Thanks as always to Lizzy Bennet
Jess and I were about to leave the airport to go to the Breakers. I turned to her and asked, “Do I look OK?” I was wearing a batik print dress that came to just above the thigh and a pair of Tom’s canvas espadrilles. I would have worn sandals but it was too cold.
“Stop it. You look gorgeous. That dress is perfect. I can’t believe you put in all this effort for the plane,” Jess said.
“These are your co-workers. We’re going from the airport with them. The host VP, what his name again, could be with us. I want to look good. I want you to look good.” I always noticed that the wives always dressed in skirts and dresses. Selfishly, I figured this was my opportunity to be part of the group and I wanted to look like I belonged.
“Should I wear heels?” I said. Like I said, I was nervous.
“Not unless you want to be in pain by the time we get there,” she said, laughing. “You look beautiful. That print brings out your personality.” I knew what she meant. I bought it when I went shopping with Sammie. She said, “Ohmigod, that’s so junior year. You and the guy who did the semester in Senegal…” I remembered a guy named Jordan who was always trying to impress girls with his, as Elvis Costello calls it, “fuck me I’m sensitive” rap. I couldn’t believe anyone fell for that but they did. Including me apparently.
“Thanks,” I said, blushing.
She looked at me and said, “I love you,” in a very serious tone.
“I love you too,” I said. “Is everything OK?”
“Everything is great. I love you more and more each day. Since we decided to start trying, I’ve realized how lucky I am. I love the person you were and the person you’ve become. The way that you look good so I look good. You are beautiful and loving and smart and you are everything I could want in a partner. And you will the best mother.”
I started to tear up. “OK, stop.” I hadn’t even noticed what she had said about being a mother and who I’d become. “Tell me about who’s hosting this trip.”
Jess regained composure. “His name is Bruce Conlan.”
“What’s his wife’s name?” I needed to distract myself.
She looked at the welcome e-mail. “Ellen.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever been with them before. What do we know about them?”
“Two kids. Boy and a girl, I think. Yeah,” she said, looking up. “I see the pictures on his desk. The boy’s in a baseball uniform. The girl plays soccer, I think. He’s from Boston originally. Always gives me shit about the Yankees.” She laughed. “I feel like we’re planning a robbery or an assassination.”
I laughed. “No, but it’s all part of looking good. We need to know who we’ll be with.”
She kissed me. “That’s why I love you, sweetie. Always prepared.” And I was. I had been on several trips with Jess’ company. I knew these people. I knew their kids’ names. I knew who played what sports. Not because they told me but because I’d overhear them tell Jess. As Dan, I would always be on the periphery of that conversation. The reps and managers were almost all ex-jocks and military, and the wives were, well, cheerleaders and military wives. I always felt like the wives were a little creeped that a husband would know this stuff, and that the husbands thought it weak that I would. That was a wife’s job. My job now.
We went downstairs to catch a cab. It was forty-five degrees and overcast. It had snowed a few days before. I loved the freshly fallen snow. The way it made the city look peaceful and clean. However, all that was left now was rapidly diminishing piles of dirty black snow. But we were headed to the sun and the warmth. We were leaving the gray for the light.
Jess was lugging our giant suitcase, with the carry-on balanced precariously on top. Her backpack was on her pack. I was wheeling a garment bag and a tote. She looked at me, “Getting even?” she said with a smile.
I looked at her and sweetly said. “Maybe. But it takes a lot to look this good.” Then I said, “I’m nervous.”
I played with the hem of my dress. “We’ve never been this way before. You were me and I was you.” I realized after that I phrased it that way. As if this was always me.
She smiled and touched my hand. “You’ll be fine. No, you’ll do great. This way, you can do what you always do – ask people questions and remember details – and it’ll be great.” I couldn’t tell if she believed that. She always called the wives “Barbies.” They said they were “perfect and plastic.” Jess always felt like they were looking her up and down, and thinking she was cheating with their husbands. Standing in the airport, headed to five days with the people she spent weeks with - away from me - the more I thought about what happened and the less I thought that they were irrational. I wasn’t even sure what I thought of “Barbie.” Was that what I was now? Was I supposed to be?
I moved closer to her. It made me feel safe, the way I hoped she used to. “I hope so. I just want this to be a great trip.” I smiled, “If I’m right, it’ll be Tuesday or Wednesday,” and touched my stomach. I just wanted it to be perfect.
Lately, I had been having incredibly vivid dreams. I was in the hospital in labor. I was Jessica, and my feet were in the stirrups. I was screaming and pushing. Jess (as me) was feeding me ice chips and telling me, “You’re almost there.” I looked down and I saw my penis and testicles, but at the same time saw the baby crowning. The umbiical cord was attached to my penis. When Jess cut the cord, my penis and testicles came off. No one said anything or even looked surprised. They just put the baby on my chest and said, “here you go mommy.” I hadn’t told Jess. I kept trying to figure out what it meant and didn’t want to burden her. Not before this trip.
We got out of the cab and Jess unloaded our luggage. The garment bag was split equally. The suitcase was, conservatively, seventy percent my things, the carry on 60/40. I straightened out my dress, picked up my tote bag and took the carry on, and gave her another smile. She rolled her eyes, shook her head and dragged everything else in.
We were standing in the TSA line. Luckily, it was a Monday and, unlike Thanksgiving, it was mostly corporate travelers. As we stood in line, they all began taking off their shoes and belts, and taking their laptops out. We moved through the line with incredible efficiency.
We walked through the terminal, hand in hand. Between wheeling the carry on and my tote bag, it was awkward and slow, but I was nervous and needed the comfort. “Why am I so nervous?” I thought. I had been on seven of these trips and usually had a good time. On the one hand, we stayed, all expenses paid, in much nicer hotels than I could afford. I played golf on the best courses. I took a helicopter to a glacier in Alaska. I swam with the dolphins in Bermuda. But, I was always the outsider. I wasn’t a Stone person and I wasn’t a wife or girlfriend. I was a guy but I wasn’t one of the guys. I was there on a woman’s dime. I didn’t provide, I was provided for. It’s not that anyone ever said or did anything, at least not outright. It was more the bemused looks, the, “oh, you’re Dan. Jessica told us about you,” the in-jokes that everyone, male and female, seemed to have. Now, things were right, at least in Stone Pharma world. I was the woman. I was supposed to be the guest. But I couldn’t shake this feeling. I knew I was irrational. I was on a free five-star trip and was complaining that people didn’t like me, people I rarely saw. I should just enjoy myself. But I still felt nervous.
“Are you OK?” Jess said, worried. “You look like something’s bothering you.”
“I’m just nervous. I’ve never been this before and I’m afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“I’m afraid of embarrassing you. Of embarrassing me. I’m afraid that I won’t fit in.”
She took my hands in hers, hers dwarfing mine. “You will be great. You are great. Everyone loves you. Remember Melissa’s party? Everyone loved you. You and Annie and Daisy? How many movies have you guys seen?”
“That’s different. I know them. They see you every day. They’re from New York. I talked to them before all this. This is different. These are field people. I’m just scared,” I said, looking up at her.
“It’ll be fine,” she said. “We look good. You look amazing. You really do. I love this dress. Anthropologie?”
“No. BCBG,” I said.
She smiled, “I could never wear their stuff, but I love that you can,” she said, with a laugh. I knew what she meant. It wasn’t her style. It was too feminine for her. It was funny. Jess wore dresses and skirts as much as pants. She liked heels. You would never have said that she didn’t like being a woman. Since the change though, it seemed like the narrative had changed. It was like she was pretending that never was. That this was reality and that was fake.
We went to the newsstand to buy gum, water and magazines. I had some downloaded to my iPad but liked the tactile feeling of flipping pages, just like I preferred books to the Kindle. However, when we traveled, I took the Kindle. I didn’t like schlepping books and wouldn’t expect Jess to do it either.
Jess picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated. “Brushing up?” I said. That was the lingua franca for me on this trip. Like my father, if things went south, we could always discuss sports.
She smiled, “I check ESPN every morning. This is just for depth.” Oh. Excuse me. I picked up the Economist and In Style. “You are a woman of contradictions,” she said, giving me a kiss.
“I can like both,” I said. “I’m not a Barbie.” I thought about it and realized that I had no idea what Barbies knew or liked. They were distant to me and Jess had her own dealings with them. For better or worse, I’d find out, I guess.
We went for a pre-flight drink at the bar. I was staring at CNN when I heard, “Well, now look at you two. You’re screwing up bingo.” I turned around and saw Jane and Sean Manion. Jane was a lawyer at headquarters. She and I always got along, even when I was Dan. Jess maintained that it was because, “you have that snotty anti-social lawyer thing going on.” Her husband Sean was a researcher at Rockefeller University, isolating the genes that caused neuro-muscular diseases. I thought I was smart until I met Sean. It was like being the best basketball player at your high school and then facing Steph Curry. However, he wore it lightly and had a very dry sense of humor. He came up with bingo. It was a game the four of us would play on trips. We’d call out every person who was pasty and/or overweight and say, “HQ.” Kind of like car bingo.
Jane was about fifteen pounds overweight and pale, like a good lawyer. She could take an office at my firm and no one would think anything was amiss. She was wearing jeans, a sweater and flats. She looked me up and down, not cruelly just matter of factly. “I feel like an ogre,” she said, with a smile.
I blushed, “Well, now I feel bad.”
She laughed. “Don’t. I’m teasing. You look amazing. How much have you lost?”
I smiled. “Thirty-one pounds so far.” I wasn’t going to play it cute. I was proud of myself.
“You really look terrific. I love that dress too. It’s is so you.” Everyone today knew what was me except me. “So, what made you decide on all of this?" she said, waving her hand up and down.
"I don't know.” ‘Maybe, it’s because one morning I woke up and was my wife,’ I thought. I went with, “one day, I just felt like I needed a change. I felt blah and needed to do something."
"I should do something," she said unconvincingly.
“I’m in if you want to meet up for the gym.” I saw her flinch. “Or we could go for a walk. Either one, I’m up for it.”
“So, where’s the trip again this year?” She said, with a sigh. Once a trip every trip, there was a day of golf and some sort of cultural outing. The golf was for the Stone people and the few male guests. The outing was for women. Not that anyone said that. That would be a lawsuit waiting to happen. A guy could go but no guy ever did or ever would. Jane always went on the outing. She said that she hated golf and “besides, no one wants the lawyer there.”
“We’re going to the Norton Museum of Art, then a shopping trip on Worth Avenue. I’m looking forward to the museum. They have an exhibit on Lichtenstein and Monet,” I said a little too brightly, to try and get Jane upbeat. I liked Pop Art though. I had a Jasper Johns print in my office and dragged Jess to the Rauschenberg retrospective when we were in London. “I looked at in on-line. It talks about Monet’s influence on all kinds of artists…”
“OK, OK, Frida Kahlo,” she laughed. “It’ll be fine. Just make sure we hang together. Please.”
“Of course. I look forward to it. How’s work?” This was our standard opener. Someone once told me that, in New York, the first question is always “what do you do?” Work defined you and, for lawyers, it was an opportunity to commiserate with someone who understood you. Jane and I understood each other.
“I was told they won’t bother me,” she said, taking out her phone. “Oh look. ‘I hate to bother you but can you review this position statement outside counsel sent.’ If you hate to bother me, don’t.”
I took out my phone, “I know you’re on vacation but…with the end line ‘enjoy the trip.’ You have to love that.”
“Yup, I don’t care if you do and you won’t, but I want to go home and tell my husband, ‘but I told her to enjoy herself.” We both laughed. I felt a little better. I had Jane. When I was Dan, I had Jane and being Jessica wouldn’t change that. Jane wasn’t a Barbie and she wasn’t really a headquarters’ person either. She was a company lawyer. She always said that, “they think we screw up deals. No one recognizes or cares that we make sure that things are done right.” Being their lawyer was like being their teacher. You made sure they did their assignments before recess. You couldn’t hope to be liked. The best you can hope for is that, if things go south, people occasionally appreciate the work you do.
While Jane and I talked shop, Jess and Sean started talking about cancer therapies. Like I said, Sean could talk knowledgably about anything. But, as I half-listened, I noticed that Jess was holding her own. She was discussing clinical trials and relapse rates and I was impressed. I suppose that I shouldn’t have been. This was her job and had been for ten years. But there was a confidence in the way she spoke that made me feel proud of her.
Eventually, Jane and Sean went to the newsstand and another couple came over. He was about 6’2”, 195 lbs., brown hair and green eyes. He was the sort of blandly handsome person you found in a mid-priced clothing catalog or on a mid-market television station reading the news. Handsome but not off-puttingly so. He and Dan shook hands for about three seconds. Enough to demonstrate familiarity if not any affection.
“Jessica, this is Mark Turner. He’s the new district manager for the capital region, by Albany. Mark, this is my wife Jessica.”
“Hi Jessica,” he said, shaking my hand. I shook his hand lightly. I had to remember that I didn’t have to assert my masculinity. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” he said. ‘And now to Dave with sports,’ I thought. “This is my wife, Courtney.”
Courtney was about 5’4”, blonde with green eyes, 120 lbs. If I had to guess, a size four. She was attractive in a junior league, Tracy Flick kind of way. (If you haven’t seen Election, put this down and see it.) She had the carriage of someone who was told by her mother from childhood that that the most important thing you had to sell was yourself and that, if you carried yourself like you belonged, eventually you would. And so, she never fully did.
I could tell that Courtney was doing the same analysis of me. I stuck out my hand, “Hi, I’m Jessica. It’s nice to meet you.” I felt like I was in kindergarten again.
She took my hand for a second and said, “Nice to meet you too.”
“So, tell me about you. Where do you live? Do you have any kids?” I said, probably a little too eagerly.
With poorly disguised disdain, she said, “we live in North Colonie. We have two kids, Jenna, who’s four and C.J., who’s two. How many do you have?” The presumption threw me.
I smiled, “None…yet,” I said, putting a little too much emphasis on yet. I thought, ‘but I’m ovulating on Wednesday and we’re trying, if that’ll make you like me.’
“Oh,” she said, the mood shifting. She looked me up and down. “That’s a nice dress.”
“Thanks. So’s yours.” We stood there for a minute, while Jess and Mark discussed work. She brightened when she saw my In Style. “Do you mind if I look at that?” I was excited that she wanted to see it and handed it over. Like a four-year old who wants someone to play with him. Or her. She flipped through the magazine silently.
“Oh, that looks interesting,” I said. It was an article entitled, “What to Wear on a Plane.” “I wish I had seen that before we left,” I said, with a slight giggle.
“Heh. Yeah,” she said, then looking down at the magazine again. I felt anxious. My pulse raced. I was embarrassed. I had no idea why she didn’t want to talk to me and why that bothered me. As Dan, I always felt on the outside but it never bothered me like this. I would’ve thought her a bitch and moved on, but something was making me internalize it. I paused, said, “that’s not you” to myself five times and then turned to Jess and Mark.
“So, how are the Xaldor materials coming along?” Mark said. Xaldor was the drug of which Jess was now in charge. OK, this conversation was boring. I saw Jane and Sean coming back and thanked the gods.
“Thank g-d you’re back,” I said to Jane.
She laughed, “Uh, we went to get coffee not to war. What happened?”
“I tried talking to her,” I said, pointing at Courtney, “and I got nothing. I even gave her my magazine and still nothing. It’s like I’m invisible.”
She looked at me quizzically. “And this surprised you why exactly?”
“I don’t know. I just thought that…” I didn’t know what I thought.
“Princess Country Club would be nice?” That seemed harsh. Even after Courtney rejected me, it felt harsh. “Let me guess she asked if you had kids, and when you said no, that was it?” Jane and Sean had no children. I had no idea why not, but it wasn’t my business.
I nodded, “Yeah.”
“This has never happened to you before?” Well, no. Last year, it would’ve happened to Jess, not me and I never noticed. Or subconsciously I wanted her to feel embarrassed and get pregnant. Be careful what you wish for.
“It has,” I lied. “I guess it just hit me for some reason.” I’m a girl for one. And I’m trying to get pregnant. And now I’m the wife. All the usual stuff. I had become Jessica. It was no more something I thought about locking the door when I left the apartment. It was just there. But, now, being here in the dress with Courtney looking me up and down and ignoring me, I became acutely aware of who I was. And who I wasn’t. And I felt sick.
Jane looked at me. “Drink some water. You don’t look good.” I took a sip and sat down. She sat down next to me. “It’s her loss,” she said. Then she smiled. “It’s all the weight loss. It’s made you light headed. Seriously, look at you. I’m reporting you to the bar.”
That made me laugh. “Thanks. I don’t know what happened.”
Courtney walked over and handed me the magazine. “Thanks,” she said, then walked back to Mark and Dan.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Oh, this is Jane Manion,” I said, in a mocking tone, when she was out of earshot. “Jane, meet Courtney. Courtney, Jane. You two have a lot in common….”
Jane smiled. “That’s better. Just relax, have fun. Or as much fun as you can have.” Jane was the master of the sotto voce aside. The snotty comment under her breath. Like all good lawyers, she was a cynic. She’d watch the beach Olympics and the awards ceremonies, and she and I would make a never-ending series of comments. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” When it came to these trips, Jane and I did not subscribe to this theory. It was easier to stand on the side than put yourself out there. I had tried and I had failed, repeatedly. But, as the new me, I wanted to try again. I owed Jess that and still I was failing. And it was killing me already.
Jess came back over. “What did I miss? Anything interesting?”
I started to tell her about Courtney but decided against it. She needed to be Dan and she needed to be on her A game. Jane and I bad mouthing Courtney would serve no purpose. I hated this feeling but saw no reason to bring her down. I said, “Nothing really…”
The flight was uneventful, which is really all you can hope for in a flight. We landed at PBI. Jess was off-loading our luggage from the carousel and said, “where is the damn porter?”
“Oh, please, someone will take it from you in two minutes. Besides, karma…”
Sure enough, we were met by one of the meeting planners holding a ‘Stone Pharma Champions Club’ sign. I had come to realize how much they focused on this kind of garbage. ‘Champions Club.’ ‘Winner’s Circle.’ The long-time people were in ‘the Master’s Society,’ where you got a green jacket and everything. Law firms worked on a simple model. Bill more. If you billed enough long enough, you made partner which, to quote my friend Matt, ‘was like a pie eating contest where first prize is more pie.’ That’s it.
“Welcome, Champions!” The woman holding the sign said. Jane, Sean and I looked at each other. “Are you ready for fun?”
Under her breath, Jane said, “I’m ready…not sure I’ll have it but I’m ready.”
I giggled, “Stop it. We’ll get in trouble.”
Jess said, “We’re all looking forward to a great trip!” She could fake corporate bullshit with the best of them. “What’s on the agenda?”
“Tonight is the welcome dinner. You’re long-time champions so you know that it’s very relaxed.” Relaxed in the way that being surrounded by your bosses and co-workers, co-workers who are trying to figure out how to beat you for the next trip or promotion, always is. It was a little different for Jane and Jess, since they were headquarters people and didn’t have quotas. But Jess still had to be nice to the field people since they were profit centers and she was a cost center.
She kept going in a false-chipper style normally only used by Disney guides and timeshare salespeople. “Tomorrow is beach Olympics, then the afternoon by the pool.” The company was big on team-building. We’re all a team. Stone Pharma – Building a Better Future Together. And everyone really seemed to buy into it. This was foreign to me. I once asked Jane once if legal believed this and she rolled her eyes, saying, “we say we do because they want to hear it, but c’mon Dan.”
“Then the big day. Golf for the guys, and ladies, are you excited for Worth Avenue?” Legal clearly hadn’t spoken to her.
I said, “Actually, I’m really looking forward to the museum.” She laughed nervously. “No, seriously, I am. They have a really interesting exhibit…”
Jane, with a smile that I knew was sarcastic but the guide didn’t, said, “Lichtenstein and Monet. Did you know how many artists you wouldn’t think were influenced by Monet?”
The guide smiled or, more accurately, had this nauseous rictus on her face. “I see some of our other Champions. Wait here. The shuttle will be here in five minutes,” and then she all but ran away.
“Jane,” I laughed. “That was mean…”
“You started. I, for one, did not know Monet influenced Lichtenstein. I thought she’d like to know,” she giggled. “Oh, great. Here come the Barbies.”
The meeting planner came with three sets of couples. The men were all about six feet tall and in good shape. They all wore perfectly pressed khakis with their polo shirts tucked in, and their wives were all exactly the same. 5’6” to 5’8”. 135-145 pounds. All dressed tastefully. There were two blondes and a brunette. They were all extremely attractive but, like Mark, not so gorgeous as to be intimidating. It was a truth universally acknowledged that pharma reps were gorgeous. The guys so that they could get past the office managers and the women so that they could charm the doctors. I was measuring myself against them and decided I was better looking that the shorter blonde.
I immediately recognized one couple, John and Bonnie Chapman. John was the regional manager for the Midwest. We had been on a trip to Bermuda with them two years ago. Jess could not stand Bonnie. She called her “the Barbie-est Barbie of all the Barbies.” I had committed to not bringing Jess’ baggage to this trip. She was her and I was me. Well, I mean I was her and she was me, but you know what I mean. This trip was a blank slate. I was going to give everyone a fair shake.
“Hi Bonnie,” I said brightly. “How are you? I haven’t seen you guys since Bermuda.”
She looked me up and down, and with a merciless smile, said, “Oh my goodness, Jessica, I didn’t recognize you. You have lost SO much weight. You are HALF the woman you were before.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jess tense slightly. I saw Bonnie give the other two women a look out of the corner of her eye.
It hurt, but I chose the path of tactical sweetness. “Why, thank you, Bonnie, for noticing. It’s been a tough road and it’s always nice to have someone give me that recognition. Thanks,” I said, with the sweetest smile I could muster. I saw Jane and Sean look at me and smile. “How are John, Jr. and Kayla? How does she like kindergarten? And John has to be in the fourth grade now.”
“Um, yeah. They’re...fine,” she said, looking from the other women and back to me.
“Glad to hear that,” I smiled. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jane and Sean, watching with amusement. Jess just looked scared.
“And…yours?” Bonnie said, uncertainly. I knew she had no idea what she was talking about. So, I went with:
“None yet,” I said, smiling. “You can’t remember everyone,” you bitch. Then, I went in for the kill. I turned to John and said, “Is John, Jr. still a defenseman like his dad?” John played collegiate hockey at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. He and I would talk Wisconsin sports in between moving Bonnie and Jess away from each other. Bonnie glared at me. I gave a sweet smile, but hoped my eyes said, “You aim for the king, you best not miss.” Or queen.
John gave me a big smile. “You have one heck of a memory, Jessica. They wanted to move him to center. He’s one heck of a skater and a shooter, but still…” Bonnie kept looking me up and down.
I smiled. “I know that, even if he plays center, you’ll be happy. I mean he could be the next Mike Modano.” John was a Minnesota North Stars fan. Mike Modano was their Hall of Fame center.
John smiled, “You were paying attention in college, weren’t you?” he said, with a smile. He touched my arm and I thought Bonnie was going to stab him.
Then, I turned to the other two couples and said, “Hi, I’m Jessica Silverman. I don’t think we’ve met.”
Bonnie’s eyes flickered anger but, like the good corporate wife she was, she regained composure. “These are Jeff and Cindy Kelly and Doug and Donna Krohl.” Looking at the women, she said, “Jeff works for John out of Milwaukee and Doug out of St. Louis.” The women smiled, resembling nothing so much as the second and third runners-up at Miss USA. They hated the outcome but needed to maintain a smile. Cindy was the shorter blonde. She had a cute face but my body was better. OK, not only was I a girl, I was being a bitch and I needed to stop.
I wanted to say, “no, they work for the company, as does John,” but went with “Well, it’s very nice to meet you both. Tell me about yourselves.” Before they could speak, Bonnie, looking at the planner, said that, “the shuttle looks like it’s filling up. Let’s go catch it.” And off they went.
Jessica rolled her eyes. “Honey, you can’t do that. I’ll get in trouble.” I smiled and shrugged.
Jane giggled. “How the hell did you pull all that out of your ass like that? And who the hell is Mike Modano and how did you know him? Did you date?”
I smiled. “Litigator’s trick. I have a good memory. Plus, I remember her talking about them. Incessantly. Should we go catch the shuttle?”
Jess said, “How about we wait? I’d rather not watch you and Bonnie kill each other just yet.”
That was fine. I had no interest in sitting with her. As we sat there, various couples came over. I knew about half of them from prior trips. I had a variation on the following exchange more than once:
Me: “Hi, [fill in name here], how are you?”
Wife: “Hi. I apologize but have we met?” She clearly has no idea who we are. The husband says nothing because it’s not his job to know who I am. He knows Jess from meetings as the product guy.
Me: “I’m Jessica. We were in Cabo (or Bermuda or Cancun or more than one) together.”
Wife: “Oh yeah. Now I remember.” She doesn’t. “You look different. You changed your hair.” Yeah, that’s it. It’s my hair. If your kid’s teacher changed her hair, you wouldn’t recognize her either.
Me: “Don’t worry about it. There are a lot of people on these trips. Well, this is going to be a great trip.”
Wife: “Oh yeah, we’ll catch up at the hotel,” she says, gnawing off her leg to get away.
Me: “Definitely,” I say, with a bright smile. We won’t. She leaves. I feel depressed. It doesn’t matter who we are. I’m a wife. I’m one of you but I’m not.
What ended my feeling of self-pity was when one of the managers came over, shook Jess’ hand and said, “Dan the Man! I haven’t seen you since Chicago.” Chicago was the meeting where she cheated on me. “That was one hell of a trip,” he said, while Jess laughed. It had become a fading scar, and now I was reminded of it.
The scar became an open wound when a cute blonde came over and said, “Dan! I haven’t seen you since Chicago.” She touched his arm and said, “That was so much fun. You have to come to the Mountain States conference next month.”
Jess laughed and said, “Well, let me check. Xaldor’s keeping me busy.”
I smiled and looked her in the eye. “My husband has absolutely no manners. I’m Jessica Silverman,” I said, taking her hand.
She smiled. “Oh, I apologize. I’m Becca Romano. I’m the district manager for Idaho. It’s so nice to meet you.” The feeling wasn’t mutual.
“You too. Where’s your husband?” I couldn’t believe that I heard myself saying that, but I did. And I meant it.
She held out her hand. “I’m not married.” I tried to not to rip her hand off. “I’m here with my friend Kristy.” Kristy. Kristy and Becca. Becca and Kristy. “She’s getting her luggage…oh, here she comes.” Kristy was absolutely gorgeous. 5’9”. Brown hair, blue eyes. Long legs. Perfect body. Every guy in the airport was looking at her. I would have. Even like this, I would have. I caught Jess looking at her, and gave her hand a hard squeeze. She looked at me as if to say, “what?” The way I would have.
“Oh. I am sure you two will have a great time. Dan, I think we’re on the next shuttle. Let’s go,” I said, gritting my teeth. We walked ahead of Sean and Jane. I periodically threw angry glances at Jess. She just looked dumbfounded.
I behaved myself on the shuttle. It was a forty-minute ride from the airport to the hotel. I reconnected with the people who remembered me, and talked about their kids. None of them asked about my job, which was fine under the circumstances. I was the good wife.
We got to the hotel and I was momentarily calmed. I felt the warmth on my face and could smell the ocean. I always loved the smell of the ocean. We always went to the Jersey Shore when I was younger. The smell of the ocean reminded me of being a kid, of running in the ocean, of frozen custard and skee-ball. Of a time when my worst problem was that Laura had more tickets to redeem for useless but utterly necessary plastic crap. I had gone to a place in my mind and hoped that the ocean would bring me back to where I needed to be.
Jess took my hand. “What’s wrong?”
I looked at her and said, “Nothing. Nothing is wrong,” in a tone that I hoped ended any inquiry.
It didn’t. “Seriously, what? Bonnie? She’s a bitch. You know that.”
I decided to let it go. I needed to believe that Chicago was an aberration and focusing would do me no good. “Yeah, that’s it. I’m half the woman? “
Jess laughed. “I’m the one who should be offended. I mean I was the whale, not you. Mike Modano,” she said, shaking her head.
I smiled. “You said it. I’m a woman of many contradictions.” I was calming down. “What do you want to do?”
“Go to the room and unpack. Then let’s play it by ear. We should go to the welcome desk first.” The trip was run by a travel company. The welcome desk was a special check in desk for Stone people only. It was where you booked activities and made dinner reservations. They had a basket of snacks – energy bars, cookies, that sort of thing. I made a mental note to avoid it. Access to free Oreos wouldn’t jibe with what I had packed. I was such a girl.
We went to the desk and found a 24-year old blond there. The travel people were all 24 years old and blond. As Rachel, one of Dan’s co-workers who had held the job previously put it, “That’s who wants the job. Girls who think it’s cool to travel. By 26, you realize that making sure we have dinner reservations isn’t cool and it’s not really travel.”
“Hi, welcome Champions! I’m Tracey. Whatever you need, you call down here and you ask.” She looked up our names. “You are on the blue team for Olympics tomorrow. What size shirts do you need?”
I said, “Dan will take an XL and I’ll take a large.”
She smiled, “If you want one to sleep in, I’ll see if there are extras and leave one in your room tonight. I meant for the games.”
“That’s what I thought.” I liked showing off but was suddenly thinking about other women. Tracey was looking me up and down.
She smiled and handed me a small. “This is better.” It was, but I wasn’t sure.
We went up to the room. It was a beautiful ocean view room with a king sized bed. The blinds were opened and the sea smell came in. I went to the window and took a deep breath. “I love that smell,” I said.
Jess came over and put her arms around my waist. She kissed my neck and said, “I love you. This is going to the best trip ever. I promise. Whatever you need, whatever you want. I promise. I want this to be special.” I want to pretend Chicago never happened. I don’t want to hear about it. I want to kill Becca. And Kristy. Even though she didn’t do anything but be Kristy. Which was enough.
“It’s already special,” I said, turning around to kiss her. I looked up at her eyes and said, “this is what we’re going to remember nine months from now.” I didn’t feel at all self-conscious. I was ready and committed to having a great trip. She started reaching under my dress.
“Sorry,” I sighed. “I was reading that you should abstain for 36 hours before we really try. And that’s tomorrow afternoon. I’m sorry,” I said. And I was.
Jess groaned., “I know. This is what we want, but it still sucks,” she said, looking at her erection. I knew the feeling and felt bad for her. But I wanted to have a baby and wasn’t going to let anything get in my way.
I smiled, “I’ll make it up to you the rest of the trip I promise. This is important to me.”
She put her arms around my waist and pulled me close. It felt good. It felt safe. “It’s important to us. I can wait.” That made me feel good. We were us. And we were having a baby. And Chicago was in the past.
We went downstairs. The first person we ran into was Jack Todd, a regional manager from Charlotte, who was there with his daughter Nikki. I recognized her from a picture he had shown me once. She was a dead ringer for her mother.
I walked over and gave Jack a kiss. “Jack, how are you?” He smiled. He and I always got along reasonably well. He treated me like one of his people, not like the rare husband thrown into the mix. When I first met Jess, I disdained sales people. Over time, I had come to appreciate the skill. We’re all selling something, whether it’s pharmaceuticals, legal services or teaching. The best just didn’t make you feel that way. “Where’s Joyce?”
“Joyce is taking JJ on college tours,” Jack said, “so Nikki decided to give her dad one last hurrah,” he said, with a wistful smile.
I got worried. “Is everything OK?”
He smiled. “Everything is fine, Jessica. Nikki’s engaged. This time next year, she’s not going to be my little girl.” I started to tear up, partly because my dad never got that with me and because I never got that with him. And I’d never get that with a daughter.
Nikki smiled and took his arm, “you’ll always be my daddy, no matter what,” and she gave him a kiss on the cheek. Jess looked over at me and smiled. She took my hand in hers.
I was about to cry and to break the mood said, “Wait a minute. JJ? College? That’s impossible. He’s, like, ten,” I laughed.
Jack smiled. “We’ve known each other a long time, Jessica. He’s, G-d help us, a senior.”
“Yet I haven’t aged a day,” I said, flicking my hair. Jessica rolled her eyes. Jack was from South Carolina originally. Here we go. “Is he considering Furman or is he following Joyce to SC?”
When I was Dan, this would’ve gotten me a sideways glance. Now, Jack just laughed. “You have a phenomenal memory, young lady. Dan, you must get in a world of trouble.”
Dan said, “More than you know,” and he laughed. Jack thought he was joking. He wasn’t.
Jack saw a couple come in. “Excuse me, but that’s one of my new district managers and her husband. I need to welcome them.” He walked away and Nikki stayed with us, until Jack said, “Honey, sorry, your mom’s not here. This is part of the trip.” I watched them approach. The husband had the same confused look I always had. He looked Jack in the eye and shook his hand. I could see the muscles in his forearm tense as if to say that he was a man too.
Jess took my hand and said, “Are you OK, honey?”
I smiled, “Fine. I’m just emotional. Must be the ovulating.”
Jess smiled, “I know you. You were thinking about your father. It’s OK.”
I feebly protested, “It was something else…” I was having visions of my father walking me down the aisle and tearing up. Of me looking at Jess in a tuxedo waiting for me. Of my father telling me he loved me and would always love me.
I was about to excuse myself to cry in private when I heard, “Jessica Silverman! Is that you?” It was Julie Mannheim and her husband Will. Julie was a manager in the Denver office and was one of the people who engaged me in conversation as Dan.
I gave her a hug and a kiss. “Julie! How have you been?”
“Doing fine. Although not as fine as you. Turn around and let me see!” I gladly did. “If you don’t mind me saying, you look amazing. Dan, why didn’t you tell me?”
I laughed, “Yeah, Dan. Why didn’t you?” This was what I needed.
Jess stammered then smiled. “I..uh..wanted to..uh..surprise you.”
“And here is exhibit A in why Dan isn’t in the field,” she said. “He can’t BS worth a lick.”
“He does fine at home,” I laughed. “How’s everything? How’s life in Denver these days?”
“Oh, it’s fine. The team is pulling its weight. Making our numbers plus. That’s boring. How’s life in litigation?”
I knew she’d remember but was always impressed nonetheless. The best reps made you believe they cared. “You’re good,” I laughed.
She smiled, “I’m a salesperson, Jess, and…”
“Your father was a lawyer. Anyway, life is fine. Jane and I were just joking that everyone told us to have a good time and relax, and we’ve only received ten e-mails since we took off.”
She laughed. “I remember when the company first started issuing Blackberries. They said it meant we were important. I’d like to be less important.”
I decided to be the good wife. “Will, how are you doing? These people,” I said, pointing at Jess and Julie, “see each other all the time. How’s life at Dish?” Will was a systems engineer for the Dish network.
He smiled, the grin of someone who knew that he was in a place where he was a curiosity at best and an afterthought at worse. Maybe I was projecting. “They’re actually putting me in charge of network operations for Sling.” Sling TV was a subscription service that was trying to get people to drop cable TV.
“Well,” I said, with my best corporate wife smile, “we’ve been thinking about cutting the cord. Give me your elevator pitch.” Jess and Julie laughed and started to talk about work, while Will and I discussed Sling. I noticed that he never asked about my job. Even in our shared condition as outsiders, I was still just the wife.
We made the rounds at the pool and said hello to a bunch of people, most of whom I had met at some point. At about 4:30, everyone started to drift away. The party was at 7 and everyone needed to relax and get ready.
At about 6:30, Jess had finished showering and shaving. She put on a blue polo shirt, khakis and deck shoes. This took all of twenty minutes.
I was putting on my make up when she said, “You look amazing.”
I was wearing a short white organza dress with little pink roses printed on it. It was short, but not too short. It passed the fingertip test. I had on sandals with 3” heels. I had had a pedicure done right before we left. My toes were pink. I wanted a friendly color and so avoided reds or darker colors. Other than shorts and work out clothes, I had packed dresses and skirts. I liked them and needed to be in the right frame of mind regardless. “What do you think of this? I can wear the shoulders up or down. It’s flirty but not too bad, no?”
She smiled at flirty and said. “It’s perfect. I knew you’d pick the right thing. I’ll be proud to have you on my arm.” Proud? That was weird.
“Yeah, proud. I like having a beautiful girl on my arm. Makes me feel powerful. You never felt that way?”
I paused. “I liked having you on my arm. I never thought about power, but OK…” I couldn’t figure out what she meant, but figured now was not the time to try. “I’m glad you like the dress. I was worried I didn’t choose the right thing.”
She smiled. “I had no doubt you would. You look gorgeous.”
We walked hand in hand to the elevators. I was watching Jess. She was standing up straight, with an open stance. What I mean is her body language said, ‘this is my space.’ She stood in the middle of the elevator. I always went to the back.
Several other couples got on at various floors. The women all looked each other up and down. I could feel them mentally tearing each other apart. (“Her eyes look puffy.” “She’s put on weight.”) The ones who knew each other exchanged pleasantries, but it mostly struck me as tigers circling each other. It’s not that men weren’t doing the same thing just less subtly. Men were missiles. You could follow the flight path. Women, I had come to learn, were land mines. You didn’t know where they were buried. I was smiling until one of the men said:
“Dan, I haven’t seen you since Chicago,” he said with a chuckle. Then he turned to me and said, “your husband is a great guy.”
It was a throwaway line. He meant nothing by it. It was sales BS but it hit a nerve. Jess, and hopefully only Jess, saw my eyes flicker. I regained my composure and said, with a smile, “Yes, he is. I’m Jessica,” I said, offering my hand.
“Nice to meet the woman behind the man. I’m Nick Theodore, and this is my better half, Diana.”
Diana was about 5’5”, with dark hair and dark eyes. “Very nice to meet you both,” she said, with a bored smile that suggested that she had been in this movie more than a few times.
Jess smiled. “Nick’s down in Atlanta. He’s in Jack’s region.”
I smiled, “Jack’s a terrific guy. He’s here with his daughter,” I babbled. Anything to fill the air.
“He is,” Diana said.
I tried again. “What do you Diana?”
She looked me up and down. “I’m a teacher. And I take care of our daughters.” Just then, the elevator opened. “I see some people I know. We’ll catch up later.”
Jess and I held back for a second. “What’s wrong with me? Do I look funny? Is my makeup ruined?”
Jess, in an effort to comfort me, said, “Relax. Some women are just bitches, especially here. Just be you and you’ll do great.” I wasn’t comforted and didn’t believe that. I just had to stop myself from trying to fill the air. I always did that when I got nervous. If nothing else, the change had made me realize all of my weird habits.
We came into the informal dinner and I looked around. I saw several people that I had met over the years. My eyes were drawn to one couple. He was about 48 with salt and pepper hair. He was wearing a blazer, polo shirt and khakis. She was about the same age, blonde rinse in a blue short sleeved dress with a v neck. She had the practiced smile of a politician’s wife and a look in her eyes like she would rather be anywhere else. I turned to Jess and said, “Bruce and Ellen?” The host VP and his wife.
She smiled. “How did you know?”
“She looks bored. Watch. Everyone keeps coming over to them. See, the guys all stand a little taller and try and box out the guy next to them. The wives all smile a little more brightly and lean in slightly when he talks. Now, watch,” I said. “That blonde is going to loop her arm through her husband’s and look up at him like he’s the greatest thing ever. Watch.”
Like clockwork, she did. They made a few minutes of small talk and then Ellen would deftly maneuver to the next couple. Eventually, they made their way to us.
Jess smiled. “Bruce, great to see you outside of the office.” Bruce was based in New York, so they’d see each other around.
Bruce smiled, “You too Dan. You must be Jessica,” he said, with a smile and a handshake.
Clearly, he had memorized the list before coming. “Very nice to meet you.” I turned to Ellen and said, “You must be Ellen. I’m Jessica Silverman. It’s nice to meet you and thank you for hosting this.”
She seemed surprised but smiled. “Nice to meet you as well and you’re welcome. You’re the first person to thank me,” she said, giving Bruce a quick glance. “The travel people do the hard work though.”
I let the first part hang there. “I know but you’re still hosting, which must still be a lot to do,” I said. “Dan mentioned that you have two kids. How old are they?” They looked surprised, but amused. “He mentioned pictures in your office, Bruce. They play soccer and baseball, right?” I turned to Jess and said, “You better have the right guy…”
Ellen laughed. “You’re lucky Dan. Those are mine. Emily is 15 and Patrick is 13. How did you remember that, Jessica?”
I smiled. I almost said, ‘Girl Scout. Be prepared,’ but decided to lean in. “Professional trick.”
Bruce laughed. “Poker player or psychic?” He was a good salesman which is why he no longer had to sell. He could make others do it.
“Even worse. I’m a lawyer,” I said, with a smile.
Ellen said, “Really? I would never have guessed. You seem so…normal,” she said, with a grin. “Sorry, Bruce’s older sister is an attorney.”
I smiled, “Well, I do hope you won’t hold that against me.”
Bruce laughed. “She won’t. I may but she won’t.”
I smiled. “Dan and I both have older sisters. No explanation necessary.”
Ellen smiled and touched my arm. “Jessica, it was very nice to meet you. I would love to keep chatting but part of hosting is mingling. We’ll catch up later.” Even if that was insincere, I felt better. At least, someone talked to me.
Dinner was buffet style. I had salmon, orzo and salad. Jess ate roast beef. I would have preferred that but my clothes were not going to forgive that. I ate mostly trying not to drop anything on my dress.
We sat with two couples, Johnny and Denice from Cincinnati and Rich and Claudia from Cleveland.
Denice was the Stone person, and Johnny was a police officer. “So, you one of those people who makes my life difficult?” He growled at me after learning I was an attorney. Denice broke off from her conversation with Rick and Jess to glare at him.
“Not unless you’re putting up buildings in New York,” I said, with a smile.
He laughed, “I was just teasing you. You’re too normal to be a criminal lawyer.”
I laughed, “You’re the second person to say that to me. Do I want to know what that means?”
He just smiled. “Nope. Do you have any kids?”
“None yet,” I said, with a smile.
He smiled. “Do you want any?”
Denice swatted him and shook her head. “I think he’s taken one too many to the head.”
He said, “You didn’t let me finish. I was going to say because we’re looking to get rid of some.” Denice swatted him again.
“How many do you have,” I said.
He laughed, “Five. Ages 20 to 7. I’m looking to move my 14 year old, Jacqueline. I’ll even pick up her phone bill.”
I turned to Denice, “These must be Johnny’s from his first marriage. You are too young to have a 20 year old.”
She turned to Jess and smiled, “I like her. You treat her right.” I assumed that was a Chicago reference. It was nice to hear but made me realize that I was now a face to an act. “Nope, they are all mine. I’ve got the body to prove it,” she said, laughing. Then she went back to the Stone conversation. They were discussing a new product launch meeting.
I turned to Claudia and said, “I’m sorry. We’ve been excluding you. Tell us about you.”
She laughed, “I was having fun listening. I feel like I’m on an interview. I’m not a cop and I’m not a lawyer.”
Johnny joked, “So you’re actually normal.”
She laughed, “I’m a CPA. I guess I’m normal, boring but normal.”
“My dad’s a CPA. You’re not ALL boring,” I said, hoping she got the joke.
She laughed. “Thanks. Let’s just say that, at a party like this, no one ever says, ‘hey, look a CPA. I bet she has interesting stories!’” I liked her.
We spent fifteen more minutes talking. Claudia had a 3 year old son, Robbie. When I said that we didn’t have kids yet, she and Johnny both laughed and said, “Take your time.” Claudia said, “I love Robbie but let’s just say I’m happy with the break.” Johnny smiled and nodded.
I went up to get dessert. The one weak point of these trips, and it was admittedly a weak complaint as weak points go, was the desserts. It was fruit, petit fours and what I called “funeral cookies,” the sort of cookies you brought to someone’s house for shiva. A Catholic friend called them “christening cookies,” and asked “why funeral cookies?” I repeated the Lenny Bruce line about holidays – “Christians celebrate. Jews observe.” I knew I’d eat fruit but would’ve liked some chocolate.
I was picking up some fruit when Ellen sighed, “I could really go for some chocolate. I don’t know who picks these desserts.”
I smiled. “I know what you mean. If they had ice cream, I’d be embarrassing myself.”
She laughed, “Somehow, I doubt that. I’m sorry about before.”
“For what?” I had honestly forgotten about it. I didn’t know to what she was referring.
“Ending the conversation so abruptly.”
“No apologies necessary. You have to meet everyone. I totally get it.” Then I paused, “What’s that like? I mean I like meeting everyone.” I figured that made me sound like the good wife.
“It’s fun…mostly,” then caught herself. She smiled slyly and said, “That’s privileged, right?”
I mimed locking my lips and throwing away the key. “I didn’t hear anything.”
She smiled. “I like you. It’s fine, really, but tiring. I meet these people and I have to remember who’s who and who Bruce is happy with and who not…”
“Well, if there’s some way I can help you out, please let me know.”
She looked pleased. “Thanks. What does your husband do again?” I realized that she was trying to figure out whether I was sucking up to her.
“He’s a senior product director. He’s working on Xaldor now.”
She smiled. “So, he’s a headquarters person?” In other words, not one of her husband’s people which I was presumed was a good thing.
“Yes, he is,” I said. “We’re just cost centers,” I said, with a smile.
She laughed. “I like you Jessica. I may take you up on your offer though.” She touched my arm and said, “I am going to get to know you. But duty calls.” Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Donna Krohl looking at me. She gave me a smile and a wink.
I went to find Jess and she was in deep conversation with some of the other men. I listened for a few minutes. She was really holding her own. Everyone was busting each other’s chops, in the way that guys do to show affection, and she was giving as good as she got. She had always been insecure in these conversations but not anymore. I just watched her and was proud. I didn’t even notice that no one ever asked me anything.
I moved away and was standing by myself, alone and exposed. Courtney came over and sighed. “We’ve been on five of these trips and I never get used to it. But, this is the first one here.”
I started to say ‘excuse me,’ but realized that could be misinterpreted. “It’s seven for me, all here. I know how you feel. Where were you before?” I noticed the way I slipped into “you.” Mark and Jess were here. She and I weren’t anywhere.
She smiled. “I’m sorry about before. The kids were cranky. My mom is watching them and she was, you know…” I smiled knowingly. “Add to that that Mark just came over from GSK and I don’t know anyone here. I get nervous sometimes and then I get rude. I don’t really mean it.”
I was surprised at her openness. After all these months, I was still amazed by the way that women would admit vulnerability to each other. “I get it totally. I accept your apology even though it isn’t necessary.” It was but it was still appreciated. “Can we start over? Hi, I’m Jessica Silverman.”
She smiled. “I’m Courtney Turner. It’s nice to meet you. I love that dress, by the way. Where did you get it?”
“Thanks. Macy’s. So, Courtney, I know you’re from North Colonie and you have two kids and a mom who’s annoying, which is redundant.” She laughed. “Tell me something about you. Something Mark wouldn’t tell Dan.”
She looked surprised. I waited for her to run laughing and tell everyone what a freak I was. Instead, she looked amused, “How much time do you have?”
I smiled. “Seriously.”
She looked thoughtful. “You know, no one ever asks me that. I’m from St Paul. I went to the University of Minnesota, where Mark and I met. I have a masters’ in early childhood education, not that I get to use it with all the moves.”
“How many times have you moved?”
“Three times in five years and I know we’re not done. Sharks and all,” she said, rolling her eyes. The mantra in the field was apparently be a shark – keep moving or die. The further up you moved, the bigger the shark you were. The metaphor annoyed me. You’re not a shark. You’re a salesman.
“Wow. That has to be a killer. So, you have a masters’ degree. What would you do if you could do anything?”
“Huh?” I guessed that no one ever asked her that. Or asked her much about herself. She was Mark’s wife, Jenna and C.J.’s mom. I felt bad about how I mocked her before.
“What would you do if you could do anything? Professionally, I mean.”
“Early intervention,” she said immediately. Clearly, she had thought about this. This was her room.
“Earlier than that. My thesis was on interventions with toddlers. They said that wealthy kids hear thousands more words by the time they’re age 3 and it impacts brain development. These less well-off kids start off at this huge disadvantage. And it’s not just the number of words, it’s the quality. Sorry, that’s kind of wonky.” I had noticed the way that women apologized so much. And I understood now why it drove Evelyn so nuts. Courtney was smart and had an idea, but she was afraid to own it.
“Don’t apologize. I asked.” I thought about what she said for a second. “That makes sense. I walk around my neighborhood and I hear all these moms, ‘Look at the blue car. Look at the white dog. Yes, honey, the sign says ‘Stop.’ It’s an octagon. A red octagon. Where’s your nose? I half expect the kid to say, ‘shut up already.’” She laughed. “But then I’m thinking about the women on the train and it’s usually be quiet or eat your chips and I totally get that they’re probably going to or from work and are way tired, but what you’re saying totally makes sense. That sounds like a great thing you want to do. Better than me. Protecting the rich and powerful from the poor and powerless.”
She smiled. “Someone has to. That’s how do-gooders like me get paid.” She paused, “I don’t know why I told you all this.” Because you recognize that I’m not one of you. That, even if I wanted, there’s no one for me to run screaming to. Because you want to be heard like I do. “This is between us, right?”
“Ask me if you should get sued.” She looked at me like I was nuts. “Just ask it.”
“Should I get sued,” she asked warily.
I smiled. “No. Now I’m your attorney and this is privileged.”
She giggled. “OK. I thought you were a lawyer.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, I think.”
“It is. You’re smart and you ask questions. Anyway, again, I’m sorry about before. I really like talking to you. I don’t get that kind of chance too often, especially not here.” Mark was waving to her to come over. She sighed, “Time to pretend,” she said, fluffing her hair with her fingers. “Do you want to see if we can go to the same informal dinner?”
I smiled. In seven years, I don’t remember that ever happening. We just ended up assigned to a group, like mismatched guests at a wedding. “That would be terrific.”
“I’ll ask the planner,” she said, walking away.
I felt better. I had made a friend. Two maybe, if Ellen was being sincere. I felt a little less alone.
Jess came over. “I saw you talking to Courtney. I’m surprised. You looked pretty upset with her in the airport.” I shouldn’t have been surprised that she noticed, but I was. I had forgotten that she had been this a lot longer than I was.
“It’s fine. She’s cool. She was just having a shit day. Plus she’s new. They just came from GSK.” It’s amazing. One day on a trip and I’m using the plural.
“What were you guys talking about for so long?”
“Yes. Educational theory. She has a master’s in early childhood and we were talking about language and brain development in infants and toddlers.”
“How did you get there?”
I smiled. “I asked.” The look on Jess’ face told me that she never had and would never have thought to. “Anyway, she asked if we wanted to try and be in the same informal dinner group. I said yes. Is that OK?”
She looked shocked. “That’s, uh, great. I like Mark,” she said, with a smile and a shake of her head.
That, unfortunately, was the high point of my evening. I met some of the wives, or other wives to be accurate. The conversation was fine. But, every so often, one of the managers would bring up Chicago. And I felt like they were looking at me.
After the sixth time, I said, “Can you excuse me for a minute?” I went off to a bathroom away from the group and I cried. I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked in the mirror and I saw me look back. Not Jessica, me. I felt emasculated and cuckolded. I thought I was past it, but I wasn’t. I loved Jess. In my heart and mind, I knew it was a one-time stupid mistake. But hearing everyone talk about the trip just made me remember what had happened and I threw up.
I sat on a bench and cried for five more minutes. Then I splashed some cold water on my face and went back out. My eyes were red. I fixed my makeup and I got a glass of wine to cover my breath and calm my nerves, and walked back over to Jess.
She was standing with a group of people. “I was about to send a search party,” she said with a smile. The smile was for everyone’s benefit. I could see concern in her eyes, but I wasn’t sure whether it was for me or for her.
“Sorry. Woman stuff.” I knew that would end the inquiry. Jess gave me a look that called bullshit on me but didn’t say anything. I was going to excuse myself but decided that wasn’t fair to Jess. She hadn’t done anything. I mean she had, but she didn’t make people bring up Chicago.
We went up to the room and started to get undressed.
“What happened?” She said. “Why were you gone so long? I got worried.”
“Nothing,” I said. “I needed some time alone. To clear my head.”
“You were crying.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
She looked at me. “It may be your face now but it was mine for 33 years. I could tell. Why?”
I took a deep breath. “Chicago.”
“That was one time. I told you that. I thought you believed me.”
“That’s not it. It’s everyone talking about how great the trip was. And then they look at me. I feel like a freak. A weirdo cuckold freak,” and I started to cry again.
She hugged me tight. “You are not a freak. I’m an asshole. I was an asshole then and I’m an asshole now for not stopping the conversation. But no one thinks anything about you except that you’re beautiful.”
“Yeah, well, I feel it. I don’t mean to ruin your night.”
“You didn’t. I hate that you’re in pain. I wish I had a time machine to change what happened.” She looked miserable.
I decided to lighten the mood. “I’d use it for lottery tickets and Amazon stock, personally.”
She laughed. “I’m serious. And I’m sorry I didn’t notice.”
“It’s OK. I was proud of you tonight.”
I looked her in the eye, took her hand and said, “Yeah. Proud. I was watching you today. You were strong and confident. And I was listening to you and Sean and you really know your stuff. Maybe, I never said it enough but I’m really proud of…” and I was going to say, ‘the man you’ve become,’ but that sounded like something your dad says at graduation. “How you’ve handled everything. How you’ve adapted. I’m proud to be on your arm.”
Jess just said. “Thank you. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Were the Barbies OK to you?”
“Most of them. You know what? Can we not call them Barbies anymore?” I said, hanging up my dress. I went into the bathroom to take off my makeup and wash my face.
Jess came in and stood behind me. “OK. Sure. What brought that on?”
I looked at her in the mirror and said, “They’re people, not plastic. And I want to think of them that way. And now I’m one of them. So let’s not, OK?” I was starting to get upset. I don’t know why. They weren’t my friends. I thought about it. That was her term. And I wasn’t her. I was me and I needed to distance myself from her. So that I could put Chicago out of my mind.
She looked shocked. “It was just a comment. I know you’re agitated. So, let’s not talk about it, OK?”
I went into my drawer. I was going to put on a nightie but wasn’t in the mood now. I put on a big Wisconsin t-shirt and got into bed. I leaned over, gave Jess a kiss and passed out. Tomorrow was another day.
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