Man of the Year
Our omniscient observer flaps her hand at us. “Closer,” she demands. “Squeeze in. There you go.”
Contrary to the assumption held by photographers around the world, wearing black and avoiding conversation does not render one invisible at parties. She needn’t shout and wave her arms as though we’re children.
“Pretend you like each other.” She laughs at her own tired joke.
She fancies herself a fly on the wall, both an artist and an illusionist, zooming around like a goth banshee in this pop-up ballroom in a fancy tent, capturing moments so that we may objectify ourselves later. We’ll sort through pages of proofs to find the images that best represent us—which is to say, represent us most handsomely. She stands on chairs for better angles. She drags my family outside so we can pose in better light.
I wrap my arm around Elizabeth’s shoulder and pull her into my armpit.
“I can’t feel my cheeks,” she mutters without breaking her smile.
“Missed your calling,” I whisper.
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
“Ventriloquist,” I say, and she goes ha-ha without moving her lips.
The photographer wags her finger. “Give me just one more minute, Dr. Hart, and you can talk all you want.”
Jonah groans. “Can we take the picture, please?” He’s being rude, but it’s what we’re all feeling. There are hands to shake and an open bar to drain. We’ve been held hostage long enough.
“Cool it, Son,” I say. “Let the girl do her job.”
Another flick of the hand, another test shot, then showtime. “Beautiful family,” she declares: unsolicited approval. “Just great. Okay, now everyone—say, ‘Forhe’sajollygoodfellow!’?”
We laugh despite ourselves, and the flash pops, and my beautiful family is digitally captured in a state of joy and intimacy.
“Christmas card,” Elizabeth says. She drops her head and massages her temples. “If that turns out, we should make it our Christmas card.”
“We’ll see.” It’s only June, and besides, it feels vulgar to send Season’s Greetings with an image taken solely in honor of me.
Jonah is already halfway to our table when Elizabeth shouts, “Come back here.” To the photographer, she says, “Wait.”
I take my wife gently by the elbow. “Do you have Stockholm syndrome? We’re free to go. Let’s go.”
She’s looking past me, nervously assessing someone or something over my shoulder. “Don’t you think we ought to take one with Nick?”
“With Nick? No. Let’s go.”
“Look at him, Bobby.” I follow her gaze to the brooding young man leaning against the reception table, waiting for Jonah. My eyes linger on a giant poster of my face—pupils large as thumbprints, smile as big as a dinner plate—bearing the caption Dr. Robert Hart: Sag Harbor Citizen of the Year.
“Yeah,” I concede, “he’s photogenic. Doesn’t mean he should be in our picture.”
“Not what I meant. You don’t think it’s cruel to make him watch us take family photos when he doesn’t have any family at all?”
“We hardly know the kid.”
“He’s not a stranger, Bobby.”
“You know what I mean.”
“He’s important to Jonah,” Elizabeth says. “That’s what matters. I want him to feel comfortable and not resentful.”
Resentful of what? Our happy family? I’m not concerned with Nick Carpenter’s resentments, but I do care about my son, and Lizzie’s right, of course. Nick has been good for him. Jonah was a grade-A loner those first two years in the dorms, but now he has a roommate who’s also a friend,
which means he must have a social life, which means maybe he’ll stop threatening to drop out of college every time the going gets rough, and maybe he’ll figure out what he wants to do with this privileged life of his.
Jonah joins our huddle. “What’s up?”
“Lizzie thinks Nick should be in a picture.”
Disregarding the stage of our current debate, Jonah waves his friend over. So that settles that. Without taking his hands out of the pockets of his rented tuxedo, Nick pushes his body off the table and saunters toward us. He should have shaved for tonight. He should have combed his hair at least, but something tells me this messy look is intentional. Is that the style? And moreover: When did I get old enough to start thinking, Kids these days . . .?
“One more,” Elizabeth tells the photographer, who has been fidgeting with straps and tripods during our family meeting, while awaiting our verdict. To Nick, Lizzie smiles and says, “Get in here.”
And so, once more we squeeze together, pretending to like one another, and this time when the flash pops, we say, Cheese.
• • •
Raymond is ready for me when I meet him at the bar. He hands me one of the gin and tonics in his hands and clinks my glass with his. “Nice speech you gave up there, Sergio de Berniac.”
“Cyrano,” I say. We drink.
“Cyrano de Bergerac.”
“Okay, Yale-boy,” he mocks.
“Hey, I’m not the only Yalie in the house tonight, dickhead.”
Scanning a crowd of stand-up citizens in black tie, he says, “Clearly not. I’m about to go into septic shock from all the bullshit in the air.”
“Cute.” I down the rest of my drink and toast the bartender with my empty glass. “Two more?” He nods and goes about making our watered-down cocktails.
“I’m not kidding,” Raymond tells me. “That speech was something else. Got a tear in my eye, no lie.”
“Sure it wasn’t from all the bullshit in the air?”
“That’s true, but it was still touching. You’re sort of a big deal around here, huh?”
I roll my eyes.
“Hey, enjoy it while it lasts,” he says. “Once you reach the pinnacle, there’s nowhere to go but down.”
“I’m having second thoughts about inviting you.”
He laughs. “In all seriousness, I’m proud of you, man. This is great.”
“Thanks.” I choke down the compliment. “It was cool of you to come. You really didn’t have to.”
“Hey, my oldest friend gets knighted, and you think I’d miss it?”
“Knighted. Yeah, right. Sir Man of the Year right here.”
“Sir Citizen, actually.”
“Exactly. Fuck these guys. They don’t even know.”
“No they don’t,” I say, and we clink glasses and drink again.
Raymond Harrison: my only friend from the South Shore who stayed true long after I left town. Ray gets me, and he forgives me, because even though he’s stayed loyal to West Babylon and claims he’d never leave for a million bucks, we both know his conviction is born of fear. As long as he shields himself from what he’s missing, he won’t miss it. So he visits me in Sag Harbor sometimes, and we talk about the old days and how Long Island has changed. He’ll tell me about some new bar that just opened, or about his new supervisor or apprentice, and we’ll debate whether renovations at the Coliseum were worth the Islanders’ troubles, and how the Jets still can’t seem to pull it off, but how the Mets might surprise us—until they don’t. When we run out of things to hash and rehash, we’ll talk about our families. He’ll ask too many questions, wanting to know if his troubles are normal. Then he’ll go home to his normal and I’ll go home to mine, and we’ll each do our best to forget about the other normal: the one he’ll never have, the one I left behind. Six months later, we’ll do it again.
On the far end of the dance floor, a twelve-piece band begins playing “Lady in Red.” Given as how the only woman wearing a red evening
gown tonight is my wife, de facto lady of honor, I take this as my cue to showcase romance for public approval.
“I ought to go,” I tell Ray. A city councilman with an untied bow tie is asking my wife to dance. She’s looking around, presumably for me, presumably for a rescue from wandering hands and whiskey breath. The pervert takes her by the waist. “Duty calls.”
“Yeah, I really feel for you, man.” Ray smirks. “I swear, if she was anybody’s wife but yours . . .”
“I said if. Give me a break. But believe me when I say there’s not a man in this room who wouldn’t if he could.”
“I get it. You want to bang my wife.”
He laughs out loud. “No, Bobby. Everyone wants to bang your wife.”
I slap him on the back. “Class act as always, Raymond. Class act.”
“Hey, I’m just looking out for you. Like I said, shit gets real at the top. You’ve got a position to defend.” This cracks him up.
“Thanks for the support. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better get to the front lines.”
His laughter lingers even as I turn my back and walk away. It takes everything in me not to throw a middle finger in the air, but there are cameras here, and we both know his fuckery is an expression of endearment. Ray still sees himself as a big dog teasing the runt of the litter, which may be as close to brotherly love as I’m liable to get in this lifetime, so I’ll take it. Let him laugh. We both know this runt is doing just fine.
The dance floor is clear except for a few couples on the periphery still hugging in circles or cycling through their stock sequences of dips and spins—and Elizabeth, of course. All eyes are on my Elizabeth, a slip of fire, red satin fluttering at her feet. In this moment, she is not just desirable. She is desired. And she is mine. Is there anything more seductive than knowing I’m the one they all wish they could be? The political perv has been replaced by Nick Carpenter—all of what, twenty? He rests his fingers on my wife’s lower back. Lizzie twirls under his other hand and lets him spin her toward his chest, where he catches her body and twists with it. They laugh. Guests form a crescent moon around them.
“Excuse me,” I mumble, pushing my way through a crowd that’s nearly an audience. “Coming through.” I say it loud enough to amuse the guests, as though I’m Bogie going after Bacall. People applaud when I cross the shiny parquet floor, tap this kid (who should have shaved) on the shoulder, and say, “May I cut in?”
To his credit, Nick understands that it isn’t a question. He bows and takes his hands off my wife, and he is young and bashful after all. Good on him to take the moment by the balls, but now his moment is over. I grab Elizabeth’s waist and let the room explode with cheers and whistles. As if I’d fired the gun that says go, couples flood the floor for one last slow dance before driving home drunk to pay babysitters on time, or to gossip about who did what when, who looked different and why, how the food was, how the band was, who should be nominated next year, and who should win. Every man will elect himself, and tonight, when they watch their own wives crawl into bed, they’ll wonder if Elizabeth Hart sleeps in stained T-shirts and cotton briefs too, but I’ll be the only one who knows unequivocally that no, she does not.
“I see Ray’s here,” Elizabeth acknowledges. She smiles, as if this pleases her. Anyone watching us now would think we’re talking about someone she likes. “Did you two have a nice chat?”
“He is and we did,” I say. “It was good of him to come.”
“So good. Any lewd comments worth reporting, or is the night still young?”
“Nothing to report,” I lie. “He’s on his best behavior.” Raymond is still leaning against the bar, sipping gin and watching us dance. Elizabeth and I nod in his direction. He raises his glass. Here, here. “See? Perfect gentleman.”
“A regular Prince Charming.” She kisses me on the mouth. Somewhere behind me, a camera flash flares.
“He liked your speech,” I tell her as she twirls out, then back, settling into the nook where my neck and shoulder meet.
“Your speech,” she corrects.
“Said it nearly made him cry.”
“Gauche and sensitive, is he? What a special man.”
“He said the part about my wife being my rock gave him a hard-on.”
She slides her cheek away from mine and gives me that look, and she knows what she’s doing with her little smile, those sleepy eyes. “You liked that, did you?”
With one strong hand on her back and another at her waist, I pull her body closer, pressing her hips into mine. “Yes. I did.” I delight in her act of discovery.
“Wow,” she says. “Everyone’s hot for my speech tonight, huh?”
“My speech,” I whisper.
She brings her lips to my ear and whispers back, “Song’s almost over. You’d better put that thing away.”