Divorce and Other Arrangements
Later that day, Zwain raised his glass to propose a toast. He’d already passed through his dining room like a sommelier, filling our glasses with something bright and red. His was a long and lean body that, if he were to stretch his arms fully, would seem to occupy the entire room. Now he stood at the head of his table, a captain and his unlikely crew of five, and smiled: “Everyone happy?” he said. “Good. Salute.”
He cradled the glass in the narrow fingers of his left hand, holding it up toward a brass hanging light fixture. Zwain paused, searching for the words, his thick gold wedding band sparkling in the light. “I just want you all to know how happy I am,” he said, “how happy both Kimmy and I are that you’re here tonight. Everyone. Even if you did bring us torrential rains.”
Although I drank and laughed with the rest of them, my mind was on Laura. As I looked around the table—at the smiling Laura and the other guests, and at the wine and place settings—and as I breathed in the aromas of the food that Zwain was preparing for us, I became certain I shouldn’t have brought Laura here. That what I'd concealed from her (for what I believed were good reasons) would eventually be revealed. Up until the toast, she had been sitting quietly at her place, fidgeting nervously with her long dark hair, nodding and smiling as Kimmy shared anecdotes with her. She didn’t yet know how the rest of us had come to be here that night. For Laura it was only as I had told her: we were having dinner with my friends whom I had spoken of mostly in passing.
For the rest of us, I had begun to realize, that night was something altogether different. We were foundering in a form of détente, something that over the years had successfully repaired minor wounds suffered along the way. The strain hanging over the table, however, was palpable; and Zwain believed, naively I thought, he could fix everything with his renowned hospitality.
After topping off our wine glasses again to three-quarters full, he checked our place settings and seemed to be happy—certain that all was perfect. The dining room was pleasant and warm. Music, some jazz ballads and blues, played quietly in the adjoining unlit living room. This was my friend Zwain, the great orchestrator of moods. The dinner, the room, the house. All conspired to elicit calm and reason. The walls of his dining room were beige with detailed white crown moldings and chair rail. Floral-patterned pillows covered a window seat beneath a bow window facing the street. Even now, at night, we had a great view of a finely-manicured park. The lights along the street lit up the park like a stadium; its grass green and lush from the rains that hadn’t let up for over a month.
Up high on an antique mahogany hutch, two cats, one a tabby, the other a short-haired gray with a white torso, gazed down as Zwain, ever the perfect host, announced the course. “Crostone con funghi.”
It was time again to feast at Zwain’s.
He placed a large warm serving plate in the middle of the table onto two emerald-colored ceramic tiles. He positioned the plate between the opened bottle of red wine and Laura’s ashtray, and then smiled at me. “Don’t be afraid to use your hands, Chester.”
Stacked on the serving plate at the center of the table, the appetizer of warm bread with mushrooms and Italian ham looked perfect. Zwain took meticulous care that each portion was uniform in size and shape. I was sure if we took the time to count the mushrooms on each piece that we’d find an equitable distribution. It was an aspect of Zwain’s personality I found both engaging and completely infuriating. A light steam wafted from each piece, and a rich mushroom and egg sauce spilled over some of the pieces and onto the plate. It could have been a centerfold in Gourmet magazine.
“Mushrooms,” I said, as I reached for the serving plate.
Zwain disappeared through the swinging door into the kitchen.
“I’m starving.” Annie shifted on a wooden chair at one end of the table, tapping her fingers on a bright red and blue plate. She grabbed the white cloth napkin from on top of the plate, and laid it on her lap. She looked at the other four of us, and forced a smile. “Well, I am,” she said to Carlo.
Laura and I sat across from one another, with Carlo off to Annie’s side, and Kimberly at the other end. The smells of fresh garlic, mushrooms and spices filled the room. In the kitchen metal pans slid over gas burners, and water boiled.
The brass hanging light fixture—a Victorian reproduction with a foliage design going from the ceiling to the eight tiny bulbs no larger than candle flames—provided the only light in the room. Zwain had talked many times of redecorating this room, insisting that he really didn’t like the “ornate feel” as he called it. But the whole damn house had that feel, and I think he secretly liked it. I imagined him and Kimmy strolling arm-in-arm through his little house like a tour guide and his client, Zwain pointing out his obvious good taste. He had a good eye, I admit, not only for furniture and fixtures.
“Carlo, baby,” Annie said, offering her plate, “lay one on me.”
I asked Laura to put out her cigarette, and then bit into my appetizer.
Kimberly smiled toward me, and drank from her wine glass. As she shifted in her seat she said, “Zwain loves to cook.”
“You okay, Kimmy?”
She looked at me, even though Annie had asked the question, but didn’t answer.
“You just look like you went far away for a minute there,” I said.
“No, no, I’m fine,” Kimmy said, “I was just thinking about how long it’s been since we were all together like this.”
“Zwain’s house is so nice,” Laura said to Kimmy. “I mean, your house.” Laura smiled and blushed.
Carlo nudged Annie’s arm at this, and Annie hit him across his shoulder. “Don’t do that, I hate that.”
Surrounded by taller apartments and condominiums, Zwain’s house maintained a certain stature in the line of buildings facing north to the park. A gold plaque fastened to the front of the house read: “Built in 1885, and once occupied by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” Zwain hadn’t researched the accuracy of this claim, but he would be the last person to remove the thing. A gusting wind slapped hard against the house, rattling the window sashes.
“It’s a nice place, though, you’re right, Laura,” Carlo said, using a pleasant voice.
“So, you’re not from California originally, right Carlo?”
“Now, Laura, what makes you say that?”
“Well, you mean besides your Brooklyn accent? Chet told me.”
Annie laughed. “He tries to hide it, sweetie, but he can’t. I’m from upstate. We moved out here right after college.”
“Young lovers,” I said.
“Yeah, so we married young, Chet,” Carlo said without attempting to hide his accent. “Ain’t no crime there.”
“We never thought they’d stay, though,” Zwain said to Laura. “We were sure you’d be heading back east after two years, remember? Like all the other east coasters.”
“We’ll never leave,” Annie said.
“You can’t,” I said. “Carlo and Annie are wanted for some heinous crime that they won’t admit to.”
Annie told Zwain and me to shut up, that Laura might actually believe her. Zwain and I laughed and ate some more food.
“Somebody left a note on my car today,” Carlo said. He straightened his posture, looking around the table, ready for center stage. “That neighbor.” He looked at Annie.
“Which one?” Annie said, licking a finger. She watched Zwain pass her on the way to the kitchen. “These mushrooms are so good. What are they?”
Carlo looked down at his plate and closed his eyes as if he were in prayer.
“Porcinis!” Kimberly said, brightening.
“And portobellos,” Zwain yelled from the kitchen amid sounds of pots and pans and running water.
“I was going to say that.” Kimmy took a look around the table. Her napkin had fallen off her lap. “Are you going to have some?” she yelled to Zwain. As she reached to the floor, her fine brown hair fell across her face.
“Already did,” he said, “I’ll sit when I bring the main course. Secondi Piatti.”
“Secondi Piatti,” I echoed enthusiastically. “Your hair looks great long, Kimmy,” I said.
Kimberly thanked me, involuntarily fixed her hair, and looked away.
“The smells!” Annie said, casting an accusatory glance at me. “The smells from the kitchen! It’s so good. Everything is so good!”
I smiled at Annie, choosing to ignore the glance, and wiped my mouth with my napkin.
But she was off in another direction, looking at Carlo. “Don’t look at me like that,” she said to her husband. “Everything is really good, and I can say so if I want to. To tell you the truth, I’m a little jealous, Zwain. You’re a better cook than I am.”
“I know, baby,” Carlo said. “Everyone in the whole city, and for that matter in the whole goddamn state of California can smell just how great a chef Zwain is. But I’m trying to tell a story.” He looked hurt, and took his cheeks and chin between the fingers of his left hand and squeezed hard. “I should have shaved again.”
“I’m going to have to run a couple of extra miles tomorrow,” Laura said.
“You run?” Kimmy said, looking at Laura’s pack of cigarettes.
“I just smoke when I’m nervous.”
“Oh, don’t be nervous,” Kimmy said. “We’re just a bunch of hot air. It’s great that you run, though. Zwain," she yelled, "Laura runs too, isn’t that great?”
“Does everyone in the room run except for me?” I said.
“Gotta keep in shape, Chet," Carlo said. "You’re almost forty.”
“Running, or jogging or whatever you want to call it, never appealed to me.”
“I’ll work on him,” Laura said.
“My enthusiasm for exercise has long since passed.”
“Zwain and I are training for a 5K,” Kimmy said to Laura.
“If nothing else,” I said to Kimmy, “you two have always been fashionable.”
“Listen to the wind and rain.”
“Well that’s just it, Annie,” Carlo said, placing a full fork of food on his plate, “I mean, that’s why I parked there.”
“Okay, baby, so what happened?”
“I parked in that spot,” he said, “the one that might be illegal. Because of the goddamn rain. There’s this spot on our street,” he said to everyone. “close to our condo.”
“Don’t you guys have parking?” Zwain had walked in and was opening a bottle of white wine as he stood in the doorway. He said something to the tabby on top of the hutch and then rubbed its cheek.
“No,” Carlo said to Zwain. “Well anyway, some neighbor leaves me a note from one of those little spiral pads, you know? You know what kind I mean?”
“Like a cop.”
“Yeah, Zwain,” Carlo said, “I suppose. Yeah, cops have them, I guess,” he said, offering his empty glass to Zwain, who poured. “Thanks, buddy. So it’s the kind of a pad you might have in your pocket if you were that kind of a person.”
“What kind of a person?”
“I’m just saying,” Carlo said to Annie, “that this person might be the kind of a person who needs a little spiral pad in their top pocket.”
“But what does that mean?” Annie said.
“What does what mean?” He put down his wine glass.
“To need a little pad in your pocket? I mean, what are you saying?”
Zwain began to clear the plates. Kimberly offered to help but he waved her off.
“Maybe they’re forgetful,” Zwain said, and then slipped into the kitchen.
“So they’re forgetful,” Annie said. “They might have a lot on their minds.” As she wiped some strands of hair she looked at Carlo as if she couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of this himself. “This is not brain surgery.”
“That’s the point of the little spiral pad, now isn’t it?” Carlo said, frustrated.
“I like to do that too,” Laura said.
“What’s that, sweetie?”
“Make sure I write stuff down—to let somebody know, or to let myself know, what I think about something.” As she held her pack of cigarettes in her trembling hand, Laura looked at Carlo. “Maybe they just like to write people notes,” she said, and laughed. She dropped the pack on the table next to the ashtray.
“Maybe,” Carlo said, staring at his plate.
“Primi Piatti!” Zwain walked in, balancing several plates with steam rising from them, looking like a professional waiter.
“Ah, Primi Piatti. Penne al Mare!” My nose was an inch from my plate as I breathed in deeply.
“Our little Italian boys,” Laura said, blushing.
“Penne with shrimp and calamari.” Zwain reached to put her plate in front of her. “Hope you all like garlic.”
“Oh, the smells,” Annie said poking at her food with a fork.
The steam from the plates flowed busily and began to envelop the room. A fine layer of moisture collected on the windowpanes.
Zwain sat at the table between Laura and Kimberly. Putting a hand on Kimberly’s, he squeezed, but she pulled back. “The wind’s picked up a bit,” he said.
“You’re sitting now?” Kimberly said with a smile.
“So go on, Carlo.”
“I wish this goddamn rain would stop.”
“Wait,” I said. “One more toast.”
“Giancarlo LoPresti, watch your fucking mouth.”
“To our hosts,” I said raising my glass, “Zwain and Kimmy. May you both be happy in your new venture.”
“What new venture?”
“He means them getting back together, stupid,” Annie whispered to Carlo.
“I know that.”
“Whatever,” she whispered. “Here, here!” she shouted now, “to the happy couple.”
“Why, thank you, Chester.”
“Yes, thanks, Chet.”
“God,” Carlo said, “can we all stop trying to sound Italian? My father’s probably rolling in his grave.”
“Baby, do you want to tell your story now?”
“Annie, please, don’t give me that sarcastic bullshit.”
“Well you’re sounding pretty sarcastic if you ask me,” Carlo said pointing. “Doesn’t she sound sarcastic to you, Laura?”
“Leave Laura out of this,” Annie said. And then, looking at Laura, “Sweetie, you don’t know us well enough yet, but we’re always like this. You’ll get used to it.”
“I doubt it.” Carlo then leaned over to his wife and kissed her on the cheek.
“Go ahead,” Annie said, in a mothering tone that she often used on him, “tell your story.”
Carlo looked as if he’d just remembered something. He turned toward the window and hesitated. “Hey, listen to that. The rain stopped.”
Through the layer of moisture on the windowpanes, into the wet evening, glowed the blurred light from the street lamps and the park. Carlo now stood at the window. Using the side of his fist he wiped off one of the panes. “The fog’s rolling in.”
“Maybe we’ll be fogged in tonight.”
“Anyway,” Carlo said as he seated himself, “the point of the story was the note. It was short. And it was mean.” With his fork he speared some pasta and shrimp and bit, then washed it down with wine. “It’s unnerving to have somebody you don’t even know do that.”
“Carlo’s very sensitive. Aren’t you, baby.”
“Well, you are.”
“That’s nice,” Laura said, and then she took a long drink of wine.
“Who do you think wrote it?”
“I don’t know, Chet, maybe that old neighbor of ours. But it happened, what,” he looked at his watch-less wrist, “four hours ago? My heart’s still pounding.”
“Were you mad?” Laura asked.
“He was scared,” Kimberly said, without looking at Carlo. She looked around the table as we all stopped eating to look up at her. “You were scared,” she said, “right, Carlo?”
Carlo laughed and said, “The only thing that scares me, Kimmy, are bankers and FBI agents.”
“Okay, Carlo,” Zwain said, “I’ll bite. Why bankers?”
“Because they got you by the balls.”
“And the FBI?”
Carlo worked on loading up his fork with seafood and pasta, and then placed the pile of food into his mouth, took two bites and swallowed. “Because, little Miss Sarcasm,” he said, and then hesitated and gulped down some wine. “Because FBI agents know it. They don't need further explanation. They read your face, your actions. They can tell about you by the words you choose. They don't need to see your checking account balance to know what they have.” With the back of his hand, he wiped his mouth.
Zwain smiled at Carlo and stood up from the table, wiping his hands with his cloth napkin. He placed the napkin on his chair and then positioned himself behind Kimmy with his hands on her shoulders. Looking again around the table at each person as if he were taking inventory of what we’d eaten, he nodded his head at each of our place settings, tallying up the consumption to the minutest detail, I was sure. “You’re all doing quite well,” he said, an extra lilt in his voice; and then kissed the top of Kimmy’s head and walked through the swinging door to his kitchen.
“So who’s this neighbor?”
“What’s that, Chet?”
I had moved into the living room then. By the light of a small lamp on top of a stereo cabinet I read the jacket of a record album. I pushed my glasses higher onto the bridge of my nose and looked at my friends sitting at the table. “Will Zwain ever move to CD’s?”
“No,” Zwain said. He was clearing the plates from the table and bringing them to the kitchen. As Kimmy watched, Laura began to help straighten the table for the next course.
“Carlo thinks it’s some old guy,” Annie said.
“Don’t you like old people?”
“That’s not it, Kimmy.”
“Then what was it?” Zwain asked, as he walked out of the room.
“It’s getting old. Imagine something for me, Kimmy.” Carlo finished his plate and now leaned back, rubbing his chin some more and then folded his hands across his large stomach. “People not even born yet will be taking care of you someday.”
“What are you talking about?” I said, now sitting at the table. I had chosen new music, more upbeat and louder. “You’re on one of your rolls tonight, Carlo,” I said, remembering that the more he drank the more articulate he believed he became.
“You’ll be ninety,” Carlo said, ignoring me, “unable to put on your own shoes—and you’ll be walking down the street, right outside there near the park. And your son or daughter, or maybe worse, your grandson or granddaughter will be holding you up so that you don’t fall over and crack your head open on the sidewalk.” He looked only at Kimmy as he spoke. “And those people—where are they now? Not even a goddamn gleam in your pretty blue eyes.”
“Zwain and Kimmy don’t even have children.”
“Pollo e Pomodori.” Zwain rushed in with more food.
“You’re just so melodramatic, Carlo,” Kimmy said.
“Let’s eat,” Annie said.
“Calm down everyone.” Zwain smoothly distributed the plates of the next course to each guest. He glanced at Kimmy, who wouldn’t steer her determined gaze from Carlo’s.
“Well, Annie made a good point. What if you don’t have any kids?” Kimmy said to Carlo.
“Well Jesus, Carlo, you can’t be making these sweeping statements and then just give me that dumb fucking look of yours.”
“Don’t start with me, Kimmy, or you might make me say something that’s best left unsaid.” Carlo’s accent was in full swing. She’d made him mad, and now anything could happen. It was then that I realized where this was all heading. And I wanted to get myself and Laura as far away from my friends as I could. I was afraid to look at her because I was sure she was looking at me for some sort of guidance that I couldn’t give. I considered leaving right then and there, but I thought I’d try a different approach.
“Zwain’s right,” I said. “Let’s everyone relax.”
“Forget it, Chet.”
“Finish your story, baby. What did the note say?”
“Screw the story, Annie,” Carlo said. “Kimmy has something to say to me.”
“Don’t shrug me off like that, Carlo.”
“Why are you doing this, Carlo?” Now sitting next to Kimberly, Zwain fingered his empty wine glass. He looked at me, and then at Laura, and then back at Carlo, imploring him with his look. “Please don’t screw this night up.”
“It’s just not right, Chet,” Carlo said to me. “It’s not right and I’m going to say so.”
“You just did, Carlo. So let’s just drop it, and all be friends.”
“Well, what the hell, Zwain.”
“Chet.” Laura put down her fork. She lit a cigarette and raised her eyebrows at me.
“Laura, I’ll explain later. Honey, please don’t smoke.” The conversation had overwhelmed any escape plan that I may have been concocting. I needed, though, to tend to Laura before Carlo had gotten too far. But as I looked at Laura, and then at Kimmy, I froze, thinking that if I could just get past this moment I’d be able to explain everything—later.
Laura said my name again.
“Carlo,” Zwain said. He waited for Carlo to look at him. “I know about it.”
“What are you talking about, Zwain?”
“About Chet and Kimmy,” Zwain said, remaining calm.
“Well, what do you know?”
“Oh, god, baby, why are you doing this? Where’s the next course?”
“No, Annie. No more courses. No more food. No more wine. It’s a big goddamn charade. You want to play charades, guys? I know—we’ll get Laura to guess.”
“Have some more wine, Carlo.”
“Chet, I want to talk to you outside. Now.”
“Laura, please,” I said, “Carlo, you asshole, keep Laura out of this.”
“Wait a minute, Zwain,” Carlo said. “You knew about that?”
“That Chet and Kimberly got together last year while she and I split up? Yes.”
“Come on. And that didn’t bother you?”
“I love Kimmy,” Zwain said. “And I love Chet. So I understand.”
“Yeah, he’s funny that way.”
“Oh please, Kimmy. Save it,” Carlo said. “I told you. I told everyone a long time ago that you two wouldn’t work.”
“The voice of reason.”
“No. Forget that Kimmy. You should have gone away a long time ago.”
Laura said it was time for us to leave, and I tried to calm her with a word and a reassuring gesture. I must have looked pathetic to her. But the others ignored us.
“Gone where, Carlo?”
“After you and Chet got divorced way back when.”
“Divorced?” Laura now understood.
“Laura, I told you that Kimmy and I¼”
“Were married, Chet? You were married? You never told me you were married. Shit.”
“Jesus Christ, Chet. Did you tell her anything?”
“Carlo, shut up,” Zwain said, trying to save us all. “Laura, please, wait. It’s not what you think¼
“No, Zwain, really.” She stood up, dropped her lit cigarette into her water glass, and pushed her chair under the table.
“But it was just for a year—when they were very young.”
She shook her head and told Zwain that she appreciated how much work he’d put into this night. She said that although he was a great chef and an excellent host, he didn’t have a clue about her and what she was thinking.
“Chet, you’re killing me now,” Carlo said. “I mean, I thought you were smart.”
“Sweetie, we didn’t mean to..."
“Oh, please shut up, Annie,” Laura said. “I’m sure you’re trying to help, but please. Shut up.”
I followed Laura to the doorway of the hall and stopped. I watched her as she opened the closet and found her coat and umbrella. She turned toward me but wouldn’t look me in the eye. As she played with her hair, I considered very carefully what I should say. Should I have lied to her? Should I have said, It’s all a big farce, this talk of me and Kimmy? I hoped she would be the first to speak, but she just shook her head, all the while looking down at my feet.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Carlo is such an asshole for doing that.”
“Carlo? He’s right, Chet. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Laura, look at me, honey.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Laura, this was all before you and I ever met.”
“Why would somebody do that? Bring me here and not tell me. You must have known, Chet. You had to know that it would come out.”
“I’d hoped we could talk about it. I didn’t think until we got here that I should have said something first. Then, when I figured that out, we were already here. I decided to cross my fingers.”
“You’re so stupid, Chet. You could have everything. But you have nothing.”
She looked at me then, finally showing me the hurt and anger in her eyes.
“What should I have said to you, Laura? How could I have told you that only a year ago Kimmy and I took off? She and Zwain had split up—for good this time, she said. We drove down the coast. We spent the weekend at an inn, talking about our past. We made promises that we’d get it right this time. How could I have told you all that?”
“You could have told me like you just did, Chet. At least then I wouldn’t have had to go through this.” Then her expression changed, almost softening. “What happened? To you and Kimmy.”
“We were wrong, Laura. We actually figured out pretty quickly that our friendship couldn’t stand the strain of our relationship. So we did what we did.”
“Zwain is the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“Maybe I was wrong,” she said. “At least you have that.”
We said some more things, and resolved only to speak again the next day. But I wasn’t optimistic. She didn't ask me to go with her. And if she had, I don't think I would have. I had something of my own to resolve. I returned alone to the dining room, where the conversation had continued to escalate.
Kimmy was explaining to Carlo, in her most bitterly sarcastic tone, that life was not a Norman Rockwell painting.
“No, Kimmy? Well, look around you. The house, the dinner. The two goddamned cats on that hutch thing over there. Don’t lecture me about Norman Rockwell.”
“Where was I going to go, Carlo?” Kimmy, red-faced but keeping her composure, ignored him and moved on. “When Chet and I got divorced, where was I supposed to go?”
“Away, Kimmy. Back home where you came from.” Carlo pointed to the window as he said this. “You and Chet didn’t work out and that’s too bad, but you called it quits. Next step, you both go back home where you came from. Chet’s already home—so you go. That’s the way it works. But no way you should start up with Chet’s best friend.”
“Carlo, I don’t think we need to rehash ancient history.”
“Fine. No rehashing necessary. Bottom line is that the three of you are just so messed up. That’s it. It’s what I’m here to say. Zwain, Kimmy and Chet. Well I don’t want any part of this shit. Come on, Annie. We’re leaving.” Carlo got up, walked toward the door and looked back at Annie who was still sitting, playing with her food, hoping to God, I thought, for some miracle that would make all that had happened disappear and go away until the end of time.
“What did the note say, baby?”
“Carlo please tell everyone the rest of the story. Then we’ll have dessert.”
“Annie, stop whining. Let’s go. Thanks for the food Zwain. Good job.”
“Excellent. It was all just excellent.”
At first Zwain remained seated, staring at his wine glass, not looking at me or at Kimmy. I wondered if he thought that he’d made a mistake. And then I wondered what that mistake might have been. Was it getting back together with Kimmy? Was it trying to bring together friends who couldn’t be brought together again? Was it forgiving me? He looked at me and stood up, and then walked over to Carlo and put his hands on Carlo’s broad shoulders. “Please don’t go,” he said in a quiet voice. “Please stay, Carlo. Annie. Celebrate with us.”
Categories: Published Works
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