Union Square | Terry Sanville
Veronica stares into the mirror and frowns. Using a pinky finger, she applies moisturizer to the creases around her eyes. Why do they call them crows’ feet? Couldn’t they at least call them ravens’ feet? Sounds more mysterious. She sighs and smears cold cream across her forehead then works it into her cheeks, feels the facial topography shift. It has been her nightly ritual since freshman year at Boston College, when a milky-white complexion, startling red lips, and a pushed-out sweater made all the difference. For Veronica, they still do.
She had graduated from BC just before the uncouth 1960s took over, felt lucky when Walter pinned her at the beginning of senior year. He’d swept her away to New York where they married and bought a split-level in White Plains. They lived close enough for him to commute to his father’s Manhattan law firm, but far enough from the City to avoid its denigrating influence. They joined the neighborhood association, the tennis club, and tried to have children.
While other couples populated the parkway, they remained luckless. Over time, their desire to try faded, like paint on the sides of sunlit buildings. Veronica volunteered at the library and raised funds for UNICEF. Walter worked late and returned home with his valise stuffed with tedious documents for her to proofread. They had dutifully attended the firm’s party on New Year’s Eve, 1973, and returned home in a surprisingly amorous state.
Two months later Veronica announced at the breakfast table, “Walter, honey, I’m late.”
He stared at her blankly. “What do you mean? Late for what?”
Her mouth twitched upward. “I’m going to have a baby.”
“How did that happen? I thought we couldn’t…”
“Evidently we can.”
On an Indian summer afternoon, Megan was born. Labor and delivery had been long and painful. Veronica rested at home, cared for by a day nurse. Outside, cicadas hummed in the alder trees. Lying in bed with Megan at her breast, she thought about the years ahead and giggled. She felt that they had finally been welcomed into the club, the stigma of childlessness left behind.
When Meg reached her early teens, she and Veronica took the train into the City. They spent Saturday afternoons wandering the aisles of Bloomingdale’s or Saks, modeling jewelry, spraying themselves with perfume from gold-plated samplers, and trying on clothes. Veronica worked hard on the tennis courts to keep her figure while Megan hadn’t developed one. Most of the girl’s facial features resembled Walter’s. Veronica worried that her daughter might look like her husband’s mannish sister.
“Mother, there’s more to life than having big boobs,” Megan complained after Veronica suggested that she include some well-placed padding in her junior prom gown.
“Yes, yes, you’re right. But you also know how important it is to impress boys. They can be so blind to how pretty you are.”
All of that changed when Megan started taking birth control pills at the beginning of her senior year, a secret prescription from the public health clinic. Veronica noticed how her daughter’s arms and legs filled out, became more estrogenic, and her chest more apparent. They even looked a little alike, although Megan had straight black hair with dark eyes, while Veronica colored her curls strawberry blonde to complement her snapping baby blues. Also, road maps had formed across Veronica’s face that makeup couldn’t hide.
Megan’s boyfriends came and went— not so many, but enough to convince Veronica that her daughter was normal. To her relief, Meg’s teen years passed without trauma. Walter told her how the other lawyers recounted horror stories over late-afternoon brandies in the library. One had frowned and said: “These kids all try drugs. And sex…well, that’s a given.”
As a full partner, the office staff now proofread all of Walter’s paperwork. Robbed of this diversion, Veronica studied property law and marketing at the community college. She took a real estate course, passed her licensing test on the first try, and began showing homes. She’d spend an hour each morning dressing for success— quality pastel business suits with just the right cleavage and perfect jewelry. She wore her hair short and curled. It bounced when she dashed through two-story townhouses. The money in her bank account, which Walter let her keep, grew to the high five figures.
“I’m glad you’re doing this,” Megan told her. “At least you’re not spending all your time fawning over me.”
“I’m not that bad, am I?”
“Yes…sometimes. But instead of buying me stuff, the money you make hustling houses can help cover my college expenses.” A simpering smile played across Meg’s face.
Veronica felt proud that her daughter had a clue about how things got paid. So mature for her age.
In February of Meg’s senior year, with her enrollment at Syracuse University secured, Walter died. A brain aneurysm struck without warning. He just never came home from the office. Dozens of men dressed in expensive suits with wives hanging on their arms attended the funeral. For Veronica, the ceremony felt as gray as the lawyers’ suits. She gazed at the wives and wondered whether she too looked so weathered.
Walter’s investments left Veronica in a stable financial position, if she managed them wisely. At home after the funeral, she reviewed the portfolio.
“You know, Meg, it looks tight. I can still swing your college education…but only an undergraduate degree. If you want to go further, you’ll have to find the money.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. Most architects only have a four- or five-year degree. I’ll learn the rest on the job.”
Megan seemed to relax after that and became more attentive to Veronica, who threw herself into real estate. She interviewed for a job with a large firm and was chosen out of more than ninety applicants.
“It’s your sense of quality that gave you an edge,” Gregory Hamilton, her new boss, told her.
“I suppose, I just grew up that way.”
“You know, we get all sorts of housewives trying to do this work and they just can’t cut it. But you— you have an eye for what people with class need. And from what we hear, you’re good with the wives.”
“The right house can give a woman strength and peace. It’s a personal relationship, don’t you think?”
Hamilton stared at her. “Yeah, I know you gals are all about relationships.” He flashed her a condescending smile and returned to his paperwork.
During Megan’s time at Syracuse, her mother phoned every two weeks. They talked about course work, professors, boys, roommates, and real estate. Meg felt glad that her mother stayed out of the house, worked with people, and seemed to elude loneliness and despair. But Megan struggled to compete with boys in her architecture classes. They had more experience with construction and had pegged her as an ice queen. She felt overwhelmed, feared isolation, and desperately needed an ally.
In mid-April of Megan’s third year, the phone calls stopped. She thought her mother must have gotten busy with showing spring houses. After a month of hearing nothing, she phoned home and got the answering machine. What she got back two days later was a message, to meet at the Union Square Restaurant the following Saturday. They would do lunch then shop afterwards.
The message said nothing about why the phone calls had stopped. Megan conjured up reasons: a bad medical condition, money problems, getting fired, sexual harassment, or even a love interest. She left Syracuse early. Reaching the City, she parked her car off the Square and approached the posh restaurant. Her mother sat at their favorite window booth, chatting with the waitress. She looked vivacious. The dread that Megan had carried with her from Syracuse began to lift.
“So how was your drive down?” Veronica asked.
Megan slid into the booth and unbuttoned her blazer. She stared at her mother, openmouthed. While the crows’ feet still bordered Veronica’s eyes, the deep creases in her forehead and cheeks had disappeared. She looked years younger, sporting an apricot scarf over a beige business suit. A string of pearls adorned her tanned chest.
“Mother, what have you done?”
A bit of color came to Veronica’s face. “Well, I had the money, so I thought I would take care of those wrinkles.” She traced the route of the removed imperfections with a burgundy fingernail. “Dr. Rosenthal will do my eyes next.”
“You didn’t look that bad,” Megan protested.
“I know, I know. But the business world adores youth, darling. You’ll find that out soon enough. I took a couple weeks off for the procedure in January— had plenty to do at home with the contractor, anyway. What do you think of the results?”
“You got your money’s worth. But the rest of you looks…different.”
“I’ve been swimming, twenty-five laps a day. It took the fat off in just the right places. Not bad for an old broad, don’t you think?”
“As always, you look better than me.”
Veronica opened her menu and studied the selections, hiding an impish smirk. The two sat quietly. The waitress arrived and took their orders.
“You should check back in a little while,” Veronica said. “We’ll have another person joining us.”
Megan stared at her with raised eyebrows.
“Don’t look at me like that. It’s a colleague who wants to meet you. They’re only stopping by for a few minutes and we’ll have the rest of the afternoon to shop.”
The silence grew along with the list of questions that Megan wanted to ask. Mom tells me nothing about why she stopped phoning, and now a mystery guest? Meg hoped that it wasn’t some sex-starved agent dressed in a bad leisure suit, who never went to college and was one step up from a used car salesman. The image made Megan shiver.
“You’re not catching a cold, are you dear?”
Megan shook her head and dug into the arugula salad that the waitress delivered. She eyed her mother as Veronica carefully cut the leaves with a knife and slowly wrapped her brilliant red lips around each bite. Meg looked away, stared at the restaurant’s entrance, at the flow of patrons coming and going.
They ate in silence, then talked about the café over digestifs, how the owner had opened two similar restaurants in the City. Veronica had helped close those deals, working with a senior agent.
“You know, I’ve wanted to branch out and get involved with commercial properties and that was the perfect chance. Jo— I mean Josephine and I really worked well together and we’ve teamed up on other projects.” Veronica spewed out the details between sips of Cointreau that made her mouth twist into a grimace. “That’s who I invited to stop by. You should know who your Mom will be partnering with.”
Megan sighed, realizing that she’d been breathing shallowly ever since her mother had mentioned the mystery guest. The idea of her mom being in a sexual relationship disturbed Megan, although she considered herself a liberated Generation Xer.
“Are you sure about this business thing, Mom? I know you’re a real estate whiz. But you could get in over your head.”
“Don’t worry, dear. I won’t spend your tuition; and that’s why I’ve asked Jo to be my mentor. She’s been selling retail and office properties for years and knows all the major players. And besides, with her contacts, she can get us the best theater tickets in town. Ah, here she is now.”
Megan controlled an urge to immediately turn and stare. Instead, she managed a stiff pirouette in her seat and a quiet smile. A middle-aged woman moved toward them. Jo wore a low-cut burgundy business suit, with a gold necklace and dangling earrings. As she crossed the dinning room, Megan noticed how the woman’s velvet-black skin contrasted with the white tablecloths and the crystal-with-silver settings. Jo had huge teeth with a smile so broad that Meg wondered if she could wrap it around the top of a water glass.
It’s not a race thing, she told herself. I know plenty of black people from school. But it was something in Josephine’s movements that raised Megan’s guard— a sense of controlled sensuality and confidence that made the girl clutch her purse, as if something was about to be stolen.
“And you must be Megan,” Josephine said. She stood over the table and extended a hand. Her grasp felt strong. “Your mother told me you’re studying architecture at Syracuse— a good school, but such a man’s business. But you look strong enough for it.”
Meg smiled coolly and withdrew her hand. Josephine slid into the booth next to Veronica. She studied the cocktail menu and looked up just as the waitress arrived to take her order: a double Dewar’s on the rocks, no water.
“I’ve spent all morning working out the escrow instructions for the Maynard Building. The buyers are still nervous about the bootlegged remodels. We had to come down a bit to get them to sign.”
Jo rattled off her story in a contralto voice. She and Veronica debated the details. Megan stared out the window at the passing crowds and applied Chap Stick to her pale-as-ice lips.
“I’m sorry, dear. We didn’t mean to ignore you,” Veronica said. “It’s just that this sale is big for both of us.” Megan’s eyebrows arched upward, caught in the act of tossing off the remains of her port.
“Your mother is right. If it weren’t for Ronnie’s work, we’d still be pedaling that building up and down the boulevard.” Josephine grinned and lifted her glass in salute to Veronica.
“I’m really happy for you both.” Checking her wristwatch, Megan wondered whether she’d beat the afternoon rush out of the City. They sat without speaking, staring at street vendors hawking their wares. A hansom cab clopped past.
“Did I tell you that the contractor finally finished the remodeling?” Veronica asked.
Megan shook her head.
“My home office is complete and the bathroom redone, just in time for Jo to move in. With you away at the University I didn’t think you’d mind, what with the house being so empty. You don’t do you, dear?”
Josephine slowly reached over with an immaculate hand and cupped it around Veronica’s. Megan saw how neatly they fit together, like the Ying and Yang symbol painted on the yoga shop’s window down the street.
“No… no of course not, Mother. My old stuff won’t get in your way, will it?” She looked at Josephine and throttled back a shudder.
Veronica leaned toward her daughter. “I know this is a big change. But…but Jo and I have been together for several months, and it just feels right. Not something I expected in a million years.”
Megan let out a deep breath and laughed. “Mother, you were the one who worried about me in high school, remember? To tell the truth, I was afraid you’d fallen for some fat agent with male-pattern baldness.”
Veronica and Josephine exploded into laughter, causing restaurant patrons to glare as the guffaws floated over the clatter of plates and silverware.
“At first it wasn’t what you think,” Veronica continued, “but as we got comfortable with each other we fell in love…not the same as with your father, but kind and considerate with no pressure. And then the sex started and that was, well—”
“Mother, you don’t need to be graphic. I’m happy for you both, really.”
“I’m glad of that,” Jo said, her face serious. “My son still can’t accept it. I haven’t been asked over to their place since I came out four years ago, not even for Thanksgiving. That’s when your mother and I first got together, last November. I think Ronnie told me you had decided to stay in Syracuse to study with your roommate. We both had no one to be with.”
The two realtors chattered about the final touches to remodeling the house. Megan watched the shadows lengthen on the sidewalk under the ginkgo trees. Finally, Jo excused herself after paying for their lunches with great bravado. Mother and daughter wandered through the shopping district, trying on clothes. Megan kept an eye out for something for her roommate, Ruth, a perfect size 6. She would be hurt if Meg returned without a present.
On the long drive back to Syracuse, Meg thought about her day in the City. Why does this freak me out so much? It just doesn’t seem right that Mom is a lesbian. She should stay like I remember her…with Dad… when I was growing up. The whole thing with that pushy bitch is just too weird.
The hours passed and the sun dipped behind a ridgeline. On the city’s outskirts, Megan pulled her car under the trees next to an old wood-frame house. In the darkness, crickets chirped their evening serenade. A golden glow shone from their ground-floor apartment. The porch light blinked on and Ruth appeared behind the screen, wearing only a slip. She pushed outside and ran toward Megan, giggling. “What did you bring me, sweet cheeks?”
“Just a little something from Nordstrom.”
“I’ve got a little something for you.” Ruth planted a kiss full on her mouth.
Megan relaxed into the arms of her most passionate ally.
Veronica finished her facial and slipped into a nightgown. Josephine snored on her side of the bed. Multicolored light from a muted TV flickered across Jo’s face. Veronica thought about her afternoon with Megan. She hoped that someday when her daughter announced her intentions for selecting a mate, it would go as smoothly. She could hardly wait to meet the future groom and his parents.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 220 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and Conclave: A Journal of Character. He was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize for his stories “The Sweeper,” and “The Garage.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.