You meet Barbara in Central Park when Charlotte is a round puppy. Barbara is part of the morning Labrador group, the group you saw by the reservoir one day when you decide that’s what you want: a Labrador. Your puppy is one year younger than everyone else’s by the time you join but you are now part of the group. The group is an eclectic mix whose only common feature is you all own Labradors, although perhaps that choice may imply some commonality. For example, you did not get your dogs at the shelter or save them in the streets of Accra when you were Peace Corps volunteers. This is a group who as individuals sought out breeders and found dogs with pedigree. You never mention that you found Charlotte in the backyard of a trailer in the Hudson Valley and she was next-to-runt of a 13-puppy litter. She does have papers, and you prefer her long legs and slender body to the squat English Labradors anyway.
You are welcomed into the group which includes the sommelier of Le Cirque restaurant, who owns two thick black Labs of different ages. He always has a good story to tell, or gossip, like the time he saw Martha Stewart and Donald Trump dine together. He also confirms, as you suspect, that all the slender young gorgeous women at the bar are Russian prostitutes.
The group also includes the entertaining and charming wife of a European diplomat with a Field Labrador like your own Charlotte. She, too, is a font of inside information of the global political kind. She tells the group, laughing, about how her handsome son gets blow jobs from the girls in his private school on the Upper East Side; you cringe because your fourteen-year-old daughter doesn’t talk as much to you as she used to; you are glad she is at a different school. One morning, after W is president, Diplomat’s wife tells the group how, when they raided Saddam Hussein’s palace seeking weapons of mass destruction, they found a closet full of Botox and blackberry jam. It is unclear whether the Botox is to treat Hussein’s vanity (photos reveal a deep worry crease in his forehead), blephoraspasm, (eye seizures—the original reason Botox was invented), or, in fact, is to be considered bacterial warfare, given its paralyzing features. No one can or cares to explain the stash of blackberry jam.
In the group tangentially is a flabby-faced, argumentative younger woman lawyer who always wears leggings and is having a hard time conceiving. She tells you how to lose weight and you wonder why she feels she has the right to do so, why she is telling you her dieting tricks that don’t seem to work. She is remarkably hard on her handsome, gentle husband who sometimes comes to the park with their Lab in her stead.
And then there’s overdressed Barbara, vivacious and upbeat with her squat and big-headed English yellow Labrador. You both appreciate more than the rest of them the cherry blossoms in spring and the maple leaves in the fall and you talk garden because you both have country houses. She is an expert maybe over-the-top gardener, if the rest of her life is any indication. You have children roughly the same age who track.
It isn’t clear whether Barbara and hers pretend to be the perfect family for everyone else or whether they really think they are, or they really are. Perfect in a number of ways. For one, there are four of them, one of each. A mother, a father, a daughter, a son. Barbara, Mike, Chloe, Christopher. Typical in the non-typical way, since these kinds of typical families rarely exist anymore; not perfect, yet something to shoot for. But perfect in that we just got back from Paris kind of way. More than normal. But they aren’t normal, of course. The slight limp in Mike’s gait tells a lot of the story, but not all of it. It is just a clue, a clue to approach slowly.
One by one, over the years, the Labrador group disbands. Diplomat dog is attacked in another setting and is never the same. Diplomat’s wife was the glue, so the group is at risk. Le Cirque closes, and Sommelier moves to the country and opens a wine store. Flabby is not very interesting on her own, in fact she was never interesting, just angry, and so you and Barbara continue to seek each other out, find each other in the park every morning, and find ways to avoid Flabby.
By now, you know a lot about each other, given the therapy-like nature of the dog park dynamic, although your dogs don’t interact much once they are adults. Charlotte is interested only in raiding baby strollers of bagels and cookies. Sorry, sorry, you say as you run to pull her away by the collar. You feign surprise, say that never happens but carry a five-dollar bill in your front pocket to whip out to compensate the irate parent of the shrieking child. Barbara’s dog carries a tennis ball in his iron jaw.
Even though the unspoken rule dictates you don’t see dog friends outside the park, you do, because you enjoy each other’s company, and you are perhaps aspiring or lonely, so you let Barbara absorb you.
You hear a lot about Barbara’s extraordinary family before you meet them. Her children are exceptional. Her husband is attentive, so good to Barbara. She tells you that on her birthday, and on Mother’s Day, he makes her breakfast in bed. Brings her flowers. Takes her to a romantic dinner and a show. They are still in love. You believe her.
They hold a tree-trimming party every year. And a red-carpet Oscars party. You like to get dressed up once in a while but wonder why anyone would want to trim someone else’s tree when you can’t get anyone to trim yours. You find out that no one really trims the tree. You eat petite delectables from a silver tray and drink a lot and meet other rich thin people from New York, even though you are not rich nor thin.
The Serbian housekeeper, or a swift young man in a dark suit, opens the door, and takes your wrap and hangs it in the foyer closet. There is no throw it on the bed thing in their home. Someone, maybe Mike, steps forward with a flute and a bottle of champagne, immediately, offers you a glass. It is real champagne, too, not sparkling wine from Germany or prosecco. And there’s lots of it.
Barbara bursts into the room with a smile, brimming, jubilant. That is, if she isn’t still getting ready. You arrive early, on the dot, in part to be supportive, in part because you can’t help yourself. Barbara is always late, even for her own parties. And you wonder, how can someone be late for her own party? Mike winks and nods, conveying this is part of her charm, that his bouncy wife, clad in, gripped by, some designer dress worth thousands of dollars, is still dolling herself up. You wonder whether there is tension behind closed doors.
And although not as svelte as many of her guests, like, say, the woman who was a principal in the New York City Ballet, Barbara looks fabulous. Just slightly red-headed with flawless, pore-less skin, which may have been touched up by the plastic surgeon who is Mike’s best friend. Her halo of energy captivates you. Whatever is on your mind or concerns you, like the fact that she is late for her own party, vanishes, because her energy takes over the room, over you. She bubbles, champagne-like, about the tree or who will win best actor.
You don’t really care that much about either, but you are seduced by her love of it all. You’re not sure you like all the pomp and circumstance, all the gold, when she shows you the antique side table she has sanded and re-gilded herself. You’d back up your Volvo if you saw it in a pile on the street and whisk it away, but it is not your style. It doesn’t really interest you, but it interests her, and she is proud of her work, so you ooooo and ahh, you run your finger along the edge, because you know you should, because it will make her happy. Even happier.
The tree is big and full. They picked it themselves and brought it home from the Catskills. The ornaments are her grandmother’s, of course. With delicacy, Barbara hooks an antique reindeer onto the end of a bough as she tells you so.
Barbara made all the little canapes that afternoon, complicated ones with tiny sprigs of dill and pastry and cream and home-smoked salmon. Not just generous wheels of imported aged cheese with artfully tossed candied walnuts and dried cranberries, but there’s some of that, too. And flowers, fresh aromatic, over-the-top bouquets and maybe even an entire sideboard of moss and flowering dogwood and lily of the valley.
Can that be true? She smokes her own salmon?
Everything is so perfect except that Mike walks with a limp and has the voice of a mobster.
You are surprised the first time you meet him because he doesn’t fit Barbara’s description. He has not quite a comb over and a hard edge and no sense of humor and will know more than you no matter what you talk about. You will never see him smile. He reminds you that he sculpts and shows you some of his pieces on pedestals in the living room which you think aren’t bad. He will insist he is an excellent tennis player; you don’t doubt him, but it is hard to contain your surprise given the laborious way he walks. It is clear that he has worked hard to overcome his childhood polio and the Bronx, all that he must have endured, and he wants everyone to know it has been full-steam ahead as a self-made man. That he loves the opera and appreciates fine food, he knows his wines, has his own driver and a place on Shelter Island and a sailboat.
Barbara and Mike take you out for dinner to fancy, sophisticated restaurants and night clubs, late at night, later than you are used to, in that New York way, which is not really your way. Their driver drives you home. Mike won’t let you pay, so you reciprocate in other ways, by treating Barbara when it’s just the two of you, say.
Mike and Barbara show you extraordinary hospitality. You are their third wheel, when you are not seeing someone, double date when you are. They set you up with Mike’s plastic surgeon friend. Although he is smart and articulate, you have a hard time with his profession, what he stands for. He is not your type, and you are not his. You know you would be a project with your big nose and imperfect skin, and while some part of you is tantalized by the prospect of being perfect, too, it is against everything you believe in, what you scorn. You don’t see each other again in that way and are polite when you see each other at future tree trimming or Oscaring and pretend to not know each other when either of you brings a date.
When you try to understand what Mike does, it never makes sense. He has a private investment business, a partner you never meet. He travels, he does deals. He owns or leases hundreds of thousands of acres in Papua New Guinea that he will clear cut to grow other things. You try to hold back outrage—you have been reading a lot about PNG because it is at the top of your bucket list—but he describes it in such a way that it seems he is saving the place. What about the fragile ecosystems that host the intricate, unique birds of paradise and the peoples yet untouched by diet Coke? Mike says he will set aside a certain amount as a reserve, which wouldn’t happen otherwise. He will feed hungry people. He is saving PNG. He gives the biologists three months to do an ecosystem survey, which you know is a blink of time, nothing, to do meaningful research. He seems to care about the environment, but you don’t see how what he says squares with what he does. You try not to ruffle feathers, but you may be operating in denial here, not wanting to know, knowing you can’t change what he is doing. You contemplate boycotting them or ask Barbara about it. You will on other occasions try again to understand what he does, maybe when he arrives back from a trip, probe and plunder, but you never will feel comfortable about this. You wonder where you are supposed to draw the friends line.
You will never forget about the time the three of you go to a movie, a premiere. Mike secures tickets ahead of time, four great seats in the center, ten rows in from the screen. Four, so you can stow your winter coats in the extra seat. The theater lights dim. All the seats are occupied, so people arriving late keep asking is that seat taken, the one with the coats? And Mike says, in his gruff, mafia voice, “I bought that ticket.” It just doesn’t make sense to people, that he bought a seat, for $15, the price of a movie in New York, for coats. They are exasperated looking for a seat for themselves. It is one of those grey situations that no one is right, no one is wrong, but everyone’s pissed. You are embarrassed but enjoy the luxury of not having to sit on your coat, and not having to fight for it, but it’s unseemly.
Then there’s Chloe, a perfect specimen, thin and angled, a vegetarian, of course. She remembers your name, greets you like an old friend, even though you are her mother’s age, her mother’s friend, because she wants to work where you used to work. She wears tiny dresses that cost thousands of dollars per square inch. You are surprised her bedroom is a tornado when you explore the apartment pretending to look for the bathroom. Shopping bags and tissue paper, bright pink lacy thongs and rejected evening- wear are strewn across the floor, the unmade bed. She is just in from Paris or Rome or Boston.
You eventually find the bathroom, right where Barbara said it was, where it was last time, with a flickering candle obfuscating potential smells and softening the overhead light. The hand towel is plush-new.
Chloe, who speaks French and learned Italian because she now has a gorgeous, wealthy Italian boyfriend who thinks she is exquisite, is doing better now. All through middle school and most of high school, Barbara speaks of Chloe’s academic prowess and exceptional SAT scores, record-beating track meets, ribbon-garnering horseback riding, the summer research jobs, and how she will go to Yale.
And then one day Barbara comes to the park looking tired and says that Chloe has been taken away during the night.
“We staged an intervention.”
“They came at four in the morning and handcuffed Chloe and took her away.” There was screaming, a struggle.
This is the first you hear of Chloe’s drug issue. That she had been running in the wrong crowds, which is easy to do in New York City, that she was out all night long clubbing and developing a habit. That it had gotten so bad and out of control and then came to a screeching halt all in thirty seconds for you is immaterial because it is not your story, but you are surprised you had not heard about any of this until this morning when it began and ended all at once.
“She is going to a farm in New Mexico.”
Perfectly manicured, lace-thonged, rake-thin Chloe has a drug problem that will go away shoveling shit in New Mexico.
She will not go to Yale after all.
Her unexpected gap year will become her college essay, her learning, and she will go to Colorado College. She will somehow nip all those drugs in the buds and do well enough. She straightens out. She will work for her father. She is good at math and spreadsheets. She consults you about consulting.
Barbara confides in you that there is tension between Mike and her. Mike spoils Chloe, buying her handbags and fur coats, and anything else she wants. Is that before or after rehab, you can’t remember.
And then there’s Christopher, who is your daughter’s age technically, but who acts like a middle-aged man. At the Oscars or tree trimming party he wears a long smoking jacket and velvet slippers with emblems. His hair is like his mother’s, big and wavy with just a touch of red, a hint of Kennedy. He can talk about politics and the election, in Latin probably, better than most adults. He holds his own. He will go to Harvard, or Oxford. And maybe it is Christopher who is pouring the champagne one of those evenings, for one of those gatherings. He, too, remembers your name and who you are.
It is decided that Christopher will go to boarding school, where he can play more tennis and sail. He is a star tennis player, like his father. Mike’s driver ferries Christopher to his tennis lessons in midtown twice a week. He is ranked, as he is in sailing. But over the summer, Christopher develops pain, excruciating pain in his wrists and legs. He takes a bevy of tests. His body is screaming, screaming in pain, screaming to stop. He stops.
He seems of a different era, and you can see why boarding school might be good for him, in that past-generation kind of way. Everyone’s ecstatic but not surprised when he is accepted to one of the top schools. When they move him in, Barbara outfits his room like a Ralph Lauren showcase. The other students don’t understand the velvet window treatments and oriental rugs. It seems pretentious, although it isn’t clear whether it is pretention or the real thing. His thing. Them.
He is acing all his classes, so you hear, loving it, until one day, Barbara tells you in the park, that he is expelled from school for cheating. Inadvertent or deliberate, he has lifted whole paragraphs of Latin translations from the internet, and it is likely not the first time he has done so, but part of a concerning pattern.
Over the next few months, park conversations revolve around where a student goes after he’s been caught cheating. What school takes him halfway through the year? God forbid, he goes to public school in New York City where he will probably be beaten up.
But there he is, back home not just for the Oscars or the tree trimming party but living again. And you are not sure how to interact with him but give him a polite kiss as you always have. He refills your glass. You think you might understand why he has cheated.
Somehow, they find another boarding school that will take Christopher. The school takes fuck-ups, kids who struck out in one way or another, so it’s good that he will finish the school year, and high school, but not good because everyone—meaning colleges and anyone who matters—knows that’s where fuck-ups go.
A couple months later, Barbara and Mike get a phone call from the school. Something is going wrong, even for fuck-up school. Christopher takes too many showers for the average bear. He wears his clothes for an hour or just touches them, and lets them fall to the floor, sullied. Barbara’s plush towels are washed threadbare. He has no more clean clothes. He is naked, won’t leave his room. When he comes home, he uses rolls and rolls of paper towels. He doesn’t touch door knobs with his hands. A pile of slightly crumpled paper towels accumulates beside the bathroom door. He takes five showers a day, for an hour. Uses the towel once.
Barbara is at a loss. She is losing it. He is driving them all insane.
This goes on for months, until they rent an apartment for Christopher to live separately but nearby. He is now eighteen and hasn’t finished high school. But he’s finished 1,543 rolls of paper towels. Because he is emancipated, they cannot force him to take the medication. But because he is incapacitated they pay for his apartment. He only leaves his apartment to get more paper towels. He runs out of money and begins to steal paper towels. He gets caught stealing. He’s cracked.
And then, in the middle of all this, there is more.
What you don’t know, and Mike doesn’t, and Barbara and they don’t, is that there is something growing in Mike’s head. At first it is just a blurry eye and then a splitting headache, and then within a week they, and you, find out that Mike has a tumor and he has less than a year to live. You find out because Barbara, who continues to come to the park even after her dog dies from eating a philodendron leaf, doesn’t come to the park anymore.
You are with Barbara for that year, his last year, which is fraught with optimism and pain and canapes and tree trimming like all those before. Everyone raises their glass as if nothing is happening. The housekeeper grabs you when Barbara is out of the room to tell you how crazy everyone is, and how she wants to quit. But she is still there months later, even though or because her own husband is dying.
The landlords of the house they rent on Shelter Island don’t renew their lease, which comes as a surprise to you for different reasons than for them. You thought they owned their house on Shelter Island. But it turns out they have rented that house for twenty years and Barbara decorated and gardened and planted a dozen trees that final year, and then the landlord pulled the house from under them.
Mike sues the landlords just before he dies. And then he dies. Not suddenly, because everyone is on notice, everyone is expecting it, but even so, when the moment comes it feels like a surprise. You feel badly for Barbara, of course, but cannot help but think and thank that maybe Papua New Guinea is spared.
The memorial service remembers Mike’s love of opera and elegance, his love of Barbara. Somewhere in that man was a tenderness, a thoughtfulness. Tree-trimming and Oscaring party guests are in the pews in muted fare. Barbara’s mother doesn’t come to the funeral because Barbara’s sister told Barbara not to burden their elderly mother with the news. You meet Barbara’s sister who never liked Mike, didn’t think Barbara should have married Mike. Barbara had many, many suitors that were more suitable and she should have settled for one of them. Barbara has told you that her sister is angry and bitter because she married late and never had children.
A couple days after Mike is interred, Barbara calls you at 7:00 AM from her car. You pick up, ready to console Barbara in her grief.
“I had to move everything out of the summer house. Yesterday, the movers filled a truck and my car. I’m selling the sofa and the sailboat.” Barbara spent the night in her BMW X5 in Long Island on the side of the road. She laughs uncontrollably.
Ha, ha! She is always bubbly.
“Barbara, you should have called me!” You had no idea. Everything falls apart all of a sudden with Barbara. It’s always over when she calls. You suggest slowing down. She accelerates.
Barbara finds out that Mike left no money, no funds, no health insurance. Taxes are due. There are enormous, unmanaged medical bills, and Christopher. Weeks earlier, Mike renewed the lease on their New York City apartment, which you also thought they owned. The rent is $13,000 a month, and you wonder why on earth they would renew under the circumstances, or any circumstances. You would never rent anything for that much money. But certainly not under the circumstances. But then you realize that is precisely why they re-upped the lease: It was their lease on Mike’s life.
Overnight, his business goes poof! Gone because it was just him and his partner, a shell, and the partner’s moving on, the invisible partner. Barbara is laughing and crying and wondering how she will pay rent. Her sister who has all the money in the world never liked Mike. Her sister won’t lend her anything. She’s such a bitch.
Barbara cannot even mourn with her own mother because she didn’t tell her mother that Mike was dying, Mike is dead.
Why isn’t Barbara angry at Mike for leaving her this mess? Did she know all along that the whole thing was a sham? She is smart and was in business before. She should have known. (You should have known. Did you?) They could have reigned it all in. And now she has the apartment and Christopher’s rent to pay, debts, and not a dime, and she’s emptying the twenty-year summer rental. It’s all so exhausting and Barbara’s laughing.
You remember all the money that was spent, the lavishness. The coat seat. You were part of it all. Barbara still has her full-time housekeeper. She perpetuates her lifestyle even as the sordid underbelly reveals.
The following week when you check in on Barbara, she is starting a jewelry line, maybe a lifestyle business. That’s why she needs to keep her apartment. Everyone wants to be her, have her look, her life, she says. You buy a necklace from her to help, the cheapest thing you can find on her dining room table for $300, even though she tells you she marks things up by twenty times and you usually only buy things on sale or in the open-air markets of developing countries where there are no middlemen. You pretend to believe her when she says she designs this stuff herself, even though you have seen things just like it all over Asia. She travels to the Philippines a couple times a year to bring things back. She has trunk shows.
A year later, Barbara’s mother dies. She leaves Barbara nothing, because she thinks Mike is still alive. That’s when Barbara realizes that’s why her sister told her not to tell her mother that Mike was dying, that Mike is dead. Bar-
bara’s mother wouldn’t leave anything to Barbara as long as Mike was in the picture. Barbara’s sister gets everything.
You come to the city for an event and suggest getting pedicures together but when you go to meet Barbara at her favorite place, she, of course, is running late, and it turns out to be one of those places that charge $50 for a pedicure, not $23, like the one you infrequently go to. You can’t believe Barbara is still doing this, under the circumstances, actually it kind of outrages you, since Barbara has been hinting she could use a loan. You leave before she arrives, which is a half-hour after you were supposed to meet. You understand why her sister won’t lend her money.
You want to help Barbara but now you know you can’t. You try to remember the last time Barbara asked you about you.
Barbara tells you that Chloe gets a job offer at the place you used to work but turns it down for a firm that is second tier, and you wonder how that can be.
Barbara is very busy, and you know in part it is to avoid being still, sidestep the pain, the swirl of horror around her. She keeps up her champagne life because it is what she is selling. You check on her, keep up for a while, but over time, with less frequency. You like things she posts on Facebook. You visit her, drop in or meet for coffee when you can, until it seems less and less convenient and the lies are so overwhelming that you don’t think you have much to talk about anymore. And you have tired of only listening. She doesn’t even know who you are.
You have a hard time accepting that Christopher lives off a government disability program in Utah, the cheapest place Barbara could find for him to live on his own. He has a therapist who meets with him monthly. When Barbara drops by to visit him on her way to California for a trunk show where she will sell $100,000 worth of extravagance, he will not open the door. She laughs when she tells you and says it doesn’t bother her. You wonder how it can not bother her, how she laughs.
You know that mental illnesses can be genetic. You wonder what the effect of living the gilded life, in a champagne bubble, in the cracks of truth, can do to a person. You find out that brain trauma can lead to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—many football players develop it—but it strikes you as bizarre and ironic that the trauma to Mike’s brain is manifest in Christopher.
The third anniversary of Mike’s death shows up on Facebook to remind you of how things can go so wrong when everything seems so perfect, so normal. When everyone’s smiling. You hover on the page and wonder what to write. You write nothing. You write this story.
Cynthia McVay lives on a defunct farm in the Hudson Valley, where she writes, forages, and makes art. Cynthia’s work has been/will be published in DASH, The Ravens Perch, daCunha’s Anthology 2, 2019 Orison Anthology, Ragazine and Eclectica. Her work was winner, the 2018 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction; performed in the UK, as Editors’ Choice winner, daCunha’s 2017 Flash Nonfiction Competition; short-listed, Anton Chekov Contest New Flash Fiction Review; finalist, 2nd Annual — Sunshot Book Awards; Honorable Mention, Writer’s Relief Peter K. Hixson Memorial Award: Short Stories; Honorable Mention, Glimmer Train Press’s Very Short Fiction contest; finalist, Palooka Chapbook Contest; finalist, New Millenium Writings Muse Contest; finalist, freeze frame fiction and non-fiction finalist, Bridging the Gap Awards at the Slice Writer’s Conference 2017.