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WHEN MY HUSBAND, MICHAEL, died for the first time, I was walking across a freshly waxed marble floor in three-inch Stuart Weitzman heels, balancing a tray of cupcakes in my shaking hands.
Shaking because I’d overdosed on sugar—someone had to heroically step up and taste-test the cupcakes, after all—and not because I was worried about slipping and dropping the tray, even though these weren’t your run-of-the-mill Betty Crockers. These were molten chocolate and cayenne-pepper masterpieces, and each one was topped with a name scripted in edible gold leaf.
Decadent cupcakes as place cards for the round tables encircling the ballroom—it was the kind of touch that kept me in brisk business as a party planner. Tonight, we’d raise half a million for the Washington, D.C., Opera Company. Maybe more, if the waiters kept topping off those wine and champagne glasses like I’d instructed them.
I carefully set down the tray, then spun around to see the fretful face of the assistant florist who’d called my name.
“The caterer wants to lower our centerpieces,” he wailed, agony practically oozing from his pores. I didn’t blame him. His boss, the head florist—a gruff little woman with more than a hint of a mustache—secretly scared me, too.
“No one touches the flowers,” I said, trying to sound as tough as Clint Eastwood would, should he ever become ensconced in a brawl over the proper length of calla lilies.
My cell phone rang and I reached for it, absently glancing at the caller ID. It was my husband, Michael. He’d texted me earlier to announce he was going on a business trip and would miss the birthday dinner my best friend was throwing for me later in the month. If Michael had a long-term mistress, it might be easier to compete, but his company gyrated and beckoned in his mind more enticingly than any strategically oiled Victoria’s Secret model. I’d long ago resigned myself to the fact that work had replaced me as Michael’s true love. I ignored the call and dropped the phone back into my pocket.
Later, of course, I’d realize it wasn’t Michael phoning but his personal assistant, Kate. By then, my husband had stood up from the head of the table in his company’s boardroom, opened his mouth to speak, and crashed to the carpeted floor. All in the same amount of time it took me to walk across a ballroom floor just a few miles away.
The assistant florist raced off and was instantly replaced by a white-haired, grandfatherly looking security guard from the Little Jewelry Box.
“Miss?” he said politely.
I silently thanked my oxygen facials and caramel highlights for his decision not to call me ma’am. I was about to turn thirty-five, which meant I wouldn’t be able to hide from the liver-spotted hands of ma’am-dom forever, but I’d valiantly dodge their bony grasp for as long as possible.
“Where would you like these?” the guard asked, indicating the dozen or so rectangular boxes he was carrying on a tray draped in black velvet. The boxes were wrapped in a shade of silver that exactly matched the gun nestled against his ample hip.
“On the display table just inside the front door, please,” I instructed him. “People need to see them as soon as they walk in.” People would bid tens of thousands of dollars to win a surprise bauble, if only to show everyone else that they could. The guard was probably a retired policeman, trying to earn money to supplement his pension, and I knew he’d been ordered to keep those boxes in his sight all night long.
“Can I get you anything? Maybe some coffee?” I offered.
“Better not,” he said with a wry smile. The poor guy probably wasn’t drinking anything because the jewelry store wouldn’t even let him take a bathroom break. I made a mental note to pack up a few dinners for him to bring home.
My BlackBerry vibrated just as I began placing the cupcakes around the head table and mentally debating the sticky problem of the video game guru who looked and acted like a thirteen-year-old overdue for his next dose of Ritalin. I’d sandwich him between a female U.S. senator and a co-owner of the Washington Blazes professional basketball team, I decided. They were both tall; they could talk over the techie’s head.
At that moment, a dozen executives were leaping up from their leather chairs to cluster around Michael’s limp body. They were all shouting at each other to call 911—this crowd was used to giving orders, not taking them—and demanding that someone perform CPR.
As I stood in the middle of the ballroom, smoothing out a crease on a white linen napkin and inhaling the sweet scent of lilies, the worst news I could possibly imagine was being delivered by a baby-faced representative from the D.C. Opera Company.
“Melanie has a sore throat,” he announced somberly.
I sank into a chair with a sigh and wiggled my tired feet out of my shoes. Perfect. Melanie was the star soprano who was scheduled to sing a selection from Orfeo ed Euridice tonight. If those overflowing wineglasses didn’t get checkbooks whipped out of pockets, Melanie’s soaring, lyrical voice definitely would. I desperately needed Melanie tonight.
“Where is she?” I demanded.
“In a room at the Mayflower Hotel,” the opera rep said.
“Oh, crap! Who booked her a room?”
“Um … me,” he said. “Is that a prob—”
“Get her a suite,” I interrupted. “The biggest one they have.”
“Why?” he asked, his snub nose wrinkling in confusion. “How will that help her get better?”
“What was your name again?” I asked. “Patrick Riley.”
Figures; put a four-leaf clover in his lapel and he could’ve been the poster boy for Welcome to Ireland!
“And Patrick, how long have you been working for the opera company?” I asked gently.
“Three weeks,” he admitted.
“Just trust me on this.” Melanie required drama the way the rest of us needed water. If I hydrated her with a big scene now, Melanie might miraculously rally and forgo a big scene tonight.
“Send over a warm-mist humidifier,” I continued as Patrick whipped out a notebook and scribbled away, diligent as a cub reporter chasing his big break. “No, two! Get her lozenges, chamomile tea with honey, whatever you can think of. Buy out CVS. If Melanie wants a lymphatic massage, have the hotel concierge arrange it immediately. Here—” I pulled out my BlackBerry and scrolled down to the name of my private doctor.
“Call Dr. Rushman. If he can’t make it over there, have him send someone who can.”
Dr. Rushman would make it, I was sure. He’d drop whatever he was doing if he knew I needed him. He was the personal physician for the Washington Blazes basketball team.
My husband, Michael, was another one of the team’s co-owners.
“Got it,” Patrick said. He glanced down at my feet, turned bright red, and scampered away. Must’ve been my toe cleavage; it tends to have that effect on men.
I finished placing the final cupcake before checking my messages. By the time I read the frantic e-mails from Kate, who was trying to find out if Michael had any recently diagnosed illnesses like epilepsy or diabetes that we’d been keeping secret, it was already over.
While Armani-clad executives clustered around my husband, Bob the mail-room guy took one look at the scene and sped down the hallway, white envelopes scattering like confetti behind him. He sprinted to the receptionist’s desk and found the portable defibrillator my husband’s company had purchased just six months earlier. Then he raced back, ripped open Michael’s shirt, put his ear to Michael’s chest to confirm that my husband’s heart had stopped beating, and applied the sticky patches to Michael’s chest. “Analyzing …,” said the machine’s electronic voice. “Shock advisable.”
The Italian opera Orfeo ed Euridice is a love story. In it, Euridice dies and her grieving husband travels to the Underworld to try to bring her back to life. Melanie the soprano was scheduled to sing the heartbreaking aria that comes as Euridice is suspended between the twin worlds of Death and Life.
Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that Euridice’s aria was playing in my head as Bob the mail-room guy bent over my husband’s body, shocking Michael’s heart until it finally began beating again. Because sometimes, it seems to me as if all of the big moments in my life can be traced back to the gorgeous, timeworn stories of opera.
Four minutes and eight seconds. That’s how long my husband, Michael Dunhill, was dead.
Four minutes and eight seconds. That’s how long it took for my husband to become a complete stranger to me.
© 2011 Sarah Pekkanen