If I had a fairy godmother, I would clap my hands three times and ask to get back to my normal life of volunteering, gossipy lunches, philanthropic committee meetings, social events, and even something as mundane as nightly drinks before dinner while I worked on a piece of needlework and chatted with my husband and best friend, Arthur Francis Conrad.
He is no longer.
These days my new Bestie was a certain Grey Goose I kept in the freezer. I wandered the halls of my perfect, designer, Architectural-Digest-photographed house. My slippers scuffed the thick carpet while I cradled a cold glass across my chest, moving through the house as though I were a sickly ghost. I stood in the quiet rooms as memories flooded back. I felt his presence, smelled him, heard him, loved him. One by one, I shut each door, as though closing off parts of myself.
I knew I should be productive and strong. See people. Raise money. Make the day count. Do something. But I couldn’t.
Who was I, if not Arthur’s wife?
Two weeks after the funeral, Mother’s silver Lexus glided up the curved drive and beeped politely - two short riffs that made my back sprout an iron rod. Shoulders back, tits out, chin up. Pavlov would be proud.
Our (my) housekeeper Choyou slipped through the swinging door from the kitchen, hands wrung in front of her, a towel looped through the apron strings around her waist. Her silver-toned, long dark hair sprouted around her face and her eyes began to stream as she gave a firm nod and looked at the door. She had joined us shortly after we were married, long enough to know my frailties.
This was my first public outing. Maybe that accounted for the nerves. Or maybe it was the prospect of being cooped up with my mother for an hour in the car.
I pulled a wide-brimmed hat over my untidy, undone hair and dragged myself out the front door. My bones actually ached.
“Jennifer, where are the pearls?” Mother asked as I plopped with a severe lack of grace onto the cool leather seat. At the last word, puhls, she dropped her voice an octave, a sure sign she was annoyed.
“Oh,” I put my hands up to my neck. "I must have forgotten them.”
"They go perfectly with that gray dress. It’s why I bought them, so you could look presentable. And you have no earrings.” Again with the dropped octave, which made her sound disappointed, reminding me of when I brought home that “C” in Algebra.
If I had a heart, it would have dropped.
Don’t I get points for taking a shower?
My eyes stung - again. She slipped the gearshift with a soft whoosh. I pulled my Jackie-O sunglasses from my purse and slid them on. "I know.” My voice came out a whisper. I cleared my throat.
“Speak up, dear. You must present yourself well, especially now. It would be helpful if you made an effort.” She wiggled in her seat as though attempting to get a better grip.
"I'm sorry. I'm just so damn tired.”
“Jennifer, this event is important. Buck up.” She put the car in drive, and we started to glide down the curved driveway. The new car smell, soft chamber music whispering out of the top-of-the line speakers, and the unmistakable scent of my mother, a sickly-sweet rose scent, custom made for her by her own parfumier in Paris, wrapped me in an unwelcome world. I noted with particular distaste the bejeweled Christmas tree pin she sported on her red and green tartan jacket.
Patricia Buford Palmer was a fixture in this town: an eighty-five-year-old woman that could easily have been mistaken to have come directly from Park Avenue Society, an impression she never bothered to correct, but in reality hailed from the hills of Tennessee. Tall, impeccably dressed, white hair fashioned into a wavy halo around her tan face, posture-perfect and extremely formal, she was a woman of perfection, and tended to know that she was right and everyone else was, well, wrong. No one could possibly reach her high standards. God knows I tried, and so did my sister Maggie, but I fear Maggie has been more successful than I.
Valiantly, I thought, I attempted to engage: "I remember talking about this project when it first came up, back when life felt normal, like…a century ago.”
“Don’t say, ‘like’ dear, it is common. Now…” She shifted her tall taut frame in her seat as she prepared to enter the freeway. Her voice grated on my last nerve. Every letter was sounded quietly and perfectly; her enunciation, an affect she grew into while ridding herself of the accent from Signal Hill, Tennessee was exceptionally clear, as though she were speaking with a child in a high pitch that sometimes cracked. “You haven’t been out in quite a long time. People are going to be uncomfortable. Just be your normal gracious self and you’ll be fine.”
Fifty-eight years old and she’s still telling me what to do. My best friend and pseudo-sister Renee Murphy and I dubbed her Mother Superior years ago.
I girded myself to face the world.
We entered Historic Park, a community of six Victorian houses among what felt like acres of pristine lawns and landscaping. I hadn’t been to this historical area for years. I concentrated on keeping my head down and my ankles steady in my heels as we walked toward the crowd gathered in the tent. This was Renee’s day.
A weak sun tried to do its duty, obliterated by puffy clouds that floated by as though they, too, didn’t want to be a part of this day. A slight breeze waffled the large canvas tent roof that sounded like the thwap of sails in the wind.
We, the cream of the crop, the best of the best, the exclusive club of high minded philanthropic do-gooders (and I had been one of them), gathered on the manicured lawn of the historical site that had recently been used as bed and breakfast businesses, but now were being turned into studios and shops for local artists. My Ferragamo’s sank into the soft grass and I wondered why I hadn't been smart enough to wear more sensible shoes.
I am flawed. Badly. How the hell did I get here? I don’t belong with these well-heeled, perfect people, but have been among them for years.
Renee Murphy, the honorable mayor of San Diego and my best friend, appeared at my side within five minutes, wearing a bright red pantsuit in homage to the Holidays. She put an arm around my shoulders and said, “You look good. Strong.” I wanted to warn her about my shoulder blade: it felt as sharp and as big as an ax, as though it might cut her if she got too close. Everything about my body felt dry and angular; my bones might snap with a soft gust of wind.
"I don’t feel it. Mother Superior is driving me nuts.”
Renee snorted and leaned in. “So, what else is new? Listen. We talked about this and I need you to lead the charge. You can find an artist to sponsor and get him or her going in one of the houses. Or take one yourself. But I need your help.” She stopped and looked over my shoulder. “By the time the project is ready, you will be, too.” She waved while still talking to someone behind me. Renee had no time for niceties. She jumped in and said whatever tickled her mind. I loved her for that. But not today.
"I'll think about it.”
Her eyes came back to me. "You did promise once upon a time, but don’t feel any pressure from me. Can you meet me here tomorrow afternoon? You should tour the houses.”
“Yes, but don’t try to trick me into anything. I’m not up for a challenge right now.”
“Who, me?” She crossed her eyes for a second and grinned, then put on her mayoral face, much as she did in school, the class clown straightening up when the teacher had had enough.
"Mrs. Anderson. So nice to see you," she said, addressing a woman behind me. I pulled my heels from the grass and pivoted to see the legendary socialite, looking every inch the Dowager Duchess in a lavender dress that whipped softly at her thin legs in the breeze. She carried a beautiful dark wooden cane topped with a silver fox. A large amethyst brooch clutched her collar. Snow-white hair scattered around her face in wispy tendrils that had escaped from a bun at the top of her head. Her pale skin, the color of an antique ivory cameo, folded inward along dimple lines and left soft divots where laugh lines once were. She smiled, which, despite myself, made my day just a bit brighter. Iris was, truth be told, someone you just couldn’t dislike. She had no detractors, and therefore was on Mother’s Acceptable List. Few were.
"Your Honor,” Iris said as she took Renee’s hand and bowed slightly. Renee laughed.
"Iris, you are something else.”
Iris winked at Renee, leaned toward me on her cane with both hands and said, “My dear, I am so pleased to see you,” in a voice that spoke volumes about her upbringing: a hint of east coast proper, a drop of southern drawl. She put her blue-veined, cool hand over mine. The large amethyst on her ring finger fell to the side by sheer weight. "You have been missed.” My eyes began to burn again. I became a bobble head.
Renee nodded to someone on her left. "Showtime," she sung. "Excuse me.” She nodded to Iris and said, “Madam” with a grin. We watched as she plodded across the lawn, arms flailing like oars to push her forward. I turned to Iris just as someone blew into the microphone and asked us to come forward.
As the others passed us heading toward the makeshift stage, Iris leaned toward me. “You know,” she said. “I was very fond of your husband. We worked together on a few issues and I found him very likeable. More importantly, though,” she leaned in toward me, and touched my hand, “he found you very likable. He spoke of you in loving terms. You are a lucky girl.” She pulled back and nodded to me. I saw a twinkle in her blue eyes as we connected. Before I could respond, a young woman I had not seen before came to escort her to a seat near the riser. She was weird looking, green hair and tattoos, and a piercing through her eyebrow.
I kept sinking into the soft green grass.
About fifty invitees, hand-picked to help spread the word, get involved and make this thing happen, gathered around the makeshift stage to hear Renee as she described the project.
Renee explained each house would be dedicated to a specific art by experienced artisans: painting, jewelry making, pottery, watercolor, blown glass, the list of possibilities was endless. The artisans would be not only be producing and selling their art on the premises but would teach as well; a true art community for new creatives to learn from the experienced.
I watched from the back of the tent as the attendees exchanged glances, elbowed each other and grinned, agreeing that this was, in fact, a worthwhile project in which to invest their money and their valuable time.
I stood alone; a good girl listening to a catechism lecture. I quit smoking cigarettes twenty years ago, but I wanted one badly now.
Don’t do it. You’ll get cancer. Arthur’s voice rang in my ear.
Dear God. When Arthur lost the ability to speak I naively, perhaps romantically, thought we began to communicate telepathically. When he was alive I'd answer him out loud, but now I questioned my mental health; I was hearing his voice in my head. I ignored the voice and started to pay attention, to be ‘in the moment” as my former yoga instructor taught me. With great effort I concentrated on the people around me.
“Hello, Jen, how are you?” This from a woman in my exercise class I hardly knew.
“We will miss him.” A tall man wearing a bow tie and tortoise shell glasses. I did not recognize him right away but knew I should have.
“He was a great guy.” From a total stranger.
“What are your plans now?”
“I am so sorry for your loss.”
“How are you coping?”
“What are you doing here? Isn’t it a little soon?” My sister Maggie slithered to my side. Her perfectly formed and waxed eyebrows relayed deep concern, but I knew the face and the words, perfectly in keeping with social concern, was in reality a secret slap for not following proper mourning etiquette. Before I could respond with some degree of snark, Renee appeared like an angel and spirited her away before I burst into tears.
Enough already. I can’t keep having the same conversations with people I hardly recognize. All our good friends had been by and done things to help me through the process, but now that it was over, I had hardly heard from any of them. These people were strangers. I had already had this conversation hundreds of times, draining me of all goodwill, and diluting the message. They were all the same. I knew emotionally there was nothing they could say, but appreciated the effort, but still. They all repeated how much he will be missed. It was always about Arthur. I was just the plus-one.
Without him, I am nothing.
A horrible woman with gray hair in a bun who wore sensible oxford shoes and a prim lace-collared dress invaded my space. She spoke in a heavy New England accent about something unintelligible while she spat little pieces of lemon cake in my direction and poked me in the shoulder. I focused on the one coarse dark hair that jumped on her left upper lip as she spoke. It seemed to have its own tiny little muscle. I heard her voice and appreciated the effort, but I just didn’t connect. I wondered why, in my somewhat delirious state, the woman couldn’t fork over twenty bucks to have that thing yanked out.
Maybe this was a bad idea.
The rising volume of voices under the tent overwhelmed me, and I wanted to put my hands over my ears like a child having a tantrum.
My little world was closing in on me. I looked over to see Mother speaking with someone and pointing her chin to me (never point your finger when a perfectly good chin will do), which made my stomach turn over. The sounds uttered by all these people talking and nobody listening made me want to scream, if only to shut them up. I heard snippets of disjointed words that didn’t string together properly. I grew more anxious as my own heartbeat raced in my ears, and nothing made sense. I had to escape or I would go mad.
“You look like you’re about to jump out of your skin.” Renee’s familiar voice came from behind me and brought me out of myself and my ungracious, ungrateful thoughts. She looked at the calendar on her phone. “Meet me here tomorrow at three. We’ll go through the houses and maybe I can get you to pick one to fund for an artist.” I nodded and she plugged it into the highly-scheduled calendar on her phone.
The odor of sweet roses reached me even before her voice did. “Stand up straight, dear, and smile pleasantly. People are watching.” She spoke quietly and through her almost-closed teeth. By sheer training my body reacted: back straight, shoulders back, chin up. Renee rolled her eyes, touched Mother’s forearm, and left.
“Our presence is no longer required. It is time to go.” The order was in.
We said our good-byes. Or, rather, Mother said our good-byes and I nodded mutely like an adolescent with acne and a stammer, my heels stuck to the soft earth.
We slid into her car and headed north. The tangerine, purple and golden sunset radiated over the Pacific Ocean on our left as we headed toward Rancho Santa Fe and my large, lonely, perfect, Arthur-less house.
"You are heading the fundraising committee for the Art Park,” she announced. No niceties led up to the announcement - not unusual between us. Short and to the point. That explains the conversation and pointing in my direction. I had been volunteered.
She smacked her lips again, another signal something irked her. I had seen it throughout my entire life; it made me itchy, and I wondered what I had done this time. “Because you need to get back into the world, and if I don’t push you, you never will. You’ll simply waste away in self-pity all alone in that house.” I knew mother didn’t approve of our house. She thought it déclassé, a sign of conspicuous consumption.
One does not show off.
But was she right? Would I just fade away like an old Hollywood star?
She pulled up the driveway. “And don’t forget to visit your father, especially if you’re not going to church.”
"Yes, ma’am.” I crawled out of the car and into my bleak house.
With nothing better to do, I took my new bestie and a cut crystal glass with me to bed and proceeded to lose the next two days from my life.