The Last Best Day
 – Marlene Olin

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“I’ve got good news and bad news,” said Marcie.

She was running the sink. I heard the whirr of the disposal flip on and off. I pictured her cradling the phone with her chin while mopping the floor with a socked foot. There were never enough hours in the day for Marcie.   When things got quiet and still, I worried. Suddenly I was listening to my own heart thump.

“The bad news,” said Marcy, “is that the chemo’s not working.”

She talked in a monotone like she was reading her grocery list. Tomatoes. milk. cheese.   Port. IV. Infusion. Every now and then there was a hitch in her voice, a little hiccup of pain.

“I’m ready for the good news,” I mumbled. Forty years ago, Marcie and I had been college roommates. English majors. Now we spoke in our own Morse code. Dashes and dots. We left out the unspeakable, filling in the blanks with jokes, banter, and gossip. A spade dug in my chest.

“The good news is that we’re bumping up Julia’s wedding. We’re having it here in Miami. Soon.” She added a forced yeah at the end. “I’m aiming for August.”

It was already June, and Marcie’s style was to do things big. Her own wedding was at the Plaza in New York. Four hundred people, six courses, and twenty violins. Marcie’s parents were Holocaust survivors. In the privacy of their home, they washed and folded Saran Wrap and hoarded dented cans of tuna. In public they lived like the Astors. Lavish affairs with no details overlooked. Ice sculptures triumphed over the shtetl, shrimp cocktails trumped Hitler. If God kept a ledger, they figured they deserved to be in the black for years.

Four decades have passed and I still see that wedding. Marcie could have she stepped out of a Velazquez painting.   Her veil peaked like meringue then descended in a waterfall of tulle. The ten foot long train on her bridal gown was dusted with sequins. From a distance she looked like a frosty cloud. Up close, she looked like a thousand bucks.

Her mother orchestrated the festivities, wielding her sequined purse as if it were a baton. “So beautiful you look… like a movie star! So elegant… like a queen!”

Picture Yoda with Yiddish inflections.

Marcie smiled. She always smiled. She was smart enough to indulge her parents because she knew that they adored her. And she was wise enough to know that although money doesn’t translate into love, it can certainly speak on its behalf.

We were in the Plaza’s bridal room, a windowless cubicle stuffed with a chaise and a full-length mirror. The strings were playing Pachelbel, but Marcie was stage-struck. Dozens of doubts looped in her head. The two of us were alone while the squared walls slowly closed in. I twisted the dial on the thermostat until the temperature hit sixty. Then I ran to the bar and ordered two screwdrivers. I reminded Marcie that she loved Robbie. Robbie was one of the good guys. Plus her parents would kill her if she changed her mind.

“They’d lose the deposits for sure,” I told her. “It’ll cost them a fortune.”

Whenever we were stressed, we reached for humor.   Puns were our go-to option. “Flight in August,” said Marcie.

One Hundred Years of Ingratitude, ” I replied.

“You’re right. You’re right.” Marcy started guzzling the screwdriver. “And I am growing fond of this gown.” She fingered the mink cuff that circled the bottom of her long sleeve. “It’s like a pet. A dachshund. I want to feed it kibble.”

I held up my palm. “Don’t vorry.” Ida-speak was our way of sending little daggers of revenge, of making ground against the tide. “Afterwards, vee can lay your train on the Viennese table.   Pastries! Chocolates! Desserts like you vouldn’t believe!”

The Crepes of Wrath,” said Marcie.

Finnegan’s Cake,” I replied. “Pie and Prejudice.”

Nearly a half-century later we had become our parents. Spoiling children was simply passed down in Marcie’s genes. Julia was her first child to be married, the only child she would see married. Now when her mother’s voice popped up into Marcie’s head, she welcomed it with open arms. Vee live for our children. Vat else can vee do?

“Is there enough time?” I asked. I was talking about Julia’s wedding preparations. Marcie was one beat ahead.

“I ought to make it through the summer.”

Our first challenge was to find a rabbi to officiate. Julia’s fiancé was Episcopalian with roots tracing back to the Mayflower. When Marcie called her rabbi, she was shocked that he refused. All the other local rabbis said no as well.

“Of course they’re not going to do it,” I told her. A mixed marriage was like serving pastrami on white bread. “You have to find a rabbi on the Internet.”

“You mean one of those new agey guys with ponytails?” she asked.

“Google Rent-a-Jew,” I suggested.

Soon every hour in Marcie’s calendar was filled with either doctor appointments or meetings with florists and photographers. Since she was too weak to drive, she relied on friends.

Once again we were looking at dresses. It had been a miserable summer. The humid air was too thick to breathe. But Marcie wasn’t deterred. It was ninety degrees in the shade yet she insisted on long sleeves. Her body was scarred from biopsies and needles, a medical minefield.

“Maybe I could wear a muumuu. Remember muumuus? How about a burka? They’re very in right now. Very chic.”

I rolled my eyes. “She Schvitzes in Eastwick.”

We walked from shop to shop, arm in arm, looking at the storefronts. Marcie was trying to corral her strength. She was chewing on her lower lip like it was lunch.

“Did you notice that we’re shrinking?” said Marcie. “I used to be an inch taller.”

I lifted my size ten shoe. “Not only are we getting shorter but our feet are getting bigger. Hobbit big. Godzilla big. Soon I’ll be storming Tokyo.”

Marcie edged up to the window. Her fingers tapped the glass. “And since when are mannequins so realistic? This one has nipples for Christ’s sake!”

We gazed at each other’s reflections. For years Marcie had tried every fad diet and yo-yoed back the weight months later. Now she was thinner than she was on her wedding day. The skin from her neck hung like a wattle. Her arms were papery, creased. Yet we forged on, playing this game of charades, miming our emotions, leaving long breathless pauses between words. Marcie cocked her chin.

The Topic of Cancer,” she said. “Eat. Pray. Die.”

It was already July. She had blood work weekly but lately the numbers were skewed in the wrong direction. What should have been going up went down. What should have been going down went up. Up down. Down up. Life had become a seesaw. I always hated seesaws. When I was a kid, I was positive I would fall off.

I started checking caller ID on my phone before I answered. As time passed, emergency trips to the hospital happened daily. Marcie’s immune system was failing so we watched the horizon for drone attacks. A torn cuticle, unwashed lettuce, anything could kill you.

“There’s a red line wriggling up my wrist this morning. Could you give me a ride? I’m sure it’s nothing. Just drop me off at the emergency room. I’ll be fine. I promise. I’ll be fine.”

My stomach felt perpetually cramped. Just when I needed to plumb my inner resources, my courage deserted me.   For years we had been through so much together. Childbirth. Family squabbles. Contrary husbands. Now when she needed me most, my first inclination was to bolt. The Unbearable Lightness of Fleeing. Oh The Places I’ll Go!

I remembered when Marcie was nine months pregnant. The week before the baby was born she tore though the house, throwing away old clothes and termite-eaten books. Nesting. She told me she was nesting. Now she was preparing herself for another passage. She was cleaning closets, organizing her house and making her children lists.

Graduate Degrees Worth Getting. Graduate Schools Worth Attending. Things You Will Need in Your Home. Books to Read to My Grandchildren.

No detail was too small. JD. MD. PhD. Harvard. A mop. A pail. A bucket.

On a Sunday night she instant-messaged me. It was three o’clock in the morning and we were both on our computers. Marcie avoided sleep to cram more life into her days. I avoided sleep so I wouldn’t dream about Marcie.

“I need your help with the caterer,” she wrote. “I have to pick out the menu and everything tastes like metal.”

When I hesitated, when my reply didn’t immediately pop up in her box, she rallied like a cheerleader. “We can eat like pigs,” she typed. “It’s free!”

The Lords of the Sties. Make Way for Sucklings!

“Sounds like fun!” I replied. Then I not only shut off my computer, but unplugged it.

I picked her up the following Tuesday. No one would guess how sick she was. She was wearing the wig we had purchased from the Orthodox women on Alton Road. Rouge and red lipstick disguised her pallor. Gold bracelets snaked up and down her arms.

“You look good,” I told her.

She pointed to her makeup. “Not too kabuki?”

“Perfect.”

Together we walked into the hotel. A Ricardo Montalban look-alike greeted us in the Hyatt lobby. Tall with slicked down hair. Poured into his stylish suit. When he went to shake Marcie’s hand, she flinched.

“I have a blood disease,” she announced with her chin up in the air. The catering manager took a step back, pivoted his neck, and looked over one shoulder then the other. Cancer was the ultimate bargaining tool. He had nowhere to turn.

“I need to make decisions fast.” Marcie shook her three-ring-binder in his face. “And I need a good price.”

I swallowed a chuckle and glanced at Ricardo. He was speechless, scratching his neck like hives were erupting. We were directed to a beautifully set table in the dining room. Samples of the wedding menu, beginning with appetizers and ending with dessert, were going to be presented to us for the next two hours.

Dining with Marcie in a restaurant under the best of circumstances was an ordeal. She always changed tables three times before finding the right one. Instructions to the waiter took at least five minutes and even then the meal would be sent back twice. The Inquisition at the Hyatt started with the salad.

“You sure this is a ripe tomato?” she asked Ricardo.

We’ll Always Have Carrots. War and Peas.

“It’s supposed to be yellow,” he answered. “They’re very expensive.”  Then he changed the subject by waving two over-filled goblets. “I suggest this burgundy for starters.”

They set four bottles of wine on the table along with eight goblets. It was my job to sample each one. Slowly the fog inside my head lifted. I could see Marcie walking down the aisle arm-in-arm with her daughter. A canopy entwined with flowers. People dancing. For the first time I realized that the wedding could actually happen. One more month to go. I emptied the wine in my glass and asked Ricardo for a refill.

Planet of the Grapes! The Grape Gatsby! The Grape Santini!

Tiny sips of liquor had worked its magic on Marcie as well. She was sitting up straight again, primed for battle. A pen and pad were next to her wrist. She was taking notes, making more lists, and driving Ricardo nuts.

Along with the steak we were offered a choice of five different accompaniments.             None of them satisfied Marcie. “This bordelaise is too salty,” she complained.

“It’s fine,” I told her. “Remember everything tastes like metal?”

“And this Marsala sauce? No flavor whatsoever.”

Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen.

I downed another glass of wine. “Can’t we give the guests a couple of options?” I suggested to Ricardo.

“That costs extra,” he replied.

Marcie put her palm against her forehead like she was going to faint. Ricardo quickly finished his sentence. “But in Mrs. Greenfeld’s case, I’m sure we could work something out.”

Our next stop was the linen store. No one spoke a word of English. We communicated with hand gestures and a few Spanish phrases. When in doubt, we just added o’s to the end of words.

“Do you have anything plaino?” asked Marcie. All she wanted was a simple ivory tablecloth and complementing napkins and chair covers. But there were, we discovered, twenty shades of ecru and none of them seemed to match. Bolts of fabric were dropped in our laps.   The expressions on Marcie’s face sent more signals than a traffic light.

“This brocade is nice,” I told her.

“It looks like my mother’s bedspread.”

“How about this lace?” I asked. It was lovely, like snowflakes on a window.

“That’s nicer than Julia’s dress.”

We set up camp with our oversized purses and emergency gear splayed on the floor. Umbrellas, sweaters, sun visors, totes within totes. It was late into the afternoon when the Hispanic women offered us pastries. Marcie took one bite of rum cake and spit it back onto the plate.

“Oh my god, this is the sweetest thing I ever tasted,” she blurted. “Water, I need water!”

The clerk rushed over with a tray of tiny cups. Marcie took one sip of black Cuban coffee and started choking. “Quick! Quick! Give me back the cake!”

I was drunk from the wine and Marcie was overtired. As usual we laughed until our sides hurt, bent over, as giddy as schoolgirls. But there was a clock ticking. We both knew this could be the last best day. Marcie hunched her shoulders and waved her hands in the air. Then she morphed into Ida-speak once more.

“Now look what you’ve done!” she bellowed. “You’ve got me all verklempt!”

My shoes were off. My neck was heavy and my arms were limp. I was feeling sorry for Marcie and feeling even sorrier for myself. A switch flipped. Once I started crying, I couldn’t stop.

Kvetcher in the Rye. As I Lay Whining.

The whale had swallowed me whole. I was emptied.   I was biblical. I was bereft.

The ‘Boy Are We Fucked!’ Club. The Bitches of Madison County.

We were supposed to be in this for the long haul. Now I felt betrayed and deserted.   Why was I the one who got to live? Why did she get to go first?

Fear of Dying. Grave Expectations. A Tomb of One’s Own.

Marcie patted my knee and there-there’d me. I took a deep breath, wadded my tissues, and went back to work. An hour later, we settled on a beautiful damask tablecloth and napkins. Only one more decision to go. The chair covers. They showed us the most popular choice, a spandex sleeve that fit tightly over the whole seat.

“It’s like a glove, muy elegante,” said the salesperson.

“It’s like a condom,” said Marcie.

I ran my hand over the fabric. “It’s safe seats.”

The sun was setting. Someone located a large satin bow that slipped over the seat cover like a tuxedo cummerbund. But our selections went way over budget. The Hyatt had thrown in upgraded linens but not the ones we picked. Marcie was determined not to pay a cent more. But before she could play the cancer card again, I stepped in.

“Can you show me the way to the ladies room?” I pantomimed washing my hands. As soon as we were out of earshot, I began haggling with the store manager.

“My friend has a problemo,” I told her.

Si, si. Esta loca in su cabeza.” She pointed to her head and made crazy circles.

Si. Si. Very loca.” I assured her.

“Necessita un hospital,” she told me.

“Si, si,” I agreed.

We walked back in the showroom like old conspirators.

“Everything’s taken care of,” I told Marcie.

“You told her?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” I replied.

We left the shop and walked shoulder-to-shoulder on the sidewalk with Marcie leaning like a listing ship. Her incredible stamina was failing her. Her wig was askew, the heavy pancake makeup sweated off hours earlier. She looked years older than her age, a lifetime older than the nineteen-year-old brunette I once met in the dorm. I helped her into the car, guiding her feet and tucking in her head. Then slowly, like the turning of the last leaf in a book, I gently closed the door.

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3 thoughts on “The Last Best Day
 – Marlene Olin

  1. Joe jacooby

    Wonderful story well written fortunately knowing Marcie made the story
    That more delicious. One can only hope that Marlene will continue to write
    And keep us entertained with her keen observations about Jewish life.

    Reply
  2. Philip Freidin

    It’s simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. A beautifully written tale of the importance of friendship. And a pleasure to read. The sentences are smooth and sweet, the dialogue made me laugh and before I knew it our day together ended. For this reader it came too soon: I missed them. Congratulations to Marlene. I look forward to many more.

    Reply

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