Gaily

by Nancy Ford Dugan

“Let’s work on the Giacometti after lunch.”

Ron was gently advising the art handlers in an “I’m sorry I have a college education and was raised in suburbia and you have to lift things” smooth voice.

Gail was amused and impressed. Ron was wearing a long-sleeve shirt over his eternal white T-shirt, in an effort to look less like a stubbly gray-haired, reluctant grown-up, and in deference to his landing, with her help, a paying job as a photographer in a fancy auction house. He had his first steady paycheck at sixty.

They headed to lunch to celebrate his new gig over branzino and prosecco at the local French joint midway between their offices. The joint had lost its lease and was closing soon, like every other restaurant they frequented.

Twenty years ago, when Ron had gotten engaged to Tina, Gail knew it was her role to fade gracefully into the background, as she had for all her male pals when they met their partners. Yes, they e-mailed, remembered birthdays, but hanging out was no longer an option. But since Gail had made the connection at the auction house for him, Ron had insisted on buying her a fancy lunch. He, too, had lost his lease, his longtime studio. Instead of fashion shoots, he was making a living taking pictures of beautiful objects.

At lunch, the cloud about Jay hung over the haricot verts and frites, and it didn’t really lift. How could it? Ron and Jay had stayed close since college. Gail had lost touch with Jay completely, hearing updates occasionally from Ron.

Even so, the small box of obituary text about Jay in the Times stunned her when she’d read it over her oatmeal two weeks earlier. “Sudden” was code for many things, none pleasant. She’d recognized his wife and kids’ names as survivors and couldn’t help but mildly chuckle at the comments about his extensive record collection.

“What happened? I assume…” Gail took a swig.

Ron nodded. He’d been to the service. “I have to tell you, his family did not seem surprised.” He took a fry. Ron still had the extra-long guitar-playing nails she recalled from college. Her assistant had them too, but hers were painted blue with glitter and clacked all day against her keyboard. Gail’s nails had no color and were filed to the quick.

“Well, I’m sure they were numb, in shock,” said Gail.

“I don’t know. You’d think he’d have told me,” said Ron. “Maybe we could have talked about it.” He looked forlorn.

“Don’t beat yourself up.”

“Just a few weeks ago, Jay tried to cheer me up about the job hunting. He told me I was talented and would find a job.”

“Did he know you had?” asked Gail. It seemed important to Gail that Jay knew this, although she wasn’t sure why. Was she looking for credit?

Ron shook his head. “I don’t get it. His son Mark just got married. Mark’s the one who called to tell me.”

“God, that’s gotta be awful.”

“Jay’s daughter just got engaged.”

“That’s nice,” said Gail. What was she saying? Nothing would ever be nice again for Jay’s kids or his wife.

“You’d think maybe he’d want to hang around and meet his future grandchildren.”

“Maybe he was recently diagnosed with something? Like Robin Williams?” Gail was trying to be helpful as Ron waded through his grief and confusion. She was also imagining methods of annihilation and was ashamed to admit it. But she was curious how…

“He’d just sold his East Hampton house. For ten million.” Ron was committed to a hand-to-mouth, artistic lifestyle, yet eternally breathless and excited by the 1 percent.

“What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?” asked Gail. She scraped some bread crumbs off her Tahari suit.

Ron snorted. “Who uses that expression in this day and age?”

“I don’t know. And Bob’s your uncle. I heard someone say that at an awards show and have no clue what it means.” They both laughed.

“Does it have something to do with Bob Hope?” For a minute, Ron seemed almost cheerful and his usual curious self.

“I don’t think so. By the way, I just read a review of a new bio of him. Apparently he boinked Ethel Merman. Who cares?”

“Do you think maybe Jay was tidying up? Selling the house?” asked Ron, somber again.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with real estate.”

“Look, you may not know this, but Jay had been in and out of rehab the past few years. For booze.”

Gail swallowed with difficulty. The fish was dry. “Maybe he missed it? The booze?” Who was Jay, after all, without some kind of buzz?

“I’ve never had anyone close to me who has done that. Have you?” asked Ron.

Gail shrugged. The short list was ambiguous, questionable. Why spread names? The first she’d heard of as a child. Her mom’s maid of honor. Off a rooftop, “over a man,” her mom had said with bafflement. None of it made sense.

Or did it?

“Maybe he retired too early. What was he when he did…fifty? Besides travel and drinking and music, I mean, what did he do all day?” Gail had never been able to picture Jay functioning in any job, much less as an investment banker who could retire at fifty.

“I don’t know,” Ron sighed. “Let me get the check.”

* * *

Gail never told Ron that she thought she’d spotted Jay on the street a few years ago. She’d been on her way to a dinner party with former coworkers. They all had April birthdays and called themselves the April Babies. They’d worked together early in their careers—before downsizing, elder/child care—and still tried to assemble a couple times a year.

She was rushing, the only one of them still employed at a full-time corporate job. She always felt pressure to appear content, contributing, and able to navigate the city streets in a stylish, rather than sensible, shoe.

She was in charge of the cake. She’d picked it up near her Midtown office, and rather than risk the subway stairs, decided to walk. The Upper West Side always confused her: the wide sidewalks, the baby carriages, the slower pace, the dramatically named avenues. It was disorienting. She was rushing and trying to balance the cake box in her wobbly hands, carrying her laptop and purse on a sore shoulder. She was from a family of fallers and had to focus. New York sidewalks had tripped her up over the years, and more often as the years went by. Could she blame it on the current mayoral administration? Were the sidewalks more damaged, rougher than when she was young? Why was nothing smooth?

Somewhere past Columbus Circle, she caught a glimpse of a man with a sneer. Who did it remind her of? She felt some kind of sour-tasting fear rise in her throat, a sense of chaos in her nervous system, and she realized he resembled Jay. She had not seen him in years. The sensation came out of nowhere and the cake bobbled. She kept her eyes on the sidewalk, too shaken to look up to verify that it was, in fact, him. He had been crossing the street, coming near her but headed downtown versus her up.

She thought she saw the pug nose, the crooked smirk of his upper lip, the self-satisfaction in his strut, the chronic expression that he was in on everything and had rejected it. It all came flooding back as she tried to concentrate on not spilling the cake. They were counting on her to bring the cake.

She took a deep breath but the images, the sounds, the voices from decades ago dialed up over the traffic noise, the passersby dodging her carefully to avoid disturbing the cake box, smiling at her politely. Her teeth chattering from the seeping chill of the sheetless water bed. She was drugged, nauseous, had a colossal headache; she was naked, with strangers watching, Jay on top of her with that smell of his and that smug voice of his, their flesh squeaking against what seemed like surfer-sized waves; she thought she was drowning, he wouldn’t stop—she begged him to—where was she; she couldn’t push him off, she felt like she was sliding, she couldn’t get any leverage as she tried to plant her feet on the gelatinous surface and get out from under him; the bruises she discovered later, the breezy way he made small talk as he drove her back, walked her to the door of her friend’s summer house, where she’d been staying for the weekend, near Jay’s hometown. How two male childhood friends staying in the house found her in the guest room hours later rolling on the bed as if still on the waves, her hands clenched. “What happened to you,” they asked, seeing the look in her eye, the bruises. They sounded like protective cowboys eager to pummel the culprit; she was always the energetic one, the picture of health. She couldn’t speak at first, but eventually said she was fine. She never spoke of it to anyone. She assumed it was her fault. Where were her eager saviors now? One long dead, ravaged by early cancer; the other a successful philanderer who had once taken her to a Grateful Dead concert.

A few weeks after the water bed, Jay arrived unexpectedly, late one sticky summer night at her parents’ suburban home. He’d brought a merry band of followers, his posse of friends from upstate. They were all bouncy and stoned. Jay was the Pied Piper and tried, in his high-pitched nasal voice, to engage her in conversation. She was horrified to see him in her parents’ well-appointed, high-ceiling living room.

Her parents had greeted the group politely and then gone back to bed. Her father had scratched his head, a rare sign he was confused. She did not want her parents’ home invaded by Jay and his friends. Her parents got up early, and she knew they would be unable to sleep until the crowd departed. Why was he here?

“Look, you have to go. It’s late.” They all giggled and told her not to be so uptight. “We came all this way to see you.” Jay’s body odor was increasing. He’d always had a rancid smell, like old flower water mixed with a poor choice of aging cologne. He was proud that he rarely bathed. But she always suspected he was vain enough to try to cover the fumes.

“It’s rude to my parents.” She was firm. “You’ve got to go. Now.” She was always the responsible one. When her roommates got arrested for protesting, she was the one who called Legal Aid.

“Jeez, OK,” Jay said finally. They all slowly wandered out of the creaky front door, crickets sounding off in her front yard. “Well, it was great to see you, Gaily,” said Jay.

“Bye,” she said as she tried to quietly jam the front door behind them. She waited to turn off the porch light until she heard their laughs muffle and the car pull out into the quiet suburban road.

Her mother was at the top of the stairs with a look of wonder on her face.

“I’ve never been so proud of you.”

“What are you talking about?” Her mother was never proud of her.

“Those kids were taking advantage of you. And your family. And you told them to leave. I know that must have been very hard for you to do.”

Although Gail had been concerned about disturbing her parents’ routine, mainly she never wanted to see Jay again.

“Oh. Thanks. Well, good night. Sorry for the excitement.” Gail walked down the hall to her childhood bedroom. The walls were stucco and pale pink. She lay in her bed wishing the walls were flat, not flecked, not bumpy. She wanted smooth walls. What was the point of bumpy walls?

* * *

A kind stranger in the strange world of the Upper West Side caught her elbow as she was going down. He straightened her out for a moment. Asked if she was OK. He was young enough to be her son. She had no son. She righted herself and thanked him. “I am fine,” she said. There was a ringing in her ears. Gail kept walking with the cake and finally found the stoop. She walked up the steep steps, rang the bell, and entered the cozy, friendly birthday party in full swing. The cake arrived safely. The April Babies oohed and aahed. She felt relief despite a lingering chill from that long-ago water bed. But she was no longer weaving. The cake was rich, too sweet. She couldn’t finish her slice.

* * *

Every ten years, Ron took her passport photo, managing to make Gail look upbeat and presentable. She had held off asking him at lunch; between Jay and the new job, Ron was too preoccupied. But it was expiring. Although she had no plans to go anywhere, it comforted her to have it ready, just in case.

The challenge for Ron would be to figure out how to minimize the new puttylike jowls crumbling her jawline. When the time was right, she knew Ron would magically tilt her head and create the illusion that her face still held together. He’d erase the damage, smooth out the dabs of extra flesh that now framed her chin like an intentional smudge on a bronze Giacometti sculpture. He would disguise the curdled, crumpled folds dragging her chin down into the country of her neck.

Jay was right. Ron really was talented.

Where would they be in ten years for the next photo? Would they be? At all?

How did Jay do it?

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