In college, in the early eighties, money was why I didn’t smoke, drink, or do coke. If I wanted to, I found boys.
“He’s not good enough for you,” my best and only friend Jess might suggest, her suggestions always commandments. “His face is boring. And that bad breath. Like a dragon. What do you see in him?”
I spouted clichés about still waters running deep while remembering how the boy drove me to a blues bar on Howard Street, putting down a twenty for as many shots of Wild Turkey as I wanted while the music pulsed my skull. If I thought about that, I wouldn’t think about later, kissing him in his car, when he panted his dragon-breath into my ear and across my eyelids. Or when, with the sun coming up, I trudged to my dorm and its fluorescent-bright, group bathroom, where I jammed two fingers deep into my mouth, crushing hard against the back of my tongue to make myself puke, the way to avoid hangovers, the way not to feel rotten the morning after.
Strangely, Jess didn’t catch me and her fiancé Tommy. It was another girl and Tommy, and then she told me, which was funny—not that I’d say so or that she’d agree—us both finding out we were being cheated on by the same guy. That night, she was sobbing and wailing, pacing her dorm room, Heathcliffing it up, stabbing thumbtacks one after the other into the bulletin board as if into the contours and crevices of his skin, obliterating him with pinholes.
I was unsurprised at her news. In my opinion, deception was not Tommy’s forte.
It was his ex-girlfriend, the one I warned Jess about from the beginning, certain he would go back to her. Jess was only a freshman, the whirlwind rebound, and no diamond ring would change that. Sure he was a senior, sure he had panic-proposed to Jess in early April, but come on, the ex was Genevieve Lord, also a senior, and Tommy was a cliché of a rich guy destined to marry a cliché of a rich girl. Number one on the women’s tennis team. A Seventeen model in high school. Her dad named his 50-foot yacht Genevieve’s Dream. Naturally she gravitated to the snootiest sorority, where—the rumor was—she was a neat freak, screaming about toothpaste dribbles in the sink. She should’ve been homecoming queen, but she was too bitchy to win any election; other girls gossiped about her the second she walked away, even if just into the ladies’ room. But she looked damn good framed by the bucket seat of Tommy’s Porsche 924 turbo, waiting while he ran in somewhere—picking up deep dish or Chinese—a tiny, haughty scowl completing her tanned face. I worked part-time at a pizza take-out, and she never once came in herself or paid. She and Tommy were last autumn’s celebrity couple, and Jess was the evil slut who came between them, and I was a secret.
“I hate her,” Jess howled, each word enunciated, each word brimming fury. “I hate him. I hate them both.”
“That skin of hers will shrivel up like old leather in all that sun,” I said. “There’s not enough Clinique in the world.” I imagined Tommy kissing Genevieve Lord, fingertips gentle along her neck, her eyes draped shut, the lids quivering and delicate, coated with coppery eyeshadow. I imagined her moaning his name, him grinding his nails into her ass, pushing and leveraging her body the exact same route mine took, and Jess’s. It seemed complicated for a guy in college—even a coasting senior in easy classes, a guy always getting what he wanted—to balance three girls, even when one was undemanding little me.
Maybe he wanted to get caught. He was supposed to meet Jess at the movies for the 7:00 show of Victor/Victoria. She hated missing previews, so she bought the tickets because he was late, and Genevieve Lord stood by the movie posters, hand on a hip, wearing a Fiorucci miniskirt that Jess owned except in blue, and the two smiled coldly at each other, did that terse nod thing, but when Tommy walked up and saw them both, he spun and ran. Nothing had been proven, but Genevieve Lord whipped around the opposite direction, her stride stiff and fast, so Jess shoved the tickets free into someone’s hand and headed straight back to find me. She knew.
“Look,” I said. “Maybe there’s an explanation.”
“The explanation is that I’m engaged to a creep,” she said.
The worst part was that on that same night—before I knew what had happened earlier at the movie theater—I had been studying in my usual carrel in the library, and Tommy came for me—seventh night in a row—strolling the bookshelves across the aisle until I looked up, which wasn’t long; I’d drop mind-numbing Ulysses at the whiff of anyone passing. Probably people guessed what was up, anyone sitting near the staff bathroom, anyone catching the two clicks of the door opening and shutting, the snap of the lock, semi-muffled by his fist. We didn’t talk. He liked leaning ass up against the sink for a fast, rough blowjob; he liked seeing me on my knees on that dirty mint-green bathroom tile. His jeans down only partway. Boxers, usually blue. He grabbed my hair and held on, like it was beautiful, like Rapunzel’s hair, which made me feel sort of pretty.
What was I getting out of it? Good question, though I didn’t ask it.
He would vanish right after, and I’d drench my hands with pink soap, scrubbing each finger individually under cold water (even hot was cold in that bathroom), examining my face in the mirror. I was exactly who I thought I was, a girl from Iowa at a fancy college doing a reckless, awful, evil thing. I wouldn’t leave behind even a used paper towel marking my presence, so I wiped my wet hands on my jeans, telltale dark streaks slashing my thighs.
Jess stuck her left arm straight out, tilted her hand upward at the wrist. She got the big diamond ring last week when Tommy took her to C. D. Peacock on Michigan Avenue. No comparison shopping. No flyer about a sale. His dad in Louisville told him which store and called in with a credit card number, and after some paperwork, out strolled Jess, wearing the ring. I assumed she expected all the rest of it would be that easy. “I love this ring,” she said now, toning her voice into thoughtful consideration, as if a challenging question had been posed.
“And him,” I added for her.
“Him I hate,” she corrected.
Easy to see how this would end. It was why men blinded women with glittery diamonds. Why I planned never to marry. But I went along: “It’s a gorgeous ring.”
She said, “Even my parents have rough spots. I never told you about one time when I was fourteen and came home sick from school, and my mother was crying in the bathroom. I asked what was wrong—you know, because you’re supposed to; I mean, really my bones ached with the chills and all I wanted was to climb into their bed and her bring me cocoa with little marshmallows and fall asleep to TV game shows. She said, ‘I’ll tell you exactly what’s wrong,’ and then she said my dad had a mistress all set up in an apartment and everything.”
“So, according to her this one time, which was the only time she ever mentioned any of it, she started her own secret bank account and was siphoning money into it.”
I repeated, “Wow,” the best response for something that was surprising and not.
“She said she wasn’t leaving him because of me and my sister, but also no way would he get away with it. She said—her exact words—‘It’s not that hard to learn to love someone you hate.’”
“True,” I agreed, watching Jess stare at her ring. Two carats, she had told me, an Asscher cut diamond, the most expensive cut in the world. I had never heard of such a thing, but I had pretended to know all about it when she had waved her hand in my face after getting back from downtown. “He insisted it should be the best diamond in the store,” she had told me, “and virtually flawless—like me,” and while she talked, I thought about the bathroom tile pressed cold on my knees, that secret thing I clung to, like how praying might be if I prayed. She said she wanted to let me try on the ring but it was bad luck, and when I said, “That’s okay,” she slid it off, saying, “Screw bad luck.”
The ring was loose on my ring finger and the diamond heavy enough that it spun upside-down, dangled in my palm. I twisted the ring the right way, half-expecting a genie to appear and grant me a wish. But one didn’t, so I tilted my hand to flash the diamond before yanking off the ring, saying, “Too quick for bad luck.”
Now. What about now? That was always a thing when I was with Jess, her snapping her fingers in my face to bring me back to now, to her. She kept me from drifting away, like clutching a string tied to a balloon.
“Then I threw up,” Jess said. “Like I want to right now.”
I said, “You haven’t even talked to him about it yet.”
“I’m the one who got the ring,” she said. “I’m the one he asked to marry him that day by the lake. Not her.”
I’m the one in the library bathroom, I thought, before saying, “Why does everyone think she’s so pretty? Her nose is too big.”
She curled both arms around her chest, tightened them as if hugging herself. The ring disappeared into the folds of her limbs. I stepped over and squashed my hug on top of hers. She was shaking. She said, “When I asked my mom about what she’d said, she accused me of too much NyQuil, that it was a bad dream, basically that I was insane to think a story like that could be true. I was afraid to bring it up again. But I don’t know. Men really are scummy pigs.”
I thought about her dad, the richest man I knew in person, though not rich the way Tommy’s dad was rich. Jess’s dad was sharp, his body all angles like a wire coat hanger, and he finished your sentence if you weren’t getting to the point fast enough; actually, he preferred making the point for you. Except for Jess; she talked over him when he bulldozed in, until he laughed and shut up. He planned office parks and found people to build them, though Jess told me he started out running vending machines, which I didn’t know was a thing to be run by someone, but he never talked about work when taking us out to dinner because Jess’s mom said all that bored her. He was the only man I’d seen in real life with two rings, a wedding band, and on his right pinkie, a knuckled chunk of gold with initials carved on the smooth top. I asked Jess if her mother had given it to him, and she thought that was so hilarious: “No woman would pick that out. He bought it himself.” I imagined him coming home with that ring in a velvet box, not letting anyone try it on because it was bad luck, later saying the same exact words to the mistress. I imagined the mistress at C. D. Peacock, quietly shaking her head no, no, no, then yes. Whatever there was, people—and not only men—wanted more. I wouldn’t say so, but if there was a mistress in an apartment, maybe there was a child, a girl, Jess’s sister, a shadow daughter—a girl growing up to be like Jess’s dad.
“Don’t decide anything now,” I said. “Things look different in the morning.”
“You’re right,” she said. “Things look better in the morning.”
Different. But I didn’t correct her. I shook straight the rumpled comforter, patted the pillow invitingly. I let her crawl into bed in her jeans and Polo shirt, but I tugged off her flats. And I smoothed her hair back off her damp forehead, kept stroking because she murmured, “That feels good.” I sat in the dark with her as she slept, listening to her breathe. Sitting there, I understood I was the most evil person who could exist.
The next day, when I asked did she ever think about questioning her dad about the mistress, she daggered me a frozen look and said, “Give me a break. You know my father’s not that way.” She arced one arm in instant dismissal of me and my rudeness, and the Asscher cut diamond flung dazzling sparkles across the morning sunlight.
Jess hadn’t told her parents about her sudden engagement. They hadn’t even met Tommy, which she explained away, saying her parents refused to like anyone who asked her out. Her father didn’t trust boys, and her mother didn’t trust men. “They want me to be a nun,” Jess said, “even though also they don’t trust Catholics.” I reminded her that I was Catholic, sort of, raised to be Catholic anyway. “That doesn’t count,” Jess said. “They’re always telling me how polite and quiet you are. Well-mannered. That’s their favorite word for you, that you’re a good influence and how I should be more ‘well-mannered’ like you.” We snorted at that idea. But now there was this Asscher cut ring, making Tommy real. So when it was time to tell them over dinner—two days after the movie theater and Genevieve Lord, after Jess decided that things looked better in the morning, and after Tommy had a mountain of flowers delivered and swore he ran only because he was freaked out to see Genevieve—Jess insisted that I be there to ease the way, “so they get that I’m engaged, and then they’re ready to meet him,” Jess said. “Anyway, they like taking us out.” And I liked getting free dinner, I thought, right as Jess, knowing what I was thinking, nudged my ribs.
Getting ready, I picked my nice skirt, the one that closed up the side with a line of shiny black buttons, one or two of which you were supposed to leave open at the bottom, or possibly three. I went with four. Pumps with too-high heels. The periwinkle cotton sweater from Marshall Field’s that I convinced the saleslady was from the half-off table. I never thought I looked good, but in this outfit I felt okay. A new tube of Cover Girl mascara, the brand Jess recommended, and she also recommended I switch to black mascara and eyeliner to look more dramatic than with boring brown. She had lots of opinions about make-up.
Jess wore a slinky wrap dress with a deep V-neck. We were date-dressing even though it was dinner with parents. We thought we looked like adults, but probably not. She decided on no jewelry except the giant diamond ring.
“Your mom will see it right away,” I said. “You flashing that thing around.”
She said, “Let’s hope. Maybe that will make everything easier.”
“Won’t she be happy for you?” I asked.
“Not about being engaged,” Jess said. “But the ring. At least he has money.”
“He’s cute. And better manners than me,” I said. Please, he liked to moan, please. Though not thank you.
“No one is as well-mannered as you,” she said. “You’re the queen of manners. They love you.”
“Because I’m quiet.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Like they say, I could learn a lesson from you.” She laughed in that way that made sure we both understood that she would never be quiet like me, or like me in any way, and we got in her car and drove to the Keg, Evanston’s only fancy restaurant, and ended up sitting in the lobby, waiting for her parents, who were always late. Even when we knew they would be late, we rushed to be on time, which didn’t make sense until I realized that Jess wanted to complain about how long she had to wait. They usually claimed parking problems, but the Keg had a lot, so it wouldn’t be that. It was her father pouring down one last drink before heading out was what it was. Jess’s mother had announced that one night when she and I sat in side-by-side stalls in the ladies’ room, like I’d asked a question. I pretended not to hear. And I didn’t tell Jess, though maybe I was expected to.
Now, as we waited in the paneled lobby in our date clothes with our black-lined eyes, Jess said, “What I need is a ton of luck.”
“I don’t think that’s how luck is measured,” I said. “We’ve gone metric.”
She didn’t crack a smile. Too nervous to listen. She would have laughed if she’d heard. She used to tell me I was funny.
The hostess behind the stand—tall, thin, what the bad poets in my writing workshop would describe as “raven-haired” with “alabaster” skin—glared at the space above our heads. She was a hundred times prettier than I—even prettier than Jess, and definitely as pretty as Genevieve Lord—but clearly she hated us anyway. We went to the school by the lake and she didn’t. The equation in that town was simple.
I’m not them, I thought, trying to vibe the information, I’m a fraud, I’m more like you than you think.
But she kept up the scowl. And why not: here I was perched on a bench in the lobby, planning to order fried shrimp, the third-most expensive item on the menu she was handing us with a forced, hateful smile because Jess had requested one.
Jess said, “They do this on purpose.”
“Do what?” For a moment, I thought we were talking about the hostess, but I remembered we’d never been talking about her.
“Make me wait,” she said. “Like they know what I’m going to tell them. Like they fucking already know and don’t want to hear it.” She barely said “fricking” or “what the f,” so that “fucking” was a very big deal. I watched her pick at her cuticle until a skin shred ripped off, which she flicked on the floor toward the hostess.
I checked my watch. Twenty minutes. Maybe her father needed a second or third drink. Maybe her mother wouldn’t leave the bedroom, because that was another thing she told me once in secret, that lots of days barely seemed worth getting out of bed for.
The hostess said, “I’m only supposed to hold the reservation fifteen minutes.” A mean little simper accompanied her statement. I kind of admired it.
“Then seat us,” Jess said.
“Not until your entire party is here,” the hostess said, and Jess’s parents swooped in, flurrying apologies, and we jumped up for hugs, and Jess pounced: “You’re twenty minutes late,” and the hostess took in the fuss with a smirk, lasering her smoldering stare at me, which felt unfair because all I was doing was standing quietly in the background. I mean, it wasn’t like my parents would come to campus—from Iowa or even if they lived two minutes away—to buy me and my friend fancy food. Also, I wasn’t stupid like she thought; I understood exactly the cost of a free dinner. I wouldn’t make eye contact with the hostess, though I felt her now wanting to. I was embarrassed for Jess and of Jess, but a thought clicked: I wanted to be Jess, not the pretty hostess—not the hostess at all.
Her father immediately got drinks going, pretty much before we sat down, asking what we wanted, though Jess and I were both underage, and I said, “Tab is fine,” and Jess’s mother shrilled, “Raymond!” and arched an eyebrow, and Jess said, “I’ll have a martini, shaken, not stirred, very dry, up, with a twist, and seriously—very, very dry, don’t even think the word ‘vermouth’ because I mean dry like a desert,” and her father laughed and asked how many martinis she drank in her life, and she laughed right back and said, “Enough to know how I like them,” and her mother complained, “Raymond!,” and he laughed again and said, “I’ll have what she’s having,” pointing to Jess. Her mother ordered a half-carafe of Chablis; and when the waitress looked at me, I wilted and said, “I’ll have Chablis too,” so her mother changed to a full carafe, which is what she probably wanted all along because she patted my hand so gratefully.
Then we went through the menu, Jess’s father reading off the specials that were typed up on a small card clipped to the center of the trifold menu, though that same card was clipped to our menus too, and we listened attentively, then Jess said she wanted a small house salad because she felt fat, and her mother said, “You have to eat something, lovey,” and Jess tilted her head my way, and I said, “We had a really huge lunch,” though Jess hadn’t eaten any lunch that I remembered or breakfast. She was very take it or leave it about food.
The drinks came, and Jess’s dad made the same toast he always did, which was a word or two in another language, probably Polish, since his grandmother was from Poland, and we all mumbled our imitation, clinking glasses, and the wine tasted like vinegar from a refrigerator, like sour medicine, sludge to slog through before reaching another, more desirable outcome, and Jess started coughing and choking because, of course, she’d never had a martini before, but once she could breathe, she announced, “I love it,” and her father said, “That’s my girl,” and his swig was long and hard, so clearly he really, truly did love it, and watching him made me want to drink martinis someday, but to order them his way, not how Jess did.
“I like when there’s an olive,” her mother said. “And the gin soaks in.”
Jess said, “Olives are fattening,” and her mother sighed and sipped wine, but she didn’t seem to love it the way Jess’s dad loved that martini.
The waitress returned—she was older, tired-looking, conditioned to people like Jess and her family, irritated only at the time lost going through the motions to get her 15 percent tip. “We have some specials tonight,” she said.
“We’re ready to order.” Jess’s father pointed at Jess’s mother, who ordered the baked halibut, after twenty questions about how fishy it would be, and no side dish even though one came free, and no dressing on the salad, just lemon. Jess ordered a house salad with oil and vinegar and opened her mouth to say something else, but her father was pointing at me, and I ordered fried shrimp with French fries as my side and Italian as my dressing, because fried shrimp was my favorite food, which in Iowa I got only on my birthday, and only after enduring my mother announcing to the waitress, “This one with her champagne taste better marry rich because she won’t get it here.” Jess’s father ordered prime rib with a baked potato and “a mountain of sour cream,” and blue cheese dressing, which the menu said was fifty cents extra, and then Jess’s mother said, “I want a baked potato, too,” and then changed altogether to the prime rib and blue cheese, and the waitress wrote it all down, and then Jess’s dad looked at Jess and pointed and said, “She’ll also have the prime rib, and blue cheese,” and Jess rolled her eyes and mumbled, “Dad,” but when she saw the waitress’s pen poised, unsure, she nodded, and said, “Okay, prime rib. But no sour cream—a mountain of butter,” and I was about to chime in that I changed to prime rib, but the waitress gathered the menus and walked away: that clear I wasn’t one of them.
Jess’s parents settled in their chairs, drinks cupped comfortably in their hands, and I thought it would be how it always was, them shooting questions at Jess about her classes or unwinding dull stories about people I didn’t know and her father interrupting to rail on the mayor, but Jess thumped both hands flat on the tablecloth, so it was impossible not to notice that showy diamond, and said, “You guys aren’t very observant,” and Jess’s mother screeched and practically spit out wine as she grabbed Jess’s hand.
“What the hell?” Her father’s whole body clenched into itself. I was glad he had that martini, and probably so was he, because he gulped at it. It looked like he wished he had one in his other hand also.
The questions surged: who, what, where, when, why, why, why.
The salads came and sat there until finally I started on mine. Lots of croutons. Crunching echoed in my ears.
“And why isn’t he here tonight?” Jess’s dad asked for the tenth time. He reached for his salad, sliding it roughly across the white tablecloth to center it, chopping down with his fork the way bulldozers hacked into ground, probably not tasting a single thing; it might as well be dirt.
“Because I knew you’d be like this,” Jess said. “You’re supposed to be happy for me.”
“We’re happy,” her mother said. “This is so sudden. You’re not even legal for drinking.”
Jess grabbed her martini protectively. “I can vote,” she said. “And I’m the exact age you were when you got married.”
It was a pause where everyone stares somewhere that isn’t at each other. And then Jess looked at me and said, “You like Tommy, right?”
Their faces swung my way as if I were judge, jury, and God almighty in one body. I badly wanted the waitress to show up with my fried shrimp because chances were good that Jess was going to storm out in some sort of protest, and if the shrimp were here now, I’d at least get to snag one or two. Also, I wished I had one of those martinis. I imagined them tasting brutal and strong and true, like wiping a chalkboard clear of writing. I imagined erasing my own mind with crisp briskness. I sipped my wine, nodded to buy time, said, “He’s really in love with Jess.” The wine tasted worse than before. But I kept going, with the wine, with the words: “They’re a perfect match. A very perfect couple. They’re perfect together.”
Jess’s mother dumped a lot more wine from the carafe into her glass and a little bit more into mine. “Okay, honey,” she said, and her voice was thin. “So. I guess we want to meet him. This perfect man. I didn’t realize you two were serious. When did he propose? There’s nothing wrong with a long engagement, you know.”
“For God’s sake,” Jess’s dad said. “Don’t encourage this nonsense.”
Jess tossed back her hair. I think she was getting drunk because her smile seemed sloppy and her black eyeliner and mascara were fuzzy. Or maybe I was drunk. But I’d had more at any frat party, garbage can punch made from Everclear and store brand Hi-C. I was one of those people who didn’t get drunk, or if I did, I hadn’t yet found the amount needed to get me there.
“He’s very romantic,” Jess said. “He sent roses the other day. And once he wrote me a poem.”
A limerick. “Jess” rhymed with “chest.” Probably copied off a bathroom wall.
“Christ,” Jess’s dad said, waving at the waitress and pointing to his empty martini glass. He wolfed lettuce as if he had to have something to do or he’d keep spouting words, the wrong ones, like he’d decided to relinquish all control over the situation to his wife, knowing she’d botch it, looking forward to blaming her later for the mess.
Jess said, “I really love him. Maybe you guys forget what it’s like to want to be with someone every minute of every day, but that’s how we are.” She made a fake-pouty face at her father. “I want another martini, too.”
“Christ,” he said again, less forcefully, jabbing a finger at Jess’s glass. “Olives this time,” he called to the waitress, tipping the lemon rind onto his empty salad plate. Neither Jess nor her mother had touched their salads. The blue cheese dressing lay thick and viscous, like what pus probably looked like. Who could choke that down? Yet I knew I would order it next time.
Jess folded her arms across her chest. The ring was on the outside, impossible not to see.
Abruptly, her father laughed. “Arranged marriages. Those were the days. Call up your friends and they send over their sons.”
“Who did that?” Jess said. “No one gets married like that.”
“Line up all the boys to look them straight in the eye,” her father said, his voice expansive, louder. “Smart as you are Jess, honey, I know a hell of a lot more about judging character than any college girl. I know—” and he swooped his arm in a semi-circle, knocking over the bread basket. “Hell.” He pointed to the hostess, leading an older couple to a table in the back. “I could marry her and what would be different? Love is the least of it. ‘I reeeeaaaally love him,’” he mocked.
“What do you mean saying her like that? Because she works in a restaurant?” Jess said. “Anyway—”
“Raymond,” shushed Jess’s mother. “You’re embarrassing.”
Now his eyes dug into me. “You know I’m right,” he said, finally lowering his voice. “Tell me I’m right,” and he jerked the gold ring over his knuckle and halfway up his finger, then started twisting it aggressively. “Let’s hear what your old man would say if you came home tomorrow engaged.”
Jess slapped both palms flat on the table, prelude to jumping up, though she stayed seated. “Honestly,” she said. “You’re embarrassing me and everyone else.”
Her dad’s eyes glittered, and I imagined their glint across a conference table while you signed the loops of your name, suddenly getting that you’d been screwed, or their dangerous flash rising out of a cluttered alley behind a bar after last call. How had I not seen his eyes this way before? I waited for Jess to leap up and drag me in her wake: our protest that would leave her childishly triumphant and me hungry, with no shrimp and too late for dorm food. I waited for her mother to hiss or screech or warn, “Raymond,” but she sipped wine robotically, as if she had left the table, leaving behind this husk of a body. I waited, but there was only silence. The hostess glided past with a miniature, disengaged smile, as if she hadn’t heard, though surely she had. Everyone had.
I said, “She’s so pretty, isn’t she?,” and I don’t know why I did. No one agreed or disagreed. I felt my face burning a horrible red, my fingertips seemed dipped in ice. Because I knew exactly what my father would say as if I heard the words echo the room: “With that huge-ass ring, you can buy your love somewhere else.” Actually, no: my father could not be that clever. He would say: “Quite a ring you got there. Hang onto whoever gave you that. As easy to love rich as poor.” But even that was too polite. He would say—my father would say—he really, truly would look at that ring, and I knew he would say—
They kept staring at me, this awkward, unhappy, confusing family I could never understand, and I blurted it out: “He’d take one look at the ring and say, ‘Bet there’s more where that came from.’”
And the three of them laughed. They laughed hysterically in gulps and cackles, clutching the table edge and each other’s hands and forearms. They didn’t see that I wasn’t laughing. The new martinis came, and Jess’s dad fished out the plastic sword spearing his olives and handed it to Jess’s mother, who slid the olives into her mouth. The waitress took the two empty salad bowls, mine and Jess’s father’s.
“You’ll stay in school,” he said to Jess.
“Of course,” she said, giving the lie he expected.
No toast this round, just Jess’s dad laying into his drink. I knew, watching that thirst, his vehemence, that I would bully down martinis and blue cheese, choking myself until I learned to love both.
Then her father said, “We love you, Jess. Whatever makes you happy makes us happy.” The words seemed to suffocate him, and he tugged the rim of his shirt collar.
Jess’s mom said, “We’re eager to meet Tommy and welcome him into the family. I’d love for you to think about an engagement party this summer at the club to introduce him around. People ask about you; they’ll want to know.” There was lots more chatter, mostly between Jess and her mother. Her father cradled that martini. He seemed suddenly calm. I imagined him having another whole separate family with his mistress, another daughter making him proud but who was also disappointing, who wanted the house salad but got prime rib when he pointed his finger. Another daughter who would attend this fancy college, or who maybe would be the hostess at this restaurant. Or maybe he didn’t know this other daughter existed. Maybe she was a secret, floating unnoticed like a ghost does, never drawing attention, passing always along edges, watching, observing, learning the way to be.
A little later, before the desserts and coffee came, Jess’s mother stood up and announced that she was going to the little girls’ room. “She only pees in a herd,” Jess had warned me when I first met her parents in the fall, so now she smiled at Jess, who rolled her eyes and looked my way, so I got up, but Jess’s father pointed at me: “Hang on there,” he said, so I sat down and Jess stood. The two of them walked toward the back of the room as sudden sweat dampened my armpits. I struggled to think when I had been alone with Jess’s father. His eyes were half-closed as he leaned back in his chair, regarding me as if I were at a job interview and failing it. I sat straighter. I picked up a spoon. Before I could tap it or turn it over, his eyebrows furrowed, so I loosened my grip and flattened my hands on the table, palm-down. I had to breathe, so I did that quietly.
Finally he said, “You’re a good friend to Jess.”
He reached over and rested his hand on top of mine, patted my fingers absently. “I lost control earlier,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
I shrugged. It was an uncomfortable silence. I suppose it was touching that he thought he owed me an apology, if that’s what this was, if that’s why he wanted to speak to me alone. I wanted to tell him that was why never, never lose control.
“I love my daughter,” he said. “I would do anything for her, anything to help her, and I’m not onboard with this engagement. That ring is nothing compared to her happiness.” His eyes were shiny for a moment, as if he might cry, but then they weren’t anymore.
“I love Jess, too.”
I truly did. I loved her in a fierce and confused way, like a sister. I loved Jess for saving me from who I was. What her father said made sudden and absolute sense of why I was doing what I did with Tommy: I was trying to save Jess, because I wasn’t onboard with her engagement either, and her father, his hand now gripping my hand, pressing that heavy gold ring against my knuckles, understood all this.
I said, “Between us, I’m sure they won’t get married in the end.”
“Would you bet money on that?” he asked. Joke words. But his face was one hundred percent serious, looking me straight in the eye, the way he had when he asked about my father.
“I never bet real money,” I said. “But yes.”
“Well, then,” he said. “I think you know something.” His hand pressed heavier now, and I couldn’t slip mine away. The restaurant dipped into seamless silence, and he slanted his head in, close. Tiny black whiskers lined his jawbone. I smelled gin. I leaned forward. He said, “I think you know a lot of things.”
“Maybe,” I said. My heart beat extra loud.
He whispered, “You’re prettier than that restaurant hostess any day.” As if he had read my mind earlier.
The silence was tense, and I wanted to pretend I hadn’t heard, but surely he could see that what he said had punched my breath out. I figured I’d remember this moment for the rest of my life, and then it was over because he sat straight, nodding to the far corner, to Jess and her mother returning, snatching his hand off mine so fast it was as if my skin had burned his with flames. He grabbed his water glass, cocked his head sideways as if puzzling the answer to a tough question. When Jess and her mom reached the table, he said loudly, “There’s my two girls,” in a voice that wouldn’t fool anyone but did, half-standing as they bustled out chairs and re-draped napkins across their laps. But they were in the midst of a conversation about roses versus lilies and barely seemed to notice they were at the table.
Whereas I understood exactly where I was: in a restaurant I could not afford, with a family that wasn’t mine, with a man whose hand grabbed my hand for too long. I didn’t want to be evil, but I was. I was, even when I didn’t want to be. As if what my father had done to me—those unspeakable secrets no one would ever, ever know—had left a physical mark on me that any man could read, that no amount of money would erase.
I smiled and stood up and politely said, “Excuse me.” I walked across the restaurant quickly, my open skirt swishing, showing off my legs to anyone paying attention. It seemed like a long time ago that I had gotten dressed, and I wasn’t sure how I had ended up in this outfit or why I had worked so hard to get this sweater for myself from Marshall Field’s. My head buzzed and hummed with wine, and the tall shoes made my footsteps as clattery as hooves.
I could stay in control. It was only walking to the ladies’ room. I wanted to stare at my face in the mirror, to see what they all saw. And I wanted to know for sure he wasn’t going to follow me. Could I have at least that?