Out of the Past
“The past is never where you think you left it.” ― Katherine Anne Porter
Roy waited impatiently for Gretchen to begin. He hadn’t wanted to see her or to hear another grim chapter in her never-ending saga with Tommy. But the nice guy in him prevailed. He’d reluctantly consented to a meeting he could easily have done without. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about Gretchen. He did. But she’d made her bed and he wasn’t in it. Tommy was her problem.
But Gretchen sat silently, unable to get started. Agreeing to see her had been a mistake. Roy swirled the scotch around in his glass to kill time. Better, he thought, than drumming his fingers on the desk or telling her he didn’t have all day, which, in fact, he didn’t.
“Gretchen,” Roy said, trying to get her attention.
“I’m sorry, Roy. Maybe I shouldn’t have come.” Roy silently agreed. “I just didn’t know where else to go. Practically all of our friends are Tommy’s. I’m pretty isolated these days.”
There was bitterness in her voice. Roy was surprised. When they’d been together, he’d seen Gretchen hostile and angry, but never bitter. It wasn’t unusual, though, for her to begin with an apology. Gretchen had been apologizing as long as he knew her.
“Whose fault is that?”
“Mine, I suppose,” she responded wearily.
Quickly forgetting the promise he made to himself not to be critical of Gretchen, he immediately took her to task for choosing Tommy as his successor.
“God, Gretchen, Tommy Thompson. I might have been difficult at times—unnecessarily negative, I know—but underneath it all, I wasn’t a bad guy. I’m not so sure about Tommy. Or don’t you agree?”
But Gretchen didn’t answer. She appeared focused on maintaining her composure. Whatever was coming wasn’t good.
“Look,” Roy said. “We’ve been over all this before. I know you’re unhappy, but there must be something new going on or you wouldn’t have traipsed all the way down here. You’d have told me on the phone. We haven’t seen each other in almost two years. Why now?” His tone had an air of irritation.
“Compassionate as ever,” Gretchen snapped, looking at Roy for almost the first time since entering his office.
Good, he thought. At least there was a little fight left in her.
“I’m sorry,” Roy said, softening his tone. “If you have something you need to say, just say it.”
“I’m trying, but your patience hasn’t improved either.”
“Gretchen, we’re not here to discuss my character flaws. Do me a favor. Tell me what’s going on.”
And with some difficulty, she did.
“Tommy’s gotten physically abusive.”
Roy put his drink down and sat up.
“I knew it had to be something bad. I’m sorry.”
“Night before last I foolishly brought up adoption again after Tommy had been quite emphatic earlier in the day that he would never consider it. He looked at me for a brief moment then slapped me across the face with the back of his hand—hard. And every time I tried to say something, he hit me again. I don’t know; he just seemed to snap. I was scared.”
“What do you mean ‘and,’ Roy?” Gretchen raised her voice in astonishment. “He goddamn beat me up.”
Roy took a deep breath, unsure of what he should do.
“This the first time?”
“Pretty much. He’s been rough before, but nothing like this.”
Roy sat back in his chair. He didn’t really care to hear any more, but he had little choice. He was a friend and he intended to act like one.
Despite having been struck in the face, Gretchen showed no sign of Tommy’s abuse. Roy assumed she’d worked hard to hide the evidence. As he sat listening to Gretchen’s story, Roy’s thoughts were about Alison. For all her craziness, she was easier to deal with than Gretchen, and certainly far less needy. Neediness, after all, was what had driven Gretchen to marry Tommy in the first place.
Roy had never actually met Tommy. He knew him only through Gretchen’s stories and by reputation. He hadn’t been invited to the wedding. As a wealthy New York City real estate developer, Tommy belonged to an exclusive club—membership restricted to the well-connected, rich, and powerful. As a consequence, Tommy’s reputation was especially important to him. He wanted to be known as tough, savvy, and, ironically, a ladies man. The truth was very different. To hear Gretchen tell it, Tommy was an unhappy, frustrated, and violent man—a lousy lover and, unfortunately, impotent to boot. Gretchen could forget about kids. Not only was Tommy’s sperm not up to the task; he refused to even consider adoption or any other alternatives. Since she’d left Roy, Gretchen had shared much about her troubled marriage, but physical abuse was something new.
Drained after her surprising lengthy account of Tommy’s assault, Gretchen fell silent. . Roy took the opportunity to offer her another chance at some scotch. Again she declined.
“Is there more?” he asked nervously, hoping there wasn’t, but pretty sure there was.
Gretchen looked scared. Her cheeks were colorless, her face tense, as she strained to get out her next sentence.
“I told Tommy about us. I hadn’t meant to. It just came out. I was frightened and angry.”
“What do you mean, you told him about us? He already knew about us. It was no secret we’d had a four-year relationship that ended shortly before you married him.”
“But I told him it hadn’t ended.”
“Jesus, Gretchen, you did what?” Roy yelled, as he stood up and leaned across the desk. “I don’t fucking believe it. What possessed you? I thought we’d agreed that would always remain just between us.”
“Fuck you, Roy, I was getting beat up, goddammit. You try being rational when someone’s slapping you around.” Gretchen glared at Roy. He sat back down.
“Very stupid, Gretchen, very stupid,” Roy said angrily. “How many times have you told me that Tommy’s the most vindictive person you know?”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. He was hurting me. I wanted to hurt him back and I succeeded. At what cost, though, I’m not sure. I knew it was a big mistake as soon as I said it.”
Gretchen stood up, walked across the room, and faced the window. Roy knew she was silently crying. Again, he wasn’t sure what to do. Consoling her could easily put him in a place he didn’t want to be. Better to feel guilty about being seen as cold-hearted than get involved in a situation where he really couldn’t be of any use—and didn’t want to be. Feeling the need to say something, he finally suggested that she get some professional help. Not a particularly astute comment, but it was the best he could do.
Walking back across the room, Gretchen sat down again. She said she wasn’t sure why she’d come. She thought at the very least Roy deserved to know he was more than ever in Tommy’s crosshairs. Maybe she just needed to talk to someone she could trust, even someone whose compassion, at times, was lacking. Roy wondered, though, if perhaps she wasn’t looking for a safe place to stay, a place Tommy couldn’t invade. If so, Roy wasn’t prepared to provide it.
Gretchen didn’t stay much longer and they spent most of that time rehashing their own relationship, which made Roy uncomfortable. He couldn’t help her, and dredging up the past served no purpose. He was visibly relieved when Gretchen got up to leave. The goodbyes they exchanged were awkward.
Roy sat silently for a few minutes before glancing at his watch. He briefly considered an early exit, but had a mid-afternoon appointment with Alan Epstein that he couldn’t cancel. As much as he liked Alan, he wasn’t looking forward to the meeting. He knew it was Alan’s intention to convince him to meet with Ken Ashley. Roy couldn’t imagine why a big-shot real estate developer like Ken would have need of his services.
Nursing another scotch, Roy sat with his shoes off and his feet on his desk. He had an hour to kill before Alan arrived. He spent the time berating himself. He’d shown an appalling lack of sympathy for Gretchen’s plight. Now he felt bad. Bad about Gretchen, bad about her situation, and, frankly, bad about his own: sixty years old and eking out an existence as a freshman real estate agent at a two-bit firm. Maybe Ethel had been right after all. Maybe he hadn’t amounted to anything.
As Alan walked off the elevator, Wanda buzzed Roy. He went to meet him rather than make Alan navigate TPR’s maze of hallways. Roy found him standing off to the side in the reception area watching Wanda and Vinnie insult each other. Alan appeared amused by the show. Not so, Roy. As they went back to Roy’s office, Alan noticed dozens of file boxes, stacked floor to ceiling, running the length of every hallway.
“Hell of an office, Roy. Your firm fail to sign up for the digital age?”
Roy wasn’t amused.
“What were you expecting, Million Dollar Broker?”
“Not really, but not this.”
“Okay, so I’m not working with the high flyers. What else is new? I did right by you until your divorce attorney interfered. Want to advance me the commission that’s on indefinite hold?”
“Not really. But I have no complaints, Roy. You’re an old friend. We’ve known each other for a long time. We just never needed to meet at your office.”
“Would that have mattered?”
“I don’t think so, but you have to admit the place isn’t impressive. And those clowns up front don’t do a lot for your company’s image.”
“Okay. You made your point. Let’s not dwell on it. And it’s not my company.”
“Jesus, Roy. You’re touchy today.”
“Fine, Alan, I’m touchy today. Not much I can do about that at the moment.”
Roy shook his head, opened the bottom drawer of his desk, and pulled out the scotch. Refilling his own glass, he offered one to Alan. He declined.
“You know, I’m probably going to be a difficult sell today. Why don’t you just tell me what kind of favor you’re trying to do for your buddy Ken, because it seems clear to me that this is more for him than for me.”
Alan looked at Roy and questioned whether it made sense to continue.
“Perhaps this isn’t the optimum time for this conversation. Maybe we should reschedule.”
“There isn’t going to be an optimum time, Alan. You’re here now. Just get on with it. But do me a favor—considering my mood—skip the prologue.”
“Okay, but I need to ask you something first.” Alan paused briefly, searching for a diplomatic way forward. “What are you doing here, Roy? You’re better than this,” he said, as he gestured with his hand to indicate the office Roy now occupied. “Didn’t you have other options?”
“You want the truth? No. Not when I accepted this position.”
“Another reason you should talk to Ken.”
“Listen, Alan. For the record, I was offered a much better position just last month. A better working environment, better leads, better colleagues—a situation quite different from TPR’s amateur hour. I turned it down. If I’m going to make a change, it’s got to be something entirely different. This just isn’t my game. How does Ken’s opportunity take real estate sales out of the equation?”
“Talk to him.”
“Maybe,” Roy said, pausing to consider the prospect of meeting with Ken before launching into a completely unrelated story. “Last week, I received an offer on an apartment owned by TPR. They own several around the city. But no TPR sales person had an exclusive; any company agent was welcome to show it. It was a huge loft: high ceilings, tons of light, and terrific views. I got a good offer from a lovely couple—both architects. It meant a big commission for me. TPR accepted the offer. My clients were thrilled. What happened? The next day TPR received a better offer from a client of a different in-house agent, so they reneged on my deal. There was nothing in writing, so legally they were fine. I had to make up some cockamamie excuse to cover myself. But, Jesus, where were TPR’s ethics? I mean, I’ve done things I’m not proud of, but child’s play compared to that.”
“How many times do I have to say it? You should talk to Ken.”
“Really, Alan? Is that what you think I should do?”
“Fuck you, Roy. Save the sarcasm for your clients.”
“Hey, I’m tired, okay. And I’m frustrated. I hate being a real estate agent. Try it sometime. See for yourself. Sure there are some decent brokers, but the industry’s full of people who have failed elsewhere and think it’s an easy gig. Still others see big money in a job requiring little education and less effort. And the clients, by and large, are an ungrateful bunch, and mostly a pain in the ass.”
“I get it, Roy. I do. But can you stop talking for a minute and listen?”
Alan looked at Roy and wondered whether he was still capable of paying attention.
“And at the risk of really pissing you off,” Alan said, “I think maybe it’s time to put that away.” He pointed to the bottle of scotch.
“Fuck you,” Roy said, smiling.
“Skip the attitude, okay. I’m here with a friendly suggestion.”
“Fine,” Roy said, as he put the scotch back in the drawer, but not before topping off his glass.
“Ken needs help with some real estate he owns in Buxton, North Carolina—on the Outer Banks. It’s a beautiful piece of ocean front property, with a string of high-end bungalows that rent for a fortune. The property needs to be sold and the only interested party is someone to whom Ken doesn’t want to sell. Besides, the guy’s offer isn’t close to what Ken wants, but he needs to do something quickly. So, he has a proposition for the right person.”
“And I’m supposed to be the right person?” Roy asked, disparagingly.
“Jesus, Roy, I’m on your side.”
“Really? It’s not like you to chose the losing side.”
“Knock it off. We’re friends in case you forgot.”
“Alan, let’s be honest. You’re here to recruit for Ken and I’m extremely skeptical. The last thing I need is false hope. Just tell me what the fuck this is all about.”
“Ken wants to be the one to explain how it works.”
“Great. Listen, Alan, I’m neither a developer nor a landlord. What the hell do I want with high-end bungalows on the Outer Banks?”
“It doesn’t involve being a developer or a landlord, but it would mean moving to North Carolina.”
“You got to be kidding. Move to North Carolina? Christ, it would take a hell of lot of money to get me there.”
“And Ken would give it to you.”
“I don’t know, Alan. I think it sounds like a huge waste of time.”
“It doesn’t hurt to find out. It’s definitely worth a trip uptown just to see Ken’s office. Is your time so valuable these days that you can’t fit a meeting into your busy schedule?”
Roy knew Alan wasn’t about to give up. He was on a mission for Ken and conceding defeat was out of the question. Besides, Roy wondered what it was really all about. More than any intrinsic interest, it was Roy’s curiosity that made him capitulate.
“Okay,” Roy said half-heartedly. “Set it up.”
…to be continued…
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