by Tsipi Keller


WHEN MONEY is a given, when your spirit is unencumbered and your mind free of relentless and demeaning bookkeeping, how easy it is to have style. How easy to acquire taste when your resources are limitless, when you come from a home where luxury is perceived as absolute necessity, very much like fresh air.

            Allowing herself a subdued, contented groan, Maggie stretches out on the armchair, as if to extract the optimum, soothing comfort the exquisitely soft leather affords. With loving, covetous eyes, she takes in Robin's palatial living room, Robin's tall glass doors which lead to the balcony beyond. The balcony, Maggie knows, overlooks the East River, so velvety dark and menacing at this hour. Her entire apartment could fit in this room, and the armchair alone is worth more than the sparse, second-hand furnishings she has haphazardly put together in her own home. At least, she muses with a touch of self-deprecating irony, she has it in her to appreciate beautiful things.

             It is Sunday evening. Tomorrow is Monday. Maggie abhors the fact that a new week is about to begin. She hears the blender going in the kitchen and feels a certain vindication tinged with gratitude for Robin who is laboring on her account, mixing frozen margaritas. Maggie would have been satisfied with a simple glass of wine, but Robin, magnanimously, suggested margaritas, and Maggie, thinking of the cold wind blowing outside, hesitated a moment, still opting for wine, but then said yes, she would have a margarita.

            "All set," Robin's voice rings out as she marches into the room, carrying a tray; Maggie, ever so imperceptibly, straightens up in the chair. In her cashmere turtleneck and leather mini-skirt, Robin looks her chic and sexy best, and Maggie's heart swells with envy and admiration. She now regrets not having bothered to change into something more seductive than her black jeans and sweater before leaving the house. How does she expect to attract attention to herself when she goes out, especially with Robin at her side, if she doesn't put more effort into it?

            Robin has set the tray on the low coffee table and now kneels down on the carpet, picking up the blue glass decanter and pouring their drinks into beautiful matching goblets. Robin's every gesture is assuredly poised as if, like a geisha, she's been versed, from a very young age, in the high art of entertaining guests. Kneeling down as she does she epitomizes the accomplished, gracious hostess; Maggie looks forward to the day when she, too, will be established in such, or perhaps even grander, surroundings where, at last, she'd have the opportunity to reveal her exceptional gifts.

            "I just know you'd love the Bahamas," Robin says, handing Maggie her drink. "Just think. The water is so warm and caressing, and we both know how much you love the water."

            Robin's voice is also warm and caressing, and Maggie is pleased by the notion that her likes and dislikes are important enough to earn Robin's attention.

            "That I do," Maggie says, letting out a short laugh. "I love the water." She takes a careful sip of the icy margarita, remembering not to swallow too fast. "It's delicious," she says.

            "I'm glad." Robin tears open a pack of M&Ms and sprawls herself on the leather couch. "I've never steered you wrong, have I? Paradise Island is a dream, and it's so close! A couple of hours on the plane, and we're there, in Paradise." She smiles at Maggie, and Maggie marvels again at how Robin's eyes are always bright and shiny, as if reflecting some pure, inner light. Which is a source of confusion to Maggie because she knows that Robin is far from pure.

            "Did I tell you?" Robin pauses a moment. "Last time I was there"--she pops a couple of M&Ms into her mouth--"I fucked my brains out, and gambled a lot. I even made some money which helped pay for my trip."

            As if mesmerized, Maggie watches the M&Ms disappear in Robin's mouth. She mulls over, "fucked my brains out," so casually uttered by her friend. She finds herself admiring the audacity, the implied violence, the hard-core sexuality of those few words. Only Robin could say such a thing without sounding cheap. Robin is too white, too creamy, to ever sound cheap. Her good breeding shows on her face, on her smooth skin. Especially tonight, as she sits on her black leather couch, wearing her lavender cashmere turtleneck.

            Robin can afford cashmere: on top of her salary, she gets a monthly allowance from her parents. Good breeding and class; it is clear that Robin never lacked for anything. Robin, who is secretive about her exact money situation, but lets it be known she comes from wealth, every so often dropping a hint or two about her glamorous parents in L.A. She is lavish when it comes to her own needs, but calculating and quite the tightwad when it comes to others. When Maggie and Robin go out to dinner, Robin orders the most expensive dish on the menu, but never offers to pay more when they split the bill. Often, Maggie resolves that she, too, will order an expensive dish, but can never bring herself to do so, reasoning that by this act of rebellion she'll be only punishing herself, having to pay even more in the end. Resigned, she concludes that some people, people like Robin, are generous to themselves and miserly toward others, while some people, people like her, are generous to others and miserly toward themselves.

            Because of her own, not very impressive background, Maggie feels inferior to Robin, and therefore grateful to have someone like Robin for a friend. They met right after Maggie divorced Tom and moved downtown to start a new life. She and Robin temped for a while at the same ad agency and, thanks to Maggie's persistent initiatives, they kept in touch after their respective assignments ended. With time, they became friends. Close friends, Maggie likes to believe, even if Robin tends to act superior, and sometimes downright condescending. Yet Maggie has trained herself to tolerate Robin's attitude, for the simple reason that Robin is usually right when she criticizes Maggie, and Maggie is eager to learn, she wants to better herself.

            As Robin licks her fingers, an image flashes through Maggie's mind and she sees a swollen penis in Robin's luscious mouth. The darkish-reddish intrusion, thrust in Robin's face, disfigures it, and Maggie is filled with revulsion, yet invokes the image again and again, as if compelled. She tries to imagine Robin in bed with a man, and she wonders if Robin, or any other woman, actually enjoys having her brains fucked out. Maybe she's old-fashioned, but she still believes in love, true love, and tenderness. Yes, to love someone, someone who would love her back without reserve.

            More M&Ms pop into Robin's mouth in quick succession. Robin's teeth, Maggie reflects, must tingle with sugar. Just the thought of it, makes her own teeth hurt. She doesn't want any candy, but wishes that Robin would offer her some all the same.

            "So?" Robin says, crunching down on a candy. "Will you come? You love to gamble, Maggie. We'll have fun."

            Maggie smiles. How sweet and charming Robin is when she decides to play the part, smiling her beautiful, seductive, somewhat mischievous smile.

            "I'd love to go," Maggie says, but is still undecided. In a couple of weeks, Robin is planning a trip to the Bahamas; she wants Maggie to join her. Presumably to let Maggie share in the fun, but in fact, so Maggie suspects, because Robin does not want to go alone and, travelling with a friend, may get a better package deal. After all, she knows Robin, knows how Robin operates. She has the sense that Robin assumes that her motives remain hidden, which, Maggie thinks, is part of Robin's allure. It's a subtle thing that Robin does; perhaps she doesn't even try to mask her motives.

            "Who did you go with last time?"

            "With Lucy, I don't think you two have met?"

            "No." Maggie has heard of Lucy, but Robin, so far, has kept Lucy to herself, which, Maggie has to admit, she resents a little bit. She is dying to ask why Lucy won't be joining Robin this time around, but is not sure she wants to hear the answer. And yet. "Why don't you ask Lucy to go with you?" she asks.

            "Because." Robin smiles, shaking her head and the mass of wavy, auburn hair. "You're so insecure, Maggie. You think I've asked Lucy, and Lucy refused, right?"

            Maggie shrugs, smirking, acknowledging that perhaps Robin has guessed correctly.

            "But you're wrong, see?" Robin continues. "I haven't asked Lucy, yet. I'd rather have you come with me."

            Maggie is flattered. So, it is all in her head, she reflects. She must consider the possibility that Robin has no ulterior motives, that Robin is just being Robin, and Maggie's convoluted thoughts and distrust have more to do with her middle-class circumstances, circumstances she'd do well to forget and put behind her. She should feel privileged, and frequently she does, that Robin has accepted her as a friend. At times she even wonders why Robin sticks with her.

            Maggie muffles a sigh. Such confusion in her head, a sort of rumble in her chest, and it's all her doing. This is the sort of intricate, maze-like thinking and doubts she has to battle when she is with Robin. "What if we fight?" she asks with sudden clarity; she doesn't want to lose Robin.

            "Oh, Maggie, don't be negative."

            "You're right." Maggie tries to think. A question still nags at her, and she carefully modulates a light, detached tone. "I guess it's cheaper if you get a friend to travel with you."

            Robin jerks her head upward and seems to contemplate the ceiling before lowering her gaze and resting her clear, hazel eyes on Maggie. "Not by much, actually. And money, my dear, is not the issue. I just think it'll be fun for us to spend time together. But don't let me pressure you. You don't have to come if you don't want to, you know."

            "I know." Maggie's heart beats a little faster. Invariably, when told she doesn't have to do something, she is tempted all the more. But money, in her case, is the issue. Still, she could manage the trip if she wanted to. And maybe she should, she could use the diversion. Going away with Robin would be fun; Robin would be her guide to new adventures. Her life for the past couple of years has been too sedate: no ups, no downs, just a straight line of work, sleep, paying bills, an occasional dinner out. It's time she woke up. Spending a few days with Robin, she may pick up a couple of essential clues about life, about the future. Robin is a year younger than she, but is mature and worldly and enviably hip. Having landed a job with CBS, she's up on the latest as to the right people, the right look, the right accessories. Maggie, on the other hand, works as a copy editor for a textbook publisher where jeans and sneakers are the norm, and where the people she meets lead the same boring life that she does. Compared to Robin, she really doesn't have a life. And, as far as she knows, she's never fucked her brains out.

            Maggie glances at Robin who, like a greedy child, is digging deeper into the bag of M&Ms, an intent expression on her face. Sex is such a mystery, Maggie wants to say, but she knows that Robin won't cooperate. When sex is the topic, Robin radiates a certain attitude, an aura of superiority, which leaves Maggie feeling she's an ignorant fool. She's had what she deems to have been good sex with a couple of partners and, even with Tom, sex was more or less satisfying, at least in the beginning. She has to admit, though, that in her fantasies sex is much more fulfilling and therefore, when she listens to Robin talk about "great" sex, she shrinks inside, feeling inadequate, realizing that perhaps she is missing out, not only on sex, but on life. She's a simpleton, a naif, who has no clue as to what real life, real pleasure, is all about.

            One thing is clear: Robin projects a confidence that she lacks. Robin is bold and aggressive in a contemporary way, as featured in the movies coming out of Hollywood, where the women are the aggressors and, in the bed-scenes, are always on top. Robin is familiar with the literature, the lingo, the sex toys and, according to her, orgasm is out, control is in. Orgasm, Robin repeats every so often, is not the point.

            What do you mean, Maggie will ask, but Robin will only smile, shrug her shoulders, and it occurs to Maggie that Robin, for all her bravura, is stuck in some fetishist stage, that Robin, in fact, cannot come. At such moments she resents Robin for not being truthful, for playing head games with her. And yet, secretly, Maggie wishes she were more like Robin, wishes she could share in Robin's new-world experiences. Robin has had many lovers, while she, well she, compared to Robin, is virtually a virgin. Robin, obviously, has no standards; she'll jump into bed with anyone, to "experience" him. Maggie, just as obviously, is more picky, more cautious. And she likes the guy to be on top, and she wants to come during sex--otherwise, what's the point? As far as control goes, in bed she willingly relinquishes it. At twenty-six, she feels she has yet to taste life, fully. Marriage, she is convinced, has set her back, and the three years with Tom stretch behind her, hanging from her shoulders like a heavy mantle. It was time to shed it, to disengage.

            "What if," she asks. "What if we don't meet them? The right guys?"

            "What's 'right' Maggie? Leave it to me, we'll meet them." Robin smiles, crushing the plastic bag now empty of M&Ms. "You know what's wrong with you, Mag?"

            "No." Maggie smiles back, anticipating a friendly rebuke. "What's wrong with me?"

            "You worry too much."

            "It's not that, I swear, I was just thinking out loud. Frankly, I don't care one way or the other. If we do or don't fuck our brains out." There, she said it. "I'd be happy just to get away."

            "You're lying, my dear." Robin laughs merrily. "Besides, that's not the right attitude."

            "But what about AIDS? Don't tell me you don't worry about AIDS."

            "Of course I do, but you need to be cautious, use your head. Make sure your guy uses his latex."

            My guy--Maggie smiles at the idea. Instantly, the guy appears in her mind. She sees the two of them. The four of them. They stand by the pool, squinting, smiling in the bright sun. She and her guy, Robin and hers. She sees the guys' bare chests, their small, hard nipples, their muscular abs. She even sees the white patches of light, quivering across the turquoise surface of the pool where the sun hits the water. Robin, somehow, always manages to rouse in her the most vivid images.

            For this Maggie feels grateful, feels a tenderness toward her friend, which borders on the physical. Yes, she decides, she'll go to the Bahamas. If nothing else, she and Robin will get closer, perhaps share a couple of unique experiences.

            She's made up her mind. "I'll go," she tells Robin.

            "I knew you would." Robin reaches for a fresh packet of M&Ms. "We'll have fun, I promise."

            "I'm sure," Maggie says. "Can I have some?" She points at the M&Ms.

            "Of course. Here."

            Maggie rises from the chair and walks toward Robin's extended hand. "Just one," she says. "I only want one."

            "Oh Maggie, you're a scream." Robin gurgles and stretches out on the couch. She gives Maggie a faint smile and shuts her eyes. "God, I'm pooped. You know, Mag, I'm not very hungry anymore. Would you be terribly upset if we don't go out? I wish I could make something for you, but my fridge is boringly empty."

            All at once, Maggie feels hollow, irrelevant, standing there, watching Robin disintegrate on the couch, her large breasts, under the fine cashmere, spilling to the sides. What is she to do now? she wonders. Is she welcome to stay or is she invited to leave?

            "What do you want to do?" she asks helplessly.

            "Nothing, to tell you the truth." Briefly, Robin opens her eyes, then shuts them again. Maggie walks back to her chair and picks up her bag. "I hope you don't mind," she hears Robin say, but doesn't turn around. She does mind, she is hungry, they were supposed to go out, but what's the point of saying so? Eating in, she reminds herself, she'll save a couple of bucks. If she is to go on the trip, better start saving now. And since she's already on her feet, and Robin doesn't insist that she stay, she might as well go home.

            "It's all right," she says, trying to put some life into her voice. "I'll have something at home."

            "Let me see you to the door." Robin, with exaggerated effort, raises herself from the couch. "I don't know what's the matter with me, but I couldn't go out if you paid me. You sure you don't mind? I feel a little guilty."

            "No need to feel guilty. I'm fine, really," Maggie says, but, to her great surprise, as she walks home, tears are rolling down her cheeks. She hates herself for crying, for feeling so small. How silly of her, how immature. It's Robin's fault. No, it's hers. What's wrong with her? She wipes her cheeks and nose with the back of her hand, then wipes her hand on her coat. Just like a baby, she tells herself. Like a teenager. She is not even sad, so why these stupid tears? She feels so aimless inside, so undecided.

            Is she crying from relief? Shame? Both? When she stood up to take the M&M from Robin's hand she felt a twitch in her lower back and realized she must have been tense in that exquisite armchair. The truth is: she is always tense around Robin, but tears? That's a bit extreme, to say the least! She'd better get a hold of herself.

            I'm going through a phase, she thinks, hoping to quell her agitation and restore some order in her feelings. Lately, she's been filled with tears just waiting to come out. She cried last night when she watched the news on TV and a father held his daughter who had just got the news that her husband had survived some awful accident. Maggie saw a river of love and tenderness in the father's body as he gathered his collapsing daughter into his arms. Such father/daughter scenes always stir powerful emotions in her and her eyes fill up.

            But, the good thing is, she is walking, taking one step, then another. It is brutally cold, and she fastens her coat around her. Here, she has calmed down. Just a quick silly attack of overwrought nerves. Once she gets home, between her four walls, she'll feel a lot better. Maybe that's her problem; she finds comfort in being alone.


The novel “Jackpot” has been published by Spuyten Duyvil in 2004






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