Romance novels need a canon
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
A contemporary romantic comedy set to Elvis Costello and lots of luxurious and sinful sugary treats. Read the whole essay.
Six weeks after his college roommate died, Ben thought he saw him in London: the square jaw and pale skin, the round eyes and devilish grin. But it was only a stranger in the crowd on Oxford Street. In the weeks that followed, Ben saw lots of people who reminded him of Mike. It seemed the city was suddenly populated with dozens of men who shared his fondness for gray parkas, cheap tight jeans, baseball caps and bargain boots.
Of course, Ben didn’t know if these items were still in Mike’s wardrobe when he died. He hadn’t seen him for two years when he got word that Mike had drowned off the coast of Fire Island. He was just remembering him as he’d looked at Yale.
Ben flew in from London for the memorial service in New York. He couldn’t take any time off, but with the time difference he was able to make the trip work. He left Heathrow Friday night and arrived in the city an hour before the service Saturday afternoon. Saturday night he spent with college friends. A few of them took Mike’s mother, Maryanne, out for dinner — he remembered a quiet Italian place — then Sunday he woke up early, went to a movie with friends (one they told themselves Mike would have liked), and caught a late afternoon flight back to London. There was a mishap with the car service and he rode to LaGuardia in a long white limo only perfunctorily cleaned from its stag party service the night before. Back in London, he took a cab straight to work. It was a whirlwind, but he was glad he’d gone.
Ben told himself the sightings in London were a symptom of his grief. Mistaking a stranger for someone you once knew so well, someone with whom you’d spent those carefree, heady years of youth, must be common after a death. Mike had gone on to law school, then started work at a firm in New York. He’d been there three years and was doing well, loved unabashedly the money and the lifestyle. Most of Ben’s friends talked of getting out, doing something else. Academia? Politics? Maybe a smaller firm somewhere else? Mike was aiming for partner at Freeman, Fred and enjoying every penny. His first year as an associate, he bought his mother a car.
There was something refreshing about having Mike for a friend. You didn’t have to feel bad talking about your salary because there was Mike bragging about his. You didn’t have to hide the fact that you were thinking about buying a condo at the beach because there was Mike showing you pictures of his. He was eccentric and wacky, fun to be around, and you couldn’t fault his love of money because he hadn’t had any growing up. He was the first in his family to go to college; his mother lived in a double-wide. He was the only person Ben had known at Yale on a full scholarship. In those years, Ben said often, “I’m just glad there are still people like him here,” when what he meant was that he was glad he’d met him, for a lot of reasons, but foremost among them the idea that it distinguished him, Ben, in some way. It made him seem more remarkable in his choice of friends. Also, Mike was gay.
But that Ben didn’t know at Yale. Mike came out afterward, in New York, during a reputedly wild time while he waited tables and applied to law schools. Ben was at the London School of Economics then. When Mike went to Harvard the following year, he settled down to his studies and worked actively for Lambda Legal. What started as a rowdy coming out party turned more thoughtful and productive. He made law review and when he graduated was offered the job of his dreams in New York. He lived with his on-again, off-again boyfriend in a big apartment downtown. He was happy. He was a black-and-white movie made-over in Technicolor. He was a years-dormant Christmas cactus suddenly in bloom. He worked long hours, but still had time for a book club. He was reading fiction for the first time, he told friends, after far too much case law. He became something of an evangelist for fiction, in fact, and started giving all his friends extravagant gift certificates to Barnes & Noble.
Then, in his fourth year at Freeman, Fred he took two weeks off at the end of August and rented a house on Fire Island with a group of friends. Two weeks was the longest vacation Mike had ever had. At the end of the first week, he called his mother in Seattle and told her he was having the time of his life. He wanted to do this again next year and bring her out for part of it. She agreed, was glad he was so happy. The next afternoon he went swimming and was pulled out to sea by a rip tide. It took lifeguards three hours to recover his body.
Many of these details Ben learned while he stood in the lobby of the funeral home on Madison Avenue before the service that warm September Saturday. He was looking for a place to stash his suitcase and people were saying the body was in good shape; it was nice to be able to say goodbye. Perhaps it was the jetlag, but Ben never realized they were talking about an open casket in another room and so he never went to see it. Later, when he started believing he was seeing Mike in London — in the turn of a cheek, a certain stride — he regretted this. He thought maybe the problem could have been avoided if he’d said goodbye with more finality, had seen Mike’s dead face. That seemed like part of the problem; it was hard to accept that Mike was gone. He’d worked harder than most for everything he’d attained. How could it be that the one thing he couldn’t work for was not granted to him in large supply?
Ben thought the sightings might also be latent memories of the summer he’d spent with Mike in London. Three of them had traveled on student visas between their junior and senior years. Mike was the first to find a job: selling perfume at Selfridges. Ben and the other friend, Jason, looked for work and went every other day to the employment center, but, the fact was, Ben and Jason didn’t have to work. Their families could make up the difference. Their families felt the experience of a summer in London was more important than the money.
“Must be nice,” Mike would say, counting out his food budget for the week.
Mike hated selling perfume. He was working on commission and his aggressive tactics didn’t go over well with the polished patrons of Selfridges. When he got a job at a pub in Paddington, he switched immediately. And when he was offered the chance to live in the flat over the pub, he moved out the next day. Ben and Jason thought at the time it made sense: the flat the three of them were sharing in Kensington was tiny.
His frugality was extolled at the memorial service by friends who’d known him longest. Newer friends spoke of his generosity. His high school sweetheart remembered a camping trip during which Mike insisted they save as much money as they could on food; he was furious with her when she bought a name-brand pasta instead of something else. Then an associate Mike worked with at Freeman, Fred spoke about the book club dinners Mike hosted, for which he usually prepared filet mignon. People shook their heads and wiped their eyes. It was like watching a beatification, a life of frugality rewarded with plenty, if only for a brief time.
His mother did not speak. Later, at their Italian dinner, Ben remembered her talking a lot, but at the service she sat silently in the front row, eyes glistening, feverish circles in her cheeks. Mike had always called her by her first name, which allowed his friends in the years before they met her to picture an individual, not just a mother. And yet it seemed to them unfeeling. Ben thought she was a sweet woman, obviously overwhelmed. She seemed distracted during the service, rubbed her legs often. He wondered what she made of some of the things that were said. Several people spoke about what they gently phrased as Mike’s difficult side — the temper and stubbornness that everyone who knew him encountered at one time or another and that could make people angry, desperate, even fearful when Mike was in a particularly perverse mood. At the memorial service it was variously described as having high standards for himself and his friends, as a fierce sense of loyalty, as perfectionism. All seemed true. A woman from college, a woman Ben remembered as being in another circle of Mike’s friends, said something about how ravaging it was that Mike had drowned. Her remarks were ill-prepared and unclear, but it seemed she’d readied herself for the possibility of HIV, not that Mike might be taken by something so ordinary as drowning.
Back in London, Ben tried to shake off the mood. Each sighting had an explanation, after all. The shape of a face, the slope of a shoulder. These things were so strongly reminiscent of Mike that anyone would do a double take. He was sure of it.
He threw himself into work. When he could, he traveled. Never more than a three or four day weekend, typical of the life of the lawyer ex-pat, particularly one in securities, but he thought it would help. He thought things would get better soon.
Looking around at the people in the booth with her, Maryanne understood it was time for her to order something to eat. She picked up the menu, sticky and smelling faintly of the cloth that must have been used to wipe it down after the last patron. She pictured a child, a boy, hands covered with spaghetti sauce, then shook her head. Mike’s friends had meant to be kind, bringing her here. She ordered his favorite, cheese tortellini, a silly thing to do, and when the tears filled her eyes she explained, too cheerfully. The girl, Jenna, seemed to know.
“And he hated celery,” said Ben, who had blue eyes with surprisingly long lashes for a boy.
Boys, girls. They were six years out of college, men and women now, Maryanne reminded herself.
Jenna ordered the tortellini, too. When Maryanne looked at her, she shrugged and tucked her hair behind her ears. She was married to Jason, the quiet boy who was always slouching, although they were not wearing rings. So bold, these kids. Rings were a symbol they didn’t need or didn’t want; she couldn’t remember how Mike had explained it to her. She rubbed her finger where it was still slightly cinched even though the gold band had been gone for years.
“Should we have some wine?” Jason asked.
“Yes, certainly,” Maryanne said.
“Red or white?”
They were having trouble hearing each other in the bright and bustling restaurant, but Maryanne smiled, suddenly grateful that they were here and trying. New York, an Indian summer. When they said they wanted to take her out to dinner after the memorial service, she requested somewhere casual. “I didn’t bring anything fancy,” she told them. They chose Patsy’s, downtown near NYU, but that meant nothing to her, so they brought her in a cab. The sign out front said the restaurant had been open since 1933. Did people really eat pizza during the Depression? Someone must have, obviously, because here it was, with its small tables, yellow and green chairs, and tiny white floor tiles set in long crooked lines.
“Had you visited him?” she asked. “Had you seen his place?”
The boys nodded. “Last New Year’s Eve,” Jenna said. “Right before Jason and I moved to Chicago.”
“He was very proud of it,” Maryanne said.
“Will Gordon stay there?” Jenna asked.
The wine arrived, an uncorked bottle and four stubby glasses. While Ben poured, Jenna began a story about that New Year’s visit, something about hailing a taxi late on a freezing, snowy night. They walked for blocks and just when the rest of them gave up and resigned themselves to walking all the way back to Mike’s apartment. “Your son,” Jenna said — and Maryanne’s pulse quickened — “spotted a cab. He ran down the street, singing ‘New York, New York,’ waving his arms.
“We cut off two other groups of people,” Jenna finished, smiling, wiping her eyes. “But Mike didn’t care. He ushered us all in, then turned and bowed to everyone.”
Maryanne pictured her son jumping into the car after such a performance, then she saw him jumping into their old station wagon, promoted to the front seat after his sister was born.
She said, “You know, he never let me pay for anything when he was in college. I couldn’t have afforded much, it’s true, but I wasn’t even allowed to buy him clothes I know he needed.”
What had her point been? Thinking about Mike on a cold winter night, she guessed. Did he have a coat on? Was he warm enough? To the others she said, “I guess I was thinking about the dinner. I’d like to treat you all.”
“Oh, no,” said Jenna. “We invited you. It’s on us.”
Maryanne remembered a visit she’d made to Mike at Yale. They’d eaten in the dining hall because Mike had to work. She sat with his friends — these, she thought, and others — while he managed the salad bar. At the end of the meal, while the others talked and drank coffee, she watched him pull cellophane smooth and tight across the tops of large bowls.
“All right,” Maryanne said.
The food arrived on heavy white plates. Sturdy plates, Maryanne thought, and wrapped her cold fingers around the thick edge. “Please go ahead,” she said, “I’m going to let it cool.”
They ate carefully, slowly. Jenna, in particular, held her fork sweetly. “You were all in the same residential college?” Maryanne asked. It had been years since that visit to Yale and she couldn’t remember.
“And you boys were all roommates?”
Jason finished his bite quickly. “Yes,” he said.
“And you two are married?” Maryanne smiled at Jason and Jenna. “That’s wonderful. Congratulations. I remember Mike telling me how much he enjoyed your wedding. A few years ago, right?”
“Almost three,” Jenna said.
“Oh, not yet. But we’re planning on it.”
She turned to Ben. “And what about you? Got a girlfriend on the horizon?”
He shook his head.
She seemed to be embarrassing them, so she picked up her fork. Conversation flagged. Jenna wanted to tell more stories about Mike, but every time she started, she struggled to overcome tears. Maryanne wanted more wine, but would have liked one of the boys to pour it for her. Mike would have. She glanced around the restaurant. At the table where they were almost seated — before Jenna noticed Maryanne’s expression and pointed to the more secluded booth — a family of five had just gotten their food. The mother was leaning over, cutting the pasta for her youngest child. In the far corner, their waitress was talking to someone in the kitchen, gesticulating, upset. The light in the restaurant had softened, and another waitress had started to light the small white candles on each table. It was the time of evening when it turned brighter inside than out.
“Well, that’s wonderful,” Maryanne said, stuffing energy into her voice with a big breath. “Girlfriends, new marriages. It’s an exciting time.”
Ben poured everyone some more wine.
She told them that she and Gordon had chosen the flowers at the service that afternoon. Irises. She did not tell them that Gordon had known this was Mike’s favorite flower — had known he had a favorite flower. “Purple and white,” Maryanne said. “I thought it was lovely.”
His friends nodded.
“I have a question,” Maryanne said suddenly, brightly, and all three of them looked up. “I don’t know how to get Mike’s ashes home. On the plane. Will they make me put the box on the conveyor belt when I go through security?”
She saw Jenna swallow hard. Jason bowed his head. Ben, the lawyer, answered her calmly. “I can look into that for you. I’m sure there’s a better way.”
They fell back into silence. Maryanne could think of nothing else to say. The words she’d already said felt heavy, like sandbags against a dam. Why did she have to lead the conversation? Couldn’t these kids, with all their education, do better? She folded her napkin in her lap.
The waitress appeared and asked if they needed anything else. Maryanne thought the woman had been crying, but no one else seemed to notice. “No, thank you,” she said warmly, and the waitress smiled and left the check on the table.
Maryanne watched her thin back retreating. She could feel a headache beginning, but she didn’t mind. She had a long night ahead packing up Mike’s things with Gordon and the headache would keep her quiet. She had a tendency to say too much, Mike used to tell her so.
That reminded her. “He had a crush on you,” she said, turning to Jenna.
“Oh, no. I don’t think so.”
“Oh, just in the beginning, in those first weeks of college. There was a girl he talked about. Did you write for the newspaper?”
“Then it was you!”
“I don’t know what to say.” Jenna looked at Ben and Jason, but their faces were blank. She smiled at Maryanne.
“I see now,” she said, “I think we all do, or did when Mike told us, anyway, how unhappy he was in college.”
The boys nodded vigorously but offered nothing.
“I know,” Maryanne said, and her tone surprised her. She patted her chest, twice, fast, as if to soften the hard edge they’d all heard.
Ben cleared his throat. He asked what she’d been doing the last couple of days.
So she told them about the pile of dirty clothes she’d found in Mike’s closet. His debit card for the machines in his building still had twenty dollars on it. She pulled it out of her purse and showed them. It was attached to his key chain. “I always liked doing his laundry,” she said.
The waitress came to clear the table and asked again if they wanted anything else. She stacked their plates on her arm, putting Maryanne’s on top because it was still so full of food. “Wrap this up?” she asked.
“Yes, please,” Maryanne said. “It was delicious.” She would be embarrassed bringing another white Styrofoam box back to the apartment, but she was pleased to see the waitress smile.
Jenna, Jason and Ben talked quietly of travel plans, where they were staying, when they had to be back at work. When they fell silent, Maryanne thanked them, as she had several times already, for coming so far so quickly, especially Ben.
“All the way from London. I just can’t believe it. Do you enjoy living there?”
“It’s only been a couple months, but yes. I do.”
“Will you take a few days off now that you’re home?”
“No, I can’t. I have to get back.”
“Mike loved it, too, I know. He used to talk about going back, after that summer when he had such a good time with you two. I never could interest him in Seattle.”
His friends said they wanted to stay in touch with her, they wanted her to call if she needed anything. Jenna pulled a card out of her purse and wrote down their addresses and phone numbers. She handed another, blank card to Maryanne. “Give us your contact information,” she said.
Maryanne smiled and wrote on her lap with an unsteady hand. While they waited for her to finish, Ben picked up a napkin and, with a neat corner wrapped over his finger, squashed a tiny insect crawling across the table. When he saw Jenna’s face, he apologized and slid his coffee cup over the spot.
Soon the bill was paid and Jenna, Ben and Jason made plans for the rest of the evening. Then Gordon arrived, just as he said he would, perfectly on time. The tip was left in a jumble of bills and quarters, the waitress brought Maryanne her leftovers, and then they were out on the curb.
“Thank you so much,” Maryanne said again. “I hope I’m not –”
Jenna stepped close and hugged her, stopping the words. Maryanne held on.
“I’ll write to you,” Jenna said. Then, while the boys were still talking, Jenna stepped into the street. A few minutes later, she held a yellow door open and Maryanne climbed in. Gordon circled around and jumped in the other side. As the cab pulled away, Maryanne watched Jenna turn on Jason and Ben. She was mad at them and letting them know it.
“Did you have a good time?” Gordon asked.
“Yes,” Maryanne said, adjusting the white box on her lap.
The evening was warm and there was a gray wash over the city that made her eyes water. She rested her head on the back of the seat and pictured a snowy night, her son’s cheeks red with cold. It was Jenna’s voice she heard describing him, and she was grateful for the break from her own.
Ben drove west in a blue Ford Fiesta. He’d flown to New York on the red-eye after a frenzied week of packing. After two years in London, he was leaving his firm. They didn’t know yet. They thought they were transferring him back to the New York office and he was taking a three-week vacation in France while his belongings were in transit. But Ben had decided to rent a car and make the cross-country trek he had never managed in his youth. At the end of it, he would make some changes, the first of which, in all likelihood, would be leaving the law firm. He had a friend on the Hill who thought he could get him a job. He’d also been talking to Jason, who said the consulting firm he worked for might be able to do something. The important thing was that there were other possibilities, and at 30 he had recognized them. It was September.
He drove fast, spending nights in cheap motels (he might as well be frugal, he thought, with so much up in the air), stopping for national parks and cities of interest. He was disappointed at how hard it was to get a beer after eight o’clock in the wide open spaces of his country, but he had few other complaints. He drove until his back ached, then pulled into a motel and walked until the light faded and his feet hurt. At night he read until his vision blurred, books he’d never gotten to: “Great Expectations,” “The Grapes of Wrath.” He had one suitcase, a fine one from Bond Street, but that was all. He kept it in the trunk and carried it every night into the motel room, looking for all the world like a traveling salesman. It was not exactly backpacking across Europe, but he thought it shared a certain spirit and simplicity. And he did not feel like a weary salesman. He felt cheerful in a way he hadn’t in years.
He intended to visit Maryanne Leary. She was on his mind when he mapped out a stop in Seattle, but crossing Montana he began to have doubts. Something about the straight, impossibly long roads. What had her life been like the past two years? He had not been in touch with her. He felt a brief glimmer of relief when he realized he probably didn’t have her phone number, but when he next stopped for gas, he checked his address book and saw her name. He’d copied it there from the card Jenna gave him after that dinner in New York.
“Call her,” she’d implored him. “You were his roommate.”
He’d kept the card on the refrigerator in London for months, and once, returning from the pub late, he’d almost called. But the intricacies of an international call were beyond him after five pints and he woke in the morning with the phone still in his lap.
He called Mrs. Leary from a gas station an hour east of Seattle. He thought if he didn’t get her he would still drive into the city and try again. Or maybe not. He would see how the day went. She answered, however, on the second ring. She was surprised but remembered him immediately. “Of course. How are you?” she said.
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Where are you?”
He explained that he was near Seattle, driving across the country, and that if it wasn’t too much trouble, he’d like to stop by and see her.
“Of course! You’re very welcome. You can stay the night if you want.”
He had not expected this. There was no reason not to spend the night, but instead he told her he was on a tight schedule, only a little time and a lot of people to visit. Just the afternoon would be best.
She gave him directions to her daughter’s house. She was living with her daughter now, she explained, helping with the grandchildren. He would meet them when he came. She sounded ebullient, something Ben had not remembered. He thought of Mike’s mom as quiet and hardworking — she’d raised two kids alone after his father left. And something else: when Mike was little she used to challenge him to pull her hands off the steering wheel when she was driving.
“On highways, sometimes,” Mike had told him one night when they were in college. “When we were driving fast. She never did it when my sister was with us. It was a special mother-son thing, I guess.”
“Had she been drinking?” Ben asked.
Mike looked at him. “No. She never drank.”
“Did you ever do it?”
“Once. It didn’t end well, but we weren’t hurt. The car ended up in a ditch. I think she just wanted me to know what a strong mother I had. Her knuckles would go white.”
Mrs. Leary’s daughter’s house, outside Seattle, was a small, two-story clapboard with a front porch and dark green shutters in need of paint. The land was open all around, the nearest neighbor probably a quarter of a mile away, but a small backyard was nevertheless circumscribed by a chain link fence. Two penned dogs, black and brown, barked as he pulled up. Toys, bikes and parts of a jungle gym were scattered around, their plastic pinks and yellows dirty-bright in the green landscape. Mrs. Leary stepped out when Ben was still on the porch stairs. The screen door stuck open behind her and she stopped abruptly. She put her hand to her chest.
“Oh, Ben. It’s good to see you.”
They were standing a few feet apart. Ben didn’t know what a proper greeting would be. He’d never known her well or directly, only through the stories one tells a roommate over the course of four years. After the service in New York, he remembered, he’d thought he would get to know her, help her. They’d have a long friendship because of their shared bond to Mike. It would have been easy, he thought now, but life hadn’t gone that way.
“Oh, come here,” Mrs. Leary said, and gave him a quick hug. She had gained weight, he thought, but her hairstyle was better than he remembered and her face was smooth and healthy.
“It’s good to see you,” he said.
“You, too. Come inside. I’ve made a little lunch.”
The house was sparsely furnished, a sofa and one chair slip-covered in beige gone gray at the seats and arms. Framed posters decorated the walls and the floor was carpeted wall to wall. When he hesitated in front of a picture of Mike, Mrs. Leary picked it up and handed it to him. “Good looking boy, wasn’t he?”
Ben smiled and held the picture.
“I have others I mean to frame.” She opened a drawer and took out an envelope full of photographs. She thumbed through them. “Here’s one.”
The picture was of a young Mike, maybe nine or ten, standing under a tree. He was holding a giant chocolate cake, an enormous grin on his face.
“He won that at the ice cream social, in a cake walk that was supposed to be for younger kids. Mike was so short he got in.”
While she was speaking, Mrs. Leary patted and stroked the photograph. She touched Mike’s face, the cake, Mike’s sneakers. Ben didn’t know where to put the framed photo he was holding, so he carried it into the small, bright kitchen, where a wooden table was set for lunch: sandwiches and a bowl of potato chips, homemade cookies and a pitcher of iced tea. “There’s also lemonade or beer, if you’d like,” Mrs. Leary said.
“This is great, but I wish you hadn’t gone to so much trouble.” Mike set the photo on a windowsill.
“No trouble, especially since the kids are at school.” Maryanne picked up the photo and set it on the table. “They’ll be back at three.”
Ben nodded and asked for a beer.
Conversation was more difficult than he’d expected. They spoke of the weather, long drives, the difficulty of repairing a dishwasher. Ben complimented the table, the sandwiches, the potato chips — were they a local brand? He was wondering whether he should mention Mike when Mrs. Leary cleared her throat. Was he still in London? she asked. No, he had just moved back. What was he doing now? Well, he wasn’t sure. He was trying to figure that out. He told her he was hoping the cross-country drive would clear his mind about a lot of things.
“Good for you,” Mrs. Leary said.
Ben asked about Mike’s sister. How was she? Well, history was repeating itself: Her husband had left, but she had a good job at a bank. And the grandchildren? Amy and Lucy, seven and five, the lights of her life.
The dogs barked suddenly and Ben used the distraction to glance at his watch. Only 45 minutes had passed. Mrs. Leary fixed him another half-sandwich.
“That dinner in New York,” she said. “A pizza place, wasn’t it?”
As she recalled details, Ben grew uncomfortable. Mrs. Leary remembered the dinner far better than Ben, even the name, Patsy’s. He remembered that they hadn’t thought to take her to dinner at all, but couldn’t say no to Gordon, who needed a break from her presence in the apartment. Then they intended a different place, but couldn’t get reservations, and Patsy’s had been little more than a diner. The grieving mother had had to slide into a greasy booth. Jenna remained distraught for weeks.
“I’m sorry I haven’t stayed in touch,” Ben said.
“Oh, it’s all right. I understand.”
“Have you stayed in touch with Gordon?” he asked, and saw immediately that he had made a mistake.
“No,” Mrs. Leary said.
She asked how Jenna and Jason were doing.
“Fine. They’re having a baby. She’s due in December.”
“Oh! That’s wonderful! She’s having a girl or you mean –?”
“No, they don’t know what they’re having. I mean Jenna’s due in December.”
“Oh, please give her congratulations from me.”
“She wrote me a letter, you know.” Maryanne was staring at the framed photo. Then she stood up. “I’ll show you, just a minute.”
She returned with a card showing a bouquet of Black-eyed Susans on the front. It arrived three months after the memorial service, Mrs. Leary said. She scanned quickly, then began to read.
“It was six o’clock in the morning and the sun was just beginning to rise, turning the sky a pale peach along the horizon. The city’s night lights were still on, though, making the time of day seem ambiguous and unreal. In this weird half-morning, on my way to New York for Mike’s memorial service, the bus passed what must have been a convent of some sort. I’d never noticed it before. As we passed I had a brief but very clear view of a plain room with white bare walls lit by candlelight. In the room, kneeling and motionless, were six nuns. I don’t know if it was a trick of the strange light or because the faces were surrounded by white habits, but the immediate, striking impression I had was of small dark centers surrounded by folds of white, almost like flowers. I thought of Mike and our sad errand to New York and I looked at those nuns and believed they were praying for him. I believed so strongly, Mrs. Leary, that it brought tears to my eyes and I don’t cry often. I know Mike would have had no use for such sentimental thoughts, but it made me feel better and I wanted to share it with you.”
Mrs. Leary put the letter down and blew her nose.
“I’m not Catholic, but it meant a lot to me, the picture of those nuns. The idea stayed in my mind a long time, all through the winter, when the spring was so late out here.” She shook her head and refolded the letter.
“Jenna’s not religious,” Ben said, more to himself than Mrs. Leary.
She nodded, and Ben understood she believed he was mistaken or misinformed. “I wrote back,” she said, “but I haven’t heard from her again. I know she’s busy. Expecting a baby!”
She poured out some more potato chips and offered him another beer, which he accepted. While he drank and ate, she talked of her granddaughters. It was easier to get them the things they wanted now with the money Mike had left her, she said. She spent it all on them because she didn’t feel right using any of it on herself. She had everything she needed living with her daughter and watching her grandchildren grow.
Ben left before any of the family came home. He told Mrs. Leary he had only a couple of days to drive down the coast and all the way back to New York, which wasn’t true, and as he said it he realized it wasn’t even possible. How could you cover all that distance in just a few days? She seemed disappointed but did not question him. There was a brief moment when they might have made promises to keep in touch, but then they both smiled and Mrs. Leary said, “I hope you sort things out,” and shook his hand.
“Mrs. Leary,” Ben began, feeling he was missing another opportunity. “I think Mike was a good man, really good, and that he would have … I’m so sorry that he didn’t live longer.”
“Yes, well. Me too,” she said.
He should have left then, but he decided to step in and give her a hug, something to make up for the inadequate words. As his right foot came down on her left, they both tottered and ended up nose to nose.
“Ah, Ben,” she said, patting his back.
The dogs barked as the car pulled away. Mrs. Leary stayed on the porch, so he thrust his arm out the window and waved above the roof several times.
He drove into Seattle, although he’d lost his enthusiasm for sight-seeing. He stopped at a local coffee shop — the beers had made him sleepy — and by the cash register picked up a frequent customer card. He held it a moment, staring at the little row of coffee mugs on grainy recycled paper, then touched the mugs the way Mrs. Leary had touched the picture of Mike. Almost pawing. He stepped awkwardly out of the way of the next customer. He thought he might send the card to Jenna with a note about his seeing Mike’s mom. Then he remembered he’d be seeing Jenna when he got to Chicago — the three of them were going to spend a weekend at Jason’s parents’ lake house — and slipped it in his wallet.
She had thought Ben was Mike for a minute as he came up the stairs. It had taken her breath away, and even now, hours later, the girls home and playing in the yard, she still felt the impact of that moment in the muscles of her body, everywhere, as if she’d been in an accident.
She supposed it was because she didn’t see young men on the porch anymore. And didn’t boys at certain stages all look alike? In college with all that hair. Later, with foreheads, when their hairlines began to recede. Maybe what had happened was that Ben looked a little bit the way Mike would have looked if he were still alive, come to visit her in September, as he’d planned. They might have gone dancing, the way they did when he came home to tell her he was going to law school. She was astonished at the invitation, and thrilled. She worried over her outfit and was ultimately disappointed in her choice, a dress, when she saw that the other women at the bar were wearing skirts or nice slacks. But it hadn’t mattered. Mike was a wonderful dancer and he made her feel beautiful that night, lucky to have such a son.
She thought of Ben driving away in his rental car and smashed the kettle on the burner. She pressed hard on the handle, imagining she had the strength to push it all the way through the stovetop and down into the oven below. When she released it, she exhaled loudly. She did not need this visit. A year ago, maybe, but not now. She suspected she’d helped Ben in some way — he didn’t look well, had gained a considerable amount of weight. He was at a crossroads, clearly, and she’d been one of the signposts.
“To hell with it,” she said and clicked on the burner.
But she couldn’t forget. That service in New York, the firm’s idea. To help her, they said, but she had just wanted to take her son home, away from the city that had changed him. The irises, such a strange, furry-throated flower. In the confusion of the time she hadn’t been able to remember that Mike also loved the phlox that grew by the side of their house. Could she have found phlox in New York? She would have tried if she’d remembered. The sound of traffic like a generator outside the windows. Her scratchy nylons. The things people said, sometimes with an apologetic glance. What? Did they think she didn’t know her son? Of course he could be difficult. She had not known Gordon well, but he was the only one whose words made sense. “Damn the ocean, Mike. Damn the ocean,” he said. Finally someone mentioned the water! Once it was done, the people who had been on Fire Island with Mike wanted to talk to her, but she did not want to be around those boys who had gone into the water and come out again.
Her youngest granddaughter ran into the kitchen. She was five, full of herself. “When’s dinner, Grandma?” She dropped the ball she was carrying to open the refrigerator. It rolled beneath Maryanne’s feet, nearly tripping her.
“Goddamn it, Lucy! I’ve told you not to bring your toys in here!”
The girl retreated and Maryanne sat down at the kitchen table and covered her eyes.
The pasta dinner in that awful restaurant. The apartment. The smell of Gordon’s coffee, worrisomely strong as she lay on Mike’s bed, breathing into his pillow as slowly and deeply as she could, her anger mounting as she slowly lost his scent. The airport, negotiating the complexities of carrying his ashes home. The misery of learning later that she could have afforded, with the money Mike had left her, to bring his body home. But she hadn’t known.
She’d been thrilled to hear from Jenna, the only bright spot in that dark time. The letter stayed in her purse for weeks, a live and humming thing that made her feel warm every time she thought of it. She had wanted to write back but worried over her reply so long that by the time she mailed the letter months had passed. Jenna probably assumed she wasn’t interested in a correspondence.
Maryanne slapped the table with her hand, sending Mike’s picture to the edge. What was Ben thinking, fleeing before he could meet Mike’s family? Not part of the self-improvement plan, apparently. Not worth a few more minutes in their too small house and messy yard. She looked out the window at the girls.
It’s a fine life, she told herself. Stand up. Finish dinner.
She reached for the picture and sipped her tea.
She didn’t yell at the girls often — at least, she tried not to — but outside Lucy was warning Amy. She could tell by the way they were whispering, huddled together against the white sky. They needed new coats. She’d get them those shiny pink ones she’d seen at the mall, with the real fur around the hoods. Matching scarves, hats, mittens and boots. Tomorrow.
She almost beckoned them inside, but didn’t trust herself to stand. Maybe in a few minutes. Maybe she would just let them play outside until dark.
Jessica Francis Kane's new story collection, "This Close," will be published March 5. She is also the author of the collection "Bending Heaven," and a novel, "The Report."More Jessica Francis Kane.
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