by Catherine Harnett
Today she will be Magda, Hungarian, in brocade; her scarlet velvet shoes with bows, so ladylike. “Magda,” she says to the woman in the mirror, brushing her hair, the scent of Prince Matchibelli on her wrist. “Magda, you enchantress, you deserve fragrant roses in vases throughout the house. You deserve a man with so much money that you are up all night counting it, instead of sheep.”
She presses a tissue between her lips and leaves an imprint of her rosy mouth. Her mother taught her this, along with many things a lady does: crosses legs at the ankles, leaves a little food on her plate, sends thank you notes to hostesses the next day.
In a cab uptown, Magda instructs the driver where to go. She is not sure if he hears her, talking on his cell phone loudly in a desert language rich with gutturals, and she is offended by his seeming disregard. It’s just how people are today, impolite and unrefined, Magda thinks. She sits back and sees that it is almost spring. She can feel the city lifting from the dirty melted snow and believes she sees forsythia just becoming yellow in the park.
If she were not Magda, she would take the subway up, and walk four blocks. But it is not befitting, with her dainty shoes.
She has always liked this building with its plain, clean lobby and the large, efficient woman at the desk. It is named for a Jewish man, originally from Prague, who lost his father twenty years ago and, in his honor, built this home for aged men. You can imagine how a woman feels walking in with so many of them playing board games in the social room and the orderlies from Africa. Magda knows that she turns heads when she visits every week.
He is less himself than he was a year ago, sitting in his blue striped robe in the TV room. Conrad, once a military man, medaled and recognized, always neat as a pin, his moustache trimmed, and his shoes never once untied. This woman greeting him, her hand outstretched, old-fashioned, expecting to be kissed. She conjures up old songs, “Lily Marlene” and such. Conrad thinks there is no harm in sitting a while with her, though her perfume is strong and she is over-dressed.
“I am, Magda,” she says to him, as she moves a plastic chair nearer.
He looks at her; he cannot place her, though she seems familiar.
“Have I met you once before?” he says. “Remind me when and where.”
Magda laughs. “I’m afraid not. I would have remembered you. May I call you Conrad?”
Being Magda means that she is of a time when women wore hats and hose with seams, of a time when Conrad was young and handsomer, had the run of Europe in his sharp Yank uniform.
Being Magda means that she can talk with ease about The War, how hard it is to live without silk and chocolate. How going without made her value little things, a brooch, a lovely pair of boots.
Magda asks Conrad if he would like a coffee or tea, and scans the room for someone who can accommodate. Lovely, elegant Femi nods and walks over.
“Madame?” Femi asks.
“A coffee please, with cream for the gentleman, and a hot tea for me. With lemon, if at all possible.”
“Of course,” he says, with a faint air of amusement, and he leaves the room for a moment, comes back with a clattering orderly’s tray and two Styrofoam cups, steaming.
“We are out of fresh lemon today, and for that I apologize. Here is sugar and milk for you both.”
Magda notices napkins in place of doilies, and two Social Teas on a paper plate.
“Thank you so very much,” she says. “You are very kind.”
“Of course,” he answers, and he leaves the couple alone, watching from the far corner of the room.
“How fine this is!” Magda says to Conrad. “It is so lovely to meet you.”
They converse about many things, weather, the food here, Harry Truman; how music today is nothing like the songs they sang just yesterday, with words you could understand, pyramids along the Nile, the small cafes, the wishing wells, and such.
“They play what passes for music here,” Conrad says. “I am among the savages.”
Magda laughs and touches his hand lightly.
“You are well tended,” she says. “Look at you, handsome even in your bedroom clothes. I’m sure you have many ladies, you are so charming and engaging. You can have your pick of them,” she says, “blondes, brunettes, ones with titian hair. Who could ever say ‘no’ to you?”
Magda is delighted. She is flirting with a handsome man, in the afternoon, on the Upper East Side; a mustached man seated in the TV room, dignified among the old, sedated ones.
“Do you have a wife?” she asks.
Conrad tilts his head a little to the right. He is a boy, she thinks, multiplying, or spelling, or trying to remember the number of a telephone that sat on an accent table in his mother’s home.
“A wife?” He pauses. “No,” he says. “A shame, really, that I didn’t marry.”
“Ah,” says Magda. “A shame indeed.”
After some time, she could accept that he would not remember her, but Magda feels a sudden sadness; this Conrad was a life-long bachelor. Forty-seven years together never happened.
She cannot bear an ordinary round of weekly visits to the home like other spouses, children, grandchildren, convinced that this time he or she will know them. So long as Conrad falters, she does not exist. No wife, no mother, no bedmate, no one who ironed shirts and packed lunch for him to take to work. No one who threw a vase at him, called him a bastard, threatened to run off to Mother’s for weeks. No one who noticed how she gently brought him back from another diner’s table, wandering after he used the men’s room.
What is the harm in leaving herself at home, becoming Magda today?
What harm in spending time with a husband who asks over and over, “Who are these children?” when she shows him photographs, and recalls nothing of a house on Alabaster, where he cut the grass each Saturday and patched the roof after rain.
“I must be going Conrad,” Magda says, glancing at her jeweled watch. “So very nice to spend time with you.” She takes his hand, notices the untouched cookie.
“Please come back again Marlene. Lovely talking with you. I’ll wear my hat and wingtips next time.”
She notices how warm and stale the room smells on the way out. She does not turn to look at him; there is no point in hoping for a glint, a sign, a sigh even, anything.
The orderly, the gentle African says, “Madame, it has been a pleasure.”
“Au revoir, Madame, au revoir,” he says again in his velvet voice.
“No, no,” Magda replies. “We do not speak French in Hungary. Last week, it was Ginette, the widow, who greeted you in French.”
And the week before that, Noreen from Ireland spoke with a brogue. You didn’t understand an English word she said!
On Third Avenue, she feels spring through the cold afternoon air. She walks to the coffee shop she likes, sits down in the booth by the window where the sun is orange, fading. She waits for her daughter, who will be curious about her father: his appetite, did he ask for her, should she bring the girls by to see him on Easter?
There is no Magda now, she is just a woman sitting in a brocade coat, waiting in a tired restaurant. No Ginette or Noreen, no Helen from London, no Julia who had perfected such difficult roles: Shakespeare, Shaw, Moliere. No Anya, Therese, Siobhan, not now. But in a week she will know which perfume to dab behind her ears, who to become. During that week she will be ordinary, a woman with a daughter grown, grandchildren, a suitable apartment by the river. She had a husband once, now disappeared.
She has met someone handsome, a real charmer, romantic, too, making each date feel like the first.
Catherine Harnett’s poetry and fiction appears in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including translations featured in Israeli publications. She has two poetry collections, Still Life and Evidence. Her short story, “Her Gorgeous Grief” was published in the Hudson Review and appears in Writes of Passage, a collection of coming-of-age stories. That story and her poem “Word” have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She lives in Reston, Virginia.