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American Wife(10)
Curtis Sittenfeld

“In medical school, I was poor as a church mouse,” Dr. Wycomb said. “I lived in a terrible attic belonging to a terrible family—”

“The Lichorobiecs,” my grandmother interrupted. “Doesn’t that sound like the name of a terrible family? Mrs. Lichorobiec felt she’d been wronged by mankind.”

“She refused to let me keep food in the attic because she said it would attract animals,” Dr. Wycomb said. “She wouldn’t let me keep food in the pantry, either, because she said there wasn’t space. This was nonsense, but what could I do? Luckily, your grandmother, who lived next door, took pity and invited me to have my meals at their house.”

“I thought you’d starve otherwise,” my grandmother said. “I’ve always been slender, but Gladys was positively skeletal. Just a bag of bones, and big dark circles under her eyes.”

“A bag of bones,” Dr. Wycomb repeated, and chortled. She leaned forward again, and when our eyes met, she said, “Can you imagine?” In fact, I’d been thinking the same thing, but I smiled in what I hoped was a neutral and unrevealing way. “And then your poor grandfather died,” she continued. “What year was that, Emilie? Was that ’24?”

“It was ’25.”

“And your grandmother was ready to move, but I said, ‘Let’s think this through. If I’m champing at the bit to get away from the Lichorobiecs, and you’d just as soon stay in this house where you’re all settled . . . ’ And so I became your grandmother’s tenant, and we had some wonderful times.”

“When the Depression hit, you can bet I was thankful to have Gladys,” my grandmother said. “Being a widow, I certainly couldn’t have gotten by on my salary at Clausnitzer’s. Speaking of spending beyond your means”—she pulled the Vogue ad from her purse and unfolded it—“have you ever seen more gorgeous sable?”

Dr. Wycomb laughed. “Alice, your grandmother is the only person in this country who became less frugal following the Depression.”

“If it’s all about to vanish at any moment, why not have some fun? And tell me that’s not stunning. The gloss on it, it’s absolutely—Mmh.” My grandmother shook her head appreciatively.

“Are you a clothes horse as well, Alice?” Dr. Wycomb’s voice was laced with affection for my grandmother.

“Oh, she’s far less shallow than I am,” my grandmother said. “Straight A’s every semester—imagine my disappointment.” In fact, while my parents did not seem to have strong feelings about whether I attended college, my grandmother was the one who’d told me that doing so would give me a leg up.

“Is that right?” Dr. Wycomb said. “All A’s?”

“I got an A-minus in home ec,” I admitted. The reason why was that on the final project, for which Dena, Nancy Jenzer, and I were partners, we had prepared Hawaiian meatballs in class, and Dena dropped the bowl of Oriental sauce on the floor.

“Are you interested in the sciences?” Dr. Wycomb asked me, but before I could answer, we’d pulled over in front of a maroon awning that said THE PELHAM on it in white cursive.

“Gladys, you stay here and we’ll just be a moment,” my grandmother said. “Alice, come in with me.”

Although we left our suitcases in the car, it wasn’t until we were inside that I fully understood: We weren’t, as my grandmother had claimed to Dr. Wycomb, canceling our reservation. We were checking in, then walking back out and riding away in Dr. Wycomb’s car. My grandmother did not explain this to me, but when the woman behind the reception desk said, “A view of the lake would cost you just six dollars more a day,” my grandmother replied, “We’ll be fine in the room we have.” She also said we wouldn’t need a porter. I was not a person who openly challenged others, and besides, I considered myself an ally of my grandmother. That was why, after we’d retraced our steps through the Pelham’s dim lobby and climbed back in the car, I said nothing when she told Dr. Wycomb, “All taken care of, and they didn’t give us a bit of trouble.” I couldn’t understand the reason for our double deception—lying to my father about where we were staying, lying to Dr. Wycomb about canceling the reservation—but I knew that good manners meant accommodating the person you were with. My grandmother assumed my loyalty, and this, surely, is the reason she got it.

IN THE TRAIN station, when Dr. Wycomb had suggested having a drink, I’d imagined she meant at a restaurant, but instead, we drove to her apartment on Lake Shore Drive, then rode an elevator to the seventh floor; an elevator operator wore a uniform not unlike the driver’s and nodded once, saying “Dr. Wycomb” just before pressing the button. With no additional exchange of words, we rose, and when the elevator stopped, we stepped into a hallway lined with gold fabric for wallpaper—not glittery gold but subtly shiny brocade with unshiny fleurs-de-lis appearing at tasteful intervals.

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