None of it would have happened if the man formerly known as my husband—let's call him Prince--had merely declined the invitation to the wedding of our mutual, but mostly my, friend. If he'd gone ahead and taken the cap off his fountain pen and stroked a thick, inky check mark on the "regrets" line, I wouldn't have found myself in an Adirondack chair on the grounds of a second-rate county club with a splinter in my ass from sliding forward to make it easier for a man named Terry (or Jerry) to run his tongue between the toes of my left foot.
A week before the wedding she calls me to say, "Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but he's coming to the wedding. With a guest." He equals Prince: guest equals Holly.
"Must be Holly. The silver-tongued goddess of philosophy," I say, taking no small delight in my ability to craft an epithet at the drop of a hat. "I told you about her. Holly writes a weekly column she calls' Thoughts for Troubled Times' for a little shit rag out in New Jersey." I wait for her "uh huh" of recognition, which she provides, albeit listlessly. I continue: "Holly's use of the term 'thoughts' is a loose one, I might add."
I'm aware that the woman who is mostly my friend has probably heard this last line from me before but I'm attached to it, and I don't get many chances to use it. I don't expect her to offer a laugh or a sympathetic snort in response. She doesn't.
As it happens, I'm a writer too, as was Prince's first wife. I was Number Two. Holly's as good as Number Three. Twice was a coincidence but three times? I think we're talking cathexis. A puzzling romantic obsession, however, for the CFO of an organization whose success is built on coercing people surfeited on promotional buffet breakfasts to sign their full names on a line that condemns them to a lifetime of vacations in places like the Poconos or Historic Williamsburg Virginia. The only prose I got from him in our four years of marriage was a note he penned on an empty white bag from the local pharmacy: "Gone golfing, 2 PM T-time, putter around!!!! with out Me." It was at that moment that I realized the full implications of having married a man who capitalized the objective case of the first-person pronoun.
And lower-case me? Of Prince's three wives, I’m considered the successful but mean-spirited one. The first Mrs. Prince gave up a career in central Pennsylvania banging out clips about tractor-pull contests, fund-raiser pig roasts, and scarves knit by the Busy Hands Women's Club and donated to city school kids who wouldn't be caught dead in the hood--or anywhere else one could imagine--with unevenly-purled, variegated pastel rectangles looped around their necks. After the divorce, Number One completed her training as a physical therapist and is reputedly employed by the athletics department of a Big Ten university, where she kneads knots out of the trapezoid muscles of large young men--an improvement, I imagine, over eating pork off paper plates at Kiwanis Club picnics in central Pennsylvania.
And you know about Holly, the incipient Number Three. She writes. Thoughts. For troubled times.
I 'm an erstwhile editor and occasional contributor for a major women's magazine and a person who's only moderately embarrassed to admit that I remain one dissertation short of a doctorate, and that the field of specialization I abandoned to marry Prince was seventeenth-century revenge tragedy, and that my one big regret is that life offers one so few opportunities to bellow "hoist on his own petard!" at large social gatherings. My so-called credentials have earned me the right to edit a few high brow features like book reviews, health and nutritional breakthroughs, and profiles of Women Who Change the World, the ranks of which I don't expect to join any time soon. And I regularly write copy for what some of my older colleagues refer to as "oh baby" features, the ones with titles like "Nice Girls' Naughty Secrets" or "Is YOUR Husband Unfaithful? Take our quiz NOW," or "Unexpected Things Men Want in the Bedroom. Try Some Tonight!" My field of specialization lies in the subgenre, "tips." The hallmark of my work is that I use only odd numbers. "Seven ways to achieve more than three orgasms in one night," "Eleven moves guaranteed to turn up the heat," and "Five fabulous fashion finds for under fifty-nine dollars!" A baboon could write this stuff with one hand while picking fleas off the backsides of her offspring with the other but if it weren't me, there'd always be someone else willing to fuel a woman's fear that other women are getting it in larger installments than she is and that those same other women are enjoying it a whole lot more. I said I was successful. I didn't say anything about pride.
Miriam, my mostly my friend, says "C'mon, be serious. This makes the fourth divorced couple that's coming to my wedding." Heavy emphasis falls on the word "fourth."
I let it pass. It's too close to nuptial liftoff to remind her that statistically she stands a better chance of contracting a major female affliction than staying married through her fifties.
"Okay, seriously, " I reply. "I don't have a problem with the situation at all. You know I've run into them a couple times in the city. It was pleasant enough. Holly's eager to be have me like her, for some bizarre reason, and I promise I'll be on my best behavior."
And truly, I don't mind Holly. She interests me, in a sociological sort of way. Prince isn't Donald Trump, but in his own little social context, he's a powerful man, and Holly, in that same little social context, is enough like a trophy wife for them to be happy together. She's tall and thin. She wears her blonde hair gathered loosely behind her ears, and she sports an ass that errs on the side of being rather too small than too large. Ditto the nose. The overall effect of her facial composition might best be characterized as: Not All That Smart. The sort of woman who, when confronted with irony, lowers her eyelids and slowly raises them to reveal two limpid irises on which is written: No Sale. Gone On Break. Try Back in 15 Minutes. Holly falls into the social genus of what my pal Edwin and I call "atrophy wife."
"And I can't wait to get something new to wear to your wedding," I add.
"But I thought you had bought something," Miriam says. Heavy emphasis falls on the word "had." The pre-wedding anxiety is making her do italics-talk, and I think how I'll be glad when she returns to deadpan delivery. I don't consider the possibility that marriage might iron all the wrinkles out of her sensibility.
"I did, I did," I say, hoping to sound breezy. "I already got a new dress. I meant new shoes or a push-up bra or something." Technically that statement was not untrue. I did have a new dress in my closet. I just hadn't bought it for her wedding. "I want to make sure I look especially fabulous," I continue but stop myself before completing that sentence with the italicized phrase, For Your Special Day.
After we hang up, I have a flash of inspiration for transforming this whole wedding experience into an advice article about how to prepare for encountering your ex and his new love interest at a large social gathering that you will be attending without a date. Expensive shoes and a luxury pedicure. I could buy a pair of exceptionally impractical sandals and book myself a pedicure and deduct it all as a business expense.
"Beautiful Feet: Your Best Revenge."
I start googling day spas in Putnam County, New York. Unfortunately, that's where the wedding's going to be and not in Manhattan where I could have tried that new day spa near the SoHo Grand and thrown in a facial for good measure. I've already booked myself into a Friday and Saturday night stay at a Hilton Garden Hotel--which does not have a spa, day or otherwise--in a town near the wedding, and I've reserved a Sebring convertible for the weekend, a little flourish I'd added even before I knew that Prince and Princess would be attending the wedding. I've lived in New York since the divorce a year and a half ago and get to drive maybe twice a year, so a convertible seemed not overly self-indulgent.
The search for a promising Putnam Country day spa produces meager results, and I briefly contemplate getting my foot work done Thursday night but decide against it. The glow of a pedicure wears off quickly. All the spas I turn up have the capacity to be god-awful depressing places in person but I settle on the Left Bank Day Spa in the next town over, despite a few misgivings after reading their advertisement on the web: "Our Pedicures consist of a luxurious pedicure spa chair with a whirlpool built in. A new file is used and gloves are worn throughout the treatment for sanitation purposes. Our licensed aestheticians file and trim the nails, cuticles, and dry areas on toes and heels. A salt scrub is gently massaged all over the foot and calve [nota bene: the use of 'calve' as a singular noun] area to exfoliate." I wonder if some day spas in Putnam County reuse their nail files. I am gratified that, at the very least, the Left Bank does not.
The day of the wedding, I show up for my 12:30 appointment and am introduced to Arturo, a medium height, gay man of no small girth. He sets me up in the whirlpool chair and makes small talk while jets of hot, soapy water soften my feet for the task that lies ahead. Then he gets down to business.
"Special occasion?" he asks, not lifting his head but rather scrutinizing--with unnerving intensity--my right foot, as he prepares to trim its cuticles.
" Wedding" I say.
"Ooooh," Arturo exhales and moves in toward me. "The wedding night." If I were writing a novel in my spare time, I'd be tempted to call his tone "conspiratorial."
For a second, maybe two, my impulse is to keep afloat his illusion that he's working on bridal toenails. It's in my power to give him the kiss of the Spider Woman so that later that day, when he's eating General Tso's chicken out of a red and white take-out carton and watching a rerun of Law and Order: SVU, he won't feel so badly about living in Putnam County, pumicing and painting the feet of straight women who request Arturo (nee Arthur, aka Artie until his anabaptism as Arturo at the Mount Kisco Academy of Nails and Hair Design). Women who request him because he's like talking to one of your girlfriends only better because he urges you to make fun of your husband with impunity. Women who request him, and not the dusky-toned manicurist working at the next chair, the one from Bulgaria who holds pedicurees captive to her tale of emigrating to American only to marry a man with a borderline personality disorder. Women who request Arturo because, like their spayed and declawed cats, he doesn't mess up their furniture.
"Oh no, not me. Nope. But," I add, trying my best to sound co-conspiratorial, "my ex is going to be there with his girlfriend, so I need my feet to look completely fabulous." I know how condescending this sounds, how over-determined the whole exchange between us is. If nothing else, five and a half years of graduate school training taught me that there is a political subtext to every social exchange, which is why most people emerge from their graduate school training largely incapable of performing even the simplest, most inconsequential, of social exchanges.
"Your feet are in great shape. And so tiny," he coos.
"I bet you say that to all the girls," I reply, and wink. Ever since I starting writing for the women's magazine, I have become even more inept at talking with any degree of sincerity to people involved in servicing me. I shoot off entire rounds of clichés at my hairstylist. And when Lida, the x-ray technician at the women's medical center, biannually aligns one of my small breasts on the mammogram plate prefatory to flipping the switch that will lower the top plate that flattens my already little gal to the thickness of ravioli dough, I say things like, "The weather cold enough for ya?"
After careful consideration, Arturo and I select a nail polish color best suited to my black, spandex and lace Betsey Johnson dress and black leather and rhinestone Stuart Weitzman sandals. We choose: "In the Pink." I purchase a bottle for my fingernails for later. When Arturo notices that I've thoughtlessly worn a pair of closed-toe sandals to the salon, he insists that I wear the disposable, one-size-fits-all--hence way too big--lime green pedicure flip flops to my car, even though they are so large I have to shuffle my way out to the parking lot so they don't fall off. Once in the silver Sebring convertible, I set the car's air conditioning on high to blow on my feet to help set the polish, although I reflect that driving with the top down and the air conditioning blasting is probably against the law somewhere, someplace like Vermont or Seattle. Back at the hotel's parking lot, I remove the flip-flops and toss them on the floor on the passenger side, and ease my toes into sandals.
Once I’m ready to depart for the wedding--the preparation for which has now consumed just over three hours--I stop at the front desk to get directions from the clerk.
"Hello again. Oh, don't you look beautiful," he tells me, having apparently remembered how unbeautiful I looked when I'd asked him for directions to the Left Bank earlier in his shift. I thank him and give him the name of the church. Then a man who has come up behind me says, "Excuse me, I'm going there too." He moves up alongside me at the desk.
"Friend of the bride or the groom?" I ask him.
"Groom," he replies with a small laugh. "Just got in this morning from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Could you print me out an extra set of directions?' he asks the clerk. After a pause he says, "You know, we could drive over together?"
I take a quick inventory: above average height, khaki suit, not unattractive, thirty-four plus or minus years old, wedding band, most likely renting a compact car.
"Thanks," I respond, "but I've been fighting a headache all day, so I'll just drive myself in case I have to leave early. Now that I think of, I better go back to my room for some Advil. I'll see you there," and I head back to the elevator to maintain the headache fiction. I hadn't rented a convertible only to show up at the wedding in a black, two-door Ford Escort.
At the reception, I find myself assigned to the table adjacent to Prince and Holly. "Contingent" might be a more accurate characterization. I choose a seat neither too far nor too close to them and wonder who planned the seating arrangements. The chairs designated for women have lilac tulle bows tied to the back of them, and I just now register that the wedding's color scheme is orange and purple, which sounds hideous but is actually quite stunning. Masses of orange lilies fill the tables' vases, which are set on white tablecloths offset by dark purple dinner napkins. Prince and Holly see me, and we wave and make hand motions meant to communicate: oh gosh, hey there, good to see you, let's chat when things settle down.
Later, while the dinner plates are being cleared, I notice an empty seat between Prince and Holly, and, fortified by a few perfumey vodka and tonics, I join them. After some predictable niceties about the wedding, I ask Holly about her job. To be precise, I ask her about how she comes up with material for her thoughts, and I suggest maybe this wedding will give her some ideas about life, love, and rites of passage. We converse. Holly does most the talking. She likes to talk but that's okay. I'm a good listener, and with some effort I manage to suppress the impulse to wince at some of her elocutions. I'm no Susan Sontag, but at least I know that "irregardless" is not a word, and that a plural form of a noun--even those little tricky ones like "media"--requires a plural form of the verb, and that beginning three or more sentences in a row with the phrase "in point of fact" (which she renders as "in point or fact") is not an effective rhetorical strategy for persuading one's listener with the facticity of one's points.
I don't let out even one grimace but I sense that Prince intuits my response to Holly's verbalizations. He shifts the center of conversational gravity in his direction, and Holly moves into some talk with the woman on her right. Prince and I trade post-it notes of news about various couples of our mutual acquaintance. I push my chair out to stretch my legs a bit, and he pushes his chair out too, as if to get a full-length view of the pushed out me.
"Nice shoes," Prince says, looking hard at my feet. He moves his face slowly up my legs and to the front of my dress, stopping at my chest.
"Real nice shoes," he says, emphasizing the word "shoes" while looking at my breasts. Then he moves forward. "Let's dance, sweetie," he says in a husky voice reminiscent of a male porno star--if you could rightly call any man in a porno flick the actual "star." He smiles, and I notice that his teeth have become preternaturally white, the kind of whiteness achieved only through a laser procedure, a procedure I myself underwent while researching my article, "Say Cheese! Get that dazzling white smile on any budget. "
What malign doppelganger once took up residence in my brain and made me whisper, "I do" to this man? The same one that moved me to add, after the first and entirely sufficient "I do," the closing lines of Molly Bloom's soliloquy-"Yes. I will. Yes."--to the confusion of all assembled except my pal, Edwin, the single graduate student in attendance, the rest having jumped my ship on or about the date I announced my engagement to Prince.
The same evil spirit that now made me say, "Okay, sure, let's dance."
We slow dance to the wedding band's attempt at Eric Clapton's "You Look Wonderful Tonight," which is not nearly so bad as Eric Clapton's attempt at "You Look Wonderful Tonight." After a verse or two, Holly twists around in her chair, smiling at us with apparent affection and approval. Then I see her mouth to Prince, "That's sooooo nice." And I see Prince return to her a look that telegraphs: "Hey, what can I say? Nobody else would dance with her." I'm absolutely certain that's what his look said.
"So," I whisper in his ear, as the lead singer asks if we feel alright, "so," I ask, "where did you say Holly went to graduate school? Harvard?"
His feet slow down and then come to a stop. I look at him and wait. I'm patient. I know the approximate time it will take for my remark to register. His arms leave my waist and he says: "You are such a fucking bitch."
"Thanks for the dance," I say to him. I add, "You look wonderful tonight," and make a quick exit toward the bar, where I definitely will not order another vodka and tonic. "What kind of white wine do you have?" I ask the bartender. "Chardonnay. Just Chardonnay," he says, starting to pour one for me. I definitely will not take that Chardonnay, a wine that, no matter how good its quality, always tastes like rancid fruit to me. I opt for a ginger ale.
"Hey there. Still got that headache?" It's Mr. Wayne, Mr. Fort Wayne, from back at the Hilton Garden hotel.
"Hey, hi, how's it going," I say like I'm really pleased to see him because I'm really pleased to see him. "No headache, just pacing myself for the long night ahead," I say and lift my glass of ginger ale.
He puts his hand out and introduces himself. But the band has turned up the volume for "Celebrate good times, come on!" and I'm not sure if he says Terry or Jerry. I tell him my name, without much expectation that he catches it either, or that it matters much if he hasn't.
"Whoa, the music's loud. I’m going go have a smoke out on the patio. Want to join me?" and he motions toward the door on the other side of the banquet hall. The path to that door will take me past Prince's table. I don't smoke but I like the idea of walking past Prince and Holly with Terry (or Jerry). I tell him to wait right there and I'll hit the ladies room first. When I return, he's waiting right there, and we head toward the exit door. Unfortunately, Prince and Holly have left their table, having been moved to get up off their seats and "Dance to the Music," a song that draws even the sixty- something crowd onto the dance floor. I figure that by most people's reckoning the wedding band is a huge hit, but something tells me that Miriam will be having conversation in the near future with the Groom, to whom she'd entrusted the evening's musical fare.
Out on the patio I decide I will bum a cigarette, and after a couple drags, I feel light-headed, which may be why I mention to Mr. Fort Wayne that I've just had a minor, but unpleasant, exchange with my ex-husband.
"Sorry to hear that," he says, adding, "You look fantastic though. That should make you feel good." He smiles. "And him feel lousy."
Which makes me feel good.
And he can tell that this makes me feel good, so he continues. "I hope you won't be pissed at me for saying this but you look really hot. Those shoes--wow. And your pink toenails. Really hot."
"Why would I be pissed?" I ask him. "I had a luxury pedicure this morning and did my fingernails this afternoon," I say as I fan out my ten fingers. "See? I'm in the pink." I lay my right hand on his forearm. "Just for you."
We talk a little more and lean on the stone railing of the patio that looks out on the eighteenth hole. Then he puts hand on the skin on the top of my back. He slips it under the edge of my dress then moves it up to the nape of my neck and up along my scalp. With both hands he starts working my shoulders, and one hand travels forward over my neck and across my clavicle. He has big hands.
And it feels good. It's nothing more than that. But nothing less either.
"Hey let's take go take a walk. See if we can get lost for awhile." He's turned me around and looks me right in the eyes when he says this.
And even though it was not the rive gauche, and even though the man from Indiana was not the type to read David Foster Wallace or the Atlantic Monthly, and even though he had a wife who quite likely at one time or another had read one of my tips columns and may even have tried one of my tips to heat things up in the bedroom with, god help us, Terry--or Jerry--his suggestion that we get lost on the grounds of this past-its-prime country club was the best idea I'd heard in a long time. I was sick of thinking about David Foster Wallace and the Atlantic Monthly. I was sick of thinking about women sitting in their dentists' waiting rooms reading my advice about spanking games and citrus-flavored lubricants. I was sick of thinking. So I thought, "Fuck it, I'm not going to think about this. I'm just going to walk off into the dark with this man. No thoughts. Just sensations."
As we're leaving the patio, someone opens the door to the banquet hall, and I hear the band playing--and this I swear is true--"Ain't No Stopping Us Now."
It doesn't take us long to find a secluded spot where two Adirondack chairs sit facing each other. And it doesn't take us long to start fooling around: some sloppy kissing, some groping. "Sit in the chair," he tells me, so I do. I've never liked Adirondack chairs because I'm short and my feet dangle over the front, but, hey, I'm not going to think about that now. I look up at the sky, which is sort of moony and cloudy, and then I close my eyes: I am achieving sensation. While my eyes are closed, Terry--or Jerry--kneels down in front of me and starts massaging my calves, which are especially smooth as a result of this morning's exfoliating salt scrub. He slides my sandals off and massages each foot, then lifts the left one to his mouth. I've tried a few things with men, but this foot thing is a first, and I must be liking it because I'm not even thinking about the bits of grit that must have accumulated in the spaces between my toes after spending four and half hours in these almost-barefoot sandals. Because there ain't no stopping us now. We're in the groove.
And as I give myself over to the moment and clutch the arms of the chair and arch my back so I can press my toes into his mouth, I get a shooting pain in the left cheek of my ass. A splinter.
Hoist on my own petard.
I sit up and open my eyes. I see Terry--or Jerry--kneeling on two, purple linen dinner napkins that he has spread neatly on the ground to avoid getting grass stains on his khaki suit.
And I think: where did he get those napkins? When I went to the ladies room, did he walk over to an empty table and nonchalantly pick up two used dinner napkins and then stuff them in his pockets? And if so, why? Did he premeditate the possibility that, were he to get lucky with me, those napkins might have several handy uses?
Has he been reading the tips columns in major men's magazines?
He cups my foot in his hand and starts with the licking again. I withdraw my foot slowly yet he does not disengage his mouth. Rather he leans his body forward. If I were still writing that novel in my spare time, I would be tempted to modify his leaning forward with the adverb, "hungrily." I straighten myself up as much as I can in one of those poorly-designed chairs and touch his face as I withdraw my foot. I motion for him to get up and sit in the chair across from me. I smile: tenderly.
"First, we can't do this with you having a wife and all. I can't, anyway." I say.
"And second"--I do that, I tabulate my thoughts when I'm in an awkward moment with a man--"I’m not ready. Even if you weren't married, Which you are. I'm just not there yet."
That last bit--about me not being there yet--was technically untrue. I was there. I'd been there a long time. It's just that there wasn't here in an Adirondack chair somewhere near the 18th hole with a splinter in my ass.
He nodded, like he'd heard all this before, many times. That troubled me.
But I filed it in the "unsettling thoughts" drawer to think about later because right now I needed to exit this scene. So I get up and sit on the wide arm of the chair. Then he stands up, so I stand up. Then I get on up my tiptoes and stretch my neck toward his face, moving to kiss him briefly, wistfully, goodbye. And as he moves his face toward mine, I remember that this man's mouth has just been licking grit from between my toes. It was too intimate. I return to a normal standing position.
And then I get a sensation: sliminess. Between the toes on my left foot. I start swinging my left leg back and forth, trying to be casual about air drying his saliva off my foot before putting it back into my expensive sandal.
I look at his face: it's a rueful diagram of half connected dots trying to form a quixotic smile. It's a face that's hoping I might just kneel down on those commercial-grade dinner napkins and approach things from a different angle. I think about it for a couple seconds. Not a chance.
"I'm just not ready but when I am," I say, "I hope I run into a man like you who'll really get off on my feet."
I hate myself when I feel obliged to say things like that to a man. And never more so than at that moment. because this man's ego was not my problem. He was married. His ego was somebody else's project.
It wasn't until I reached the gravel parking lot that I realized I'd left my shoes somewhere near the Adirondack chair, a small portion of which was still embedded in my ass. And I couldn't do it. I couldn't go back and retrieve them, my beautiful string-bikini rhinestone sandals. I'd have to leave them there. Maybe some old duffer would come upon them in the morning. There they'd be, in front of the chair. Next to the grass-stained napkins. I hoped they would make the old fellow smile.
No, I'd just have to drive back to the hotel barefoot.
But am I okay to drive? I perform a quick, mental sobriety test on myself and conclude that I am indeed okay. I am not even remotely drunk. I had been not even remotely drunk when I nearly consummated a tryst at a wedding reception with a married man whose name ended in the letter "y." It was a sobering thought.
Then I remembered.
I still had those pedicure flip-flops that Arturo had insisted I wear out of the Left Bank Day Spa. God's blessings on Arturo. I should have tipped him more. If I got pulled over for a traffic violation and ordered out of the car, I couldn't be fined for driving barefoot, if, in fact, driving barefoot is a fineable offense in the state of New York, which it may not be. I'm sure it's not in Vermont or Seattle.
Yes, I'd still have to shuffle through the Hilton Garden Hotel lobby, past the front desk, and into the elevator in my little Betsey Johnson and my big green flip flops that extended three inches beyond my back of my heels. But that wouldn't be a problem. If anyone at the hotel appeared to be looking strangely at my feet, I'd say, "Oh my god, I just had to get out of those new shoes. They were killing me."