There are things you never expect to find in a taxi. Things like love letters. This one was easy to miss, wedged under the driver’s seat except for a tiny triangle of icy blue playing peekaboo. I would never have seen it if a stretch limo to our right hadn’t turned with no warning, nearly shearing off the front fender.
When the driver slammed the brakes, I was on my way home after three hours inside a walk-in closet. My handbag pirouetted over the seat, releasing a sea of bracelets, beads, scarves, shoulder pads, Miracle Bras, panty hose, scissors, Scotch tape, safety pins, Velcro, Motrin, tampons, and Red Bull. To the barrage of expletives from the driver, I tossed it all together like a crazy salad and stuffed it back into my bag.
That’s when I spotted the envelope.
I tugged at the corner and it slid free. The paper was thick, luxurious, and addressed in amethyst ink. I lifted the flap, tracing my finger over the midnight-blue lining embedded with whispery white threads. I held it to my nose.
A faint perfume. Two sheets were neatly folded inside.
I was just a block from home, so I slid it into a jacket pocket and searched for my wallet. After greeting the doorman, I picked up my mail and rushed upstairs to feed Harry, the man of the house, my yellow lab. It wasn’t until a week later, when I wore the jacket again, that I thought of the letter.
When important things happen, your mind has a way of fixing the moments into your memory. You recall exactly where you were and why, who you were with, the time of day, even the light. I began reading the letter on the bus up Madison Avenue, passing Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Barneys, Yves St. Laurent, and Ralph Lauren’s flagship store in the Rhinelander Mansion. Only then I didn’t try to glimpse the clothes as the shop windows fast-forwarded like frames from a high-fashion video.
It was a crisp fall day, a time of beginnings. For no particular reason, everything felt right in my world when I woke that morning. It was Saturday. The Chinese finger trap of time was looser. My plan was to spend the morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then walk part of the way back through Central Park.
I was in navy D&G flannel slacks, a white ribbed Tory Burch sweater, and Fratelli Rosetti loafers. My jacket was over my arm. On the way to the bus I stopped at Starbucks and asked for Panama La Florentina, the coffee of the day, because the barista behind the counter told me it was similar to their house blend, and anyway, I just liked the way it sounded. Before I left, I put the coffee down and slipped on my jacket. The only free seat on the bus was the hot seat in the back, always the last to be taken because it was over some motor part that turned it into a radiator. I sat anyway, afraid that if the bus stopped short I’d be faced with litigation. Before I opened the newspaper, I slid my Metrocard into my pocket. That’s when I remembered the letter.
I opened the envelope and recalled how much I had admired the stationery, particularly the way the sender put the return address not in the usual places—on the upper left-hand corner or on the flap—but vertically up the left side of the front edge of the envelope, in carefully printed block letters.
Dear Caroline, I know you’re used to reading emails, not letters. I know you make split-second decisions, and think life’s more black and white than gray, but I have to explain...and I beg you to listen.
He talked about his empty life before they met—the unhappy relationships, his despair at not being able to find the right woman, his feelings of isolation. Then they met and everything changed.
How can I explain the way I feel about you? Let me tell you about a book of letters I read by the physicist and Nobel laureate Richard P. Feynman. His first wife had moved to Albuquerque to be near him when he worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. She later died there in a sanitarium, from tuberculosis. A year and a half after her death he wrote, “I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead. But I still want to comfort and take care of you—and I want you to love me and care for me.” He ventures that maybe they could still make plans together, but no, he had lost his “idea- woman, the general instigator of all our wild adventures.”
“You can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else,” he wrote. “But I want to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.”
Before you nothing in my life had real meaning. You’re gone now, yet all I think about is you. I live in the shadow of our relationship, pretending you’re still with me. Even without you, the memories of our life together mean more than the reality of being with someone else.
Caroline, please, let me see you. At least let me talk to you. Life without you is unthinkable.
A heartfelt plea to win a woman back. It was almost Shakespearean. Only the address wasn’t Stratford-upon- Avon, it was downtown Manhattan. I slipped it back into the envelope.
Whose life had I stumbled on? Where did he live, what did he do? Men called, emailed, or sent text messages—they didn’t write letters, and if they did, never on handmade paper with deckle edges, a throwback to the fifteenth century.
The writer had style. He was smooth, articulate. The wrappings of his thoughts were as affecting as his words. Just thinking about him set my mind reeling with the possibilities. Where did that leave me?
Which made no sense. I was a peeping tom, peering into someone else’s emotional life. Still, he was a kindred spirit. He knew the importance of putting things in the proper wrapping too. So never mind Caroline who had tossed away the letter like a losing lottery ticket; maybe he’d like to meet a woman of the cloth who judged letters by their covers.
I gazed out the bus window, forgetting my plans for the day. When I remembered to check the street signs, the bus had passed the Met and was approaching 96th Street. I got off, turned around, and walked the three miles back to Murray Hill, as if it made perfect sense to ride all the way uptown and then go directly back home without stopping anywhere at all in between.
A woman with a name that regularly appeared under photos of society events called me to do a closet assessment. I usually shied away from taking on clients outside the city, but something about her commanding voice and her address at the shore intrigued me. In the fall it was an easy two-and- a-half-hour trip to the Hamptons.
Neil Young singing “Heart of Gold” made the claustrophobic drive through the Midtown tunnel bearable. Then onto the sluggish Long Island Expressway. No wonder locals call it the L-I-E. Before lunch I was in rural farm country on local roads passing Quogue, all whitewashed and pure, a heavenly haven for city escapees.
Her house was about half an hour further. Southampton homes were palatial, set further apart than in most other communities. The compound overlooked the ocean and the bay on open beachfront with acres of privacy. I followed the circular driveway to the sound of gravel—or maybe diamonds—crunching beneath the tires. I got out and stretched, glancing up to watch the seagulls’ ballet. The sea air was misted with salt water and ocean perfume.
The house was a two-story Greek revival flanked by heavy white columns. The doorbell set off a round of barking like gunshots. A woman with honey-colored hair, impeccable posture, and a waspish waist opened the door. Two taut Rhodesian Ridgebacks, each almost half her height, stood on either side of her, sentries staring up at me with shining eyes. All they needed was Santa hats on their heads to make it a perfect Christmas card photo.
“Stay,” she commanded.
How could I not dwell on the fact that the breed was intensely prey driven? And there I was, wafting eau d’Harry, who’d sooner lick another animal than eat it.
“I’m Sage Parker,” I said, extending my hand.
“Mary Alice Moriarity,” she said, taking it. “If the dogs bother you, I’ll put them out back.”
One of them leaned toward me and sniffed my crotch. I eased back. “They’re gorgeous, but it might be better.” With the dogs out in the yard, she joined me in the living room, a cavernous space with chairs and couches color-coordinated to the hue of the sand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her examining my outfit. I was prepared for that. I never dressed casually. Following a brief exchange about the trip and the weather, we got down to business. “How do we begin?” she said.
“Let’s go to your closet so I can get a feel for the kind of clothes you wear.”
With a nod, she led the way up a winding mahogany staircase covered with a jewel-toned runner, vibrant despite the patina of Persian history.
“Do you live here year-round?” “Now I do.” Help a woman with her wardrobe and she’ll open her heart to you. As she takes off one outfit and tries another, off comes the protective armor. She’ll tell you not only how she feels about her body and sees herself but also how she feels about her life—what she loves and hates, where’s she’s been, and her hopes for the future. She’ll undress herself for you, baring her soul.
Still, it usually took more than the few seconds it takes to climb a flight of stairs to get there. She glanced back at me briefly, head high and defiant.
“My husband moved out,” she said, with as much emotion as you’d summon to discuss a chipped nail. Without another word, she strode across the bedroom into a windowless space the size of a guest room. She gestured to an adjacent closet that looked empty. “So I thought now might be the time to start some image work.”
It’s almost always about more than the clothes. On one level I was a wardrobe consultant, on another a crisis counselor. “The whole business of reassessing a wardrobe is often triggered by some major change,” I said, looking through her rack of suits. “I call it an SSE, or shape-shifting experience, meaning both the shape of your body and your life.”
A lock of hair sprang free from the short, neat style framing her pale blue eyes and the arched brows that framed them. She smoothed it back. Handsome was the word that came to my mind. Midforties, carefully dressed in brown, brown, and brown—her slacks, a shell, a cardigan, the signature Ferragamo flats. Dull, even frumpy. She needed more air, ease, and style. I wanted to loosen her hair, push up the sleeves of the sweater, give her an armful of bracelets, the right scarf, and low-heeled boots to raise her up. Mary Alice needed contrast, less structure, and for evening, clothes with more drama, maybe satin and fur. I was thinking Ralph Rucci. She could look sexier, more sensual; she had the bones. Right now she was like a carefully set table without the flowers and food.
I walked further into the custom closet with mahogany cabinetry and antiqued brass fittings. Texas-sized, with an island in the middle with narrow drawers for accessories.The Great Santini of closets, organized with military precision, every garment on wide mahogany hangers. Unimaginable to think of an off-center crease here. Not a hemstitch would be loose nor a button missing. Where were the notes detailing when each garment was worn and where?
Brown, black, navy, charcoal, and dark green, like a patchwork of bleakness. No brights, patterns, variation, or sensuality. High-end, but bloodless. No doubt her husband left her for a cheesy blond who dolled herself up in frilly pink chiffon. Someone who loosened his tie and taught him to enjoy Dunkin’ Donuts, licking the sweet grease off his fingers.
I started out neutral. “So, how do you feel in color— bright color?”
“Never worn it.”
I opened my tote bag and pulled out my cornflower-blue shawl, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Whenever I unfolded it, my mother’s voice echoed in my head: If your neck is warm, your whole body is warm. Health lore said you covered the head to stay warm; still, I suspected she was on to something. “Try this on.” Mary Alice wrapped it around her shoulders and studied herself in the mirror before turning to me. It brought out her eyes and enlivened her complexion.
“You look reborn. The color’s perfect.”
“How much do you want for it?”
I could have scalped my two-hundred-dollar shawl for ten times that on the spot. I shook my head. “This is show and tell. We’re not shopping yet, but we’re going to be injecting some life into your wardrobe—blue, lime, coral, yellow, pale pink.”
She twitched with uncertainty. It took most women a while to get used to what they hadn’t worn before. Imagine donning a new skin. For the rest of the morning we moved through the hangers, making sure everything fit properly. After the sixth pair of pants, she turned to me, eyebrows raised. “I guess there’s no point in trying every—”
“Right. I’m sure you would have chucked out anything that wasn’t right.”
Her back stiffened suddenly. Her failed marriage was the elephant in the room.
“I can’t fix your life,” I continued, shaking my head back and forth slowly, “but I can fix your wardrobe—and it’s a forward step.”
She smiled more genuinely than before. We were beginning to connect.