Authors: Paula Marantz Cohen
Norman was waiting at a table for four near the window as May and Flo entered the dining hall. May was literally agape as they made their way across the intricately parqueted floor and past the tables with embroidered tablecloths and ornate center pieces of fresh flowers.
“Close your mouth,” murmured Flo. “This isn’t Chartres Cathedral, for godsakes.”
“Flo, be nice,” whispered May, seeing that her friend was in one of her moods. She was glad to note that Stan Jacobs wasn’t there. Flo was in a state May knew could be dangerous; if she saw Stan and thought she’d been put on the spot, there was no accounting for what she might do.
Norman rose to greet them and, by the miracle of his disposition—a disposition that accounted for his business success more than any particular savvy when it came to calculating the need for leather goods in East Coast department stores—managed to make May feel immediately comfortable and even take the edge off Flo’s mood.
“I always say that there are two styles of decor in Boca Raton,” said Norman after May complimented him on the beauties of Broken Arrow. “There’s the Atlantic City casino look for the more with-it crowd, and the English country gentry look for the old-money types. Old money, by the way, means it’s actually been in a bank and not in a pillowcase. That’s what we have at Broken Arrow. All the furniture here looks like it’s been hijacked from one of those
productions. You know how it is—Jewish men really want to be English country lords.
Our fathers wanted it for us, which is why they gave us first names like Arnold, Murray, and Norman—and your husband’s, May, wasn’t it Irving? All these very pedigreed British
names suddenly become upwardly mobile Jewish
names. The fact of the matter is that our fathers missed the point. It’s the last name, not the first, that counts. We’re talking landed gentry, not the gent behind the deli counter.”
Flo and May both laughed.
“I can see you’ve given this a lot of thought,” observed Flo.
“I have,” conceded Norman. “And personally, if I weren’t so lazy, I’d move to the South of France.”
“Stop sounding like Flo,” said May, with more animation than was common for her. “I think it’s beautiful here.” It was apparent that she did, Norman noted happily, since he, too, for all his protesting (much of it learned from his friend, Stan Jacobs), liked it enormously. Broken Arrow was pretty much his idea of heaven on earth.
They seated themselves and began to peruse a calligraphied menu that to May was as impressive as an illuminated manuscript when Stan Jacobs walked in. He was wearing tennis shoes and was holding a racket, and had the air of someone who had wandered into the clubhouse by accident and happened to find three people he vaguely knew assembled in front of him.
“Oh, hi there,” said Stan. He shook May’s hand, but then seemed to lose interest in the amenities of greeting and only nodded to Flo. “I heard that you might be here, and Norman and I usually have a tennis match on Thursdays at two, so …”
“Good old Stan, gracious as ever,” laughed Norman. “Join us for lunch. Tennis today is off. I plan to drink at least two glasses of wine and give these two fascinating ladies my undivided attention all afternoon. Why the hell would I want to play tennis with you?”
“The court’s reserved,” said Stan in a tone of mild irritation. “You know how hard it is to get a court here.”
“Almost as hard as an audience with the pope,” laughed Norman, “and about as desirable, as far as I’m concerned right now. Though perhaps the ladies think otherwise.” He turned inquiringly to May and Flo. “We can play doubles if you like. The shop will outfit you in a jiffy.” He snapped his fingers. “That’s the kind of service we pay an arm and a leg for here.”
Norman offered the idea without much enthusiasm, and May, who rarely went into the water above her knees and for whom tennis was as foreign as skydiving, demurred quickly.
“I don’t play,” she explained, hoping that her athletic incapacity would not diminish her in Norman’s eyes. He looked as if he probably did all the sports like tennis, golf, and skiing that she associated with a lively, moneyed strata outside her ken. “But Flo is a wonderful player,” she added, hoping that her friend’s abilities might compensate for her own lack of them.
“Well, we’ll eat first,” said Norman, “and then Flo can decide if she wants to play I hope she does. That’ll get me off the hook, and maybe she can beat Stan’s ass and really make it worth my while.”
Stan looked doubtful about the idea of playing Flo, but he sat down and said nothing. Flo, who preferred the prospect of playing Stan to talking to him, remarked with exaggerated cheerfulness that she was “game for a game,” and didn’t need anything but a racket from the pro shop since she was wearing her shorts and tennis sneakers.
“I always come prepared, since court time is at such a premium in Boca,” she announced. “You know you’re retired when you’re ‘on call’ for tennis.” She gave Stan a dazzling smile, which, if one didn’t know her, might have passed as an attempt to be friendly.
In fact, it had always been a rule with Flo Kliman not to let unpleasant people register on her or cow her into submission. It was a compensatory strategy, she knew, that came from growing up in an era when women were supposed to defer to men. Hers
was not a pliant nature, as she had demonstrated fifty years ago when she refused to entertain the banal dronings of the dental student judged by everyone in her circle to be a good catch. She could still recall the tearful pleadings of her mother, mystified by how her daughter, hovering on the brink of spinsterhood at twenty-four, could reject such a prospect. Fortunately, Eddie had come along soon afterward, a man secure enough to withstand a strong woman’s opinions and with a taste for combat that made spirited argument part of their marital sport. Flo felt she’d been lucky in her husband, as she had been in her career, but she still suffered pangs of envy when she saw women a generation younger who’d been able to embark more aggressively on their own paths. And her envy turned to awe when she looked at the present generation of young women, as exemplified in her great-niece Amy. Amy was twenty-one, a film student at NYU with an unshakable sense of her own worth and an openness to the possibilities of life that struck Flo as breathtaking. If she could be born again, she often liked to say, it would be as Amy’s best friend. Amy, for her part, responded that her great-aunt
her best friend, not to mention her most dependable resource for all information (she’d been reaping the benefits of having a librarian for a great-aunt ever since the third grade). The two women maintained a lively e-mail correspondence on topics ranging from shopping to books to the eccentricities of various family members, whom both tended to look upon with a similar mixture of amusement and dismay.
“Have decided that you and I only sane members of family,” Amy had written the other day, after a particularly nasty confrontation with her father (Flo’s nephew), a successful tax attorney whom both women agreed was sadly lacking in imagination and humor. “Have traced father’s problem to failure to learn haftorah portion at his bar mitzvah. Has made cryptic mention of this over the years and always looks depressed afterward.
Postulate that teenage shame accounts for years on the couch and inability to have fun.”
“Was at said bar mitzvah,” wrote Flo in her return e-mail. “Recall no failure with haftorah, though do recall very old rabbi with very bad breath (memory of which may have precipitated depression). Must insist that father/nephew’s problems reach back to earlier period. Possibly related to trauma of having insane father, driven so by ball-breaking older sister (i.e., yours truly).”
Flo and Amy found such exchanges endlessly amusing, reinforcing their affinity in a family besieged by rivalries and antagonisms, and giving them a solid anchor outside the turbulence of their own generation. It was a relationship that Flo, for one, valued greatly. Often, while in the midst of an experience, she would find herself thinking about how she would describe it in her next e-mail to Amy.
Such was the case now as she sat over lunch at Broken Arrow. The setting itself, with its look of Windsor Castle as re-created by Aaron Spelling, was good fodder, as was the situation—Norman and May conversing sweetly while she and Stan glared at each other over a sea of cut glass. Surely there was enough material here for a week’s worth of entertaining e-mails.
And that was before getting into the food. Flo and Amy had always enjoyed trading descriptions of memorable meals, and the lunch at Broken Arrow was decidedly memorable. The gazpacho was wonderfully piquant; the veal, exquisitely tender; and the apple crisp, quite simply the best apple crisp she had ever eaten—and she had eaten a good deal of apple crisp in her day. Flo had to admit that the meal was worthy of the better restaurants in Chicago and New York.
But since when was this surprising? Food was a prominent feature of life in west Boca Raton. All the senior residences in Boca had noteworthy food: copious, frequent, and lavish in presentation and variety. Food, after all, was interesting. In the elderly Jewish lexicon, it was not just a source of gustatory pleasure
and an excuse for getting together and schmoozing; it was a subject for intellectual analysis and debate in its own right, a kind of digestible seminar topic.
“So do you think the potato salad is as good as the potato salad at Don’s Drive-in?” a wife would ask her husband, referring to an eatery in northern New Jersey, where they had formerly lived.
“I don’t know,” he might respond, pausing to ruminate on the question. “This one seems a little grainy.”
“I wouldn’t say grainy, but there’s less mayonnaise. I like mayonnaise in potato salad, as long as it’s not mayonnaise-y.”
“This isn’t mayonnaise-y”
“Did I say it was mayonnaise-y? I said there was less mayonnaise than at Don’s.”
“Don’s was kind of mushy.”
“Mushy, no, one thing it wasn’t was mushy, but it had more mayonnaise”—and so on, with such conversation expanding to take up an entire lunch and, in some instances, many subsequent lunches. In point of fact it was an exercise in critical exegesis like any other, no different in kind from the study of Renaissance portraiture or the metrics of John Milton. No doubt it had its origin in the hair-splitting commentary that Jews had performed for millennia in their reading of the Torah and the Talmud. Add to this natural analytic inclination the fact that most of the residents of West Boca had esoteric dietary requirements—the result of health problems, bizarre taste preferences, and in some cases, the vestiges of religious dietary law—and the intricacy of food-related conversation could become veritably labyrinthine.
Given the importance of food to Jewish seniors, it was logical that the quality of food would increase as one moved up the hierarchy of residences in Boca, supporting the dictum “You get what you pay for.” Where large portions and a varied buffet table were standard fare everywhere, quality of preparation and ingredients marked the vast divide between the lower-rung
clubs, where even the non-Egg-Beater eggs were powdered, and the top-of-the-line establishments. Broken Arrow, being at the very zenith, boasted a genuine French chef, trained in both traditional and nouvelle cuisine, who had gotten tired of battling over his second Michelin star and decided to relax in semi-retirement supervising the kitchen in this food-conscious corner on the eastern coast of Florida.
“These people are not chic, but they know their food,” explained the chef to his friends, who enjoyed jetting over for a long weekend to sit on the awninged balcony overlooking the golf course, surreptitiously sucking on Gauloises cigarettes and watching the bizarre parade of orange-haired matrons drive by in golf carts. God forbid he should try to pass off a lesser-quality fish in his quenelles; some irate patron, hardly more than four feet tall but with a very loud voice, was sure to storm into the kitchen with the complaint that she was not paying
amount in club dues to be served gefilte fish.
“The meal gets three stars,” Flo commented appreciatively to Norman now as they sat sipping their coffee over the remains of the apple crisp.
“That’s a great compliment,” said May. “Flo is a gourmet and very critical. She walks out of restaurants if the bathroom is dirty.” Stan Jacobs looked up from under his bushy eyebrows as if to take the measure, or so Flo thought, of an aging Jewish American Princess.
Norman nodded good-naturedly. “My wife was the same way. Not me. My father used to tell us that a little dirt helps build the resistance. When we were small, if we dropped a piece of food on the floor, we’d kiss it to God and eat it.”
“That sounds familiar,” said May, laughing.
“The food is good here,” said Stan brusquely, “but it’s wasted on the likes of you, Norman. You could just as well be eating at a hot dog stand on Coney Island.”
“Well, that’s true.” Norman seemed to give the comment
some serious thought. “Nothing ever beat a good Nathan’s frank. But did I hear Stan Jacobs correctly? Has my friend actually something good to say about Broken Arrow? It’s a first, so let me enjoy it.” He turned to the women as he put his arm around his friend’s shoulders and continued, “For all that he spends half his time here, I’ve never heard him do anything but complain about the place.”
“You don’t live here?” asked May
“He lives in a house about two miles away,” explained Norman. “You know, that traditional form of shelter where you have to mow the lawn and take the garbage to the curb? It’s a nice house, too, though he owes that more to his wife than to him. She had taste. Stan’s contribution was the books. He can’t move out; the books won’t let him. They’ve taken over, like a nasty weed. Come to think of it,” Norman added, winking at Flo, “he could use a librarian. It’s gotten to the point that you can’t get to the bathroom without tripping over stacks of poetry that lifting would give you a hernia. That’s why he’s always hanging around here, along with the fact that he has a natural, overwhelming love for me.”
“Let’s face it,” said Stan, smiling at his friend’s teasing, “I’m a schnorrer, and you indulge me.”