A N N E
H E R T H R E E – Y E A R – O L D son Max was glued to a Sesame Street video, but no matter how many alphabet letters they covered, there always came a time when they got to Z. Anne would have to think up another activity. She wondered if she should call a friend to come over and visit. It would have to be on her turf because it was getting harder to keep Max from tearing through other people’s apartments, upending table lamps, opening drawers, and taking every book off the shelves. Toilet training still seemed as remote and impossible as an Ivy League college.
Sesame Street ended, and Anne braced herself for a tantrum, but Max headed for his fleet of cars. He picked up the taxi and the police car, his favorites, and began rolling them along the kitchen table. He would do this for hours. Her sixteen-year-old daughter, Lee, was out at a friend’s house, supposedly doing homework. These days, Lee spent less and less time at home.
Anne settled in the living room and picked up the newspaper, but she had only read two lines before she heard the baby stirring in his crib. She went into his room to pick up William—such a long name for such a tiny baby. He was just getting old enough so that he might give her a smile, but so far he hadn’t. She put a new diaper on him quickly and scooped him up, then went back to the living room to check on Max, who was suspiciously quiet.
He wasn’t at the table with his cars. He wasn’t in the bedrooms or the bathroom or sitting alone in a closet. The front door of the apartment, which Max couldn’t open without help, was hanging ajar.
“Max!” yelled Anne, racing into the hallway. How could he have gotten out? She must not have shut the door properly when they got back from their walk. Max had never gone farther than the hallway on his own. There was no sign of him in the stairwells or the fire exits. She doubted he could have summoned the elevator or pressed the button for the lobby. Maybe he had gone to one of the neighbors. She pushed bell after bell on their doors, but everyone was out.
Anne’s heart hammered in her chest, but she knew what her husband would do. She could hear the strong, steady voice of her husband, Nathan: Call the doorman. Put the doorman on alert.
She pressed the intercom and got Louis, a cocky kid who was not the regular afternoon guy. She could hear the sounds of a baseball game from the television on his desk.
“This is Anne Margolin from eighteen-E,” she said, trying not to hyperventilate. “Have you seen my son Max?”
“Nope,” he said.
She returned to the hallway, now sobbing, then went back to the intercom.
“Could you please get someone to search the stairwells? My little boy is missing.”
“Sorry, there’s nobody on duty right now,” answered Louis. “It’s just me, and I’m not allowed to leave my post.”
He didn’t sound sorry at all. In the background, she heard somebody hit a foul.
“What about the super?”
“My uncle is out now,” he said.
The baby was starting to cry. Anne scooped him up, grabbed her sweater, bag, and keys, and got in the elevator just as her neighbor Alex was stepping out, lugging groceries. Alex was a blonde, perky Wall Street broker who normally wasn’t home this early, but it had been ages since Anne wondered what was going on in other people’s lives. Maybe Alex had lost her job in the downturn and Anne hadn’t noticed. “Max is missing,” said Anne in a rush. “Would you mind checking the stairwells again for me?”
“Oh, honey!” said Alex. “Of course.” She put down her groceries and rushed toward the stairwell door.
In the lobby, Anne tried to speak without anger as she asked Louis again whether he had seen Max.
“Didn’t he go out with you a while ago?”
“He went out?” Anne screamed. “You saw him leave and you didn’t stop him? He’s three years old!”
“I don’t know, maybe,” said Louis, his face going pale. “I thought you went out the door ahead of him.”
“What were you thinking?”
A neighbor coming into the building caught the tail end of the exchange and looked at Anne with confusion. Anne raced past the neighbor to the street, jiggling William in her arms. The baby was yowling from the noise and sudden movement.
On the street, Anne looked both ways, but Max was nothing if not a creature of habit, and would have taken their usual route around the corner to Broadway and Seventy-Sixth Street. She knew where she would find him.
At the Greek restaurant, Max was seated on a high counter, dangling his chubby legs, while the waitstaff and a few patrons cooed over him and made sure he didn’t fall. Outside the restaurant was
the tree with the twinkling green lights, the tree he always wanted to look at. Inside, way up, was a ceiling fan. Max was in heaven.
“Max!” Anne burst through the door with her long hair flying and her baby wailing into her chest.
A small, dapper man with a moustache stepped forward and frowned.
“Are you the babysitter?” he asked. He had the authoritative tone and lack of food stains on his pressed suit to suggest a managerial position.
“I’m his mother. Thank God he’s safe! Thank you, thank you!”
“He could have been killed, did you know that?”
“I know, yes, thank you,” she said, pushing past him toward the counter.
One of the waiters regarded her with compassion. “Don’t worry, he’s fine. We saw him by the door, looking at the lights.”
“The green lights,” said Max.
“Yes, yes, the green lights,” said Anne. “He loves those.” She was dimly aware that the baby’s pacifier had fallen en route, and that her waist-length hair fell messily down her back.
“I called the police,” the manager said. “We’ll let them sort it out.”
The two cops who showed up looked like students trying to work their way through college.
The manager gave his side. “Imagine, sending a child out like that on Broadway.”
“Gotcha,” said the cop with a blond brush cut. “Ma’am, can you tell us what happened?”
“He’s autistic,” said Anne. “He got out of the apartment when I went to check on the baby, and the doorman didn’t stop him.”
The cop lifted Max from the counter and said, “Hey, buddy, we’re going to help your mom get you home.”
Outside, Anne apologized. “I am so sorry. He never did this before.”
“Not a problem,” said the cop with the brush cut. “Listen, is your husband home?”
Anne stiffened. Were they going to hand the children over to Nathan so they could haul her in for being an unfit mother?
“Uh, he’s still at work,” she said.
“You should call him,” said the other cop. “You could use a little help here.”
TA L I A
“ W h a t a lovely little boy,” the woman said. Talia was sitting on a bench waiting for the Q train, with her arm firmly wrapped around her son. People often made remarks like this when she was out with Anthony.
“Thanks,” Talia said.
“But why is he wearing earmuffs?” the woman asked.
People often said things like that, too. It was September, but it might as well have been August. The stale subway air burned like an oven blast. Talia shrugged and adjusted the earmuffs, so red against Anthony’s white blond hair, which was matted by sweat.
“Sweetie? Why do you have on earmuffs in this heat wave?” The woman leaned over, gripping her New York Times.
Anthony didn’t answer, but Talia knew that the woman, with her loud voice and big tinted glasses, was making him feel even more nervous than usual. He swung his legs furiously.
“Can’t you hear me?” the woman asked, again giving Talia a curious look. Anthony was four but looked more like five or six because he was so tall, with long, bony legs. It puzzled people that he didn’t answer.
“It’s just his thing. He collects them,” Talia said, sighing and pushing up the strap of her bra, which had fallen out of alignment with her white tank top. This drew the attention of a Hispanic messenger, sitting on the far side of the bench, holding an envelope on his knees, and humming along to his iPod.
Hitting the pause button, he said, “With a mamma who looks like that, the kid can wear any earmuffs he wants.”
The woman gave him a dirty look.
Talia wished, not for the first time, that there was some other way to get to her parents’ place in Brighton Beach. Subway trips with Anthony weren’t easy, and they might hit the beginning of rush
hour when they headed home. But there was that meeting tonight she had to get back for. Anthony had an easier time traveling in cars, but she couldn’t afford one. The club she ran was doing well, but she needed more money. Especially now. Especially for Anthony. So she was going to drop by her father’s restaurant to ask her parents for help. She couldn’t put it off any longer.
“Hey, mamma,” said the messenger, as the woman returned to her newspaper.
Just then, there was a rumbling down the tunnel. Anthony tensed, ready to flee. Talia tightened her grip on the boy as the train pulled into the station.
He threw his head back and screamed so loudly it could be heard over the roar of the train. He covered his earmuffs with flat palms, his fingers splayed. The woman and the messenger melted away, stepping into other cars. Soon it was just Talia, Anthony, and a sleeping drunk in the corner. Taking a deep breath, she tried to keep calm. It wouldn’t do to show up at her father’s restaurant looking like a crumpled leaf. She was the girl from the neighborhood who had made good. She had become a model and gone all over the world, and she now owned a hot-spot club in Manhattan.
The screaming didn’t stop until they were well into Brooklyn. Talia stroked Anthony’s hair, trying to be grateful that it had stopped at all. There were times when she thought he might scream forever.
She leaned over and smiled at him, but his blue eyes showed no emotion whatsoever. They weren’t blank, though. Something very complex was going on just under the surface, but it was something
that he couldn’t share, couldn’t even hint at. It tore at her heart that she could never really connect with him. He might do as she asked, but he rarely looked at her with any affection or even recognition.
Most of the time she avoided looking at his eyes, because it scared her to see that stare. Being a single mom she could handle. But this void, this one-sidedness—it was crushing her. She longed for the day he would look back at her as if he cared. She would figure out how to make that happen.
As they climbed out of the subway at Ocean Parkway, she felt the salty breeze break through the sticky air, and tried to push away the despair she felt over Anthony, his screams, and his silences. Anthony’s face had an intent, serious expression, as if he were trying to read the wind. This was how he looked when he was calm. He only smiled when he was angry. She squeezed his hand gently, and they walked up the street.
R U T H I E
“ T h a t i s n ’ t how it works? Listen, lady, this is how it works when you’re dealing with me!” Ruthie said, then she let loose a torrent of obscenities in Hebrew, her native tongue.
“Oh, you didn’t catch that last part? Lucky for you!” she said, as Steve, her husband, and Sylvia, her mother-in-law, peeked into the room. Ruthie’s bracelets jangled as she waved her arm in exasperation.
“I know you have rules, I know you have a policy. I just want to talk to my son,” she said. “Michael. I know you have trained therapists on staff. But I’m his mother. And he’s autistic. Sometimes when he’s upset about something, I’m the only one he’ll talk about it to.”
Steve gave her a thumbs-up, then turned his head slightly as cheers erupted from the baseball game he was watching on TV in the other room.
“No, I’m not saying he’s upset, but I’m getting upset, as you can hear. Yes, he is going to be coming home for a weekend soon. It’s just—I want to talk to him now! I’m not saying that—no. I have no
specific problem to discuss with anyone on staff—except for the fact that you won’t let me speak to him!”
Sylvia winked from behind her butterfly glasses. Ruthie winked back.
“I see. Well, I don’t agree that these kids don’t need to speak to anyone in particular, that they don’t have what you call ‘the same special closeness to family members as normal kids.’ What are
you—reading from a manual? You work there—these kids may be autistic, but they’re not clones!” She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, making a last-ditch effort to get her voice down to a normal pitch, to hide her anger. “I get it. He hasn’t mentioned me or asked to speak to me. Dom? Dom is his grandfather. Oh, yes, they are very close.”
Putting her hand over the receiver she mouthed, “He’s been telling them Dom is a champion.”
Removing her hand, she said, “No, Dom isn’t an athlete, he’s a champion woodcarver. Yes. OK, look can I speak with Dr. Branch? And she doesn’t have a home number or a cell phone? Oh, you can’t
give it out? OK, OK.” She closed her eyes for a minute. “I understand. What if I came tomorrow, just for a quick visit? Five minutes.
I know you’re getting him used to the new routine. But look, talk to Dr. Branch. Give her a message to call me tomorrow. I need to talk to her about this. I need to talk to my son!” She sighed, gave the woman her number, and put down the phone.
Ruthie walked over to Steve, who was sitting on the living room couch. He gave her an embrace that became a bear hug.
“You were so restrained,” he said. “I’ve never heard you hold back so much.”
“You only cursed in Hebrew, that was great, honey,” Sylvia said.
Steve’s eyes wandered back to the Mets game, and Ruthie pretended to slap him.
“It’s supposed to be such a good school,” Ruthie said.
“It looked good when we visited to check it out. The three times we visited to check it out,” Steve said.
“I know. It’s just—I just need to know he’s OK.”
“Of course you do, honey. You’re a great mom,” said Sylvia.
“I need to calm down before I head into Manhattan for that meeting,” said Ruthie. “I know. Let me give you a neck rub, Sylvia.”
“You’re the one who needs a neck rub,” said Steve, not taking his eyes off the game.
“I just need to do something. C’mon Sylvia, sit down.”
“I never turn down a neck rub from you,” said Sylvia, settling herself on the edge of the couch.
“Hold still or it’ll hurt. Now, take a deep breath. And relax, OK?” Ruthie said.
Sylvia relaxed for a minute. Then she said, “Hon? Where did you get those earrings?”
“Are they from Strawberry? Because my girlfriend said that’s where her daughter goes and—”
“Syl, relax, no questions.”
The woman went limp under Ruthie’s hands. Ruthie’s earrings, a bunch of rainbow-colored enamel ovals, made a clicking sound as she massaged her mother-in-law’s upper back.
Ruthie said, “I got them at the bus station in Tel Aviv, right before I moved to Brooklyn so I could marry your gorgeous son, and you could babysit for me when I have meetings in the city. They were two bucks. Three for five bucks.”
“They’re cute,” Sylvia said.
“You know what they call girls in Israel who wear earrings from the bus station?”
“Umm … thrifty?”
“Frechas,” said Ruthie. “Frecha means flower in Hebrew. Not flower, exactly, more like blossom. But when people say it, they mean you’re kind of a bimbo.”
“We already knew that,” Steve said, just as Ryan, their threeyear-old, ran into the room, followed by Dom, Steve’s father.
“What did we already know?” asked Dom.
“Don’t repeat it,” said Sylvia.
Ryan buzzed around the room, taking out toys from the toy chest, playing with each one for a few seconds, then putting them down.
“Ryan, you pick up your toys,” said Ruthie.
“I’ll do it,” Dom said, lowering his massive bulk to the floor.
“Ryan needs to learn to do it himself,” said Ruthie. But when she looked away, Dom scooped up most of the toys and put them back.
“You better take back that bimbo remark,” Sylvia said to Steve, “or she’ll never give you a massage like this. Whatever they’re paying you at that clinic, it’s not enough, honey.”
“We already knew that, too,” said Steve.
“OK,” said Ruthie, giving Sylvia a pat on the shoulder. “Promise not to worry about anything from now on so your neck doesn’t tense up again.”
“What, her worry?” said Steve. “Italian mothers and Jewish mothers, it’s all the same, you’re always worried about everything.”
“It’s in our DNA,” said Ruthie, giving him a kiss on the cheek as she stood up and reached for her purse.
“So where are you going again?” Steve asked.
“I’m off to have an affair, if that’s all right with you.”
“Fine, baby, just give me a kiss.”
“Can’t you cheat on my son in Brooklyn?” asked Sylvia. “The trains to Manhattan take forever, and the platform will be dangerous when you’re heading back.”
“Syl, I’ll be fine,” Ruthie said, squatting down to give Ryan a hug, which he quickly squirmed out of. “All the quality cheating happens in Manhattan, not Brooklyn. Oh, and Steve? I’ll be cheating on you every third Wednesday of the month from now on, OK?”
“Have fun, my little frecha,” he said, going back to his ballgame.
B R E T T
B r e t t M e t c a l f , the editor of Dish, sat next to Charles Norwich, the corporate head of magazine publishing, at the round conference table. His secretary had ordered in sandwiches from the deli on the corner, but no one touched the pile of soggy roast beef and tuna salad on white. It was all part of Charles’s shtick. He could have had his secretary call a gourmet restaurant, but he liked to project a down-to-earth persona.
Brett owed no small part of her success to her ability to handle this man. She knew when to humor him, when to defer to him, when to flatter him. Most important, she knew when to stake out her territory. She had been interviewed extensively for a Vanity Fair profile on Charles’s empire and said all the right things—not just fluff, but thoughtful-sounding, respectful quotes. The day the story hit the stands, a bottle of Dom Pérignon appeared on Brett’s desk. No note, just a label from one of the smelly Cuban cigars Charles smoked (in violation of both building and city ordinances). He knew Brett didn’t touch alcohol, but Dom Pérignon sent the right message.
No one was giving Brett champagne now. She was screwing up—constantly—at home and at work. She hadn’t had a problem, as so many women apparently did, juggling work and a new baby.
After she and Rick adopted Pearl from China, things went smoothly enough when she returned to the office. But since the child had been diagnosed with autism two months ago, coping with the visits to the specialists, the tests at doctors’ offices and hospitals, and Pearl’s nightly rampages was difficult. Brett found it harder to concentrate at work. And every slip she made was noticed.
Tonight, again, she’d have to leave early for a meeting that had to do with Pearl. She prayed this conference wouldn’t go so long that she’d be late and glanced out the window at the sliver of Sixth Avenue traffic visible between the office towers.
Charles was talking, and Brett forced herself to focus.
“We should do an entire issue on the most important thing in the world,” he said, tapping his cigar against a soda can in front of him.
Everyone waited and Brett prayed his new idea would distract from what the meeting was supposed to be about: her proposal for a theme change for the coming year. Circulation was down. It had
declined less than the numbers at the Norwich Group’s other magazines, but it was down nevertheless, a situation that, for Charles, was more urgent than global warming.
Charles raised the can so everyone could see it. “This diet chocolate soda. Do you know it?”
“No,” said Brett, pretending to be interested.
“What good are you then?” he said.
While she struggled to find an appropriate comeback, Megan Rothberg, one of the associate editors, chimed in, “Yech! How can you drink that?”
“Two calories per serving, that’s how,” said Charles, putting the can down and tapping cigar ash into it.
“Life is too short to subject yourself to that—that swill!” Megan said.
“Swill—now there’s a word you don’t hear every day,” said Charles.
Megan smiled and leaned back. Her frizzy hair had been straightened by a process that, minute for minute, cost almost as much as the space shuttle. Her black cashmere cardigan was belted over a grey camisole. You’d never guess she had come to Dish as an intern via her father’s friendship with Charles. She had no editing skills—in fact, she was barely literate. But she had an instinct for
zeroing in on the next big trend. She was in her early thirties and single, and did not have a problem working endless hours.
“I’ll conduct a taste test before our next meeting,” Megan said.
“I’ll hold you to that. Now what the hell are we here for?” Charles said.
“I’m presenting the new theme,” said Brett.
“Is that all?” he said. “All right, Brett. Amaze us.”
But she fumbled through her presentation, hearing uncertainty in her voice and hating it. In the past, she would have spent weeks preparing for a meeting like this. The night before, she would rehearse it with Rick. Last night, after reading a report on Pearl from a neurologist, she had barely had the energy to glance over her talk.
Brett’s not-so-new premise for the theme was “You’ve Earned It.” She had meant to set up a series of lunches and run the idea by the Nora Ephrons, Carrie Fishers, and Fran Lebowitzes who contributed to the magazine, as well as to the staff writers and contributors, but she never got that far. She had counted—wrongly, it turned out—on Charles’s goodwill to get her through this hastily assembled proposal.
“This is your time, because you’ve earned it,” she concluded, trying to finish with a flourish.
There was a moment of paper shuffling and the clearing of throats while everyone assembled faint praise.
“That was great, Brett, really great,” said Megan. It wasn’t until that moment that Brett realized how deeply in trouble she was.
Megan never praised anyone but Charles, unless the person was too inconsequential to care about. Her kind words and pained smile (her smiles were always pained unless they were aimed at someone more powerful) said, clearly: I’m after your job. I’m halfway there. Maybe even closer.
“I have some other ideas we can add,” Megan continued.
“What, there’s more?” said Charles, who had been pretending to nap. Now he pretended to wake up.
“Just a little bit more,” said Megan. Her ideas had been packaged in a fifteen-minute, similarly themed but more impressive PowerPoint presentation. Brett squirmed through it. “Good work,” Megan said to Brett when the meeting concluded, flashing that smile again. “Oh, and by the way …”
“How’s Pearl doing? You have to leave early, don’t you, to get home to her?”