Acquaintance

I wouldn’t say we were friends.  It may have looked like that for a while – at the beginning – but before long the whole thing sort of plateaued.  We ended up merely acquaintances, the people who will stand together at a party if the rest of the company is flat.  We were a bookend match of each other’s awkwardness, holding our drinks close to our chins as our arms tried to fold themselves over our chests, while one hand took orders from the brain to dose hard early because this gathering was going to suck.

She went by Caro in college, although when we were in junior high school she was called Carol or sometimes Fats.  In tenth grade, before Mom and I moved away, she found the theater club, dyed her hair red, and dropped the ‘l’.  She also dropped thirty pounds and found a light, languid gait unlike the slightly panicked walk-run that used to propel her into classrooms just after the bell.  Damned if Carol didn’t always knock something over with her backpack trying to slip into her seat unnoticed.

But not Caro.  This new tenth-grade artsy-fartsy goddess entered the room within a cocoon of laughing thespians, her auburn waves falling over her eyes, pushed back with a careless gesture now and again as she rolled her eyes at the droll nonsense of her troupe.  No shit.  Every day of tenth grade her entrance to Mr. Martolli’s class played like the opening credits of a show about with-it teens figuring out life while giggling over Twizzlers.

When my mother was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, we had to move to her hometown in Maryland.  It was all very sudden and she knew we’d need help.

“I don’t want to ask your grandma, let alone live with her, but how are we going to do this otherwise?”

“I could quit school – just for a year – and get a job.  Wouldn’t that help?”

“Me watching you make milkshakes for minimum wage when you should be learning? Knowing all the while the only reason for it is my being too proud to ask that woman for help…”  Mom was washing dishes.  Her gaze slipped out the window, whisked the worn picnic table and brown grass of the yard, and rose to the pale blue November sky.  The silence stretched and I almost tried to make my pitch again.  I was licking my lips and taking a breath when she finished her thought.

“It would kill me to see you working instead of being in school.  We’re going to Perryville and that’s that.  It’s a year. We’ll technically be closer to Johns Hopkins there than we are here and their program is good.”

“But UVA…”

“We don’t know anyone there. I can’t keep working. You can’t quit school. We’re going to live with your grandma.”

And so we did.

The last day of school in Virginia floated along like a dream.  A friend had got me a card that played a song from Peanuts and someone else thrust a balloon tied to a candy bar in my hand.  I was always vague about who had done it, although everyone knew I loved candy.  I spent too much time on the drive trying to figure it out.  When we got to the bridge at Havre de Grace, I put it out of my mind, knowing on a visceral level that in ten minutes we’d be carrying suitcases into Grandma’s house and that from then on out, it would be a daily battle to find any calm.  And not just watching Mom fight for her life.  My stomach was already in knots; I twisted around in the car seat to watch the sunset poking through the steel arch of the bridge.

 


 

I didn’t see Caro for three years. I had kind of forgotten she existed.  High school wasn’t when we started talking.  It was in college, when Mom and I moved back to Virginia. I was a year behind because we had to wait to reestablish our residency for in-state tuition.  I was surprised to see Caro in a class with me; surprised she was studying science, too.

“Well, acting is fun, but I get too nervous,” she told me once.  “Like everyone says they do, too, but this one time I was so close to puking on stage that I realized I needed another option.  My Dad suggested I rethink science, which I loved first. It felt right.”

I looked away, swallowing a chalky little bitterness that I always felt when people talked about their fathers.  I wondered if I’d ever stop being jealous of that.  It drove me crazy because I knew my mom ought to be enough.  She certainly worked her ass off to fill the void.

“Well, they say what you loved doing at seven is what you’re meant to do,” I said.

We were standing amid the trees in the quad, watching clouds thicken and tighten above us.  Other students were ambling about, some clinging to their perches in the grass, determined to stay until the rain chased them off.  I remember watching the president of the university pacing in her private garden at the top of the hill, disappearing and reappearing from behind a bronze bust of Mary Wollstonecraft.  She was talking into her cell phone, her face pale within a frame of black hair and red dress.

“Prima donna,” I heard myself say aloud.

Caro followed my gaze, her eyebrows raised in surprise.

“You’ve heard stories,” I added.

She shrugged and I realized then she didn’t play this game.  Caro the actress with the red hair and the nose ring. Carol the bookworm who’d come packaged with a beaker if she were a doll.  These girls didn’t talk smack.  That’s why we’d never really be friends.  I’d spend a lifetime figuring out the shape of the world by critiquing others as harshly as I would myself.  Girls like Caro would opt for a simple motto like ‘be nice’.

The rain started to fall one big splashy drop at a time and we turned in unison, holding our books up in front of our chests as we headed for the shelter of a portico nearby.  She smiled into the distance.

“So what did you want to be when you were seven?”

“Cruella. Maleficent. Ursula.”

She laughed.

“I never wanted to be the princess, either,” she said.

I side-eyed her then, thinking that she was the princess whether she liked it or not.  It was her right.  It came with being beautiful and kind and natural and smart.  Caro was all the things they try to show us about the princess, the qualities so remarkable that they come wrapped in a ball gown and a tiara.  She had all the things that draw men and magic and sometimes foes.  I didn’t want to be her enemy. Yet I couldn’t see how to be her friend, either, because she seemed to exist on a higher plane of self-confidence.  I was sure I’d never know how to breathe that air.

“Anyway,” I said. I tried to sound light. (I always tried to sound light back then.) “I realize now that none of those Disney witches are very real. I’d settle for being Dorothy Parker.”

I had to explain to her who that was and I knew she barely found it interesting.  Still, we found things to talk about in the coming years, dosing ourselves with gin and tonics, two people who sometimes defaulted to chatter when the room wasn’t entirely ours. And later I realized that we didn’t exist on a different tier; we were just two kinds of people whose overlapping interests made a narrow bridge, hastily traversed in youth and vanity. Now I would try to take it slower, see what developed if we walked instead of driving.

The Caterer

Having the party catered was a mistake, she decides moments before the guests arrive.  The food smells great, but the caterer herself is nothing if not awkward.  Passive little digs about her kitchen layout have just about worked Vivien’s last nerve.  Still, the woman surprises her by offering, last minute, to stay and help serve at no charge.  The original agreement had been that she’d lay out a buffet and return in the morning for her dishes.

“I can keep the trays full and help you break things down quickly when things start to taper off.”

Vivien, busy checking the flowers and plumping up the pillows, pauses to soak in the suggestion.  She doesn’t want it to look like she’s got hired help.  It might seem pretentious.  She prides herself on cleaning her own house even when friends who make less than her have people in once a week to do it.  If anything, Vivien’s hypersensitive about coming off as elitist. Her formerly wealthy stepmother wove that into her character.  The tiny diamond tennis bracelets; the little digs at her father about his income.

The woman shrugs. “Well, I just thought it might be helpful.”

“Oh!” Vivien lets out a breath, says, “I appreciate it.  Yes, thanks.”

The caterer, whose name is Cassandra, laughs and nods.  “I can tell you’re distracted. Don’t worry. It’ll go off great.”

Vivien smiles.  “Thanks.”

Putting a finishing touch on a marble slab stacked high with salted caramel somethings, Cassandra says, “You got some funny gay guys on your party list?”

“What?”

“They’re a party must, in my humble opinion.”

Vivien isn’t sure how to answer.  She does have some funny gays coming.  Well, one really witty one and one who isn’t that funny but who says shocking things for laughs.  The former once described the latter as a ‘comedy ninja meets shock jock’.

“Everyone laughs when someone says ‘fucking cunt’ all out of the blue like that,” George said.  “It’s like screaming when you see a mouse.  But it isn’t really scary, is it?”

Then, tired of the sandwich he was eating at the time, he tossed it onto his plate heavily and said, “Anyway, Sheldon isn’t funny.  He’s just a fucking cunt.”

When she laughed involuntarily, he gave her a raised brow that seemed to say, ‘See what I mean?’

____________

A few minutes later, Cassandra disappears into the garage where her van is parked for unloading.  When she returns, she’s wearing a sparkling red tube dress and gold stilettos.  She is all peanut butter legs and sun-spotted shoulders.  Vivien turns her frown toward the empty living room; obviously Cassandra came prepared to stay.  Now at least her full makeup and hair makes sense.  This is the moment when she is sure it isn’t going to work out.

If anyone is to blame for the presence of the leggy blond in her house, it’s her hairdresser, who used to be named Jennifer and who now goes by Astra.

“It’s part of my personal ascension,” she explained loudly over the blow dryer a year ago. “I can’t be confined to the name my earth parents gave me anymore.”

“Sure,” Vivien said without glancing up from her magazine.  In situations like this, she prefers not to ask questions.  As a matter of fact, she takes a dark delight in withholding curiosity when she gets a needy vibe off someone.  Jennifer’s ascension notwithstanding, she really is a talented hairdresser.

Three weeks ago, as Vivien was unfolding herself from the styling chair and wondering if an ache in her ankle was an early warning sign of cancer, the bell on the salon door chimed as someone else arrived.  In a moment, Jennifer was making introductions.

“Vivien, this is Cassandra.  She’s pretty new to the area, but the best caterer in the world.  Oh my god, what were those things you brought to that thing at the black box opening?”

Cassandra laughed off the praise.  Dressed in jeans and a floppy t-shirt, she seemed pretty unassuming.  “I just finished working in my garden,” she said. “Sorry I look a mess.”

Vivien hates it when people deprecate themselves.  It always begs kindly reassurances that only make her feel awkward.  Jennifer filled the void in the conversation.

“Vivien’s a graphic artist.  She did my cards.”

This irritated Vivien for a split second.  In truth, she designed beautiful cards for Jennifer, but after a lot of back and forth and too many inexpert opinions, the style had been dumbed down so much, she hated to even look at them.  At that moment, she cast a glance down at Cassandra’s ugly white Crocs and decided it didn’t matter about the cards.  No one would be a harsher critic of her work than herself.

Jennifer said, “Vivien’s throwing a party in a couple of weeks to raise money for the local democrat.  O’Henry or something, right, Vivien?”

“Henry Dover,” Vivien said, fishing through her purse for her credit card.

“That’s right.  You should cater it for her, Cassandra. It would be the best networking.”

Vivien froze for a second, fingers curling around her wallet, but when she peered up through her bangs, she could see the caterer looked just as surprised and uncomfortable.  That relaxed her for a moment and somehow she’d walked out five minutes later with an agreement between them.

____________

Cassandra steps in front of the foyer mirror to reapply lip gloss just as the buzzer goes off on the oven.  Because she’s closest to the kitchen, Vivien rushes to take out a tray of bubbling bruschetta.  Then the doorbell rings and because she is closest to that, Cassandra answers it.

“Hi there!” she says. “Welcome.”

‘Like she owns the place’, Vivien thinks, peering out through the kitchen door.

Luckily, it’s George.  Giving the red sparkly tube dress a mild glance, he spies Vivien in the distance and throws her a wink.  Turning back to Cassandra, he says, “I think I’m at the wrong house.”

“Not in that fabulous outfit, you’re not,” Cassandra says.  “Come on in. Viv’s just getting something out of the oven.”

Rolling his eyes as he moves past her, George gives the house a once over.  He notices things like flower arrangements and new things, but his personal pet peeve is straight people saying words like ‘fabulous’ to him.  He explained it to Vivien once.

“It’s like talking loud to foreigners.”

She hadn’t needed more information.

“I get it.”

Dropping the cookie sheet on the island counter, she makes her way out to greet him just as the door bell chimes again.  Cassandra reaches out quickly with her speckled arm and Vivien starts to step forward, but George puts his hand on her elbow.

“Let her get stuck at the door,” he says.  She should have known he’d read the situation in a single beat.

“Do you know her?” she asks into his ear.

“She was at an art show downtown a week ago and pretty much installed herself.”

Vivien laughs. “Oh, hell.”

“Astra fob her off on you?”

“Jennifer? How’d you know?”

“Those two are thick as thieves,” he says.

It’s an older couple at the door, two donors that Vivien hardly knows.  The woman is elegant, wearing tiny pearls and sensible heels.  Already Cassandra is tapping the husband’s arm and throwing her hair off her shoulder.

George feigns a yawn. “Well, I hope Astra’s getting a commission. She’s hooked that thing up with everybody and her cousin recently.”

Vivien feels like she might have to go to the bathroom.

George laughs softly.

“Don’t poop yourself.  Just keep her away from the wine. I’ll help.”

____________

Despite their best efforts, the caterer manages to keep a constant stream of pinot running to her insides. George says it has something to do with her having more tentacles than they have hands.  Still, she does occasionally refresh the trays, as she had promised, and once the party is in full swing, she sort of blends into the fray.

About ten o’clock, Cassandra latches onto a handsome, silver-haired journalist who Vivien knows from her former, married life.  Cornering him on the sectional in the den, she folds her dark, golden legs up over the arm and lets her hair fan out on the pillows while he tells her about reporting from Kosovo back in the nineties.

As Vivien passes the doorway, she hears Cassandra’s breathless, “War is so intense, right?”

She wishes George were with her to share a giggle.

When the party begins to taper off around midnight – after all the toasts and speeches and when the oldest and wealthiest guests have trotted off home – Vivien decides it’s high time she find the caterer and have her help with the clean up.  That was definitely part of the deal and the buffet looks disgusting; shrimpy bits have fallen onto chocolate cakey bites; everything dairy is leering at the remaining revelers threateningly.

Cassandra and the widower are nowhere to be found.  They aren’t upstairs in her room or the thinly-furnished guest rooms she hardly ever uses.  They aren’t in the basement, where the unwanted pieces of her past life make only a small stack of boxes near the stairs.  When she comes back to the kitchen, she sees George standing with Sheldon at the door into the garage.

It must be later than she realizes, because the two men are getting along famously, something that only happens when the buzz is high and the party thin.  She slips up beside them to find out the mystery of their smothered laughter.

“Your catering monster and the reporter are getting it on in her van,” George says.

Vivien presses back a frown.  In truth, she always liked the journalist.  He was smart and funny and when his wife was dieing, he put his entire life on hold to nurse her through to the end.  Then a year of thinness and isolation before the slow climb back into the land of the living.  Now he’s out banging weird Cassandra with her freckled shoulders, the bleached teeth and the forced laughter.

Sheldon leans in and drapes a hand on her arm, “Where did you get that cunt?”

Vivien takes in a breath quickly.

“I don’t like that word,” she says.  She sounds preachy in her own head, but she’s thought about it a lot.  Unlike George, who’s so good with words, she takes longer to know how to talk about some things.  “I get that you think it’s just a campy thing to say, but it puts my teeth on edge.”

He looks surprised, but he’s too drunk to take much offense.  George is watching her with a secretive little smile.

“As a matter of fact,” she says. “I think it’s somehow more annoying to me coming from a gay guy.”

George raises a brow. “Is that because you think for a man to use the word, he ought to at least like to visit it now and again?”

“Yes, maybe.”

He shrugs, “I get it.”

She turns away with a grimace.  “Anyway, she may be out there screwing one of my guests, but I think smart people can find better ways to break a person down than just calling them that word.”

George sighs. “What if we agree that she seems self-centered and has no sense of timing?”

Turning back, she looks at him a long while.  He has a good face; he has kind, knowing eyes.  They ought to be closer friends, she thinks, and she leans against his arm.

Then Sheldon, swaying in the dim light of the mud room, says, “Or we can just agree that she’s a fucking cunt.”

And just as George had explained before, it surprises them, and they all laugh, richly, as the van bounces up and down before them.

The Guest

We’re pleased to have you for a visit, Mr. Landau.  It’s not often we have a man of letters in these parts.  I hear your stories are quite popular in some sets, though I’m not much of a reader, I’ll admit.  You look tired, though. I hope the train ride wasn’t too long? Now, mind that step, bless you.

These stairs are narrow and a mite crooked, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of them soon enough. Now, what is this?  I’m sure I told that girl to sweep up here. Well, old houses, you know. Now, this is the garret, as you can see, but we’ve given it a lovely sprucing up.  You like the color? Mother was worried that it was too green, but I said it made the place seem quite sunny, though I don’t suppose the rug goes very well now that I look at it.

The windows stick now and again, if we’ve had rain – which you know is often out in these parts – but if you give the casing a good whack, they’ll come open fine.  This one has the best view. Oh dear, mind your head, Mr. Landau.  It’ll take you a while to get accustomed to the ceilings, like as not. You are a tall one, I’ll say that, and willowy.

See out there? Isn’t that nice? Just below is the lake, which I’ll grant you looks a bit bleak just now, but in a few weeks, it’ll be surrounded with flowers – purple and blue and little ones of yellow that you only see when you’re down walking through them.

Now that, out there, is Grandy Mountain, which’ll wear that bonnet of snow all the year, even in July, when we’re all broiling like pigs over a spit down here.  There’s paths up, but some safer than others, so you’ll need to ask around before you set off on any exploring.  But then, I suppose you might not be the sporting type.

Now, here I’ve been gabbing away and not telling you where to put down your trunk. Oh, but then so you have and over there, too, in that spot. Oh dear. Well, I don’t see why not. I suppose if it crimps the edge of mother’s rug, we can somehow smooth it out. Maybe over the kettle.

Oh and so you’re moving it, are you? Well, it might be for the best. I’d recommend putting it there, in the front gable.  That way you can walk straight up to it as you need and not bump your head.  Is it as heavy as all that, sir? You do look a mite strained, Mr. Landau.

In Dr. Dransfield’s letter, he said you were sick from exhaustion, so I imagine you’ll be needing plenty of rest. Well, as you can imagine, sir, we have a surplus of quiet out here in our little corner of the world. Mother has the preacher – and sometimes Anna, that is Ms. Galvistan – out for Sunday supper every week, but generally it’s just the two of us, so you shan’t have to worry about the noise of comings and goings.

Now, I’ve put this table here for your typewriter. It’s mother’s sewing table, but the contraption’s been on the fritz, so we sent it to London to have it looked at.  It’s quite a sturdy little table, though not very big.  You could open the top to make it a little bigger, but then there’d be the hole and what good would that do you, I ask?  I’d only request that you leave this bit of oil cloth in place, so as not to scratch the wood.  Mother thinks it’s walnut and very fine, though I suspect it’s only the finish.  Still, she’d be so heart-broken if it were gauged by your typewriter.

You look so fagged, poor Mr. Landau. I shall get out of your hair in just a moment, but first I ought to point out one or two more things, so as you’ll feel absolutely comfortable and need me no more to feel right at home.

I will admit to knowing a little something about you besides that you’re a writer, Mr. Landau.  A little something which has made mother and me very sympathetic to your plight.  It was Mrs. Whitticombe, who does over our bonnets, who told us about it. She’s a terrible gossip and that son of hers, Jimmy – the one who up and went off to work in the theatre – well, he’s the one who told her.  She says that Jimmy’s getting very important in London, but Mrs. Whitticombe likes to put on airs, so there’s no telling the truth of that.  She tried to sell me feathers for my autumn bonnet once; said they were ring tail pheasant, but I could tell she’d marked plain ones in with paint. It didn’t look natural, at all.  Still, out here in the provinces, when there is only one woman who’s any good with hats, you have to make do and put up with the prattle.  Isn’t that right, Mr. Landau?

Well, I only wanted to say, mother and I are very sympathetic, dear man.  I blessedly have never had the misfortune of falling in love – indeed, I think I’m missing the part that fancies men very much.  Not that I mean to say… Well, I mean, I think love is a rather foolish thing.  That is all.

I think people like you must take it all the harder, isn’t that right, Mr. Landau? I mean, artist, they say, are quite sensitive people really. Mother says they take things harder than other folks. So, we’ve made a pact – mother and I have – to be sure you’re not bothered by a soul while you’re up here. You shall have as much peace and quiet as you need and before you know it, sir, you’ll be right as rain.

Now, enough of that, Mr. Landau. I can see you’re getting all the more strained by the minute. I know I shouldn’t have brought it up, but I just thought you’d like to know you have our sympathies. It’s always the delicate ones who the girls throw over for men with charm and swagger.  We’re terrible, fickle creatures, mother always says, and not to be trusted. Oh, dear, you have got a look about you, sir. Quite pale, you’ve gotten.

But to business, sir. I’ve cleared out this wardrobe for your things.  It smelled of mouse, I worried, so I hung some lavender in it.  Then mother said gentlemen didn’t like to smell of sachets, so I had the girl take the lavender down and scrub it good with lemon oil.  It turned out quite nice, if a bit pungent.  I hope it’ll do.  Oh, I see you’ve found the bed. My goodness, you’re a quiet one, aren’t you?

Well, I had wanted to point out that mother volunteered her favorite coverlet because it’s so pretty, but she did ask that I show you the lace along the edge, so that you’d be extra careful of it while you stayed.  No, no, sir. Not that edge. It’s here, under your boot. Oh heavens, and it’s so delicate.  I think it was rather extravagant of mother, poor dear.  I don’t think you’ll be able to relax at all, knowing that lace will be ripped to shreds by the time your stay is over. I have a nice wool blanket, plain but sturdy, that I shall bring up before supper.  Never fear, sir. We’ll have everything sorted soon enough.

I did want to tell you about dinner, because mother is very strict about sitting down, only because she’s rather cross if the cabbage goes cold.  When you hear the bell, it means five minutes until we sit down.  If you prefer to take dinner in your room, you may let me know earlier in the day.  I don’t suppose you’re much of an eater, but I hope our chilly air will enliven your stomach.  Hot meals are the best way to keep the bones warm.

Oh sir, I hate to see you getting up if you’re so tired. I told you I would tend to the coverlet later.  You are a dear.  Mother was given that coverlet by a very fine lady who stayed here many years ago.  A shy enough creature, delicate like yourself, who cut her summer short quite out of the blue.  She sent us a letter, weeks later along with the coverlet, apologizing for her hasty departure.  I think she was the type who enjoys the city more than the countryside.  It seemed her nerves only got worse the longer she stayed with us.  Poor dear.

Now, if you open the window today, Mr. Landau, it may get a bit chilly by sunset.  The draft is the devil.  Oh, my! What a whack you’ve got on you, but as I said, that is the only way to get it open.  That is rather a lot to open it, dear sir.  It may stick if you open it so far. I had wanted to have the girl take some beeswax along the case, but you know she said she needed to get home for supper and I thought perhaps that was a hint that she thought we ought to offer her some of ours and I hadn’t made very much that day.  Well, and the girl is a rather large creature with a big appetite. I think her people are Welsh and you know how they eat, sir.

Well, and so you’re putting your trunk on the sill.  Sir, is that wise? Well – oh my! There it goes! If I didn’t know better, Mr. Landau, I would have thought you sent that out on purpose. Mr. Landau, what in heavens name are you up to? Do you need air?  My goodness, you’re far too long legged to try to fold yourself through that opening.  My goodness, it’s like watching a spider coming out of the drain. Mr. Landau, have you quite lost your senses? Oh!

What madness!  I hope he hasn’t fallen on mother’s hydrangea.  She is terribly particular about them and they barely came back last year, what with all them mites and then the mildew.  Mr. Landau? Mr. Landau, what were you thinking?  Oh my, and now he’s up and over the hedge.  How peculiar.