I don’t like math, talk of the economy goes over my head, and it baffles me that the dollar is backed on “good faith,” but I’ve got a soft spot for the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. I used to tell George, without Galbraith, we might never have met. George was finishing his book when I came to work at Dottie’s, and he spent every afternoon that spring at the corner table wading through a manuscript the size of Ulysses. The note was face up on the table when I passed by on my way to the coffee bar. The task is yours my friend, read the messy scrawl, “the freshness and spontaneity that come only with the sixth draft.”
I laughed, out loud laughed.
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“Jackass,” I heard from over my shoulder.
I started the apology before I’d even turned all the way around, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean — ”
Dimples, blue-striped button down, blonde, blonde.
He laughed. “Not you; my editor. Brilliant, but a jackass. He thinks cross-discipline quotation makes him some sort of Renaissance man.”
“You’ve got to feel bad for the guy though,” I said, pointing at the cover page, “Spending days on end reading about ‘Outsourcing the Business of Dying: Who’s Really Been Fighting Our Wars.’ Not exactly a beach read.”
He grinned and told me I was lucky I baked for a living — he spent his days lecturing to sleeping undergrads, and years writing books no one would read. “But,” he sighed dramatically, “Somebody’s got to do it.”
“How noble of you,” I said, with mock admiration.
He stopped at the counter to chat the next two days.
“What’s that about?” Melissa asked after he left.
“Nothing,” I told her.
“Fine,” she said, adding more rainbow cookie pieces to the sample plate, “but he’s cute for an older guy, in that all-American, feel-you-up-on-my-boat kind of way.”
I pinched her arm. She raised her eyebrows.
I put George in a red mahogany casket and on a plane to Virginia. After the funeral, his mother and sister, Molly, fly back to New York with me for a week to put his affairs in order. They spend their days on the phone arguing with insurance companies and rifling through his filing cabinet and their nights whispering. They’ve made headquarters in the dining room and our long oak table is covered with papers and boxes and their lipstick-stained coffee mugs. I hate having them there, dirtying our dishes, running their fingers over our photographs, leaving their hair in our shower.
I try to be helpful, but they’re not having any of it. His mother says my pound cake has too much butter, and Molly, with her Harvard J.D., drops legal terms I’m almost positive aren’t relevant, but she knows I don’t understand. On the Monday we get back, George’s department head calls to ask whether I want to come over and go through his office, or if they should pack everything up and deliver it. I’m about to answer when Molly cuts me off from another phone in the house: she’ll come and do it. It’s not worth the argument anymore; this is her way of reminding me that I’m not family, that I can’t decide what to do with his stapler. I put the phone back in the cradle, walk to the bathroom, turn the shower on and sit on the floor until the room fills with steam. I start to sweat but leave the water on, and take comfort that in her thoroughness, Molly will find the condoms tucked behind High Fidelity and the Oxford Dictionary of Slang.
George is charming, charming. We go to dinner and talk about Coachella hipsters, buttercream icing, what if Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger were the same person. He asks about school: I skipped third and fourth grade, went to Bryn Mawr, majored in art history, and on the weekends took the train into the city and my shirt off for the Wharton boys. After that, culinary school sounded like fun. I ask about the movie he hates that he loves: “A Night at the Roxbury,” he says, ducking his head a little.
What can I do but laugh.
That Thursday, George asks me to meet him at the manuscripts archive at 3:00. I’ve cleared out my entire afternoon, but I don’t drive over until five after so it doesn’t look like I’ve been waiting. When I get there, he’s leaning against the information desk, chatting with a security guard. I watch him for a moment; he’s wearing French cuffs and white Chucks and is talking with his hands. He glances at his watch and I nearly trip over a chair on my way in.
He’s already smiling when he turns around. “Hey there,” he says, leaning in to kiss my cheek.
I follow him as we wind through the narrow rows of shelves toward the service elevator on the far wall. He swipes his ID and punches in a code; I can hear the gears whirling from inside the shaft.
“So, do you want to tell me what we’re doing?” I ask.
He looks down at me and grins, “Not really.”
I point to the ID badge, “Is it legal?”
His smile widens, “Not really.”
The doors open.
“And if anybody asks,” he says stepping in behind me, “we’re from the Architectural Planning Committee.”
He swipes the ID again and pushes “R.”
George takes me to the top of the library tower, and from there, the city stretches out in every direction until it meets the horizon. The buildings look like match boxes and further out, the river snakes in and out of view, disappearing behind shops and thickets of trees. He rests his bag on the ledge and pulls out a map and a pair of binoculars.
“Since you’re new here,” he says, opening the map, “I thought some geographical orientation was in order.”
He’s marked up the whole city — best sashimi, late night diners, salsa bars, places to avoid at night, running paths, vintage book stores, outdoor markets, places to avoid completely. It’s warm and bright and he stands next to me, pointing out the two Indian restaurants, side by side, run by rival brothers, the African art dealer, the natural fiber store that sells Minnetonka Moccasins year round. He draws a finger along the arc of farms north of the city limits, puts a hand on my back to turn me east towards the arts district and Dottie’s with its cramped parking lot and pink awning.
His hand is warm and he smells like bergamot and guiac wood.
He sends white calla lilies to the bakery the next day and the punctuation on the card is meticulous. Melissa tells me to stop smiling.
When my sister calls, we talk for forty-five minutes before I mention George. She squeals and begins the requisite interrogation. We only get through name and occupation before she asks how old he is.
I hesitate a moment, “Thirty-nine.”
“Ellen!” she says, shocked, “Are you serious? Is he married?”
“No, not married,” I tell her. “He’s really sweet.”
“He’s also almost twenty years older than you. Ellie,” she says, serious this time, “What are you doing?”
I know I should stop wearing his shirts to bed, but it’s the only way I can sleep. Waking up is disorienting, and after the sucker punch at four in the morning, the day seems endless. Sometimes work distracts me. It’s still dark out when I go in, but Dottie already has the mixers going and a thin layer of flour is settling softly on her gray hair. I start on the lemon poppy seed bread while she’s finishing the raspberry scones, and the radio plays show tunes softly in the background. Melissa comes in for the breakfast rush at seven, and for the next two hours we’re vending machines with smiles. There’s a lull at nine-thirty, and Dottie and I go back to the kitchen. We face each other across the wide, metal island and frost sugar cookies shaped like farm animals. Her hands are small and pale against the bright pink of the piping bag and she starts talking without looking up.
“When Harold died, someone gave me a book on grieving, but it was all wrong.” Her husband, Harold, has been dead for eight years: pancreatic cancer.
“It kept saying that losing someone is like drowning. Can you believe that?” I’m not sure if she’s actually asking me, but she doesn’t wait for an answer. “It kept trying to describe it as a tide that keeps coming and how the water washes over you and you can’t get your head above the break.”
She draws two small, black dots on a pig’s snout. “But the water is something right? And maybe you can float.” Sometimes it’s hard to follow Dottie, but I nod anyway. “And if there’s a tide, then there’s a moon. And at least you know where you are, right? The ocean is somewhere. That’s something isn’t it?”
She sighs, but doesn’t look up, and starts in on the row of cows.
Sometimes work doesn’t distract me and when I hear someone order orange tea and biscotti, I have to stand in the cold room and wait for my heart to unclench.
I run in the afternoons. I try not to do the routes George took me on his “Introduction to the City” running tours, but sometimes I’m on auto pilot. I cruise down Madison, passing the stationery store, the dry cleaner, and the turn-of-the-century mansions with lawns the size of parks. I hang a right after the hospital to avoid the university and head down the hill on Probasco to the river. It’s May and the water is quick and almost blue.
I fly along the asphalt path, passing the students playing Frisbee on the grass, two women eating sandwiches on a purple raincoat, and a couple in matching yellow jogging suits kissing on a wooden bench. The colors start to blend together like I’m running through a wet painting and realize I must be crying louder than the world outside because people are starting to stare. I veer off the main path and onto a narrow trail that cuts a quick line to Hamden Avenue. I hear it before I see it, and when I reach the sidewalk, school’s just gotten out and it’s crowded with flocks of eight-year-olds and moms pushing strollers that look like battle tanks. The everything of outside is overwhelming and I’m starting to feel dizzy with the squealing preteens and the loud tank tops and the smell of incense and Indian food. I duck into the movie theater to catch my breath; it’s cool and dark and the silence feels good. I don’t want to go outside again, so I buy a ticket. The theater specializes in low-budget science fiction films, and the one I’ve picked is Argentinean and depressing, but I keep watching anyway. When it’s over, I slide down in my seat, wait for the ushers to finish their rounds, then sit up again and answer the loop of trivia questions until they rewind the reel and play it again. I’m embracing the idea that life imitates art, and that watching someone else’s so-neatly resolved disaster will rub off onto mine. It doesn’t; but on the bright side, I’ve made it through another three hours.
At night, I lie awake and listen to them talk about what to leave me. His mother says to let me keep everything but the photo albums; Molly wants the vintage film posters, the wine, and the green hutch from Prague where we keep the china. I want to get up and tell her she can have everything but the glass dish under the stove and the clothes that still smell like him, the rest I can replace. I hear Molly laugh from the living room and I hate that they have each other.
I’ve left as many things as I can on the bed: hardcover novels, bottles of lotion, purses, sweatpants — anything to take up space when I sleep. Outside the door, the hallway light goes off and the apartment is quiet, except for the sounds of sleep preparations in the guest room. I push everything off the mattress, but it makes less noise than I’d hoped; no one comes to the door. I spread out in the middle of the bed and cry for more reasons than I can count.
Before they leave, Molly writes me a check for six months’ rent.
It’s the nicest thing she’s done since I met her.
In the kitchen, Dottie and I are cutting pans of cream cheese brownies, putting each chocolate square onto a pink doily, and then onto a tray for display.
“When Harold died, I tried out a support group on Wednesday nights, but the people were idiots. One man said losing his wife was like losing his right hand. He said sometimes he would forget, and reach for her anyway.”
She’s standing on a stool to get a good angle on the trays and slicing in long even strokes “But, then you’d just open the door with the other hand, right?” she says, “Or peel a banana holding it between the nub and your side?” She turns the pan to cut in the opposite direction. “At least the other hand has been there. How can you catch someone up on everything? The other hand, that’s something, isn’t it?”
George asks me to teach him the recipe for the devil’s food cake dish we sell at Dottie’s. I bring all of the ingredients in a paper bag to his apartment, but I know by the time we’ve put the chocolate in the double boiler, there’s no point in greasing the pan.
George lays me across his dining room table and I can feel the heat emanating off the sauce pot by my thigh. He asks about summers in Begur.
“My mother said our Catalan was embarrassing so she sent Liz and me to Sa Tuna for a month every summer to stay with our aunt.”
“Really?” he says, dipping his index finger into the melted Callebaut. He stretches his arm across me and begins to draw the eastern coast of Spain on my stomach. The French border is at the top of my ribcage, and he drags down along the edge where Costa Brava meets the Mediterranean.
“We helped out in her restaurant. Waiting tables, selling souvenirs in the gift shop, scamming tourists with our charm.”
He smiles, “I believe that.”
He makes a dot for Sa Tuna at my waist and a tiny inward curve for the bay, then goes back to scribble in the Pyrenees with his pinky. I’m finding it difficult to concentrate, but he doesn’t seem to have any trouble multi-tasking.
“Is that what inspired the baking?” he asks pleasantly.
He dips his finger again and draws a long line to Barcelona below my navel then down further to Tarragona.
I can’t remember the question, but his geography is impeccable, impeccable.
I’m crossing the street toward the Armenian deli when I see a photograph of George hanging in the bicycle shop window. I can’t even read the poster before I start vomiting into the garbage can on the curb.
But when it happens again the next two days, I check the calendar and it’s twelve days past the little red circle.
It’s late, but I’m still awake. According to the book, at seven weeks, all of her baby teeth have formed and she can move her hands. I lift up my shirt, put my palm flat against the skin, smile softly into the darkness, and imagine we are waving to each other.
I move out two months later when the lease is up. July is hot, and the whole process is exhausting even though Molly took a moving van of stuff with her, and Melissa, who comes over to help, won’t let me lift a pregnant finger. The new apartment is just off Ellis Street and close enough to the bakery that I can walk there. I attribute the $200 jump in rent to the school district’s high performance, but I figure it will be worth it in the long run, and for the moment, I’m grateful I can stop avoiding his colleagues in the grocery store.
Melissa and I sit in my new living room in complete darkness, too tired to find the box of lamps. She gently asks if I’m ever going to tell his family. I don’t say anything, but look outside where the moon is lighting up the white hydrangeas by the gate like a spotlight.
If I had to make a list of frequently asked questions, they would come in this order.
1. When are you due? (January)
2. Do you know what you’re having? (The linguini — they chuckle — a girl)
3. Have you picked a name? (Abigail)
1. How are you? (Fine)
2. Have you told them? (No)
3. What are you waiting for? (One catastrophe at a time)
I’m not going to guilt them into keeping me in the fold.
She’s a child, George,” I hear Molly hiss as I turn into the kitchen of his parents’ house. He’s leaning against the counter as Molly and his mother stand in front of the marble island, their faces caught somewhere between disbelief and disappointment. I stand there for a moment, holding the stack of dinner dishes, then move towards the sink.
“Ellen,” he says.
I set the plates lightly on the counter and turn around. He calls after me again.
“Christ, Molly,” I hear him say.
I’m almost to the front door when he catches me by the arm.
“She didn’t mean it,” he says, his voice is soft, soft.
I can’t look up.
“I highly doubt that,” I say to the coat rack; then, “Tell your parents I said thank you for dinner.”
He turns me around to face him and grips my waist; we could be dancing.
“Give them time,” he says, “This is an adjustment.”
I put my palm flat against his chest, “This is a bad idea.”
He bends his head close to mine, “Probably,” he whispers.
I slip my arms around his neck and before I close my eyes, I catch a glimpse of Molly leaning against the door frame, fists tight as knots.
We fly out of Dulles the next day and spend his fortieth birthday in Paris. We stay up till six a.m., stumbling drunk and giddy outside of the Odéon and tango in the Luco at dawn.
I make friends with my neighbors down the hall, Ethan and Lisa, and their two-year-old daughter, Penelope. Lisa shows me how to make onesies out of old t-shirts, and we spend an entire Saturday afternoon cutting, sewing, and velcroing George’s British pub shirts into infant clothing. Melissa drags me to Lamaze, I eat Coco Puffs and refried beans, gain twenty pounds, and for five months, lie to everyone I know.
The university forgets to erase his office voicemail, and on bad days I call over and over just to hear him say he’ll get back to me.
In January, Liz gets to the hospital two hours before Abigail is born. She holds my hands while my mother retreats fervently into Catholicism and alternates between praying the rosary and to Gerard Majella, the patron saint of childbirth. Melissa snaps pictures, even though I’m sure no one will ever want to see this. Abigail is 6 pounds, 11 oz. has a port-wine stain on her stomach, and her father’s brown eyes.
Two days after she is born, I send his family a photograph of her in his George Inn shirt; I think it’s clever. I write her name, Abigail Reid Allston, her birthday, height, and weight on the back and I am about to seal the envelope when I pull the photo out again and write “Mom and daughter are doing well,” below the rest of the information. I don’t include a return address, but it only takes them four days to track me down. Molly calls our first day home and asks if they can come up that weekend. I tell her no, but that we’ll come and visit when we’re up to the trip. All of a sudden, she’s crying over the line, asking why I didn’t tell them, why I didn’t let them help.
“I wasn’t going to give you another reason to make me feel like shit,” I tell her, and hang up.
In the intervening weeks the UPS man and I become good friends thanks to all the stuff they send me: diapers, clothing, toys that come with intellectual activity cards, Baby Einstein videos, and the complete works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff — I opt for Tracy Chapman instead.
We fly to Alexandria on Valentine’s Day. They adore her, as expected; I am only the messenger. I go for a run while his mother shows her off at the house.
I am not used to having my body to myself again. When I run, I feel like I’ve forgotten something, and during the first mile, triple check the pocket with my keys and constantly feel if my phone is still clipped to my waistband. The second mile, I count the number of steps — 1934 or 2086 or 1978 — just for something to hold on to. The third mile, I let myself say anything.
I never know where I’m going to cry and it scares me—at the gas station, waiting in line at the bank, peeing, trying to get through a thirty-minute sitcom. Sometimes I go to Barnes & Noble, pick up his book, and ask complete strangers if they’ve read it. I hate that none of my bras fit; that my breasts are twice their normal size and he’s not even here to enjoy them. When Abigail spit up on the last of his sweaters I hadn’t washed, I had to put her down and leave the room. I haven’t been on a bicycle since his accident and the “Share the Road” posters with his face on them still make my hands shake. I hate that I cashed the check from his sister. I hate that Abigail doesn’t scream when his mother picks her up. I hate that they give me his childhood books, that at the airport I let Molly wrap her arms around me like we have not been fighting over a life and the remnants of it, that sometimes they make my life easier.
“I think it’s like Nagasaki. Or Hiroshima,” Dottie starts as I shake powered sugar over a tray of lemon bars. “One day, you’ve got a place with parks and side streets and shopping malls, and then the next day it’s gone. This whole emotional city you’ve built with another person, suddenly up in smoke.”
I put down the sifter and watch Dottie’s hands as she ices a red fire truck on a birthday cake.
“And for the first few days, you can’t see anything, and you think that’s bad, but you don’t even know. Because when everything settles, and you can finally see beyond the hand in front of your face, there’s nothing there — no skyline, no telephone, not even a bench. It’s not even that you’re lost and have to stop and turn around and ask for directions only to get lost again — because that might be bearable.”
She starts on the ladder.
“It feels like that for while, sometimes a long while. But eventually you get up the nerve to walk around, and find out that it’s not as barren as it looked.”
Dottie looks up at me, “And all of a sudden, there’s a crossword in the newspaper.”