Read an Excerpt
Jane Austen in Boca
By Paula Marantz Cohen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Paula Marantz Cohen
All rights reserved.
"Mrs. Grafstein is dead!"
"Uh-huh." Alan Newman nodded without raising his head from the stock market page.
"Hel-lo!" Carol Newman leaned toward her husband, her face, like a small, high-intensity lamp, positioned above the top of his paper. "Can I have your attention, please?"
He looked up.
"Listen to this —" Carol cleared her throat and read aloud crisply from her section of The Star Ledger:" 'Norman Grafstein, former owner of Grafstein Leather Imports, will be honored for his generous gift to the South Orange Beautification Committee in memory of his late wife, Marilyn. Grafstein, formerly of South Orange, now resides in Boca Raton, Florida. His son, Mark, of Scotch Plains will be present at the committee breakfast to receive the plaque in his father's honor.'" Carol put the paper down and looked meaningfully across at her husband.
"So?" Alan responded.
"Did you know Norman Grafstein had lost his wife?"
"How would I know? I haven't seen Mark since our last high-school reunion."
Carol sighed. "Honey, don't you get it?" She tapped a long, mauve fingernail on the table between them. "Norman Grafstein. Boca Raton. Your mother."
"Carol, please ..."
"Alan —" Her voice took the sharper tone generally reserved for their seven-year-old. "Do you want your mother to be loved, to be happy, to have someone to take her to dinner? Why don't you exert yourself? Call up Mark Grafstein, tell him you're sorry about his mother" — she gave her hand a wave to suggest the routine preliminaries that would need to take place — "and tell him your mother's in Boca. Arrange a meeting with his father."
"Carol, my mother doesn't want to meet anyone. She's fine the way she is. Leave her alone."
"She's not fine," countered Carol. "She's miserable."
Alan began to feel dizzy.
"You want her to be miserable" — Carol picked up a magazine and began to thumb through it — "let her be miserable."
Alan shifted uneasily in his chair, anticipating defeat. It was possible to be irritated by Carol, but it was hard to oppose her for long. The fact was that she had a big heart — literally (the result of twice-a-week classes in high-impact aerobics at the JCC) and figuratively. Carol not only felt for the plight of others, she saw it as her mission to set things right for them. Last year, she helped the homeless in their town by organizing crisis career workshops and a low-fat soup kitchen in the library annex. The year before that, she raised math scores by 60 percent in the district by taking charge of the after-school homework program (even poor Jimmy Hahn, said to be ineducable, buckled down so as not to have her fingernail poked in his shoulder one more time). Carol was not one to sit idly by in the face of adversity, human weakness, and error. She was constantly striving to improve the lives of those around her, whether they liked it or not.
Alan vaguely understood that Carol carried a great weight of responsibility on her small shoulders. It fell to her to sustain that network of human relations called civilization — at least as it existed in the northern New Jersey suburbs. She was forever sending her friends to her hairdresser, passing the word about a new caterer, and arranging large family gatherings that involved hunting down estranged cousins and convincing them to let go of the grudge they'd been holding for thirty years and attend. She had been committee chair of last year's most successful event at their synagogue — an interfaith hootenanny in which Methodists, Baptists, and Jews, all wearing yarmulkes, crowded inside the cavernous blond-wood sanctuary, whose astronomical cost her herculean fund-raising efforts had helped pay for.
You could take one of two tacks upon finding yourself married to someone like Carol. You could resist and be caught in a debilitating struggle that you could not win. Or you could succumb and discover the pleasures of being managed by an expert.
Alan Newman, an accountant by profession, was a philosophical man. Life was hard. Life was short. He saw no point in swimming against the tide of this powerful and well-meaning force that was his wife. And so he succumbed and was, as far as such things are possible, happy.CHAPTER 2
May Newman, widowed for almost two years, had been living undisturbed in her Florida condominium until the day the previous spring when her son and daughter-in-law, arriving earlier than expected, had found her in her kitchenette in a housecoat. Alan had seen nothing noteworthy in this, but Carol insisted that it could only mean one thing: His mother was lonely and depressed.
"Any woman wearing a housecoat at two in the afternoon is depressed!" she declared. "And why shouldn't she be?" she added when Alan attempted to argue on behalf of the comforts of a housecoat. "It would be more surprising, given the circumstances, if she weren't!"
From then on, May's case had been a theme in the Newman household to be picked up and examined at those odd intervals of the day or night when Carol found herself with nothing else to do.
"Your mother needs to move in with us," Carol announced one night, just after Alan had fallen into the deathlike slumber that preceded his six A.M. wake-up to catch the early commuter train into the city.
"Wuh?" mumbled Alan groggily. He had been enjoying a dream of skiing down a mountain in Aspen.
"Your mother. It's our duty to take her in."
"Fine," he said, rolling over to continue the downward run, the wind whipping at his face. He was in no mood to put up even the semblance of a fight.
But the next day, when Carol broached the idea with her mother-in-law, she was surprised to find opposition from this quarter.
"No, dear," said May, "I'd rather stay where I am."
"But Mom, you'd be happier with us. You'd get to see the children all the time."
"I'm not sure the children would want to see me as much as that," demurred May gently. And though Carol cajoled and bullied, May would not budge.
This left Carol with a definite challenge. If her mother-in-law were nearby, she could drag her to senior functions, sign her up for art appreciation classes, and take her on as an assistant to her own numerous charitable and community activities. But directing May's social life from a distance of a thousand miles was another story. It required more elaborate intervention.
"Did you see the announcement about the senior bagels-and-lox brunch at the Reform temple?" Carol asked her mother-in-law over the phone as she ran her eye over the Sun- Sentinel spread out on the kitchen table (she had the paper expressed up so as to keep abreast for May's benefit). "Go! You never know who you'll meet."
May always said she would check things out — it was easier to say yes to Carol than to say no — but she rarely followed through on her promises. When her daughter-in-law called for a report, she always had an excuse: an attack of dyspepsia, a heavy rain, a made-for-TV movie that she wanted to watch. For someone like Carol, used to having her initiatives stick, May's mild-mannered but unwavering refusal to cooperate was frustrating to say the least.
"We need to go down," Carol announced one day to her husband soon after the newspaper had drawn her attention to a widowed Norman Grafstein. "We need to visit your mother and get things moving."
"We were just there in December, and we'll go again in June," said Alan wearily, for he detected the fateful note of determination in his wife's voice. "You know I can't take off again until tax season is over."
"June is too far away," pronounced Carol. "This is the plan" — for, of course, she had one. "I'll go down with the kids next week; you can meet us for a long weekend. I've already reserved the tickets. But you'll have to call Mark Grafstein before we go. Tell him we'll stop in on his father, to pay our respects, when you arrive."
Alan knew it would all be done.CHAPTER 3
May Newman sat in her kitchenette with Lila Katz and Flo Kliman, fellow residents of the Boca Festa retirement club. Boca Festa was one of many clubs in Boca Raton, Florida, former scrubland developed in the early 1970s as a haven for modest-to-well-to-do retirees. The population was mostly Jewish (though with a definite sprinkling of Italians) and mostly from the tri-state metropolitan area (though with a vocal minority from Chicago, Cleveland, and Montreal).
Boca Festa was built on a plan that resembled the other clubs in the area. It was set on a large expanse of manicured grounds with a Tara-like clubhouse at the center and an Olympic-size pool alongside. The surrounding complex was divided into three "estates," each reflecting a superficially different (but structurally similar) architectural style. Each estate was in turn divided into ten "pods," and each pod into fifty condominium units. At the center of each pod was a small pod-pool and pod-clubhouse.
The entire complex was thus parsed and organized like a collapsible set of mirrors — a mix of the quasifuturistic and the quasihistorical. The estate names — Fairways, Eastgate, and Crest-view — suggested the stylish manor houses featured on popular 1980s TV series like Dynasty. May lived in pod 3 in the Crest-view Estate; Lila and Flo in pod 9, Eastgate.
It was to her daughter-in-law that May owed her company. Lila's niece was a friend of a member of Carol's coffee group, and when the coincidence of the women's mutual residence had been unearthed, a meeting had been inevitable. Lila and Flo were neighbors in their pod and had known each other for several years.
"So what are we doing tonight?" asked Lila as the three women sipped their Sankas at May's kitchen table.
"Why do we have to do anything?" countered Flo.
"We have to do something. It's Saturday night!"
"Oh my God!" cried Flo. "Saturday night and I don't have a date!"
"At our age it's important to get out and mix," said Lila impatiently. "Otherwise, they say, you lose interest in life."
"Don't worry; I haven't lost my will to live."
"You joke, but it's not funny."
"Okay," said Flo, relenting as she always did after teasing Lila. "I'll tell you what we'll do: I'll rent a Clark Gable movie and make some popcorn. You can both come over and watch."
"Sitting home and watching television is not my idea of Saturday-night entertainment," declared Lila. "I like human company."
"Clark Gable is better than human company."
"Well, you can stay home," said Lila huffily. "I'm going to go out. May, will you join me? The JCC has a talk by one of those guru doctors on lowering your blood pressure through stress management. They say it will be very well attended."
"Well ..." said May. "I was feeling a little tired —"
"May wants to watch Clark Gable," interrupted Flo. "He does more for stress management than a guru doctor."
"Flo, mind your own business. Just because you have no interest in meeting anyone doesn't mean you have to influence May"
"I'm not influencing May."
"Please," interceded May. "I wouldn't mind going to hear the guru doctor with you, Lila, only I'm feeling a little tired. Flo isn't influencing me. I do like Clark Gable."
"All right," said Lila, sighing. "I like Clark Gable, too. We'll watch the movie tonight, but you have to promise to do something tomorrow, even if it's only going to the clubhouse to hear Pinkus Lotman on parking violations in the pods. If we don't do things, we might as well be dead."
"Agreed," said Flo. "We'll go hear Pinkus Lotman tomorrow. That is, if May's phlebitis doesn't flare up."
May laughed. She marveled at the amount of time she had come to spend with the two women and how much she enjoyed them. Even their bickering, which was fairly constant, was entertaining, and she never left their company without being amused and engaged.
Until meeting Lila and Flo, May hadn't realized how lonely she'd been after Irving's death. For almost a year, her only regular companion had been her neighbor Carla Rossen, a woman of seventy-eight who lived in the adjacent condo. They had gone to lunch and dinner at the clubhouse almost every day, and May had sat by quietly while her friend rehearsed an endless series of complaints.
"Do you call this a piece of veal?" Carla would demand, putting down her fork and looking around her in amazement. "It tastes like cardboard! How dare they expect me to eat cardboard instead of veal!"
Everything for Carla was a personal affront. The mailman, in placing her Boca Times in May's box, was clearly intending to insult her. "I know what he's up to," she explained knowingly to May. "He gave me the fish-eye the first time I saw him. Murray" — Murray was her husband, once a focal point of irritation, now, in being dead, a saint —" wouldn't have stood for it."
Carla's ability to find fault was at times so vast and inventive that it approached the level of a literary gift. Nothing was too small to evoke her disfavor, from the quality of the plantings next to the pool to the odor of the air freshener in the club bathroom. May dutifully listened to Carla's complaints, nodding and offering explanations as far as she could, until the friendship was finally severed when May failed to send a thank-you note for a dozen rugelach that Carla had baked for her birthday. May had not seen the necessity of a note since she lived next door and had given her thanks in person, but for Carla the omission had been a gross breach in etiquette.
"A thank-you note shows respect," declared Carla indignantly; it was a dictum her mother had taught her when she was ten years old, and she had held to it unwaveringly for nearly seventy years. "It's clear that you do not respect me."
May assured her that she did, but Carla would not be convinced and eventually ceased speaking to her neighbor altogether. Now, when they passed each other, Carla looked away with exaggerated disdain, so that Lila and Flo, who knew May's gentle nature, were mystified as to what could have elicited such a reaction. For May, Carla's hurt feelings were a source of pain, though she was also secretly relieved — being audience to so much constant complaining had been a trial. She felt fortunate to have met Lila and Flo, women with opinions and ideas who did not take themselves too seriously and who liked to laugh.
The friendship was odd in its way. Though all three women were Jewish and over seventy, they were also very different in disposition and style. Lila Katz was the shortest, barely five feet, with a trim, bosomy figure and a mass of red-orange hair that she kept carefully lacquered through weekly trips to the premier Boca stylist. It was her one indulgence, since she was on a fixed income and obliged to be vigilant about expenses.
"If Mort, the schnook, had had the good grace to leave me something, I wouldn't have to worry about the mortgage on the condominium and go around in rags."
"Rags?" queried Flo, looking doubtfully at Lila's Nicole Miller top and Ralph Lauren skirt.
"Well, they might as well be, for what I paid for them," explained Lila. "Why shouldn't I be able to buy retail? I'm not saying that I would, but I should be able to if I want." Lila's sense of what should be had the incisive clarity of the best Utopian philosopher.
"I think you look lovely," interjected May.
"I don't want to look lovely," protested Lila, "I want to look glamorous."
May Newman listened to Lila's tirades with amusement. She had none of her friend's flash or sense of frustrated entitlement, and her unassuming manner might have rendered her invisible were it not for an unusual sweetness of disposition and a definite if faded prettiness that gained by the novelty of her unawareness of it. She dressed conservatively, dyed her hair the light brown of her youth, and wore little jewelry. She was zaftig, as she liked to say, and was forever turning down the offered piece of cheesecake by explaining that she needed to lose twenty pounds. Flo argued otherwise: "If you ever lose weight," she said, "you'll look like a movie star and be shipped off to Hollywood to compete with that skinny half-Jewish Gwyneth Paltrow — so eat the cheesecake."
Excerpted from Jane Austen in Boca by Paula Marantz Cohen. Copyright © 2002 Paula Marantz Cohen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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