Alexandra Marshall

Excerpt

Something Borrowed

When her former husband placed his hand against the small of her back, Gale remembered how unusually warm Gary's hands always were. She and Gary were seated back to back at separate tables for this dinner the night before their son's wedding, and as Gary's familiar pulse zipped up her spine directly to the brain, Gale recognized the effect: a magnetic field more forceful than the passage of time.

Six large round tables spun with the energy of strangers destined to become intimate-in the next thirty-six hours, best friends-without any further need to encounter each other again. The power generated was already enough to give the beige walls color. And now the best man stood, tapping a water goblet with a spoon.

"With Charlie and Beth," he began, demonstrating them like an exhibit, "what you see isn't what you get." Voices popping like air bubbles on still water collected into a silence he made dense by a deeper pause. Suddenly he said, "You get more."

Gale heard herself gasp with pleasure—yes, true—as Gary clapped his hands and proclaimed "Yes!" like an adolescent sports fan, then called out "True!" as if this were a duet.

It was their son Charlie who, in marrying the girl next door, fulfilled an even older childhood ambition by bringing his divorced parents together again. Charlie and Beth presided from a table in the center of the room, their laughter combining naturally like the notes of a pleasing chord. The best man, David Haynes, was Charlie's Wesleyan roommate for all four college years, and though clearly he could divulge secrets, he only raised a glass to them and sat.

Gary had missed that college graduation by the unfortunate timing of his third honeymoon, and now his wife of those subsequent five years sat at another table, chaperoned by Gary's own Cousin Ed. Gary could hear her asking Ed what was so funny about saying you get more than what you get.

Gale heard it too, but she'd prepared herself to feel sorry for Sandra, so she did. She wouldn't want to be Sandra, an outsider flown from an uncomplicated life in Tucson east to unfamiliar Boston. Unlike Sandra—unlike Gary, for that matter—Gale's husband, Bob, had helped her raise Charlie. Bob had also known Charlie and Beth as an adult couple, whereas when Gary last saw Beth she was only nine years old. It was Gary's own fault, of course, but Gale surprised herself by feeling, instead of contempt, pity. This would explain why she could still feel his hand on her back: she felt as sorry for Gary as she did for his wife. What a rationalization.

As if Gale were a patient in her own psychotherapy practice, she asked herself the most important question: what is it you are afraid of? Why, after a dozen contented years married to Bob, would she be vulnerable to Gary? With her back to him she hadn't been able to gauge his purpose or even whether his touch was deliberate or inadvertent. But it was exactly this uncertainty that frightened her, since by the end of their marriage Gary had succeeded in making her feel like a small household appliance that gets replaced rather than fixed.

Gale looked to Bob and saw his party expression, the entirely polite face he used when the talk was small talk. Leaning at an obtuse angle away from the woman next to him, Bob wore a smile that Gale knew was inauthentic. Gale draped her gaze like a silk scarf over her own shoulder and was startled to meet Gary's intent face looking right back into hers. What was there to be afraid of ? That she'd wished he'd touch her bare skin with that warm hand.

Now their daughter interrupted to ask for, and get, everybody's attention. Margo stood at her seat between Charlie and his best man to point a remote control at a screen Gale hadn't seen before. Margo had set out the place cards according to Gale's seating plan, but in order to better accommodate her presentation she'd rotated the head table and, while she was at it, two more tables, seating their parents back to back as another gift to Charlie.

The same way Charlie was Gale's son, Margo was her father's daughter. An architect like him, only more successful, Margo was accustomed to giving presentations, so she'd arranged with the restaurant for a slide projector and a screen onto which to shine images of Charlie from almost the first day of his life up to this night. It was comical, in slide after slide, to watch Charlie not change: his perfect-oval face the same, his hair staying that blond, his eyes as green. He was such proof of plus ça change it was hard, without her running commentary, to tell for sure which year was which. Nevertheless, a coherent future unfolded as Charlie went on from Wesleyan to study business at Northeastern, interning with Fidelity Investments and, as implied in the company name, planning to remain there the rest of his life. Margo's guide to Charlie was a promotional spot on commitment, which she termed the upside of conservatism.

On the downside, Charlie was showcased with his collections of boy things-from baseball cards to beer bottle caps-and in a mock-investigative sequence there was an expose of the piggy banks he hid under his bed, not only as a child but, in an obviously altered photo, even right now. As Margo attested with relief, this was where Beth came in, by rescuing Charlie from himself.

There were early pictures of Charlie and Beth as a couple, in their strollers, on tricycles, and there was evidence of collaboration in the building of a tree house: Beth in a carpenter's apron, Charlie with what was interpreted as a bag of nails, until his correction, "No, that was my lunch."

Though the salad had been served before Margo began, almost everyone postponed eating it, making the room quiet enough to hear, in addition to her every word, the projector's electric hum and the clicker. Snapshot poses showed off Beth's family, six brunette Golds forming a totem pole, their matching grins fierce. This must be what it takes to remain an intact family, thought Gale. Certainly it was her smiling Charlie's long-term goal to join this winning lineup.

Here were group shots of the two families on outings, always with one grown-up photographer missing, until the year Gary gave Gale the camera with the time-release shutter so they could be complete for what turned out to be their last year as a nuclear family. There they were in the house the two families rented together in Falmouth Heights, at first intending to split the time but sharing it for those several Augusts, feasting all together on blueberries and beefsteak tomatoes and fresh-picked corn, looking over Nantucket Sound with Martha's Vineyard in the foreground.

In order to see the slides, several guests at every table had turned their chairs around to face the screen, so in effect Gary now sat directly behind Gale, as if she were a lens he could see through. From this point of view, his experience of their two children was that Gale and he had nicely duplicated themselves: two performance artists, two behind-the-sceners. More intense was Gary's realization of Margo and Charlie with none of his own faults and all their mother's strengths. Gary straddled Gale's chair so he could lean forward to tell her exactly this. To him it had come as a kind of revelation.

His voice in Gale's ear sounded much louder than it probably was, though not simply because of what he'd said. She made the same realization, but in reverse, and hadn't had the nerve to admit it to him. Just as Charlie resembled Gale, Margo's appeal was like Gary's, her own large charm equal to his. In possession of a durable self-confidence, Margo was Gale's claim to upward mobility. Before the guests arrived, with her fingers she'd stretched the rose petals open wider because, in her amateur opinion, they were looking uptight. Like her father, Margo favored open-endedness, even for these centerpieces. She liked voluptuous, she liked over the edge. She had yet to complete a single degree program in a conventional way, and yet she'd just won a competition to spend Disney money, therefore lots of it, on a design of a movie studio for the Orlando mega-expansion. Though she was barely licensed to practice,the executives claimed not to be surprised by how young she was, since in fact so were they.

When Gale whispered to Gary that she'd had the same thought in reverse, putting a hand on his knee, she could feel Gary lean up into her open palm.