Drew orders another glass of wine while she waits on the restaurant’s patio. She doesn’t usually drink during the day but she’s nervous and her dress , Katherine Lilien’s pale yellow silk, is so tight she can hardly breathe.
Wayne had helped. He had zipped her up, tucked a daisy behind her ear and used his index finger to smooth out the line between her eyebrows. “Don’t worry about the dress! You’re only borrowing it and you look fabulous, by the way.” He always says just the right thing but still she can’t help but sit stiff on the edge of her seat drinking too fast and struggling to inhale.
The beautiful occupants of nearby tables are all absorbed in conversation. Drew tries to look busy by sifting through the contents of her purse but finds nothing to reassure: her Moleskine notebook full of half-formed thoughts, a ballpoint pen printed with her agent’s name and number, the heavy keychain of obsolete keys she keeps for self-defense, a half a pound of loose coins, a litter of receipts and wadded sticky notes, crusty lipsticks, and an accumulation of mysterious crumbs. She won’t take out the tattered copy of Anna Karenina she’s been trying to finish for years because how cliché is that, reading a book to look busy, and she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s insecure, so she shuts the bag and takes another gulp of wine instead.
The collective inhalation that thins the air is her cue to turn around just in time to see Mae walking quickly along the white picket fence toward the door, escorted by an enormous man in a sweat suit who disappears into the restaurant. There is nowhere to hide the wine glass before Mae is there at the table, slinging her bag on the back of her chair and smiling that smile.
“Did you start without me?”
“Looks good.” Mae motions to the hostess: “I’ll have whatever she’s having. We’re celebrating. And a glass of water with lemon, no ice.”
As soon as the hostess leaves, Drew asks, “So you got the part?”
“I totally nailed it. Thanks to you, of course. Couldn’t have done it without you.”
Mae is wearing white yoga pants, a tank top, and enormous sunglasses, but even in clothes her physical impact is stunning; it goes to Drew’s head like the fumes from her glass and once again, she’s at a loss for words. What does one say to someone who has her own autograph written across her perfect chest in rhinestones?
The waitress who takes their order is oddly chummy. She introduces herself as Jennifer and seems intimately familiar with Mae’s dietary restrictions. While Mae orders for them both, Drew tries not to look at the faces swiveled in their direction like a field of sunflowers turning toward the light.
Mae studies her from behind her sunglasses. “I should wear a flower in my hair. That is just so sweet. Very young and fresh. Very ingénue, right? ” She indicates the gold crucifix around her neck. “See this? I was feeling Catholic today, see. Yesterday was very Buddhist, but today is definitely Catholic.”
Drew’s face burns red. “My friend helped me get dressed. I… actually, I borrowed this dress.”
“Dressing alone is never a good idea.” Mae pulls a small recorder from her bag and places it on the table. “I hope you don’t mind? It’s so I don’t forget anything we talk about? You know, I always ask my friends for their opinion about what I should wear. What do you think about these boots? I just got them.”
“Wow. “ Drew blinks at the boots. “Those are movie star boots for sure.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“No, I know. You just told the truth. You should never be afraid to say what you really think. That’s what friends are for, right? And besides…” she leans forward conspiratorially, “I’m hiring all new people. I’m giving myself a total makeover. It’s the next step of my personal transformation.”
Drew almost laughs until she realizes that Mae had spoken without a hint of irony. She takes another gulp of wine and blurts, “Well, that is what Edna is doing, isn’t it? She’s trying to evolve, I mean.”
“That’s why I like her.” Again with a straight face. Maybe Mae can sense her discomfort because she picks up her water and moves to the chair beside Drew; the sunflowers shift accordingly. “Well, okay, so tell me, do you think Edna needs the other characters or are they just getting in her way? I mean, does she need anybody? Can a person do it all alone?”
“Well, that’s an excellent question.” The opportunity to retreat into literature is an immediate relief; Drew leans back with her glass. ”I would say that artists are stereotypically solitary creatures and maybe creativity demands isolation. But perhaps if you found the right crowd, I mean if the artist got in with people as artistic and significant as herself, maybe that could work. History is full of examples of artistic communities that thrive. Some artists have managed to create their own reality, together, as a group.” She is starting to feel the wine; ultra-white smiles spark in the margins of her vision and everything tilts and swirls toward their table. She wonders if she’s rambling but Mae is propped up on an elbow, waiting for more. “But Edna is surrounded by conformists who just want to rein her in or get into her pants. To them, she represents an affluent person, a wife, a woman, a mother, not an artist or an individual. She’s struggling to be modern woman in a Victorian world.”
“I totally get it.” Mae is diddling with her crucifix, looking serious. “My last boyfriend was like that. A total control freak. He got a tattoo of my name on his arm and then wanted me to get one, too, and when I told him I didn’t want anyone else’s name written on my body, not even one initial, you know? He had the nerve to suggest a fingerprint. A tattoo of his fingerprint. Like on bruised fruit. Like I’m some kind of bloody crime scene. Can you believe it?”
“How perfectly perverse.”
“I know! So I had to let him go. I told him it had nothing to do with him, but I just needed to control myself, you know? I need to get centered inside myself. So I’m currently practicing abstinence. No more nookie for this girl.”
Drew knows this is one of the rituals of friend-making, this swapping of intimacies, but she doesn’t have much to contribute. She would never admit to anyone that she sometimes fantasizes about the family she and Wayne could have (that is, if she wanted a family, which she does not). They’d use a turkey baster or he could get drunk and she could dress up like a guy, or they could cover her with a sheet with a hole in it like the one she saw in the movie Like Water for Chocolate. But it’s never serious and it’s all a big joke really and certainly isn’t the kind of revelation she should offer up now, even though Mae’s face is propped patiently on her arm, waiting.
Drew reminds herself that this is what girlfriends do: They compliment, ask and offer advice, confess, reveal, agree, and encourage each other to eat or not to eat. They see each other naked but they only notice the pretty parts then they help each other display those bits with the most flattering gear. This is the platonic mating ritual, the things Drew’s mother never taught her how to do. It’s how women grow close and even though her dress is too small and her tongue is stuck to the roof of her mouth like a pickled slug and everyone is looking, Drew wants to try.
“Never?” asks Drew, leaning forward.
“Well, until prince charming comes, of course.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I think sex might be better with a stranger. It’s easier to come if you don’t care how he feels.”
A giggle explodes from Mae’s mouth. Every face turns toward their table. Drew empties her glass and feels the flash flood of sweat threaten the yellow silk. “It’s funny you said that about prince charming because I think Edna still believes in princes, too. She thinks that some man will awaken her with his kiss and whisk her away to his perfect world.”
“You mean to tell me there is no prince charming?” asks Mae.
The salads arrive and Drew waits in queasy silence for the waitress to leave before answering.
“The dream of prince charming is just a bourgeois gimmick to keep women in line.”
“Bourgeois.” Mae mouths the word. “But I always do that. I always think men are better than they are.”
“So do I. Perhaps, in us, it is sign of artistic imagination. I think I’m slurring my words. ” Mae throws back her head and laughs again but quieter this time, more discreet. They regard one another for a heartbeat before Drew stumbles on. “But women keep women in line, too. Edna’s closest friend is a mother-woman, a sensual Madonna. I can’t remember how many kids she has, but she is delicious in her role as breeder, and she can’t imagine anything else. She expects all women to sacrifice themselves for their children.”
“I had a friend like that once.”
“After she had her kid she couldn’t talk about anything else. It was like she had joined a cult or something.”
“She wasn’t going to stop until I joined, so I had to get rid of her. Yes, I am that ruthless.”
Mae is leaning close, smiling conspiratorially: it’s Drew’s turn to say something cynical and cruel. Drew is nine again, watching her best friend Shannon press her index finger down on the razor blade, seeing the red bead of blood appear and her friend’s solemn look as she hands the razor over. It’s Drew’s turn to bleed so they can press their fingers together and seal the deal.
“I’m afraid I’m not a mother-woman. I just don’t have it in me.”
“Really. Why not?”
“My mother left when I was ten. I never heard from her again.”
“For real?” Mae leans over her untouched salad. “Say more.”
Drew blushes hot and hard, takes a sip from her empty wineglass, grabs her water. “The pianist Mademoiselle Reisz, on the other hand, represents the artist. She is alone, hermetic, unlikable, ugly, rude, magnificently talented, and she doesn’t care what anyone thinks. I suppose that this is what ultimately happens when a person pursues talent and her own vision of perfection instead of conforming to popular taste. I think I’ve had too much to drink.”
“No. I’m right here with you.” Mae touches Drew’s arm and raises her full glass of wine: “Here’s to mother-women: For giving birth to artists and then leaving them alone to give birth to themselves.”
“I couldn’t have said it any better myself.”
They touch the lips of their glasses together; they drink. The wine flows down like a cool relief, like a remedy for the past and a promise for the future. Drew wishes she was sober enough to write that down.