"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Perfume, Cigarettes, And Furs–A Boy’s First Unforgettable Taste Of Women

Sybil Birnbaum was the classiest of my mother’s friends – by far the most beautiful and most elegantly dressed.  When she came in the front door, perfume filled the hall, her diamonds caught the light of the chandelier, and long and sharp colored prisms flickered on the walls.  She always a dark mink almost velvet in color that complemented her black hair, lavender eye shadow and red lipstick. On formal occasions she wore low-cut black gowns and looked like Whistler’s Madame X.

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She lit her cigarettes with a gold  lighter taken from a gold case. She tilted her head upwards when she exhaled, showing off her long, elegant neck.  Her entrance was glamorous, seductive, elegant, and irresistible.
She wasn’t the only beautiful woman at my mother’s soirées. There were many. Some came in mink, others in Persian lamb.  Some wore diamonds and others emeralds and rubies. Some wore Arpège, others Femme de Rochas.

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They all said hello to me but Mrs. Lavaca always gave me a kiss. She was the sexiest of all my mother’s friends.  She wasn’t as elegantly tailored or manicured.  She wore little makeup and jewelry, but she was ‘inviting’.  That was the only word I could think of, for of all the women at the party she was the only one I hoped would come up to my room after I had gone to bed, pull down the covers and lie beside me.

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Even today after so many years, the smell of cigarettes and perfume on a woman still brings me back to my boyhood in New Brighton.  Women wear little perfume these days and rarely smoke, so the only time I smell the heady, sexy mix of my youth is on older women in their 80s who never gave up cigarettes or the habit of wearing Chanel.  I would see them – or smell their scent – in the Oak Room of the Plaza or in the lobby of the Willard, looking just as graceful and confident as the young women I watched from the hall stairs in New Brighton.  They hadn’t changed a bit and could have been waiting for a paramour or an unexpected admirer.

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One day after work I was having a drink at the Fairfax Hotel in Washington and noticed an older woman who could have been Adrienne Lavaca fifty years later.  She was alone but neither impatient nor ill at ease. She was surely sitting where she sat every day, coming in after an afternoon of bridge or a visit to the Phillips.  She looked comfortable and receptive. I introduced myself and asked her if she might be from New Brighton.

I knew that she was not Adrienne Lavaca nor from New Brighton, but because everything about her reminded me of Adrienne - the way she distractedly played with her hair and looked at her nails, and especially the way she sat - I still wanted to talk to her. Most older women have a fussiness about them, a kind of irritability, an out-of-sorts unpleasantness.  They are either unhappy about where they are or impatient to be someplace else; but this woman seemed unusually relaxed and content.  She looked like she came here every day, enjoyed the routine of the bar, the guests of the hotel, and the way the whiskey sours were shaken and strained.

Her name was Meriwether Van Horn. She was from West Hartford, a town only twenty minutes from New Brighton.  She had moved to Washington years ago, still lived in Spring Valley, and although her husband had recently died, said she had no intention of moving. “I have the money”, she said without pretense or affectation, “and I am well taken care of.”

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She spoke just like Adrienne Lavaca.  Again, most older women lose their coquettishness and intrigue; and their voices are without timbre or variation. Meriwether (named after her Great Grandfather who had been a Union officer in the Civil War and her more distant relative who had served with Washington in the Colonial Army) spoke like a young woman; and her charm, allure, and voice were just like Adrienne’s.

I never knew Mrs. Lavaca.  I was only ten at the time and adults were out-of-bounds, curiosities, and remote.  I could only follow her, imagine what she was like and wonder about her. When I heard that my mother was to play golf with her, I asked if I could caddy for them.  The Farnsworth Country Club was an old golf course laid out long before any development in Farnsworth, Avon, or West Hartford. It had been designed by Bobby Jones, and was challenging for even the scratch golfers who played it.  Mrs. Lavaca was a natural athlete and a champion golfer. I loved to watch her tee off, her breasts tight against her arms in a fluid, graceful arc. Her legs were long and tanned early, so by June they were golden brown, sleek, and polished.  She was like a statue of Venus de Milo standing over her putt.

I heard her voice coming from the women’s lounge where my mother had drinks with the ladies after their eighteen holes.  Mrs. Lavaca did not have a loud or impertinent voice, but I could always pick it out and hear it clearly as she talked about her fairway shots, her children, or her coming vacation to Nantucket.

I didn’t know Adrienne Lavaca in the normal way; but after five years of her incidental company and watching her every move, the way she dressed, how she talked, sat, and walked, I felt I did.  I must have because I thought of her often over fifty years; and there she was sitting next to me sipping a whiskey sour at the Regents Room of the Fairfax.

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I was as attentive as a lover, as intent in pursuit as I had been as a young man.  I was not sure what I wanted from her – an affirmation that she was an incarnation of Adrienne Lavaca? A validation of my instincts? A desire to know what Adrienne had become?
There was something mutual in our attraction; but she had no more of an idea of where our friendship would lead than I.  She didn’t need companionship, and her days of paramours and love affairs were long over.  She was a Washington matron, a wealthy resident of Spring Valley and still active in the Capital’s social life; but yet we found time to be together.

At times I felt uncomfortable. I was a voyeur who was looking into the projected life of Adrienne Lavaca  Not the real life of Meriwether Van Horn; but one whom I invented based on the matière primaire of my boyhood fantasy. We shared a similar background but her trajectory had taken her in a far different social orbit.  I knew none of her friends, nor she any of mine. Why then did we continue to see each other?

The conversation with Merri was easy and comfortable.  I don’t remember now what we talked about; but I know that we put Connecticut on the shelf early on. We had known each other long enough to exhaust even Dostoevsky; and the repeated Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions at the Corcoran bored us.

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It was a perfect relationship, not predicated on sexual fantasy or jealous demands. It began with no prescribed perimeter, no limits or rules, and certainly no expectations.  I never probed to try to understand the way she thought, and was only marginally interested in her family. I was the happiest I had ever been. I was in love with Adrienne Lavaca again. When I looked at Merri I first saw Adrienne and then her. When she spoke I first heard Adrienne’s voice and then hers.

Meriwether died a few years later.  We had just had an early dinner, but shortly after I dropped her in Spring Valley, the phone rang and her companion told me that she had died.

Grief did not feel appropriate. After all she was not real.  Few people knew of our friendship, and so in a way it was indeed a uniquely special, unshared relationship.  I didn’t tell anyone about Merri, and she only told her companion about me when she knew she was dying. I was not certain how I felt or even how I could go back to more normal relationships.  I was not young, but not yet old; and yet anything less than that particular and peculiar intimacy I had with Merri would never do. I eventually stopped thinking about her, remarried, and moved to the Eastern Shore.  I realized that I had never taken any pictures of her; but on second thought, that was not surprising. She was not real.

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