It was winter, and she was between husbands. Of course, she didn't know at the time that she was between them – for all she knew at the time, James could have been her last husband. For all she knew, she could have been hit by a truck on the way to her next wedding ceremony, or simply decided that entering into another one of the little institutions was an entirely a pointless exercise. But, truth be told, at the time, she thought of it as between. She had had two husbands so far – what would another be? And she wasn't the sort of person to stay alone for long, though sometimes she wished she were. How much easier would that have been! For there to have been no one to ask when she was going to do the dishes or plant a sloppy kiss on her cheek when she didn't want it – that would have been wonderful.
But she was addicted to marriage perhaps, far more than she was addicted to alcohol or cigarettes. She had tried to explain that to James the night he left, when he was going on his ridiculous sermon about 'unhealthy habits' and being unable to give her the 'emotional structure' that she apparently needed. But, while vodka tended to loosen her tongue, for whatever reason, gin did the opposite, making her unable to clearly articulate anything, making her sound like some sort of gibbering idiot.
So James gave her a disgusted look and left. She didn't see him again till the meetings with their respective accountants.
And now she was between husbands. That was how she phrased it when all her tiresome female friends called and sickly-sweet sympathetic. She laughed if she managed to shock them.
But no matter how many times she managed to shock them, and how many times they felt they had to give her little lectures on her unhealthy lifestyle, just as if James had been whispering into their ears, they all still fluttered about her and talked about how she shouldn't be alone at a time like this, as though forgetting that she had dealt with this sort of thing before, and she had been younger and more idealistic when she married Rodney. It being winter, they were all inviting her to their little Christmas parties. She chose a couple of them, and skipped the rest.
This one had ended up being unexpectedly nauseating. There was a particularly bright and offensive Christmas tree, plates and plates of cookies frosted in red and green, and decorations everywhere she looked, in the shapes of showmen and Santa Clauses. She felt tempted to stub a cigarette out on one.
Adding an additional layer of annoyance, most of the people there were complete strangers. Not that she minded that in most situations, but in an already nauseating Christmas party, it made her feel exhausted. Meredith, the woman who had invited her, was occupied with her other guests, and Joanne didn't want to bother to make pointless small talk with her.
Then she caught sight of Bobby, sitting in a corner with a glass of bourbon and watching the rest of the party. Joanne felt relief, almost palpable. She made her way to him immediately.
"Will you tell me where you got that, or do I have to drink the eggnog?" she said, by means of greeting.
Bobby smiled and gestured to an unobtrusive cabinet nearby. "Most of the bottles are practically unopened," he said.
She poured herself a drink and returned, pulling up a chair next to him. She waited for him to start the conversation. With most people, she wouldn't have.
"It's interesting," he said soon, his eyes on a group sipping apple cider and talking in some way that looked terribly contrived, "These holidays are supposed to be when everyone gets together with their families. But us New Yorkers, we've all run away from our families. It's the great city of people trying to forget they ever had parents. So we do things like this, pretending that we're at home but pretending that we're not."
"I was born in New York," she replied, "my family's right here. I just pretend they don't exist anyway."
Bobby laughed, and then asked her, in that completely inoffensive tone of his, "Where do they live?"
"Staten Island," she said before thinking about it. When she realized that she actually answered him, she laughed, hard, and took a deep gulp of her vodka, savoring the burn of the alcohol against her throat. "You're dangerous to be around, kiddo. I never tell anyone that."
He gave her a boyish grin that was somehow not irritating. "Staten Island? Really?"
She lifted her glass to him. "Really. I grew up there. Didn't spend much time there when I could avoid it, though. I spent half my childhood on the ferry." When he looked about ready to laugh, she retorted, "At least it's better than New Jersey."
He gave a nod to concession. "But at least I never try to disguise my humble roots. You're the one always talking about how you've never left New York, which, you must admit, cultivates a certain image."
She nodded. "Fair enough."
They talked for a while more. He didn't bring up James and the divorce, for which she was vaguely grateful. It didn't surprise her, though. This was Bobby, after all. But, eventually, she'd finished her drink and the mindless chatter of the room was truly beginning to give her a headache. "I want a cigarette," she told him, "and Meredith would feel inappropriately betrayed if I smoked in here. I'm going outside."
Bobby set down his glass. "I'll come with you. I could use some air."
She gave him a half smile and got up. In a movement almost inappropriately quick, Bobby did the same. "Do you think we should say goodbye to her, at least?"
Joanne shook her head. "I doubt anyone here will miss us, and I don't care if they do."
They took the elevator down. Outside, it was snowing, the white flakes visible in Bobby's dark hair and on his suit. Joanne lit her cigarette and leaned against the wall of the building, watching him. "How have you been?" she asked finally. They hadn't seen one another in months.
Bobby shrugged. "The new job's going well, I guess. Apparently I show excellence in statistical comprehension and general economic calculation."
"Thrilling," she drawled, exhaling a tendril of smoke. He smiled as though amused. "What?"
"You do it so well," he said, "playing the older, cynical woman who's been divorced twice. It's hard to remember that you're only two years older than I am."
"And I'm not even thirty," she reminded him. "You insult me. I don't think anyone's made that the criteria for 'older woman' since the Middle Ages."
He was silent for a moment, considering. "Do you think we'll still be having these conversations when you're forty?"
"Probably." That seemed to trigger some chain of thought in his mind, and he was silent even longer than he had been before, long enough that she finished her cigarette and stubbed it out of the sidewalk with the heel of her shoe. She kept watching him, all that time. He looked back at her, as though her gaze did not discomfit him in the least.
Somehow, she wasn't entirely surprised when he kissed her. If he hadn't initiated it, she probably would have.
It was the best kiss she'd had in a long while – James hadn't been particularly good at kissing even when he had actually liked her. She didn't relax into it, like she did with some men. Instead, she kissed him as though to keep him with her.
She thought she could taste his bourbon, but perhaps that was only her fantasy.
When it was over, he looked almost, but not quite at a loss. "I'll call you," he said finally, "we could meet for drinks, or dinner sometime."
His voice was different; there was a different…affectation to it, or something. She realized that he was asking her out on a date. That was probably the way he spoke to all his little girlfriends. It made her sick, suddenly. "Don't try that with me," she said, warning, "it won't work."
Struck by a sudden impulse, she drew close to him, speaking so quietly that she might as well have been whispering. "I'm too much like you – I know all the little tricks."
Larry insisted on a traditional wedding. She thought he was crazy, and complained loudly and often. "It's absurd," she told him, "me in one of those white dresses, for the third time? It's ridiculous."
"You'll look beautiful, Joanne, honey," he assured her, focusing, as usual, on the more minor issue.
It was what he most wanted, though. He talked on and on about how his parents' wedding had been the happiest time of their lives, and how what he had always dreamed about was having one just like theirs. He talked about all his darling nieces and nephews and how he wanted them to see him and Joanne together. He talked for so long that Joanne gave in. He was a good man, after all. He could burn the wedding photos after the divorce, whenever that would be. It wasn't that important to her, comparatively. It was far more important to him.
Bobby brought Kathy to the wedding. Joanne hadn't met her before, but she'd heard Bobby talking about her. The sweet, honest girl from Cape Cod. Joanne could pick her out immediately at the reception, with her blue flowered dress and curly red hair. And, of course, with the way Bobby leaned over to say things softly in her ear, things that made her laugh, more often than not. She could tell, even from halfway across the room, that Bobby was using those reprehensible false affectations of his. She wanted to go over there and yell at him for it – it was her wedding, she should be allowed to do such things – but Larry would have gotten that worried look in his eyes, and she didn't want to have to deal with that in the first year of their marriage. He was already asking the bartender at the wedding to water down her drinks, she knew that much.
"It's time for us to dance!" Larry suddenly said, half announcing it. Apparently, he had told the band before he told Joanne, because they were breaking into a song that she vaguely remembered as being something they had listened to one of their earlier dates. The rest of the room was hushing. Sweet, good Kathy was watching ever so intently.
Larry put an arm over her shoulders and led her onto the dance floor, eager in a way that was at once charming and irritating. As he shifted his arm to around her waist and began, ever so awkwardly, to dance with her, Joanne glanced back at Bobby.
He lifted his glass in a silent toast, half smiling.