On this early December day, snowflakes sparkled down to earth like granted wishes from a magic wand.
Inside the handsome lounge of The Haven, Yule logs blazed cheerfully in the fireplace, while Presley, Sinatra, and Springsteen sang Christmas carols. Near the long casement windows, five women were looping lights around a Norway spruce so tall they had to use a ladder to reach the highest branches.
“Okay, that’s the end of the last string,” Marilyn called from behind the fat tree.
“Plug them in,” Shirley told her.
Marilyn knelt to fit the plug into the socket.
“Oooooooh!” Shirley, Faye, Alice, Marilyn, and Polly sighed with delight as dozens and dozens of multicolored miniature lights twinkled to life.
“Now,” Shirley announced, “for the fun part. How shall we do this?” Shirley was the director of The Haven, but the four other women were her best friends, practically her family, and she wanted to please everyone.
“I think we should all hang the ornaments we brought where we want,” Polly suggested.
“But keep in mind,” Faye added, “it will look better if the heaviest, biggest ornaments go on the bottom boughs, with the smaller ones on the higher branches.” She was an artist, with an artist’s eye.
“Yes, but we don’t want it to look too perfect,” Alice insisted. “We want it to look real.”
“Good point, Alice,” Shirley agreed. “Perfection, as we all know, isn’t real.”
“Sometimes it is,” Marilyn disagreed, in her thoughtful, vague way. “The horseshoe crab, genus Limulus, for example, is perfect. Its design hasn’t changed since the Triassic period, that’s two hundred forty-five million years.”
“Lovely,” Faye said gently, amused. “Still, we really don’t want to hang a horseshoe crab on the Christmas tree.”
“I suppose not. Although one year we did.” Marilyn smiled at the memory. She was a paleobiologist—the others teasingly called her a pale old biologist—and her grown son and her ex-husband were molecular geneticists. “Teddy was nine, and fascinated with crustaceans and fossils, so we bored holes in lots of shells, slipped colored cords through, and hung the tree with crabs, mollusks, and gastropods.”
Alice snorted with laughter. “You are so weird!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Polly chimed in. “David told me that he and Amy are hanging only homemade decorations on their tree. And my daughter-in-law is such a purist, she’ll use only vegetable dyes, natural wood, straw, and such. Afterwards, they’ll probably carry the tree outside and feed the entire thing to the goat.”
The others laughed. As they talked, they moved back and forth from the tables and couches where the boxes of decorations were set out. Occasionally Shirley dropped another log on the fire.
The spacious room, with its casement windows, high ceilings, and mahogany paneling, seemed to glow with contentment. Once built to house a private boarding school, this old stone lodge had been abandoned for a few years. Then Shirley, with the help of her friends and a few investors, had bought it and opened The Haven, a premier spa and wellness resort with a burgeoning membership and second-floor condos for staff or friends.
She had staff (she had staff! Shirley, who had struggled financially most of her life, got a thrill every time she remembered that). But she hadn’t wanted her staff to decorate the Christmas tree, and neither had her friends. They’d wanted to do this together. They’d agreed to bring three boxes of decorations each, and they’d agreed to do it without advance discussion or collaboration, so their choices would be a surprise.
Now they worked quickly, climbing the ladder to adorn the top, stretching left and right, standing back to appraise, kneeling to the lowest branches, murmuring to themselves, exclaiming at what the others had chosen.
Shirley was a sucker for whimsical creatures with smiling faces: elves, snowmen, Santa Clauses, cherubs, fat angels with crooked smiles and tilted halos, fairies with freckles and yarn hair.
Faye had selected expensive glass ornaments: gorgeous faceted stars, elongated teardrops and iridescent icicles, extravagantly striped or translucent balls in gleaming gemstone colors.
Polly loved to cook. She’d baked dozens of gingerbread men and women, sugar-cookie stars, leaping reindeer, trumpets and drummer boys and crescent moons, the absorbing, familiar activity bringing back memories of Christmases when her son was little. She’d decorated them with colored icing, silver balls, and sprinkles of colored sugar, and glued ribbons firmly on the back, for hanging. She’d also strung cranberries and popcorn on fishing wire and bought boxes of candy canes.
Alice, less sentimental and more practical, had chosen thirty of the skin care, cosmetic, and aromatherapy products on sale at The Haven, and tied their lavender boxes with glittering gold and silver bows.
Marilyn’s contribution was a boxed set of antique ornaments from the Museum of Fine Arts, and a handmade collection of brass and enamel stars, sun, moon, and planets purchased from an Asian gentleman selling them from a rug on a sidewalk in Harvard Square.
When every ornament was hung, the five women stepped back to admire their handiwork. The mixture was eccentric, aesthetically enchanting, and wildly cheerful.
“It’s fabulous,” Shirley said. “Let me get my camera.”
Alice said, “I’ll pour the hot chocolate.” She twisted the cap off a large Thermos and poured the fragrant liquid into Christmas mugs—little gifts from her to the others. Then, without the slightest twinge of guilt, she took out a can of Reddi-whip, shook it, and topped the drinks with snowy swirls of the white concoction. After that, she opened a little plastic bag, dipped her hand in, and sprinkled dark chocolate shavings on the creamy peaks.
“I brought some Christmas cookies—without the glue.” Polly opened a red and green tin, and the sweet, warm aroma of butter and sugar rose into the air.
Marilyn and Faye pushed two of the more comfortable wing chairs close to the sofa so they could all sit in a half-circle, facing the tree. Shirley returned from her office with the camera and began snapping shots of the tree and its trimmers.
Shirley wore purple Tencel pants with an emerald top that flattered her auburn hair. Her earrings and necklace were miniature battery-operated Christmas lights that blinked on and off.
Faye wore scarlet trousers in a silk-and-wool weave with a matching jacket over a sleeveless white shell. A chunky choker of garnet and jade circled her neck. Her white hair was held back with a matching barrette.
Plump, auburn-haired Polly wore jeans and a bright green sweater with white snowmen she’d designed and knit herself.
Alice looked majestic in a velvet tunic and pants of swirling crimson and indigo, embellished with lavish gold embroidery. Earrings, necklace, and bracelets of heavy, scrolled gold gleamed against her dark skin.
Marilyn wore brown wool trousers and a shapeless gray sweater. She wasn’t color-blind; she just kept forgetting to think about her clothing.
The five curled up on the sofa and settled into the chairs.
Shirley raised her mug. “To the holidays!”
“To the holidays!” the others toasted.
They all sipped the rich hot chocolate, and sighed in unison.
Faye focused dreamily on the twinkling tree. “This is going to be the best Christmas ever!”
Alice chuckled. “Yes, and I’m Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.”
“Did you know,” Shirley informed them, “in the movie The Wizard of Oz, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, was played by an actress named Billie Burke when she was fifty-three years old?”
“You’re kidding!” Polly nearly spilled her cocoa. “She looked so young! All that blond hair. The sparkling pink dress. The tiara.”
“I wish I had that dress,” Faye mused.
“I wish I had her magic wand,” Marilyn murmured.
Alice lazily turned her head toward Marilyn. “Really. What would you do with it?”
Marilyn didn’t hesitate. “I’d turn my mother back into her normal, independent self. Oh, yes, and renovate Faraday’s sexual abilities.”
“He’s still impotent?” A former hotshot executive, Alice didn’t mince words. Besides, they’d helped solve one another’s problems before, and were ready to do it again, if they could.
“Always.” Marilyn’s tone was rich with regret. She’d only discovered the joys of sex in her fifties, and she wanted to make up for lost time.
“You need a magic wand to make his wand magic,” Polly joked.
“What’s going on with your mother, Marilyn?” Shirley asked.
Marilyn sighed. “My sister says she’s going downhill fast. Not physically, mentally. Sharon wants me to have Mother come here for Christmas and stay indefinitely, so I can watch for signs of senility and help her decide whether or not Mother should be ‘persuaded’ to go into an assisted care facility.”
“Hard decision,” Faye sympathized.
“I know.” Marilyn pinched the bridge of her nose. “Sharon said she can’t make this kind of decision herself, and she’s absolutely right.”
“How old is your mom?” Alice asked.
“Eighty-five. She lives in Ohio, in the same town where we grew up, only a short drive from my sister’s home. I’ve always felt guilty that I haven’t been able to help Mother as much as Sharon has. But I live so far away, and I don’t want to give up my position at MIT.”
“Not to mention,” Alice teased, “you often have trouble keeping your thoughts in the same millennium, never mind on the same species.”
“There is that,” Marilyn agreed easily.
“Is Faraday spending the holidays with you?” Shirley asked.
Marilyn nodded. “He is. He’s got two grown children and some grandchildren, but one lives in California and the other in Ohio.”
“It’s hard when your kids live so far away.” Faye looked wistful. “Thank heavens, Laura and Megan and Lars are coming back east for Christmas. I can’t wait to get my hands on my little granddaughter again. I hope she remembers me.”
“Faye,” Alice bossily reminded her, “you’ve chatted with her every day on your web-cam.”
“Yes, but it’s not the same. I want to hold her. Smell her. Cuddle her.”
“I know exactly what you mean.” Polly’s son and his family lived only a short drive away geographically, but emotionally, they were on Pluto.
“Will you get to see your grandson for Christmas?” Faye asked.
“I’ve been invited for Christmas dinner.” Polly made a face. “But it will be at Amy’s parents’ house, and they have piles of relatives, so I know I won’t be able to hold Jehoshaphat much. Plus, they’re so virtuous. I always feel like Mae West visiting the Amish.”
“What about Hugh?” Alice, Marilyn, Shirley, and Faye all asked in chorus. Polly had been dating the handsome doctor since April, and their hopes for her were high. Polly deserved someone won- derful.
“Hugh’s spending Christmas day with his children and his ex-wife.” Polly mimed pulling out her hair. “The size-six, perpetually dependent, helpless little Betsie.”
“Well, that sucks,” Shirley said. “Come have Christmas with us.”
“Thanks, but actually, I’ve been invited to Christmas dinner at Carolyn’s, and I just might go there instead.”
“Oh, do!” Faye told her, impulsively. “I’ll be there, with Aubrey.”
“Really?” Polly brightened. “I wonder whether Carolyn would mind if I brought Hugh.”
Of course she would, Faye thought silently. Carolyn wants her father to marry you. She shifted uncomfortably on the sofa, then leaned forward to grab a cookie. Polly had helped Carolyn during a stressful time in her life, and Carolyn, whose mother had died when Carolyn was just a child, had pounced on Polly as a surrogate mom. Polly was so good-natured and sweet, she didn’t seem aware of Carolyn’s intentions to match her father up with her, and if she were aware, Polly would be so horrified, she’d probably move to Alaska. Faye really liked Polly, the newest member of the Hot Flash Club, and didn’t want to cause her any embarrassment.
Alice looked puzzled. “Faye, I thought you said Lars and Laura and baby Megan were coming to have Christmas with you.”
“They’re coming east, yes,” Faye explained. “They’re spending Christmas Eve and Christmas morning and most of the day with me. They’re going to Lars’s family for Christmas dinner.”
Alice groaned. “Christmas is so complicated!”
“Yeah, but the food’s good,” Polly pointed out cheerfully.
Simultaneously, everyone reached forward to grab a cookie. They all laughed.
“I always gain ten pounds over Christmas,” Faye moaned, munching.
“It’s impossible not to,” Alice assured her as she chewed. “It’s stress eating.”
Polly giggled. “Last night I ate a pepperoni pizza, a pint of ice cream, and two bags of mega-butter popcorn.”
“I can trump that,” Alice said. “I bought a box of expensive chocolates to take to my bridge group, and last night I sat down and ate them all.”
Shirley licked a curl of cream off her spoon. “Hey, Faye. You said you think this will be the best Christmas ever. Want to elaborate?”
“Well, I didn’t mean ever,” Faye corrected herself. “The best Christmases I ever had were with Jack, when Laura was a little girl. Christmas is really about children. There’s nothing like the joy on their faces, the surprise when they see all the gifts under the tree. This Christmas, Megan is three, old enough to really appreciate everything. Plus, I’ve moved into my darling, new little house—not that I didn’t love living in my condo here at The Haven, Shirley,” Faye hastened to assure her friend. “But it’s so nice to have a little place all my own. I’ve got three bedrooms, you know, and one is for me, one is a guest bedroom, and one is for Megan! I painted the room myself—”
“—I saw it the other day,” Polly told the others. “It’s exquisite. A little girl’s dream room.”
“I can’t wait for Megan to see it!” Faye beamed. “She’s so clever! Do you know what she said? Laura told her to eat the crusts on her bread, and Megan said, ‘Mommy, don’t you know? They only put crusts on the bread so you won’t get peanut butter on your fingers when you’re eating the sandwich.’ ”
Alice was amused. “Sounds like she’s going to be a lawyer like her father.”
“I’ve bought so many presents I feel guilty.” Faye searched the other women’s faces. “But isn’t this what Christmas is all about? Giving lots and lots of fabulous presents? Spoiling your family?”
“I think it’s about making dreams come true.” Shirley’s voice was rich with longing.
“First of all, it’s a religious holiday,” Marilyn reminded them.
“And now it’s become one gigantic gimmick for our consumer economy,” Alice weighed in with a frown. “We’re bombarded with ads and sentimental scenes of smiling families around the tree. We’re brainwashed with syrupy Christmas music and completely unrealistic promises that our families will be happy if only little Johnny gets a video game or little Mary gets the right doll.”
“Are things okay with Gideon?” Faye asked gently.
“Why do you ask?” Alice demanded. “Christmas sucks, whether I’m happy or not!”
“I sort of agree with Alice,” Polly cut in. “Well, I don’t think Christmas sucks, but I do think it’s gotten far too commercialized. And it does raise unrealistic expectations.”
“But where’s the joy in life, without unrealistic expectations?” Shirley cried.
Marilyn cocked her head, studying Shirley. “I’m surprised at you, Shirley. I would have thought you’d tell us that Christmas is a festival of light during the darkest days. That it’s about hope for new life during the coldest season of the year.”
Shirley blushed. “I do think all that. But you know, I never got to have children, and my three former husbands were all assholes, so I never had a really happy Christmas before. I was never with someone I loved, who loved me in return.”
“So what dreams do you think will come true this Christmas?” Alice tried to sound casual. She knew it made Shirley unhappy, but Alice distrusted Shirley’s beau, that jackal Justin. She just hoped that Shirley understood that this wariness came from her protective love of her friend.
Shirley gulped. She shouldn’t be nervous, she told herself. When was she going to grow up? When was she going to stop being a coward? Hadn’t she proven herself enough already? She’d been the creator of The Haven, and for two years now, she’d run the spa intelligently, just as if she were a clever person with good business sense. Her friends should trust her judgment. They should be reasonable about her forthcoming announcement.
Yeah, and pigs would fly out her butt.
This Christmas she was going to give Justin a gift that would change his life. She was certain that even though he was twelve years younger than she, Justin loved her, too, just as sincerely. Her Hot Flash friends had to stop fretting. Sure, Justin was handsome, but if he had looked at other women—and who could blame him, they were always looking at him!—that was all he’d done. He was in her bed every night.
“Well?” Alice prompted. It didn’t take a psychic to know Shirley was feeling guilty. Something was up. “You’re giving Justin a computer for Christmas, right?”
“Of course not.” Shirley faked a laugh and sipped her cocoa, stalling. “He already has one.” What she was giving Justin cost a lot more than a computer.
But that was nothing compared to what she suspected he was going to give her.
“Shir–ley,” Alice wheedled, trying not to sound like a mother looking at a kid with a suspicious bulge in his backpack.
Shirley stalled. “I’m spending Christmas day with Justin and his kids.”
“He’s got three kids, right?” Faye asked.
“Right.” Shirley held up a finger as she munched another bite of cookie. “Spring’s thirteen, her sister Angel is fifteen. Ben’s ten; he has a different mother from Spring and Angel. The girls live in Stoneham with their mother and stepfather, and Ben lives on the Cape with his mother and grandmother. The girls don’t like Ben and he doesn’t like them, and Justin would prefer to have Ben on Christmas Eve and the girls on Christmas day, but Ben’s mother insists on having Ben on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and the girls’ mother insists . . . Well, you get the picture.”
“And you think this Christmas is going to be about making dreams come true?” Polly looked skeptical.
And Alice looked downright disbelieving.
Shirley decided not to tell them now. Why should she, after all? Justin was the recipient; he should know about it first. She could tell them later.
“But you see,” she babbled evasively, “I finally have enough money to give really cool gifts! I’ve never had this kind of money before—”
Alice shook her head impatiently. “You’re not rich, Shirley. You’re just solvent, and you’re working hard for every penny you make, and don’t forget, you’re getting older and you need to save for the future. You are sixty-two.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Scrooge,” Shirley sniffed.
Faye, playing peacemaker, changed the subject. “Alice, are you spending Christmas with Gideon?”
Alice knew she was being headed off at the pass. But why was she so worried for Shirley when the other three seemed to be perfectly comfortable with Justin? “Christmas Eve, we’re having Alan and Jennifer to dinner. They’re going down to the Cape for Christmas day with her folks. Christmas day we’ll spend with Gideon’s kids.”
“You like them, don’t you?” Polly asked.
“I like them all fine.” Alice let out a big fat sigh. “I don’t know why I’m so cranky these days.”
“Hormones don’t take holidays,” Polly said.
“It’s not just that,” Alice admitted. “I’ve gotten cranky since I’ve retired.” Seeing Shirley’s mouth twitch, she said, “All right, I was probably cranky before I retired. That might be why I was such a dynamite executive at TransContinent.” Alice shook her head in frustration. Her boiling energy, creative vigor, and, all right, slightly anal-compulsive need to get things done right and soon had carried her into the top echelons of a major insurance company during the days when most women, especially black women, were thrilled to stop scrubbing corporate floors and become secretaries. Alice had been someone. She’d been a force. And she missed that.
“You need to find something to do,” Shirley advised. “Something more than playing bridge.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Alice snapped.
“You need a grandchild,” Faye said in a dreamy voice.
“I already have grandchildren,” Alice reminded her.
“But they live in Texas,” Faye persisted, “and you seldom see them.”
Alice gave Faye a level stare. “Faye, you know children are just not my thing. Oh, I loved my sons like a mother panther when they were young, and I took good care of them, even though I worked. I’ve got photo albums full of smiles. But babies in general aren’t my thing.”
“What will you do if Alan and Jennifer get married and have children?” Polly asked.
“Let’s not go there.” Alice still didn’t like Jennifer. And it was not because Jennifer was white. After all, her four best friends were white. It was more that when Alice first became aware of Jennifer D’Annucio’s existence, Jennifer had been having an affair with Faye’s son-in-law, Lars.
Now, Alice, she told herself, don’t be so judgmental. The best love she’d had in her life had been with a married man when she was thirty-five. She didn’t consider herself less trustworthy because she’d had that affair, and she refused to let herself think less of Jennifer for her affair, either. Still, she was glad handsome Lars and his family had moved to California, even as she sympathized with Faye, who was all about grandchildren, that her family was so far away.
“Oh, damn!” Marilyn flew up out of her chair.
“What’s wrong?” Polly asked, alarmed.
Marilyn’s words were muffled as she tugged her sweater up over her head. She clasped it to her chest for modesty, her flushed face and chest clear evidence of the problem.
“I’m so sick of these hot flashes!” she cried.
“Me, too,” Faye commiserated. “I don’t understand the point of it.”
Marilyn hurried to a window and pressed her burning face against the cold glass. “Nature’s telling us we’re past childbearing age.”
“Hel-lo! I know that!” Alice grumbled. “I can look in the mirror and see that.”
“Nature designed our reproductive systems before human beings had mirrors.” Marilyn grabbed a magazine and fanned her face. “It’s possible that in the evolutionary process, hot flashes once served a purpose which has become irrelevant. Perhaps in fifty years, or five hundred, women won’t have hot flashes.”
“I can’t wait that long,” Polly quipped.
“I know,” Marilyn lamented. “It’s not just the surge of heat I hate. It’s the way it derails my mind. I’m making mistakes when I teach my classes, or I lose my place, or forget what I’m saying right in the middle of a sentence. It’s embarrassing.”
“At least you don’t gain weight simply by breathing,” Faye consoled her. “Aubrey’s taking me out to wonderful restaurants so often, I’m ballooning up again.”
“You look wonderful, Faye,” Alice assured her. “I’ve decided to stop fussing about my weight. I enjoy eating, and so does Gideon, and he likes me the way I am, nice and squashable.”
“That’s fine, as long as your health isn’t affected,” Shirley warned. “Statistics show that the leanest people live the longest.”
“Yeah, but do they have as much fun?” Rebelliously, Alice grabbed another cookie.
Marilyn was cooling down. She pulled her sweater back on and returned to her chair. “I’ve decided to take a sabbatical starting this June. I keep thinking perhaps my brain is just overloaded. I mean, in the past two years my husband left me for a younger woman, I had the most fabulous sex of my life with a guy who turned out to be a creep, I met all of you and joined the Hot Flash Club and the board of The Haven, I became a grandmother, and I started dating Faraday.”
“That’s enough to blow your fuses,” Alice confirmed.
“What will you do?” Faye asked Marilyn. “Take a trip? Write a book?”
Marilyn shrugged. “Before I can plan anything, I’ve got to deal with my mother. I’ll have a chance to see whether she needs assisted living when she’s here over Christmas.”
“Christmas,” Shirley crooned happily.
Alice rolled her eyes. “How can you be so perpetually hopeful?”
“It’s a choice, I guess,” Shirley told her.
Marilyn leaned forward to skewer Shirley with a look. “Um, you might also add that you have a lover who’s good in bed, and no demented relatives.”
Polly chuckled. “Remember ‘Old Maid,’ that card game we played when we were kids?”
“Oh, yes.” Faye grinned. “There were all kinds of crazy characters who came in pairs. Like Greasy Grimes and Betty Bumps. But there was just one Old Maid. The point was to be the one at the end of the game who didn’t hold the Old Maid.”
“Now the goal is not to be the Old Maid,” Alice joked.
Polly brushed cookie crumbs off her bosom. “I’m thinking ‘Old Maid’ was a rehearsal for real life. For example, my daughter-in-law is ‘Princess Insanely Possessive Prig Pot.’ ”
Alice laughed. “Tell us how you really feel, Polly!”
Marilyn giggled. “Yeah, and Faraday’s the ‘Limp Lothario.’ ”
“Sure, they’re flawed.” Shirley spoke up before the others came up with an unflattering nickname for Justin. “But we still love them. We still want them to have a wonderful Christmas.”
“We can’t make other people happy,” Alice pointed out sensibly.
“No,” Polly agreed, “we can’t. But we can do everything we can to set the stage for happiness.”
Faye said, “You’re right, Polly. That’s what I’m going to do this Christmas, for my daughter and my granddaughter and my son-in-law.”
“That’s what we’ll all do for those we love,” Shirley said.
“I’ll drink to that.” Alice raised her mug.
“I’ll drink to that, too,” Polly said, “but first, can I have more Reddi-whip?”