Karen gazes upon the white silk column wedding dress hanging on the back of the closet door. It’s a dress from a dream, ideally suited to Celeste’s simple tastes and her classic beauty.
But… she won’t be wearing it tomorrow. Karen sighs, turns off the light, and closes the door.
As Karen heads back down the dark hallway, she feels a growing irritation. Where is everyone? Karen has been left all alone in this house. She wonders if this is what it feels like to be dead.
Stairs are tricky with a cane. Karen decides she feels strong enough to leave her cane behind. She takes the stairs slowly, gripping the rail, and thinks about the leftover lobster tails stashed in the fridge. The idea of them is enticing but she can’t make herself feel hungry. The only thing she craves right now is a meaningful conversation with her daughter, and her husband’s body next to her in their bed.
Karen hears distant voices and she smells smoke. She tiptoes along, reaching out for the wall when she needs to steady herself. She hears Bruce’s voice. When she turns the corner, she can see two figures out on a deck—not the main deck but a horseshoe-shaped deck off to the right, one Karen hasn’t noticed before. She wedges herself behind a sofa and peers behind the drapes. Bruce and Tag are sitting on the edge of this deck, smoking cigars and drinking what she thinks must be scotch. She can hear their voices but not what they’re saying.
She should either go back to bed or find her daughter. But instead, Karen quietly cranks open the window. In a fine house like this one, the crank is smooth. The window opens silently.
Tag says, “There hasn’t been anyone serious before this. Just casual stuff, when I was traveling. A woman in Stockholm, one in Dublin. But this girl was different. And now I’m trapped. She’s pregnant and she’s keeping the baby. She says.”
Bruce shakes his head, throws back a swallow of scotch. He must be very, very drunk after an evening of mojitos, champagne, and now scotch. At home, all Bruce ever drinks is beer—Bud Light or Yuengling. When Bruce speaks, his words are slurred. “So whaddaya go’ do, then, my friend?”
“I’m not sure. I need her to listen to reason. But she’s stubborn.” Tag studies the lit end of his cigar, then looks at Bruce. “So, anyway, now I’ve told you my war story. How about you? Have you ever stepped out on Mrs. Otis?”
“Naw, man,” Bruce says. “Not like that.”
Karen takes a deep breath. She should not be eavesdropping; this is a conversation between men, and now she has heard Tag confess he has gotten someone pregnant—probably that Featherleigh woman!—and what a mess that will turn out to be! Karen feels a little better about the last-minute canceling of the wedding. The Winbury family isn’t at all what she thought.
“But I did have a crush on this chick once,” Bruce says. “A real intense crush.”
Karen is so shocked she nearly cries out. The pain is instant and rude. A crush? A real intense crush?
“Oh yeah?” Tag says.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Bruce says. He’s drunk, Karen reminds herself. He hasn’t had this much to drink maybe ever. He is probably making up a story to impress Tag Winbury.
“She worked with me at Neiman Marcus,” Bruce says. “At first we were all business. In fact, I didn’t even like her that much. She was uppity. She came to my store from New York City, from Bergdorf Goodman, where she worked in shoes.”
Bergdorf’s. Shoes. Yes, Karen vaguely recalls someone… but who was it?
“Oh yeah?” Tag says again.
“Then we became friends. We’d take our dinner break together. She had a different perspective on the world and it was… I don’t know… refreshing, I guess, to talk to someone who had been places and done things. This was right after Celeste left for college, and I’m not going to lie, it was like a midlife crisis for both me and Karen. Karen hates to shop, hates to spend money on frivolous things, but she started going to all these trunk shows, Tupperware parties, something called the Pampered Chef. And I took on more night shifts so that I could be with this other woman.”
Karen feels her heart pop, like a tire sliced by a granite curb, like a balloon drifting into a thorny rosebush. There’s a concussion in her chest. She can’t believe she’s hearing this. Now, in her final days, she is learning that the man she has spent her whole life loving once harbored feelings for another woman.
Karen tries to calm herself. A crush is nothing. A crush is harmless. Hasn’t Karen herself had crushes on people—the young man who worked in the produce section of Wegman’s, for example? She used to give him a little wave and if he waved or smiled back she would float through the store, sometimes so giddy that she would buy treats she shouldn’t have—white chocolate Magnum bars, for example.
“Did you two ever…” Tag asks.
“No,” Bruce says. “I thought about it, though. It was a confusing time in my life. I can’t tell you how much it turned my whole world upside down. I had spent my entire life feeling like one person and then suddenly I felt like someone else.”
“Tell me about it,” Tag says. “What was her name?”
“Robin,” Tag says. “Robin Swain.”
Karen does gasp—loudly—but neither Tag nor Bruce hears her. They just puff away on their cigars. Karen feels her insides turn to liquid. She has to sit down. She frantically tries to arrange the drapes back as she found them and she clambers out from behind the sofa. She should go back to her room. She can’t have Bruce finding her here. If he knew she had been eavesdropping he would… vaporize.
Robin Swain. No. Please, God, no.
She can’t make it back up the stairs. She sits on the sofa but feels too exposed. She would slide down to the floor but she’ll never be able to get back up. She looks around the room in a wild panic. Suddenly, she hates the house, its luxurious furnishings, the ostensible kindness of the Winburys, which now seems like a masked cruelty. Why on earth would Tag ask Bruce such a heinous question?
Why would Bruce give such an answer?
What did Bruce mean by that?
But Karen knows what he meant. And that’s why she’s reacting this way. She knew there was something unusual about Bruce’s friendship with Robin. But of course it was inconceivable, unthinkable. It made no sense.
Karen steadies herself. Bruce is drunk, she thinks. He made up a story for Tag, out of machismo. He used Robin Swain’s name because it was the first that came to mind. Karen shouldn’t put any stock in what she just heard. She should go to bed. She manages to make her way back to the entry hall and climbs the stairs.
Once in her room, she takes an oxy. She takes two. Then she climbs into bed, still in her robe. She’s shivering.
An intense crush on Robin Swain. They shared dinners; Bruce worked nights so they could be together. A confusing time in his life. A midlife crisis.
Well, yes, Karen thinks. This is confusing.
Robin Swain is a man.
It was September, right after Celeste left for college. Karen and Bruce had rented a U-Haul and driven her all the way across Pennsylvania and nearly all the way across Ohio to Oxford, which was only five miles from the Indiana border. They had helped her move into her dorm room in Hahne Hall, they had met her roommate, Julia, and Julia’s parents. Karen and Bruce had attended the opening address by the college president and then they returned with Celeste to her room, both Bruce and Karen at loose ends, unsure of how to say good-bye. Eventually, Celeste decided to go to dinner at the Kona Bistro with Julia and her parents; she had left Karen and Bruce alone in her room. Karen had thought about simply moving in or renting an apartment down the street, and she’s sure Bruce did too.
Neither of them had said much on the drive home.
A week or two later, Bruce had come home talking about a new colleague, Robin Swain. He was a man about Bruce’s age who had transferred in from the shoe department of Bergdorf’s. Robin had grown up in Opelika, Alabama, and had started college at Auburn but hadn’t finished. He’d always wanted to go to New York City so he saved his money and bought a bus ticket. He was first hired at Bergdorf’s to work in the stockroom.