My cousin Louise and I ate lunch together twice a month at her office, no fail. That's what we were doing the first Wednesday in November when my boss's call came, the one that threw Tony and me, if not back into each other's arms, into each other's orbit. Don't you love it when life suddenly behaves like a movie? There we were, Louise and I, speaking of a man I'd just left — not Tony, another man — and I was on the verge of remarking to Louise, "At least I'm not the mess I was after Tony," when the phone rang.
Tony was my old flame, the man who got away. The man whose getting away had so thrown me off my game that I'd fallen into a series of stupid romances, the most recent of which was a three-year-long involvement with Jeremy, a self-enamored British expatriate who'd been cheating on me for six months before I discovered it and kicked him out on his tweedy, two-timing ass.
"The thing about Jeremy," Louise had commented a little earlier as she laid out some pink linen napkins and secondhand china (Louise likes to beautify even a weekday lunch), "is that he's the kind of man who's never happy unless he's exercising his talent for persuasion. Which makes a day-to-day relationship difficult, unless you have some strange arrangement where you pretend you're dumping him every other week, or you wear different wigs to bed, or costumes."
"I would say I was playful in bed," I said defensively. "I read articles and stuff. Once in a while."
"I'm not faulting you, Nicky. You could dress up in a lion tamer's outfit one night and a French maid's the next and it wouldn't be enough for Jeremy."
Louise had never liked Jeremy. Suave, educated, well-spoken types held no charm for her. She preferred her men artistic, tortured, and generally unbathed. Though perhaps she discouraged Jeremy's potential reemergence because she wanted to try her hand at digging up prospects for me. Louise is a professional matchmaker, a harebrained occupation at which she's surprisingly successful. She'd always wanted a shot at seeing what she could do for me. Like a temperance worker with a tippler in the family, she was frustrated that her dedication and devotion to the cause were of no use to her own kin.
"My trouble is, Louise, I can never spot Jeremy's kind until he's stomped on my feelings so badly I don't want him anymore."
"Which, of course, makes him come after you with renewed interest. Look at how he's acting now, like you're the Holy Grail. Where was all that appreciation these past three years?"
Jeremy had been doing his best — his persuasive, most grandly romantic best — to get me to give him a second chance. I'd dumped him in July. Needless to say, time had not yet dulled the wound.
Louise's phone rang. We let the machine pick it up — she still has one of those old-fashioned manual answering machines, now considered as primitive as long-playing records.
"Nicky," came Ron's voice through the static, "I know you said not to bother you, but this is important. Call me."
It was always important. Ron liked to pretend he lived in an atmosphere of crisis. He was an ardent fan of those medical dramas where the doctor races through the hospital corridor shouting angrily, "Get me a CBC on that kid, stat." Ron wished with all his meager, little heart that he could someday say "Stat." Unfortunately, there wasn't much call for that sort of thing when you headed a second-rate PR firm that specialized in hopeless causes. Not only was Ron's firm second-rate, so was his taste in names. He had christened his business "Advocacy, Inc." despite all my persuasions. I cringed whenever I glanced at our letterhead.
Ron clicked off. Then the phone rang again. If Ron applied only half the single-minded devotion to his clueless, charity-bent clients that he did to getting his own way, how much better off the widow, orphan, and unspayed house pet would be.
"Just ignore it," I said to Louise.
"Nicky, if you're there having lunch with Louise, and I know you are because you told Myrlene that was where you were going, please pick up. It really is important. I mean it. I'm sincere. Please pick up."
This was a man whose last honest emotion was when he cried at the baptismal font.
"Shouldn't you call him?" said Louise. "Maybe it's some sort of personal problem."
Louise is good in ways I'll never be. Serene and unflustered, Louise manages to be lovable despite the fact that she floats down the river of life as if on a golden barge.
Nine months younger than I am, my cousin Louise has been at hand for nearly every major event of my life, from my first Communion to my first pregnancy scare. She is my sounding board, my reference point, my unshakable ally. When we were teenagers and nearly every other girl I knew was cruel or unapproachable, Louise was my friend. Because of her, I had survived four years in one of the meanest, snootiest convent schools on the East Coast, the St. Madeleine Sophie Academy for Young Women. Our parents had scraped and saved to send us there; the parents of the other girls considered themselves deprived if they didn't fit in a second trip to Europe every year. We were made to feel this difference. But, because of Louise, the petty hurts inflicted year after year, the sly daily nastiness that adolescent girls are such experts at, hadn't done lasting harm.
Louise got there a year after me, being younger, and a month into her first semester my cousin's uncrushably lighthearted presence transformed the place, for me, from a daily incarceration stretching endlessly before me into a temporary stint, a launching pad, a joke. I'd not only survived high school, I'd largely forgotten it — because Louise was there too, looking out for me in her unobtrusive way.
Lest she sound too good to be true, Louise is also impractical, maddeningly slow to put any plan of her own into action (though she's usually sure of what I should do), and chronically, outrageously late, to the extent that I always bring a book when I go to meet her in a restaurant. Most annoyingly, Louise spends much of her time in a bright mist of hazy, optimistic pseudo-spiritualism. There are few side roads on the journey to enlightenment that she hasn't explored — group therapy, tai chi, vegan purification diets, past-life regression — and it gets on my nerves sometimes. It's one thing to keep an open mind. It's another to seriously consider joining your local witches' coven.
The phone rang again. I threw down my forkful of chicken in tarragon mayonnaise (there is an excellent gourmet shop around the corner from Louise's business) and snatched up the receiver.
f0"Ron, I specifically told Myrlene to tell you not to bother me. For one hour. One lousy hour."
"I know, but we've got a problem," said Ron's mellifluous voice. In his college days, Ron earned extra money as a radio announcer.
"What problem?" I injected some controlled fury into my voice. Ron is like a dog — he responds to tones more than actual words. "This better not be that Mallard Pond thing again. That's your baby."
Three years ago I would never have used a phrase like "that's your baby," but you can't touch pitch and not be defiled, I guess. I only hoped that Ron's effect on my moral fiber was less insidious than his effect on my vocabulary. It wasn't as if I'd been overburdened with moral fiber to start with.
The Mallard Pond account was more trouble than it was worth. Mallard Pond was a tiny, algae-filmed lake near a planned community in northern Virginia, a spot that had been farmland when I was growing up. The Mallard Gardens Homeowners Association had hired Advocacy to get some press attention for their fight to save this pristine if not particularly scenic body of water from rapacious developers. The homeowners, I suspected, were more concerned that the arrival of video rental emporiums and movie cineplexes would lower property values than they were about preserving nature's beauties. Their aim was noble enough for our standards, though. Our standards were not high.
I'd warned Ron that this account would require a level of client coddling out of all proportion to the money we'd see from it. Did he listen? Of course not. I can count on one hand the number of times my opinion has influenced Ron's behavior.
"Not to worry, Mallard's under control," said Ron. "The Loudon County Observer just came out on our side. 'Save Our Southern Walden.' That was the title of the editorial. My idea."
"Great, Ron. Now go visit a library and see if you can find out whether General Lee ever recorded in a letter home that he let his horse, Traveler, bend and drink from Mallard's cooling waters. Then we'd be home free."
It was possible that Ron had never heard of General Lee. He was from Minnesota, where history seemed to be measured in droughts and blizzards. He probably thought Pickett's Charge was a new kind of credit card.
"If it's not Mallard, then what is so damn important?"
"This is for the Toilers Union," Ron said. "A nurses' strike in some blue-collar town in Rhode Island called Winsack. It's about twenty miles northeast of Providence. The nurses there have been in contract negotiations for twenty-one months and the hospital's not budging, so they're close to walking. I told Weingould we'd be over at two o'clock. Myrlene can clear your calendar."
A strike. There went all my free time until Thanksgiving, perhaps until Christmas. The only bright spot was that taking this assignment would give me an unimpeachable excuse to refuse Louise the request she'd been leading up to when Ron interrupted.
"Ron, what am I supposed to tell Janet Stratton-Smith about the planning meeting for the Campsters Christmas gala?"
"Wendy can meet with her."
Wendy was my assistant, an exhaustingly perky twenty-five-year-old whom Ron had hired as a favor to his tax accountant, whose niece she was. Ron owed his firstborn child to his tax accountant, for reasons I preferred not to think about.
"Janet won't like that."
"Wendy can smooth her down. She's good at that. Tactful. Sweet. Unlike some people."
"Fine. I'll see you in Weingould's office at two. Who's he got on the ground there?"
"A guy named Tony Boltanski. You know him?"
For a moment I couldn't speak. No one I knew, except Louise and my mother, had mentioned Tony's name to me for five years. Most of my friends knew that I liked to pretend that Tony had been lost at sea in a tragic marine archaeology expedition, or been blown up in a foolhardy but courageous attempt to crack a Columbian drug ring. Anything rather than the knowledge that he'd gotten over me, that he was out there doing the job he'd always done, the job he'd preferred to me by such a large margin. I was not the sort of generous soul who bids her lovers good-bye with earnest wishes for a happy life, a wistful, philosophic smile, and "What I Did for Love" playing softly in the background. I wanted them all to suffer.
"Tony Boltanski? I knew him a long time ago. A campaign in New York. He's capable."
"Better than capable, according to Weingould."
Tony and I had lived together for a year and a half. I'd thought I was going to marry him. With Tony, for the first time in my life I'd felt I was home safe. More fool me.
"Could you meet me in the lobby at a quarter of to discuss strategy?"
"Don't push it, Ron."
He clicked off. He knows that note of finality in my voice.
"I have twenty minutes," I said to Louise.
"You're going on assignment?"
"Yeah. Rhode Island. I hear it's lovely there this time of year."
"And Tony's involved?"
"I'll tell you about it later."
She pushed a plate of warm pecan brownies to my side of the table. My favorite. I began to gobble, though I knew Louise had provided this delicacy specifically to soften me up for the pitch she was about to make: namely, that it was time I availed myself of her services, as it seemed that every other desperate single person in the Washington metropolitan area was doing. Her company, Custom Hitches, sole proprietor Louise Geary, stood ready to cure my solitary state. This pitch, which had never had much of a chance, was doomed to failure the moment I heard Tony Boltanski's name for the first time in five years.
Damn Ron. Leave it to him to put together the perfect combination: working with an old lover from whom I'd parted bitterly, for Weingould, the compulsive looker-over-the-shoulder, on a strike that already sounded more like a siege than a winnable campaign, up north, as winter started. Faced with this cheerful prospect, I was in no mood for Louise's canned lecture about how the Universe held a mate for each of us if we would just make room for love in our lives.
My name is Nicky Malone. Nicky is short for Dominica, the middle name of my mother's Neapolitan mother, but no one ever called me that except my mother in her more dire moods. My full name is Dominica Magdalen Regina (confirmation name) Malone. I like the short version. It sounds like the name of the hero in one of those forties detective stories. "Nicky Malone here," I could see myself barking into the phone, my hand caressing the fifth of scotch in my drawer, my eyes lingering on a hunk in a fedora and a pinstriped suit who, at any minute, would attempt to seduce me to throw me off the trail.
I have two brothers, and would have had more if something hadn't gone wrong with my mother's insides during her last labor and deprived her and my father of the six kids they'd have liked to bring into the world. My older brother, Michael, is gay, to the eternal lamenting of my mother, who refers to Michael's gayness as if it were a disease ("I should have seen it coming on. If only I'd made him stay in Little League").
Michael is dark and slim with coal-black hair. With his heavy-lidded black eyes and long straight nose, he resembles one of those beautiful, melancholy youths in Etruscan portraits. No trace of Irish blood in him. If it wasn't for our eyes, you would not know we were brother and sister, to look at us. He's an investments counselor — he shows people who have a certain amount of money how to make even more money by carefully, carefully playing the stock and other markets (or, as Michael would say, "developing a well-balanced portfolio that will yield sustained and steady long-term growth").
My younger brother, Joey, whose snub nose and mischievous grin mark him as a mick from twenty paces away, is married and has a new baby, a baby new enough that it still scares me to hold him. Since my father's death from a heart attack four years ago, Joey has managed River Road Auto, the car repair shop that was the reason my dad brought us all down from Boston when I was five. The shop is a fancy place now: foreign cars, computer diagnostics, twelve bays with hoists, ten employees where there used to be four.
Our cousin Johnny Campbell, who came to live with us when he was thirteen, is Joey's head mechanic. The best mechanic I've ever known, and my father was pretty damn good at his job. My dad had talent and an attention to detail, but Johnny has intuition and at times pure genius. There is nothing on wheels that Johnny can't fix. When he flexes his long fingers over the hood of a fractious automobile, it quiets itself like a horse being gentled.
Johnny is loping and kind, with long, deep-set blue eyes. His Irish half is tempered by his father's blood, a mix of Lowland Scots and French Canadian. He's steadier, more equable than Joey — but of the two, you'd rather cross Joey, because Johnny never forgets a betrayal.
Johnny was in love with Louise, who is no blood relative of his. Johnny's mother is our father's sister, and Louise's father is our mother's brother. Louise was unaware of Johnny's feelings, probably because Johnny had accidentally gone and gotten engaged to someone else and was due to marry her next June in a tasteful ceremony in some Connecticut suburb.
That's all of this generation that live here, although we have numerous cousins up in Boston and on Cape Cod whom we rarely see. And so, as I've said, Louise is the closest I'll ever have to a sister. She knows what that means to me, and sometimes she trades on it — as she was about to do now.
She refilled my coffee cup and gave me a second brownie.
"Have you ever thought it might be time to do something about freeing a path for a man in your life, Nicky?" Louise said, as casually as she might have said, "Don't bother to clear up, I'll do the dishes later."
When Louise wants something from you, she always approaches the subject with a throwaway air and a deceptively mild directness. I took a wolfish bite out of my brownie and glared at her. She clasped her hands in her lap and gazed at a point just over my head, as if to encourage me to join her for a moment in reflecting on my priorities.
"I don't need a man in my life, Louise. I just got rid of a man in my life, remember? Having men in my life is what got me in the mess I'm in today."
Louise dropped the Buddha act.
"What mess? You're gorgeous, you've got a great career, a great apartment, great friends."
"If my life is so great, then why are you so hell-bent on seeing me paired up?"
"I don't mean that you need a man in some groveling sense, like it's a terrible tragedy to be thirty-two and single. All I mean is that it's time to try."
"You're going to break into the chorus from Georgy Girl next."
"I just think you've felt bad about Jeremy long enough."
"Felt bad? That's for when you miss a lunch appointment or tap someone's bumper, Louise."
"You know what I mean. He's still looming way too large."
"Ma put you up to this, didn't she, Louise?"
To my mother, my being unattached at this advanced age was a dire circumstance, as if I had leukemia. In fact, a life-threatening illness would have been preferable. In that case, she would be "poor Mrs. Malone, bearing up so bravely" and not the failed mother of a daughter who might now never get married. Sad, sad, sad.
For years my mother had been trying to get me to young-adult dances at her parish, St. Ignatius, and when I got too old for those, to Catholic professional singles groups where I might meet some nice Timothy or Patrick who'd soon convince me that birth control was an invention of the devil. Now she was resorting to Louise and her half-baked clearinghouse for lonely hearts. She must be really desperate.
I wasn't ready yet to consign my romantic future to the tender but muddleheaded mercies of my cousin. I'm not gorgeous by any means, despite Louise's encouraging words, but I get my share of Saturday night dates and sidewalk glances. What's most noticeable about me is my hair. It's auburn with gold strands twining through it, and it's thick and long and wavy. Providence must have given me good hair to make up for my cup size, a B on a good day.
My eyes, a legacy from my Italian grandmother Antonella, are so dark a brown they look black. My skin is creamy and pale and without a freckle, though on the debit side it's a paleness with olive undertones that can look sallow if I wear the wrong color (Grandma Nella again). My legs are long and I'm five foot seven. I'm not every guy's type — not like Louise, who has the classic appeal that comes with being blond, petite, and reasonably stacked — but those whose type I am, I am indeed, if you know what I mean. Surely fate had something better in store than Louise's wifty maneuverings.
"You promised me that you would think about dating in the fall," said Louise.
"Isn't it against your yenta code of ethics to rush me?"
"Sometimes we all need a little karmic shove."
"Spare me, Louise."
Louise knew that I didn't fall for her pose of New Age nanny to the lovelorn. Having survived the brainwashing of the Catholic Church, I wasn't about to succumb to the mush of self-help lingo, Horatio Alger pep talks, and warmed-over Transcendentalism she served up to the despondent and discouraged who sought out her advice. What's more, Louise and I had had the same English teachers. So I could spot every borrowed line in the superficially profound patter that worked with her clients. With me, she couldn't get away with cribbing from Matthew Arnold or Edna St. Vincent Millay, or, God help us, Christina Rossetti. I knew all her sources.
"This karmic shove is coming from my mother, isn't it, Louise?"
Louise does not like to lie, so her avoidance of this question was all the corroboration I needed.
"What if I at least prepared a roster of possibles for you? I've had some great men sign up recently. Good, solid men. Men you could count on."
"I'm still convalescing, okay?"
Louise assumed the expression of the sympathetic Mother Superior counseling Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, and said, "'Let us grieve not, but rather find strength in what remains behind.'"
"Louise, that's from Wordsworth, whom you know I can't stand, and it's 'we will grieve not,' and that poem is not about breaking up with someone who screwed around on you, it's about Wordsworth's stupid childhood."
"It still applies," said Louise.
"You know, your clients may think you're so wise, but really you're just exceptionally well read."
Louise looked hurt, but shelved her feelings for the moment.
"You don't have to go through the preliminaries," she said.
"Boy, my mother must really be in a hurry to get me on the market."
This ready-set-go approach was a departure from Louise's usual playbook. Louise normally put her clients through an intense "predating" course of preparation. I wondered why her customers put up with it, but I guess they figured that Louise was like a personal trainer: anyone who made you work that hard must be good.
Louise's methods had proven so successful that, had she wanted to, she could have bought a nice Edwardian condo in Kalorama, rather than the seedy apartment she rented on Capitol Hill. She could have afforded a reliable car instead of the old Chevy Cavalier that broke down six times a winter. But Louise was uncomfortable with her comparatively recent security. She still feared that Custom Hitches would collapse, or that the IRS would find fault with her scrupulously honest tax returns.
Louise had nothing to worry about. She had found her vocation and would continue to thrive on her uncanny intuition for what made one poor slob right for another poor slob. You had only to look around her office to know that she was a natural for her job. The rooms (the third floor of an old storefront in Woodley Park, above a yoga center and a florist's shop) were painted a dusty, womblike pink. Wedding invitations and engagement announcements lined the windowsill. See, they mutely testified, this could be you. Dim lighting, bowls of potpourri, and faded rose brocade curtains turned the office into a scented, firelit cave, a refuge where you could confide the ridiculous dream of finding someone to love you who'd actually love you back.
I had no interest in Louise's offer, though. I was still bewildered, still wondering how I'd been so unsuspicious. Jeremy had cheated on me with Virginia Sprague, the head of admissions at Laurel Hill, the girls' college on Boxwood Road where he taught modern world history and was far too spoiled with attention and admiration. Laurel Hill was a glorified finishing school for not-too-intellectual young women of good family, and Jeremy was a star on its underachieving faculty. It's not good for a man like Jeremy to be too long in a place where he's top dog. He starts thinking he can get away with anything.
I'd met his honey once at a department dinner party. Virginia was cool and poised, gracious but not friendly, a forty-year-old divorcée from Charleston with a lilting Carolina accent that recalled Civil War love letters. It was funny, how she'd never lost that accent after ten years in D.C.
"Virginia is nice, but she's not very warm, is she?" I remembered saying to Jeremy after that dinner party. Virginia had wafted in during the second round of cocktails, wearing a lilac organza blouse so fragile and expensive that only a woman who never, ever spilled or tripped would be confident enough to purchase it.
0"She's very closed off, isn't she?" he'd agreed. "It's quite unattractive." By which I should have known he found her very appealing. Men make those immediate denials of interest solely about women who do, in fact, interest them intensely.
Maybe it was that voice, sweet and cool as the wisteria-shaded corner of a veranda on a hot summer afternoon. Or her often-silent self-containment, so challenging to a man like Jeremy, to whom women presented confidences and confessions like bouquets. Or maybe she'd simply wandered into his enclosure just as he started to feel restless.
Now, listening to Louise extol the virtues of a fresh start, I wondered at her faith in happy endings. I'd thought Jeremy was trustworthy. I'd thought we had something good going on, something that merited his keeping his pants zipped up at the office. What accounted for Jeremy's straying? And what was so great about Virginia, with her outdated Grace Kelly pageboy and her cultured pearls?
"What about the process?" I asked Louise.
"You don't have to go through the process. I know you well enough, don't I?"
She poured me more coffee, her own special almond-hazelnut blend (she uses hazelnut coffee and pours a tablespoon of almond extract on top before brewing).
Before she sent you out on your first date, Louise cataloged your romantic history, asked you to write down your dreams for a week, and made a genogram of your extended family to pinpoint any possible "intimacy roadblocks." If something in your past or present was getting in the way of your finding a lifetime partner, Louise would discover it faster than a drug-sniffing canine at the Miami airport sussing out a cocaine stash in a duffel bag.
Not to worry — if you were a subconsciously reluctant lover, Louise guided you through a free monthlong "unblocking" course, with personalized prescriptions for opening yourself up to love. These ranged from juice fasting to singing lessons to spending a weekend alone in a mountain cabin "to fall in love with yourself first." Louise even led rituals for saying farewell to past loves, in which souvenirs of the unfaithful departed were burned, buried, or, in one case she told me about, spat upon. "Nothing else really seemed to express how she felt," Louise said. "It was incredibly cathartic."
On the rare occasions when a client left in dissatisfaction or gave up after encountering disappointment, Louise mourned for weeks. Once in a while she'd confide in me about a particularly difficult problem. I felt honored and pleased when she did that. It meant that Louise knew that underneath my pessimistic surface I rooted for love just as fervently as she did, though with less faith. It was like being a Red Sox fan. You prayed the Sox might make the play-offs, you cheered them through every victory of the season, but history told you that they'd never win the Series. Somehow it always ended with a heartbreaker in the bottom of the ninth.
But it was one thing to cheer for the home team, and another to be shoved out onto the field after a disastrous spring training.
"You have nothing to lose, Nicky. There are three great guys I can think of offhand that I know you'd have a terrific evening with, and that alone would be a boost for your confidence."
"I don't know, Louise. I somehow don't have the courage for meeting a lot of new men right now."
"I'd hold your hand every step of the way."
"You can't come on a date with me. You can't feed me the right lines while I make chitchat over dim sum. I promise, Louise, when I'm feeling up to it I'll give it the old college try, I really will."
"Then I won't push you."
"I'll tell my mom you did your best."
"I can handle Aunt Maureen," she said.
They understand each other, Louise and my mother. In fact, if my mother could have chosen a daughter, she'd have chosen someone like Louise, someone who, like my mother, was as delicate-looking as a calla lily and as tenacious as bindweed.
"Thank you," I said. "I know you mean well. Unlike my mother, who's just bossy."
"Go to your meeting."
As I was dusting bits of brownie off my skirt, there was a perfunctory knock, and our cousin Johnny ambled in. I noted Louise's expression: initial joy, followed by an immediate reining-in of the thousand-watt smile. On Johnny's face, I could discern no emotion other than easygoing affection, but that was Johnny. He played his cards close to his chest.
"Cousinettes," he said, his nickname for us together.
"What brings you here in the middle of the day?" I asked.
"The same thing that brings you here. I wanted a decent lunch."
He scooped some chicken salad into a folded-up piece of wheat bread and began eating, hanging over the table so as not to mess up his clothes. Today he was unusually dressy for Johnny: spotless jeans, his only good blazer with a black T-shirt underneath, and clean sneakers. Over his arm was the classic and becoming charcoal-gray tweed coat that Louise had persuaded him to buy at a flea market in Salisbury, Maryland. Before Betsey came along, Louise picked out most of Johnny's clothes. Now he would occasionally appear in something suburban and cutesy, like a pine-green cable-knit sweater with snowflakes dancing across the chest, and we would see Betsey's hand.
His light brown hair, as usual, was flopping into his eyes. At the shop he had to tie a twisted bandanna around his head to keep it back.
"I came to ask Louise if she'd go shopping with me," he said. "Betsey's parents are coming to town this weekend and I need to look nice."
"What's wrong with what you've got on?" I said.
"They want to take us out to dinner. Betsey said no sneakers. I thought Louise might want to advise me on some nice dress shoes."
It was always Louise, and still Louise, whom Johnny turned to for advice on how to get on in the real world. At the garage, Johnny knew exactly what to do. But outside the shop, he constantly struggled with a void of information about how regular life should be led.
Johnny came to live with us a week before his fourteenth birthday because his mother drank. She was also, even more scandalously, divorced. In the months before he came to us, the nuns at Johnny's school in Gloucester, Massachusetts, noticed that he was arriving at school every day without a lunch, his uniform unpressed, his hair growing longer and longer. The parish priest investigated, a family conference was held, and Johnny was taken in by my mom and dad.
If my parents had suspected the situation earlier, he'd have been rescued from neglect years before, but Johnny's mother was a charmer, Dad's adorable, flighty little sister, Peggy, who knew how to keep up appearances — until one day she couldn't anymore. Johnny's dad was notable only for his spotless record of absence and his reluctance to contribute to his son's financial support. The result of this haphazard upbringing was that Johnny, although he put up a good front, still guessed a little at what regular people did about things like buying dress shoes. And Louise was the only one he allowed to assist him with the things he didn't know. It had always been that way. It was Louise who'd told him what flowers to get for his high school girlfriends on Valentine's Day and how much to spend on them, Louise who drilled him for tests and proofread his papers when he was getting his BA in business administration at Towson State, Louise who ordered him his first business cards when he became co-manager at the shop, Louise who encouraged him in the aw-shucks politeness that was such an asset with his customers and his lady friends.
For her part, when Louise broke up with someone and I was on the road, it was Johnny she called to come hold her hand. Johnny made sure she had her snow tires each winter and that her crummy apartment was equipped with enough locks and window bars to discourage an entire chain gang of escaped Lorton inmates. Johnny did the books for Custom Hitches. He even changed her lightbulbs.
But lately Louise had seemed impatient and distracted in Johnny's presence. I knew that she'd seen him a little less than usual this fall, and this change was not due to Betsey, a diligent and industrious type who had so many evening classes, book discussion groups, bridal workshops, and knitting festivals on her schedule that she often left Johnny at loose ends these days.
Louise said, "I can't go, Johnny. I'm booked for the rest of the afternoon."
"Shouldn't Betsey help you with this? She'll know what sort of place her parents would take you."
The old Louise would rather have gone out to buy vacuum cleaner bags with Johnny than be taken to a four-star restaurant by anyone else.
"Betsey has her class Halloween party tomorrow. It was delayed by the flu. All the kids got it."
Betsey was a second-grade teacher, and she was always busy with tasks that struck me as overwhelmingly boring, like putting up bulletin boards in celebration of Arbor Day or visiting the arts and crafts store for origami paper. Betsey was...well, the only word for her was damp. There's something about teaching grade school that does it.
What did Johnny see in her? Maybe the shakiness of life with his mother rendered cautious, reliable girls like Betsey attractive to him; they'd always been his type. Betsey would remonstrate with Johnny when he got a little wild. He would shock her by driving a hundred miles an hour down Dalecarlia Parkway or going "cliffjumping" up the river with the guys from the shop. He'd take a road trip to Atlantic City for a weekend and lose every cent he brought with him, just for the hell of it. Betsey would reproach him for these excesses and suggest some safe outlet for his energy, such as learning golf or coaching Little League.
Betsey, as the pop psychology crowd would say, "grounded" Johnny. I didn't think this sounded like a good thing.
"I can't go shoe shopping this afternoon, Johnny," Louise said, sounding more fractious than I'd ever heard her.
"How about tonight?" He began beating a tattoo on the back of one of Louise's overstuffed rose-velvet client chairs, a sure sign that he was anxious. Johnny isn't normally fidgety.
"I do have a life," Louise said.
"Sure, but you told me yesterday that Hub is on the road. You know how I feel about shoe stores. I hate those guys with the foot measurers."
"You're thirty-one years old," said Louise.
"No guy should have to go shopping alone," said Johnny. "We get panicky. I'll buy the first pair that fits and they'll be all wrong."
"Fine," said Louise. "But I'm not making dinner afterward."
She would, though. She'd end up broiling a steak and frying potatoes while Johnny hung around the kitchen imitating every salesman and customer they'd encountered that night to make her laugh. Did anyone but me think it was odd that the woman Johnny turned to for companionship, reassurance, and truly excellent fried potatoes was an entirely different woman from the one he was marrying?
It irked me, Johnny's unspoken assumption that Louise was at his disposal. Louise was just as good-looking for a woman as Johnny was for a man. Male clients fell for her in droves, though she would never have dated one of them. In her eyes, that would have constituted malpractice. There's something soft and endearing about Louise: her profusion of baby-fine, dark-golden curls, her round chin and cheeks and elbows, her very slight plumpness. Louise has the pretty pastel tints, mild blue eyes, and long spidery lashes of an eighteenth-century miniature. Her upper lip curves upward ever so slightly in the middle, giving her an impressionable air that endears her to men.
And Johnny saw none of it. Johnny's image of Louise was fifteen years out of date. As a teenager, Louise had been overweight by twenty pounds, which made all the difference on her small frame. Used to his plump cousin with her acne-ridden, squeaky-voiced suitors, Johnny hadn't seemed to notice when, a little later than her contemporaries, Louise came into her own. Her metabolism stabilized, her fashion sense crystallized, and she let her hair grow out from the butch layered cuts that hairdressers inflict on chubby women with the excuse that short lengths "draw attention to the face."
Louise's metamorphosis only slightly improved her taste in men, unfortunately. She was currently dating a guy named Hubbard Wentworth Gruber III, otherwise known as Hub, a trust fund brat of thirty or so who sang in a semi-successful folk group that would never make it to the big time because no one in it was hungry enough, but had enough of a groupie following to keep going. Distasteful as Hub was to me, with his ostentatious vegetarianism and false artistic suffering, I was happy that Louise no longer put up with the dismissive, critical types who had been the abiding theme of her love life until she "grew into her looks," as my mother liked to say.
Johnny ridiculed Hub with a fierceness that should have told him something about himself. There he and Louise were, perfectly right for each other, right in front of each other, and still apart. It was like watching a yellow jacket trying to get out an open window, bumbling all over the windowpane, knocking into every corner of the sill, always just missing the route to the open air.
Johnny was still hanging around when I left, going through Louise's desk drawers for a postage stamp, singing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" in a smarmy falsetto to make Louise laugh. As she walked me to the door, Louise tucked the last two brownies, carefully wrapped in green cellophane, into my briefcase. That was what you had to love about Louise. In the
cf0midst of proffering spiritual consolation, she still remembered to send you off with baked goods.
"Make Johnny take you out to dinner," I said to her as I hugged her good-bye.
"He's playing pickup basketball at nine."
"No, he isn't. Not now. Get him to cancel. It's the least he can do for dragging you out shopping."
Louise hated shopping of any traditional sort. Noise and crowds and stacks of bright shiny merchandise overwhelmed her. Her favorite stores had names like "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," and featured soothing mandolin tapes playing in the background, a smell of patchouli in the air, and odd ethnic apparel hand-loomed by gallant peasant artisans from Tibet, Peru, or Nepal.
"Johnny," I called back to him, "you are buying Louise a meal after this shoe expedition."
"Glad to," said Johnny, and grinned at Louise. "There's a new rooftop bar in Adams-Morgan where they have free tango lessons and half-price tapas after ten P.M. Want to tango, Louise?"
"Fox-trot at the Chantilly Ballroom?"
"Go waltzing at the senior center?"
He grabbed her by the waist and began twirling her around the room. Louise had taught Johnny how to waltz for some debutante cotillion he'd been invited to, the spring of his freshman year in college. I watched them circling together, laughing and treading on each other's feet, and remembered Louise at nineteen, patiently counting out the box step with Johnny in my parents' living room five nights in a row so that he wouldn't embarrass himself at the dance with another girl, the girl who counted that particular week or month. The girl whose name he probably couldn't even remember now, though I was sure Louise would.
Sometimes it seems to me that, for every happy couple fate brings together just in the nick of time, there are five other pairs who miss each other by inches or miles. Do human beings just not want to be happy, deep down, or is it that we snatch at the easiest, most comfortable happiness, not the hard-won kind? And who was I, I thought as I ran down Louise's stairs, to aim that question at anyone but my sorry self?
Copyright © 2002 by Christina Bartolomeo