The white Toyota, rumbling across the mountains of Western New England, stops to pay a toll before crossing the Hudson River and heading out into the rolling hills and valleys of upstate New York. ‘We are almost there’ the driver, a young woman, thinks to herself. ‘Well, not almost there, but I bet we can be there in two hours. Two hours isn’t so bad. That means we’ll be there by one. That’s plenty of time.’ The young woman readjusts her rear view mirror. ‘It isn’t so bad. Remember, Jack is driving on the way home.’
The young man in the passenger’s seat sits with his head down and his eyes closed. He isn’t asleep, merely ignoring the situation. Jack is there out of love and necessity. He owns the Toyota and loves the woman driving it. Loves her enough to meet her parents. Loves her enough to ask him to marry her. Loves her enough to sit through a hundred different discussions about guest lists and wedding invitations. He loves her enough to come with her on this trip, although he isn’t happy about it.
Music on the radio: “All Apologies.” You’ve got to love Nirvana.
It is 1993.
“How do I do this, Jack?” The young woman asks. “I need you to help me figure out what I’m doing.”
Jack opens his eyes. “Where are we?” he asks.
“We just passed the toll booth. You know where we are.”
“Holly, I’m just asking.”
Holly. That is the young woman’s name. Holly Flanagan. She is twenty-three years old, the eldest of three sisters, working on her Masters Degree in Art Education. Holly, born and raised in Western Massachusetts, now in school in Boston, working part-time at the Isabella Gardner, living the life she always dreamed of. Holly Flanagan, pretty as a picture with her whole life ahead of her. Holly is almost always completely oblivious to the fact the scales of fate and existence are tipped sizably in her favor.
“Right here,” Jack is pointing to an exit off of the highway. “Keep following the signs. We’re staying on Interstate 90 until we get to Syracuse.”
The little car maneuvers its way around the exit and onto another, larger road. The only thing separating the car from certain disaster is Holly’s grip on the steering wheel. The slightest waver from either forearm and the couple would go crashing into a guardrail. The car continues on the straight road. It lumbers over the gaps in the concrete and the couple lapses into silence.
It’s a beautiful day. That special time of year, when the sun has finally risen from its long, cold defeat and the earth is slowly turning green again. That time of year when it’s just warm enough for shorts, but still cool and breezy so you don’t feel like you have to sit in air conditioning or go swimming or spend most of the day complaining about the heat. It is Capri-pants weather. It’s the perfect weather for going for a hike, or going to the zoo, or going on a drive to see a friend.
“What’s this going to be like?” Jack asks. “Are there going to be protestors and stuff like that?”
“Protestors?” Holly asks.
“I don’t know how this stuff works. You always hear about those people on television.” This is a good point, but bringing it up is dangerous. “Don’t they stand outside and hold signs and yell or something?”
“She had the abortion this morning,” Holly says. “I don’t know if there were protestors or not. We’re meeting her at her mother’s house.”
“Oh.” Jack is embarrassed. She probably told him this already and he probably didn’t listen to the details. Holly is always nice enough to ignore his oversight. “Do you know how everything went?”
Holly doesn’t know. She doesn’t know how everything went. This is 1993. She doesn’t have a cell phone. Holly won’t know how the operation went until they get out of the car, until she sees her friend and finds out if everything is okay. She wants to get out and call, find a phone and get all of the details, but these feelings are complicated. Holly knows that the procedure is relatively simple. There isn’t anything to worry about, but she doesn’t actually know what’s happened and it’s difficult to admit how much not knowing bothers her.
“It was your friend that got her into this you know,” Holly blurts out suddenly. She feels guilty for even thinking this, but says it anyway.
Jack hears the words but misinterprets them. He feels blame where none exists. In a situation like this it’s easy. There is so much blame to go around. The fact that he has not been completely truthful about this particular subject isn’t making it any easier. “I’m not talking to him anymore,” he says simply.
“I know. I hate to say it, but I think that’s a good thing. I know he was your friend for a long time, but it makes me feel very uncomfortable.”
“I understand. It’s not a big deal. Did you tell Jane about the other girl?”
“I told her.”
Jack sits up in his seat. This was not the answer she expected, and he is impressed.
“How did it go?”
“She didn’t believe me. She was in complete denial. She said that you must have misinterpreted what he told you. She got really angry at me in that passive aggressive way she has. I told her that I thought she deserved to know the truth. She told me that I was just jealous.”
Jack looks confused. “That’s weird.”
“She doesn’t seem to have any control of what she says right now. I think she’s just so upset that she ends up lashing out at everyone. I don’t know what I would have said under the circumstances. She’s a good person. I know that you don’t think so, but she is.”
It was a beautiful day.
The trip takes them three hours. Holly is a little upset about this. She is unfamiliar with the unpredictable elements of long road trips. There are a dozen things that slow them down. They need gas and they need to stop and stretch their legs. Holly looks for a payphone, but the only one she can find is out of order. They get confused and at one point end up on the wrong road, although only for a few minutes. There are more tolls. Holly has to pee. Two o’clock drifts by and then two-thirty. Finally, at three o’clock, the little Toyota pulls off the interstate and finds it way through a suburb of Syracuse.
It’s a quaint New York town, the kind of place where doctors and lawyers and businessmen move when they want to have kids. It is the kind of town where the children play kickball in the street and run to the sidewalk when a car comes. It is the kind of place where none of the buildings are more than thirty years old, where all the house numbers have at least five digits, where even the street names sound all-American. It is the kind of place that lives in an eternal present, where there is no history and where nothing bad has ever happened. It seems like the kind of place where no one ever gets hurt, where everyone is happy at Christmas and where no miscarriage of justice has ever been laid. It is Jane Greer’s hometown, such as it is.
Holly has been here once before, but can’t remember the way. Jack reads directions that Holly has written down in a notebook. Twice they make a wrong turn and have to turn around again. By the time they arrive at the house it is three-fifteen. Holly knows that Jack is hoping to leave by eight, maybe nine o’clock at the latest. Holly is very nervous. On her previous trip to this house she broke a vase that Jane’s mother had bought only that morning. She is hoping that the incident will be forgotten.
Holly would later say that the house “isn’t her taste,” but staring up from the confines of the little Toyota, there is no denying the reality of the situation: The house is beautiful. It is a big chestnut colored colonial with at least five bedrooms, a furnished basement, an enormous yard and a pool. It has a stone wall and a colonial front. The front lawn has been manicured like the eighteenth hole at Augusta. It looks like it should have been an old Inn in the seventeenth century, but can’t be more than twenty-five years old. It’s the kind of house where kids grow up knowing nothing but the good things in life, where people named Kennedy or Adams or Washington should live. Looking at the house, it is a wonder that Jane didn’t end up going to Vassar or Bryn Mawr. For the first time it occurs to Holly that this discrepancy is telling. She should have realized that anyone coming from so much privilege and making so little out of it is probably already in the middle of a disaster. Her fiancée doesn’t think that much about it. Jack is impressed.
“Yeah,” Holly says.
“I had no idea.”
“I told you it was big.”
“I guess we all have to grow up somewhere.”
“I guess so.”
“This is the woman who hates you right?”
Holly gathers up her purse. “She said that she would always remember me as the girl who broke her vase.”
“Was it expensive?” Jack asks.
“Maybe she’ll be impressed that you’ve come all this way to see her daughter,” Jack says hopefully.
“I don’t think this type of situation reflects well on me.”
“How could it reflect badly on you?”
“I don’t know,” Holly sighs heavily as they get out of the car. “Guilt by association, I guess.”
The doorbell plays a tune, Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” Jane’s mother gets the door.
She’ll do anything to please.
If you look up the phrase ‘bad mother’ in the encyclopedia it doesn’t show a picture of Linda Greer, but that’s only because Linda and the photographer got into a fight over which photo looked the best. Linda has never prided herself on being a good mother, and at fifty-two it is far too late to start now. She has had to take off work to be with her daughter today and isn’t happy about it. Linda Greer was an advanced, aggressive, uptight business woman, a willing and eager member of corporate America. Being a businesswoman was something Linda could take pride in. It scarcely seems to matter that she sells embarrassing medical products to retirement homes, and that she is bilking old people out of their life savings in exchange for Granny diapers. Linda has never figured out that the biggest joys in life arrive when you are at your most vulnerable. She will never figure it out, does not want to figure it out. Occasionally, to succeed in a difficult world, you have to make sacrifices. Sometimes you can’t have everything you want. Times are tough. You have to project an image of success. You can’t let your guard down for a minute. You can’t get upset because your youngest child had a dilation and extraction earlier this morning, or at any rate you can’t show it. There are more important matters to attend to. Important matters that could help you earn six figures a year. Six figures a year, now that was something you could take pride in.
Holly is terrified of her.
As she hears the unpleasant sound of high heels clicking towards the door Holly briefly imagines for a moment that perhaps this won’t be entirely dreadful. When the door swings open, she realizes that it’s worse that she thought. It is clear from the moment her face emerges from behind the large oak door that Mrs. Greer has not forgotten about the vase. Under other circumstances these two women would doubtlessly have smiled at each other and pretended that they were the oldest of friends, but there isn’t time today. This is upsetting. Naturally neither one likes the other, but it’s hard to believe that things have deteriorated to the point where they can’t even indulge themselves in a little bit of superficial pleasantry.
“Hello,” Linda says. As she speaks her faces expresses her true thoughts in invisible italics. (‘Ah, it is the evil girl who broke my vase.’)
“Hello,” Holly responds with an apologetic look that serves much the same function. (‘Yes, I am the vase breaker.’)
“Jane said you’d be here around one-thirty.” (‘I don’t like that you broke my vase.’)
“I’m sorry, we had a little trouble finding our way.” (‘I didn’t do it on purpose. I’m really sorry.’)
“Which exit did you get off at?” (‘I really loved that vase, you know.’)
“You know, I’m not sure. We had directions. I left them in the car.” (‘I said I was sorry.’)
Linda looks down at Holly shoes. She judges people by appearances and women in particular by the appearance of their feet. Holly is wearing bright red patent leather Mary Jane’s. They are the least professional shoes that Linda has ever seen. They are the shoes of an amateur, a vase breaker, an interloper, a woman who will never sell Granny diapers at any price. They are the shoes of a woman whose life will never revolve around six figures a year. It’s easy to look at the shoes and judge. It eases the pain of the fact that Linda Greer will never be able to buy anything that her daughter finds as precious as Holly Flanagan’s love.
Holly and Jane met at the ubiquitous job leading groups of European tourists through the Isabella Gardner Museum. At least it seemed ubiquitous. Every girl in the art department seemed to have done it at point or another. Jane had been better at it then Holly. Jane had a zeal for the history and the architecture and the vision of Isabella Gardner. Holly was merely trying to graduate without needing to visit a credit counselor. It didn’t matter. The European tourist seemed to be only interested in two things: Hearing the story of how several Rembrandts had been stolen from the museum and staring at Holly’s large, buoyant breasts.
Jane’s two semesters of additional education and vast knowledge of useless information had led her naturally into the role of mother hen. She showed Holly the secrets of the museum and talked to her about relationships and school. They had gone away on vacation together to the summer house that Holly’s mother had inherited from her grandfather. Holly had been living in the dorms and had needed to move. Jane had an extra bedroom. It all seemed so perfectly natural, in that way that things do when you’re young and unaware.
They had lived together for six months, which for Jane had been a record. Holly hadn’t known that at the time. She found that out later, after she moved in, after she started taking care of all of Jane’s mistakes, long after their roles had been reversed. She finally moved out after Jane’s boyfriend Craig said a few things that Holly would rather not remember. And it must also be said, after Jane’s boyfriend had introduced Holly to Jonathan Jackson Hunter.
If there was anything that Jane would never forgive herself for, it was for letting Craig invite Jack to that party that she and Craig had thrown at the art gallery on campus. It was something that seemed so innocuous at the time. Jack was an old friend of Craig’s. He’d given Craig a call and Craig had wanted to invite him. It wasn’t the sort of thing that would end up changing someone’s life for goodness sake. She hadn’t really thought that he would come and when he had she didn’t really know what to make of him. He was a writer like Craig, although any similarity between the two of them ended there. He was handsome, but not in any way that you might expect. His nose was too small and his teeth were too big, but there was something sad and heroic about his eyes. He was skinny, with long legs and big feet. His eyes were dark blue and his hands looked like they’d been to hell and back. It looked like there was a long story explaining how he ended up being there. There was.
Jane would eventually tell Craig that she knew Jack was going to marry Holly from the moment that she first saw them together. Of course Craig didn’t believe her, since Jane was always claiming that she knew things like that. The only the thing was, this time she really had known. She had known roughly twenty minutes after Jack had shown up for the party that Holly was going to marry him. Worse yet, she couldn’t explain how she knew about the whole thing. It wasn’t like he was wearing a t-shirt or a button that said ‘desperate for love’ on it. You could just tell. She knew. She knew and she hated him for it. She had gotten into a fight with Craig that night, which had ended up making it worse. Holly and Jack had left together, and they’d been leaving Jane behind ever since.
But that is in the past. It’s all forgotten now. It’s time to move on with life. You just don’t remember how.
The bed stirs. Jane hears the footsteps coming up the stairs. She tries to prepare herself. The words ‘don’t cry’ float in and out of the back of her mind. She sits up. She looks down at the silk pink pajamas that her mother bought three Christmases ago. They are now starting to come apart at the seam in several places. ‘I hope he doesn’t come in the room.’ She thinks. ‘I don’t want him to see me looking like this.’
The door swings open. Holly and Jack walk in together. His arm is pressed gently against the small of her back. Jane sits up and smiles. She hopes that she doesn’t look pathetic.
“Hello,” Holly says brightly. (Holly is very good at sounding bright.)
“Hi.” Jane breathes in, deep breaths.
“Nice room,” Jack says. Even Jane is aware that he has no idea what to say. Holly gives Jack a look that makes it clear that she will gladly pretend she has never met him if he says anything else this odd.
“How are you?” Holly asks.
“Oh, I’m fine,” Jane says.
She is not fine. She is so far removed from this state that she does not even really know what fine is. It sounds like a strange brand of red wine that she might have tried in an Italian restaurant once. “I got back a couple of hours ago. I’ve been sleeping since then.”
Jane feels the need to change the subject quickly, and grasps onto the first object readily available, Holly’s engagement ring. “Let me see,” she says with a big, fraudulent smile. Holly holds out her bejeweled hand and returns Jane’s fake smile with a real one.
“It’s lovely,” Jane says. She speaks so convincingly that she makes herself wonder if it’s actually true. “Have you set a date yet?”
“Not a date, no,” Holly sounds as chipper as a canary. “But I definitely want to get married in the fall. I think either late October or early November when the leaves are turning colors. I’d like the bridesmaids to be wearing red, but not a traditional red, a brownish-red like the leaves on the trees.”
“What about the flowers?’ Jane asks
“I’m thinking of hydrangeas and white roses, at least for the bouquet. I’m going to let my mother pick out the ones for the church. On the tables I’d like potted plants, but I’m not sure what kind exactly.”
“Ivy, maybe?” Jane suggests.
“Ooh, ivy would be nice.”
The women find it easy to fall into the detailed language of pre-marital chit-chat. They have been having conversations like this since long before they met each other, since they were little girls whose idea of a wild night was an ice cream and a sleep-over. Men are not part of this world, and Jack is quickly distracted. His attention wanders. His eyes wander around the room. He can see that this was once a little girl’s room. There is white, plush wall-to-wall carpet. The walls are painted pink. The bookshelf contains a large collection of novels by L. Frank Baum. These are relics from long ago. The room is dusty and the ceiling is covered with cobwebs. Nobody has inhabited this room in a long time. Jane glances at him and tries to cover her feelings of hate. She immediately feels guilty.
‘Why am I doing this?’ Jane thinks. ‘There must be an easier way. I’ll pretend I’m not here. I love Holly, I love her so much. Why can’t I just be happy for her? Why did Craig have to invite Jack to that party? Why can’t we all be back in college, sitting in my old apartment, smoking pot and watching cartoons in the middle of the night?’
Holly chatters away about her wedding with such speed and veracity that it would be impossible to follow her, even if anybody were trying. She has been talking for a full five minutes when Jane comes to a realization: ‘She hasn’t asked me to be a bridesmaid. If she were going to do it she would have done it already. Who else could she ask? Her sisters I suppose. Her older sister could be the maid of honor and her younger sister could be the flower girl. Who else could be a bridesmaid?’ Jane didn’t know.
“Well Craig and I will be happy to come, of course,” Jane says, almost tactlessly. Holly looks at her future husband and smiles. ‘We cannot tell her,’ she thinks ‘I hope you understand the look on my face. We cannot tell her, not even a hint. As far as we know, Craig is loving, faithful, kind, considerate, sensitive, handsome, well-hung and in possession of a promising future. As far as she’s concerned, he’s never even looked at another woman. He’s going to be the next ambassador to England, for all we know. Not a word, do you understand?’
Jack looks at her. He understands.
“Craig called me before work today,” Jane bursts out, without any real thought to which to connect that fact. “Do you know how hard that is for him?” No one answers her question, but presumably they know. “He called me before work to wish me well. I was on my way out the door so I couldn’t talk, but I told him that I loved him and he said he would call me later on. He called me before work. I couldn’t believe it. I wish he could have been here, but he couldn’t get the time off from his job. His boss is a real bastard.”
The conversation has come to a dead stop like a white Toyota crashing into a tree.
“It was a nice place, very comfortable and homelike,” Jane says, her voice drained of all energy. There is no need to explain what place she means. “It didn’t remind me of a hospital. It was more like going to the home of some nice aunt whose name you know but who hasn’t seen you since you were a kid. Everybody was very nice and warm and talked to me like I was two years old. They did a standard an ultrasound first, where they took a look at the fetus. Apparently I was about ten weeks pregnant. I tried not to look. Then they gave me lots of pills and they took me into another room for the D and E. That’s the dilation and extraction.”
“How did that go?” Much to Holly’s surprise these words are spoken by Jack. Surely she would have said the same thing in another moment or two.
“It was fine,” Jane says, pretending not to notice the source of the inquiry. “They gave me a local anesthetic in my cervix and then scraped the walls of my uterus using this thing that looked like a vacuum cleaner. The whole thing took three or four minutes at the most. I’ve been talking about it longer than the whole thing took. Afterwards my mother came into the room. They gave me birth controls pills and told me that everything was fine. I got dressed again and we talked about some of the side effects of the procedure. Then I came home and I’ve been sleeping ever since. I have a counseling session I’m supposed to go to the day after tomorrow and I’ve got some pills to take, but that’s pretty much it.”
Jane pauses. Holly doesn’t know what to say, but sits down on the bed next to her friend.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Jane speaks after a pause in the conversation so long that Jack contemplates jumping out of a window. “I thought.” She stops, unsure of what to say next. “I guess I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t think it would hurt or anything but I was pretty sure that it would be bad. I thought it would be like the worst day of your entire life, like pouring rain or being hit by a car or breaking up with Craig. All the bad things in your life rolled into one. I was surprised. Having an abortion is not as bad as I expected. You just have to try and keep from feeling ashamed.”
Holly reaches out instinctively toward her friend, but she can find nothing concrete to grab onto. She squeezes an amorphous lump buried beneath the white down comforter. She is not sure if it’s a hand or a thigh or a hip. She realizes for the first time that Jane is part of the past and that they are moving further and further apart. Soon an Šon will separate her from the Isabella Gardner Museum and the little apartment that they shared and the city and everything that she holds dear. She looks over at her fiancée. She will have to hold onto him as tightly as she can.
“Well, what exactly do you feel like doing?” Holly asks. She is hoping that focusing on the pragmatic details of the afternoon will close the gap between her and her friend. “We’re staying at my mother’s place in western Massachusetts tonight and poor Jack is going to have to sleep on the couch. We’re not looking forward to it is my point. We don’t have to be there at a specific hour. My mother would be just as happy if we showed up late. Can we take you out somewhere? Would you like to go out and eat?”
“I would love to go out and eat,” Jane thinks, and then she finds herself saying it out loud. “I would love to go out. Could you give me a few minutes to get ready?”
Holly feels a slight pain of concern, but considers the position that her friend is in. She knows Jane’s feelings about the woman downstairs, knows that Jane would rather be anywhere other than here. “Are you sure?” She asks, very politely. “Are you sure you’re all right? “We really don’t have to go anywhere. I just want to see you.”
Jane feels a sharp pain in her abdomen and stifles a shudder. As a matter of fact, she is not sure. In fact, she is almost entirely positive that the complete opposite is true. It isn’t all right to go out, she should stay home. She should wait until she feels better before going and doing something more active, but there isn’t time now. ‘Surely the people at the clinic would understand that wouldn’t they? Aren’t some things self-explanatory? Isn’t the fact that life is short and we all have to make sacrifices one of those great universal truths that defy explanation? I didn’t have to tell them that war is bad, that wood floats, or that the world is a good place in spite of all the bad people in it? Why should I have to explain that I feel the need to go out with Holly Flanagan and look pretty tonight of all nights?’
“Let me take a shower,” Jane says, more confidently this time. With some difficulty she sits up. “Maybe you can help me pick out something to wear.”
Pretend that you’re a ship, sailing on the sea. Pretend that you’re a thousand things but always come back to me.
Jack knows a cue when he hears it. Without another word he slowly drifts into the hall and then down the stairs and back into the antiseptic living room where he and Holly had come in. It is a space designed to impress without actually being impressive. The furniture is brown leather and the walls are white. There are some bookshelves of mission-style design and a rich mahogany coffee table. There are some paintings that look like they were bought from a county art fair. There is nothing personal, nothing esoteric. There are no chances taken here. You could sit in this room for hours and never find anything to do. Jack squats on the front of a leather chair like a basketball coach. He hopes he will not be sitting in this room for hours. He knows how long it can take two girls to get ready.
“Can I get you something?” a cold voice behind him asks.
Linda is drawn to Jack’s presence in her living room like a cockroach to bacon grease. Although he doesn’t know it, Jack’s appearance in Linda’s house comes as a harbinger of the dark future that Linda has always imagined lay on her daughter’s horizon. He is antithetical to everything that she holds dear. Worse yet, the chaos in his soul makes it impossible for him to play by the rules of Linda’s polite society. He is perceptive enough to recognize all of the hidden messages that Linda places in everything she says, but wise enough to ignore them. He is Craig’s friend. This is an explosive situation.
“I’m fine,” Jack says. He speaks without smiling and looks tired. The trip has left him feeling a little worn out.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like something to drink?” Linda asks. (‘Strychnine? Arsenic? I can get you anything, it’s no trouble.’)
“I’d like a cup of coffee if you have it,” Jack says, more politely this time.
Jack stands up and follows Linda out of the living room. The kitchen is surprisingly small for such a large home. There is barely enough room to stand in here. Looking at the architecture it isn’t clear why. There is no cosmic reason why a forty-two hundred square foot home needs a kitchen the size of a welcome mat. Maybe it’s because like Linda the architect of the house put a low premium on taking care of people. Jack wonders how you would cook thanksgiving dinner in this room.
Linda lives on caffeine. The coffeepot is already full. Linda points out where the mugs are located and offers him cream and sugar, although he accepts neither. The coffee is still warm but not hot. Jack takes a sip. He is pleased to discover that it isn’t poisoned. It cheers him up immensely.
“I was talking to Janey earlier,” Linda says casually, although the subject is not casual at all. “She said you were an old friend of Craig’s.”
“I was,” Jack admits. “I met him my on first day of college.”
Linda lowers her voice to a whisper. “Did he always have that – that spider hair?”
There is no need for Linda to silently send invisible messages this time. There isn’t even a need to whisper, since Jane can’t possibly hear what they are saying at this distance. Still, saying what she actually means goes against every fiber of Linda’s being. She feels very nervous.
“Yes,” Jack says, speaking at a volume just loud enough to make Linda itch. “He still had the spider hair, and the pants, too.”
“He came for Christmas one time,” Linda says, still whispering. “He brought a bag of laundry the size of a small cow.”
“Fifteen different versions of the same outfit no doubt,” Jack says agreeably.
“I know Janey likes him but,” Linda pauses briefly here, wondering whether or not to completely indulge her nature. “I just can’t imagine being friends with someone like that.”
“He had the hair and the pants even back then, when I first met him.” Jack says nostalgically. “He was just as little and mean and weird then as he is now. I met him in a dining hall. He’d just cornered some pretty young girl and was explaining in this very calm, rational voice why the world is a bad place and how he hated everyone in it. I think that he thought it was some kind of pick up line.”
“He did seem very negative when he was here,” Linda agrees.
“You wouldn’t think it would be easy to be friends with someone like that,” Jack agrees. “But it really was. He made it easy. He was clever and funny and charming in his own way. Most people just never bothered to look past his bizarre appearance.”
“I guess you’re right.” Linda doesn’t believe this at all. (‘You’re wrong. I knew he was bad from the moment I first saw him. Nothing good ever comes out of someone like that. Do you think he was ever going to take care of my Janey?) Linda feels an odd sensation in her stomach. She suspects it is maternal instinct.
“He wasn’t the first friend I ever had, or the best. He was just my best friend in college, with everything that implies. We were roommates for a long time and we were in a lot of the same classes, but it was more than that.” Jack pauses, trying to find the right words. “He was my partner,” he says. “At any rate, that was how I thought of him. We were partners. We were both writers and we were both after the same things. It was us against the world. He was the one person I thought that I could always count on.”
He looks straight into Linda’s eyes, and she turns away from him. She seems very small, not physically but emotionally, as if she never has any feelings more dramatic than wondering what she should have for breakfast. He feels sorry for her.
Jack takes a sip of coffee. Linda doesn’t really know what to say. She is just about to find a way to make a graceful exit when Jack decides that he has one more thing to add.
“I’m sorry that your daughter ever had to meet him,” he says quietly.
There are no endings in real life. There are no long goodbyes. There are moments when the whole world laughs and moments when you cry.
“Do you like the skirt?” Jane asks.
Jane is wearing a short plaid skirt with pleats, very fashionable in 1993. Jane doesn’t quite have the body to pull off wearing it, but Holly doesn’t see the point in saying so. “It’s cute,” she says enthusiastically. “You should wear it with your red heels.”
“I should, shouldn’t I?” Jane agrees. “What color lipstick should I wear, a magenta color, or a brighter red?”
“Brighter red,” Holly says.
Referring to this process as ‘getting ready’ is a tad disingenuous. For Jane and Holly it is a means to an end. They could go on like this for hours. Holly and Jane are an estrogen hurricane. They are a flurry of lipsticks and eyeliner and hairstyles. They talk in high-pitched, speedy voices, unashamed of their excitement and delighted to be able to focus on something else. The conversation is moving so quickly that it would make the penises of grown men slide back into their bodies like so many frightened turtles. For one brief, glorious hour they are back in Boston again, dressing up to go out on a Friday night.
Holly is delighted to see Jane so happy, but she remains distracted. Her mind is a rush of hypotheticals. ‘Would it be better if I change my clothes? Would it look too gaudy if I wear my magenta lipstick? Will Jane want to wear that black, see-through cardigan? Is Jack going to be bored out of his mind? Would it have been better if I had said something else? What do you after an abortion on a Friday night? What are the rules of etiquette for a situation like this?’
You go out for Mexican food, it turns out, and everybody pretends that this is just another meeting between old friends and that there is nothing strange about the circumstances surrounding this little party. Nobody mentions the likelihood that there is very little chance of all three of you meeting again in 1994. 1994 will be a whole new year, when different friendships and priorities will seem important.
As a matter of principle Jane Greer hates all of the restaurants in her home town, but after due consideration she recommends a place that she knows her father likes. It is a nice family restaurant where country music plays on the radio, where insurance salesmen take their wives out on a Saturday night and where waitresses are forced to wear bad polyester uniforms with little Tex-Mex designs on the front and buttons promoting cheap margaritas. Jane says the food reminds her of The Border Café back in Harvard Square, but this is really just an excuse to remind Holly of the bond between the two of them. Holly and Jane order a pitcher of Sangria. The conversation during dinner is pleasantly trivial – interesting enough to keep them entertained without requiring an excessive amount of energy from anyone involved. The women talk about everything and nothing, sliding over the details of Holly’s wedding in myopic detail. Jack mostly listens. He is learning the art of being a good husband. They sit there talking for quite a while. At Holly’s insistence Jack leaves the waitress a big tip. Before Jane realizes it they are climbing back into the white Toyota to take her home.
Walking back up the steps of Jane Greer’s house, Jack finds himself compelled to look at his watch. It is seven forty-five. Holly and Jack have a long drive ahead of them. Unlike Holly, Jack is aware of how long these trips can take. He knows that it is unlikely that they’ll make it to Holly’s mother’s place before eleven. He can stand the drive, but he is worried that if this visit goes on for too long, he’ll end up on the road until midnight or one a.m. He doesn’t want to drive when he’s too tired. He needs to find a way of reminding Holly that they need to wrap up this visit.
Holly doesn’t need reminding. As they sit in the living room of Jane’s enormous house, she can feel the conversation winding down. They could pore over the details of her wedding until the end of time, but it’s clearly boring Jack and it doesn’t seem to be exciting Jane in the way that she had hoped. They could talk about old times, except that would involve talking about Craig. They could go see a movie. Is that why she came so far to see her friend? Holly doesn’t think so. Jack’s watch says eight o’clock when Holly says the words.
“I guess we’d better go soon.”
Jack nods. “It’s a pretty long drive. Not as far as we came today, but it’s still far.”
“I wish you didn’t have to go,” Jane says with an overdeveloped mock whine.
“I know. My mom is expecting us,” Holly rolls her eyes at the very idea of her mother. “You know my mom, she’d be furious if we didn’t show. She’d probably call the state police. I don’t know why.”
“Are you ready to go?” Jack asks.
Holly nods. “Can I use your bathroom?” Jane says “sure” and Holly heads upstairs.
With Holly gone, the room is as silent as Jane’s empty womb. Jane is aware of this, and would like to avoid making these last few moments unpleasant if at all possible. “Well, Craig and I will be looking forward to seeing you when I get back to Boston,” Jane says as a way of filling the void in the conversation again.
‘Craig and I,’ Jack thinks. ‘There’s that phrase again.’ The awful truth flashes through his mind. He hasn’t forgotten the look that Holly gave him earlier. He knows that she doesn’t approve of what he’s about to say, but he feels as though there isn’t any alternative. “Jane I need to tell you something,” Jack says. “Something about Craig.”
Jane looks at Jack, who has a serious look on his face. “I know what you’re going to say. Holly already told me. She told me that you talked to Craig and that he said something about another girl. I know all about it. You must have misinterpreted what he said. I know Craig, he flirts with other girls sometimes, but he would never really do anything.”
“No Jane, I saw them together. I told Holly that I had talked to him on the phone because I didn’t want her to get upset that I’d seen Craig, but that isn’t the truth. I went by his apartment the other day and I saw the two of them together. When he came to the door he had a towel wrapped around his legs. I’d never seen him like that. She was sitting on the couch watching a movie. She was wearing a pair of boxer shorts and a t-shirt.”
“Oh,” Jane tries to act like this is a trivial misunderstanding they are clearing up, but it’s clear that her heart is breaking. “I didn’t know that. I thought that you just spoke to him and misunderstood.”
Neither one of them knows what to say. There are million questions that Jane would like to ask, but none that she feels comfortable saying out loud.
“While I was there she made herself a sandwich,” Jack says. He says the word sandwich as though it were a bizarre curiosity. “I remember she asked, ‘Where’s the turkey?’ I thought that was odd. She didn’t ask if he had anything to eat. She just asked where the turkey was, as if he’d put it back in the wrong place and she wanted to remind him.”
Jane shifts uncomfortably in her seat. She looks away from him. She can’t stand to look at him. It doesn’t seem fair that he is the one to tell her this. “How long do you think they’ve been together?”
Jack thinks about this. “I think he’s been seeing her for a couple of months. I think that’s why he couldn’t be with you here today, because he didn’t want her to find out that you were having an abortion.”
Jane is shocked and doesn’t speak. She feels like someone has just dropped a bowling ball on her chest.
Jack continues without provocation. “Judging by the way he acted I think he thought I already knew. At any rate he didn’t care that I’d found out. He didn’t explain himself or anything. He kept trying to talk to me about how his job was going, as if I catch him sleeping with other women all of the time and that this sort of thing was normal. I didn’t want to listen to him and ended up leaving almost as soon as I got there.”
Jane’s eyes lose their focus. She feels tired. “I never knew,” she admits.
“I wouldn’t have known either,” Jack’s voice is very even. He speaks in the flat tones of a man who has been defeated, although Jane isn’t quite sure why. “I want you to know that I’m not speaking to him anymore. Holly told me before how much she didn’t like him and I should have listened. He was my friend for a long time, but that’s over now. Holly didn’t want me to talk to you about this. She doesn’t want you to get hurt. I wanted to tell you because it was the only way that I could explain how sorry I am.”
Jane nods her head. She is aware that there isn’t much time. Holly will be back in a few seconds, and as bad as this is, talking about her boyfriend’s infidelities openly in front of a group of people would be infinitely worse. “What did she look like?” she asks.
Jack tries to pick his words carefully, but realizes it’s a futile effort. No matter what he says it’s going to sting. “She looked new,” he says truthfully. “She looked different.”
“How did he look?” Jane asks.
“Smug,” Jack admits.
Holly returns from the bathroom. She is ready to leave.
“Ready?” Jack asks. Holly nods and smiles.
The goodbyes are long and heartfelt. Holly and Jane’s passion for talking is renewed, and Holly and Jack stand in the doorway for what feels like an eternity. Jack finally gives Holly’s arm a gentle tug, and Holly realizes that the end has come.
“Goodbye,” Holly says, giving her friend a hug. “I’m sure we’ll see you soon.”
“I’m sure,” Jane agrees. She realizes that this is a lie and that there is very little point in concealing the truth. Still, what other choice does she have? “Good luck,” she says, doing her best to mean it. “Have a safe trip.”
From the living room Jane watches the white Toyota. She can hear Linda in the house. She knows that her father has gone out for drinks after work but will be home soon. She doesn’t know how she will tell them what she’s just found out. She will have to tell them that she isn’t going back to Boston and that her whole life is now in turmoil. She doesn’t know how she will do this. She will find a way. Her mother won’t take the news well, but that’s no surprise. ‘How did this happen?’ she wonders to herself. ‘How did I end up being such a mess?’
Holly and Jack get back into the car. The white Toyota starts up and pulls out of the driveway. Holly sits in the passenger’s seat with her head down and her eyes closed, ignoring the situation. She will be asleep before they’ve gotten more than twenty minutes away, and will be amazed when they show up at her mother’s door. Pulling up to a stop sign, Jack makes himself comfortable in the driver’s seat. ‘I bet we can be there in three hours,’ he thinks to himself. ‘Three hours isn’t so bad. That means we’ll be there by eleven, that’s plenty of time.’
David McLain contiues to write in obscurity in Western Massachusetts. His stories have been published in The Purchase College Load, The Muse Apprentice Guild and the Gator Springs Gazette.