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Authors: Claire McMillan

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Literary, #United States, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction, #American

Gilded Age (4 page)

BOOK: Gilded Age
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“Oh, sorry,” I said. Rehab.

I filled an old cut-glass water tumbler that had been my granny’s. I enjoyed these little flourishes. So many choices were up to me now
that I had my own private world to command—from paint and paper, rugs and light fixtures, to the glass I served a guest in. It was part of why I’d convinced Jim to come back. For just a moment I was proud of what I was starting to form.

“Do you mind?” Ellie asked, pulling out a silver cigarette case engraved with her scrolling monogram and a matching lighter. She must have seen the horrified look on my face because she opened a window, pulled a chair next to it, and sat down. “I’ll blow straight out the window. You won’t even smell it.”

“Ell …,” I said.

But she was already lighting up. “You’ll see. I’ll put it out if it bothers you.”

This is how it had been since we were girls. From eating the last cupcake, to borrowing your favorite bracelet without asking, to raiding your parents’ liquor cabinet to your certain punishment—there was no stopping Ellie. You could object, but she went right along and did what she liked anyway. It was a trade-off I was used to. Most everyone was. In exchange, when you were around her she gave you a feeling that she’d just come from a party, exciting things were just around the corner, and she’d be taking you with her wherever she was headed next. Ellie was always at the center of things, and when you were with her, you were too.

She lit her smoke and as she exhaled the smell brought the clearest memory of driving with her in her mother’s Saab, listening to Morrissey sing, passing red-label Dunhills and lipsticks back and forth between us. I must have been in high school, she in college, as we headed to a party in the woods or a tennis game at the country club with older boys, popular boys, on a crystalline day driving into our limitless futures. She’d exercised a sisterly affection over me as she watched that I didn’t drink too much or made sure I was paired with the boy I was interested in for mixed doubles. The smell of her smoke, that faint taste—it flavored my fondest memories of our friendship.

I brought her an old saucer to use as an ashtray and went back to washing mushrooms in the sink. We chatted about our mothers, Jim,
and the pregnancy. I avoided the topic of the divorce, figuring she’d bring it up if she wanted to talk about it. She smoked and drank the rest of the Pellegrino before she came to the point of her visit.

“Tell me about Randall Leforte,” she said. “I’ve never seen him before last night.”

“Is your divorce final?” I said, moving to a cutting board to start chopping.

I’d meant this lightly, as a joke, but she winced. “Good garden seed,” she said, exposing her Cleveland roots with that turn of phrase. “Yes.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I really am.”

“Thanks,” she said, waving smoke out the window as if waving the matter away.

“You interested?” I asked. “In Leforte?”

“I might be.”

Post-college, when I’d lived in New York, I’d often gone out with Ellie, and I was used to her predatory categorization of men. There was big game; there was fishing; there were game birds; and there were wild animals.

“You want big-game hunting, he’s the biggest in town,” I said, slicing slowly through my pile of mushrooms and onions.

“Really? That’s it? There used to be lots of interesting men around.”

“I think he’s pretty much it, unless you want to go professional athlete.”

She rolled her eyes at this. “You mean become one of Grady’s Ladies?”

“Grady Sizemore is adorable,” I said.

“He’s a baby, and I’m still a good decade away from cougar-dom.”

“Over forty, that’s the def.”

“I’m not there yet.” She sat pensive for a moment. “I hate that word.”

“Like the older woman is always the predator,” I said. “What about the mougar?”

She laughed so hard smoke came out of her nose. “The man cougar?”

“Yeah, like George Clooney.”

“No one uses that word.”

“I think Sizemore is like twenty-seven, too old for a cougar anyway. Plus he got caught sexting someone.”

She raised an eyebrow at that.

“Naked pictures,” I said, putting a pile of mushrooms in a bowl and turning back to my recipe for what felt like the hundredth time.

“Well that’s more like it,” she said, smiling. “Brady Quinn is not bad looking,” she offered.

I started picking some thyme. “Definitely cute, but he was traded away.”

“That’s your flavor, isn’t it?” she said.

I blushed.

“Jim kind of looks like him,” she said. “Definitely your flavor.”

She drew out another cigarette, which annoyed me. “Seriously, what happened to all the interesting men in the Midwest?” she asked, and then lit her smoke.

“They all moved to New York, or Miami—LeBron, you know.”

“I’m not going back to New York,” she said, exhaling. “Seriously, what happened to Cinco Van Alstyne?”

Cinco was the nickname of Henry Pryce Van Alstyne V. His El Salvadorian nanny had coined the nickname when he was an infant. It’d stuck all through grade school, high school, college, and law school. Now, in a white-shoe downtown law firm where he was a promising associate, he went by Cinco to everyone but the courts.

Calm and reliable, he’d been my first kiss in the sandbox, and we’d remained friends. The Van Alstynes were a founding family of Cleveland. At one point Cinco’s great-great-grandfather had been the richest man in Ohio with a huge mansion downtown, long since sold to the state and now a museum. My family has known their family forever. Some called Cinco snobbish, others arrogant, but I knew he was merely shy.

“Married,” I said. “Don’t you remember the wedding a few years ago? He’s just moved back and is living out on that dilapidated country estate. The wife’s from New York. You should know her.”

I had yet to run into them.

Ellie ran through a list that we’d discussed many times consisting of our ex-boyfriends and the eligible men we’d grown up with. They were all married, married, married with children, and married. One had bought a winery in Napa and was now bankrupt.

“Huh.” She ashed her cigarette out the window. “I thought it’d be easier here.”

I snorted. “Everyone’s settled down here. I’d think it would be easier to find a single man in Manhattan. New York is huge.”

I was done prepping my ingredients. It was time to start cooking, and I needed to focus.

“My New York is small,” she said, shaking her head. “Alex got the friends in the divorce settlement. Along with all the money.” She laughed at the joke, but I frowned, rummaging in the refrigerator for the chicken.

“Oh, they were never my friends anyway. And it was never my money. Ironclad prenup—so my lawyers tell me. Do you know the correct term is ‘antenuptial agreement’? I should have known. Anyway, most of his friends bored the hell out of me.” She shrugged. “They all think I’m an addict and a cheating whore, which is really unfair considering there’s two sides to every story. Nonetheless, they make things unpleasant almost everywhere I go.”

“You’re staying at your mother’s?” I started heating oil in the pot.

“Until I decide.”

“If you want to stay?”

“Who I want to marry.”

I stopped and looked at her then. “What about a job?”

“What about one?” she asked, keeping my eye.

“I mean are you going to work or anything?” I asked, turning back to the pot. Though of course I thought Ellie should work, she and I both knew that the quickest route to stability for her was to marry it.

Before you hoist a pig’s head on a pike and dance around me, let me explain that I think marrying for money is deplorable. But I am a realist, and you cannot deny that even in the twenty-first century a woman can still marry herself out of a precarious situation. No one
bats an eye when a woman is broke one day and rich the next through marriage—especially a woman like Ellie. It’s not the same for a man though. A man will still be expected to earn a living lest he seem a freeloader on his wife’s money or his wife’s family money. Whether the double standard is the product of testosterone-fueled pride, evolution, or simply midwestern sensibilities, it is no less real.

“Actually,” she said, leaning forward and ashing into the saucer, “I have a friend who’s just moved here from New York. He’s a designer. He needs some publicity and PR help.”

“A designer in Cleveland?”

“He wouldn’t mind my telling you that we met in rehab,” she said. “He had to get away from New York, from his old connections.”

“You always have the most glam jobs.” I’d envied Ellie’s jobs in fashion—not for her, crunching numbers or sitting through interminable meetings in stuffy conference rooms.

She exhaled out the window, the smoke curling into a rhododendron bush. “It doesn’t really pay anything.”

I was finishing up sautéing the onions. “If you marry Randall Leforte at least you’ll save money on monogramming. I heard he buys Ralph Lauren because the monogram matches his own,” I said, adding the chicken and spattering oil.

“People talk about his monogram?”

“Nothing else to talk about in Cleveland,” I said with a little laugh.

Ellie rose up out of her chair then to see what I was doing. Worried, I think, that I’d start a grease fire.

“Jim tells me Leforte’s well-known downtown,” I said. “Not entirely aboveboard—some payoffs, something with politics I guess. I hadn’t laid eyes on him before last night.”

“Never run into him at parties or benefits?”

“Never.”

She nodded and at that moment Jim came through the back door. In his blue suit with the yellow tie unknotted at the neck he looked scrumptiously handsome, the modern warrior returning home. Then again, I was in love with him.

He kissed me, kissed Ellie on the cheek, gave her cigarette a quick second glance, and disappeared upstairs to change his clothes. Any lingering nervousness I’d had about seeing Ellie seemed to evaporate with Jim’s arrival. In my cozy house with a baby on the way, I couldn’t help but feel a trifle smug—horrible to admit, I know—in front of my old friend who couldn’t make her fancy marriage work and had returned home in disarray.

“I should go and leave the happy couple,” she said, gathering up her things. “I have to pack.”

I felt instantly guilty, as if she’d been reading my mind. “Don’t go,” I said, ignoring my recipe and quickly pouring a bottle of red wine and the rest of the ingredients into the pot.

“I’ve been invited leaf-peeping up at the Trenors’. Julia wants me up there early.”

“But we’re going too. We’re invited for the weekend.”

We both squealed and then giggled.

The Trenors owned a massive ski chalet in New York state that looked like it belonged on the slopes of Aspen, not Ellicottville, New York. Julia Trenor was our age and famous for her house parties, actually famous for her parties period. The way she and her husband, Gus, entertained took my breath away—that someone my own age should live on such a grand scale. And there were those in Cleveland who hated them. But I’d always liked Julia; we’d been on the high school track team together. Though I didn’t count her a close confidant, I relished invitations to her swanky affairs.

“This is perfect. I’m so glad you two will be there,” Ellie said. “I was feeling nervous.”

“Nervous about the Trenors?”

“Nervous about Percy Gryce.”

“Why would you be nervous about him?” The Gryces were one of the oldest and dowdiest families in Cleveland.

“I knew him a bit in high school. And as I understand it, he’s never married.”

“And he’s worth a fortune and his father has a heart condition and will leave him more,” I said knowingly.

Ellie ignored this. “I hear he spends no money except for buying dusty old Native American artifacts.”

“He lives in Boston now.”

“I know,” she said with delight. “Can’t you see me in Boston? A whole new town. And so much history.”

Just then Jim came downstairs in his running clothes. “Is there time for me to go quickly?”

“Let me ask you something,” Ellie said, taking his arm and steering him into our little library. Jim lowered his eyebrows at me behind her back, questioning. I turned the stove on low, wiped my hands, and followed them.

Our house was not large, but we did have a small room lined floor to ceiling with bookcases and a cozy mishmash of our books—history for Jim and Russian and French novels for me. Two mohair club chairs and a reading lamp nestled next to a desk littered with invitations and thank-you notes. On the low table sat a pile of fashion magazines, baubles from travels, and a small Capodimonte bowl holding a collection of seashells gathered on our honeymoon.

“I am fascinated by Native American history,” Ellie said.

I stifled a laugh.

Jim shot me a questioning look. “Right, sugar,” he said to her.

“I am, and I was hoping you might be able to loan me a few books. Just a good overview or primer. My knowledge of history in this area is remedial.”

“The hell?” Jim said, turning to me.

“Ellie’s coming to the Trenors’ next weekend too,” I chimed in.

“And you want to know a little more about the history up there,” he said, screwing his mouth up in the corner, appraising her. Jim is quite astute at reading people and their motivations, more insightful than I am actually. I think it’s his import status that provides him perspective. I could almost hear his mind whirring as he tried to figure out Ellie’s angle.

Ellie feigned absorption with the bookshelves.

Jim leaned down and started pulling books off the case. “It’s a
fascinating area,” he said tentatively, going along with her request for the moment. “As far as that goes.”

Ellie crouched next to him. “Do you know anything about the artifacts?”

Jim looked at her. “You mean old moccasins and stuff?”

“I guess. Peace pipes, right?”

“I know that stuff is expensive. The real antiques are,” Jim said, turning back to his books. “I suppose Percy Gryce has about as good a private collection of that type of thing as anyone.” I realized Jim had put the pieces together of why Ellie was suddenly interested in Native American history. “His father, Jefferson Gryce, got him started. I think the natural history museum’s been after them both for years trying to secure an agreement that they’ll hand it all over at some point.” He looked her in the eye. “He’ll be at the Trenors’.” My charming husband with his southern lockjaw drawl—not a twang, but a drawl—could take the sting out of the shrewdest comment.

BOOK: Gilded Age
10.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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