First of all, he said her name wrong.
Almost everyone close to her called her 'Jo'-- the rare one-syllable nickname that seemed to suit her, seeing as it wasn't too masculine or too traditional, and maintained the wealthy New York flavor that her mother had always wanted for her. Bobbie called her Jo, for example, and the name sounded just right in her mouth.
But Richard said 'Joe.' Like some beer-guzzling fisherman he was calling from across a sports bar. Such a subtle difference in pronunciation, yet it made her skin crawl, an invisible yet brutal butchering of what defined her as a person. 'Joe.' She couldn't have explained the difference if she tried, but it was there.
On the one hand, it made her appreciate Bobbie even more. Joanne had never noticed the crisp, respectful snap of the 'Jo' before, until Richard had come along and shown her the alternative.
It made her blood boil.
Second of all, she got the distinct impression that he wanted to be... beer buddies with her, or something . Where on earth he had gotten that idea, she couldn't even begin to guess. He was the kind of man that made little comments, playful digs with soft edges, about her age and her wealth and even her weight-- which might have gone over well in his little middle-aged speedboat owner support group, but which made Joanne's fists curl. He told stupid jokes and expected her to laugh. He was always grinning at her, as if to make every moment of every inane conversation they had that much more unbearable, and had once clapped her on the back like they were at a soccer game.
Joanne had very nearly punched him.
It wasn't just her who noticed this second thing, actually. In fact, Bobbie-- who quickly defined herself as Joanne's most loyal ally against the social kamikaze that was Richard-- started warning her whenever he was heard asking for Joanne at social functions. "Watch out," she'd say, emerging from a crowd of amicably-chatting New York socialites, "He's in the dining room and he's asking for you. Apparently he bought a new table on Amazon marketplace."
(This was a high-threat situation. Richard could waste hours talking about Amazon marketplace-- "It was where I got my daughter's crib," he had told her a total of six times, "and it may sound a little radical, but I haven't used anything else since.")
The worst part of all of it was that Joanne couldn't have been sending clearer signals if she tried. She had never been one to waste breath on politeness, and she didn't mince words, either. She took any chance she could to make it obvious to Richard that she found him repellent-- she cut him down with sarcastic remarks, laid him flat with her particular brand of brutal honesty, and blatantly avoided him whenever she could. He seemed to think she was kidding. "A real pistol," he had once said.
Joanne had replied, "Yes, one of those would be pretty handy right about now."
Richard's obliviousness to her dislike of him had another infuriating effect, which was that Larry got the impression that Richard and Joanne were great friends. This was a thought that made her want to slit her wrists-- which she had told him, stone-faced, when he told her how proud he was of her for "Trying, really trying. I know he's not your usual crowd."
Even that hadn't convinced him. "Oh, you play tough, Jo," he'd said, pulling her stiff body into his like she was a child in need of a hug, "but I'm grateful for the effort. Richard says you're a riot."
Joanne had never cared what others thought of her. In fact, she rather liked to shock people-- picking up and dropping a string of husbands like she was shelling peas, for one, not to mention she was never afraid to tell someone exactly what she thought of them. But as Larry held her, she wondered how many other people Richard had talked to about their 'friendship,' and seriously considered leaping from their terraced balcony right then and there.
Really, at least she had Bobbie.
After a while, Joanne started ducking out of most social gatherings whenever she could, smoking in back alleys and stairwells and front yards. It was the only way to get any time to herself. The quiet was welcome, as always, but more so the Absence of Richard.
Bobbie often joined her at these times. For some reason, she seemed to like it. Joanne couldn't understand the appeal of a smoke break for someone who didn't smoke, but there were nights when she didn't even have to ask-- Bobbie would just follow her out into the Manhattan evening, shutting the door behind them both.
(To be fair, Joanne never stopped her. It was sort of nice to have some company.)
"Larry doesn't get it," she said one night, unprompted.
Bobbie looked over at her. They were standing sheltered in the well of an old apartment building owned by one of their more gregarious mutual friends. Above their heads, the muffled sounds of a party kicked and punched like something trapped. It wasn't a big thing, just ten or fifteen people listening to old records that the radio wouldn't play anymore. And of course, Larry had invited Richard. "What, the smoking?"
"Oh." Bobbie looked down at her feet. Her arms were folded-- the night had a bit of a chill, and she wasn't dressed for it. "That surprises me, actually."
Joanne gave a mirthless laugh. "If you're still surprised by Larry's lackluster efforts to understand me, kiddo, I think that's shame on you."
It had been a particularly trying night. Larry was driving her crazy-- trying to push her into Richard's arms like some sort of social bargaining chip-- and she was sober, for some god-forsaken reason. Nothing seemed to be going her way. At least she didn't have to walk more than two flights of stairs to get out .
"I didn't mean it like that."
"Neither does he."
Her voice was flat. Bobbie watched curls of thick, sweet smoke wind out of her open mouth. "Are you two fighting again?"
Nosy kid. Ordinarily, Joanne wouldn't have answered that, but tonight she just took another drag and let the smoke settle in her throat. "He doesn't think so," she said, with rough candor. "Apparently, Richard thinks I'm hilarious, with my... classic deadpan. A real comedian, I am. Larry keeps telling me how proud he is that I'm... making an effort."
Bobbie snorted, recognizing the ridiculousness of the idea. "Making an effort," she repeated.
"That's how he put it."
"And he believes that? Every time Richard comes within ten feet of you, you get that look on your face, the same one you got when I took you to my yoga class."
Joanne made a face. "Christ, don't remind me."
"It wasn't that bad."
"I don't do yoga. All that... inner peace crap. It's not very New York."
"Oh, and spin class every Thursday is?" Bobbie shook her head, smiling a little. She wouldn't stop bringing that up. "I still can't believe you spin."
Joanne scowled. "It's--"
"It's the thing to do, I know." Bobbie rolled her eyes. Her cheeks were nipped with pink, along with the tip of her nose, but she still smiled crookedly, her breath clouding slightly in front of her face. Joanne felt a pang of guilt at the sight of it. Bobbie didn't have to be out here with her, trying to lift her spirits-- she should have been inside, dancing, drinking, talking to friends her own age.
She briefly considered lending Bobbie her coat.
But that would have been entirely too much. Instead, she looked down at the remains of her cigarette and said, "I don't know what I'd do without you, kiddo."
Bobbie's eyes, when she looked up again, were so knowing she almost couldn't stand it: so different from the arrogant familiarity of Richard, who thought he had any idea who she was-- Bobbie looked at her with real understanding, and looked at her kindly in spite of it. (And of course, she didn't say a word that would give it away.)
"You'd be having long conversations with Richard about boat insurance, that's what you'd do without me."
Joanne's grin split wide, and she had to look away to get it under control.
Bobbie always had that effect on her, whether she liked it or not-- she chased away the spite. She made the cruel, bitter things inside Joanne retreat for a while. Like she was methodically walking around a dim room, cracking glowsticks, lighting candles.
No, sobriety was definitely not her color.
For a few moments, they stood together in the stairwell, Joanne still smoking, Bobbie underdressed in the night. The silence wasn't uncomfortable. The quiet that settled between them was softened by faint music and curls of smoke, a distant bass thumping in the concrete.
Finally, tentatively, Bobbie said, "Is it just me, or does he say your name wrong?"
Joanne looked over at her. "What?"
"Richard, I mean."
Joanne couldn't help but stare.
"Just... I feel like when he calls you 'Jo,' it comes out like... like 'Joe.'" Bobbie laughed at herself, clearly convinced she was a lunatic. "Can you even hear the difference? Probably not. It's like he's adding an 'e,' almost, like--"
She couldn’t finish, because Joanne had dropped her cigarette to kiss her.
Nothing damning-- just a kiss on the cheek, small and warm in the cold air.
Just a kiss on the cheek, but it lingered for a second too long, they could both feel it, and Joanne had the sinking feeling that if she weren't sober, if she were just a little looser on her feet, she might have planted one right on Bobbie's lips, an aching and desperate thing. That would have been an entirely different story.
It was just that Bobbie understood her, in a way no one else did. Not even Larry. Bobbie understood her in a bone-deep way that made no apologies.
It was just that Richard said her name wrong, and he treated her like a person she would hate. He treated her like a Joe. It was a small, idiotic thing to be so twisted up about, and Joanne was never a woman who allowed small, idiotic things to become grand symbols, but it was just that she despised Richard and no one understood why except for Bobbie. And in that single moment it had felt like being lifted out of freezing water.
Regret filled Joanne before she even sank back down onto her heels, embarrassment sticking hot and awkward to her skin. (Once again, contempt had proven to be an aphrodisiac she shouldn't have indulged.) Bobbie looked down at her with wide eyes-- she had a small lipstick print on her cheek.
Joanne tried not to break the eye contact. Over the years, she had gotten very good at pretending she wasn't mortified at her own behavior.
She needed a drink .
With the reverence of a prayer, Bobbie's hand rose to her cheek, and her eyes gleamed with-- something. Surprise, maybe. Perhaps embarrassment. "Man," she said quietly. "You really hate Richard, don't you?"
Joanne raised an eyebrow. "Wow, kiddo. I didn't know you moonlighted as a detective."
"And I didn't know you moonlighted as someone with feelings."
"A kiss on the cheek isn't a feeling."
"Well, it's something." The sparkle in Bobbie's eye revealed itself, then, to be something akin to affection-- the kind of endearment that Joanne considered herself to be too old for. "And you specialize in a whole lot of nothing."
Joanne looked away, into the darkness.
Bobbie reached out and touched her arm. "For the record, I hate him, too."
For someone wearing so little fabric, her skin was feverishly warm, almost hot, her fingertips just under the gold band of Joanne's watch. Joanne had to fight the helpless swelling of her heart. It seemed that allies against Richard were her weak spot, in times like these-- it was such a dangerous thing to feel less alone.
She finally spotted her cigarette. It had burned down almost to the filter before she'd dropped it.
"You know, kiddo, you're not so bad."
Bobbie laughed. "Sober Joanne is incredibly weird."
"You dropped your cigarette to kiss me. You don't drop your cigarette to do anything. Ever."
"Shut up," Joanne said again, and realized with annoyance that she was flushing even harder, something she hadn't done since she was a teenager. "Don't make me go back inside."
She wouldn't have made good on that threat even if she wanted to, but Bobbie backed off after that, smiling at the night sky with a giddy, disbelieving look on her face that made Joanne's chest contract like a muscle. The lipstick print looked like a stain. Bobbie was stained by her.
They stood in silence for a few more minutes. It was slightly different when Joanne wasn't smoking; she was more aware of Bobbie, her movements, her breathing. Before either of them could think of an excuse to stay out there any longer, Larry had pushed open the door to the complex, poking his head out into the cold. "Joanne? Are you almost done? People keep asking after you."
Joanne was sure that was a lie. Most of her friends were relieved when she left parties-- she wasn't a festive woman, and even when she was playing along her enthusiasm left something to be desired. Which almost certainly meant that by 'people,' he meant Richard.
"We'll be right in," Bobbie said, throwing him a smile.
Her cheek was in shadow, so he didn't notice the kiss. Joanne was grateful for that mercy. Larry didn't get jealous-- she often wished he would, show some teeth once in awhile-- but whenever she demonstrated that she could be any more affectionate than she was at home, it led to a tense car-ride argument about "What's so hard about me, Joanne? You can throw your arms around (insert the name of whoever she'd drunkenly thrown herself at) but you move away when your husband tries to kiss you?"
It was Joanne's least favorite kind of argument. It made Larry seem, for a moment, no better than Richard-- as if he didn't know her at all, and didn't really want to.
She had to remind herself that Larry would always be better than Richard.
It was impossible to be worse than Richard.
Slowly, that man sank his roots into her social circle, like a spiny, affable weed that thumped your shoulder when he shook your hand. (This was an infuriating habit because it prevented her from pretending she didn't know him, for fear of being introduced and manhandled again.) He started showing up to more parties, more luncheons, always looking for her, relentless, a bloodhound with a big smile and crumbs all over his dress shirt. Joanne, who had never had any problems with pushing people away before, was completely out of her depth.
He laughed when she called him an ignorant asshole. He said things like, "Slow down, Joe, you're really putting them away tonight," and gave Larry sympathetic little smiles when she told him promptly (if a little drunkenly) to go fuck himself. There was something both infuriating and deeply dehumanizing to be misinterpreted like that-- and for Larry to take Richard's side, of all things.
Joanne found herself attached to Bobbie most nights, who seemed to think it was fun doing Richard-related recon. They ducked hors d'oeuvres plates and disappeared into groups of mutual friends, Bobbie occasionally venturing off to chat and scan the environment, Joanne staying put like some celebrity in sunglasses waiting for her security to clear the area.
It was mostly a joke, but Joanne could tell that it was also a demonstration of loyalty. Bobbie was telling her, and everyone else, I'm on your side. I believe you.
It put a bittersweet taste in her throat. Larry had never done anything of the sort.
He tried, of course. He was so sweet to her-- sweeter than she deserved, which was part of it (always part of it)-- but also he seemed to believe that at her core she was inherently self-destructive, and that everything she feared and hated must be good for her, like her father used to say: 'It builds character.' Larry was the sort of person to drag her off to social events because he was convinced that she would suddenly discover some secret adoration for his milquetoast business friends. He loved her, he really did. But he didn't know her.
Joanne had wanted it that way, once. She didn't know when that changed.
On another particular night, a few weeks or perhaps a month after the humiliating kiss on the cheek incident, Bobbie had come to get her from beside Sarah's piano with a look of grave warning on her face.
"His team won," she had told Joanne, already pulling her towards the kitchen. "Last night. It was a landslide. He wants to talk to you about it."
Most upper-class New Yorkers had transcended the social need to feign a polite interest in sports, but Richard was a fanatic-- he liked to corner people to talk about "the game" last night, and wore jerseys from his favorite football team (the Redskins, for God's sake) to elegant functions. He was one of those men that assumed he was charming you, when in actuality his animated recounting of every point of some inane football match was less charming than a gunshot to the neck.
(Joanne was actually a sports fan herself, as a matter of fact. She had received shares in the Giants for her fifty-third birthday. That didn't mean she liked to talk about it. Even Larry had only found out after they were engaged.)
(Richard could never find out.)
That was the night that they slipped through the kitchen and into the small sunroom, where Harry and Sarah had penned up their dog for the night, and Bobbie had gone to shut the door behind them while the animal tugged on the strap of Joanne's high heel.
"Get off," Joanne snapped at it. Those heels were authentic Louboutins-- not that she had ever put much stock in name brand-- and the eager puppy was leaving puncture wounds in patent leather. "Quit it!"
Bobbie looked over at her from the door. "His name's Precious," she said, uselessly.
Joanne looked down at the little mustached Boston terrier and felt a surge of contempt-- of course the damn dog was named Precious. Harry and Sarah were exactly that type of couple. "That's almost as stupid as it is unhelpful," she said, and pushed the dog off of her again only to have it scamper right back.
Bobbie laughed. "Here, I'll get him."
Ridiculously, she'd come over and knelt at Joanne's feet in her hundred-dollar jumpsuit, looking for all the world like a courtesan, prostrating herself before nobility-- except that she was wearing silver hoop earrings and she smelled like the cocktails Harry had been making all night: rum and bergamot and lime. (Harry had apparently never heard of a seasonal drink; it was November.) She scooped up Precious and held him to her chest.
The dog was thrilled. Upon being picked up, he abandoned any efforts to steal Joanne's heel and threw himself eagerly and passionately into coating Bobbie's chin with his saliva. He'd been locked out there all night-- at various intervals during the party, ghostly yapping could be heard through the walls. It made Sarah tut and some of their other friends laugh. Joanne found it somewhat gauche.
"See? He just wants a little attention," Bobbie said. She wrapped her arms around him and looked up into Joanne's eyes, the smallest of smiles on her face. "Isn't that what we all need?"
Joanne's heart squeezed.
It wasn't lost on her. Bobbie, on her knees, her face gleaming with slick; ordinarily she would have laughed at the suggestiveness of it all. But as things stood that night, the embarrassment of their last encounter still lingering at the back of her throat, she ignored the sparkle in Bobbie's eyes for her own reasons.
Instead, Joanne folded her arms. "Angling for another kiss?"
That made Bobbie laugh again. "I'm not that naive," she said, and looked away. The carpet must have been uncomfortable on her knees; after a moment she settled down on the floor, crossing her legs underneath her so that Precious could drop into her lap. "I'll have to wait until the next time all the stars are in alignment with Jupiter, or whatever." Her hand traced the outline of the dog's skull. "I dated a guy that was into astrology once. Maybe I should call him and ask. Mark it on my calendar."
Joanne snorted, and finally spotted a wicker chair in the corner, which she pulled out and sat in-- women of her age did not sit on the floor. "I'm sure he would be happy to help."
It was harder, she found, to talk to Bobbie in the light.
Bobbie made a face when she saw the chair. "Oh, boo. No chairs. Come sit on the floor with us plebs, it won't kill you."
"Maybe not. But whatever survives will not be the Joanne you know."
That was the night they hid in the sunroom for hours and talked and laughed like teenagers hiding from the world, Precious napping in Bobbie's lap-- asleep, he was much more tolerable-- and the light slowly slipping down the walls. Unlike the rest of Harry and Sarah's apartment, this room was lit by a single window, which faced an expanse of darkening sky. The sun was sinking behind the skyscrapers, the clouds scudding along at the horizon; as they talked, Bobbie only getting more comfortable in her spot on the floor, the room sank into a pleasant dimness. It was somewhat of a relief.
"I think we're missing the party," Joanne finally said, nodding towards the far wall. The conversation had settled her, eased the nerves in the pit of her stomach. "Sarah's going to leave you one hell of a passive-aggressive voicemail tomorrow."
Bobbie turned her head to look at the door, as if she could see right through it. Seventies music was playing from the other room, a song Joanne could vaguely remember from the radio a lifetime ago-- Sarah's entire music catalogue seemed designed to make her feel old. No one else in the apartment could possibly remember that song, yet still they chatted and sipped cocktails to its easy, punch-drunk rhythm. (It sounded better through the wall.)
Bobbie's eyes met hers again. "I don't mind," she said, stroking Precious with a small smile. "I'll tell her I had good company."
"More flattery! You're tipsy, kiddo."
Bobbie shrugged. "Harry isn't much of a mixologist."
Joanne snorted; that much was true. The wicker chair was leaving a weave print on the backs of her thighs. With a grunt, Joanne flexed her legs-- the tingling in her feet, the telltale sign of high heel compression wearing off, was the only sign of how long they had been hiding. "These heels are gonna kill me," she mumbled, reaching down to rub some of the feeling back into her feet.
"Just take 'em off. I bet Precious would be thrilled."
It was a very Bobbie thing to suggest. She was still young enough for taking off her heels in someone else's sunroom to seem spontaneous and endearing, instead of just sad. Her time was running out, of course-- the cutoff point hovered somewhere around forty. (Not that Joanne was going to tell her that.)
"Nice try, but I'll throw myself off the Brooklyn bridge before I give a two-hundred dollar shoe to a Yorkie," Joanne said. She glanced down at the stiletto points with a frown. "Besides, I need them for height."
Most of the night went by like that. Time flowed around them like water and Joanne didn't stop to consider the fact that this comfort might eventually be interrupted. It had last time, when she was burning red with a kiss that should never have happened-- Larry had come looking for her, as was his habit. If she had stopped to think of the world outside the darkening sunroom, she might have realized how late it was getting. But Bobbie kept her present. Bobbie had a way of doing that.
That night, the person who burst their little bubble wasn't Larry. When the knock finally came, Joanne felt a guilty twinge and assumed her husband had come to collect her-- but no, it wasn't him.
It was Richard.
Richard's blocky, grinning head poked into the sunroom-- that sacred space, the only tolerable room in Harry and Sarah's apartment. He was wearing a Redskins polo, as Joanne had predicted. As soon as he saw Joanne, his face lit up beyond belief, and when his eyes drifted down to Bobbie, he laughed in a gratingly boyish way. "Oh, sorry. Am I interrupting girl time?"
Just like that, the reality of their lives came crashing back around them. Joanne remembered Larry, who was probably waiting in the living room with that sad, disappointed look on his face. She remembered the huge, empty penthouse she would be going home to tonight. The curse of Richard: not only was he insufferable, he was a harbinger of all the banalities of her life.
On the floor, Bobbie froze, looking up at her-- but Joanne could only look at Richard.
"I've been looking for you all night. Larry said you were a sports fan, which is a relief, let me tell you-- most of the people here wouldn't know the Superbowl from a… well, a bowl of soup." Chuckling at himself, Richard pushed the door all the way open and that seventies playlist flooded the room. Joanne barely registered the sting of Larry's betrayal. "I've been dying to talk about last night's game."
Joanne was realizing how long it had been since she'd actually spoken to Richard. For almost two months, Bobbie had been her intermediary, ushering her in and out of rooms like a SWAT team of one-- now, his every affectation was newly infuriating, like ripping the stitches off an old wound. His personality had become almost pungent, a canned good left too long on the shelf. Now that he'd opened it, the acrid fumes were filling her nostrils, getting down her throat. The way he spoke, the way he smiled, the way he suspended his body in that long, garish stretch in the doorway. He was back with a vengeance. (It reminded her of that high school physics experiment, sort of: the one where you freeze a glass cup, then pour hot water into it, and the sudden change breaks it in two.)
She had taken Bobbie for granted.
"I hate sports," Joanne said, as scathingly as she could. The sound of the door opening had alerted Precious, who jumped from Bobbie's lap and scrambled to greet Richard, tripping over himself in his excitement to bite at a new pair of shoes. Traitor. "And yes, as a matter of fact, you are interrupting."
Richard snapped his fingers and pointed at her. "Always with the honesty. That's what I like about you, Joe."
That was the night Richard escorted her into the living room like a warden taking a prisoner to the electric chair-- Joanne could only watch helplessly as Jenny came in to sweep Bobbie away from her, with that smug look on her face that they all got, like they were saving her from that miserable bitch Joanne, taking her back to her real friends. Bobbie at least had the decency to mouth I’m sorry as she was pulled into a gaggle of thirtysomethings.
And then Joanne was alone, without defense, in the middle of a stale party with that man. For the first time in months, she had nowhere to hide.
She hated feeling helpless.
The drink hit him right in the face, splashing up his neck and around the hinges of his jaw, dribbling down the front of his stupid jersey—ice cold and out of nowhere, making him gasp, giving her a hot rush of satisfaction. She didn’t even notice the way the entire living room went silent around them, the shocked murmurs from people she knew. In that moment, there was only Richard: dripping rum, white with realization. Only the sear of triumph in her throat.
Joanne dropped her empty glass on the carpet, heard it bounce instead of break and roll towards the wall. “Not such a riot now, am I?” she asked. Her rage had been pulled taut and then released, and now she was in rare form, each word flaying her a little more to reveal the truth of what she was. It felt good. “ Fuck you.”
Beads of alcohol slipped into Richard’s open mouth like tears.
That was the night she and Larry fought for hours: first in the taxi on the way home and then in the apartment, Joanne following him through every room and corridor in the penthouse, barking in his ear like an attack dog—or at least, that was how he would see it, she knew. (She had told him a million times that she wouldn’t have to give chase if he could just stand there and face her like a man, and still he did everything but curl up in a ball on the floor and cover his head.)
“I just wish you would keep trying, Jo . That’s all I’ve ever asked of you, that you try .”
“I shouldn’t have to fucking try, Larry, not if you gave a single shit about how I feel or what I want—”
“ Bull shit. Don’t give me that. Don’t insult yourself by pretending that I haven’t made my entire fucking life about you.”
“I NEVER ASKED YOU TO DO THAT, DID I?”
“AS IF THAT MAKES A FUCKING DIFFERENCE!”
When he finally turned to face her, his cheeks were flushed and red as the blood moon, his eyes dark—triumph burned at the back of Joanne’s throat. Suddenly, they were on even ground and she was able to get up in his face the way she liked, her finger pointed in his chest. God: in her belly, the drums of war. “You don’t get to make me into the bad guy and play the pathetic, steamrolled husband card whenever you want. You don’t get to paint that picture when I am miserable and you know it —”
“Oh, poor Jo, always having to spend her precious time with my boring friends when she’d rather hide on the balcony with Bobbie— ”
“What the fuck does she have to do with this?”
Joanne would remember the look on his face for a long, long time.
That was the night they both went to bed furious. They rarely did that. When they were first married, people had given them all that drivel about never go to bed angry , and Joanne had thought it was all a bunch of hock but Larry had taken to it with a passion. His greatest fear was becoming just another one of Joanne’s faceless ex-husbands. It was the same reason he never slept on the couch—he saw it as the toe-tag of a marriage. That night, he crawled into bed beside her, silent, fuming, because he wasn’t giving up. It had always been their secret language . This isn’t the end; I refuse to sleep on the couch tonight.
God, but Joanne wished he would.
She lay in the sheets that he had picked (even though she thought the lace trim was tacky) and she stared at the smooth white ceiling with its yellowed ring from her cigarette smoke and she wished Larry were downstairs instead of beside her, she wished he were out somewhere getting drunk and getting over it, she wished she was alone.
Or maybe she wished Bobbie were there. Opening windows. Lighting candles.
Joanne closed her eyes and stifled the thought.
(She didn’t want to give Larry the vindication.)
Their fights had always been like that: a molten catalyst, followed by silence. A foot of space in between them when they slept. Waking up to find Larry already at work, his coffee mug in the sink, and swallowing the ache in her chest. It could last for weeks, this silence. They just weren’t the kind of married couple that apologized. Joanne was too proud, and Larry was too often right, and so their reparations more resembled the thin skin of ice that forms over a dark lake in winter. Glacial, but inevitable. (Four days after they got home from Harry and Sarah’s, Larry kissed her on the forehead and Joanne pushed him away because he hadn’t shaved, and they both knew that everything was going to be alright.)
Of course, Joanne was still resentful. The face Larry had made when she asked, furious, what does she have to do with this?— it was burned into her brain. So, very true to form, the next time Bobbie invited her out to a new club that had cropped up along the lower east side, Joanne said yes: immediately, spitefully. Larry was at work.
It didn’t matter—it was just another one of those needling things she did, bitter Jo, miserable Jo, trying to provoke a reaction, nothing more. Still she had that pit in her stomach. The feeling of walking out on thin ice.
It was almost ten in the evening when she got to the club. She could tell right away that it was a little too young for her, all throbbing music and a crush of twentysomething bodies on the dance floor, but it was the kind of haunt that Bobbie loved. “This is how you know you’re alive,” she’d say, gesturing out at the sweating dancers. It was the kind of sentiment that would just dry up and blow away one day, leaving her wondering how she had ever thought that, even for a moment.
“Jo! I’m glad you could make it.”
Joanne took a seat next to Bobbie, who was waiting for her at the long, black-topped bar. The club was hot: she handed Bobbie her purse so that she could begin to take off her coat. “Please,” she scoffed. “What else am I going to do on a Saturday night?”
“I don’t know—spin class?”
This comment was willfully ignored.
The bartender that came to check on them was clean-shaven and had a face like a fox; judging from the stains on his white cuffs, she wasn’t optimistic about his mixology skills. That was the problem with all these new clubs. They just hired anyone desperate for a paycheck and waited for the money to start coming in before they actually picked up anyone of distinction. At least he had to be better than Harry.
“Vodka stinger, please,” Joanne said, holding up one finger and then reconsidering. “Actually, make that two. No ice.”
Bobbie already had something in her hand—a sidecar, judging from its luminous yellow color and the sugared rim. As the bartender walked away, she took a sip. It seemed almost to glow in the filmy darkness. “I figured you might need a night out, after last week,” she said. “Get away from everything and all that. But then I thought… I don’t know. That you might need some space.”
“Space.” Joanne made a face, turning to face the bar. If that was true, it would be the first time in history the kid had ever respected her personal wishes. “Are you scared I’m going to throw my drink at you?”
“At me? Never.”
That was the night they drank themselves stupid, finally, until Bobbie was giggly and dramatic and Joanne had gone soft in the middle, both of them teetering dangerously close to that kind of drunk where you hemorrhage your feelings without any provocation. They drank until the club didn’t feel hot anymore, until it was a little too late to have stayed out with a friend on a Saturday while her husband was at work—but he wasn’t at work, Joanne remembered, he would have gotten home by now, and found her gone. She thought about checking her phone. She decided against it.
Fuck him. Fuck all of them.
Bobbie looked at her halfway through the night like she could see the turmoil under Joanne’s skin. “Let’s dance,” she said decisively, setting down another half-empty glass. Her voice had warped and blurred as if they were underwater. “It’ll be good for us.”
Joanne scoffed, wobbling in her seat. “I only dance when I can touch , kiddo, you know that.”
“So?” Bobbie shrugged. “We’ll touch.”
They wound up in the middle of the room, pressed as close as lovers—Joanne felt old next to all the twentysomethings but Bobbie’s hands had settled at her waist and the music had a bass line so low she could feel it in the hollow of her chest and in the end she was able to let go of her reservations. This was dancing—the strange intimacy, the symmetry. None of that coked-up grinding and thrashing. Blood bloomed in her face as they moved in tandem; Bobbie looked like an angel, flushed and glowing. Sweat gathered at Joanne’s hairline.
It was a tiny insular apocalypse, the space between them, and it seemed insane that everyone else hadn’t stopped to watch them move in the center of the room. It felt like they were the damned-only stars in a collapsing sky. Joanne could feel her heartbeat in her mouth.
When they were both too tired to keep going, they slipped into one of the leather-plush booths around the outside of the dance floor to rest, dizzy with alcohol and movement. Bobbie’s eyes gleamed like stars. Joanne couldn’t remember the last time she’d danced in public. It was too embarrassing to be seen with Larry, who never seemed to have full control over his body—he was all elbows and knees. Not to mention he didn’t usually like to touch.
The bartender brought them more drinks; Joanne reminded herself to tip him.
That was the night they talked until the music started to soften and the young people started to get sluggish and it was impossible to avoid the elephant in the room. (Which, well. She’d never been any good at that anyway.) “Larry doesn’t want me here,” Joanne heard herself say, with that drunk ex-wife drawl she had become so familiar with, the voice of someone who’d go out until two in the morning with a friend just to get back at her husband. She was on her fifth vodka stinger—maybe sixth. It had been hard to keep count.
Bobbie took a sip of her sidecar. “Why not?”
“He’s jealous. He thinks you…” Joanne paused, not looking at her, and sucked on her tongue for the lingering flavor of her drink. It tasted like crème de menthe. “He thinks I like you better.”
“Well, do you?”
Joanne glanced over at her, expecting a smile. But Bobbie’s eyes looked huge and liquid in the darkness, soft with something she couldn’t quite name—there was no guile in them. Bobbie was good at that, too. There were times when her face could be so open and helpless that Joanne could hardly stand it. Could hardly speak.
“I don’t know,” Joanne said, unable to lie. For the first time in her life she found herself wishing she’d gone easy on the drinking. “I don’t think it matters, does it?”
Bobbie swallowed. “It should.”
“Feeling philosophical tonight?”
“Feeling astrological ,” Bobbie said, and there was the smile—hazy around the edges but still true. Some clenched fist in Joanne’s chest started to loosen when she saw it. “It hasn’t even been a full moon since you last experienced an emotion. I think your central console is malfunctioning.”
“Call your ex. Maybe he can explain it.”
After a moment, Bobbie rolled her head to the side, face smoothing out again. “Is he still mad about what happened at Harry’s?” She asked quietly. “Larry, I mean.” Her eyes were soft and her voice had a sweet little slur to it that made it seem not quite so invasive, not quite so irritating that she was asking. “I thought you guys talked about it.”
“We fought about it, kiddo. Not everyone watches Dr. Phil .”
Bobbie took her straw between her teeth. “Didn’t you tell him, though? The stuff you told me, about… about Richard being a total, um… I don’t know. Dick. Douchebag.”
Douchebag. Joanne chuffed out a bitter laugh.
Because really, she didn’t know how to begin to explain it. That she actually hadn’t told Bobbie anything, not really—Bobbie had just known , they way she seemed to know everything, or had seen it on Joanne’s face and understood it innately. She didn’t know how to say that that was the sort of thing you couldn’t learn . And most of all, she didn’t know how to explain that Richard wasn’t really the bad guy here—what had he done? What had he really done? Failed to understand her? God knew that was no crime. Joanne had spent her life convincing people that she didn’t want to be understood, didn’t want the intimacy of being known—her own husband couldn’t have said her favorite color—but then Bobbie—Richard—freezing the glass, then submerging it in hot water, and of course it shattered, it shattered all over her.
She thought about trying to express this to Bobbie. But her face was flushed and hot from the dancing, her head a swirly mess, and so she just looked away, corralling her unreliable tongue. “You’re too good to me.”
Bobbie leaned toward her in the multicolored dark, set a hand atop Joanne’s. Her fingertips were sticky with sugar. “He’ll come around, Jo,” she said, misreading Joanne’s expression—an understandable slight in that atmosphere, the milky spotlights reflecting off eyes and cheeks, making the world alien. “Larry’s an empathetic guy. You just need to tell him… how you feel, and shit.”
“I don’t feel like anything.”
“Bullshit. You always say that, but—"
“A kiss on the cheek isn’t a feeling , Bobbie,” Joanne repeated.
Bobbie squeezed her hand. “But it’s something .”
Joanne didn’t respond.
After a long moment, Bobbie looked at her and said, very gently, “It’s not really about Richard, is it?” And Joanne had to meet her gaze— had to —and God, her eyes were dark enough to drown in, and her thumb was leaving sweet residue on the side of Joanne’s wedding ring, and her voice was just so incongruously tender. “None of it is.”
Joanne’s couldn’t look away. “No,” she breathed. “It’s not about Richard.”
The working of Bobbie’s throat was mesmerizing as she swallowed, the bob and dip—cognac and tongue. “Is it about, um. Me?”
“I don’t think it matters.”
“Of course it fucking should —”
They ended up stumbling out into the freezing cold of the alley behind the club, their hands all over each other before the door could even shut behind them. Joanne felt fragile, like she might snag on something and rip right down the middle, and her head was pounding, piano hammers just above her eyes. God, she was drunk. But it felt so right , it felt like being sixteen again and kissing Gina Douglas on the bleachers after school, like being simplified down to her bare essentials, mouth and skin and heart. Bobbie’s palms slid up and under Joanne’s coat. They felt feverish, scalding, as if they would leave brands.
“Jo,” Bobbie gasped against her mouth, and Joanne felt like dying.
They backed up against the brick wall, graffiti tags incomprehensible in the winter darkness. Dave was here. Joanne felt the scrape against her back and threw her head back, and Bobbie dove for her throat, hungry and feral—the smell of alcohol rose into the air like a cloud of snow. They traded hot, open-mouthed kisses and Joanne clutched at Bobbie’s face.
“We shouldn’t have gone dancing,” she said, breathlessly. Nonsensically.
“Probably not—fuck—” Bobbie had been fumbling with Joanne’s zipper, and finally she let her hand drop with a strange, strangled noise. “Jo, please—I want you.”
“Take me— ”
“Really? Here ?”
Joanne pressed a sloppy kiss to the corner of her mouth, followed it to the hinge of her jaw. “No time,” she said—because that was another thing she didn’t know how to explain, didn’t want to explain: that reluctance deep inside her. That shame. The thought of Larry, sitting in their living room, waiting for her to come home. “Mercury’s in retrograde, kiddo. It’s now or never.”
Bobbie’s eyes filled up with… something.
That was when Joanne knew this was going to destroy them both.
It was quick and messy and helpless. (Again, Joanne thought of teenagers: consuming everything, and themselves, and each other.) There was no good way to do things. No flat surfaces, no warmth anywhere—but as with many desperate people since the beginning of time, they weren’t really concerned with logistics, what goes where or how. Bobbie shoved Joanne’s dress up as far as it would go and Joanne twisted like a squirming child and the air was so cold and she did not think of Larry again, or Richard—not even once.
When Joanne finally did get home that night, it was close to two in the morning. Her legs were rope-burn and her ears were full of sand, her insides turned to liquid, something warm and mushy and painful. Whoever Joanne was had been dragged out of her long ago. What was left spilled out of a taxi and made its way up the steps, fumbled with its keys, stepped into a foyer where darkness pooled like ink. She knew she stank of vodka (and probably sex). She flipped the light on in the living room to see if Larry was there, but he wasn’t—good. She pulled her coat off and dropped it onto a chair. She collapsed onto the couch.
(And that was it. Four years of a strange, uncomfortable friendship, four years of not-knowing, and she had to settle for a quickie in a filthy alley. Classy.)
She slept, and didn’t dream of anything.
The next day Bobbie called her: the sweetest thing she could have done, considering how much pain she must have been in, and a highly unusual move for Bobbie, who was known for picking up boys at bars and never speaking to them again. Joanne herself was so hungover she could barely move. Bobbie’s voice, when she picked up, was hoarse and miserable, desiccated, and all she had to say was, “Jo…”
Joanne’s breathing settled, just like that.
“I know,” she said. “I know.”
“What did we do?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Of course I remember. I just mean… what does it… um.” An awkward pause, the words as unwieldy as they were necessary. “What… are we?”
“Does it matter?”
“Would you stop asking me that?”
Joanne waited as long as she could stand it, the static silence inside her phone. “And you…” she began, gripping it tightly. The apology tingled on her tongue, made her words feel awkward, unsure. “How do you…”
“How do I feel about it?”
“The same way you feel about it, I think.” The I hope was left implied.
“How do I feel about it?”
“Guilty.” Bobbie let out a shaky sigh, voice tinny through the phone—Joanne could picture her running a hand through her hair. “But not… I don’t know. Guilty but not ashamed. Like a fucking, um. Like an executioner.”
“Like… feeling guilty for killing someone, as a human being. But also knowing that they had to die. And that it was… your job to do it. So you couldn’t have saved them, really, but they were a person, and you were a person, and so on some level you still feel…” Bobbie struggled for the word, but had to settle, clearing her throat. “Bad.”
Joanne’s knuckles were beginning to whiten. “And in this analogy, are you killing me? Or am I killing you?”
“Jesus, Jo, I don’t know. It’s nine in the morning. I feel like hot shit.”
“Forgive me for being inconsiderate.”
“Look, I’m just trying to say—”
“Oh, this should be good—”
“I liked it.”
“I liked it.” Bobbie sighed again. “I know you’re freaking out. You don’t want to tell me that, but you are. And I’m not proud of… how and where, exactly, but… I did, I liked it. And I think probably… um.” She faltered, and then, more quietly: “I think we should talk about this.”
And Joanne had to close her eyes, had to , because all she could think when Bobbie said that was yes. A fierce, all-encompassing yes .
“Larry.” It was more of a plea than anything.
“I’m not saying…” tell him. Break Larry’s heart. The only man who had ever been able to put up with her bullshit. “I just want to talk. And I know—I know you hate talking, about feelings, or, or the lack thereof, but I think maybe—”
“Let’s talk. Eleven.”
Bobbie sounds wide-eyed. “Um. The usual place?”
“I’ll see you there.”
“Okay. Okay.” With her eyes closed, Joanne could imagine Bobbie sitting down, resting her forehead on her knuckles the way she always did when she was troubled. Maybe pinching the bridge of her nose. (It struck Joanne then that she didn’t really know too much about Bobbie, the person—none of that small-scale stuff, anyway. The skin. Does it matter? She thought, horribly. If you have the heart and guts and brain of the thing, what else do you need? )
On the other end, Bobbie’s breathing was very soft. Joanne had no idea which one of them hung up first.
(Later, much later, she will imagine that neither of them ever did. That they both just stood there, breathing softly into the receiver, in that gray space with their executioner’s guilt and their tremulous, uncertain love, and didn’t press the end call button—she will create an infinite slowing of time in which the rest of her life was contained in that one long moment, stretched out for an eternity: her and Bobbie on the phone. Like the final freeze-frame in Thelma and Louise. You know they’re going to hit the bottom eventually, but right now, and forever, you don’t have to see it happen.)
(Even later than that, she will express this idea to Bobbie, who is kissing her fingertips as they lay together in bed.)
At Harry and Sarah’s next New Years party, after everything—after so much everything that Joanne couldn’t quantify it even if she wanted to, so much that people were giving her looks as she stepped in from the cold, looks ranging from judgmental to pitying to just plain disgust—they saw Richard again.
He was standing by the snack table, beer in his hand, Redskins polo freshly-washed, and he appeared to be tapping his toe to the beat, a ramshackle little white guy rhythm. His face was even blander than she remembered, and his half-grin even more idiotic. Like seeing the opposing general across a battlefield; Joanne reached for Bobbie’s wrist. Her skin flushed immediately with the memory of war. “It’s him,” she hissed at Bobbie, not missing the fact that Bobbie had always been the one to warn her about Richard, before. “Look.”
Bobbie followed her eyes. “Oh, shit.”
“When they invited me, I thought—I thought for sure that meant he wasn’t coming—”
“I’m sure he forgives you, Jo,” Bobbie said, the calming tone to her voice just shy of being irritating. She had always been so much better at clearing that hurdle than anyone else. “He’s a total lapdog, and it’s been what, eight months?”
“I don’t want him to forgive me. He’s an atrocity.”
“Then what are you worried about?”
“That he’ll talk ,” Joanne said. As she spoke, she heard a desperation in her own voice that was almost never there—once again, having Bobbie near (having someone to confide in) had left her weak and pitiful, in need of constant reassurance and sharing ; she squared her jaw but didn’t release Bobbie’s wrist. Spite had always carried her through. “I’m not entirely sure I won’t punch him if he tries to talk. If he brushes it off the way he always does, acts like I’m that same powerless, inconsequential… fucking… housewife, just on somebody else’s arm . Like a dog with a new owner. Joe. ” Across the room, Richard took a sip of his beer and she glimpsed the label: Coors Lite . “And this time I’ll be out of aces, I’ll just have to take it . Short of throwing another goddamn drink at him.”
Bobbie took a long look at her. Her face was unreadable, changing color under Harry and Sarah’s Christmas lights too quickly to parse. Joanne was unsettled by her own desire to do so. (For a long moment, she wondered if she saw Larry’s brand of fear there, maybe: that look she’d always hated, the one that meant, How am I supposed to control my wife now? But she couldn’t be sure. )
After what felt like whole minutes, Bobbie looked away, found Richard in the crowd again. The faintest of smiles touched her face.
“Then let’s get you a drink.”