Curves of the Letter S
On the first Friday morning of February, Mrs. Vivian Stein, of 5 South Springs Road, sat troubled and alone in her usual Queen Anne chair, sipping green tea and watching the local morning news. It wasn’t grief or solitude that troubled her today. Her husband, Sam, had passed away nine months prior of a sudden heart attack, and Vivian had come to accept her life of mourning. Her days began and ended in much the same way. She’d sit expressionless watching young, attractive men and women talk about what was happening in the world outside her home. Frequently, she’d turn left and stare through the vacant space Sam once occupied, sitting in the twin chair beside her. She’d sigh and then turn back to the television or glance across the room, out her bay windows to watch the Florida sun rise then slowly and inevitably give way to clouds and later darkness as each day passed. There was a steadiness if not solace to be gleaned from the monotony.
No, Vivian had two new causes for concern since her return home that past Monday from a visit with her son, Howie, and his family in her former hometown of Chicago. She had suffered a hard fall during her visit, which had turned three days of planned unpleasantness with Howie’s awful wife, Marisol, and Vivian’s feral twin ten-year-old grandsons into five weeks of misery. The pain still flared down her right hip at random intervals and then dulled into an unnerving numbness. It remained uncomfortable to stand or sit for long stretches, but she had nowhere to go, so she sat. Her only recent distraction from this discomfort was her second, and greater, cause of unease. Since her return several days ago, Vivian had observed the same two young women jog past her home each morning. As Vivian turned and stared out her window just then, she spotted one of them trotting past her home. Again, Vivian thought to herself.
The Steins were the first and to her knowledge the only two residents of the South Springs development for over two years. Sam’s passing had reduced the development’s population by half. The lack of traffic, pedestrian or otherwise, outside her home was further caused by South Springs being born into the waning days of the most recent real estate boom. Isolated and remote compared to other developments, it was accessible only via one narrow stretch of road that took a circuitous route between undrained swampland to the east and the Paradise Country Club & Fairways to the west. In fact, the few passersby Vivian did occasionally glimpse on South Springs Road were foursomes of overweight retirees clad in pastel polo shirts and plaid shorts crammed into a golf cart that had made an errant turn on the back nine. These carts, after chugging along the entire length of the development, which was laid out in an elongated letter S, would soon be seen driving back in the opposite direction, since the promised egress that would create a direct route to the state highway and commercial areas had yet to be built. There was only one way in and one way out.
She hadn’t given the initial sight of the women much thought on Tuesday. Though fewer in number than the golf carts, the sporadic long distance runner had been spotted before. But to spy the exact same two women jogging by her window again on Wednesday was certainly odd. She noted one woman, roughly her same height, had blonde hair tied in a high ponytail. Her companion was shorter and had thick, dark curly hair. And then yesterday they had returned yet again. What troubled Vivian most about the sightings was that the women seemed to run the route in reverse, and neither ever returned from the direction of the dead-end until the next morning. Where did they go?
Vivian saw only the curly-haired woman run past her window this morning, and the appearance of just one of them stoked her curiosity. Vivian looked over her shoulder at the empty chair, as if she had heard something, but the chair was still empty. Only the chatter from the television filled the room. She turned back towards the window to find that the jogger had already vanished from view. Vivian rose slowly, pushing herself up with both hands from the armrests. Despite the stiffness on her right side, she shuffled out her living room and down the short hallway. Just a few steps from the front door, another bolt of pain shot down her hip and leg. She paused and considered turning back for a moment, but willed herself forward.
Vivian opened her front door and looked out through the tempered glass storm door, which remained locked. There was no trace of the runner, only the same familiar view: a blue sky with scattered gray clouds, two perfect clones of her own house across the street, and Sam’s Lincoln parked crooked in the driveway ever since the day he passed. Vivian stared down through the Lincoln’s dirty windshield into its empty front seats.
The couple had caught a matinee that day, like they had every Saturday afternoon, and afterwards, an early dinner at the diner with the old-fashioned checkered tablecloths that Sam liked. On the drive home, Sam felt strange, but dismissed it as indigestion. As they drove, Vivian grew worried as she noticed the color fade from Sam’s face.
“Sam, what’s wrong? Sam? Are you okay?” she asked. But he remained silent, locked in intense concentration. Finally, after arriving back at their development, he veered into their driveway on a crooked angle and abruptly slammed on the breaks. He staggered out of the car, Vivian still calling out his name. At the top step, Sam collapsed as he reached for the front door. There was no one around to hear Vivian scream his name.
“Hi,” a young woman shouted suddenly from the curb, startling Vivian. The woman waved enthusiastically as if she was greeting an arriving cruise ship. Vivian froze like a thief caught at a crime scene. The young woman kept waving until Vivian smiled slightly and slowly raised her hand and feebly waved back. Taking this as an invitation, the young woman sprang up the walkway with several long strides. Vivian took a step back from the glass and reached for the knob of the front door behind her.
As the girl leapt up onto the front patio, Vivian recognized her as the other jogger. Despite the sweat and flush of her cheeks, Vivian noted she was a very pretty girl with a wide smile and long, honey-blonde hair, tied back again in a ponytail. “Hi,” she repeated one last time. “I’m not sure why I keep saying that. You’re the first neighbor I’m meeting. I’m Jessica.” She extended her hand in anticipation of Vivian emerging from her home. Vivian kept still. Through the glass door, each woman watched the other’s eyes widen. Neighbor? Vivian thought to herself. The word sounded almost foreign to her.
“Neighbor?” This time Vivian spoke it out loud, but her voice was soft and Jessica did not hear the question through the door. Jessica shook her head and raised a finger to her ear. Vivian raised her voice slightly and said, “You bought a home? Here?”
“Yep, moved in last weekend,” Jessica answered with a wide smile. “I’m sorry, but OMG, your hair is such a pretty color. I hope mine turns that color one day.” Vivian’s hair had lightened over the years into a unique shade of pale straw, stubbornly refusing to turn gray. Vivian found herself self-consciously tucking back a few strands and after a few moments, recalling her manners, she said, “Thank you.”
“What’s your name?” Jessica asked.
“Vivian,” she answered after a short pause, as if it took a moment to recall it. “Vivian Stein.” Vivian brought her lips together then opened her mouth to say something, but no words materialized. She shook her head to refocus and continued, “I’m sorry, but you said that you bought a home here? In this development?”
“Yep, we all just moved in.” Jessica replied, bouncing on her heels.
“We? You and your family?”
“No,” Jessica chuckled a bit, “Me and the other girls.” She turned and pointed at Vivian’s front windows. “I really love your curtains.”
“My window treatments?”
“Right, window treatments. I still just have the blinds that came with the house.”
“So you bought a home with some friends? Roommates?” As if on cue, a small red coupe came racing around the curve. The curly-haired girl drove, her face half obscured by large sunglasses. She honked twice and Vivian jumped at the sudden noise.
“Hey Sofi!” Jessica shouted as the car then sped away. “That’s Sofi. She’s nuts… in a good way. I’m sorry, what did you ask me?”
“You have roommates?”
“No,” Jessica shook her head. “I live by myself. I own number 14. Sofi bought 12.
Vivian felt the skin on her forehead tighten. She asked, “You each bought a home?”
“Yep, the four of us.”
While Vivian sorted her thoughts, Jessica asked, “Did you hurt your hip?”
“What?” She looked down at pale blue fabric of her skirt that ended well below her knees. “How?”
“The way you’re standing. You’re all lopsided and twisted.” Jessica reached out pressed her one finger against the glass directly opposite Vivian’s hip. “Are you doing any PT for that?”
“No, no. It’s fine. I just need some rest,” Vivian said, but Jessica frowned as she studied Vivian’s posture.
“If you want, I can help you with that,” Jessica said tapping her finger on the glass. “I’m a physical therapist. Well, I will be in another year, officially. I can show you a few stretches. Do you sit for a long time? See what happens is, your back…”
Vivian had already begun to close the front door. “I’m going to go rest now,” she told Jessica.
“Oh, okay.” Jessica nodded and smiled. “Nice to meet you,” she said.
Vivian, her face half blocked by the closing door, replied, “Yes, nice to meet you too.” She shut the door and locked it behind her. She leaned back against it. Her right hand reached for her hip, where the numbness felt worse than ever.
A week later, Vivian sat in the second row of gray cushioned benches inside the local senior shuttle sponsored by Temple Beth-Israel. The van’s driver had been over an hour late picking her up from the supermarket. Vivian wasn’t just stewing about the driver’s lateness; she was angry with herself. Living in the city for the majority of her life, she had never learned to drive. After the Steins had moved south, Vivian had suggested to Sam that maybe it was time for her to learn, but Sam just joked that he liked being her private chauffeur. The van hit another bump and sent a jolt down Vivian’s leg. One of the napping relics that sat in the row in front of her was jostled awake. She turned back, smiled crookedly and said to Vivian, “You should really stop by the Temple one afternoon now that you’re alone. We play bridge on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Vivian manufactured a polite smile in return.
As the van approached the archway to her development, she thought of Sam joking that it was fate that their development and he shared the same initials. She looked up at the two oversized wrought-iron capital Ss that began each word. Following the lower curve of both letters it struck her for the first time, the stylized font made them resemble two giant fishhooks.
The Steins had led a modestly successful life. When the time came for Sam to finally retire, they had spoken about selling their townhouse while the market was strong and distributing some of Howie’s inheritance early, though Vivian held some reservations concerning the latter part of that plan. Maybe they’d rent something out west, or buy a small condo. The Steins still pined for a return to La Jolla. They had honeymooned at the Coronado just a few years after Some Like It Hot was filmed there. Sam called her Marilyn the whole time. Sure, she had a nice figure in the day, but Vivian knew it wasn’t Marilyn Monroe-nice. That was her Sam.
It was also Sam who decided to secretly discuss their retirement plans with Howie. “Now don’t tell your mother I told you this, but…” was how he had started the conversation. So when Howie arrived at his parent’s home one evening, not even a month after the conversation with his father, carrying a stack of glossy brochures, Vivian was quite suspicious. Howie proclaimed that one of his former real estate acquaintances had “tipped him off” to this great opportunity for his parents. Yes, the fourteen homes looked lovely— seemingly well-built homes surrounded by lush landscaping, and they were oddly underpriced. After flying down from Chicago to view the property, Vivian was amazed how perfect it all seemed: the trees, the flower beds, like a landscape painting. The one concern was the obvious remoteness of the location. The last few miles leading to South Springs had seemed so desolate, she assumed Howie had gotten lost. The realtor-friend of Howie that met them at the property disclosed the cause for the discounted pricing. The municipality was committed to constructing an exit out of the development only at the time when half the homes were sold. The realtor and Howie assured them that this was a more than safe bet. This would be a prime residential location once the road opened up, the realtor added. He wouldn’t be surprised if the homes doubled in value in just a few years.
Less than two months later, the Steins moved into their new home. Barely one month after that, the housing and financial markets crashed. No other home in the development would be sold. With so much Florida inventory sitting on the market and prices dropping, why would anyone buy into South Springs with its dead end? She struggled not to blame it all on her son, since if she followed that path just slightly further, it also led to her beloved Sam.
Sam, with his blue eyes and warm smile, had always been a man of good intentions. On the day Howie was born, with Vivian cradling her newborn son in her arms, Sam leaned in close and whispered that she didn’t have to return to teaching elementary school in the fall. He had received another promotion at work that he purposely kept secret, wanting to surprise her with this “gift.” Sam never bothered to ask if this gift was something Vivian had wanted. He wanted what he thought was best for his wife and son. That was what he worked hard for.
As for her son, instead of pursuing a sensible career after college, Howie needed to be an instant tycoon, a big shot. Florida real estate, high-end furniture importing, commodities speculation, Howie charged into one scheme after the other, blowing through every dollar he made and every dollar Sam fed him. Howie’s last pronouncement—to become a great restaurateur—topped them all. Vivian pleaded with her husband, “You do know that just because he likes to eat at expensive restaurants, doesn’t mean he should own one.” But Sam couldn’t say no to his son. In the three years since they had sold their home of thirty years in Chicago, Howie had blown through his early inheritance to prop up his failing restaurant, the Steins became stranded like castaways on a solitary winding stretch of road, and finally, Sam died, leaving Vivian alone.
The Temple van finally pulled into her driveway, behind Sam’s crooked Lincoln. The driver, a well-kept but unfriendly man, carried the two bags of groceries to her front door and left them at the first step without bothering to ask if Vivian needed help carrying them in. He passed Vivian on his way back to his van without saying a word. He climbed back into the van and backed out of the driveway, only to stop abruptly as Jessica and the curly-haired girl came jogging down the street once again. Vivian was still searching for her keys in her purse when she heard the brakes screech. She watched the driver crane his neck out the window as the girls trotted past him. Spotting Vivian, Jessica pivoted and came sprinting up the driveway.
“Vivian!” She shouted, all smiles. “Hey. How are you? I haven’t seen you since last week.” Glancing up at her front door, then back at the girls, Vivian suddenly felt exposed. Since her conversation with Jessica, she had continued to monitor the girls’ daily morning runs while standing just beyond the edge of her living room window, trying to remain unseen. She had yet to make full sense of her conversation with Jessica last week.
“Good morning,” Vivian said. As the girls replied in kind, Vivian’s attention immediately focused on Jessica’s friend, Sofi. She was shorter than Jessica, slender but curvy. What fascinated Vivian most, though, was the intricate floral tattoo that began at the right side of her neck, engulfed her entire shoulder and spread down part of her chest and entire right arm. Bold orchids, dahlias, hibiscus, the vibrant impossible colors weaved together by swirling stems and vines. Vivian’s eyes followed their trail down her arm and then noticed the edges of rose petals emerging from the bottom hem of her tiny, skintight shorts. Without so much as a word, Sofi spun around and with her thumb pulled the elastic band away from her hip revealing one cheek adorned with starlette lilies, like a cluster of bursting suns.
“Yep, it goes all the way down,” she stated proudly over her shoulder.
“Sofi!” Jessica slapped her friend’s hand and the waistband snapped back against her skin. Sofi spun around, grinning. “Sorry, force of habit.” Jessica gave her a slightly scolding look. “Vivian, this is Sofi.” Sofi stiffened her posture, nudged her chin up almost regally and daintily extended her fingertips to shake Vivian’s hand.
“Quite pleased to make your acquaintance,” Sofi said in a mock-proper accent and then curtsied. Vivian’s face froze in a polite smile.
“Can we help with the bags?” Jessica asked.
“Thank you, but I can manage.”
“Is something wrong with your car?”
“I don’t drive. It was my husband’s.” Vivian said. She stood silently for a moment before adding, “He passed away last year.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss,” Jessica said. Before Vivian could thank her the condolences, Sofi had wrapped her arms around Vivian’s waist in a soft embrace. Vivian stiffened in surprise. After a final, gentle squeeze, Sofi looked up, gave her a warm smile, and released her, taking two steps back.
“My,” Vivian said. “Thank you. Thank you both.”
Jessica looked at the van, the driver’s head still hung out the window, leering back. She squinted a bit in thought. “You know, I’d be happy to give you a lift to the supermarket or wherever you need to go. If I’m not in class, I’m pretty much around during the day.”
“Me too,” Sofi added. She shot the driver a dirty look and he finally drove off. Vivian replied, “No, no. There’s really no need. That would be much too much trouble.” Questions continued to gather inside Vivian’s head.
“It’s no trouble at all. We have to eat, too,” Jessica joked. “But every morning, I want you to walk with me, just from here to the end of the development and back. After my run. And we’ll do a few stretches. I can tell your hip is still bothering you.”
“Jess’ll fix you right up.” Sofi said. “I took a spill off the pole two months ago and…”
Jessica interrupted her in mid-sentence, “We have a deal, right Vivian?”
Vivian was more confused than ever. What pole was Sofi talking about? None of this made any sense. She opened her mouth to say something, but couldn’t decide what question to ask.
Jessica saw her struggling. “How about this,” she said. “I’ll ring your bell tomorrow morning when I’m done with my run. If you feel up to a little walk, great. If not, then no worries. Offer stands for a ride to the supermarket either way. We’re neighbors, right?” And with that, the girls left Vivian to her day.
Vivian couldn’t stop thinking about her new neighbors. Later that evening, Vivian begrudgingly decided to call her son. She had been home for almost two weeks now and he had not bothered to call once to check how her leg felt, which, sadly, didn’t surprise her. Marisol answered the phone. Hearing her mother-in-law’s voice, Marisol said, “Your son is upstairs,” and dropped the phone down. Vivian flinched hearing Marisol screech her son’s name. She never minded that Howie had decided to marry outside their faith; she was just terribly disappointed in his choice of bride.
Marisol was an attractive daughter of Venezuelan immigrants who had built up a successful landscaping business in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. However, she acted as if she descended from royalty, looking down her nose at everyone and everything. Upon later meeting Marisol’s parents, Vivian was pleasantly surprised to find them both perfectly lovely and gracious people. Marisol didn’t get her horrible disposition from them. Vivian wondered sometimes if that’s what Marisol’s parents thought about Howie. “But his parents are so nice…”
Vivian heard Howie’s muffled voice. He shouted something at the twins who shouted back, and then Marisol joined in the commotion. She cringed, recalling her recent visit. Vivian was quite shocked when Howie had called out of the blue and invited her. Howie had specified that she should arrive in Chicago on the final night of Hanukkah for a three-night stay. Her return flight would depart at noon on Christmas Eve. She would have been happy to stay through Christmas, but that wasn’t what was offered.
Prior to the twins being born, Howie made a point of declaring (not that Vivian had even inquired) that he and Marisol had had a long talk about what religion to raise them in. Since neither of them was actively religious, they planned to forego a formal religious upbringing for their children and instead expose them to both Christianity and Judaism so they could choose for themselves when older. The twins were born in early July. Upon initiation into motherhood, Marisol decided she was now holier than the Madonna. The twins were baptized on the first Sunday of August. More crucifixes now hung from the walls of their home than inside the Vatican.
Howie and Marisol resided in one of the largest apartments within the newest, Gold Coast high-rise. It was twice the space they needed or could likely afford. Despite the square footage, Vivian was consigned to the “guest bedroom,” the apartment’s smallest room where a dozen plastic storage bins were piled carelessly around a twin bed. Vivian didn’t require much in the way of space or comfort. She was happy to see her grandchildren. In the rare moments they stood still, she could see some of Sam in their eyes. After dropping her bag off in her room, Vivian returned to their cavernous living room and handed each twin an envelope containing a Hanukkah card and some cash to buy something nice. The boys snatched them away without so much as a thank you and ran off. Marisol remarked, “Isn’t Hanukkah over?” before disappearing somewhere into the labyrinth of their apartment.
Alone with his mother for barely thirty seconds, Howie sat her down and took a seat on the sofa across from her. He smiled and declared, “I think you should sell your house and move in with us.” He wants more money, Vivian realized immediately. She stared blankly at him, surprised there was still something left of her heart to break. After listening to his pitch, all the contrived benefits of such a move, Vivian told him that she’d think about it. It was the only way to make Howie stop talking.
For three days, the twins fought like cats and dogs and discarded their toys wherever they felt like. It looked like an FAO Schwarz bomb had detonated in the apartment. Howie spent the majority of her visit at his restaurant and Marisol barely gave her the time of day. Still, Vivian kept her head held high and managed to corner her grandchildren for several civilized games of checkers that they seemed to enjoy.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, as Vivian prepared to depart for O’Hare, she tripped over a three hundred dollar, remote control pickup truck that had been discarded just outside the guest bathroom. She went flying into the air and her hip came down across the marble saddle separating the bathroom and hall floor. She was rushed to the ER. As she laid on a gurney behind a drawn curtain waiting for X-rays, she heard her daughter-in-law growl to Howie, “See, see how she rrrrruins everything!” When angry, Marisol would roll her r’s in a low, guttural sound that originated from someplace deep and dark within her. The X-ray revealed no broken bones, just a deep bruise. Still, she couldn’t put any weight on her leg. She remained on crutches for the five weeks when she wasn’t sequestered and forgotten in the “guest bedroom.”
Howie finally picked up the phone and greeted his mother. “Mom, you ready to move back North? I can call the realtor first thing in the morning.”
“What? No, Howie. I don’t know about that. I wanted to share some news.”
“Uh huh,” he said. Vivian heard some muffled shouts, as he must have been covering the mouthpiece.
“I have neighbors. Four homes were sold.”
“Here. In South Springs.” She heard more shouting.
“Listen, Mom, I gotta get back to the restaurant. I’ll make some calls.” Then the phone clicked.
“Thank you,” Vivian said to no one, adding, “my hip feels great.” Vivian hung up the phone. She sat silently for almost an hour, not even bothering to turn on the television. She gave a look over to Sam’s chair and took a deep breath. Then she pushed herself up and out of her chair and walked into her bedroom. She began to rummage through the back of her closet.
The doorbell rang just past nine the next morning, and Jessica looked pleasantly surprised when Vivian answered the door wearing a white tee and gray cropped pants.
“Am I dressed appropriately for this?” Vivian asked. She had to dig deep into her closet to find anything resembling athletic wear.
“That’s perfect. Those are cute,” Jessica said. Vivian thanked her, feeling suddenly self-conscious. Jessica gently took her by her elbow and said, “Let’s go.”
They walked at an easy pace. For today, Jessica said they would take it easy, just stroll to the beginning of the first curve and loop back. She wanted to keep a close eye on Vivian’s gait. They completed their trek with some chitchat about the weather, and then Jessica asked if Vivian thought she had another lap in her. “Don’t you have other things to get to?” Vivian asked. Jessica said her classes didn’t start until noon. She had plenty of time. As they continued their walk, Vivian inquired as to how she chose her studies.
“My sister, Lori, she’s younger, she was born with scoliosis. It was really bad when she was a kid. She’s had some great therapists that have really helped her. Changed her life. She plays junior varsity tennis now.” Jessica admired the sky for a moment. “I just want to do something useful, something that helps people. Plus, I’m a bit of a health nut anyway.”
When they returned to Vivian’s home, Jessica patiently demonstrated some simple stretches that would not only open up her hips, but also stretch out her lower back and hamstrings. Vivian flinched the first time Jessica reached for her, but eventually relaxed. “Don’t stretch into pain,” Jessica told Vivian in a firm voice. Vivian’s muscles were stiff, but Jessica was careful and patient. “Imagine yourself growing long,” Jessica would say in encouragement.
Vivian replied, “But dear, I’m pretty sure I’m shrinking.” She was surprised to find herself laughing at her own joke. Watching Jessica as she demonstrated additional stretches, Vivian commented on how flexible she was. “I could never bend like that,” Vivian remarked. “Even when I was your age.”
Jessica replied, “I’m a dancer.”
“Oh,” Vivian noted. “That must be exciting. Like ballet or in a theater?”
“Shows… modern stuff,” she said after thinking a moment. “I did take ballet when I was a girl.”
Oh, you’re still just a girl, Vivian wanted to tell her, but instead asked, “Is Sofi a dancer too? Did you meet at work?” With all those tattoos, Vivian could see Sofi having some exotic profession. Jessica nodded and quickly moved on to another stretch.
The walk and stretching combined took less than a half hour. Jessica told Vivian that she did great. She wished her a wonderful day and walked out into the bright sunshine. Before Vivian closed the door behind her, Jessica spun around and said, “Remember, try not to sit for too long.” Vivian smiled, and locked the door. Her hip and leg felt a little sore, but that sensation was less troubling than the numbness.
She walked back through the hallway and stood at the threshold to the living room. The morning sunlight cascaded in through the windows. She looked back down the hallway and shifted her weight slightly towards the front door, but then she stopped and stepped back inside the living room. She sat down in her chair and glanced around for the remote. There was still fifteen minutes left to the morning news show. She looked down at her watch, sighed, and considered making herself a cup of tea.
“We’ll still take it slow, “ Jessica said the next morning. “But let’s try to walk the whole development. Remember, sore is okay, pain is bad. Does anything hurt?”
Vivian shook her head no. Vivian hadn’t ventured any deeper into the development than her own home since Sam died. Sometimes when they were returning home from errands, Sam would drive right past their house and down the winding road. Each time, she’d watch Sam’s eyes widen optimistically as they emerged onto the final curve, as if a freshly paved open road awaited them. He never frowned or shook his head when they reached the tall, wild grass and knotted brush that marked the road’s dead end. He’d just back up, turn the Lincoln around, and drive home.
As the two women now rounded out of the final curve, Vivian spotted a freshly planted flower bed in front of one of the homes.
“Oh, blackberry lilies,” Vivian said, admiring the sunburnt orange petals trimmed in bright yellow. “So pretty.” She turned to Jessica and asked, “Do you mind if we take a closer look?” Jessica said of course not and they veered over to the small, newly sprouted oasis. Besides the lilies, there were verbena, roses, and daisies neatly nested together.
“Who lives here?” Vivian asked.
“Lala,” Jessica replied. “She loooooves flowers. She’s from Bulgaria.” Jessica extended her arm fully above her head and straightened her palm so it was parallel with the ground. “Big girl, but sweet as they come,” Jessica said. “She was out early planting this morning. She’s probably back in bed now.” At that, Vivian looked down at her watch and then gave Jessica a quizzical look. Jessica took a step away from the beds and Vivian followed her signal to resume their walk. On the walk back, Vivian asked Jessica about the fourth homeowner.
“Janine?” Jessica answered. “She’s studying pre-law up in Philly. She really just zips in and out for the weekends.” Jessica said.
“She purchased a home just for the weekends?” Vivian asked.
“Well, she wants to go to law school down here to establish state residency…”
Vivian stopped and placed her hand lightly on Jessica’s elbow. “Jessica,” she began. “Exactly what do you girls do for a living?”
Vivian and Jessica sat in Vivian’s kitchen after returning from their walk. Two cups of tea had been poured but neither sipped yet. Jessica was just finishing explaining to Vivian that that she and the other girls were all exotic dancers.
“Strippers?” Vivian asked.
“Yes, strippers.” Jessica replied. She held her head high. “We just say ‘dancers,’ these days.” Jessica’s calm expression and tone ran contrary to Vivian’s troubled look. She tried to shake away the images of cigar smoke-filled rooms, twirling tassels, and feather boas that filled her head. Vivian stared back down at the steam rising from her tea. After a minute of silence, Jessica spoke.
“Why?” Jessica asked the question that she suspected Vivian wanted to ask. Vivian looked up and nodded. Jessica relayed her financial struggles during her first year of college. Her loans barely covered the tuition, and she waitressed two nights a week plus double shifts on Saturdays and Sundays just to cover room and board. One day, a friend Jessica knew from class had shared how she made ends meet. In a hushed tone, Jessica told Vivian how much money she made working three nights a week. Shocked, Vivian tried to do the math quickly. Annually she thought that would be more than what Sam was making when he retired. Jessica noticed Vivian’s arched eyebrows had furrowed into a look of concern.
“But is it safe?” Vivian asked.
“I’m safer at the club than most places, believe me. You should see the size of some of the bouncers.” Vivian’s face tightened in contemplation.
“And you just dance for these men? Nude, for dollar bills?” Vivian asked, still trying to compute Jessica’s finances.
At that, Jessica fought to suppress a laugh. “We dance on stage, but it’s really the private dancing, one on one, where we make our money. That costs a little more than a dollar.”
“Just dancing?” Vivian asked again.
“Yes,” Jessica said, and then she leaned forward. “There are plenty of girls that do more, don’t get me wrong. You should see the money they make.” She shook her head and leaned back in her chair. “But that’s not what I want—I’m twenty-three, own a home already, and I’ll graduate in a year, debt-free.” Jessica’s voice grew more serious. “And I’ve never once gone to bed ashamed of what I do.” This struck Vivian hard. She thought of Marisol and how she sat in judgment over everyone around her. Vivian refused to be like that. She took a deep breath and reached for her tea.
“That’s where you met Sofi and the other girls?” Vivian asked after her sip. Jessica nodded and admitted she worried about Sofi sometimes. She worked five nights a week and hung around too much with the younger guys. “The boys,” she called them, all flash with something to prove. But Jessica said that Sofi knew how to handle them. “I pretty much stick to the middle-aged men in town on business,” she continued. “Half of them just want someone to listen to their problems as much as all this,” she said and pointed to her own breasts. Vivian leaned back in her chair and made a “hmmfff” sound.
“That’s actually how I found out about these houses. The developer comes into our club every Thursday night. After listening to him for a few weeks, I floated the idea with the girls. We were all just wasting money on rent and had a ton of cash just sitting in the bank.” Jessica chuckled to herself, adding, “He was still asking full price at first, but we negotiated. We’re pretty good at that.”
They both finished their tea. Jessica said she was working on getting two other girls to buy into the development, which would leave them just one short to get things moving with the municipality. That was all legit, Jessica emphasized. She assured Vivian that the market would rebound eventually; these things went in cycles. With the new road completed, Jessica expected to make a nice profit when she eventually sold her home. She was even considering buying a second house, if she could get it at the right price. This all sounded a little too pie-in-the-sky to Vivian. But, who knows? Vivian thought. At least these girls seemed to be making their own decisions.
“Would you like another cup of tea?” Vivian asked. Jessica smiled and said that she would.
Over the next few weeks, the soreness in Vivian’s leg and hip gradually lessened. In the afternoons when Vivian sat and read or watched television, she’d remember Jessica’s advice, never sitting for more than thirty minutes without standing back up and going for a small walk. Jessica had confided that most of her “clients” sat in front of their computers all day at work. She gave them the same advice.
By the end of the month, Vivian, at Sofi’s urging, had even consented to try yoga. A beginner’s class ran simultaneous to the advanced class Sofi and Jessica took on Tuesday afternoons. The girls giggled at the old brown leotard she had dug out of the closet in anticipation of the first class. “We are definitely taking you shopping, Jane Fonda,” Sofi joked. Vivian found yoga to be challenging but invigorating. She peeked into the advanced class once and couldn’t begin to comprehend half the poses these girls contorted their bodies into. She watched the class fold into something the instructor called Pindasana. It looked like a rolled up armadillo. She stood at the doorway admiring not only their strength, but also their spirit. Good for them, she thought. Good for them.
On some days, Vivian was invited to have a late lunch or early dinner with the girls. She still didn’t quite understand the schedule they kept, but was happy just to same to sit and listen to their conversation and laughter. Sometimes the girls talked shop, funny stories about ridiculous men they met at the club. Vivian was surprised the conversation didn’t sound all that different from her memories of sitting in the teacher’s lounge and listening to her peers complain about how some of the children in their classrooms behaved. Vivian’s only source of consternation was that the girls refused to let her pay for her meals. “If you don’t let me pay, I’m not going to come anymore,” she’d insist. “I’m not destitute.” Next time, they told her, next time.
Vivian didn’t see much of the girls come the weekends. They returned home from work in the early hours of those morning and slept until early afternoon. Before the girls had moved into the development, the individual days of the week had all but lost significance to Vivian. Now, she found herself looking forward to Monday morning as each weekend arrived. She did keep her promise to Jessica to walk and stretch at least once on her own over each weekend.
One day while on their walk, Jessica asked Vivian if she wanted to learn how to drive. Vivian thought about it for barely a moment before answering. “Yes, I would.” They practiced in Jessica’s tiny Mazda. The lights and gauges on the dashboard looked like the cockpit of a spaceship to Vivian. Jessica told her not to worry about all the bells and whistles. They still made cars the same way—steering wheel, gas pedal, brake. The first time Vivian stepped on the accelerator she felt like she was blasting off for the moon. “My, this car has some zip,” Vivian proclaimed. Jessica double checked her seat belt and said, “Nice and easy, Viv. Nice and easy.” Vivian smiled. No one had called her Viv in years.
After a few times of slowly and successfully navigating South Springs Road, Jessica suggested that maybe they should practice with the Lincoln. It was, after all, Vivian’s car. “Yes, I suppose so,” Vivian said after considering it for a few moments. It took Vivian the better part of the afternoon to remember where she had put Sam’s car keys. The next day, after the Lincoln’s ignition failed to turn over after several attempts, Jessica drove Vivian to purchase a new battery.
“And you know how to install this?” Vivian asked Jessica incredulously.
Jessica winked back. “It’s easy.”
Back home, Vivian watched Jessica replace the battery and then climb in the front seat to start the car for the first time in almost a year. “Good as new,” Jessica said. She climbed out, shut the hood, and made her way into the passenger seat. Vivian approached the Lincoln slowly and warily climbed into the driver’s seat. Jessica admired the spacious interior as she reminded Vivian that the Lincoln essentially worked the same as her Mazda. “It’s just a little bigger. And softer,” she said while running her hands over the soft leather upholstery. Then Jessica heard Vivian sobbing. She turned to see tears streaming down Vivian’s face, her hands clenched around the steering wheel.
“Vivian?” Jessica said. Vivian broke down and Jessica leaned over to console her. Vivian finally released her grip on the wheel and cried intensely onto Jessica’s shoulder. They sat like that for several minutes. The tears eventually subsided. Vivian composed herself and said, “I’m sorry, I…”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Vivian,” Jessica interrupted. “I’m the one who should be sorry. I should have realized. You don’t have to do this.”
Vivian took a deep breath and shook her head. “I don’t want to drive this car,” she said.
“That’s fine. We’ll practice tomorrow with my car.” Just as Jessica reached to undo her seatbelt, she felt Vivian’s hand on her arm.
Vivian, staring straight out the front windshield, told Jessica, “I want to straighten out this damn park.” Vivian stepped on the break and shifted the Lincoln into reverse.
With all the new activity in her life, Vivian almost forgot Passover was quickly approaching. The thought of a Seder at Howie’s didn’t exactly warm her heart, but she still believed that family belonged together at the holidays. When she called, Howie sounded more flustered than usual when she brought up visiting for Passover.
“Uh, I’m not sure that’s really a great idea. It’s right up against Easter this year and we were having Marisol’s parents over and…” Howie gave her little time to be disappointed as he paused mid-sentence and abruptly changed course. “Say Mom, have you thought about what we talked about? We really think it’d be best. You could spend more time with your grandchildren.”
“I don’t know, Howie.” Vivian shook her head. Her son would have her move in if he stood to profit, but she wasn’t welcome to visit for Passover.
“I really think this is what Dad would have wanted,” Howie added.
Vivian shuddered at her son’s words. She braced herself for what she thought would be a wave of grief. But that wasn’t what flamed through her veins now. It was indignation. How dare he invoke his father’s name like this? Livid, she opened her mouth to shout at her son, but decades of outrage and heartbreak choked together in her throat. Where to even begin? Several silent, tense seconds ticked by.
Howie, sensing it might be best to change the topic, then said, “You know, I called my friend about those girls that moved into the development. He said…”
Suddenly, she heard Marisol screaming in the background, “They are strrripperrrs. Strrripperrrs! You should be ashamed—” Vivian heard her son and his wife wrestling for the phone. Vivian was through.
“I’m going to let you go now, Howie,” she said. “And please tell your wife that they really prefer the term ‘dancers.’” Vivian heard Howie start to say something just as she hung up on him.
She continued to stare angrily at the phone as if she had more to say. And she did, but not to her son. She spun around and walked out of her living room, down the hall, and out her front door. She gave the Lincoln no more than a casual glance as she passed it. She wasn’t quite sure how to go about it, or if it was worth a dime, but she was going to sell that car. When she passed her road test, she’d buy something small. Simple.
Up the road and around the bend, Vivian sailed. She was almost sprinting as she emerged from the final curve. Vivian wasn’t sure if any of the girls had ever been to a Seder or had any interest in attending one, but there was only one way to find out. As she arrived at the front of Jessica’s home, Vivian noticed from the corner of her eye that the sun was just setting over the development’s edge. Vivian turned and paused. She had almost forgotten how beautiful the Florida sunsets could be. Vivian watched the tall grass and brush shimmer and dissolve under the sun’s red glow. A freshly paved road emerged reaching out to the horizon. Vivian smiled. She could feel the cool breeze wash over her as she imagined driving over the new road, out of South Springs, to wherever it led.
Anthony Ausiello is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He received his BA in English from The Pennsylvania State University. His work has appeared in The East Bay Review, Berfrois, NonBinary Review, Gravel, NoiseMedium, Rat’s Ass Review, The Absurdist, Writer’s Digest, and the anthology travelogue, Reaching Beyond the Saguaros. He is also a reader for the The Literary Review. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Anthony now lives happily in Westfield, NJ with his wife, Talia, and children, Anya and Eli.