The dog. The dog was barking again, a series of bright, piercing yelps that infiltrated their way into the early morning dreams of Gretchen McLeod (neé Silverstein), and ruptured her sleep. She burrowed her face into the cool, polished cotton of the pillowcase in an effort to obliterate the sound. Three yips, a merciful pause in which she was lulled into thinking the dog had at last calmed down, only to be followed by three even louder and more insistent barks. The pattern cycled through three, four, five times before Gretchen yanked the blanket aside and got out of bed. She was momentarily disoriented; the house itself was still unfamiliar to her and she had never stayed in this particular room—all English chintz and suffocating lace—before. But the confusion passed and she padded into the bathroom; the six bedrooms in her mother’s grand manse, each had its own bathroom and Gretchen was grateful for the amenity.
The barking continued as she splashed cold water on her face and rubbed it vigorously with a plush white towel. White towels! Only people who had live-in maids would buy white towels. Since her mother was now among their number, she bought white with reckless impunity. And these were no ordinary white towels either. These white towels had a scalloped border of Wedgewood blue and matching Wedgewood blue monograms in their centers. White towels deluxe.
Gretchen contemplated a shower, decided to wait, and instead examined her reflection in the magnifying mirror mounted above the towel bar. Slight puffiness under the eyes—check. Dark circles—check. A gradual deepening of the nasal-labial lines, small, red bump on her right cheek, slightly loosened flesh under the jaw line, check, check, check. And her brows—her brows needed a major overhaul before the wedding, which was scheduled to begin at seven o’clock this evening.
Gretchen turned from the mirror. Enough. It was being under the same roof as her siblings—Teddy and Caleb with their respective partners down at one end of the hall, Angelica, the bride-to-be, ensconced in a room at the other—that brought out thisdistinctly adolescent form of self-scrutiny. Only Gretchen was almost forty, a significant, milestone-sort-of-birthday, and decades away from adolescence.
The dog was still barking as Gretchen returned to the bedroom, dug out her clothes—still sloppily crammed into her suitcase—and dressed. How did Betsy endure it? This was the very same mother who, in all the years Gretchen was growing up, would not allow so much as an orange and black dappled goldfish, won at the East Meadow Jewish Center’s annual Purim fair, to cross their threshold.
So how, at the age of sixty-four had her mother morphed into someone who did not simply tolerate this dog—a Pomeranian with a pointed, fox-like face and perpetuallyhysterical demeanor—but actually seemed to worship it? Betsy was like some freshly hatched religious fanatic. How did I ever live without a dog? she would say, regaling anyone in earshot about her recent conversion. To think I would have missed this! She spoke to the creature in wheedling, dulcet tones, fed it diced morsels of steak and roast beef, allowed it to sleep in her bed. What Don, Gretchen’s mother’s large, backslapping husband thought of this arrangement, Gretchen didn’t know. He seemed to tolerate it, just as he was tolerating all the hoopla—and the expense—of the wedding that was about to take place. But Don was utterly charmed by Angelica. So charmed that when Angelica wrinkled her perfect little nose at the mere idea of Leonard’s of Great Neck—Betsy’s suggestion—he immediately offered their house instead. No surprise there. Angelica was Don’s favorite, just as she had been their father’s. Betsy’s having swapped one husband for another had not changed the essential dynamic of their clan.
Angelica had it all: the looks, the brains, and the attitude. Even the name: how to compare the celestial “Angelica” with the relentlessly earthbound “Gretchen”? Her sister had lucked out in so many ways, great and small. Gretchen’s role in this wedding was, both by definition and by family history, ancillary. It was Angelica’s day and no one cared what Gretchen thought or felt or wanted as long as she was willing to play her assigned part, sister of the bride, in this vast, unfolding pageant. From the way everyone was carrying on, you’d think that there was no more important event in the entire nation. Or on the planet.
There had been a series of well-choreographed events at which Gretchen was expected to appear: the over-the top engagement party at Bouley, in Tribeca, the bridal shower at the Park Avenue duplex of one of Angelica’s closest friends and matron of honor, the ocean view pre-wedding brunch and catered rehearsal dinner, all culminating in the nuptials this evening, when the two hundred and thirty three invited guests would descend on the lawn of her step-father’s five acre, baronial but unremittingly vulgar home, to hear Angelica say “I do.”
Certainly Gretchen’s own modest wedding—justice of the peace, small family party in the backyard of the East Meadow house—more than fifteen years ago, had not been treated with such fanfare. Of course Betsy had not yet married up, as Gretchen’s grandmother Lenore liked to say. Had not yet become Lady Bountiful, with her manicured lawns, her magnificent, circular rose garden—the only part of the vast property that Gretchen did not find in appalling taste—her charities and her neurotic little dog. Everything was different now. But in another, even more fundamental way, everything—that is, Gretchen’s place in this family—was exactly the same.
So here she was, tetchy from lack of sleep, and ill-at-ease in her mother’s sprawling abode, a faux Italianate palazzo of putty-colored stucco, with a terra cotta roof and mullioned windows. Gretchen was overwhelmed by the multitude of bed and bathrooms, the terrace and the balconies, the pretentious, curved driveway as well as the various outbuildings—sheds, greenhouse, cabana—all arrayed around the main structure. Then there was network of brick and blue stone paths that linked the various parts of the property together. Coming here for a visit required a map.
As she contemplated her options—coffee, black, steaming and strong, or a shower—her cell phone rang. She dived for it, hoping desperately it was not her boss, Ginny Valentine, calling to annoy her with a request for some trivial bit of information that she surely could have found for herself if she had only bothered to get up out her padded, wheeled, and insanely expensive leather chair to look. She located her phone in the morass that comprised the inside of her handbag. But it was not Ginny after all. “Hello?” she said, sinking back into the enticing softness of the bed. Silence, and then the voice of her not yet ex-husband, Ennis, sounding so close he could have been standing next to her. Instinctively, she moved the phone away from her ear.
“Gretchen, are you there?”
“I’m here,” she said. But she wished she had not answered; she was not in the mood to talk to him today. Or any day for that matter.
“I’m at the station.”
“Station?” She didn’t understand. “What station?”
“The train station. Here in Great Neck. I’ll be getting a taxi to the house,” he continued. “Unless you can come out and get me.” He pronounced the word “out” as if it were spelled “oot;” Ennis had grown up in Glasgow and even though he hadn’t lived there in decades, he still had the accent.
Gretchen did not say anything. She knew he had been invited to the wedding; he and Angelica had always gotten along well and their twin daughters, Justine and Portia, had begged that he be included. But he had declined, much to Gretchen’s relief. All of that was months ago, and none of her elaborate preparations for this day—mental, physical, even spiritual for God’s sake—had included Ennis.
“You still there?” Ennis was saying.
Yes, she wanted to scream. I’m still here, but I wish you weren’t!
But Gretchen was not a screamer. Never had been, and never would be. She had always been the good sport, the trooper, the one who compromised, yielded and accommodated. She watched her sister shoot through her life with the force and direction an arrow heading straight for the bull’s eye. Her brother Teddy had that same quality. But she, Gretchen, did not. Instead, she lived her life like a handful of confetti, tossed up into the air and scattered down—gracefully she liked to think—a little here, a little there.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” she said, sidestepping the question about driving to the station to get him.
“I wasn’t…” he said. “And then I was.” There was a pause. “So here I am.”
“Well, well!” she said, the brittle falseness in her voice bordering on parody.
“Isn’t that just dandy?” She drew a deep breath, for strength. “Does Angelica know?”
“Yes. I called her to tell her.”
Funny, she never bothered to mention it, Gretchen fumed.
“Gretchen? Did I lose you?”
Did you ever, she thought. But did not say. “I’m still here,” she said finally. “Though I’m really not sure why you came Ennis. I don’t think it was a good idea.” She began pulling on the lace edge of a pillowcase; if she kept this up she would no doubt tear it.
“The girls asked me to.” He sounded defensive. “They kept calling to see if I would change my mind, and I didn’t want to disappoint them.”
“But you had no trouble disappointing me,” she said, unable to hide her bitterness.
“That’s another reason I came,” he said quickly. “I wanted to see you. To talk to you.”
“About what?” The lace was sturdier than she would have expected; despite her yanking, it remained intact.
“Let’s do this in person,” he said. “Will you come out and get me?” Oot.
Gretchen did not answer right away. In the past, she would have gone. She would have grumbled, she would have stewed, but she would have gone. Right now, though, she felt uncharacteristically uncooperative. Why should she have to play chauffeur for her estranged husband? Would Angelica do such a thing? Angelica, who had not even bothered to let her in on the change in the guest list? She was quite sure the answer was “I really don’t want to, Ennis,” she said at last. “I wasn’t expecting to see you today and I want to…prepare myself before I do.” She gave the lace trim a final tug and was obscurely pleased when it finally tore free of the pillowcase. There was a brief, wounded silence before he spoke again.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll call a taxi. See you later.” He clicked off.
Gretchen was left staring at her phone. Whatever burst of spirit that had enabled her to say no evaporated as soon as the connection was severed. She felt depleted and sad. Dreamy, sensitive Ennis, with his fine, wispy hair and his adorable accent. He was the love of her youth, the love of her life. Or so she had thought. They met, they courted—he’d been so ardent back then, calling late at night, “just to hear her breathe,” penning verse that he slid under the door of her dorm room at school, or slipped into the poetry books he was always buying for her—and they wed in great haste. Her parents had worried that they were too young, but Gretchen waved away all their concerns. He was the one, she told them. The One. Hah.
Gretchen surveyed the room to which she had been assigned. It had a cloying, virginal feel. A lace-infested bower of tiny floral prints, suffocating swags and fancy flounces, it effectively catapulted her back to middle school, one of the more dismal periods in her life. Angelica had been given much more soignée lodgings, with a raw silk duvet the color of champagne, and a very fine, at least to Gretchen’s admittedly imperfect eye, Persian rug. She had not actually seen the other rooms occupied by her siblings or her grandmother, Lenore, though she had been downstairs to the media room with its sixty-inch flat screen TV, piped in sound, Wii and new model Playstation. Justine and Portia were camped out there because Betsy thought it would be “more fun” than one of the upstairs bedrooms. Portia had been quite delighted by all the flashy, high-tech toys, but Justine scowled ferociously when they were shown to her.
“What’s wrong?” Gretchen had asked. “Don’t you like it?”
“What’s to like?” Justine had said. “It’s decadent beyond belief.”
Gretchen had not known how to reply. Her immediate thought was that she wanted to box Justine’s ears for her infernal rudeness—box her ears, what an arcane term. Gretchen was not even sure she knew what it meant; besides, she had never hit her children and was not about to start now.
But on a deeper level, Gretchen was worried. Justine’s displeasure—with the room, with her life at school and at home in Brooklyn—had become a kind of emotional kudzu, propagating madly and strangling everything in its path. Justine was not happy with anything, and Gretchen’s maternal barometer told her this was not just a typical adolescent need to push her mother away and in the process, carve out her own identity. No, it was something more. Something, if Gretchen was willing to be stingingly honest with herself, darker and more troubling. Justine was hurting; Gretchen could feel it, smell it, practically taste it, but the barrier her daughter had erected made it impossible for Gretchen to either locate the source of the pain or do anything to help.
Looking around her now, Gretchen felt sickened by the terminal sweetness. The urge to escape propelled her downstairs, where the kitchen was a hub of activity. Of course the crew from Elite Catering had its own, state-of-the-art station set up outside, near the main tent, but Betsy’s maids were preparing food to set out in the breakfast room to feed the family, and, apparently, anyone else who happened to wander in.
Water ran, pots clanged, and the phone trilled. One of the maids was at the sink rinsing berries in a colander; another was pouring various juices—apple, orange, grapefruit—into glazed pitchers brought back from Betsy’s recent trip to Tuscany.
Gretchen heard her mother’s voice—“Carmelita, could you please–” although the rest of what she said was drowned out by the noise of the food processor, which in full throttle sounded like a small jet taking off.
Gretchen paused. No one had seen her yet and, apart from her desire for a cup of strong, black coffee, there was no reason to go in. She would just be in the way. Breakfast was supposed to be laid out in the appropriately named breakfast room, but she saw no signs of it yet. Besides, Ennis would be here soon and she still wasn’t ready to see him.
She hurried back up the stairs, and poked her toothbrush around in her mouth. Having her own, immaculate bathroom for the duration of the visit was almost compensation for being here; back in Brooklyn, she shared a cramped, quietly deteriorating bathroom with her girls. Despite her frequent cleaning and even more frequent nagging, it seemed like there were always towels on the floor, hair in the sink, and wads of dirty tissues and cotton puffs overflowing from the trash pail. Portia, when reminded, would make an attempt at corralling the chaos; Justine would use Gretchen’s perfectly reasonable request as another black mark against her.
But it was time to stop wallowing. There was nothing she could do this weekend to address or alter whatever was going on with Justine. It would be challenge enough to get through the wedding relatively intact. She would deal with Justine when the nuptial circus had concluded and she was back home with her girls again.
Looking out the small, lace-bedecked window, Gretchen saw the four-car garage, which suddenly reminded of her an escape route. Her mother had given her a set of keys to one of the cars that was housed there—not either of the Mercedes, or the Jaguar, but the older, admirably maintained Volvo that the maids used for running errands. She’d drive to find a diner where she could order coffee, a couple of fried eggs, and side of hash browns without having to listen to anyone discuss calories, saturated fats or the wedding of the century. If she hurried, she could be out of the house well before Ennis, and his Scottishly-inflected-but-nonetheless-perfidious-heart, arrived, before she heard one more word about what Angelica wanted or Justine did not. Gretchen grabbed the keys. In her mind, she was already gone.