WHY I DON’T KNOW WHAT SIZE I WEAR

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It’s not that I change radically from shopping trip to shopping trip.   And if you’re a woman of middle height, as I am, a numbered size gives you about ten pounds leeway up or down anyway.   The XS-S-M-L-XL range is even more elastic.  (We’ll get to that later.)  It’s that the sizes themselves have become so shifty.  You just have no idea what to say when a saleswoman — if there is a saleswoman — asks, “What size?”

Time was when you knew where you were with the American dress.  That was a “when” during which most women mostly wore dresses, except for sport.  Even in the house.  (The house ones were called — surprise, surprise — “house dresses.”) A few women, who went out to “business,” might occasionally wear a suit instead of a dress. Still fewer women, like Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn, did wear pants in public. But they called what they had on “slacks.” In any event, the suits and slacks came in the same sizes as dresses.

Here’s how it worked.  First, you had to know which department to go to:  Misses’ Dresses, Junior Dresses, or Women’s Dresses.  That depended on your body type.  If you were about 5’3″ to 5’7″ and of normal weight, or not v-e-r-y overweight, you could usually wear a Miss size.  If you were shorter, or short-waisted (meaning shorter than average between shoulder and waist), or small-breasted and slightly hippier than a standard Miss size but not what anyone would call fat, you were a “Junior,” irrespective of your age.

And if your body was, um, “womanly” (and I don’t mean sexy) — requiring a one-piece undergarment with hooks and zippers that held you in from shoulder to crotch — then you went to that third dress department.  There the sizes ran from 22 to 36 or higher (sometimes up to 52), and everything was in navy rayon or muted floral prints.  I can’t tell you anything more about it, except that eventually it developed a little-sister department called Half Sizes — for women (and I still don’t mean sexy ones) who were too short for the standard Women’s Dress merchandise;  there the dresses ran from 22 1/2 on up, up, up, but still relied heavily on navy and muted florals.

Okay, back to Misses and Juniors.  In the years when I had just outgrown the Girls’ Department, Miss sizes ran from 12 to 20.  I kid you not:  Hollywood stars were a perfect size 12.  It was the size that dreams were made of.

Can you guess how you sell more dresses?  (If you’re a dress manufacturer, that is.)  You make dreams come true.  Pretty soon — right after World War II, as I recall — the Misses size range dropped.  Now everything came in 10 to 18.  It’s not that American women had got thinner.  Size 12 had got bigger!  More women could wear it!  Even I could wear it when I went off to college! Hooray!

Junior sizes, by the way, played copycat; the former 9 to 15 size range dropped to 9 to 13.  (And then Junior sizes disappeared entirely, to be replaced by Petites, which were Miss sizes with a P after them: 10P to 18P.  Simpler for the buyers, I guess.  Besides, adult women were complaining that Junior styles were too “youthful.”  (How times have changed!)

As I moved into my thirties, I noticed everything I was interested in was beginning to be sized 8 to 16.  And then the currently common 4 to 12. (Unless it’s very expensive, in which case it runs 2 to 10.)  Today, I wear an 8, or sometimes even 6, depending on whose name is on the label. But a size 14 wool jacket bought in 1965 from Henri Bendel, which I kept because I liked the op art pattern of the fabric, is slightly snug.  Go figure.  And then figure out how much lower sizes can go, now that some of them have reached 0.

00?

Of course, jeans are sold by waist size, which is a whole different ball of wax.  Except it’s not really your waist size unless you want a high-rise, meaning the waist is really at your waist, which is where it used to be when I was in college.  Otherwise it’s the size you measure wherever the top of the jeans hits:  28″? 29″? 30?” 31″?  Unless you’re looking at pipe cleaner legs (and you really shouldn’t, unless your legs look like pipe cleaners, too), in which case the waist size may be misleading and you will have to spend at least half an hour in the dressing room struggling in and out of various jean cuts from various manufacturers.

Which brings us to the convenient S-M-L (sometimes with forgiving elastic in the waistband, if it’s pants you’re buying) and its friendly extensions: XXS, XS, XL and XXL.  Actually, all that lettering solves nothing.  I just bought two linen knit tops on sale from Eileen Fisher.  Same fabric, same manufacturer, slightly different design:  One is a S (all they had left), the other is a M, they both fit.  How can that be?

Then we come to European sizes.  Or should I say, English sizes, French sizes, Italian sizes?  English numbered sizes are generally one larger than ours (our 12 is their 14, although our 8 can be their 8 or 10) — but what will actually fit remains a mystery.  French and Italian sizes are both in the low to mid-40s (and perhaps also include 38, but I’m not a 38 so it doesn’t matter) — only different from each other.  Am I a 42? A 44? And in which country? Sometimes the American representative will attempt to offer an American size equivalent, but isn’t always right.

And let’s not start on footwear, especially if one foot is slightly smaller than the other, or you have a wide foot but a narrow heel.  That’s a whole other post.  Have you noticed that Nikes run smaller than Nu-Balance?

In fact, what with these sizing dilemmas, shopping in real stores has become so exhausting I rarely do it in person.  It’s so much easier to shop by computer and mail things back and forth until you’ve got it right, or nearly right.  (With some types of apparel, good enough IS good enough.)  If you end up finally keeping something, postage is free after the first time.

Unfortunately, blogging about sizes online is not easier than writing about them offline.  So now I’m going to hang up my new M and my new S from Eileen Fisher and lie down. As we used to say in the days of 12 to 20, I’m all tuckered out!

 

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IRONING, ETCETERA

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I am full of useless information. That’s what happens as you get on in life. Gradually it becomes unnecessary to know the things you once learned in order to cope with the world you grew up in.

For instance, I know how to erase typewriter mistakes when there are carbons in the roller behind the front page. Now there are no more typewriters. Or carbon paper, either. I know how to not clog the kitchen drain with the liquid fat left in the pan after you’ve cooked bacon. Or not clog the toilet, if you thought you’d go that route. You pour the fat into an empty frozen orange juice can and put the can in the refrigerator till the fat hardens. Then you can throw the can in the garbage.

You might think that trick with the bacon fat is still a handy thing to know. Except now we’ve learned bacon is terrible for you — not just because of the fat and salt but also the carcinogenic nitrites with which it was cured. And you know orange juice is full of sugar calories, don’t you? Much better to eat the whole orange, even though it’s useless for congealing melted bacon fat.

And then there’s ironing. Does anyone still iron? In the home, I mean. When my sons emerged from college, impecunious, I attempted to teach the ironing of business shirts. Each gave it a half-hearted try, yielded to failure and found the nearest laundry. Yes, ironing can be hard. Apparently even harder than paying the laundry to do it when you’re short of cash, and then figuring out where to recycle the wire hangers the shirts come back on.

However, once upon a time there was much more than business shirts to consider. Those were the days when there was no such thing as a synthetic fabric that you didn’t have to iron. (Except rayon, which was considered, and looked, sleazy.) No such thing as wrinkle-free. There was no air-conditioning except in movie theaters; everyone – male or female — carried cotton handkerchiefs, sometimes monogrammed, in order to mop up up perspiration, handkerchiefs which then needed laundering and ironing. There was no sleeping in t-shirts or nothing at all. Men wore cotton boxer shorts as underwear and cotton (or silk) pajamas at night, all of which also needed guess what. My mother sent out the sheets and my father’s formal shirts to the Chinese laundry. But she did everything else herself — week in, week out, even in summer. So it was essential for a girl who might not have marriage to a millionaire in her future to learn to iron herself.

Thus it was that one summer afternoon I jumped the gun and asked her to teach me. I was eleven, already taller than she was, certainly tall enough to wield a hot iron on the board without danger of tipping it over. And there was a lot for me to practice on. Even in winter, my father put on clean underwear and a fresh white shirt twice a day — once in the morning and a second time when he went to work in the afternoon. Now that it was summer, he changed again after he came home at night on the subway and before having his late supper in the kitchen. “He’s a very clean man,” said my mother. He also used at least three white handkerchiefs a day, and often more; these too had to be done just so. And he had many more pairs of cotton pajamas than I did; whenever a pair got sweaty at night, it went into the laundry basket and later showed up on the ironing board.

We began with what was easiest. My mother set the ironing board up in the foyer and took his handkerchiefs out of the refrigerator, where they had been waiting for a couple of hours — slightly dampened, rolled up in a towel, and cool to the touch. (No steam irons then.) First you unrolled one and ironed all around the edges, pulling the cloth taut as you went, until you had a perfect square. Then you ironed the inside of the square flat, quickly enough not to scorch it yellow but not so quickly that it didn’t come smooth. Then you folded the square in half, ironed the crease, folded it in half again horizontally, and ironed the second crease. Now the handkerchief was a long narrow rectangle. You folded it twice, careful to keep the edges even, which produced a neat small square. And then you were done with one handkerchief, and had to start again.

However, after I got the hang of it and had finished five or six, ironing handkerchiefs became boring. Maybe boxer shorts would be more challenging? But when my mother let me try, I ran into trouble. The boxers were cut with a set-in waist and set-in crotch, so that you couldn’t get any parts flat without burning your fingers on the iron. And they were dampened more than the handkerchiefs, so that they steamed when pressed. The steam got the wrinkles out better, but made me very hot. By the time I had started on a second pair, I felt sweat rolling down the backs of my thighs. Perspiration began to drip from my forehead onto the board. I gave up, propped the iron on its stand, and went to run cool water on my wrists in the bathroom sink. When I came out, my mother was finishing the boxers I had left half done. And there were still more pairs, plus the remaining handkerchiefs, and the shirts and pajamas, to do before starting to make dinner.

She let me off the hook that time.   She had “The Story of Mary Marlin” to listen to on the big Stromberg Carlson radio in the living room, a daily soap opera fix which apparently made her hot travails with the pile of clean but still un-ironed laundry somewhat easier to bear. But eventually, I did learn how to do it all. Which was lucky, because I did not marry a millionaire. Twice, I didn’t marry one.

Now, more than seventy years later, I still have this boring skill that’s good for nothing. These days I send cotton shirts out. (Whenever either of us wears one, which is rarely.) It’s just easier. And the rest of our stuff comes out of the washer and dryer looking just fine. (Like jeans and t-shirts and sweats and yoga pants. What else do you put on nearly every day when you’re “retired?”)

On second thought I take it back about the “boring skill.” My ironing know-how is not entirely good for nothing.  I just got a whole new essay out of it.  Nothing obsolete about that.

DIANE KEATON SPEAKS IN PRINCETON ABOUT GETTING OLD!

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[A little something light after all that heavy reading about war, revolution and loss….]

IMG_0564 I wasn’t there.  I wouldn’t dream of driving across dreaded Route 1 to the Hyatt Regency to squeeze myself into a sold-out event sponsored by Princeton Healthcare System and attended by more than 1,000 people.  But I did avidly consume a report of the occasion by one Jennifer Kohlhepp (who I do not know) for the May 9, 2014 issue of “The Princeton Packet,” a throw-away town paper that usually goes straight from our front lawn into the recyclable garbage.  I suspect the report was written as local “news.”  I devoured it as celebrity gossip, to which I’m never averse as long as (a) I know the name of the celebrity it’s about; and (b) it’s free reading.

Knowing who celebrity gossip is about isn’t as easy as it used to be at the time I was a more au courant viewer of movies and television.  These days, when I no longer have exhausting ten-hour work days to recover from, I almost never watch the junk that passes for television entertainment.  As a result, I couldn’t tell you anything about those vapid-looking youngsters on the pages of “People Magazine” — which I idly peruse (for free) while waiting in line at the local supermarket to check out with my month’s supply of paper towels, toilet paper and like that.

But Diane Keaton?  She’s 68.  I knew her (in a manner of speaking) when.  What’s more, the reason for her appearance in these parts is that she’s written a book, recently published, called “Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty” — which Jennifer Kohlhepp has given me to understand is right up the alley of this blog:  a memoir of thirteen stories that explore life, beauty and aging in a world obsessed with appearances, “according to Ms. Keaton.”

I will make the not particularly rash assumption that you too did not attend the event, and that you might even be mildly interested in learning what this usually pleasant and unpretentious movie star had to offer from the podium at the Hyatt Regency on the subject of getting old. (Especially if you have nothing better to do with three minutes or so.) So without more ado, I offer you snippets from Ms. Kohlhepp’s account of the proceedings. [With a few asides from me within brackets.]

Ms. Keaton said she would like to ask her contemporaries if they look in the mirror, sigh and ask themselves what old age is for — why the liver spots, wrinkles, hair turning color, vocal cords changing, diminished eyesight, and reduced mental and cognitive thinking.  [Me butting in about this last bit:  “Oh yeah?  Who sez?”]

“On the bonus side, I’ve become friends with some of my business contemporaries,” Ms. Keaton said.  “One is Jack Nicholson.  When I first met Jack Nicholson it was not possible to be his friend … I didn’t want to be his friend.”

After they filmed “Something’s Gotta Give,” the two became good pals, with Ms. Keaton going to his ranch once a month for lunch, she said.  She then read a letter she wrote to him about “looking out for him” and “having his back.”  [Me again:  Is he infirm?  Has something happened to him that I’ve missed?]

Later she focused on her relationship with Woody Allen.  The duo still walks through New York City like they used to when they were young, “but not holding hands,” Ms. Keaton said.

One of the last times they met in the city, she said, “He looked at me with a really long gaze and mentioned I had a kind of beauty that required a beekeeper’s hat.”  [Me:  Is that a friend?]

In grappling with getting old, the self-proclaimed baby boomer said she has learned that 42 percent of her generation are extending retirement and 25% are not retiring.  Her research has also determined that she has a life expectancy of 86.

“I’m going to try my best to make the most of these 18 years,” she said.  “Being old is a gut leveling experience.  I’m in preparation for the incomprehensible … end zone of life.  I’m going to deepen my laugh lines and enjoy the underrated beauty of humanity….”

Ms. Keaton ended her talk saying, “One thing resonates … old is gold.”

Participants had the opportunity to ask Ms. Keaton questions through a moderator.  In answering, she said she would never return to Broadway because she doesn’t like performing in front of real people.  She also said she was the only person in the original cast of “Hair” who wouldn’t take her clothes off.

“Now that I’m older, I would love to take my clothes off, if you only ask me,” Ms. Keaton said.  [Me:  She’s got to be kidding!  Or else she’s in unbelievable shape! An aging female friend and I once agreed that if we were ever to start in again with a new man (and without clothes), it would have to be in the semi-dark and missionary position.  That way all the loose bits would hang down and out of sight of the one on top.]

Her greatest challenge as a woman has been raising two children at “a late age in life” and her greatest enjoyment in being an actress was “kissing all those men.”

On dating Warren Beatty, she said, “It was good.”

When asked what destination she has on her bucket list, she said “Heaven.”  [She’s evidently a double optimist.] 

In answering the final question, Ms. Keaton said, “Laughter is just everything.”

Well, there you have it.  Now you don’t have to read the book.  And aren’t you glad you missed going?  I bet she wishes she could have missed going, too.  If only churning out a book didn’t mean you also had to promote it…..

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART I)

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You can read the probable date of of her birth and the date of her death on a stone slab forming part of a low wall at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The inscription on the stone will likely outlive me, although at some indefinite point in the future it will erode and become illegible.  But what of the living, breathing woman who grew me in her body, the woman who was once the center of my universe? I am now the only one who remembers her alive.

Correction: My two adult sons may be able to recall a cranky shriveled old woman whom once, to please me, they traveled across country to visit during a college break. But was that old woman the mother I remember? Of course not. Or at least, not only. In any event, their visit was brief. And long ago. It’s therefore entirely possible that they may not recall anything much at all except, perhaps, the fact of the visit. If that.

So many qualifiers. May. Perhaps. Not only. If.

Then must she simply disappear, along with me, when I too go into the ground — leaving only the inscription? Was her whole life meaningless? Dust to dust, etcetera? Someone in a writing group to which I belonged five years ago (who was in her late twenties at the time) asked why anyone should be interested in reading anything I wrote about my mother.  What had she done?  What had she accomplished?

I really couldn’t think of anything to tell her that might justify such an interest.  Looked at from her point of view, all my immigrant mother had done with her life, other than live it (and sometimes in the early days just manage to survive it), was to keep house for my father and raise one child — me. She also sold small objets d’art in an upscale department store after I grew up and married, some few of which she bought herself on her employee discount, presumably because they gave her pleasure. I myself didn’t think much of any of them when I had to go through her possessions after she died.  So much for the objective value of her collection of objets.

It’s true she did insist on bearing me to term when her obstetrician advised termination of the pregnancy because there was a tumor, later found to be benign, on her uterus. And obviously I am grateful for this instance of her stubborn fortitude.  But it probably doesn’t count as much of an incentive for other people to read about her.

Yet many men and women,  professional writers or not, write about similarly unaccomplished mothers. A mother is usually the person who made you, or for the most part made you.  I’m not speaking only biologically. She didn’t necessarily do it alone, but often with very little help.  She made you by loving you, or not loving you, or being ambivalent about you, or some combination of these.  By what she said, supportive or hurtful, or what she failed to say.  While almost every mother brings all she can to the job of mothering, sometimes it’s wonderful, sometimes it isn’t, and whatever it is, it forms her child’s earliest conception of what life offers.

So mothers are important even where they don’t contribute to a cure for cancer, important whether they’re good mothers, bad ones, or somewhere in-between.  My own mother is hard to characterize.  She must have very much wanted a baby, since she so forcefully opposed her obstetrician’s medical advice to abort. Whether she was disappointed her baby emerged a girl remains unclear to me.  It’s clear she loved me until I turned thirteen.  Then she became deeply, and vocally, dissatisfied with me for the rest of her life.  How do I understand that, and what it did to me?  How do I explain to myself, and anyone else who might be interested, why for so many years she remained the great failed love affair of my life?  I can do it only by explaining her, by not letting her slip away into the mists of unknowingness.

Not an easy job, that.  For all of my adult years she did her best to evade scrutiny, to hide her real self — if she had a real self — from view.   After I was grown, the woman she allowed to be seen, when she allowed it, was a creature of artifice. As if she she were ashamed of whatever she thought she really was. She got to be very good at artifice. Also she lived in the now. As soon as the now became “then,” it was over. She didn’t speak of it, unless you asked. And then her response was brief and only minimally informative. She didn’t keep letters. She didn’t keep papers. In short, I have my work cut out for me.

But all stories have a beginning, so that’s where I must start — with my mother’s earliest life, the part most hypothetical, because there are so very few photographs remaining from that time and because I have no personal memories of what that earliest life must have been like. Almost all I know I heard from her, and what she chose to tell me may not be what really was.  [I’ve touched on some of this before, in “Shelley and My Mother’s Two Birthdays.”  It’s the question of what we can really know of the past.  Here it is again, writ large as the back story to my own life.]  How well do I remember what I heard as a girl?  How well did she remember what she chose to tell me?  I can’t answer those questions.  I can only put down a best effort at reconstruction. It’s definitely not all fiction.  But how much is, I cannot say.

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My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman). I say this as if it were all fact, but much of it is inference. As you will see.

DATE OF BIRTH. She herself told me only that her birthday was probably July 16 on the calendar in use today — but that no one born, as she was, while what she called “the old Russian calendar” was in effect could be exactly sure.   That said, she never objected to my wishing her happy birthday on July 16. [Birthdays are a big deal when you’re a little girl.] What she did object to was any kind of fuss about it. Not even cupcakes and a candle after dinner on that day. And certainly not presents. She didn’t need anything, she didn’t want anything, she would say.

So let it be July 16, whether it really was or wasn’t. The year is somewhat less problematic, although until I was in my twenties I believed she was twenty-six when I was born.  That would have put the year of her birth in 1905, three years after my father’s. I could only have believed this because she had said so when I asked her; certainly she always agreed with me when I would repeat it.  She also agreed she was thirty-eight when July 16 came round in 1943, thirty-nine when I wished her happy birthday in 1944.

As a result, twenty-six became a kind of private benchmark for baby-making to me; I calculated that I would have to marry by twenty-five at the latest in order to stay on schedule. Which I managed to do. (Managed the marrying part, that is. Not the babies. They came later.) It wasn’t entirely to keep up with my mother, but maybe partly. And then, when my new husband and I were visiting for dinner one Sunday afternoon, my father mentioned, a propos of something or other, that he and my mother were two years apart in age.

No!  How could this be?

At first she denied it, but then became confused.

My father was adamant: “Sure, you were born in 1904. What are you talking, 1905?”

“Well, maybe,” she conceded. “I don’t really know.” Then she recovered: “But what does it matter, 1904, 1905?   I’m old now, whichever it is.” (She was fifty-two. Or fifty-one, if we did the math her way.) That’s how she was when cornered. Whatever it was, it didn’t really matter.

As it turned out, in this instance my father had proof. Unlike my mother, he did keep records. (After he died, I found copies of forty years of his tax returns.) To show he was right, he produced yellowing envelopes full of travel documents.

  • Exhibit #1: My mother’s “Declaration of Alien About to Depart for the United States (Form No. 228),” Issued by the American Consulate, Constantinople, Turkey, October 20, 1922, in which my mother stated, “I was born, Baku, Russia, in 1904.” (The Baku part was almost certainly not true, but more about that later.)
  • Exhibit #2: “Laissez-Passer” No. 8372, Constantinople, le 10.10.22, in which my mother stated that she was “18 ans.”
  • Exhibits #3 and #4: Fabre Line steamship ticket and manifest both listing her as age 18 in November 1922.
  • Exhibit #5: “Certificate of Naturalization, Number 671952, United States of America,” which states that she was 24 years old on the 16th of August, 1928.

But if she had wanted to be younger, why only one year younger? After the fact of a 1904 birthdate had emerged untarnished by doubt, I used at first to think her venial little untruth had been driven by vanity, tempered by caution. But now I believe it was simply that once she had misspoken — either because she wasn’t thinking when I inquired her age at the time I was born and answered mechanically, or because she was wrong on the math when subtracting 1904 from 1931 — she simply accepted my version of history. She then confirmed it every time I asked because, to her, it really didn’t matter when she was born.

In short — and relying on my father’s documents rather than hearsay from my mother — I believe my mother was born in 1904 and probably (but not necessarily) on July 16 of that year. What’s harder for me is to imagine what kind of life began for her then, that she should later place no value on the details of its beginning…..

[To be continued….]

 

 

HOTEL DU LAC: SHOULD EDITH HAVE MARRIED PHILIP?

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Edith Hope is the main character (I hesitate to call her the heroine) of Anita Brookner’s “Hotel du Lac,” a book which one of my book groups decided to read during the time I was sick last month.  I was unable to attend the discussion, so don’t know what the other group members thought of it.  I will therefore put it to you!

But let’s start with Brookner.  Now in her mid-eighties, she was an international authority on eighteenth and nineteenth century painting, in 1968 became the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University, and then for twenty-five years taught at the Courtauld Institute of Arts in London.  She is reported by her students as having been a superlative and dedicated teacher.  In one of her rare interviews, she herself declared that she loved art and loved teaching students how to look at it.

However, at some point in her early fifties, she began to write a short novel during each of her summer breaks from teaching, and after retirement continued with the novel writing.  She has now written, I believe, close to thirty of these shortish novels, although none for the past couple of years.  “Hotel du Lac” was the third, and probably the most successful in sales; there was also a movie, starring Anna Massey, based on the book.

For quite a few years, I used to read Brookner’s books as they came out, but eventually stopped because after “Hotel du Lac,”  they began with very few exceptions to seem essentially more or less the same, except that the protagonists grew older as the years went by. They were almost always about a lonely woman (although sometimes a man), living in London on somewhat limited but not uncomfortably limited means, often with ties to an elderly and dreary European relative (or relatives) still alive or recently dead. This protagonist took long solitary walks in all weathers in London’s parks while considering her (or his) situation, which never seemed to resolve in any way that seemed to me satisfactory, much less happy. The books were certainly instructive about how to pass time if you were lonely, which I often was when I first began to read them. But after a while, enough was enough for me.  I also used to wonder what Brookner’s own life must have been like for her to focus so exclusively on short fiction about lonely single people growing older from book to book.

However, since I had to read “Hotel du Lac” again last month at the behest of the reading group, afterwards I went online — a resource not available to me back in the days when it won the 1984 Booker Prize and I first read it. That is how I found the most recent of her rare interviews, given when she was eighty — in which, among other topics, she considers the ending of “Hotel du Lac,” written so many years before, when she was considerably younger.

Here is the book’s plot, in brief.  Edith Hope, a thirty-nine year old unmarried writer of very romantic novels with names like “Beneath the Visiting Moon” and “The Sun at Midnight,”  has come to spend two weeks out of season at an out-of-the-way old-fashioned hotel in Switzerland, just before it closes for winter, because she is in disgrace for having decided not to show up at the church for her wedding to Geoffrey, a dullish sort of bachelor recently bereft of his mother. She had been “fixed up” with Geoffrey by her one female friend, Penelope — a flirtatious sort who doesn’t marry but has plenty of fun.  Edith has not had plenty of fun.  Instead, she has a secret:  David, a married lover who has been the delight of her life during twice-a-month visits for the past five years.  David has children and will not divorce.  For all Edith knows, he may be unfaithful to his wife elsewhere than with her.  But it is apparently glorious to be in bed with him when he is there, and he adores her cooking of fattening comfort foods denied to him by his wife.  She gives him up for social standing as the wife of Geoffrey — “Are you sure?” David sobs into her neck during his final visit — but then cannot go through with the wedding.  She is sent off to exile in Switzerland while the oprobrium dies down.  (Even her cleaning lady leaves her because of the scandal!)

At the Hotel du Lac, there are very few other guests:  an old French lady parked there by her son and daughter-in-law to get her out of the way; a very slender and beautiful Englishwoman with a little dog and an eating problem who has been sent there by her husband to get in shape to have children (or he will divorce her); a lovely older woman (who turns out to be 79) and plump pretty daughter (who turns out to be 39) with plenty of money; they apparently come to Switzerland once a year to shop extravagantly and eat pastries.  There is also an immaculately dressed and somewhat mysterious Englishman in his fifties named Philip Neville who arrives for a few days.  Edith spends her time observing the others, trying to engage them in polite conversation, going for long walks around the lake and to the village, trying to finish writing “Beneath the Visiting Moon” for her publisher, and composing long, coyly amusing letters to “darling David,” who never once during the time she is there writes back.

About halfway through her intended stay, Edith accepts an invitation to lunch across the lake from Mr. Neville (Philip), during which he proposes to her. He has been watching her during his time at the hotel, and it is an extraordinary and (I think) intriguing proposal.  [I’ve shortened it somewhat, in the interests of blog-post length.]  He makes it on the boat that takes them back from the lunch:

Tilted back in his chair, Mr Neville watched her face. ‘Let me see,’ he said mildly. ‘Let me see if I can imagine what your life is like.  You live in London.  You have a comfortable income. You go to drinks parties and dinner parties and publishers’ parties. You do not really enjoy any of this. Although people are glad to see you, you lack companions of first resort. You come home alone.  You are fussy about your house.You have had lovers, but not half as many as your friends have had; they, of course, credit you with none at all and worry about you rather ostentatiously. You are aware of this.  And yet you have a secret life, Edith.  Although only too obviously incorruptible, you are not what you seem.’

Edith sat very still.

…’Of course you would say that this is none of my business. I would say, simply, that it does not concern me. Any more than my diversions need concern you. Whatever arrangements we may come to must leave these considerations scrupulously unexamined.’

‘Arrangements?’ echoed Edith.

…’I think you should marry me, Edith,’ he said….’I am not a romantic youth.  I am in fact extremely discriminating.  I have a small estate and a very fine house, Regency Gothic, a really beautiful example….I have a lot of business overseas,’ he went on…’And I like to entertain.  I am away a certain amount of the time.  But I dislike having to come back to a house only occupied by the couple who live in it when I am not there.  You would fit perfectly into that setting.’

A terrible silence installed itself between them. ‘You make it sound like a job specification,’ she said. ‘And I have not applied for the job.’

‘Edith, what else will you do?  Will you too go back to an empty house?…You see,’ he went on, ‘I cannot afford another scandal.  My wife’s adventure made me look a laughing stock.  I thought I could sit it out with dignity, but dignity doesn’t help. Rather the opposite.  People seem to want you to break down.  However, that’s all in the past.  I need a wife, and I need a wife whom I can trust. It has not been easy for me.’

‘And you are not making it easy for me,’ she said.

‘I am making it easier for you.  I have watched you, trying to talk to those women.  You are desolate.  And without the sort of self-love which I have been urging on you, you are never going to learn the rules, or you are going to learn them too late and become bitter.  And when you think you are alone, your expression is full of sorrow.  You face a life of exile of one sort or another.’

‘But why should you think me such a hopeless case?’

‘You are a lady, Edith.  They are rather out of fashion these days, as you may have noticed.  As my wife, you will do very well.  Unmarried, I’m afraid you will soon look a bit of a fool.’

‘And what will I do in your fine house, when you are away?’ she asked.  And when you are not away, she thought, but kept the thought to herself.

‘Whatever you do now, only better. You may write, if you want to.  In fact, you may begin to write rather better than you ever thought you could.  Edith Neville is a fine name for an author.  You will have a social position, which you need. You will gain confidence, sophistication. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing me credit….’

‘Again you are paying me the tremendous compliment of assuming that no one else will want me, ever.’

‘I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you know the difference between flirtation and fidelity.  I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you will never indulge in the sort of gossipy indiscretions that so discredit a man.  I am paying you the compliment of believing that you will not shame me, will not ridicule me, will not hurt my feelings.  Do you realize how hard it is for a man to own up to being hurt in that way?…. I am not asking you to lose all for love.  I am asking you to recognize your own true self-interest.  I am simply telling you what you may already have begun to suspect: that modesty and merit are very poor cards to hold.  I am proposing a partnership of the most enlightened kind.  A partnership based on esteem, if you like.  Also out of fashion, by the way.  If you wish to take a lover, that is your concern, so long as you arrange it in a civilized manner.’

‘And if you…’

‘The same applies, of course. For me, now, that would always be a trivial matter. You would not hear of it nor need you care about it. The union between us would be one of shared interests, of truthful discourse.  Of companionship. To me, now, those are the important things. And for you they should be important. Think, Edith.  Have you not, at some time in your well-behaved life, desired vindication?  Are you not tired of being polite to rude people?’

Edith bowed her head.

‘You will be able to entertain your friends, of course.  And you will find that they treat you quite differently.  This comes back to what I was saying before.  You will find that you can behave as badly as you like.  As badly as everybody else likes, too.  That is the way of the world.  And you will be respected for it. People will at last feel comfortable with you. You are lonely, Edith.’…..

‘I don’t love you.  Does that bother you?’

‘No, it reassures me. I do not want the burden of your feelings.  All this can be managed without romantic expectations.”….

‘And you don’t love me?’

He smiled, this time sadly and without ambiguity. ‘No, I don’t love you.  But you have got under my guard.  You have moved and touched me, in a way in which I no longer care to be moved and touched.  You are like a nerve that I had managed to deaden, and I am annoyed to find it coming to life….

‘I may have to think about this,’ she said eventually.

‘Not too long, I hope.  I do not intend to make a habit of proposing to you.  You will have to get your skates on, if we are to leave by the weekend.’..

‘May I ask one more question?’ she said.

‘Of course.’

‘Why me?’

This time his smile was ambiguous again, ironic, courteous.

‘Perhaps because you are harder to catch than the others,’ he replied.

Edith gets back to her room, has her bath, thinks, sits, thinks some more, then writes a letter to “dearest David,” telling him she is going to marry Philip Neville, a man she met at the hotel, and does not think she will ever see him (David) again.  She tells him (David) he is the breath of life to her, that she doesn’t love Mr. Neville nor he her, but that he has made her see what she will become if she persists in loving him (David) as she does. She says there is no point in giving him her new address.  She recognizes she was always more willing than he was, and sends him her love, always.

She awakens in the middle of the night after a bad dream and decides to go down to the desk to get a stamp for her letter.  As she opens her door, she sees Philip Neville making a discreet exit, in his dressing gown, from the room of the plump rich thirty-nine year old daughter of the rich seventy-nine year old lovely mother.  She then retreats to her room again, tears her letter in half, drops it in the wastebasket, goes downstairs, tells the night porter to get her a ticket on the next plane to London and sends a telegram to London.  First, she writes, “Coming home.”  Then she realizes that is not entirely accurate.  She crosses out “Coming home” and writes simply, “Returning.”

When I first read this book, I thought the ending felt warm and brave.  Now I think Edith was a damn fool.  Perhaps she need not have married Neville — although the older I get, the less objectionable his proposition begins to appear — but she certainly should not have “returned” to the life she had had.

This is what Anita Brookner had to say at eighty when asked by an interviewer about marriage and the ending of “Hotel du Lac.”  First she observed that she herself had never married not because there had been no opportunity, but because she had always been interested in the wrong sort of man and the wrong sort of man had been interested in her. She then remarked that her books had always seemed to write themselves, and that this book had been no different:  at the time she wrote it, the ending simply came out of her.  But after it had been published (when she was well into her fifties, and not thirty-nine as Edith Hope had been), she began to think she had been wrong.  And now, living alone at eighty, she was certain that if she were to do it again, Edith would have married Neville.

It isn’t good to be alone, she said, when you grow old.

So I ask you, friends:  What do you think?  If you were in my book group, what would you have said?

AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART 2

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[…continued from yesterday…]

Getting away for three weeks was no problem for Jake; he simply informed his patients that he would be gone in August and then found another shrink to cover for him in emergencies.  Sarah had to make more elaborate and extensive preparations.  Although the lawyers at her firm were supposed to take four weeks off every year (“We work hard but play hard,” was the mantra intoned for the benefit of incoming associates) — taking the four weeks, or even three weeks, all together was just not done.  (Suppose a client needed you!)  The customary modus operandi was a week here, two weeks there — as each lawyer’s practice, and annualized billable hours, permitted.

Sarah began announcing her vacation plans in May.  She announced them more frequently — at the coffee station, in the womens’ john — in June.  She made sure none of her cases was headed for trial over the summer and found colleagues to handle what needed to be done while she was away (thereby incurring several heavy IOUs).  In July she stopped taking on new matters and began to emphasize, at firm lunches, how difficult this tiny island was to get to. (She didn’t mention Turkey.) She explained that Greece was seven hours ahead of Boston, that she didn’t know if there was a telephone available to her on the island anyway, and that she understood from Jake mail could take as long as six weeks to arrive  — much of that period consumed between the time it got to Athens and arrived at its final destination — so that she would, as a practical matter, be unreachable during the time she was away.  “You’re so lucky!” exclaimed Mabel, the lawyer in the office adjoining hers.  “I always have too much on my plate for more than a week in Chatham!”

Sarah considered this comment to be less about three weeks away from the office in Greece than about the arrival of Jake in her life.  Mabel was eighteen years younger than Sarah, in the process of a drawn-out divorce, and frantically looking for a replacement husband. To her, Sarah’s near-miraculous acquisition of a new man represented a major triumph over the adversities of life for the older woman, and Sarah saw no reason to disabuse her.  Maybe Jake wasn’t absolutely perfect, she told herself, but she was pretty lucky.  How many women of seventy were going off to a small Greek island for a romantic tryst?

Privately, however, as August grew closer, she became less sure she was doing the right thing. Could three weeks away be a professional mistake?  She needed this job. If only she could just quit — and play the piano, travel, cook, maybe write, not always be hurrying to make deadlines, attend meetings, defend depositions.  The practice of law took a lot out of you. Even with a four-day work week, she always felt tired, and usually spent most of Friday just resting up.

But if she quit, what would she live on? Sarah had come late to the law, after marriages to two impecunious husbands who had nothing to share at divorce time. Social Security would barely cover her monthly mortgage and condo association payments. And she certainly couldn’t count on Jake’s contribution as a basis for retirement when — if she were honest with herself — they didn’t really know each other that well.  Not the way she knew her husbands by the time they had parted.

Then it became too late to cancel without losing a lot of money. And Jake would never forgive her if she put the firm before him. (“The firm?” she could hear him saying.) She would just have to apply herself seriously when she came back, and people would soon forget she’d been away for nearly a month, and then everything would be all right.

“So.   How does it feel to go away for three weeks with this man?” asked Feldman, long, thin and wrinkled. She had been seeing Feldman before work on Wednesdays for fifteen years. No one who knew about this could understand why she was still forking out good money for talk therapy now that she was long divorced.

“I don’t fork out anymore,” she would say.  “It’s Medicare’s turn.”  Or: “I can’t leave a husband until I have a shrink, and I can’t leave a shrink until I have a husband.”  Or (sometimes): “You know how Catholics go to confession once a week and feel better afterwards?  Well, here’s a place where I can go once a week and say absolutely anything and it’s okay.  I can just unload.  Where else in the world can you do that?”

That didn’t mean Feldman wasn’t often annoying.  His reluctance to say anything substantive, for instance.  (Was he just going to sit there?  “Of course,” he always replied.)  And his questions  — straight out of some How To Be A Shrink book. (“How does that make you feel?”)  Once, during the long lonely period preceding the arrival of Jake in her life, she had begun a session by exclaiming, without being asked, that she felt like shit.  He regarded her impassively.  “How does it feel to say that?” he asked.

“How does it feel to say I feel like shit? Come on, Feldman!”

“How does it feel?”  (Without even a smile.)

And now he was at it again.  “Jake,” she said.  “His name is Jake.  Why are you calling him ‘this man?'”

“There have been other men, no?  The two husbands?  Two old boyfriends, recycled? So when I ask today, my question is about this man.”

But Sarah already knew Feldman couldn’t admit he might be wrong.  “It feels fine to go away with Jake for three weeks, thank you for asking.”

“You have been very picky about your previous suitors,” he persisted.  “You go fishing for a new man from time to time, reel him into the boat, inspect him as he dangles at the end of your line, then flip him back into the sea. How is this one different?”

Suitors?  What suitors?  Those few pitiful specimens who had answered her previous ads?  The one seeking a woman willing to encase herself in soft rubber garments at bedtime?  The one whose wife had mid-stage Alzheimers, but was safely out of the way on Gardiners’ Island under the care of a round-the-clock nurse’s aide?  The one with an ileostomy bag and an adult daughter in a state psychiatric hospital?

“Oh, Feldman,” said Sarah, “stop already.  If there’s any problem, it’s not with the man, it’s with the three weeks away from the office.”

Feldman took her mention of “three weeks” as an opportunity to change the subject.  “You understand the time you will be taking off, the three hours we will not meet during your weeks away — those are your hours, and you will be responsible for them,” he said.  He meant that he expected her to pay for the three sessions she would miss.  They had had this conversation every year she had gone on vacation.  Usually, it had been for only a week at a time; needy, and therefore in a weak bargaining position, she had always paid.  The two Greek tours had taken longer, and each of those years she had paid for two missed sessions, resentfully but without any sense that arguing would do any good.  This time she dug her heels in.  She was on a tight budget for the vacation as it was.

“How come you don’t give me make-up sessions when you go away on vacation?” she demanded.

He looked surprised.  “That is a separate issue entirely,” he said.  “When I go away, you are of course free to go away yourself.”

Now there’s a dumb argument, she thought.  “It isn’t a separate issue at all.  If you’re entitled to a vacation from me, with the result that I lose out on therapy, then I’m entitled to a vacation from you, even though you lose out on income.  Fair is fair, Feldman.”

“Are you saying you won’t pay?”  His voice quavered a little.

“I don’t pay anyway,” said Sarah.  “Not any more.  Maybe Medicare can pay for the missed sessions.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Feldman.  “Medicare pays for treatment, not absence from treatment.”

“Then why should I pay for missed sessions if Medicare won’t? Tell you what, Feldman.” She had him now, she was sure of it. “Let’s leave it up to you, not me.  If, as you say, the missed hours are ‘mine,’ I won’t rat on you if you bill Medicare for them.  And if you decide you’re not entitled to Medicare payments for treatment you didn’t provide, that’s obviously okay with me, too.”

Aha!  He was slowly nodding agreement. Had she just connived in an act of insurance fraud?  Not really, she decided.  Not by merely making the suggestion.  After all, she didn’t know what he was actually going to do.

“Of course he’s going to bill for his time!” said Jake that night at dinner.  A piece of eggplant from the ratatouille they were eating fell on the tablemat as he waved his fork in the air for emphasis.  Jake’s table manners had deteriorated since he had begun to feel at home in her condo.

Sarah reached over to pick up the eggplant  — she hated mess — and put it in her mouth.  The mat now had a stain.  She sighed. Neither of her husbands had been neat eaters either.  “How do you know that?  Why can’t you admit he might do the right thing?”

“He needs the money.”

“He can’t be that hard up,” said Sarah.  “He’s one of the two best psychiatrists in all of New England!”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Jake.

“No, really.  I asked around before I started with him.  And I can never change the time of the appointment.  He’s always full up.”

Jake laid his dirty knife on the mat to explain.   “I don’t care how busy he is. Psychiatrists aren’t like orthopedists or dermatologists.  Those guys have a revolving door: patient in, patient out, new patient in, etcetera.  But Feldman sees a fixed number of patients for years, including you.  He can’t start with someone new for the three weeks you’re away, because when you return he has to give you back your hour.  And then what’s he supposed to do with the extra patient?  So a loss of income when you’re on vacation is just that.  A dead loss.”

Sarah hated not to win arguments.  “He shouldn’t count on it then.  Why can’t he assume each of his patients will be away a certain amount of time and average his income over the year, instead of anticipating a specific accounts receivable every month?”

“Why didn’t you ask him that?” said Jake.  “While you were at it, you might also have explained to the poor bastard what he was supposed to do about his monthly checks to her?”  He jabbed his finger in the direction of the floor.

(The ex-Mrs. Feldman lived beneath Sarah.  They did not get on.  She objected repeatedly to Sarah playing the phonograph.  She complained loudly about Sarah practicing the piano in the evening. They had eventually worked out their differences with the help of the condo trustees, but accidental meetings in the stairwell or the laundry room remained chilly.   Such being the case, Sarah welcomed those occasional instances when the mailman mixed up their mail, thus affording her the opportunity to inspect the outside of the ex-Mrs. Feldman’s correspondence.  In the days before Medicare began paying for her therapy, she had once even found in her mailbox an envelope addressed to Linda Feldman in the familiar, and highly idiosyncratic, handwriting which appeared on her monthly invoices for professional services rendered by Martin Feldman, M.D.  She couldn’t resist holding it up to the light before putting it on the ledge below the mailbox labeled Ms. Linda Feldman.  There was a check inside.  Alimony!  Her money was leaving the building only to come right back again.  She was personally supporting that odious woman.  She couldn’t read the amount of the check, though.)

“Ah yes, that,” said Sarah.

“He’ll be working till she drops,” said Jake.  “Or he does.  How old is she?  How old is he?  Over seventy-five?”

“Why are you so sympathetic to him all of a sudden?” asked Sarah.  “I thought you didn’t like him.”

“I don’t not like him,” said Jake.  “I just don’t like his method.  This silent Freudian business.  Besides, what do you need him for, now you have me?”

Sarah did not want to go there.  “Must we discuss Feldman’s financial difficulties?” She pushed her chair back to clear the table.  His place mat would have to go to the cleaners.  She should probably get the kind you could just wipe down.   “Dessert is frozen yogurt or grapes.  Which?”

[…to be concluded tomorrow….]

AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART I

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[Bill and I met in April 2001. I was by then already committed to a fifteen-day summer tour of the Greek mainland, plus Corfu, with a woman friend. So Bill and I didn’t begin to travel together until the following summer.  We thought we might go back to Greece.  I had enjoyed my 2001 mainland tour, and he had a twenty-year history of summer vacations on Lesbos with his second wife and his two children from that marriage. Obviously, Lesbos was out. (At least as far as I was concerned.) But we found a tiny island in the Dodecanese — the smallest of the twelve — and booked an exploratory room for a week, to be followed by a two-week tour of Turkey.  The outcome of the Greek week was that we returned to that little out-of-the-way island for chunks of four more summers. The year I was on sabbatical, we even stayed for a two-and-a-half month chunk.

During that time, I began writing a novella about our visits there. It was going to be called “An Island of Their Own.”  I never got past the first chapter.  Bill and I learned a lot about each other during those summers, since we were together all the time, without the distractions of work and connections to other people and family.  As a result, I was then really too close to what was going on with us to write about it with any understanding.  Now I’m too far away:  the Jake and Sarah in the novella have gone on to another stage of their life together and I’m no longer interested in the early stages of their relationship. However, I still have some nearly illegible notes.  Some not very good photographs. Some ouzo-fueled observations. And that first chapter.  Which may just be too fun to throw away. 

So I’m starting there.  “Island of Their Own” will run in three parts:  today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.  But I’m not changing it back to the first person.  It reads better the way it is.  Just know that there won’t be any more of Jake and Sarah after their opening chapter.  Jake and Sarah are geriatric chick lit.  And although I can mimic the tone for a while, I’m not really into chick lit.  If I go on with my recollections of the island from time to time, and I may, you’ll get it straight after this first bit, the way Bill and I experienced it, without fuzzing the line between what really happened and what didn’t by telling you about two other people who exist only in the words I used to conjure them up.]

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AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN

When Sarah met Jake for the first time in the Rialto bar at the Charles Hotel, she was sixty-nine and three-quarters and he was seventy-three.  He said later that he had sized her up as not over sixty and was surprised when she told him the truth.  (“Why should I lie?” she had asked.  “You’d find out sooner or later.”)  The truth made no difference. As soon he saw her walk in, looking slender and French in her well-cut black pants and little black velvet beret, he said to himself, “That’s for me!”

For her part, she thought he was probably younger than she was.  He was slim, had nice shoulders and a full head of dark hair, and his skin was smooth and relatively unlined, except on the neck (which usually went first).  When he confessed to seventy-three, she was disappointed. Any number that started with “seventy-” sounded old to her. She did not feel, and knew she did not look, her age, and had been hoping to meet someone no older than sixty-five.  (She was still thinking about sex.).  But everything else seemed promising.  He was well educated, had spent many years in Europe, was still working — as a psychiatrist — and lived only five minutes away from her condo.  And she liked his voice.  Although he’d been born in Bridgeport, when he answered her ad on the phone she heard New York.  She’d been away from New York for a long time.  He sounded like home.

Besides, it wasn’t as if she were committing to anything if she agreed to see him again.

He wiggled in on the second date.

In her ad, she had said she wanted someone for “a long hurrah.” She meant a very close man friend with whom to spend weekends and holidays, and to share things with. Not someone to live with.  He said he wasn’t really interested in living alone.  But he didn’t make a big point of it.  He just kept spending the night, and spending the night, and within a few weeks, it began to look as if he were paying rent on his apartment principally to electrically heat his books and extra clothing.  After a while, he introduced her to his adult children.  So she had to introduce him to her adult children. With some hesitation (it was not a good idea to show up with someone who might not be in her life next year), she brought him to the office Christmas party.  At tax time, she agreed to help him with his returns.  (She was better at dealing with paper than he was; she was a lawyer.)   Finally, when his lease was up at the end of the year, she had to concede that it made economic sense for both of them if he moved into her condo, sharing all the expenses, of course.

It seems they had become a couple.

They decided to spend part of their first summer holiday together in Greece.  Sarah had been to Greece only twice.  The first time she had gone alone on an expensive last-minute trip she discovered in the back pages of The New Yorker after a sometime boyfriend who had moved to the West Coast suddenly backed out of a tour of Scandinavia they had been planning together, claiming he was too old for such an energetic junket.  He was only two years older than Sarah, but was overweight and suffered from sleep apnea; as a result, he had had to retire from practice after he repeatedly fell asleep while representing his clients in court. Now he was sleeping with a machine that forced air into his lungs when he stopped breathing during the night. If they went traipsing from place to place in Scandinavia, he explained, the machine — which was heavy — would have to come, too.  And he couldn’t deal with that.  Maybe she could come spend her vacation at his new place in Rancho Mirage?  There were some terrific restaurants in Palm Desert.

“Why didn’t you bring this up before?” Sarah asked.  “We only have two days to cancel or we lose our deposits.”

“I just thought of it,” he said, sounding not at all apologetic.  “So do you want to come out here instead, or not?”

“A gated community in Rancho Mirage?  No, thank you,” she said.  “I’m not ready for that.”

The long distance line crackled.  “We have a bad connection,” he announced happily.  “Talk to you later.”

That first trip to Greece had been worth every penny.  A vigorous tour guide named Vicky had shown Sarah and two married couples from the midwest the antiquities of Athens, Leros, Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and Santorini — all in twelve days.  They traveled from island to island by boat and plane, slept in accommodations that to Sarah were extremely luxurious, and ate delicious copious meals at restaurants where the owner seemed to turn out onto the table the entire contents of his kitchen for the six of them.  It was a little lonely; Sarah had almost nothing in common with either of the married couples, and Vicky spent much of the “free” time on the schedule preparing her lecture for the following day. But the experience was enjoyable enough for Sarah to commit to a second, less expensive Greek tour the following June — of the mainland plus Corfu this time, and with a recently widowed woman friend from Washington, D.C.

Sarah liked standing in the warm sun among the tumbled ruins of small cities that had flourished thousands of years ago and imagining what it might have been like to be a woman then.  She liked pressing her nose against glass protecting artifacts of another time and place and culture.  (How would she have looked in that heavy gold necklace? What kind of perfume was kept in that delicate glass flacon?) The second tour ended in Athens, where Sarah and her friend stayed on alone for three more days, perspiring their way along hot paved streets according to cultural itineraries prepared by Sarah.

“We can do it!” she insisted.

“It’s the Bataan death march,” cried her friend. She wanted to go back to their cool hotel room and read a mystery.

“We may never be here again,” said Sarah.  “And there’s so much to see!  Don’t you want to live, really live, before you die?”

Jake was already familiar with Greece.  For six weeks every summer he and his now detested second wife had gone to Lesbos — first with one and then two children — until their long wretched union finally crumbled.   “Lesbos was the best part of the marriage,” he would reminisce.  “I was almost happy there.  The kids stopped fighting.  She was less mean.  Once she even let herself be kissed.  Although she wasn’t much of a kisser, so I don’t know why I remember that.”

By then Sarah had heard enough about what was wrong with the second wife. “If you loved going to Greece so much why did you stop going once you were on your own?”

Jake shrugged.  “I was depressed after the divorce.  And the kids said she was still going. What I didn’t need was to see her ass spread out on the beach in a bikini one more time.”  He smiled engagingly.

“But there are a gazillion Greek islands!”  Sarah exclaimed.  “You didn’t have to go back to Lesbos!”

That’s right!” he agreed.  “How did you get so smart?  Let’s find an island of our own.”

Jake had many travel books on Greece.  Sarah was content for him to do the preliminary searching.  “Just not Corfu,” she cautioned.  “Too many green flies and mosquitoes.”  Sarah was appetizing to summer insects of all kinds; since childhood, they had singled her out frequently and savagely (multiple bites per body part) — leaving parents, and then friends and husbands, unbitten.   She was also allergic to the bites, each of which itched viciously until the bitten parts of her were all well covered in scabs.

“There are no bugs in Greece,” said Jake authoritatively.  “It’s mountainous and stony and dry.”

“Have you ever been to Corfu?” asked Sarah.  “It’s green, and humid and buggy.  Too close to Italy is why.  Let’s skip the Ionian islands. What about the Aegean?  Almost all the islands on my first trip were in the Aegean. I didn’t get a single bite!”

Jake didn’t mind turning the page on Corfu.  If he could have afforded it, and Sarah had been willing, he would gladly have spent the rest of his life exploring any and all beautiful corners of the world — as long as they weren’t American.  (He was much given to delivering himself of speeches that began, “The trouble with this country is….”)  His investment portfolio being too small for him even to contemplate retirement and extensive travel (he had had a really awful divorce lawyer, said Sarah), he had developed the habit of satisfying his wanderlusts in his study. He loved looking at large color photographs of small white villages nestled at the foot of rocky promontories and fronting brilliantly blue curved bays and harbors where he had not been.  “Oh, this is so gorgeous!” he would exclaim.

Sarah, sitting at the computer (Jake didn’t know from computers), cared less about “gorgeous” and more about nailing down something promising and available before summer was upon them.  “Honey, we can’t take months salivating over pictures of islands,” she would reply.   “We have to pick one.”   (More than half a year of togetherness had already taught her it was better to preface remarks of this kind with “Sweetheart” or “Lovey” or “Honey.”)

The second wife had never called Jake “Honey.”

He picked one.

Very small, and without an airport.  You reached it by ferry, or catamaran, or Flying Dolphin, or private boat. It was in the Dodecanese, near Turkey not Italy, and therefore probably bugless.  The woman Jake spoke with at the Greek National Tourist Office in New York had never heard of it.  (She said she would have to call him back.) “Just what we’re looking for!” he told Sarah.

It was spring 2002 and the exchange rate was averaging  $1.10 to the euro.  They booked sleeping accommodations for a week at 28 euros a night through the only English-language website for the island that Sarah could find.  Only a week because, as Sarah said, “What if it’s a bust?”   To justify the airfare, they also arranged a two-week bus tour of Turkey for the rest of the vacation.  Jake was against bus tours in principle, but agreed with Sarah that if they wanted to cover all the high points — Istanbul, Gallipoli, Izmir, Ephesus, Pammulkali, Aphrodisias, Antalya, Cappacodia, Ankara, and Bursa — they probably wouldn’t be able to manage by themselves, even in a rented car, without speaking the language.

The e-mail confirmation for their Greek accommodations arrived in perfect English.  It even had semicolons, in the right places.  Sarah went online to look again at the amateurish color photographs of the place; they still did not really inspire confidence. “Don’t you think such a tiny island will be boring?” she asked Jake.

“Boring?  How can you even think such a thing?”  He sighed with anticipatory happiness.  “It’s going to be our honeymoon!”

[…to be continued tomorrow….]