Last week my grandson called and asked if he could take me out to dinner. He was with his new girlfriend, Jane, and the two of them were passing through town on their way back from a weekend in New York. He asked if I was free at five, and I told him yes, of course. “There’s a little Italian bistro,” he said. “We can sit outside. I read about it. There’s a fountain. You’ll love it.”
At 30, Jason is my youngest grandson. We never expected him to live this long. He was on a breathing tube his first year, had brain surgery his second, and required daily shots into his teens. But he’s tricked us all, to our delight, and far outlived our expectations. As a result, Jason lives his life like a man who never thought he’d live this long, or who thinks he hasn’t got too much longer left. His mother would accuse me of being critical, but how can this be if I’ll openly admit he’s my favorite? There is something in Jason’s tactic that I envy, am in awe of. When I was his age, when any of us who are my age now were his age, it didn’t even occur to us that we mightn’t marry, have children, settle down.
At a quarter-to-six, Jason knocked on my apartment door.
“Alice,” he said.
I peered over his shoulder as he gave me a little hug.
“Where’s the girl?” I said. “You told me there’d be a girl.”
“In the car. She doesn’t mind,” he said. “Jane’s a sport. I left the A/C on.” He kissed my cheek, and I shooed him away.
“Good grief,” I said. I grabbed my pocketbook and scarf, should it turn cold. “Don’t be ridiculous. Either bring her up or let’s go straight down.”
Jane was in the back seat with her head leaned against the headrest and her eyes closed. I liked this very much. I thought it was cute that she’d already taken the back seat. I imagined her getting out of the car only after Jason had come up to fetch me, and then getting into the back. But I also liked that she was using her free time to relax. She wasn’t sitting nervously waiting to greet me.
Jason installed me in the front, and Jane waited until I was settled in before she leaned forward between the two seats, angled her body to be as much squared with mine as possible, then shook my hand. “It’s so nice to meet you,” she said. “Thanks for letting me tag along to dinner.”
The bistro—which, on the drive over, Jason referred to repeatedly as, “a gem, a real find”—turned out to be part of a new series of buildings that had just started shooting up in the town’s center. It was sandwiched between a ritzy steak house and a four-star hotel. Quaint was quickly becoming urban all around. Jason was disappointed at the newness and said so. “I was thinking more neighborhood-y,” he said.
“I know,” said Jane. “This is a little tourist-y, right?”
“Let’s find something else,” Jason said.
“Park the car,” I said. “I think it looks wonderful. It looks clean.”
“What do you think, Jane?”
“I think we should do whatever Alice wants,” she said.
Jason pulled in front of the bistro and let us out. Jane held my arm—she’d been instructed earlier, no doubt—and the two of us secured a little table outside with a view of the fountain.
She asked all sorts of questions while we waited for Jason to return from parking the car, none of which I had any interest in answering. Not because I felt spiteful toward her but because I wasn’t interested in any of her topics.
“Tell me something about you,” I said, finally. “Tell me something about being young. I don’t want to talk about me. I talk about me all day in my head. It must be terribly invigorating to be young.”
She giggled and looked down at her napkin. A blush took over the tips of her ears.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” I said. I signaled to the waiter. “That’s the last thing I want. I’m old, which means I’ve seen it all. I just want to be reminded.”
The waiter came. I ordered a gin martini. Jane ordered two gin and tonics. He asked if she was old enough to drink, and she giggled again. “Of course,” she said. She held the waiter’s gaze longer than she needed.
He smiled, then nodded. “I’ll take your word for it,” he said.
“We’ll need the wine list before dinner,” I said, and then the waiter went away.
I looked at Jane, and realized for the first time that she was—what we called it in my time anyway—stunning. She was every bit as attractive as Jason. In fact, she was the first girl he’d ever introduced to me who might actually have been more attractive than I thought he was. She was smiling to herself.
“You’re a flirt,” I said matter-of-factly.
“I’m not,” she said. Her cheek muscles jerked, and her face did this sort of ugly contortion. I imagine she was horrified that Jason’s grandmother might be judging her. “No. Why?”
“You take it in the wrong way,” I said. “It’s a compliment. You’re lovely, and you know you’re lovely. It’s a refreshing thing to be with attractive people who are proud of being attractive. That’s not taught anymore.”
“But I’m embarrassed,” she said. She was very serious.
“Please stop,” I said. “Don’t cry.” Jason would be angry with me if she was crying, possibly even take me home, and I wanted my meal away from that place; I wanted my meal out in the world.
“I’m not crying,” she said. “It’s just—” She looked confused, but she mustered her way through a smile, brought her hands above her head, and waved away whatever had been bothering her. “You’re different than I imagined. That’s all.”
The waiter brought our drinks. Jane was careful not to look at him.
“We all are,” I said.
“Different than you imagine.”
The fountain pit-pattered beside us. A breeze came up, and I felt a drop of water on my skin. I looked at Jane, who was looking in the direction of the neighborhood that spreads up and out toward the water from the downtown. I followed her gaze. She had spotted Jason and was watching him approach. He gave a big wave, and I looked back at Jane, who was smiling in a way that told me they already had many secrets, which made me jealous.
“Admit it,” I said.
“Admit what?” she said. She wasn’t paying attention to me.
“That you know you’re attractive.”
She startled. “What?”
“Admit you’re attractive.”
She swallowed hard and gave a little cough. “Why?” She looked in the direction of Jason, but he was still on the other side of the street. Traffic had slowed him.
I was feeling catty, I think. Or envious of her youth. “I think it will make me like you even more.”
She sighed, and her hands shot up into the air again. “I admit it,” she said. “I love the way I look.”
“And you love the way you’re looked at,” I said.
“And I love the way I’m looked at,” she said, shaking her head, laughing in spite of herself.
Jason arrived, kissed Jane on her forehead, and took a seat between us.
“Gin!” he said. “Perfect-o.” He squeezed the quarter lime into his drink, licked his fingertips, and took a healthy sip.
We ordered two bottles of wine and too much food, which Jason insisted on—“Have your friends over for lunch tomorrow. Serve them leftovers. Make them jealous”—and we stayed at the bistro long after it turned dark. Jason offered to take me home repeatedly, but I declined, insisting on coffee drinks and desserts. “Only if you’re bored with me will I go home right now,” I said more than once. But he and Jane insisted they weren’t bored; they insisted on outlasting—or perhaps just lasting—me into the night.
“What a meal,” said Jason. He put a hand on Jane’s leg. “What a night.”
She leaned in and kissed him. I suddenly felt homesick, but not for my apartment back at The Landing, where dozens of other old people had been inserted, like sardines, by their wealthy children, adult children made wealthy by their aging parents’ generosity. I felt homesick for something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on.
“Yes,” she said. “What a night. A perfect night.”
Our coffee drinks came, along with our leftovers, which the waiter stacked on the fourth and empty seat at our table.
“Jane,” it was Jason talking, “tell Alice about that creepy guy at your office.”
She finished the bite of chocolate she’d been working on, brought her napkin to her mouth, and shook her head. “Absolutely not,” Jane said.
“Come on,” Jason said. “Alice can stomach it. I promise. She’s a sport.”
I remember smiling at the word sport, at being called one by my grandson. It’s funny how words change between generations.
“You tell it, then,” Jane said. “I’d be embarrassed.”
“It’s not my story,” he said. “Just tell the generals, leave out the specifics. Come on.”
Jane looked at me.
“I’m all ears,” I said.
“Fine,” she said. She pushed away her dessert plate, scooted in her chair, and put her elbows on the table. “In advance,” she said, “I apologize.”
The waiter came by carrying a tray of lighted tea candles. He placed one in the center of our table and moved on. I watched him zigzag through the patio—his own face growing less bright as he deposited a candle at each table. The light seemed to spread from him, muted, more pleasing than useful.
“This man I work with took home this woman I work with,” she said.
“Tell me you’re going to get more specific than that,” said Jason. “I’m snoring already.” He tickled her.
“This is my story,” she said. She pushed him away. “Let me tell it my way. That’s the point, right?” Jane shifted in her seat. She went on. “The girl he took home was young—18, I think. Maybe 20. But definitely not old enough to drink.”
Jason interrupted. “She’s one of the partner’s daughters, right? So she’s interning. I think you have to say that. Otherwise it’s weird that there’s someone so young working in your office.”
“Yes,” said Jane, maintaining eye contact with me. “Sure. So this intern went out with this much older man. In fact, one of the other partners at the firm. The guy is sleazy in general. You’ll have to trust me on this. He’s a jerk. Not somebody you’d want hanging out with your adolescent daughter, right?”
“But then why is he there?” I said. “How can he remain employed?”
“Simple,” she said. “He’s good at his job.” She raised her eyebrows. “He’s really good. And he’s a partner. It’s like tenure. He’s in.” I nodded, not quite believing. “Well, they went out a few times and managed to keep it secret. If any of us had had any inkling she was seeing him, we would have stepped in. She’s a daughter to the women who work there.”
“A little sister,” said Jason.
“Whatever. She’s a little sister. She’s like a beautiful little angel. You want to protect her. She’s got that kind of energy about her. Do you know what I mean?” Jane was looking at me, intensely. I nodded. She nodded too. “There are women who are fragile and women who aren’t,” she was saying. “This one’s fragile and only barely a woman.” Jane stopped talking. I was still nodding, but she didn’t immediately continue her story. I suspected she wanted encouragement.
“It sounds awful,” I said. “Tell me more.”
Jason nudged me in the shoulder. “I knew you’d like this story,” he said.
Jane pushed a flyaway hair behind her ear and cleared her throat. She leaned in even more toward the candle so that her nose cast a funny shadow across her lips and chin. “They went out a few times, right? And the third or fourth time they went out, this man—this partner—succeeded in getting her back to his house and succeeded also in getting her very, very drunk.”
“It couldn’t have been that hard,” said Jason, crossing his legs, settling in, relaxing. “She’s a bird. He probably gave her two glasses of Chablis, and she turned into a zombie.”
Jane waved him away. “The point is, he got her drunk. She passed out, and he took photographs.” She stopped. She looked newly saddened, as if she’d forgotten where her own story was headed, and was only now remembering, and remembering also perhaps that the girl in the story was a real girl, not just an anecdote.
A breeze picked up, and our candle threatened to blow out, but the little flame held fast. I waited for Jane to continue, which eventually she did.
“Photographs,” she said at last, “that were very, very bad. The worst thing you could imagine. Imagine that. And that’s what he photographed.”
I looked at Jason. He was nodding. Jason, I could tell, like Jane, had seen the photographs. The two of them were sharing the memory. And now the two of them were nodding very seriously, affected anew by the hideous photographs and the hideous nature of this man. Jane looked at me. “And then—because he was drunk maybe—he sent them to a select few of us at the office.”
“What about the girl?” I asked.
Jane nodded, as did Jason. I had asked the right question. “She left. She told her father that office life wasn’t for her. We said nothing. She asked us not to. She was mortified. All she wanted was that her father not find out.”
Jane sat back in her chair, leaving the glow of the candle to illuminate only the forgotten bites of chocolate and splashes of wine on the tablecloth. We sat in silence. I cupped my coffee for warmth, but it had long ago turned cold. I yawned, and Jason signaled for the waiter. I slipped him my credit card, and said he should sign for me.
“I’m an adult,” he said. “Let me pay.” He tried to hand me back the card. I resisted.
“Don’t deny me one of my few pleasures left in life,” I said. “It’s been delightful. The least I can do is treat.” Jason acquiesced, as they always do—my children and grandchildren—then leaned forward and grabbed my hand. I could just make out, as he gave my knuckles a little squeeze, the inch-long scar from that decades-old incision.
He thanked me.
“Quit it. You’ll give me a headache,” I said. “But do me this favor.”
“Anything you want,” Jason said.
“Go reserve a room for you and Jane right now. It’s on me. Take my card and go right over there,” I pointed to the new four-star hotel, “and get yourself the nicest room available. Jane will wait here with me.”
“Alice,” he said. “I can handle my own accommodations. Let us drive you home. We’ll worry about a hotel later. Something close to the highway.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” I said. “Go get yourself a room then come back over here and take me home. I’ll tell your mother.” I was always threatening to tell his mother but, really, it’s the last thing in the world I would have done. She already worried too much and too often about him.
Jason stood, bowed theatrically, then strolled across the parking lot in the direction of the hotel’s lobby.
“Thank you,” Jane said. “You didn’t need to do that. But thank you. It’s a wonderful gift.”
I leaned into the candle, as Jane had, my elbows on the table, and said, in a low tone, “I’d like to tell you a story now.”
She smiled. “All right,” she said, unfolding the napkin that was in her lap and then instantly refolding it.
“Listen,” I said. “I was married only three years before I fell in love with another man.”
Jane looked in the direction of the hotel, then back at me.
“I never fell out of love with my husband, with Jason’s grandfather. But Jim was in the army. He was gone for so long. I wasn’t looking for someone else, but things don’t happen that way, do they?”
She opened her mouth, then closed it. She was holding on to her napkin still, as though it might give her balance.
“The man I fell in love with—Thomas, that was his name—he was younger than I was. He was new to town. He saw me once at my favorite restaurant, then showed up there every day. He asked about me. I was flattered. People talked, but people talked about everything then.”
“They still do,” said Jane.
“Yes,” I said. “I suppose they still do.” I paused. “Have you heard this story? Has Jason told you about Thomas? Because there’s a version of the story that circulates from time to time within the family.”
Jane shook her head. “I haven’t. No.”
We both looked toward the hotel. The parking lot was empty.
“I went out with him only once. I took the children to a neighbor’s house for the night. Thomas met me outside town, and we drove to a cemetery. One of those places you go when you’re in high school. I’d packed a dinner. We ate it on a little hill. Thomas poured glass after glass of gin. We didn’t need ice cubes back then for gin. We could drink it warm. Everything tasted good then.” I paused. I wanted to impress her. Or, rather, I wanted my story to leave an impression. “He put his head in my lap. He fed me grapes from a paper bag. He read to me. He did all those things you dream about as a little girl. All the things that you realize, as you get older, aren’t real. But Thomas was real. And that night, I was in love with him.”
Another pink blush had taken over Jane’s ears. I smiled. “Am I boring you?”
“No,” she said, her voice high, shaky.
“Am I embarrassing you? Would you like me to stop?”
“No, no,” she said again. Her eyes darted quickly toward the hotel.
I also looked at the hotel. The lobby was brightly illuminated, and the light inched out into the parking lot. Behind two sets of windows, just barely, I could make out the silhouette of Jason at the front desk. He was standing beneath a chandelier.
“He asked me to walk with him, before I drove him home. I had the car, you see. My husband’s car. Jim’s car. I said yes, I would walk with him and, arm and arm, we walked. He told me jokes. I laughed. I was in love. My stomach was full of it. Full of this fantastic ache. And right then, and only right then, I wished I’d never had children. I wished not one of them had ever been born.”
The waiter came to the table. He asked if we wanted refills on coffee. Jane didn’t look up, but I did, and I smiled very prettily, pretending to myself that I was young again. “No more coffee,” I said.
He walked away.
“At some point,” I said, “I lost sight of Thomas. And, in the dark, I realized how cold it was. I was scared. It was a cemetery after all. There was too much time to think, and by myself I started to feel quite foolish. When I was about to head back to the car, he jumped out from behind a mausoleum and punched me on my arm. I screamed. He laughed. At first I didn’t think it was funny. But he laughed so hard that I started laughing. I rubbed my arm, and he punched me again,” I said. “Again, again, again. We laughed and laughed. I ran away, and he caught up to me. Every time I ran, he caught up. And every time he caught up, he punched me. And every time he punched me, I laughed.”
Again I looked toward the hotel, and this time its French doors opened and Jason emerged, backlit and larger than life. He held up a set of keys, and I smiled. He waved, and I waved back.
He came to the table and kissed Jane on the top of her head. “Walk with me to the car,” he said to her. “Alice can wait here while we bring it around. Can’t you, Alice?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I’ll wait right here.”
But Jane shook her head. She raised her hand and held his where it rested on her shoulder—a distinctly female gesture, so that the man knows not to feel slighted, I’ve seen it so many times before—and she said, “No, no. I’ll wait here with Alice. Get the car and we’ll all go together.”
“My two girls,” he said. “Bonding!” And off he jogged in the direction of the neighborhood. I watched as he disappeared into the dark, then I looked at Jane and smiled. She did not smile back. Her pink little face had turned quite serious.
“What happened next?” she said.
I gave a little puh with my lips. “I took him home. That was it. We saw each other from time to time in town, but we never spoke of it again. I drove myself home, too, and went to bed. In the morning there was a bruise the size of a grapefruit on my right arm.” I touched the spot where the bruise had been with my fingertips.
Jane was looking at my arm. Perhaps she was trying to conjure it, to imagine what it had been.
“Did anyone ever see the bruise?”
“No,” I said. “I was embarrassed, but at the same time, I was protective of the thing. I wore a sweater every day until it was gone. And on the last day, on the day when I woke up and couldn’t even see the yellow that had been there the day before, I was sad.” Would Jane tell my story—this version of my story—to Jason when they were alone? Would mine be a tale she’d recount again and again? Or would this become another kind of secret—the first of many she’d learn to keep from him? “I think maybe I was expecting something to change,” I said. “And nothing ever did change.”
A car honked. Jane scooted out her chair and came to my side. When I stood, she held my arm and kissed my cheek. “I like you very much,” she said. Her eyes were watery.
“I like you too,” I said, though at that moment I was less sure. It occurred to me that Jane’s story—those hinted-at photographs—had left a little too much to my imagination. She hadn’t done a proper job, or given me the necessary details to conjure them up for myself. “Jane,” I said.
“May I tell you something?”
“Of course,” she said, sounding childish and too eager.
“There are women who are beautiful when they cry, and there women who are not,” I said. I patted her arm and led her toward the car, away from the patio, the tea candles, the messy dessert dishes. “You are a woman who is not.”
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