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The Fortunate Age

by Joanna Smith Rakoff

Hardcover, 399 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $26 |


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The Fortunate Age
Joanna Smith Rakoff

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Book Summary

A group of 1990s-era Oberlin graduates forge a friendship based on shared dreams, but find their camaraderie threatened by their youthful mistakes, their relationships with egocentric and insecure men, and the September 11 attacks.

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Excerpt: The Fortunate Age


On a gray October day in 1998, Lillian Roth found herself walking down the stone-floored aisle of Temple Emanu-El, clad in a gown of dark ivory satin and flanked by her thin, smiling parents, who had flown into New York from Los Angeles a mere seven days earlier, still in mild shock that their obstreperous daughter was submitting to the ancient rite of marriage. The synagogue's vaulted ceiling spinning above her, she took small, self-conscious steps toward the bima, where a serious-faced young man named William Hayes — saddled with the improbable nickname of Tuck — waited for her in an unfamiliar black suit, purchased two days earlier by his mother, who'd deemed the gray suit selected by Lil and Tuck inappropriate for an evening affair.

Four years and four months prior, Lillian had graduated from Oberlin College with honors in English (just plain honors, she often reminded herself in the years that followed, not highest honors, like her friend Sadie Peregrine, or even high honors, like their departmental nemesis, Caitlin Green). At her commencement brunch, dressed in another frock of dark ivory, she'd made a scene, feverishly arguing with her father about the purpose of marriage in the modern age. "It's an outmoded institution," she'd insisted, her dark brows moving closer together. The brunch, sponsored by the college, was held in a dank tent on Wilder Bowl, and the Moët was flowing perhaps a bit too freely. Lil had already spilled several sips down her dress. "Read any modern thinker — " Struggling to come up with a specific name, she looked to her friends, her "crowd," as her father annoyingly called them — Sadie, Beth Bernstein, Emily Kaplan, Tal Morgenthal, and Dave Kohane — who sat around and opposite her, surrounded by their own parents, faces flushed proud. "They all say so."

The adults grinned serenely (smugly, to Lil's mind) and tilted their heads toward her, in gestures of intense patience. "You want a certain sense of security," suggested Sadie's mother, Rose, with whom Lil was a great favorite, having been brought home to the Peregrine town house for numerous Thanksgivings and spring breaks and even one summer, which Lil recalled as two months of unbridled bliss. "At a certain point, you want to belong to something, to a family."

Dave's mother leaned across the table toward Lil, her long red hair falling into the remains of her omelet. "I remember saying the exact same thing when I was your age."

"Mom," Dave moaned.

"Really?" said Lil, biting bits of dried lipstick off her lower lip. "I really don't think I'm going to change my mind." Her elders shared a dark glance. "I mean, is there any reason why people should get married?" Lil's father raised his wiry black brows, white threads extending from them like antennae, and let a gust of air out through his nose, from which hairs, white and black, also poked, mortifyingly. Twenty-odd years in Los Angeles had done nothing to weaken his Brooklyn accent.

"Taxes," he grumbled. "You get some tax breaks if you're married."

"Barry," cried Lil's mother, giving his arm a push.

Lil rolled her eyes. "Then why," she asked, "do I always hear people complaining about the 'marriage penalty'?"

Those five friends now sat in the synagogue's front benches — soon they would be called to the bima to take part in the ceremony — the girls zipped and laced and strapped into evening dresses, which they'd carried uptown in plastic garment bags and hung up to steam in the guest bathroom at the Peregrine town house, almost thirty blocks north of Emanu-El. They'd emerged from the 6 train at Eighty-sixth Street in the early morning to the sights of this strange and hectic neighborhood: blonde moms in jogging suits pushing goggle-eyed babies in old-fashioned prams; fancy grocers and chemists; matrons with pageboys, in dated suits and low-heeled pumps, and even, in some cases, neat fabric gloves. Such things proved exotic to these girls, who were just discovering the city from the vantage point of its more downtrodden, Bohemian outposts: Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, the grimy fringes of the Lower East Side. All neighborhoods that now command impressive rents, but were then regarded as vaguely suspect and marginally safe, particularly by the parents of the young persons in question.

Not that they cared ("Mom, it's fine!"). They lived where they could afford to live without the dreaded parental supplementation: in run-down tenements on narrow Brooklyn blocks, illegal sublets found through friends of friends (who could afford a broker's fee?), or rickety apartments in crumbling back-houses, let by landlords who'd never heard the word "code" in their miserly lives and who insisted on installing everything — from stoves to toilets — themselves, despite their inability to read English-language instruction manuals. According to Lil, Emily's apartment, on an increasingly expensive block in Williamsburg, had almost exploded a year prior, when the landlady used water piping rather than gas piping in the flat's little wall heater. "The gas just ate through the pipes," Lil had told Beth, breathlessly, over the phone. "She got home from work and there was gas puddled all over the floor. The fumes were so strong she could smell them on the street. Brooklyn Gas told her that if she'd worked an hour later, the place would have blown." Emily had stayed with Lil, at her place on Bedford, for nearly a week before things were straightened out.

And though Emily and Sadie worked in midtown and Lil attended Columbia, they met at bars in the East Village, coffee shops on the Lower East Side, and restaurants in Brooklyn, which Sadie Peregrine had, for a year or two after college, until the joke became old and a little embarrassing, called "the Far East," as she'd never visited the borough in her youth, never mind that her mother had grown up in Greenpoint, in a railroad apartment above Sadie's grandfather's optician shop (though she behaved, as Sadie liked to say, relishing the cliché, as though she were to the manor born).

Thus, the Upper East Side — where Sadie herself was born and raised, as were several generations of Peregrines before her — was alien territory to the other girls, save for the occasional trip to some doctor or other or, of course, to the Peregrine house, where they were occasionally brought round for dinner or Sunday breakfast with the dwindling Peregrine clan. Said neighborhood struck them as utterly outside the realm of their New York (the real New York, Emily privately thought, though she would never say so in front of Sadie), it being primarily inhabited by persons of some degree of wealth or those who aspire to it. Which is not to say that these girls — and their male counterparts, Dave and Tal — did not come from money, for, in a way, they did. With their shining hair and bright, clear eyes, they, all of them, were the dewy flowers of the upper middle class and, as such, were raised in needlessly large houses with a surplus of bathrooms and foodstuffs in the fridge, with every convenience, every luxury, every desire met. Their high school classmates — the superstudents of Scarsdale (Beth), Brookline (Tal), Sherman Oaks (Lil), and so on — were starting residencies at Mt. Sinai or on the partner track at Debevoise; they were, perhaps, even living in the blank residential towers of the East Nineties (despised by Sadie's parents for blocking their view), biding time before making their escapes to Westchester or Long Island or even (dread!) New Jersey.

But this group, our group, wanted nothing to do with money, the whiff of which had, they thought, spoiled their brash bourgeois parents and aunts and uncles, all of whom were, inevitably, doctors or lawyers or businessmen or sometimes teachers, and none of whom had read Sentimental Education or could identify the term "deconstruction" or made regular visits to the theater, except, perhaps, to see musicals or Neil Simon comedies. They — the adults — were too corrupted, too swayed and jaded by the difficulties and practicalities of adulthood, by the banal labyrinths of health insurance and Roth IRAs, by the relative safety of Volvo versus Saab versus Subaru, or flat Scottish cashmere versus the newer, softer, fluffier — but possibly less durable — stuff, imported from Nepal, that Neiman's is carrying lately. Their children were interested in art, though they wouldn't have ever put it like that. They had read Sentimental Education — Dave in the original French — and directed Ionesco and Genet plays. They went to the Whitney Biennial and visited the new galleries in Chelsea and Williamsburg and twice attended the Lucian Freud retrospective at the Met, but scorned anything to do with Picasso or Seurat or Monet or — my God — the pre-Raphaelites. They kept up with not just The New Yorker but Harper's and The Atlantic and even, for spurts of time, The New York Review of Books, and lately, Lingua Franca and Salon and various little magazines, though they agreed that the heyday of such ventures had passed decades earlier (what they wouldn't have given to be transported back to those early days of The Partisan Review, arguing Trotsky with Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy). They joked about Derrida and Lacan and Heidegger and Hume and Spinoza and New Criticism, and went to Shakespeare in the Park, and to see the RSC at BAM, and to movement-oriented stage adaptations of Anna Karenina at La Mama, and to Goddard, Fellini, Pasolini, Lubitsch, Bergman, and, of course, Woody Allen festivals at Film Forum.

Or, at least, they had done so — read their classics, favored black-and-whites in repertory — for four long years. Now, at twenty-six, as they struggled to make rent on their grimy apartments, as they bathed in chipped bathtubs, which in Emily's case — poor Emily being the most impoverished of the group — also served as a kitchen sink, they were starting to feel a little tired, a little sick of the nights in cafés typing on their laptops, the endless drinks dates because who could afford to eat dinner out. Lately, they were starting to look upon their parents' houses, the green of their lawns, the comfortable lives of their youth, with a bit more kindness.

And then — entirely without warning — Lil announced that she was getting married, married to a man she'd met in her doctoral program, a man none of them knew well, if at all, though they'd glimpsed him at parties over the past year, Lil's first at Columbia. He was older, at least thirty, and had an aura of glamour about him, which the girls attributed as much to his large, masculine features as to his polite, disaffected air. There was, Sadie remarked, a bit too much James Dean about him. He'd studied poetry, like Lil, before dropping out to take a job at a new magazine, supposedly a cross between Spy and The New Yorker, but focused on business, or technology, or both. Lil spoke as if this was a great opportunity for him, but her friends weren't convinced.

As was the practice of those of their class and generation, she'd introduced him, at first, as her "friend," and they'd pretended for some months that there was nothing more to the story. So well did this pretense work that they'd barely adjusted to the idea that Tuck was her "boyfriend" when he became her "fiancé" — though thankfully she refrained from using that term. It was impossible for them to imagine Lil married, in part because it was impossible to imagine any of them married. They knew no married people of their own age. And so, when Lil called her friends, one by one, and told them, in the hushed tones required by her summer job — an internship at a poetry organization, where she was largely responsible for answering the phones — that not only was she getting married but also that she would have an actual wedding, with a white dress and a rabbi and maybe even a veil and a bouquet (though definitely no bridesmaids in matching dresses, that much she could promise), she waited, tensely, for the jibes, the disapproval. But they were so shocked, her friends, that none — not even Dave, not even Beth — could think of anything to say, other than "Wow!" and "Lil, that's great!" and "I can't wait to meet him, really meet him."

Two weeks later, the couple got in Lil's beat-up Accord and drove down to visit Tuck's family in Atlanta, where his mother — hair elaborately dyed and streaked an unnatural auburn, nails manicured to a high sheen — outfitted Lil with an alarmingly large diamond, tucked inside an elaborate Victorian setting, for which she apologized. "Those old settings don't show off the stone at all," she said, her lipsticked mouth pulling down at the corners. "But it's at least three carats." The ring had belonged to Tuck's grandmother, his mother's mother, and possibly her mother before that, no one knew for sure. It was exactly Lil's size and precisely her style, the girls told Lil, though in fact the ring instilled in them an odd mix of anxiety and admiration, aesthetic interest and adolescent annoyance. It was so large, so "important" looking (in the words of Rose Peregrine, who agreed that she should have the stone reset), so unequivocally grown-up. Were it not a family heirloom, according to Emily, it would be horribly uncool.

Beth, meanwhile, felt that it quite possibly defied the feminist principles they'd mastered — or, she'd thought, internalized — in college. The ring claimed Lil as somebody's chattel, some man's prize. "You're wearing an engagement ring?" Beth whispered into the phone one hot night in August, incredulous. She was still in Milwaukee, working on her doctorate. In September, once she'd finished teaching summer session — two sections of Feminist Approaches to Twentieth Century Advertising — she'd move to New York to teach at the New School and write the second half of her dissertation, which she couldn't do without a semester or two of research at the Museum of Television and Radio, a need that neatly coincided with her absolute desperation for her friends and her mounting disgust with freezing, boring Milwaukee. That is, if she could get everything straightened out with her teaching credits. She'd been sure she had enough, but in June — after she'd accepted the job at the New School — she'd received a note saying no, she was one credit shy. Maddening. And embarrassing. She said nothing of all this to Lil. "A real engagement ring?" she asked, peevishly, instead. "Like, a diamond?"

"Yeah," said Lil, sighing. "His mom gave it to us. It means a lot to her that I wear it, so I feel like I have to."

"Oh," said Beth. "I guess I didn't think you were the sort of person who would wear an engagement ring. But it makes sense, I guess." Lil, she thought, was moving in this new and strange direction, becoming someone other than the girl she'd roomed with in college, the girl who'd earnestly churned out papers critiquing the phallocentric focus of Harold Bloom's critical work on Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. "But you don't feel weird, wearing this big rock on your hand? It doesn't make you feel like your mom or something? Or like one of those girls we went to high school with? It doesn't make you feel" — she paused here, unsure of what she meant — "like you're someone you're not?"

In fact, it did. Lil understood now why jewels were once considered amulets, investing their wearers with supernatural powers. With the large diamond glinting on her left hand, she felt herself to be a new and different Lil, one capable of doing anything, going anywhere. At night, she and Tuck drank brandy out of tumblers and talked about writing novels and making documentaries and moving to Romania. By day, whispering furtively into her office phone, she negotiated with caterers and jazz quartets and the Sisterhood of Temple Emanu-El, the Peregrines' synagogue, and the only venue Lil considered acceptable for the ceremony, despite the fact that she was not, of course, a member, nor was she from the sort of family that belonged to Emanu-El, with fortunes in banking, real estate in the vicinity of Park, and rarefied German lineage. Her grandfather had sold black bread from a cart on Orchard Street and her father was a plastic surgeon who catered to the faces of Hollywood's third tier, preferred pastrami from Langer's to sushi, and on Fridays brought home prune danish from Fairfax, where the Orthodox lived in large pink houses. But Lil had Rose Peregrine — secretary of the Sisterhood, member of every possible committee, and the preschool's board of directors — and thus, by July, Lil had a date in the Beth-El Chapel, and by September a dress, heavy and autumnal, from the sample rack at Kleinfeld, where she'd journeyed alone, taking perhaps too much pleasure in the fuss the saleswomen made over her small waist. As the month wore on and the hot, humid weather continued unabated, she began to wonder if she should have gone with her second choice: a dead-white ballerina dress, with delicate off-the-shoulder sleeves and a full tulle dancing skirt. But she kept such fears to herself, for Sadie and Emily were irritated that they hadn't been invited on the buying trip. In fact, she avoided talking about the wedding whenever possible, as her friends, she was realizing, were, despite their alleged enthusiasm, a bit, well, weirded out by it. Beth grew silent when Lil told her, gleefully, that Tuck had found them a new apartment, a loft big enough to hold the reception. Dave got crabby when she recounted the talents of the jazz band they'd enlisted — a bunch of NYU students — for a cut rate. He'd just dropped out of Eastman, moved back to New York, and joined a band himself, though not the sort of band that played at weddings, of course.

"They'll probably suck," he said.

"No, they're great," she assured him. "We heard them play at Aggie's."

"Aggie's," said Dave. "Whatever."

Only Tal seemed, however vaguely, to approve of the nuptials in general, and Lil's plans specifically. After college he'd broken from his parents almost completely — they still barely spoke — but he'd never quite shaken their conservative bent, at least toward things like marriage and family. He smiled at babies in the park and had, on occasional Sundays, been caught reading the "Vows" column. "It's sweet," he said. "Especially the old people."

But as the day approached, the girls began to grow excited. This wedding — which had seemed some elaborate game of make-believe, some goofy lark — was really, actually, truly going to take place. Lil was going to walk down the aisle in a big dress, with a fluffy veil and maybe even a bouquet (her mother and Rose Peregrine were insisting, offering to pay), get married, and become Lillian Roth-Hayes.

"It sounds like a bank, doesn't it?" Dave said the night before the wedding, after the rehearsal dinner, as they sat around Tal's big apartment on Union drinking beer, their toes picking at the frills of mismatched linoleum that emerged from the floor. Lil and Tuck had gone home to bed. Beth was, at that moment, stranded in Pittsburgh. She'd had to stay in Milwaukee later than she'd anticipated, and Lil was pretty put out that she'd cut it so close and missed the dinner ("She couldn't have flown in yesterday?").

"No, a law firm," insisted Emily, who had temped at many such firms. "I can totally see the letterhead."

"A midlevel brand of dress shirt," suggested Sadie.

"It sounds pretty great, actually," said Tal. His friends looked at one another, unsure if he was kidding. "I like it. It's kind of regal." He wrinkled his nose with self-deprecation. "Or British."

"Sort of," said Sadie, prodding his corduroyed thigh with her foot.

"It's nice," he said. "You guys — " He shook his head. "It's nice that they're combining their names." And they all grew silent, ashamed, looking down their noses into their sweating bottles of beer, for the truth was, they agreed. Some of their mothers — feminists, children of the 1960s — had kept their own names, even if just professionally, which the girls thought dry and unromantic. They had all been thinking, separately, that when they married (if they married), they would do as Lil did and hyphenate, or turn their original family names into middle names.

The next morning, at promptly nine o'clock, Emily arrived at the Peregrine house on East Ninety-second, breathless and apologetic, her dress stuffed into a crumpled grocery bag, followed a few minutes later by Beth, pale hair rising statically from her head, her plump, freckled face arranged in an expression of mild agony. Rose had insisted they meet at this early hour, at her house, to "strategize," though they'd simply have to journey downtown on errands and then over to Brooklyn to help set up the loft for the reception, and then back uptown to dress for the wedding.

"You look exhausted," Rose told Beth, once she'd seated the girls at her kitchen table, a massive slab of scarred oak, and placed cups of coffee in front of them. "You just got in last night?"

Beth nodded. "Midnight." She took a tentative sip of her coffee. "I am exhausted. It took me two hours to get here this morning."

"Two hours?" Rose cried. "You took the train in? You're staying at your parents'?"

Beth shook her head.

"She's in Astoria," Emily explained. Beth was subletting an apartment from a CUNY prof, an alum of her program who was in Finland on a Fulbright. When she'd signed the sublease, she'd thought, of course, that she'd be arriving in the city at the start of September — the start of the fall semester, her favorite time of year — but there'd been that problem with her credits, which she'd worked out, sort of, by teaching the first section of a "special topics" class. Now her credits were in order, but she had — most likely, it wasn't entirely clear — lost her New School job, at least for the fall. And paid double rent for a month, which she could ill afford. But she was in New York. That was all that mattered.

"Astoria?" repeated Rose. "Queens?"

"Ye — "

"Isn't it all Greek there?"

"Not anymore," Emily told her, spooning a scant bit of sugar into her coffee. "There's a big Middle Eastern community, too. There's this great Egyptian restaurant on — "

"You're living in Astoria, Queens?" Rose repeated, frowning at Beth and cocking her head suspiciously, as though the girls were playing some sort of practical joke on her.

Beth nodded.

"We told her not to take it," Emily told Rose, giving Beth a little smile. "But she didn't listen."

"Well," said Rose, pulling out a chair and sitting down on Emily's right. "It's all the same." She shrugged. "I don't understand why you girls insist on living way out in Brooklyn."

"Because it's cheap," Emily said, then turned to Beth. "How's the place?"

"Fine, I guess. Pretty big."

In fact, she'd barely examined the place. She'd gotten in so late and risen so early, nervous about finding her way to the Peregrines', and preoccupied with the wedding — or not so much the wedding itself as the fact that she would soon find herself face-to-face with Dave Kohane, whom she'd managed to avoid for the four years since they'd departed for their respective grad programs, she to Milwaukee and he to Rochester, at which point he'd dumped her, in a strangely passive manner. Or not "dumped" her — she hated that term — but allowed their couplehood to peter out, for reasons she'd never understood.

"Okay," said Rose, clapping her hands together, "let me get my list. We've got to get started." She glanced pointedly at the clock on the stove. "Beth, do you want to wake Sadie and Lil? They'll be thrilled to see you."

"I'm up," came a gravelly contralto from the stairwell. Still in the old blue pajamas she'd worn in college, when they'd all shared a crumbling house behind the art museum, her curls flattened by sleep, Sadie padded into the kitchen, trailed by George, the Peregrines' ancient orange cat, and gave Beth a silent, enervated hug. She had her own little apartment in Cobble Hill, but she'd spent the night at her parents', as was her occasional wont. With a yawn, she glanced at the kitchen clock. She was a small girl, with a long-waisted figure that gave the illusion of height. Her dark, glossy hair and waxily opaque, vellum-hued skin came from her mother, Rose, a woman of Italianate good looks, as did her curious, formal way of speaking. But her hooded eyes and her bearing were pure Peregrine — as Rose often reminded her, in moments of anger. "Sadie," said Rose, an edge rising in her voice, "we've got to get started. Did you wake up Lil?"

Sadie poured herself a cup of coffee before answering. "She's at home," she said finally, with another, larger yawn.

"At home?" Rose asked in alarm.

"She was supposed to stay here last night," Sadie told Beth. "Tradition. You know. Spending the night before the wedding apart from Tuck." Beth nodded. "But she couldn't bear to be apart from him. Even for one night."

"Oh," said Rose, pursing her lips. "Well, then what's the plan?"

Sadie took a long sip of coffee and made a face at Emily. "She has an appointment for a facial at ten — "

"At Arden's," said Rose.

"No," Sadie told her. "She decided to go to some place in Soho."

Rose emitted a sigh of deep disappointment and pressed her fingers lightly to her temples. "All right. So — "

"So, we'll go get the flowers and meet her in Brooklyn," said Sadie. "At the apartment. Her parents are already there."

"All right," Rose acquiesced. "We have to be back here by three, the latest, to get dressed."

"It won't take us that long to get ready," said Sadie. "We don't have to be at the synagogue until six, right?"

"I'm not talking about you," snapped Rose. "I'm talking about Lil. The bride." She shook her head at Emily and Beth. "And," she added, "I have a manicure at three thirty. So let's go, girls."

And off they went: to Chelsea, with a big wad of cash, to pick up flowers — short-stemmed roses, monstrous tulips, assorted odd lacy things — then to Lil and Tuck's new loft, on what turned out to be a grim stretch of Bushwick, where Beth and Emily found Lil's mother, Elaine, directing a team of volunteers — various Roth cousins, some of Lil's childhood friends — who were stringing tulle and candles around the room, wrapping fairy lights around the loft's fat beams, and rinsing the old milk glass vases in the kitchen's small sink. Lil's father stood behind a small card table, manning a platter of deli meats and chewing openmouthed on a corned beef sandwich. "Better get to work," he said, with a wink. "Elaine's on the rampage." The girls trimmed the stems off hundreds of flowers, filled the vases with tepid water, and cobbled together what Rose called "French bouquets." "You don't think those look sloppy?" asked Elaine, squinting at a drooping tulip. "I would have been happy to pay for arrangements." But Lil hadn't wanted arrangements, just as she hadn't wanted to be married in a hall on Long Island, despite her mother's insistence that it would be "so much easier."

At lunchtime Tal and Dave arrived to set up the sound system and help with any heavy lifting. Some friends of Tuck's — a slender couple with a tiny baby in a sling — dropped off case after case of beer and wine and champagne. They were followed by another couple — smiling, with Southern accents — who carried in the cake, covered all over with bright buttercream flowers. The florist came by with white cardboard boxes containing wrist corsages for the mothers, rosebuds for the girls' dresses and the mens' jackets, and Lil's bouquet, which was paler than the other flowers and round in shape, so beautiful and perfect that Beth, against her will, said, "Oh!" and drew in her breath. A widowed cousin of Elaine's showed up, already dressed for the wedding in a pink silk suit, and tied floppy white bows on the vases. Then Lil called, saying she'd been delayed and would meet them at the Peregrines', and the band swooped in, setting up yards of equipment in a corner; then suddenly the caterers were bustling about, loudly creaking open long tables for the buffet, which would be in Lil and Tuck's bedroom, at the rear of the apartment ("It used to be a meat locker," Elaine kept telling anyone who passed within arm's reach of her), and it was time, Rose said. "Girls, we need to go now."

"We do, we do," agreed Elaine. As they gathered at the door, they stopped for a moment and surveyed the room: its pillars shrouded in tulle and twinkly lights, dozens of white-covered tables scattered over the worn oak floor, generous bouquets at their centers.

"It's beautiful," said Beth.

"It is," said Emily.

"It's fine," sighed Elaine, smoothing her crisp blonde hair. It had once been black, like Lil's, but over the years had grown lighter and lighter. She wore it straight, with long bangs that covered her eyebrows, a trick, Lil said, to hide the wrinkles in her forehead, wrinkles she was forever asking Lil's father to "fix," much as his partner had "fixed" Lil's nose between her junior and senior years of high school. "I still don't see what was wrong with Leonard's of Great Neck," she sighed, raising her thin brows. "It would have been so much easier."

"Come on," said Rose. "It's after two."

They took the train, for there were no cabs to be found in Lil's desolate section of Brooklyn, three stops in on the L, and Elaine smiled delightedly, saying, "I haven't been on a subway in years. It's so clean!"

"Giuliani," the girls said, smirking.

"Too bad he's a fascist," Emily told her. They emerged, once again, at the corner of Eighty-sixth and Lex, in boisterous spirits, practically running to the Peregrine house. There, spread across the Peregrines' four bathrooms, they showered and shaved their legs, the widowed cousin making dour remarks about the time, did they know (yes, they knew) they had to be at the shul by six at the latest? Quickly, they smoothed makeup onto their faces, fingered their hair into waves and ringlets, and pulled on stockings and variations on the wispy, girlish dresses popular that year. So dressed, they turned to Lil, who had spent the day alone, receiving the ministrations of various Eastern European women, and who now emerged from the third-floor bathroom to greet them clad in Sadie's old striped robe, a foggy look on her face, which — they all noticed — appeared a bit too pink, particularly around the edges of her nose. "She should have gone to Arden's," Rose whispered to Sadie, who squeezed her mother's arm in warning. Elaine rushed over to her daughter. "You're all red," she said, inspecting her face. "You're going to have to wear foundation."

"Okay, Mom." Lil seemed to shrink a bit in her mother's presence, her eyes widening with what Sadie thought were tears. But then Lil caught sight of her friends and smiled, unsure of whom to greet first, and cried, "Beth! Oh my God! You look beautiful! I love your dress! Are you wearing lipstick? It looks great!" Before Beth could answer, Lil had embraced her in a warm, perfumed hug. "It's so good to see you. We thought you'd never get here. We missed you last night." And with that, she launched into a thousand questions: How was Beth's apartment? Did she like Queens? Were Dave and Tal coming over, as well, or would they meet them at the synagogue? Was Sadie wearing her hair up or down? How were the flowers? Had her eyebrows turned out even? And could they please keep old cousin Paula away from her? Who had brought her back here anyway? Everyone knew she was a complete nuisance.

Somehow, they managed to coax Lil into Sadie's room — unchanged since Sadie's childhood, with its green and white toile coverlet and curtains — and sit her down at the dressing table. Much discussion ensued over whether Lil should dress or have her makeup applied first, until Elaine and Rose decided the matter: Lil should dress first, then a large cloth would be draped over her as Emily applied her makeup. ("Overdo it," Elaine hissed at Emily in the hallway, laying a tan, bare arm conspiratorially on Emily's back, the beading along the edge of her turquoise dress scraping Emily's pale shoulder. "We don't want her to look pasty.") Lil pulled on scant tulle underwear — a gift from Sadie — and a long-lined bra, then attached stockings to the bra's dangling garters, slapping away Cousin Paula's attempts at help. "This is so porn star," said Emily. "I know, this thing makes my boobs huge," Lil intoned, with a wry smile, fastening around her waist a glaring white crinoline, and, finally — thus trussed and plumped — slipping the heavy dress over her head, to the oohs and aahs of the girls, and a grimace from Cousin Paula.

"You wouldn't really call that dress white, would you, Elaine?" Paula asked. "It's almost gold, isn't it?" She stopped to scrutinize the heavy satin between thumb and forefinger. "Is it actually a wedding dress?"

"It's white," snapped Lil. "Mom, can you button me up?"

The sky clouded over, threatening rain, and Tal and Dave arrived, looking absurdly old and handsome, transformed by their black suits and glossy ties. Lil rushed up to hug them, though they seemed slightly afraid of her, in her thick lipstick and big, costumey dress, her black hair pulled back from her face in a heavy bun. "Lil, you look beautiful," whispered Dave, as if apologizing for his stiff embrace. Tal smiled, took her hands, and pulled her an arm's length away. "Gorgeous," he said.

"Okay, kids," called Rose, with a clap of her manicured hands, "I hate to break this up, but we need to get going. Start heading for the door."

Moments later, it seemed to Lil, she arrived at the rabbi's study, where Tuck was waiting for her by a diamond-paned window, his mother fussing with his tie. "Mom," he said, grinning brilliantly at Lil, so brilliantly that her irritation and anxiety fell away, and she laughed with relief at the sight of him. "Oh my God," he said when she came into full view. It was all she could do not to wrap her arms around him and press her face to his cheek, which still showed the strokes of the razor. "Shall we get started?" said the rabbi, and they signed the wedding contract — Tuck squeezing her hand — then she was walking down the aisle, bits of whispers and coughs and laughter wafting uneasily toward her, her mother on her right, smelling faintly of White Shoulders and Max Factor pressed powder, her father on her left, baldpate glowing. Both of them were, to her surprise, smiling. They were happy, she realized, or at least happier than she'd expected they'd be about this marriage to a boy they'd met but once. Not that she'd cared; she'd long ago realized that nothing she did could truly please her parents. "But that's how young people do it, Barry," her mother had insisted back in May, when she'd given them the news. "Tuck's thirty, mom," Lil had said impatiently. "We're not that young." But now, as she walked down the aisle, with a hundred sets of eyes uncomfortably focused on her slow progress, she felt, really, much as she had on the first day of kindergarten, dressed in her stiff, unfamiliar uniform, unsure of what awaited her. Her mother, for once, was right.

Copyright © 2009 by Joanna Smith Rakoff