Timkin’s wife left him during a blisteringly cold Thanksgiving week, two nights before their annual Balloon Night party. There was no time for Timkin to call their guests and cancel; nor would he know where to call in many cases. It was the sort of event attended by people from all corners of their lives whether or not they could produce a fresh invite. Once invited always invited, he and Amy had said.
The Timkins had a three-bedroom eighth-floor apartment, on West Seventy-Seventh Street between Central Park West and Columbus, the balloon block. It was where those cloud-size cartoon characters for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade were inflated, the night before Thanksgiving, and nearly all the residents would open their apartment doors to anyone and everyone they knew. Timkin grew up in the apartment (which his parents had ceded to him six years earlier when they moved to Naples, Florida) and had attended his first balloon party at age six. Now he was thirty-four.
Timkin had been too depressed to tell anyone the dismal news, and in truth he had convinced himself that Amy would return, apologetic, or demanding an apology, which he would provide, and they would make up at dinner and in bed that night, and it would all blow over. He couldn’t even remember what they’d fought about, only that it was insignificant and he had been right.
The first two days after Amy had walked out Timkin rode his bike around the island of Manhattan in a fog, dodging trucks and taxis, heading down to Battery Park, through Chinatown and the Village, and then up Sixth Avenue. He was at least in part on the lookout for Amy, but he did not go by the building where she worked. On day three he went in to his office and tried to keep busy, but mostly just stared at the phone, and composed on his computer the germs of letters to Amy, alternating fragments of forgiveness and bitterness.
The guests would begin arriving at nine, and so at six Timkin went by himself to the Pioneer grocery on Columbus to get Coke and Sprite and scotch and beer and wine, then over to Citarella for assorted cheeses and pâtés, a few flat bread pizzas, caviar, salmon, the oilier dill-covered kind they called Grav Lox, dips, crackers, bread and carpaccio, and pumpkin and pecan pie. Spent a fortune. But he could pull this off. He would make the best of a terrible situation, and he could tell them something, that he’d get through this, though he wasn’t convinced he would. The balloons and the alcohol might be a distraction, no? Could you stay depressed with a decent scotch in your paper cup, and Underdog smiling overhead?
You could of course. And then he wondered: Did he have to tell them?
She’d be back on Thursday evening at around 6:30, Timkin decided, and they’d have dinner with Amy’s parents on the East Side. She was heartbroken that she couldn’t be there, he’d tell his guests, and they would all drink a toast to her.”
Eventually he’d need to, if the break were real. But telling everyone now was a bit like telling people you were pregnant one week after reading the home pregnancy test. So many things could change. And anyhow, would it harm anything, for the purposes of the party, to say his wife was away for a few days on business? Amy worked in advertising, on the account side, and was quite often away.
But away for Thanksgiving?
She’d be back on Thursday evening at around 6:30, Timkin decided, and they’d have dinner with Amy’s parents on the East Side. She was heartbroken that she couldn’t be there, he’d tell his guests, and they would all drink a toast to her.
It could work, Timkin thought. He pictured Amy arriving at Kennedy in her red wool jacket and then cabbing back to East Eighty-Fourth Street, and then he suddenly felt a warm surge of relief settle over him, which was very much like having her back. He could postpone his suffering for a night, why the heck not? He suddenly felt good, better than he had in weeks. And he went back to his bathroom to shave and dress, and put on his best game face.
First arriving were the Willises, a sportswriter for the New York Times and his wife, Sabrina, who owned a small absurdly expensive beauty salon in the East Twenties. They’d been better friends with Amy, so there was the risk they’d know. But the leaving had only just happened on Monday, and besides, Timkin and Amy had been notoriously out of touch with their friends lately, perhaps as a result of their feuding, or because their jobs had been so exhausting.
Jonah Willis covered college football, which meant he traveled a lot on weekends.
“The bad news is that Amy can’t be here tonight. She’s heartbroken,” Timkin said. “She’s staying in a little Marriott in Cincinnati of all places.”
“Oh God,” Sabrina said. “They’re really cutting back. I bet I know what she’s doing there. She’s making a P&G stop, isn’t she?”
“You might know her better than I do,” Timkin said, smiling and fearing it might be true.
The apartment was immaculate. Timkin, after all, was the clean one of the two. Amy’s untidiness had been an issue, but not a particularly significant one. Timkin liked finding the occasional book left out, or magazine article; he liked seeing where Amy had left off, and when they were first dating, he often tried to guess the last sentence she’d read before she put the book down. He’d tell her sometimes which one he thought and more often than not he’d get it right.
At some point she started telling him it was a different line or a different page altogether. And then she stopped leaving her books open just to avoid the conversation.
But the place was neat now. And there were still some of her things around, though she’d taken most of her clothes. Only one or two of her old coats remained in the closet, and Timkin wondered if the closet’s relative emptiness would clue anyone in to what had transpired. He could say she’d taken a few coats with her on her trip… but that was a bit ridiculous, wasn’t it? It wasn’t a crime scene after all.
In truth, Amy had been happy lately, or happier than a lot of other times in the years Timkin had known her. She was taking classes after work, dance and French, painting and Pilates. And she was more confident and self-willed, Timkin thought. He encouraged her to follow her interests. She had taken him twice to her wine tasting class and on their way home the second time he had poked fun at the comically pretentious instructor. She appeared hurt by his comments, as though he’d insulted her and not the silly wine guy. “How about you take the class and when we go to restaurants, you can pick the wine. I won’t mind,” he said.
“But I’ll want you to know the difference,” she said.
Once he suggested she was pretending to like movies that secretly bored her and for two days she was notably distant from him. He’d only meant to tease her. Eventually she told him – in the morning as she left for work – “I respond to things that aren’t obvious, and that doesn’t make me fake or a bad person. I can’t change what I like to suit you.”
But he did that all the time, he could have said. It was part of being a successful couple, he believed: the capacity to adapt.
“Can I open this one?” Willis asked. It was a bottle of eighteen-year-old Laphroaig Timkin had been saving for tonight, and he smiled.
“Dig in,” he said, happy for the chance to feel generous.
He had a nice-size scotch and the warmth of it – and the prospect of seeing all his friends and Amy’s friends and their families tonight – made Timkin feel loved, and he allowed himself to believe that Amy might actually return tonight, that it wasn’t out of the question. She understood the spirit of this event; she’d know how much it would mean to Timkin if she suddenly turned up. Just last year a former colleague of Amy’s had done exactly that. She and Amy had a falling-out before the woman left the agency, but when they saw each other at the party, all was forgiven.
They embraced for several seconds. Timkin had watched this.
It could happen just like that, he thought.
“How’s work?” Willis asked, and Timkin, who taught history at City College and wrote biographies, told him his prepared answer, that he was around halfway through the book, that the research was mostly done and now he had follow-up interviews and a good chunk of writing ahead. He might try to get out of the city to do it, upstate somewhere.
“Amy’s going to let you get away?”
“What’s good for the goose,” he said.
“I suppose,” Sabrina said. “You guys must go crazy spending that much time apart.”
“I don’t like it,” Timkin said. “It’s just a fact of life.”
He took another belt of scotch and then the doorbell rang. It was the Schwabackers from the fourth floor, Eric and Dana, sporty and blond. He was a lawyer and she was a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience, something with fruit flies. Every time she explained her work to Timkin his mind drifted out the window and across the park where it sat down at a restaurant somewhere on the East Side. A lot of people’s stories about their work bored him, but he always asked about it anyway – better to never ask, no?
Kisses all around and each time he had to tell them, ‘She couldn’t get out of it, she’s absolutely miserable about it.’”
Now came a few of his old college friends, Seth, and Jordan and Lilia and their whole crowd who tended to stay by themselves at one side of the apartment, in the kitchen usually, rarely branching out to talk with anyone else, though they’d seen these same people here every year. His aunt Eileen arrived then with his cousins, Monique and Andrew. Kisses all around and each time he had to tell them, “She couldn’t get out of it, she’s absolutely miserable about it.”
“She couldn’t get someone else to go?” Eileen asked.
“I guess it doesn’t work that way. Anyhow, Amy said we shouldn’t have too much fun or she’ll be horribly jealous.”
“The hell with that,” said Lilia who’d been listening in. “Let’s make her miserably and inconsolably jealous.”
“How would we do that?” asked Eric.
“Use your imagination,” Lilia said.
A woman Timkin didn’t know was walking about taking drink orders, and then a whole group of people he’d never set eyes on before entered his apartment. This was the chaos of Balloon Night. Everyone in every building on the block that ran along the south side of the Museum of Natural History was having a party, and the guests roamed from floor to floor like fish into diverging streams. The doormen had lists, and beyond that, the cops at the corner crossing blocks had lists to determine whom they’d allow onto the block itself.
Still, with all this security, there were always twenty or so people at Timkin’s party he didn’t know, and often they would be the ones who stayed the longest.
“Come on in,” he said graciously to four strangers, wondering who they knew. “Is Jordan here?” one of them eventually said, and Timkin pointed the way.
Timkin had downed three decent-size scotches by the time Snoopy sprouted limbs. He peered down at the street at the lot of them, Garfield, and some dinosaur he couldn’t name, and Big Bird, and Kermit and two M&M’s and some newer cartoon characters whose names he had yet to learn (some yellow Pokémon thing), illuminated by klieg lights in the dark night. As a child it had looked like an army of giant aliens had taken over his street.
Back inside he started to inventory the guests. There were more of his friends here than hers now, but a few high school and college chums of Amy’s had entered the party without his noticing, and he would have to tell them his story about her being away.
From conversational snippets he could hear things like, “Poor thing. In an awful hotel at a sales conference.” Or “I heard they cancelled her flight.”
“I haven’t talked to Amy in so long,” said her friend from Middlebury College, Melanie, whom Timkin had always had a thing for. “I can’t believe she’d miss this.”
“She was so heartbroken over it,” Timkin said, and then maybe too quickly switching the subject, “You look healthy and happy.”
“It’s what joblessness and poverty do to you.”
“It’s too long a story. Part of that oppressive cloud that’s been hanging over the New York theater world. I’m sleeping on someone’s floor right now. How about you?”
“I’m good,” Timkin said.
He tried to think of an answer.
“Because the world can still produce things like this.” He gestured around the room.
“A bunch of irritatingly bourgeois people holding drinks?”
“The whole thing. I depend on it.”
“It’s good fun if you look at it the right way,” Melanie said. “You know, I never really thought that Amy liked this.”
“Oh, she does,” Timkin said. “It’s her favorite night of the year.”
She looked at him. “If you say so.”
Timkin noticed Melanie’s empty drink glass. As he went to fill her order, someone slapped his back – Malcolm from his Saturday-morning basketball game.
“I love these parties. And you know why?” Malcolm was looking at Melanie as he pondered this. Timkin didn’t wait for the answer because he saw three older couples walk into his apartment, business associates of his father’s and their wives, all of whom would stay for around forty-five minutes and then leave for another party in the building. Happened every year. They brought expensive wine and spent most of their time talking to Amy, who had a way with the older set.
Malcolm was attempting to corner Melanie who managed to slip away and across the apartment. There were several people leaning their heads and torsos out of the window like kids and yelling at the cartoon characters below.
The Svenvolds were still in their coats, and so Timkin helped remove them and carried them into his bedroom, hers a fitted trench with a plaid inlay, and his, a long, gray cashmere coat that Timkin would love to own.
He liked the style of his parents’ friends, their breadth of experience and flowery elegance; their love of old jazz standards and good stiff drinks. Not infrequently Timkin wished that he’d lived in their day because he didn’t always feel suited to his own. Especially not now after what had happened.
“Here comes the Road Runner,” someone yelled.
“That isn’t the Road Runner,” Malcolm yelled back. “There’s no fucking Road Runner.”
There were now well-entrenched crowds in the kitchen, the foyer, in the dining room and living room – and in all three bedrooms were smaller circles, friends catching up after years of not seeing one another. The party was on cruise control and Timkin thought – as he did every year at around this point – that he could just up and leave and the party would take care of itself. They wouldn’t even know he’d left.
He held up his hands like a camera lens and looked around. If you wanted a photograph or a movie scene about New Yorkers in the new millennium, you could do worse than to shoot this group, he thought.
He wondered how his parents would take the news of Amy’s leaving, but even as he wondered this, he kept glancing at the door to see if one of the new faces coming in was Amy’s.”
“What are you doing?” Mr. Svenvold asked him.
“I’m thinking of my father,” he said, which wasn’t true until he said it. “And that little Instamatic he used to bring out.”
“I miss him,” Mr Svenvold said. “You know how far we go back.”
Mr Svenvold’s eyes went glassy just then, and Timkin saw that he wanted to talk about Timkin’s father, which Timkin wasn’t anxious to do. He wondered how his parents would take the news of Amy’s leaving, but even as he wondered this, he kept glancing at the door to see if one of the new faces coming in was Amy’s. The doorman buzzed up.
Timkin listened to the intercom.
“I’ve got a group of young guys here that say they know you.”
“What are their names?”
“Robert, and Jason, and some of their friends.”
They were students of his, whom Timkin had told about the balloon block. He told the doorman to let them up.
“We can only stay a few minutes,” Robert, who was dressed in a thrift shop tuxedo, said as he entered.
“Stay as long as you like,” Timkin said, magnanimously.
Now someone put on Timkin’s favorite John Coltrane CD, and Timkin got pulled into a conversation with three of his friends from an old job, about a colleague who monopolized the one office bathroom. Timkin nodded as someone spoke; he had no opinion on the subject.
Groups of the guests went downstairs to see the balloons up close and Timkin decided to go with them. He put Lilia in charge of the party while he was gone. And then he walked downstairs and out into the crowds.
There must have been five thousand people milling around, wrapped in furs or long overcoats, or ski parkas, or leather jackets, high school and college kids, and heavily champagned sixty-year-olds, linking arms and singing. Timkin thought then of what a good place it would be for a terrorist to strike, how many prosperous lives could go up in flames. Lots of kids and lots of adults acting like kids, calling out to one another and sipping from flasks. Timkin felt almost happy. And somehow because he was doing this he thought something good might happen. He missed Amy and he felt as though he’d figured out their problems. If she came back, he would know how to do it differently – he
himself would be different – and it would work.
They would have children before too long and this whole party would mean something else. Wherever she was he knew she was thinking of him. How could she not? This was their night.
The air had chilled and he could see his breath. He realized he didn’t really know the group he was out on the street with. They were the friends of Jordan, and Jordan was here, but Timkin had never really liked Jordan that much. He thought Jordan was spiteful and shallow and possibly an alcoholic.
He thought he recognized some of the faces he passed; a few were people who’d grown up in the neighborhood, including a girl named Tara Feinberg he’d had a crush on. “Hey!” she said. “How are you?”
“Great,” he said and she said the same, and he kept saying that to everyone who asked, “Great” and “Can’t complain.” He glanced up at his apartment window and saw the darkened silhouettes of people moving within, touching arms, listening to stories, eating, and laughing. It made him think of store mannequins enacting scenes in the windows of Saks and Barneys. Were they any less lifelike? He was becoming scornful, he thought. And this was not a scornful night, although he kept picturing someone pouring gasoline on one of the balloons and setting it on fire.
Back upstairs he had another scotch, and soon after that a glass of wine. Not so much because he needed or wanted them, but because they gave him things to do other than to get into a long conversation, which he felt would eventually bring him back to Amy.
When he was a boy, Timkin would go out at midnight in his pajamas to see the balloons. His favorite was always Underdog, because he identified with him, and decades later, at the end of these parties, he would call Amy Polly Purebred (Underdog’s bitch, Amy liked to say) and she would play along. She liked Timkin’s friends and they, for the most part, took to her, other than Lilia, who told Timkin once that she didn’t trust Amy, that she thought Amy would fool around on Timkin someday.
He looked over now to Lilia and she waved to him and returned to her conversation.
Timkin’s mother called at 11:30 to ask how everyone was, and Timkin held the phone out to the room so she could hear the party’s chatter.
“What is Amy wearing this year?” she asked.
Timkin described one of Amy’s cocktail dresses, a slinky, bare-backed number he’d bought her before a New Year’s party at the River Café.
“I’m so glad you’re living there, that someone’s putting that place to such good use.”
Sabrina Willis asked Timkin, “Which Marriott?” She had called one and they hadn’t had an Amy Timkin registered there.
“I thought it was the Marriott,” he said.
“Let’s call her cell phone.”
“I already did,” Timkin said. “She was going to sleep. She had a long day.”
“Oh, she’ll talk to us. I’m calling.”
“Don’t,” Timkin said a bit too forcefully. “I mean I promised Amy we’d let her sleep.”
“I miss her. Would you tell her that I missed her?”
“I will,” Timkin said.
And then Sabrina went and joined her husband in the kitchen.
* * *
There were now, he guessed, a hundred and thirty people in his apartment. It might have been the best party he’d given. It was cold out and the mulled cider had been a good idea, and people had had a lot to drink, but not so much that anything out of control was likely to happen.
Buzzed himself and feeling flushed, Timkin moved from circle to circle, freshening glasses, making introductions, greeting utter strangers who were arriving now in significant numbers. He’d ask the lot of them to leave at around two or maybe three if it was still going strong. Who knew when or if this would ever happen again? It reminded him of an Irish wake – a celebration at a time of loss, though he wasn’t ready to say yet that he’d lost anything.
Someone reached around and hugged him then from behind.
Amy, he thought, just as he’d wanted, as he’d been imagining all night. The grip was tight and had all of the affection and penitence he had anticipated from her.
But it was Lilia. “What’s up?” he said, and she held his glance for too long.
“I know,” she said.
“I’m not blind.”
“She’ll be here tomorrow,” Timkin said.
Lilia smiled sadly.
“It’s true, you know,” he said, still believing it.
“I’m drunk,” Timkin said proudly.
“As you should be.”
Someone pushed the music louder. The dining room table got cleared off to the side and around a dozen people were dancing. The lights dropped. A woman in a tight lavender dress whispered something into the ear of a faintly bearded man in a crisp white dress shirt. People filled every room in the apartment – the kitchen, the bedrooms, and the hallways. Strangers would sleep together tonight, he thought; maybe someone was falling in love. Timkin pictured Amy out on the street looking up at their window. Would she have any idea what was happening inside? Would she know what she was missing? Would she see all that was still possible?
It felt like the moment in a movie before something terrible occurred, before the iceberg or the rogue wave.
If I could only stop the film right here, he thought. He took a deep breath and let the spinning room and Lilia’s solicitous face settle before his eyes.
“You know what she told me once?”
“She told me once she almost didn’t marry you; that what it came down to more or less was how much she loved this apartment.”
She leaned in and kissed him and Timkin pulled away, as if from a flame.
He refused to believe Amy would ever say anything so unkind. His love for her was his insulation against whatever bad news the world had in store for him.
That was the nature of the night – you could see your entire past all at once and you could figure out who you were and what it all added up to.”
He stood now at the center of the dance floor, at the center of his party and soaked it all in, all the love and laughter. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, his guests were all looking his way. He could see everyone from everywhere: his childhood friends, and his high school teachers, his colleagues from work and people he had liked and admired, or secretly feared. They were all here, and likely Amy was here somewhere as well. That was the nature of the night – you could see your entire past all at once and you could figure out who you were and what it all added up to.
Timkin took a long sip of what he hoped was his own drink, then held the glass aloft. Someone cut the music; they were waiting for the host to speak.
“To Amy!” he called out to everyone he could see. “To Amy!” a chorus of them yelled back, and if this was only the start of the darkest part of his life, Timkin marveled at what he’d already been able to make of it.
From the collection Stay Up with Me.
Tom Barbash is the author of the award-winning novel The Last Good Chance and the non-fiction New York Times bestseller On Top of the World. His stories and articles have been published in Tin House, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review and other publications. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, lives in Marin County and teaches in the MFA programme at California College of the Arts. His story collection Stay Up with Me is published by Simon & Schuster. Read more.
Author portrait © Sven Wiederholt