Authors: Kate Moretti
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To my mom. This one should have enough plot for you. Pretty sure.
APRIL 2014, NEW YORK CITY
Lately, I've been dreaming about my mother. Not Evelyn, the only mother I've ever known, the woman who raised me and loved me and taught me to swim in the fresh water of Lake Chabot, bake a sticky sweet pecan pie, fly-fish. I've thought about Evelyn plenty in the five years since she diedâI'd venture to say every day.
My dreams lately are filled with the mother I've never met. I imagine her at sixteen years, leaving me in the care of the neonatal nurses. Did she kiss my forehead? Study her baby's small wrinkled fingers? Or did she just scurry out, as fast as she could, hugging the wall, ducking the shadows to avoid detection until she burst through the doors, into the night air, where she could breathe again?
I could have been born in a bathroom stall at the junior prom or in the back of her parents' car. I prefer to imagine her as a scared young kid. The only thing I know about her at all is her name: Carolyn Seever, and that is likely a fake.
My dreams are disjointed, filled with bright colors and blinking lights. Sometimes Carolyn is saving me from a
faceless killer and sometimes she is the faceless killer, chasing me with knives up winding staircases that never seem to end.
Even when I'm awake, chopping vegetables for a salad for lunch or taking notes for a board meeting, I'll drift off, lost in a daydream about what she might be doing right now or if we have the same dark, fickle hair or the same handwriting. Wonder what quirks, biologically, I've inherited from someone I've never met, and sometimes, I'll come to in the middle of the kitchen wielding a large butcher knife, the lettuce limping on the counter. I've killed quite a bit of time this way.
I wonder if she'd be proud of the woman I've become.
The benefit for CARE, Children's Association for Relief and Education, starts in an hour. I pace back and forth in the bedroom. I've never chaired before and I can't afford to be distracted, yet here I am, my brain run amok when I can least afford it.
“Relax, Zoe, you've done a fabulous job, I'm sure. Like always.” Henry approaches me from behind. His large hands dance over my clavicle as he fastens the clasp of a single strand of freshwater pearls around my neck. I close my eyes and relax back into his lean frame, all sinewy muscle despite his forty years. He kisses my bare right shoulder and runs a hand down my side. His palm is hot against the fitted silk of my gown and I turn to kiss him. I step back and admire his tuxedo. His slick, blond hair and angular jaw give him an air of power, or maybe it's just the way he appraises people, even me. He is studying me, his head cocked to the side.
“I think the single diamond would look stunning with that dress,” he suggests softly, and I pause. He crosses the bedroom and opens the safe, retrieving one of many velvet cases and I watch him deftly remove a thin, sparkling chain, return the box to the safe, and give the dial a clockwise spin. I love
the curve of his neck as he examines the necklace, the small dip behind his ear and the slope of his hairline, his hair curled slightly at the nape, and I want to run my nails up the back of his scalp. I love the long lines of his body and I imagine his spine beneath the layers of thick fabric, all hard-edged dips and valleys. I love his almost invisible smirk, teasing me, as he motions me to spin around. I comply and in one swift motion he removes the pearls and clasps the solitaire. I turn and gaze into the mirror and a small part of me agrees:
the solitaire looks fantastic.
It is large, five carats, and it rests above the wide band of the strapless dress, the bottom of the teardrop hinting seductively at an ample swell of cleavage. As always, I am divided with Henry. I love his authority, the strength he has that his opinions are not merely suggestions. Or maybe it's just that he's so different from me: decisive, definitive.
But I did love the pearls.
“Seems indecent somehow for a benefit, doesn't it?” I am tracing the outline of the diamond, watching him in the mirror. His eyes flicker over my reflected body. “The size of the diamond,” I clarify.
He shakes his head slowly. “I don't think so. It's a benefit for children, yes, but only the wealthy attend these sorts of things. You know this. It's as much a display of the organizer as anything else. Everyone will be watching you.” He rests his hands on my shoulders.
“Stop! You're making me nervous.” I am already on edge, my mind swimming with details. I've done a few of these kinds of events as a second chair but never as a chairperson. There will be a large crowd, all eyes on me, and my heart flutters against my rib cage at the thought.
I've been in Henry's world more than a year now and the need to prove myself seems never-abating. This will be the first time I've taken any of the spotlight for myself. My debutante ball, if you will. And yet, I'm completely foolish. I'm
risking everything for a slice of validation. These are things I can't say to Henry, or to anyone.
His palms are cool and heavy. We stand this way for an indefinite amount of time, our eyes connected in the mirror. As usual, I can't tell what he's thinking. I have no idea if he is happy or pleased, or what he feels beyond anything he says. His eyes are veiled and closed, his mouth bowed down in a slight frown. He kisses my neck and I close my eyes.
“You are beautiful,” he whispers, and for a moment, his cheekbones soften, his eyes widen slightly, the tautness of his mouth, his chin, seems to loosen. His face opens up to me and I can read him. I wonder how many other women say this, that their husbands befuddle them? Most of the time, Henry is a closed book, his face a smooth plane, his bedroom face similar to his boardroom face, and I'm left to puzzle him out, to tease the meaning from carefully guarded responses. But right now, he looks at me expectantly.
“I was thinking about Carolyn.” I wince, knowing this isn't the right time. I want to pull the words back. He gives me a small smile.
“We can talk later. Let's just have a nice time, please?” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his cell phone. He strides out of the room and my back is cold, missing the heat of him. My shoulders feel lighter, and when I glance back to the mirror, my mouth is open as if to call him back.
It's not that he objects to my finding Carolyn necessarily, he's just impatient with the recent obsession. He doesn't think these things ever end well, and he is the kind of man who respects the current “state of affairs”âhe may have used those words. He can't understand the need.
You have me
, he says when I bring it up.
You have us, our life, the way it is now. She rejected you.
I think he takes it personally.
We have been married nearly a year and have the rest of
our lives to “complicate things.” I think about couples who giggle and share their pasts, their childhood memories and lost loves. Henry thinks all these conversations are unnecessary, trivial. He is the kind of person whose life travels a straight path, his head filled with to-do lists and goals. Meandering is for slackers and dreamers. And certainly, mulling over the what-has-been is a fruitless effort; you can't change the past. I admitted once to having a journal in college, a place to keep scraps of poetry, quotes I'd picked up along the way, slices of life. Henry cocked his head, his eyebrows furrowed, the whole idea unfathomable.
And yet, here I am. This house. This man. This life. It's mine, despite the insecurities that seem to follow me around like a stray cat. I stare at my reflection. A thin, pink scar zigzags horizontally across the top of my right wrist, as I touch the diamond at my throat, the setting big as a strawberry.
His sure footsteps beat against the teak floor of the apartment and his deep baritone echoes as he calls for the car. Time to leave.
â¢Â Â â¢Â Â â¢
I've always been attracted to elegance and I blame Evelyn's fascination with money. It's so easy to be consumed by it when you have none. But unlike Evelyn, I don't look for the glossy, airbrushed facade of celebrity, the flash of comfortable entitlement. I prefer the tiny details: clean lines and sleek design. I care about whether California rolls are passÃ©, or if the gift bags properly reflect a theme. I love when bright spiky dahlias are arranged with classic white lilies, a contrast of classic and fun, and the resulting graceful style elicits a quiet gasp of “You know, I rarely notice the centerpieces, but this is exquisite.” I muse over minutia, the table linen colorâ
will it match the butter yellow stamen that shoots from the center of the lily?â
the wine, the main courseâ
lamb is such an acquired taste.
Designing, whether it be a floral arrangement or decor
for a benefit, is where I feel at home. It's where I feel like
whoever I am at the moment. It's been the only constant.
The New York Public Library steps are lit with hundreds of flameless candles that flicker by design, with no regard to the wind. The white marble of Astor Hall is awash with deep blue lighting. Large light installations reminiscent of bare, budding trees are intermingled with six-foot-tall columns wound with bursting white and green lilies. White lights twinkle on almost every flat surface. The tables are spotlighted in soft blue and green lights. It's an enchanted forest, complete with hanging crystal butterflies.
Henry places his hand on the small of my back and leans down to my ear.
“Zoe, this looks incredible.” His breath smells sweet like spun sugar.
“You were right, is that what you're looking for?” I tease. Henry had suggested the NYPL for the venue in the first place.
The rotunda looks better than I could have imagined, better than my silly sketches. I turn in place, absorbing the details, the
I desire so muchâthe six-person tables, perfect for intimate conversation, the crystal centerpieces that mimic the trees, white reaching branches thrust toward the ceiling, balancing a smattering of glass-winged butterflies. Each table is adorned with greens, small woody bundles nestled inside frosted mason jars, and blooming baby lilies. The overall effect is of being thrust into an enchanted forest, minus the wood sprites. Everything glittery, white and green, glass sparkling.
I think to call Lydia, the flowers look amazing. La Fleur d'Elise did the event, as a favor to me, although my conversations with Lydia had been all business. A familiar pang of loss hits me.
The walls are tastefully hung with information on CARE,
black-and-white photos of past events, less elegant but more
as the wealthy often claim to want to be
, a concept that has always made me laugh. People claim to want
another word that is bandied about at these events, yet men like Norman Krable, on the short list of the richest men of New York, are never seen on the new playgrounds or at any orphan shelter, outside of the ribbon cutting. I try very hard not to let this bother me. But yet, the black and whites hang,
real and authentic,
with wide-open smiles of parentless children, black and white, Asian and Indian, Portuguese and Spanish. Children who don't understand racism or hate, only the cool rejection of a foster family's dismissal. Some of them I know by name, but not all, and at that juncture I have to wonder if I'm any better than the Norman Krables of the world.
“Zoe, I think everything has come together beautifully.” Francesca Martin is walking briskly toward me, her heels clipping against the marble floor. “One thing, we had chosen white linens, but here, look.” She leads me to a table in the corner and the white is stark, blinding and rough, in the blue lighting. The table next to it absorbs the blue effortlessly, the lights softened somehow by the linen, but I can't make out the color. “It's a lavender linen. I know!â” she holds up her hand and shakes her head. “Lavender is outdated,
I know. It's like three springs ago, and I honestly have no idea if it's ever coming back, but I think with the blue lighting the white is just too
You can't even tell it's lavender. It's so offset by the green and blue.”
It's so late for a last-minute change.” I'm skeptical, but Francesca isn't the event coordinator at NYPL without reason. Her instincts are sharp, impeccable. I agree and one of Francesca's hired hands changes linens. The brightness of the room softens to a deep, rich glow.
The benefit is a relatively small oneâonly two hundred
people. It's not a formal sit-down dinner, but a simple cocktail hour with a rotating array of hors d'oeuvres all chosen to reflect the enchanted forest theme of the party: wild mushroom ragout, spring pea puree on crostini, diver scallops with foie gras butter, bison tartare. The standing tables in the corner hold silver trays, lined with Stilton pastries and raspberry chutney, strawberry ricotta tartlets with apple blossom honey.
My mouth waters, but my stomach flips in nervous protest.
“Simply stunning, darling.” Henry hovers next to the three-piece orchestra, a flute of champagne in each hand. He hands one to me and gives me one of his rare but dazzling smiles.
Proud. At this moment, he is proud.
The evening turns with unstoppable speed. I am shuttled from one table to the next, a conveyor belt for mingling. I stay mostly quiet, nod and smile. I recognize a few people but Henry knows everyone, his arm snaked protectively around my waist. It's my event, yet somehow, Henry still runs the show. I'm appraised always, the unasked question
hovering on everyone's lips. With every charm, every joke, every time the crowd rumbles with laughter at my husband, the women,
look at me, heads slightly cocked, a small flick of their eyes. Barely noticeable.
The question is never verbalized. Now that I've assimilated, the men are more accepting.
Tonight, they're stunning in dark tuxedos, their faces clean-shaven and shiny; their dates, breathtaking in long draping gowns, their designers referred to only as
Carolina, Vera, Donna,
My own strapless gown, blue and adorned with white crystals, was bought off the rack at Bergdorf's. I swing wildly between my independence and my desire to be preened by Henry. His power and his money and his affection. He pretends not to notice, and I pretend I'm
not in over my head here in this world. At the moment, we both find this silent agreement charming.
A reporter from the
New York Post
circulates, as I've invited him but requested that he not make a nuisance of himself. His ticket was a gift, much to the protest of the board of CARE, but in return I've asked for a front-page spread in the society pages. I am hoping for above the fold. I'm told that it will depend on Norman Krable's appearance.
The reporter, whose name I've forgotten, has strict instructions:
Photograph the event. The guests. The decor. Do not, under any circumstances, photograph me.
He laughed at that, mistakenly believing my adamancy derived from a woman's insecurity and I waved off his protests with a light flick of my hand. He spends the evening quietly snapping photographs, and I can't be certain, but I feel as though the camera is frequently aimed at me. I skim the shadows, avoid the spotlight, but too often, I catch the reporter's eye. He seems to be one of these men who wants to rescue a woman, a
man, like he could be the one to show me. The whole idea is silly. Skirting the spotlight has become a way of life, and not all that long ago, a necessity. Maybe even still a necessity, but I avoid thinking about it.
Past donors and board members rotate on the podium. I've talked my cochair into being the MC. Public speaking is not my thing. The closing speaker is Amanda Natese, a twenty-Âyear-old culinary student who was raised primarily on the money provided by CARE. She is a success story, we hope a harbinger of things to come. We'd like more stories like hers. When Amanda was eighteen she aged out of the system and was handed $4,000, courtesy of CARE. She's worked nights as a dishwasher and apprentice in various chain restaurants, and recently she enrolled in culinary school. Her speech is met with a standing ovation. The reporter is snapping madly. It doesn't hurt that Amanda is a stunning six-foot-tall black
woman born with a grace the system was unable to take from her. I greet her offstage, in the darkened wing, and give her a hug. Up close she is teary, and I feel the edge seep away.
I repeat it like a mantra, it's the best I can do.
I seek Henry. In public, I always seek Henry. I can't help it. He is only moderately tall, but his glossy hair is a beacon.
In a crowd, he is charming, erudite. His comments are thoughtful and he is well versed in current events and politics. His opinions are generally heavily considered and almost never debated. Something about the tone of his voice, floating above the din of the crowd. I find him in a circle, men nodding along with him as he waxes about tax benefits.
A redhead leans toward him, whispering in his ear, and he laughs. When he sees me, he reaches back, pulls me into the circle against his side, between him and the redhead, and she gives me a sly smile. There's that
She relocates to his left, continues to lean toward him. She whispers clever commentary out of the side of her mouth, words I can't make out, bits of gossip I don't understand. She and Henry know the same people. I absently tend to a wayward strand of lights. Eventually, she wanders away.
Norman Krable shows up late, a blonde on his arm who is not Mrs. Krable, and the crowd buzzes with the slight whiff of scandal. As I catch the
reporter's eye, he gives me a small wink.
Above the fold, it's all I'm asking for here.
He nods once, the blonde cementing the spot, and I sigh with relief.
The charity has never been featured in the Society section, but my goal this year was to bring it up to the celebrity level. Not for the glitz and the glamour of it, that's more of a liability than anything to me, but for the fact I am deeply attached to the cause of helping adopted and orphaned children.
Then again, I am one.
“Silly man,” Henry murmurs from behind me. Henry
knows Norman and he's always been fairly vocal about his impatience with adulterers. It's easy for Henry to chide, as his wife is not yet thirty years old. I remind him of this, as a private joke, and he tells me what he always tells me.
I will love you when you're ninety.
The buzz dies down, and later I hear that Norman's blonde is lovely to look at but dumb as a stone. Henry almost laughs at this, but not quite, the soft laugh lines around his mouth deepen and he gives a muffled
The evening is ending, the number of guests leaving tipsy and laughing is a sign of success, I think. I have spoken with 90 percent of the people there and I am worn. Tired. I lean against Henry's shoulder.
“I'm sorry, we've been watching you all night and I have to ask,” says a voice from behind me. I turn and stare. The woman continues as though my face has not drained of all color. “But you're Hilary Lawlor, aren't you? You are! We'd know you anywhere.” The woman is round and soft and friendly and her husband is almost a mirror image of herâtwo Weebles standing side by side. I concentrate on breathing, but I'd know them anywhere, their happy laughter, their identical snub nosesâhers freckled, his not. Her round bright blue eyes, framed with black spidery lashes. She's gained about twenty pounds in the past five years and, not surprisingly, so has her husband. I am hot and cold at once; my head is buzzing.
I'm overly aware of Henry's arm brushing mine, and I sense him straighten up, take interest.
“I'm sorry, you must have the wrong person. My name is Zoe Whittaker.” I turn and grasp Henry's arm, too hard. Henry says nothing but wrinkles his brow, my back turned to the couple.
In five years, this has happened only one other time. One other incident of being discovered, of being found out, and
it amounted to nothing. I saw an old college professor in a restaurant and tried to duck out before she could recognize me. I saw the dawning comprehension in her eyes, a slight turn of her head, her mouth opening to speak. I paid the bill and left.
It amounted to nothing, as I am sure this will, too. Yet I find that I can't catch my breath.
“Hilary, I can't believe this. Do you know everyone thinks you're dead!” Her voice is shrill and she's excited, inching around to face me again. I realize she's not going to let it go. Who would? I stare at a large, pink cubic zirconia pendant wobbling in her ample cleavage, a bead of sweat glistens there. She's about to hug me, I can tell. I want to tell her, Hilary
dead, you see? But I can't. I open and close my mouth and then, because I don't know what else to do, I cover my lips with my hand and murmur to Henry, “I've had too much champagne, I think. I feel sick.”
Quickly, he grabs my elbow and leads me outside. The air is crisp, the way an April night should be, and the wind slaps my cheeks, bringing some of the blood back. I don't know when Henry called the car, but it idles out front and we rush into it, a tumble of silk swooshing against the leather seats. After we pile in, he pinches my chin, turns my head to him. Studies me. I involuntarily jerk my head away. He asks, “Are you okay? Are you going to faint?” I shake my head no.
We are quiet while I put the pieces together and I realize it's a bit amazing it's only happened twice. I mean, I went to college in California but it's not the other side of the world. This is New York, the city of millions of transplants a year. I take deep calming breaths and hope that tonight she will not call her girlfriends, her old sorority sisters:
You will not believe who I saw tonight!
No one will believe her. It's too crazy.
“That was the oddest thing,” Henry says, looking out the window, his fingers absently tracing circles on the back of
my hand. “They thought you were someone else, Hannah something?”
“I know. I have no idea who she was.” I laugh but it sounds forced. “I must have drunk a ton of champagne.”
“But did you know them?” Henry watches me now, his eyes narrowed. It's not like Henry to press an issue. He's generally too dismissive for that. His sharp, eagle eyes are fastened now on the idea, a field mouse in his sights.
I pause, weighing my options. I stare out the window at the receding steps of the library and I can see them at the top, watching us, their mouths agape and the man shaking his head, pointing with a thick index finger at the car as it pulls away. They must have followed us out. I have no options, I still protect my secret as though my life depends on it. “No, I didn't.”
But I'm lying. Molly McKay was my roommate in college. Five years ago, in the throes of finals week, I left our small one-bedroom apartment on Williard Street in the middle of the night and never came back.
I wake on Saturday, sweating and panicked with the vague notions of a terrifying dream tugging at my mind. Before it seeps away, I can only grasp large shadows and men with guns, chasing me down Forty-Second Street. I sit up, untangling my legs from damp sheets. The room has the eerie cast of early morning rain, bluish and depressing.
Henry is gone and that itself isn't unusual. He's usually up before five and out the door, even on a Saturday. Sundays are for sleeping in and espresso in the sitting room, but Saturdays are just another workday.
The night before comes back to me in a rush, followed by a heavy, clenching feeling in my stomach. I swing my legs over the side of the bed, and for a second, my vision clouds as the world shifts sideways. I push the heel of my hand into my forehead. I didn't drink but one glass of champagneâthe pulsing behind my eyes can't be a hangover. I have a nebulous memory of Henry pressing a small white tablet into my palm the night before, kissing my forehead. “Tonight, you'll take this,” he said, and I felt a quick flash of irritation. But I swallowed it down on instinct, the need to sleep, and to forget
Molly McKay. I hadn't protested, but quite honestly, I don't understand his penchant for pills, his fussing, trying to push this or thatâa medication, a tablet, a drug. There's always
to cure any ailment and the bottles sit, lined up in Henry's medicine cabinet like soldiers waiting to battle the bulk of his ails:
alprazolam, zolpidem, lorazepam.
The thick, cottony coating of my tongue confirms it. Henry, unaware of my past or my reasons, always pushes aside my protests with a dismissive pat.
The shower is hot, the spray rinses away the remaining fog from whatever I'd been given. As I dry off and tie the towel around me, tucking one end into the other, I shake loose any resentment.
He's only trying to help.
Henry babies me and I waffle between secretly adoring it, the pampering and the idea of being this “kept woman,” and childishly rejecting it, rebelling like a teenager to his silly rules and requests. Henry is a product of a traditional household and paternalism runs deep in his veins, which I find both charming and a little infuriating, depending on the day.
I check the clock. 8:58. I want to call Francesca, to find out exactly how I missed Molly McKay's name on the final guest list.
She married her boyfriend, but his last name escapes me entirely. Then it clicks, like tumblers sliding into place.
Her boyfriend, now her husband, I was sure, his name was Gunther. Well, if I had seen Molly and Gunther on the guest list, I would have been on alert. I am used to watching my back this way. I've spent half of the last decade with a careful eye on the street behind me, although, to be honest, since marrying Henry, I've become increasingly sloppier about it. In our Tribeca penthouse, it is hard not to feel protected, insulated from evil, as though having money keeps you good, or wholesome. I'm not na
ve: in many cases, aren't the rich the ones perpetuating evil?
I remember Molly from our college days, round and bub
bly, with peering, hawk-like blue eyes. Even then, she'd fasten on to an ideaâa boy one of us liked, a professor we hated, a piece of wayward gossipâand figure out how it could benefit her, turn it razor sharp. She was subtle in her manipulation, even then, and age and time hone natural skills. She was someone to fear, if she knew your secrets. I envision her now, working her pet Gunther into a full frenzy. We'd always called him that, meanly, behind their backs. Her trick dog.
The phone shrills, and I'm startled out of this thought. The clock reads exactly nine and I smile. Henry calls at exactly nine every day. Never a minute later or a minute earlier. I asked him once, what if he was in a meeting? Surely this could happen. At the time, he had only blinked at me and replied, “I can miss a few minutes of any meeting, regardless of the topic.” And his answer was so definitive, I never questioned it again, at least not out loud. It still strikes me every single day as odd. Who can say that they can carve out time, no matter the length, at exactly the same time every day, without fail?
“Hello?” I half-sigh and half-laugh into the phone.
“Are you still sick?” His voice comes over the line, silky and deep like melted chocolate.
“No, I feel better. With enough sleep, I guess anyone would.” I say this sarcastically, but with a smile in my voice.
Henry laughs softly. “Can't you ever just let me take care of you? I love to, you know. And you said you
feel better.” I say nothing, because quite honestly, I do. When I'm quiet, he continues, “Okay, I'm sorry. I know you hate the sleeping pills. I try very hard not to recommend them. Am I forgiven? Meet me for lunch?”
“Maybe. I have some odds and ends to tie up from last night. Can I let you know?” I trace the pattern of the coverlet with my fingertip, a manicured red fingernail on the bright white spread like a blood spatter. I pull the towel tighter around me.
He harrumphs on the line, I can tell. I rarely say no to Henry. “You
eat, right? You'll eat regardless. Why not join me?”
“We'll see, okay? I'll call you. Don't worry. I love you.”
We hang up and before I can second-guess myself, I call Francesca and request the final guest list. In thirty seconds, my email bings, I tap it open on my phone and scan it. It looks the same as it did the previous Wednesday, no mention of Molly McKay or Gunther What's-his-name. I call Francesca back and ask her if there is a way someone could have attended the benefit without being on the guest list. She is flippant.
“Sure, I think some sets of tickets were purchased as comps from corporations. That's pretty common, an out-of-town colleague, the boss wants to show him a nice event,
see how swanky New York can be?
Benefit events are used as networking opportunities all the time. Why?”
I say no reason and we hang up. I log on to the computer with my phone still in my hand. I Google
University of California, San Francisco,
and the first hit has a picture.
The picture is dated this year. His face is sloped into his neck and his smile is wide, too ingenuous for a man approaching thirty. His teeth are gapped and the overall effect is cartoonish. He looks slightly older than my memories of him, a bit more rotund, but there's no doubting who he is. A few more Google searches reveal Gunther and Molly were married a few years ago, a lavish west coast wine country wedding.
A few more searches, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn reveal Gunther is currently living in Mobile, Alabama, as a pharmaceutical sales representative for Gencor Pharmaceuticals. Another quick search shows me the home office of Gencor is on Lexington Avenue here in Manhattan. I puff out a breath. Okay, that mystery is probably solved. I contemplate calling Francesca back to confirm, but between
my hasty exit last night and the phone call this morning, she probably thinks I've lost my mind. I feel irrationally stuck, claustrophobic. What if Molly and Gunther figure out who I am? It wouldn't be difficult, really, I've become shamefully carefree. I imagine them staking out my apartment, possibly chatting easily with Walter, the doorman.
How long have you known Zoe Whittaker?
I put my head between my knees and take a few deep, calming breaths. I'm thinking of the pictures, God, I was so stupid. I want to bring CARE up a notchâI said that! What was I thinking? What if my face ends up in the newspaper? It wouldn't be the first time.
Shortly after I came to New York, I was part of a feature that appeared in
for the flower shop where I worked, La Fleur d'Elise. I was a grunt, an intern. They stuck me in the corner of a group photo shoot, no matter that I tried to wriggle out of it altogether. I repeatedly turned my head at the last moment, until the photographer, exasperated, finally proclaimed he'd gotten a good one. Elisa had looked at me, rolled her eyes like she'd known I was the problem. When the feature ran, I sweat bullets for a month. But my face, my stupid, stretchy, involuntary grin was there, as recognizable as anything. Nothing happened.
I press my fist between my teeth. I've always had a problem with listening, even as a child. I was stubborn.
Hilary will do what Hilary will do.
A common singsong refrain from Evelyn, her round cherubic face, healthy and flush with color, tilted up, her mouth open, her finger wagging in front of my nose.
I remember something and fish through my purse. Pulling out a slip of paper, I dial the number scrawled on the back in my own hand. When the receptionist picks up and chirps
New York Post
, I ask for Cash Murray. His voice comes on the line after a small blip of hold music and I ask him to meet me for coffee. He agrees and picks a place a block from the office. I dress conservatively, in a white silk blouse and black pants,
and I'm at the coffee shop ten minutes early. To my surprise, Cash is already there, seated in a corner booth, thumbing through the
New York Times
“Do you have to hide out in obscure diners to read that?” I say as I slide into the booth across from him. My pant leg catches on a ripped swath of red vinyl. I look down quickly and am relieved to see the fabric isn't torn.
He gives me a grin, and I realize he's much younger than I'd thought. He's my ageâa beefy man, the kind that spends an hour in the gym every day, but probably not more than that, a simple effort to fight off genetics. His elbows rest on the table and his arms are thick, his nails bitten to the quick. He moves quickly, the jumpy, alert markers of a journalist.
“To what do I owe the honor, Mrs. Whittaker?” He sips from his mug, raising one eyebrow. I flush, feeling transparent.
“I need you to show me your pictures from last night?” I end the statement with a upward lilt, and silently curse myself. I think of Henry, who speaks with
, who would have thrown off the statement like a command, and Cash would be scrambling to meet it. I get raised eyebrows and a friendly smile.
“Oh! Yeah, I got some really great shots!” He's enthusiastic now, leaning back in his seat. “I'd love to run them by you. You know, you're easy to photograph.” He picks at his nail.
“Well, that's what I wanted to tell you. I need you to not run any shots of me, in particular.” I try for my
voice. “I did discuss that before the event, you know.”
“Oh, that's almost impossible. I mean, you ran the show. The whole event was spectacular, and you were the shining star of the night. Really, if you're worried about the shots, I'm telling you, they were stunning. I say that professionally, you know?”
“No, Mr. Murray, listen, it's not that. I just can't have my picture in the paper, okay? I won't sign off on it.”
“Well, to be honest, you don't have to. I was invited to the event
to take pictures.
If you want me to run the article, I need to use you. Frankly, photos of impoverished kids aren't selling the society pages. Beautiful women who care about impoverished kids are.”
“Then don't run the article.”
“But I already wrote it.”
“I don't care, can't you just call the whole thing off?”
He eyes me suspiciously and I shift in my seat. I maintain eye contact, refusing to be the one who breaks first. Finally, he gives me a wry smile.
“Why don't I show you what I have and we can go from there?”
I nod slowly. Okay, fine.
“But my camera is at home. How about we meet here Monday, same time?”
“When is the article running?” I'm surprised, I'd expected it to run tomorrow.
“Oh, well, it's a write-up of the event but it's more a spotlight of the charity, so it'll run next Sunday.”
I agree to meet him, then almost laugh out loud at a sudden thought. The reason behind my insistence is a better story than the one he's trying to protect. I realize then why Cash Murray is a journalist for the society pages. He lacks the nose for hard news.
I pull out my cell phone and call Henry.
“Zoe, I had a feeling you'd change your mind. I was headed to Gramercy Tavern. Join me.”
By the time I get there, he is already seated. He has chosen a table in the center of the room with an eye on the door where he can view the comings and goings. He wears a casual Saturday dress shirt with pressed khakis and he flashes me a genuine smile. My heart catches.
“Sit, sweetheart. I've ordered you wine. How did you
spend your morning?” He eyes me keenly over his menu. He means to look nonchalant but how I spend my time is always of utmost interest to him. Sometimes, this irritates me. Today I do something I've never done beforeâI omit.
“Oh, I spoke with Francesca about last night.” A technical truth.
“Ah, and she was thrilled, I imagine?” Henry studies the first courses
I don't know why he bothersâhe'll order beef tartare with a single glass of Barolo.
“Completely thrilled. Thanks for all your help. Last night, the past few weeks.”
Henry had been publicly supportive of the benefit, talking it up in conversations with colleagues and giving statements to the media. Above the menu I can see his eyes, crinkled at the corners. He looks older, somehow, than he did even last night.
“Why wouldn't I? What matters to you, matters to me. Is that so hard to believe?” He folds the menu and looks at me intently. This is his thing, this intense
gaze. Everyone from investors to servicemen are equally charmed by Henry Whittaker. Which is mostly why he can order a bottle-only wine by the glass.
Henry motions to someone across the room and through the rest of lunch I sit silently while Henry discusses businessâmarket dips and tradesâwith anyone who stops by our table. He makes attempts to include me, blathers on about last night, calls me brilliant to his friends. He receives polite nods in return; they're used to his posturing when it comes to me. I stay for an hour, enough time to placate him, and then excuse myself. I kiss his cheek and walk myself out.