by Alice Kaltman
There are no olives in the pantry and I distinctly remember buying some organic pimento-stuffed ones at Whole Foods yesterday.
Or maybe it was last week.
The point is I need them now for the dish I’m serving tonight at our small, casual dinner party.
Casual. Who am I kidding? There’s nothing casual about it.
Issue #130 soundtrack: Jon Patrick Walker “Hideous Monster”
My husband’s new boss, Chet, is coming with his ‘lady friend.’ I’ve never met Chet, but from the way Dimitri describes him, he sounds like a misogynistic, entitled fuckhead. A gazillionaire who never went to college, likes to surround himself with brilliant, young, exploitable employees he treats the way a cat treats a litter box. He actually calls them all ‘kiddies,’ except for Dimitri, the new legal counsel at BangleBrains and only other person in Chet’s 50-something age bracket.
“Dimitri,” I yell, “did you eat my olives?” My husband has a tendency to raid the kitchen for anything savory. A deep love of salt runs in his Greek family, and Dimitri uses his ethnicity as an excuse for these briny binges.
“No,” he says. I startle and turn to find him sitting behind me at the kitchen table, clipping his fingernails, gently coaxing each crescent into a neat little pile.
“That is so completely disgusting,” I say calmly. “We eat at that table. Our children eat at that table.”
“Our children don’t live here anymore, Amanda.” He keeps clipping. “We’re empty nesters, remember? Hurrah!”
Our youngest, Adam, left two weeks ago to start his freshman year studying ‘Theater Arts’ at a respectable Midwestern institution where he was immediately embraced by a sea of suspiciously friendly students from all those ‘I’ states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa. He called last Saturday and said everything was "super." Super? Where is my sardonic, little Brooklyn boy?
Whatever the case, I’ve never liked nest analogies, empty or otherwise. Avian imagery indicates flightiness. Plus, more than ever these days, what I need is serious grounding. Sandbags tied to my ankles type grounding. And it’s not just because the kids are gone.
“Big whoop, Dimitri,” I make a little circle in the air with my index finger. “Meanwhile, I can’t find the olives I bought at Whole Foods... whenever. I need them for my pasta dish.”
“You’re making your pasta dish?” He’s working on his left pinky, trying for a single clip.
“Is there a problem with that?”
“I thought you loved my pasta dish. The feta cheese, the anchovies, the basil, the olives...”
“I do love it.” He hesitates. “It’s just that I thought you’d make something more, um, unusual tonight.”
“What? I’m supposed to go catch a pig and roast it on a spit for your new boss?”
“Maybe the pig could go sniff out some truffles in the backyard before I burn his grunty rump?”
I collapse in to the seat across from him. There’s a stray nail clipping on my side of the table. I grasp it between two fingers, drop it in his pile then lay my forehead on the cool glass table top. “I hate dinner parties,” I moan.
“No, you don’t. You just hate Chet. Hypothetically.”
I look up and give Dimitri my forlorn, Bambi Has Lost His Mother look.
“Maybe he’ll surprise you. Maybe you’ll like him.” Dimitri always looks for the sunny side of things. “Some women find him quite charming.” He scoops his clippings off the edge of the table, into his waiting palm, examining his collection with pride.
“Chet’s ‘lady friend’ for instance,” I say, returning my forehead to the glass. “I’ll bet she’s a piece of work.”
Dimitri doesn’t respond. I look up and realize he’s left the room.
Dimitri got me another jar of olives. He also bought me a bunch of roses. Yellow roses, which are my favorite.
“Your pasta dish will be a smash hit,” he says. “I’m an idiot. I don’t know how you put up with me.”
I kiss him and refrain from commenting on his bad, olivey breath. Because, really, in the husband department it doesn’t get any better than Dimitri. Even if he tends towards the unshaven, stinky side. Even if he’s got a weird eating disorder. He puts up with my critical, know-it-all tendencies. He’s a great dad to our two sons, the aforementioned Adam and our eldest, Emmett, who’s doing his medical residency up in Boston-- a provincial, parochial excuse for a city, if you ask me.
And boy oh boy, did Dimitri step up to the plate when the debacle over the profile I’d written on Dr. Frances Wyvern began. He took better care of me than Snow White took of all the Dwarves and woodland creatures combined. Better than Mother Teresa in her pre-scandal glory days. How was I to know that Dr. Wyvern, the pioneering virologist who supposedly excelled at motocross racing and mountain climbing, was a total fake? My research revealed she held a top level position in the Royal Society and a MENSA membership. She sounded authentically medical and sporty during our chatty phone interviews. She looked buff and hygienic in the photos she sent. Dr. Frances Wyvern had a Wikipedia page for God’s sake. And a thoroughly convincing British accent.
Then the truth came out: Dr. Frances Wyvern was actually Fred Wyckoff, a 40 year-old pharmacist who lived with his mother in a Sacramento suburb. I’d never, in my 25 years as a journalist specializing in the ‘unique’ profile, been so thoroughly duped and publicly humiliated. For months I hid out in the den, popping Ativan and watching back-to-back Law and Order reruns. My moods fluctuated between dark and darkest. I was paralyzed in fear that Oprah would come out of retirement and demand to interview-eviscerate me. To avoid such a fate I added Ambien to the Ativan and slept whole days away like a heavily sedated hibernating bear.
But Dimitri kept me hydrated. He made me chicken soup. He rubbed my feet. He cleaned the house and paid the bills. Eventually he weaned me off my pharmaceutical A friends. He never once said, “I told you so” or “It will all be okay.” He’s still letting it play out with amazing patience, because honestly? It’s far from over. I’m still a basket case.
This dinner party is gonna be a stretch.
Dimitri goes off to shower and shave. I set the table with the clunky ceramic plates we picked up in Guatemala last winter, BFW, Before Frances Wyvern. I am not pulling out the good china for Chet. I’ll brown nose only so far. Maybe I’ll go frizzy haired, loud and hippy-ish tonight. Don my “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” tee shirt. If I hadn’t already shaved my legs I’d wear something short and unattractive to compliment my fuzzy shins.
But we need this dinner to go smoothly. Now that I’m unemployable, blacklisted from every major publication, Dimitri’s paycheck is all we have. His job at BangleBrains has to last. There’s that pesky college tuition to pay, a crack in our brick facade, the water heater is acting fickle, the car needs new tires, and, and, and...
I change out the ceramics for the china and go upstairs for my turn in the shower while there’s still enough hot water.
“No talking about my former writing career.” I have my hair up in a flawless French Twist. I’m wearing a black Donna Karan tunic with black jeans. A bit of mascara and some red lipstick. I look like a well-heeled mime.
“Former?” Dimitri says. We’re sitting in the living room, drinking a pre-beer, our traditional warm up, a beer we share before guests arrive and real drinking commences.
“I’ve decided to stop writing for good. Time for a new career. Maybe I’ll become a professional dog walker. It’s more lucrative, and it’ll get me out of the house.”
“Whatevs,” Dimitri shrugs and takes a pre-sip.
“Whatevs? You sound like a 12 year-old girl who adores boy bands. A tween who actually wants to start menstruating.”
The doorbell rings. Dimitri thrusts himself up off the couch and lands solidly on two feet, his arms in a wide V. “Let the games begin!” He sprints to the front door as I scurry to the kitchen. I down the rest of the beer by the sink, slurp a swig of water from the faucet, swish, and spit to get rid of yeasty undertones.
When I return to the living room, there’s Chet. Everything about him is as thick and shiny as I expected. He’s got the kind of hair all men covet, especially men like Dimitri, who vainly holds on to the few pathetic strands atop his head in spite of his barber’s advice to just shave the suckers off already. Chet’s hair looks as if a small fox has taken residence a top his giant skull, all browns and blonds and hints of red, spreading its furry body from Chet’s big ear to big ear.
My husband’s new boss is a massive male boulder. He’s sweaty, bloated. There’s a chance he was handsome once upon a time, with cleft chin and sparkling white teeth, but now he looks like an inflated Disney Prince pool float. Veins pop off bowling ball biceps, which squeeze out of the short sleeves of his button-straining shirt, a shirt that does nothing to conceal Chet’s sizable gut.
“Helloooo,” Chet drawls. He stands spread legged with that gut thrust forward, unapologetic as he scans my body. His bright blue eyes are otherworldly turquoise. I assume he’s wearing colored contacts. “And who’s this sexy lady?” he leers at me, tongue wagging.
Faker, I think. Men like him find women like me as sexy as having their balls waxed. I want to say, “This sexy lady is the kind of lady who you make want to puke.” But I refrain because Chet is Chet. My husband’s boss.
“You must be Amanda,” a much brighter voice calls from behind the behemoth that is Chet. I crane my neck to look around Chet’s block, and I’m face to face with Chet’s ‘lady friend’ who happens to be the most beautiful woman I’ve possibly ever seen. There’s something familiar about her, but I can’t for the life of me imagine our paths have ever crossed. “I’m Talulah.” She glides gracefully towards me, holding out a smooth brown hand. I notice a perfect manicure, big rings, and big knuckles.
I take Talulah’s hand, which is cool and even softer than it looks. Her grip is firm, which I like in another woman. I can’t stand it when I shake a woman’s hand and she goes all fishy on me. “Nice to meet you, Talulah,” I say and mean it. She exudes congeniality, and the more she smiles that sparkling smile at me, the more she reminds me of someone. But I can’t place who it is. I know it’s someone I like, or liked; however, my addled middle-aged brain is extra fucked by my recent Wyvern-ian breakdown, so forget any recall.
Instead I just take her in. Everything on her is long and caramel. Her neck, her arms, her legs. Even her obviously dyed and professionally straightened hair, which goes down to her waist. I can’t place her ethnicity. She’s about my age, though she’s had work done, obviously. Botox and fillers, probably. Rhinoplasty, definitely. Growing up in a suburban Jewish town in the 1970s, I can spot a nose job from 100 yards away. I assume Talulah’s boobs have been lifted, because hello, no middle-aged woman has a rack that upright without a little hitch and stitch.
“Your house is amazing,” she sighs as she gazes at our chotkskes and funky furniture. I hope she doesn’t spot the duct tape wrapped around one leg of the coffee table. “You must have used a decorator.”
“Nope,” I shrug. “We hoarded all this junk on our own.”
“May I?” she asks as she points to a small majolica vase we have on our mantle. I can’t remember where we got it. I’m not even sure I like it anymore.
Talulah lifts the vase as if she’s handling a newborn baby. “This is far from junk, Amanda.” She smiles at me. I smile back. She’s restored my faith in the vase. I’m about to ask her if we’ve met before when Chet interrupts, sidling up to Talulah like a horny cowboy, lassoing her shoulder with his burly arm, which he has to do at an odd angle because she’s much taller than he is, especially in her platform sandals.
“Better listen to this gorgeous creature,” he says. “She’s my art and design advisor. She knows good shit from bad shit. We met last Thursday at The Standard, and on the spot I hired her to decorate my new Montauk beach house.” Chet rubs Talulah’s beautifully toned shoulder as if it’s his own cock he’s wanking. “Place is gonna be killer.”
Talulah smiles tightly. Not the same winning smile I got a moment earlier, before Chet interrupted.
“Yep.” Chet can’t shut up. “Took me a whole week, but I finally convinced her to go out with me. So voila! Here we are.”
Chet tries to nuzzle Talulah’s neck. I’m thinking, ew gross, what is this, middle school? Talulah pushes him off with admirable force, and I breathe an audible sigh of relief.
“Anyone want a drink?” Dimitri says too loudly.
“Always,” Chet blurts.
“We’ve got wine, beer-”
“What kind of beer?” Chet interrupts.
Chet wrinkles his nose. “I only drink IPAs. What else ya got?”
Dimitri picks at his forearm hairs. He does this when he’s nervous. “Full bar, more or less.”
“Um, I think it’s Johnny Walker?”
“Forget it,” Chet sighs. “I’ll just have some water.” He drops his arm from around Talulah. She sways as if she’s been released from a body cast.
“Talulah? Anything?” Dimitri asks. He’s wincing in preparation for the next line of alcohol interrogation.
“I’ll have one of those Coronas, Dimitri,” she says. “I only drink Corona.”
We all laugh. The three of us, that is, aside from Chet, who’s sprawled on the couch with his feet on our coffee table. At least he had the decency to remove his shoes at the front door.
“So, Amanda,” Chet says, “Dim tells me you’re a journalist?”
“Dim does, does Dim?” I sneak a withering glare at my newly, perhaps aptly monikered husband while Chet lurches forward to scoop a fistful of almonds from a bowl on the table.
“Where have I read your stuff?” Chet stuffs the entire stash in his mouth, talking through a static of splintered nut particles.
“Oh, here and there.” I’m hoping to leave it at that.
Dimitri has returned with drinks. “Amanda’s profiles have been in The Atlantic, New Republic, Ms. Magazine,” He can’t help himself. He’s my cheerleader even when I explicitly tell him not to be. “You might remember her New Yorker profile on Boutros Boutros Ghali.”
“Whosa Whosa WhaWha?” Chet mimics.
“He was the Secretary General of the United Nations in the 90s, Chet,” says Talulah. She turns to me and smiles. “I remember that piece. I loved how you compared Ghali’s Rwandan connections to your Aunt Sadie’s relationship with the saleswomen at Loehmann’s.”
I’m speechless. It’s been a while since anyone has complimented my writing. After the Wyvern scandal all I got were accusations of being a hack.
“I’ve loved everything you’ve written,” Talulah continues as she settles her gorgeous body on the couch next to Chet. “When Chet invited me to have dinner with his new legal counsel and his wife, the journalist Amanda Lowenstein, how could I resist?” She pats Chet on the knee and smiles at him sexily, manipulatively. Using something I’ve never accessed in my own lady-body: feminine wiles. It works. Chet seems to melt like butter on my couch. He’s quiet, for the moment. Talulah turns back to me and says, “I died over your hilarious deconstruction of the Monkees in Ms. back in the late 90s.”
“I can’t believe you read that,” I finally speak. Chet’s lady friend knows about my Ghali article, even more so, my feminist take on the original boy band. I’m turning red. My cheeks are hot.
“‘Keep Davy. I Wanted Mike Nesmith’s Baby’. Oh. My. God. Hysterical!” Talulah throws her head back and laughs a big gutsy laugh. Once again I’m struck with that I know you, who are you, where did you come from, you wonderful woman? feeling.
“Are you working on anything new?” Talulah asks.
“New?” I squeak. My heart is beating cardiac arrest fast. The antiperspirant I caked into the crevices of my armpits is proving useless. Rivulets of sweat travel down my torso to the top of my tasteful, classy mime pants.
Everyone waits for me to answer Talulah’s seemingly benign question. New? I haven’t so much as typed a “please unsubscribe” email or a “TTYL” text since the Wyvern debacle. Chet glares at me like Pablo Escobar eyeing a Colombian snitch. Dimitri looks panicked, rubbing his bald spot as if it’s a bottle and a genie might appear if he keeps at it long enough. Talulah, however, is all sweetness, patience, and light.
Finally I talk. “Dogs,” I say. “Dogs in the Olive Garden.”
Dimitri gapes at me, drop-jawed, with a ‘what the fuck are you talking about’ expression.
I can’t help myself. It’s free association time. “How Fast Food Restaurants are moving to accommodate our pet crazy society to increase sales,” I continue. “The need for commercial service industries to address the uptick in domestic animal ownership.”
“That sounds fascinating,” says Talulah.
“I have a dog,” says Chet, as if he’s announced winning the Prix de Rome.
“How wonderful!” I cry, as if Chet has won the Prix de Rome. “What kind of dog?”
“Dunno,” Chet shrugs. “Labradoodle? Cockapoodle? Cockador?”
Talulah frowns. “How can you not know what kind of dog you have?”
Chet shrugs again. He’s good at shrugging. “I just got it, like, last summer.”
Note: It is now, once again, summer.
“She’s a great dog, though,” Chet continues. “Cute as a button. Only barks when I get too close to her, so like, there’s not a whole lot of petting going on. But the dog walker tells me she gets along great with all the other mutts at the dog run. I picked her cause she’s hypoallergenic. She doesn’t shed, so I can have guests in any part of my apartment,” now he leers at Talulah, “even the bedroom.”
Talulah smirks and takes a long draw from her Corona.
“She sounds great, Chet,” Dimitri says cheerily, like Mr. Rogers talking to preschool viewers. “What’s her name?”
Chet pauses. He has to think.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Talulah says under her breath.
“Bingo!” Chet finally announces.
“Bingo, as in you remember, or Bingo as in her name...oh?” I ask.
“Her name. Cute, right?” Chet is very pleased with himself.
“Adorable,” I say, then I turn to Talulah. “Would you like a lime for your Corona? Dim, you forgot Talulah’s lime. I’ll go get some.”
“Can you please stop calling me that?” Dimitri says under his breath as I pass him on my way to the kitchen.
“Whatevs,” I say back.
When I return with cut lime and almonds to refill the nut bowl, Chet is telling a story about a recent trip he’d taken somewhere far away and exotic.
“The view from my cabana was fucking insane! Looking out over the fucking Indian Ocean. I mean, for fucking real!”
“Sounds fucking wonderful, Chet,” says Talulah in an admirable deadpan. She gingerly squeezes a slice of lime into her bottle and takes another long draw.
“I tell you, the natives couldn’t have been sweeter. You’d think that they’d hate Americans. I mean, we’ve raped that country. Literally raped it. Poor schmucks don’t have a pot to piss in, but they’re still smiling all the time. And the women come up to you, offering you, well...” he looks at Talulah, then over at me and smirks. “Maybe I shouldn’t talk about that in mixed company.”
“Maybe not,” Talulah says as she looks at me and rolls her eyes so quick and subtly I almost miss it, but just almost. We’re comrades, me and this glamorous creature, in spite of our stylistic differences and our taste in men.
“Well then,” I clap-clap my hands. “I’ll get dinner started. You all sit here and relax.”
“Let me help you,” Talulah gets up. Chet reaches towards her, but she’s too quick. She’s around the coffee table in no time, maneuvering like a quarterback to escape his grabby hands.
Normally I’d rebuff her offer. I hate people in the kitchen with me. I find it incredibly distracting. They want to chat, and thoughts fly out of my head while the beans burn, or I turn the burner on under the pasta pot, forgetting there’s no water in it yet, or I dress the salad with vinegar only. But maybe Talulah needs to get away from Chet and his off-the-charts racist, sexist, bigoted ways as much as I do. So I say, “That’d be great!”
Before I know it, we’re in the kitchen together, and I’m letting Talulah slice the olives for my pasta dish.
“Can you imagine what life is like for that poor dog?” she asks.
“He seems very fond of her,” I say.
“Yeah, right.” Talulah is chopping the olives. She starts to sing, “There was an asshole had a dog and Bingo was her name-o.”
We both laugh.
I really want to ask her, what’s a nice girl like you doing with a douche like him, even if it is just a first date, but instead I go with, “So what’s it like working with Chet?”
“Impossible,” she sighs. “But he’s got money to burn, which is an art consultant’s dream.” She’s chopping at weed-wacker pace and her jaw seems tight. “Honestly? I need this gig. I’m in a financial hole.”
“Ah,” I sigh, “I know about financial holes.”
“I mean, let’s be real. Chet’s a bore, right?”
Chet is my husband’s boss. Talulah is his date. His ‘lady friend.' Clearly not his girlfriend. Yet. Still, maybe she’s setting me up somehow? “You could say that,” I nod, trying to keep it tame.
Talulah stares at me with gorgeous deep brown, heavily mascara-ed eyes. She’s about to say something else when Dimitri appears at the kitchen door.
“Um, Amanda, where’d you put Emmett’s old guitar?”
“In the back of his closet, behind all those books he’s never going to read again but refuses to let me get rid of. Why?”
“Chet wrote a song he wants to play for us.” Dimitri is sporting a fakey-fake smile. “Once I get the guitar and he’s ready, can you two come back to the living room?”
“No prob,” I say, turning the burner off and making a note to myself to turn it back on when I’m allowed back in the kitchen.
“Great,” Dimitri says and dashes away in search of the guitar. It’s then when I finally get to ask Talulah, “You seem so familiar to me. Have we ever met before?”
Talulah looks worried. She pauses, and it’s clear she’s making some kind of bargain with her own psyche. Then, presto change-o! She flashes me one of her cover girl smiles and says, “I’m not sure. Maybe.” She hands me the chopped and ready olives.
“Thanks,” I say as I dump the olives into a big bowl. I’d ask Talulah more, but I’m so cautious I’m like the conversational equivalent of a tree stump. We chop and dice in awkward silence for a moment when finally Dimitri calls from the living room.
“Come on in, girls. Chet’s ready.”
“Oh Lordy,” Talulah fans herself as if she’s in a non-air conditioned subway car. “This is gonna be a trip.”
Chet is sitting upright, tuning my eldest son’s semi-forgotten guitar. Dimitri is back to forearm hair-plucking, which is slightly less annoying than scalp rubbing. Talulah sits next to Chet, but with more of a gap between them than before. I remain standing with a wooden spoon in my hand, trying to look like a gourmet chef who needs to get back to work as soon as possible.
Chet clears his throat. He proceeds to sing a song that is a mish-mash of guttural calls and whistles. He hums and then blurts incomprehensible phrases that sound like a blend of Yiddish and Portuguese. He nods his cleft chin, and the fox-like hair flops in his eyes. All the while he’s thumping his hand on the side of the guitar. The strings are barely strummed. When he’s done, Chet is gauging our reactions. He’s eager and expectant, like my sons used to be after they played mediocre pee-wee soccer on D-list teams. Back then we’d lie, telling them they were awesome.
I am so overwhelmed with Chet’s display of clueless, terrible dreck, if I try to talk I’ll break down in hysterics. I can see out of the corner of my eye that Talulah seems to be in a similar state.
My brave husband rises to the occasion. “Wow,” Dimitri says, “that was, ah, some song.”
“Thanks, Dim.” Chet places the guitar string-side down on the coffee table, leans back against the couch cushions, and yawns. “It comes from a really raw place. Deep, man, really deep. Kinda takes it out of me. But I guess that’s what being creative is all about. Amanda, as a writer, you’d know about that, right?”
I’m past the hysterics but still not capable of safe verbal exchange. All I can do is grin. I probably look like a demented jack o’lantern.
Talulah pats Chet’s knee. “Bravo, Maestro!” she says, then turns to me. “We’d better get back to work, Amanda.”
As she rises, Chet gives her a slap on the ass. Talulah’s face darkens, and she looks like she’s going to turn around and deck him. But she doesn’t. She’s back to glamour and sweetness in a blink of an eye. Together, she and I saunter away.
“Okay then,” I say as cheerily as possible when we’re back in the kitchen. “Where were we?”
Talulah’s taken a fierce stance, both hands on her hips. “That stuff about the people in the Philippines? Natives? That shit about the women offering sex? Fuck that.”
I envy her defined triceps. I worked on my triceps many moons ago during three complimentary personal training sessions I got as a sign-on bonus at my gym. I assume my triceps are still there, hiding somewhere under my saggy upper arm flesh.
“So it was the Philippines Chet was describing.” I turn the burner on for the pasta water. And yes, I remember to fill the pot also. “I was wondering where he’d been. Sounds like he enjoyed himself.”
“Chet’s an asshole,” she says.
“Not the most tactful guy I’ve ever met.” I’m still trying to be Switzerland.
“That song?” she cries. “Like a bad SNL skit.”
It is really hard not to join her on the Chet-bashing train.
“And that jerk slapped my ass. Without asking! I don’t mind a bit of slapping when it’s consensual. That was a very non-consensual slap.”
“Now where did I put the balsamic?” This may be more information than I’m prepared to digest. I start opening and shutting cabinet doors.
“Come on, Amanda. This isn’t like you.”
How would she know what I’m like? When I risk a quick glance back, I find Talulah staring at me, like she knows me, like really knows me.
“Whaddya mean?” I squeak. I’m Jimmy Cricket, moving around the kitchen like a jumpy insect.
“Okay. Time to get real,” she says. “You weren’t like this in college.”
“Aha!” I stop hopping and stare back at Talulah. “So we have met. We went to college together.”
She nods. “I remember you walking past Fraternity Row, flashing your tits, giving the finger to cat-calling frat boys hanging off their balconies.”
I did that. For real.
“DREAM ON, CRETINS. YOU’LL NEVER GET A HOLD OF THESE.” Talulah grabs her own, much nicer boobs in homage to my favorite college rant.
I blush. “Did we, um, hang out?” I feel bad I don’t remember her because clearly she remembers me.
“Not so much. Just a bit,” she sighs. “I was very different back then.”
“Weren’t we all?” I sigh, too, and for a moment we’re quiet, remembering our younger idealistic selves, girls who called themselves women, braless, hairy, fearless, gorgeous creatures who could and would have sex with anyone they chose, who protested wars, unfair labor practices, who rallied for freedom of speech, who played guitars and zithers and danced topless whenever they could.
“Alright, I’ve been trying to find the right time to lay this on you, so here it comes.” Her mouth is a taut lipstick line, her eyes are dark and steady. “You might remember me as Thomas.” Talulah stares at me. And then I start to see her, or rather, him. Thomas, a thin graceful guy who hung out with a bunch of Semiotics snobs, a clique I wasted half of sophomore year trying to break into. Thomas smoked Gitanes like the rest of them. He wore a flamboyant, paisley silk scarf around his neck. He did entire London Times Sunday Crossword puzzles without any hesitation. I think he played the piccolo. He stayed on the edge of their pretentious parade by choice, while I desperately wanted to march along, waving my copy of Barthes “A Lovers Discourse” or singing the praises of Derrida. Mostly I remember Thomas was the only one in that clique who paid any attention to me.
Thomas had been best friends with Lars, a waspishly gorgeous blond god I had a hopeless crush on. But I was invisible to Lars. He only had eyes for Sarah, a ruling class pothead with a horsey overbite and ties to the Rockefellers.
But Lars is beside the point. It’s Talulah who matters, Talulah who grins at me now. I definitely remember this smile. The only difference is 30 years ago there wasn’t a smooth coating of coral lipstick highlighting the openness or lack of pretense.
“Thomas!” I can’t believe it, but I can. “Holy shit!”
Talulah puts a finger to her lips.
“Ohhh,” I whisper, “Chet.”
“He doesn’t know.”
“Obviously,” she smirks. “Hey, do you remember that party where you and I talked about Petticoat Junction for hours?”
And then it comes back to me, a glorious flash of nostalgia. A smoke-filled, sparsely furnished off-campus apartment. Nina Simone on the stereo. Gesticulating post-pubescent know-it-alls mingling about. Thomas and I were happy schlumped on a saggy couch, talking un-ironically about Petticoat Junction. No deconstructing, no analyzing. No Derrida-ing. Just a couple of fangirls, as we would now be called, gushing about the Jo’s: Betty, Bobbie, and Billie. Toot, toot.
I take her in. “How long have you...” I falter, “when...how...” I sound like an idiot. I’m cool with all sorts of gender variables, I am, but this is Thomas from college! Thomas! And he-she is kind of, sort of, dating my husband’s boss!
“I’ve known I was Talulah since the day I was born. But this...” she traces a long line from her left shoulder to her right hip, as if she’s drawing a beauty queen’s sash, “this has been a work in progress for the last five years.”
“You look amazing.”
She flicks a wrist and rolls her eyes. “You’re too sweet.”
“No. Seriously. You’re so fucking gorgeous, I can’t stand it.”
She shrugs. “Alright. You win. I am.”
“What a coincidence,” I squeal, “you coming here tonight.”
“Well, it’s one thing we can thank Chet for. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see you again. I’ve been following your writing for years. I always said Amanda Lowenstein is gonna do something important.”
“Who’d you say that to?”
“Oh, all those self-important creeps. Lars, Andrew, that bitch Betsy, Stoner Sarah.”
I feel a sense of accomplishment I haven’t felt in months. Years. Decades.
“You really got a bum rap on that Frances Wyvern thing,” Talulah says.
I shake and hang my head. “No. I deserved the ire. I fucked up. I got lazy. I should’ve been more diligent with background checks.”
Talulah grabs me by the shoulders. “Listen. Take it from a former faker. When someone wants to pretend they’re something they’re not, if they work hard enough, they can fool anyone. That sad little man who led you to believe he was a fantastic woman? Guaranteed somewhere inside that guy, that’s who he is. But his insides don’t match his outsides. And you got caught in the in-between.” Her grip is strong, guy strong. I think how marvelous it would be to have her kind of physical strength, her kind of beauty. But mostly her kind of bravery.
“Betwixt and between.” I’m suddenly exhausted, so I lean forward and turn my head to rest my cheek on Talulah’s chest. “Nice pair,” I sigh. “Mine are like two partially deflated Aerobeds.”
Talulah chuckles and my cheek bounces on her fantastic, if somewhat fabricated, firmness.
“We should’ve hung out more in college,” I sigh.
“That’s for damn sure,” she says.
“We could hang out now?” I offer.
“That’s for damn sure,” she repeats.
I lift my head and look up at her face. Her eyebrows are so beautifully shaped. Maybe she’ll take me for a makeover? I could use a makeover. “So, pardon my ignorance. But how does it work? Do you tell guys? Will you tell Chet?”
“It depends. Some I tell, some I don’t. Because,” she lets go of my shoulders, and points to her crotch, “I haven’t done the ultimate yet.”
“You still have a, a, ...”
“Oh yeah,” she drawls, “and it’s a nice package. I’m gonna be sad when it’s gone. But only kind of sad. Meanwhile I’ve decided I’m gonna shock the shit out of our friend Chet tonight. Get him all riled up, then whip it out and wipe the smug smile off that pompous sucka.” She does the sassy head lolling thing that only a woman as majestic as she can pull off without looking like an idiot.
“But what about the Montauk job? What if Chet fires you? What about your financial hole?”
“Amanda, really,” Talulah shakes her head, “we may be a couple of old biddies, but we’ve still got to challenge the patriarchy when we can. Even if it means we lose a chunk of change. Misogynistic dickwad fighting. That’s the real job.”
“There is a God!” I stage whisper and shake both fists victoriously. “But be careful. He’s a big guy.”
“Ah,” she waves a hand dismissively, “I can take him down with one hand tied behind my back if I have to.”
And I believe her. “You have to call me tomorrow and give me all the details.”
After we exchange phone numbers, we get back to work, boiling pasta, kitchen girl talk, catching up on grown up lives.
Dimitri pops his head through the kitchen door just as we’re putting on the finishing touches.
“Everything okay in here?” he asks.
“Right as rain,” I say with a smile.
“How much longer until we eat? Chet’s got low blood sugar and says if he doesn’t eat soon he might faint or something.”
“Is that a promise?” Talulah asks.
Dimitri is at a loss for words.
“Don’t worry, Dim,” I say, “she’s one of us. Dinner will be ready in five. Meanwhile tell Chet to chew on these.” I gently lob a bag of carrots in Dimitri’s direction.
Dimitri catches the carrots, then looks at Talulah to gauge her reaction. She is, of course, smiling. Dimitri looks relieved and confused at the same time. He leaves with the bag of carrots swinging in his hand while Talulah and I finish our preparations.
When we’re done, I follow Talulah to the dining room with bowls and platters of goodness. I think how we might’ve been fearless back in the day, but we were also pretty ignorant and blind. We had secrets. Now we’re wiser. Braver. Or at least Talulah is.
Me? I’ve still got some learning to do. But as I watch my new friend sashay ahead of me, as I admire her perfect, dare I say slap-worthy ass, I think: Let the dogs walk themselves. She’s arrived, she’s the real thing, and I have a new profile to write.
Alice Kaltman is a writer and surfer who splits her time between Brooklyn and Montauk, New York. "Boss Man" appears in STAGGERWING, a collection of stories that released last month from Tortoise Books. Other stories appear or are forthcoming in numerous places including Whiskey Paper, Storychord, Longform Fiction, the Atticus Review, Chicago Literati and Joyland. For more, visit alicekaltman.com, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
Marni Manning is a Fairfax, Virginia-based illustrator specializing in watercolor and colored pencil. Recently her work has shown at Artomatic Frederick in Maryland and Gristle Art Gallery in Brooklyn, and next month she'll be part of Spoke Art Gallery's "Bad Dads VII" show in NYC. For more, visit marnimanning.com and follow her on Instagram or Facebook.
Jon Patrick Walker is a singer-songwriter and actor currently living in London. In March 2016, Jon released his second full-length album, People Going Somewhere, which received critical acclaim and charted on numerous college stations around the country. As an actor he has appeared on Broadway, in films and on television. For more, visit JpWalkerMusic.com.