At 10 a.m., on Sunday, the Contessa made the tactical error of answering the telephone: friends from the city had forsaken a hiking expedition in Pt. Reyes and decided to visit their wine country pals instead. A moment later, the phone rang again – other friends in the city had tired of their poolside pastimes and had likewise conspired to visit us. At the time, I was wearing little more than the New York Times and had only a single sip of coffee in me, so I was shocked when the Contessa, always game to entertain, announced that we were having a barbeque – in an hour. The fact that we didn’t even own a barbeque was immaterial.
You see, the Contessa, like many women of our generation, is from Xanadu – not the one Coleridge wrote about, but the one Olivia Newton-John is from – that magical airy-fairy place where you can roller skate on the beach. To wit, The Contessa decreed our backyard her stately pleasure-dome and dispatched me to Friedman’s to impulse-buy a propane-fueled grill (mercifully, they sold me the floor model otherwise, I’d have barbequed myself assembling the thing). My next task was to load the iPod with 80s dance hits so that she and the other muses could frolic in the Grotto, the latticed enclave on the side of our house the Contessa decorated with twinkling lights and citronella candles. I obliged because, after all, I have to believe she is magic and nothing can stand in her way.
Everyone arrived. A beautiful cut of Chateubriand was lobbed on the grill and as the corks popped, the conversation soon brined in salty humor. The women in our group began to speak of a mythical locale known quaintly as “Hump Island,” where, presuming one is stranded sans spouse, is populated by paramours of one’s own choosing. All the usual suspects were mentioned: any red carpet creature with a compound cognomen qualified, the occasional rock star came ashore, as did any of a number of assorted shag-haired boy toys for whom a magazine cover, in this case, was as good as a passport.
The girls’ respective islands were filling fast, that is until the Contessa added a younger, funnier Woody Allen to her roster, which was met with instant shrieks of derision from her sisters. She defended her nebbish cohort explaining that she thought might enjoy “talking to him,” but was reminded that we weren’t discussing “Talk Island,” an apparently less randy part of the archipelago, and Woody was voted off.
When pressed for my list, I kept it strategically esoteric. I had been in enough of these silly chats to know where the traps lurked so I loaded up my island with obscure European actresses such as Marion Cotillard and Anouk Aimee . I also made sure to represent a wide range of female morphology so as not to be indicted as an armchair sexist like my brothers-in-arms who were chided for the gamine femme fatales running amok on their islands.
“She’s a size zero – what are you going to do with a size zero?” a wife needled her husband when slight Keira Knightley washed up on his island.
Flinching, he replied “F-f-feed her?”
The girls agreed that was a good answer. So was Kate Winslet, who I had hip-pocketed for just such an emergency, though I’ve had a crush on her that predated Hump Iceberg or whatever that boat flick was called. One of the chaps attempted a similar coup by protesting the he couldn’t imagine anyone but his wife on Hump Island, but everyone saw through him and he finally admitted that Heather Graham lived there.
This kind of list making is tricky business. I remember when the island question used to be “Ginger or Mary Ann?” I never imagined the correct answer would be Mrs. Howell.