by Marian Thurm
At first he’d expected to be in mourning for the rest of his life; after all, his marriage to Amy had lasted forty-three years, mostly happy, untroubled ones, complete with a set of identical twin granddaughters who proved to be both gifted gymnasts and award-winning junior cheerleaders—on something called the Glam Squad—by the time they celebrated their sixth birthday. Amy had been gone now for almost a year and a half, and late on this summer afternoon, Cliff found himself headed toward the entrance to the subway on 59 th Street, when he saw a homeless man squatting beside a revolving door at the front of Bloomingdale’s, holding in his lap a handwritten cardboard sign that announced, in Magic Marker,
HOMELESS, HUMILIATED VETERAN
“It’s that comma that really gets me,” said a woman next to Cliff on the sidewalk, after she deposited a five-dollar bill into the homeless guy’s empty Starbucks cup, which he was shaking up and down so you could hear the rattle of the few coins inside it. “Plus, the word ‘humiliated.’ Retired English teacher that I am, I have to admit the comma between ‘homeless’ and ‘humiliated’ kinda breaks my heart,” the woman said sotto voce.
Cliff said he understood, pulled a handful of singles from his wallet, and stuffed them into the green-and-white paper cup. He was a widower who’d lost his wife, unexpectedly and not very long ago, to a ruptured cerebral aneurysm; surely he knew all about broken hearts, he wanted to tell the woman. She was tall and narrow, dressed in black jeans and what he suspected his daughter, Rachel, would have called, unflatteringly, “comfortable shoes.” Though her hair was a mixture of gray and white, it was thick and glossy, and he could tell by her still-youngish face that he was at least a half-dozen years older than she was. He silently admired her slender, elegant thumbs, and though he usually didn’t take note of these things, observed that her maroon nail polish matched her lipstick. Amy, he recalled, hadn’t believed in manicures, or even lipstick, come to think of it. If asked, he would have said she didn’t need any of it; she was lovely just as she was.
As he was about to turn away and continue along to the subway and back to his apartment on the Upper East Side, he heard the woman who found the comma so poignant tell him that her name was Jessica, confiding, a moment later, that, in fact, she was called “Jessa,” at least by the people who knew her best.
“Way to go, Jessa!” the homeless guy yelled.
“I’m actually desperate to find birthday presents for my twin granddaughters,” Cliff confessed, and then he was asking Jessa if she’d like to join him, wondering, a bit uneasily, if he sounded as if he were inviting her out on a date. “I tried, and failed, just a few minutes ago in Bloomingdale’s, to choose something for the twins on my own. I feel like an idiot. Or maybe just a shamefully incompetent grandfather.”
Jessa smiled, and he could see her teeth were exceptionally even and white; maybe veneers, he thought, or implants? It occurred to him that perhaps she was married, possibly to a dentist.
“My apologies,” he said. He thought about the times his sister and brother-in-law had insisted on fixing him up on what always seemed to be agonizingly awkward blind dates with friends of theirs who were single, never understanding that what he wanted, and was waiting for, was for Amy to simply return from the dead, rising effortlessly from her grave and making her way back to him, dressed not in the plain white shroud she’d been wrapped in before being arranged inside her coffin, but, instead, in her skin-tight black leather pants and the almost see-through black silk shirt that was his favorite.
“Apologies for what?” Jessa said. Then she offered him a mint from a small tin box from Trader Joe’s.
“Let’s see…I guess I’m apologizing for assuming you were unattached—that was stupid of me. For all I know, you’ve been blissfully married for decades.” To a dentist, he almost added. (Later, on their first official date, he would learn that her ex was Dr. Marvin Horowitz, board-certified endodontist, and “one of the very best root canal specialists in Manhattan,” at least according to a comment posted by a highly satisfied customer on Dr. Horowitz’s website.) Cliff selected a mint from the tin box and was disappointed to realize it was peppermint, the taste of which he’d hated since childhood. But he was sixty-seven years old now; wasn’t that too old to have to eat things he despised? He was still a fairly cool dude, he thought, cool enough to have gone to Woodstock, never mind the nightmarish traffic along the New York State Thruway he and his buddies were trapped in that weekend in August nearly fifty years ago. Thanks to his father, that summer before college and four years before Cliff entered law school, he had an excruciatingly boring job, working in the mail room at a law firm near Wall Street, earning ninety dollars a week, relatively big bucks for a teenager in the Sixties. And along with a triumvirate of his high school friends, he paid his eighteen dollars and was able to get tickets to Woodstock, where he was privileged to hear Jimi Hendrix, live and in person, in his fringed white shirt and red bandana, playing his extraordinary, harshly dissonant version of “The Star Spangled Banner” early that Monday morning. Though he and his friends were ensnared in another bad-news traffic jam on their return trip to the suburbs of Long Island—the traffic so insane that they’d witnessed a couple of guys who got out of their cars and were standing on the highway leisurely brushing their teeth and shaving with an electric razor—it was unquestionably worth all that hassle just to see Hendrix, who would die not much more than a year afterward, choking on his own vomit while intoxicated. Cliff had become sort of emotional when he heard the news in his college dining hall in New Haven, and he cried real tears, ten years later, when John Lennon was shot on the Upper West Side, not far from the cramped apartment where Cliff and Amy were living at the time with their young daughter.
“I think I’ll just put this mint in my pocket and save it for…tomorrow,” he mumbled now to Jessa.
“No worries—and by the way, I’m divorced, and frankly, pretty sick of those slim pickin’s out there on silversingles, eharmony, or whatever,” Jessa said, rolling her eyes.
This was the time to identify himself as a widower; it never got easier, and it always pained him to hear that sharp intake of breath and that OhI’msosorry that inevitably followed. The moment passed quickly, and he acknowledged Jessa’s sympathy with a subtle, but grateful, nod of his head and a whispery thank-you.
She helped him choose a couple of sequined Minnie Mouse sweatshirts and sparkly black leggings for Charlotte and Madison, his gymnast-granddaughters, and when they were finished shopping, suggested a Thai restaurant for an early dinner. It was while they were walking over to First Avenue to the Siam Noodle House that she talked for a couple of minutes about her career as a middle-school teacher in the City’s public school system. “In my day, we called it ‘junior high,’ ” she said.
“Mine too,” he said, smiling.
The coconut soup and salmon pad Thai she ordered for them at the Noodle House were both overly sweet, and the spring rolls were so damp and shiny, Cliff had to ask for more paper napkins so he could blot all the excess oil. But he felt at ease in Jessa’s company and was happy enough listening to her talk about her students, many of whom she kept in touch with on Facebook and Instagram, and one of whom had become a grandmother at the astonishing age of thirty-three. Cliff had been a law professor at NYU, specializing in civil procedure and family law. Aside from a celebration he and Amy attended following the City Hall marriage of two of his favorite protégés, since his retirement he’d had limited contact with his former students, which bothered him at first, but no longer did. He just wasn’t a Facebook or Instagram kind of guy and felt no need to offer any excuses for it.
When he told Jessa he had not even one social media account, but that he did have a remarkably affectionate cat named Sallie to keep him company, Jessa offered him that vivid smile again; this time he was sure she had a mouthful of veneers, which, he knew, cost an impressive two thousand dollars a pop.
“Sally was my mother’s name!” she said with what sounded like a tiny squeal of joy, and for only an instant her eyes looked moist with tears.
He didn’t tell her that unlike her mother’s name, his cat’s was spelled with an “ie,” nor did he tell her Amy’s death had hit him so hard, that eighteen months down the line, he occasionally still found himself weeping. But the worst was one night last winter, when he was removing a double load of mostly sheets and towels from the dryers in the second-floor laundry room in his apartment building, and discovered a pair of Amy’s underwear entangled in a twisted-up T-shirt of his. He’d extracted her panties gently from the shirt, and cradled them in both his palms; they were lavender, with a thin elastic band at the waist imprinted with yellow flowers. When he raised his hands to his face, he could smell the sugary fragrance of the sheets of fabric softener; Tropical Paradise was the name on the box. My darling, darling girl, he murmured into his sweet-smelling hands, into Amy’s underwear. He remembered her, just a few months before her utterly unforeseen death, standing barefoot in their bedroom, in her panties, lifting one slim arm and then the other to slide on her bra, and asking whether Cliff thought she looked, in her underwear, pretty good for someone in “early old age”—a phrase they’d seen in The New York Times and convinced themselves not to be insulted by. And he’d answered, “Do I think you look good? Yes, baby, pretty damn good, absolutely.”
Bloomers, he suddenly remembered Amy telling him her mother had called her underwear when Amy was a child; he must have said the word out loud because Jessa was saying, “Sorry, what?” and had a quizzical expression on what he now saw to be her sweet but ordinary-looking face.
“Oh, sorry,” Cliff said, though he wasn’t certain he had to apologize. “Just, you know, talking to myself.”
“It happens,” said Jessa. “I totally get it. We who live alone are known to do that every now and again.” When their dessert arrived, she stretched out one arm across the table and put a spoonful of sticky-rice cake and mango sorbet in front of him. “Open up, please,” she said, and slid the dessert into his mouth. She gave him a moment, then asked for his verdict.
“Excellent!” said Cliff. “More, please.”
He has waited nine months, patiently and empathetically, he believes, to break the news to Rachel, his daughter, that he has a girlfriend. Rachel lives in a suburb southwest of Boston with her husband and their identical twins. She has always been bossy and energetic, and had forced Cliff and Amy to go kayaking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter whenever they came up from New York for a visit. When she was in high school, she made them feel as if they had no choice but to obey her commands to read the first two Harry Potter books and to buy movie tickets to see Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. She is an only child, one who had been conceived after several miscarriages; maybe, Cliff has sometimes thought, he and Amy spoiled her from day one.
There are, as yet, no plans to disclose to Rachel anything about Jessa’s recently broken lease and her move into Cliff’s apartment. He worries, now and then, that perhaps he shouldn’t be doing this to his daughter, shouldn’t be moving his girlfriend into the home that had belonged to Amy and him and to the life they’d shared. But then he reminds himself that Rachel will be turning forty soon—forty! Not fourteen! By somebody’s calculation—though not his—she’s about to officially become a middle-aged woman; isn’t that old enough not to feel betrayed by the simple fact of her father’s new live-in girlfriend? So why does he continue to worry?
In truth, he hasn’t yet grown accustomed to the sight of the pink bristles of Jessa’s toothbrush facing the turquoise of his own planted in the shiny metal holder on top of the bathroom sink, or to the sight of Sallie, his 14-year-old cat, looped around Jessa’s hip when all three of them arrange themselves in bed together at night. It’s a new queen-sized mattress and frame; sleeping with Jessa in the double bed he shared with Amy—the bed where she died—felt like a betrayal of sorts, and so he’d ordered a new one shortly before Jessa moved in. And summoned a pair of maintenance workers in his building to haul the old one out of the apartment as he stood by, trying not to feel undone by its disappearance.
Calling Rachel from his landline in the bedroom while Jessa is in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher, Cliff talks first to whichever granddaughter has answered the phone.
“Hey, sweetie!” he says. “Um, to whom am I speaking?”
“It’s me, Grandpa,” one of the twins says helpfully.
“Madison, is that you?”
Of course. “Okay, Charlotte, so what’s new in third grade?”
“Well, my boyfriend Liam is gonna be an actor in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and is gonna be on tour and won’t be in school,” Charlotte says breathlessly. “I’m, like, so so so upset.”
“And I’m so out of it, I didn’t even know you had a boyfriend,” Cliff says. “Who’s this Liam, anyway? Is he handsome? How long have you two been a couple?”
“I don’t know, I just know I’m gonna miss him, Grandpa.”
Madison has picked up the phone as well; Cliff can hear her breathing noisily into another landline, until finally she says, “Liam’s not even Charlotte’s boyfriend—she just pretends he is!” Madison sounds deeply affronted.
“You don’t have any boyfriend, Maddy, so just shuh up and don’t be jealous, okay?” Charlotte says.
“You can’t tell me to shuh up!”
Settled into a cozy armchair in Cliff’s bedroom, Sallie is keeping watch over the ashes of her beloved feline companion, Milo, currently stored in a glazed ceramic urn on the window sill. It’s the piece Cliff was working on in his ceramics class at the Y several days before Amy died. He forgot all about it in the aftermath of her death, and when his instructor at the Y reminded him weeks later, all Cliff could think was that he’d started the urn as a long-married man and returned as a widower to add a final coat of glaze. He’d taken the plastic bag of Milo’s ashes from the unadorned cardboard box sent by the pet crematorium, and gently deposited it into the copper-red urn, looking around him, an instant later, for Amy, wanting her approval.
It has been more than two years now, but from time to time he still catches himself expecting to see her in the apartment or next to him in line in Whole Foods; still catches himself listening for her distinct sigh of contentment, or the sound of her amused voice saying, That’s a joke, right, baby?
“I can SO tell you to shuh up,” he hears one of the twins repeating several times in a progressively louder voice, until Rachel takes over, ordering the girls to get ready for a quick shower before bedtime.
“Bye, Grandpa!” they shriek in unison.
He listens to Rachel gripe good-naturedly about the twins’ endless squabbling over this and that, and then, suddenly chickenhearted, he says, “So here’s the thing, honey,” and reports only that the plus-one he’s bringing to her fortieth birthday party is someone named Jessa; he’s going to keep the word “girlfriend” to himself for a while longer, he’s just this moment decided.
“Okay, cool,” Rachel says, but doesn’t ask a single question about that plus-one of his.
He is disappointed—and also a little insulted—by her lack of curiosity, but won’t offer any further information on his own.
She tells him all about the party, which will be held at a venue that was formerly a 9000-square-foot garage: there will be vendors offering steamed Japanese dumplings, pizza, barbecue ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, and, of course, plenty of alcohol.
“Sounds awesome,” Cliff says. “Can I wear jeans? Or is this a formal affair?”
“You can wear anything you please. And you’ll probably wanna bring some ear plugs, because we hired a kickass deejay,” Rachel warns. “And, sorry, but Bob Dylan’s not on the playlist.”
“Damn, no Dylan? But that’s my favorite party music! How could you disappoint me like that?” he kids her.
He remembers Rachel at her mother’s funeral, standing graveside on the first day of winter and reciting wisdom that had been downloaded from the Poetry Foundation’s website onto her iPhone. After great pain, a formal feeling comes. The poem, unsurprisingly, induced tears at Amy’s grave, but he still wishes he could have seen Rachel reading from an actual book clutched in her hands. Just the sight of her reading Emily Dickinson’s words typed on a sheet of copy paper and fluttering in the noisy wind over the newly dug grave would have been of comfort to him. The world will always be in flux, sometimes painfully so, and he has come to accept this, but the very notion of Emily Dickinson being read from a smartphone continues to spark a small flame of outrage in him.
“Love you,” he tells his daughter just before hanging up, and though he thinks he hears Rachel echoing his words, he’s not entirely sure.
Ankles crossed, her heels resting against the dashboard, Jessa fools with the iPod connected to the sound system in Cliff’s Audi S3. They’re en route to Massachusetts the day before the party, and even though her shoes are off and her socks look perfectly clean, he’d like to ask Jessa to please take her feet down from the dashboard of his almost brand-new car. Her socks are patterned with images of neon-colored ampersands, exclamation points, and hash tag signs (which he recently learned from his beloved OED are technically called octothorpes); looking at all of these has brought a smile to his face.
“So would this be considered a high performance car?” she asks him. “Like a BMW?”
He gets a kick out of hearing the words “high performance” coming from Jessa; cars have been one of his passions since adolescence, though not something Amy ever wanted to hear much about during their long marriage.
“Yup, like a BMW M2,” he says happily, ignoring the sight of Jessa’s feet on the dashboard and forgetting about the marks her socks might leave on its pale gray leather. He has subscriptions to Car and Driver, Autoweek, and Road & Track, and ever since he retired, can spend hours every night studying the road tests and comparison tests and the glossy photos of his favorite sports cars—the Porsche Turbos, the Jaguar F-Types, the Ferrari GTBs. And, unlike Amy, Jessa doesn’t seem to mind a whit. She will sit beside him on the couch in the den, her feet up on the swivel chair she’s wheeled over from his desk, reading novels by Henry James and Edith Wharton, their covers ornamented with images of unsmiling women showing off noticeably large broad-brimmed hats.
Using her fingertip, Jessa scrolls through the iPod until she arrives at “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and hums along with the baroque-sounding organ music.
“You know, Procol Harum was the very first concert I ever went to,” Cliff says. “It was at the Anderson Theater on Second Avenue in the East Village, and I was seventeen. And the very next month I saw the Doors at the Fillmore,” he boasts. He instantly remembers the girlfriend who accompanied him—a dark-haired girl with a high-pitched voice who, years later, he was surprised to learn, had become a pediatric oncologist. “Deb Sommers,” he says, but is drowned out by the sound of Gary Brooker’s melancholy voice. He is thinking of Deb next to him in his British racing green MGB, the two of them parked in front of her house on so many Friday and Saturday nights that last year of high school, Cliff hoping for a chance to slide his hand under her sweater, under the thin turtleneck beneath it, and then—if he were parked beneath the luckiest of stars—under her bra, her flesh warm even on wintry nights. Although he’d never loved Deb Sommers, he did love the feel of her cupped flesh in his palm and remembers, with embarrassment, how he always had to warn himself not to squeeze too hard. If he did, she would slip her tongue from his mouth and complain, Gently, Cliff, gently!
“I’m sort of nervous about those gifts I bought for the twins,” Jessa is saying. “What if they already have all the coloring books and colored pencils and markers they need in this world? What if they roll their eyes contemptuously and flounce away in a huff?”
“They’re eight years old,” Cliff says. “I guarantee you they don’t know the meaning of the word ‘contempt,’ ” he reassures her, but, in fact, he knows no such thing. “At the very least,” he says, “they’re going to love that pencil sharpener in the shape of a nose. What eight-year-old wouldn’t love to sharpen her pencils in those beautiful plastic flesh-colored nostrils?”
“I should have bought two of those fabulous noses,” Jessa says. “I could kick myself.”
“Trust me,” Cliff says, “it’s all fine.”
Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.
Rachel has a master’s degree in landscape architecture, but works full-time selling software for commercial mortgages. She’s elfin, with hair that’s still reddish and wispy, still trailing past her shoulders, just as it did when she was in high school; Cliff can’t quite believe forty looks so very young to him.
“Hey Gramps,” she says, and welcomes him in the foyer with an enthusiastic smooch on each cheek. When he asks where her husband is, she says Jack is still in Cambridge, in his office at M.I.T., but will be home in time for all of them to have dinner together.
Fine. His son-in-law is a mensch, he thinks—smart, hard-working, and given to calling Rachel sweetheart rather than by her name.
Just as Cliff is about to introduce Jessa, there’s the sound of canine nails scrabbling furiously on the living room’s polished granite floor. It’s Spike, Rachel’s Yorkie, and he’s got something lodged horizontally across his mouth—a small white plastic tube smeared with red markings—which he drops proudly at her feet.
“Jesus Christ!” Rachel yells, and she and Jessa exchange a look that seems to shift from horror to amusement and then, finally, disgust, all of it meaningless to Cliff.
“What?” he says. “What am I missing here, guys?”
Spike is wagging his tail, apparently expecting a reward of some kind, but what he gets is the word “naughty” repeated again and again, along with, “How many times do I have to tell you to stay out of the garbage, you rotten kid?”
Jessa explains to Cliff, in a whisper, that the plastic tube is a tampon applicator. A used one, as it happens.
“Well, he’s a cute little pooch nonetheless,” Cliff says. Oh, and by the way, I’m Jessa, he hears her officially introducing herself to Rachel an instant before the twins come strolling down the stairs, barefoot, in satiny, ankle-length costumes, one granddaughter in pale blue, the other vermilion. After eight years, he thinks sheepishly, he still can’t tell them apart, and broods over how likely it is that he ever will. The twins have thick, wavy brown hair that falls into their dark eyes, and chartreuse polish on their tiny nails; they’re small for their age, but for a couple of pipsqueaks, they possess surprisingly lusty voices.
“Guess who I am, Grandpa!” one of them says.
“No, Silly, I’m Princess Elena of Avalor!”
“And you are…?” Cliff asks the other twin.
“Can’t you tell I’m Rapunzel?”
“Frankly, I’m not that into fairy tales,” he says apologetically. “But I could really use some kisses from you two.”
He gets a couple of juicy ones from each of them and feels no need to wipe them away with his fingertips; he savors the dampness on his cheeks left by those he loves best in this world.
“Hey, girls? Come say hi to Grandpa’s friend, Jessa,” Rachel says before disappearing into the kitchen, the errant tampon applicator now wrapped in a tissue and headed to another, presumably more secure, garbage pail.
Hand on her hip, the twin dressed as Rapunzel stares at Jessa for a long moment, then advises, “Basically, I really think you should blow-dry your hair.”
“Basically,” the other twin says, “my new Barbie really needs a manicure and a blow-dry.”
“In that case, I’m not the slightest bit insulted by your suggestion,” Jessa says. “And I might even start blow-drying my hair one of these days.”
He loves her for this, Cliff almost says aloud; it’s the first time he’s aware of actually connecting the words love and Jessa while in her presence.
Rachel returns with a glass bowl of taco chips and a porcelain mug filled with salsa. “I need some napkins, girls,” she says, but neither of the twins bothers to look at her. They’re on their stomachs on the living-room floor, busy with the art set Jessa has given them, along with coloring books full of trolls and Hatchimals.
“What are those?” Cliff says, down on his knees, pointing to outlines of smiling, teddy bear-like creatures with big heads and diminutive bodies.
“Oh, that’s an Owlicorn, and this one’s a Bearakeet,” one of the twins says. Cliff thinks it’s Charlotte, because he’s pretty sure she’s the twin with the huskier voice, but he wouldn’t bet his life on it. If his family lived in New York and he had the privilege of seeing the twins every week, would that make him less of a shamefully incompetent grandfather? An undergrad degree from Yale and a law degree from Harvard, and he can’t differentiate between a pair of identical twins who share his DNA. And whom he surely adores. He watches as they take turns sharpening, so industriously, some colored pencils in the nostrils of the plastic nose Jessa gave them, and he wonders what they will do with their lives as adults—perhaps, like their mother, they will study for a master’s in landscape architecture but end up in the business world, or, like their father, pursue a doctorate in American Studies. And he wonders, too, whether he, the retired dude who’s presently in early old age but who doesn’t feel old at all, will be around to see these grandchildren of his flower into adulthood. He thinks of Amy running vigorously on the treadmill in their den for a half hour every morning in her pajamas, and following that with exactly one hundred and two sit-ups, and always eating wisely, never putting even one cigarette to her lips, but look—just look—how her life ended. In their bedroom, on a comforter embellished with a red-robed geisha feeding a pair of koi, only a few feet from the treadmill where Amy had started her day that very last morning—struck down by what she warned Cliff, in an anguished, bewildered voice, was the single worst headache she’d ever experienced.
By the time a trio of EMTs from the Fire Department arrived, she was already gone. Thank you, Cliff managed to say in his quietest voice, after one of his neighbors down the hall, a young anesthesiologist, pronounced Amy dead; even in the worst of circumstances, even as he sat shell-shocked and perfectly motionless at Amy’s side, Cliff was nothing if not polite.
Later, waiting for the courteous, black-suited employees from the funeral home to show up, murmuring things he can no longer remember, Cliff held one of Amy’s damp, ice-cold hands in both of his own, but failed to warm her.
“Dad!” he hears one of the twins shrieking, and here’s his son-in-law, over six-feet and muscular, his beard thick and threaded with sparks of silver, though you can see that his is the face of a man still young, Cliff thinks.
“Hey, how’s it going?” Jack says, and he and Cliff hug briefly but warmly, as they always have. Feeling Jack’s fingers pressing lightly against his back, Cliff remembers the big white bandage enveloping his son-in-law’s ring finger after he accidentally gouged it with an Exacto knife in Cliff’s garage in the suburbs the day before Rachel’s wedding; Jack had been cutting wood for an oak bookcase he was going to build for the new apartment he and Rachel would be sharing in Cambridge. It was Cliff who had driven him to the ER to get stitched up that morning a decade ago, Cliff who had made him soup that came in an envelope in a cardboard box, throwing in a chopped-up carrot and onion he’d cooked in a saucepan first, serving it to Jack on a wicker tray as he relaxed on the living room couch, his injured hand resting on a small velvet pillow.
He’d been a good father-in-law from the very beginning, of that there is no doubt.
This time it’s one of the twins who introduces Jessa, while the other displays the nose-shaped pencil sharpener with a long purple pencil protruding now from one plastic nostril.
“Cool!” Jack says admiringly.
There are Rachel’s home-made fish tacos decorated with cilantro and shredded manchego for dinner; afterward, following an impassioned discussion of the president’s latest follies both domestic and international, the conversation shifts to the Glam Squad and Madison and Charlotte’s devoted coach, Angela, who came to the house bearing pints of Häagen Dazs for the twins after their respective tonsillectomies several months ago. Cliff and Jessa watch a video, on Rachel’s tablet, of the twins performing in a competition, the exact nature of which he doesn’t quite catch; staring at images of his granddaughters on the screen in their shiny pink leotards, black short-shorts, and glittery white eye shadow, he gets lost in some rap music he can’t identify playing in the background and the row of tiny, similar-looking girls waiting their turn to perform handsprings and one-handed cartwheels. He and Jessa applaud loudly as Rachel gestures with a fingertip toward one of the twins cartwheeling her way across the floor of a school gym. It’s a talent that’s alien to him; in childhood he was one of those kids who could barely complete a somersault when ordered to do so by, as he remembers it, some grimly zealous gym teacher sporting a military-style crewcut. Unlike his granddaughters, rolling his body head over heels, end to end, was never one of Cliff’s favorite activities. But watching on the tablet’s screen as they perform smartly for the Glam Squad, he is especially proud of the twins. And proud, too, of the busy, comfortable life he knows Rachel and Jack have made for themselves and their daughters, here in their black-and-white colonial in this placid, leafy suburb where they’ve fit so easily, so confidently, these past few years.
He takes nothing for granted—neither the peaceful contentment of his daughter’s life, nor any happiness of his own.
The twins have gone to sleep upstairs, each into her own separate bedroom and queensized bed—beds, Cliff marvels, as large as the one he and Jessa share in his apartment—while the grown-ups are watching, on a 65-inch curved-screen TV hung against a brick wall in the den, as Stephen Colbert handily ridicules a politician’s misspelled Tweets.
“One can only guess at the depth of frustration felt by his seventh-grade English teacher,” Jessa says, “and I’m not talking about Colbert’s.” Her left hand is entwined with Cliff’s right, and when she yawns now, she lifts both his and hers to cover her mouth, leaving a silent kiss near his wrist.
“Ready for bed?” he says quietly; he doesn’t want to disturb anyone’s enjoyment of Colbert’s entertaining litany of grievances, large and small, against various politicians. “So I think we’re going to hit the sack,” Cliff reports, more forcefully this time. His hand still in Jessa’s, he pulls her up from the love seat and tells Rachel that the bedroom on the first floor, beyond the kitchen, where he’s already wheeled their suitcases, is where they’ll be sleeping. If that’s okay with management. “Not that we have anything against trekking up and down the stairs to the guest bedroom on the second floor. We’re just lazy,” he teases. “Or, as some might say, not as young as we used to be.”
Rachel doesn’t look amused; in fact, she looks alarmed and Cliff doesn’t understand why.
“What, the downstairs bedroom? Nuh-nuh no, perfect for you, maybe, but not for the two of you, Dad,” she says, then explains that Jessa would be a lot more comfy by herself in the guest room upstairs, the one next to the nicest bathroom, the one with the renovated shower. “She’ll love the heated towel racks,” Rachel says, sounding like a real estate broker, Cliff thinks. “Downstairs for you, upstairs for Jessa,” she says. She’s looking at him hopefully, but he’s not buying. Now she’s looking at her husband for confirmation, but Jack’s throwing his head back against the couch in laughter as Colbert expertly mocks the commander-in-chief’s insistence on pronouncing “premeditation” as “premedication.”
“Unbelievable,” Jack says, when he’s stopped laughing, “that this…this… could possibly—”
“Jack! Pay attention! We’re all going upstairs to check out the heated towel racks,” Rachel says.
“What?” It’s Colbert he’s listening to, but clearly Rachel’s not giving up.
“Upstairs, Jack—you know, where we thought Jessa would sleep.”
“We what? I don’t get what you’re talking about, sweetheart.”
Cliff would be whispering furiously in Jessa’s ear now if only he had the opportunity, he thinks, but the two of them have already begun to climb, obediently, the carpeted steps to the second floor, Rachel leading the way, talking over her shoulder about a Carrara marble sink from Tuscany. In what is clearly an effort to impress them further, she shows off the frameless shower door, the mosaic tile flooring, and those famous heated towel racks.
“Lovely,” Jessa says politely, and then she and Cliff are on their way downstairs to retrieve her suitcase from the bedroom not far from the kitchen, accompanied by Rachel on this trip as well.
But he’s a man in early old age—according to The New York Times, anyway—old enough to recognize that he will never grant his daughter what she wants from him, which is the right to insist that he spend the night alone. Guess what, not happening, not when the woman he loves could so easily be within reach. So he’s going to do his best to explain to Rachel what should, he thinks, be as transparent as can be: that it’s she who has overstepped the well-drawn lines here in her own home. And he would like to remind her of the various men in her life who were allowed to stay overnight in her bedroom long ago when she was home from college for winter break, spring break, summer break. He will remind her of the guy from Dartmouth who went directly into the Peace Corps after graduation, the guy from Georgetown who dropped out senior year to join some tech company in Silicon Valley, and whose father, astonishingly, invited Rachel to brunch with a friend of his named Al Pacino. Those guys who slipped into bed beside her while Cliff and Amy looked the other way because hey, they’d come of age in the Sixties, hadn’t they, and were hip to the most seductive of life’s pleasures.
Listen to me, Rachel, he begins, and he’s two minutes into setting her straight, as delicately as he can, when she interrupts him to announce, urgently, and with unmistakable authority, that, you know what, it’s time for him and his girlfriend to just leave. Get out get out get out, he hears his daughter saying, weepy now, her voice full of the sound of all her disappointment in him, Jack at her side, shrugging one shoulder lamely, offering Cliff a Sorry, bro, but nothing more. Don’t you owe my mother something? she’s asking him, anything at all? And Cliff thinks of that much-loved wife of his, who should have been here to celebrate their daughter’s fortieth birthday, and who would, perhaps, be ashamed of him now, though maybe she would have understood that, for him, there is no choice but to continue moving forward—right this minute, and to the nearest Best Western or Econo Lodge, whichever turns up first on his way home, back to New York with his girlfriend, almost a full day before the party even begins.
Never mind that he and Jessa—who’s looking a little old and drained and grief-stricken at this moment as she clings to his hand—will miss out on the party tomorrow now that his daughter has shamed him, and their invitation has been revoked. Never mind the shumai dumplings, the margherita pizza with fresh basil, the whiskey-grilled baby back ribs, the tiramisu birthday cake. Never mind all of that. He hasn’t a clue how hard he will have to work to earn his way back into his daughter’s life; all he knows is what he will so deeply regret tomorrow, that lost opportunity to get a good long look at the twins at the party, at the promised sight of their faces made up to resemble tigers by a professional face-painter hired to work the room. A young woman who will, Cliff imagines, transform his granddaughters into spectacular creatures with their cheeks painted gold, orange, and bronze, their eyebrows pure white, a black muzzle drawn between their nostrils and their chins, and best of all, a pair of fierce, pale fangs outlined in black sitting at the corners of their sweet, child-sized mouths.
But flying back to New York tomorrow morning along the Mass Pike in his tango-red Audi S3, his heart sinking lower and lower, he won’t be able to catch even a momentary glimpse of any of it.
Marian Thurm is the author of four short story collections and seven novels. Her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly, Narrative Magazine, Southampton Review, and numerous other magazines, and have been selected for Best American Short Stories and other anthologies. Her most recent collection, TODAY IS NOT YOUR DAY, was published in 2015 and was a New York Times Editors’ choice. Her new novel, THE BLACKMAILER’S GUIDE TO LOVE, and PLEASURE PALACE, a collection of her selected short fiction, will both be published this month by Delphinium Books.