by Ilene Raymond Rush
Due to the sensitive nature of how she and Rennie Josephs first met, Lily decided to invent a different origin story. But such tales were not easy to come by. JDate, Home Depot, bumping into one another at a late night Laundromat all seemed too predictable. And tame.
“Nothing too original,” Lily told Britney Spears, her Giant Schnauzer. “The less dramatic the better.”
Britney, in the kitchen waiting for a treat, dropped to the floor, thinking she had been asked to play dead, one of the three tricks Lily’s ex-husband Del had taught the dog before he had left: sit, roll over, and die.
Sometimes Lily believed there was a message hidden in these commands, but she chose to ignore that for now.
Lily tossed her dog a dried chicken strip and while Britney left to treasure it alone, Lily spread out the Sunday Times marriage announcements onto the wooden butcher-block table. Every weekend, she scanned the announcements like a racing sheet, trying to predict who would last and who would not and which smiling faces were already doomed. But today, she was searching for inspiration to create her own romantic story or something she might appropriate and make her own.
Skimming quickly, she read of people connecting in hedge fund meetings, sharing Ubers, comparing autobiographies on long distance flights to Bangkok or Reykjavik.
None rang exactly right.
The reason she needed a story at all was because Natalie, her only daughter, had invited her and Rennie to Shabbos dinner. Wed for three months -- against Lily’s best judgment -- to Josh Emmerling, Natalie’s new marriage retained a sense of playing house. After the wedding, the lovebirds had left Brooklyn for a revamped loft apartment in Fishtown, in a pre-Civil war building. Despite the history, everything in the space seemed light and temporary, their blond wooden furniture, their curtain-less windows, their beige on beige couch. Sitting in Natalie and Josh’s living room Lily felt perched on a cloud, as though with a puff all of it – walls, ceiling, and matrimony -- might blow away.
Lily knew it was purely psychological: that because her own marriage had vanished in a whiff of infidelity didn’t mean that Natalie would suffer the same fate.
When Natalie had first invited Rennie and Lily to dinner, Lily offered to come alone.
“We want to meet your man,” Natalie had said. The phrasing struck Lily as wrong; it reminded her of a sexy Leonard Cohen song.
“Friend,” Lily corrected.
“Why must you make everything so hard, Mom?” Natalie asked. “It’s fine. We’re grown people. I know you’re seeing someone. Grandma told me.”
At that, Lily had paused. She loved how her daughter had no fear, that she stepped into the middle of her own life and took charge. Even as a small child, Natalie had been sure of things and of herself. She had opinions. She spoke up. Had Lily ever had such confidence? Where had Natalie picked it up?
“I admire you,” she told her daughter.
“Thank you,” her daughter said. Lily realized she wanted Natalie to respond: “I admire you, too.”
But nothing arrived.
At the kitchen table, Lily thumbed through the marital announcements in the Times, borrowing a little here and a little there. Embroidering a past. Finally she arrived on a possibility: What if she had met Rennie at the Korean HMart, where they had been individually inspecting Asian pears. Rennie -- who was a cook, which was true -- offered her a recipe for the exotic fruit when she said she had never tasted one. Which led to an invitation to cook together. And then, another.
It was whimsical and possible. She saw herself relating the tale to Natalie and Josh, Rennie in his brown leather jacket pushing a cart stacked with roasted seaweed and mirin and hot chili oils, Lily wandering the aisles, on the prowl for something new among the exotic wares. Or did that make her sound too pathetic? Thinking of Natalie’s certainty, Lily amended her vision: She would introduce Rennie to the Asian pears; she would invite him back to her house to carve and cook.
Pleased with this alteration, Lily took a sip of lukewarm coffee and returned to the newspaper. And it was then she saw it. A side column where curated couples garnered more time to tell their tale. A cardiac researcher at Penn and his betrothed. How she knew it was love at first sight and how the divorced researcher said – a direct quote – “I never knew love before.”
With a sharp tear, Lily sliced the story from the paper. Then she ripped it in half. Then she ripped it in half again. And it was only when the story sat, minced before her, a flurry of diced newsprint, that she released a strangled breath.
“We knew he wasn’t going to stay single forever,” her mother Ruth said. Lily had spent the rest of the morning catatonic on the couch. Her mother, who also read the New York Times marriage section, had phoned at noon.
“He’s a man,” Rose ruled. “Men aren’t good at living alone.”
“That’s a different generation,” Lily said.
“But it still holds water,” Ruth maintained.
“Only if you buy into the antiquated idea that men need women to care for them.”
“Or they need to care for women,” her mother said, unable to relinquish the last word. “Besides,” she said, her voice softening. “You are dating too.”
“I’m not dating,” Lily said.
“Whatever you want to call it,” said Ruth. “Shacking up?”
Lily put down the phone.
Because Rose and Del were still on speaking terms -- her mother had never given up on Lily and Del reuniting despite ample evidence to the contrary -- Del started texting Lily to talk about the announcement of his engagement on Sunday afternoon. “We shld talk,” he wrote followed by an emoji of an ear. Lily stared at his message then pressed delete. Between her clients’ therapy appointments, she repeated the gesture twice on Tuesday, three times on Wednesday, four on Thursday -- delete and delete and delete again.
And then on Friday, home from work, an hour and a half before she was to meet Rennie at Natalie’s apartment, Del rapped on Lily’s back door, having long ago relinquished his key. Dressed to go out, Lily applied her lipstick and ignored him. There was absolutely no need to see him or hear about his betrothed. She didn’t want him to think that the New York Times announcement had bothered her in any way. And it hadn’t, at least not after the first three days.
“Go away,” she yelled at him, waking Britney Spears, who stumbled up, looked to see Del, and slumped back down.
“Check your messages,” he called through the door. “I tried to…”
“I said, Leave,” she yelled.
She turned her back to him and stepped into her shoes.
“You can’t give me five minutes?” he called. “Three?”
It was simple enough to escape him: she’d go straight out to the garage, start her Prius and back out the drive, leaving Del in the figurative dust. But her emotions betrayed her. She swung around and stared at Del’s face and said, “You’ve never been in love before.”
Del’s ear pressed to the window, trying to hear. It was the ear she had once bitten, when she wanted to get him out of the house once and for all. A moment of sentiment passed through her, but she pushed it away.
“I can’t hear you,” Del called. He leaned closer and without thinking Lily crossed the kitchen and yanked open the door. Del, who had been leaning full bore against the glass, fell into the kitchen, hard, his knees buckling beneath him, landing on the cold Mexican ceramic tiles.
With a yelp, Britney scrambled to get out of the way.
“You’ve never been in love before,” Lily said. “What the hell?”
On the floor, Del righted himself to seated position, leaned against a wooden cabinet and rubbed his arm. For a second she thought of asking him if he was ok, but she pushed the thought from her mind.
“I said, “I’ve never been in love in this way before,” Del spoke up. His voice was very quiet and very calm. . “They edited my quote.” He looked up. “You have to believe me, Lil.”
What Lily wanted to say was that she didn’t have to do anything he asked. But she didn’t answer. Instead, she thought of the first time she had seen Del. He’d had a nosebleed on Walnut Street in West Philly, and passing by him on the way back to her therapy office, she had stopped and handed him a tissue from the pocket of her coat. When he accepted it, he kissed her hand, leaving a small trail of blood drops across her knuckles. She had never had a grown man kiss her hand, and everything about it struck her as vulnerable and open and somehow kind. He had introduced himself and she had introduced herself and somehow, her kindness got mixed up and became his kindness.
“Del,” she said now. What she wanted to tell him was that she didn’t care, that she didn’t want him anymore. That she was past him, that she had started a new life, that she had somebody, too. That even if she hadn't had somebody, it didn’t matter. They were really, truly, through.
But in the end she didn’t say any of these things. She simply stood apart from Del, silent, until at last Del, of his own accord, rose, brushed off the backs of his pants and went down the stone walkway to his blue Miata, his midlife crisis car, and drove off.
An hour later, Rennie met her outside of Natalie’s brick apartment house. She had thought of cancelling, but how to explain to Natalie?
“You look pale,” Rennie said. He leaned over and lightly pinched her cheek. A little charge of electricity ran up her arm. She shook it off. He clicked the lock on his car and walked with her toward the entryway to Natalie’s building.
“Tonight, we drink Old Fashioneds,” said Rennie.
It was a joke between them, their first joke. Because the first time they went to dinner, she had ordered an old fashioned, drank it down and then gagged because she had no idea what she had ordered. The name of the drink had come out of her mouth because she wanted to be exotic and different with Rennie because she obviously had not done well with Del being who she was. She had tried to put together a new person – a suave, sophisticated person who drank mixed drinks and handled men with ease. She had to run to the ladies where she spit up all of it – from the bourbon to the bitters to the maraschino cherry.
At the restaurant, Rennie pretended not to notice. When Lily returned, two spots of red on each cheek, he had simply handed her a glass of ginger ale. And she had thought that maybe it was the nicest thing that anyone could do at that moment.
“You going to give me a hint?” he asked at Natalie’s door. “Is it bigger than a toaster?”
“It’s Del,” she said.
“He…” she couldn’t say it right off. Saying it out loud made it reality. “He fell in love.”
“I see,” Rennie said.
“It was in the newspaper.”
Rennie looked up.
“Do you love him?”
“Do you love him?” He paused. “I mean if you love him, I’ll understand why you look so shell shocked. But if you don’t love him, then I don’t really have to care.”
Lily lifted her head. Loving Del had been a habit for so long that she never thought of not loving him. But here was the thing: she thought Del felt the same way. And even though he was a jerk and an asshole, he was her jerk and asshole and she believed in some fundamental way that they were going to end up together at the end.
Which was not at all true.
“It hurts,” she told Rennie.
They had climbed the two flights to Natalie and Josh’s apartment and stood before the young couples’ front door.
“Love,” Rennie said.
“The end of love.”
“Ah,” he said.
Neither of them touched the doorbell. She wondered if Natalie and Josh were on the other side, ears pressed to the wooden frame. She decided she didn’t care.
“Can I put my arm around you?” Rennie asked.
Dinner was coq au vin and chocolate mousse: a fact that Lily found touching and somehow hilarious.
It wasn’t until after coffee, when they were seated on that airy couch, that Natalie popped the question.
“How did you two meet?” she asked.
Lily swallowed. It had been agreed between them that she would handle the query when it arrived. The story was ready. She opened her mouth. And it was then, in a push, she drew a breath to start – the HMart, the Asian pears, and the invitation to cook together -- but then, she paused.
“He was almost my patient,” Lily said.
“Really?” Natalie asked.
Sitting there, Lily could feel her daughter’s disapproval and Rennie’s surprise. She thought of taking her words back, but she didn’t want to. She wondered if this was what confidence felt like: that you knew, for once, what was exactly right.