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It's About Your HusbandA Novel
By Lauren Lipton
5 SPOTCopyright © 2006 Lauren Lipton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneVal is not herself today.
It isn't like her to be so subdued. She doesn't call to me as I make my way up the carved marble staircase, its edges worn smooth by generations of arrivals and departures. She doesn't wave me over once I reach the top of the stairs and wrestle through the crowd, elbowing past Wednesday afternoon revelers raising their glasses to celebrate the end of another workday. She doesn't look up after I get myself a beer and approach her table, or offer any comment as I stand, dumbfounded, before the remarkable structure she has created. Here, in the mezzanine bar at Grand Central, with only a few square inches of table to work with, Val has erected a tower of shopping bags representing nearly every one of New York's best B's (Bendel's, Barneys, Bergdorf's ...). I'm ashamed to say, in my own state of mentally unstable not-quitemyselfness, this is the only unusual thing I notice.
Shopping. There's something else I won't be doing for a while.
I take a deep breath and put on the happiest happy-hour smile I can muster. "Look at you!" I chirp, holding my beer glass in a death grip, shoehorning myself into the three-inch gap between the empty chair and the edge of her table, goggling at the bags while using my free hand to push them out of my way. I poke a Burberry back from the edge of the table, where it threatens to drop into my lap, but that only makesthe rest of the pile teeter precariously. I clamp down on the Boyd's of Madison at the top and struggle to shift my chair to one side without spilling beer on myself. Val makes no effort to help.
"If you wouldn't mind," I say, "could you help me move this stuff, just the tiniest-oh, my goodness!"
Val is crying.
No. Not crying-sobbing. Tears skid down her flushed cheeks to her jawbone and pause at the abyss a moment before splashing into her untouched cocktail. She's got mascara running down her wrist onto the sleeve of her pink cardigan, her demure blond pageboy is all mussed, and she's groping around in her pink quilted Chanel chain purse, perhaps for a tissue.
"What is it? You poor thing!" I'm no longer thinking about shopping bags and am halfway to forgetting why I've been feeling so sorry for myself. Until this moment it hadn't occurred to me that Val could get this upset about anything. Her tears are as unsettling as anything else I've dealt with over the past few days. "What's wrong? What's the matter? This isn't about me, is it? Because, really, I'll be all right."
She can't possibly be crying over me. Heaven knows I'm upset-rootless, loveless, and unexpectedly jobless. But Val is distraught. Trembling and pale, with a red, brimming gaze that, at last, she turns on me. "My husband is ..." she clears her throat. "He's ... ahem ..." She takes a bracing swig of her pink parasol drink, sets it back down, and folds her hands on the table. "My husband is cheating," she says. "Again."
Her delivery-calculated, with a pause for emphasis after each word-makes it seem as if she were accusing me. It might be that all at once she looks more incensed than heartbroken, or maybe it's the way she's staring me dead in the eye. "Again," she repeats icily, and it's as if I were the other woman, here to confess all and beg forgiveness for coming between Val and her husband. That's when something dawns on me. Several somethings. One, Val is a vintage-clothing connoisseur who would no sooner patronize any of these B-stores than she would cry like a baby in the middle of Grand Central Terminal on an early-May afternoon. Two, Val only wears black.
Three, demure? Blond? Pageboy? And there's one very last little something. Val doesn't have a husband.
It's a joke. Val doesn't take anything seriously. It's a joke, right? Val's here to buy me a consolation drink to distract me during my time of crisis, and this is just another diversionary tactic. It's typical Val behavior, but it's freaking me out. "You're not acting like yourself, and you're scaring me." I try to say it jovially, as if I'm in no way about to start crying myself.
But instead of erupting into laughter and pointing to a hidden camera, Val just covers her face and sobs some more.
Her commitment is impressive. Still, how long will the show go on? I've got jangled-enough nerves already, having spent two hours in a Midtown unemployment office at a mandatory New York State Department of Labor group-orientation lecture: "Job-Hunting Tools for the Twenty-first Century."
("Does everyone here know what the Internet is?") After that, I got all turned around coming over to Grand Central, first walking four long blocks west, only to end up on a desolate, trash-strewn stretch of Eleventh Avenue, leaving only two thousand nine hundred ninety-nine and two-tenths of a mile between me and my former life in Los Angeles-all right, the San Fernando Valley-before realizing I should have been heading east the whole time.
All this probably explains why she figures it out first. "Oh, perfect. This is just great." She lifts her head, sniffles, and dabs under each eye with her tissue. "You want Val."
Later I'll regret not having paid more attention to this moment.
I won't have, though, and that's too bad. It might have been an early clue that perhaps I'm unfit for the new career that's about to fall into my lap. What was it they just said at the unemployment office? Our experience is our toolbox, with our skills as the tools? Well, it seems I've locked my observational skills into my toolbox and left it on a street corner somewhere. Since relocating to New York five weeks ago for a fancy focusgroup moderator position at Hayes Heeley Market Research, and up until getting "restructured" right out of that very same position two days ago, I worked, went for coffee, and had lunch with Valerie Benjamin nearly every day. After this much concentrated time in her company I know what she looks like down to the last eyelash. I know her taste in men, clothing, and cocktails, her life's philosophy, and her family background. I know she has an identical twin.
In fact, one of Val's favorite conversational pastimes is counting the many ways her sister is spoiled and selfish, sharing stories of behavior so abysmal I always find myself grateful to be an only child. I know Victoria doesn't work, and that she is married to a commercial real-estate broker named Steve. Five years ago, minutes before her three-hundred-guest New York Times-approved wedding at their parents' estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, Vickie got so overwrought that she screamed a string of obscenities at Val, then fell weeping onto her bed and refused to get up. Val was beginning to think she'd have to give Vickie a slap-and, considering the scene to which she was being subjected, was looking forward to it the tiniest little bit-when Vickie snapped out of it abruptly on her own, splashed some cold water on her face, and an hour later was flitting happily around her reception without so much as an apology to Val.
Right now, though, with Vickie here before me, bawling, I only feel bad for her. "I am so sorry. I did think you were Val. You must get that all the time."
"Constantly." Through her tears, Vickie sounds sarcastic. I'm this close to excusing myself and slinking away when Val, the genuine article, materializes at the top of the staircase. I wave her over. Saved!
Now, in my own defense, I am preoccupied today. But Vickie is right; who could mix up these two? Yes, they have the same rosy cheeks, the same gray eyes, matching stewardess noses with the same smattering of freckles across the bridge. But Vickie wears a wedding ring, the Junior League hairdo, and sensible Ferragamo flats. And here's Val, my friend and, until Monday afternoon, office colleague. Ecstatically single, with an unruly electric-red downtown crop, deliberately smudgy eyeliner, vintage sixties go-go boots, and a mod little miniskirt in which it's pretty clear Vickie wouldn't be caught dead. Vickie: Greenwich. Val: Greenwich Village.
"Iris! And Vickie?" Val, too, looks perplexed. "Val, it was the strangest coincidence." Life is looking better already. I provide a quick recap of the past five minutes while Vickie grudgingly clears two inches of space for her sister. Val's black vinyl skirt makes a squeaky noise as she sits down.
"It's not that strange," she says. "Manhattan is just a big small town. People bump into each other all the time. It can be a real pain."
"Believe me, if I'd known I'd bump into you here, I never would have come," Vickie retorts.
"Now, now, Vickie-poo, I wasn't talking about you. Tell me, Iris, is there a walk of shame in the San Fernando Valley?" I lean closer, grazing my chin on the corner of a shopping bag. "Walk of shame? You mean Walk of Fame?"
"Walk of shame. When you go back with someone to his apartment and then, on your way home the next morning, run into one of your mother's ladies-who-lunch chums, who can tell you're blatantly wearing an outfit from the night before."
Vickie eyes Val's hemline. "Sort of like you're doing now?" "I'll have you know, this is not a walk of shame. This is office attire," Val snaps. "I'm simply explaining to Iris that New York is a small town."
"Technically there's no walk of shame in the Valley." I say it quickly, sensing an argument about to happen. "So, then, what were you wearing the first night you stayed over at Teddy's place?" Val asks me. "And what did you wear home?"
I scrutinize my glass of Rolling Rock. Had I thought to get something in a bottle, with a paper label, I could now make myself busy peeling it off.
"Come on, Iris. Don't tell me you wore his old sweatpants; that's a hundred times more shameful-a fashion faux pas." "I just sort of never left." I'm blushing. "I just kind of stayed."
Both twins stare at me. "Never mind." I take a drink. "Where I come from, people scurry out to the curb when no one's watching, dive into their cars, and speed home."
"There you go," says Val. "Another difference between the coasts. In New York, everybody walks at least one walk of shame. Now that you're living here, it's only a matter of time."
"Well, I've never done any such thing," Vickie says. Val peers at her in a way that suggests her sister's presence has only now sunk in. "Why are you here, anyway? Don't they have bars in Yorkville?"
"I'm waiting for a train. And I do not live in Yorkville. Third and Eighty-fifth is Yorkville. Lexington and Eighty-fifth is the Upper East Side." "Whatever you say."
"I know what I'm talking about, Val. My husband works in real estate...." Vickie starts crying again. I look to Val for a cue, but she only rolls her eyes. Vickie sniffles loudly. "I can't believe he's cheating on me!"
Val doesn't react. She rakes her hand through her hair, which was black the last time I saw her, Monday afternoon. "Like it?" she asks me. "I got it done last night. I was considering something really light, maybe pink, maybe platinum, but then I thought-"
"Excuse me!" Vickie shouts. Val sighs. "All right, Iris, here's the story. My sister suffers from seasonal suspicion disorder. Every six months, usually spring and fall, she decides hubby Steve is cheating on her, then retaliates by spending his money on new clothes."
"That's just mean!" Vickie swipes at her tears again with her tissue.
"It's true," says Val. "Remember the time you found the lipstick on his shirt, flipped out, and then realized it was your own lipstick?"
"It was Bobbi Brown Number Four! That could have been anybody's lipstick! Every woman in America has a tube!" Val stops tapping her right index finger softly but insistently on the top of our table long enough to wave over a waitress and order drinks for herself and me. Then she gestures at Vickie. "And another-what is that, strawberry daiquiri?" "Virgin," Vickie says.
Val rolls her eyes again. The waitress goes off to the bar. Val pulls out a cigarette and holds it in her mouth, unlit. "No smoking," hisses Vickie. "No shit," hisses Val.
This day keeps getting stranger and stranger. There are still hours to go before it's over, and I'm stuck with the only twins in history who lack that supernatural love bond everyone always goes on about.
Vickie does have a point, though. At my former marketing company in Brentwood, I once had to round up women for a focus group on makeup. A few days later, I watched from the observation room as one participant waxed rhapsodic about the MAC lip pencil in "Spice," and the universally flattering lipstick Bobbi Brown Number Four. "I have that, too!" said another, producing a tube from her Coach bag. The rest nodded knowingly and dug around in their purses until there were half a dozen Number Fours on the conference table. Afterward, I stopped in Sherman Oaks and picked up a tube. It was right on the way home, since Teddy and I had just bought our house in Studio City.
At least I still have that lipstick. "This time there's no question," Vickie continues. "He's taken up jogging. At the crack of dawn." She gives us a look like, "See?"
"Pandora's Box." From above my head, the waitress places a drink in front of Val, who lunges at it. "Virgin." The waitress sets down Vickie's daiquiri. "Draft." She hands me a beer. I guzzle the remains of my first and give her the empty glass.
Vickie takes a dainty sip of her daiquiri. "My husband has gone on a fitness kick. At least, that's what he would have me believe. Men are such dogs."
"You're making absolutely no sense." Val seems to be speaking directly to her cocktail.
"This is a person who hasn't done any sport sweatier than golf since his squash days at Yale. Then three weeks ago, out of nowhere, he decides it's time to get in shape." "He was looking a little soft around the middle," Val interjects. Vickie responds with one of what I have already come to recognize as her patented I'm-going-to-shove-my-shoe-down-your- throat-if-you-don't-shut-up looks. Val shuts up.
"And since then he's been getting up every weekday at six forty-five, dragging the poor dog out of his little bed, supposedly to go jogging in the park. Except that can't be where he's going. When he gets home, he's never even sweaty, and neither is the dog."
"I didn't think dogs got sweaty. Don't they, like ..." What a lightweight. I'm four sips into my second Rolling Rock and already starting to slur my speech. "Like, drool or whatever it's called?" Forgotten the word. Better stop drinking now or I'm going to do something stupid. Such as, I don't know, relocate three thousand miles from home, to a noisy, grimy, indifferent city, in order to be laid off.
"Pant!" Val starts to giggle. "That's it, pant." I can't help laughing myself. It's all too absurd.
"Hey," says Val, "maybe the dog's the one straying." I should keep out of it. I should. I can't. "Dogs are such dogs."
"No!" Val howls. "Dogs are such men!"
"Oh, forget it!" Vickie starts crying again, with gusto. "This is why I never see you, Val. This is why I hate to tell you anything personal. You have no idea the stress I'm under right now. No idea!" She struggles to free herself from her chair, which is wedged between our table and the back of the woman behind her, and pulls an overnight bag I hadn't noticed before out from under her seat. "I'll wait for my train on the platform."
I realize how heartless I've been acting. Val must feel equally bad, because she grabs her sister's mascara-and-cashmere- covered wrist. "Where are you going?" She sounds contrite. "To Greenwich," Vickie says. "I want Mother and Daddy."
"Don't you think you ought to stick around here and-Iris, how do you say it?-work on your marriage?" "Work on your marriage," I repeat somberly.
"No." Vickie starts to gather up the rest of her packages. Not an easy feat, since the lot of them is taking up as much cubic footage as my entire apartment. The couple at the table next to us ducks to avoid being B-headed by a Bloomingdale's Big Brown Bag. "I should hire myself a detective to catch him in the act, and then use the evidence to stick him for a big, fat divorce settlement."
I could tell her, because I know, that she's oversimplifying things. In the no-fault-community-property-divorce state of California, for example, your assets get divided right down the middle, regardless of who did what to whom, unless you were cynical enough to draw up a prenuptial agreement. I could tell her, but I keep my mouth shut.
"Here's a plan!" Val pipes up. "While you're gone, want me to keep an eye on him? I could follow him around and see where he goes. I could be your scheming lookalike hiding in the bushes!"
Excerpted from It's About Your Husband by Lauren Lipton Copyright © 2006 by Lauren Lipton. Excerpted by permission.
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