They had been on the gambling boat outside of Fort Lauderdale for two hours, and Carl had gone to order Greta a third margarita, which she didn’t want. She lay on the deck chair, drowsy, expectant and slick with Bain de Soleil, a towel thrown over her midriff, where she rested her greasy forearms as she leafed through a Graham Greene novel for the third time. The pages were translucent with orange gelée smudges.
“Here we are.” Carl showed up, grinning, blocking her sun, holding up a plastic mug with a winking whale and the words Bahama Mama printed on it. Three umbrellas bobbed among the ice cubes. He hovered over Greta for a moment, a tall, rumpled figure in an ink-stained madras jacket and a battered fishing hat, then handed over the margarita and sank bonelessly into the deck chair next to her.
A damp unlit cigar hung from his lip. “I’m getting my baby tanked,” he said, satisfied, and started to slurp his fifth Diet Coke. Putting it down on the deck, he leaned over, drew his hands across her belly to soak up some suntan oil, rubbed his face, then leaned back into his chair. He picked up The New York Times and began reading, gumming his cigar. Greta opened her novel at random and began to read. “In human relations, kindnesses and lies are worth a thousand truths.” She sipped her drink and started spacing out, watching the gulls through her sunglasses. Carl had only been out of rehab for a couple of months, and Greta was still married. Well, separated. They were both on holiday from themselves.
She remembered the day Carl had shown up at her office, three months before—in December, not long after they’d met. It was the day after her birthday, and he was late. She stood in the lobby, wearing a new coat, a fur hat, a new red handbag. He was taking her to the Rangers game as her present. Greta felt exhilarated; here was a man who made plans. Box seats. He was 25 minutes late, and still she didn’t lose heart; she felt condescendingly magnanimous: Carl would come. And then he was there, sheepish, determined and in motion, streaming through the lobby, a cloud in khaki, long loose legs bobbing forward like the jointed limbs of a wooden dancing doll. He grabbed her arm, linked elbows, whooshed them through the revolving doors and glided her to the curb on a soft carpet of excuses. “I am disgruntled,” Greta said teasingly, thinking she should seem to be, at least a little, out of self-respect. “Oh darling—be gruntled,” he wheedled, not noticing she wasn’t angry. He liked to be in the wrong with girls and be forgiven, she guessed: to be the kind of guy for whom exceptions were made.
At Madison Square Garden, the seats were fantastic, 12 feet from the ice. Stewards bustled about, bringing them everything Carl wanted—burgers, fries, chicken, Cokes. “I got you a present,” he had said exultantly as soon as they sat down, and before Greta could react, he started fumbling through a shopping bag he had brought and pulled out a silver-wrapped box. “I got it at Barneys,” he said. In his excitement, he began unwrapping it as he gave it to her, but she grabbed it from him in time so she could open it first. She unfolded the protecting white tissue paper. Inside was a soft, smooth pair of chocolate-colored chamois-suede hand-sewn gloves. She never shopped at Barneys; she couldn’t afford it. Carl beamed at her, transported to a rapturous plane by his thoughtfulness. Done with the present, he pointed to the ice and began to explain to Greta about hockey. And she saw that the players moved on ice the way Carl moved on land: skating through life with clumsy male grace, intent disguised as carelessness.
That morning in South Beach, they had both looked terrible. The hotel with the art deco name had turned out to be hideous—a Thousand Island dressing–colored hulk looming over a cement courtyard through which a neon-lit wading pool meandered, wrapping around a bar that served keg beer and cocktails in plastic cups. College boys with nitrate-red tans and Big Mac bodies clustered around the bar, braying and bellowing, buying vodka tonics and cosmos for women who laughed too loud and had coarse mouths. When they’d arrived the previous night, they’d both found the scene funny for five minutes; then the irony petered out and they wished they could go someplace else, but it was spring break (which they hadn’t realized when they had booked the flight to Miami the day before, on a whim) and there was nowhere else to go.
Carl and Greta’s room was on a high floor overlooking Ocean Drive. Greta had looked forward to throwing the curtains open the first morning and unveiling the beachfront below waiting like a tropical Disney welcome mat: the fringe of emerald palms dividing the black stripe of asphalt from the golden stripe of the sand; the Aquafresh-blue water; the lavender sky. But in the morning, the room’s sheetrock walls sucked up the white early light like a drain, and the color that washed over the room was gray and leaching. When they woke up and saw each other they shuddered.
“Do I look as bad as you?” Greta asked.
“Worse,” he said and, covering his eyes, tried to give her a jokey kiss. Greta pushed him away and ran to the bathroom to throw water on her face, trying to splash away the pall. “Let’s get out of town,” Carl said. And so they drove to Fort Lauderdale.
It was a gorgeous day—hot, with the sun sweating overhead. The white-painted railings of the gambling boat looked so nautical, Greta thought. “Yar,” Katharine Hepburn would have called it—was that right? Fat vacationers in overly bright clothing lolled like seals on white plastic rocks, eating. At the back corner of the deck, a steward in a white uniform began speaking through a bullhorn. “Skeet shooting starts at noon on B deck,” he announced.
Carl and Greta turned around.
“That’s in five minutes. Do you want to shoot?” he asked, moving his cigar to the left of his mouth, holding it in place with his molars.
“I’ve never done it,” Greta said. “And I don’t want to kill anything.” She thought skeet were birds; someone would release them from a bag or a box, they’d fly up in terror, they’d be shot down.
“No, they’re made of clay,” Carl said. “No blood.”
He was amused, and she felt stupid. “I’ll show you how,” he said. She followed him to the steward, they were first in line, it cost something, and Carl paid. He let her go first and showed her how to hold the gun, cradling her body in his, folding her shoulder and gun into his long arm. She loved how small he made her feel, like a child, his chin grazing her head. She remembered how he had skated backward at the Wollman Rink in December, holding her by the waist so she could travel backward with him. She had never done that before.
The steward set up a practice shot so Greta could feel the kick of the gun. Then she went to the railing, and the steward put a disk in the slingshot arm and released it. An orange blip shot into the sky. Three times he released it, three times Greta shot. She hit the target each time. Carl took the gun from her, displeased. Greta was embarrassed. She would have missed on purpose if she hadn’t assumed she’d miss no matter what she did. It was important for a woman to lose when losing didn’t matter. That’s why she liked pool. Carl shot three times and missed everything. They went back to the chairs. Greta looked down at the deck, not wanting to look Carl in the face, in case he might read some expression in her face that would annoy him, and he went to get them more drinks. “Getting my baby tanked,” he said, returning, and they sat and read, and in a while, he ordered sandwiches.
There was something furtive about the two of them. They were good at keeping silent. They were also good at talking, but it was the silence that drew them together. Knowing when the other was not really there, knowing when conversation wasn’t necessary. “You’re so pretty,” Carl had said the night they met, at a dinner with friends. James hadn’t been there; he’d stayed home to work, or to read, or because he knew Greta wouldn’t care if he didn’t come.
“And you’re kind of vicious, aren’t you?”
“I’m married,” Greta had retorted. Which was technically, though not really, true.
“I’m crestfallen,” Carl said.
He had walked her home after the dinner, talking about rehab and the grand vision he had for Eastern Europe. When she told him about a trip she was taking to Prague, he started talking about the ambassador, and she realized with confusion that he knew the ambassador personally. She was thinking about this when Carl grabbed her and kissed her, in front of her house, where her husband could have seen, where all the neighbors were.
“I’m married,” Greta said, pulling away from him angrily, and he smiled at her, turned and walked away. He didn’t know that her marriage was over, Greta thought sulkily. It was disrespectful. It was true that the only reason James hadn’t moved out was that he kept putting off finding a place to move to, but Carl didn’t know that. Maybe Carl will do it, she thought; maybe Carl will make it so James leaves. But she resented him all the same, for assuming he could kiss her, for assuming she wouldn’t stop him and for being right about both things.
The next day Carl had called her at work, when she was on deadline. “Come out with me tonight. I want you to meet my mother. We’re going to a fund-raiser for a senator who’s a friend.” “I can’t,” Greta said, “I’ve got to finish an article.” “Oh come on,” Carl said. “Don’t be afraid. It’s early. You can get home to hubby by nine and finish your article later.” Greta hated being called a coward, hated the word hubby and hated Carl for patronizing her husband, even if James’s rights to that word had run out.
“No,” she said.
“I just want you to meet people; you’ll enjoy yourself,” Carl continued. “Come. Or don’t come. It’s totally aboveboard.”
Two hours later, at an imposing old hotel on Park Avenue, Carl introduced Greta to his mother, who looked searchingly at her, smiling anxiously, as if to say, “Are you a woman who could be a safe custodian of my son?” Then she met the senator and the mayor, and after that she ran into far too many people she already knew, who also knew James. She told them she was so sorry James couldn’t come that night; he was at the office but would join her later. She felt frightened. Irreversible things were happening.
Carl dragged Greta out of the reception into an empty adjoining parlor, an echoing room with high ceilings, oil paintings of captains of industry on the walls, Brunschwig curtains at the tall windows, deep lush carpets on the parquet floors, massive marble fireplaces. He steered her onto a leather sofa and began to kiss her extravagantly. Greta felt helpless, like a hare being coursed by a sportsman who knew the forest better than she did, who had all the marble, wood, leather and guns of the establishment behind him. She tried to believe her defenselessness exonerated her. The senator’s wife came into the room, and Carl jumped up, beaming, and introduced Greta as his “date.” Greta smiled and shook hands, then excused herself. Once out of the room, she crept toward the marble spiral staircase to the lobby, then hurried down the stairs, stepping lightly so her heels wouldn’t click. Carl ran after her, easily catching her up with long, loping steps. “When can I see you again?” he asked.
“Let go of me,” she said desperately and ran out the door. He didn’t follow. This happened several times, things like it. And then, one Saturday morning, Greta and James were at home, getting ready to throw a Christmas party, when Carl called. “I have to see you,” he said. Greta’s throat caught. James was in the shower; what if he had answered? At the same moment, she remembered that James would be leaving the apartment right after the party; he was seeing a play in midtown with an old friend.
“All right,” she whispered. “We’re having people over this afternoon, but James has to be somewhere at eight. Do you want to come over? I’ll make dinner.”
That afternoon, while making mulled wine and quiche and cookies for the party, Greta stealthily prepared a secret dinner while James was out getting the tree. She hid the dishes under the bed—the wedding china they’d never used. She made a casserole and hid it in the back of the oven, parboiled pork chops and stowed them in a Dutch oven, tucked a salad in the back of the fridge. Dessert would have to be leftover Christmas cookies.
The party began at four. Soon after it started, a heavy snowstorm descended on the city. Perhaps because of the lulling seasonal diorama—their piney tree glossed with ornaments and white lights, the cinnamony, savory heat from the kitchen, the melting pastries, the clovey, sweet wine, the blizzard through the window—the guests settled snugly in for hours, showing no signs of wishing to head into the whirling snow. At seven p.m., with frantic gaiety, Greta encouraged a snowball fight on the street to kill the party’s momentum. It worked. When the last guests left at 7:30, taking James with them, Greta smiled, kissed cheeks and good-byed, and once the door shut behind them, she collapsed on the bed and wept from tension and relief.
After a minute or two, she recovered herself, patted her cheeks and rose to get ready for Carl. She showered, she moisturized. She put on velvet, silk, a soft long skirt, high heels. Misted herself in perfume. Put on a glittering crystal necklace. Removed the china from under the bed, set the table, lit candles and put Gershwin on the CD player. “Funny Face” came on; it was his song, she thought. Whenever she went running and it popped up on the playlist, she thought of Carl and smiled and ran faster: “Though you’re no Handsome Harry/For worlds I’d not replace/Your sunny, funny face.” The doorbell rang at 8:30, and there he was, arriving like good times, to be embraced, not questioned. Greta felt a rush of childlike elation. Carl looked at her silently, let the door slam shut behind him, picked her up and carried her to the bedroom.
Greta hadn’t known James long before he became her husband; James was handsome and kind, she was romantic and on the rebound; they married on impulse. After the wedding, she found out she’d contracted herself to a chaste game of house with a diffident stranger, perhaps for eternity. A couple of years passed before she gathered the courage to have the hard talk. It had happened last summer, almost a year ago now. They both had cried. James had agreed the marriage hadn’t worked, had agreed he would leave. Only then, he didn’t. Greta didn’t want to be unkind; she wanted to give James time to detach and leave on his own terms, rather than wrench him roughly away. But now his lingering had become a kind of cruelty. She was worn out from worrying about hurting him. Why didn’t James go, since he didn’t want to kiss her?
Maybe she should have felt guilty, she thought, as she admired Carl, so jubilant, so sure, lying beside her on the bed. But she didn’t feel guilty. She didn’t feel she was there at all. It was as if they were a movie she and Carl were watching, of someone else’s life. They ate dinner by candlelight in silk bathrobes. The china was gorgeous. Greta drank wine, Carl drank shirley temples—she’d gotten maraschino cherries for him. By 10:30 he was out of the house, and by 11, when James returned, there was no trace of the second party. But Greta felt queasy from deceit. She was unaccustomed to underhandedness. The worst was that James hadn’t suspected anything. It shouldn’t have been so easy, so consequenceless. A week or two after the party, she confronted James; at last he moved out. She wondered if she would ever marry again. She wished she could unmeet James, rewind and walk down a different street, where she might have met a different man, one who could have kept her ideals of marriage intact, her faith in male confidence unbowed. Her marriage hadn’t felt real. But she supposed her divorce would.
The cruise had a couple of hours to go, and Carl started to fidget after he finished the Times. “We could get a cabin,” he said. “What for?” Greta said and knew she shouldn’t have. They looked at each other spitefully. She was getting back at him for having said she looked awful that morning, even though it was true. But she wasn’t really in a bad mood, so she smiled and said, “Or…,” but Carl was already saying, “Well then, let’s gamble!” He stood up. Greta pulled on a sundress from her beach bag, and they descended into the dark, air-conditioned interior of the boat, where the metallic pinging of slot machines and the tinny jingle of taped theme songs echoed above flashing lights. Old women in polyester pants and men in short-sleeve Cuban shirts stood at the slot machines, cigarettes in one hand, jumbo plastic cups in the other to catch falling coins. They pulled the machine arms with their smoking hands. Their faces were expressionless. “Outstanding,” Carl crowed.
With his baggy jacket, slouchy hat, khakis and cigar, Carl looked like a young old man. Rubbing his hands together theatrically, he stuck his cigar between his teeth like FDR and strode toward the roulette table. The felt-covered table brightened in welcome as he approached. The croupier at the wheel nodded deferentially. Carl bought chips for himself and separated out a couple hundred worth for Greta. He began to place bets scientifically, according to his theories: a heap on odds, a heap on evens, a heap on black, a heap on red. His piles began to increase, to double, to triple. Greta watched disapprovingly but with respect. She wasn’t a gambler; she left her chips untouched. But Carl knew how to bet. Onlookers began to encircle the table, watching Carl play. And then Greta had a presentiment. She knew it was ridiculous, but she couldn’t keep herself from telling him.
“Put it all on black 29,” she said. Carl looked at her impassively, completely uninterested. “Put it all on black 29,” she said again, knowing it sounded silly but feeling too sure to keep quiet. He ignored her and kept on distributing the piles his way. The croupier watched, the spectators stared.
“All right, then just put half of it on black 29,” she said. As the roulette wheel started spinning, the croupier glanced at them both questioningly. He dropped the silver ball into the whirring wheel; it bounced and bounced, and the numbers flew under it, around and around. Greta looked at Carl, Carl looked at Greta, the croupier looked at Carl, and finally, as the whir slowed to a spin, the croupier said, “All bets are off.” The ball skittered and leapt, the wheel slowed and slowed, and finally the ball came to a rest, in black 29.
“Holy hell, you’re bad luck, that’s it,” Carl said. He cashed in what was left of his chips, and they went back to the deck. Greta wondered if the roulette wheel had been rigged. The croupier was probably having a little joke on her, playing God. Still, she felt dizzy, knowing that if Carl had done what she’d said, he might have broken the bank. And even if he hadn’t, the winnings would have more than paid him back for the vacation. Everything would have been her treat, then, many times over.
“Waiter,” Carl said once they’d climbed back to the sunny deck and found new chairs. “Another Bahama Mama for my girl. I’ll have a ginger ale.” “Margarita?” “Yeah,” Carl said. The waiter nodded and went off. As the waiter left, Greta noticed that she was in an excellent mood, which probably meant Carl was too. In the settling afternoon sunlight, he looked splendid, at ease, manly, in himself. She averted her eyes. Once, Carl had caught her admiring his body at his loft in Manhattan, and he hadn’t liked it. She had watched him in the dark, lit only by the glow of a streetlamp through the blinds, as he walked to his dresser, where he kept an open box of condoms, scores of them, arranged in rows, like a prophylactic card catalog. At the time, feeling guilty about James, she’d found the profusion reassuring, as if what she and Carl got up to hardly counted, a rounding error.
Naked, Carl was surprisingly lithe and muscular. He was broader shouldered and more athletic than he looked in his floppy clothes. In the black-and-white light of the night, he looked like a statue to her, pure, clean, alabaster lines, a David. Turning, Carl had seen Greta eyeing him appraisingly and frowned; he shrugged off her regard. He was the one who was supposed to do the staring. So now Greta knew not to look at Carl, but she thought about the body under his khakis and his ink-stained madras jacket, and wished they’d taken the cabin after all, but it was too late. She took off her sundress, re-oiled and leaned back into her deck chair. She was just reaching for her novel when Carl looked over at her, cupped her bobbed hair in his palm and said, “Hey. What are you doing so far away?” And he dragged her chair against his and pulled her half into his arms. She leaned her head into his soft collar. He took the dangling cigar out of his mouth, looked into the sun, then leaned down and gave her an upside-down kiss.
“Outstanding,” he said.