Tall, and scruffy as a Brooklyn-creative was required to be, Bert Gold bore little evidence of his time as a star chef. When he’d met Gabi, he’d just snagged his slot in the Meatpacking’s hottest nouveau-American restaurant by winning an episode of
an all-male cooking competition on SpikeTV. But bad management led to the closing of the restaurant, and the next restaurant that followed. Bert could cook but he could not lead people as he needed everyone to like him, and, had too-little fire in his belly. That tenacity that she once saw seemed to give way with each failure. It culminated in him describing himself to Gabi as a worker bee now, not a colonel.
I should have listened harder to that one.
Winning the cooking competition got him the accolades and fifteen minutes of fame he’d craved, but it thrust him into roles that he had no desire to play, particularly as his wife’s star rose as his fell. For a few years now, Bert had found it all too easy to hang around his “home office” in a T-shirt and shorts, maintaining his supposed online presence, cooking for personal clients once in a while. Gabi earned plenty of money, after all, and she came preloaded from the womb with limitless energy and fortitude. When they’d met, Bert was at his peak. Gabi was doing well, but the fulfillment of her potential had only just begun, while his was in full swing. Now the tables had turned and Bert was outearned as well as overshadowed in the public eye. It was a recipe for resentment.
Flinching at the thrust of his father’s pointed finger and sharp voice, the auburn-haired five-year-old held on to his mother and wailed louder. A little bit of drama in his feelings, but it all added to a whole lot of truth to Gabi.
She put out her palm and instinctively turned her body to protect her son from Bert’s aggression. “Okay, that’s enough,” she told both of them. When Gabi was a teenager and had grown close to her mother’s height, she would stand between her mother and her sisters and little brother, forbidding the bullying and the hitting that would come their way. The pain that she’d been first to experience. Gabi was very comfortable with this position:
You’ll have to go through me first.
“Don’t talk to me like that! Don’t order me around!” Bert yelled at Gabi.
“Just calm down, okay? Max’s had enough for the night and you have had way too much to drink.” Gabi worked to keep her voice as sedate but as unyielding as possible.
“Oh, fuck you, I have not.” He waved her off and sat back down, eyes on the television, arms and legs again splayed.
Gabi saw red. He was obviously drunk and maybe even high. This was why she never went out anymore, unless it was related to her work. She didn’t trust him to stay sober with Max.
“Are you kidding me? You’re two whiskies in and it’s a Tuesday, at home with your son so I can work to support you guys and you can sit on this couch!” As soon as it came out she realized that emasculating him wasn’t going to solve any problems. But she was exhausted, filters not functioning.
“Oh, fuck that. You know, I’m sick and tired of your high-horse bullshit—”
Maximo was holding on to his mother’s legs, tight.
“High horse! I wish I had a fucking horse, but noooo, I’m stuck in this apartment that reeks of liquor and pot and your . . . your . . . self-pity, and you can’t see for one minute what you’re doing to this family! You. Need. Help.” Gabi kept her hands on her son, who was now quiet and shaking.
Bert set his glass down, grabbed the sides of his head, stood and bleated, “STOP trying to fix me, goddamnit!”
Maximo flinched his little body, echoing his mother’s reaction. An angry drunk is a scary drunk, and a dangerous person. Gabi shut down, stunned by Bert’s obviously pent-up vitriol. They froze in place as Bert grabbed his keys and wallet and stormed out the door.
Gabi finally breathed in, and out, then whispered a hush-hush as she shuffled her son back to his room, imagining that she was placing a psychic cloak of protection over her and her boy. Gabi was a sensible, rooted-in-science person, but she always felt that energy was energy—it was real and present. Her mother was into Santería and ghosts, priests’ blessings and sage burnings. And Gabi had had childhood visions and strange dreams, which made her feel at times like a closet
. One foot in the world of social science. The other, in a very messy, yet potent place.
Max had been too often at the receiving end of Bert’s alcohol-fueled rages since the child could talk—and talk back. But this year in particular. This was a very bad year. Gabi bent down and held her strong-willed son, half Puerto Rican (which meant Spanish, African, a smidge of Taino), half Jewish, whispering to him, “It’s okay,
. It’s okay.
Te amo mucho
.” Rocking and rubbing his back, envisioning her ardor radiating from her chest, into Max, trying to bring their breaths into sync. She took his cherubic face into her hands. “
wash your face before you go back to bed, okay? It’ll feel so so good.”
One of the few, but treasured, memories Gabi had of her temperamental, depressed mother was of her taking a warm washcloth and gently wiping the salt trails from Gabi’s teary, young face. She could never remember why she had been crying, and how many times, but she did remember that in this display of affection from her mother she felt loved, even if only for that moment.
Bracelets jangling, Gabi directed Maximo into the bathroom. The washcloth was warm, just so, and the boy closed his eyes as the cloth approached his face, ready for its healing blessings. Gabi gently swiped Max’s flushed face, with a soft, melodic “Shhh . . . shhh . . .”
why do you have to leave me with him?”
“Shhh . . . shhh . . .” Swipe, rub. More warm water, squeeze.
has to work long days.” She took her son’s cheeks into her hands and locked eyes with him. “I don’t like being away from you, but sometimes I have to,
. I have to work so we can have this home and you can have your nice things, okay?” She wasn’t telling the whole truth because there was a part of Gabi that loved to work hard. She was as ambitious as she could be, always wanting more than what had been expected of her female, brown, ’Rican self. But now Gabi was supporting the family financially. And the way Bert was spiraling downward, she wouldn’t be surprised if he never worked again. And if she was truthful with herself, she wondered if subconsciously she didn’t work so much and focus on Max all in defiance of him and what he’d become; maybe she did it even in disgust.
One of Gabi’s nicknames as a kid was Weeble-Wobble, because life might make her wobble, but nothing could keep her down. Coming from nothing meant she had the equipment to handle nearly anything. And she’d seen how the other half lived. From sixth grade, Gabi was shipped off to boarding school in New Hampshire on a scholarship, the only curly haired, brown-skinned girl in her class, with too much polyester in her wardrobe and not nearly enough polo shirts with animal crests. There was no fitting in for Gabi, but by her second year she was running for student government, breaking records as a class fundraiser, and mingling across cliques. She disdained the rich girls who had made fun of her clothes and her name, but befriended them anyway. She knew what she had to do to survive and, more importantly, to get ahead. Fake it ’til you make it. Just be sure to take names and notes along the way.
But because her husband hadn’t done the same, had failed to rise up and meet his own challenges, Gabi knew she thought less of him. She had so much compassion for others, strangers even, but had little for the father of her child. Disdain was displacing desire. It seeped into her veins like poison. She knew she was also part of the problem.
let’s get your ‘pee-yammas’ on.” Gabi liked to slip on her mother’s accent when she was doing the mothering. Her son found it funny and comforting.
” Max gulped, “can you please sleep with me?”
hon, I can’t sleep with you all night. Look at how small your bed is! You barely fit in it anymore, my big boy!”
She managed to coax a proud smile out of Max.
“How about this: I’ll tuck you in, sit next to you, and whisper a story to you until you fall asleep.”
“Oh, yes. Yes!” Maximo led his mother out of the bathroom and climbed into his too-tight toddler bed. It creaked.
With the TV still humming from beyond the door, Gabi told Max a tale of a handsome space explorer and his trusty alien pet who escaped together from a dark planet, only to find a new home in the Milky Way with shooting stars and bubble gum, happiness and fun for all.
Gabi’s head dropped sleepily next to Max’s. She dozed off, too, thinking,
Space Man . . . take us with you.
At this four-star franchise hotel bar, no one would know who Magda was. The Jefferson or the Four Seasons, five-star all the way, was definitely a risk, but here she was grateful to be incognito. Anyway, it was just a business drink.
You’re lying. You want your hands on her, and in her, so bad.
Talking to her was a thirty-something techie bro in a tie.
“Adam Herzog, FastForward. I saw you speak at the Angel conference a month ago.”
Magda reluctantly released the grip on her sweating tumbler of tequila to shake hands and exchange cool pleasantries with the gent. She gave him a nod.
“So, my firm is working on a new MOOC model. Can I ask for your info to shoot you an invite for a preview?”
“Sure, sure.” She handed him the fattest card he’d have in his wallet for years. Magda knew that her stationery pick was a bit
but she enjoyed folks’surprise at the old-school touch.
“Great, thanks. And here’s mine.” He gave her his card, holding it at each corner with two hands. Nice attempt at charm, Magda thought, but she spoke little, nodding again instead.
The man kept trying. “Actually, I’m waiting for a friend who’s running late. Mind if I join you for a bit?” he asked.
“You know, I’m waiting for someone as well,” Magda said as she protectively placed her hand on the stool she was straddling between her legs. “But definitely follow up with me later, okay?” The brush-off, bookended with a promise of tomorrow, was a good way out.
“Oh, sure. Thanks.” Adam blustered a bit, thwarted. “Great to meet you. Have a great night.”
Magda’s hand fell back to where it was meant to be for now, around her glass. She toasted herself with relief as the ice jangled, reminding her of pretty girls’ bracelets.
As she drained the glass, Magda kept Adam in her side view. She noticed that his buddy had shown up. They sat down in the lounge, two tables out—well within range, unfortunately. She’d keep an eye on him all night. She didn’t like anyone knowing her business.
“I see I’ve got some catching up to do.” Paloma had arrived from behind. As she turned, Magda drew in the red dress, still on from their first meeting, the control garment Magda suspected was underneath (a telltale lack of rolls on her curvy frame), and the slight frizz to Paloma’s blown-out bob. This was a grown-ass woman. All realness and rough, frazzled. Magda’s favorite, usually problematic, blend.
They cheek-pecked, Magda’s hand on Paloma’s back. Feeling for the yield of her flesh, her bra, warmth.
“You a tequila fan?” Magda signaled the bartender like a pro.
Paloma smiled and pulled in a breath that made her round chest rise. “Absolutely. I’ll do a clean margarita, on the rocks with salt.”
“Perfect.” Paloma’s use of “clean” made Magda’s mouth wet. The lady in red knew her way around a bar.
Paloma scrunched her handbag into the space between the stool and foot rail. “Thanks for meeting me here. I hope it’s not too out of your way?”
“Not at all. I’m just down the street. Sit, sit.” Magda patted the bar stool between them. “Or would you rather sit in the lounge?”
“I think we may be too late for that.” Paloma pointed to the now-filled seating area.
No matter; bar stools were sexier to Magda anyway. Their temporary feeling, their precariousness, the bustle of the bartender. Some creative people liked to do their business in coffee shops. Magda liked bars.
The ladies developed a quick chemistry and the drinks flowed. Magda punctuated her speech with the hand gestures and arm flailing of a traditional Latin. But her legs were apart like a man’s, occupying as much room as possible on either side of Paloma, enveloping her in a precursory, mildly possessive embrace.
An hour in, Paloma was on her second margarita and Magda had lost count after four gimlets. It was time to shift from business talk to personal. Magda knew she had a tendency to come on strong and that she could lose on this one, but it was an itch that needed scratching.
“I hope you don’t mind, but Kristina mentioned you’re separated?”
Sucking her teeth, Paloma slowly bobbed her head. “Yeah.”
“Are you okay? I mean, is it okay?” Magda wanted to confirm her hunch that she was dealing with an adult, not an immature, clingy maniac.
Paloma’s verbal floodgates opened just enough to reveal the basics of the story—that she’d been wronged—and they closed well before “psycho.” Magda smiled. She wanted to slip in one more little nudge. First, she snuck a glance around the room. Shit—Tech Boy was still there. His gaggle was up to three bros, no ties, one T-shirt. But she was relieved as they were all tipsy and knee-slapping, not looking Magda’s way.
She liked hearing Paloma talk. She had an interesting background. And like Magda, Paloma was the oldest of several daughters in a big Latin family.
she just had to have her, naked and soft.