Authors: Paula Marantz Cohen
“This is Toby—help me with your last name, dear? We met on the plane; and this must be your mother—I’m so glad you could make it. Take a look around. I know you’re looking for a place, and Boca Festa has a lot to recommend it. This is Lila, my mother-in-law’s friend. She lives in Boca Festa, too, on the other side, pod nine, Eastgate. If I remember, your husbands were both in retail. Lila’s from Philadelphia.” Carol had the gift of retaining seemingly negligible details about people and summoning them up in unexpectedly useful contexts.
Soon the room was abuzz with talk. A group of women were admiring the pink-and-gold canvas over the TV unit; Carol had insisted on buying it for May, who, no match for the combined bullying of Carol Newman and Sylvia Cantor, had quickly acquiesced. Now Carol grasped Sylvia by the arm and led her over to May to describe other paintings in her shop. Alan, Sylvia’s husband, Jeffrey, and a third man with a hearing aid were huddled over Alan’s laptop, scanning investment possibilities. Lila
was nodding her head encouragingly while Hy Marcus spoke about his daughter-in-law’s gourmet-cooking course. A widower in a cap (one of the healthier ones that Carol had sighted by the pool) was making a penny disappear behind seven-year-old Adam’s ear and then extracting it from the child’s nostril, while two women whom Carol had met yesterday on the supermarket line looked on. Another group of widowers, who had taken possession of the sofa and whom nothing short of a fire bombing were likely to dislodge, were trying to arrange a golf game around the obstacle course of their respective doctors’ appointments.
After talking with Sylvia for a while, May retreated with Flo to the side of the room where they stood together, surveying the scene and hoping to escape Carol’s notice. If she saw them together, she would step in and separate them. Carol saw no point in talking to someone you already knew at a party.
“Who are these people?” Flo wondered to her friend.
“People Carol found. What can I say?” said May with a resigned shrug.
“Don’t explain—I know the type. I had a daughter-in-law like that, only my son divorced her. She made him do calisthenics before they had sex. She was a health nut. Ran ten miles a day, macrobiotic food, special breathing exercises. One day he ordered a hamburger and she had a tantrum. She said she wasn’t going to live with anyone who ate a hamburger.”
“That doesn’t sound like Carol,” said May doubtfully. “She eats hamburgers. And she’s devoted to Alan—in her way. But she
“Of course she is,” pronounced Flo. “Just look at her waving her arms. She’s a fanatical arranger. And it looks like we’re about to be arranged.” She gestured toward the knot of golfers on the sofa, whom Carol was clearly eyeing in the view of hauling them over to meet May and Flo.
“I think you’re right,” sighed May.
“It’s not such a bad thing, you know. It shows concern for you, in a way. My daughter-in-law—the new one—has almost no sense of my existence. The other day she asked me if I was coming up for Yom Kippur. That’s eight months away! Of course, she may have Yom Kippur mixed up with Passover. Her grasp of the holidays is weak—to my son’s delight.”
May was still surprised by Flo’s willingness to criticize those close to her. It was a novelty, schooled as she was in the idea that it was undignified to ridicule one’s family. Yet Flo somehow managed to get away with doing it without compromising her dignity. May did not think that she could do such things herself, but she appreciated Flo’s gift and admitted that it made people seem much more interesting. She was looking forward, for example, to meeting Jonathan Kliman (“my son, the
” as Flo called him) and his second wife (“the ice goddess”).
“You don’t like your daughter-in-law?” May asked, not altogether innocently. She was eager to hear Flo expound further on the subject.
“Like? What’s to like? My son goes and marries a girl who is everything I’m not, and I’m supposed to like her? What’s he running away from? He says he likes her quiet elegance. Let him buy a piece of furniture. He tells me I’d like her if I’d get to know her. But how can I get to know someone who rides a horse? It’s an impossibility. I am never going to get to know someone who rides a horse.”
“Flo, you’re terrible,” laughed May.
At this moment, Norman Grafstein and another man entered the room, and Carol, abandoning the widowers near the TV, rushed to meet them.
“Norman, so glad you could make it.” Carol placed her two hands over Norman’s one. “Just a few friends. Come, I want you to meet May.” The two men were dragged to May and Flo.
Norman Grafstein, who had the rare gift of enjoying himself
in all company, approached May with characteristic expansiveness: “May Newman, you haven’t changed a bit. As pretty as ever.”
May blushed. She remembered Norman Grafstein as a vocal presence at PTA meetings, where she and her husband always sat toward the back and never participated. How could he remember her? But he did, and seemed genuinely glad to see her.
May introduced Flo.
“Another South Orange fugitive?” asked Norman.
“No,” explained May, “Flo’s from Newark by way of Chicago. We met through Lila.” She pointed to their friend who was sitting across the room and listening, with the patience of Job, to the relentlessly voluble Hy Marcus. Hy appeared to have mastered the technique of certain gifted trumpeters and trombonists who can play on and on without seeming to pause for breath.
“Yes,” added Flo, “we three ‘hang out’ together, as they say You may have noted that you never see fewer than three widows together in Boca. We travel in packs, like teenage girls. It’s an adaptive behavior, since we outlive you men three to one.”
Norman laughed, then turned to introduce his friend, who had been standing silently by his side, apparently not amused by Flo’s wit: “Oh, this is my friend Stan Jacobs.” Norman placed his hand on the other man’s shoulder as though he were bringing a large, possibly dangerous dog to heel. “Stan has the dubious honor of being my
—his daughter married my son. We play tennis every Sunday and I can sometimes beat him, but he always ends by making me feel like his intellectual inferior. I dragged him along to buck up his spirits. He had that hang-dog widower’s look, and I thought he needed to go to a party.”
Stan Jacobs was a large man with a mop of white hair and a picturesquely lined face. He ducked his head in greeting.
“Stan’s an odd bird,” continued Norman. “He actually lived down here before he retired.”
“Really?” said Flo. “Does Boca have a Jewish population under sixty?”
“My wife wasn’t Jewish,” said Stan curtly “She was a Boca native. I moved here to be near her.”
“Well, there you are. I knew my statistics couldn’t be wrong,” said Flo triumphantly. “The lure of a non-Jewish woman is a wholly unforeseen element. It throws off the whole system.”
Stan was silent, but Norman chimed in good-humoredly, “Are you saying Stan’s a glitch in the system?”
“Absolutely. I can tell he’s not a businessman or a lawyer or an accountant. He probably doesn’t even have grandchildren living in New Jersey.”
“You’ve got it!” laughed Norman. “Except for the grand children—we share one and he lives in Scotch Plains. But you’re right about the job description. Stan’s an English professor, of all goddamn things. He teaches literature at Florida Atlantic.”
“Only one course a year now,” said Stan stiffly. “I’m what they call
I teach an elective in the spring to keep me out of trouble.”
“An English professor is unforeseen enough for my taste,” said Flo.
“What do you teach?” asked May.
“Oh, a range—all of equal indifference to my students, I’m afraid. Mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature: poetry, prose. This spring I’ll be teaching a course on Jane Austen.”
“ ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,’ “ recited Flo crisply
“Are you an Austen fan?” Stan asked, less impressed than Flo felt he should be by her on-the-spot recitation of the first line of Austen’s most famous novel.
“I suppose. Really just a reader. When I was young, I read to escape my family Now I read to escape not having one. I became a librarian because I always felt safest in the library.”
“I don’t think I’ve read a book—I mean from cover to cover—in years,” announced Norman. “I read the papers and the book reviews. I keep up with ideas, or so I like to think, eh, Stan? But I don’t seem motivated to read books, do you know what I mean? I don’t have the discipline at my age.” He looked at May, who nodded. “And for godsakes, you can’t tell what they’re about from the covers anymore.”
“Do you notice a hidden boast?” Stan responded, gesturing toward his friend with a bit more animation than he had shown until now. “I think he’s really proud of not reading. He likes to think of himself as a quick study who doesn’t need to pore over books to keep informed.”
“Excuse me. I wasn’t boasting at all. I’m genuinely ashamed of how little I read, especially when I’m around you.”
“If that were true, you wouldn’t be telling us about it. You’d be trying very hard to keep us from finding it out.”
“Perhaps he’s simply trying to reduce the embarrassment by telling us about it before we find out,” offered Flo. “I think it’s a very effective strategy, and I don’t think any less of him for doing it.”
“Thank you,” said Norman cheerfully. “I hope you don’t either.” He turned to May.
“Not at all,” laughed May. “I agree with you. I wish I read more. I just don’t like the books being written now, that’s all.”
“Then read the older books,” said Stan. “Read George Eliot and Henry James and Dickens.”
“But what did they think about the Jews?” quipped Flo (she was herself quite partial to these writers but determined to give this pompous man some opposition). “George Eliot, as a woman, understood what it’s like to be kicked around, but Dickens and James were anti-Semites to the core.”
Stan looked annoyed. “I wouldn’t say that. You have to consider when they wrote—and the nature of the characters involved.”
“I see,” said Flo, “they only hated Jews when it came time to write about money-grubbing, greasy shysters; otherwise they didn’t have a problem.”
“I think you’re intentionally missing the point. Dickens and James wrote great literature that happened to reflect the prejudices of the society in which they lived.”
“Prejudices that helped create a climate for the pogroms and the Holocaust.”
“Yours is the kind of attitude that has helped keep us in the ghetto, intellectually speaking.”
“And their attitude helped keep us there, literally speaking.”
“Now, let’s not get political,” cautioned Norman. “I think you’ve met your match in this one, Herr Professor.” He turned to May, whom he could see was relieved to have him stop the debate, and was about to ask how long she’d been in Boca when he was interrupted by a shout from halfway across the room.
“Norman Grafstein, as I live and breathe!” One of the women whom Carol had met on the supermarket line pushed her way toward them. She was wearing purple harem pants and an enormous quantity of mascara, and might have put serious film enthusiasts in mind of the great silent-screen vamp Theda Bara (really, Theodosia Goodman, daughter of a Jewish tailor from Cincinnati), albeit a good ninety years after her screen debut.
Norman looked confused for a moment and then showed signs of recognition. “Gloria Fox, how are you?”
“Fine,” corrected the woman. “I’m fine, too, but it’s Gloria Fine.”
“Of course,” said Norman. “Gloria Fine. Janet’s sister. I saw you last at the Weissman bar mitzvah last year.”
“It was the Janoff wedding, but never mind,” said Gloria, waving her hand. “All I know is that you were one good dancer.”
“Years of lessons,” said Norman. “No aptitude, but practice makes perfect.”
“Well, I remember you had me out of breath that evening,” said Gloria, looking sideways at May, who instinctively took a step back. Norman, however, seemed intent on keeping May in the conversation.
“I suppose you know our hostess, May Newman,” he said. “Gloria—”
“Fine,” said the woman, glancing again at May without much interest. “I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure. Your daughter-in-law invited me. A lovely woman.”
“Carol’s very friendly,” agreed May.
“You’re at Broken Arrow,” said Gloria, turning back to Norman, as though telling him something that he might have forgotten.
“Yes, for longer than I’d like to admit. We moved down almost ten years ago, and it’s two since my wife passed away.”
“Time flies,” observed Gloria, scrutinizing Norman closely, as though trying to determine where she might fasten herself onto him. “I’m in Boca Lago,” she volunteered. “Down the road. You’ll have to come visit.”
Before he could frame a response, Stan, who had been standing next to Flo without saying a word, suddenly interceded curtly, “Norman, we should get going.”
“Ah,” Norman exclaimed, pleased to have his attention diverted, “I was wondering when that yank would come. This is my keeper, Stan Jacobs.” Norman presented Gloria, but looked over at May and winked. “He keeps me on a very short leash. Whenever I start to have a good time, he knows to butt in and spoil it for me.”
“We have a court reserved at five,” said Stan without smiling, “and we promised Stephanie we’d call this afternoon to see how she’s feeling.”
“Stephanie is Stan’s daughter and mother of our grandchild,” Norman explained to the women. “She’s expecting again, and Stan likes to check in to be sure she’s taking her vitamins and
drinking enough milk. He clips articles out of the paper for her on nutrition and has a whole file on up-to-date birthing techniques.”
“That’s wonderful,” said May, looking respectfully over at Stan. “Most men don’t take an interest in such things.”
“Stan takes an interest in everything,” Norman declared proudly, putting his arm around his friend, who winced slightly. “He’s unusual that way. A veritable fountain of knowledge. That’s why I let him boss me around.”
“I’m his whipping boy,” said Stan, showing the trace of a smile. “He can blame me for anything he does that he doesn’t like. The devil made him do it, you see, only the devil is his