“I adore your hair.” Olivia watched Grace smooth and spray. “Like that old actress you have tacked up by your desk.”
“Rita Hayworth.” Grace twisted her face left and right as she rummaged in her make-up bag for her most arresting lipstick.
They were in the ladies’ room in the library where they worked, in the old wing which was due for renovation soon. Grace felt at home in this part of the building, where milky light seeped through tiny, crusty panes and bathed marble columns which thrust the distant ceilings ever skyward. A chorus of hinges, floorboards and radiators accompanied her as she retouched her make-up, convinced that the fog in these wood-framed mirrors, chipped paint and all, added a romantic softness to her face not found in the Star Trek ones of the new wing.
“Oh!” Olivia pulled her cell phone from her bag after hearing it buzz. “It’s Jack! Remember him? That teacher who brought his class in the other day.”
Grace remembered. But she had not been as impressed by him as Olivia. “Yes.”
“Oh, I have to tell you all about him!”
They left the ladies’ room, and exited through the back door to the employees’ parking lot. Here, they lunched, surrounded by weeds cracking through pavement, garbage containers raided nightly by raccoons, and graffiti asserting the latest expletives. But the scent of freshly mowed grass wafted towards them from a quaint park beyond a chain link fence where trees swayed in the breeze and ducks quacked on a pond. Lunchtime joggers huffed past pensioners leading poodles, and chipmunks chased each other up and down tree trunks.
Grace was tall, slim and forty. She had always been pretty and she knew it. It was not vanity but a sense of responsibility that obliged her to care for and cultivate her image, like a flower garden, or a prized bonzai. She dieted rigorously, dyed her hair, polished her nails, was meticulous about her make-up, and paid a lot of attention to her clothes. She shopped in retro and vintage stores, or on-line, and often sewed her own dresses. She admired actresses from old films, and every so often, changed her appearance to look like one. Now she was emulating Rita Hayworth. Months before, she had dyed her hair blonde, and let it hide one eye, like Veronica Lake. Some of her colleagues thought she was a bit extravagant, while others thought she was downright crazy. But not Olivia.
Olivia was twenty-four and obese. She had just finished her degree in Library Science and was replacing Beth, off on a month’s sick leave for an operation on her foot.
The girl’s round face betrayed every hurt she had ever suffered. Her eyes were dewy and her full lips fell open in a surprised O, vulnerable and uncertain. She was pretty, and invested a lot of time in her appearance. As Grace’s mother would say, they were the two most dolled-up women in the library. Grace took Olivia under her wing.
They perched on the bottom steps of the fire escape next to a whirring fan. They made an odd pair and attracted the attention of the regulars in the park.
Olivia punched her message nervously into her phone, while Grace unpacked her lunch. Today it was spinach salad with feta cheese and walnuts and a dressing of olive oil with basil and balsamic vinegar. For dessert there was a fruit salad with lulo and Canary island mini-bananas, bathed in Greek yogurt, and a small bottle of Perrier to accompany it all. She expected Olivia would have her regular ham and cheese on white bread, a chocolate bar for dessert, and diet Coke to wash it all down with.
But excitement had stolen Olivia’s appetite. Grace waved back to one of the passing joggers, waiting for her friend to spill her news.
“Oh, I’m so nervous. You see …”
“Jack called you?”
Olivia turned, relieved, “Yes!”
Grace knew the girl craved that bit of encouragement. “And?”
“He … he said he was going to have an exhibition of his paintings. If I wanted to go.”
“Oh. So he paints, too?”
“Yes.” The girl turned to her out of breath. “And he has such interesting friends. Painters, writers, film makers. And of course all his colleagues from the school.”
Jack taught kindergarten in a progressive school in the neighborhood. All the ladies in the library thought it adorable that a young man would want to do a woman’s job. He brought his class of five year-olds for story-time evey week.
The last time the childrens’ librarian asked Olivia if she would read to the kids. She felt honoured and terrified. Afterwards, the attractive young teacher complimented her, and invited her to a poetry reading he was giving that night.
“After the poetry reading, there was a concert, then some actors put on a skit. Another friend of his is filming a short, and Jack is going to be in it! Oh, Grace! He is so cultured and talented! I just wonder … why is he interested in me?”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Olivia. You are cultured and talented too. And pretty! Has he ...”
Olivia turned to her, “Has he what?”
“You know … kissed you, or anything?”
Olivia turned away, looking down at her unopened lunchbox. “Oh. No.”
Grace felt like she was talking to a girl of fourteen, not twenty-four. And even then, some fourteen year-olds …
“Do you like him?”
“Yes. Yes. But, I’m sure he doesn’t like me that way.”
“Well, don’t worry about it.” Grace consoled her, opening up her dessert bowl. “Maybe he’s just being a gentleman. At least you are meeting interesting people. By the way, I hate to rush you, but we only have ten minutes left and you haven’t even started your lunch.”
Olivia obediently unwrapped her sandwich, took a bite, and with her mouth still partly full, asked “Has … has anything like this ever happened to you? I mean, I know you told me you’re not married, but …”
Grace realized that Olivia considered her an old lady. Old lady her! Grace could remember being Olivia’s age like it was yesterday.
“Why, no I’m not married, but there’s still time! I’m not in any hurry. I guess I’m just too picky.
“After all, I’ve had boyfriends of all ages, races … and occupations”
She heard Olivia gasp, “Like what?”
“Well, there was this heavy metal guitarist …” Grace shuddered as she shoved her bowl away, “Anyway, and I have some pretty interesting possibilities. There is this poet I met on Facebook …”
“Oh, so you have a lot of experience. Of course. Being so beautiful. You see, I’ve never …”
Regret flooded Grace. She should have known, and now she had caused the girl to feel like even more of a freak.
“Well, not that much. Just enough to know what I don’t want. And, like I said, it’s good to take your time. Yikes! It’s twelve-thirty already. We’d better get going!”
When Grace got home at six o’clock, her mother was waiting for her. She lived in a low-rise apartment building her father had bought years ago as an investment, and for his older daughter to manage.
Three of the ten apartments were inhabited by her family; one by her widowed mother, which she kept like a mausoleum; one by her older sister and two kids, each from a former marriage, and one by Grace.
Her mother had a key and dropped in at all hours, almost as if they lived together. She often nagged about that “Why do you, an old maid, need an apartment all to yourself, when mine is big enough for both of us?” Thank God her father had taken her side before he died. One of the old tenants had moved into a home, and his place became available. Grace had tried her best to decorate it like Laura, one of her favorite movies from the forties.
“You look like a whore with that lipstick!”
“What is it mum? I’ve got dance class tonight. It’s Wednesday, remember?”
“Always running around with your classes. If it isn’t dancing, it’s singing, or yoga, or painting. When are you going to do something sensible with your life, like your sister?”
Teresa muttered these familiar lines like a mantra. Grace turned on a Benny Goodman record while she slipped into her hoopskirt dress. “Help zip me up, mum.”
Grace turned up the music and sang along as she whirled around in front of her dressing table. It was antique. Well, sort of. It had been discarded on the curb, and was just like those ones in the movies which beautiful actresses sat at on dainty stools, applying powder puffs to their faces and smiling at the framed photo of their amor. She leaned over the satin cover her mother had grudgingly hepled her make, and touched up her lipstick.
“Are you really going out like that? I haven’t seen anyone wear a hoopskirt since I was a girl …”
“Lalalalala…” Grace chanted a bit off-key, as she penciled in the eyebrows she shaved off daily.
“So, what was it you wanted, mum? I’ve got to run!”
“Madelaine needs you to look after Mark and Danny on Saturday. I’ve got rosary.”
“And their fathers?” Grace asked, satisfied with her face and slipping into a darling vintage cape she had found on-line.
“You know better than to ask that. Poor Madelaine has only had bad luck with men.”
“Why does she need a sitter?”
Teresa straightenend up, looking taller now in her housedress and apron, her gray hair twisted into a painful bun. She emphasized every word.
“She has a date.”
A few days later Grace was at the front desk when Jack shepherded in his little flock, along with a teaching assistant and another very tall black man. He sent the class off to the kids’ reading room with the assistant and approached the desk with the man. Grace smiled cordially as she did to everyone. “Hello, Mr. Tanner,” she said playfully. “Olivia is in the back. I’ll go get her.”
“No. It’s okay. I was hoping you could help me.” his wide smile baring whitened teeth. His eyes roamed up and down her and he stepped closer. Grace moved back. She wished she hadn’t worn this particular low-cut blouse today, but it was an almost perfect replica of one that Hayworth had worn in Gilda. “I love the way you dress. Retro.”
“Thank you,” she answered coolly, “They call it vintage, actually. How can I help you?” She was more than a decade older than him, and didn’t like his manner with her.
Jack got the message. Stepping back, he motioned to his companion, “This is my friend Kgabu, a fantastic drummer from South Africa. He’s been teaching my class how to play. I heard the library has some world music nights. Do you think they could hire him to play some time?”
“You’d have to speak to the head librarian. You’ll find her office at the end of the hall to the left.”
Jack thanked her politely, Kgabu nodded, and both men disappeared down the hall.
Two hours later Grace and Olivia were on the fire escape eating their lunches. The temperature was still rising and Grace opened her neckline a bit more, revealing the top of a lacy purple bra.
“How pretty!” Olivia commented, “and sexy.”
“Thanks, dear. I love fine lingerie.” Grace turned her face and neck up and stretched out her arms, basking in the gentle kiss of sunlight.
“Hullo!” called a jogger from the park. Grace smiled and waved back. There were more people approaching the fence and greeting them today than ever.
“Have you ever noticed that the more shops and boutiques there are, the worse people dress?” Grace observed. Most of the walkers in the park were wearing shorts or ripped jeans, trainers, tee shirts with writing on them, and baseball caps turned backwards.
Olivia giggled and nibbled at her cheese sandwich.
Grace told her about Jack’s visit. “I told him you were in the back room, but …”
“Oh, he was probably in a hurry trying to help out his friend. He has such different kinds of friends, you know.”
“What do you mean, different kinds?”
“Well, kind of exotic … for example there’s Kgabu. Then, there’s this guy in a wheel chair. He also has a blind friend, then there’s his Syrian refugee friend …”
“Syrian refugee? Wow, he’s right up-to-date!”
The sarcasm was lost on Olivia, and she continued enthusiastically, “Yes! And oh, he is involved in all sorts of NGOs and he teaches his pupils about the environment … and they love him so much. He says there is no such thing as a bad child.” Grace noticed her friend’s voice trail off.
“Oh? And has that been your experience, Olivia?”
Olivia frowned, visibly struggling with some memory.
“Hey, do you want to try my new invention? Couscous with cherry tomatoes, egglplant and soy sauce. Even my mother had to admit it was good.”
Olivia appreciated the change of subject.
“What would you think if I tried a new look? Elizabeth Taylor or maybe Grace Kelly? I was named after her, you know.”
Grace almost blushed at the blatant fib she had just told. But Olivia enjoyed these tall tales so much she couldn’t resist.
On Saturday Grace got to her sister’s apartment early to help her prepare for her big date, “Like my new look?” She had spent the afternoon dying her hair black and making herself up like Elizabeth Taylor.
“Oh Grace! You sure have talent for that. If I had a bit more time … with the boys and all …”
“No problem! Little Sis to the rescue! You just sit here and …” she grimaced at her refection. Her sister’s mirrors always seemed flecked and foggy. She had to squint to see herself. Madelaine looked more worn-out than ever. “Maybe we should have gone over to my place.”
“Yes, but with Danny … this way he can play on the computer without bugging us.”
Madelaine’s home was a chaos of blaring t.v.s, and children chasing each other. Shrieks of mom went unheeded because Madelaine, as super-intendant of the building, juggled calls at home, with household chores. Physically, she was a soft, tired version of Teresa, their mother, whose temper kept her fired up with energy.
Teresa was always there for Madelaine, but only if her church duties were not compromised. Grace helped out as well, but Teresa doubted her judgment and Madelaine just didn’t want to bother anybody.
Grace started brushing her sister’s hair, “I’ve brought a good classic to watch with the boys tonight. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad with John Phillip Law and Caroline Munro. Enough of all this Harry Potter!”
Madelaine’s shoulders relaxed and she closed her eyes. “I’m so glad mum has rosary tonight. She always makes them do homework or clean or pray. They love it when their Auntie Grace babysits. Danny still talks about that night when you showed him how to dance the mambo.”
“He remembers that? But he was only three or four!”
“Four. When I was going out with Bill.” Madelaine’s voice saddened again.
“So, tell me, tell me! Who is this new man?”
Madelaine brightened, bit her lip and shrugged. “From the divorcees’ support group. He and his wife split up a year ago.”
This did not bode well. All the men Madelaine had dated since her divorce from Danny’s father were men she had met at the support group. Bad news every last one of them. What Grace didn’t understand was why Madelaine didn’t, to use her mother’s words, get a life. One of her own. Stop going from man to man, waiting to find the one who would put fire and purpose back into her life.
Grace had given up inviting her along to dance classes and choir nights. Teresa even gave up trying to drag her to church.
“Name?” she tried to sound interested.
“Nope. Say, how are things going with you and that professor you met in French class?”
“You are out of touch! That was ages ago!”
“Oh, sorry. Now I remember, a poet you met on Facebook.”
Grace started working on Madelaine’s make-up. “Turn your head just a smidge to the left. That’s it. Well, yes, great. We chat a lot, but he lives in Greece!”
The sisters giggled like teenagers.
“Don’t you meet anybody interesting at the library?”
“Don’t I? Just the other day I met a South African drummer … tall with ebony skin, and a teacher from the new progressive school, and of course we get writers and poets all the time …”
Madelaine sighed, “It must be nice being able to get out and meet interesting people. I’m stuck here all day in the building. My biggest excitement of the day is a burst water-pipe.” Madelaine sat up straighter. “I know mum hassles you about dressing up so much, but of course you have to, if you deal with such fascinating people!”
The doorbell rang.
“Mom!” Danny screamed from the living room. Madelaine tensed up “Oh, my goodness, it’s seven o’clock already, and I still have to get dressed. Could you get the door, Gracie, please?”
Grace struggled with the same pity she felt every time her sister caved for one of these low-lifes. Madealaine shared her mother’s values if not her temperament. A woman had to be married. To no matter whom. And when that one left you, off to look for the next one. As long as you were never alone.
Grace decided she wouldn’t even put on one of her charming acts for this one. The sooner he saw all the flaws, the better. And the sooner he revealed his. She whipped the door open. But on the other side of it stood the kind of man she had not expected. Luke was medium height, with wispy light brown hair, intelligent blue eyes and a square chiseled face, but it was his clothes that caught her eye. He was dressed in a brown suit and tie, and was in the act of removing a matching Borsalino hat.
Grace, in her new Liz Taylor look, was wearing a straight skirt, snug blue sweater, a rope of pearls, and a pair of patent leather pumps. They stared at each other in brief amazement before recovering themselves. It seemed like they had both stepped out of the same 1950’s film.
“Hello. I’m Luke Baxter.” He held out his hand, “You must be Madelaine’s sister.”
Luke Baxter! Even his name sounded vintage!
“Yes, please come in. Charmed to meet you. Let me take your hat.” This was going to be so much fun. Grace never thought she would see the day when she would offer to take someone’s hat. “I’m Grace.” She had been tempted to say Miss Walaski. “Won’t you sit down? Danny! Mark! Come and say hello to Mr. Baxter.”
The following week was a rainy one, but Grace didn’t want to have her lunch in the new wing with its glaring fluorescent lights, plastic tables and sheer glass walls so everyone in the library could see you fishing the sardines out of the can, so she showed Olivia a place in the old wing. It was an abandoned office on the creaky third floor where old books were stored. Double glass doors opened onto a narrow iron balcony which overlooked a churchyard.
“See? If we pull those two chairs over here,” she said, blowing the dust off them, “we can prop the glass doors open and sit inside, but still be able to listen to the rain and feel the breeze.”
Olivia smiled, perplexed and enchanted.
“Mmmm,” Grace breathed in deeply, “Smell the wet grass and old books.”
Olivia maneuvered her bulk around the cramped clutter. Grace was the first old person she knew to be so much fun.
“They’re having a rave this weekend.”
“One of those parties that go all night. It’s in this abandoned factory by the river that they converted into a cultural space. They have art exhibitions there, and all sorts of classes. Jack helps run it. Some musician friends of his will be jamming. Kgabu is playing the drums, and Jack says he is going to give the most unforgettable art exhibition ever! I hope the rain stops by then. He says it is so romantic by the river’s edge, with the moon …”
“Really? And he invited you as his date?”
“Not as his date, exactly. He never does. He just tells me about things and asks if I want to join them. He knows lots of other girls too. Really pretty ones. Friends from his university days.” Olivia remembered to take another bite of her sandwich. Today it was peanut butter.
“Strange that he doesn’t have a girlfriend. At his age, and with so many friends.”
“Maybe he does. But I’ve never seen him be really close with any of them. He never talks about those things. But … why would he keep inviting me? The truth is, I feel kind of awkward around his friends. They are all so cool and sophisticated.” She turned. “Hey, would you come to the rave with me? Jack really likes you, and there’ll be people of … all ages.”
“Thanks!” Grace chuckled, brushing some crumbs off her chest. A slight breeze had picked up. She fastened her top button and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. “I might have to babysit my nephews on Friday …”
“No problem! The rave’s on Saturday.”
The rain punished Grace’s umbrella so brutally that Friday night on her way home, that at first she didn’t hear the light toot-toot from the slow moving car beside her. She turned, wrestling the umbrella, trying not to drench her grey linen suit, the one the ladies at work called her “stewardess outfit”.
Grace was no expert in cars but she could tell a classic Cadillac from the 1940’s when she saw one. She squinted as the car stopped. The passenger door opened. “Grace!” a welcoming baritone called from inside, “I thought it might be you! Come on, let me take you home. I’m heading there myself.”
Luke had surprised her again. Grace felt both grateful and flustered. She had been walking for twenty minutes in the wet and wind, with the intention of fixing herself up before facing him again at her sister’s. Her hair was plastered to her face and she was sure her mascara had run.
“I’m glad I saw you.” He said warmly. “You could catch your death out there.”
“Yes,” Grace fumbled with her black leather purse, searching for her lipstick before dropping it on the floor of the car, “Oh …” she gasped, wriggling awkwardly to retrieve it.
He put his hand on hers, “Don’t worry about that now. I’ll get it later. You look lovely.”
She looked at him wide-eyed, then jerked her head mechanically to the little mirror above the visor. He was right. The face reflected there was tragic and beautiful.
A fluttery warmth enveloped her as he pulled his hand away and replaced it on the wheel.
“Who’s that sax player?”
“Gerry Mulligan and the Less Piano Quartet. One of my favourites.”
Grace tried to concentrate on the music, but guilt plagued her. She imagined her sister, frazzled and distraught, needing her assistance.
But when Madelaine opened the door, Grace was startled at the change in her. She was smiling, confident, clad in a simple but elegant blue dress, her hair done in an attractive twist, and her make-up sparse but effective. But what struck Grace the most was her new-found energy.
“Grace! Wonderful. Danny has been asking for you. I hope you brought more old classics from the library.”
Before Grace went to meet Olivia on Saturday, she stopped off at her mother’s to drop off some Tupperware she had borrowed. She had debated all afternoon about what to wear to the rave, but Olivia had assured her that Jack loved her “look”, and that she should not hold back. The result was spectacular.
She was wearing an authentic copy of an early Mary Quant, with white shoes, bag and floppy hat to match. She had bought some seamed stockings on-line; pantyhose being unfeminine and modern. Her lips were redder than ever, her face whiter and her eyebrows more arched.
“Are you going to a costume party?” Teresa snarled.
“No, mum. No costume party. Here are your bowls. Where do you want me to put them?”
“Or maybe it’s Halloween, but I thought Halloween was in October.”
“You’re right, mum. Halloween is in October.”
“And it can’t be mardi gras, because that’s in March, and Fasching is at New Year’s …..”
“Okay, mum. Here are the damn bowls! Good bye!” She scowled at the reflection from her mother’s mirror. It always made her look pale and frumpy, but today she even caught sight of a wrinkle! No mirrors love you like the ones at home.
The factory was just the kind of structure that resonated with Grace. It had cathedral windows, gabled roofs, and sinister ivy crept up the walls.
But the inside had been completely gutted and painted a blinding white. The windows were boarded up from the inside so the soft moonlight could not filter through and display their patterns on the walls.
The two friends roamed through the first gallery, peering at large canvasses splashed with colours and unrecognizable shapes, until they reached the far door, where a huddle of tall, slim girls eyed them.
Grace overheard one of them whisper as they passed “That must be the fat girl Jack told us about. And her crazy friend. The one who dresses up like old actresses.” The others giggled and Grace prayed that the comment had not reached Olivia’s ears.
The courtyard swarmed with stunning young people, groomed in a strategically casual manner. Tanned, tattooed women with ironed hair; bearded men, both bald and bunned, all clutching a cell phone with one hand and a beer with the other.
Rock music blared unnoticed from a small stage.
Olivia’s eyes desperately searched the crowd for Jack.
Grace was talking to Kgabu and his friends when she realized Olivia had disappeared. She nudged her way through the thickening crowd and stumbled into an eerie corridor with shadowy archways and grotesque paintings menacing from the walls.
The shapes in these paintings were more recognizable than the ones in the front gallery, but also more disturbing; one depicted a decapitated body cradling its own head, another was of a nude man kissing a mangy dog.
Grace penetrated the corridor deeper into the factory. She had been drinking and had shared some of Kgabu’s joint, but she felt an odd pull, as if the building were sucking her into its belly. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the hum of a hundred voices led her down another hall and to another crowded courtyard, larger than the first. There, lost among the cliques, stood Olivia.
Everyone was facing an elevated platform on which Jack, sporting a striped top hat and jacket, waved at them. Megaphone raised to his mouth, he shouted, “Welcome to the Jack Tanner Freak Show!”
“Masterpiece number one!” Jack announced into the megaphone, and a searchlight danced along one of the walls and paused where a sheet was being removed from a painting. It was a caricature of Kgabu, made up as a blackface minstrel actor from the thirties, complete with chalk-whitened eyes, mouth and hands.
The crowd gasped and roared. The light bounced over it seeking the real Kgabu, the hungry spectators delighting in his ill-concealed hurt.
“Masterpiece number two!” Jack shouted with glee into the megaphone, louder now to drown out the rabble.
Jack’s paraplegic friend was the subject of the second portrait, writhing grotesquely in his wheelchair. Grace had to look away when the spotlight revealed the victim’s nervous smile.
Grace and Olivia exchanged terrified glances. Both Jack and the fickle crowd were working themselves into a frenzy, escalating with every exhibit.
“Masterpiece number three!”
This canvas displayed Jack’s blind friend waving his white cane around in the emptiness.
“Masterpiece number four!”
The Syrian refugee knelt, bowed before his hooded, axe-wielding executioner.
Grace tugged at Olivia’s hand, but Olivia, her face already an open wound, remained, hypnotized, welcoming her punishment.
“Masterpiece number five! Miss Olivia, beauty queen of our local library!”
The cloth rose, revealing an unmistakable Olivia, squatting in a transparent bikini, rolls of startled white flesh seeking cover.
Hoots and whistles hailed down on them, as the tireless light stalked its prey. Grace leapt forward to shield her friend.
“Masterpiece number six! Welcome Miss Elizabeth Taylor. This week anyway, hahaha!”
Grace’s pathetically dignified floppy hat crowned a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Ronald MacDonald.
The cackling escalated. Spectators turned to point her out, as Grace finally managed to lead Olivia away, the girl’s face shiny with hot tears.
Grace was seething.
The day after the party, Grace told her mother and sister she had a headache and stayed in bed listening to records, finding it impossible to do anything other than worry about Olivia.
They had left the factory in a taxi the night before and Grace accompanied the girl to her residence.
Olivia insisted she was okay, but Grace knew better.
Grace reached for the gilt vintage phone that Madelaine had given her a few Christmases before. She dialed the girl’s number but there was no answer. Well, she would see her at work tomorrow, anyway. It would be Olivia’s last week.
But Olivia was not at work the next day, nor the next. She didn’t answer her phone, and when Grace went to her residence hall, her roommates said she had gone back to her hometown. Nobody remembered where that was.
The day after that was June first, and Beth, recovered, smiled back at her from the check-out desk.
Grace had lunch alone in the balcony window of the old wing, so she wouldn’t have to wave at joggers and smile at dog-walkers. She ate even less than usual, a few cherry tomatoes and an apple. She remembered Olivia and wondered, powerless, what she could do for her. Breathing in the dust of forgotten books, she listened to hammers knocking, plaster crumbling and the wail of drills, as workers tore the old wing down around her. She closed her eyes so she wouldn’t see herself in the glass door.
Because ever since the party, something strange had been happening. She continued to groom herself meticulously, both from force of habit, and so as not to alarm anyone, but now, except for the mirrors at home, she avoided her reflection. Every passing bus, every shop window, even the wading pool in the park, which had once all reflected confidence and elegance, now presented her with the image of the grotesque clown from the rave.
Could her mother and Jack be right? Was she a powdered and painted old Barbie doll forcing a fiction only she had believed in?
Her shoulders slumped. Who was she to try and help Olivia, if she herself was living in a fantasy world?
But she knew no other reality. Where could she start to create a new one? Whose example should she follow?
Were not everyone else’s realities also just their fictions, like religion for her mother, and husbands for her sister? Were they any happier for it? Would she be happier if she took on her mother’s or sister’s fictions? Or those of Jack’s friends? What did normal mean anyway? Sharing the same fiction as everyone else? Couldn’t they see that today’s normal was going to be tomorrow’s crazy, just like yesterday’s normal was today’s crazy?
She looked at the wooden chair Olivia had squeezed herself into that rainy day. Olivia’s fiction had exploded in her hopeful face. What new one would she invent to get through her reality?
Grace was preparing for her swing class, powdering her face in the only mirror that still loved her, when Teresa walked in the door.
“Gawking at yourself in the mirror as always!”
“What is it, mum? I’m going to dance class.”
“I babysat the boys last Saturday while you were out partying. Made them do some work for a change. You spoil them too much.”
Grace applied her lipstick, made a face at herself, and winked.
“Are you listening to me?” Teresa picked up one of the stiletto heels Grace was planning to wear, and threw it with unbelievable force at the offending mirror.
Grace gasped as the heel hit the glass and cracked it in two. She stared, fascinated at the resulting distortion of herself.
“There!” Teresa sounded satisfied, covering up her own surprise. “Now you won’t be distracted when your mother speaks.”
Grace sank down on her stool. “What is it mum?” she asked in a low voice. Contrary to her mother’s wishes, she couldn’t take her eyes off the mirror.
“Your sister and I have planned a family picnic for this Saturday. Looks like this Luke fellow is really working out. A fine man. I’ve never seen her so happy, and the boys love him.
“Okay, mum.” Grace murmured to the mirror. “I’ll be there.”
On Saturday morning Grace was in Madelaine’s apartment helping with the preparations. Luke had bought a lovely old-fashioned picnic basket big enough to hold a feast. There was cold smoked chicken, roast beef, four types of salad, bottles of beer and Perrier water, and homemade brownies for dessert.
Madelaine was ecstatic, Teresa was tolerable, and the boys were both helpful and polite.
“He’s here! He’s here!” Danny announced from the living room window. They each grabbed an armload of provisions and bumped awkwardly down the hall and stairs to the parking lot.
It was only the third time Grace had seen this man, but she marveled at the tonic effect he had on the whole family. She climbed in the backseat with her mother and Mark, while Madelaine and Luke occupied the front with little Danny between them. She caught a glimpse of them all smiling in the rear-view mirror.
After lunch by the lake, the boys insisted on a game of handball with Luke. The ladies watched him as he, still wearing his tie, tossed the ball to Mark. Where had this special man, who still addressed his future mother-in.-law respectfully as Mrs.Walaski, come from?
The boys soon tired of the game and, rolling up their pant legs, ran off to splash around at the water’s edge.
Teresa and Madelaine found a tap where they rinsed out the lunch dishes, and Grace decided to go for a walk. On the way in she had spied a bus stop and decided to check it out.
Today she had chosen not to dress up as a star, so she wore the simple suit dress, low pumps and tiny hat of a supporting actress, one who played the parts of aunts and sisters.
She was making her way, negotiating tree roots and dead leaves, when she heard footsteps behind her. She turned to see Luke approaching, his tie still askew from sport.
“May I join you?”
“Of course.” She felt that same fluttery warmth as that day in his car. “I thought I saw a bus stop near here. I might go back to town a bit earlier. I’m beat. Family life sure takes it out of you!”
He didn’t try to dissuade her and she was grateful for that.
“I’ll tell them.” he said.
They walked on. She prattled on about her nephews, how good they were in school, at sports and how Danny enjoyed the old movies she brought him. Luke listened quietly.
When they reached the stop, they paused, both of them avoiding the glass which reflected a handsome and well-matched couple. Some older ladies nodded their approval at them.
“And they are all so happy with you. Madelaine, mum, the boys …”
Luke was looking down at her.
“Yes, but you, Grace? What about your happiness?”
Grace noticed with relief that the bus was approaching. The old ladies gathered up their bags and baskets.
“Me?” she sniffed, avoiding his gaze. Her eyes were moist.
The bus sighed loudly and the door snapped open.
Luke stepped forward and grabbed her elbow. “Grace …”
The ladies boarded. Grace stepped back, whirled around, and hopped on the bottom step, laughing “I’ll be fine! I’ve got my dancing, and my yoga, and there’s this Greek poet who writes me verses on Facebook … then there’s this South African drummer … Oh!” she shrieked girlishly as the driver shut the door.
She blew him a kiss from the window and Luke tilted his hat in farewell.
As the bus pulled away from the curb, she opened her purse and pulled out her make-up mirror. She smiled at her reflection because, like the mirrors at home, this one still loved her.