How pleasant to see 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 and her eyes flicked subliminally to the left, which meant that she didn’t know who Lotte was; 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 carried a cane and the woman in the stole offered to get her a drink.
“Oh, thanks. I’m fine, really,” Lotte told her. “I can get it myself.” Lotte was pleased to see her friend Bessie by the coatrack 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.” Bessie must have known that her friends could not stand Colin, the only one of the husbands still living. Colin owned houses and cars, talked about the inadequacy of the parking, and was dying of something slow and ravaging.
“Who is the old woman in the stole?” Lotte asked Bessie.
“That’s 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.”
“That was the address of the Baskins’ party, and you said you were not going.”
“Yes, well,” Lotte said, “the prospect of leaving my apartment brings on a critical desire to stay home, to not get dressed, to take my Kindle and go to bed, a minimal agoraphobia. But I like parties.”
“If you call it a party. I hope they do martinis.”
“Why isn’t this a party?” asked Lotte following her friend, who seemed to know the geography of this handsome apartment in the high Bauhaus style.
They were intercepted by an unusually large, young—well, a younger— man who kissed Bessie. He said, “Anybody seen Sylvia?”
“Who was that?” Lotte asked Bessie.
“Don’t know,” said Bessie. “Reminds me of the seventies, when one kept being hugged by old students come out from behind their beards.”
“Who is Sylvia?”
“Your hostess. The woman in the stole,” said Bessie. Drinks were in the kitchen, where Bessie was drawn into conversation with people she knew.
Lotte put out her hand to an old man standing by himself in the doorway. She said, “My late husband and I had an agreement: 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 good 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.”
“That’s the one I know. She’s my sister,” said the pleasant old man. “Ruthie was our aunt and I’ve come in from Albany.”
The large, younger man who had kissed Bessie performed a quarter turn, which brought him 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 which will interpret the musculature of the face of the person with whom you are talking and will tell you not only their name but where you know them from.”
Bessie brought two martinis, one for Lotte and one for herself, and said, “Let’s sit down. I can’t stand so long.” Bessie and Lotte carried their drinks to a sofa.
“And just in time,” Lotte told Bessie. “I’ve used up all my conversation starters. One more time, tell me the name of our hostess.”
“Sylvia,” said Bessie.
“I talked to her brother, who has a nice face.” “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 one 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. 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 does not hurt. 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 comfort- able 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.” “It is!”
“I forget who said wakes and funerals are the cocktail parties of the old?”