IT IS A TRUTH UNIVERSALLY acknowledged that a thirty-something woman in possession of a satisfying career and fabulous hairdo must be in want of very little, and Jane Hayes, pretty enough and clever enough, was certainly thought to have little to distress her. There were no boyfriends, and if they came and went in a regular stream of mutual dissatisfaction—well, that was the way of things, wasn’t it?
But Jane had a secret. By day, she bustled and luncheoned and e-mailed and over-times and just-in-timed, but sometimes, when she had the time to slip off her consignment store pumps and lounge on her hand-me-down sofa, she dimmed the lights, turned on her nine-inch television, and acknowledged what was missing.
Sometimes, she watched Pride and Prejudice.
You know, the BBC double DVD version, starring Colin Firth as the delicious Mr. Darcy and that comely, busty English actress as the Elizabeth Bennet we had imagined all along. Jane watched and rewatched the part where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy look at each other over the piano, and there’s that zing, and her face softens, and he smiles, his chest heaving as though he’d breathe in the sight of her, and his eyes are glistening so that you’d almost think he’d cry…Ah!
Each time, Jane’s heart banged, her skin chilled, and she clamped down on the distracting ache in her gut with a bowl of something naughty, like Cocoa Pebbles. That night she would dream of gentleman in Abraham Lincoln hats, and then in the morning laugh at herself and toy with the idea of hauling those DVDs and all her Austen books to the second-hand store.
Of course, she never did.
That pesky movie version was the culprit. Sure Jane had first read Pride and Prejudice when she was sixteen, read it a dozen times since, and read other Austen novels at least twice, except Northanger Abbey (of course). But it wasn’t until the BBC out a face on the story that those gentleman in tight breeches had stepped out of her reader’s imagination and into her nonfiction hopes. Stripped of Austen’s funny, insightful, biting narrator, the movie became a pure romance. And Pride and Prejudice was the most stunning, bite-your-hand romance ever, the kind that stared straight into Jane’s soul and made her shudder.
It was embarrassing. She really didn’t want to talk about it. So let’s move on.
1 year ago
JANE’S MOTHER, SHIRLEY, CAME TO visit and brought along Great-Aunt Carolyn. It was an awkward gathering, and in the lapses of conversation, Jane could hear dead leaves crack as they hit her apartment floor. She loved her houseplants, but keeping them alive seemed beyond her skills.
“Really, Jane, I don’t know how you survive here,” said Shirley, picking the brittle leaves from among the sallow green ones. “We had a near-death experience in your coffin-of-an-elevator, didn’t we Carolyn, dear? I’m sure your poor aunt wants to relax, but it’s like a sauna in here and not a moment of silence—traffic, car alarms, sirens nonstop. Are you sure your windows aren’t open?”
“It’s Manhattan, Mom. That’s just how it is.”
“Well, I don’t know about that.” She took a scolding stance, hand on hip. The sixty-year-old wood floor grunted beneath her feet. “I just picked up Carolyn from her apartment, and sitting in her front room it was so blessedly quiet I could have sworn we were in the country.”
That’s because money buys thick windows, Jane thought.
“Never mind. Tell me, how’s your…”
Please don’t say it! Jane thought. Don’t ask about my love life!
“…friend Molly doing?”
“Oh, Molly. Yeah, she’s great, working freelance for the paper since she had the twins. Molly and I have been friends since the sixth grade,” Jane explained to Carolyn, who sat in her wheelchair by the front door.
Carolyn had so many wrinkles in her face as there are ridges in a fingerprint, not just around her eyes and on her brow, but delicate fold rippling across her thin cheeks. She returned a blank stare then tweaked it slightly, an intimation of rolling her eyes. Jane didn’t know if it was pointed or conspiratorial, so she pretended not to notice.
She hadn’t seen Carolyn since she was twelve, at her grandmother’s funeral. It had struck her as odd that when her mother came into the city, Shirley had insisted on including Carolyn in their lunch plans. But from the hungry, significant looks her mother kept pushing on her, Jane could guess—the old woman was getting older, and Shirley wanted to make an impression, a last bid for the remains of the seafood fortune. No doubt picking up Jane at her apartment was a ploy to show Carolyn her great-niece’s shameful living conditions.
“Shall we skedaddle?” asked Jane, eager to get the meddling over with.
“Yes, sweetheart, let me fix your hair.”
And Jane, age thirty-two, followed her mother into the bathroom and submitted herself to the slicking and spraying and twisting. No matter her age, whenever her mother did her hair, Jane felt exactly seven years old. But she let her mom go to town, because Shirley “Miss French Twist 1967” Hayes could only find true tranquility in a well-placed do.
“Be sure you listen, dear,” said Shirley, delivering her hushed, urgent lecture on How to Impress the Elderly. “They love that. Ask her about her childhood and let her go on, if she’s so inclined. At this point in her life, memories are all she has left, poor lamb.”
When they emerged from the bathroom, Carolyn wasn’t where they had left her. Jane rushed into the next room, jolted with a nightmare of a wheelchair bumping down the stairs (and with it an unnerving flashback of watching The Changeling at her eleventh birthday slumber party). But there was Carolyn by the window, leaning over to tug a floor plant into the yellow square of sunlight. Jane heard a thwack as her Pride and Prejudice DVDs fell from her arboreal hideaway and onto the floor.
Jane felt herself flush. Carolyn smiled, her uncountable cheek wrinkles gathered into a few deeper ones.
Really, so what if she’d seen the DVDs? A lot of people owned them. Why should she hide them? She didn’t hide her copy of Arrested Development: Season 1 or Yoga for Dummies. Still, something in Carolyn’s smile made her feel as though she stood there in her underwear. Dirty underwear.
At the restaurant when Shirley left to powder her proverbial nose, Jane did her best to pretend she was not the least bit uncomfortable. A minute of silence passed. She plowed her garden salad with a fork, weeding out the arugula.
“It’s been a warm autumn,” she offered.