Today I’m thinking about a red dress.  A perfect red, somewhere between fire engine and wine. Fitted button-down bodice edged in a ruffle made from the same soft cotton as the dress.  The skirt was full, a little flounce to it, above the knee. I was twelve (give or take a year) and my best friend and I had gone shopping together, downtown Brooklyn, Abraham & Strauss. We both tried on the dress, loved it, bought it. We were not (quite) the same size, but that didn’t keep us from an occasional swap, some special occasion demanding a garment too perfect not to be shared. This would be taking friendship to another level, wearing the same beautiful dress. Almost twins.

Only a funny thing happened when I got home and hung it in my closet. Red was a favorite color of mine, and maybe it did dominate my wardrobe (my grandmother thought there was a communist lurking in me).  But something about having the exact same dress as my very best friend suddenly struck me as not quite right. I returned the dress, my friend kept hers.

A year ago I found myself sitting across from that very friend at a table in a New York City restaurant after years of no contact. One of the benefits of Facebook.  The beauty of looking into the face of your oldest, dearest friend is the beckoning, read between the lines, the you-go-your-way/I-go-my-way years that separated us nothing more than a wrinkle in time.  She became a teacher, retired now. I was at her wedding (she married young), she was not at mine.  We both have grown children. Being a grandmother occupies much of her time. Her smile is as infectious as ever.

A favorite activity of mine, with another longtime friend, is to go to the Met on Friday afternoon, sit at a table in the Great Hall Balcony sipping a drink between exhibits. Last time we did this we saw “The Steins Collect” and “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.”  She is a kindred spirit of the truest kind, and we count it among our mutual blessings to as readily enjoy “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert” at Madison Square Garden as “War Horse” at Lincoln Center and an afternoon of jazz at Caramoor. And, yes, that wanted/needed/recently purchased pair of shoes has been known to kick-start a conversation. It goes with the territory, Renaissance women flowering with style, leading lives deeply rooted in substance, no contradiction there. What we get is so often more than what we see.

Good friends: I can tell you what they like to drink, the men who broke their hearts and vice versa, the health scares and the bullets dodged.  Instant memories with BFFs are far more powerful than instant messages: driving along the cliffs of Highway 1, finishing off champagne (directly from the bottle) while cleaning up after a party, being nudged along by oh-so-familiar sparkling eyes when I hit a wall in Central Park during the NYC Marathon, 1981.  Tears are meant to be shared with good friends, not masked by a stiff upper lip. The give and take never needs explaining. It is what it is. Why can’t it be this way with men? we ask ourselves. Because.

In one of the title stories of my collection, a woman eavesdropping on a conversation remarks, “Men have their locker rooms, women have their nail salons.”  Times have changed since I wrote the story, and women have their share of locker rooms as well, but the heart of the observation still stands:  there’s an incomparable camaraderie that goes hand in hand with girlfriends shopping, getting pedicures, dancing in the street.  With my best friends there’s no splitting hairs when it comes to splitting the tab after a dinner or lunch. We know just what to buy each other for birthdays.  Too much time never passes between phone calls.  All of which has me thinking about a beautiful red dress. Maybe the impulse to return it was the more knowing sister of the spirit that had me buying it in the first place.

I had a dream a few weeks ago when I began thinking about writing this piece. A good friend whose life we recently celebrated on the five-year anniversary of her death (breast cancer) showed up at a dinner or a party. I did a doubletake – mostly at the surprise of seeing her.  I didn’t know you were coming, was the thought I would have expressed if my dream gave me the chance.  It was looking into her younger face that surprised me as much as the fact that she had shown up. Almost as if she had never left.

Isn’t that the way it is with cherished friends?

Photo © Britton Minor 

***If there’s something in need of celebration, guaranteed someone has (or will) come up with a national day.  Maybe you know this, maybe not, but August 1st has been designated NATIONAL GIRLFRIENDS DAY. How I stumbled upon this tidbit is as much a mystery (to me at least) as how it got started. So, in honor of those special women in our lives, I’m making  available signed, personally inscribed print copies of my short story collection, SHOES HAIR NAILS, directly from my blog, now through August 5th, for $5.99 (shipping gratis). Just hit the button below, follow the link, and let me know what you’d like me to write as an inscription, and to whom I should send it.

Oh, Rachmaninoff where art thou?

It’s late afternoon, a beautiful summer day, and all I long for is the most innocent of pleasures, sitting in a chaise on the deck, music resonating through the wide-open sliding doors. Any random selection from my shelves might do but today it’s Rachmaninoff I crave, “Piano Concerto No. 2.” If music has a way of evoking a specific time and space, this piece places me squarely in a Manhattan studio apartment, Upper West Side, late 70s, shelves stacked with books and weighted with an array of LPs that turned a 400 square-foot box into a chamber of sound. Something about this particular concerto had me listening over and over again, always brought to tears by the sheer beauty of it, somewhere between melancholy and transcendence. Minor keys have that hold. When I learned, from the liner notes, that Rachmaninoff composed the piece after coming out of a period of creative despair, I cried more. Sometimes you know something before you ‘know’ it.

Today my craving is to be outdoors listening in. I need to hear this piece of music  – right now – and begin frantically searching for it, in the process recalling a recent conversation with a friend about the ways in which we organize our music. She’s alphabetical, through and through. I was once tempted to go that route, but the sheer thought of all those CDs reshuffled and reordered, was overwhelming. Besides, I tend to organize music by association and (loosely) by category. Rock (in all its manifestations) encompasses the bulk of my collection. Classical and jazz have their own shelves; within, it’s a less clear-cut affair. I need Keith Jarrett next to Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk, Renee Rosnes and Fred Hersch and Lynn Arriale (to name just some of my piano faves). If I were being alphabetical, Beethoven should be next to Chopin on my classical shelves, but music (in my collection) has a logic all its own. I need Springsteen near Dylan. I also need the Grateful Dead near Dylan. Neil Young’s rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” on Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration gets him pride of place next to that astounding  compilation.  Clapton is within finger distance of Jim Hendrix and the Stones. And the Beatles. Patti Smith is next to Janis Joplin, on a shelf just above Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the McGarrigle Sisters, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell. A sweet segue to my (loosely defined) divas, who get a section to themselves.

Old Blue Eyes did a CD of duets with some of those divas in 1993. Not a favorite of mine (duet suggests to me a musical dialogue, two singers side by side, not studios apart) but I’m a sucker for a torch song. Not to mention the Sinatra I know and love best, The Capitol Years (a three-CD set one shelf below), that honeyed crooning casting a sentimental spell, leftover tears spilling at the instant recall of my mother. In a heartbeat I see a matching pair of light-wood console stereo speakers dominating the living room of a small Brooklyn apartment, one fixed, one with a lid that opened to a hidden turntable and storage space for LPs:  The debonair, winking Sinatra beckoning Come Dance with Me. The harlequin and  shadowed Sinatra singing for Only the Lonely. Hardly a stretch to see Pagliacci in the cover design (which was exactly what Sinatra intended and for which he would win a Grammy). He once said of Mario Lanza, “If I could sing like that, I would put a bird cage around my head and wouldn’t let anyone near my voice.” Hard not to conjure the voices of Sinatra and Mario Lanza, Tony Bennett and the Andrew Sisters, without hearing the crackle of vinyl. I have no Mario Lanza CDs but I have plenty of Pavarotti; time stops when I listen to him sing “Nessun Dorma.” Billie Holiday’s voice translates to pure ache in my heart.

By the time I locate the Rachmaninoff CD (who could have put it on the very bottom shelf with miscellanous, nondescript New Age numbers?) it’s Happy Hour, EST. Not that I need an excuse for a glass of wine, late afternoon. My husband, home from golf, begins cleaning the barbecue grill. I sit back in the chaise, the top branches of the trees dancing, for me. Birds tweeting what I can only imagine to be approval of what they hear. Squirrels scampering (is there a better word for the way they move?). As the intensity of the piece builds, the emotions kick in, sounds issue forth from me. Breathy, deep sounds worthy of a wisecrack from my husband re: what neighbors might think we’re up to. Some things (sometimes) really are better than sex. Speaking of which, whatever titillation might be derived from words on a printed page (in every shade imaginable) is no measure (in my book) for the places I go when my  husband hits the play button, Cowboy Junkies Trinity Revisited.

A bench, a book, a patch of grass . . .

.  .  . Fireworks.

Say what you will about the calendar (with its celestial reminder that there is an order to our days), something more spirited is at play when one season slips into the next.  By the time the summer solstice arrives, Memorial Day has already jumpstarted the season.  Then comes  the build-up to July 4th, the hot dogs and hamburgers, Roman candles and firecrackers, the expectation that the day before and the day after are a given part of the celebration equation.  Only once in a blue moon (at least that’s how it feels), expectation gives way to exception: a midweek fizzle of a 4th.

July 5th, a day neither here nor there (an afterthought in years when the calendar does not bow to our demands), yet evocative enough for someone to use as the title of a play.  So often it’s the grace note that gives us pause. Space to reflect.  I spent yesterday with friends (and friends of theirs, now mine) at their house overlooking a lake. This is the way I’ve celebrated the 4th of July for years now. Early on, our (young) children were part of the picture. Grown and mostly dispersed now, they leave us to our own grown-up devices. Which are not all that grown-up at all.

And why should they be?  Summertime bears the imprint of free time.  School’s out, playtime’s in, whatever that means to any one of us.  No sooner does summer arrive and I picture myself walking home from the library, a pile of books in my arms. Summer reading meant you could borrow more books, for a longer time. When my family first moved to the middle-income housing project that defined a neighborhood on the cusp of change,  there was no library. But there was the Bookmobile, arriving on schedule once a week. The back entrance was for returning books. I walked up the steps, deposited the books I’d read, spent some time perusing the shelves.  Walked out the front of the library on wheels, filled with the anticipation of where the books I’d chosen would take me.

It doesn’t take much to imagine my thrill when a ‘real,’ permanent library was built. More books. More choices. Any one of them in my lap as I sat on my favorite bench, in the shade of a tree overlooking a patch of grass. Reading.  In the height of summer.

Recent celestial events had me hankering to reread Shirley Hazzard’s novel, The Transit of Venus. I went scurrying to my shelves, the book cover as clear in my mind as if I’d read it yesterday. Except that it wasn’t yesterday, it was years ago, nowhere to be found now, clearly gone the way of paperbacks that can survive being boxed in an attic only for so long. Not a problem. It’s summertime. What better joy to give myself than heading over to my local library, picking up a copy bound in a way meant to last. Meant to be shared.  Meant to remind me of days sitting on a bench in the shade of  a tree overlooking a patch of grass.