“Where has she gone off to, now?” The wrinkled old woman asked the young volunteer incredulously, leaning into the high desk with her hand cupped to her ear.
“We’re going to have to get signs,” The young girl sighed. “As I’ve told almost every single person in her water aerobics class, Wilma May is in London. She left a week ago, her daughter said.”
“You must be mistaken,” Stella Woods said in her smooth Southern drawl. “Wilma just turned seventy last week, she can’t be off in some other country at her age, alone.”
“Well, she is,” The girl said bluntly, plainly already bored of the conversation. “Take it up with her daughter if you want. Or, better yet, call her yourself!”
“Humph,” Stella muttered as she walked away from the help desk. “There’s no respect for the elderly these days.” She walked out of the building and up to her black town car that was waiting for her in the parking lot, engine running. “Hello, Seth,” Stella said, addressing the man sitting in the driver’s seat. She stepped into the back seat and buckled up her seatbelt.
“No water aerobics today?” Seth asked, adjusting the rear view mirror.
“No,” Stella answered, pulling her sunglasses out of her purse and putting them on. They looked huge and especially ridiculous on her small face. “It seems my instructor has run off to London.”
“London?” Seth asked. “I guess now’s the time to do it, huh? Young and freshly out of college, I bet.”
“You’d lose that bet,” Stella said, chuckling. “My instructor just turned seventy.”
“Did she, now?” Seth said, pulling out of the parking lot in front of an angry BMW. It was June in Los Angeles and it was already unusually warm, even at eight o’clock in the morning. “Well don’t you run off on me, Ms Woods, I know your birthday is in two weeks.”
“Now there’s a thought,” Stella said. “Except I’m turning sixty seven, not seventy, thank god.” She saw Seth roll his eyes at that and she laughed along good-naturedly. “Seth, why don’t you be a dear and get Wilma on the line? Let’s ask how she’s liking London.”
Seth nodded and thumbed at his phone, loaded with Stella’s contacts. The rings filled the entire car. Ring, ring, ring.
“At least she doesn’t have that annoying song as her ringtone,” Stella yelled up to Seth. “You know, that ridiculous alien music that my step-granddaughter has?”
Seth nodded his assent while keeping his eyes on the busy streets in front of him. Ring, ring, ri—
“Hello?” Came the voice of Wilma May on the other end. Her voice had changed, somehow, Stella thought. It was lower, huskier, sexier. I must get myself over to London, Stella thought to herself.
“Hello? Darling, it’s Stella.”
“Stella? From water aerobics? Stella Woods? Oh, I knew I forgot to call them to tell them I’m gone!” Wilma muttered, seemingly to herself, on the other line.
“Yes, dear, Stella from water aerobics. Don’t worry, darling, they know where you are. So it’s true, you’re in London, then?” Stella made a surprised face at Seth, who raised his eyebrows back at her in the mirror.
“What? Oh, yes, yes, I’m in London. Chelsea, actually. It’s quite nice.”
“Well, yes, I should hope so!” Stella laughed. “So, how is it, dear?”
“To be honest, I love it! I feel so guilty for loving it, oh but I do.” Wilma’s voice grew gravelly and, something else, but Stella could not pin it down. All she knew is that she wanted her own voice to sound like that about something.
“Guilty? Why should you feel guilty?”
“It’s just that, well, I’ve got my family in Los Angeles, my son and daughter and my grandchildren, you know.” Wilma sounded like she was trying to be apologetic, but Stella knew forced guilt when she heard it.
“Why, you’re not guilty a bit!” Stella cackled. “And good! You shouldn’t be. Too many old women waste their lives feeling guilty about one cock and bull reason or another.” She kept on cackling, glad that there was at least one other woman her age who refused to feel guilty for living her own damn life.
“Stella, you naughty thing,” Wilma crooned into the car, her own laugh filling the black town car. Seth rolled his eyes at the sound of the two old crones laughing. “Why you’re right, I’m not guilty a bit, not even a tiny little bit. And guess what? I can take showers for as long as I like here! Mind you, my shower’s smaller than my pantry was in Los Angeles, but that’s another matter completely.”
“You sound as though you’re living quite the life over there, Wilma,” Stella got out, coming down off of her laughing fit.
“I am,” Wilma said, now completely serious. “For the first time since I was twenty two, I feel as though I’m living the life that I thought I’d live.”
“Forty eight years later and here you are.”
“Here I am,” Wilma said, sounding completely content with the prospect. “And here I go – sorry, I’ve got some errands to run, I’m sure you understand. I hope they find an aerobics replacement for me.”
“You know these fools, it’ll take them a year to realise you’ve actually gone,” Stella said.
Wilma laughed along with Stella then the phone clicked goodbye and an electric silence filled the speeding black town car.
“Well there you have it, Seth, a true woman, off following her little girlish dreams.” Stella said it with mocking intent, but somehow it came out sounding wistful.
Stella herself had never travelled farther than the borders of the United States. She had grown up in Alabama and it was enough to leave the state for her to feel well travelled – so few people did even that, it seemed. She went to college in New York and left with a degree in English literature and creative writing. Five bestsellers later, Stella decided to take up a handsome successful husband in Los Angeles and rest on her laurels while she grew into a woman of society in Southern California. Typical, Stella thought to herself, Just when I think I’ve done myself well, someone always comes and does me one step better.
“Ma’am, we’re here.” Seth’s voice awoke her out of her reverie.
“Yes, of course,” She muttered, waiting for Seth to climb out of the car to open her door for her.
She took off her sunglasses and looked up at her house when she stepped out of her car. The sight of it made her feel slightly better about herself. It was huge, a towering white thing with a red door and black French window shutters. This is all of another country that I need, Stella thought haughtily. She walked up her cobblestone walkway, each side teeming with green grass and blooming flowers. Some drought, she thought, bending over to admire her overwatered assortment of flowers. At last she made it to her door, which she found locked. She rang her own doorbell and her maid Julia came to answer her when she impatiently turned to knocking.
“I am sorry, Ms Woods, I was cleaning the upstairs, I didn’t hear you right away,” Julia talked quickly, obviously nervous in the presence of her employer.
“That’s quite alright, Julia. I’m sorry to distract you from your duties.”
Stella stepped in and Julia ran back upstairs. Stella loved her empty house. The clock on the wall read nine thirty eight in the morning. Stella sighed and walked through her living room into her kitchen. Her entire house was spotless, thanks to Julia. It was decorated in a likeness of a country home in France. Her interior designer had told her that it was a timeless style, and she loved timeless styles. She dressed every day in white linens and navy blues, she didn’t dare touch jeans and diamonds were usually visible on her ears, on her fingers and around her neck. Today was no different.
Her mail was lying on her kitchen table, waiting for her to sort through it. On the top was a letter from Carl, her older ex-husband. More like a letter from his lawyer, Stella thought ruefully. And so it was. The letter was from Mr Mackelroy, Carl’s young lawyer, asking Stella for a meeting next week, on June the seventh. Has Carl forgotten so quickly? Stella wondered, annoyed that they would ask to meet about their divorce on her birthday. Or maybe he is such an idiot. He never remembered when we were together either. Resigned, Stella messaged Seth to ask him to arrange a meeting on the seventh at noon.
London, Stella thought, revelling in the thought of a city far, far away. Like a fairytale, She chuckled to herself. She thought back to when she thought her life was a fairytale – it had been the summer of nineteen sixty-nine and she was living in New York City. She was twenty-one then, newly out of university and finished with her first novel. She had been running around town, begging editors in publishing houses to take in her novel. It was a memoir, about her struggle to leave Alabama and to pay her way through a mostly male class at New York University. Since every editor at every publishing house that she had visited were men, however, it was wearisome to try and convince them to publish her feelings on the subjects. It wasn’t until she met Edith Chase, some intern who pushed for her memoir to be published, at Bandham Publishing that she began to gain traction. Her life then had been a whirlwind, when she thought that all of her dreams were coming true. For two glorious months, her life was everything she’d dreamed it would be – she had been validated in her writing, she was being recognised on the streets and, not to mention, she had a fat wallet full of newly minted money.
Hailed as a feminist hero in nineteen seventy, Stella Woods published four more works, this time novels, fictitious and gaudy. As much as she cringed when she read them, however, the public couldn’t have enough and were understandably furious when she announced her early retirement. The truth was, she had never thought of herself as a feminist hero until the newspapers and crowds started calling her that. Made to speak out about women’s rights, Stella grew tired of bearing a voice and a mind that was not her own and within a month, she had moved to Los Angeles, found an older rich man and settled down in a sprawling mansion to live out her life under the radar. Even though at the time, that decision felt right, it had been eating away at Stella ever since she and Carl started having problems ten years ago. By now, the phrase, “What if?” ran through her mind at least twenty times a day.
And as she sat thinking about London, the phrase cropped up again. What if? She thought. Her large, empty house creaked as though in response, an echo running its way through her airy mansion. She ran upstairs and texted Seth, pulling her huge set of barely used Louis Vuitton suitcases out from the back of her closet.