Authors: Eileen Goudge
“I can’t answer that.”
“Well, when you have it figured out, you know where to find me. Just don’t count on being able to pick up where we left off.” He shifted the car into reverse, revving the motor: her exit cue.
Stevie had spent the rest of the night lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. Until now her condo had been little more than an insurance policy, a place she’d held on to
just in case.
Well, it was no longer an eventuality; the other shoe had dropped with a resounding thud.
Now, in the cab on her way to her college reunion, she ground out the memory like a cigarette, traces of it lingering like smoke before dissolving into the gulf that stretched ahead of her—the gulf that was the Rest of Her Life. She’d deal with it when she got home. For the time being, she planned to enjoy this all too rare visit with her friends. She didn’t see as much of them as she’d like, though whenever they talked on the phone, even if it’d been months, there was never any of the awkwardness she’d experienced with other, lesser friends, that little conversational bridge you had to negotiate before you could get back to where you’d left off. With Jay, Franny, and Emerson, it was as if no time at all had elapsed.
It was nearly noon by the time they reached Princeton. After several wrong turns and some backtracking, they pulled up in front of the Hartley’s residence. Eyeing the festivities in full swing on the lawn, Stevie was bracing herself for an assault on her jet-lagged senses when Emerson appeared from out of nowhere, a shimmering blond vision in black jeans and a Chanel jacket.
They fell into each other’s arms, hugging and laughing with delight, each telling the other how great she looked. Which happened to be true in Emerson’s case. After her long trip and the two previous nights in which she’d scarcely slept, Stevie knew she looked like shit.
“Where’s Franny? I thought she was with you.” Stevie glanced around her.
“She went on ahead. I was feeling a little under the weather,” Emerson explained.
“Nothing serious, I hope,” Stevie eyed her with concern. She
“You?” Stevie couldn’t remember ever seeing Emerson drunk, not even when the rest of them were trashed. Emerson was always the one in control—life’s designated driver.
Emerson smiled thinly. “Yes, Virginia, occasionally even Santa ties one on.”
They headed up the grassy slope in search of Franny and Jay, Stevie taking two steps for every one of Emerson’s long-legged strides. At last, she spotted them over by the gazebo, standing apart from everyone else, deep in conversation as usual—a closed corporation. Stevie wondered, not for the first time, why they’d never become a couple. They were so perfect for each other. Maybe too perfect. Like a coin with two heads or two tails.
With a cry of joy, Franny darted over to throw her arms around Stevie. Jay hugged her hard enough to crack a rib when it was his turn. “We were wondering if you were going to make it,” he said.
“Did I miss anything?” Stevie asked.
“Only Stu Felder volunteering to knock me up,” Franny reported dryly. She looked, as always, like she’d just climbed out of bed after a night of mind-blowing sex, with her sultry eyes and bee-stung mouth, her corkscrew curls sprouting every which way.
“Uh-oh. Sounds like an offer you can’t refuse,” Stevie teased.
Franny laughed, and shook her head. “I’d rather die a lonely old maid.”
“Where’s Viv?” Emerson wanted to know.
“She decided to sit this one out,” Jay informed her.
Emerson gave a knowing nod. “Smart lady. There’s nothing more boring than being a spouse at a class reunion.”
“The fun isn’t over yet, kids. There’s still tonight’s dinner dance at Ivy,” Franny reminded them.
“Where’s the food? I’m starved,” Stevie announced. She hadn’t had a thing to eat all day except a packet of pretzels on the plane.
“Follow me, ladies,” said Jay, with a courtly little bow.
With that, they all trooped off toward the buffet table, as inseparable now as when they’d been a familiar sight around campus: the tall, clean-cut kid from Iowa and his three female sidekicks—a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead.
“To the class of ’92,” Jay toasted.
They’d all headed back to the city after the weekend’s festivities and were now seated upstairs under the domed skylight at Babbo as the glow of sunset faded into dusk. Jay had ordered a magnum of Cristal from the year they’d all graduated, and as they lifted their glasses—all except Vivienne—they reflected on the various roads, both traveled and as yet untaken, that had brought them, over bumpy terrain at times, to this juncture in their lives.
Franny took a careful sip of her champagne. “It was fun while it lasted.”
“What, the reunion?” Stevie helped herself to a sourdough roll.
“I was referring to our youth,” Franny said.
“We’re hardly old!” protested Emerson, looking anything but in a fitted velvet jacket and silk trousers, a pearl choker around her swanlike neck. Everything about her, in fact, was perfection, from her sleek blond hair to her French-polished nails—a
descendant only her best friends knew felt more closely aligned with the
“I, for one, am celebrating the fact that we’re all together,” said Stevie. “Who knows when we’ll get another chance?”
“You’ll all come for the christening, I hope,” Vivienne piped.
She glanced around the table wearing a small smile, one hand resting on the barely noticeable swell of her belly. Pregnancy had only added to her luster, making her dark hair and eyes shine and giving her skin, the color of crème caramel, a rosy hue. The little demon inside Franny she did her best to keep at bay delivered a hard, swift jab with its pitchfork. Why Vivienne, and not her? Why was it
It was like when they’d roomed together after college, back when Franny was scraping by as an editorial assistant and Vivienne was making a good living as a model. Franny had been madly in love with the guy she’d been seeing at the time, an up-and-coming writer named Brian Henley whose first novel, a snarky take on the Soho art scene, had just made the
list. She supposed she should have predicted that he’d fall under Vivienne’s spell. What red-blooded male wouldn’t? Franny couldn’t even hold it against Vivienne, who’d done nothing to encourage him, after all. She didn’t have to. She was just…well, Vivienne. It wasn’t long before Brian began dropping by only when he knew Vivienne would be there. After she left for Europe, he’d stopped coming altogether.
Vivienne felt bad about it, she knew. They’d talked about it years later, after Vivienne had become engaged to Jay. She’d confessed that Brian had followed her to Paris, which Franny hadn’t known about until then and which, instead of making her see how nobly Vivienne had acted in spurning him, had only brought it all back in a searing rush.
Franny’s thoughts were interrupted by their waiter returning to take their orders. After he left, talk turned once more to the reunion.
“It sounds like I didn’t miss much,” Vivienne said with an amused roll of her eyes after Jay told about getting buttonholed by Winston Hayes III, or Winnie, as he was known in college, who’d spent at least ten minutes regaling Jay with all his accomplishments.
“It was fine, until I ran into this guy I used to date,” Franny said.
“Who offered to put a bun in her oven,” giggled Stevie, already working on her second glass of champagne. She wore jeans and a hot pink chiffon handkerchief top with a plunging neckline, chandelier earrings swinging from her ears. Franny didn’t have to look under the table to know she was barefoot. Stevie, a California girl through and through, was in the habit of slipping out of her shoes every chance she got.
Franny stared pensively into her glass at the bubbles rising in little columns. It was a year ago this month that she’d buried her brother, and all this talk was reminding her of her loss. With both her parents and Bobby gone, there wouldn’t be a single family member other than distant cousins to mark her grave with a stone when her time came. “Maybe I should’ve taken him up on it,” she said glumly. “Who knows when I’ll get another offer.”
“There’s always Jay,” teased Emerson. She filled Vivienne in on the incident with Stu, which Franny had recounted at last night’s dinner-dance at Ivy to a round of groans and laughter.
But Franny wasn’t laughing now. Seeing her expression, Jay reached over to squeeze her hand. “I’m sorry. It was stupid of me,” he said. “I should’ve kept my mouth shut.”
Franny mustered a smile. “I was thinking of my brother.”
The table fell silent, Franny’s friends eyeing her in sympathy.
“You think someone will be around forever, then one day they’re gone. Just like that,” she went on. Not wanting to spoil the mood, she was quick to add, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be a downer.”
“You still have us,” Emerson said gently.
Vivienne offered her an encouraging smile. “You’ll find someone. Look at me. I didn’t think I’d ever get married.”
Franny refrained from reminding her that it wasn’t for lack of opportunity. Vivienne had had suitors on two continents—a prince, a Greek shipping heir, and the head of a vast conglomerate, to name a few. During the years she’d flitted in and out of Jay’s life, living mostly in Paris, where she’d been brought up, the product of a French father and a Lebanese mother, he’d have married her a dozen times over if she’d ever settled down long enough for him to ask. It wasn’t until he’d started getting serious about someone else that Vivienne reappeared on the scene, this time for good.
“As I recall, it took some convincing,” Jay said.
“You didn’t have to twist my arm very hard.” Vivienne gave a light laugh, bringing a hand to rest on his forearm. She turned back to Franny, her smile falling away. “
what is it? Did we say something to upset you?”
Franny shook her head, embarrassed as she dabbed at her eyes with her napkin. “No, of course not. It must have been the reunion. All that talk of kids and families.”
“You know,” Vivienne said, as if mulling it over as she spoke. “Maybe there’s a simple solution to all this.”
“Like what?” Franny smoothed the napkin back over her lap.
“Jay could father your child.”
Franny felt the breath go out of her. “You can’t be serious,” she gasped.
“It makes perfect sense when you think about it,” Vivienne went on. “You’ve known each other forever. You wouldn’t have to wonder where your baby got his nose or his chin. Or his medical history.” She turned to Jay, who looked as stunned as Franny. “And if Franny gets pregnant right away, our child would have a baby brother or sister.”
“Great. And just how would we explain it to our kid?” Jay wanted to know.
“Kids,” Emerson corrected.
“My point exactly. It’d be weird and complicated.” Jay threw up his hands. “Why are we even discussing it? It’s not as if it’s going to happen.” He cast a frantic look around the table, as if beseeching his friends to toss the cold water of reason on this crazy idea.
“Don’t look at me,” Stevie said. “This is one subject I’m not remotely qualified to give advice on.”
And, trust me, it’s not easy being a single mom,” Emerson put in.
Franny said nothing. She was lost in thought, hardly daring to believe what she was hearing. Was Vivienne really as serious as she seemed? The French were more open-minded about such matters, she knew, but still it was a stretch. Whatever the circumstances, most wives wouldn’t be in favor of their husband’s fathering another woman’s baby. Nonetheless, the idea had taken root. A picture formed in her mind: all of them gathered around the table at Thanksgiving, she and Jay and Vivienne and their children. One big happy family. She thought of all the holidays and birthdays they’d celebrate together. The baseball games and soccer matches with someone aside from her rooting from the sidelines. The hard times, too, when she’d need all the support she could get.
Who better to father her child than her dearest friend in the world?
o I have to kiss Grandma?”
Ainsley peered up anxiously at Emerson as they sat nestled together in the backseat of the cab taking them to Marjorie’s. In the late afternoon sun playing hide-and-seek with the tall buildings along Park Avenue, her strawberry blond hair shone like pink gold.
From the mouths of babes,
Emerson thought. Ainsley wasn’t being rude, just honest.
“Not if you don’t want to.” Emerson gave her daughter’s shoulder a little squeeze. How had she and Briggs managed to produce such a wisp of a thing? The first time Emerson had held her, just after she was born, it was like cupping a butterfly in her hands.
“Grandma’s nice, but she smells funny.”
“I know, sweetie. She can’t help it.” Emerson felt sorry for her mother, despite how difficult she could be at times. Before she became ill, Marjorie had always been perfectly turned out, from head to toe, every hair in place. Emerson remembered how, at Ainsley’s age, she’d been so proud whenever Marjorie showed up at school; even in a sea of Chanel and Yves St. Laurent, she was easily the most glamorous mom. But these days no amount of perfume could mask the medicinal smell that clung to her. “But you know what? I know she’ll love the picture you drew her.” Rolled up on Ainsley’s lap was a crayon drawing she’d done of Gus, the polar bear at the Central Park Zoo, where her first-grade class had gone on a field trip earlier in the week.
Ainsley’s shoulders drooped. “No, she won’t.”
“Why do you say that?”
“She threw away my duck picture.”
“Maybe Natalia did by mistake.” Natalia was their housekeeper, whom she paid to clean her mother’s apartment as well.
Ainsley shook her head, giving Emerson a look that said she understood more than her mother gave her credit for, insisting, “I found it crumpled up under Grandma’s bed.”
Emerson didn’t see the point in arguing—how did she know it wasn’t true? As they made their way past St. Barthomew’s, with its courtyard café facing out on Park Avenue, she was recalling her own childhood, how Marjorie would ignore her for long stretches then snatch her up like a doll to be played with and dressed in cute little outfits. But if history was repeating itself, it wasn’t all Marjorie’s fault. Her illness had taken so much out of her. She doted on Ainsley but just didn’t have the strength most of the time to rise to the occasion.
“Hey, I know. How about a frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity?” she suggested, in an effort to brighten the mood. “We could stop there on our way home from Grandma’s.”
Ainsley perked up. “With everything on top?”
“The works.” Serendipity’s sundaes could easily feed four people, and despite her best efforts Ainsley never managed to make more than a dent, but that didn’t keep her from trying.
that would be okay,” Ainsley said, her pixie eyes dancing.
Minutes later the taxi was pulling up in front of her mother’s building at Seventy-second and Park. “You know who else will be happy to see you?” Emerson said as they were climbing out.
“Uncle Nacario?” Ainsley asked hopefully.
Emerson nodded, and Ainsley gave a cry of delight, darting ahead of her. Before Emerson had stepped under the scalloped burgundy awning, her daughter was halfway up the carpet that stretched from the curb to the plate-glass door, which a white-gloved doorman was holding open for them. Emerson stepped into the gleaming marble-tiled lobby to find forty-two pounds of wriggling little girl in the arms of the elderly Puerto Rican concierge.
“Ainsley!” she chided, hurrying over to them. “You’ll give Uncle Nacario a hernia.” To Nacario, she said, with a laugh, “She sometimes forgets she’s not a baby anymore.”
forget I’m an old man.” He deposited Ainsley on the front desk with a
of expelled breath. “Ay,
he sighed in mock despair, “what your mama been feeding you? I’m away only two weeks, and I come back to find you twice as big.” He tipped her a wink, turning back to Emerson. “You were the same at her age. Always wanting me to pick you up or to ride on my shoulders. Carlos”—the doorman when she was growing up, long since retired—“he used to call you my little
he reminded her, the Spanish word for shadow.
Emerson smiled at the memory. Nacario had been more than a kindly concierge; during those difficult years he’d been a surrogate father. She used to fantasize about going to live with him and his big, noisy brood in the Bronx—a home that to this day she’d never set foot in. Not that she wouldn’t be welcomed, but the risk was too great. If Marjorie were to find out, it would place him in an tenuous position and maybe even cost him his job.
Now she noted the roundness of the broad shoulders on which she’d once ridden, and the gray that ran like tread marks through his thick black hair. Creases curved from the corners of his eyes to his temples and the flesh around his jaw had begun to sag. The thought of one day walking in and not seeing him at the desk brought a pulse of dread.
“Did you have a nice vacation?” she inquired.
“If you can call putting a new roof on my sister’s house a vacation,” he said.
“Don’t you ever put your feet up?” Emerson said, with fond exasperation.
He gave a good-natured shrug. “With a big family there is no such thing as rest.”
“They’re lucky to have you.”
A chunk of his paycheck every month, she knew, went to his relatives in Puerto Rico—
What is money for, if not to help those less fortunate?
he’d always say. And if riches were measured in loved ones, he was wealthy beyond all measure, with his wife of forty years, three grown children, and twelve grandchildren.
“Now.” He bent so he was eye level with Ainsley. “Do you want to know what I brought you all the way from Mayagüez?” Emerson had phoned ahead to let him know they were coming and now he drew something from the pocket of his trousers, which had once produced a seemingly endless supply of riches for Emerson, and pressed it into Ainsley’s hand: a carved wooden statuette. “It’s the Virgin Mary. If you’re ever in trouble, she will help you.”
“How would she know?” Ainsley eyed it in fascination, turning it over in the palm of her hand.
The Lady, she always knows.” He tapped his chest.
“So what do you make of the new guy?” Emerson asked when she had his attention, giving an upward jerk of her head to indicate the tenth floor, where the recently hired night-duty nurse, whom she had yet to meet, was no doubt being put to the test by her mother. The only information the agency had given her was that he was Nigerian and a licensed LPN. “Should we place bets on how long he’ll last?”
Nacario cast her a faintly reproving glance. Whatever his private opinion of Marjorie, he’d always treated her with the utmost respect and insisted that Emerson do the same. His only comment was “Your mother is in good hands, from what I can see.”
Moments later Emerson and Ainsley were riding the elevator up to her mother’s floor. As they stepped out into the foyer, she took note of the vase of fresh flowers on the reproduction Louis Quinze table against the wall—she would have to remember to once again thank the Townsends, in 10B, who had an arrangement delivered each week and refused to let her share the cost. Letting herself into her mother’s apartment, Emerson drew in a breath against the little stitch in her stomach she got each time—however often she visited, it never seemed to get any easier—and, holding tightly to Ainsley’s hand, made her way inside.
It was like stepping into a sauna, it was so hot—Marjorie was always cold these days and insisted on keeping every window shut. In the late afternoon sunlight, slanting in through the bank of tall casement windows overlooking Park Avenue, the gracious living room where Emerson had once tiptoed as a child, fearful of toppling some priceless artifact, looked strangely barren. The antiques and fine art had all been sold off, one by one, replaced by factory-made furnishings and castoffs. All that was left from Emerson’s childhood was the rather severe-looking portrait of her father that hung over the marble fireplace, and which looked nothing like him. Her memory was of a gentle, soft-spoken man, with white hair like snow melting from the pink dome of his balding crown, who’d taken frequent naps and was always going to the doctor—he’d been quite a bit older than Marjorie, old enough to be Emerson’s grandfather, and suffered from a bad heart.
“Hello.” A low, musical voice caused her to spin around. A man stepped from the darkened hallway into the light. Tall, around her age, with skin the color of the walnut wainscoting against which he stood. He wore pressed khakis and a short-sleeved shirt that showed off the well-defined muscles in his arms. He smiled, his teeth very white against his dark skin. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” He held out his hand. “Reggie Okanta. We spoke on the phone?”
“Yes, of course. Emerson,” she said, introducing herself. His handshake was firm but not too firm, his large hand seeming to engulf her none too delicate one. She took in his high, slanting cheekbones and full lips, his eyes the green-gold of stones glinting at the bottom of a creek bed. She felt vaguely flustered for some reason, and it was a moment before she recovered her manners, gesturing toward Ainsley. “And this is my daughter, Ainsley.”
“Very pleased to meet you.” Reggie bent down to shake Ainsley’s hand with the same formality he had Emerson’s. “What’s that you have there?” He eyed the drawing she clutched in one hand.
Ainsley held it out for him to see. “I made it for Grandma.”
Reggie unrolled it carefully and took his time examining it, as if he were a museum curator pondering the work of an emerging artist. “Hmmm…yes. I like your bold use of color. Very original. I think this bear would be pleased with how you’ve drawn him.” He spoke with a British-inflected accent that carried lilting overtones of his native land.
“I could make you one, too.” Ainsley was staring up at him, enraptured.
“I’d like that very much.” Reggie spoke gravely, as if it were a great honor she was bestowing on him.
Ainsley darted over to the cabinet Emerson kept stocked with art supplies for when they visited. “You’re good with children,” observed Emerson, smiling as she watched her daughter dig out a drawing pad and colored markers. She turned to him. “Do you have any of your own?”
“Just nieces and nephews. They keep me from sleeping as much as I’d like,” he added with a laugh, explaining that he was living with his aunt and uncle for the time being, until he finished college. He had another year to go before he could apply to medical school. In the meantime, he was making ends meet working nights.
“That doesn’t leave you much free time.” Emerson recalled her brutal schedule at Princeton, how she’d had to knock herself out just to pull Bs.
He treated her to another of his dazzling smiles. “Free time is a Western ideal.” He’d been brought up to believe that any time spent on furthering oneself was well spent he said.
“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. Still, it can’t be easy.”
“Your mother’s been most helpful. Every night she quizzes me on what I’ve learned that day.”
Emerson could hardly contain her astonishment. “Helpful” wasn’t a word she normally associated with Marjorie. “You must be having a good effect on her then. She’s usually not feeling up to much these days.” She’d have liked nothing more than to continue the conversation, learn more about Reggie, but filial duty tugged at her like an insistent child at her hem. “Speaking of our patient, I should look in on her. Is she awake?” she inquired, half hoping it wasn’t the case, which would buy her a few more minutes.
“Yes. In fact, she has a visitor.” Reggie gestured down the hallway toward Marjorie’s bedroom. “I was just making tea. Would you like some?”
“What? Oh, no thanks.” Emerson was momentarily distracted, contemplating the surprising fact that Marjorie had company. She didn’t get many visitors these days.
Leaving Ainsley to her scribbling, Emerson headed down the hall. Marjorie was sitting up in bed when she walked in, propped against a bank of pillows, the room to which she was mostly confined these days spread out around her like a tattered gown from a ball long over, its tufted velvet headboard showing signs of wear, its mirrored vanity cluttered with ancient perfume vials. She’d freshened her face, her wig—stiff blond wings sprouting from either side of her head—framing it like some improbable costume piece. You could see only a glimmer of the beauty she’d once been.
“Darling!” her mother trilled, as if she hadn’t seen her in ages. “You remember Mr. Stancliffe?” She indicated her male visitor, seated in the worn plush chair by the bed.
Recognizing him, Emerson felt the stitch in her stomach tighten. How could she not? Her mother had been pushing him on her ever since he moved in upstairs, insisting he’d be perfect for her. How often did a suitable man come along? she’d reasoned. Would it kill Emerson to have a drink with him? She wasn’t getting any younger, after all. And she had Ainsley to think of. Emerson had demurred, claiming she was much too busy. Besides, Briggs had been “perfect” for her, too, and look how that had turned out. But her mother had persisted, and finally Emerson had caved in and agreed to meet him for coffee. A perfectly dull date with a perfectly dull man who’d been pestering her ever since with repeated invitations to dinner, a concert, a show.
“Ed.” She forced a smile as he rose to greet her. “How nice of you to drop by,” she said, with the practiced ease of a seasoned pro.
“I was in the neighborhood.” He grinned at his own joke, looking not the least bit surprised to see her. Was he in on the setup? Knowing her mother, it wouldn’t surprise her.
Marjorie cocked her head, eyeing Emerson with such fervent brightness there could be no mistaking her intent. “Mr. Stancliffe was just telling me he lived next door to the Lyttons on Martha’s Vineyard. Isn’t that the most amazing coincidence?”
That would be the Lyttons who were second cousins on Emerson’s father’s side. “I only met them once. To be honest, I thought they were kind of stuck-up,” she commented with a shrug.