Read an Excerpt
Someone cracks open the bedroom door. "Hallie? Are you in there?"
Upon hearing the familiar voice I wake slightly and assume that I'm having weird dreams due to excessive body heat. Lying next to me is my boyfriend, Ray. And on the other side is Vanessa. I push down the blanket.
"Hallie, are you up?" the voice comes again.
Only now I'm definitely hearing and not dreaming Bernard's stage whisper. And also smelling the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee with a hint of vanilla. Wakefulness and reality strike simultaneously. "Oh my gosh!" I shout, and raise my head off the pillow. "What time is it? I have an exam at eight!"
The only thing that's not surprising is to find Bernard Stockton in the hallway of my apartment. After all, he's the one who'd saved me when I was sliding down the slippery slope of adolescent rebellion the previous fall by taking me on as a live-in yard person. And now at least one weekend a month he arrives early and cooks us all a big brunch. Only this isn't Saturday or Sunday. It's Wednesday of finals week after my first year of college.
Bernard opens the door the rest of the way and steps inside the room. "It's just after seven," he says. But his voice is hesitant and hoarse, like a record being played at the wrong speed, and I can tell immediately that something is terribly wrong. Normally he would be trilling "Rise and shine!" like Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Not only that, he must have awoken at five in the morning to make the one-hour drive to Cleveland.
"What's the matterI mean, I'm coming. . . ." I start to climb out from my position as pickle in the middle. "Um, could I meet you in the kitchen?"
"Oh, yes, of course. How indelicate of me." His footsteps become faint and then I hear him tackle the mess of dirty pots and pans in the kitchen.
After stumbling around the minefield of packed duffel bags and piles of dirty clothes for a few minutes I finally find a pair of sweatpants to pull on. No surprise to discover a bunch of unpaid bills and parking tickets scattered beneath them. I'll be lucky if the repo man isn't towing my car away at this very moment.
The whole place smells like old pizza and even older laundry. As I pass the living room the sound of loud snoring comes from behind stacks of books and model cardboard buildings that rise in the middle of the floor to form a miniature skyline. A closer look reveals my roommate Debbie and her boyfriend Daniel asleep on the couch, surrounded by notebooks and empty pizza boxes. It's a memorial to unfinished group projects everywhere.
In the kitchen Bernard has lined up his numerous shopping bags on the floor, since there's no available space on the countertops or table. Those are covered in a collagelike mishmash of art supplies, stained coffee mugs, and overdue book notices. Fortunately, he's accustomed to the mess. With four busy young women sharing three rooms and all the various friends and boyfriends hanging about, housekeeping rarely rises above the minimum required for pest control. Particularly during exam time, when everyone is cramming for finals and working like crazy to finish papers and art projects.
I rub the sleep from my eyes. "What's wrong? Is it Olivia?" Though I'd called Bernard's sixtyish mother the night before to ask her a grammar question for a paper I was writing, or at least attempting to write, and she'd sounded fine.
Bernard stops whipping eggs in the shiny metal mixing bowl he brought from home, bows his head, and shuts his eyes as if in pain.
I stop in my tracks and stare at Bernard, waiting for his answer while growing increasingly worried. For he was, as they said of Odysseus, a man never at a loss. Only in Bernard's case, when faced with adversity he was rarely without a witty remark and an audacious plan, though it was oftentimes one he'd seen in a movie.
Finally Bernard exhales for the entire State of Ohio and says, "It's Gil."
Never before have I seen him so grave when referring to his longtime companion. And so of course I assume the worst. "What? Is he dying?"
Now that my eyes have become accustomed to the light, I notice how completely wrecked the normally dapper Bernard looksbags under his eyes, worry lines furrowing his brow, and something I've never seen on him before, brown socks with black loafers!
Bernard turns away from me and dabs at his eyes. "I promised myself I wouldn't shed any more tears." He waits a moment to compose himself, takes a deep breath, looks me straight in the eye, and in a trembly voice blurts out, "Gil left me!"
"You broke up?" I'm truly stunned. I'd have voted my parents more likely to break up than Gil and Bernard, and even the thought of that is impossible.
"We didn't break up." Bernard starts sniffing again. "Gil left me!" He switches to French for greater effect. "Abandonnement."
I'm not sure exactly what the difference is between breaking up and one person leaving, but this doesn't appear to be the right moment to ask. Tears begin to stream down Bernard's cheeks. I've never seen him full-out cry like this before, not even when his father died.
As I reach to put my hand on his arm, a hiss comes from the stove and he leaps to adjust the heat on his beloved Calphalon nonstick crepe pan. Then he concentrates on making chocolate crepes and this seems to calm him slightly, to my great relief. Hopefully Bernard is overreacting and he and Gil just had an argument that will eventually be resolved. Perhaps it was about Bernard's antiques taking up the entire garage. In the spring Gil always gets cranky when bucketfuls of pollen land on his car because it has to sit out in the driveway all the time.
"What happened?" I ask. "Did you two have a fight?"
"No. I mean, here Gil is, always insisting that he's the normal one. Then all of a sudden he goes berserk and announces that he doesn't want to be part of a committed relationship. Gil just hasn't been the same since his older brother, Clifton, died unexpectedly last month . . . he became more and more distant and then . . . he said . . . it was over. . . ."
Bernard becomes upset again and uses the dish towel over his shoulder to wipe away his tears. He always brings his own Marshall Field's British icon dish towels when he comes to cook for us.
All of my friends love Bernard. He's like an eccentric uncle who unexpectedly shows up and bakes, helps to decorate, rearranges the furniture, and organizes theme parties. One of my professors had even invited him to guest lecture in a pottery class. Having bought and sold plenty of ceramics for his shop over the past fifteen years, Bernard knows everything about the different schools and designs, and most of all, precisely how much any lump of painted clay you might have lying around your attic is worth. This morning, however, his usual exuberance is nowhere to be found.
Either the noise from us talking or, more likely, the smell of food and vanilla-flavored coffee awakens the couple on the couch in the living room and we hear them carefully making their way toward the kitchen. Design projects in various states of completion are everywhere, transforming the path into an obstacle course.
Bernard says to me, "I can't have anyone seeing me so out of sorts. Now, don't breathe a word to them about this calamity, all right?"
"Mum's the word," I reply. Bernard does indeed have a reputation for inexhaustible zest and witty remarks to protect.
He takes a deep breath, straightens up, and lifts his head high. "I'm channeling Susan Hayward in Valley of the Dolls when, after having her wig ripped off, she announces with great dignity, 'I'll go out the way I came in.' "
"I'm sure that's exactly what nine out of ten therapists would recommend," I agree wholeheartedly with his strategy.