PW on FOAK
In this engaging novel, seasoned author Frankel (It’s Hard Not to Hate You) creates four compelling female characters who lead wildly different lives but have one thing in common: their children all attend the same New York private school. Under the pretense of creating a Diversity Committee, blonde beauty Bess Steeple invites the three other women—Robin, Carla, and Alicia—over to her Brooklyn townhouse for a meeting. To break the ice, the women engage in a poker game where the betting currency isn’t money but secrets. As the game progresses, it’s revealed that Alicia’s in a sex-starved marriage; Robin’s daughter is the result of a one-night stand; Carla’s uptight husband is the source of endless stress; and Bess’s mother is a famous feminist. The meeting turns into a monthly poker game, where the women forge a strong bond while struggling, individually, with life’s challenges. The fresh dialogue, three-dimensional characters, and fast-moving plot lines are solidly entertaining.
Four of a Kind (2012)
Alicia Fandine, 35, walked as quickly as her sensible pumps would carry her from the subway toward the home of Bess Steeple, a blond of the sparkle-eyed variety, for tonight’s meeting of the Diversity Committee, a group of Brownstone Institute parents (mothers) from different backgrounds who shared a common goal: to ensure their kids grew up free of religious, racial and sexual prejudices. Like organizer Bess Steeple, Alicia was as Caucasian as glue, and as “diverse,” she thought, as a potato. It was an odd invitation, although Alicia had her suspicions about why she’d been recruited.
While she knew it was ridiculous, totally unfair, Alicia had an aversion to gorgeous blondes. When introduced to one, she instinctively recoiled. Over the course of her life, Alicia had known plenty of kind, caring yellow-haired individuals, both male and female. And yet, when she met a new one, in particular, a vibrant, winsome, outgoing type like Bess Steeple, Alicia felt a kind of xenophobia, as if blondes were alien or cyborg. Run-of-the-mill brunettes, as Alicia saw herself, were all too human.
The irony was only too tart for Alicia. She’d been asked to fight prejudice by a member of the one group she had a bias against -- namely, women more attractive, wealthy and sunny than herself. Nearly every mother at Brooklyn Height’s Brownstone Institute seemed to fall into this category. Alicia made snap decisions about them. The school year was just a week old, and she’d been able to observe her peers for only the few minutes at drop-off in the morning before rushing to Manhattan to work. Her general impression of the fourth-grade moms: they gleamed. In Dansk clogs, they glided. They carried an effortless, casual contentedness in their bones. Of course, the glistening patina could be a facade. Alicia prayed nightly that some of them—two or three, please—felt just as overwhelmed and inadequate as she did. Otherwise, she’d never make friends. Although Alicia could strike up an easy conversation with nearly anyone who had something to complain about, she didn’t see how she could possibly break the ice with women who were so perfect and pretty and happy all the freaking time.
But if making friends would help Joe, her son, Alicia would try. He was the new kid: shy, small and awkward, clinging to her side at drop-off. After she left him in the commons and spied him through the door’s peephole window, her heart broke to see her nine-year-old son standing by himself while other kids laughed and played in groups around him.
Like Joe, Alicia had been a shy and small for her age. As a five foot two adult, she still felt built to hide. Joe’s social dismay brought back all of her old anguish, redoubled. She had empathetic pain for her son—thinking about his loneliness could make her gasp for breath—plus, she had her own anxiety about fitting in with the moms.
Tonight, she’d be okay, she hoped. Alicia always did better in small groups. The smaller the better. One-on-one, Alicia was capable of genuine charm. Her mantra for the evening: Be nice.
The air had cooled considerably. Mid-September, and it was already coat weather. Alicia pulled her brown Banana Republic suit jacket tight and walked faster, low heels clicking on the sidewalk, trouser hem shushing against her ankles. On Joralemon Street, she passed glorious Victorian townhouses, meticulously maintained. Brooklyn Heights’ pre (Civil) war architecture, clean streets and flowerboxes were certainly a switch from the deserted hinterland of Red Hook where Alicia lived now, or the shopping mecca of the Upper West Side, her neighborhood as of two months ago. In its antiseptic perfection, Brooklyn Heights was a Disney version of “city.” Like a poodle was a “dog.” Technically true, but lacking in gritty verisimilitude.
Alicia reached the address on Clinton Street. First clue that Bess Steeple was queenly rich: The buzzer panel had just one button. The family occupied the entire building. Having spend much of last year pouring over Brooklyn real estate, Alicia estimated that the four stories, pointed facade, painted cornice, prime-Heights, prime-block townhouse would be in the $4,000,000 range—post-bubble. If the inside looked as good as the outside, that number would jump. Alicia suddenly felt (even more) inadequate in her economical suit, as well as intimidated and jealous—a potent insecurity cocktail. From a protective crouch, bracing for New Blonde contact, Alicia pushed the buzzer.
Beautiful Bess appeared in the vestibule. Like a beacon, Bess’s luminosity was hard to miss at drop-off. Alicia had noticed her, but the two women had never spoken. Framed by the door’s beveled-glass window, the host shimmered in the chandelier light, her smile white and welcoming. Alicia smiled back, she couldn’t help it. Some people had that power, to put you at ease in an instant. Along with her obvious other gifts, Bess had that ability. If she were smart, too, Alicia might have to spill something.
“Hello!” sang the host, welcoming Alicia through the doors and into the foyer. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
“Alicia Fandine,” she said, holding out her hand, which Bess clasped in a two-fister. Her host wore jeans and a cute red silk chiffon top. She could have worn a garbage bag and looked crisp and classy.
“Joe’s mom, I know,” said Bess. “What a sweet boy.”
Alicia mentally groped for Bess’s kid’s name, and came up empty. Sensing her discomfort, Bess said, “I’m sure Joe and Charlie will be great friends.”
Charlie? Which one of the boys was Charlie? A slideshow of kids’ faces snapped through her mind, but Alicia couldn’t put names on the faces. “Charlie is a sweet kid, too,” she said.
Bess laughed at that. “R-iiiight,” said she. “Come on in. Everyone else is upstairs in the living room.”
Alicia followed Bess through the shell-pink painted foyer, up a carpeted stairway lined with art that looked real to Alicia’s untrained eye, to the next floor, an open space of some 1,000 square feet with two period chandeliers of colored glass globes, a detailed parquet floor, Persian rugs, modern Swedish furniture, built-in custom bookcases which housed, among other electronic doozies, a 50-inch flat screen TV. Alicia gasped when she saw the space. Couldn’t help it. This was Architectural Digest. Alicia wondered what Bess’s husband did for a living.
Two other women were seated on plush comfortable couches. A basket of bread chunks and an enamel pot sat over a blue flame on the coffee table in front of them.
“I hope you like fondue,” said Bess. “I impulsively bought the set at the cookware shop around the corner. Thought I’d use it all the time. Naturally, it’s been sitting in a box for six months.”
“Hot cheese, yum,” said Alicia. Was fondue a diverse food, she wondered? To the other women, she gave a self-conscious little wave and said, “Hey.”
The black woman in a creamy caftan nodded curtly. The caftan might count as ethnic, although it appeared to be straight off the rack of Ann Taylor. Alicia recognized this woman from drop-off, too. Hard not to. She was among the handful of black moms, a dahlia in the field of lilies. Alicia introduced herself and held out her hand. The woman took it firmly.
“Carla Morgan,” she said. “Zeke’s mom.”
The fourth in the group, a skeletally thin woman with a huge head of curly red hair in a peasant skirt and gauzy top, smiled at Alicia and said, “Robin Stern. Stephanie’s mom.” Alicia hadn’t noticed her at drop-off. She was relieved that, of the three other women, only Bess send off waves of pure joy. Carla and Robin seemed as confused about their presence at Bess’s house as she was.
“It’s funny how we introduce ourselves by our kids’ names,” said Alicia. “Like we don’t have identities of our own.”
The three women blinked at her. Clearly, they didn’t think this was funny – ha-ha or weird. Alicia tried to smile (passing for friendly) and she sat down next to Robin the redhead.
Bess took a seat next to Carla, who readjusted her caftan as if she were cold in the warm room. No one spoke. Four fondue forks and four little plates neatly arranged on the table lay untouched. The pot of molten cheese bubbled away. Finally, Bess leaned forward, took a chunk of bread from the basket, impaled it on a fork, and plunged it into the pot. When she lifted the fork again, the bread had disappeared.
“Oops,” she said.
The other women instinctively leaned forward and peered into the pot. “Sunk,” said Alicia. Like this evening?
“The cheese is awfully thick,” said skinny Robin. “Did you cut it with wine?”
“I should have used more,” said Bess.
“So there’s wine left over somewhere?” asked Robin.
“Oh, God. So sorry. We need drinks, of course,” said Bess. “There’s a bar downstairs.”
“I was hoping to get a look around,” said Robin, standing. “This house is incredible.”
Bess asked the other two women, “Would you like a tour?”
Alicia said, “Yes, please,” slurping back her anticipatory drool. In Brooklyn, real estate was porn.
Caftan Carla, who Alicia had already characterized as intense and quiet, said, “Why not?”
“Okay,” said Bess, slapping her thighs and standing up. “Is the fondue experiment officially a failure?”
Carla said simply, “I ate a big dinner.”
“Communal dipping?” said Alicia. “Bit of a fon-don’t.”
So her surprise, the women laughed. Alicia thought, Okay, then. Sense of humor detected.
Robin said, “Cheese isn’t kind to me,” and patted her iron flat stomach. Anorexic? thought Alicia. Bulimic? Lactose intolerant?
Bess smiled good-naturedly and called out, “Kids! You’re up.”
On cue, three boys burst into the room from a side door at the other end of the floor. They clamored to the coffee table, grabbed the long fondue forks and fistfuls of bread chunks. Alicia recognized the smallest kid from Joe’s class. Charlie was spearing bread with demonic zeal. Bess said, “Eric, you’re in charge.” The oldest of her sons nodded and chewed.
“You have three boys?” asked Alicia.
“And one girl,” said Bess. “Amy is my oldest. She’s sixteen. Upstairs sulking in her room, which is her favorite hobby.”
“Where’s your husband?” asked Robin.
Bess grinned. “He’s at work.”
Alicia couldn’t help asking, “Where’s that?”
“Merrill Lynch,” said Bess. “ ‘Lynch’ being the operative word. Borden is one of the few people left in his department.”
“Foreign currency futures,” said Bess. “But lately he’s been doing a little bit of everything.”
“Four kids at Brownstone,” said redhead Robin, whistling low. “That’s a hundred thousand dollars a year in tuition. Why didn’t I pursue a career in foreign currency futures? Whatever that is.”
Alicia felt a mite squirmy about Robin’s overt nosiness, but Bess took it in stride. She was obviously well trained at deflecting questions about her wealth. Bess probably grew up surrounded by money, great green piles of it. That said, Bess seemed relatively normal for a loaded person, thought Alicia.
Bess took them down two flights, to the garden level. “This is my husband’s lair,” said Bess.
Alicia’s eyes took in the sights. A glass wall in the back showed the private garden, equipped with a built-in gas grill the size of a short bus. Some trees for privacy, flowering plants showing off the last bloom of the season. Alicia had desperately wanted to find an apartment with outdoor space, but even a Juliet balcony was out of their reach. Alicia was awed by the home-theater set-up and the surround built-in speakers. She counted eight.
“Here we are,” said Robin, spotting the mahogany bar, fully stocked with two mirrored shelves of booze. She went behind it, and started mixing herself a cocktail. Alicia would never help herself like that in another person’s home.
“I’ll have the same,” said Bess as she watched Robin make a vodka tonic. “And for you two?”
Caftan Carla frowned. Was she a wet blanket? A lot of black moms in Brooklyn were church-going teetotalers. Please don’t let her a be a Bible thumper, though Alicia. Although that would be diverse.
“White wine, please,” said Alicia
Carla said, “Wine would be great.”
“How many kids do you have, Carla?” asked Alicia.
“Two,” said Carla. “Boys. You?”
“Just one,” said Alicia.
Robin said, “My Stephanie is an only child, too.”
“We’re a boy-heavy bunch,” said Bess. “Six boys and only two girls among us.”
The drinks poured, the women leaned around the bar, clinked glasses and drank.
And stared blankly at each other. And smiled awkwardly. So much for alcohol as a social lubricant, thought Alicia. She drank up. Perhaps things would improve by the tenth glass.
Bess said, “I really appreciate you all coming. It’s a lot to jump right in and talk about committee goals and an agenda. I thought that tonight we could just get to know each other a bit.”
They began talking about (what else?) their kids. How old, how much of a handful, bedtimes, soccer league, art class, snack preferences, the fourth-grade curriculum at Brownstone. Alicia’s mind wandered, and fixated on the paradox. How was it that discussing the most important people in your life sounded so banal? Women could blab about their kids from sunrise to sunset without exchanging a single heartfelt emotion. Even the intimate, profound experience of giving birth was usually reduced to a funny, scary, oozy story to swap like trading cards.
At work, all day, every day, she was surrounded by men who delved no deeper that last night’s Mets scores. Except for Finn Clarke, her office mate. He could make a chat about the weather seem profound. Alicia smiled to herself, flashing back to the work day, beautiful Finn standing close behind her chair, the two of them looking at the latest Paris Hilton’s commando paparazzi photo on her computer. “Twat is her middle name,” he said, speaking softly, making Alicia’s own twitch.
“What’s that you were saying, Alicia?” asked Robin, “about mothers having identities apart from their kids?”
Alicia forced her mind back to the women. She’d lost the last five minutes of their conversation, so she just said, “Exactly.”
Bess said, “When men meet each other, their first question is, ‘What do you do for living?’”
“As if that defines who you are,” said Robin.
“Yeah,” said Alicia. “So. What do you do for a living?”
They laughed, even Carla, who then said, “I really need to sit. I’m on my feet all day long.”
Bess said, “Oh, God. Worst host ever. Table and chairs that way.” The blond host pointed at the unlit part of the floor. She turned on a lamp to reveal an alcove separated from the bar/home theater area by demi-walls. In the center of the room was a round table and six chairs. The tabletop was made of green felt. The chairs were hard backed with cushioned seats.
Robin said, “What is that?”
“It’s Borden’s,” said Bess, flicking on a couple more lamps. “Remember how poker was huge a few years ago? Celebrity poker, the poker channel. Extreme poker tournaments. Poker cage matches. Borden decided he wanted to get into it. So he moved the pool table out and the poker table in.”
“What happened to the pool table?” asked Robin. “That’s my game. You can’t believe how many drinks I’ve won over the years thanks to my killer cue.”
“We moved it upstairs,” said Bess. “But I don’t think you want to hang out in the boys’ room.”
“Your house is big enough for a poker room and a pool room?” Alicia asked. “I feel sick.”
Carla asked, “What’s wrong?” Her tone was professional, concerned.
“Just intense jealousy. It’ll pass,” said Alicia. “Actually, it won’t.”
Bess invited them to sit. They each plunked their drinks into the table’s built-in cup holders, and smoothed their hands across the pill-free green felt. “The pathetic thing is that Borden had maybe two poker nights with his friends,” said Bess. “And that was it. I’m waiting for him to replace this with a ping-pong table. Or a foos-ball table.”
“The kids must like it,” said Alicia, reaching for the tray of red, white and blue round plastic chips. She grabbed a stack and put it in front of her. “Chips? Chips are irresistible. Fun to hold. You can’t not play with them.”
Bess said, “You realize since we’re sitting down, we now have to deal a hand. That’s the rule. Does everyone know Texas Hold ‘Em?”
“You do?” asked Alicia.
“I watched Borden play a few times,” said the host. “He made me practice with him.”
Carla said, “I’ve never played.”
“I can teach you,” said Bess. “It’s not too tough.”
Robin said, “We have to make it interesting. Dollar a hand.”
Alicia cringed inwardly—and, she feared, outwardly. Losing even ten bucks tonight would mean no lunch money tomorrow. They were on that tight a budget.
Carla to the rescue. “I’m philosophically opposed to gambling.”
Bess nodded. “I agree. I don’t want to take your money.”
Robin smiled and said, “Oh, you’re assuming you’re going to win?”
The host blushed prettily. “You have experience?” she asked Robin.
Robin nodded. “You have no idea.”
Alicia said, “What if we play for something else?”
“Peanuts?” asked Robin.
“Secrets,” said Alicia, amazed to hear herself say it. Her subconscious had spoken for her, and wisely. Trading secrets was a shortcut to friendship, wasn’t it?
The three other woman stared at her, their mouths partly open. Alicia felt her gut clench. She’d said the wrong thing. “I’ll reel that one back in,” she said.
“Secrets?” asked Bess, intrigued.
“Secrets are a woman’s currency,” said Robin.
“I have no secrets,” said Carla stridently.
Alicia watched a ripple move behind Carla’s dark eyes. This woman had secrets aplenty, she thought. “Forget it,” she said. “Stupid idea.”
Bess said, “No, I like it. Maybe not secrets per se. But something personal about ourselves. Children are the fallback conversation. You really can hide behind your kids. Especially me. I’m the only one here who doesn’t have a career. Focusing on the kids has become my default setting. If I’m not dealing with them, I’m talking about them, or listening to other women talk about theirs. And it’s just more of the same. Same classes, activities, playgroup, haircuts, expressions, comments, opinions.”
Robin said, “And you’re looking for something different—or should I say diverse?”
Bess laughed. “Okay, I’ll ante up. Here’s a secret. I’m not all that gung-ho about scheduling a calendar of multicultural events and lectures.”
Robin gasped dramatically. “You’re not? Then I’m out of here.”
Bess laughed. “The real reason I invited the three of you over tonight is that you’re nothing like me.”
“You mean a WASPy, blond, rich housewife,” said Robin bluntly and, Alicia thought, rudely.
Bess took it at face value. “Frankly, yes. Most of my friendships are like talking into a mirror.”
Robin said, “So you took a look around at drop-off, and hand-picked a black woman, a frizzy-haired Jew, and a scholarship mom to be your new best friends?”
Carla hooted. The biggest reaction from her all night, and the first show of her smile, which completely transformed her face from serious to sweet. She had a rich, deep, baritone laugh that made the table vibrate. “Now that’s calling a spade a spade. Oh, I like you,” she said to Robin, making Alicia feel a little jealous.
Bess shrugged. “I wasn’t thinking ‘new best friends,’ but, yes, something like that.”
On principle, Alicia, the “scholarship mom,” wasn’t terribly offended. She’d suspected her middle class status had been her claim to diversity. If she was selected by the establishment for that reason, it was the first time her relative poverty had opened a door. Actually, it was the second time. Their income threshold helped get Joe into Brownstone. Although he had trouble socially, Joe tested well. Astonishingly well. His test scores zoomed him at the top of Brownstone’s academic scholarship list, and he’d won a full, free ride. So Joe could get a top-shelf private school education in Brooklyn. Alicia and her husband Tim, 36, had turned their lives upside down, uprooting from their Manhattan apartment of fifteen years. Alicia had no regrets, only insecurities about the bumpy transition to the outer borough. All of them were still getting used to the change—including Tim.
“I’m cool with it,” said Alicia. “It’s not like the other scholarship moms were having a party and I had to make a choice.”
“If the other black moms were getting together,” said Carla, obviously relieved to have the black elephant in the room acknowledged, “they didn’t invite me.”
“I’d be in a club of one,” said Robin. “Of all the Jewish families at Brownstone—and there aren’t as many as you might think—I’m the only single parent. Then again, I can—and do—party by myself and always enjoy the company.”
“So, then,” said Bess, her blue eyes flashing. “Shall I shuffle? How about we play it like this: We go around the table. Whoever deals the cards shares a little something about herself. After a showdown, the winner of the hand gets to ask a follow-up question.”
“Showdown?” asked Carla.
“When we show our cards,” said Bess.
The deck well shuffled, Bess started dealing cards. Two face down to each player. She said, “Each player gets two cards down—the blinds. Then I deal five cards face up in the middle. The first three are called ‘the flop.’ The fourth is called ‘the turn.’ The last card is ‘the river.’ I didn’t make up these terms. They make no sense, and aren’t terribly exciting. But it is what it is.”
“Seven cards total,” said Alicia.
“Right,” continued Bess, dealing the face up cards in the middle. “The objective is to make the best five card hand out of the seven cards available to you. You’re supposed to bet before ‘the flop,’ again before ‘the turn,’ again before ‘the river,’ and once after. I remember Borden saying something about ‘burn and turn.’ Not sure how that comes into it.”
“Who cares?” said Robin. “We can play by our own rules.”
“Brooklyn Hold ‘Em,” said Alicia. “I’ve never been to Texas anyway.”
Bess said, “Not missing much.”
“I’d sooner go to Damascus that Dallas,” said Robin, peeking at the two cards Bess had dealt her face down. “Remind me. What beats what?”
Bess groped around under the table for a hidden pocket, “We have a laminated card somewhere. Here. Okay, it’s royal flush, straight flush, four of a kind . . .”
Carla said, “Slow down! I’m never going to remember that!”
“Meanwhile,” said Alicia, “what exactly is a straight flush?”
Robin asked, “Is it anything like a mercy flush?”
“That’s lovely,” said Bess.
Carla said, “Okay, I know which five cards I’m using. What now?”
“I dealt, so I’ll talk,” said Bess. “When I’m done, we showdown.”
Alicia looked at her cards. Even with Bess’s explanation, it was all pretty confusing. “Can I see that?” she asked, and Bess passed her the laminated what-beats-what guide.
“My mother,” said the host, “is Simone Gertrude.”
“I’d heard that,” said Robin, sipping her drink. “Grapevine.”
“The feminist?” asked Carla, impressed. “Burned a giant pile of pantyhose on the steps of the Capital building in the seventies, right?”
Alicia said, “I thought it was a giant pile of aprons.”
“She burned both,” said Bess. “If she hadn’t been an activist, she would’ve made an excellent arsonist.”
“Wow,” said Alicia, suddenly realizing she had a flush.
“Are you saying ‘wow’ about your hand, or because I have a famous mother?” asked Bess.
Alicia said, “My poker face isn’t fully functional yet.”
Bess said, “Ready to show?”
Her guests nodded.
Using a combination of the community cards and her “blinds,” Carla had two pairs—twos and tens. Alicia’s heart beat a little faster. So far, she was winning. Robin had three of a kind—eights. Not a threat. Alicia put down her flush, all clubs. Bess whistled low, and showed her pair of twos.
“I win!” said Alicia, an instant convert, madly in love with poker. “I beat all of you! With my winningest hand. Oh, yeah!”
Robin sipped her drink. “And you play it cool, too.”
Turning to Bess, Alicia said, “Now I get to ask a question.” The host nodded. “What does your feminist icon mother think of the fact that you’re a housewife?”
Carla whooped. “Hey, that was my question.”
Robin nodded in agreement. “Good one.”
Bess pursed her lips. “Exactly what you’d assume. Simone thinks I’m a bad role model for my daughter Amy. That I’m squandering my potential. That I’m throwing my life away.” Bess shared this recrimination without much emotion. Being called a waste of skin by your own mother would be devastating, she thought. Alicia’s mother had been a stay-at-homer, and she expressed nothing but pride in her daughter’s career in advertising, such as it was.
“I hope you told her to fuck off,” said Alicia. Seeing Carla flinch at her language, she added, “Sorry. I work with a bunch of guys.”
Robin asked, “What do you say to defend yourself?”
“Only one question per showdown,” said Bess. “If you want more of the story, you’ll have to beat me.”
Alicia took a second (third) close look at her beautiful, rich host. One shouldn’t judge a blond by her highlights. Bess might look like a pampered conservative, but she’d been raised by a risk-loving radical.
“Gimme those cards,” said Robin, gathering them up and starting to shuffle. She paused to finish her drink, check her watch (for the second time, Alicia noticed) and tip her empty glass to Bess.
The host jumped to replenish Robin’s glass, and top off the rest of their drinks. A lightweight, Alicia would be hammered if she finished a second drink. The others didn’t seem to feel the alcohol.
Robin started dealing. “Eleven years ago,” she said as the cards landed on the felt, “I weighed three hundred and forty-two pounds.”
“No,” said Bess. “You’re a toothpick.”
“Oh, yes,” said Robin. “I was enormous. I looked like the women on The Biggest Loser, only fatter.”
Alicia calculated the timing. The fourth-graders at Brownstone were nine-going-on-ten. Robin said “eleven years ago.” So she’d been heavy when her daughter was conceived? Alicia knew Robin was single. Scenarios sprang to mind. Turkey-baster? Chubby-chaser boyfriend? Chubby-chaser husband, who left when she dropped the weight? How had she shed over two hundred pounds?
“About fifteen questions are running through my head,” said Bess, echoing Alicia’s thoughts. “I’d better win this hand.”
Carla twirled the ice in her glass with her finger. Her face appeared completely calm. Maybe the twirl was her “tell”—the non-verbal give-away that betrayed her good hand. In Casino Royale, the villain stroked a throbbing vein on his temple. Alicia made a mental note to notice whenever Carla twirled her ice.
Alicia examined her blind cards, and then glanced at the five communal cards face-up on the felt.
She gasped when she saw she had three queens as well as a pair of sixes. Glancing at the cheat sheet, she realized she had a full house! One of the best possible hands. She couldn’t help smiling.
Robin said, “Don’t look now. Poker Face over there thinks she’s got another winner.” Alicia grinned. Bess smiled serenely. Carla twirled her ice.
“What happens if the dealer wins?” Robin asked. “Do I ask myself a question?”
Bess said, “Hmm. You get to ask any of us a question.”
Robin nodded. “Let’s show.”
The women lay down their hands in turn.
Bess said, “Pair of nines.”
Robin said, “Pair of Jacks.”
Alicia beamed and turned over her queens. “Full freaking house. Yeah, bay-bay!”
Carla, her finger by now numb from ice twirling, arranging her five card of choice in a row. She took the two sixes, and a king from the communal cards. And then turned over a pair of kings. “Higher full house,” she said. “My kings beat your queens.”
“Shit!” said Alicia. “Why do kings beat queens? If we’re making our own rules for Brooklyn Hold ‘Em, queens are hereby better than kings.”
Robin said, “I’ll drink to that.”
Carla nodded. “Fine, but I still win this hand. So my question, Robin: How on earth did you lose that much weight?” Carla herself was a plus-sized woman, probably a size eighteen. Fluffy, Alicia believed, was the latest euphemism.
Robin said, “Pregnancy. My ob/gyn said if I didn’t lose weight, with my blood pressure, I was at risk for preeclampsia. I could have a stroke, lose the baby. Nothing like the fear of sudden death for diet motivation. I’m the only person I know who lost fifty pounds while pregnant.”
“Incredible,” said Alicia.
“And then you just kept on dieting?” asked Carla.
Robin started to answer, but Bess stopped her. “Only one question per win,” reminded the host.
“But I want the whole story,” said Carla.
“This one question rule is a tease,” agreed Alicia. “It’s like foreplay.”
“Yes, but think how delicious it’ll be to get the full story after your curiosity has had a chance to build, get taut and coiled, and then—finally—shatter with relief and satisfaction?” asked Bess.
The four women paused for a second. Robin said, “I need a cigarette.”
Carla said, “I never thought of curiosity in those terms before.”
“Who deals?” asked Alicia, eager to get back to playing.
“I’ll go,” said Carla, sweeping up the cards with her broad hands, shuffling them expertly, making a bridge, cutting the deck with one hand. “I don’t let my boys watch TV during the week, so we end up playing a lot of gin,” she explained.
“That better not be your secret,” said Robin.
Carla laughed, that great booming thunder. “I’m getting there,” she said, starting to flick cards into four piles on the felt. “Today,” she said, turning over the community cards, “I saved the life of a six-year-old girl.”
“I’d heard you’re a pediatrician,” said Robin. “Grapevine.”
“At Long Island College Hospital, right?” asked Bess. “Right around the corner from here. I love living so close to a hospital. Makes me feel safe.”
“I’m not answering any questions,” said Carla imperiously, “until I see a winning hand.”
After a hasty bit of peeking and consulting the cheat sheet (Alicia noticed Carla hasn’t twirled her ice for this hand), they showed their combinations.
Robin said, “Nothing. Pair of twos.”
Alicia said, “Beat that. Two pair.” Aces and threes.
Bess said, “Sorry, sweetheart. Jack high flush.” All diamonds.
“Shit!” said Alicia.
Carla said, “Nothing. King high card.”
The host and winner of the hand turned to Carla. “I’ll have to ask the obvious. What happened?”
“I run the walk-in pediatric clinic,” Carla started, loosening her caftan as she talked. “A mom brought in her daughter. Low fever, abdominal pain and nausea. Her mama though it was a stomach bug, and kept saying she shouldn’t have bothered taking off from work to bring the girl in. I insisted on a sonogram—and my hunch was right. Her appendix was an hour from bursting. If I’d sent them home, they might not have made it back to the hospital in time.”
The three women listened, awed, by Carla’s story. She added, “Just another day. Feels strange—good strange—to talk about it. I don’t discuss work with my family. It’s home policy, like no TV. My husband Claude—he sells medical supplies—he’s too tired at the end of the day to listen. The boys are too young for stories about sick kids. I’d tell them about the happy endings, like today. But that’s just presenting one side. You have to talk about life and death. It’s both, or neither.”
“You can talk to us about both,” said Bess, smiling generously.
Carla nodded and shrugged non-committaly. She would say no more about either tonight.
A moment of stiff silence followed, until Alicia gathered the cards, shuffled, and dealt. The woman peeked at their blind cards. Robin sipped her drink and glanced at her watch. Bess tapped the table. Carla tightened her caftan.
Alicia, meanwhile, mentally scrambled for something to say. She was comfortable with the other women revealing themselves, but—even though it’d been her idea—she was reluctant to open up herself. Alicia had a big bag of personal issues: She was raising a socially stunted child. Her salary would never be enough to support her family. She was pissed off at her husband’s chronic unemployment and apparent lack of ambition. She was halfway in love with Finn, even though he treated her like a frat bro. She could confess her deep, bedrock belief that most people were capitol-L Living—having fun, making memories, adoring and being adored—while she was merely existing. Alicia glanced up, and realized the other women were waiting for her to speak.
Robin said, “Don’t think, Alicia. Just blurt. Thinking is way overrated.”
Alicia nodded, opened her mouth. No words came out.
Bess said, “Just a little something. Where you grew up. Start easy.”
“My husband Tim and I haven’t had sex in two years,” Alicia said, and then clasped her hand over her mouth.
“Now that’s what I call a blurt!” said Robin.
A male voice drifted down the stairs, “Honey?”
“It’s Borden,” said Bess.
Weirdly, Alicia had the impulse to hide, like she was in high school, about to be busted for smoking pot in the basement. All the women got edgy at the sound of a man’s intrusion. And what a man he turned out to be. Borden Steeple appeared on the stairs, first his shoes, long legs in creased gray trousers, then his slim fitting suit jacket across a broad chest, the red jewel-toned tie. Alicia couldn’t help gasping slightly when she saw his face. He was a stunner. The most handsome man Alicia’s ever seen in person. Dark eyes and thick nearly black hair. As he walked closer to the table, she saw the crow’s feet, which made his chiseled face just imperfect enough to be truly gorgeous. He gave Bess a kiss on the lips, left a hand on her shoulder, and then smiled around the table.
Borden said, “I seem to have interrupted an interesting conversation.”
The three other women immediately looked to Alicia, and started laughing. Alicia must have blushed fire engine red, because Borden said, “Are you all right? Can I get you a glass of water?”
“I’m fine,” croaked Alicia.
Borden said, “How long have you been down here? It’s nearly ten.”
Alicia was shocked to hear it. She’d arrived around seven. Three hours had gone by? Was it possible? Bess said, “Oops. I’d better put the kids to bed.”
“I’ll do it,” said Borden good-naturedly. “Carry on.”
And then he gave the players a rear view that nearly sucked the breath from Alicia’s lungs. If she got in bed with a man like that every night, she’d die of happiness. The thought alone of rubbing up against a specimen like Borden flooded Alicia’s panties. How bad was her sex life, that two minutes in the presence of a sexy man sent her reeling?
Carla coughed. “Your husband, Bess. He’s . . .”
“I know,” said the host, nodding. “We have a severe attractiveness discrepancy. You should see the reaction when we walk into parties. People can’t believe he’s with me.”
“That’s bull,” said Robin. “He’s a ten, you’re a nine and a half.”
Alicia considered herself a six. She was a shrimp, small-breasted, light brown hair, hazel eyes, nothing special about her face except she had a cute nose. Tim, too thin, starting to lose his hair, an angular nose, but deep blue eyes that she once took long, leisurely swims in, was a seven.
Robin said, “We should call it a night.”
Bess asked, “Can we do it again? And next time, we can talk committee business, too.”
Robin said, “We have to meet again.” Looking at Alicia, she added, “And we’re picking up where we left off. I, for one, would much rather talk about Alicia’s non-sex life than that scheduling lectures.”
Alicia grimaced, and wished she hadn’t blurted the shameful truth. Why had she done it? She didn’t know these women! And now, they knew the one thing about her she wouldn’t have told her best friend, if she had one.
“Next week? Same time?” asked Bess, all too eager to make firm plans. “Same place, or should we alternate hosting duties?”
Carla was a woman of a firm mind, and schedule. “Let’s make it two weeks. At my house.”
Once that was settled, the women pulled back their chairs and carried their glasses to the bar sink.
“My car is parked in the hospital lot,” said Carla. “Does anyone need a ride?”
Alicia accepted, once they’d established that her apartment in Red Hook was wasn’t too far out of the way to Carla’s house in Windsor Terrace, a Brooklyn neighborhood near Prospect Park. The idea of getting on a bus after a few glasses of wine made Alicia preemptively nauseated, and she didn’t want to spring for a taxi. Robin lived only a couple of blocks away. Brooklyn Heights was completely safe at ten o’clock for a woman walking alone, but Robin accepted Carla and Alicia’s offer to escort her to her building on Hicks Street.
Once they said their good-byes to Bess on her stoop, the three departing players headed for Robin’s building.
Robin lit a cigarette, and dished, “Bess’s ten percent cheerleader -- which is about nine percent more than I’m usually willing to stand. But I like her.”
Carla kept a tight lip. The doc was not a gossip, which Alicia liked. On the other hand, Robin’s brash honesty was alluring. “I like her, too,” said Alicia. “Considering her house, her money, her husband, I’m shocked I don’t hate her.”
They arrived at Robin’s building quickly. “Here I am,” she said.
“You live across the street from a fire station,” observed Alicia.
“Yup, hot firemen round the clock,” said Robin. “See you at drop-off.”
The two remaining women walked to the hospital parking lot a few blocks away. Not much talking. The silence was a bit strained. Alicia wondered if making a personal connection with Carla was only possible when they had cards in their hands. One part of the brain distracted by the game, the conscious mind relaxed its inhibitions. No cards in hand, the restrictions were back in place. They automatically reverted to Topics A and B—kids and jobs.
Carla asked, “You haven’t said what you do for work.”
“I’m a copywriter at a small ad agency,” said Alicia. They entered the fluorescent-lit lot.
“Anything I’d know?” asked Carla. “I don’t want much TV.”
Alicia wished her clients had TV ad money. Too embarrassed to explain that her days were mainly spend producing small-type copy for insurance company print ads, she said, “Nothing splashy. No beer ads or car commercials.”
“This is me,” said Carla, pushing a button on her fob, and unlocking the doors of her Ford wagon in a “Physician’s Only” reserved spot.
Buckled up, Carla steered the car out of the lot, and drove down Hicks Street to Atlantic Avenue to make a left and head into Red Hook.
“Is that Robin?” said Carla, pointing at a figure on the street.
Alicia peered through the windshield at the slim figure of a redheaded woman, dressed in a flowing skirt, as she ducked into Chip Shop, a pub on Atlantic Avenue. Through the storefront window, Alicia though she saw Robin greet a man at the bar before the car pulled too far away. Could Robin have pretended to go up to her apartment, and then turned around to go back out? To meet a man at ten o’clock on a school night? Was he a friend? Or (thrilling to imagine) a friend with benefits? Did single moms make booty calls? The very thought was exciting and terrifying to Alicia. So she dismissed it.
“Nah,” she said. “Had to be someone else.”