The downtown bus sputtered along Avenue du Parc, packed with commuters anxious for the start of the long Easter weekend.
Maddie St-Laurent stood wedged between a young woman in an animated phone conversation and a man oblivious to the pungent cheese he carried in a paper grocery bag. She had one hand on the top rail, and the other wrapped around the handle of her own grocery bag. Every time the bus made a scheduled stop, Maddie’s oversized body twisted and rocked as she tried to keep her balance. She scanned the bus, eager for someone to get off so she could take a seat. At the speed of rush-hour traffic, she would be forced to stand for another twenty-five minutes.
The bus was quiet, except for the traffic noise that would occasionally filter through a commuter’s earbuds. The pattern of behavior on the bus repeated itself daily. Most passengers preferred the company of their hand-held devices to a conversation with a stranger. Maddie too was preoccupied with creating a mental list of the items she needed to buy for Easter dinner. Julia, Maddie’s hard-to-please mother, expected a lavish meal, and Maddie would oblige without complaint.
As the bus approached a busy intersection, the driver accelerated to beat the light but changed his mind when it turned amber at the last moment. He hit the brakes, pitching Maddie and others forward violently. Her body landed on the lap of an elderly man like a cement block on a matchstick. The man groaned pitifully and, for an instant, she sat on him awkwardly, unable to reach the handrail above her head to pull herself off. Two teenagers, who stood nearby, moved in and lifted Maddie up and off the man. The commuters close enough to have witnessed the incident glared at her as if the driver’s abrupt stop was her fault. Maddie could feel her face getting hot.
“Je m’excuse,” she said in French. Then she switched to English, a habit she had picked up after a lifetime of living in Montreal. “I am so sorry.”
The elderly man smiled meekly and studied her. “Maybe you should sit down,” he said and stood to offer her his seat.
“No, I’m perfectly fine. But thanks anyway.” Maddie squeezed her way to the back of the bus to wait for her stop, chastising herself for not leaving her downtown office sooner.
The bus windows were wet and smudged with fingerprints. In the distorted glass, her reflection looked even more haggard: dark red hair pulled back in an attempt at a fashionable messy updo and a long, wrinkled overcoat that covered her voluminous frame. For an instant, she hardly recognized the flushed, middle- age face that stared back at her. Earlier that day, she had left her Outremont home in a hurry to make the monthly staff meeting and forgot to apply makeup or fix her hair.
The commuters progressed through the traffic at a snail’s pace. Maddie’s winter coat was uncomfortably heavy in the overheated bus. “Enough,” she murmured to no one in particular and lumbered off at the next stop to walk the rest of the way home.
Once outside, she unbuttoned her coat and headed in the direction of rue McEachran where she had lived with Dominic and their two boys for over twenty years. These days, their home had only two occupants. Jean-Luc had left at seventeen to attend military college in St-Jean. After his studies and extended military training with the Canadian Armed Forces, he had transferred to a base in Western Canada. Xavier also lived out west and worked for an engineering company in Alberta.
Maddie walked briskly, weaving in and out of the crowd, trying to avoid the oncoming pedestrians who were oblivious to her. The past week had been particularly difficult. Incidents like the one she had just experienced on the bus occurred with more regularity, and each one cut a little deeper into her fragile self-confidence.
At the grocery store, the clerk insisted on carrying the bags to her car. The new young intern at the office asked Maddie what to buy for his grandmother’s birthday. The day before, the pharmacist went out of his way to explain the seniors discount policy. Innocent acts of kindness by well-meaning people were a constant reminder that Maddie appeared to be well past her prime and was being slotted in the “old lady” category. If these recent incidents were not depressing enough, her fiftieth birthday was three weeks away, and friends and family were planning a grand celebration to honor the half-century mark.
Maddie knew precisely how and when the mutation from attractive forty-something mother to senior citizen had begun and had been powerless to fight back. A few years earlier, symptoms of menopause had appeared. Maddie worked hard to accept the inevitable and not allow the uncomfortable physical characteristics of it to rule her life. She approached the change with the same pragmatism she brought to her work assignments: she immersed herself in the subject to learn more about the side effects and long-term consequences of menopause. Compared to many women, her physical symptoms were manageable, and the transition from fertile to barren was mercifully short.
When her monthly cycles ended permanently, though, the physical consequences were immediate and cruel. Seemingly overnight, her body transformed into something alien and unrecognizable. In a matter of weeks, Maddie gained thirty pounds. Her once-enviable thick hair turned brittle, her complexion went from rosy to red, and her facial lines deepened. The physical transformation was so swift, it seemed to move at the speed of a time-lapse video.
The physical aftermath of menopause could not be ignored, yet Maddie struggled to come to terms with her chronological age. In her mind she was firmly stuck at thirty: sharp, outgoing, and interested in the world around her. As a French-to-English translator in a busy downtown firm, her peers sought her out as the voice of authority on complicated contracts. Maddie embraced new technology, new music, and modern language. As far as she knew, she was the same person at nearly fifty that she had been at thirty, at least on the inside. Her subjective age was in constant conflict with her chronological age.
People treated her differently now, and this included her husband of twenty-eight years.
The friction between the external and internal Maddie St-Laurent weighed heavily in her thoughts as she walked home.
At 5:30 p.m. Easter Sunday, the doorbell rang on cue and Julia, Maddie’s mother, made her entrance. She kissed her daughter curtly on one cheek.
“You know I like to bring my own drink.” Julia handed Maddie a bottle of sherry and her coat and then proceeded to the living room where she sat down in her usual spot, next to the fireplace. Maddie went to the sideboard and jammed the unopened bottle of Spanish premium sherry next to six other unopened bottles. She poured a glass of sherry from a bottle opened several years earlier and handed it to her mother.
“Thank you, dear.” Julia cradled the sherry glass and glanced around the brightly lit room with its soaring ceilings and tasteful antique furniture. The dining room table, tucked in behind two white columns that separated the sizeable space, was adorned with fresh tulips and daffodils. “The flowers are lovely, Madeline. The fresh tulips must have cost a small fortune.”
Maddie answered with a simple “Yes” but wanted to add, any amount of money to make you happy this evening, Julia. She knew, though, that her mother ignored or chose not to understand sarcasm.
The doorbell chimed again, and Maddie opened the front door to greet her best friend, Sofia Gonzalez, escorted by her own mother, Camelia.
“You are as beautiful as ever, Camelia,” Maddie said.
At eighty years old, Camelia was an older version of Sofia, a little shorter than her daughter, and fuller in the hips and breasts, but with the same dark, sultry Latin looks and sensual mouth.
Camelia smiled graciously. “You are too kind to this old lady,” she said.
“My mother doesn’t age,” added Sofia. “Come, Mama, let’s have a drink, shall we?”
They walked into the living room to find Julia, seated in a wingback chair with her ankles crossed.
“Hello, Camelia. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen each other.” Julia’s voice was cool.
Sofia and Camelia sat next to one another on the sofa, and the women in the room proceeded to exchange pleasantries.
Maddie watched the interaction between the two matriarchs who had known each other for more than fifty years. Camelia was bubbly and interested in any subject. When she spoke, her hands followed in rhythm, as if conducting an orchestra. She smiled freely and patted her daughter lovingly. Camelia’s hair, still quite dark and thick for her age, was pulled back into an elegant low bun. Julia, by contrast, sat rigidly and slightly hunched over in her chair. Her thin, pale lips rarely smiled, and her face and forehead were heavily lined, which gave her a perpetually cranky expression. In contrast to Camelia’s trendy outfit—a black pencil skirt, tall boots, and flowing white shirt—Julia wore a pair of sensible thick shoes, polyester navy pants, and a flowered shirt.
Maddie had once admitted to Sofia that she envied her best friend’s close relationship with her mother. Camelia knew everything about Sofia’s life, which included the intimate details of her romantic escapades. Since the age of twelve and shortly after their lives were turned upside down when Frank, Sofia’s father and Camelia’s husband, died suddenly, mother and daughter shared an unwavering bond.
Maddie sat quietly and stared at her mother. She could nearly make out an invisible fence wrapped securely around the woman’s bony shoulders. Like a good neighbor’s, the fence was built high enough to allow privacy and protection from unwanted attention but low enough to be civil. For the last thirty-eight years, Maddie and her mother had maintained a cordial but strained connection. Unless Julia had recently acquired an insight into her daughter’s current state, she had no idea that Maddie was deeply troubled about her marriage and the prospect of turning fifty.
The conversation in the living room halted as Dominic made his entrance about twenty minutes later, wearing an aquamarine shirt that perfectly matched his eye color. He greeted both Sofia and Camelia with a warm hug and Julia with a frosty handshake. Dominic rarely hid his disdain for his mother-in-law, nor did she pretend to care for him. Once, in a heated encounter, Julia called Dominic an overly attractive man who never dirtied his hands with real work. Dominic, in turn, called Julia a sad excuse for a mother. After that exchange, they barely tolerated one another and were only civil for Maddie’s benefit.
“Dominic, how are you? Still, as handsome as the day we met,” Camelia said.
While Julia held a low opinion of Dominic’s character, her description of his physical assets was accurate. His looks had changed little since Maddie first spotted the “Al Pacino lookalike” thirty years earlier at a university pub night. From that moment, Maddie’s obsession with Dominic had ruled her life, and she chased him for months until he relented. They had been together ever since, first living in a low-rent two-bedroom apartment on top of a busy depanneur. When Dominic had graduated from medical school and started his career as an anesthesiologist at the hospital, they moved into the spacious home where they still lived, a short walk from Parc Mont-Royal.
At 6:30 p.m., the guests moved to the dining room for Easter dinner. Maddie had toiled in the kitchen the entire day to prepare a French feast, her culinary specialty. The table setting was as impressive as the four-course meal: flawless English china with wisps of cobalt blue, a crisp white tablecloth, and an assortment of crystal wine glasses rimmed in gold, all enhanced by the sparkle of a half dozen lit tapers. Maddie served various courses to the delight of her guests. Sofia and Camelia ate two helpings each of the coq-au-vin and praised Maddie for her culinary artistry. Julia nodded in agreement, but ate only enough to please her daughter and not enough to indicate true enjoyment of the sumptuous meal.
Throughout the dinner, Sofia peppered the conversation with stories about her latest uncensored adventures in South America. Everyone laughed but Julia.
“I’m going back to Brazil in a few weeks to start a new contract which could keep me in that country until next year or longer. I leave right after your big birthday, Maddie,” Sofia said, winking at Dominic.
Maddie knew what they were up to and smiled demurely, as though she did not have a clue. Much against her personal wishes, Sofia and Dominic had planned a surprise fiftieth birthday party for her. The guest list of seventy-five included friends, distant relatives, and work associates. Months earlier, Sofia had casually asked Maddie what she wanted to do to celebrate the half-century milestone. Maddie insisted that she wanted a small, casual party with only a few close friends, but neither Sofia nor Dominic had paid any attention. Maddie found out about the surprise party and reluctantly went along with the ruse. It was not her nature to make a fuss or refuse to participate.
“And you, Maddie, what have you been up to lately?” asked Camelia as she helped herself to another bowl of fresh salad.
“After Xavier finally graduated, I increased my hours, and now I work four days a week for the bureau, mostly from home. It’s enough to keep my translation skills sharp,” Maddie replied.
“Where are boys these days?” Camelia asked.
“As you know, Jean-Luc is in the army. I’m not sure where he is at the moment. He moves around quite a bit. Deployment to parts unknown is a consequence of military life. He knows I worry about him, so he calls home regularly. As far as Xavier is concerned, he moved to Calgary to work as an environmental engineer. I call him from time to time because he’s too preoccupied to call me, either because he’s working in the field…or he’s with a new girl.”
“You must miss them, Maddie,” Camelia responded, “but I am sure you have kept yourself busy with other projects?”
“I try to. I’m on this year’s committee for the annual Women of the Hospital Gala Fundraiser. The hours I’ve spent on this volunteer activity are equal to full-time work!”
“What are you going to wear to the gala, Maddie?” Sofia asked. “Do I detect a shopping trip on the horizon?”
“Maddie could wear any old dress and turn heads!” Camelia said.
“That’s sweet, Camelia. My wardrobe is…rather outdated and lacks special occasion clothes. I’ll have to find an outfit soon,” Maddie replied.
“I’ll come with you,” Sofia said. “You know how I love to shop!”
Maddie appreciated Sofia’s offer and while she enjoyed the time they spent together, she preferred to shop alone. Sofia’s choice of clothes suited her racehorse physique: body-hugging dresses with plunging necklines and high slits. Maddie’s self-consciousness about her weight precluded shopping with friends, especially those who were skinny.
“I’ll let you know, Sofia,” Maddie answered as she cleared the table. “Who wants dessert now? I’ve made your favorite, Julia. Lemon meringue pie. Not exactly a traditional French selection, but it works with the Easter theme.”
She returned from the kitchen moments later with a perfect lemon meringue pie resting on a sterling silver platter.
“Maddie, is there nothing you can’t master in the kitchen! It’s perfect!” Camelia said. And it was. The fluffy meringue was the color of toasted almonds, the crust was tender and flaky, and the lemon curd was vibrant yellow.
“Thank you, Camelia, but I am not a baker. I wasted a full pound of butter on two attempts before I succeeded in rolling an acceptable pie crust.” Maddie had persevered with the pie because she knew that this was the only dessert her mother would tolerate.
Julia took a small bite. “It’s tasty Maddie, but you know, it’s full of calories.”
“Oh, come on. A few calories won’t hurt you once in a while, Julia,” Maddie replied.
“I wasn’t talking about myself,” Julia responded.
Maddie placed her fork down next to a perfect undisturbed wedge of her masterpiece. She kept her head bowed, too embarrassed to say a word. Dominic spoke first.
“Julia, for heaven’s sake—” but he abruptly stopped in mid-sentence. Whether he condoned or agreed with Julia’s criticism concerning his wife, Dominic chose to avoid another ugly confrontation with his mother-in-law. Instead, he stood, made some weak excuse about having an early-morning surgical procedure, and retired to their bedroom.
It seemed as if Sofia was about to say something. Instead, she stood up from the table, hugged her friend tightly, and whispered, “We’ll talk later.”
The dinner party had come to a decisive end.
After Sofia and Camelia left, Julia waited in the foyer for a taxi to take her to her home to Westmount. Julia had never learned to drive and relied on Maddie to act as her part-time chauffeur. This evening, Maddie declined. She told her mother she had had too much to drink for her to drive safely. If Julia had noticed that Maddie had barely drunk a single glass of wine, she remained quiet.
The lights of the taxicab lit up the foyer, and Julia opened the door to leave but hesitated. She turned to her daughter, who towered above her small frame and opened her mouth as if to speak. Maddie half-expected an apology, but Julia disappointed her daughter for the second time that evening. “Call me tomorrow. I need groceries.”
Maddie moved around the first floor of the house, clearing the dishes and leftover food. The dinner party had left her emotionally spent, and she wanted to fall into a deep, undisturbed sleep to forget about Julia’s criticism, her neglected body, and the upcoming surprise birthday party.
When Maddie finally walked into the master bedroom an hour later, she expected Dominic to be asleep, but he was reading a book.
“You’re awake? Don’t you have surgery in the morning?” she asked.
“Yes, but not that early,” replied Dominic. His voice sounded hopeful, Maddie thought. Perhaps he was feeling remorseful for not shielding his wife from Julia’s spiteful comment.
Maddie undressed in the privacy of the walk-in closet, with the door closed. While undressing, she tried to recall the last time she and Dominque had been intimate, the last time they had explored each other’s bodies.
Early in their relationship and for many years that followed, they could not keep their hands off one another. Once the boys arrived, and family took priority, the couple’s sexual interludes were less frequent, although no less intense. They would steal time in the middle of the day while the boys were at school and Dominic had a few hours between surgical procedures. Maddie lived for these spontaneous moments.
As the years passed, though, the couple drifted apart, each distracted by life’s daily pressures. They spent less time together, and when alone and in the privacy of their bedroom, they would both collapse from exhaustion, too tired to do more than sleep. Maddie barely noticed the subtle shift in their relationship until menopause struck, and virtually overnight, she lost any desire to have sex. Painful and dry intercourse followed.
When Maddie’s body inflated like a flat tire that was being pumped with air, she began to undress in the darkness of her closet and refused to stand naked in front of the man she had known intimately for decades. At night, she slid under the sheets so Dominic could not see the weight gain and the slackness of her skin. After a few months of unpleasant and self-conscious sex, the couple stopped reaching out for one another. Maddie assured herself that a lapse in their sex life was a temporary consequence of menopause. She was convinced that they could get back on track once the boys moved out permanently and they could focus on each other.
But when Xavier left a year later, the couple’s marriage not only showed no sign of improving, it spiraled downward. Dominic began to spend less time at home, and more time at the hospital, or so he said. When he finally arrived home late in the evening, he either went straight to bed or opted for the company of the television instead of spending time with his wife. Maddie’s self-esteem eroded with each small gesture of rejection.
“Did you like the dinner?” Maddie asked as she slipped under the warm covers and snuggled next to her husband, wearing a silk nightshirt that pulled tightly across her generous curves.
“Delicious as always,” he replied.
Maddie gazed at Dominic longingly. In response, he leaned over, kissed her on the cheek, patted her head like an obedient dog, and promptly rolled over and went to sleep.