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Authors: Torey Hayden

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BOOK: Just Another Kid
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Adjusting my napkin, I picked up my fork and began to eat. Ladbrooke, I noticed, was already halfway through. Where she put it, I didn’t know, but she usually ate with the appetite of a lumberjack.

When she’d finished, she rose from the table and went into the kitchen. “Do you want some ice cream, Torey?” she called. She returned with two cartons. “There’s this kind, let’s see, what is it? Raspberry ripple. And this one. Double chocolate fudge.” She grinned gleefully. “That one’s Tom’s, but this one’s mine. I
love
chocolate.” She scooped a bit off the edge of the lid with her finger and tasted it. “Have some of this. It’s nicer than that.”

“Okay.”

She disappeared back into the kitchen to get bowls. I was left, contemplating the carton of double chocolate fudge. It struck me suddenly how normal this all was, the ice cream, the canned spaghetti, Ladbrooke’s obvious pleasure with the evening. And I realized with poignancy that I had almost no knowledge of Ladbrooke in the small, ordinary ways of friendship. Four soul-searing months together and I’d never known she especially liked chocolate.

Ladbrooke returned. Putting bowls on the table, she began to scoop generous helpings of ice cream into them. “Tom hates chocolate. He says it ruins your skin. I don’t think it does, but he’s always telling me I shouldn’t eat so much of it.” She shook her head wearily. “I don’t know about Tom sometimes. He can be a real pain. And bossy. He treats me like I’m about six years old. Everything’s got to be done
his
way. I hope your future husband isn’t like that. I hope you have more sense about this sort of thing than I did.”

Ladbrooke took the carton back to the freezer while I tried to soften my ice cream slightly with my spoon.

“Why did you marry Tom?” I asked, when she’d sat down again.

She shrugged. Taking an enormous spoonful of the ice cream, she held it, bowl of the spoon upward, and licked it as if it were a cone. Her eyes were on me. “I don’t know.” Pause to lick the ice cream again. “He was nice.” Pause. “I was impressed with what he did—you know—the painting.” Another pause. She took up a second scoop of the ice cream. Lifting the spoon, she studied it a moment before licking it. “Tom had a lot of things to offer. You’ve got to understand, I was young when I met him. I was not quite twenty-three. I didn’t have much experience. You get this guy coming along who’s rich and famous and really somebody. It’s pretty hard not to be flattered when he makes it obvious he wants
you
. It’s pretty hard not to do what he wants.”

“Were you working then?”

She nodded. “I was still doing my graduate work at Princeton when we first met. I was a couple years from finishing my doctorate. We started out just living together. Tom had an apartment in Manhattan, and I just moved in with him on the weekends, when I wasn’t at Princeton. But then after a while he kept wanting to come back here. I’d never been here before, but he made it sound nice. And he kept wanting to come back; his roots were here. I was just getting established about then. But Tom got pretty insistent. He wanted to get married; he wanted everything formal and above board. We had Leslie and I think, deep down, I already knew something was wrong with her; so I thought, maybe I’d better—you know—for her sake. Tom kept telling me that I didn’t have to give up the project anyway. He had the jet then, and we thought we’d just carry on like we always had, my living in Princeton during the week and at home with him on the weekends. We were together five years before we ever actually spent an entire week together under the same roof. So I didn’t object to the move a whole lot. The way Tom talked about it, the area sounded interesting. And I really liked planes. I was intending to get my pilot’s license, so that sounded exciting, flying back and forth across the country.”

“What kind of work were you doing on your project?”

“It was experimental work on the geometry of certain molecular substances.” She glanced over. “You familiar with Raman spectroscopy?”

I shook my head slightly. In fact, I’d never heard of it.

A rather disappointed expression crossed her face. “I know. It sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? It does to most people. But I really like it. I’m good at that sort of thing.”

“I doubt that’s the kind of talent you could fake.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“What made you give it up in the end?”

Another shrug. Scraping the sides of her bowl, she finished the very last of the ice cream. “It got to be too much of a hassle, I guess. I was wrong about its being exciting, trying to commute halfway across the country every week. I mean, there I was, weekdays in New Jersey, weekends here. Tom was always wanting parties and his kids over. Then back to work and long hours and endless meetings over funding and all that. I was continuously exhausted. I was twenty-eight and feeling about eighty-eight. And I was never getting anything done. I never got my pilot’s license. I was too busy sleeping on the plane to think about flying it.” She paused and exhaled a long breath. “You see, if I’m honest, it was just an ego trip in the beginning. It seemed glamorous to me, to be able to commute all that distance, to be able to afford to commute and all that. But it wasn’t worth it. I was too tired to enjoy anything. Leslie was getting worse and worse. Tom nagged me nonstop about what I wasn’t doing with him. It was killing me. And it wasn’t as if I were Einstein or anything. I was just a junior member of the project. The juniorest. They didn’t need me that much. So, when it got too hard, I gave it up.”

“Seems a shame,” I said. “It sounds like it would have been a fulfilling career.”

Her expression was momentarily wistful. “Yes, maybe.” Then she shrugged. “But who knows.”

We got up and took the dishes into the kitchen. Ladbrooke unloaded the dishwasher. Acknowledging that she did virtually nothing in the kitchen, she admitted to having no idea where most of the things went. So we spent a giggly ten minutes opening cupboards and drawers and just chucking things in. Poor Consuela undoubtedly would not be able to find anything for weeks. Then Ladbrooke made us coffee in a thing that looked like it would require a physics degree to operate.

“I’m going to regret this,” she said, as she did it. “It kills my stomach. But sometimes it just tastes so nice.”

And it was good coffee, filling the room around us with its dark, robust smell.

“Come on,” Ladbrooke said. “Let’s take this down to the study. It’s friendlier down there.” She then led me through unlit halls and down two short flights of stairs to a smaller, much more intimate room. Unlike the rest of the house, which was showroom immaculate, this room betrayed definite signs of being lived in. Shoes, socks, dirty clothes, and, in particular, newspapers were everywhere.

“I’m afraid I’m as lousy a housekeeper as I am a cook,” Ladbrooke said, shifting things off one chair. I sat down there. Ladbrooke put her mug on the coffee table and stretched out full length on the couch. Putting her feet up on the far arm, she had her head on the near-side arm, her long hair spilling up and over it.

We said nothing for several minutes. I sipped the coffee, which was hot and strong and tasted wonderful. Ladbrooke remained stretched out. I couldn’t see her face from that position but I had the definite impression she had her eyes closed. The silence, warm and intimate, was almost sleepy.

“You know, I lied back there, a bit,” Ladbrooke said, her voice quiet.

“Back where?”

“Back there, in the dining room, when you were asking me about why I gave up my work.”

“Oh.”

“Well, it wasn’t a lie exactly. All that commuting and everything
was
hard. But I was being a little stingy with the truth.” She had her hands together, fingertip to fingertip, resting on her abdomen. She studied the shape they created.

“It was actually my fault. That’s what I wasn’t telling you. Not Tom’s. Not Leslie’s. Not anybody else’s. I quit because of something stupid I did.” Again she contemplated her hands. “I haven’t told anybody about this. I mean, quite a few people knew anyway. But I haven’t told anyone else. I haven’t told Tom. I doubt I ever will.”

Silence slid in around us.

“I guess first I need to explain what it’s like doing hard research. Hard, as opposed to soft. Not hard, as opposed to easy. In the hard sciences, it’s really competitive. I don’t think most people appreciate that. They see it all as ivory-tower stuff, but they don’t seem to realize that up there in the ivory tower, folks are killing one another just as mercilessly as everywhere else. Slit, slit, slit at one another’s throats. You have to. The money’s hard to come by, and the projects are expensive. The project leader has to be one hell of a good politician as well, to get the kind of money that’s needed to most really serious research. And to keep it.”

She paused.

“There are a lot of scientific awards around, and they’re vital. You’ve got to get them. If you’ve done something at all notable, you’ve got to get some recognition for it. It helps you get your money. See, a lot of the big corporations who do the funding, their bigwigs aren’t going to understand your research. But they all understand if you beat out the competition to one of the awards. They know you’re good then, and they’re willing to back you. Plus, in a lot of cases, the awards themselves are worth a sizable amount of money. So people take them very seriously indeed.”

Another pause. Ladbrooke sucked in a long, audible breath and held it several seconds before slowly releasing it.

“We were at this awards dinner. My advisor, who was the head of our project, was in contention for one of the awards. We had a very good chance of getting it and we all knew it, so everyone was in pretty high spirits. You see, we were having trouble with our funding. There was another project in California that was quite similar to ours, and one of our sponsors had defected the previous year and backed that project instead. And the administration in Washington had changed … It was critical that we find some new sources of support. We needed recognition that year.

“So there we were at that awards dinner, waiting to hear if John was going to win. It was a very highbrow affair. You know the kind—evening gown and gloves and all that. And I’d been drinking …”

She paused and several seconds went by before I realized she’d come to a full stop. Expectancy hung in the air.

I said nothing, waiting.

Ladbrooke contemplated her hands, holding them both up in front of her.

“I didn’t think I really had a drinking problem then,” she said. “I suppose I did, if I think back on it, but it wasn’t significantly interfering with my lifestyle. A few people had said things to me about it, but nothing too serious. Or at least I didn’t take them too seriously.”

Selecting a fingernail, she chewed it, the sound of her teeth audible to me.

“At this dinner … I was, what would you call it? … flirting I guess, with my advisor, with the man who’d been my advisor when I was a grad student, but who was the project leader then. I really had had too much to drink. I’d been miserably anxious, miserably worried about making a good impression at that dinner, because it was so important. I’d started drinking in the afternoon so I’d be calm enough to get ready. I don’t remember how much I’d had by the time I got there, but it was enough. And then, of course, we were all drinking once the thing started. First the predinner cocktail party. And then the wine and all that.

“Anyway, I began flirting with my advisor. His wife was there. All of them had their wives or girlfriends with them, you see. I was the only woman on the project. Five days a week it was just me and the guys. But here, at this dinner, it was all the guys and their sweeties. And me on my own. I didn’t have Tom with me. He was back here. He was busy. So I was alone.

“John’s wife, of all people, was sitting right across the table from me. That’s what got me started, I think. Although God knows. Anyway, I started doing all these silly things to get John’s attention, to make him acknowledge me, but he wouldn’t. I think it was because his wife was there. I wasn’t really jealous of her. I mean, after all, I was the one he was sleeping with, so I had nothing to be jealous about. No, what it was, was that he was treating me
like
his wife. Like I was just one of the decorations and not a colleague. I guess what I wanted, if I’m honest, was for him to show the other women I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t just a pretty face. I was there because I’d earned a place there. I was an equal. And that’s what I wanted, to be treated like that.”

Dead silence followed.

“What happened next?” I asked.

Still the silence.

“I’m embarrassed to talk about this,” she said finally.

“You don’t have to, you know.”

“I do have to. I need to hear myself say this. It’s like the first time I ever told anyone I was an alcoholic. Some things you just need to hear yourself say.”

She let out a long breath.

“What I did … and this really makes me sound awful … but what I did was this kind of striptease. I thought that for every ten minutes that went by and John didn’t acknowledge me, I was going to take something off. I thought, if that’s the only way he knows how to relate to me, then that’s what I’m going to do. I know it doesn’t make any sense sober, but it made a hell of a lot of sense to me at that point. I was feeling really angry. And the longer we sat there, the angrier I got. He made me feel like trash. There I was, a full member of the project team. Maybe I was a junior member, but I
was
a member. I’d earned my place. And not by being fucked behind the filing cabinet, either. I’d
worked
. And yet, he was treating me like I was no more than his bit on the side. I kept thinking, if that’s the way he wants it, I can play that part too …

BOOK: Just Another Kid
11.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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