Chapter 1: The Event Room at De Leon's
“I’m a clerk at the Times,” said Therese pleasantly, vacantly. She normally liked meeting the people that Carol knew or Carol met. Carol acquired people quickly, easily, with a throaty laugh and a knowing smile. But this man stood too close, brushing the gray, woolen edge of his sleeve against her arm. He wore too much heavy, musky cologne that bled obnoxiously over the smell of all of the martinis he’d had tonight, or possibly this afternoon. She assumed that Carol had met the man through Harge and been stuck with him in the divorce. “What do you do?”
“I’m a banker. It’s a great profession, banking. Regular hours and a guaranteed income: people are always giving you their money.” He laughed much too hard at his own joke, the onion in his glass jiggling precariously.
“I see,” said Therese, although she didn’t really. Just because something was more or less true didn’t make it humorous. “Oh,” she said, carefully looking over the obnoxious man’s shoulder. “I see her just about to powder her nose, I’ve got to catch her. See you later!” She made her escape to the bar, since the bathroom had actually been behind her. “Manhattan, please,” she asked, and the bartender nodded and hopped to. She was digging in her purse for a tip when she felt a hand at her waist.
“I’m sorry I left you alone with Noel, darling,” Carol whispered in her ear. “Sean Spencer was telling one of his endless anecdotes and I couldn’t get away.”
Therese shrugged. Placating the boss was a part of any job, especially at an industry party. “Dry martini?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Chapter 2: Penn Station
The convenience of coming in through Penn Station never quite made up for the grime of coming in through Penn Station. Carol sighed and assured herself that it didn’t matter, that the important thing was that she was done with this stretch of travel, the next thing to being home.
She stepped into a little alcove out of the flow of traffic, not quite outdoors, and lit her last Lucky Strike. She liked the part of her job that was being in other places, meeting with people, selecting beautiful things. But she still wasn’t fond of traveling alone.
She said as much to Therese that night over a cold chicken salad.
Therese smiled. “You didn’t pick up a stack of business cards and promises to call on girls just starting out in the big city?”
Carol laughed and tossed her hair. “Of course I did. But all of the interesting looking girls were nose-deep in books for that last stretch from Pittsburgh.”
Therese smiled and looked down at her plate. “Good. Maybe I’ll get you all to myself for a few days.”
“Maybe,” said Carol, and she put her hand out on the table. When Therese put her hand out over Carol’s, Carol squeezed hard before she let go.
Chapter 3: Markham Gallery
“When is that girl going to start taking pictures of other people?” asked Abby. She strolled through the gallery arm in arm with Carol, looking at Therese’s photographs.
Carol shrugged nonchalantly, chuckled in that low, sweet, dark honey way she had. “Are you waiting for us to fall out of love?” Carol casually twisted them closer to a picture of herself and her daughter on a beach, in matching striped two pieces. She reached out with one hand, not getting anywhere near the frame, not really. Her grey wrap glinted silver in the light trained on the image. “I mean, that’s what they are. They’re love letters. You can see.” She clenched her fist, just a little, and let her hand fall back to her side.
Abby smiled and adjusted her arm in Carol’s to pull the two of them a little closer together. “Anyone with eyes can see,” she said. “That’s why I worry.” She poked at the slim silver cuff bracelet Carol wore, twisting the opening to sit on the front of Carol's neat, trim wrist, to frame the delicate blue veins.
“Ah. Well. Harge knows. The store knows. The people I really care about,” she squeezed Abby’s hand, “know.”
“Your landlord? Your neighbors? The paper?”
She shrugged. “I have enough set aside to take care of us, should something disastrous happen. I solve all of my problems with money, you know that.” She shrugged, opened her tiny black clutch one-handed, then closed it without taking anything out, a baleful glare at the No Smoking sign to the right of the photograph, outside the pool of display light. “But what about you? That blonde from upstate isn’t here tonight?”
Abby scowled. “Didn’t I tell you? She went back to her husband.” She sighed, shook her head to clear it. “Where’s the food at this shindig? I skipped dinner to get here early.”
“Oh, honey.” Carol patted her hand. “I’m going to take you out to get a great big steak. Just let me tell Therese.”
Chapter 4: Washington Dormitory
“Is there any where else we should look for things?” asked Therese, closing the closet door.
Rindy stood up from where she’d been peering under both beds and dusted off her knees. “Maybe the bathroom one last time? And the chest of drawers?”
“There’s nothing in the drawers, Rindy,” said Carol. “I checked twice already.”
“Ok,” said Rindy, pushing her sweat-soaked bangs back from her face. “I’ll check the bathroom and then bring down the last box?”
Therese nodded, then shot a look at Carol. “Your mother and I will wait for you in the lounge. It’s too hot to sit in the car.”
“Ok,” said Rindy and walked out.
“Well,” said Carol, checking the drawers again, despite her earlier protestations. “I guess that’s it.” She swallowed once, twice, and blinked rapidly several times.
Therese came across the room to her, leaned against her softly. “She’s still your little girl. She’ll always be your little girl, even now that she’s a beautiful woman.”
“I know,” said Carol. “I just—I still remember when she had that new baby smell. And now it’s twenty-four years later, and she’s going to start working in Boston next week. Where did the time go?”
“She’s beautiful. And clever and brave and so much fun. You had to teach her all of that. You got her through Campfire Girls and her confirmation and the thing with Bob, and now, she’s graduated college with honors,” said Therese. “That’s you,” and she ran a hand over the small of Carol’s back. “Be proud. And be a little sad, if you need to.”
Carol nodded, then her face crumpled, and she tilted her head back, eyes held wide to keep the tears in. “Did we pack the tissues already?” She sniffed, a dainty little whiff that Therese knew meant she was on the verge of really crying.
“I think I have some in my purse. Hold on.”
Chapter 5: St. Agnes' Church
There was an awkwardness to being at Harge’s funeral. Therese was glad of Abby’s presence, which wasn’t really their usual relationship. (It was petty, twenty years later, to have never quite gotten over their introduction. But it was also the way she felt, and she and Abby and Carol had made their peace with it long ago.)
Instead of showing any of this on her face or saying it aloud, Therese said, “I thought the deviled eggs at the wake were nice; did you bring them?” Therese didn’t like Abby’s cooking—that wasn’t pettiness, that was Abby’s gift for burning food—but Abby was living with Samantha now, and Samantha was a source of a lot of delicious ideas from her native Georgia.
“No, I brought the potatoes. It’s the only thing I really know how to make.” Abby took a drag off her cigarette, then looked at it intensely, as if surprised to discover it was in her hands.
Therese tapped out her cigarette against the church wall, then put the half-smoked butt back in the pack. She probably wouldn’t smoke the rest of it, but she couldn’t see throwing things on the ground at a church, even if it was Episcopalian and she could never quite convince herself that they counted. “I heard Susan say they were good.” Susan being the most recent Mrs. Aird, it seemed like the nicest thing she could say about them. Although, was it really very nice to be told that the widow liked a thing you brought to a wake? Was it nicer than when your best friend’s girl told you that? “I liked them, too.” There, that covered all the bases.
“Hmm,” said Abby, in that infuriating way she had of never quite taking a compliment. “I’m going to go back inside. See if Rindy’s less surrounded and I can give her a hug.”
“Poor kid,” Therese says. “It’s just a shame her dad didn’t get to see his first grandchild. And they only just had the shower.”
Chapter 6: The Living Room
Therese had never said, but Carol knew that she preferred the Christmases like these, just the two of them sitting tailor fashion in front of the twinkling shrub of a tree, listening to The Magic of Christmas and eating Chinese food out of cartons.
Carol liked piles of presents, and giggling grandchildren, and turkey and potatoes and all of the rest of it. But she didn’t mind this, not at all. She’d been lucky, she thought, to find the love of her life before she was thirty, to have thirty good years and maybe another ten to look forward to. She thought about leaning over to kiss Therese, and then she thought about the arthritis in her hip. “Come here,” she said. “I want to kiss you.”
Therese said, “I want to kiss you, too,” blew a kiss over, and then put another forkful of noodles in her mouth.