George lends me a book about the Czar of Russia and his family and how they get shot in Ekaterinburg, every last one. He seems to think tragedy is good for me. “That Robert Massie. Look what he achieved, and he had a son just like yours,” he says. I don’t try to explain the differences between hemophilia and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which George can never pronounce anyway.
“George,” I tell him, “All I want to do now is find a time machine, go back to 1918 with a small army and save the royal family. That little boy breaks my heart.”
George just says, “Knowing too much history can do that to you.”
Another bizarre worry on my mind, besides the Czar, is that my best friend is turning into a flapper or a slapper, or something, from Paris. Here’s an example. It’s a hot day in August. Suzanne and I are in my garden, which is just a piece of roof to be honest, but there’s a nice view of the sky.
“Looks like you’re cultivating weeds,” she says.
“This isn’t a weed,” I say, “it’s Polianthes. It doesn’t look like much now but when it flowers it has a wonderful smell.”
“Polianthes? You’re such a nerd.”
“Tuberoses then, but never mind.” I say, nearly pouring water onto her fishnet feet. Suzanne has developed an attitude towards me that I could call condescending, should I condescend to do so.
Back in my kitchen I offer her some coffee and she tells me about her new role: “We must keep up an impression of the artificial. That’s what, you know, the writers intended.” Suzanne has been cast as Yvonne the brothel madam in Belles de Nuit and she’s been over the moon ever since. She also sounds more French by the second: “We must try to make the characters as mannered as possible. Merde, it’s so hard.” Although Suzanne puts on her Cleopatra-and-the-asp face, but she isn’t really complaining.
“I remember your first leading role.”
“Oh, in Mamet.”
“No, when you played the Virgin Mary in high school.”
“Oh.” Suzanne doesn’t like being reminded about that, the tinsel crown and the blue blanket, with my doll in the manger. She frowns and lights a cigarette.
“So, what news do you have?” she asks, not expecting me to have any.
I have a surprise for her: “Robbie is going to have a little sister,”
Her eyes widen, “You’re pregnant! I thought you’ve been looking fat.”
“No, Suzanne,” I am patience itself today, “David and his wifemare are going to have a baby.”
“It’ll be nice for Robbie,” she says.
Suzanne becomes all preachy: “You’ve been divorced for five years. You need to move on. Honestly, I can’t figure out why people have children anyway. Like, what’s the point? And then look what happened to you.” She wrinkles her nose, “What did you do to this coffee? It tastes funny.”
“Must be the arsenic.”
I don’t hear what she says after that because I become lost in thought.
Two nights before this David called and told me, “Well, you probably don’t know, but Shirley and I are going to have a baby.”
My blood ran cold. Mean-spirited, it’s true. “When?”
“The doctor told us the twelfth of October.”
“That’s in, what, eight weeks and you only tell me now.”
“As if it’s your business anyway.”
“You don’t understand,” I wanted to say, “I am going to be forty-five in a few days and for me there will be no more children. Your news just makes me want to die.” But I said nothing like that, of course. Just like I say nothing more about it to Suzanne now, especially after the insult to my coffee. I only watch as another smoke ring escapes her scarlet mouth. Rings around me.
Back to George. He’s my boyfriend, kind of. He looks like Bob Hoskins in Mermaids and he shouldn’t be my boyfriend because he’s married to a fat Maisie. She’s a foot taller than him and if she just sat on me I’d be dead. I often see Maisie walking her dog as I go about the neighborhood; the dog is a whippet and it looks pretty ironic. Even more ironic than that, George owns a feminist and dictionary bookstore. Don’t ask. I help people with their websites – and he wanted to become virtual – but I ended up helping George with more than his online presence, which is surprising because I never thought I would be that kind of woman. We usually roll in the thesauruses at the back of the shop. A bit Jurassic, I know, but there you are. When I asked him, ‘Why a feminist bookshop?’ he just said, ‘Don’t I look like a feminist to you?’
The day after coffee with Suzanne, I decide to visit George. Now George’s bookstore is dark with shelves that twist and turn like a maze in a horror movie, dust and cobwebs everywhere. On this day we decide to try something different, the wonky Persephone and Virago section to be exact. We are getting creative with a stepladder when A Tory Heavenfalls onto my head and then A Country Housewife falls on his. I tell him, “We better change position before we get the whole damn shelf. Fidelity then decides to fall onto his infidelity. “Enough!” I tell him, “Back to the thesauruses, do not pass begin, do not collect 200.” The thesauruses prove to be less distracting during adultery, so, after we’ve improved our word power, I tidy up. Showing him the books that fell on us, I tell him, “I’ll have to read all of them now. One of them may be a sign.” I’m not superstitious, but you never know.
So that’s how I happen to be reading about marrows and arches on my forty-fifth, looking for a sign, and sort of thinking about baking a birthday cake, when the phone call comes.
It’s David again, saying, “Is Robbie there?”
“No, he’ll be back from school any minute.”
“I have to go,” says David, “Tell him his sister was born at six o’clock this morning.” “But that’s impossible,” I say, “It’s supposed to be another five weeks and today’s my birthday.”
David just ends the call.
I am totally upset about the baby having the nerve to steal my birthday so I go and stick holes in poor Arthur. He’s a horse. Made of felt, mostly, and I’m sewing his mane on by hand. He and my other softies live in my sewing room because, besides helping with websites, I make toys and sell them on Etsy, which is much more fun than web development, I can tell you, but less money. I sew Arthur so viciously that the needle comes out through his head and spears my thumb. Now Arthur has droplets of blood above his eyes.
One second later my phone buzzes. “Come to our opening night. I have two tickets for you. Bring someone along for a change. Oh, and many happy returns.”
Many happy returns! Who even says that?
The next day I’m telling George, “If you don’t go with me to the opening of Belles de Nuit I’m never talking to you again.” I have to take my anger out on someone.
George is horrified; he mops his forehead and leans on Eliot, her complete works, “But someone will see us.”
“I don’t care. My best friend’s in it. And that’s how it’s going to be. Anyway, no one from around here goes to The Experimental Mercurial Whatsit in Arlington. I’ve had nearly a year of sneaking around under your wife’s radar and I’m sick of it.” George and I have never been seen together in public. I hand him a ticket, “You better be there, Sunshine, or it’s over between us.”
Things just go from bad to worse. That night I’m in my sewing room saddling Arthur when Robbie appears at the door. “Mom,” he says, “Dad called me while you were out. The baby’s been born.”
“Yes,” I say, biting a thread in half, “I know.”
“Her name is Jennifer.” When I don’t comment, he adds bravely, “Dad would like me to go for her baptism when she comes out of hospital. They’re keeping her there for a bit because she was born too soon.”
“Oh, come on, Mom. Don’t be judgmental. You’re always telling other people not to be.”
“Nonsense. I don’t do anything of the sort,” I say, realizing then that I’ll have to take Robbie all the way to Rosebank to see the baby if I don’t want him to hate me. He’s figured out that I’m full of jealousy and spite and he expects me to overcome it. I’m his mother so I have to be perfect. “All right, we can go. Just get out of here. You know you’re not supposed to be in my sewing room.”
“Mom, you’re ridiculous.”
“Oh, thanks, and here I thought I was being sublime.”
Later that night I hear him speaking to his friend Wayne on Skype; the best friend who moved to Canada over a year ago. He’s telling Wayne in an excited voice: “Guess what, I’m a brother now.” My heart wants to break.
For the next few days, I refuse to think about these things; I just keep busy until I have whole pile of Arthurs in every color you can think of. Every time Robbie comes anywhere near my sewing room, I snap at him: “Don’t come in here. Pins! Cutters!” This annoys him, but I don’t care.
When the time comes for our trip to the theater, some days later, I find myself getting irritated with George. He completely ignores me in the taxi, and he has a hat pulled over his head because someone might recognize him. When we get out at our stop and George marches off, I catch up with him and tell him if he doesn’t walk next to me I’m going to kill him and, anyway, nobody knows him around here. This seems to work quite well. By the time we’re finally seated in the theater, side by side with the lights dimming, I feel pretty okay.
The play is one of those French things where I suspect people say meaningless stuff on purpose, so I don’t pay much attention and I kind of wish I had popcorn. But slowly it dawns on me that Suzanne doesn’t have a whole lot of clothes on and that George is enjoying the show far more than he ought to. It gets worse. In Scene Gazillion and One, when Suzanne is supposed to be changing her clothes, or something, she takes off everything and prances around in front of us all, for, I don’t know, ten minutes, almost completely naked. During this time, she keeps turning around so the audience can get the full benefit of her butt. George is ecstatic, of course, but I’m so angry and ashamed I want to hide under my seat. When this torture, for me, and titillation, for George, is finally over and the last hip has been swayed, we all applaud and head out to the theater cocktail bar. I’m inclined to go straight home, but I promised Suzanne that I would meet her after the show. Besides, I don’t want to seem like I’m not sophisticated.
Soon we’re seated at one of those tables with mile high bar stools that make my legs dangle like I’m a three- year-old, and George is saying, “Well, that was educational. I’m so glad you twisted my arm, Laura.”
“Right.” I snap, planning to pout.
But then George, beaming like an idiot, says, “Oh look! There she is!”
Suzanne is coming over like a lipstick tsunami in two thirds of a tunic, with some co-stars trailing behind. Her companions just smile vaguely while she washes all over us. “Laura, how lovely to see you,” she says and hugs me so hard I nearly fall off my perch. Then she goes on, talking fast, and pouncing on George, “Thank you for coming. I’ve heard so much about you.”
You lying bitch, I think, I’ve never said a word about him in my life.
But she just goes on: “It’s so lovely to meet you. I hope you’ve had a good time. You look like someone who appreciates French musical theatre.”
“Oh, I certainly do,” says George, “Bells Dinny was just great, but especially you. I’m sure you were the best Eva that ever was.”
“Yvonne,” I mutter.
“Oh, you’re too kind,” Suzanne says, batting her eyelids and resting a hand on George’s arm. “It’s so nice to meet a man who appreciates the arts. You angels, so sorry, I have to do the rounds.” She blows kisses at us and disappears into the crowd with her entourage. Meanwhile George is saying, “Suzanne is amazing. Such a friendly lady. You took weeks to warm up to me.”
“Shallow water heats up faster,” I snap. “Go to hell.” Does he want to screw Suzanne among the Persephones now, the bastard?
But he’s asking, “What do you want, Laura? Huh? You wanted me to risk everything by coming here tonight and I did? Haven’t I just exposed myself for you?”
“Not like Suzanne did.”
“For God’s sake, Laura, that was art. Don’t be narrow-minded. Art is art.”
“That wasn’t art. It was ass.”
“Don’t educate me about what’s an ass and what isn’t.
“Keep it down. People are looking at us.”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure no one’s going to tell your precious Maisie that you were here tonight.”
“You go on about my wife, but do you want your son to find out about us? Do you? Do you?” He grabs my wrist, squeezing it till it hurts.
“No,” I decide right there. “As a matter of fact I don’t. You aren’t good enough to be a stepfather for him. You made me read Nicholas and Alexandra. ToryHeavenfell on my head. You’re insensitive. And you like Maisie and her whippet better than me. So there.” Everyone is staring now because, I must admit, somewhere along the line I started shouting. George gets up and walks out – leaving me alone in the restaurant.
After a few minutes, I stop feeling mad at George and start feeling sorry for him. Of course, it isn’t dignified but I leave money on the table and run after him, catching him just as he’s about to leave in the taxi. I’m so half dead when I get there that George stares at me horrified while I do this heave ho, heave ho breathing kind of thing. Eventually, I gasp out, “I’m sorry. I was a bit rude tonight.”
To my surprise, he takes me in his arms, gives me a big hug and says, “I do like you a lot, Laura. I do. And I’m sorry too.” His black coat feels fluffy and warm against my cheek and I feel comforted, even as I curse myself for a fool.
When the taxi drops me off at my apartment, I realize that the light in my sewing room is blazing, and it seems like it’s the only light on in our place. For the second time in one night I find myself running like crazy. I’m sure in my heart that Robbie has met with some accident; he’s lying dead on the blood-soaked carpet among the swatches and the little horses. Of course, because I’m scared and guilty about leaving him alone, I can’t get the door to our apartment open. I drop the keys twice, then I can’t find the right key, then the key won’t work. Then I drop the keys again. When I do get in and tear down the passage, this is what I see: Robbie sitting at my sewing table, calmly cutting something out of fabric. I feel my temper rising but I just go to the kitchen, take off my scarf, and switch on the kettle. Then I force myself to walk back down the passage slowly. After counting to a hundred, I call out in the most normal voice I can manage, “Want some coffee, Robbie?” Going into the room, and still trying to be calm, I ask him, “Are you making something?”
He turns and looks at me, all defiance: “I want to make a toy for Jennifer.”
“You know what, that’s a great idea. Why don’t you let me help you?” He glares at me, so I add quickly, “You can do most of it and I’ll just help. Promise.”
“Okay, he says.” I can see tears in his eyes now; he was scared too – scared of me I realize with a shock. Or maybe he is just frustrated. But I mustn’t seem like I’ve noticed anything.
“What did you decide to make?” I ask. He shows me the pattern. It’s a circus lion, and Robbie has started cutting it out in pale pink felt. Pink for girls. So, I watch him as the scissors flash in the lamplight. He works slowly and I feel like I can’t breathe, but I let him do it. He may as well be shaping my heart.