Gilded — Part One

By Maya Lang

Gaurav Gupta set his saxophone down and crossed the herringbone floors, pausing at the threshold to hear the women laugh gaily, Lilly’s the loudest of all. It was shrill, in its way, her delight on parade.

He had promised Lilly he would stay put, but how tempting it was, to peek out and say hello! And what was the harm? “Dr. Gupta,” the women would purr, enveloping him in soft clouds of perfume. He would admire his handiwork in their faces. He would smile modestly as they fawned over him, fluttering around him like butterflies.

Lilly, no fool, had made him go the extra step of placing hand over heart. “Swear,” she’d commanded. “Otherwise you’ll come out and showboat, so help me.” “Showboat?” he’d repeated, incredulous. Yet here he was, staring at the door and contemplating doing just that. He’d even thought about letting a stray note slip out from the sax, a squawk from the trapped goose. Sissy or Catherine would come to his rescue. “My goodness, is Dr. Gupta here?” they would inquire. “Why do you have him locked up?”

Gaurav gazed at the floors, the inlaid pattern like scales on a fish. “They’re original,” Lilly liked to boast to guests, though Gaurav felt this was a fool’s term in real estate, a polite way of referring to the apartment’s geriatric charms: the hand-carved mantel with its dusty crevices; the glass doorknobs that creaked in his palm.

His own tastes ran modern. Gaurav liked the luxury buildings cropping up throughout the city with their slick exteriors and rooftop terraces. He imagined himself and Lilly on a balcony, the wind tossing her hair, each of them holding a glass of wine—just like the models in the glossy ads. Lilly indulged him like a mother with a toddler when he showed the magazines to her, glancing at the open floor plans and sleek surfaces with pursed lips.

She loved the Upper East Side. Thought it more fitting for them. And perhaps she was right. He often explained to his patients that the best solutions felt appropriate. “We want to enhance,” he counseled when they held up pictures of new noses and chins. “Not transform.”

Wasn’t the apartment just like his work? It was tasteful, dignity beating flamboyance, a swan more regal than a cygnet. No, Lilly had been right to insist on this apartment. It was his own expectations that needed adjusting.

*   *   *

Lilly was twenty-eight but acted older, especially since their wedding two years ago. The result was a walking contradiction, a doll playing the part of a matron.

“Sweetheart, I want you to promise me something,” she had said earlier that day, before the women arrived. Sum-fin. Her Southern accent conjured lazy afternoons with sweet tea, a hammock. “Mm,” he murmured. Then came the eyelashes, which she knew how to bat. “Let’s stay away this afternoon, alright?” She gave him a second hit of the lashes, bat bat, and tossed her hair over her shoulder.

Gaurav found himself nodding contentedly, watching her in her slip. They’d just returned from brunch where heads had swiveled to watch Lilly stride down the restaurant’s main artery. Then came the reproachful looks at him from the men. Dude, really? You? “Yes!” Gaurav was tempted to crow as he trailed behind her. “Me!”

Lilly was five foot nine with bouncy blond hair and round, blueberry eyes that looked perpetually astonished, as though delighted by her good fortune. She had a slim waist and full breasts and long, lithe limbs—a walking “After” picture. Gaurav occasionally sensed his colleagues evaluating her, but Lilly had never had any work done. She was that rare physical specimen, in need of no help.

A clang of hangers sounded, rousing him from his thoughts. “What is it I’m staying away from, exactly?” he asked.

“Book club.” Lilly poked her head out from the closet. “My turn to host the girls.”

“Ah.”

The girls, as Lilly called them, were hardly that. Sissy Weissman and Catherine Merberg were two of the Upper East Side’s ringleaders. They appeared regularly at museum benefits and galas after he had smoothed and plumped them at his midtown office. Lilly had recently joined their book club.

“Just like we talked about.” Lilly’s tone was light, but the look she threw him was sharp. A reminder.

Yes. The talk they’d had the previous week floated back to him. It had been a bit of a fight, actually. “You’re always so competitive! You always want to conquer everything,” Lilly had complained.

“I am Indian! Hardly a colonial. Your parents are the ones with the plantation.” He had meant it as a joke, to lighten the mood. Lilly got so dramatic during fights. But the line had not gone over well.

“Can’t you for once take me seriously?” Lilly’s eyes filled with tears. He couldn’t help but admire how the red capillaries heightened their blue like fine decorative threads. She turned on her heel before he could reply, slamming the door behind her. The mirror in the foyer shook in dismay.

When she returned that night, they had an earnest talk in the formal living room. He made himself sip his scotch and not say a word. This, apparently, made her feel better. Not talking helped her feel they were communicating.

She said she wanted something that was hers. This apartment is yours, he wanted to object. The furniture, the décor, the clothes. Yours! And none of it had come cheap. But he merely nodded, hoping to seem as serene as the pensive liquid he sipped, and the fight had ebbed away.

Lilly emerged from the walk-in now, slipping a dress from its hanger. It was the Chanel tweed, he saw, the one that made her feel sophisticated, though Gaurav wondered if it aged her. She raised her arms and for a moment, there was a suspension of light and time, the dress floating down her frame. It was a charming surrender, the dress swallowing her into its lining of silk.

But she was Lilly again as she materialized on the other side, yanking the dress into place, tugging at the fabric rather than letting it fall where it would.

“Don’t frown,” he reminded her as she examined herself in the mirror.

Women struck this pose in his office as well, necks craning to examine backsides. He waited patiently as they showed him the puckering or sagging they had seen at home. “There!” they would say, pointing to the mirror. “Do you see?” He nodded, not wanting to explain that their frozen pirouettes were unnecessary. When they were splayed on his table, numbed and mute—that was when he could fix them. But patients liked feeling they’d had a hand in their procedures, co-pilots rather than passengers.

“Rehearsal isn’t until four,” he complained to Lilly. “I don’t want to be banished from my home because of your book club. I might want to nap.”

“Then nap. Just don’t come out until everyone’s gone.”

“Not even for a quick hello?”

He expected her features to soften, but this was when she ordered him to swear. As Gaurav obliged, cupping his heart, he noticed the pectoral flesh was softer than anticipated. A generous B. “You really feel this is necessary?”

“Absolutely,” she said cheerfully. “We’re getting together to discuss literature. Not lipo.”

It was a good line. She’d probably prepared it earlier, noting it in the small tangerine notebook about which—strictly speaking—he was not supposed to know.

“As if I’d go on about lipo,” he scoffed.

“Oh my gosh, you would!” Gosh was one of those words the tangerine notebook was meant to obliterate. The notebook was filled with high-powered vocabulary. Litanies, diatribes, harangues. Gaurav had thumbed through its gold-tipped pages, fascinated yet appalled.

“The way you go on and on!” Her hands shifted to her hips, and for a moment the polish of the Chanel was gone. “Restylane! Juvaderm! Perlane! It’s like we’re at one of your stupid conferences!”

He resisted the urge to smile. His old Lilly was a rare sighting. “Darling, that’s because the women ask. I can hardly ignore them.”

Some part of him was impressed that she had retained the product names. He wondered if she might make a good pharma rep. Whenever he dragged her to a CME conference, she was a star during cocktail hour. Flirty, attentive. Full of charm.

She was better with men than women. That was her one flaw, like an especially deep wrinkle. Something happened when his female colleagues approached. “You’re from Georgia?” they inquired politely. “A peach!” he was always tempted to tell them.

Lilly’s Upper East Side mask slipped for just a moment. It was a façade she had been cultivating for some time. “I work at Goldman,” she liked to say when asked about her job. She never specified that she was an events planner, leaving them to assume she worked in finance. “Appearances mean everything,” she once confided to Gaurav’d. “You’re telling me,” he had chuckled.

Her relief when the female surgeons departed was palpable. “Where were we?” she would say, turning back to the men with a smile. To her credit, Lilly knew her audience.

She was the product of excellent genes and prep school sports; field hockey and tennis had honed her legs into taut arcs. Her mother had been vigilant about hats and sunscreen. To this day, she ushered Lilly into the shade whenever they visited Buckhead, clucking, “Girl, you can roll your eyes, but your skin will thank me. Isn’t that right, Gaurav?” He liked how Lilly’s mother pronounced his name, stretching its vowels into undulating hills. “Exactly right,” he concurred while Lilly scowled in the shade.

Lilly kept up her physique in Manhattan with a rotating set of classes, alternating between Pilates and spinning and yoga. She had learned, though, that looks weren’t enough in New York. There were too many gorgeous women. The appearance that had served her so well through high school and college offered little in their privileged circle; at times it was a liability. Rather than accept the women’s chilly hostility, Lilly was determined to win them over. Or, failing that, to become more like them. Hence the tangerine notebook. Hence the Chanel tweed, severe and straight, hiding the body she worked so hard to maintain.