By Margaret Van Every
I had been passing much of the afternoon at a Starbucks in Midtown, answering email as I waited for my ride to arrive at 5:30. I had been homeless all afternoon, as are many who drift into Starbucks seeking refuge from the elements, access to wifi, or perhaps a chance encounter with an interesting soul. I was more amused than annoyed when a well-dressed elderly lady interrupted my concentration and announced that she coveted my hat. The hat was on my head so I wouldn’t forget it. It had been the last of its kind at the Memorial Day sale at Bebé, a shop with pretensions of being French though their wares are from China. Its name has a certain je ne sais quoi for women of all ages who linger forever in their coddled infancy.
“Well,” said she with an authentic French accent, “are you sure it was the last one? There could be more in the back somewhere, don’t you think?”
“No, I doubt it. They were quite clear it was the very last one. I’m sorry.”
She lingered there frozen as though not knowing how to process her disappointment.
“Would you like to sit down and chat a few moments?” I suggested. All the tables were occupied.
“I would buy the hat from you for its original price,” she went on as she took a seat. “I like it so very much, but even more than the hat, I fancy the gold pin on the hatband that says Bebé.” I considered offering her the little pin but decided better of it.
With the air of an intimate friend, she leaned forward to share a confidence. “I have something to ask you and you must answer truthfully.” After waiting for me to nod the go-ahead sign, she proceeded, “Do you think I should get married?”
For a moment I pondered whether she might be asking in jest. “Well,” said I, “we met but three minutes ago. I have no basis for making any judgment one way or another. Only you could know the answer to that. Do you have anyone in mind?”
“No, but I thought you might be able to tell me how to find someone. I’ve been a widow now for over 20 years. How old do you think I am? Bear in mind that I’m much older than I look. Go on and guess.”
Taking into consideration her challenge, I said, “OK, I’ll guess very high then. Perhaps you are ninety?”
She was startled and dismayed. “Eighty-four,” she said with a dismissive sneer that questioned how I could possibly have been so far off.
“Tell me, dear lady, why would anyone your age want to get married? That’s the first question you must ask yourself. I understand your need for some affection and companionship, but then why put up with everything else? Are you weary of your freedom? Haven’t you heard it’s better to rent, not buy? Why don’t you just find some bon vivant and have, as you French call it, un arrangement? Then after you’ve had your evening of fun, send him home to snore alone.”
“Arrangement,” she considered out loud as though for the first time. A naughty smile fleeted across her lips then vanished as she mulled it over. “I really dislike old men. I mean I really don’t like them. I love to tango,” her voice trailed off, off to a distant place and time. Transported to Paris, young and lithe, she was dancing around a ballroom in a scornful man’s clutches to the libidinous rhythms of the tango. “I was a war bride,” she explained, “very young. I’m Jewish, had been in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, lost my parents and brothers. My husband saved me from the aftermath of the war, brought me here to New York, where I’ve lived ever since in the same apartment on Madison Avenue.” I raised my eyebrows. “He was a movie mogul on the east coast just as the industry was starting up.”
Suddenly she reclaimed herself from the past with its intense joys and sorrows and again reeled me into her gaze. Leaning close, she asked as though for the first time, “Do you think I should marry?”
“Well,” I answered, “you know you don’t need to be married to do the tango. There’s a ballroom a block from here where single men are on the lookout for attractive older ladies like you [she cringed] who are sophisticated, savvy dancers with French accents” [at which she brightened up].
Then I thought to probe a bit deeper. “Do you possibly have other reasons to marry?”
She studied her manicured nails and then trapping me again in her gaze sputtered in desperation, “I’m running out of money. I never expected to live so long.” Tears were welling up.
“Oh,” I said softly. “I’m sorry. But it surprises me. You are so elegantly dressed, like a lady of leisure, and you live in the highest rent district of New York.”
“Yes,” she conceded, “but my clothes are fifty years old and the rent is the lowest in Midtown only because of rent controls dating back to the 1940s. I could never afford to rent anyplace else now.”
“Oh,” I ventured, “but didn’t you mention having sons and daughters?”
“Yes, but they don’t like me!”
“So you want a man to take care of you?”
“Yes, but you must not have been listening. I told you I don’t like old men.”
At that, I stood up and laid my hat on the table. “Please excuse me a moment while I use the rest room. My ride will be arriving any minute.”
When I returned, hat and companion were nowhere to be seen.
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