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Gloria opens her section by stating that she knew immediately that the two little girls she saw years ago needed to be cared for. She then switches track to describe her own upbringing in southern Missouri, where she grew up during the Great Depression with five brothers. Her father worked as a painter who was employed mainly in the predominantly African American part of town, while her mother stayed home with the children. When Gloria was seven, her father came in from work and had a stroke. Afterwards, her mother was extremely cautious, monitoring everything he did. Gloria witnessed her parents’ strong connection, recognizing it as one of the purest forms of love possible.
After opening rather cryptically, Gloria’s section quickly pulls us back in time to track her history. Still, we are left to wonder if the two little girls she decided needed care are the same two little girls we know Jazzlyn and Tillie have left behind.
When Gloria left Missouri to go to college in Syracuse, New York, her father painted her a sign that read “COME HOME SOON, GLORIA.” By this point the family had already lost two boys to the Second World War, and Gloria was the only one to attend college. Once she left home, she didn’t return for a long time. Instead, she invested herself in her studies and then quickly married after graduation.
From an early age, Gloria is affected by war and becomes accustomed to the feeling of losing loved ones. Perhaps this is what cultivates the independence she displays when deciding to leave home for college in the North.
Gloria explains that now, as an adult, people tend to see her as “churchy” despite the fact that she is not particularly religious. She mentions that she thinks Claire probably thought of her in this way for the first part of their friendship. Gloria then transitions into describing the morning of the tightrope walk, when she and the other women are at Claire’s apartment. While Claire is in the kitchen, the women inspect the various objects placed nearby, looking for impressive markings that might indicate their value. They examine a portrait of Solomon, making fun of it; Janet moves her hand up and down along Soderberg’s thigh as the other white women giggle. Then Claire enters the room and Janet steps away from the portrait. The tension is palpable. Gloria wonders to herself what would have happened if she had been the one moving her hand over the painting.
It is clear that Gloria is an empathetic person, as evidenced by the guilt she feels about her friends’ callous jokes made at Claire’s expense. It seems Claire’s original concern—regarding how the other women might judge her for living in such a lavish apartment—was, in fact, accurate and justified. When Gloria wonders how the situation might be different if Claire had walked in on her mocking Solomon’s portrait (instead of the white women), she is picking up on an unspoken racial assumption that a black woman has no right to poke fun at a white woman or her husband.
Claire awkwardly holds out a plate of doughnuts to Gloria, who tells her that if she has another, she might “spill out into the street.” This breaks the tension, and the group is able to settle back into the morning without discomfort. Claire leads them to Joshua’s room, where they sit and listen to her talk about her son in great detail. As she speaks, the women become progressively hotter in the small room. They begin fidgeting and obviously tuning Claire out. At one point, Marcia lets out a large yawn, which derails Claire. When she asks the group to remind her what she was saying, they are unable to answer. Before long, though, Claire continues, instantly boring the group once more.
At this point, we begin to witness the second half of Claire’s story, though now our narrator is Gloria, who is able to be a bit more honest in her representation of Claire. And although the group is supposed show support to the featured mother, it is clear that Claire is so wrapped up in her own story—so relieved to finally have found a willing audience and an emotional outlet—that she is unaware of their growing impatience.
Again, Marcia tactlessly interrupts Claire, this time asking if anyone has the timetable for the Staten Island Ferry. Gloria notices Claire blushing and trying to smile, pretending like her feelings haven’t been hurt. Awkwardly, the women start saying their goodbyes and moving toward the door, where they hover, none of them brave enough to be the one to initiate the departure.
Gloria seems to be the only person in the room looking at the situation from both Claire’s perspective and the other women’s perspective, once again displaying her ability to relate to others sympathetically and with graciousness.
As Gloria checks herself in the hallway mirror, Claire grabs her elbow, ushering her slightly away from the group of women. Claire loudly asks her if she’d like to take some of the leftover bagels, but then under her breath she whispers, “Just stay here a little while.” Her eyes are wet with the shine of held-back tears. Gloria tries to return to the door, where the other women are standing, but Claire keeps a firm grip on her elbow, asking again for her to stay.
Claire’s desperate attempt to convince Gloria to stay seems to be the result of Gloria’s general kindness. It is telling that even the small amount of attention Gloria lent Claire is enough to make Claire obsessively pursue her as a friend—this is, of course, an indication of the extent to which Claire is in need of a friend and confidante.
Although Gloria likes Claire—and although she could imagine staying after the others left—she decides not to stick around to help Claire clean up the mess; she figures that “she didn’t go freedom-riding years ago to clean apartments on Park Avenue, no matter how nice” Claire might be. From the door, Jacqueline clears her throat and Marcia speaks up, urging Gloria to hurry along. In order to avoid making it seem like she favors Claire, Gloria makes a final decision to leave, lying that she has a church choir practice that afternoon even though she is not at all involved in the church.
This is a complex moment, one in which Gloria rejects racial stereotypes (by deciding not to stay to help Claire clean the apartment) while simultaneously falsely reinforcing similar stereotypes (by lying that she has to attend church choir). This complicated moment speaks to the many difficulties that can arise in the face of racial expectations, and Gloria is put in a position where she is torn between multiple iterations of such expectations.
Out in the hall, Gloria is just about to step into the elevator when Claire once again pulls her by the elbow. With a sad look on her face, she whispers: “You know, I’d be happy to pay you, Gloria.”
It seems even Claire is aware of the unfortunate way she is reinforcing an ugly racial paradigm. Unfortunately, her regret doesn’t stop her from going forth with her desperate plan to keep Gloria by her side.
In her narration, Gloria takes a moment to explain to readers that her great-grandmother and grandmother were both slaves, along with her great-grandfather, who bought his own freedom and carried around a whip in order to remind him of what he’d overcome. She herself knows what it means to fight oppression, having protested segregation in the South (as part of the “Freedom Riders”) and having experienced tear gas.
This passage reminds us that, for a black woman in the 1970s spending time with a group of wealthier white women, it is impossible to forget about racism and oppression. Rather than trying to forget racism’s ugliness, Gloria lives with it everyday, and this moment at Claire’s house is no exception.
Gloria steps into the elevator as Claire immediately regrets what she said. Downstairs, the doorman tells the group of women that Claire has called down and that she wants to see them for a moment. The white women roll their eyes and crack jokes, but Gloria says that she needs to go and steps outside, walking away to the sound of the others calling her name. She decides that she will walk all the way from the Upper East Side to the Bronx.
Unlike Gloria, the white women aren’t forced to confront racism during a casual morning of tea and pastries. As such, they can’t fathom why Gloria is so upset—this, of course, shows them to be narrow-minded, complacent, and complicity racist themselves.
As she walks, Gloria contemplates whether or not she acted rightly. She considers the possibility that she read too much into the situation, that maybe Claire was simply lonely and wanted her company. Gloria wonders if she is letting something small and ridiculous ruin a good friendship. She admits to herself that people aren’t always completely good, and that the idea of perfection is unattainable. Nonetheless, she decides that she’s gone too far to turn back—despite the stitch already developing in her stomach.
Even after a friend has capitalized on an unfortunate racial power dynamic, Gloria finds herself empathizing, testing the situation out from multiple perspectives. When she allows herself to accept that not everybody is perfect, she proves that she has an almost saint-like sense of forgiveness and generosity.
Gloria continues narrating her life’s history, explaining that in college she was often invited to fancy parties where she was asked to share her opinions about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Second World War, and other often racially-charged matters. She used to write letters to her parents, only reporting good news and never mentioning any grievances.
As Gloria reveals more about her past, it becomes clear that this is not the first time she has been treated as a representative of her entire race; in college, it seems, she was tokenized as a well-educated black woman in much the same way that she is treated in the group of mothers.
When she graduated, Gloria’s parents traveled to Syracuse. They were proud of her, and her mother talked about how far African Americans had come. This embarrassed Gloria. Her parents had packed a car, leaving enough room to take her home, but Gloria told them that she intended to stay in New York for a little while.
Gloria’s refusal to rejoin her family in the South symbolizes her move toward individuality, a trait that follows her throughout her life.
The next time Gloria saw her parents was at her first wedding, which was to a man who was a respected debater. They had a fast courtship, marrying after only six weeks. On the night of their wedding, they both immediately knew they had made a mistake. They divorced after eleven months, at which point Gloria avoided returning to Missouri. She didn’t tell her parents about the divorce, instead deciding to move to New York City, where she found her second husband and the eventual father of her three boys, all of whom died in Vietnam.
It is evident that Gloria’s individualism was reinforced when she moved through her marriages without asking for her parents’ help or even telling them about what was truly happening in her life.
Continuing her journey toward the Bronx from Claire’s apartment, Gloria’s feet begin to blister. She isn’t paying attention to her surroundings, so she doesn’t anticipate the young girl who emerges from a vestibule on the side of the street holding a knife. The girl takes Gloria’s purse and cuts out her pockets, which hold, among other valuables, pictures of her sons. As the girl leaves, she calls Gloria a fat bitch.
New York yet again shows its capacity for violence and danger; just as it can be a city full of beauty and wonder—full of artists who walk between skyscrapers or spray paint otherwise ugly walls—it can also be a city of destruction and malice, a city divided by angry strangers unable or unwilling to empathize with one another.
Gloria hails a cab and directs it—for reasons she can’t explain—to Claire’s apartment. When she arrives, Claire pays the taxi fare and ushers her into the building. Inside the apartment the curtains are shut and it smells strongly of cigarettes and perfume. Claire runs Gloria a bath for her blistered, bleeding feet.
In this moment, Claire is put in the position of waiting on Gloria, a nice reversal of what racial and social stereotypes might normally dictate.
Once Claire helps Gloria get cleaned up, the two women sit in the living room drinking gin and tonics. They talk vaguely about their previous exchange; Claire apologizes but Gloria tells her that she acted fine, that she didn’t make a fool of herself. Eventually they are able to joke about the matter, and Gloria says that she came back to collect her pay.
Despite the tensions running beneath the surface of their last interaction, Gloria and Claire are apparently able to allow themselves a moment of simple friendship unencumbered by outside expectations—a much-need relief for both women.
Gloria asks if Claire can put on some music. Together they sit relaxed in the living room with their gin and tonics, taking in the loud classical music. Claire decides to smoke inside the apartment despite the fact that her husband hates it when she does so.
Here we witness Claire letting loose and ignoring her worry that she might upset Solomon, a sentiment that seems healthy given the fact that they are, as husband and wife, so overly careful around one another.
Later that night, Solomon comes through the front door. He has been out celebrating a triumphant court case at his favorite restaurant. He comes in and shakes Gloria’s hand, but it is obvious that he wishes she would leave. He too seems a bit tipsy, and he declares that he is going to take a shower. He starts unbuttoning his shirt and telling them about the tightrope walker, bragging about the sentence he came up with: he explains that he found the walker guilty and charged him a penny for every floor of the World Trade Center, or $1.10. Pouring himself a glass of whiskey, Solomon adds that he also sentenced him to do another performance for the public, this time somewhere safe. He is clearly happy with himself, but Claire doesn’t seem to care. From the hallway, Solomon calls goodnight to Gloria—and she knows he means that she should leave.
Solomon’s entrance essentially ruins the sense of equality Claire and Gloria were able to establish between themselves. In treating Gloria so dismissively, he reintroduces the idea of unconscious and unexamined racism. Ultimately, he displays his most unattractive qualities, boasting about his creative success in court and ignoring his wife’s obvious discomfort regarding his behavior. This is not the Judge Soderberg who caught a glimpse of Tillie’s humanity, but rather the Judge Soderberg who, when he looked at Jazzlyn, saw only a long rap sheet stretching into the future.
Claire follows Solomon down the hall. He returns after a moment and apologizes to Gloria for being terse. He also says that he is sorry to hear about her three sons. Pausing before disappearing into the hall, he adds, “I miss my boy too sometimes.”
Although we don’t see it firsthand, this is perhaps the first time in quite a while that Claire and Solomon speak honestly with one another, as Claire clearly expresses her disappointment in him when they are in the hallway. In return, he admits to her and to Gloria that he misses Joshua, a sizable confession for such an emotionally reserved man.
When Gloria leaves, Claire insists upon escorting her to the Bronx in a car service. When they arrive at the projects, there is a great fuss; two little girls are being taken out of the building by social workers. Gloria gets out of the car and runs over to the children. A police officer asks if she knows them, and she says yes; “That’s what I finally said, as good a lie as any: ‘Yes.’”
Any previous suspicion that these two little girls are Tillie’s grandchildren is confirmed by the fact that they are being taken out of the Bronx housing projects on the same night that Jazzlyn died and Tillie was jailed.