Asher Brightendale’s Dilemmas
Like most things in Asher Brightendale’s life, his attempted suicide was an example of his penchant for dismissing any plan laced with the possibility of failure by summarily replacing it with an obstinate determination to perfectly execute his objective. I.E., he knew, or at least suspected, his suicide by drowning would probably fail, but the portent of humiliation and a damaged ego added to his implacable nature dictated he push ahead anyway.
At just after nine p.m. Asher waded into Long Island Sound wondering which they’d find first, his body or his Salvatore Ferragamo shoes which he’d placed on the beach next to his Giorgio Armani sport coat. Finding the shoes first, he thought, would certainly add to the drama of his disappearance.
“He always overreacts.”
“A clear play for sympathy.”
“I expected penance, but this is a bit much, don’t you think?”
Like a Greek chorus, the women’s voices were as a clear and real in his mind as if the magpies of Centerport gossips were standing right behind him. They seemed intent on extracting their pound of flesh and sending him to perdition bearing the last of their vitriolic derision.
“Do you know why you rejected me?” he shouted at his tormentors. “D’ya know why you hated what I did? I tell you why! Because you were afraid your husbands might do the same thing. And they would have, had they the chance!”
The tide at the western end of the Sound rises nearly eight feet. But at low tide - which was where it was at the moment - one has to go a considerable distance to find water deep enough to drown oneself with any degree of certainty. Given that Asher was not a strong swimmer, the prospect of his failing to reach deep water raised the specter of yet another botched job.
“That would be the final humiliation,” Asher admitted to himself. “God knows what the guys would say at the club."
“Never been a closer.”
“Talked a good game."
"When money was on the line, he could never sink the birdie putt.”
He imagined the taunts came from a golfing foursome standing on the 18th green looking as if they had all just carded birdies. Asher wondered if everyone bent on suicide found themselves having to deal with phantom voices.
He shouted his retort at the empty beach. “You bastards are just jealous because I got her and you didn't!”
Asher was rapidly replacing resolve with indecision as he addressed the chorus. “For years you've all drunk my liquor and eaten my food and played on my tennis court. When you needed someone to get you into the country club or get your kids admitted into the Bountiful Country Day School or open doors on The Street, I was the go-to-guy - a Centerport man’s best friend. Now you don’t have the guts to look me in the eye. You know what that’s a sign of? Guilt! Your lives are nothing but triple bogies. After I’ve drowned myself, you’ll be off the hook. I won’t be around to remind you of that guilt.”
The cold seawater was now wicking up his Brioni slacks and he could feel it trickle into his Polo underwear. How was he going to get into the deep water... really deep water? If only there were a boat. He looked back at the shore. No boats. Of course, there were no boats. Not on the Centerport beach. The realization only added to his growing animus and frustration. “So why in the hell would they call this Centerport? How could this ever have been a port? Even our yacht club is in another town.”
It is true, of course, that in the traditional sense, Centerport is not the kind of port you would find in the dictionary under ‘port.’ But, in a more metaphorical sense, it is aptly named because there is a tacit understanding along the Connecticut coast that if you are "somebody" or if you are "anybody" aspiring to be "somebody," Centerport is where you live. It is from here that you can launch your social ship into the heady waters of Fischer's Island, Hobe Sound, and Lyford Cay or into the pages of Town and Country. So “Port" is not the misnomer that it would appear to be.
Even in his formative years, Asher understood the obvious advantages that an address in Centerport represented to his social aspirations. Isadora Partington represented his welcome mat. What she lacked in physical assets she more than made up for with the assets in her virtually inexhaustible trust fund. She had grown up with the knowledge that a limitless checkbook could prove to be more than an adequate compensation for God's oversights.
This is not to say that Isadora was unattractive, but she certainly never inspired appreciative glances from promising young men unless they had been made aware of her wealth. Asher, who was counted among those who was privy to Isadora's pecuniary charm, was misled into believing the axiom that: It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich girl as a poor one.
He courted and married Isadora only to discover that the rest of the familiar postulate ends not in a period, but in a comma and goes on to say: but it's a lot harder to live with a rich girl because she will never let you forget what her father did for you.
For a short time, they lived in New York, but Isadora, whose view of the world had been constrained by the confines of Centerport along with a handful of fashionable and exclusive vacation retreats scattered randomly beyond the horizon, soon began to long for a return Centerport. Asher could not have been happier. They invaded Isadora’s trust and purchased a substantial house on a modest hill - the elevation of which afforded a view of Long Island Sound from the maid's bedroom. While Asher found the physical house a befitting testament of the success he planned to achieve on Wall Street, he recognized that it lacked those exterior appurtenances which elevate one’s home to estate category. In his haste to achieve social parity with the other properties on the street, he inadvertently alienated the McMurtrey's - his westerly neighbor - by cutting down the woods that served as a green barrier between their houses so that he could create a spectacular, half-acre, architect-designed, Japanese koi pond replete with fountains, waterfalls, decorative bridges and lily pads. Unfortunately, despite all of Asher's efforts and expense, the pond leaked and by mid-summer was little more than a mud flat peppered with dead koi fish.
Lavinia McMurtrey was not reluctant to share her rage with her circle of friends, "I've spent 29 years securely protected on the other side of the now missing forest. To say that I am aggrieved would be an understatement. Clearly Mr. Brightendale does not seem to understand that anyone in Centerport questing for social position would have done well not to offend me. Especially when one considers, as he apparently did not, that I command an important public following as author of the Who's Doing What column in the weekly Port Docker."
After an initial period of controlled hysteria, she penned a vitriolic column condemning Asher in an article entitled The Wanton Destruction and Disregard for Centerport's Aesthetic Ambient Resources.
"Lavinia," her editor pointed out, "your article on Asher Brightendale is libelous. Your neighbor, ill-mannered and environmentally gross as he might be, was within his deeded rights to cut down any and every tree on his property and, if he wished, to seed the barren earth with asphalt."
She withdrew the article and instead initiated a word-of- mouth campaign that nearly cost the Brightendales an invitation from the Welcome Wagon Lady to join the Newcomers Club until, as Isadora confided to a friend, "I had to bail Asher out. Socially that is, by reminding our potential detractors, and there are many closet detractors in Centerport, that I was, and still am, a Partington. I simply asked that they bear in mind what my Daddy's money and his many charitable contributions mean to Centerport."
The wholesale disposition of the woods was bad enough, but Asher further inflamed neighborhood displeasure when, in the process of positioning his guest house and six car garage, he authorized the construction company to dynamite a substantial outcropping of fundamental Northeast granite bedrock. The reverberations broke several windows, caused the Darlington's Yorkshire to miscarry and shook down Beano and Sister Beaumores’ collection of antique Lalique. Again, the wave of neighborhood protests arose, this time spilling onto the fairways and into the taproom of the Centerport Country Club.
Despite a minor neighborly tiff now and again, Asher's life was outwardly enviable and it appeared to those who peered up at the substantial house on the modest hill that this was a man who thoroughly enjoyed what life - and Isadora - had afforded him.
It was while sitting in the steam room at the New York Union Club that an old college friend said how much he envied Asher his happy life in Centerport.
"Happy life? Me? Wrong. I'm not happy. Do I look happy?"
"I thought you did," the friend said.
"Well, it's a mask. A facade. I need a change. I long for a change. You don't understand what it's like to wake up day after day to find yourself confronted by that heavily mud brown creamed face on the adjacent pillow. And to see the engorged and growing love handles which are made for anything but love. I have to confess, for the last several years I have satisfied my needs with short lunchtime liaisons with...let's call them professional women. But that has been only marginally satisfying. More and more I find myself fantasizing about replacing Isadora with.... something... someone.... more of what I deserve in a wife."
"Do you have someone in mind?" the friend asked.
Enter Angeline Morris. A divorcee looking for a checkbook.
To say that she was beautiful would hardly do her justice. She was the "stuff" of fantasies. The cover of Cosmopolitan come alive. Long black hair, a full and perfect body and legs the likes of which hosiery manufacturers dream of for their ads. When she walked into a room men's heads snapped in a reflexive response followed by a furtive glance toward their wives to see if they had been successful in masking the truth of what had just transpired in their temporal lobes.
An objective observer would hardly have been surprised to learn that Angeline was afflicted with a near terminal case of narcissism. "I love the way I look. I love the way men look at my body. Even I can't get enough of me. I think of myself as the equivalent of a rare object d’art. Care must be taken. I eat an 80-calorie high fiber breakfast and then spend thirty minutes in a yoga exercise that I was assured will slow aging. Then I drive to the local Fit and Firm and spend two hours carefully and meticulously exercising each of my muscle groups. Toning…shaping…furiously attacking any erosion on the sculpted lines of my body."
Cellulite, of which she had none, was more ominous to her than death. She spent unconscionable amounts of money on creams and skin preparations and yet permitted her body to roast in the sun like some animal turning on a spit. She prided herself on the fact that her tan was always total. Her role in Centerport - and in Centerport every woman is supposed to have a role - appeared mainly to provide the benchmark by which husbands could tacitly measure the physical shortcomings of their wives.
"It's my fault," Isadora cried to her mother. "Asher’s affair with that wanton woman is all my fault. My constant carping ... constantly reminding him of the importance Daddy and my money have played in helping him get where he is on Wall Street. I accept full responsibility for driving him into another woman's arms. I will do penance for the rest of my life," she sobbed.
Isadora's penance lingered for about twelve hours before she decided that contrition did not become her. On the other hand, delivering punishment did. She took steps to have Asher and all his clothes removed from the house and piled in the driveway. What followed fueled the Centerport gossips for weeks.
"Those are your clothes," she screamed as she poured kerosene on them and lit a match. "And this is me setting them on fire."
"Yeah.? Well, this is your flower bed and this is me on the riding mower driving through your nasturtiums," he shouted back.
Having thus set the tone for the divorce proceedings, they retreated, Isadora to the substantial house on the modest hill. Asher and Angeline took up temporary residence in a rented apartment. At first, the unrestricted proximity and the opportunity to satisfy his appetites on a daily basis managed to obscure Angeline's more basic flaws. But as the newness of their concupiscence gave way to the realities of learning to live with one another, Asher slowly began to discover what her ex-husbands had known for years: Angeline was truly in love only with Angeline.
Their first argument was precipitated when Asher, growing increasingly less tolerant of Angeline's affinity for mirrors, said, "What is it with you and mirrors?" Asher tried to sound as if his question was no more than a gentle, humor-tinged prod. "I'm beginning to wonder if you intend to take up permanent residence at your make-up table."
What began as a small irritant grew steadily and was compounded by her inability to dress for an evening out without complaining that even with three closets of clothes representing the better part of what had been her second husband's discretionary income, "I have absolutely nothing to wear."
In public, Asher found that instead of enjoying the envious stares of covetous men, he was more likely to find himself being questioned by security guards as to why he was loitering outside ladies’ rooms.
"You want to move along bud? I seen you standing here for the past half hour."
The allure that had initially intoxicated him faded and sobriety returned. When Asher made the decision to jettison Isadora and succumb to Angeline, he was well aware that Centerport is a matriarchal society and that the women made the decisions as to who is socially acceptable and who is not. Knowing the odds of their being accepted by Centerport society were between slim and none, Asher ignored the odds and lost. As he told a steam room friend. "Nobody calls us. Nobody invites us to their parties. The women don't talk to Angeline and they won't even let their husbands talk to me."
The confirmation of his total rejection was indeed a traumatic blow to Asher. He had gambled that once they had become an item, they would be assimilated into the fabric of Centerport society and thus assume their place as the community's most envied couple.
"My wife saw me talking to Asher at the bank and gave me hell," the tall golfer on the first tee said.
"Giving you tips on how to have an affair, was he?" laughed his partner.
"What did Asher expect?" said a heavy-set woman at the Snooty Fox Nail Salon to the diminutive blond at the table next to her. "That we would abandon Isadora in her time of trial?"
Faced with a rapidly deteriorating affair and near total social ostracism, Asher let it be known he was having second thoughts. "I'm thinking that maybe...well, that I just might consider leaving Angeline and asking Isadora to take me back,"
Asher sensed that his effort to restore their pre-Angeline conjugal relationship would probably fail, and even while ignoring the advice of a friend, he was determined to reconcile. He was sure if Isadora agreed to his return, he would become little more than an electronically monitored indentured servant never permitted to wander far from home. He recognized that were he to accept Isadora's demands – and she would be many - his life would be extremely difficult, at least for a while, and he would have to appear in public with a look of sincere contrition to satisfy the acerbic tongues of Centerport women. At the same time, it occurred to him that he might preserve some of his ego by reminding his friends that he alone had known Angeline Morris.
Had he been more personally secure, instead of contemplating suicide, he might have picked up his Gucci luggage, and whatever else he could have carried in his Testarosa, and departed. But so great was his need for social acceptance, he was prepared to accept Isadora's demands and endure a tacit, but nonetheless odious, humiliation from Centerport society. He would become a walking case study of How Wives Should Deal with the Marital Infidelity of a Spouse: a living example for Isadora’s friends as to how to retaliate should their husbands decide to stray. It was at this low point that he had decided to show them all and walk into the sea like James Mason at the end of A Star Is Born. But like most everything else in his life, even while anticipating failure he bore ahead blindly only to eventually admit his resolve had dissipated totally. After spending less than fifteen minutes up to his knees standing in the low tide of Long Island Sound he returned to the beach and sat down.
“Where the hell are my shoes? Who the hell took my shoes?” The final humiliation. Scavengers had descended on the beach and taken his shoes even before he’d attempted to drown himself.
He returned to his house that night, barefoot. Isadora, who had gone to bed early, never inquired about the salt encrusted Brioni slacks she found in the kitchen the next morning.