by Lore Segal
How pleasant the sight of a cheerful old person.
“Love your stole,” Lotte said to the handsome old woman at the party, “it’s grand and beautiful.” The woman thanked Lotte while her eyes flicked subliminally to the left: she did not recognize Lotte, nor could Lotte abort the identical tell on her own face. To save her children’s heads she could not have said if she had forgotten the woman’s name or had never laid eyes on her. Lotte walked with a cane and the woman in the stole offered to get her a drink.
“Oh, thanks, no, I’m fine, really,” Lotte told her. “I can get it myself.”
Lotte was happy to see Bessie by the coat rack and walked over. Bessie said, “I’m going to stow my cane. It has a way of tripping people.”
“You made it in from Rockingham,” Lotte said.
“Made it in,” Bessie said.
“How is Colin?”
“Colin is well—well enough. Colin is all right.”
Bessie must have known that her friends could not stand Colin, the only one of the husbands still living. Colin owned houses, cars, talked about the inadequacy of the parking and was dying of something slow and ravaging.
“Who is the old woman in the red stole?” Lotte asked Bessie.
“Your hostess, Sylvia,” said Bessie and added that she was surprised to see Lotte.
“Why are you surprised? The third time I called to ask you for the address, you were understandably irritable.”
“The address of the Baskin party, and you said you were not going.”
“Yes, well,” Lotte said, “the prospect of leaving my apartment brings on an initial desire to take my Kindle and go to bed. A small agoraphobia, but I like parties.”
“If you want to call it a party. I hope they do martinis.”
“Why isn’t it a party?” asked Lotte, following her friend, who seemed to know the geography of the handsome apartment in the high Bauhaus style.
Drinks were in the kitchen, where they were intercepted by an unusually large, young—a younger man, at any rate—who kissed Bessie and asked, “Has anybody seen Sylvia?”
“Who was that?” Lotte asked Bessie.
“Don’t know,” said Bessie. “Reminds me of the seventies when one kept getting hugged by students who had come out from behind their beards.”
“And who is Sylvia?”
“Your hostess. The woman in the stole,” Bessie said.
Bessie was drawn into conversation with people she knew. Lotte put out a hand to an old man standing by himself in the kitchen doorway. She said, “My late husband and I had an agreement that every party we went to we would talk to at least one person we didn’t know. “
“And today is my lucky day.” The old man had a nice face.
“Those were the days…” said Lotte.
“Of wine and roses,” the old man said.
“I was going to say the days when I used to know eighty percent of the people at a party. Today I know two people.”
“That’s doing better than I by one,” he said. “Tell me the two you know.”
“My friend Bessie, whom I’ve known for over half a century, and the woman in the beautiful red stole, whom I just talked with.”
“That’s the one I know. She’s my sister,” said the man. “Ruthie was our aunt. I’ve come in from Albany.”
A quarter turn brought the large, younger man who had kissed Bessie into the conversation. “We are talking about all the people we don’t know,” Lotte told him.
The younger man said, “I’m developing an algorithm that will interpret the musculature of the face of the persons with whom you are talking and tell you who they are and how you know them.”
Bessie came with two martinis, one for Lotte and one for herself, and said, “Let’s sit down. I can’t stand so long.”
“And just in time; I’ve used up my conversation starters,” Lotte told her. They carried their drinks to a comfortable sofa and sat down, and Lotte asked Bessie, “One more time tell me the name of our hostess.”
“I talked with her brother…”
“Sebastian,” said Bessie.
“Who is Ruthie?”
“Ruth Berger,” said Bessie, “Sylvia and Sebastian’s aunt, who always reminded me of that old New Yorker cartoon: ‘Mortimer was her first husband and her second novel.’ And you still like parties?” Bessie asked Lotte.
Bessie said, “I remember when we used to go in expectation, always, that something—that somebody—was going to happen. What do I get dressed for today? What do I come in from Rockingham for?”
“People,” said Lotte. “Conversation.”
“And have you had a good conversation today?”
“Not that kind of conversation. It’s like the old balls— you take a turn with one partner and take a turn with another partner.”
“And you’re having a good time?”
“Yes, I am.”
Bessie was looking around the room and the set of her face told Lotte that Colin was not well enough, was not all right. “What makes this, today, a good time for you?” Bessie asked Lotte.
“Let’s see. For one, my children, so far as I know, are well and modestly solvent. Two, my right knee is not hurting. Three, I enjoyed looking at—what’s her name again?”
“…looking at Sylvia’s splendid red stole, and her brother?”
“…has a nice face. I like being in these handsome rooms, and sitting on a comfortable sofa, drinking a good martini. I like talking with you with the sound of a party in back of me.”
“The sound of a shiva,” said Bessie.
“Shiva? What shiva?”
Bessie said, “This is the shiva for Sylvia and Sebastian’s aunt Ruth Burger.”
“I forget who said wakes and funerals are the cocktail parties of the old?”