Excerpt from Two of a Kind

Christina Connelly sat in the tent, waiting for the wedding ceremony to begin. Her fourteen-year old daughter sat beside her; Jordan had never attended such a lavish event and was fairly popping with excitement. Her sleeveless dress with its scoop-necked bodice revealed her slender arms and accentuated her long neck; in it, she looked every bit the budding ballerina that she was.

Looking down at her own silk tweed sheath—an interweaving of tiny black and white flecks—and the single silver bangle on her wrist, Christina felt the familiar pinch of insecurity; this Great Neck crowd was a moneyed one, and around her sat thousands of dollars worth of clothes, shoes and jewelry. Her work as an interior designer often put her in contact with people like this and most of the time, she was able to tamp down the old feeling of being insufficient, a beggar at the banquet, but sometimes it pushed through the surface. Still, her own dress was Italian and couture, scored second hand at one of her favorite charity haunts in the city—she was a brilliant second-hand shopper—and the Elsa Peretti bangle had come from Tiffany, a gift from her late husband, Will. She knew she didn’t look opulent, but she liked to think she was elegant in an understated sort of way. She sat up straighter, determined to focus on the service that was about to start.

The rest of the wedding party had already gathered—bridesmaids, immediate family members—and the dark, ruggedly handsome groom stood under the white, flower-covered canopy. Chuppah, Christina corrected herself. She had been to enough Jewish weddings to know the term. Then, a slight current seemed to circulate among the guests, an energy like the moment the curtain went up at the theater, and yes, here was the bride, Angelica Silverstein, floating down the aisle on her father’s arm, her head, neck and shoulders swathed in a froth of white netting.

“That dress!” breathed Jordan.

That dress, or at least what was visible of it, was a sumptuous gleam of heavy white satin; to Christina’s trained eye, it looked like upholstery fabric. When the pair reached the chuppah, Angelica’s father—who was not, she knew, the owner of this god-awful house and its surrounding property—gently moved the veil back to reveal the bride. A collective gasp rose up; Christina’s small intake of breath was a part of it. She had known, of course, that her client was a beauty; the months spent in her company, working on the redecoration of Angelica’s Riverside Drive apartment, had made that abundantly clear. But the radiant young woman who stood before the assembled guests still surprised her.

Christina blinked back the tears that gathered—sudden, stinging—in her eyes. It wasn’t just that Angelica was beautiful. It was also that she was so clearly, incandescently, in love—with the groom, of course, but with everyone else too: her parents and grandmother, whom she looked upon with such sweetness, her nieces, siblings, bridesmaids, friends, the musicians, the guests—everyone seemed to be bathed in the transformative power of that emotion.

Christina had once been in love like that. She and Will had not had a posh affair like this—it had been just the two of them, down at City Hall on Centre Street. She was a Catholic girl from Brooklyn and Will a Protestant from North Carolina. Instead of arguing over the ceremony—her father and the aunt who raised her would have campaigned, vigorously, for a wedding at St. Augustine’s on Sixth Avenue, where the family had gone for decades—Christina and Will had impulsively decided to just take care of it themselves. He’d worn a slightly rumpled summer suit and straw hat he’d bought on Chambers Street that morning; she wore a thrift shop dress—even then she was doing the second-hand thing—of white eyelet. But when they were pronounced man and wife, she had been every bit as rapturous as the woman now under the chuppah. Christina sniffed, and dabbed at her eyes with the white linen square that she kept tucked in her bag.

“Mom, are you all right?” Jordan asked.

“I’m fine,” said Christina and when it looked like Jordan did not believe her, added, “Really I am.” She gave Jordan’s shoulder a little squeeze before turning her attention back to the ceremony, which had just started.

First the rabbi spoke and then the bridal couple began reading passagesfrom the Song of Songs, first in English and then in Hebrew. As Christina listened, she discreetly looked around. No expense had been spared at this wedding, from the elaborate tents to the lush garlands of white flowers with which they had been decorated. The wine served at the cocktail hour had been exquisite, the hors d’oeuvres sumptuous. And there was still a three-course dinner to follow. What a luxury it would be to have so much money to burn; Christina’s own habit of thrift had been ingrained for so long that she could not even imagine how that would feel.

Her attention settled on Angelica again. Just as the groom was about to place the ring on her finger, Christina heard the small but insistent noise of someone’s phone. An irritating little buzz, like a wasp or a bee, but still, it was a wedding—how rude! Her own phone had been switched off the minute she arrived. Christina turned, ready to impale the boor with a furious look. But the perpetrator—a man in his forties wearing an expensive, putty colored suit, had already risen from his seat. As he hurried away, she distinctly heard him say, “How many centimeters?” The guests nearby looked annoyed too, though the man seemed oblivious; the phone remained glued to his ear. Christina stared at his receding form, wanting him to feel her wrath, even from a distance.

Fortunately, no one up at the chuppah seemed to have noticed and the exchange of rings, the kiss, the napkin-muffled crunch of glass—Christina was told it was a light bulb, not a goblet—went smoothly. When the service was over, she steered Jordan toward the receiving line. Jordan had been as taken by the entire spectacle as her mother. “When I get married, I’m going to have a reception exactly like this,” she said, gesturing at the plush green expanse of lawn, and beyond that, the magnificent rose garden where the cocktail reception had been held.

Christina knew that day was still far off in the future. Right now, almost all of Jordan’s attention was focused on the classes she took at the School of American Ballet on West 65th Street. Boys, other than as possible dance partners, were not on her radar.

When they reached the bride and groom, hugs and kisses were exchanged. Angelica exclaimed over Jordan—how she’s grown! What gorgeous posture!—and the two women made noises about getting together. Although Angelica’s apartment was technically finished, their relationship had shifted from one that was purely professional to one bordering on friendship.

After the receiving line, it was time for dinner. Jordan went off to sit at the teens’ table, along with Angelica’s twin nieces and several of the groom’s relatives. Christina stood watching; she did have such perfect posture, and such a perfect dancer’s body too. Only maybe that body was just a little too thin these days; from the back, she seemed positively gaunt. Christina considered this as she made her way to her assigned table. Urging Jordan to eat never worked; the more she pressed, the greater her daughter’s resistance. And Christina understood the pressures Jordan faced. The world of classical ballet was ferociously competitive, and maintaining a lean, attenuated line was essential to success. Jordan didn’t have an eating disorder; she was just responding to the harsh demands of her chosen field.

As other people were finding their seats, exchanging greetings, hugs and kisses. Christina reached her table, where she admired the etched glass water pitchers and crystal goblets that sparkled against the heavy white tablecloths. Each white bone china place setting was adorned with a place card of heavy white vellum that was encircled by a few smooth, white stones. She picked one up and held it in her hand; a nice touch. Although her business dealt strictly in interiors and the antiques with which she often filled them, she could still appreciate and admire the work of another talented professional. The flowers in the centerpiece—a cluster of white roses, freesia, lilies and gardenias—spilled up and over the sides of the glass vase, giving it a natural, unstudied elegance.

“Too much white; it’s like being lost in a snow drift.”

“Excuse me?” Christina turned.

“The decorations. They could have used a little color somewhere in here.” The man who delivered this uninspired assessment was the same man whose phone had buzzed during the service. What bad luck to be stuck at his table.

“Actually, I find the decorations in exquisite taste,” Christina said coldly. No manners and no taste either. She turned to the woman seated next to her in the hope of discouraging any further conversation.

“I’m Andy Stern,” he said, extending his hand.

He had not read what she thought were her very clear signals. “Christina Connelly.” She took his hand reluctantly and let her eyes shift again to the woman sitting on her other side. The woman reached for her glass and Christina pounced. “What a beautiful ring!” she exclaimed. “Is that a fire opal?” 
 “Yes,” said the woman, clearly flattered.

“The color is exceptional.” Christina and the ring’s owner launched into a discussion about opals in general and fire opals in particular. Andy Stern, thankfully, was forced to turn his attention elsewhere. Throughout the elaborate meal that followed, Christina tried to ignore him. But Andy Stern was not easily ignored.

“How’s your fish?” he asked.
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“Excellent,” she said.

“Really? I think mine’s been cooked a little too long but the wine they paired it with—exceptional.”
Christina did not look up. Unfortunately, Ms. Fire Opal was talking to someone else so there was no possibility of a rescue from her. Andy Stern kept on as if he believed he were the most fascinating man on earth. Finally, after the lime mousse, petits fours and sugar cookies had been served, Christina excused herself, saying she wanted to find her daughter.
“Is she at the teen able?” Andy asked and when Christina admitted that yes, she was, he added, “That’s where my son is sitting too; I’ll walk over there with you.” Christina was sorry she had told him; now her escape plan was thwarted. And they could not get through; several silver tray-carrying waiters had blocked their way. So Christina was forced to endure still more of Andy’s self-absorbed patter: he was an ob/gyn with a high-risk Park Avenue practice; it had been one of his high risk patients who buzzed him during the service, so maybe it was a forgivable offense, lived in the Trump Palace on East 69th Street, the tallest—and ugliest—building in the neighborhood, and rented a place in the Hamptons, where else?
“It’s a great house; four bedrooms, five baths and a stunning pool.” He contemplated the wine glass he held. “My wife would have flipped for that house.” There was something wistful in that last statement. “There’s a view of the water from the second floor that seems to go on forever. She always loved to be near the water.” His tone had changed; no longer boastful, but muted, even sad. She was tempted to ask about his wife—there was no ring on his left hand—but that was not the sort of thing you asked someone you had just met and didn’t like besides. “She died,” he added bluntly. “Ovarian cancer, which was kind of ironic given my profession. It’ll be two years in July.”
“Oh,” said Christina. She too had lost a spouse, more than a decade ago, and remembered the savage, grief-crazed year following Will’s death. “I’m so sorry.” The sky had darkened and against the jewel-like blue, the white tablecloth and napkins seemed to glow. “That must have been hard.”
“Was and is,” he said. His close-set eyes, she noted, were an intriguing color, light brown, the pupils ringed with gold. He had the eager, attentive look of an Irish setter or a Lab, she decided. Not so bad after all, but definitely in need of being kept on a leash.
“My husband died too,” she said. “So I know.”
“How?” he asked.
“In a fire.”
“Horrible,” said Andy.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “It was.” She was not going to tell him how Will, a lawyer-turned-high-school history-teacher, had been on an overnight class trip when the small inn where they were staying caught fire. He had sacrificed himself to save a girl who had been overlooked in the frenzy. A thousand people had been at the funeral held in his hometown; everyone from his kindergarten teacher to the girls and boys—now women and men—from his high school swim team had come to say good-bye. Standing there with Andy Stern, it came flooding back, but then just as quickly receded. It would always hurt, but the worst was over. “It gets better,” she said. “You can’t believe it now, but it does. Children help. You just have the one?”
“Just the one,” he said and his mouth turned up in a smile. “Come on; you can meet him.”
The waiters had dispersed and Christina was able to follow him to the teen table where Andy introduced his son, a blond, curly-haired boy of about sixteen who had been talking to Jordan. Oliver offered a perfunctory hello before turning his attention back to Jordan, who sat with her hands in her lap, dessert untouched in front of her. Christina was not surprised; Jordan would no more have eaten a petit four than she would one of her pink satin point shoes.
“How are you doing over here?” she asked.
“Oh fine, Mom. Just great.” Jordan seemed to eye the petit four with longing.
“They’ll be cutting the cake in a little while. Do you want to see?” The cutting of the cake was another of those iconic wedding moments and she thought Jordan would enjoy it. Jordan, however, was not interested. She seemed to want her mother to leave, which Christina found interesting. Did she like this boy who sat pulling on his springy blond curls? Or was she just embarrassed by Christina’s presence? Christina turned to go, and when she did, Andy Stern was right there beside her.
“Pretty girl,” he said.
“Thank you,” she replied stiffly. She was not sure she liked him offering his judgment—even though it was positive—about her daughter. Was he going to corner her at the table again? She hoped not and was trying to devise some other means of escape when she came face to face with Angelica. The veil had been removed, leaving her lustrous black hair uncovered.
“So how have you two been getting along?” she said, looking from Christina to Andy. “I seated you together because I wanted you to meet.”
Christina felt her cheeks heating. So this had been a set up? Widow and widower meet and find love at a wedding? How predictable—and how odious. She hated being set up with men as if she were a lone sock or glove, useless without a mate. She’d had a mate. A mate she adored. And in the ten years since he’d died none of the men she had dated had come even remotely close to him. Being alone was better than settling. Besides, she wasn’t alone—she had Jordan.
Christina was so uncomfortable she could not even look at Andy Stern, and kept her eyes focused on Angelica, who added, “Andy needs some work done on his apartment.” She seemed unaware of Christina’s discomfort. “And I thought you’d be the perfect person for the job.”
“You’re a decorator?” Andy asked. He sounded skeptical.
“Yes, I am,” said Christina. His tone riled her but it was because he’d touched a nerve. She had not trained for her job in any formal way; she’d found her way to it through a serendipitous offer, post college, to intern at an interior design firm where a college roommate’s mother held a key position. The roommate had been all set to take the position but at the last minute had decided to go backpacking through the Yucatan and so Christina stepped in. She loved it and saw that, with her own desire to rummage and collect, she could make a life’s work of it.
“She’s a superlative decorator,” Angelica was saying. “She did my place and I just adore it. You’ve got to see her work, Andy; Christina, you can send Andy pictures, right? And of course he can come to my apartment.”
“Do you have an office in the city?” asked Andy.
“No, in Brooklyn,” Christina said. And though she did not say it, until the recent downturn in the economy, it had been a very lively, even thriving business. People in the neighborhood knew—and loved—her work; she had been much in demand for a certain kind of warm, idiosyncratic, old-plus-new interior.
“Brooklyn!” said Andy. It was practically a sneer.
“Yes, Brooklyn. Park Slope actually. It’s a beautiful, historic neighborhood and I love it.” Relief that this was not a misguided attempt at matchmaking turned to bristling self-defense.
“She’s right, Andy,” Angelica said, putting a hand on his wrist. “Park Slope is a beautiful neighborhood and if you saw what Christina had done with her house you would be totally awed. You just have to get over your Brooklyn phobia, that’s all.”
“Well, I am looking for someone to do work on my place,” he said. “And Angelica’s recommendation means a lot. Maybe I could show it to you and you could let me know how you might handle the job.”
“We could set up a time later this month,” said Christina. She hoped her voice masked her complete lack of enthusiasm. Whatever fragile thread of connection she’d felt with him had been snapped; he had reverted to the arrogant, self-satisfied man she’d endured at the dinner table. But a couple of key clients had lost their jobs, another was moving to Chicago, and yet another had been very slow in paying her bills. Work was work.
“Perfect,” Angelica said. “Do you have a business card or should I just give Andy your coordinates?”
“I think I have one.” Christina popped the clasp on her black satin clutch and rooted around inside. Yes, here it was; she handed it to Andy.
“Christina’s World,” he read off the card. “Antiques, Interiors, Gardens.” He looked at her. “Gardens? In the city?”
“Park Slope has a lot of gardens,” she said. “Lovely gardens, in fact. I’ve designed many of them.” Why did she feel this was another slight?
“Here’s my card,” he said. She looked down at the fat, block lettering, and the string of degrees that followed the name. She put it in her purse, wishing she did not need, so badly, to use it.
“Get in touch with her,” Angelica was saying to Andy. Then someone called her name and she turned. Before she moved off in the direction of the voice, she added, “You won’t be sorry.” Fortunately, Andy was waylaid by someone else and Christina was finally able to escape.
She didn’t want to go back to her table but it seemed too early to leave; the cake hadn’t even been cut. Maybe she could go back to the rose garden. Her fingers were sticky from the cookies though; what she wanted to do first was wash up. There were luxury portable restrooms set up at the far end of the lawn; Jordan had used one and told her it was even air conditioned. But Christina wanted to find a bathroom indoors—mostly because she wanted a peek inside.
She went around to the front and slipped in. The foyer was as big as most New York living rooms and it was done in a gargantuan black and white marble tile and a ghastly, glittering chandelier. This was exactly the sort of decorating she hated: overdone, overwrought, mindless. Christina tried a couple of doors before finding the right one. Inside, she washed her hands and splashed cool water on her cheeks. The gilt-framed mirror was parked between a pair of ornate brass sconces. So crass, she thought as she smoothed her hair—done in a simple French twist—and dusted her nose with pressed powder. A swipe of lip-gloss and a few dabs from the tiny flacon of Diorissimo she kept in her purse and her toilette was complete.
As she looked in the mirror, she saw her own still-attractive face with its delicate features and gray-blue eyes but she thought of Andy Stern. Arrogant, self-important, opinionated—was there anything she’d left out? But although she neither liked nor respected him, she was going to go after the job anyway. Business was slow. Private school, even with a generous financial aid package, cost money. And her 19th century row house always demanded something; this time it was the front stoop, whose crumbling front steps needed resurfacing. She had inherited the narrow, three-story brick structure with its glass fronted double doors and Japanese maple out front, and though she loved it dearly, it was certainly a money pit.
Lately, she’d been feeling so strapped that she actually applied for a full-time job at a design firm based in Greenwich. Giving up her own business to work for someone else would be, in her view, a comedown. But the Greenwich job offered a steady salary and good benefits. Anyway, it was a long shot; she’d sent the resume in weeks ago, gone up for an interview and heard nothing since. All the more reason to call Andy Stern.
By the time Christina made her way back to the table, the cake cutting was in progress. Angelica and Ohad, her Israeli groom, fed the first slices to each other, amid enthusiastic clapping and cheering. Then the servers took over, expertly slicing and distributing pieces to everyone else. Before Christina took her first bite, something caused her to look across the tent. There at the other end stood Andy Stern. On one side stood his son Oliver, and the other, Jordan. Oliver had a slice of cake in his fingers and was devouring it without the assistance of fork or plate. Jordan’s hands were empty, and she watched Oliver as though he were crazy, dangerous, or both.
Why did it trouble her to see the three of them standing there together, like they were posing for a family picture? Something about Andy, that was it. It was his body language—so commanding and assertive—and the way he seemed to take up so much space, to own everything around him.
As if he were aware of her unflattering assessment, Andy Stern looked straight at her, pinning her with his bright, focused gaze. As his fork impaled a morsel of cake, he grinned. Now why did that grin unsettle her so much? Christina didn’t wait to find out. Setting down the plate with its untouched cake, she sped off to the rose garden to escape.