He had just emerged from the rear exit foyer of the hotel and was headed to his car in the parking lot when he heard a woman's pair of shoes clattering after him.
"Jack!" Kate, Claire's friend, called behind him. "Wait up."
"Kate. What's up?"
"Cutting out early?" she asked, walking up to him, clearly wanting to talk about something. "I've been meaning to have a chat with you. I promised myself I will, the next time I see you."
"Yes?" Jack said when it appeared she was having difficulty getting something out of her. They had started to walk slowly in the parking lot in the direction they happened to be facing, away from the hotel.
"I need to talk to somebody about this," she finally said, "and I can't think of anyone else but you at this time. She had told me about you and her -"
"There's nothing between us," Jack interjected.
"Yes, I know. She likes you, as a friend. She trusts you. She said you've been open to each other. And I believe that's the same way she and I have been open to each other for a long time now."
Jack thought about that and decided he couldn't argue much against it. And if he could, it might only be over what transpired between two women friends for being of the same gender.
"She and I have known each other for a while now," she began. "Seven years. Right now I'm a little concerned that she's ruining herself. I mean, the men she's gone out with, one after the other. Some of them have come and asked me about her."
"What do you say to them?"
"Not a whole lot. I tell them they should find out from her whatever it is they want to know about her. Then they end up telling me what they've learned about her. And that's when I felt I need to talk to someone else about this."
He imagined himself in Kate's place. Knowing what he did from Claire herself even only in the short time he'd known her, he understood how Kate felt. In fact, with Chris coming up to him tonight, he knew exactly what her concerns were about her friend and how it bothered her.
"I know several of the men she'd dated," Kate said. "They're not all that bad. In fact most of them are very nice, but she goes through them like you go over a fifty-percent discount rack in a store sale and toss them all back."
Jack suppressed a laugh. When he spoke to Kate the first or second time, weeks ago, he thought it would take an effort to become acquainted with her. Not the way she sounded just now, he thought.
They had never spoken to each other alone and for the first time, he found a moment to consider how they connected outwardly, socially. It felt totally different being with her, nothing at all like that being with Claire. He didn't feel he had to stand up on his toes to get her attention or embellish everything he said to measure up to her.
"I don't know how much she had told you," Kate said, slightly hesitant but with a sound of urgency, "particularly about her seeing a counselor."
Jack responded with a shrug, avoiding having to say anything because he didn't have anything to say and wanted to hear more about it.
"She's trying to cover up, forget, make up for or whatever it is she's trying to do about a lot of things in the past," Kate continued. "Her family, her high school and childhood years."
"What exactly is bothering her about her past?"
"She said she grew up thinking she was ugly and unwanted."
"What? If she's ugly, what's attractive, and good-looking?"
"She was fat when she was a kid and all through high school. She found some pictures her mother had saved. She showed them to me. She missed the proms 'cause she didn't have anybody to go with. College, it was pretty much the same, except she didn't care as much, she said, what she looked like and what anybody thought."
Jack decided he would just listen and let her spill all she wanted which was what she came to him for in the first place. Also, it would be good to learn more of Claire, someone such as she, from somebody else's position, a close friend as Kate, or an ex-lover like Chris, as he did earlier.
"She was depressed for a long time," Kate went on. "But she managed to get out of her rut. When you're at the bottom, there's no place else to go but up. She could have killed herself, she said to me, but what the hell. Maybe she'll give herself and the rest of the world a break from her ugly fat self and do something about it. And she did. She slimmed down, and she really worked hard on it. She even had a face job. Spent a lot of money on it."
"What do you mean face job?" asked Jack curiously.
"I mean a face job. Like her jowls and a couple other places. She had the skins tightened up."
"I don't believe this."
"That's the truth, Jack. Look close the next time you see her. You could actually see the tiny scars just under her nose and below the jaws. You'd have to look really hard to notice them, though."
"Whoever did it did a terrific job, I'd say, although I didn't know what she looked like before."
"Well, she's made something of herself, not just physically but in other ways in life, at work, and socially. But I don't think she's gotten over the hurt of the past. And I think that's where she's at right now. Getting back at it. Trying to get even."
"You mean, what she's doing now she's doing out of spite?"
Kate appeared to be thinking deep for a few moments, Jack noticed, before she said: "I think most of her died before she got out of her rut. She didn't really get out of that rut. And maybe all that's left is... just an empty shell."
And a deceivingly attractive shell, Jack thought. Then what Kate said earlier about Claire seeing a counselor leaped in his mind. And not only that. He thought that if for whatever reason he chose to have anything to do with Claire, he would have to go over everything that took place between them and start knowing her over again.
Even now, as some of the things that had dogged him about her were slowly getting some possible explanations, thanks to Kate, he began to have a different mental image of her. One that wasn't much different from what Kate just said of a woman who may have lost herself, all her cares in the world before she even got out to it, from a painful past.
A shell, with nothing to lose, nothing to give, and would take all it could from any sucker out there, have it all, and damn it all to hell.
He took a quick look at Kate walking close beside him as they now turned under a light pole to head back to the hotel. He saw how honestly concerned she was for her friend and, at the same time, became aware of how much wider the separation of his perception of each of them had now become. And he wondered what's going on with Kate herself at present.
"You're worried about a friend," he began. "That's quite - noble of you. But who's worrying about you?"
"There's nothing anybody needs to worry about me," she said assuredly.
"Tell me, whatever happened to that nice gentleman.... Mr. Catholic?"
"We're talking. He's been busy and so have I the past couple of weeks. But we got a date this week. Actually this'll be our third date."
Once again, it was different hearing this from Kate: it didn't have the sound of a speculative business venture or that of a coming event of some kind of competition as it did coming from Claire. He wished her well with her Mr. Catholic.
"Thanks, Jack," she replied, smiling bashfully at him. "I'll keep you posted."
He saw her back into the hotel foyer then headed back out to his car to go home, already working his way through some anxiety about this coming Wednesday's dinner with Claire and the curiosity about those face-job marks on her face.
It's hard to believe. A woman as good-looking as that. A face job. Dead inside, and dishing out to the world what it did to her in the past. How bad could it have been?
They were all going to marry rich men. Some said they'd finish college first and make something of themselves before marrying and raising a family. Two kids at least. But they wouldn't be the traditional housewife: homemaker, mother and wife. They'd be equal partners with their husbands who would share equal responsibilities with them at home. Hence, they would work too though they may not have to, share in that responsibility with their spouses if for no more than to nurture their self-esteem.
They were all going to do it, and make it. They were all going to have it all.
Hearing all that crap from every group of those curly-haired snotty girls back in Barnstable County, Massachusetts twenty-two years ago was all so real. But not for her. She was fat and ugly, timid and incompetent, and she didn't belong with them. But she was part of them, that part which served only to acknowledge their superiority to her, or her subservience to them. Either way, she accepted this, her part among them without question for they drilled it in her brain early that she was born to be relegated to that position in life. And she played the part, from as early as the mid-elementary grade through high school.
She ran errands for them, complimented them on their appearances, their dress, their hair, their shoes; even for the silliest things they did to which they objected if she did them herself. She gave them her attention and approval but never got it back from any of them no matter how much she tried to measure up. They were better than her in every way, in everything they did, in everything they were. She simply wasn't good enough and never would be.
And she accepted this, all through her years behind youth's veil of innocence. She never once asked anyone, least of all herself: better than her exactly in what way? good enough for what? to do what? or to be what?
But she did, later on, as she shed her innocence coming into her early womanhood. She did ask herself, finally, after high school, when everyone at school and in the neighborhoods all of a sudden, it seemed, were grown up and on their own as the groups broke up and they all went their separate ways to go to college out of town, out of state, somewhere.
There they are, she said to herself now in the study room of her condo in Falls Church, Virginia as she turned to the page of the senior yearbook that had the picture of Shirley Cavanaugh, one of the snottiest in the group, got knocked up early in their senior year by a fellow, a varsity star she had a giant crush on, and had an abortion. And there's Jean Gallagher with her blonde curls and big round blue eyes half the guys from the junior through the senior years were constantly after, got dumped by her chosen one for someone she considered almost as low as she did Claire, was brokenhearted for a long time and got as fat and even fatter than Claire, when she turned to food for comfort.
Stephanie Harding, rich family, spoiled brat, all mouth and no brain, really, as she proved to be in college during her sophomore year when she took a break to marry her high school sweetheart who became an alcoholic and abused her in every way you can imagine, physically, emotionally, financially.
Katherine Fitzgerald who lived a few houses down the block, a top snob along with her entire family, real uppity and claims to be blood relatives of the Kennedys down the road in Hyannis; another spoiled brat but smart alright, and such a dominant personality her first marriage lasted a year and six months; now in the sixth year of the second, two kids, but separated from the husband she drove into the arms of another woman out in a far away part of the country with her cruel nagging and humiliating arrogance, the same arrogance Claire only remembered so well when they were neighbors.
Most of these she learned from the twentieth anniversary class reunion she decided to go to last year out of a mixed feeling of indifference and curiosity. It was well attended, particularly with those who did make it the way they said they would twenty-two years ago, and even those who didn't, or 'haven't yet', and a few who proved to be just totally ordinary, or out of luck or just plain losers. People, both women and men, who turned out to be no better than her, no smarter and even less skillful in rising above life's difficulties and challenges that their generation have had to face in the last two decades.
There were many she didn't recognize for sometime even after two or three encounters at the buffet table or the bar, most of whom - to her delightful surprise - were the assholes who treated her like dirt since she was ten or eleven years old. The reason she didn't, couldn't, recognize them at first was because either they had aged prematurely (wrinkles and grays) due to the kind of hardships they had so far gone through in life for taking a wrong turn, making some bad decisions or just being plain dumb and undisciplined, or they had gotten fat and ugly in their middle age, or, in the case of some of the men, had lost their hair and built a fully inflated spare tire around their middle.
She wanted to laugh her head off in front of everybody everytime she came to recognize a person as such and such through the guidance of one or two of the few people with whom she'd had an alliance over the years. But the most satisfaction she got out of the occasion was the puzzled look of surprise she saw on people's face when they gradually recognize that 'sexy and very attractive younger woman' as that timid and bumbling girl who used to always sit in the back of the class for being so fat and ugly. Some of the old snobs such as Stephie Harding and Kathy Fitz showed some social grace by throwing their arms around her briefly but, now, with some deference and unsureness. She did the same but with enough warmth only to be civil, then withdrew herself after a quick chat.
Look at you now, she thought everytime she met one of her former 'superiors' wearing that puzzled surprise on her face. You ignorant peasant. What are you good for now? How are you any better than me or anybody? Better in what way? And for what? How many men have you slept with? What kind of men were they? And did they make love to you? Or did they just screw you? Ha!
Those who did 'make it', meaning - finished college, bagged a rich husband, started a family and even remained slim and young-looking also remained snobs even to those they used to hang out with but who had not progressed as much in life.
These ones got one word from her - hello, a frugal smile and a quick up and down as she walked away before any of them could find a way to impress upon her that with the good husband, she's produced a darling offspring, lives in a half-million-dollar house and had a combined annual income of one hundred fifty some thousand dollars.
To these ones, she communicated mentally: stuff it up your tight ass.
Altogether, there weren't many happy faces she saw in that Southern New England hometown crowd, and the few bright and cheerful ones were so full of themselves, sexually repressed quite obviously, the same as those who had grown old and unattractive, and were there not for the purpose of reuniting with their former classmates for a day or two but only to gauge the measure of their position in life in relation to the rest of them.
Driving back to Virginia from there through five hundred miles of mostly interstate highway, she did a re-calibrating of some of her life strategies. She could gloat and continue to soak in the exultation at seeing many of them come down to earth and sink in to lower grounds below her, or she could learn from what she saw in them and remember, for instance:
not to let yourself so deep in a relationship and be driven to obesity by it when he suddenly dumps you;
how not to get pregnant (not that she intends to now, or perhaps ever), married or not, and let the sonofabitch simply skip town;
not be sexually repressed and miserable, and horny all the time, just because there's nobody out there for a meaningful relationship;
never completely trust anybody; be very selective and careful when making friends, men or women;
if nothing else, go for the money and pleasure; don't let yourself get so stressed out over anything and start getting wrinkles and grays; that's another thing - very very important - keep up the good looks, the sex appeal; enjoy life even by using people, especially men; use them for sex and all the pleasure you can get out of them, with their money; screw them.
The idea of having it all was still the objective, the driving force for living although now, after what she'd seen happen with many of her class members, some fine-tuning to the idea was in order particularly concerning the question of how or when, and for how long? You may have all you want in life alright but if you have to be a rat even to those you care about to get them, or if it lasted only a short time and you end up worse than where you were before - alone in a hole, broke, two kids, waiting tables at a truck stop (God forbid), you might give it a second thought and take a little time to reason with yourself.
You might say that knowing that you had, at one or more times in your life, the opportunity to have all you want, that it was your choice to have it all or not, was enough to satisfy the objective. The true measure of success is not necessarily the achievement of a goal which itself may not be worth as much as it was hyped up to be, but rather the process of achieving it and the knowledge that it is achievable to you. And the bottom line, of course, is the amount of happiness it brings you and those you share it with, and the duration of that happiness.
One can say 'I had it all once, for a time'. What - a few years? A few months? And were you happy? At what cost? What were the trade-offs?
It seemed now that 'making it' may not at all translate to having what you want, but instead enjoying life, having fun, staying fit and keeping an eye on where you're going, making sure you don't step into a hole so deep you'd need the help of the federal government along with five years of regular hard-hitting weekly session with a shrink, to get out of it.
After last night's session with Dr. Christie, she decided it might be a good idea to take a day off today, and called in sick at work. Two years ago, when she was thirty-six, a neurologist she had consulted for a recurring cervical-joint (neck) pain which for some reason also depressed her suggested that she consult with a professional counselor as well and recommended Dr. Isabel Christie, a benevolent-looking woman in her mid-fifties and a respected professional in her line of work.
Between the two doctors, after a few weeks of consultation, it was determined that her physical pain was of a physiological origin (pinched nerve due to encroachment of arthritic calcium deposits), and her depression due to this pain as well as her self-induced alarm or concern at pushing forty.
"Lots of women in this country are pushing forty," Dr. Christie had said in one of their sessions, and when Claire just sat their looking depressed across the table, the doctor added: "And, yes, they are single, never married. And they live normal, productive lives. They're doing very well. Just like you, Claire, though they may not be half as attractive as you are. There are those who have the same concern as you, but there are also those who don't forget how lucky they are for where they are, or shall we say, for being where they're not."
They locked horns then, it seemed to Claire, but it was she who eased up first with a heartened smile, saying: "...not where I have two or three toddlers tugging at my skirt every day, an ex I'm constantly chasing for child support and alimony."
Dr. Christie capped it off with: "...and an extra hundred pounds you don't have the time and money to get rid of."
They ended the session with a good laugh and a promise by Claire to look at both sides of things from now on. That was two years ago. She saw the doctor for several more sessions after that over the next few weeks then quit, until two months ago when she for some nagging urge decided she would like to have a professional evaluation of her social behavior and personal relationships.
Last night, she told Dr. Christie: "I'm not doing anything to hurt myself."
"Good," replied the doctor. "That should always be your primary concern."
"And I'm not out to hurt anybody either. I'm very up front to every one of the men I'd gone out with. So if they fell, it's their lookout how hard they fall. And it's the same for me."
"Has there been anyone, lately?"
"Anyone what, doctor?"
"Anyone you've fallen for?"
"One, or two in the last four, five weeks that I had thought at first would work out but didn't."
Dr. Christie had suspected, since two years ago, that everything Claire did was geared to outdoing her entire class socially, materially, either in her belief or in reality, while not really giving a damn what came of it as long as she enjoyed doing it. There was latent anger there, buried deep inside, from an embittered adolescence now working its way through her adulthood. There was also a cold indifference, a numbness which shed her cares for anything in the world. She was hoping that it would eventually exhaust itself after a time, and soon, so that Claire may settle down behaviorally.
The doctor had, at least once or twice, thrust the no-nonsense question: "Are you angry?"
It was a thoughtful denial, although non-committal, that came as a response from Claire. In Dr. Christie's lingo, that response was the same as a 'yes'. You don't expect a patient to admit to the main reason itself that brought the two of you together in a weekly session, with a simple yes or no. For the most part, this whole process of counseling is to bring her to admit to that, one step at a time, so that she could deal with those feelings more rationally.
Claire told the doctor about Bruce, the hundred-thousand-dollar CPA man who just disappeared after a couple of weeks of fast-and-furious dating, and the other men she'd met since then. She also spoke of her friend Kate as she did every now and then and of a recent new acquaintance she referred to as a friend. A male friend. Jack.
"So, what do you think of Jack?" asked Dr. Christie after Claire described her social contacts with Jack. The man sounded like a decent fellow to her. Very judicious. "As a man, in general."
"I like him a lot," Claire said offhandedly. "He's very low-keyed. I mean, I feel I could talk to him about anything and he'd listen. And he does so not just to be polite but to understand what I'm saying."
"He shows interest in your company."
"Exactly. I know he's attracted to me, physically," Claire said thoughtfully, "although he hasn't shown any direct sign of it to me."
"I think he respects you and would like to just keep it at that. Have you been out with him?"
"No. But we've made a dinner date tomorrow night. It's not really a date. We're just going to eat out, keep each other company. And talk. Like we usually do at the dance."
"Good!" Dr. Christie practically blurted out, delighted. "I'm glad you're doing that. In fact, I would like to see you do that more often. I mean, not just with Jack, but with your other friends. Just do things with friends and maybe take a break from the dating scene."
Not long after that, shortly before the end of the session, the doctor noticed a marked change in Claire's countenance from the likeness of a self-assured, carefree woman in her twenties, to the contemplative and more serious look of a matured middle-aged person, more like that of many of the newly divorced or separated women she saw regularly and had counseled for years. That change actually went much deeper than the doctor saw on the outside, and it was something she would have regarded as a significant triumph against Claire's numbness, that cold indifference inside that rendered her only physically alive and practically dead inside, an empty shell.
It happened when Claire, after half a lifetime of what was actually a quiet acceptance of her nothingness, self-contempt and loathing for any kind of human relationship, finally allowed herself a moment to let up on her... yes...her anger. And distrust, that cold indifference, and the hollowness she maintained within her that rejected the world around her.
By doing so, she was at last able to view things, herself included, from Dr. Christie's position for one, and Kate's, and Jack's, the men she'd gone out with, and even those of the hometown people. This happened as she was stepping out of Dr. Christie's office, and continued on through the night after she got home, in bed, during which she decided just before she fell asleep that she'd stay home the next day.
What's letting up on one's anger and uncaring? Is this what some do-gooders, like the Catholics or those born-again fanatics call forgiveness? Or forgiving?
It didn't feel natural with her. The will was not there, she knew, and she's not going to lie to herself about it or to Dr. Christie or to anyone else. But today, right now, after scanning a couple of more pages of the yearbook on her study desk and closing it, she would test herself, pretend she gave a damn, make believe she cared about the same things everybody else does in life - love, respect, love-making (not just sex), family, true friendship, loyalty and all the rest of that.
She'll pretend to be normal, emotionally, spiritually, morally. She'll make believe she's alive inside. And, yes, she'd even let herself get emotional, try it out. Like, right now. Why not? Let some feeling work itself out of her. What feeling: sadness? loneliness? some prickly hurt? Why not? Let it out. See how it feels, even to the point of getting the eyes wet.
Now she imagined how she looked and sounded to Dr. Christie all these months, years, she'd seen the therapist. And to Kate in all the years they'd known each other, the people at work, and to Jack and everybody else to whom she ever said one word. For the first time since she can't remember when, perhaps never, she felt sorry for the way she had talked and acted to all of them and, hard to believe, even those snotty beasts pictured in the yearbook.
So, now what? Forgive and forget and come alive? No. She's not ready for this. Unless she knew, had the faintest idea, of what to live for, she's not going to let herself get suckered into caring for anything, getting into any meaningful relationship, trusting anyone, man or woman.
Anger and hatred keep you going and they do tire you out, wear you out. But they do keep you going, if for nothing more than to satisfy your physical drive in life. But right now, and tonight in particular, with Jack, good friend Jack (she can't wait to see him just to have someone other than Dr. Christie to open up to comfortably the way she might want to), she'd give it a rest and act normal. In fact, she might even get close to Jack, not for the same reason she had with the other men, but just out of curiosity to see what it feels like to be with a man for what he is. It would be interesting too to see how he takes to her encouragement.
Poor Jack. Such a nice, honest man. How she must have humiliated him early on. Made him feel so small and unworthy of her. He certainly didn't deserve that. But not to worry. She'll reverse that, take back what she did. She'll take care of it tonight.