Three Women – Sketch for Longer Story (Maybe)
“Wait ‘til you see my new phone.” Anne talked over her shoulder as she turned to dig her treasure out of the baby blue leather knapsack that hung over the back of her chair. Her two friends looked at her patiently, but no one seemed anywhere near as excited as Anne.
Simone and Heidi were used to it. Anne always had some new gadget to show them, some new website to tell them about, some new app that would change their lives. Anne thought science and technology would make her happy, bring fulfillment to her life. Apparently, it had not happened yet, since she was still on the search. Anne had bristle-short thick dark hair and light blue eyes which were sparkled as she powered up her new phone. Of the three, Anne was the most conventionally attractive, although she moved around constantly and so was not easy to rest your eyes on.
Simone, with her gaunt face and her gray and blond braid down her back, still had her original smart phone. While she had no interest in technology and maintained a FB page only to keep track of her siblings, Simone was always eager to discuss her latest read. She read everything, searching for the author who would tell her what she need to know in order to be content, to stop scanning for the answers to life’s enigmas. Usually her friends dutifully noted the titles Simone enthused about – Anne making notes on her phone and Susan in a little red notebook she carried in her purse – but almost never read them.
Heidi was convinced that the answers were based in her body. She was almost impossible to invite to dinner because of the shifting limitations on what she would eat. These limitations, combined with a daily hour of yoga (the type of yoga varied with trends, the current being “hot” yoga) did nothing to stop her from blossoming into a very large woman with a pudgy face and at least three chins. In fact, her fat could only be determined by her face, as she always draped herself with so many layers of shawls and skirts that one had no idea where her flesh began. Heidi had labradoodle-curly ash brown hair which, although noticeably thinning, created a halo around her round face. Despite her attention to her health, she had a number of ailments. But nothing stopped her from giving constant advice on diet and exercise.
Besides their constant striving (albeit in different directions) for the key to the good life, the women had some things in common. They all had trouble sleeping. They all had less than satisfactory children. They all were fairly liberal in their politics and generous with their time and money. And they were all in their late forties.
All three women also had second husbands. Their youthful marriages turned out to be mistakes, but only after children and much angst. Heidi’s first husband had died in a drunken crash, but Simone and Anne were divorced. The divorcees alternately envied the widow (she didn’t have to deal with an ex-husband and his new wife) and felt bad for her (no child support, no help with college fees, and no life insurance). All of the women had married second husbands who were adequate in every way and who tolerated the peculiarities of their wives. Interestingly enough, the husbands seem to have been mis-matched. Anne, with her love of technology and her secular path to transformation, was married to Ben, an Episcopal priest. They had a daughter, a somewhat compliant but taciturn fourteen-year-old. Anne had a son from her first marriage who attended an expensive college and was seldom heard from. Simone, with her intellectual leanings, lived happily with a builder named Sean, who never read anything but the news and blueprints, and spent much of his spare time at the gym. They had no children together, but each had a son in his late teens; the boys had perfected an biting dislike for each other. Heidi had married a professor of comparative literature named Frank, who grilled his own hamburgers when he tired of the vegetarian fare Heidi preferred. They had no children together, but Heidi’s twins lived with them. The identical girls had disappointed all their parents – step and real – by refusing to either go to college or leave home. They both waited on tables and looked for the good life in the local bar scene.
Perhaps, it was the differences that made for these successful second marriages. And maybe it was the difference in the way these women were seeking the good life that made it possible for the three women to continue to find each other interesting, to want to spend time together, to love each other in the way that is unavoidable with people we know really well – whether we agree with them or not. They met for coffee regularly, texted each other with the small joys and sorrows of each day, and organized lunches sporadically to celebrate birthdays, triumphs, losses.
It was a fourth person who destabilized the friendship and even undermined the ladies’ confidence that they were on their own appropriate path to happiness and contentment.
Her name was Della, and she had recently moved to the area. Della was an old college roommate of Simone and had taken a job as the new head of patient care at a massive assisted-living and nursing home complex at the edge of town. She was divorced and childless, and latched firmly onto her old friend. The three women had sometimes welcomed others to their group before – one of the women would bring a sister or friend. But there harbored no anticipation that anyone would permanently join them. Until Della, who obviously thought she had found an old best friend and two new ones as a bonus.
“Do you always meet here? Do you guys really like this place?” This came from Della ten minutes after they had met her.
Anne looked peeved. “Of course, we like it. Best place in town and Emily is a peach.” Emily was a seventy-something woman who ran the coffee house on her own and did all the baking with the help of her daughter.
But Anne’s look did not stop Della. “This is OK, but I really like Starbucks better.”
Her comment met heavy silence; however, Anne gave her a look that could only mean, Who asked you? Why don’t you go to Starbucks right now, and leave us the fuck alone?”
But Della definitely wasn’t going anywhere. Although the three women were restrained in front of the newcomer, Della had shamelessly filled them in on all aspects of her own life – triumphs, embarrassments, disappointments, medical issues. She obviously trusted these ladies. Or maybe she was just a sharer by nature.
No one had the heart to tell Della to get lost. Privately, Simone apologized to each of her friends about Della, but followed that up with a plea for her sense of obligation to her old friend. No one liked particularly liked Della, but they tolerated the situation, and soon even began to loosen up in her presence. A mistake. Della got to know them better and she asked better questions. She started with her old friend, Simone.
Simone had been reading a At the Existentialist Café and enthused about living life consciously as a “free agent” and taking responsibility for one’s own decisions outside the shackles of culture – or so she put it.
“You’re always reading something serious,” said Della, obviously already a free agent. “All through college, you had your head buried in a book.” She turned to the others. “I used to have to twist her arm to get up and go places with me.” She shrugged her shoulders and looked Simone directly. “Why don’t you read something fun, like Outlander – nothing you read ever seems to make you any happier. Outlander would definitely lift your spirits.”
The other women took pity on Simone, and queried her about what existentialism really meant, and listened intently to her answers. Della looked bored, and several times interjected her own comments about Outlander and other recreational reading.
The next time they met, it was Heidi’s turn. Heidi had a copy of the new Esselstyn cookbook and had even brought each of the women a couple of biscotti made without oil or dairy or processed sugar. Such unsolicited samples were not unusual; Anne’s dog had grown to expect a healthy treat when she got home, and Simone’s husband stood ready to try a heart-healthy alternative. Della took her biscotti but did not have the grace to keep her mouth shut.
“I’m not sure my Italian grandmother would have let you call them biscotti without any butter or oil or sugar,” she joked. “She ate all that stuff and was always about the size of my little finger. What I can’t understand if how you can stay on all those diets and still have a weight problem.” Dead quiet from the group. Della tried to clarify.
“I know, who am I to tell anyone else they’re too heavy, right?” Della was not as hefty as Heidi, but surely significantly over an ideal weight. “I mean, you may have a healthy heart, but if you’re overweight, it still has to work overtime. Not good for the joints either.”
Again, the ladies rallied to Heidi’s defense, even taking bites of the biscotti which had been destined for other mouths and telling her how delicious it was.
A week later came Anne’s turn to be skewered. She had not come to the table with any big news, but in the middle of coffee – while they were hearing Della compare the Outlander books with the television series – there were simultaneous beeps from Anne’s smartwatch and the blue bookbag slung over her chair. Anne looked at her wrist and said that her mother had just left her a message that she would be out getting her hair done for the next couple of hours in case Anne tried to call her.
“She does that just to remind me that I haven’t called for a while,” Anne complained.
“Your bag beeped too,” said Della.
“Same message – just came through on my cell phone at the same time.”
Della came right back Anne. “So – something you didn’t really need to know anyway, and you got it doubled. Why do you even have your cell phone on? You have to unplug at some point – the nursing home would be calling me every ten minutes if they could. But you need to unplug sometimes.
And so it went. For a while, the others tried giving Della a taste of her own medicine, but she did not seem to have clear life projects, as the rest did. If they went after her about any of her foibles (her attachment to her Siamese cats or the fact that she kept her hair much too blonde to be believable), she simply laughed and agreed with them.
They did not laugh, and after a few more weeks, Heidi and Anne persuaded Simone to tell her friend that the three of them would prefer meeting without her, that she hurt their feelings. Della said she did not mean to offend anyone, but Simone remained firm. Della was out. Della became quite upset and didn’t call Simone for months, but when the time rolled around for their college reunion, they traveled to Philadelphia together. When Simone came back, she told the others that she thought working with old and dying people made Della so blunt. “She’s got death in front of her all the time.” No one thought that an adequate excuse.
Meanwhile, the three women continued to meet at Emily’s Cafe two or three times a week, but something was missing. Anne hadn’t had a new gadget in a while, Heidi lost twenty pounds on the Esselstyn diet, and Simone started talking about the new television shows she watched, including Outlander. They never discussed Della.