Excerpt from “Can You Hear Us Now?”

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Read the first two chapters of Can You Hear Us Now? by Cheryl Benton (aka the “head tomato.” It’s the sequel to her debut novel, “Can You See Us Now?”

Chapter 1

Return to the Living

 

Suzy looked at herself in the mirror. Really looked at herself, for the first time since Ken’s death six months earlier. Her cheeks had a hollowness she hadn’t noticed before. The dark circles under her eyes bore the telltale signs of many sleepless nights. And her hair. My God, what had happened to her hair? It looked as lifeless as she felt. “Well, this won’t do,” Suzy said out loud, and then realized she was talking only to herself. And then the reality set in.          If she was going to meet up tonight with her two best friends, Madge and Trish, for martinis and then join their group of friends for dinner, she was going to have to whip herself into shape.

She slowly made her way down the stairs from the penthouse to the next level of the loft that housed the offices of The Three Tomatoes, the media company she had founded with Madge and Trish to celebrate women over forty-five. She found Amy, their CEO, at one of the small conference tables.

“Amy, I’m in desperate need of a makeover before I meet Madge and Trish tonight, but I just can’t bring myself to go to my usual salon and face condolences again. Any ideas of where I might get into today?”

Amy looked at her boss and was so relieved to see the old Suzy starting to come back. “I’ve got just the place. It’s the hottest new salon in the city and it’s right here in Tribeca. Let me see what I can do.”

Thirty minutes later Suzy was being greeted by Alphonso, the latest hairstylist darling of celebrities and models. “Ciao, bella, what can we do for you today?” he asked as he air-kissed both her cheeks.

“I’m in your hands. Whatever you think.” Suzy actually shocked herself with that statement, since she rarely ventured out of her comfort zone of the long straight blond highlighted hairstyle she had worn for years—just the way Ken had loved it.

*****

Madge and Trish were seated at a cocktail table near the fireplace in Campbell Apartment, an elegant cocktail lounge with a great history, hidden away in Grand Central Terminal. Their martinis had just arrived.

“I’m glad we decided to meet a little earlier before Suzy arrives,” said Madge. “I know seeing the group tonight might be a little overwhelming, so let’s keep a close eye on her.”

“I did reach out to everyone and they’ve promised to keep the evening light and upbeat,” said Trish. “But I think it’s a good sign that she actually agreed to come tonight.”

Trish and Madge were still in shock themselves over Ken’s sudden death. He and Suzy had been married for nearly thirty years and had been one of those truly charmed couples. Lovers and best friends, who also looked beautiful as a couple—they’d been dubbed “Ken and Barbie.” Trish and Madge had been bridesmaids at their wedding. Neither of them would ever forget the call that day from Ian, Ken and Suzy’s son, telling them that Ken had collapsed from an aneurism on the tennis court and died instantly. Beautiful, kind, smart, perfect Ken. Even now it was hard to believe.

They had rushed to be at her side. Suzy was in disbelief and went through the motions of comforting her two children, Ian and Keri, while stoically greeting the hundreds of mourners who poured into the church and then back to Suzy and Ken’s home after the funeral. Everyone commented on how well she was holding up. Three days later Ian and Keri, at their mother’s urging, left to return to their lives. That was when Suzy fell apart.

Trish and Madge rushed to her side and packed a few of her things and took their best friend to Madge and her husband, Jason’s, farm in Vermont. Suzy stayed there for the next month under the watchful eye of their housekeeper, Bertha. Trish and Madge would have stayed the whole time, but Suzy insisted they get back to their lives too, so they limited themselves to weekend visits.

It was on the fourth weekend that Suzy decided she had to get back and that work was what she needed. Since the founding of The Three Tomatoes, the company had grown to the point that they now had a CEO and a full-time staff, and the three of them were the board members. Suzy, who liked being hands-on remained as chair, and Madge and Trish were able to contribute to the parts of the business they were most passionate about. For Madge, it was the documentary film group she had created under the company’s media umbrella, and for Trish it was art and being an advocate for healthy living. Madge, now raising a family with Jason, appreciated the  flexibility. And Trish was thinking about exploring the art world again, which had always been her first passion. So, Suzy had become the day-to-day person overseeing the company, which worked well for all.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” Trish and Madge had queried her.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready, but I think it’s a start. But I do have a request.”

“Anything,” they both said in unison.

“I’m not ready to go back to the house in Bronxville, in fact I’m not sure if I ever will be. So, do you think I can stay in the loft apartment, until I figure out my next steps?”

The apartment was on the top floor of a beautifully restored Romanesque revival building that had been the offices of Jason Madison, Madge’s husband, for his start-up tech company that eventually made him a billionaire. He had converted the top floor into an apartment that he stayed in when he wasn’t at his farm in Vermont. After he sold his company, he gave his offices to The Three Tomatoes. When he and Madge got married and adopted two children from Ethiopia, they bought a brownstone in Brooklyn, so the apartment was rarely used.

And so it was that Suzy went back to work, and the office and the loft apartment became her refuge. She had barely left the premises, only when Madge and Trish insisted that they at least stroll to a quiet neighborhood restaurant for a meal. So, tonight was a big deal and they were both concerned.

“You started without me?” laughed Suzy as she arrived at their table.

Trish and Madge, who had been deep in conversation, looked up startled and then both gasped.

“Oh my God, look at you, Suzy—I barely recognize you,” said Trish. And neither did Madge.

Suzy’s long blond hair had been cut into a chic bob with bangs and was a shade lighter. Her beautiful blue eyes sparkled in a way they hadn’t in months, and she was wearing a sexy black leather sheath and her trademark Louboutins.

“Well, I hope you mean that in a good way, and where the hell is my martini?”

They all laughed and then teared up a bit. For a moment it felt like old times.

 

Chapter 2

Back in the Fold

 

The Ripe Tomatoes were back at their usual iconic Broadway restaurant for their monthly dinners that had become a ritual for several years now. The group was originally started by their friend Hope (a Tony-winning Broadway producer) to bring together some of the amazing women she knew in New York City. While age was never the criteria, accomplishments and substance were, which usually required a few years of living to obtain.

It was around their third dinner together when their usual waiter looked at them appreciatively and said, “This is a group of hot tomatoes.” When he left, Trish had been the first to ask, “What’s a tomato?” It was Celeste, the oldest in the group, who explained that in her day, that’s what guys called a savvy, sexy woman of a ‘certain age’ who knows her way around a man and a martini too. They all laughed when Hope chuckled and said they were certainly a group of ripe tomatoes, and the name stuck.

When Suzy, Madge, and Trish were invited into the group five years earlier, they had just turned fifty and were starting to feel like their options in life were running out. Each went through a turning point crisis that ultimately led them to start The Three Tomatoes, and let other women know they were not alone in feeling invisible and marginalized because they were past fifty. Their mission was to change the perception of aging and celebrate growing older. And the Ripe Tomatoes had been there to inspire them and cheer them on, every step of the way.

Surrounded by their friendship and love, Suzy was glad she had joined them tonight. They had all gone out of their way to keep the evening fun and light.

“Darling, that haircut and color are absolutely divine,” said Hope at the start of the evening, and the entire group concurred. “How did you ever get an appointment with Alphonso himself? He’s usually booked for months.”

“If I tell you, I’d have to kill you,” Suzy laughed. “But thank you all for the compliments. I’m still not sure it’s me, but then again, I’m not sure who me is now.” She paused. “Oh God, that was maudlin. I need another martini and I need to know what you’re all up to these days.”

“Well, I’m still looking for the next If Tomorrow Never Comes so Broadway doesn’t think I’m a one-Tony wonder,” said Hope. “Celeste, ever since you married that handsome Brit with a title and went off to live happily-ever-after we don’t have your dating escapades as creative sparks.”

Celeste laughed. She was nearing eighty now and was still churning out a best-selling romance novel every year. It was one of her dating adventures with a ninety-six-year-old billionaire that ultimately turned into the Tony-award-winning show and won Celeste a Tony award as playwright. And that same year, she married anther best-selling novelist, Sir Oliver Spence and divided her time between his manor home outside London and her New York City apartment.

“I may be boring these days, but let me tell you this. Now that I’m spending so much time in England in Oliver’s circle of friends, several of whom are close to the royals, there are so many scandalous rumors, it makes New York City sound provincial.”

“Well, spill the beans, Lady Spence,” said Madge.

And with that, Celeste lowered her voice and shared a story about a royal threesome that had them all enthralled. “But you are not to breathe a word of this,” she said when she finished her tale, which may have been just that.

The wine flowed, and the conversation was fun, and by the end of the evening Suzy felt like she had been embraced in the warmest hug that stayed with her even as she returned to the loft apartment. She poured herself a small glass of brandy, Ken’s favorite after dinner drink, and strolled out onto the terrace. She looked out at the city on this sparkling autumn evening and lifted her glass to the sky with a silent toast to Ken. That was when she noticed the cardinal perched on the terrace railing. Where did that come from? she thought. But that’s when she knew exactly what she had to do next.

*****

Madge quietly walked into the entryway of the Brooklyn brownstone she shared with her husband, Jason, (twelve years her junior) and their two beautiful children. Madge still had to pinch herself with this wondrous twist her life had taken. To think that just a few short years ago she was single, with no thoughts of ever marrying again, and miserable in her TV morning anchor job.

Just as she was hanging up her coat, Jason appeared with Maggie, their golden Lab, following on his heels. God, it never gets old, she thought as her heart beat a little faster as this gorgeous man embraced her in a bear hug. And to think how she had pushed him away in the beginning because of the age difference, which only she saw as a problem.

“The kids are fast asleep. Get comfy and join me in the den. I’ll pour us a nightcap. I want to hear about the evening.”

Madge went upstairs and changed quickly into a pair of silk pajamas and then peeked into the children’s rooms. Her heart was bursting with love for these two precious ones she and Jason had adopted from an orphanage in Ethiopia. She kissed each gently on the head, first Yonas who was nine now and then she headed to six-year-old Bitania’s room. They’re growing up so fast, she thought as she went back downstairs.

Jason had a fire going on this cool fall evening and poured each of them a port. “So, tell me, how was Suzy?”

“I think she’s finally coming back to the land of the living. She even got a fabulous new haircut, and she seemed to really enjoy the evening. She’s agreed to come to the farm for Thanksgiving and Ian will come along too. And he has Elsa for the weekend, which will give Bitania a chance to play big sister. Suzy is disappointed though that Keri’s decided to stay in Boston with her boyfriend, but I know how much Keri idolized her dad, so I think it’s just too painful for her this year.”

“It will be nice to have a full house with them, along with Trish and Michael and of course my mom and dad,” Jason said as he pulled Madge in closer to him. “Do you know how much I love you, Mrs. Madison?” He leaned in and gave her a long passionate kiss.

“Let’s take this upstairs, Mr. Madison.”

*****

Across the river and uptown in Harlem, Trish was having a similar conversation with Michael.

“It’s good to hear that Suzy’s engaging with the world again,” said Michael. “It’s still so hard to believe he’s gone. We spent so many wonderful Thanksgivings together. But it will be good for all of us to go to the farm this year.”

“Yes. I know Suzy is dreading the holidays, but the farm is truly a healing oasis. Oh, and on another subject, I heard from one of Tania’s sisters in Montego Bay. It seems her niece is a very talented artist like her aunt Tania, and she’s starting graduate school at Parsons. She asked if I would meet her and keep a watchful eye on her. So, I thought I’d invite her to dinner this weekend, if that’s okay with you?”

“Of course. Although I’m not sure how many graduate school students want a watchful eye on them, but from what I’ve observed being on the Columbia campus for a few years now, some of them could use that,” Michael laughed. He was chair of a graduate program at Columbia University and had a lot more experience with this generation than she did.

“Well, it will be lovely to meet Tania’s niece and see if she did indeed inherit some of that talent. And I’m sure she’ll appreciate a home-cooked meal. I’ll email her right now.”

Trish had realized lately that she was really missing the art world. For years she had owned a gallery in the West Village where she had discovered several wonderful emerging artists. Tania had been her most successful discovery, a beautiful Black woman originally from Jamaica, who hadn’t started painting until she was in her midsixties. Trish was instantly taken with Tania’s energy and her incredible watercolors when she saw them on display at a sidewalk art fair. Tania had just turned eighty when Trish created her first gallery exhibition. Her work sold out in a week.

When she died six years later, the latest watercolors she had been working on sold for over one million dollars in a one-night gallery memorial tribute. The money went to fund art programs in Jamaica. That was the day Trish walked away from the gallery, once a source of joy, but now mostly full of painful memories. But as much as she loved The Three Tomatoes and the health and wellness programs she had created, along with the women’s integrated health center she had helped spearhead, thanks to Jason and Madge’s foundation grant, she felt the siren call of the art world.

 

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