Still Me (Page 54)
‘That’s an unusual dress, Louisa,’ said Veronica, after a particularly long silence. ‘Very striking. Did you buy it in Manhattan? One doesn’t often see fur sleeves these days.’
‘Thank you. I bought it in the East Village.’
‘Is it Marc Jacobs?’
‘Um, no. It’s vintage.’
‘Vintage,’ snorted Tab.
‘What did she say?’ said Mrs Gopnik, loudly.
‘She’s talking about the girl’s dress, Mother,’ said Mr Gopnik’s brother. ‘She says it’s vintage.’
‘What is problem with “vintage”, Tab?’ said Agnes, coolly.
I shrank backwards into my seat.
‘It’s such a meaningless term, isn’t it? It’s just a way of saying “second hand”. A way of dressing something up to pretend it’s something it’s not.’
I wanted to tell her that vintage meant a whole lot more than that, but I didn’t know how to express it – and suspected I wasn’t meant to. I just wanted the whole conversation to move forwards and away from me.
‘I believe vintage outfits can be quite the fashion now,’ said Veronica, addressing me directly with a diplomat’s skill. ‘Of course, I’m far too old to understand the young people’s trends these days.’
‘And far too polite to say such things,’ muttered Agnes.
‘I’m sorry?’ said Tab.
‘Oh, now you are sorry?’
‘I meant, what did you just say?’
Mr Gopnik looked up from his plate. His eyes darted warily from his wife to his daughter.
‘I mean why you have to be so rude to Louisa. She is my guest here, even if she is staff. And you have to be rude about her outfit.’
‘I wasn’t being rude. I was simply stating a fact.’
‘This is how being rude is these days. I tell it like I see it. I’m just being honest. The language of the bully. We all know how this is.’
‘What did you just call me?’
‘Agnes. Darling.’ Mr Gopnik reached across and placed his hand over hers.
‘What are they saying?’ said Mrs Gopnik. ‘Tell them to speak up.’
‘I said Tab is being very rude to my friend.’
‘She’s not your friend, for crying out loud. She’s your paid assistant. Although I suspect that’s all you can get in the way of friends, these days.’
‘Tab!’ her father said. ‘That’s a horrible thing to say.’
‘Well, it’s true. Nobody wants anything to do with her. You can’t pretend you don’t see it wherever we go. You know this family is a laughing stock, Daddy? You have become a cliché. She is a walking cliché. And for what? We all know what her plan is.’
Agnes removed her napkin from her lap and screwed it into a ball. ‘My plan? You want to tell me what my plan is?’
‘Like every other sharp-elbowed immigrant on the make. You’ve somehow managed to convince Dad to marry you. Now you’re no doubt doing everything possible to get pregnant and pop out a baby or two, then within five years you’ll divorce him. And you’re made for life. Boom! No more massages. Just Bergdorf Goodman, a driver and lunch with your Polish coven all the way.’
Mr Gopnik leant forward over the table. ‘Tabitha, I don’t want you ever using the word “immigrant” in a derogatory manner in this house again. Your great-grandparents were immigrants. You are the descendant of immigrants –’
‘Not that kind of immigrant.’
‘What does this mean?’ said Agnes, her cheeks flushed.
‘Do I have to spell it out? There are those who achieve their goals through hard work and there are those who do it by lying on their –’
‘Like you?’ yelled Agnes. ‘Like you who lives off trust-fund allowance at age of nearly twenty-five? You who have barely held a job in your life? I am meant to take example from you? At least I know what hard work is –’
‘Yes. Straddling strange men’s naked bodies. Quite the employment.’
‘That’s enough!’ Mr Gopnik was on his feet. ‘You are quite, quite wrong, Tabitha, and you must apologize.’
‘Why? Because I can see her without rose-coloured spectacles? Daddy, I’m sorry to say this but you are totally blind to what this woman really is.’
‘No. You are the one who is wrong!’
‘So she’s never going to want children? She’s twenty-eight years old, Dad. Wake up!’
‘What are they talking about?’ said old Mrs Gopnik, querulously, to her daughter-in-law. Veronica whispered something in her ear. ‘But she said something about naked men. I heard her.’
‘Not that it’s any of your business, Tabitha, but there will be no more children in this house. Agnes and I agreed this point before I married her.’
Tab pulled a face. ‘Oooh. She agreed. Like that means anything at all. A woman like her would say anything to marry you! Daddy, I hate to say it but you are being hopelessly naïve. In a year or so there will be some little “accident” and she’ll persuade –’
‘There will be no accidents!’ Mr Gopnik slammed his hand on the table so hard the glassware rattled.
‘How can you know?’
‘Because I had a g*****n vasectomy!’ Mr Gopnik sat down. His hands were shaking. ‘Two months before we got married. At Mount Sinai. With Agnes’s full agreement. Are you satisfied now?’
The room fell silent. Tab gaped at her father.
The old woman looked from left to right, and then said, peering at Mr Gopnik, ‘Leonard had an appendectomy?’
A low hum had started somewhere in the back of my head. As if in the distance I heard Mr Gopnik insisting that his daughter apologize, then watched her push back her chair and leave the table without doing so. I saw Veronica exchange looks with her husband and take a long, weary swig of her drink.
And then I looked at Agnes, who was staring mutely at her plate on which her food was congealing in honeyed, bacon-strewn portions. As Mr Gopnik reached out a hand and squeezed hers my heart thumped loudly in my ears.
She didn’t look at me.
I flew home on 22 December, laden with presents and wearing my new vintage zebra-print coat, which, I would later discover, was strangely and adversely affected by the circulation of recycled air in the 767 and smelt, by the time I reached Heathrow, like a deceased equid.
I had actually not been due to fly until Christmas Eve but Agnes had insisted I go sooner as she was making an unheralded short stop back to Poland to see her mother, who was unwell, and there was apparently no point in my staying there to do nothing when I could be with my family. Mr Gopnik had paid for the change to my ticket. Agnes had been both overly nice and distant with me since the Thanksgiving dinner. In turn, I was professional and amenable. Sometimes my head would spin with the information it held. But I would think of Garry’s words way back in the autumn when I’d arrived: See nothing, hear nothing, forget everything.
Something had happened in the run-up to Christmas, some lightening of my mood. Perhaps I was just relieved to be leaving that house of dysfunction. Or perhaps the act of buying Christmas presents had resurrected some buried sense of fun in my relationship with Sam. When had I last had a man to buy Christmas presents for, after all? For the last two years of our relationship Patrick had simply sent me emails with links to specific pieces of fitness equipment he wanted. Don’t bother wrapping them, babe, in case you get it wrong and I need to send them back. All I had done was press a button. I had never spent Christmas with Will. Now I went shoulder to shoulder with the other shoppers in Saks, trying to imagine my boyfriend in the cashmere sweaters, my face pressed against them, the soft checked shirts he liked to wear in the garden, thick outdoor socks from REI. I bought toys for Thom, getting a sugar high from the scents in the M&M store in Times Square. I bought stationery for Treena from McNally Jackson and a beautiful dressing gown for Granddad from Macy’s. Feeling flush, as I had spent so little over the past months, I bought Mum a little bracelet from Tiffany and a wind-up radio for Dad to use in his shed.