IRENE: IOWA CITY
It’s the first night of the new year.
Irene Steele has spent the day in a state of focused productivity. From nine to one, she filed away every piece of paperwork relating to the complete moth-to-butterfly renovation of her 1892 Queen Anne–style home on Church Street. From one to two, she ate a thick sandwich, chicken salad on pumpernickel (she has always been naturally slender, luckily, so no New Year’s diets for her), and then she took a short nap on the velvet fainting couch in front of the fire in the parlor. From two fifteen to three-thirty, she composed an email response to her boss, Joseph Feeney, the publisher of Heartland Home & Style magazine, who two days earlier had informed her that she was being “promoted” from editor in chief of the magazine to executive editor, a newly created position that reduces both Irene’s hours and responsibilities by half and comes with a 30 percent pay cut.
At a quarter of four, she tried calling her husband, Russ, who was away on business. The phone rang six times and went to voicemail. Irene didn’t leave a message. Russ never listened to them, anyway.
She tried Russ again at four thirty and was shuttled straight to voicemail. She paused, then hung up. Russ was on his phone night and day. Irene wondered if he was intentionally avoiding her call. He might have been upset about their conversation the day before, but first thing this morning, a lavish bouquet of snow-white calla lilies had been delivered to the door with a note: Because you love callas and I love you. Xo R. Irene had been delighted; there was nothing like fresh flowers to brighten a house in winter. She was amazed that Russ had been able to find someone who would deliver on the holiday, but his ingenuity knew no bounds.
At five o’clock, Irene poured herself a generous glass of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, took a shower, and put on the silk and cashmere color-block sweater and black crepe slim pants from Eileen Fisher that Russ had given her for Christmas. She bundled up in her shearling coat, earmuffs, and calfskin leather gloves to walk the four blocks through Iowa City to meet her best friend, esteemed American history professor Lydia Christensen, at the Pullman Bar & Diner.
The New Year’s Day dinner is a tradition going into its seventh year. It started when Lydia got divorced from her philandering husband, Philip, and Russ’s travel schedule went from “nearly all the time” to “all the time.” The dinner is supposed to be a positive, life-affirming ritual: Irene and Lydia count their many, many blessings—this friendship near the top of the list—and state their aspirations for the twelve months ahead. But Irene and Lydia are only human, and so their conversation sometimes lapses into predictable lamentation. The greatest unfairness in this world, according to Lydia, is that men get sexier and better-looking as they get older and women… don’t. They just don’t.
“The CIA should hire women in their fifties,” Lydia says. “We’re invisible.”
“Would you ladies like more wine?” Ryan, the server, asks.
“Yes, please!” Irene says with her brightest smile. Is she invisible? A week ago, she wouldn’t have thought so, but news of her “promotion” makes her think maybe Lydia is right. Joseph Feeney is sliding Irene down the masthead (and hoping she won’t notice that’s what he’s doing) and replacing her with Mavis Key, a thirty-one-year-old dynamo who left a high-powered interior design firm in Manhattan to follow her husband to Cedar Rapids. She came waltzing into the magazine’s offices only eight months ago with her shiny, sexy résumé, and all of a sudden, Joseph wants the magazine to be more city-slick and sophisticated. He wants to shift attention and resources from the physical magazine to their online version, and, using Mavis Key’s expertise, he wants to create a “social media presence.” Irene stands in firm opposition. Teenagers and millennials use social media, but the demographic of Heartland Home & Style is women 39–65, which also happens to be Irene’s demographic. Those readers want magazines they can hold, glossies they can page through and coo over at the dentist’s office; they want features that reflect the cozy, bread-and-butter values of the Midwest.
Irene’s sudden, unexpected, and unwanted “promotion” makes Irene feel like a fuddy-duddy in Mom jeans. It makes her feel completely irrelevant. She will be invited to meetings, the less important ones, but her opinion will be disregarded. She will review layout and content, but no changes will be made. She will visit people in their offices, take advertisers out to lunch, and chat. She has been reduced to a figurehead, a mascot, a pet.
Irene gazes up at Ryan as he fills their glasses with buttery Chardonnay—the Cakebread, a splurge—and wonders what he sees when he looks at them. Does he see two vague, female-shaped outlines, the kind that detectives spray-paint around dead bodies? Or does he see two vibrant, interesting, desirable women of a certain age?
Okay, scratch desirable. Ryan, Irene knows (because she eats at the Pullman Bar & Diner at least once a week while Russ is away), is twenty-five years old, working on his graduate degree in applied mathematics, though he doesn’t look like any mathematician Irene has ever imagined. He looks like one of the famous Ryans—Ryan Seacrest, Ryan Gosling. Ryan O’Neal.
Ryan O’Neal? Now she really is aging herself!
Irene has been known to indulge Lydia when she boards the Woe-Is-Me train, but she decides not to do it this evening. “I don’t feel invisible,” she says. She leans across the table. “In fact, I’ve been thinking of running for office.”
Lydia shrieks like Irene zapped her on the flank with a cattle prod. “What? What do you mean ‘run for office’? You mean Congress? Or just, like, the Iowa City School Board?”
Irene had been thinking Congress, though when the word comes out of Lydia’s mouth, it sounds absurd. Irene knows nothing about politics. Not one thing. But as the (former) editor in chief of Heartland Home & Style magazine, she knows a lot about getting things done. On a deadline. And she knows about listening to other people’s point of view and dealing with difficult personalities. Oh, does she.
“Maybe not run for office,” Irene says. “But I need something else.” She doesn’t want to go into her demotion-disguised-as-promotion right now; the pain is still too fresh.
“I need something else,” Lydia says. “I need a single man, straight, between the ages of fifty-five and seventy, over six feet tall, with a six-figure income and a sizable IRA. Oh, and a sense of humor. Oh, and hobbies that include grocery shopping, doing the dishes, and folding laundry.”
Irene shakes her head. “A man isn’t going to solve your problems, Lydia. Didn’t we learn that in our consciousness-raising group decades ago?”
“A man will solve my problems, because my problem is that I’ve got no man,” Lydia says. She throws back what’s left of her wine. “You wouldn’t understand because you have Russ, who dotes on you night and day.”
“When he’s around,” Irene says. She knows her complaints fall on deaf ears. Russ joined the Husband Hall of Fame seven years earlier when he hired a barnstormer plane to circle Iowa City dragging a banner that said: HAPPY 50TH IRENE STEELE. I LOVE YOU! Irene’s friends had been awestruck, but Irene found the showiness of the birthday wishes a bit off-putting. She would have been happy with just a card.
“Let’s get the check,” Lydia says. “Maybe that barista with the beard will be working at the bookstore.”
Irene and Lydia split the bill as they do every year with the New Year’s dinner, then they stroll down South Dubuque from the Pullman to Prairie Lights bookstore. The temperature tonight is a robust thirteen degrees, but Irene barely notices the cold. She was born and raised right here in eastern Iowa, where the winds come straight down from Manitoba. Russ hates the cold. Russ’s father was a navy pilot and so Russ grew up in Jacksonville, San Diego, and Corpus Christi; he saw snow for the first time when he went to college at Northwestern. Privately, Irene considers Russ’s aversion to the cold a constitutional inferiority. As wonderful as he is, Irene would never describe him as hearty.
Lydia holds open the door to Prairie Lights and winks at Irene. “I see him,” she whispers.
“Don’t be shy. Order something complicated and strike up a conversation,” Irene says. “It’s a new year.”
Lydia whips off her hat and shakes out her strawberry-blond hair. She’s a pretty woman, Irene thinks, and, with the confidence she’s displaying now, not at all invisible. Surely Brandon, the fifty-something barista with the thick spectacles and the leather apron—better suited to welding than to making espresso drinks—would be intrigued by Professor Lydia Christensen? She coauthored the definitive biography of our nation’s thirty-first president. Herbert Hoover has gotten a bad rap from history, but most Iowans are kindly disposed toward him because he was born and raised in West Branch.
As Lydia marches to the café, Irene floats over to the new fiction. She loves nothing better than a stack of fresh books on her nightstand. What an enriching way to start the new year. Irene spent her New Year’s Eve taking down all of her holiday decorations and packing them neatly away. She left the boxes at the bottom of the attic stairs. Russ is due back late tomorrow night or early Thursday morning, he said, and once he returns, he will be fully at her disposal. He left for a “surprise” business trip two days after Christmas. The man has more surprise business trips than anyone Irene has ever heard of and in this case, he was leaving Irene alone for New Year’s. They had quarreled about it the previous afternoon on the phone. Russ had said, “I’m fully devoted to you, Irene, and I strive to see your point of view in every disagreement. But let’s recall who encouraged whom to take this job. Let’s recall who said she didn’t want to be married to a corn syrup salesman for the rest of her life.”
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