Cindy Ella Jones

“Cindy Ella,” my stepmother said, “when I come home tonight, I want this house spotless. I’m having friends over.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

My stepmother likes a clean house  but she doesn’t like to clean it herself. She doesn’t like to waste money on maids. Instead, she asks me to clean it. I don’t mind. I like a clean and neat house, probably more than she does.

She can sound bossy. Actually, she is bossy. It’s in her nature. I don’t blame her for it. It’s probably the way she was raised. Or maybe she was just born bossy.

“Do our rooms too,” her daughters said.

They’re as bossy as their mother. You learn from your parents I guess.

My mother and father have both passed away.

“You’re lucky I let you live here,” my stepmother says, usually after asking me to do something.

I don’t mind working hard to earn my keep. My girlfriends Tiffany and Candace say that I’m a workaholic. Why even think of hiring a maid? I’m here and I’m ready.

I also work for my godfather in his shoe-repair shop after school. I’m in my senior year.

One of my stepsisters is a senior, the other is a junior. They’ll be going on to community college when they graduate. My stepmother won’t help with my tuition, so I have to save as much as I can. I work and then I go home and clean, and then I do my homework. Sometimes I don’t get to bed until really late. That’s ok. I like keeping busy.

My stepmother says she won’t ‘turn me out’ when I go off to college, as long as I keep cleaning and pay her some room-and-board. I’ll have to keep working when I’m in college to do that.

My godfather is not bossy. I work hard in his shop, but not because he pushes me. Because I like him.

I was refurbishing a worn pair of Allen-Edmonds oxford lace-ups on Monday when he spoke up.

“Are you going?” he said, out of the blue. His name is Mike. Mike Fairy.

“What?”

“Are you going to that dance I’ve been hearing about? At your school.”

I laughed.

“No way,” I said. “I have nothing to wear.”

“Mary can fix you up.”

Mary is my godmother.

“I couldn’t afford anything from her shop, Mike. You know that.”

“Come on, girl,” Mike said. “You know what I mean.”

I shook my head. I don’t like handouts, even from my godparents.

The next day, Mrs. Fairy stopped by the shop.

“How’s my favorite godchild?” she said.

“I’m fine,” I said, stepping back from the shop’s old Landis McKay.

“Cindy Ella, I want you to come by my shop when you’re done here,” Mrs. Fairy said. “I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Mrs. Fairy… Mary… I don’t…”

“I’ve heard about that dance,” she said with a smile. “I won’t take no.”

When she had gone, Mr. Fairy put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a quick hug.

“My friend Mr. Washington is going to send a limo for you on the night of the dance,” he said.

“Oh, no!” I said. “Really, Mike, this is too much.”

“All he asks is that you leave the dance at the time you both agree upon in advance. Can you promise me that?”

“I do promise! I’m so grateful. I’ll be standing there waiting for him.”

When I went to my godmother’s dress shop later, she let me choose from a collection of the finest dresses I had ever seen. The one I picked was a dream come true, in silk.

“On the night of the dance, come over here early,” she said. “I’ll have someone ready to do your makeup. We’ll keep the dress here. We don’t want your stepmother spotting it. She’d take it from you and give it to one of those trolls she calls her daughters. The witch.”

“She’s not so bad,” I said. I had to laugh, though.

My friends Tiffany and Candace were surprised  but delighted that I was coming to the dance. It’s all we talked about that week. I was a little mysterious about my arrangements with my godparents. I try to keep my situation at home with my stepmother as quiet as possible.

Mike presented me with a pair of Badgley Mixchke Randalls five days before the dance, fitted out with the special orthotics I use. I have unusually high arches. The shoes were a deep blue with a flower on the toe.

“Practice with these all week,” he said. “They aren’t for amateurs.”

“My lord,” I said. “Look at those heels.”

“They’re high, but you’ll get the trick of it. The shoes are broken in, so they won’t be stiff.”

I tried them on. I have narrow feet, which was good, because the Randalls were a narrow shoe.

On the night of the dance, I worked in the shop and then walked over to my godmother’s shop. She had a woman waiting to do my hair. Then I dressed and another woman did my face. The limo was waiting.

At school, I stepped out of the limo and took a moment to get my balance in the heels. I walked alone into the gym. The lights were turned down and a slow dance was playing. Couples danced with the teacher chaperones watching to ensure that hands did not wander. I looked around for my friends. The girls who had come alone were clustered here and there in groups along the sides of the dance floor.

I spotted Tiffany and Candace and joined them. There were flattering remarks about how beautiful I looked, how different, how grown-up. I was blushing in the dark and begged them to stop.

“I’ll shut up,” Candace said, “but I can’t get over it. You look like a princess. You’re the most beautiful girl here.”

I shushed her again and kept my eyes down. Kids were looking at me and I was embarrassed to death.

Once Tiffany and Candace calmed down and pretended to get over my makeover, we all had the second shock of the night. Into the gym came the dreamiest hunk any of us had ever seen. You could tell at a glance he was athletic, smart, rich, and Nobel Peace Prize material. School-dance royalty. I thought of him as a prince.

He was obviously a student at the university. High school was behind him. He looked around, as if searching for someone. Kept looking.

I saw him shrug. He turned in our direction and started toward the refreshments in the corner behind us.

As this prince strolled along, he ran his eyes over the crowd. When he got to the three of us, his eyes met mine and time stopped long enough for me to go wobbly on my heels. Then he was past.

“Did you see that?” Tiffany said.

“Get a room,” Candace said to me.

When he passed on his way back with a cup of punch in his hand, I studied the DJ.

“He did it again, Miss Modesty,” Tiffany said.

We watched him move through the crowd. Great shoulders. He moved in a casual way that somehow opened a path in front of him. Students smiled at him when he passed.

“He’ll be back,” Candace said. “Pray that somebody doesn’t beat him to you.”

“Stop it,” I said. “I’m just glad to be here.”

He did come back and before I knew it, we were on the dance floor. For a moment, I worried about the kids around us watching me dance in those heels. I felt kind of rusty and the music was fast. The prince was so casual and such a good dancer, so friendly, and held my eyes so well with his, that I quickly forgot about everything but the two of us and how we were moving together. It all made sense.

When the music slowed, he took me in his arms.

“I’m Ethan,” he said.

“Cindy Ella,” I said.

He had a quizzical look on his face.

“There is something about you, Cindy Ella. You stand out like a beacon in this crowd.”

“Not me,” I said. “You.”

He shook his head, wondering. Then he shrugged and we danced quietly. We fit together so well, I was wondering too. Could he possibly be as special as he seemed?

The evening passed in a blink. He had been supposed to meet a girl there but she hadn’t showed up. He didn’t know anyone there. Except me, now.

He told me about the university and I talked about making shoes. The way he listened, it seemed like making shoes was the most interesting subject in the world for him. The most interesting thing in the world for me at that moment was him.

When I finally checked the time, I had two minutes to get outside.

“Can you excuse me, Ethan?” I said.

I walked away from him, into the crowd. When I got to the door of the gym, I tried to run in the heels. At the steps down to the street, I pulled one off and as I did so, the other fell off. I ran down the steps with one shoe in my hand. The limo was waiting at the curb with its motor running, driver holding open the passenger door in back. I jumped in and we sped away.

It was so wonderful and then over in a heartbeat. I was too excited to think straight. I don’t know if I was happy or heartbroken, alone in the car.

At the store on Monday after school, Mike was waiting for me to come in.

“I had a visitor today,” he said.

I nodded, inviting him to go on.

“A fellow named Ethan. He’s a university student. He had your shoe in his hand.”

“My shoe?”

“How do I know it was yours?” Mike said. “Not too many Badgley Mixchke Randalls at a high-school dance, not with your orthotic in it.”

“What did he want?”

“He wanted to know who belonged to the shoe. He’s going around to every place in town that fits and sells orthotics.”

“What did you tell him?” I said.

“I didn’t know what to tell him, so I told him I’d check around and that he could come back tomorrow. What’s up?”

“I lost the shoe at the dance. I was running to the limo.”

“And?”

“I spent the night dancing with him. I never told him my last name, I guess. I left too fast to give him my number.”

“Sounds like you want to see him again.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” I said.

“He may call me back,” Mike said.

Ethan is all I had been thinking about. Kicking myself for the way the evening ended.

An hour later, the doorbell rang. My stepmother and her daughters were out. I answered the door. Ethan stood there, flowers in hand.

“You ran off and left me,” he said, “but I had to come.”

I nodded.

“I made a mess of it,” I said. “Until I left, the evening seemed like a fairy tale. Too perfect to be true.”

He smiled.

“And they lived happily ever after,” he said.

Minor Lust

Junior year was my best year in high school. By then, I knew what was up but didn’t have to worry about graduation or applying to college like the seniors did.

It was the year the orchestra got to go to Prague for a competition. I had never been anywhere. The other oboe player, Guinevere Sobolanski, had travel stickers all over her oboe case.

“Prague?” she said. “I like Prague.”

Guinevere knew a lot of things I didn’t. She read a lot. She’d pull out a book in orchestra when we were sitting out a movement. She had skied, downhill and cross-country. She saw an avalanche once. I’d never been to the snow.

Of course she made her own reeds. She bought her own cane online and split it herself. She had all the equipment: a guillotine, a pre-gouger and gouger, a gauge, and a shaper. It took her four hours to make a reed that lasted seven hours on her oboe.

She wanted to teach me to make my reeds and I used to go over and keep her company while she was working, but the school bought mine for me. At least I didn’t use the plastic variety.

Junior year was also when Maria Callan joined the orchestra as principal cello. She sat at the head of the orchestra’s left wing, facing Mr. Frost. The oboes were front-row middle, so Maria was in profile to us.

Maria was beautiful. Or whatever comes after beautiful on the good-looks scale. She had a face and figure that didn’t belong in high school. She’d pull up her skirt and spread her legs and draw her instrument in between her thighs and my eyes would drift over to her from Mr. Frost and his baton, and stay there.

“Close your mouth,” Gwen would say. “You look like a panting spaniel.”

Gwen and I, unlike Maria, were normal. We both had a few zits. We both had a lot of eyebrow. Out in the hallway between classes, we were both more or less invisible.

“You’ve got to quit staring at her,” Gwen would say.

“Why?”

“You’re embarrassing yourself.”

“I don’t feel embarrassed. I can’t help it.”

“What’s the point?” Gwen would say. “You’re never going to talk to her, are you?”

“I saw you talking to her. What’s she like?”

“She’s nice but she doesn’t seem too bright.”

Compared to Gwen, she probably wasn’t bright at all, but somehow that seemed like a good thing to me. I wasn’t daydreaming about talking to her.

At this time, the elders in my church were taking each teenage boy aside to discuss the facts of life. Brother Germers and I sat down on folding chairs facing each other on the gym basketball court. The gym was deserted.

“I’ve never kissed a girl,” I said. “I haven’t even held a girl’s hand except when we’re dancing at the socials.”

“I’m not tasked with discussing carnal relations with you,” Brother Germers said. “I do understand that your body is pure. That is a very good thing. I believe that all our boys are pure in body.”

I relaxed.

“I want to talk to you about your thoughts,” Brother Germers said. “Your thoughts are just as important — they’re more important — than your corporeal body. Your body is going to die and return to the dust. Your mind and soul are going to live forever. You have the choice now of spending eternity with your Heavenly Father or being thrown into Hell, to be tormented by Satan and all his minions for eternity.”

I could see where this was going. I began to sweat. Brother Germers was not going to accept any waffling.

“Boys your age are confronted every day with young women who are blossoming. Satan and your hormones want to turn your thoughts in impure directions. I’m talking about lust.”

“Lust.”

“Lust is a sin. It’s a worse sin than the actual lustful act, because it pollutes your mind, not just your fleshly shell.”

“Yes,” I said. “Sure.”

“Do you lust?”

“Absolutely not!”

“Are your eyes, and your thoughts, drawn to certain girls? Do their bodies cloud your mind? Are their firm young bodies like blazing beacons that cause impure thoughts to burn within you?”

“No!”

“You’re lying.”

“Alright. There is one girl.”

“Thank you. What are you going to do about this problem? You can’t participate in services here with a corrupted mind.”

“I won’t look at her.”

“I think that’s wise. Let’s meet again in two days to check on your progress.”

I was glad to get out of there. Fortunately, Brother Germers did not make me go into detail about those corrupted thoughts or what they led to, exactly. The thoughts mostly centered on Maria’s bosom.

“That guy is a knucklehead,” Gwen said. “Utter nonsense. Wait. You’re not going to look at her? Really?”

“My folks love that church. They’re old-school.”

“Learn to lie, buddy.”

I couldn’t help looking at Maria so I did lie. Brother Germers seemed to believe me and he left me alone after that. He’d smile and nod whenever our eyes met at church.

A month later, we left for the competition. When we landed at Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport, a big bus was waiting for us and all of our instruments. We stopped at our hotel and then had a quick look at Dvorak Hall in the Rudolfinium. After that, the bus took us on a tour of the city. We stopped at St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle and that evening had dinner on a cruise boat on the Vlatava River.

The whole thing was like my first visit to Disneyland as a kid. Magical. On the boat, Gwen and I sat at a little table for two by the railing. The sparkling lights along the shore and the violet evening sky were quite beautiful. I was dividing my attention between the sights, and Josh and Maria, sitting together at another little table holding hands. Josh was a big, handsome first violin.

“Really?” Gwen said.

“I can’t help myself.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Haven’t you ever been in love? Or whatever this is?”

“It ain’t love, brother. It’s not even puppy love. You don’t know her. You wouldn’t like her if you did know her.”

“Sure.”

When we got back to the hotel, I watched the happy couple enter the elevator, heading for her room or his, no doubt, with the roommate staying out of the way. The chaperones were clueless.

“Do you want a book to read?” Gwen said. “I know you didn’t bring any.”

“Not really. I’ll just sit here in the lobby and watch the world go by. What are you going to do?”

“I was going to finish a reed, but I brought some games. Scrabble? Boggle?”

“I guess so,” I said.

We went up.

“How come you have a room to yourself?” I said.

“Odd number of girls.”

There was one light on, a lamp on the end table by the bed.

Gwen got out the Boggle box. We sat on the bed. She handed me a pad and pencil. Set up the hourglass. Shook the box.

“It seems sort of mysterious, them down there doing what they’re doing while we sit here and play Boggle,” I said.

“I’m not sure ‘mysterious’ is the word,” Gwen said, “but it’s definitely something.”

She put down the tray and flipped the hourglass.

My brain seemed to be working faster than usual. The Boggle words jumped out at me. I beat Gwen easily in the first round.

“Hey,” Gwen said. “How did that happen?”

I shrugged.

Josh and Maria didn’t seem so mysterious to me now. I looked at Gwen. Her eyes in the dim light were very large and dark. Her skin glowed gold. The mystery wasn’t somewhere else. It was in the room with us.

There was something I should know, should do, that was essential, but I had no idea what it was. I couldn’t speak. The moment lasted. I didn’t want it to end because when it did, I was afraid I would have lost something forever.

“Gwen…”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Ready for the next game?” she said, when I didn’t go on.

I nodded.

This time I couldn’t find anything. Gwen clobbered me.

“Have you ever been fascinated with somebody but you don’t even know them?” I said.

“I haven’t had much luck with boys,” Gwen said. “I expect I’ll meet somebody in college or grad school or even later than that.”

“Yeah.”

“We aren’t ready yet, you and I.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I was alone in a room with a woman who knew a lot more about life than I did. I could see her chest rise and fall as she breathed.

“Take that energy and learn how to make your own reeds,” she said. “I’ll help you.”

“Yeah. Listen, Gwen…”

“Focus,” she said.

She rattled the box.

“Give me a good game this time,” she said.

My Star in Africa

I was living in Hollywood, doing freelance rewrites. My divorce was final and my ex-husband was receding in the rearview mirror of my life. My friend Jorah, a dialog coach, called me and told me she could get me onto a project that would put me in Tanzania with her for a month or two.

“Who’s going to pay me to spend a month or two in Africa?” I said. “That’s why Skype was invented.”

“A guy is doing me a favor,” Jorah said. “I’ve got to be on set every day and I want some company when I get off it. I’ve never been to Africa before.”

“I haven’t either,” I said. “I’d love to go.”

“They’ll pay you scale. The film is set in Dar Es Salaam.”

“Where’s that?”

“Tanzania.”

“Where’s that?”

“Just below Kenya. On the Indian Ocean.”

Which is how I found myself landing at Julius Nyerere International Airport on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, with a Learning Swahili app on my iPhone. A driver was waiting for us, and for a couple of sound men and a locations scout. He loaded our luggage and some sound equipment into the back of a BMW SUV.

The temperature was in the 80s and the sky seemed a lot deeper than in L.A. It was pale blue and full of large fluffy African-looking clouds. We drove for an hour. The locations man, who was returning from a quick trip to Addis Ababa for another movie, told us that the hotel was half an hour from the airport, but the driver took a number of detours around traffic jams. It was my first time in a car driving “on the wrong side of the road.”

The streets were full of buses, trucks, cars, and motor scooters. Lots of folks on foot and bicycle. My initial impression was of a huge variety of short-sleeved shirts. We passed an unending mixture of modern buildings and ramshackle shops, on new roads and old, past empty dirt lots and skyscrapers.

We crossed a bridge and drove up along the ocean, past walled villas and embassies and a white-sand beach, and pulled up in front of the Sea Cliff hotel, on the tip of a peninsula sticking out into the Indian Ocean.

The movie to be made starred a current hot property – call him Justin. Jorah didn’t know much about him personally, other than that he was engaged to another star – call her Deborah. I liked Justin onscreen but had never met him or even seen him from a distance on the L.A. lots. Deborah was a high-visibility young actress favored by the paparazzi.

Jorah and I passed a quiet, jet-lagged first evening in the hotel bar. The next morning our crew was driven down in convoy to a temporary studio in the city, that would be used as a base for the location work. I wouldn’t be involved in the excursions to Kilimanjaro or the Serengeti. In fact, it appeared that I wouldn’t be involved in anything at all. I was there as Jorah’s gofer. She told me to take the day off for myself.

As I was leaving the studio, the power cut out. Howls from the gaffers. Electricity was rationed in Dar Es Salaam, or “Dar,” as the crew called it, but it came back on again as the door closed behind me.

I spent the day walking. Our travel secretary had told me that Dar was safe, even in the low-income areas, except for some pocket-picking and purse-snatching. According to local crew members, the citizens didn’t trust the police and took the law into their own hands when necessary. Either fear of the vigilantes or the local ethical code kept street crime to a minimum. I didn’t have any problems walking alone. The day passed with African sights and sounds, local food, and plenty of exercise. Crowds and traffic filled the roads and city sidewalks. The city was incredibly alive. Locals, Indians, Arabs, ex-pats, and back-packing tourists abounded.

It was warm, but not oppressively so. I had no problem with weather in the eighties.

I’ve always been quick with languages and I began building on my Swahili app.

When I returned to the set, evening was upon us. Cast and crew were making plans to sample the local nightlife in districts away from the center of the city. I told Jorah that I was ready to go back to the hotel.

“But keeping me company is what I brought you for,” she said.

“I overdid it today,” I said. “Give me a pass, just this once.”

“I don’t think anybody is going back to the hotel,” she said.

“I can give her a ride,” Justin said. He was walking past us.

Joran glanced across the room at the AD.

“I might have a date anyway,” she said.

Which put me in the back seat of a Mercedes, riding back to our hotel with the star of the movie. According to Jorah, Justin didn’t have a reputation as a lady’s man, but he was so popular and so handsome that I assumed he was used to having his way with women.

We chatted about this and that. I held back a little because I didn’t want to encourage a situation later. Not that I thought he’d be interested, but he seemed to be paying attention to whatever I said. Maybe he was just a good listener.

“Shall we stop for dinner?” he said.

“Sure.”

“A good place for dinner?” Justin said to our driver, a local man with limited English.

Just for fun, I repeated the question in my broken Swahili. The driver laughed.

“OK,” he said. “I know.”

We crossed the Selander bridge, passed the Russian embassy, and stopped in Oyster Bay at a restaurant obviously designed for tourists, ex-pats, and diplomatic staff. The cuisine was Western. We had a view of the ocean and in the light of dusk we could see a line of ships waiting their turn at the city’s port, which was too small to handle them all at once.

“Dar has been growing fast,” I told Justin. “It’s straining the infrastructure. Rural Tanzanians are flocking to work here. The neighborhoods on the periphery are expanding. It’s why the electricity is rationed.”

“You’ve been busy,” he said. “Jorah told me you haven’t been to Africa before.”

“That’s right. Have you?”

“I’ve made a couple of movies here. Never in Tanzania, though. What do you think of the city after your first day in it?”

“I’m not in Hollywood anymore.”

We sat gazing out at the Indian Ocean, drinking dawa cocktails. Dinner arrived.

We talked about ecology and the planet’s woes, but eventually the conversation turned to our relationships. I mentioned that I was recently divorced.

“Are you still friends?” Justin asked.

“We were never friends,” I said. “It just took me a while to realize it.”

“I can understand that,” he said.

I raised my eyebrows.

“I’ve had a couple of drinks and I don’t know you,” he said.

“Meaning, you’re about to tell me something you shouldn’t?”

“Deborah and I met on a shoot. A romantic comedy. By the time it wrapped, I thought I was in love. The next thing I knew, we’d set the date and announced it.”

“And…?”

“She isn’t the character she played in the movie.”

I had no way of knowing whether this was true, or whether Justin was just manufacturing a little wiggle room for later in the evening. Not that I was going to fall for it if he was. He was convincing, but then, he was an actor.

Whether drink had loosened his tongue or not, his words reminded me that I was worried about The Moment. I sensed it coming – during dessert, or in the car, or back at the hotel. The Moment when the handsome star would expect me to help him finish off his day in bed.

Poor Justin. Engaged to one of Hollywood’s sweethearts against his will.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

“Nothing. Why?”

“Your expression changed.”

“I shouldn’t talk about my divorce when I’m drinking. Have you been married before?”

“No.”

“Engaged?”

“No.”

“But Deborah has?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you tell her the truth? That you aren’t sure, or that you’re sure you aren’t sure?”

“As a matter of fact, I’m going to.”

“Just haven’t gotten around to it?”

“I’ve been avoiding it. Dreading it, actually.”

“Call her tonight.”

“I need to be sober.”

“You’ll be sober before you go to bed.”

He thought for a minute. Or was that calculation?

“You’re right,” he said. “I will.”

Had I prevented The Moment or ensured it?

The meal was excellent. I made the driver laugh again on the way back to the hotel. Justin and I walked into the lobby together. Rode up the elevator together. Walked down the hall together. At my door, he thanked me for the evening. He thanked me for my advice about Deborah. He told me that he’d see me in the morning. Said good night. Walked away.

So much for The Moment.

I wasn’t the evening’s conquest. I was a bedraggled freelance rewriter on a boondoggle.

The second day passed like the first. I explored. When the day’s shoot ended, Justin and I again left together and stopped for a drink and dinner, in a different place along the way. Justin reported that he had called his fiancee, but when she sensed where the call was going, she refused to talk about it until he returned to California. He was totally believable as he told me this. I was torn between my attraction to him and my aversion to being the catch of the day. Or the catch of the second day.

Although, if I were to be that, Justin didn’t seem to be fishing very hard. I tried to accept our time together as just that. Time together. Ships passing in the night. He was so darn attractive, though. Intelligent. Engaged in the world. Such a nice guy. Maybe.

In the days that followed, I learned to use the dala dalas, which will take you anywhere in the city for a dollar, hence their name. I made my way around the outer districts – explored the elegant ones and those overflowing with immigrants from the countryside and those with concentrations from India, and Asia, and the Near East. The city was alive. New buildings were going up everywhere next to old. Office workers, street vendors, tourists, a multinational bustle. Signs in English and Swahili. Warm air. Food.

Justin and I ate dinner together four nights of the seven that week. For me, it became the essential part of the day. Jorah had her own thing going with the AD.

Monday evening, a week and two days in, Justin emerged from makeup with a gauze patch taped to his forehead. He had been doing one of his own stunts and got conked by a two-by-four. The studio brought in a local plastic surgeon to stitch him up.

“Deborah called me today,” he said at dinner with me that night. Instead of heading toward the hotel, we had asked the driver to take us to a popular Khoja Indian restaurant. We ordered yoghurt curry and were drinking a good South African Pinotage with it.

“Yes?” I said.

“The media has discovered us,” he said.

“Us?”

“You and me. ‘Justin Plays While Deborah Steams.’ We’re an item.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “You explained to Deborah of course.”

“I tried to.”

I looked down. One glance at my eyes and he’d see the excitement in them. I couldn’t help it. But Justin was doing more than glancing.

“Hey,” he said. “Look at me.”

I dragged my eyes up to his. This wasn’t The Moment I had anticipated that first night. This was that other moment. The one where your heart is stuck in your throat and you step outside yourself for a moment and feel like jumping up and down and shouting or falling down and weeping in a heap.

“This kind of snuck up on us,” Justin said.

Us.

I nodded, but who was I kidding? I lit the torch I was carrying for this guy the first night we went out.

He took my hand across the table.

“How do we want to do this?” he said

I was concentrating on the feel of my hand in his, the warmth and pressure of his palm and fingers. I was storing up the memory.

“Let’s think about it,” I said.

We finished the meal, making small talk. How had this happened? How was it possible? We held hands on the way out of the restaurant, but not in the car.

When we got out at the hotel, I stopped him. It took me a minute to speak.

“I should fly home, tonight if possible,” I said.

“Not my first choice,” he said.

“You get to make the next choice,” I said, “when you get back to L.A.”

That night on the plane, alone in the dark at three in the morning, I checked my heart. It hurt. I checked for hope in it, and found some.

Home for Thanksgiving

I brought Moshe Bat-Lev, my love, my squeeze, my I-hoped-to-God future husband, home to Somerville for Thanksgiving. We arrived two days early from Cornell, giving us time to relax before the extended family arrived on turkey day. The weather was great. No snow yet, and mild.

Moshe parked on the curb in front of the house. It’s an old, two-family, two-story structure on Chetwynd Road, built in 1925, still in great shape. We lived downstairs while I was growing up, but my parents bought the upstairs when I was in high school. They rented it out for a while and then my dad renovated, merging the two floors into one home.

My mom and dad came out onto the porch to welcome us while we pulled our packs and duffles out of Moshe’s vintage Volvo. The house had a fresh coat of paint, pale yellow, and it felt good to be home, nervous as I was about my folks meeting my fiance for the first time.

“I can’t predict how this is going to go,” I said to him in a low voice. Moshe gave my arm a squeeze.

My dad was home for lunch, and he greeted Moshe with a formality that should have been ludicrous, but, for me at least, was just embarrassing. Moshe shook his hand in that serious but totally cool way he has.

“I’m Seamus,” my dad said. “This is Molly.”

“Mr. O’Reilly,” Moshe said. “Mrs. O’Reilly.”

“Welcome to our home, Moses,” my mom said. I opened my mouth to correct her, but Moshe winked at me and I bit my tongue. We all went inside.

My mom directed Moshe to the guest room upstairs. I got a cot in my old room downstairs, sharing the room with my younger sister Sheila, who inherited it when I left for college.

We freshened up and sat down with the parents for lunch. Mom and Dad were glad to have me home, but focused mostly on Moshe.

“How was your trip?” Mom asked him, as if he had driven the three hundred and thirty miles from Ithaca to Boston alone.

“Very pleasant,” Moshe said. “Your daughter is great company. Doesn’t keep asking if we’re there yet.”

I hurried us through lunch because Moshe and I had an appointment at the Semitic Museum at Harvard that afternoon, both of us taking advantage of the holiday to access research materials at the museum for the day.

We got back to Somerville late. I showered and put on my PJs and almost made it to bed before my mom intercepted me.

“How old is Moshe?” she asked me in the bedroom, after some chitchat.

“Twenty-six.”

“You’re only twenty-two.”

“When he’s ninety, I’ll be eighty-six.”

“You know what I mean. You’re still very young.”

“I’m in graduate school. So is he. We have a lot in common.”

We left it at that.

The next day, Moshe and I drove down to the Cape to visit an artist friend who lived out in the woods in Truro. We hiked down to the beach. The day was warm for November but the ocean turned winter-gray every time a cloud passed in front of the sun. I took the bright and friendly autumn sun as my omen for the day, not the clouds.

“We’re not spending much time at home,” Moshe said to me on our way back that evening.

“You know why,” I said. “I don’t want any fights breaking out.”

“Between me and your parents?”

“Of course not. You’re much too polite and so are they. Between me and my parents.”

“I’m the first guy you’ve brought home. We’re engaged. They’ve got to be worried. Who is this guy? Is he right for our daughter? They’ve got questions. We need to be there so they can ask them.”

“It’s my dad I’m most worried about. He won’t say anything to me. He’ll talk to my mom. He’ll also talk to you.”

“I hope he does,” Moshe said. “Let’s get everything straight, right from the start.”

“My mom thinks you’re too old for me. She told me so last night.”

“I feel a little guilty about that myself. You’re so young. So innocent.”

“Very funny. All right. But that museum work was a must and I was determined to get down to Truro today. We’ve still got tonight and Thanksgiving and the weekend to spend with them.”

That night, it was my sister Sheila who wanted to talk.

“You’re taller than him,” she said.

“So what?”

“I mean, do you ever wear heels? You must tower over him. What’s it like when you dance?”

“Haven’t you ever gone out with a guy shorter than you?” I said.

“Eddie Granger, but I was doing him a favor. He wrote a report for me.”

“You meet a guy you like, you don’t care how tall he is,” I said. And couldn’t resist adding, “Did you notice the size of his arms?”

“Are you going to sneak down to the guest room tonight?” she said.

“Sheila, Moshe and I are living together.”

“Oh my God. If Ma ever finds out. Or Dad. It’s hard enough around here when a guy picks me up for a date.”

“I’m trusting you to keep quiet,” I said.

Later that night, my mom cornered me in the bedroom again.

“I’m just going to say one thing and you already know what it is, I’m sure,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“When you marry your own kind, your future chances are a lot better. You marry someone different, it’s much harder on you+. You can’t know exactly how they think. They have different values. It’s hard even to argue with them. It’s like your husband would be a stranger, in a way.”

“And you know this how?”

“I read. I watch TV. I stay informed. Plus, there’s your Aunt Rose.”

“I knew you’d bring up Aunt Rose,” I said. “Aunt Rose is a handful. She was always a handful. The man who married her was going to have his hands full. You predicted it. Everybody predicted it. Please don’t throw Aunt Rose in my face. I am not anything like Aunt Rose.”

“Alright, alright,” Mom said. “Take it easy. Calm down. You’ve gone all red. I wasn’t… I’m just telling you something everybody knows.”

“I don’t know it,” I said. I stormed out of the room and waited in the bathroom until I heard her leave.

The next day, everyone showed up. My brother Tom. Aunt Fiona and Uncle Clancy. Aunt Meara and Uncle James. Grandma Joyce, born in Galway.

They were introduced to Moshe as they arrived. Every time, it seemed to me, glances were exchanged. This got me steamed. Moshe has a heavy Brooklyn accent and when they first hear it, some folks think that he might be putting them on. My relatives managed somehow to ignore their own heavy South Boston accents.

With all present and accounted for, and all the men fitted out with drinks, I left Moshe and went to help the women with the dinner’s final preparations.

Moshe got questions at dinner from Uncle Clancy and Uncle James, who were sitting on either side of him.

“You are studying what?” Uncle Clancy said. “Summersology? What the heck is that?”

“Sumerology,” Moshe said. “I’m translating ancient clay tablets from the kingdom of Sumer, It’s the part of Iraq nearest the Persian Gulf, only back three thousand years ago.”

“How did you get interested in something like that?” Uncle James said.

“I was over there. I learned something about the history of the area. When I came home, I thought I’d like to learn more. Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences has a Near Eastern Studies department.”

“What were you doing over there?” Uncle Clancy asked. “Something with your religion?”

Moshe smiled.

“I’m not religious,” he said. “I was in the Army, stationed in Kuwait.”

“The Army? What were you doing in Kuwait?”

“I was in the Engineering Corps. I spent most of my time in oil refineries.”

My uncles digested this while I got up to help with dessert. They both worked in the trades.

When the meal was through, Moshe and I helped clear the table.

“Go join the men,” I told him. “They’ll think I’ve got you whipped.”

“You do have me whipped,” he said.

“Later,” I said.

“Ladies,” my mom said as Moshe was leaving the kitchen, “we’re going to wash everything by hand. The dishwasher is on the fritz again.”

“What’s wrong with it?” Moshe said.

“The top rack don’t get cleaned.”

“I can fix that for you,” Moshe said. “There’s a little filter screen that’s clogged up. Water can’t get into the hose to the top. It only takes a couple of minutes. Once it’s cleaned, it’s good as new.”

My brother fetched him a screwdriver and watched as he cleaned out the filter. It didn’t take long. We washed all the dishes in the meantime, but my mom was delighted to get her dishwasher back.

“Thanks, Moshe,” Tommy said. “Ma, call me the next time it gets plugged, now that I see how to fix it.”

He and Moshe left the kitchen to join the men. My mom gave me a look.

“What?” I said.

“He’s good with his hands for a guy studying old Arabs,” she said. “Your dad’s been saying he’d fix it. A plumber, he can’t do ten minutes work at home?”

“They weren’t Arabs,” I said, “but you’re right. He’s handy.”

“Just the same,” my mom said. “He isn’t… you know… He don’t go to Mass.”

“Ma, I don’t go to Mass.”

“You’re young. Sew your wild oats. I was the same way. But later, you’ll come to your senses. You marry a nice Catholic boy, there won’t be a problem.”

“When I come to my senses,” I said, “I’ll convert him. I checked. He’ll complete the Pre-Cana. We can get married by a priest. Don’t worry about it.”

“I like a handy guy,” my mom said. “It’s one thing attracted me to your father.”

“And is my guy handsome? Or is he handsome?”

“He’s got a nose on him, but yeah. He’s a dish.”

Later, before sunset, Moshe and I walked down to the Tufts campus at the end of the street. We strolled around, letting our dinner settle. Canoodled a little in the shadows by Barnam Hall.

In the morning, we got up early for breakfast with my dad, before he went off on a call. He was counting on my brother to help him during the holidays because some of his regular guys were off. This morning, however, Tommy called to say he was sick. I could tell my dad was disappointed.

“I’ll come help out,” Moshe said.

“You’re not done at Harvard,” I said. “The Akkadian artifacts.”

“Will you reschedule that for me?” he said.

“That’s all right, Buddy,” my dad said. “No offense but I’m already gonna have my hands full without babysitting somebody.”

I could feel my face get hot but Moshe just grinned.

“What are you doing today?” he said.

“Replacing an old steam boiler,” my dad said. “It’s going to be a real pain in the a… pain in the neck.”

“You work with steam?” Moshe said.

“What do you know about steam?”

“I mentioned to your brothers last night that I was in the Army Engineering Corps. I trained at Fort Leonard Woods and shipped out to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. I was detailed out to an area refinery project as part of a support crew. There were a number of steam systems installed. I scraped some knuckles on them.”

“Well…,” my dad said, “yeah, why don’t you come along then… Did you have any trouble with those Arabs, you being… you know… in the Army and everything?”

“Not once I learned Arabic,” Moshe said.

They took off and I went out in my sweats and jogged along the Alewife, and then spent the rest of the day with my mom and sisters. My mom started up once, while we were having lunch at the Greek Corner on Mass Ave.

“It’s not easy, living with somebody,” she said. “You can’t practice in advance, so you’ve got to have other ways of knowing what they’re going to be like.”

“What other ways?”

“Oh, how they handle money, for example.”

I drummed my fingers on the table. Sheila and Colleen both told Mom to knock it off. They could tell I was seeing red and they wanted to head off anything serious.

“Now hold on,” my mom said. “I like the boy. I never said I didn’t. I meant no offense.”

“We all like him,” Colleen said. “Where do you get that stuff?”

“I’m her mother,” my mom said. “It’s my job to look out for her. If everybody says everything is fine, maybe everything is fine. Only, when I have doubts I’m going to speak up. I’m supposed to.”

So we made peace. I was more worried about my dad, anyway.

We had dinner late because Moshe and Dad stopped for a few drinks with the boys after work, at the Sligo Pub in Davis Square. The two men came home acting like bosom buddies.

“It was a good day,” Moshe told me. “We got to the site and I grabbed a tape and offered to walk the building and double-check his EDR ratings, just to made sure the new boiler had been sized right. That was OK with him. It’s SOP. When I finished, our figures matched. After that I just worked as a pipe fitter for most of the day, but I also consulted with him a time or two. In the Army, we’d get guys who showed up in the unit saying they knew hot water, so they figured they could handle steam. Steam is a whole different thing, though. Tricky. Your dad told me he’d had the same experience with guys who wanted to hire on with him.”

“Does my dad know steam?”

“Your dad knows steam.”

Later my dad said, “The kid is strong as an ox and he can hold a drink. I told him if he ever gets tired of the Arabs he should come work for me.”

Moshe went with him again the following day. When we left Sunday morning, there was a lot of hugging and promises about coming back, and a little sniffling by me and my mom.

Moshe and I didn’t say much in the car at first, as he negotiated his way down School Street and Prospect and Western and over the Charles onto the Mass Pike. As we headed west on our six-hour drive back to Ithaca, I punched him in the shoulder.

“Whew,” I said.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” he said. “We’ve got Hanukkah in a month in Brooklyn. It’s not going to get any easier with my mom and dad, believe me.”

Going Out

I was hired fresh out of school by Omaha’s top polling organization because I had worked on the last national census and I had a lot of experience going door-to-door. It was an entry-level job. Once I was trained, I found myself out on the street, iPad in hand.

On the afternoon that I met Myrtle and Patrick, I was canvassing the Millard East neighborhood, working the blocks off N Street, collecting opinions on several local propositions due for a vote in the next special election. It was a warm summer afternoon but the streets were lined with trees that provided shade.

A lot of folks were at work. I rang a couple of bells with no luck and then tried one more house before my break. I rang and waited, and an elderly woman answered the door. I explained who I was, displayed my credentials, and asked her if I could record her opinion on a number of subjects. I had to reassure her more than once that I wasn’t selling anything. This was Myrtle.

Myrtle invited me to take off my work shoes and come in. We sat down in the living room. I asked my first question and she told me that I’d better talk to her son. She struggled to her feet and limped off to find him.

“Can you ask him your questions in his bedroom?” she said when she returned.

“No,” I said.

“I mean, he’ll be in his bedroom and you can talk to him from the hall, through the door.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. I wasn’t getting paid enough to do something stupid. “Perhaps it would be best if I leave.”

“Please don’t. Let me speak to him. It will be good for him to get out of his room.”

She left me sitting on the sofa and disappeared into the back of the house. Presently she returned with a handsome young man about my age, twenty-three, dressed in white. Clean white shirt, pressed white trousers, white socks, and white shoes. His hair was trimmed, his face a bit pale but clean-shaven.

“This is my son Patrick,” the woman said. “Patrick, this is Frieda. She has some poll questions to ask. Perhaps you can help her with them.”

Patrick and I shook hands and said hello. I sat down on the edge of the sofa, doing my perky-little-bird thing. Patrick sat facing me in an antique Morris chair that was polished and clean but well-worn.

I don’t know what I expected from Patrick, but we had a pleasant chat. I asked my questions. He saw me to the door. Apart from a couple of glances back toward his bedroom during the interview, he seemed normal. As I left, he handed me a card with his name and several blog addresses on it.

That night before bed, I remembered the card. I found it in my pants pocket and checked out the blogs. They were all Patrick’s.

The first focused on philosophy. I read a well-written, well-thought-out entry on quantum uncertainty and free will, which he had written. Perhaps it was profound or perhaps it was utter nonsense, but either way I was impressed. A discussion followed on the page, in the comments section, between Patrick and a variety of readers from around the world. Evidently he had been a philosophy student at Creighton University and was now part of a community of thinkers of deep thoughts.

The second URL led to his sports blog. Mostly about Nebraska football. Patrick seemed to have hundreds of online friends in that one.

His third blog dealt with video and role-playing games. I read his rave review of the novel “Ready Player One.” I’m not much for video or arcade games, but I made a mental note to check out the book. It sounded like a fun read.

Then I surprised myself by leaving a comment. Nice to meet you today. Something like that. Patrick responded immediately and we began an easy online conversation. We switched to IM and in the end he invited me back to his home for dinner the following night. I accepted.

Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Me? I hadn’t been out on a date in more than a year. Maybe two. He must have spotted my inner beauty. Ha. Dinner in Millard East with Myrtle and Patrick. Dinner with a young man who didn’t like to leave his room. A smart, handsome young man.

The next day when my shift ended, I was back on their porch, ringing the bell. Patrick answered. Again he was dressed in white, neat and clean.

We sat in the living room drinking Wimbledon coolers while Myrtle made dinner. I thought about offering to help her but that seemed weird for a first visit.

“Just to state the obvious,” Patrick said, “I’m severely agoraphobic.”

“For how long?”

“A year and a half. I was with my father when he died. I think that triggered my condition somehow. I had already been having panic attacks.”

“Are you anxious now, being out of your room like this?”

“Yes, but not so much that it shows. I mean, do I seem anxious?”

“No.”

“But if I stepped out through the front door and stood on the porch, you’d be able to see it,” he said.

“Therapy?” I said.

“Online and by phone.”

“Medication?”

“Antidepressants and antianxiety drugs, but I haven’t found a sustainable combination. I’ll keep working with my shrink on it. I also need desensitization. Cognitive therapy and exposure. I can’t do that alone, though.”

He obviously had plenty of friends, at least online. Omaha friends as well as those worldwide. Perhaps some of the locals had already tried to help him. Perhaps the time commitment was too great, or the interpersonal chemistry wasn’t right, or his companions’ reactions weren’t what he needed when the panic hit. Whatever, Patrick was extending an invitation.

“I would be delighted,” I said. I guess he was desperate for help from somebody, even me.

We sat there smiling at each other until we were saved by the dinner bell.

The first step was simply to hang out in the living room together, which we did that night. We cleaned up for Myrtle after dinner. She went to her room to watch television. When we had finished, Patrick and I sat on the sofa and shared a joint and chatted. There were silences but they weren’t uncomfortable. We each had a drink or two and two hours passed in a blink. By the time I left, I was buzzed sufficiently to leave my car at the curb and take a cab back to my apartment.

I came over every night that week. I helped Myrtle make dinner. Afterwards, Patrick and I played bezique or piquet or honeymoon bridge or Scrabble, or we just sat and talked. Patrick knew the card games because his mom was an old-fashioned Hoyle aficionado. Myrtle sometimes joined us for a three-handed game like gleek or red frog black frog, or invited the next-door neighbor over for an hour or two of four-handed whist. Myrtle was also not shy about taking a drink or a toke or two with her son and me.

Saturday, Patrick and I ate lunch on the front porch together. The air beneath the trees had a green jungle cast. We left the porch and sat on the front lawn. Patrick handled it well. The seventeen-year cicadas were appearing early in Nebraska that year and their buzzing had a hypnotic quality.

“I haven’t asked you about this,” Patrick said, “and stop me if I’m being nosy, but are you in a relationship? Seems like you must be.”

“Why would you say that?”

“You just seem sort of special.”

He floored me with that. This guy was way, way out of my league. In brains, in looks, you name it.

“I’ve been helping you,” I said, after an awkward pause. “I think you’re just feeling a little grateful. But thanks for the compliment.”

He was probably so glad to be outdoors that it was making him loopy.

He looked at me and I studied the tree next to us. He didn’t say anything, just sat there, quiet. Of course this had to be a bad skin day for me. My cheeks felt hot.

“No, I’m not in a relationship,” I said, finally.

After that, I gave him a quick course in Pranayama breathing as a relaxation technique. We practiced a bit and traded notes on meditation.

The point of desensitization, according to Patrick, was to stay within a situation until the anxiety passed. Otherwise, nothing was accomplished.

We did the breathing until he announced that he was feeling quite calm, and we went back inside.

A week later, I asked Patrick about the all-white clothing, and whether he’d be willing to try something different. He said that he would, but that he wasn’t ready to go out and buy anything for himself. He gave me a credit card and I drove over to the Oak View Mall and picked out some pants, shirts, and socks at The Gap and Eddie Bauer.

We invited an internet friend named Jack and his wife over for dinner. Myrtle and I made pot roast with vegetables and gravy. Patrick wore a new pair of khaki pants and a blue Oxford shirt and looked even more handsome and together than usual.

After that, he and I graduated to walks down to the corner. I cut back on my hours at work. When I wasn’t helping Patrick, I was taking Myrtle to the market or beauty shop.

Patrick and I ventured beyond the block together for the first time on a trip to Riverside Park. I drove. We got on I80 and crossed the Missouri and parked in a lot by a trail down to the river.

“You OK?” I said.

He nodded.

We put on red Cornhusker caps and dark glasses and got out and walked toward the water. Birds were singing and the river looked quite muscular flowing past. There were a few folks here and there but we were alone on our part of the path.

“Anxious?” I said.

“Excited,” he said.

I was too. It felt great. Scary, but great.

The success of that trip led to visits to Doorly Zoo and Durham Museum and the Lauritzen gardens. Patrick had some tricky moments in public but he’d look at me and we’d talk quietly until he felt better. I got used to being looked at. Sort of.

In time, we agreed to visit a spot where Patrick had experienced several of his worst panic attacks, on campus at Creighton. We drove into Omaha and parked in the visitor’s lot across from the Harper Center. We strolled down the Mall, across 24th to Dowling Hall. Halfway there, Patrick took my hand for the first time. The summer campus was quiet. I felt the sun on my shoulders and hair. For a moment I thought I was floating.

Dowling Hall was built in 1889. Patrick had had two major attacks inside it during philosophy lectures. There were black wrought-iron benches along the Mall. We sat down on one facing the building’s facade of gray sandstone. A student came out, swinging an old green Harvard Co-op book bag. Inherited from his mom or dad, no doubt.

“Let’s do some breathing,” I said.

We sat without speaking, slowing our breath, attending, calming ourselves. Or, in my case, trying to. Eventually, Patrick stirred.

“Frieda, if I make it… If I can stay out of the house and get my life back…”

He turned to me. The focus had changed, away from his illness and onto our future. I never felt so ugly. Or so vulnerable.

Then, sudden tears and a strong rush in my chest. At first I thought it was fear but then I realized it was love.

Busman’s Holiday

I’m one of those women with terrible taste in men. Every time I escape from a disastrous relationship, I swear that I’ve learned my lesson and I’ll never make the same stupid mistake again.

I lick my wounds and fall for some other dope.

Is that what happened when I met Joshua Smith, or did I finally get it right?

I was volunteering for his campaign and we came face to face at a fundraiser. This handsome, powerful-looking man. And bright. But not too bright.

After a brief chat, he asked me out to dinner the following evening. To discuss the campaign. The next think I knew, we were dining at Carbone’s in Hartford, me in my new Anthropologie cocktail dress, which I bought that afternoon for the occasion.

This guy. Perfect. I mean it. The most positive, optimistic, unambitious person I’ve ever known. Not a whiff of phony.

I kept waiting for the bad news. It never came. That week, anyway, or the next. Josh had lost two elections in the past ten years, but this time he was in the lead. Ten years ago, he was an amnesia victim who decided to run for local office. Quixotic. No one knew who he was or what he had done. He was slaughtered in the election. Then he involved himself completely in community affairs and the second time he ran, he did much better, although he still lost. This third time, the voters had ten solid years of his political and community history to go on, and they liked what they saw.

Josh moved me onto his personal staff. I was a total amateur but none of the others seemed to mind. It felt like family.

We got seriously serious, Josh and I. The temperature was rising. That’s when he popped my balloon.

We were eating barbecue at Black-Eyed Sally’s before heading back to his place.

“Eloise,” he said, “there’s something I must tell you.”

Oops. Here it comes. Wife? Impotence? Gambling addiction? The mob?

“Yes?” I said. Kept eating. Didn’t want this to spoil a great dinner.

“This is going to sound strange. Unbelievable. You’re going to think I’m crazy.”

“You’re probably right,” I said, “based on my previous experience.”

“Only a few people know this. I’ll never be elected if it gets out. I’m telling you because I know that I can trust you. I’m falling in love with you, Eloise, and I know that you have feelings for me too.”

“I have a feeling those feelings might be heading in the other direction soon.”

“Maybe so. That’s why I’m telling you this now, before we get in any deeper. To be fair to you.”

I studied my plate with its remaining rib. Could this be a good excuse to order a few more? A silver lining? A consolation prize? I’d be a fool to miss the chance if it were.

“I’m an alien,” Josh said.

“You’re not documented? I don’t believe it. You’re running for office and you’re not even a citizen? I must be dreaming. I thought you weren’t a dope. I was convinced you weren’t a dope. You know what? You’re a dope.”

“It’s worse than that,” Josh said. “Or better, depending upon your point of view.”

Uh oh. What happened to my appetite? I put down my fork. Suddenly I didn’t even want dessert, never mind more ribs. Now the rib on my plate looked lonely. Unappreciated.

Another drink might be good, though.

“Well, go on,” I said.

“There’s no easy way to say this… When I tell you that I’m an alien, I do mean alien.”

I put my head in my hands.

“Tell me this isn’t happening. I finally, finally get it right with a guy… What, you’ve got a tinfoil hat in your pocket?”

But hold on. In a case like this, being a little crazy is a lot better than being undocumented. Congress is full of crazies. In fact, they could be getting crazier. Sometimes it seems that way.

“Great,” I said. “If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the first crazy person I’ve dated, and with my luck, probably not the last.”

I was glad I bought the cocktail dress, even if it was for barbecue with a Martian.

“Of course it sounds crazy,” Josh said. “I won’t mention it again. I was honor bound to tell you, but now I’ve done that. If you want to break it off, I’ll understand. I won’t like it, but I’ll understand.”

I sat there. I thought about getting up and leaving. Gosh, he was so darn handsome. So quiet and self-assured. But intense. Intense in a mild, good way. A way that led to high poll numbers. Would it be so bad, dating a guy who thought he wasn’t human? He had all the human parts I needed. We had proved that. He’d already sent me to outer space a time or two.

I sighed. My appetite came tip-toeing back.

“You told me,” I said. “I appreciate that. You risked the love that we’ve started to feel for each other. That took courage. Let’s try to move on, without discussing the matter further.”

And so we did. The campaign intensified. Not another sign of weirdness from Josh. I was thankful that we were all so busy, because otherwise I would have just swooned into a puddle of love.

Our opponent, Bruce Parducci, liked to compare Josh’s past to his own humble beginnings and extended family. Josh met the issue head on.

“My opponent grew up poor, but in a loving family,” Josh would say, never mentioning the Parducci family’s criminal connections, which were well known in Hartford. “I congratulate Mr. Parducci on his success in life and his strongly held values. I simply don’t agree with his political philosophy. Meanwhile, as he points out, my past extends back only ten years, to a time when I was afflicted with total amnesia. Perhaps in my youth I too was a member of a loving family. Perhaps I was poor. Perhaps I was rich. We don’t know.

“As voters, you have only my record for the past decade to go on. It speaks for itself.”

It seemed to speak well, according to the polls.

I didn’t move in with Josh officially, because of the campaign, but we were effectively living together. After that one little bump in the road at Black-Eyed Sally’s, I just kept falling.

Then came a crisis. A fellow in Waterbury accused Josh of murdering his brother a dozen years before. Without any memories or clues as to his whereabouts during that time, Josh couldn’t effectively deny the accusation. Parducci declined to comment.

“This is baloney,” I said to Josh. “Parducci is behind it.”

“Probably. Don’t worry about it,” Josh said.

“Have you seen the polls?”

“They’ll go back up when I’m proven innocent.”

“And how is that going to happen, pray tell?”

“There are some folks working on it.”

“There are some folks? What folks? Which folks?”

“You haven’t met them yet. They’ve been important in getting me on the right track to office this time. The first two times I ran, I was on my own.”

“Why don’t I know about them? I thought we had no secrets from each other.”

“It’s not a secret. It’s connected to that confession I made to you. The one we don’t talk about.”

I knew what he meant.

“Don’t say any more,” I said.

He didn’t.

I assumed he was sunk, but lo and behold, the Waterbury police announced two days later that they had procured, in fact, DNA associated with the case. The candidate was invited to provide a sample of his own, for comparison purposes.

“You’re going to do it, of course,” I said. “I’m sure there is no chance…”

“I can’t give them a sample. My DNA would raise eyebrows, to put it mildly,” he said. “Besides, my friends planted the DNA that the police so conveniently just found. It isn’t mine.”

“There is only one way your DNA could raise eyebrows and that’s if it matched the police evidence.”

“No, there’s another way. The way we don’t talk about.”

How silly of me. Of course. Alien DNA!

“We’re in love, right?” I said.

“Absolutely.”

“Our mutual love… it has implications.”

“A lifetime together,” Josh said, “for example.”

“I can live with a guy who thinks he’s an alien,” I said, “as long as it doesn’t impact me, or us, day-to-day. The police have to see your DNA. I don’t think you’re a murderer, of course, but let’s do a little diligence here.”

“The murder accusation is a fabrication created and bruited about by Parducci,” Josh said. “Without resolution of the charge, I’ll lose the election. So this is what I propose. Today, you find a local DNA testing center. There are plenty of them in Hartford. Call one. Make an appointment. They all have a menu of tests you can order. It’s all confidential. Most of them don’t even provide their address until you make an appointment and pay a fee.

“We’ll drive over to the lab and let them take a sample from me and run the test. OK? If the results come back normal, I promise that I’ll drive over to Waterbury immediately and let the police test me there. But if the test results aren’t normal, my friends will help us with a sample that will resolve the issue in my favor. With that, we’ll put this behind us.”

I agreed. I didn’t bother asking him what he’d say if the tests came back normal. I’m sure that in his delusion, he’d have an explanation handy. Fine. Just as long as he drove over to Waterbury and proved that he wasn’t a murderer. Proved it to me, that is.

I scheduled us at a lab on Farmington. Josh provided a sample on demand. We waited.

The tests did not come back normal. The lab apologized and speculated that the sample had been corrupted somehow. It was “all messed up.”

The following day, the media reported that Josh’s DNA (provided by his friends) had been checked by the Waterbury PD and that he was not the killer.

What did I make of all this? As a woman in love, I was relieved. Confused, but relieved. If I can love a man who thinks he’s an alien, I can love a man with goofy DNA. I think.

We were in bed with the lights out the following night.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “What about children?”

“That won’t be a problem,” Josh said.

“Why not?”

“I can’t explain why not without talking about the forbidden subject.”

“We’re having breakfast together in the morning, right? You won’t be rushing off?”

“I won’t rush off.”

“Let’s talk about this then. I need to think about it.”

Obviously, the simple statement that Josh was an alien was not going to be quite enough for me. Not in view of this DNA development, and Josh’s mysterious “helpers.”

“Just tell me enough,” I said at breakfast, “to reassure me that we can spend a normal life together.”

“I can do that,” Josh said. “It’ll make me sound quite delusional, but you already think I’m delusional.”

I sat there and held my breath. Yes, I was in love. Desperate love. But how much could I hear before I’d be forced to walk away? Josh looked so calm, so contained, so handsome, sitting across from me. I was still in one of my total-swoon periods.

“I’m risking our relationship, talking about this,” he said. “I understand that. Unfortunately, reality has a way of intruding into life. If this DNA issue hadn’t arisen, something else would have come up.”

I drank some coffee.

“I’ll give you the short version. If that’s good enough, we’ll resume our silence about this. If it isn’t, we’ll take a walk down at Great River Park after the rally this afternoon, and we can talk some more.”

I nodded.

“I’m on vacation,” Josh said. “I’m a politician on sabbatical. I bought a tour package through a travel agency. I’m here for sixty years, from age thirty to age ninety. It’s a political package. I’m guaranteed election to state office within three tries or ten years, whichever comes first. I thought it would be fun.”

“You’re vacationing on Earth,” I said, though I had sworn to myself that I’d keep my mouth shut.

“Lots of… of vacationers come to Earth. It’s primitive, it can be dangerous, but you can buy anything you want here. Sort of like spending a weekend in Tijauna.”

“And this vacation will last sixty years.”

“We’re long-lived. The tour was on sale. I got a deal.”

“OK, stop,” I said. “I think I’ve reached my limit.”

I left him to finish his breakfast. I took a shower, dressed, and went to to work.

How could I have let this romance go on for so long? But why not? I can’t describe how lovable, how steady, how altogether totally cool this man was. I couldn’t stop looking at him. I melted when he paid attention to me. I couldn’t keep my hands off him. I was in love. My God, I wanted this guy.”

We walked by the river after the rally. I told him to continue.

His current body, it seemed, had belonged to a George Martin, who died homeless and unidentified in Los Angeles ten years ago. Aged thirty at the time of his death. The travel bureau obtained his cadaver, reanimated it, did some work on the face so that he wouldn’t be recognized in the future, and then stuck Josh’s mind inside him somehow. Voila.

“The bureau usually doesn’t bother with backstory,” Josh said. “An amnesia claim is simpler and safer.”

“How can you love me if you’re an alien?”

“Why not? I’m using George Martin’s brain, with a little superego smeared over it. I do love you. In fact, I want to marry you.”

That took a minute to sink in.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My lifelong dream come true. A marriage proposal from a tourist from Quidrxxixz.

“What about children and your corrupted DNA?” I said.

“George Martin’s DNA got tweaked during the reanimation. That’s normal. The travel bureau has a supply of Martin’s sperm for us.”

“When would this marriage happen?”

“If you want a fancy wedding, after the election,” Josh said. “Otherwise, let’s get a license tomorrow.”

“And then… work, and raise a family, and grow old together?”

“Yep. Neither of us will ever get sick. Nor will the children. That’s part of the package. At age ninety, I’ll need to leave. If you choose, you can come with me. Transformed, of course. Our children and grandchildren will have to stay here, but we can visit, for years if we want.”

I said yes. Since we’ve been married, I’ve never caught a cold and I’m no longer allergic to cats.

Taking the Plunge in Hollywood

“Let’s get married,” Ted said to Mary.

The couple was sitting by their pool on a summer evening. Hollywood stretched out below them, its lights beginning to glitter as the last of the sunset faded and the sky overhead turned from purple to black.

“Wow. A proposal,” Mary said, toasting Ted with her martini glass.

Cecil B. strolled by.

“That cat is getting fat,” Ted said.

“I think Mrs. Welles next door is feeding him. So you want to get married? It ain’t broke, you know.”

“Sometimes it’s fun to tweak something, even if it ain’t broke. We’ve been shooting a wedding in that church they use in Pasadena. It put me in the mood.”

“Does the couple live happily ever after?”

“The wife gets killed right after the ceremony. But still.”

“I could be interested,” Mary said.

They sipped their drinks, gazing into the depths of the pool, azure in the dusk. The tile mosaic seahorse at the bottom moved in a languid way, as the pool water circulated though the pool filter.

“I suppose we’ll need a pre-nup,” Mary said.

“You can’t ever forget the pre-nup,” Ted said. “If my folks taught me anything, it was to remember the pre-nup.”

“I’ll call Sid in the morning.”

“I’ll call Saul.”

“Then what do we do?”

“I think we swing by a County office and pay a fee and pick up a license.”

Mary signaled Brigitte to bring out another chilled pitcher of drinks.

“Please bring my laptop too, Brigitte” she said.

A towhee closed the day with measured chirps in the hedge, announcing the sunset’s completion as surely as a night rooster.

“We can apply for a license online,” Mary said, studying her laptop with a fresh drink in her hand. “Then we have to go together to pick it up at one of the County branches… There’s one on Burton in Beverly Hills. I’m shooting in Santa Monica tomorrow and you’ll be in Pasadena. Let’s meet halfway.”

“Do they still want a blood test?”

“Apparently not… There’s something called the Name Equality Act, but we won’t be changing our names, so we don’t need to worry about that. I’ll fill out the application right now and then we’ll go down tomorrow, show them our driver’s licenses, and pay them ninety dollars.”

“Wow, it costs to get married these days.”

“Ninety for a public license, eight-five for a confidential license. That’s for when everybody thinks the two of you are already married… Do you want a wedding?” Mary said. “I don’t care. It says here you can arrange for a civil ceremony when you pick up the license. Otherwise, you have your own ceremony, get the pastor’s name on the license, and mail it back in. You’ve got ninety days.”

With the light gone from the sky, the blue illumination in the pool grew stronger. The circulating water cast restless, rippling light and shadow in the trees overhead. Cecil B. meowed at the sliding screen door and Brigitte let him in.

“We ought to throw a little party or something, don’t you think?” Ted said. “At least? Have your sister and my brother over, and your folks. Some friends. Get Emilo to cater it. Or we could just tie the knot right there at the County building.”

“No, let’s have the party. Father Bruno can marry us. He’s consulting on our shoot and he’s a darling.”

“What did you and Fred do for a ceremony?” Ted said.

“We were never actually married. People just assumed.”

“Jane and I made it clear we weren’t married, from the start,” Ted said. “We didn’t want any confusion about that. We explained everything to her kids so they wouldn’t ever expect me to be some sort of dad to them.”

“OK. I’m filling out the application here. Hmm. Your mom and dad’s full names and the state each was born in?”

Ted told her.

“This is so simple,” Mary said. “Boom. It’s done. We have fifteen days to go down, show our IDs, pay the fee, and collect our license. Then we say I do when the padre asks us, a witness signs the license, the padre signs it and mails it in, and we’re married.”

“Woo hoo,” Ted said, and they toasted each other a second time.

They met at the Beverly Hills Courthouse the following afternoon. They both parked on the curb along Civic Center Drive. In minutes they were done at the County Clerk’s counter and stood together out on the wide grass meridian in front of the building, holding hands and shaking their heads in mild amazement at what they had done. Ted followed Mary over to Mariposa on Wilshire for a late lunch. They discussed their honeymoon while they dined. Because they were both working on pictures, they settled on a quick trip to Palm Springs, where they would stay at the Zoso or Parker or Viceroy.

The following day, Ted picked up a pair of wedding rings at Harry Winston on Rodeo and Mary splurged on a modest Judy Lee for the ceremony.

“It’s about time,” Mary’s mother said to her over the phone. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Mary said. “Ted was at a shoot that was filming a wedding. It struck a chord, I guess. All of a sudden, it just seemed right to us. When we got the license, he had a great big smile.”

“Has the subject of children come up in the conversation? Can I hope to ever be a grandmother?”

“Not yet,” Mary said, “but it could happen as quickly as this wedding has. Who knows?”

“He did OK with his girlfriend’s kids the last time around, didn’t he?”

“They loved him. He shied away from being a dad, though. But that was a long time ago.”

Her mother took all this as a good sign, and was satisfied.

Ted and Mary made the wedding arrangements together, treating the event mostly as a casual party by their pool. The pre-nup was in place. In addition, everything Mary and Tom owned belonged, without question, in a legally defensible way, solely to one or the other of them, in spite of the fact that they had lived together in total devotion for a decade. Money, property, and the future never created issues for Ted and Mary. Their sole point of connection and intimacy to date was their relationship – their love and respect for each other.

On the appointed day, the guests arrived – Mary’s parents and sister, Ted’s brother, a variety of aunts and uncles and cousins and friends in the business. Everyone kept to the shade of the trees and the tables with umbrellas around the pool. Emilio set up the buffet and bar at the edge of the back lawn, out of the sun.

The sky was cloudless and the day was quiet. A thrasher called from the scrub on the hillside. Mary’s uncle got ready to record the ceremoney on his iPhone. Standing in the shade of an oak, Father Bruno held forth for a bit and then asked the couple if they did in fact agree to take each other in sickness and in health, and so on, for the rest of their natural lives.

Mary responded in the affirmative without delay. Ted hesitated.

“Sorry to be a pain,” he said, “but I just want to be clear. When are we actually married? When I say I do? When the padre signs our license? Or when the County records the license after we return it?”

“In the eyes of God,” said Father Bruno, “after you both say yes, you’re married.”

“Sure, but I mean, in the eyes of California.”

“The same, I believe,” said the padre. “Although to eliminate any doubt, I’ll sign the license as soon as you say yes, or at least nod your head. Who’s the witness here?”

Mary’s sister was the witness, although she said she wouldn’t do it if Ted was going to be a jerk about it. She had had a yen for Ted for years, so she was looking a little hangdog in the first place.

“Let’s back up and do another take,” Mary said. “You don’t mind, do you, Father?”

“Used to it,” Father Bruno said with a smile.

“Uncle Bob,” Mary said, “would you move around and shoot on my good side? Thanks.”

Father Bruno just summarized his thoughts the second time around, and got to the crucial question a lot quicker. The attention of several of the relatives had strayed in the direction of the portable bar waiting under an acacia beyond the roses. A young man stood behind the bar in white shirt and black tie, ready to serve the guests whatever they ordered. Mary again said yes and Ted again hesitated.

“What’s the problem?” Mary said.

“It just seems like… How can me saying one little word now, or even just nodding, do the trick? It’s a big step. What if I say yes and then instantly regret it? Padre, will you still sign the paper if I change my mind before you get your pen to the paper?”

“I ought to,” Father Bruno said. “You’ll be married once you agree. I’d feel bad, not signing it.”

“What if you sign it and don’t send it in?”

“California doesn’t care so much whether you send it in or not,” Mary said. “I asked at the courthouse. If they don’t receive the completed license in ninety days, you get a computer-generated reminder. If the license gets lost in the mail or you don’t bother returning it, there’s a statement or affidavit or something you can sign later on. Basically, when you say yes, you’re married.”

“That’s so old-fashioned,” Ted said. “I could say I didn’t really mean it. I could say I didn’t really nod, it was just a muscle twitch. A mosquito bit me and I jerked.”

“Let me remind you,” Mary said, “that for us, you and I, it’ll be as easy to get a divorce as it was to get married, if we ever decide we want one. If you change your mind after you say yes, we’ll call Sid and Saul and they’ll move us back to square one in no time.”

Ted stood thinking.

“Don’t do it,” said Mary’s sister to him.

“Give it up,” Mary said to her. “He likes you. He doesn’t love you. Settle for that.”

She turned to Ted.

“Honey, it’s OK,” she said. “If you’re not comfortable with this, we can drop it. It’s no big deal. If you change your mind back, we can have another party. Is that all right with you folks?”

Everyone agreed that they’d be happy to come back for another attempt. Emilo’s catering alone made the trip worth it. Perhaps everyone would bring their swimsuits next time.

“You don’t care if we stop now?” Ted said.

“I care, but I care about you more,” Mary said.

“Nah…,” Ted said. “Nah, it’s OK. Let’s do this. Do you mind another repeat, Padre?”

“Not at all,” said Father Bruno.

“Can somebody lend me their phone?” Mary’s uncle said. “I’m out of memory here.”

Once the uncle was in place and recording with a borrowed phone, Father Bruno repeated his admonitions to the couple. Sensing that this would be the final take, he allowed himself to expand on his original thoughts a bit. When Ted’s moment came, he said yes in a strong voice. The couple exchanged rings.

“Feel any different?” Mary said.

“I feel good,” Ted said. “I feel very good. What about you?”

“I feel good, too,” Mary said.

The guests clapped, shook hands with the bride and groom, gave hugs, and headed over to the bar and buffet. Emilo sent out the table workers and they began uncovering the food.

Later, the couple took off for Palm Springs. Everyone cheered as they drove away from the house.