Charlotte Singer Brown is having a Midlife Crisis. All caps. And no amount of denial, cozy socks, or running around the garden with a martini and a hoe will dissolve the feeling that she has given in to a truck load of mediocrity. Not to mention the disquieting idea of moving somewhere. Anywhere. As long as it’s Scotland.
On a whim, Charlotte – or Charlie, as everyone calls her – decides to sell Bridestone, her behemoth of a Victorian, and receives an unexpected proposition from the quirky MacIntosh family, who show up one day on her doorstep. Within the course of one pivotal year, Charlie catches raw glimpses of a past she thought she’d left behind – including the death of her father, her strained relationship with her mother, and her husband’s unsuccessful fight with colon cancer.
With the help of an arbitrary group who begin to feel like family, along with a copious amount of tea-drinking, Charlie finally comes to face a life blown open, the ugly and the sublime. The precarious and the absolute. And everything in between.
The day he died was a Tuesday. She remembered it was a Tuesday because her mother came to pick her up from school, plucking her like a petal from a daisy, removing her from the classroom where she’d been rehearsing for the second grade play, “Pig Hooey.” Tuesday was rehearsal day. It was also the day of his death. Death day.
“We’re going,” her mother said. All business. Nothing to suggest that there would be, in a few hours, reason to reexamine the meaning of a day to day existence; that maybe there would be a time, not so far away, when the mirror would reflect a face blinded by pain. And Charlie had seen her mother’s hand, her mother’s knuckles reddened and swollen-looking, and had placed her own smaller hand underneath the swollen knuckles, and had walked with her to the station wagon parked in the visitor’s lot in front.
The blossoms on the apple trees at the side of the road unfolded in blind conviction as they drove toward the hospital, a white and pink blur filtering through the corners of her eyes. She remembered the ride well. Pulling into the parking lot. Slamming the car door shut. The rhythmic whispering of the revolving door as they stepped through it. Walking down the hall to his room, their footsteps hollow on the cold floor. Her mother’s blue tweed jacket, scratchy to the touch when she brushed it with the back of her hand. Her mother’s sturdy beige pumps, her teal leather purse with the brass clasp snapped shut. Nurses whisked by them, carrying clipboards, the brightness of their uniforms defying the gray – gray walls, gray floor, gray wheelchairs. The mingled smell of bleach and perfume.
The moment they entered the room – that was the moment his face faded away at the edges like a dream sequence in the movies. She wanted to visualize him – his laugh, his smell, what he had said, his nose, his mouth, the nuance of his cheek. She wanted to remember his whole face. But she had nothing more than an impression, indistinct and elusive.
Maybe the thing she had seen in his face was too painful to remember; or maybe what he said meant too much. Like a gift too precious, maybe she needed to push his words away into the back of her memory, each one framed, a small offering, as he wrapped his mouth around every syllable, exquisite parcels encased in ribbon. Maybe she had to insulate herself from those words or she’d be impaled, devoured by the inevitable rush of sorrow.
Whatever he had said was significant – philosophical, perhaps. He would have been in bed, of course, with the sunlight streaking through the center of the heavy forest green curtains. Next to him would have been the machine with tubes and buttons sticking out from it, a contorted and malicious alien. On the other side would have been the television set sitting on the cart with wheels, alongside a tray of pears and half-eaten toast. The tray, a sort of mauve, sectioned off in cavities, compartmentalized food. The wallpaper striped with a faded blue, a half-hearted attempt at cordiality. She had memorized all of it.
All but his face, and what he had said. The memories she’d managed to hold onto would have to be enough. He was long gone, thirty-three years buried. If only she’d paid more attention. If only she’d kept his words with her, imbedded into her conscience like a favorite film clip, to be viewed, pored over, again and again.
But she hadn’t. And, and it turned out, it was the last time she saw him.
Charlotte Singer Brown’s Midlife Crisis arrived unexpectedly. It entered her home like a pushy, demanding old aunt, elbowing its way through her foyer and into her kitchen as it opened her fridge without asking and helped itself to her leftovers. One night she went to bed and the next morning it was there – an interloper sitting in the center of her bedroom, glaring at her. Midlife Crisis. All caps.
It came uninvited, as far as Charlotte (or Charlie, as most people called her) was concerned. She rested her head against the wall at Kate’s house, number 23 St. John’s Lane – the mailbox in front had assured her that’s where she was – and gazed at the wave of heads bobbing and jutting around as they drank their cocktails. The day had leaped forward in unkind delight, delivering her to the party and slowing down to a crawl on sensing her discomfort.
Time can be such a sadist, she thought, as she sipped from her pomegranate martini, her body plastered against the wall. She could have stayed in the position for hours. Or perhaps she could have dissolved, disappearing into the wall, and no one would have noticed she was there. The one visible thing would have been her hovering martini glass, bodiless and perky. It wouldn’t know of such things as Midlife Crises. Or, if it did, it wouldn’t let on.
She stirred the swizzle stick in her martini glass and stared at the cluster of heads, which seemed to move as one solitary entity. The darkened room foamed with an erratic movement of bodies, the party escalating into controlled madness. Her friend Kate had insisted she come. Had insisted that she talk to someone. As in a person. Other than herself.
“You’ll meet someone new, maybe,” Kate had pressed, her smile penetrating the darkened spaces in Charlie’s head, spaces she didn’t want illuminated. “Maybe some men. It’s been three years, Charlie. Time to get out there.”
Charlie didn’t want to get out there. She detested it out there. She wanted to stay in, wanted to pad around in her blue and white winter-in-Sweden slipper socks and read Harpers’ magazines and sip tea and eat chocolate-dipped hazelnuts. She wanted to watch old Jerry Lewis movies with a glass of Pinot Noir and laugh aloud at the “Heeey Laaaydeeee’s” and not have to make the very-teeny-tiny-talk about her kids or the New York Times bestseller list or the weather in Belize, or toss her head back as if she were enjoying a witty remark with people she had only met five minutes ago.
“…do you know Kate?”
She jumped, and looked into the face of a tall man in a black cashmere-looking sweater. Charlie had no idea how long he’d been standing there, waiting for her to emerge from her paralytic inner dialogue. He hadn’t noticed she was trying to be stand-offish, to be viewed but not approached. He hadn’t detected that, as in Pyramus and Thisbe, the play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she wanted to act the part of The Wall, complete with crannied hole or chink for one and all to peep through – a stalwart player, broad and silent, and not ever, never to be directly addressed.
He smiled at her, and shifted from one foot to the other, pulling his beer in close to his chest. He wore a clean, shimmering watch wrapped thickly around his wrist.
“What?” she said, almost yelling, the room becoming frenzied.
“I said, how do you know Kate?” he yelled back, smile unwavering.
“Oh. She was a colleague of my husband’s. Once upon a time.” She swigged back the remains of her cocktail.
His smile faded. The change was hardly perceptible. “Ah. Is he here, too?” he asked.
Charlie looked across the room again. “No,” she said. “He’s…he died, actually. Three years ago.”
“What? Sorry, I…” He pointed to his ear, smiling, and shrugged.
“I said, he died! Three years ago!” Charlie shouted.
“Oh, God. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
Charlie spotted Kate chatting it up with a couple in the corner. They looked as if they were having a lively conversation. One she could invade, if it came to that. Which it had.
“Sorry. Excuse me.” She gave the cashmere-watch man a close-lipped smile and pushed her way toward Kate and the small group comprising her audience. Kate was laughing, her drink tilted backward and in danger of spilling all over the spectacularly spotless floor.
“…and he had the door completely open! Can you believe it? I mean, if he had…”
She stopped, her drink in mid-spill. Charlie reached over and tilted Kate’s glass back in the opposite direction, averting certain disaster. She was a cocktail-saving heroine. Protector of clean flooring and vodka gimlets everywhere.
“What, Charlie? I’m standing right here. What?”
“Um. I’m leaving, I think. Have got to get back to…”
“But, you can’t! We haven’t even started the…”
“Yeah, oh, I’m sure it would have been tons of fun. But you see, I’ve got a lot going on tomorrow morning, so…”
Kate slid over and dangled a free hand around her shoulder. “Charlie,” she said wetly into her ear. “Cut it out. I know you’ve got nothing going on tomorrow.”
“No, I do. I was planning on getting up early and doing some yoga, and having tea and a chocolate doughnut or something, and then possibly taking an extremely sharp chef’s knife and slicing my head off. You see. So I have to run.”
Kate looked at her, bemused.
“Kidding. I was kidding about the knife part.”
“Yeah,” Charlie shook Kate’s arm free from her shoulder and handed her the empty martini glass. “I’ve got to go.”
He called her two days later. His name was Dan, and Charlie had to shift gears from deciding what to feed her daughter for dinner from an empty fridge to a conversation with a man she barely knew, as she steadied herself against the solidity of the kitchen counter. Dan. Kate’s party. Shiny watch, black cashmere. Gotcha. She wondered how he’d acquired her number and realized Kate had been afoot, giving out Charlie’s number without a thought, as if she were the local pizza joint down the street or a reliable, well-recommended mechanic.
“Well,” Dan said, “you know, it doesn’t have to be anything serious. Let’s just go out as friends. For dinner. I can get us reservations at Pauline’s. I know some people there.”
“Oh, yeah, I hear that’s a good place, but, the thing is, you see…I mean, I…” Charlie stumbled, silently cursing Kate. “I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not ready yet for the dating scene, or whatever you want to call it, thanks so much. I’m just not ready, I guess. Is the thing. So.”
“Ah. Okay. Well.” Dan paused. “Well, let me know if you change your mind. I can give you my number.”
She wrote down his number, folding the paper and stuffing it into the junk basket near the phone, where she was sure it would live for many good years along with the paper clips and one cent stamps. There were more awkward murmurings before they hung up. She felt some regret as she put down the phone. Poor old Dan. It was puzzling, even to her, as to why she’d refused him. She hadn’t been with a man in over three years. Three years seemed like a long time. But, perhaps it wasn’t. She supposed three years could go either way, depending upon the resilience of the person – which implied she wasn’t the best in the bouncing back department. She was, apparently, more of a wallower.
Poor old Dan wouldn’t be her great romance. Still, it might have been fun. There might have been kissing, or something, she told herself. Being kissed would have been nice. It was the “or something” that got to her.
She watched the chickadees fly to and from the feeder outside the window and thought about the myriad of “or somethings” that always seemed to hang around, appearing when she least expected them to. She couldn’t think about having a relationship with anyone. But sex might have been possible, if only she could get beyond her inhibitions. Lately, she hadn’t even looked at herself naked. Her body was cumbersome, her sexuality on hold. Her mind was too removed from the physical aspect of her; she was just a big head walking around, detached from its counterpart of arms and legs and stomach and knees. She’d paid scarce attention to her toenails, let alone her vagina. She even opted for stilted words like “sexuality,” and “vagina,” as if she were a Junior High School sex-ed counselor. She wondered what she’d come up with next. Probably, “intercourse,” or “genitalia.” She wished she could use sexier words, practice rampant raunchiness, vacuum the carpet with nothing on but stiletto heels like she’d seen someone do in a movie once. She wanted to be a black suede bikini in a room full of white wedding dresses, but suspected she was more like plaid flannel pajamas flapping on a clothesline.
It was too soon. But one kiss would have been nice.
She ran to the elevator before the doors closed, shoving her hand in the diminishing crack between. The startled faces inside watched as she drew her hand back in alarm with a small yelp. The doors, rather than snapping shut on her hand, glided open, and she stepped in. “Sorry,” Charlie murmured. “Three, please.”
The man standing closest to the buttons pushed three, and she nodded her thanks, examining her practical low-heeled pumps. She practiced breathing, her hands cold and clammy-feeling. The elevator stopped at the second floor and three women got off, laughing at something that was, evidently, hysterical, the smell of peppermint and coffee wafting out with them. Charlie was left alone with the button-pushing-man, and as the elevator opened on three she stepped out, glancing at him as she left. He smiled at her – wolfishly, she thought – and she frowned at him as the elevator door closed. A free-standing cube with a sign imprinted on it stood facing the elevator bank.
Feinstein Wing of Contemporary Art, Joseph Feinstein Family Foundation
Painting and Sculpture, Exhibits A – F
Paper, Decorative Arts, and Design, Exhibits G – L
New Media, Exhibits M – R
Public Relations, 301
Human Resources, 303
Charlie perused the map imprinted on the opposite side of the cube and discovered the Human Resources office was located to the right of the new Murakami exhibit, Hallway 4 circling around and irrepressibly becoming Hallway 1 again. She glanced at her phone to check the time, realizing she was in danger of being late, and scurried through the halls, her shoes skimming the low carpet pile, trying not to break into a full-out run. She reached Hallway 4 and slowed, scanning the room numbers as she passed them. 301, 302 – and there it was. Human Resources, 303.
She pushed open the door. A woman with a broad nose and shoulders sat at a desk in the center of the room. She glanced up as Charlie entered, and looked down again at a pile of papers in front of her. Charlie thought her somewhat rude, until she realized the woman was on the phone.
“Yes, of course, I’ll tell him. No, there’s no reason to…okay. Okay. Yes. See you soon, Doctor Jillian. No, of course not. Yes. Okay. Good bye.” She hung up and consulted the paper at the top of the pile before turning her full attention to Charlie.
“Sorry,” she said, giving an obligatory smile. “Can I help you?”
“Yes.” Charlie gripped her bag. “I’m here to see Timothy Lundgren. About the Gallery Assistant position.”
“Oh, right. Please have a seat. I’ll let him know you’re here. What’s your name?”
“Charlotte Singer Brown.”
Charlie sat, picking up a magazine and putting it back down again. She coughed in her sleeve, and glanced to her left, where another person, perhaps another candidate, was sitting, legs crossed – an older woman with combed silver-blonde hair, who looked just put together enough for Charlie to feel inadequate in her hastily pulled back bun and light brown pantsuit and old shoes. Her daughter, Fin, was right. She should have worn black – the color of power.
“Charlotte?” The woman at the desk waved her in. She stood, and followed her down a hall and into a back office. Timothy Lundgren stood by the door, hand outstretched. She took it and gave what she hoped was a firm handshake.
“Shall we?” he asked, indicating two black leather chairs set away from the desk area. She sat down in one, the leather divinely soft, and he sat opposite her, his face wrinkled up in a smile. “So,” he said. “You’re interested in the Gallery Assistant position. What made you apply to this position, in particular?”
“Well, I…” she started, and stopped, staring at his shoes. They were gigantic, clown shoes, oxfords in beige and brown, one of them extended out in front of him and waving back and forth, his legs crossed.
“You…?” he prompted. The monster shoe paused.
“I…yes. I’ve always loved art, you know. I took it, majored in it, in school – art history, that is. I’m sure that’s down there, somewhere.” She motioned toward the paper in his hands. “It was the thing that kept me out of trouble,” she went on. “You know, when I was younger. I don’t get into much trouble, these days.” She laughed briefly, wondering if she sounded as idiotic as she suspected.
“Okay,” he said, and scanned her flimsy resume. “You haven’t done much, in the way of work,” he told her. “Why should we hire you over someone else?”
Charlie paused. Why should he hire me over someone else? she thought. Why should he?
“You shouldn’t,” she said at last. “I have zero experience. But I do have something that someone else might not.”
He leaned forward. “What’s that?”
She glanced at him, then looked toward the open window, avoiding his feet. “Desperation,” she said.