She sat in a high-backed chair on the nursing home’s veranda, posture perfect for a woman of 95, her hand poised on the gold handle of her cane. She didn’t turn her head to greet me, but when I came into view, she smiled and fluttered a hand toward a chair across from her. “Hello, Lily.”
My name is Amanda, but I didn’t correct her. “Hello, Elizabeth,” I said. I had never called her Grandma.
“You didn’t bring violets, Lily.”
“They weren’t fresh at the florist’s today,” I lied.
“A shame. I do love a violet nosegay. François always brought me a nosegay.”
“The only man I allowed to kiss my hand,” she said. “Most are so crude, you know. They raise one’s hand to their lips. The true gentleman bows to the proffered hand, brushes it with his lips and a tickle of his mustache. Ah yes,” she mused. “François…”
“You never mentioned him before.”
“He was a fairly short-lived liaison à Paris. I was there to visit my cousin Odette.” She paused. “Maman didn’t know Odette’s obsession, you see.”
“And what was that?”
“Oh,” I said. “Of course.”
“Yes, of course.” She met my eyes and leaned forward. “We were very discrete, you understand, unlike Gertrude and Alice. We’d sit apart at their salons. Flirt with the young men there. Unkempt writers and artists still in their smocks. I told Alice they should cover the furniture so it didn’t soil.” She paused. “Ruffians, those boys. Thought themselves intellectual, but they were quite ordinary.”
“Yes, she was sometimes a ruffian too. Liked to pull me down by the hair as she kissed me. I still have a scar where she bit me once.” She lifted her hair and I could see a faint crescent outline on her neck. “Un souvenir d’amour,” she smiled.
“When did you decide you weren’t, uh, attracted to women?”
“Oh, I never did decide. I’ve had lovers all my life—boys, girls, young. Always young.”
“But you married…”
“Of course. One must, to legitimize any whelps that come along. Such a bother, pregnancy, children. I don’t recommend it, Lily.”
“I’ll see if I can avoid it,” I said, thinking I probably shouldn’t tell my mother about this visit.
“Yes, do. And now, I must rest a moment before Odette comes by this afternoon. She will undoubtedly want to ravish me. Be a dear, Lily, and play the Strauss, will you?”
I found an old tape of waltzes and put it into the cassette player on the table next to her chair.
“Lovely. Thank you, Lily. You may go now.”
I walked toward the parking lot wondering who Lily was… François… As I got to my car, I saw a stout older woman in trousers striding up the walk. I hesitated, then couldn’t help calling to her. “Odette?”
She turned her head.