Finalist (Novel Excerpt):
Some Peculiar Errand

Old familiars, the milky sconces and glass lanterns dangling from blue-and-yellow plaster buildings, greeted me when I came up to the street from the Métro.

Can buildings greet a person? They’re inanimate, I thought, but also behave as mirrors for memory, now projecting mind-shots of the last time I was here, him reading the paper as we walked down this block.

Why was I thinking about whether buildings said hello?

This dissection of every passing rumination exhausted me and yet my inner recorder with its energetic editor whirled on noticing details: Outside the café with the good oeufs mayonnaise, three men—one a priest—and two women were arguing, or agreeing, it was hard to tell, about liberation and humanité and Dix-Neuf Soixante-Huit. They’re as arch as the rest, I judged, naïfs, a good word for them, with few doubts about the worlds they imagined, no sense that the world of 1968 might feel like a distant universe by the time they actually bore its responsibility. My arms itched to shake them but on I marched.

A guy about my age with a ponytail crossed right in front of me, so close that I had to step off the curb into a pulp of protest pamphlets; a woman in a long crimson skirt veered around me on a motor scooter, honking, causing me to hop back onto the sidewalk; and he and I bumped into each other anyway. Stop. That woman? Was she the aged actress from the train? On a motor scooter? Was I crazy? Was he as handsome as the sideways glance intimated?

My mind quieted down as I turned the corner to Rue de la Harpe. I knew this narrow cobblestone street, where stone lions guarded shops selling cigarettes and pipe tobacco and books. And then I arrived at the little pink plaster hotel.

I climbed four narrow flights and wriggled the skinny iron clef in the lock until it clunked. The room looked just as we’d left it, barely two months before, the fortnight before Trinity Term. Le Deuxième Sexe was still on the marble stand, the chipped cloisonné ashtray by it. I tossed the key on the bed (it rolled to the middle), opened the balcony doors, and stepped out, gripping the wobbly brass railing.

On the corner below, I saw, oh my god, not her again, was it the same woman, this time in a long black skirt and an ivory blouse, peering at a map through a gold-rimmed lorgnette? No, it wasn’t. This one was much taller than the woman on the train. And, as I imagined her, she would have been reading the slogan painted on the boulangerie window behind her, not the map. SUPPRIMEZ L’ALIENATION. Precisely what I needed to do: Overcome alienation.

I flopped back on the bed. I did not want to be here. It was my best friend’s bright idea, Red Bird’s “intuition,” she said on a postcard that I fished from the bottom of my satchel, to contact her “very good friend Tonin” whom I was “really going to like,” and to “use his connections” to land “a very good story:” An interview with the North Vietnamese delegation to the Paris Peace Talks just getting underway between them and the Americans.

But my mind was not connected to any part of peace. Bird had predicted that it would end badly with Three Names from the get-go. “Next,” she wrote in response to my initial letter about him. We wrote back and forth nearly every day so the delay to our anguished confessionals was relatively short though we were an ocean apart. “Keep moving even if it means spending all your time with that cute Rhodesian from Oklahoma (or was it Indiana?). You said he was very funny and very smart—much better use of your time than talking about how the Universe looked before the Big Bang with Mr. Brilliance.”

That was Bird. Skewering desire and certainty in a short paragraph in a letter especially re: me.

Plus she was always trying to set me up, even when she didn’t know the person, viz. The Rhodesie (actually from Arkansas, a little pudgy, good hair, not that funny). Bird.

I was not going to like her very good friend. I didn’t like anyone, not Red Bird, not me. Especially, not me.

Situations like this howled out for a mother. I had no idea whether I should be in Paris after what happened, never mind consorting with the enemy, which might curtail not contribute to my career climb: graduate Barnard; take job in mailroom at “the paper;” advance to city-beat reporter; progress to foreign correspondent; and ultimately ascend to editorship of The New York Times. No woman had ever gotten that far but why not me?

My life plan. Right. How many times had my mother howled in her own way that I should “always pack Back-Pocket Plans?” Instead, I had empty pockets, having stumbled to Paris in the same haphazard way I’d tripped up to the attic. The “plan” was to come here to do this big story together with Three Names who had his own contacts; instead I was hiding from the passenger who had boarded the train with me in Oxford, the Beast of Rejection. This was not a plan. It was a desperate act by a woman, yes, now that I was twenty-one I was a woman, a woman with no idea what she was doing, locked in sadness without a skinny clef.

No. This was not me. I was not ruled by my emotions. I was a thinker and a thinking woman would not be paralyzed by a man. A thinking woman would be cramming for what could be the biggest story of her not-quite-yet career. She’d be developing an outline, figuring out the timeline, contacting leads, drafting the lede.

I sat up. It was better than lying down. Feet on the floor, I gained a little will, which I used to claw for the key and drop it in my satchel. Packed up, I was able to stand, walk toward the door, turn its handle, pull it shut behind me. This was better, one thing at a time, another of my mother’s plenteous bromides. Just one thing; then the next. (That old chestnut reverberated in later years as I added and added to my life—children, assignments, stray dogs and people—without ever subtracting.)

If I believed in such things, I would have thought that my mother was behind, pushing me down the stairs, and out of the hotel, shoving me into the phone booth by the Overcome Alienation shop. If I believed.

I slammed the door shut and stuffed a franc in the slot, clutching the crumpled postcard with the number from Red Bird.

Seven rings before he answered, sounding a little winded, as if he’d rushed to the phone.

Ah, oui, ’allo?”

I reached for the hook but spoke instead. “Hello, this is Mariana Muller speaking. Might this be Tonin, by any chance?” Why was I talking like my Oxford classmates, with a pretentious lilt?

“Yes, this is Tonin. Who are you again?” Conversational confrontation was the patois of those days.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” I watched my index finger playing with the receiver hook.

“You didn’t upset me. I just want to know where you got my number.”

“I’m sorry. Bryce Douglass, Red Bird, gave me your name. We were roommates at The Meeting School. I’m at Barnard now.”

“Oh, Bird, of course. Right.” It sounded like he might be swallowing before replying. “Right. She said I might hear from a Barnard chick named Mary Jane. Sorry, sorry. Remind me what she wanted me to do for you.”

“It’s Mariana and she said you might introduce me to the North Vietnamese delegation to the Peace Talks. I’m writing for Liberation News Service.”

Every journalist—establishment, counter-culture, foreign, every—was trying to meet the media-savvy North Vietnamese, who got themselves on the cover of Le Figaro, whose readers they needed to convince, while not wasting too much time with the underground press already partial to their side. But I was writing this piece for the AP of alternative media with broad distribution, around the world, in fact, so I said it again.

“I write for Liberation News Service.”

“Oh, sorry. Right, right. The LNS chick. Your timing is good. There’s a meeting tomorrow afternoon. Mary.” Pause. “Ann.”

“It’s Mariana.” My hand was now on my hip. “And I am a woman.”

He paused for so long that I thought he might be hanging up. “Right on. Mariana. Red Bird’s best friend. I dig who you are now. I just want to ask you a few questions.”

After twenty minutes of cross-examination—credentials, motives, and identification of people we knew in common, he said I could meet him at ten the next morning at the café at Pont Neuf, the one near Shakespeare & Company where mon ami and I liked the espresso.

He couldn’t get my name right; he still used a word long since guillotined by the women’s movement; and yet I noticed that he didn’t have a lazy mind, that he was able to make plans on the fly, that he clearly knew the Mai ’68 scene and the people populating it. What I didn’t like was that “notice” was an active vocabulary word at all.

“The sign only says Café. Go inside. Do not sit outside. Sit at the table under the ‘À bout de souffle’ poster and wait until you see a nondescript guy with a black ponytail. Herald Trib under my arm. I’ll unfold and fold it—twice.”

“I’ve got dirty-blonde hair and I’ll be descript in an orange dress but I’ll skip the newspaper.”

He didn’t laugh.

“Some of the guys, one of whom you’ve heard of, will be at the café, and if you check out with them and me, you can go with us on Wednesday to meet the North Vietnamese.”

“Gotcha. Ten o’clock. Herald Trib. Breathless,” I whispered.

I felt like a character in some hokey spy film, clad in the wrong outfit for the part with my orange cotton Mexican A-line from the fancy shop in the Village that I’d scraped the money together to buy, my orange suede jacket with the dirty cuffs from the second-hand store, matching fishnets, and brown suede boots to the knees (another indulgence). I should be in black leather, fedora pulled down over my eyes. Sultry and slightly suspicious, not orange and obvious.

I took a seat along the wall under the Breathless poster, Jean Seberg above me smiling at Jean-Paul Belmondo. The only other patron was a young woman, on closer inspection, a teenager, with long hair like mine, only hers was a shade darker, straighter, parted in the middle, pulled back in a bun, meticulously styled. Crouched over a small marble table, forehead in her left hand, she dipped a pen into a bottle of ink, sighed, and wrote quickly. She finished one page and, while still writing, slipped another sheet under her pen so that there would be no break in her flow.

Except for the paneled wall with the poster behind me, the room was all mirrors.

Out through a beaded curtain along the back wall came a young man with black hair but he lacked a ponytail and underarm newspaper. He dried his hands on a dirty white apron and, brushing past the young woman as if she weren’t there, headed toward me.

Vous avez choisi?” he said, pen on a small pad.

I didn’t want to say what I really wanted to choose: Three Names. “Un espresso si vous plait.”

He scribbled and disappeared through the beaded curtain.

I picked at my cuticle, pulling at the stubborn dead skin, and turned my palm over. A fortune-teller in the Village once had told me that my heart line and my head line intersected just where my fate line crossed. I never understood what she meant but it didn’t sound good. And I most assuredly did not believe in palmistry and predetermined fate. What intelligent person would? Certainly my head line was thicker, longer, and deeper than my heart line—at least in any conventional meanings of head and heart. Perhaps I should look it up, research whether the scientific basis for the “esoteric arts,” as the palmist—do they call themselves palmists?—implied. I saw my reflection in the mirrors, unending, just sitting there, me looking at me looking at me, the girl with the pen repeating in the corners.

The waiter’s cork tray, balanced on his right palm, rustled the beads as he passed through. He placed a demitasse of dark matter, lemon slice on its rim, silver spoon with a mini-sugar-cube on a saucer in front of me. L’addition, scribbled on a scrap of paper torn from a small, unlined tablet on its own little tray: “1 esp., 3 fr.”

I slid the sugar into the steamy cup, scooped out the shrinking lump before it dissolved completely, and swirled it on the saucer. Across the café, the teenager was writing, page after page, rubbing her temples and stroking her long neck.

Straining to read the spines of the books on her table, I could make out but one, At Home and Abroad. I didn’t know it and squinted to see the author’s name but the type was too small.

A sip of espresso, a finger tap on the teaspoon, and, checking to make sure the girl was not looking my way (no), I balanced the handle of the spoon on my index finger, a trick I’d practiced over the years to divert thinking of my mother. I focused all intention on the spoon’s equilibrium until something jostled the table and it fell, splattering the soggy sugar onto my dress between my breasts. Standing beside me was the teenager. Up close, she looked maddeningly familiar.

Might I listen to something she’d written, she asked? We meet, at least those who are true to our instincts meet, a succession of persons through our lives, all of whom have some peculiar errand to us. I pulled out Notebook #47 (I’d been keeping them for years) and jotted it down as quickly as I could.

“That’s quite interesting, some peculiar errand,” I said. “What exactly did you want me to …” but she interrupted, reading again, words so intriguing that I asked her to repeat them more slowly so that I could write those down accurately as well, which she obliged.

There is an outer circle whose existence we perceive but with whom we stand in no real relation. We are nothing to them nor they to us except as part of the world’s furniture.

“Except as part of the world’s furniture? Is that what you said?” But instead of answering that, she read on.

Another circle within this are near and dear to us, intelligent thoughts of the divine mind and we like to see how they are unfolded… I wrote as fast as I could, aware that she was not going to indulge my sluggish pen with repetition.

A loud noise, perhaps a car backfiring, or maybe it was a bomb, who knew, it was The Sixties, snapped my attention to the street, and when I looked in her direction again, she was back at her table, a hand shielding her face as if to signal that I should not bother her.

Just as well. This Parisian, no, she wasn’t French, this crazy English girl, was she really English, was writing anew as if she’d never stopped. I stuffed #47 in my satchel and returned to brooding. I’d gotten myself into an impossible situation—my body was in Paris but my mind was in Oxford. And I was waiting for Godot, er, “Tonin.” Even Red Bird, who could draw a straight line between being stood up and the turning point in humanity’s battle for survival, would agree that it was time to give up. I’d been waiting for a good fifteen minutes.

I glanced up at Miss Seberg in her New York Herald Tribune sweater and reached for my satchel when there he was, Black Ponytail, Herald Trib Under His Arm that he unfolded, folded again, twice, then turned his back, and dragged his thumb and first finger across his eyebrow, all without glancing my way.

He looked like so many other boys I knew in The Movement with his long hair and ultra-serious face but not with his tailored black blazer, his starched button-down, his school tie, his polished boots. He nodded, I caught my foot on the chair as I stood, and I stumbled forward, klutzing along behind him through the beaded curtain.

It was a smoky, windowless paneled alcove next to the kitchen with a small card table in the center but no one was sitting there. Until this moment, Black Ponytail and I hadn’t looked each other square in the face and, when he turned around to explain the absence of guests, at least that’s what I was hoping he would do, he gave that look people do when they recognize you but not quite but then again quite quite.

“Mary Jane?” He said my name as if we were the oldest of friends who hadn’t expected to ever meet again, but, of course, it was not my name.

“Mariana.”

“No, sorry, Mariana, Mariana. Oxford, January, antiwar meeting, right?

Within an eye’s blink, I once again became one of those women I disdained, halfwits around attractive men, the same as I was that first night with Three Names, the very night this guy was referring to. I found it hard to look directly at him, difficult to think of anything to say, and, as first five, then ten, then thirty minutes passed, it became increasingly embarrassing to continue to sit at the empty card table as evidence revealed, at least to me, that the French student leaders were not going to show.

Tonin, on the other hand, seemed quite at ease. He talked about the people we were waiting for—how impressed he was with “Danny the Red’s” knowledge of the law, how sophisticated the European students were compared with their American counterparts, how they weren’t usually late for meetings. I don’t recall my actually saying anything but I do remember telling myself to pull my fingers out of my mouth and to stop chewing my cuticles.

After about an hour, the last five minutes of which Tonin had spent walking in and out of the room, he, still standing, drew a pen from his pocket, and wrote on the margin of the Herald Tribune in architectural lettering: du vin rosé avec moi? He tapped the paper with his pen, lightly, repeatedly, making small artful dots in the form of a wine glass until he’d circled them around the words avec moi. I got up as he pulled out my chair. “You can come on Wednesday,” he said. “I’ve checked you out.”

By early evening, we were seated next to each other, at a different café off Boul’ Mich’, him on my right sipping a Rosé d’Anjou, me running my finger around the rim of an espresso, distressed by my deteriorating cuticle.

We were sailing with the sudden wind that had come up in the last moments of waiting at the Breathless Café. His hand was steady on the rudder but mine was not, mon ami still so close I could smell him. Another man in my life, even, no, especially, a committed, intelligent, good-looking one with blue-violet eyes (which Red Bird had failed to mention) was too towering a wave to navigate.

I had the hubris then to believe I knew the formula for turning myself out successfully into the laboratory of life. There was specific knowledge to acquire in literature, history, and politics, stories I had to write to become a credible journalist, to make a name for myself. Everything else was a detour, including the boy to my right, unfastening mother-of-pearl cufflinks, rolling up blue-and-white striped shirtsleeves, and causing me to wonder about the origin of that small scar on his ring finger.

I balanced my weight on the back leg of the chair then tipped it forward and maneuvered a few inches to the left.

“So you’re Jewish and from New York?” I asked, reaching into my satchel for #47 and the Lady Duofold pen that Three Names had given me when my first article was published in The Cherwell, the Oxford student paper. Distracted by that memory, I elbowed the shoulder of the woman at the next table, causing her to drop her pen, which seemed to have a quill. We both reached down to retrieve it, bumping heads.

“Sorry.” I picked up the pen by its feather and, fumbling, dropped it again. “Excusez-moi, excusez-moi,” I kept saying.

“Oh, not to bother, my dear,” the woman replied en anglais. Not again. She resembled the teenager in the Breathless Café—only older! Did all the women in Paris look alike? But this one seemed hipper, more American. “I’m just composing some thoughts about twin stars that mutually circle in heaven.”

“Listen to her.” Tonin took the Lady Duofold from my hand and pulled #47 out from under my elbow. “And for the record, you’re zero for zero. And you won’t be needing these.” I thought he would put my things on his newspaper, but he placed only the pen there. He slipped #47 under him. “Now interview me.” He leaned on his elbows, shifting his gluteus maximi on my precious pages, and grinned.

I saw sludge in my cup. Stop. No more men. And I was not enthusiastic about the woman at the next table mentioning twin stars. I hated the interpretation of life as an endless treasure hunt, whereby each moment, each word, was so weighted that it could sink you. This was Red Bird’s universe, not mine. Every copper penny she spotted on the street was another earth-shattering clue to her future, which connected directly to the color of the shirt on the man who passed while she was picking up the coin. For me, raised as a “gastronomic Jew”—my mother’s depiction of our household theology—there were coincidences, yes, but life did not play out as if it had been scripted, as if I were reading the lines from a part written for me in a different dimension. Life to me was choice, benefiting from wise decisions in the here-and-now, not strange, invisible providence.

“So if you must know, I’m a count.” He gazed at me, unblinking.

“A count? Like Dracula?”

“I’m a Czech count, actually, sometimes in Papal favor, sometimes not.”

“I’ve gotta write this down.” I reached across the table for my Lady but he caught my hand.

“You’ll remember.”

Our time in the Breathless Café that day lasted long enough for Tonin to recount three centuries of his families’ histories, two World Wars, persecution, migration, and bloodlines that linked him to names familiar to anyone growing up in New York in the Fifties and Sixties—U Thant, Millicent McIntosh, Calder, Buckminster Fuller. All of which he said without boast but with a precision that belied his age, as if he were the family archivist responsible for the genealogical lore.

His grandfather, a Czech count born in 1895 in Prague where “Papa” and “Babi,” whose family manufactured printing presses, met and married in 1923, “could see what was happening. Got their money and families out by ’38, opened accounts in London and New York, bought the place on 86th Street.” He spoke as if he’d been there when the papers were signed. He knew exactly when they’d moved to London, the date they’d flown to New York to settle, precisely which furniture dealer Papa had engaged to provision his office at Broadway and West 58th. “His name never made it into the papers for his role in forming the UN,” Tonin said, “but Janos more than made up for that.”

Janos? I knew who Janos was. Everyone did: the photographer who immortalized The Lone Emperor in the famous photo of the penguin standing sentinel on an outcropping of ice at the South Pole. I knew the picture; we all knew the picture—ever since it appeared on the front page of The Times. The original, in color, first was shown in an exhibition of Janos’s Antarctic work at The Met where everyone, including me, clambered for tickets. The black-and-white version adorned posters, T-shirts, bumper stickers. Even I, who hated fads, the last of my friends to buy a Beatles album, the sole holdout in kneading bread, had the Emperor in my card collection. The solitary penguin, noble in a barren world, an emblem of hope. In truth, I had a boxed set. “Janos?”

“Yes. He’s my father.”

“Which means…Erika Bentoff is your mother?”

The Barnard legend. They told her story to incoming classes and I’d taken notes in #32 the first time I heard it. Like me, the Erika of the story had no parents, only she had been on the last train of Jewish children out of Prague before the Nazi invasion, children transferred from train to boat to Palestine, kids who’d built their own kibbutz hand over hand. And I remembered that had it not been for her uncle, her mother’s brother, she might have moldered on that kibbutz. Instead, she eventually built her own architectural firm in New York, one of the first women to do so.

“Indeed. Erika Bentoff.” He poked his thumb into his chest. “My mama. So you’ve got your count on one side…” He ran his thumb from his forehead to his stomach, then swept his hand off to the left. “And your Holocaust survivor on the other.” He sliced down his torso again and brushed his hand to the right. “Grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, cousins galore,” he motioned left. “Ma famille, pas de tout,” he motioned right.

“Uncle Antonin, get it, Tonin, Antonin.” I got that one hair in his left eyebrow was curled, while the rest were straight. “Went to Columbia in the late-1920s to teach chemistry. Another family folk-hero. A mensch. Took a cut in his Columbia salary to get her into Barnard when she was sixteen. Plan had been for my grandparents to follow but…” He sliced his  finger across this neck…“not survivors. So that’s how she met Janos.”

“So you are Jewish. You’ve got a Jewish mother.”

“Technically, yes, except I was brought up Episcopalian. My uncle converted and once Erika walked into St. John’s, she never looked back. Too bad for me. No dreidls or Chanukah gelt.”

He undid his collar button and ran his hand along the back of his neck. He might as well have taken off his shirt. “So I’m talking too much. What about you? Parents, grandparents, country of origin?”

I wasn’t used to being the interviewee—“you ask so many questions,” people said—and I was particularly reluctant when it came to family. “When were you born? You first.”

“May 23, 1947. When’s yours?”

I didn’t know what to say. If I spoke too quickly, he’d think I wanted to make something of it. If I didn’t acknowledge it and he found out later, he might think I actually lied sometimes.

“So? Yours?”

I nodded.

“You mean…”

I nodded again and pushed away a curl that was creeping toward my mouth.

“Really. How cool is that? We’ll celebrate together next year.” He pumped my hand as if it were a deal.

I pulled back and pointed to the book he’d had under his arm with the Herald Tribune. “Chekhov?”

“It’s honest. I didn’t bring it to impress you. Double degree from The Sorbonne, Russian literature and architecture. You know, Erika and all. I started this year at Columbia, by the way—hey, we might have seen each other last summer. Were you there?”

I nodded again. “Can’t you tell a story without interrupting yourself?”

“There’s so much to say, Lois Lane. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“Try chronological order.”

“You don’t like talking about the personal stuff.” He ruffled the air between us with his hand and reached for my nose. I turned my head and said nothing. “So were you in Morningside Heights last summer?”

And before I could answer that I was living in a Barnard dorm at 116th and Broadway and working for The Heights Herald, he was publishing the next chapter. He’d spent the summer in the building at the corner of West 111th and Amsterdam that his grandparents had bought when Janos was a Columbia undergrad. I knew the building well, the one across from the garden at St. John the Divine, where I liked to sit and read, and where, it turned out, his parents had married, the church from which his mother never looked back.

I was tracing the soft crease on his cheek above his shaving line with my eyes, the dip at the midpoint of his upper lip.

“Mary Jane, words. Speak.” He brushed his hand under his chin, as if he were throwing words at me. “Speak.” He stared then slid his chair closer. It felt as if a year elapsed before any words came out.

“Only child, four when my father died. Polio epidemic, died in ninety-six hours and my mother never married again.”

“Never married again? I find it hard to believe that the woman who gave birth to the beautiful wo-man at this table wouldn’t have.”

Maybe that was how he turned the key that day, just that sentence said that way, maybe that was how he got me to tell him things I never said, especially to men, and even more especially to men with blue-violet eyes. He got me to tell him how thrifty my mother was, how she’d managed my education, how the September after my father died, she’d enrolled me at Little Red Schoolhouse in the Village, how I took the subway by myself from Brooklyn Heights, how I’d stayed through eighth grade. I spilled out how she’d always planned for boarding school after Little Red, how I’d applied to a couple of places, how my mother and I had spent a lot of time at the Montague Street Coffee Shop talking about it, and how three days after I interviewed at The Meeting School, they’d offered a scholarship.

“All good decisions are made over coffee.” He tapped my espresso cup. “It sounds like she treats you like an adult.”

I wanted to let it pass but “treat dash ed” fell out of my mouth, just like that.

“‘Dash ed‘? Let’s expand on this one.”

He wanted me to elaborate? For once someone wanted me to expand “on this one.” Where most people barely dipped their toes in my gloomy waters with a strained “sorry” or “oh, that’s too bad” or “oh, my friend’s cousin’s mother died,” Tonin plunged in with hip waders, fly rod, fishing net, and tackle box held high.

“Tell me.” He turned his palms up on the table as if he could hold anything I had to say, regardless of weight.

Quickly, faster than I could ever remember talking, I spilled out the timeline, how just four weeks into freshman year and on the very day that Bird and I had had our first serious argument about a grandiose remark I’d made…

“Which was?”

“That I was the most interesting person I’d ever met.”

“Hold it. I’d go along with that.”

His butting in allowed the next words to fall out as neutrally as I’d ever managed…“when my mother had a massive heart attack. She was 53. 14,” I said, pointing first to the unoccupied seat at our table and then to myself.

I’d told the story enough times that repeating that particular string no longer unhinged me when I had to explain why my mother never showed for Parents Day, why I never left my room on Mother’s Day. I’d developed strategies for cutting along the live wire without getting zapped, for explanation without revelation, for reportage in motion. I still ached when I thought of her (which was all the time), still woke up crying at three in the morning, but the grief had stopped its sneak attacks in broad daylight. Seven years had gone by and I’d gotten used to it, able to report the facts and remain upright—not that I often had the chance.

“I was lucky in a way. I wasn’t exactly surprised. Shocked but not surprised if that makes sense. I always figured I’d end up an orphan after my father.”

Tonin put his hand to his mouth, looked off to the left and then to the right, as if deciding which direction to go.

“So what was the minute-by-minute?”

No one had ever asked.

He wanted to know how I got the news that my mother was dead—the dean had pulled me out of English class, taken me back to her office, and hinted around, using words like “very ill,” “hospital,” and “pack something black,” until I figured it out; how I got back to school after the funeral—my mother’s best friend Rose rented a car and drove me from Brooklyn, not leaving until we’d unpacked my suitcase, I’d brushed my teeth, and she had actually tucked me into bed; who paid for my education—my mother was such a careful planner that there was enough money, if I could maintain my academic scholarships, for both boarding school and college, after which she figured I’d be able to support myself; and whether I’d lived with Rose after she’d died.

Her will had specified her twin sister and brother-in-law, Julia and Irving, Upper West Siders with no kids, as guardians, and, in the event they disagreed—my mother knew them well—over decisions regarding my life, Rose would make the call.

As I spoke, Tonin set a matchbox between us, then removed the sticks one-by-one, crisscrossing them until he’d constructed what looked like a small house (it had three rooms). Then he tossed the box of matches on the table and stood. I thought he might be leaving. Instead, he repositioned his chair, then mine with me in it, until we were facing each other, and he sat back down. He cupped his palms over my temples and lifted his eyebrows in a nodding gesture indicating I was supposed to do the same.

“What are you doing?”

He placed my hands on his temples, pulled my face close to his, and gave me a dry kiss on the lips as a friend might—if I ignored how long it lasted. Then he dropped his hands, which I quickly did too.

The woman at the next table stood. “Do remember,” she said with her hand on my shoulder. “The mind cannot receive unless excited.”

 

 

 

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