Title: Ninth-Month Midnight
Genre: women’s fiction
Author: Marie Bacigalupo
Purchase on Amazon
About the Book
Ninth-Month Midnight is contemporary women’s fiction with a paranormal twist. The novella focuses on Dolores Walsh, a bereaved mother who, hiding a guilty secret and verging on mental breakdown, defies her husband and her religion to get what she wants. With another pregnancy highly improbable, she wants the seemingly impossible: she wants her baby back. The loss has transformed Dolores into a zombie-like chain smoker who stays unwashed and unnourished until her husband, Joe, bathes and feeds her.
Enter Salvador Esperanza, a charismatic psychic who helps the grief-stricken communicate with their dead. Dolores cannot resist this new hope or the man who offers it. But in order to attend Sal’s séances, she must do battle with her jealous husband’s hard-core rationalism. When Sal decides to move on, only a miracle can save Dolores from the numbing despair that threatens her sanity.
About the Author
When Marie Bacigalupo was nine, she read Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins and was instantly hooked on fiction. She grew up to teach high school English before focusing exclusively on fiction writing, studying under Gordon Lish at The Center for Fiction, taking classes at the Writers Studio, and attending a number of university-sponsored craft workshops.
Marie won First Prize among 7000 entries in the Writer’s Digest 13th Annual Short-Short Story Competition with her entry, “Excavation.” Her other works have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Journal of Microliterature, The Examined Life Journal, Romance Magazine, and elsewhere. Ninth-Month Midnight is her debut novella.
The author is a native New Yorker who lives and writes in Brooklyn. Visit her at www.mariebacigalupo.com.
Connect with the author on the web:
A year has past, and still Dolores hates waking up to another day. The morning light pours, unwelcome, into her bedroom. Dolores feels her husband shift position behind her on the king-sized bed, his lanky six-foot frame extending only four inches beyond hers. She looks outside the open window where the first buds peek through the dogwood branches that front her Fresh Meadows Cape. April again. She fumbles for her pack of Salems on the dusty night table and knocks over the ashtray teeming with butts. Ashes scatter. The odor of stale smoke clings to the carpet, the linens, the furnishings, her clothes. No matter. She props herself on her elbow, lights up, drags deeply, and exhales with a raspy cough.
Dolores turns to her husband. “I can’t find her, Joe,” she whispers in his ear. “Today’s her birthday, and I can’t find her.”
Joe, his sandy hair tousled, faces his wife and draws her close. “I’ll run you a warm bath,” he says, then pushes himself off the bed. He walks barefoot in his jockey shorts to the bath that adjoins the bedroom. When the tub is half-filled, Joe walks back to Dolores, who allows him to draw the faded gown over her head and lead her to the tub. When her husband leaves, she reaches for the pack of cigarettes and lighter on the bathroom vanity. She has scattered cigarettes and lighters around her house and her person—on counters, tables, shelves, and niches, inside handbags and pockets—so they’re always in easy reach.
Ten minutes later, water streaming down her torso and legs, Dolores throws on a white terrycloth robe, and towels the dripping strands of her shoulder-length hair. She walks back into the bedroom, tripping on an area rug and knocking over a night-table photo of three-year-old Bertie at the beach, the child’s hands reaching out, hungry for all the wonders that life promised to serve up—rolling waves, billowing sand, boundless sky. She wears a powder blue playsuit. The wide-brimmed straw hat that protects her face against the high-noon sun has no power to shade her smile. Dolores runs an index finger over the plump cheek.
The sun no longer shines for Bertie. Now it’s always midnight.
Dolores loved being pregnant, and in labor she welcomed the searing pain and pounding pressure that pushed her baby home. She loved being a mother. Who is she now? she wonders. If both her parents were dead, she’d be an orphan, but her mother isn’t dead. If Joe were dead, she’d be a widow, but Joe isn’t dead. Her baby is dead. What does that make Dolores? There’s no word for her because mothers aren’t supposed to outlive their babies.
“Did the bath help?”
She replaces the photo on the table and shuffles into the kitchen, where her husband waits for her, as always willing her into his meaningless world, his eyes full of fear that she might slip away from him.
The white wood cabinets and yellow walls once made the kitchen warm and sunny; now they mock her grief. She sits at the white-tiled table under the pricey pewter chandelier, a relic of the time when she devoted a lot of money and most of her energy to making a home for her family.
A damp curl hangs over her cheek, obscuring one brown eye and a new pimple on her once flawless olive complexion. Joe winds the curl around his forefinger and tugs gently. He’s calling her back.
“I’ll be okay. Please stop worrying.” Dolores checks her pocket for a cigarette and finds one, bent but serviceable.
Her husband opens a window.
“Your mother called me at the office yesterday, said you keep pushing her away.”
“She spent weeks here a year ago. I couldn’t bear it, remember? All she did was follow me around the house and yak, yak, yak.”
“She loves you. She wants to help.”
“Let’s not talk about my mother.”
He waits a beat. “Okay. Let’s talk about our four o’clock appointment with Dr. Kaur. I’ll leave work early, meet you there.”
She says nothing.
“Dee? You were walking in your sleep again last night.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be all right.”
“Don’t worry? It’s been a year, and it’s not getting any better. You don’t even go to Church anymore. You used to find strength in your faith. I’m telling you, we need help. Give Dr. Kaur a chance, please.”
“I’m not ready for a shrink.” She flinches when he cracks a knuckle.
“It’s time, Dee, time to pick up the pieces. Maybe go back to teaching.”
“I have no interest in other women’s children.”
“Please don’t give up. You have to go on living.”
Dolores is sorry as soon as the word leaves her lips. Joe looks stricken. She knows it’s guilt, not empathy, she feels. No surprise, considering Catholic nuns used to be the voice of her conscience. Dolores can still hear Sister Ann’s last-chance admonitions before she entered a secular high school: Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost; keep it pure for the man you marry. And remember, a good wife supports her husband. She stopped listening to that voice when the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, all three of them, let Bertie die.
Maybe Joe’s pain should move her more than it does, but right now, she needs him to stop nagging. “Okay,” she says, “I’ll see Dr. Kaur.” Even though it’s pointless, a certainty she leaves unsaid.
When Joe leaves for work, Dolores remains at the table and thinks about her mother’s last visit. She recalls the time her mother was washing dishes, blocking her cigarette drawer. Dolores, standing behind her, addressed her by her given name. Did she mean to goad the woman? She’s not sure, but the reaction was instantaneous. Her mother spun around. “Don’t you call me Roseann!” she said, her voice rasping. “I’m your mother, so it’s Mom when you talk to me!” Dolores took a step back and mumbled an apology.
A week later Dolores put her on a plane back to Florida, though her mother resisted. “It’s better if I stay,” she said. “Your heart is heavy. Let me take care of you.”
“Joe’s made that his job. You’d put him out of work if you stayed.”
The truth is Dolores can’t overcome her bitterness toward Mom. The rift widened when her father died, though her mother saw to all his final needs and, she has to admit, was always an excellent caretaker. Dolores remembers when she caught the chicken pox and wanted to scratch her skin raw. Her mother dabbed calamine lotion on the rash and read Dolores’s favorite fairy tales again and again to distract her. After the stroke, she kept watch at her father’s bedside day and night, assisting the nurses, coming home only to feed Dolores and catch an hour or two of sleep. Still, as far as Dolores is concerned, the loving attention to her dad came too late.
Her head is starting to hurt. When her four o’clock appointment worms its way into her mind, Dolores has had enough. She gets up, returns to bed, and wills herself to sleep.
The taxi gets caught in traffic halfway over the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge. Hopelessly immobilized in a cab reeking of pot, Dolores regrets her decision to keep the appointment with the psychiatrist. She’s stuck in a bumper-to-bumper lineup. Frustrated drivers crane their necks, step out of their cars, fling epithets, but accomplish nothing. The cabbie, taking it all in stride as the meter keeps ticking away, hums along to lilting West Indian music.
It takes half an hour to cover the short span of the bridge. Dolores decides to get some air by walking the last few blocks to Park Avenue. The gentle breeze, though, does nothing to lift her spirits. And why should it? April is the cruelest month, the poet said. It promises life and warmth forever, but before you know it, the darkness and cold return. She forces herself to focus on the street numbers. The doorman greets Dolores as she approaches the Park Avenue building that houses a half-dozen high-priced doctors, including Kaur. She hesitates in the lobby. Just get it over with.
Exiting the building elevator, Dolores finds the door marked Afifa Kaur, M. D., and enters an office with upholstered period chairs and a rich walnut coffee table displaying late issues of Architectural Digest and Forbes Magazine. She recognizes a print of Hopper’s Cape Cod Afternoon on the wall. Inside the sitting area, Joe is waiting and greets her with a kiss. Dolores leaves her name with the puppy-eyed receptionist, who looks fifteen but is probably closer to twenty-five, young enough to make her feel old. Joe hands Dolores the partially completed paperwork.
She steels herself for the tedious task of completing multiple forms. Opposite her, a wan middle-aged woman reads a hardcover edition of “The Metamorphosis.” She looks up from her book once, dead eyes meeting dead eyes, and returns to Kafka. “If I’m not called in fifteen minutes,” Dolores says to Joe, “I’m out of here.”
She barely has time to complete the questionnaire when a strikingly attractive woman, black tendrils escaping a tight bun, calls her name. Under a white lab coat, the doctor wears a black skirt-suit that is custom-tailored to downplay her full figure. Dolores grabs Joe’s hand, and she walks into a room where a floor-to-ceiling bookcase shelving medical texts, their spines neatly stacked, lines the back wall, and period chairs posture like peacocks on either side of a fireplace. If the doctor is striving for a homey look, she isn’t succeeding. Brass andirons straddle the fireplace, and a gorgeous mantelpiece of ivory filigree frames it. Behind the doctor’s over-sized mahogany desk, eight-foot French windows open inward.
“I hope, for your sake, the insurance picks this up,” she whispers to Joe.
“Sit, please,” says the doctor, pointing to the chairs in front of the desk. She takes a seat behind it. “We spoke briefly on the phone, Mr. Walsh, when you called on behalf of your wife. Tell me again how I can help.”
“My wife and I lost Bertie, Roberta, our little girl, a year ago,” says Joe. “My wife needs help picking up the pieces of her life.”
The psychiatrist fixes her black eyes on Dolores, whose own eyes dare the doctor to comment.
“Do you agree with your husband, Mrs. Walsh?”
“I guess so.”
“You are not sure?” she asks, using the precise diction of a non-native speaker.
“I don’t know.”
The doctor turns to Joe. “Mr. Walsh, since your wife is the patient, I will ask you to leave the room.”
Joe, about to protest, looks to Dolores for a reaction. When he gets none, he squeezes her hand. “I’ll wait outside,” he says, and closes the door behind him.
Again Dr. Kaur fixes her penetrating eyes on Dolores. “He seems like a loving husband.”
“The two of you obviously share burdens. Do you make time for leisure activities?”
“Joe tries, but he works long hours.”
“How do you spend your time when Joe is working?”
Dolores is confused. “I don’t know. Waiting for it to pass, I guess.” She runs her fingers through hair the color of bitter chocolate, then checks the spaces between her fingers. At least it’s stopped falling out.
“You look tired. Do you sleep nights?”
“Night and day. The sleep of the dead, at least for a few hours.”
“Are you taking sleep medication?
“Mrs.—May I call you Dolores?”
“Seconal is a dangerous drug. How long have you been taking it?”
Since . . . no . . . a couple of months after . . . I forget. I need another prescription. Can you write me one?”
“No. It is not good for you. Tell me, please, do you dream?”
Dolores hesitates. “Maybe.”
“I’m not sure it’s a dream. Sometimes I sleepwalk.”
“Please describe what you say may or may not be a dream.”
“I hear my baby crying, but I can’t find her. I search through the house, but I can’t find her.” Dolores bends over in her chair, her knees at her chest.
“How did Bertie die?”
“Yesterday was her birthday. She’s . . . she’d be five years old.”
“How did she die?”
“She had a cold.” Dolores almost giggles, but catches herself in time. Whenever she laughs or cries, she can’t stop until Joe talks her down.
“She died of a rare cancer. The tumor was in the sinus cavity. At first we thought she had a cold.” She clears her throat. Maybe if we had caught it earlier . . .”
“Did you want a child?”
“I wanted nothing more out of life, but we waited till Joe’s career got started–he’s a CPA–and then till his school loans were paid off. In the beginning I suggested we use the rhythm method—that means abstaining from sex during fertile cycles. The Church condemns all other forms of birth control as mortal sins. But Joe made a joke of it. ‘Know what they call people who practice the rhythm method? Parents!’ he said. So I went on the Pill, and every First Friday eve I confessed to Father Tom, my parish priest. I’d say the usual ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys till the next time, when I’d make the same confession. Pretty soon I realized I was making a sham of the sacrament. A person has to be truly penitent to be absolved of sin; you can’t keep committing the same sin and expect God to forgive you. So I stopped going to Confession. And then came the payback: by the time it was okay to conceive, I couldn’t get pregnant . . . eight precious years wasted. Finally, we went to a reproductive specialist.”
“What was the problem?”
“My cervical opening was too small.”
“Please go on.”
“I had an operation to correct it, but the improvement was minimal. Next came injectable hormones followed by endless temperature monitoring, the rhythm method in reverse: wait till the fertile period, then rut like animals. The sex was joyless. Every month the blood flowed. Finally someone decided to test Joe. Turns out he has a low sperm count.”
Dr. Kaur keeps her silence.
“The Almighty seemed to be punishing us for our arrogance. We had waited too long. Already thirty-two years old, I would never have a child. But then the miracle happened. I thought God had forgiven me.”
“Do you feel responsible for your daughter’s death?”
“Oh, God, Doctor! That’s so glib! Of course, I feel responsible. I’m her mother. I’m supposed to protect her.” Her broken nails cut into her upper arms. It feels good.
“What did you do wrong?”
“We shouldn’t have waited so long. My eggs got old.”
She can’t continue. She takes time to get herself under control.
“Sometimes I hear her calling me . . . she was talking at two, so bright, my baby, so smart . . . I see her in her Hello Kitty romper. I smell her sweetness. It’s like she’s almost a ghost. I want her to be a ghost. I want her to haunt me, but she’s gone before she fully materializes.”
Dr. Kaur stirs. “Right now you miss your child acutely. You will never forget your child, nor should you, but you can learn to live with your loss, and even in time to take satisfaction in what the world offers.” The psychiatrist ignores Dolores’s twisted grin. “Grief is a process that the bereaved must undergo in stages in order to heal. The danger is getting stuck in one of the stages, in your case despair, and never recovering.”
Dr. Kaur underscores her words with hand gestures, her fingertips adorned by an elegant French manicure. “Right now you are convinced beyond a doubt that you will never be happy again. But if you are patient and kind to yourself, and cooperate with those who would help you, you will one day value life again.”
Dolores hates the doctor’s facile lecture. She rises from her chair. She needs to get out of the office.
Dr. Kaur looks up from her seat behind the desk. “Before you bolt, may I ask what made you come to see me today?”
“Joe. He’s worried that I’m losing my mind, that I’ll do something desperate.”
“Does he have reason to worry?”
“You’re the psychiatrist, you tell me.”
“Those scars on your wrist are not too faint for a doctor to read.”
The antique wall clock ticks off the passing seconds. Kaur’s words have conjured a lurid scene: Only half conscious at the time, Dolores remembers the blood spurting from her wrists, swirling in the bath water, spilling over onto the tiles as she lay face up on the floor. Joe, blue eyes bulging, racing into action, wrapping her wrists, sobs racking his body. Then a shrieking ambulance, jouncing bumps, probing needles, blackness swallowing her.
The doctor breaks the silence. “Those scars tell me your husband has cause for concern. I advise you to get off the Seconal. Barbiturates may be causing some of your symptoms. Sleepwalking and vivid dreams are documented side effects. The drug has even been known to trigger hallucinations.
“I’d like to see you again soon, say in a week. You can make an appointment with Miss Bell at the desk, or call the office at your convenience. For now I am going to prescribe medication to ease your depression.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. My feelings are all I have left of Bertie.”
Kaur writes the prescription and, rising, hands it to Dolores. “Think about filling this. It will make you feel better.”
The psychiatrist continues speaking as she escorts Dolores to the door. “Dr. Kindry tells me he gave you a list of bereavement groups in Queens. I urge you to choose one that is convenient and join.” With her hand on the doorknob, she gives Dolores a final piece of advice. “Build up your physical strength. You need at least another ten or fifteen pounds to support your tall frame. Eat regularly, exercise. The body and the mind work together in the healing process.”
As far as Dolores is concerned, she’s done her part. She has seen the psychiatrist. With a formal handshake, she thanks Dr. Kaur and walks out, ignoring Miss Bell and leaving Joe to make a more gracious exit.
Dolores regards Joe’s decision to take a taxi back to Queens as a second exercise in futility. This one forces them to endure the screeching decibels of angry horns and the unintelligible curses of a cabbie brandishing his middle finger.
Joe sits quietly beside Dolores. She knows what’s on his mind and steels herself to ward off his appeals. His final goodbye to the psychiatrist involved an inaudible exchange. Sure enough, even sooner than expected, Joe speaks up.
“A bereavement group makes sense, Dee.” He lists the benefits: she can find out how other people cope; she can talk to mothers who understand; she won’t feel so alone and hopeless.
“I don’t need other people. I need Bertie.” The hurt look on his face annoys her.
When they finally arrive home, Joe wants to talk, but Dolores needs a nap. He helps her out of the worn black coat they picked out together in another life and follows her into the bedroom. Dolores stands motionless as he unbuttons the coffee-stained white blouse and draws it off her arms.
“Dee, please. We need help; we need to learn how to live again.”
“I’m so tired, Joe. Let’s not talk now.”
“We have to talk. You want to give up, and I won’t let you!” He sits her down on the bed, and kneels to remove her scuffed loafers and peel off wrinkled jeans. She smells his pungent after-shave as his lips brush the nape of her neck, and she feels his swelling need against her thigh. She allows his hands and tongue to probe the mounds and recesses of her body in search of comfort; she herself is beyond comfort. He enters her, then heaves his body in desperate lunges. A final frantic thrust brings release. His muffled words moisten her neck. “Dee, Dee, I can’t lose you both.”
“Okay, Joe,” Dolores says, “we’ll try the support group. But, please, don’t expect too much.”
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Author: Sophia Bar-Lev
Purchase on Amazon
About the Book: When The Silver Locket opens, it’s July 1941 in Boston, Massachusetts. War is raging in Europe and the Pacific. But for two young women in a small town in New England waging their own personal battles, the struggle is way too close to home.
When extraordinary circumstances bring these two women together, one decision will alter the course of their lives. And with that one decision, their lives will be forever changed…and forever intertwined.
Were these two women thrust together by happenstance—or fate? A tragedy. A decision. A pact. Lives irretrievably changed. A baby girl will grow up in the shadow of a secret that must be kept at all costs. But will this secret ever see the light of day? And what happens when—or if—a promise made must be broken?
Adopting a child is not for the feint of heart—but neither is being adopted…
A sweeping and suspenseful story that unfolds in a different time and a different place, The Silver Locket explores universal themes that ring true even today. Secrets. Unbreakable bonds. The healing power of love. Deception. Anguish. Redemption.
In this touching and tender tale, novelist Sophia Bar-Lev weaves a confident, quietly moving story about adoption, finding hope in the face of hopelessness, and how true love can overcome any obstacle. With its brilliant juxtaposition of the wars fought both on the battlefield and internally, The Silver Locket is a poignant novel, resplendent with drama. Featuring an exceedingly real and relatable plot, and characters that will stay with readers long after the final page is turned, The Silver Locket is a sterling new read.
THE SILVER LOCKET
By Sophia Bar-Lev
It was over in less than four minutes. She lay motionless, zombie-like.
He laughed. He laughed…looking down his nose at her, his steel blue eyes boring into her very soul. Snickering, he turned away, grabbed her black bag and pounded across the tarmac, disappearing into the imposing residence barely a hundred and fifty yards away. Shadows danced grotesquely on its façade, as if paying homage to sinister forces within the darkened mansion.
She was numb, half-dead. Night breezes stirred the leaves above her head.
They moved; she didn’t. Shredded bits of fabric swirled about, brushing across her face, lifting off, floating back down, teasing her, nudging her to get up and walk away.
She couldn’t. Not yet.
A full hour passed; a full hour of her life stolen by shock – by crippling, deadening, devastating shock.
Suddenly a wail pierced the quiet. It crescendoed into a howl, and just as quickly receded into deep, forceful sobs. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, then thirty. Finally, drained and spent, she rolled onto her side and with difficulty, stood to her feet. She felt pain but chose to ignore it. Disoriented, she searched her immediate surroundings for something familiar. The darkness gave up no clue but her mind came to the rescue.
It was coming back to her now. The critical patient at the hospital…the Irish doctor, the kind one…the new chaplain on staff…making one last round on the ward …the new chaplain…my keys, where did I put my keys…why was he standing there…the new chaplain
She took a few steps.
“I’m so proud of you, darling,” her Dad had whispered as he led her down the aisle three years ago. Why are such thoughts coming up in my mind now? She shook her head violently.
Approaching headlights distracted her. Startled into reality, she pulled her torn dress close, her eyes darting around for a tree, a shrub, any place to hide.
The car slowed and a kindly voice called to her. “Do you need a ride, Miss?” The white-haired driver had rolled down the window and getting out of the car he added, “It’s awfully late for you to be out walking by yourself, isn’t it?” He made his way to the other side and opened the passenger door. “Where do you need to go?” he asked.
Still partially hidden by shadows, she hesitated. “Thank you,” she answered, her voice uneven. “I’ll be…um… fine. Thank you.”
The driver inched forward sensing her anxiety. “Are you sure?” he asked again. “I don’t think…well, I’d be happy to give you a lift.”
The moon broke through the clouds at that precise moment and illuminated the bloody, dress and dirt-streaked face. He gasped. She pulled back. Biting her lip, she shook her head back and forth but said nothing.
He paused where he stood, uncertain, confused.
“Shall I take you to the hospital?” he asked softly.
“No! No!” she practically screamed. “Not there. No! No!”
“I can take you home,” he persisted. “Do you want to go home?”
She stared at him for several moments, then nodded. Pulling her dress tighter across her chest, she stumbled toward him. He guided her to the open door. Before getting in, she turned to him, “Please, Mister, please. Promise me you won’t tell anyone about this. Please.”
He searched her young face and thought of his own daughter about the same age. He sighed and nodded, “OK. If that’s what you want, OK. Let’s just get you home.”
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Author: Lynn Steward
Publisher: Lynn Steward Publishing
At the cutting edge of women’s fashion in the 1970s, a visionary young woman subdues her desire for love to remake retail at New York’s most glamorous department store.
Newly single, Dana McGarry learns she must divorce herself from more than a bad marriage to succeed. Not only must she prove to family and friends that she can make it on her own, but she also must challenge an antagonistic boss who keeps standing in her way. Moving out of her comfort zone and into the arms of a dynamic businessman, Dana bets it all on a daring new move that will advance her buying career, But at what price?
Her dreams within reach, Dana’s world is shattered in a New York minute when a life is threatened, a secret is revealed, and her heart is broken.
Dana McGarry, on vacation for the first time as a single woman, arrived at the Lansdowne Club at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, just steps from Berkeley Square, in London’s fashionable Mayfair on the morning of April 8, 1975. Her lawyer had filed papers for a legal separation from her husband Brett in January, and after four months of being under the watchful eyes of well-meaning family and friends, Dana was savoring every moment of her solo trip across the pond. She and Brett had always stayed at the nearby Chesterfield Hotel, but her beloved Colony Club in New York City enjoyed reciprocity with the Lansdowne Club, where she’d previously attended lunches and lectures while her husband met with clients for his Wall Street law firm. Undeterred by the steady English rain and dark clouds hanging over the slick gray streets, she stepped from one of London’s fabled black taxis with renewed spirit, excited to think that the distinguished house in Berkeley Square would be her home for the next five days. After Dana checked in, the hall porter asked her if she would like tea brought to her room and then discreetly disappeared with her luggage, a small, welcoming gesture that stood in contrast to an impersonal hotel. Rather than immediately taking the lift to her room on the fifth floor, Dana stepped into the entrance hall and surveyed the club’s interior, intending to explore Scottish architect Robert Adam’s stately masterpiece commissioned in 1761 for King George III’s prime minister, the Earl of Bute. Previously, she had limited herself to the dining room, never taking time to appreciate the club’s historic beauty. Although rich with finely-crafted embellishments and Neoclassical splendor, the house was clearly showing signs of fatigue, and its understated elegance made the environment that much more comfortable. Dana knew she’d made the right choice. The club was an oasis of tradition and tranquility affording her the peace and privacy she needed.
When Dana arrived in her junior suite, she noticed a bouquet of flowers sitting on a table in the sitting area. Thinking they were compliments of the club, Dana opened the attached note and laughed out loud. The flowers had been sent by her childhood friend, Johnny Cirone. The message read, “Take Phoebe shopping and buy up the town. Whatever you do, enjoy yourself. Love, Johnny.”
Dr. Phoebe Cirone, who was in London attending a cardiology convention, was Johnny’s sister. Their father, John Cirone, known affectionately to Dana and her brother Matthew as Uncle John, was the head of the House of Cirone, a manufacturer of ladies eveningwear. Having a passion for medicine from an early age, Phoebe had never expressed interest in clothes or haute couture, leaving Johnny to reluctantly carry on family tradition by working for his father. Dana’s parents, Phil and Virginia Martignetti, had been friends with the Cirones since before her birth.
Dana, pleased to see a porcelain tea service had already arrived, took her cup to the window and sipped the Darjeeling as she observed the new plantings in the courtyard garden. The peace she’d felt a few minutes ago was gone, however. Something about Johnny’s note, as thoughtful as it was, unnerved her. Johnny and her mother called daily to see how she was doing. Dana sensed their concern, although she felt it was unwarranted. What did they think—that she was going to kill herself because the divorce would soon be final? They obviously didn’t recognize her personal strength and resolve. Dana worked at New York City’s B. Altman, and the previous December she’d formed the department store’s first Teen Advisory Board. She had also succeeded in getting Ira Neimark, the store’s executive vice president, to sign off on installing a teen makeup counter on the main selling floor over the objections of Helen Kavanagh, junior buyer, who thought youth-oriented strategies like those at London’s Biba, were a waste of time and money. Despite these personal triumphs, she’d taken aggressive steps to further advance her career, leaving her comfortable job in the marketing department for the position of junior accessories buyer. She had requested time off for this visit to London immediately after settling into the new assignment, and that alone was proof that she knew how to take care of herself.
Dana had been equally aggressive in terminating her marriage to Brett. Papers for a legal separation had been filed in January by Dana’s lawyer when she discovered that Brett was having an affair with fellow litigator Janice Conlon, a saucy and impertinent young woman from California. Negotiations for a final settlement were proceeding smoothly, with no protests originating from either Brett or his lawyer lest the firm be apprised of his misconduct with the audacious Conlon. In the four months since their separation, Dana had realized that Brett’s dalliance with the abrasive Conlon had merely been a catalyst for the end of their relationship since there had been something far deeper and more troubling in their marriage: Brett’s growing neglect of Dana as he vigorously pursued partnership with the firm. His work always served as a convenient excuse to pick and choose his time with Dana and in the long run, that grim reality had proven intolerable. Within days of learning of Brett’s infidelity, Dana contacted an attorney and moved from her Murray Hill apartment to a carriage house a few blocks away in Sniffen Court.
Given the decisive actions in her personal and professional life, Dana therefore felt smothered at times by the daily concerns of others. As for her traveling abroad alone, she felt more than competent to take care of herself. When Brett had been with her in London, they were rarely together. He usually spent days working, and evenings meeting with clients, joining Dana for late dinners, if at all. He was up and out by 7:00 a.m. She’d always hoped that the next trip would be better, but this was never the case. Traveling alone? It was all she knew.
Yes, it had all happened just four months ago, illustrating how the course of a life can change so radically and quickly. But was she ecstatically happy now that a new phase of her life and career had begun, with Brett being almost surgically excised from the picture? No, she wasn’t jubilant about anything at present, but she was content, at peace with the decisions she had made to take care of herself and her future. In the words of her father, she had discovered that she had “a very good life” despite longstanding marital woes and formidable professional challenges. Many of her friends had urged her to re-enter the dating scene since she was almost thirty and the clock was ticking, but Dana didn’t miss married life in the least and had no interest whatsoever in dating, especially guys described as the perfect match: upwardly mobile professionals, or “Brett clones,” the apt description provided by Andrew Ricci, Dana’s good friend and display director at the store. Besides, marriage was not the only path to a fulfilled life. In Dana’s estimation, happiness also resulted from pursuing a creative dream, enjoying good friendships and the myriad interests that gave her immense pleasure, such as travel, literature, films, and lectures on a wide variety of topics. Being suddenly single was not a condition to be cured but rather an opportunity to be savored.
A line from Dickens came to mind as she thought of events that had altered her life: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dana had survived the tumultuous weeks of the previous December, when she realized her marriage was over, but surely this was now the best of times, was it not? She smiled as she contemplated her walk tomorrow morning to Piccadilly for breakfast at Fortnum & Mason, followed by a long and leisurely visit to Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop. The thought of Dickens reminded her of the delight she took in finding rare editions of the classics, or even first editions of lesser-known authors. Today, however, she was going to enjoy Richoux’s delicious risotto when she lunched with Phoebe, who was staying within walking distance at the Grosvenor House on Park Lane. Filled with a new surge of energy, the blue-eyed Dana freshened up, brushed her short blond hair, and grabbed a shawl and a pair of unlined leather gloves. The clouds were beginning to part, and the steady English drizzle had let up, but it was still a nippy fifty-four degrees—a perfect spring day in London.
Rays of sunshine were reflected by leaded windows in the rows of eighteenth century townhomes Dana passed as she strolled leisurely through Berkeley Square. It was only eleven thirty and she had an hour before meeting Phoebe at her hotel, enough time for a short detour across Hill Street and Hays Mews to the Farm Street Church, also known as the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception. Years earlier, she’d been sitting on a bench in Mount Street Gardens when she looked up and beheld one of the church’s open gothic portals that seemed so inviting, beckoning her to enter and pray. Then as now, it had been a glorious April day, the kind celebrated by Chaucer in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales, when spring rains provide rich “liquor” for flowers suffering winter’s drought.
Dana arrived at the church and chose to enter from Mount Street Gardens rather than Farm Street, as she’d done on her original visit. In the transept to the right of Our Lady of Farm Street statue was the Sacred Heart Chapel, and this is where Dana chose to pray in deference to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who’d taught her for twelve years in her youth. She knelt in the third pew, said a decade of the rosary, and then sat, looking up to admire, as she always did, the glorious painting of the Sacred Heart flanked by four saints above an inlaid marble altar with three brass reliefs. But instead of finding peace in this pious setting, the silence suddenly became deafening, and the alabaster walls of the chapel began to feel close, confining. A wave of emotion engulfed her, and she cried uncontrollably, questioning her impulsive decision to end her eight-year marriage—and without considering her vows taken before God, family, and friends. What a hypocrite she felt herself to be—a selfish hypocrite who had turned her back on the faith that was such an integral part of her life.
Glancing at her watch, Dana saw that it was almost noon. She needed to pull herself together and be on her way to meet Phoebe. She took a deep breath, wiped away her tears, and walked outside to a bench in Mount Street Gardens, where she would spend a few moments composing herself.
In the sacristy, a priest was marking the readings for the twelve-thirty mass in the gilt-edged lectionary when he heard anguished sobs emanating from the Sacred Heart Chapel. Curious, he stepped into the sanctuary in time to see a young woman exiting the side door leading to the gardens. He followed her and observed her sitting on a bench fifteen yards away. He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and said a brief prayer.
* * *
Looking in her compact mirror, Dana wiped away the mascara beneath her eyes and reapplied a bit of powder to her cheeks. She didn’t want Phoebe to see that she’d been crying. What could she possibly say in answer to any questions her friend might have? That she was upset over the abrupt manner in which she’d dissolved an eight-year marriage to an inattentive man who’d cheated on her? No, the emotions that had spilled forth in the chapel had taken Dana by surprise, and they needed to be processed in private moments of reflection.
Dana had been resting her eyes when she looked up and saw a priest approaching the bench. The Jesuit, a tall man in his early fifties, walked with a confident gait, and the smile on his face was evident when he was still several feet away.
“Good morning,” he said. “Lovely day.” He could tell the young woman was upset and, in point of fact, she wasn’t the only one he’d encountered on the grounds who needed consolation or, at the very least, a friendly smile.
“Yes, Father, it is,” Dana replied. “A splendid day.”
“Are you on holiday, or are we blessed to have you as a new parishioner?” he asked.
Dana examined the priest’s face more carefully. He wore rimless glasses, and pale blue eyes regarded her kindly beneath close-cut salt and pepper hair. He was dressed in a black clerical suit and looked to be strong and vigorous despite his gentle manner.
“On holiday, Father,” Dana replied. “I come here whenever I’m in London and wanted to stop in and . . . visit. I was taught by the Sacred Heart sisters back in New York.”
“A New Yorker!” Father Macaulay said. “And a member of the family, so to speak. May I sit?” he asked, motioning to the bench.
A member of the family, Dana thought, again fighting back tears. Not anymore.
“I’m sorry, Father,” Dana mumbled, rising to leave. “I’m meeting someone and I’m late.”
Father Macaulay nodded. “I hope you’ll visit again. I’m here in the church or the gardens every morning from nine until I say mass. If you can’t find me, just tell the sacristan that you’re looking for Father Charles Macaulay.”
“Thank you, Father. Have a good day.”
Biting her lip to fight back fresh tears, Dana and Macaulay shook hands. The priest watched Dana walk out of the gardens, sensing that she was in distress. He was a good judge of people, and he thought that Dana would surely return to the church before she boarded a plane for New York City. Somewhere in her soul, he thought, there was unfinished business.
* * *
Wearing sunglasses, Dana walked for five minutes along Mount Street until she reached the Grosvenor House. Phoebe was waiting in the lounge, and after they exchanged warm greetings, they left the hotel for Richoux, which was two blocks away on South Audley Street.
The two women were shown to a small table in the dimly-lit restaurant owing to the dark wood paneling in the main dining room. When Dana removed her sunglasses, Phoebe immediately saw that Dana was upset. Her eyes were puffy and her smile was forced. Phoebe cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, as if to say, Do you feel like talking about it?
“I’m fine,” Dana said, brushing aside the concern. “Nothing worth discussing. Now tell me about you, how’s the convention?”
The two women chatted over lunch, Phoebe speaking of the lectures she’d attended on anticoagulation therapy, angioplasty, and catheterization for the diagnosis of coronary artery disease. In turn, Dana described her new duties at B. Altman. They laughed at Johnny Cirone’s daily calls and continued concern for Dana since her separation, although Dana was reminded yet again of the excessive attention she was receiving.
“We have to get him married off,” Phoebe said, “or at least find him a serious girlfriend. He’s becoming a mother hen.” She paused, knowing that Dana was holding back something painful, but decided not to press the matter. “By the way, my dad has an offer on his house, and he’s in contract to purchase the estate sale on East 79th Street. It’s a big renovation, so he’s hoping to get approved by the co-op board quickly and start the demo. Johnny is already interviewing contractors.”
John Cirone was moving to Manhattan since his Long Island home seemed far too large since the death of his wife two years earlier. He’d accepted a seat on the board of the Metropolitan Opera, and Johnny was helping his dad make the long-overdue transition to the city—and to the present, away from thoughts of his deceased wife, Lena.
“It sounds like the convention is keeping you pretty busy,” Dana said. “Would you like me to pick up Uncle John’s cigars at Sautter’s? It’s a few blocks from the Lansdowne.”
“That would be a lifesaver,” Phoebe said. “I have two days of seminars on using something called a stent to open up clogged arteries instead of always resorting to bypass surgery. It would be a non-invasive procedure, but most cardiologists think it’s still years away.” Phoebe suddenly burst out laughing. “And here I am, bringing my father cigars, which is the last thing a cardiologist should do.”
The two women finished lunch, Phoebe heading to the convention for afternoon lectures,
and Dana returning to the Lansdowne Club, where she finished unpacking.
Dana sipped afternoon tea while paging through a book of poems she’d found lying on the end table by the sofa, her thoughts returning to her display of emotion that morning. Brett had indeed been quickly and surgically excised from her life, perhaps too quickly, and yet she had received no judgments about the decision to do so from her parents. She was aware, of course, that Virginia had always been a bit leery of Brett, even at the very beginning of their courtship. As for her father, he was quite unflappable and had reminded Dana that things always work out in the end, which was a part of his lifelong, homespun philosophy that she found so comforting. And yet Dana couldn’t shake the realization that Brett, despite all of his shortcomings, was a man she’d loved for over eight years. Should she have given him another chance? After all, the marriage hadn’t been all bad. The visit to the chapel, she concluded, had reminded her of Catholic dogma regarding marriage: it was indissoluble. Mount Street Gardens, the chapel, the brass panels—they’d brought to mind her many years with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, causing her to second guess her decision.
Leafing through the slightly-worn pages—she thought that older books had such character—she saw Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality.” It was one of her favorite poems. She especially liked the lines towards the end.
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
The sentiment was essentially that of her father, who had a “philosophic mind” when it came to handling disappointment. There had been good times in the marriage, but some things were beyond repair, and Dana had indeed retained strength in what remained behind, which was a full life that included friendships and opportunity. Dana realized how important this trip was—far more than a break from her daily routine or an enjoyable shopping spree. On her own, she could privately mourn her marriage and process her emotions, opening her mind and heart for whatever lay ahead. She was at peace again, ready for the rest of her stay in London. Still, she wondered if Father Macaulay would share her perspective. The priest had emanated kindness and understanding in the brief minutes she’d been in his presence, and now, feeling stronger, she decided to visit him again before she left London. He’d demonstrated genuine concern, and she wanted to hear his soothing voice one more time.
Genre: Literary Fiction
Author: Lynn Steward
Purchase on Amazon.
Although Lynn Steward’s debut novel, A Very Good Life, takes place in 1970s New York City. it has a timelessness to it. Dana McGarry is an “it” girl, living a privileged lifestyle of a well-heeled junior executive at B. Altman, a high end department store. With a storybook husband and a fairytale life, change comes swiftly and unexpectedly. Cracks begin to appear in the perfect facade. Challenged at work by unethical demands, and the growing awareness that her relationship with her distant husband is strained, Dana must deal with the unwanted changes in her life. Can she find her place in the new world where women can have a voice, or will she allow herself to be manipulated into doing things that go against her growing self-confidence?
A Very Good Life chronicles the perils and rewards of Dana’s journey, alongside some of the most legendary women of the twentieth century. From parties at Café des Artistes to the annual Rockefeller Center holiday tree lighting ceremony, from meetings with business icons like Estée Lauder to cocktail receptions with celebrity guests like legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Steward’s intimate knowledge of the period creates the perfect backdrop for this riveting story about a woman’s quest for self-fulfillment.
Dana McGarry, her short blond hair stirred by a light gust of wind, stood on Fifth Avenue in front of the display windows of the B. Altman department store on the day after Thanksgiving, November, 1974. Dana, public relations and special events coordinator for the store, pulled her Brooks Brothers camel hair polo coat tighter around her slim, shapely frame. Shoppers hurried past her, huddled in overcoats as mild snow flurries coated the streets with a fine white powder. It was now officially Christmas season, and Dana sensed a pleasant urgency in the air as people rushed to find the perfect gift or simply meet a friend for lunch. The frenetic pace of life in Manhattan continued to swell the sidewalks, but pedestrians were more inclined to tender a smile instead of a grimace if they bumped into one another. Dana often told her friends that Christmas was a time when there was a temporary truce between true believers and grinches. As far as business was concerned, she was pleased to hear the cash registers of B. Altman singing their secular carols inside the store, but she also still believed that the holidays brought magic and balance, however briefly, into a world of routine and ten-hour workdays.
Balance? Dana smiled wistfully, for balance was becoming harder to achieve. She was only twenty-nine, but the pressures of life were already assaulting her mind and spirit in numerous ways. She tried to please multiple people in B. Altman’s corporate offices on a daily basis, not an easy task given that the seasoned professionals who were grooming her had various agendas, not all of which tallied with each other. And then there was her marriage to Brett McGarry, a litigator at a Wall Street law firm. Brett was as busy as she, and simultaneously attending to her career and the needs of her husband was sometimes difficult, if not downright burdensome. His needs? Well, “demands” would be a more accurate description of what Dana had to contend with. Although Brett didn’t overtly order Dana around, he informed her of what he would or would not be able to do with her on any given day. His growing air of superiority was extremely subtle and couched in affable smiles that most of Dana’s friends could not accurately read.
Dana’s eyes had become unfocused as she stared past the display window, but she quickly snapped her attention back to the present moment. People, coated with a dusting of light snow, continued to stream through the portico outside B. Altman’s. Magic and balance still held the better claim on Friday, November 29. She’d worry about Brett later.
“I think they like it,” commented Andrew Ricci, display director for the store, as he stood to Dana’s left, referring to the happy, animated shoppers. “Good idea, Mark. Christmas was the right time to bring in livemannequins.” Andrew, slender and dressed in a gray suit with sweater vest, wiped snowflakes from his salt and pepper hair, wavy and combed straight back. Even as Andrew said this, a little girl waved both hands, trying to get the attention of one of the Sugar Plum Fairies behind the window, saying over and over, “I saw her blink! I did! I saw her blink!”
Mark Tepper was the president of the Tepper Display Company, and B. Altman had been a good accountfor ten years. “You’re welcome. I want you guys to look good. Bloomie’s is just twenty-five blocks away,” said the suave president, dressed in a blue pinstripe suit. He stood to Dana’s right. His light brown hair was parted neatly above a broad forehead, and he had intense blue eyes that could capture the slightest nuance. He was of average height, in good physical shape, and his ideas seemed to emanate from a bottomless reservoir of energy. “You can’t go wrong with a Nutcracker theme.” Mark stepped back and surveyed the scene. “Now if I could only figure out a way to make the live mannequins stop blinking,” he said with a grin.
Dana and Andrew laughed at Mark’s quick wit, the result of keen intelligence combined with a sophisticated playfulness. He could be highly focused without taking himself too seriously.
Andrew rubbed his hands together and exhaled, his breath drifting away in a small cloud of vapor. “Say, would you two mind coming inside to look at the blueprints for the cosmetic department? I have to make one change.”
Dana, like all B. Altman employees, was energized by the transformation of her beloved store, and being a close friend of Andrew’s, she knew of changes starting with the planning stage. More than a year ago, when Dana first learned that thecosmetic department would be renovated, she thought it might bode well for her idea to add a teen makeup section.
Inside, the store was glowing from Christmas decorations, chandeliers, and red-capped mercury lamps illuminating counters that curved and zigzagged across the main floor in every direction. A decorated tree in the center of the main floor rose fifteen feet into the air, a grand focal point for the holiday atmosphere. Andrew led the group to one of the counters in the existing cosmetic department and unrolled a set of blueprints he’d stored beneath the glass counter. The trio would be undisturbed since holiday shoppers were buzzing past them on their way to the gift departments, many to see the new million-dollar menswear section that opened the previous month and extended the entire block along 34th Street.
“We’re aiming for the new department to open the first week of May,” Andrew said, “followed by a black tie gala.” He poked his index finger onto the center of the blueprints for emphasis. He then looked up proudly and pointed to a section of the floor where the new cosmetic department would be installed.
“Good placement,” Mark said. “And nice layout, too.” Mark usually spoke rapidly and in short sentences. Insightful, he sized things up quickly and didn’t waste time. It was another aspect of his confidence that allowed him to act professionally without losing his innate charm. He also had a knack for including everyone around him in any discussion.
“So what does the public relations and special events coordinator think?” he asked, pivoting to face Dana, sensing she had something to say.
Dana cocked her head slightly while mischievously narrowing her eyes. “I think we shouldn’t forget that a teen makeup section is just as important as an updated cosmetic department. Otherwise, why are we bothering to update it in the first place? Our demographic is getting younger. Girls today are wearing makeup by the time they’re fourteen.”
Dana turned to Andrew. “What do you think, Mr. Ricci ?
Andrew chuckled at Dana’s use of his surname, which she occasionally did when talking business with her friend and confidante. Andrew was the quintessential Renaissance man—artist, craftsman, and cook. He and Dana attended art lectures at the Met, and he had personally taken Dana under his wing to give her what he called “a gay man’s culinary expertise” when her husband announced they were hosting a dinner party for a few of the firm’s partners. Andrew was not only Dana’s close friend, but he was also a consummate professional in his capacity as display director. He was a passionate man, at times almost compulsive, but he commanded respect from the refined corporate culture at B. Altman.
Andrew rolled up the blueprints and sighed. “Good luck trying to persuade Helen. She’s done a great job with her department, but she’s from the old school—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Andrew paused. “But the fact that Helen isn’t on board isn’t going to stop you, is it?”
Helen Kavanagh was the junior buyer at B. Altman.
Dana shook her head and winked. “Not for a minute. I’m an optimist, Andrew. Besides, it’s Christmas. I’ve been a good girl, and Santa owes me.”
Mark was clearly enjoying the good-natured exchange. “Santa naturally wasn’t big at Temple when I was growing up. No stockings hung by the chimney with care—although I remain an ardent fan of stockings. That having been said,” Mark continued, “I think—”
The conversation was interrupted by a no-nonsense twenty-something secretary, dark brown hair falling to her shoulder. “Ms. Savino would like to see you in her office as soon as possible, Ms. McGarry,” she said. The secretary turned on her heels and promptly disappeared into the busy throng of shoppers without waiting for a response from Dana.
Bea Savino was Dana’s boss and the vice president of sales promotion and marketing.
“She’s new,” Dana commented. “Poor girl—she’s scared to death. We all were when we started.”
“I still am,” Andrew laughed, “and I don’t even report to her. Bea can kill you with that look. You know, when her eyes tighten and she peers over her reading glasses—ouch! But give her a martini, and it’s party time. Bea’s a moveable feast.”
Dana nodded. “True enough. I better see what the indomitable Ms. Savino wants. Gentlemen, it’s always a pleasure.”
Dana headed to the bank of elevators on the far side of the store, passing a dozen lively conversations that blended into what she regarded as a delightful holiday symphony. People were spending money—and happy to be spending it. She envisioned a teen makeup section facilitating that same enthusiastic banter at some point in the future.
Dana wheeled around to see Mark hurrying past shoppers, his outstretched arm indicating that he wanted her to pause until he could catch up.
“People just can’t get enough of my infectious optimism,” Dana proclaimed.
“You’re cursed with good genes,” Mark said, stopping a foot from Dana. “Seriously, the teen makeup section is a smart move. I think you should ask Helen if she’s been following the incredible success of Biba.”
“I think everybody’s eyes are on London.”
“If not, they should be. Biba just moved to a seven-story building in Kensington, and the store is attracting a million customers a week. Teen makeup sure seems to be working for the Brits. The birds, as the English call young girls, are flocking to the store in droves.” He paused. “I’m mixing my metaphors—birds, cattle—but you get the gist.”
` Dana put her hands on her hips and burst into laughter.
“When was the last time you used the word droves, Mark?”
“Hey, I’ve watched cowboys on TV like anybody else,” he replied with mock defensiveness. “Head ‘em up and move ‘em out. And that’s what Biba is doing. The customers are in and out, and most of their wallets are quite a bit lighter when they leave. That’s the idea, right?”
“Go get ‘em, tiger,” Mark said, touching the side of Dana’s arm right below her shoulder. He walked away, turned back with a big smile and a thumbs-up, then disappeared.
Mark’s energy and enthusiasm, as well as his one-minute pep talk, were just what Dana needed to boost her confidence and keep her idea alive.
As Dana neared the far side of the store, she and Helen Kavanagh simultaneously approached the same elevator.
As always, Helen was impeccably dressed, and her carriage bespoke an elegant, stylish demeanor. She was in the later years of middle age, but she advanced towards the elevator briskly, her blond hair pulled severely back from her face and secured with an ever-present black velvet ribbon. Her face expressionless, she glanced at Dana, her pace unchanged. A signal had clearly been given. In point of fact, Helen truly admired Dana, but the young events coordinator was in her twenties, and there was a protocol in Helen’s universe that she didn’t believe needed to be articulated. Respect carried the day, with camaraderie offered in moderation, preferably outside of the workplace. Danatherefore halted just long enough to allow Helen to slip into the elevator before she followed, the doors closing behind her. The two women were alone as the elevator ascended to the executive suite of offices on the fifth floor.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Dana thought. Besides, Mark had literally gone out of his way to suggest that she approach Helen. Mark, of course, could be aggressive and disarming at the same time, so such a feat would naturally be far easier for him to accomplish. Still, she was quite aware that Mark had her best interests at heart. It was worth a try.
“Good morning, Helen.”
Helen nodded and smiled thinly. “Dana.”
“Helen, I was wondering if you shopped Biba when you were in London last month. They’re pulling in a million customers a week. A million!” Dana raised her eyebrows, her clear blue eyes sparkling even in the dim light of the elevator.
Helen tapped a silver ballpoint pen against the brown leather case holding her yellow legal pad. “Biba,” she said with frustration. “Biba is filled with non-paying customers who rush in before work to try on free makeup. Free, Dana. Are they running a business or having a party? Try it before you buy it? I don’t think so. They’re crazy. Excuse me—as the British say, they’re quite mad. They’ll be out of business in a year.”
Dana’s heart skipped a beat, but she wasn’t going to show any nervousness. Instead, she laughed. “Well, I’m sure you’re right. Shows what I know!”
It was a self-effacing remark, but Dana knew when to back down.
Helen, who had been facing forward, turned and looked at Dana squarely. “And don’t even think of taking this to Bea.”
Dana smiled as the elevator door opened, but she said nothing.
The two women stepped onto the fifth floor, the rooms of which were a facsimile of the 1916 interiors of Benjamin Altman’s Fifth Avenue home. Dana and Helen walked through the reception area, which was a replica of Altman’s well-known Renaissance room. Fine art adorned the wood-paneled walls beyond the anteroom, with elaborately carved woodwork accenting the hallways. The President’s Room was a reproduction of Altman’s personal library, while the Board Room was a faithful rendering of his dining room. Oriental carpets lay on the polished parquet floor, and Dana never ceased to marvel at the rich interior of the executive suite and its expensive art collection no matter how many times she entered the area. It had the ambience of a corporate cathedral, and the first time she stepped onto the floor years earlier, she had unconsciously lifted her right hand for a split second, as if to dip her fingers in a holy water font.
Dana and Helen walked in the same direction for fifteen paces until it became obvious that they were both heading for Bea Savino’s office.
“I was told Bea wanted to see me,” Dana stated.
“I’m sure you were,” Helen said flatly. “But I need to see her first. That isn’t a problem, is it?”
“No. Of course not.”
It was another elevator moment. Dana gave Helen a politically correct smile and stepped back, allowing her to open Bea’s door and slip into the office.
Dana walked up and down the hall, admiring the landscapes hanging on the dark paneling. Miniature marble sculptures stood on pedestals and library tables with inlaid mother-of-pearl. She hoped Helen wouldn’t be long since she wanted to get back home, walk her dog, and double-check arrangements for the annual McGarry Christmas party, now only six days away. It was one o’clock, but if Bea called a special events meeting, Dana’s afternoon would be lost. She was overseeing the expansion of the adult programs, known as “department-store culture,” and she and Bea were still working out the details for the rollout in January. B. Altman was a pioneer for such a program, and Dana would be programming three events a week in the Charleston Garden restaurantthat seated two hundred. A smaller third-floor community room was newly renovated for the expanded sessions that included mini-courses in art appreciation, cooking demonstrations, book signings, self-improvement, and current events.
She reversed direction and walked past Bea’s office, noticing that the door was slightly ajar. She turned around and decided to wait outside Bea’s inner sanctum to make sure Helen wouldn’t slip out unnoticed. Heart pounding, she stood near the open door and heard Helen expressing dismay.
“You know how I feel about having shoes in my department, Bea. Can’t you help me convince them to find somewhere else to put this Pappagallo shop? Shoes belong with shoes. It just doesn’t work for me. I don’t want to see them. Period.”
There was clear exasperation in the junior buyer’s voice.
“But it works for Ira and Dawn,” Bea responded calmly, “and they firmly believe in the merchandising potential for this young market. “Don’t quote me, but I heard Ira’sdaughter will be working in the shop this summer. You gotta get on board, Helen. Think young. Think upbeat.” Her voice rose with sudden enthusiasm. “Think Biba!”
“Bea, if I hear that name Biba one more time!” Helen interrupted.
Bea ignored her. “The kids are all drinking espresso, and I’ll probably go down for a cup in the afternoon.”
“What are you talking about?” Helen asked. “You’re going to—”
“Helen,” Bea slowly responded, “Pappagallo stores have love seats and espresso machines. It’s that Southern hospitality. They were introduced in Atlanta. Anyway, we have no choice. Remember, Pappagallo is leasing the space.”
There was a noticeable silence inside Bea’s office.
“Breathe deeply, Helen,” Bea advised with a laugh. “You’re going to hyperventilate. It’s
not the end of the world.”
“Espresso machine?” Helen repeated. “Love seats? Taking up selling space. I’m not putting up with this. Fine. Then they’ll just have to give me a larger department. I’m not giving up without getting something in return.”
Dana smiled. IfIra Neimark, the executive vice president and general merchandise manager of B. Altman, together with his hand-picked vice president and fashion director, Dawn Mello—Helen’s boss—were looking for waysto bring young people into the store, maybe the teen makeup department wasn’t a lost cause after all.
Helen came flying out the office, brushing past Dana by mere inches as she talked to herself under her breath. “B. Altman will be out of business before Biba. It’s all totally absurd.” She took no notice of the young events coordinator.
Dana moved forward and stood in the doorway. “You wanted to see me?” she asked. “Yes, Dana. Come in.”
Bea Savino was a tiny but feisty Italian woman with snow white hair, a chain-smoker with a no-nonsense approach to life and business. Bea had married five years ago, at the age of forty, and had no children, but she felt compelled to give her adopted young staff reality therapy every chance she could, believing they were too influenced by the soft dress-for-success career articles in fashion magazines. With Dana, Bea’s mantra was “Toughen up, for God’s sake!” When Dana had been passed over for an assignment and complained to her boss, Bea merely said, “It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, kiddo. I didn’t even know you were interested. Carol was in here every day, begging. Speak up, Dana.”
Bea lit a cigarette, exhaled a plume of smoke, and laughed. “I think poor Helen is headed for a stroke. I saw you standing outside, so I know you heard our exchange. Ah well. She’ll get over it. She’s a tough old broad, God love her.” Bea shuffled some papers around her desk before finding the folder she was looking for. Her office was not a model of perfection and order, as were Helen’s and Dana’s.
Dana cringed at the term “broad.” The expression seemed out of place on the sacrosanct fifth floor, but she merely took a deep breath and remembered that Bea didn’t mince words. She decided to pitch her idea despite Helen’s warning.
“Bea, since Mr. Neimark and Ms. Mello are interested in the youth market, why can’t we go one step further than the Shop for Pappagallo and add a teen makeup section too? As I told Helen, Biba is pulling in a million customers a week.”
Bea leaned back in her chair and took another puff of her cigarette.
“You always tell me to speak up,” Dana said, her voice rising slightly as she shrugged her shoulders. “So . . . ?”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Bea conceded as she surveyed her cluttered desk, “but it’s not going to happen, at least not now. One step at a time. Let Helen adjust to the intrusion of Pappagallo first. It’s too much at once.”
“Go whine to Bob. I know you two are thick as thieves. I asked you here to discuss something else.”
Bob Campbell was the store’s vice president and general manager. He was Dana’s unofficial mentor, a fact that often irritated Bea to no end. It was she, not Bob, who was the young woman’s immediate boss.
Dana clasped her hands behind her back, squeezing her right fist in frustration. Was she supposed to toughen up and be vocal or remain silent? Bea’s mixed messages could be infuriating. Dana was advocating the same teen strategy that the general merchandise manager and fashion director of the store apparently believed in, and she couldn’t help but think that she was being penalized for her youth. Or maybe it was because Helen might pitch a fit. Either way, Andrew had been right: Bea was a moveable feast.
“Bob has chosen the winner for this year’s teen contest. You’ll announce the results next week at the Sugar Plum Ball. It’s a favor for a friend of Mr. Campbell. His friend’s daughter, Kim Sullivan, will be this year’s winner.” Bea sighed deeply and crushed her cigarette in a large glass ashtray on her desk. “Have a good weekend, Dana,” Bea said, summarily dismissing the figure standing before her.
Dana was speechless. The contest involved getting the best and brightest teens to write essays, make brief speeches, and model clothes, and they were down to the five finalists. She’d run the contest for three years, but the idea that the contest was rigged this year—and by Bob Campbell of all people—left Dana dazed and temporarily unable to move. The Sugar Plum Ball was the annual December benefit for the Children’s Aid Society. The idea of committing fraud was bad enough, but she would also have to disappoint the girls who would be competing in good faith. Did such a prestigious charity event have to be marred by dishonesty?
Bea looked up, glasses perched on the end of her nose. “Is anything the matter, Dana? You look positively pale.”
“No. Everything’s fine.” Everything was most decidedly not fine. Dana had the ear of Bob Campbell, and she would use her access to the general manager to express how odious the idea seemed. One way or another, she’d find a way to avoid making the contest into a sham.
Feeling manipulated, Dana turned and left Bea’s office. Her normally fair complexion was red with anger, and her breath came in quick, short bursts. She marched down to the Writing and Rest Room for Women, a beautifully carpeted room with chairs upholstered in blue velvet. The mahogany walls and soft lighting made this one of the most elaborate rest areas in any store, and Dana sometimes came here because of the quiet and repose it offered. Today the room was, not surprisingly, filled with shoppers taking a moment to compose themselves. She hurried to her office in the General Offices section of the fifth floor, retrieved her purse, and tried to calm down.
Regaining her composure proved impossible, however. She took a deep breath and decided that she would have no peace for the rest of the day until she spoke with Bob Campbell. Bea must have been mistaken. Bob would never rig the yearly teen contest.
Dana got up from her desk, hoping to get a few minutes with the general manager. She walked back to the executive suite, ready to make her case.
Purchase at AMAZON
They say that when a student is ready, a teacher appears.
What they don’t say is where to register, and how to matriculate in that teacher’s class.
That is a divine gift.
Veronica had it all: the looks; the brains; the personality; and the wardrobe. Not to mention a perfect husband, a fabulous career and two adorable children, until the perfect husband leaves her for another woman.
Thus begin the daily routines of a typical New York City immigrant with ambition whose teachers keep appearing, and for whom divine interventions keep affording new opportunities.
Though it starts like ordinary connections going through the tried and true, each relationship continues to delve into parts of her own universe that Veronica didn’t know existed. A universe that is suddenly open to her.
This is a different kind of heroine…
Welcome to the New American Dream, Dare to Dream…
“You see the details and you are awed by them. It shows in your dress, in your manner, in how you look at things, how you eat… It’s all art. No amount of money or education can give it to you. You either see it, or you don’t.” He took another sip.
He was about to tie it all together for her. “Our society works in layers…”
“Oh, my god … what did you just say?” Her eyes opened wide, and she stared at him. But he didn’t see what was so shocking.
“Our society works in layers. Notice I didn’t say levels. It’s not linear.” This was important. He needed her to see this. “Think of it this way. You consider a person’s worth by their financial statement. This is how much you earn/own, and this is how much you owe/spend. Like, John Smith is worth a billion dollars. With me so far?”
She shook her head … Someone else subscribes to the layers theory? She continued to stare at him.
“You transcend that, Veronica. There are several more layers of you that you don’t even know. You know that you are very beautiful, but you also have this magnificent charisma, this affect on people. You talk with your clients, your friends, your kids, and with me on completely different “layers”… like a napoleon, yes?”
She nodded her head, still in awe.
“It isn’t that one layer is better than the other, although some will argue that the soaked bottom is best because it has the most flavor; others will say the flaky top is best; still others prefer the middle because it is just the right amount. But one cannot exist without the other. I would very much like to see you discover the layers of yourself. There are many that you have not discovered, and it’s only because no one has taught you. You excel in things that you do. You’re quite a virtuoso, and I’d like to teach you about more. Interested?“
I’m being presented with an opportunity. Am I even hearing this correctly? Did he just say that there is another world, layers, that I am worthy of attaining, and that he would like to help me reach and discover these layers? Wasn’t that what I was hoping for when we first met … to learn from him? Concentrate, Nika, this is serious. “I’m more than interested, Jeremy, but I’m unaware of what is required of me.”
He smiled. “Good question. There are many layers here, but let’s deal with the first two. First things first… you have trust issues.”
Title of Book: A LIST OF OFFENCES
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Author: Dilruba Z. Ara
PURCHASE A LIST OF OFFENCES HERE
Daria, the heroine of the book is born under unusual circumstances that cause the people of her small village to gossip; yet as she grows she becomes an intelligent, sensitive and spiritual beauty that one feels is destined for a perfect life. After a flood, a boy is found on the bank of her river. Daria’s parents adopt the boy, and Daria befriends him. As they grow Daria begins to inhabit Mizan’s dreams and thoughts, but a sudden meeting with anglophile Ali Baba brings everything crashing down around Daria. She forgets her upbringing and falls madly in love with him and after her hasty wedding, she moves to Baba Lodge and is brought into the suffocating life of Ali Baba and his family.
Here she lives a life unloved and psychologically abused until she gets pregnant. Now she begins to hope that finally her potential for love, luck and happiness will be realised through her new-born child. Yet relations between Daria and her in-laws deteriorate further. Daria finds herself torn between the religious mandate of Islam to stay with and obey her husband and the call of her intellect and instincts to flee and forge a different life for her daughter.
A Bottle of River Water
A whisper went round the little village of Gulab Ganga during the days around Daria’s birth. It said, “Jharna Begum, Daria’s Ammu, defied God when she refused to give up the thought of having a daughter.” She had her four sons, three miscarriages and one stillborn daughter. But yet she couldn’t accept the idea of not having a daughter in her lap. When the most trusted doctor in the neighbourhood advised her against trying to get pregnant, she, like many in her dilemma, decided to get help from supernatural sources. The road there would be reached by means of a man, who claimed to be a Pir, a spiritual person. He lived on the outskirts of Gulab Ganga. A good many people went to him to catch cattle thieves and poachers, a good many went to get better crops, a good many wished to be cured of some incurable diseases, and a good many wished for a male heir to carry on the family name. And on rare occasions, someone would actually call on him to get a female child; to light up a family with only male offspring. And this was partly true in the case of Jharna Begum, Daria’s Ammu, but mainly it was because she felt half a woman without a daughter.
It was exactly one year before Daria’s birth that Jharna Begum woke up on one occasion at a time that was neither morning nor night; night’s blackness was slowly oozing away at the touch of first light. A soft and transparent time, that could be called morning-night. She washed herself, took a bath, said her morning prayers, read some verses in the holy Quran. Then on an empty stomach, wrapped a shawl round her shoulders, opened the safe and took out a bundle of notes. Some fresh and crisp. Some dirty and limp. She put the money in her bag and sidled out of the room. Azad Chaudhury, her husband, was away on business and that suited her very well, because he wouldn’t have approved of her going to meet a Pir, whose credibility was dubious. The rest of the family was asleep. She took a deep breath, crossed the front veranda and stepped down onto the ground along the left gable of the house. She continued to the stable that was further off in the same direction. There she met the servant boy Gafur and the housemaid Gulabi. She told Gafur to keep guard on the house for an hour. After a moment, she was seated in the coach with Gulabi and the coachman, Abdullah, on her way to the Pir, the saint, who was to serve as a link between her and the supernatural powers.
It was a humid morning. The ground was covered with dew. On the horizon white haze rolled softly, blurring the contours and colours of everything. Beyond that the river sparkled in the first glow of the morning sun and some fishermen cast their nets in it; fishnets shimmered in the air like dewy cobwebs before falling into the water, but the haze blocked the view. The wagon picked its way in between the chequered boards of rice-fields. Sometimes it rattled; sometimes it thudded on the bumpy earthen road. Jharna Begum sat erect, her lips moving. Most probably reciting holy verses. Alongside the road some peasants were already at work. Some bent over the water-covered field to set rice plants, and some ploughed; peasant feet submerged up to the ankles in the muddy water; peasant hands disappearing under the water to transplant rice seedlings.
The Pir (said to be) lived in a small hut on the outskirts of the village. It was made of mud and bamboo canes with a sloping hay roof and stood in the middle of beaten ground surrounded by sprawling bamboo clusters that were partially veiled by the grey mist. From behind the hut an old mango tree spread its branches over the low roof. Haze lingered among the foliage of this tree as well, but just above the roof Jharna Begum could discern some baby mangoes. Grey-green, round and wet, silently growing out of hardness. A skinny hen walked on the patch of ground in front of the hut pecking at whatever it could find; a few dragonflies sat lazily on a tuft of withered grass-straws. A breeze blew, carrying a scent of water and river. The mango leaves hummed. The bamboo leaves whispered. Gulabi remained standing on the spot. Jharna Begum took a deep breath and approached the hut.
The room was murky in spite of the hurricane lamp that hung from the ceiling. Soft shadows danced on the walls as the tongue of the flame flickered inside the soot smeared glass. Major parts of the walls were plastered with various pictures from the holy city of Mecca. High stepping camels and Bedouins, dusty date trees around oases, scalp-shorn-men — pilgrims-in-white, women — pilgrims-in-black, the black holy stone and the white gathering around it. The only window was covered with a drape. In one corner out of a small brass bowl rose a fine stream of smoke; scents of sandalwood, camphor, incense and rose essence. An earthy dampness hung in the room.
The Pir was seated on the floor on a mat. He received Jharna Begum with due respect and asked her to settle down opposite him. She was hesitant; nevertheless she obeyed him as though in a trance. Perspiration gleamed above her lips, studded the tip of her nose, and her forehead. It grew in her armpits and between the fold of her breasts. A sweaty fear crawled down her back and she swallowed a lump of saliva. Words pounded in her head, while her stomach was hard like a tight fist. But she wouldn’t give in to her nervousness. So, gathering up her courage, she began to talk. Her voice trembled, tongue dried out. Words came out of her tense mouth; first staccato and then woven together into meaningful sentences. The man murmured and nodded.
After half an hour when Jharna Begum took the coach home, the sun had risen to a higher level in the sky. It was white. The haze had resolved into a fluttering piece of transparent cloth. She put her chin on the windowsill and looked out. Windblown ringlets danced on her temples. Her eyes saw the pale green rice plants, the mud coloured peasants with their mud coloured feet and hands under the muddy water, the tilting wicker-hats on their heads, the pelvic zone of a cow that lifted its tail to drop some dung, gleaming sun on the tails of diving kingfishers, and the shimmering river beyond; but with her heart she saw a baby girl. A baby girl in her arms. In her hands she held a green bottle. A bottle filled with enchanted water. Water, which would help her to mother a baby girl. Now she just had to ensure that one of her servants collected natural water for her by pressing the brim of an earthen pot against the stream of the river. Seven Thursdays she would bathe in that water eked out with the enchanted water she now had in that tiny green bottle in her hands. Imagine getting a baby girl! To get a baby at such an age! Forty years! God, Allah, the almighty. At such an age one should only wait for death to come. At such an age it was entirely legitimate to die, it was a well-acknowledged die-able age. But instead she was preparing to give life to a new human baby. A baby girl. Jharna Begum felt a mysterious wave of contentment sweeping over her. While the morning breeze, now crisp from the warming sun, fondled her face, she smiled. Like a child who had found the very bottle with the genie. She held the precious bottle tenderly. Azad Chaudhury was, of course, a little bit worried about his wife’s sudden obsession with the matutinal baths on Thursday mornings. But he decided to humour her. And therefore, he even went to bed with her as per her wish after her ritual baths with that magical water. They built and furnished a small room in the furthest end of the dwelling. The rest of the family members were told that Jharna Begum’s physical condition demanded total seclusion from daily life. Initially Azad Chaudhury had thought it would be unnecessary to build a new room only for seven Thursday mornings. But, soon, very soon, he changed his mind. For it didn’t really take him too long to realize that he enjoyed every second, every infinitesimal fraction of each second he spent there together with his wife. In secret they called this room ‘the love nest’ (even though the phrase sounded banal in their experienced ears). Within the four walls of that nest after twenty years of marriage they once again experienced the ecstasy of newly found love.
On those warm, fairy tale like mornings Azad Chaudhury, propped against the pillow, would look at his wife’s slender body and think that he had never seen her like that before. He licked her feet, her soles, her insteps, kissed her on her kneecaps, tickled her belly, felt the perfect curves of her round shoulders against the cups of his large palms, oiled her with coconut oil, and rubbed her gently. Her eyes would darken, the world beyond the dark blue curtain on the window would slowly brighten but inside they would be lost. She touched his hairy stomach, tugged at his nipples, let her nails run up and down across his body hair and create parallel lines like a farmer furrowing a land and leaving plough marks. Both would have gooseflesh on their skin, his Adam’s apple would move restlessly and she would swallow saliva. They would fondle each other, taste each other’s secret smells and drown in each other’s eyes. His warm palms against hers, his fingers intertwining hers, the soles of her feet rubbing gently on the back of his feet they would reach the climax. Later during the course of the day they would recognise each other’s private smells in their nostrils, and they would exchange furtive glances.
Considering all this passionate lovemaking, it was probably not a miracle that Jharna Begum soon got pregnant. But with the realisation both she and Azad Chaudhury reacted as though a miracle really had happened. As though the genie really had escaped from the green bottle to fulfil their dreams. They started to cry and laugh. They cried for a moment, laughed a moment, hugged each other, cried again, licked each other’s tears and lay down. They slept a while, woke for a while, embraced each other, whispered soft words and fell asleep again. When the pregnancy advanced, Azad Chaudhury saw to it that Jharna Begum was not in want of anything. He heaped over her gifts and tenderness and fulfilled all her strange whims, such as those which only suit a
If she wished for hot peanuts with salt and pepper, she was served that; if she longed for roasted green mangoes blended with crushed red chillies she was given that too. If she craved for ripened tamarinds those were also procured. One midnight she woke up and declared that she must have grilled Ilsha fish, alias silver fish. Now this fish is famous for its silvery scales, and when it comes to taste, it’s absolutely delicious.
But, unfortunately, it was not the season for this fish. Still, early the following morning Azad Chaudhury himself paid a visit to the nearby fishing community. He held out a leather pouch filled with coins (silvery and golden) and said that the one who was able to catch a couple of Ilsha fish before the next dawn, would be rewarded with the bag and its entire contents. The fish was caught, grilled and served on a silver platter at dinner. The dish so suited Jharna Begum’s taste buds that soon it became a permanent part of the family’s meals during the rest of Jharna Begum’s pregnancy. She was contented, and into the bargain a handful of fishermen got slightly richer than they had bargained for.
The Neighbourhood Talked.
On winter evenings snuggling in homemade quilts the villagers huddled around outdoor fires under the gaze of stars. They smoked hookahs, ate grilled sweet potatoes and whispered tales. Witchy tales. Wintry tales. Tales spiced with the chill of winter evening. Painted with the vibrant colours of the fire and cinders in the middle of them. They fed the fire with reeds and kindling that cracked and died in the flames, and they fedtheir ravenous minds with fabulous tales about Jharna Begum and the baby that was thriving in her belly. Before long it was heard that Jharna Begum was obsessed with the fish dish because the man who had given her the green bottle with the magical water, had proclaimed that she would give birth to a girl with hair the colour of ‘silver fish’. Some said she was carrying a mermaid, half-fish, half-human. Pregnant women avoided the sight of her in fear that the very sight of her might hamper the growth of the babies in their wombs. It was strange how one strange rumour gave birth to another, stranger one. Some even claimed that Jharna Begum really possessed the bottle with a genie. It was, however, poor Gulabi who had to face all these torpedoes of vicious remarks about Jharna Begum’s pregnancy. Whenever she showed herself outside the house boundary she was attacked by the neighbouring women. They relentlessly pestered her with ridiculous questions and soon she started to complain about these gossips. Jharna Begum listened patiently to her. But dismissed her anxiety with hearty laughter. Without appearing to be condescending or angry she completely disregarded the complaints and left Gulabi speechless, and as usual continued to send the servant boy, Gafur, to the fishermen to
get the fish every morning. The fish was prepared and cooked under her supervision. When she ate it, she ate it with such relish that soon Gulabi and others realised that it was no use trying to change her craving.
The four boys — Hadi, Jami, Sami and Sadi — who were between eight and twelve years old, had not yet the slightest idea why their father no longer took his usual trips to the other parts of the country. He was always at home. Only they continued as usual. They went to school, read the holy Quran every Thursday, did their home-work, played with one another, fought with one another, and when angry, railed on one another. Gulabi saw to it that their nails were clean, hair oiled, hands washed; that they had milk warm from the cow for breakfast, and that
they turned in on time.
Daria was born on a bright day. It was towards the end of May, just before the onset of the rainy season. The time was precisely twelve o’clock. The sun was hot and cruel. The sky was absolutely white and so was the baby girl’s hair. It was white. Silvery white. Alarmingly white. Very white. At the sight of the hair colour, a scream died in the bewildered midwife’s chest and at the same time her bladder gave way, making her thighs wet. The midwife’s face was glistening with tears, but she was struck like a statue, as though fixed by the mesmeric eye of calamity. Kneeling down between Jharna Begum’s legs, she held Daria’s tiny body in her hands, her head bent over it, her hot urine collecting under it, the navel cord still hanging loosely down the vagina of Jharna Begum. The whole thing was something akin to a scene at an altar.
And Gulabi, who had been witnessing the scene with a hurricane lamp poised in mid-air, took a while before she could even begin to grasp the nature of the incident; the stench from the urine smelled old, contaminating, of grief and troubles. Gulabi shuddered and gasped as the true scandal of the incident swam into her consciousness. She stood dumb-founded for fully two minutes before returning to her senses. But, once out of her perplexity, she hastily placed the lamp on a bedside table, bent down, cut the umbilical cord, and snatched Daria out of the midwife’s baffled, rigid hands. It was then Daria gave her first cry, relieving all others, and also shocking the midwife back to reality. Gulabi cleaned Daria thoroughly, even her nostrils, before swaddling
her in a soft piece of cloth to put her to her mother’s nipple, where milk had already started to flow. And the midwife, soiled by her own urine and the refuse from Jharna Begum’s uterus, withdrew to a corner.
Even in those days the dwelling house was two storeyed. The walls were made of bricks and the flat roof of corrugated tin. The rooms stood in a row one after another. Two deep verandas ran along the front and rear side of both stories, and a wooden flight of stairs connected the back veranda to the first floor. A small patch of land separated the main house from the kitchen while on the front was a rather big patch of land. There grew fruit and flowers, papayas, mangoes and jackfruits, bananas and coconuts, tuberoses and jasmines, marigolds and land lotuses. Today the flowers glimmered in the sunshine and it was impossible to avoid the numbing sick-sweet aroma emitted by the sweating jasmine flowers. The mango trees were filled with mango blossoms. The boughs on the jackfruit trees bent under the weight of the fruits. The sugar bananas, very yellow, waited expectantly to be harvested. Hot green leaves sheltered the buzzing bees. Blue bottles
hummed. Crows and jackdaws feasted to fulfilment. It was a hot, humid and fruity atmosphere as in a green house.
The climate in the birth-chamber was somewhat cooler in comparison to that of the outside world. The grey cemented floor and the bare white walls were cool; the room was clinically clean just as a birth-chamber should be. The doors and windows were closed making the room half-shadowy. And to add to its clinical element it smelled of camphor, incense and rose water. Daria’s Nanu (maternal grandmother) Salma Begum and Fufu (paternal aunt) Fatima sat in one corner. They too had temporarily lost their speech at the sight of the baby. But the child’s scream readily brought them back to the present. And both of them began to recite Quranic verses with such gravity that an outsider would easily have mistaken the room to have been designed for mourning. Surely you mourn for the deceased in a hospital room, and you rejoice for the newborns. Today of all days Jharna Begum would have liked to rejoice at her daughter’s arrival, she would have liked to sing the praises of God, she would have liked to extol him boisterously, she would have liked to thank him. But these two women turned the room into a mourning chamber, they made the atmosphere heavy, gloomy. Unnecessarily sad. Was it because of the poor midwife’s mishap? Was that the reason, Jharna Begum wondered?
But it was only an accident. Or, was it because the child’s hair had such a rare colour? Jharna Begum sighed. Strangely enough, she didn’t feel any irritation but a feeling of familiar indifference. She knew that it was no use trying to make others understand her feelings. In the soft light of a hurricane lamp she looked tenderly at her daughter’s swollen cheeks, the closed eyelids, the red mouth and two tiny nostrils. Jharna Begum repeated with a contented voice: water-baby, water-baby. Then she sighed
Having performed the Jummah prayers in the mosque, Azad Chaudhury had just returned home together with the quartet, Hadi, Jami, Sami and Sadi. It was Gulabi who was waiting anxiously for him on the veranda. She told him about the newborn, took the prayer rug from his hands, and ushered away the boys to a different room. Azad Chaudhury looked very pleased and with a smile on his face he pushed opened the wooden door, and stepped inside. He halted for a few seconds in the semi-darkened room. As his eyes got used to the darkness he greeted his mother-in-law and then turning towards Gulabi said, “Open the window shutters!”
His mother in-law, Salma Begum, stopped murmuring. And so did his sister Fatima. There was a sudden silence. It took a while before Salma Begum shrieked in her frail, shrill voice, “You can’t let midday wind flow freely into a delivery room.”
Azad Chaudhury looked for a while at the old lady. His brown eyes were soft and polite. Without attempting to dispute the old one, he explained.
“Excuse me, Amma. But, I would like to see my daughter’s face in the daylight.” Salma Begum shook her head.
“Enough harm has already been done to the baby.”
“Like what?” Azad Chaudhury was surprised.
“The midwife…” Her words failed, she couldn’t bring herself to tell her son-in-law about the mishap. It embarrassed her. Her fingers clutched at the tasbhi in her hand.
Azad Chaudhury looked at the face of his mother-in-law, who looked beyond him. He then turned to Gulabi.
“What happened? What has the midwife done, Gulabi?”
“Abbaji…” Gulabi hesitated and then said, “nothing to worry about.
I’ve taken care of it. I’ve washed the baby. I’ve even cleaned her nostrils.”
“Nostrils!” Azad Chaudhury was even more puzzled.
“Yes, so that she shouldn’t remember the stench.”
“Stench of what?”
Gulabi was by now already regretting having said too much. She fell quiet. Not knowing how to answer she looked helplessly at Salma Begum.
The old lady shook her head and then said, “You had better ask your wife in private. As for the window, you may open it for a while. But it’s no good for a newborn. Midday wind carries evil spirits.”
Azad Chaudhury nodded thoughtfully, all but satisfied with the riddling answers. But he gave in, and once again asked Gulabi to open the shutters. The two shutters were opened. A sparkling parallelogram of sunlight fell on the floor. White walls became whiter. The cool floor became warmer. Azad Chaudhury took two steps towards the bed. He bent over it. There was suddenly that awkward silence again. Very silent.
Very tense. While the taut silence bounced against the four empty walls, Azad Chaudhury’s pupils widened, his spine hardened.
The child had violet eyes rimmed with black lashes, and she already had a pair of eyebrows shaped like the wings of a soaring gull. Her cheeks were chubby, smooth and fresh like any newborn. Her lips red as ruby. But her hair was silvery white. Ever so white. White like the tops of the Himalayas. Azad Chaudhury could think of nothing to say but murmur prayers. On his shoulders he felt his mother-in-law’s deep breaths, his sister’s attentive eyes. Unfamiliar thoughts were growing like weeds in his brain. He shook his head. Something must have gone wrong. Must have. A child can’t have silver hair. It’s not normal. Why?
Why? A curious sadness settled in his heart for the little creature in his wife’s arms, his little daughter, his little princess, born out of oneiric mornings. His eyes grew moist as he took up the girl and held her close to his heart. His eyes met his wife’s. The sun reflected in her eyes. She smiled.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Very well. Thank you!”
“Are you happy?”
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
He smiled, braving the pressure of the weeds that grew in his brain.
Hairy weeds, itchy weeds, poisonous weeds. All with long tentacles. Frightening. She stretched out her arm. He took it, and squeezed it hard.
Later the same afternoon he sent for Dr Nandi. Dr Nandi was as puzzled as others were at the sight of the child’s hair colour. But having checked the girl thoroughly he declared that it was a child, one hundred percent normal. Meanwhile, Gulabi was ordered to take care of the umbilical cord and the placenta. As instructed she dug everything down in the garden, and set a jasmine plant on the top. Having performed the task quickly, she returned to the room with some mustard oil in a brass bowl, tidied up the bed, spread a large towel in between Jharna Begum and the oilcloth under her, and then climbed up herself on the bed. There, kneeling down beside Jharna Begum, she oiled her palms and got hold of Jharna Begum’s belly. She held it tightly and at the same time with a rhythmical movement began to press out the air that had invaded the cavity from the afterbirth. Air came out of all possible holes in Jharna Begum’s body, while she complained about Gulabi’s hard grip.
Lots of Aaas and Uhuus! But, Gulabi proceeded in the same manner for an hour everyday during a period of exactly forty days. That was the time span taken by Jharna Begum to regain her flat and tight stomach so that no one could any longer believe that this belly had in its time accommodated a number of children.
This hot afternoon, when Dr Nandi had calmed Azad Chaudhury with his diagnosis, Azad Chaudhury sat down for a while and took a few deep breaths. With each breath he uprooted some of the twisting weeds in his brain and finally decided that it was time he demonstrated his gratefulness for being gifted with a daughter. He sent one of the men- servants to buy some rashgullahas, cheese balls drowned in syrup, from the village sweet-stall. When the man returned he ordered him to take the two finest cockerels from the pen and fill an earthen pot with some of the rashgullahas. He collected two sets of clothing and sent all these to the Pir Sahib, who had provided Jharna Begum with the green bottle with enchanted water.
Jharna Begum emerged from the delivery room — it was already evening — with the child in her arms, defying the rest of the women in the family, who advised her to remain there for forty days. They said she shouldn’t leave that room till her bleeding ceased and her uterus shrunk to its original size, the size of a goose egg. But Jharna Begum paid no heed to her concerned relatives. In the kitchen the old cook had already started to prepare chicken soup, an unspiced dish with horned fish and plantains and other so-called delicacies that normally are used to tempt an ill woman in childbed in this part of the world. Inside the room, by the window, Gulabi had prepared an armchair with a soft round pillow with a hole in the middle. It looked like the English letter O. It was supposed to ease Jharna Begum’s sore bottom when she sat there to enjoy her garden. But, as mentioned earlier, the woman didn’t feel at all ‘under the weather’. On the contrary, she felt incredibly fit and well.
Out she would come from that dreary room. Out she would be in the open air. And so she did, amidst protests and knitted eyebrows. Only when she needed to break wind or breast-feed the baby, did she seek out a private corner.
Hadi, Jami, Sami and Sadi, the four brothers who had missed their mother terribly during the previous nine months, and before that, those seven weeks with the seven special Thursdays, encircled her as soon as she came out of the room. They did not show much interest in the strange creature in their mother’s arms. One of them had a bunch of flowers, one had a ring made of hay straw, the third one had written down a verse from the Quran in black elegant calligraphy, and the fourth one had painted a picture of the setting sun on the river that flowed behind their house. These they presented to their mother.
Hadi, the oldest son, whose voice was breaking, murmured embarrassedly, “Ammu!” and gave her the bunch of flowers.
“Here, you’ve a ring, made by myself,” said the second one.
“It’s boring to sleep without having recited the suras (Quranic verses) with you,” declared the third and stretched out his gift.
“I’ve painted a picture for you,” announced the little one.
Jharna Begum dried a trembling drop of a tear with the back of her hand. Then she gave Daria to Gulabi, and took all her four sons in her arms; she embraced them, fondled them, showered kisses on them, ruffled their hair, crumpled their ironed shirts and murmured tender words.
That evening they all sat on low-legged stools around the low dining table to celebrate this family reunion. Daria was fast asleep in a wicker cradle that hung from the ceiling. The room was lit up with the yellowish light of a hurricane lamp that stood in the centre of the table. An imposing number of insects buzzed around the lamp like a live halo. Around this halo were porcelain bowls, set in a wider circle. They were filled with delicacies like hens in almond sauce, spicy wild duck, ruhufish chops and lobster in coconut milk. There were also various accompaniments like tamarind pickles, coriander chutney and green mangoes. The unusual dishes, which the cook had got used to preparing to gratify Jharna Begum’s pregnant palate, were no longer there. Neither
was the silverfish dish. Truly, none was missed by anyone. A cat circled and purred under the table — its black back arching, its tongue licking its own mouth. Perhaps it missed the familiar fish-smell. Who knows?
Every now and then its furry tail brushed several pairs of knees. The walls were embraced by the shadows here and there and a blend of aromas crowded inside a few pairs of expectant nostrils. Laughter and jovial voices were heard for a long time in that room.
But the following day the mood of the family was subdued. From early in the morning neighbours lined up to congratulate Jharna Begum and also to take a look at the newborn. Even though grandmother Salma Begum and Gulabi made a real effort to conceal the child’s hair by putting a hat on her head, one could yet catch sight of one or two glittering curls that rebelliously crawled out from beneath the edge of the hat, which in its turn brought out plenty of improbable comments from the hearts of the baffled visitors. “By, Allah. It can’t be a human child,” said someone.
“No, an angel,” someone answered, “I wonder if she has wings under the clothes!”
“Did you hear that the midwife wet herself while delivering the poor child?” exclaimed someone else. “Tauba” (a slap on the right cheek; an act that normally accompanies the word to ward off the evil eye).
“Tauba!” (A slap on the left cheek.) “Did you see her hair? It was all silver!”
“Oh, Allah, we knew it.”
“Her mother had conceived her by using paranormal methods.”
“She shouldn’t have defied God’s wish.”
“Didn’t we say it?”
“Poor, poor child!” Much as one avoided explaining the import of these pitiful words, it was all very simple. Such a vile incident at the onset of one’s life could only mean a pitiable life.
A bad sign!
An unlucky child!
Still Jharna Begum held her head high. It seemed she didn’t care what the people were saying. She went on talking, greeting and smiling her radiant smiles. Later, perhaps, she would think about these, but now her face betrayed none of her feelings. One of the maids picked her way through the crowd with a silver tray with a plate of dates and jar of cold lemon sherbet in her hands. The visitors helped themselves, casting furtive glances at the neonate. If they could’ve x-rayed with their eyes they would certainly have penetrated the hat to see the whole head. But this was not the case. They were to see only one or two silvery curls.
Nothing more. During the course of the day they came and went at will.
Azad Chaudhury worried about Jharna Begum’s apparent sedateness and the outcome of it. He admired her patience, but at the same time he again became aware of the growing weeds in his brain; hairy weed, itchy weed, poisonous weed. All his thoughts and feelings were muddled. He looked at his wife, the way she walked, held her head, the baby with silver curls in her arms — everything made him uneasy. He watched people come and go, he watched his daughter, two soft silver curls crawling out from under the pink hat, and suddenly made up his mind to forbid curious neighbours on the premises for a while. Salma Begum prayed silent prayers and Gulabi put a round kajal mark, as big as a pea on the forehead of the child to ward off the evil eye.
During the following few days the rumour spread like vapour; permeating every leak, every crack, making way, touring, detouring to every household of the little village of Gulab Ganga. It said that Jharna Begum had given birth to a silver-haired fairy child. But, unfortunately the midwife had befouled the baby. As the rumour travelled from
mouth to mouth several other embellishments were added to it.
Many incredible qualities were ascribed to Jharna Begum. While some continued avoiding the sight of her as if she were a witch, others began to treat her as a saint and claimed that she could solve their problems, cure their ailments, enrich their harvest etc. Queues were established in front of the gate, children climbed up the high wall and the high trees around it to get a glimpse of the saintly mother and her divine child.
It was a sheer circus; the beggars gathered to get an extra coin, the vendors crowded in the hope of good business, children frisked about,
and the old ones recited verses from the Holy Scripture.
Meanwhile, inside the big walls the little girl grew and transformed into a very ordinary child. Her hair had been shaved off and buried under the jasmine bush together with the umbilical cord. But the stubs of her new hair shifted colour. It grew dark and darker. Black with a luminous shade of purple-blue. Like a raven’s wing in the sun. And the violet of her eyes became coffee brown, dark brown, not quite black.
And by the seventh day, when there was to be a religious ceremony to give her a name, she had turned into a perfectly normal baby girl with perfectly normal features.
It was a Thursday. The Imam was the first to arrive there. With him he had a miniature copy of the holy Quran wrapped in a velvet cover, and a large knife. Polished and sharpened. Two fattened goats had been waiting to be slaughtered by this knife on this day. The Imam performed the task in the name of God in the yard in betweenthe kitchen and dwelling house. The goats were flayed and the good meat was divided into three mounds, the same amount in each. Three meat-mounds: one for the poor ones, one for the relatives and one for the day’s feast. The last mound was prepared on open fire with a fine mixture of spices. Rice was boiled in young green bamboo reeds. Parathas were fried, ducks were grilled, rashgullahas and steamed curd
Two colourful party-tents were set up in the garden; one for the males and one for the females and children. Gas lanterns were hung in the four corners of each tent. One special platform was raised for the Imam to lead the religious part of the occasion. A dozen men milled about hurrying, scurrying and getting things ready. Some set the tables, some arranged the chairs, and some swept the ground.
It was a warm afternoon. Neither torturing hot, nor pressing. Pleasant.
A wind blew.
A warm and nice river-wind.
Gulabi brought the little girl out when the sun had sunk in the west, and the sky was yellowish like water with a dash of turmeric, in the dull glow of its last rays. The baby was dressed in a chalk-white frock and a pair of white socks. Her scalp, which was now bare of hair, was topped with a laced-edged hat. From under the serrated edge of her hat, her two dark eyes looked curiously around. Around her soft neck, hung a garland of garlic cloves.
Gulabi walked past the gathering crowds to hand the girl to Azad Chaudhury. He took the baby, and went up two steps to the Imam who was sitting in the middle of the dais. By then, the guests were divided into two groups according to gender — each standing on either side of the parapet, listening to the Imam. Sitting on the dais, he read aloud a few selected verses from his Quran in the velvet coat, and then proclaimed firmly how very important it was for every Muslim to carry a name denoting his or her religious and ethnic origin. These were all very familiar words to the listeners, but still they couldn’t help but feel the solemnity of the moment as people always do on such occasions. It was all very quiet but for the Imam’s grave voice.
The child in Azad Chaudhury’s arms dozed off, but the function proceeded as planned. All suggested names were painted in different colours on a wicker-tray that was set in front of the Imam. By each name a candle was lit. Above, in the evening sky, the fair moon had become a little brighter by then and the stars shone like tinsel. As the candles melted, everyone made the utmost effort to catch sight of the tray; some stood on tiptoe, some asked the person in front to make a little room, someone else very simply took a chair or a stool and stood on it. They held their breath with eyes fixed on the candles. The twelve candles burnt, wax melted, wicks shrunk, smoke rose. The Imam’s face bent over the tray and took on a reddish tint. Candles began to go out. One after another. Slowly but surely they flickered and died in succession till only one was left. It stood there now dwarfed and fat, but still burning, illuminating the name ‘Daria’.
Jharna Begum’s face shone with delight, caught by the golden moon-dust-light. Long before Daria’s birth, during those magical mornings, she had decided to call her daughter Daria, for the word daria meant river. Daria was a child of the river, a water child. And, her own name, Jharna, meant source, fountain. Jharna, the source. Daria, the river.
Nestled below the skyline of Detroit you’ll find Greektown, a few short blocks of colorful bliss, warm people and Greek food. In spite of growing up immersed in the safety of her family and their rich culture, Jill Zannos doesn’t fit in. A Detroit homicide detective, she manages to keep one foot planted firmly in the traditions started by her grandparents, while the other navigates the most devastated neighborhoods in the city she can’t help but love. She is a no nonsense workaholic with no girlfriends, an odd boyfriend who refuses to grow up, and an uncanny intuition, inherited from her mystic grandmother, that acts as her secret weapon to crime solving success. Her story winds around tales of her family and their secret laden history, while she investigates the most despicable murder of her career.
The Greeks of Beaubien Street is a modern tale of a family grounded in old world, sometimes archaic, tradition, as they seek acceptance in American society. They could be any nationality, but they are Greek.
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The past casts a long shadow — especially when it points to a woman’s first love.
Her name was Mary Grace until she fell in love with the French exchange student visiting her family’s Nebraska farm. François renamed her “Aglaia” — after the beautiful Third Grace of Greek mythology — and set the seventeen-year-old girl longing for something more than her parents’ simplistic life and faith. Now, fifteen years later, Aglaia works as a costume designer in Denver. Her budding success in the city’s posh arts scene convinces her that she’s left the country bumpkin far behind. But “Mary Grace” has deep roots, as Aglaia learns during a business trip to Paris. Her discovery of sensual notes François jotted into a Bible during that long-ago fling, a silly errand imposed by her mother, and the scheming of her sophisticated mentor conspire to create a thirst in her soul that neither evocative daydreams nor professional success can quench. The Third Grace is a captivating debut novel that will take you on a dual journey across oceans and time — in the footsteps of a woman torn between her rural upbringing and her search for self.
Aglaia returned to the kitchen to refill her mug. Her cat stretched on the couch and yawned, his elfin tongue curling around a lazy “meow” before he bounded over to rub against Aglaia’s housecoat.
She picked him up and he climbed to her shoulder and arranged himself around her neck like a fur collar, his purring idling against her ear as she opened a fishy can of breakfast for him. The tabby was a barn cat, picked up at the SPCA last fall after her former cat lost his four-year battle against city traffic. She’d never buy one of those snooty Siamese or Himalayan breeds, and not just because of the price.
“Here you go, Zephyr,” she said as he sprang to the floor.
What her boss had said about names was true, she thought; they told a lot about a person and even about a pet. The farm crawled with cats when she was young but for some reason the Klassen family never labeled them “Fluffy” or “Snowball,” but talked about them in general terms like “the mama cat” or “that mean tri-color” or “the stray.” Dad liked them around to keep down the rodent population, and Mom always made sure, in the coldest part of winter, to set table scraps outside by the step. On occasion one cat or another made a mad dash into the kitchen, and Joel would always smuggle it into the basement for a quick snuggle.
Aglaia dubbed each of her cats “Zephyr” now—all three cats in turn that she’d owned since they formally named the first one on that perilous summer day in the hayloft.
Mary Grace hunts for the boys for an hour. She calls their names into the machine shop and the bunkhouse, and spies out the pasture but finds Joel’s horse unsaddled, unridden, standing against the backdrop of the thunderheads with its mane blowing. As the storm breaks the hot sky open, she thinks of the loft and scales the splintery ladder with the ease of her tomboy days. She doesn’t hear François picking on his guitar until she’s halfway up the barn wall. She hoists herself through the wooden doorframe into the loft and catches sight of Joel grabbing at the fleeing tomcat.
“He goes like the wind!” Joel complains.
She hasn’t climbed that ladder for over a year, and when she finds them there, it strikes her again what a haven the place is—the musty perfume of the bales, the daylight jabbing ghostly fingers through gaps in the shingles.
François is smoking something that smells sweeter than the hay.
“What are you doing?” She’s aghast that Joel hasn’t put a stop to it, if only because Dad’s been adamant about their never lighting matches in this firetrap. But more, she’s thrilled at the danger of what she’s walked into. She looks from François to Joel, and gets the impression the two have had words about it and François has won.
But she doesn’t leave the barn—she doesn’t run to tattle. How can she? François’s charcoal eyes smile away her indignation.
“You’ve come here to sing with me?” François asks as he strums a chord. “Or maybe to smoke with me?” He winks at her again. “Joel won’t try, but you will, non?”
He takes the joint from his lips and raises it to hers, daring her while Joel watches with distress in his eyes. She remembers the pact they made, but she takes the slightest puff anyway and starts coughing. She’s never even smoked a cigarette, never mind a joint. Joel grits his teeth but François smiles, and so she takes a second draw—this time deeper. She knows she should leave now, but hail as hard as Pharaoh’s heart begins a staccato on the barn roof.
The tomcat reappears to skulk near François, curls up against him without invitation, then snags at Joel when he reaches to pet him. “Let’s name him Zephyr,” François says, “for the west wind.”
François makes her feel like a Zephyr, nervous and needy and a little naughty all at once.
Aglaia’s fingers wrapped around the demitasse from which she had taken two delectable sips. She hated to polish it off with a final gulp but Lou, watching her from across the table, had already finished hers. Aglaia wanted to sit here forever.
The streets of Paris fulfilled her every expectation. This moment of lounging at her first sidewalk café was a condensation of all of her long-held expectations—the pungent coffee and chocolate-drizzled pastry, the wafting perfume of passers-by, the music pulled from a violin by a gypsy-busker in the shade of the boulevard’s trees. Ignoring Lou’s surveillance, she dipped into her bag to hook out her sketchpad and, with a few deft strokes of her graphite, captured the swing of the violinist’s skirt, the strain at the sleeve seam as the girl propelled her bow across willing strings.
Aglaia turned the page to draft another hasty contour of the musician. It was Tuesday morning, eighteen hours since landing, and the first time Aglaia had consciously absorbed the aura of the city. She was in a daze upon arrival at the airport yesterday and almost nodded off in the cab ride to the Hôtel du Caillou, where she and Lou dropped off their baggage, freshened up, and set out on a walking tour of the Montmartre neighborhood stretched prostrate below the great white basilica of Sacré-Coeur. They read the grave markers of famous poets as they took a shortcut through a cemetery. They raced through a Monet show, Lou stopping long enough to instruct her on the Impressionist’s conveyance of light, although she had no use for the portrait artists in the square who called to them for a sitting. They spotted the red windmill of the Moulin Rouge from a distance as they marched along the avenues till Aglaia’s ankle could take no more. She didn’t get a chance to practice her French, since Lou was so quick to speak—to purchase entrance tickets to a gallery or to order a bottle of vin blanc. And she didn’t get a chance to check out a Paris phone book either, Lou yanking her past at least two booths. The day’s heat was unbearable, and after an early supper at an elegant restaurant, Aglaia fell into a deep sleep on her first night in the hotel.
So now she sat beneath the red awning of a Parisian café on a sunny morning with her sketchpad, and she only half listened as Lou began to outline their sightseeing agenda without once asking for her input. For the moment, Aglaia didn’t care. She was immersing herself in the whole luxurious encounter—the tastes and scents and sounds—like she might slide into her bath after a long day of work.
Paper crackling, Lou unfolded the Métro map, subway being the preferred mode of transportation around Paris for tourists and residents alike. She said, “Well, come on. Let’s be intentional about our day.” She had all their options for the entire stay figured out, with time set aside for her own research at the university and for Aglaia’s appointment tomorrow morning at the costume museum. Relieved to be off the subject of François, Aglaia became more animated with every turn of the Fodor’s page.
Lou went on about the parks and galleries and bridges. “We’ll fly by the Opéra Garnier, make reservations for a boat trip down the Seine, and take in the Rodin museum.” Lou ran her fingertip along their intended path on the map. “I’ll show you Victor Hugo’s setting for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the movie was filmed, and then we’ll stop for some cherry sorbet from Berthillon.”
Aglaia pitched into tourist mode for the rest of the day. She admired the architecture, nodded along to Lou’s overview of French rationalism, and shuddered through a demonstration of a guillotine. She gasped at the fiendish ferocity of the 384 masks carved on the oldest bridge in the city, glaring down at her from their height like some ill-tempered gods, and she recognized another bridge—when Lou pointed it out to her—that Marlon Brando stood upon in the Last Tango in Paris. She trudged through several cathedrals to appreciate their historic significance and even put up with a lecture on Lou’s view about the socio-cultural impact of Joan of Arc upon the women of late mediaeval France.
But they didn’t pause to taste the crêpes sizzling on a curbside griddle, drenched in butter and folded up in a cone of waxed paper but discounted by Lou as peasant fare. They didn’t inspect the bolts of lace stacked up on a vendor’s table in the flea market. And they dashed past the dead chickens that hung from their twine-wrapped claws beneath canopies blowing in the wind, and brown blocks of Marseillaise soap, and round goat cheeses powdered with ash. When they did sit for a few minutes on a park bench, shaded from the burning sun, to rest Aglaia’s ankle and watch a cluster of middle-aged men who played pétanque on the grass, Lou couldn’t explain to her the rules of the game.
It was almost seven o’clock by the time they got off the Métro at the Saint-Georges stop, and the phone calls to any existing Vivier households still hadn’t been made. As they walked into their hotel, Lou asked the concierge to book a table at a nearby seafood restaurant.
“It’s superb, Aglaia. Bouillabaisse as it was meant to be supped and Coquilles Saint-Jacques that trumps any you’ve eaten at home.” Aglaia hadn’t ever eaten either dish at home, and she was intimidated by her culinary ignorance—though she could bet Lou had never tasted really superb Kjielkje noodles rolled out, boiled, and fried in bacon drippings by an old Mennonite cook. She felt herself grin at that, and salivate just a little.