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.