DISCLAIMER: Other than a seven-year-old Saturn and an underfunded pension, I don't own anything, let alone the rights to a television show.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is written without having watched the reunion show. I generally don't like those much because what the producers and writers choose is seldom what I have imagined. This, then, is what I imagined. It's roughly 2000, and Jo and Blair have not seen each other for some time. Tootie--sorry, Dorothy is an actress and a married woman. Natalie is an investigative reporter with Newsday. Blair is running the family business. Jo is an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Autumn Leaves
She looked out of her window, speckled with a mixture of yesterday's dusting of snow and the ever-present grime. Somehow, the seasons had changed and she hadn't noticed. It had become late November. The autumn leaves had changed from scarlet and orange and brilliant yellow-green to a dull gray brown. Most were gone now, swept away, or clinging to almost-naked tree limbs. How had she missed October?
It was only 4:30, but twilight had arrived, darkening her tiny slice of sky. In her nondescript office on the fifteenth floor of the municipal courts building, the Assistant District Attorney for Crimes Against Persons wrapped the still-too-cold can of diet soda in an ancient, threadbare t-shirt she fished out of her gym bag. Then, she sat, propped her legs on the open bottom drawer of her desk, and placed the makeshift cold pack between the back of her neck and her desk chair.
Leaning back, she closed her eyes and tried to forget that she was about to get her ass kicked in court. Her case was weakbarely adequate forensics, shaky eyewitnesses, and an unfortunately sympathetic defendant. Her only hope was that the very young defense attorney was gun shy about taking the case to court. She had made him an attractive plea deal and was waiting for his response.
She rotated her neck just slightly, wincing at the tightness. Her desk was remarkably bare, no toys, no loose papers, no crumpled wads of legal paper or hurriedly opened envelopes. Everything was filed away neatly, leaving only a precisely aligned desk blotter with appointments noted in black. Her bookshelves had no knickknacks, no trophies, nothing personal. Her walls held only a framed diploma and a series of framed black-and-white prints. She had taken them years earlier, had saved them for an office just like this one.
There were no people in the photographs, just buildings and bridges and ferries. There was no color in them either, save for the smallest of the photographs. It showed two young women leaning against the rail of a boat. Their arms were linked and they were smiling as the wind whipped their hair around them. One, the blonde, wore red and laughed directly into the camera, her mouth open and her eyes bright with joy. The other, the brunette, wore black and smilednot at the photographer, but at the girl next to her.
The ADA studied the photograph for a moment, then closed her eyes. In her mind she saw the trip around the island, heard the laughter, smelled the perfume and diesel fuel. She remembered every second of that trip, could recite conversations from memory. It was the last time they'd spent any real time together, that weekend, the afternoon of her graduation from Columbia Law School, the next day when they had walked for hours, finally agreeing on the boat trip. She smiled at the thought of them meeting one more time, sitting across the breakfast table one more time, sharing one more meal.
"Excuse me, Jo." Her assistant, Kelly, knocked lightly on the open door before entering. "There's a call for you."
"No. It's an attorney from Peekskill, someone named Rourke. He said you knew him, that you'd been expecting his call."
"Thanks, Kelly. You can go ahead and leave. I'll close up."
After her assistant closed the door behind her, Jo Polniaczek picked up the receiver. "Hello, John," she said. "It's Jo."
"She's gone, Jo," he said. "The home called about an hour ago. I made the arrangements we spoke about."
Two hours later, Jo walked out of the building and stood, shivering, as she waited to cross the street. She had handed off her cases, left a detailed itinerary for her assistant, and managed to talk the defense attorney into a plea for his client. That left her with three telephone calls to make. The first two had been painful enough. She had spoken to Dorothy's husband, who took a message. Then, she had reached Natalie at Newsday.
"I knew it was coming soon," Natalie had said, after a shocked and prolonged silence. "That doesn't stop it coming as a surprise."
Natalie was on deadline and would have to take a late train the following day. But, she would be at the visitation and at the funeral.
"How could I not come?" she asked.
How indeed, Jo wondered. She still hadn't called Blair. She had waited for 15 minutes with the receiver in her hand, unable to dial the number. All that had bound them together for the past 20 years had been Mrs. Garrett. Dorothy lived in North Carolina, so there was a legitimate reason for the long separations. She and Natalie lived less than 30 miles apart and had only seen one another when Mrs. Garrett summoned them to Peekskill or made one of her increasingly rare trips to the city. But, then, Natalie traveled constantly, bouncing from one war to another, one tragedy to another.
Blair, though, was in Connecticut, an hour's train ride away, and Jo had never seen her home, had never sat in that particular kitchen drinking coffee and talking about children and husbands and work and friends.
Why, she wondered. Why don't I ever call her to see if she wants to go to a movie or come with me to visit my mother in the Bronx? Why don't I invite her to spend the weekend and just wander the city?
As she climbed into the cab which had pulled to the curb, she smileda tight, bitter smile. I know why, she thought. I know exactly why.
The cab ride to her apartment was noisy and bumpy enough that she didn't have to think about Blair or the telephone call awaiting her. She had energy enough to hold on to a strap and time enough to make a mental list of items to pack before the cab careened off another curb and stopped in front of her building.
Her packing finished, her work clothes neatly separated into hand washables and dry-clean only items, Jo stepped into the shower. There, the memories couldn't be stopped by lists or telephone calls or preparation. There, pictures flashed behind her eyes. Snippets of conversation came back. She smelled freshly brewed coffee and cinnamon buns and the underlying notes of Chanel.
"Blair, it's Jo," she stammered, surprised when the only response to her call was an answering machine. She didn't have Blair's cell number, didn't know where her parents would be this time of year. "I'm sorry to tell you like this, but Mrs. Garrett died this morning. Dorothy and Natalie will be meeting me at the Peekskill Inn tomorrow night. Call me back at home or on my cell. I have the same numbers. Maybe we can ride up together. I rented a car, but we can always take...."
The answering machine cut her off in mid-sentence, leaving her listening to the flat burr of the dial tone.
"Our problem always was miscommunication," she laughed, pouring herself three fingers of bourbon. She opened the door to her library and turned on the light. Bookshelves lined two walls, books neatly lining the shelves in regimented rows. On the desk sat only a leather appointment book and a charger for her Blackberry. In the corner of the room opposite the desk, a chair sat, out of character with the rest of the room, even the rest of the apartment. It was upholstered in a faded floral brocade, worn soft as ancient cotton. Next to the chair a stack of boxes leaned against a small table. Scattered on the table, photographs intermingled with concert tickets and buttons...the ephemera of a life abandoned. She sat in the chair, the one she had taken from Mrs. Garrett's home after the movers finished. She had arranged for some of the furniture to be moved to the home; much of the rest went to charity. The small pieces of the life they had shared went home with Jo. Alzheimer's struck with impunity, she thought, resigning its victims to a twilight of their own, an ever-lessening light. Jo could scarcely bear to watch the light go out in her friend's eyes, but she visited monthly. Picking up one of the boxes, she walked out of the room, leaving the door open and the lights on.
She sank into the cool comfort of the brown leather sofa and leaned against the curtain. Her neck still ached, although the alcohol had helped. She used a remote to turn on the stereo, letting the sorrow of YoYo Ma's cello and the familiar strains of Bach to match her mood.
"Blair would be so proud," she murmured. "Not an oil-stained rag or a dirty fingernail in sight."
She opened the box, pulling out scrapbooks in various states of completion. They were different colors. The purple was filled with clips from Dorothy's acting careerpublicity stills, reviews, opening-night programs.
Green was, obviously, for Natalie, crammed with by-lined stories, many of them not yet fastened into the book.
Hers was black. Her graduation program, the stories about her first cases, menus from the restaurant where they celebrated her first murder conviction, all were secured in the book, the clear, plastic corners holding everything in place.
Blair's book was red leather. Here were her graduation announcementsLangley College and the Wharton School of Business. Her engagement and wedding announcements, prominently displayed in the Times, had been centered on pages and surrounded by candid photographs from the party and the reception. Following that were a few pages of stories cut from the business sectionBlair representing Warner Industries at a ribbon cutting in Tennessee, shaking hands with the governor of Michigan at the opening of a refurbished plant.
Then, the pictures stopped. The stories stopped. Blair hadn't disappeared off the face of the earth; she had just faded from public view.
"Where are you?" Jo wondered aloud.
Blair Warner-Stephenson had simply stopped being the public face of Warner. Jo, immersed as she was in her own career, had simply not noticed. Here it was, though, in slightly yellowing black and white.
"How could I ever not know where you are?" Jo asked. "How could I lose track of you?"
Blair had, of course, married money. The wedding was, of course, in June. The society columniststhe few left--had covered every detail of the preparation. Jo had found herself hosting a bridal shower at the Russian Tea Room and spending the night after the rehearsal dinner in the Warner suite at the Plaza. Michael Stephenson was as handsome as a prince from a children's book, all chiseled features and sports-hardened body and tousled brown hair. He had a scholar's mind and a writer's wit and an activist's conscience, and Jo had hated him on sight. But, she had agreed to be the maid of honor and wear an elegant tea-length dress and walk down the aisle with Michael's prep school roommate.
The rehearsal dinner was, as was the rest of the wedding, exquisitely elegant. Jo had felt out of place, as always, in Blair's world, but somehow less so this time. She had finished her first year with the District Attorney's office, had found herself slowly transforming into something else. The Bronx accent had faded with the time in Peekskill. She still felt, from time to time, like the poor relation at the party, but Jo knew her own worth, had evaluated the good that would come from a much better education than she could have ever gotten at home. She had taken the full scholarship to Langley in the same spiritas a full-immersion course in upper-middle-class life as well as a superb liberal arts education. And, then, there was Blair. There was always Blair.
She had known about herself since her sophomore year of college, after Eddie, after France, after Australia, after all the double dates with Blair and the Ken doll of the week. She had known the first time she had realized how closely she watched Blair, how effortlessly she had memorized the grace of every movement. She had been certain after her first solo trip to Manhattan, to bars she had only read about. Jo had learned about sex, about satisfactionthe getting and the giving of. She had learned how to apply the basics of physics. Sex was largely a question of friction and leverage. She had always been a very good pupil.
What she hadn't learned, hadn't needed to learn, was love. She knew love, knew that her mother loved her, that her father's stumbling attempts at love were all he knew to do. She knew that Mrs. Garrett's tough love was more love than tough. She knew friendship as well. But, romantic love, the love that all her friends had mooned and moped about? That kind of love was something she had shut out, had deliberately refused to accept or to pursue.
That night, almost two decades earlier, she had almost slipped, almost let it all shatter. The rehearsal dinner had ended hours before, but Jo couldn't sleep. Her dress was hanging in the bathroomnot a wrinkle to be found. She had laid out her hose, her underwear, and her shoes across the bureau in her room. She had chosen her makeup and played with her hair. Blair had said only to put it up. There were no flowers to weave into it. "That wouldn't be right for you," Blair had added.
"Oh, it wouldn't?" Jo teased.
"You're not a flowers-in-the-hair kind of girl."
"What kind of girl am I then?" Jo had asked. But, before Blair could answer, the wedding planner had interrupted them, finalizing some detail or another.
So, there she stood, on the balcony of a hotel suite which cost more per night than she made in a month. The city was alive--traffic moving, people walking, horns blaring, music throbbing. She couldn't see the stars, but she could see neon and halogen. She became so absorbed in the energy that she almost missed the tentative rapping.
"Blair," she said after she opened the door. "What are you doing here? You have to be up in..." she checked her watch. "...a little over five hours."
"I don't know...I just wanted to," Blair pushed past Jo. She stood in the middle of the room, gorgeously disarrayed. Her hair was a mess, jutting at un-Blairlike angles. She had on no makeup. Her clothes had obviously been pulled on without looking closely. The jeans were wrinkled and the t-shirt untucked. "I need to talk to you."
"Okay," Jo answered. "Do you want to sit down?"
"No, not really," Blair paced back and forth as Jo closed the hotel door and waited.
"Do you want something to drink?"
Blair uttered something almost like a sob. "I already had quite a bit to drink," she grimaced. "I shouldn't have, but I did. Now, I want to drink everything in the mini-bar and sleep through the ceremony." She brushed one of the wayward locks straight back. "But, I can't do that, can I?"
"Blair, what do you want? How can I help?"
"You always help. Your just being here helps. You're...well, you're solid, Jo."
"Thanks, I think."
"No. I mean that I wax and wane. I change my mind and flit from one thing to another. You...you're solid. I need someone solid, someone who can't be pushed or pulled or moved."
Blair began to cry, covering her face with her hands. Then, she sank to the carpet, all the while sobbing. Jo sat behind her, pulled her backwards, surrounding Blair with her own arms. Blair just melted into her, the sobbing slowed, then stopped.
"It's okay now. You can let me go," Blair said, pulling herself forward.
"Okay," Jo said. She pushed herself to her feet and offered Blair a hand.
Once standing, Blair noticed the open doors to the balcony.
"Watching the city not sleep?" she asked, wiping her face and smiling.
"Yeah. I was observing your queendom. It's lovely like this, from this distance."
Blair stepped onto the balcony, leaning against the railing. She said nothing, so Jo followed her. It was almost chilly for the middle of June and Blair was slightly shivering. Jo stood behind her and, leaning forward, placed her hands on either side of Blair's on the railing. Blair took those hands and pulled them so that they wrapped around her waist. Jo could smell the cigar smoke of the rehearsal dinner and just the slightest memory of perfume. She fought against the desire to nose Blair's hair out of the way and taste the skin under her ear. She just stood there, hoping Blair couldn't feel her heart beat exponentially faster.
"I'm sorry," Blair murmured.
Blair dropped her hands away and turned in the circle of Jo's arms. They stood, nose to nose in the early morning air and Jo realized their breathing matched. "He's what I'm supposed to want, Jo. He's...my parents love him. I like him. He loves me. It will work. Or, I can make it work. I wish...I wish I were braver. I wish...." Her voice faded, and she looked directly into Jo's eyes.
"You wish what?" Jo whispered.
"I wish I'd known. You think you're so tough, that you hide what you feel. But, your eyes show everything."
Blair's hand slid up Jo's arm, brushed her neck, andsofter than snowfalltouched the skin of Jo's cheek. Then she leaned forward and kissed Jo, brushing her mouth against the other cheek.
"I'm sorry," she said again, slipping loose from the circle of Jo's arms. "I just can't. I'll see you in the morning."
And, she had gone. Jo had almost followed her, had almost thrown on her robe over her pajamas and run down the hall. But, she had known it would have been for nothing. All it would have done was to destroy everything. So, she stood on the balcony and let herself fall apart.
When her wake-up call came the next morning, she had done her duty as the maid of honor. She had smiled in all the right places, had adjusted Blair's train when called to do so, had danced with the best man. She had refused to stand with Dorothy and Natalie and all the other single women to catch the bouquet, though.
"I really don't want to," she smiled when Natalie asked her to join them.
After Blair and Michael had changed clothes, said goodnight to the crowd, and climbed into the limousine that would take them to the airport for their flight to Paris, Jo bid everyone goodnight. She went back to the suite and changed clothes. Then, she had found a bar, found a blonde, and found temporary solace in someone else's pleasure.
The next morning, she joined Mrs. Garrett, Natalie, and Dorothy for breakfast. They had spent that day going to all the museums Jo had intentionally avoided. She was amused by how much she enjoyed the painting, the sculpture, the displays. As she stood in front of a particularly vibrant canvas, she found herself blinking back tears.
It could have been worse, she thought. You could have told her how you feel about her. You could have actually kissed her. You could have embarrassed both of you, humiliated yourself.
So, she put the others in a cab bound for the train station and Peekskill. Then, she packed her suitcase and headed back to her apartment and her job.
The Bach ended and the only sound was from the clock in the foyer. She checked her watch. It was only 8:00. She needed to reach Blair soon.
She went into her library and rifled through the middle drawer, pulling out a rubber-banded stack of old address books.
Why are they always named Muffy or Binky or Scooter, she wondered as she dialed. Who can take a guy named "Scooter" seriously?
Muffy answered the phone.
"Muffy," she said. "It's Jo...Jo Polniaczek. I need to find Blair and there's no answer at the number I have. Do you have any idea where else I could call her?"
"If she didn't give you her cell number, she probably didn't want you to find her. Don't you think so, Jo?" Muffy said. Jo could hear the disdain even after all this time, even over this many miles.
"It's important, Muffy," Jo said. Then, she added, "Please."
"If you're saying please, it must be important. How important?"
"Mrs. Garrett died. I need to find Blair. Please."
"Oh," Muffy faltered. "I am so sorry. Let me find that number."
She was gone for several minutes. Jo fought tears the entire time, fumbling through another drawer for a pad of paper and a pen..
"Here it is. Jo, I really am sorry."
"It's all right," Jo whispered as she wrote down the number.
"No, it isn't. It was mean."
"Thank you for the number."
"You're welcome. Do you know why she isn't at the house in Connecticut?"
"No, I don't."
"Her father is seriously ill. He has colon cancer. She's with him at the house in the Hamptons."
"Oh," Jo said. "Is he..."
"It's terminal. He's on hospice care. They send nurses, but Blair takes care of him as much as she can. And, Jo, there's something else."
"She and Michael...it didn't work out. They've been separated for about two years now. I think the divorce finalizes soon."
"Why? I'm sorry. It's obviously none of my business or she would have told me."
"How long has it been since you spoke to her?"
"Probably three years, since Dorothy's play opened here."
"Her father began to show symptoms a little after that. She wanted to spend time with him before it was too late. He wasn't around much when she was younger. You knew that, didn't you?"
"Yes. She used to wait for him to come get her to take her to dinner or to the ballet. He never showed. It got to the point that I hated him...she never did, so I hated him for her."
"He changed," Muffy said. "Once she became engaged, he tried to be there as much as he could. I thought it was because he wanted to keep an eye on them, to ensure a proper Warner marriage. But, I think he realized just what he had lost when he skipped her childhood. When her marriage fell apart, he refused to let her push him away. Eventually, she forgave him and they started over."
"Why did the marriage fall apart...if you feel okay telling me," Jo asked as she began taking notes, outlining the information she was receiving.
"I'm not sure. They seemed so perfect for each other. It might be that they couldn't seem to have children," Muffy added.
"I didn't know that. I thought they had just decided...."
"Did you ask her?"
"No, we haven't really spoken much except when we're with the others. I don't remember the last time we just talked. I...It's my fault. I just didn't know what to say to her. She seemed.... It was almost like those days when her father didn't show up. She forced herself to pretend to be happy about the whole thing. When I'd call or we'd see each other, it was as if she were pretending to be something she wasn't. I didn't know how to ask her about it without making her angry or...."
"You never used to mind making her angry. You seemed to thrive on it."
"I was afraid," Jo paused. "I don't think I've ever admitted being afraid before. I wouldn't have admitted it to you when we were in school."
"I was a bitch," Muffy said, almost cheerfully. "It's a miracle someone didn't kill me. I am sorry for the way I treated you then, the way I began to speak to you earlier. You always made me feel...off kilter. You didn't care about my family's money or my position. My mother had taught me that those things were all that mattered. I found out for myself that she was wrong."
"I guess we've both grown up a little, then," Jo said, smiling as she doodled on the half-filled pad.
"I hope so," Muffy laughed. "Aging would be just too depressing otherwise."
"I'll try calling Blair at this number. Muffy, thank you for everything."
"My name is Diane. Muffy was the nickname my mother came up with. I always disliked it."
"Diane it is, then. Thank you again."
"You're welcome. And, Jo, when you see her...she has changed more than you might be aware of."
"Sure. Thanks. 'Bye."
"Goodbye, Jo. Good luck."
I'm going to need it, Jo thought. She dialed the number for the house in the Hamptons and waited as it rang, repeatedly. Finally, a voice on the other end spoke. "Hello, Warner residence. May I help you?"
Jo recognized the voice, but the confidencealmost arroganceof a younger Blair was missing.
"Blair, it's Jo...Jo Polniaczek."
"I don't know all that many Jo's, but, hello, Jo Polniaczek."
"Blair, I've been trying to reach you all day...."
"I'm sorry to have caused you any bother," Blair began, just a touch of the haughtiness returning, but underlain with sadness.
"No, you haven't...I mean, I wasn't sure where you were...are...so, I didn't know to call here."
"Well, we haven't spoken for quite some time, so I didn't think to notify you when I came up here to stay with Daddy."
"Blair, I'm not implying...I mean I don't mean to imply that anything you've done has put me out. I just...I never thought there would come a time when I wouldn't know exactly how to find you. That's all. And, it's my fault for not keeping in touch."
"It's okay, Jo. I haven't tried very hard to contact you either. But, I do keep track of your career. You've been cutting quite the figure in the papers and during those televised press conferences. Mrs. Garrett's scrapbook must be bursting at the seams."
"That's why I'm calling, Blair. It's Mrs. Garrett. She..."
"No. Please, no," Blair breathed.
"She's...she'd been in the home for almost two years, Blair. You knew this day was coming."
"Coming, yes. Here already, no. But, go ahead and tell me."
"The lawyer called. She died early today. The visitation is tomorrow and the burial will be the day after...in Peekskill. You know the cemetery where her first husband is buried? She'll be placed in the plot next to his."
"My father is...I don't know if I can leave," Blair said.
"I rented a car, Blair. They're delivering it tonight. I can come pick you up in the morning, or I can drive up tonight. But, either way, you need to come with me."
"I know. It's just that he's fading, Jo. I don't know if I can...two funerals so close together. And, them, Jo. It's just that it's the two of them."
"It's okay, Princess," Jo found herself using the long-abandoned nickname. But there was no derision in it anymore. "I'm going to hang up and call the rental place. Tell 'em that I'll pick up the car myself as soon as I can finish packing and get there. Give me the directions. I've only been there once, that last spring break."
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