for that one.”
“My favorite, too.” The proprietor nodded. Her name was Sylvia Cantor and she might, given her dress and speech, have been taken for Carol’s sister, or at least a member of Carol’s synagogue.
“Your place?” asked Carol, looking around, with a glance at the lighting fixtures and the recessed office space at the rear.
“All mine. My life’s dream. I said to my husband, It’s now or never. Mizner’s a natural place. And he supported me a hundred percent. We’ve been here a year and business couldn’t be better.”
“Mazel tov,” said Carol.
“So what are you looking for? For the living room, the bed room? Tell me colors, fabrics.”
“Not for me,” said Carol. “My mother-in-law. She’s got a cute little condo in Boca Festa, but no style. Even the bed spread’s a solid.”
“I know the type. Jeffrey’s mother was the same. She didn’t care. I’d say, ‘Mother, how can you stare at blank walls? Don’t you need some visual stimulation?’ It didn’t occur to her. With women like that, you’ve got to remember, they’ve had a hardn
life. Then I brought a couple of my things in, hung them—didn’t even ask her—and what a difference. She loved it. Gave her a whole new lease on life.”
Carol was pleased to have found a kindred spirit, but then, she found them everywhere. It was as though she exuded a highly specific odor or emitted a sound outside the range of normal auditory perception that communicated with a vast army of like-minded sisters. The two women soon discovered that they knew several people in common who had gone to the camp in the Poconos where Sylvia had gone and who belonged to the Hadassah in Morristown where Carol was vice-president.
Carol assured Sylvia that she would bring May to visit the shop and urge her to purchase the gold-and-pink canvas. She also invited Sylvia to the party on Sunday with her husband, Jeffrey—also an accountant—who would give Alan someone to talk to, they agreed.
AROL WENT BACK TO THE AIRPORT TO
pick up Alan. She had arranged for them to drop by Norman Grafstein’s club that night, when she planned to invite Norman to the brunch on Sunday. Norman was by no means her only prospect for May; she had met a group of widowers tending grandchildren in the shallow end of the pool yesterday, and they had eagerly agreed to come. At least two of the four had looked to be in good health and prosperous.
Alan opened his eyes when Carol mentioned her plan for a party. “But won’t my mother be embarrassed, not knowing anyone?” he asked. He would certainly be embarrassed, and his mother would be in the worse position of serving as apparent hostess. He had a vague suspicion that his mother was shy—not through any real knowledge of her personality, but given that he himself was excrutiatingly so. He assumed he’d inherited large doses of timidity from both parents.
“I’ll take care of her; I’ll take care of everything,” pronounced Carol with a wave of her hand, which she then tucked securely under her husband’s arm, steering him confidently toward the airport exit and out to May’s car in the short-term parking.
Although Carol had been to Boca only a few times before, she seemed to have memorized the terrain and already knew the best routes to get places. Her capacity for navigation, both literal and figurative, never ceased to amaze Alan, who always needed a map to find his way anywhere.
Alan held his wife’s resourcefulness in awe and, in his own
grudging way, loved her for it. Her ability had been forcefully brought to his attention during their first meeting at a Syracuse University mixer seventeen years earlier. The band had been very loud, making it impossible to talk. After the requisite dance, in which she had thrown her arms around his neck as though staking a claim (or, at least, the right of first refusal), she had taken a file card out of her purse and scribbled “Name? Number?” and handed it over. He dutifully provided the information, and she took back the card and walked away She called the next day and arranged their date—drinks at the Ramada Inn lounge off campus. They were engaged three months later and married a year after that (the engagement being half the fun, according to Carol, and not to be cut short under any circumstances).
It had taken a while for Alan to get used to being married to someone who was always at least three steps ahead in planning his life. But once he did, he found the arrangement distinctly consoling, like inhabiting a world in which predetermination had finally gotten the jump on free will. It helped, of course, that what was predetermined was invariably in support of his best interest and his highest impulses. As aggressive as Carol could be, she also had an instinct for the good and the just.
At the present moment, Alan was counting on his wife to bring her managerial skills to bear on what to him seemed an awkward meeting with Norman Grafstein. His memory of his friend’s father was dim, though he vaguely recalled a large and imposing man with an air of prosperous good humor. Mr. Graf stein had owned a leather importing company that had required frequent trips to Italy, of which his son Mark was the beneficiary in the form of pencil cases, belts, briefcases, and other expensive-looking items that Alan had vaguely envied. His relationship with Mark had been largely confined to math class during their sophomore and junior years in high school, where they developed a modest competition as two of the better math students. Alan could still recall the thrill, after receiving back a test with
a high grade, of leaning over to Mark and whispering “Whadjuget?” in competitive camaraderie. This did not appear to be a sufficient basis on which to found a visit to Mark’s father. But Carol was confident, and he could only trust in her better judgment and resign himself to her direction.
RAFSTEIN SAT IN THE
awaiting the arrival of the Newmans. He was puzzled when his son told him to expect a call from Alan Newman, whom he vaguely remembered as a shy boy who had sometimes telephoned Mark to discuss the math homework. But Norman was a genial, not deeply contemplative person, and the prospect of a visitor harking back to an earlier life seemed pleasant.
Norman was of a generation of men for whom the condition of marriage had existed as a given—a kind of neo-amniotic fluid that it was impossible to imagine withdrawn. One day, two years ago, it had been withdrawn, leaving Norman on his own for the first time in his life.
The initial adjustment was difficult but, having adjusted, he wasn’t sure that the idea of marrying again appealed to him. Over the past year, he had discovered the joys of a belated bachelorhood, only now his popularity was greater than it would have ever been at an earlier stage in his life. From almost the first week after the funeral, women had descended upon him in an avalanche. He had discussed the phenomenon with a number of fellow widowers.
“I never knew so many women existed,” remarked one friend, shaking his head in amazement. “If I want to take a nap, I have to unplug the phone. It used to be I’d go to the library or the supermarket and see maybe one or two to say hello. Now I go to check out a book or buy a loaf of bread, and ten come
up to suggest what to read or that maybe I should get the pumpernickel instead of the rye.”
“It’s true,” said another, “they appear out of nowhere. You’re minding your own business, eating your breakfast, and suddenly there’s one on top of you, asking you to lunch.”
“My advice,” said a third, a seasoned widower whom Norman respected for his sagacity, “don’t even take their numbers for six months. You’re too confused in the beginning. That’s what they count on. Later, once you’ve got your bearings, then you can start going out and having a good time. But play the field. Marriage is a wonderful thing, but once is enough. Who needs the nagging, the complaining, the ‘How do I look,’ the ‘Eat this’ and ‘Don’t eat that.’ There’s something to be said for the single life. So you don’t have the regular meals at home? You go to the clubhouse; these women don’t want to cook anymore anyway Weigh your options; enjoy yourself. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”
Norman had taken this advice to heart. His own marriage, though it had its points, had been far from ideal. He’d had little in common with his wife, a frivolous woman who was continually off at the beauty parlor or the mall. She had evinced not the slightest interest in his inner life (though admittedly, until the concept became popularized by TV specials, he hadn’t realized he had an inner life). Like so many of his peers, he had married very young, and, as he liked to say when considering the “irreconcilable differences” in his daughter’s short-lived marriage, “We made it work.” Norman had accommodated himself to Marilyn’s habits and personality in the way that he accommodated himself to his most demanding and unreasonable clients.
He missed her—they had shared so much, and there were the children—but was in no rush to return to the benevolent bondage of matrimony. Now that his widowerhood had passed the two-year mark, he had settled into a pleasant social life that included fielding numerous phone calls from women he hadn’t
seen in years (or had never seen at all) and scribbling appointments in a little black book, the purchase of which had given him a definite thrill.
He had not associated Carol and Alan with further female attention until midway into their visit when, after some reminiscences about Mark and Alan in the tenth grade—stories that Carol had recalled and suitably embroidered—the subject of Alan’s widowed mother, May, was casually raised.
“She has a lovely little place in Boca Festa,” offered Carol. “Not like Broken Arrow, of course”—she cast her eyes admiringly around the well-appointed club lounge—”but fine for a single woman with modest tastes.” She had learned from childhood that all men, especially Jewish men of prosperous means, were wary of fortune hunters and liked women with modest tastes. She herself, during the first weeks of her courtship of Alan, had taken pains to display such modesty as she could muster and had left her flashier outfits in the closet.
Norman Grafstein nodded his head and expressed regret over the death of Alan’s father, whom he had met several times at school functions. He had a vague impression of May as a quiet, sweet-natured woman—pretty, in a simple sort of way.
The prospect of the brunch, which Carol delicately proffered as the final piece to her mission, appealed to him not just for himself. Last year his daughter-in-law’s father had lost his wife. Stan Jacobs was a man he respected and had come to love, and Norman had watched him suffer a powerful, seemingly bottomless grief He had tried to console his friend, and had recently begun to urge Stan to pursue a more active social life.
“We can double-date,” he had suggested a few months ago. “That way, if you don’t like her, you always have me.”
“Who says I like you?” said Stan. “But don’t give me double-date. The terminology nauseates me. We’re not in high school.”
“It’s a chance for a second youth.”
“I don’t want one.”
“So you just want to brood. Bury the dead, Stan, move on.”
“Norman”—Stan gave his friend a penetrating professorial stare, the kind of look that instilled fear in his students—”mind your own business.”
Norman had said he would, not entirely meaning it. He continued to use various pretenses to entice Stan out of the house and into meeting new people. The other day he had taken him to a ballgame with a group of lively men and women, friends from his card group, only Stan had excused himself after the third inning and taken a cab home. Here was a chance to try again. A Sunday brunch at the home of an old acquaintance was something that Stan could not easily object to, and Norman was determined to drag him along—an extra man, as he knew, being always welcome at such events.
He looked over at the woman whose mouth, carefully delineated in cranberry lip-liner, was moving in eager solicitation, and at her husband, who clearly would have preferred to be somewhere else, and smiled at them both in the amiable way that had sold all those department-store buyers in New York and Connecticut:
“It would be a pleasure to see May again after all these years. I’m touched that you thought of me. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
ROMPTLY AT ELEVEN A.M. ON
UNDAY MORNING, THE GUESTS
for the brunch began to arrive. Coming late for a party is an affectation that senior citizens, with abundant time on their hands and a heightened consciousness of carpe diem, have no use for. Carol had positioned May at her side near the door, though it soon became clear that her presence there was superfluous. May was the technical hostess, but Carol was the party planner and
; she did all the work, welcoming everyone and matching people by background and interest.