Through the limousine window I watched my daughters take the white long-stemmed roses from that know-it-all woman, who later at the funeral introduced me to a therapist. I let my mind slip as I watched her.
I don’t have to be here, I thought. I can get away with not being here. I refused the therapy just as I refused to pray for the soul of my late husband. And I didn’t give up working. Instead, I signed up for the painting studio program in the city and hired a nanny to deal with my absence at home. I knew I was getting a fair deal, the time to bounce from train to train, commuting away from the painful reminder that my life was over.
The studio was busier than I imagined, and it was easy to keep my new status of a young widow a secret. The first week Venice, a fifty-something ex-model from Yugoslavia, invited me to the graveyard behind our red-brick studio building.
“It’s a funny place,” she told me. “They like to raid it from time to time.”
“Why?” I asked.
She told me about her dead brother. “Self-harming,” she said, “is a stupid way to die.”
The glimpse of blood on the shirts in the laundry, the hospital bills, the last note left for me behind my pillow, made my stomach turn. “Yes,” I agreed. I was grateful to Venice for not asking me why I would join her every time she needed to check out those graves.
Six long months I kept to myself. It was only when the old guy, Ricardo, an Italian ex- antique book dealer, everybody seemed to be “ex” in that place, asked me out, that I started to cry.
Now I had to talk. I explained to him why I always, against his better Italian judgment, wore my baggy black clothes, cut my hair way too short, and refused to put on even a tiny bit of make-up. Why I stayed in the studio until the janitor started locking the gate. Why I left the room to speak on the phone. I was talking to my children. I told him how lost I felt and how useless. Ricardo held my hand, and we cried together.
The next day Ricardo knew what to do.
“There is a place,” he said as he excitedly navigated me left and right and across the street until we landed in front of a thrift shop, one of those wannabe vintage boutiques. It was called “Your Second Chance.”
The smell, a peculiar combination of a bitter-sweet perfume and mold, made me sneeze. The floor was clattered with rails of washed out clothes labeled with small handmade price tags. An old lady, she must’ve been 90 years old, her name was Rona, Ricardo introduced us, took the best care of me.
“We gonna make you a woman again,” Rona spoke fast with a strong Eastern European accent.
I looked at Rona’s thinning hair shaded pink and her white face powder that seemed to be chipping.
“No way,” I refused.
“We’ll be right behind you,” Ricardo said.
So, I tried on the dresses and multi-layered gipsy skirts and silky kimonos, embroidered with golden dragons and silver swords. I forced myself to pick several items just to please Ricardo. He insisted I would hand the clothes to him. It would be his treat.
Just as I was thinking our little shopping therapy session was coming to an end, Ricardo whispered something to Rona. With a sly smile Rona disappeared behind the rows of bleached jeans.
What else, I thought, nervously sizing the number of items Ricardo was adding to my selection of overly colorful suits and nightgowns, all of them totally unpractical.
“Come,” Rona appeared magically from behind me, “It’s something special. Only for you.”
I turned to Ricardo. He was nodding, “Go on.”
This was ridiculous. I looked at the clock on the wall. I still had to catch my train home to let the nanny go before midnight. Why do I have to listen to those old extravagant people? What do they know?
I was about to give up and run out.
But, Ricardo stood up, guarding the door, “It’s for you own good.”
I shrugged my shoulders. Another twenty minutes wouldn’t make any difference.
Clutching to my elbow, Rona led the way between the heaps of loose clothes topped with the ski sets, looking like the remains of some broken fence prepared for a bonfire, to the "only employees” room. The neon lamp in the middle of the stained ceiling kept flickering and buzzing. Rona unlocked the door and pushed me in.
“Lights don’t work here,” she whispered, “but never mind that.”
“Never mind that,” I heard the echo.
The room was empty except for an antique armoire on the far wall. Rona pulled its door open. A stroke of light pointed at a single hanger with a mysterious cream-colored dress. In all the darkness the dress shimmered like a hibernating moth, ready to depart instantly and be burnt by the open flame of the real world. It hadn’t been out of this room for a while, decades, I imagined.
Rona gently took the dress off the hanger and handed it to me with tears in her eyes.
“Thank you,” I bowed. It did feel like a very special moment.
Her hands trembled as she checked her mascara; she coughed frequently to cover up the intensity of her feelings.
“It’s time for you to live,” she said and walked away into the quivering light with a posture of a wounded veteran informed of the end of the war.
I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or the dress.
Magically it didn’t take long for me to wear Rona’s dress again. Venice handed me a ticket to Paris, all paid for, at the end of our year at the studio.
“And don’t you dare,” she warned me, when I tried to refuse, “do it for me.”
That night overlooking the Eiffel Tower, I couldn’t see, but felt that the dress fitted me perfectly, like a cocoon. I picked up my arms, and like angel wings, the laced sleeves broke up the darkness.
“Excusez moi,” a voice of a stranger startled me, “are you lost?”
“Not anymore,” was my answer.
It’s been years since that day at Rona’s “Second Chance” shop. Sadly, Rona passed away so she couldn’t come to my tenth wedding anniversary.
“We’ll be right behind you,” Ricardo and Venice said, pointing at the driver holding the door open for me.
I sat at the back, my hand was held by my husband, the same handsome stranger from Paris. My daughters, with the addition of two, sat next to me picking the petals off the long stemmed white roses, letting them fly through the rolled down limousine window. The melody of their laugher reached my friends, and I saw them all waving at me, smiling at me, being right behind me.