by Vera Kurian
It was planned to be a reunion of sorts. They had, after all, never been in the same room together before. But what with their jobs and husbands and children and locations far flung across the world, the logistics were nightmarish.
Anne Boleyn organized, of course.
* * *
The women convened for a dinner in Manhattan, a strange case of the stars aligning and their schedules all permitting such a trip. Anne of Cleves had been the most on the fence. She had been the hardest to find, with no internet footprint of personal tidbits. Once found, it had taken a good amount of cajoling to get her to join in the festivities. Ultimately the pressure of being the only one not attending and the guilt of making the sextet incomplete swayed her. She lived in Santa Barbara with her French boyfriend where they operated a small vineyard. They made good, solid sauvignon blanc, but not enough to buy them fame or fortune, which neither of them wanted. She was twice divorced, and kept her second husband’s last name.
As Anne of Cleves stepped off the plane at JFK she felt the apprehension in the tense muscles of her upper back. She had always thought it best to leave the business with Henry behind her. The lot of them made her nervous. She collected her luggage and on the way toward the exit and nearly missed the woman who walked straight towards her. The stranger put her cool hand gently on her arm as if she were some wild animal, easily frightened. “Anne?” she asked. Catherine of Aragon. She wore a linen suit, somehow without a single wrinkle, her long auburn hair straight with a streak of noble grey. She was the sort of woman who knew exactly how many accessories to wear. As it turned out, Catherine lived in Manhattan and so it was convenient for her to pick Anne up. They loaded her luggage into Catherine’s sleek Audi and were on their way.
They made awkward small-talk―how her flight had been, the traffic in New York. What was the protocol for chatting with wife number one when you were wife number four? Anne wondered. Catherine was a professor of cultural anthropology at Columbia, it turned out. Anne felt modest in her admission of career choice. While work at the vineyard wasn’t easy, it was hardly profound. Growing the grapes, blending the wine was earthy, ancient work. She liked the rolling hills with their vines, lush with fruit, sometimes predictable, sometimes not. She liked quiet evenings, sitting on the back porch, talking, drinking wine, tangling her fingers into the long hair of her flat-coated retriever.
Catherine said their wine was wonderful. Anne was taken aback. Their crop was so small that they did not distribute outside of California. “Well, I was curious,” Catherine said, sounding both friendly and sheepish. “I found it on the internet.” The wine, she said, was lovely.
* * *
Jane Seymour Skyped with her son, using the free WiFi at the hotel. Edward was settling in at his new apartment in San Mateo. There was no furniture really, but he seemed unconcerned with this. He had been hired straight out of college to do the programming he loved but that she was far from comprehending.
She was glad he was very gainfully employed, particularly now that so many kids couldn’t find jobs and ended up living with their parents. She loved Edward―he was her son, but she could see flashes of Henry in him. The occasional abrupt temper. The naked ambition, as if he wanted to crush the whole of the world within his hands. How he would suddenly break off long-standing friendships.
There was a buzz on her cellphone as she received a text, but she ignored it until the Skype session was over. Edward would not like the shift in her attention. After they hung up she looked at it. It was from Anne Boleyn: “Change of plans. I got a reservation at Chez Ruin. 6:30.” Chez Ruin! The waiting list was something like six months. But of course Anne probably knew someone.
Jane had never thought Anne would become a friend of hers, but somehow it had happened. The “somehow” in this equation was most likely the force of nature that was Anne. Anne―recently featured in Forbes Magazine, with a large picture of her delivering a commencement speech at Wharton. Unabashedly wearing a sleeveless V-
4neck shirt so you could see the scars where they had reattached her head. Her high forehead, dark unfathomable eyes. She always got what she wanted.
More or less.
Jane had only been in her position as Senior Philanthropic Advisor at St. Jude’s Children Hospital for a year when she received a phone call from Anne Boleyn. She was interested in making a donation to the hospital, but of course she said this in much more subtle terms.
They met for drinks, which became dinner, which became an unexpected friendship. They shopped. They coffeed. They continued an ongoing survey of the best sushi in Los Angeles. But they never talked about Henry.
Despite the fact that Henry had clearly left Anne for Jane (if one could define beheading as a form of leaving,) Jane could not help feeling jealous of her. Anne was not more beautiful, but she was more attractive in some holistic sense. She could dissolve an entire table of CEOs into laughter with her wit, ply a secret from a reluctant tongue with those eyes, build a Fortune 500 company up from nothing but the sheer force of her will. Jane had wanted to hate Anne at first, but found that she couldn’t. Then she wanted to love her, and was often surprised that she could, because of those occasions when Jane was hurting and Anne showed up at her door with a bottle of wine. Her deep brown eyes understanding behind that ocean of intellect, her mouth not delivering the platitudes that would temporarily make her feel better, but reaching into her soul and plucking out that one bad cognition she kept playing over and over, and eviscerating it, tearing it all up neatly before she had to run off to catch a flight to Munich. That was how Anne Boleyn rolled.
It shamed Jane sometimes to stand beside Anne. Which was silly, because Jane was a successful woman who brought in a steady stream of donors to the hospital. She had a loving husband and children. But it shamed her because she knew that none of this would have happened if Anne had been able to give Henry a son. He would have stopped at two wives.
Jane texted her back that the reservation sounded great and put on her slippers. It was a ritual whenever she stayed in a hotel by herself to get a Snickers bar, chill it in a bucket of ice, and to eat it slowly while watching Law and Order in bed, the AC blasting. She never ate in bed at home. For that matter, she never watched Law and Order.
Padding down the hallway in the pink fuzzy slippers that Mark had given her, she jingled the change in her hand. She felt shy suddenly when she saw someone else getting ice at the dispenser next to the vending machine―there was still a part of her that would always feel guilty indulging in anything that wasn’t healthy. But then she realized who it was.
She was a robust-looking woman, one who made no attempt to beautify herself or hide her age. “Katie?” Jane asked tentatively. She was wearing an oversized t-shirt and sweatpants that said “Hustle Those Buns!” over the ass.
The woman turned and looked at her, blinking owlishly. “For fuck’s sake, Jane.” Jane was pulled abruptly into a hug. Katie pushed her back and looked at her at arms length until Jane blushed. Catherine Parr, who, early on in the Gmail back and forth with all the women, had demanded “There are too many goddamned Catherines here―call me Katie.”
“I recognized you right away,” Catherine―no, Katie said.
“You did?” Jane asked, for a moment wondering if Katie somehow knew that Jane had Googled her, and more than once, and had done the same. Who knew these days, what with computers and all.
Katie laughed. “I’ve seen you in magazines before.”
They ended up talking by the vending machines for quite some time before they went to Katie’s room to do some damage to the minibar. It seemed a natural progression―they started talking about the weirdness of the situation, all of them getting together like sorority girls. They talked about their children, Jane’s young adults growing up so quickly, Katie’s eight children, a passel of grandkids. They sat in Katie’s room, Jane resembling a cat at rest with her slippered feet curled under her, holding a plastic mouthwash cup of wine, Katie cross-legged on her bed showing off her argyle socks that didn’t match. Maybe it was the wine, or the chocolate, or maybe Katie was genuinely hilarious, but Jane laughed until her sides ached, and they joked and teased, and for some reason it seemed they felt oddly familiar to one another.
* * *
When Anne of Cleves arrived at Chez Ruin, Katie and Kitty were already at the bar drinking. Everyone had a stereotype about Kitty―slutty and stupid―although Catherine had only obliquely implied this in the car ride from the airport. Something about the capitalization of impropriety, or some other such term an anthropologist would use.
Kitty ran a successful blog and had several million followers on Twitter. Anne thought she was slightly too thin, and definitely underdressed in ripped skinny jeans and an oversized, men’s plaid shirt. This, along with the ugly eyeglasses, seemed like a deliberate attempt to sabotage the delicate beauty of her face, the creamy skin, the rosebud lips. The plaid shirt was buttoned all the way up, preventing Anne’s furtive glance in that direction from observing her scars.
It was only a little awkward at first, as Jane and Katie seemed to be old friends, and Anne Boleyn could thread a conversation together without any apparent effort. The novelty of the tasting menu was enough for them to make conversation. Katie was befuddled by the pomegranate granita paired with the crab salad. All marveled at the walnut soup. Anne Boleyn ordered wine for the table and kept it flowing. Eventually they loosened up and talked more easily.
They talked about the public eye, being in it (Anne Boleyn, Catherine, Jane) out of it (Anne of Cleves, Katie), commenting on it (Kitty). They discussed their husbands, Anne of Cleves’ boyfriend, Catherine’s partner, Katie’s sixth and (according to her) final husband. They complained about their children. About how they would not move out of the house, or about how they had moved, but too eagerly. About daughters who dated losers, or sons who appeared to be these same losers.
“I can never get Beth on the phone,” Anne Boleyn complained, with the quiet sort of martyrdom in her voice that only a mother can make. “There’s texting, and Facetime, and email, and webcams, and you’d think I was a telemarketer calling at dinnertime every time I try to reach her.”
All agreed that it was hard to watch children grow up, to have their orbits slowly but ever steadily grow wider and wider around you. It was inevitable, wasn’t it?
Anne of Cleves poked at her sous vide of duck and eyed the woman around the table, for a moment imagining how a paparazzi would have delighted in snapping a picture of them. Of course, no such thing would happen at such a restaurant, certainly not if it wanted to be the destination of such a group of women in the future. Anne tried to imagine what such a hypothetical picture would look like on the cover of People or Star. Would the caption point out who looked fabulous? (The Best Revenge!!) Or who looked frumpy? (Divorcée MELTDOWN!!)
They had nothing in common, in Anne’s eyes, but she wondered if somehow all of them were “Henry’s type” in some inexplicable way they couldn’t see for themselves. Or maybe they had all just been there, within Henry’s reach, ripe for his idle plucking. Was there some sort of system to the madness that was his marital life, or did he flit from one woman to another simply because each woman had some shining facet he loved, and many that he hated, and he kept hoping to find one woman who encompassed all the good, and none of the bad?
Catherine was clearly the classy one. The only one who wouldn’t admit that the foie gras with charred ramp gelee was quite gross, as if the chef were in the room and would be bruised by her words. She had a quiet dignity that was epitomized in how she could sit down next to the woman who had stolen her husband and introduced divorce to Western civilization and converse with her as if the two of them had never torn a nation apart.
Jane was the pretty one, with her blonde tresses and symmetrical face. She was lovely and humble and chewed her food in small bites. She eschewed any notion that the work she did was noble and said simply that she was good at finding funds wherever they lay.
Katie was the fecund one. Between her six husbands, she had eight children, each more strapping than the last. She was loud, and burly, and monstrously fabulous. She was the one who had survived.
Kitty was the stupid one, or that seemed to be what she wanted people to believe. Her blog, Catherine had told Anne, capitalized on her sexual exploits, mocked gender and fashion. It was so inane that it was a commentary on inaneness. She Instagramed and Facebooked throughout the entire meal (this was annoying to some) and was generally silent, peering out from behind those ugly glasses. But occasionally in that scratchy, boyish voice of hers, she would pipe up with some comment.
And Anne Boleyn, she was the magnetic one. Anne of Cleves found herself drawn to her even though she didn’t want to be. It was impossible not to pay attention to her, for her to not be a dominant force at the table. She could match wits in a frenzy of quick exchanges with several people, or quiet everyone in seconds by dropping her creamy voice to a low hush. When she turned her attention to Anne of Cleves, she felt almost as if a light were basking her, and only her, and some childish part of her delighted in the attention. That. That must have been the talent that drove Henry crazy.
And me? Anne of Cleves wondered. Which one am I?
Henry had always made her feel ugly, although he had never said as much. Particularly because she had come right after Jane, who it was impossible to compete with. Looks were so subjective, but other men had commented upon Anne’s beauty, written lyrics, painted portraits. She had not known what to expect from Henry, but he had always seemed disappointed in her in some way he had never bothered to point out. She would have been willing to work on it, back then, whatever it was. She would have been willing to bend to the force of his will like some metal being repeatedly drawn from the fire, beaten into shape. But now that she was older, she had since known other men who had loved her, and who had bothered to point out her foibles and maybe even to find them endearing. She had learned to never tolerate people who were disappointed in her when they had no intimate knowledge of her. She had learned that you can only pull metal from the forge, hammer it, blast it with water, so many times before it broke.
Between the second and third course of dessert, someone―Jane―finally said, “So what is Henry up to these days?” It was a non sequitur, but not entirely, considering it was the only string that tied them together. Catherine shrugged, looking around inquisitively. Anne Boleyn shook her head (although later Anne of Cleves would wonder if this was a lie). “He’s in Islamic finance,” Kitty said, looking up from her iPhone, its light casting a blue glow over her skin.
“What is that?” Anne of Cleves asked.
“You can’t charge interest if you’re Muslim,” Kitty said, pushing her ugly glasses up her perfect nose. “But what do you do if you need to? Like for a mortgage? So these banks set up these Islamic products,” she said, making air quotes with her fingers, “like a mortgage where you’re not paying interest but you’re getting the house in exchange for some gold you buy from Peter and sell to Paul, or something like that.”
“Isn’t that…” Catherine started.
Like money laundering? Anne of Cleves finished in her head.
“Those guys from Enron and Lehman Brothers who never went to prison are all out there in Dubai working at these banks. Henry is in some consulting group out there,” Kitty added.
“How do you know this?” Catherine asked.
Kitty manipulated her phone. “He’s on Twitter. Let me see . . . Ah here—” she adjusted her glasses again. “’Tasting menu at Le Petit Maison,’” she said, showing them his tweet “―and then here are some pictures of food he took.”
“That fat fuck,” Katie said.
Anne Boleyn choked on her Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires and coughed unproductively for several moments, suffocating in laugher, which made the other women, who were already laughing almost viciously, laugh harder. At last she shook her head, bringing a napkin to her face and wiping away tears. “It went into my sinuses!” she crowed, and their laughter sustained. When they quieted and the waiters floated by to take their plates, she leaned forward, her voice hushed. “Do you remember that wound on his leg?” There were a few cringes, some giggling. Even Catherine was having difficulty keeping a straight face. “Just a big… open… disgusting wound.”
“Anne if you thought it was bad when you had him, you should have seen it when I had him!” Kitty said.
Jane was trying not to smile, but was doing a bad job. “Come now, he wasn’t all that bad,” she said.
“Excuse me?” Anne Boleyn said, leaning forward―indeed―craning her neck out. But for the look on her face, a wry smile, she might have seemed aggressive.
“Oh―woops―sorry, I didn’t mean―” Jane stumbled, but they laughed, because there was no way to recover from such a faux pas.
“Yeah, beheading is definitely on my list of deal-breakers,” Kitty added.
“Gout is on mine,” Katie said.
“The paranoia,” Anne Boleyn started.
“The religious perversion,” Catherine said.
“The mood swings,” Anne of Cleves added.
“It was always our fault if something didn’t turn out right. A son. Another war with France,” Anne Boleyn said. She was speaking slowly, but not particularly bitterly, making a stream of observations like a scientist.
“You never knew which version of him you were talking to,” Catherine said.
“Or what he wanted,” Anne of Cleves murmured, sipping her champagne.
“Or even if he got it, would he be happy?” Katie said.
“Probably not,” Kitty said. She put her phone down finally. “He would eat this whole restaurant. Then he would eat all of us. And then he would say, What else?”
The topic of Henry simmered down, and then conversation eventually turned to other things―global warming, electric cars. The women ate and drank and lingered for a long moment afterwards, a while after the restaurant had grown nearly silent. They did not know if they would ever convene again. It was something you did when you got together like this, insisting that you simply must do it again, but those things rarely had follow-through. The check had somehow magically been taken care of before hand by Anne Boleyn (there was an attempt at protesting this, but an attempt that had no potential to do anything but fail). They picked up their coats slowly and donned them, they murmured quietly to each other in pairs as they walked from the restaurant.
Jane and Katie shared a cab uptown. Kitty headed for the subway. Anne Boleyn said she wanted to walk a bit, to get her digestion going. Catherine got a phone call from her partner almost as soon as she stepped out of the restaurant, waving to the other women apologetically with one hand as she held the phone to her ear with the other. Anne of Cleves patted her belly with satisfaction, thinking that may have been one of the best dinners she had ever had.
On their own, the women would ponder this dinner often, about how it had been satisfying to laugh at Henry’s flaws. About how there had been some particular delight in reveling in his awfulness with the only other five women on earth who could perfectly understand. Of course there were negative things to say about Henry. After a relationship ended, what could you do but mentally list out all their flaws and infractions, building yourself a dossier of evidence to make you hate the person. All of their negative traits became exaggerated. All of their positive qualities became caveated. The bad times were dissected, and the good times were relegated to some foggy corner at the back of your mind. The monster you painted for your friends became more and more solid until they too, felt the same way you did, a grudge they carried on their shoulders as well. What single, positive thing could be said of Henry? He was a tyrant, a beast, a womanizer, a bloated sack of paranoia who they had all, for one reason or another, loved.
Vera Kurian is a writer of literary and speculative fiction living in Washington D.C. Her fiction appears, or is forth-coming, in Glimmer Train and The Pinch and she is always tinkering with a novel. You can find her on Twitter at @vera_kurian.