After a mainstream women’s magazine accepted Grace Huggins’ short story, she felt her writing career was launched. Buoyed by that unexpected success, she hunkered down to write more of the same; light fiction which most always included a sixty-ish woman (much like herself), children grown, who gardened, bird-watched, kept house and triumphed over small challenges. That her husband of thirty years had run off with the young Asian medical student he was supervising was a challenge she didn’t write about. The rejections (form letters!) surprised and then depressed her. She had seen the rest of her life so clearly; the talented, prolific Ms Huggins (should she give herself a pen name?), signing her books at comfy independent bookstores in places like Madison and Cambridge. Fans would murmur compliments and tell her how reading her stories had moved them so. Perhaps even changed their lives.
Then this pile of rejections. It was almost too much to bear until the day she opened a letter from a literary journal, which even she knew, had been a reach. Again, the form letter, but on the bottom in red pen (so editorial, she thought), was a note: “I think you’d benefit from feedback before you submit. Have you ever thought of joining a writing group?” The scrawled signature was illegible. Grace knew that was so she wouldn’t be tempted to call the office and chat.
When they were newly married, Grace and Lyle had joined then quickly quit a writers group – or was it a book club? A raucous group made up of members of the medical school’s International House, it was a thick, spicy soup of turbaned Indians with their stunning red dotted wives, garlicky Greeks, pugnacious Africans and a few French boys who affected bohemianism by smoking terrible smelling imported cigarettes and wearing black turtleneck jerseys. Grace was sorry not to have a Jew or two – these were people, to whom on some level, she could relate (there had been two very smart, cultured Jewesses in her dorm at boarding school), and whose accents she could understand. At these long ago meetings, she remembered the terrible feeling of swimming upstream through unintelligible conversation made up of vocabulary she hadn’t remembered hearing before in a language she couldn’t decipher.
“A bunch of phony intellectuals, talking just to hear themselves speak,” pronounced Lyle (who would in time become the head of urology in his hospital and stop reading books altogether), on the cab ride back uptown. He had warned her against joining the others scooping up the strange purple-green dips on triangles of toasted flat bread, “Communal eating will make you sick,” he declared with authority.
“I liked their apartment,” ventured Grace, thinking about how her mother would pronounce it quaint in a way that was not a compliment, and how the Village was really a difficult place to live if your husband was on call at all hours at New York Hospital on the upper East Side. Ultimately, the best place to live it seemed was Scarsdale in a Tudor-style house just this side of too big to ever feel comfortable. The short commute to the suburban hospital suited Lyle, as did his wife’s part-time work in his office.
“But I don’t want to work in your office,” Grace had protested when Lyle first brought it up.
“What else will you do with your time now that Emily is in school until three?” They compromised on twenty hours a week. She would run the office, and check in patients during the receptionist’s lunch break. Grace insisted on getting a paycheck she dutifully deposited into a checking account that rarely had withdrawals. “You never know,” she replied, when he asked her why she needed money of her own.
She knew people in the office were amazed she kept coming in to work after Lyle left. Weren’t the big settlement and the house enough? she imagined the two nurses whispering to each other. She felt their eyes shift to her every time he strode in – his new body, hardened by daily visits to the gym, taut as a violin string, under close-fitting fine woolen knit jerseys picked out by the new Mrs. Huggins. In his first marriage Lyle had worn Oxford cloth pinstripes, starched and carefully ironed by Grace.
At first she came just to watch him squirm and to leave Post-Its in obvious places reminding him to take home the free Vioxx samples the drug reps left, but then Lyle’s office became a perfect place to write. Once she had checked in a succession of Mrs. Russells (dribbling bladder) or Mr. Fastwells (kidney stones), photocopied their insurance cards and passed them off to the nurse practitioner, her time was her own. She sat behind a sliding glass partition, feeling perfectly comfortable closing the window,
ignoring the nervous congregants in the waiting room.
Grace started sending out her short stories only after Emily left for college and then moved to California for graduate school. While her daughter lived at home, she would hide the pages in her dresser under her flannel nightgowns. It was strange how she had no problem sending off her writing to a complete stranger in some mid-town skyscraper, but didn’t want to risk having her sharply judgmental daughter coming across one of her ‘creative attempts,’ as she thought of them.
The day after the rejection form with the red ink, she scanned the bulletin board at Whole Foods, where she bought her weekly supply of all sorts of carry-out foods with names like Moroccan Chicken and Pasta Roman, that made her think of world travel. Not having to cater to Lyle’s timid palate was most definitely one upside to the divorce.
“Hired gun editor will work with you to get your manuscript ready for publishing,” announced the neat printing on a salmon-colored index card. She plucked the notice off the board, knowing that a good citizen would simply copy the number and leave the ad for others to see. But already she didn’t want to share her ‘hired gun’ with anyone else. She pictured him: a tall, roughly handsome man with unruly curls springing out from under a black cowboy hat. One fantasy had him sporting a clipped, coal-black mustache; in another she pictured him with a rock-star three-day beard. Just like the song, her heroes had always been cowboys, and daydreams about wind-burned, silent, brooding men had sustained her through years of riding lessons (albeit in Greenwich, not Bozeman, on English saddles dressed in jodhpurs and helmets instead of Stetsons and denim).
Randolph D’Shiro was easy to reach and, to Grace’s relief, easy to talk to on the phone. To all his questions she supplied short answers: What was she working on? Short stories. What sort of help was she looking for? Editorial. Was she able to meet him the following day? Yes. How about one o’clock at that new Italian restaurant in town? Yes. Could she bring some of her stories? Yes.
“Good, then, that’s settled,” he finished up. “We’ll have fun.” Grace hadn’t considered this, but could sense a playful humor in his voice that made fun, perhaps, a possibility. What should she wear to meet her editor for lunch? Who would be paying?
She arrived at Trattoria Amanda Mi Amore in a tailored grey flannel suit (three seasons old but quite expensive – the sales woman had assured her it was a classic and wearable for many years, not to mention the color matched her eyes which were the dull gleam of wet slate). Knowing that she had acquired her daughter’s annoying habit of playing with her hair when she became nervous or upset, Grace had fastened her recalcitrant salt and pepper curls back behind her ears with tortoiseshell barrettes. She felt exposed with her hair pulled back, fearing her beakish nose (the one she gave to Emily who’d had it ‘fixed’ in her early teens), was now more prominent than ever.
The heavy door required two hands and a hefty tug to open. Inside, she faced a slick granite floor, red leather covered walls, dark mahogany woodwork and lighting so parsimonious that Grace had to stand, for a long moment, at the doorway squinting into the room to get her bearings. Past the unmanned foyer she made out a room in which every table held up-ended chairs. A man in a white dress shirt that glowed phosphorescent and black-cuffed jeans was vacuuming the carpet. Surely there was some mistake. This place wasn’t open for lunch! Her heart began to pound: she’d come to the wrong place, on the wrong date, at the wrong time.
“Ms. Huggins?” The man (young and exceedingly solid) came forward, leaving the vacuum hose draped over a table. He couldn’t have been more than Emily’s age.
His eyes, behind retro black-plastic framed glasses, were pale brown - almost colorless, and rimmed with short golden lashes. With his pug nose and creamy white skin, and thick auburn hair, he looked like her neighbor’s King Charles spaniel.
“Hi there, I’m Randy.” Seeing the look of confusion on her face, he added, “This is my day job – well, this and bartending and waiting tables. Actually,” he added with a chuckle (a bit forced, thought Grace), “it’s my night job as well until I get a book contract or win a MacArthur. You don’t know anyone on the committee, by any chance? You never know. My sister Amanda is the chef here. About to become famous – that’s what she keeps telling us. Now that anyone who owns a stove and watches the TV Food Network can call themselves a chef, I’d say she’s got a shot. I hope to God she hurries up so I can retire and finish my seminal work.” Seminal sounded, to Grace, like something that belonged in Lyle’s office. She wondered if Randy always talked in this rush hour style. She watched as he ran his hands briskly up and down his thick thighs, before clasping her hand in a moist, hearty shake. Lyle, she suddenly remembered, after years of wearing baggy chinos, now came to the office in stiff, black jeans.
She couldn’t help but notice how Randy moved his hand, flipping them palm up then down in concert with his shoulders moving forward and back, reminded her of her first cousin Harvey who lived in San Francisco with a man called Evan.
“Well, of course I’m a writer first and foremost,” Randy hurried to assure her. He scooted behind the bar (surprisingly graceful for such a fireplug of a man) and brought back a small stack of slim journals. “My stories and some reviews I’ve done for various publications,” he flipped his hand over the pile. The abundance of curly gold hair on the back of his hand glinted under the bar lights. Except for the traditional places (as Grace thought of them), Lyle’s body had been devoid of extraneous body hair. His legs, in particular, as he rolled down his black over-the-calf Brooks Brothers cashmere socks, were smooth and shiny with the bluish cast of a marble statue, or a cadaver.
“Would you like to sit at a table or at the bar?” Randy asked with a mannered flourish, making Grace feel more like an arriving diner than anything else.
“I’d say the light is better at the bar,” she replied. But once she hoisted herself up onto a stool she found that her feet barely brushed the footrest. She had trouble keeping the seat from rotating. The slick lining of her skirt made it hard to keep her rump from sliding off to one side. She gripped the bull nose edge to anchor herself.
“So, let’s talk a little about your work,” said Randy hopping up on the next stool. It took Grace a second to realize her ‘work’ was what she had neatly placed into a plastic file folder that morning, not a reference to a career.
“Do you know your eyes exactly match your jacket?” said Randy,” leaning close; Grace could smell a cocktail of musk, limey soap and same fabric softener. She pulled back, lifting one hand off the bar. Her chair swiveled to the right.
“Hey, this isn’t a come-on!” (which Grace, in a plummet of relief feared it might have been). He added backing off, “it’s the writer observing. When you’re not writing you should be collecting things to write about. Everyone and everything is fair game, if you know what I mean.”
Grace looked forward to learning what he meant.
“It’s more about what I’d like to write,” she declared. Sudden she realized just how much she hated what she had brought him. “I feel this stuff is sentimental, trite, predictable, colorless,” she said reciting the list of adjectives that the rejecting editors had used. “Actually there’s no reason for you to see this at all.” She moved to pull the file from under his hand, but he quickly slid it down the bar away from her.
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that,” he smiled.
“And what do you write?” she asked him, stung by his assumption that she was a rank beginner. Was he going to be as dismissive as Lyle?
“Oh, short stories, poems, personal essays, critiques. That sort of stuff.”
“Is that what’s in there?” she asked, pointing to the pile he’d presented. She tried to read the spines, to see if she had ever heard of any of them.
A phone rang and Randy swiveled ninety degrees and jumped off the barstool. “I’m taking reservations today,” he announced over his shoulder. “Why don’t you leave your stuff and I’ll take a look at it and give you a call,” he spoke over his shoulder and disappeared into the gloom of at the front of the room.
Grace lifted her hand and gave a small wave to Randy’s back, then opened the top journal (Modicum Press) and found Randy’s poem, “Burning,” on page twenty. It was short; it was without punctuation; and had the word “cocksucker” in capital letters right in the middle. She quickly closed the slim volume and wondered if she may have made a terrible mistake.
At their next meeting Grace wore corduroys and a grey Shetland sweater over a black silk turtleneck. She’d forgotten to tie her hair back and found herself pulling on a loose curl as she waited for her editor to get off the phone.
Randy wore the same shirt, laundered, Grace noted sniffing the air behind him as she followed him to a table. After turning up the lights, he righted two of the heavy wooden chairs, leaving the other two upside down, making Grace feel as if this was going to be half a meeting. Randy took her file out of a beat-up, old-fashioned leather briefcase. Grace viewed it with discomfort and a bit of shame, as if he was exposing a secret she wanted to forget.
“I’ve marked these up a bit,” he said sliding the pages toward her. She could see his dark pencil marks dancing through paragraphs, disrupting margins and crowding into text breaks. She played with a curl at the back of her head, winding it around her finger. The kitchen door swung open emitting a heady wave of onions simmering and meat roasting. Grace hadn’t cooked a roast in years since Lyle and Emily became vegetarians. It occurred to her that she could start now, but it just seemed like too much effort and too much food for one person.
“Grace,” he said with an exhale and slightly furrowed brow, “ it’s obvious that you can write,” (she released the curl), “but, the word that comes to mind is, well…repressed. You skirt things, peck at the surface, but never go deep. And deep is crucial. Surely you have stories to tell that would command your readers’ attention.” He peered at her with concern, his glasses reflecting away the look in his eyes. “I hope you don’t mind my getting right to the point, I mean this in the most constructive way.”
“Oh, of course. I mean I agree with you completely. I just don’t know quite where to start.” Now the fingers of both hands were combing through her hair. She felt the sting of a headache play around her temples. “There’s really nothing very exciting in my life.”
“What about your family? Any nutty characters? Anyone in jail?”
Then the slam of the kitchen door swinging against the dining room wall.
“Brace yourself, here comes La Principessa,” warned Randy, rolling his eyes.
A slight figure moved purposefully across the room and when it stopped at the table Grace tried not to gawk at the startlingly thin woman in a tight white tee shirt and black leggings. A spotless white apron was wrapped several times around her tiny waist. As she stood there, her almost-translucent arms akimbo, Grace thought of the pipe-cleaner figures Emily used to make when she was in elementary school.
“Randy, we need you in the kitchen right now.” This was said with an imperious toss of a long, limp ponytail the same red as Randy’s. Grace, who was naturally lean, surprised herself by poking her own thigh to see how it compared to the hard, streamlined pair before her.
“Christ, Amanda, I’m in the middle of a meeting.” Randy flipped his hands over the pile of papers on the table. He neither looked at nor introduced Grace.
“How much longer is this ‘meeting’?” she demanded. Ignoring Grace as well.
“As long as I need it to be,” he shot back through gritted teeth.
There followed a silent, tension-laden stand-off that ended with Amanda stomping back to the kitchen.
“Listen, I’m sorry about that,” said Randy, inviting Grace back into the picture. “She can be a pain in the ass but this is a family restaurant and I am part of the family.”
“Has she been sick?” Grace asked more out of curiosity than concern.
“Yeah, well, she’s got this weight problem – you know pills and purge – which is definitely bizarre for a cook. Here’s the strangest part, our folks thought that getting her a restaurant would help her get over it.”
Grace, her eyes narrowed with skepticism, said, “Your parents own this restaurant?”
“Listen,” he said instead of answering her question, “I really should check into what’s happening in the kitchen. Do you mind sitting here for a few minutes?” Randy, already assuming Graces answer would be ‘yes’ said this as he pushed his chair back and stood up. “You can check out my comments and let me know what you think.”
He acted like this was a daily occurrence. Grace was happy to wait; life was rarely this exciting. Her headache had disappeared.
Not wanting to face the marked up pages quite yet, she reached for the bar menu and read through the list of what her crowd used to call, ‘mixed drinks.’ What on earth was a Chocolatini? Whatever happened to martinis made only of gin and vermouth? She turned over the menu and read the impressively long list of beers on tap. Grace didn’t drink beer, but suddenly remembered the bitter, sexy taste of beer on the mouth of a boy at a fraternity party in college.
She was halfway through the bar food menu when Randy returned. He had a white food-service apron tied around his waist and a dishtowel thrown over his shoulder. He didn’t sit down, which Grace took as a bad sign for the future of today’s meeting.
“Our dishwasher stopped taking his medication and started hearing voices that told him to pour dish washing detergent into the pot containing the sauce for today’s ‘special’,” he reported with a grimace.
“No one would have noticed – Amanda doesn’t taste anything – except one of the bus boys snuck a bowlful when no one was looking. He’s on his way to the emergency room.”
“She doesn’t taste anything?”
“Nah, we have a real chef who does that and all the cooking. Amanda never lets him into the dining room. She wants the world to believe she’s in there making masterpieces while anyone who’d look at her and believe that would have to be as delusional as she is. Thank God Gino was out running an errand; otherwise, he’d be the one in the hospital and I’d have to cook.”
“So you hired an Italian chef?” asked Grace, hoping for at least an ounce of authenticity.
“I’m not sure. He’s a really quiet guy. So quiet, in fact, some of us think he’s part of the witness protection program. Look, as long as he can cook who cares where he comes from. Right?”
“What a crazy business,” she said, thinking how efficiently she ran Lyle’s office and then how things would go downhill immediately without her.
“Trust me, you wouldn’t believe what goes on here,” he bragged.
“Last year the two pastry chefs got into a fight over a horny waiter – he’d been screwing each of them – one at a time, or course - in the walk-in. They started with name calling; “You’re a fucking bitch. No, you’re a fucking bitch,” and proceeded to hair pulling and some dope slaps. Things seemed to simmer down after my father read them the riot act. But then came the day that one of them had his hands in the big mixer, pulling out some dough and the other one hit the ‘on’ switch.”
“You’re making this up!”
“Do you want to come into the kitchen and meet our one-armed baker? Believe me, I could tell you stories that would curl your hair.
Grace reached up to confirm that her hair was already curly.
“I guess I’d better see what’s going on in Dante’s Inferno. When I see you next week you can show me what progress you’ve made.”
The next day at her desk with the sliding partition firmly shut, Grace attempted to connect the dots of comments and work in some of the changes Randy had suggested. But no matter how she tweaked here or deleted there her stories weren’t any better than before. Mrs. Ernst rapping the fob of her Jaguar key chain on the glass broke her concentration. Grace slid the window open.
“Excuse me, but where does this go?” Shiny blood-red acrylic talons affixed to the tips of diamond-ring laden fingers pushed an uncapped plastic urine specimen cup through the opening. The golden, viscous liquid at the bottom of the cup looked like expensive dessert wine. Errant golden drops dangled from the rim.
“There’s a shelf for those in the lavatory, clearly marked,” said Grace whisking her papers back lest the cup slip over the edge of the counter. But Mrs. Ernst had already returned to her seat next to Mr. Ernst (penile implant after prostate surgery), and buried her face in a copy of Town and Country, leaving Grace to move the cup, just as she had on the couple’s last visit.
“Fucking bitch,” Grace muttered, loud enough for the entire staff to hear.
“You go, girl,” sang out Melanie, the phlebotomist, bumping Grace’s chair back with her mamboing hip as she passed behind.
Grace slid the window closed, got out her cell phone and dialed her mother’s number. Two rings, then “Hello, Grace.” When did Priscilla get caller ID?
“Mother, did we have any eccentrics in our family? Were there ever any scandals?”
“Grace dear, it’s bridge club, for heaven sake.” Grace could hear chatter and the clink of ice cubes in highball glasses in the background. The only refreshment her mother served was liquid.
“Mother, did we?”
“Well,” answered Priscilla. Grace could hear her walking with the phone into another part of the house, and then covering the phone with her hand, speaking sotto voce; “there was Richard and Lydia’s son Harvey who everyone said he was light in the loafers.”
“Jesus, Mother, being gay isn’t eccentric anymore. Didn’t we have anyone who, well, went to jail or anything like that?”
“No, we didn’t have anyone who went to jail or ‘anything like that.’ And for the record your sister’s baby was premature. Large babies are not uncommon in our family.” Grace felt certain that her sister’s shotgun wedding, twenty-five years ago, wasn’t going to spice up her story enough to make it interesting to anyone but the ladies of the bridge group.
“Grace, while I have you, I have to talk to you about your father. There’s a problem.”
“What sort of problem?” Grace’s hand involuntarily flew to her chest.
“There have been complaints that he cheats at cards.”
Judge Harding Huggins III, revered, decorated and recently retired from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals?
“Mother, Dad doesn’t even play bridge, how could he be cheating?”
“He plays pinochle with the boys down at the pool.” Grace knew these ‘boys’ who were pushing eighty hung out around the condo complex’s pool in order to ogle visiting grandchildren; barely pubescent girls in miniscule bikinis. She couldn’t imagine her father doing this.
“It’s probably his eyesight or something, for heaven’s sake. Did one of those old geezers actually accuse him?”
“It’s that he wins all the time. How could someone win like that? He comes back with twenty dollar bills stuffed in his pants pockets. Then he goes on the internet and buys things we simply do not need.”
“A machine that tells you from the inside what the weather is outside.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“In Florida every day the weather is the same.”
“Grace, tell me,” said Randy at their next meeting, which took place in her den on an overcast Sunday afternoon when the restaurant was closed. They sat together on the couch, knees almost touching, her work spread out on the coffee table in front of them, “Have you ever been in therapy?” Grace jerked her head up and reached for a curl. Did that time in college when she was so homesick and went to see the staff psychologist count as therapy?
“I just think,” he proceeded without waiting for her to answer, “that talking to someone might loosen you up and make a real difference in your writing. You’ve got to have stories inside you. Therapy could help you tell them. It’s done incredible things for me.”
“Do you have any idea what it was like to grow up in an orthodox family in this day and age? Talk about repression.”
“You’re Greek?” she asked.
“No, Grace, Jewish.”
“Jewish,” she repeated as if saying it out loud would help her process this singular piece of information. “But the restaurant is Italian.”
“Yeah, it was my mother’s idea. When she found out that ninety percent of the Sushi restaurants in this country are owned and staffed by Taiwanese, she decided an upscale Italian restaurant would make more money than a deli. It wasn’t much of a challenge because, with our last name – which is by the way Israeli – everyone in town assumed we were wops.”
Grace cringed at the slur, but then considered that it might be all right for someone who was pretending to be Italian to demean himself this way.
“And your sister knew how to cook Italian food?”
“Are you kidding? That’s why we hired the chef; so she can pretend she cooks.
Believe me, if you watch enough of The Food Channel, read a lot of cook books, and hang out with the right people ‘foodies,’ he spat out the would as if it were a spoiled shrimp, “Anyway, these days, it’s not about cooking or eating; it’s all about power. You wouldn’t believe the lengths some folks go to inhabit our premier tables so they can see and be seen.”
“What about the people who want a nice meal?”
“They go somewhere else.”
“So, how did therapy help you?” Grace asked.
“I was able to unload a lot of the bullshit my parents spoon fed me growing up. I was finally able to write in a totally uninhibited way. I eat shellfish without guilt and I finally told my parents I like boys much more than girls.
It occurred to Grace that Randy had been the horny waiter screwing both pastry chefs.
Emmett Wolffe, PhD. advertised himself (on the bulletin board at the gym had Grace had joined after deciding that her thighs needed attention), as a ‘holistic yet pragmatic therapist who specialized in anxiety disorders.’ Grace didn’t know if her anxiety about writing constituted a disorder, but she liked that his office was a distance from her town so full of Lyle’s nosey patients.
Grace, worried about being on time, arrived almost an hour early. Dr. Wolffe’s overheated waiting room was decorated with enormous photographs of majestic snowcapped mountain ranges, thundering waterfalls, rain forests shrouded in mist and sweeping desert vistas. Each one screamed, “Adventure,” and their collective impact made Grace want to nestle in the soft, plump cushions of the couch and take a nap. She rifled through the pile of magazines on the coffee table in front of her, checking the address labels to see if Dr. Wolffe actually subscribed to this large assortment or, like Lyle, he collected an armful each time he took the shuttle to Washington or Boston. The thick silence of the warm room, with its plush pile carpet and heavily draped windows, the assertively neutral sound of the white noise machine, cradled Grace like a drug. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back on the soft, high back of the couch.
She dreamed that Emily, who was no longer lithe and athletic-looking but full figured – even plump, had arrived home from school towing a lanky, red-haired man with wild whiskers and the side curls of a pious Jew. Instead of a black hat or one of those beanies, he wore an enormous white cowboy hat. A red bandana hung around his neck and rested on the prayer shawl wound around his upper torso. Emily wore a low-cut, skin tight, black satin evening gown that looked just like the one Grace had tried on as a lark at Saks before settling for the dreary long-sleeved, navy shantung shift with matching jacket she wore to the urology department Christmas party the year before Lyle left.
“Emily, you aren’t wearing any stockings!” Grace cried as the slit skirt revealed that Emily wasn’t wearing any underwear either. “Put this on!” It was a white chef’s apron.
“Mother, we’re getting married,” Emily announced. “I need the recipe for this.” Emily handed Grace a half-full urine specimen bottle.
“That’s a dirty secret and I don’t have any of those,” Grace cried in dismay backing away.
“Don’t be ridiculous, you have thousands of them.”
“But I’ve forgotten,” she moaned, trying hard to push the door closed.
“Mother, you’re not even trying!” yelled Emily through the mail slot.
“There’s nothing in the pantry!”
“Well, then,” said Emily in exasperation, “you’ll just have to borrow.”
The swoosh of suction breaking and sound of an airtight door pushing across carpet startled Grace awake.
“Ms. Huggins? Inquired the man leaning over her. He sported a trim mustache and his chin had a lovely dimple. Thick black lashes framed his green eyes, the color of spring peas, Grace thought. He smelled of something spicy and expensive. “I’m ready for you.” Grace pushed herself out of the embrace of the sofa, smoothed down the front of her skirt and followed him into his office. Dark curls brushed the collar of his light blue denim dress shirt. Her heart skipped a happy beat and the disturbing dream evaporated like a puddle of water on hot asphalt leaving only a small oily rainbow residue.
After they settled the bookkeeping details, the doctor didn’t take Blue Cross and Grace assured him she would have no trouble paying his hourly fee (what better use for Lyle’s money)? Dr. Wolffe placed his hands on the arms of his leather chair and pushed back and in the same motion swung his feet up onto the matching leather hassock. Grace was astonished to see he wore pointy-toed, black lizard cowboy boots.
“Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and what brings you here,” Dr. Wolffe invited her, opening his notebook on his lap. He nodded, gave her an encouraging smile and clasped his hands together with a small but energetic pop, as if to signal the start of something; perhaps, thought the suddenly optimistic Grace, something very good indeed.
“I’m having a hard time writing,” said Grace, desperately attempting to corral all the images of bucking broncos and lariats romping around in her head.
“In a way, I guess. I mean, I can write, but just not about interesting things that, it seems, anyone wants to publish.”
“And what sorts of things do you write about?”
“Oh, nothing really, nothing, you know ,sexy,” ‘sexy!’ see, already she was loosening up, “gardening, birds…”
“Ah, a gardening expert.” Dr. Wolffe leaned forward. The chair back sprang up behind him like a well- trained retriever. “Lots of people could use help in that area,” he chuckled.
Grace looked puzzled.
“Myself, I have this invasive vine. Can’t kill it no matter what I use.”
“I write short stories – fiction – about people who garden.”
“Ah, I see.” The doctor and the chair reclined together. “So, you’d like to write more exciting stories, is that it?”
“Well, yes. My editor suggested that seeing someone might help.” In the silence that followed Grace wondered if she had committed a therapy faux pas by bringing Randy into the room. She knew Randy would have loved it that she had.
“Help in what way?”
“I’m not exactly sure. He thinks I have good stories to tell, but I have trouble, you know, putting them down on paper.” Grace wondered what his reaction would be to her saying out loud that he was the best looking man she had ever seen. She smiled at him in a way that she thought was flirtatious, then immediately grimaced at her audacity, making her appear to have a small tic.
“Can you give me an example of a good story?” Having banished the rodeo from her head, now Grace couldn’t think of anything. Her mind felt like a brown vial of dusty pills that had been kept beyond their expiration date in case the nausea, constipation or migraine came back one day. The clock on the mantle loudly ticked off the seconds as Grace desperately struggled for something to say. Dr. Wolffe’s jaw twitched and his mouth compressed as he tried to suppress a yawn. His stomach rumbled loudly. Grace prayed she wouldn’t see his eyes dart to the clock.
I can’t even keep the attention of the people I’m paying to listen to me, she thought as a wave of hopelessness replaced her recent optimism. Indeed, Randy had taken, during their long late evening phone conversations that had replaced their restaurant meetings, (it turned out Amanda didn’t like to see him sitting around), to delivering entertaining monologues to Grace, his silent audience. He routinely called her after service was over and she took his calls in bed, wearing her old flannel nightgown, sipping chardonnay and eating M and M’s.
Again the doctor’s stomach gurgled with a hungry complaint. He patted it apologetically.
“Why don’t we start with your parents.”
“My family?” She sighed and pressed her lips together. She thought of the judge sitting by the poolside with the other old men and her mother scooping ice cubes into Waterford highball glasses. Oh, how she wished for a different set of parents. Then Grace remembered her dream and suddenly felt as if she were teetering on a high wire. On the dark side loomed life trudging on as usual until she died without having really accomplished anything; on the other a radiant light illuminating Emily’s message; borrow. She took a deep breath and released herself into a freefall of terror and joy.
“My family’s in the restaurant business,” she began. “In Florida. And they’re all completely crazy.” The doctor pushed his chair into an upright position, licked his plump lips, and said, “Go on.”
When the time, (well in excess of the traditional psychiatric 50 minute hour), was up, Grace, who now had a gay brother who wrote pornographic poems, an anorexic sister who pretended to be a chef, and a brother-in –law in the witness protection program, had actually drawn her chair closer to his, undone the top button of her cardigan, and was leaning forward using her hands and arms, not in the flip-flopping, shoulder shrugging motion Randy employed, but in generous swallow-like dips and sweeps, to punctuate her story. The guilt she felt for using Randy’s life history was surprisingly negligible. He had so many stories, it seemed, what harm if she used a few?
Dr. Wolffe focused without interrupting once and when she finished, said, “ Well, that’s a great beginning. I’m sure there is a lot more and I look forward to our next visit. Meanwhile, tonight you’ll have something to write about.”
“If I were you I’d start with your family.
That night, after she had spent the better part of two hours writing, she called Randy to say she’d found a good shrink and was cautiously optimistic about changes for the better.
“Great! What’s he like?”
“Well, to tell the truth,” answered Grace, a warm place forming and beginning to glow where she thought the last ember had surely died, “ he’s quite handsome.”
“Yeah,” chuckled Randy, “before you know it you’ll be fucking him.”
“Randy!” Grace shouted in outrage, her hand dropping to cover her crotch.
“I mean figuratively, you know – transference. Everyone falls in love with their shrink and wants to sleep with them.”
“That’s o.k?” Grace was squirming in her seat just imagining herself (thighs trim and undimpled) and Dr. Wolffe entwined on the waiting room couch and then immediately began to worry about what would happen when the next patient arrived.
“Didn’t you ever read Freud at the fancy school you went to? Transference is something that happens when the therapy is really working.” Grace was amazed to think it was working this fast. “Not everyone acts on it, but (and here he cleared his throat dramatically), but I have to admit I did.”
“You slept with your psychiatrist?” Grace’s fantasy transformed itself into the horrifying image of Randy’s hairy backside pumping up and down on top of the smooth, lanky Dr. Wolffe, naked except for his cowboy boots.
“Well, we had terminated by then. But I was hot for him from the beginning.”
Randy launched into a story of lust and seduction and Grace quietly took notes.
After the first few visits Grace dared to weave in bits and pieces from her own imagination, and was delighted that the doctor found them just as stimulating as those she borrowed from Randy. She told him her ex-husband had developed a pathological hatred of Asians. “It’s certainly cut down his practice somewhat,” she admitted with a sigh.
“And my father? He’s a pedophile.” Grace, quite artfully, painted the scene at the pool; mahogany-colored, oiled, leather-skinned old men on lounge chairs, their laps draped in heavy beach towels, (newspapers tended to flyaway at the wrong moment) leering, behind mirrored RayBans, at young girls, while trying to find life in their old equipment with one hand and holding a tumbler of gin-laced ice tea with the other.
“Growing up it was all secrets and lies – after college I never went back. I visit a couple of times a year, but…” here she actually conjured up a solitary tear, …”it’s so painful to be reminded of how crazy they all are.”
Dr. Wolffe nodded his head, a compassionate look on his face, and told Grace, over and over, how much he admired her strength and courage to survive such parents, such a family. He never asked about her mother, but did ask if she had a good recipe for Vitello ala Tunnato.
“You’re a survivor, Grace,” he said with damp-eyed sincerity. “And did I mention that your new haircut is most flattering?”
At times it did cross Grace’s mind to wonder why Dr. Wolffe never questioned the veracity of her increasingly farfetched stories. Perhaps he was exceedingly gullible, or simply appreciated that she paid in cash at the end of every visit. Exchanging the envelope of bills for an appointment card, she wondered if someone might see him as her gigolo; a theme, she realized, that would fit right into the story she was writing.
As she wrote, Grace’s main character, Lenora, became a woman very much unlike herself who, after triumphing over a childhood of outrageous misfortune, abuse and denial, had hot lusts and lewd desires that were fulfilled almost as fast as they came into her head. Grace gave her the kind of wardrobe she herself wished she could wear, then decided, “why not?” and spent a good deal of money at a place called ‘Venus! A Boutique For The Sexy You’, and had come to the sessions wearing a black silk blouse half-unbuttoned to reveal a stretchy black camisole and new-found cleavage thanks to a miracle brassiere. She drew the line, however, at leaning forward in her chair and pressing her upper arms against the sides of her chest, the way the girl in the shop had showed her; the way she would have Lenora do.
Grace found that she could write at home just as easily as at Lyle’s office, and resigned without notice, leaving Lyle in a state, and Mrs. Ernst having to figure out just where to put that urine specimen. In fact, she found she could write anywhere; in the coffee shop, in the car (where she spoke into a small, voice-activated recording device), in Dr. Wolff’s waiting room, and during Randy’s weekly hours-long monologues, where she did her best writing of all. She had traded in her floral, flannel nightgown for a deep crimson silk shift that she knew would look well on Lenora, and like her fictional heroine, she now sipped expensive cognac and nibbled on imported Belgian chocolates with fillings made of rare organic tea, jasmine, or lavender honey. She even began to watch the food channel, which, as Randy had promised, made her feel like a food expert in short order.
When he ran out of stories of his tumultuous childhood, Randy gossiped about the New York food scene. Because of his sister’s chef-status (the new royalty) and connections, he was often invited to events where the movers and shakers, moved and shook. And because this was a world that, even more than a tasty meal, loved the sound of its own voice, Randy found himself more often than not cornered by people who were only interested in their own stories, so he spent those evenings listening to the tales of woe of some embittered cookbook writer who couldn’t get a television show. or a p.r. drone with a chef to sell, while his sister, whose restaurant was now on everyone’s radar screen, was smack in the center of a throng of drooling groupies.
And because he never for one moment considered that Grace’s interest in this information went anything beyond something to occupy her lonely nights, he never held back. Consequently, tales of outrageous back biting, sexual indiscretion, blatant disregard for food safety, and business hi-jinks, went directly from Randy’s mouth to Grace’s notes, to Dr. Wolff’s office, and back to Grace’s novel, which she had started at the urging of the good doctor: “Grace, you have so much material. Why confine yourself to short stories?”
Even though he had long ceased to read her stories, or even ask her if she was still writing, Grace sent Randy weekly checks made out to cash. Knowing he counted on this income to make him feel like he was something more than just a waiter, or the brother of an ‘Up and Coming Young Chef ‘(Gourmet Magazine June 2003), she always included a brief thank you note and almost always added a generous bonus. Grace realized from early on the pile of journals he had trotted out during their first meeting would never grow because, while Randy was a great storyteller, he really had little drive for writing.
After Grace finished the novel (four hundred pages in less than five months!) in an act of audacity unimaginable until now, she called her daughter and asked her to proofread it. Emily agreed with a loud sigh that Grace heard all the way from the west coast where Emily was a rising star in firm that specialized in entertainment law.
After that it all happened so fast. Emily appearing on her doorstep Monday morning, looking disheveled (and far from plump) from a night on the Red Eye, but so atypically buoyant. In an unusual show of affection she gave her mother, rigid with astonishment, a bear hug right there on the porch then breathlessly delivered the news that Grace now had an agent named Eric Green who was putting the book out for auction. Then a few weeks later that generous check and the weekend trip to California where she met the charming Mr. Green who turned out to be a delightfully attentive (and recently divorced) Jewish gentleman, who played polo, told her book was a ‘sizzler,’ and urged her to stay in his palm-shaded guest house while she wrote the sequel.
“Mother, your imagination astonishes me,” Emily had told Grace on the plane, where in true Lenora style they sat not in Business, but First Class and sipped vintage champagne. “How do know so much about gay sex? Never mind, I really don’t want to know, but how did you dream up that crazy family? And, the food gossip. You have stuff in that book that people who are supposed to know don’t even know. It’s a good thing you fictionalized it.” Emily paused, rested her lovely chin (a carbon copy of her mother’s) in her hand, and peered intently cross the table. “You’re sure not the person I remember from when I was I kid.” She sighed. “ I guess I didn’t really know you very well at all.”
Grace resisted the urge to pull back, cross her arms across her chest and point out that neither her daughter nor her husband had ever shown any curiosity about who she was, but instead (just as Lenora would have) leaned forward, patted Emily’s hand and said, with an indulgent half-smile, “It really doesn’t matter, does it?”
After not speaking with him for several weeks Grace picked up the phone and called Randy.
“Hi,’ she said, “I haven’t spoken to you in ages, and thought we might catch up.”
“Boy, I’ve got a lot to report,” he jumped in, steamrolling ahead, bringing Grace up-to-date about his family and the restaurant which had had just received top rating from Zagat’s. This meant Amanda would soon be expected to produce a cookbook as a segue to a television show.
“They’ve asked me to ‘ghost’ it, which I’ll consider if the money is right. Of course, cookbook advances aren’t nearly what they used to be, but I guess I’d settle for seeing my name on the front. Amanda should let my name be first, just for keeping her big secret.”
When he finally wound down he asked (uncharacteristically), “So, Grace, what’s been keeping you busy?”
She thought saying, “I sold my novel to Random House,” might not be the best way to deliver the news, but she found herself lacking the imagination to put it any other way.
“Oh, Grace, that’s just great! That therapy must be working. You’re getting more creative by the minute,” replied Randy, laughing heartily. She could just see him slapping his knee for emphasis. “Keep it up and some day you may actually write a novel. Then you can dedicate it to me and we’ll both be famous.” Grace winced. She had actually dedicated it to Dr. Wolffe…using only his initials, of course.
“Randy, I’m not kidding.”
“Right. When did you write this novel? It’s just been a few weeks since we talked. Even I don’t work that fast.”
“I started working on it just after we began meeting, and I really mean it when I say I couldn’t have possibly done it without you.” There followed a long moment of silence while Randy digested the fact that Grace, who never kidded about anything, was not kidding now.
“Jesus Fucking Christ! You never showed me anything, you never said anything!” Grace winced again then remembered Lenora occasionally used that kind of profanity.
“I wanted to wait to finish it before I let anyone see it, and then Emily read it and showed it to an agent friend of hers and, well you know how these things work.”
“No,” he said, his voice simmering with sarcasm, I don’t know how ‘these things’ work. What the hell is it about?” he exploded. “What could you possibly have written about? I mean, what ever happened in your life that…”
“There’s one other thing,” she cut in before he could finish.
“Movie rights?” he said, bitterly.
“I want you to know that I was finally able to tell my psychiatrist, “I love you.” Grace had, in fact, told Dr. Wolffe, “I’m very grateful for all your help,” as she handed him the check for their termination visit, after giving him a hasty peck on the cheek. In the end of the book, however, she had Lenora look deep into Dr. Wolffe’s eyes, hook her long forefinger into his hip pocket, pull him toward her, and in her husky bedroom voice, whisper, “ Fuck me, baby.”
In the silence that followed, Grace pictured Randy sitting on a bar stool in the dark dining room, flapping his hand back and forth as he tried to figure out what to say.
“Look, Grace, ah,” Randy, chuckled uncomfortably, pulling her back into the conversation, “you know, I love you too, as a friend, of course. You’re a really nice person and everything, but I never meant this to be anything more that a, uh, professional relationship, you know what I mean? I hope you didn’t feel I led you on in anyway.”
“I’m flattered, of course, but jeez, I’m a ho-mo-sex-ual (he over-annunciated each syllable as he was trying to teach a child or non-English speaker a new vocabulary word), and for Christ’ sake and you’re old enough to be my mother.”
Grace felt her face begin to flame, then relaxed as she considered what Lenora would do in such a situation. Here, she realized, was a story Randy would tell with great relish to any one who would listen. He’d be the hero and she’d be the fool. Until the book came out, both she and her heroine could afford to let him think, as some men might, it was really all about him. © 2009