The wedding is Chloe and James’, and everything implicit in that joining. She wears white without a touch of shame. She could wear black; imbue it with all the frank theatricality of a Fellini film. Debutantes titter in the back rows. Matrons too. Perhaps when she was younger she would have worried about them, about faux pas and propriety, but she’s beyond that now. Her mother is dead and the man wheezing on her arm, torn from the amicable comforts of lab and accoutrements, is awestruck by everything that has become his daughter’s. His is the only opinion that matters anymore, and he is in no position to give it. For hers are the kingdom, the power, and the glory, and what can he say but Amen?
Twice before she has walked down an aisle, and it seems they get longer each iteration. This is more than metaphorical. The first time around there were only ten meters to cross at city hall, 10th Arrondisement, Paris. They’d eloped. But the venues have grown progressively larger and more grandiose, and the rows of pews full of invitees multiplied accordingly. She has more exes now than when she started out. Chloe had never been one to toss out the old when she brought in the new.
Princeton was James’ choice, the chapel his first image of the school and even then, at eighteen, he’d known it was here he would marry the woman of his dreams. The ceiling is vaulted, soaring, the cloisters narrow, the stone permanent yet their arrangement ephemeral. Excepting the rehearsal two nights ago, he hasn’t been back here in fifteen years. At graduation he’d thought this place would loom large forever in his mind. But he missed the last two reunions – business trips abroad – and every time he suggested to Chloe they make the two hour drive to where they’d first met, she’d laughed it off.
This is his first marriage, though he and Chloe are the same age. But really they’ve both been married many more times than that, to more people than they now care to remember. That is the nature of relationships. All that napalm ignited in their throes, and then they die, a flash in the pan. We never see the end, until the end is behind us.
She reaches him finally, face alight under the blusher; her father hands her off. Her arm is steady and warm on his. He trembles, slightly, barely noticeable enough most wouldn’t be able to tell, this royal catch of a man. He is more nervous than she. No point being anxious about the temperature of his feet now: the nervousness is anticipatory. He is handsome, though. He has outgrown the haggard thinness of his youth, muscles filling into their frame, the strength of the jaw line coming forward. He’d always been tall, six-two and three quarters, but now there’s something to the tallness, manlier than lankiness. But his smile is forever boyish. Chloe likes that best about him. It is her special intimacy, the knowledge of his smile since he was barely a man, and that it hasn’t changed. When the priest comes to the vows, he is the only person in the chamber waiting with baited breath.
And then they are married. The groom swoops down, dips the bride and for once, with Chloe, we see the legal shark, the leading man, he kisses her as thoroughly as Clark Gable would have. May I present to you, Mr. And Mrs. James Needham. They are exuberant, jubilant, and the journey in reverse, up the aisle, out the double doors, into the glaring sunlight, is not so long.
How strange how quickly strangers become estranged!
Reception at the Ritz, and every glittering asshole the right side of the recession is in attendance. It is a motley crew. There’s a sprinkling of jazz musicians and poets and hipsters encountered in seedy dive bars, on the floor of dance clubs, at parks and book readings, over chai lattes and Marquez, things Chloe used to do before the business of being an adult took over. After that she wrote checks. They look stiff and ill at ease, disdainful of this world and yet covetous of it. The proportion of Ivy-Leaguers still is disproportionate, remnants of days at Princeton, Oxford, Harvard Business School, Yale Law – people yanked from distant memory, slapped together, and ordered to recreate the milieu of their youthful gatherings, as if they were penniless students again swooning over a bottle of Grey Goose, though they are all approaching forty now, and uniformly, outrageously successful. Some James hasn’t spoken to in years, or scarcely. But he keeps tabs. There’s the table with the Goldman guys, that table with the ones who jumped ship from Goldman to private equity, and those to venture capital. That one is a federal judge, the guy next to him just made partner at Wachtell. Lots of professors with prestigious appointments and McArthur Genius Grants. So this is the cream that has risen – the eligible of professional America. We are the anointed and the inevitable.
A couple of college ex-girlfriends kiss James’ cheek as he stands in the receiving line, whisper in his ear that they wish him happiness. The sentiment is genuine, he knows, he is not being put over. For they all have big shiny rocks on their fingers and husbands who are dapper tech execs. They wish him happiness because they have already found theirs, credentialed and boasting, although how long that lasts, only the demographers know. He is the last of their circle to marry, and the gossip is rife with I knew its and I told you so’s, that given faith what is yours will always be yours in the end. I wish them happiness, too, especially him, even if it is Chloe who I know most intimately. Chloe is reserved, uneffusive with her emotions. It is how she bounded from marriage to marriage as attractive and desirable as ever. While James – James has been in love since the moment he first laid eyes on her. Relationships are never equal; some are more unequal than others. Chloe chose this time the man who had never wavered, through all those years, all those others. So forgive us for weighing their hearts, and finding his heavier.
The night is themed, as though holy matrimony were not theme enough. It was James’ idea. He’d even signed himself up for swing dance lessons, aware that Chloe already knew how. He remembered the rightness of her moves back at the eating club formals, spinning under the lights, laughing and someone else’s. He took his sister instead to the classes. The two of them looked different enough for the instructor, indeed, most of the students, to mistake them as a couple.
“But where’s your fiancée?” they’d asked, after being informed of the situation.
“Oh, she’s an incredible dancer. She doesn’t need to learn,” he said proudly.
The instructor frowned. “It would be better if you practiced together – dancing is teamwork.”
“She’s very busy,” he defended, “ and Sylvia’s great.”
“She runs a hedge fund,” Sylvia volunteered.
Chloe would have gone if he’d asked her. After the wedding she told me so. James must have known that too. Chloe denied him nothing. They fought over little. Theirs was a relationship that was ever May. To most men she was an ice queen but with James she softened herself, everything was amenable to her. The look that people thought so long ago had vanished from her face, the look of innocence, appeared again in his presence. She spoke softly to him. When they strolled the streets of New York together on weekends, she crept her hand into his, something she never did with boyfriends and husbands, because she preferred to walk alone. She let him order for her at restaurants and pick up the bill for their date nights. It was as if in this, she was willing to subjugate herself, demote herself because she knew the extent of his love, the sturdiness of his devotion. She protected him, though he did not need it. He is strong too, in his own way. In the courtroom he is cogent and precise, flattening opponents, always playing the riskiest hand. His win-loss record is distinguished; he rose quickly through the ranks of the litigation community. In every other aspect of his life, he is overwhelmingly aware of himself, particularly the weaknesses; there is not a great deal of the material or the flesh to dangle as temptation. The women he has chosen over the years as companions could not be more different from Chloe. They were pediatricians and nurses, social workers, caregivers, the altruisms of our society. He did good.
Now the bar has been open for nearly three hours and they are playing “Something Stupid” by Frank Sinatra. The crowd is a blur of entangled limbs. Most have abandoned the pretense of swing dancing, if they’d tried at all. “I can see it in your eyes that you despise the same old lies you heard the night before” Sinatra crows. Pairs grind slowly. How is this so different? I can walk into a dorm party at Harvard and tomorrow’s congressmen are humping like rabbits in the filmy, overheated darkness, masticating each other’s cheeks. Love handles bulge over the backs of jeans. Tonight at one of the fanciest hotels in New York City actual congressmen are doing the same, only in nicer clothes. The colors are a sea of palettes, black-tie formal. Red overwhelms because everyone thinks they will stand out from the black, but in the end it’s the soberness that one’s eyes seek out.
They seated me at the singles table, one round of twelve, most of them younger than the average here. Chloe’s junior associates, probably. Gradually, they’ve paired off, two by two, to indulge these rare hours of freedom, these drops from the fountain of youth. If only everything could stay just the way they are, a matter of potential and expectation, and perennially exceeding them.
I watch Chloe resplendent in Vera Wang, a lithe figure making its way around the room. James has her left hand held like a pledge against his chest. I watch her and am envious. Can a woman be more loved, I wonder, than in those moments.
There are a pair of eyes on me. He has an easy insouciance, a gaze bold enough to undress. I get up and walk over, spread my arms across the counter top. I feel his eyes run past my thighs and breasts, the hemline of my dress.
“Can I get you a drink?” he asks, and doesn’t wait for my answer, just waves the bartender over.
We take our orders and move aside for others. Behind us the bar glows languidly. He knocks his drink back with a practiced hand. “I thought the invitation said no kids.”
“They made an exception. I’m Chloe’s god-sister.”
He puts his drink down and whistles, checks me out again appraisingly. His handshake is appropriately powerful. “Alex. I’m the first of Chloe’s many interchangeable ex-boyfriends. We’re like Kleenex. Use once, throw away.”
“If that’s the case, then why were you invited?” I ask, smiling.
He shrugs. “To impress her boss, I guess.”
I glance at the balding man two tables over, who Chloe pointed out last time I visited the office. His arms are around a skinny blond, and I can smell the perfume just by looking at her. “He’s impressed alright. But not with you.”
He laughs. “They call him El Niño.”
“Chloe speaks highly of him,” I say, recalling her excitement when she first got the job. She had been fresh off a stint abroad, three years at a PR firm in Paris and a disastrous marriage to a poet named Jérémie. I’d read some of his work: “I realized in time // but not in that moment,” it went, “that your face defaced // and my beloved be not loved.”
Alex nods. “He took a chance with her, and it paid off. Granted it’s Chloe so you can’t really lose.” He turns to the stage where his ex-girlfriend and her new husband are sitting. His gaze lingers lightly. “She’s a rare breed. I saw that the minute I met her. There is no stop button. So I always knew she would end up here. It’s the only place good enough for her.”
Good enough. Tonight Chloe holds court at the New York Ritz. Is that good enough? Is that what you mean by good enough, I wonder? But the statement is oddly ferocious, and I look at him curiously. “You guys dated,” I say.
“Once, many, many years ago.”
“Why didn’t it work out?”
“Incompatible timing. Different locations.”
“Those are stupid reasons.”
He smiles. “But nonetheless valid. When you’re apart, everything gets magnified; the sex, of course,” he smirks, “but also the fights, the insecurities. And then you’re left at Kings station at three am with nothing but a smarting face and some very nice shoes.”
“Ouch,” I wince.
“She called and apologized a couple days later. I’m not sure I ever really forgave her though.” He leans back lazily, surveys the room. “We would have never made it anyways. Both too high strung. But when we were together, we were better than most.”
I agree but can’t say it. So we sit there nursing our drinks and occasionally someone comes by to say hello to Alex, alternately kissing up and being kissed up to. Billie Holiday is on, the night in full swing. So much beauty, so much power, coiled into this room. We are all slightly drunk on it. More than slightly.
Eventually, he breaks my reverie, continuing easily so I’m confused for a moment, “Sometimes I wonder if it’s my fault, if I don’t ride them too hard. I was engaged last year. She was smart and attractive. But when push came to shove I couldn’t do it.”
“She wasn’t the right one.”
I think of me and Peter, of Chloe and James, of every girl that James dated whose face he looked into and wanted to tear it apart because it wasn’t hers. Is it ever that simple? We know they’re not right and yet still we jump.
“Do you want to get married?” he asks. The question takes me aback and I blush. It’s something I’ve thought of off and on at this point, always embarrassingly aware of how presumptuous it is.
“Would it be terribly naive to say yes?”
He laughs. “Of course. But that’s to be expected. You’re what – twenty-four?” he asks.
He swears. “Fuck me. I should take that from you.” he gestures to the drink.
“It’d be a first in New York.”
“Yeah, well, we’re a bunch of hooligans. You go to school?”
“Harvard. I’m a sophomore.”
“Even better. I’ve got two Harvard guys working for me right now. They couldn’t wipe the shit off their own asses when I first got them.”
“We have delicate asses.”
He shakes his head. “Nineteen,” he repeats, like it’s a number he doesn’t understand. “Jesus. I’m trying to remember what that’s like.” He pauses, taps his fingers. “Dicking around. Pranks. And girls. ”
“You’re never too young to fall in love.”
He opens his mouth as if to say something more, but he doesn’t, and the wistfulness that fleets across his face also closes it off.
He’s a good dancer, I can tell. He leads with confidence. It’s not swing dancing, it’s the rumba we’re dancing. Quick-quick slow, quick-quick slow. Or maybe it’s the waltz. No. That’s three beats. Useless, all those months of ballroom lessons, the frame, the hip action. Those things that should be taught, can’t be taught – how to let yourself go, how to meet their gaze under the dimness. I laugh with extraordinary liberality. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like this, and here it is at nothing. No matter the occasion or the song, they say, may you always find joy in the dance. But tonight is the occasion, the song, and the dance, a self-contained revelation. Newly mine is this world of infinite possibilities, each more fabulous and facetious than the last. I’d been sprung from the leafy suburbs, just like Chloe, and what awaits us gleams like a new penny, as shiny, as worthless. I don’t know what I want. I only want what we all want – only that there be more. Tell me there is still something of a heart’s desires that cannot be gotten by machinations alone. Do not tell me that impossible is nothing. Tell me the impossible is still possible.
“Get ready,” he intones, over the wail of the music.
“For what?” I wonder, and even before the last syllable is out, he has me over the bend of his arm, old school style, down nearly to the floor, and back up again.
I say, flushed, out of breath, “I had no idea what you were talking about back there.”
“But you were ready.”
He stares down at me for one long moment. I can feel his eyes rest on certain points – temple, nose, chin. Then the music breaks; my head is on his shoulders.
“Can I take you out to dinner Friday night?” he asks. He’s blurted it out, a mixture of the alcohol and the music, “Just as friends, I promise. I’m not that desperate.”
“I’m not here on Friday. I live in Boston.”
“Well breakfast tomorrow. We’ll be up until then anyways. I know this great place a couple blocks away. They make the best omelets.”
The glassware is Baccarat. The underside is embossed. There’s a patch of bushes outside the foyer of the Emery Roth room. We take our drinks and stand at the edge, Central Park and Lower Manhattan spread out underneath us. I love New York. The dark never sets on it. Its smoke gets in my eyes. “To what,” I ask. “To Johnnie Walker,” he says, grinning, and all at once, he is incredibly attractive. How a smile changes a face! My mouth tastes brackish. I go for some water, and when I turn he is tossing the shot glasses, one after another, into the bushes.
“What the hell!”
There’s no shatter. We stumble around, fumbling for glass shards. Miraculously, they haven’t broken. A waiter passes. He looks disapproving. “Sir, would you like me to take that for you?”
“Put it on my tab.” Alex says, expansively.
“You don’t have a tab here,” I giggle.
“I’ll write a check then!”
The waiter intercedes, “That won’t be necessary, sir. Accidents happen.”
“No, no, I insist, and you’ve worked hard tonight, thank you for your services.” He peels off three twenties and hands them to the waiter. Slaps him on the back a couple times for good measure. He turns to me.
“Understand, honey, money is lubricant, just like alcohol.”
“You’re being an ass.”
“Yes. I am.”
I feel the heft of the glass in my hand. I admire it. What unparalleled artistry. What unfathomable waste. All so that I may drink my liquor correctly. And with one smooth gesture I heave it over the balcony onto the treetops of New York City, our shameless hedon.
Chloe didn’t sell the apartment she received in the divorce settlement from Richard. It’d always been her house anyways, she said, paid for in cash during those heady pre-recession days. There was no reason to unload perfectly good real estate in such a terrible market. So instead James moved out of his Noho brownstone and into its svelte minimalism. If he chafed under the ghosts of husbands past, he did not show it.
They’d just returned two days ago from their honeymoon in London and the Maldives, and Chloe glowed. I tripped through a tour of the house in her golden wake: “Gorgeous. Oh, and the food!” she exclaimed. “I thought James might run off with the sous chef.”
“I don’t think you have too much to be worried about.”
She tosses a withering look over her shoulder. “There better not be. I’ve got enough blackmail on James to fill a CIA dossier. Photos from when he was eighteen, to start.”
“I know. I’ve seen them.”
“This way, the bedroom. Hey, check this out.”
It takes me a moment to process what I’m looking at. More particularly, which text from freshman year Russian Art I’d seen it in.
“Is that a Kandinsky?”
She grins mischievously.
“Are you kidding me?”
“Got it before we left. It’s my wedding gift to James. I splurged.”
“No shit, you have a Kandinsky in your hallway.”
“Tell me, connoisseur, is it a good one?”
“I don’t know. I’m speechless. This better come down to me in your will.”
“Very funny. Actually, I have something for you, and you don’t even have to wait until I’m dead to get at it.”
“Clothes. I’m sorting them. Pre-James. Post-James. All the pre-James ones are going out. You can have them.”
“Isn’t everything technically post-James?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I don’t understand. You can live in the house that you used to live in with your ex but you can’t wear the same shirt?”
“Houses and clothes, not the same.”
“I’m pretty sure with your clothes, they are the same.”
“Whatever. Oh, this one would be stunning on you.” She rifles through the closet and comes up with a red dress.
Chloe pouts. “Try it now,” she demands, so I try it. The dress is too big.
“Damnit,” she says, cheerfully, “that means I’m getting fat”
She walks over in two long strides, sits next to me on the bed. Before she would have bounded, or flopped. She shuts her eyes.
There are wrinkles at the corners where there hadn’t been.
“Are you happy?” I ask her.
“Hmm. Of course. Why? Do I not look it?”
I mean it. I meant it. I wish them the best.
My boyfriend and I take his little sisters to the park. We sit on a bench by the pond and watch them run around, autumn foliage landscaping the Upper East Side. We get huge salted pretzels. Then I sneak them two dollars each and point to the concession with swirls of pink fluff. Peter snickers. “It’s official. You’re a softie.”
“The cotton candy is for me, thank you very much.”
“And you’re going to help finish it.”
“No can do. High glucose levels.”
“Like hell you do.”
They’re having a bit of trouble with the vendor, I think. Mostly having to do with them being under her line of vision. She comes around the side, squats down eye level. They hand her the four dollars and she says something to the older one, smiling. Fiona preens. How did a seven year old get to be such a flirt?
We get up to lend a hand. The vendor twirls the stick around the sugar expertly.
“They’re beautiful,” she says, “How old are they?”
“Four and seven,” Peter answers.
“But you’re so young!”
We look at each other. He shrugs. It would be too complicated to explain. It’s one of those things we get frequently now.
“This one’s on the house,” she says, offering up a third cotton candy. I hand it to Peter. He takes a giant bite. It leaves a streak of pink sediment at the corner of his mouth. I should tell him but I don’t. All the pictures of that afternoon will feature him in bright lipstick.
We take leave of the concession, stroll around the perimeter of the pond. It’s starting to get chilly. Peter puts the jackets on the girls and rolls out the soccer ball. Fiona plays in the 7-10 league back home, while I’ve never touched a ball, soccer or otherwise, in my life. We play two a side and I’m getting flattened.
One goal after another flies past. Peter takes aim this time. His leg arcs back, a real shot from inside the box. I want to warn – be careful, be gentle – but Fiona rushes forward. She traps the ball into her chest and her body gives a little. The ball bounces twice and she is off again.
Peter streams after her, swinging Abbie onto his shoulders as he goes. The grass is greener and interminable. We must seem the oddest conga line in history, scarves waving, limbs awry. The light is bright and the sky could not be clearer. This way we run down the length of Central Park, four a file, on an incandescent day, and really, it is not so long.