“Rachel, you look lovely, dear.” Wesley held the door for me as we walked in, wearing his charcoal cashmere turtleneck under his buttery soft black leather jacket. Even our son Devon wore real slacks instead of jeans. An odd-looking woman hovered nearby. That was quite an outfit she had on—a long, wrinkled, muddy-brown full skirt, almost to the floor, and a tan-fringed jacket. Was it suede?
Champagne and bubbly water flowed freely, and waiters in starched white shirts circulated trays with tasty-looking hors d’oeuvres, topped with edible flowers. Soft jazz played in the background—Winton Marsalis? I didn’t know many people there, other than all the family, eager for a reason to make a Big Apple excursion.
We’d never attended a gallery opening in New York, a city I didn’t enjoy and that intimidated me. But I felt compelled to go because my daughter-in-law had an exhibition of her photographs—her first—so it was a huge deal. Wesley and I were so proud, as was Devon, of course. Located in Soho, just off West Broadway, the gallery comprised a huge lovely space, with ample wall space to hang photos. Absolutely the best thing Chloe could have hoped for.
I’d decided to get dressed up for this momentous occasion, choosing a black velvet dress, Manolo Blahnik heels (my only pair, bought in a resale store and still pricey), and my best jewelry.
But now I felt ridiculous. I ran my sweaty hands down my velvet dress, too warm and fancy maybe for this crowd of young, tattooed women wearing torn jeans and high-heeled boots. The click of my pumps on the concrete floor too loud, too fancy, too everything. Devon was probably annoyed I’d pressured him into buying those nice dress slacks.
I had to push myself to circulate amongst the guests, forty or so, most of whom I assumed to be New Yorkers and artist types. Resembled those cocktail parties I always hated. I’d just grabbed a glass of champagne off a passing tray and was tucking into a plate loaded up with sushi and caviar on toast when that peculiar woman got right up into my face.
“Hi, Rachel. Long time no see. What’ve you been up to?”
Taken aback because I didn’t recognize her, I replied in a neutral tone, “Fine, just fine. Enjoying my retirement.” Tall—at almost five feet—I had to look up at her. A huge floppy hat obscured much of her face. I’d taught thousands of students over the years at a college outside the city before I retired and moved west. Was she one of them? But she looked too old. What was her ethnicity? Mocha skin, brown eyes, hair a cloud of brown frizz in a shaggy, uneven cut ending at her shoulders. Latina, or biracial, maybe. Hoping to figure out who she was I asked, “What’ve you been up to?”
Mystery woman continued talking, oblivious to my question. “Do you know the artist?” she asked. She held a glass of champagne in one hand and a small plate overflowing with cheese and crackers and grapes in the other.
Look at those filthy fingernails. Perhaps she was also an artist and had a hard time getting all the paint out. Her personal grooming left a lot to be desired. It drove me crazy that I couldn’t figure out who she was. Stupid, but it bothered me how weirdly she was dressed. Flat-heeled sandals in chilly mid-November on dirty feet that looked a mess.
“Yes, she’s my daughter-in-law. She and my son live in the city. Starving artists.” I forced a laugh, but it was true. They lived in a dump paid for by their pathetic day jobs while they pursued their dreams, he as a writer and she as a photographer, with no help from us. I loved that Chloe had landed this two-person show. “We just flew in from Boulder.”
Staring down at my chest, she made me uncomfortable. Finally, just before excusing herself, she said, “Love your necklace,” and walked over to someone else, saying. “Grant, how’s it going?”
I glanced around for someone to talk to, still annoyed that I couldn’t figure out who she was. She acted so familiar, but . . . Soon, someone from the gallery clinked a spoon against a champagne glass to get everyone quiet and introduced Chloe and the other photographer, who each said a few words. Then the guests resumed their eating and drinking.
I continued to observe my mystery woman as she made her way around the room, approaching couples and threesomes with such ease. I admired how she worked a room.
Finally, I caught Wesley’s attention on the other side of the room, giving him the sign that I was ready to leave.
He wandered over. “Who was that woman you were talking with?”
“Damned if I know. She acted like she knew me, but I just couldn’t figure out what her name was or how I knew her.”
“Maybe. Anyhow, I’m ready to go back to the hotel.” Approaching the door to leave, through the huge glass windows, I could see that mystery woman was talking to two men outside on the sidewalk. I could hear them arguing, one of the men pointing down the street, voice raised, face red. Mystery woman shouted back, waving her arms, and eventually left, turning around every few steps to yell back at the men.
When we got outside I said to the men, “Who was that woman?”
Clearly exasperated, the guy who’d been arguing said, “She’s homeless! And she just propositioned me.”
“Yeah. I’ve seen her on the street. And this isn’t the first time I’ve seen her crash an opening.”
I turned to Wesley as we walked away and said, “Hmm. Pretty resourceful, if you ask me. Well, maybe not the sex part.”
But how did she know my name? Ah, her eavesdropping.
Bonnie E. Carlson is a retired professor of social work. She is completing a novel and lives in Scottsdale with her husband, dog, and three cats. She has published three flash fiction stories and is completing a novel.