Archive for July, 2011

OK, so I realize I haven’t done a Friendship Folio in a few weeks. This has partly to do with a certain person who shall be nameless telling me, “You know, you’re really doing yourself a disservice with this Friendship thing. People won’t take you seriously if you say someone’s a friend of yours and then you review them positively, because the readers will think you’re biased.” Well, at this point, I don’t care. Anyone with half a brain knows that I call it like I see it, and also that I’ve sometimes had to rip some of my best friends to shreds if I thought their performance wasn’t up to scratch. That said, I’d like to discuss my friendship with Terri White, one of the great ladies of Broadway and a woman I will never stop admiring as long as I have a salient brain cell in my head.

Terri was already long established as a Broadway star before I met her; she created the role of Joice Heth in Barnum at the St. James and completely electrified Broadway in the process, with a showstopping number in the first act. She went on to several other major successes after that, including understudying Nell Carter in Ain’t Misbehavin’, way before landing firmly in cabaret and piano bar as the new girl in town with which to be reckoned. But we’d never personally crossed paths. In point of fact, it was a wintry day in ’88 when I strolled into DT’s Fat Cat (one of my favorite Happy Hour hangouts back then) and my pal Jeff Matson ran up to me and said, “You’ll never guess who stopped in here the other night to sing. Terri White!” To be honest, I wasn’t even really sure who that was, but I feigned enthusiasm. It should be noted that at the time I was directing a cabaret act for Sukhreet Gabel (remember her?) at the Trocadero on Bleecker and Charles, and there was one night that me and my mom and a cousin and a friend besides Sukhreet eventually wended our way to the Five Oaks for some post-show drinks. The pianist (I think it was Bobby Peaco) then announced, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the one and only and incomparable, Miss Terri White!” She took her place at the microphone and delivered a rendering of “Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now,” which was so visceral as to have all of us in tears. I made it a point to go up to her and introduce myself, and she seemed thrilled to meet me; she knew who I was as a journalist and radio personality at the time, and assured me that I’d be seeing her around town sooner or later. To which I very much looked forward.

The next time we met was at Eighty Eight’s, at a benefit for the late Tim Moore, in which she got up and closed the show with her signature number from the regrettably short-lived Broadway musical Welcome to the Club, namely “A Tasty Piece of Cake.” I went up to her again and introduced myself, she remembered exactly who I was, and theretofore was born a friendship that has lasted for over two decades.

From there, my camaraderie with Terri blossomed completely. I will never forget the night she and I sat at the bar at the Five Oaks discussing performers like Vivian Reed and Cheryl Barnes and her professional entanglements with them, or the horror of hearing how she was a childhood victim of aggressive anti-Black sentiment. And all I could think was, “Screw that mess, girl. You’ve made it, you know it, we all know it, so let’s let it go.” But with Terri, it can never be let go if it’s a grudge on a deeply personal level. And that’s perfectly understandable.

I’m loathe to discuss the next circumstance, but I must. One night in ’97 when I was very firmly in my cups at the end of the night (as I was wont to be at the time; another friend recently likened it to “Hurricane Andrew blowing in”), I said something profoundly stupid about her. I don’t remember what it was, except that it had something to do with the difference in our ages. I’m not sure that she remembers what it was either exactly, but it was hurtful enough that she completely cut me dead as though I’d never existed. And I’m sure I deserved it. It also didn’t help that I was reviewing the Back Stage Bistro Awards that year and pretty much panned the show that she’d directed, because if I wasn’t on her roster du merde before, I sure was now. A few weeks later, at the MAC Awards afterparty, she seriously looked like she wanted to punch my lights out. And believe you me, this is a woman who could take me out with a solid smack. But she didn’t, thank goodness, or I might not still be here to tell the tale.

Then, as many know, began her homelessness. I knew none of this at the time. BUT…in January of ’08, she appeared in a benefit show at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South, and she seemed genuinely happy to see me. I made it a point to say, “Terri, I’m so sorry we left our friendship on the wrong foot and I hope you can forgive me. I was a completely different kind of person then and I said something profoundly stupid. I can’t bring myself to apologize enough, and I hope we can be friends again.” She gave me a hug and a kiss and said, “It’s bygones, honey. Bygones. You and I will always be friends.” Which is good enough for me.

As I write this, she’s preparing to open in Follies at the Marquis, in the same version of Sondheim’s musical which received decidedly mixed reviews, but where it is always said that Terri walked off with the whole first act after singing “Who’s That Woman?” in the character of Stella Deems. Broadway has always been where Terri has belonged, and so shall Broadway have her once again and deservedly so.

I love that she’s my friend, and I’ll never stop loving her as a person.

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The world of undiscovered literature could rather be likened to the world of Off-Off-Broadway theatre; nine times out of ten the product may provide a few redeeming qualities, but for the most part remains unmemorable except to those persons directly involved. But it is that tenth glorious time that everything brilliantly falls into place, and has the potential to soar to the heavens. So it goes with Sarah Milbourn’s Mother: An Experiment in Fiction, by author/playwright and activist Mary Alice Mark. Not only is this an important work for the modern age, but a portion of the sales will benefit one of Ms. Mark’s many worthy causes, the MHA’s Living Room program in Poughkeepsie, New York, helping to enhance the lives of the homeless and similarly afflicted.

The title character is actually more of a co-star in Mark’s wondrously-constructed narrative; rather, our main character and protagonist comes in the form of eleven-year-old May. Unusually wise far beyond her years, and borne of a home based completely on a lethal mix of neglect and dysfunction, she emerges to the reader as nothing less than a miracle child; her views on everything from God and religion, to pacifism and the class system, are the absolute embodiment of American intellectual culture in the very early 1960s, sloughing off the sweetness-light-and-perfection of the Eisenhower era while teetering precariously on the brink of an imminent loss of abject innocence. Over the course of thirteen chapters, in which May matures from eleven to fourteen, we watch this girl, always endeavoring to educate and enlighten herself through her cherished library books, collecting bottles daily to pay for her bus fare to and from school, and firmly standing her ground against bullies young and old, in both verbal and physical scrapes, as well as unnecessarily weathering her unconscionable exposure to the darkest sides of life at her tender age. This is a kid who has literally seen it all in her Miami neighborhood, and pulls no punches in spelling it out for those too ignorant to see the reality of any and all situations, at the same time soaking up facts she might have missed along the way. In her creation of May, Ms. Mark may well have unleashed one of modern fiction’s newest potential legendary heroines.

Why then, you may be asking, is the novel entitled Sarah Milbourn’s Mother? Well, after a contretemps involving May’s defense of a little boy beaten and bloodied at a playground water fountain, in which she stands up to the bully at hand (the first such happenstance among many throughout this one-hundred-eighty page opus), she happens to befriend Dianne Milbourn and develop a tremendous kinship with Dianne’s younger sister Sarah, who happens to be deaf since birth but for some reason understands May completely. In the process, May becomes a regular visitor to the Milbourn household and develops an even deeper friendship and camaraderie with Sarah Milbourn’s Mother, whose proper name we never learn. A self -professed “simple country woman” making a living by taking in ironing and supporting four kids, and burning with love and loneliness for the husband who only comes around every so often, Sarah Milbourn’s Mother proves herself a tower of inherent strength nearly every time she opens her mouth, to let forth yet another pearl of wisdom that is so blatantly obvious but so easy not to spot in the everyday whirlwind of existence. In time, she becomes May’s mother, big sister, best friend and unquestionable kindred spirit, and the reader can only delight in watching how that part of the story unfolds.

In addition, Ms. Mark never for a moment wavers in the area of character development where the tale’s other major players are concerned. These include Reverend Kind (who is anything but) and his family, the marvelous sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Connor, a variety of swindlers, teenage prostitutes of both genders as well as their pimp and potential johns, and snooty classmate Eleanor among many others. In point of fact, Ms. Mark has created a world that leaps off the page in a way that is equally comparable with such works as Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, because the imagery is drawn with a similarly masterful stroke of the pen. Granted, the occasional typo abounds and can be slightly jarring once one is so thoroughly drawn into the action, but that’s an obstacle one must simply overlook.

If one had to possibly define the moral of the story, it might be boiled down to two. The first, with no pun intended, is to never judge a book by its cover. The other, and much more clear, is that God is love, love is everywhere and, therefore, God is everywhere. And so, in a just world, both Mary Alice Mark and the characters of May and Sarah Milbourn’s Mother would be making literary history. Until that time, one can do no better than to purchase a copy.

David Gurland

Your humble writer grappled with an extremely weighty matter all the way home on the bus to Rego Park from 60th and 2nd. It was part of my training over twenty years ago that when one delivers straightforward journalism, it should be written in the third person. If I’m writing a more personal account, doing so in the first person is perfectly acceptable. (One, I mean, I, do a little of both on this blog of mine, depending on the nature of the article). The article in question this time around, however, is/was this evening’s memorial service and subsequent reception for the late lamented David Gurland, who shuffled off his mortal coil in December just shy of sliding into his mid-forties, and who left behind not only one of the most solid marriages in town (to Rob Maitner) but literally thousands of friends and fans and a musical legacy nobody in cabaret will ever forget. Therefore, one had to reach into myself, conjure up an audience with David’s spirit (this was sometime after the bus left the 59th Street Bridge and we began to glide down Queens Boulevard, of all coincidences) and simply say, “Listen, honey, I want to write about tonight and what you meant to all of us, but I don’t know if I should tell it in first person like a personal account or third person like it’s journalism.” And somehow, somewhere, through the miasma, someone or something inside my head said, “Drew, sweetheart, this is DAVID we’re talking about. Write it as both people. You know that nothing ever made him as happy as when he was getting twice the attention.” So that’s how I’m going to write this, with apologies if one goes back and forth between the two.

Marie Grace LaFerrara

The first time I ever met David was in late ’88, at the old Duplex when it was still at 55 Grove Street. He’d come in with a bunch of friends from NYU to sling back a few and sing a few songs (including a “Suddenly Seymour” with Marie Grace LaFerrara that gave me chills), and he was very pleasant besides outrageously funny. He was also, your humble writer thought, a tremendous JAP, which I now know he’d be the first to admit, but that kind of thing never bothered me about anyone (your humble reporter grew up in the JAP capital of Queens, for God’s sake). I’m pretty sure we didn’t run into each other again until ’90, when I was already sort of full blown not only as a cabaret entertainer but also an entertainment journalist and cabaret reviewer, and though one always had a pleasant time making small talk with the gentleman, we unfortunately never found very much to talk about. It was sometime later that he completed his fellowship at the O’Neill Cabaret Symposium, and very quickly rise to the top of the cabaret ranks, not merely for his voice but his charisma and indisputable instinct for how to work a room, grab an audience and sell every moment from the first to the last. And for some reason, I think this caused a sort of unspoken jealousy between us; one absolutely felt that he had the superior talent on stage, but he always seemed to be working so hard to build up the kind of network I had, or the ability to walk into a roomful of people at an awards show or a Cabaret Convention and have almost every single person gravitate my way. So, whether or not we were conscious of it, we kept each other at a very long arm’s length for a number of years.

Natalie Douglas

Where your humble writer and David finally broke the ice and subsequently embarked on a most delicious friendship was around ’97. Our mutual friend Jessica Bass was doing her show at Eighty Eight’s, which I was set to review. I walked in, the room was packed to the rafters, and the only empty seat was at David’s table because he’d come alone. Erv Raible walked me over, and I’m pretty sure I saw David roll his eyes when he realized with whom he’d be seated, but one must pretend they don’t notice such things. So we smiled a polite smile across the table, I ordered my drink, and then said to him out of nowhere, “You know, I’ve always admired your clothes so much. You really know how to pull together the right look, and I’m absolutely terrible at it.” Well, apparently this was the right thing to say. He launched into a conversation about shopping that made one’s head spin. After the show, we went downstairs to the bar, went Dutch on a couple of rounds, and he started telling me how much he enjoyed my writing and how sorry he was that he’d never gotten to see me perform. So even though I wouldn’t say that from that night on we were thick as thieves, I’d say it was definitely the night one was welcomed warmly into his midst. We e-mailed a LOT, posted on each other’s Facebook pages a fair bit, and your humble reporter followed his career with tremendous eagerness, especially when he joined the vocal group Uptown Express for performances and recordings (they were already marvelous long before David was part of the equation, but he brought a spark into the mix that I’m not sure can or will ever be recaptured).

Alysha Umphress

The last time I saw him was in ’08, when I brought CaB Magazine back as a website and FINALLY had the opportunity to review a full act of his. One cannot more vividly remember his brilliance on stage that night at the Laurie Beechman in an evening of pop tunes deconstructed brilliantly into true cabaret communication, but it was never less than enthralling when Rob joined him on stage for a couple of numbers and the room became infused with the love these two shared, both professionally and privately.

And then…and then…came the news just before Christmas of ’10 that David had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and was on life support at Mount Sinai. Forty-three years old. All that talent. All that energy. All that niceness, and humor, and showmanship. Snuffed. Gone. Forever. Out out brief candle. But for a few recordings and vidclips, and a lot of memories from a LOT of people, probably more than he ever knew.

Julie Reyburn

Which brings one back to the subject of the memorial service at 7 PM on July 11th. The first and most ironic element is that it was held at the Laura Pels Theatre on 46th Street, which is the current home of the musical Death Takes a Holiday. It was a simply spectacular event; speeches both humorous and dramatic were given by such friends of David’s as Mark Zschiesche, Jason Cannon, Ryan Harrington, Greg Backstrom, Michael Mahan and Brian Farley (who also electrified the audience later with one of David’s favorite pop songs, “Sing,” by My Chemical Romance) aside from a truly side-splitting racont by the indomitable Phil Geoffrey Bond, and also song performances were in abundance as delivered by the likes of Natalie Douglas, Jonathan Whitton, Julie Reyburn, Alysha Umphress, Lisa Asher, Steven Ray Watkins, Eddie Varley,  Michael Holland, Michael Walker and Tracy Stark, before Maitner took the stage for a finale, encompassing a medley of songs from Hair, one of Gurland’s all-time favorite musicals. And of course the audience contained all manner of friends, such as Lorinda Lisitza and the aforementioned Ms. LaFerrara, besides other friends and a generous smattering of Gurland and Maitner relatives. A glorious reception followed afterwards at Lips, 227 East 56th Street. and a splendid time was most certainly had by all.

Lisa Asher

The only thing missing was David. But never before has a presence felt so strongly in a heavily-populated room of persons celebrating such a spectacular life, and one that was cut so unnecessarily short. Still and all, one can rest easy that it was probably exactly what David would have wanted. Although I can’t help shake the feeling that he would have been saying to Rob later, “Why was there no major production number? ‘Let the Sunshine In,’ with you and the singers at the very end? That’s IT? You couldn’t maybe have pulled a few strings and had Liza or Barbra come and sing a song?”

Go with God, beautiful pocket bear. Until we meet again.

The problem with some debut acts, especially those ambitious enough to plunge right in without any major experience in the arena by exercising a valiant attempt at a new and unique form of artistic expression, is that there is so very much room for so very much to go awry. Fortunately, this is not always the case with newcomer Court Graves and his Brazilian jazz outing, A Minha Noite Perfeita (My Perfect Night), which bowed in June at Metropolitan Room and is heading for SoCal gigs in August at the Catalina and the Gardenia respectively. Unfortunately, the wrongs and the rights of the evening are in equal flood. And yet the wrongs, however copious, are wholeheartedly reversible should Graves so choose to make certain important changes to the presentation.

It should be noted right off the bat that Graves has clearly had extremely impressive vocal training. And his selection of musicians for the evening couldn’t possibly have been more top-notch; these include Alva Nelson on piano, percussionist Sebastiao Apolinario, Chris Sullivan on bass, Doug Harris on both flute and saxophone, and the ever-impressive Vita Wallace not only on violin but accordion. In addition, JP Perreaux’s lighting design and technical direction are splendid as always. But where difficulty begins to rear its unsightly head is in twofold instances; one is the fact that Graves isn’t in ownership of a particularly riveting voice, nor the sparkle of personality, to carry a show of this sort based simply on sheer charm. On the whole, the evening possesses neither the communication of cabaret nor the musicianship of vocal jazz to make it seem anything other than supreme self-indulgence. The other problem lies within Graves’ oft-simplistic choices of material from the Great American Songbook; nothing interesting or newfangled is coming from the treatments given to such songs as “Too Close for Comfort,” “Lover Come Back to Me,” and “So In Love.” He gives “I’m a Fool To Want You” a fair shot, although following it with the equally-balladic “Night Song” is an obvious mistake, and choosing to sing “Natural Sounds” near the end of the show takes the gentleman absolutely nowhere in the audience’s estimation. In point of fact, it’s a relief when he winds up the evening with a halfway-decent rendering of “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die,” as much for the fact that it marks the end of the show as the fact that it’s the first time all night he seems to relax, knowing that the home stretch is just around the bend.

And yet…and yet…the very best moments come in the form of those songs NOT from the Great American Songbook but the compositions of the modern generation. These include an outstanding version of John Legend’s “Save Room For My Love,” “Mercy” by Duffy, and an astonishingly-deft interpretation of  “Caramel” by Suzanne Vega, conveyed with every ounce of seduction and the enticement intended when it was written. If Graves might consider embracing the notion of an entire evening of more contemporary material along those same lines, still keeping within the Brazilian jazz framework, and enlisting the aid of a seasoned director who could help guide the show into the most effective evening of entertainment imaginable, he would most certainly emerge a winner on every count.

It could well transpire that the future holds wonderful circumstances for Court Graves on stages all over the world. Regrettably, this wasn’t one of those occasions. And it really wasn’t the fault of anyone or anything other than the gentleman’s clear lack of savvy as to what flies within the nightlife arena in New York and elsewhere. In point of fact, it was hardly a perfect night. Or, as one might say in Portuguese, “Não foi uma noite perfeita.”

Every once in a while I have a reason to bring this story out of mothballs, so I figured I’d just put it on the blog for posterity in case those who haven’t seen it want to take a look. I don’t write a lot of fiction, as we all know, mostly because I don’t really have the kind of imagination it takes to be a full-time novelist. But this is a short story I wrote back in ’05 that I think is pretty good, and it took second prize in a literary competition a few years ago. It’s loosely based on someone I knew very briefly for a time, but most of it was my own invention. Enjoy.

LETTY

Her name was Letty. Not short for Letitia. Not short for anything, actually. When she was born, her parents decided to name her Letty. And she was perfect. Not just in the eyes of her family, but she simply was. She was blonde and blue-eyed, the most beautiful child on the entire block in Brooklyn. Her parents and grandparents had a lot of money, and in those days of the very late 1940s, all she knew was a life filled with the best toys on the block. The best bike for miles around. And the best clothes. Oh, how she loved her clothes. Her other inherent gift was her smile, which was probably more perfect than she was. It was a smile that could launch thousands of ships.

When she was nine, she and her folks and baby brother moved to Long Island. On their very first day moved in as a family, a Saturday afternoon, Letty confidently put on her pretty pink dress in her equally-pretty pink bedroom, and walked out to the front lawn to scope out the neighborhood for potential friends. The very first person to happen by was Sharon. On a bike that was nicer than Letty’s. Sharon was the most beautiful child Letty had ever seen. Her raven hair hung down in ringlets past her shoulders, and her sea-green eyes seemed to sparkle in the suburban April sunlight. “Hi!” Sharon called out, waving. “I heard there was new girl my age moving in! I’m Sharon! Wanna grab your bike and ride down to the candy store with me? We could get a Dixie cup.”

“Ummm…sure,” Letty replied. “I’m Letty. Let me just go in and ask my mom. Just give me a minute, ‘cause she’s putting our kitchen together.” Sharon obliged with a smile and an enthusiastic nod.

Letty strolled slowly back into the house, gave a quick look back at Sharon with her always-dazzling smile, then walked into the kitchen where her mother was trying to arrange the silverware drawer with a frustrated look, as baby brother Barry sat back in a highchair and gurgling. “Mommy?” she asked. “Can I get a new bike? One of those new ones, from Schwinn?”

Her mother gave her a strange look. “A new bike? Letty, your birthday isn’t for two months yet. And what’s wrong with your bike?”

“I know,” Letty replied, “but I was outside with some of the new kids just now and my bike is just so dingy,” she said. “It doesn’t measure up and it won’t look nice. Couldn’t I please get a new one?” Just then Barry started to cry, and as her mother went to pick up the infant to be rocked, she hastily said, “Well, I suppose. We’ll ask your father when he comes home from the store.”

“Oh, thank you, Mommy,” Letty replied. “I love you. And can I walk down to the candy store and get a Dixie cup? This nice girl outside just asked me.”

“Of COURSE!” her mother said. “Don’t keep the girl waiting! Take fifteen cents out of my pocketbook. And don’t spoil your dinner.”

“Thank you, Mommy,” she said again and flashed her killer smile. She helped herself to a dime and a nickel from her mother’s purse and walked out to where Sharon was still waiting.

“Gonna get your bike?” Sharon asked, her face lighting up with an eager grin.

Letty sighed sadly and shook her head. “The thing is, it hasn’t been delivered yet,” she replied. “My grandparents just bought me a new one as an early birthday present, but they’re waiting for it to come from FAO Schwarz. In the city, and all. So would it be OK if we walk down there instead?”

“Sure!” Sharon said, still beaming. “Let me just drop my bike off back home, up the block. I’ll be back in two minutes and we’ll walk down there. I’ll show you the neighborhood. We’ll meet all the other kids on the way.”

“Thanks! You’re a real pal!” Letty told her, smiling again as only she could.

Within minutes the two girls were at the candy store enjoying their ice cream, and Letty knew she would fit right in here. And that having this girl as a friend could only give her leverage. It was within two weeks that she and Sharon would be racing their bikes up and down the sidewalks after school, with Letty as proud as she could be that her parents had given her a top of the line model.

She became friends with many other boys and girls in the neighborhood over the years. However, Letty’s quest for perfection became a lifelong vocation as she and Sharon became better and better, and ultimately best, friends. It was never anything she had to work for previously in the eyes of anyone besides herself, but deep inside she couldn’t contain her jealousy over the fact that Sharon always seemed to get it right without any effort. And Letty always seemed to need to top her and make it look as though she had just sailed through the process. When Sharon had an A average in school, Letty’s had to be A-plus. She helped Sharon with her project for the Junior High Science Fair every night, making sure it wasn’t quite as good as her own, which took first prize. When Sharon received a white MG for her seventeenth birthday, Letty asked for and got a pink Corvette, with “LETTY” spelled out on the plates.

Then came high school graduation in 1965 and teary goodbyes between the two young women, with promises to be best friends forever and always stay in touch. Sharon would be flying off to California to attend UC-Berkeley, and Letty opted to remain at home and go to nearby Hofstra. She accompanied Sharon and her parents to the airport for a final goodbye, and flashed her effervescent smile the whole time as she watched Sharon get on the plane. Deep inside, she felt like it was the first time in eight years she’d been able to breathe.

For the next four years, she immersed herself in college life and continued her quest for perfection, always spurred on by the notion of how much more Sharon might be achieving out West. But their sporadic conversations by phone always sounded as though she didn’t have much to worry about. Sharon seemed to have gotten very interested in the free-love movement that was pervading Northern California, continuing to commit to classes but also experimenting with marijuana and sexual liberation. Not that it stopped her from graduating Cum Laude with her Political Science degree, but Letty always figured that her own ability to walk the straight and narrow is what got her that Magna Cum Laude degree in Speech Pathology. Plus all those departmental honors.

Though Letty had dated several boys in college, she wasn’t as serious about anyone as she was about her studies, and she took to her first job with aplomb, working in a leading speech pathology lab in Nassau County. She loved the fact that she was placed in a mid-level management position right off the bat, as opposed to Sharon, who was interning for some minor California state senator and would have to really start from the ground up. And she was popular as always, making friends with the other few women who worked there, taking lunch with them and going out on Friday nights to movies or the occasional nightclub.

Eight months into her work, one of her work friends, Marie, stopped by her desk on a Tuesday. Marie had just gotten engaged to a young gentleman named Frank, who was about to start his own business. “I want to ask you something,” she said.

“Sure,” Letty answered.

“How would you like to go on a double date on Friday night, with me and Frank and his old roommate from senior year?” she asked. “I’ve met him a few times and I think you guys would be great together. If nothing else, you’d look terrific as a couple.”

“Really?” Letty replied. “Tell me more.”

Marie smiled. “Well, his name is Ron. Nice, nice man, and very well-brought-up. Parents are from Spain, but he was brought up in Florida and moved here to go to Columbia, which is how he met Frank. Tall, dark and handsome. He just got a Master’s in Business Administration, and Frank thinks he’s a real go-getter.”

Letty thought for a minute. “Hmmm,” she finally said, and smiled her customary smile. “He DOES sound nice. Can I think about it and let you know tomorrow?”

“Sure you can,” Marie smiled back. “But I think you’ll say yes.”

“Well, I’ll let you know. Thanks, Marie.”

That night after dinner, she placed a call to California and reached Sharon at her office. After making some polite small talk with Sharon about their jobs and their parents, Letty asked if she had any romantic prospects. “No, not really,” Sharon replied. “I mean I work such long hours, so there’s really not much time for dating. How about you?”

“Oh,” Letty said evasively, “you know how it goes. One of the women at work wants to set me up with her fiancee’s friend, but I don’t know. I work a lot of hours, too. Not nearly as many as you, you poor thing, but plenty. He does sound nice, though.”

“Well, one date couldn’t hurt, you know,” Sharon answered. “I think you should. Come on; have I ever steered you wrong?”

Letty smiled. “No, Sharon. You have never, ever steered me wrong. OK, I’ll do it if you say so.”

“Good. Let me know. I’d better run; there’s a big meeting here in a few minutes.” The two said their goodbyes and hung up, and Letty knew what her answer to Marie would be.

On Friday night, the four went to a French restaurant in the city, and Ron was everything Marie had promised and more. He was gorgeous, as she knew he would be; nearly six-foot-four and utterly strapping, but at the same time with a grace and chivalrous quality to which she was unaccustomed. For the next several weeks, as she and Ron saw more and more of each other, she knew she was falling in love, and she had the sense that he was feeling likewise. And best of all, she knew she was partaking in a side of life that was leaving Sharon way in the dust.

She would never forget the night he proposed, four months after their meeting. He took her to an elegant Spanish restaurant on Long Island, where he impressed her by ordering the entire meal in the native language of his parents, and the food was impeccable. Most of the time was spent talking about a business he was planning to open, which would contract paper products to businesses, and as he illustrated his plans for the future, Letty was dazzled. After dinner had been cleared away, the waiter brought two cups of coffee and two dishes of flan, which Ron urged her to taste. She dipped her spoon into the creamy custard and her eyes widened as she bit down on something hard; spitting it into her napkin, she discovered the most perfect three-carat diamond engagement ring. It was all Letty could do not to let out a squeal of delight as Ron got down on one knee and officially asked her to share the rest of his life, to which she joyfully agreed. Sharing a big kiss, the entire restaurant broke out into applause and shouts of congratulations in Spanish.

The next six months were a whirlwind of plans. Letty would continue to work at the lab until a few days before the wedding, during which time Ron was extremely busy organizing the paper business. Her mother and grandmother, naturally, had their own hands full making sure that the day would be absolute perfection. Though they’d settled on a local country club for the reception, it would be a mix of Long Island luxury interlaced with Spanish wedding traditions. The one hitch was that Sharon wouldn’t be able to attend; she was being called to testify for the prosecution in an indictment hearing regarding local politics, and was forbidden to leave the state of California. Still, Letty took the fact that she was getting married, when Sharon didn’t even have a boyfriend, to be fitting consolation. And Marie was a fine choice for maid of honor.

A virgin when she married Ron, she had absolutely no concept of how fierce their passion would be on their honeymoon, or that she would find herself wanting to repeat the experience as often as possible. They spent two of the most romantic weeks in Mexico she could ever have hoped for, and their lives became wedded bliss when they returned home to the apartment they’d decided to rent in Little Neck. Ron went off to his small office in Jericho daily, and Letty soon discovered how much she loved being a housewife. She was thrilled to decorate the apartment and make a perfect home for them, and kept as socially busy as she could by occasionally meeting a girl-friend for lunch. She rarely cooked, because she just didn’t like to, and Ron was thrilled to spend the majority of their dinnertime in restaurants. But when she did cook he praised her dishes to the skies, and when she threw dinner parties for his business associates or potential clients, no detail was ever out of place.

Five weeks after the wedding, thrilled to learn that she was pregnant, she immediately called Sharon after first calling Ron at the office, then notifying her parents and brother of the blessed event. Needless to say, Ron was dancing with joy and told her he was coming home immediately, and her family was utterly thrilled. Sharon picked up the phone on the first ring, and as soon as Letty identified herself, she got very excited. “I was just gonna pick up the phone and call you,” she said. “I have big news.”

“So do I,” Letty smiled, “but you go first.”

“I’m getting married.”

“No!!” Letty shouted. “You are? That’s so great! Who? When?” (I’ve already done that, she thought to herself).

“Well, let me tell you what happened,” she said. “You remember that court case I was involved with? There was this television news reporter who was at the trial every day. Gorgeous redheaded man, and so nice. He noticed that I was single, so when I was all through with my testimony, he approached me one day outside the courthouse and invited me to dinner. So we went out a few times and we really hit it off. Then a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go back to his apartment with him. My mother would die if she knew that, but I figure what the hell, it’s 1971, right? She doesn’t know about my college escapades, either. Anyway, it happened. Kid on the way.”

Letty nearly dropped the phone receiver. “You’re getting married AND you’re pregnant?” she said. “Oh, my God. Well, what are you…how are you…I mean, how’s this all gonna happen at once?”

“Oh, we’re just going to get married by a city judge in a few days. My boss has all kinds of connections, and we just want to get it over with. Bobby makes great money at the TV studio, and I’ll just take a short maternity leave.” She sighed. “He loves me, Letty. He really, really loves me and wants to take care of me. Take care of us.”

“That’s so great!” Letty said, secretly delighted by the fact that Sharon wouldn’t be having a big wedding. “That is just so, so great. I’m so happy for you and I can’t wait for us to meet him.”

“Yes,” Sharon said, “we HAVE to do that as soon as we can. Maybe after I have the baby we’ll fly out for a visit. It’s been way too long since you and I have seen each other. Now, what was your news?”

Letty shifted uncomfortably. “Oh,” she began, “it’s nothing. I mean it seems so silly now, what with your news.”

“Now, come on,” Sharon pressed. “What’s up?”

“Well…” Letty smiled, “you won’t believe this, but I’m pregnant.”

“NO!!!!” Sharon shouted into the phone. “This is so GREAT!! Oh, my God, we’re both gonna be MOMMIES!! At the same TIME!!”

“Yeah,” Letty said, smiling her big smile but feeling utterly deflated. “Isn’t that great? Listen, I’d better run. Ron got so excited when I gave him the news and he’s on his way home.”

“OK,” Sharon replied. “Listen, keep me posted. I want to know everything. Talk to you soon.”

“You bet,” Letty answered through her smile. “Bye, Sharon!”

They hung up and Letty cried for the next fifteen minutes, putting her brave face back on as soon as Ron walked in the door.

True to form, she had a perfect pregnancy, even though she hated every minute of it. No morning sickness, no neuralgia, nary even a hemorrhoid. And she was entranced every time Sharon would call with stories of how sick she felt all the time, or how she had gone to a fancy political luncheon and droplets of milk ruined her best silk blouse. They had the babies within a day of each other, Letty going through a very easy labor and delivering her son Glenn after a mere two hours, and Sharon being forced through twenty-three hours of grueling agony before her daughter Adrienne entered the world. Letty didn’t know whether to be happier about the children’s genders or that Sharon had gone through so much.

Although they exchanged photographs of the kids through the mail, they only spoke to each other by phone every few years after that for nearly the next two decades, and usually only when one had important news for the other. Letty delighted in being able to call Sharon and tell her that they were moving out of the apartment in Little Neck and into a big beautiful house in Dix Hills with a pool, or that Ron’s paper business had just gotten a worldwide contract with Hilton, or that Glenn had gotten accepted to Harvard and was class valedictorian. Sharon was always so thrilled to hear from her. And equally thrilled to be able to call and tell her that they were moving to Santa Monica because Bobby had become the 6 PM anchor at a Los Angeles station, or that she had just finished her first book about the political process and had signed a contract for five more, or that Adrienne would be attending Stanford after competing with the Olympic gymnastics team. And through it all, Letty wore her most dazzling smile and seethed with private rage.

Then one Thursday in April, Letty’s phone rang, and it was Sharon. “Guess what?” she said. “I’m in New York.”

“Really?” Letty asked. “How come?”

“My tour for the third book,” Sharon replied. “I would have called you but it all happened so fast. They told me about it two days ago and flew me out yesterday, and the city was the first stop. You wouldn’t believe this room they’ve got me in at the Ritz-Carlton; it’s to die for.”

“That’s great,” Letty said, smiling.

“So I was thinking,” Sharon continued, “that since Bobby can’t get here until the weekend and I have some time in between interviews, maybe you and I could have lunch tomorrow. Would that work out for you?”

Letty hesitated. The last thing she wanted was to see Sharon. She just didn’t think she could bear the thought of having to keep her smile glued on while Sharon prattled on about how wonderful her life was. But as usual, her need for perfection wouldn’t let her say no.

“Sure,” she said, still smiling. “I haven’t been to the city in forever. Should I meet you at the hotel?”

“Well, my publisher recommended an Italian restaurant a few doors down, called Sandomenico,” Sharon said. “It’s supposed to be a celebrity hangout, and really highly recommended. Hey, they’re footing the bill, so I guess we should give it a try. Want to meet there at about one? I’ll call them and set it up.”

“You bet,” Letty replied, smiling. “Yummy. And I’ll have so much fun deciding what to wear. See you then, pal.”

Sharon giggled. “That’s so funny. I don’t think you’ve called me pal for forty years.”

Letty forced a chuckle. “Isn’t that something? Well, bye.” And hung up.

The whole idea of this was churning her stomach as she drove westward on the Long Island Expressway towards the city, but she figured she could always just have a salad. If nothing else, she knew she looked like a million bucks in her teal velvet suit. She walked through the doors of the opulent restaurant at a practiced moment, as she’d always done, exactly three minutes after the appointed time. After checking her coat, she recognized Sharon instantly. The black hair was the same (although probably tinted by now, she thought), and those damnable green eyes still lit up the entire room from wherever they were located. But she made it a point to squint about the assembled patrons as though she was seeking her out, until Sharon waved her over. With her huge trademark smile, the smile that had gotten her through nearly fifty years, she swept through the dining room, wordlessly giving her old friend a seemingly-warm albeit stiff hug, and then a kiss on both cheeks. And with the same fixed smile, she descended upon the seat.

Sharon grinned. “They’re sending over a bottle of Cristal,” she said. “I know you don’t want to drink much, because you’ve got to drive back, but I thought it would be nice to have a long old-fashioned gab session. We can always go up to the room and you can lie down if you need to.”

“No, I’ll be fine,” Letty replied. They stared at each other across the table for nearly a minute, smiling, until Sharon felt the tension between them and broke the silence. “So,” she began, “how’s everything?” The waiter came over with the champagne and started pouring.

“Oh, things are wonderful,” she said, accepting a glass of Cristal from the waiter. “Ron’s going to sell the company next year to a major conglomerate. I can’t even begin to imagine the money we’ll get.”

“That’s great, Letty!” Sharon said, taking her own glass. “We’ll wait on seeing the menus,” she told the waiter. “Right now we’re just catching up.” He acknowledged that and left.

Sharon clinked her glass with Letty’s and they each took a sip. “So he’s retiring, then?”

“I honestly couldn’t tell you,” Letty replied. “We’ve talked about it, and we’re probably going to take a year-long cruise around the world once the sale is final, but I can’t imagine he’ll remain completely inactive. You know how he is.”

“Yeah, you’ve told me,” Sharon said. “And how’s Glenn?”

“Glenn is great!” she replied emphatically. “He was in Tokyo working with the financial market all last year, but now he’s settled in at Goldman Sachs and they seem to love him there. His Christmas bonus in December was a hundred sixty thousand.”

“Isn’t that wonderful?” Sharon said.

“It’s wonderful,” Letty echoed, smiling.

They stared at each other for another minute, the tension once again palpable. “Uh, well…” Sharon said, “things are good with me, too. Busy, you know. This tour is gonna be grueling. They’ve got me doing sixty cities in four months. It’s just insane. I’m only glad Bobby can fly out tonight after the broadcast. You know, next week he starts doing the eleven o’clock news, not just the six o’clock. God, what would we do without our husbands?”

“Sure,” Letty said, still staring and smiling. Another minute went by.

“Adrienne’s doing well, too,” she started, beginning to feel unsure about Letty’s attitude. “You know, she majored in Communications at Stanford with a concentration in broadcasting, and they’ve had her doing some sportscasting on the morning news. Bobby and I are so proud of her. I still don’t know how either of us got through those Olympics. Every time she got up on that balance beam I couldn’t bear to look. The other day when I was looking at her bronze medal in her old room, it just brought it all back.”

“Sure,” Letty said again, still eying her and smiling.

Sharon picked up the bottle and topped her glass. “Letty,” she asked, “is everything OK? I was hoping we could have a nice talk, and you’re sitting there staring at me and smiling like a Stepford Wife. Is something wrong?”

“Everything’s fine,” Letty answered, still smiling and pouring more champagne into her own glass and taking a big sip. She chuckled suddenly. “Stepford Wife? That’s funny. Like, because I became a housewife and you didn’t, you’re somehow better than me?”

The question caught Sharon off guard and she emitted a little choking noise. “What?” she asked, truly puzzled. “Better than you? Letty, what on earth are you talking about?”

“You know what I’m talking about,” Letty said, forty-one years of jealousy suddenly rising inexplicably to the surface. “You’ve lorded it over me since Day One. That very first day, when you rode your bike to my house. ‘Oh, look at my pretty black hair and my pretty green eyes. Oh, look at my pretty bike. My life is more perfect than anybody’s.’ Well, guess what, Sharon. I’m sick of it and I’m sick of you.”

Sharon stared at her as though she had just descended from a spaceship. “You…I…what??? I LORD things over you? What are you SAYING?”

“I’m just saying I’ve had it,” Letty replied. “I’m tired of the competition and I’m tired of the fact that I can’t win it. I’m not happy.”

Sharon slugged her champagne in a fluid movement and stared at her childhood friend, the one she had always considered a sister until this very moment in time. “Let’s put a few things in perspective, lady,” she said evenly. “You were, and still are, the most beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed princess any of us had ever seen. You had it all and you still have it all. My house wasn’t nearly as nice as yours, my clothes weren’t as nice, my family wasn’t as nice. As for my bike, which apparently you envied, that was ALL that I had. You always got better grades, you took that prize at the science fair, you had that gorgeous Corvette that all us girls were drooling over. You graduated Magna from Hofstra and got a major job right out of school. You married that beautiful man and had the wedding of the century. And then gave birth to a baby boy, of course, who turned out to be as perfect as you. And now you’re telling me that all this time you were jealous of ME?” Sharon topped her drink again and took a sip. “Boy, oh boy, Letty. We all knew you’d grow up to be anything you wanted, but I never imagined that what you wanted was to be really bitter.”

“I think this luncheon is concluded,” Letty said. Smiling again.

“Yes, I think it is, too,” Sharon replied. “Don’t call me.”

Letty rose and retrieved her coat, then swept grandly back to the garage where she’d parked her car. Her head was held high. As far as she was concerned, she’d finally put Sharon in her place, and it felt fantastic. She was positively jubilant as she drove home to Dix Hills.

When she got there, Ron was already home, watching a basketball game. He’d been working reduced hours lately in anticipation of the sale. She hung up her coat and he gave her a big hug. “So how was your lunch?” he asked, as he resettled himself on the couch.

“Oh, it was great,” she replied, seating herself next to him and flashing her smile. “Just great. Exactly what I wanted.”

“Perfect,” he said. And continued to watch the game.

“Yes,” she said, after a minute. “Perfect. And as long as it’s perfect, that’s all that matters.”

THE END