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Jo Barney Writes
The Solarium at Jo Barney Writes
Four old college friends retreat to a beach house for gossip, laughs, wine, and comparison of aging body parts. Three end the weekend their lives changed. The fourth does not end the weekend.
The three of them come to the beach house at Madge's invitation, a retreat for a few days, not unusual now that they are old enough to do just about whatever they want, only a husband or two left to be concerned about.
But on that first night Madge, a novelist, showsthem the drafts of her newest novel. "The stories of all four of our lives, fictionalized of course, but not finished. Just as we aren't finished. Each of you will provide the next chapter, just as I will with my life."
Then she asks them to help her with her own story. What she asks is so difficult they cannot answer at first. When they finally agree, they findthemselves lying to a sheriff, disguising a pony-tailed man, hiding an incriminating car, holding back the truth to everyone involved including Madge's sons. What they were doing was most likely illegal, their acts fueled by their forty-year friendships, friendship that become stronger than ever.
When the weekend ends, each of the womenis changed, each in control of her life in a new way, Madge's stories completed, at least for the time being.
Saturday Morning: Cloud Cover
The cabin is cold. Jackie glances at the fireplace, sees one thin curl of smoke rising from the remains of papers crumpled at the edges of the burned logs and wonders if she should start a fire. As she bends to lay out the kindling, Lou passes by, whispers, “Don’t. Let Madge’s pages burn.” She brushes Jackie’s arm. “Let’s go for a walk, the way Madge has planned.” Lou’s eyes are red, puffy with tears, and will be for a long time, Jackie thinks. Must be a relief, to be able to cry when you need to. Jackie usually yells at these moments, dry grit rattling her head, body, thoughts. She leaves the smoldering papers and follows Lou out the door.
Ten steps down the path she hears Joan call at them to wait. In a moment she catches up, her mouth set in its determined way. “We need to look for the walking stick, like Madge said. And we need to breathe in the morning air to get ready for this day.”
They are at the front of the dune when Lou stops and turns to Joan. “Why aren’t you crying? Either of you? She’s gone. We all heard her walk away from us this morning.” Lou pulls a Kleenex out of her pocket, wipes it across her cheeks. “You, especially, Joan. Being her best friend.”
Jackie doesn’t like having to defend her tearlessness. She is trying to figure it out herself, but she especially doesn’t like Lou’s comment about best friend. Madge doesn’t have best friends, not that Jackie has ever noticed. She is friends to everyone, not like Joan and even Lou sometimes, leaving her out of their secrets, back in college and even now. Especially Joan. “I don’t cry easy,” she says. “Doesn’t mean I’m not sad. And I’m still confused. I didn’t want to do this, you remember.” She isn’t sure Lou is listening, and Joan moves on ahead of the other two. “We need to look for the damn walking stick,” she calls back. “I will cry later.” They don’t talk any more, just scan the wet beach in front of them until Lou points, runs to the stick partly buried in the swoosh of a sandy wave.
Once they get back to the cabin, they place the stick on the mantel and pour themselves cups coffee in front of the fire, the old ashes whisked by Jackie’s broom into the blaze she’s built. Then they settle in, wipe tears from cheeks, Lou, of course, and Joan, and even Jackie as if the others’ sadness is contagious. They sit without speaking, unable to look at each other, until Lou says, “I’m empty,” and reaches down to capture the tissues under her feet.
“I’m taking a shower. Then we’ll have to . . .” Joan sinks back into her chair her eyes shut. ”Damn. I need a little more time.”
Jackie sniffs back the snot that won’t stop running. “What I don’t get,” she manages to say after a moment, gurgling a little, “is why she involved us.”
Lou’s not empty yet, Jackie sees. Still blowing, sighing. Where does all that fluid come from? Some mechanism in the body that is dormant until the finger of fate pushes its button? She herself feels sad but now a backwash of anger inside her is also rising. She needs a drink to force it to retreat, to keep unwelcome thoughts at bay. About death. Not just about her own death, whenever, but the nearly completed death of a man she loved and still loves, a man beyond decisions. She stands up, picks up her coffee cup, heads to the kitchen.
Joan, watching her, says “Not yet, Jackie. We have work to do.”
“Shit, Joan. Who made you Mistress of the Universe?” but Jackie knows Joan has always been Mistress. Maybe that’s part of her anger. She’s gotten into this mess mostly because she didn’t want to disappoint a friend, and now that friend is not here. She’s not sure where she stands with the other two in this room. And she’s not going to take Joan’s bossiness any more. She reaches for the kitchen phone, dials a number written on a list of emergency contacts Madge must have taped next to it.