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If anyone had asked me that fall morning back in 2000 how my life was going, I would have told them that I was doing good. I'd had a five-million-dollar year in real estate sales, much to the chagrin of some of my less ambitious colleagues. I'd just finished remodeling our impressive five-bedroom Italianate in the exclusive Davenport Heights neighborhood. I chaired the Corporate Development Committee for the Junior League. And my bright and beautiful daughter, Brynn, was in her second year at college back East.
Of course, things were not perfect.
David, my husband, was having his little "affair" with that tacky, blond, twentysomething hairstylist. It was so typical and such a cliché.
I, though still dealing with that dead-skin feeling from my recent tuck and lift, was trying to schedule some free time to get my thighs sucked. Plastic surgery is like painting the baseboards. It makes you notice how bad the walls look.
Brynn was seeing a highly reputable and expensive therapist twice a week. He felt that it would be counterproductive for her to take time away from school and her sessions with him to visit her parents. I missed her.
So it wasn't as if I was living in a fairy tale, but I thought that I was doing good.
That same afternoon I took a couple with midlevel salaries and a Ford Expedition to look at a renovated ranch house in Stoney Hills. It was pretty lackluster, but the neighborhood was prime.
"It's a big house for just two people," the husband pointed out. His wife raised her head immediately. Whether they had opted for a childless marriage or it had been a medical issue, she was obviously defensive about it. I was on her side.
"The size of a house shouldn't be determined solely by the number of people who are going to live there," I told him. "A pair of successful, goal-focused individuals certainly deserve as roomy and as comfortable a living space as some Brady Bunch horde."
The description of the latter was voiced with deliberate disdain.
"A fine home," I continued, "like a luxurious car, is a reflection of the owner's personal worth and value in the community. I don't think that can ever be too large."
They offered a full-price contract on the house.
To celebrate this coup, I dropped by the Yesteryear Emporium on Broadway at San Jose near the edge of downtown. It was a dark, cavernous building that had housed a big department store that had gone bankrupt in the thirties. It was my favorite antique store in the city, and I had been to all of them. It wasn't just that they had some nice things from time to time, which they certainly did, but it was crammed full of every imaginable glass or chair or unimaginable farm implement. Three floors and a back lot to the alley—open for wandering among the superfluous and the sublime. Only the mezzanine level, where the owner lived, was off-limits. Although for all that fellow noticed, I probably could have rifled though his apartment and bought his own door lock, and he would have neither known what it was nor recognized its value.
He was a big, burly, good-looking guy who didn't know squat about antiques. No matter how unreasonably low the price might be on a treasured item, I could always intimidate him into letting me have it for less.
He rarely ventured from beyond the counter. Partly because he had a pronounced limp that frequently required the use of a cane. But more often, I think, because he was busily typing on a greasy old Underwood. I assumed he was either writing pornographic novels or editing an outlaw-biker magazine. Whatever his preoccupation, it was my pleasure to talk him out of his best inventory at a tenth of its value. I didn't feel bad about it. If the guy doesn't know what his merchandise is worth, he deserves to have it stolen.
That particular day I got away with a star-cut crystal jardiniere for forty-five dollars. I was smiling all the way home.
I fixed a light dinner. David's eighteen holes ran long, and he came straight from the shower to the table dressed in Dockers and a polo shirt.
"You should have seen me on the seventh green," he said. "I was perfectly aligned. If I hadn't seen it myself, I would have thought I'd put the ball down by hand. Dolph bogied and I cleaned it up. I tell you, when that happens I just feel like I can do anything."
I do not play golf. I never have. I never will. None of that mattered to David, of course. It was beyond his imagining that anyone might not be interested in a shot-by-shot replay of his game.
I didn't bother to interrupt him. I tuned out what he was saying and waited, rather patiently, I thought, for him to finish. Eventually, he did.
"You remember that we have that party at the club tonight," I said.
Clearly he didn't remember, but he nodded as if he did.
"You'll have to make my apologies," he said. "I can't make it tonight, I'm due back at the office."
David's work as a partner in the law practice started by his grandfather barely required a thirty-hour workweek. Anything more than that would have conflicted drastically with his golfing schedule. The phrase due back at the office was David's private unspoken euphemism for his having made plans with Mikki, the aforementioned blond, twentysomething hairstylist.
I was furious, not because he was going to be with her, but because he was not going to be with me. I didn't really care where, or with whom, he slept, but when facing the lions of country club society it was always easier to go at it as a team, with someone beside you to watch your back.
"This is the most important get-together of the season," I pointed out. "Next year's membership applications are all in. There'll be plenty of discussion about who is to fill the vacancies."
The country club was as exclusive an old guard as can be imagined. It dated back to 1914, and most of the original family names were still on the roster. The annual fees were exorbitant—sufficient deterrent to keep out the vast majority of the populace. But there were plenty of other restrictions. Only a current member in good standing could put a name up for consideration. And new people were added reluctantly. Neither money nor politics nor social position could ensure acceptance. Inclusion was entirely at the whim of those already ensconced.
The voting was done at the Christmas party, by secret ballot. And it had to be unanimous. Private pettiness was disguised as conservative concern. In the twenty years that I'd been a part of it, fewer than a dozen new families had been accepted for invitation. The only long-term way to sell exclusivity was to not sell too much of it.
"You just go without me and tell me later what I need to know," David said. "I always vote the way you want anyway."
That was certainly true. David could not have cared less about the club or the politics swirling within it—even though it had figured prominently in his childhood as the site of every birthday party, Easter-egg hunt and Fourth of July fireworks display. It was where he'd first learned to dance, where we'd had our wedding reception, where he'd introduced Brynn at her debutante ball. Close association with the club had made David less in awe of it. For him, it was just another golf course. And not even one of his favorites.
For me, who would have never been allowed through those gates without him, the club was the symbol of all I had attained in my life. I'd grown up as a west-side nobody. Now I was Someone, with a capital S, in the city. I was not likely to take that for granted.
"I talked to Brynn today," David said, deftly changing the subject.
I stopped in midbite and held myself completely still for an instant.
"She called you?"
It was not like her to disturb Daddy at work. Me, of course, she would call up on my mobile at anytime of the day or night.
"She said she was working through her primary relationships with Dr. Reiser," David said. "She didn't want to confuse the situation with any input from you."
I nodded. Hopeful. Accepting. Dr. Reiser was not her first therapist. The previous half dozen had nodded a lot and appeared thoughtful, but none had ever been able to hone in on Brynn's problem.
It was a mystery to me, as well. But is that surprising? I didn't know anything about raising children. I'd never even seen one up close until Brynn was born. I knew I didn't want to be like my own mother. Beyond that, I had no clue.
Having a child was David's idea. No, idea is not a strong enough word. David insisted that we have a child. It was the only time he'd truly demanded anything. And I acquiesced. How could I not? The need to reproduce, to ensure the survival of your genetic material, is primal. It's not like any rational arguments can counter it. In the human-fulfillment category, I wanted a baby as much as he did. So, I succumbed to marital pressure and Mother Nature. Brynn was the result.
I'm not sorry. Who could be sorry about having Brynn? And I thought I could handle it. Like every other goal in my life, I studied thoroughly, worked hard and met the challenge with determination.
I took so many parenting courses that I should have been a candidate for a postdoctoral studies program. There was not a Mommy & Me class in the whole city that Brynn and I hadn't attended.
I read all the parenting books. Not just the middle-of-the-road accepted ones. I checked out the fringe viewpoints, as well. Everything from Your Infant's Right to Bear Arms to Welcome to Reincarnation, Babygirl. I weighed conflicting behavioral observation techniques. I even set up an Excel spreadsheet reflecting the varied opinions for handling typical problems. It was a proven formula, guaranteed to succeed.
Somehow it hadn't. From adolescence on, Brynn had been in almost continual conflict with me. And nothing I could say or do seemed to make it better. Honestly, I was relieved to give her adolescence issues to the care of knowledgeable mental-health professionals.
"Is she coming home at Christmas?" I asked.
David shrugged. "I didn't think to ask her."
"What did she have to say?"
He was thoughtful for a moment.
"She agreed that my slice was improving and that the pro at the Quarry was completely wrong about the titaniums being too sensitive."
"You talked about golf?"
"Your daughter calls you at work for maybe the first time in her whole life and you talk to her about golf?"
"She's interested in golf."
"She is not interested in golf. She plays tennis. She chose it deliberately to avoid having to play golf."
David threw his napkin on the table in disgust as he rose to his feet. "There aren't any rules about what a father can talk about with his daughter," he said. "And what we do talk about it is really none of your business."
He was right in his own way, I guess. Anyway, that was how we left it. He headed out for his rendezvous with Mikki and I went to the club.
It was an evening much like others I had spent. I made my way through the familiar crowd, eating canapés and uttering clever witticisms.
Once, from across the room, I caught the eye of my mother-in-law. We both nodded cordially. Edith didn't dislike me. She wanted to. She wanted to hate me, but it would have run counter to her religion.
Although Edith was a home-run hitter who got a walk from third base, she was very certain about the unlimited opportunity available to the best and brightest on any rung of the economic ladder. She knew this because of the evidence for the truth in the life of her spiritual leader.
My mother-in-law was a devoted follower of Oprah Winfrey. She taped every program, so that whenever it wasn't being broadcast, she could watch it anyway. With the Oprah cable channel continually on in the kitchen and VCRs playing in the family room, Edith's home was in a constant state of Oprahization.
Edith tried to emulate the talk show host's life view as faithfully as if she were the Dalai Lama. Those little quotes cut out of O Magazine were all over her house. The selections from her booklist were on Edith's bedside table. And Rosie's recipes were always in her kitchen.
"Oprah came from a harsh, tragic, impoverished background," Edith would say. "And now she's graciously welcomed at any home in the country."
If Oprah can do it, so can you. That sounds good in premise. But naturally, the converse side of that theory is also true—those who stay in poverty and ignorance, or even the immobile middle class, deserve their fate.
It was social Darwinism. Or maybe in Edith's case, socialite Darwinism.
Her husband, W D Lofton Sr. was also a believer in the ideal of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If someone had questioned him about the truest character in American literature, he would not have mentioned Jay Gatsby or Willy Loman. Horatio Alger would have been his choice. I suppose it is very comforting for him to think that wealth and privilege are not the exclusive preserve of the wealthy and privileged.
"The cream of any society always rises to the top," WD. would say. And also, "You can't keep a good man down."
Mr. Lofton was far from being a self-made man, though you wouldn't know it to hear him talk. He had scraped and clawed his way from prep school to Harvard with only his dividend portfolio and oil lease royalties to get by on.
As far as in-laws were concerned, I couldn't really complain that mine were overly difficult. W.D. had forgotten all his objections to me years ago. And Edith, well, I was not Oprah, of course. But, like her, I had been smart, determined and ambitious. I had risen above my humble beginnings in life. I was, at least, peripherally Oprah-like, and therefore to be lauded.
In truth, my mother-in-law and I had only one mutual interest. Brynn. And we disagreed about what was best for her on almost every occasion.
Still, we both waved a cheery little hello as if delightfully surprised to see each other, and then we deliberately headed in different directions.
I continued to work through the crowd. I spoke to my plastic surgeon. Exchanged rumors with a developer who was looking to buy up some property that he'd heard was soon to be rezoned as multifamily And shared a couple of chatty comments with the tennis pro.