Give Me That
Bess didn’t go to Chloe’s memorial just for the cake. She had loved Chloe, well, maybe not loved, Chloe was difficult to love, but Bess had admired her. Chloe had style. One week she would show up at their dream group in vintage Dior and the next meeting she’d be swathed in harem scarves and feathers. The men she sometimes brought with her were as striking as the outfits; Bess recalled a silent giant from the Balkans and a seventeen-year-old hustler who sucked his thumb. Before she’d settled down with Amir, a year ago, Chloe had been married four times, or maybe—no one in the dream group was sure—seven. She had acted off-Broadway, lived in an ashram, cooked in a famous New Orleans restaurant, studied painting with Jean Varda, and been psychoanalyzed by Fritz Perls. Because she was older than the others (though no one knew how much older) and knew everything from Animism to Zen, she’d been their unofficial leader, the one they’d all turned to.
So there were many reasons to honor Chloe’s passing, and the cake was the least of them. Still, the presence of the pink cardboard box on the passenger seat was a comfort to Bess as she drove across the bridge to San Francisco, and the smell that filled the car—a rich blend of chocolate, coffee, whipped cream and raspberry—was pure aromatherapy.
She steadied the box as she wound through the city, turned into the Haight, and began the long climb up the hill to Dahlia’s house. She hoped there wouldn’t be too many testimonials or too many tears before they ate. The dream group could get soppy. If they were lucky, Nicole would have brought that good French cheese from Napa and Lisa would have picked up Korean barbecue. Dahlia was doing the champagne, Zoe always brought pistachios, Ira had promised strawberries, and Amir, if he came, might bring a platter of Chloe’s own couscous, which, Bess recalled, had big chunks of tender spiced lamb and plump Turkish apricots.
There might even be enough to take home.
It was not until she parked at the top of the hill and got out that she saw the full moon hanging over the bay. She paused, holding the box in her arms, and gazed up a moment, struck by something familiar in its round face, before hurrying on through Dahlia’s gate.
The house hummed with low voices as she stepped inside. Four members of the dream group, all dressed in black, perched like crows on the white leather furniture scattered around Dahlia’s living room—Lisa weeping prettily, consoled by Ira, Gina fingering one of her heavy necklaces, Nicole reading investment tips out loud from her dream journal. There was no sign of Zoe yet, but Zoe worked in Emergency and often came late. That eerie flute music Chloe liked played on the stereo and one of the last paintings she had made—a portrait of a child asleep in a burning house—leaned against the glass coffee table.
Dahlia, also in black, met her in the kitchen. “A cake?” Dahlia said. “We’ve got so much food, Bess, why’d you have to bring a cake?”
“Chloe liked cake,” Bess said.
“Chloe never had to diet like I do.” Dahlia lifted the lid and looked inside. “God.” “Forty-five dollars,” Bess said, and blushed. It was a stupid thing to say. Still, it had taken a huge chunk out of her paycheck. “The house looks great,” she added, glancing around at the flowers and candles Dahlia had set out.
“It should. I worked like a dog all day to get it ready. And now that everyone’s here, guess what, I want you all to go away so I can go upstairs, lock my door, go to bed, and cry.”
“Cry?” Bess repeated.
“Sleep,” Dahlia amended.
“It’s like dying,” Nicole said, coming into the kitchen. “You go along being brave and stoic and everyone thinks you’re wonderful and then you break down and scream Oh Shit at the end.”
They both looked at her, interested. “Is that what Chloe said?”
“It’s what I’d say.” They were quiet, for none of them knew what Chloe had said. Her last words to them had been “Don’t forget me” and they had all meant to call but then Ira’s computer had crashed and Lisa’s husband had a relapse and Dahlia had her eyes done and Nicole’s condo flooded and Zoe had that malpractice suit and one week had passed, and then another…Bess remembered Amir phoning from the hospital, babbling something that sounded like, “Get your drama club over here,” but Amir’s accent was so thick she couldn’t be sure, and anyway she hadn’t been able to get off work. She felt bad about not getting to the hospital in time, but what difference would it have made? Chloe had been in a coma. Bess winced as Nicole studied her skirt and sweater set, pink of all colors.
“I came straight from the office,” Bess said. “I never learned to dress as well as
“She always looked great, didn’t she, even at the end.”
“She really did. Terrific taste.”
“Except for men.”
“Amir. God. Does anyone even know where he came from?”
“And the one before?”
“And the one with the nose ring?”
“At least she had men.”
The three were silent. Chloe had interpreted Dahlia’s dream about a sink full of dirty dishes as a divorce dream, and Dahlia had since divorced, and she had interpreted Nicole’s drowning dream as a fear of commitment dream, and Nicole had, in fact, broken off her engagement soon after. Bess, who sometimes made things up just to have something to say, had never offered a dream. She suspected Chloe might tell her she’d be single forever, a conviction she did not want confirmed.
“What did you bring for the altar?” Nicole asked.
“Just this. I’ve never used it.” Bess, lying, pulled an old opium pipe out of her purse. “Look how it’s carved. It has a little owl’s head.”
“Bird of death,” Nicole said, nodding.
“No. Really? I thought it was the bird of wisdom,” Bess said.
“Oops. Well. I better go put it in.”
“Take this too, will you,” Dahlia said, thrusting the cake at her.
Bess carried the cake into the dining room and set it on the table—there wasn’t that much food, at least not yet. Then she picked up a carrot stick and a glass of white wine and examined the altar. Dahlia had covered a card table with red satin and on it propped the snapshots Chloe had brought to their last meeting, photos of Chloe as a child, wide-eyed, fluffy haired, and for some reason stark naked. None of them had been brave enough to ask why Chloe had so many pictures of herself as a naked little girl sprawled on fur rugs and pillows, and Chloe had not explained. She’d been quiet that last evening, but seemed happy to be with them, curled up like a kitten in a cashmere shawl, smiling when smiled at but not speaking much. The only person she’d really talked to had been Zoe, and that had been about what kinds of pills to get in Mexico. The cancer, by then, had gone to her liver and she never did get to Mexico.
“Did you see the full moon tonight?” Bess asked, as Lisa, wiping her eyes, came up to look at the photos with her.
“I know. It gave me the shivers. Look, do you think Chloe will like what I brought her?” Lisa pointed to a rhinestone tiara nestled among the roses and orchids strewn around the photographs.
“Perfect,” Bess said. She looked at the other offerings on the altar. There was a scatter of maps representing some of the places where Chloe had traveled—Myanmar, Haiti, Easter Island, Transylvania. There was a candle holder with The Virgin of Guadalupe painted on it, a book of Rumi’s love poems, a jade Buddha, a quilted Chanel backpack with a cigarette burn on it, a stained Hermes scarf, a pack of Egyptian tarot cards, a can of black truffles, and a chipped crystal dragon. A disturbingly damp slice of pâté de foie gras gleamed on a white plate.
“Gina brought that. She’s so dense sometimes,” Lisa said, lowering her voice unnecessarily, Bess thought, for Gina was deaf and never wore her hearing aid. Lisa’s eyes welled up and she started to cry again. “I know it’s selfish but why did Chloe have to pass on just when I’m starting to dream about my stepfather again?” She picked up a photo of five-year-old Chloe on a garden swing, wearing a string of pop beads and nothing else. “It’s not fair.”
“I’m fine,” Gina said, coming up beside them. “But I’ve never been so busy. The orders are pouring in.” She leaned forward and studied the photo in Lisa’s hands. “Pearls. Maybe that’s what I should do next.” She touched the ornate stone necklace weighting her slender neck. “Parian marble,” she said, when Lisa asked if she had gone to Chloe’s funeral. “From Greece.” She smiled and drifted off and Lisa started to cry again. Bess knew she was jealous; they all were. The idea to design jewelry had come to Gina in a dream that Chloe had worked for her. She had made almost two-hundred thousand dollars on eBay this last year alone, which came, Bess calculated quickly, to about four years of her own salary at the insurance office, though it probably didn’t begin to match Zoe’s income as a doctor, or Nicole’s as a stockbroker, or Dahlia’s as a decorator, or Ira’s as an architect. Lisa was the only one in the group who didn’t work, but Lisa was married to a developer, and probably could have given Chloe a real tiara if she’d wanted. They all could have helped more, Bess thought, wondering again if Chloe had finally died, as Zoe had said, of starvation, and if it was also true that none of them had managed to get to the funeral. Carefully, she set the opium pipe down in the lap of a voodoo doll in a tiger skin bikini, then turned to Ira as he called her name and patted the space beside him on the couch.
“You’ll never guess,” he said, and she smiled, prepared for a joke. Ira, plump and chatty, was her favorite person in the group, the only one who made her laugh. But the face he turned toward her tonight was blank with piety. “I met someone,” he confided. “Just like Chloe predicted. Remember the dream I had about a white basin? Well, you won’t believe it. Arthur used to be a priest! Now of course he works for Google but isn’t it just the most amazing thing? I feel I owe Chloe big thanks. She told me I wouldn’t end up alone.”
Bess thought again of Amir’s phone call and was silent. Nicole sat down beside them. “You know what she told me? That a lover from my past would reappear, and lately I’ve been dreaming of my first boyfriend, but in my dreams his name is Scalpel, not Samuel. What do you think that means? Should I ask Zoe?”
Dahlia came out of the kitchen. “You can ask her now. She’s here.”
Zoe always made an entrance. She had changed out of her hospital scrubs but still wore her do-rag and her glasses were smudged with specks of what had to be human matter. “Have we started yet?” She looked around, eyes bright. “Let’s start!” It was clear she had decided to take over Chloe’s role as leader. It was also clear, at least to Bess, that she lacked the gift for it; the group would probably disintegrate soon. “Tonight we’ll celebrate Chloe’s last dreams. I brought copies so everyone take one. Ira, you start. Then around the room. Lisa, Bess, Nicole, and so on. We won’t work them tonight. We’ll just listen.”
Bess looked down at the paper in her lap. It was a short dream, featuring the same mother and the same seamstress that often cropped up in Chloe’s nightmares. Strange, that she knew Chloe’s nocturnal life so well but had never had a Saturday bike ride with her, or shared a Sunday breakfast, or ever, even, seen her in the sunlight. The group had met at Chloe’s apartment only once and she remembered it as big and bare, decorated with hairy brown masks from Africa and South America, and she remembered Chloe herself telling them how every birthday her mother had made her reenact her own birth: her mother would lie on a bed and groan and Chloe would have to crawl out from between her legs. Didn’t Chloe say she’d done that until she was twelve? And there had been something about a one-eyed uncle and being smeared with honey and strapped to a picnic table to attract wasps. What a childhood! What a life! No one had known what to say. Had Amir been there that night? Bess remembered a slight, unsmiling presence in the doorway, black eyes in a young face, watching them.
She tried to listen as Ira, deep-voiced, read a long dream about a car ride, which made them all jump because in the dream the car was a hearse and the license plate said GO4TH and Chloe had died on the fourth. Then Lisa read an even longer dream about taking a bath in broken glass and that made everyone shiver too. Bess cleared her throat for her turn. “I am a child,” she read, “walking down a city street when my mother drops my hand and dashes into a dress shop. She has seen a wedding gown with a green sash and she says, I want that dress give it to me and the seamstress is angry and says, No this is Chloe’s dress you can’t have it, but my mother snatches it up and says, Look how it becomes me, and then she disappears through a hole in the floor and I am all alone and I realize I will
never have anything of my own ever.”
Lisa started to cry again and both Ira and Dahlia said, “That makes me so sad!” Bess nodded. But she didn’t feel sad. She felt repelled. Repelled and bored and hungry. Definitely hungry. She glanced toward the dining room table. Someone—Dahlia?—had taken the beautiful cake out of the box and set it on a silver stand. How it gleamed! A mountain of glossy fudge, terraced with raspberries, ringed with roses.
She gazed around the room at her friends. There sat Gina, neck decked with rocks, and Dahlia, looking as if she hadn’t slept in days, and Zoe with her filthy glasses and Nicole with her bad face lift and Lisa with her easy tears and Ira with his polished nails. She remembered the first time she had come to this dream group, she had thought they were all crazy. She had listened to their confessions with amazement at first, and then with envy. For she herself remembered no dreams. There was a lack in her, an emptiness. Where others were given signs and symbols, puns and portents, saw colors, experienced love affairs, were murdered by their parents or murdered their own children, had intriguing conversations, traveled to foreign places, breathed underwater, or flew, she had…nothing. She slept. She awoke. It had been that way all her life. The only evidence that she’d dreamed at all was the dull ache in her jaw the next morning, as if she’d been gnawing great chunks of empty air all night. The group had suggested hypnosis, meditation, chanting, journaling; Ira had insisted Bess drink a quart of water before going to bed so she’d have to wake up mid-dream at midnight; Lisa had made her set her alarm, and Gina had even, once, phoned her at three in the morning, repeating, “Hello? Hello? Hello?”
Chloe alone had made no suggestions. Once when Bess, apologizing, had said, “I’m sorry, I don’t even know why I even come to this group. I bring you all so little,” Chloe had turned to look at her. “That’s not true,” Chloe had said, in her sweet cold voice. “You bring your curiosity. Your loneliness. Your cynicism. And, of course”—she paused, her large eyes glowing in that way that always made Bess uneasy—“your hunger.”
The reading ended. Dahlia passed around candles. They all stared into the flames, said a blessing for Chloe, and blew the flames out. “You know that dream Bess read?” Nicole asked, as Dahlia went around with a basket collecting the tapers. “It reminded me. Remember how Chloe would come up to you and look at your sweater or your scarf and say, Give me that? I gave her my new leather jacket, she wanted it so much. She wore it all through the meeting. Remember? And then she gave it back.”
“Yeah!” Zoe said. “I gave her my diving watch. She kept it for an hour. I thought I was never going to see it again.”
“I gave her my car,” Ira admitted. “Two turns around the block before she came back.”
“She never asked me,” Bess said. Everyone turned to look at her. She shrugged. “I never had anything she wanted.”
“Come on, people.” Dahlia clapped her hands. “Time to eat. Let’s get rid of this crap.” Ira rose and waltzed toward the table, filling his plate with goat cheese, dolmas, olives, salads, strawberries, and breads. He did not take cake. No one did. Nicole piled her plate with grapes, Lisa ate corn chips, Gina cut herself a slice of pâté off the altar. Bess sauntered into the dining room and, pretending disinterest, scanned the table for the cake’s competitors. There were none. She picked up the silver knife, and, whistling a little, let it sink heavily through all six layers, pulled it out, richly grimed with gunk, lifted it and sank it again, easing a generous wedge onto her trembling plate. Still standing, she reached for a fork and was about to take a huge bite when the front door kicked open and Amir strode in. He was wearing one of Chloe’s silk kimonos, loosely sashed over his bare chest. His eyes were dilated and he held a scimitar.
“Hi, Amir,” Ira said. “You’re just in time.”
“No more time.” Amir’s accent was for some reason remarkably easy to understand. “You’ve all had enough time. Line up.” He waved the scimitar and held out a cotton pillowcase with the name of the hospital Chloe had died in stitched on the hem. “Rings, watches, cell phones, earrings,” Amir said.
Everyone was silent for a minute and then Zoe laughed. “I get it!” she said. “What fun! It’s just like Chloe to think of something like this. I bet she had it all written out before she left us.” She laughed again and the others laughed too, stripping their wrists and throats and earlobes, tossing their wallets in without protest.
“Rings, wallets, watches, cell phones, jewelry,” Amir repeated. “ Not that,” he added, as Gina, watching to see what the others were doing, started to take off her marble necklace.
Bess, sullen, set the cake down, and began to unclasp her watch and unscrew her earrings. She was reluctant to throw her wallet in. “I need bridge fare,” she lied.
“You’ll get it right back,” Lisa said.
“You think so?”
“Sure. That’s the whole idea.”
Bess dropped it in.
“She waited for you.” Amir touched his chest with one clenched, darkly tattooed hand.
A dozen of Chloe’s silver bracelets clattered down his arm. His feet in blue running shoes poked beneath the kimono’s hem. “And who came to say goodbye? Which one of you came to say goodbye?” His dark eyes moved from face to face. He spat. Then he left the house.
It took awhile. But finally it sank in.
“We’ve been robbed,” Gina said.
As Zoe and Ira raced next door to use a neighbor’s phone, Bess took the opportunity to retrieve her plate. She took it outside, found an iron chair on the patio, sat down, hunched over her lap, and dug in. Granted, things did not taste the same in the dark. The cake was as gooey and sweet as she’d hoped it would be, but there was a definite chemical tang to the whipped cream and a waxy glaze to the frosting. The raspberries were mushy and the coffee liqueur had a sharp alcoholic bite. Still, she finished it. Sucking the fork, she looked up. There was the full moon again and now she saw its round face was Chloe’s, piquant and secretive, huge shadowed eyes and mouth tucked to one side in a sour little smile. It seemed to say, You got what you wanted, didn’t you? And it wasn’t any good, was it? And it’s all there is, isn’t it?
Yes, Bess thought, and went back inside for seconds.