New York in Winter

New York in Winter

Thursday, December 22, 2016

THE HOUSESITTER

THE HOUSESITTER
By Terence Hughes

Jett Blanchard Manoogian was forty, long divorced, endowed with a refined beauty and a good family lineage. It permitted her to receive the trust of the genteel rich and dwell in their houses while they wintered in Delray and summered in Tuscany. Among a certain set in the “opulent but provincial” city, as a travel magazine had once characterized it, Jett was always welcome. She was, of course, well mannered and agreeable.
            Except for the shotgun marriage to the Armenian who gave her a son, now away at college, Jett had always been discreet. Her affairs had been approximately the right number for a charming woman who’d been single seventeen years. She had believed she was in love with a few of the men, and could throw herself into the relationship with something close to passion.
Friends admired her knack of picking up the best-looking, most interesting man around. Her son Aram viewed all this with composure, secure that his mother wouldn’t fuck up his life – or hers -- too much. He saw the arrival and departure of James the piano tuner (a housesitting meet), Peter the artist, Martin the Christology professor, Jean-Pierre the restaurant owner, Evan the stockbroker, and Gerald the venture capitalist. She was always discreet. Aram usually liked them.
The only affair that had involved a member of the set was Hobart, a trust lawyer whose wife, Breda, had inherited ten million or so from her parents. Hobart’s investment acuity had helped her grow it to a considerable fortune. They lived on the best block in the best street of the city. Breda was childless and tended to indulge her moderately good-looking husband.
            Jett let herself fall in love. For a year she was consumed by her passion for him and begged him to leave Breda. But as a man with great financial acuity he wasn’t going to do any such thing. With equal parts of anger and hurt, she had terminated the affair three years earlier, pleading the headache of a new beau, a handsome Argentine antiques dealer with an Italian name. She had at that point merely flirted with Paolo, but she felt betrayal was the only way to end it with Hobart. It would be his turn for anger and hurt. The affair with Paolo was short but gratifying, considering.
Even now, at every social gathering, there Hobart was, eyeing her with a wounded expression, speaking to her in charged idiocies. Breda kept her eye on them, smiling benignly. Jett noted that Hobart and Breda never hired her to sit in their house for their many travels.
            At one recent party Hobart said in a loud voice, “Jett, I just need you to come and sign some papers concerning your parents’ estate.” She had a small inheritance which she husbanded carefully: she wasn’t going to get much in Social Security or earn much housesitting, just enough for food, clothes, and running her little car. Aram was provided for by his father. She lived penuriously in houses of wealth.
Reluctantly she followed Hobart into his library. He closed the door gently and grabbed her, pawing and pressing her hard, undoing her chignon.
            “What a shitty trick.” She pulled away and fixed her lipstick and hair in the mirror above the fireplace. Her hands trembled and her hair didn’t look quite right. “How many times do I have to tell you.”
            “That spic’s out of the picture.”
            “You’re not in it.”
            “Who is in it now? Juan the gardener? The butcher at Safeway?”
            “Fuck you.”
            She went out of the room, closing the door a little too hard. Betts Chase and Debbie Holdritch were standing nearby, as close as they could, pretending to a serious conversation over their cocktails. They were brittle, over-madeup women of the type Jett despised. “Why, Julia Jett Blanchard,” Betts exclaimed, “you sign legal papers faster than any woman in the world.”
            Breda swept in and took her arm. “Come on, Jett, let’s get you a drink and, y’all, be nice.”
            Jett murmured, “Thank you, Breda.” She got a drink and started talking with a visiting Scottish antiquarian who wore a kilt.
            Breda, smiling, patted her on the shoulder. She went back to the library and shut the door softly.

            She was housesitting for the Foleys. They were wintering in Barbados. Theirs was grand house by the river and there was the constant rush of water in the air as the river tumbled over the rocks. Jett loved the sound, which she heard from her room. She lived in two rooms, the maid’s and the den, though she worked in the entire house every day, dusting and vacuuming to stay occupied. Her aim was always to have the house appear exactly as it had been when the owners went away. Better, if truth be told.
In the first days of January Jett was feeling blue. The weather didn’t help. It was damp and chilly, and the sun had disappeared for over a week. She was huddled under a cashmere throw watching an Irene Dunne movie. She had dozed off when the doorbell rang.
            It was Hobart, surging in from the dark. He made for the liquor cabinet. He smelled like whiskey. “Doesn’t Lloyd have anything decent in here?” He was unsteady and slopped cheap Scotch on the light rug.
            “What the hell are you doing?” She was thinking how hard it would be to clean the stain. “I didn’t ask you to come here. Get it through your head. It’s been over for over three years, Hobart. I’m over you.” Then she surprised herself:  “It’s time I got a husband of my own. I’m sick of Breda’s leftovers.”
            “What?” Hobart looked as if he’d been punched in the gut. “You call me leftovers?” He threw down the glass, by now empty, and went for her. “You’ve been around way too much to pull that shit with me, you whore.”
            Jett hurled the TV remote at him. It hit him square on the nose, and she let out a bark of laughter -- his expression was priceless. His nose began bleeding. He was incredulous and stood there staring at the blood as it dripped on the rug. “You’ll be sorry. They’ll drum you out of town, Jett. I have enough on you – “ He stopped and looked almost pitiful. “How many since him? The spic.”
            Jett couldn’t restrain her anger. “You’re risking a lot yourself, you asshole. Two can play that game. So fuck off and get out of here.”
            The phone rang and she went to the desk. It was Kendra Foley, sounding stressed. “Julia, dear, we’ll be home in a couple of hours. We’re hiring a plane from Dulles. Lloyd’s father died this morning. We’ve been in a whirlwind. I’m sorry for the short notice, sweetie, but – “
            Jett made sympathetic noises. She hung up.
            “What’s going on?” Hobart was on the sofa, taking judicious sips from a bigger glass.
            “Matt Foley died. They’ll be here soon. You better get out.”
            “I’ll help you clean up.”
            “Get out.”
            He got out, quick in the face of discovery and death.

            Jett waited weeks for Hobart to drop a bomb. No bomb dropped. She relaxed and began the hunt for a man of her own. She was serious this time. No inconclusive affair, no coy suspense, but resolution and a steady hand. Right to the goalpost. She had it figured out. Her criteria for the ideal husband: about 45, moderately good-looking, net worth of about $5 million – no no, more – a beautiful house, no children, a dead wife, and he liked to winter in places like Barbados and Chamonix. She let her change of heart be known to a few of her intimates, saying piteously, “I am so afraid for my old age. And so tired of living on the leftovers of the party. I have so little!” The friends smiled at the leftovers remark. They all assured her they would be on the lookout. They swore there were a thousand men in town who fit her criteria. Jett wondered where they were all hiding; she hadn’t seen any single straight ones.
            Beyond the checklist, she was unsure what to ask for in a man. Passion? Devotion? Obedience? Freedom? She told herself she didn’t care as long as things looked respectable and reasonably tranquil. She doubted love could enter into it.
After a couple of nowhere fix-ups, Buzz and Sally Owens invited her to a dinner party on a cold night late in February. She was seated next to Wade Maddox, a businessman who would not normally have expected to be asked to the Owens’. He was large and rather coarse. He made sounds when he drank his bourbon. He spoke in a loud voice that had the other guests constantly turning to see what the commotion was.
            Jett knew that he was single and had never been married. He was in his late fifties, tall, somewhat portly. He was not even moderately good-looking.
He assumed courtly manners for her. He held her chair out. She murmured thanks and he boomed, “It’s an honor.” Jett waited for some expression of irony or humor but it didn’t come. She looked for Sally Owens, who returned a bright smile.
            It took some digging but Jett managed to engage Wade in an almost interesting conversation about the insurance agencies he owned all over the state. He said he owned other chains of things, had a talent for managing them. “All kind of things, Miz Jett, beauty parlors, funeral parlors, charter schools, you name it.” He liked to tell people, “Business is my wife”. He told her, “I got my fingers in a lotta pies.” She smiled, amused by the comment. She hoped the smile was encouraging.
He had many other business interests, so those of high standing had to admit him to their ranks on a part-time basis. His money was sufficient to wash away some of the stains of low origins in southwest Virginia. He was an Episcopalian now.
Wade spoke with the exaggerated drawl of Tidewater with its swallowed syllables. He had assumed the attitudes of a perfect Tidewater gentleman, which were in fact the same as in southwest Virginia. He was, for example, against taxes, socialism, and Obama. He was for the military’s adventures and lamented America’s lack of commitment in Syria. He believed emphatically that America indeed must be made great again. He expressed disgust for the Mexicans who were pouring into town, going so far as to proclaim his solidarity with “our poor nigrahs”.
All of these stances were entirely expected. Jett made no objection and appeared to accept his words as gospel.
“Tell me about you, honey,” he said. “It’s been all about me, and for that I do apologize.”
Jett was sure he knew enough about her to have placed her in the appropriate category of divorcees. She grew animated but not too, describing her carefree life of minding friends’ houses. “And of course you know the Foleys – Kendra was a dear friend in school, in fact so many of my oldest friends are still here in town. They’ve made successful marriages, lucky them!” She smiled ruefully. He gave her a keen look.
“Is Jett your real first name?”
“How perceptive of you,” she laughed. “It’s a family name. I was baptized Julia -- after my grandmother. The people who knew me when we were kids still call me that.”
Wade bowed his big head. “Both names are loveleh. They suit you.”
It went on in this way all through dinner. They got as far as exchanging movie preferences, entirely gender specific in each case, although Jett confessed a shared weakness for Vin Diesel films. It was Wade’s turn to be amused.
Jett struggled to stay awake after two hours with the man. Still, when Wade offered to drive her home she said yes, and as she waited for him to bring the car around, Sally came up to her and gave her a hug, exclaiming, “Julia, I’m so happy you could be with us this evening!” She whispered, “How’d it go?”
“Thank you, Sally, I think it went well.”
Still whispering, Sally said, “I know for a fact that he’s finally ready to settle down. No more catting around.”
Jett smiled. “Not that it would bother me.”
Wade appeared in his Mercedes and gave two pips on the horn. He waved at Sally.
They drove to the McCormicks’ house, which was twenty minutes away, making still more small talk. “They’re very nice, Wade. Do you know them?”
“Who?”
“The McCormicks.”
“I seen em around town, but no.”
“They go to Lauderdale every winter. I hear they have a lovely place on a canal. And a huge yacht.”
“You been on it?”
“No, of course not. I’m the housesitter.”
Wade simpered, “Why have a place on a canal and not have a yacht?” His parody of upper-class speech was funny but inaccurate. “They should invite you. It’d class up their old tugboat.” In the McCormicks’ drive they sat a minute. “Can I come in for a nightcap?”
Jett said, “No, please.” A yawn escaped her. His face clouded over. “I’m so sorry. I was up very early cleaning the house. I’m not used to so much wine, either.”
“I’d like to see you again,” he said emphatically. “Next week, like Wednesday or Thursday.”
They exchanged cell phone numbers. “I’ll text you when I’m available.”
“Call me instead. I like your voice.” He moved to kiss her. Jett shied away and said, “Whoa, big boy, not on the first meeting. Or the first date either. All in due time.”
She ran lightly up the steps. She turned and waved. As a seeming afterthought, she blew him a kiss. He gave three pips of the horn.
Jett’s feelings were mixed if not precisely confused. She’d decide something after the first real date. He was a bore but his appreciation of her appeared genuine enough. He was on the verge of ugly but his net worth was rumored at $15 million.
Sally Owens pestered her with texts and calls until Jett phoned to say that she and Wade were going out to dinner on Friday.
“Julia, strike while the iron is hot! Why did you put him off an entire week?”
“Oh, Sally, why do you think? I texted him and told him I was only free on Friday. He answered in ten seconds, ‘Where would you like to go?”
“Don’t play too hard to get. There’s plenty of honey out there.”
“I know exactly how to play it.” She thought of how she had hooked Hobart. Of course, she was in love with him.

Jett and Wade married two months later in a private dining room of the poshest hotel in the city. A JP performed the ceremony. Her dear old friends had returned after their winter in warmer climes. They cried, “You look gorgeous, Julia! Doesn’t she, Wade?”
“Beautiful, beautiful.” Wade had paid for her Vera Wang gown. To everyone’s surprise he was moved almost to tears. Her kissed her hand and led her to the table. They consumed a meal with too many courses, and drank too much non-vintage Champagne, Veuve Clicquot. The second he finished dessert, Wade scooped Jett up in his arms and carried her off to the suite he had reserved for the weekend.
Her guests were killing the last bottles of Champagne and eating fruit and cheese. They were astonished.
“I wonder what the people in the elevator thought of that,” Kendra remarked.
Betts Chase stood up, pulling her husband to his uncertain feet. “Ugh! A bigger, grosser Rhett Butler!”
“Oh, hush up, Betts,” Vickie McCormick said. “Let him have his moment. Our Julia will soon have him in rein.”
“She’ll dig her spurs in him so’s he’ll bleed,” Debbie Holdritch laughed.
Hobart glowered at them and muttered to Breda, “It’s well past time to go home.” Breda seemed more relaxed than she had in some time. She wanted to stay and dish some dirt. “I’m having such a nice time!” she exclaimed. It wasn’t right, of course, but they all were feeling good on bad Champagne, so they stayed another twenty minutes, the women dishing more dirt while their husbands crowded the open bar.
“One more for the long lonesome road,” the men grumbled, looking back at their wives.

The honeymoon period lasted a good couple of months. Tight-fisted Wade showered her with presents: a mink coat, a trip to New York to buy clothes and see “Hamilton”, a week in Aruba, a new red BMW 3-class, very sporty. He gave her leave to redecorate his big, unlovely house, as long as she didn’t spend more than $100,000. Jett loved it, and for it, loved him, sincerely. They were as happy as they had any right to be, even in bed a few times. Wade was old and unimpressive physically, but he was attentive enough. He beamed with pride to have her on his arm at a franchisee event.
Aram came home from his freshman year at college. He hadn’t known what to expect from the stepfather. The boy looked at his mother incredulously. “Not a word,” she admonished. “He’s very generous.” It was the wrong thing to say. “I’m very happy for you, Mom.” He didn’t speak to her for two weeks. He became unusually preoccupied with his summer job as a waiter.
By September Wade was immersed in business again, never home, “makin’ up for lost time,” he told her. “I took my eye off the fuckin’ ball.” He glared at her. “The goddamn trailer parks are about to go into receivership. Can you believe that fuckin’ shit? My accountants are fuckin’ crooks and idiots. They goin’ down!” He owned a chain of parks all over the state. Jett hadn’t ever thought about trailer parks beyond shivering when she passed one. 
During their efficient courtship and the first months of marriage, Jett got used to Wade’s attention. It petered out like a tap in a drought. “The party’s over,” Betts said one day when they met at the fashion mall. “I can tell.” She was giving Jett a good hard look. “Why don’t we do lunch. We can talk it out.” She was ablaze with concern.
“No, thanks anyway.” Jett laughed it off. “I’m just having a bad day. Feeling bloated, et cetera.”
Betts went Hm and said, “Okay. Another time then. Happy Thanksgiving.” She took Jett’s hand and held it in hers. “Be careful is all I can say.”

“Wade? Do you love me?”
They were in bed. She was reading on her Kindle, a coroner murder mystery. He was engrossed in legal correspondence. He took off his glasses and stared at her. “What?”
“Do you love me.” She put the Kindle down. She searched his round face for clues.
“You never told me you did. You know that?”
She shook her head.
“Yeah, of course, babe.”
He picked up the papers and started scrawling notes on them, cursing under his breath. After a while he said, “I’m goin’ in the other room so’s you can get to sleep.” He took up the legal work and shut the light.
Jett lay in the darkness. She began to see him in a new light. It occurred to her that she was his version of costume jewelry, to be put on and off without ceremony. The understanding cleared her head. In a few minutes she heard the front door close and his car start.

Jett bumped into Betts and Debbie at Starbucks one afternoon. She couldn’t get out of sitting with them. They dove right into gossip. They huddled over their cappuccinos, and Debbie almost whispered. “Hobart’s got a new one.” Jett’s heart skipped.
Betts went, “No! Who is she?”
“I don’t know. Yet. But I hear she’s someone we all know very well.”
Betts and Debbie smirked at each other while Jett shifted in her chair. “Hey, don’t look at me!” she cried.
Debbie laughed and put her hand on Jett’s. “Oh don’t I know that, honey!”
Betts declared, “Frankly, I’m shocked. Hobart just doesn’t seem the type to – “
“That prick. Poor Breda!” Jett exclaimed. Her friends laughed in agreement. Jett excused herself and tried not to run to her car.
She went home and sat, miserable, by the fire in the family room. The Christmas decorations and the ten-foot tree glimmered in the firelight. Her cocoa had no taste as she tried to read. She cleaned the bathrooms, beat herself at Scrabble, and watched “Waterloo Bridge” with Greer Garson. She made a turkey sandwich for supper. She was particularly attentive to Wade when he came home at 9:35. He said he was pooped and went right to bed.

The next day she was strolling along the section of DeForrest Avenue nicknamed Antiques Row. She hated Wade’s thrift-store Victorian taste and was gradually furnishing the house in the regulation Chippendale. She paused to look at a sumptuous leather sofa in the window of Dazio’s. She started when she peered inside and saw Paolo peering back. Dazio’s – of course, she had forgotten it was his store. He waved her inside.
They complimented each other on their state of preservation – “You haven’t changed at all!” She marveled at their never seeing each other around town. “Why don’t you ever come up here?” he asked. “I’d love to see you from time to time!”
Jett noticed that his English had improved markedly, and it had a distinctly British cast, which went over well in their Anglophile city. “My mother was in hospital. When I got to the car park. Everything would be right as rain.” With a David Nivenish pronunciation. She thought it was ridiculous but a smart business move.
After ten minutes of re-establishing links, Jett got to work. “Listen, Paolo – or do you call yourself Paul now – “ with a rounded British vowel – “I’d love to have lunch with you soon.”
Paolo smiled at her light sarcasm. “Sorry, old girl, but the working day is always hard for me. I’m constantly on the phone with Paris, London, BA. What about drinks after work?”
So she wasn’t worth spending money on lunch. But he was ready for a quickie somewhere. “I’d like that.”
“Are you sure your new hubby won’t mind?” he asked in a humorous way.
“I don’t think so.” She smiled looking down at the Bokhara.
“I’m frightfully devastating, you know.”
Jett laughed. “Oh, Wade is always busy – he has a ton of businesses to run. I’m sure he’d be pleased to know I’m keeping myself amused.” Paolo’s eyebrow went up.
“Splendid.”
They fixed a time for next Monday, five o’clock sharp. She made a point of emphasizing sharp because Paolo was a typical Latin. They would meet in the bar of the best hotel in town – where she was married – and it would be above board and good-humored. They would greet friends heartily and ask them to sit a while.
To her surprise, he had arrived before her. They ordered dirty martinis and lingered long over them. No friend made an appearance. It flattered her to see Paolo’s eagerness to rekindle the affair. He rhapsodized her beauty. He compared her to Catherine DeNeuve in Belle de Jour. She had never seen it – didn’t know what it was – but gave him a broad smile. She returned the favor, telling him that he was the handsomest man she’d ever had the privilege to fuck. He, too, smiled with pleasure but was taken aback. “You are very forthright. When did that happen?”
“Since I got married and learned to ask for what I really wanted.”
Paolo ordered a second drink. Jett drank it quickly. They were quiet as Paolo nursed his drink, looking content. She felt a weight settle on her. Weariness, the kind that masked dread. She glanced at the avid Paolo. She studied her empty glass.
“Darling, shall we…?” His eyes looked upward as he foresaw a room in the hotel, the two of them wrapped around each other like old times. She was looking around as if for an old friend to rescue her. “Jett?”
“Paolo, I’m sorry.“ Jett stood.
He looked bewildered. “What’s wrong? Did I say something?”
“No, Paolo,” Jett said. “It’s me, not you.” She smiled, regretting the cliché, but she was eager to leave. She wanted nothing more than to go to her own house and shut the door. Wanted to go home, light a fire, and wait for her husband to come home. She would watch The Enchanted Cottage while she waited.
Jett gave him a regretful look. She walked quickly away. At the revolving door she saw Paolo staring ahead in anger.
She stepped outside. The night was cold and crisp, and the constellations twinkled. A half moon was rising. She started toward the street where she had parked and took a deep breath. A sense of wellbeing surged in her.
Jett saw a big Mercedes come into the hotel drive and the valet run up to it. She turned to see Wade hustle out and beat the doorman in opening the passenger door for a woman. It was Breda, glamorous in a new mink. She glanced at Jett and, of course, smiled.