After three dates – and on one occasion a quick meeting after work for drinks – Iris was fairly certain she would sleep with Michael Orfield. He was a high-level investment something-or-other at T. Rowe Price, and wore tastefully expensive suits. His nails were neatly manicured and he always instinctively reached for the correct silverware at the expensive restaurants where he’d taken Iris to dinner. And though he wasn’t devastatingly handsome, he had a nice smile and didn’t wear too much cologne. He didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time talking about himself and always seemed interested in what Iris had to say; even on subjects it was clear she had no real knowledge about.
For their dates, Michael Orfield sent a Lincoln Town Car to pick Iris up at her apartment and they met at the restaurant, so she had never seen his place, nor had he seen hers. Truth be told, Iris was somewhat relieved because though she had a fashionable downtown address, the building itself was far from fashionable. Her apartment was directly above a grocer’s and to get to it, one had to enter through a shabby doorway to the left of the store entrance and climb two flights of narrow, old stairs. To make matters worse, at the top of the stairs was a rusty wrought iron gate that remained locked until visitors rang a buzzer corresponding to one of the two apartments above and was let in.
The first apartment was Iris’, and distant cousins of the Lees – the couple that owned the grocery store and the entire building – inhabited the second. The Lees’ cousins were quiet enough neighbors, but they cooked a variety of spicy and flavorful Korean dishes, the smell of which permeated the stairway and seemed to have seeped into the upholstery of Iris’ furniture. None of this was more than a minor inconvenience until she’d started thinking about sleeping with Michael Orfield. Now, the shabbiness of her building (fashionable address notwithstanding), the smell in the stairwell and her furniture were all logistics problems she would have to solve before inviting him over. She’d tried spraying the stairwell with Lysol but that only resulted in a slightly medicinal odor overlying the basic spiciness, the combination of which was nauseating. And as far as the furniture was concerned, short of throwing it all out, there was really no solution.
Iris did not view herself as the kind of woman who would normally even consider sleeping with someone after only three dates and a drink, but lately things were far from what she would consider ‘normal’. She had begun to notice disturbing new details about herself. Like the tiny, barely perceptible lines at the corners of her eyes, and the extra five pounds that would appear as though by magic when she indulged in too many lattés at Starbucks over the course of the week. Then there was the issue of parties. Though there was still no shortage of social engagements, Iris could now hear a certain new shrillness to her laugh at these events, with a hint – but only a hint, thank god – of desperation in its tone. Men who previously would have fallen over themselves to have even the most inane exchange with her now looked past her almost as often as they tried to get her attention. But perhaps worst of all was the fact that suddenly, and she wasn’t quite sure how, all of her friends seemed to have disappeared into the institution of marriage.
Some of them weren’t really friends with a capital ‘F’ but more like fellow party-girls, so Iris had almost failed to notice their departure. There was Cyndy Brooks, for instance, who had upped and married Albert Crain, a balding orthodontist from Baltimore who spoke too loudly and told off-color jokes. Iris and Cyndy had laughed at him behind his back, exchanging stories about his clumsy attempts to get them into bed. Then Albert invited Cyndy and Iris on his yacht one Memorial Day weekend and they’d sailed up the Hudson, spending nights sipping expensive wines and eating gourmet meals prepared by a chef hired for the occasion. By the end of the weekend, Cyndy wasn’t laughing at Albert anymore, but with him – the opulence of the yacht made it clear he wasn’t just a balding orthodontist from Baltimore. He was a gentleman of means. They had married that December in Baltimore and Iris had only gotten a short note from Cyndy since, extolling the virtues of Albert Crain and married life in general.
And Cyndy wasn’t the only one. There was also Ellen Ross, who Iris used to meet every other Sunday for brunch. Ellen was an artist of the starving variety, so they mostly pulled together something at her apartment, like sardines from the can with boiled eggs; or leftover steamed rice from Ellen’s previous night’s dinner with spring onions, garlic and cheese mixed in. Sometimes Iris would bring fresh bagels and lox from Zabar’s and they would sit in front of the television, watching Lifetime television and filling each other in on the details of their lousy love lives. Ellen was shockingly promiscuous and it wasn’t uncommon for Iris to arrive for brunch just as last evening’s conquest was leaving the dusty loft.
One Sunday when Iris arrived at the appointed time, she found Ellen stuffing random pieces of clothing into a duffle bag and pacing back and forth, her long red hair swinging wildly about her. Iris stood in the middle of the living room, holding the baguettes and coffee she’d brought, waiting for Ellen to slow down long enough to explain. And when she didn’t, Iris finally asked what was going on. Ellen didn’t look at her when she answered.
“I’m getting married,” she said.
Iris was speechless. Marriage was one of Ellen’s favorite topics of discussion, but only because she enjoyed deriding it. Friends of theirs who’d gotten married were referred to variously as ‘dumb cows’ and ‘sellouts’. Ellen believed – or pretended to believe – that women were enslaved by marriage, that it was the death knell to every creative impulse a woman might have. Maybe Ellen had sensed a hint of judgment in Iris’ silence because suddenly she’d spun around, her eyes aflame.
“Well what the fuck was I supposed to do? Be alone for the rest of my life?!”
Ellen had moved upstate that very day, to an eighteenth century farmhouse owned by her fiancée, a real estate developer who had come to one of her shows in a rundown SoHo gallery and become smitten with her. Ellen made no pretense of being in love. When Iris asked her point blank, she’d sighed and taken a deep drag of her cigarette. Don’t be provincial, she said.
But of all her friends, Iris had been most stunned when Linda Keller had announced her engagement. Linda was, like Iris, a Southern girl. Despite having moved to New York more than ten years ago, she retained many of those genteel traits that reminded Iris of home. She liked mint juleps, and tea with biscuits in the afternoon, and big floppy hats with flowers. She still felt guilty when she didn’t go to church at Easter, and would never be caught dead in blue jeans.
Three days after Linda’s thirty-fourth birthday, when Iris had taken her out to dinner to celebrate, she’d flashed a rather large engagement ring and announced that some guy Iris had never heard of was “making an honest woman” out of her. He had one of those names where you can’t figure out which is the first name and which is the surname – Parker Cleveland III. He was from Charlotte like her, Linda explained, a childhood friend with whom she’d recently reconnected. And like her, he was tired of the fast life in New York and wanted to return down South to raise a family.
“Like you?” Iris echoed. It was the first time she’d heard that Linda was tired of the city. They’d had these long conversations about how lucky they were to be living in the cultural center of the universe.
“Honey,” Linda said, her Southern accent seemed heightened all of a sudden, as though she was practicing for her return to Dixie. “It’s not as though we’re getting any younger. I’ve got to think about putting down some roots.”
Barely three months later, Linda left to plant her roots in Charlotte. Iris went to the wedding, but she was not in the wedding party. Linda had chosen two of Parker’s sisters and a woman she’d known in high school, genuine Southern belles all. The exclusion, Iris understood, was Linda’s way of turning her back on her metropolitan lifestyle and “going home again.” But that understanding didn’t make the experience any less painful. She cried as she drove her rented car back to the airport after the reception to catch the red-eye to LaGuardia. After that, nothing was quite the same. Linda had been her best friend, her co-conspirator, her confidante. And now, they had cool, ten-minute conversations where it was clear from her tone that Linda no longer believed they had anything in common.
Iris was suddenly and excruciatingly aware that she was a dying breed. And so she found herself considering sleeping with Michael Orfield, even though what most recommended him was that he was judicious in his use of cologne and not a complete and utter jerk.
Dressing for a cocktail party, Iris found that choosing the appropriate dress was unduly difficult. Michael Orfield was, for the first time, introducing her to some of his friends. They were a couple he’d known since college – the husband was a producer-director of off-Broadway plays, and the wife a dancer. Iris had heard of the husband – Kenneth Woodson – because she had gone to one of his plays the previous year and enjoyed it enough to pay attention to the credits in the program. The wife’s name was Sarah Leiberstein and, according to Michael Orfield at least, was known in performing arts circles as somewhat of an interpretive genius. They had an apartment on Central Park West, and every month or so, had people over for cocktails and to discuss some subject pertaining to the arts. This month, the topic was Kenneth Woodson’s latest play – Trois. This struck Iris as egotistical and self-indulgent– to dictate the subject of discussion at a party just because one was the host, but she was not accustomed to the practices of the artsy crowd, and for all she knew, this was standard fare. She toyed with the idea of calling Ellen and asking. Ellen after all was an artist – or had been when she lived in the city. There was no telling what she was up to in WestchesterCounty – probably baking apple pies and trying to get pregnant.
Iris finally settled on a simple black A-line dress with cocktail sleeves and a hemline that stopped just below her knees and showed off her figure – which she still had a right to be proud of. She swept her curly blonde hair off her forehead and pinned it back in a loose chignon. A spot of plum lipstick and mascara with a light dusting of powder was all the make-up she would wear because in the event that Sarah Leiberstein and her friends turned out to be radically bohemian, it would be embarrassing to have shown up looking like the painted lady.
Iris glanced at the clock by the side of her bed. It was only seven-thirty. The car was not due for another half hour, and she was fully dressed. She cursed herself for being too eager – now she would have to sit around and wait, and risk crumpling her dress across the abdomen and in the rear. Actually, eagerness wasn’t the trouble – she was nervous. By the sound in his voice when he’d told her about the party, Iris could tell that Michael Orfield thought much of Kenneth Woodson and Sarah Leiberstein. If they didn’t like Iris, she could pretty much forget about the relationship proceeding past the casual stage. Most people couldn’t get beyond their friends’ dislike of a partner, though they may try, or even pretend to for a while.
Iris walked through her living room and into the kitchen where she poured herself a glass of white wine. She felt a tiny pinch on the side of her left foot. Her shoes were brand new strappy Jimmy Choos with a five hundred dollar price tag, but they made her legs look sleek and shapely, so taking them off was out of the question. She balanced her weight on her right foot and sipped the wine slowly, wondering what she would possibly find to talk about with Michael Orfield’s friends. She was already at a disadvantage because she hadn’t seen Kenneth Woodson’s new play, and furthermore, even if she had, her comments were bound to be too shallow to impress the cultural intelligentsia who would be gathered there.
For the first year that she’d lived in New York, Iris had gotten by on telling people she was taking time off from Vassar (which happened to be the truth). That always impressed them sufficiently that they never doubted her capacity to understand and appreciate both the cultural and the intellectual. But then her year off had turned to two, and soon she had to admit to herself that she was never going back to college. She had landed a job with a fairly decent wage at a consulting firm as a program associate, and was by then living in a three-bedroom walk-up in the Village with four other girls.
She was twenty-one and by anyone standards, striking, witty and tons of fun to be with. She had no shortage of dates, and spent summer weekends in the Hamptons – a fact that sufficiently impressed her mother so that returning to school seemed beside the point. Her mother enjoyed telling her friends that Iris had a high-powered job in “Nu Yawk Ciddy” and as a widow who had never worked and lived on her dead husband’s pension, she was relieved not to have to worry about sending money to a daughter studying something useless at a much-too-expensive school. And besides, she was convinced from the stories Iris told her that before long, she would be married off to someone of good social standing who would not be averse to buying his mother-in-law a condo in Florida. Needless to say, that had not happened, and Iris’ mother now maintained a discreet silence about her daughter’s unmarried state.
Iris dutifully called her mother every Sunday between eleven a.m. and noon, just as Margaret was returning from church. Iris could picture her removing her hat and setting it down on the hall table the way she had done every Sunday since Iris and her sister Grace were girls. She would go into the kitchen and make herself a cup of peppermint tea, cut a slice of cake and sit on the sun porch reading a mystery novel. She would do this for almost exactly one hour, and then she would retire for an afternoon nap. Upon waking she would take a bath – never a shower – and change into something blousy and comfortable. She would begin cooking Sunday dinner at four p.m. Most of the dishes had been prepared the night before, so cooking on Sunday usually consisted of putting a roast in the oven or frying chicken that had already been battered and held waiting in the big chipped blue bowl that was as familiar to Iris as features on her own face. Dinner was always ready by five and everyone was seated and eating fifteen minutes later. Now that Iris and her sister no longer lived at home, there was only one person seated at the table. But according to Grace, who visited far more often than Iris did, the routine had remained unchanged in all these years.
It’s eerie, really, Grace said. The way she holds onto all these rituals. Iris didn’t consider it eerie so much as sad. She would rather die than end up like that.
Grace was already assuredly not going to end up ‘like that’. Four years Iris’ senior, Grace had moved to California when she was nineteen, just months after high school graduation. Like countless other attractive girls from small towns, she had big dreams of becoming an actress. She never did become an actress but after about three years in L.A. and a parade of bad boyfriends, she’d gotten caught up in some women’s group and become a lesbian (although Grace would have vociferously objected that one did not ‘become’ a lesbian). Now she lived with five other women in Haight Asbury in an old townhouse that was a throwback to the sixties communes. They shared everything, including clothing, vehicles, and lovers. Grace could not have been more successful at shedding her small-town background had she become the number one box office draw of her generation. She had even shed her Southern accent. It wasn’t that Iris envied her exactly, but she’d often wondered at Grace’s guts, her sheer nerve to become the person she had, given her upbringing. Their mother lived in complete and utter denial of Grace’s lifestyle, still referring to Grace’s partner of ten years as her ‘best friend’ and the other women in the commune as her ‘roommates’. Iris thought now, as she sipped the remainder of her wine, that Grace would probably be a better mix with Michael Orfield’s friends than she was likely to be.
She’d spent the afternoon reading the New Yorker, hoping to dredge up something interesting to talk about at dinner, but all she succeeded in doing was making herself feel foolish. Michael Orfield liked her. She knew he did by the way his eyes warmed whenever they greeted each other, and the way he was always the last to let go when they kissed. And she thought she might warm to him as well, over time. She just had to concentrate on making it happen. If Cyndy could marry Albert Crain, for god’s sake, she had no excuse.
Just then she heard a horn outside. She peered out her living room window and down to the street below. The Lincoln Town Car was here. Iris took a deep breath and prepared for her performance.