The Gift Economy
Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.–Henry David Thoreau
The light was golden when Constantia arrived in front of Macy’s revolving door near the corner of Fifth and Smithfield. A week ago, she’d seen flying polar bears and had woken the next morning in a warm nest of blankets with Fred. He was different and it wasn’t the money, because she’d noticed it at the zoo, too. He was catching up to her. What would this evening bring? He was going to make her a present of a dress she’d loved from the moment she saw it.
Watching the bundled up people going by, mostly heading home after a working day, she let her thoughts drift. She was worried about Paulette, and a little angry at herself. Always she was so certain of her feelings about people, and though she still was sure of what she was seeing with Ike, she began to wonder if it was going to be good for Paulette. For herself, seeing love in Fred’s eyes filled her with joy, but Ike’s interest and probable affection did not seem to be having that effect on her friend. She was edgy, out of sorts, her temper flaring out all over the place, though she said things with Ike were fine. After all, how bad could they be when they hadn’t seen each other again? Maybe that was it: no sex was making Pauli crabby. More likely the poor guy was just touching too close to that sore spot that never healed, and God help him, but those were dangerous waters. In spite of shitty odds, Paulette had grown up and gotten strong and made her own kind of life, in which love and trust had little part, except for their friendship. Maybe he’d do her good. You could only hope—that is, if she didn’t murder him first.
And then Fred was there, at the end of the block, walking toward her, smiling because he’d seen her too, handsome in a sport coat over the ubiquitous blue oxford shirt, and good god, a tie. Oh, Fred.
He took her hand and leaned down for a quick kiss. She steamed up his glasses.
She felt dazzlingly happy. “Well, Mr. Millionaire, let me see what I can do to make you a little poorer.”
“It’s not a million, you know, so go easy.”
She tugged his arm and dragged him around to the Fifth Avenue window to show him the red satin dress she had her eye on. His face lit up immediately, and she believed something vaguely lascivious was part of that grin, which did not bother her in the least.
“Red suits you. You will be glorious in that dress. Let’s go in.”
“Can we get a sandwich some place when we’re done?”
“Certainly. Whatever the lady likes,” he said, shepherding her toward the nearest revolving door that brought them out in the stationery department.
Once inside, she took the lead in getting him over to the women’s clothing department, and then upstairs to the dresses, where, sure enough, one of the practically sexless white plastic mannequins on the aisle was wearing the ruby red cocktail dress. It was a halter style that had been cut asymmetrically in a way that looked both modern and tailored. She dove into the rack behind the mannequin, while he walked around the skinny form, running fingertips over the fabric, admiring the cut away back. A brilliant smile lit her face as she held up the dress when she’d found a good size.
“Go on,” he said, smiling encouragement. “And don’t forget the shoes.”
“Does the lady need assistance?” said an elegant saleswoman with short, silver hair. The staff was so much classier here compared to the mall.
“I want to try this,” she said, bubbles rising in her voice.
The woman graciously escorted Constantia to the dressing room, looking once over her shoulder at Fred.
Once ensconced in the privacy of the fitting room, Con looked in the mirror, fluffing out her hair. She didn’t like her sallow complexion now that summer was gone and her tan had faded. Her makeup was still OK; she always did her face for Fred. He’d never seen her without it; even on those mornings after, she’s brought along what she needed to look good again.
She reached out and touched the incandescent dress. She admired the fabric, the color, but it was the cut that she liked best, the way it took one of those Marilyn Monroe style wiggle dresses and made it new. Not that she didn’t have a few nice things: her folks always celebrated New Year’s Eve on the town, and since she was 16, that meant she got dolled up in a brand new dress every year. Pauli, too. That was always a fun shopping trip. They’d go to boutiques and upscale places, have a big dinner out, treat themselves. Pauli always chose the most outrageous clothes; nothing was ever too risqué, cut away or revealing for her, because Pauli really liked her body. She worked hard at it. The only things Con ever worked at was her tan, her nails and her hair, the last of which was really hopeless. Well, this could be her New Year’s dress this year, and maybe she could convince Fred to come along. He’s agreed to Thanksgiving, but then Paulette backed out since Fred was coming, and she had to go or her parents would put up a fuss. Besides, Paulette needed some family time, a little of the old routines of life to ground her. Fred was slightly disappointed, the dear! But there was still Christmas ahead and New Year’s…. Ike, too, maybe he’d come with Pauli, if that was still going anywhere by then. Probably he’d cramp her style; Paulette relished searching the throngs for the one she wanted for the evening, and it never mattered to her if the guy she chose had come with someone or not.
Fred, anyway, was going with her. It was decided. She’d tell him when the time came.
The dress fit as she imagined it would, and with her feet in her delicate, strappy black slings, she looked fabulous. Fred was going to love it.
Maybe they could go to Primanti’s now. She was having fun and that made her want to have one of those really giant sandwiches and a beer and just talk a lot and stay out a little while. He was being really nice.
A few minutes later, Constantia walked out of the dressing room, setting the dress on fire. It had a clean simple line, energized by the unusual seaming, the unexpected angles of which set off her hourglass figure. The shoes alone would have made his mouth drop open; the poor man looked like a victim of hypnosis.
“With my hair up?” she said, scooping her hair high up off her neck. “What do you think?”
“Oh!” was all he managed to say as his eyes made another pass from the red toenails over her body and up to her radiant face. The light in his eyes said enough.
He turned to the sales clerk, who had lingered because of the excitement she felt in this couple. “She’s going to wear this out.”
To Constantia, he said: “Get your other things; we’ll put them in my bag.”
Constantia spun around fast, mopping the tears from her eyes with her knuckles. The clerk was in to help her a minute later.
“Romantic young man, isn’t he?” the woman said, clipping away the tags.
Constantia nodded and sniffled.
“What kind of clip do you want for your hair?”
“Something elegant, but not old-fashioned or fussy, and big—it’s got to handle all this hair.”
“I will bring a few things for you to try—give you a minute to compose yourself. I’ll be back directly.”
“Thanks,” Constantia blinked, looking into the mirror. She wished she’d worn more makeup. He was taking her out—where? She hoped for one of those stylish spots, the dark interiors full of color and romance that you peered into sometimes, imaging other people’s lives.
As the saleswoman passed Fred, she stopped to look into his face.
“I’m going to help her with her hair and she’ll be ready. She might like a wrap and an evening bag?” He knew what she was doing, but didn’t care. He just nodded.
The woman touched his sleeve. “She loves this. What woman wouldn’t?”
He made an effort to smile; he was in a whirlwind of emotion and was glad when she went away.
Constantia looked perfect when she finally emerged, a voluminous, cut-velvet shawl in black to match her shoes. She had a tiny clutch that looked like a jewel box, into which she managed to squeeze her keys, phone, a few bills and her lip gloss. She said she felt like Cinderella, as if a magic wand had hovered close by and transformed her.
Well, that’s money for you.
Her face was so radiant, ruby smile and dark brown eyes, a gloss mountain of curls, that it was hard to look at her. She was so happy. He cleared his throat.
“I thought we’d get dinner and then go to the symphony. Would you like that?”
She snuggled closer, and when she looked up into his face, her eyes filled with light.
Fred stopped, panicked. “Don’t cry! We’ll do whatever you like.”
She grabbed his tie and pulled him forward. “It’s perfect. I couldn’t be happier.”
Fred was more than a little bewildered. “Then perhaps Ike was right.”
She let go of his tie and his arm. This was her reaction any time Ike’s name came up these days, though he could not fathom why he had become such a sudden anathema.
“He said that money can buy happiness,” he said, watching for further hostility and hoping to steer her back toward smiling again.
“I think it can sometimes. All this, tonight, is really exciting—I’ve never done anything like this before—but I liked the zoo, too, and lying in bed reading Debord last Sunday, and giving away candy on Halloween. Maybe it’s not the money that’s making us happy.”
Now it was his turn to smile. In her wandering way, she’d reinforced his ideas exactly. They had about five blocks to walk to get to the Cultural District, and the French restaurant across from Heinz Hall. He had to keep slowing down; she couldn’t match his long strides, especially not in heels. By the time they crossed Liberty, he had the hang of it, and they were in perfect sync.
They passed the enclosed courtyard beside Heinz Hall, its trees glittering with thousands of star-point white lights. The Mozart Room… Perhaps he should have taken her there. It looked quite romantic, but he was desperate to try the French cuisine at Palate. From the noise of the street, the people lined along the walls waiting for late buses home, they passed into the upholstered quiet of the small restaurant.
Inside, it was softly lit, a glowing projection of the Eiffel Tower on a screen above the diners. They went upstairs to the bar, and found an intimate table by the rail that looked out over the main floor.
Constantia ordered a glowing yellow martini, while Fred indulged in an expensive glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. They told the server they’d like a minute to decide on appetizers.
“What would you like?”
“Everything’s so expensive…”
“Yes, but I am rich.”
“Then let’s get one of each.”
And so they did.
The waiter covered their table with large plates with little portions: frogs’ legs, mushroom risotto, mussels and frites, grilled calamari, and beef tartare. Fred favored the mussels in the end; Constantia, the steak tartare.
She ordered a second Lemontini. Halfway through it, she began to giggle, and that started Fred to laugh, too. They were trying to quiet their laughter as they crossed to Heinz Hall, several hours later, dodging cabs, limos, Jaguars now in the hands of valets, merging with the crowds streaming into the lobby. With a hand upon her velvet shoulders, Fred steered his princess into the opulent concert palace. She was staring in wonder at the rich red carpets, gold patterned wall paper, crystal chandeliers, acres of mirrors.
“Las Vegas Baroque,” Fred suggested in appraisal of the decor.
“I love it,” Constantia insisted.
They were handed programs and ushered to their seats, almost at the top of the upper gallery, directly under the glittering crystal-encrusted brooches that cast a soft light over the crowd. Tonight they would be hearing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 and a symphony by Bruckner. She leaned against him when the lights went down, and was swept away by waves of sound.
In fact, when she thought about it later, she wasn’t sure if her feet touched the ground for the rest of the evening—not for drinks at intermission, not arm-in-arm in the departing crowds, the rustle of satin on tweed, Fred humming tunelessly, or in the hushed, scarlet lobby of the Renaissance Hotel where they stayed the night. He had roses waiting there for her! Maybe this was all a dream.
From that high place, she gazed at the light-figured buildings massed at their feet, at the moon over the city, a lonely beacon in the empty, black sky. Did it hang there alone without the tremble of life for company? As she soared sympathetically into the flashing empyrean, imagining other realms and rainbow places, Fred’s hands found her, calling her to earth, her dress slipping away to pool at her feet, her arms finding his. But she did not need to see the stars, invisible in the city’s glare, to know they were there, to know the secrets they kept, because they were the fireflies at her fingertips; she daily tripped among them. That the real magic was less in imagination than in love, she was only beginning to understand.
That night, she dreamed in roses.
Early chapters are here–next chapter, here.