Friday, November 9, 2007

Wednesday, March 4th

Lally Fitzwater lit a cigarette, inhaled slowly, and stared out the window. From her apartment on the 23rd floor of Lincoln Luxury Towers she enjoyed a magnificent view of the world’s most famous performing arts center. In the late morning, the Metropolitan Opera House's white marble arches dominated Lincoln Center Plaza. Even now, it seemed as if the building’s mighty glass facade dwarfed the group of tourists standing near the entrance to the Met’s north box office lobby.

Further to the west where, many years ago, Lally and her husband had disembarked from the Queen Mary after each of their European jaunts, she could see the Hudson River and New Jersey shore. Sadly, with the advent of jet travel, the grand old days of crossing the North Atlantic had faded into a distant memory. In so many ways, it seemed as if jet travel had single-handedly destroyed the age of graciousness, an era in which people traveled in style instead of being crammed into a metal container and hurled through the air in order to save time.

This morning, the sky over Manhattan was filled with ominous grey clouds. But at night, when the waters of Lincoln Center’s fountain were dancing in the light and the plaza’s theaters all aglow, the huge red and yellow Chagall murals which hung over the Metropolitan Opera’s Grand Tier restaurant added an exciting splash of color to Lally Fitzwater’s view of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Those Chagalls were what had finally sold her on the idea of leaving the suburbs and moving back into the city.

There was no denying that even now, at the ripe old age of 66, Lally Fitzwater was an extremely handsome woman. But, ever since that tragic day nine years ago when her husband, Matt, had died at his desk from a massive coronary, Lally had been left all alone.

Her daughter, June, had insisted on selling the family’s huge home in Westchester (the house that had been Matt’s pride and joy). When Lally first moved into Lincoln Luxury Towers, she had been positively giddy at the thought of being so close to New York’s museums, theaters and art galleries. Her mind had been chock-full of fantasies about making new friends.

Those foolish fantasies quickly evaporated into thin air for, as Lally soon learned, after each of their husbands had died, most of the women in their social circle had moved to Palm Beach or Tucson. Two years after Matt’s death, their daughter, June, had taken a job in Los Angeles – a move that left Lally high and dry on the 23rd floor of a brick tower in midtown Manhattan wishing that she could somehow turn the clock back to the days when a night at the Met meant seeing all of Matt’s business friends.

Back to a time when intermissions were filled with champagne, laughter, and excitement.

Now all of that gaiety was gone from her life. Lally no longer knew a soul in the Met’s audience. This season, it seemed as if whenever she went to the opera, she was surrounded by foreign tourists and suburban couples who looked middle-aged and middle-class. If nobody in the audience recognized Mrs. Fitzwater anymore, it was because Lally had become another one of New York’s aging society widows; a rich old dowager forced to hire young men to escort her around town whenever she ventured out of her apartment to attend a social function.

Although, during warmer weather, she enjoyed taking long walks up and down Columbus Avenue, on a day like today Lonely Lally (as she liked to call herself) felt like a prisoner in her two-bedroom luxury cell. Soon after moving into her high-rise building, she had come to the bitter realization that most of the people who lived near Lincoln Center were either professional musicians or just much younger than her. Living in an apartment building which had its own pool had done nothing to enhance Lally’s social life. The fact that she would never ever have to worry about money did little to alleviate the pain of knowing that she was also alone.

"Also alone" or "all so alone," Lally whispered to herself as she watched another plane pass behind the Metropolitan Opera House. This one was a United Airlines 727. Lally smiled and watched in silence as the aircraft headed upriver and moved out of sight. Flicking the ashes from her cigarette into the heavy crystal ashtray to her left, she waited for another plane to come into view: a Delta TriStar (no doubt arriving from Fort Lauderdale or someplace where the weather would be a lot warmer than it was in New York). When the wind was right, those planes seemed to fly north over the Hudson River like clockwork.

Next came a United 737.

Then, several minutes later, a Delta 767.

Since moving into her Manhattan apartment, Lally had become an expert at identifying each airplane as it made its approach to LaGuardia. In a way, this activity had become her own private little game -- an amusement (not unlike counting sheep) which could keep her occupied whenever she grew tired of reading or there were no more soap operas to watch on television.

For a brief moment, the old woman’s gaze was distracted by the traffic moving south along Broadway, where five, six... no, seven buses were scrambling across the intersection of Broadway, Columbus Avenue and West 65th Street. It must be cold down there, she thought. Bitter cold. Not that Lally really cared about the weather. Why should she? When you’re a lonely old woman who’s bored to tears, you don’t really give a damn about whether or not it’s cold outside.

What you really want is someone to talk to.

Whenever she got depressed like this, Lally wondered why she even bothered to step foot outside her building anymore. The newspaper was delivered to her door every morning. She could order her groceries by telephone and have them delivered within an hour. New Yorkers had finally gotten cable-TV, so there were plenty of interesting things to watch. If she wished, she could order the newest books by mail and lay at home, reading and rotting in her bed.

No one would ever know that Lally Fitzwater was all alone. Nor would they care.

For a moment, Lally’s loneliness became too painful to think about. Several months ago the old woman had promised herself that she would not become a hermit. But, deep in her heart, she knew that if she didn’t get up off her lonely old ass and do something, she would soon sink into a major depression.

A flash of silver caught Lally’s eye as an American Airlines jet came into sight. As the plane moved across her field of vision, Lally thanked God that her old friend, Louise, had given her the phone number of a reliable escort service before moving to Arizona. On those nights when Lally dared to go out of her apartment, even the company of some man who was young enough to be her grandson was better than braving the world alone. And occasionally, ordering a call boy had its peculiar rewards.

With only ten minutes left before her first soap opera came on the air, Lally knew that the time had come to make a decision. Even though she had tickets to the Met’s new production of Das Rheingold, she couldn’t seem to make up her mind whether or not she wanted to go to the opera this week. Although she had always loved Wagner’s music, she was having one hell of a time deciding whether it was worth the effort to attend this particular performance.

What really bothered her about Saturday night’s performance was that, since Das Rheingold was only a one-act opera, Lally wouldn’t even have the pleasure of watching the fashion parade which usually took place during intermissions. And without intermissions, a night at the opera just wasn’t all that appealing.

Besides, since Das Rheingold would be telecast as part of the Met’s Live From Lincoln Center series, if the weather remained as cold as it had been for the past few days, Lally could watch it, snuggled under her electric blanket in the coziness of her bedroom without ever having to step outdoors.

Flicking her cigarette ashes into the crystal dish, the old woman wondered why she was secretly looking forward to Saturday night. Was it because she liked the ritual of going to the Met? Was it because she still loved to hear music played by a live orchestra?

Or was it, in all honesty, because Lally Fitzwater was so bored, so desperate for any motivation to get dressed up, and so painfully lonely that she would almost do anything for some human contact? Her instincts told her that if she didn’t go to the opera this weekend she’d find some other excuse to stay home the next time she had tickets to a performance.

And the time after that as well.

Decisions, decisions.

Lally hated making decisions. And yet, if an evening at the opera could add a few hours of excitement to her life, why should she even care how much it cost? The tickets were already paid for and Lally could easily afford the escort service’s fee. Nor could she forget that, as she frequently told herself, she had precious little else to do with Matt’s money.

Stooping down to extinguish her cigarette, Lally went into the bedroom and retrieved a tiny pink address book from the top drawer of her night table. Flipping through the pages, she found the entry marked "Classical Chivalry," reached for the telephone resting on her night table, and dialed the number. After three rings, a man’s voice answered the phone.

"Hello, Edward? This is Mrs. Fitzwater. That’s right, Lally Fitzwater at Lincoln Luxury Towers. I wonder if you could help me with something. I have tickets to the Metropolitan on Saturday night and was hoping that that nice young man who knows so much about opera might be available," she crooned. "I believe his name is Lance."

There was a moment’s pause while Edward checked the agency’s schedule.

"You’re sure he’ll be able to join me for Das Rheingold? Oh, that makes me so very, very happy!" Lally gushed. After a moment of stillness while Edward read off the terms of their agreement, the old woman spoke again.

"Yes, Edward, I understand that the rates have gone up since New Year’s but that really doesn’t matter very much to me. You just bill everything to my American Express card, like we’ve done on previous occasions, and have that charming young man knock on my apartment door at 7:15 sharp."

As she hung up the phone and reached for the remote control to her television set, Lally couldn’t help chuckling to herself. The choices which confronted her these days were sometimes a bit cruel but, without Matt to give her his advice, she had tried to do the best she could. Oh, that Lance was so young and witty!

She was practically trembling with excitement at the thought of having him escort her through the crowd. To think that, for several hours on Saturday night, she would have Lance’s undivided attention!

For a brief moment, Lally thought about how much easier things had been when Matt was around to make all of the decisions in her life. But Matt was gone and Lally knew damned well what the alternatives were to paying a young man for the pleasure of his company. She could sit at home watching the opera on television.

Or spend another lonely evening counting the airplanes as they flew north over the Hudson River.

Next: Sister Act

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