Val is not herself today.
It isn't like her to be so subdued. She doesn't call to me as I make my way up the carved marble staircase, its edges worn smooth by generations of arrivals and departures. She doesn't wave me over once I reach the top of the stairs and wrestle through the crowd, elbowing past Wednesday-afternoon revelers raising their glasses to celebrate the end of another workday. She doesn't look up after I get myself a beer and approach her table, or offer any comment as I stand, dumbfounded, before the remarkable structure she has created. Here, in the mezzanine bar at Grand Central, with only a few square inches of table to work with, Val has erected a tower of shopping bags representing nearly every one of New York's best B's (Bendel's, Barneys, Bergdorf's...). I'm ashamed to say, in my own state of mentally unstable not-quite-myselfness, this is the only unusual thing I notice.
Shopping. There's something else I won't be doing for a while.
I take a deep breath and put on the happiest happy-hour smile I can muster. "Look at you!" I chirp, holding my beer glass in a death grip, shoehorning myself into the three-inch gap between the empty chair and the edge of her table, goggling at the bags while using my free hand to push them out of my way. I poke a Burberry back from the edge of the table, where it threatens to drop into my lap, but that only makes the rest of the pile teeter precariously. I clamp down on the Boyd's of Madison at the top and struggle to shift my chair to one side without spilling beer on myself. Val makes no effort to help. "If you wouldn't mind," I say, "could you help me move this stuff, just the tiniest - oh my goodness!"
Val is crying.
No. Not crying; sobbing. Tears skid down her flushed cheeks to her jawbone and pause at the abyss a moment before splashing into her untouched cocktail. She’s got mascara running down her wrist onto the sleeve of her pink cardigan; her demure, blond pageboy is all mussed; and she’s groping around in her pink, quilted Chanel chain purse, perhaps for a tissue.
“What is it? You poor thing!” I’m no longer thinking about shopping bags and am halfway to forgetting why I’ve been feeling so sorry for myself. Until this moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that Val could get this upset about anything. Her tears are as unsettling as anything else I’ve dealt with over the past few days. “What’s wrong? What’s the matter? This isn’t about me, is it? Because, really, I’ll be all right.”
She can’t possibly be crying over me. Heaven knows I’m upset—rootless, loveless and unexpectedly jobless. But Val is distraught. Trembling and pale, with a red, brimming gaze that, at last, she turns on me. “My husband is…” she clears her throat. “He’s…ahem.” She takes a bracing swig of her pink parasol drink, sets it back down and folds her hands on the table. “My husband is cheating,” she says. “Again.”
Her delivery—calculated, with a pause for emphasis between each word—makes it seem as if she’s accusing me. It might be that she all at once looks more incensed than heartbroken, or the way she’s staring me dead in the eye. “Again,” she repeats icily, and it’s as if I am the other woman, here to confess all and beg forgiveness for coming between Val and her husband. That’s when something dawns on me. Several somethings. One, Val is a vintage-clothing connoisseur who would no sooner patronize any of these B-stores than she would cry like a baby in the middle of Grand Central Terminal on an early-May afternoon. Two, Val only wears black. Three, demure? Blond? Pageboy?
And there’s one very last little something.
Val doesn’t have a husband.
It’s a joke. Val doesn’t take anything seriously. It’s a joke, right? Val’s here to buy me a consolation drink to distract me during my time of crisis, and this is just another diversionary tactic. It’s typical Val behavior, but it’s freaking me out. “You’re not acting like yourself and you’re scaring me.” I try to say it jovially, as if in no way about to start crying myself.
But instead of erupting into laughter and pointing to a hidden camera, Val just covers her face and sobs some more.
Her commitment is impressive. Still, how long will the show go on? I’ve got jangled-enough nerves already, having spent two hours in a Midtown unemployment office at a mandatory New York State Department of Labor group-orientation lecture: Job-Hunting Tools for the Twenty-First Century. (“Does everyone here know what the Internet is?”) After that, I got all turned around coming over to Grand Central, first walking four long blocks west, only to end up on a desolate, trash-strewn stretch of Eleventh Avenue, leaving only two thousand nine hundred ninety-nine and two-tenths of a mile between me and former life in Los Angeles—all right, the San Fernando Valley—before realizing I should have been heading east the whole time.
All of this probably explains why she figures it out first.
“Oh, perfect. This is just great.” She lifts her head, sniffles, and dabs under each eye with her tissue. “Naturally. You want Val.”
Later I’ll regret not having paid more attention to this moment.
I won’t have, though, and that’s too bad. It might have been an early clue that perhaps I’m unfit for the new career that’s about to fall into my lap. What was it they just said at the unemployment office? Our experience is our toolbox, with our skills as the tools? Well it seems I’ve locked my observational skills into my toolbox and left it on a streetcorner somewhere. Since relocating to New York five weeks ago for a fancy focus-group moderator position at Hayes Heeley Market Research, and up until getting “restructured” right out of that very same position two days ago, I worked, went for coffee and had lunch with Valerie Benjamin nearly every day. After this much concentrated time in her company I know what she looks like down to the last eyelash. I know her taste in men, clothing and cocktails; her life’s philosophy and her family background.
I know she has an identical twin.
From It's About Your Husband by Lauren Lipton. Reproduced with permission from Warner Books, Inc., a division of Hachette Book Group USA, Inc. Copyright © 2006 by Lauren Lipton. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.