From Possoons, stories
Why Stefan had to rent a sander and refinish the floors in Brenda’s bedroom
When the cashier prematurely and automatically, without a twinge of uncertainty, gave her a senior discount, Brenda felt compelled to paint every room in her house Chinese red. She went to Lowe’s and sorted through palette samples. Chinese red turned out not to be so simple. She compared tints and hues, finally deciding on a shade that reminded her of a clingy swingy dress she’d worn to see Baryshnikov dance Romeo at Lincoln Center decades ago when her hair had pigment and her skin knew how to hold itself in place.
Not having painted anything in a while, Brenda asked the twelve year old “design consultant” named Binky what else she would need. He helped her gather painter’s tape, stir sticks, rollers, brushes, plastic, all of which she carted home along with eight gallons of Peking Passion. She wondered what Stefan would think. They’d only been lovers for two months and were still at the stage of undressing by candlelight, and watching each other sleep. He had not yet witnessed female hormones—or the lack thereof—run amok.
Brenda began with her bedroom. She flipped on Ravel’s Bolero, shoved furniture, draped, taped, then rolled overlapping v’s along the wall behind the bed, burying forever all traces of Perfect Pearl. Feeling the echo of horns and drums rumble in her belly, she dipped a brush, wrote WILD WOMAN in letters two-feet high on the adjacent wall. Heavy spatters of crimson sprayed her cheeks. Her hair became an impressionistic blob spreading across her old Kirov Ballet t-shirt. The music opened, wound back on itself, ascended. She dipped again, wrote HOT TOMALE, added HOOCHIE MAMA ROJA. She grabbed the old paint-speckled towel from the corner, slid it around her blue-jeaned hips, swished it from side to side. Cajoled by a swell of strings climbing toward crescendo, her body searched for a developpé, an arabesque, an entrechat-six it could not find. Bolero thrashed and pounded to climax. Brenda, trembling, collapsed to the floor. So much red was unsettling, like playing with more fire than she remembered how to handle.
* * *
Not About Tahiti
Eva couldn’t resist the giant Philodendron she saw at The Home Depot. It had sprawling stalks and ten inch fingers. It made her feel tropical, like she was bringing home a little piece of paradise. Eva placed the plant on a stool in the entrance foyer, right beside the brass coat rack. She named it Phil. She wondered if her husband, Alvin, would even notice it.
Hawaii, Tahiti, Bora Bora—Eva had always dreamed of exotic places. She collected brochures and maps, showed them to Alvin. All he’d say was, “I’m not going any place that looks like a fly speck in the middle of fifteen inches of ocean.” But Eva didn’t give up. She taped photos to the bathroom mirror—floating lotus blossoms on clear pools, unspoiled lagoons, beaches melting into aquamarine sea. Not like the edge of the Atlantic that lapped at Fort Lauderdale. That ocean was murky and polluted. Tar washed up on its shore. Eva had stepped in it more than once and hadn’t been able to get it off her feet for weeks.
Alvin opened the front door. Eva watched him, undetected, from the kitchen archway as the new tangle of plant attacked him. “What the hell…?” he said, then shoved aside its groping hands and hung up his jacket. A minute later, as if he’d noticed nothing unusual, Alvin mumbled “I’m home,” walked into the living room and collapsed into his recliner with the newspaper.
Eva approached him. She was barefooted, her recently highlighted hair pulled into a chignon, a pink hibiscus fastened behind her ear. She wore a sarong with magenta and white flowers on it, cupped by green leaves. She felt like she’d stepped out of a painting by Gauguin. Eva waited for Alvin to look at her. Finally, he shifted his eyes toward where she was standing.
“Don’t you think you’re a little old to dress like that?” Alvin said.
“I’m not old.” Although she’d recently turned sixty, inside, Eva still felt forty. It was funny how that happened, how, on the inside, she could feel her best age, like she hadn’t moved beyond its beauty and desires. Yet when she looked in the mirror, how betrayed she could feel by the outside sags, bags and wrinkles of time.
Alvin returned to reading his paper.
I’m sick and tired of being treated like I don’t exist, Eva thought, like I don’t matter. But this time, she didn’t say a word. When it came to Alvin, words were a waste of energy. Instead, she dumped the Tropical Mango Chicken she’d spent all afternoon preparing down the disposal and listened to it grind her efforts to mush.
“What’s for dinner?” Alvin called from the living room.
“Nothing. I tossed it down the sink.”
That, plus the uneven growl of a motor got Alvin’s attention. He rushed into the kitchen, pages of news unraveling in his trail. “You’ll mess up the whole mechanism. And if you don’t put baking soda in that drain, it’ll stink.”
Eva thought things already stank.
It hadn’t always been that way. Or maybe it had, and it was only that lately Eva felt she’d reached her limit. Women her age often did. Something happened to a woman after menopause. She might paste banners to her rear car bumper exclaiming I’m out of estrogen and I’ve got a gun. She might watch Shirley Valentine, Fried Green Tomatoes, and, in Eva’s case, South Pacific maybe fifty times. Suddenly, she might not care a hoot how she appeared to others, not even her husband—particularly not her husband—only how true she was to herself, and there was no telling where that might lead.
“You’ll have to fix your own dinner tonight, Alvin.” Never in thirty-two years of marriage had Eva used those words, yet her voice was calm and certain.
Alvin stared at her like a child with a boo-boo expecting her to fix it, but Eva was tired of being Alvin’s Band-Aid.
“There are eggs,” she said. “And cheese. You can make yourself an omelet. I’m going out.”
Alvin stood, slack-jawed and slump-shouldered, in the middle of the kitchen, the bulge above his disappearing waistline even more exaggerated. Eva fought the impulse to help him out of his misery. She took a breath, sighed, then headed for the bedroom to put on sandals and a sweater. When she came back, Alvin hadn’t budged.
“Didn’t you hear me? You’re on your own tonight.”
“If you think this tantrum is going to get you to some South Sea island, you can think again.”
“This is not a tantrum, and I know better than to think it will get me anywhere. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m leaving.”
* * *
This was a new experience for Eva, this walking out at dinnertime in a sarong. She wasn’t sure where to go. It’s a lovely evening, she thought. I’ll drive up to Amanda’s. Amanda was Eva and Alvin’s daughter. Because no one had nurtured Eva’s dreams, Eva had worked hard to nurture Amanda’s desire to become an architect.
When she pulled up, Eva heard her two granddaughters, Annie and Michaela, arguing out back. She opened the wrought iron side gate and went around to where they were sitting in the shade of the covered patio.
Michaela waved. “Hi, Gram.”
Annie slouched in a chair, arms crossed, a pout on her lips. “Michaela’s being mean to me, Grammy.”
“I am not,” Michaela said.
“Okay, my beauty girls. That’s enough.” Eva went over and kissed each of them. “Where’s Mommy?”
“Inside,” Michaela said.
Amanda rushed out. “Ma, what’s wrong? You never come without calling.”
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”
“Is Daddy with you?”
“Are you still arguing about Tahiti?”
“I’m trying a new approach,” Eva said.
Amanda put the napkins, placemats and utensils she was carrying on the patio table. She perused Eva’s sarong. “I see.”
“You don’t like it?”
“Actually, I do.” Amanda straightened the hibiscus in Eva’s hair. “Very exotic.”
“I like it, too,” Michaela chimed in. “The flowers are pretty, Gram.”
“Thank you, sweethearts.”
Eva began to arrange the place settings.
“I dumped the Tropical Mango Chicken I made down the disposal,” she said. “I told your father he could fix his own dinner.”
“Mother, you didn’t!”
“Is he all right?”
“Does he know you’re here?”
“I don’t have to report to him.”
“I’ll call and tell him. Ben will be home shortly. You’ll eat with us, okay?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
Amanda gave Eva a don’t-be-ridiculous look, then turned to Michaela. “Come with me and I’ll give you another setting for Gram?”
Eva didn’t stop Amanda from calling Alvin, but she had no intention of talking to him herself.
“So what did your father say?”
“He tried to pretend everything was just hunky dory.”
“I rest my case.”
* * *
Eva decided the Philodendron looked lonely by itself in the foyer, so she stopped at The Home Depot and found an Aspidistra to keep it company. She only intended to buy that one plant, but got lured to the Areca and bamboo palms on sale, and the large Dracaena marginata with its shiny clusters of skinny green leaves edged in red.
When she got home, she introduced the Aspidistra to Phil in the foyer, and placed the palms and Dracaena in a sunny corner a few feet behind Alvin’s recliner, next to the peace lily Amanda had given her. The large plants made a lush arrangement. Eva sang as she watered them. Bali Ha’i is calling, where the sky meets the sea, here am I your special island, come to me, come to me…
That evening, Eva had her Yoga for Eternal Youth class with her best friend Rose, and their new friend Dottie, sixty-two, a former “flower child” from San Francisco. Dottie had dubbed them The New Sixties (as in age, not decade) Revolution. Afterwards, Dottie told Eva and Rose about Cassadaga, a tiny town in central Florida known for its psychic readers.
“I’m game,” Eva replied, surprising herself.
“Me, too,” Rose seconded.
So they made a plan to drive up the next weekend.
* * *
Eva couldn’t remember the last time she’d taken an overnight trip with girlfriends. Maybe never. And she didn’t know when she’d had so much fun. They took turns driving as she, Rose and Dottie laughed themselves silly over everything. “Three men at one time?” Eva said, blushing. She couldn’t imagine it. Her wildest sex was the New Year’s Eve she and Alvin had gone to a boring party and wound up “doing it” on their neighbor’s bathroom floor.
Cassadaga was nothing like Eva expected. The hundred year old town had only a dozen or so streets lined with small, two-story cottages, lush lawns and old oaks. Simple, handmade shingles advertised “Certified Medium,” “Psychic Healer,” “Spiritual Counselor.” The town had a Spanish-style hotel and the Colby Memorial Temple erected in homage to its founder, but no grocery store or gas station or bank.
Dottie had made appointments for each of them in advance with different psychic readers. They arranged to meet afterwards at the bookstore. Dottie directed Eva to a small blue cottage where she was greeted by a fifty-ish, anorexic-looking woman named Astara with frizzy brown hair and enough turquoise jewelry to double her weight.
“Most of our readers prefer no interruptions,” Astara explained, “but with me you can ask questions along the way.”
“Okay,” Eva said. She crossed her legs.
Astara picked up a pale pink crystal from a table next to her and clutched it in her right hand. “Your deceased mother is around you very strongly,” Astara began. “She says to tell you she understands, and not to give up, that there’s a surprise in store very shortly.”
Eva tried to keep an open mind. “Does she say what kind of surprise?”
“She says… ” Astara paused, “lights, it has to do with lights.”
Astara then got into specifics she couldn’t possibly have known on her own—how pained Eva still was over the rift her sister had instigated between them years before; how Eva had miscarried a second child; how she’d regretted not going back to finish her degree after Amanda had been old enough.
“I see flowers around you,” Astara continued, “tropical flowers.”
“I have lots of plants in my house.” Eva held back tears. “My husband, Alvin, doesn’t even notice.”
“He can be stubborn,” Astara said, giving Eva’s hand a sympathetic pat.
“You’ve got that right.” Eva wondered whether Dottie might have clued Astara in on Alvin.
“You’ve had at least five lifetimes in the Polynesian Islands.”
“Five?” Eva said. “You don’t say.”
“At least.” Astara closed her eyes again. Her eyeballs shifted from right to left to right under their lids, as if she was scanning for inside information. “Only one with your current husband.”
“I’ve had other husbands?”
Eva let the idea of being married to someone other than Alvin roll around her mind. It made her dizzy.
“I’ve been trying to convince Alvin to take a vacation to someplace exotic,” Eva said. “Hawaii maybe, or Tahiti, but he’s not interested.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“In a past life he drowned off the coast of Bora Bora on a fishing boat that got blown out to sea in a storm. It was very frightening, and part of him remembers.”
Eva hadn’t considered other lifetimes, yet she’d always felt drawn to the South Seas. Now she’d even taken to wearing sarongs and filling her living room with tropical plants. And it was true Alvin never wanted to go into the ocean past his knees, that he seemed afraid of tiny tufts of land surrounded by miles and miles of nothing but water. All of this was at least something to think about.
“Do you see that Alvin will ever change his mind about taking me on vacation?”
“To the South Seas?” Astara shook her head. “Not likely.”
* * *
When Eva got home from her weekend with The New Sixties Revolution, Alvin was right where she’d left him—in his recliner in front of the TV, this time watching a “Star Trek” re-run.
“So?” he said, without looking up.
“Did you have your tea leaves read?”
“I lived five past lives in Polynesia.”
Alvin turned toward Eva. “Then you’ve been there already.”
* * *
Eva craved color to offset her lush living room foliage. Potted orchids would be just the thing. She set out early and spent the morning at Potted Paradise, The Orchidarium and Fogelman’s Exotic Plants in search of them. They were more expensive than she’d expected. You deserve a little extravagance, she told herself. You only live once. She chuckled at the thought. She knew Dottie and Astara would disagree.
Eva eventually decided on a pink passion Phalaenopsis with its elegant spray of blooms, a lacy purple Dendrobium, a yellow Cymbidium, and Queen of the Orchids, a ruffled white Cattleya. They smelled heavenly. Each came in its own glazed ceramic container. She added a hanging Fuschia that caught her eye with its profuse cascade of magenta and purple blossoms. Perfect for in front of the window.
Eva spent hours finding the right placement for her sumptuous garden. She hung the Fuschia from a white bracket above the middle of the picture window, and mixed the orchids in among the palms. Some pots she rested on the floor, others she raised onto a set of small stacking tables. She switched and shuffled until the whole arrangement looked just right. “Oh, you are all so beautiful,” she crooned.
When he came home, Alvin didn’t say a word about the fact his recliner nested in the middle of a tropical paradise.
“I made dinner tonight, Alvin.” Eva was so pleased with her orchids, she’d felt in a generous mood. “Roast chicken with those little red potatoes you like.”
Alvin looked at her. She detected the hint of a smile.
“Aren’t you going to talk to me?” she said.
“I have nothing to say.”
“Don’t you think the flowers are lovely?”
“I don’t know what to think anymore.”
The phone rang and Alvin jumped to answer it. He had only been on a minute, when Eva heard him say, “Me, too,” then hang up.
“Amanda,” he explained. “She’s coming by to pick up Michaela’s bicycle.”
Amanda arrived as Eva and Alvin were finishing dinner. “These flowers are gorgeous!” she said, as she entered the living room.
Eva glared at Alvin. “See?”
Amanda hugged Alvin, then Eva. She joined them at the dining room table. “But don’t you think you’ve gone just a little overboard, Ma?”
“See!” Alvin said.
“Are you siding with your father, Amanda?”.
“I’m not siding with anyone.” Amanda looked concerned. “Is this still about Tahiti?”
No, Eva thought. It never really was. “Who cares about Tahiti?” she said.
“Who cares about Tahiti!” Alvin shouted. “You turn the living room into some kind of tropical jungle, and you’re telling me this isn’t about Tahiti?”
Eva turned to Amanda. “Do you want some roast chicken?”
“No, thanks.” Amanda’s eyes shifted from Eva to Alvin. “What’s going on with you two?”
“You know, Alvin, I’ve had other husbands,” Eva said.
Alvin nearly choked on the chicken bone he’d been nibbling. “What are you talking about?”
“And I happen to know that in another lifetime you drowned in a fishing boat off the coast of Bora Bora.”
Alvin glared into space as if some distant memory beckoned him, but Amanda’s voice seemed to interrupt his reverie.
“Mother, will you please tell me what’s going on?”
A tangle of emotion knotted in Eva’s chest.
“Coffee’s ready,” she said. She got up and headed for the kitchen. Amanda, then Alvin followed her.
“What’s going on,” Eva gushed, “is thirty-two years of marriage to your father. She began to weep as she opened the cupboard, pulled three mugs from a shelf and slammed the door. Scooping spoons from a drawer, Eva clanged them onto a serving tray next to the mugs. She pulled a tissue from her pocket and blew her nose. “He’s never taken the time to know me for who I am.”
Alvin’s lips separated as if he might have something to say, but nothing came out.
Eva grabbed the tray and headed back to the dining room table. Amanda followed with the carafe of coffee and a plate of apple Danish, Alvin behind her.
“I don’t think Daddy feels that way.” Amanda poured the coffee and handed Alvin a mug. “Do you, Daddy?”
“He’s stubborn,” Eva said.
“Not stubborn,” Alvin mumbled.
Eva stared at him. “What would you call it?” She cut a Danish in half and put a portion on her plate. High emotion made her crave sweets.
“Not stubborn,” Alvin repeated, examining his coffee as if he saw a fly floating in it. “Afraid.”
Eva’s mouth, full of chewed pastry, hung open. That was the last response she’d expected.
“Of what, Daddy?” Amanda took Alvin’s hand the way she always did when they were having a serious talk.
For a moment, Eva felt jealous of her own daughter.
Alvin spoke softly, addressing only Amanda, as if he was embarrassed for Eva to see him so vulnerable.
“Afraid your mother will outgrow me, stop loving me. That I’ll wake up one morning and she’ll be gone.”
Eva sprang from her chair and rushed into the living room toward her little corner of paradise. She blotted a tear, pinched two brown leaves from the bottom of a palm, traced new blooms along an arm of orchid. She thought of her mother, of how she was told her mother understood and not to give up. “A surprise,” Astara had said. “Lights.” So far, things still looked pretty dim and Eva’s patience was running thin.
Eva heard Amanda’s car start up in the driveway. A minute later, Alvin shuffled toward her.
“It’s happening, Evie. You have new friends, you go to see foreign films, you have your palms read, you sing to your plants. You look happy all the time.” Alvin pushed wisps of hair back from his forehead with the flat of his hand. “And beautiful.”
It had been ages since Alvin had given Eva a compliment. She felt her heart soften.
“I know you think I’ve been acting crazy lately,” she said, “but I have to tell you, Alvin, it feels good. I like this new me. I’ve discovered I’m an interesting person. And funny, too.”
Alvin looked wistful. “You always were.”
“I can’t go back to the old me. You do understand that, don’t you?”
Alvin didn’t answer. He began to walk away, then paused. “I have something to show you, Evie.” He left and returned with an envelope. “I was waiting for the right time.”
“What is it?”
“I’ve been thinking maybe we do need a vacation.”
Eva eyed him cautiously. What was he up to? The last time Alvin had suggested a vacation, it had been a car trip to Connecticut to visit his sister Paula and her two yelping, squish-faced, ankle-biting dogs, Tutti and Fruitti. “What did you have in mind?” she said.
Alvin pulled a brochure out of the envelope and handed it to Eva. At least it couldn’t be Connecticut, she thought.
“It’s not Tahiti, Ev…”
“Then I’m not interested,” she said. But a moment later, Eva thought perhaps she was being too harsh. Never before had Alvin taken the initiative in anything.
Slowly Eva lowered her gaze. In front of her she saw a dazzling night photo of…Paris.
“Of course,” she whispered, tears blurring her new vision. “Lights. The City of Light.” It wasn’t Tahiti, but Alvin had done good. “Oh, Alvin,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. Bright possibilities already drifted through her mind. She thought about the Louvre. About Monet. About the gardens at Giverny. About all those water lilies.