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Small Certainties

Cornelia Ravenal

A Few Minutes Ago

"I am pressing 'enter', but nothing's happening."

"Have you tried setting your remote to 'cable'?" said the voice on the other end.

"What do you think I am, an idiot?" said Burt.

"Sir, if you tell us which movie you want, we can program it from here."

That was the last thing Burt wanted. What he wanted was to aim the thing — as advertised — press a button — as guaranteed — and get what was promised for $9.99. He wanted the system to work. Not to mention that every time he called he got someone who sounded like his ex-wife. And no matter how casual he tried to seem when he said, "I'd like to order 'Naughty Little Nymphos' or "Hmmm, how about 'Barely Legal?" he could just hear the Time Warner Cable operator breathing in a judgmental way. As if a 58-year old man didn't have a right to appreciate some fresh-faced beauty once in a while.

What Burt also wanted was high-speed. With a high-speed modem, he could get it online. But that kind of certainty wouldn't come to Inwood anytime soon. "So far north you get a nosebleed," a former student had scoffed, right after the broker had promised him the neighborhood was getting hip. Now he wondered why he lived up there at all. Since he'd stopped teaching at Columbia he could live anywhere he pleased: the Village, SoHo, Tribeca in fact. Hell, with a high-speed modem and satellite TV, he could be anywhere at all. Idaho.

Burt stopped pressing enter. What would it be like not to live in New York? It had never occurred to him, it was such an implausible idea. This was the city that had spawned the three Mets; the museum, the ball club and the opera held his center stage. Yet when was the last time he'd been to any one? Recently, he was certain. At least once this year. He was "serious Mets fan". A "habitual museum-goer". A real "opera buff." But now he was flummoxed. The year before last? Two years ago? No, the last time was with Sylvia, which would make it at least four. No, longer. When had he…? Sylvia. Reaching for his hand as the orchestra began.

"Sir?" queried the voice on the other end of the phone. "Can we —

"What?" Burt asked, jogged back to the room.

"Can we program it from here?"

Burt suddenly felt liked he'd slipped on the ice. What the hell happened? How did he get down here?

"Forget it, " he said. "I don't need — I'm fine."

"Before you go, Mr. Gurtler, we just have to ask: have we answered all your questions? Is there anything else you need?"

Just Today

Tiffany thought it was weird the way older guys always went for her, even though it had been happening since she was fifteen. That was the first time her mother ever set her up, although Tiffany secretly suspected that her mother liked the guy herself, but didn't want to deal with the consequences. How many dinners had she sat though with what-was-his-name, pinching her wrist to keep herself awake? He'd done all the talking and knew way too much about wines. Still, she'd figured it was OK, better than spending the evenings holding up her hair up to the light and cutting off split ends. And in the end, her mother did sleep with him, so everything turned out for the best.

"Ready to order?"

"I'll wait," said Tiffany to the waiter, flipping a wave of hair.

She looked around the restaurant, then glanced at her Swatch. Twenty minutes late, but that wasn't late for Kyle. They'd been together since college and she knew he was The One. It helped, she thought, that they were almost the same age. But they were on a trial separation now — her idea — to make Kyle miss her and come crawling back with a ring. He'd pulled away lately and had to be put in line. After all, she was 27 and half her friends were engaged. She felt a twinge of emotion, imaging his hurt, how his lips would quiver when she told him she'd been seeing other men. 'But Tiff, I love you. I love you so much…' It made her teary just imagining how sad he'd be. It wasn't true, of course, but he'd never need to know.

She took a sip of water and realigned her fork. She liked the composition, remembering "function follows form". She thought she might have learned that in her art history class. Right, from Professor Gurtler — he'd also wanted to get in her pants. Then four years ago he'd called out of the blue. He said he'd gotten divorced and was getting in touch with old friends. It was so transparent — like they were even close to friends. Still, she was flattered — she'd used to look up to him and all. Then all this weirdness he unloaded on her at lunch. How his wife couldn't get pregnant, even though they tried for years. And then about a student, and how he'd lost his job.

Still, Tiffany had listened with her best listening look. It had made her feel special that he told her this stuff, and so much more interesting than what her friends went through. She might have even slept with him if he hadn't grossed her out, telling her he was working out now and was really in shape. Feel them, feel my muscles, he'd actually said. He kept flexing his pecs so she'd gingerly touched his arm. His skin felt slack — she wasn't prepared for that. Then she'd had to touch her own arm, just to make sure hers was not. It was only for reassurance, but he'd caught it just the same. And then he'd gotten nasty and ordered a scotch.

Tiffany would never let her life get so out of control. It was a matter of planning, of holding onto the reigns. She jotted in her Blackberry to get her highlights done, then a bikini wax before the stubble started to show.

(Once she'd gotten it all off, but that was for a job. Actresses have to do things, at least when they're starting out. And it was strictly pay-per-view, so probably no one would ever know.)

The busboy came by to refill her water glass. She caught her reflection upside-down in the spoon. She held the spoon up and turned it all around. Her reflection stayed inverted, no matter what she did.

She glanced at a middle-aged woman sitting all alone, reading the New York Post and looking absorbed. Tiffany caught the headline, "Woman… To Her Death." A woman had climbed over the railing on her balcony, twenty stories up. Tiffany had seen the crime scene tape on Central Park West.

She wished Kyle would get there. She'd been missing him all month. She thought about how they met, and how he'd rescued her from that guy named M.D. That one was also older, and hadn't taken the breakup well. But that too had turned out, for Tiffany at least, since M.D.'s dot.com had tanked and he'd had to sell his loft. She'd heard he'd gotten a job where his best friend worked, but that he'd freaked out after 9-11 and left town with no forwarding address.

M.D's friend. He'd been a good guy. Kind of on the short side, but that made him cute. Come to think of it, he'd wanted to shag her too. He'd had a new office and said she should stop by. And then they could go to lunch at Windows on the World. But she'd been afraid to run into M.D. so she'd kept begging off. Now she wished she'd gone, just to say she had. Too late now, especially for regrets. Still, she felt like a little better of a person to have known someone who'd died.

"Is your name Tiffany?" It was the maitre d'.

"Yes," she said, smiling. He'd probably seen the off-off Broadway play she'd been in.

"A gentleman named Kyle called with a message for you." Odd, Tiffany thought, and checked her cell to make sure it was on. "He won't be able to make it. Will you be having lunch alone?"

Tiffany blinked. She didn't understand. She held up her finger, then speed dialed Kyle. His voicemail picked up and she snapped off her phone. Her face felt flushed and her cheeks went numb. The maitre d' nodded and the busboy appeared. As he cleared the other setting, Tiffany stared down. On the table was the menu. The words looked like ants.

"May I tell you about our specials?" she heard the waiter say.

Tiffany looked up and widened her eyes. They were dewy, but she knew that only added to her appeal. She put on her listening look and could see the waiter respond. As she watched him talking she could tell he wanted her too. Her mother was right. She could see it was true. Pretty was power. There'd always be guys, for sure.

Last Night

Central Park West. An elevator going up. Mirrors on three sides and fluorescent lights overhead. The result flattered no one and made even young girls shrink from their dates. As Sylvia's reflection returned her shadowed stare, she thought: how twisted to be glad, for once, to be alone.

The elevator opened on the twentieth floor. Sylvia stepped out and put her key in the lock. Coming home to darkness made her feel unsure, as if someone might be waiting in a closet or behind a door. She quickly turned the lamp on and the light fell on her hand. For a moment she was jarred by the sand-fine lines. She was clearly past skin creams, though until recently she'd sworn they'd done some good. She'd have to see that doctor who did collagen in the hands. And while she was at it, botox between her brows. She couldn't go much longer, that much was sure.

What else was sure? She took off her faux fur hat. There were the universal certainties: birth, death, taxes. Then there were the large ones, not so certain after all, including that buildings, steel and concrete, would never crumble into dust. At least the lesser ones were certain: that men would check their hairlines, that women would check their waistlines, that children would be a source of worry, or so she'd been told.

She unwound the mauve cashmere scarf from around her neck. Then there were the small certainties, more realized the more absent they were. The intimate touch as two passed in a room. Soft breathing while sleeping that came from someone else. Sharing the happenings of the day, which these days passed into ether, weightless, as if they'd never happened, or at least didn't matter that they had.

She rifled through a stack of unopened mail. There were the benefit invitations… a Valu-Pack of coupons she'd never use… and an envelope from the Shriner's Hospital with her name on return address stickers "to thank you for your contribution," although she'd made none that year. Then there was this week's New York magazine with a cover story on "The New Casual Sex". She stopped for a moment and tried to recall: wasn't "The New Celibacy" just a few months ago? Both covers showed twenty-somethings eyeing each other with both apprehension and aplomb. They wore hip-slung pants and retro-70s shirts, as sleazy now as they'd looked the first time around. And then there was the real junk: four years since he'd moved out, still the odd piece for Burt. She glanced at his name, then ripped it in half. She tossed the rest on the credenza, then hung up her coat.

Sylvia opened the refrigerator. She spun the Lazy Susan around. Bottles of condiments looked like suspects and the rest was just as bad. Tupperware leftovers from the last few meals, a carton of Half 'n Half, a jar of egg whites and a hunk of Gouda cheese. Most were on the "Allowed" list of the diet she was on. This week it was Atkins, although she'd modified it tonight with a glass of Chardonnay. She'd hardly thought twice before requesting it at the bar. She deserved it, she'd thought, as she'd chomped on some nuts.

But now, staring at the Gouda, she regretted falling off. She'd used to be so disciplined about toeing the line. But lately she'd gotten careless, as in: she didn't give a damn. It had begun around her birthday — her 48th this year. No. Further back probably, when her marriage went awry. She'd kicked Burt out and then hid for a year. Then she'd been rescued, or at least thought she had. A much younger man, for nine days and nights. Martin's anger fueled his passion, just as much as hers. She could still remember the taste of his skin. And how the last night he'd said to her as they tussled in the sheets, "Just think," he'd said," this could have easily been my friend." They'd laughed about serendipity and how things had turned out. Then there was the morning, the last time they made love. Something was different and promised so much more. It had made him late for work. He said he'd take a taxi downtown. That's where he must have heard. Maybe on the street. In any case, she never heard from him again.

Now she saw the save for what it really was: a deceptive pause in an inevitable fall, as if she'd been cartoon character plunging from a cliff, flailing in the air, who'd grabbed onto a branch. Then snap. Crack. And the fall had begun again. Not opening her mail till several days had passed. Not getting a pedicure till her heels were like steel wool. Not paying the bills till the last day they were due. It had started like a pinprick and spread like a stain. Somewhere around the holidays she'd start to make herself a meal, then leave the kitchen chaotic with fixings and pans, carry her tray into the bedroom, remote the TV on and forget about her food. Sometimes she'd just lie there, magazines strewn on the other side of the bed, and around ten drift off to sleep with the news or something on, then wake to the TV blaring, still in her clothes. She'd rouse herself, drowsy, and push away the piles. If she pulled off her clothing before falling back to sleep, she'd wake just after seven to some chirpy morning show, and as her feet hit the floor, step into a puddle of underwear and wool.

Sylvia opened the freezer and rummaged in back. That's where she'd put the ice cream, to hide it from view. She pulled out a carton and pried off the lid. The ice cream was hard with sparkles of ice. She put it in the microwave and sat on a stool. Four minutes passed. Then the buzzer rang. She sat for some more time. Then she left the room.

Several Years Ago

"O.K., we'll flip," the big guy said to his smaller friend. "Good Suit-Bad Suit. Heads, I'm the asshole. Tails it's you."

The two had been friends since high school, and they worked at the same firm. Every Friday they had drinks after work. The game got started to even the odds. With a movie star smile and a body he kept in shape, the big guy had it all over his bookish-looking friend. He gestured with his beer to the end of the bar. There she was in the corner of the room, in a skirt, long enough to be ladylike, but short enough to show some thigh. Her dark hair was perky-sexy and he liked that too.

"Come on, M.D., she's at least 35," the small one said. He wanted to prepare himself, just in case he lost. No matter which role he got to play, his friend often took the prize.

The bigger one flipped the coin, and it landed on his wrist. He uncovered it, smiled, then the two clinked their beers.

As the big guy approached he saw she was older than she first looked. But the game was in motion so too late now.

"Want some company?" said the big guy, as he approached.

"I'm waiting for someone," said the woman, and turned away.

"Until he shows up then."

"You sure it's a 'he'?"

"Better still."

"Sorry," said the woman with a sympathetic smile.

"At least let me tell you my name." The big guy sidled in.

"I know what it is." She looked him in the eye. "It's 'Thinks He's Really Something Cause He Looks Like Tom Cruise.' You're probably a trader, am I right?" she said.

"Whatever," said the big one. "I gotta take a leak." Then he lurched off and as he passed, low-fived his friend.

"He's not normally like this," the small guy said, moving in.

"What, only after work then? Five nights a week?"

"He just got dumped. Girl named Tiff. It's bad." The woman shrugged, but something changed in her eyes.

"Betrayal," he said. "Big time. Like out of the blue."

"I know how he feels. But he should have seen the signs."

"You don't have to talk to him if you don't want," the small one offered, to be polite. "When he comes back I'll head him off."

"Thanks," said the woman. "But I'm not staying long. If my friend doesn't show by seven I'll just go home."

"Can I buy you a drink in the meantime?"

"Thanks, but I don't drink."

"What are you doing here then?"

"My friend's idea," she said. "She thought I needed to get out more." Then with a grin, "Actually, she just thought I needed to get out."

"A Coke then," said the small guy.

"Sure. Diet Coke is good." The woman turned away and looked around at the bar. "Are these people having fun here?" she said, gesturing to the crowd.

"You don't get out much," said the small guy, pulling his chin into his neck.

The woman shrugged, then twisted in her seat to get a better look. While she did, he looked her over as much as he could. She worked out — he could see she was toned even under her clothes — and was dressed more ladylike than most women he knew. Maybe it was an age thing. Girls in their twenties liked to show a lot more skin. She turned back and he quickly looked away.

"You know what I see when I look at this room? It reminds me of a painting. Like Bosch," she said.

"I'm sorry?"

"Hieronimous — it's nothing, just something my ex-husband would have said. They just look too happy. It can't possibly last."

"That's pretty cynical."

"What can I say." She smiled turned her gaze on him. "What about you? Are you happy?" she said.

"Why shouldn't I be?" said the small guy, pulling in. He was starting to feel uncomfortable. The game wasn't going where it usually did.

"Okay," said the woman, suppressing her smile. Then it faded. And she was looking at him closely as if trying to read his face. It wasn't what he was used to and it threw him off.

"My friend thinks you're attractive," the small guy blurted out.

"Gee," said the woman, grinning, "a discriminating soul." She was still looking at him in that curious, brazen way.

"No, really. He told me. He said you're the classiest woman in the bar." The woman raised an eyebrow and searched his face more.

The big guy watched them from the jukebox across the room. It bugged him that his friend was horning in, although he hadn't cared till now. But the woman seemed interested and she was obviously listening too. You could see it in her eyes that she actually understood, and not just the vocabulary, but the references as well. The big guy punched A4: "I Fall to Pieces" by Patsy Cline. He regretted it as soon as it started up. But now he was on a mission, and the soundtrack had to be ignored. He sauntered back to the table, the woman in his crosshairs as he moved in for the kill.

"Say," the woman said to the small guy as if not seeing the big one approach, "Shouldn't you be checking on your friend? Or peeling him off the bathroom floor?"

"I'm unpeeled," said the big guy, falling in next to her in the booth.

"Lucky me," said the woman.

"I have a question," he said.

"How can I stop you?"

"You can't."

"Fire away."

"How old are you?"

"Excuse me?" said the woman, as if she'd just swallowed a pill.

"You're on your own, buddy," said the small guy, sliding out. "Nice meeting you," he said to the woman, before slipping out through the crowd.

"You gonna tell me?" said the big one, as his hand fell on her thigh.

"Older than you think. By a lot," she said, as she pushed it away.

"I doubt it. 37?" he said, undeterred.

"You do know how to flatter, I will give you that."

"Okay. 39 then."

"If you say so," she said.

He opened a pack of Marlboros and offered her one.

"What makes you think I smoke?" she said. "Or are you always this sure?"

"You don't smoke at all then."

"Not last time I checked."

"So that's why you look so good, especially for your age."

The woman laughed, then shook her head, amused. "Quit while you're ahead. Or at least while you have your pride."

"What'd you say your name was?"

"Did I tell you my name?"

The big buy grinned, then stuck Marlboro in his mouth. But he struggled with the lighter, barely getting a spark. He sensed it wasn't going smoothly, not like it usually did. He was off his rocker to be talking to a woman this old. But something about her made him want to see where it led. He put his unlit cigarette and lighter down and looked at the table, oily mahogany where someone had carved "Lani & Mike" who knows how long ago. He wondered if they were still together, whoever they were. Or if some trader had knicked it after a pitcher of beer to close the deal with a date he'd never see again. Or if there'd been a night in that booth when the carver had debated whether to gouge the wood or his wrists with his steak knife, after he'd finally gotten it that "Lani & Mike" weren't anything to write home about, let alone carve for eternity on a table in a bar. He looked at his hands, illuminated by the booth's light. Jesus, he thought, how did these get to be mine?

"I'm M.D.," he said, one hand rising to shake hers.

"You're a doctor?" said the woman. "I never would have guessed."

"It's my name," he said. "It's short for Martin Dale." It was a nickname he'd had since B School but for the first time it felt lame.

"Martin…" said the woman, as her eyes met his. It was, he thought, as if she were trying to decide. "OK, Martin Dale. I'm Sylvia Gurtler," she said.

Martin looked at Sylvia. Neither of them smiled. But they both knew she'd stay, whether her friend showed or not.

A Lifetime Ago

Reflected in the mirror, Sylvia could see Burt reclining on the bed. He was looking at a book of baby names to "get into the mood." She shook her head, smiling, and pulled back her hair. Not a line on her face and at 40, looking good. She opened the foaming face wash and dipped her fingers in.

"What about Schuyler?" Burt shouted with glee. "Then it wouldn't matter if it's a boy or a girl!"

"Wait till we're pregnant!" Sylvia called into the other room.

"Maybe we should just rule out names! Whatever's big these days."

Sylvia smiled. It was so like Burt.

"Let's start with Brittney!" he shouted from the bed.

"Dakota!" yelled Sylvia, "And don't forget Bree!"





"Oh!" shouted Burt. "I've got it: Tiffany!" He snorted with delight.

Sylvia laughed. "O.K." she said. "No baby Tiffany."

"Thank God," said Burt, almost wiping away the tears. "There's a Tiffany in my art history survey class. Like a perky weather girl."

Sylvia dipped her fingertips into the scrub and rubbed it around her face. Would Burt still love her if she didn't conceive? They'd been trying for three years now and hadn't had any luck. Sometimes she wondered why they'd waited so long. They'd been together since grad school and been married for ten. Friends, never married, were now dating younger men. Sylvia would never do that, she was absolutely sure. She liked that Burt was older, even though only by five years.

"So what did Perkins say?" she called into the other room.

"He said I'd have to wait till the tenure review."

"Oh," said Sylvia, already thinking about something else. She leaned in to the mirror to get a closer look. Not a trace of a crow's foot; they'd just disappeared. She dabbed on the eye cream with her littlest finger.

"Oh, by the way," said Burt, "Jim and Barbara called about Friday. They want to know if we want to see 'Philadelphia' or 'Schindler's List'."

"I thought we were going to see 'The Piano'." said Sylvia.

"Chick flick," said Burt. "Jim and I are exercising the guy veto."

"At least it isn't opera!" Sylvia shot back with a laugh. Burt used to have a subscription but had let it lapse. That was also so like Burt, to get enthusiastic about something and then let it go.

Sylvia leaned in to dab on the eye cream. At 41 she could pass for 30 and she wanted to keep it that way. She remembered her mother, how beautiful she'd been. Until the end of that summer when she took Sylvia to the train. She'd gotten the results of some tests, she said. Hadn't wanted to say anything before, but now... So they'd gone on like normal, until it was impossible to ignore.

Odd, Sylvia thought, how people couldn't see. Even when truth was naked, right before their eyes. Like her good friend Ann, about her 12-year-old son. He'd come in to a party to shake people's hands, rail thin by then with bruised eyes and parchment skin. "He looks good, don't you think?" Ann had said when he left the room. She said it so hopefully that everyone said yes, even though anyone could see he was dying.

Sylvia closed her eyes and touched two fingers to each. She felt the warmth through her eyelids where her fingers touched the skin. Then she pressed her palms together like an Indian goddess in prayer.

"Coming to bed?" called Burt from the other room. Sylvia opened her eyes and liked what she saw. Behind her a candle was lit and the TV was off. She turned away from the mirror and walked into the dark.

Later in the stillness she listened to Burt's breath. "Burt, are you sleeping?"

"Not yet."

"If I don't… if we don't get pregnant… what will we do?"

The air conditioner's humming filled the room.

"We'll figure out something." Then Burt turned on his side.

Sylvia folded her body into his back. She felt so light, like a helium balloon. She though of a birthday party, once when she was ten, when she'd taken home a balloon that was plump and pink and full. She remembered its translucence as it rose and rose and rose, then touched her bedroom ceiling with a gentle bump. But when she woke the next morning, the balloon had drifted down. By evening, it was hovering a foot from the floor. The next day it was a sack, lying limp on the ground.

She wondered why she'd thought of that, then brushed it from her mind. She thought of what she had to look forward to, the small things and the large, the experiences to come and the certainties in her life. He will always leave me laughing. I will always smell his hair. And as she curled around him: We will always be like this.


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