The Turquoise Dress
Ruth Fitzpatrick Michel
Kitty had been dead now for 10 weeks and 2 days. Tom thought it was a tough break for Stephen, coming home to an empty place now, after being married to Kitty for close to forty years. He knew Stephen would never find another woman like Kitty, especially at their age.
Stephen had invited him to stop by for a drink after their golf game. Even though his wife, Mary, was waiting for him at home, Tom decided he should. It was the least he could do.
He and Mary had been over at Kitty and Stephen’s many times over the years – to play bridge, for cocktails parties or little suppers when Stephen would show slides from their latest trip abroad. Kitty liked to have friends over to “have a few laughs,” as she called it. The day of her funeral their place had been jammed with friends from bridge club and dance club, and Stephen’s fellow volunteers from the hospital. The galley kitchen had been crammed with women dishing up food, laying out platters.
Tom followed Stephen through the front hall into the living room. He suspected the radio playing low in the kitchen was left on to break up the heavy quiet that hung over the condo. There were telltale signs that Kitty was no longer there. The drapes hung crookedly, squeezed by the backs of chairs pushed up too close to the windows, and throw pillows were scattered haphazardly across the brocade couch and love seats. On the window ledges and the dining table, plants from the funeral were drooped in their baskets. Vases sat nearby, brittle flower petals scattered at their feet.
Tom felt himself waiting to hear Kitty’s voice, for her to greet them from another room. “So my men are back from the wars. How was the golf game?” Then she would have come onto the balcony or into the dining room, sit on the arm of his chair, ruffle his hair and call him “Handsome”. Tom could picture the glow of her suntanned skin, her teasing smile. He swallowed a knot in his throat, and blinked away the wet film from his eyes.
The two couples had met when they both moved into Plaza Sevilla Village about the same time. Enticed by the perfect weather and beauty of Southern California, Tom and Mary moved from Minneapolis and Stephen and Kitty came from outside Chicago. Before the two couples had even met, they had completed piles of paperwork and wrote endless checks so as to join the 20,000 retirees who had already bought into the lifestyle Plaza Sevilla Village promised. It was a self-contained world all its own.
Kitty and Stephen started coming to the dances shortly after they got settled. They seldom missed the Saturday Night Dances at Clubhouse Three or Sunday Afternoon Tea Dances on the patio at Clubhouse Six. Tom soon discovered that Kitty was a charming dance partner. He began to impatiently look forward to dancing with her, although every fella seemed to want to have the same pleasure. Too often he would spend an evening dancing with other women, never getting his chance to hold her chastely in his arms.
Stephen and Kitty had purchased a spacious condo in a four-plex – two bedrooms, two baths, with a wall of windows - overlooking the Saddleback Mountains. A balcony stretched outside the windows and wrapped around the corner. Five years ago, Charlotte Trimble, a widow, had moved in across the landing. Shortly after, she began leaving her New York Times, news magazines or books on Kitty’s white wrought iron bench that sat just outside the two front doors. The bench soon became the exchange spot for all sorts of reading material shared among the neighbors at Building F on Plaza Seville Way.
“Gin and Tonic okay, or do you want something with a little more oomph to it?" Stephen asked, taking glasses out of the cabinet.
“A light one. Mary wants me to drive her to Penny’s to get new drapes for the guest room. Always something, isn´t it? ” he said, circling his fingers around the glass Stephen handed him. Like a jolt, he realized that Stephen would probably love to be able to take Kitty anywhere. Yet he knew she would never have dragged her husband shopping. She would have driven herself, might have taken a friend along, even Mary. Nothing much had ever stopped Kitty – except the aneurysm that burst in her head and killed her.
“So how are you doing on your own? You need anything? Getting enough to eat?”
They were sitting on the balcony now, their chairs in the shade. The Saddleback Mountains loomed hazy in the late afternoon heat.
“I’m drowning in food,” Stephen laughed, “Ever hear of the Blue Haired Brigade? I have had more women stop by bringing casseroles, pies and cakes. Can’t stuff anything else in my freezer. Char across the way has been taking some of the things, and putting the rest in her freezer in the carport.”
“You’re going to be a hot commodity around here," Tom grinned, “an eligible male. Never have enough of those at the dances.”
“I suppose. Need a refill?”
“I’m fine," Tom placed his hand over the top of the glass. “I bet it was tough going back to the dances, without her?”
“Oh, I’m not going to any more dances. I´ve had enough of those to last a life time.” Stephen grinned at Tom’s look of shock.
“You’re not going to the dances? Kitty loved to dance, she loved music, and couldn’t keep her off the dance floor!” He realized that it may have just been too difficult for Stephen. “Too many memories?"
“Well, I went to those dances for years just because Kitty loved them. She liked getting dressed up, wearing something pretty. She enjoyed the music and seeing all the people. And I guess, being seen too.”
“You two always looked pretty snazzy together” Tom said, swirling the melting ice in his glass.
“Well, she liked me to look good too. Make an appearance, an impression. That was always important to her.” Stephen’s gaze roamed towards the mountains, tinted now a deep red as the sun started its descent.
“Next Sunday? I can call for an early tee time if you like.” Tom asked a few minutes later as they walked out to his car. “You were lucky Kitty liked to go places,” he said, placing a hand on Stephen’s shoulder. “I sure wish Mary liked to dance, but she’s always been shy, I guess. I could go dancing every day of the week," he added, a catch in his throat. “Like Kitty.”
“You know it made her happy. Gotta make those compromises to keep the peace. Many a night I’d rather have stayed home, and read my book, or watch the History Channel. “
A few days later, Stephen called, telling Tom he couldn´t play golf on Sunday. Their daughters were flying out for a long weekend to sort through their mother’s things.
“She would´ve wanted the girls to have their pick,” he said, “I certainly don’t need a silver tea pot and all that stuff. Kitty had some nice pieces of jewelry too. I know she would´ve wanted the girls to have them.”
Their next two golf dates were rained out. Several times when Mary and he were going out to eat or taking in a movie at Clubhouse Two, he asked Stephen if he would like to join them. Although Stephen sounded grateful for the invitations, he declined. One time he mentioned that he and Char were going to the Getty Museum for a lecture on early California landscape artists.
Tom continued to go to the dances and tried to enjoy himself. Among the dance crowd, it was easy to bring up Kitty in conversation. Yes, everyone agreed, she was missed. She had been a great dancer, always such a happy person. They would share their favorite stories about her or recall something fun she had done.
Everyone remembered the dance contest Kitty and Tom had won last year when Stephen had been back east at his brother’s funeral. She had teased and pleaded with Tom to be her escort for the contest. He knew Mary would not have minded, buried in Victorian doll-making projects.
Without Kitty, Tom felt the ballroom at Clubhouse Three and the patio at Clubhouse Six had lost their magic. No longer would she be bursting through the door, laughing and greeting everyone as though she had not seen them in years, instead of a few days. The flock-papered walls and the gold-leaf mirrors seemed shrill and harsh, like a woman wearing too much lipstick.
They finally played 18 holes at the end of the month. They made up a foursome with two fellas Stephen volunteered with at the hospital.
“I´ve got something for Mary,” Stephen said as they walked in from the 18th hole. “Something at the house. The girls saved them when they were sorting through their mother’s things. Can you stop in on the way home?”
A short time later, he followed Stephen into the living room, still listening for Kitty’s voice. The living room looked much different this time, with evening dresses adorning the couch and love seats, and draped over dining chairs. Formals in clear plastic hung from the door frames into the kitchen and dining room.
“They’re all her fancy dresses and cocktail dresses, I guess they were called – she’d wear to the dances. The girls can’t use them, and thought maybe Mary could. She still makes her dolls?”
“Amazing,” Tom whistled under his breath.
“Pretty wild, huh? She had quite the collection. I remember how she looked in each and every one of them.”
“So do I,” Tom murmured. A breeze stole in from the balcony, stirring the dresses hanging in the doorways, like so many flowered trees in spring bloom. A sigh escaped Tom, as his fingers brushed the beads on a turquoise dress. Kitty’s perfume rose like a shadowy kiss against his face.
“Isn´t that the one she wore when you two won the dance contest last year?” Stephen said from the kitchen, fixing drinks. “I think we have a picture of that somewhere around here.”
Tom’s fingers lingered on the soft satin of the shoulder strap. “I think it might be,” he said, although he knew it was. “I’ll take them all. Mary’ll know what to do with them, even though it’s a shame to cut them up. She always looked so pretty at the dances. You were a lucky fella, Stephen.”
When Tom was ready to leave, they gathered up the dresses and loaded them into his car.
“What Mary doesn´t want, just have her give to a consignment shop or maybe donate them to a community theater.”
Silence settled between them. “I’ll get a tee time for next Sunday, okay?” Stephen asked, his hands resting on the rim of the car window. “Yes, I was a lucky man. Kitty was a good woman.”
As he drove away, Tom watched the rear view mirror until he could no longer see Stephen. Then he raised the car windows despite the heat, and drove towards home at a slow measured pace. The stuffy air inside the car quickly became sweetened by traces of Chanel No. 5, Kitty´s scent.
“It’s Chanel No. 5,” she had laughed when he had finally gotten the courage to ask her. “It is the
Now as he drove home, the turquoise dress lay on the passenger seat next to him. He could almost see her radiance on the night of the contest. She had been so excited speculating about their chances, wondering about the competition. She thanked him again for being her partner, for being such a handsome escort. He had told her he wouldn´t have missed it for the world. She just knew they were going to win.
Now a year later, as her fragrance filled the car, he was unable to recall if they had won or not.
For that was the night, the only time her smiles were for him alone. When they danced, he held her closer than he would have dared had Stephen been there. He breathed in the fragrance of her hair, as it brushed against his cheek. They were a couple - even for just a few hours - when he had her completely to himself.