Arthur threw down The Wall Street Journal onto the tablecloth. After pushing his soft-boiled egg and toast to the center of the table, he tore off the bottom right corner of the paper containing the story that prompted his revulsion. Then he grabbed his cell phone and called Conrad. They agreed to meet for drinks.
Arthur sat at a table in the Oak Room Bar of the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street waiting patiently for his longtime friend. While at Harvard Law School, Arthur and Conrad shared an apartment in Sommerville. They were so close that Arthur passed up the opportunity to attend Yale Law School when Conrad was not accepted. Neither felt that Harvard was really an inferior choice, and they agreed it was really much closer to skiing in Vermont.
When Conrad entered the room and approached the table, Arthur stood up. The gesture, a quaint and dying custom, was exactly the kind of mannered behavior that neither Arthur or Conrad would ever abandon. They shook hands, even though they had just seen each other two days ago.
“This is one hell of a bad situation,” began Conrad. “How much did you lose?”
“A few hundred thousand.” Arthur shrugged his shoulders. “How about you?”
“About the same. What about Lisa? Did she give him any money?”
Arthur shook his head. “She doesn’t have that kind of money. Anyway, she just made partner at Kilgore and Delaney, and she’s paying for her partnership share.”
“You’ve spoken to her, of course.”
Arthur nodded. “I called her immediately; we’re meeting tomorrow. She must be in a state of shock, and I can’t say that I blame her. Dorsey seemed like a decent guy even if he had a hardscrabble background.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call going to the University of Pennsylvania hardscrabble, but I get your point.”
Arthur reached into the pocket of his suit jacket and removed the copy of the story he had ripped from the front page of the Journal. He had circled certain phrases in the article with his fountain pen. “Just look at the crap this guy Dorsey has engaged in. According to the investigative reporter who wrote story, ‘His scheme was as intricate as it was calculated, as corrupt as it was clever.’ This guy has serious character flaws. He’s been involved in this kind of conduct since before he became engaged to Lisa. She’s got to be devastated.”
Arthur signaled to the waiter for the usual two single malt scotches.
“You know Arthur, I’ve always been envious of your friendship with Lisa. I’ve never had a female friend with whom I’ve enjoyed such a close connection. I mean, without it being some kind of romantic relationship. I have two sisters, and I’m not as close to either of them as you seem to be with Lisa.”
“We were moot court partners. They say that’s how Hillary met Bill. You may recall, Lisa and I wrote the winning brief and placed first in the national competition, right across the street at the New York Bar Association. Having that kind of success draws people together. She’s definitely a brilliant woman.”
The waiter brought the drinks and carefully placed them on white cocktail napkins. The two men clinked their glasses with barely a touch, and each took a sip.
Conrad twirled the ice cubes in his glass with his index finger. “I’ve never really asked you this, but I’ve always wondered whether you were reluctant to become romantically involved with Lisa because of your parents. You know, their possible disapproval.”
Arthur frowned. “What a terrible thing to say.”
“About your parents?”
“No. About me. I’ll admit I wouldn’t want to do anything that would provoke my parents, but if I had the right kind of feelings for Lisa, I would’ve asked her to marry me long ago. We just don’t have that kind of connection. Never did. Besides, my parents pretend to be so damn liberal, they would act like they could care less that she’s not Caucasian.”
“You sure?” Conrad frowned at Artur while sipping his scotch.
“Actually, my mother is quite friendly with Lisa. I’m sure my parents would say what everyone says about her: She’s incredibly beautiful in being ethnically unidentifiable.”
“Ethnically unidentifiable? I always thought she was Asian, maybe Polynesian.”
Actually, Lisa was just as Arthur had described her. In being ethnically unidentifiable and uncommonly beautiful, she was the type of woman modern marketers would love to find as a model for an insurance ad. She could be matched with a male model of any color or race.
Arthur sipped his scotch. “I suppose she could be Asian, African-American, Caucasian and maybe Native American, for all I know. The only thing she told me is that she was abandoned by her mother shortly after she was born. Ethnicity? No one cares about those things anymore.”
Conrad quietly chuckled. “You’re wrong about that one. I would’ve asked her out in law school, but I was afraid I’d fall in love with her. My parents would crap their drawers if I came home with a multiracial fiancé.”
* * *
Arthur sat at his usual table in the dining room of the Harvard Club, located on the same block of 44th Street as the Algonquin Hotel. He carried two white linen handkerchiefs in his hip pocket, both available for deployment once Lisa began expressing her feelings about the fate of her fiancé. He arrived early to sit and think about what he would say about Darcy.
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Lisa arrived on time, and before Arthur could stand up, she nimbly pulled back the chair from across the table and started to sit.
Arthur couldn’t help but notice that her face seemed as bright as usual. Her wavy hair had been styled perfectly, and she wore a flowered dress uncharacteristic of the type she typically wore to Kilgore and Delaney.
Lisa smiled warmly as she gracefully descended into her chair. Then, suddenly, her countenance became serious as she began an excited monologue. “Arthur, I am dreadfully sorry I introduced you to Dorsey. I know you invested a lot of money in his fund. I just feel terrible, particularly because I was developing some doubts about him, and I didn’t warn you. It would be devastating if this affected our friendship in any way. I should’ve said something, but I wasn’t sure. I hope you can forgive me. Whatever you invested with Dorsey, I will pay you back over time. Please let me make this right.”
Arthur sat back in his chair. “Lisa, I never invested any money in Dorsey’s fund I couldn’t afford to lose.” He then leaned forward and folded his hands on the table. “Actually, I thought you would be in tears about, well, a betrayal by Dorsey. Truthfully, I haven’t been thinking about my financial loss, only about how hurt you must be.”
Lisa blushed ever so slightly. “To be honest, Arthur, I’m relieved. While I’m sad that a man I trusted turned out to be a scoundrel, I began losing feelings for him a while ago. I had hints that he wasn’t the man of integrity I thought he was. I caught him in several lies. Nothing of any real consequence, but he just couldn’t keep track of what he said. Truth was just not his strong suit.”
“Certainly, you must have found him attractive. A few misstatements of facts can’t destroy a relationship. You know, it’s quite possible he’s innocent of the charges against him.” Actually, in Arthur’s legally trained mind, the possibility of an innocent mistake seemed to be totally incongruous with the intricacy of Dorsey’s scheme.
Lisa’s lips grew thin. “It doesn’t really matter. I’ve fallen out of love with him, and it was just a matter of time until I ended the engagement. He just didn’t have the moral strength and integrity of a man like you. And I never developed a true sense of connection. I’ve always wanted a husband who was also a friend.”
Arthur leaned even more forward on the table. “Even so, it would only be normal to grieve the ending of relationship, particularly one that involved plans to marry.”
“I’ve been grieving for over a month while I sorted out my precise feelings. The news of Dorsey’s indictment has been merely a confirmation of my total disenchantment. Believe me, it’s a blessing.” Lisa picked up the table napkin and threw it on her lap with unusual determination.
Arthur jumped back slightly in his chair. “Well, I guess that’s the end of it.”
“All except my testimony before the grand jury. I received the subpoena this morning. I really don’t know anything about his securities fraud, but I’ll be glad to tell those people that Dorsey’s engaging personality is nothing but a sham.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows and slightly shook his head. “Lisa, why didn’t you tell me about this. You could’ve told me the relationship was falling apart. There’s never been any secrets between us before.”
Lisa looked down into her lap. “Well, Arthur, it’s a matter of loyalty. You’re a friend. Actually, you’re my best friend. But he was my lover.”
Momentarily, Arthur felt a sharp stabbing sensation in his chest. When he recovered, he reminded Lisa that she was invited to join him for dinner at his parents’ home.
* * *
After dinner, Arthur accompanied Lisa down the elevator to the front door of his parents’ Park Avenue building, where he hailed a cab for her. The dinner had been quite pleasant with little mention of Dorsey, his indictment, his unforgivable behavior, and the end of Lisa’s engagement. In fact, Lisa had been her delightful, cheerful self. Perhaps unremarkably, no mention was made of the possibility that Dorsey might be innocent of the charges leveled against him. Arrest was scandal enough.
After Lisa left, Arthur returned to the twelfth floor of the building to spend some time with his parents. Catherine and Ernest married four years after they met at Catherine’s cotillion. Ernest was not exactly a self-made man, but he took pride in the fact that he more than doubled the substantial fortune he inherited, “even accounting for inflation,” as Ernest would often point out. He expected his only son, Arthur, to demonstrate the same kind industriousness, and Arthur was off to a good start.
Settling into his favorite chair in his parents’ living room, Arthur remarked, “What do you make of Lisa? She seems to be, well, unbothered by Dorsey’s barbaric behavior.”
Catherine sipped coffee spiked with bourbon from a porcelain teacup. “Arthur, can’t you see? She’s been over him for a long time. In truth, I don’t think she ever really fell in love with him. You know, she’s been telling me about her doubts for at least a couple of months.”
Arthur blanched. “What the hell, Mom? She’s been talking to you about this? She hasn’t mentioned a word to me.”
Catherine’s chin folded backward toward her chest and her lips pursed. Then straightening her neck, she said, “You know she always talks to me. She’s talked to me since you knew her in law school, ever since you asked me, I repeat, you asked me, to introduce her to New York society. We’re women. We talk.”
“What did she say?”
Ernest looked up from The Wall Street Journal, and after taking a sip of his single malt scotch, turned to his wife. “You’ve piqued my interest. What’s she been telling you? You haven’t shared it with me.”
Catherine looked at Ernest, then at Arthur. “For God’s sake, you’re men.” She took a healthy swallow of her coffee and bourbon. Actually, it was more bourbon than coffee.
Arthur stood up and walked to the alcove bar in the living room. He poured himself half a glass of Glenlivet. Still standing, he turned to his mother. “Okay, I know you think of Lisa as the daughter you never had, which is been quite generous of you, seeing that the only minorities you know work as domestic help. But this has become a matter of some gravity. I need to know how to behave around Lisa. I think this is the first time she’s ever withheld personal information from me.”
“Listen to me, Arthur. I have lots of friends who are minorities. I sit on boards of several nonprofits with many of them. Mostly African-Americans. You just haven’t paid much attention to what I do during the day because you’re so eager to please your father by working ungodly hours at your firm.”
Arthur raised his voice a few decibels. “Mother, I’m sure you’re the model of the progressive, modern woman. But, frankly, at the moment, I don’t give a damn about your enlightened attitudes. You just need to tell me what Lisa’s been saying. I just can’t understand why she hasn’t been sharing these feelings with me.”
Catherine’s lips formed a rare smile. “There’s a reason why she hasn’t said anything to you. This is the first time she thought she might be in love. As it turns out, she wasn’t. And thank God she wasn’t, because this lowlife Dorsey can’t even live up to the minimal standards dictated by a third-rate school like the University of Pennsylvania.”
“And why can’t she share those feelings with me?” Arthur’s cheeks flushed Harvard crimson.
“If I were anyone other than your mother, I would tell you. But because I’m your mother, I’ll let you learn to navigate these things on your own. You’re a grown man. Figure it out.”
Without looking up from his newspaper, Ernest stated in a monotone, “What your mother’s trying to tell you is that you’re obtuse. Lisa’s in love with you.”
Arthur choked on his scotch. “How do you know?”
“Well, I really don’t know Lisa. But I know your mother.”
* * *
The jolt of his mother’s insight reverberated in Arthur’s psyche to the point that he actually doubted that he had understood her correctly. He called her first thing the next morning and determined that, yes, she was quite certain Lisa’s feelings for him were intense and enduring. Of course, the possibility existed that Catherine had miscalculated whatever evidence she may have considered, but Arthur knew his mother’s assessments of people were rarely wrong. After the shock of the insight passed, the more difficult matter became what Arthur would do about this totally unanticipated development. Ultimately, he determined it was imperative to speak with Conrad.
“I can’t just tell Lisa what my mother thinks,” declared Arthur sitting across from Conrad at their usual table at the Harvard Club. “I mean I can’t just face her like I’m doing with you right now and tell her my mother believes she loves me.”
“Because that’s just not the way you treat a friend. It would be rude. Well, at least, inconsiderate. I can’t just put her in that kind of embarrassing situation.” Arthur sipped his coffee and looked searchingly at Conrad.
Conrad nodded. “I do understand. But you can’t just let her wallow in these feelings without telling her that you don’t feel the same way. You have to find a way to gently let her down. Of course, it’s possible that your mother is all wrong, and if you start the conversation in the wrong way, it could be more than uncomfortable for both of you.”
Arthur leaned back in his chair. “This is a real mess. Conrad, what would you do in a situation?”
“I haven’t a clue. As I told you, I’ve never had a female friend, at least not one as close to me as you are with Lisa. I have no idea how you can have this marvelous friendship while at the same time denying any romantic feelings. How in the hell does this really work for the both of you? Why haven’t you just let yourself fall in love with her? She’d be a much better match than any of these six-month-women I see you with.”
Arthur interlaced his fingers and leaned forward on the table. “You think I haven’t thought about this? I ask myself the same question all the time. I’ve told myself there are undoubtedly several reasons. First of all, despite what my mother may believe, she might reject me, and that would be the rejection of all rejections. Completely intolerable. Second, if we were to become lovers, I would be exposed to all of her petty flaws and foibles. Right now, she represents the exemplar of all a woman can possibly be, and it’s one of the few ideals I have to hold onto in this world. And finally, I cherish the friendship. It provides me with more rewards than a romantic relationship ever could. I simply refuse to risk shattering it.”
Conrad shook his head slowly. “Arthur, you’re a bigger fool than I ever imagined. This is one situation where your fine breeding is doing you no favors.”
* * *
Riding in a cab on his way home from work, Arthur received a text message from Lisa: “Spoke with your mother. Apparently, she believes I’m in love with you. Could you come to my apartment this evening at eight to discuss.” Momentarily, Arthur felt relieved. He didn’t have to broach the subject with Lisa. But he did have to face her.
When Arthur arrived at Lisa’s apartment on the Upper East Side, he found his usual scotch waiting for him on the cocktail table in front of the couch. He sat down and took a healthy swallow. Before the silence became awkward, he looked at her directly and asked, “My mother’s assessment? Is it true?”
She sipped the vodka martini she had prepared for herself. “Of course not. I’m certain you would’ve sensed it if it were the case.”
Arthur sighed deeply. “No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have allowed myself to even consider it. You could have given me every hint, every signal, and I would have ignored all of it.”
“Well, it all really doesn’t matter in light of what I’m about to tell you.” Lisa sipped her martini then looked down into the glass. “I’ve given this some thought. Actually, a great deal of thought.” After painful pause, she looked up. “I feel completely awkward being around you, Arthur. Now that your mother told you I love you, I’m certain you’ll scrutinize everything I say, everything I do. If I should touch you, if just to hold your hand momentarily, it will be misinterpreted. I can’t deal with it. I need our friendship to end. I’m sorry.”
Arthur felt slightly lightheaded. “You’re not serious.”
Arthur knew not to protest, even though the thought of ending his friendship with Lisa was devastating. Arguing would only make her feel more uncomfortable, and he was too much of gentleman to allow it. If she were to reconsider, it would take time, and it would not be the result of any polemics on his part. Too wounded to make a theatrical exit, Arthur nodded, stood up and unceremoniously left.
* * *
Months passed, and Arthur did not hear from Lisa. On several occasions, he resisted the impulse to call her, because doing so, would disrespect her wishes. Then, on a Wednesday evening while he was sitting at the bar at the Harvard Club trying to enjoy a lonely scotch, Lisa walked in and sat on the stool beside him. At first, he felt he might be imagining her presence because he really did not look at her. It was more a matter of sensing it was her. When he turned to actually look at her profile, tears welled in his eyes.
Lisa turned to him and smiled demurely. “Hello, Arthur. Have I been gone long enough?”
Instantly realizing that Lisa was not only the loveliest woman he had ever known, but the cleverest as well, Arthur reponded, “Will you marry me?”
“Of course, my love.”
Glen Weissenberger’s fiction has appeared in SLAB, Boston University Law Review, the Broadkill Review and is forthcoming in Evening Street Review. He is also the author of the novels Made to Measure Man and Companions by Contract, as well as the nonfiction work Reel Magicians, which explores the art and science of magic in film. Weissenberger is a Harvard Law School graduate, and has distinguished himself as a trial lawyer, a law professor, a legal scholar and a law school dean. He currently resides in Illinois.