Authors: Thomas Perry
As always, for Jo and our children.
And many thanks to Robert Lescher and Otto Penzler.
Since Catherine had met Joey two months ago, it seemed she’d never had enough time for the amount of living she wanted to do. But today she wasted nearly twenty minutes standing on the sidewalk outside Ivy at the Shore waiting to have lunch with two friends from college, Caitlyn Raines and Megan Stiles. They arrived together in Caitlyn’s Mercedes, a car Catherine thought of as not a real Mercedes. It was the type that was no bigger than a Honda, but it had a three-pointed Mercedes symbol in about five inches of chrome.
Seeing the other two come together in that car started things wrong for Catherine. She’d had to drive alone from the Valley. There was the hint that they had been together for some time and shared information, and that they would be able to talk about her on the way home afterward, or even go on to continue their afternoon without her.
They were the sort of friends who had not been friends out of affection or admiration of one another’s good qualities. They had all been attractive—two of them hot, in the argot of that time and place. Caitlyn had been the Scots-Irish girl with coal black hair and blue eyes, big breasts, and an undiscriminating smile, and Megan was the tall natural blond, so they had both been sought-after, but Catherine had not. She had been born with strawberry blond hair, a face that was pleasant but not striking, and eyes that were hazel, not blue. They had all done the work in high school that was necessary to score well on the standard tests and get themselves certified as college material.
At UCLA they had all pursued impressive-sounding academic programs that were genuinely demanding and edifying but were not designed to lead to any sort of future compensation. They had met in a freshman dormitory and been selected together for pledging at Sigma Tau Tau, a sorority filled with young women of similar promise and limitations. Their friendship had been dictated by the situation, the role they were doomed to play in that place. They had competed against each other for three more years.
The competition was unavoidable. If you were in a university program you had a grade point average, whether you wanted one or not. And to refuse to divulge yours was an admission that it was lower than someone else’s. And when you went to parties or university social events, it was always painfully obvious who was of great value to the opposite sex, and who was the second choice, and who was the one being settled for by the boy who was shortest or a little bit chubby. These were primal competitions of the crudest sort. The males were choosing on the basis of the females’ pure mating potential. Although the males had no idea that was what they were doing, they chose in absolute sincerity. In general, by the time males made any sort of approach they had already been drinking. Nuance was lost. They looked, and they wanted. Or they didn’t want.
Catherine’s few victories in this competition were due to a particular, odd circumstance. Megan Stiles, the tall blond, was actually over six feet tall in bare feet, a woman whom some short—or even average—men wouldn’t approach. She was a golden prize, but it took a man with a great deal of confidence to believe he could interest her. So there were evenings when she stood around a lot, surreptitiously looking over the heads of not-quite-suitors and hoping for somebody of the right height to come into view.
Caitlyn too had her solitary evenings. She had a loud voice, and a louder laugh, so on a couple of occasions a man who had immediately drifted toward the black hair and the white skin and the seductive shape seemed to drift away, his ears battered by the voice.
Usually Catherine had won the GPA and academic achievement events in the competition, but lost the social and romantic events. Having Megan and Caitlyn show up together reminded her of all of those disappointments, and she wished she had said she was too busy for lunch today.
“Hi,” she said as they let the valet take the miniature Mercedes and Caitlyn slipped the car check into her wallet.
“Been here long?” That was worse than being late. It showed Caitlyn knew she was late, but didn’t plan to apologize.
“Not too long,” Catherine said. “I got here right at twelve-thirty.” Twelve-thirty was the time of their reservation, and the time they’d all promised to be here.
Caitlyn and Megan leaned in and delivered air kisses. Catherine hoped that her perfume and hair smelled as fresh and floral as theirs, but she couldn’t tell what they thought.
“My God, Cathy,” said Megan. “It’s been how long? At least two years.”
“At least,” Catherine said. She had arrived at UCLA seven years ago having never been allowed to be anything but a Cathy. She had made a conscious decision to be a Catherine. The refusal of her friends, her supposed sisters, ever to respect or even acknowledge the change had always infuriated her. She’d been sure it was a competitor’s ploy to rattle an opponent. If there was a group photograph, she would always be identified as “Cathy” Hamilton. If there was a roster or listing of names, one of her friends would alter it to make her “Cathy.” At one time, if they had greeted her this way, she would have said, “Actually, it’s Catherine.” But she found she had outgrown that, as she had outgrown them. “Shall we go in?”
She held the door and let the others inside. For an instant she hoped they would see some hint of irritation on the face of the maître d’—some disapproval for being half an hour late. But no, as long as they looked the way they did, they would be permitted to behave the way they wished. He was delighted to lead them to an excellent table where they had a view across the street at the ocean, and his other customers had a view of them.
They sat in the light, airy atmosphere of the restaurant and ordered the things that the ocean suggested to the appetite—crab cakes and sole and swordfish, which they ate the way they had eaten in college, sparingly, only tasting, with no bread and salads with no dressing. They drank iced tea unsweetened. The bit of caffeine helped burn off weight, and heavily iced drinks made the body use calories to warm them to body temperature.
Caitlyn said, “Well, here we all are, divorced and unattached almost four years after graduation.”
Catherine had never been married, but she felt no reason to correct her.
“I thought surely you two would be the first ones in our class to have it all and do it all.”
Megan gave Caitlyn a sly look. “I thought you’d be the first one to do it all, anyway.”
Caitlyn gave a little slap to Megan’s forearm. “I hope you meant that in some nice way.”
Catherine said, “How is the movie job?”
Caitlyn said, “That was two jobs ago. The whole world got laid off two years ago, not just me. I decided that if studio work was that precarious, it wasn’t for me. I was taking a low salary and working insane hours, thinking I would pay my dues and then move upward. And it wasn’t fun, either. It was always, ‘Get this one on the phone,’ or ‘Messenger this to that one.’”
“What are you doing now?”
“I’m thinking about going to get an MBA.”
“Ah,” said Catherine, nodding as though she agreed that was a sensible thing to do, although she didn’t. “How about you, Meg?”
“I’m getting ready to open a business.”
“Fashion. I found an opportunity to get some things made cheaply downtown, so I’m doing my own line. I should be ready in the spring.”
More concrete plans that weren’t concrete. Their plans were always specific instead of true, because that was how they had learned to lie. She knew that if she pressed either of them for details they would invent as many as she could listen to.
Megan made it Catherine’s turn. “And how about you? Are you still in school?”
“No. I’ve been working as assistant to a lawyer whose clients are all businesses. It’s pretty dull. No interesting details of divorces, no suspenseful criminal cases. It’s all just agreements between companies—four copies, signed and countersigned, then filed in the client file.”
“Oh my God, Cathy. You poor thing. How did that happen to you?”
“I had been looking for over a year, and didn’t find anything. I needed a job. There was no other choice. I had to pay my rent and live while I looked for something else, then tried to keep up with my expenses and put a little away.” She laughed. “It’s not like I went to prison. I’m getting through hard times. When it’s over I’ll look some more.”
They looked at each other. “Good luck.”
Catherine could see that they thought she was making a mistake. To be an unemployed fashion consultant or unemployed business owner was better than being a secretary. Better to be something pretentious and never get a chance to work than to let go of the illusion—the pose—that they were better than other people. She could see them moving her down the hierarchy in their minds.
Caitlyn and Megan talked through the rest of the lunch about “losing” their husbands. She knew that was a lie, like most of what they said. Women didn’t “lose” husbands, they threw them away. Only later did they realize what they’d done, and some of them regretted it. What they regretted was losing the person who had supported them, but that wasn’t what they felt. They felt the loss of a world where they could behave in any way they liked, and there would never be any consequences.
Caitlyn prided herself on being a “spoiled bitch,” and had once owned a T-shirt that said so in sequins. Catherine wondered what Caitlyn would think of a man who had a T-shirt that said, “Overbearing Ass.” It became clear that they’d both lost romantic interest in their husbands after a year or so, and, as Caitlyn put it, “stopped acting like a little concubine or something.” So the husbands had moved on, and found somebody else. Caitlyn had made up a story about how men were selfish and went after every new woman.
Catherine didn’t know if that story ever happened or not. Probably it did. But it had never happened to anyone she knew. The woman had simply turned off the affection like a water faucet. Then she devoted herself to the house, though she didn’t clean or maintain it; the children, though she saw them for only a couple of hours a day; her friends; and her activities. Sometimes there was an enterprise of some kind, an almost-business the women conducted, but usually not. They didn’t give much thought anymore to their husbands, so their husbands were “lost.”
Catherine didn’t worry about Megan or Caitlyn. They would find more husbands. They had already learned that it was possible to make a lot of money in a divorce, and the quicker the divorce came after the wedding, the easier the money. If the dissolution of the marriage came really fast, there was almost no emotional investment lost, and their assets—smooth skin, thick hair, a good figure—sustained little depreciation.
Catherine took the check. There were a couple of feeble murmurs that started as a mild protest, then shaded into unenthusiastic thanks. She had done it because she had heard things in the conversation that she’d recognized as signs of money trouble. She too had once used Caitlyn’s “I’m too busy to take a job.” It meant she couldn’t find one. And Megan’s “My ex-husband is late with the check” meant more than late. Catherine didn’t care anymore, and so she didn’t begrudge them their lies.