Carmen, Still

The Word: FOIL

Yes, I’m her foil, her heterosexual Alice B. Toklas, her dogsbody, her step n’ fetchit man.  Companion was the term they used in the dear old days back when we met at Mills, that during the War. Carmen and Addy. Who was the comic who put us into the same room. Both from Southern California, poor dear. They must have supposed we knew each other. Or at least traveled in the same circles.  That we’d take comfort in one another, being so far from home.

But Carmen was from Bel Air, and I was from Whittier. Her father was a big man in the studios, while mine edited a small town newspaper. (No one ever asked what the mothers ‘did,’ but for the record, hers collected art, and mine went to church and grew a Victory garden.)

Sixty-some years ago.

Who would have put money on us?

Carmen still glittered, I’ll give  her that much.  Even as a college girl she had. I’ll never forget how a car came for us, to take us to the Opera in the City. Girls spied on us from the windows of the dorm.  I’d needed a formal gown, I remember.  I made mine, pale yellow with a jewel neck, a color I thought looked well with my pale hair, and my blue eyes and my freckles. But I disappeared next to Carmen, with her luxuriant black hair and olive green dress with the plunging back.

I don’t mean to sound envious. Who would want to be Carmen? It would be like wanting to be a hurricane. Tearing through the world, knocking down trees, drowning everything in her path.  Ruin in every direction, ruin of your own creation.

Girls didn’t like her. Women,.  She had to wait until she was so famous, everyone admired her–and took her peculiarities as part of the package. But back then, they expected you to be just another nice girl from a good family, which meant–behave. She scandalized them by being both nouveau riche, and–they didn’t have to say it–Jewish.

But I was dazzled by her.  And I was her friend.

Tonight, the hair was silver and wound in a thick chignon I knew was half purchased, her bony arm bore six inches of jeweled bangles, the dress was scarlet. Oscar de La Renta. At eighty, she was still the most daring thing in the room. And I was myself, as ever. Gray hair bobbed,  black pants elastic-waisted, wearing a silk kimono bought on a trip to Hong Kong in the ‘seventies.

“Addy! Take this, dear.” She thrust a half-eaten strawberry into my hand, a balled up napkin, turning to smile at the photographer, arms around two young glittering friends.

Yes, that was me, there to hold her sweater or a wet glass when the photographers came around,  The gooey feeling of the strawberry in my hand. I wanted to throw it at her.  People said, yes Carmen’s a handful, but it must have had its moments–a girl from Whittier, you’ve stayed at the Dorchester, you’ve met Picasso, You fly first class, there’s a a car and driver in every city.

But I’ve  been well-paid– in wet glasses and half-eaten strawberries.

I drifted back to the catering kitchen–there was a personal one and a larger one for parties–where black-and-white-clad boys and girls smoked and gossiped as they cleaned up.  I liked they didn’t stop when I came in.  I dumped the strawberry into the trash, and wiped my hand, asked a young man for a cigarette–my once a year treat.

I have been her shadow for sixty years.  Good old Addy. Through all seven of her marriages, one more disastrous than the next.  I wear the same dress to them all now–it seems ridiculous to buy new ones.

I remembered the gown she wore for my sole trip to the altar. Schaparelli pink. For a Methodist wedding in Whittier. Ha. My mother was appalled, but I should have  known. She just couldn’t bear to be in anyone’s shadow. Not even on my wedding day.

But when Jim lay dying, in the bed at Cedars with all his tubes, she brought us pastrami and pickles and scotch. Her then-husband couldn’t bear the sight of the dying–he was, as she would say, a piece of work. Number six, the designer. But Carmen stayed with us, night after night, playing gin rummy, running to the nurse’s station to bawl them out, she snapped at their heels like a border collie. She’d invited me to come live with her after the funeral.

“I can’t live under the same roof as that,” I said. The husband, Danny somebody, waiting by the Bentley.

“It’s not the same roof,” Carmen said.  “It’s the carriage house. There’s a huge lawn between you.”

Then Danny was gone, and the one after that.  But I’m still here.

So funny, who proves the most important person in your life.  I poured myself some scotch. I could hear her out there laughing, she had a big braying laugh, the girls at Mills used to mock it, but she’s known for it now.  And I toasted her. For she was my foil as well.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: DARK

 

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4 Responses to “Carmen, Still”

  1. Jodi Lampert Says:

    Oh, my God, this is FANTASTIC.

  2. I don’t know how you do it. This is beautiful. If I was your man I’d want to say, “talk to me, Janet..” and just sit and listen, entranced, for hours, like I used to as a little kid when my big brother would read me Ray Bradbury stories at night.

  3. Yep, I’d read more of that.

  4. Janet, ‘swonderful. May your season be bright.

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