When you enter your room at the Plaza, the first thing you think is: we must be on a different side than they were in Gatsby. The second thing you think is: Why did I do this to myself?
In the email invite, you wrote, “[…] because, ladies, it’s been plain too long. For perspective, we are as old now as Sister Agnes was the first year we had her.”
But really, honestly, you did this to yourself for yourself.
You did this because you lost twenty pounds. It was as easy as switching from the treadmill to the road. That way, you couldn’t just stop; you had to run back as far as you’d run out.
You did this because you got tenure, finally. You mentioned this in the email too, said that the girls’ weekend was on you because of it.
Hours ago, you’d so wanted to slumber party. To sleep four in the king bed, feel your jaunty full professorhood next to their real world roundness.
Now you want nothing but to call it off, burrow under the covers, peak out just far enough to accept room service. God, you’re going to kill him.
Before subwaying here, you accidentally dropped your last contact lens in the bathroom wastebasket and, rooting through balled tissues and stray floss, found a NuvaRing that didn’t belong to you.
You sit on the bed and try his cell one more time. It goes to voicemail. You’re going to kill him.
There’s a knock at the door. It is Mary Beth, who hands you a pie and looks mostly the same: lean and freckly and virginal. Of course, the guest you have the least in common with has arrived first.
“Thank you so much,” you say, putting the pie on the nightstand, which seems the least inappropriate place, if not the most appropriate. “I hope your kids will be okay, with me stealing their mom and everything.”
“Oh, yeah. They’ll be fine. I gave them the OK for takeout tonight,” she says.
“How old is your youngest now? Evan,” you say. The two of you sit cross-legged, face to face, at the foot of the bed.
“Eric. Eric is twelve.”
Goddamnit, you’d meant to double check the Christmas card.
“And Jake is a senior in college this year? That must make the twins freshmen,” you say.
“Jake is a senior at Princeton. The twins are sophomores at Harvard and Penn. You’re probably thinking of Eliza. Eliza’s a freshman at Bennington.”
“There’s always a black sheep.” This just slips out, and you laugh until she joins you.
“And then the two youngest are still home-schooled,” she says, “Thank God. Goodness.”
As if her piety has answered your prayer, there is another knock at the door. This time it is Lisa, followed by a man in a green Plaza uniform. Lisa has two handles of tequila balanced between her knuckles and a jug of margarita mix under her arm. The man is holding what appears to be a large book.
“Hi, honey,” Lisa says, placing the bottles next to Mary Beth’s pie. She kisses you and points to the book. “It’s from the bakery on Cake Boss.” It only then registers that the binding has the consistency of frosting.
“Oh, the kids love that show,” Mary Beth says. “Fon-daaaaant.”
“I might be kissing up to the professor,” Lisa says, winking at you. She is short and overweight and dark Irish, with blue eyes that contrast ethereally, give even these words a prophetic feel.
“Thank you so much,” you say, and the three of you sit down at the end of the bed.
Not getting the reference, you discreetly Google ‘Cake Boss.’ “. . .A specialty cake runs anywhere from a thousand to ten thousand dollars at Carlo’s.” You and Lisa haven’t seen each other since a Christmas party two years ago. There have been email check-ins and fallen-through plans, but that has been it. You knew she made money, but you didn’t know it was this much.
Lisa mixes everyone margaritas, and, though you all agree you could go for cake, you will wait for the last guest.
“Oh, you can absolutely make it without an MBA,” Lisa says as she pours. She pours with no regard for the Plaza comforter beneath you.
“I know. He’s just worried,” Mary Beth says, “Harvard didn’t have undergraduate business and now he’s regretting plain economics. He’s in a bit of a limbo.”
“Plain economics did me just fine,” Lisa says, “Tell him to think about investing. Better, tell him to call me.”
There is a long pause, in which you relive finding the ring. It was dry but sticky. Strands of floss hung down one side like a veil. You shudder.
“So I got a call the other day from our beloved alma mater,” Lisa says. “They want me to be the alumna speaker at graduation. Tell the girls how to get”--she air quotes—“from there to here. How funny is that?”
You feel your stomach sink. You wouldn’t admit it, but every May you half-expect to get such a call yourself.
“What are you going to say?” you ask, trying to mask the investment in your voice.
“I don’t know,” she grins, “Maybe I’ll commission an English professor to write it.”
There is another knock at the door. It is Jenny, the final guest, who kisses your cheek and says, “Hi, hi, hi.” She is a whirlwind of blonde highlights and bangle bracelets. You can only process one Jenny feature at a time. You have always friend-lusted after Jenny a little.
“I’m sorry I’m late. Amtrak was delayed getting out of Philly and then I got turned around on the subway and asked this man for directions, and he talked,” she gives hugs as she explains. She pauses on Mary Beth, holding her arms and studying her face, “Mary Beth isn’t giggling. You girls must not be drunk enough.”
She pours another drink for each of you. This batch contains enough mix to be deemed yellow, but just barely.
“A man? Talking with a man?” Lisa says.
“Not like that,” Jenny says, “I have a boyfriend.”
Lisa pries that he is an orthodontist, that they met at a half-marathon, that they have been going out for eleven months. Then you pry the phone and flip through photos. Excepting the technology, it is just like high school.
“He doesn’t look like an orthodontist,” Mary Beth says, “He looks like an underwear model.” She is giggling now.
“Jenny, I forget what you do now,” Lisa says.
“Paperwork,” Jenny says. “No, I work in HR at a chemical distribution company.”
“How is that?”
Jenny shrugs, “It’s just work.”
You remember this line from high school, from days when you got back essays or tests. Your stomach dropped just thinking about a B+. Mary Beth was always concerned about disappointing her parents, and Lisa had her at-least-a-B rule. But Jenny didn’t care. She would say, “It’s just school,” as if there were some other, superior realm that made school and its evaluations dispensable.
As you got older, you discovered that this other realm was Life, and that, operationalized, it amounted to parties in the basements of her public school friends. You attended a few of these parties--in fact, had your first kiss, your first drink, at these parties. You still have images of them: Jenny wandering from group to group, knowing everyone, introducing you to everyone: Jenny on a lap of a boy, doing things you were sure you’d never be able to: the face of the boy she left you with, the one who would be your first kiss.
“Dance with her,” she had said, and the boy had watched her go for a long time before turning to you. Perhaps if you had built up your tolerance for Life then, there wouldn’t be a Nuvaring in your wastebasket now.
“Claire,” Lisa waves her hand too close to your face. “Did you hear Jenny?”
“We were talking about that male substitute teacher. The good-looking one the whole school was drooling over. The one who asked for your number.”
“Mr. Raskind?” you say.
“That’s what it was,” Lisa says, and the others nod. “Anyway, Jenny hooked up with him after he got your number.”
You affect a look of mock betrayal to hide the bit of real betrayal you’re feeling.
Jenny tries to reply, but is giggling too hard. “In the sacristy,” she finally gets out, “We hooked up in the sacristy. Can you imagine?”
When she can breathe, she says, “God, it’s like a social experiment. Deprive girls for the four most hormonal years of their lives, and see what happens.”
You spend the next hour or so talking about things like this: Lisa’s bathroom renovation, the gym-class mile and the various ways you escaped it, MB’s trip to Disneyland, the girls in your grade and where they ended up. It is all the same.
You don’t know why you change the subject when you do, in the middle of describing the British National Archives. “It’s just rows and rows of books, and you go in with gloves and one of their guards. And I found another woman’s birth control ring in the bathroom garbage today.”
You take the final sip of what is your fifth drink, probably.
“I found another woman’s birth control ring in the bathroom garbage,” you repeat, “Sam isn’t picking up his phone.”
Mary Beth moves across the duvet and hugs you sideways, her chest to your shoulder.
Jenny puts a hand on your arm. “Maybe there’s an explanation. Maybe someone just knocked on the door and asked to use the bathroom.”
“The master bathroom? Upstairs?” you say.
“I’m sorry,” Jenny says. “It’s not your fault.”
“But it is,” you say, “It is. Tomorrow morning he’s going to wake up at eight, jog, get a dozen bagels—he’s the only one who eats them—read the Record cover to cover. Then in the afternoon he’ll have a double header with his softball team. He’s on a softball team.”
You lay your head, which is starting to feel top heavy, on Jenny’s shoulder.