The woman was seated in a wide semicircle of bridge chairs in the senior citizens' meeting room waiting for the music recital to begin. She was there for her daughter, who had spent three weeks memorizing her piano music and was ready to play in public.

Slowly, the elderly audience walked into the room. There were women helping each other, arm in arm. Women rearranging bridge chairs for each other. Women greeting each other. Women . . . in the group of 50 persons it was easy to count the men as one, two, three.

Well, of course, she thought. Everyone knew that women outlived men. She tried to wrap herself in the comfortable normalcy of the words "of course." But the truth was that she felt an old reality in a new and stunning way: Middle age was a world ruled by the powerful men, but old age was a world inhabited by its surviving women.

It was as if some mysterious plague was transmitted from one man to the next, passing over their wives and sisters for another seven years. It was considered a matter "of course."

She held this "discovery" out at arms length and looked at it. How ironical. When the women in the room were born, the life expectancy for them and their husbands, their Charlies and Eddies, may-they-rest-in-peace, was about the same: 54 years. They were raised to build their lives around those men they married. But the center didn't hold, and now these elderly women lived alone together.

To this observer, halfway through her own life expectancy, they were suddenly the Ghosts of the Future.

She thought then of her friend and their conversation that day. If a group of archaeologists dug into their friendship, they would find thick layers of time and energy, sharing and acceptance. Their friendship had survived earthquakes of mutual disappointment, and volcanic eruptions of anger, and had been rebuilt again with honesty and warmth.

But today, like so many other days, they had spent their telephone time talking about the men in their lives, past and present. They were of an age when women talked more about love than death, and it was, perhaps, their major.

Their sociology was a composite of "he said" and "she said." Their mathematics was a matter of figuring out, "What do I want?", "What can anyone expect?", and how great is the difference between these sums. Their linguistics were in defining trust and commitment. And for business, well, they discussed the advantages and disadvantages of living together versus marriage as if they were discussing condominiums versus houses.

Oh, they also talked about children and parents, work and ideas. But, in truth, they were most fascinated with the subjects of men and women. Their relationships with men were subjects to be analyzed. Their relationship with each other was assumed. They were friends. Of course.

But now, in this company, she wondered about their priorities and assumptions.

Well, it was her daughter's turn to play the piano, so she stopped wandering and focused. For a time, the umbilical cord of her own empathy was tied, one nervous stomach to the other. When the girl found her way through the pieces, the women applauded as if it was Carnegie Hall.

But later, after the exchange of pride and pleasure, after the girl was in bed, she went to her shelf to find a story Doris Lessing had written.

This particular tale was about two women whose lives and marriages and families and love affairs had been entwined for decades. Then, in middle age, after the death of one husband, the wife of the other has a clear, almost prophetic vision.

Looking across the familiar room at her friend, she really sees, really knows. "Yes, that is how it would all end, two aging women with their children who would soon have grown up and gone . . . Their future, hers and Muriel's, was each other. She knew it. But it was neurotic to think like this and she must try to suppress it."