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Authors: Susan Isaacs

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Short Stories (Single Author)

Compliments of a Friend

BOOK: Compliments of a Friend
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Compliments of a Friend

Susan Isaacs

Contents

Compliments of a Friend

Afterword

A Biography of Susan Isaacs

Compliments of a Friend

On a chill and sodden Tuesday in March at one in the afternoon, the awesomely slender Vanessa Giddings, founder and CEO of Panache, the largest employment agency on Long Island, slipped into a chair in the designer shoe department at Bloomingdale’s in the Roosevelt Field mall. She cradled a black snakeskin Manolo Blahnik sling-back in her hands. A moment later, her eyes closed. When Roberto, her usual salesman, gently tapped her shoulder and murmured “Ms. Giddings? Seven and a half, right? Ms. Giddings?” he got no response. She was comatose.

Before the gray dawn of the following morning, Vanessa Giddings passed from the world.

The Nassau County medical examiner ruled her exit self-inflicted—an overdose of Alprazolam, the generic name of Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. The Nassau County Police Department’s spokesman (elbowing aside the M.E. so he could stand squarely in front of the microphone) announced that a suicide note had been found among her personal papers. When I came home from work that Wednesday evening and heard the first of four messages about her death on voice mail: “Judith, did you hear … ?” I wasn’t simply surprised; I was shaken.

Vanessa, of all people! So alive! Now, when I say “alive,” I’m not talking about lively or, God forbid, perky. I mean alive as in appearing strong, spirited, close to invulnerable. Dressed for success in a Prada suit and Gucci shoes, though I admit my grasp of fashion is a little iffy. It could have been the other way around.

Anyway, some well-bred customer snapped a cell-phone photo as the EMTs were hoisting Vanessa onto a gurney. It appeared two hours later on the New York Daily News website and showed Vanessa’s feet in those chunky-heeled platform shoes that make most women’s legs resemble Minnie Mouse’s. Not hers.

And even in a coma, she looked great. Vanessa’s hands were elegant, poised like a ballerina’s. Her lithe legs seemed artfully arranged. Her hair, impeccably casual, was a glistening blonde, that expensive color that emits glints of platinum and gold. The masterfully applied lipstick on her now-slack mouth demonstrated a skilled hand and a perfectionist soul.

Whenever I’d seen Vanessa at the quarterly meetings of the Long Island Heritage Council Board of Trustees, a group dedicated to preserving the region’s historical sites, she was not only chic, but all business. The woman never wasted a microsecond. She’d stride around the Peconic Deutsche Bank’s conference room where we met exchanging strong, but not bone-crushing, handshakes and networking with her fellow and sister hot shots.

I was not a natural networker in that group, as my idea of lively conversation—“What are the historical errors of Boardwalk Empire?” or “Do you have a favorite flowering perennial?”—isn’t the sort that animates mini-moguls. Besides me, the only other academic on the board was a pleasant-enough anthropologist from Southampton College. Except during pre-meeting chitchat and coffee break, he was usually engrossed in finding a way to wrap the raisin-glutted muffins and monster bagels on the hospitality table into napkins and stuff them into his backpack without anyone noticing. (Everyone did.)

Periodically, Vanessa would spot me standing alone. She’d come over and shepherd me into whatever conversation she was having. So even if I didn’t fit into her preference for the power elite, she was nice to me. Those who viewed her as a stereotypical hard-ass career crone—tight-lipped and mean-spirited in pursuit of success—were wrong. In fact, her looks told a sweeter story: peaches and cream pretty, with all-American apple cheeks. Her eyes were true blue. And her voice! Lovely. If a pink rose petal could talk, it would sound like her. Further, she was unfailingly polite.

Still, I could understand why people called her aloof. She seemed to hold back not from shyness, but as if getting to know you too well would inevitably be disappointing, and she truly preferred to think well of you. But you couldn’t pigeonhole Vanessa: not at all the brash glad-hander you’d expect running an employment agency mini-empire. Her reticence not only caused her to stand out, but made TV viewers who saw her in the Panache commercials on local cable believe in her. She set a tone, and people would simply assume that the housemaids from Panache Home, the bookkeepers from Panache Office, and the pharmacists from Panache Professional would all be endowed with Vanessa’s cool effectiveness.

Admittedly, at her funeral, the minister had called her “caring” because not even the most charitable Christian soul could go so far as “warm.” However, for some reason, Vanessa was always at her most cordial—so if not actually warm, she was at least tepid in the nicest possible way, like the way she’d walk toward me with both hands outstretched. “Judith Singer.” Then she’d grip my shoulders and stick out her head to bestow a kiss on the cheek. All right, so not an actual kiss. As her satiny, alpha-hydroxied cheek grazed mine she merely made a high, cheeping sound, like a sparrow. Then she would draw back and regard me with … well, not with affection, but definitely not condescension either. She’d inquire: “And how is my friend Judith doing?”

I hadn’t the foggiest notion of why I rated her friendship. Outside of Long Island Heritage Council meetings, we never saw each other except in casual situations—coming out of Alper’s Hardware on Main Street, or down at the harbor band-shell at the Friday night concerts each summer. Perhaps it was because we both lived in Shorehaven, a Long Island suburb, which—despite being twenty-six miles from mid-Manhattan and filled with a fair number of urbane business types and cutting-edge professionals—clung to the aggressive neighborliness of those old Andy Hardy movies.

To be honest, Vanessa’s special treatment might have been some form of pity: I was—am—a widow. For the past two years—since my husband, Bob, died half a day after finishing the New York Marathon in four hours and twelve minutes—I’d noticed that the same people who would treat a middle-aged divorcée with the same tendresse as they would a rabid raccoon could be surprisingly compassionate toward a woman who had lost her husband—as opposed to one who somehow sloppily allowed her man to slip through her fingers.

Or perhaps Vanessa was merely grateful to me. I am a historian who works two jobs. Half the time, I’m adjunct professor of history at the formerly all-female, formerly nun-run, formerly first-rate Saint Elizabeth’s College across the county border in the borough of Queens. The other half of my time, I head my town’s oral history project at the Shorehaven Public Library. A few years earlier, Vanessa had come to me for help: She had a potential client, Kluckers, a kosher chicken distributor. Its CEO wasn’t sure if Long Island had the right “vibes” for his new corporate headquarters. Sure, there were Jews on Long Island, so kosher wasn’t an alien notion, but what about the chicken angle? I’d worked with Vanessa to compose a précis of the thrilling and eventful history of poultry farming on Long Island. Apparently, our effort wowed the guy. Naturally, I wouldn’t take the money she offered for my work. So she’d sent the library a generous contribution and sent a gorgeously bound copy of Leaves of Grass to me at home, somehow having learned I was a fool for Long Island–born Walt Whitman. Now she was dead.

“This Vanessa business has really gotten to me,” I declared to my best friend, Nancy Miller, two nights later when we were out to dinner. “Not that I was actually her friend, even if that’s what she called me but …” Nancy was eagle-eying the waiter as he opened a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino so I demanded: “Are you listening to me?”

“How can I avoid it?”

We were in a new restaurant, La Luna Toscana. For some reason I cannot explain, whenever a new culinary trend gets under way in Manhattan, like Tuscan cuisine, it flies out to Kansas City (with a side trip to Emporia) before it can finally manage to schlep the twenty-six miles east to Shorehaven.

“It’s about Vanessa …” I went on. “I’m upset. … But not really touched. … Shit, I wish I could find the right words to express what I feel.”

“How about ‘shocked and saddened’?” Nancy suggested. “Tell me, when Bob died, did you get one single note that didn’t say ‘I was shocked and saddened to hear of your loss’? I mean …”

Her “I mean” came out “Ah main.” Although Nancy hasn’t been back to her native Georgia in thirty years, she has clung to its syrupy accent, convinced, correctly, that it adds to her charm.

“I mean, did anyone even have the originality just to transpose and say ‘saddened and shocked’?”

“Of course not. But writing condolence notes makes most people uncomfortable and they just want to get it over with. ‘Shocked and saddened.’ ‘In my thoughts and prayers.’ Thinking about death, or person dealing with the pain of a death … It’s distressing, and that’s with a natural death, like Bob’s. Someone like Vanessa committing suicide? It is genuinely shocking. Look, I know no one can get through life without pain, but she seemed so invulnerable to the usual slings and arrows.”

“Invulnerable? Stan Giddings dumped her for a younger woman less than a year ago? Try to not be vulnerable to that!”

Nancy lifted her wineglass, held it to the light, and looked perturbed. After her first sip, she shook her head with the world-weary sadness of a life of dashed expectations wine-wise, though she waved off the approaching waiter.

“Didn’t that snake Stan dump his first wife, too? You bet! For Vanessa.”

“Right,” I replied. “The first one was Barbara. It was all in your newspaper. Don’t you read it, for God’s sake?”

“Not the stories that pander to salivating semiliterates—though that’s at least half our readership.”

Several years earlier, Nancy had given up freelance writing to become associate editor of Newsday’s op-ed page.

“When I’m looking for true trash, I go right to the Post. They do it right. None of this refined suburban crapola like ‘The medical examiner refused to speculate why Ms. Giddings chose to end her life in a department store after taking an overdose of the drug Xanax, commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorder.’ ”

She finished off her wine and immediately poured herself another.

“Why bother with a glass? Just lift the wine bottle and glug away,” I suggested. “Save all that tedious pouring.”

“Why don’t you put a cork in it about my drinking?”

I sighed. It wasn’t so much the sound of that moment’s passive aggression/your drinking is getting out of control, merely an exhalation of my decades-long frustration with her imbibing. Then I moved back to the subject at hand.

“A woman like Vanessa doesn’t kill herself over a man.”

“If she was stupidly romantic enough to actually marry that slick, do-nothing piece of work, you don’t think she might decide to end it all when he took a walk?”

“First of all,” I said patiently, “I don’t see him as slick at all.”

In fact, the couple of times I’d seen Stan Giddings—at the Long Island Heritage Council’s annual dinner-dance, at Let There Be Bagels—I’d found him pleasingly unslick. Tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, given to rumpled denim work shirts and tweedy jackets, he looked like an East Coast version of the Marlboro Man, a non-smoker of course, with a mature jock’s deep, ruddy coloring. His gray-flecked brown hair was longish, chopped more than cut, and his smile was wide, yet somehow sensual. It let you know he was aware you were woman and he was man—and that he was tantalized by the difference. His was a for-real smile, not that lips-together smirk of a Long Island lothario. A smile from a guy like Stan and you find yourself grinning back, so imbued with your own lusty wench-hood that you momentarily forget you’re old enough to be his mother—had you experienced an extremely early menarche. You might even replay that smile—for days, or weeks, though you had to know that as soon as he smiled it, you were already being erased from his consciousness.

“He’s not slick,” I declared. “More like smooth.”

“I don’t mean slick in the Christian Bale, slime-on-his-hair sense. Slick in that his charm has nothing to do with his feelings, assuming he has any beyond self-love.”

She set down her glass, picked up a breadstick, and snapped it in two.

“Inherited money,” Nancy observed.

Over the years, I’ve become so used to her non sequiturs that such statements, coming from her, seem to contain their own logic.

“Inherited money has something to do with being emotionally deficient,” I articulated for her.

“Obviously.”

“Not quite.”

“Stan’s money comes from socks, for chrissake!”

“For the U.S. armed forces. That may not make him a saint or patriot, but if you’re making socks from Iwo Jima to Afghanistan, that’s probably millions of them, enough to make his family incredibly rich for—what?—three generations. I don’t get whatever it is you’re trying to tell me. Do socks or being rich have anything to do with Stan’s personality?”

Nancy shook the half breadstick at me the way a teacher would shake a pointer at an intentionally dense student.

“He never had to earn a living. He never had to do anything. He just had to be, and people would vacuum his floors and groom his horse and admit him to Princeton and treat him with every respect as if he had done something important.”

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