Old Isabel Lanier, the actress (remembered for her Viola and Portia) backed her Audi out of her friend Esther’s drive. She paused. For a moment something stopped her from driving home to her own retirement cottage, identical to Esther’s except for the roof over the front door. The thing that stopped her was her host and hostess, still standing outdoors after bidding her good-bye, slowly moving about their yard. Esther had spied some neighbor and was strolling toward the boundary fence. John was picking up random branches. They looked, in the dusk of early spring, ineffably beautiful to Isabel, so that she did not want to move.
Yet it was the end of a very long day. After her morning’s regular ballet exercises, there had been necessary shopping in the shopping center—dishtowels—and the kind they carried nowadays were horrid, made of Turkish toweling; after lunch a tiring session with the dentist. Lying stretched back, with no place to spit, if there had been anything left in her mouth to spit after the thorough vacuum cleaning given it by the dentist’s assistant (was she a nurse?) made Isabel unhappier than anything little Dr. Bellows, looking about 18, could do to her. How she did miss her own old Dr. Ross in New York, exuding confidence and reassurance, with, at her elbow, a nice basin to spit into. They said growing old was not for sissies, but the world kept finding new and disagreeable things to make it harder.
Going to tea at Esther Green’s had been just what she needed after that. She loved Esther. As she went to sleep at night, she loved to visualize her new friend in her own little cottage here, with her aging, handsome husband, John; she making cookies for her grandson. Isabel had no grandson, but if she had, she swore to herself that at this point she was ready to make cookies for him. There was nothing tragic or distressed about Esther. Her mind was happy and serene. A teacher in an independent school all her life, she diverted herself now by writing reminiscences for her college magazine and doing research for the local historical society. She was sensible and occupied, like an elderly Barbara Pym character. She lived appropriately. Just thinking about her made Isabel happy.
For her own part, Esther seemed enchanted with Isabel’s reminiscences of life in the theater in the twenties and thirties—the good days. Her closest friends, she had entranced Esther by telling her, had been Blanche Yurka, Rollo Peters, and Jane Cowl.
For tea today they had some of the grandson’s cookies and also croissants Esther had made. It seemed a marvel to Isabel. Croissants! The table looked charming with two silver pheasants stalking in opposite directions, lace place mats revealing the polished dark mahogany. Isabel sat sideways in her chair, still slim and elegant. After a while, John Green, who took a cup with them, began to descant upon the glories of the Washington Redskins. About then Isabel began to feel she must go home; the accumulated fatigue of the day began to descend, inch by inch. By the time she had got her coat and gloves on, she could hardly wait to go.
Yet now, sitting in the car she had backed partway out of the drive, she experienced a sudden shift of feeling. They looked so beautiful, she felt smitten by fortune just to be in their vicinity. Dusk adorned them, in their classic old age, and they seemed filled with a mysterious life—they were life.
Why not get out of the car, now, and rejoin them? Something beatific might result. Isabel thought of the times, in her 80 years, when she had seized a high and ridden far away on it. Beatific things had resulted—sometimes. And now, since the reality of the future lay in dying, why not live life as hard as you could while you still had it to live? To drive away, now, felt more like the road to death.
Isabel turned off the car. She got out and walked, almost timidly, toward her friends, as if she were approaching deity.
“Oh, Esther! I just thought—”
In the shock when her sensibility met Esther’s good sense head on, Isabel’s high collapsed under her as if she had been standing on a soap bubble. Now she was just terribly tired. She had seen something beautiful, for which she longed, but this was not it.
Under the weight of exhaustion, heavy and black, she did not have the strength to continue pursuing an apotheosis. “I— I—” she stammered, like an old child, “I think I left my gloves.”
Esther, ever a good friend, said gently. “Honey, you’ve got them on.”
“Why, so I have.”
“We all do it, sweetie,”
“We certainly do,” Isabel replied, smiling brilliantly.
Although she was not a religious woman, it occurred to her, as she drove away in the Audi, that, even though you were old, you still had to live life as if it were going to go on forever—take rest, eat food.
She drove home as fast as she dared, looking forward to cooking her supper—oh, but such a cooking! To stand in front of her stove, the way Esther would. She could visualize each turn of the wrist. Every biting of the lower lip, the dashing the strand of hair away with the back of her hand. She could, as escape from fatigue, be Esther-that was what her longing had been about—hadn’t it?
She felt a moment’s doubt, as she always did feel before going on stage. Yet, she reminded herself, even if it was not the real thing—not life—it would be, as they said, a reasonable facsimile thereof. And it was life.