Miss Florence was one class act. Blue eyes, French-braided silver hair, porcelain white skin, slender willowy figure. How old? Good luck with that; she wasn’t talking.
Miss Florence was no churchy type, but every Sunday she picked out a special outfit (on the day in question, a vintage dress in peacock blue with white piping, and a fetching blue hat). Then she’d set out from our convent housing complex, walk to The Hotel, order a cup of Earl Gray, and nurse her tea watching the smart set come and go.
Then she’d come home and slip in to a housedress and housecoat and tell us all about it while fixing Sunday supper: half a can of soup, one breadstick, instant coffee and a pudding pack. She’d preside at the convent kitchen table, holding forth on how to be a true lady in these knavish times.
— “Flo!” One resident was adding hot water to an instant cup o’ ramen. “How do you stay so glamorous? What is your secret of eternal beauty?”
I looked up from stirring my split-pea soup. Who wouldn’t want to hear the secret of eternal beauty?
— “Simple,” Miss Florence assured us. “To be a beautiful woman, look only at beauty. Refuse to look upon anything unpleasant. I look only at attractive cultured people; well groomed, well dressed.”
— “How do you do that?” asks one housemate, unwrapping a newspaper full of plucked squabs from the Chinatown Sunday-night clearance bin and tossing them into boiling water.
— “Work at it!” Miss Florence insisted. “The other day, I was sitting on the bus. In walks some pregnant girl, belly and stretch marks slopped way out to here. Sweaty tank top. Holding a grubby infant, leading a toddler, juggling a diaper bag, dropping toys and a pacifier. Naturally, I looked away. Then a man in a rusty coat, reeking of alcohol, dragged in a trash bag. So I looked the other way. Then a teenager in a wheelchair made us wait while the driver fastened his seat belts! The kid was actually drooling; he couldn’t even hold his head up straight. I don’t know why his nurse let him out! I didn’t look twice. You have to have standards.”
— “So ended all my hopes,” I tell Nikolai and Danica years later in 2006, “of ever attaining eternal beauty.”
Danica raises one eyebrow. No comment; Nikolai’s colostomy has all her attention. His skin had an allergic reaction to the last adhesive. She’s tending to the area now.
— “Yes, you’d better stick with your split peas,” Nikolai laughs, slapping his knee with a big hammy fist. “Say, you two! Who is the most beautiful American woman — like, one who is a real lady? Is it Jackie Kennedy?”
— “No data.” Danica is still cleaning his stoma. “I’m from Sarajevo.”
— “Who is our real American lady?” I think about it. “I vote Mrs. Dana Reeve. She died this spring.”
Nikolai listens eagerly while I tell him about Mrs. Reeve. “What a woman,” he agrees. “And what a good wife, too!”
Danica catches my eye, nodding toward a packet of gauze. I hand it over.
— “You’re beautiful yourself,” Nikolai tells Danica, hand over heart. Gallantry and good humor are the coin of the realm for this cheerful old soldier. “Like all the Yugoslav girls.” That skin inflammation must have hurt him. The least and most I can do for this hearty soul is to keep him entertained.
— “‘Miss Sarajevo’ is a documentary by Bill Carter,” I tell them. “During the war some women there held a beauty contest. For morale. With judges and all.”
— “Beauty contest.” Nothing ruffles Danica’s flair for flat affect. “Whatever.”
— “I am sure that the winner was you.” Nikolai beams at her. “Were you a contestant?”
— “I was living in a dugout under a cellar,” she reports. “After a bombing a guy on the street yelled at me ‘You! Get over here and help me.’ He was a surgeon. I held a basin for him all day, and every day. Start of my career in medicine.”
— “But you’re so young now!” Nikolai is all ears. “How old were you?”
She eyes her handiwork, paints on a different brand of adhesive, reinserts his tubing. “Ten.”
It’s anybody’s guess what Nikolai sees then, gazing at the floor. His own war ended in Stalingrad 61 years ago; his silence for her now lasts a long moment. Finally he wheezes and heaves himself to his feet, tucks in the bag and his shirt, pulls up his suspenders. “YOU are the woman,” he reflects, “with the secret of eternal beauty. And it’s not like that Miss Flo; you did not get yours by turning away from the people in trouble who look unsightly to others.”
He doesn’t mean beauty skin-deep, though Danica’s got it in spades: chiseled bone structure, cameo skin, thick copper hair cropped short like a boy’s, eyes and voice deep and cool as moonstones.
Danica rolls up the counter pad with its tubes and gauze and cotton, drops it all in the biohazard bin, unpeels her gloves inside out and drops them in, reaches for the soap dispenser.
— “Of all the people I have seen, in all my life,” she shrugs, heading for the door, “Dead, alive — every one of them was beautiful.”