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Twice in a Lifetime
By Constance O'Day-Flannery
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2006 Constance O'Day-Flannery
All rights reserved.
GIRLFRIENDS WERE WONDERFUL, ALMOST A NECESSITY for any woman struggling to survive in an ever-changing world, but when the girlfriends were closer than sisters, no punches were held. You were part of a spiritual family. You could take it.
Actually, you had little choice but to take it. It was what you had signed up for when you loved without question or judgment.
"Okay, so here's the way I see it, and I don't care if I am the first one to open my mouth." Claire paused briefly, as though to impart something important. "It's time for you to come out of the shadows, Isabel," she said in a matter-of-fact voice, her expression serious. "No one is suggesting you become a wild and crazy woman wearing purple hats. Just that you step up to the plate again, so to speak."
Isabel Calloway knew anytime one of them was the subject of discussion, especially if Claire was leading the discussion, it meant something unwanted was going to be exposed. It might be done gently, with compassion, yet it was still going to sting like hell in the end. No matter how the bandage is ripped off, little by little or all at once, it always smarts. "But I'm sort of used to the shadows now," Isabel answered, trying not to become defensive. This meeting was supposed to be about the direction of the foundation they had formed months ago, not about her.
"Really?" Kelly asked, leaning into the table all six of them were seated around. "How could you be used to the shadows?"
Isabel wasn't sure how to respond, or if they really wanted to hear her answer. Especially Kelly, red-haired single mom of a teenager, and still looking for her Mr. Right.
"So what's the big deal about speaking at this conference? You did it years ago, and now you have something important to say."
She heard Claire and smiled slightly before staring out of her gazebo to the tall oak and maple trees showing the last signs of autumn. Fall was nearly over, and everything in nature was preparing for winter. It was kind of like the way her life felt right now.
Bringing her attention to the women around her, she smiled again. How they believed in her, all of them, the Yellow Brick Road Gang, strangers who had come together eight years ago for a book club and who had morphed into a tight circle of friends who would support you in a crisis and call you on your crap when you were hiding from it.
Was she in hiding now? Is that how they saw it? She might as well ask. "Do you actually think I'm hiding from life?"
"Yes!" the chorus of female voices answered.
Isabel laughed self-consciously. "Well, I guess that's clear enough. But I don't think I am, not really. I see clients. I'm involved with the foundation, Cristine." She looked at her dear friend, who certainly wasn't hiding from her life after winning the lottery, giving birth to an adorable daughter, and forming a foundation that supported women in need. "I see you guys all the time."
"But there's more to life than work, Issy," Cristine said gently. "You still wear Chuck's clothes sometimes, and he's been gone for seven years. You refused the makeover in New York City and —"
"And you're too young to have that white hair," Tina interrupted in her "call it like it is" way of speaking her truth. "I mean, c'mon, Issy.... Why don't you at least have it tinted, try out a little color?"
Isabel grinned at Tina, noting the smooth milk-chocolate tone of her skin, which seemed to radiate now that she was in love with the doctor who had delivered Cristine's baby. "Tina, believe it or not, I happen to like my hair," she stated, running her fingers through the straight shoulder-length strands. And it was white, pure white, not gray and dull. "And what happens when I dye my hair and my roots begin to show? I'll look like Pepé Le Pew."
"But your face is too young for white hair," Tina countered. "I'm just saying it wouldn't hurt to try something new."
"Why do you like it?" Paula asked.
Isabel thought about it a second too long.
"Is it like some badge of widowhood you insist on keeping?" Claire demanded, pouncing on her when she'd hesitated answering.
Even though she had a heart of gold in most situations, Claire always was the one to go for the jugular if you were hiding behind a mask. Isabel wasn't going to get angry with Claire, or with any of them. They simply didn't understand. Maybe it was time they did. "Listen, you're all younger than I am. Do you want to know what happens to women my age? We start to become invisible. We move through society, and no one pays us attention. It isn't that I want to disappear. Society doesn't shine a flattering spotlight on women approaching fifty or beyond."
"You're not old," Kelly insisted. "You're still a vital woman. That's what we're trying to tell you."
Paula crossed her arms over her chest. "Well, Isabel is right, in a way." All attention turned to Paula, the anthropologist with five kids who was finally finishing her thesis to get her master's degree. "It's not as apparent in Europe as it is in America. We're a youth-driven society here. The ads directed at women Isabel's age are for fighting wrinkles and age-related diseases. You see it everywhere, and it can be depressing. How are women who are approaching fifty supposed to feel vital in a society that treats them as has-beens? Just when was the last time that Meryl Streep had a leading romantic role portraying a woman who still grabbed life with both hands? Or Glenn Close? Or any other major actress that age? Think about it, ladies, because this is where we're all heading in a decade or more. Do you think women stop being sexual beings when they hit fifty? Where are the role models to tell society that women get better with age, not worse?"
"Men certainly have them," Claire muttered, her beautiful face transformed into a scowl. "Especially in the media. Michael Douglas. Harrison Ford. De Niro and Pacino are still leading men. They still have careers, because men become distinguished as they age and women just get old? Give me a break. Their faces are allowed to look like walnuts, but a woman has to go under the knife until she looks like the Joker? It's discrimination, that's what it is, and it's keeping the stereotypes in place." Her features lightened. "You could be a role model, Issy. For us. Become that woman who still grabs life with both hands."
"I don't want to be anyone's role model. I'm just trying to live out my life and —"
"And stay in the shadows," Tina interjected. "Your light is too brilliant to be overshadowed. That's why we're here, Isabel. To coax that light back out."
"I thought we were here to discuss the foundation," Isabel said.
No one answered her. They simply smiled and looked at her with love.
Isabel swallowed the lump in her throat. A part of her knew they were right. Somewhere in the last seven years she had capitulated, given up, given in ... thought the best part of her life behind her.
"So will you consider going to the conference?" Cristine asked. "If it's a baby step, can you take it?"
"Please," Kelly asked, her blue eyes wide with hope. "You really do have something that needs to be heard."
"Do it," Claire said. "Or we'll put on our red high heels and be back here next week for another meeting."
"Do it," Paula added. "It's important work."
"Just do it, woman," Tina added. "You've got something to say, so say it."
She looked into their faces, and she felt tears forming. They were the closest thing to family that she had now. She didn't want to disappoint them, even if she also knew that going to the Regional Conference for Clinical Hypnotherapists at a local college was the very last place she wanted to be.
"All right, all right. I'll do it," she stated with exasperation, and sniffled a few times. "Then will you all get off my case?"
"Like we ever would!"
"Get real, girl!"
"Honey, when your stuff begins to stink, who else will tell you except the people who love you?"
Isabel sighed deeply with surrender. She had signed up for this eight years ago, so she really couldn't complain about their interference. And she'd done the same to them. Now it was simply her turn under the microscope of friendship. But damn it, now she had to follow through with the conference, something she had successfully avoided for years.
It was a mistake. More than a mistake — it was turning into a disaster.
Her mouth went dry. Fear seized her diaphragm. Her heart slammed into the wall of her chest, and her breath seemed to stick against the back of her throat. Her hands were clutching the edges of the podium, as though it were the only thing keeping her upright. Dear God don't let me die now, she prayed. Not here. Not in front of a bored audience of professionals who couldn't care what she was saying.
Seconds seemed timeless as she berated herself. Why was she doing this? She so disliked the spotlight, the undivided attention, the expectation, and then the signs of a wandering mind, as though she had lost the audience ten minutes before. Wind it up, Isabel, she told herself. Get off the stage and get out of the room.
"And so it is my belief some of these autistic children can be helped by clinical hypnotherapy, the gateway into the subconscious, thereby releasing them from, perhaps, years of isolation." She paused again, glancing down to her notes, amazed she had pushed those words out and wishing she had a dynamite closing or even a Dr. Phil saying like "It'll happen faster than flapjacks cookin' on your momma's cast-iron skillet," but she wasn't Dr. Phil. She was Isabel Calloway, widow, about to turn fifty the day after the seventh anniversary of her husband's death, and this whole experience of presenting her findings at the regional conference was turning into a classical anxiety attack.
"Thank you for your attention," she finally said, and listened to a polite smattering of applause as she gathered up her notes and walked off the stage.
Her face was burning with embarrassment as she placed one foot in front of the other, walking past the moderator — who was smiling tightly, obviously disappointed — past the curtains, the backstage, and finally, blessedly, out an exit door.
When it slammed behind her, Isabel flinched and closed her eyes to the sun as she stuffed the index cards into her jacket pocket. What a mistake to come here, she thought, forcing a deep shuddering breath, as though to break through the wall of fear that had wrapped around her chest. Why had she ever let the group talk her into it? Thinking about the five women who had encouraged her to speak at the conference, Isabel smiled. Almost.
The Yellow Brick Road Gang, with their decorated red high heels that were mandatory footwear for meetings, had meant well — she knew that — and had truly thought her work with autistic children should be shared. Perhaps the best way was to write a book, alone in her own home without an audience, though that whole process scared the hell out of her too. She didn't know if she had the kind of discipline such a project would demand.
Opening her eyes, she sighed heavily and walked down the steps to a low cement wall that delineated the space between the main auditorium and a small park. She didn't have the energy to walk in the park, so she simply sat down on the wall and covered her face with her hands.
Why did she put this pressure on herself? she wondered, massaging her forehead with the pads of her fingers. Wasn't it enough that the dreaded week of hell was fast approaching? Why did she ever put herself though this torture of public speaking? No matter what the group had said, she did so much better in the shadows now, leading her quiet life, getting her excitement from the others. She'd had enough turmoil to last a lifetime. Anyone's lifetime.
She thought about the week from hell and wondered if she should just go away somewhere quiet to remember Chuck and, lest she forget, oh yeah ... to turn fifty the very next day. She always wondered if Chuck had died the day before her birthday so she would never forget him ... as though she could. So much of her loved him still, but a tiny sliver of her mind thought it was the dirtiest trick ever played on her.
She slowly shook her head, wishing she could click her heels, turn back time, and warn him not to go into work or walk that steel girder. He would only have laughed at her worry, because she'd always worried, always had a sick premonition one day that damn job would kill him and take him away from her.
Chuck. Charles Calloway. Tall, handsome, he had come into her life at thirteen and had swept her off her feet with his eyes, his smile. Older than her by eight years, he'd treated her as his equal, asking for her opinions and waiting for her to grow up, go to college, be engaged to the proper doctor of medicine her stuffy parents had thought was appropriate. Ten years after they'd first met, he returned to her life with the force of a hurricane, moving back to their hometown and right back into her heart. Her parents had been appalled when she'd broken off her engagement to the doctor and had told them of her plans to marry an ironworker. She'd never felt that kind of expansive love before, and had insisted she and Chuck would elope if her parents didn't give their blessing.
She'd loved him then with an innocent awe, and the love she held for him now was bittersweet, like a healed scar that sometimes itches, sending sharp threads of pain right below the surface of the skin.
How could he have left her so soon? He'd been too young. Too vibrant. Too essential to her life. She remembered how the first year after he was gone she could barely breathe, and constantly had to remind herself to inhale, to keep on going. Her hair had turned pure white by the first anniversary of his death. And then she'd begun wearing his clothes, his shirts, his jackets with the sleeves rolled up. The second year she could breathe normally again, but her body began to yearn for his so badly that she bought a new mattress, foolishly believing if she slept on something new she could dispel the memories and the terrible craving to be held in his arms. By the third year she had lost all carnal cravings, for Chuck or anyone else. Something inside of her had died along with her husband. She'd had the best, at least the best for her: best friend, best lover, best companion. Acceptance had come in the fourth year, and she now led a solitary life, staying alone in the big old Victorian house Chuck had loved. Since she and Chuck hadn't been able to have children, there was nowhere to see him reproduced in the curve of a smile or the tilt of a head, or to feel that dark silky hair she had loved to run her fingers through. No children, no grandchildren to come, and no one to wrap her in their arms and ... damn it, she had thought she was done with pity parties.
Mentally shaking herself, Isabel stood up, stretched the muscles in her five-foot-nine body, and sighed. Time to get on with it. Put on a brave face, smile at the other conference attendees, and make her way home.
And think about writing a book ... no more public speaking.
She climbed the steps back to the auditorium door and pushed the metal bar on the steel. Nothing.
It was an automatic lock.
She knocked, waiting to see if anyone would answer. No one did.
Sighing, she turned and walked down the steps, around the building, knowing she was going to have to use the main entrance to pick up her briefcase and her purse. Forget the closing cocktail party. The very last thing she needed was to mingle with anyone who had heard her poorly delivered speech. Which was odd in itself because once, a long time ago it seemed, she had considered herself at least a competent public speaker. There was a time she had been one of the stars of these conferences, winning Therapist of the Year twice, surrounded at the cocktail parties by others who seemed to value her opinion. That was when she had been full of herself and her confidence ran on a high level, and that had seemed to attract even more recognition. Then Chuck had died and she'd pulled back. It had been a trial to get up in the morning and get dressed, let alone muster the energy to attend a conference.
Had been. The past. What was the present showing her?
She was a has-been — a person whose star had lost its glimmer.
Excerpted from Twice in a Lifetime by Constance O'Day-Flannery. Copyright © 2006 Constance O'Day-Flannery. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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