Authors: Paula Marantz Cohen
May always said she would check things out—it was easier to say yes to Carol than to say no—but she rarely followed through on her promises. When her daughter-in-law called for a report, she always had an excuse: an attack of dyspepsia, a heavy rain, a made-for-TV movie that she wanted to watch. For someone like Carol, used to having her initiatives stick, May’s mild-mannered but unwavering refusal to cooperate was frustrating to say the least.
“We need to go down,” Carol announced one day to her husband soon after the newspaper had drawn her attention to a widowed Norman Grafstein. “We need to visit your mother and get things moving.”
“We were just there in December, and we’ll go again in
June,” said Alan wearily, for he detected the fateful note of determination in his wife’s voice. “You know I can’t take off again until tax season is over.”
“June is too far away,” pronounced Carol. “This is the plan”—for, of course, she had one. “I’ll go down with the kids next week; you can meet us for a long weekend. I’ve already reserved the tickets. But you’ll have to call Mark Grafstein before we go. Tell him we’ll stop in on his father, to pay our respects, when you arrive.”
Alan knew it would all be done.
EWMAN SAT IN HER KITCHENETTE WITH
Flo Kliman, fellow residents of the Boca Festa retirement club. Boca Festa was one
many clubs in Boca Raton, Florida, former scrubland developed in the early 1970s as a haven for modest-to-well-to-do retirees. The population was mostly Jewish (though with a definite sprinkling of Italians) and mostly from the tri-state metropolitan area (though with a vocal minority from Chicago, Cleveland, and Montreal).
Boca Festa was built on a plan that resembled the other clubs in the area. It was set on a large expanse of manicured grounds with a Tara-like clubhouse at the center and an Olympic-size pool alongside. The surrounding complex was divided into three “estates,” each reflecting a superficially different (but structurally similar) architectural style. Each estate was in turn divided into ten “pods,” and each pod into fifty condominium units. At the center of each pod was a small pod-pool and pod-clubhouse.
The entire complex was thus parsed and organized like a collapsible set of mirrors—a mix of the quasifuturistic and the quasihistorical. The estate names—Fairways, Eastgate, and Crest-view—suggested the stylish manor houses featured on popular 1980s TV series like
May lived in pod 3 in the Crest-view Estate; Lila and Flo in pod 9, Eastgate.
It was to her daughter-in-law that May owed her company. Lila’s niece was a friend of a member of Carol’s coffee group, and when the coincidence of the women’s mutual residence had been unearthed, a meeting had been inevitable. Lila and Flo
were neighbors in their pod and had known each other for several years.
“So what are we doing tonight?” asked Lila as the three women sipped their Sankas at May’s kitchen table.
“Why do we have to do anything?” countered Flo.
“We have to do something. It’s Saturday night!”
“Oh my God!” cried Flo. “Saturday night and I don’t have a date!”
“At our age it’s important to get out and mix,” said Lila impatiently. “Otherwise, they say, you lose interest in life.”
“Don’t worry; I haven’t lost my will to live.”
“You joke, but it’s not funny.”
“Okay,” said Flo, relenting as she always did after teasing Lila. “I’ll tell you what we’ll do: I’ll rent a Clark Gable movie and make some popcorn. You can both come over and watch.”
“Sitting home and watching television is not my idea of Saturday-night entertainment,” declared Lila. “I like human company.”
“Clark Gable is better than human company.”
“Well, you can stay home,” said Lila huffily. “I’m going to go out. May, will you join me? The JCC has a talk by one of those guru doctors on lowering your blood pressure through stress management. They say it will be very well attended.”
“Well …” said May. “I was feeling a little tired—”
“May wants to watch Clark Gable,” interrupted Flo. “He does more for stress management than a guru doctor.”
“Flo, mind your own business. Just because you have no interest in meeting anyone doesn’t mean you have to influence May”
“I’m not influencing May.”
“Please,” interceded May. “I wouldn’t mind going to hear the guru doctor with you, Lila, only I’m feeling a little tired. Flo isn’t influencing me. I do like Clark Gable.”
“All right,” said Lila, sighing. “I like Clark Gable, too. We’ll watch the movie tonight, but you have to promise to do something tomorrow, even if it’s only going to the clubhouse to hear Pinkus Lotman on parking violations in the pods. If we don’t do things, we might as well be dead.”
“Agreed,” said Flo. “We’ll go hear Pinkus Lotman tomorrow. That is, if May’s phlebitis doesn’t flare up.”
May laughed. She marveled at the amount of time she had come to spend with the two women and how much she enjoyed them. Even their bickering, which was fairly constant, was entertaining, and she never left their company without being amused and engaged.
Until meeting Lila and Flo, May hadn’t realized how lonely she’d been after Irving’s death. For almost a year, her only regular companion had been her neighbor Carla Rossen, a woman of seventy-eight who lived in the adjacent condo. They had gone to lunch and dinner at the clubhouse almost every day, and May had sat by quietly while her friend rehearsed an endless series of complaints.
“Do you call this a piece of veal?” Carla would demand, putting down her fork and looking around her in amazement. “It tastes like cardboard! How dare they expect me to eat cardboard instead of veal!”
Everything for Carla was a personal affront. The mailman, in placing
her Boca Times
in May’s box, was clearly intending to insult her. “I know what he’s up to,” she explained knowingly to May. “He gave me the fish-eye the first time I saw him. Murray”—Murray was her husband, once a focal point of irritation, now, in being dead, a saint—”wouldn’t have stood for it.”
Carla’s ability to find fault was at times so vast and inventive that it approached the level of a literary gift. Nothing was too small to evoke her disfavor, from the quality of the plantings next to the pool to the odor of the air freshener in the club
bathroom. May dutifully listened to Carla’s complaints, nodding and offering explanations as far as she could, until the friendship was finally severed when May failed to send a thank-you note for a dozen
that Carla had baked for her birthday. May had not seen the necessity of a note since she lived next door and had given her thanks in person, but for Carla the omission had been a gross breach in etiquette.
“A thank-you note shows respect,” declared Carla indignantly; it was a dictum her mother had taught her when she was ten years old, and she had held to it unwaveringly for nearly seventy years. “It’s clear that you do not respect me.”
May assured her that she did, but Carla would not be convinced and eventually ceased speaking to her neighbor altogether. Now, when they passed each other, Carla looked away with exaggerated disdain, so that Lila and Flo, who knew May’s gentle nature, were mystified as to what could have elicited such a reaction. For May, Carla’s hurt feelings were a source of pain, though she was also secretly relieved—being audience to so much constant complaining had been a trial. She felt fortunate to have met Lila and Flo, women with opinions and ideas who did not take themselves too seriously and who liked to laugh.
The friendship was odd in its way. Though all three women were Jewish and over seventy, they were also very different in disposition and style. Lila Katz was the shortest, barely five feet, with a trim, bosomy figure and a mass of red-orange hair that she kept carefully lacquered through weekly trips to the premier Boca stylist. It was her one indulgence, since she was on a fixed income and obliged to be vigilant about expenses.
“If Mort, the schnook, had had the good grace to leave me something, I wouldn’t have to worry about the mortgage on the condominium and go around in rags.”
“Rags?” queried Flo, looking doubtfully at Lila’s Nicole Miller top and Ralph Lauren skirt.
“Well, they might as well be, for what I paid for them,” explained
Lila. “Why shouldn’t I be able to buy retail? I’m not saying that I would, but I should be able to if I want.” Lila’s sense of what should be had the incisive clarity of the best Utopian philosopher.
“I think you look lovely,” interjected May.
“I don’t want to look lovely,” protested Lila, “I want to look glamorous.”
May Newman listened to Lila’s tirades with amusement. She had none of her friend’s flash or sense of frustrated entitlement, and her unassuming manner might have rendered her invisible were it not for an unusual sweetness of disposition and a definite if faded prettiness that gained by the novelty of her unawareness of it. She dressed conservatively, dyed her hair the light brown of her youth, and wore little jewelry. She was zaftig, as she liked to say, and was forever turning down the offered piece of cheesecake by explaining that she needed to lose twenty pounds. Flo argued otherwise: “If you ever lose weight,” she said, “you’ll look like a movie star and be shipped off to Hollywood to compete with that skinny half-Jewish Gwyneth Paltrow—so eat the cheesecake.”
Florence Kliman, the most educated and acerbic of the three women, was also the hardest to categorize. She was taller than the others—”Five-seven on a good day,” as she put it—and had the lean, long bones of the former athlete and expert tennis player that she was. Her face was angular—sharp features, long nose, large, dark eyes, and a wide mouth with prominent teeth made more so when she laughed, which was often. She had worked as a librarian at the University of Chicago until she and her husband moved to Florida three years before. He had been a successful real-estate lawyer, a workaholic whose doctor had urged him to retire and move south.
“But the sunshine and leisure immediately did him in,” explained Flo. “Eddie used to go out in twenty below and make
ten deals in a morning; but eighty degrees and a game of pinochle, he couldn’t handle.”
She had considered moving back to Chicago after her husband’s death but had decided in the end that she liked Florida—not a chic position among the academic-type women she had worked with back home. “Those women all wear Dr. Scholl’s and like films about Tibet,” she declared.
May and Lila enjoyed Flo’s wit but were also a little afraid of it. There was no telling when she might turn it on them.
Having resolved the issue of the evening’s entertainment, the women moved on to other topics. Lila’s interest in socializing inspired Flo to describe the men in West Boca.
“They’re all alike.” She expounded: “Pastel shorts, little caps, deaf in one ear, and a joke up the sleeve for culture. I used to look out the window and see twenty who could have been my Eddie, and who knows, but I may have gone to bed with two or three of them.”
“Flo, you’re terrible!” protested May, though she couldn’t help laughing.
“I think it’s a top-secret government plot,” continued Flo. “All the men over seventy in Boca have been turned into identical clones of each other.”
“Well, I’d take one with a nice pension in a minute,” declared Lila. She had announced to her friends that if she didn’t snag a husband this year, she would be forced to take a more modest place, maybe move out of the complex altogether.
Lila had embarked on the subject of the dreaded move when the doorbell rang. The three women ran to the window: A Bermuda-shorted, capped man of seventy-five was holding a bakery box in front of May’s door.
“It looks like May has an admirer,” said Lila.
“Oh, Mr. Marcus.” May was embarrassed. “He lives in Fairways. He once gave me a ride to the clubhouse.”
“Aha!” observed Lila with interest.
“Is he nice?” asked Flo.
“I suppose so,” said May, sounding unsure. “Well, I’d better see what he wants.” She rose and left the room.
There was a murmur of voices near the door, and Hy Marcus, having apparently escaped May’s attempt at a barricade, fairly jumped into the kitchenette.
“Ladies, ladies. I brought some Danish from New York City. I was visiting my son, Steven, a gastroenterologist with an office off Central Park, very successful, with a beautiful brownstone and a house in the Hamptons. My wife and I used to spend most of the summer there.” He now waved the box and put it down in the middle of the table. “May said she liked prune Danish when I gave her a lift to the clubhouse last week—saw a lady in distress, thought much better to ride in a Lincoln than schlump along and swell up the ankles—so when I saw these in the Boolangarary, which is the best French bakery in New York City where my daughter-in-law shops, I had to bring her back some. A prune for a princess,” he proffered gallantly.
May, looking overwhelmed, had pressed herself near the wall and watched with combined fascination and horror the progress of Hy Marcus’s monologue. Flo rolled her eyes, but Lila made an effort to respond:
“How nice that your son is doing so well.”
“Well, he went to the best schools and it cost enough, but I can’t complain.” And there proceeded a detailed description of the colleges, medical schools, and professional schools that his two children and their spouses had attended.
“Do you have grandchildren?” persisted Lila.
“Two little superstars! Ashley, as smart as a whip and what style; and Michael, throws a ball like a pro.”
Lila nodded and drew out their visitor with a series of questions that elicited more gleeful boasting, until finally, depleted of subject matter and with no questions forthcoming from the other two women, he felt obliged to take his leave.
“God help us,” exclaimed Flo as the door closed behind him. “Can you imagine being married to that?”
“No!” May laughed.
But Lila was more philosophical. “I think you’re being unfair. You happen to have enough to live on, but the fact is that for most women, a man who has some money and can give some security is not so ridiculous. This man is a decent man. Look, he brought May the Danish she liked from New York City.”