(This is an unedited first draft excerpt from a novel about a writers' group I wrote in November of '09 for Nanowrimo. Further excerpts to follow.)
Eleanor came early to our first meeting at Victoria’s, bearing with her some of those rainbow layer cookies from an old Italian bakery whose name she couldn’t remember, damn it, despite the fact that she’d just been there an hour ago. She’d too obviously been looking forward to this; she’d only retired a few years ago, and it was driving her crazy, nobody to talk to. Most of her friends had moved, some had died, and though she took a writing class last year with some very nice people with whom she meant to keep in touch, somehow that didn’t happen.
“I brought cookies. I figure everybody loves cookies. And if anybody’s on a diet, I’ll eat theirs. I don’t diet any more. I used to be so slim, I used to wear a twenty-six waist, can you believe that? But that was years ago, when I was running around so much all the time. My daughter Marian, she’s a tiny little thing, she runs marathons, she’s even done the Ironman competition. I cheer her every year when she comes to town to do the race, me and my friends from the Y, we make a sign and we go and watch her run…”
This is only partially true. Three years ago, she got Paula, one of the other regulars from her water aerobics class, to come with her to cheer on Marian, but Paula complained the whole time about the cold and the crowd, and how hard it was to see, and how she hoped Marian would be along soon, would hurry up and run her miles quickly so they could go sit somewhere indoors and drink something warm. Whereas Eleanor loved the marathon, the way strangers cheered each other on, looking at everybody’s homemade shirts that said why they were running, and for who – this one for breast cancer, this one for better schools, this one in memory of Patricia Horn – it made her throat swell with kept tears. How hard people ran, how hard they were working, the pain on their faces; it was a metaphor for life, all these people doing the same difficult thing at once in their own ways, at their own paces. She clapped and she cheered for everyone: Go purple! You look wonderful, purple! And purple would pick up a weary hand and grimace and wave, and then be gone from her life forever. It made her hopeful, seeing strangers cheer for strangers; it made her think that crowds weren’t always terrible stupid things, that people were essentially good.
And always the anxiety to see Marian, fear that she would miss her, though in six years of cheering her daughter on, she had never missed her. But the feeling she got when she spotted her daughter running with her Autism Awareness t-shirt, such an overwhelming sense of pride, fear, love, completion – “MARIAN! MARIAN!” – who knew she could yell so loud? “YOU’RE DOING GREAT, MARIAN! I LOVE YOU, MARIAN! I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!” And her daughter, red faced and sweating like a woman in labor, raising a fist and smiling for her, grimly through her pain, but smiling for her mom – you too, Mom. Tough, wiry Marian, with her shrieking and angry little son, the baby they’d wanted for so long; Marian who never said she loved Eleanor except this once a year, you too, Mom. Her daughter passed and faded from sight, and Eleanor turned around and doubled over and sobbed. And there were people in the crowd who passed her tissues, told her her daughter looked great. Thank god for New York; Florida might be warm but New York was the only place where things happened this way. As long as Marian was right there in Jersey, she would stay.
“You’re close to my daughter’s age,” she said to Victoria. “You’re exactly her age, I’ll bet; no, you’re younger. How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“You look so youthful.”
Vic smiled. “It’s the sneakers.”
“You say that kidding, but you know it’s true, because I bet you do a lot of walking, and that helps to keep you young.” She wants to say more; she is sad to hear that Vic is forty-two and so obviously single, no children, and now it’s too late; even if she could still bear them, it’s not a good idea, look what happened with Marian and Alex, she waited so long and then… They shouldn’t have waited, she’d told them, they should have done it earlier, she would have given them some money if that was the issue.
“So who else is joining us this evening? I’m so excited, I was up half the night last night, writing a poem, so I would be able to keep up with everyone.”
Vic started to tick them off on her fingers. “Well, there’s Imani…”
“Imani, what a beautiful name. You know, it’s a Swahili name, I think it means strength. When I was working in the schools, you know I was a guidance counselor in the public schools for almost thirty-five years, before I retired, I met so many young people with wonderful names…”
“It sounds like you have a real wealth of material,” said Vic. The buzzer rang, and she went to get it.
“Do you have a plate? Do you mind if I make myself at home in your kitchen? It’s such a lovely apartment, so cozy and welcoming. You’re going to have trouble getting me to go home.”
Imani and Benji arrived, bearing pomegranate juice, her flush with excitement, her voice high and musical; him smiling despite his reservations. He looked around the small apartment, the fortyish spinster-type with her cacti and her throw pillows, the old lady babbling to them about what a pleasure, and was Imani a Swahili name? She knew it! Oh, the pleasure it gave her to know this. This was the reward for all those Times crosswords, all those evenings with Jeopardy in the background. You stayed sharp, you remembered things, and then people at parties and gatherings like this, you had something to say to them. They couldn’t just write you off.