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Grace Growsby Shelle Sumners
GRACE GROWS (Chapter 1)
day zero: my unravelment begins
(unravelment: is that a word?)
The first time I met Tyler Wilkie, I was dressed like a call girl.
By pure, titillating coincidence, my strategy for work that day was cleavage. The big guns. Or, in my case, the medium, B-verging-on-C ones. Because yesterday, having dressed like a Mennonite librarian for our meeting with the textbook lobbyists from Texas, I'd sat there mute and limp while imagination was besieged by the powers of ignorance.
Forbes and Delilah Webber loved my blouse with the Peter Pan collar. Delilah called me "the sweetest little thing" and "precious." They promised to recommend our middle school Teen Health textbook for statewide adoption if we agreed to:
a) Remove all information regarding condoms.
b) Change the word imagine to suppose. Imagine being "too like the word magic--it might upset some people."
They also asked us to get them orchestra seats to The Lion King.
After the meeting, I begged my boss to refuse the Webbers. My traitorous coeditor Edward, who happens to be from Texas, capitulated and offered to do the edits, reminding me that we "don't mess with Texas" and its four-hundred-million-dollar book-buying budget.
We were meeting with the Webbers again today, to show them the changes. I didn't know what I could do to stop the anti-imagine machine. I had tried to come up with a plan all the sleepless night, and I had nothing. This ship was going to sink, but I decided that I, their "sweetest little thing," could at least try to look taller going down. I could project confidence and strength. Defiance. Sex. A tall, cruel, European dominatrix vibe.
It was so not me.
I donned the black pin-striped suit my mother gave me for Christmas two years ago, which I have worn exactly once. To a funeral. Only I hiked the skirt up a couple inches and wore my push-up bra. Found an ancient pair of stockings in the back of my drawer. Then I squeezed into the black, four-inch-stiletto-heeled, pointy-toed shoes I bought on sale at Lord & Taylor to go with the suit. I pulled my hair into a low, severe knot, and put on mascara and lipstick. Red.
I pulled on my raincoat and grabbed an umbrella, my laptop, and the twenty-pound green leather shoulder bag that contained All I Might Conceivably Need, which might include (but was not limited to):
big hair clip
book (Lolita, it happened)
bottle of water
bag of raw cashews
70% dark chocolate bar
red cardigan sweater
tacky vinyl zipper bag with photo of fuzzy kitten on it, stocked with:
small tube of antibiotic ointment
antihistamine and antidiarrheal tablets
Tylenol with caffeine
Tylenol with codeine
water lily oil
travel-size Shower Fresh Secret
tea light and matches
tiny fold-up scissors with needle and black thread
ginger tea bags
pocket copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, for grammatical emergencies (memorized, but sometimes a tired mind becomes uncertain)
Oh, and one more thing: the silver pocket angel Edward gave me, wedged deep into a rip in the lining of the bag.
Thus aggressively attired and equipped for any eventuality, I headed down the three flights of stairs to the lobby.
Big dogs, barking.
I came around the last bend in the stairwell and saw them--our across-the-hall-neighbor Sylvia's prize-winning giant schnauzers--tugging at a guy who sat at the bottom of the steps with their sparkly leashes wrapped around his hand. He heard me coming and moved to one side, murmuring "sorry," as I stepped carefully around him.
When I reached the door, God help me, I looked back. Might as well have gone ahead and turned to salt.
He was rubbing his face.
"Everything okay?" I chirped, willing him to say yes so I could go. The dogs shifted their Batman-like ears toward me.
"Uh, not really. She left me a note." He spoke with a slightly countryish kind of drawl that reminded me, unpleasantly, of the Webbers. "Blitzen and uh...Bismarck here have just been groomed for a show and I'm not supposed to get their feet wet."
Clearly Sylvia was even more insane than I had suspected. And the guy looked pathetically bleak.
"Hold on," I said, and went back upstairs. I grabbed a cheap umbrella from the pile of extras in our hall closet and a box of zipper bags from the kitchen, and rooted around in our junk drawer until I came up with an assortment of rubber bands and a roll of masking tape.
I tiptoed back downstairs (the shoes), sat next to the guy, and bagged one of Blitzen's meticulously pedicured paws while she tickled my neck with her beard.
Once I had just about successfully finished the first foot, I looked to see if the guy was watching and learning.
He lifted his eyes from my chest and said, "Oh hey, thanks!" He grabbed a bag and got busy on Bismarck.
It took the two of us about six minutes to double-bag all eight paws. Then I lurched back up en pointe, belted my raincoat firmly across my waist, and picked up my laptop bag. The guy stood too, handed me Big Green, and startled me with a smile that was blindingly sweet. I blinked and lost my grip on the strap, but he caught it and resettled the purse firmly on my shoulder.
"Thanks, you really saved me," he said.
I held out the umbrella. "Here, take this. I think the rain's just about stopped for now, but you might need it later."
He smiled the smile again and tucked the umbrella in the pocket of his army/navy outerwear.
"I'll bring it back to you," he said. "What's your apartment number?"
I waved a hand. "Don't worry about it."
He took up the dogs' leashes and pushed the door open for me. Blitzen and Bismarck pulled him toward the park and I tippy-toed double time in the other direction, toward the subway.
"Hey!" I heard him call out.
I turned around. He was at the other end of the block. He mouthed the words thank you.
I smiled and shrugged. No big deal.
day zero continues
and I encounter my doom, again
Damn. The Webbers canceled the meeting so they could go on a Hudson River breakfast cruise. They promised their approval over the phone, and I had dressed like one of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video girls for absolutely no reason.
Ed came out of his office and saw me limping down the hallway. The shoes were killing me. "Oh, the fashion fuck-you!" he said. "Too bad they canceled, it almost works."
"What's wrong with it?" I asked.
"You're about a foot too short. Not even a little intimidating."
"Your blacks don't match. The suit is blue-black and the stockings are green-black."
"And I can see the lines of your granny panties."
"And they shouldn't be there." He patted my shoulder. "Grace, stick to your strengths."
I was still mad several hours later when Edward and I went out for dinner at Herman's Piano Bar. It was our Tuesday thing. My friend Peg would join us when she wasn't working on a show, but now she was assistant stage manager of the new Broadway musical Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, with Antonio Banderas reprising his movie role. It was a big hit, so Peg wouldn't be with us at Herman's for a while.
I dragged a large fragment of greasy onion ring through the puddle of ranch dressing and ketchup on my plate. "So what is wrong with you Texas people, anyway?"
He looked at me darkly. "Are you associating me with those yahoos?"
"You're from Houston. So are they."
"And am I like them?"
No. He wasn't, at all. It gave me hope that there were other sane Texans. "Okay, I'll shut up," I said.
"Yes, I believe you will!" he pretty much shouted. The sour was kicking in.
I slid his glass away. "Eat more, drink less."
Edward barked his distinctive, walruslike bellow of a laugh, and the woman sitting on the other side of him turned around and shushed us. "We're trying to hear the singer!" she hissed.
Ed and I looked at each other. Who listens to the singer?
Apparently everyone. The room had actually gotten quiet; hardly anyone was talking.
The voice...how to describe it? Piercingly soulful might be a start. He was singing a ballad I'd never heard before, and the words--something about trying to find home--combined with the quality of his voice, put a knot in my stomach. But not necessarily in a bad way. More in a Jesus Christ, who is that making me feel this way? way.
I stood on the rungs of my barstool and balanced against Ed's shoulder so I could get a look at the singer. He was hunched over the keyboard, mouth on the microphone, eyes closed, moving his body the same sinuous way his voice was moving--all over the place, but never out of control.
He finished the song and people clapped. A lot. And said woo-hoo! And whistled. He looked out at us all, a little surprised, it seemed. People quieted down and he launched into another song.
Ed looked at me. "He's amazing."
"I know that guy!" I said, not quite believing it myself.
He wasn't wearing the knit cap, and he had a terrible haircut--too short and choppy--but it was definitely him.
The dog walker.
He finished his allotted second song and I watched him squeeze through the crowd. He stopped a few times to shake an offered hand or listen attentively to a comment, but finally made it to the end of the bar, several people down from me. The next performer was up and talking into the mic, so the bartender had to speak loudly while he was pulling the guy a beer.
Bartender: You wrote those songs, man?
Dog Walker: Yeah.
Bartender: Awesome. You have more?
Dog Walker: Lots more.
The bartender leaned in closer to say something else and I lost the thread. I waited till they finished talking and told Edward I'd be back in a minute.
On approach, I studied him more closely than I had this morning. He was pale, rather gawky, all Adam's apple and bad haircut. A kid, really.
I reached up and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned.
"Hi," I said.
"Hey!" he said. "It's you!"
He gave me that radiant smile and the gawk factor inexplicably transferred from him to me. Suddenly he was grace, and I wasn't.
"You're shorter than this morning," he said.
"Oh, yes." My face was getting warm. Annoying! "I had on those tall shoes."
"Yeah, they were pointy."
"Yes, I was trying to--well, I don't usually dress like that."
He nodded. "It looked hot, but painful."
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Tyler Wilkie." He definitely had a drawl. "What's yours?"
He lit up. "Like the circus?"
We looked at each other and it occurred to me that he was autumn-colored. Auburn hair. Hazel eyes. He tilted his head and the corner of his mouth turned up, and I became aware that it was time to go. Edward had a late date and would want to leave. And Steven, my boyfriend, was probably home from work by now.
"Nice to meet you again, Tyler. I liked your singing."
"Thank you, Grace," he said courteously.
I turned to leave, but he tugged on my sleeve. "Your eyes are this color."
I glanced down at my sweater. Yes, pretty close. Bluish gray.
"And your face is shaped like a heart," he added.
How charmingly random! "Oh, is it?"
"Yeah. I noticed it this morning." His finger traced the air, following the curve of my cheek.
"Well, I really have to go now."
He shoved his hands into his pockets. "Okay, Grace Barnum. See ya."
I huddled under Ed's arm as we headed down Columbus. The temperature must have dropped ten degrees since the morning.
"I don't feel good about the health book, Ed. What if we were teenagers in Texas?"
"And how did you learn about condoms?"
Ed shrugged. "Word of mouth?"
"It just doesn't make any sense. They don't want people to have abortions, but they don't want them to learn how to prevent pregnancy!"
"Baby girl, it drives me right up the wall too."
"And imagine! I mean...imagine? How can we participate in this travesty?"
"I hear you."
"And Bill. What is it with him? He's so deadpan. Doesn't he feel?"
"He's just doing his job."
"If you're not careful with Bill he'll transfer you to the New Jersey office. And I would miss you."
I sighed. "It doesn't feel good, Ed."
"Listen. It would be nice to try to save the children, but first we have to put the oxygen mask on ourselves."
"You know, when you're on a plane and they give you those instructions--"
"Boy, you are really bugging me."
"It's just a fact, Grace. We can't fix everything."
His complacency was driving me crazy. But Edward grew up a gay black kid in Texas in the late seventies, and probably had a lifetime of sublimating injustices and sad things he couldn't change. You'd think I'd be that way, too, from some of the hard stuff in my childhood. But I grew up watching my mother forge platinum out of rust. It was going to take me a while to accept this imagine thing.
We said good-bye at the corner of Seventy-ninth and Columbus.
I turned around. It was Tyler Wilkie, half a block behind me. I waited till he caught up.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey." He was wearing his fatigue jacket and knit cap, and had a canvas guitar case strapped to his back. "Are you headed home?"
"You shouldn't go alone," he said. "I'll walk you."
"Thank you, but that's really not necessary," I said.
"I'm going this way anyway."
I shrugged and started walking.
He caught up. I looked at him sideways. "You play the guitar, too?"
"Yeah. Mostly guitar. I play piano if they have one."
I could see our breath. I wound my wool scarf around my neck an extra rotation and pulled it up over my ears. "Are you from Texas?"
He laughed. "No!"
"The Poconos. Monroe County. Why?"
"You just sound kind of...Southern, or countryish, or something."
"Maybe you're mixing up small-town Pennsylvania with Southern."
"Yeah, I guess so. And now you live in the city?"
"Yes, ma'am, for six whole days." I looked up at him, probably kind of sharply, and he smiled. "You're by far the nicest person I've met."
I laughed. "Six days? Are you serious?"
"Why'd you come?"
"To see if I can get people to listen to my music. Maybe get some paying gigs." He looked at me. "How long do you think I should give it?"
"Gosh, I have no idea...." How old could he be? Nineteen? "Maybe you should go to college first."
"I tried that already."
"Oh? Where'd you go?"
"Community college. For a year. I didn't like it."
"Well...maybe it just wasn't the right school?"
He shook his head. "School's not for me. Not now, anyway."
The light changed as we came to the corner of Amsterdam and we crossed the street. I couldn't imagine taking such a gamble, moving to Manhattan with no education.
"Well, I hope it all works out," I said. "You're certainly very talented."
"You'll probably need to give it some time."
"I been thinking five years, and then I'll know."
"Oh, yes." I felt somewhat more cheerful for him. "And you'll still be young, you can go back to school."
"I won't be that young," he laughed. "I'm twenty-eight."
Twenty-eight? He couldn't be my age, with that boy face. "I'm the same age," I said. "For some reason, I thought you were a lot younger."
"Really?" he said. "I figured we were about the same, or maybe I was older. When's your birthday?"
Turned out he was older. By two months.
We came to Broadway and before the walk signal came on he took my hand and pulled me into the crosswalk. Halfway across we had to dash to the corner to miss being tagged by a homicidal taxi driver. It didn't bode well for Tyler Wilkie surviving five more days, let alone five years.
My building was just a couple of blocks up. "I'll be fine from here. Thank you."
"Okay," he said, blowing into his cupped hands and pulling his collar up around his ears.
"Where do you live?" I asked.
"Forty-seventh, between Ninth and Tenth."
"You can get the train right there." I pointed to the subway entrance across the street.
"Oh yeah, thanks. Well, 'bye, Grace." He leaned down. To my embarrassment I reflexively leaned away, and the kiss he must have been aiming at my cheek landed on the tip of my nose. We both laughed.
"'Bye. Thank you." I headed across Seventy-ninth.
Halfway up the block I peeked back over my shoulder. He had bypassed the subway and was walking briskly down Broadway, head down, hands tucked under his arms.
Steven was on the couch, watching The Matrix. He probably had a rough day. He rewatched The Matrix the way I rewatched Chocolat. And how about that Carrie Ann Moss!
"How long have you been home?" I asked, shedding my coat.
"A couple hours."
Steven is a big, bearlike guy, six-four. Solid. Gentle, with kind blue eyes. I sometimes jokingly called him Even Steven.
I kissed him lightly on the cheek and went to bed. I didn't want to disturb him in the middle of the "I know kung fu!" scene; it was probably recalibrating his entire outlook on life.
On Friday morning I stepped out the door directly onto something bulky lying on the doormat. My umbrella, it turned out, with a single pink gerbera daisy rubber-banded to it and a folded piece of notebook paper tucked underneath. The spelling was appalling, but the words were nice.
Here is your umbrela. You rock for letting me use it! It is great to be treated like a human being by someone in this city. I got another job besides dogwalking. Come on over to the cafe Sofiya sometime and I'll slip you a cappechino!
Tyler Graham Wilkie
I folded the letter back up, dug Lolita out of Big Green, and tucked it between the pages.
lunch with Julia
and my subsequent urge for cloistration
Once a month on a Friday my mother comes to town to buy me lunch and direct my life. She hasn't lived in the city for twenty years, so she also uses our lunch meetings as an excuse to check out new restaurants. Yesterday I received e-mail instructions to meet her at a Malaysian place in midtown, close to my work.
I am a punctual person; I always arrive on time, if not a little early. But I will never arrive earlier than Julia Barnum.
When I joined her at the table there was already a milky Thai iced tea sweating at my place setting. She stood and enveloped me in the smell of freesia and expensive hair product. She works out daily and her embrace is wiry; she has beaten me at arm wrestling twice. We sat and unfolded our napkins.
"Has something bad happened?" She anxiously pushed coppery bangs out of her face.
"No!" I said. "Why do you always ask me that?"
"You always look a little tragic when I see you. I'm starting to think I should take it personally."
Best not to overdeny. I smiled and sipped my tea. "Everything's fine."
She perused the menu. "You need to cut your hair, don't you think?"
"Yes," I agreed.
"What looks good?" she asked.
"The ginger chicken?"
"Don't you want to try something spicy? Maybe the beef in chili sauce?"
"Okay, sounds good."
"Or how about something with tofu?"
"That will be fine."
She slapped down her menu. "Stop agreeing with me!"
My mom is a county prosecutor in Trenton, New Jersey. She is crafty and convincing and inexhaustibly determined to win, and no matter what I choose from the menu, she'll try to talk me into something else just for kicks.
"Sorry," I shrugged.
She rolled her eyes and ordered for us when the waiter came.
"So, how is Steven?" She pushed her hair back again, and her silver bracelets jingled. My mother is beautiful, fifty going on thirty, always flawlessly turned out, whether dressed to prosecute, or as today, to persecute (kidding!), in jeans and sweater and boots.
"He's good. Still going to Munich and D.C. a lot."
"Well, that doesn't sound too bad. Actually, kind of perfect, don't you think?"
For my mom, men were a troubling necessity. She resented her attraction to them but was practical about it. We needed their sperm and their willingness to wet-vac a flooded basement, and they wanted things from us that we could trade for those commodities.
She radiated approval, however, when we talked about Steven. She didn't care that he was divorced and almost ten years older than me, she just loved that he was a patent attorney for a major pharmaceutical corporation. I know I'm making her sound mercenary, but this is one of the ways I know my mother loves me, her excitement over my potentially secure future.
I told her something next that I thought would really thrill her.
"How are you putting that much of your paycheck into your 401K? What about your rent?"
"Steven pays the mortgage."
"But you pay half, yes?"
"I tried at first, but he tore up my checks. He says it's not fair because it's his place, and we're not married yet, and he doesn't need my help. So I pay the utilities and buy the groceries and bank the rest."
"But you are getting married, aren't you?"
"Maybe. We're going to evaluate when we've been living together for a year."
"When will that be? Spring?"
My mom shook her head.
"What's the problem?" I asked.
"I'm trying to decide." The food came, and she picked bits of green chili out of her beef curry with the tines of her fork and piled them on the edge of the dish. "On one hand, I think it's great you have the opportunity to save, in case things don't work out with him. But decent, secure housing is the foundation of a lasting relationship. If you help pay the mortgage, he will subconsciously value you more when it comes time to consider getting married."
As usual at our monthly luncheon I was developing heartburn, and I had yet to take a bite of my chili shrimp. "Does everything have to be so calculated?"
My mom set her fork down and leaned over her plate toward me. "Grace. Do you remember your childhood?"
"I don't know if you actually do. We struggled."
"I'm just saying you should keep your eyes open and think ahead. If I had done that, things might not have been so bad for us."
"They weren't so bad, Mom."
She picked up her knife and fork and diced up a chunk of curried beef. "You're sweet."
"Mom, what's the big deal about marriage? You did it once and it sucked, right?"
"Not until the surprise ending. And you're going to be smarter about it than I was. Look at it as a business arrangement, Grace. Strategize."
She was loving me, in her way. And I felt sorry for the painful things that had hardened her. Still, I took a moment to do that thing I've done a million times since I was thirteen. I smiled and nodded at what she was saying. And silently, effusively thanked God or The Heavens or Whomever that I was not like her.
Saturday, and I was headed for the Cloisters. The gardens would be barren now, but I could be alone for a while and soak up the quiet. Gaze at the reliquaries and tapestries and recharge my tranquility battery.
Steven had been to the Cloisters with me once and considered that to have filled his medieval monastery quota for life. He liked a bit of mindlessness on the weekend and wanted to stay home and play with his Wii. I kissed him, bundled up, and walked out the door just as Tyler Wilkie was letting Blitzen and Bismarck into Sylvia's apartment.
"Hi." I smiled back.
He stood in the doorway, unleashing the hounds. "Where you going?"
He tossed the leashes inside and pulled the door closed behind him. "What's that?"
"A museum. Medieval art." We started down the stairs together.
"That sounds cool. Can I come?"
I faltered on the first landing. Could I politely say no? "Well, sure...if you want. It's kind of a ways on the train, you might have other things you need to do this afternoon--"
"I'm free all day!" He waved his hands expansively. "Not counting the dogs."
He opened the door for me downstairs and when we got out on the sidewalk he pointed at Big Green. "Do you want me to carry that for you?"
I shifted the bag to my other shoulder. "Oh, no, I'm fine, thanks."
"It looks kinda heavy."
"It's just my wallet, cell phone, keys, a book."
"Looks like you got a lot more than that in there."
"Well, also emergency snacks, things like that."
We headed down into the subway. "Emergency snacks? You can buy something to eat just about everywhere in this city."
"I like to be prepared." I knew I might sound huffy and decided to explain. "One time I was on a train that was stuck between stations for three hours. I was glad to have a protein bar with me."
"Three hours, no shit?"
I slid my MetroCard through the reader and went through the turnstile. He was still on the other side digging around in his coat pockets, so I found my backup card and held it across to him.
"Hey, thanks, I'll pay you back."
I waved a casual hand and smiled. "My treat. Welcome to New York." I tucked the card away and we headed down the platform.
We stood there awhile. He was wearing the same thing as the first day we met, a fatigue jacket and jeans and Converse sneakers and a knit hat. I saw a plaid flannel shirt peeking through the turned-up coat collar. His throat looked vulnerable in the chill. He needed a warm scarf.
He saw me looking at him and smiled that insanely appealing smile. He had such a nice face, so good-natured. Warm eyes. I couldn't help smiling back.
"You look pretty," he said.
I flailed my hands and muttered something about my beat-up old shearling jacket.
"You had all that makeup on, last time I saw you. And your hair," he picked up a strand and rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger, "I didn't realize it was so long."
Okay, so the guy was a player. I could handle it. I'd been flirted with before.
"Yeah." I pulled a band out of my pocket and whipped my hair into a ponytail. "I need to cut it."
"I just cut my hair, right before I came here."
"Cut it yourself, did you?"
"Yeah. My friend Bogue said I couldn't come to New York City looking like a freaky redneck. We were drunk and he was showing me some pictures in GQ magazine, telling me I should try to look metrosexual."
It was impossible not to laugh. "How long was it?"
He held a flat hand about an inch below his shoulder.
"That's pretty long. What'd you cut it with?" I figured a steak knife.
"My sister's fingernail scissors. It took a fuckin' long time! Especially doing the back. And then I get here and see these long-haired men, all over the place. And nobody here gives a rat's ass what your hair looks like, anyway!"
Unless it looks like a rat's ass, I thought, remembering him hatless the other night at Herman's. I smiled.
"What?" he said.
"I'm just...so happy that you have that hat."
He told me a lot more about himself during the twenty-minute train ride to Inwood. His childhood best friend/fashion adviser, Bogue (rhymes with Vogue, appropriately enough), had come with him to the city. They'd found an apartment on Craigslist--a fifth-floor walk-up that was basically a twelve-by-sixteen room. They were sharing it with a female performance artist named Rash.
"Rash?" I asked. "As in a skin problem, or imprudent?"
"Oh, yeah, foolhardy..." he mused with a little smile. He nudged my leg with his. "You know a lot of big words. What are you, an English teacher?"
"Close. I edit textbooks and reference materials."
"No shit!" He laid an arm across the back of my seat. "So there's a gigantic brain hiding behind that lovely face."
I gave him what I hoped was a rather dry look.
"What?" he laughed.
"See, the words gigantic brain pretty much destroy your intended effect. I picture nineteen-fifties sci-fi, The Woman with the Gigantic Brain. That kind of thing."
"That is definitely not what I intended," he said, pressing his leg against mine.
"I have a boyfriend."
He withdrew his arm from behind me and leaned forward, elbows on knees, clasping his hands. He looked at me sideways. "I figured. Sorry."
We were coming to our stop. He was probably regretting riding all the way up here with me now. "You don't have to come, if you don't want to. The downtown train should be here soon."
"Why wouldn't I? I want to hang with you and see the medieval art!" He seemed genuine, maybe even a little offended.
He looked duly impressed by the neo-medieval castle on the hilltop in Fort Tryon Park. Admission to the Cloisters was pay-what-you-can. I paid the full twenty dollars and saw Tyler give five dollars that he probably couldn't afford.
As we climbed the long flight of stairs to the entrance I felt a twinge of excitement. I was so used to coming here alone, but since this guy was here with me, I might as well show him some of the things I especially loved.
I led him straightaway to the Unicorn Tapestries--seven large, intricately woven wall hangings that had probably decorated someone's castle bedroom. We started at The Hunters Enter the Woods and I took him through all of them slowly, outlining the story of the capture and killing of the mythical unicorn.
He studied The Unicorn in Captivity. The gorgeous white beast is confined beneath a pomegranate tree inside a circular corral, surrounded by a millefleurs extravagance of dozens of varieties of colorful flowers and plants.
"This is my favorite tapestry," I said. "He doesn't get killed. It's like the alternate ending. Although it looks similar, they think it's probably not a part of the rest of the series."
"He seems peaceful."
"Supposedly he represents a happily captured bridegroom. See how he's chained to the tree? That's the 'chain of love.'"
He looked more closely. "Are those drops of blood?"
"Pomegranate juice. See how the fruit above him on the tree is ripe and bursting open? The drops of juice may represent fertility."
"Awesome." He grinned.
He liked the guy stuff I showed him, especially the tomb effigy of the young knight lying beneath his sword and shield. But he also looked for a long time at the sweet, sad face of the grieving mother holding the body of Christ in the small Bohemian Pietà. He was turning out to be a very gratifying museum companion.
We went out to the Bonnefont Cloister and sat on a bench near the culinary herb bed, now dry and fallow. The sky was heavy, dove-colored.
"You should see this in the summer," I said.
"My parents have a garden," he said. "A big one, behind our house."
"What do they grow?"
"Vegetables, flowers. They're out there every spring, hoeing and planting."
I was impressed. "Do they live out in the country?"
"It's all country, pretty much, where I'm from."
"That must be nice," I said, "to garden together."
"Seems to be working for them, they've been married thirty years."
"Wow, that's quite an achievement. My parents split up when I was four."
He looked at me. "Who'd you end up living with?"
"My mom. I hardly ever saw my dad. Until I got older, that is."
I shrugged. "He was an artist, wanted to devote everything to that, I guess."
"What do you mean, like a painter?"
I nodded. "He's kind of famous in the art world. Dan Barnum?" I didn't really expect him to know the name. "The Cheesecake Series?"
He stared at me blankly.
"You know, the paintings of presidents eating dessert? The one of Reagan, with strawberry sauce running down his chin?"
I could see he had no idea what I was talking about.
"So where did you and your mom live?" he asked.
"A tiny apartment in Queens, near the Steinway piano factory."
"Right. Cool. My mom had no job skills. So she waitressed and finished college and went to law school."
"She's a lawyer?"
"So you visit her, sometimes?"
"I see her pretty often."
"What about your dad?"
"Once in a while we get together."
"That's good, he stayed in touch at least." Tyler nudged me with his elbow and smiled.
"Yeah, I guess." I looked at the sky. "I think it's going to snow."
We were silent, looking upward, and he started lightly drumming two fingers on his thigh and humming under his breath. He just zoned out, staring at the sky, making quiet music. As if nothing else existed.
He resurfaced, pulling a scrap of paper out of his jacket pocket. "Do you have a pen?"
I felt around in Big Green and handed him a Bic and watched him scrawl something on the paper, fold it up, and tuck it back in his pocket. He held up the pen. "Can I keep this?"
"Sure," I said. "Compliments of Spender-Davis Education."
"What's that, your work?"
"Where is it?"
"Midtown. Avenue of the Americas."
"That's not too far from my new job. Come by sometime, eh?"
"Okay, I'll try."
He looked at me for a long moment, then softly sang a few words. About Christmas coming, and trees being cut down, and wishing he could skate away on a river.
Joni Mitchell. The saddest song, ever. I'd never been personally sung to before, let alone by someone with a voice like that. So I didn't say anything. I'm sure I looked a little dumbstruck.
"Where'd you meet your man?" he asked.
"An alumni picnic. We, uh, we went to the same school. Not at the same time."
"You live together?"
"No kidding. That's solid."
Big flakes floated down on us and I caught one on my gloved palm.
He leaned over and breathed on it. We watched it melt.
and warm vanilla
I brought Tyler home with me and found that Steven had gone out. I supposed it would be okay.
Tyler wandered around the living room looking at my books and Steven's records while I made tea. I set out cups, sugar, milk, sliced lemon, and cookies on the dining room table and invited him to sit while I went back into the kitchen for the teapot.
"You got any honey?" He helped himself to a handful of Piroulines.
"I think so." I came back to the kitchen doorway. "Would you like a sandwich? It's almost suppertime."
"Ham and cheese okay?"
I sliced the ham thick and made him two sandwiches on the crusty sourdough that Steven had made in the bread machine the night before. I brought the honey, tea, sandwiches, and a big bag of Doritos and sat with him at the table.
"Do you have a kitchen in your apartment?" I asked.
"Kitchenette," he said, around a mouthful of food. "It's gross."
"Rash is not a good housekeeper?"
"It's gross since me and Bogue got there. She threatened to kick us out. Bogue is supposed to be cleaning it up today."
"Bogue and I."
He raised an eyebrow.
"It's not 'me and Bogue,' it's 'Bogue and I.'"
"Are you gonna eat those?" He pointed at the crusts I had just peeled off my own sandwich. I watched him devour them, along with everything else on his plate, three-quarters of the bag of chips, the remaining cookies, and two cups of Earl Grey.
"So, what will you do if things don't work out the way you're hoping?"
He shrugged. "I don't have a plan for that yet. I'm just thinking about the music."
The key turned in the lock and Steven came in, with snow in his hair and on his coat. He seemed surprised to see that I had a guest, a man he didn't know. Come to think of it, a man I didn't know. It did feel a little strange.
Tyler wiped his hands on his jeans and stood up.
"Steven, this is Tyler Wilkie. He walks Sylvia's dogs."
Steven came over and shook Tyler's hand. "Nice to meet you." He took off his coat and hung it on the back of one of the dining table chairs.
"We met a few days ago," I said. "Do you want a sandwich, honey?"
"Oh, really?" Steven said. "No thanks, I just had a burger." He pulled out a chair and sat down. Tyler sat, too, looking polite and subdued.
"Dog walking for Sylvia..." Steven mused. "Have you ever actually seen her?"
"No, we just talk on the phone," Tyler said. "I got the keys to her place from the agency."
"I've lived across the hall from her for almost three years now, and I've never seen her, either," Steven said.
"Weird," Tyler said.
I leaned toward him. "What does her apartment look like?"
"It's nice, I guess. I haven't paid that much attention."
I sat back and smiled at Steven. "She's our Boo Radley."
Tyler smiled vaguely.
"From To Kill a Mockingbird," I explained.
"Oh, yeah, I've never seen that movie."
"It was a book first!" I said. "A great one."
Steven patted my hand. "Grace has this thing about reading the book first."
"Yes, I do. In fact..." I got up and went to the bookshelves to find my copy. I held it out to Tyler. "You can keep it."
He took the book from me and looked at the cover.
"You're scaring him," Steven said. "Relax, Book Lady."
I didn't like that. One shouldn't joke about To Kill a Mockingbird. "I'm giving him a gift. A beautiful one, if he'll take it."
Tyler stood. Probably eager to get away from the crazy people. "I have to get going. There's an open-mic down at a bar in the Village, I want to try to get on the list."
Steven stood. "Are you a musician?"
Tyler pulled on his coat and slid the book in a pocket and buttoned it. "Yeah."
"Jazz, by any chance?"
"No, man, rock, soul, singer-songwriter stuff."
"Oh, yeah," Steven said politely. They shook hands again.
I followed Tyler to the door and opened it for him. He walked out into the hall, turned, and leaned in to speak to me conspiratorially. "Thanks for feeding me, Grace."
He patted his coat pocket. "And for the gift."
Peg called. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was in technical rehearsals at one of those big old theaters only a few blocks from the Spender-Davis building. Did I want to meet somewhere midafternoon for a quick coffee? I told her to meet me at Café Sofiya. Two birds and all that--I hadn't run into Tyler in several days and was curious as to how things were going for him.
Peg had been my landlady when I first came to the city after college. Well, not so much landlady. I had rented a room in her apartment. Peg was in her late thirties then, very bohemian. No makeup, long, curling brown hair, flowing peasant blouses with jeans and Birks. Kind of Stevie Nicks-ish, without the big platform boots. She was a practicing Pagan. The five years I lived with her, if she wasn't stage managing a show, she'd frequently disappear on the weekends upstate or to New Jersey to commune with Nature and her pantheistic Internet community.
Peg and I knew all of each other's stories. I would have still been living with her if I hadn't moved in with Steven.
When I got to Café Sofiya she was already at a table, huddled over a giant cup of coffee, a nubby, rainbow-hued muffler thick around her neck. The café was small and modern, empty except for a guy working on his laptop at the coffee counter. I threw my coat over a chair, kissed her, and sat down.
"What are you having?" I asked.
"Triple mochaccino. We've been setting light cues for two days, I needed a chemical cattle prod."
I looked around. "Is there a waiter?"
"Yeah." She craned around, searching behind the pastry case. "Back there somewhere."
I got up and went over to pretend-peruse the pastries in the refrigerated case and peered into the open door that led into a back room. Tyler came out with an armload of boxes and dumped them on the floor next to the cash register. He saw me and beamed.
"Hey!" He was wearing the compulsory waiter uniform--white dress shirt, black pants and shoes, black apron. He came around the counter and enfolded me in an emphatic hug. He smelled like vanilla and baking bread.
"Thank you for coming to see me!" His voice seemed so loud--as if he had natural, built-in amplification. I patted his back and gently disengaged.
"Grace, I got a steady gig! And this guy offered to manage me. Someone who saw me at an open mic told him about me and he came to see me and asked me to come to his office the next day and play for him."
"Wow, Tyler, that's great!" I said. "It happened so quickly!"
He grinned. "So come see me Monday nights." He pulled a chair up to our table and wrote the address on a napkin. The guy at the counter was watching us. "It's this bar on Bleecker."
"That's my neighborhood," Peg said. "And my night off."
"Cool. I play from nine thirty to twelve. Hey, what's your name?"
"I'm sorry," I said, "this is Peg."
He gave her his hand. "Hey, Peg. Grace, what's your favorite song?"
I hate surprise questions like that. Impossible to answer immediately. Options must be reviewed. Choices considered.
"Um...can I tell you later?"
"Yeah. Think about it and let me know."
"My favorite song is 'Take Me to the River,'" Peg said.
"Awesome, I know that song," Tyler said.
"So if I come see you, you'll play it for me?" Peg smiled.
"Tyler," the guy at the counter with the laptop said.
"Right," Tyler said. "That's the boss."
He stood up, took a towel out of his apron, and flicked an imaginary crumb off our table. "See you Monday," he said, with that smile of his. And then he was off.
new faces, old songs, hungry girls,
and the importance of apostrophizing
I met Peg at her apartment and we walked the few blocks to the bar on Bleecker. Except for some girls sitting next to the stage, the place was pretty empty. Edward and a blond man who looked like he might have been the model for Michelangelo's David were waiting for us in a booth.
The beautiful man's name was Boris. It disoriented me. With that name, he should be hulking, bald, have lots of nose hair, and deliver unmarked packages to remote warehouses in exchange for suitcases stuffed with cash. He should have a surprise bionic hand that could crush your windpipe in seconds. Unless you were Daniel Craig, in which case Boris was, eventually, toast.
"Hi, Boris," I said. "What do you do?"
"I'm a neuroscience research technician."
A likely story.
I went to the bar to get beers and felt hands on my shoulders. Warm, firm hands that made me want to sink onto a stool and fall into a cozy, drooling doze on the bar. I shook it off and turned around. Tyler.
"Oh, hey," I said.
"Did you think of your favorite song yet?" he asked.
"Oh, gosh, I'm still working on that. I have it narrowed down to eight possibilities."
"Can you just tell me a couple?"
"Well...." This felt strangely private. A little embarrassing. "I like old songs." No need to tell him I almost minored in music of the sixties and seventies at Brown. Old music was my escape for most of my teen years, to an extent that many of my Grunge-loving friends just didn't get.
"Me, too! Like what?"
"Like, well, there's this song I used to hear on the classic-rock radio station my mom listened to. I have it on my iPod."
He nodded encouragingly.
"'Bell Bottom Blues.'"
He staggered back a step with a hand to his heart. "No shit! Derek and the Dominos. I love that song!"
"But I'm not sure that's my all-time favorite," I hastened to add.
He dug his cell out of his pocket, checked the time, and pulled me with him toward the front of the room. The stage was by the windows. "Why don't you just give me your whole list?"
"Well, maybe I'll write a few down."
I went to the booth and he went to the stage.
He started on the piano. After two amazing, original songs, Peg looked at me with wide eyes. "He is really talented. There should be more people here."
"Nobody knows about him," I said.
Then he sat on a stool with the guitar and, wearing a harmonica in a neck-brace thing, played a blues song I'd never heard before.
"Dang," Edward commented, "he sang that like an old black man."
"That you'd like to have sex with," Boris added.
"Yes," Edward said. "Although his hair is almost a deal breaker."
"That could be fixed," Boris said. "Reshaped."
"Be patient, he's growing it out," I said.
Then Tyler winked at me and said he was going to play something he'd just written called "This Sign."
The melody was playful and so were the words; it sounded like the soundtrack to a sunlit afternoon. I was charmed. So, I realized, were the six girls sitting at the tables by the stage. They were visibly into him, despite his choppy hair.
"Tell me again how you met him?" Peg asked.
"He walks my neighbor's dogs."
"Those girls look like they want to eat him," Edward said.
They did. And he looked very comfortable with that sort of attention.
On his break between sets Tyler spent some minutes chatting with the girls. Then he pulled two chairs up to the end of our table for himself and a big galoot of a guy, who turned out to be his infamous friend-slash-stylist, Bogue.
Bogue sat in the chair next to me. I had thought Tyler looked young, but Bogue looked as if he was about seventeen, like one of those beefy, sweet kids from high school who was on the football team and in the drama club. He even had a semi-buzz cut and a bit of an adolescent skin condition.
I offered him my hand. "Hi, I'm Grace Barnum."
"Oh yeah, Grace, I knew it was you. You look just like Ty said."
I darted a glance at Tyler, who was listening to Peg effuse about his playing. "What did he say I looked like?"
"Small. Sweet. Curvy. Soft eyes. Long dark hair. And I, uh, I think he also used the word 'edible.' Or words to that effect." Bogue turned pink, but he leaned toward me and plowed on ahead in a slightly slurred, seductive whisper. "And I have to say, I agree."
Bogue was quite the smooth, drunk operator. His face was now bright red. Adorable! Or maybe I was a little tipsy, too. I scooted closer and gave him a friendly peck on the cheek. He grinned.
"What are you doing, Bogue?" Tyler said. He and Peg were looking at us.
"Just following the biological imperative, man," Bogue said.
"Why don't you follow it right on out of here."
"Don't worry about it," Bogue said.
"You're gonna worry," Tyler said.
"When you do what?"
"You don't want me to show you."
"Come on, show us," Boris threw in.
A girl came and tapped Tyler on the shoulder. He stood up and moved away with her and while they talked he pulled out his cell and added a number.
"Oh, sure," Bogue said. "He can score a hookup, but I'd better not even try in the same space. New city, same old shit. I don't know why I still hang out with him."
"You two do seem kind of different."
He looked at me with interest. "How so?"
"Well, 'biological imperative.' I think Tyler would say the same thing differently."
"Yeah." Bogue grinned. "He'd call it 'the urge to fuck and run.' I'm way more educated. Not to mention classy. Do you want another beer?"
"No thanks," I said. "He's lucky to have you. This would be a hard city to come to alone."
"No shit. He probably wouldn't even have come if I hadn't dragged his ass here. I told him it was time to spread the musical love in a much wider radius than Pennsylvania, see if he could make something of it. I told him I'd learn what to do and be his manager even, but already he's found someone else. Asshole."
"So what do you do? Have you found a job yet?"
"I'm looking. I'm gonna get a beer, be right back."
Peg went to the ladies' room and Edward and Boris left to meet friends at a bar down the street.
Tyler finished with the girl and came and sat on Bogue's chair. "Her name is Jennifer. She offered to start a street team for me with those other girls."
"I guess they'll hand out flyers for my gigs, try to get people to come. Hey, can you help me create a Facebook fan page? I don't have a computer."
"I guess I could try...I don't know much about it. Let's ask Peg if she--"
"Come on, we'll figure it out. When can I come over?"
"I--well, I need to check my schedule." I stood up. "Can we talk about it later? I have to get going."
He seemed genuinely disappointed. "Can't you stay?"
"Not this time, I'm sorry."
He moved back to let me out of the booth. "Next time, then. I might have something special for you, if you give me that list. Why don't you text it to me? I'll give you my number."
"I think I have your number, actually." I knew I did, buried in Big Green. Now bookmarking The Age of Innocence.
He got his cell out. "Okay, give me yours. I promise to only use it twice a day."
My stomach was starting to hurt.
"Grace?" He was waiting. I gave him the number.
A couple of mornings later I stepped outside my door to go to work and did an ungainly, windmilling slide across the floor, just catching myself on the banister before I ate honeycomb tile. Had Mr. Rojas just mopped, or what? I searched for the telltale shine and found that the instrument of my near wipeout was not gray mop water, but a lethal calling card--a slick little bit of lamination from Pocono Community College.
Tyler's picture on it stopped me cold. He was shaggy-haired, grinning, a dimple in one cheek. Cocky. Completely adorable. How could anyone be that photogenic in a college photo ID?
The card had apparently been paper-clipped to a scuffed piece of notebook paper I found nearby on the floor. I opened it up and sat on the stairs in an attempt to read his execrable handwriting. It was a poem. Or--of course!--the words to a song.
would you like to take a walk with me
hold hands see what we can see
come back and take a cup of tea with me
suns leavin would you like to stay
I didn't expect it to go this way
but theres all sorts of games that we can play if you stay
I wanna be with you rain or shine
theres nobody elses heart on my mind
and if I went lookin, lord, I'd never find this sign
theres nothin out there that we can do
but look at each other without a clue
and what if the others thinkin I love you?
well I do
The charming song he'd played Monday night. I read the words again a couple more times.
Maybe I could tutor him on apostrophe usage.
drinking at work: the dream and the reality
Ed and I had a meeting with Bill about the third-grade reading book we were developing. Have I mentioned that Bill is distractingly orange? Too much self-tanning lotion, maybe, or too much carrot juice. It kind of clashes with his blond brush cut. Also, by the way, Bill never smiles. Ever.
"So here are the issues," Bill said.
We were still settling into our seats. I pulled out a legal pad and uncapped my pen.
"We need to add someone old to one of the stories. Maybe in the one about the Latino kid who goes Rollerblading in the park. Make it his granny who takes him, instead of the teenage brother."
"Okay," I said slowly, "the thing is, that story is an excerpt from a Newbery Medal-winning book. The brother is important to the little boy in the plot. I don't know if the author--"
"He'll change it for our text. Tell him we can't use the story, otherwise."
"The author is a woman."
"Right. All the more reason she'll agree to change the brother to an old lady. Okay, next." He consulted his notes. "Get rid of the ice cream sundae in the story about the kid who loses her library book. Change it to fruit salad."
"Fruit salad." Ed wrote it down. "So, she knows she's going to get in trouble for losing her book, and she uses the last of her allowance to treat herself to fruit salad, before she tells her parents?"
"Yeah, it sucks," Bill said. "But we can't have foods with no nutritional value in the stories. Too many little fatties will be reading them."
Ed kneed me under the table.
Bill looked at his notes. "And one more thing. We're dead in the water with California if we don't have an equal number of male and female characters throughout the book."
"We do!" I said vehemently. I knew this for a fact. "Forty-nine of each!"
"Not true," Bill said. "You have to count the animal characters, too. Freddie the Fox and Malachi Mouse in that barn story bring it up to fifty-one males. So change one of them to Fanny the Fox or Mary Mouse. Well, maybe not Fanny. That's awkward. Felicia. There you go."
He stood up and slid his folder across the table to me. "Double-check my notes to make sure I covered everything." He left the conference room.
I looked at Ed, who smiled ruefully.
"Do we have to pick life apart like this?" I asked.
"We do, to ensure diversity."
"But we're making this book dumb and bland. It's undiverse, what we're doing!"
"Is that a word?"
"I just invented it." I gathered my stuff and stood up. "You know what, Ed? This meeting made me want to drink."
"I have a bottle of Bushmills in my desk. Let's make Irish coffees."
"Some of these stories aren't even that good. What is our priority, here?"
"Demographic balance. Grace, you know we have to follow the bias and sensitivity guidelines if we want to sell this book."
"What about literary quality?"
"That would be nice."
"Ed. You're becoming a Stepford editor."
"Oxygen, baby girl." He patted my shoulder. "Slip on the mask and breathe."
Tyler called me that afternoon.
"Hey, beautiful, how's it going?"
"Just great, thanks."
"Where are you?"
"Sitting at my desk at Spender-Davis Education."
"Oh, yeah. The job. So will you still help me do the Facebook page?"
Apparently he was helpless. And apparently I was a sucker for it. "Well, I guess we can try to figure it out." I told him to come to my office Thursday night at seven.
He showed up at 7:22.
"Hey!" He hugged me with one arm and held up a fragrant paper bag and a plastic bag that clanked in a bottle-y way. "I brought supper."
I led him through the maze to my deluxe, corner, outer-wall cubicle.
"Hey, that's pretty." He liked my rosemary-bush Christmas tree.
"I have windows!" I said.
"I see that." He touched the grinning Green Man sun catcher hanging on the glass.
"That's Pan. Father Nature. Peg hung him there to keep me 'connected' while I'm up here in this artificial environment all day."
"She seems like a real friend."
I cleared many piles off my desk and got us plates and forks from the break room while he unwrapped our first course: mozzarella and prosciutto panini. The singular of which is panino, but not many people realize that. My stomach twanged.
"I got here just in time," he laughed. He pulled out a Swiss Army knife and opened a giant bottle of beer and placed it in front of me.
"Either you're way overestimating my capacity for alcohol, or you have evil intentions."
"It's the second one." He opened his own two-liter. "Why are we doing this here?"
"My computer here is better. Faster. Plus Steven is out of town, so I can stay late."
Instant flash of unease. I was here alone with him in this big, empty office, after dark on a cold December night. He had a knife in his pocket. And now he knew that no one would notice if I never made it home. I took a tiny sip of beer and studied him for any sign of a dark vibe. What I saw was a pale, scruffy, hungry young man with crumbs on his chin, looking at me with warm eyes. It felt like I had known him much longer than just a few weeks.
"Where'd he go?"
"For how long?"
"Four days, this time."
"Does he go away a lot?
"A fair amount."
"He's a patent attorney for a pharmaceutical company."
"I guess he makes a lot of money."
I shrugged. "Some, for sure."
"So, you gonna bring him to hear me play?"
"Not likely. He's a recovering alcoholic. He stays away from bars."
"Yeah, I'll probably end up having to do that one day." He grinned and I got a flash of the adorable college ID guy.
"By the way." I reached under my desk and groped around in Big Green till I found my wallet. I waved his ID at him. "Thanks a lot. I skated across my hall on this when I came out to go to work the other morning."
Tyler smiled. "No way! Sorry about that."
I pushed it across the desk.
"You can keep it, if you want." He took a giant bite of his second panino. "Do you want some of this?"
"No thanks." I nudged the ID closer to him. "You might need this."
"I don't think I'm going to. But could you keep it for me? Sometimes I lose things." He seemed completely earnest. But something about the way he was looking at me made my face feel warm.
"Oh, well, okay." I opened up my wallet. "It'll be right in here with this picture of my mom."
He leaned across the desk. "Hey, let me see."
I held up the photo.
"Your mom looks like one of those desperate housewife ladies."
I slid the pictures back in my wallet. "That's just the surface. My mom is powerful."
"Yeah, she looks like she could kick some serious ass, if she wanted to."
"Believe me, she wants to. And she does."
He laughed. "Okay, I think I'll steer clear of her."
He broke out a gigantic cheesecake brownie and we split it. I washed my half down with beer while I brought up Facebook on the computer. He pulled a chair around next to me.
We created his personal profile and then a musician profile page. Then I showed him the pages of several musicians and bands.
"So," I said, "we're going to need pictures of you. Do you have any?"
"I just got some taken, I can get Bogue to e-mail them. He's building me a website, with songs on it and everything."
"Oh, great, we can--" I did a double take. "Wait a minute, he is? Why isn't he doing this for you?"
"Maybe you should have brought him with you tonight."
He smiled. "No way."
I looked back at the monitor. The animated frog on my screensaver was doing a jaunty little dance. I tapped the keyboard to wake up the computer and closed Facebook. "To be continued, I guess, when we have the photos to upload."
He leaned back in his chair. "Okay. Thanks, Grace. I appreciate you being so sweet and helpful to me." The drawl was thicker than ever.
"Oh, no problem!" I said crisply, gathering up our empty plates, sweeping crumbs off the desk. I stood up, and found myself just about standing between his knees.
"Well," I said.
He was not getting the message that we were leaving. He sprawled in a casual slouch in his chair, looking up at me from under auburn lashes.
He patted his thigh. "Sit here."
"C'mon, Gracie." He grazed a finger down my forearm. "I promise you'll like it."
I kicked his chair.
He got up.
Coming down in the elevator he asked, "Are you mad at me?"
"Why would I be?" I said cheerfully.
He walked me to the subway at Fiftieth and Broadway.
"'Bye," I said. "If I don't see you, Merry Christmas."
"I thought you were coming Monday night."
"Well, probably not, it turns out. Lots of shopping still to do."
"But you have to be there! I've been working on your Christmas gift."
"Ty, what is it?"
"Come and find out."
arson becomes a subconscious possibility
It was my last day at work for more than a week. The next day was Christmas Eve, and Steven and I were going to New Jersey.
No one actually did any work. Edward had already gone to Houston, and the office was boring without him. We had cookies and eggnog in the break room and opened our Secret Santa gifts.
I was Secret Santa to a slightly gruff older woman in Production, named Carol. We hadn't worked together much, and all I knew about her was that her husband had recently died and she liked making crafts. Someone told me she had cats. So I spent way more than the twenty-dollar Secret Santa limit and gave her a needlepoint kit I got at the Met gift shop, based on The Favorite Cat lithograph by Currier.
She unwrapped it, smiled tremulously, and covered her face with her hands.
I put an arm around her shoulders. A couple of others gathered around us.
"It's just so hard," Carol said.
None of us knew what to say. I hoped just listening was helpful, somehow. Someone gave her a tissue. I patted her shoulder.
"Sorry," she said, wiping her eyes. "It's this fucking time of year."
Turned out Bill was my Secret Santa. He gave me a tin of Danish butter cookies and a Chia Pet in the shape of a cow. Obviously he did his Christmas shopping at Walgreens. I pondered the placid, bovine expression on my Chia and said thank you.
Before I left work Peg called to check in with me about going to Tyler's gig. I said that I would meet her there, but first I had to go with Steven to his office party.
When we hung up, I grabbed my personalized Spender-Davis notepad and jotted down a sampling of my favorite songs. It was a mix of old oldies, like Earth, Wind & Fire's "That's the Way of the World," and semi-oldies from high school days, like Blind Melon's "Change." I also special-mentioned Kate Bush's seminal album The Kick Inside, an incredible late-seventies record a friend turned me on to in college.
Steven's company had rented a midtown nightclub for their party, complete with lavish buffet and open bar. A jazz band. We sat with two of his fellow attorneys, Nico and Ron, and Ron's wife, Jody.
Nico was going through a breakup that sounded a lot like what had happened to Steven: He met his wife in law school, was married a few years, and then she fell in love with a guy she worked with in private practice. Nico was doing a pretty good job of functioning socially, but he had this base facial expression of haunted vulnerability, overlaid with quick flashes of anger and cynicism. He laughed too quickly and loudly. When he spilled his drink, Steven cleaned it up and Ron went to the bar to get him a cup of coffee.
"Poor guy," Jody whispered to me.
"Hey, man," I heard Steven say quietly while he was blotting Nico's shirt. "It gets better. Remember how I was when Katie left me? I thought my life was over. I could barely get out of bed, except to drink."
"I know, man," Nico said. "I'm drunk now!"
"Ron's bringing you some coffee." Steven squeezed his shoulder. "Hang in there, man. Look at me. Look at this beautiful girl I get to go home with."
Nico peered at me across the table. "Yeah, man. Sweet." He raised a drunken power fist in tribute to me. "I hope I meet someone just like you one day, Grace."
"Oh, thanks, Nico."
I realized that I hadn't yet told Steven that I wasn't going directly home with him. Maybe I'd wait till later.
"You missed it," Peg whispered in my ear. "Ty played 'Take Me to the River.' It was incredible! A whole new interpretation."
Now he was singing a classic blues song, and he seemed so inward, so absorbed, I thought of Ray Charles. It was like he was locked inside a small personal universe where only sound and feeling existed. He had evolved beyond the need for sight.
At the break I watched Ty navigate the crowd; it seemed like everyone wanted to talk to him, to touch him. He saw me and came over and I handed him his Christmas present. He opened the bag and pawed through my carefully arranged tissue paper, finding the rust, cream, and caramel alpaca scarf I'd bought for him at a yarn store in Soho. It was made of the same colors he was.
"Hey, now I have two scarves!" He pointed across the room at a skinny blond street team girl with big boobs. "Keely knit me a red one. This is way nicer. Did you knit it?"
"Um. Not really. No."
He wrapped it around his neck and gave me a hug. "I love it. But all I have for you is a song."
"I'll take it!" Speaking of, I handed him my song list.
He silently read it. "Damn, girl, you've got good musical taste." He quirked a brow at me. "Who's Kate Bush?"
"Are you kidding?"
He shook his head.
"I don't even know how to answer that." I might have to come back to see him just one more time, to bring him a CD.
"Hey, I started reading that book."
"Oh yeah, how is it?"
"Pretty good, so far. I'm just up to where Atticus shoots the dog. Awesome! Reminds me of my dad, when we go hunting."
"Yeah, he's a crack shot."
"Do you...shoot things?"
"Yeah, I got an eleven-point buck, one time."
He smiled. "Yeah. We ate it."
It was just too awful for further comment. "Well. Keep reading and let me know what you think."
"Okay. This is so pretty, Grace. Thank you." He folded the scarf up more carefully than he'd extracted it and put it back in the bag. "What are you doing for Christmas?"
"We'll be at my mom's in New Jersey. What about you?"
"Me and Bogue are driving home. 'Scuse me. Bogue and I."
I smiled appreciatively. "You have a car here?"
"Bogue does. He's only got about ten parking tickets, so far."
A burst of loud, raucous laughter erupted nearby, so he leaned in close. "I'm gonna go play for you now. I hope I get it right."
"Okay, Ty." I patted his arm. "No pressure."
"Merry Christmas, Grace." He was so serious. "Thanks for helping me so much, when you didn't even know me. I wish I had some mistletoe right now."
I laughed and pushed him toward the stage.
I wonder if Eric Clapton knows it's possible to play a rolling, hypnotic version of "Bell Bottom Blues" on the piano and mesmerize a hundred people. Ty started with the words "this is for Grace" and to my embarrassment and, okay, acute pleasure, he sang the song to me. Looking so tragic and intense with all the words about making him cry, and crawling across the floor to me, and begging me to take him back. Not to mention the part about dying in my arms. I'd bet anything he did some acting in high school. Peg's theatrical friends certainly ate it up.
"Are you his girlfriend?" Doris, who was Antonio Banderas's dresser, asked.
"No!" I laughed. "He's just being dramatic."
"He's really good," Doris said. "I'm going to bring some people to see him."
I should have gone home about then, but I stayed and drank two more glasses of wine. Which means, since I'm not a large person, that I sloshed as I serpentined back to the bar to order another.
After 3.5 glasses, I felt a little sick to my stomach. That happens when you are pre-ulcerous and you drink alcohol. Doris got me a glass of water.
Ty, having finished playing, offered to take me outside for some fresh air.
"Good idea," Peg said, bundling me into my coat before turning back to her show friends.
We walked a couple of blocks. Ty reeled me back in with a firm hand on my elbow whenever I veered off-course.
I was shivering. "I don't usually drink that much."
"I didn't think so," Ty said. "Hold on." He tugged my knitted hat down firmly. "You have to keep your ears covered." He unwound the scarf I had given him from around his neck and wrapped it around mine. He tied it under my chin and tucked the ends into my coat. He had the nicest face. I liked watching it while he did all that tucking and tying.
"Ty. Do you want to know what I'm thinking about?" I asked.
"More than just about anything, Grace."
"Those girls who sit by the stage when you play."
He hooked my arm through his and we started walking again.
"Oh, yeah. My street team."
"They want to kiss you."
I snuck a peek at him. "Stop smiling."
"They're just girls who like my music."
"They're groupies. You have groupies, Ty! They want to shag you!" I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and leaned over with my hands on my knees.
He touched my back. "Are you gonna throw up?"
"Maybe. Give me a minute."
He rubbed my back in small, warm circles.
I peered up at him. "Why aren't you drunk? I saw you drinking at least as many drinks as me."
"I have a pretty high tolerance. And you're only slightly larger than Mini-Me."
"Well, anyway," I muttered to the sidewalk. "I am a terrible person."
Where to begin? "I said shag. That's a bad word in England."
"Grace, you're a beautiful person. One of the most beautiful, ever."
"Completely unfair, Ty. Singing that song to me. When I've been drinking! Stop laughing."
Peg came toward us on the sidewalk, carrying Big Green. Thank God! I straightened slowly, clutching my stomach. Holding myself together.
"I have to go now," I said to Ty. I started unwinding his scarf to give back to him.
"Don't worry, babe. I'll get it later."
"But...I'm afraid you'll be cold!"
He laughed, a little. "I'll be okay."
I woke to knives in the eyeballs.
A tankard of coffee helped with the head pain. Unfortunately, it also sharpened my ability to recall. If only I'd drunk that last half-glass of wine and blacked out.
What the hell was wrong with me? I had been completely inappropriate. I had never done anything this ridiculous. Clearly, I did not function rationally in the world of bars, drinking, music, and groupies. Ty and I--well, I liked him and all, but we really had very little to base our friendship on. It was like we were not even of the same species. In the animal kingdom, he'd be a lion and I'd be--I don't know--a duck.
While Steven drove that afternoon--thanks, Zipcar!--I tried to nap but spent most of the time obsessing about how I might quietly, gently segue out of this troubling friendship. But as we got deeper into New Jersey and closer to my mom's, I was able to put last night, and Ty, away.
In spite of all the ways she makes me crazy, my spirits always lift in anticipation of Christmas with Julia. She lives near Princeton, in a five-bedroom house that has a sunken living room with a stone fireplace and a huge, flat-screen TV. A granite-countered epicurean kitchen with stainless-steel appliances. A master bedroom suite with a sitting room, fireplace, and jetted bathtub. A swimming pool. She is so clearly overcompensating for our days in the bug-infested studio in Astoria.
Julia has four Christmas trees in the house. A white tree with all-blue lights and ornaments, which is actually kind of nice. Then there is the Santa ornament tree: total multicultural Santa overload. Saint Nick. Sinter Klaas. Pere Noel. Babbo Natale. Hoteiosho and Kaledu Senelis. Black Peter. Then there is the plastic fruit tree, which appeared circa 1989. It's just a lot of fake bananas and pineapples stuck to the branches, and a Carmen Miranda winged angel at the top. I think she was depressed the year she came up with it. The best tree every year is a real Douglas fir that she festoons with glass icicles and snowflakes, and then she perches about fifty species of fake birds all over it. The birds are pretty; they have real feathers.
My point is, for all that she constantly tries to direct me away from various doom scenarios, my mom is actually a closet optimist, and I know this because of how much she enjoys Christmas. Would someone in an Edvard Munch mental state, who has no small children, grandchildren, or even a boy child, have a working toy railroad set up in the foyer of her McMansion?
She met us at the door with hugs and eggnog.
"No whiskey in yours!" she said to Steven. She had clearly been imbibing for a while.
"Thanks, Julia." He winked at me over her shoulder.
A big, muscular guy stood up when we came into the living room. He was wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, and a holstered gun.
"José, this is my daughter Grace and her boyfriend Steven."
We shook hands. José was gorgeous, in that intentionally bald way. I looked at my mom and smiled.
"José is having dinner with us tonight."
"But first I have to go back to work for a while," he said. He had a very deep voice.
"José is a detective in Arson," Julia explained.
"Hey, that sounds interesting," Steven said.
José smiled. "I have a few stories."
While my mom and I were in the kitchen slicing cheese, defrosting the shrimp ring, and chopping spinach and water chestnuts for dip, we could hear Steven and José in the TV room talking about burn patterns, gas chromatography, accelerants, and insurance fraud.
"It's completely inappropriate. We work together on cases," Julia said.
"Yeah, but look at him."
She grinned. "He's thirty-five. Is that shocking?"
"I think it's great."
She waved a hand dismissively. "I'm just having fun."
"Why shouldn't you?"
She came to me and tucked my hair over my shoulders and held my face in her hands. I liked my mom when she was a little drunk. She could be unusually sweet.
"Are you happy, my darling?"
"Sometimes you look so serious. Don't be all work and no fun."
"I do fun things."
"I'm not talking about reading books. Does Steven take you out sometimes?"
"Sure, we go to dinner, and movies. And I go out with Peg and Edward."
I wanted to tell her about my interesting new friend, Tyler Wilkie, but something stopped me.
"Is there something you're not telling me?"
"I know that sad look in your eyes. You used to get it about your father. Has he done something to hurt you?"
I took her hands in mine to release her viselike grip on my shoulders. "Julia, he doesn't hurt me. I hardly ever see him. And when I do, he's nice."
"Hm," she grumbled.
My mom makes chili on Christmas Eve, and we stay up late to watch the midnight mass at the Vatican. Not that we're Catholic. Julia just likes it. And José is Catholic, so now she has even more reason. I made it through the first fifteen minutes of the mass and told them good night.
Steven was still awake when I got into bed.
"Hey, what do you think of José?" I asked.
"I think he could kick my ass."
"Yeah, he seems kind of tough."
Steven grinned. "I bet your mom really likes that about him."
"Ew. Shut up."
Steven laughed and turned on his bedside light. He handed me a flat, square turquoise box. "Merry Christmas, sweetheart."
"Oh." I smiled. "You don't want to give me this tomorrow?"
"No, it's officially Christmas."
It was a bracelet, from Tiffany. Three bangles, bound by a single link attached to a silver heart.
"Steven. It's so pretty. I love it."
He smiled, pleased with my response. I slid it onto my wrist and admired it. He turned out the light and I sank down under the covers with him.
He pulled up my nightgown and I tried to relax, but I kept thinking about my mother and José downstairs, watching the pope.
On New Year's Eve my dad cooks. A few early-evening hours of visiting and playing catch-up, and then we go our separate ways.
Oh, he takes me somewhere for dinner around my birthday in September. He e-mails me almost daily and every few weeks or so invites me to do something with him. Usually I decline, though, because it starts to feel like too much. Something like love for him starts to creep in, and then I remember not being his priority when I was a kid. And my chest starts to hurt. So I have found that I have to measure how much time I spend with him. Keep it light.
When I was younger I was careful never to let Dan see that I thought anything about him or his life was cool. On top of the normal teenage disenchantment with my parents, I had an extra, thorny layer of pain. I was carrying around my own anger and some of my mom's, too. For most of my teen years I barely spoke to him, even when we were in the same room.
To his credit, he kept trying with me. He still tries.
Now I try, too.
Dan lives on the top two floors of an old garment factory he owns in SoHo. You use a key in the elevator and it takes you up to his lower floor and then you walk right out into his gigantic living space. It's furnished with weathered leather couches and his paintings, and it has big windows with an incredible view of New Jersey. One time I came off the elevator as David Bowie was getting on. He owns some of my dad's paintings.
"You're Grace, I believe," Mr. Bowie said.
I eventually closed my mouth. And then opened it again to say yes.
"Your father showed me your photograph."
"Oh," I said. Intelligent, reasonably verbal girl becomes idiot.
Tonight it was just the two of us.
I stepped inside the apartment and found twinkling white lights strung all across the ceiling. Maybe he was having a party later.
"Dan?" I called.
"Grace?" There was an alarming, glassy crash overhead. I ran up the iron spiral staircase in the middle of the room.
Dan was standing in the middle of the paint-splattered floor of his studio, grinning. My dad is short. Taller than me, but shorter than my mom. He has shaggy, silvery hair, and--for a man circling sixty--a disconcertingly young face.
"Are you all right?" I searched him for injury, surveyed the room for disaster.
"Oh, sure." Then I saw the remote he was holding. He pressed a button and this time we were treated to the shriek of shredding metal. Like I imagined the Titanic striking the iceberg might have sounded. I covered my ears till it was over.
He pressed the button again and it was crickets, in a summer, twilight meadow.
"I vote for that one," I said.
He pressed the button again. Strange, high, trilling noises, and then this juicy, mucky, sucking sound. "That's an elephant giving birth."
"May I go now?" I asked politely.
"Absolutely not. For the next one hundred and eighty minutes, you're mine."
Dan had a major gallery exhibition coming up in Atlanta. He showed me the paintings that went with the sound effects. For a while now he had been into abstract expressionism--splattery, spiky, what's red, white, and black all over? stuff. But these were gigantic, realistic paintings, of naked plastic doll parts. Disturbing. They made me think of a creepy Beatles album cover I saw one time.
"So, they're looking at the dolls, and they push a button next to the painting, and in their wireless headset they get a random sound?"
"Yes. Maybe a nice one, maybe not." He looked devilishly pleased.
"Dan. What does it mean?"
"My darling, what makes you think I am ever going to answer that question?"
"I don't think you know." Like that was going to make him tell me.
He laughed. "Maybe not."
We went downstairs and he made us a cup of tea, then we sat together on one of the couches and exchanged gifts. His was a bunch of Calvin Klein gray tees. They're all he wears, with khakis. He gave me a chic, black-leather belted coat to replace my worn old shearling, and an overly generous gift card to Shakespeare & Co. It was touching that he paid attention to what I needed and liked. And it made me squirm.
"Thanks, Dan," I said, trying not to bolt. "That sure will buy a lot of books."
"What's wrong?" he asked. "You still read, don't you?"
He looked at me with his x-ray vision. I got up and wandered around the room and pointed at the sparkly, dangling ceiling lights. "Are you having a party later?"
"Oh, no, those are permanent."
"Do you and Steven have plans to celebrate?"
"We're just going to watch the ball drop on TV."
"Don't take the subway home. I'll call for a car."
"I don't think it will be all that crazy yet, at nine o'clock."
He shook his head. "Don't take the subway."
Great. So something awful was going to happen in one of the stations. Or hopefully it would just be that a train was going to stall.
My dad is psychic.
He says he gets feelings about things all the time, but only tells me the really strong ones.
I happened to be visiting him for a month the summer I was thirteen and came home from Rollerblading to find a package of maxi pads sitting on my bed. Embarrassed, and despising him even more than usual, I shoved them in the back of my closet. Two days later, I got my first period.
When I was looking for a job in publishing he told me I was going to get a job in education. I scoffed, but a week later I got the call to interview at Spender-Davis. And one time last summer he called me at work and told me to get up and leave, right away. I didn't tell everyone because I knew no one would believe me. But Edward and I went out for lunch, just in case. When we came back the building was cordoned off and people were filing out. There had been a bomb threat.
The next day I e-mailed my dad and asked him: Why is it just things to do with me? Why not world events, or your own life?
I think it's my guilt, he wrote back, in overdrive.
I could smell curry. Dan cooks great Indian food.
"Can we eat soon? It smells so good."
He got up. "Come on."
Place settings were arranged on the kitchen island. I hopped up on one of the tall chairs and watched him spoon basmati rice and lamb curry onto a plate.
"Give me a lot," I said.
"There's raita and mango chutney in the fridge," Dan said. "Will you get them?"
I was rooting around in the refrigerator when I heard my cell ring.
"Excuse me." I went across to where I'd left Big Green and looked to see who was calling. twilk. A 570 area code.
"Damn, Gracie. Damn."
"Are you okay?"
"I just finished the book." He sounded strangled. Was he crying?
"Are you okay?"
"No! Were you, when you finished reading this?"
"No." I smiled, delighted. "It wrecked me."
"In a good way?"
"Man, Atticus was awesome."
"He tried, you know? Even when everything sucked and there was no way he was gonna win. Damn, that pissed me off! What a bunch of fucking idiot people, in that town."
"I know! In that time."
"He was righteous. A righteous human being. And the stuff at the end, with Boo Radley!"
"Let's try to be like Atticus, Grace."
"Tell me what else that lady wrote."
"Sorry. That's it."
Long silence. "No fucking way."
"Yes. She wrote one genius book."
"No one knows. Maybe she scared herself with how good this one was. Or maybe she only had one story she wanted to tell."
"It's a mystery," he said.
He blew his nose loudly. "Are you at your mom's still?"
"No, actually, I'm at my dad's. For dinner."
"Okay, I'll let you go. Sorry."
"No, it's all right. Where are you?"
"At my parents' house. Heading back to the city tomorrow night."
"While we've been home I got Bogue to help finish the Facebook page."
"Oh, that's great!" I was so happy to be off the web-geek hook. I peeked over my shoulder at Dan, who was sitting at the island, watching me, waiting patiently.
Tyler was quiet.
"Are you there?" I said.
His response to the book was so completely gratifying. I knew exactly how he was feeling.
"I think I'll read it again," he said.
I laughed. "Okay, well, happy New Year, Ty. Be safe."
"'Kay, Grace. You, too."
I returned to the table.
"Who was that?" Dan asked.
I helped myself to a big spoonful of chutney. "A friend."
"Must be a good one."
"Well, you changed, when you were talking on the phone. Your face. It was like you woke up."
"Have I been asleep, all this time?"
"Let's just say you've been typically enthused to see me."
"Never mind, dear." He patted my hand. "What's your friend's name?"
I smiled. "Oh, come on."
Five Words is a game my dad made up when I was a sullen teenager, to force me to communicate. As clever parental manipulation goes, it bordered on the diabolical. With my thing for words, I could never resist. And there was cash involved, if I managed to make a small poem.
"You come on. Give me five words about Tyler."
I laughed and shrugged. Easy money. "Warm...smiling...shining...autumn..."
My dad leaned toward me as I reached for the last word.
"Ahh," my dad said, as though I had just painted a fascinatingly comprehensive verbal portrait. He got out his wallet and handed me a five. All the while piercing me with his extrasensory Dan Barnum eyes.
"I barely know the guy," I said as I tucked the bill into my pocket. "He's just...really nice. And I am glad to see you, Dan, please don't think I'm not."
"Susannah Grace Barnum." My dad smiled and patted my arm. "All is well." He passed the basket of fragrant bread to me. "Naan?"
sad, inevitable, winter wedgie
It's winter in New York, and you do what you have to. You hunker down, pay your holiday bills, and try not to freeze your ass off schlepping to work and home again. You drink lots of hot tea and put full-spectrum lightbulbs in all the lamps. You watch What's Up, Doc? three times in one weekend for some medicinal Madeline Kahn. You decide that now is the time to take that trip to Cancún. You go online and choose a vacation package, but no one else can go with you right now. You seriously consider going by yourself.
You vacuum out Big Green and restock all items. You set aside the Toni Morrison you are reading and pick up Janet Evanovich. You think about dyeing your hair blond. You think about going back to therapy. You hijack your boyfriend's Wii and play Dance Dance Revolution: Hottest Party, ignoring the downstairs neighbors' complaints, until you are sidelined by a pulled groin muscle.
You time your comings and goings to minimize the possibility of running into the dog walker. You only run into him a handful of times, and you keep the interactions friendly but brief. You let him leave messages on your cell and leave him a quick reply in return. This gentle weaning strategy goes on for four whole weeks, and seems to be working.
Then he leaves you a note on the doormat:
Hey Grace are you alive? I miss you. I wrote a new song. Check it out. I will play it for you if you come Monday.
well the time has come for calling
and I know that your in town
I heard you cry the other day
and I think I'll try and tell you
I love you, do you love me
lets get together again
well I never could stop falling
and I know that your around
I saw you smile the other day
and I think I'll dial and tell you
I want you, do you want me
lets get together again
where did you go to, baby
who did you run to see
why in the world did you leave me, honey
aint you glad to see me again
now the time has come for calling
and your somewhere around
I caught your eye the other day
I was dumbstruck. Did he actually mean me, with the crying? When could he have heard that? Oh, I realized. Just about any January weekday morning, before work.
Why was he doing this? He had volumes of girls fawning over him. Did he really need another conquest? It was exasperating. There was no way I was going to go hear that song.
Then Peg called me. "Do you want to go hear Ty Monday night? You've missed a lot. He has a band now."
"Yeah, a drummer and a bass player. And the crowds have grown exponentially. I got there a little late last time and almost didn't get in."
"He keeps asking where you are. He thinks you're avoiding him."
"I left him a message. It's just been too cold to go out at night."
"I think his feelings are hurt."
This was crazy. "What's the big deal? We've only known each other for a couple of months!"
"Well, you know those artistic types. They're very sensitive."
I sighed. "I'll see if I can come for a while."
"I'll try to save you a seat."
I hung up. There were predictions of a massive winter storm late Sunday into Monday. I crossed my fingers.
Those people on the Weather Channel are liars. It barely snowed at all. So I went. When I arrived at the bar Ty was already playing with his band. The place was packed. Peg waved to me from the back of the room and I squeezed my way toward her, peering over my shoulder at Ty. I was hoping he'd register that I was there so I could leave soon.
The song finished and people clapped. Ty said into the microphone, "Hey, Grace."
I turned around and gave him a little wave.
"Aw, I embarrassed her," he said. Mass laughter. He began another song.
Peg was sitting with Bogue and a tall, emo-ish, black-haired girl who turned out to be Rash. She was pretty, in a wan, purple-lipped way.
"Rumor is there's a New York Times reporter here, doing a story on Ty," Peg said.
"Yeah, for a series on singer-songwriters in the city."
I ordered a glass of wine and asked Rash about herself. She was from Virginia, a psychology student at NYU, and a performance artist. She was working on a new piece, to be staged in front of the New York Stock Exchange. She was going to dress in a man's suit and run a half-marathon on a treadmill while reading aloud from the Wall Street Journal.
"How are you going to power the treadmill?" I asked.
"Generator. And my friend has a van to haul it in."
"There are a lot of police down there."
She shrugged. "If I just get five minutes of video, it's cool."
I asked about her experience of living with Bogue and Ty.
She leaned closer and spoke confidentially. "Bogue's a total slob. And he doesn't have a job yet. But he's rich, so I guess maybe he doesn't have to get one if he doesn't want to."
"Yeah, his dad owns grocery stores."
Who knew? "What about Ty?"
"He's a little better. He hangs up his wet towels. And makes his bed. Which is more than I can say for Bogue. And neither of them jerk off where I can hear them, unlike other guys I've roomed with."
"Maybe you should stick to female roommates."
"Nah, sometimes I need something heavy moved."
I excused myself to go to the bathroom. Two girls were huddled over the sink, laughing, fixing their hair and makeup. I recognized them as being on Ty's street team. The taller, prettier one had on thong undies that were displayed way over the top of her pants in back.
I went into the stall. They were dead silent the whole time I was peeing.
I came out and they made room at the sink.
"Grace, right?" Thong Girl asked.
"Right," I said.
"So are you and Ty hooking up, or what?"
I thought about not answering such appalling rudeness but it seemed better to squelch a stupid rumor. "No," I said. "He's just a friend."
"Yeah, it didn't seem like you were his type. No offense." She flipped her ice-blond hair over her shoulder.
I resisted the urge to grasp the edge of her tiny underpants and give her the mother of all wedgies.
Squeezing back through the crush of people at the bar, I ran into Ty's manager, Dave. We hadn't formally met, but he seemed to know me. He was a big, good-looking guy, mid-forties, dark hair and beard. Very white teeth. He smiled at me, so I thought up something pleasant to say.
"Ty sounds great!"
Dave leaned in close. "He's fucking brilliant. It's just a matter of time."
"Till what?" I asked politely.
"Till he makes us both a shitload of money. Enjoy him while you can, soon he's going to be very, very busy."
Why? Why did people make this annoying assumption?
"Oh. Well. Hopefully he won't change that much."
Dave smiled like he knew a clever secret. "Change is inevitable."
"Yes. Okay, I have to go now. 'Bye." I hated being rude, but I needed to get out of there.
I pushed through the drunken multitudes--had the door in sight--when Ty stepped into my path. He grabbed my shoulders, laughing, his eyes glowing from alcohol and the high of performing. His hair had grown out a lot and curled ruddily around his face, brushing his collar.
"Hey!" he said. "Sorry about making everyone look at you earlier."
"Yeah, that was kind of uncomfortable."
"Thanks for coming. I thought you didn't like me anymore."
"I've just been so busy. In fact, I'm sorry, but I have to go now."
"No, I'm gonna play that new song for you!"
"I'm so sorry, I'll have to hear it another time."
He tilted his head and gave me a long, unsmiling look that might have meant he knew what was up. Which was probably for the best.
"I'm sorry," I said again. "Good-bye."
He kissed me on the cheek, close to my ear. "'Bye, Gracie," he whispered.
GRACE GROWS. Copyright © 2012 by Shelle Sumners.
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