A Hierachy of Priorities

Karen Petersen

© Copyright 2023 by Karen Petersen

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay
Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

It was one of those swanky New York society weddings, with the reception held at Tavern on the Green. The Times had announced the engagement, and the wedding was going to be written up the next day in the society pages.

Laurie had been friends with Jonathan, the groom, for years, and when he met Sally, his wife to be, he made sure she and Laurie became friends too. He was from a wealthy family and had gone to Yale. Sally had gone to Smith, and they’d met at an all-Ivy mixer. Enough said.

At the time of the wedding, Jonathan was the head attorney at the New York office of a big movie studio out in Hollywood. Sally was an up and coming editor on the New York publishing scene. So you can imagine the guest list.

Laurie had no idea what she could get as a wedding present for the couple who, by the time the wedding was over, would have just about everything they could possibly want. She knew Jonathan from Yale, from his crazy frat boy days, but she’d been there on scholarship and was from a family of very modest means. His whole crowd was another world completely. She’d gotten a taste of it while in college and that had been enough. Now she was a photojournalist who spent most of her time overseas in dirty little wars and cesspools of misery. Park Avenue was another scene entirely.

One day she and Sally were out having a coffee together and Laurie was absent-mindedly listening to Sally fret about the upcoming wedding. She heard her say something about photography and nodded her head.

Oh, really?” Sally said, clasping her hands in delight. “That would be fantastic!”

Laurie broke from her reverie and said, “What would be?”

Sally looked a little puzzled. “I just asked if you’d be our wedding photographer...”

Laurie suddenly thought, yes, of course, that would be the perfect present for them. They’d get some wonderful pictures and I won’t have to stick out like a sore thumb among the guests. Nobody really pays any attention to the person holding the camera at these things.

Oh sorry,” Laurie replied. “I was just thinking about the actual day Yes, it would be my pleasure. It will be a great wedding present for you.”

Sally jumped up and gave Laurie a hug. “Oh thank you, thank you! I was so worried about this and you will do a great job.”

No worries, Sally,” Laurie said soothingly.

The day of the wedding Laurie arrived early, with three different cameras of varying lenses around her neck. She’d gone out and bought a beautiful dress on sale made by an up and coming designer, and wore a nice pair of heels. No need to wear fatigues for this one, she thought, pleased by what she saw in the mirror.

At 5'9" and slender, with long brown hair, she was striking, some would say beautiful, and as a photojournalist on assignment she’d attracted the attention of some very good-looking men over the years. But she was still single, and devoted to her work, so dates were far and few between.

Throughout the entire glittering, glamorous reception she’d noticed a handsome man staring at her out of the corner of her eye. She tried to ignore him and focused on getting some good photos for Jonathan and Sally.

But at one point, as things were winding down and all the pretty people had begun to leave before melancholy could set in, as it inadvertently does at these affairs, she was packing up some equipment and he finally came over to her.

Hello beautiful,” he said jauntily. “My name is Robert. I’m a friend of Jonathan’s – sometimes we do business together – I produce movies.”

That sounds exciting,” Laurie said, paying more attention to the camera than to him. Then she looked up. He was very cute. “Um, I’m Laurie. I’m a friend of both of them, though I went to school with Jonathan. This is my wedding present.”

What a great idea,” Robert replied. He looked around. “So, you went to Yale too? I was at Dartmouth.”

She nodded, amused. She could tell he was relieved she wasn’t just any old wedding photographer. Guess it was a class thing.

If you don’t mind me asking, where is your husband?” he said politely.

She looked at him slowly. She knew he was fishing. “Oh, I’m not married--the love of my life is not a person. I’m a photojournalist. People rely on me to bear witness. And I try not to let them down. A photo taken at the right time can make all the difference.”

He stood there and just stared at her. She was incredible. He’d never met anyone like her.

May I take you to dinner tomorrow? I only came in for the wedding and then I fly back to LA in two days.”

She grinned. Well, he was very handsome.

Ok,” she said. “Where shall we meet?”

How about Nobu?” he replied.

Oh, that will be fabulous!” She was thrilled., thinking it was far too expensive for her, so to go there on a date would be fantastic.

Their dinner together the following night was a charmed evening. Robert was on his best behavior. He was absolutely smitten with her. He told her all about his childhood in Beverly Hills and his eccentric jet set family. She hadn’t known his last name at the wedding but now she realized she’d seen it often in the society pages.

Was that one of your relatives who gave all the money to Lincoln Center recently?” she asked giggling. She’d had too much sake.

He drank another shot and giggled with her. He was drunk too. “Oh yes, they are all constantly fighting over who’s going to give money where. It’s ridiculous. Me? I just take off to France and disappear for a while when it gets to be too much.”

This was a world so different from hers, she thought. But he was immensely likable and seemed crazy about her.

The time flew by, and as he had to get up early for his flight, he put her in a taxi and gave her his card, kssing her lightly.

I’d love to see you again,” he said. “I’ll be back in a few weeks. Will you be in town or away on assignment?”

I’ll be here for the next two months, so yes, call me,” she touched his face lightly and waved goodbye as the cab drove away. It might have been her imagination but she thought he suddenly had looked very unhappy, standing there alone in the street.

The evening had felt like a fairy tale. He’d grown up in a 20,000 square foot home in California and his family had a castle in France and a villa in Spetses. Her family had lived in a 1,200 square foot Cape Cod home on Long Island, and her tiny one bedroom rent-controlled apartment near Times Square was only 350 square feet. If only he knew!

She called Sally excitedly later in the week to find out more about him.

I saw him following you around all night like a puppy dog,” Sally said laughing. “He’s not my friend - he’s Jonathan’s. But he’s a typical Hollywood type. I don’t even know how many wives he’s had already – with his money he can just go through life any way he wants. Forget him.”

But she couldn’t. She was dazzled by the attention. He’d already sent her a huge bouquet of flowers and called several times.

So when he was back in town the following week she was eager to see him. He was staying at the Carlyle Hotel and they agreed to meet at Bemelmans, the wonderful piano bar there for cocktails before going out to the theater. It was clear he wanted to impress her.

They saw a play by Pinter and had a bite to eat at Sardis, and as they walked through Times Square arm in arm he pointed up to a giant billboard ad for a movie that had just come out.

See that?” he said proudly. “That’s my movie. I produced it.”

Really?” She was impressed.

There’s my name–it’s tiny but it’s up there! He laughed at the sight with the delight of a child.

Say...would you mind taking a picture of me in front of it?” he asked. “I’d love that.”

Why of course,” she said, taking his pocket camera and snapping a few photos.

They weren’t far from her apartment so she said, “I live nearby, so why don’t you walk me home? There’s no need for a cab.”

You live around here? He was incredulous. It seemed inconceivable to him. Well, perhaps she was in a penthouse somewhere.

I do,” she replied. “In a five story townhouse that actually has a claim to fame.”

And what’s that?” he asked, curious, as they turned and walked down 43rd Street.

During Tin Pan Alley days it was the home of a composer named Harry von Tilzer,” she said, “and it was in my building that he wrote the American classic, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

That’s actually kind of cool,” he said.

And here we are. This is it,” she said, stopping in front of a small brick townhouse. “It’s rent-controlled and I even have an elevator! Would you like to come up?”

The time had come to show him her world.

He looked a bit tense but said “Ah...ok.”

They walked through the tiny foyer into a grubby landing which had a small red elevator at the back. They got in and she pressed the button for the 4th floor.

This was actually the elevator for the house,” she said.

He was staring down at the floor, and just nodded. It was clear he was uncomfortable.

They got out and she opened the door to her apartment. “Come in,” she said.

He walked in slowly with her and looked thunderstruck. She doubted he’d ever been in such a small place.

Is this it?” he said, incredulous.

“”Yes,” she laughed. “I don’t think you believed me when I said I lived very simply.”

Well yes,” he replied. “But somehow I...” his voice trailed off. It was clear he was in total shock.

He looked at her. His demeanor had changed. His face had flushed and he seemed embarrassed all of a sudden.

Listen,” he said, speaking quickly. “I really have to go. So much to do tomorrow. But thanks for a fun evening. I’ll call you.”

And he turned and practically ran out the door.

The next day came and went, and the weeks passed. Her calls weren’t returned and after a while she understood.

Who knows what he was looking for? Someone once said that snobbery is a form of despair, and she thought Robert must be one of the most unhappy men she’d ever met. Like many, he just hid it well.

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