Arrival at the Lobster Tank
“What did you think of the play?” Cleo, the short, sturdy one asks her friend Billie.
“Expensive nap,” replies Billie, the tall, efficient one.
It’s five-fifteen. Because the Lobster Tank’s dining room doesn’t open until six, they must wait for Paula at the bar. “If we sit here, we look like hookers,” protests Cleo.
“Any man trying to pick up two seventy-three-year-old women belongs in Kraftt-Ebbing,” says Billie, the psychoanalyst. She orders a margarita and Cleo orders mineral water, at which the bartender frowns.
“Shall I tell him that I’m an alcoholic?” asks Cleo.
“No,” says Billie. “I’ll even the score.” She sips her margarita. “This is sweet,” she tells the bartender. “Undrinkable. Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Take it back and give me a scotch with rocks on the side.” Now the man is really frowning.
Sidestepping potential conflict, Cleo asks, “How was Paula when you saw her yesterday?”
“Still exhausted after her colon surgery. Her face is as wrinkled as a drought-stricken field. She wears too much lipstick to compensate.”
“Tell her,” says Cleo.
“I’ll wait until she’s done with the chemo.”
Paula had not gone to the play with them. She’s back on a normal diet now, has begun her chemotherapy, and every afternoon is close to collapse. She arrives late at the restaurant, pale and frail. “I fell asleep,” she explains.
“You could have napped with us at the theater,” Cleo tells her.
Paula doesn’t laugh. “I don’t like sleeping in public when I’m losing my hair,” she says.
“The practical solution is to get a wig,” says Billie.
“It’s too soon.”
“You could buy a blonde one. You used to have such lovely blonde curls,” says Cleo. She and Paula are former actresses who met in drama school.
“You talk like that because we’ve known each other for more than half a century,” says Paula, queen of memory. “I know where you buried the man you murdered.”
Cleo’s husband is dead. “You’re right. I should have made him have a bypass,” she sighs.
“You can’t make a grown man do something he doesn’t want to do,” says Billie. “Stop whining. And Paula, your husband might as well be dead. The two of you struggled for dominance from the day you met, and now he’s won because he doesn’t know who you are when you come to see him at the nursing home.”
Paula glares. “It’s not fair. The men always go first. We take care of them, and then they abandon us.”
“Are you crying?” asks Cleo. “I’m through with tears.”
“Treat me with respect. I’m your elder,” Paula reminds her.
“By two weeks,” Cleo murmurs. “You’ve always been bossy.”
“But I have cancer,” Paula tells her.
“You were bossy long before that,” says Billie. “Anyway, I’m six months older than both of you. I’m the one who deserves respect.”
“But you’re the youngest looking of this group,” says Cleo.
Billie smiles. “I’m pleased, even though I know you’re buttering me up.”
“The plastic surgeon did a great job under your eyes,” snipes Paula.
“Touché,” Billie chuckles.
After her husband’s death, Cleo had worked as a university administrator. Not bad, but not great. When her apartment building went co-op, she paid cash at the insider’s price from her deceased husband’s insurance. She had planned to sell her apartment when she retired last year, move near her daughter in Westchester, and live on the profits. But now she wants to stay in Manhattan where her friends are, and she’s strapped for cash.
Billie and Paula are Jewish and have startling white hair, never mind what it used to be. Cleo is a prim Methodist from the Midwest who married a Jew. “Some of my best friends are Jews,” she teases.
Paula responds, “Let me be frank. Your only friends are Jews! Jews are the only people compassionate enough to befriend you.”
“Jews are ordinary in New York, but they were exotic where I was born,” says Cleo. “My husband was brilliant and he made me laugh, even though our families gave us such a hard time.”
Paula’s only child, as naturally blonde as her mother used to be, lives in Australia with her husband, an irreligious High Episcopalian, and their two small sons. Even though Paula and her daughter squabble, Paula had planned to visit this year. Then she was diagnosed with cancer. “Travel is out of the question during chemotherapy,” says Paula. “I pine to see my grandsons, but I must wait.”
To console her, Billie says, “Even in good health, a tiny seventy-three-year-old woman is no match for two hearty Australian boys under seven.”
“You’d never be able to control them,” agrees Cleo
“Remember how tense that makes you?” adds Billie.
They Give Their Orders
Their waiter, whose native language is Spanish, writes their choices down. Paula, avoiding oil, wants her lobster steamed. The waiter panics. “Strreamed?” he gasps.
Billie points to the menu where the word “steamed” is in caps. “Surely the chefknows.”
Paula relaxes. “And no French fries,” she tells the waiter. “I can’t eat French fries any more.” He nods. Paula will also try a glass of Chablis, the first since her surgery. Billie will drink another scotch with her lobster. Cleo orders chicken and string beans. “I’m still working on this mineral water.”
Paula rubs her chin. “I get these bristly little hairs.”
“So do I,” says Billie.
“Me, too,” says Cleo.
“What can I do about them?” asks Paula.
In unison, the other two chorus “Tweezers!”
Billie says, “I would look like a hair brush if I didn’t pull the little suckers out.”
Cleo says, “My mother’s aunt just let them grow.”
Billie says, “Simple grooming would say pull.”
“She didn’t bother.”
“And she claimed to be French?” Billie demands.
The food arrives. Two steamed lobsters with melted grease and half a roasted chicken with salted skin. French fries all around. “I said no fries,” Paula tells the waiter.
He shrugs. “Fries come with lobster. So don’ eat ‘em.”
“Nobody listens to what I say since I’ve been sick,” says Paula.
Another scotch. More mineral water. String beans.
Billie tastes the beans and gives her verdict: “These are as greasy as the French fries.” She had been plump before she went into training as a therapist; now she is almost slim and “quite pretty for a woman in her seventies,” concedes Paula.
Cleo, thrilled by the green beans, takes a field hand’s helping. “Even if they’re oily, they aren’t French fries,” she says.
“But they’re just as fattening,” says Billie, biting into the lobster.
The conversation shifts to sex on TV. “Fake,” is Paula’s verdict. She has watched many hours of it from her hospital bed.
“So fantasize,” says therapist Billie.
Cleo giggles. “You’re so elemental.”
“You’re such a prude,” Paula tells her.
Billie says, “When Philippe was alive and we lived in the big house in Connecticut with his son, we used to go downstairs in the middle of the night and eat ice cream. Then we’d giggle like you, Cleo.”
“What flavor?” demands Paula.
“Rocky Road, of course,” says Billie, grinning.
Paula asks, “Did you guys eat ice cream after you did it?'”
Billie smiles, “Sometimes.”
“Just as I thought,” says Paula.
“But they were married,” says Cleo. “What was supposed to be going on?” Cleo only had daughters. “My grandson has been a revelation,” she says. “He used to run at me with cupped hands when he was five and grab my breasts. ‘Yes, I’m built just like your mamma,’ I would tell him, and he would nod.”
Billie says, “My stepson was a very French teenager. He used to rub up against me when he was passing in the hall. It was normal curiosity. He understood that I was pretending not to notice and that I wouldn’t tell his father.” Billie signals to the waiter. “Another scotch, with ice on the side, like this one,” she says.
“Nothing more for me,” says Paula. “This Chablis could be the last one of my entire life. I have no say over what happens any more.”
“I never did,” says Cleo, to prevent Paula’s tears.
The new drinks appear. The bus boy clears away the lobster shells and chicken bones.
“I’m tired,” says Paula, suddenly drained. “I want to go home.”
Billie makes a sign to the waiter for the check. Each of them goes to the ladies’ room. Cleo, the last one, wearing her reading glasses, can’t find their table on her return.
“We’re over here!” Paula calls. “Proves that you ought to drink because Billie and I had no trouble whatsoever finding our way back.”
Cleo puts on her distance glasses. “There you are!” she chortles. “I’ve worn glasses most of my life. But my husband’s eyesight was legendary. A couple of weeks after he got his first pair of reading glasses, he said to me, ‘They’re making me go blind.’ I checked and, yes, he couldn’t see through them. He didn’t know that you have to clean them.”
Paula seizes the bill as quickly as she always does.
“Surgery hasn’t affected your check reflex,” says Billie.
“I don’t think this is added correctly,” says Paula. “Here. Proof my arithmetic,” to Cleo.
Cleo freezes. The light is poor. She’s not wearing her reading glasses. Billie and Paula are better at math. “Looks all right to me,” she says, glancing away.
Paula grabs Cleo’s pen and begins to write on the table cloth.
Cleo and Billie touch it to make sure it’s paper. They look at each other and nod: Yes, Paula can write on it.
Paula’s figures stagger across the table. “Check this,” she says, setting down each person’s debt in a different column.
“My drinks are five dollars, not fifty cents,” says Billie.
“If you’re so tired, why are you trying to do this?” Cleo asks Paula.
Glowering, Billie signals to the waiter and hands him her credit card. “I’ll pay,” she snaps. “I can’t stand all this fussing.”
Cleo and Paula lay down thirty. The waiter brings back the credit card receipt for signature. Billie signs and picks up the cash. “You owe me thirty-five,” she tells Paula, impatience clouding her face.
“I simply can’t cope any longer!” Paula says.
Cleo giggles. “Haggling like this, we look like little old ladies in a cartoon.”
“You have a childish sense of humor,” sniffs Paula.
Billie scowls, giving up on both of them. “Separate checks, next time,” she declares. “Separate checks!”
The Journey Home
The friends stand and make their way to the street. Billie begins to sing—four scotches have done their job. “Do your ears hang low,” she begins. Cleo, who learned the song in college, joins in. “Do they wobble to and fro? Can you tie ’em in a knot? Can you tie ’em in a bow? Can you sling ’em o’er your shoulder like a Continental soldier? Do your ears hang low?” Neither woman can carry a tune, so there is nothing for Paula to do but stumble ahead and pretend she doesn’t know them.
“Where did you learn that?” she demands of Cleo, seizing her arm when the song is finally over.
“From Peach Grove in college,” Cleo tells her. Then she remembers that Betty Ann Grove, whom they nicknamed “Peach,” is dead of cancer. “It doesn’t mean ears you know,” she says.
“No?” asks Paula. “What then?”
Cleo takes a deep breath. “Br- breasts!” she stammers.
“So it’s a dirty song,” says Billie. “Good. I’m told there’s also a male version.”
“Let’s not sing that.”
“Do you still shop here?” Billie asks Paula in front of a delicatessen.
“Then this is where we can sing it again.”
Billie and Cleo stand side by side away from the deli’s door. They look at one another, nod, and then begin, “Do your ears hang low?” and so on, with gestures this time. At the end, Paula shakes her head. “I know the power of too many scotches, but what was in that mineral water?” The three of them laugh, link arms, and walk toward Paula’s building.
“Don’t worry,” says Cleo. “Girlfriends won’t abandon you.”