Saturday, March 12, 2016

Fairy Tales of Manhattan: Of Them All

Of Them All (Snow White)
by Julie Baumgold

"My prettiest customer," said Joe,
who always rushed to be Laura's waiter at 3 Guys, a Greek diner that had become a restaurant.

Now that they had expanded to upper Madison with a second branch, 3 Guys had become seven guys but the place was still called 3 Guys. It had taken on some of the fanciness of the neighborhood, with a bar off to the side and high prices. In the late afternoon, the lights were dimmed.

Laura had been going there for years and Joe always said the same thing and had the same happy look on his face. Many people looked at Laura like that, now that she had become successfully younger looking.

She was on her third marriage and had acquired an infant daughter with her new husband who had the kind of money she had always wanted. He gave her a big diamond and a polo coat made of sable and a new house at the beach and this daughter, Christine who had just arrived from Florida in a pink blanket that was not to Laura's taste. She had thrown it away at the airport and wrapped little Christine in a white blanket hand knitted by her new English nanny, Nanny Crew, who held the baby on the way back to the city.

Laura then resumed her traditional role of good wife, social presence, and runner of well- run houses while Nanny Crew strolled the park in all weather with little Christine.

The child was christened at St. James with much splendor and a long lawn and lace dress that cascaded over her delicate mother. Had anyone looked over to Nanny Crew standing in an apse they would have seen an expression that crossed pride with disapproval aimed at the thinness of the dress and the often absent parents who left the church and headed directly for the airport and the Aspen slopes.

As the years passed, Nanny Crew remained, knitting booties and caps and tiny cardigans for other babies while taking Christine the few blocks to and from her school.

The girl's beauty emerged and grew. Upon compliments, her white skin easily rose to a blush as red as her lips. Her long hair shone the bluest black. Some said her eyes were navy, other thought deep sapphire, all agreed, as she lowered her thick lashes and then looked up, on the force of her beauty.

Often Nanny would take her and a group of friends after school for a hot chocolate at 3 Guys. There Joe, Yorgos, Stavros, Manoli, Alexandros, Hector, and Nestor welcomed Christine, slipping her an extra oatmeal raisin cookie when the vigilant Miss Crew was bent over her knitting.

"I can't think where the extra weight is coming from," Laura said to Nanny Crew.

"Children always gain a bit before a growth spurt," said the vastly experienced, ever disapproving nurse.

Laura and her husband were devoted to their bodies. Summer and winter they exercised together– skiing, yoga, Soul Cycle, jumping about of all sorts and they ate very carefully. Every meal was pruned and planned. Laura's life was ruled by the lists on her iPad, all aimed at human perfectibility and immortality. She knew of no greater compliment for a friend than to say she was "highly organized." Ever aspiring, she was careful and tense about everything as though she were being observed and judged by an invisible committee. Long ago, at school, Laura's nickname was P.S. for Prissy Sissy.

One afternoon when Nanny was down with the flu, much to everyone's astonishment for, as she reminded everyone, this was the first time in 44 years of service, Laura went to pick up her daughter at school. They stopped at 3 Guys because Christine begged and pleaded and was about to make a scene.

Laura asked for a booth and Joe rushed over, looking surprised.

"Is this little one yours? Why we see her all the time with the old woman. She is almost as pretty as you, Mrs."

"What?" said Laura. Something like a frown creased her immovable brow. Her tone chilled Joe who realized he had made a mistake.

When he brought little Christine her cocoa he was careful to keep his eyes down. The lady was still scowling as she swiped the whipped cream from the top of Christine's cocoa and drowned it on her saucer.

"That's the best part," said Christine in her littlest voice. Her mother did not like to be provoked and this was a bold move.

"You can't eat everything you like or you will get a big tummy like…" she was looking up at Joe's middle "And you don't want that, do you?"

Out on the street, as she bent to do up Christine's coat, she caught sight of her reflection in the Florian Papp windows. All the skiing had reddened and roughened her face despite the visor and creams and dermatological interventions. In the sunlight the pale pure white of her daughter's skin shone with a pearly radiance.

With the best intentions Laura sent Christine to Dr. Stone who weighed Christine every week and gave her an assortment of colored pills in a square plastic box until the girl became anorexic and spent a month "away." Later she sent her to her hairdresser to plant streaks in Christine's black hair which did not become her and caused her hair to break.

Nanny Crew stayed with her girl and intervened as much as she could until Christine was sent to boarding school. Then she returned to her sister in Yorkshire where she collected wooden tea caddies and worried over Christine night and day. She had a drawer full of beribboned booties and miniature sweaters waiting.

Before she left, Laura took Christine for her favorite BLT at 3 Guys. Joe did not come rushing over because of Laura but Stavros did.

"We will really miss you. You are the prettiest lady of them all," he said to Christine, not even looking at Laura who then knew she had made the right decision to send Christine away. As they had their baked apples, Laura lopped off her generous dollop of whipped cream and gave it to Christine with a smile that was almost maternal.
In the first week, the Choate freshman class went on a hiking trip to get to know each other. Christine looked ahead on the perilous trail and saw Paul, her mirror image, who, like others, was looking back at her. He fell back to walk alongside her and, when her backpack became too heavy, he transferred some of her gear to his. They were from then on, much to the chagrin of the other boys and the relief of the girls, a couple.

Back home Laura had gotten herself together. She did not relax her self-vigilance. She took up running and wore a ski mask or the largest sunglasses on cold days. Often the runners thought and hoped she might be Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for whom the reservoir was later named. When Laura saw her reflection in a store window or in her 100x magnification mirror she no longer had to turn away. She felt she was where she belonged at last, far enough away from her past.

With Christine out of the house, off the street, away from the city Laura was no longer invisible and outshone, she resumed her place as one of the known beauties. No apartment is big enough for two beauties, she thought, unless one of them is a dog.
Christine and Paul worked relentlessly, bent over in their carrels at the library and they both applied to Stanford, where Christine's father had graduated and were accepted in stages, Paul first. Christine still wrote to Nanny Crew unsure of how to present herself with Paul but sure that Nanny always wanted her escape and happiness.

Laura and her husband made brief visits, continuing on from Aspen where they stored their ski gear. Christine and Paul cooked for them with California farmers' market vegetables and second hand Le Creuset pots and Laura found herself approving of Paul and all their little domestic arrangements.

Every time he saw them, Paul felt he had saved Christine from a bad fate which he could not quit define.

With the entire country between them, Laura could relax as much as she was capable of relaxing which was not that much.
When Christine and Paul returned east for their new jobs in finance, Christine's father rented them a place in one of the glass towers. They were considering marriage and had adopted an overweight cat and a lively ugly dog that no one else would rescue.

Just like a glass coffin, Laura thought when she saw the place and was relieved that she and her daughter were, if not a continent, at least a city, apart.

Christine and Paul stood staring out, thrilled and a little bewildered up there with the newness and the piercing sun and their lives just beginning. The cat wove itself around their legs, the dog lay sprawled. Others saw them moving about, in the evenings, standing close together. Sometimes they saw things they should not have seen and imagined themselves just that lucky.

Looking up into those lives was like looking into a mirror. The mirror had answers, only sometimes they were wrong. And sometimes, too, the mirror lied.

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