Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

In the Cards

 

 

 

Gail has never liked the bedside brass lamp brought home by her ex-husband, Harris, years ago, but now, as she reads through one of her medical journals with irritating Lilliputian print, she feels grateful for the good light. Harris is an architect: even the interior of the apartment reflects his tastes. Her lover, Ben, twenty-nine, a dozen years younger than she, does not seem to belong here at all. Stephen, her eleven-year-old son, has placed a hulking black boom box on his bookshelf, leaving no space for his aquarium, which he promptly moved into Gail’s bedroom. This afternoon Gail, passing a Pottery Barn, caught sight of a window-full of tiny candles clamped into saucers, and on a whim she bought a bunch, lit all the wicks, then dropped them into the aquarium. She would like to make love with the room dark and the fish—as if trained to perform stunts—darting among the floating maze of flames, but she will probably be too embarrassed to suggest this to Ben.

 

She smacks the journal shut. It’s Thursday, ten at night: Columbus Day weekend is almost here. Harris’s sister Johanna, who is the same age as Ben, will meet Ben on Sunday, at dinner, and Gail is worried that he and Johanna will be attracted to each other. Moreover, she’s deeply ashamed of this anxiety, a sudden absurd lack of faith in two people whom she loves.

 

Johanna has always been more comfortable with Gail than with Harris. Six months ago Jo relinquished her job and lover in Manhattan to try a new art curator’s position in Miami. But tomorrow she’ll be back in New York for a couple of days, scouting out some sculptures for her museum, camping in Gail’s apartment. Gail wonders whether her ex-sister-in-law will also gather up the eclectic assortment of possessions she left behind after her last visit, just before heading south.

 

Lonely after Johanna’s departure, she’d found herself fingering everything—-a plum-colored goose down coat that was excellent during New York winters, perhaps, though for Miami absurd—-narrow suede boots (classy but far too time consuming, she decided. The boots fit when she tied them on, but all the laces wore out her fingers.) Johanna had also asked Gail to guard a collection of records by old-time French vocalists, especially the Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour albums that never came out as C.D.s

 

There’s still a living room stereo, which Stephen’s friends unabashedly admire as a museum piece. (“Man, is that a turntable?”) On the morning that Johanna left for Miami, Gail blew a wad of dust from the hi fi needle, then put on one of the unfamiliar records with the volume turned way up. She’d opened the windows, craving some of the day’s freakish cold April air. Because she and Harris had settled for a first floor Greenwich village apartment years ago when they were starting out in their careers, she’s developed, during more than a decade without a robbery, a pleasurable feeling of immunity from the dangers of the city. Expecting no one, she was startled by the doorman’s buzzer—-he had allowed an unfamiliar man to address her right over the intercom that made all voices sound scratchy, long-distance. The voice was saying something about Aznavour. And: “Perhaps you could bring the album cover to the window.”

 

“Wait,” she said. “Stand out on the sidewalk.”

 

She leaned her elbows on the sill, staring at a light-haired, wondrously tall young man.

 

He said, “I’ve been hunting down this track for years, so I wanted proof that I really heard it.”

 

He introduced himself--Ben Trevor--told her that he lived way uptown, by Columbia University, but he was addicted to the theater on the next block that showed old movies. “There’s a rare double bill of John Barrymore weepies from the thirties. Why don’t I take you?”

 

Gail asked him to come inside her apartment, while she shut off the stereo. When she turned around he was holding out Johanna’s purple coat. Ben said, “If we hurry we can catch the noon show.”

 

Over the past half year Gail has become accustomed to telling Ben almost everything else, yet she never revealed the coat was not hers, or that the record, which, according to him is truly rare, also did not belong to her. She had been dismayed by the realization that accompanying him to the movies was absolutely the most daring act of her recent life. The initial danger lay in inviting him up in the first place, he said seriously later—-he’s a social worker with files full of the experiences of people who had used faulty judgment.

 

The theater was a tiny place, tucked behind a church. When Gail arrived with Ben she was less interested in the films than in her surroundings. To her, going to the movies had meant cinemas with mirrored walls and escalators where she and Harris, and perhaps another couple, would watch whatever recent releases had received good reviews. At the revival house camaraderie was in the air: members of the audience glanced at each other appreciatively after good lines and clapped at the appearance of character actors who were unfamiliar to her. She felt as if she were at a low-key casual restaurant where well-known customers stopped in out of habit, and table-hopped to greet acquaintances. Also, she sometimes recalls, delighted, a man, arriving late and seeking his friend, had bellowed “Mark!” and two men in different areas of the theater, jumped up, saying “Here!”

 

* * *

 

Johanna, who is already on the run an hour after flying into town, has arranged lunch at a Noho joint, near the galleries. Johanna: petite and slender, blond hair cut asymmetrically—-the left side always a breath shorter.

 

Before she left New York, Johanna broke up a marriage. For months, at artists’ openings, she and the guy, another curator about her age, would huddle together by paintings  as if evaluating the work, although they were really planning when to sleep together next. Now the man, Raymond, no longer flies South to be with her, but he wants to meet for a long talk.

 

Johanna blows hard on her scalding tea. Gail, an obstetrician, is of course, reminded of how women pucker up to expel breaths forcefully during the last stages of labor, using the grand finale gimmick of Lamaze natural birth.

 

“I love him. I’d give up my job and move back here for him,” Johanna says.

 

“But you’re doing so well at work!”

 

Johanna has a knack for finding painters who are recent immigrants. The Miami Herald described how she scrutinizes hundreds of their canvases. The reporter also praised her determination to find decent housing and work for her protégées.

 

Johanna says, “He’s through with me, and I don’t know how to get him back.”

 

Gail suggests, “Perhaps you should forget about seeing him while you’re here.”

 

“I can’t do that.”

 

“Then why don’t you think about his worst traits?”

 

This idea seems to cheer Johanna up.

 

“O.K., I’ll start with him physically. He’s too dark. Two hours after shaving he has a trace of a little pencil mustache, like a movie villain. The next time around, I’m grabbing myself a fair-haired guy.”

 

Gail jokes, “I don’t know. You live in Miami. Your new boyfriend will get sunburned too easily. You’ll associate sex with the cocoanutty smell of sun block.”

 

“Thank you, Gail. I like this game. Also, Ray’s my height, and I always dated super-tall guys.”

 

Johanna pauses, then adds, “I was able to make him leave his wife—-and he didn’t go easily. Maybe I need your Ben for counseling.”

 

Gail isn’t pleased with the idea, but she’s truthful as she warns, “Ben prefers closure. He’d want Raymond with you for a final conversation.”

 

“In other words, I’ll sit there meekly, listening to him dump me.”

 

The waiter arrives with the bill. Johanna, very surprised, asks him, “No fortune cookies? What I’m really in the mood for are some nice ironic predictions about my life.”

 

The polite young man ducks his head down toward their table, and says, “So sorry, our accountant nixed all freebees—- not cost effective.”

 

 * * *

 

Gail practices obstetrics and gynecology in a beautiful old building on lower Fifth Avenue -- Washington Square Arch can be seen from the sidewalk. Once a month she sees patients for a few hours in the afternoon on Saturday, a popular appointment time: every chair in the large waiting room is occupied. A promise keeper, though, she slips into her office to call Ben.  

 

“How was your party last night?” she asks.

 

“Nice enough. But I missed you.”

 

“I was running late here. And now I’m too busy to say three more words.”  

 

“Well, say them anyway. Say ‘I love you.’”

 

“You know I do,” Gail tells him. “I’ll call you when I’m finished.”  

 

She could have indeed gone to the party with him, she reflects, after hanging up. She’s a promise keeper but a liar as well. It’s not that she wanted to avoid being seen with him—-she merely felt resistant to the idea of a gathering of social workers, and she didn’t know how to explain this to him. Gail, who has been pampering herself  since the divorce, dreaded the plates of hard cheese, the inexpensive wine, the kind young women, and the tired earnest men with their jackets opened and their ties loosened, trying to relax but talking cases after all.

 

For a few minutes more she sits at her desk in her office, which is like a man’s, people tell her, with its paneled walls, thick draperies, glossy dark furniture. She savors the luxury of remaining still, listening to the muffled bleating of traffic. Here in this one room everything stays orderly, in place. She had never ceased to be startled, when her son was young, by the awareness that she could not simply clean up once for the day.

 

But she also likes Ben’s office far up on Riverside Drive near Harlem. She likes the way the two long windows  frame the park across the street and the profusion of plants, bookcases, and orange file cabinets in the perfectly square space. When he isn’t meeting with people he spends a great deal of time on the phone, consoling call-ins, making referrals. She thinks he looks so wonderful as he talks, his chair tilted back slightly, his voice always casual and pleasant. Sometimes, he directs family therapy sessions. She’s observed a laughing family emerging, with one member holding an empty cookie tin, and Ben, smiling, waving them off, like a terrific host. On another evening relatives did depart tearfully, yet they seemed, rather than appearing extremely overwrought, to be on the verge of peacefulness. They reminded her of a small audience leaving the theater after a satisfying play.

 

She returns to her waiting room to beckon her next patient. Everywhere are pregnant women and their husbands. Bats and balls, she thinks, for the thousandth time.

 

Hours later, when the women have gone, she again calls Ben. He tells her that he spent the afternoon doing some paperwork, jogging for an hour, and, as she suggested, he bought a new watch.

 

“I finally upgraded from my fifteen-year-old, fifteen- dollar Timex that I always forget to rewind. You’re probably correct: I could be the only adult on the planet without quartz movement.”

 

They agree he’ll meet Gail at her office. On this blustery October afternoon, she’s looking forward to the good long walk back home. There’s no need to hurry back to cook for Stephen who—-as he likes to do more and more often, now that he’s eleven--is hanging with a friend for the weekend.

 

Standing on the sidewalk, buttoning up Johanna’s purple coat against the wind, Gail recalls how she had yearned to give Ben a gift of an elegant watch, and he refused. All she wanted to do, so happy so many months ago now, after the third time they slept together, was take Ben out to a big meal at a good restaurant. But he had risen naked from her bed and walked over to the fish tank. Tapping in food from the little shaker then watching the fish lunge, he said, “Stephen comes first, Gail. Children gobble up money exactly like this. Children need tuition, food, and Nikes that cost more than a month in Aruba. I’m all alone. Therefore, you can’t pay for me, ever.”

 

He’s right, she knows. He’s the one alone. She has Stephen, her son who talks computereze, and somehow always smells like Wheat Chex when he buries her face in his neck. After she nervously told him about Ben, Stephen shrugged and related tales of his friends’ mothers. Of sticky-fingered lovers: one mom still noticed small household objects missing months later. About the man from the Internet who turned out not to be a man at all.

 

Had Stephen said anything to Harris? “Are you kidding? I’d be grilled like one well-done steak.”

 

Stephen and Ben get along fine enough. Gail’s caught off-guard about this as well. Ben’s sudden wonderful presence in her life has flabbergasted her all along. Now she’s astonished that they seem to be falling in love.

 

It’s Harris who comes shuffling up the street toward her though, not Ben. “What? What?” she says. This is the way she talks to him these days, because he’s made a habit of appearing, without the courtesy of a phone call. She had been the one who wanted to end her marriage. Harris is, on the whole, a kind man, but he’s stodgy: he balks at challenge or change. Gail suspects that if you see an opportunity for even one small adventure you should reach out and grab it.

 

He says, “So, Jo’s around. She hasn’t called me.”

 

She can’t keep exasperation from her tone. “Harris, you had Johanna’s entire childhood to forge a relationship.”

 

“In the last two days I’ve reached her twice on her cell phone, and I swear she sticks it under some street repair guy’s drill, then says, “ Harris, I’m losing you. Gotta go!’”

 

Thankfully, Ben is nowhere in sight.

 

Harris tells her, “I want to talk to you about Stephen’s fish. He’s thinking of just giving them away. He can’t! I must have spent a thousand bucks on those little bastards—-two hundred alone just for the Bolivian ram."

 

"Really? I think Steve flushed it down the toilet this morning."

 

A lie, of course. Two preppy mothers came to the apartment last month and engaged in a bidding war over the ram, as well as a rotpunkt and the one-spot altispinosa.  One mother brought along both Stephen’s classmate and the nanny. For what—-to turn down the volume on the kid’s Walkman? Gail had been relieved to see that at least the boy himself carried away the baggie of water containing his newly acquired wriggling rotpunkt.  

 

She says, “I’m putting you on. Stephen sold the fish because he’s getting other interests—-other fish to fry, so to speak.”

 

Raising her hand in a good-bye wave, Gail simultaneously flags a cab. She asks to circle just once around the block, and, like magic, Ben has replaced Harris in front of her office.

 

 * * *

 

Ben wraps an arm around her waist. He tells her that he’s heard through the grapevine that Carra, the woman he lived with for years, is leaving her Palo Alto law firm and going to analytic school at U.C.L.A. Gail suspects that she would like Carra. She’s found two snapshots of her at Ben’s place: a crumpled forgotten photo in a kitchen cabinet, and a picture he must have used as a bookmark. Carra’s a breathtaking young blond woman who—-to Gail’s admiration—- wore the same blazer in a twilight shot as she hurried home from work (sharp high heels, an arm weighted down by a briefcase) that she also used with jeans in a picture at the zoo, where she hugs Ben’s niece, not caring about the child’s drippy ice cream cone.

 

But Ben could not be convinced to abandon his own clients and start from scratch on the West Coast, after Carra’s partnership offer in the California office.

 

He says now, “I bet you’re surprised and disapproving of her decision to give up such a lucrative job.”

 

“Well, yes. She decided to become a shrink?”

 

“You’ve suggested a psychology graduate degree for me often enough.”

 

They’ve discussed this topic frequently. Gail believes that Ben, still so young, is capable of more prestigious work.  

 

Once again, he insists, pleasantly, “My caseload is full right now. When would I have time for school? Also, I realize that I read as much of the literature as many of the PhDs I run into at conferences.”

 

Then Gail, distracted, laughs. “Your brand new watch has a bubble. It’s not waterproof?”

 

He lifts the watch to his ear.  

 

Still amused, she says, “Ben, it doesn’t matter whether the watch runs if you can’t read it.”

 

“Let me see yours.” He clasps her wrist, inspects her watch with mock seriousness, then will not let the wrist go. All the way home he holds on firmly but tenderly, the way one would touch the bones of an injured bird that had dropped to the ground.

 

In the quiet warm apartment, though, she sits up against the headboard of her bed, preoccupied by mail. He settles into an armchair, allowing her to concentrate. But he removes his shoes and stretches his long legs toward her lap. Tiredness hits her suddenly, as does again the worry about Johanna and Ben, tomorrow, at dinner.

 

Gail’s aware that her obsessing is ridiculous. Still, she says to him with irritation, “On our first afternoon together you sat here in your socks. Was that a way to impress me?”

 

“On that first afternoon, eventually, I believe, we took off everything.”

 

She knows this well, and in truth, she has from the start been enchanted by the socks Ben chooses to wear: tweedy browns woven with numbs of blue, teal blue, very rich maroons. For his birthday, she went to Saks to load up on a gift box with every wonderful color that appealed to her. She knew he would accept that present, at least. The salesman tried to fold so many socks neatly, and Gail thought: if they don’t all quite fit in the box—- what the hell. Next to her, a white-haired man in a business suit impatiently asked for six pairs of black, six pairs of gray. She could choose any shade for Ben: he’s a social worker.

 

Ben, she realizes, is aware that she’s upset, but he will wait for her to admit the reason. Instead, she merely gives in to his presence. She rubs his toes one at a time through the socks, feeling for the small familiar callous on his left middle toe, the way that years back she used to check for her diamond engagement ring through her glove. She knows that she could so easily say, “I’m worried about you and Johanna.” He will tell her, without hesitation, that her anxiety is absurd: he loves her.

 

Finally, she shimmies off the bed, walks to him, and lifts off his shirt. The first time he undressed she was  stunned by her good luck. Ben bikes, blades, and swims, all of which shows on his body. She’s older, softer, which he claims to cherish. Long ago he said, “I can’t fall asleep holding a gym-fit woman. It’s like lying on one of those army cots made up so tight you could supposedly flip a coin on the blanket. You look and feel wonderful.”

 

Still, she now feels compelled to comment, “I bet sometimes you fantasize about a Ginny-Fit.”

 

He kisses her short dark hair, glides his lips down her forehead to her cheeks and lips, He says, “Women who compulsively use the gym become all sinew and gristle--the stuff you push to the side of the plate.”

 

Ben whispers in her ear, “You, I devour.”

 

 * * *

 

After all, she barely thinks of Johanna and Ben, during the following long day, spent at the hospital after a complicated emergency C-section.  

 

When she walks in at six, the two of them, who both have keys to her apartment, are in the kitchen, swinging tennis rackets. She feels certain that Johanna’s high heels will snap off beneath her.

 

“Your basically fine backhand has some rust,” says Ben, holding her arm to demonstrate the stroke. Gail is very aware that he is not touching Johanna in the same way at all that he had closed his hands around her own wrist yesterday when she pointed out the bubble on his new watch.  

 

Johanna and Ben each lift a hot wok. They step back in unison, then sashay forward, mimicking tennis strokes, swinging pans full of cauliflower, snow peas, and cashews. They flick their wrists: the vegetables sizzle. Johanna’s a Chinese food fanatic, whether at restaurants or at home.

 

Johanna says, “We just invented our own line dance! Why don’t I borrow you from Gail and take you out to a club?”

 

“Not me! The last club I went to was high school debate league.”  

 

She should let them go and dance, Gail thinks. Ben might have reached into his famous files and come up with matching cards—-Johanna and himself. They are youthful,successful at work. She should regard Ben as a phase of middle age. Yet she cannot imagine divesting herself of him, or Ben giving up his pleasure of standing on the sidewalk whistling Aznavour tunes until, exasperated, she slams up the window. (Or knotting the belt around the plum-colored coat, then leaving his fingers hooked at her waist.)

 

Johanna announces, “Gail, Ray is dropping by. I guess he thinks I won’t make as big a scene if you two are around, but just wait!” 

 

He arrives just as they’ve set out dinner on the kitchen table. Sweet-smelling steam fogs the windows. Raymond—-the object of Jo’s acute desire and distress—-is, as she’s said, a small man, with stubble on both sides of his face, that fashion trend among artistic types.  

 

Gail senses his warmth immediately. He shows her a snapshot of triplets she delivered. The parents are friends of his.  

 

“The little boys are seven already, in Yankee caps! Just yesterday I was holding an armful of babies. Now they’re striking me out in Central Park!”

 

Johanna is hunched at the table where the round plates full of food—-jade broccoli, pink shrimp, and carrot coins--resemble artists’ palettes. Ben, who’s pouring wine, stops to shake Ray’s hand. Ray ducks to kiss Johanna’s cheek, but she turns her face away.

 

When he takes the chair next to her, she whirls toward him. “You promised you’d move down South!”

 

Ben sits across from them, motioning for Gail to do the same. He holds a finger to his lips, indicating that they should both be silent.

 

“I got offered the job at The Fraser Gallery here, which deals only in eighteenth century oils, my specialty.”  

 

He tells Gail and Ben, “Johanna’s become legendary for discovering talent before a canvas dries!”

 

His admiration is obvious.

 

Johanna asks, “Do you love me?”

 

He suggests a conversation alone, what he wanted all along, he emphasizes, but she crosses her arms and repeats the question until he responds, “Not anymore.”

 

Johanna spreads her fingers across her eyes in the way that Stephen, at this very table, liked to cover his face before his birthday presents were paraded in.

 

Raymond says, “Look, I really need to be at an opening.”

 

“Maybe you’re right. We need that last talk, especially if we’ll run into each other at shows for the rest of our lives.”  

 

He hesitates, unhappily. “O.K., there’s a new branch of Wan Sun in midtown. I’ll see you at five-thirty tomorrow.”

 

“But then it’s over?”

 

Still, there’s hope in her voice.

 

“Yes, we’ll have less than an hour alone before an  agent joins me.”  

 

Desperate for a diversion, Gail interrupts, “Jo, when we ate lunch the other day, what was the story we overheard about some Szechuan restaurant that had a spot sanitation check? The place looked clean as a whistle, but outside, the trash was filled with empty cans of ready-made La Choy entrees.”

 

Johanna isn’t listening. Her hand shakes as she removes a scrap of paper from her skirt pocket and asks Raymond for the address. She cries, “Damn, does anyone have a pencil? I’m trying to write with a chopstick!”

 

Gail feels Ben’s palm on the back of her head. His fingers massage her scalp; her hair slides over his knuckles.

 

Johanna stares. “If only I could be touched like that,” she says.

 

Raymond bends toward her. He says gently, “We really can’t get together. I’ve gone back to my wife, Joey. It’s what I wanted to tell you.”

 

After he leaves, Johanna remains statue-still, crying, eye makeup running down her face like paint.  

 

In a few minutes she announces, “It’s pointless to hang around the city. I’ll stay at an airport motel, and grab the earliest morning flight out.”

 

There’s no dissuading her. Johanna books a room, but when she starts to sob again, Gail whispers to Ben, “I’m exhausted. Can you take her in a cab?”

 

 * * *

 

Two hours later, Gail has not heard from him, and she has too much pride to call. She imagines Johanna slumped against his shoulder in the taxi. She imagines Johanna and Ben naked in his office, her legs splayed wide open against the orange file cabinets.

 

 

Another hour goes by. If Johanna lies in bed next to Ben, his new watch will tick close to her ear. Gail decides to find a taxi of her own, then travel all the way up to Ben’s apartment near Harlem.

 

But once she’s speeding on the West Side Highway, she gazes through the plexiglass at the dark Hudson River, and feels as stupid as Stephen’s fish, who swim back and forth in the aquarium, always so panicky about getting their food, whenever she approaches. She arrives at Ben’s: his living room and bedroom windows are a yellow ribbon of light. As Gail reaches into her purse to pay the driver she touches her cell phone, vibrating like a pulse. She’d told Ben she was exhausted; she meant, mostly, that she was worn out by worrying about Johanna. He assumed she might be asleep and didn’t want to wake her with the ringing of the regular phone.

 

Standing on the sidewalk, she smacks her cellular to her ear, listening to his voice mail from hours before: I left her alone at the hotel bar: maybe that was wrong, but she’s an adult.

 

What fools people make of themselves for love, Gail thinks. She remembers being at a movie with Ben shortly after they met, an old Western at a revival house. Two enemy cowboys, approaching each other across a dusty field, down on their bellies, guns drawn. A woman in the audience, who didn’t realize her cell phone was set to loudspeaker. Everyone heard a man plead: I’ll promise you the moon if you come back to me.

 

A little girl must have had a birthday party. A flock of tiny princesses with glittery crowns stream out of Ben’s building, surrounding Gail. If Ben were to appear, she’d never be able to rush away. She’s stranded, a giant on a parade float that has halted right in front of his apartment, so that he could witness her ridiculousness. As all the giggling sprites dance around her legs, she concedes that she’s been acting more childishly than these children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Karen Kates’ short stories have appeared in many national and literary magazines Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in New Jersey with her family