So it wasn’t 1945, okay? That would have been the best of the best, like, iconic, legendary, but who could find it? So he’d asked her to look for a Château Latour from the year of his birth: 1970. And she had been successful. This Northern-Italian-themed restaurant’s wine cellar was not just Italian. “It’s still young, you know.” She was pulling out the cork anyway.
“So am I.”
“Right.” Was that a wink at him before she sniffed the cork? Sort of, but she really wasn’t giving him eye contact: The bottle had all her attention and her brow furrowed for a second. Her straight blond hair shifted against her black blazer; there was a hook to the bridge of her nose; her nostrils flared. She turned to him: “Nice.” Her face grew radiant with thought. She flashed him a conspiratorial smile: “Should we taste?” She sounded hesitant.
Which made him hesitate. It wouldn’t have breathed enough. Wouldn’t it be a waste?
“How about just a drop at this point?”
Her professional nod seconded his oxygenation concern. “And may I?”
“That goes without saying.” That was the etiquette that went with this territory: Noblesse oblige.
Behind her was a shelf of glasses, more snifter-shaped than the usual. She chose two and deftly shot a splash into each one. She held one of them up to the bare light bulb of the cellar. “No sediment but legs. See?” He could clearly see the wine slithering unctuously down the side of the glass in rivulets: legs. “Now the taste.” She handed him the glass she had not held up to the light. She wore domino cufflinks. He bet her jeans were Ralph Lauren like his.
At first sip, the surface of his tongue recoiled in tannic shock, but before his mouth could pucker and his heart sink in disappointment, that sip exploded. “Oh, nice!” Cherries, plums? That was a surprise. Then saddle leather, smoke, and the basic velvety base palate that was to be expected even after only a couple of minutes.
“Walnut and cocoa-dust scent?” she said in surprise, questioning, perplexed even. “Interesting.” She was putting them on equal footing faced with this wine. Nice. He was no guru, granted; he was simply the facilitator for this learning experience of hers, that’s all. She’d remember him.
People did anyway.
“I can’t wait.” He took a second and last sip: Oh, there was more now… He handed her the empty glass.
She beamed “frisky puppy” back at him.
“So ‘round eight, eight-thirty: It’ll be tops then, for sure?” He phrased this as a question to her, but she understood it was a demand.
“Should be. Will be. I’ll be there myself, bottle in hand, Mr. Finn. You’re pleased with this?” Nice touch that she would serve it personally. He felt funny about Mr. Finn? How about Sir? Should he allow her to address him as Chris?
That morning with the brokers he had been addressed as Mr. Finn. Normal, given the legal context. He had legally changed his name after his parents’ death, wanting a clean break from his dead father who was Mr. Finnegan, who would always be the one and only Mr. Finnegan. He wanted no part of that. But the “Mr.” gave it a funny formality.
Now, the Boston College dudes had called him Chris the Finn. Nordic risk aside (Lapland?), he’d liked the sound of it. Like Mack the Knife. It was the perfect name for this new Chris on his way to becoming the Golden Boy. His father had died first, but only after his mother died did he return to New York City and do the deed: He was legally Chris Finn. Aka the Golden Boy. Golden Boy had initially referred to how he tanned in summer, unusual for a redhead.
Then Sandy, who was a true night owl, called him the Lark. Alexandra “Sandy” MacAfee and Chris Finn, a very lark-owl thing: very, very hot – erotic distancing, could be said. He always left her lolling in bed all cinnamony sweet, one last look before he headed downtown at the crack of dawn or found her that way when he came back from an all-nighter.
The sommelier was eyeing him patiently, all business. What? Waiting for an answer? What was the question? Oh. Pleased, she wanted to know. Was he pleased? Was that a trace of anxiety in her eye? Whoa! He would remember this wine all his life. Note to himself in all-caps: He needed to find a bottle, retail, for his own growing collection. Two or three. Or a case. There was dealing. There was this new thing called eBay.
Oh, there she was, still waiting, and her nerves were now showing in her eyes. He so enjoyed being a bit of a bastard here. Finally: “Oh, I couldn’t be more.” He watched as her face spread into a relaxed smile. Okay, girl, you’ve earned it; what was her name? He wanted to add “cool” but stopped just in time. He pushed his advantage further: “Oh and… yeah, it’s still set, like, that no tables will be seated upstairs after seven-thirty, right? I’ve got the whole loggia?”
“Certainly. We’re all yours, Mr. Finn. Don’t give it a second thought.” She was all over him now. As she damn well should be: He’d put down a grand to make sure it was “his.”
A private dining room would have been more usual for such an event, but he couldn’t do this thing anywhere else. Union Square Café was a tiny but important piece in the grand mosaic he had been putting together with Sandy.
“Great. And I think it’s high time you called me Chris, okay?” She smiled and nodded. Did she realize he was rewarding her? “There’ll be other occasions. Since I live pretty close, I’m planning on making this my canteen.” There ya go: Grin widened further still. Yeah! “Oh, and let me apologize right now if we get maybe a bit rowdy later?” She replied to this by moving her mouth into a grin (good girl!). She was not going to go there… or anywhere near it. “It’s no stag party. But roast? And, hey, women can be the worst.” Why had he just had to add that? He watched for her to react? Was that just a sec of umbrage there, of pissed-off feminism? Maybe: but basically no reaction. Ms. Pokerface. Okay, PC he was not, definitely not, hated it. But he felt a bit ashamed now that he had been baiting her. There she was, rising to the occasion, very totally cool. So he flashed her his devil smile as a reward for that professionalism. Okay, come on now, wink back!
It was his birthday of course and not some stag night replete with Uptown hookers. But you don’t explain: She was the sommelier, just that. He? He was the prince. He had made her day. He had allowed her a taste of an awesome bottle.
As he turned to head out of the wine cellar, she said as if cued, “Oh, and thank you so much for a chance to taste this vintage, Chris.”
* * *
He’d gone to the Smile Center for a teeth-whitening session – he ran the tip of his tongue over his upper front teeth to test the gloss – and then gone shopping. Black cashmere overcoat, Gucci gloves, jade-green woven raw-silk scarf: all now in the hands of the coat-check girl, who looked like an NYU student but with better complexion.
As he crossed the main floor of the restaurant to the loggia stairs up, he hadn’t checked but eyes were certainly on him, following him, some hungrily, some enviously. Par for the course: It was that auburn hair of his that turned heads, always got eyes focused on him. Tonight he’d also dressed for the occasion. He’d gone for what Sandy called “grown-up preppy”: Ralph Lauren navy-blue blazer with a little gold-thread anchor on the upper-left pocket, discreet but nicely yacht club. He’d toyed with the Prada jeans Sandy had bought him but, no, gray flannel slacks (thanks, Ralph!). Bally loafers: The sidewalk was cold and dry after last week’s snow, so doable. As he traversed this world all scented with fine food, lit pale gold, themed Tuscany (was it? – he had yet to do Europe), he felt jumpy, impatient for this triumph of a birthday dinner to start: startling wines, food, toasts, admiring friends, and all with Sandy at his side – Alexandra MacAfee of Park Avenue and Southampton – short-cropped but auburn hair, just like him minus the teeth-whitening, which for her was too Hollywood. Whatever. They were a couple (he, lone-wolf stag no longer) and they turned heads. Nice!
There he was then: Up those stairs, blond polished wood, simple railings, same wood. He grabbed hold of the railing and swayed just long enough to savor the moment: On stage, dude!
The leather soles of the Ballys did a click-click on the wooden stairs as he went up.
There was a wooden balustrade surrounding the loggia, painted a gloss teal blue. This dining area was just an elevated open space, no private dining room with your blast of gleaming brass, and mahogany walls, doors, and tables, nothing like that club Uptown where the floors had been carpeted so thick Sandy had tottered (he’d caught her) and nearly broken a heel in the pile. Nope. This place said neighborhood. His now – when he wasn’t trading. Tonight Golden Boy would transition to Millennium Man: Big three-oh.
At the top of the stairs he stopped to appraise the space once again before going to his table, already set up in the back, set and waiting.
The wall behind him reflected a candlelight glow off the white. Was the ceiling upstairs maybe a tad low? No: it had a perch feel. Several tables had been put together and covered with thick white tablecloth where silverware shone. The table was set for eight: at each plate a glass for white, one for red, one for water, and a champagne flûte (a flute because it’s in the shape of an upside-down flute; people mocked him for his Frenchy thing at their fucking peril), with the additional necessary cutlery yet to be added to the basic knife, fork, and spoon. The chair backs were wood, that warmth again: neighborhood. There was a big vase of very over-sized purple lilies on the serving table, looking so lush against that back wall.
He had first noticed this space, its existence, glancing up from a table on the ground floor, but they had never been seated there. It was nothing less than that kind of grand loggia that a Mussolini would make a speech from (black-and-white newsreels). Tempting thought for him? Nah. But fun image. Did he not have his own band of loyal followers who would be right up there with him at his table? He’d stand up at some point, when he felt the mood was right, and propose a toast. Afterwards, they’d probably roast him.
His first birthday with a zero (no memory of ten to speak of) had slipped by, waiting for the really massive twenty-one, when he had gotten totally cratered with Tim, the first of his Boston foodie gang. With B-school the gang had expanded to four, including himself, and all were now successfully transitioned to New Yorkers. Thirty was a milestone, just like the Millennium. He appraised the dining space, the party venue, in these terms: It had to meet a superior standard. The only imperfection? There were those two tables against that side wall, both still occupied by couples: two gay guys and a hetero couple, all around his own age. One of the couples was now doing dessert, the other coffee. Not to worry. Nice timing on the part of management: Relax, dude. And there were no other tables, as promised. So these two tables would soon clear out – he glanced at the Rolex: fifteen minutes, twenty tops? – and the loggia would be their private dining room. A box at the goddamn opera? Sandy’s family had such a box; he had yet to be invited however. No tears. Did he even like opera? He wasn’t against it. A gentleman needed another side, a cultural side, something other than a great tennis game…
He ambled to the head of the table, from where he would be able to see his friends arriving up the stairs; he pulled out the chair and sat down. A glance again at his Rolex told him that Sandy’s heels would soon be clicking on that bare blond-wood floor of the staircase. She was Lady Punctual. She had been in the bathroom/dressing room when he had left the loft, and he had been forbidden to have a look. That was the plan: He would go ahead; she would arrive after him and dazzle.
He sat back in the chair and cosseted both hands against the thick linen. Nice feel to the table. From the main room below rose a low hum of diners, that steady clinking of cutlery, a good-times, elegant sound. A huge painting commanded the far wall on the other side of the room below; directly opposite the loggia, it now met his gaze at eye level for the first time. He’d never paid much attention to anything in the dining room but Sandy and the menu before this. What was it, a kind of, like, huge watercolor? A cross between Mirò and Chagall? He knew the two artists and the difference between them but was no art expert. He was a financial guy. As a kid he’d learned to watercolor a bit so the idea of huge watercolor seemed bogus. Also, as a kid he’d been a loner who spent Sundays wandering around in the Museum of Fine Arts. All of which made the Golden Boy multifaceted; simple nerd or jock, he was not.
First visit, Sandy had let it be known that the décor of the place got her Park Avenue seal of approval, not just the food. And, not only was it around the corner but it was also the earliest and first of the great eateries in the Union Square area, the pioneer of gentrification. “Union Square used to be a junky gateway to hell, the last stop before The End.” Sandy knew the story but had not lived here in those days. But then who did? Well, evidently the guys who had pioneered and half-built her loft space before they’d been killed off by AIDS. They were from that period. She’d never met them, already dead when she viewed the space, but the broker had been full of tales of the neighborhood. Plus, all native New Yorkers knew about Union Square in the 70s. Urban legends.
As his neighborhood joint – say it again! – he would, like, come here in jeans maybe once a week? Weeknights, definitely weeknights. Avoid the “bridge and tunnel” crowd at all cost.
Except today. Today was a Saturday night. Saturday, January 22, Millennium Year, Golden Boy born 30 years ago to the day. Like a fucking atomic clock, he had just attained stage one of The Goal on schedule: his first million-dollar bonus, the reward for a year of multiple million-dollar days, earned through pure adrenalin, jaw clenched, and cheekbone muscles twitching, along with a snort of marching powder, yet also always with a cool like chrome. This all came natural because he worked fucking hard at it: Control and cool. Self-made dude.
The forerunner to this birthday night had occurred twenty-two days ago: the fireworks of a lifetime, the Millennium Fireworks, New York City, East River view. Now, this night was about him. The Golden Boy becomes Millennium Man tonight.
Against the tablecloth, the cuff of his sleeve had slipped back on his left wrist: The Rolex was totally exposed against the fine linen. He quickly slipped the cuff back over it. The Rolex was no new toy – he’d treated himself last year at bonus time – but doubts still lingered, like, was it old money or new? Was it bling? Nouveau riche? Or was it Rolls-Royce purr, like Sandy herself? A Boston boy, of course, should know these things, even a kid from Dorchester, which is why the doubts. Mr. Graham never wore a Rolex, for starters. Sandy’s father did not. Sandy without saying it frowned on bling but had never referenced the Rolex, which probably made it bling, maybe. She too had her quirks. She loved her Prada, but she and partner-in-décor Betsy only offered variations on Country Life – like, totally tweedy. They had set up a buzz-in-only shop on Madison, a healthy fifteen-minute walk from the loft. But they only took clients from Park Avenue and side streets. Most of these customers were women desperately seeking to escape bling – she let him know – or they would never hire aka work with Sandy and Betsy, and vice versa. He channeled the lust for cachet of these women but kept his mouth shut. But yup.
Despite her personal taste, Prada was also rebellion; her mother only wore Chanel. Prada looks so way hot on you, Rebel woman.
Damn: What was the time? He boldly exposed the Rolex: six to eight. On the dot of five-minutes-to, Sandy aka the Rebel would come up those stairs. His jaw muscles started flexing, his finger tips tapped: He couldn’t wait.
Would she go all the way and wear her sable for him and then slip it off to emerge in some new Prada he’d yet to see? He pictured Liz Taylor in Butterfield Eight. But wrong. Unlike Liz in the movie, Alexandra MacAfee was about as far from a hooker as you could get. More, like, Belle du Jour, another movie they both liked. They liked playing that game together, as in he was the john and… Yeah, there was also him as alley-cat fucker. As if. His life was? There was trading, there was tennis, and there was Sandy, and only Sandy. No desire other than for her, plus no time.
Whoopsy! He was getting a boner right now.
A cool-off trick that always worked was to shut his eyes and segue to the Dorchester triple-decker tenement where he grew up.
Chris Finnegan, the odd ball gangly redhead (“Hey, Red, ya faggot” – yeah? Already he was whacking off to his dad’s hidden stash of Hustlers, those rear-angle shots of foxy babes offering pussy?): an only child in the middle school of a neighborhood of big families. Downer! But screw ‘em. He’d taken the exam for Boston Latin School and gotten in. Game-changah, ya lozahs! Once there, he’d started pronouncing hard TV newsman R’s, ditching the neighborhood accent.
Boner gone. Always worked.
He opened his eyes wide to it all. Just whoa! The table, the loggia, the whole rush of this fucking New York world of big-money purr, gloss, shine, power: a hit like coke.
Thank you, Mr. Graham, sir, for teaching me the truth. A man cannot restage his birth; with hard work and diligence, though, he can score a top-drawer life. That was America. And of course thanks for taking me to lunch at Biba, sir, the lunch that changed my life and made me the foodie I am today. Yada.
His fingertips drummed a quick tattoo into the thick linen weft of the tablecloth. His knee was now bouncing under the table. His whole life he’d been a knee-bouncer, that guy just raring to go.
He jumped up to go to the balustrade; the chair tottered. He grabbed it and steadied it. He felt both couples at both tables staring (Ya like what ya see?). He made no eye contact. Never did: That was the way you handled it. So at the balustrade he just splayed his fingers out on the flawless gloss of the teal-painted wood, the captain of his fate.
He looked out over the room. One day, in another life, another chapter yet to come, he would own a place like this, a foodie heaven.
He focused with greater care on the painting in the distance: yes, definitely Mirò. Maybe a copy? He would hang an original Mirò for sure in his fine dining establishment. He squinted. Maybe it was an original: This was Manhattan after all.
Art was essential. Didn’t Biba have ceilings painted to look like kilims?
While Mr. Graham had showered after his golf game, Chris had gone back to the caddie locker room to get out of his shorts and into jeans. “Are your jeans clean?” Graham had asked, “because tee shirts are no problem at lunchtime.” Yes, his jeans were clean. He already did his own laundry at home. And the tee shirt was no-label, just black. He’d looked in the mirror at the locker room and shrugged a whatever. Cool. He felt so wicked excited out of his skin but the kid dude in the mirror remained, looked cool. He hadn’t been to any restaurant at all since Howard Johnsons, and then back when his dad was still working. “Biba is no Howard Johnson,” Graham had smiled at him when he’d blurted that. It had been a generous smile, no put-down intended.
That was also the first time he’d ridden in Mr. Graham’s Beamer. The sparkling row of dials, the leather seats, and, as they drove along Boylston Street and reached the Public Garden, there was this valet-parking guy who approached and whisked the car away as they entered Biba.
It had also been his first soft-shell crab ever in his life. His first orange-butter sauce (plus other subtle flavors and ingredients: touch of cayenne?). His first sprig of cilantro. His tongue, mouth, nose: It had all sprung to life, as if fully formed, and he’d been ravenous. He had – as they say – never looked back. He’d been illegal, as in no wine, under age. But he’d had a sip of Graham’s Chablis to savor with the crab when no one was looking.
Oh yeah! Oh yeah! This was definitely not his mum and dad’s alcohol experience.
Another world had arrived and opened to him.
That night, that night after lunch at Biba, with the caddie kid back in Dorchester, holed up in his room, the party around the kitchen table starting back down the hall, decibel levels signaling a move soon to the living room and the TV, he had replayed over and over that afternoon at Biba. Those wild oriental-rug patterns on the ceiling, the mix of Moroccan and Milano-design, the deep pile sink you did into carpets, and the plush welcome of the armchairs: He would get that world. That world, that future would be his future. It had all crystalized then.
He never mentioned Biba or Mr. Graham to his mum, let alone his father. This event was all his and constituted his first steps outta there.
He glanced back over his shoulder.
And now – Are you two gays ever going to leave? You’ve paid the wicked bill – one put his hand on the other one’s. He turned away: live and let live.
So. So here it all was then, the dining room spread out below, that “outta there” of his had come to pass. His first million. Celebrating thirty as a fine-dining experience. His foodie gang. And his woman, dare he say.
He smiled at the “foodie gang” in his head.
Many lunches with Mr. Graham later, plus a few dinners, plus a scholarship to BC finagled thanks to his firm’s generous reach, the food thing had engineered his first big and only social coup at BC: the creation of the Foodie Musketeers in the humble setting of Tim’s dorm one Saturday night in his senior year. It would put him on the map at Boston College. Yearbook stuff.
It had begun with Tim. And that had begun with tennis. As a caddie at the Country Club, he’d been allowed to monitor tennis lessons. Caddying had put him off golf – too slow and old dude for him – but he’d stood in awe of tennis players, mostly younger guys dressed in regulation whites. Regulation whites spelled old money and class.
BC had tennis courts: He’d been quick to note this his first day on campus. One Saturday morning he’d hit those courts. He’d picked up a friendly volley with this girl who’d given him a look in French class. As she was retrieving a few tennis balls, he’d turned, and there was Tim watching them. He’d recognized Tim from a one-semester course he’d taken the previous spring, an oddball course in economics taught by one of the few remaining Jesuits, a sort of historical course, just like the Jesuit himself, tottering: Supply-side versus Keynesian economics. As if. Everyone knew there was just Supply-side now. The really oddball aspect was that the old Jesuit was still an antique New Deal thinker. A Kennedy liberal. Tim and he would bait the geezer in class, but they’d never gotten together after class. Never got together with anyone after class. He always had to run to his Burger King job.
“Like what ya see?” he’d yelled at Tim. Tim had thrown up his hands. Which was supposed to mean what? He’d been baiting him as in was he, like, some faggot watching him? He’d ambled over to the court fence. Through the metal crosshatch: “I know you from old Noonan’s class, right?” said Tim right off and introduced himself. Sad old geezer, that Jesuit. You like partying? Where do you go? He’d made it plain to Tim that he was a commuter and worked at Burger King. Tim didn’t skip a beat. He had invited him to crash at his dorm that following Saturday night, which he did have off after 10. All work, no play, yada. He’d jumped at the idea. He’d be coming direct from work. “I’ll need to shower,” he’d explained. Burger King smell. (The showering thing would also be a nice little test for the faggot possibility thing. A dumb test in the end, because there were two women waiting for Tim at the disco, Tim’s girlfriend and her friend. Next morning, Tim claimed his girlfriend had blown him in her car in the parking lot. He himself had had no such luck.)
But dorms at BC? When he’d agreed, he had no clue. He knew they were not, like, rows of beds in a dormitory, Goodbye Mr. Chips. Or even a one-room combo study/sleep area: desk wedged under a bunk bed. But, like, little apartments? That they were usually two rooms off a living room, a kitchenette, and full bath? A commuting student pays no attention to this part of the brochure. So he’d stood downstairs that Saturday, waiting to get buzzed in. Saw elevator. Took it as directed over the intercom. Which was when he saw that it was like a wicked apartment building in a suburb – well this was a suburb, Chestnut Hill. Tim’d stood in the door grinning. Grinning. He’d read his face. That in Dorchester he lived in a fucking slum. Most probably. But he’d handled that; he’d loped in. He’d dropped his duffel bag in the entry. “Shower?” Tim’d pointed toward the bathroom: “There’s a towel for ya on the toilet seat.” Was that supposed to infer something? He’d just grinned back and headed for that shower. He’d felt greasy; he knew he’d smelled of char-burger and fries. He’d seen Tim’s nose twitch. Okay. Door shut behind him, he’d looked around: Fucking A! Luxury tile and mirrors. Big shower stall. Great blast of hot water when he turned the tap on.
And then. Oh fuck! He’d need his duffel bag: change of clothes. He’d cracked the door and looked out into the hall. He’d already gotten down to his tighty-whities: nobody there. He’d grabbed his bag and was back in the bathroom, door shut, as the mirrors had started to fog up.
Next: How was he going to make an impression on these dudes? Because that had now become his goal. Did Tim know about Biba? (He had nothing to lose asking…) Yes, he did. Tim’s eyes had lit up. Bingo! The foodie entrée. And the rest, fuckeroo, was history.
He’d kept one step ahead of them. Lunches had turned into the occasional dinner with Mr. Graham. Soon he’d experienced all Boston had to offer in fine dining. Which is why, when he took French at BC, Monsieur Proust had gone to his foodie heart, oh, Monsieur Petite Madeleine. One day, one day, when he had stockpiled his millions, though, he would sit back and read Remembrance of Things Past from end to end, in English.
Back to that winter semester of his senior year: After he’d let Tim know he was into foodie stuff, knew Biba, it was a nice little can of foie gras and a bottle of Château d’Yquem, plus a box of Carr’s Water Crackers that had changed everything and given birth to the Boston Foodie Musketeers. Foie gras and sauterne gifts of Mr. Graham, who was a generous gentleman and a mentor in all things. It was his Golden Boy side that had thought up how to use these two ingredients to up his status at BC and to create his own in-group. Voilà!
“Fwah-gwah? Fwah-gwah? Is that the cry of the cross-eyed dingle bird?” Tim’d mocked but not for long. On Tim’s desk he had positioned the can, the bottle, and the crackers just as Leo had come in through the open door. “Disco dudes, what the fuck is all this?” Leo had approached the desk knowing it was awesome. “Impressive bottle. Highly interesting can of something, what, French?” “Oui, Monsieur,” and he’d set to work. The can had a screw attached, like sardine cans do. Tim had a corkscrew. But a knife? They’d need a knife. Leo’d dashed back to his room; what he came back with was a penknife, but it had done the trick. The ritual could begin. The glass would be Tim’s tooth-brushing glass, which he had scoured meticulously. Tim had uncorked the sauterne. He handed Chris the cork. Ah! Tim knew stuff. He had sniffed it and nodded. He had poured a splash into the Holy Chalice. First sip was his: amen. He’d passed the glass to Tim and had screwed open the can and taken his first sniff: Yes! He’d prepared three Carr’s crackers with a good smear of foie gras each.
Later would come Gene, but he was not at the foie gras initiation.
That foodie gang would all be at the table soon. It would be Krug tonight! In tall crystal flûtes. The best of the best.
“Hey…” A tickle of breath against his left ear and her Chanel No. 5.
“Hey,” he turned around and met her lips. He’d missed the clickety-click of Sandy’s heels on the staircase. A quick kiss. A step back: She was wicked radiant.
“Lost in thought?” She gave him a funny-face puzzled look.
“You know, that birthday thing. Memories stuff? Birthday-with-a-zero stuff?” He focused on her. “Hey,” he moved in closer and kissed that creamy mouth smiling at him. Was that a bit of powder on the kid freckles around her nose? Because all traces of tomboy were gone. He grazed her chin with his fingertips. Now that look in her eyes, hazel eyes, a fleck of gold like a cat’s, that look said to him, “You’re mine.” I so love you, Alexandra MacAfee. She gave a half glance backward that acknowledged that the two couples still seated were watching them, and then she came back at him, devil eyes, and prodded her tongue between his lips. He lost it: Alone together in the universe.
She pulled away first. He opened his eyes. He surfaced, pecker hard. She grinned at him. And then, flash, the restaurant, its creamy light and elegant smell of grilled steak, rich sauces, a cognac snifter of a place, surrounded them.
He pulled out the chair next to his at the head of the table. She sat down, and then he sat down. “Hey, where’s the sable?”
“Oh? So Happy Birthday, Mr. President!” She gave him a 1950s peck on the cheek, more Doris Day than Marilyn. Did he want some Marilyn Monroe thing? Her eyes danced at him, teasing.
“Thanks” He grabbed another kiss off of a grin he could see coming.
“You didn’t think I was going to drag the beast up here…? Oh, you did. Sorry. Cyndi was on coat check tonight, so I felt it would be safe with her eagle eye.” And then she saw it. “Oh, you wanted the whole number, like, having it draped over the back of the chair?”
He nodded. Why lie?
Cyndi? So he’d been wrong about the NYU student but better complexion thing too.
“Sorry.” She made a sorry face for him. “I’m not perfect.”
“You look fucking fabulous,” he shot back, and then followed up by taking in the space with a sweeping eye. “And is this all just the right choice or what? I could have done a private dining room somewhere, like, Uptown?”
“Right. You know I never said that once to you. Never even suggested it. We’re not my parents. You know I love down here. I love Downtown. Who took you here first?”
He nodded, pleased to have all that acknowledged. This was now where her friends hung out. Except that Park Avenue… he loved the Park Avenue girl in her.
For a second time he did a freeze-frame as he saw this woman in front of him. At the Met there hung fifteenth-century painted wooden panels of girls with skin and eyes like hers, young Flemish girls, duchesses of Brabant or something, hair fine and golden red. Was it the emerald green of her Prada dress that was turning her complexion and hair to jewelry tonight? Except – reality check – the Met panel he had in mind was that of a girl just pubescent. Sandy was a woman, skin pale and delicate but Comice-pear ripe. And she may have powdered her few freckles away for this evening, but that girl, the tomboy, was always there, deep down. Which was so hot!
The tip of her tongue teased her lower lip for him. “Don’t go all alley cat right now.” Alley cat, which made her a cougar? That Cher reference. He was no twenty-two-year-old bagel baker, and she was only eight years older than he was. “So what about the Bordeaux?” Non-sequitur! He loved her.
“Just you wait.”
“That good?” Her eyes lit up; yet another passion they shared. He nodded, Mr. Serene. So, her mouth would be watering just a bit right now.
“Plus, tonight that Golden Boy of yours becomes Millennium Man.”
She shot him a tentative grin, “So, did everything go to plan downtown? I mean, what?”
“Perfect.” Except that he had to pull his sleeve over the Rolex again right then. “Tenants, like, thoroughly vetted; one-bedroom condo, in highly sought after Battery City – Liberty Terrace, 380 Rector Place, now rented furnished. Nice rent. Something for my tax guy to bite into.” Mentally, he scowled: Taxes were theft. “So I’m at your mercy now, Ms. MacAfee. Throw me out, and I’m a homeless dude.” He raised both arms up in mock dismay; the Rolex honked its horn again. I give up, he thought.
She broke into that so great caw of hers. “Better behave then, Millennium Man.” She leaned forward so he could feel her breath on his cheek. Followed by the Chanel No. 5. So, she had gone retro debutante for him. Her lips followed up on her breath.
A clatter of feet: His eye darted away from her to the stairs. Whaah, already? But no. Clatter stopped. She gave his cheek a cat lick.
But yes. Clatter, and now top of a head. He jumped up. His chair scraped fingernail-on-chalkboard sharp against the floor. “Hey, here’s our first… My man Tim!” Sandy sat back to watch the macho dude show unfold.
“Hey, Chris,” Tim strode across the loggia. They pummeled backs for a bit. Cool handshake. Finally set free, Tim Manx bent down to give Sandy a kiss on the cheek.
“That’s my roommate you’ve got your lips on.”
“Oh?” Tim straightened. “Am I the first to know? Moved in? Oh, poor Sandy…”
“You are so the first one, guy. It’ll be announcement number one, though, first toast. There will be Krug. There’s a bottle of Krug chilling somewhere for us.” He glanced to the sideboard: not there yet.
“Yeah, dude, Crystal is so, so disco,” sniggered Tim. Oh, life was so wicked good. Go down to New York City and make money, young man.
“Can I thank you for not wearing your red lawyer’s suspenders?” Okay, pinstriped shirt, but open at the neck, and blazer not biz suit. The theme was off-hours: Tim had done his best.
“Ouch! I know. It’s Saturday night. Hey. I’m all Ralph Lauren, down time, Chris.” Tim now looked downwards to examine his loafers for a minute as if surprised to see them. Which forced Chris to note how fast Tim’s hair was thinning on top. Not good news: They were pretty much the same age. Of course, Chris was famous for his Reagan-thick hair, ditto the haircut. Still: Not so, so long ago he’d thought thirty was old. Real old. And here he was.
“Weren’t you bringing…?”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot. Pam will make her appearance around nine. The very Kravitz himself gave her the nod to finish up this I-can’t-talk-about-it case which is his personal baby.”
“The one and only. Of Kravitz, Pim, and Butler? The very same.”
“He’s the old goat of the trio?”
“I wish. No. But he supersedes Pim alphabetically, and Butler died last year. Butler’s kept on the masthead for sentimental client reasons.”
“Sentimental? You mean so it won’t scare the old, old, old money. But soon to be replaced by Manx, right?”
“Chris, lawyers aren’t as swift as traders. We’ll get there. We’ll get there. I’m just hoping that Kravitz needs to get home to Scarsdale. Early.”
“You’re joking. Scarsdale? That’s so…”
“He’s married a WASP. He loves Scarsdale. I know one of his kids is that age, but no bar-mitzvah chatter around. A secular Jew?”
Sandy fingered the brass button on the sleeve of Tim’s blazer to get his attention. “Sit down, dear sir. I don’t like men towering over me.” She patted the seat of the chair next to her. “Let me chaperone your virginity until she shows up.”
He pulled out the chair, slumping into it. “She’s so way bright, Chris.” Meaning Pam. Sandy’s virginity quip had never even made a blip on his radar. “I’m just praying she doesn’t get junior partner before I do.” Sitting up straighter, Tim talked, never losing eye contact with Chris. “That would be so, so fucking embarrassing, man.” He flashed deep anxiety then.
Sandy misread: “Aha! You’re serious about Pam?” Tim turned to her with a surprised look of the is-the-pope-catholic variety.
“Sandy, our Tim is a serious dude. You know that.”
“Ah!” she smiled at Tim. Did she like Tim? Chris could see then that she hadn’t made up her mind, really.
And then Tim said to her: “Getting there. We are getting there.”
Chris translated: “You mean in your thing with Pam, like, serious.”
“Right.” He gave Chris a grateful nod.
“Cook for her yet?” Tim flashed anxious again. He was even anxious about his cooking skills, when everyone knew he was the best cook of all of them, of the now-defunct BC Foodie Four Musketeers (they had begun minus Gene, but the name had stuck; they’d upped it from three to four. Bingo!).
“Hey, not yet. But will.”
“Oh, dude, hello! That’ll bag her.” Chris wagged his head and sat back, rocking the chair so it squeaked against the floor. Sandy looked from one to the other then. They had just flipped back to college jocks before her eyes again. Hopefully, this would not go on the whole evening. Chris caught her expression. He knew she did not like the jock routine; she’d told him so.
But… Tim broke into a goofy grin then: “You’ll see.” None of the guys had met Pam yet. What Tim wanted most of all was to read BABE all over Chris’s face when she walked in. Just that. Just that.
A wiry, middle-aged waitress surprised them. There had been no staircase clatter. She held a silver ice bucket in two hands. Its simple elegant shape said Milano. In it was swaddled the bottle of Champagne Krug. She put it on the side table against the wall beside the vase of lilies and then, half pivoting, gave Chris an enquiring smile. Chris nodded. Which is when he noted that the guests at the two tables had slipped off into the night. The loggia was all theirs now. “Let’s do it. Why wait?” he announced to Sandy and Tim. The waitress beamed at the three of them as she came forward, bottle in hand, prying the cork free in a refined pop as she approached. She was good; yes, he’d give her a handsome tip.
It was then that he saw he had miscalculated. “I think we’ll need a second bottle. Possible?” She filled his flûte – one perfect splash and then a pour to raise the froth to near the brim – and nodded. He took the bottle from her and poured for Sandy and then Tim. “Let’s do this.” The waitress was already headed down the stairs.
Leo and Gene (the Foodie Club foursome would then be complete) and their respective women would be right along. Neither guy was anything but punctual, Manhattan traffic notwithstanding.
The second bottle of Krug sat nestled in ice in a bucket standing to his right. He would pour was the idea. But the bottle started moving around the table by itself.
It was not the first time he’d eaten foie gras of course (dorm memories of that initiation moment), but with a sip of Château d’Yquem 1959? Whoa! It melted into pure sumptuousness in his mouth in a way that was definitely a first. This was the best ever. Ever. So far. So far, because the best was always yet to come. They were eating raw foie gras – that was new to him – seared like good calf’s liver. Process that made it just liquefy rather than melt, which was what the potted or canned variety did in your mouth. On the side, they’d placed a few spears of grilled asparagus, a little nest of mâche leaves with a sauterne vinegar and walnut oil vinaigrette. Nice. Were the others getting it? He looked up from his plate.
Yup. Tucking in nicely. Tim was chewing lingeringly, and then he sipped and contemplated. His face was frozen in the savoring; he said nothing, looked at no one. In fact no one was talking – so engrossed in the experience of the table were they – totally appreciative, gob smacked (BBC). And then Chris saw Laura. Where the fuck had Leo found this vegan bitch? The asparagus was long gone from her plate, the mâche too, but…
As if cued, Leo’s fork slipped under Laura’s foie gras, his knife came down on top for balance, and it landed on his plate. Laura was examining the beams in the ceiling during this operation: Was she an architect? Joke: but, hey, maybe she was. Chris tried to summon up her CV. Public relations? Which would kind of dovetail with Leo’s account exec position at Doyle Dane. This did not clue him in as to what she actually did, though, but her sleekness tonight was in your face and had not gone unnoticed. Long black hair just cut to bob as it hit her shoulders. The gold hoops at her ears had barely moved until… now. She was looking back down at her plate now. The gold flashed for a sec just as the bob swept in and swallowed up the bling; she looked back up at Chris. “You know Leo, Chris,” Chris made eye contact at her command. “He eats for two. Like, you know, pregnant women?” She glanced around for a group laugh. It didn’t come. She picked up a roll, unfazed, tore it, and popped a bit into her mouth.
Leo stepped in: “Great choice of starter, man.” He beamed at Chris between mouthfuls, “Amazing. Hey, Laura’s the victim of her ideology. We love her anyway.” Why? thought Chris.
“I mean, like, do you know what they do to those poor geese?” launched Laura, her voice edging toward shrill.
“Ah! Ducks, in this case,” interrupted Leo. “Right, Chris?”
Chris was so proud of Leo: You knew! “Less fat content, more flavor,” added Leo, a quote from Foodie Master Chris.
Chris nodded. “You’ve had the fresh before, though?” Okay, he was being a bit obnoxious here. Who had? On the other hand, he was sharing: this whole birthday feast of his? It was about his sharing, right. Sort of. He let himself off the hook, because today he ruled.
“Oh, hey, nope, never. Just a guess based on the canned stuff. So I am right?”
Chris grinned approval.
Sandy raised her glass of sauterne: “To Monsieur Duck!” A roar of laughter and immediately glasses went up all around – Laura’s a perfunctory last, a toast hesitant enough to continue to make her point. She kept her face in grim mode, grieving yet another dead animal.
“Come on,” purred Sandy at Laura: “it’s just a venial sin, right?” She pursed her lips then and won: Laura flared.
Nice: Chris sat back for the show.
Sandy taking Laura on? This would be good. His birthday deserved a bit of fireworks.
Let the evening not be PC! Whoops.
Laura started. “Oh? Were you brought up Catholic too?” She went all faux wide-eyed.
“Episcopalian, vaguely. Same sin stuff there, though. You were Catholic, Laura, right?” Sandy honed in: “Those hoops are so gypsy sixties retro. Where did you get them?”
“I’m half French Canadian, not gypsy!” She tilted her head to make the hoops swing. “And so what makes you put Catholic in the past tense?”
“Oh, then it isn’t? Okay. Okay. So sorry there. But still, like, you do disobey that pope and use condoms, right?” Sandy’s eyebrows arched up. She brought the sauterne to her lips and sipped. Enter Chris: straight man’s laugh (Sandy is going for the hypocrite thing). Sandy swallowed and broke into a grin: The tomboy Chris so loved was back. Out of nowhere came a guffaw: Leo. Leo? Whaah! What was this all about? Or was this a bit of treason that would spice up bedtime later? Kinky!
Laura looked around the table before doing the up-at-the-ceiling, virgin martyr number for them. Like a comic counting beats, she waited as the laughter gradually died off. “Okay, okay, so I cheat.” Again, she scanned the table in mock defiance, milking it. The pitch she gave her voice had the table in the palm of her hand; the gold hoops shimmered the money shot. “Hey, seriously, anyone here looking for kids real soon? Hello?” All glasses were hoisted to her. “Thank you.”
Whoa! This table was so, so going to roast him!
And then there were two waiters, all lean efficiency in white shirts, bowties, and black trousers, to clear their plates away. The banter collapsed. He looked to the bucket beside him and found Krug waiting. He pulled it out of the ice and poured himself some. The bottle was almost full. Okay. Magic. He rose up to pour some for Sandy and then sent the bottle out around the table. One of the waiters intercepted it and did the pouring.
Sandy was staring at Kim. Why? It was to get her attention. Kim snapped to. “Kids are wonderful. That’s why God gave us sex, so we’d have kids.” Gene’s face froze in pain, or was that fear? “I was brought up…” She saw she shouldn’t continue. “Chris,” she laser-focused on him, “I’ve never eaten anything so truly great. Thank you so much for inviting us all.”
Jesus! Ouch! “Thank you so much, Kim.” He felt Sandy’s foot on his.
He had met Kim once before. It was no surprise, really, that Gene was with Kim, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. Hard to swallow that her real name was Kim: so generic Korean. Like her hairstyle, bangs, kinda Dutch Boy paint can, total opposite of blond. Unasked, she’d explained that she’d been born in Korea but was brought up from infancy in Pasadena CA, adopted in the day when Korean orphans were all the rage? “I’m so proud to be an American.” Yes, I bet you are, babe, he’d thought, not very generously. Okay, he had a nasty side.
Tim was looking down at the place where his plate had been. He was frowning. He gave his watch a glance that told Chris he was picturing the fair Pam being mounted by Kravitz. Tim could be so transparent, not so great for a ruthlessly career-oriented lawyer. But his look up then to Chris was not about hiding anything. “I’d hoped Pam could at least make it for the main course.” Tim said this loud, for everyone. He ignored the flûte, foam still on the surface, and raised his wine glass. “I think,” he examined its legs as he tilted what was left of sauterne in the glass, “we need to do another toast to this Château d’Yquem, guys. I’ve never had any this good. Genius.” Gene next raised his toward the candle nearest him to let it loll around the glass before sipping. Kim copied him. Leo and Laura sipped in tandem: no friction there. And then everyone’s sauterne glass was empty.
“Why did you become so interested in food, Chris?”
It was Kim. Was her question serious? Of course it was.
“Like the color of my hair?” Her reaction? Sudden panic, eyes darting, and then she recomposed. Blank. Two beats, as if she’d been translating in her head.
“Oh, that basic?” Checkmate, said her smile.
Of course it wasn’t true. Nancy had come over to the house one day with a Julia Child cookbook under her arm and a bag of groceries. After Mum stopped laughing, as she usually did with Nancy (Nancy is such a hoot!), she peeked into the bag. Yes, Nancy was going to cook them all dinner. She would make coq au vin. He’d just come into the kitchen, loving it when Nancy showed up, and now his ears perked up. He’d just started French in school. He knew vin. By the time his dad came home from work, the kitchen was pungent. On his way to pull out the bottle of tonic water and a couple of limes that his mum had pre-cut for him, he had done a comic sniff. (He was good at comic.) Not beef stew, he’d wisecracked. Nancy, never his fan, bleated back at him: “Frenchy, it’s Frenchy, Tom.” He had ignored her and headed off with the bottle of tonic water to find the gin in the corner of the living room named The Bar, despite no bar or barstools.
So, it was Nancy really, and not Mr. Graham. Not Biba. It had far deeper roots.
The waitress stood at attention, pen poised. Chris suggested everyone order red meat. His own choice would be the grilled smoked shell steak, although the lamb chop was really tempting. Tim, channeling him, ordered the lamb chop. “I think the fish looks good” – there was dead silence around the table – Laura glanced up from the menu, waffled, and then caved. “The roast chicken is free-range. I’ll have that,” she smiled at the waitress.
Right. Château Latour with fish? Like, why bother? Just go home, bitch: Don’t forget to stop off for a Filet-O-Fish on the way.
The sommelier appeared at the top of the stairs: white blouse, black skirt, black tights, her hair pinned up in a bun. She waited for the waitress to exit down the stairs behind her. With measured step she crossed the loggia holding the bottle in both hands, top and bottom (of course it was uncorked), and directed a smile of shared anticipation at Chris. Chris almost rose to his feet but stopped himself. All conversation ended abruptly; they followed his eyes. She beamed around at the guests and then circled the table to present the thirty-year-old label to Chris. Chris paused and then nodded at the label. She tilted the bottle deftly to pour a finger of the wine into his glass and stepped back. He stared at it – its velvet ruby color now had an inner glow – and moved his right hand to grasp the stem of the glass. He raised it. He made it roll ever so slightly in the bottom of the glass, just to catch the light: lustrous. He raised the glass to his nostrils. All the red fruit present in the earlier tasting – crushed currents, Russian leather tannin, raspberry-cherry-strawberry, violets, autumn orchards – had opened up, flowered, ripened and now rushed through his sinuses on a suggestion of vanilla oak. And then a sip. The wine rolled across his tongue unfurling on his palate, and then bang; his head swam for a second, and then he swallowed gently. He looked up at her, reverent. A smile broke across her tensed face, as he closed his eyes for a second. And then he gave her a nod, the signal. She stepped forward to take hold of the bottle carefully but firmly and then began circling the table. Each guest was served two-fingers of it in their red-wine glass. No one made a move. She arrived back at Chris and refilled his glass. She stepped back and waited.
Leo held his glass up to the light: “The color of the year we were born.”
Sandy took a sip, “Oh my!”
“Yup.” Chris beamed his triumph first to her and then around the table. She took a second sip. This Château Latour was in fact pretty amazing. It was not her first Latour of course: Her father had beat Chris to that. Year they were born? Not her: She was age eight in 1970, acutely at the age of reason. But a memorable year: That was the year she had graduated from pony to stallion and nearly got bounced off when the horse started to canter. She’d held on hard and won. It was also the year she met her father.
Over the rim of the glass she could see Chris. He was triumphant! He took a second sip. She so loved that look on his face.
“Ladies and gentlemen” – it was Gene’s turn – “this is what the Big Dogs drink.” He was addressing his glass. And then with a frown of respect, he took another sip and looked at Chris. “Can you imagine drinking something like this, like, once a week?” Gene the CPA-MBA accountant was calculating the possibilities. Chris gave him a chuckle. At BC he had been the kid of their pack: impish face and mousy-blond hair that was too fine, last foodie into the club. And he’d been the last to join them in Manhattan, too, but now he had morphed. The hair was now past thinning, just about gone; soon he’d shave his head, if someone talked him out of the comb-over. He was the only one at the table starting a paunch. Kim seemed to be doting on his every word.
“You know, there’s a second bottle of it waiting.” There was a gasp around the table, and then a laugh as they turned for the sommelier’s nod. Chris raised his glass: “To our new millennium!” When all glasses were raised came a communal sip. The sommelier slipped off and headed downstairs. “And, hey, let’s not forget Doctor Greenspan. The triumph of the free market? Toast!” They toasted that god that was the market, the one that would give him next year’s bonus. Would it would give him the small sailing yacht he had his eye on? Yes. There would be sailing lessons this summer. Bill, Sandy’s dad, would arrange that at Southampton Yacht Club. Life was good and running exactly to plan.
“And finally, I propose a toast to the Boston Eating Club, gentlemen. A change of name for the Millennium. A toast if you agree.” Chris raised his glass, followed by Tim, and then Leo and Gene. Chris surveyed the table. “Sorry, ladies, this is a men’s club.” Sandy kicked him in the ankle from under the table. Chris didn’t skip a beat and sat down. She pouted her mouth at him in a kiss. And then he felt her foot go to the calf of his leg to give it a quick rub. Her eyes were laughing at him.
Yes, life was good and running to plan.
Chris caught Tim checking his watch. Not for everyone, evidently.
The men’s room continued the same décor thing as the dining room, a bit more lighting but still that rosy glow and darkly stained wood. Gene stood beside him at the next urinal: “Fucking fag!” a hiss under his breath. Following Gene’s sneer, Chris looked toward the guy to his right. Yeah, well maybe. Good-looking dude. Maybe a bit too well groomed was all. But they – some assholes – said that about him too. He wore good clothes. His auburn hair made him a babe magnet. Wicked jealous, ya slobs. This guy had spikey blond hair. He now shot him back a pretty neutral glance (had he heard Gene?), and then he was back to his own business. Of course there had been time enough for the guy to check out Chris’s equipment. And he had seen the dude’s. Fuck, guys were always comparing. But then the guy shot him a sidewise grin as he flushed and was out of there.
Gene went nuts. “Hey, you don’t mind that?” Gene’s face was red going on purple as he moved back from the urinal to do up his trousers. Gene was one of those guys who unbuckled and nearly dropped it just to pee. Had he ever asked him why? No. Live and let live.
Chris hit the flush and zipped up. “Mind what? You are wicked paranoid.”
“I just know the guy’s a fucking fag.”
“And? I should give a flying fuck? Did you see his paws on me? I rest my case. Let’s get outta here and back upstairs. It’s cheese time!” He had to laugh after saying that; Gene did not get it. Foreskins?
There were napkin-sized terrycloth towels to dry your hands after washing. Nice touch.
Tim barged in then, blocking their exit. “Marching powder time.” He eyed an open cubicle: “Room for three.”
Gene waved his hand: “I’m out. You two go ahead. Want me to stand guard?”
“Sort of in front of the door? Cool. Yeah, do that, bro. Chris?” Chris hesitated: He was the host, the MC. But that didn’t seem like much of a reason. And at least Tim had stopped looking fucked-up worried. So he beamed yes at Tim and moved first into the cubicle.
There was still some Château Latour left in the second bottle. “We need cheese for this.” A waiter had arrived to take dessert orders. “Change of plan. Doable?” The waiter grinned and was gone down the stairs. On second thought, was this going to slow down the evening? Did the others even want cheese? But the waiter was back balancing a tray and set it in the middle of the table. A second waiter followed with small plates, knives, and bread. “Thank you. Amazing. Thanks.” Discrete smiles and they both stepped away toward the stairs. There they hovered, waiting to take the dessert orders. Because there would be no birthday cake: He’d nixed that. No candles to blow out.
There were espressos after the dessert. And grappa. The grappa was a Greco di Tufo. The taste was amazing; the name made it even better. The marching powder had restarted his appetite and rushed him through it all, but with total taste smacks, jolts of the taste buds. And now?
“Roast!” bellowed Tim, jumping to his feet. Chris had really, really hoped this would not be in the game plan, despite what he had said to the sommelier, but the guys started hooting. Tim sat down laughing at him.
“Hey, Chris, how do you do that, like, do your ill-gotten gains?” Laura. Laura? This was for the guys. “I hear you people do something called shorting? Like, you bet on stocks nose-diving, people, investors, going belly up, maybe even helping that out a bit with some choice innuendoes? Vultures swooping in?”
“Ouch!” whooped Leo. Chris got it then. Leo didn’t just love Laura for her tits. She spelled New York for Leo, that old Lefty New York. Greenwich Village in the Depression?
Chris caught Sandy sitting back to watch the fun. Okay, shorting was as old as Wall Street. The ethical ins-and-outs of it?
Tim’s tongue did a quick flick over his lower lip. “But this is to be expected from a Retrosexual.”
Retrosexual? Sandy sat bolt upright, loving it. Like Chris’s Ronald Reagan haircut? He saw her frown in his defense: so nice. And then she went for it: “I thought Retrosexuals wore Fedoras? He’d never want to mess up his hair, dude!” A massive fanfare of hooting came from all the guys.
“Hey, people!” All heads spun toward the top of the stairs. There stood Pam grinning, black hair pulled back severely; her silver-gray quilted coat was thrown open to flaunt its silver-fox lining. And to show off that she was still in her two-piece pin-striped lawyer’s gear. Tim jumped up; his chair scraped the floor, fingernail-on-blackboard. He looked around him, as if gathering up the whole evening she had missed so he could present it to her. He looked so forlorn that she strode right over and kissed him on the mouth. “Sorry, darling. We ordered in good take-out Thai. Nothing, err,” she surveyed the spoils of the table, “like this. But I’ve got room for dessert, if you’ll let me. I’ll do a Chris: crème brûlée?” Chris was famous for stating that a restaurant could be judged by the quality of itscrème brûlée. Magic: A waiter had followed her and now produced the chair that had been removed from the table earlier, set down a glass, a small plate, knife, and fork, and napkin. Pam wriggled out of her coat, hung it on the back of the chair, and sat down. “A crème brûlée and a double espresso.” The waiter nodded.
“And bring the lady a Greco di Tufo. Sorry, Pam. The wine…”
Tim interrupted. “You missed the wine of our lifetime. A 1970 Château Latour.” This was to be her punishment.
“Oh?” Pam seemed genuinely startled and fixed her eyes on Chris. “My, we are in the money.” Chris grinned success back at her.
Tim turned his head away.
Could everyone smell Pam, Kravitz’s signature Old Spice all over her? Because it was now on him from her kiss.
* * *
He became aware of her breath below his ear and then her hand on his chest. He’d dozed off for a sec, but she was still wide-awake; he could open his eyes then but he didn’t. That would be a give-away, and then his options would be gone. They’d have sex all over again. Like always. He loved having sex with her, loved her runner’s body. He only played tennis, which is how they’d met; Sandy also ran. Tennis was sport, fun; he couldn’t get into running. She’d explained that the running was to keep from turning into her mother.
Here they were: the first night as a domiciled couple. This was his bed too.
Game over. He opened his eyes. “Hey, I’m at your mercy now. If you threw me out, I’d be homeless.”
She blinked as she looked down at him; why was he repeating this? Was it supposed to trigger a little role play? Dominatrix? Was he pushing the envelope there? She was not going to go down that path.
She felt incredibly parched just then, lusting more for a glass of water than for him. Still… there he was: splayed out on the bed, flawless pale skin stretched over muscle, those tight tennis muscles of his. He had slipped out of her as he’d catnapped, and his cock now lay at her thigh. He had just given her what the sex manuals called a double orgasm. Didn’t he realize? Yes, he did. There was that grin of his spreading over his face. “You stud. Throw you out? You nuts or what?” She dropped down slowly over him and licked at the part of his neck below his earlobe; her hand brushed his cock and made it uncoil. Her mouth went bone dry; she desperately needed that glass of water. But not enough to make a move, to move off him, to get up.
She felt him harden under her.
* * *
Family Sunday lunch – a lynchpin of Muffy’s anglophilia – was the occasion, and it was ritual, though he was not always invited. It was not to be construed as a celebration of his birthday or of his moving in with Sandy. At the door Bill had wished him a happy birthday when they’d arrived; Muffy had been absent. Two milestones within twenty-four hours. But none of that was on the agenda. And yet. As they took their coats off in the vestibule, Bill’s eye was studying him, appraising, and not just his hair vis-à-vis Sandy’s as he usually did. Well, to tell the truth, it was startling. They knew that.
When Sandy had first introduced him to her dad, Bill had made a big deal about the hair color thing, a really big deal. As in evidently a plus, like, animal husbandry. It was obvious immediately that Bill approved of this mating, that he saw Chris as the perfect stud for his filly of a daughter. These were calculations of breeding on his part, since Muffy had only produced one offspring, a girl, whereas he, scion of Founding American Wealth, felt the legitimate need for a male, much like good ole Henry the Eighth. His appraisal of them always gave him the image that he, Chris, would make firecrackers of kids explode out of Sandy’s womb. Muffy was another story. She didn’t give a flying fuck about husbandry or progeny or the MacAfee lineage. Her goal was preservation – to be generous to her, to preserving the standards of New York Society as founded by the Astors, or something like that – and this meant hiring the best chef for their own Park Avenue kitchen that she could find and luring him away unscrupulously, sometimes with obscene bribes, while at the same time keeping her own decorating instincts subdued and in good taste, always with Great Grandmother Schuyler in mind. It did not include, absolutely did not include, sullying the family with Chris’s bloodline, which she’d inquired about point blank on first meeting (even though Sandy must have told her) and then rendered her verdict through silence and then by changing the subject.
But, hey, no red-blooded American male minded at all being seen as a stud. It didn’t get better: stud. Bingo!
But no jumping too far ahead: they weren’t there yet, not even close. Kids? Not ready.
He remembered clueless Kim.
“What’s a good way to learn how to sail, sir?” Alone, Bill would have frowned in exasperation at being addressed “sir” but not at the table in front of Muffy. Muffy found it one of the few things about Chris she wholeheartedly approved of.
“You don’t sail, Christopher?” Muffy’s eyebrows rose, and her face drooped around the mouth, her elbows pressed into the linen tablecloth, and her right hand went limp. Despite all the theater, she was ignored. Not that this seemed to faze her. She showed no trace of annoyance. Instead, her eyes, followed by her mouth, rose in triumph.
Bill shot him a conspiratorial look: “Thinking of a boat next?” It was one tycoon confiding with another. They might have been alone in his den as they usually were after Sunday lunches. Bill didn’t go as far as offering port and cigars, but in British gentlemen-repair-to-the-library fashion this was what they always did after dessert. Sandy would then have her moment alone with her mother. She would listen to her mother’s complaints – always new ones – and then the gossip, the fun part.
“Only if they’d accept it and me at SYC, sir.”
Bill held his fork poised in midair, contemplating the possibility, and then gave a nonchalant shrug. “That shouldn’t be a problem.” Southampton Yacht Club was at his beck and call – in a very chummy way, of course. “New blood in that institution is its real problem. Jimmy has a new guy that he’s hired just for sailing lessons. Starts in April already. A little chilly then, but…” Chris had been introduced to the Commodore, Jimmy, last summer; he pictured it all. “But it could be arranged privately, unless you want to enroll with some of the teenagers.” Teenagers that didn’t have paper routes, didn’t caddy, as Chris had.
“Junior Sailing, it’s called,” interjected Muffy. A little giggle followed. Bill ignored her subtitling. Chris kept his eyes fixed on Bill. Sandy had given him permission to ignore Muffy after that first meeting: “She’s jealous. Ignore her.”
“It should be private then, I guess?” Bill smiled and nodded. Chris took a sip of the Montrachet. Hey, so perfect that sea bass was served after what they’d devoured the previous night. Sheer luck. No way would Muffy, who conspired with the chef about Sunday lunch, have taken his birthday bash into account. Had Sandy even told her?
“That would be my choice, yes. A bit awkward otherwise.” What Bill meant was that if Chris had been a “real person,” one of their crowd, he would have learned to sail when he was a kid. Or maybe Chris was just being paranoid?
“Need to make up for lost time.”
Bill nodded that he knew what Chris meant. He knew Bill admired him for his fast climb of the ladder. “So it’s going that well?” Bill winked.
“Somewhere,” Chris rapped his knuckles on the layered linen of the dining table, “there’s wood down there.” He shot Bill a grin. Bill shot one back. “I’d say sky’s the limit.”
“Excellent.” Bill broadened his smile of pleasure to include Sandy. “I envy you kids. You’ve got your whole lives ahead of you.” This was soon-to-be son-in-law stuff. Bingo!
Gangsta rappers would say: Bill had his back.
And then the party was over.
The shit hit the fan in March 2002. The Prince of the Short was ready for it of course.
Bill had said something, but Millennium Man had already seen it coming in February. They all had. The Puerto Rican kid – aka “the messenger boy” – started coming by twice a shift with the little plastic bags: hectic, hectic. Different hectic when baling. And they were all baling. But being the Prince of the Short: no problemo, habla-ed he in dude Spanish.
The Millennium Man millions were all hedged. “So, like the really Big Boys,” he could hear Tony Morgan ending the pitch, “Not to worry.” Tony was a fellow trader and a dude who was endowed with the combo of a networking and linebacker grin. Tony had explained the details to him. Tony knew the fund manager of North Fork personally. That’s how the game was played on the Street. Hello.
With the money question then put to bed, Chris had summed up his life portfolio: Sandy loved him; she was eight years older, thus making her his “older woman”; she was his rock; and, finally, there was Bill, who called him “son,” whereupon all Park Avenue protected him, as solid as a cement bunker. He loved Park Avenue.
Which – by the way, people – absolutely did not make him superficial or a goddamn fortune hunter, gold-digger, or what-the-fuck. You might well think that, you pathetic bastards. Oh, he knew they did think that. Betsy, Sandy’s biz partner, for starters. Though, on second thought, maybe Betsy was more like Muffy, christened Martha – baby names never die on Park Avenue –a work in progress. Sandy and Betsy had gone to Chapin together, had joined up as decorators to rich women with a lot of time to kill, the kind who were not but could buy the old-money, native Park-Ave thing, which Betsy and Sandy could cook up for them because of their impeccable pedigrees.
Betsy, pedigree notwithstanding, needed to work, Sandy had explained dourly. Sad for her.
Which is why the ax came as a total shockeroo.
He’d brought his fist down on the loft coffee table – he’d lunged forward to do this – and smashed it. Fuck all. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. And then blood all over. Emergency room. EMR Saint Vincent’s. When they’d gotten home, his fist all bandaged, and the aspirin with codeine taking effect nicely, Sandy had suggested “anger management.” But, shit, that had been week one. He’d quickly learned to flip to cool. She’d go to the shop on Madison Avenue; he’d go to the gym. They would meet for lunch: sandwiches and no booze. He’d play tennis, play a set or two, and then she’d pop in. They’d play a set together and then go home. He’d shop on the way and then cook them dinner. Good bottle of wine. Bedtime.
And then Sandy closed the shop for the season, and they went out to Southampton. Was this like Gatsby or what?
If I’m not a trader, who am I?
He had learned to fucking sail. The nice little sloop was dry-docked for winter now. There had been those two weeks in August when he’d showed Sandy his stuff: They’d sailed daily out of Southampton Yacht Club. He wasn’t up to racing speed. Those silver-spoon dudes were too good.
SYC members urged him to apply for membership; Sandy was already a member, almost from birth. Okay. Done deed then. Followed by an engagement notice for the two of them in the Sunday Times. Mid-summer. He’d always thought: over Muffy’s dead body. Though she persisted in living, nowadays she was poker-faced civil. Nice. Good enough.
The engagement notice in the Sunday Times had been a definite morale booster on the part of Bill. Consolation prize and first draft in one. You didn’t have to step back far to see the two of them from Bill’s perspective: Sandy and Chris, looking so like a Ralph Lauren ad. So much so that the pic in the Sunday Times confused many, especially in Muffy’s set for sure. Until they got wind of the sea change.
Only one of them was for real in that lookalike Ralph Lauren ad of theirs: Alexandra MacAfee of Park Avenue and Southampton.
Still, Bill had validated him: My Son-in-law. Wasn’t that meant to replace both Golden Boy and Millennium Man? Bill hadn’t said that, but he’d felt in his gut that those two dudes were gone. Puff of smoke. Didn’t Bill say, with a pat on the back: Just dry-docked? Like a sloop in other words.
Bill had his back.
He should be grateful.
Delta Shuttle: LGA to BOS.
Nice touch: dry-docked. Ha!
He chuckled out loud.
This made Mr. Pinstriped Suit seated next to him adjust his arm, like, in a recoil move? Recoiling from him? Okay, okay. So, everyone on the fucking plane was edgy. But a little chuckle? Which was when he decided to treat it like a fart. So, hello? What? Who, him?
He ignored The Suit and took a long sip.
Already he had made waves by ordering a Bloody Mary on a morning biz flight. He munched a baby pretzel now and took a finishing sip. He could now move the Arts Section of the Times, which had been open on his lap under the tray, back up onto the tray top.
Oh, wait! There was this piece about a new movie they were making: Catch Me If You Can. Ha! Need help with that, people? Was there a consultant position open?
If I’m not a trader, who…?
LaGuardia was an airport that not only still had Deco pizzazz but was also less than a half hour cab ride from the loft.
This shuttle flight used to be like a bus thing. This morning there’d been security, patting down, his carry-on x-rayed, all just like long-distance flights. He’d been surprised. Pissed-off. Not that he went to Boston much, or at all since moving to NYC, so should give a shit. But this trip was to see Nancy. Last trip had been Walter’s funeral. Walter was Nancy’s late husband. Something creepy in that the last time was for a funeral? Whatever. Seeing Nancy again face-to-face would be anything but.
It’s your funeral, dude. Right, if he hadn’t grabbed at Nancy’s invitation to get his ass up to see her.
Nancy had intimated a silver lining to his… situation? Yes, but would explain only on arrival. Cliffhanger? Love cliffhangers but…
Oh, fuck, except that everyone was so cool about his situation: young dude with money, so cool. Was that his situation? Did they know? No. And there he was. In the situation. And he did not know. Yeah. Money was good. (He acknowledged the rush of relief that went through him on that score.) Good, but not good enough for some reason unbeknownst.
There had been a mention, a suggestion: Maybe he should consult with Sandy’s astrologer? Actually, former astrologer, like, from the late 80s? When Sandy was a teenage debutante? (He mentally licked his lips, loving that pic.) Which back then was cool, so Nancy Reagan. Something along those lines? Getting a handle on the future? He could not fault Nancy Reagan for anything, but that astrologer biz? Oh well…
Fortunately, astrologers were so eighties. So over.
Nope. He thought not. Not for him.
On the other hand, was an astrologer not maybe preferable to the psydoc being urged on him by Sandy’s closest friends?
Though for sure not by Sandy herself. Not his Sandy. My woman is cool. She does not nag. She does not badger. She does not hassle.
His chest jerked in a sob. His eyes had already gone wet. Nancy was going to be better than astrologer and psydoc rolled into one.
His sobs made The Suit really, really jumpy now. Never seen an emotional basketcase before, dude? Ah. Sad. Ya haven’t lived.
Granted, despite all the fucking security, everyone on the plane was jumpy. HSAS aka Terrorism Alert Level was generally orange these days, though he had deliberately not checked that morning. Maybe it had jumped to yellow?
He had been one of the first on the Delta Shuttle. He’d quickly checked out the few already on board as he’d located his seat, and then he’d sat scanning the new arrivals along with his comrades on the jury of seated passengers. Italians could look Middle-eastern; Jews especially could – big fat irony there. Meaning? That visually who could tell? So feelers, gut-feelings, ESP ruled. The War on Terror.
Fifteen minutes after the plane was in the air: nothing. No rush down the aisle by hijackers that had sprung out of thin air. No example hostage prostrated Allah akbar in the aisle, then decapitated. None of it – except in everyone’s mind, for sure. Hijacked – yeah, right, whatever (his three favorite expletives in that order) – he laughed at his own paranoia, but knew they were all paranoid, meaning: They were virtually hijacked. Who of the Flying Public wasn’t? Walter Cronkite would say, if he were still sayin’: And that’s the way it is.
Virtual was a buzzword for a lot these days.
He thought of his own life right now as virtual. Granted, he had far too much time on his hands. Like, he often saw himself as a voyager in his body, for starters. His mind/consciousness/inner-voice was making this time-trip, which was his life. It was encapsulated in this body that he was proud of now even at age 32, but hadn’t always been – and surely wouldn’t be when he was fucking forty in only eight years…
Okay, so here he was now in this reasonably buff body of his, and – zap! – he would suddenly be back to about thirty years ago or so, when he was encapsulated in this little kid’s body in the backyard (Fucking A! Geographically they might be flying over the very spot right now; he looked but the plane’s wing was blocking his view to the ground). He (his body in the cute little overalls with Kermit the Frog pasted on the front) was tethered to this long leash, which was just this old rope attached to a clothesline on a pulley so it could, like, zigzag, thus providing extra sideways range to the little tike. Nice: The kid got expanded playground dimensions. (Was that why they called that the permissive seventies? Permissive for Mom, for sure.)
See? There he was back virtually, as if he was still that kid fresh out of the playpen, with Mom on her first little spritzer after baloney sandwiches for lunch with Mrs. Ryan, aka Brenda, who preferred a Bud and was a great listener as Mom got going.
Unfortunately, this time-trip happened every fucking time back, “back home” as they’d said at Walter’s funeral. Which made him want to puke in their faces. Manhattan was in point of fact home as in legal residence for tax purposes?
Calm down, dude.
He sat staring blankly at the back of the tray, now in the upright position for landing; he was tired. Not virtually but really, really tired. His head was starting to pound. Was that just vodka on an empty stomach or was it something mental, the state he was in, the train of thought triggered?
As the plane went into landing mode, he tested that theory. What if he had some business-trip reason to fly to Boston? Would all this shit get triggered?
Funerals, weddings, class reunions, he had learned to handle it better. He’d turned these trips into command performances: Ermenegildo Zegna suit and the season’s power tie – not that traders wore suits while trading, but, hey, image. The nimble-footed Golden Boy (pre-Millennium Man) would just wait for it: “When are you coming home?” This, from older relatives, angry that he had escaped their shitty little lives in Dorchester, that he was not like them or their spawn. And then his outfit would register, and next his cool eyes, and, like, they’d slip the fuck away. If Nancy was at the family event, they would team up. So great. (He chuckled and The Suit jittered again.)
Nancy was going to be sure-fire. Nancy Maguire, a Maguire like his Mom. A face-to-face with her, and he’d be back in go-getter form. She did that to him. Which is why she’d told him to come up.
He couldn’t wait! She had the key to all.
There’d be the instant once-over she always gave him which was never critical – not at all – just appreciatively sizing him up, like, there you are in the flesh, my star. Then that blaze of a smile would cross her face and trumpet: Love ya! She saw right through him – that is, past the time machine of his body – and saw him. The essence, if you will, which was the pure little kid. No one did that or could. Not even Sandy with her new mega-pixel digital camera that critically reported on the state of your skin. Ouch!
Sandy could do other good stuff. Early that morning, when she’d seen the color-code site up and running on his new flat-screen monitor, she’d burst out laughing. Hello! That’s what she’d hooted: Hello! She showed no respect for Homeland Security. Or maybe she was just making fun of Antsy Chris so he’d cool it? It had worked.
As he felt the plane tilt, he glanced out the window. Looking down, he saw the alternate universe that strangers/tourists saw. It was a trick of light and the season, of course, but so fucking beautiful you could cry. Nestled in the early fall haze of treetop leaves, mostly maples just starting to turn, the plane was circling over a patchwork of double- and triple-deckers: They looked as clean and crisp as a Vermont white-steeple-church postcard. It was tourist bright and classic, devoid of any personal associations; this wasn’t his Dorchester. It was too pristine. Now the low-trajectory landing began veering in off the Atlantic. He might be passing right over the house he grew up in.
He switched off what his eyes had seen: Fake. His gut knew his roots and how hard he’d worked to break loose. Wicked Daw-ches-tah. Dumb fucks.
And then they were landing. Bump. Tarmac.
He always hit the ground running. Just like the plane did right then.
His gut did a somersault. He swallowed. His ears popped.
As the Millennium Man exited, he couldn’t keep his eyes away from the security gate – the one with the metal detector that couldn’t detect jugular-slitting box cutters? He’d turned that way also because of the woman dressed as Foxy Babe, Jimmy Choos giving her just that slightest totter so you might just have to spring to her side and rescue her from falling, like, into your fucking arms, babe? Anyway, where she looked, he looked: a straight male’s chain reaction, and he was no exception. Actually, when she’d boarded there’d been a silent collective sigh of “party time” from all males – even for the gays on board, who had their own reasons for liking foxy-dressed women.
So she’d slowed down just a bit and was staring at the security gate. But was it that very security gate? Maybe not. Everyone had seen the CCTV footage over and over on TV, but there was no commemoration plaque, not yet (maybe never), and metal detector gates all looked alike. There were a slew of them here at Logan now. He hadn’t been to Logan since 9/11.
The disembarking herd kept moving, looking that way, but not long enough to slow things down like cars passing an accident scene and creating a traffic jam. Creepy, though, when you can recognize a crime scene. Click, you go! And click-click went her Jimmy Choos on the terrazzo floor. He’d gotten up that close so he could hear them. He sniffed for perfume, but no.
So, 9/11 had put Ole Logan on the map. Funny.
Logan International, they called it now, but – no fooling him – still as local as the backyard of the old Dorchester triple-decker with its cracked concrete path running along the side of the house from clothesline backyard out to the street. Like, in his head came this whiff of a hundred years of coal dust smeared into the ground next to the bulkhead that led down to the furnace room. And then jolts of jet exhaust depending on the direction of the wind, plus the vroom, he’d grown up with.
His bowels went snake pit. He was “home.”
And he’d lost sight of Foxy Babe.
He kept moving. Echoing up in the rafters of the concourse, electronic female voices queued to announce flights boarding or landing, just like in every fucking major airport on Planet Earth. So not so “local.” Reboot. Get a grip. Search for the Budget sign.
Cool. Way cool. On the Web he’d found a Ford that looked a lot, to him anyway, like Mr. Graham’s eighties Beemer, the one he’d learned to drive on (Thanks again for yet another life milestone, sir). Budget had it available, and he’d booked it. Good start. Because positive nostalgia.
As he walked, his ears picked up that short-breathed flat Boston accent all around him, which he’d ditched even before moving to NYC. And then the local faces hit: Italian noses, round Irish cheeks, with the occasional peppering of non-white Others on the periphery. In the closed world of old neighborhoods was the unspoken question still, Whatchoo niggahs doin’ here? He was too young to remember Louise Day Hicks. But you watched who was in your neighborhood. Him? He considered himself indifferent to race.
There! There was the Budget Rent a Car sign. So, yeah, he wasn’t from here. He was a New Yorker. With a car to pick up. And – the best! – ahead of him was only one fortyish Suit at the Budget counter. Not Mr. Pin-stripe from the plane: Would that dude fucking ever freak out if he turned and found Millennium Man had moved in behind him! Oh yeah.
But no. On a mid-week morning flight, suits were ubiquitous; he was the oddball.
He got in line, rocking a bit in his Nikes, back and forth, side to side, and then it was his turn. Hello, nice smile! A blue uniformed girl with a Louise-Brooks brunette bob now said, “How can I help you,” with absolutely no trace of local accent. He told her. She keyed him into her terminal. She looked back up, smiled, and handed him his keys. Her eyes noted, like, stroked his hair (chicks always loved, maybe envied the auburn thing). She pointed toward the exit where the shuttle bus would take him to the lot where the Beemer/Ford was parked: “Have a nice day, sir.” A broader, very special smile followed.
“Thanks.” Thanks, babe.
Halfway to the exit, he dropped his bag for a sec to put on the Gucci bomber jacket he’d been carrying over his arm. He looked back. She was taking in the jacket. Loden-green/chestnut leather? He knew it looked great with his hair. So he smiled and nodded. Oops! Her eyes shot back to her computer terminal. He picked up his bag. Nice. He could feel his grin on his face.
He filed off the bus with the others – who immediately scattered for their rentals – and the panic hit. That murky seawater sky, the whiff of jet-fuel in the air, the chain-link fence around the lot, the lapping on the airport shore of Boston Harbor with its rotting piers? All this was a trigger for a wave of deep-gut nausea. Nothing to do but keep moving. The palm of his left hand went clammy on the strap handle of his bag. He exhaled that airport air, squeezing it out of his lungs, and struggled not to puke.
And then – funny – it was over.
Maybe the exhaling had done the trick. He pulled himself up taller. He’d never stopped walking, aiming for the goal, seeking the letters on signposts that would spell where his car could be found.
Fuck. He really had to get out of here. This roar, this stench of planes zooming in, zooming out? They had fueled loner kid Chris’s future plans: big exec, business class, red-eye meetings in Tokyo, London or LA, a life in New York City, Park Avenue version, of course. Of course they had.
He is twelve and in his bedroom in the Dorchester flat. The oak door, painted white, is shut, but the window is wide-open, isinglass curtains fluttering in a hot June breeze that doesn’t freshen things up. Instead it circulates the old wood-varnish smell around. Sometimes he can catch that anthracite air from way down in that old coal cellar, now a slatted cubicle, where sometimes he hung out with the Noonan kids. In winter there’d be the rumble of the big oil burner that had taken over the heating of the three floors of apartments.
He is jerking off to a copy of Hustler.
If I’m not a trader, I…?
There! Whoa! He spotted the escape vehicle, the Beemer look-alike, and went for it. He crosschecked the license plate with the tag on the keys. He strode forward to seize his objective.
The deep-breath thing had been advised by all the op-ed shrinks to counter post-9/11 panic attacks: gee, all those shrinks that’d jumped to the aid of Manhattanites… Of course, in the real world, months passed, new stuff happened, memory dulled, and it all got shifted to storage. But, as Sandy had pointed out to him, they’d all probably been imprinted. The groove for panic attacks was never effaced; it was always lurking. She had figured it out: She was so great. Insightful. So when she’d said, “Get out of the City. Go see her. She’s great, right?” he’d gone to the computer and booked. Sandy had never met Nancy. “How do you know she’s great, you’ve never met her,” he’d said to her. “Well, she sounds great. You have that kid smile when you get off the phone with her.” Yes, that was true; he could feel his face, feel the positive vibe in every fiber of his body. She’d then added the perfect touch: “But don’t get any ideas. I want you right back here.” Back for what? Hey, you could take the summer off, but September and now October? It was fucking October! Trader if not what…
He blinked at the car. The business at hand.
Should he open the trunk and throw his bag in, or just throw it in the back seat? Ah. Would he stop along the route for lunch? His smarts activated. He went to the trunk, fooled with the two keys, found the one that worked, and opened it up. Actually it sprang open: A whiff of new car hit his face. Spotless. Spare tire also spotless. Nice rush. Fresh. He half tossed, half placed his bag inside, and brought the trunk down with a whoosh and a click. He pulled the keys out of the lock and stood back. He looked around the parking lot. There was movement: It looked like most of the people from his shuttle bus were already moving on out right then. What was he waiting for?
He didn’t want to move quite yet though.
He took a couple of steps back to admire the shiny, brassy kind of toy, which was this look-alike Beemer. Nice. He would take control of this baby. Nice. More than just nice: It was a good fit for what he was now, hey, a still-young dude who’d made it and had a fat bank account. He shifted his feet on the ground, raring to go. He couldn’t wait. There was already a nip to the air. The light was cooler. The sun was bright as it headed toward noon. Over the ranks and banks of rental cars he could see the city, Boston, with its brand new skyline. It had changed even since Uncle Walter’s funeral. Everything was different from the last time. Yeah? He was different: Fuck all, he yelled out loud. Which is when he decided to have a good look at his old hometown across the harbor.
He waited for a car passing slowly out of the lot and then strode over toward the fence. The air was different here, more salty tang from the harbor as he stood at the edge of the lot. Out of the old harbor rose towers now. Not exactly a mini downtown Manhattan but… Financial stuff had moved up there; he knew that. Boston had changed a lot even since he’d become a New York dude. He acknowledged that now: Good for them. He tested this generosity by running some thoughts, like, about how it would be to work, to trade…
He wavered then, balancing his weight from one leg to another, as his imagination began to construct, if not exactly a scenario (like when you make future plans) but a scenic backdrop for how it would feel working in one of those towers.
The takeoff of a jumbo jet split the air overhead, soaring up to veer west, breaking up his thought. Jet-fuel air sprinkling down on him.
He gulped – shock effect – before focusing back. So there, in the tower across the harbor? He pictured being inside, trading, screen flipping electric green numbers at him, his butt in a swivel chair. But then airless. Swivel chair locked in position. Restricted. Right back, right back where you belong. Back home. Back where you belong. Really belong, Daw-ches-tah.
His belly contracted; his stomach flipped and then raged with acid. The nausea hit so fast he only had a split second to lean forward and puke. He steadied himself and then vomited again. He spit once and again. Deep breath. Over as fast as it had hit. First he wiped his watering eyes with the back of his hand, and then he reached into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his mouth. He pulled himself up straight. Whoa! He was lightheaded. His nerves tingled from head down to toe and then back up again. He shuddered twice. He then checked his pant leg, his shoes: spotless. Fucking A. He chuckled. Oh yeah.
Turning to walk back to the car, he jangled the keys a bit, like whistling. Ordering that Bloody Mary had definitely not been the most brilliant idea he’d ever had.
He remembered how cars were nowadays: He beamed the key chain at the door-lock, and it clicked open with a satisfying thud. He laughed. Fucking amazing! He took off the jacket, threw it on the passenger seat, got into the car, and shut the door behind him and took a deep breath of the new-car vinyl. Whoa!
A trader, who?
His hands splayed out and gripped the wheel. He’d forgotten what a great feeling ridged vinyl gave to the palm of your hand. And the excellent power steering (better than the Graham Beemer) let him slip out of the lot, gun it smoothly into the airport traffic, and off he was.
He focused on the road and the big wide world beyond the buzz of his brain. Razor crisp was how the October light now broadcast the world back to him. He wondered if the clock in the dashboard was accurate: It digitally stated 1:36 P.M. He was barreling up I-93 in his not-a-BMW rental; it was five months since the market had spiked back up, following the week of Crash Two or Three, depending on how you counted – and they’d fucking fired him anyway. He’d ridden it out; he’d saved the ship. They fired him anyway. But, ha-ha! That cocky, teeth-clenched-in-determination redheaded guy? He was back, right now, at the wheel. Though this could just be spin? Like the car. Was he really just some kind of fucking Ford? A fake Beemer?
Who cared? Did he really, really care? What was real? He didn’t give a flying fuck about cars. Hey, if it looked like the Graham Beemer he’d learned to drive in (minus the stick shift), that was cool. So Ford had learned to ape BMW. Just like he’d copied Mr. Graham – well, up to a point. Up to a point.
Blaaaaaaaaah, he shouted back at the windshield as a fucker passed him and gave him the finger. Whoa! This highway was as nasty as a hornet’s nest. His hands now had to… aggressively… grip the wheel. That maniac Boston driver straight out of a Jay Leno monologue had nearly sideswiped him.
A press of his right toe down on the gas pedal, and he was out of trouble.
His life used to be that simple too.
He gassed it again into the passing lane to escape the Boston traffic still stalking him like his shadow.
He was now totally ahead of the pack and free, alone in the starry interior of the Ford-faked Beemer – all these tiny points of green, red, blue light, numbers, dials – the alone part was no problem. Nancy had thought that, Sandy had thought that, he had agreed that this would be good for him. Behind the wheel, taking command. Was it? It was.
He looked outward beyond his mind, through the windshield, and observed this world, one he recognized a bit from family trips, totally not Manhattan. Granite crops of rock now jutted clean out of the dun mix of dead grass and dirt along the highway; the Welcome to/Bienvenue à New Hampshire sign shot past. Free at last, free at last… ha-ha! “Live Free or Die” proclaimed the license plates in this fucking state.
If I’m not a trader, who the fuck am I? Oh, shut the fuck up!
A growling and then a burp came from his stomach. Instead of feeling sick, he was hungry. Empty. Starvin’. Next his head started feeling dizzy. He needed food.
And there it was. Whoa! “Fried Clams”! Fried clams? He asked his stomach. It didn’t say yes, didn’t say no. Memory stepped in and took the wheel. He had always loved fried clams as a kid. At first he’d winced at the “bellies,” but then he’d even gotten used to that mushiness. Here coming up was a white-clapboard roadside shack advertising fried clams.
He checked the rearview mirror, and then the side mirrors, and pressed his foot gently on the break. He would turn off.
He tucked the Gucci jacket under the passenger seat; the black cashmere turtleneck would be warm enough to get him to the clam shack.
There was a door with a knob. He turned it. A bell tinkled. He knew enough to shut the door behind him. They had Narragansett beer on tap. “Clam roll with fries ‘n’ coleslaw.” There were booths empty. A few of the men in plaid jackets or jeans jackets on counter stools half-turned, but only half, taking a quick look and then back to the business of eating: Fox News was on, muted. Plenty of room at the counter: He mounted a stool and met the eye of the barrel-wasted waitress. Fried clams, onion rings, French fries. He had to have a small Narragansett too. She bellowed his order to the cook, a big-bellied man with a deep outdoors tan against chef whites. No toque here, Red Sox cap instead. She set a big stein of beer down in front of him. This was the small. Ha!
Didn’t Narragansett sponsor those Red Sox games his father watched on TV? While he drank Pabst Blue Ribbon beer to prove he was no manipulated consumer: ‘Cause that was the seventies.
A little paper cup of tartar sauce. Another of coleslaw. The waitress was noting that he peppered everything. No salt. And then he went for it. He ate fast and almost finished it all. Only a few French fries soft from ketchup left. He was careful, as in driving, not to drink the whole stein; he left the bottom third. He paid her. Clingity-cling from a cash register. He got up. He suppressed the need to belch.
Luckily there was a fairly clean toilet where he could wash the grease off his chin and hands. He had belched the minute inside the restroom door. But that was all. Stomach was bloated but good.
Back outside. Stiff cool breeze, damp.
Zap! The car door clicked unlocked for him.
The gravel ground and popped under the wheels as he turned the car out into the highway.
Hey, back there they would be talking about him. Like, this fucking redhead foreign visitor in this black turtleneck had come in, and actually sat down at the counter and ordered fried clams. Guy who did not talk like them. Was not from there. YES! You’ve seen a New Yorker, gentlemen. What else?
So back again in that starry interior of the wannabe Beemer – alone with his thoughts. Roaming, roaming.
He knew when he was set to do a bonkers, could actually taste the panic in his mouth too. Sort of like Kraft cheese-food. Always fully conscious as he flipped out. Which he had been doing on a daily basis.
After the last time, he’d phoned Nancy. He heard her voice answer as he was staring out through the industrial-sized windows of the loft, still shaking from his fucking jaywalk diagonally across Fifth, angry cars honking and shouts still blaring in his ears. He blurted it all out to her like a machinegun. He watched his dumb grin reflected in the windowpane, as he’d summed up: “Scared the shit out of me!”
“Oh, just get up here; we’ll get you straightened out.” He’d calmed down instantly.
Never told Sandy – she came in an hour later – about the incident on Fifth. “Think I’ll go up and see ole Nancy.” That was it. He’d needed to remind her who Nancy was: “My Mum’s cousin?”
She’d taken off her coat: “Hey, good idea. Fresh air. Get out of the city.” Then gone to hang it up near the elevator door. Too cool. He’d frozen for a sec: Did she want to get rid of him? Get this fucking nutcase out of her hair? And then she was in his face: “You won’t be gone too long?” She’d given him a kiss: “Hello? I’m back from the office, honey. So what’s for dinner?” Fucking A. He’d gone out to shop for dinner when he’d hit Fifth. And just bolted out. That fuck it all and go, go thing.
So what was for dinner?
“I thought I’d give myself a night off,” he’d lied. “How about Mesa Grill? It’s been a while. Let me call…” She’d called him a lazy housewife.
What was with the paranoia? Because he had lied to Sandy about dinner, had skipped his little adventure with Fifth Avenue?
He glanced in the rear-view mirror. He’d outrun Boston.
Why shouldn’t she dump him? No, that wasn’t Sandy’s way; she dumped no one.
His brain reconnected to his eyes again – no bullshit paranoia in this gorgeous October light. He floored the gas pedal for a sec just to hear the engine roar. He passed five cars in a blur. The sound of his own voice laughing bounced around inside the car. Lovin’ it.
Nancy would talk about when he was a kid.
He read a lot. In his room. Door shut. Not just Hustler.
Stretched out on the bed, he buried himself in Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, a refuge against the slump that was Sunday. Because beyond the closed door came Dad’s voice rumbling, and then booming, followed by Mom’s piercing laugh. He’d stick both fingers in his ears so not to lose his place reading. They were drinking vodka tonics, neon lime slices riding the ice cubes: party time. By dinnertime his father would be snoring on the Barca Lounger and Mom would slide steaming spaghetti mush off a soupspoon onto her only kid’s plate, then place a glob of Chef Boyardee sauce on top. She’d sit down opposite and play her fork around on her own plate of pasta, but mostly sip and tinkle the ice of her drink. He’d reach for the Kraft grated cheese and empty a third of it on top. “Save some for the rest of us,” she’d bleat as usual. Her green eyes would be bottomless pools. The freckles on her sleeveless-blouse arms would be ready to meld (“I’m aiming to be one big freckle!”) from the summer sun in the backyard. She hated red hair and was always a Marilyn Monroe blond. Vodka wasn’t supposed to have any smell, but it gave her bare hands and arms a sugar-cookie fragrance.
It was not one of those abuse situations. No. Dad bellowed, but was never, never physical. Definition of bark-worse-than-bite. Still, the only emotion he ever showed was anger. Raging at the world, never at him, never at Mom. Shaking his hand at the funeral, his co-workers told him he was well liked. Mom had a wicked laugh and humor with plenty of bite of its own, another breed of cat entirely. More like himself, he’d like to think. After Dad was laid off and wrangled disability (“fair enough” or “revenge,” depending on his mood), she’d picked up the ball. Mr. Noonan downstairs was a supervisor at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, found her a nice little file-clerk job with that ten-thirty morning coffee break in the contract that got her functioning for the remainder of the day. By three in the afternoon she was talkative – a “howl” was the word used by a friend from work at her funeral – then, clock punched, a couple of stops on the MTA, and she was home for the cocktail hour.
This memory of reading, holed up in his room, triggered something. He had time to read Monsieur Proust now! Concentrating would be good. When he got back home, home to New York.
A glance at the speedometer showed he was once again breaking the shit speed limit: Did he give a flying fuck?
The steering wheel had a button, he pushed it, which turned on the radio, and then he cruised for a station. It was set to AM, a growl spun out from the last word he caught, “towel-head,” and he anchored it to hear more. Let the radio shock-jock roll! Our boys… democracy… America… The President… Nine-eleven… liberal wimps. Sound bites crackling like static into the car interior from all sides. Who was this guy? Whoa! Go, dude!
His whitened-teeth smiled in the rear-view mirror: winner grin or what?
He jabbed again at the radio search button. A toggle to FM. Suddenly: classical. Classical? In this stretch of blue-collar heaven aka New Hampshire? Whaaa? Ah, it was the outreach of Boston, the beat that civilizes. He recognized the music: Vivaldi, Four Seasons. Probably Autumn. Recently he’d been getting into opera, especially Callas. He wasn’t alone in this; it had been a post-nine-eleven thing in NYC.
For him, it had started with Callas. WQXR was on as they sipped the perfect martini he’d made the two of them: Saturday night dinner for two. He’d been watching Sandy dicing a clove of garlic with fingertips professionally gnarled under to guide the knife. And then whoop! There came this high note held, raw and tragic. “Wow!” he’d said; he’d kneejerk teared up. Sandy glanced up, “Yeah, Callas, I bet,” without slicing her nails off or skipping a beat.
Sandy cooked weekends. She had taken courses, which was another bonding point between them. He did weekdays now though. He’d copied and picked up her pro techniques. He’d bought Julia Child, Second Edition. Nostalgia. And then La Cuisine de Joel Robuchon: a Seasonal Cookbook. Diving in at the deep end. Sink or swim.
One clear winter Saturday morning before he was axed, they’d wandered into the Farmer’s Market in Union Square. Sandy challenged him to buy stuff he didn’t know how to cook. She had cookbooks. Now he had his own. So, cooking school? Institute of Culinary Education? Was he that serious? But you didn’t start as a celebrity chef: You started as a fucking kitchen slave.
He could buy a restaurant. Tim was scoping out chefs. Bill had mentioned the idea.
A glance out toward his right: He was driving the flat washout of coastal highway I-95 linking Massachusetts to Maine. They used to be one state, like the Palestinian Territories, with New Hampshire as Israel splitting them apart? No war though, at least not that he knew about. Hey, he should love it. This was all down-and-dirty real America, land scraped raw for fast-food joints, outcrops of mini-malls with one dry cleaner and a New Hampshire liquor store, billboards hyping a Maine outlet warehouse a few miles ahead. There were American flags flying everywhere. Nice. Very nice. Otherwise, aesthetically, he hated it. He laughed out loud, voice bouncing around in the soundproofed car again. He flicked off the radio and began singing America the Beautiful.
His voice cracked. Laughed out loud again. And then, he had to slow way down. Traffic had thickened up, blocking his speed. What was this, he glanced at the car clock, blue-collar rush hour? Fucking trapped!
Chewed up and spit out. Chewed up and spit out. Out of the blue, in his head, his father’s ghost voice growled from a pasty, beery mouth: Chewed up and spit out.
Why that, all of a sudden? Ah, just free association with blue-collar. Blah! He chuckled. He heard his chuckle. Though, wasn’t all that shit in his genes?
Wasn’t he just like the ole man now?
His father started drinking heavily around 1976 when the nation celebrated its Big Birthday. He’d gotten laid off from the MTA, now called MBTA. Charlie on the MTA: He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston… He’d grown up with that song, Kingston Trio. His father was a Democrat, a believer in the union movement, a loser in other words. This sad man, he didn’t understand how the world worked, couldn’t do well, didn’t do well, and then drank, so textbook alcoholic.
While that same summer he had gotten a job caddying at The Country Club and smelled the lawns of Brookline. Stroke of fucking luck wrangling that job. He’d heard of kids in the neighborhood doing this. He’d taken a book about golf out of the library. He’d known shit about golf. But he had always seen himself doing better stuff in a better world. The only child learns to entertain himself. He had read his way out of Dorchester.
Amazing as he contemplated it now. He saw more in time and space than his parents did.
The nasty truth? He could never have introduced them to Sandy. But the caddy job? He was proud of that. He had always had big ideas. The Country Club and its golfers had just corroborated them. He smiled now at those wealthy green lawns rolling across his mind. And then Mr. Graham: the Man from Fidelity. Ms. MacAfee, meet Mr. Graham.
He moved a hand over the dashboard. Mr. Graham would have loved these dials.
Graham had shown him how the real world worked. He’d jumped at the chance to get there himself. He’d learned the rules from Graham. He owed Graham. Graham was dead now too, double coronary. Tragic.
Yup. He would have introduced Sandy to Mr. Graham in a heartbeat.
Fucking fraud! Chewed up little asshole of a fucking Wall Street trader, Master of the Zero-fucking Universe!
Spit your own ass out: Do it! Gun it! Do it!
Whack, car doors whack off. Windshield sags to honeycomb and shatters, heaps into your lap, a zillion diamonds etched in blood, yours. Bumpers, headlights, taillights, hoods zigzag, whipsaw, soaring high. Gun it! A shard of windshield cuts your fucking head off!
Scream of a car’s horn: reality check that jolted him just in time to swerve the wheel and miss the car in the left lane.
His palms broke into a sweat. His bowels did a flip-flop and then churned. He was seconds from shitting his pants. His eyes flew from side-mirror, to rearview, to the highway ahead.
And then – who was that dude in the mirror? – back to the rearview mirror where, for just a sec, he posed and gave the world his killer smile.
Now he really needed to get into that left lane or he’d end up in fucking Maine or the exit into Portsmouth. His heart stopped pounding. Pay attention to the road, Chris boy. “Okay,” he replied out loud. The sweat that had soaked his upper lip, now dried.
This was a driving maneuver he could control. “Ha-ha!” he yelped. He checked the side-mirror again: “Yes!” There was going to be space. Just. As the car to his left pulled ahead, the silhouette of a person at the wheel gave him a high-five fuck-you. Oh, cute! Now, his directional still blinking, he again tilted the wheel to the left. And he was in. “Yesss!”
He basked in his success as he made the sweeping left turn that led inland, inland and away from the “coastal” highway. Coastal: The gulls swooping down for scraps had been the only sign of the sea. But now beyond the windshield a crisp pine-green perspective opened up. The future.
This new stretch of highway dovetailed into fewer lanes. Its aluminum guardrails sent him on a curve away from the scarred-earth territory of Wendy’s and the State Liquor Store. Gone were the bevies of Old Glory snapping smartly in the breeze: patriots at work! The wannabe Beemer was en route into comparatively pristine terrain: pine-forest-studded hills, which would become major mountains ultimately should he veer true north, which he would not.
Now, another left turn, and the highway was an even more modest double-laner, one for passing and one regular.
And then, in his face: Celebrate fall! Banking the chasm of pine forest, burst yellows, oranges, and reds. Like a line of coke had struck his brain. Party!
He had not given it a thought: fall foliage season. Heading across New Hampshire hill and forest country, maples burst out on all sides with colors that he knew would change daily, maybe even hour-to-hour.
The rental car’s wide-axle tires gripped road and leaped forward. He flicked a button, the left window opened, pine-scented wind whistled in; he clicked it shut again. The new car smell was better. Into the sealed-off quiet, he pounded out rhythms on the wheel with the palms of both hand.
He ceased the palm drumming. He reasserted calm.
His mind mixed pine needles, autumn leaves, and the car’s leatherette: Saint-Estèphe, his favorite Bordeaux of the moment. He could almost taste it. Not the noble 1975 that had celebrated the bonus for his first million-dollar-day year. Now he was remembering the 1994. He had opened that one with Sandy just last night for dinner. The tannin after a few minutes had gone silky. And, in the mouth, cassis erupted as his nose had filled with pings of smoke, leather, followed by a second of clover on a field of vanilla. So many taste sensations cascaded like fireworks that he lost track, and stopped naming. They’d had a simple bit of rosy pink duck breast with it. For lack of raw milk Brie, they’d had some very good Brit cheddar. When the bottle began serving up dregs, the glorious wine came to an end.
He felt sated and calm now. How good life was; how he loved its sensations, all the twists and turns of it. Of course he did.
He refocused to contemplate the scenery. Did leaf colors change to oranges before yellows? Never given a shit. Now, deeper into this Acadia, the question got posed.
He loved cities, though, the bigger they were the more he loved them. Manhattan, capital of the world. Where he shared three thousand magnificent square feet of loft space with Sandy MacAfee.
And to whom had Alexandra MacAfee said, just a few hours ago as he got into the elevator – her eyes an inch from his, branding him as hers – “I love you”?
He saw the forest-rich, dappled world he was careening through, but it was just a visual for those three words. These words eclipsed the splendor around him. They were fucking everything. Because she had to love him: If she didn’t, who was he? Her presence at his side was the label for his own contents.
He drubbed the steering wheel. Bee-bam.
Was that a scary position to be in or what? He hung there, like, by a thread with Sandy. The man on the flying trapeze. He had seen it that way just an hour ago. But right now he believed. He was a believer. Fucking hallelujah. He believed her words as her mouth pressed his. And then that sexy tease of her tongue said come back, come back fast.
Her eyes had beamed love to him as the elevator door shut.
What had happened to the Chris who grabbed life with his teeth, the Chris who “couldn’t wait”?
“On hold,” he yelled inside the car, his bubble. And then he pressed the button on the steering wheel to put on some music.
Thumb, thump. Nah.
Thumbidy, thumbidy. Nah.
“Pace, pace! Pace o mio Dio!” La Callas! Whoa? Was Boston still broadcasting?
She finished in despair, and he focused back on the road. Speeding through a world of coolness. The pines had become taller and were now darkening the highway with deep shadow. And now – boom-boom – it was Götterdämmerung, Siegfried’s Funeral March. And the signal died out. He turned the radio off.
So what did he feel right now? Numb. Just like about his own death, which now kept crossing his mind for the first time in this fucking go-getter life of his. But panic then? Fear? The way he’d just fucking diagonally jaywalked Fifth Avenue, laughing at the top of his lungs at the blare of horns, screech and squeal of brakes, daring the fucking world to kill him? Reaching the other side of the street and ducking into Nineteenth fast before the cops got him? Making the dude vanish. Chris the Houdini. Nope, high as a fucking kite. Manic in spades. But back at the loft, the shit scared out of him, he’d called Nancy.
Now he sensed that ole Black Hole ready to form inside the car. His thumb flicked on the radio again. He needed something to stop him from spinning into it. He scanned on the off chance for classical again. Fucking unlikely. And then as he spied the Exit sign up ahead and on his right? Dover – UNH. The radio-scan halted. He smiled in amazement and gratitude: A fragile line of strings pirouetted slowly over burbling bass, and then the bass took those violin voices, grew, and lifted the strings up in a great gush; the exultant strings gyred higher, higher, higher, then swooped down to glide forward over it all in opulent, commanding tones that that blasted away all traces of Black Hole.
His throat constricted; his eyes teared up.
A tinkle of notes rose, once, twice, and he waited for another. But this did not happen. The music stopped. Silence. The piece was over. He held his breath, waiting for the announcer’s voice, ears straining: Prokofiev. Yes! Cinderella… He couldn’t believe it. He had guessed something Russian. But Cinderella? He thought Disney. Amoroso, added the reedy male voice. He saw what this musical piece was meant for: Two dancers circle in love; the male launches the ballerina high, high overhead, love triumphant. Ballet. And so he swung Sandy around on the dance floor and launched her high, high, higher. Ah! He took a deep breath and then exhaled.
“Give me a smile, Sandy.” She flashed him a smile to brighten up the inside of the Beemer, the fake Beemer. Her nose had a touch of freckle and crinkled up a bit when she smiled. “Gimme a kiss, Sandy.” She would then kiss his neck right under his right earlobe.
* * *
There was no sane way to get to Nancy’s other than driving.
He thought back to his close call earlier – fuck-up of a near-miss highway accident – and the hairs of the back of his head rose, his upper lip broke into a sweat. Traffic could also be a means, like the cyanide capsule spies bite when caught. He rolled the crash scenario over again in his mind’s eye: It had been, what, a near miss? The fantasy concept, the rush to smash himself to bits, smash everything to bits, demolish the vehicle, and end this life-trip of his for good? What was that now? Oh yeah. It was why he was headed up to see Nancy.
His right hand rose, and then came flat down – bouncedy, bounce – on the steering wheel. Which was when he noticed his hands. There on the wheel. The Golden-Boy tan he’d nurtured in the Hamptons? Gone! He’d prolonged it a bit at the tanning salon, and then given up. He did not have the patience for the claustrophobia of the sunbed. Now look at that white-gray skin, blue veins, freckles. Those hands? They looked fucking scared, all white and trembly.
He had dug this rut he was in; Nancy would know the escape route out. Already this drive up to see her… wasn’t he bunches better? What had he needed? Space! Space! he yelled into the bubble of the sound-proofed car. He burst out laughing at the sheer bullshit of space.
I need my space, whiners always whined… “I need my space!”
He didn’t need space; he needed a solution.
There had been this catharsis thing after the near miss, back at the turn-off. But the adrenalin surge had tapered off. Close shave with death? Is that what it took to make him feel grounded? All that anger building up and up as his brain masticated his fucking dismissal, his firing, getting the fuck dumped?
Now, slowly, slowly, he uncoiled in a long, sweet surge of well-being. This bit of highway he was now on was already lots calmer, tucked in nicely on either side, as it was, by high pines, and oaks, maples – whatever the fuck tree genus.
So sweet. Nice. He relaxed the steely grip of his fingers on the wheel. The sports-car faux leather felt sexy to the touch again. This was all going to be so good soon.
He sank back into the plush seat. The dashboard radiated dials like a cockpit. Top Gun.
* * *
She had warned him over the phone that he had to keep a sharp eye on the right side of the road or he would miss it.
Shit, there it fucking was! And he had missed it.
No wonder. There had been a thick stretch of forest and then, bam. There, up it’d popped. Everyone had to miss it. Now – problem – how to turn around? The highway was rolling up hill and down, four lanes wide (two west, two east), and, as she had also warned, it was a truck route. He had stayed in the Old Ladies’ Lane, so he could enjoy the foliage, plus the power of being behind the wheel. That lane would have been perfect for the quick turn into her driveway.
If you’d been awake, you fucker.
But now? Clearly he was not in a good place. He was on a steep gradient uphill, leaving Nancy’s far back in his wake. And then, way over up ahead, on the far left side of the road, he saw a place to turn. To get there, he needed to, what, cross three lanes? One going the way he was, and the other two opposite. Recipe for disaster, but just do it!
He got into the passing lane, checked all his mirrors, and, by sheer luck, there was a long gap in on-coming traffic ahead. He gunned it to the left across two lanes, boomeranged into the drive of this barn-red roadhouse restaurant place.
And now back downhill the way he had come.
Nice little car! You fake Beemer, you. He patted the dashboard.
Coming up on his left, he could see the white farmhouse with black trim, the white barn turned into her antique shop, and the white sign with Knotty Pines in black Old-English lettering. (She’d spelled it out on the phone: “Not N-A-U-G-H-T-Y Pines.”). So now challenge number two: Trucks were barreling in both directions now. He slipped into the passing lane. Nice. He slowed down, directional lights flashing left. Rearview mirror showed a semi putting its right directionals on. He beat a rat-a-tat-tat on the steering wheel. Nice.
Would he need to come to a complete stop? Two on-coming lanes separated him from her driveway.
And then, like clouds parting after rain, the traffic broke; he put the pedal to the metal. The wheels of the car skidded into her broad driveway, separating house and barn, and crunched the gravel. He came to a leisurely halt at the front door. Piece o’ cake? The sweat dripped from his upper lip onto his chin; he wiped his face with the back of his hand and grinned into the rearview mirror.
His fingers were on the key in the ignition, ready to turn off, when he realized: She’d be in the shop; it wasn’t even four-thirty yet. He backed up and made another leisurely turn to the right, pulling up smoothly right before the door to the shop just like a customer. His was the only car. The windows of the shop were opaque in the setting sun. If someone was looking out, he couldn’t tell.
He switched off the ignition and took a long, deep breath. There he was.
He sat cosseted behind the wheel, letting his driving sensors dim and then fade away. He’d made it. Job done. He savored the trip for a second before opening the car door, grabbed for his jacket, and got out. He stretched his legs and kicked up some gravel. Whoa! Fucking cold up here. He scrambled into the jacket.
The freshness of the air hit his brain. New Hampshire woods air, a so druggy thing: It made his head so light as he took deep breaths. Nice.
He moved away from the car and walked back toward the road. The gravel crunched under his shoes. He slid a bit on it. Granite? This was The Granite State. He came to a standstill. Knotty Pines was set in a clearing up in this great forest world sliced through by a cross-state highway. This was her world, the domain of Nancy. Looking west, where the highway would end at Concord, a reddish sun was beginning to dip behind the black masses of conifers, plunging everything into long shadow, forming walls and columns. The air was spicy with pine, okay, but there was something else underlying it. Where the gravel stopped, a carpet of brown and red leaves glutted the ground. That rich smell of autumn everyone loved, those “autumn leaves” songs?
All along, just the odor of rot, mulch, death.
Death, right. Because Millennium Man was dead, dude. Kicked off The Street. He’d never get back in. He could never run fast enough to jump back on that bandwagon. Those feet that hit the ground running after B-school and propelled him to Wall Street?
He kicked a hole in the gravel. He was fucking washed up.
He looked up. Open sky. Cloudless but darkening, deepening, and could be falling. He did the deep-breath maneuver.
In a full turn-around he took it all in: the two wooden clapboard buildings of Nancy’s domain, white and clean, stern and solid. Older than that Victorian gingerbread stuff? He’d say yup. But Nancy would explain her world.
Something was missing about Nancy’s place. A flag. There was no Old Glory flying here. All the other places, her competitor colleagues back down the highway, they all had them all over the place: big ones raised high on poles, lots of little ones planted in all available spaces.
He walked slowly toward the barn shop and passed the window nearest the door. He peered in. He could vaguely see a woman’s shape inside, reading a magazine, sitting on a stool behind a wide counter. The windowpane was both old and dirty. Who else could it be but Nancy?
He turned the knob and pushed the door open. A bell jingled.
Nancy looked up in surprise. Mock surprise, because she must have heard the car pulling up, all that crackle of gravel. He grinned, ready for the Nancy Show.
She let out a yelp of a laugh: “You got here!”
There she was. There was the family red hair, but wait: magenta? Far too old to still have her natural hair color, but whoa! Technicolor Nancy. Where were her freckles? As he pushed the door shut behind him and moved closer, there they were under a light powdering. Her cheeks had begun to sag, but that grin at seeing him tightened it all up so she looked the same as ever. Her lipstick was a fab fifties scarlet. Just whoa! Statement! From under her chin and on down – probably to her toes, though the counter hid that – she was all in black, a kind of body stocking, revealing that she still had all the curves in the right places. The counter was like her altar: It was a glass display-case full of bits and pieces from the past. She did collectibles, not antiques, she’d explained at Walter’s funeral. She’d taken him aside to let him in on her future.
Right after retiring from Met Life, Walter had bankrolled a new lease on life. They’d decamped from West Roxbury to New Hampshire, no tears shed. This was Nancy’s dream: her own shop. Walter had seen six months of their new life in the new millennium when pop: pancreatic cancer. A good six months, and there he was in the casket, surrounded by gladiolas. The end, as she said, was “still a whack in the head,” but what was left was the shop. She’d loved Walter, so no shock when, dry-eyed, she’d pointed out that the business would get an extra boost from his life insurance. He would want that; he wanted her to succeed.
There she was now, as fit and raw-boned as she’d been when he had seen her last at the funeral. She tilted her head back to roar out a laugh: “You bleached your teeth! Is that the smile of success or what? And that jacket! Very, very nice: Gucci?” His mouth opened in surprise; so she was still the old fashionista. “Sit down. Oh, I guess you can’t. No seats.” Nancy the Joker. She stood up, still all grin. “Time to close up anyway. There’s no business. And you need a gin-and-tonic, I can tell. I need a gin-and-tonic. Come here,” she slowly spread wide her arms. He leaned over the counter and accepted her wet kiss on his cheek; his groin ground into the display case in the pull of her bear hug. He wanted to give her a hug back, but she did all the grabbing. Well, she was like that.
“I’m still your favorite nerd?”
“Nerd? I don’t like that word. Look at you. Gleaming smile, bright green eyes, tall, lean and mean. And that great head of hair. Aren’t nerds supposed to be round-shouldered with bad teeth and breath? You know what that word really is? It’s the last attack of the high-school football crowd as they prepare to leave the limelight and spend the rest of their lives in a trailer park.”
“Hey, Nancy, it’s so great… just to see you.” He stepped back: “Look at you.”
“Still breathin’? Yup.” She made an odd chortling sound he’d never heard come out of her before. “And you’re not showing your age yet either, buster.” Not at thirty-two, for chrissakes. But this was just banter. He just loved seeing her now standing there in her domain behind the counter, Mighty Mistress, Antiques Empress of New Hampshire. It was so right. This old wooden barn – his eye roved behind and around her for a sec – was chockablock with crammed shelves, old five-and-dime display cases filled to every square inch. And the barn-hay mustiness still seemed to linger from its agrarian days. Or was it just all that yellowed paper stuff he could see everywhere? Sandy would go crazy here; he was always waiting for her outside of junk shops and thrift shops. He refused to go with her to flea markets. He was about to say that Sandy would love the place.
“So how was the drive? How are you feeling? Has the road put it all in perspective?” He knew that grin she now flashed him.
“Ha! Me? I’ve put it all in perspective.” He instinctively inflated his chest, squared his shoulders and stood tall; she grinned back even wider, all toothy.
While she collected herself and closed the shop, he ambled around to sniff out the place. It was his old gait, measuring the lay of the land.
“You’re handsome like your dad,” she called out to him in the warren of display-cases and shelves at the back of the barn. He was bent over looking at a funny painted tin figure of Uncle Sam, all stars-and-stripes, a bit scratched and dulled by time. He turned in surprise. Weird: She’d never said anything like that before. His dad? He opened his mouth to say, “What?” But a very odd chuckle, a kind of “Wicked Witch of the West” chuckle thing, stopped him short. “Scratch that. No. Not that your mother married a toad… Oh, scratch that one too.” She moved both hands up in front of her face, palms facing him, and wiped the “slate” clean. He burst into a laugh. They were back in business.
What had she meant? He had never quite fathomed Nancy; that was part of her allure of course. Plus, she had always been his number one fan.
He wandered back toward her. She was leaning down now behind the counter, arranging what looked like her ledger in a file cabinet behind her seat. Enough of all these bits and pieces of hers, her collectibles, he wanted to see what her real home across the driveway was like. “Funny you should mention him.” He leaned against the counter; she didn’t look up. “I thought about him on the way up here.” She shoved the file cabinet shut and straightened. Her cheeks were flushed; she waited. “Nancy, I’m fucking up like he did!” A funny smile hit her lips as she shook her head.
“No, no, no, you’re not. Impossible. Couldn’t even if you tried.” Her adamant expression froze hard on her face. Scary, because challenging him. Then she broke into that grin that signaled a wisecrack in the offing: “You’re not an alky for starters.” Her eyebrows rose: “Don’t even think of it.” Another chortle.
Shit, his mother would do that chortle. It would forecast her mean alky-alcoholic number. He shifted his feet. “Okay, yeah.” She definitely did not want to hear his moans and groans. She’d paid her dues, listening to him over the phone. “Was Dad good-looking?” He was suddenly curious; had he ever seen an early pic? “I mean, when he was younger?” The man he had known all his memory life had been a physical mess. But young, hey, maybe he’d been buff, some kind of Irish Elvis back there in the fifties. Then it struck him: Had she maybe had some kind of weird crush on his dad back then? Like, jealous of his mom even? “You said handsome…” Her usual routine was to put the guy down, like the alky bit just now. She suddenly exploded in laughter. He waited.
That was going to be her answer.
So, no Tom Finnegan aka Elvis? He smiled back at her laugh; he felt a bit let down. “Okay.” He had vague memory images of him, fragments from when he was a baby. Thinning hair even then, mousey brown, definitely not auburn: that he knew had come from his mom’s side. “So, that bad?” She looked away, busying herself with arranging a pile of papers on the counter-top and putting a paperweight with a snowman inside on top; a blizzard settled all around the little fat guy within. Oh, god, shit, he hadn’t seen one of those in, like, forever. People used to have them around, when he was a little kid. A Boston Irish thing?
He felt a pang then, something he’d never really felt before about Dorchester: nostalgia?
He reached over, picked it up, turned it around and back: It snowed. He set it back down again. He was going to cry. And then he wasn’t.
So, it hadn’t all been so bad. Okay, he’d worked his ass off so hard to be everything his father was not. Flash: nicotine-stained teeth, scrappy comb-over oily gray hair, scrawny arms and potbelly, the booze.
Nancy hadn’t seen his face twitch; she was bent down again, getting her purse. Up again, she stuck it, along with a gray down jacket, under her arm. The jacket’s synthetic fabric whispered as she turned. He shot her the wide smile with the bleached teeth she seemed to love. She shot him a serious look in the eye: “They do still drink gins and tonics in Manhattan, don’t they? Not all those Cosmopolitans like you see on TV.” She scrunched up her nose. “Too sweet for my taste.”
“Mine, too.” He burst out laughing. What a paranoid fuck he’d become.
“And so lucky neither of us has the family disease,” she winked. “Look at you. Look at me.” Yeah, there she was: living proof. Alive. She augured well for him too.
But. He spilled the beans then: “On the way up?” She nodded that encouraging movement you give people so they keep on talking while you finish up what you’re finishing up; she moved out from behind the counter. “Well, on the way up I almost did it again.” The smile slipped away; her eyes were now hard, daring him to continue. “Kind of,” he backed down. “Almost smashed up the damn rental car? Could have,” he blurted. Her brow furrowed angry disapproval at him; so this had been her face when he’d confessed his jaywalk on Fifth over the phone. “Didn’t, of course,” he amped up his voice and grinned triumph at her. No grin came back.
She moved out from behind the counter, jangling her keys, and headed for the door. She half turned. “Where’s your bag?”
He felt lots better immediately.
* * *
She’d given him a quick tour of the old Yankee farmhouse, drink in hand. Now with his second gin-and-tonic the living room was home. The wide-board pine floor did that old-house sag, spot-covered with coils of braided rugs. There was a tidy surface to everything, but he suspected settlings of dust and age if he looked closely, rubbed a finger somewhere. Though, maybe it was just the scent of old house? The walls were covered in a pale green, straw-textured wall paper, and chockablock with framed stuff: thin, black Bakelite frames, and large, mahogany-veneer Victorian ones, some with chips off, setting off photographs, etchings of plants and birds. And there was a collection of banjo clocks all stopped at various times. The smell of her old collie dog snuffling in muzzle-on-paw sleep, chasing rabbits as people said, made it all just right. Her young Siamese cat had tucked in beside him on the cracked-leather of the battered Chesterfield couch where he sat, content with the warmth of his upper thigh.
He could live here, be her kid.
Nancy, from her throne of a wingchair, was finishing up her analysis of his situation. She waved one arm, her fingers poised as if holding a cigarette. She had smoked for twenty years, but while Walter was dying of cancer, she’d quit. “You’re angry at yourself because you feel betrayed. You should be. Your Republicans are finishing off what Bin Laden started.” He could soar cool over this; she was an old-fashioned liberal who viewed Wall Street as the Devil. She was goading him again just as she’d been doing ever since he’d opted for B-school. He was immune; it was a kind of tough love she aimed at him. “Remember what Tom used to say…” She always referred to his father as Tom. “Chewed up and spit out. He knew the score; that’s why he drank himself to death.”
“That was his excuse, yeah.”
She brightened, her look a demon pitchfork set to plunge. “Ever think the same thing has happened to you?”
He took a sip of his G&T and then grinned his protective smirk. His father’s mantra for failure? Sure, it had been triggered by Logan, by the nearness of home turf. But he knew he was not his father really. What was this, her psychic radar picking up his thoughts from the drive up? He shook his head and was about to laugh…
“You aren’t, are you?” She leaned forward. “No, nah, couldn’t be…” She sat back. “Are you feeling guilty that you got fired?” Chris went numb for a second, and then he felt disappointment. Where was her magic solution? This was cheap psychobabble. Make it better, Nancy! But then another sip of the G&T, and her words hit: Guilt? He fixed his eyes on the banjo clock behind her and to the right, avoiding her face. Yes. A fucking cliché, but that’s what he had been feeling, day and night, since the event. That he had been a fraud, a fraud all along. And – ha-ha! – man, they’d found him out. The sentence? The axe. He had deserved it.
She was reading his face, and then plunged in, “You rode high on Wall Street.” His eyes met hers. She took a sip of her G&T, echoing his sip. Her ice tinkled; she was making it tinkle against the glass. For effect. There came a pause long enough for him to hear his heart beating. “Then it crashed.” Her free hand came down – pat, pat – on the arm of the chair. “You crashed with it. It’s an old story. Over and over again, Chris. It’s just new for you. And,” her eyes now narrowed, as she leaned forward again, “you’ve been brainwashed. You’re even a Republican.” A full-fledged guffaw came out of her with that. She settled back deep in the chair, gently shaking her head, “Anyway… To think, I thought only Irish Catholics and Jews did guilt.” She jiggled the glass but took no sip. “Boy, what do you think this Republican thing is all about? The system is rigged, Chris. Reagan was a flippin’ fraud. Two-bit actor.”
Was attacking his politics supposed to make him feel better? “That’s low, a bit out of the ballpark, Nancy. Is that why all your neighbors are flying the flag, and you’re not?” He could fucking just get up and leave, jump back into the car; at Logan he could get the last shuttle back to La Guardia. He checked his watch. He looked back up: Her hand was waving it all away. The cat licked at a paw and then snuggled back against his thigh.
She settled even deeper into the chair, and a sweet smile settled around her mouth; suddenly that scarlet lipstick of hers unnerved him. “Oh, hey, is it Fourth of July? Have I got the seasons mixed up? Gettin’ old, I guess. Hey, Chris sweetheart, I know what country I’m living in. I don’t need a flag to remind me. Ya ask me, flying flags all over the place stinks of fear. And it’s low, lowdown Bush brainwash,” her voice descending to match the words, turning phlegmy. “And you know what else is low? That these Wall Street tycoons are doing Bin Laden’s bidding, doing his dirty work for him, terrorizing the nation? Wrecking people’s livelihoods, my business, for starters? Where’s the real goddamn War on Terror?” Her voice cracked for a second – a quick flare up, and she’d lost her cool – but only for a sec. As the anger in her eyes died down, her smile widened, and then a sweet smile erased it all. “I couldn’t resist,” her eyes twinkled, and she let out a sigh. “Oh, Chris, sweetheart, you know you’ve always been my favorite. Look, love ya, but you do back this frigging system, and that’s the way it works. We’re all ex-pen-da-ble. Patriot Act, my behind! And,” not a beat skipped, “don’t even think of calling me an old hippy. I can read that mind of yours.” Her eyes were dancing infectiously now; he couldn’t help laughing. She took his laugh as a signal. “Okay,” she waved her cigarette fingers in the air again, “forget the politics. Didn’t I read somewhere that traders – that is what you were doing, wasn’t it?” He nodded. “Don’t they suffer early burn-out? Relax, Chris, you’ll find something else. You’re young. You’re smart as a whip. You jumped ship, that ‘Irish battleship’ with Tom passing out, with his belly in the air on the Barca Lounger, and your Mom sipping, sipping, sipping at the kitchen table. You studied your tail off and got a scholarship to Boston Latin, then repeated that for BC. And then you’ve got that goddamn MBA of yours. Hey, by the way, don’t people with MBAs start their own businesses? Isn’t that what it’s for?”
He’d stopped listening at the “burn-out!” Cliché of the fucking century. Everyone said that to him, over and over. Sandy, even. Burn-out. He wasn’t fucking burned out! He’d loved that edge. He’d loved the adrenalin rush, loved it, fucking loved it!
And then her heard what she’d said afterwards. The “starting his own business” thing: Had he talked up the restaurant idea with Nancy? Maybe. But that phone call would have been way back when he’d also been playing tennis like a lunatic, playing to save his fucking life. Before, duh, going bonkers.
Then it hit: Nancy was getting older and older; she was clueless. She had no magic wand, no matter how much she loved him.
Why was he here?
Because he did feel better just being face to face with her. No reason.
Because she loved him; that was the reason.
The last bit she’d said then also registered: Smart, MBA. He believed her spin. So he went with her, “Oh yeah, burn-out. Got burned out on tennis real fast, did I tell you? I played everyday for a month. Biceps and calves got amazing.” He laughed, thinking she would too, but she didn’t. Her eyes bore into him: Confess, they were demanding of him. Whoa! He changed the subject: “Oh, did I tell you another thing?” Oh, man, this always got everybody. He stretched his legs out, dramatically readying for his tale. Her mood shifted to high attention; he’d taken control. His heels inserted into a braid of the rug and dug in a fraction. He was, like, steadying himself for the shot. “When we opened the windows last spring? We found some dust stuff… from the World Trade Center.”
Nothing. No reaction. She was poker-faced. He waited for the expression of shock, fear or disgust, even. Nothing. Was she going to ask? No. None of that usual wide-eyed desire to hear eyewitness tales of That Day, which he got from people. Maybe she didn’t get it? Did he have to spell out “dust stuff?” Maybe he should, like, dust, duh… He felt let down by her, and then seriously deflated himself, a bit grossed out at himself. It wasn’t like they’d had an analysis done, labeling it human ash. But Sandy had gone funny, pale, and looked at him; he’d channeled her. “Sandy thought…”
“Sandy? Is that the ‘we’ you were talking about just then?”
“I’ve moved in with her.”
There was still ice but no G&T in her glass, he noticed. She set it down on the end table beside her chair. “I thought you had this condo down around Wall Street.”
“Rented it out. Sandy, you know, Bill’s daughter. I’ve told you about Park Avenue.”
“Ah,” Nancy said quietly. Was that supposed to mean good? Her eyes widened just a bit, like, she was piecing it all together. “You aren’t some gigolo, are you? Rich Park Avenue girl? Frank Sinatra sings a line about that: ‘When I was seventeen…’” she began to warble out the tune. She cocked her head in some kind of vaudeville act, “But no, later, wrong line, older age. It comes with ‘perfume in their hair,” something like that. So.” She put a hand on each knee and sat forward. “You’ve married Park Avenue?”
“We’re not married for chrissakes.” Why was she making him feel shitty, toy-boy cheap? Did she know Sandy was a few years older? “I’ve got my own money, hello.”
“I know. So it’s part of the New York dream. Is she pretty?” Her face softened.
“Fucking gorgeous. Redhead. Auburn like me, like us.” He gave Nancy a nod to her own hair even though now magenta. “She does interior design. You’ve got a lot in common.”
“Oh?” her voice cracked in a cackle. “Then I guess that’s good. She love ya? Okay, I see from your face. I’ll stop.”
“She thought it was great I come up here.”
“She doesn’t know me.”
“She fucking knows about you. Nancy!”
She smirked back and held up one hand: “Back to that dust thing. I remember World War Two.” She got up suddenly from her chair and grabbed her empty glass. “You need yours freshened up? You do. Give it to me.” He held out his glass, and she took it.
What did World War Two have to fucking do with anything?
She busied herself at the sideboard, clunked some ice from the silver bucket into both glasses and turned around; her hand with his glass was outstretched to him. He got up halfway and took it, sinking back down on the Chesterfield, just missing the cat, who’d been taken by surprise by his move. “You had lots of those full-page thick-black headlines.” She lowered herself back down into her armchair, a move showing her age. “It ended, you know. That war ended. Of course. I was a kid, but I remember both VE and VJ days. We all lived in Dorchester then. Well, you know that… There were block-parties up and down the street.” She took a long sip, and eyed him over the rim of the glass. “I remember it all like yesterday. Gawd! It was nice, you know that? I had my first sip of wine.” She chortled and rolled her eyes so he’d smile. “Sherry it was. The sweet kind, of course. In this little crystal glass so thin and fine you could have bit it through.” Her eyes widened and glistened a bit. He laughed out loud at the “bit it through,” before slipping into her nostalgia mood.
“Yeah, but three thousand dead? Slam bang? Nine-eleven. That’s something totally different.” Because, hadn’t that been behind her segue, that it was the same?
“Yes. It is. And World War Two chalked up millions.” She gave him a moment’s pause so he could catch up, and flip to her perspective. Her eyes dared him to blink: He blinked. Then he turned away: What could you say? He felt suddenly freezing cold; his body twitched, a shudder about to hit. He looked back at her; she was leaning forward. “Are you okay?”
“Why?” He tried for a laugh, flopped, and then cleared his throat to cover up the noise he’d made. The shudder hit him. He opened his eyes wider to mask it, so he’d look bright-eyed. “Hey!”
“Take a sip of your drink. You look pale.” He did as told. “Did you ever think that…” she was pausing to search for the right words, “that your state of mind… Well, that you might be having some kind of post-traumatic thing? You didn’t see anybody… I mean bodies… falling, did you?”
He heard her. Nice to feel her concern hugging him. He shook his head for her. Of course he had; he was lying. He moved to shut down his mind’s eye as he opened his mouth and repeated the lie: “Oh, no. No. No. No.” She leaned forward again; she didn’t believe him. And then came a look of alarm, like, he might flip or something right here in front of her in her own living room. “Okay, only a few specks like everybody else, on some TV footage before they stopped showing it. Nothing real-life. Me? Nancy, I never looked back. I just ran uptown with the crowd. Didn’t stop.” This came out in a torrent. He stopped and caught his breath, caught it as if out of breath from that run: “It was like being chased by some freight train. Loud roaring thing behind ya? You. Did. Not. Look. Back.”
She nodded. He left her worried look and found himself staring at the stopped clock behind her; he took a sip of his drink. The ice tinkled. Hey, like hers had… Nice.
He took another longer sip and sat up straighter. The cat had now had enough and jumped off the couch. His eyes followed it, disappointed for a minute, and then he looked back at her. He opened his mouth and then shut it. Why was he about to tell her this thing he’d never talked about to anyone? And then he just did: “There was this weird hush over the city? You didn’t hear about that.” She looked him in the eye; he almost lost his nerve. “There was this weird hush. There were sirens screaming up and down the avenues? It was chaos. I’m not talking about that. There was, like, this whoosh? …Of, like, angels… rushing…” A funny look – was that a smile? – took over her face. “Stop! Don’t laugh.”
“I’m smiling, not laughing. Mass death has to do something to a place. I’m sure of that. I don’t believe in any angels, but… I’m sure glad I wasn’t there.”
That startled him. “You aren’t, like, curious?” She shook her head. Where was Nancy, Mighty Life Warrior?
“Nope.” She swilled back her G&T. He stared at her, waiting, but this time she seemed finished talking, and her glass was totally empty, not even any ice left. The collie made a simper of a grunt, chasing-rabbits thing again. But he was wrong. Suddenly she revved it up: “If I had a kid, well…” she paused, seemingly for second thoughts. He remembered his mother saying Nancy was too so-phis-ti-ca-ted to have kids. “I’m too sophisticated, too,” his mum would always immediately add with a coarse little laugh; “I only had one. Boy, that was enough.” And she’d be poking a finger in his direction, pointing out the obvious, that the one was him, just to make sure he got it, all while he sat spooning his cornflakes in as fast as he could so he could get out of the kitchen, away from her, and off to school. He knew it was her morning hangover talking. He understood that. He didn’t take it personally – tried not to, but…
Nancy caught his attention with a snap of her cigarette fingers. “Am I losing you? If I had a kid,” she repeated, “I’d tell him to take a vacation right now. Go to Europe.” She leaned forward, as if she might now finally leap out of the chair at him. She repeated, “I’d say: Go to Europe!”
Whoa! Why so intense? “Run away, you mean?” He wasn’t that kind of guy. He stretched his legs out, nervously this time, to ward her off. Her eyes were boring into him; he fixed his eyes on his wingtips.
“No, do something completely different with your life. Something based on who you really are.”
“What?” His voice sounded so lame to him. This was a rhetorical question. Who she thought he really was. He’d heard this line from her before. She’d always had a different concept. Nice, but unrealistic. Sure, he’d had a knack: For his BA, he’d gotten top grades in art history class, general humanities courses he’d taken. As a teenager he’d learned to paint – watercolors had been easiest – on his own. She was referencing that? Though he had never, never let any of that be a diversion from The Goal: B-School. No way. “Europe?” His recent dirty little secret of daytime TV, land of welfare mothers, had secretly revived Europe in his mind’s eye: The Travel Channel. Would Sandy take off from the shop and go with him? Because no way could he go alone; the thought made him gag. “But there’s the restaurant gambit…” She was listening, he could sense that, but he preferred addressing the stopped clock behind her head, her eyes far too piercing now. “Yeah. Okay. I guess one doesn’t cancel out the other.” She seconded this with a mumbled word. He looked back at her face then. Expression so bright now. “Yup. True enough,” he waved his G&T. “And, yeah, I’ve never been,” he gave in completely.
Nancy’s eyebrows rose in triumph. “Never? Nevah? Gee, I thought ya had.” She was teasing; she knew he hadn’t, “No, guess not. When would you have had time?” Was this approval or disapproval from her?
“No. Never. Worked college vacations, had to, remember?” Of course she remembered. His father had died, then Mom: no money. Not much money from them before anyway. “The internship at Smith, Barney hit right out of business school. Grabbed me.” He sailed happily into his old successful dude riff. “Didn’t look back,” which was how he always ended it. He heard himself do that again: Why did he keep saying that? You always looked back; he always looked back. That’s how you knew where you were going, by knowing where you’d come from. He was the dude who measured everything.
“Then you should definitely go now. I haven’t been for years myself, but – ta-Dah! – you’ve got a relative over there, Chris. Name’s Adrian Lee.” She shot a grin at him then like a pool-shark pocketing the ball. She stood up, in that earlier quick young-woman way, and headed for the kitchen with her empty glass. “Lives in Paris. Went over and never came back,” she tossed behind her. Was she going to ask if he wanted his G&T refreshed? He was left staring stupidly after her.
Paris? Relative? A flood of images: Eiffel Tower (the dumb logo image: he couldn’t help it), lovers kissing in black-and-white photos, that New Wave movie they’d had to sit through in French class – what was its name? Breathless – which he’d found himself dreaming about for nights afterwards. And then all that food and wine; the labels on bottles of Pauillac.
“No more G&T for me, thanks,” he shouted at her back. She was now out of the room. The cascade of mental images distracted him from the obvious questions. And then the name hit, a misfit of a name for the family. “Adrian?” he shouted toward the kitchen. Female? Male? The name itself made him follow up with a laugh of disbelief. No one in the family, no one in his whole life for that matter, had such a name. How could they be relatives?
“A cousin,” she yelled over the rush of the tap water hitting the sink, “a man, to be exact, just in case you were confused. You liked French in school, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, sure. What cousin Adrian?”
“We should get a move on if we expect to get any supper. I did make resah-vations, but…” She had suddenly dropped her r’s, turning high Yankee from her usual standard American TV announcer accent.
“No, but…” He wanted to know more. He glanced at his watch: It was a little after six. “But it’s only…”
She came back into the living room, and eyed his Rolex, and then his G&T glass. “I know, I know, but this is the country. Six-thirty is the reservation. It’s up the road. We’ll walk since we’ve been drinking,” she winked as if they were in cahoots. “Don’t get to walk much here. Take the car mostly. Everybody does. It makes them all fat. You’ll see. You’ll see the restaurant will be packed. And you’ll see they’re all fat,” she grinned ear-to-ear, “except me.” She chortled her triumph. He got to his feet on command, looked at his glass, and drained it with a mix of satisfaction and reluctance, before handing it to her. That move almost had him lose his balance on the slant of the floor. She saw him stagger, so shrugged, “Old house,” and snatched his glass.
He stood there, checking his balance, and then, finding himself alone in the room, followed her into the kitchen. He was her kid, a puppy dog. Her black, jersey-encased backside still formed a generous pear. Hmm. Did Nancy still have sex? He instantly censored that by picturing Sandy. No pear shape. Foxy teenage cheerleader’s butt was what Sandy had. And now, just thinking of it: woody time!
Nancy dumped the lime from his glass into the trash bin under the sink. She turned on the tap and then set the glass down in the sink. He watched her as if it was performance art.
His mind wandered back to Sandy. No matter what mood he was in, Sandy, the thought of her, always got him going, and pulled him away from the edge, that abyss place where you could see void, where everything was useless, pointless. The dimension of the Black Dog, they called it. The Black Dog. Hey, wasn’t that a trendy bar on The Vineyard? So fucking weird.
He knew the Black Dog was always right behind him nowadays, panting; out of the corner of his eye he saw it, heard it, as close to him as his shadow, stalking, breath sour, ready to pounce at any time.
* * *
He hadn’t seen a menu like this since he was a kid. Shrimp cocktail. Prime rib. “The wine is awful here. Have another gee-and-tee. I know you’re a food aficionado.” She hadn’t bothered to open up her menu. “Wonder where you picked that up? Now, that’s a first for the family. Not to mention that you can drink like a civilized person. Ah, what we don’t know about genetics…” And she started in on the family.
“You gave me my first gourmet meal, Nancy.”
“Me? I did?”
She burst out laughing. “Blast from the past.”
A waitress appeared and stood at attention. She was a local teenager with a Dutch-boy haircut, hair a mousey brown, her uniform black with a crisp white Peter-Pan collar and white apron rounded at the bottom that echoed the collar. Nancy gave the girl a sweet smile and ordered the shrimp cocktail to start, and then prime rib rare and a gin-and-tonic. Yes, ma’am, she replied. And then said sir to him, her voice rising in a question mark. “The same,” he added as the girl scribbled furiously on her pad. She looked up from the pad at him. Was she blushing? She mumbled sir and ma’am a few more times, and then left.
“You flashed her your white teeth.” Nancy shook her head at him and let out a drama sigh. “Don’t get the local girls so excited. They aren’t used to New Yawkahs.” He opened his mouth as if to answer and then shut it. That made her laugh. He loved that laugh. It was worth the long trip.
“I love the sir and ma’am.”
“There are no jobs here. Even local kids bow and scrape. And then,” she cackled, “they all vote Republican. Very kinky. They love their masters, love the kicking…” Again he opened his mouth and then shut it. She did not laugh this time.
A basket of warm rolls and pats of butter on a plate appeared from the hand of the same waitress almost immediately after she had taken their menus away. How had she managed that speed? Fear. Nancy would say fear; he would say pride in her work.
The dining room was packed, buzzing with conversation, the occasional elderly laugh, throaty, phlegmy, frayed. Nancy was right: They were all fat. Those eating lobsters had big bibs tucked under their chins, reflecting white light up onto shiny pink jowls: big babies, back in their highchairs. There was a great fieldstone fireplace, and a log fire was crackling in it. The ceiling was crisscrossed with fake beams stained brown. Shiny-copper versions of kitchen utensils were nailed to various points on the walls. And there were great framed prints of flying geese and ducks: Elsewhere redcoats were riding to hounds, tally-ho. When the gins-and-tonics arrived, they were in large old-fashioned glasses with heavy glass bottoms, containing lots of ice and two wedges of lime each.
He took a sip. There was a sudden gap in her political analysis. He jumped in: “So – come on – who is this cousin Adrian?”
Nancy shot him her sphinx smile, so pleased with the card up her sleeve. “Of course, you never heard of him.” She stated it, as if he should know why. “He’s the gay cousin.” She paused then to fully relish the surprise on his face. “I told you: He lives in Paris. We do Christmas cards. Have for years.”
“Gay? Okay.” All the predatory dudes that had strip-searched him with their eyes ever since he’d moved to Manhattan now flashed to mind. But this cousin would be how old? He smiled back at her as he shrugged “whatever.” Mystery of this cousin’s existence explained. “So, how old is he? Is he still an American citizen?”
“Older than you. Younger than me.” She took a long sip of her drink, “Younger by a tad, to be honest,” and then put the glass down so she could break open a roll, butter it, and take a bite. She chewed, relishing making him wait for the next answer, and then said: “Of course he’s still a citizen. You can live anywhere on the planet as long as you like. The Republicans haven’t found a way to take our citizenship away from us.” She grinned at him; she could see his eyes flare and take the bait; her grin widened. She ran her tongue quickly over her lower lip: “Anyway, it would be a start for you, don’t you think? It’s always nice to know someone in a strange place. Unless, well,” she snapped, “you’re going with your Park Avenue wife.”
“Sandy and I aren’t married, Nancy. Hello? And anyway…” Nancy was pushing his buttons. There was a pout of a smile around her mouth. “Well, I know Sandy’s been to Europe plenty of times already. She’d probably be bored.” But maybe not: The idea of being in Europe with her was – whoa! – spellbinding.
Nancy frowned. “Well, if she’s real smart she could also figure you should be on your own. Have time to think.”
“Hell, I’m alone all day long. I’ve had my time to think.”
She waved his words away with the cigarette fingers again. “See new things for yourself. New impressions. Fresh. Not through her eyes. Is she that kind of girl, or is she possessive?” Was Nancy jealous of Sandy? Insane.
“She loves me. I love her.” So, so lame; try again. “So, yeah, possessive like that, for sure.” Up popped the waitress with a large plastic tray processed to look like wood – the color of it matched her hair – she set down their shrimp cocktails. He glanced up at the girl, and grinned at her small bobbed nose and smaller blue eyes in a broad face with country-girl freckles on her cheeks. She went scarlet. He turned to look down: The shrimps were fucking jumbo. They sat in goblets. He picked up a long-tonged fork, stabbed one, dipped it in the ketchup-red cocktail sauce, and bit into it.
Monsieur Proust, take a seat.
His whole childhood of meals at Howard Johnson’s hit.
There was also Indian pudding on the menu for dessert.
Remembrance of Things kid.
He’d be taken out to Howard Johnson’s when he was little and his father still worked; eating-out was splurge time. His father had a big two-toned Chevy, pea-green and beige; not too showy was the reason for the color choice. He kept the car until he lost his job. By that time Chris was old enough to find the colors embarrassing: “pea-soup” car, one wise ass from the next block had called it. But for a seven-year-old kid Howard Johnson was an adventure. His father would take the route over the Mystic River Bridge; his mother didn’t like heights and would stare at the floor of the car until they were on the off-ramp. They’d head to Route 1, Saugus – the world of mini-malls, Chinese restaurants, Leaning Tower of Pizza (Wasn’t it built mostly out of multi-colored neon tubing, meant to dazzle the highway at night? Not sure…), outlet stores, and mysterious (to him) cocktail lounges (He supposed now that they were probably sleazy pick-up joints, maybe even with hookers, but they’d seemed glamorous big-city then). You could spot the orange roof of Howard Johnson’s a mile away. Howard Johnson’s had booths: The three Finnegans would have their own blue-and-orange Howard Johnson’s world. His father would go up to the hostess desk, his mother right behind him, while he would shuffle from foot to foot, sniffing the smells of brewing coffee, baking pies, far-off kitchens, picking up on the buzz of the busy dining room, tables with placemats, waitresses in uniforms, glass and chrome display cases for pies and cakes? Or was he mixing that up now with the Greek coffee shop around the corner in NYC? Never waited long at Howard Johnson’s: He’d be put in the booth first, next to his mom (drenched in Shalimar for the occasion). The fried clam plate was the best. Which was why he’d been so happy to find the clam shack on the way up here? With lots of tartar sauce. Cole slaw. And there would be a waitress with an apron like the one here at Nancy’s eatery.
He was back. Nancy was eyeing him over her own menu. She was reading him. And then she turned toward the waitress, “No dessert for me.”
Stuffed with red meat as he was, he still had to order it. Indian pudding.
It was set down on the table before him as quickly as those G&Ts had been. A popular menu item, evidently. Ready to go. A squirt of whipped cream and served.
As he licked the last of it from his spoon, he targeted Nancy, “I’ve got two questions.”
“Oh? Shoot!” Nancy the comedian.
“What’s in Indian pudding? I’ve never known.”
“Really? I guess it’s not in the New York foodie bible…” She cackled; he forgave her. “Cornmeal custard, cooked, laced with molasses. I’ve never made it. Hey, I think you’re a bit nostalgic? Those times as a kid? Not all bad,” her eyes softened, her voice coddling. This was why he’d come up here.
“No. No, and then, hey, there was always you…” He shot her a grin to match.
Her face blushed through the light powder covering those freckles of hers: “And the second question?”
“Adrian left the States because he was gay? Was it the family?”
“No and no.” She smiled at his empty bowl of Indian pudding and back up at him. “He majored in French in college. Worked for an antique dealer on Charles Street. I’m not sure exactly how he got to Paris now. But he stayed.”
“When was this?”
“Late sixties, seventies,” she answered that emphatically.
“But all that cool stuff was happening over here…”
“The sixties had soured. I forgive you for having no sense of American history, Chris. No one does any more. It’s all lies nowadays.” She took a breath, ready to launch into her op-ed piece, and then stopped. “Anyway you’re a Republican. You chose your bed…” She waved her cigarette hand to erase that. “Sorry. No more politics.”
He had to grin back at her again, ear to ear. They always talked politics. They’d talked politics for hours on the phone after Walter’s death. It got her feisty, out of her grief. It was their routine. What he usually threw back at her was: Old hippy crap, cradle-to-grave welfare state stuff, just so friggin’ un-American, not the stuff that had built the country. Which he had just been gearing up to say, taking her bait, when she raised her left hand to meet the right one to call it quits, both hands up: truce. That’s when he noticed the big violet and green gemstones on her left-hand ring finger for the first time. She hadn’t had them on earlier; when had she put them on? They were fucking over-the-top. On anyone else, gross, but oddly suited her perfectly. It matched the Joker hair color. Then it struck: Where was her wedding ring? Before he could ask, she leaned over the table: “I mean it. Now, if you go… Adrian will tell you everything. In detail. He’s a great talker.”
“Oh?” The reason for her ring change could wait.
“We talk on the phone at least once a month.” She stopped short. She had said they only exchanged… “It’s not just Christmas cards, is my point.” Okay. “Anyway, since Walter died, he’s asked me to come over I don’t know how many times. I should, really.” She paused, then added: “I’ve told him about you, by the way.”
“What about me?”
“Oh, nothing. Just family talk. He’s curious. But not curious like that. Not gay-predator curious.” No, she was reading his mind wrong there. “You’re not homophobic, are you?” She didn’t wait for his answer. “Anyway he’s obviously not curious enough to come over here and see for himself.” And why the fuck should he?
“He hasn’t been back? Ever?” Probably a French citizen by now, for sure, but he wasn’t going to go that route again. She had denied that he’d given up his American one, but he could be a dual national.
She laughed: “Of course he has, but only as far as New York. He never came up here.” She rolled her eyes; he laughed. “I used to go down there. We did. With Walter. Walter thought he was great, by the way. We’d stay at the Plaza. Good times. Those were the days, as they say.” So now she and Walter had hobnobbed with this Adrian dude?
“When was the last time?”
“That I know of…? Him visiting? Oh, the end of the Eighties, I guess.”
“What does he do over there?”
“Live. Live. Live!” The last “live” was loud enough to surmount the din in the room. This was one of her anthems, her “Auntie Mame” philosophy, as she always put it – whoever Auntie Mame was. A couple of tables turned, took in the magenta hair, nodded, smiled, and returned to their own chatter. So, Nancy was a known quantity, as much a fixture as the Currier and Ives print on the dining-room wall. Small town New Hampshire. Nice, he decided.
And then he thought: “Hey, I didn’t know we had any trust-fund members of the family.”
“We don’t.” She wasn’t going to allow him his joke. “I don’t know exactly what he does now. Interior designer? Antiques? He learned that in Boston. He’s done lots of things, I know that. I told you, I’ve never been over there. Well, not since he’s been living there. Of course, I’ve been to Paris. You know I used to work for Filene’s. I was a buyer. I went to Paris for the fashion shows. Every season.” Suddenly she was all over the place.
“Oh, yeah.” he loved it. Her claim to fame, before Knotty Pines. Still, how great that must have been. It was the late fifties; she’d told him about Filene’s a hundred times. “That’s when Paris was still Paris? The fifties. So they say.” He played her usual spiel back to her.
“Who’s they? Did I say that? Might have. But they? Forget about what people say. America hasn’t conquered the world. Not just yet!”
And she was off. She flared like that. The whole family did.
* * *
They walked single file along the pitch-black highway, scuffing up thickets of pine needles, Nancy leading the way, her vinyl alligator trench coat a beacon glimmering ahead. A car passed going fast enough to whip the wind against his left cheek, gusting the legs out from under him, but not quite. They trudged, didn’t walk, wary of branches jabbing from the side of the road, invisible slashers in the dark.
And then she slipped, slid. He collided with her in the dark. A branch whacked the side of his face. The long siren of a horn. He raised a palm up against the on-coming headlights.
He woke up in a cold sweat, shuddering, and sat bolt upright. He could see nothing but darkness. But it was a room. It was the attic room in the farmhouse, nearly the whole width of the house. He felt like a cardboard box dumped in one corner of it. He lay back then, pulled the covers up under his chin before his damp skin became even colder, and gradually felt warmth, sweat drying quickly. His heartbeat returned to normal. He wanted to burst into tears, but there was no reason to, nothing critical or momentary, just general cry-cry-cry emptiness. On the bright side, this nightmare had been an improvement on the bodies-falling-from-the-WTC one. He’d been a late-comer with that one. Before the axe fell – and unlike nearly everybody else – he’d slept like a pile of boulders, but then it started; he’d been a year late. He was completely out of whack. Even in his dream life.
It had been dark on the highway walking home, true, but totally uneventful. No speeding car, blaring of a horn. No disaster scenario. A bit dark but Nancy knew the way. And she had led.
He turned on his side, retracted into a fetal position, and fell asleep – evidently – because he opened his eyes again to sun streaming through the dormer windows, and, when he uncovered his nose buried in the comforter for warmth, coffee floated across those ole olfactories. He pulled sheet, blanket and quilt back up around his ears, pushed his nose deeper into the pillow and willed oblivion. Instead, he saw the Eiffel Tower.
“You didn’t spend it all, did you? You aren’t broke!” Nancy put a mug of coffee, already sugared and dashed through with real light cream, in front of him on the Formica kitchen table. She had on a white apron with navy blue stripes, a pocket sewn in front, very cheffy.
A whiny extended growl: “Nooo. Who paid for dinner last night, hello?” Why did people keep harping on this? He took a sip, expecting to be scalded: perfect temperature instead. Every time people saw his shaky face – that’s what triggered it, the look on his face – they asked that. This was Nancy’s second, maybe third round. Shit! It wasn’t billions. And he couldn’t retire at thirty-two. “What am I supposed to do with myself? There are zero positions for people like me. At the moment. For the foreseeable future. That’s the point!”
She put her hands on her black leotard hips, then thought better of that and sat down across from him instead. “Okay, scratch Europe. Aren’t MBAs supposed to start up businesses?”
He groaned for her, and for himself. Fed up. “You know, I can see what’s happened to me. My brain still works.” She pointed to her head and did one roll of her eyes. He snickered. Okay, he was sounding whiny. “Yeah, but understand what’s happened please? I planned and worked, worked it all out, so I could get what I wanted, and, hey, it did work out just like the plan was supposed to do. Bingo! Except now, whack! Get it?”
“Don’t be fresh!”
“Look, I can’t make anything happen anymore. Push the button, nothing happens, like… What am I saying? There aren’t even any fucking buttons. I’m just, like, in this massive sea, no land in sight, and the storms come and go.” Her mouth drooped; she looked so sad for him. He flashed a grin then and narrowed his eyes at her. “You see? I do know what’s happening to me.”
She sighed. “Back to Idea Number One. Go to Europe, Chris. Do the Grand Tour like some Victorian gent.” She cocked her head like an English lord, but the joke fell flat. Everything she was doing now, it all looked like Halloween to him. Masks and cheap candy. She leaned forward, put her elbows on the table, and changed gear: “You never had time to play and explore. You studied too hard. You worked too hard.” He felt the moisture filling his eyes; she could see him responding to her words. “I’ve heard what they call it: burn out. Take a break. You’ve got enough money to?”
There it was again, the fuck-all “burn-out” thing. He gave a quick couple of nods, exhausted by it all. She smiled, leaned back, and raised her hands, her case rested.
She knew she was repeating herself. But there was Chris: thirty-something and still a kid. This was how men were until the end, and all women are mothers. Amen.
She tried another angle. “I always thought we were kindred spirits deep down.” She peered into his dulled eyes as he stared into the coffee mug, and then took a sip. “I can tell you now. You know? I kept my mouth shut at the time. But I thought you were nuts going to business school. As a kid you could draw up a storm, then watercolors. You could get up in costumes and get the neighbor kids to put on plays. What happened to that kid?” But she knew the answer. Tom Finnegan lost his job. First, Tom would drink manhattans with Maura at the kitchen table, later they cut to the chase and drank vodka tonics, and dinner wouldn’t happen until after nine or maybe not at all. Chris had been twelve. So little Chris Boy retreated, studied like hell, hid away in books up in his room.
“You remember that kid, don’t you?” Chris wasn’t responding. “Hello?” He didn’t react.
Tom Finnegan went from rubbery slob on a Barcalounger to the ER, bleeding out the mouth, coughing it up, cirrhosis diagnosed, then – bam! – dead. Total liver failure before Chris could fly back home. Arrived in time, though, to find Maura dead in bed the morning after he arrived, the morning after the last day of Tom’s wake. Dead in a pool of her own urine. She cleared her throat. He looked up then. “Toast? How about some bacon and eggs?”
He looked surprised; the kid grin spread across his face: “Would you? That sounds so good.” She grinned back and got up from the table, heading for the stove. He raised his voice, talking to her back, “You know? That Chris? He went down to New York City and made himself some money.” He meant to be giving her his Dubya imitation. But she didn’t even turn her head, so he added: “Like he had a license to print it.” This time it was the blunt New-Yorky yuppie voice that came growling out of him. Hearing his own riff perked him up.
Nancy was at the stove. She pulled out a frying pan from inside the oven – funny place to store pots and pans – and set it on the burner.
“One or two eggs?” She glanced backward to him finally as she headed for the fridge.
“Two sounds great!” Her eyes sparkled back at him. She took out some eggs, a package of bacon, and a loaf of bread from the innards of the refrigerator, amazingly cluttered for a person living alone. “Hey, and you’re right about the MBA thing. You know about our little foodie group?” She didn’t seem to. “Well, anyway, we’ve been talking about starting up a restaurant somewhere in Manhattan.”
She turned right around and stared at him in surprise: “Really? Why didn’t you mention this?”
“Well, it’s not exactly the best time right now. An idea; it’s in the idea phase.” Pie-in-the-sky. Pie-in-the-sky.
She made a grunting sound, and then slipped the bacon and eggs on a plate, and came over. She set it down in front of him and then sat down herself. “None for you?” She just shook her head. He attacked it. She sat enjoying him eat like mothers do.
She got up and came back with a paper towel for him to wipe the trace of egg yolk off his chin. “I’ve got to open up the shop.” She glanced at her watch. “It’s nearly ten. There’ll be no business… as usual, but there’s stuff to sort. So what are you going to do with yourself?”
Whoa! But, no, she was talking about his day, not his life. He took a sip of coffee. He hadn’t exactly made any plans. He’d made no plans at all. Zero. He’d thought he’d be spending all his time with her. He blurted: “Drive? Somewhere?”
“Not the best idea in the world. The highways are clogged with leaf-peepers.”
“You could go with me?” He was ready to beg: Please? Please? Oh, come on! She shook her head. She knew those canopies of red and gold, walks in woods, kicking those thick beds of leaves, all yellow and brown, the smell of it all. But that was from years back, before the leaf-peepers. Chris would be creeping along, bumper-to-bumper, in worlds of exhaust fumes. “Why not?” he tried again. She picked up on that trace of a kid’s whine: Why, mommy, why not? She gave him a smirk, and then got up with the plate, and went to the kitchen sink. The faucet dripped. It had eaten the old white-enamel sink down to black; she didn’t mind, and no money to replace the sink anyway. She put the plate in the sink and turned on the tap.
It would be a glorious day. Maybe she should. The sun was edging off the sill now, but the light was intense, October crisp.
She came back to the table and sat down. She just shook her head again and waited. “Okay. I’ll head up toward the White Mountains. I love that car. Driving. Leaf-peepers, watch out!”
She laughed at the face he made for her then. He’d come down into the kitchen for breakfast with the face of a wet rat and look at him now. Life, funny ole thing, just had a way of working things through. Yup. The stream moved on. Human memory wasn’t worth much, more trash holding you back than anything. So now there he was. It perked her up to say: “I’ll drive down to the supermarket while you’re gone. You need me to cook for you.” He grinned that kid grin back at her again. So, he’d drive, he’d digest Adrian in Paris, and, fingers crossed, he’d go for that. “Don’t get your hopes up.” She was thinking to herself, of course, about Chris seizing the bait, the way out she was offering him. “Can’t do that new New-Yorky gourmet. Maybe a lil ole Julia Child? I’ll just see what I can find up here in the boonies.” She twitched her nose for him. He cracked up for her. And then she pulled an index card out of the pocket of her apron. “And here’s Adrian’s name and address, and this thing called an e-mail address.”
He stared at the sign and read it out loud to himself: The Flume. New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation.
All cars were stock still now. Okay, Nancy, okay. Not that she had had an alternative plan for “his day.”
Sitting there, the memories started rolling in.
He was a kid; summer vacation; there was that cream and pea-green car, and he was in the backseat. The Flume was a watery narrow chasm, made safe and accessible by wooden stairs, railings and ramps; all green moss and granite, and gurgling waterfall; he had stupidly worn his flip-flops and slipped a couple of times, but no damage; Mom had stayed in the car in her high-heeled Mary Janes, while Dad in tennis sneakers led the way – one of their few bonding moments, father and son. Nice.
The Flume was still there, still a New Hampshire landmark like The Old Man of the Mountain.
He zapped the car window down a crack, getting a whiff of exhaust from the car ahead but also rich leafy odors: sharp mountain oxygen, cool breeze. The red brake light went off on the car ahead. It inched forward only to flash red and stop again. He saw but hadn’t moved his own car. Now he did and then eased down on the brake, keeping safe bumper distance.
This was tedious.
He zapped the window down further and half stuck his head out the window, enough to get a look upwards at sky and woodland. Setting off the reds and golds and greens, the low, overcast sky had a white glare to it. He blinked up at it and pulled his head back in. The car ahead was beginning to move again, this time steadily, promising advance. Five miles an hour but moving. Why did he mind? He was in no hurry, still enjoying that behind-the-wheel control. Still, it would be nice to park somewhere, and walk and kick some leaves, and breathe in that earth-leaf mix of air that he knew was out there waiting.
A cousin in Paris. He tried to imagine what a cousin of his in Paris might look like: an Adrian. Not your typical family name, for starters. What side of the family was he from? He hadn’t asked her.
Did the gay thing make him nervous? No. Uncomfortable? Maybe? But really he was just unable to identify with the gay thing. But with this cousin thing, he was seriously curious now, the more he thought about it. He had never had any gay friends, let alone family members. Sandy? Plenty. He shrugged.
Again, what would he look like? He pictured a graying hippy. That was the age group this Adrian would belong to. But, no: hippy probably wasn’t Paris. Gray hair, for sure. Just long enough to wave, and a black turtleneck, black slacks. Or jeans? But that would be New York.
He had no clue. Why was he wasting his time? But then he saw that he assumed this Adrian was good-looking. Somehow. Something Nancy had said? No.
He would not have an Irish pug nose, though. Aquiline was what he pictured. Like he had. And maybe a bit of a paunch to make him human? It was Paris after all: Land of Foodie. He chuckled to himself.
Imagine eating at the source of foie gras. Whoa!
He realized then that he’d fucking made the decision to go.
And that made him feel crazy fantastic. He’d go. Why not? Why not?
He laughed out loud.
The sudden red flash of the brake lights ahead snapped him back to the present. He braked hard, just missing the guy’s bumper by an inch or so, but he had missed it. His upper lip went wet. He could see the guy eyeing him in his rear-view mirror. The woman beside him turned around to stare at Chris, like, what kind of fucking animal almost rammed us? Chris waved his hand and smiled. The woman snapped back around.
He loved the sound of himself laughing again in his empty car.
That’s when he noticed an opening to his left, off the highway’s soft shoulder. The car in front was inching forward again and then braked. He did the same. But now he could see the opening better: a path, double-rutted, probably for a tractor, that headed into the woods. He had to pee. Perfect timing.
There was another lurch of traffic. And there he was beside it. A swift turn of the wheel to his left. There ya go.
The fake Beemer darted into the rutted tracks of the trail, branches snapping against the left-hand mirror, passing a No Trespassing sign – too late! Rockin’ and rollin’ in the double ruts. Even with great suspension, the car was bucking, spewing gravel and dirt in its wake. In the rear-view mirror, the highway was gone. He must have veered right or left, he wasn’t sure which. His instinct was to pull over and park, but there was no pulling over. There was no over. The car filled the track up. He just stopped, turned the ignition off, pulled on the Gucci jacket, and opened the car door enough to slip out.
He was in a bower, which was the word that came to mind, a tunnel of spindly trees. Their coin-shaped leaves had turned a gleaming yellow. Despite the overcast sky they flushed everything around him with light. The car filled the space but he sidled along the car to a gap off the trail, maybe a footpath. His shoes kicked through the small serrated leaves on the ground, some brown, some still canary yellow; they rustled as he moved. It was rough, uneven but a definitely a footpath, something trodden enough to keep undergrowth clear. Human.
When the path veered, a glance back revealed no car visible. Scary. He stopped, alone in nothing but woods. Careful. Don’t get lost. He held his breath and listened. No highway, no human sounds. Twittering of birds against a constant rustle of leaves. He breathed again and sucked the rich mix of ozone and earth, bark, and damp leaves into his lungs. And then exhaled.
Gratitude. He felt it from head to toe. For this moment. For this spectacle of nature. For being alive. No strings attached. No god almighty to thank. With scarcely any wind, the twigs and branches whispered; golden flakes fluttered down around him, some catching on the chestnut leather of his shoulders, one or two in his hair. He left them; there would only be more. He didn’t care. Why care?
He started moving again; the leaves fluttered off his shoulders. His right foot stumbled on something dense, but it was no rock. He took a step back and looked down. His foot had uncovered some plump tan thing under the sparse top layer of leaves and on a thicker older part already blending with the soil. A closer look, and he jerked back in disgust. Something dead, a furry thing, half-gutted, decomposing with maggots wriggling, giving it fake life and movement: a squirrel? He’d fucking disturbed its burial place. He bent down again, though not crouching. He kept a repulsed but fascinated distance, clinical.
His own fate? Right there. Except he could be cremated, would be cremated. Definitely. He needed to have a will done. Mental note. Lawyers.
He switched gears. His mind had brushed against the edges of something. More than Seize the Day, live for the moment. Although, yes, that’s good. But, wait, an idea began forming again, an understanding, and this had him breathing more carefully as he tried to grab it, creep up on it, seize it. He was tingling just on the verge of… He was so close, so close to it. To knowing something about… Being alive in this place? Who he was, about his fears? So, so ridiculous. So ridiculous. Ridiculous fears.
But the moment had moved on, and the insight ready to crystalize? Lost. Melted away. Never had been now. Except for the thing about his fears. And just how ridiculous fears were. Yeah?
He almost caught it again. But no. Up in thin air. No thought any more at all.
He was left with a thud in his ears and mind: his heart beating. He looked down. The dead animal twitched. He recoiled.
Maggots were giving it life.
But dead? Being dead was not sleeping, no dreams crackling. It would not be silence either. It would be no him. No him. Nothing.
What was nothing?
He chuckled. Who was that existentialist guy? Sartre. Never had understood a word of him.
He straightened up.
One day someone would look down, see him, maybe find him like he had the squirrel, and… But there would be no him, no knowing. No he that could know anything.
Terror. His heart thumped hard. He nearly pissed himself.
Fuck! His bladder was ready to burst. He forced his prostate to hold it in. This is what had gotten him here in the first place; it was all just a backdrop for having a piss.
The edge of the Great Understanding vanished. He stepped away off the footpath into the brush – as if there was someone around to see his dick. He unzipped his fly and pulled it out. A gush of release: He splattered onto twigs and leaves and slender tree trunks. The sudden release became an explosion of pleasure, not at all sexual. He was an animal, a living thing pissing.
For an instant he was back in the physical moment of an animal pissing: no regrets, scheming, anger, recrimination, doubts about his future, no, despair about his future.
Whoa! Nope: He broke free of the future thing, wind in his sails, leaves rustling, splattering light all around him. Pissing became orgasm. A fucking bear in the woods. Where do bears shit?
He broke out laughing. Whoa! So was this Nancy’s reason for living way up here in the boonies? Okay, he got it. Urban Chris got it.
“Down to earth” sounded in his brain. It was back; he was right on the verge now, so close to catching hold of… And then: “Down to earth” sounded so fucking stupid.
He didn’t give a flying fuck.
He exhaled and sent a final long spurt of piss… A branch snapped.
Every muscle in his body went on alert, a twitch from head to toe. He reeled around toward the sound. Not ten feet behind him: a man in yellow oil skins half blending into the woods, and yet not. Hallucinating in a glare of the leaves? No. His heart beat wildly out of control; his head swam, because hanging down from a hand jutting from a sleeve at the man’s side was a rifle. He focused: He opened his mouth to yelp, and then shut it. The guy’s gear was a whole number, replete with floppy nor’easter hat: He stood there in a full-length slicker ready for a Maine nor’easter. He hadn’t seen an outfit like that since a kid. And then he noticed that the rifle was bent, uncocked. Harmless? At least for the moment. This guy, he was Marlboro Man weather-beaten. Not that old. Forty or something? The man glanced down at a bunch of leaves at his feet, gave them a kick, and shot a look back up to eye Chris squarely. “You’re trespassin’. Can’t ya read? That yaw cah down theya?” The reedy baritone menace was defused by the squawk of the familiar accent.
“Oh, sorry about that.” A totally dumb thing to say, but too late.
“Oh, New Yawk!” He spat it out of the side of his mouth. The man took a step back to appraise Chris better. “Figures. Youse guys think ya run the country.” A sharp rush of pride at the label New Yorker, until the man put his free hand over the rifle and cocked it. His grin widened as he saw sudden panic twist Chris’s face. The wind rustled the leaves. He lowered the barrel slowly until it pointed back down at the ground. “Think ya better turn ‘round get goin’ oudda here.”
“Yes, sir. My mistake. Really. Really sorry.” Chris saw the man’s mood shift yet again. His free hand reached up now slowly – Chris froze – and he pulled his hat off. The man was balding; the hair that was left was trimmed short, salt and pepper. “This is…” Chris cut to look around so that he would be emphasizing what he was going to say next. “This is such a beautiful spot you got here.”
“Not ya Central Pahk, is it?” A hoot, and then he gave his slicker hat a slap against his thigh. “The state pahk is a mile down the road. You can get out and walk around down there. It’s public land. This is my land.” Funny. His tone, his accent shifted to standard American. The man was doing a number, marking his territory.
“Lots of traffic.”
“Yup. Always is this time of year. Thought my trees needed a bit of watering, did ya?” The laugh that followed then was so coarse it was obscene. Chris felt the flush in his cheeks. Was the guy eyeing his crotch? A glance down showed his dick out and limp. “Yeah,” he tucked his dick in, zipped up his fly, and flashed the man a grin back. The dueling banjos from Deliverance played in his head: Men could get raped. Except the guy must have broken the branch on the ground as a signal to him. Who knew how long he’d been watching him though? His outfit was total camouflage in yellow-leafed woods like this. “Well, not much harm done there. But you’re one of them New York commies think they own the world, can go anywhere they please. But, man, this is mine. I’m a Republican. I believe in private property. So walk back to your car and back up oudda here. Rental car, looks like, so watch out you don’t scrape it or you’ll be surprised at what they’ll charge ya. Rent it up here?” Chris flushed with relief. Get the fuck out of here, his mind yelled at him.
He shot the guy a friendly grin: “No, Boston. Logan.” The man nodded and then shrugged. “By the way, hey, I’m Republican too.”
“You?” The man squinted at him before he burst out laughing. “I’ll let you go now.” He raised his rifle. Fuck: He could put him under a citizen’s arrest. Cop on his own property. Live Free or Die was on all New Hampshire license plates. It took on fresh meaning. “Have a nice day,” the man chuckled at his own words, shaking his head, as he turned and headed off into the brush. Chris bolted back to the car. The guy would be following a path through the trees that only he knew, one that would let him shadow him, stalk him, making sure he left, probably. But he didn’t turn to check.
Inside the car, he locked the doors, turned the ignition, and put the car into reverse. He had to twist around to see through the back window and slowly inch backwards to the road.
That was when it hit him. He could put on a fucking No Fear tee shirt but… Zen moment?
He backed straight out to the highway and reversed onto the soft shoulder. There was still traffic, but no jam now. Cars were moving at around 35, but without the stop and start. He waited for a space and darted out, and, rear wheels spinning in the sandy dirt, he slipped into place. He gave a good-citizen wave to the driver who’d let him in. Grateful, cowed and grateful to be alive. He was driving. Where? The Flume? Did he have time?
The traffic was heavy but moving. He checked his Rolex. He’d forgotten about lunch. Bacon and eggs were digested. He felt hollow.
“Was that wild or what?” This was the spin he would put on it all. Hey, this dude all canary yellow from head to toe in a nor’easter, oilskin slicker… Chris bounced his hands on the steering wheel now as if to a beat; there was no music on. He moved to put some on and then thought better of it.
No, nobody, even Nancy, would believe him. It was just way too good. He burst out laughing again. Would he or wouldn’t he tell her?
And then slowly the yellow figure dimmed, receded, and became more and more comic strip. Like one of those characters out of Twin Peaks? Scary grotesque. Ridiculous. But personally? For him? Harmless, and fucking entertaining, the more he thought about it.
Bam-dadee-bam: His palms danced on the steering wheel. His nerves tingled. When he whacked the fucking tennis ball just out of reach, and his opponent staggering, that’s sort of how he felt. But maybe he just needed to put food into him. Still, fearless, man. Victory.
Nancy would so love his adventure with the “natives.” And she could talk about Republicans. So cool.
Europe. A song? Adrian in Paris?
He chuckled as he turned on the radio.
“Saturday is Seventies Night.” The Limelight was always their favorite place to go dancing. For starters, because they could just walk there. Sandy had saved the flyer and taped it to the bathroom mirror.
“Let’s go home,” she mouthed against the bass boom. The lights had just finished strobing the dance floor: pure retro. Was she asking him if he was John Travolta? He grinned back. He slowed down and felt dizzy for a sec. She had stopped dancing and was standing stock still in front of him. She was an island in a high-seas of waving arms. He shook his head, “What?” and grinned. He did some quick footwork. He echoed the beat with his arms, and then reached out to grab her and get that top inside her spinning again. She backed off. “Oh come on,” he mouthed. She had dressed so perfectly for going out. How many women in their late thirties could wear a mini hanging around the hips (no navel piercing) and a stringy halter-top? “Why?” She shook her head. She turned away to carve a path off the dance floor. He stopped moving. Suddenly he was gasping to catch his breath, his heart beating wildly against his rib cage; sweat erupted everywhere. Adrenalin was a funny chemical. He caught his breath and followed in her wake.
They emerged from the pack on the dance floor. She spotted an empty space at the back-end corner of the bar and aimed for it. She slumped down on the bleacher and looked up at him: “Sorry. I know you were into it.” He stood shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Bouncing.
“You look so great.” He heard himself whining like a kid and laughed. A waiter came up behind him. He thought of Nancy and Cosmos. “Let’s do Cosmos?” Sandy shook her head up at him. “Come on. Two Rolling Rocks then.” And the bartender was off. “You gotta be thirsty.”
She nodded her okay. “Whatever happened to Perrier?” The corners of his mouth started to droop at her. “Sorry. Sorry. I’m being a bitch.” She blew a kiss up to him to make it all better.
“Rolling Rock is sort of like water for a beer.”
She laughed at the foodie talking. “I just suddenly felt so stupid there dancing in the middle of all those kids.” He slipped in beside her on the bleacher.
“But you looked so great.” The waiter was towering over them, two beers on a round tray. Chris handed him a ten and took the beers. She took hers mechanically as she looked out over the club: an old church. The Christian Right hadn’t seized New York; churches weren’t in demand, no reconsecrations in the offing. The thrill of dancing in forbidden space was long gone, though. The concept was so, well, seventies, eighties. No, she did not like retro, either concept space or music. She felt stupid in the outfit she’d put together from the back of the closet. She didn’t want any reruns.
And then the beer was in her hand. She took a long sip: Nice! It was refreshing. She liked her water with a beery taste: perfect after all that dancing. She grinned: “You were right.” He toasted before downing half the bottle. He stuck out his tongue at her, and then smacked his lips. She laughed at him. She’d so missed this dude. There he was. Dressed from head to toe in black, he was rangy, stunning, and her guy.
Two yellow cabs pulled up one after the other as they stepped out of the Limelight. He put his arm around her shoulder and moved them down the block to the crosswalk. Three a.m. and Sixth Avenue had traffic like mid-day. He loved it, loved Manhattan. No New Hampshire leaves blowing, but there was a crisp breeze that dried the sweat but not his clothes. It got him shivering. Sandy had on a coat to her ankles and her collar up around her ears, but he had thought it cool to just wear a black leather blazer. His cheekbone muscles flexed from the cold. Sandy gave them a cat lick and pressed close to him for warmth, her arm around his waist. The shivering subsided. They arrived at the intersection and stopped for the light to cross. He gave her a kiss back on the cheek.
Peering down the avenue, he could make out the lights of the Village, even Balducci’s awning, if he squinted. That classic Manhattan steam rose up from manholes. Taxi horns bleated. A group of five gays in black leather motorcycle gear were waiting in a cluster on the other side of the avenue: typical Saturday night.
The light went Walk. They met in the middle and passed them. Except for one guy, around forty, the one in full black leather gear. He slowed as he eyed Chris and nodded, but no eye contact. And then he caught up with his friends. So, was this an appreciative nod for the black leather of his blazer? Chris’s protective strategy was always to ignore. So, cool. Whatever. Sandy snuggled up to him. Nice, but he didn’t need her protection. You dealt with gays on a daily basis in Manhattan; it was part of the territory.
Loud and clear from the other side of the avenue: “…I still say fucking Giuliani.”Chris stopped dead in the crosswalk at that. Giuliani at Ground Zero? Giuliani who had turned the city from a rat hole of muggers into this, his New York? He weighed turning and going after the guy, punching his fucking lights out. Too late, because which one of them was it? Sandy pulled at him like a barking dog on a leash, throwing him off-balance. He stumbled and met her grin. She was laughing at him.
And then they landed safely on the other side of the street. “Gay men make you nervous?”
“No. You know that.” He was pure cool: “Fuck.” He drawled the word out.
“Oh really? So what was that all about?”
“I love Giuliani, that’s all.”
She laughed and slid her hand down to his butt. “Then you still want it?”
“What? I definitely still want it.” He tilted her face up by the chin like those kissing scenes from old movies. His free hand circled her waist and pulled tight. Both her hands were now on his butt.
“You do.” He was hard through her coat. The point of her tongue caught him by surprise then. He could have fucked her right there on the corner. “Okay,” she pushed the palm of her hand against the leather, backing off. She turned in the direction of the loft.
She held his hand as they walked home. He gave it a squeeze: “Baby, baby!” The start of the song. Diana Ross. “Where has our love gone?”
Chris led Sandy to perform the ritual. They bought the Sunday Times at the twenty-four-hour Korean produce stand on the corner before going on home. Life was good.
* * *
She held her breath to listen. There was only the white noise of the twenty-four-hour machine that was New York City. She strained her ears for a second more – and then let her breath go. What had made her wake up from the pregnancy dream then? Her hand reached for her stomach. Dreams could often be thick and pasty things, hard to wake up from; this pregnancy one was one of those that lingered.
She opened her eyes.
There was a red point of light from the red numbers of an old digital clock. Otherwise, the bedroom in the back of the loft was pitch-black. There was one tall window, but its vermillion blinds were pulled tightly shut, and anyway it gave onto a fire escape and the back of another building.
Her head and shoulders sank into the bed and the pillow. She nudged the duvet up under her chin for comforting, and then turned her face toward the tousled back of his head and heard the noise again. It had been Chris. And there it was again: a little snort, just a step away from a snore. Funny, he never snored. This was new.
New didn’t mean bad necessarily. The Chris she loved did that sort of thing, reinvented himself, moved on. The one who had started hanging out day and night in the loft, mostly wordless, a presence that cooked dinner? That was not him. It was not good, not that she’d stopped loving him because of it all. He was just painful to live with, tiptoeing with things you said, in bed at night with his body retreating in fetal position and pretending sleep to avoid sex, which was a total freak out when it first happened.
The New Hampshire break had put an end to all that. Certainly that problem-in-bed thing. She breathed in the scent of his hair. His body was still all over her, the heat of him. That cinnamon redhead thing she supposed they shared but that she had discovered with him. Another hook. My guy.
He’d called her from the Boston airport as he’d waited for the shuttle. His voice had blasted out of the phone at her. She’d heard Millennium Man. He was back, as if nothing had ever squelched him. He’d be there in time for dinner. Okay. She’d gone downstairs. Saturday night? For anybody else? Yes, she just smiled back. A table was set up for them at Union Square Café.
Which is where he had announced it all and which explained why Millennium Man was sitting across from her, so gorgeous, her guy back. He hadn’t bothered to unpack. Gone straight to dinner. He’d been bursting with something that he’d only tell her about at diner. Thank you, Nancy, for the Europe plan and a mystery gay cousin in Paris. Mysterious Nancy. Mysterious. All his past was, his family, his Boston.
Chris had brushed over the gay part. No surprise there. In her business she had plenty of them coming and going in the loft. He would just make himself scarce. She found that cute about him. No, she found that hot about him: an American hunk thing. There were men she’d dated who’d gotten into the attention. She didn’t do fag hag, but in New York it was easy to find yourself a prop for guys making up their minds. And then she’d met Chris.
He’d finished by asking her to go to Europe with him. Europe. Like it was one place. She had pictured him starting with London because of the language, the cultural affinity. If he went on his own. Which he would have to.
It was tempting: a pub lunch together, walking hand-in-hand down the Boulevard Saint Germain? She was glad he’d asked. “I’ll talk to Betsy.” She already knew the answer.
What had his Nancy thought, she wondered. Had she had been included as part of the plan? Of course not. This was how the element of the Paris cousin played into it. This was a journey Chris should make on his own. His Nancy was right. She wasn’t going to take it personally.
Last year they’d gone to Egypt together. A tour organized through the Met. Cairo/Luxor. Neither of them had ever been to Egypt. Europe would be a very different kettle of fish.
* * *
Leaning against the counter top, Sandy could clearly see the look on his face even though buried in the Sunday Times. She took her coffee mug in both hands and sipped. He didn’t even acknowledge she was there? She hadn’t told him that she needed to stay for Betsy, that he’d be better off meeting the cousin on his own. Not yet. And for sure not now.
Chris had woken up and sat bolt upright. It had woken her, but she pretended sleep. The old Chris would have yawned and grinned, and grabbed her for a bit of wrestling, waking her without a second thought. Instead, he had slipped out from under the duvet carefully so as not to disturb her. Out of a half-shut eye she’d watched him throw on sweatshirt and pants, and shoot out of the bedroom. She had lain there undecided what to do next, but it had been like she wasn’t even in the loft. She had heard him flick on the stereo to fill the space as if empty, WQXR, an announcement of a kind, because he normally would have surfed for disco, keeping up the Limelight vibe.
She could just slip over now and switch off this Brahms-sounding thing, a nice enough quartet, and find disco, or some jazz, rock, anything else. But the piece reached crescendo then was over. Her composer guess was confirmed by a male voice with that upper-class Manhattan accent that was near extinct except for Aunt Agnes, who still lived in Sutton Place. Not that Aunt Agnes was that talkative; she had a live-in companion Martha who mixed her daily dry martini straight up. Olive or twist or onion in that lockjaw accent, it didn’t matter, Cole Porter lived.
Liebestod. Oh fuck, it was too late. The tragic chords came right on the announcer’s words. The loft pulsed with it.
“I hate brunch,” she yelled across the room, her voice rising over the music as if proclaiming a religious tenet, “but we could go out to brunch.” As if he was already fighting the idea: “Why not?”
He shot a startled look over at her before turning back to the paper.
Actually this was not so stupid. When they’d first met, he had been a big brunch-lover, but that was when he was still green to the city.
The music continued, unbearably pushing love and death.
She’d seen him a lot worse before New Hampshire: sullen, taciturn or seething with anger. Could be he was communicating here, maybe establishing the idea of Europe with this music.
With another sip, her options clarified. She moved around the Altar of Food, the stagey platform, designed by the original inhabitants, where the dining table stood. If he looked up, he’d see her playing at tiptoeing, stalking him like prey: He had a thing for the National Geographic channel. But no looking up from the paper. She reached the remote and zapped off the music. No reaction. She glided in on him then, getting as close as she could without falling over the couch on top of him. “Brunch, anyone?”
No surprise, no shock: He just looked up at her, eyes glazed, that old anxiety coursing underneath it.
“You hate brunch.” His voice was shaky; she’d totally misjudged everything.
“Hey, you’re back,” she lied brightly. She crushed the paper down onto his lap. “You…”
“Bad dreams. Bad dreams again.” Desperation flashed, and then the eyes did that cold thing that cut dead her gush of maternal sympathy. He pulled the crushed newspaper up and smoothed it open to read again. She straightened and took a sip from her mug. Fuck this! She grabbed and rustled the paper with her left hand. He jerked his head up at her. Instead of anger or annoyance, it was that needy look. So now she could gently stroke his hair. “Europe solves nothing.” His eyes went back to the paper.
“Hey! Think of the mystery cousin in Paris to check out.”
“Yeah,” he tilted his head up again. “The gay one. You’re going to come with me as protection?” A sour little chuckle followed. That was good.
“Hey, don’t forget to call Tim Manx?” She always said his name in full, running it together as if it were the name of a sports car. “You know he really seemed kind of shocked that you’d gone off to New Hampshire without telling him. Maybe he’s got some news about the restaurant thing?”
Chris froze, “Oh, did you tell me he called?” She nodded when he looked up. “Forgot. Anyway,” he went back to the Times. “He doesn’t have any real news. He’d have told you. He’s just keeping tabs.”
Time to back off. She moved off toward the kitchen, “Why would he have told me anything? This is a guy thing between you. How do you know there’s nothing?”
“Okay,” he groaned. “So where do you want to do brunch?” She didn’t dare turn around or answer. She stood stock-still and hoped the foodie would come up with a suggestion. “We could go to Chinatown,” his voice lifted slightly, “dim sum?” The spark ignited. It was safe to turn around.
“Hey, we haven’t been to Chinatown in years.”
* * *
A space as vast as a warehouse, tables spaced close together like sewing machines in a Guangdong sweatshop, the walk-up dim-sum place illuminated its plates of food with the aggressive fluorescence of a science fair. No cozy corners or trendy lighting meant to seduce. Harsh, he’d thought as they’d stepped in and wended their way to an empty table. Harsh, like shock therapy for the palate soon to be stimulated: Look on the bright side.
In the clamor of the restaurant, five carts had circulated around them with various dim sums. He had felt on the cusp of a headache. The noises of city traffic when they’d stepped out of the loft, then hailed a taxi on Fifth – all stuff that used to make his heart sing, “New York, New York” – had cut two ways: He already considered himself no longer in that “make it there” loop. But then it being Sunday, the city full of bridge-and-tunnel people, and not a workday, he’d soaked in the different vibe and chilled. And so far, so good: He hadn’t run into anybody he knew, they knew.
Sandy watched him sit back looking contentedly stuffed. The pictures of the various flavors and textures were a memory all over his face. Paris would do the same for him; he didn’t need her. She was about to say as much, but stopped in time.
Instead, she craned her neck to catch what was on the trolley passing one table away. Round tables of Chinese families, with Lazy Susans in their center, interspersed with tables for four, mostly foreign-devils like them, all loudly called out in throaty Cantonese, she assumed, waving at cart-ladies, talking among themselves as animatedly as beer-hall drunks. She could see they reveled in the din. Sandy had to lean forward so she could hear him say, “How could you still be hungry?” He sat back, expecting no answer. He’d seen her looking. She decided it was praise for her appetite.
She pointed with her head: “Have you ever seen that one before? Come on. Gotta try it.” Her arm shot up. In seconds the trolley was there; the plump woman, all white apron and skin as ageless as an egg, slapped a small white plate of the mystery dim sum down and was off again. From experience they both knew it was pointless to ask her what it was. You ate here without menu translations.
Chris examined it from afar, and then gave it a final, evaluating squint: “I bet its stuffed chicken feet.”
“Haha! Okay, Groucho. You can’t stuff chicken feet.” She picked one of them up with her chopsticks, eyed it appreciatively, and put it in her mouth. Her chewing was meticulous, and then she swallowed. She flashed him her verdict: “Crispy. Spicy. Whoa. Very spicy.” A hand reached out spastically for a sip of jasmine tea. He stifled a grin as her face reddened; a single tear trickled down her right cheek. He leaned forward and wiped it with his thumb. She cleared her throat and grinned back. “That was sweet. You can do that again.”
“Okay, you’ve proved your macho. Don’t eat the rest of them. You’d never survive the ambulance wait.” She shrugged in defeat. “Get the check?” She nodded, but she had to take a final nibble, followed quickly by a slurp of tea.
“Well! That was interesting.” She stared down at her plate. “I wonder what it was.”
His hand shot up and twisted around in the air, while he looked at her plate. “Fish or fowl? I should try it, I guess – but I’ll pass.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a young Chinese guy in white shirt and white pants catch sight of the hand, and head their way. Chris leaned back with the satisfaction of a command filled, then looked up casually as the guy arrived: “The check.” The kid was skinny as a wishbone. He blinked to encode the order in his brain, and then repeated the word “check” as a question. A glance at the plates on the table, and he scribbled quickly. He slapped the bill down on the table. “Wait!” Chris had his wallet out before the guy could dash off.
Sandy smiled: “I see trader smarts at work.” He saw what she saw: men bellowing and waving arms in a trading pit. The reality had been monitor screens lit up like Times Square, numbers jinking red, green, and blue, and teeth grinding in tension, and – yeah – some yelping, lots of swearing.
The noise level in the restaurant peaked to irritation level again. She had that “my guy” look on her face. “Let’s get out of here before we go deaf?” He stood up and the chair squeaked against the tile. She blotted her mouth with the paper napkin she’d finger-nailed out of the metal dispenser, and then slid her chair smoothly backwards. She rose from her chair like a finishing-school princess. In his head he heard her say: “Finishing schools no longer exist. They were for nitwits back in the fifties. Please don’t insult me.” He had wanted to know what the hell Chapin was, but knew her answer already: a private Upper East Side school. He’d learned never to use the term again. What did he know? He couldn’t even begin to imagine what it really must have been like growing up on Park Avenue.
They headed toward the door, picking their way between tables and trolleys; he put his arm around her shoulder. She stopped short before the exit, blocking traffic; she beamed her eyes up at him, playing little girl gazing up. There was a two-inch gap between their heights. She leaned into him and gave him a kiss behind his earlobe for the whole world to see.
But the world was not amused. He could hear a throat clear loudly behind them. “Hey, Chris, my main man!” Their exit was now blocked: The doorway was filled with the linebacker frame of Tony Morgan. Notre Dame was written in bold all over him as ever, but something was off. Chris didn’t need to see this guy right now, but that wasn’t it. The guy who’d been doing the loud throat clearing now maneuvered a stumpy girl in a Burberry trench coat past them and headed toward the barrier that was Tony. The girl’s Italian/Jewish nose was a prow ready to confront Tony. He caved and made way. Spreading across his face was the same shit-eating grin he’d had on his face when he’d proposed the North Fork Fund to Chris. What was missing today was the coke-sharp dealmaker eye.
And then there it was: a small gold cross hanging down from Tony’s crew-neck, hanging outside, like high school girls did. Right behind him was a girl with mouse-brown hair pinned up in a bun, dressed in plaid skirt and this Peter-Pan collar white blouse: He was with her? She was something time-warped out of the fifties, a small gold cross hanging around her neck too. She looked at him expectantly as if she knew who he was.
And then every Szechuan pepper he’d just eaten suddenly attacked his stomach and moved up toward his throat. His brain knew this was a stupid over-reaction, but his body didn’t. Partly, Tony was North Fork in his face but also a reminder of the day they both had walked. Last he’d looked, the Fund was bucking the market, as a hedge fund should – duh!
“This must be the famous Sandy,” Tony reclaimed the doorway. Chris swallowed hard; the acid reflux receded. He shot him a dude grin and nodded. Sandy put her arm around his waist and smiled toward Tony. Instead of his usual shoot to the tits, Tony was on his best behavior, his eyes never leaving her smile.
“We gotta do lunch. Next week? Definitely next week.” Why definitely? The alarm went off again; the acid shot back up. “I know I got your number in my BlackBerry. Seriously. Tomorrow even? I’ll call you later, guy.” The pressure was again building for customers to exit. Tony woke to this and surprisingly leaped aside deferentially to let people pass. This was not Tony.
Chris saw his chance. He maneuvered Sandy through the gap in fast exit mode. “Right. Catch you later, Tony.” He didn’t look back. They clattered down the wooden stairs. His hand was around her shoulder, steering her.
“Let up! Who the hell was that?” Sandy turned midway in the staircase, but he kept going. And then she felt she was an obstruction and creating a scene. People clattering up and down the stairs stared at her, some annoyed, some wary of her.
The minute she landed at the bottom of the stairs, he put his arm around her shoulder again. “That was Tony. We used to work together. Pink-slipped the day I was.” He would not mention North Fork. Sandy knew about the hedge, of course, but he didn’t think it wise to link all that with the Tony she had just seen. “Did you see that cross? Are there born-again types down on Wall Street these days?”
He grimaced back. What could he say? “Can’t figure. He’s a Catholic. Notre Dame. His uncle’s a fucking priest or something. Bet she keeps him away from the coke dealer.”
For a year after his lay-off, his dad had been active in the Knights of Columbus. He’d gone to Sunday mass. His mother, never. Religion was just stuff you had to do did. First Communion was one; he had gone to Sunday school for a year for that. Afterwards, nobody told him to continue. His dad traded in the Knights for Saturday nights at the Shamrock Bar and Grill. He remembered in the Eighties when the loony-bin in the sailor suit had come on TV – he couldn’t think of his name or the show’s name – but, yeah, the wife: Tammy-Faye. Who could forget that retro-retro make-up? Those eyelashes! His mom would catch it channel surfing, laugh her head off watching for, like, five minutes, then zap forward or back. Religion: weird.
Outside together, the sidewalk was thronged. It was a narrow Chinatown street. He could always find the street but no idea what its name was. They needed to move. He barged forward with her, not caring that they were forcing people off the curb. He could see Canal Street ahead. Cabs.
She snuggled her head against his shoulder as they walked. “These are weird times,” she was looking up at him with that little girl look he loved.
At Canal, she bolted away from him, “Taxi!” In the next minute the yellow cab her New York hawk eye had spied braked to the curb in front of them.
She waited for him to open the door for her.
Mario’s had weathered the Lower Manhattan shut down after 9/11, and, when Wall Street reopened for business, the mostly male crowd was back for the Happy Hour beers. There was a special on Cosmos for the ladies, though there were few of those. Bonuses had hit their accounts two weeks earlier; it was a smug crowd, tame compared to bonus week though. There was a DJ who knew his Masters-of-the-Universe lounge sound, putting a thump-thumpity floor under traders needing to unwind a bit. It was good. Life was good. The market had snapped back. Tony Morgan had inherited the station next to his when Scott Rose was promoted upstairs. Jock talk wasn’t Chris’s thing, but he could do the jive, Tony’s jive. And what Tony then said was true.
“Us Catholic-school boys gotta stick together; the Jew boys do.” For some reason his eyes had softened into something like awe. The remark was not anti-Semitic; it was pure admiration. He’d probably had half a pitcher of beer too, but Tony held his booze well, so it wasn’t that kind of glaze in his eye. Then all had been explained: “Like Ed. Roomed with this guy named Ed Tobin in South Bend. Nice guy; total nerd. The guy’s brain ran algorithms around most of the econ profs, even back then. He segued to MIT, helped invent a couple of derivatives. Now he runs a fucking hedge fund.”
“Oh?” Ordinary guys like Chris couldn’t even think to bank it in a hedge without an intro; he had been very interested.
“The fund’s his, so he let me in.” He’d paused a sec for Chris to show awe. “It was fucking amazing how North Fork rode out the crash after 9/11. And now…” he’d whistled and then grinned. Before finishing his glass, he’d given Chris’s a clink: “Here’s to that yacht in the Caymans!”
For a sec he thought maybe Tony had bought one, a yacht moored in the Caymans, but, no, he was toasting the future, toasting banking it and retiring from the Street early, and starting a new life. “He’s that good?” There had been no reason not play along with Tony.
“As they say: I kid you not. Look, man, we can’t be doing this shit forever!”
Of course he’d known that: burnout, because it was a young dudes game. “I know. I’m bucking for a move upstairs like Scott. I love the biz.”
“Oh?” Tony had looked flabbergasted at first, and then came the belly laugh. “Right. Well, some are in it for the long term. Me? I’m definitely short. Can’t wait. So let’s say a prayer for Ed.” He’d finished his glass and refilled it from the pitcher.
“I’d love to get in on a hedge fund myself. I’m not stupid.” Who wouldn’t? He planned to grow up to be another Bill MacAfee, Sandy’s dad, or as close to it as he could be without deep roots of old money.
“Glad to hear that, Chris boy. Well, just say the word. Like I said: The guy’s genius.”
* * *
He rolled over under the new, trendy duvet Sandy had bought to celebrate his move-in and touched on the warm spot she had left. Monday mornings was when the full hopelessness of his situation hit. If he didn’t get up, panic would then set in. He knew the pattern well. And he knew it was pathetic, the fact that he only knew how to work and strive for the goal, that he couldn’t get off on the idea of vacation time.
Nancy at one point had asked him if he’d applied for Unemployment: “You gotta show up every other week or something at the unemployment place. That’ll give you some structure.” Then she’d burst out laughing, of course, as he’d risen to the bait, hotting up to proclaim his values. Him, Unemployment? Gotta be joking. He didn’t need any fucking welfare money. That got him sitting straight up in bed now from just remembering. The duvet covers slipped off and his skin was exposed to the autumn cool in the loft. The heat hadn’t gone on in the building yet. They both slept naked.
What were the odds that Sandy would come home and announce that, yup, she could go to Europe with him? That Betsy was all right with it?
His bare feet hit the floor, and he was up. He pulled his bathrobe on and padded out of the walled enclave of the bedroom into the kitchen area. He flicked on the espresso machine, and then went to the fridge for the coffee and milk. The next step was to put the computer on and then pour a glass of juice, passion fruit, something new Sandy had found in the supermarket while he was at Nancy’s. He normally did all the shopping now and the cooking had always been his domain on weekends. What was John Lennon’s title? Househusband.
Juice gulped down, he steered himself and his mug of cappuccino over to the computer, and sat down. No mail just spam. He clicked into the web, and the New York Times came up. He took a sip as his eyes were pulled into episodes in the continuing build-up of the war on terror. He carefully avoided the part of the page with the Dow. He read, anger building and subsiding, only to be replaced by apprehension, then a hopeless feeling that had no specific object. He took a last sip from his mug and escaped from news, scrolling down to the food section to see if there were any fun ideas for dinner but found nothing new.
Lately around this point in his morning read, he’d give in to temptation and click on the latest Survivalist site. Survivalist sites had been, like, his porn.
Waco. Ruby Ridge. He vaguely remembered the standoff at Waco, but he had to research Ruby Ridge… He skipped over the stuff on guns and hit a piece on the Patriot Act. As he read, he could hear Nancy’s voice slamming it. Nice. He chuckled.
A chill ran up him from his bare feet on the floor, signaling it was time to get out of bathrobe mode and into the shower, and then into clothes. He wasn’t sick, for fuck’s sake.
When he opened the closet to hang up his robe, on the floor his tennis racket lay balanced on its rim against the back wall and mocked him from the gloom.
He could still smell her perfume in the bathroom as he reached into the stall to put on the shower. He guessed it was around eleven at this point, and then confirmed this with his watch, which he took off and set on the edge of the sink. This all had become ritual; it was calculated, always identical in the progression of steps and their elaboration, like a Mass without a God to appease.
When the spray blasted out, still the right temperature from Sandy’s shower, he could not imagine, just couldn’t, going to Europe without her. He pulled the curtain aside, stepped in, and was nano-seconds from the gush hitting his head and shoulders when the loft phone rang. Shit, it might be a headhunter; he was listed with ten of them. He’d given his cell and the loft phone numbers. He shut the shower off, and streaked out of the bathroom and across the floor of the loft to the phone. The computer was whirring away in the corner. “Hello?” Fuck! He should be answering at this hour by giving his name, business-mode.
“Main man!” His heart plummeted as his skin registered the cold of standing naked in the middle of this immense space: twelve-foot ceilings, the Altar of Food with its green glass dining table that could seat twelve and, filling up one whole wall, the bank of massive loft-height, loft-width windows. He was vulnerable and ridiculous. And then came panic about the hedge fund. How the fuck had Tony gotten the loft phone number? He was sure they’d all just done cells. “Hey, Tony. What’s up? Any job leads?” There couldn’t be. Market had just started really tumbling big time. He should have checked the Dow this morning already, even if it was no reliable measure of the health of the hedge. Tony was calling with some bad insider news.
“Hey, not yet.” He exploded in a guffaw. “You aren’t down about that, are you? Bored with your vacation already?” Tony mocked him.
“I’m not in the best of moods.” He took a moment’s pride in his quick ability to understate, “How come you’re so up?” He was now getting goose flesh; his gut had stopped churning though.
“Let’s have lunch. We should talk.”
Talk? About what? He panicked back to the hedge fund; he panicked on the word “should.” “Is something wrong? With North Fork?”
“Did I say that, man? Guy, I just want to talk. It’s been a while.”
“Oh, yeah.” “Just talk” about what? They weren’t buddies like that. He put on his most skeptical voice: “Lunch?”
“Aren’t there tons of those publishing-world lunch places around you?” Tony was in full ripping gonzo.
“Yeah, but I bet they gotta be all booked at this point. You can’t just walk in off the street.” He didn’t know that. He was jockeying from one foot to another now, trying to get the blood circulating for warmth.
“Just happens… I’m in your neighborhood and I’m standing right in front of this… this Southwest cuisine place, so it says?” Oh, shit, the neighborhood! Would he expect Chris to invite him up? “Why don’t I just walk in right now and see. Twelve-thirty sound good?”
“Oh, yeah, I guess.” Blurt. Too late now to shut his trap. Fuck!
“Just a sec,” snapped Tony. Chris glanced at his watch, but there was none. He pictured it on the edge of the bathroom sink. With no clock within eyeshot, he began to walk with the phone back into the bathroom. And then he spotted the red digital glow of the oven timer: 11:16. He fucking could make it easily. Jaws of the trap clanged shut on him. Fuck, fuck! He was now seriously shivering as he heard the scratchy noises, traffic, and then the restaurant, on Tony’s cell. Tony had to be talking about Mesa Grill. Exactly three blocks away.
“Hey, man,” Tony was back, “I’ve done it. Ha, ha! Everyone’s gotten hit, man! Plenty of tables, I’d say. So, no problemo at all-o. Table for two. Twelve-thirty. What’s the name of this place…? Yeah, Mesa Grill. You know it?”
“Yeah. Great place. I would never have… Hey look, Tony, I gotta run. I was just getting into the shower. Fucking freezing here.”
“Right! Thought you might invite me up first. But, hey, don’t stand there drippin’.” The guffaw was short this time. “See you: twelve-thirty.” He clicked off.
Chris played with the dead phone in his hand for a second, toying with throwing it against the wall but then went over and put it back in its charger. A couple of deep breaths, and then exhale in his time-honored recipe for cooling-it. He stopped shivering as he headed toward the bathroom. How had Tony gotten his fucking home phone number? Because it was Sandy’s number, listed under her name. The BlackBerry remark from Tony: Had he also given her Sandy’s number beside his cell? They’d exchanged numbers, counting on Tony to keep insider tabs on the hedge and to network about job openings.
And then he remembered. He’d included Sandy’s number, because he’d just moved in, was doing that with everybody. Reflex. Dumb.
He didn’t want to hang out with this guy now.
He turned the shower on. He wanted to slap himself real hard.
* * *
At Sixteenth and Fifth, he shielded his eye for a second to check the color of the light, because the sun was blisteringly crisp, high, and white. People were waiting, thronged alongside him. The yellow of the cabs, the reds and blues and greens of awnings, it was all so stark it hurt his eyes.
And then it was that Technicolor fall day more than a year ago, when the entire planet had tuned in, blinking that it must all be a Hollywood stunt, so unreal and happening only a few blocks away from the trading room. After passing the police and fire lines, he’d ambled home, never even remotely in the path of the famous dust devil rushing up from the bottom of this island. He’d lied to Nancy. No, in those days he’d still been Lucky Chris. Shit didn’t happen to Lucky Chris. He had pushed the freight elevator door open into the loft, and found Sandy with cellphone in one hand and landline in the other, punching in numbers, getting nothing. He’d watched her convulsing, like, in slow motion for the split second when her eye took in the sight of him, her face draining of blood. He had run to her, because she’d looked like she might fall. He’d caught her in his arms just in time as the first sobs ripped from her throat and then pulled her so tight, so tight to himself that her trembling got him trembling. He’d never been scared for himself.
The crowd at the Eighteenth-Street curb bounded forth like whippets: Green Man! He was practically carried across the street. But at the opposite corner he had to stand again, bucking the tide, as he waited to make the right angle to cross Fifth. This time, with the sun over his shoulder, he could see the color of this light clearly. He glanced across the street and down the block, and spotted Mesa Grill. Bobby Flay, celebrity chef stuff? Nope. He really liked the food. For that, he couldn’t wait. But buddies having lunch together – as if Tony and he were buddies? That was a step too far. Still, the eating… His mouth actually was watering.
Almost there. He slowed and checked his watch. He was going to be on the dot. Was that cool? He hesitated and peered through the window: impossible to see much. He just went in. The girl at the desk gave him the widest, friendliest of fake Manhattan smiles. He made out Tony at a table next to the wall, even though wearing a tan sweater that camouflaged him into the Southwest desert décor. He bypassed her. Tony spotted him coming and stood up. They shook hands, man-to-man formal.
“Twist of fate running into you yesterday, Chris,” as he sat back down, he reached out and took a buddy swipe at his shoulder. Then came the wide grin and eyes that danced all over the place that was his trademark. Had he done a couple lines? But there was that cross dangling again.
“Oh, yeah. That’s the city.”
“You know this place? You must. You live around the block and you’re into food.” Both his hands rested on the table edge; he leaned forward as if this was some secret they shared.
“We’ve eaten here a few times, yeah. We love Southwest. Margaritas,” he heard himself add, giving it a frat boy growl. Tony’s smile now spread even broader across his face, but his eyes didn’t match. Weird. He took up the menu and began studying it, though he knew it pretty much by heart. He noted the entrées but knew the appetizers were for him. He decided there’d be a second margarita. Unemployed, you could drink at lunch. The waiter swooped down on their table; he looked up. “Margarita, salted rim, on the rocks.” He glanced toward Tony, expecting a ditto and a Tony smile. Instead he was shaking his head slowly like a guy who’d just gone A.A. “Tony? We don’t have to go back to work, man.” Tony shrugged, poker-faced. The Notre Dame jock? The chug-a-lugger? He listened uncomfortably as Tony reluctantly ordered a beer, a Bud. He half expected the waiter might grimace, but no: They had Bud. Chris hid back down in the menu before announcing without looking up: “I’m just having appetizers. Starting with.” He ran his finger down the list. There it was, a particular favorite of his: “Cornmeal crusted oysters.” He’d have the tuna tartare next. He shot a glance up at Tony, as if what he ordered would decide the future of the planet. He found Tony’s brow furrowed. It had to be the hedge: It was bad news. Fuck! Tony had called to break it to him gently. His gut did a twist. Tony now addressed the menu. His expression bordered on puzzlement. Finally he mumbled, “Mesa Burger and well done.” Ah! Tony was just out of his league; that was it. Tony handed his menu back to the waiter as if he’d settled a score.
They were now alone and face-to-face. If it was going to happen, it felt like it would be now. He watched, ready for it. Tony slowly parted his lips. Here we go. “You know, I used to like my burgers rare, but,” he leaned forward to share again, “but it’s just not safe, Chris.”
“Oh, Jesus, well…” Was this the opener, this safe thing? The cross dangled ominously. He had to peel his eyes away from it. His brain was freezing. Could hypnotize a guy.
“You really shouldn’t say that, Chris.”
“The name of the Lord.”
“Oh.” He met Tony’s frown and caved. “Sorry.” Chris stifled the impulse to laugh by glancing jerkily around the room. Snort a few lines, Tony. Get a grip! “Hey, this place is still doing okay,” he made his face all cheery for Tony, “I think you were just lucky getting a table.”
“Lucky?” Tony sat back. His lips began to part. Chris froze: Here it comes! A rustling sound and the waiter arrived with their drinks. A reprieve. Chris grabbed his margarita from the waiter’s hand. Chris hoisted it in a vague toast before the salt reached his lips, then came the first long cold sip. The tequila would numb him for the blow: The hedge had imploded.
The salt, the sweet sour, hit his taste buds, and then the tequila hit his stomach. “These are the best.” He licked his lips, hoping to get a grin out of Tony.
Tony had let the waiter put his beer down on a coaster. He now fingered his Bud and then slowly lifted the glass to his mouth as if it were major medicine. He smiled and took a testy sip of his Bud. Tony was making him fucking petrified: Chugalug, dude!
“Always thought you’d be a guy who’d like margaritas, man.”
“Used to. Used to.”
Fuck all, he had to go for it: “We’re okay, right? North Fork?” Tony’s face creased into a weary smile. Fuck, he was going to admit it: Their money was history.
“Oh, yeah, of course. Good ole North Fork. Hey, no complaints. None. At. All. Chris, it’s a hedge,” he smirked at him and rolled his eyes, “that’s why it’s called a hedge fund. Duh!” The swagger of the old Tony was back.
Chris went slack from head to toe. He bolted forward manically over the table to cover himself: “Any job leads then?” His own voice sounded to him like a wind-up toy. A wave of relief rushed through him so bad he could have pissed his pants.
“Leads, Chris? Well,” his eyes darted as if he couldn’t believe his luck, “I’m off in another direction, Chris.” The roller coaster had turned a corner; Chris went back on alert. When somebody started repeating your name, it spelled trouble. Chris braced himself with another sip and met Tony’s eyes – he’d never noticed before: gray-flecked brown, bottomless-black iris – as the guy’s baritone voice began to croon, “Where to begin?” Out of Tony came a sigh, warm, rich, with a weird edge of condescension to it. His eyes then lit up, gold-flecks like a cat’s iris: “Did you recognize Sally Beth?”
“She was with me yesterday, Sunday?” Tony’s smile went flat-out condescending. “Well, not your Park Avenue type, so you wouldn’t have noticed Sally Beth probably. Remember Bart’s secretary?” Bart was the department head. Or was. Tony would know if he’d been axed, if he wanted to know; he didn’t. “We’ve been dating. I guess it was, like, once we all could finally get back into the office? End of September last year? When the no-go area moved south and west? It was like we just looked at each other, and there it was. Funny how I’d never noticed her before. Well, we went to church that Sunday.” Tony’s voice had gone starkly reverential. His face had opened wide as if in awe of the memory of it all. “And I discovered for the first time who Jesus was.” He said Jesus the way he’d said Sally Beth. Chris cringed. Tony leaned forward with intense eyes that didn’t blink. “Chris, worries, anxieties, everything – whoosh – gone. Just washed away. Salvation. Clean, clean. Calm. That’s Jesus, guy. Better than any pill.” Tony sat back and smiled wide. “Gets you way beyond it all. Puts life in perspective,” he heaved a deep, very long sigh, his eyelids drooped Buddha-like. The cross now glimmered like a dagger. “Ever read? No, let me back up, you’ve heard of Left Behind? Left Behind,” he repeated. “Awesome.” Chris scrambled: a book, a movie? He had heard the name somewhere. Then he had it: One of the Survivalist sites he’d found had been obsessed with it, and that had been the first step in weaning him off all the sites, though there still was something magnetic there that got him surfing there once in a while. On bad days.
“I’m not sure,” he lied now.
Tony leaned in: “It’s about the End Days.” He’d been right. “Chris, these are the End Times. You see that. You do, don’t you? Like, it’s just so obvious.”
That was it: coke traded for Jesus, drug for drug. Oh man… “Aren’t you,” he suddenly felt brilliant, “aren’t you, like, a Catholic?” He met Tony’s eyes, and Tony blinked.
“Oh, yeah. Notre Dame, you mean.” His smile went crinkly. “We could go there,” he let out a long sigh. Just then the waiter arrived with their plates, beaming “lucky you” at them. Chris looked up at him thankfully – oh waiter savior, get me out of here! – and then watched as his oysters were set before him. They had never looked so good. He shot Tony a furtive glance. Tony did not look at all pleased with his burger.
The waiter picked up on it and inquired, “You did order a burger, didn’t you, sir?”
“No. I mean yes; it’s fine. Thank you.” The waiter left quickly. “Chris, where was I?” He glanced down at his burger as if it might hold an answer.
Chris ignored him and took up his fork. He was starving all of a sudden. And he could see that eating was going to be his only defense. Sadly, he knew already where this was all leading. Poor Tony. That’s how he now felt: poor Tony. Tony had no leads. Nothing cleverly tucked up his sleeve. No hedge news, good or bad.
He stabbed the first oyster and put it in his mouth, enjoying it as voluptuously as he could, the light golden crust breaking open to a rich volume of sea. He felt Tony’s eyes bearing down on him. Tony was watching him chew. Chris fought the urge to meet those eyes. Finally he caught Tony picking up his burger and chomping down. Safe. Chris made a stab at polite contact: “The food here is so great.” Tony grunted; his full mouth blocked all proselytizing. His eyes were darting in frustration.
As Chris finished his margarita with a final gulp, he gestured for a second one. There was one oyster left. He popped it into his mouth and chewed carefully so as to enjoy this last taste. Once again, he noted in amazement how food was capable of distracting him from his situation, from any situation. It was an answer or a panacea or a distraction: It was like sex.
In between mouthfuls now, Tony began to backtrack. He explained that he was indeed raised a Catholic and had gone regularly to Sunday Mass at Notre Dame, but had lapsed when he’d hit Wall Street (he’d needed to sleep in on Sundays: It was a matter of health, hygiene), “but that emptiness kept growing, man.” He enunciated the word “emptiness” for effect. At this point half his burger was now gone, half the Bud, half the fries. “I’m scared shitless, aren’t you?” This snapped Chris to attention; Tony saw it and went for it. “But then Jesus is just, like, there…” And then came the detailed story of Sally Beth, of the small charismatic congregation. How he had wept, his arms upraised to the Lord. “Man, all my fears, those fears you are feeling now, that we’re all feeling: gone! Not important.”
Chris played dumb: “Fear? You mean like being out of work?” Bang! Bang! There, he’d used it as a weapon, no personal pain attached. The waiter intervened with margarita number two. The tuna arrived seconds later and was set down lovingly before him. Chris gave the waiter an appreciative look; they shared aficionado smiles. This was his church, the Church of Foodie.
And then he made the mistake of looking up from the tuna. Tony penetrated him with fervent, absolute eyes. “Everything.” The weirdness of their color startled him. “The meaning of life.”
“Ah, like that.” He looked nonchalantly back at his plate and took up his fork again. “Well, man, don’t you think it’s too early for all that? I mean, like, we’ve got long lives to figure all that out, experiences to have…” He started in on the second margarita: It would definitely drive out all devils. “We’re young guys. We all felt crazy bad after nine-eleven.” Strangely, that did it. Tony raised one eyebrow (how did he do that?) and then just gave up, just like that; he focused quietly on the rest of his burger. Chris finished off his tuna tartare. It had been too easy, just brandishing nine-eleven. He could not believe it. He raised his hand to get the waiter’s attention. He scribbled with his finger in the air for the bill. “Anyway, gotta go. Looks like you’re finishing up.” The waiter arrived and handed him the bill on a small plate. “And let me get this.” Tony shook his head. “No, really, ” Chris half stood to get his wallet out of his jeans pocket.
Tony already had his wallet out and smacked his Visa gold card down on the bill. “I called. I invited you. My treat, man.”
Getting away from Tony outside the Mesa Grill was not easy. He shook his hand. That wasn’t enough. Yes, he would, of course, give it some thought. Tony told him the Lord loved him. Chris had enough tequila in him so that he could just smile back and nod as if the Divine Hand was on his shoulder, all the while composing the quip in his mind: Sandy and I dance in churches. He backed slowly away. “Catch you later…?”
Suddenly there was a sour odor all around them. “Gotta dollar, genelmens?” Chris looked sharply away from the reeking stubble face to check if Tony would imitate Christ. What Chris saw on Tony’s face was pure repulsion, tinted with a bit of fear. Oh, Tony, that was not the look you’d expect to see in Christ’s eyes.
Chris took the opening, “Really. Gotta go, guy.” He aimed for his escape route, leaving Tony in his Christian predicament. Well behind him and now at a safe distance came a booming “Home, home on the range…” He was tempted to look back but didn’t risk it. The stench of the Fifth Avenue cowboy still lingered in his nostrils. Instead, he bolted to put more distance between them. And then – Oh, fuck it, he thought – set out diagonally into Fifth Avenue.
A yellow cab blared its horn as it zipped past him, missing him by a foot. The next car slammed on the brakes, stopping just about a foot to his right. Chris kept on crossing, smiling at first, then finally bursting into laughter. The light turned red, putting an end to traffic, and he reached the other side in a saunter. He felt like a bullfighter. Chris the Winner was back!
I did it again a second time, Nancy. But, no, he wouldn’t call her and tell her.
In the loft, stretched out on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling, feeling unable to do anything but slip into a nap, he knew that everything he had said to Tony was true – the stuff about being young, lots of experiences to come, plenty of time for philosophical insights – but he was a fucking liar. He wasn’t that cool because he was freaked out about having no idea what to do next.
Europe, Europe – came the answer. Historically speaking, people often went travelling when they had no answers. Wandering, carefree, no destination bound… He heard Bob Dylan before drifting off.
Three screens glowed green, four cascading windows each, black numbers, blue numbers, red numbers. More red numbers. He clicked. Sold. Clicked and sold. The trading room, bank after bank of screens, positions, work stations, everyone trading, clicking, a pervasive low growl, the acrid scent of panic, and he clicked, sold, clicked, and sold faster and faster, as the numbers fell, nothing but red figures on green, flashing and cascading. The loss tally grew by the minute, then the second, doubling, tripling. His palms slipped against the mouse, fingers trembled. A cold breath behind his neck, he couldn’t turn to look, the screen danced with little red numbers, jigging to the right, jigging to the left, tumbling down, illuminating, then obliterating the green screen calm.
“Hi-ya…”He jerked his head around. Tony stood smiling, very calm, centered, very quiet. He wrenched himself from the smile back to the screen. A hand went down on each of his shoulders, ta-Dah.
Tony, sit down, get back to work. Both these hands held him tight. He tried clicking, no click, tried again, finger wouldn’t even twitch. Fuck off, Tony. He tried wrenching free. “It’s the End of Days.”
Chris glanced back and up. Tony’s hair streamed, swept back, wavy, from the forehead, in a full gale, golden, then white gold, now shimmering. “The End,” he singsonged. “Look out the window.” Tony’s eyes sparkled in joy, hard to pull away from those eyes, but Chris did, sweeping across the trading floor, that suddenly had gone silent, and saw out the window legions of black winged… battering, flailing wings against the windows, then the first shatter of glass, a blast of high-altitude hundred-and-second floor air accelerated all paper like bullets. The hands on his shoulders let go.
Chris twitched awake in one great spasm, wrenching himself free of nightmare. There on the couch, there in the loft, inky shadows lay in the recesses. His heart and lungs gasped for breath for a second. He had dozed off. Now he became aware of a growing throb in his head. His upper lip was wet. His stomach clenched. He tried to jump up, to get to the toilet, but then his gut relaxed a bit, and he sat back to breathe deeply, head still throbbing, heart thudding in his rib-cage. Tony the Avenging Angel: streaming golden hair in a great wind of righteousness and Last Judgment.
Chris burst out laughing in the empty loft and wiped his lip with the back of his hand. He sat up, put his feet on the floor, contemplated the possibility of a large cold glass of water taken from the fridge door and the number of ibuprofen tablets that would do the trick, and – presto! – the panic was replaced by a crazy wave of elation. He thought seriously of actually jumping to his feet, then reconsidered that and got carefully to his feet. He swayed, but his equilibrium held; the throbbing continued its dull pain as he padded gingerly across the floor of the loft toward the bathroom. Margaritas at lunch: good idea, bad idea. Bad idea, good idea. His mouth tasted clammy. Bad idea. Not one, but two glasses of water would start doing the trick. Three ibuprofens, a bit of overkill, but he needed to get to the supermarket and shop for dinner.
At the fridge door, one glass of water down, he started on the next. He would piss it all out of him, cleansing through the kidneys, bladder and out. Tony, Avenging Bullshit. Tony had caved. For a split second he could see Tony, his eyes rolling in his head, then rising to heaven, as his arms shot up, being saved, saved, escaping. Escaping nothing, the stupid fool. He should have known that Tony hadn’t been networking, had no leads for him to work on. Tony had caved. He had checked out. Tony was history.
Which made him contemplate for another split second where that left him with no insider word on the hedge fund. Foot-loose? The word hung in the air before him. But he was not built to be foot-loose, he, the Millennium Man, instead he was built to pursue the goal, grab the brass ring. He could hear it now: “Take a break, congratulate yourself,” says Sandy, “you got out with money. You win. Sit back.” But the problem with that was the sitting; he was just not a sitter.
He’d told her about the hedge fund. She was not just bored, disinterested, she was hostile to any shoptalk from him ever, even when he had his first million-dollar day. Her whole childhood had been full of it: Bill, the family, old money firm on Wall Street. On the other hand, her decorating thing didn’t rock him either, so… They’d easily come to a truce.
Talking about his hedge-fund anxiety to her? No.
Okay. Focus on the immediate now. He had to get to the supermarket before Sandy came in. Where was that shopping list?
In the bathroom, he reached for the bottle of ibuprofen, outwitted the child-proof cap, dropped three tablets into his free palm and shot them into his mouth like M&Ms. He drained the glass of water and padded back to the kitchen area, while first remembering to switch off the bathroom light (good guy!). He headed back to the fridge door and more water.
A random voice in his head said, Get a grip! Europe rose up then all in caps, undefined, no travelogue pics, nothing beyond six large letters. E-U-R-O-P-E. Ah yes, the truncated name of a woman who had been abducted on a bull’s back, and then raped by the father of the gods.
Next came: Start a restaurant! This had been the original modus operandi. There was a powerful logic to it: It was a life’s work. His appreciation of fine food was legendary and the other half of who he was, the counterbalance to the trading floor. It had been the perfect combo sailing through the nineties into the new Millennium.
And starting a restaurant had focused him after the pink slip, it really had. It had made his heart sing for about half a day, until the plan crashed like lead. It was no plan. He couldn’t cook well enough himself, plus no training in restaurant kitchen world (Burger King? Ha!). The only person he knew who could cook better was Tim Manx, magical cook that Manx. He had brought it up. Tim’s jaw had dropped open. Was it in horror, honest dismay? Fear that Chris’s mental health might depend on his answer? There were limits to how far a friend should go. Come on.
Tim was purring along very, very nicely in attorney’s red suspenders at Kravitz, Pim, and Butler. He was destined for partnership. One day the name Manx would be added to the roster. The red suspenders, besides freeing his expanding waistline from the bondage of a belt, were his tribute to the Reagan eighties. Reagan had saved America from socialism and steered her back to the path of greatness again. Tim’s goal was to do the same and make a fortune doing it.
“I’ll ask around. There are plenty of chefs looking for a break,” Tim had said. Which was true, but they weren’t Tim, his best friend. He’d proceeded to lay out his objections in lawyerly fashion. “I’d love to. The idea. The possibilities. But, no, come on, Chris, six days a week up at dawn, markets, standing in front of hot stoves in July. Just all that standing. And that militaristic thing they have to get the food on the plate and out.” They were devout watchers of cheffy cooking shows so they both knew the tyranny of the kitchen. Tim hadn’t needed to shake his head in a no. “I love to cook, you know that. But I think it would make me hate food forever,” he brightened up to launch his final zinger, “I know I can find a chef we’ll all love.”
Tim probably could, too, the guy with zillions of connections, networks all over Manhattan. But it wouldn’t have been that bistro, that family kind of bistro, with Chris greeting guests, kibitzing with regulars, Sandy hanging out evenings, the kids bopping in. The kids? Whoa. That was pushing the envelope, as they say.
“Pushing the envelope!” The emptiness of the loft echoed.
Fuck! He should call Tim; he should have yesterday. In fact, he could call him now at the office.
At the office? They all still had offices and jobs, all the Foodies, those BC boys making it in Manhattan. Fuck all. No way had Tim found that chef. He would have gushed it out to Sandy.
In front of him was the Altar of Food. Dinner parties past, dinner parties to come. Nice clean glass sweep to it, its twelve designer armchairs padded to be amazingly comfortable.
There would be no restaurant, no family bistro. No greeting people at the door. Sandy bringing the kids around.
The industrial elevator door clattered open. Sandy stepped out. Chris was standing in the middle of the loft staring at the dining table in twilight. “Hey!”
He turned abruptly; her voice had just turned on his switch. What was she doing here? “Hey.” He panicked: “Oh, shit, I haven’t gone to the supermarket yet.”
She crossed the floor. “Doesn’t matter. Do it tomorrow.”
“You’re home early.”
“No, I’m not.”
“What about dinner? The shopping is for dinner.”
“Chris! Are you okay?” She reached him and gave him a kiss. She had stepped into a cloud of alcohol. “Whoa! Where have you been?”
“Lunch. Lunch at Mesa. With that guy, Tony, you know, from yesterday? Dim sum?”
“Oh, yeah,” she stepped away. “The one with that gold cross dangling.”
“Right! You noticed that. You didn’t say anything.”
She had but… She took off her coat and walked it over to the couch and dropped it there. “So, he wanted you to hear the word of Jesus?”
He looked oddly hangdog. “I was worried about the hedge fund… And then I thought he had a kind of new network worked out, something like that. Getting away from him was, like, you know, a Jehovah’s Witness on a Sunday morning.”
“Sad. So sad.” She gave him her Park Avenue bitch imitation. He didn’t grin.
“Yeah, sad. That’s it. Like, I’ll do a hedge fund with him, but not a religion,” he started to laugh and then stopped. Would you buy a hedge fund, would you buy a used car, from this man? Anxiety attacked. “Got to get out of here. Dinner stuff.”
She put both hands on hips blocking his way: “You did forget. How, though?” Chris froze. “We’re going to the parents.” She approached the cloud of alcohol around him, seriously worried now. “You like my parents.”
“Your dad is great!”
“Good,” she wrapped both arms around him. “You’d better do a lot of gargling.” She pulled him closer: He was there and not there. This is the father of your children, a voice proclaimed in her head. Well, no, not yet certainly, she replied to it. Today, these days, Chris was actually her child, and she had her hands full. Holding him tight to her, she could feel his heart beating out erratic thumps. She kissed his cheek in the gloom, and then wandered off to switch on lights here and there.
Meg had still been adjusting her dark gray flannel skirt as she’d walked into the reception area to meet her. Her comfortably stout presence had immediately overshadowed the trendy receptionist, despite her blond spiked-haired glitz. Meg just always took over a space. One smile from Meg, and the receptionist vanished. “Sandy, it’s been a while. What brings you down to Broad Street? Your dad’s in a meeting,” her smile had sagged appropriately, sorry to purvey disappointment. Her Long Island lockjaw rolled off the tongue, faultless.
“Well, just the off chance. I’ll be seeing him tonight at home.” She’d stood up. Meg had walked toward her; she’d moved to meet her halfway. “Will it be long, do you think?”
Meg’s eyes had darted, calculating the situation for a split second. “Come on in. I’ll see what I can find out.” Meg had turned to lead the way to her father’s office but then looked back, “Has it been three years?” She’d had to stop to think. Meg had shaken her head: “Doesn’t matter. You’re looking ravishing. Something must be agreeing with you.” Off they’d gone down the hall to the executive offices. Persian carpets had replaced the wall-to-wall.
Meg had spread a bit since she’d last seen her, but it suited. If a woman couldn’t relax on the dieting in her sixties, life would be pointlessly cruel. And it was always just so comfortable seeing Meg. She always wore a dark skirt; the cardigan was always cashmere and the blouse always silk. Her gray hair was still bobbed in the Park Avenue doyenne way. Did she still live in Queens? Could be she was even married again. Suddenly she wanted to know everything about Meg. Her father spent more time with this woman than any other female in his life, which had always provoked Mother. Making her look ridiculous, and a warning of how not to be.
Meg had pushed open the door and had Sandy go first. There it was: the same neatly arranged anteroom office she’d had for years. Sandy sat down in the leather armchair next to the dark oak desk. Suddenly a flood of memories: a little girl coming to have lunch with Daddy, one time dressed in an embarrassing dirndl her father had gotten her on a business trip to Innsbruck, just to make him happy. Meg had told her she looked ravishing back then, knowing full well what the dirndl was all about. Then she’d spotted that Meg was wearing the same short strand of white pearls, real ones, she’d worn back then; they were her trademark and unmistakable. Now, of course, there was a computer screen, a flat-screen, on the table behind her desk. The big IBM Selectric was gone. The screen showed the firm’s logo on a forest green background. But the color of the carpet, here wall-to-wall: Had that always been a pale jade green? Funny, she’d just recommended that color to Bunny Weber for her bedroom walls; Bunny was having sleep problems.
“I’m bothering you, Meg. You probably have dozens of better things to do.”
Meg had taken a seat behind her desk and crossed her ankles. At this point years ago, she would have pulled out a Benson and Hedges, and lit up, taken a puff without inhaling, then set it down in the ashtray to burn itself out. The ashtray was very much long gone. “I can take a break for you, Sandy.” She’d leaned forward, elbows on desk, chin in one hand, ready for a good chat. Her eye shot to the clock on the desk. “Oh, they must be finishing up by now.” The office was uncluttered, arranged, and quiet. “So, how’s life downtown?” spoken as if she herself had always lived uptown on Park. Which she always had in her workaday fantasy life, no doubt. Meg was Park Avenue without ever actually having lived there.
“Oh, I still love the loft. Lots of life around now, too. Tons of new restaurants. The entire Manhattan publishing industry seems to have moved down there.”
“So I hear.” There’d been a click to Meg’s voice. Yes, nothing would have escaped her, not even this bit of trivia. Part of her job was to know the best places to impress clients, old and new, especially those from out of town. She was her father’s living calendar to boot. Sandy imagined how her home must be, a tidy one-bedroom apartment in one of those redbrick facade apartment buildings in Forest Hills. The furniture would be like that of the Twenty-one Club. She would still have a Mr. Coffee machine in her kitchen, which would have avocado cabinetry and fridge. That is, unless she’d remarried. Meg had a wedding ring, but it could still be from the untimely demise of the last husband. Sudden heart attack or lung cancer – couldn’t remember at that point.
“Nothing has changed around here, though, which is good, except…” She’d looked around, and then back at Meg. “Gotten used to the Basquiat yet?” Her father had hung it there, both because he loved looking at the wild slashes of graffiti color and skeletal figures when he arrived in the morning, and because, as he put it, he’d hoped it might “broaden” Meg’s taste.
Meg had crinkled up her nose. “Unfortunately, Sandy, everything has changed except that damn painting. Computer changed. Me.” She had drawled the “me.”
“Oh? I love your hair still. Suits.”
“Hair? No. That’s not really the kind of change I mean. Not exactly.” She’d brightened and leaned forward. “Girl talk: I’ve met this lovely man. His business is in Cleveland, unfortunately, but he’s in New York once a month. One of our clients. I probably shouldn’t mention that.” She’d paused coyly, something that might have been expected back in the Kennedy years when she’d emerged from secretarial school. “But I don’t think that’s really unethical on my part, do you? Anyway, he’s great fun. He loves dancing in the Rainbow Room. Can you imagine? I wasn’t even quite sure it still existed.” That couldn’t have escaped Meg’s authoritative knowledge of everything Manhattan. “It’s never been a place where your dad would take a client, I mean.”
The mahogany paneled door had open. “Sandy, aren’t we seeing you tonight?” Her father’s big frame had filled the doorway; his baritone put an end to the girl talk. Behind him, she could see that the office was empty. So it’d been a partner’s meeting; there was a separate warren of doors and corridors for partners. He’d caught her grin at seeing him in his pinstriped shirtsleeves. He’d come over and bent down to kiss her on the cheek. “Nothing’s wrong, I hope.” Head still upturned to him, she’d shaken her head.
“She’s come downtown to gossip with me, Bill, haven’t you, Sandy.” Meg had started fiddling with the floppy collar tie of her beige silk blouse as she’d stood up.
“I’ve interrupted something then?” He’d chucked his head at her: “After me.” He’d glanced back at Meg: “I’ve got a half hour?” She’d given him a faux-weary nod. “Right.”
Past the door, with its brass fixtures that got a polishing every night, he’d shut the door behind her and given her a quick hug. “Let’s sit on the couch. I can’t take you to lunch, baby. Sorry. I’ve got a client in from Middletown, PA. One that survived the meltdown in the seventies,” he’d chuckled. She’d been supposed to know about a meltdown? She’d been just a little girl in seventy-nine.
“Oh right.” It had come back as she’d sat down. He’d been one of the organizers of a big anti-nuke demonstration in the Meadow in Central Park. His first and last, because he’d realized it was his access to big bucks that had gotten him on the committee. Last vestige of the hippy, was how he narrated it. And then Grandfather MacAfee had his first heart attack. He’d folded to fate and done his PhD in economics at Columbia.
“Sit down. Let’s just sit down.” He’d reached the Chesterfield couch first and plopped. She’d been afraid he was in a bad mood; he’d seemed tired and annoyed. He’d patted the place next to him and swiveled into the corner to face her comfortably. “You’re not having, you know, relationship problems? That would be…”
“Absolutely not. Not us. I love Chris.”
That had almost triggered tears from her, which she knew he hated. “Good.” Now she had annoyed him.
“Daddy…” He’d tensed then knowing “Daddy” meant trouble. “Chris is still freaking out.” She’d placed her hands on her knees. A statement begging for a solution. He’d looked at his watch and then back at her.
“Oh… it’s just that burn-out people are always talking about. I told you. Happens all the time down here, well, so they tell me anyway.” He’d cut her off as she’d opened her mouth. “He got a good settlement, now didn’t he? We’ve established that. And those bonus years.” He’d straightened up in his seat. “I don’t get it, frankly.”
“I know you don’t.” He’d bristled. “I mean, I agree. It’s not the money. He’s a guy who can’t sit around. He’s career driven. The career is gone.”
He’d let out a sigh. “Oh, for the time being. What about tennis and that restaurant project?”
“In this economy?” She hadn’t wanted an argument; she’d needed his help. “Anyway, he finally got out of the city a few days ago. He has his mother’s cousin up in New Hampshire.”
“Oh? I thought the family was dead, and he was an only child?”
“Her name is Nancy. Nancy Maguire. His mother’s maiden name was Maguire. She’s in antiques, or collectibles as she prefers calling them, says Chris. She drinks dry martinis straight up just like you do.”
“Doesn’t everyone in the civilized world?” Chuckle. He’d moved to pat her knee, but thought better of it. “And?”
“It kind of helped. He flew up to Boston, rented a car, drove around with the leaf-peepers at one point.” That had made her grin, silly grin. “Traffic jams in the woods…” He’d smiled back and nodded again, which she knew was meant to speed her up. “Cut to the chase: Nancy suggested Europe to him. He evidently has some long-lost relative there. In Paris.”
That had gotten his attention. “That’s a surprise.” And then she’d known what she was driving at. Foodie Chris. Paris. “Will he go? You should go with him.”
“I can’t. The business, shitty as it is. I can’t just up and leave Betsy, like, sitting around like a nervous bitch.” He loved it when she said things like “shitty” and “bitch.” She’d glared to make sure he’d laugh. “I’ll be miserable with him gone. I hated the loft while he was in New Hampshire. Big, empty industrial dump. All those downtown fire engines in the night.”
He’d looked away as she’d started to tear. “You’re all right, though? Biz not in need of a little cash infusion to ride this thing out?”
“That bad.” She’d nodded. He’d sat back and crossed his legs to pontificate. “It’s just temporary. People are waiting to see what they have after this shake-out.”
“I’m your daughter. I know that.” He’d burst out laughing then.
“Out with it. What do you want? Play his dad tonight? And advise what?”
“I want you to volunteer to keep an eye on this hedge fund he’s banked it in.” He’d nodded,
“So it is money. Consider it done. Do you know the fund’s name? I could check now.”
“No, but I’ll find out. Or better yet, he’ll tell you. He’ll ask you himself if you offer. One of his trader buddies got him into it. We ran into the guy out of the blue down in Chinatown after dim sum on Sunday. The guy looked out of it. He had this gold cross dangling around his neck, you know, like born-again types do. Chris looked upset when he saw that. I kept my mouth shut.”
“Good girl,” he’d chuckled, an odd chuckle, “at least it sounds like the guy’s a good Republican. How bad can it be?”
“Ask him? He admires you. He trusts you. And then encourage the Europe idea.” He’d suddenly looked exasperated. She’d rubbed her eyes. That made him back off. “You probably wonder why I’m encouraging the Europe thing?”
“It was crisscrossing my mind. That thing called love?” He’d meant to mock her but then his eyes softened.
“I hate seeing him like this. I love Chris. Yes. And I want…”
This time he’d reached out and patted her knee. “I suppose that’s where I am in life. I’m good for that, sweetheart. You know I like the kid. So I’m his role model…”
“How about father-in-law?”
He’d done his comic pensive look. “And to think I thought your generation considered marriage uncool.”
“Because I made a decision. About a month ago. I’ve stopped taking the pill.” And then she’d sworn him to secrecy.
* * *
That had been lunchtime, and the cab was now caught in traffic at Park and Fifty-third. Sandy glanced at her watch. They were going to be a bit late. Her mother hated late. She glanced over at Chris. He was staring out the window. She squeezed his hand and he smiled back in surprise. “Mother will definitely not be happy.”
“We’re late. We’re going to be late.” Chris smiled and shrugged “whatever” without saying it. “I know,” she shrugged back. “She’ll get over it. In fact, she won’t actually say anything. She’ll just be tense as a witch when we arrive.”
“Your dad will give her another drink. He’ll insist. ‘You need another drink, Muffy,’ he’ll say.” Chris did a startlingly good imitation of her dad. The first time he’d done it, scary, as if Chris was channeling. “God, your dad is great.” A spark of intense warmth in his eye, and then it was gone. He looked back out the window at the traffic. “Yeah. He knows how to handle everything.” His voice sounded flat, distant, muffled against the cab window.
His famous anti-hangover water cure had worked. He’d had her test his breath for “minty fresh” before they’d left the loft. A kiss, tongues-down-throats: When he was good he was so good. The disoriented guy standing in the dusk of the loft could never have mustered that kiss. Going from red-haired firecracker to Chris the zombie was the new normal since he’d been fired. She never knew how to handle the zombie.
But did wife Dana abandon Christopher Reeve? Hot topic in the news recently. She hoped she could be that tough. She wanted to be that good.
She jumped as a duo of cars honked one after the other as if expressing her thoughts. And then she checked out the ID of the driver through the Plexiglas window of the barrier. The name, looked Egyptian? From the back and, yes, the side, he did look Egyptian. Fear shot through her from gut to brain: “We’re in Cairo again.”
“What?” Chris’s mouth shot open.
Zombie gone: That had been easy. “The driver.”
He peered through the Plexiglas, and then turned to her, “You loved Cairo.” His grin was Smile Center toothy. It had been their first trip abroad together.
“I did.” She fingered his hand on the backseat. Flash to Cairo and Luxor, the overwhelming antiquity, its otherness. They’d been happily mired in that rhythm, in the kind of time people called immemorial. Egyptian heat that stopped and mummified time itself. The blankets of dust. The total idiocy of the very idea of being in a hurry. She’d loved Egypt. They both had.
In the aftermath of 9/11 she now felt ambivalence. A fear that this was so wrong. She was ashamed of herself. People in Egypt had those broad, brown smiles. A glance at Chris, and she saw that he wasn’t sharing this stupid fear of hers. Relief. Good that they weren’t really in each other’s heads. The other night she’d had a dream of an Egyptian face, of a mummy mask. The mask had come alive, revealing wild, killer anger: She’d woken up terrified. No rhyme or reason.
And don’t fucking dare blame it on Zombie Chris, had scolded the voice in her head.
Chris caught sight of the awning that stretched right out to the curb a few blocks ahead. “We could get out now and walk.” The two brass poles holding its navy blue swath upright and longitudinal flashed in the setting sun. But the taxi started moving again. Sandy’s eyes were on him: “What?” She just grinned back.
She knew how awesome he found it all. His heart went crazy at a whiff of great old wealth. Massive co-op building – within which were entire homes, for chrissakes? The MacAfees had two stories: a kind of fifties suburban-house staircase going up to the bedrooms, meant to be so Great American Middleclass. Camouflage for money with roots as deep as the fucking US Treasury.
Before his debut with the parents, Sandy had explained things MacAfee. A MacAfee had married this lone heiress, last of a seventeenth-century Dutch fortune. Schuyler? And then the cab had pulled up to that awning he could now see up ahead. A stocky doorman had then come out to the curb, two fingers at the brim of his uniform cap, his cropped mustache rearing up in a smile. He had leaned forward to open the taxi door. Sandy had stepped out first: “Hi, Geraldo. Family good?”
Awesome. Did she give a flying-fuck about this Geraldo’s who probably had a fat wife and gangsta kids? Not likely.
But Geraldo had then replied, “Thank you, Miss.” The phrase Noblesse Oblige subtitled what was happening. He had entered another world. He had closed the cab door on his own – Geraldo had gone ahead and was holding the building door open for Sandy – and he’d paid the driver. He’d then followed. It was then and there he’d known Sandy was for real, and that he, Chris, was just, well, passing through maybe… Still Geraldo had remained there to hold the door open for him, too. He had known enough to nod and smile to him, reasserting that he was part and parcel with Sandy, who was already in the lobby.
Inside had been an elevator operator holding the elevator for them.
And then upstairs had come his first sight of the foyer, marble checkerboard where the gods played games with mere mortals. He’d stepped onto the checkerboard, and Bill’s handshake, his smile of approval, had signaled welcome to the family. And, was the rest history? He fucking hoped so.
Now in real time, the cab pulled up to the awning. There was Geraldo. Happy days.
And the lobby: There it was, immutable. The building had been built in the twenties, and the lobby was original, still lustrous and immaculate. The mottled marble had darkened slightly with time, which made the brass fixtures blaze and made him queasy as usual with the awe of the intruder.
They had to wait for the elevator to arrive. Sandy glanced at her watch as if time could bite.
The elevator operator was a young, muscular version of Geraldo, definitely security. This was something new.
* * *
Tim hated this. He was no man to stand waiting for anyone or anything on the street in the cold in rush hour. People thronged the sidewalk and pushed by him as he pressed the goddamn doorbell of the loft for the third time. He stood back and listened for a buzz of the door, maybe a voice over the intercom.
He took two steps back. He circled. Tim Manx did not wait on the street for people. He made appointments. People buzzed him in instantly. Or there was a smiling doorman touching the visor of his cap with a smile. Or you met in the bar of a restaurant. Or in a café. Café was good, European art film good.
A hunch had him tell his cab to wait. A glance now told him the swarthy complexioned driver was also good: unflustered by traffic pulling up behind him and honking angrily to fucking move, and then smiling when they would swing around his immovable yellow rock in a stream, giving him the finger. Another glance at his watch: seven-thirty. He had a dinner date at eight with Pam, who would meet him with Leo. Leo Milano was always on time. Pam would not be left in the lurch for even two seconds thanks to Leo, should he be late. Late, for fucksakes! He hated late.
He took a step back to look up at the loft windows, third floor up. The cast-iron façade was still grubby. Sandy sweetheart, time to renovate? But he knew Park Avenue girls loved slumming it. He stumbled back against a baby stroller. “Sorry, sorry!” He flashed his best Manx grin for this classy, pretty young mom. The New York “watch-it” scowl was just about to form. Instead she smiled and shook her head, and moved on. No harm done, baby boy or girl. Hard to tell the kid’s sex with parka and hat.
He glanced back up. Nada. No sign of life. “Fuck it!” He dodged his way across the sidewalk to the curb, slipped between a parked pick-up truck and a Beamer, and got back into the taxi. “Seventh and twenty-third.”
The driver shot a glance to his left, and then gassed it, taking advantage of a gap in crosstown traffic. Admirable move. Tim peered through the Plexiglas partition to see if he could read the cabby’s name on his permit. Hosni Something. Arabs still drove taxis in post-9/11 New York City? Now that was democracy.
Tim sat back and focused on cooling it. He’d done all he could. Chris had his cell off. Didn’t answer the landline. And now, ringing the fucking doorbell of the loft, going way out of his way to corral him in person? Nada. He’d done what he could.
On the bright side – there always was one – no need to lie that he was working on lining up hot chefs to interview.
* * *
The library was Bill MacAfee’s den. That’s how he always referred to it, the very word he’d used the first time he’d invited Chris in to sit down and shoot the breeze, which was also his expression. (That first time had been at the post-prandial Victorian-era stage of leaving the ladies at the table, while gents went for brandy and cigars.) It had been the second massive thing about the full-floor duplex apartment that had struck him after the fifties staircase.
The library was dilapidated. It was worn and threadbare from the floor to ceiling maroon plush curtains to the cracking of the leather chairs. The immense oriental on the floor defined threadbare. Muffy, christened Martha, addressed as Mother by Sandy, had done up the dining and living rooms in the latest good taste, matched with family heirlooms. So Bill’s den had come as a shock the first time invited in for that cognac after dinner after “showing him around.”
Actually, it had turned out it to be a guided tour of the family, and what that meant. Chris had been impressed and grateful at this tacit acceptance of him as “family” too on the part of Bill. He’d explained that the apartment had been in the family since the building was built. And that the building stood on the plot of the original family mansion. His grandfather had simply moved everything, from oak paneling to the curtains and leather chairs from the mansion’s library to this one: The room’s proportions had been designed as an identical fit.
Bill explained he had loathed the library as a kid: musty, sclerotic, stingy-looking. But now he appreciated its feel of continuity. His only move had been to repair the burned-out emerald-green banker’s lamp now glowing satisfyingly on the desk.
Chris now followed Bill into the library, the ritual being carried out; it felt so good this time compared to the jangle of his nerves that first time. There was history now between them. There had been sailing lessons in the Hamptons. Everything was meant to tell him he was family. Relax, dude.
The first thing Chris noticed this time was a box of Havana cigars: contraband. It sat blatantly on the broad mahogany rectangle with fluted sides that was his ancient library desk. Bill was flaunting it; he stood and winked to Chris as he opened the compact humidor, made in Cuba. “Real Havana. Ever try ‘em? Good shit!” Bill liked to do sixties dope slang. He was used to the old hippy in Bill, the one who loved to break the rules. Otherwise, he was the image of the graying patrician, hair perfectly but so conventionally cut. This was Bill’s way of lowering the bar for him to step more easily into the family, like the time he’d opened an old photo album, and there was Bill, a twenty-something hippy, all long hair and love beads. Chris knew he was supposed to find that cool, and of course it was cool, he had to admit, like sharing a dirty joke. But even stranger was the angle that just maybe Bill was a Democrat. This wasn’t logical. But Bill never talked politics, at least not yet. Chris had no doubt, though, that Sandy had told him he was a Republican. Wouldn’t that have been a plus on Park Avenue? So this was all a ploy just to tease him, the ambiguity of Bill, this counter-culture bullshit.
Bill was a tease: First time together Chris had squirmed and gone very buttoned-down. Just, he realized, as Bill wanted. So it became their little private game; it affirmed that Bill looked kindly on him. Bill would sometimes bring up the Kennedys, J.F. and Bobby. He never spoke of Ronald Reagan. He never spoke about the Vietnam War, which was like the elephant in the room. Bill hadn’t been drafted: Why? While guys his age were fighting for their country, he had been off in Kathmandu getting ripped stoned. So had he been one of those anti-war dudes? Nah. You can’t march on Washington from Nepal. Maybe that had been the way out: His father had pulled a few strings and gotten his hippy renegade son out of the country? That would mean that the family had influence in the Democratic Party. Maybe. Party politics never came up. It was as if the family was above and beyond party politics. He did know that there were Park Avenue men who were still Democrats, but he always imagined they were just being New-Yawky or something, the “salon socialist” thing, and weren’t really serious. How could they be?
Chris sat up straight in the armchair, making a spring creak: “I don’t smoke. Never have.” He blindly traced a crack in the leather of the arm with his index finger.
Bill lifted out one cigar and held it up for inspection: “Neither do I.” He spoke to the cigar. “Really,” he shot Chris a connoisseur’s eye. “This isn’t smoking. It’s savoring. The distance, you could say, between an Armagnac hors age and Ripple. It’s not a three-pack-a-day thing.” From next to the box he picked up and brandished a special instrument to snip off one tip. Then he produced an “Aladdin’s lamp” lighter – fifties Dunhill thing is how he’d inventoried it for Chris when showing Chris around the library for his first visit – and then he lit the long branch of tightly rolled tobacco in short, steady puffs, before turning again to Chris: “Sure?” With a grizzled beard, he could be doing a Fidel imitation.
“I’m sure, sir.”
Bill winced. “Chris, it would really thrill me, I’m not joking, if you’d just say Bill for a change?”
“Bill, I just don’t smoke.”
Bill beamed victory.
The odor from the first pungent cloud of smoke reached out and encircled Chris. The scent was out of the ordinary, nutty and rich, but not today; he would pass. He had lied. He had smoked a couple of times. That’s why he knew that the nicotine rush from this pungent monster would make him want to throw up. The odor was fine, though, and if Bill just sat down in the adjoining armchair and called him “son,” he wouldn’t be surprised. It was in the air like the smoke. Sandy had been talking to him.
He waited as Bill took another puff, his gaze tilted upward in pleasure, and then turned abruptly, grabbed the fat leather arm of the chair and slid back down into it, crossing his legs. He reached out and grabbed his hippy-souvenir Cinzano ashtray from the desktop and placed it on the chair’s arm. “Sad, though… You were right. Can’t smell those truffles in my head anymore.”
“They were amazing.” He could feel his stomach digest his dinner. His palate still did hold truffle, but the scent was long gone out of his head.
“Muffy was in her glory.” Bill burst into a phlegmy guffaw.
“The first white truffles in at Balducci’s.” Muffy had moved around the table, her gray raw-silk dress rustling. She was playing her own Park Avenue version of “just mom,” with a stainless steel, adjustable-width truffle slicer in hand, slivering truffle on each of their four plates of risotto, a risotto that had been prepared by the new Italian cook, recently let go from the Rainbow Room. Through the grapevine Muffy had immediately snapped him up, glad to fire the pretty female Filipino cook she suspected Bill of fucking.
This gossip in all its details had come from Sandy in the cab up. It basically served to illustrate how ridiculous her mother was and, example given of servant abuse, ruthless, a trait much worse than the rules of punctuality they were about to fracture by being late.
Only after they’d sat down at the table, though, did Muffy reference the situation by naming this new cook as Chef Gino; Gino never made an appearance, though. Unlike Conchita, or whatever the girl’s name was, it seemed Chef Gino was happy to leave the actual serving to Walter, another family character, poor arthritic old Walter, lower lip always a bit slack and wet. He had been Muffy’s grandparents something – butler, probably – as a young man. Muffy had inherited him when her parents died from different cancers within a couple of months of each other. Sandy had briefed him on all this before he had met the family for the first time, just after he’d moved into the loft.
Serving done, Chris had caught Muffy sniffing her fingers throughout the course. Foodie Muffy? Who knew?
The next puff of Bill’s cigar wiped all truffle memories away. “Europa.” Then he took a deep puff. He exhaled white smoke as blue smoke still hung in the air. He wasn’t inhaling any of it. Chris flashed on the priest moving down the aisle swinging a censer. “You need some time away. I personally think Europe is a great idea. Better than opening a restaurant at this juncture. After France your taste buds will never be the same again. Mine weren’t.” He thought about that for a minute. “You know, Chris, don’t take this the wrong way, but… how did you get so into food? The taste part, I mean.” He put the cigar on the edge of the ashtray and leaned forward: “There are some parts of the Heartland where they’d call our taste in food un-American. You know that.” Bill picked the cigar up again and leaned back, but he just held it this time, waving it as a prop for emphasis.
Chris didn’t rise to the bait. Those were other Republicans, like the one on the way to the Flume. He knew how his love of food had started. “Nancy, my mother’s cousin? It started with cheese and some sherry. Nancy gave it to me. I was fourteen or fifteen?”
An Amontillado? A Manchego? Bill held his tongue. “Ah, the mystery cousin in New Hampshire?”
“No mystery, really.” But he wasn’t going to elaborate. No need. Bill was just teasing again.
Bill took a little puff on the cigar so it wouldn’t go out, and then knocked off the gnarl of ash. “Funny you never went to Europe before, Mr. Foodie.” Bill cocked his head to one side and blew a smoke ring out sideways into the room.
“I interned summers.”
Bill nodded. “You know about, ‘all work and no play…’” He stopped short. “Not that you’re at all a dull boy, Chris.” He tried a nonchalant laugh next but could see from Chris’s face that the teasing had reached its limits. Hell, he had backpacked all over Europe at eighteen, for chrissakes. Done acid at least twenty fucking times. Maybe had sired a few kids in his wake. “What I mean is…” Chris was a true-blue specimen of the Reagan Generation, a sweet guy though. Very bright. A handsome son-in-law who could sire grandchildren that would enrich the family gene pool. Bill felt a surge of genuine warmth right then and there at the sight of him. Was this the son-he-never-had-thing feeling? And was that so bad? “It’s never too late.” It was advice time now. “Get your face out of Wall Street.” He waved the cigar; Chris saw it had gone out. “It’s all just money, Chris.”
Was Bill trying to tell him, like, that he had been blackballed on the Street? His nerves short-circuited.
Bill cleared his throat: “Chris?” The kid was miles off. “As I was trying to say, this is a great opportunity to do the things you didn’t get a chance to do when you were working so goddamn hard in college and business school. Treat yourself, man. Sandy tells me you have a cousin in Paris?”
“So…” Chris had to clear his throat to speak. “You’ve been fully briefed.” And what else had Sandy told him? That he was on the slippery slope to nowhere? The scary guy she was living with who was on the verge of a fucking breakdown? “Yeah, a cousin. So I hear.”
“Sounds intriguing.” Bill glanced at the cigar and finally noticed it was out. He stuck it in the ashtray and then set the ashtray back on the desk. They were finally getting there.
Chris got a grip and leaned forward. “You couldn’t… you couldn’t, like, convince Sandy to come along?” To his own ears it sounded like he was begging; but, no, Bill was smiling and shaking his head.
Bill sat back and set his hands flat out on the chair’s arms. “You know her argument. Sandy is loyal. I can tell you right off that she’s miserable about it. She hates being without you. Very unlike her mother, by the way, but that’s another story… Anyway, it’s your sabbatical year, Chris. Think of it that way. You could even take a course at the Cordon Bleu like old Julia Child. Hone your cooking skills.” Chris looked alarmed instead of amused, excited, or anything so positive. So he lowered his voice to boardroom soothing mode. “A year or so, I don’t know. The market will be back in business soon enough. These cycles get shorter all the time. It’s not nineteen fucking twenty-nine. Just the opposite. Smoot-Hawley is two years dead now: You won’t believe the money that’s going to be made. And you’ll be back in, rested, readier than ever. If that’s what you want at that point…” He saw he shouldn’t have added that. “Knowing you, you will. Is the pope catholic?”
So it was settled; it was good. It was going to be fun. So why were his hands going clammy? A year or so? He hadn’t thought about quantifying it, calculating the time it might take. Would the hedge fund hold that long? “Yeah.” He heard his own voice and was amazed at its cool, while his body was doing something totally different: It panicked violently, violent enough for one sinew of chest muscle to go into a shuddering spasm. “By the way, ever hear of a hedge fund called North Fork, sir?”
Bill’s brow furrowed – he had said the forbidden “sir” word – but, no, it wasn’t that. Bill was thinking: “Hedge funds. Now that’s an interesting misnomer. Sort of like the fact that thanks to Dubya I bet your tax rate is higher than mine.” A phlegmy laugh followed; Chris wanted to believe it was the cigar. He controlled his angry urge to proclaim, “Taxes are theft,” and succeeded. His goal was to become Bill, to let the scroungers pay the taxes. There was just no understanding Bill. “Anyway… No, can’t say I have. North Fork? There are quite a few out there these days. Not exactly my bailiwick. Not that I can’t make a few inquiries. Not to worry.”
“Really? Because, well, if I’m off in Europe. You couldn’t, like…” Did he fucking dare ask this? “You couldn’t take my power of attorney and keep an eye on North Fork for me, could you?”
Bill burst into a roar of laughter. “Is that what’s holding you back? Chris, seriously, my pleasure. I’d love to. You’re family.”
There was a sudden, violent heat in his cheeks. He wanted so much to believe that, that he felt sick.
Chris opened the door to the living room and stood there, alone and framed on the threshold, visions of chef training at Cordon Bleu, toke hats and all, on his mind. Sandy turned and shot him a questioning smile. Chris nodded. Muffy couldn’t see her wink back; cahoots, they were in cahoots Sandy and him. Family.
Bill had gone upstairs – he had an early morning. There’d been a squeeze of the shoulder given, a gleam in the eye that transmuted him into son once and for all. A wordless good night: one of those WASPy things.
Muffy was eyeing him. “Whew, you smell like a cigar! He didn’t make you smoke one, did he?” She was being good with this, he knew. He also could tell she must have been talking about him before he’d come in. Sandy called it Mother’s “breeding” issues. “Like the Westminster Kennel Club?” he’d snapped back, partly insulted, partly defensive.
“Time to go?” Sandy asked and stood up. Chris walked up to her and gave her a kiss on the tip of her nose. Muffy made a nervous laughing sound and stood.
“I’m in,” he smiled to her and she understood. Not a word spoken. An intense feeling of love for this very moment, this moment just standing there in the living room, overwhelmed him. He wanted it to never go away, ever. The MacAfees. Bill MacAfee. Bill would be watching his back.
He knew the fear would roll back in. But not tonight; not today.
Muffy leaned forward then to give him an air kiss, “Bon voyage.”
And this whacked him. Even Mother MacAfee.
Was she psychic or what? A glance at her watch, quarter to ten, confirmed that she didn’t have to be. That’s when he usually called. No one in Nancy’s immediate entourage would dare call her before noon. Business didn’t start until after ten, what little there was of it. Just a lot of people wandering in to see if they could flog their junk on her.
Though the kitchen phone was three feet away, a fire-engine red beetle on the wall – she could reach for it without moving an inch, mug of coffee in one hand – Nancy let it ring one more time before reaching forward and plucking it from its cradle gingerly so as not to risk any damage to her nails, which also triggered a quick appraisal: The nails’ vermilion color contrasted oddly with the phone. Two shades of blood? Just maybe this nail color was too much? Nah. “Hello, Knotty Pines.” The singsong lilt on “Pines” was practiced. “Oh, Adri, what a surprise.” She held the phone away from her ear: Whatever happened to that old transatlantic hiss and sense of distance. “Well, snail mail is my speed, you know that. And I thought a postcard of lifeguards at Revere Beach in the thirties would keep you from tossing it out by mistake.” She removed the phone further from her ear and still could hear him. “Cryptic? It was just something you couldn’t get on the back of a postcard. So,” she reached over and put her mug down on the counter and then hoisted herself up on the counter right next to it. She did yoga class once a week: She was nimble. She dangled her feet slightly above the ground like a little girl on a swing. “He had never heard of you, of course. You’re now officially the family secret revealed. It was maybe not very discreet of me?” She waited for him to stop laughing. “Okay, I’ll make it brief. I have to open the shop in five minutes. No, he’s not turned gay. He’s not going to Europe to come out…”She hated that expression. And they’d hashed this all about before. “Be serious for a minute. He’s thirty-two. Wall Street just vomited him out, though with a lot of cash, so he won’t be arriving broke, far from it. It’s time you took responsibility.” She looked out the kitchen window and noticed that a raccoon had savaged her trashcans. There was a long and definitely deafening silence from the phone. Finally Adrian muttered something stupid and self-serving, but lobbed the ball back into her court. “Yes, that’s right. He’s never been to Europe. Imagine that!” Her intention was to bathe him in sarcasm, with a shot of guilt thrown in like a dash of Tabasco, but he said nothing except one word. “No, he’s been a workaholic.” Adrian’s confusion was like static. “Okay, you do know that expression: nerd? Well, he doesn’t look like one. He’s damn good-looking. But he’s definitely not from the, ahem, artistic side of the family.” She allowed him time to chuckle before adding, “…like we are, darling. And he needs a boost. He’s a bit lost. Despite the Park Avenue girlfriend. And, now, what else can I tell you. In many ways he’s a blank slate. He could use your – how should I put it for you? – influence to open up the wider world to him. And, again, it’s about time you did something! That’s why I took the liberty of telling him about you. But not the bombshell. So, don’t get too bothered yet. On the other hand, he’s back in New York with Ms. Park Avenue and he hasn’t called me since he was up here a week or so ago. Maybe he won’t go. But, when and if he does call, should I give him your e-mail address?” She knew she was now going to have to endure his harangue about joining the twenty-first century herself. “Yes, I have it. It’s still primitive up here in the wilds. Sue who helps me out on Saturdays says you can only get something she calls dial-up. You understand all that? But I did write it down, your e-mail thing.” Of course she’d preempted. Chris already had the e-mail address.
So that was done. The fire-engine red beetle phone was back on the wall now. Her coffee was now a bit too cool, but she drank it anyway, and she did so slowly, not to savor its deadened flavor, but to sort out the thoughts in her mind and set the rhythm for the day. She slid off the counter like a tomboy. She put the mug in the sink. Did he really say he was guesting on French television? She should have asked him whether he’d become a French citizen without telling her, no matter how catty that might sound. She knew she was just oh-so-slightly jealous. She’d loved Paris.
* * *
And then it was Monday again. His Art Day. The thought had crossed his mind for a second of buying an easel. There was plenty of room for it in the loft and it would create a kind of old-timey loft statement, like, when artists lived in lofts, but he wasn’t ready for canvases and chemical smelling paints. Sandy had crinkled up her nose, but said if he wanted to, he should do it. He’d gotten the message.
Skip the learning curve: He used to know something about watercolors. A few techniques like the wash. So it had just been a big watercolor notebook he’d bought. He could sit at the dining table. Like now. One of Sandy’s big coffee-table art books was opened up to a Turner watercolor, The Scarlet Sunset, that he thought he could kind of imitate, what with the wash thing and red bleeding, and then a drop of bright yellow in the middle, let that bleed, but it wasn’t coming out like a Turner. More like kindergarten. A new respect for the artist welled in him and then came the serendipity: He would fly first to London. He would go to the – he thumbed into the back of the book, finding the page number of the illustration and the details on it – The Tate. He could just take a bus up to the Met, but, yes, this particular watercolor was in The Tate. The Tate: He liked the sound of the name already. Tate. That was a start. What else could he see and do in London? On his own.
“Bon voyage.” The scene in the MacAfee living room replayed in his head. Afterwards, huddled together in the taxi home, Sandy’s spin had been that Muffy’s bon voyage meant she was finally being caring, even motherly. No, it wasn’t good riddance.
Europe was their exit strategy, the one tailored to fit this gold-digger guy who’d come so close to the family, but finally hadn’t measured up. Fuck. Famous wealthy families sent their black sheep packing: remittance men, they were known as. Okay, he wasn’t a real family member, but he needed to be eased out. Oh, Sandy still loved him; he believed that, had to believe that if he was still functioning as a person, still able to read people…
But maybe not. Why shouldn’t her love for him be a hoax at this point, a ploy to ease him out of the picture? That would be more logical. He wasn’t the stud she had fallen for any more. He was this mess of an unemployed nothing hanging out all day in her loft, playing with watercolors to waste time until she came home, when finally he’d do something useful and cook dinner.
She was just pretending to stand by him. Park Avenue didn’t groove to Tammy Wynette, stupid!
He jumped up from the table, spilling some water out of the glass onto the rag paper of his watercolor, and kicked his feet in the air a couple of times to get the circulation going.
Okay, he’d give them what they wanted. And he’d be taking control of his life at the same time. Fuck all of them.
The flush of angry blood in his head cleared his mind. And he looked outward.
He was standing on the Altar of Food. He surveyed the expanse of the loft and then looked down: The watercolor on the dining table was half ruined. Water had stopped spreading and puddled on the glass tabletop. He felt despair and then looked again: Fucking A. The watercolor looked a hell of a lot better now!
He stepped down from the platform and strolled toward the bank of windows. As he moved, there was a chorus of honks from the street below that ended as abruptly as it had begun by the time he reached the windows.
He began checking off points in the conspiracy.
Bill had agreed to keep an eye on North Fork. He’d given Bill power of attorney while he was gone. Why had he agreed? And then Nancy had come up with the Europe plan. Nancy had always been in his camp his whole life. What about Sandy? That hot look in her eye when he’d stepped into the loft right back from New Hampshire, the way she’d run and grabbed him around the shoulders? The sex that night?
The traffic bunched up, stopped – a couple of honks – and then it started moving again.
Why the hell would Bill swindle him out of his puny-by-MacAfee-standards stake in North Fork? To bankrupt him so that Sandy would dump him? Sandy didn’t give a shit about money, which was why she was such a mess with it, as she herself crowed. Crowed? She bragged about it.
He turned away from the windows toward the Altar of Food and smiled at himself.
He’d reasoned himself back to trusting Bill. Trusting Sandy. Trusting Nancy. Trusting this idea of doing Europe.
Hey, Muffy was still “a work in progress” – what else was new?
Where was his cell? Time to make a move. He hadn’t put the fucking thing back on since leaving for New Hampshire. There could be headhunter messages.
None of them had the loft phone number. Shithead!
As he strode past the Altar of Food and toward the bedroom, the home phone caught his eye, stopped him in his tracks. First, call Nancy? Cousin in Paris? Go for it. But she’d slipped him that index card with all the Adrian Lee info, replete with e-mail. Still, she should know what he’d just decided and would give him that extra kick.
By the time he reached the phone, he’d sifted through the gay issue again. New York had made him cool about that. His hair always got the faggots looking. When they tried hitting on him? A compliment. But this thing: a gay in the family? Weird, but why not? Plus, this Adrian Lee would be lots older. Like Nancy hitting on him.
The hoot he let out echoed in the loft.
The chorus of jammed traffic started up again.
As he reached for it, the landline phone rang, jolting him. He thought Tony and hesitated to pick up.
“Yes?” No “hello” to start off, just a bark; he could hang up. “Oh, shit, Tim! Yeah, sorry, man. Yes, Sandy told me you’d called while I was up in New Hampshire. No, shit! You didn’t… actually… come by… Oh, man,” he began circling the loft, embarrassed and guilty. “But hey, hey!” Tim was venting. He’d been worried and now he was pissed off. “Look, man, it’s okay. Look. I’m going to Europe.” He pictured Tim being bowled over; the pause on the end of the line was what they call pregnant.
In less than five minutes a bon-voyage party had been organized here in the loft, and he would cook. “Even in these shit times we’d never get a table on such short notice in any of the places worth celebrating in.” Well, they would have done something for him at Union Square Café, but Chris suddenly relished the idea of doing a foodie farewell, some wild creation of his own.
Tim signed off so he could call the others. Tim Manx. Leo Milano. Gene Smith.
He was closer to Tim nowadays than to the others. Leo and Gene had apartments they shared with girlfriends and were as domesticated as cats. Tim would corral them easily through a last minute appeal; the girlfriends would be invited too.
Tim was now your basic Bachelor Pad Man. He’d put on paunch and his hair, as Tim saw it, was not just thinning but fast vanishing. Meantime, though, he’d become a barracuda of a lawyer. His new looks fitted the part. And not just because of the nostalgic red suspenders thing. His speech had become short and bull’s eye to the point.
Tim had thought up the restaurant gambit. So now it was on hold?
So, fuck, who had stepped in to help? Tim. Tim had been there for him…
Chris choked up.
He finally wiped his nose with the back of his hand and laughed out loud. Going to Europe would let Tim off the fucking hook.
Shit: What was he going to serve?
* * *
Sandy came home early. It was around four. And she had a little something, a little present from Betsy, she announced. She smiled, daring him to guess what. But then he could see she had already noted he hadn’t shaved; well, we can just call that designer stubble. He had gone slob; so what? He was in the ranks of the unemployed for fucksake.
No, it wasn’t the stubble. She was just standing there grinning. Was she actually waiting for him to guess? “What?” What was it, what was it… He didn’t fucking care what it was, didn’t give a flying fuck. “Come on. I’m not in a mood for guessing games.” Her smile dropped away. Her smile was his life. He’d fucked up again.
“Sorry.” Her tone of voice meant it. “It’s Ativan.” Click, click, click: So what was that for? Definitely medicinal. No party drug. His blank look triggered an immediate explanation. “It’s a little something to relax, like for panic attacks, stuff like that?” Ah! Hey, too late for that, was his answering thought. Did it work on upper brain or lower brain? Head or gut?
“Surprise! I’ve booked a flight. London, a week from this coming Sunday, evening flight. Had to book a return, so did it a month later, but it’s a ticket you can change. Nancy slipped me the cousin’s e-mail and stuff, just in case. I’ve already zapped him something pretty fucking charming.”
“Whaaa?” Her mouth was half open, slack. Her eyes welled up. “You what?”
He grinned wide. “Haven’t heard back yet. Sent it only,” he checked his watch, “an hour ago. It was that art book of yours that clinched it. A Turner watercolor. I was trying to copy it.”
She was standing frozen in place, five feet away from him. “Oh. Hey.” She wiped the back of her hand fast against her nose, blinked, and then sprang into action. In seconds she had planted a kiss on the cheek. She drew back, smiling, and then burst into her laugh. He loved that laugh. But now? She looked relieved. Was that it? Relief? So, was she looking forward to having him out of her hair?
“Let me see it.” She was beaming like a kindergarten teacher.
“The watercolor, of course.” She pursed her lips. Muffy’s bitchiness appeared as a glint in her eye. Or maybe not…
“No.” His one word answer. He had his second surprise for her. “I’ve also planned…”
She caught sight of the notebook and the watercolor things on the dining table and walked straight to it. Up the three stairs and was looming over it before he could do anything. “Come on. No.” Too late. But then maybe she’d love him all the more for it. Like a kid’s artwork? He was stunned then when she turned, her eyes glistening again, “It’s really beautiful, Chris.” She seemed to mean it! He felt total confusion. And then he was embarrassed for her, really. She must have flipped. He crossed to the platform: just a side-glance. Maybe he could see what she was talking about. But, no, it was the same piece of crap as before. Was she crazy? How could he count on her? What were the tears about?
“Hey, nice of Betsy to donate this Ativan stuff to my cause. Let’s have a look at it.” This was meant to be ironic, to get her away from the dining table. Except that it seemed to hit her, his decision, just then. She was supposed to look at least pleased.
“God, already this Sunday? That’s, what, in three days? Have you… have you checked your passport even?”
“Of course I did. I’m not as crazy as you think. It’s still good, valid.” They had gone to Saint Barts just last February. She should know it was still valid. She had been with him when he’d applied the year before that when they had gone to Egypt. “When did we go to Cairo?”
Instead of answering, she started laughing. He turned away and wandered over to the computer. And then: Ding! E-mail. He sat down at it.
“Oh, shit, it’s more forwarded junk from that guy Tony.” He swiveled around to her. “Sandy, the guy is stalking me.” So Tony had nothing to do either all day long except sit at his home computer and do, like, Christian chat, and forward stuff?
Her tone had changed totally. “Yup. He’s definitely after me. He’s staking me out for Jesus.” He said it strictly poker-faced, and then he burst into his famous ear-to-ear smile. Bingo! Sandy made a face and gave her head a little shake. Bad boy, signaled the shake.
She took off her coat then. Finally. She tossed it a few feet onto the sofa and pulled open her bag. “Ta-Dah!” She produced a silvery rectangle dotted with shrink-wrapped tablets.
What was he supposed to do? Grab them out of her hand? “Oh, and day after tomorrow? We’re having a dinner party here.”
“What?” He watched as she shelved the fact that he hadn’t consulted her. “Who? What?”
“Bon voyage thingie. Tim is coming, of course. And probably Leo and Gene. Tim is getting a hold of them. And probably their girlfriends.” He suddenly couldn’t think of either girl’s name.
“I like Laura. Why don’t we see more of them? She only works around the corner at Saint Martin’s Press…”
She was pivoting all over the place. “Sandy, Sandy! What am I going to cook for fucksake?” It wasn’t exactly panic, he felt. More like a challenge, competition, like the trading room in a way.
Sandy hooted at him. “Pheasant under glass.”
“What the fuck?”
“You know. Like the Marx Brothers? You don’t remember that great line when…”
“Hey, you’re on to something. Is it pheasant season yet? I could check it out at the Farmer’s Market Wednesday first thing.”
He watched her smile grow as she crossed the room. And then she was behind him. She bent to put her arms around him. She nuzzled that spot under his earlobe. “It’s going to be great.” Her voice sounded like sex.
“Oh, shit!” He pulled away. Sandy straightened as he looked up at her. “I’ve got to get that power of attorney to your dad.”
“Power of attorney?” Her fingers went to the nape of his neck. “You’re so romantic.”
* * *
Tuesday morning, and there was a Bible in their mailbox in the street-level entry foyer. He marched it straight out of the building in its bubble-wrap envelope – blast of street noises hit him – took the lid off the trash can, and then on second thought he ripped it open and only dropped the envelope in. Something made him leaf through the thing first. Of course: Lines were highlighted in yellow magic marker. Desecration? He didn’t read them. Lid back up, and in it went. The gold stamped letters Holy Bible vanished. He slammed the lid back down hard as if it might try to escape.
“I saw that!” Chris reeled around. A woman in a full-length black cashmere coat glared back at him, standing there unshaven in his green plaid shirt and jeans, and then moved away from him fast. A yellow cabdriver was “sitting” on the horn to hurry up a limo trying to inch closer to the curb a few doors up the block. He gave up; he couldn’t source the voice in the chasm of traffic echoing from the avenues on either end.
An icy gust hit: His body shuddered head to toe.
Maybe there hadn’t been a voice. He looked down at the lid of the trashcan. It seemed to have popped half off again. He moved to clamp it back down. “You can’t stifle Jesus. You can’t kill the Lord’s word.” His eyes shot to the right, this time toward a parked car. A young dude leaped out from the passenger seat, jack-in-the-box, and flashed a jokester grin at him. Chris mouthed, “Fuck you!” The guy burst out laughing. Chris jangled his keys like a weapon and headed back inside the building.
In the elevator, as it made its creaky industrial climb up, he heard: “Chewed up and spit out, chewed up and spit out.” This was no talking garbage can. It was his mind, his father’s voice channeled again. Can the dead talk back? Sure they can. This one was. Singsong. A playground taunt: chewed up and spit out.
The coffee mug was signed Art Institute of Chicago. It had a dishwasher-faded image labeled Seurat on it. It was a gift from Tiffy, Sandy’s best friend from Chapin, now married to a commodities trader in Second City aka Chicago (Tiffy did not find the city’s nickname amusing, evidently). He took a sip. He was surfing the Web for London tourist info and taking notes on a steno pad. The siren of a fire engine bleated its way down one of the avenues. The coffee was cold muck. The siren snapped him back to New York. He pushed the mug out of reach. He stood up, stretched and walked the mug to the kitchen sink and dumped the coffee out. He paced back across the space between the kitchen and the computer, his workstation nowadays. No jinking stuff on the screen. He pulled out the wheelie chair and sat again.
Where the fuck was he? Would he be happier if the loft was his? No, definitely not. He could now just walk away, fly off. This was kind of what everyone had been getting at, trying to cheer him up: the freedom thing. He stared at the image of the Tower of London on the screen and felt hollow. In London he would be alone, in a hotel room alone, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner alone. He had fucking planned a disaster for himself. He moved the mouse and clicked on Outlook Express. He had mail.
You were right to get in touch with me. Nancy has spoken highly of you. One of the many perks of having lived in Paris as long as I have is that I have a rambling apartment with rooms which are scarcely used, so I insist that you plan to stay with me.
It will be fascinating to see Paris again through fresh eyes…
He heard the voice of the e-mail speak in a British accent. Which was funny. Why Brit? The formality of tone?
But this Brit voice in his head prompted movie-set fantasies of Versailles, not Big Ben.
Hey, this would be an antidote or a reward, well both, for the solitary days in London. Touristy days. And it would be an introduction to Paris from the inside. Non-tourist visiting family. Whoa!
Later, while shaving, “insider factor” evolved from glittery, intimate introduction to everything Parisian to a nightmarish trap, the unknown commodity of an old gay man, a drooling predator out to get him.
He leaned forward for a close shave of his chin and almost nicked himself. Almost. Almost. He took a step back. There the fuck he was: the whole picture, the hard-nosed ex-trader dude, the one never fazed by faggots cruising.
Fuck this paranoia shit. He reached for the Ativan on the glass shelf to his left.
* * *
Harold Wenderstein, one step out of the elevator, rears back, beak of a nose flaring. His mouth gapes dramatically: “What a wonderful smell and… Oh dear, oh dear, The Altar of Food!” The elevator door clangs shut behind him and the elevator itself rumbles back into action. He stands there, frozen, a pear-shaped man in black tee shirt and black jeans. His hair is curly, thinning and a suspicious gingery brown color. Picture a cobra, rearing back to strike. His facial muscles betray a torrent of emotions, and then he spots him. His eyes light up, he steps forward, hand outstretched. “My boyfriend Chris,” smiles Sandy, “Harold Wenderstein.” He expects a weak fish hand, but it is a firm grasp that won’t let go. “Delighted.” His voice drops to a tobacco-rich baritone. His eyes do a thorough strip of him before beaming a camp approval over at Sandy. He knows Sandy loves it when her gay male friends lust after her boyfriends. He’s knows he’s not the first; he’s cool. She has already explained: Harold is the owner of the most extensive assemblage of fabrics for interior design on Planet Earth. During dinner she brings this up: “You just have everything, Harold.” Harold spreads his arms in happy acceptance of this immutable truth. And then he smiles modestly over at him and gives a little shrug. He pretends to care.
This is his first time hosting for Sandy. He makes the cocktails and serves them. Harold sits cross-legged on the sofa sipping his dry martini straight up, deep in decorator gossip with Sandy. He notices that he keep nervously glancing at the platform with the dining table and chairs. So when he sits down with them, he changes the subject: “That was really great what you called it, the – what? – Altar of Dinner?”
“No, no!” Harold breathlessly corrects him, “Altar of Food. That’s what it was called.”
“Didn’t Sandy tell you? My old friends Roger and Bob… Roger was an architect. Bob was what-they-call a promising playwright, aka waiter-actor-model. Drop-dead handsome.” He pauses in a moment of respect for male beauty and days gone by. “They bought this loft and transformed it from a sweat shop. The Altar of Food was Roger’s name for that platform dining area he designed. We did have a few dinner parties there, managed to. Lots of dope smoked, if I remember, though it’s hard to – remember, I mean – when there’s a lot of dope smoked, don’t you know,” his soft chuckle leads to a sigh, “I don’t have to tell you how the story ended. Plague. Fucking plague. Wiped out. All of them. I’m the lone witness to their existence, you see. Quite a burden at times,” and then comes a final sigh and a second’s pause. “Now in Giuliani York you have to fight your way through baby carriages and you can get arrested for a joint in your fucking pocket!”
“Did you know all about this, Sandy?” He feels suddenly like a trespasser, just the man living in Sandy’s house.
“Oh, well, yes. About the original owners, the ones before me. And then Harold said something when I gave him the address. I thought he might faint really, right, Harold?” She spreads a conspiratorial smile to include them all. “I had never met the previous owners…”
“No, that would have been impossible.” Harold’s voice is not only loud but abruptly hoarse. “It’s hard to reconstruct the present-day city from… Roger and Bob were what we worshipped. They were the gods. Okay, I’m drunk. I know you don’t get it, but I’m going on anyway, so listen. There was a world in this city before you Reagan wolves arrived,” Chris knows he means him, not Sandy, “it was a city that was the last gasp of the Counter-Culture; I suppose that’s what they write these days. The city was going down in flames. It was bankrupt. The golf-playing president? Oh yeah, Ford. Can you imagine: President Ford. Gee whizzikers. What a congenially bland smile and an aptitude for a gentlemanly golf game can do for one. But I digress. Okay. Get it? The city, the liberal New York City of the New York School of Artists, Rothko, A-N-D-Y, that New York was bankrupt. Ford, as in the headlines, said ‘Drop dead,’ which we did not do, not immediately. It took the election of Ronald Reagan to rape and transform the city from one of the arts to one of banking. I digress. I digress. Roger and Bob were gods. That’s how it was in gay New York. There was this hierarchy. Those who were on the members’ list for Flamingo. The ones who did Fire Island. They were the gods. It even got more rarified. There was a five hundred list, Lady Astor, shut up! But, ladies and gentlemen, like the Dame aux Camélias, our gods were essentially grand whores, now as can be seen as porn stars, except performing and wrenching hearts and dicks in real time then, no celluloid or videotape. You worshipped then from afar if you yourself were not god material. Needless to say, I was not god material. But I worshipped. And Roger and Bob were cool. They liked a bit of wit, and then the camp…” He stops for dramatic effect. Consciously. And to catch his breath. When he starts up again, his voice lowers to grandiose bitter. “Then came the Plague. And like the TB of old, these Dames of Camellias were, like – whoosh! – gone over night. It all happened so fast, it took your fucking breath away.” His face suddenly creases like a hand puppet and then his face lights back up, poise regained. “No,” he begins softly – the tirade now in parentheses – “the estate sold the loft. They died within a month of each other. Saint Vincent’s. Ward after ward. Like those World War One movies? All black and white? Nurses scurrying around? Man, like a bad-trip version of a night at Flamingo.”
“Flamingo?” His chuckle just pops out. Sandy covers for this: “It was the first fabulous gay disco? Before The Saint. You remember The Saint? No, I guess not. It was already closed by the time you moved to the City.” She turned to Harold. “Am I right?”
“Flamingo? Yes, but more. It was the gathering of the Fabulous. The most gorgeous men you could…” his voice trails off, leaving a theatrical pause hanging in midair, passion and anger firmly under control. Harold is good! He then drains his martini and looks expectantly at Sandy.
Harold is Adrian? Adrian is Harold?
A round of refills and he exits to the kitchen area behind a separating counter space, leaving Harold to continue chattering about long-gone gay life in the City. He’s glad to get away. “And now children. There are children all over the place. Manhattan is crawling with children. I suppose you two are going to have some. It’s the final Republican plot to kill New York…” He can hear Sandy laugh, Her laugh is nervous. He thinks, “what’s this all about,” as he bends to open the oven door and pull out the earthenware pot: his personal take on cassoulet. A perennial hit. Usually. What hits his nose then churns his gut. In the gust of steam as he lifts the lid with a mitted hand, all is revealed. The second or maybe the third martini… Fuck! Why hadn’t he set the timer? He slips the lid back on with shaking hands, then grasps the handles and lifts it carefully out so as not to compound disaster by burning himself. He sets the casserole on the stovetop. Panic. How can he salvage this dried out mess? He lifts the lid again. He takes the wooden spoon and delves down. A giddy rush of salvation runs from toe to head. It is only the top inch or so. The top layer of beans he can skim off. The ones right underneath will have a crunchy faux-crusty thing to it, but mixed in may soften a bit.
It is salvageable.
He announces dinner with his widest grin of confidence. What could this Jewish queen know about French cuisine from the Southwest? Either everything or nothing. He hasn’t uttered one word about actual food, except the Altar of Food, which they will call it ever after.
Harold rises from the couch with a whisper of a groan from aging limbs, straightens and aims for the platform. He, already at the Altar, steps to one side making the gesture that invites Harold to go first, vaguely suggesting a chair for him. “Ah, yes, how à-propos… a processional,” Howard places a hand on Chris’s shoulder. His eyes glisten with gin or something. Another sigh follows. He removes his hand and ascends the three steps.
Chris ceremonially lifts the casserole lid, and then Sandy takes over. The beans have steamed up again, and the smell isn’t half bad. Sandy serves Harold. Harold bends to waft the smell of the dish to his nostrils. So far so good. Quite the foodie gesture. He smiles up at him: “My, my!” Sandy serves him and herself, and then sits back down. “Bon appétit,” announces Harold in what sounds like an impeccable French accent to him, “I haven’t had a cassoulet since 1989 when Jack and I were in Toulouse,” he adds with yet another sigh. Jack is his deceased spouse… Oh fuck! Harold has been to Toulouse. Chris’s heart sinks to wallow in the depths of his shame and disaster. And then Harold’s pale smile after his first taste says it all.
The cassoulet was whirling around like water flushed down the drain as he opened his eyes. Sandy was perched on one elbow looking at him. “Hello there,” she bent to give his dry lips a kiss. “Not in a good place?”
“No. Not in a good place,” he propped himself up on both elbows. “But been in worse places. And this is?”
“Columbus Day. Monday. And very late. I’ve already been up for hours. It’s raining. Fall?”
“Oh?” He didn’t know how he felt about any of that. The dream was still too strong. “So what’s the schedule? Is there a schedule?”
“The housewarming?” She tilted her head from one side to the other like a metronome.
“Right.” He didn’t remember; he lied.
The East Village had gone through massive change since Reagan, so he’d heard, but he had never been there in his life even though it was walkable in twenty minutes. His fingers fumbled now with the smooth dark wood of the umbrella handle, upright between his legs as he sat in the cramped back of the cab; Sandy was staring out the window. She had on this retro blue vinyl raincoat she’d found, with this party in mind: It made her auburn hair go Technicolor red. They were heading across on Tenth Street; they were just passing Avenue A, now hipster town. He peered out through the foggy window at the rain-slicked world, red and bluish-white reflections off the street, then wiped the window with two fingers to see more clearly. Plenty of people walking around. Then Tompkins Square Park: riots there back in the Eighties. Some shithole hipster café thing on the corner of Avenue B called Life, and then they took a right down B. It was all sleazoid to him, but he kept his mouth shut.
Betsy’s present boyfriend had just bought a condo on B: The housewarming would be trendy, trendy. A couple of its windows managed a view of the Park, which made him a lucky devil? “Have I ever met this guy?” Sandy mumbled maybe. The guy worked in something on Wall Street. He’d only been the official boyfriend for a bit more than a month. No one knew much about him. One thing, they were selling condos over here for a fucking fortune these days. Everybody did know that.
The driver was slowing now, crawling, peering out at the numbers, and then suddenly he braked it. Sandy opened the door on her side, the sidewalk and Park side; the building was across the street. Chris peered through the partition at the meter, and then stuffed some bills into the tray, slid across the seat and out after Sandy.
What was that odor? Cat piss? Wet charred wood from landlord-torched buildings? General garbage? Junky puke? He slammed the door behind him. The cab pulled off, Sandy checked for traffic and led the way across Avenue B. Okay, so there was an awning from the door to the curb, had a fucking name, Christodora House, but it looked like a slum to him. Buzzed in, they rattled up four flights of grim concrete stairs, Eminem getting louder and louder, and reached a doorway wide open, spilling laughs, chatter and light out onto the landing.
Whoa! Betsy had spiked her hair magenta for the occasion and threw her arms around Sandy, then gave Chris two kisses as if they were already in Europe. He got out of his Burberry trench coat. Sandy was already holding a flûte of champagne in her right hand; her left was poised on her left hip, nonchalantly posed; she was doing that heron thing fashion models do. He handed his coat to a guy in a white shirt and black pants who already had Sandy’s vinyl number; Betsy handed him a glass of champagne. “It is just so fucking cool down here. East Village. The guys, Sandy. Just so much more…” she glanced at his Reagan haircut. “Pete thinks he must know you, Chris. Didn’t you trade at Lazard for a bit?” Chris nodded. It seemed too crazy to him that anybody he ever worked with would be living over here in the Alphabet Jungle. The music segued retro to Siouxsie and the Banshees.
And then the guy, the host, was in his face: “Shit, I know you, man!” He stuck his hand out. Yeah, Chris did recognize him, sort of, but the hair! He grabbed the outstretched hand hard, the confidence grip he’d perfected, which was now instinct. Betsy was crazy radiant: This was Pete. Pete, black turtle-neck, black jeans, shook his tousled blond head: “I know what you’re thinking – Chris, isn’t it? Yeah. I’m taking advantage of the break. A Brad-Pitt-for-a-day thing.” A solemn cloud descended over his face: “You didn’t get burned, did you?” Short laugh and Chris shook his head. “Great! Don’t you just love the break? Betsy tells me you’re in the same boat…” Chris heard “scrap heap” in his head. “…Like I am. Well,” he drawled and took a long swig of his Becks, “you get five minutes to, like, explore around, furnish a new place, do a little art scene, the all-night scene around here and…” he finished off his beer. “But you don’t look like you’ve realized all that yet. Hey, dude, just do it, you know, carpe diem. The head hunters will be calling in six months.” He put a hand on Chris’s shoulder and gave him a leading push, “Let me show you the place.” Chris was so fucking embarrassed that how he felt about his situation was written all over him, readably by perfect strangers.
The living room was big. An old school classroom or something like that? Pete led him through the mixed crowd of dancers and stand-up drinkers to get to the windows. He stepped to one side so Chris could take in the view: that voilà moment. Zooming over a square black tangle of park tree tops toward the corner of Tenth and A, and then along Tenth with a few townhouses, stairs rising to parlor floors, and then acres of tarpaper tenement roofs and then way off up town, blinking red-white-and-blue, a fog-shrouded glimpse of – yes! – the Empire State Building: the supreme purpose of Pete’s voilà moment. Or was that just the old Met Life… Anyway, looking across a slum war zone to the Castle. Sort of. That was his take. Chris gave Pete the grin he craved, so cool but, hey, appreciative. Dude to dude. “Isn’t it? Just. Yeah!” Pete’s very wide cool grin subsided, “You still don’t look like you’re enjoying your break, though.” Next came the concerned look. “Like I said. Carpe that diem.” Chris chuckled. Fucker: Manhattan was bursting with these guys.
Pete now started stupidly staring at Chris’s perfectly parted auburn hair. He knew from the curl to the guy’s lip that he was coming in for the kill. So, his hair was preppy… Preppy was not cool, but he liked it. “Dude, you can’t go to London like that, man. It’s not a business trip. Let me take you to my guy on Saint Mark’s. Tomorrow? Like two-ish? He’ll fit you in for me.” Bam!
“How do you know about London?” Before Chris could moderate it, he could hear his own anger, laced with paranoia: Oh, poor Chris is so fucked up. Betsy had to donate some Ativan…
Pete shrugged and looked down. He was staring at Chris’s penny loafers now and next came the brown corduroys. Brooks Brothers was doing him no favors with this crowd. Pete looked up and smiled pityingly.
The Talking Heads hit the room.
Pete yelped: “Don’t you love the Eighties?”
Sandy had glided up to Chris’s side and touched his shoulder. Chris flinched; she put an arm around his waist and gave him something between a quick poke and a tickle.
“Pete thinks I need a new haircut for London.”
Sandy screwed up her face, stepping back and away, raising both hands for a frame shot, and began to nod. “What did you have in mind, Pete? Something like yours? Okay, I’ll buy that. London is trendy. London is cool. Our guy is on vacation. Yeah.” Pete gave Chris a dude nod: A woman’s judgment is final in these matters. “And he’s on to Paris after that,” she added, slipping her hand back around his waist. “A mystery uncle.”
“Cousin.” Chris had given in about the haircut without realizing. Fuck, why not?
“Cousin.” Her arm circled his waist again.
Pete looked from one to the other waiting for more story. “So… So, okay, it’s a deal? I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know when he can fit you in. Exactly. Man, I’ll even take you there.” He produced a singsong sigh, “Nothing else to do,” and then burst out laughing.
“Thanks, Pete. You’re going out of your way…” He felt this nice rush at lying right to Pete’s face. Ativan was so good.
“No problem. Hey, dude, same old boat we’re in. And it’ll give me some kind of focus for the day. Plus, I like Saint Mark’s Place, don’t you?” Chris smiled back. Saint Mark’s Place? He had no opinions about Saint Mark’s Place. From Astor Wine and Spirits you could see it. And then he realized he certainly did have an opinion: shithole. Old hippy stuff? Beads. Incense. Bars full of retired Pollacks at two in the afternoon. This was trendy? He didn’t get it. Retro BS.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Chris added, enjoying a second rush from lying. Boy George crooned: “…Do you really want to hurt me?”
After the initial shock that this lanky hairdresser, blond hair spiked in lightning bolts, dressed in black leather from plunging neckline to cowboy boots, was going to lay hands on his head and transform him, Chris gave in to his fate, maybe because Ativan still cooed comfortingly in his blood stream. He watched the mirror placidly as the guy with the Ronald Reagan haircut became the straight Out-of-Bed tousled trendy. What was this? Okay, he thought, something sexy about looking like you’ve just woken up, hair in all directions, a memoir of lovemaking and that proverbial roll in the hay.
He’d gone back down to Wall Street for his last haircut, back to the clubby, faux oak-paneled barbershop of George the Greek, this time no appointment necessary, because he had gone off-peak, which meant when the Street was working. “Same as always, Mr. Chris?” spoken as if the world were constant, habits eternal, everything as smooth as the strop George sharpened his razor on. He had left feeling great, his current loose-ended condition just a blip in the great Mississippi of life. The feeling had lasted fifteen minutes or so and evaporated just before the Union Square stop on the F-train.
But that was one haircut ago.
Pete popped up now in the mirror behind him. “Hey! Wow!” A quick comparison laid Chris’s fears to rest: They did not look like twins. Sean the Leather Hairdresser whisked the great black bib away in a ta-Dah flourish. Chris scrambled to his feet, leaned in toward the mirror to check for sideburn length, and then stepped back. It wasn’t bad. Sandy was going to love it. He laid three twenties on Sean’s palm, and the two of them headed out the door, leaving behind all the chemical spray haze and lounge music, black enameled walls and mirrors, and beehive hair dryers isolating women reading Cosmo or Vanity Fair. Chris was old fashioned: He still called a place like this unisex and had never set foot in one, ever.
St. Mark’s hit full in the face. It wasn’t just the light of day, because it had turned threateningly overcast, but more the tumult of people, mostly young trendies, NYU students probably, and the odd babushka shuffling through it all, wearily and warily. Putrid strawberry incense. Retro rock, New Wave stuff from the early Eighties, all crackling and booming out onto the sidewalk. “Hey,” elbowed Pete, “let’s go for a beer.” He lunged, shoving a bit, and directed him east. “There’s this jukebox. Polka music. But great beer in steins. It’ll get you in that European frame of mind.”
“I’m going to London, not Warsaw.” But he followed Pete. Why not? He was in nooo hurry. Pete leaped down two steps and opened the door of the bar for him. Inside was somber, humid with tap beer, and a couple of tables with gray whiskered gents playing games with cards or dice. Pete seemed to know the fortyish female bartender with the blond chignon twist, hard as a stale bagel, and exchanged chitchat and knowing grins as he picked up two steins and brought them over to the table Chris had chosen near the window. Those dark recesses where the regulars sat just were too much for him of an afternoon. They were like his mood usually ran around the hour before Sandy would bounce out of the loft elevator or call to explain delays or suggest meeting somewhere. He now glanced at his watch. Yes. Same time of day, too. Four-ish. A deadly hour.
But, hey, wasn’t that what the Brits called “teatime?” Chris drifted toward teatime.
Bam. Pete half slammed, half slid a stein down in front of him. Mumbling that draft beer was the best, he sat down opposite and clinked his on Chris’s; Pete took a long slurp that left his upper lip a touch foamy. Instinct was to tell Pete, but nah, really? Draft? Of course the fuck it was! Pete sat back, as in satisfied artisan, and exclaimed again how great Chris looked. Ativan overrode a voice telling Chris: “because you looked shit before, dude,” Pete’s unvoiced subtext. That let Chris bask for a minute: If only there was a mirror somewhere, where he would so like to check himself out one more time. But, whatever, he would just take a sip of this beer. It was so good; he was surprised how thirsty he was. He drank a third of it right down. “Nice!”
Pete sat with one hand on his stein; he seemed anchored there to the weathered maple tabletop. “Everybody’s got a psy-doc these days. Except us.”
“Oh?” Everybody was a big word. Sandy didn’t have a shrink, but she was probably the only one in that Upper East Side pack. “You don’t?”
“Nah. Me? Bulldozer.” He poked his chest with his thumb.
Right, that’s what he didn’t like about Pete. He was a Crusher: destroy anything, anyone in his path. Yep, he knew the type. The Chris way to work was methodically toward goals, steadfast, unflinching, politely, although when he met an obstacle… “You do bulldozer; I’ll go to Europe.”
Pete laughed. “That’s so cool. You know we’re – what – kind of like brothers-in-law?” Pete’s eyelids half-closed in deep self-satisfaction: no doubts, no fears, certainly no anxiety about his next job or his place in the universe.
“Oh?” Meaning Betsy and Sandy were, like, family. Okay. “You could say…” As if he could fucking identify with this guy. Pete was that dude who happily swung from branch to branch of the tree of life. Pete must have been born with a silver spoon stuck in his pie-hole. “Except I had to deliver pizzas to get myself through B-school.”
“Oh, yeah?” Pete leaned forward close enough to wrap Chris in his beer breath. “Dude! Secret? So did I. Well, not pizzas exactly…” He sat back and nodded. “So, hey, we’ve done it, man. We’ve both hooked two nice little Park Avenue fish. Now we reel ‘em in. And bingo!” He backed off to chortle and then leaned forward again.
Hey, Pete, your designer stubble just makes you look like one of the homeless, ‘cause your face is too pudgy.
And then whoa! Chris was back: This could be a fucking trap. And then bam Pete said it: “Don’t stay in Europe too long, dude. The family could be trying to get you dumped.”
“I love Sandy.” Pete’s eyes danced at him then, mocking him, mouth not moving.
“And you think I don’t?” He leaned in, beer-breath rich, and then back out. “Not your Sandy, of course.” He chortled and then shrugged a Donald Trump piece-o-cake shrug. “Betsy is a very hot lady.” Eyes dead serious, daring him to think he implied otherwise. Pete had read The Art of the Deal.
Chris finished his beer and eyed his watch. He stood up slowly, scraping the chair against the linoleum floor: “Gotta go.” He didn’t bother to make up a reason. Pete finished off his beer and stood up as well, unfazed, still smiling. He reached out and put a hand on Chris’s shoulder as they headed out the door.
On Saint Mark’s they waved goodbye, just old pals, Pete heading east to Tompkins Square, Chris west.
Even keel, that’s how Chris felt; those were the words in his head. He ambled toward Fourth Avenue and crossed Astor Place. And then his mind segued to loathsome.
Another kind of Chris would have stood up and smashed Pete in the face. Reel ‘em fucking in?
He felt the flare rising against the Ativan. But smashing faces had never ever been his way.
There was one sickening ounce of truth in the air between them. First had come Sandy’s wry grin, her own auburn hair, and her fast backhand. When the Park Avenue thing rose up, like, while they were having their first drink together, her treat. So, was he supposed to hold Park Avenue against her? Okay, Pete: Yuck, yuck. But, nah, he was no Pete. No gold-digger. He had his own gold. He’d had it when they’d met. So cool and…
And then he noticed.
The gay cruise quotient was way up! And women were cruising him too. So: the haircut.
Broadway opened up into Union Square. The sky was easily visible now and filling with dark clouds. An umbrella had never crossed his mind when he’d left the loft. It was okay. It had been explained how to maintain the haircut, not difficult with a jar of that designer hair-glue he’d bought before leaving the salon.
As he headed up to Park Avenue South, great globs of water started landing on him. Fuck! Sandy had to see the work of the master fresh from his own hands. Time to jog. There was the supermarket at the corner and there was always something to get.
Just in time. As he pushed the cart up the fluorescent aisle, pellets of rain began to whack the plate glass windows. He was in the veggie section. The illumination made everything look snappy and fresh. Even the lettuce. But he knew this trick. And he didn’t need veggies. What did he need? Cheese! Cheese was always good.
As he waited at the checkout, a Vermont goat cheese and an Italian Taleggio, plus a small box of water crackers in his basket, the racket of rain pelting the plate-glass windows just stopped. Like that. He grinned. It was a shower. And then the checkout line stopped moving.
Waiting made him crazy; he did not need cheese. So what the fuck was the problem? Hello. A woman ahead of him seemed to have trouble paying with – fuck-all – food stamps? What the fuck was she doing in the neighborhood even?
A gum-smacking teenage girl with green hair was waiting between him and Food-stamps Woman. The girl was tapping her foot and jiggling her basket on the conveyor belt, humming something under her breath like, “Whatever, whatever, whatever, whatever…”
Suddenly he switched and sided with Food-stamps Woman. Green-hair bitch, cool it.
And then Food-stamps Woman glanced behind her nervously.
Oh shit! He tried to turn his face away quickly, but she flashed recognition. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, gave her his most wry smile. She turned back to the cashier and got her transaction done with. Would she wait for him? Oh, shit, please, no.
He stared down into his basket, trying to read the small-print Italian on the Taleggio package out loud in his head.
And then Ms. Green Hair was done. He now piled his three things on the belt. Bam-bam. Quickly bagged. Debit card whipped through the reader.
He looked up. Standing near the door, there she was waiting for him. Her smile paled as he came closer. He bit the bullet: “Maureen?”
“You remembered my name,” she beamed at him with such relief he was devastated. “Chris?” He nodded. “You’re not working either, I guess.” Oh, no, he didn’t want this camaraderie. They were now face to face. “I know you saw the food stamps.” Her look challenged him to deny it. He gave his best fuck-all shrug. “It’s been a couple years, right? More than that, I think. You were at Lehman when I was.” Yeah, he couldn’t understand why she would need food stamps, though. Didn’t she have a husband or boyfriend who was a partner somewhere? “Doug was on the hundred-and-first floor.” His gut wrenched. “They gave me stamps,” she giggled and pulled a jade-green kerchief off her head. Her hair was pixyish blond. She shook it for a second. She had to look up slightly to meet his eye; he hated then being taller. “Everything goes to pay the mortgage.” She read his mind suddenly. “Those big settlements? Nothing yet. Not for people in my situation. We weren’t officially married. Were going to be, funny enough. Still, eventually… I’ve got proof, witnesses, nobody’s giving me a ‘you’re a liar’ thing. It’s just more complicated. It’s taking lots and lots of…” Her eyes watered, her chin crinkled. “But on the bright side, little Jason is doing great. We’d decided on that name before… He’s with Doug’s mother right now. In Queens. I’m really lucky there. Still, I’m looking for work right now. Not a great job market,” she chuckled. If this was meant to make him feel better, it failed. He couldn’t take this and did the unforgivable: He looked away.
Saved: A plastic-kerchiefed woman came by carrying two bags, one in each hand; they stepped aside a bit to give her room to exit. The door opened automatically onto the street, letting in traffic noise. Suddenly that supermarket smell of boxes and vegetables and cold meat made him feel sick to his stomach.
“I gotta go. Take care.” Mentally, he saw himself reach forward to squeeze her arm for comfort, but in reality he made a beeline out the open door after the woman with the two bags.
The rain that had stopped looked ready to start up again. Run.
Whoa! The Farmer’s Market did have pheasant! The season, explained the vendor from Salt Spray Farms near Montauk, had just officially started on the first of October. Lucky Chris bought two. Tim had corralled Leo and Gene for Saturday night – no small feat at the last minute – and Leo was bringing Laura – they were living together – who, if she loved free-range chicken, should love pheasant. Gene was coming on his own; Kim was in London consulting.
Next step was to search through Sandy’s cookbooks for a recipe. The one that struck him first was one with sauerkraut. The book was in French. He was excited he could still handle some French after all these years. Good sign for the Adrian thing?
Okay, the recipe was simple: the pheasant, along with the kraut, bacon, some Sylvaner – an Alsatian white that he loved – and some juniper berries. Where was he going to find juniper berries? He’d never used them before. Turned out the Food Emporium, his local supermarket, had them in the spice rack. New York, New York!
Everything was spread out on the butcher-block counter top. Sandy volunteered as sous-chef, but there wasn’t really that much to do. He used thick-sliced packaged bacon. The recipe called for the bacon to be blanched. “This is weird. There won’t be any great bacon sizzle.”
Sandy shrugged, looking very Gallic. “In Paris when they do choucroute garnie, it’s always with these thick bacon slices, usually with a little nib of bone somewhere, and, yeah, they’re not fried. Guess they have been blanched. I’ll put some water on.” She set a big aluminum pot, their lobster pot, into the sink and turned on the tap. “You’re going to just love Paris. The food, you won’t believe it. I’ve never been the same since.” Right: She’d done her junior year there. But Bill had said the same.
Chris was melting butter in the big flameproof earthenware pot that would hold the pheasants, waiting to brown the birds. “You’re channeling your old dad?”
“He didn’t coach me, if that’s what you mean.” She turned off the tap before giving him a kiss behind the ear.
“Do that again and we’re in the bedroom and the dinner is history.”
“Yes, chef.” She hoisted the pot out of the sink and set it on the gas stovetop. Click-click-click: She twisted the knob and the gas was lit. It would take a while to come to a boil. She turned to watch him carefully browning first one pheasant, then the other, on all sides. Hanging in front of his nose and above the stove were ladles, spatulas, slotted spoons, mashers. His expression was set, serious, all concentration. He carefully rotated the birds one at a time in the butter with two large spoons. He looked as great when he cooked as playing tennis. She could spot the concentration of the winner trader.
She was going to miss him. She turned away.
So, not the power smell of sizzling bacon, but there was something already fragrant about browning the pheasant in butter: It would be more pungent than chicken. He had eaten pheasant pâté but not the bird itself. The one famous difficulty with pheasant? Turning dry and tough. The breast was the trickiest part. It would have to be timed perfectly and tested. No Harold cassoulet this time.
Chris carefully layered the bottom of the casserole pot with the blanched thick-sliced bacon. On top he placed the pheasants using both hands. Around it he stuffed the sauerkraut, then stood back. He licked his fingers. “I think this is going to work,” he shot Sandy a glance, “want a lick?” She made a face as she shook her head. He laughed and washed his hands before opening the small jar of juniper berries and sprinkling around six of them. The Sylvaner was already opened. He splashed a big quantity over the whole thing until he could almost see the level of the wine reach the top of the sauerkraut and birds. He put it on the stovetop and lit the gas. Bring it to a simmer, so releasing the alcohol in the wine, he read, then put on the lid and slip the whole thing into the convection oven, medium heat. The recipe called for doing it on the stove, but he preferred the idea of it roasting in the oven, somehow. Gut feeling? He’d check it in twenty minutes.
Dinner was for seven-thirty. He got up from the couch to check the bird. Inside, the oven was still warm. He pulled out the rack with a mitt and lifted the lid: puff of steam. He poked at the breast: seemed juicy. A hand grabbed his butt. “Whoa!” She did a pose. This look: wide black silk slacks and a frilly black silk blouse? He wasn’t getting dressed up for this. There was this silver belt like a garter snake around her waist. He grabbed hold of that slim waist and pulled her close. She pulled backwards.
“You’ve got grease on your apron.”
The buzzer rang.
“Hey, like the haircut, man!” Tim had arrived with two bottles of 1990 Vosne-Romanée, and with his coat still on, marched them into the kitchen area, found the corkscrew and opened them both. He sniffed the cork and handed it to Chris for his judgment: “Clean.” Chris sniffed: “A touch of fruit. Definitely not corked.”
Tim didn’t hide his relief. Worrier. Which was part of his charm. “It might be a tad tannic,” he went on to frown. “Let’s have a glass and…” Chris pulled a proper Burgundy glass, goblet-shaped, out of the cupboard, and Tim poured a half-inch and then swirled. Chris was going to have to change the glasses already set out on the Altar of Food. “Hey, look at those legs, man!” They laughed then like frat boys, which they had never been.
Still, “Oh yay.” Sandy signaled stupid from across the room.
Anyway, it was party time. Tim and Chris were lost in the wine. The color was ruby brilliant with an interior glow from the depths of the glass. Tim raised the rim to his nose. “I think we’ve got a winner. Cost a fucking fortune, so…” He swirled again and took a sip, sucked, and slurped it in his mouth, then swallowed in small gulps. “Yes!” He scrunched his eyes shut, and then opened them wide. “Man! Whoa!” His eyes danced in his head; his cheeks flushed red. He handed the glass to Chris. “Got a carafe though? It could use a good breathing. Definitely a tad tannic.” Chris sniffed and took a sip. He didn’t suck and slurp, just let it sit in his mouth, then slowly swallowed, allowing its fragrance to float up into his head through his nose.
“Wow! This is a benchmark.” Chris had never tasted a Burgundy like this. “It’s an education.”
“In a glass. Yeah. And to think you’re going to be in its home country. When do you hit Paris?”
“Not quite sure. I thought I’d give London some time. Maybe a couple of weeks? There’s a lot there.” Tim nodded; he’d been over a few times for the firm. He’d been wined, dined, had a few women, and worked like fuck-all. The Brits seemed always looking to trip him up. He had to be on his toes; no time for museums, that sort of stuff. One night he’d been taken to a gala something at Covent Garden. He was not an opera fan, knew nothing about it, but kept his mouth shut; by clenching his jaw randomly, he’d kept from falling asleep. What opera was it? No clue. Paris was another story. He’d only been to Paris for pleasure.
“You’re in for a treat.”
“That’s what everybody keeps saying. Over and over. Is that kinda, like, bad luck or what? Anyway, the Tim Burgundy is going to be a genius match with the pheasant.”
“Gentlemen, it’s my turn.” Sandy pushed between them and took the glass from Chris’s hand and then sipped. “Well, well, well! Hats off, Mr. Manx… if I had a hat.” She put the glass on the counter and went over to give Tim a kiss on each cheek, no air-kiss. Tim’s whole head reddened. Chris grabbed the glass and pressed his nose inside so Sandy couldn’t see him grinning. And then, again, he was swept away by the fragrance of the Burgundy.
When Leo arrived with Laura and two bottles of Cristal, Chris knew they’d all been in cahoots, planning. So how was Gene going to top this? Gene was quiet, but the most competitive of them all. He always needed to get even for all the tax accountant jokes.
Laura snatched the bottles away from Leo. “Let’s get these in the fridge. We can’t open anything until Gene gets here.” She glanced at her watch. “Not very punctual for an accountant.” Sandy took one of the bottles.
“Great choice.” They crossed the loft side by side. “It spells disco to Chris.” Laura didn’t seem to register anything snide there. Luckily. Did she remember Chris and Krug? No. Sandy was glad Laura had not picked up on her snarky remark. She needed to start all over again with Laura.
And then, “Oh, it was, to tell the truth, a bit all about us.” Laura stopped a few feet from the fridge door. Her face was saying: Ask me why?
Sandy opened the door and slipped the bottles in – they were already chilled — before asking. “Oh?”
“I could say, guess, but I won’t.” Laura gave her hoop earrings a jangle to get a grin out Sandy. “We’ve decided to do it.” Sandy nudged the fridge door shut with her hip, staying glued to Laura. “Get married.”
“Oh, wow, Laura,” Sandy froze. She felt she’d been whacked. “That’s so great.”
“Yeah,” beamed Laura. Sandy moved immediately forward to give her a peck on the cheek. “Thanks,” Laura’s face registered pleased surprise and then settled back into her usual irony. “Kind of a cliché thing in that… We’ve been thinking about kids, see. I know, I know. Marriage thing not necessary, but… The Milanos? Now, come on, what do you think? They’ve been good so far, the parents, very, very good. But having a kid and not being married? I think that would be a stretch. A stretch way too far.”
“You aren’t pregnant, are you?”
Laura grinned back: “Not yet. But I threw away the pills yesterday, just flushed them down the john, well, we both did, side by side. In the bathroom! You should have been there. We had to laugh at ourselves right after. But, you know, ceremonies. Ritual. I’m going to have to get used to the Catholic stuff. Leo doesn’t believe in any of it, but, you know, it’s got to be a church wedding or it’s not a Milano wedding.”
“Oh, I always thought you were Catholic too.”
“Nope. You’re thinking of Chris’s thirtieth? I lied. Daddy is French Canadian, of course, and Mom is Irish from Bronxville, but no religion. Nada. I was raised that it was unimportant. Like, why are we here, where did Grandma go when she died? Both of them, Dad and Mom, they just shrugged like they’d rehearsed it together. No one knows for sure, they’d said. But it’s probably just over? Over! Can you imagine? Telling a thirteen-old girl that? I mean, like, you still want stories. I cried that night. I mean, for Grandma. Then I guess I just got used to it. You die, and it’s over.”
“We do the Episcopal thing, not that the MacAfees take religion seriously either. Family tradition. You know that.” She could see Laura was trying to remember.
“Oh, Saint Bartholomew’s, I bet,” cooed Laura abruptly. “I love that Byzantine thing. Am I right?”
“Daddy pal-ed up with Jackie O. to save it.” Why had she blurted that? Laura brought out the bitch in her. Odd.
“Oh really?” drawled Laura. “Because I just loved that woman.”
What the hell: “Saw her a couple of times. I was just a kid.” She remembered finding the famous woman’s cold poise scary. And then Jackie’s funny laugh. “I was struck by that woman’s determination even as a kid. Yes, I was lucky. An icon of history.” Laura stood there waiting. Sandy realized she had nothing more to say. “That’s it.” If only she hadn’t mentioned it at all.
The buzzer rang.
“It’s Gene!” Chris yelled the obvious to cut from Leo, who had launched into eating in Emilia Romagna, the part of northern Italy where Nona Milano lived. Like, whatever. London? Paris? It was now safe to turn back to Leo: “So who’s gonna pop the cork, you or me?”
Leo was up and out of the couch while Chris said, “you or me?” “No,” he was already halfway there when he turned to answer, “I have to do it.” He passed Sandy arranging glasses on the kitchen island.
Leo snatched one of the bottles out of the fridge and went to the sink. He was not a man to take chances with spillage or explosions.
The elevator door swung open: “Ta-Dah!” Gene strode in, arms wide, his parka already unzipped showing paunch under his gray cashmere turtleneck, and let the door clang shut behind him. He stood there as they applauded. His hands were out and empty. And then he reached into both pockets and out of each produced a medium-sized tin of Russian beluga.
“Oh, shit, Gene!” Chris had read all the Russian mafia and illegal caviar stories. “Don’t worry, man, it’s vetted. None of that fucked up stuff you read about. This has the pedigree. Saw the import papers myself.”
“Fucking A.” The guys were too much. Chris swallowed hard to steady his emotions and then laughed for cover. “Let me take those off your hands, dude.”
Leo suddenly popped the cork, followed by hoots, as he waved the bottle in the air. “Whoa!” yelled Leo over the uproar, “This is to toast…” Sandy grabbed the bottle out of his hands and filled the glasses carefully, cutting short his announcement.
They all moved in around the island. Chris put the two cans of caviar down on the table.
Leo grabbed a glass: “Okay. The Toast. Chris?” Chris took one and the others followed. “Bon voyage, guy!” He turned to Laura, “And next, to my future bride to be.”
“Serious? Wow, man, that is so, so cool.” Gene leaned over and gave Laura a kiss, missing her mouth only because Laura turned in time.
“You horny devil.” Laura said over her glass, and then took a sip. “Does Kim know about all this?”
Gene put on a disappointed child face. “All what?” So Laura was a bitch; he loved bitch. He raised his glass in toast. “You guys, hey; all the happiness on Planet Earth. And kids too.”
Sandy sipped her champagne and watched as Chris went from surprise to worried look in a flash; Ativan had made him highly, blatantly readable. And next, she saw he was going to flip. “Oh, yeah, sure. I guess that’s the idea, right? Getting married? Kids. Is that a safe bet? I mean, bringing kids into this fucking terrorist world?”
No one said a word. No one looked at each other. The traffic on the street below filled the loft.
Leo broke the silence with a whoop of a laugh, “Yeah. Not to worry. Hey, Europe. You’re going to go crazy over there. Poor Sandy,” he turned to her, “you’ll never see this dude again. French women are…” He caught Laura gearing up to kick him. “Like, very carnivorous.”
“Carnivorous?” Sandy clinked Leo’s glass. “I’ll be on the first plane over. I don’t want teeth marks on my man.” She turned directly to Chris. “Hey!” And then he was back, a confused smile on his face, back from somewhere not so good. She blew him a kiss.
Chris raised his glass: “And to this dude here,” he bowed, “who’s gonna storm Old Europe.” They drank to that. No hooting this time. “And, oh shit, caviar time!”
Chris and Sandy took a can each and divided up the caviar on small white plates. In minutes they were sitting down at the Altar of Food to drink champagne and eat beluga with a teaspoon. Chris tried a dab of sour cream on a tip of toast and spooned beluga on top, popping it in his mouth, and then washing it down with Cristal. And then he just took a spoonful and put it in his mouth. “Does this define decadence or what?” His eyes lit up as the little black pearls popped. “Awesome, Gene.” The others chimed in. Gene gave a couple of nods and basked in his victory. “How did you get hold of it, again?”
“Smuggler.” They all laughed in one roar. “Okay, okay, you think you know who? Not Kim. She’s too straight for that. A friend of mine… has this dealer. The dealer has the best coke in Manhattan. And, now, suddenly, there’s beluga. I was afraid about refrigeration stuff during travel?” He frowned and then burst out laughing. “Gotta take chances in this life, right guys?”
“And if we’d flipped the lid and it was a stinking black mess?” Tim was doing his lawyer number.
“Oh, see, I’ve got this back-up. But I can’t show it to you now with your lawyer’s hat on. You’re obliged to turn in suspected felons or something, right?” So Gene had coke on him? Did that mean they’d all hit Limelight after dinner?
Tim cleared his throat then: “Did someone just say something?”
Chris laughed at him and then jumped up from the table. “Gotta check the beast in the oven. Anyone hear a bing?”
Gene never produced the coke. Limelight was mentioned once, but no one took the bait. By one o’clock everyone had gone home.
Chris put the few pieces of pheasant in a baggy and zipped it locked. The sauce had been consumed to the last drop. “Should I save the kraut?” Sandy was bending over, putting plates in the dishwasher.
“You’re reminding me that the leftovers will be for me?” She straightened up. She pictured herself alone in the loft, and not just for a weekend but for weeks. She welled up. She’d turned to hide her face from him, but Chris grabbed her shoulders.
“Why don’t you come?” He breathed it into her ear. “You know you can come. You don’t need the money from the business.”
She stroked at his hand. “We’ve been through this. Betsy can’t handle it alone.” She saw, first the doubt, and then the acceptance hit. “We’re partners.”
“Yeah, but so are we.”
“Okay. Okay.” She held both his hands tight to her. “But we’re not splitting up. You’ll be back.” She turned then, a bit scared by her own words. The pit of her stomach went cold.
Chris kissed the side of her neck; he moved one hand under her blouse. “You’re damn right I’ll be.” Both her hands moved instinctively around his back. Her heart began pounding at the feel of him hard against her.
She met his mouth, slipped her tongue into his smile, and off they were again.
He opened his eyes. It was dark. He had no idea what time it was. He didn’t recognize anything. Doesn’t matter, whispered Ativan, and he fell back to sleep.
A terrific backhand and, just barely bouncing on the balls of his feet, the ball lands right in Scott’s court. Right! Inside he’s jumping and screaming victory, while actually he walks casually to the net and shakes Scott’s hand. Scott is his age, but blond hair wispy and thinning. He is also sweating like a man not in much shape. Half moons of sweat stain his shirt under his arms. They’re both in tennis whites, but Chris looks crisp and knows it. The rooftop court overlooks the Midtown skyline: top of the world. It’s June and the longest day of the year. He glances back at the viewing lounge like a victor waiting for the crowd to throw roses, but, of course, it’s empty and this is just a friendly game after work on this, his first million-dollar trading day. Coasting nicely on adrenalin, Golden Boy is, when he sees a woman smile at him from the back of the court. She’s in classic tennis whites, short pleated skirt and all. Double-take: She’s a redhead like him and then because her smile is just, well, riveting. Why riveting? Find out. He walks over to her and just says hello. “Hi,” she says back. And then he hears that matter-of-fact Park Avenue accent of hers. He’s in heaven. “Cool back-hand,” she punctuates this with a flash of green eyes. Manhattan Plaza Racquet Club. Nine hundred bucks a year. Worth every penny, now that he’s met her.
He knows they’ve clicked, that he’ll see her again, but then she says: “Thirsty for a beer? I’m buying.” He bursts out laughing and nods. She sticks out her hand, “Sandy?” and waits for his name.
When he opened his eyes again her smile evaporated, and he knew then that he was looking at plush pea-green curtains, through which peeked sunlight, and that he was in London.
He snuggled for a minute under the covers, savoring it all: the victory, the million-dollar-day, Sandy’s smile. London hotel room! Then he threw back the covers and sprang literally out of bed. He landed like a broad jumper and threw his arms up in the air. Gingerly and naked he walked barefooted to the curtains and peered through the gap. Down below lay a rectangular park with bright yellow-leafed treetops, traffic circling it soundlessly due to the double-glazing the bellhop had pointed out for his appreciation. Russell Square. Bloomsbury. And a bar that had watered Virginia Woolf, said the website, along with a restaurant named after her. So, who’s afraid, he yucked to himself. No, he was feeling great. What an incredible, fantabuloso, over-the-top, unbelievably brilliant idea to jet here!
He’d arrived at Heathrow as dawn was breaking, with everything steeped in gray, sky heavily clouded. There had been this funny disinfectant smell as he’d moved in a daze toward Immigration. Like the disinfectant there was something oddly familiar to everything and yet not at all. Railings and stairs and window frames looked modern, but not modern enough. Some funny updated Deco? Teal blue. Varnished oak. Were the walls beige or stark white? The cold light played tricks. The carpeting was a dried-blood color. Then a jolt: a sign that read “Way Out.” Hippy sixties? Okay, it was Brit for “Exit.” And then had hit the accent of the Immigration woman, brown-faced, probably Indian, with an accent out of Masterpiece Theater – but wait – a bit more relaxed than Alistair Cooke, not clipped, something cockney like My Fair Lady? Pulling his suitcase free of the belt, he’d found himself in H.M. Customs. Ah, the Royal Family! This had to stand for Her Majesty’s. Quaint. There had been free trolleys; he’d whacked his suitcase onto one. Next, sliding doors opened out onto a hangar of a hall. Whoa! He had been face to face with a mass of humanity holding signs and pushing to greet. With no one for him. Kind of a silly let down there. And then Ativan had switched his gears. He’d looked around for the transportation possibilities. Underground, which he knew was Brit for subway. Heathrow Express, with a symbol of a train. Taxi. Taxi? He had a hotel reservation. His eyesight had gone suddenly bleary. He was exhausted and slightly hung-over from free scotches on the plane designed to help him tip the Ativan into sleep mode but that had failed. So it was Taxi.
But wait! His brain had clicked practicality. He needed money. He needed, what, Pounds. He had looked hard around the hall. A bank of windows at a far wall, a sign that read Barclays? And then the words Exchange. He had coasted over on the trolley, smooth and dreamy.
The pound notes had been outsized and filigreed like an etching; there was a profile portrait of the Queen. Funny money? Well, slightly more colorful than greenbacks. But he had not been ready for the mass of big heavy coins pushed at him. The change. He’d dumped the coins in his pocket and his pants had seemed to want to sag off his hips. He’d put the bills in his wallet. They’d stuck out the top, being wider than greenbacks, no matter how much he’d tucked. Good thing he’d had this free trolley for his luggage, his big fucking Samsonite, the one he’d bought to go to Egypt. He’d wheeled it toward the doors indicating taxis outside and found people waiting in a long line for these black boxy vehicles, straight out of the movies, all clucking mechanical engines whirring as they inched forward, stopping, getting loaded, and moving off. He’d gone to the end and waited, inching forward with the others, back in daze mode again, his nose inhaling fuel fumes on damp-thick air.
The taxi driver had called him Guv and taken him to the hotel. It had taken a long, long time. Longer than to JFK. And the traffic had been awesome. Rush hour? They’d crawled half the time. The number on the meter was colossal, knowing that for dollar value he needed to add sixty or seventy percent to it. Still, he’d left a tip, he’d remembered. Had to. Good thing: The back of the cab had had huge amounts of room for stretching out his legs. And the driver had been sealed off from him behind sliding glass that he had clacked shut after noting the destination. No cabby conversation required. He might have dozed off except that his eyes kept him awake, riveted on what was out the window. Little houses that looked cutesy: real Brit cottage stuff. Highways that looked like the States. Except! They were fucking driving on the wrong side. But he’d known about that. Still, to see it and feel it for the first time. Cra-zee unreal!
His room had been ready. This had been announced with great pride and also as if he was a really lucky VIP dude. Okay. People were checking out in masses, not in. There was this smell of breakfast: fried bacon, mainly.
Up in his room, bellhop paid off, door shut, he’d flopped out on the bed.
He’d woken up in his clothes. His Samsonite bag had mocked him from the rack where the bellhop had positioned it. He’d run a warm bath and soaked in it for a while until it went lukewarm. In his terrycloth bathrobe, he’d looked out the window at the square and circling traffic, his mind unthinking and unfocused, and then he’d played with the TV remote and got news and sitcoms, all with nasally Brit talk, but again not that prissy kind like from old Alistair. Or Noel Coward movies.
He must have fallen back asleep again. No memory there. Ativan finally kicking into sleep mode?
Woke up again. Stomach feeling very, very empty. Stumbling into the bathroom for a big glass of water, while thinking of room service? Hungry? He’d drunk it down. Tasted of chemicals. Back on top of the bed again, he’d curled up.
So, so just now he’d woken up again to find himself undressed and under the covers. At some point it must have become nighttime and he’d seriously gone to bed.
So he’d lost his first day in London? He had to make up for that now.
He checked his watch (had he changed the time when he’d arrived?): It seemed to still be morning, breakfast time. He was starving. Room service? No, he wanted out of the room. He went into the bathroom. No lolling around in a bathtub, he found that the shower taps all worked as expected, no foreign quirk; he jumped in. Washed, dressed, hair jelled up like it was supposed to be for the “out of bed” look, he guardedly opened the door of his room and peered out into the hall as if there might be foreign dragons lurking. He felt for his room key and stepped out, door clicking shut behind him; he headed for the elevators, no, the Lift. So far so good. Nothing too strange. In fact he was starting to feel a bit disappointed: It could have been any of those older fancy midtown hotels like the Plaza or Sherry Netherland. Lots of thick reddish burgundy rugs flecked with small fleur-de-lys, burnished dark woods, shining brass accouterments. Same ole.
Downstairs he followed the signs to the restaurant.
Whoa again! He stepped into a Victorian manor hall. Columns in an odd grayish marble, not round but staunchly oblong. Lofty embossed ceiling. His eyes went dizzy with detail, every architectural detail known to Western Civilization. Late Victorian, a voice in his head labeled it, as he made his way to an empty table with thick white tablecloth. Waiters nodded, acknowledging him with a decorous, deferential smile. He sat down; a graying waiter in white jacket arrived silently. He looked up at him, waiting for this conductor to strike the downbeat. He listened carefully for the first words: “Sir, would it be a full English for you this morning?” Oh, oh, hello. He shuddered, giddy with the accent. There it was: Old Alistair. He needed to reply – he hesitated, he thought about the sound he would make – yes, yes, it would be whatever that full English was, all trying to sound as neutral in his own accent as he could muster, maybe aping ancient Boston relatives from infancy? “Tea or coffee then, sir.” Tea, of course. This was England. Give me The Full Monty.
His eyes explored the rafters while he waited. His nose picked up toasting bread, imprecise steam, frying bacon, old wood.
Toast arrived in triangular slices held between warm silver coils, along with small tubs of butter and jams (there was marmalade, real British orange coarse-cut marmalade). Tea arrived in a grand array: teapot, milk pot, sugar pot, various spoons and the teacup itself with saucer, decorated with small flowers straight out of Beatrice Potter. Before he could reach for it himself, the waiter took charge: “Milk, sir?” He nodded. A splash of milk was put in the bottom of the cup. “Sugar, sir?” He nodded. “One, two?” Two, he replied, and it was doled out and added to the milk. And then with a slight flourish of the wrist, the waiter poured tea from on high into the cup so that it just barely foamed around the edges and produced a pale tan drink with a strange amber glow at its heart. “Thank you, sir,” said the waiter and he was gone. Thank you? For what?
His first sip of tea seemed as if he had never drunk tea before in his life.
This was so crazy!
He looked around the dining room. Heavy decoration everywhere: Sandy would go nuts with the place. Yet there was an overall calm, rectitude, comfort to it. Tables were full of breakfast eaters, but he could barely hear them. To be safe, he had done the black thing, black slacks and a black cashmere turtleneck, even a black blazer over his arm in case of a jacket requirement. The blazer was hung now over the back of his chair. It was all good. He felt he blended in, although actually no one else was dressed so formally except the waiters. His eye followed the columns up: Instead of being acanthus leaves or an ionic scroll, the capitals were four angelic children, not cherubs, naked children holding shields before them, with unisexual page-boy hair and innocent smiles. Shocker. The innocence stunned, attracted, and then repulsed him. He tore his eye away from their bland smiles and went for the acanthus leaves matting the ceiling. If Sandy were here, she’d explain what era of Victoriana this all was.
And after breakfast? He’d cross the street to the park and walk around once, feel his feet on foreign ground, sniff the air. The blazer would come in handy. It would be a British stroll: a tour of the garden. So much Masterpiece Theater. But it would also give him a sense of how he fitted into this city. That see-and-be-seen thing. Then Tate Britain. That’s where the Turners were. Should he take a taxi and see the city or do The Underground? The “Tube” would be that real Londoner experience. He couldn’t decide. And, hello, what day was this? Monday or Tuesday? Tuesday. It had to be Tuesday.
The waiter arrived with the Full English. Chris watched as plates of this and that were arranged around a large platter of bacon and eggs and grilled mushrooms and grilled half tomatoes, condiments and taste possibilities unknown to be added. He felt a bit giddy. No, he felt like a little kid. “Waiter?” he asked, hoping this was the correct manner of address.
“Do you know if the Tate Britain is open today?”
“I do, sir. It’s open daily. No worry there, sir,” he smiled soothingly like a granddad. Thanks, he realized he had sort of been worrying. Nice man.
Chris ate everything on his plate, right down to every last sliver of mushroom, then every piece of toast, lathered with butter and then marmalade. He didn’t try any of the other jams. Marmalade sent him straight to childhood where a great aunt served tea, Irish tea, of course, not English, and made him sit up straight even though his legs were miles from the floor. Years later he realized tea came from India or Ceylon or China, not somewhere in the British Isles. He was a cute kid. Sandy said she bet he was.
Nice memories, best ever of being a kid. And then nothing felt foreign. Old fashioned but not foreign. He could have drifted off, not to sleep, but to just daydreaming, watching the others eating and chatting and poking and prodding and adjusting themselves, starting their days, and then the waiters circulating in silence dressed in white and black.
He stepped out of the quiet of the hotel into noise. City. Exhaust spewed from double-decker red buses – even live, they struck him as toys, something to fulfill tourist expectations, not for everyday transportation – but they were, because there were also Tour of London buses. Traffic circulated in stops and starts around the square. He had to cross the street to get to the park, Russell Square. But the real square was actually formed by three to five story row houses in neo-classical proportion, mottled tan brick with ivory or enamel white trimming, some with porticos, and they matched the reddish tan brickwork crenellation of his hotel. He stood on the stairs leading to the hotel entrance. Just stood and looked. No hurry. The sidewalk was a parade of people of all ages, but mostly tourists, identifiable from fragments of foreign words hitting his ear, different body languages, and a few backpacker-like outfits even on white-haired retired types. He was glad to be dressed in his blazer; he stepped down the stairs and hit the sidewalk. He had to go up to the corner for the crosswalk. He waded into the crowd and then stopped to wait for the green walk light, great white letters embossed on the pavement admonished him to Look Right. Why? And then he remembered that the Brits drive on the opposite side of the street not only from Americans but also from most Europeans. It was a warning to all tourists not to get fucking run-over. But here, the traffic was decidedly one-way: So why? Better to be directed. Why not? Again he had that soothing, taken-care-of feeling no one ever felt in New York for fucksake. He chuckled.
Green man! He went with the crowd. Funny, annoying barrier. He had to walk around a brick-boxed triangle of a garden thing, just bushes now, maybe flowers in summer. But then he was at the gated entrance to the park.
He gave his watch a glance. Knee-jerk. No hurry. He pulled out the hotel’s map. Tate Britain was pretty far. Getting there he’d see a lot of the city. Fuck the money, he’d take a taxi. Again, these so great, squarish black hulks put-putting around making motor sounds, pistons and cranks. His memory of being in the taxi from the airport was a blur. All he remembered was stretching his legs out in front of him.
Okay. First things first.
He walked around the park counter-clockwise, noting the bushes and the fountain right in the park center. Suddenly it spouted up from the center of the earth, a lavish display, and then subsided to nothing. Dead. It never came on again while he toured the park. Weird.
Anyway. The sunlight was sometimes blinding as it filtered and then flashed between the swashes of canary-yellow leafed treetops. He held his hand up to shade his eyes. Something else: There wasn’t the chill in the air of October in New York. And where was that London fog thing? And the drizzle? Okay, the morning he arrived, a bit. But, hey, the men with bowler hats and umbrellas? Which was when he realized he was standing in a fucking tourist trap. Tourists. Tourists, like, everywhere he looked.
He stepped out through the park’s big Victorian iron gates on the opposite side from the hotel. From the curb, he hailed a cab. There was this fun squeal as it came to a halt in front of him, its motor chugging. The door opened opposite to how he expected. (Had that been true at Heathrow? No memory.) He clambered in. So big he could almost get in standing up. And there again, he could stretch out his legs in the vast area between him and the straight up-and-down barrier separating him from his personal, okay temporary, chauffeur. He proclaimed: “Tate Britain, please.” He thrilled at the hearty “yes, sir” in reply. Just like the movies, except, wouldn’t that be “guv?”
This is what it felt like to be a lord.
Stately. It was all so fucking stately. The cab made slow but deliberate progress through thick traffic. There were these broad thoroughfares, imperial proportions, lined with tall neo-classical, grayish white stone buildings: British fucking Empire. The taxi chugged around the edges of endless parks of broad emerald lawns sown randomly with great trees and promenades, and then down into much narrower streets where he could feel cars coming at them from the “wrong” side of the street (he flinched at first), flanked with dowdy-aunt townhouses, or imperial white-columned, porticoed residences, row upon row. London was this thing always lined up for the great parade. And the trees. All these streets seemed to be lined with great tall trees. He had the map spread out on his lap. Off somewhere was Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, but the route took in none of these, so that he knew he was travelling through the “real” London. And then they rounded a corner and the Thames embankments stretched in front of him with a wildly turquoise and beige post-modern building on the far bank of this river, a funny taupe color. The taxi slowed to a halt. To his left, there it was, a small classical wedding cake of a building with several flights of white marble staircases. A sign was planted outside in the middle of a lawn so weirdly green it seemed fake: Tate Britain.
A steady stream of visitors went up and down the stairs. He stood there thinking. Somehow he’d thought the building would be bigger. It was a sort of squat Greek temple. Steep staircase though. Lots of stairs and older people were pulling themselves up on the railings.
Let’s go. This was the only thing preplanned. Maybe the only reason he’d flown to London?
Beyond the revolving doors of the entrance, his eye searched for the ticket desk. There was none. But then he saw a sign on an old oaken stand: Admission Free, with smaller letters underneath advising that donation would be appreciated. Where? How? He didn’t see anyone doing it. He walked straight on into the main hall.
Not that he was broke. But very soon he was going to need to get more pounds. That large number on the taximeter had not been dollars: What was the multiplier, one and three-quarters or something.
He moved on through and felt let down. He was in a great skylight-bright hall with galleries branching off on both sides. Not much different from any other museum he’d been too. So, what had he expected? And then a sign on his right: Turner Gallery. Whoa! Better. In fact, great. He couldn’t wait. Corridor on corridor, it was like a treasure hunt, until he was in some newer wing of the building. There he was. And there they were. Turners, everywhere. Huge and miniature. There were dim rooms with watercolors and etchings, large light-drenched rooms with oils. He followed the historical route indicated and found himself going from politely defined detail, to great swirls of color, the deep glades of light that had stunned and got him on a flight to London, and made it his gateway to Europe.
Unexpectedly, he stood in front of the painting in the book. Double take. His heart started pounding. His eyes plunged in and touched it. Detail like the grain of his skin magnified. Infinite zoom in until his eyeball touched the canvas: No, not really, but the real thing, this was the real painting. The smell of oils filled his ole olfactories. The thing worshipped from afar, now face-to-face, in his face. It breathed for him. Each hair of Turner’s brush had left its trace.
Later eating lunch, while chewing, mind already reminiscing, he would compare the impact to, like what, seeing a ghost? Like, meeting his mom, alive and well and laughing at his look of surprise? No, witnessing himself as a little kid. That was it. Because the painting he’d been copying in the loft? This had ripped open the box where he’d stored the little kid who liked to watercolor.
Nancy. Nancy, you devil.
He just stood there. Finally moved to the next Turner. Just stood there. Goosebumps. Oh so great. Here he was.
What finally tore him away from the Turners was an urgent need to piss (all that tea at breakfast?). No choice. Run for it? Not quite, but walk fast and follow the arrows indicating toilet, arrows, urgent arrows And on the way down stairs to the toilets, he’d spotted the restaurant, a kind of beige and white deep bonbon box of a dining room with a bit of gilt trim. As his whole body adjusted to the relief, the calm of relief, he stopped nonchalantly outside the dining room of the museum restaurant to check out the menu posted there.
So, there seemed to be a food life in London beyond breakfast! All the dishes were described in English below their French titles. A few things intrigued him. He glanced at his watch: shit, late lunchtime. His stomach actually growled at him then. This was going to be his first real London dining experience.
Go! He stepped inside the restaurant.
The headwaiter in a dark suit and white shirt was a young guy, probably younger than he was but his body language was older. He seated him – click, click – immediately at a table commanding a view of all the other diners. They were mostly finishing up, gobs of linen napkins on mussed linen tablecloths, empty glasses of wine, empty bottles. There was a low hum of contentment infusing the room. Nice. This headwaiter knew his job; he had a relaxed but formal way a guy his age could never muster in New York. He was a different breed. The Brit. He watched and saw everything, surveying the room and so controlling it. Ready to meet all needs. Impressive.
He ordered a couple of starters to come one after the other and a half bottle of what was called claret, which he knew meant Bordeaux, and began the people watching that this clever headwaiter had arranged for him. Actually, he had never before asked for a table for one, never eaten alone in a restaurant. Had the guy sensed that? He had known just what to do with him.
He played with the idea of being a gourmet critic evaluating ambiance and food. This was his first full meal in London. There would be others. All of them alone as Chris the Critic.
The waiter arrived, uncorked his claret, had him taste and approve, and then filled his glass and left.
Suddenly hit a pang of missing Sandy, how great, how much better of it were the two of them seated here: It lasted a minute.
Whoa! London! Tate! A dining room full of all kinds of foreign people, people who could take these long lunches, well-heeled and content, some of them tourists but the rest decidedly British. He got snatches of conversation. Phrases. Accents. Everyone had an accent but him: yuck-yuck.
He now sniffed the wine – very nice – and took a sip. Needed more air but, yes, also very nice and would become nicer. He put his glass down into the plush of the linen tablecloth. His wrists settled on the edge of the table, pillowed there.
Ah! He’d forgotten to pop an Ativan. No need: London is an Ativan. Imagine. Love it.
He drifted back now to his Turner apotheosis, those swashes of intense light, saffron fogs, how they had leaped out and swallowed him. And the sheer size of the painting. He had gotten no idea from the book how big it would be and feel.
He took another sip of the wine: Ah, opening up right on schedule and now rounder, fruitier. He resumed savoring the transcendent calm he’d felt standing before his Turner.
And then it was not just the painting. There was another thrill at being here in London, being alone in London. He was free to be anyone he wanted. Catch me if you can.
He allowed that to sink in and chuckled to himself.
He was defined only by his US passport and his credit cards.
His mind began to dart in several directions: New York playboy, and then CIA agent, art collector, tennis pro travelling incognito. And of course restaurant critic.
The waiter arrived with his first starter: sliced peppered venison loin with poached peer and crispy shallots.
Dining incognito for the Michelin Guide?
He sliced into the venison and tasted. Succulent, peppery – a British deer, a Scottish stag in the Highlands? – a sip of the wine and then that perfect meld in the mouth. Tender mellow chew. Pepper hit. A taste now of pear, poached purple: port? Crunch of fried shallots. Another sip: full mouth now, big and rich and fruity. We certainly have a crossed knife-and-fork here; do we have a star?
In London, yes, he was anyone he decided to be. And that “anyone” could change from day to day, hour to hour even.
Fuck. Had he promised Cousin Adrian that he would come to Paris? Because, downer, there he would be Chris Finn aka Finnegan, because Adrian Lee was family.
And then he saw the expression on Nancy’s face talking about this Adrian character, which made him smile. So. So, back to the original game plan.
But not so fast. He could play this new one for as long as he wanted. There was no real schedule. Adrian Lee had not pressed him for one.
The steep amount of the check (click, click, click: exchange rate!) derailed his mood for the time it took for the credit card to go through the machine. You should find an internet café and check out the fund, Chris Finn.
Nah, Bill was watching over stuff.
Chris Finn was family.
He so fucking missed Sandy!
The headwaiter was near the door as he moved to leave the restaurant. Did he expect a tip? “Have a very pleasant afternoon, sir.” He held the door open for him.
It didn’t seem so.
Up out of the basement and through to the entrance foyer and outside. Snap of fall air. He walked down the steps of the Greek temple that was Tate Britain. Yes, he could be anyone he wanted to be. Did he give the restaurant a star? Yes, he felt generous.
He decided then to cross the street and amble along the embankment of the Thames.
Whoa! The fucking Thames, dude!
* * *
For jet lag, he reasoned, he would take an Ativan before going to bed, but after that he wouldn’t take any more of them. He had noticed that it made him part with his money way too easily. He had bought two Turnbull and Asser shirts at Harrods’s (another cab ride) that, as he looked at them lying navy pinstriped and solid gray on the bedspread, he certainly didn’t need and in his present mood didn’t really like. He could return them tomorrow. Oh well, no, a souvenir of London. It was only money.
* * *
Friday arrived, tourist sights under his belt: Buckingham Palace (from the outside), tossed some crumbs at careening pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London (skipping the Crown Jewels), stared up at Big Ben and heard it chime. And finally, right around the corner, the British Museum where he had his loner lunch on top of a tower of Babel erected inside the recently domed, so he read, great court. Again this menu was interesting, and again he had enjoyed sitting alone and watching and sipping just one glass, this time, of Australian chardonnay. Nice. Not memorable. Generic, kind of. No star but why not a knife and fork?
Because there was an internet café right around the corner from the hotel, he had to check. Five minutes online told him there was nothing to worry about. Again, bye-bye Ativan.
Late evenings in his room, propped up with little pillows up on top of the bed, he had checked out the cable TV, zapping from BBC to various satellite European channels in undecipherable languages, including French. Well, he could understand a bit, but Paris was going to be a problem. Seriously, he felt less and less like going there. He liked this London thing.
Now it was Friday night, and so it was time he went out somewhere. That’s what concierges were for, he realized, as he marked time near the concierge desk while an older American or Canadian woman with a Dairy Whip hairstyle tinted classic blue (Des Moines or somewhere in Saskatchewan?) picked up her theater tickets (Cats, of course) for the following night. He never went to musicals in New York; why should he want to go to one here in London? Wait: There was that Covent Garden opera thing, but again, in New York? There was a seat waiting for him in the McAfee box at the Met. When they wanted to go. They hadn’t yet.
“Yes, sir. May I be of any help?” The concierge in a black suit and gray tie appraised him – a second’s hesitation at his hair: Was it the style or the color? – followed by a smile that was on the verge of conspiratorial. Maybe because the guy couldn’t be too much older than he was?
“Yes. Well. It’s Friday night.” The concierge’s smile widened. “I’m new in London. And I haven’t been out. Out to any clubs or even pubs,” he ended in the grin with the Smile Center teeth that usually won them over. “Any suggestions?”
“Oh,” the concierge drew in his breath for a second in a pro forma way, “I think so.” He was eyeing his hair again. “The place to be on Friday night is Covent Garden. People letting off steam from a week in the City.”
“Like your Wall Street.”
This guy was good. “Right! Sounds like you know your way around. Sharp eye too.”
“That’s my job, sir. And here’s the pub I suggest.” He quickly took his pad and wrote out a couple of lines quickly in block letters and tore off the page and handed it to him. “I think you’ll like it, and it should have a good crowd at this point. Any cab will be glad to take you there. Just show them the address. Or you can walk there. It’s not very far and it’s a nice evening.”
Chris took the paper and read it: “You’re joking.”
“Oh? The name. Yes, sir, well pubs often have amusing names.” No friendly yuck-yuck. All distance. Professional. Or you could also call it cool. Brit cool.
He thanked him and wandered off toward the elevators. The Bilious Bream? Welcome to the land of Monty Python. And Covent Garden? Wasn’t that the opera thing? Well, he’d take a cab. His New York street smarts didn’t advise walking around in the dark in a city he barely knew. And he so liked those big black cabs.
He hadn’t been down in The Tube yet. That was part of the London experience. At some point… It could wait.
He pushed open the swinging door with its big beveled-glass pane. Bam! A roar of talk and laughter rolled over him, riding on a low thumper-thump beat just like in any hip watering hole back in Manhattan. He felt a grin spreading across his face: Right! He pushed deftly through the crowd and made for the bar. The lighting was higher than it would be in New York: a real pub thing? Plenty of ersatz pubs back home. Basically he knew the look, but this one hit his as authentic because beery, as if drenched in, and slightly shabby. He hoped they had Bass ale; that would make it easier when ordering. Once he’d slipped into a free spot, taps with names on top like rooster crests were lined up before him. One, Courage, stood out. “What’ll ya have, mate?” The guy sounded Australian to him, not English; he had a voice that cut through the din.
“Ah, ya. Bass?” he shouted.
“Ah, no…” he got no information from the names on the taps. He wanted draft. Draft was always the best. “What’s like Bass then, but on tap.”
A grin shot back at him: “Oh, Yank, right… Pint or half pint? I think I got just the thing for ya.”
“Pint, I guess?” He wasn’t sure what quantity that might produce, and then watched as the bartender filled a large cut-glass stein up with – oh, yeah! – Courage. He put a ten-pound note on the bar, picked up the beer and took a sip. Yeah, that was it. Tepid. Tangy. This definitely was how it was meant to be. He recognized it as if from atavistic memory (old black-and-white movies on TV). He scooped up the change and turned to face the smoky, drink-damp room.
How the fuck had he made it to the bar through this writhing barrel of eels? It couldn’t be much past ten-thirty, if that. Way early by New York standards. He’d read about the weird pub hours here in London. Wasn’t this better than having to wait until midnight to go out though?
He rested the small of his back against the bar to brace himself for the visual onslaught spread out before him. He could spot the types. Not much different from New York there. He was impressed: That concierge knew his stuff. Lots of slick, fire-eating broker types, male and female, still dressed in work gear, but majorly disheveled at this point, ties in various states of undone or already long lost in some corner, blouses unbuttoned, though not to the point of tits out, nothing like that. Faces were all flush and shiny. And the roar of voices drowned out the fucking music. He listened. Was there music? Anyway, serious party: Surprise, surprise!
One and then another TGIFer reveler edged in on either side to get drinks, prying him loose from the bar. Whoa! He definitely needed a safer spot. Already splashes from pint glasses had gotten him here and there. He inched forward carefully, wending his way between groups, cheering and whooping and swaying, a bit of grabbing and kissing. He put a broad grin, teeth flashing, on his face and kept on moving. A girl turned with a full swing of her arm away from her friends and caught his shoulder, sending a small tide of beer out of his glass onto the floor, just missing his slacks. She was in his face: “Oh, sorry, love. Let me get you another. I’m going for a round.” Her blond-banged face went from startled to apologetic to cocky smile. Her small up-turned nose remained immobile. Her eyes were clear and widely spaced, probably green, but in this light he couldn’t tell. A nice face. Maybe a pretty face. No lipstick. “No, no. It’s okay.”
“Oh! American! Oh my,” she looked around her for a second then, back to him, and burst out laughing. “Welcome to London.” She stopped, looking doubtful suddenly. “You don’t live here, do you? No,” she answered her own question before he shook his head, “where from in the States then?” Her eyelids fluttered, then opened wide as she heard New York, as if an exquisite note had just been played, a fab guitar riff. “Of course!” She inched back to look him up and down. “Of course.” He basked in his New Yorker label. A nudge from her elbow: “Come on! Come to the bar with me, help me with those drinks. I need a strong bloke. It’s getting toward closing time.” He started to ask when that was, but she spun him around as she passed so that he followed in her wake like a dingy. The seas seemed to part for her. In seconds they were at the bar, and the Australian gave her a wink and a nod and took her order without skipping a beat, right after the last round he’d passed over the bar. This Ozzie was a machine. “Six pints,” she handed money to the bartender with her right hand and with her left, turning to him, “Start on this one, it’s for you… ah…” She handed him one, this time in an oversize tumbler. She wanted to know his name?
He took it. “Chris.” He had a drink in each hand.
“That’s nice. And such amazing white teeth you have, said Little Red Riding Hood. I guess all you Yanks do the teeth these days… Now drink what’s left in your old one, and we’re off.” She watched to make sure he did. “Funny, how did you find your way in here? We don’t get tourists.”
“Oh?” She looked him up and down as if for the first time. “I know: Wall Street. Am I right?”
“Well,” he wasn’t going to give his life story, “yeah. How did you guess?”
“I’ve been to New York hundreds of times on business. But I never saw a guy with hair like yours on the Street.” She seemed to be admiring it, so he emptied his glass with a flourish and shot his head back for a second. “Ginger Chris then,” she added.
“Ginger? What’s that?”
“Your hair. You’re a ginger boy.” Her nose crinkled up. He was supposed to understand this. He didn’t.
“Oh, you mean the color? It’s auburn.”
“Sorry, love, it’s all gingers over here. You’re a ginger. Ginger boy. Sorry for you but…” Then came a bark of a laugh that reeked derision. He didn’t get it. Sorry for him?
“Whatever. It’s the cut?” He knew it wasn’t. “Yeah, got it just before I left. I looked too much like Ronald Reagan before, everybody said.”
The laugh that now came from her was full-blown, “Reagan? Well, better than that warmongering monkey you’ve got in the White House these days. We had our Mrs. Thatcher, love.”
This was a baldly anti-American insult. If she worked in finance, she should be on the same side as he was. He put on a smile and moved on, “So, you work in the City? That’s what you call it, right?” She was just smiling at him now; she nodded.
“Ah, yes.” A move of her head encompassed the whole pub. “We all do. Most of us here. Your concierge knows his stuff. What are you doing over here, business?” She sounded skeptical.
“No, tourist. You were right. Yeah, just a tourist. I’ve never been to London before. Never been to Europe before.”
“Oh, Chris, don’t be cheeky, this isn’t Europe,” she drawled out the “Europe” and took a quick sip of one of the pints, looking up at him from under her eyelashes, flirting now, he thought. She swallowed, “We better collect these pints and move them to our thirsty mates. Need to get in a few more rounds before closing.” She grabbed three glasses, gripping them in both hands. He caught on and grabbed the other two, plus his own; again he followed in the wake she made through the crowd.
When they arrived at what had to be her group, it opened up to receive them. There was a girl and two guys and now him. Their faces were smiling, but their eyes said suspicious. This new girl in the group looked quite a bit like… Shit! He didn’t know his sponsor’s name, and she knew his. Embarrassing to ask her, now that she was surrounded by her friends. What he saw was that the other girl could have been her sister except that her hair was dark, nearly black, and she seemed much drunker by the way her head seemed to swivel to take in everyone and nothing. “This is Chris from New York,” she announced as the glasses were passed around. “Cheers,” she turned to Chris, raising her glass. He didn’t know whether he was supposed to toast her with an actual clink, but she was already drinking it and drank down nearly a third of it in one fell swoop. He stopped staring at her and imitated her. Instantly he felt waterlogged as his stomach expanded. The words “vast quantities of drink” popped into his head, something he must have heard from Masterpiece Theater.
“So, Ginger Boy,” piped up one of the men whose haircut was similar to his, though a bit shorter and blond, “what brings you to London? On the run?” The guy’s smallish hawk nose rose as if sniffing the scent of something. So redheads were supposed to smell bad in the UK? Now suddenly they were all giving him their undivided attention: Let the show begin.
His benefactress stepped in: “I’m afraid he’s just a tourist, Simon. Don’t embarrass him.” She drained a third of her glass. “And he’s very sensitive about the ginger…” she added with a wink. He flared, moving to correct her but she kept on, not giving him space, “But he does work on Wall Street.” Ah, exhaled the Simon guy and took a long swig of his pint. The others nodded something like respect. She went on, “I think he fits right in here, then, don’t you? Well,” that wink again, “if we overlook the ginger. Right, mates?”
“Prince Harry’s a ginger.” Simon intoned, more factual than complementary.
“And look at the mischief he getsup to,” retorted the other guy, still nameless. Roaring with laughter got the beer spraying. His benefactress turned to present all this banter to Chris in the form of a broad collegial smile. He understood this was good; time to relax. “But,” Simon broke in with a quick smirk and a jab at a toast, “we’ll bury you, mate.” Fucking what? “I’m quoting, mate. Remember Khrushchev to Nixon? To clarify, old man, the City will put Wall Street in the dust. If you’re good, maybe we’ll save the day and buy you Yanks out. After the Frat Boy’s finished looting. Just you wait.”
“‘Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins,’ oh right, I get it.” Chris took a swig of beer; he was suddenly up to speed. “I don’t think so, man. Dream on, Comrade.” The group yelped their approval. This was good.
Simon was laughing slowly, “We love a good bit of banter over here, mate. But what I said is true. Too bad for you. Sorry.” He put his forefinger on Chris’s chest. “Just mark my words.”
Chris smiled back, “In your fucking dreams.”
His benefactress stepped in: “Chris, you’re not drinking, love. Come on, down the hatch.” She frowned at Simon: “Simon, your round.” Chris looked up from his own beer, to see all their glasses empty. How were they doing this?
Simon set off, pushing toward the bar like a light craft in high seas. Chris admired his moves. He turned to find them all staring at him, or more precisely, at his hair. He could feel they were building up to another explosion of laughter. “Market’s bad in the States. I suppose it’s the same here?” They looked vaguely at each other. His benefactress shot him a cautionary look, but it was too late. “Lots of lay-offs on the Street. Bad, man. Really bad,” he shook his head a bit too dramatically. That’s when he knew the beer had hit him.
“Oh, is it?” she set her mouth tight. “You mean redundancies, I suppose.” She glanced at the others to make sure they’d gotten her translation, and then back to him, “Well, some, yes. But there are rather strict labor regulations over here in Ole Blighty.” Their smiles broke open their poker-faced masks. “You Yanks are famous for your culls. Sending everyone to the slaughterhouse when there’s a bit of a downturn? It’s not done over here. Not for people. Just for foot and mouth.” She saw his confusion. “You know, foot and mouth? An animal disease?”
“Oh” – what was her point? – “You mean hoof and mouth.”
“How lovely, very ‘Country Life.’” Her laughter turned playful. “Hoof! Imagine!”
Two rounds later and a great clanging bell produced huge cheers followed by loud groans. Chris’s watch said only eleven o’clock. They had lost interest in him and gone on to serious drinking. It had all been one-sided: He knew nothing about any of them. He sensed he was intended to feel privileged to have been allowed to drink with them in their circle. No effort was made to include him in their remarks or jokes, which made no sense to him when he could make out what they were saying. Privileged tourist allowed into the real life of the locals. When he couldn’t understand what they were saying, he just grinned back. His benefactress still had no name. She would glance at him once in a while and award him her smile, but most of her conversation was focused on Simon. Cool.
He began to get bored. Was he trying to score with her? Nope.
And then it struck him like a slap: She assumed he was. She was using him to make Simon jealous.
And then it was over. Music? Over. Just the rumbling roar of the crowd.
Faster than he could have imagined, the human contents of the bar spilled out onto the street. Swept out with the rest of them and through the door, the street was already packed with people his own age or younger, swerving between squealing brakes of cabs most already taken. He watched in a daze as Simon sped across the street and was suddenly holding a miraculously empty cab’s door open. How had he done that? Someone could have told him that Simon had made the cab materialize out of thin air, and he would have believed.
And then everything looked like a movie set; he was in a sound studio.
He followed them for no reason at all as they made their way through the throngs of people, in-between the taxis idling in the traffic jam, with their one yellow roof light glowing like the eye of a Cyclops. Simon awaited, his hand holding the door open. The dark-haired girl was put in the taxi first, and then the others followed. His benefactress finally crammed in; she turned to look at him through the half-open door and waved to him, “Nice meeting you, Chris. Enjoy London.” Her fingers fluttered goodbye, a tease. Simon pushed in beside her and slammed the door with a backhanded pull. All contact ended. The cab lurched forward and then slowly pulled off down the street, careful to avoid staggering singles and couples.
Chris stood staring at the cab’s maneuvers until it turned a corner. And then he woke up.
They would all be laughing at him now. Silly Yank, after Simon’s girl.
And the “ginger” bullshit!
As his anger and embarrassment mixed, climaxed, and then ebbed away, he looked around him. He had no idea where he was exactly or how to get back to the hotel. You are fucking drunk, dude! Then he had to piss so badly he felt sick. He walked along the street; he wasn’t the only one. In an alley stood three guys emptying their bladders against a brick wall. He joined them. When he lurched back out onto the street, his mouth felt parched. Weird!
A startlingly beautiful girl, model-quality legs in a mini-skirt, shrieked gales of laughter, and then she turned and vomited. He pulled himself away from the sight – hypnotizing like a traffic accident – and headed away from the crowd. Away. Direction didn’t matter. Several other pubs had spilled their clientele out onto the sidewalk: It was starting to feel like a riot might start.
A cab would come along some time. Was he even walking toward the hotel and not away from it? The concierge had said it was walkable. He should have paid more attention during the ride down. Followed on the map. And then he burst out laughing.
A glance at his watch told him his evening out had lasted less than two hours.
He stood over the toilet in his bathroom and urinated for what seemed like ages. And then, taken by surprise, he up and vomited.
His head began to throb as he stumbled out of the bathroom and sprawled out naked on the bed. He had managed to pull off all his clothes, socks and shoes, and then the Calvin Klein briefs for good measure, before heading for the bathroom. His clothes now sat in a neat pile in the middle of the floor. He was always neat: That was a kindly, positive thought, dude. Nice. He stretched spread-eagle and filled the blank ceiling above the bed with images of his adventure.
He never had found a free taxi. He had asked the first passerby, who was not drunk, directions to Russell Square, and that older man had kindly pointed him the right way and given him clear enough directions so that in five minutes or less he could see the square up ahead. His internal compass had not failed him after all. Sort of.
Ah, he sighed and groaned up at the ceiling.
He couldn’t even name her. Fucking bitch! The pure, unadulterated, fucking nerve of her…
His mind wandered off. And then it found Sandy.
He raised his arm straight up toward the ceiling and squinted to read his watch. It was just about midnight. That meant seven o’clock in New York. He rolled over on his side and reached out toward the phone on the bedside table and pulled out the plastic-coated card underneath it with calling directions.
Propped up against the headboard, he set the phone down on his stomach and dialed the slew of numbers indicated, then his own, the loft number, and waited. Odd that his heart was pounding so much all of a sudden.
It rang almost immediately on the other end, ringing just like it always sounded back home. He chuckled out loud into the room. What a life! What a tiny planet! What a… It kept ringing, ringing, and then came the click. He heard his own voice saying: leave a message. “Hi, Sandy. It’s me. I…” Booze, whatever; he choked up then. He cleared his throat. “I’m okay. It’s late. Don’t try and call back. I’m going to bed now. Just wanted to hear your voice.” Oh, shit, his voice had cracked again. “Miss you,” he added in a singsong. He hung up.
Of course, she wasn’t sitting beside the phone waiting for some random possibility of a phone call from him at 7 p.m. on a Friday night. If he knew the number by heart, he could call her cell, but he didn’t of course. Her number was in his own cell; he’d left his cell back home, knowing it wouldn’t work in Europe. He could call Park Avenue and see if he could catch her there. No. No desperate gestures for chrissakes. He grabbed the clunky mass of a hotel-room phone and winched it off his stomach and back onto the bedside table, making a few stabs before managing to get it to sit steadily on all its four corners and not fall off onto the floor. Then he let a long groan out into the room, which didn’t relate to anything in particular.
He looked up at the ceiling again. The light threw long shadows across its expanse like signposts. No, maybe they were more like observers, non-threatening though, just looking down at him, matter-of-fact. Hi, Chris.
His mouth felt dry as a desert suddenly. Get up and get a glass of water, he instructed himself. He stretched both arms up in the air as if that would float him off the bed and into the bathroom.
That blond bitch hadn’t been a trader. Traders didn’t run around the world on business. Traders sat behind their screens, maybe with two or three phones going at once, multi-tasking, and their fingers danced over the keys, making money. She must have been a fucking banker or something. He knew that type, the female type always in those pinstripe suits, female version, with the frilly blouse clenching the throat like some goddamn maiden aunt, just begging for a cameo broach or something. She was one of those, definitely. She’d been with that Simon all along. Oh, fuck it. So what. He hadn’t gone out to score.
He laughed out loud then.
He couldn’t even remember how you scored, got girls. “Oh, Sandy, I’ve got you,” he said out loud to the room so he could hear his voice. The words struck him as just maybe not… not true.
It could be all over. Just maybe. This trip. It had all been a fucking desperate try to outrun… to leave behind… to cut himself off from… What?
He’d worked so fucking hard. Studying while everybody partied in the dorm. Interning when everyone else backpacked off somewhere for the summer. But, man, he ran with it, MBA reward. Took the trading job and ran with it. He yelled into the room: “Ha!” And heard the room echo back. Fuck all! Get used to it: there’s no running fast enough to escape the fucking past, his dad, that Knights of Columbus Catholic veneer over Irish trailer trash, choking to death on your own vomit, man, and that’s how it will all end for you, no running away, no avoiding.
One day, maybe now while he was gone – oh, shit, maybe it was happening right now – Sandy would wake up to the facts, look at him and dump him.
Dump Chris the Failure Finn, like rotting fish.
He woke up to his hotel room with all lights still blazing. He was stretched out flat on his back, naked. His stomach felt hollow. He ran his hands over his arms and shoulders: flesh cool. His mind registered: he was cold. London. Pure panic fear gripped him for no reason. London, he repeated out loud, and the panic died away, also for no reason. He pulled himself over with one arm to turn off the light. Next, he kicked his way under the covers.
* * *
Chris located his Filofax under a stack of laundered shirts in his bag and, when he straightened up, his head swam. Nausea struck, and then ebbed away by itself. He breathed in deeply, exhaled, then again. His mouth tasted fetid. The lining of his mouth could have been embalmed. The flavor of a fetus in formaldehyde. He knew that flavor? Then the thwack, thwack, thwack began just beneath the cerebellum. His stomach produced an unexpected burst of acid, which wafted quickly up his esophagus. He belched. He just barely controlled a rise of sick following on it, swallowing hard. He knew it was early Saturday morning because glints of light slipped in from behind the curtains, but he had not turned the lights on. The gloom was soothing. He got back to the bed, sat down gingerly on its edge and rested the opened Filofax on top of his shrunken genitals. They didn’t spring to life at its touch like an adolescent, but a low rich horny feeling did bleat goat-like for a minute before ebbing away. Hangovers were funny that way.
He and Sandy had their best sex ever once when they were both hung-over. The memory of that triggered another stir, and then it all dissipated in woolly exhaustion.
He concentrated now on flipping through the pages on his lap and finally put his finger on the entry containing the full name and address and phone number of Cousin Adrian. Simultaneously he caught his alcohol-stunned brain frothing about the Potato Famine.
The Irish thing. The Potato Famine: the English. This was a piece of history that he had never given much thought to before. Now it became a metaphor for his treatment in the Bilious Bream. He had always dismissed as backward drivel the Irish thing and all the atavism that was supposed to stir up in a Finnegan, but now he felt it raging full blast through him. A total surprise. As his mind moved on, picking up the phone and starting to dial, he smiled at the thought that it did add a historical slant to his wounded pride. The English were cold-blooded murderers of his ancestors.
For a moment he even slipped into a kind of Holocaust stance. At that point his thoughts recoiled in a mix of confusion and absurdity.
A dopey smile was on his face as he heard the phone ring in Paris.
The silver Eurostar slid in smooth as an eel to the tune of chimes heralding arrivals and departures. The chimes ricocheted off the centuries-old glass and iron vault roof of the station. Its rocket nose stopped just a few feet short of the stop barrier, just steps away to his left. But there was a tall no-doubt bulletproof glass partitioning him from the train. Great Britain, true to its island nature, had opted out of the Schengen free-movement treaty, intent on keeping itself pure and safe from the pestilences of the rest of the EU. He was not fond of the Brits: They rankled his Irish blood with their condescension, not to mention their mistreatment of Joan of Arc and their comedians’ ugly rants against the French to wild applause on BBC. Seems that they’d done the same to Chris. Adrian stifled a sudden yawn (Chris’s call had woken him up – true – but this yawn he knew was more likely nerves). He checked his watch. Only a few minutes late: five to two.
Adrian scanned the passengers one by one as they disembarked and approached, with the e-mailed photo of Chris crystal clear in his mind’s eye.
He, who had built his whole life on charm, would it work on Chris or would he see right through him? Had his fortunes shifted for the better? Everything would point to a new cycle, one heading upward. Little aspects of everyday life were underscoring this daily. Ones that he tended to interpret as signals from some Great Beyond. Just this morning, when he’d abandoned his taxi in a traffic jam at the Boulevard Magenta to walk to the station so as not to be late, the light turned green for him just as he’d reached the curb to cross. Not just once but several times. The gods were facilitating his rendezvous with destiny in the Gare du Nord. Okay, a bit silly, but what about the chance phone call to Nancy, far too cheap to ever call him and too deliberately backward to hook herself up to the internet, and he gets told of Chris’s sudden downturn, his alarming depressive bouts? A perverse blessing in disguise? Because voilà. There he was standing there waiting for the kid. His life would change forever. For good or bad.
Adrian, time to focus on someone other than yourself. Un petit effort? That would be the voice of Jeanine in his head. He liked to think she transmitted Thierry’s advice from the Beyond. Thierry. Good grief, leave the ghost of Thierry alone for once!
So, now. How about the brutality shown to Chris? The way one day he could make the bastards millions only to be rewarded by the ax the next? All Chris’s hard work and dedication to the firm, only to be dumped, out of work and, according to Nancy, dangerously depressed in the ruthlessly competitive, winner/loser city that New York had become since Reagan. Oh B-movie actor, con-artist fucker! Gone, the city of Andy Warhol, that seventies city, the one he’d loved, the one always on the verge of slipping into default, high on danger, mugging, and cocaine, but wild with sexual and artistic passion and cultural milestones.
Stop! The focus, all your sympathy, needs to be on Chris, the young man, the person?
A massive effort was needed to get out from under the self-pity, the crutch, the drug this self-pity had become in his everyday life. He knew himself only too well. Oh, he did indeed. So, all he needed to do was to go way back, to summon up that old Adrian. The one who had made a fortune. He still had that big, rowdy character, the one with the pizzazz that swept people up and made him the center of attention. None of that had been lost. It just needed to be harnessed, finessed, and adjusted to Chris now and to his needs. Focus all on Chris. Chris was the chance of a lifetime. So what if it was his lifetime.
In other words: Don’t fuck this up, dah-link!
He usually felt better after he’d slapped himself down a few notches, which is what he was doing right now. Silly ole Adrian.
And yet there he was, back to “all about him” again. This was going to be next to impossible. Challenge of a lifetime, ahem.
He tried again.
Picture it. Chris in Paris. Paris with its essential mélancolie and cult oftristesse – he was counting on the city’s seductive powers. It had seduced him; it would seduce Chris. Otherwise?
Otherwise, what was he going to do with Chris?
No, he was also depending on the city’s deep and vast devotion to pleasure and beauty versus Manhattan’s fortune-building and money mania to heal Chris.
Would it? And, in so doing, heal him?
His whole body sagged. He was hopeless. All about you, Adrian. All about you.
Along the whole length of the Eurostar travelers now were heading in a greater and greater mass toward him. Scanning one by one was no longer possible. His own physical height, as it always was in France, was going to have to set him off from the waiting crowd like a beacon. Chris would have to spot him, if worse came to worse. He thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his black cashmere overcoat and instinctively arched up a bit on his toes, the better to be seen and to be able to reach out and pluck Chris out of the masses the minute he caught sight of him.
That picture Chris had e-mailed? It was of himself and his girlfriend, posing in some Caribbean-looking café, palm trees and azure blue waters in the distance. Chris’s boldly confidant smile and body had leaped off the computer screen. He was struck how little Chris looked like his mother Maura, and how much like himself in his early thirties Chris looked, how his family gene pool had totally overwhelmed Maura’s.
The image of Maura? Vague and not summoned up in decades. Not very important.
But in first priority, up came this more important woman, the one in the bikini beside Chris. He lived with her, would marry her eventually, so stated Nancy.
He knew just about everything about Chris – had kept tabs from day one – except whether or not Chris actually would visit him here, come to Paris. He’d invited him in that e-mail. Had his thanks in reply been meant to mean yes? All too vague, at least in his mind. But evidently not in Chris’s. Because this very morning he’d called, waking him up. What he heard was a young male voice full of bravado, but complaining how fed up he was with London and could he come over. Now? Today. In a few hours.
And so now was now and there – there he was.
Oh! There he was!