When Florence comes up the sidewalk toward her duplex, she can see that the large Victorian house just to the south has new owners. It is the one lovely place on her otherwise undistinguished block--porched, corniced, many-peaked, and recently painted Nordic blond with pique white trim. Each of these last few evenings she has admired, as she does tonight, how neatly the trim glows in the twilight. She threads her way past boxes and pieces of furniture the owners have left on the sidewalk. There are two piles of women's clothing. Dishes and cutlery are stacked beside the curb, and a slender-legged plant stand supports two ferns and a grape ivy. A brown box, its lid agape, contains the Oxford English Dictionary, abridged edition, and two Mexican cookbooks. Draped over the back of a kitchen chair is a white dress, perhaps a wedding dress, its bodice shaped into fullness with blue tissue paper. One of its stiff lace cap sleeves has fallen off the hanger. As Florence notices this, a breeze lifts the skirt. She rearranges the sleeve on the hanger and, shy of being caught, hurries the rest of the way home. In the morning when she turns with her coffee cup to gaze out the window of her kitchen, the items are still on the lawn. The dress has fallen off the chair and lies spread on the green grass like a snow angel.
While she is at work, everything disappears, and that night, at last, there are lights in the windows; the stained glass she has coveted for years bejewels the darkness. There is more to covet, or at least envy, when she finally meets the Howards--Philip and Frannie. Two handmade orange rugs are flung on the hardwood floors and three or four large paintings, stretched but unframed, furnish the wide walls. There are plants. Mostly, however, there is space, so much pale floor that the rooms, as she looks through to the back porch, fit across one another like layers, inexhaustible, promising, culminating in sunlight.
Frannie has copper-colored eyes, winged brows, and short, springy hair that she obviously does no more to than wash into shape. She asks Florence to sit at the round maple table for tea. Everything about Frannie, from her clumsiness with the teacups to her delight with the muffins Florence has brought for housewarming, is inviting. There is a footstep, and Frannie glances up, then takes out another plate. "Hello!" says Philip, but before he sits down, he strides around the periphery of the room, stopping twice to admire the walls and floors, to look through the open door to the front porch, to smile and put his hands on his hips. Frannie says, "Philip still can't believe we own the place. Last night I found him out on the front porch holding on to the gingerbread and staring at the stained glass."
Philip sits at the table and leans toward Florence on his elbows. "Have you ever house-hunted? You wouldn't believe what some people do to their houses. I went to one place that looked rather charming from the outside, you know, but inside they'd cut doorways where they shouldn't have been and added on this room at the back, plastic paneling, spongy rug like fungus. It wasn't a bad house, at one time. I went outside and threw up in a trash barrel."
"Philip took house-hunting very seriously," says Frannie.
"You see how people live." He butters a muffin.
Philip, it turns out, was in high school with Florence's brother. Philip tells them that no two strangers in the nation are separated by more than five intermediate acquaintances. When he finds out that Florence is a nurse, he asks her if she saves a life every day, and when Frannie mentions her job, directing foreign exchange programs and charter flights for the local university, he says, "Importing exotica, exporting domestica." He obviously expects to fill air and space, and he is quite handsome, but it is Frannie that Florence can't help looking at. She sits smiling over the conversation like a child over a jack-in-the-box, waiting to be surprised into laughter. She makes Florence long to say something hilarious.
Florence goes next door, thinking that she really shouldn't be visiting again so soon. She has been there every day, sometimes twice, since they moved in two weeks ago. She brings a quarter pound of a new kind of tea, knowing that it is almost a bribe, and shouts a comical "YOO-hoo!" as she crosses the threshold. Frannie giggles from the side porch and responds in kind. The giggle is a tremendous relief to Florence, because she is ready to detect signs of boredom and exasperation in Frannie's first glance at her. The giggle allays her fears, and she grins as she pulls out a maple chair beside the maple table once again, investing the moment with her fullest, most tangible pleasure at being liked. Philip isn't there.
Florence talks about the hospital, where she is a nurse in pediatrics. Already, Frannie has learned the names of the doctors, secretaries, and other nurses, and her evident interest renders Florence almost eloquent. She talks about the medical student she had been seeing (too young) and the photographer she is seeing now (too self-absorbed). She talks about recipes and being on the Pill and having gained and lost thirty pounds in four months. Frannie's questions and responses create such vivid images in her mind, and her smiles and rejoinders are so appropriate, that Florence grows ecstatic with conversation. She feels as though her words leap at Frannie before Frannie even finishes speaking. She follows Frannie around the house, talking. Frannie sweeps the floor, puts away the breakfast dishes, straightens one of the orange rugs, makes their bed. While Frannie is balling together Philip's socks, Florence sits on the floor of their bedroom talking and fitting the soles of Frannie's shoes along the soles of her feet. She is interested to note that all the shoes in the closet, Philip's and Frannie's, sneakers and heels, are jumbled together. Suddenly she stops chattering and says, "I feel like I'm invading you. Are you sure you don't mind?" Frannie laughs and nods and tells her not to worry. "Do you promise to tell me to go home the first moment I get tiresome?" Florence asks.
"I promise!" Her mock exasperation is reassuring.
Florence says that her best friend in college was the most mysterious and beautiful woman she ever met, and the only man who ever treated her friend badly was the one she married. Marriage is something Florence doesn't understand at all. Florence mentions that she has saved over six thousand dollars since nursing school and wants to buy a little house and plant raspberry canes, but the prices of houses rise faster than her savings account. Frannie says, "You know, it really was fascinating to look at houses with Philip. We went out every day with the realtor, so we really lost the sense of having our own life, and began to feel like the right house was the key to everything. On the Sunday morning after we saw this one, which we both liked, and which was empty, the agent took us to one a ways out of town. The owners were there, and they had a new baby, about ten days old. The place was spotless. There were lots of windows and awnings, and arched doorways, and the place had a sort of Provencal aura about it, maybe because the cookbooks were in French. They took us all over the house, then out into the yard, where they had planted all sorts of lilacs and the dwarf apple trees and bulbs. The house was overpriced, and we would have had to replace the furnace, but Philip fell so in love that he just had to have it. Even when the realtor told him this was more of a bargain, Philip couldn't stop talking about how he felt there--so light and springy. I kept teasing him and saying he just wanted the chance to live their life better than they were doing it." She laughs.
"I'm glad you got this house."
"It is beautiful. Philip loves it now."
Florence begins to eye Frannie closely for symptoms of retreat, but Frannie's interest and growing affection seem to meet hers at every level. Florence offers to pick up Frannie's cleaning when she is downtown. Frannie brings home butter from the market, which she knows Florence needs. Florence drops by next door once a day. Frannie comes by only every other day or so, but comments spontaneously that she loves it when people drop by. Where they lived before, everyone was terrifically formal--always calling and making arrangements as if they expected to be entertained. Every time she sees Frannie, Florence feels intelligent. Her new powers exhilarate her.
Florence crosses the adjoining side yards on a rainy Saturday morning. Frannie is intending to meet Philip at the hardware store and is waiting for the rain to let up. She pours Florence a cup of coffee. "Won't he be annoyed if you're late?" Florence asks, feeling nosy because Frannie just doesn't gossip about her husband in that way; she tells what he does, but never what he is like. Florence thinks this might be the result of so many years together.
"He'll love the chance to moon around the hardware store planning major renovations."
"Say, do you like the yellow slicker effect?" Florence gestures toward the raincoat she has left by the door. "I just bought it at the Army-Navy. It feels like a three-man pup tent, but I love it."
Frannie nods and sips her coffee. There is a letter next to her elbow, and the return address is illegible, although in a woman's hand. In a moment Frannie says, "It's odd, you know. I haven't had a really intimate woman friend since the day Philip and I got married, though I'd had three or four the day before. There's a friend I've had since grammar school, who must know more about me than my mother does, and yet there are these incredibly trivial things about my life and my feelings that I don't dare tell her, not to mention the more important things. It seems like once I let her in, even her, the door will be broken open forever, and Philip will be the loser.''
At once Florence has an image of herself standing in the doorway curious and unsure. That's what Frannie means, she thinks. She is so embarrassed that she stays away a whole week, until Frannie comes over the following Saturday afternoon and asks her to go swimming with them, then stay for dinner. She and Philip husk the corn, then she and Frannie take either end of the garlic bread and butter until they meet in the middle. Philip hands her the lettuce to dry, then Frannie turns the spareribs on the grill while Florence bastes them. They drink two six-packs of beer. They eat and drink in the gathering darkness of the side porch for a long time, until at last there are only voices. Sometimes Philip and Frannie speak at once, sometimes Florence and Frannie. Later, Florence falls asleep on the new living room couch, and in the morning, Philip wakes her with hot tea and buttered toast.
September comes, and Florence must work hard. The neonate nursery is jammed and there is a rash of school-related infections among the regular clinic patients. Late in the month she comes down with the virus herself. She spends many evenings on the Howards' wide, deep couch, sipping white wine with her eyes closed and not saying much. Philip often works upstairs in his study while Frannie reads or sews. Florence leafs through magazines and surrenders herself to exhaustion. They have gotten beyond the stage of wild talking and into the stage of companionable silence. Philip and Frannie are not perfect. Philip can be garrulous and tends to repeat some of his jokes. Frannie breaks dates at the last minute because she never writes anything down. Florence doesn't mind, even while feeling annoyed. She is glad that the honeymoon is over and the work of real friendship is about to begin.
In October there are even more newborns, and Florence has to give the hospital Frannie and Philip's number so that she can be called when the other nurses succumb to the virus. October is the best month. It is crisp and dark outside, and the big, neat house folds them in with light and warmth.
In November she volunteers for the second shift through Christmas because it will be more money and she needs a good excuse to get rid of the photographer, whom Frannie and Philip don't think is good enough for her. She calls Frannie at work when she can. After Christmas Frannie tells her that she and Philip are separating.
Florence is very discreet. She tries not to encounter Philip in the neighborhood, and if she sees him before he sees her, she pretends to be occupied. When she absolutely can't avoid him, she speaks cordially, but with a certain distance, as if the sun were in her eyes. She wishes she had a car, so that she might help Frannie with her moving, or that she lived in a big place across town, so that Frannie could stay with her for a while, at least.
Frannie is too happy to confide the details about the separation, and the apartment she finds is very small, very badly furnished. To Florence she says, "But I want a furnished place! It took me days to move my stuff into that empty house. I felt like I was being snapped up like a tasty morsel. This is perfect!" She hangs up her clothes. She speaks continually in the tones Florence remembers from the beginning of their friendship, as if she will abandon herself to merriment at any moment. Florence waits for her to speak about Philip, or rather, about her life with Philip (for she often says now, "Philip must have my comb," or "Philip was in the market this afternoon"), but she never does, even during the intimate moments of sharing dinner preparations or cleaning the previous tenant's leavings out of the closets and cupboards. Florence reminds herself that Frannie has a basic reserve, especially about Philip, and that if anyone is to know, it will certainly be herself. Meanwhile, Frannie's conversation is more earnest than ever. She talks about everything except the recent past.
Some weeks pass. Florence is very curious. She brings a new boyfriend to Frannie's apartment. When he, in his comradely, once-married, matter-of-fact way, asks Frannie if she thinks she will go back to Philip, Florence sits very still and holds her breath. Frannie shakes her head without a thought. They do not pursue the subject. It is almost as if the question is dull to them, or as if they both know the ins and outs of it so well that they needn't go on. Florence bites her lip at her own curiosity, and her admiration for Bryan, both his experience and his directness, increases. The next day she asks Frannie what she thinks of Bryan, and watches her closely to detect envy in her approval. There is none.
In Sears, they pass a display of ribbed, sleeveless undershirts and baggy shorts. "Philip just loves those," says Frannie.
Such an elderly style seems so incongruous with Philip's natural elegance that Florence guffaws. "No, really!" says Frannie. "The whole family wears that stuff, and Philip's mother irons all their shorts!" After this exchange, Florence feels oddly more hostile toward Philip, which is why, when she sees him on the street a few days later, and he smiles and pauses for a chat, she walks right past him.
Florence spends many evenings with Frannie. She takes the bus and often arrives panting and slapping in a flurry of snow, as if on an adventure. She stays the night on the living room floor. "I wish you'd visit me!" she asserts. "I could sneak you in and out under cover of darkness." Frannie never comes, though, and it is just as well. Nothing about Florence's carefully arranged, thoughtfully acquired apartment is as hospitable as Frannie's temporary rooms.
They make popcorn and crack beers, then turn out the lights and position their chairs before the bay window. Cars and semis rush past on the main thoroughfare nearby, and they make plans to jog, to swim, to learn to cook Middle Eastern food. Florence talks about Bryan. Most of her remarks are open-ended, so that Frannie can simply fall into telling all about it if she wants to. She doesn't, even when Florence says, "If you ever want to talk about what happened, you can trust me completely. You know that, don't you?" Frannie always nods.
Copyright © 2002 by Jane Smiley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.