Gary Breyer had first fallen in love with Molly at the Tastee diner. He was not a man who fell in love easily, but he had always hoped he might. People had always told him that he was smart and funny, and although he didn’t consider himself very good-looking, women, to his great astonishment, found him handsome. They touched his heavy lashes, his thick mop of black hair curling into the collars of his jackets. They found his sloppy way of dressing in flannel shirts and tees, in faded jeans and high-top sneakers, endearing and boyish.
He almost always had dates, photographers he worked with, a cellist he had met at a concert, a pharmacist who had filled his antibiotic prescription, and once even a hand model who had put a skin of cold cream on her hands before slipping them into her white cotton gloves every night. Sometimes the women fell in love with him and sometimes he fell in love back, but in the end, nothing ever took, his relationships slowly drifted apart, and he never quite understood why. His girlfriends told him he was too intense, or sometimes not intense enough. “The fit isn’t right, that’s all it is,” Emily, his last girlfriend, had said two days before she left him to go back with her ex-boyfriend, a ski burn living in Utah who seemed to fit her just fine. Sometimes, though, he was the one who broke off the relationships. He fell out of love with a nurse because she hated to talk about her feelings. He stopped seeing a book editor after she came home from a two-week business trip and he suddenly realized he hadn’t missed her.
Gary began to feel a great, deep sadness, a restless longing as if love were a season that had somehow never arrived for him. He tried to keep busy. He had a job he loved, designing book jackets at Treasures Press in Brooklyn, and he didn’t mind working long hours or late at night. He lived in bookstores and at the movies, and he had a network of friends who opened their homes to him Thanksgivings and Christmases and New Years. But gradually, as he and his friends all started getting older, their twenties nudging into their thirties, his friends began marrying and having kids. He rented tuxes for their weddings, he gave fluid, funny toasts and flirted gallantly with all the bridesmaids, and gradually, he even began to attend the christenings and birthday parties, the pint-sized celebrations filled with small, buttery voices calling him Uncle Gary. Uncle. Family. He was and yet he wasn’t. And as his friends moved farther and farther away from him, out of his Chelsea neighborhood and deeper into the suburbs or out of New York entirely, he saw them less and less, and when he did, his friends’ conversations were peppered with names and places he didn’t recognize; their kids sometimes couldn’t remember who he was.
He couldn’t help but envy his friends’ lives. He stood in his married friend Bob’s kitchen in Massachusetts, leaning along the adobe tile wall, watching Bob and his wife, Rayanna, cooking, the two of them teasing, every passed spoon so intimate an act, Gary felt like a voyeur. He walked to films in Ithaca with Allan, a copywriter he had worked with and befriended, and Allan’s girlfriend, Peggy, but Gary walked alone with his hands deep in his pockets, while theirs were twined together. His friends saw how silent he sometimes got; they tried to keep including him in their lives, they handed him phone numbers of women they thought he might like, they tried to generate romance. “Maybe you want too much,” Allan finally suggested. “Maybe you should be more realistic. Stop expecting miracles.”
Gary began to feel weary. He began to tell himself that peace and solitude were not such bad things, that a person could be happy in his own company. He began taking drives, exploring, and he began to eat more and more of his meals at a tiny New Jersey diner he discovered, a black-and-chrome shoe box called the Tastee.
The Tastee had chrome tables and soft leatherette booths. There was a rotating neon clock that took up a quarter of the far wall. The diner was fairly crowded, and there were four waitresses bustling around, white aprons snapped about their waists, name tags pinned to their breasts. One of them, a middle-aged blonde with a name tag that said Donna, nodded toward the back. “Spicy fries are good today,” she urged.
“Okay. And coffee, too,” Gary said. Glen Campbell was crooning on the jukebox about being a lineman for the county. It was one of those corny songs Gary was embarrassed to admit he liked. Gary made his way to the back and sat down in a booth and looked around. There were lots of families here, mothers daubing napkins at their kids’ faces, fathers in business suits, leaning forward, talking earnestly to their teenaged daughters who were rolling their eyes or staring blankly off into space. There were some couples, a few groups of elderly women, and there in the back, sitting alone, eating soup, was the most beautiful woman Gary had ever seen.
Her hair was a fiery tangle of curls spiraling down her back. She had a constellation of freckles dotted across her nose, a small pointed chin, and eyes as clear and gray as slate. Her white overalls looked a size too big for her, her white sweater underneath was unraveling at the elbow, and her left high-top sneaker had a blue paint scribble on the toe. She was curved over, one hand cupping her chin, the other on her book, reading so avidly, she seemed to be eating her soup blindly, raising the spoon slowly to her mouth, not taking her eyes from her page. He liked it that she liked to read, that she seemed so at home by herself. He liked it, too, that she didn’t act like it was a failing that she didn’t have a guy with her or another girlfriend, but rather that she was enjoying herself completely. He watched her for a moment, waiting, seeing if there might be an opening for him, but when she didn’t look up, when his fries arrived, he turned his attention to them.
He told himself she could be married. He didn’t see a ring, but that didn’t mean anything. She could be in love or on her way to France on the next flight out. He ate a fry, crackled with pepper, spiked with garlic, jolting his appetite, so that he was suddenly starving. He pronged a couple more fries on his fork. Beside him, two teenagers in identical blue turtlenecks and jeans got up and began to slow dance to an old Bruce Springsteen song. They crowded the aisle, slinging their arms about each other’s shoulders. One of the waitresses was laughing, a high, roller-coaster peal. “I gotta get past you guys,” she warned, edging around the dancers, pushing them closer. Gary watched the kids swaying, all that heat and energy and young love, all that promise and purpose, and then, because he couldn’t help himself, he glanced over at the redheaded woman again. She turned a page, half smiling as she read, so deep in thought she didn’t notice when her sleeve dipped in her bowl, making a wobbly soupy star on her elbow. Gary grinned to himself. He couldn’t help watching her a second more, and then he suddenly wished for a book for himself, too, a sketch pad. Next time, he told himself.
He grabbed another fry. He didn’t know what it was about this woman, why every time he looked at her, why every time she moved, he felt a change in the atmosphere, a charge. It was ridiculous. He didn’t know anything about her, who she was, what she did, whether or not she was smart or funny or even remotely interesting. She could be moody or psychotic. She could be simple as a pane of glass. He couldn’t see what she was reading, though he half hoped it was a classic, or something new and good, anything other than a celebrity bio or a lurid True Crime, that was engaging her so much that she didn’t look up and see him, she didn’t feel his interest.
Maybe he’d go over to the redheaded woman’s table, ask to borrow the salt or the pepper, start a conversation and see what happened. People met people anywhere. In movie lines, at supermarkets. He had had one friend who had met his wife when he had stumbled on the street, reaching up to grab something to steady himself, and he had grabbed her, instead, ripping her skirt hem, tumbling her down with him. “I beg your pardon,” she had said, and two months later, they were married. What did Gary have to lose?
He grabbed up one last fry, studded with pepper, intensely salted. He got up, taking the fries with him, and walked toward her table. Outside, it had begun to snow, damp, heavy flakes that clung to the glass window. He could see bits of gold glinting in all that red hair. He could see her paperback, the title like a beacon. Truman Capote. She read Truman Capote. Something tightened and pulsed, zipping up his spine. She was smart. He was about to introduce himself, to ask if she’d like to join him, when she looked up. Her eyes were flickering with light. “Hey, I know you,” she said.
“Don’t I?” Her voice was low and rich. She leaned forward, nearly toppling her glass, water sloshing from its lip. They both reached for the glass at the same time, and his fingers touched hers. A jolt of heat moved up through his fingers. She looked up at him, waiting. “Don’t you want to sit down?”
Her name was Molly Goldman and as soon as he sat down, he couldn’t stop talking to her. He told her about growing up without his parents, about growing up with Pearl, and about his job. She told him she lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she taught third grade.
“A teacher!” he said. It tickled him. He could just see her in the classroom, paint on her clothes, chalk in her hair. Kids clamoring at her feet.
She looked at him curiously. “Is that a funny profession to have? You’re smiling so hard.”
“No, no, it’s perfect. It’s a great thing to be.”
“I think so. I mean, I really love it. The only thing about it is that sometimes it’s a little insulating.” She looked happily around the diner. “That’s why I come here. The noise. The commotion. Seeing different people. Especially adults. You come here enough times you start feeling like family. I know all the waitresses here. And they don’t care if I read or work here half the night and order only grilled cheese.” She told him she had thirty kids and while most of them were workingclass baloney-sandwich-and-milk type of kids, some of her students had more money in their bank accounts than she ever would, and they all knew it. She laughed. “Last Christmas two of my students came to my house in a caroling group and I invited all of them in. They kept opening the closet doors, sure there must be another room in there and not just my old moth-eaten coats.”
“I admit it, I fall right in love with my kids. I worry about them and champion them and I start feeling like they’re mine. And I always forget that they’re just on loan. That they only love me for a year, then they move on and change and fall in love with their new teacher and bang—I’m history. It’s sort of sad.”
“But they must come back and visit, don’t they?”
Molly shrugged. “Sometimes. Some of them do. But it’s always just to reminisce. I’m not a part of their lives anymore. Which, I guess, is the way it should be.” She looked over at his fries. “Can I have some of those?” she said, and he pushed the plate over and she picked one up with her fingers. “Anyway,” she said. “It’s a weird universe, teaching. The other teachers I work with are mostly married women and they drive me crazy always trying to fix me up.” She reached for another one of Gary’s fries. “They’re always trying to push me together with this guy Jack, who teaches kindergarten. They keep saying, ‘Oh, you make such a cute couple! You look so good together!’ One of the teachers even bought me this joke T-shirt she said I ought to wear so Jack might get the hint. TEACHERS DO IT WITH CLASS. When I finally took Jack aside and told him, he laughed. ‘Gee, should I tell my Andrew?’ he said.”
Gary laughed and took another spicy fry from the plate, his fingers brushing hers.
By the time Molly and Gary were on their fourth cup of coffee, the snow was so heavy you couldn’t see out the windows, the radio was predicting a state of potential emergency, and Gary was so enraptured by Molly he didn’t care if it snowed forever. The lights flickered and went out. “Oh, hell,” said the waitress.
“Is this okay, staying here in all this snow?” he asked her.
“I like dramatic weather.”
The waitresses lit candles. Customers got up, putting money down on the bill, bundling into their coats, their hats, pulling the brims down low. The waitresses glanced at the clock.
Gary looked at Molly. “Could I call you some time?”
Gary told himself to take it slow. He hadn’t been lucky in love before. The best thing to do would be to give them both room and not rush into anything. He had her home and school phone numbers tacked up on the bulletin board in his office in his apartment. Today was Monday. He didn’t want her to think he was crazy or desperate. He’d wait until Wednesday, maybe even Thursday to call her.
He tried to bury himself in his work. He came in early to find Ada, his secretary, setting something up on a tray. Ada was young and pretty and anorexic-looking, with a blaze of blond curls, and nine times out of ten she was dressed in blue because she claimed it was a calming color for her. She grinned at him and held up the tray. Brownies were arranged on it. “Carob brownies today,” she announced. “Fruit juice sweetened.” She waited, expectant.
Ada was macrobiotic and was always trying to gain converts to her cause. A week didn’t pass when she didn’t bring something in, and even at the end of the day, when all her goodies lay untouched, she didn’t get angry or depressed. She took them home, whistling. She came back the next week with more.
“Try one,” Ada pressed. Maybe it was thinking about Molly, feeling as if something were sparkling inside of him. Maybe it was feeling so good. But Gary took a carob brownie from Ada. She looked at him, shocked and delighted. “Why, Gary!” she said, “good for you!” and he took a bite.
The brownie broke apart in his mouth in dry little pebbles. He couldn’t swallow. Ada’s smile grew. “What did I tell you?” she said happily.
“Mmm,” he said, and excused himself, shutting the door to his office. He grabbed a Kleenex, spat out the rest, and tossed it, along with the rest of the brownie, into the trash, burying it under a shelf of paper. He searched his desk for the cough drops he kept around and tucked two into the side of his cheek to kill the papery taste.
All that day, he couldn’t stop thinking about Molly. He ran out for a quick lunch at a local sandwich shop, but as soon as he sat down, he saw a flash of red hair from the corner of his eye. He looked around for Molly, confused. A woman with glasses was walking past, balancing a tray. A deeply tanned woman was waving to a friend. The red hair—and Molly—were nowhere to be found. He suddenly wasn’t hungry anymore. He got up and went back to work and stared at his layout for the cover of a boating book called Ships Ahoy! The information he had on the book itself was sketchy, but he knew editorial wanted something streamlined, something technical-looking, despite the dopey title. He bet the marketing V.P., a recent MBA graduate fond of catch phrases, wouldn’t like the bold typeface he wanted against a bold design. “All bold is no bold,” she’d admonish. He crumpled the layout up and threw it in the trash. He clicked the computer on again and made a pale gray screen. Molly’s eyes are gray, he thought, and then, despite himself, he picked up the phone and called Molly at school. “Is this an emergency?” the school secretary asked him.
“Why, yes, I believe it is.”
As soon as he heard Molly’s voice, he was grinning again. The words seemed to spill out of him. “I know we just met yesterday. But what about dinner tomorrow night?”
She laughed. “I thought you’d never ask.”
He wanted to talk more with her. He could have stayed on the line all afternoon, but she interrupted him. “Gary, listen,” she said hurriedly. “We’re not supposed to get personal calls. They really frown on it.” Her voice lowered. “But listen, too, I know this great place we can try for our dinner. The waitresses sing opera. They’re absolutely terrible, but that’s what makes it so much fun.”
He promised he wouldn’t call her at work, that he’d see her for dinner, six o’clock so they could catch a movie afterward. “Or two,” Molly said. “Two’s okay with you?”
He tried not to call Molly again, but by four he wanted to tell her about Ada and the horrible carob brownies no one would touch, even after she told everyone that Gary had found them delicious. He wanted to tell Molly that the new hiree in copy had started that day only to leave two hours later with “I Quit” scribbled across a pad of paper on his desk. And he wanted to tell her what it was like to think you might be falling in love when you had never hoped such a thing might happen for you. He picked up the phone.
The school secretary sighed in exasperation when she heard his voice. “Hold on.”
“Stop, please, you’ll get me fired!” Molly complained when she got on the line. “I had to leave thirty little kids with glue and colored paper and only the not-so-watchful eye of the next-door teacher. There’s no telling what I’ll come back to!”
And so, reluctantly, he had stopped calling so often. Every time he thought of her, every time his hand reached for the phone, he got up and went to the snack machine and got chips instead, and they lay on his desk uneaten. He talked to Ada, to the copywriter down the hall, and he even asked Brian a question he didn’t really need an answer to. An hour later his phone rang.
“You never call me anymore,” she said.
It was Tuesday. He was going to finish early, run home and shower and change and go get Molly when he heard the click of Brian’s shoes coming toward him. He looked up.
Gary tapped his computer screen, at a shining planet Earth suspended in a bright field of blue sky. “I think it works great. It’s simple, it’s direct, it’s clean.”
Brian frowned. “Well, I don’t like it. And I’m the one you have to impress.” He frowned. A thin line of brown hair fell over his forehead and he blew up a puff of air to get it out of his way. “It doesn’t scream environment to me.”
Gary studied his drawing. “I think it does,” he insisted. “It’s the planet.”
Brian shook his head. “But does the planet mean the environment? You might think it does, but will the average Joe? I don’t think editorial’s going to go for it. And marketing’s going to say it doesn’t talk to the customer.”
“That was last month’s catch phrase.”
Brian ignored him. “I’d like to see something more environmental. Maybe something with the weather. Or with rocks. Try a few different approaches we can present.” Brian put his hands on Gary’s desk. “And, Gary, I need them on my desk tonight.”
Gary grew still. Brian was always at the office late. He liked to work, and he liked to use the company phone to call his girlfriend Candy in L.A., an airbrushed-looking blonde whose photo hung prominently in his office. “First thing in the morning.” Gary tried to make his voice sound positive.
Gary slumped back in his chair. He’d never finish three versions by six, let alone by eight, or even ten, if he were lucky.
He watched Brian wandering back to his office, saw Brian lean back in his chair, lifting his boots up on his desk, picking up his phone. He hummed “Sugar, Sugar,” vaguely out of tune. “You are my can-dee girl!” He punched down emphasis on “candy,” the name of his girlfriend. He’d be on the phone with Candy for hours and as far as anyone knew, Brian had never actually met her. Every time he had planned to go out there, something had come up. She had the flu. She had an audition. It wasn’t a good time.
Gary picked up the phone to call Molly.
“Oh.” Her voice sounded flat, disappointed, when he told her he had to cancel. “I understand. But I can’t go out tomorrow night. Parent-Teacher Night. Can we do it the night after?”
The night after. Three more days. “Sure we can,” he said.
He worked until midnight, leaving five minutes after Brian did. He drove home, and then he didn’t know what was going on, what was driving him, but no matter which direction he turned the car, it started moving him back down her roads, back into Elizabeth. She had told him where she lived, she had described the house, but he had never been there before. Her neighborhood was so silent, he could hear his own heartbeat. He parked in front. The house was small and boxy, painted a pale adobe color. It had a square scrubby front yard and a winding flagstone path up to her door. There was one light on in the front of her house.
He was sleepwalking. He was so exhausted, he wasn’t thinking clearly. Someone else was opening up his car door and walking to her front door. Someone else was ringing the bell, not caring that it was past midnight.
He tried to compose his thoughts, to figure out what he could say that wouldn’t scare her away. He tried to think of a good enough reason why he was showing up here to see her. The door opened. She was in black sweatpants and a white T-shirt, her hair flopped over one shoulder. “I was just in the neighborhood—” he said lamely. He felt like a fool. He stopped and took a breath, shaking his head, trying to clear it. Sudden heat rose like a cloud around him. He swore he saw lights and then she took two steps forward and she studied him, her face grave, and then, abruptly, she kissed him soft and full on his mouth. She stepped back, pulling him inside with her, into the warmth and light.
In the morning, everything had changed, and they both knew it. When he woke up, she was sitting cross-legged in bed, the sheets in a tangle about her. She was watching him, smiling, burrowing into a navy velour robe.
He looked happily about her room. The walls were as pale peach as her skin, the floor was gleaming wood, there were books everywhere, and every time he spotted a title—John Irving, Emily Brontë—he felt happier, because he either knew and loved the book, or he wanted to read it himself.
There was a trophy on one of the bookshelves, a golden figure of a girl. He reached over the bed for his boxer shorts and pulled them on. Then he got up, and went over to look at it. He held it in his hands and peered at the inscription: Miss California Beaches. Delighted, he turned to Molly. “You won this!”
She shook her head. She got out of bed. She pointed to the inscription. Angela Goldman. “My mother.”
She pivoted him to another wall of photographs and pointed. “That’s her on the wall.” There was one big photo of a slim, lovely woman in a two-piece, laughing into the camera, tossing a tumble of stormy black hair. He stood up to look at it. “She’s beautiful,” he said.
He turned back to look at Molly. She looked at the photograph of her mother. “She was,” she said quietly. “She died.”
“Oh, God. I’m so sorry.”
“My father was one of the contest judges. He took one look at her, gave her the prize, and married her. And then, three years later, shortly after I was born, he disappeared.”
“It’s all right. My mother would never talk about him except to say we were all better off. And it’s hard to miss someone you never knew. She used to say that was a real survival skill, not knowing.”
“I know what it’s like to be an only child, to be orphaned.”
Molly grew quiet. “I’m not an only child. I have a sister.”
“You do?” He looked at her, surprised. People with siblings were always threading the names of their brothers or sisters casually into their conversations, but Molly hadn’t mentioned a sister at all. Not until now.
“Suzanne. She’s three years older. She ran away when she was seventeen and I haven’t seen or heard from her for a few years now.”
“Are you serious?” Gary shook his head in astonishment. If he had had any family at all, a brother, a sister, even a cousin, he would have made sure that they lived next door to him for life. He would have been on the phone with them every day. “Years,” he repeated. Molly looked distractedly off in the distance. She bent to pick up a stray sock, to straighten a magazine on the table. There were things that people didn’t want to talk about, and usually he respected that. Usually, he let people keep their secrets or take their time revealing them to him. But Molly wasn’t “people.” Not to him. “How come?” he persisted.
Molly stopped bustling about the room. She tapped the sock against her hand.
He gave her a loopy smile, trying to make her feel more relaxed. “I won’t tell anyone.”
She looked at him as if she were deciding something important, and then she slowly put down the sock. She walked over to a table and picked up a clear acrylic box, pieced together like a puzzle, with four steel balls rolling around on top. Inside was a piece of paper folded over. She handed it to Gary.
“What’s this?” Gary said.
Molly half smiled. “Suzanne’s unlisted address and phone number. You have to get all these balls into this hole to open the box and get the paper. I know it’s kind of silly, but I put it there anyway, like a symbol, just to remind me she’s still present in my life. And to remind me to think twice before contacting her.”
“I’m good at these things.” Gary reached for the box, and Molly snatched it back toward her.
“No. Don’t you dare.” She put the box back on the dresser. “It’s a whole long story.”
“I like long stories.”
This time she smiled back at him, considering. “How about we get to know each other a little better before we talk about Suzanne?”
Gary looked over at the rumpled bed. “Wait a minute! We don’t know each other now?”
She laughed. “Well, we do, and we don’t.”
“Well, then we’d better start changing that. How about dinner and a movie? You name the day.”
COMING BACK TO ME. Copyright © 2001 by Caroline Leavitt. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.