by Mark Jacobs
“So how much does Beth tell you about me?”
“You know us, Edna. We talk.”
“About my sex life?”
“We talk about a lot of things. It’s what keeps us going.”
Meeting her best friend’s husband at a sherry bar. That was novel. Edna was into novel; into it, in fact, in a big way. Segunda Vez was supposed to feel like Madrid, evoking smoke and daggers, toreros and the divine right of kings, all that. It didn’t. At no moment did she forget she was in East Welkin, Connecticut, a mile and a half from the interstate she would take back to the City.
Maury asked her if she wanted another fino.
“I do,” she told him with instant conviction. “I absolutely do.”
Maury was on the side of the hell-fire angels, or so Beth was always saying. Edna was not convinced. The man offering her black olives on a bricky ceramic plate looked like what he was, a somewhat cool wealthy guy in his sixties who carried himself with style and told good stories about the rockers who had made him rich, promoting their bands. He had recently cut off his ponytail. A mistake. If you were old and it still looked good, keep it.
“Edna says you are a person with no filters,” he told her.
She nodded. “And I’m superficial, too.”
His expressive eyebrows went up.
“No, listen. Superficial is not the same as shallow. It’s just how I perceive the world. Colors, patterns, textures. The different ways that one thing can look against another. Backdrops, foreground. Geometry, I guess.”
“You’re a designer. That’s how you do your job.”
The moment was slipping away. Get it back. “Never mind, Maury. What I really wanted was to tell you something that’s been on my mind.”
“I’m tired of the sexual etiquette that comes with being a single woman of forty.”
“You’re drawing me out. Did Beth coach you?”
He shook his head and signaled to the waiter, who ambled toward their table with Spanish hauteur. His arrogance of body became him. Juan Pablo whoever he was looked good in basic black and white.
“Two more finos,” Maury told him.
Edna had a manageable little buzz going on. Going past manageable; well, that was her trademark.
“It gets old, Maury. Making sure a man is certified clean before I fuck him. Even the liberated ones lie about their sexual history, depending on what they think I want. I’m finding the process tedious. So here’s the question.”
She liked the poise with which he waited. Beth was right. Talking with Maury might break her mental logjam. Beth was the older sister Edna never had. They talked so much they tended to fall into a conversational groove, which sometimes they could not climb out of.
“Me being tired of the single sex scene, does that mean I’m ready for a monogamous relationship?”
“I assume there’s a candidate.”
“His name is Trey. He’s in real estate. He has a condo in my building. I met him through the board. Divorced, two kids, nice getaway place in Vermont near some incredible skiing. And, believe it or not, all the evidence suggests my sexual history does not scare him.”
“But you don’t know if one man, or this one man, is what you want.”
The glass of sherry – her fourth? – was pushing her over a delightful edge she knew only too well. She asked herself if she felt the slightest twitch or twinge of something sexual toward Maury. Answer: no. What a relief. She presumed that was another sign of being older. Complications used to be a good thing. They jazzed her, by definition. Now, not so much.
“I want to be fair to Trey,” she said. “I’m superficial. That doesn’t mean I’m a bitch.”
“So what will it take to know what you want?”
“I was hoping you’d help me figure that out.”
“Maybe you should take a trip.”
“Is that a joke?”
“I’m thinking more along the lines of a pilgrimage.”
“The headwaters. Where it all began.”
“What is this, Zen and the art of sherry?”
“Sleep on it.”
Afterward, in the parking lot, the bitter January wind was a rebuke. She had been misbehaving. Nothing new in that. She was always misbehaving. By the time she got back to Manhattan, the alcohol would be out of her system. Mostly. Take a trip, Maury had said.
Next morning her head was sandpaper, everything rubbing against it the wrong way. She had a ten o’clock with a new client. In the beginning, it had amazed her that people paid her to spend their money testing her design ideas on the places in which they passed the intimate hours of their lives. The amazement was gone, but it still amused her. The new person, Mildred, worked in arbitrage. Following the financial meltdown a few years back, Edna had a vague sense that maybe what Mildred did for a living was illegal. Whatever. It appeared to pay well. She had a brownstone on the Upper West Side she was turning over to Edna, telling her to make it interesting, make it look as though she had given the project big thought. Edna did interesting. She did big thought, in a superficial way. Piece of cake.
As she showered, Maury’s sherry Zen came back to her. I’m thinking more along the lines of a pilgrimage, and what he meant came to her with an electric shiver. Back to the source. The headwaters were in Brooklyn. It was a journey to be dreaded.
“When we lived in the Village, what was my favorite toy?”
Enormous on her stool, Adrienne put her brush down on a little table covered with paint tubes and jars of oil. She frowned. In her burgundy smock, she looked more like the thing to be painted than the painter. “Toy?”
Edna tried to remember the last time she had talked with her mother when she wasn’t painting. Adrienne thought better when she painted. That was her defense. In fact she begrudged any amount of time away from her canvas. Once, walking in her own neighborhood, Edna had seen, at a difficult angle, one of her mother’s paintings on the wall of a brownstone living room. There was no mistaking the stubborn abstract density, the relentless merge of color into uncolor. The assertion. She could forget the painting. She would never forget the cold sweat of anger that overtook her on the sidewalk.
Adrienne brushed the hair out of her face, still frowning. At fifty nine she was remarkably blonde. You only saw the silver in a particular light, and it always struck Edna as a revelation. She was used to thinking of her mother, and her mother’s power, as irreversible. Adrienne was six feet tall, with a body that had stayed statuesque longer than most. Even now, she retained a physical authority that a woman of, say, forty would envy. Edna was considered attractive. Less blonde than her mother, not as tall, but men were always looking at her, which she had long ago accepted as a cost of doing business both corporate and private.
“You had toys, Edna, I am sure you played with toys. I assume the question is meant to take me to task for my shortcomings as a mother. Didn’t we go through all that twenty years ago, twenty five? I don’t remember.”
Adrienne worked in a Brooklyn loft, the old-fashioned way. She woke every morning of her life expecting that her significance as a painter would at long last be brought to New York light. Now and then she made money, selling her work. A series of generous infatuated men had taken care of what her mother called ‘the logistics.’
Edna’s frustration was already spilling over. This was the nowhere their conversations always went. Her mother seemed to take comfort from the ritual repetition of grievance; it confirmed her sense of self. It was up to Edna to make the visit count.
“Speaking of sex.”
“I went through long periods when all I cared about was an orgasm.”
Adrienne nodded, shifting on her stool. She was painting again. “That’s a normal thing, I should think.”
“But there have been times, just as often, when I craved intimacy more than fireworks. The foreplay, the during play. Lying with a man afterward, telling each other our secret dreams.”
“Why are you telling me this, Edna? Do you want an expression of solidarity from me? Yes, I’ve been there. Believe me, I have been there.”
“I’m thinking about moving in with a guy. He said he’d like to marry me.”
That got Adrienne’s attention. She looked at Edna as though she were a stranger next to her on a bus, confessing a crime. “Think twice. That’s my advice.”
It was like her mother not to be curious about the man who might, in a legal sense, become her son-in-law.
Edna said, “You mean I should be more like you.”
“I only mean that marriage is corrosive. One requires love. One enjoys companionship, and a bit of security is nothing to sneeze at. All quite natural. Any more than that, and the spirit dies a howling death.”
“I want to find my father.”
“What on earth for?”
“Because he is my father.”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin. We haven’t spoken since you were two, or was it eighteen months?”
“Tell me what you know.”
“My work threatened Gilbert. Suddenly he was tiresome, and needy, and male in all the wrong ways.”
“Not that, not the part about you. Tell me what you know about him.”
The question seemed to stimulate Adrienne. She got up from the stool and paced. She lifted a blind and looked out the window at the neighborhood below, where kids still rode bikes and parents pushed strollers in all weathers. Edna was glad she did not perceive the same world her mother did.
“Gilbert was quite an athlete, for one thing. And he had an extraordinary head for numbers. He could memorize amazing long strings of them on a bet, even when he was drinking. Which he did more of than was good for either of us. He had family in Rhode Island, if I’m not mistaken.”
That was not much, but it was more than Edna expected. She took her mother’s parting shot – think twice, and then think again before you marry this person – with good grace. In the cab back to Manhattan, she began searching the internet. It took several hours and more patience than she was accustomed to exercising to locate a Gilbert Dewhurst in a small town outside of Providence. He was the right age, give or take. It took a day to rearrange her schedule, and to be sure she wanted to see him.
She had been ignoring Trey’s texts. He was skiing in Vermont and thought she ought to be up there with him. When he called, she couldn’t very well refuse to answer.
“The powder is amazing,” he told her. “I feel healthy.”
“I miss you, Edna.”
Edna felt like her mother’s daughter, failing to fill the gap of expectation by telling him how much she missed him. Nor did she tell him about her pilgrimage to the Brooklyn headwaters. Did failing to confide in him mean she did not really want a monogamous thing with Trey? What she did tell him was, “I fantasized about you last night. My finger was your dick.”
“That’s a good thing, I guess.”
“You sound disappointed.”
“Why don’t you come up for the weekend? Fly to Burlington, and we’ll drive back together. Skiing is optional.”
She felt the accumulation of her mistakes, her dark debilities. They stacked up around her making it hard to move, let alone maneuver. A flash caught her mind’s eye – her mother’s silvering hair in sunlight. What was so bad about being a superficial person?
“What if we got married and I couldn’t stand being faithful to you, Trey?”
“Come up and we’ll talk about it.”
She extricated herself from the conversation taking more trouble than normal not to wound his feelings. She drove to Burkfeld and checked into a hotel and chickened out. What was the point? Gilbert Dewhurst was her father only in a remote biological sense. But instead of turning around, driving back to New York, she lay on the motel bed and watched a television program about hoarders. The woman they featured lived in a house full of both junk and cats and was traumatized at the prospect of losing either. Edna felt an unfamiliar sympathy for her. Crazy-hatted, cat-besotted Myrtle Bland in her sad crammed house was not a figure of fun, she was drably tragic. She knew something important she could not put into words.
Why the program caused Edna to change her mind about changing her mind was a mystery, but twenty minutes later there she stood on the threshold of an office door at the Burkfeld Country Club being ushered in by a man who looked like an English squire just back from riding to the hounds. His face was weathery red. His gray hair was a jaunty helmet. In his bespoke suit he was angular and thin and conscious of how he came across. He shook her hand heartily. She had the impression this was how he greeted all new acquaintances. How many lost children had stumbled across his threshold?
“Come sit down, my dear. Do you drink? Let me fix you a toddy.”
Taking the drink from his hand, Edna blurted, “You left me with her.”
He was anything but surprised. His voice was matter-of-fact telling her, “Adrienne made it clear I wasn’t wanted. She wouldn’t even give you the Dewhurst name. But I had my own with Edna.”
“What do you mean?”
“She didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“Edna was my grandmother. The Dewhursts were Baltimore Catholics, English all day long. People who used to own counties. We’ve come down in the world, you and I, but we’re alive and kicking.”
The toddy tasted like a history lesson. Already she was denser than the person who had come through her father’s door. She said, “I thought I was going to blast you for leaving me with Adrienne. You must have known she didn’t want to be a mother. There’s not a nurturing bone in her body.”
He nodded, looking down into his glass. They were sitting across from each other on fat leather chairs. The first thing she’d do, rethinking the place, was lose the leather. The dark paneled walls would go, along with the hunting prints and the paraphernalia of golf. As shape, pure shape, the room had possibilities.
She asked him, “Did you marry again?”
“Not with any success. You have no half-brothers or sisters, sad to say. Just me, the manager of a minor club in the sticks with no claim to significance. What a letdown it must be for you.”
“There’s a man who wants to marry me.”
He lit up, nodding furiously. “That’s interesting, Edna, that’s quite interesting. So, are you going to take the plunge?”
“May I have another drink?”
He was only too attentive, and the next thing Edna knew it was three in the morning and they were in a cart, tearing around the golf course in the starless Burkfeld dark. Afterward, she could not remember which of them was driving. She did remember piling out at the fifteenth hole and his handing her a club.
“You can’t see it,” he told her, slurring with deliberation, “but can you smell the water? That’s Loch Lorna down there. More balls have gone to the bottom of the lake than Heaven has the energy to tally.”
They stood on the tee and he coached her through a swing. She was so drunk she was totally relaxed, and her first address of the ball connected. Whack, and an instant later they heard it plop in Loch Lorna.
“That’s terrific,” Gilbert shouted. “You’re a natural, kid, you were born to golf.”
But she botched her second swing, and her third, and finally he put his arms around her and guided her through the next try. She smelled the liquor on his breath, and an awareness of all her life lacked swelled inside her like a sponge absorbing moisture. The ball plopped into the hungry lake.
“I don’t suppose you’d give some thought to calling me dad,” said Gilbert.
It was a question she was not prepared to think about, and he seemed to forget he asked it, but it was still there when she woke next morning at ten in the guest bedroom at his apartment with another sandpaper head. She found him at the kitchen table looking old, or worn down, hands around a mug of coffee. His face was chronically red, the color of overindulgence. He poured her a mugful, dosing it with a shot of rum.
“Hair of the dog that bit you,” he said. “It’s a family tradition.”
The coffee and rum cleared her head and she told him without preamble, “I’ve had sex with quite a few men.”
He nodded. “You come by it naturally.”
“You mean you slept around?”
“Can’t blame that one on Adrienne. One of those things, I suppose. What’s the word? A predilection.”
“So maybe I’m not cut out for monogamy any more than Adrienne was for motherhood. Are you late for work, Gilbert?”
“Screw ‘em. I’m the boss.”
“I’m not sure I could ever call you dad.”
“Perfectly understandable. I’m hardly a shining example of the breed. You know, I tried to be in touch. When you were a kid. Adrienne made sure it didn’t happen. After a while… I want to say I gave up, but the truth is I got distracted, and then I got old, and then here you come, phoning me up to say there’s a good chance you’re my daughter.”
The tears in his eyes were hot enough to melt a murderous thick cube Edna was aware of lodged inside her. Those tears terrified her. It was time to get away. When the time came, she shook his hand, leaving him wanting what he did not perhaps deserve to get any more than she deserved to give it.
In the car, before heading back to New York, she called Beth in Connecticut. “Are you home?”
“Yes, I’m home. Why?”
“Let me talk with Maury, please.”
She passed her husband the phone, and Edna told him, “I did what you said.”
“What did I say?”
“I made the pilgrimage. To the headwaters.”
“How did it go?”
“It changed something. I’m not sure what, yet.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“I’m not sure of that, either.”
“Well, then. What comes next?”
“I have to decide about Trey.”
“Something tells me you’ve already made up your mind.”
“You’re wrong, Maury. This time you’re dead wrong.”
She wasn’t sure she meant what she said, although she sensed a momentary truth in the statement; what you got from a bee sting. On the drive back to the City not a single thing that might be classed as a thought came into or passed out of her head.
February, and the snow was slushy. They rented a room downtown, above a Brazilian churrasqueria. Edna superintended the set up, creating something like an aisle leading to the spot where they would stand and not be married. Trey’s two sons were there, mutinously uncomfortable as only an eighth grader and a sixth grader could be. Trey had obliged them to dress up, and they felt like frauds in their blazers, enslaved by antique humanoids with bizarre customs.
Beth and Maury were on hand, of course, the non-witnesses to the non-ceremony over which Mildred, the arbitrage woman, had agreed to preside. Twice divorced, Mildred got it. She really got it, and Edna was looking forward to the remarks she had composed for the non-occasion.
Adrienne had phoned Edna to say she couldn’t make it; unfortunately, she had a previous commitment. But there she loomed on the edge of the invisible aisle, chicly imposing on the arm of a sleek man in a club tie who was obviously enthralled to be her date.
Trey had wanted music. Edna did not, but the occasional concession was part of the experiment she was about to undertake. She understood that. Why he chose the Ramones was beyond her, but when somebody hit the play button she took Gilbert by the arm. She smelled liquor on his breath. Gin? Didn’t they say you couldn’t smell gin?
“Does it bother you that Adrienne is here?”
“Hell no, Edna. I’m happy as a clam being father of the non-bride. I promise you, we’ll both be civil.”
They were standing outside the double doors leading into the rented room where a small group of invitees waited expectantly. She squeezed his arm. She kissed his cheek. She was happy, and surprisingly okay with the decision she had come to.
Gilbert pushed the doors open with a paternal flourish, and Edna went down the aisle on his arm soaking up the beatitude of all those watching. At the altar pseudo-space, Mildred waited in a sober suit. It was the kind of thing, Edna imagined, she wore to a meeting to convince a board of directors that the correct decisions to buy were being made, the decisions to sell. She was a decent-looking woman with boardroom authority and the voice to match. She blinked repeatedly, the only sign of nerves.
Gilbert and Edna came to a stop in front of her, whereupon Trey appeared as if by magic. He wore a sweater and casual pants, guaranteeing the ongoing resentment of his blazered sons. The men shook hands, exchanging a glance whose significance was opaque to Edna.
“Friends,” announced Mildred, as someone switched off the music. “We are gathered here not to marry Edna and Trey but to celebrate their experiment. As I’m sure all of you know by now, after long thought, and much soul-searching, they have decided to give it their best shot. They’re going to try living together.”
Mildred had more to say. Edna sensed her warming to the moment, and her role in the moment. Fine, that was absolutely fine. Let her go on a little. She was an intelligent woman with a message to impart. Edna felt full, as though she had eaten just the right amount of a highly nutritious substance.
“They make no promises, and their expectations are fairly low,” Mildred informed people in her bright, authoritative voice. “They’ve lived long enough to pick up some baggage. Can they carry it together? That’s the question. Stay tuned, we’ll find out. Because they’re going to give it a try.”
People were clapping. The applause sounded genuine.
Trey bent to kiss Edna. He was dignified and likable in his fever of expectation, as though everything were happening to him for the first time. It occurred to her that, whatever this was, it might be as close as she got to anything at all. As people swarmed toward them shouting noisy congratulations, she kissed him back.
About the Author:
Mark Jacobs has published more than 130 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, and The Iowa Review. He has stories forthcoming in several maga-zines including The Hudson Review. His five books include A Handful of Kings, pub-lished by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press. His website can be found at http://www.markjacobsauthor.com.