Estelle was absolutely positive that she was the oldest person at the party, although the bearded gentleman in the far corner of the living room could have been a close second. He was holding court within a circle of what appeared to be intimate friends, judging from the way they laughed together. Twenty, maybe thirty, people were sardined into the room, but Estelle sat by herself.
She occupied an overstuffed armchair, making it appear even more overstuffed because her frame filled only part of it. Her pure gray hair was professionally curled. Her round face wore a blank expression, the one you put on to disguise the wish to be somewhere else. A gray-blue dress carried the color of her hair slightly past her knees. Pale stockings began where the hem of the dress stopped and traveled downward, leaving requisite wrinkles at the ankles, before disappearing into sturdy, black shoes. She sat with one hand on a fancy cane and her legs spread apart in an unconscious effort to make her lap larger. Her other hand rested there, along with an empty plate.
Unconsciously she fingered the edge of the plate that – a short time ago — held the food Diane had brought from the buffet table in the family room before going off to find her own friends.
“I’ll be back to check on you in a bit,” her daughter had said, smiling and tucking a napkin along the side of the chair. She had patted her mother’s shoulder and disappeared.
About the same time, Moira and David made one round of the buffet table in the family room and then moved toward the living room, hoping to find a cozy spot near the fireplace. But on this chilly, December day others with the same idea had gotten there first.
Moira and David did not know many people at the party; and, before arriving, they had agreed to stay only as long as it took to be acknowleged so they could attend a second, more interesting affair at the home of other, closer friends. In twenty minutes, they planned to leave.
Moira’s clear brown eyes scanned the crowded living room for any available seating on which to do their remaining time. All the good spots – the ones with arms and backs — were taken, but she spied a hassock wedged against the wall to the left of an old woman in an armchair.
It might hold the two of us if we pull it out, Moira thought. She moved toward the hassock like a homing pigeon, knowing that David would follow, feeling him behind her. They picked their way across the room, and Moira reached down to pull the hassock away from the wall. She sat on the left half and reined in her black skirt, hoping David would understand her signal to sit on the right.
The old woman peeked from behind her blank expression to see David shake his head “No.” She watched as Moira repositioned herself in the center of the hassock, brushing invisible specks from her plaid jacket in the process, while David stepped behind it, resting a light hand on Moira’s shoulder. It was not a possessive gesture. Rather it said, “I’m right here. I just want you to be comfortable.”
It also proved for the gazillionth time that for every action there is a reaction of equal proportion. Moira looked up and smiled at her man. The woman noticed and involuntarily her own face changed, softened, mirrored Moira’s. A smile warmed her lips, as she remembered her own man, dead over twenty years. Estelle weighed the option of being present in this group of three, and decided it might be worth the risk.
At the same time, Moira dropped her gaze into her lap where her hands waited patiently for scrutiny. She hadn’t known David very long, but already his quiet, thought-filled manner made her want to know more. She busied herself with the study of fingernails; feeling cared about from the weight of his hand on her, when she sensed the old woman looking at her.
Moira had a sixth sense for knowing when someone was watching, regardless of whether the watcher stared overtly from the next chair or secretly from across the room. She attributed this to her interest in the details of her environment; but David said she was psychic. After several seconds, Moira raised her head only slightly and returned the woman’s look.
“I’m Moira,” she said. “And this is David.” She lifted one of her examined hands and touched the one that he still rested on her shoulder.
The old woman looked from Moira to David and back again.
Moira stretched out her right hand. The woman extended her own, leaving the empty plate to fend for itself.
Moira took the offered hand and squeezed gently. She tilted her head to include David in the introductions and then settled the acknowledging hand in her lap quietly on top of the other one.
“I’m Estelle Lavin,” the woman said. “Diane Schwartz’s mother. Diane is somewhere around.”
And Estelle swiveled her head this way and that, hoping to find the wayward Diane and authenticate the relationship. Then she looked at Moira and David, not with another swiveling glance but in disconnected sequences as if her head could not be depended on to take more orders if she moved it quickly. She leaned slightly forward in her overstuffed chair and whispered: “I’m from Florida. Lived there alone ever since Diane’s father, Joe, passed away twenty years ago. Did pretty well by myself too. But now doctors say I can’t be alone any more. It’s my heart. They say it’s no good. I feel okay. Just a little weak.”
David and Moira leaned forward too, collaborators in Estelle’s most intimate secrets.
“Two weeks ago I came here to live with Diane and her husband, my son-in-law.”
Memories of living alone played in the shadows about Estelle’s face. Her eyes looked beyond her new friends as she roamed the Florida of her mind. She wished for Joe; she wished Diane had not come and gotten her in spite of what the doctors said. This northern climate was cold in so many ways.
Moira and David said nothing. Waited. Finally, Estelle returned to the living room.
“I’m 92 years old. I really loved Florida.”
“Surfing,” David said. “I bet you were good at surfing,”
He winked at Estelle. Then he flashed one of his best smiles. But the old woman frowned.
“I bet you were a great surfer,” he repeated, winking again.
Estelle caught on. Realized David was talking to her. She threw her head back slightly and laughed softly. Smiled. Put her hands to her face as if embarrassed.
“Why, of course,” she giggled. “Went to the beach every day.” And she made wobbly diving motions with her hands.
“I bet you gave everybody a run for their money,” David insisted. “You probably had the brightest painted surfboard too.” He made wobbly diving motions back.
“How did you know?”
“That’s really why you didn’t want to leave Florida. Not enough surf here on Lake Michigan for you, especially in the middle of December.”
It was the most attention Estelle had received from anyone in the two weeks since her arrival in Chicago. Her daughter tried, but years of distance did not make for a lot in common. Diane’s husband was cordial in an expected sort of way. But there was the sense that everyone was just marking obligatory time.
Not David. His attention was voluntary. Even if it was only the polite thing, Estelle treasured it. Wanted to stretch every moment. She was like a vase long left empty on a shelf. Suddenly it is called into duty, holding water and flowers, which makes the vase more attractive too. Moira watched as Estelle filled with laughter, blooming brightly, connecting with David.
“Tell me about your swimsuit,” he persisted. He leaned casually on the windowsill behind him, relaxing his lanky six-foot frame into a pseudo-sitting position as if getting ready for a great story.
“One of those new bikini things,” Estelle said, her face shining in the glow of keeping up her end of the conversation. “Green with yellow trim. I had a little robe to match.”
David laughed. Moira laughed. Estelle bloomed. She was no longer Diane’s transplanted mother, the one who sat alone. She was a guest in her own right, holding an intelligent if silly conversation with two other guests. She was young and capable.
Talk of bikinis turned to talk of sunburn which led to talk of moonburn, whatever that was, which brought the three to the Man-in-the-Moon, and why he wasn’t a woman when Mother Nature was. Somewhere in the conversation David took the plate, which had dominated Estelle’s lap, and set it on a nearby table. Diane had still not returned.
No matter. It was the best few minutes of the party for all concerned, broken only by Moira’s glance at her wristwatch. She looked at it and then at David, signaling in that silent way couples do.
It was time to track down their hostess for the traditional “Thank you for inviting us.” Time to gather coats from the mountain of wraps on the double bed in the main bedroom. Time to head for the car and the other commitment.
“Ready?” David put words to the signal and began to stand erect, leaving the windowsill behind.
Moira nodded. David looked directly at Estelle, who also understood. The party was over. The surfboard was beached. David saw the shift and wished he could prevent it. Almost suggested they stay a little longer, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Diane would return to find her mother with the same blank look, never knowing that for a few warm minutes Estelle and David and Moira shared fantasies that beat reality dead cold.
“We must go. We have another commitment,” David said. “It was a pleasure talking with you, Estelle.”
Again, he extended his hand. She rested her cane against the chair and squeezed the offered hand in both of her own. Held it a long moment. Almost brushed it to her lips but resisted in the end.
“Thank you, David,” she said before letting go. “I’ve enjoyed talking with you.”
“And I you,” he said, taking his freed hand and blowing her a gentle kiss.
It was Moira’s turn. She extended her hand, and Estelle took it. With hands locked, the two women looked at each other, one seeing her past and the other seeing her future.
The two women’s hands slowly slipped apart, as Moira stood and straightened her skirt. From habit, she brushed more imaginary wrinkles from the front of her jacket. She was ready to move on. Then, quickly, spontaneously, she bent back down and gave Estelle a hug.
Then they donned their traveling faces and crossed the room the way they had come. Neither looked back. Estelle considered the empty hassock for a few moments. As the special space that laughter creates disappeared, she lowered her eyes and stared into her lap as if memories of Joe and Florida had collected there.