Gift Shop | Joe Okonkwo | The Piltdown Review

Gift Shop

Gift Shop

“Bastard!”

And she slapped him so hard, she thought her wrist might snap. Her hand vibrated. Elliott barely flinched. He sustained his poise despite the sea of crimson gushing across his cheek. His lips tightened in an oily smile that was crafty, condescending, disgusted, and pitying all at once. The slap hadn’t ruffled his signature sterling-silver hair—each strand was still coiffed firmly in place. Elliot cherished his hair as much as he did his suave $2,300 gray Giorgio Armani silk-wool sports jacket. Nina wanted to slap him again.

“Don’t be melodramatic,” Elliott said. “It isn’t at all attractive. I expect an adult conversation to discuss my proposal reasonably.”

“Well, I am soooo goddamn sorry to piss all over your shitty fucking expectations.”

“Nina!”

Elliott despised foul language, thought it uncivilized and lacking propriety. Which was why, when they argued, Nina always pitched a smattering of curse words in his path.

She sat on the sofa and cried. It was alarming how quickly things could change. Just half an hour ago Nina had been reading, content with the world—or at least resigned that there was little she could do to change it—when Elliott swept into the house and, following a concise exchange of pleasantries, said, “Darling, I have a proposition,” and then presented an idea so outlandish, she’d laughed out loud. A joke. It had to be. She’d been sure of it. But then she saw the steady set of Elliott’s jaw, his mouth straight as a line on an architect’s draft.

Elliot joined her now on the sofa. He removed a handkerchief from his jacket’s inside pocket and wiped her tears. “Nina. Darling.” His tone changed to fluffy and teasing. It always did when needed to cajole her, manipulate her. Her guard shot up.

“What I’m proposing,” he said, dabbing just under her eyeballs, “is a natural extension of where are our relationship has been headed for years.” He worked his way down her cheeks, then set the hanky aside and caressed and primped her hair like a fastidious beautician. “Personally, darling, I think it’s exactly what this marriage needs. Some—how shall I put it?—jazzing up.”

How ironic. Elliott Dove detested jazz. So much so that Nina suspected he maintained subscriptions to the opera, symphony, and chamber music society just for spite. Two months ago, friends took them to The Rum Closet—the ritziest jazz club in Lake Prince—to celebrate the success of Elliott’s newest business venture. The evening featured a splashy three-course dinner and a live show by a famous saxophonist. Elliott didn’t utter a word except to tell the friends that their money would have been more wisely spent on “tasteful” music. The Doves hadn’t heard from them since.

He touched his cheek, where she’d slapped him. It was still a buoyant crimson and swelling. “This new arrangement could be very good for us, if you’d open your mind to it.”

Nina snatched the handkerchief, blew a blotch of mucus into it, and stuffed it back in his inside pocket. Anger tiptoed across his face, so controlled that Nina would have missed it—the mild uptick of his eyebrows; his Adam’s apple’s quick quiver—had she not known him so well. He recovered quickly.

“Darling, we haven’t been happy in some time.” He attempted to take her hands in his, but she wrenched them away. “We love each other, but it’s been ages since we’ve been in love.” He took her hands again and held on when she tried to resist. “Nina, look at me. Look at me.” Elliott leaned in so close, their foreheads touched. “I want to be in love with you again.”

Nina looked deep in his eyes, then laughed in his face. She cackled so loud, it hurt her own eardrums. Not simply because her husband’s proposal was offensive or that he had the nerve to propose it in the first place, but because he possessed the charisma to almost pull it off. It would be easy to fall prey to his earnest handholding, his British-y, Cary Grant accent, his liberal dispersals of darling (pronounced dahling). Add to that his ruthless handsomeness—undiminished at fifty-eight—and it would be understandable if a weaker soul than Nina succumbed. She laughed to celebrate that she hadn’t.

Elliott Dove could drop a bombshell with the svelte ease of a gentleman. He just had. After ten years of marriage, he announced tonight that he’d met someone new. A man. That wasn’t news: she knew he was bisexual before they married. And she was well aware he screwed around. So had she. Theirs was an open relationship. The bombshell was that he wanted to move this new man into their home for a perpetual ménage à trois.

He may have billed it as a means of “jazzing up” a humdrum marriage, but Nina saw this for what it was: Elliott Dove loved pussy, but he loved dick a lot more.

“Imagine a pie chart,” he’d said during their courtship. “One half blue, the other half pink. That’s my sexuality, darling. Split evenly. Fifty-fifty.” But blue had gradually (and insidiously) expanded until the pie contained only a sliver of pink and he and Nina retreated three years ago to separate bedrooms. Divorce had never been considered, much less discussed. The prospect of being alone at their age terrified them. A brazenly unsatisfactory relationship beat none at all. Nina was fifty-seven. As far as she—and much of the world—was concerned, an unmarried fifty-seven-year-old woman was a freak of nature, a failure.

“Where did you meet this new love of your life?” she asked.

“A sex app called Trick.”

She wanted to laugh again. Proper, courtly Elliott prowling on sex apps? Nina was shocked. Then again, her gay friends insisted that the bars—once the bedrock of the gay male world and primary means of getting laid—had become relics. “Oh, Nina, honey,” her friend Edward had once admonished, rolling his eyes at having to teach her the basics. “Meeting guys in bars is sooooo 2003.”

“I won’t allow him in my house,” Nina said, staring straight ahead, her back straight as a telephone pole.

Elliott reached inside his jacket, extricated the sopping hanky. He held it at arm’s length pinched between thumb and index finger, and walked out of the living room towards the half bath.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” he said, now out of Nina’s sight. She heard the faucet running. “This is my house.”

Damn. She had forgotten. Elliott already owned the house when they wed. At his request—insistence, really—she signed a pre-nuptial agreement forfeiting ownership. She had no real say regarding the house because, legally, she was no more than a highfalutin boarder.

“Then I’m leaving,” Nina said. “I’ll go to Pam’s. I’ll be gone before this sex-app slut moves in.”

Dear god. How would she explain this to Pam? Her sister could be snobbish about failed marriages. Nina could already hear the lectures as Pam held up her own thirty-year marriage as the pristine model against which all other nuptials were judged.

Elliott returned sans hanky and reeking of citrusy artisanal hand soap. “Then act quickly. He’s moving in tonight. He’s waiting in the car.”

Nina was too outraged to respond.

“Darling,” Elliott said, “I wish you’d reconsider. I love you. I know our marriage isn’t perfect, and I want to correct that. An infusion of a new something—a new someone—will enliven us. There’s nothing wrong with adding some flavor to a bland marriage. Jamie could be that flavor.”

Jamie? Was she really going to be replaced by someone named Jamie? She would have expected a dignified name like Arlen or Nigel or Niles. Even a plainer one like John or Robert. But Jamie? She wanted to laugh again.

Elliott seated himself in the leather wingback chair. He slouched back, draped an arm on each arm of the wingback, and crossed his legs at the knee. He seemed relaxed, almost drowsed. “I want you to know what this dear young man has brought to my—”

Young? You didn’t say he was young. How young?”

“Um . . . yes . . . well . . .”

“Um yes well what? How young?”

“Twenty-five.”

And now Nina did laugh again. A raw snarl that emanated from her gut.

“I fail to see what’s so amusing,” Elliott said.

“Let me make sure I fully comprehend what’s happening here. You want me to agree to a three-way relationship with a man you met on a sex app who’s over three decades younger than us. Is that what you’re saying, or has something flown over my head?” He didn’t answer. “Elliott?”

“Most people would think themselves inordinately lucky to have a twenty-five-year-old fall in their lap.”

“I’m sure he’s done a lot more to your lap than just fall in it,” Nina said.

Elliott hunched forward in the wingback until his face was in his hands.

Against her better judgement, Nina felt sorry for him. Felt sorry, period. She’d been struck when he acknowledged their marital misery. Elliott’s embrace of the blue portion of the pie had been a factor. But so had she. Rigid and stubborn, she was often torn between her right as a woman of a certain age to be so and the obligation to compromise. She could not accept this proposal, but understood that she had contributed to its rise.

“Tell me about him,” she said.

Elliott’s head leapt up. He glittered with hope.

“I was in my office, positively entombed under a pile of paperwork. I wasn’t having a good day. You and I had quarreled viciously the night before—one of our worst fights ever—about my comment to Lauren and Mackenzie about jazz being tasteless.”

“It was incredibly rude, Elliott! They treated us to a lovely evening and you insulted them.”

“Yes, darling, I’ve acknowledged—”

“I’ve called a thousand times to apologize and they won’t pick up the phone.”

“Nina—”

“Obviously they’re screening their calls and they don’t want anything to do with—”

“Nina! Darling, I need you to concentrate. So. The day after the fight, I was in my office having a dastardly day. I felt terrible about our fight, about making you cry. I hate it when I make you cry.”

“It never stops you.”

“Shut up!”

Nina loved it when she got under his skin.

Elliott took a breath to put himself back on track. “I wanted to apologize to you, but my anger and pride forbade me. My phone buzzed. Someone had messaged me on Trick. I read his profile. Looked at his photographs. There was nothing ostensibly impressive about him. Yet I was impressed. Even messaging back and forth, he had an earnestness, a sweetness. Most men can’t wait to send you their naughty pictures and expect you to reciprocate. They’re obsessed with finding out what you like to do in bed and exhibit an embarrassing lack of compunction explaining what they like to do in granular detail. Jamie was different. He didn’t talk about sex. Well, a little, of course. But mostly he asked about me. Now, one could argue he was simply stroking my ego, and I’m sure to some extent he was. But I know it was more. We messaged back and forth all day and that pile of paperwork subsided perhaps a millimeter. We met for dinner that evening. He’s not gorgeous. He doesn’t have stripper’s body. I wouldn’t even call him handsome, exactly. Cute, yes, you know I’d never be caught dead with someone who wasn’t at least that. He’s horrifically naïve. Wants to be a writer. Of short stories. Not novels or history or political discourse. Short stories. Dear god, he told me he’d love to leave Lake Prince and move to New York and he hoped to find an apartment in Manhattan for less than a thousand a month. Can you imagine? He isn’t the smartest thing ever dropped on earth. Even so. There’s something there. A genuineness. A decency.”

“The boy genuinely wants your money.”

Elliott owned five restaurants and a supper club in Lake Prince, as well as a stake in a handful of cushy real-estate investments. He was self-made, had built himself from the ground up. That was one reason Nina loved him.

“So what?” Elliott said. “So what if money is part of the attraction? Or if it is the attraction? Nina, I’m too old to quibble about whether someone’s intentions are one hundred percent noble. I want to tell you what made up my mind about him. You know I’m always forgetting to take my blood pressure medication.”

“Damn it, Elliott. You’re going to have a stroke if you’re not careful.”

“Yes, yes, I know. Will you please listen? Jamie called me the other day. He said, Did you take your medicine, Elly? Take your medicine. And have you eaten? Elly, eat. I invited him to live here that very evening.”

“Really? Because he told you to take your meds?”

Elliott lunged from the wingback till he towered above her and shouted, “You didn’t call me and tell me to take them. You never have.”

He had kneecapped her, weaponized her wifely shortcomings against her. But that didn’t hurt as much as the warm aura of love in his eyes when he spoke about Jamie. That hollowed her, suctioned all of the oxygen from her body, leaving her limp and empty.

Elliott stepped back, his hands on his hips. He was statuesque and immovable.

“Your little gold-digging, sex-app boyfriend moves in, I move out.”

Nina meant it as a red line. She hoped and prayed he wouldn’t cross it. But Elliott shrugged off his statuesque posture—as nonchalantly as flicking lint—and said, “I’m going to the car to get him.” He breezed outside.

This can’t be happening to me, Nina thought. It was too absurd. She felt absurd, like a character trapped in a vicious comedy, a slave to the stage directions and plot spirals of a masochistic author. If only she could edit the scenes leading up to this, reverse course, write herself out of this farce.

Nina rushed upstairs to her room, yanked a suitcase from the closet, and set about throwing clothes, lingerie, books, and shoes into it. Overcome, she stopped. She sat on the bed and cried as she ticked off the miseries of the past decade that had led to this. In her head she created two categories—Elliott’s Fault and My Fault—and assigned blame.

Loss of friends: Elliott’s fault.

My loss of self-esteem: Elliott’s fault.

No sex: Elliott’s fault, and my fault.

Elliott’s health: My fault. Maybe.

My always being in a rut: Elliott’s fault.

My loneliness: Elliott’s fault.

Jamie: . . . My fault.

She opened the drawer of her nightstand and removed a hand-size gilt-framed picture. Boyd, her son from her first marriage. He died eleven years ago, age twenty-five. His absence was a bottomless cup—impossible to fill no matter how she tried. She married Elliott a year after Boyd’s death, thinking—erroneously she now knew—that the acquisition of one man would compensate for the loss of another.

A tear fell on the picture frame’s glass. Fine man. The one and only good thing from her first marriage. In her swirling struggle for self-worth, Boyd had grounded her, given her the sense that at least she’d accomplished something, had brought something good into the world. If Boyd had lived, she wouldn’t have married Elliott. There would have been no need. And if she hadn’t married Elliott, she wouldn’t now be suffering the humiliation of being displaced by a rent boy.

She heard footsteps and voices on the stairs. “Our room is down this hall.” “I should introduce myself to Nina.” “That isn’t the wisest idea.” “I feel like I should.” “That room. Enter at your own risk, my boy.”

Did this Jamie person really have the gumption to introduce himself? She ran to the door to lock it against this interloper. But she stopped. This was still her home. She was still Mrs. Elliott Dove. She’d face Jamie, call out his audacity. She wouldn’t hide. She turned her back to the open door, girded herself.

A whisper of a knock on the door frame.

“Hi? Nina?”

She swiveled around, teeth and claws bared, ready to attack. But what she saw made her legs go soft before failing entirely. She thudded to the floor. Jamie rushed in, knelt beside her.

“Oh god. Are you okay? Should I get Elliott? Did you faint?”

“I’m conscious, so I doubt I fainted.”

“Should I help you up?”

“That would be the thing to do.”

He helped her to the bed, sat beside her. She looked at him, glazed-eyed, and couldn’t stop.

“Wow,” he said, “I’ve lived here five minutes and I’ve already been involved in a rescue.”

“I wouldn’t call it a rescue, exactly.”

“I would. I mean, you fainted.”

“It wasn’t a fainting, since I didn’t lose consciousness. Remember? We covered that.”

Jamie smiled, shyly, as if unsure who should make the next move, then remembering that he should. “Oh! I’m Jamie. I’m dating your husband. You know, Elliott?”

“Yes, I’ve met him.”

“I guess this is awkward for you.”

“That’s one word for it.”

“But this can work,” Jamie said. “I mean, I’d like to think it could. If you, if you and me, if we, you know: me and you—and Elly, of course—if we gave it a chance. This ménage à trois thing could really take off!”

Elliott was right: the guy was an airhead. Enough air in there to power a windmill, Nina mused. But she was mesmerized.

Jamie was a ringer for her dead son Boyd.

He looked exactly like him. Exactly. Height. Weight. Hair. Face. Everything. If Nina hadn’t known better, she would have thought she gave birth to twins and no one told her. Or that Boyd had been frozen and then reawakened exactly as he had been before his illness and death.

“Elly says you’re moving out,” Jamie said.

She could have spoken, but having Boyd next to her was magic. What if speaking broke the spell? She nodded, yes.

“Aww, shoot. That’s too bad,” Jamie said. A pout. “I sure hope you change your mind. Well. It was very nice meeting you. You’re a nice lady. Real pretty, too. I totally see why Elly loves you.”

“He told you that?” Nina said. “That he loves me?”

“Yup. All the time.”

And he shuffled out of the room, hands in his jeans pockets, his head hanging down slightly, an aw-shucks smile puckering the corners of his mouth.

Nina watched him go, then knelt beside the bed where the picture of Boyd lay. She studied it a moment, then ran out of the room. On the other side of Elliott’s closed bedroom door she heard the clink of belt buckles, tingles of laughter, the dull thump of shoes hitting the carpeted floor, the whine of mattress springs.

She needed to finish packing, get to Pam’s. But she didn’t move. All she could think was, Did Elliott really say he loves me?

And Boyd. Boyd.

A squadron of floating fish greeted Nina when she arrived at work the next morning.

They filled the lobby of the Lake Prince Museum of Fine Arts: dozens of balloon fish, pumped with helium and floating lazily through the high-ceilinged hall. Hand-painted in opalescent colors by a Famous Artist of the Moment, the fish were the museum’s current special exhibit, titled Stoneglass Fury/Exit Cypress. Nina hadn’t a clue as to the title’s relevance. She’d given up trying to make sense of the so-called art the museum showcased. A sneaker exhibit had figured prominently on last year’s roster. Nina had caused a mini-scandal when a board member overheard her telling a coworker, “People are wasting their money: they could walk down the block to Foot Locker.” She was punished with a write-up, her first in thirty years at the museum.

Nina dodged fish all the way through the lobby. She’d barely set foot inside the gift shop when she spotted Kit behind the jewelry counter, brushing his waist-length dark curly hair in broad, dramatic strokes. He fluffed and primped, angling his head this way and that to admire himself in the jewelry counter mirror, while neglecting to offer assistance to the two ladies browsing the glass jewelry case he stood behind. Nina panicked: they could be secret shoppers. If they received poor service—or none at all—the shop’s manager—Nina—would get burned.

She pounced. “Why weren’t you helping them?” she hissed. “And brushing your hair in front of customers is inappropriate. Not to mention unsanitary. Come on, don’t you know that?”

Kit plunked the brush on the counter. Static electricity popped in the freshly charged bristles. “Like, Orlando doesn’t mind. He’s seen me brushing my hair, like, a million times and he’s never, like, complained.”

You little asshole, Nina thought. Kit exuded the whiny, challenging air of a child telling his mom, Well, Dad said I could. His thin, high, airy voice and copious likes made him sound like a Valley girl. His black eyeliner and vegan-thin physique made him look like one. Nina had been so irritated, she’d failed to notice his clothing: black T-shirt with an ironed-on Iggy Pop graphic; faded denim vest; leopard-skin leggings made of a clingy, sparkly material. Leggings so tight, she peeked at his crotch to check for unsightly bulges. His outfit was appropriate for a punk rock thrift store, not a museum gift shop. But she didn’t chastise him. She’d lost that battle. “Don’t be uptight, Nina,” Orlando said when she’d reported the neon-pink jumpsuit Kit had worn one day. “Kit’s cool. The kid’s got edge.” Orlando wrinkled his nose at her. “And youth. We could use some youth around here.”

The browsing ladies moved to a display of Chinese-style pottery.

“See if they need help,” Nina ordered.

When she arrived in her office, she threw her handbag on her desk and herself into her chair. She logged on to her computer. When Grace, an ally in membership, IM’d to say good morning, Nina took the opportunity to vent.

I caught Kit brushing his hair at the counter. He’s wearing leopard skin leggings.

lol they certainly like wearing interesting clothes dont they? better hope a board member doesnt see them brushing their hair. very uncouth!!! lol

Nina was confused. Who was Grace talking about? Was more than one employee behaving ridiculously? Then she remembered: Kit identified as gender nonconforming. He demanded everyone use they, them, and their as his pronouns. One day Nina was discussing scheduling with her assistant manager: “Kit’s usually off on Wednesdays, but I’ll need him to work it next week.” He overheard and complained to Orlando, resulting in Nina’s second write-up in thirty years: for “creating an intolerant, unkind environment” for her employees.

Nina contemplated confiding in Grace about the colorful events at home.

She had tiptoed to Elliott’s bedroom as soon as day broke, put her ear to the door, and heard the “Molto Allegro” movement from Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. Elliott’s favorite composition by his favorite composer. He always played it when in a triumphant mood. If she heard the Jupiter, Nina could be certain he’d bulldozed someone in a business deal or scored front-row seats at the opera. Hearing it was a sure sign that Elliott Dove had gotten what he wanted. He came downstairs as she washed her breakfast dishes. His maroon silk robe was covered with gold paisleys, the collar trimmed with fleecy black velour, the belt cinched tight on a waist that was manly and wide but nonetheless trim. First thing in the morning and his hair was perfect.

“I thought you were going to Pam’s,” he said.

“I thought so too.”

She turned on her heel to leave, then turned back. “Elliott, I’ve shown you pictures of Boyd, haven’t I?”

Elliott poured himself coffee. “I think so. Yes. When we first met, I believe.” He put the coffee cup to his lips. He winced at the hot liquid.

“But not since?” Nina said.

“Darling, you’ve always been quiet about Boyd. I daresay downright secretive. In ten years, you’ve said hardly a word to me about him, which, frankly, I’ve never thought was particularly healthy. In my family we were encouraged to talk about our grief. My dear mother—God rest her lovely soul—always said talking about it helps to bring about a sort of closure that can be comforting and—”

“Goodbye, Elliott.”

Nina went about completing the tasks Orlando had assigned her, none of which she agreed with, especially his decision to remove the identifying category labels from the bookshelves.

“What if a customer can’t tell where the Impressionism books are? Or they don’t know where the Egyptian section starts?” Nina had asked.

“They’ll ask an employee.”

“Why should they have to? Why can’t we just keep the damn labels?”

That earned Nina her third write-up: For “argumentativeness” and “resistance.”

She’d been resisting for two years, since a new executive director took charge of the museum. The new director despised the gift shop and was blunt about why: the merchandise appealed to women in their fifties. She ousted the longtime retail head—Nina’s boss—and recruited the twenty-eight-year-old Orlando, who crowned himself Chief Merchandising Stylist. Orlando then purged the shop in a massive clearance sale, closed it for a month, and executed a full-blown renovation. The shop reopened sporting a minimalist design and upscale merchandise curated with the haughty eye of an aesthete. The core customers—women in their fifties—denigrated the new shop, hurling out descriptors like precious, snooty, uppity, and pretentious as if they were slurs. Nina agreed. But there was nothing she could do.

Just like with her marriage.

She removed the labels from the bookshelves, thinking about Jamie.

He couldn’t look exactly like Boyd. It was impossible. Elliott had traumatized her, disrupted her senses so she simply thought Jamie looked like her son. Leave it to Elliott to give her PTSD. By the time she got home, the stress would have passed, she’d see and think clearly, she’d finish packing, she’d go to Pam’s.

But when she got home, Jamie still looked like Boyd.

Elliott was at the dining room table. Jamie stood nearby, a steaming tray in his hands, wearing her apron.

“Welcome home! I fixed lamb. Elly said it was your favorite.”

It smelled delicious. Elliott and Jamie waiting for her to do something. She needed to pack her stuff, get out, hire a lawyer wily enough to find a loophole in her prenup so she could get a share of the house. Most of all she needed to take her eyes off Jamie. But she didn’t want to.

Nina sat.

“Awesome!” Jamie said.

Elliott was at one end of the long, rectangular table, Nina at the other, like two board directors facing off. Jamie laid the tray on the table, disappeared into the kitchen, and returned with a platter full of vegetables and bottle of Malbec. He poured for Nina first, the wine so deeply purple it was almost black.

“Elly says you like this a lot.”

This Elly business bothered her. It was undignified. Elliott evoked sophistication. Elly didn’t do her husband justice. Or was Elliott their husband now?

She watched Jamie slice his meat with care and place it neatly in his mouth. Boyd had always shredded his food and chewed with his mouth open, which drove Nina crazy. Boyd was a strict vegetarian, snobbish about it too. He never missed an opportunity to laud his own dietary habits and criticize hers. But what good was his superior diet? He was dead and buried, and Nina had before her a plate of succulent lamb cooked by his doppelgänger.

She picked at her food, drank wine to combat the awkwardness. Elliott and Jamie did the same. Before long, they’d drained the Malbec. Jamie went to fetch another bottle. Even his posture and movements were identical to Boyd’s. The way he led with his head, gooselike, the shoulders slightly stooped; his long strides; the long, swinging, gangly arms.

Jamie opened the new bottle. “Elly says you work at an art museum. What kind of art?”

“Flying fish.”

“Oh. Like at Sea World. I always liked going there when I was a kid. The dolphins were awesome. So sweet. Maybe I’ll stop by one day. We can have lunch outside. Do they let you feed the dolphins?”

It had to be an act. And yet sincerity was written all over him. He glowed with it. Nina could see his mind had raced ahead and he was already tossing mackerels into the dolphins’ mouths.

“They don’t generally let you feed the animals,” she said, “but they might make an exception.”

“Awesome!”

Against her will, a piece of Nina’s resistance chipped off and rolled downhill.

She stopped picking at her food and ate in earnest. The lamb was flavored with something she didn’t quite recognize.

“There’s something sweet in the seasoning?” she said.

“Cinnamon. Gives it a kick. The trick is not to add too much. You want a hint of sweetness, but you don’t want the thing tasting like candy.”

“All things in moderation.”

“OMG,” Jamie said. “That’s so true. And you thought of that on the spot. I wish I could come up with original things like that off the top of my head.”

Nina and Elliott sneaked a glance at each other. Elliott mouthed, See? I told you.

“Paprika’s good, too. For sweetness,” she said, so quiet she barely heard herself. “I can’t say I’ve ever been successful with cinnamon. It goes well with some meats—”

“—but not with others. Like certain poultries.”

“Or fish.”

Jamie wagged a finger. “Gotta disagree with you on that one. Cinnamon totally works on fish. Again, the trick is moderation.”

Nina sat forward. “Don’t you think it depends on the fish? I’ve had salmon seasoned with cinnamon and it’s been divine, but with most other fish, it doesn’t work. I think it has something to do with the chemical interactions?”

“Baloney! Cinnamon works with any fish, you just have to know how to use it. I’ll show you.”

“Would you? I’d really appre—”

Nina caught herself. She quickly gulped more wine.

“Well,” Elliott said. He’d followed their exchange by twisting his head right and left, as if watching a tennis match. “I’m a restaurateur, and yet it’s thoroughly eluded me until now that cinnamon was so fascinating. What have I been doing all my life?”

They finished eating, remained at the table sipping wine. Nina stared at Jamie and didn’t hide it. It was if her son had come back. It was if she was sipping wine with Boyd.

“Elliott says you write,” Nina said.

“Yeah,” Jamie said. “Fiction stories. I make them up.”

“Hence the fiction moniker.”

Elliott laughed soundlessly into his napkin.

Boyd was a writer, too. Never fiction, though, He wouldn’t have lowered himself to write fiction. He considered it a wanton luxury of the privileged. He once caught Nina reading a romance novel and didn’t speak to her for a week. A journalist and activist, he wrote advocacy pieces on gun control, animal rights, civil liberties, reproductive rights, environmental issues. He organized protest marches, got arrested at sit-ins at the U.S. and state capitols. He hated that she wasn’t fervently ideological, that she rarely voted. Most of all he hated that she took up residence in the amorphous political center. Sometimes she thought he hated her. He ran a blog. Did the internet Powers That Be take it down when he died? She never read it, rarely read any of his work. Would it have been so difficult, she mused now, to read her own child’s work? Maybe the blog was still live. Maybe she should find it.

“Have you finished any stories?” Nina asked.

“A few. They need polishing.”

Nina stared at her plate. The juices from the lamb had congealed. She wrapped one hand around her wineglass, kept the other in her lap. Tears came. “When you’re ready, I’d like to read them.”

Jamie knelt beside her, wiped her tears with a napkin. Boyd never did that. Boyd would never have done that.

Nina watched Kit at the register and shook her head. Today’s outfit: acid-washed jeans, dashiki, gray tuxedo coat with tails, black top hat. Although she disapproved, she had to acknowledge its quirky appeal, especially with his black eyeliner. East Village meets steampunk. It enlivened the shop, added character. The customers loved it—Kit received numerous compliments. She was almost glad he wore it. Yes, he. She refused to think of him as they. But she had to be careful: if the “wrong” pronoun slipped out while speaking, Orlando would write her up again.

Her phone buzzed.

hi! hope ur having a #awesome day! pleeze pick up some #cinnamon on ur way #home. – j

She could have done without all the hashtags (they were nothing but millennial gibberish), but her heart twirled. It always did when Jamie texted, which was often over the past two months.

She never went to Pam’s. Evenings like that first became the norm: Nina coming home and finding Jamie in the midst of preparing dinner; Elliott arriving soon after with an exquisite wine he took from one of his restaurants; or Nina finding them both in the kitchen in matching monogrammed aprons, frisky hands grazing each other’s cheeks, arms, backsides. All that a prelude to long, leisurely dinners that Nina kicked herself for enjoying at first but soon came to look forward to, anticipation of them the fuel that got her through her museum days, the armor that buffered her in her battles with Kit and Orlando.

The dinners were also the only true contentment she’d experienced in years.

During the dinners, wine flowed, conversation flew, and laughter rocketed. Nina enjoyed the laughter most. It was an elixir that transported her to an illusion of happiness. The more she laughed, the thicker the illusion became. The thicker the illusion, the more her stubbornness flaked away, and she surrendered, almost unconsciously, to the lunacy of a fifty-seven-year-old heterosexual woman sharing a house with her bisexual husband and his three decades younger boyfriend. Like a spin doctor, she justified and excused and glossed over and downplayed and rationalized the arrangement, first by painting it as a needed experiment in modern relationships, then later by telling herself it was her only housing option, even though she could go to Pam’s or get her own place any time she wanted to.

But she didn’t want to.

Because all the spin in the world couldn’t disguise the reality—that she missed Boyd, and Jamie was as close to him as she was ever going to be—and the tragedy—that this was closer to Boyd than she’d ever been.

It wasn’t only about Boyd anymore, though. She liked Jamie, who stayed home all day, writing. Nina had once aspired to a creative career. She had moved to New York City at eighteen to be an actress. She failed, returned to Lake Prince at twenty, and began a safe yawn of a career at the museum. She admired Jamie for pursuing his creativity full-time, even if the pursuit was subsidized by Elliott’s money. Mostly, though, she envied him. Not for staying home—she could, too, if she chose; Elliott had enough money to go around twice—but for being young. For not yet having a wormhole of a long past to drag him down its forever tunnel of regrets. For possessing an innate blank-slate resilience that enabled him to absorb change seamlessly.

And she envied his relationship—and his relations—with Elliott.

“Nina darling, would you like to join us?” Elliott had asked after that first dinner, he and Jamie at the foot of the stairs, both luminous with wine, Jamie hugging Elliott from behind as he fiddled with the older man’s belt. Nina declined, and kept declining each night he invited her. Still, she felt excluded. Nina would creep to their door and listen to them fuck. Their intimate sounds intrigued her. Laughter. Mumbled conversations. Kissing. Silence.

She longed to be close to Elliott again.

They were closer now. Before Jamie, Elliott hadn’t smiled at her in years. Now he saw her off to work with a hug that was more like a caress, welcomed her home with a kiss remarkably husbandlike, and, sometimes during dinner—while Jamie blathered on, extolling the glories and nuances of cinnamon or paprika—leered at her with eyes that said, Come hither. And after three years in separate bedrooms—and mostly having to gratify herself—Nina wanted very much to come hither. But she knew Elliott wouldn’t venture to her bed, and his, although king-sized, was crowded.

Hither to Elliott meant she’d have to come through Jamie.

The museum closed early for an event hosted by a major donor. Nina went home and found Jamie on the couch, typing on his laptop, wearing nothing but white briefs. The elastic waistband had gone slack, making the briefs sit slightly below his waistline. Why hadn’t Elliott bought the boy some new underwear?

“Oh, hi,” he said as he typed. “You’re home early.”

Hashtag home. Hashtag early.”

“You’re learning!”

“Well. Trying,” Nina said.

“I haven’t started hashtag dinner. I was gonna text you later and ask you to pick up some hashtag oregano. We’re having hashtag lasagna.”

Don’t push it, kid. Nina sat in the wingback. “I’ll go out later and get some.”

“Awesome. Elly’s bringing a nice prosecco.”

Jamie scratched his crotch and resumed typing. He didn’t seem embarrassed to be three-quarters naked in front of her. This was the first time Nina had seen him exposed. She was unsure what to feel. Jamie’s face and height and general size were replicas of Boyd’s, but was this her son’s body? Nina hadn’t seen Boyd without clothes on after age twelve, not even in a swimsuit. She couldn’t know if Jamie’s body matched Boyd’s with exactitude; if the sparse patch of hair in the crevice between Jamie’s pectorals or the tight but not overly defined abdominals were copies of her son’s. And she was frankly perplexed as to what Elliott saw in him physically. There was nothing wrong with him, but Elliott could have any pretty thing who wanted a rich, handsome older gentleman. Surely there were young men with more muscular chests and heartier biceps and abs far more distinct than Jamie’s. But she recalled what Elliott had said about an early phone conversation, when Jamie told him, “Did you take your medicine, Elly? Take your medicine. And have you eaten? Elly, eat.”

Nina was drawn to the physique’s austere featurelessness, uncorrupted by fat or injury; unembellished by weights and workout supplements. Boyish and dewy. Spare. It projected a certain purity. Like a minimalist design, it possessed not one bit more than was necessary, and not one bit less.

“Working on a story?” she said.

“I sure am.”

“What’s it about? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Oh no! Of course not! It’s about a boy from a small town who dreams of going to the city to make it big.”

Good god, Nina thought. An abused and overused cliché if there ever was one. One that she herself had lived through. But Jamie seemed wholly unaware of his idea’s unoriginality. His eyes beamed as he typed, the tip of his tongue emerged at the corner of his mouth as he gave his writing his complete attention. His naïveté was stunning. His innocence beguiled Nina. He may have looked like Boyd physically, but the resemblance ended there. He had none of Boyd’s hard edges or street smarts. None of the arrogance. Not one ounce of the high-horse disdain with which Boyd had often treated her.

Jamie was easier to be around than Boyd. He was easier to love.

Truth be told, Nina missed Boyd, grieved for him still. But she didn’t love him. She loved the idea of loving him, but she didn’t love him. It hadn’t always been so. She had loved him when she carried him in her womb, had been so vanquished by love that she would, at the most inopportune moments—in the middle of conversations or cooking dinner or meetings at work—simply stop and wrap her arms around her stomach and become completely still. And she had loved him for a few years, when he was a little boy. Loved his dependence on her, that he needed her, that she was needed. But by age ten, he’d changed. Boyd became precocious, creative, and opinionated. He clawed away from her attempts to protect him, shelter him, pick adequate friends and activities for him. In high school he became contrary, embraced contrariness like a hobby. Anything Nina liked, Boyd decided not to, even if what she liked would have been good for him. Any thought Nina expressed, Boyd seemed to purposely take the opposite tack, especially when she explained—always gently—that his opinion was flawed or outright wrong. And he was rude to her. So rude sometimes, she couldn’t respond and instead went completely still, as she did those months he’d been in her womb and she’d been overwhelmed by love. In college, Boyd eschewed her entirely, a revolt powered by a full-tuition scholarship and a cash work study grant at an elite journalism school on the other side of the country, which she had encouraged him not to attend because a journalism degree was for people who would spend their lives working as clerks in bookstores just as she was spending her life working in a museum gift shop after earning a worthless theater degree. Nina was left with nothing of him. And, left with nothing, what was there to love? What had there been to love after Boyd reached age ten?

And none of it had been her fault. Not his rebelliousness, his rudeness, nor his decision to cut out of his life the woman who’d sacrificed so much for him—a fact of which she had frequently reminded him. She had been a good mother. Why couldn’t he have been a good son?

Jamie made a final, dramatic tap on the keyboard, then banged the laptop shut. “Done! Now I’ll get it published.”

As if publishing a story was the easiest thing in the world. Nina couldn’t help but smile.

“Jamie, would you like some warm milk with cinnamon?”

“Yes, please.”

When Nina returned, she stopped cold. Jamie was sprawled back, his arms up and behind his head, his exposed armpits bursting with hair, legs spread wide, as if lounging on a beach or by a pool. His eyes were closed. Nina’s eyes went to his crotch. Through the white fabric, she saw the contours of a hefty penis resting flat at a pristine ninety-degree angle. Her hands shook, the cup of milk along with them.

Nina hummed as she flitted around the gift shop completing tasks. The volume on the sound system was too high—another of Orlando’s “innovations.” He claimed research proved loud music energized customers and made them more prone to spend. Nina thought that was the silliest thing she’d ever heard. Was it Lady Gaga playing? She couldn’t be certain. Today’s female pop stars all sounded the same to her. In fact, her friend Edward—a self-styled pop-culture maven—told her something about Madonna accusing Lady Gaga of stealing one of her songs, giving it a makeover, and releasing it as her own. Point proven, Nina thought.

Kit was behind the jewelry counter applying eyeliner in the mirror. He struggled to keep his hand steady and became visibly frustrated with his continual blunders. He took a startled step back when Nina swooped in beside him and said, “Now I know why your eyeliner always looks off. Come here. I’ll show you a trick to steady your hand. Pull up that stool. Sit down. Well, sit! Put your elbow on the counter, firmly. Good. Now apply the eyeliner. See? Resting your elbow on a surface helps to stabilize your hand and keep it from shaking. That’s a lot easier, right? Looks better, too.”

Kit examined the results in the mirror. “Like, oh my god. It totally does.” He turned to Nina, seeming to hesitate between gratitude and suspicion. “Thanks.” It came out like a question.

Nina resumed humming. Lady Gaga—or whoever it was—belted out a power ballad, if they still called it that. The voice roared up, higher and higher, wild and strident and screaming with emotion while the instruments screamed to keep up. Nina wished Orlando would allow her to lower the volume, but that wasn’t going to happen. She hummed louder.

“Nina, are you all right, darling?” Elliott asked. “You’re unusually quiet this evening.”

Jamie had fixed hamburgers and french fries, the meat big and spicy and juicy on doughy brioche buns, the fries wedged large with the skins left on. Nina was shocked that Elliott would eat such common fare. He maligned burgers as the “food of the masses” and refused to serve them in his restaurants. Jamie was bringing him down to earth.

“I’m just tired,” Nina said. “It was crazy in the shop. I was running around all day.”

Lies. The gift shop had been annoyingly slow. After Kit’s eyeliner tutorial, she’d retreated to her office and spent the balance of the day scrolling through Facebook.

They finished dinner. Nina didn’t want the men to go up to their room. She dreaded the moment when they would climb the stairs and abandon her.

“Night, Nina,” Jamie said as he kissed a cheek.

“Good night, darling,” Elliott said, kissing the other.

Nina gazed at the sofa when they left. She imagined Jamie there, the elegant simplicity of his body in those slack briefs. She conjured up Elliott next to him, in designer underwear—of course—something sleek and scanty and too young for him, but that he looked spectacular in. Nina’s face grew warm, then hot. She felt like swooning, so she sat on the sofa. Jamie’s laptop was on the coffee table. She opened it. He hadn’t password-protected it. Silly boy, she thought. Boyd would’ve put a password on his computer. Boyd trusted no one.

She found the story Jamie had finished yesterday. “New Boy in the Big City.”

He’d escaped. That was all that mattered. He’d waited till his father passed out exhausted from bourbon and the beating he’d administered to his son; waited for night to fall and, in the dead of it, under its cloaking mask, he’d sneaked out of the house (stumbled, really, burdened by bruises and blood and tears) and run to the bus station. By midnight, he was on his way, safe, hurt, anonymous. Two days later, he arrived.
A fresh start: that’s what he was after. A blank book in which to rewrite his life, edit out the pain his ogre of a father had inflicted. But editing wasn’t the same as erasing. He knew that. Fresh starts did not themselves heal bruises. He knew that too. But a fresh start might be a newly opened window through which a crisp breeze might float, carrying kindness, and maybe even love, on its windy back.

Not bad. Not bad at all for a kid convinced he could feed the dolphins at an art museum. She’d wanted to laugh when he said he’d get it published. She had laughed when Boyd said he wanted to be a journalist, laughed harder when he said he was starting a blog he hoped would attract national attention. She’d warned him that big goals—journalism, successful blogging, Broadway—were in the realm of dreams, and likely to remain there. Their already strained relationship dried up at once, and Nina had been blindsided to realize that a laugh could cause such damage.

She wasn’t laughing now. An epiphany was blooming, loosening the nuts and bolts and screws that clamped her together. She felt something soothing wash through her. This was how she felt when she used to get high during her New York years: calm, but invigorated. Certain. Head clear. Emotionally primed. Resilient. Curious. Ready. She exhaled, slowly, releasing oxygen until her lungs squeezed shut, then inhaled again, the new air, the fresh air, jamming her lungs to bursting. The fertile epiphany flowed, and Nina nodded to herself, as if in agreement with some voice deep inside that had been caged for too long and now began to murmur, and it asked her why she hadn’t been ready before and why she always resisted so strenuously. And Nina kept nodding until a sentence from Jamie’s story echoed through her like a throb. But a fresh start might be a newly opened window through which a crisp breeze might float, carrying kindness, and maybe even love, on its windy back.

She slammed the laptop shut, strode up the stairs and straight into the men’s bedroom. The room was lit by a single candle on the dresser. Jamie was on top of Elliott. She watched their undulation. She removed her clothing, moved close to the bed. Jamie noticed her.

“Elly,” he whispered. “Look.”

“Hello, darling,” Elliott said. “Jamie, dear, hand me the remote control. It’s on the nightstand.” To Nina: “I’d get it myself, but I’m bit constrained at the moment.”

Jamie handed him the remote. A moment later the Jupiter Symphony swept the room.

The gift shop was busy the next day. Orlando had emailed a gigantic list of tasks. Nina had no idea how she’d complete them and help all the customers and finish her paperwork. Payroll was due today, too. She should have been stressed. But she stood in the center of the store while activity twirled around her.

Or was she the one twirling?

She had woken up that morning sated, simultaneously exhausted and replenished as she extracted herself from a tangle of arms. Now she hovered in the gift shop, seeing the world as if through gauze, yet comprehending it more keenly, more cleanly than she ever had.

Orlando had hired two new sales associates. (She used to do the hiring pre-Orlando.) One scrambled to assist multiple people simultaneously. The other withstood an interrogation from a customer at the jewelry counter asking about a bracelet, demanding to the know the story behind it—the artist’s name, the materials and how and where they were procured—so she could talk about it at cocktail parties. Everyone had to yell to be heard over the music, an enchanting electronica piece. Nina made a mental note to find out the artist. Kit, in the leopard-skin tights and a Hawaiian shirt and lei, was ringing up at the register, the line of customers never­ending. Nina looked at him closely. She shook her head.

When it slows down, she thought, I’ll help them with their eyeliner. They’ve put it on all wrong again.  

shortlink: dogb.us/giftshop

          

               

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