Madame Mirabou's School of Love, page 1
BALLANTINE BOOKS NEW YORK
Table of Contents
About the Author
ALSO BY BARBARA SAMUEL
For Neal Barlow,
just as you are:
rare as a unicorn,
steady as a mountain.
PRAISE FOR BARBARA SAMUEL
“Miss Samuel writes like a dream, and her contemporary family stories combine real-life dilemmas with sweet romance in totally irresistible packages.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“One of my favorite authors! Settle into your most comfortable chair, enjoy, then tell your friends. Barbara Samuel is irresistible. She writes compelling, poignant stories that will touch the heart of any woman.”
—SUSAN ELIZABETH PHILLIPS
“[Samuel’s] characters are warmly drawn and sympathetic, their problems real and believable. . . .”
“Barbara Samuel’s writing is, quite simply, splendid. . . . These women are as familiar as your next-door neighbor and as exotic as the goddesses who archetype their lives. Samuel soars with genius in the humanity of her storytelling.”
“[Barbara Samuel is] noted for her skillful witing, excellent characterizations, and emotionally involving novels. . . .”
“[Barbara Samuel] creates an in-depth view of what truly matters in life-lasting relationships, especially the solidarity between generations of women. Readers should have their handkerchiefs ready. . . .”
“Like Elizabeth Berg and Luanne Rice, Samuel has a gift for mining hidden meaning from seemingly ordinary moments of time.”
—The Romance Reader
“Heart-warming and entrancing, Samuel’s latest will make you laugh, cry and believe that love can heal all hurts.”
—Romantic Times (Top Pick)
Some books are harder to write than others, and I’m grateful to the angels who flew in when I needed them on this one. Thanks go to Cathi Stroo, because only your sister knows you well enough to bring over a CD for a bad day and then it ends up being the sound track for the book in progress; Meg Ruley, Linda Marrow, and Charlotte Herscher for guidance; and Arielle Zibrak, who flew away to adventure; Christie and Teresa for reading and cheering me on and calling to say, “Have you done your pages today?”; Mandy Aftel for writing Essence and Alchemy, a magical, evocative book about the perfumer’s art.
And finally, the behind-the-scenes folks don’t often get the kudos they deserve, but the elegance of the way a book is packaged has much to do with its success in the world. I’m grateful to the art and production departments at Ballantine for the stunning look of my books. Nobody does it better, guys. Thanks.
Base notes are the deepest, most mysterious, and oldest of all perfume ingredients. Mandy Aftel
Nikki’s Perfume Journal Entry
SCENT OF HOURS
November 22, 1978
Chypres is a highly original group that is based on contrasts between bergamot-type top notes and mossy base notes. Chypres perfumes tend to be strong, spicy, and powdery. This perfume group was named after the famous perfume from Cyprus of Roman times. It is used primarily for women, and is appropriate for both day and evening wear, especially during winter.
I told the insurance company I was sleeping when the house blew up.
In actual fact, the cold woke me. I stood at the top of the stairs that led to my basement at three A.M. on a morning in late winter, daring myself to go down and find out why the furnace was not working. Puffs of dust-scented air wafted around my ankles. The narrow wooden steps disappeared into yawning darkness, and even when I turned on the light, it wasn’t particularly inviting. I hate basements—spiders and water bugs and the possibility of creepy, supernatural things lurking. Ammie, Come Home scared the holy hell out of me when I was seven, and I’ve hated basements ever since.
Standing there with my arms crossed over my breasts, frozen in every sense of the word, I thought, This was so not in my script.
I made a bargain, to love, honor, and cook all the meals, while he promised to love, honor, and do things like go down into the basement in the middle of the night. This was not strictly gender role stuff—I was a good cook and I liked it. Daniel was not the slightest bit afraid of ghosts or spiders.
Cold air swirled around my ankles. I couldn’t move. Frozen, just as I’d been for the past seven months.
A vivid picture of the house blowing up in a blaze of noise and fire flashed over my imagination (And wouldn’t they all be sorry then!). Experimentally, I stuck my head into the stairwell and took a long, deep sniff. No smell of sulfur, and I have a very good nose. Of course, it wasn’t exactly an airtight basement.
I shuffled forward three inches.
A shuddering hitch caught in my throat. I realized that I could not do it. Could not physically force myself to go down into that creepy, cold, spidery cellar and then get down on my hands and knees and look for a pilot light, and maybe even have to put my hands into a place where there were spiderwebs.
In the morning, I’d call someone to check it out. For now, I’d just have a cup of tea and play with my computer. Instantly, my heart stopped fluttering. Decision made. I stepped crisply back from the yawning mouth of doom and closed the door.
From the linen cabinet by the downstairs bathroom, I took a blanket that smelled of the lavender stalks that I tuck into all the drawers and closets. The pale purple scent eased my tension as I carried the blanket into my study, where the computer was breathing steadily, softly, its lights blinking comfortingly in the darkness.
I turned on the small, Art Deco lamp I’d found on eBay and settled into my chair, blanket around my shoulders, and opened a novel I’d checked out of the library. At least some things were reliable.
Unlike the furnace. Which exploded exactly one hour later with a noise you can’t even imagine.
Obviously, I lived.
The house, on the other hand, did not fare quite so well.
My mother used to say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I was pretty sure I was ready after blowing up the house, but no Mary Poppins of the over-forty set magically appeared to rescue me.
Instead, I sat for six more days at the Motel 6, drowning my sorrows in pints of Dove chocolate raspberry ice cream while I played the television for company and pretended I wasn’t panicking.
The day I met Roxanne for the first time, I gave my Visa to the girl in the Albertsons line and she shook her head. “Do you have another one?”
I did, but it was the last one. I’d maxed out all the rest—four of them, if you want to know the truth. As I handed over number
Back at my clean, uncluttered room, where I didn’t have to worry about anything at all, not even vacuuming or dishes or whether I’d remembered to buy shampoo, I faced myself in the mirror. Squared my shoulders.
Time to rescue myself.
First, clothes, since I was wearing an ancient skirt that had been in a bag of things I’d collected to go to Goodwill. I drove to Target, which was, once upon a time, one of my monthly stops. Today, the excessive light and acres of red—on signs and walls and the T-shirts of clerks—dazzled me. Music, modern and unfamiliar, poured out of the loudspeakers.
There were so many jeans. Did I want low-slung or high? Was I too old for acid-washed? Would my expanding butt look stupid in the wide pockets?
How could I choose? In the end, I took the pair that fit, and rushed out of the store because my throat was starting to close. It was an oddity, the hitch I kept getting in my throat. It was as if I couldn’t quite swallow.
Sometimes, I was afraid that what I was holding back was a long banshee scream. As I stood there in those polished aisles, it was way too easy to imagine throwing back my head and letting go, maybe in the men’s department beside the boxer shorts and socks, where I spent so much time and money lovingly picking out underthings for Daniel. He’d liked funny boxers—Tasmanian Devil and Bugs Bunny in particular, said it made him remember the kid he was inside—and sensible white cotton socks for the heavy boots he had to wear on job sites.
When he turned forty, he started wearing silky, black-spotted socks and colored bikinis. Should have been a clue, I guess, but you’re not really thinking your husband is going to fall in love with someone else. That’s what other husbands do.
Yes, I could scream a really long time.
Instead, I grabbed an advertising circular from the racks outside of Target and headed for the Village Inn near my motel, where I ordered a cup of coffee and some eggs and toast, like a normal person.
I opened the flyer. There were a lot of apartments in town. Hundreds and hundreds. Again, I felt that fluttery sensation in my throat. Stirring too much sugar into my coffee, I took a long, soothing sip, and promised myself ice cream if I at least looked at some of them.
The first one I chose was stacked on a hill, a place of in-betweenness. I hadn’t lived in an apartment since I was twenty-three years old, and I never much liked them even in the old days. This one was a gigantic complex, three and four stories tall. I liked it, though, much prettier than the old boxy places I remembered. There were French doors opening onto little balconies that boasted views of King Soopers, and the mountains beyond.
I was scared to death, sitting in the parking lot. So nervous, my elbows felt weak, and there was no logical reason for it. Not even as much logic as spiders in the basement—just general life terror, the same fear that inflicts you the first day of school or starting a new job.
Some sensible part of my brain said with a slap, Get over it! get out of the car! Stop being such a wimp!
I didn’t know what was wrong with me. This was not 1952. It wasn’t like divorce was uncommon. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have resources and brains. I’d led committees of fifty, headed up fund-raisers, organized the busy lives of my ex and my daughter, planned parties for a hundred. My garden was one of the most envied on the block, and I made perfumes. Beautiful perfumes. I was quite accomplished.
But it didn’t matter. Divorce was making me feel like a worm dug out of the nice, loamy ground and flung out on the sidewalk— I was writhing and wincing and struggling to get back into the earth.
Since I couldn’t, I stepped out of the car, carefully locked the door behind me, and walked across the pavement to the office. In the reception area, which was very modern and clean, with a huge arrangement of flowers that reminded me of a hotel, I waited for a girl to get off the phone.
She waved a finger at me: Just a minute. I turned to read the notices on the bulletin board: handprinted ads for house-sitters and babysitters with individual tear-off flaps with phone numbers; a flyer for a lost cat with the sullen face of a Persian; couches for sale.
There were the predictable empty promises: Make money at home!! Lose 30 lbs in 30 days, Guaranteed!!! Feeling my gut billow out beneath my crossed arms, I thought I ought to give that one a call.
The rest were odds and ends, mostly odds: a drumming circle met on Thursday evenings (women only, please! ). A tarot reader in Building 4 offered her services for $45, call Roxanne. There was Sufi dancing at the Unity church; shamanism classes, call White Wolf Woman, 555-4309.
A slight buzzing roar blazed through my head, and I took an airless step backward. I was divorced, not weird. There had to be a better place to rent an apartment.
The girl materialized beside me, her wash of thick, glossy hair swirling over her shoulders. “Sorry. It was my boss.” Sticking out a thin white hand, she added, “I’m Monday. How can I help you?”
“Monday’s child?” The rhyme ran through my head. “Fair of face.”
She looked confused. “No, you know, like the Mamas and the Papas song?”
“Oh. Right. Nicole Carring—I mean, Bridges.” I blinked the embarrassment of my name change away, squeezed her hand too hard.
“Did you want to look at an apartment?”
“Um, well. I . . .” With a grunt, I glanced back toward the flyers stuck with pins and thumbtacks, blue and yellow, white and red, to the corkboard. “Maybe this isn’t the right spot for me.”
Following my gaze, she waved a hand. “Oh, don’t worry. People just do some different things when they’re free for the first time in ages, you know? There are lots of different kinds of people who live here. Lots around your age, too, which is always nice, right?”
My age. Like a class of children to play with at recess. “Sure. All right.”
She picked through a set of keys on a ring. Her cheeks were that natural blushy rose some fair-skinned girls have. With her dark hair and dark eyes, it made her look like Snow White. “What would you like to see? Two bedroom? Three?”
“Um.” Another choice. “Let me see them both, I guess. I’m not sure.”
“Great.” She gestured toward the parking lot. “We also have an exercise room, a pool in the summer . . . and, of course, a shopping center right across the street. Grocery store, videos, gas . . . all right there at your fingertips, and the best views in the city.”
She wore pointed black plastic boots on slightly pigeon-toed feet, and even on this cool day, a slice of white skin showed between her blouse and the top of her jeans, which were what we would have called hip-huggers. I had a pair with three tiny snaps in front, long, long ago. Something about her, the sweet awkwardness of her, made me long for my daughter, though Giselle was not at all like this girl.
I tried to imagine Giselle, doing this job. Since she was driven toward medical school with a ferocity that surprised both her father and me, it wouldn’t happen, but I liked the sunniness of Monday. Traitorously, I wondered if Giselle would be easier to deal with if she weren’t so ambitious.
“Let’s look at the three-bedroom first,” Monday said. “Hope you don’t mind a little climb.”
There was a smell of bacon in the air. The stairs twisted upward, solid concrete rimmed with wispy-looking wrought iron. When we stopped on the landing, stupendously high above the street, a tiny wave of vertigo moved over my brow. I clung to the railing, trying to steady myself, and focused on the horizon.
“Wow!” I said, a reflexive response to the view.
The mountains this afternoon were the color of a plain blue Crayola, jagged peaks dusted with snow above timberline. Above them, the sky was softly gray. Pikes Peak, blue and white and burly, spread his shoulders across the horizon, exactly centered—the father mountain stretching his arms to the north and south. The tourist literat
“It’s great, isn’t it?” Monday said over my shoulder. “You never get used to a view like that, either. How could you?”
A door slammed behind us and the sound of heels clicking against concrete came toward us. A woman said, “Hey, Monday,” in a voice as throaty as Elvira. I turned around to see a thin, leggy woman with dark hair cut in urbane choppy layers head down the stairs.
“Good morning, Madame Mirabou,” Monday said.
The woman laughed. It was a rich sound, knowing. “How did it go Friday night?”
“You were right,” Monday said.
“Excellent.” I watched her descent, her knees showing in tan stockings beneath a green dress. “Maybe I should hang up a shingle.”
“Madame Mirabou’s School of Love.”
“Not bad.” The woman looked up as she made the last turn, and her eyes were bright, bright blue as they met mine. I could see she was my age, more or less. “It’s a good place to live,” she said. “I’d be your neighbor, though. Ask Monday if that’s a good idea.”
Monday said, “Come on in and let me show you the apartment.”
The tension in my chest built as we circled the rooms. It was an unoffensive place, with good closets and good views and a certain upscale beigeness that shouldn’t cause so much anxiety. I paused in the windowless kitchen with my hands over my middle, noticing how green my skin looked in the fluorescent light.
It made me think of a spot I loved in the old house, a niche in the kitchen set beneath a leaded glass window. I’d found a battered cherrywood table at a garage sale, and refinished it myself, and put it below the window with a blue glass vase on top. I liked best if there were sunflowers available at the florist, but any yellow flower was fine.
I didn’t love the house, but I’d loved that spot.
Now it was gone.
The hitch in my throat made me cough. Suddenly the idea of going around looking and looking was more than I could bear, especially when I had nothing to put inside any of them anyway, and I could better use the time trying to find a job to see me through until the insurance company approved my claim. I didn’t love this apartment, but it would do for now.
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