Again with the charm.
As Lydia marches to the café, Irene floats over to the new fiction. She loves nothing better than a stack of fresh books on her nightstand. What an enriching way to start the new year. Irene spent her New Year’s Eve taking down all of her holiday decorations and packing them neatly away. She left the boxes at the bottom of the attic stairs. Russ is due back late tomorrow night or early Thursday morning, he said, and once he returns, he will be fully at her disposal. He left for a surprise business trip two days after Christmas. The man has more surprise business trips than anyone Irene has ever heard of and in this case, he was leaving Irene alone for New Year’s. They had quarreled about it the previous afternoon on the phone. Russ had said, I’m fully devoted to you, Irene, and I strive to see your point of view in every disagreement. But let’s recall who encouraged whom to take this job. Let’s recall who said she didn’t want to be married to a corn syrup salesman for the rest of her life.Their conversation, repeated for years nearly verbatim, ended there, as it always did. Irene had pushed Russ to take the job with Ascension, and with that decision came sacrifice. Russ is away more than he’s home, but he does call all the time, and he sends flowers and often leaves her a surprise gift on her pillow when he goes away—jewelry or a pair of snazzy reading glasses, gift cards to the Pullman, a monogrammed makeup case. He is so thoughtful and loving that he makes Irene feel chilly and indifferent by comparison. Also, and not inconsequentially, his new job affords them a very nice lifestyle, luxurious by Iowa standards. They own the Victorian, with its extravagant gardens and in-ground swimming pool on a full-acre lot on Church Street. Irene had been able to renovate the house exactly the way she dreamed of, sparing no expense. It took her nearly six years, proceeding one room at a time.
Now the house is a showpiece. Irene lobbied to have it featured in the magazine, but she encountered resistance from Mavis Key, who thought it would seem like shameless self-promotion to splash pictures of their own editor’s home across their pages. Talk about navel-gazing, Mavis had said, a comment that hurt Irene. She suspects the real problem is Mavis’s aversion to Victorian homes. Like Irene, they are out of fashion.Mavis Key can buzz right off! Irene thinks. Irene’s house is a reflection not only of years of painstaking work but also of her soul. The first floor has twelve-foot ceilings and features arched lancet windows with layered window treatments in velvet and damask. The palette throughout the house is one of rich, dark jewel tones—the formal living room is garnet, the parlor amethyst, and the kitchen has accents of topaz and emerald. There are tapestries and ornate rugs throughout, even in the bathrooms. Irene’s favorite part of the house isn’t a room per se but rather the grand staircase, which ascends two floors. It’s paneled in dark walnut and at the top of the second flight of stairs is an exquisite stained-glass window that faces east. In the morning when the sun comes up, the third-floor landing is spangled with bursts of color. Irene has been known to take her mug of tea to the landing and just meditate on the convergence of man-made and natural beauty.Irene supervised all of the interior carpentry, the refinishing of the floors, the repairs to the crown molding, the intricate painting—including, in the dining room, a wraparound mural of the landscape of Door County, Wisconsin, where Irene spent summers growing up. Irene also handpicked the antiques, traveling as far away as Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, to attend estate sales.
Now that the house is finished, there is nothing left to do but enjoy it—and this is where Irene has hit a stumbling block. When she tells Lydia that she needs something else, she isn’t kidding. Russ is away for work at least two weeks a month, and their boys are grown up. Baker lives in Houston, where he day-trades stocks and serves as a stay-at-home father to his four-year-old son, Floyd. Baker’s wife, Dr. Anna Schaffer, is a cardiothoracic surgeon at Memorial Hermann, which is a very stressful and time-consuming job; she, like Russ, is almost never around. Irene’s younger son, Cash, lives in Denver, where he owns and operates two outdoor supply stores. Neither of the boys comes home much anymore, which saddens Irene, although she knows she should be grateful they’re out living their own lives.There was a moment yesterday around dusk when everyone else in America was getting ready for New Year’s Eve festivities—showering, pouring dressing drinks, preparing hors d’oeuvres, pulling little black dresses out of closets—that Irene was hit by a profound loneliness. She had spoken to Russ, they had quarreled, and right after they hung up, Irene considered calling him back, but she refrained. There was nothing less attractive than a needy woman—and besides, Russ was busy.
Irene plucks the new story collection by Curtis Sittenfeld off the shelf; Curtis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which Irene happens to believe is the best in the country.
She hears Lydia laughing and peers around the stacks to see her friend and Brandon engaged in conversation. Brandon is leaning on his forearms on the counter while the espresso machine shrieks behind him. He hardly seems to notice; he’s enraptured.I know that’s true, I admitted. It’s already pretty difficult for me to make friends, seeing as I don’t get out much. So I kind of need to keep the ones I have.
Hale chuckled, and I missed what he did on the board. Well, I just want to go on record and say that even if you don’t choose me, you have my friendship for life, and I’ll be on a plane to Angeles in a heartbeat if you ever need me.I smiled. Something every day.
He nodded. Every day.I really needed to hear that. Thank you. I sat up taller and began to plan my next move. What about you? Who’s your best friend?