Funerals ought to have invitations was Garvey’s first thought. Embossed ones: Dr. and Mrs. Herman Stoltz request the honor of your presence at the funeral of their daughter, Claire. 1:30 p.m. Steinberg Memorial Chapel, Washington D.C. But instead, of course, there was a phone call — a calm, pretentious phone call from Buddy, that old son of a bitch, all Hello, how are you? How’s Cleveland working out for you? Are Midwestern chicks really that ugly, and do you fuck them anyway? And oh, by the way, Claire’s dead. Yeah, Primatene Mist, same as killed that model. You know. Some congenital heart defect thing reacted weirdly to the inhaler. Boom, her ticker just stopped. They found her on the floor of her apartment, that one on the Circle. Life is short and all that. Listen, the funeral’s the day after tomorrow, if you want to come.
No, he probably didn’t want to come, but he scribbled down the address anyway, on the company non-sticky notepad by the phone. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT THAT I’M WRITING IT DOWN ON A SMALL PIECE OF FLY-AWAY PAPER read the top; the bottom contained a childish illustration of a Post-it with wings. Claire Stoltz. Jews bury their dead so fast you didn’t have time to decide whether or not you wanted to take the plane to D.C., see those people, get back into that scene.
He looked around his office, somewhat stunned. His desk was neat, with just enough studied clutter to look as though he frequently used it, which was an exaggeration. His name was painted on the glass door, like the set of a 1970s TV detective show. Andrew Garvey Masterson — his full name, not Garvey, what he’d been called since the first day of first grade, when, with parents present, blue-haired Mrs. Griffin said there were three Andrews in the class, and who would like to be called by a nickname? Garvey’s mother raised her hand and spoke up for her son, deciding he should be called by her maiden name, condemning him to years of ridicule as Gravy Garvey, or, worse, Groovy Garvey. Until that radio personality Garvey Wanna came along, galvanizing suburban Chicago and catapulting Garvey into coolness, a throne he still occupied today — blond hair, toned body, gift of the gab.
So Claire was dead. He could hear the whirring machines below, the presses stamping messages onto cards. RSVP Josh Weinstein Bar Mitzvah; Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth R. Churchman request the honor of your presence at the wedding of their daughter Julie to Connor McGuell; and the birthday cards, condolence cards, thank you cards that were the backbone of their operation. Presses printing what should have been a news bulletin: Claire is dead.
A phone call — that’s how things happened now. Now he would start dreading phone calls the way his parents did. Now his heart would start beating harder every time the phone rang. Garvey picked up the pen and traced Claire’s name on the paper so that it was in boldface. What font would that be? Garvey probably should have known, but he left the day-to-day business, the actual printing, to his cousin, concerned himself with making sure everyone reported to whom they should, and that everyone knew his/her job. Not so different from the government job he’d held in D.C. — a lot of futile paper-pushing, a lot of lunches; vapid, encouraging words, posturing, and perky ass-kissing. When he’d arrived in wide-eyed innocence in Washington, he’d asked the secretary what exactly his boss did for a living. “He delegates,” she answered, her eyes remaining on the computer screen where she was transcribing dictation. “He’s excellent at it.”
And now Garvey was in Cleveland and had a dead ex-lover. She’s the first one, he thought; the first of us to die. The first of my lovers I’ll outlive. How dramatic. He’d imagined a time when firsts would be less frequent, even non-existent — a time after the first apartment, the first investment portfolio, the first wedding, the first custom suit — but they continued, and would, he now knew, until his death; his first (and only) death. Aside from the usual car accidents and suicides of distant acquaintances, he’d been left relatively untouched by death: his Uncle Nick from cancer, a grandfather who’d kicked the bucket, but one he barely knew who left the entire family business to cousin Tate.
And then, back then, there was Claire. There was D.C. And now there simply wasn’t anymore, not Claire. D.C. was still there, of course, but so distant as to be non-existent. Do places exist if you’re not there? And was it that strange, really, that Claire no longer existed when she hadn’t anyway, not really, for two years? Not since he’d left that fictional place called D.C. for Cleveland, another planet?
He should go and say good-bye to Claire, good-bye to D.C. He buzzed Laurie, who buzzed him back. It gave him great satisfaction to have a secretary of his own at age thirty-two, to buzz her and give her instructions like book a flight to D.C. tomorrow, and she’d comply and wonder why. Why D.C.? Why suddenly now? And he owed her no explanation.
Garvey could see through the glass walls overlooking the factory floor that Tate was not in his office. He was down there with the masses, so to speak, fiddling with something while the maintenance guys stood watching. Tate was wearing another loud, passé sport coat, no tie, and Doc Martens. Garvey banged, but there was no way Tate could hear him with the racket on the floor, and Garvey straightened his tie in the weak reflection in the glass before heading down the large metal stairs to the factory floor.
“Tate,” he screamed. The din was deafening. “Tate.” He tapped his cousin on the shoulder. Tate turned around suddenly, hands cocked in a karate pose.
“Hai-YAH!” he said, giving Garvey a fake chop.
“Tate, listen, I’m going to D.C. for a couple of days, OK?”
“You’re going to the sea?” This was one of Tate’s stupid games, pretending to mishear because of the noise. He turned his head, leaning his ear toward Garvey, and smiled goofily.
“No, D.C. Washington.”
“Watch the sun, great.”
“No, it’s my old . . . girlfriend, Claire.” Garvey tried to infuse his words with solemnity. He found no humor in Tate’s juvenile stand-up routine, but at least Tate was consistent in his sophomoric responses. He respected Tate’s stability, his predictability. He knew there would never be a moment of self-doubt in Tate’s life, no crying into his beer, no might-have-beens.
And he didn’t fail Garvey now: “What about her?”
Tate nodded. He paused. The hair he combed over his bald spot toward the front of his forehead fell a little. He pushed it back absently. “Sure am sorry. Hey listen, the cylinder’s broken again.”
“Bummer,” Garvey said, delegating. “I’ll be back Friday.”
“No rush, partner. I’ll hold down the fort.” Tate turned back to the press.
Garvey bought a paper and draped it over his knees as the plane took off for Dulles. Claire Stoltz. He could summon her face only vaguely now, the eyes a little too close together, the small button nose. Her memory provoked only that terrible feeling of loss from two years ago when he stepped onto the plane for Cleveland and she waved good-bye to him from the gate, her right hand in her pocket fingering, he knew, one of those cigarillos she liked to smoke, waiting for the plane to take off so she could step out of the airport into the unclean capital air and light it up. Little Claire, waving fervently, guilelessly, and that heavy nauseous feeling that he never took for grief or emotion but rather dismissed as indigestion, or nervousness. They’d eaten ribs at one of those places on the way to the airport where they tie plastic bibs around your neck. Amicably, they’d eaten three whole slabs, tearing into the flesh (Claire, too, stuffing the food into God-knows-where on her five-foot frame), messy with the grease and sauce, eyes stinging from the spicy barbecue and laughing so loud that other tables turned to stare. They forked cole slaw at each other, retreated into the plastic bib armor, and stuffed whole unbuttered rolls in their mouths, wiped their faces with the backs of their hands, washed it all down with large Cokes, refilled. He asked for the check and paid it with the newly acquired company credit card.
Amazingly, when the bibs came off and their faces were wiped clean with warm lemon-scented towels, they looked presentable. A sidelong glance at his watch told Garvey they were late, and they took off in her unreliable Cabriolet which for once (miraculously, fatedly) started right up.
Now, on the plane from Cleveland, the stewardess came by and asked Garvey what he wanted to drink.
“Gin and tonic — no, just tonic,” he said, remembering the hour.
(“How can you drink tonic, plain like that?” Claire had asked. “It’s like that stuff they put on sore muscles, what–Ben Gay. It smells like a boxing locker room.”
“You, Queen-of-Logic-and-Cigars, asking me how I can stand a smell?”
“They’re cigarillos, thank you very much,” she said and sparked one up right there in his Dupont Circle apartment. The cockroaches never returned.)
He sipped the tonic slowly, not sure what he was supposed to be feeling. Cleveland was good for that, for numbness: its industrial skyline, its small pond status. He was named most eligible bachelor by Cleveland Weekend magazine the month after he moved there. “Andrew Garvey Masterson, bachelor, hails most recently from our nation’s capital, where he held a job in the high reaches of government. A Georgetown University graduate, ‘Groovy Garvey’ as his friends call him is also an avid mountain climber who enjoys cinema and Asian cuisine. Garvey will use his business savvy as Vice President of Cleveland’s own Masterson Stationery, founded by his grandfather, the late Nathan Masterson. Welcome to Cleveland, Garvey!”
Welcome to Cleveland indeed. Low rents, decent sports bars, lonely women — it was as though Cleveland stretched out the red carpet for him. If he wasn’t happy he was, well, comfortable, which was the word his father always used to describe his living. Comfortable living: central heating, dry cleaning delivery, premium movie channels. Comfortable, but not permanent, not forever. The future was, of course, unknowable, but it was never supposed to include Claire Stoltz. Now it couldn’t include Claire Stoltz.
D.C. looked unchanged during the slow, traffic-snarled ride from the airport to the hotel. It was hotter here, and humid, making him sweat. He could have stayed with Buddy or someone, but he had decided that a hotel was the way to go; he could afford it, and he wanted the vacant luxury of air-conditioning, a clean bath and a minibar, a basement workout center and a small shoe-shine kit. But of course D.C. had changed. Cities change faster than interest rates; stores are built, restaurants go under, streets are torn up, renamed. If he stayed longer it would be like visiting a foreign town — he’d make wrong turns and feel the continual disappointment of unfamiliarity.
Garvey watched out the window as the car wound through the busy city streets. Washington looked so different from Cleveland with its rows of endless museums, green parks, Victorian buildings. The monuments and the Mall lit up at night in a perpetual Christmas for tourists. D.C. was always “on,” always showy. And it was true that at any given time, heads of state were deciding the fate of the nation, major drug deals were going down, intrepid reporters were uncovering corruption. And the streets were swept clean, whitewashed almost, by street sweepers who were armed only with brooms in the fight against filth, who wore wires and sold stories to the Enquirer. You had to be on your guard in D.C. It could catch you unaware and sweep you away into the Potomac. Garvey felt that old tension coming back, the clenching of the jaw and of the gut. He never felt that in Cleveland. Cleveland had no aesthetic pretensions, no premeditated urban planning. It just was.
After he checked into the hotel, Garvey traveled to Claire’s parents’ house in Virginia in a taxi with torn vinyl seats and Islamic prayer beads hanging from the rearview mirror. He asked the driver to wait for him in the Stoltzes’ long driveway while he ran up and rang the doorbell. He could hear the ancient dog barking inside. A black woman in a modified maid’s uniform answered the door.
“Hello,” Garvey said. “I’m Garvey Masterson. Are the Stoltzes at home?”
“No,” the woman said. She stared at him. “They’ve lost a child.”
“I know,” Garvey said. They’ve lost a child, as though they’d simply misplaced her. Now where did I put that Claire? “I’m an old friend. I came here once, for dinner, do you remember me?”
“I haven’t been working here long,” the woman said, and Garvey realized with embarrassment she didn’t look familiar at all. He wasn’t sure what he had come to the house for, but there was something satisfying about the rows of neat begonias outside the front door, the tidy chaos of the flagstone walk and the pale symmetrical columns holding up the second-floor porch. He noticed a small dandelion growing among the begonias and thought immediately of Claire’s sunflower dress: a huge, gaudy, yellow housedress she wore all summer. He wondered if she was really as small as he remembered. She was shrinking in his memory, dwarfed by the dress and by the amount of time that had passed.
“Right, sorry,” Garvey said. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you.” He turned and walked toward the waiting taxi.
“It’s all right. Would you like to leave a note?” the woman called after him.
Garvey stopped and looked at her. She was young, probably not much older than he was, but fat with neglect, or maybe indulgence. He thought about leaving a note, but what could it say? “No. I’ll see them tomorrow at the service.”
Garvey got back into the taxi and gave the address of Steinberg’s funeral home. Parked outside the austere building was a Lincoln Town Car with Virginia plates. Garvey paid the cabbie and walked toward the entrance. He pushed the door in and smelled the thick scent of air-freshener and shag carpeting masking a deeper, more pervasive odor. What was he doing here? He wanted to see her one last time, see if his memory of her size was correct. The casket would be closed at the funeral.
He could hear voices down the hall — a woman’s, distraught, and an older man’s. He walked toward them and was unsurprised to see Claire’s parents. Mrs. Stoltz was crying into a handkerchief.
“Hello, young man,” said the doctor, something Claire had told Garvey he always said to people whose names he couldn’t remember. It was how he had addressed Garvey when he came to dinner that once.
Mrs. Stoltz looked up. “Oh Gravy, I’m so glad you’re here.” She rushed toward him and fell into him, waiting to be embraced. Garvey obliged stiffly. He didn’t correct her use of his old nickname. Mrs. Stoltz was small like Claire. She barely came up to his chest. The sharp corner of her purse, wedged between them, pressed against his leg. He felt awkward and intrusive. Mrs. Stoltz squeezed Garvey’s arms against him with a strength that surprised him.
Then, just as suddenly, she stepped back. “I wondered if anyone called you. I was going to do it myself, but I just couldn’t bring myself to. Do you want anything?” she asked, reverting to hostess mode though she was in a funeral parlor and not in her own home.
“No, thank you, Mrs. Stoltz. I just wanted to pay my condolences.”
“Thank you, darling. You know, I always thought, the way Claire talked about you, that you’d be the one–”
“Dolly,” Dr. Stoltz cautioned.
“This is Gravy,” Mrs. Stoltz gestured to Garvey. They had always called him that, fondly, he supposed. “You remember him.”
“Of course I do.” Dr. Stoltz put his arm around his wife’s shoulder. She disintegrated into sobs. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “It was so sudden, so unexpected.”
“Hmmm,” Garvey made a sympathetic sound.
There was a long pause. “Do you know where Claire might have left her high school diploma?” Dr. Stoltz asked suddenly. “We’ve been looking for it everywhere.”
It was a bizarre question for which Garvey had no answer. He looked around the hallway, which offered no help. Funeral homes were always so tacky, he thought; the carpet was red plush, as was the wallpaper. There was a cheap oil painting, a solemn plains landscape, on the wall above a cherry wood table with fake lilies in a vase. “Umm, no, sir, I really don’t know where she would have put it. She didn’t really have places for things . . .” Garvey trailed off, remembering an afternoon spent looking for his keys, tearing apart her chaotic, crowded apartment where she insisted nothing could be misplaced because nothing had a place. She sat on her bed smoking, watching him and laughing. Garvey wondered why he had ever wanted to see her corpse in the first place, what peace he’d imagined the sight of her dead body would bring him.
“Oh,” Dr. Stoltz said. His brow furrowed. If he’d been crying, his face didn’t show it. “I think I’ll take Dolly home now.” He looked down at his wife, shuddering into her square of cloth.
“Of course,” Garvey said. “I’m so sorry to keep you. I’m sorry. Claire was…,” he started. Claire was unknowable, un-articulatable. “I’ll see you at the service tomorrow.”
Mrs. Stoltz was buried in her husband’s shoulder; he had his arm around her. Garvey stepped back to let them pass and watched them, crippled by the differences in their height, hobble to the front door.
When he couldn’t reach him at home Garvey thought he could probably find Buddy at their “local,” as they called it in the English manner. It was Wednesday, and Buddy usually went out Wednesdays, or used to anyway. Garvey left the name of his hotel on Buddy’s answering machine. The room was growing oppressive, small, and sterile. Garvey thought he should probably go out for a good piece of fish, since he was in D.C., and he walked to a restaurant he knew near the hotel, which, to his relief, was still there, though they’d changed the menu substantially. He brought along the paper from the plane.
Garvey really didn’t like to eat alone, but he didn’t feel like calling any of the old gang. He would see them tonight, or tomorrow at the funeral. He ordered Chilean sea bass and tried to read the paper, which was a little unwieldy for a dinner table. He thought he could sense pity in the waitress’s officiousness.
Afterward, he walked to the pub though it was hot still, even at night, a two-mile stroll which made it late enough to possibly find some people he knew. The bar was almost empty, the large television sets playing soundless sports events, including a strange feed from Asia broadcasting an Indian version of what looked like that old schoolyard game, Smear the Queer. Garvey looked around. He didn’t know any of the people in the booths or at the bar. He didn’t like to be alone at bars; often he went out of his way to pick friends up in his car just so he wouldn’t arrive first. He sat down at the bar, and he and the bartender nodded at each other in vague recognition.
“Yes?” the bartender asked.
“A gin and tonic,” Garvey said. He had thrown away the newspaper on the way over and now he was sorry. He watched Indian Smear the Queer while the bartender poured his drink. There was some sort of safe zone the player could take refuge in, and a no-man’s-land where it was fair game to pin him to the ground until the fat referee blew his whistle. The bartender placed Garvey’s drink on a napkin in front of him with a lemon wedge.
“Four fifty,” he said.
“Do you still see Buddy Nothern and those guys in here ever?” Garvey asked.
“Tall blond guy? Kind of loud?”
“That’s him,” Garvey said.
“Sure. Sometimes.” The bartender took his white cloth to the other end of the bar. Garvey sipped the drink and swiveled around to watch some people play pool. Two couples, on a double date it looked like. The men typical D.C. liberals, early thirties, government guys probably. The girls were thin, with long blond hair that draped down their backs and swung when they laughed. They’d been drinking awhile and were giggling, playing sloppy, interminable pool, accepting flirtatious instruction from their dates: “No, now line it up like this, and softly, but firmly, you know how I like it . . .”
Claire used to sit on the pool table while they were playing. He’d pick her up and move her like patio furniture when she got in the way, and she’d continue her monologue, moving through the air in mid-sentence as though it were normal to levitate while conversing.
Garvey watched NASCAR races for a while on the TV above the couples, and when his watch said midnight he left the bar and caught a cab to his hotel.
Garvey was a little early for the service, but most of the mourners had already arrived. Claire’s relatives he could discern from their Eastern European hips and outmoded clothes — exactly the bumpkins Claire had painted them as. The Stoltz parents stood toward the front near the coffin. A large, youngish, well-tailored group was standing over on the right side of the large room. Garvey moved their way.
He shook hands with Peter and Josh and pecked Julianne on the cheek. Georgia had been crying; she had mascara tracks down her cheeks.
“Groovy Garvey, man, nice to see you,” Buddy was in front of him suddenly, a little happy for the occasion. “So bad it had to be for this.”
“Yeah,” Garvey agreed, accepting the handshake and the left hand pat that went with it. “How are you?”
“Good, really good. Hey listen, where were you last night? I tried your hotel a hundred times. We were all going to go out.”
“I turned off the phone,” Garvey said. “I was really tired.”
“Well, after the service there’s this reception thing in Virginia and then we can catch up. I want you to meet — here, honey.” He tried to get the attention of the wiry brunette behind him. “Rhina, meet Garvey.”
“Nice to meet you,” they both said simultaneously. She was pretty, with green eyes and a long nose. She had on a short dress that just barely won the fight between risqué and appropriate.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Rhina said. “From Buddy.”
“Oh,” Garvey said. He didn’t really want to be making small talk. He wanted to be sitting, looking at the coffin, listening to those Jewish dirges. He wished, suddenly and violently, that he and Claire had been engaged when she died so that he could sit up in front with her parents and hand Mrs. Stoltz fresh Kleenexes, maybe shed a few tears himself, at least put his head in his hands, grieve publicly.
The lights dimmed, and they all took seats. From where he was seated on the aisle, Garvey could see the Stoltzes, rocking in time to the litanies. He understood little of the service. The rabbi gave the eulogy, and it was short, talked about the mysteries of God’s ways, and proved, through the citation of various Old Testament passages, that the test of death was for the living, not the dead. When Garvey looked over once, he saw that Rhina and Buddy were holding hands and Buddy had tears in his eyes. Buddy had never dated anyone as pretty as Rhina, and he didn’t usually like brunettes. Garvey tried to concentrate on the service, tried to drum up tears in his own eyes, but they seemed to all be located somewhere under his rib cage, attached to his sternum maybe, in a sac he couldn’t dislodge.
There was a lot of standing and sitting and standing again and then suddenly it was over and everyone was filing past the Stoltzes telling them how sorry they were, and Garvey took his place in line. When he got to Dr. Stoltz, the older man looked at him blankly. “Thank you for your sympathies, young man.” Mrs. Stoltz was sitting down, her eyes covered by the handkerchief.
Buddy and Rhina drove Garvey to the cemetery for another short service and the lowering of the coffin. It had started to rain, and Buddy offered Garvey a part of the newspaper to put over his head for protection, which Garvey accepted. They all took turns shoveling dirt in the grave. Garvey took a large bladeful of dirt and followed it with his eyes all the way down until he saw it land like hard rain on the coffin’s surface. He gave the shovel to Josh behind him, and he and Buddy and Rhina made their way to the Stoltzes’ house in Virginia.
He was surveying the dining room table laden with food, and contemplating what to eat when a tall, dark-haired woman stepped up beside him. She skewered a mini hot dog.
“Jews serving hot dogs at Shivah,” she sighed. She looked at Garvey. “Of course, I guess they could be kosher hot dogs.” She narrowed her eyelids, gave him a look that Garvey could only describe as lascivious.
“Are you a Lansman?” the woman asked. She spoke softly and with her mouth full of hot dog he could barely understand her.
“A linesman? What?”
She held up one finger as a time-out and swallowed patiently. “A member of the tribe. Are you Jewish?”
“Does it matter?” Garvey was taken aback.
“Well,” she considered. “Yes, I would say it does.” She was whispering; he couldn’t hear her above the din, so he leaned in close, as though he were the one making the pass, an admirable ploy on her part.
“No. I’m not a linesman. I don’t even play football.” Seeing the joke fall flat he added quickly, “No. I’m not Jewish.” Christ, he was sounding more like Tate every day.
“What are you then?”
“Like, what religion? I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” she asked sharply.
This was getting weird. Garvey speared a cold cut with a green sword toothpick and put it in his mouth to discover it was a small pickle surrounded by roast beef. He didn’t like pickles, but felt obliged to swallow it. The sodium rush made him gulp down his gin and tonic and hang on to an ice cube to suck. Any port in a storm, he thought, then wondered if the port was the ice or the girl.
“I mean, I don’t know. I wasn’t raised anything. Episcopalian, maybe.” He picked a religion at random.
“Episcopalian? Christ!” She threw back her head to laugh at the private joke that was Episcopalianism, but Garvey didn’t get it. The room seemed to stop for a moment to listen to her laughter, a guttural rushing sound, like an avalanche.
He studied her now that she was at a distance. She had a pageboy haircut, wide brown eyes and a loose-fitting suit that exaggerated her shoulders. The pants hung loosely at her hips.
“So what are you?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m Zoroastrian.” She set her glass of white wine on the table in order to place some melon balls on a napkin. The living room seemed to Garvey remarkably like a cocktail party all of a sudden. The woman busied herself with her food. Garvey thought she’d moved on, that he’d failed the religion litmus. He went to refill his glass at the self-service bar, tonging more ice in the cup.
“Are you from Cleveland?” she asked suddenly, holding out her glass for him to refill.
“Yes,” he said. “How did you–”
“You’re Gravy Masterson.”
“Garvey,” he corrected, extending his hand.
“Nice to meet you,” he said automatically.
“I was Claire’s lover, when you were in D.C.”
If his life were a movie, this would be the place where he’d spit gin and tonic all over the room. Except his glass was still empty. “Impossible,” he stammered.
“Not really,” Diane said. “What did she tell you she was doing for a living?”
“Playing accompanying piano for a ballet studio.”
“Not a total lie. I do live in a studio.” She paused. “That would make me the piano.” Diane popped a melon ball into her mouth.
“I don’t believe you,” Garvey said, although it made perfect sense when he thought about it. It was something he could have expected from Claire: the unexpected.
“No? She had this strange thing about her breasts.” Diane turned her back to the bar and looked around the room as though searching for someone in particular. Her finger traced the rim of her wine glass. “She loved the left one, but if you touched the right one she’d have conniption fits.” Diane’s voice was louder, now that the conversation had gotten more intimate. Garvey could hear her clearly for the first time. He remembered looking at Claire, naked above him, and then some perverse instinct inserted Diane in her place in his memory.
“The sex was terrible,” Diane continued. “In case you were feeling jealous, don’t. The worst I ever had.”
“She was date-raped in college,” Garvey said softly.
“I know. That explains the frigidity, I suppose, but not the breast thing. What do you think?”
“I think I don’t want to be talking to you about this here,” Garvey said. He shifted his weight, feeling very uncomfortable.
“You still don’t believe me, do you?” she asked. “I can tell you don’t. Let’s see. She liked to sit on your back and smoke cigars while you did push-ups. She said it turned you on. Maybe it’s a guy thing,” Diane continued. “I have to admit I don’t really get it.”
“It’s complicated,” Garvey said. He couldn’t believe Claire had told anyone. He felt betrayed, and stared into his sympathetically watery drink with self-pity. He sloshed it around twice and downed the meager liquid left in the bottom.
There was a moment of silence. “Time for a refill,” Garvey said.
“Here, take my card,” Diane said. She handed him a small business card which had her home address, an apartment not far from his old one in D.C. There was no profession listed. He put it in his jacket pocket and poured some Tanqueray into his glass, watching the ice cubes crack with excitement. Shame to dilute it with tonic, but he didn’t like straight gin, so in it went. He thought he could taste the filtering process, which was bullshit, he knew, but once he’d gotten the idea in his head he’d developed an aversion to the straight stuff. When he looked up from his potion, Diane had disappeared.
It was the kind of relationship Garvey had never thought existed. One he’d never read about, one he’d never talked about with the guys or seen on TV. One that Buddy wouldn’t ever understand. It wasn’t that Garvey liked Claire that much — that wasn’t the right word — or that he disliked her at all, but once they met there was never any question that time spent would be time spent with her. Comfortable, like his maternal grandparents who were so close they spoke in a patois that only they could understand.
There were aspects of a mother/child connection in their relationship, though neither Garvey nor Claire was the clear offspring of the other. It was just that natural, that imperceptible, that mundane. The small weight of her lying on his back as he did his push-ups; her cigarillo, asthma be damned, sending the smoke rings up to the ceiling like distress signals. Garvey moving up and down with the strength of his arms, the colossal power he contained.
And their two successful lovemaking sessions, after they’d tried everything for months — talking and electronic aids and doctor visits (physical and mental), alcohol and pornography — and it had been repeatedly disastrous. Even Garvey couldn’t come, and he didn’t tell Buddy because he was afraid he knew what it meant; something about a place he didn’t want to go unless Claire came with him. She was so little in bed, so easily reduced to tears, uncharacteristic (impossible even) when she was clothed. And then one Saturday afternoon she clipped the cigarillo and tapped Garvey on the shoulder midway through the push-up routine. He rolled over and it was just, well, the only way Garvey could describe it was right. It just was right.
Now it was ruined by Diane’s revelation. If it had happened with Garvey, then it must have happened with Diane too, he reasoned. How many times? It killed him to think that Diane might have reached Claire in a way he was unable to.
Not that he wasn’t seeing other women, too. There was Heidi, and Jennifer and Lana from work, and Micha, and a couple of dates with Celeste, which was weird because that was his mother’s name and it was a rare enough name that he associated it only with her. But it was the mid-nineties, and after sex no one actually wanted to sleep together — the actual physical sleeping being too intimate — and Garvey itched to call Claire when it was over, like a post-coital cigarette, and tell her nothing about it, not a word, but just let her ramble on to him about the guests on the late-night round table discussion she was watching or her theories of meditation and redemption, her voice as elemental as breathing or bread or water.
What was he to her? He couldn’t know, didn’t want to, couldn’t even articulate her place in his life, suspected (arrogantly, he knew) that it couldn’t be categorized, had never before been experienced in the however-many-thousand years of human history. He didn’t bother to search for the words, to perform the existential honing in on accurate classification. It would have boiled down to something existential and banal.
And in Garvey’s life things were changing. Senator Jordan was indicted for embezzling campaign funds, and the Republican congress vetoed the president’s welfare bill. And then Garvey’s grandfather died, and the phone call came from cousin Tate, encountered for the first time in twenty years at the funeral in a shiny black tuxedo jacket and faded black Dockers (again, no tie), asking would he like to join the family business. And change, Garvey realized, was the only thing life was sure to bring you; fuck death and taxes. And the firsts would continue, always the firsts. You could never get too comfortable in a life with firsts. And so he thought about moving to Cleveland.
They all went back to the local in reminiscence of the good times. A different bartender was working, a new one, but Buddy knew him and laughed loudly with the man about something or other. The bar seemed brighter than it had the night before, and he found the source: an enormous lit plastic advertisement in the shape of a bottle of Zima, a drink no one in the place would have been caught dead with a couple of years ago. He ordered a gin and tonic — no, wait, two. He’d just get two now and save himself another trip to the bar. It was getting to be a few too many, but Garvey wasn’t sure he cared. He was getting that pleasantly buzzed feeling for the first time since he’d left Cleveland, and it was a welcome one.
Buddy and Garvey retreated to a tall table for two. Garvey sat on the stool; Buddy remained standing and poured himself a glass of beer from a pitcher.
“How are you, man?” Buddy asked. “I’m terrible about the phone thing, and it’s not like I’m coming to Ohio to visit you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Garvey said. “But it’s really not so bad.”
“I can’t believe we’re here after a funeral.”
“Me either.” They took a long sip of their drinks.
“What a way to meet up again,” Buddy said.
“Yeah,” Garvey said. He hoped that Buddy wouldn’t try to pat him on the back or offer some sort of greeting-card consolation. But Buddy didn’t try.
“We didn’t see a lot of her after you left. A little bit, but you know, we started going to that new titty bar on Connecticut. Hey, if you’re still around this weekend, we should check it out.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Garvey said, a little unkindly.
“Oh, well, next time then maybe.” Buddy took another long sip, finishing the beer. He poured himself another glass and held it up to clink with Garvey, who downed his first drink and picked up the second.
“To old friends,” Buddy said.
They watched the basketball game on the TV. Buddy finished his glass and poured another. He had gotten significantly older in the two years since Garvey had seen him: more jowly, the extra skin looser around his face, the hair thinner at the crown, and Garvey wondered what changes the years had worked on his own face.
“Can I tell you something, Groove?” Buddy asked suddenly, his eyes wide open. He wore a confessional look that Garvey dreaded.
“Yeah . . .” Garvey froze. What other revelations did this day have in store?
Buddy took a deep breath. “I’m going to marry Rhina.”
Garvey felt a wave of relief followed by the sharp jab of envy. “You, Mr. Good-Morning-Sweetheart-Last-Night-Was-Great-What’s-Your-Name-Again is getting married?”
“Happens to the best of us.” He looked over where Rhina and the others were laughing at a joke near the pool table. He winked and Rhina tossed her hair, blowing him a kiss.
“Wow, that’s — that’s just great, man. Who knew?” Garvey stood up and gave Buddy an awkward hug. “Hey, I should buy you a drink.”
“I’m doing OK for right now.” Buddy pointed at the quarter-full pitcher. “You get the next one.”
“You are aware I have a moral obligation to tell embarrassing stories at the wedding?”
“I fucking hope so,” Buddy said. “Why do you think I did those things? Just for fun?”
“I just thought you were an exhibitionist.”
“You know me.” The two men laughed.
Garvey fingered Diane’s business card in his suit jacket pocket. There was an awkward silence. An image flickered into Garvey’s mind of Diane and Claire together in bed: Diane’s dark head on Claire’s chest, her hand resting on Claire’s hipbone.
“What’s wrong, Groove?” Buddy asked. “You look like shit.”
“I’m just a little freaked. I thought you were going to say something else is all.”
“No, forget it, it’s stupid.”
“Nah, what? Tell me.”
“I just, I thought you were going to tell me you slept with Claire or something.”
“Me?” Buddy asked. “Sleep with Claire? Come on, dude, you are not that deluded.”
“It’s not that ridiculous. She wasn’t ugly or anything.”
“Nah, she was cute, but I mean, it was all about dry ice, man.”
“What?” Garvey wasn’t following the coded slang.
“Cold fish. Terrible lay. She had it written all over her. I don’t mean to be vulgar, but all that year you had that tight look around your eyes, like it wasn’t working out so good between you.”
“A tight look?” Garvey asked.
“Worried, whipped, like I’d never seen you before. I was glad you were moving to Cleveland, getting out of here.”
Garvey just stared at Buddy. He never thought Buddy noticed anything, least of all subtleties in Garvey’s physiognomy.
“Don’t look so surprised. I’m not a total meathead. Cheers, bro!” Buddy raised his glass, and though Garvey’s was almost empty, and it was bad luck to clink with water, the glasses touched, making a low sound like a quiet gong.
“Come on, let’s join the gang. Enough of this bonding shit.” Buddy poured another glass of beer, draining the pitcher. Garvey stood up and felt a little dizzy from all the alcohol. He took his hand out of his pocket and left Diane’s card on the table before following Buddy to the bar.
One other memory: Claire was lying in bed with that flu that was going around, her face flushed by a fever, her breathing labored. She coughed weakly, more for show or out of habit than because of any physical need.
Garvey set the tray of chicken soup down on the bed next to her. She looked even smaller when she was sick, as though he was looking at her through the wrong end of binoculars. The tray must have been a gift from her mother. Its design — flowers pressed beneath glass — clashed with the art deco dishes Claire used.
“Here, try to eat something, honey,” Garvey said. He lifted her up under the arms, like he would a child, and fluffed a couple of pillows behind her back ineffectually.
Claire reached for the spoon. Her arms were heavy, to let Garvey know she was going to eat just to humor him.
“No, let me,” Garvey said and took the spoon from her hand. He dipped it into the soup, searching for a small piece of chicken floating near the top. He balanced it carefully, concentrating on keeping it level. He had heard that if you hummed while carrying liquids they wouldn’t spill, so he hummed now, a low purring.
Claire looked at him. Her eyes were glassy, her face blotchy with sheet creases down the cheeks like surgical scars. Garvey was suddenly scared, terrified even, and his heart beat quickly. He continued to hum, louder now, around the growing lump in his throat. Claire opened her mouth and Garvey placed the spoon lightly on her tongue, waited for her to close her lips around it, felt the slight pressure of her tongue, the rim of the spoon touching the ridged roof of her mouth.
He removed the spoon and Claire swallowed, smiling weakly. “Good girl,” he said, and reached down for another ladleful when Claire began to cough for real. The fit got worse, and she leaned forward to ease the racket in her rib cage. The entire bed shook as she coughed. And then she gagged and vomited on the tray, just bile, mostly, and the bite of chicken.
“It’s OK,” Garvey said. “Do you want the nebulizer?”
Claire shook her head and the coughing stopped. Garvey went into the bathroom and wet a washcloth in the sink. As he let the cold water run over his wrists he looked at himself in the mirror. He didn’t look much better than Claire: hair uncombed, pale and haggard with those black bags under his eyes that he was more accustomed to seeing on his father’s face. What was he doing here?
He returned to the bedroom where Claire was settled, her chest still moving with the enormous effort of drawing breath. He wiped her mouth, then turned the cloth over and placed it on her forehead. “There, isn’t that better?” She leaned back and closed her eyes; she sighed.
“Why are you being so nice to me?” Claire asked softly.
“Because I love you.” He said it quickly, matter-of-factly, with the ineffable, unarguable “because it’s there” logic of Everest climbers. It came from a place Garvey didn’t recognize, and he was almost as surprised as Claire at the words.
She shook her head three times slowly. Then she rolled over onto her side, away from Garvey. Then he knew that there was no feeling better for Claire. Life held no low hope of comfort, of solace, of palliative de-sensitivity, just a series of unpredictable firsts. An awful moment passed when Garvey realized what his earlier fear had meant — that he wasn’t afraid so much that he would lose her, but rather that she would lose him. That this much was inevitable.
Garvey could go now. He could clean up the flowered tray and turn off the stove and walk the half-mile to his own apartment. He could call Tate and say, “Yes, cousin, yes,” and make plane reservations, hire movers, a realtor. It could be so easy, comfortable. He could do what Claire probably wanted him to do. He could just walk away.