Pretty in Pearl
Pretty in Pearl
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by Julia Gordon Bramer

Joan Hessel Reisenkramer. It's a cool name. Regal; like something engraved on an invitation to the White House or Buckingham Palace. Your name has a power and a shine to it, the authoritative, syllabic ride of old money (though I'm not in circles high enough to know old money from the noveau riche). I've always thought that it was really very you, your name.

On my job interview with you, I wore my best navy suit, striving to hide my scuffed-up heels. I was new in town, displaced from my East Coast home and trying to recreate a life. My husband had a good job offer and family here, so west we went.

You were starting a physician recruiting firm. "Headhunters," most people called them. You laughed and said, "I could easily make $100,000 a year doing this alone, but I don't want to work that hard!"

I sat nervously on your grand antique furniture, surrounded by tall golden brown mustard walls, wishing I made just $20,000 a year. You had style, it was plain to see.

You checked my references and hired me. I was delighted.

The basement office was sparse: I had a putty-colored metal typing table on wheels, a telephone with two lines, and a word-processing machine. It was 1989, and computers weren't everywhere, yet. It was just the two of us.

You taught me the subtleties of marketing and public relations. Initially, I was shocked at the dishonesty of it all. Do you remember? Like, how the name, The DeVille Corporation, belonged to no one named DeVille. It never had. How it was chosen deliberately to conjure ideas of the American luxury car, with its built-in branding and class. I felt like I was in on this naughty secret.

I remember when you taught me how to write a press release: "Pretend to be the reader," you said. "Imagine what would interest you enough to make the effort." That skill has taken me a long way.

You sold under a pseudonym, "Nancy Miller." Joan Reisenkramer signed off on the contracts, to give the illusion that more people worked at DeVille than was true. You told me that you picked the name "Nancy" because your best friend was Nancy. She later came to work for us too, and I adored her as much as you did, although we've lost touch now as well.

In that time working out of your home, in the early days of our corporate facade, you trusted me. Did I respect your trust? Well, yes and no. You trusted me in your home, and to get the job done. When you left me to work alone, I was so often overcome with the urge to pry; simply to learn more about you. Couldn't that, in a way, be considered a deep kind of respect? I wanted to know who you were; where you came from. I wanted to know how you became the Joan I knew, and how I could become her too.

You were wealthy. I didn't have to pry to know that much. Your jewelry! Your clothes! You were educated, elegant, with a Jaguar and a home full of beautiful things. Your hair and nails were done by professionals; not like me, wrestling with that goopy stuff on my own, never getting it right. You wore the newest heels before anyone else had them. You wore everything until five minutes before it became commonplace: the color chartreuse, bright mango lipstick. You had important, high-society friends. You went to see shows in New York and traveled to Europe to shop.

Please understand how deeply insecure I was back then, Joan. Please understand that I was still figuring things out about myself. I once declined your offer for reheated coffee, and I balked when you suggested that I reuse my teabags. I was trying to feel better about myself, you know? About the mismatch of Ordinary Me amidst the luxury of You.

What else did I find, snooping in your home? Your husband read dirty magazines (no secret there, the office closet was stacked with them). I wondered how that affected you.

It would bug me, Joan. It really would. If I was as smart and beautiful and pulled together as you, it would bug me that my husband wanted to look somewhere else, even just to look.

I noticed what corners you'd folded down in your latest Victoria's Secret catalogue and I paid attention to what items you'd circled. I wondered if you, in that black sheer body stocking you'd planned to buy, felt that you were enough for him.

"I'm forty-two," you told me on my first day in the basement. No lies, no shame in it. When I turned thirty, you told me, "You know, life didn't really start happening for me until I turned thirty." You said it just like that; very matter of fact. I'll be damned if it wasn't the same for me. I wonder now if I copied you on purpose. Maybe, had you never said that, my life never would have begun? In any case, you were right. It all began right around then.

You were open and honest in your insecurities, Joan, and I loved you for that too. You thought your face was too thin. You thought you were too fat, and I remember you standing up, holding the skirt of your silk suit tight against your thigh, trying to prove to me that your legs were "enormous." Of course, they weren't.

You bought me things, nice things, for every occasion imaginable: toys and magazine subscriptions on my kid's birthdays (my eldest shared a birthday with you, so you never forgot), potted azaleas on Secretary's Day (although I was considered Office Manager), jewelry on Valentine's Day, silver earrings for my birthday. I still wear them.

Our office grew. DeVille moved out of your basement and into a real building, with real desks and Warhol prints and a conference room with doors that closed. Steve, the guy with the red hair and snappy retorts, joined us. And that older guy, what was his name? You know, the one who spoke continually of his prostate. And Carolyn, a lovely older woman with creamy skin who wore her white-gray hair pinned up high like royalty. For awhile, a few others joined us too. Then, the money began to drop off. The recruiters, solely dependent on commissions to survive, began to fall away.

One day, the Fire Marshall came around, checking things out, and he commented on the empty, quiet office.

"Business is bad," I told him.

Oops. The next thing I knew, the word was out— at a time when you were trying to sell your company. You asked me if I said this and I said, "No."

I was too spineless to tell you the truth. I panicked. I didn't want you to hate me, Joan. I didn't want you to blame me for everything going wrong. You meant too much to me. It seemed better, at the time, for you to carry a thread of doubt about me over the solid knowledge that I'd screwed things up. I should have been bigger than that, I know. I'm bigger than that now. At least I think I am.

Joan, I'm sorry. I feel the need to say that. I wasn't a good enough friend to you. I wasn't a good enough office manager. I was nosey. I wasted some of my time. I stole stamps. But please know how much I adore you.

I can still see you, Joan; so cool with your great big lipstick smile and your white blonde hair flying in the wind as you drove past me in your red convertible. You, in your silk suits and neon nails; those brave, shocking colors that you somehow tamed. You were really were an artist, I think. Like I should have been. Both of us were misplaced in the business world, although you made a much better success of it than I did.

I remember your voice. It was very soft and little-girlish, for a strong woman like you. I remember the last time we spoke on the phone, quite by accident, when you called up a later employer of mine, seeking help for a friend through the social services agency where I was working. That was so like you, always helping everybody else.

"Joan Reisenkramer?" I said, "It's Julia!"

How magic this life is! That I should be the one to answer the phone of a business you were calling out of the telephone book. It was then that you told me of the lymphoma. Your energy was low from the chemo, but now, you said, you got to wear fabulous big wigs, your weight was perfect, and you never looked better. Only you could say something like this, at a time like that, and make me laugh!

What I should have said then, Joan, what I didn't say (for reasons I don't know-isn't it strange how little we understand ourselves?), what I should have said, was that you've shaped me, Joan. I should have told you how much you meant to me.

I should have told you that I loved you.

Instead, I said, "Let's get together for lunch sometime."

A couple of months later, I drove by your home on your birthday. I knocked on the door, standing awhile, expecting your greeting. I knocked again. After a minute, I scribbled a note that I'd come by. I wished you a happy day, and said, "let's do that lunch." I was finally ready. I was finally grown-up enough to commit to it.

Nancy told me that you died in a letter, about a year later. It happened not long after I'd had that phone call with you. I was stunned. It took me years to even completely believe it. And here I am now, what? five, six years later? Here I am, missing you like crazy.

I think of the pain I must have caused your husband when he came home and saw my note to you. Did he hold it in his hands, look off to the distance somewhere, and cry? Did he wish he'd always said and done the right thing with you, the way that I wish I had? Did he wad my note up into a tight angry ball, and hurl it into the bushes, damning me, damning you for leaving him? Did he look at it flatly, with diffidence, all worn out from the pain of your loss, and set it on the table inside the doorway, with his keys, to be forgotten?

I never heard from him. I pray it somehow detached itself and blew away. And as far away as it might have blown, as far away as you are now, I pray these words find you.

As former director of the Writers Voice literary center in St. Louis, Julia Gordon-Bramer has worked with luminaries in literature such as Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and Gloria Steinem, to name just a few. Her award-winning poetry and prose has recently appeared in national publications such as Rainy Day (Cornell University's literary magazine), Carve, the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal, and others. Julia is a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, working toward a MFA in Creative Writing, and author of a memoir, NIGHT TIMES, currently seeking publication. She teaches English at St. Louis Community College.

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