1 year ago
Jane's mother, Shirley, came to visit and brought along Great-Aunt Carolyn. It was an awkward gathering, and in the lapses of conversation, Jane could hear dead leaves crack as they hit her apartment floor. She loved her houseplants, but keeping them alive seemed beyond her skills.
"Really, Jane, I don't know how you survive here," said Shirley, picking the brittle leaves from among the sallow green ones. "We had a near-death experience in your coffin-of-an-elevator, didn't we Carolyn, dear? I'm sure your poor aunt wants to relax, but it's like a sauna in here and not a moment of silence-traffic, car alarms, sirens nonstop. Are you sure your windows aren't open?"
"It's Manhattan, Mom. That's just how it is."
"Well, I don't know about that." She took a scolding stance, hand on hip. The sixty-year-old wood floor grunted beneath her feet. "I just picked up Carolyn from her apartment, and sitting in her front room it was so blessedly quiet I could have sworn we were in the country."
That's because money buys thick windows, Jane thought.
"Never mind. Tell me, how's your ..."
Please don't say it! Jane thought. Don't ask about my love life!
"... friend Molly doing?"
"Oh, Molly. Yeah, she's great, working freelance for the paper since she had the twins. Molly and I have been friends since the sixth grade," Jane explained to Carolyn, who sat in her wheelchair by the front door.
Carolyn had as many wrinkles in her face as there are ridges in a fingerprint, not just around her eyes and on her brow, but delicate folds rippling across her thin cheeks. She returned a blank stare then tweaked it slightly, an intimation of rolling her eyes. Jane didn't know if it was pointed or conspiratorial, so she pretended not to notice.
She hadn't seen Carolyn since she was twelve, at her grandmother's funeral. It had struck her as odd that when her mother came into the city, Shirley had insisted on including Carolyn in their lunch plans. But from the hungry, significant looks her mother kept pushing on her, Jane could guess-the old woman was getting older, and Shirley wanted to make an impression, a last bid for the remains of the seafood fortune. No doubt picking up Jane at her apartment rather than meeting at the restaurant was a ploy to show Carolyn her great-niece's shameful living conditions.
"Shall we skedaddle?" asked Jane, eager to get the meddling over with.
"Yes, sweetheart, let me just fix your hair."
And Jane, age thirty-two, followed her mother into the bathroom and submitted herself to the slicking and spraying and twisting. No matter her age, whenever her mother did her hair, Jane felt exactly seven years old. But she let her mom go to town, because Shirley "Miss French Twist 1967" Hayes could only find true tranquillity in a well-placed do.
"Be sure you listen, dear," said Shirley, delivering her hushed, urgent lecture on How to Impress the Elderly. "They love that. Ask her about her childhood and let her go on, if she's so inclined. At this point in her life, memories are all she has left, poor lamb."
When they emerged from the bathroom, Carolyn wasn't where they had left her. Jane rushed into the next room, jolted with a nightmare of a wheelchair bumping down the stairs (and with it an unnerving flashback of watching The Changeling at her eleventh birthday slumber party). But there was Carolyn by the window, leaning over to tug a floor plant into the yellow square of sunlight. Jane heard a thwack as her Pride and Prejudice DVDs fell from their arboreal hideaway and onto the floor.
Jane felt herself flush. Carolyn smiled, her uncountable cheek wrinkles gathered into a few deeper ones.
Really, so what if she had seen the DVDs? A lot of people owned them. Why should she hide them? She didn't hide her copy of Arrested Development: Season 1 or Yoga for Dummies. Still, something in Carolyn's smile made her feel as though she stood there in her underwear. Dirty underwear.
At the restaurant when Shirley left to powder her proverbial nose, Jane did her best to pretend she was not the least bit uncomfortable. A minute of silence passed. She plowed her garden salad with a fork, weeding out the arugula.
"It's been a warm autumn," she offered.
"You're wondering if I saw it," Carolyn said. Some voices get hard and tight with age, some rough like broken glass. Her voice was soft, sand beat by waves till it's as fine as powdered sugar.
"Saw what?" Jane asked halfheartedly.
"He is a devil, that Mr. Darcy. But you wouldn't hide him in a houseplant if you didn't have a guilty conscience. That tells me you're not idly daydreaming. You're past thirty, not married, not dating-if your mother's gossip and the photos in your apartment tell the truth. And it all comes down to that story. You're obsessed."
Jane laughed. "I am not obsessed."
But really she was.
"Hm. You're blushing. Tell me, what is it about that story that's so intoxicating?"
Jane gulped down her water and glanced over her shoulder toward the ladies' room, making sure her mother wasn't returning. "Besides being witty and funny and maybe the best novel ever written, it's also the most perfect romance in all of literature and nothing in life can ever measure up, so I spend my life limping in its shadow."
Carolyn stared, as if waiting for more. Jane thought she'd said enough already.
"It is a lovely novel," Carolyn said, "but you weren't concealing a paperback in your plant. I've seen the movie. I know who Colin Firth is, my dear. And I think I know what you've put your life on hold to wait for."
"Listen, I don't actually believe I can somehow end up married to Mr. Darcy. I just ... nothing in real life feels as right as ... oh, never mind, I don't want you believing your great-niece is living in a fantasyland."
Jane forced a smile. "Warm autumn, isn't it?"
Carolyn pressed her lips together so they were as wrinkled as her cheeks. "How's your love life?"
"I'm on the wagon."
"Is that so? Giving up at age thirty-two. Hm. May I hazard a guess?" Carolyn leaned forward, her silky voice easing between the sounds of clattering plates and too-hardy businessmen laughter. "Things aren't working out so well, and each time the men in your life disappoint, you let Mr. Darcy in a little bit more. Perhaps you've come to the point where you're so attached to the idea of that scoundrel, you won't be satisfied with anything less."
An olive stuck to the piece of lettuce on Jane's fork, and when she tried to flick it off, it flew over the table and tapped a waiter in the butt. Jane scowled. Certainly, her list of ex-boyfriends was impressively pathetic. And there was that dream she'd had a few weeks ago-she'd been dressed in a ragged wedding gown (a la Miss Havisham of Great Expectations fame), dancing alone in a dark house, waiting for Mr. Darcy to come for her. When she awoke with a sharp intake of breath, the dream had been still too raw and terrifying to laugh at. In fact, she still couldn't.
"Maybe I am batty," Jane said.
"I remember you, Jane." Carolyn had pale blue eyes like denim washed too often. "I remember sitting in that gazebo with you by the lake after my sister's, your grandmother's, funeral. I remember you weren't afraid to say how during the service you couldn't help wondering what might be for lunch and was that wrong? Did that mean that you didn't love your grandma enough? Your voice, your little girl questions took some of the sting out of my grief. You're too honest to let yourself get duped like this."
Jane nodded. "That day, you were wearing a lace collar. I thought it was elegant."
"My late husband bought me that dress. It was my favorite." Carolyn refolded her napkin, smoothing the edge with slightly shaky hands. "Harold and I had a miserable marriage. He didn't talk much and was busy with work. I got bored and was rich enough to date delectable young men on the side. After a time, Harold fooled around, too, mostly to hurt me, I think. It wasn't until I was too old to attract the playboys anymore that I turned to the man next to me and realized how much I loved his face. We had two blissful years together before his heart took him out. I was such a fool, Jane. I couldn't see what was real until time had washed away everything else." She was matter-of-fact, the pain behind the words worn out long ago.
"Hmph. It'd be better to be sorry for yourself. I'm old and rich, and people let me say whatever I want. So here it is. Figure out what is real for you. No use leaning on someone else's story all your life. You know, that book did Austen herself no good-died a spinster."
"I know." The thought had haunted Jane many times, and it was a favorite weapon of anti-Austen enthusiasts.
"Not that there's anything wrong with spinsters," Carolyn said, patting the fragile folds in her neck.
"Of course not. Spinster is just an archaic term for 'career-minded.'"
"Listen, sweetie, my story's told. I've had my dancing days, and I'm facing my own The End. But sky and stars know how your story will turn out. So go make your happily-ever-after happen." Her voice had a Little League coach enthusiasm. It was sweetly patronizing. Time to change the subject. Very nonchalantly.
"Why don't you tell me about your childhood, Aunt Carolyn?"
Carolyn laughed, soft as room-temperature butter. "Tell you about my childhood, and just in the nick of time. Well, don't mind if I do. I was a limper from the time I could walk. Our folks were poor and your grandma and I shared a bed that leaned to one side, though I can't be sure if that bed was the cause ..."
When Shirley returned from the restroom, Carolyn was quoting the price of milk when she was a child, and Shirley gave her daughter an approving smile. Thanks be she hadn't overheard the batty-great-niece part of the conversation. Her mother was practical from her robust eyeglass frames to her thick-heeled shoes, and no daughter of hers would dally about in a fantasyland.
And Jane was eager to agree. Seriously, a thirty-something woman shouldn't be daydreaming about a fictional character in a two-hundred-year-old world to the point where it interfered with her very real and much more important life and relationships. Of course she shouldn't.
Jane crunched down on a piece of arugula.
6 months ago
Great-aunt Carolyn passed away.
"And you're in the will, dear!" her mother said, calling from Vermont. "Apparently our last-minute lunch did the trick. The lawyer will be in touch. Call me the moment you learn the amount!"
Jane hung up and sat down, forcing herself not to think about the will, spending a few moments with the thought of the woman who'd loved Harold's face, who'd wasted three decades of loving, who'd ripped open Jane's chest and laid out what she saw. She had not known Carolyn well enough to grieve, only to feel softened, mystified by the idea of death.
And yet, Carolyn had thought of Jane enough to scratch her name into the will. What would she leave a near-stranger relative? Carolyn had a large family so the amount couldn't be much, but then again the rumors of her great-aunt's wealth were legendary. Enough to move her into an apartment with air-conditioning? Enough to retire?
Jane balked at that thought. It wasn't so much that she loved her job-it wasn't bad work, doing graphic design at the magazine, but it was, you know, a job. She couldn't knock such a nice piece of stability, somewhere to go every day, something (unlike men) that didn't rip the rug out from under her and send her sprawling. But on the subway ride to the attorney's, Jane wondered, if she were tempted with a huge sum, would she fold? Would she quit her job and buy a house in the Hamptons and adopt a miniature poodle named Porridge who peed on the carpet?
These questions and alternate names for the poodle kept her mind busy as she traveled up into the law firm's sleek gray building, up into the conservative burgundy and tan office, down into a stuffed leather chair to hear the extraordinarily pale lawyer say, "You're not rich."
"In fact, she didn't leave you any money at all." His every blink was slow and deliberate, reminding Jane of a frog. "People often hope, so I like to get that out up front."
Jane laughed uneasily. "Oh, I wasn't thinking that."
"Of course." The attorney sat down and sorted through a stack of papers with no wasted movement. He was saying something in lawyer-ese, but Jane was distracted. She was trying to figure out what besides the measured blinking made him seem so amphibious. His taut, shiny complexion, she decided. And his eyes being so wide apart. And his salad green tone. (Okay, he wasn't actually green, but the rest was true.)
He was still talking. "Our client was ... eclectic ... in her will. She made purchases for a few friends and family members and left the bulk of her money to charities. For you, she arranged a vacation."
He handed her a glossy, oversized pamphlet. On the cover was a photograph of a large manor house. A man in jacket, cravat, and breeches, and a woman in an empire-waist dress and bonnet were walking in the foreground. They seemed awfully content. Jane's hands went cold.
She read the elegantly inserted text.
Pembrook Park, Kent, England. Enter our doors as a house guest come to stay three weeks, enjoying the country manners and hospitality-a tea visit, a dance or two, a turn in the park, an unexpected meeting with a certain gentleman, all culminating with a ball and perhaps something more ...
Here, the Prince Regent still rules a carefree England. No scripts. No written endings. A holiday no one else can offer you.
"I don't get it."
"It's an all-inclusive, three-week vacation in England. From what I gather, you dress up and pretend to be someone in the year 1816." The attorney handed her a packet. "It also comes with a first-class plane ticket. The vacation is nonrefundable, my client saw to that. But if you do need cash, you could exchange the first-class airfare for economy class and pocket the change. I make such suggestions whenever I can. I like to be helpful."
Jane hadn't looked away from the pamphlet. The man and woman in the photo held her gaze like a magician's swaying watch. She hated them and adored them, longed to be that woman but needed to stay firmly in New York City in the present day and pretend she had no such odd fantasies. No one guessed her thoughts, not her mother, not her closest friends. But Great- Aunt Carolyn had known.
"Pocket the change," she said distractedly.
"Just make certain you report it to the IRS."
"Right." Seemed odd, that Carolyn would point out this flaw in her poor, pathetic great-niece and then send her right into the belly of the beast. Jane groaned. "I'm hopeless."
"What was that?"
"Um, did I say that out loud? Anyway, I'm not hopeless, that's the problem. I'm too hopeful, if anything." She sat up, leaning against his desk. "If I were to tell you my first dozen boyfriend stories, you'd call me screwy for ever going out with anyone again. But I have! I'm so thick-headed it's taken me this long to give up on men, but I can't give up completely, you know? So I ... I channel all my hope into an idea, to someone who can't reject me because he isn't real!"
The lawyer straightened a stack of papers. "I think I should clarify, Miss Hayes, that I did not mean to flirt. I am a happily married man."
Jane gaped. "Uh, of course you are. My mistake. I'll just be going now." She grabbed her purse and split.
The elevator dropped her back at street level, and even after stepping through the doors, the ground still felt as though it were falling away under her feet. She fell/walked all the way back to work and into her gray rollerchair.
Todd the manager was at her cubicle the moment her chair squeaked.
"How you doin', Jane?" he asked in his oft-affected pseudo-Sopranos accent.
She stared. He had a new haircut. His white blond hair was now spiked with an incredible amount of pomade that smelled of raspberries, a do that could only be carried off with true success by a fifteen-year-old boy wielding an impressive and permanent glare. Todd was grinning. And forty-three. Jane wondered if politeness required her to offer a compliment on something glaringly obvious.
"Uh ... you, your hair is different."
"Hey, girls always notice the hair. Right? Isn't that basically right?"