Dinner with the Old Belle
She sat across the restaurant table from us, chewing on her hamburger steak, then spitting it into her napkin, which she discreetly emptied beneath the table. I knew from past experience that when she finished her meal, she would wrap the leftover rolls in a Kleenex and stuff them inside her purse. It was hard to stomach eating across from her, but she was family, and we knew our obligation.
Joyce was a widow, my husband’s much-older sister. Her hands were gnarled from arthritis, purple blotches colored her arms, her head shook, and her voice didn't work right. She had once been beautiful, a debutante, the belle of the ball. Now she dyed her hair red in the bathtub and insisted it was her natural color, dressed in bargains from the thrift store although she could afford better, and, this evening, had hung a cameo from her neck by a chain attached to a large safety pin that winked at me every time she moved. She looked like a bag lady we were treating to a decent meal.
The dinner conversation was strained. I remember that she asked us for ideas as to where she could meet men her age, and all we could think of was antique car shows.
As we left the restaurant, a flurry of white-haired women came in—laughing, well-groomed, confident women enjoying each other’s company. They recognized Joyce as a schoolmate and called her by name, smiling and reaching out to her. But she shrank back in horror, not allowing them to touch her.
She was too young to be as old as they were.