Authors: Laura Lippman
Table of Contents
his is true: there comes a time in the life of a beautiful woman, or even an attractive one with an abundance of charm, when she realizes that she can no longer rely on her looks. If she is unusually, exceedingly self-aware, the realization is a timely one. But, more typically, it lags the physical reality by several years, like a thunderclap when a lightning storm is passing by. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand â¦ boom. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand, five one thousand.
The lightning is moving out, away, which is a good thing in nature, but not in the life of a beautiful woman.
That's how it happened for Mona. A gorgeous woman at twenty, a stunning woman at thirty, a striking woman at forty, a handsome woman at fifty, she was pretty much done by sixtyâbut only if one knew what she had been, once upon a time, and at this point that knowledge belonged to Mona alone. A sixty-eight-year-old widow when she moved into LeisureWorld, she was thought shy and retiring by her neighbors in the Creekside Condos, Phase II. She was actually an incurious snob who had no interest in the people around her. People were overrated, in Mona's opinion, unless they were men and they might be persuaded to marry you.
This is not my life,
she thought, walking the trails that wound through the pseudo-city in suburban Maryland.
This is not what I anticipated.
Mona had expected â¦ well, she hadn't thought to expect. To the extent that she had been able to imagine her old age at all, she had thought her sunset years might be something along the lines of Eloise at the Plazaâa posh place in a city center, with twenty-four-hour room service and a concierge. Such things were availableâbut not to those with her resources, explained the earnest young accountant who reviewed the various funds left by Mona's husband, her fourth, although Hal Wickham had believed himself to be her second.
“Mr. Wickham has left you with a conservative, diversified portfolio that will cover your costs at a comfortable levelâbut it's not going to allow you to live in a hotel,” the accountant had said a little huffily, almost as if he were one of Hal's children, who had taken the same tone when they realized how much of their father's estate was to go to Mona. But she was his wife, after all, and not some fly-by-night spouse. They had been married fifteen years, her personal best.
“But there's over two million, and the smaller units in that hotel are going for less than a million,” she said, crossing her legs at the knee and letting her skirt ride up, just a bit. Her legs were still quite shapely, but the accountant's eyes slid away from them. A shy one. These bookish types killed her.
“If you cash out half of the investments, you earn half as much on the remaining principal, which isn't enough to cover your living expenses, not with the maintenance fees involved. Don't you see?”
“I'd be paying cash,” she said, leaning forward, so her breasts rested on her elbows. They were still quite impressive. Bras were one wardrobe item that had improved in Mona's lifetime. Bras were amazing now, what they did with so little fabric.
“Yes, theoretically. But there would be taxes to pay on the capital gains of the stocks acquired in your name, and your costs would outpace your earnings. You'd have to dip into your principal, and at that rate, you'd be broke in”âhe did a quick calculation on his computerâ“seven years. You're only sixty-eight nowâ”
“Sixty-one,” she lied reflexively.
“All the more reason to be careful,” he said. “You're going to live a long, long time.”
But to Mona, now ensconced in Creekside Condos, Phase II, it seemed only that it would feel that way. She didn't golf, so she had no use for the two courses at LeisureWorld. She had never learned to cook, preferring to dine out, but she loathed eating out alone and the delivery cuisine available in the area was not to her liking. She watched television, took long walks, and spent an hour a day doing vigorous isometric exercises that she had learned in the late sixties. This was before Jane Fonda and aerobics, when there wasn't so much emphasis on sweating. The exercises were the closest thing that Mona had to a religion and they had been more rewarding than most religions, delivering exactly what they promisedâand in this lifetime, too. Plus, all her husbands, even the ones she didn't count, had benefited from the final set of repetitions, a series of pelvic thrusts done in concert with vigorous yogic breathing.
One late fall day, lying on her back, thrusting her pelvis in counterpoint to her in-and-out breaths, it occurred to Mona that her life would not be much different in the posh, downtown hotel condo she had so coveted. It's not as if she would go to the theaters or museums; she had only pretended interest in those things because other people seemed to expect it. Museums bored her and theater baffled herâall those people talking so loudly, in such artificial sentences. Better restaurants wouldn't make her like eating out alone, and room service was never as hot as it should be. Her surroundings would be a considerable improvement, with truly top-of-the-line fixtures, but all that would have meant is that she would be lying on a better-quality carpet right now. Mona was not meant to be alone and if she had known that Hal was going to die only fifteen years in, she might have chosen differently. Finding a husband at the age of sixty-eight, even when one claimed to be sixty-one, had to be harder than finding a job at that age. With Hal, Mona had consciously settled. She wondered if he knew that. She wondered if he had died just to spite her.
There was a Starbucks in LeisureWorld plaza and she sometimes ended her afternoon walks there, curious to see what the fuss was about. She found the chairs abominableâhad anyone over fifty ever tried to rise from these low-slung traps?âbut she liked what a younger person might call the vibe. (Mona didn't actually know any young people and had been secretly glad that Hal's children loathed her so, as it gave her an excuse to have nothing to do with them or the grandchildren.) She treated herself to sweet drinks, chocolate drinks, drinks with whipped cream. Mona had been on a perpetual diet since she was thirty-five, and while the discipline, along with her exercises, had kept her body hard, it had made her face harder still. The coffee drinks and pastries added weight, but no more than five or six pounds, and it was better than Botox, plumping and smoothing Mona's cheeks. She sipped her drink, stared into space, and listened to the curious non-music on the sound system. It wasn't odd to be alone in Starbucks, quite the opposite. When parties of two or three came in, full of conversation and private jokes, they were the ones who seemed out of place. The regulars all relaxed a little when those interlopers finally left.
“I hate to intrude, but I just had to sayâma'am? Ma'am?”
The man who stood next to her was young, no more than forty-five. At first glance, he appeared handsome, well put together. At second, the details betrayed him. There was a stain on his trench coat, flakes of dandruff on his shoulders and down the front of his black turtleneck sweater.
Still, he was a man and he was talking to her.
“You're â¦ someone, aren't you? I'm bad with names, but I don't forget faces and youâwell, you were a model, right? One of the new-wave ones in the sixties, when they started going for that coltish look.”
“No, you must thinkâ”
“My apologies,” he said. “Because you were better known for the movies, those avant-garde ones you did before you chucked it all and married that guy, although you could have been as big as any of them. Julie Christie. She was your only serious competition.”
It took Mona a second to remember who Julie Christie was, her brain first detouring through memories of June Christie but then landing on an image of the actress. She couldn't help being pleased, if he was confusing her with someone who was serious competition for Julie Christie. Whoever he thought she was must have been gorgeous. Mona felt herself preening, even as she tried to deny the compliment. He thought she was even younger than she pretended to be.
“But you are,” he said. “More beautiful than ever. Our culture is so confused about its â¦ aesthetic values. I'm not talking about the veneration of age as wisdom, or the importance of experience, although those things are to the good. You are, objectively, more beautiful now than you were back then.”
“Perhaps I am,” she said lightly. “But I'm not whoever you think I was, so it's hard to know.”
“Oh. Gosh. My apologies. I'm such an idiotâ”
He sank into the purple velvet easy chair opposite her, twisting the brim of his hat nervously in his hands. She liked the hat, the fact of it. So few men bothered nowadays, and as a consequence, fewer men could pull them off. Mona was old enough, just, to remember when all serious men wore hats.
“I wish you could remember the name,” she said, teasing him, yet trying to put him at ease, too. “I'd like to know this stunner that you say I resemble.”
“It's not important,” he said. “I feel so stupid. Fact isâI bet she doesn't look as good today as you do.”
“Mona Wickham,” she said, extending her hand. He bowed over it. Didn't kiss it, just bowed, a nice touch. Mona was vain of her hands, which were relatively unblemished. She kept her nails in good shape with weekly manicures and alternated her various engagement rings on the right hand. Today it was the square-cut diamond from her third marriage. Not large, but flawless.
“Bryon White,” he said. “With an O, like the poet, only the R comes first.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said. Two or three seconds passed, and Bryon didn't release her hand and she didn't take it back. He was studying her with intense, dark eyes. Nice eyes, Mona decided.
“The thing is, you could be a movie star.”
“So some said, when I was young.” Which was, she couldn't help thinking, a good decade before the one in which this Bryon White thought she had been a model and an actress.
“No, I mean now. Today. I could see you as, asâCatherine, the Russian empress.”
Mona frowned. Wasn't that the naughty one?
“Or, you know, Lauren Bacall. I think she's gorgeous.”
“I didn't like her in that movie with Streisand.”
“No, but with Altmanâwith Altman, she was magnificent.”
Mona wasn't sure who Altman was. She remembered a store in New York, years ago, B. Altman's. After her first marriage, she had changed into a two-piece going-away suit purchased there, a dress with matching jacket. She remembered it still, standing at the top of the staircase in that killingly lovely suit, in a houndstooth check of fuchsia and black, readying to throw the bouquet. She remembered thinking:
I look good, but now I'm married, so what does it matter?
Mona's first marriage had lasted two years.
Bryon picked up on her confusion. “In
PrÃªt Ã Porter.
” This did not clear things up for Mona. “I'm sorry, it translates toâ”
“I know the French,” she said, a bit sharply. “I used to go to the Paris collections, buy couture.” That was with her second husband, who was rich, rich, rich, until he wasn't anymore. Until it turned out he never really was. Wallace just had a high tolerance for debt, higher than his creditors, as it turned out. Mona didn't leave because he filed for bankruptcy, but it didn't make the case for staying, either.