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Williams’ Restaurant, East 65th Street, New York, Saturday, 8:00 p.m.
We met the Blaine’s at Williams’, a rather upmarket restaurant that the Blaine’s frequently visited, and had recommended.
Of course, during the taxi ride there, Alison reminded me that with my new job, we would be able to go to many more places like Williams’. It was, at worst, more emotional blackmail, because as far as Alison was concerned, we were well on our way to posh restaurants, the Trump Tower Apartments, and the trappings of the ‘executive set’.
It would be a miracle if I didn’t strangle Elaine before the night was over. It was she who had filled Alison’s head with all this stuff and nonsense.
Aside from the half frown half-smile, Alison was looking stunning. It was months since she had last dressed up, and she was especially wearing the dress I’d bought her for our 5th anniversary that cost a month’s salary. On her, it was worth it, and I would have paid more if I had to. She had adored it, and me, for a week or so after.
For tonight, I think I was close to getting back on that pedestal.
She had the looks and figure to draw attention, the sort movie stars got on the red carpet, and when we walked into the restaurant, I swear there were at least five seconds silence, and many more gasps.
Even I had a sudden loss of breath earlier in the evening when she came out of the dressing room. Once more I was reminded of how lucky I was that she had agreed to marry me. Amid all those self-doubts, I couldn’t believe she had loved me when there were so many others ‘out there’ who were more appealing.
Elaine was out of her seat and came over just as the Head Waiter hovered into sight. She personally escorted Alison to the table, allowing me to follow like the Queen’s consort, while she and Alison basked in the admiring glances of the other patrons.
More than once I heard the muted question, “Who is she?”
Jimmy stood, we shook hands, and then we sat together. It was not the usual boy, girl, boy, girl seating arrangement. Jimmy and I on one side and Elaine and Alison on the other.
The battle lines were drawn.
Jimmy was looking fashionable, with the permanent blade one beard, unkempt hair, and designer dinner suit that looked like he’d slept in it. Alison insisted I wear a tuxedo, and I looked like the proverbial penguin or just a thinner version of Alfred Hitchcock.
The bow tie had been slightly crooked, but just before we stepped out she had straightened it. And took the moment to look deeply into my soul. It was one of those moments when words were not necessary.
Then it was gone.
I relived it briefly as I sat and she looked at me. A penetrating look that told me to ‘behave’.
When we were settled, Elaine said, in that breathless, enthusiastic manner of hers when she was excited, “So, Harry, you are finally moving up.” It was not a question, but a statement.
I was not sure what she meant by ‘finally’ but I accepted it with good grace. Sometimes Elaine was prone to using figures of speech I didn’t understand. I guessed she was talking about the new job. “It was supposed to be a secret.”
She smiled widely. “There are no secrets between Al and I, are there Al?”
I looked at ‘Al’ and saw a brief look of consternation.
I was not sure Alison liked the idea of being called Al. I tried it once and was admonished. But it was interesting her ‘best friend forever’ was allowed that distinction when I was not. It was, perhaps, another indicator of how far I’d slipped in her estimation.
Perhaps, I thought, it was a necessary evil. As I understood it, the Blaine’s were our mentors at the Trump Tower, because they didn’t just let ‘anyone’ in. I didn’t ask if the Blaine’s thought we were just ‘anyone’ before I got the job offer.
And then there was that look between Alison and Elaine, quickly stolen before Alison realized I was looking at both of them. I was out of my depth, in a place I didn’t belong, with people I didn’t understand. And yet, apparently, Alison did. I must have missed the memo.
“No,” Alison said softly, stealing a glance in my direction, “No secrets between friends.”
No secrets. Her look conveyed something else entirely.
The waiter brought champagne, Krug, and poured glasses for each of us. It was not the cheap stuff, and I was glad I brought a couple of thousand dollars with me. We were going to need it.
Then, a toast.
To a new job and a new life.
“When did you decide?” Elaine was effusive at the best of times, but with the champagne, it was worse.
Alison had a strange expression on her face. It was obvious she had told Elaine it was a done deal, even before I’d made up my mind. Perhaps she’d assumed I might be ‘refreshingly honest’ in front of Elaine, but it could also mean she didn’t really care what I might say or do.
Instead of consternation, she looked happy, and I realized it would be churlish, even silly if I made a scene. I knew what I wanted to say. I also knew that it would serve little purpose provoking Elaine, or upsetting Alison. This was not the time or the place. Alison had been looking forward to coming here, and I was not going to spoil it.
Instead, I said, smiling, “When I woke up this morning and found Alison missing. If she had been there, I would not have noticed the water stain on the roof above our bed, and decide there and then how much I hated the place.” I used my reassuring smile, the one I used with the customers when all hell was breaking loose, and the forest fire was out of control. “It’s the little things. They all add up until one day …” I shrugged. “I guess that one day was today.”
I saw an incredulous look pass between Elaine and Alison, a non-verbal question; perhaps, is he for real? Or; I told you he’d come around.
I had no idea the two were so close.
“How quaint,” Elaine said, which just about summed up her feelings towards me. I think, at that moment, I lost some brownie points. It was all I could come up with at short notice.
“Yes,” I added, with a little more emphasis than I wanted. “Alison was off to get some study in with one of her friends.”
“Weren’t the two of you off to the Hamptons, a weekend with some friends?” Jimmy piped up, and immediately got the ‘shut up you fool’ look, that cut that line of conversation dead. Someone forgot to feed Jimmy his lines.
It was followed by the condescending smile from Elaine, and “I need to powder my nose. Care to join me, Al?”
A frown, then a forced smile for her new best friend. “Yes.”
I watched them leave the table and head in the direction of the restroom, looking like they were in earnest conversation. I thought ‘Al’ looked annoyed, but I could be wrong.
I had to say Jimmy looked more surprised than I did.
There was that odd moment of silence between us, Jimmy still smarting from his death stare, and for me, the Alison and Elaine show. I was quite literally gob-smacked.
I drained my champagne glass gathering some courage and turned to him. “By the way, we were going to have a weekend away, but this legal tutorial thing came up. You know Alison is doing her law degree.”
He looked startled when he realized I had spoken. He was looking intently at a woman several tables over from us, one who’d obviously forgotten some basic garments when getting dressed. Or perhaps it was deliberate. She’d definitely had some enhancements done.
He dragged his eyes back to me. “Yes. Elaine said something or other about it. But I thought she said the tutor was out of town and it had been postponed until next week. Perhaps I got it wrong. I usually do.”
“Perhaps I’ve got it wrong.” I shrugged, as the dark thoughts started swirling in my head again. “This week or next, what does it matter?”
Of course, it mattered to me, and I digested what he said with a sinking heart. It showed there was another problem between Alison and me; it was possible she was now telling me lies. If what he said was true and I had no reason to doubt him, where was she going tomorrow morning, and had she really been with a friend studying today?
We poured some more champagne, had a drink, then he asked, “This promotion thing, what’s it worth?”
“Trouble, I suspect. Definitely more money, but less time at home.”
“Oh,” raised eyebrows. Obviously, the women had not talked about the job in front of him, or, at least, not all the details. “You sure you want to do that?”
At last the voice of reason. “Me? No.”
“Yet you accepted the job.”
I sucked in a breath or two while I considered whether I could trust him. Even if I couldn’t, I could see my ship was sinking, so it wouldn’t matter what I told him, or what Elaine might find out from him. “Jimmy, between you and me I haven’t as yet decided one way or another. To be honest, I won’t know until I go up to Barclay’s office and he asks me the question.”
“Elaine’s doing a job for a Barclay that recently moved in the tower a block down from us. I thought I recognized the name.”
“How did Elaine get the job?”
“Oh, Alison put him onto her.”
“A couple of months ago. Why?”
I shrugged and tried to keep a straight face, while my insides were churning up like the wake of a supertanker. I felt sick, faint, and wanting to die all at the same moment. “Perhaps she said something about it, but it didn’t connect at the time. Too busy with work I expect. I think I seriously need to get away for a while.”
I could hardly breathe, my throat was constricted and I knew I had to keep it together. I could see Elaine and Alison coming back, so I had to calm down. I sucked in some deep breaths, and put my ‘manage a complete and utter disaster’ look on my face.
And I had to change the subject, quickly, so I said, “Jimmy, Elaine told Alison, who told me, you were something of a guru of the cause and effects of the global economic meltdown. Now, I have a couple of friends who have been expounding this theory …”
Like flicking a switch, I launched into the well-worn practice of ‘running a distraction’, like at work when we needed to keep the customer from discovering the truth. It was one of the things I was good at, taking over a conversation and pushing it in a different direction. It was salvaging a good result from an utter disaster, and if ever there was a time that it was required, it was right here, right now.
When Alison sat down and looked at me, she knew something had happened between Jimmy and I. I might have looked pale or red-faced, or angry or disappointed, it didn’t matter. If that didn’t seal the deal for her, the fact I took over the dining engagement did. She knew well enough the only time I did that was when everything was about to go to hell in a handbasket. She’d seen me in action before and had been suitably astonished.
But I got into gear, kept the champagne flowing and steered the conversation, as much as one could from a seasoned professional like Elaine, and, I think, in Jimmy’s eyes, he saw the battle lines and knew who took the crown on points. Neither Elaine nor Jimmy suspected anything, and if the truth be told, I had improved my stocks with Elaine. She was at times both surprised and interested, even willing to take a back seat.
Alison, on the other hand, tried poking around the edges, and, once when Elaine and Jimmy had got up to have a cigarette outside, questioned me directly. I chose to ignore her, and pretend nothing had happened, instead of telling her how much I was enjoying the evening.
She had her ‘secrets’. I had mine.
At the end of the evening, when I got up to go to the bathroom, I was physically sick from the pent up tension and the implications of what Jimmy had told me. It took a while for me to pull myself together; so long, in fact, Jimmy came looking for me. I told him I’d drunk too much champagne, and he seemed satisfied with that excuse. When I returned, both Alison and Elaine noticed how pale I was but neither made any comment.
It was a sad way to end what was supposed to be a delightful evening, which to a large degree it was for the other three. But I had achieved what I set out to do, and that was to play them at their own game, watching the deception, once I knew there was a deception, as warily as a cat watches its prey.
I had also discovered Jimmy’s real calling; a professor of economics at the same University Alison was doing her law degree. It was no surprise in the end, on a night where surprises abounded, that the world could really be that small.
We parted in the early hours of the morning, a taxi whisking us back to the Lower East Side, another taking the Blaine’s back to the Upper West Side. But, in our case, as Alison reminded me, it would not be for much longer. She showed concern for my health, asked me what was wrong. It took all the courage I could muster to tell her it was most likely something I ate and the champagne, and that I would be fine in the morning.
She could see quite plainly it was anything other than what I told her, but she didn’t pursue it. Perhaps she just didn’t care what I was playing at.
And yet, after everything that had happened, once inside our ‘palace’, the events of the evening were discarded, like her clothing, and she again reminded me of what we had together in the early years before the problems had set in.
It left me confused and lost.
I couldn’t sleep because my mind had now gone down that irreversible path that told me I was losing her, that she had found someone else, and that our marriage was in its last death throes.
And now I knew it had something to do with Barclay.
© Charles Heath 2015-2020