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The four of them were good friends. When Jerry and Meg got married twenty years ago, right after college, Chloe had been the maid of honor. The following year, Chloe married Mat, and Meg was her matron of honor, her long auburn hair piled up alarmingly on her head. The two couples lived a mile from each other in a quiet, verdant town an hour north of New York City, a sedate and enlightened community.
Of the four, Meg was by far the best cook. Jerry made himself available to her in the kitchen, washing cutting boards and knives after she was done with them, opening stubborn jars, setting water to boil for pasta.
Across town, Mat was the wine expert, or so they all thought of him. Of course, Mat shook his brown curls in denial if any of them called him that, the expert, but there was no denying that he knew grapes and vintages and winemakers like Jerry knew football minutae, Meg about braising, and Chloe about digital technology, a field as opaque as a foggy night for the rest of them.
There were no children. Meg had miscarried twice, and Mat and Chloe just didn’t talk about it.
They traveled together once a year, to Rome, Buenos Aires, Paris, their glittering time together stress-free until at the end of the week or ten days when the slightest thing—one couple late for dinner, someone not wanting to visit a church—would create cracks in the crystal that was their harmony. It was as if knowing that their time together was drawing to a close, they allowed themselves the disgruntlements they had suppressed for most of the vacation, perhaps to make parting easier.
“We should do a wine region this fall,” Jerry said. “Spain, Portugal.”
They were at Mat and Chloe’s. Mat had grilled steaks and was pouring a South African red that tasted, to the rest of them, like mentholated cold medicine. Jerry surmised it was an expensive bottle. Mat worked in a financial firm and made a good income, which he wasn’t shy about displaying without actually boasting about it.
“How about the Bordeaux region?” Chloe offered, and looked at Mat.
“Or Napa,” said Meg, cutting into her rare steak. She sopped up the red juices with her mashed potatoes.
Mat said, “You know, the Finger Lakes region is making some very good wine. They’re getting a lot of press.”
“That sounds good. We could just drive,” Jerry said, and looked at Meg. He had made less money this year, his commissions slashed with the dip in the real estate frenzy.
“Sounds good to me,” Meg said. She was a travel agent, and it fell to her to make the arrangements. There’d be no flights for this one, just hotels or B&B’s. “What do you say, Chloe?”
Chloe, her golden hair sporting an expensive glisten, nodded as she chewed, swallowed and said, “Why not? We can have fun anywhere.”
Mat looked at Jerry and said, “That’s right. It doesn’t always take a lot of money to have a good time.”
Later at home Jerry stayed in the den listening to John Coltrane, sipping an aged rum from Nicaragua, he thought. It had been a gift from Mat and Chloe for his birthday, and he hadn’t looked at the label carefully. He pondered Mat’s comment about money not being necessary to have a good time. Was that a preachy point Mat was making, aimed at him and Meg, the couple with less discretionary income?
Meg had gone to bed to read her chick-lit, as Jerry thought of it. Women protagonists by women writers and a happy ending. Yesterday he had read a New York Times editorial bemoaning the lack of male interest in the latest film version of Little Women. Mat and Chloe had liked it, and Meg wanted to see it, but he didn’t. What was wrong with everyone having different interests?
When Meg had miscarried the second time, twelve years ago, Jerry had been secretly relieved. He had been truly excited with anticipation during the first pregnancy, but by the second one he was unsure. By then he was thirty, his thinning hair showed grey, and he was in a floating ambivalence about his life. Was real estate such a smart profession, buffeted by economic winds like laundry left out in a storm? Was Meg—or anyone else—such a desirable element to have in one’s life constantly and forever? After the passion had dissipated, a year into the marriage, he had come to love Meg in a lukewarm, almost indifferent way. She was a wonderful person, devoted to the household and, he was pretty sure, the marriage, but in what had become a mechanical, unenthusiastic routine that made him have doubts about the union. And it seemed to him that he was equally happy whether she was around or not.
But maybe the whole point at their age was to have children, not so much the companionship. You’d have children who as adults would monitor and care for you when the time came. And yet he had read that having a child and seeing them through college came with a two hundred thousand dollar price tag, more if they went to private schools. There had to be an Aesop’s fable in which the consequence of wanting too much was an ironic disaster, wasn’t there? Did being put in a nursing home by a cherished child count as a bitter, ironic disaster? The most unkindest cut?
He couldn’t help but be convinced that Mat and Chloe had figured this out. They were smart, knew the ways of the world. Mat, with his modesty despite his encyclopedic vinicultural knowledge, Wall Street wizardry, his bespoke suits. And what was with that hair, insistently and richly brown despite silver specks which testified to the lack of dye, a crown on an angular, handsome face despite the long nose?
Jerry rubbed the sparse grey buzzcut on his scalp and finished the rest of the rum. The drink had warmed him, and he felt the beginning of an erection, but when he got to bed Meg was already asleep. Oh, well. Maybe in the morning, if it worked out. Sometimes, the timing was off, one or the other interested, but not both.
When Jerry came home in the evenings, often after seven if he had been out showing—no, peddling—properties, he sat at the kitchen counter and watched Meg cook, her sturdy, recently plump figure constantly moving, a pinball from stove to counter to sink. Occasionally he asked if he could help, not wanting to appear disengaged, but she rarely said yes. She kept her long hair tied back into a pony tail with a kerchief so frayed it might have a nun’s panties, chopping the necessary ingredients so fast that the knife hitting the cutting surface sounded like a woodpecker gone berserk. Without being asked, Jerry occasionally wiped the counter of the diaspora of onions and garlic, fled from the mayhem on the cutting board. She measured nothing, threw handfuls of salt and herbs into pots and sauté pans with barely a glance.
“I looked into lodgings at the Finger Lakes,” Meg said later as they loaded the dishwasher. She kept rearranging the dishes and utensils Jerry racked.
“Find any you like?” He gave up on the dishwasher and started on the pots in the sink, where he wouldn’t be made to feel incompetent.
“Actually, we can stay at one of the wineries if we reserve soon.”
“Sounds good. Expensive?” He wished the new, pretentious McMansion in Scarsdale would sell already.
“Not too,” she said, and she patted his back as he bent over the sink, meant, he was sure, as a reassurance.
He admired this about Meg, this ability to show concern and support so effortlessly, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to be on the receiving end of it when it came to finances. He wished he could show compassion just as easily, like when she made a fuss over the neighbors’ sick children. But whatever part of her was able to sprout these spontaneous gestures was as barren as a sand dune in him.
So what was he good at, really? What did he contribute to his world, the world that contained Meg, with her generosity of spirit, her energy, her astonishing lack of bile? And to the world of his friends? Chloe, with her dazzling, mathematical brain encased in a beautiful head, the mouth emitting expressions of bonhomie without subtext? Odd that for such a logical, numerical mind, the subtleties of expenses when they traveled together seemed non-existent to her on the surface, although she made sure that the divided sums never favored her and Mat, but if anything were tilted to benefit him and Meg.
And then Mat. Of what value was he to Mat, with his looks, his affability, his easy affection? Mat was the only man who could be spontaneously and physically demonstrative with him, a hand on the shoulder or on his back, an embrace that ignored the conventional separation of abdomens when men hugged. Mat was the benevolent leader when the four of them were together, the principal player in a finely tuned musical quartet.
As far as Jerry could see, he brought nothing to the card table where the four of them played out their relationship. Not wit, nor any particular skill or knowledge. So what, then? Was he just a hanger-on, an accidental component, a satellite moon to the three incandescent planets?
Jerry and Meg were already engaged when they met Chloe and her then-boyfriend Mat for lunch in New Paltz, where all but Mat were seniors at the state university there. Mat was two years older, already in a graduate program for business administration. Even during that first encounter, when a less secure individual might have cloaked himself in the mantle of advantage, because of age, education, and ambition, he was immediately their new, jocund acquaintance.
After that lunch, Meg said to Jerry, “What did you think of Mat?”
They were walking back to their dorms, the skittish November sun already behind the buildings on Main Street.
“He seemed nice,” Jerry said. “Are they serious?”
“I think so. Chloe has talked about their life together after graduation.” Meg paused. “He’s so handsome.”
“Yes. He’s a good-looking guy.”
He had been mechanically agreeable with Meg. Since he could remember, Jerry reacted not to people’s looks, but to how they behaved. A stranger, man or woman, might be spectacularly beautiful, but the physical dazzle that would impress most people went unnoticed by him. But during lunch, Mat had taken what seemed like a real interest in Jerry, finding common ground with him in their mutual interest in rugby, that Methuselah of sports that had begat American football. He had also asked about Jerry’s plans after graduation, which were as shapeless as smoke. The same question from his tuition-paying parents, shackled with middle-class finances, had elicited an abrupt “Don’t really know yet” that summer. But Jerry had felt no unease talking to Mat about his hazy future, entranced by his personality like a cobra by a snake charmer.
When the time came for their trip to the Finger Lakes, they took separate cars. Abroad, they had toured in a single rented vehicle, but two trunks meant an abundance of space in which to transport cases of wine back home.
The winery where they were staying, Bon Point, consisted of two buildings nestled in fields of grapevines, and was awash in sunlight when they arrived near noon. One of the buildings, the winemaking facility, was a two-story rectangle that could be mistaken for a six-car garage. The other structure, which was the house, was a splendid, oversized A frame, three stories high, a dwelling masquerading as a royal pavilion. Every level had floor-to-ceiling windows looking out at the perfectly ordered rows of grapevines that seemed to vibrate in the sunlight, a pointillist masterpiece.
Jerry and Meg had a room on the third floor, Mat and Chloe on the second. There was one other couple, they were told at lunch that first day, served by Claudia, the winemaker’s wife. She was a dark, short woman with a huge smile, and her hair was like a chocolate twist at the nape.
The ample dining room, where they would be served breakfast and dinner, had four dark oak tables set for two. One of the walls was mostly glass, looking out at the fields of grapes.
“I can move two tables together to seat four, if you like,” Claudia said. She spoke with an accent that might have been Hispanic, or perhaps Middle-Eastern.
The four of them looked at each other briefly and said “Sure,” not in unison, but convincingly. Jerry immediately thought it might have been better to have some meals just the two of them, but it had worked out well in previous travels, and he buried his doubt.
Surrounded by plain but polished dark wood, and presided over by the large window and a sense of privilege, every meal was excellent. Claudia poured wine for them from one of the many bottles that stood guard on a mahogany credenza. They saw the only other couple occasionally at meal times, two handsome men in their thirties with disconcertingly similar clothes. Both had shaved heads and multiple sparkly earrings, smiled and said hello, but didn’t seem to welcome any other interaction, looking at their phones while they ate.
Claudia obliged Mat’s request for guidance, and she suggested wineries to visit. She also offered to arrange for limousines for them to enjoy serious wine-tastings without risking a driving or legal catastrophe. Every day brought with it the promise of a new discovery: an architecturally striking winery, a vibrant, commanding wine, a charming winemaker proud of his or her product.
The evening before their last full day Claudia’s husband Henry, who had been a rare sight, approached them as they finished dinner. He had red cheeks and brown hair that covered the tops of his ears, and a pugilist’s biceps strained the sleeves of a yellowing white tee shirt. He was no taller than Claudia.
“I have a proposition for you,” he said in an unmistakable German accent. “I need to harvest some of the white sauvignon grapes tomorrow morning, and I’m short two workers. If you help me, I’ll give each couple a case of my best chardonnay.”
“That sounds like fun,” Mat said.
Jerry gave a little nod of approval, the idea of a break in their now predictable routine a pleasant prospect.
Chloe said, “Oh, I don’t know. That sounds like work.”
“It’s our last day,” Meg said with a tone of protest.
Henry’s eyebrows arched in distress. “They have to be picked at sunrise, before the sun warms them, otherwise they’ll ferment too soon. So you’ll have most of the day free.”
“What do you say, Jerry? Do it before the ladies are up?”
Mat’s enthusiasm seeped into him like the scent of a garden through a window, and he said, “Sounds good. Firsthand experience, behind the scenes.”
“Wonderful!” Henry shook the men’s hands. “I’ll meet you right here for coffee tomorrow morning at five, and we’ll have breakfast after we harvest.”
Henry led the way to the fields the next morning. Inside the rows of green vines, the world was close, the landscape of linear plantings hidden by the gnarly, leafy branches heavy with fruit. The light from the pale grey sky was dim on their faces, and a still, cold air feathered their cheeks and chilled Jerry’s scalp, still warm from bed. Henry stood at the end of an aisle between two rows of plantings and showed them what to look for in fruit to be harvested. He gave them pruning clippers and shoulder sacs, and then went to work his own rows. “If you each do one row, we’ll be done in two hours,” he said as he left.
Jerry had been looking forward to being alone among the grapevines, psychological space to reflect on his future, driven by having spent more money on wine than he had anticipated. He had imagined they’d work separately, but Mat stayed in the same aisle, eyeing and fingering the hanging fruit while Jerry got to work.
The slump in the real estate market was not letting up. He was forty-two, almost too late to embark on a new career. He could switch professions, but what did he know except selling real estate? The amount of money he earned was variable, and on balance it was just adequate. But even when a successful and lucrative sale brought with it the relief of fresh income, and the gratification of a completed task, there was a hollow feel to it, like he had accomplished nothing of value. He imagined that teachers, physicians, engineers, all felt a deep satisfaction with the fruit of their labor, something they just took for granted, so abundant the rewards.
“So peaceful here,” Mat said. His sling sac, hanging across his chest, still looked empty.
Jerry didn’t look at him, didn’t nod, kept cutting the stems, pulling the chartreuse bunches from the foliage.
“You okay?” Mat said. He wasn’t making a move with the clippers.
Jerry turned to him. “It is peaceful.” He paused, his lips tensed into a line. “Maybe we should work in separate aisles, get done faster.”
Mat frowned. “We can work side by side. You do the left, I’ll do the right, and then we just move on to the next aisle.”
Jerry turned back to the cutting, his eyebrows diving into the bridge of his nose, his eyes all but hidden.
Mat took a step towards Jerry. “You look annoyed,” he said.
Jerry shook his head, baffled that his friend could be so obtuse, missing signposts.
“What’s wrong?” Mat said with an edge of alarm.
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. I just need some time to myself. I thought this would be a good opportunity for that.”
“All right,” Mat said, sounding abrupt. In a softer tone, he added, “I’ll go to the next aisle. But you know I’m here for you if anything’s the matter. Whatever it is, count on me.” He put his hands on Jerry’s shoulders, kissed him on the forehead, and left.
The sky had gotten lighter, a tint of violet towards the east promising full daylight. The grapes were easier to see now, and the work went faster. Unexpectedly, with every new bunch in his sac, the uncertainties about his profession receded. Nothing had changed materially, he saw that his future held no different promises or opportunities for validation, but this seemed unimportant now, displaced by a new, perhaps more momentous disturbance that he couldn’t quite define. And yet he sensed a sort of liberation, and became aware of his forehead and eyebrows relaxing as he continued cutting the bunches of grapes, dropping them into his sac.
The three men were back in the dining room by eight o’clock, the work completed. Meg and Chloe were just starting breakfast. Henry was exuberant. “I’m so grateful to you gentlemen,” he said, and went into the kitchen to find Claudia.
Jerry and Mat joined their wives at the table. During the meal, Mat initiated conversation with Jerry, as if the incident in the vineyard had never occurred.
Later that morning Meg arranged for a limousine with Claudia for this, their last day in the region. They elected to have an elaborate lunch at a large, imposing winery with a fine restaurant, where they would taste several wines before the meal.
“This is perfectly delicious food,” Chloe said later at lunch. She was having an appetizer of grilled octopus with a drizzle of good olive oil. “I don’t know how they get it so tender.”
“I’ve never made octopus,” Meg said. “I’m intimidated by the idea. I’ve read so many different techniques for it.”
“You’re going to love this,” Chloe said, and forked some tentacles onto Meg’s plate of sausage and lentils.
Jerry and Mat watched as Meg put some octopus in her mouth, closed her eyes and said, “Oh, my God.”
“You can do this, Meg. You can do anything,” Chloe said.
“We’ll be your guinea pigs,” Mat said. “We’ll make the sacrifice.”
Jerry looked at Meg, who was grinning proudly, perhaps smugly, he thought. He nodded and said, “The ‘can-do’ cook,” but the smile that might have accompanied the comment never appeared.
Mat grinned and said, “You’re one lucky dude.”
Lunch wasn’t over until three, and nobody was hungry for dinner back at the Bon Point winery. They napped and then played cards in the wood-paneled den, lit by lamps with tasseled, yellow satin shades.
At nine o’clock Mat and Chloe went to their room, claiming exhaustion.
Meg said, “I’m all in. You ready for bed?”
“Not yet. I’ll stay and read for a while.” From their room, he had brought to the den one of the “Struggle” novels by Knausgaard.
He got up from the card table and sat on a plush brocade sofa, but couldn’t read. The apprehension that had left him in the vineyard had been gradually replaced by a knowledge that his relationship with Meg and with his friends had changed, a different trajectory going forward. It became clear to him that he was different from them and that they saw that, had probably seen or sensed it on some level all along.
The next morning they said their good-byes before getting into their respective cars, Mat and Chloe in their Mercedes, Jerry and Meg in their Hyundai. It had been, on the surface, a low key, happy trip, and as always they were bathed in a vague sense of relief that it was over. Jerry kissed Chloe on her smooth, sweet-smelling cheek, and saw Mat hug Meg. Then Mat, without hesitation or allowance of any awkwardness, embraced Jerry full on, arms wrapping around his shoulders and kissing him on the face, near his sideburn, as he had done many times before. Jerry didn’t hug back this time, but instead put his hands on Mat’s arms, ready to separate himself if the embrace went on too long.
The sun was already high on this warm October day, and in the Hyundai the air conditioner shot cold vectors at their heads. The icy blast felt noxious on Jerry’s scalp, and he blamed the car’s careless, economical design. Meg seemed oblivious to it, strands from her mane whipping and dancing as she fiddled with the radio, trying to find some familiar, comfortable music.
Why was he still with Meg? And why was he friends with Mat and Chloe?
It wasn’t that he didn’t bring anything to the table they shared. No, actually, he had it wrong. The game they all played wasn’t at a card table, but on the uneven field of their relationship, chasing the ball that symbolized accomplishment, or knowledge, or affluence. And the three of them, once they had the ball in their hands, passed it around to the other two, never to him, as if he wasn’t even in the running to be the best at anything.
Jerry saw Mat’s kiss on the forehead as a paternalistic gesture of superiority, as if he was pathetic and merited compassion. It crystallized his mediocre standing, a fatal jarring of the four-way imbalanced magnetic attraction that had kept them orbiting around one another. And he wondered, in a species of masochistic, cynical curiosity, what Mat and Chloe were talking about at this very moment. Were they discussing him and Meg in condescending terms in the velvet quiet of their fine sedan, caressed by the perfectly controlled ambient temperature?
“Is this all right?” Meg said. She had evidently found a station she liked. Jerry thought it sounded blandly pleasant, like their marriage.
“It’ll do for now,” he said.
José Sotolongo was born in Cuba. His work has appeared in Atticus Review, The Cortland Review, The Southampton Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His second novel will be released in 2021. He lives with his husband in the Catskills of New York. More at sotolongo.net.