Someone is cracking open the bedroom door. "Hallie? Are you in there?"
Upon hearing the familiar voice I wake slightly and assume that I'm having weird dreams due to excessive body heat. Lying next to me is my boyfriend Ray. And on the other side is Vanessa. I push down the blanket.
"Hallie, are you up?" the voice comes again.
Only now I'm definitely hearing and not dreaming Bernard's stage whisper. And also smelling the rich aroma of freshly baked bread. Wakefulness and reality strike simultaneously. "Oh my gosh!" I shout and raise my head. "What time is it? I have an exam at eight!"
The only thing that's not surprising is to find Bernard Stockton in the hallway of my apartment. After all, he's the one who'd saved me when I was sliding down the slippery slope of adolescent rebellion the previous summer by taking me on as a live-in yard person. And now at least one weekend a month he arrives early and cooks us all a big breakfast. Only this isn't Saturday or Sunday. It's Thursday of finals week.
Bernard opens the door the rest of the way and steps inside the room. "It's just after seven," he says. But his voice breaks and I can tell immediately that something is terribly wrong. Not only that, he must have gotten up at four in the morning to make the one hour drive to Cleveland and then bake bread.
"What's the matter - I mean - I'm coming…" I start to climb out from my position as pickle in the middle but realize I'm in my underwear. "Um, could you wait in the kitchen?"
"Oh, yes, of course. How indelicate of me." His footsteps become faint and then I hear him tackle the mess of dirty pots and pans.
Meantime I stumble through the minefield of packed duffel bags and piles of dirty clothes and finally pull on the first T-shirt and sweatpants that come into view. The whole place smells like old pizza and even older laundry. As I pass the living room the sound of loud snoring comes from behind stacks of books and model cardboard buildings that rise in the middle of the floor to form a miniature skyline. A closer look reveals Debbie and Todd passed out on the couch, surrounded by notebooks and empty pizza boxes.
In the kitchen Bernard has lined up his numerous shopping bags on the floor, since there's no available space on the countertops or table. Those are all covered in a collage-like mishmash of art supplies, stained coffee mugs and pizza crusts. Fortunately, he's accustomed to the mess. With four busy young women sharing three rooms and all the various friends and boyfriends hanging about, housekeeping rarely rises above the minimum required for pest control. Particularly during exam time, when we're all cramming for finals and working like crazy to finish up papers and projects.
I rub the sleep from my eyes. "What's wrong? Is it Olivia?" Though I'd called Bernard's sixty-ish mother the night before to ask her a grammar question for a paper I was writing, or at least attempting to write, and she'd sounded fine.
Bernard stops whipping eggs in the clean metal mixing bowl he brought from home, bows his head and shuts his eyes as if in pain. "It's Gil."
Never before have I seen him so grave when referring to his long-time companion. And so of course I assume the worst. "What? Is he dying?"
When my eyes become accustomed to the light I notice how completely wrecked the normally dapper Bernard looks - bags under his eyes, worry lines furrowing his brow, and something I've never seen on him before, brown socks with black loafers!
Bernard turns away from me and dabs at his eyes. "I promised myself I wouldn't cry." He waits a moment to compose himself, takes a deep breath, looks me straight in the eye and in a trembly voice blurts out, "Gil left me!"
"You broke up?" I'm truly stunned. I'd have voted my parents more likely to break up than Gil and Bernard, and even the thought of that is impossible.
"We didn't break up." Bernard starts sniffing again. "He left me! Abandonnement. " He switches to French for greater effect.
I'm not sure that I see the difference between breaking up and one person leaving, but it doesn't appear to be the right moment to ask. Tears begin to stream down Bernard's cheeks and I've never seen him full out cry like this before, not even when his father, The Judge, died.
As I reach out to put my hand on his arm a hiss comes from the stove and he leaps up to adjust the heat on his beloved Calphalon nonstick crepe pan. Then he starts concentrating on making apple-cinnamon crepes and this seems to calm him slightly, to my great relief. Hopefully Bernard is overreacting and he and Gil just had an argument that will eventually be resolved. Perhaps it was about Bernard's junk taking up the entire garage. In the springtime Gil always gets cross when bucketfuls of pollen land on his car because it has to sit out in the driveway.
"What happened?" I ask. "Did you two have a fight?"
"No. I mean, here he is, always insisting that he's the normal one. Then all of a sudden he goes berserk and announces that he doesn't want to be part of a committed relationship. Gil hasn't been the same since his older brother Clifton died unexpectedly last month …he became more and more distant and then… he said…it was over…"
Bernard begins crying again and uses the dishtowel over his shoulder to wipe away his tears. He always brings his own Marshal Field's British icon dishtowels when he comes to cook for us.
All of my friends love Bernard. He's like an eccentric uncle who unexpectedly shows up and cooks, helps to decorate, rearranges the furniture, and even organizes theme parties. In fact, one of my professors had even invited him to guest lecture in a pottery class. Having bought and sold ceramics for his shop the past fifteen years Bernard knows everything about all the different schools and designs, and most of all, exactly how much any lump of painted clay you might have lying around your attic is worth. However, this morning his usual expression of irrepressible light-heartedness is nowhere to be found.
Either the noise from us talking, or more likely, the smell of fresh bread and vanilla flavored coffee, awakens the couple on the couch in the living room and we hear them carefully making their way toward the kitchen. There are design projects in various states of completion all over the apartment, transforming it into an obstacle course.
Bernard quickly pulls himself together and says to me, "I can't have anyone seeing me so upset. Now don't say a word to them about this calamity, all right?"
"Mum's the word," I say. Bernard does indeed have a reputation for inexhaustible zest and witty remarks to protect.
Debbie and Todd appear bleary-eyed in the archway. Todd is bare-chested, wearing only jeans that hang low on his waist, suggesting an absence of underwear, and Debbie has a mint green sheet wrapped around her, Statue of Liberty style. I'd rather we were all exhausted from partying, like at the beginning of the semester, but everyone is beat as a result of hitting the books hard all week.
"Hey," they say sleepily, but in unison.
Debbie is used to Bernard arriving early, though usually on weekends rather than school days. And her boyfriend Todd is around often enough to have met Bernard a few times as well. They also know that he's very generous with his cooking. Bernard always claims that he's trying out new recipes and needs tasters, as if we're all doing him a huge favor by eating a five-course breakfast.
"Something smells terrific," says Todd, hungrily eying the platter that by now has three blintzes smothered in crushed apples on it.
"Come on now, I know that everyone is tired and hungry with all these horrible tests!" With forced cheer Bernard digs into his shopping bags and starts taking out the cartons of cream, fruit salad and powdered sugar.
"Your eyes are all red," Debbie says to Bernard. "Are you okay?"
Bernard looks at me searchingly.
"He was just chopping onions," I quickly supply a plausible explanation.
"It's no use," says Bernard and begins to weep again. "Gil left me and I'm just a wreck!"
Bluffing was never his great strength. At least not like blanching. Bernard crumples into the nearest chair and cradles his face in his hands.
It so happens that Debbie's mother is a rapid cycling bipolar and as a result she's excellent at dealing with unexpected mood swings. Debbie calmly pours him a mug of the fresh coffee and pulls a chair up right up next to his. "That's terrible!" She places her arm around him. "Tell us all about it."
"Oh, no. You have enough to worry about with exams." Bernard takes a breath and begins, "Gil's older brother died a little over a month ago. They weren't on speaking terms because of course the family had disowned him when he came out of the closet…"
Just then I notice the clock on the microwave says a quarter to eight. My exam in motion graphics starts in exactly fifteen minutes. Leaping up from the table I say to Bernard, "I'll be back in two hours. Can you stay that long?"
"Stay? I can't go home!" He waves the end of the dishtowel with the Buckingham palace guard wearing the big black furry hat at me. "I've driven mother insane the past two weeks with all my keening and wailing. She says that if I can't let go then I need to see a psychiatrist before she'll let me back in. And to make matters worse, she keeps reminding me that Shaw's "Pygmalion" didn't have a happy ending - Hollywood added it when they transformed the play into "My Fair Lady."
I leave Bernard at the kitchen table while I take a quick shower. By the time I return, my other roommates, Suzy and Robin, have emerged from their cave in the back and he's recounting the story to them, starting at the beginning.
As I'm racing out the door Bernard interrupts himself to ask me, "Uh Hallie, that was Steve in your bed with you, wasn't it? But I didn't recognize the woman."
"Actually that was Ray, my latest boyfriend of two weeks. And on the other side was Vanessa. She stayed over last night."
"Obviously." He gives me a curious look. "A ménage a trois. Mother would be so proud!"
"Oh my gosh, no! Vanessa is Ray's neighbor. She's planning on going to school here next year. We ran out of beds."
"Of course. I've forgotten how loose everything is at college." ENDS