Upon getting Val’s call, Faye White professed to expecting it. Of course Faye usually pretended such things. As another former classmate, this privileged blond supermom was once known for her unbidden prognostications and spontaneous predictions. Born rich and beautiful, she’d often seemed to be burdened with the responsibility or hubris to dispense advice among the less fortunate, too. Yet she attempted to detract from her physical beauty and wealth by projecting eccentricity instead of foppish apology. Her one saving grace.
“Are you okay?” Faye now asked, leaning over a Caesar salad in order to scrutinize her. “You look kinda lost.”
Hit the nail on the head, why don’t you.
Val smiled in grim determination, suspecting Faye did not ask just to be polite. Nor was she waiting for the invitation to chronicle her own exploits—an exercise that might obviously validate the esteem to which she felt genetically entitled. Looking into those azure eyes beneath blond bangs that highlighted a short, stylish cut, Val knew that Faye’s superiority was a given, even if Faye herself felt embarrassed by it. It was why men did not approach her in bars, with or without a ring in view. It was also why calling her for lunch prompted acceptance without hesitation. Perfection was intimidating to both sexes.
“I do feel stuck,” Val confessed, seizing on any chance at resolution. “What do you do when you’re on this treadmill, and you can’t find the off button?”
“Jump off,” Faye suggested.
Val snapped her fingers. “Just like that, you mean?”
“Sure. What are you afraid of?”
Val ruminated while gulping at her margarita. “Everything,” she said, at last.
“Well, that’s pretty inclusive. Do you at least get the continental breakfast?”
“If I do, it’s so tasteless I don’t notice.”
Faye took a sip from the wine glass that held club soda and a floating lime wedge. “You’re kidding me, right? You’ve got a great job, a great guy, and–”
Val shook her head emphatically from side to side. “Not a great job, and no great guy, either, as it turns out.”
Her companion’s askance stare now held bewilderment. “What’s happened?”
“He’s cheated, is what. He’s a cheat. He’s also cheap. As for the job, it’s more about hype than anything else. Cheating in other ways. Not unlike lying or acting. All for the sake of ratings numbers.”
Faye grimaced at the news, then touched Val’s forearm for a moment, the soft brush of her fingers like a consoling caress across the paw of a Basset hound winning honorable mention. “Val,” Faye said, careful not to let her tone stray into condescension, “I’m sorry to hear you’re unhappy.”
“Is that what I am? Maybe so. But I think it goes deeper than that.”
“It does? How so?”
“I’m not sure I can tell you,” Val replied, finishing her drink.
“Sure you can. You can tell me anything.”
“No, I mean I’m not sure I can tell you, because I’m not sure myself.” She paused, trying to frame the unframable. “Okay then, have you ever stopped to wonder if what you’ve done so far with your life has been scripted by someone else? That you never wrote your own script before because you didn’t know you could?”
“I mean, it’s like other people expected me to take this path, and so all I really know is the rhythm of walking where they’ve all pointed. I’m on this route, see, always looking ahead, trying to see around corners, hoping to find whatever it is. And then, when I suddenly realize I’m on the wrong path, I see that the path I should be on is going in the opposite direction! I stop and look behind me, and there’s this beautiful sunset I never saw before, illuminating the clouds overhead, and I’d never seen any of it until that moment. Until the instant I realized that life isn’t about the future. That the future doesn’t even exist, except maybe in my mind. And it never will.”
“Wow,” said Faye, smiling nervously. “There’s a concept.”
“Think about it. Or not. Just tell me how irrational I sound to you. Before I drown in booze, that is.”
Faye cocked her head, leaning back. She was obviously analyzing something, although it failed to furrow her forever youthful brow. Val had begun to wonder if the folds of Faye’s brain had absorbed all of her body’s wrinkles when she finally said, “Who have you been talking to, anyway? Because this doesn’t sound like you.”
“Maybe I didn’t sound like me before, and I just didn’t know it.”
“Valerie Lott, the philosopher?” Faye sounded dubious.
“All I know is I need something I never knew existed. Like there’s this space inside of me needs filling, and I didn’t know the space was even there.”
Now Faye wagged a finger at her. “You fell for some geek, didn’t you? Some poet who drives a VW bug and wears sandals and has a pony tail and a tight butt!”
“Let’s just say I met someone who opened my eyes to another way of looking at things, and leave it at that, shall we?”
Faye’s blue eyes widened. “Ohmygod. Where did you meet this guy?”
“A place I never expected.”
“You might say that. It’s always now with this guy.”
“And you make love like there’s no tomorrow, I hope?”
“No, we never even kissed. And now he’s. . . gone.”
“Ouch.” Faye frowned on cue. “You’re not in love, are you?”
“I don’t know what I am, anymore. Considering you have to love yourself before you can love someone else. And you have to know yourself before you can love yourself.”
“Huh?” Faye puzzled it over. “Gees, honey, you sure got somethin’. Don’t know what it is, but I hope it’s not contagious.”
Val considered telling her more, but then decided against it. Especially if it included reconsidering the preposterous notion that such a wise and gentle soul might be suspect in a major crime. She pondered telling her about Sarah Collins, next, but that too would be as foreign to Faye’s world as the gas giant Neptune. She picked up a celery stick, dipped it in some ranch dressing, and chewed on that for a while, instead. Then she asked, “How’s Mark and the kids, by the way?”
“Good,” Faye said, noncommittally.
“No,” Val insisted, “you can tell me. I want to hear it. Really. Has anything changed with you since we met last? And how long has it been, again, since we last talked?”
“Three and a half months,” Faye said. “Over four, actually, since we last met with Joyce and Diane for Happy Hour.”
Val cleared her throat. “Okay, how’s your family been doing lately, then?”
“Good,” Faye repeated. She paused, then added, “Mark got a award from the American Society of Architectural Engineering, and we’re going on a cruise to Greece and Italy to celebrate.”
“Jessica made the dean’s list at Summerville, so we’re taking her, too.”
Val nodded, offering a closed half smile of approval. “Nice. That’s a nice minivan I saw you pull up in, too. Is it new?”
“No, I’ve had it for a few months.”
“Actually, it’s a Porsche. They’re still making minivans.”
“Sold your house in Quail Creek yet?”
“Yes. Mark’s building the A-frame for us up on Mount Lemmon. It’ll be great, you can come to the housewarming, if you like.”
“You’re going to live in a cabin in the woods?”
Faye chuckled. “Not a cabin, silly. It’ll have five bedrooms and three baths. Ponderosa pine finished with teak. Four thousand square feet, if you count the great room.”
“There’s a jacuzzi that seats twelve, and a huge flagstone fireplace, and this—”
“Okay, okay,” Val said, holding up one hand like a traffic sign, “you can stop now.”
“Thanks.” Faye fished in her Prada bag for a Kleenex, and used it to pick a shred of soggy lettuce from her blouse. “Getting back to your mystery man, what does he do for a living?”
Val glanced around the restaurant at some of the other diners, then smiled to herself when the appropriate answer came, perfect in its simplicity. “He lives.”
“He. . . lives?”
“Yeah, he does, actually. Unlike us.”
She looked back, only to meet Faye’s puzzled expression. “Tell me, have you ever seen men watch a football game, or stand around each other as they tee off on the golf course? Men with pot bellies, losing their hair? They still act like kids, competitive as ever, right? And what do they talk about? Have you actually listened?”
“Of course. And your point?”
“I’m not sure. I just know the conversation I had with this man wasn’t anything like that.”
“Men always talk to women differently, silly. They say what they think we want to hear.”
“True, but this guy didn’t say what I wanted to hear. And somehow, just sitting here right now, I know he wouldn’t talk any differently to anyone else.”
“Well, how do you know that?”
Val looked over at three men several tables away. The tall one facing them stared back. She caught a few words from the man speaking, whose back was to them. Something about a rookie player being traded to Seattle. She said, “I just know, okay?” She looked back at Faye. “Drive to Kitt Peak with me, will you?”
“Where, did you say?”
“The observatory. The mountain with all the telescopes. I’d like to show you something.”
“And what on earth would that be?”
“Who I could have been. Who I am. The person no one knows.” She paused, getting a look from Faye more suited for an orangutan in the zoo, as though Faye had made a mistake about her identity as well. “I don’t mean to sound cryptic,” Val clarified, “it’s just that I’ve been in this. . . state. It’s why I’m taking the day off. To regroup. I was hoping you could diagnose me, quick. Give me just a handle on what I need. What’s missing. A way back, or forward. Read some tea leaves.”
Faye patted her hand. “You’re just under stress, honey. We should go shopping together this weekend, what do you say? There’s a sale at Neiman Marcus.”
“I fairly sure I can’t buy my way out of this, Faye.”
“Why not? Works for me.”
“Does it? I mean really?”
“Well, sure.” Faye smiled brightly as proof. “Absolutely.”
“But it’s just temporary.”
“Everything is temporary, when you come down to it.”
“Yes, but it’s not real. It’s not enough. I need more.”
“Chocolate’s a good substitute,” Faye next suggested, with a subtle wink.
Val sighed. “I really don’t want chocolate or ice cream or new clothes or even diamonds! I want to be able to enjoy life. To accept what I have and don’t have. I want to be at peace inside, without reservations. To be happy, in spite of it all.” She paused, wondering how that had sounded. “Are you happy, Faye?”
“Well,” Faye deliberated, “I guess I. . .”
“That’s a yes or a no.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly, suspecting a trick. “You come right out with it, don’t you?”
“Yup. Answer the question.”
“Actually, I was just going to say that there’s degrees of happiness.”
“Even for you, Faye? With everything you have?”
“For anybody, sure.”
“But you’re rich. You’ve got a great home, a family, and you look like dynamite. You could have any job you wanted, with your looks. If you ever wanted a job, that is. Or any man, if you lost the great one you’ve got. You have good memories too, I imagine? High hopes?”
“I guess so.”
“Great. Now you just guess so? You’re not sure anymore? Okay. Are there frustrations playing over and over in your head, too, so you have to play loud tunes to drown them out?”
Faye shrugged. “I do like music. So what?”
“What about silence? What about being alone in the dark, in the silence?”
“I try to avoid that.”
“Whatever for, Faye? If you’re truly happy and at peace, you shouldn’t need to be doing things all the time. You wouldn’t need a new car or a new house or even a new wardrobe, either. No more than a drunk needs a bar stool.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the good life, Val.”
“True, but is it really life? And is it so good, if you’re not even aware of what’s around you? For instance, do you notice little things, like that vase of flowers by the door where we walked in? Did you see the sadness in the eyes of our waitress?”
“What do you mean? She was smiling.”
“She has to smile, Faye.”
Faye looked down at her unfinished meal. One eyebrow twitched. She appeared uncomfortable and then confused, but said nothing.
Realizing with some irony that she’d taken on David’s role as instructor, Val signaled their waitress, and then ordered another margarita. Still, she couldn’t resist asking more questions. “Do you drive fast, too, trying to get around people in front of you? Or when you wait in line, does it really bother you, Faye?”
Faye looked at her oddly, as though embarrassed for her. “What are you saying–that I’m as miserable as you seem to be?”
“You tell me.”
“Well, I’m not, if that’s okay.”
Val nodded in confirmation, then decided to step back across the line she’d crossed. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said, backpedalling too late. “I’m just tired. Maybe I’m contagious, too. Anyway, you did say I could ask you anything.”
“Tell me anything,” Faye corrected.
“Right. Sorry. Anyway, don’t mind me.” You’re the well adjusted one here, now.
Faye’s gaze dropped again to her purse. Then she withdrew a $50 bill, and slipped it stealthily next to her plate. A long moment of silence followed.
“So you forgive my third degree?” Val almost pleaded when Faye suddenly scooted her chair back.
A tense pause, then a half smile. “Sure. Forget about it.”
Val sighed, heavily. “Thanks, but I wish I could. Wish I could forget about lots of things, actually. Ignorance is bliss, or so they say. Whoever they are.” She tried a laugh that she felt certain sounded hollow to such a privileged and insulated being, poised but unprepared for her late ramblings. “Life is just too complicated,” she tried to explain. “I need to simplify. It’s what the man I met did, somehow. What’s his secret? Even if I knew, unfortunately I’d have to do something about it. And that’s not something you can learn in those self help books at the mall about how to manage your life.”
Faye glanced conspicuously at her watch, saying nothing.
“Didn’t mean to go spiritual on you all of a sudden, either. Maybe my death gene has finally kicked in. Got me thinking nature doesn’t care about individuals, just survival of the species stuff. Like once I make babies, I’ll start a quick slide down, and it’s up to me to find my own faith or purpose or meaning. Whatever that is.”
“Ummm,” said Faye. “I hear you.”
She wondered if that was true, because Faye rose as Val’s refill came. Even when she smiled, it was a little sadly. “Call me if you change your mind about the weekend,” Faye offered, half heartedly, as a parting remark.
“Will do.” Val lifted her glass, smiling herself by force of habit. “My best to Mark.”
Every man in the restaurant watched Faye walk out, then, but Faye herself didn’t seem to notice. Tipsy, Val lifted her glass to them all, but they didn’t notice that either. When Faye’s Porsche SUV finally pulled away outside, then picked up speed, Val wondered if she’d ever see her again, and if so, whether enough time would have passed for the inevitable wrinkles to be evident on her perfect, mannequin face.