While Paulette was getting ready upstairs, Robert took charge of dinner, which entailed pouring the sparkling water and calling for the children, after which Kiki appeared with the halibut and Brussels sprouts, spinach salad on the side.
“Looks delicious,” Robert said, placing his phone face down on the table and then interlacing his fingers, as though this public denial of electronics were commensurate with saying grace. “Right, guys?”
“Thank you, Kiki,” Lana said.
“Thanks, Kiki,” Friedrich said.
“Yes, thanks,” Robert concluded with a warm, conspiratorial smile. Kiki whom he paid on the books. Kiki from Tibet. My goodness, the calm essence of those people. The work ethic. Plus she happened to be an excellent cook, almost better than Chef Gary.
“Where are you going tonight?” Lana asked.
“The Harrisons’,” Robert said.
“Will Flip be there?”
“I suppose so.”
Lana disappeared into her shoulders, her body nowadays like an overcoat, the wind and the rain kicking up from across the table. The turmoils of seventh grade. Over the past year she had bulked up; perfectly natural, the pediatrician had told Robert and Paulette, rocket fuel for the coming launch into puberty, though, just in case, Paulette had eliminated bread and dairy from her diet, and processed sugar, of course. Robert’s side of the family had a history of weight issues, as Paulette often mentioned. His mother and younger brother. Those round nephews. Thank God they no longer marched to northeast Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, no longer had to listen to that nonsense about this being everyone’s favorite meal: turkey with sausage and stuffing, the two varieties of canned cranberry, the sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, the heedless, almost irresponsible piling up of dish upon dish—the turnips, the peas, the butter-infused Pepperidge Farm dinner rolls—as if they were composing self-portraits in food. Watching them eat seemed vaguely cannibalistic. Robert, for his part, was in optimal shape, training five times a week with a former Navy SEAL and competing in marathons and triathlons. Next year he planned to tackle the Ironman in Hawaii.
“I thought we were having salmon tonight,” Friedrich said.
Robert refrained from checking his phone and called in Kiki, who confirmed the switch. The halibut was fresher than the salmon, or so the man at the fish counter had told her. This unsanctioned change of proteins went against the purpose of the posted weekly menu, which was to lower daily stress by preparing the children for their dinners ahead—no surprises, no potential conflicts with lunch—and while Robert himself never trusted anyone who pushed product, whether stocks or warranties or halibut, he decided to let the matter pass without correction. “Oh, O.K.,” he said to Kiki.
“Does that mean the next time we have halibut we’ll have salmon?” Friedrich asked.
Robert turned to Kiki.
“I guess so,” Kiki said.
“Yes,” Robert declared, “salmon for halibut, halibut for salmon.”
Lana hunched her shoulders even higher.
“An excellent suggestion,” Robert told Friedrich.
“Sure, no problem,” Friedrich said, unmoved by the fatherly approbation.
But Robert was heartened. “The old switcheroo. Genius.” He got up from the table and went over to the floor-to-ceiling windows. The shadow of their building, new and narrow and tall, was tilting across the southern end of Central Park. Like a slow-motion salute from above. You have achieved great success, good American. The effect always stirred Robert, and he tried to identify his specific tranche of shade, as though he might glimpse himself standing in the monolithic darkness, eighty-three floors up. See his own small hand waving. He turned back around and faced his children, his dear children—my dear children, he thought. “I used to hate Brussels sprouts,” he told them. The cue was obvious since Lana was warily stabbing at a green bud, but the tone was unexpected, almost contrived, as though he were reading words written inside his head. “Hated them with a passion. It was pure torture. Almost to the point of actual weeping. And Gram, she knew I did, yet every couple of weeks, there they were again, Brussels sprouts—Bobby sprouts, she called them. Bobby sprouts,” he repeated, impersonating his mother’s witchy voice. “She steamed them. All mushy and bitter. Just awful. Then came Harvard and I was done with Brussels sprouts, which was one of the supreme pleasures of being an adult, never having to eat Brussels sprouts again. Hallelujah. So I went twenty years free of those”—he paused for maximum profane effect—“fuckers until this dinner party, a fancy one, and there they were, right under my nose. I was sitting by the host, so I had no choice. I had to eat them. To be polite. And I was scared. Literally sweating. But I mustered up the courage and had a bite. They were halved and caramelized and delicious. It was my road-to-Damascus moment—you know that story? How Saul becomes Paul, one of the apostles, how he goes blind seeing the light of God and converts? No? Nothing? Oh well. Just means it was a revelation. These are Brussels sprouts?! These things here?! And I wondered, had Gram been doing them wrong all those years, or had I finally grown up, or had there been a fundamental shift in the preparation of Brussels sprouts?”
Lana and Friedrich looked at Robert as though he were an embedded commercial in one of their on-demand shows, their eyes trying to click thirty seconds ahead.
“Anyway,” Robert said, uncertain of the point himself.
Lana offered him a Brussels sprout.
Robert grinned. “Very funny.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Robert said. “Maybe tomorrow night, I’ll tell you my complicated history with cauliflower.”
“That’s not on the menu,” Friedrich said.
Before Robert could change course and bring up their weekend, with the diver-certification class and the background lecture on the wreck of the Tecumseh from Professor Miller, Friedrich wiped his mouth and asked about the Herons, specifically what was going on. Seemed their cams were down. Or not down but just streaming their hotel room—the Ron cam, the Lisa cam, the Stan cam, the Maggie cam, all four cams staring at the ceiling of the DoubleTree. “Almost creepy,” Friedrich said.
Robert performed mild surprise. “Yeah?”
“You haven’t been watching?”
“Not really,” he lied.
“They should’ve gone to Disney World,” Lana half-whispered, “like the Shacklers.”
“Yeah, that looked fun,” Friedrich said.
“Wish we would go there,” Lana said.
“What was the name of that ride?” Robert asked, pleased by the memory of the Shacklers and their four-day vacation in Disney World, which Robert and his family had sponsored with their initial foray into funded tourism.
“Splash Mountain,” Friedrich said.
Lana brightened. “I’d like to see little Maggie Heron on one of those rides.”
“Well, little Maggie Heron might be dead or something,” Friedrich told her.
“Nobody’s dead,” Robert said, and though he was tempted to grab his phone and check the stream, he simply said, once again, this time with conviction, but casual conviction, “Nobody is dead.” But in reality Robert was concerned. The stream had presented a full and active morning for the Herons: a crack-of-dawn breakfast, a double-decker bus downtown, visits to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and the 9/11 Memorial, another bus back to Times Square for a late lunch at the Brooklyn Diner. All of this was in keeping with their detailed itinerary, curated by Robert and Co. Some highlights: Stan and Maggie posing with Elmo on Forty-second Street, Elmo swindling Ron of twenty bucks; Ron and Lisa and Stan and Maggie standing in the wrong line for the ferry; Ron and Stan climbing to the crown of the Statue of Liberty, Ron sweating, Stan disgusted; Maggie at Ellis Island counting every exhaled breath over the course of a half hour until Ron begged her to please stop, sweetheart; Lisa getting teary thinking of her great-grandparents at the Immigration Museum while Ron focussed on a nearby woman, in particular her New World cleavage; Stan pretending to be an airplane in front of the 9/11 Memorial, Ron horrified and chasing after him, briefly resembling the second airplane; Ron and Lisa and Stan and Maggie waiting an hour for cheeseburgers and noodle kugel, Maggie and Stan panicking over their devices’ dwindling battery percentages, Ron staring into the ominously innocuous distance. After lunch, the family retreated to the DoubleTree for some rest. Their next activity—a carriage ride through Central Park—had been scheduled for 4:00 P.M. followed by a 6:15 P.M. dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe and an 8:00 P.M. performance of “Wicked.” But according to their stream they were still in the hotel room, face up in their beds.
“I don’t think they’re breathing,” Friedrich said.
“They’ve haven’t moved in, like, four hours.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Why’d they want to come to New York anyway?” Lana muttered.
“Because it’s a great city,” Robert said.
“People dream of this.” Robert gestured to their view.
With the clack of high heels as overture, Paulette the symphony rushed in, her silk chiffon dress, finished in tiered ruffles, giving the impression that she was bustling through a pile of brightly colored leaves. As always, she seemed to be mid-task, her eyes rearranging great swaths of air, her hands fiddling with imaginary clasps. “We should go or we’ll be late,” she told Robert.
“I’ve been ready.”
“I know, I know, just play along.” Paulette turned to the children and their immediate needs, which were easier to cope with than the compounding fear of loss and loathing, of being unworthy of any reciprocating love. When they were babies, then toddlers, Paulette mothered without a second thought. But somewhere in their middle-school years the ineffable had been replaced by executive management and peer review, late childhood becoming a series of problems to be solved and then questioned afterward in bed. She was like a threatened C.F.O. Robert, for his part, just wished she could relax more, though he understood the problematic jujutsu of that statement and so never used that word; rather, he suggested more yoga, or a massage, or maybe a visit to Mustique. “Not too late tonight, all right?” Paulette told Friedrich and Lana. “We all have a big day tomorrow.” Paulette then summoned Kiki, who accidentally let Shawnie free from the confines of the kitchen. The dog was part chocolate Lab, part Great Dane, i.e., a Labradane, bred by some lunatic in southwest Ohio. Imagine a retriever on stilts.
Robert grabbed Shawnie’s collar before that crazy tail could do damage and dragged him back to the kitchen.
“O.K.,” Paulette said to Kiki, “they should be in bed by ten. No screens after eight-thirty unless they’re watching a movie made before 1990. No exceptions. And only in the living room, the two of them watching together.” Paulette turned back toward Friedrich and Lana. “And here’s the deal: if you’re reading a book, you can stay up until eleven. Maybe tackle some of ‘A Sorrow in Our Heart’ or ‘West Wind, Flood Tide.’ ”
Both children sighed.
Paulette aped their sighs in return, the neckline of her dress revealing the core of muscle that in a certain light could be read as skin and bones. “Love you,” she said, reflating. “Now damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” She went over and comically started to push Robert toward the entryway, Robert who had been ready ages ago, Robert who had already picked their housewarming bottle of wine, Robert who was sort of disappointed in her lack of attention vis-à-vis the unsanctioned halibut, Robert who muttered, “Aye, aye, Captain Farragut.”
“Rear Admiral,” Paulette corrected.
“That doesn’t sound nearly as good.”
“But that’s what he was. Drayton was the captain.”
Regardless of these things, Robert raised the bottle of Cros Parantoux as if he were charging into a night of good cheer.