Mrs. Albert surprised Mags by taking her elbow. Mags tossed her clutch on the nearest surface, an alabaster chaise longue. She allowed her lover’s mother to steer her in a circle around the wide and crowded patio of Swannanoa Palace, introducing her as Nadine’s “friend,” her voice dinging the last word like a spoon dings a champagne glass. Mags’s face flushed every time she said it. When she finally arrived home that night, she would wonder if Mrs. Albert’s acceptance was genuine or tolerated as a whim of her daughter’s youth.
An even bigger surprise of the night occurred when Mrs. Albert released her into the party with a glass of Chardonnay. Mags lingered on the outer edges of the party for a while, observing interactions, identifying the famous faces surrounding her. Actors, dancers, musicians; if she’d hadn’t entered the event with one goal, she’d be overwhelmed to the point of inaction. She scanned the crowd until she spotted the conservatively dressed woman with the sparkling necklace. It occurred to Mags in that moment that Mrs. Albert took her around to seemingly everyone but their hostess. Lao Russell—the thought of her name made Mags’s feet float above the ornate brickwork—had written the definitive book on every humans’ capacity for love that opened doors to Mags’s shyness, her inability to acknowledge her own needs. If only she could pull each page out of Lao’s book, stitch them end to end, and wear them as a scarf always.
Well, Lao seemed suspicious when Mags put her hand out and introduced herself. Mags was expecting curiosity; she was the youngest person at the party—no, memorial—by 25 years. She was also the only person wearing thigh-high boots. The bite of her idol’s distrust shook Mags’s confidence. In response, Mags blurted out something she’d read about Lao in the gossip columns. Magnets? Really? Who in their right mind would magnetize a memorial sculpture to their beloved husband? It was no wonder Lao walked away from her so quickly. But then at the sculpture unveiling, someone handed her a little magnet and everyone, six martinis in by now, rubbed them along the hundreds of rungs of the beautiful bird cage memorial. Men with their ties in their pants pockets pulled free women whose jewelry had levitated above their wrists and necks and ached for Lao’s mourning-made-artwork. It was a beautiful night. So much so that Mags had completely forgotten Mr. and Mrs. Albert. There were only a few people left talking in clusters on the lawn. Mags walked barefoot across the cold patio.
Sometime during the night, she had lost her boots, and her purse was no longer on the chaise longue where she’d left it.
She got down on her hands and knees to look under the furniture and then scan the patio. No sign of her things. She went around to the people left on the lawn and asked if they’d seen her things. The women put their noses up at her; the men followed the lines of her legs up to the hem of her miniskirt.
Tears forming in her eyes, Mags searched the patio again for her shoes. No money, no identification, and there were three mountains between her and the nearest town. Why would the Alberts abandon her? Was this their way of punishing her for tainting their daughter? This is what she gets for trying to be something she’s not: bold. She was just not ready to live the teachings of the inimitable Lao Russell. She needed to accept that she may never be.
Mags found her boots slithering underneath a withering azalea bush. She plopped on the lawn and pulled them on, hiccuping and cursing. She did not notice the ethereal woman gliding across the lawn toward her.
“What, my dear,” Lao announced so everyone could hear, “could be so awry on such a beautiful evening?”
Mags wiped both cheeks with her blouse. “Mrs. Russell! I…can’t find my purse.”
“Well, that’s because my butler has it. He found it and thought it should be kept safe.”
“Thank you.” A hiccup escaped her. “Do you know where the Alberts are? They were my way home.”
“Eddie and Alana left an hour ago. We all thought you might enjoy staying here tonight. Were we wrong?”
Mags stared at Lao.
“Because I can have Mayes drive you home if you’d rather not stay.”
“No, no. I’d like to stay. Thank you.”
Mags took a deep breath and followed her idol inside.