The Good Goodbye
I keep a list of Arden’s first words. Banky, mimi, ’ghetti, Dada. I treasure this list, keep it folded in my wallet. Banky, mimi, ’ghetti, Dada, Mama, ’nana, rainbow, juice. All the important things in Arden’s life—her threadbare pink blanket, her favorite foods, Theo and me. I miss her. I miss hearing her voice. That first night after she left for college, I lay on top of her tousled sheets, breathing in the blended scents of her coconut shampoo and pear soap.
“So how do you want to celebrate?” my husband asks.
I thought Theo had forgotten. Maybe, if I’m to be completely honest with myself, I’d hoped he had. He squares off in front of the bathroom mirror to give himself his usual morning pep-talk look, his eyes half closed and his chin raised. Maybe, shocker, he’d remembered on his own.
“I don’t know.” I turn off the water and drop my toothbrush in the cup. There’s nothing I feel less like doing than dressing up and spending money on our anniversary. Just thinking about it makes me want to crawl under the covers and yank them over my head.
“Anything you want,” he promises. “Sky’s the limit.”
Ha. We both know the sky is very much not the limit.
“I have that big party coming in tonight,” I remind him. Eleven homecoming couples, a giggling pack of kids, uncertain in their finery. The tips would be meager, half the food would go uneaten or end up on the tablecloth, and the restrooms would be a disaster. But any port in a storm. And these past six months had been so stormy they’d ripped the shingles right off the roof.
“They’ll be gone by nine, right? We can do something then.”
“You know I can’t close early.”
There’s always the chance an after-theater crowd could wander by and decide to come in—though that’s been happening less and less frequently. Why? Too many seafood options, not enough vegetarian? A food trend I haven’t picked up on? We used to have a line snaking down the sidewalk. Now whenever I glimpse people pausing outside to read the menu posted by the window, I find myself catching my breath.
“Let Vince cover for you. You’ve done it often enough for him.”
“Right. You want to ask him, or shall I?” I shut the medicine cabinet a little too hard, rattling the bottles inside.
“Look. We should do something, Nat. I don’t know what. But I do know nineteenth wedding anniversaries only come around once.”
I tug my hair back into its usual ponytail. “If it’s so important, why didn’t we plan something ahead?” Theo has no answer for that one.
Downstairs, the boys are waiting in the front hall. They’d rejected the bright, small backpacks in the back-to-school section, and like a team of matched ponies marched straight to where the adult-sized backpacks hung, the very same display from which we’d chosen Arden’s. Are you sure you don’t want a Batman one? I’d coaxed. Or the Hulk? Oliver had glanced tentatively at his brother, but Henry crossed his arms and pushed out his lower lip, and Oliver instantly followed suit. So here they stand, six-year-old boys huddled beneath enormous black carapaces each containing a slim folder of math homework and a single sharpened pencil. Vince would applaud the twins’ show of solidarity, but I can’t tell Theo this. There are so many things I can’t tell Theo.
“Did you brush your teeth?” Theo asks the boys, and both solemnly nod.
I’d heard them counting in their bathroom, mumbled shouts filled with toothpaste and spit . . . eight, nine, ten! Henry’s the one who keeps the count, who makes sure Oliver brushes his tongue, too. It tickles! he protests. The differences between my sons are much vaster than the four minutes that separate their births. Henry had howled as the doctor held him up so I could see him over the draped fabric; Oliver had been terrifyingly silent. I hadn’t even been allowed to see or hold him until the next day, Theo pushing my wheelchair up to the incubator where Oliver lay, surreally tiny inside, his arms and legs extended and taped down, his chest motionless. Fear clamped down hard. Then Oliver had turned his head and, slowly, blinked at me.
This morning, Oliver grips his ant farm between two hands, a plastic frame holding a half-inch of sandy dirt sandwiched between two rectangles of glass and crisscrossed by tunnels. Our dachshund sits by Oliver’s feet with his long nose lifted, sniffing. Friday’s Sharing Day, Oliver had told Arden on Skype. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to take. I’d stopped cramming things into my bag to listen. What did Caleb bring? I heard Arden ask. A baseball, he’d answered, dolefully. You can do way better than that, she scoffed. How about one of your science projects?
Like my ant farm? Oliver had suggested, his voice swelling with hope. Arden had led him there and now it was his idea. I’d walked over to where my laptop sat on the kitchen table and leaned over to smile at my daughter with her serious green eyes and long blond hair tucked behind her ears. Sorry, honey, I’d told her. I have to leave for the restaurant. Can we talk later? D.C. traffic was unforgiving. I was already cutting it close. Used to be Gabrielle would run over to watch the boys until Theo got home, but those days are gone. Arden had paused, then nodded. I’ll call you tomorrow, she’d said. Which was yesterday. The whole day had come and gone, and she hadn’t called. A million reasons why—she’d been out with her new friends, she’d been studying and lost track of time, she’d forgotten until it was too late to phone. But still, that hesitation—had there been something there?
I crouch to pat the dog bed. Percy trots over. “You be good,” I tell him, rumpling his soft ears. “Keep an eye on the squirrels.” During the day, he lets himself in and out of the pet door, and often I’ll come home to find him sprawled outside in a patch of sunlight, just the thump of his tail welcoming me. He circles the cushion and lies down with a sigh.
“Want me to take that?” Theo asks Oliver, and I know he’s thinking about ants crawling around the car. Oliver shakes his head, then pushes past his brother to run down the path to where our Volvo rusts in the driveway alongside our sputtering fourthhand Honda.
“Remember when Arden stole your diaphragm?” Theo whispers, leaning close.
I laugh. At the time, though, I’d been mortified when the teacher called to let me know what Arden had smuggled in for Sharing Day. Theo had shaken his head and looked thoughtful. We’d better keep an eye on that one, he’d said, meaning Arden.
I have, haven’t I?
Theo slides his arms around me. “You’re right, sweetheart. I should have put some thought into it. I just assumed you wouldn’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
“We can’t afford to make a big deal out of it.”
“We can afford to make a little deal out of it.”
I sigh, lean in to the circle of his arms. “Like what?”
“How about a movie? There are some good ones opening today.”
We haven’t seen a movie out in ages. The ticket prices, the time. I tell myself I want this, and all of a sudden, I do. I want to sit in a quiet, dark theater beside my husband, our arms touching, a bucket of salty buttery popcorn nestled in my lap. No worrying about my failing restaurant and bills piling up, my little girl grown up and gone. I smile at him. “I’ll see if Mom can babysit.”
Theo kisses my lips, soft, but it tingles all the way through. He scoops up his briefcase. “Arden will call,” he says. “Try not to worry.”
I watch him walk away. Nineteen years.
Vince has left me a note on the desk we share at the restaurant. He’d gone home before me the night before and his car isn’t in the lot now, so I have no idea how he’d managed this impossible feat. Too bad his magic didn’t extend to the stock market.
I frown at the bold ink strokes, as familiar as my own handwriting. All those hours poring over cookbooks, calling across the kitchen, teasing and laughing and working in happy synchronicity side by side have come to this.
Nat—We need to talk.
I’m done talking. I’ve heard the excuses and explanations, the countless reasons why he couldn’t have seen it coming. None of it changes the fact that he took a risk and lost, snaring all of us in the rushing downward spiral. That’s Vince for you, always grabbing at the shiny brass ring, never stopping to look below. I uncap a Sharpie and slash a heavy line through his words.
I pick up the waiting sheaf of invoices. The top one is stamped in red—our meat purveyor. I’m surprised he’d agreed to extend us credit in the first place. It must have been Liz’s doing. What would I do without Liz? I had to let two more servers go last week. Vince and I haven’t drawn a salary since March, and we’re down from thirty-seven employees to eight. We can light the place with candles and cook over charcoal briquettes if we have to, but the one thing we can’t run a restaurant without is food.
Vince shows up around noon. I’m mixing pasta dough at the steel table. The one part of the day when I feel truly myself, my hands measuring and kneading, feeding the thin sheets of pasta through the pasta machine, letting my mind wander. I hear the back door open and know without looking up, recognizing his footsteps going down the back hall. A minute later he joins me, tying on his apron.
The first thing Vince and I had done when we’d taken over the building five years ago was knock down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. We’d been absurdly happy, our dream realized at last. One big open space—no barrier between customer and chef. Who knew it would be the barrier between the chefs that would bring it all down?
He rolls up his sleeves. “You got my note, I see.”
“Does it have anything to do with twenty-two teenagers who are going to be showing up in just a few hours?”
“No. I guess it can wait.”
I sprinkle buckwheat flour on the mound of beige-gray dough and cover it with cheesecloth. “I need you to close tonight.”
“No problem. Boys okay?”
“They’re fine.” The twins love their uncle Vince. They ask after him and Gabrielle all the time. How come she doesn’t watch us anymore? Henry had wondered just the other day, and I’d replied, She’s busy. He’d scrunched his eyes at me. Busy doing what, exactly? he’d demanded.
“Hey, that’s right.” Vince brings out the double boiler and sets it on the stove. “Today’s your anniversary. Congratulations. You and Theo have big plans?”
Last year, on their nineteenth wedding anniversary, Vince and Gabrielle had toured Napa Valley, a lavish six-day trip he later wrote off as a tax deduction. It should have been a clue.
“We’re going out.” I hear how curt my voice sounds. He nods, and heads toward the dry-goods section. “Apple strudel,” I tell him, and he stops.
“Not raspberry mousse?”
Raspberries are six dollars a pint. “Not unless you’ve won the lottery.” I turn away so I don’t have to see his expression.
By seven-twenty, the homecoming couples still haven’t shown. I bend a wafer-thin slice of pickle into a curl and nestle it alongside the piece of grilled cobia. Wiping my hands on the towel tied into my apron strings, I slide the plate beneath the heat lamp. I’d called that afternoon to confirm the reservation. What? the teenage girl had said. I’d had to repeat myself. Oh, yeah, she’d said. The restaurant. We’ll be there.
The restaurant. Not Double. I glance toward the front door and Vince says, “They’ll be here.”
Friday night and we’ve had only five tables, a total of sixteen covers.
“What if they’re not?” I’d ordered a supply of shrimp and filets—the two proteins teenagers most like to order, as well as the most expensive. I should’ve stuck with chicken.
“Then we’ll run a surf-and-turf special tomorrow.”
“For the crowds thronging the door?” Everyone in town offers filet. Shrimp turns in a day. Vince knows this as well as I do, but he’s always happiest with the easy solution, even if it makes no sense. He loops lines of puréed basil across the piece of flounder, a magical composition of confidence and artistry, but right now it looks all wrong. Too bright. Too hopeful. Just like Vince.
“Nat,” he says. “We really do have to talk.”
“About what, another wonderful investment opportunity?”
“Are you ever going to forgive me?”
Just then, the door opens into a swirl of laughter and gold lamé, yards of black tulle and a windstorm of Axe and perfume. For a moment, I see what they see: eclectic chairs painted purple, green, orange; red and yellow gerbera daisies in their glass bowls; flickering candles and white linens stiff with starch but looking cloud-soft. Come in, it all beckons. Arden had helped choose the colors, her hands on her hips, frowning at the selection.
Vince hands me the plate to finish and, grinning, goes over to greet and escort them to their tables. They tilt their faces to him and giggle, take their seats, and pick up their menus.
This is the Vince I loved. But this is the Vince who betrayed me.
Theo arrives as the homecoming couples are leaving. There’s chaos by the door as kids push past in a happy clamor, and then Theo steps through. “Hey,” he says. He looks tired, but he’s taken the trouble to put on a jacket and tie and slide cuff links through the cuffs of his shirt. “You look nice.”
“My Spanx’s cutting me in half,” I confess, and he laughs. I’m covered chin to knee in heavy bleached cotton, my feet are encased in dumpy clogs, and I must reek of grease and garlic and onions. But Theo’s smiling at me and I feel the heat of his affection. “Ready?” he asks. He doesn’t look around for Vince.
I go back to the office to get my bag and drop my apron into the laundry bin. I tell Liz I’m leaving. “I’ll let Vince know,” she promises.
The night air’s breezy with an impending storm. The weather forecasters have been warning us all week. Gonna have a wet weekend, folks. Better move those cookouts indoors. I shrug out of my chef’s jacket and fold it over my arm. “How was soccer?” I ask Theo.
“Fine. Henry still likes the coach.”