A year ago, this would have been an unthinkable act. A year ago, if she had given it any thought at all, Margaret wouldn’t have imagined herself anywhere but home, in Buffalo, with Thomas and the girls, everything exactly as it had been.
But a different kind of year had gone by than she might have imagined. Six months earlier Margaret and the girls had gone to New York for a short visit and had not, so far, returned. Now, she and Thomas hardly spoke, rarely wrote. Margaret and the girls were still with Thomas’s parents, Lillian and Don, as unlikely as that would have seemed. And so, impossibly, today Margaret was getting dressed for a job interview.
Almost as unthinkably, it was Lillian who had suggested the interview. Lillian, improbably, seems to want them to stay in New York even longer. Has offered to hire a nanny to watch the girls while Margaret works. Perhaps Lillian expects that eventually Thomas will move back to New York as well. Whatever it is she has in mind, and Margaret does not try to guess, it seems that Lillian has become, in some way, her ally.
This is not to suggest that they have become friends, but they are no longer – well, Margaret isn’t really sure what it is that they were, or are. They get along. Lillian frowns less when Margaret walks into the room.
A week ago, Margaret walked into the living room after putting the girls down for their naps and was surprised to see that Lillian and Don were already back from their weekly lunch-and-bridge date. She glanced at the clock, and then at Lillian, who was not quite frowning.
“Don,” Lillian said, almost smiling. “We’ve interrupted Margaret’s quiet time.”
It was true, though Margaret would never have said anything. The apartment wasn’t as small as some she’d seen, but she and the girls shared a bedroom. Thursday afternoons, when Don and Lillian were out and the girls were sleeping, were the only time Margaret really had to herself.
Don glanced up from his newspaper. “Afternoon, Margaret. Girls sleeping, are they?”
Margaret smiled. She found Don so much easier to deal with, though (or perhaps because) they never talked about anything that wasn’t pleasant and obvious.
“Yes. No bridge today?” Margaret looked at Don, then Lillian.
Lillian spoke. “We decided to give it a miss this week. We have something to discuss with you.”
Don had returned to his newspaper, and Margaret imagined that whatever needed to be discussed would be between her and Lillian. She sat in the nearest chair and tried to keep her expression steady.
She had been here now for much longer than she had expected. In fact, it looked like they would be celebrating Kimberly’s second birthday in New York.
Or perhaps they wouldn’t.
Margaret sat and waited.
A long moment later, Lillian spoke.
“You remember the Bensons?”
The question surprised Margaret. Of course she remembered them, though she had only met them once. They were one of the couples that Lillian and Don lunched and (except this week) played bridge with on Thursdays. Lillian thought the world of the Bensons. And apparently this was not going to be a discussion about Margaret’s return to Buffalo.
“Yes, of course. How are they?”
“Oh, fine. They’re off to their place in the Bahamas next week. But they mentioned something interesting at lunch. That’s why we’re back.”
Lillian seemed to be waiting for Margaret to say something, but she wasn’t sure what to say.
She felt foolish, but it was the best she could manage.
“You know their son, Michael Jr., started a private practice a couple of years ago?” Margaret nodded.
“Well Sylvia mentioned that the girl that had been working for Michael, answering phones and keeping his appointments, had recently left. She said he’s been having a terrible time without her, and he’s so busy, he hasn’t even had time to interview a new girl. Sylvia’s actually gone in and helped him out a few times. But of course she can’t do that for long, with all of the traveling that they do. And, as I said, she and Michael are going away next week.”
Lillian was smiling now. There was no mistaking it. She’d had an idea that she loved, and now everyone else was going to love it as well.
“I told her you can help him. It makes perfect sense.”
“I… you … you think I should …” Margaret wanted desperately not to cross Lillian, but what was she thinking? Who would watch the girls? What would she wear? She hadn’t had a job in over three years. What would Thomas say?
Lillian’s smile faded. She didn’t get angry, though, much to Margaret’s relief.
“You’re worried about the girls. Don’t. We can hire someone. Or Don and I can watch them.”
Margaret started to speak, then stopped. Her mind was racing. The idea of leaving the apartment, by herself, regularly, and spending time with adults, was almost more than she could comprehend. She wasn’t at all sure this was a good idea.
But Lillian was sure. They went to Gimbels for clothes and shoes, and to see Michelle, the woman who had been doing Lillian’s hair for twenty years. Lillian even bought Margaret new makeup, courtesy of their neighbor Connie, who sold Avon. Whatever she decided that Margaret might need, Lillian knew where and from whom to get it, and often they didn’t even need to go more than a block in any direction. A sitter was arranged – Suzette, a quiet, college-aged girl, home for the summer, whose parents lived two floors up. She had watched the girls while Margaret and Lillian shopped, and said she would be happy to watch them while Margaret worked, as well.
Lillian had been so matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and had thought of every detail, so that after her initial hesitation, Margaret had found herself unable to resist.
Neither of them mentioned Thomas. Margaret knew she should tell him, but hadn’t decided how. Since it wasn’t to be a permanent arrangement, maybe she didn’t need to. Not yet. She would tell him about it in a letter, after she had been there for a few days, once she knew how long it would last.
Maybe this news would be sufficient to inspire him to write back. Standing in front of the mirror in the bedroom, brushing her hair, she looked at the card that Thomas had sent two – no, three weeks earlier. She had put it on the dresser for the girls to see, but it had been there long enough that they had lost interest, and no new one had come to replace it.
His letters had been brief, after she came here, and then had been replaced by cards. It usually wasn’t even his handwriting on the envelope. She imagined that there was a secretary at his office who had been given the task of buying and mailing his cards. Since she hadn’t received one recently, she imagined that the secretary was busy with other things.
To be fair, her letters had become less frequent as well, since there wasn’t much new to say. The days all seemed to be the same, with walks to the zoo and library, cooking meals, keeping up with laundry and all the other small things that she had done every day in Buffalo. He hadn’t been much interested in how she filled her days when they were home – she couldn’t really blame him – and now that they were hundreds of miles away, he was even less so.
Margaret looked away from the card and back up to her own reflection. Why was she crying? Now she’d have to fix her makeup. She dabbed her face with a tissue and finished putting up her hair. She took a step back from the mirror to examine her clothes. She realized that except for the color, the suit that they had chosen – grey and crisp and fitted – made her look a bit like a flight attendant. She managed a weak smile at that thought, and quickly repaired her eye makeup and rouge.
Behind her in the mirror, she could see her still-sleeping girls. She turned toward them – Patricia still in the crib that she was about to outgrow, Kimberly sprawled on the bed that she and Margaret shared – and gave them quick kisses.
Closing the bedroom door behind her, she went to the kitchen, where Lillian and Suzette were waiting for her departure.