Mrs. Oleander in the Florida Room
by Robert Wexelblatt
It wasn’t any of her affairs, she recalled, as she lounged in the “Florida Room,” which is what Mrs. Ardekian told her the enclosed porch should be called. “But they’re all Florida rooms,” she’d retorted, perhaps too tartly. “Well, dear, in Paris every fried potato isn’t called a French fry,” said Helen Ardekian in her wide-open Michigan accent. Mrs. Oleander restrained herself from being pedantic and saying, “The Parisians call them frites, ma chère.” Sometimes she missed her friends in Larchmont, though scarcely any of them were still there.
How many men had there been? And why couldn’t she remember them clearly -- what they’d done, their voices, what they looked like?
Her new neighbor—“Call me Helen”—was sweet, but sweet gets old fast. True, she’d helped Mrs. Oleander re-position the couch, told her where to get the best baked goods, which dry cleaner to use, to take no notice of the lizards or the “palmetto bugs,” even what to do in case of hurricane. But she’d also talked at numbing length about her grandchildren (“I’m such a cliché,” she’d said, proud even of this), and about the late Mr. Ardekian, an Armenian paragon who in his entire life had apparently done only one wrong thing: “The dear man went and died before me.”
The room was floored with broad rust-colored tiles laid out in an appealing geometric pattern, modern but suggesting something ancient. Three long windows and a sliding door let in plenty of the outdoors or put the indoors outside. This was the only room in the condo that Mrs. Oleander had decorated. The others were crammed with her best furniture from the Larchmont house, the walls thickly hung with her favorite paintings. The exiguous bookshelves just held her art books and four photograph albums she paged through once a year, an occasion she once called “paying my annual half-hour tribute to the wimpy goddess of sentimentality.” Mrs. Oleander was nearly as short on sentiment as she was on offspring.
At Design Interiors, she’d hesitated which color couch to order and the pillows for the chairs, but chose pure white as suited to the tropics. “Who’s going to spill—or visit?” She’d picked out a Chinese vase lamp in turquoise and red with white accents, a sturdy brass floor lamp, and an anodized metal coffee table with a thick glass top. She insisted on a pair of Ethan Allan cherry wood end tables, even though the salesman warned her they’d warp.
She sat on one of the chairs and glanced out at the yard, blooming with all sorts of unfamiliar flora to be allergic to, and, over the fence, a clump of Australian pines—an invasive species on which the state of Florida had declared war. She guessed these had only been spared to make the fifth fairway more challenging.
You go to lunches, museums, gallery openings, dinner parties, pool parties, charity galas, the country club; you hire help and take cruises; you do what you can to amuse yourself while your husband is otherwise engaged and then he dies and you sell the house and wind up in the state a TV comedian glibly called “God’s waiting room” and your hyper-cultured Italian friend Giulia dismissed as “America’s penis”.
A few days earlier, Mrs. Oleander had run into Suzanne Schulberg in her new salon—not the one recommended by Mrs. Ardekian. Suzanne had been down here for three years; she had just gotten a blue rinse and her chest had that leathery look: the Florida Widows’ color scheme. When she spotted her, Suzanne had screeched like a high school girl, wanted to make plans on the spot, and extolled the early-bird special at The Fisherman’s Net. “They have lobster,” she crooned, “from Maine! They fly it in.” All the restaurants here had early-bird specials so the elderly could save a few bucks and not have to miss the network news which was made especially for them with a few headlines squeezed into a parade of ads for drugs they should nag their doctors to prescribe.
Suzanne Schulberg had always been a fool—worse, a fool who overate. Mrs. Oleander put her off, lobster and all. She wasn’t sure if she’d slept with Herb Schulberg or his son-in-law. Probably not both, and maybe neither.
Mrs. Oleander moved from the rattan chair to the white couch, put up her feet, and looked up at the illegal-alien pines. At the top their needles merged into a foggy green that reminded her of Chinese landscapes. She began thinking of her husband, not the emphysemic, cynical, real-estate-obsessed man who had died in December, but the sweet, fun-loving, ambitious one she had wed back in the Triassic Period.
For a couple years after their marriage, they’d lived in a pokey semi-detached house in Long Island City. In those days, milkmen in white uniforms and vans delivered glass bottles to your back door. You’d leave your order for them to find in the morning on a piece of paper rolled-up and stuck in one of the empties. One morning, she was cleaning up from breakfast when the milkman knocked at the kitchen door. She was surprised because of what she had written in her note. When she opened the door he was chuckling. “Just take a gander at this, Mrs. Oleander,” he’d said, and held the note out to her. On his way out that morning her husband, a joyful joker in those days, had stopped to pencil in “doing” between the two words of her order: “Nothing today.”
This distant memory was so vivid that the Florida room and the pine trees vanished and Mrs. Oleander could see the porcelain sink from which she could never remove the stains and recalled that the milkman’s name was Joe, even the cheap flower-print house dress she’d had on that morning. It was such a stupid thing to remember, ridiculous really, and yet it made her feel like laughing and crying at the same time.