My high school girlfriend wanted me to marry her. Who gets married in high school?
“My mother isn’t even married,” I said.
“That’s your argument?” Veronica said.
It was very devoted of her, very desperate. She was going off to college in the fall, to Michigan, and I was staying home in Queens, neighborhood guy that I was, and she didn’t want to lose me. We had sex whenever we could, that summer before she left, but I didn’t make any false promises. I’d be reeking from my job washing dishes at the restaurant, and she’d act as if sweat and grease were so seductive she couldn’t stand it. All summer we were at it, with melancholy adding deeper pangs to the act. Wherever I was, she was in my head every second, but I knew it couldn’t last forever.
And it didn’t. We phoned and emailed every day the first month–miss you, miss you, we wrote–but then she got busy with school and extra activities they had at night, and I was taking computer courses and still putting in my hours at the restaurant, and right when she had to talk to me about a certain person she met in Cinema Club, he knew amazing things about film, I already had a thing going with a girl in my Intro to Data Structures class. “You know how sorry I am,” she said, and she was tearful. My voice was hoarse when I said I was sorry too. Part of me was relieved, but not as relieved as I expected.
Veronica married that guy from college, right after graduation, and it turned out his last name was the name of a famous department store. He came from a family with unspeakable sums of money. I never thought that was why she married him–she wasn’t like that–and people told me they lived in a junky apartment in Bushwick before those blocks got so gentrified. I heard he wasn’t into showy spending, the husband. He worked as a cameraman, which paid decently when any film wanted him, which wasn’t that often. People said he was an okay guy. He would never be okay by me, but that wasn’t his fault.
Veronica had not grown up fancy. Her dad was the maintenance supervisor (that meant head janitor) of our elementary school, and her mom stayed home with Veronica and the three other kids. When my younger brother, Jack, who always had behavior issues, decided to scribble with Magic Marker all over the lockers, her father had him wash it all off with a scrub brush and scouring powder, and he got Jack to do it very peaceably. He scared him just enough to convince him.
My mother was always worried about Jack. By the time he was fifteen, he was hanging around with what she always called xanthphai, which was Thai for thugs. Queens had plenty of Asian gangs, big on extortion and drugs and territorial brutality, and they had teenage gangs attached to them, like farm teams. Jack was hovering around a mixed cadre of Chinese and Vietnamese guys, not nice people. My mother was frantic to switch him into another school, get him away from those hoodlums, back to his better self. Mothers had their illusions. And how was she going to do this? Her American lover, our father, who didn’t live with us, had plenty of money. There were schools that could take my brother in hand.
Our father refused flat out. His American kids, his regular family, had gone to public schools, and they were perfectly fine. He believed in public education. He wasn’t paying out an extra thirty thou a year in tuition for my crazy brother. There was no discussing it, as far as he was concerned. They did discuss it, in furious voices, and my mother was so outraged she filed papers against him in court. It cost her money too.
She hadn’t known, of course–what did she know?–how long the legal stuff would go on. And there was Jack, not improving, so she moved to plan B. She sent my brother back to Bangkok, to live with her sister. I think he went without protesting because he’d heard Bangkok was wilder than Queens, more full of interesting trouble, and maybe for him it was. He was smiling like a fox in his photos. And in Thailand he was never in any gangs, as far as anyone reported. Thanks to my mother.
My mother was very thrilled when I got my certificate in website development, and I passed a bunch of the industry’s own exams, and I was hired for a job I wanted. At least one of her kids was making good. Her only disappointment was that I didn’t have to wear a jacket and tie to work–I.T. people were casual–but she was over the moon that I worked in a hi-rise in Manhattan. Actually, I was too, in my more jaded way. I liked that job, but I lost it in the Crash. I went through a bunch of jobs, those first years.
I moved out of my mother’s apartment, but I never moved out of Queens, which was how I heard about Veronica’s husband. People told people. My friend Binh got the news from his sister, Veronica’s friend since kindergarten. The husband had been killed crossing a street at night in Leeds, England, hit by a speeding taxi when he came out of a pub and looked right instead of left.
“Shit,” I said. “I can’t believe it.” It was the wrong story for him, someone that young, that protected. “Shit. Veronica wasn’t hurt, right?”
“She was in New York. He was over there shooting some documentary about the history of fabric mills. You going to call her?”
“Of course, I’m going to call her,” I said. “She okay?”
“How could she be okay?” Binh said. “They were married five years. She’s a widow.”
“Hey, Joe,” she said, softly. “Hi.”
I made a botch of saying how sorry I was, but she was used to that by now. “Everybody’s calling,” she said.
“Tell me if there’s anything I can do. Tell me if you need anything.”
“I’m okay,” she said. “I have everything. My mom comes every day and cooks for me, just so I don’t fade away.”
“You’ll be okay,” I said. “You were always strong.”
“People keep saying that,” she said. “I hate it.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Except you,” she said. “You can say it.”
And what was she going to do now? Everybody in the neighborhood was wondering. She hadn’t worked at a job since her lunch shifts in the college cafeteria; the husband had supported her. Binh’s sister said that the husband–his name was Schuyler, did I know that?–and his two brothers had all come into some part of the family holdings when they turned twenty-one. And whatever he had in his bank account was Veronica’s, wasn’t it?
Probably the money wasn’t just in the bank either; it was invested in things, different things. Did the man have a will? Veronica (I made a point of phoning her now, checking in) was pretty sure he’d never gotten around to making one. A lawyer someone had told her to consult said it might take a year to sort everything out, but she was next of kin, and if there were no other claims (none yet), it should all go smoothly.
My ex-girlfriend was about to be an heiress. Talking about this directly (which plenty of people did) appalled her. “I get congratulated,” she said. As if her future windfall was a payment for having lost Schuyler, a crass profit. As if she’d made a lucky deal. I reminded her how she’d once been a big fan of Great Expectations–we had to read it in high school–and now she was like Pip, waiting for her big legacy to come in.
“But Pip gets tricked about the legacy part,” she said. “He thinks his allowance is all from Miss Havisham. All that training to be a gentleman. He guesses totally wrong about where it’s coming from.”
“At least it comes,” I said.
“People are very crude about wills in those nineteenth-century novels,” she said. She’d been an English major in college, perfect preparation for not having a job. “All those family members with their claws out, waiting for some rich aunt to keel over. Their main chance.”
“Nobody hates money,” my American father always said. An undeniable fact, all over the world, but he had a way of saying it that sounded smug. He wasn’t short on that wanted commodity. But nobody gets to have everything forever, and a few years after my mother fought with him, he lost his health, pretty much, and he wasn’t even that old. He had a stroke, and then he must’ve had more strokes, and from the last hospital stay he somehow talked my mother into bringing him home with her and taking care of him. He lay around in the living room watching TV and giving orders and slobbering over plates of her food. Helping him into the tub was a hideous production she used to sometimes enlist me in.
And would he have been there at all unless he hadn’t had a dime? I never asked my mother that question. She tended him well, she never neglected him, and he was a pain in the ass. She took care of whatever he wanted for more than a year, before he died in his sleep on the couch in the living room.
Veronica told me that Schuyler, her husband, had always liked England, and he’d been having a good time on the film shoot. He had a cheerful level of alcohol in his bloodstream when he stepped out into that street–he loved the ale there–and traces of hash were in his system too. Hash, not marijuana? Veronica said she wasn’t up on his recent hobbies. The two of them hadn’t been talking all that much in the six months before his death. That was news. They’d been in a detached phase, she said, an unfaithful phase, on both sides, and maybe they’d been on their way out as a couple. “I’ll never know, will I?” she said. Now she was having one-way conversations with him across the great divide, still waiting for the worst not to be true. Now she had things to tell him.
And she had dreams. In one dream Schuyler kept saying they were late for a party, they had to rush to get there, but they couldn’t get themselves out of the apartment. They kept remembering gas jets left burning, sinks filling with water, urgent phone calls they had to make. She knew it was a trivial dream to have under the circumstances, but it had its own torment and dread. And the party was definitely going on without Schuyler; that part, she said, was right.
So we had coffee one Sunday when she was out in Queens visiting her parents. I didn’t know how I’d expected her to look, but she looked different. Her mouth was tighter and her eyes smaller; she hadn’t lost her prettiness but it was a little distorted. She looked better when she greeted me, Hey, you, as if the sight of me amused her. We were in the coffee shop we used to go to, with its Formica tables and quilted vinyl booths.
She felt light as a bird when she got up to hug me. “It’s kind of a bad day,” she said, “but I’m so glad to see you.” She had her hair long and straight, same as ever.
“This booth has missed you,” I said. “It wants someone to spill ketchup on it.”
“No one’s as good at that as I am.”
She could’ve looked me up before, I thought. Maybe not. She was married.
“I just got some not very good news,” she said. “From my lawyer.”
Schuyler’s parents, who lived in Colorado, had decided to legally contest the distribution of his assets to Veronica. Copies of the papers they’d filed had arrived in her lawyer’s office on Friday. His two brothers (Schuyler was the youngest) had signed supporting statements. “I thought they liked me,” she said. “I can’t believe it, I can’t.”
“Blood is thicker,” I said.
“Schuyler’s family always wanted more of a wedding than we ever wanted–I thought maybe they were just thinking we weren’t really married. I have the certificate, if anyone wants to see it. That’s not it. They don’t care.”
They were arguing against her on other grounds, it turned out. Citing the compromised nature of her union with Schuyler, her failure to carry out the expected obligations of a wife, and Schuyler’s most recent views and intentions for his future.
“They can do that?” I said.
“People do everything. The court decides. That’s what my lawyer said.”
“Fuck,” I said.
“I used to listen for hours to his father’s stupid views on foreign policy. I used to let his overdressed mother tell me how to do my hair,” she said. “Do they think I killed their son? What do they think?”
“It’s not necessarily personal,” I said.
“His brother Rick used to let me beat him at Ping Pong, his brother Taddy loved my key lime pie. I thought we were fine.”
“People like to keep cash in the family,” I said. “Especially when there’s a lot of it.”
“I can do without all the money,” Veronica said, the next time we talked on the phone. “What did I ever do, that it should just fall into my lap like that?” One of her uncles passed out flyers for McGovern when he ran for president in 1972 and still said it was a shame the man never got to put through his graduated inheritance tax –100 percent for anyone left more than half a million. “I know. Who remembers George McGovern?” Veronica said. “Is he dead? I don’t think he’s dead.”
“He’s dead,” I said.
“And I never objected for a second,” she said, “to coming into Schuyler’s money.”
“People don’t,” I said.
What if I had married Veronica when she was so eager to get married? We might have been happy; we might’ve made a sexy and cozy nest for ourselves; rushing into things could be extremely intelligent. Happy young idiots. By now we might’ve had a kid already. I could imagine all of it, was that odd? She probably could too.
“We’re surrounded by TV shows and movies teaching useless crap,” she said. “Everybody is raised to think the one way to get ahead is to want more and more.”
Everybody meant Americans. Veronica was always the white American kid in a neighborhood getting more Asian every day. Binh and his sister Kim were Vietnamese, my brother and I were half-Thai, her friend Suravi’s family was Bengali. Well, we all wanted money.
While she was ranting, I was thinking that only Buddhists were against wanting more. My mother, I had to say, was not that kind of Buddhist. But she talked about the theory of not wanting, she did that much. She exposed me to it.
If I had married Veronica, we could have had a honeymoon in Montauk, right on the Atlantic. Not that far away. She always liked the beach, and I could’ve gotten us a room with an ocean view; I could’ve done that much.
Our friends had opinions about Schuyler’s family. “What a bunch of bloodsucking Ivy League vampire assholes,” Binh’s sister said.
“Those pathetic jerks,” Suravi said, “they were too shitty and cowardly and sneaky to discuss it before they did it.”
“Rich people are fucks,” Binh said.
It took a long time, all of it. There were delays, there were long expensive conversations between Veronica and her lawyer (was he any good?). Her mother kept saying, “Honey, I had no idea this could happen.” Warring heirs, the merciless acquisition of wealth by scheming and slander, a family’s avarice. Who could imagine that? Abel Magwitch? Miss Havisham? Uncle Pumblechook?
The family’s papers said that Schuyler had voiced intentions to end the marriage, that he planned to marry a young woman from Leeds, England (Maribel, what kind of name was that?), and that Veronica had been an unfit spouse. They cited two persons with whom she’d had brief affairs (a woman from her book group and a man who worked at a nearby bar). Okay, that part was true. Her past friends, they said, included a known criminal (this meant my brother Jack, who had a bullshit juvie arrest for drug possession), and she herself had failed to respond to phone calls when Schuyler was abroad, possibly owing to drug use; her husband had chosen to spend increasing amounts of time away due to his belief that she had falsely presented herself in their earliest acquaintance. Veronica’s own lawyer rested their argument very heavily on the incontrovertible fact that she and Schuyler had been, whatever the fuck anyone said, really married.
Veronica never wanted to say that her lawyer was no good, but theirs was probably wonderful. In the end, the surrogate court decided entirely in favor of Schuyler’s parents. The money went to them, and they didn’t even need it.
Veronica was never going to see them again either. She’d fantasized about showing great generosity of spirit if she won, forgiving them so beautifully they’d have to appreciate her again. But no one wanted to be fond of a person they’d just been successfully rotten to. That was the end of having any in-laws.
Or any free income. Of course, she could have a perfectly good life anyway. “Who put them in charge of my destiny?” she said. But it was going to take some scrambling she didn’t know how to do, involve plans she didn’t have yet. Why didn’t she?
“I don’t know how to do anything,” she told me. “What did I go to college for if I don’t know anything?” She wondered what Schuyler would tell her to do now. I thought she should get her employment counseling elsewhere, but I didn’t say so. “I’m thinking about what that Maribel looks like,” she said. “Probably very cool-looking, if she worked on the film with him.”
I was losing some of my patience with Veronica. A janitor’s daughter, no reason she couldn’t just roll up her sleeves and get to it, start anywhere.
“She’s acting stupid because she’s depressed,” Kim said.
My mother, who had once been horrified at Veronica turning me into a teenage husband, said, “When she has no food, she will find a job.”
I’d never understood my mother’s life. There were other men she liked, closer to her age, but she always let my father creep back. My brother and I were hardly ever glad to see him, despite his silly playing and his efforts to entertain us. Well, I liked him when I was very little. Jack went silent if he was around. He used to stomp on our father’s coat in secret and then later he stole bills from his wallet and once a credit card. My mother said we were spoiled, we knew nothing. Spoiled by our father’s money.
What money? All the years we were growing up, our mother worked long hours as hostess at the Golden Treasure Thai Restaurant (where I later washed dishes). Maybe they paid her so badly she had to keep getting his contributions. Which probably were not reliable.
In the days when Veronica and I were a couple, she did meet my father a few times, and she thought his fake-youthful dyed hair was a hoot. She wrapped a black T-shirt around her head to imitate him to me. We made fun of everyone then. My father’s hair grew out when he was sick, went all the way to white. He was looking startled and ghostly at the end.
But I missed him after he was gone. Missed might not be the right word–I didn’t want his company, but I wanted his presence in the world. I was sorry for myself when he died.
My mother was from Isan, the poorest part of Thailand, in the northeast. She and her sister had come to Bangkok as young girls to work as maids in a big hotel where a cousin had found them jobs. It was there she met my father, and she got pregnant with me two years into their romance. Her sister married a construction worker in the city and went on to have three kids with him. From New York my mother used to send them money when she could; years later she sent them my brother, not much of a gift.
How did my brother Jack get by over there in Bangkok? He said speaking two languages was a big asset in a city full of tourists. Different scams, that meant. He remembered Veronica perfectly well; he’d always liked her. “Bring her over here,” he said. “It’ll cheer her up.”
“I’m not doing any bringing,” I said.
My mother didn’t talk all that much about her childhood, but she had a few stories. There was the chicken that ran away but showed up a week later, after she’d been smacked for losing it, and there was the uncle who could cut a banana into seven equal pieces. My brother used to tease her about how she could outdo everybody’s poverty stories. My mama so poor the ducks threw bread at her.
We didn’t grow up rich either, since my father wasn’t around all that much. We didn’t see any doctors or dentists, and I was supposed to be Jack’s babysitter, a job I did not excel at. We had food from the restaurant, we did have that, and we had a TV, which helped my mother learn English.
Kim called me to talk about Veronica. “She won’t go out of the apartment, she’s living on nothing but cold cereal, and I think she’s getting evicted soon.”
“She has parents,” I said.
“She doesn’t want them to know. They already paid for the lawyer when all the husband’s funds got frozen. Took a big bite out of savings they don’t have.”
“She has to get a job, she knows that,” I said.
“When I call, I can’t get a word out of her. She’s not good.”
She’d talk to me, I thought, and I phoned Veronica right away. “Hey, girl,” I said. “What’s up?”
“I was just taking a nap,” she said. “I have to rest for my job interview.”
“What’s it for?”
“Receptionist at a magazine publisher. I have to learn to use the phone system though.”
“You’ll do great.”
“They hated me at my other interview.”
“Part of the process.” I was full of wisdom, wasn’t I?
“Got to hang up,” she said. “I always eat a bowl of Special K before I go to an interview.”
“Protein is good.”
“And I’m washing my hair.”
It turned out the interview was for the next day. She had to wash a certain shirt too–did I think it could dry in time?
I was thinking even if they hired her they wouldn’t pay her for a month, if she lasted that long. “I can lend you some bucks to tide you over till you get on your feet,” I said. I had no idea I was going to say that, and it was too late to take it back.
“You don’t have to,” she said.
“It just happens to be something I want to do,” I said. I was showing off. “Humor me.”
I said this as many ways as I could. It would save me lots of worry just to know she was okay, we’d known each other since fourth grade, friends could make loans to other friends, what were friends for? I argued so well I persuaded myself, and how much convincing did she need? Probably not this much.
“I’m so lucky I know you,” she said. She took the money, a couple thousand.
Binh said, “Does the phrase fucking idiot mean anything to you?”
Some friends thought the loan was a kind of special payment, for sex or whatever, an unspoken bargain we had struck. Who wanted to buy sex? I hadn’t lacked for girlfriends all these years and was currently dating someone I liked fine (I wasn’t telling her about this loan either).
I did wonder if people leaped to conclusions about me because of my mother. Maybe they assumed that I was used to a cynical view. All of this made me especially careful not to come on to Veronica. Which was not so say I didn’t think of her that way. We had our own private history of discovery and bodily amazement, of inventing our own brilliant systems. It wasn’t a neutral memory.
But I kept away from her after I sent her a check in the mail. I started to pay more attention to Lily, the woman I’d been seeing for a while. She got me running with her on weekends, a pastime I’d resisted (what was wrong with staying still?) until I fell into the habit of it. On clear fall weekends, we ran through the streets, making up our own routes. It bonded us, even though we didn’t speak as we did it. At the end, we’d park our overheated selves under a tree, drink fortified water and lean against each other, and it made me feel fortunate and glad for my life. How pretty she looked then, her skin flushed, her hair tied back.
And Veronica wasn’t phoning me. She lost the apartment anyway, it turned out, and she moved in with Kim (who already had a roommate), and she slept on Kim’s sofa, not the worst thing.
“I told you,” Binh said. “Don’t hold your breath about that loan.”
“I don’t care,” I said.
“What are you, made of money?”
“I like to think I’m made of something else,” I said, and no wonder he snorted. You could never say money didn’t come first, no one would believe you. But I wasn’t lying.
“You don’t think she’s using you?” Binh said, an odd thing to utter about someone like Veronica. Didn’t we all think she was clueless and innocent? Kept young by not working?
“No one’s more selfish than a kid,” Binh said. “Remember us.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m fine. It’s like what they say about the stock market: never invest more than you can afford to lose.”
“Said like a billionaire,” Binh said.
Of course, I was not prepared for the catastrophe with my brother. My mother got a phone call from her sister in Bangkok with the news that he’d run into some trouble with the police. He’d been giving two tourist girls directions, sitting over their maps with them at a café, and one of them discovered too soon that her passport was gone. He probably wasn’t good at it; he always overrated himself. The girl yelled, the café owner went after him as he was leaving, Jack punched the guy, it was a mess. The police now had to be given a substantial monetary tribute to show honor and respect.
We wired the money to my mother’s sister; someone in the family could go deal with this. My aunt didn’t want to send either of her daughters, and her son was somehow down with dengue fever. People got that in Bangkok? My uncle was out of town on a job. Meanwhile my brother was stuck in jail. “No time!” my mother said. “No waiting! Not good!” I had to go, I knew that.
Lily, my girlfriend, was horrified, not that it was really any of her affair. She thought I was getting sucked into a bad business, and I should just say no–why didn’t I? The accusation of weakness especially infuriated me–she had no clue–and I said some things to her I could never un-say.
I did call Veronica the night before I left. I had to leave a message: “Don’t worry if you can’t reach me, family matters call me to the home country.” I hadn’t been to Thailand since I was a fetus in utero. It certainly wasn’t home, but my first day was like an overcharged, unearthly dream of home, filled with fast-talking relatives and half-familiar faces. My aunt kept screeching with delight at the sight of me, very unlike the way my mother acted. Not that I minded delighting anyone. The daughters and their husbands yammered at me in a Thai I couldn’t always follow.
It was a day before I could get in to see my brother, and he was not a pretty sight, pimpled and skinny and a little smelly, wearing the brown shorts and T-shirt of the jail uniform. “Hey, Bro,” he said, “welcome to Asia, what took you so long?” I laughed just to hear him. He was still Jack.
We were in a back room of the police station, separated by bars. I would’ve known him anywhere, but he wasn’t a teenager anymore. “You look very good, maybe too good,” he said to me. What I should do was talk to the fat cop not the tall one, never offer anything directly, flatter their lovely system, slip the guy more than that. He was glad they hadn’t sent our lame-ass cousin to manage this. “This isn’t some party here, you know.” It was all very harrowing. A cop came to cuff my brother and walk him downstairs to the cells.
I hated Jack when I went back to my aunt’s. It was a crime, same as anywhere, to offer a bribe–did anyone worry about me? Jack could manage better in jail or prison than I could. Everyone thought I was so smart, but I didn’t know what I was doing
Fear made me go very slowly. I visited whenever they let me, I spoke politely to any police I was near, I brought them cigarettes and fruit. I tried to talk about soccer matches (that went nowhere). I saw my chance when one cop lingered with me as I was being led to the door. I had so much fear in me I hardly made sense when I mentioned how grateful we were to everyone there, how highly we thought of them, how hard we knew they all worked, and he took the envelope with our wishes.
My brother got out a day later, charges dismissed. My aunt cooked a big rowdy dinner to celebrate, and Jack kept handing me bottles of beer and saying, “You did it, Bro.” We Facetime’d our mother from my phone, panning a long shot of all the revelers, and I was quite delirious myself. What a great, goofy family I had. Very late that night Jack went back to wherever he lived–on a canal, he said, but I never saw it. “Love to everyone,” he said on my voicemail the next day. “Love to Mom, thank everyone.” And I couldn’t get him on the phone after that. For a day I left messages and texts and the next day a recorded voice in Thai said the number was out of service.
So I flew home, job done, back to my work, back to my perfectly good life. I went at once to my mother, bringing her a smuggled jar of bamboo shoot soup from Aunt Tukta. “Very proud,” she said, meaning of me and what I had done in the police station. She was upset, of course, that Jack had slipped away from all of us. Not for the first time. “We’ll hear,” I said. “When he wants.” But her real disappointment, it turned out, was that I had failed to bring my brother back with me. That was her plan? I was supposed to buy him a ticket? “You have charge card,” she said.
When my brother first left, when he was still a sixteen-year-old wiseass, my mother wept at the airport. We weren’t at all used to her that way. My embarrassed brother said, “You sound like a pigeon or something,” and she made a miserable attempt at chuckling. She said, through her tears, “They will like you in Bangkok,” a city she hadn’t seen since before he was born. Her visa had long since run out, and she was afraid that if she went home she could never come back. She should’ve found an American to marry, but she didn’t.
I told everybody back at work what a great time I’d had in Thailand. My relatives fed me nonstop and took me all over; it wasn’t that pretty a city except for the temples, but it was on a river and the canals were great. “Bet you partied hearty,” people said. There was a backlog of work waiting for me, tangles of data to be strung and ordered, and I couldn’t understand how I had ever done any of it. I stayed late, looking at the same material over and over. I was scaring myself by my stupidity.
I had a month at work that was so bad that when I asked to take a leave, my supervisor said he would have to think about whether my eventual return was feasible. I went home in a rage against the long-standing outrageous use of me by tech-industry assholes, by my crazy mother and my fucked-up family and my criminal brother who were happy to soak me for whatever I had, by every spoiled princess of a woman I’d ever been with.
I shouldn’t have called Veronica that night but I did. She answered right away, too, on her cell, wherever she was.
“I’m inviting you over,” I said. “Now, I mean. Come visit.”
“It’s kind of late,” she said. It was around ten.
“No, it isn’t.”
“I get up early to bake now. I work for my friend Cindy, you don’t know her, she designs cakes for people. I work for her, I like it.”
“You at Kim’s still?”
“No, I’m subletting in Astoria.”
“You can come over,” I said. “Don’t tell me you can’t. I don’t want to hear it.”
And she stopped trying to tell me. When she turned up forty-five minutes later, I hugged her at the door. She was dressed more downscale than ever, in a sweatshirt, and she hadn’t put on any makeup for me. “Looking great,” I told her.
“I never saw your house, this is your house?” she said. I lived in a big studio apartment, littered with magazines and running clothes at the moment. I wondered if she’d thought I was doing better than this.
I poured her a glass of Mekhong whiskey with a lot of ice; I brought out some very decent cheese from the fridge. I asked her about the cakes she made, I wasn’t rude. “They’re amazing,” she said. “Some people do these bold, bright, cartoony cakes, but ours are more floral and sculpted.” It was true she’d always liked to cook. Once when we were in high school, she made me a truffled mac ’n’ cheese, which I now reminded her of.
For all the sappiness of this conversation, she knew why I’d asked her over. While we were standing in the kitchen getting more ice, she laughed in recognition when I made my move, when I reached for her. She wasn’t eager the way she’d once been, I could tell that right away, but she stayed with whatever we were doing.
It was my call. I had her pressed against the kitchen wall, I had both of us wrapped in a monster’s appetite. A friendly monster, I meant her no harm, but when I got us to the sofa, when the clothes came off and we started in earnest, what we were doing was fucking. It wasn’t anything sweeter. Most of it felt great–I was glad, in a bitter way–it took me where I wanted to go, gave me something of what I was owed.
Afterward I was glad too, stilled and spent and proud that I’d had this idea. I wasn’t a helpless half-wit, I’d had the sense to know what I could call on, what reserves I had. “Hey, girl,” I said. There was Veronica, with her hair across her face, crumpled and rosy and mashed into the couch. I moved to give her room.
“I have to go,” she said, “it’s late.”
“You want tea? I can make you tea.”
“Thank you for the great reunion.”
“Any time,” she said. “But it’s late.”
“It’s not that late,” I said, and I held her in a solid grip. I didn’t want to let her go that fast–she owed me more than that. “What’s the big rush?”
She didn’t answer, and she lay very still inside my clasping arm. Let her think she was my prisoner, I didn’t care just then. She could wait a minute. “Sleep,” I said. I worked on keeping us motionless and I was even starting to drift off, when she said, “I really have to go.”
“I know.” I took my arm away, I sat up. She was off that couch before I knew it. “I’ll call you a cab. I don’t want you wandering around at this hour.”
I watched her dress while I tapped the Lyft app on my phone. Had her body changed since we’d been high school sweethearts? Not much, not at all. The lush bareness was disappearing under her clothes now (she was always a fast dresser). “All ready,” she said.
I walked her downstairs, and I had my arm around her while we waited for the car. “I have to get up at five,” she said. “We’re doing somebody’s anniversary party.”
“You’re very dedicated,” I said.
“I am,” she said.
“But you came over anyway.”
When I helped her into the cab, she turned away before I got in much of a kiss. “Nice to see you,” she said. She didn’t bother sounding sincere, but why should she? She was sturdier than people thought, she was going to be all right. And she still had my two thousand bucks.
My mother was horrified that I was out of work. “They fired you?” I explained that my status wasn’t settled, maybe I could go back, maybe not. “You must find new job,” she suggested.
This was not the worst idea. My father liked to talk about new brooms sweeping clean. He was full of self-assured platitudes, and some of them were right. My mother still kept a photo of him on a shelf, an old one with a head of dark hair, with a vase next to it that usually held a fresh flower. Did she really think any efforts on her part (she gave alms to the local temple in his name) could get him reborn into a better realm?
One of the big questions of my father’s life had been “What can money buy?” It bought my mother’s company, but perhaps she would’ve liked him anyway. He believed in money, he wanted everything bound to him by it, as if it were surer than other ties. A dark theory, and my brother and I were the proof it didn’t work with kids. My brother used to make a point of destroying most of the gifts he gave us, but of course that was my brother.
Now Jack was over there palming tourists’ passports. At this stage in life neither of us was at all above the power of money or free of its corruption. Look at how I had behaved with Veronica, calling in my debt. She’d understood me perfectly well, as I’d known she would. Well, nobody forced her. I kept remembering her getting into the cab, turning her head. That night wasn’t ever going to turn into just nothing. Had I thought it would? Had I thought at all?
“Good news,” my mother said. “Jack is good.” My brother had phoned her, late the night before, when she’d just gotten back from the restaurant. “Sounding happy,” she told me. He was sorry for being out of touch, he’d gotten busy with tasks that required his attention outside of Bangkok. He was extremely grateful to my mother for helping him and also to me. And now he was fine, working in a friend’s store, selling phones, everybody needed a phone, and phone cards.
“He can call for cheap now,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “This is nice. And he’s earning very well from those phones. His friend likes him.”
“Maybe he’ll be the rich one,” I said. “Richer than me.” My efforts at re-employment were not a raging success.
Later in the week, around midnight, I too had a phone call from Jack. “Hey, my ace,” he said. “I never thanked you.”
“You did,” I said. “And everybody toasted me many times over at Aunt Tukta’s. I got completely hammered on beer and that rice booze. You okay now?”
“Doing well,” he said. “New work, new girl I’m living with. You saw me at a low point. I hope you didn’t tell Mom how bad I looked.”
“I look much cuter now,” he said. “Believe me.”
I was out of work a lot longer than I expected. Whatever they wanted, they didn’t seem to think I had it, and I wasn’t getting a rave from my last employer. I found myself eating Cheerios for supper one night, while I watched the news on my computer. Only someone like Veronica could survive on this stuff for weeks. After dinner I read the Times online, all of it. In the Food section in the short pieces on hip new things to eat, there was a photo of two women standing behind a cake iced in the shape of a giant peony, and one of the women was Veronica, with her hair pulled back. It really was, the caption said so. “Sweet Blooms for Easter Table” was the heading, with the report that guests would swoon over the pandan-flavored lily and the black-sesame violets as well. A noted rock star was already a fan.
Fuck, I thought, everybody’s doing well but me. I made efforts to conquer the pettiness of this point of view. Apparently Veronica was getting up in the morning for an actual purpose, and her dedication was paying off. And they were pictured as co-bakers, so maybe she had been promoted too. I left her a text: Saw thing in paper bravo to u bake on girl.
My mother had seen the thing too. “Apron not flattering,” she said. She wanted me to settle down, but not with Veronica.
“The cakes are great,” I said. I had a fantasy that if I ever had a wedding, I’d buy a big expensive fantastic floral cake from Veronica, to show that my feelings were larger than my mistakes and my loyalty was unswerving. I got quite carried away with the idea and how the cake would look.
Meanwhile I could barely buy a bag of potato chips. At the end of one very dispiriting week–could people at least reply to say I wasn’t their type?–I was summoned for an interview. The manager who talked to me was a highly pretty woman, Yu-wen Something–fabulous short haircut–who liked me, I could tell, and our interview lasted longer than some. At the end she told me how much she loved Thai food, people always said that, and I had to chuckle and admit what a good cook I was (total lie). A week went by without a word and another week. Maybe I’d flirted too much. But I hadn’t really.
One night I was hanging out with Binh, watching some ridiculous boys-on-a-bender comedy on his video, and I checked for email on my phone. No one had written about hiring me, but there was a weird message from PayPal.
“Watch out for scams,” Binh said. “Do not give them any info.”
Money had allegedly been sent to me from a PayPal account under the name L. Lots, by email from Lotsoflucky@. And the amount was odd–it was $856.18. I tried to decode those numbers–Veronica’s birthday was in August, the eighth month, but I couldn’t get her day and year to fit with the other numbers. She could be superstitious, she could invent little rituals. And she was certainly someone who’d just had a nice run of luck. What percentage of two thousand was 856.18? The numbers meant nothing that I could decode, except that she wanted to start paying back and was making a prank out of it, to get away from the heavy-handed exchange of cash.
I explained this to Binh, who said, “You really want to click anything on that site?”
The site checked out as actually being PayPal–I could get under the layers that much, geek that I was–and it was asking me to click to send the funds to the checking account they already knew. What the fuck. I did it.
I went to bed sure that everything financial with my name on it was now crashing in the dark. Not that I had enough to care. I woke up very early and saw the bank app on my phone had deposit news, and I’d no sooner run out the door than, right on my own corner, real bills came out of the cash machine. I emailed LotsofLucky–Very charming surprise. Spending it wisely.
What is it with luck? No sooner was I wolfing down an extravagant breakfast–delicious Eggs Benedict at a café I had to walk twenty minutes to–than I found a message from the lovely Yu-wen, asking if I could come in again for a second interview. I could indeed.
And that was the beginning of the new phase in my life. They hired me, the job was fine, I pulled myself together, I showed up early and worked hard. And I refrained from coming on to Yu-wen inappropriately–did I need to get either of us fired? I did not. We had a lot of chats in the coffee room, and I kept things harmless.
Veronica was still on my mind, and the cleverness of her repayment. Apparently she was going for installments, as her finances slowly got ahead. But I never got her on the phone again, no matter when I called or what I said in the message. No replies from texts or the usual email either. She was more responsive on LotsofLucky (maybe she only used that account now)–I did hear Congrats great news, when I sent word about the job. Congrats, who said that? She didn’t want us to be a couple–I got it–and she was right.
And just when I never expected it, I got another surprise message from PayPal. This one was for $980.85. Hadn’t we met in September, the ninth month? Was the first day of school September 8? But the “085” didn’t signify anything. I was being too literal about these numbers; she had a more encrypted system.
I sent my thanks to LotsofLucky–Well done. I like being amazed by cash falling from the sky.
So now she was choosing to talk to me only through money. Money, of course, was always said to talk, which meant that it had a very loud voice and could drown out all else. I began to wonder if I should give all the money back. By now I’d been working at the job for six months, and these little payments from cyberspace weren’t needed to rescue me. What if the weird sum of these two odd amounts suddenly appeared in her account? What if I just brushed away her filthy shekels?? Oh, we’d be going in circles. Back to you, back to you. It wouldn’t be a real answer to the chilliness of her not speaking to me.
I was brooding over this at one in the morning, when the phone rang with Jack calling me from Thailand. This can’t be good news, I thought, but it was. “Doing great,” he said. “June wants to see New York. I got us tickets.” June was the new girlfriend (lots of Bangkok women liked English names). “Coming in ten days. You think you can stand it?”
“Mom will be ecstatic. In fact, tell her it was my idea.”
“I want to take us all out for dinner, so think of a good spot. I’m okay now for cash. Well, you know that, from the PayPal stuff I sent. I never forget that you bailed me out. I don’t forget.”
I had the self-control not to bellow out loud. My brother had fooled me, he’d let me think it was all Veronica. How insane my messages must have sounded to her. I knew full well that I alone had managed to trick myself, but it was hard to stop being furious at Jack.
“Joe?” he said to me. “You there?”
“I’ll find us a great place,” I said. “What kind of food does June like?”
“Everything. I knew I could put you on it,” he said. “Be great to see you.”
“I’ll tell Mom not to be mean to the girl.”
Veronica must have thought I was mocking and goading her, constantly sending sarcastic messages about a debt she hadn’t paid. I was never getting any of that money back now. Of course, I didn’t need to, because my brother had sent me quite a bit of it. Those ragged figures must have been Thai baht converted to dollars. Why didn’t I think of that? And he never wanted to use his name for anything, never.
My brother had behaved very handsomely, for him. He’d done his best to gather up his hard-earned black-market profits and rain golden coins on me. The envelope I gave to the Thai cops for him had actually come from our mother, with a final addition from me on site, but I’d paid my own last-minute, absurdly overpriced airfare.
When we were kids, I had to take him with me if our mother was at work. I’d make fun of him to my friends, I’d stop him when he talked, I’d give him rope burns with my hands. I hadn’t been very fair to him, but brothers aren’t. He was a tough bird, even as a little kid.
When he got older, he stole candy, usually Snicker’s, my favorite, which he turned over to me. He’d cross the street in traffic, dashing around cars, and never get killed. He was always trying to impress me.
And when he was only fifteen, the police, trying to get more active in the neighborhood, stopped and frisked him and found a joint in his pocket. Not necessarily a big deal, but they drove him to the station to scare him. My mother was afraid to appear in such a place, unregistered alien that she was, and I was eighteen by then, so I was the one to fetch him. He waited till we were out on the street to sound like Jack. “They have the IQs of cockroaches, those cops,” he said.
“Your job right now is to shut up,” I said. “Around Mom particularly. Don’t go on about any cops. You okay? How bad was it?’ That was the best I did for him; I should’ve done more.
Now my mother was beside herself with joy that he was coming back from Thailand to see us. She wanted to decorate the living room with crepe-paper streamers, and should she get a new dress? Everything she had was too old. “I can’t believe it,” she said, beaming, and I saw how afraid she’d been of his never showing up again.
“He likes this girlfriend,” I said. “We have to be very nice to her. Try your best, Mom.”
She laughed, in her high spirits. “Very, very nice,” she said.
She wanted to have a big feast for him, with all his favorite foods from Golden Treasure Thai.
“I think he wants to take us out for the first dinner,” I said. “He wants to treat us royally.”
“Afterwards we come here for dessert,” she said. “Big celebration here after. Wine, beer, whiskey, big dessert.”
I knew where we could get a terrific dessert. I could order, like anyone else, from the Perfect Flower Cake Bakery, where Veronica and her friend Cindy sculpted their butter-cream marvels. I’d sign up online–with my real name, nothing to hide–and I’d go pick it up in person, who would stop me? Plenty of time to order. And which flower did my mother think people would like?
It was Yu-wen, in our coffee room chats, who told me about the bankruptcy; she was much more up on business news than I was. The famous department stores founded by Veronica’s husband’s family were going under, filing for bankruptcy while their debtors clamored. I shocked Yu-wen by guffawing at this news. “Too complicated to explain,” I said. I sort of hoped Veronica was crowing at the downfall too. Maybe the inheritance from Schuyler would just have come to nothing anyway, only a lot of bum stock. Money like dried leaves blowing away in the proverbial wind.
The bankruptcy was in billions and was taking down some suppliers. Once I heard the story, I looked everything up online. There were the brothers, Tad and Richard, two thirtyish guys in suits walking up the steps of a courthouse. Punished for their bad behavior to Veronica.
Two brothers. One article said rumors had them quarreling with each other, vying for different strategies. Alternate forms of legal skullduggery. Stick together, I could have told them. Don’t make it worse.
I went to pick up the cake on my lunch hour, out to Brooklyn, hunting down some side street in Crown Heights, ignoring the option of delivery. The bakery was a tiny storefront with nothing but a majestic pile of sculpted orchids in the window, some pale, some brilliant, braced against the log that was my cake. “It looks fantastic,” I said, coming through the door. Behind the counter was Veronica, with her hair in a kerchief.
“It does,” she said. “Hi, Joe.”
“Hello, hello. Hey, I heard about the bankruptcy,” I said. “What a thing.”
“You know why they went under?” she said. “They were greedy in a stupid way. Only paid themselves.” She was getting out a flat white cardboard and folding it into a box. “Sometimes I think Schuyler was like them. He didn’t have to leave me with nothing. I cooked for him all those years, I took care of the apartment. But they picked on him too, you know, they were mean to him.”
“The bakery smells fabulous.”
“It does,” she said. “Very good atmosphere for working yourself to the bone. I love it.”
“The cake is for my brother–he’s back all of a sudden for a visit. My mom is over the moon.”
“Little naughty Jack. What’s he like now?”
“He’s good,” I said. “He’s been sending me money and I didn’t even realize it, the way he did it. I think he’s fine. Sorry for the emails with the crazy thanks.”
She gave me a long stare. “I don’t make very much. Even if we’re doing well. I don’t know what you think.”
She was never going to like me again. Why should she? “I can’t wait to try the cake,” I said. And then I decided we had to shake hands. She seemed pleased at that, we shook for a few seconds. We were done.
On the way home to Queens with the cake, I thought about how all religions hated money. Didn’t they? Buddhist monks were supposed to own nothing but their begging bowls and clothes, Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, Orthodox Jews couldn’t carry cash on the Sabbath. I was mad at money for the dirt it threw on my life. I never should have lent Veronica anything. Oh, was that the problem? I’d meant well, but not well enough. I behaved quite poorly, once I was poor. Of course, rich people didn’t behave any better, as we’d all just seen. When I passed a bank near the subway station, I suddenly knew why people always wanted to bomb banks.
Not that I was planning to burn the contents of my wallet. It wasn’t the bills’ fault, no point blaming them; it was (as we liked to say) operator error. But still the bank looked creepy to me, with its columns like a Greek shrine and its vending machine open twenty-four hours.
The orchid cake could not have been a bigger hit. When my brother saw it, he yelled, “Oh, my God. What is that?”
“Special for you,” my mother said. His girlfriend applauded, and then we all clapped too. For the cake.
We had just had our big meal out, at a terrific restaurant I picked for him in Brooklyn, in Dumbo. He had been a little hyper all evening, but in a good way. He told stories about nutty customers at the phone store and about the time Aunt Tukta set fire to the rice cooker. His girlfriend, whose English was not great, added extras to his stories in Thai, until we all switched. She wasn’t what I expected–not that glamorous, a little chubby–but quite charmingly acerbic. She won me over. Even my mother snickered at her quips.
We had gone to meet them at the airport very late the night before. We hovered around the luggage area, and my brother saw us before we saw them. He ran straight for my mother and hugged her hard, like an American, right in public, while the girl looked confused and smiled. When I shook her hand and welcomed her to New York, she said in Thai, “Hello, brother who looks like Jack.”
Jack said, “But I’m the better-looking one.”
“No contest,” my mother said. “Both perfect.”
And on this evening of their first day, everyone was still pretty happy. We all said what a shame it was to cut a cake that looked like that, so we waited and got drunker. The traveling couple had napped all day–bad for jet lag; they’d be up for hours. “Whoever can stand on their head,” Jack said, “has to cut the cake.” This made no sense, but Jack did a headstand, with June holding his feet. “Cheating,” I said. And then our mother did a headstand! I’d never seen such a thing. She fell over fast, legs landing on the sofa, but it was a new and great moment in our family. She got up, disheveled and giggling. Who was she?
The cake tasted fabulous, once the cuts were made. It had purple yam and coconut milk and maybe almond, was that almond? “You eat like this all the time?” June said.
Jack said, “I told her we grew up on leftovers, now she’ll never believe me.”
“I never have,” she said. He pretended to smack her on the arm and she smacked him back.
At some point in all the eating, June spotted the photo of my father, with a marigold in a vase next to it. “That’s the sperm donor,” I said. I said it in English, since I could only say it in Thai obscenely.
“My brother got along with him better than I did,” Jack said. “And looks more like him too, don’t you think?” Neither of us was exactly the spitting image.
My mother said, “We remember him. You can see that we do.”
So I brought in a piece of cake to Yu-wen. She saved it for a mid-morning snack, and I watched her breaking off a bite-size chunk. “I’m not that into coconut,” she said. “But it’s incredibly sweet of you to bring it to me.”
I heard in this bit of gratitude something that led me to suggest (out of earshot of anyone) an after-work drink together at a place two blocks away. I waited for her there, and in all our usual chitchat there was a thrum of lust you could’ve heard several miles away. We stayed a good two hours in the café, and then with no debate whatsoever we took a cab to her apartment and fell into bed at once, and that was the beginning of our secret coupleship, which was extremely sexy for being against company policy and so long repressed and which should’ve happened a lot earlier.
After Jack went back to Bangkok with June, I tried not to neglect my mother, and so I told her about Yu-wen a little sooner than I meant to. She announced that she was very pleased that both of us were settled, Jack and I. I didn’t know how settled we were. “About time,” she said, and I remembered that she’d been years younger than either of us when she first met our father. A girl of twenty from the village.
“So when you first met Dad,” I said, “did you think it was going to last?”
“I didn’t think anything,” she said (she didn’t want to answer). The woman was still giving money to the monks for blessings on his behalf. What kind of religion did she have, bribing the cycle of karma with petty cash? And the flower she put every day in the vase by his picture: daily proof of how much I didn’t know.
I could never guess if she got pregnant with me as a trick or by accident. My mother wasn’t a schemer, but she grew up knowing how to bargain. Even in Queens she argued with anyone selling fruit on the street, and she always got the price down.
“Nobody else does that,” Veronica used to say, much to my outrage, and that was when she hoped to marry me too.
And now my mother wanted to remind me that she made offerings quite often at the temple with special requests for Jack and me. “I want you happy always with nice girls,” she said. “ Is that too much to ask?”