Allison At Lunch
Allison Baldwin's hair is more grey now than blond, silvered almost the color of the sleek new Mercedes convertible she's driving, top down, out to the country club for tennis, summer weekday mornings, and she's never really thought about coloring it, either, although overhearing one of the younger women at the club refer to her as "well-preserved" has given her pause.
But what the hell? she thinks—maybe "well-preserved" isn't so bad, almost a compliment, really, when you're closer to sixty than to fifty. Her legs are still good, anyway, she thinks—all that tennis—and if she's lost some of the perky cheerleader tone that she had in her chest when she was, in fact, a cheerleader, she'll still stack her cleavage up against the equipment of a lot of women ten, even twenty years younger, the ones who haven't had work done, anyway.
She sounds like a man, Allison thinks, all this thinking about her looks, measuring herself by the color of her hair, the trimness of her legs, the shape and size of her boobs. They've been good to her, though, these legs, this chest of hers, and she's never been ashamed of her figure, the effect it's always had on men—not even when other women called her a whore, even to her face sometimes, which was often enough, actually, to make you wonder.
But no, she thinks—she's never been a whore, no matter how many men she's slept with, no matter how much she's slept around. It's all about the attitude, she thinks, about the way you look at yourself in the bathroom mirror while the man you've just been fucking is snoring away in the bed you've just left or, worse, pulling on his pants, getting ready to leave.
And just how many of those have there been? she wonders—men she's slept with in the past forty years or so, from poor, eager Harry Bergstrom in high school to steady, rock solid Artie Stevens, her current love interest, you could call him.
She's smiling in her car, thinking of Harry Bergstrom, when she turns off Cold Spring Road and onto the driveway up to the country club—Harry, who'd have been a silver medalist, at least, if they had an Olympics for premature ejaculation. Old Harry, with his fumbling hands and sticky underwear. How many times had he actually been able to situate himself inside her before he—? Once? Twice? Oh, no—three times, at least, Allison thinks.
"Hey, Allison," Liddie Kane says when she sees her pull into the parking lot at the club and hop out of the car with her tennis bag.
They're playing doubles today, each of them paired with someone younger, just to keep it interesting, keep the game moving when Allison's and Liddie's legs rebel. And how many men has Liddie slept with? Allison wonders. How many men have these girls they're playing with already fucked?
Allison's past dressing up for tennis anymore, just an old polo shirt now over cargo shorts with pockets enough to hold a half-dozen balls, she suspects, if you used them all, but Liddie still makes the effort, a nice outfit coordinated right down to the color of the little balls on the backs of her socks.
"Looking good," Allison tells her.
"I don't know why I bother," Liddie says. "I'll look like something the cat's dragged in before we've finished a set."
"Yeah, but who's looking?" Allison says, although she knows how it feels when someone looks, some man, and when he first sees you, at a distance, passing you, say, on the street, how he straightens up and sucks in his gut, puts on a smile, but then, when he's close enough to get a good look, to see the wrinkles around your eyes, the creases at the corners of your mouth, the sag in your boobs, how his smile fades, his shoulders slump, and his gut relaxes back over his belt.
They play just a single set, but it's enough for Allison, shirt sticking to her back, legs reminding her that it's been a long, long time since she could dance all night on the screened-in porch of the Riverside Hotel, sweating out all the gin and tonics she'd been drinking, daring the boys to match her, bump for bump, grind for grind, the Mashed Potato, the Swim, the Wa-Watusi in her own private land of a thousand dances.
"Good game. Good game," the young girls tell her and Liddie before going off laughing, arm in arm, for a swim.
"I was never that young," Liddie says. "Even when I was their age, I swear to God, I wasn't that young."
"Me, either," Allison says, but she knows that's not really true. When she was young, she thinks, she was that young, and not like the young girls today, all worried about their careers and achieving their full potential, whatever that means , and worried, too, she guesses, about all the baggage that they bring to bed with them now, from date rape to AIDS. How old must it make them, she wonders, having to be so careful with their lives?
"Want to swim?" Liddie says.
"No, let's just drink."
"All right," Liddie says.
And Tod, the bartender this summer at the club, with just the one 'd' in his name, according to his name tag, makes Allison's drink just the way he knows she likes it—heavy on the gin, almost no tonic.
Liddie, as careful about her health as she is with her appearance, has a glass of white wine in front of her when Allison joins her under the umbrella at a table on the patio—a relatively healthy and thoroughly fashionable drink to choose, Allison thinks.
"Gin in the morning?" Liddie says.
"Biggest bang for the buck. Why drink if you're not going to get loaded?"
"I guess," Liddie says dubiously, sipping her wine.
But it's not one of those days, though, Allison thinks, when all you want to do is say "Fuck it" and hammer down the gin, not caring much what the guy you wake up beside the next morning looks like, assuming you can bear looking at him at all, his matted hair and smug, guilty looks. Whatever happened to those days, anyway? she wonders.
"Are we having lunch?" Liddie says.
"I know, but—."
Oh, hell yes, we'll have lunch, Allison thinks, because this really isn't one of those old drinking days, dope days, fucking days when you're invulnerable, invincible. It's just today, and the gin she's drinking now, just this one, unfortunately, will have to do.
When their lunch comes—Tod brings it—Allison contemplates the salad that she's ordered, some wild greens, a vinaigrette on the side, and wonders about diminished expectations, how when you're twenty, say, drinking and drugging and screwing, your field of vision's so wide, so deep, you can't see to the edges of your horizons, can't see how far they are away. And then, she thinks, things narrow, like that eye disease where you start losing the picture around the edges and what you can see gets smaller and smaller until, just before it's all gone, all you can see is this tiny pinpoint of light and everything else is darkness. How, she wonders, when you have so little left, do you go about making it all you need?
Spearing some limp, unidentifiable leaf and dipping it in the little cup of dressing, she considers how lucky she's been, really, to get this far alive and—when you total it up—pretty much unmarked: the pregnancy scares that were only scares after all; no diseases, either, from all those unwashed penises that, somehow, kept finding their way inside her. After all that, she thinks, and all she has is the one little scar beside her eye, attractive in its own way, she guesses, that she collected the time she put her face through the windshield of the car she'd wrecked—just this little scar, when she could have looked like one of those horror pictures they were always showing you around prom time when you were in high school, in drivers' ed.
"So—" Liddie says.
"So what do you think?"
"I'm sorry—what?" Alison says, and she realizes that, while she'd been rummaging around inside her own head, Liddie's been saying something about little Channing—not so little now, in her teens—Liddie's granddaughter, and whether it's better for her to finish high school here in town or go away to a private school.
"I think private school's better, don't you?" Liddie says. "It's, you know, safer."
But what's safe? Allison is thinking. A guy she dated once, the best driver she's ever known, had had this obsession with one sharp turn on Powder Mill Road, and every time he drove up there he took the turn a little faster—every time, faster and faster, until one time he was going too fast and he ran off the road into a tree and died. After his funeral—closed casket; the car had burned— all his friends had gotten drunk and all they had wanted to talk about was how fast he must have been going when he wrecked the car, how fast he'd been able to go the last time before he crashed — trying to measure, she thinks, the narrow zone between exhilaration and extinction, the barely safe and the merely fatal.
"Well, if it's safer—" Allison says.
"That's what I think," Liddie says.
Allison says goodbye to Liddie in the parking lot beside the tennis courts, and tells her no, she's sure she doesn't want to go home, clean up, go out to the mall, go shopping, and, backing out of her parking space, she catches a glimpse of her own face in the rearview mirror, the lines etched there by too much time and too much sun, too many late nights with bottles, bags of dope, boys.
Funny, she thinks, how your skin wrinkles up just as your life's smoothing out.
Not that she'd want to start over, though, go back and do it all again, but differently, safer. No—what she'd like to have again is a wrinkled life, all turns to take as fast as you can, and, driving sedately home in her shiny new car, it's all she can do to keep from mashing her foot down on the gas and trying, one last time, to see how much road the tires can grip, how much turn the suspension can handle.