Joyland

New York |

The Zales Game

by Orli Van Mourik

edited by Emily Schultz

Julia was not a woman given to magical thinking, one of those Whitmanesque souls who saw God’s fingerprint on everything from Orion’s belt to the annual parade of autumn leaves. No, it was only on days like this that she felt her skepticism ebbing. It was December 21: four days before Christmas, one day before her 36th birthday and a mere six hours since her doctor had informed her that her chances of conceiving a child naturally hovered somewhere between zero and three percent. Add to this the fact that her best friend Sylvie had just arrived at her front door two hours early looking venomous and underfed and it was hard for Julia not to feel that she was the butt of some great cosmic joke.

Without so much as a “hello, how are you,” Sylvie ushered herself into the living room, scooped up the open gift box on the coffee table, and squealed, “Birthday goodies!”

Julia laughed weakly, kneading a sudden tightness in her left shoulder. Being two years younger than Sylvie, a woman acutely aware of the minutes separating her from forty, meant that Julia’s birthday was treated less like an occasion than a taunt. Julia reminded herself that this was the tax she paid for being the more settled of the two, with a husband, a two-bedroom co-op on the edges of Soho, and a store that made infrequent appearances in the Times’ Style Section. Julia knew that her friend didn’t really begrudge her any of these things. It was just that Sylvie had never quite reconciled herself to a universe that doled out such gifts to the ordinary (Julia) while forcing the truly special (Sylvie) to take bit roles on daytime soaps and go home alone to Herbie, the three-legged miniature pinscher. Julia usually managed to accept her punishment gracefully, but today all she wanted was to be left alone to swill prosecco and gorge herself on red velvet cake. She wanted nice roomy pajamas and something with Daniel Craig on Netflix.

As Sylvie propped her feet up and settled in, Julia noted just how thin she was, the result, no doubt, of one too many failed auditions in a row. With her exaggerated bone structure and newly platinum hair, Sylvie seemed more than ever like a refugee from an old Hitchcock film, Kim Novak deprived of refined carbs. Sylvie reached into the box and dredged up the gift: a shapeless, ankle-length skirt. “So completely Zales!” she snorted. “What do you think: like $35?”

Julia winced. She could no longer remember which one of them had invented the Zales game, but she now fervently wished it would end. It had started maybe six years ago, right after Rick gave Sylvie the ring. In retrospect, Julia could see that it had really been a perfectly good diamond: nearly a carat and set in a nest of white gold vines. A different sort of person would have been thrilled with it. Julia’s cousin Eleanor in Kansas City, for example—it would have suited her perfectly. It didn’t suit Sylvie in the slightest, and Julia had understood immediately on seeing it that her best friend’s engagement wouldn’t survive it.

Two weeks later the wedding was off. Sylvie had phoned Julia up almost immediately after it happened. “That thing had so many fillers it must have been from Zales!” she whispered, despite the dog being the only one in danger of overhearing. And before they knew it they were laughing hysterically.

It wasn’t the ring; the ring wasn’t funny. It was touching and poignant and, well— just completely wrong. The ultimate example of what Sylvie had once jokingly called Rick’s “Midwestern taint,” the part of him that still loved Big Macs, pickup trucks, and socks bought by the dozen. Julia had always liked Rick, but she thought it was better for everyone involved that Sylvie had ended things. There was something about the way he was always shushing Sylvie in restaurants or advising her to take an accounting course “just to be on the safe side.” It was like suggesting a rodeo horse take up pack-muling. (It didn’t help that he loved the Eagles.)

In the weeks following the breakup, as if to affirm the rightness of Sylvie’s choice, the phrase “the Zales rock of blankety-blank” had peppered all their conversations. Their friend Isa’s faux-crocodile boots were “the Zales rock of boots,” the Santa-themed nightgown Jennifer Bindermeyer got at her bachelorette party was “the Zales rock of teddys,” the blind date Sylvie’s hairstylist set her up on was “the Zales rock of dinners.” A year or so in, after Sylvie had inadvertently discovered that the ring had actually come from some fussy bespoke jeweler in Park Slope, the game had tapered off. But every year, right around the forced march of wedding season, it made a small resurgence. This Julia could tolerate—even enjoy on occasion—but since Sylvie’s most recent split, the game had grown particularly nasty, metastasizing like a tumor that fed on bile.

“So who’s it from?” Sylvie asked, inspecting the skirt’s zipper skeptically.

“My mother,” Julia said, still feeling duty-bound to play the game.

“Lillian?” Sylvie gasped.

“Really?” Julia nodded, repressing the thought of her out-of-work stepfather and the cost of shipping from the small village in Nova Scotia where eHarmony had delivered her mother five years before. “Oh my god, this thing’s even worse than that Friar Tuck smock we had to wear at Naomi’s wedding last year.”

Julia couldn’t help smiling, remembering the photo of the eight bridesmaids in their sleeveless, burlap-colored abominations shivering on the steps of the Nonquitt country club. “Like a snapshot from a medieval penal colony,” Sylvie had whispered in her ear as they stood next to each other, both of them smiling wide as the temperature dipped below 50. Later that night, during the reception, they’d filched a bottle of wine from the bar and slipped off to smoke Parliaments on the green. Julia still remembered how her teeth chattered as they lay on the wet grass scouring the sky for X-rated constellations.

“Can we give it rest, Syl?” Julia almost begged.

“Wait,” Sylvie said. The skirt’s label, which was glued rather than sewn on, read “Ginger Lee” in girlish script. Sylvie hustled over to the laptop that lay open on the narrow walnut desk and typed in the name.

“Jesus,” she said, after Google belched up the results. “Walmart? What is Lillian thinking? Can you even imagine sending something like this to your daughter?”

It seemed like an impossibly cruel thing to say until Julia remembered that Sylvie still had no idea what had happened to her that morning. “Enough,” she said, leaning over and slamming the laptop’s lid shut.

“What’s up, Fitzroy? Everything okay?”

“Not everything is a joke, Syl,” snapped Julia.

“Since when?” Sylvie asked.

Sylvie returned the offending skirt to its box with a mystified shrug, “I have to check my shows.” Commandeering the remote, she aggressively flipped channels until she landed on an entertainment program. Julia considered saying something, and then couldn’t summon the energy. These days, the second her friend clicked past one of these shows she seemed destined to spot an actor she’d once shared a casting couch with. This time she had the bad luck of landing right on her ex: Eddie Robards, a second-generation Broadway player, whose recent one-man show about growing up backstage, “Baby On the Boards,” was being made into a film.

“Fucking hell,” Sylvie groaned, pointing at the redhead by Eddie’s side. “Is she with him? Christ, look at her.” Instead Julia looked at Eddie and was reminded just how much she disliked him.

Eddie was neither tall, nor good-looking, nor particularly funny even. In the two years he and Sylvie had been together, the only really entertaining thing Julia had ever heard come out of his mouth was an offhand story he’d told about wheeling his mother’s sick beagle around Columbus Circle in one of those modified baby strollers and almost getting hit by a delivery van. Eddie was also full of that kind of curdled self-love that demanded constant preening. So when Sylvie had announced that he’d broken up with her over Labor Day, it had seemed less like a verdict on her friend’s appeal than like the universe righting itself. It turned out Sylvie didn’t quite see things this way. In fact she was so distraught that Julia was eventually forced to admit what Greg had been quietly telling her all along: that Sylvie loved Eddie, and that being better looking and vastly more talented than him was no consolation for the simple fact that he did not love her back.

“Oh my god,” Sylvie said, eyeing the girl. “I know her!”

“Don’t tell me you fucked her too.”

“No, I played her mother in a Lifetime movie about a virus that eats people’s eyes out of their heads.”

“Jesus.”

“I know, right?” Sylvie said, swiveling around to reveal the full insecty length of her legs. “Like I’m old enough to be her mom!” And then with a sigh that seemed to suck all the collagen from her face, “You know they sent me out on a Viagra commercial last week? I had to say ‘erectile dysfunction’ like 32 times with a huge, shit-eating grin on my face. Can you imagine how embarrassing?”

Yes, in fact, Julia could. In recent months, she’d been subjected to a steady stream of humiliations—her days full of tragic little plastic cups, round-the-clock hormone injections, and lectures on parts of her own anatomy she couldn’t have named six months before. In less then 24 hours she would turn 36. In under a week, she and Greg would sit at the foot of their two-foot tall tree on Christmas morning unwrapping their gifts—a sushi set picked up in Korea Town, the Frank Gehry clock they’d both admired on a recent visit to the MoMA store, books culled from the bestseller list. They would listen to Nat King Cole on the stereo and sip their spiked coffee, aware only of the gaping void in the room, the thing that was not and never would be theirs.

Julia drained her wine. After all, there was no reason not to now.

The not drinking thing should have been a dead giveaway for Sylvie. Ever since they’d first met as holiday cashiers at Century 21 back in the late ’90s—Sylvie having just finished her first Off Broadway play, Julia still stubbornly filling in “multimedia artist” under occupation—drinking had loomed large in their repertoire. What started as casual beers after closing every Friday quickly graduated to cocktails and a little dancing on Saturdays and went on from there. Even as “adults” most of their nights out had revolved around imbibing something or other. It was a testament to how self-absorbed misery had made Sylvie that she hadn’t even noticed when Julia started ordering cranberry soda instead of her customary G&T. When, after nearly a month of this, Sylvie finally caught on, she looked like someone had keyed her car. “Holy shit. Are you pregnant?”

Julia hadn’t consciously set out to keep anything from her friend, but in that moment she had realized that not even a tiny part of her wanted to hear Sylvie hold forth on this topic. “No,” she heard herself saying. “It’s just these new antidepressants I’m taking. They say it’s bad to mix.”

Strictly speaking this wasn’t a lie, because she wasn’t pregnant. What she did not say was that this was a source of growing concern—so much concern that her doctor had instructed her to lay off drinking.

“THANK THE LORD!” Sylvie had said, slapping the bar. It’s fair to say that Julia hated Sylvie in that moment, hated her pickled smile and her overloud laugh.

Recovering herself, Sylvie had quickly added, “Listen sweetie, you know that when you and Greg really do decide to have a baby I’ll be over the moon, right?” But Julia did not know. She’d seen Sylvie palm a newborn with less affection than a cupcake.

Without thinking, Julia picked up the remote and switched off the television. “Listen, this is no good this thing you’re doing here. Let’s call it a night, okay?”

Sylvie looked dumbstruck. “What? It’s not even 6 o’clock. I thought Greg was cooking us salmon.”

“No, Sylvie, Greg is cooking me salmon—for my birthday.”

The two of them sat on the couch side-by-side, not talking, not looking at each other, just feeling the tension roll out between them like a rug. Polishing off her glass in one swift gulp, Sylvie got up to retrieve her things from the closet.

According to the rules of their friendship, chucking Sylvie out on such a pretext on birthday week was a serious infraction. Julia followed her out to the hall. “I’m sorry, Syl—I really am. I have a bad headache. I’ll call you tonight, okay?”

She braced herself for the lacerating exit jibe. Instead when Sylvie turned around she had tears in her eyes. She tried to play it off, but when Julia reached out for a hug she seemed to crack wide open. Cringing through her tears, Sylvie looked at her and said, “Julia, what in the fuck is going on here anyway? Are you ever gonna tell me?”

Back in the living room they assumed their positions on the couch while Sylvie wordlessly refilled their glasses.

“I don’t know what to say,” Julia said finally.

“Say everything!” Sylvie demanded, reaching into her bag for a cigarette. “All of it. Start at the beginning and just keep on going.”

“Sorry—” Julia said, intending to stop Sylvie from lighting up.

“Sorry for what?” her friend pressed.

Julia’s nerve failed her. She watched helplessly as Sylvie blew great plumes of smoke right at the Roche Bobois sofa. Greg would kill her. “Sorry for keeping things from you?”

“As if that were even possible—as if I wouldn’t notice you weren’t drinking! Like I’d buy that crap about medication!”

“Well, why didn’t you say anything?” It had never occurred to Julia that she was so transparent.

“Because you weren’t saying anything! I figured there must be something wrong with Greg’s sperm or something. I don’t fucking know,” Sylvie sighed, ashing directly into a giant, hand-dipped candle. “I just kept waiting for you to tell me. I’m still waiting.”

“There really isn’t much to tell,” Julia said. “It’s not gonna happen.”

“What’s not? A baby?”

“Yeah,” Julia said, staring hard at spot on the far wall. Crying was out of the question; crying was an admission of defeat. Julia was many things, but she could not tolerate being a loser.

“I won’t ask why unless you want me to.”

“I don’t.”

“Does Greg know?”

“Yeah . . . He’s known for months, I think,” Julia sighed. Now that the thing was

out there, she was surprised at how relieved she felt; she hadn’t realized how much energy was going into not telling Sylvie.

“And there are no treatments?”

“No, yeah, there are. Of course there are. There are specialists, surgeries. Hell, there are surrogates!”

“Lots of ways to squeeze water from a stone,” Sylvie said.

Julia stared at her, torn between the impulse to scream and crumple into a ball. In the end she just laughed though. Because, of course, Sylvie was right. “If the stone has enough money.”

“If the stone doesn’t mind being a raging, hormonal mess for the next one to five years,” Sylvie added.

Julia heard the laughter erupt out of her, a wild staccato bark. She recognized this laugh: Greg called it her “Sylvie cackle.”

“I’m sorry,” her friend said, placing a warm hand on her knee. “Life’s a bitch with a shitty sense of humor.” Julia nodded and reached out for a drag and Sylvie handed over the cigarette.

The room was lit now by nothing but the streetlights outside. The two of them sat in the dark together listening to the cacophony of car alarms and clattering undercarriages that filtered up from the Pearl Street. The silence felt almost infinite; when Sylvie did finally speak, the words sent a ripple through the room. “Jules,” she said, “I’m sorry, but . . . well, I still don’t understand.”

“Understand what?” Julia said, ready to explain all the wretched details: her “inhospitable womb,” Greg’s slow swimmers, the withering crop of eggs that lay inside her like an abandoned nest.

Instead Sylvie said, “Why did you lie to me?”

Julia couldn’t stop the laugh. It bubbled up like gas escaping from a sewer. Of course, she thought, this was always going to end up being about Sylvie. This, Julia now clearly understood, was why she hadn’t told her. At some point in their friendship, without either of them quite realizing it, the gravity of tragedy had gathered around Sylvie and begun sucking in everything around it—the air, the light, even Julia’s own heartbreaks. Nothing, it seemed, was off limits.

Once this had all made sense to Julia. Once—a million years ago, just yesterday—the two of them had been so close they shared a border, the emotions of one flowing into the other like a river gushing over state lines, and this had seemed to Julia like a sacred thing. All those nights in the Meatpacking District, wired on speedy X, dancing until four, then waking up next to their respective one-night stands and calling each other to figure out a place to meet up for breakfast. The strange thrill of bringing a hush to a diner full of yellow-eyed old men at 7 a.m., two soiled goddesses, still jittery from the night before, wearing nothing but slips and scuffed combat boots. Julia thought back on all the agonized relationships with bike messengers, drummers, and poets that inevitably bottomed out, leaving her reaching for the phone at some inviolate hour because only one person could raise the blackout curtains of self-loathing threatening to close her in: Sylvie.

When things got really bad, Julia would camp out at Sylvie’s dank old sublet in Harlem, and after Syl got back from auditions and scrubbed off her makeup, the two of them would sit down on the sagging sofa with a couple bottles of Merlot and a Styrofoam trough of takeout noodles to binge watch Nightmare on Elm Street. They would watch and eat and drink until it was so late that there was nothing left to do but dance. When after one particularly debauched weekend they’d woken up to find themselves all tangled up together in nothing but their panties, the whole thing had seemed so ridiculous, so inevitable somehow, they’d just smirked and headed out for breakfast as usual.

Sometimes it felt impossible that such vast distances now separated them: from each other, from those girls in the diner. More and more often though, those girls seemed like figments of her imagination, a collection of old dreams—dreams that had all but died for Julia the first time she sat on Dr. Hannigan’s freezing cold exam table in her paper dress and heard him say the words “I’m sorry.”

Julia stubbed out the cigarette and spit into her empty wineglass. As quietly as she could, she said, “Honestly, I’m not sure how this has anything to do with you, Sylvie.”

Sylvie rolled her eyes. “Julia, if it happens to you, it happens to me!”

“Oh really,” she barked. “So you’re fucking barren then?”

Afterwards Julia wondered what she would have done if Greg hadn’t pushed open the door just then. Would things have gone the way they usually did, the two of them brokering a strained truce? Would they have made plans for New Year’s? Maybe. Probably. But instead, what happened was that Greg shot Julia a look so full of punctured hope that Hannigan’s words finally hit her full force in the chest: egg donor. And within seconds, she was crying so hard, she barely noticed Sylvie leave.

After the sobbing and the congealed salmon steaks and the shower so hot it took off sheets of skin, Greg folded her into a towel and led her to bed. They lay there spooning for a long time, silent and not sleeping.

“We’ll be fine,” Greg said, running his palm up and down her back.

“How do you know?” she asked him, but he just sighed up at the ceiling.

Pulling her in closer and breathing in her hair, he said, “So what happened with Sylvie this afternoon?”

“What do you mean?”

Greg raised an eyebrow at her. “Was she crying?”

“She’s upset.”

“Why?”

“Because,” Julia said finally, “I never told her we were trying.”

She expected him to say any number of things, comforting things—anything but what he said, which was simply: “Wow. Really?”

*

Julia tried calling the next morning, but when Sylvie didn’t pick up, she wasn’t surprised. Nor was she surprised three months later when her friend announced she’d met a pilot from Arizona named Jerry in the airport lounge on the way to visit her mother in Tallahassee. Or even six months after that when Sylvie came over for brunch brandishing an emerald-cut diamond straight out of Liz Taylor’s personal collection and announced that she was moving to Phoenix. If anything surprised Julia, it was the speed with which Sylvie got pregnant after the wedding. Not one but three kids in as many years: two boys and a girl, all the lucky recipients of their mother’s Olympian-grade genes, all arranged by height on the front lawn for the annual Christmas photo that appeared in Julia’s mailbox every December just in time for her birthday.

“Happy Holidays from Our Family to Yours, Love the Greenwoods,” the card read. Every year after it arrived Julia dutifully put it on the mantle above the fireplace and every year she found her eye returning to it over and over again. She’d take in the three perfect blond heads and Sylvie standing proudly behind them, nearly unrecognizable with her tightly cinched ponytail and matching tracksuit, and almost against her will Julia would find herself thinking about the Zales rock. About how nice it had actually been and how sad it was that even a beautiful rock like that could look so cheap under the wrong kind of light.

Photo by Geoff Smith