George and Lizzie * The Cornerbacks *
The boys who played defense were much less interesting to Lizzie than the offense had been. After all, defense had originally been Andrea’s bailiwick, and Lizzie had decided to go on with the Great Game only after finishing with the offense in a badly mistaken desire to complete what she’d started. Honestly, those eleven defensive players are mostly blurred together in her mind.
The two cornerbacks were Micah Delavan and Mitchell Oberski. They were inseparable and together known as the M&M’s. Micah only had four fingers on his left hand, while Mitchell had a large birthmark the shape of Wyoming on his back. The two of them went off to college together and as far as Lizzie knew they were together still.
* What Lizzie Hates About Herself *
That she can’t bring herself to tell George about Jack.
That she can’t bring herself to tell George about the shame of the Great Game.
That she never should have told Jack she was the girl in the Psychology Today article, because that was why he left her and never came back.
That she is a too-easy weeper. Lizzie understands this to be a reaction to the fact that Mendel and Lydia became furious when, as a child, she cried. What sort of parents refuse to let their child cry? Unfortunately, the sort that gave birth to, and raised, Elizabeth Frieda Bultmann Goldrosen, that’s who.
That she always, always either loses one of a pair of earrings or gets an ineradicable stain on a white shirt.
That she looks exactly like Mendel, if Mendel were female, although she supposes that it’s better than looking like the witch Lydia.
That she’s failed so miserably in so many different parts of her life.
That she is the same rotten housekeeper that her mother was. George was the total opposite. He could walk into a room, give it a stern glance, and it immediately resolved itself into neatness: the books lie attractively on the coffee table, the magazines arrange themselves in a pile from oldest down to newest; and the dust bunnies cast themselves into the air and disappear. On the other hand, when Lizzie walks into a room, chaos ensues. No matter how hard she tries, the room remains a mess. George counseled patience (he pretty much always counseled patience), advising her to vacuum more carefully, to take her time and do one thing to completion at a time. This was very hard, not to say impossible, for Lizzie to accomplish. She hated herself for this
thought but secretly wished that George had some grad students that she could co-opt to clean their house.
* Christmas chez Goldrosens, 1992 *
Part of the Goldrosen tradition was that George always came home on the twenty-first of December and flew back early on the twenty-sixth. For Lizzie, the day they left Ann Arbor proved frustrating in the extreme. Already nervous and regretting her decision to accompany George home, she twice came close to bolting from her seat while they were waiting for their flight and finding her own way home. Nothing that happened on the trip down to Tulsa boded well, in her opinion, for future trips to Tulsa (and she was right; their Christmas flights never went particularly smoothly). Their plane out of Metro Airport departed late because a fierce storm over Lake Michigan caused whiteout conditions at O’Hare, so they missed their connection in Chicago and were rerouted via Salt Lake City, which involved an endless stay in a terminal that Lizzie thought resembled a waiting room for long-haul buses. Of course George was perfectly content. He read old issues of the Journal of the American Dental Association, fascinated by the intricacies of veneers, tooth decay, implants, and whether or not a dentist had a moral, if not legal, obligation to report suspected child abuse. Although Lizzie’d brought a novel with her (Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees), she couldn’t sit still long enough to open it and begin reading. Instead she paced.
Lizzie hated waiting for anything: she became bored and edgy, inclined to snap at everyone around, even strangers. She walked around the terminal, growing more upset by the minute. At first she tried to decide if she’d made the right decision by coming with
George. She wondered what Jack would say if he knew what she was doing. She wondered if she knew what she was doing. Meeting Mendel and not meeting Lydia at Thanksgiving hadn’t sent George scurrying out of her life. He didn’t exactly enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with the Bultmann family (what sane person would?), but he didn’t give up on Lizzie as a result. She sort of wished that Jack had come home with her sometime that spring they were together; maybe that would have helped him understand her better.
All this thinking about the present, the past, and the future was exhausting. By the time they finally landed in Tulsa, Lizzie was worn-out, hungry, wired from drinking too many Cokes in the Salt Lake airport and too much coffee on the plane. She’d had it with the weather gods and (unfairly—it was mostly unfair to blame George for much of anything; Lizzie knew this, but it didn’t prevent her from doing so) with George for dragging her to Oklahoma. George was simply glad they’d finally arrived. Now his parents could meet Lizzie.
Elaine and Allan were waiting for them at the gate. They took turns hugging George and Lizzie. “We’re so happy you’re here,” Allan told them.
Lizzie tried not to smile too widely, wondering if either of George’s parents noticed that one of her incisors was slightly crooked.
“Lizzie,” Elaine said, hugging her again, “we’re just thrilled to finally meet you. It’s lovely that you came home with George. He’s told us so much about you.” Lizzie tried not to pull away from Elaine too quickly, but she was, sadly, too much of a Bultmann, used to Bultmann pseudo-hugs, to feel comfortable in Elaine’s embrace.
“I’m glad to be here too,” she managed to say.
“George, you and Dad wait for the suitcases in baggage claim, and we’ll meet you at the car.”
“George’s told me a lot about your family’s Christmases,”
Lizzie said as they walked. Walking to the car! This was like a toy airport compared to Detroit’s.
“We do have a ton of family traditions,” Elaine admitted. “Some of them go back to my childhood, but mostly they’re things we’ve just come up with since the boys were babies. I love this time of year. You’ll see. It’s sort of sad that the days just whiz by.”
Just at the moment, days whizzing by sounded good to Lizzie.
“Oh, here they come. Good. You both must be starving. Let’s hurry and get you home.”
The Goldrosens’ house was at the end of a cul-de-sac. It was redbrick, two-storied, stately, and serene. It looked only a little smaller than the Kappa house in Ann Arbor. It looked nothing at all like the house where Lizzie grew up. “I’ve put you in the bedroom that’s directly across the hall from George,” Elaine said. “Let’s get your luggage upstairs, and as soon as you come down we can eat. It’s just so lovely that you’re here,” she repeated. “I wish Todd had come home. Australia’s so far away. It’s always so nice to be together on holidays, especially Christmas.”
The Goldrosen traditions turned out to be many and various. Throughout them all, Lizzie tried to look happy and as though she were enjoying everything. This was mostly not very difficult, although at night her jaw ached from smiling. She would recall that first Christmas visit much later, when she’d go to parties honoring George and have to appear to be having a good time in that same determined way in front of his devoted fans and avid followers.
Right after a sumptuous breakfast that included bagels (which arrived via FedEx, every week, from the St. Viateur Bagel Shop in Montreal. “These are the bagels I grew up with,” Elaine told Lizzie. “I think they’re so much better than the ones everyone raves about in New York”), cream cheese, lox, tomatoes, Swiss cheese, and red
onions, George and his father left to go to Allan’s office so he could show George all the latest equipment and generally talk teeth.
Lizzie and Elaine sat down at the kitchen table and began blowing out the insides of twenty-four eggs. Lizzie discovered that it was much more difficult than it sounded. First Elaine showed her how to poke a hole in each end of the egg. “You have to begin with a sharp needle to pierce the shell, then gradually make the holes a little larger. Sometimes a darning needle works better for that part, but you have to be careful not to break the egg.”
It took her about half an hour, from first tentative needle jab to the empty shell, per egg. Elaine, with her years of practice behind her, was much faster. Somehow she’d never thought of the insides of eggs before, or at least not in quite the same way as she saw them now.
She felt embarrassed and clumsy because she’d smashed three eggs in the process, but Elaine didn’t seem to notice, or in any event, didn’t comment on it. The resulting mixture—a bowl of egg whites and yolks—looked so disgusting that Lizzie decided she might have to give up eating eggs until the memory of the contents of that bowl blurred a lot.
Once the eggs were empty, Elaine brought out a big cardboard box filled with ribbons, crepe paper, scraps of felt and other material, construction paper, Magic Markers, and glue sticks, along with several large jars of paste. It was everything they might need or want to use to decorate the eggs. They gave them faces, pasting on bits of felt that they cut into shapes for the eyes, nose, mouth, and eyebrows, and followed that up by attaching yellow, red, black, or brown yarn for hair. Sometimes they braided the yarn, and sometimes put it into a ponytail using a contrasting piece of yarn to tie it up. Despite her feeling she was doing something wrong, or not living up to Elaine’s expectations, Lizzie felt pretty relaxed. “I was awful in art in elementary school,” Lizzie told her. “But this is really fun.”
They attached pipe cleaners to make arms and legs (another job that required a very light touch; Lizzie broke three more eggs and Elaine one) and finally they concocted dresses made out of the crepe paper.
“This is a paste-intensive job, isn’t it,” she commented to Elaine, looking at her encrusted nails.
“You bet. I think this whole holiday season is the only thing that keeps Elmer’s in business. Oh, and nursery schools, of course. But wait until tomorrow: there’s lots more paste still to come.”
Later in the day Elaine and Lizzie carefully unwrapped from layers of tissue paper the almost two dozen dolls that Elaine had created in Christmases past. “I mostly give the dolls away, but I always keep my favorite for the top of the tree. I’m saving them for my granddaughters, if Todd or George ever gets married and produces female children.”
They then began baking dozens and dozens of cookies for the family to eat and to give as gifts to friends. The word “friends” encompassed Wade, the FedEx driver, the mailman (despite his obvious and obnoxious support of the archrival Sooners from the University of Oklahoma), and the guy who delivered the paper every morning, as well as those of Allan’s patients lucky (or perhaps unlucky) enough to have a late December appointment with him. They made gingerbread persons (“I refuse to call them men,” Elaine told Lizzie. “After all, they could be women wearing pants”) as well as chocolate and peppermint thumbprints. Elaine had a large collection of cookie cutters, and they used these to make sugar cookies: bells, reindeer, wreaths, and plain old circles. They added small holes at the tops of one batch of assorted shapes so that later they could be hung on the tree.
“It’s easier to roll out cookies if you refrigerate the dough for an hour or so. A lot of people don’t know that, and they try to do it all right away. Not a good idea. And that gives you time
to start straightening up the kitchen or, even better, to sit and have a cup of tea.”
When the cookies were cool, Lizzie helped decorate them. Lizzie had extensive past experience with frosting—she and Sheila used to spend many hours of their time together baking and frosting cookies and cakes. Perhaps applying frosting was a talent, like bicycling, that once learned is impossible to forget. And anyone can shake sparkles onto a cookie. You can be clumsy and ill at ease and still do a good enough job. Although maybe she was putting on too much? No, and so what if she were? She knew that Elaine wouldn’t care. She started to feel a little better.
Finally, Elaine made mandel bread, “the Jewish biscotti,” Elaine told her. “They’re Allan’s favorite, and George and Todd love them too. We’ll probably have to make more tomorrow or the next day. They’re pretty labor-intensive—you have to bake them twice, so we don’t have them very often. Have you ever had one?”
“No, I don’t think so. I mean, biscotti, yes, every coffee shop in Ann Arbor has them, but not mandel bread.”
“Ah, coffee shops,” Elaine said ruefully. “You’ll find that they’re few and far between in Tulsa. Not like Montreal, where there’s one on every corner. I think that sort of really urban lifestyle is what I miss most about living here.” Lizzie nodded but couldn’t decide if she needed to respond, or if she even had anything to add to the discussion.
“Two things to know about mandel bread, though, besides how delicious they are. They eat up”—and here she glanced at Lizzie meaningfully as if to say, “‘Eat’: Do you get it?” looking for all the world like George when he made a joke—“an inordinate amount of time. Plus, if it’s finger-licking-good cookie dough that you’re after, they’re not what you want to make. When I’m in a wanting-to-eat-lots-of-dough sort of mood, I make banana-oatmeal cookies. That dough is unbeatable. But once they’re
baked, mandel bread is pretty irresistible. We’ll bake some extra so that I can send a couple of tins back to Michigan.”
Lizzie enjoyed playing sous-chef to Elaine, rummaging through the kitchen cupboards for whatever was needed for each recipe. They spent a companionable day together, mixing, tasting, rolling, baking, nibbling, washing up, and eating. Lizzie discovered that Elaine also dunked her cookies into her tea. The winter sun shone through the six-pointed mosaic star hanging in the window. It cut the light into straight-edged patches of color that landed on the table, the stove, and even Lizzie’s arm as she moved around the kitchen. By the time they finished drying the last of the baking sheets, measuring spoons and cups, cooling racks, and multiple spatulas, Lizzie, calmed down and almost happy, felt that all she wanted to do from this day on was to follow Elaine through the rest of her life. Suddenly she badly wanted to tell Elaine about the Great Game, about Jack, about how she didn’t really know how she felt about George, but she also knew that, for a number of reasons, both obvious and not, it most likely wasn’t the best thing to do.
“Do it, do it, do it. Ruin everything right now,” the voices in her head chorused. “Tell her all about it. Do it, do it, do it.” But Lizzie refused to listen to them.
Right after dinner, they all went together to choose a Christmas tree. Elaine, Allan told Lizzie, was always inclined to take the first really tall and bushy one she saw; it was how she shopped for everything: quickly and decisively. Allan insisted on walking through the entire lot before he’d finally reach a decision on what tree he wanted. Elaine pointed out to Lizzie that the tree they finally bought was exactly the one that she’d chosen in the first five minutes of arriving at the tree lot. Everyone laughed, including Allan. By the time they got home and George and Allan had the tree set up in the living room, there was just time for more cookies and hot chocolate before they all trooped upstairs to bed. Lizzie thought that this was close to a perfect day, certainly the best since Jack left.
The morning and most of the afternoon were devoted to decorating the tree. Lizzie expected Elaine to bring out boxes of ornaments—family heirlooms, perhaps—but learned that each year the Goldrosens made everything that went on the tree. Allan left for work, weighted down with many bags of cookies for the staff and patients, but George, Elaine, and Lizzie sat around the kitchen table—there was still a lovely tinge of cookie in the air—cutting Christmas wrapping paper into strips so they could put together chains to hang on the tree. Lizzie remembered making chains in elementary school using construction paper, which had been much harder to work with.
Elaine said, “You know, Lizzie, George will tell you that I’m terrible at arts-and-crafts projects. And he’s right. I don’t do this sort of thing at all the rest of the year. It’s just that I love all the ephemera of Christmas, and I’ve always liked the idea of having a do-it-yourself holiday, or at least as much as we can do ourselves.”
“She’s not kidding about her craft skills,” George added. “Her favorite book when we were growing up was Easy Halloween Costumes You Don’t Have to Sew.”
Elaine chuckled. “I always thought I should buy dozens of copies of it and give them out at baby showers. I am very adept at stapling, if I do say so myself.”
“You were the best, Mom. Too bad there wasn’t a stapling contest you could enter.”
“Did you and Todd help make decorations when you were little, George?”
“Oh, absolutely.” George started laughing. “One year, when Todd was seven and I was five, Mom left us alone when the doorbell rang—who was it, some delivery guy? Or was it a phone call?—and we had a paste fight while she was gone. We covered
our hands with it and then chased each around the house trying to smear it on each other. There was paste absolutely everywhere—the walls, toys, our faces, clothes, beds, refrigerator. Mom was not happy with us. I remember that too.”
“It was a call from your grandmother, wondering what time we’d get to Stillwater the next day, and then she went on and on about the jewelry store and did I want this necklace that they’d special ordered for someone who never picked it up? I couldn’t get off the phone. I kept trying to tell her I had to go and she kept talking over me. I knew something was going on with you two boys. And all these years later, I sometimes still find dried blobs of paste around, stuck to something totally unexpected, like the bottom of the waffle iron. I guess it’s also a sign that I never clean thoroughly enough either.”
“And even after that, Mom was so desperate for help that she put up with us.”
“It’s more that it’s no fun doing this alone. The fun is being together, like we are now.” Later they strung popcorn and cranberries into more chains to loop around the tree and on the mantel. George was quite deft at this part of the work. (It was why he would go on to be such a good dentist: patience and skill.) Lizzie could imagine him and Todd poking at each other with their needles, with much popcorn being eaten and/or spilled, and fresh cranberries rolling across the kitchen floor, waiting to be squashed by sock-clad feet.
On that first visit, when all the chain making and stringing was done, George took Lizzie on a short tour of his past. The bowling alley in West Tulsa, he said, which was ultimately the reason they were together, here, now, at this very moment, went out of business long ago, but they drove to the strip mall where it used to be. “Look—I think that’s the same gaming store where Todd used to skip out on bowling to play Dungeons and Dragons,” he said. “Who’d have thought that it’d still be around?”
His high school was closed for vacation, so they couldn’t go in, but Lizzie couldn’t help comparing the spaciousness of the large campus—with its lower, middle, and upper schools spread out over several acres of well-manicured lawn—to the cramped, creaky, and much older building where she’d spent her high school years. They went for a walk along the Arkansas River. It didn’t, Lizzie told George somewhat belligerently, even compare with the Huron. George readily agreed.
“But it’s pretty neat that we both grew up with rivers in our lives, isn’t it?”
All this “we”-ness with George was making Lizzie uncomfortable. She tried to find a neutral subject.
“Your mother’s great.”
“Yes,” George answered immediately, “she is. She thinks you’re pretty wonderful too,” he added.
The voices in Lizzie’s head jumped in quickly, as though they’d been waiting for just this opportunity: “And here I thought George’s mother was a lot smarter than that. If she really knew this kid she wouldn’t like her at all.”
“Really?” Lizzie said, obscurely pleased but wondering if the voices didn’t know better than George. “She doesn’t really know me.”
“C’mon, Lizzie. I know you and I think you’re entirely wonderful. Really.”
Oh, George, Lizzie said to herself. You don’t know me at all. If you did, you would never use the adjective “wonderful” to describe me.
That night they went to see Back to the Future and then out for pizza and beer with Blake, who was George’s best friend ever since they were kids, and Alicia, his fiancée. They were both teachers—Alicia in elementary school (kindergarten) and Blake in high school (history and football coach)—and they spent the entire evening talking about Blake and Alicia’s upcoming
wedding, save for the two hours and six minutes that the four of them watched the movie. Everyone except Lizzie had already seen it (Blake and Alicia twice before), but they agreed that it was worth watching any number of times. Lizzie thought perhaps once was enough for her. Afterward, they drifted into a bar around the corner.
While they drank their second pitcher of beer, Blake and Alicia took turns telling Lizzie and George in almost minute-by-minute detail how they had arrived at a wedding date (in Lizzie’s view a particularly pointless account that ended with the decision being made via a flip of a coin) and had chosen a caterer—lots of taste testing, which was great (Blake), and too fattening (Alicia). They shared the pros and cons of getting married in a church and having the reception there rather than at, say, a hotel. Alicia took out Polaroids of her four bridesmaids trying on their dresses. “We found them at Miss Jackson’s and thank goodness everyone’s pretty much a standard size, because I don’t know what we’d have done otherwise. It’s almost impossible to find a dress and a color that looks good on everyone, don’t you think, Lizzie?”
“Sure. Absolutely,” she automatically responded. Do I care, Lizzie wondered, if Alicia and Blake like me? What are the chances that I’ll never see them again, which would be just fine with me? Does George care if I like them? I hope not but I just bet he does.
In light of that belief, Lizzie opted not to point out to Alicia that she and her bridesmaids were all blond and about size six, so how hard, honestly, could finding the right color be? Instead she tried, for George’s sake, to look interested.
“Oh,” Alicia said suddenly to Lizzie, who was now peering intently into her beer, hoping it would reveal a future that included Jack. “Did George tell you that he’s the best man? And, Lizzie, you should totally come too. It’ll be so much fun.”
“Best party of the year, Lizzie,” Blake promised. “And you’ll get to meet all George’s friends at one go.”
“I’ll see,” she told them. “I’m not really sure where I’ll be in June. I might be traveling.”
George looked at her quizzically but didn’t say anything, which was good, because the voices were having a field day attacking her. “Traveling. I might be traveling,” one mimicked her. “Couldn’t she even come up with a better excuse? Please tell me where on earth she could be traveling.”
“Just tell them the truth,” the other voice advised. “Make it clear how stupid you think they are.” Lizzie tried not to listen, but it was hard.
“We’ll get your address from George,” Alicia called out as George and Lizzie walked to their car. “For the invitation. But we’re counting on you being there.”
“Aren’t they a great couple?” George asked cheerfully as he opened the car door. He was looking forward to parking somewhere and fooling around with Lizzie in the backseat of Allan’s big Buick. “You liked them, right?”
Lizzie’s fallback position was almost always to lie, and she tried out a few different sentences she could use with George. “What the hell,” she said to herself, and spoke. “Truthfully, George, I found them pretty boring. If you must know, I’d rather have stayed home and talked to your mother. Tell me again why we had to go out with them tonight?”
“Mom’s great, so I get that, but Blake’s my best friend,” George protested. “I always see him when I come home.”
“Too bad,” Lizzie said, the voices in her head going wild. “Was he always so uninteresting?”
“Uninteresting? Are you kidding?”
I’m pretty sure that lying would have been the smarter thing to do, thought Lizzie. But it’s too late now. “No, I’m not kidding. As I’m positive Alicia and her blond friends would put it, I think they’re BORR-innnggg.”
“That’s not how she’d describe herself and Blake.”
“Oh, George, you know what I mean. That’s definitely how she’d say the word ‘boring.’ That’s b-o-r-i-n-g, in case you’re wondering how to spell it. BORR-innnggg.”
“No, wait, George, listen, what did we talk about all night? Their wedding.”
“What did you want to talk about that we didn’t?”
“Anything. Politics, science fiction, the Super Bowl, China. The breakup of the Soviet Union. Poetry. Whether Britain should abolish the monarchy. The future of Africa. Whether pot should be legalized. The price of eggs.”
“Is that what you and Marla and James talk about? How much eggs cost these days?”
Against her will, Lizzie laughed. “Well, not about legalizing pot, at least not when James is there, because legalization would ruin his business. But do you see what I mean? I think hearing about someone else’s wedding is the definition of tedium. And she’s so blond.”
The first of Lizzie and George’s many many Difficult Conversations might have ended there and the evening salvaged, except that Lizzie refused to let it drop.
“They just went on and on about the color of the bridesmaids’ dresses and cake tastings. Do they even read?”
“Lizzie, Blake has a master’s degree in history. And he’s not stupid. I mean, he’s not going to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, but, hey, are you? He was captain of our Lincoln-Douglas debate team in high school. And I bet he’s a good enough history teacher. I know he’s a great football coach. The team worships him. I don’t know Alicia very well yet, but I do know lots of the girls that Blake dated before he met her, and they weren’t stupid either. Oh, yeah, and he graduated magna cum laude. That’s more than I did.”
“Sure, from some third-rate A-and-M college.”
This was more than even George could take. “Hey,” he said, sadly coming to the conclusion that his deep desire for a make-out session ending with sex with Lizzie was not going to be fulfilled. “I went to that third-rate school too, you know. And it’s a university. It stopped being Oklahoma A and M years ago. In the 1950s. And my dad went there. And he’s no dummy.”
“But you eventually left,” Lizzie pointed out.
“After I graduated. Because it doesn’t have a dental school.”
“And Todd didn’t go there.”
“He didn’t go anywhere. He was in Sydney.”
Lizzie realized the particular thrust of that argument had run its course, and she shifted topics. “So tell me, where’d little Miss Perky go, again? I know you told me, but I forgot.”
“Oral Roberts University,” George said stolidly. He’d known that was coming.
Lizzie sniggered evilly. “I read about that college. You know, don’t you, that they have spirit monitors on every floor in the dorms, so that someone can tattle to someone else if you’re breaking a rule or even edging close to it. I bet your precious Alicia was a spirit monitor. Maybe she can give you some spiritual guidance. Besides, neither of them asked anything about me, like what I was studying, or how we met.”
“Blake knows how we met. I told him and I’m sure he told Alicia.” George paused awhile before going on. When Lizzie started to speak he stopped her.
“Listen, Lizzie, I don’t know how we got into this . . . well, I do know how we got into this, but I just want to say something, and maybe this is an awful time to say it, and maybe I shouldn’t, but listen, Lizzie, do you even care about what’s going on in my life when we’re not together, or what my life was like before we
met? You don’t ever ask. Do you ever tell me anything important about your own life? No. You never share anything. I’m amazed you invited me to Thanksgiving dinner. You’re probably one of the most self-centered people I’ve ever met. And, oh, yeah, I’m pretty sure that I’m in love with you, although I can’t imagine why.”
He started the car, ignoring the tears that were now rolling down Lizzie’s cheeks. Neither spoke until they arrived back at Allan and Elaine’s. Lizzie, still crying, started to open the car door, but stopped when George put his hand on her arm.
“You’re a real snob, Lizzie Bultmann, did you know that? It’s their big day, and I’m going to be the best man. Why shouldn’t they talk about it to me and expect me to be interested?”
“Well, were you?”
“No, not particularly,” George admitted. “It did get boring, I agree. But if it were our wedding, I’d expect Blake to let us talk about it too.”
Lizzie groaned. “But cake tastings and bridesmaids?”
“Even that. It’s what friends do.”
“But they’re not my friends.”
“Not yet, no.”
It was George’s turn to groan, which he did, loudly. “Look, you’ve just met them once. Can’t you cut them some slack? Surprise, surprise, they might grow on you.”
She sniffed. “I’m not too enthusiastic about slack.”
“Then you have a difficult road ahead of you.”
“I guess. But that’s so not-new news to me.”
Finally he turned to look at her. “I don’t want us to fight; I really want you to have a good time here. We don’t have to agree on everything. I love you, I just wanted you to know that.”
Lizzie shook her head, but didn’t say anything, whether from sadness, or pity, or frustration, George couldn’t tell.
When Lizzie came downstairs the next morning, Elaine was sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of tea and the newspaper. Lizzie poured herself some tea from the pot and sat down with her.
“George went to pick up some stuff for his grandparents. He should be home soon, but I’m glad we have this time to ourselves. I wanted to tell you something.”
Lizzie put down the cup, but not before the tea sloshed on the table. How had she so quickly come to this point of being afraid that Elaine might have realized that she was just pretending to be the nice girl that her son was dating? Oh, right, that her son was in love with. With whom her son was in love.
Elaine got a sponge and wiped up the spill, not noticing, or deliberately overlooking, Lizzie’s discomfort. “I wanted to tell you, so you’re not surprised when you meet her, that my mother-in-law can be a real terror. She loved—still loves, of course—Allan, to the point of distraction, and Todd and George even more than that. She worships them. It was lovely when the boys were growing up because she’d always be so happy to listen to my stories about them over and over. She’s always been forthright, but now I think she’s deliberately modeled herself on Maggie Smith, the British actress. If there’s a tart remark to be made, Gertie will undoubtedly make it.
“It took her a long time to warm up to me. She was furious that Allan wanted to marry me and terrified we’d live in Canada near my folks rather than in Oklahoma. Over the years we’ve become closer, but I wanted to warn you about how difficult she can be. On the other hand, Sam is uncomplicated and totally likable. Allan’s just like him, and you know how nice he is. There. That’s done. I haven’t offered you breakfast because you’ll stop at the Pancake House in Sand Springs, which is yet another of the Goldrosen traditions you’ll get to experience.”
“You’re not coming with us?” asked Lizzie, a bit dismayed.
“We’ll see them next week, after the Christmas tree comes down.”
“I wish you were going to be there,” Lizzie allowed herself to say.
“No, no, you and George will have a nice day by yourselves with Gertie and Sam. And one more piece of advice: Don’t eat a lot at the Pancake House, because Gertie will have cooked up a storm in anticipation of your visit. And unlike me she’s an excellent cook. Plus, and most importantly, her feelings will be hurt if you turn down her offers of second and third helpings.”
George heard the last sentence as he came in the door. “Just wait, Lizzie. Grandma’s company meals are amazing. You won’t be able to see the table because there’ll be so many dishes on it.”
They stopped at the Pancake House in Sand Springs and then drove through Mannford, along the edge of Oilton, and from one side of Yale to the other before they finally got to the outskirts of Stillwater. Neither brought up what had happened the evening before. George told Lizzie about his grandparents; she didn’t mention what his mother had said, although Elaine hadn’t indicated that it was a secret.
“After they realized that neither their son or either of their grandsons would ever want to move back to Stillwater and manage Goldrosen’s Fine Jewelry, Gertie and Sam decided to sell the store to one of their employees,” George began. “The guy who bought it immediately changed the name to Bling It On. There’s no way that Sam and Gertie would get the joke, and they were terribly distressed that he felt he needed to rename a business that had been successful for a long time.
“Even the decision to sell the store had been very hard, because my great-grandpa began it almost seventy-five years ago. Family history says that his boat docked in Houston and he walked all the way to Tulsa with a peddler’s cart that he picked
up somewhere. He didn’t speak much English and didn’t have any relatives here because the older brother who’d sponsored him unceremoniously died before the boat even made it to Houston. Sam told me that his father once described the long slog from the Gulf of Mexico to Stillwater as moving from the wet heat to the not-quite-so-wet heat. Once he got to Stillwater it felt like he was home for good. And that’s how Gertie and Sam feel. They still live in the house that my dad grew up in. And,” George concluded, “Goldrosen tradition mandates that the grandsons, if they happen to be in Oklahoma, celebrate Gertie’s December twenty-fourth birthday in Stillwater. That’s partly why I come home every Christmas.”
“So why aren’t your folks coming with us? Or why don’t your grandparents come to Tulsa to celebrate?”
“Well, Grandma absolutely refuses to set foot in our house as long as Mom has all the Christmas stuff up. And Pop, which is what we’ve always called my grandfather, goes along with her. You’ll see, she’s the one in charge.”
They drove some more. Lizzie looked out the window at mostly different shades of brown, in a mostly unchanging landscape. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live here. “How come you decided to go to OSU for college? Didn’t you want to go further away from home?”
He turned the question back at her. “How come you decided to stay in Ann Arbor and go to college there? Didn’t you want to get further away from home?”
“That was different.” Even to herself Lizzie sounded defensive.
George asked the obvious follow-up question. “Different how?”
If diversion were an Olympic sport, Lizzie would most definitely medal.
“But obviously Todd left Oklahoma, so people do leave.”
George, then and nearly always, was willing to indulge Lizzie, and didn’t pursue his own question. “Yeah, Todd went about as
far away as he could, but I knew that I’d probably go out of state for graduate school, so it seemed silly to leave before I really had to. Besides, from the time I was a little boy, we had season tickets for all the Cowboys’ basketball and football games. I loved coming to Stillwater to watch the games with my dad and Pop. It wasn’t ever a big deal to Todd, but I hated to think about the two of them going to the games alone, without me. It would have broken their hearts if I left too, just a few years after Todd did. I still feel guilty that I’m in Ann Arbor and not here on football Saturdays.”
“What did your mom want you to do?”
“Oh, I think she really wanted me to go east to school. It’s an understatement to say that she’s never loved Tulsa. A few years ago she told me that she still spends her days kicking and screaming against the circumstance of living here. When Dad proposed to her she made him promise that they’d never move back to Oklahoma.”
“What’d he say to that?” Lizzie asked, fascinated.
“That it was only sons whose fathers owned oil companies who come home to Oklahoma to run the family business, that he wasn’t interested in living in Stillwater and working in the jewelry store. He basically promised that it wouldn’t ever happen. And then he added something about orthodontists pretty much having the whole country to choose from.”
“What’d she say then?”
“That, yes, she’d marry him.”
Lizzie thought for a few minutes. “So what happened when your dad decided to come back?”
“He didn’t tell her until he’d almost finished his residency, so they’d been married a few years by then. I think they argued a lot and for a long time. Mom never talks about that part. But Dad tried to convince her that, because they weren’t moving to Stillwater, he wasn’t exactly breaking his promise to her. She hates that kind of quibbling, so that made it even worse.
“When Mom’s telling the story, she says that she just decided to be a grown-up and a good sport about it and come here because she loved him and because she saw how important it was to Dad. But Dad says that she wept and raged and told him she was pregnant and didn’t want to be a single mother and that since he made the decision about where they’d live and bring up their kids, she could decide everything else from then on until they died.”
Lizzie was becoming by the moment ever more infatuated with Elaine.
“Gosh, has she? Made all the other decisions? Or was it just an idle threat?”
“They agree about most things. I don’t think Dad has ever been thrilled about all this Christmas stuff, but he goes along with it, even if he knows it upsets his parents.”
George changed the subject. “Did either of your grandparents live near you when you were a kid?”
“Oh, George.” Lizzie sighed. “You met Mendel, and Lydia’s even worse, if that’s possible to imagine. You know they’re automatons, constructed out of coat hangers, powdered milk cartons, and a heart cut from a piece of graph paper. Nobody could possibly have given birth to them. I don’t have grandparents.”
George sighed. What could he say?
Gertie and Sam were sitting on the front porch, waiting for them. George enveloped his grandmother in his arms, loudly kissed her cheek, and told her happy birthday, then shook his grandfather’s hand and pulled him in for a hug too. Only then did he put an arm around Lizzie and introduce her to his grandparents.
“This is Lizzie,” he said proudly.
“It’s so nice to meet you both.”
The elder Goldrosens gave Lizzie identical tight smiles. They’d met several of George’s girlfriends in the past and didn’t have high hopes for this one either.
“Can we go inside?” Sam asked plaintively. “I’m freezing. And starving.”
Lizzie handed Gertie the bouquet of flowers they’d bought that morning on their way out of Tulsa. “Happy birthday,” she said.
“Whose idea was it to buy me flowers?” Gertie asked sharply. “Georgie? Why would you waste your money?”
“But they smell beautiful,” Lizzie protested. Gertie gave her a look of such scorn that it brought back vivid memories of Terrell the Terrible and that awful poetry class where she’d met Jack. Jack. What was he doing this very moment? Did he ever think about her? Why had he really left her? Where was he? Not in Stillwater, Oklahoma, for sure. But why couldn’t he be here? Lizzie decided that she needed to find a phone book to check if against all the odds he was now in the exact same (small) city that she herself was.
That progression of questions she’d directed at herself sidetracked Lizzie enough that she almost missed Gertie saying dismissively, “None of the flowers you buy from florists ever smell as good as the ones you pick yourself. These probably began the day in some New York hothouse. Ha! You know, Georgie, come spring, my wisteria perfumes the whole house.”
“It does indeed, Grandma,” George said, winking at Lizzie.
“Of course, the downside of that smell is that the wisteria is threatening to take over the whole backyard, not to mention the house, but Gertie can’t bear to cut it down,” Sam said. “If she ever decides that she wants to get rid of it, George, you and Allan will have to come dig it out. Those roots are more aggressive than telemarketers. We might have to bring Todd back from Australia to help us.”
“Well, I suppose it was sweet of you to bring me these, Lizzie, although I’d have thought that Georgie might have mentioned my feelings to you, but no matter. The damage is done.”
George was laughing as they walked into the living room.
“Grandma, I had no idea you felt so strongly about florists and flowers. We’ll do better next time. Here, sit down and open the rest of your presents. Here’s a little something from Mom.”
“Is it my mandel bread?” she asked eagerly as she opened the cookie tin. It was. She bit off a corner of one. “Not bad. I do have to give Elaine some credit: for a terrible cook she makes the best mandel bread I’ve ever tasted. Even better than mine. Perfect for dunking.”
“And you’ve dunked plenty of them in your lifetime, Grandma, right?”
“She’d get a blue ribbon at the fair if they had a dunking-and-eating-mandel-bread category,” Sam said proudly. “That’s my wife.”
George gave her the last package. It was smallish and rather lumpy, wrapped in paper with “Happy Birthday” written on it in different languages.
“Oh,” Gertie said delightedly as she opened it. “What a surprise. Socks.” She turned to Lizzie. “Every year since he was six I’ve gotten a pair of socks from Georgie for my birthday.”
This particular year’s were blue, with a blotch of maize at the toes and heels and a tasteful maize M at the top.
“Thank you, Georgie. These are very nice, but a little tame for my taste, don’t you think? Not like those orange knee socks with Pistol Petes all over them that you once gave me.”
“Pistol Pete is OSU’s mascot,” George explained in an aside to Lizzie.
“I loved those socks. I wore them till they disintegrated in the wash. I wish you’d find me another pair,” Gertie said wistfully.
“What can I say, Grandma? This was pretty much all I could find in Ann Arbor, except for some plain white ones, which I knew you’d hate. And I thought you’d like the colors.”
“I do, I do. You’re such a sweet boy, Georgie.” By stepping back, George successfully deflected her attempt to pinch his cheeks.
“Come on,” Sam urged them. “Let’s eat lunch. Are you kids hungry? I feel like I might faint from hunger.”
While his grandparents were getting the food on the table, George showed Lizzie the framed class photos of him and Todd, beginning in kindergarten and ending with George’s photo from his senior year in high school. “You were a pretty cute kid,” Lizzie said. “Did you break a lot of hearts?”
George started to answer but was interrupted by Sam’s insistence that they sit down at the table now, this minute, before the food got cold. Lizzie imagined that George might have said that he was constitutionally unable to break anyone’s heart. Or he would have said something about not if you compared him to Todd. Yes, she already knew those things about him.
“Soup’s on,” Sam called again.
Literally, in fact: on their plates was a bowl of chicken soup with matzoh balls. That was followed by sweet-and-sour braised brisket. There were also latkes with a choice of applesauce or sour cream (or both), and kasha knishes. There were both meat and cheese blintzes. There was a loaf of challah still warm from the oven. Lizzie didn’t think she had ever seen a table so crowded with food.
“Good Lord, Gertie, how much of this do you think we’ll eat?”
“Stop, Sam. I wanted George to have a taste of Hanukkah. I know he doesn’t get this kind of food from his mother. And save room for dessert,” Gertie warned them. “I want to get rid of the birthday cake Sam got me from Safeway. Chocolate. Waste of money, of course. It won’t be good. Those store-bought cakes become stale the minute you get them home. It’s just like how new cars lose most of their value as soon as you drive them off the lot. So I made some of your old favorites, Georgie, just in case it’s really inedible. And don’t anyone spill their coffee. It’s impossible to get those stains out of the tablecloth.”
Of course the cake was absolutely fine, but Gertie didn’t
care for it. The chocolate frosting was too sweet. She thought they’d used inferior ingredients. To clear their palates of the bad taste, she insisted that they each take a generously sized brownie and several miniature cream puffs filled with vanilla pudding and drizzled with chocolate sauce. No one wanted ice cream, although she offered to get it from the freezer. Twice.
By the time Lizzie finished eating everything Gertie had insisted on serving her, all she wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep. It’s possible she dozed off for a moment. Gertie and Sam were carrying platters of food back into the kitchen, and George was clearing the table. With some difficulty, Lizzie rose to her feet and made a move to help, but Gertie said, “No. Just sit. You can help another time.”
“Are you sure, Mrs. Goldrosen?”
“Absolutely sure. I’m very particular about how I load the dishwasher. Don’t you find everyone is? I’m sure your mother has her own thoughts on the subject.”
Lizzie, not being sure whose mother was being referred to, didn’t answer. As far as she could remember, Lydia hadn’t ever expressed an interest in, or opinion about, their dishwasher. She’d certainly never put a single dish in it. Come to think of it, she might not even know the Bultmann family owned one.
Later, they showed Lizzie the sights of Stillwater. George drove and his grandparents narrated the journey. They pointed out George’s freshman dorm, the fraternity where he lived for the next three years, the football stadium, the basketball arena, the first McDonald’s (“We watched it being built, early in the 1970s”), Baskin-Robbins (“Ditto”), the house where Allan’s best friend used to live when they were kids and the house where he and his family lived now (“He came home, you know, to teach at the vet school. I don’t know why your father didn’t bring your mother here. We needed an orthodontist more than Tulsa did.”), Allan’s dorm, Allan’s fraternity (the same as George’s) and his
elementary, middle, and high schools (“He was president of his junior and senior classes, you know, George.”). George slowed down in front of Bling It On, but Gertie told him not to stop. “Let’s just go home, George. I’m getting tired.”
When they got back to the house, Gertie announced that it was time for a little something to nibble on before George and Lizzie left. Rather than the brownies and cream puffs (the chocolate cake had been discarded), she brought out a banana cream pie (“I made Allan’s favorite, even though he’s not here”) and an angel food cake, with strawberries and whipped cream (“Sam’s favorite; I froze the strawberries myself.”). “And it’s real whipped cream, not that stuff Elaine serves,” she announced.
While George and Lizzie were getting ready to go, Gertie disappeared into the kitchen and returned with Tupperware containers full of food to take back to Tulsa. “I kept the brisket,” she apologized, “because Sam will want more meat blintzes. But I packed up everything else. It’s a care package for Allan, like I used to send you boys when you went to camp. I know Allan misses my cooking, even though he probably never complains.
“And here’re your Hanukkah presents. Open them now,” she commanded. George waited while Lizzie unwrapped hers, trying to be as careful as Gertie had been with the gift from George. They’d given her a box of assorted Twining’s teas.
“Oh, thank you,” she said sincerely. “I can’t wait to try all the different flavors.”
Gertie nodded. “George told us you were a tea drinker. Like Elaine.” Lizzie wasn’t quite sure how to take this statement. Being like Elaine in this house was evidently a mixed blessing.
George’s package was lumpy, a much larger version of the wrapped pair of socks he’d given to his grandmother earlier. He examined the wrapping paper. “This looks familiar,” he
commented, and asked her if it was same paper she’d used on his gift last year. He took the absence of any response as a somewhat guilty yes. “Well, then,” he said breezily, “there’s no need to save it for another year,” and tore it open.
“Oh my gosh. You guys shouldn’t have. Look, Lizzie.” This last was unnecessary, since where else would Lizzie be looking but at George’s gift? It was a hooded orange sweatshirt emblazoned with a large Pistol Pete outlined in black on the front and cowboys written on the back. “Wow. I’ll be especially sure not to wear this on game days in Ann Arbor; it isn’t safe to acknowledge there are any other college teams. But here I can wear it all the time.” He put it on over his flannel shirt.
Gertie and Sam looked pleased. “Wear it in good health, sweetheart,” Gertie said. “You’d better get going. We don’t like to think of you driving home in the dark.”
They all stood around the car saying their last good-byes. Lizzie went back into the house, ostensibly to use the bathroom, but really to check the phone book in the kitchen. She opened it to the M’s. She could never remember if the Mc’s came before or after the Mac’s or if they were just in their normal place in the alphabet, but after looking carefully she saw there was no Jack McConaghey. No Jack. She’d been right. He’d never live in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Sam hugged them both, and Gertie kissed Lizzie and then threw her arms around George. “You’re always the best part of my birthday every year, Georgie,” she told him. “You and Todd.”
As George backed the car out of the driveway Lizzie turned around and saw Gertie standing on the sidewalk, waving to them. “She’s crying,” she said to George.
“I know, I know, I hate it, but she always does when we leave.” He sighed. “I should really try to come here more often.”
“What are you going to do with that hideous sweatshirt? ‘Oh my gosh. You shouldn’t have,’” she imitated him.
“Hey, I was being honest. They absolutely shouldn’t have.”
They laughed together.
“It was probably on sale,” George said.
“Oh, for sure,” Lizzie agreed. “Otherwise why would you ever buy it, even given your deep love for Pistol Pete? That’s got to be the brightest orange I ever hope to see. It’ll give most people a headache.”
“Or blind them. Maybe it’s like looking directly at an eclipse of the sun. How about if I leave it at home and only wear it when I’m visiting them in Stillwater? That’ll satisfy everyone.”
“But they’re sweet,” she continued. “At least Sam is sweet. I’m not sure how to describe Gertie. I wish I knew my grandparents. Maybe my life would have been totally different.”
“Not so totally, I hope. I’d still like us to have met.”
Why did George have to say things like that? What did he want her to say? That she felt the same way? They still hadn’t talked about what had occurred the night before. Maybe George would forget that he said he loved her.
She spoke quickly. “And all that food. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much. I can’t believe she did all that cooking.”
“Cooking for us makes Grandma happy. The thought of anyone she loves going hungry is anathema to her.”
“Your mother’s sort of the same way, isn’t she?”
“She is, but not to that extent. I think if we hadn’t eaten the cream puffs Grandma would have been really annoyed with us.”
“I wish I hadn’t eaten them,” Lizzie admitted. “I’ve probably gained ten pounds on this visit.”
George reached over and took her hand. “You don’t have to worry,” he said.
Just before they got back to Elaine and Allan’s, Lizzie said a little timidly, “Do you want to talk about last night, George?”
“No, not right now. We can wait at least until all that food’s been digested.”
“I just thought,” Lizzie began, “because I just want to say I’m sorry I was such a pill about Blake and Alicia. It was probably uncalled-for. For some reason I was really uncomfortable with them.”
George nodded. “Okay, that’s fair. Though I did wonder about where you might be traveling in June, since you never mentioned it before.”
“Right,” Lizzie said, trying to pretend she hadn’t said anything of the kind. “I did say traveling, didn’t I. Maybe I meant to Marla’s, I don’t know. It’s all I could think of at the time.”
“Hold that thought, Lizzie. We’re home.”
After breakfast on Christmas day, the Goldrosens gathered around the tree to open presents. It was almost as though Lizzie had always been part of the family. There was even a stocking with her name on it, hung on the mantel next to the other three. Elaine saw her looking at it and misread her thoughts, one of the rare blunders Elaine would ever make in understanding Lizzie. Which was pretty amazing, given that she’d never learn what Lizzie considered to be the defining events of her life.
“I’m so sorry your stocking’s not like the rest of ours. By the time George told us you were coming, it was too late to order one. But we’ll have one here for you next year. And maybe Todd will be here too,” she said, a bit wistfully.
Once again Lizzie wasn’t sure what to say, although she was pretty sure she should say something. George fidgeted and didn’t look at either his mother or Lizzie. Oh God, Lizzie thought. What the fuck is going on? First George says he loves me and now this. If I were living in a horror novel, that would be the first vaguely ominous sign that I’ll never get untethered from this family. Maybe Elaine can predict the future. Or maybe she’s just insanely optimistic.
George felt, for what was perhaps the first time in his entire life, a tinge of annoyance at his mother. It was one thing for Alicia to invite Lizzie to the wedding and quite another for his mother to blithely assume—blithely assume!—that she’d be here next Christmas and forever after, even if that was exactly what George wanted.
They opened their gifts in turn, accompanied by a significant amount of oohing and aahing. Lizzie’s presents were unexpectedly many and lavish: a very pale green bathrobe made out of the softest cotton she’d ever felt, sheepskin slippers, a rather large gift certificate to Shaman Drum bookstore, several bars of French milled soap (Marla would approve of that, Lizzie thought), an alarm clock from the Museum of Modern Art, and two mismatched china teacups and saucers.
George’s presents included a cashmere scarf, a pair of sheepskin slippers, a bottle of Italian wine, four Riedel wineglasses, a lamb’s-wool sweater, and a mug inscribed my favorite dentist.
Todd had sent his father a silk tie, his mother a boxed set of Upstairs, Downstairs, George a furry hat with earflaps, just like the kind they used to wear as kids, and Lizzie a pair of suede gloves.
“Oh,” Lizzie said, stricken with guilt. “I didn’t get Todd anything.”
“I did,” George assured her. “A Dallas Cowboys warm-up jacket. That should confound the Aussies when he wears it.”
Elaine and Allan were beaming. It finally occurred to Lizzie to wonder if George had ever brought another girl home for Christmas with his family, and, if so, what happened to her. Could it have been the girl he was with the night they met? What was her name? Lizzie thought she might ask George about it on the plane ride home.
George surveyed the stacks of gifts he and Lizzie had gotten. “We’ll need another suitcase to carry all this back to Ann Arbor, Mom.”
“Easily solved. You can take one of ours and just bring it back next time.”
Allan looked at his watch. “We’d better get over to the shelter. They’ll be serving lunch soon. Who’s going with me? George? Elaine? Lizzie?”
Elaine spoke first. “I’ve got lots and lots of cookies and a couple of casseroles for you to take, but perhaps Lizzie and I will stay home. Is that okay with you, Lizzie, or do you especially want to go?”
“No, staying here is fine. We can eat cookies and try some of the teas from Mr. and Mrs. Goldrosen in my new teacups.”
“Lovely,” Elaine said, “and listen, I’m sure they’d be happy to have you call them Gertie and Sam.”
“Of course they would,” Allan added.
Sam, maybe, Lizzie thought. Not Gertie.
“I’m devoted to mismatched china,” Elaine said as they were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking their tea—Elaine, Earl Grey, and Lizzie, Assam. “It just seems more festive to me. I don’t mean to inflict my taste on you, though. It’s too late to return these, now that we’ve drunk from them, but if you’d rather have two sets that match, I’ll keep these and send you some others.”
“No, no,” Lizzie assured her. “I just never thought about it before. They’re lovely.”
They sat in companionable silence while they sipped their tea.
“So, Lizzie,” Elaine began. “George told us your parents are important psychology professors at U of M?”
“Um, yeah, I guess so. A lot of people think they’re important, anyway.”
“I was a French major as an undergraduate, but I once considered going into psychology. I always thought I might be a good social worker or school counselor.”
“I bet you’d be wonderful at that. Do you ever think about going back to school to get a degree?”
“Oh, I’m not sure I even want to at this point. I think I’d rather be lazy and eat cookies and drink tea. What area of psychology are your parents in?”
“They’re behaviorists, so they don’t do counseling or therapy.”
“What are they like? Are you close to them? Were they okay with you spending the holidays here?”
Lizzie paused. How to explain? How much should she tell Elaine? (“You’re probably one of the most self-centered people I’ve ever met,” George had said.)
“I’m so sorry,” Elaine said instantly. “Is that too personal? You don’t need to answer. I’m just always curious about people’s lives.”
“No, it’s okay. I just need to figure out how to explain them to you. It’s like”—she fumbled with her words—“they’re just not the sort of people anyone could be close to.”
“That must be sad for you. And difficult.”
“Not really. Not anymore. It was harder when I was a kid. See, not only would they never do counseling, but they think psychologists who do do that are a joke. Or they would think it’s a joke if either one of them had a sense of humor. Psychologists like them, behaviorists, don’t believe in an ‘inner self.’ There’s actually a famous joke, or at least famous in behaviorist circles and of course those who dislike behaviorists, that goes like this: Two behaviorists meet on the street and each one asks the other, ‘How am I?’”
Elaine smiled. Lizzie wondered if she should go on. “Is this more than you want to know?”
“No, no, don’t stop. I’m fascinated. Do they really not believe in an inner self?”
“Well, at least they don’t believe that the notion of an inner self—or inner life—is useful for what they call the science of psychology.” Lizzie emphasized the last three words and added
air quotes around them. “And it’s really important for my parents to think of themselves as real scientists.” More air quotes. “Just like physicists, or biologists.”
“How curious,” Elaine said as she stood up. “Let’s make another pot of tea—I want to hear more.”
While the water was boiling Lizzie said, “I think George is terrifically lucky to have you and Allan as parents. It’s just so nice here.”
Being in Tulsa at his parents’ house with George made Lizzie anxious (how did she feel about him, anyway?), but spending time alone with Elaine was calming and comforting and gave her some idea of what her life might have been like if someone besides Lydia had been her mother.
Elaine gave her a quick hug and then said, “You’re sweet. I see why George likes you so much. Okay, finish what you were saying before. I feel as though I should be taking notes. Are you going to give me an exam at the end?”
“Of course,” Lizzie said. “And I should warn you that I’m a very hard grader. Anyway,” she went on, “all those early behaviorists saw that real scientists, like biologists, only studied things that they could see, and you couldn’t ever see the mind. Except perhaps your own. And that might be enough to write poetry, but it wouldn’t pass muster as a scientific study. They believed that all that you could see was behavior. So they gave up any examination of the mind or the inner self, and just studied how people behaved. And if people insisted on talking about their ‘inner experience,’ well, that was just considered verbal behavior. Kind of embarrassingly bad behavior, in fact. Problem solved.
“I think it’s all bullshit,” Lizzie went on, “what my parents and their friends believe, and not just because they’re my parents and I’m rebelling against them. Everyone knows they have a mind. And I’d hate a life without poetry in it.”
Elaine nodded, a clear encouragement to continue.
“My parents think that people are like animals, and they’ll do what they’re rewarded for and won’t do what they’re punished for doing. And they think that’s a great insight.”
“Maybe some behaviorists should become animal trainers,” Elaine joked.
“Actually, a lot of them did go on to become pretty good animal trainers. And people trainers too. My father spends his days running lab rats to try to shape their behavior in particular ways. And because of that, he’s discovered some pretty effective ways of controlling people’s behavior too.”
“I’ve read about behavior modification. It’s all the rage in pop psychology books these days, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but Mendel and Lydia usually publish only in academic journals that only their friends read. They’re not at all interested in dumbing down their theories for a mass audience.” Lizzie had a sudden flashback to the terrible afternoon that Jack showed her the article in Psychology Today. That hadn’t dumbed down anything at all. “They used to try their theories out on me, though, all the time. Once, when I was almost three, and my father was training rats to press bars in their cages in order to get food, they decided to see if they could train me to stand up whenever they entered the room, so if I was sitting down and reading or playing with a toy when they came in, they’d be all cold and ignore me, but the minute I got up they started paying attention to me and acting loving. And sure enough, just like a rat, I learned what to do. It was like turning the handle on a jack-in-the-box. As soon as either one of them came into the room I, I’d pop right up. Things like that went on all the time. It didn’t end until I left for college.”
Lizzie shuddered. She hadn’t realized before how much she actually knew about her parents’ work and how awful it still was to remember when she was compelled to jump to attention
without ever really knowing why. She hadn’t ever told anyone else all about her parents. Oh, Marla knew quite a bit, but here she’d poured it all out to George’s mother. Gosh, she thought, Elaine would have been a great therapist.
“That must have been very hard for you.”
“Well, I had Sheila, my babysitter. She was wonderful. And I actually learned a lot from Lydia and Mendel. When I got to be a teenager, I manipulated them like crazy, and they were positively clueless. That was fun.”
“Did they like George?” Elaine asked, unable to imagine any parent not approving of George as a date for their daughter.
“Like George?” Lizzie repeated stupidly, not understanding.
“Yes, when he came with you at Thanksgiving.”
Lizzie thought for a moment. She’d never considered that before, what her parents might think of George. “I know it sounds weird, but Lydia was never around that day to introduce to George. And Mendel’s simply pathetic. He’s indifferent to everything but Lydia and his rats. Lydia’s much more critical, so maybe it’s better that she didn’t meet George. Anyway, he was my first boyfriend to darken their door since I started dating.”
“You didn’t bring any of the boys you dated home? I would have hated it if I’d never met any of George’s girlfriends.”
Lizzie suddenly wanted to know more about George’s other girlfriends, but didn’t know if she should ask Elaine about them. “Well, my parents didn’t care about anything I did, unless they planned to modify my behavior, so I tried never to do anything in front of them. I was always so careful. But here’s the kind of thing they did care about. Or at least Lydia did. When I was a freshman a boy named Dane Engel called me. According to Lydia, who answered the phone, he asked to speak with me. And that did it for him.”
“But why? I don’t get it.”
“Because one of Lydia’s pet peeves is that you should never say
‘talk with’ someone, it should be ‘talk to’ someone. She refused to let him talk to me and when she’d hung up, after basically saying he wasn’t welcome to call again, she told me why she’d done what she did. For my own good. My own good! Give me a fucking break. Oh, gosh, sorry—I guess it still bothers me.”
“No, no, no, that’s fine, don’t be sorry.”
“I think that’s one of the reasons I like George,” Lizzie told her. “He’s smart but not a snob. I get the feeling that even if I did something stupid, like say ‘between you and I,’ George might flinch but he wouldn’t kick me out of his life.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Elaine responded. “George seems to be endlessly forgiving. I could tell you horror stories about the mistakes Allan and I made as parents, but nothing seemed to rattle George enough to make him give up on us.”
Elaine changed the subject back to Mendel and Lydia. “Do you think your parents wanted you to be a psychologist too? Did they mind when you told them you were planning to major in English instead?”
“God, no. I think they probably feel that as long as they’re psychologists, nobody else needs to be.”
Elaine shook her head, but whether it was in disbelief or sympathy, Lizzie couldn’t tell. She was about to share some of her mother’s other strong dislikes with Elaine—Roget’s Thesaurus and fantasy trilogies were high on the list—but stopped when they heard Allan and George at the door.
That night they went out to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. This was the culminating tradition of the Goldrosens’ Christmases. “Our last meal,” Allan joked.
After the waiter left with their orders, Elaine picked up her bottle of Tsingtao beer. “I propose our first toast: to a wonderful time together this year and to us all being together next year, same time, same place. Only with the addition of Todd, because we miss him dreadfully.”
They clinked glasses and drank.
“I am,” Allan said. “To Lizzie, who was a good sport and a wonderful guest. We’re so happy George brought you home for Christmas.”
“Hear, hear,” George and Elaine chorused.
“Well,” George said, “I was going to propose a toast to Lizzie too, Dad, so how about this: to Allan and Elaine, the best parents anyone could have.”
“Oh, Georgie, that’s wonderful you feel that way,” Elaine said, tearing up slightly. Allan took out his handkerchief and blew his nose.
“Can I do one?” Lizzie asked. “Or do you have to be a Goldrosen to participate?”
“You’re an honorary Goldrosen, so have at it,” George said.
“Okay.” She raised her glass. “First, George, I’m so glad you invited me. You can’t imagine how nervous I was about coming.” She turned to smile at Allan and Elaine. “Thank you both so much for everything. I can see why George is such a nice guy, having you both as parents.”
George thought that being a nice guy wasn’t exactly the ringing endorsement you want from your own true love, but Lizzie was so stingy with saying, or maybe fearful of saying, anything positive that George knew he had to be grateful for even that crumb.
Allan blew his nose again. Elaine reached out and took Lizzie’s hand. “You should have seen me the first time I met Gertie and Sam. I couldn’t even talk because my teeth were chattering and I was sure I was going to vomit all over their shoes.” Everyone laughed and Elaine went on, “I hope you’ll come back soon, Lizzie.”
Later, when they were maneuvering their chopsticks with varying degrees of facility (Lizzie was the most inept), Elaine started telling dentist stories.
“Now, Lizzie, I know you’ve never heard this story, but, George, I’m sure I’ve told you about Dr. Sidlowski before.” She turned to Lizzie and said, “He was my regular dentist’s partner. I went to him once, right before I left Montreal for Bryn Mawr because Dr. Gratz was on vacation or something. I’d broken a tooth after eating too many pieces of this really crusty sourdough bread at lunch. I was just beside myself—who breaks a tooth at age eighteen? Don’t answer that, George,” she said hastily as he started to speak. “It was a rhetorical question. Anyway, they took me in right away, and when Dr. Sidlowski asked me how it happened, of course I blamed the bread. But then he asked how many pieces of bread I’d had, and I told him three, which was agonizingly embarrassing. And then he said in this critical voice, ‘Well, clearly the first piece sensitized it, the second piece loosened it, and the third piece cracked it. Perhaps you should take a lesson from this.’ And I have. I almost never have three pieces of bread right in a row, and I certainly don’t when it’s that crusty sort of sourdough. I’m glad I never had to go back to him again.
“I wonder if any of his patients ever complained about the way he talked to them. I suspect there’s a way to find out. It’s that sort of question that keeps me up at night.”
“Nothing keeps you up at night, darling,” Allan said.
Elaine chuckled. “You’re right. But if I were the kind of person who did lie awake at night and ponder various questions, that’s what I would ponder. If Dr. Sidlowski was ever made aware of what an awful person he was. There I was, already suffering from guilt and shame, and look how he treated me, with more guilt and shame. Don’t ever be like that, George,” she ordered, but it was unnecessary to say that, because everyone at the table knew there was no way that George would ever commit the sin that Dr. Sidlowski had.
“There’s a book I really enjoyed that has a dentist in it,” Lizzie
began, “called Do the Windows Open? Have you read it, Elaine? It’s by Julie Hecht. It’s a collection of linked short stories about this really neurotic woman. In one of the stories she’s at her dentist’s and . . .”
She paused. Should she continue? Okay, why not? she thought. It’s probably inappropriate but also really funny. Okay, whatever. I’m going to go for it. George loves me, right? Isn’t that what he said? I’ll think about what I’m going to do with that piece of information tomorrow or the next day. In any case, let him see the real me. Let them all see the kind of person I really am.
She began again. “So the dentist is drilling away, and, I can’t remember her exact words, but she’s musing to herself something like ‘Dentists have the highest suicide rate of everyone in the medical professions,’ and then she goes on to say, ‘Not high enough, in my opinion.’ For some reason I think that’s really funny.”
For several minutes after she finished, no one spoke. Finally Allan coughed. Elaine looked up from studying the remains of the Chinese food on her plate. “Are you getting a cold, Allan?”
George interrupted before his father could answer. “Hmm, I can see how people who hate going to the dentist might find that funny. And you know, it very subtly makes an excellent point: people with depressive personalities shouldn’t go into dentistry. Think about it: people come to you in extraordinary pain, you have to inflict pain to cure the original pain, and you’re working on something that’s only a bit bigger than a grain of rice, with little or no margin for error. I remember one of my teachers saying that what a dentist needed most was a steady hand, steady nerves, and an untroubled heart.”
Lizzie looked at him gratefully.
“That’s why we love George, isn’t it, Lizzie?” Elaine said somewhat mysteriously.
“Yes,” Lizzie said slowly. “I suppose it is.”
* The Defensive Tackles *
M’Ardon “Mardy” Preatty, built like a fire hydrant, was undrafted
and later signed by the Lions after a so-so career at Clemson. Although he never became the game-changing pro player that his high school coach had predicted he’d be, season after season he managed to hold on to a spot on the team. Of course, the team as a whole wasn’t very good in any of the years he played for them. Lizzie occasionally saw him on television at the end of a lopsided game and she never failed to point him out to George, although she never went on to mention under what circumstances they’d met.
The other tackle suffered in comparison with Mardy Preatty, but then, almost any tackle playing on the same team as Mardy would. Leon Daly chose not to go to college, or perhaps he dropped out before graduation, and was last seen by Lizzie working at the local Toyota dealership, where he was a highly skilled and much-valued mechanic.
* Lizzie Makes George Laugh *
When Lizzie was little, Sheila used to tell her about watching the submarine races at Island Park with her boyfriend. It sounded really exciting to Lizzie: submarine races! Whoa! What submarine races were didn’t become clear to her until one morning in Tulsa when she and George were walking on the River Parks Trail and she wondered aloud if they had submarine races on the Arkansas River too. George looked at her and gulped loudly. At first Lizzie thought he was choking and regretted that she’d never learned how to do CPR, but then he started laughing. George was a laugher, all right—it was one of the things Lizzie
loved about him. His was the sort of laugh that had people who heard him rolling on the floor, joined in a fellowship of mirth. Lizzie had obviously missed the joke, if a joke there was. In any event, George was bent over, chest heaving, hands on his knees. Every time his laughter seemed to be slowing down, he would gurgle something mostly indistinguishable that sounded to her like “submarines, Arkansas” and go off again. Finally, when he got himself more or less under control, he explained as you might explain to a young child.
“Lizzie, honey,” he began. “I have some breaking news for you. Submarines are underwater, right? So you can’t see them. Saying you’re watching a submarine race is a euphemism for making out.”
Oh, how embarrassing, Lizzie thought then, her face reddening. I am so glad I never told Jack about those stupid submarine races.
George was constantly surprised at how naive Lizzie was, how easy it was to tease her. His favorite Lizzie story, which he tried not to remind her of too often, had to do with IGA grocery stores. Passing one on their way home in Ann Arbor, Lizzie wondered aloud what the initials stood for.
“You know about the International Geophysical Association, right?” George asked, in the tone of voice that indicated that absolutely everyone knew and anyone who didn’t was impossibly lacking in smarts.
“I guess,” Lizzie said. “I mean, I sort of know what the words mean, especially ‘international’ and ‘association.’ Those I’m sure about. Why?”
“Their hundredth anniversary was about ten years ago, and they decided to start a chain of grocery stores to make some money for the group.”
George thought that Lizzie must know that he was joking—that his explanation was so ridiculous it had to be invented—but
had chosen not to laugh because she knew he wanted her to. He believed that until several years later, when they were in Sheridan, Wyoming, for a dental convention and saw another IGA store.
“Oh, look,” Lizzie exclaimed. “There’s another one of those Geophysical stores. They’re everywhere, aren’t they?”
Her gullibility was only one of the many reasons that George adored Lizzie. And the fact that she usually could laugh at herself was another.
* George Proposes, Christmas, 1994 *
Lizzie was in the kitchen with Elaine when George asked her to go for a walk with him. Lizzie didn’t want to go. It had poured in the middle of the night and rain was still falling fitfully. That morning the sun never really seemed to rise and the sky was a dirty gray. It was not great walking weather. If the temperature had been about fifteen degrees colder, it might have snowed, but it hovered around thirty-five degrees. In neither of the two Christmases Lizzie spent with the Goldrosens in Tulsa had she seen one flake of snow. She doubted that it ever got cold enough to snow in Oklahoma, but whenever she offered that opinion everyone within earshot quickly brought up freezing rain. They all had stories to share. Elaine told her about trying to get to her dentist’s office at Sixty-First and Yale (a notorious Tulsa hill) to have an abscessed tooth dealt with, when only her father’s driving skills (he and her mother had been visiting from Montreal, where they had plenty of experience driving in snow) got her there on time, or at all. They could see cars skidding, racing their engines, trying to make it up to the top and failing. And George remembered the snowball fights of his youth and the times in Stillwater that Theta Pond froze and they’d all gone skating. Hot chocolate was mentioned several times in the retelling of these
memories. Allan chimed in to remind Elaine and George of the time they were coming home from a long weekend at Silver Dollar City and an ice storm that quickly descended doomed a car that they’d already agreed was going way too fast when it passed them. They saw it later, upside down, on the side of the road, having slid through the guardrail. She wasn’t sure she really believed any of them. She’d like to see it snow in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for herself.
“We’re not done with the baking yet,” Lizzie told him, straightening up from putting a cookie sheet in the oven. “Batches more to go before I sleep.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw George and Elaine exchange a meaningful glance. Now, this was decidedly odd. It happened that Lizzie rightfully considered herself an expert on the explication and implications of meaningful looks. Something was up. This was clearly not business as usual for the Goldrosens, whose lives, unlike the Bultmanns, mercifully lacked enough secrets to make such glances necessary.
Meaningful looks were a stock-in-trade for Mendel and Lydia. Lizzie could remember all the times when she had complained about something—the food at dinner, a classmate’s behavior, the book she had been assigned to read, her head hurting (she had had many headaches as a child), and how her parents would look at one another, nod, and then Mendel would take out the notebook he always carried and carefully make a note of whatever it was that was bothering Lizzie and detail her reaction to it. Try as she might, Lizzie had never been able to find even one of the notebooks, so she couldn’t be sure that’s what he was doing. Still, the timing indicated it was, and what else could he be writing down so assiduously? Lizzie suspected that there were dozens of notebooks and that after each was filled, Mendel gave it to a favored graduate student to transcribe. She knew there were many dissertations based on her childhood; she’d
seen the bound copies lying around the house, but she’d never found the original notes. After her parents died, the notebooks were the first things Lizzie searched for, but they were nowhere to be found. Perhaps they were in some hitherto undiscovered and now inaccessible bank vault.
“You two go on,” Elaine advised. “Don’t worry, Lizzie, there’ll still be plenty of cookie dough left when you come home. We’re nowhere near done.”
By the time they got to the Arkansas River Trail and started their walk, Lizzie had descended into a bad mood. She hated the weather. She missed snow. She worried about that look that George and Elaine had exchanged. What did it mean? She complained to George that he always got stopped by every red light whenever he was driving; she carped about the fact that they had to park a few blocks away from the start of the trail; she grumped that she hadn’t planned on walking that day; she grumbled about how boring the walk was, that the Arkansas might be much better known than the Huron River, but that it was nowhere near as lovely and lively, especially on this dark, dank, rain-filled day. She whined to George that the path was puddled and muddy and she was ruining her shoes. She knew that she was being both mean and unfair to George, and that he didn’t deserve any of it. More importantly, she knew that she didn’t deserve someone like George, so intrinsically kind and forgiving. But she couldn’t help it.
Her bad mood deepened as she read aloud the engraved plaques that marked many of the benches, indicating for whom or in whose memory the bench had been given. “‘Rest Awhile: Auntie Never Met a Stranger,’” she mocked. “What sentimental crapola. ‘For Our Darling Darling Nini, Who Loved This Park.’ She loved this park? Nini? Why? Oh, yeah, I know why, because she’d probably never seen a real park.”
Stop, stop STOP Lizzie, she admonished herself. Just keep quiet. Be nice to George. He’s so nice to you.
Throughout all of this, George remained heroically silent. He held Lizzie’s hand firmly. In fact, Lizzie realized, he wasn’t really listening to her at all. He was whistling the “doe, a deer” song from The Sound of Music, a movie Lizzie despised partly because she enjoyed being in a minority and complaining about how misguided the majority was, and partly because she hated the film’s utter sappiness and predictability.
Lizzie stopped reading the plaques’ messages out loud. It was actually no fun behaving this way if George wasn’t responding to it, either by agreeing with Lizzie’s sentiments (no way that was going to happen this time, Lizzie knew; he’d chosen to watch The Sound of Music dozens of times) or by arguing with her. Honestly, she’d much prefer being at home with Elaine.
Then she noticed Blake and Alicia up ahead, sitting on a bench.
“Oh, no,” she groaned. “Did you know they’d be here?”
“They’re pregnant,” George said, continuing to ignore her comments. “Isn’t that terrific?”
Lizzie, down for the count, didn’t reply. Honestly, she was tempted to stamp her foot in utter frustration.
Alicia stood up. “Look,” she said, gesturing to the plaque on the bench, “this is lovely: ‘Commemorating the Sixtieth Anniversary of Helene and Franklin Brown, December 23, 1927, from Their Children, Grandchildren, and Great-Grandchildren.’” She squeezed Blake’s arm. “I hope someone buys a plaque for us when we’ve been married that long.”
Against her better judgment, Lizzie said, “Really? I can’t imagine being married to anyone for that long.” Except Jack, Lizzie said to herself.
“Are you kidding? Why?”
“Well, Alicia, for one thing, wouldn’t you run out of things to talk about after so long? It seems as though it would get awfully boring. You’d know everything about the other person already.”
“I like that about marriage,” Blake protested. “The more I know Alicia the more I love her.”
Alicia gave Blake’s arm another presumably loving squeeze. Lizzie barely succeeded in restraining herself from sticking her finger in her throat and gagging loudly.
Just when it was unclear to her whether she could control herself or whether her behavior would regress even further to that of a cranky two-year-old, George and Blake exchanged a meaningful look. Another meaningful glance in front of Lizzie in Tulsa, Oklahoma! Something was definitely going on.
“Come on, Alicia, honey,” Blake said, “let’s get some lunch. We’ll see you guys later.”
“Sure,” George said. “I’ll call you. Maybe a movie later this week?”
Lizzie stood watching them as they left. They were exactly at the right heights so that they could walk with Blake’s arm around Alicia’s waist and her head on his shoulder. They were in step—left foot, right foot, left foot, not missing a beat. It was disgusting, really.
“Sometimes I almost wish I was like Alicia, or that I was Alicia,” she said to George. “Dumb, blond, and happy. Knowing everything there is to know about makeup and hair and how to dress. I mean, I hate the way she dresses, but I still wish it.”
“Oh, Lizzie,” George said, pulling her down next to him on the bench. “I think you’re just about perfect just the way you are.” He resumed his whistling; Lizzie slumped back into her bad mood.
After a few minutes George stopped whistling. “Gosh,” he said. “Look at that.” He pointed. “There’s something under the bench.”
Lizzie peered down through the slatted seat at a brown paper bag. “Ugh, just leave it, George. It might be a dead rat or something. It might have rabies.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m pretty sure that you can’t get rabies from touching a dead rat. And in any case, who’d put a dead
rat in a bag and leave it here? Or put a dead rat in a bag at all? Blake or Alicia probably dropped it and didn’t realize it.”
“Please, George, don’t touch it; it’s filthy.” Lizzie noticed that her voice was more than a little shrill and wondered why she was getting so upset. Oh, yeah, it had to do with a trip she had taken with her parents to Toronto when she must have been about five. It wasn’t a vacation, of course. Instead, Mendel and Lydia had driven there to present papers at a conference, taking Lizzie along because most unfortunately Sheila couldn’t stay with her while they were gone. It was raining then too, Lizzie recalled now. Mendel and Lydia decided they’d go to a nearby restaurant rather than eat at the hotel. While they walked there, Lizzie bent down and ran her hand through the water that had pooled at the side of the street. Mendel went ballistic, grabbing her arm and yanking it away from the puddle, yelling at her not to ever do that again. People stared at them; she still remembered how terribly frightened and mortified she felt.
Of course George didn’t get angry. In fact, he didn’t pay any attention to Lizzie’s concerns. This was because he knew what was in the paper bag. He leaned over to reach for it under the bench. “Lizzie,” he began. “I love you, you know that, right? And I get what you said to Alicia, that you can’t imagine being married to someone for sixty years, but what about if we just took those years one at a time, together?”
He opened the bag and handed her its contents.
It was a gorgeous ring, a large diamond-cut sapphire (although Lizzie wouldn’t describe the stone that way, not knowing the lingo; all she knew was that it seemed enormous) surrounded by smaller (but still substantial) diamonds. Despite the size of the gems, the ring wasn’t gaudy. It didn’t call attention to itself. It was refined, graceful, tasteful, and simply elegant. It was the sort of ring that you should probably keep in a safe-deposit box and take out only for special occasions. It was the kind of ring
passed down from a grandmother to her favorite grandchild. It looked nothing like Lizzie, nothing like anything she’d ever dreamed of being, or wearing. This ring was meant for someone who was Lizzie’s polar opposite.
“Oh, George,” Lizzie said weakly, not knowing what else to say.
“Will you marry me, Lizzie? I can’t imagine a life without you in it. Do you like the ring? It was my grandmother’s, and I had the stones reset in a more modern setting that I thought you’d like.”
“It’s beautiful, George.” Lizzie mustered all the enthusiasm she could, which was not a lot but was enough to make George happy. “But can we not think about getting married yet—can we concentrate on being engaged? Just engaged, for a while, so I can get used to the idea?”
He put the ring on her finger—it fit perfectly, of course (trust George to have found a way to make sure of that). Tears started rolling down Lizzie’s face and George, being George, thought she was crying from happiness.
* George & Lizzie Tell Allan & Elaine the News *
Elaine and Allan were over the moon when they learned of the engagement. Lizzie and George found them in the den. Allan was taking a nap with his head on Elaine’s lap, and when George told them the news, they both tried to get up off the couch at the same time, with the result that Allan’s head collided with the book that Elaine was reading and Elaine, in her eagerness to stand up, knocked over the mug of tea that she’d had been drinking, which soaked into the couch, her clothes, and the carpet.
“Oh, my darlings,” Elaine said, undismayed by the potential stains. “We’re just thrilled at the news. We were so hoping that George would propose on this trip so we could be with you to celebrate.”
They sat around admiring Lizzie’s ring. “You did a wonderful job picking out a new setting, Georgie,” Elaine said. “Do you like it, Lizzie? It was my mother’s.”
“It’s amazing,” Lizzie said. That was probably objectively true. “I love it.” Maybe not quite totally the truth, but still, what could Lizzie say?
“So when’s the wedding going to be?” asked Allan.
“Yes,” Elaine chimed in. “I’ve never been a big fan of long engagements.”
George looked at Lizzie, who smiled gamely back at him. “Mom, give us time to enjoy being engaged before we start planning for anything, okay?”
Later that day, though, Elaine dragged them both to Dillard’s to scope out potential gifts to register for. Lizzie always enjoyed being with Elaine, but this long afternoon was a trial. She didn’t really care about color schemes for towels and sheets, she was indifferent to the potential need for a good set of china as well as an everyday one, and had no opinion about silverware patterns except that she didn’t like anything too ornate. “See, you are interested in silverware,” George whispered behind Elaine’s back. “That’s why we have to do this.” Lizzie nodded grimly. She had to do this.
George left to meet Allan for a father-and-son lunch, and Lizzie and Elaine went on to the bridal department at Miss Jackson’s. After a few minutes of looking at the array of white, ivory, and ecru possibilities, Lizzie got so anxious that she grabbed Elaine’s arm and dragged her away. “I have to go. I think I’m going to faint.” The saleswoman wasn’t noticeably fazed: she’d seen this and worse before.
Lizzie was also having trouble concentrating on the here and now, because she kept thinking how stupid Jack would find all this and how crazy she was to go along with it. She sketched out in her mind how she could break off her engagement to George in the
nicest way possible when Jack came back to save her from this disastrous mistake. Please make it soon, she silently begged him. The announcers in her head loved it. “This girl’s the absolute limit. Marrying someone she’s not sure she loves,” the second-to -the-meanest one said. “Oh, she’s sure, all right. She doesn’t love him at all. She’s just a liar, born and bred,” said the meanest one.
It soon became evident that Elaine was already caught up in a kind of wedding madness. On the way to the airport the next day, she pulled into a parking space in front of Steve’s Sundries. “This’ll just take a sec,” she called back to them as she hurried inside. A few minutes later she came back with an armful of magazines and said triumphantly, “Look! I got a copy of every bridal magazine they had. Do you want to take some to read on the plane?”
George was inclined to accept his mother’s offer of an issue or two until Lizzie looked at him sternly. “Oh, no, you keep those. We’ll pick up some in Ann Arbor,” he said, a bit reluctantly. It seemed he was actually interested in weddings and their complicated etiquette. For herself, Lizzie couldn’t imagine perusing a magazine called anything like Happy Bride or Modern Weddings, unless there was one called something like Weddings for the Reluctant Bride Who Is Probably in Love with a Previous Boyfriend. In any case, there was really no need for her to actually read anything on the subject of weddings, because from then until the party the following December, Elaine clipped countless articles and pictures that she sent to Lizzie, underlining the parts that she thought were particularly relevant to the upcoming event.
* George & Lizzie Tell Mendel & Lydia the News *
As soon as they got back to Ann Arbor, George insisted that they go tell Lydia and Mendel the big news, though he’d still not yet even met Lydia. George hadn’t been at the last Bultmann
Thanksgiving because his grandmother had fallen and broken her hip and George wanted to see her, even though he and Lizzie would be back in Tulsa a few weeks later. That was the kind of guy George was. So it was utterly shocking to him that he hadn’t even met his future mother-in-law. That situation needed to be rectified at once. They were all going to be part of the same family.
Lizzie warned George not to expect too much from either parent. “First of all, don’t count on any excitement at all,” she went on. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if Mendel didn’t remember you. Plus they’ll be annoyed we interrupted them doing whatever they were doing.” George nodded but didn’t believe any of these were accurate predictions.
Lizzie, however, was correct on all counts. When she and George came into the dining room, the Bultmanns were sitting at the table, smoking and drinking coffee. Mendel got up and shook George’s hand, saying that he was pleased to meet him. Lizzie looked at George with satisfaction. Right again.
“You met him last year at Thanksgiving,” Lizzie told her father.
“Oh, did I? There are always so many people here it’s hard to keep track.”
“Did I meet you then?” Lydia asked George.
Lizzie spoke before George could say anything. “No, we couldn’t find you when George got here and we still couldn’t find you when we left.”
“I suppose you didn’t check my office, did you?”
Ever since meeting George, Lizzie had made a conscious effort not to clench her teeth, but right now it was impossible not to. “No,” she said. “I didn’t think to check your office. It was Thanksgiving, I thought you’d be down here with everyone else.”
Lydia made a noise that sounded like “pfui.”
“But you should probably imprint George on your memory, because we’re getting married,” Lizzie added flatly.
“Married,” echoed Mendel.
“Yes,” George said, speaking formally, saying just what your usual parent would want to hear from the man your daughter was going to marry, that he adored their daughter more than they could ever imagine. Lizzie believed that sentence contained probably the truest words George had ever spoken. Lizzie was sure that Mendel and Lydia couldn’t imagine anyone adoring their daughter.
Mendel shook George’s hand again, murmuring his congratulations. Lydia got up and gave them each a traditional Bultmann hug, but that was that. Neither asked to see Lizzie’s ring or inquired about when the wedding would be. They were in the house and then they were out. Ten minutes after Lizzie opened the front door, she closed it behind them.
“Whoof,” George said, taking a deep breath of fresh air. It had been very smoky inside. “I might have to rethink some things that I’ve always believed to be true.”
In the car, Lizzie leaned over and kissed George. “I love you,” she said, and it might at that moment have been true. And then she poked him in the side and said, “Told you so.”
* Marla & James Get Married, June 1995 *
James and Marla got married immediately after they graduated; George and Lizzie six months later. Mrs. Cantor and James’s mother planned it down to its final sumptuous detail. Lizzie knew that Marla thought her wedding day was almost exactly four years too late and that James was still so angry at his parents and Marla’s that he could barely remain civil when he was with them.
Lizzie and Marla drove back and forth from Ann Arbor to Cleveland often that spring, because between James’s and Marla’s extended families and their parents’ many friends there were
wedding showers galore, and Marla wanted Lizzie to be at every one. After each of them, Marla would go through the gifts and give Lizzie any duplicates as well as anything that she didn’t want to keep. There were many rejected items. Marla hadn’t wanted to register for gifts anywhere, so the two mothers filled out the registries themselves, spending several satisfying Saturdays selecting towels and linen sets, china (both everyday and good), silver (sterling and silver plate), and kitchenware (which came in many more colors than were available when the mothers themselves had gotten married more than a quarter of a century before). This was how Lizzie and George eventually ended up with a lot of Marla and James’s discarded loot, including a whistling teakettle (red), a teak salad bowl set, some dish towels, a travel clock, two books (The Silver Palate Cookbook and The New Moosewood Cookbook), and a pair of crystal candlesticks, as well as various pieces of silverware that weren’t the same pattern that the mothers had registered for.
Since Marla had refused to ask James to convert, the rabbi at the Park, the Cantors’ synagogue, declined to perform the ceremony. Instead the wedding took place at a big downtown hotel, with a more liberal rabbi and James’s family’s priest sharing the duties of marrying them. Lizzie was the maid of honor and George was one of James’s groomsmen. After James had broken the glass—a Jewish tradition—and taken Marla into his arms for their first kiss as husband and wife, both of them burst into tears. Looking at the photos later, there was no sign that they’d cried. In fact, the naked happiness on their faces frightened Lizzie. It was unlikely she’d look that elated when she married George in, let’s see, about a hundred and eighty days from now, although George undoubtedly would. Why, Lizzie wondered for the umpteenth time, why did he love her so much? Couldn’t he see what a flawed, imperfect, pretty terrible person she was? Why couldn’t Jack have loved her more? Because he obviously
saw everything negative about her that George missed. Maybe she could request that there be no photos taken at their wedding. Ha! Good luck with that, Lizzie: there was simply no way that Allan and Elaine would ever let this occasion pass without several formal portraits of the newlyweds to mark it by. She’d just have to lie her way through the event. Lizzie the liar. If only George knew.
Marla and James left for a backpacking trip around Europe. They wouldn’t be back in Ann Arbor until the start of grad school, James in classics and Marla in art history. Didn’t Jack say that to her? That he was leaving for the summer and would be back in August to start grad school? What if Marla never came back as well? Lizzie didn’t think she would ever recover from the loss of the two people she cared about most.
But Marla returned from her honeymoon already pregnant; she decided not to go to grad school after all.
They named their daughter Beezie (short for Elizabeth, after Lizzie).
* The Free Safety *
Maverick told Lizzie that the free safety, Antonio Doll, had the best football instincts of anyone on the team. “To be an outstanding free safety a guy has to have a feel for the entire field. They direct the defense, just like the quarterback does for the offense,” he explained. Antonio went on to play for Youngstown State, where for two years in a row he set a school record in interceptions, but forsook football after he graduated. He went on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and eventually became an assistant secretary of state. For no particular reason Lizzie never forgot what Maverick told her about free safeties. When she passed on that tidbit to George, it turned out that he already
knew it. “It’s sort of like the point guard on a basketball team,” he told her. “They run the court. Think of the free safety as the Magic Johnson of their team.” And ever after Lizzie did think that, although the subject never came up again.
* Lizzie & George Talk About Names *
Lizzie and George were both sitting up in bed. Lizzie was turning the pages of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but not really reading it. George was underlining passages in Andrew Weil’s From Chocolate to Morphine. They couldn’t be said to be conversing until Lizzie put down her book, looked at George, and took a deep breath.
“George, I really don’t want to change my name to Goldrosen when we get married.”
“Well, there’s no need to. I certainly don’t care about it. You can always stay a Bultmann.”
Lizzie stared at him in disbelief. “You know that’s not possible. I’ve been waiting my whole life not to be a Bultmann. Possibly that’s why I’m marrying you. But I don’t want to be a Goldrosen either.”
“Why not? It’s never bothered me. I like being George Goldrosen.”
“Oh, George. Nothing ever bothers you.”
“Not exactly true, but my name certainly doesn’t.”
“Look at your poor mother. I bet that Elaine wasn’t happy about exchanging Lowen for Goldrosen either, but when she and your dad got married nobody kept their own names.”
“Don’t be silly. I’ve never heard my mother complain about our last name. I’m sure she loves it. But if you want to ask her yourself,” he went on in a reasonable tone, “let’s call. They’re probably still up.”
“Go ahead, George, call her. But even in the unlikely event
that she says she does love the name Goldrosen, I’m not going to change the way I feel about not wanting it for my last name. I’m serious. This is serious. What would you think about shortening it to Gold? Or Rosen? I could live with either one. It’s just the two parts together that I don’t want.”
“What do I think? I think it’s not going to happen. I can’t even imagine what Grandma and Pop would say about it—nothing good, I’m sure—but I know how hurt they’d be. The only two options I see that you have are staying a Bultmann or becoming a Goldrosen.”
Lizzie shook her head sadly. “Now I know what people mean by saying they’re between a rock and a hard place.”
“Or the devil and the deep blue sea,” George agreed, somewhat coldly.
“Or between Scylla and Charybdis,” Lizzie said, somewhat more coldly. “Don’t be so ridiculously defensive. It’s just a name that happens to be yours.”
“Exactly, it’s just a name. That happens to be mine. Soon to be yours. Maybe you should remember that. Elizabeth Goldrosen. I think it sounds great.”
“Maybe that doesn’t sound too bad,” Lizzie acknowledged, “but think about all the zzzz sounds in Lizzie Goldrosen. Even you can’t think that sounds good. Lizzzzzzzie Goldrozzzzzzzen. It’s awful.”
George shook his head and went back to reading.
Lizzie took the book out of his lap, closed it, and made one last try. “How about this? We could change our name to something neutral, like Austen, maybe. Or Bennet. Then I could be Lizzie Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet. That’d be pretty cool.”
George reached for the book. “Get a grip, sweetie. It’s not going to happen. Bultmann or Goldrosen, your choice.”
“Wait, don’t decide right away. Okay, no Bennet. But let’s think of other books. You liked A Wrinkle in Time, didn’t you? So did I. What if we became Murrys? Wasn’t that Meg’s last name? That
sounds good, doesn’t it? George and Lizzie Murry. Or Ingalls? I’d like that. But if you liked Wilder better, that’d be fine with me,” she offered generously. “Or even Darling. George Darling. Lizzie Darling. That might be really fun.”
“Wait a second, stop, listen to this idea,” George said. “What about if we became the Littles? We could name our son Stuart. Or Seuss—then I could be Dr. Seuss. The kids in my practice would love that, I bet. Or wait, even better, let’s change our last name to Of Oz. That would be cool. George and Elizabeth Of Oz. We could name a daughter Ozma. That was always my favorite book in the series.”
That George could reliably make her laugh mattered a lot to Lizzie. She sometimes thought that it was what kept her from running away and spending some serious time searching for Jack.
“Dearest Lizzie, listen, we’re absolutely not changing our soon-to-be joint last name to anything else. We’re getting married and I’d be very happy if you chose to become a Goldrosen, but I’ll certainly understand if you want to remain a Bultmann. I’m sure your parents would be thrilled.”
“Jeez, George, you have never understood my parents and you never will. And I don’t think you understand me either.”
Well. What could George do but assure her that he did understand her parents and, even more importantly, he understood her. Which Lizzie never believed. All the evidence, she felt, was against it.
* The Worst Thing George Ever Said to Lizzie * That Was Actually True
Finally driven to extremes during a particularly long and frustrating Difficult Conversation early in their marriage, George told Lizzie that she had the emotional age of a three-year-old.
In her heart of hearts Lizzie realized that not only had it been true when George said it, but it was probably still an accurate description years later.
* Why Lizzie Decided to Marry George *
Lizzie found that it wasn’t so bad being engaged because it changed very little in her relationship with George. She began to grow very fond of her ring, although when she was in class she tended to turn it around so that the stone was hidden and all people could see (if they chose to look) was a plain platinum band. But marriage was something else entirely. If Jack should show up in Ann Arbor to see her, breaking an engagement was one thing. But what if he came after she and George got married? That would make everything much more complicated.
Marla didn’t think she should marry George right away. “It’s different for me and James,” she said. “We planned to get married practically from the moment we met in junior high. But you, you can just go on being engaged for as long as you need to until you finally accept that Jack isn’t coming back for you, ever.”
“I just can’t believe that I’ll never see him again. That’s just not possible, is it?”
“Listen, Lizzie, here are a few hard truths you have to hear. You and Jack dated for one quarter, call it three months. That’s all. Yeah, I know you said the sex was terrific and you shared all that poetry, but you only knew him for about ninety days. And you’re going to hang on to that long past its expiration date? You have a wonderful boyfriend who wants to spend his life with you, and you’re going to mourn the rest of your natural life for some jerk who ditched you?”
“I never should have told him that was me in the article. That’s why he left. The Great Game. That was my big mistake.”
“If that’s really why he left, which I don’t know if I believe, then he’s even more of a jerk.”
“It was my fault that he left,” Lizzie said stubbornly. “Nobody would want to stay with someone who did such a stupid thing.”
Marla sighed and reluctantly dropped the subject.
But after Marla and James’s wedding, Lizzie acceded to George’s desire to get married sooner rather than later. The reasons she gave herself were these:
1. She liked George well enough.
2. She loved his parents, particularly his mother.
3. She had no idea what to do next if she didn’t marry George, except to continue her search for Jack. She had no interest whatsoever in grad school. Lizzie knew that she was smart, but there wasn’t anything that she particularly wanted to study. She still loved reading poetry, but she hated the way poems had been analyzed to death in her undergraduate English classes. Breaking down a poem like that took away the joy of reading it.
4. Sex with George was fine. Occasionally and unexpectedly, it could be awfully nice. He was as generous and kind in bed as he was in everything else in his life.
5. George had an expansive sense of humor. He had a wonderfully contagious laugh. Lizzie loved that every time he laughed, the lines around his eyes crinkled up. (Many years later, Lizzie would hear Lucinda Williams sing “The Lines Around Your Eyes,” a song that she always wanted to believe was written about George.) Lizzie egged him on in his addiction to puns and tried,
unsuccessfully, to get him to stop laughing at his own jokes. Even after he got famous, George still laughed at his own jokes. His fans loved that about him. Plus, as George pointed out to Lizzie somewhat smugly, he inherited the tendency to do so from his mother, remember?
6. As far as Lizzie could see, there weren’t a lot of reasons not to marry George. One, of course, was that he wasn’t Jack. But Lizzie knew the big reason not to marry George was that she probably didn’t love him nearly enough.
* The Middle Linebacker *
Some fans thought that if Joe Parsons chose to devote his life to football he could rival Dick Butkus at the middle linebacker position. Joe played hard (he was a vicious tackler) and had great instincts for what was going to happen next on the field. What Lizzie remembered best about him, though, was how polite he was—the only guy on the team who opened the car door for her when he drove her home after his Friday of the Great Game was done. Following a great career with the Vikings, Joe became a noted play-by-play announcer with ESPN. His cogent analyses were a big hit with George, and the fact that Lizzie went to high school with him made listening to him even more fun. Of course Lizzie couldn’t tell him that what she most associated Joe Parsons with was the Philip Larkin poem that began “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do,” which was what she recited to herself instead of paying attention to what was going on between Joe Parsons’s body and hers.
* Difficult Conversations Involving * Plans for the Wedding
Over the next year there were many Difficult Conversations about the wedding. They began almost immediately after Lydia and Mendel and Allan and Elaine met. The meeting did not go well. The Goldrosens flew up from Tulsa for the weekend to celebrate George and Lizzie’s engagement and insisted on taking everyone out to dinner, which was almost certainly a mistake. Allan and Elaine kept trying to make conversation and Lydia and Mendel kept rigorously resisting having anything to do with their conversational gambits. When Elaine enthused about how happy they were about the engagement and how much they loved Lizzie, Mendel nodded gamely in agreement—Lizzie could tell that he was mentally writing the article that would come out of this dinner—and Lydia said that they liked George a lot too. Small talk was impossible. Politics was a nonstarter. Books were out. Nobody wanted to talk about the weather (it was cold and threatening to snow). Since the Bultmanns rarely if ever went to the movies, it was immaterial to them whether or not the Goldrosens liked any particular film. Each family was way outside its comfort zone. To the Bultmanns the Goldrosens were like exotic animals, and the only animals they were interested in were rats. To the Goldrosens the Bultmanns were equally exotic, survivors of what they’d always thought was an extinct tribe. George was dumbfounded at seeing firsthand oil and water not mixing; he kept throwing out new topics for discussion. Lizzie was mortified and promised herself that for the rest of her life she would do all she could to keep the two families apart.
Lizzie knew, from all the articles that Elaine had sent her,
the exact kind of wedding that she wanted them to have, which included pretty much everything Lizzie didn’t want. She didn’t want a wedding wedding. She told George that if they were getting married, then they should just get married. She didn’t want to buy a dress she’d wear only once, she certainly didn’t want her father to walk her down the aisle. She didn’t want an aisle. She didn’t want anyone there, except his parents and Marla and James. She didn’t want a party. She didn’t want an open bar and an orchestra and dancing and a dinner followed by an overfull sweet table. She didn’t want to cut a cake. She didn’t want a chuppah to stand under during the ceremony. She didn’t want the rabbi who bar mitzvah’d George to marry them. She didn’t want photographs taken of the festive occasion.
Have her parents there? Forget it. They’d probably be frowning over their ever-present yellow pads of paper, making it clear that they didn’t want to talk to anyone except each other, taking notes all during the supposed festivities on the behavior of wedding guests. Mendel and Lydia were so foreign, so dark and closed in, especially when compared to the sunniness of the Goldrosens and all the friends of the Goldrosens. Plus Lizzie feared that when her parents saw that a rabbi was involved in the ceremony, they would just get up and leave in disgust.
She knew she was being horribly unreasonable and was already prepared to give in as gracefully as she could manage to many of Elaine’s wishes (which she knew were more than likely George’s wishes as well), but she wanted to give herself lots and lots of room to negotiate.
As Lizzie suspected, George actually wanted all those things that Lizzie professed to despise.
“I do despise them, George,” Lizzie retorted. “Why do you have to say ‘profess to despise’ as if I’m not really telling the truth?”
(“We’ve got her back, folks,” the voices in her head
announced. They addressed her directly, saying, “Because everyone knows you lie all the time. Your life is a lie.”)
“Okay, I apologize, you’re right. I understand that it’s the way you think you feel now, but, Lizzie, your parents have to be at the wedding. Just imagine how they’d feel if they weren’t even invited. If we snuck off somewhere and got married without even telling them where it was or when.”
“Honestly, George, sometimes I wonder just how smart you are. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, you continue to believe that Mendel and Lydia are just like your parents, only perhaps a lot more introverted. But they’re not. They don’t do social things like parties. They just do the bare minimum to keep the dean of the psych department happy. And we can’t have a wedding in Ann Arbor. I don’t want to plan it. I don’t even know where I’d start figuring out how to do it. And who would pay for it? Do you want to ask them? They’d laugh in my face if I asked them.”
“I don’t believe that. But what if we have the wedding in Tulsa? We could let my mom plan the whole thing. She’d love doing it.”
“George, please, please listen to me. I really do not want that kind of a wedding. Dee-oh Not, with a capital N, whether it’s in Tulsa or Ann Arbor or Timbuktu. If we have to have a ceremony, then let’s just find someone to do it. Maybe James could wangle some way to become a judge for a day. Maybe we can marry ourselves.”
George chuckled, but Lizzie knew he wasn’t amused. “We are marrying ourselves,” he said.
“You know what I mean. Is that even possible? Or how about if we don’t get married at all? Let’s just live together.”
That was not going to happen. Over the course of the following year it became clear that a wedding would take place. Conversations on what this would actually entail were endless. After some tears (Elaine’s), some frustration with his beloved
wife-to-be as well as his mother (George), and a mad desire to just run away and hope she ran into Jack somewhere (Lizzie), they reached a compromise. They’d get married by a judge in Ann Arbor on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The only guests would be their immediate families, which included George’s grandparents and Marla and James. And Blake and Alicia, if they could get time off from work, George added firmly. Lizzie wanted to offer a mild objection to having Blake and Alicia (especially Alicia) at the wedding but knew how much that would hurt George and didn’t say anything. Maybe she’d get lucky and there would be a late-November snowstorm in Tulsa, making it impossible for anyone to fly up to Michigan.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, Allan and Elaine would host a dinner (with a band and dancing and an open bar and a sweet table) in Tulsa to celebrate the wedding. It would have everything that Lizzie didn’t want, aside from the chuppah and rabbi and marriage vows. Lizzie would need to buy something lovely to wear. “It’ll be my special gift to you,” Elaine told her.
* The Bracelet *
Just hours before she was going to marry George, Lizzie was emptying the contents of her dresser drawers into a suitcase when she found the bracelet. Following the ceremony in Judge Larry Martin’s chambers and the luncheon that followed it, she and George were going to move the remainder of Lizzie’s stuff to his apartment (now their apartment) on Nob Hill Place. Lizzie was looking forward to none of it. In the immediate future she particularly dreaded the lunch, which would bring together Allan and Elaine, both sets of George’s grandparents, and Lydia and Mendel. Plus Blake and Alicia. Even knowing that Marla and James would be there didn’t make her feel much better.
So here Lizzie was, emptying out her dresser drawers, waiting for George to pick her up and take her to the courthouse for the wedding.
Of course the bracelet hadn’t really been lost. She’d put it there herself, underneath her socks and underwear, over three years ago, when she more or less accepted the apparent fact that Jack was no longer part of her life, and probably wouldn’t ever be again. It was intended to be his graduation present, something meaningful that represented how they’d met and what they loved about each other. A book would have been the easy choice, a collection of the poems of Housman, say, which would certainly evoke their shared past. But a book didn’t seem special enough. You can buy a book for anyone. Books were one of Lizzie and Jack’s things, it was true, but Lizzie had been sure that there was something better out there, something amazingly wonderful that was meant just for Jack.
In July, when Lizzie was still hopeful that, despite the lack of letters, he would for sure be back the next month, she wandered through the annual Ann Arbor art fair, looking for the perfect gift. After poking through the many booths displaying sculpture, paintings, photographs, drawings, and jewelry for sale she found the present she’d hoped to find. It was a bracelet, a silver bangle bracelet, perfectly round, about a quarter of an inch wide (just barely wide enough, Lizzie would discover, to accommodate an inscription). It was both endless and somehow self-contained. It fit over your hand and was clearly meant to remain on your wrist through thick and thin, during the bad times and good, the days and the nights, the months and the years. She slipped it onto her own wrist to see how it looked. She pictured Jack wearing it, his arm, tanned from the Texas summer, a sharp contrast with the silver of the bracelet. She closed her eyes because the image made her so sad.
That night, lying in bed and unable to fall asleep, Lizzie remembered the note she’d sent Jack with the line from Millay’s “Modern Declaration,” and first thing the next morning she took the bracelet back to the man who’d fashioned it and asked him to engrave “Jack, shall love you always” on the inside, where it would touch his wrist.
Well. That was then, this is now, as George would often say, quoting the title of S. E. Hinton’s novel. It was his favorite book from his early adolescence and he never tired of reminding Lizzie that Hinton was also from Tulsa, and that she’d come to talk to his ninth-grade English class. And autographed his much-beat-up copy. And smiled at him and said that it looked like he’d read it more than once, which was certainly true. He’d pressed the copy into Lizzie’s hands during her very first Christmas visit to Tulsa and insisted that she read it. When she dutifully finished it, she wondered if she could tell George that while she could see why he’d loved it so much, she actually felt that at this moment in her life she might just be the wrong demographic to appreciate it as much as he had when he was fourteen.
And when September came and went without a letter, without Jack, she stuck the bracelet in the back of a drawer and tried to forget it existed. But it did exist, and here it was. When she heard George coming into the apartment, she hesitated for a moment, then took the bracelet and put it on. Lizzie was ready to get married.
“I’m here,” she called, somehow happier than she’d been for a long time.
After the ceremony, after the “I now pronounce you husband and wife” and after their first married kiss, after everyone had already hugged Lizzie and shook George’s hand and congratulated them both and were busy putting on coats and arranging rides to the restaurant where the wedding lunch would be held, Marla pulled her aside.
“Tell me, my dear Mrs. Goldrosen, that I’m not seeing that bracelet on your wrist. Don’t you think that wearing something that was supposed to be a gift for another guy as part of your wedding ensemble is a bit much, even for you?”
Lizzie grimaced but allowed as how Marla might be right. “But I didn’t know what else to do with it; I was packing and there it was and then George showed up and—”
“Well, one option is that you just left it where it was. Or, I know, you could have thrown it away the moment you saw it in the drawer. It just doesn’t look good for the future, you know?”
“I don’t think it’s that significant,” Lizzie said, but Marla shook her head in disagreement.
“Look, take it off, give it to me. I’ll hide it for the rest of your life. You don’t want George to find it, do you? Or your kids? I can just hear them: ‘Who’s Jack, Mommy? Why will you always love him? What about Daddy?’ How will you answer that?”
Lizzie sighed. “It’s fine. It’ll be okay, really. Everybody has secrets, don’t they?”
“Not secrets like this,” Marla said darkly. “I love you, Lizzie, and always will. And I will always, always, keep your secrets. But this, what this means to you and George, is an important secret. It’s not the equivalent of a little white lie. It’d be like me not telling James about the adoption.”
“But James knew about the adoption; you both decided on it.”
“Don’t be deliberately naive; it doesn’t become you. You know what I mean: some other James I was involved with.”
What Lizzie wanted to say was that Marla reminded her of how, in fairy tales, there was always someone at a wedding to prophesize a tragic future, but before she could respond, Allan came up to them. “Don’t hog my new daughter, Marla,” he said, smiling. “You get to see her all the time. I want to tell her again how happy we are that she’s part of our family.”
* Why George Loves Lizzie *
1. Her smile. When Lizzie smiles it’s pretty impossible not
to smile back. George has seen evidence of this with train conductors, hitherto grumpy salespeople, and little kids. Even when he is most frustrated with her (see number two, below), her smile can almost always make everything better. Especially now that he’s fixed that incisor.
2. He’s never bored by Lizzie. Exasperated, yes, quite often. Very exasperated, yes, more than just occasionally. Extremely exasperated, yes, there were definitely times when Lizzie’s sadness and pessimism drove George bonkers, when he knew a life without her would be easier. But all she had to do was smile (see number one, above) or laugh appreciatively at one of his puns (see number three, below) and he was back in love with her. Did this make him weak or stupid or what? George didn’t know.
3. Her sense of humor. Lizzie is wonderful with sarcasm and wordplay (she shares his love of a good pun), but she’s a terrible joke teller because she usually forgets the telling detail that makes the joke a joke. Here’s where George comes in, since he always remembers that detail perfectly.
4. Her intelligence. George had known smart women before he met Lizzie (Julia Draznin, for one, and his mother for another) but he soon realized that Lizzie was probably the smartest woman he’d ever met. George thought of himself as being quite intelligent (he’d always gotten high scores on standardized tests), but he’d never been quick. He liked to read books slowly and carefully (he was
virtually incapable of skimming), with frequent pauses to think about what he had just read; Lizzie devoured books, one after another, like a chain-smoker with her cigarettes. She was like a lightning streak across the sky, picking up and remembering odd and interesting facts about whatever interested her, and a lot did. George would never call Lizzie a deep thinker, but, boy, she was the ideal Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy! partner. George was frequently surprised at what Lizzie knew or didn’t know. Perfectly ordinary facts like what latitude meant were beyond her, while the sort of minuscule details of someone’s life—the name of Albert Einstein’s first wife (it was Mileva Einstein-Maricć, George learned from Lizzie) were on the tip of her tongue.
4. Her breasts. As a late twentieth-century, well-educated male, one fully aware of the crimes the patriarchy had committed on the opposite sex, George knew that much more went into loving someone than their physical attributes, but it has to be said that he loved Lizzie’s breasts. Their size and shape fit the palm of his hand perfectly.
5. Her neediness. Lizzie needed George in ways that no one else ever had or, he believed, ever would. She needed him to do the ordinary things that anyone could have done (including Lizzie if she’d been inclined to try harder: unscrew recalcitrant jars, climb a ladder to change the lightbulb on the side of the house, slice vegetables with their mandoline), and George enjoyed the feeling of being needed. More significantly, Lizzie, in George’s view, needed rescuing from her own sadness, and George was convinced that he was the only person in the world who could do so.
* Two Deaths *
Three months after George and Lizzie got married, Lydia and Mendel were killed. Their car skidded one cold and rainy February night while they were coming home from a performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro in Detroit and I-94 suddenly became a sheet of black ice. The campus newspaper, the Michigan Daily, added black borders around the headline “stars go out in psych department” and the first line of the story began “Family, students, and colleagues are distraught at the deaths . . .” which Lizzie found hard to take seriously. She was certainly not distraught but rather somewhat unbalanced by the event. She found it unnerving but not necessarily unpleasant to think of herself as an orphan, even when she knew, intellectually, that orphanhood was the natural state of the adult child. But “distraught” implied rending of garments and weeping until your eyes were red and your skin turned blotchy, which wasn’t going to happen with her.
Actually, she couldn’t imagine who if any of her parents’ colleagues and students could possibly be that upset. Mendel and Lydia were respected and admired but not really liked. Friendship had never been on their minds: they were way too busy analyzing patterns of behavior. Yet there was some talk in the university community of calling off Saturday’s football game against Purdue—the Bultmanns brought in a whole lot of research money—but nobody except maybe the very unpopular and soon-to-depart-for-greener-pastures-in-Seattle provost took that suggestion seriously. At the University of Michigan, football ruled. The only time a game had been canceled was the Saturday after President Kennedy was shot. The team was scheduled to play their archrival, Ohio State. Many die-hard fans were still furious about that, more than three decades after the fact. So
nobody in their right mind could even expect something similar for the Bultmanns, research money be damned.
The Detroit News and the New York Times ran the same long obituary, complete with pictures of Lydia and Mendel that had been taken right after they arrived in Ann Arbor to teach, pictures Lizzie had never even seen. Her parents looked so young. Lydia had long straight hair and stared at the camera with a serious expression. Mendel had a mustache and beard and was smiling slightly. Lizzie was now older than her parents had been when the pictures were taken, another odd and unbalancing thought.
Everyone helped Lizzie make the arrangements for the funeral service and the reception at her parents’ house afterward. Allan and Elaine of course flew in from Tulsa immediately and were, along with George, Marla, and James, wonderful about dealing with all that death requires the survivors to do: working out details with the funeral home, helping Lizzie select her parents’ caskets, calling various governmental agencies and financial institutions to report the deaths (Allan did this, thank goodness), but it fell to Lizzie to do what she felt were the two hardest tasks.
Lydia had died instantly in the accident, despite obediently wearing a seat belt and having the driver’s-side air bag work as promised. But Mendel, sitting in the passenger seat, was not as fortunate. For some reason his air bag hadn’t inflated. In spite of that, he survived the collision, but with his body badly broken and his fine mind knocked silly. The doctors told Lizzie there was nothing to be done, he’d never be Mendel again, that even if his body healed and he awoke from the coma he was blessedly in, the kindest thing she could do for her father was to let him die.
Mendel and Lydia had left no instructions for her. There was no will, nothing giving her power of attorney, and nothing at all to help her decide what was to be done with them, dead or alive. She had a slight memory of her parents coming home from an
elderly long-retired Jewish colleague’s funeral and Lydia scoffing at all the attendant rituals, at the procession to the cemetery, at the shoveling of dirt on the casket after it was lowered into the grave, at the professional friends and professional enemies who came together at his death to professionally mourn him. And then adding, unless Lizzie misremembered, that despite the rigmarole she’d decided that she’d like a rabbi on hand during her funeral. But nothing religious.
“That makes no sense. They’re totally opposite desires,” Lizzie complained to George. “But I do sort of hear her saying that in my mind. Or at least I think I do. What if I made it up? What if we do one thing and it turns out that she really wanted the other? Oh God, George, this is just like them. What do you think we should do?”
“Well, before we decide about the funeral, I think we, or you, have to decide about Mendel first, don’t we? And we should do it fairly quickly, although it won’t matter to Lydia if you stretched Jewish law and waited a few days before she was buried.”
So this was the first hard task: telling the doctors that she wanted to end her father’s life, if you could call the state he was in life. At first it seemed like a no-brainer (like Mendel, himself, at this point and now forever). But it still felt weirdly wrong when, during a meeting with her father’s doctors, she told them to “pull the plug,” as Allan had indelicately put it. Was it really a plug? An electrical connection? What if the God that Mendel and Lydia didn’t believe in stepped into the picture with a convenient power outage so that those words wouldn’t have to be said, and the decision would be taken out of her hands? In the end, the life-support system was turned off, and now neither Mendel nor Lydia could mourn the other, as she felt they would have wanted but dearly wished they had made explicit.
“Did they purchase funeral plots?” Elaine asked.
Lizzie didn’t know.
“Did they want to be buried or cremated?”
Lizzie didn’t know.
“What do you want to do, sweetheart?” George asked.
Lizzie didn’t know. She wanted to run away. She wanted to find Jack. She wanted to be back in Terrell the Terrible’s poetry class and meeting Jack for the first time. She turned to George. “Can you decide, George? Because I don’t know what to do.”
George considered the two options. “I’d say burial, I think.”
“Okay,” Elaine said, “then the next steps are to choose their caskets and find funeral plots.”
“Yes,” Lizzie said. “I suppose that’s what we have to do.”
“I’ll start calling cemeteries,” Allan said.
Even harder than talking to the doctors was calling the rabbi who was going to conduct the funeral service. Because the Bultmanns had never affiliated themselves with any religious institution, the first problem was locating a rabbi. “You would think,” Lizzie said to Marla, “that for people who avowed no interest, zero, nada interest, in religion at all, Mendel and Lydia would have wanted nothing to do with the rituals of funerals either.”
At all. But there, unable to be refuted, was Lizzie’s memory of what Lydia had said. Or had not said.
Elaine called their rabbi in Tulsa for advice. After doing some quick research, he came up with the name of a young woman who had gone to rabbinical college with his own son and was now working on a PhD in Middle Eastern studies in Ann Arbor and assisting at Temple Beth Shalom, a building into which not one of the Bultmanns had ever set foot.
Lizzie liked the sound of Rabbi Gould’s voice, and she suspected that her mother would have approved of a female rabbi even if she didn’t like what the rabbi might have to say. She had a brief fantasy that maybe she and the rabbi could be friends once this was all over. But first she had to convey her parents’ (or at least her mother’s) wishes, and could only think to say without
any preamble, “My mother wanted a funeral with a rabbi, but she was a devout atheist, so she wouldn’t want God mentioned at the service.”
There was a long silence on the phone. Lizzie wondered if this was the first time Rabbi Gould been asked to officiate at a funeral and now, most unluckily, had to deal with such a request. Oh God, Lizzie prayed to herself, unaware of the irony, please, please don’t let her refuse. I can’t do this again.
Finally, Rabbi Gould spoke. “There has to be at least one prayer that mentions God. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a Jewish ceremony. It’s a memorial prayer called El Maleheh Rachamim, ‘God Full of Compassion,’” she went on. “It’s the first time the deceased person is labeled as deceased by name. Do you want to know how it came about?”
“Um, not really,” Lizzie started to respond, but the young rabbi was on a roll.
“In Poland in the 1640s there were a series of terrible massacres—the Chmielnicki Massacres—and this prayer was a way for an entire community to be named and therefore remembered. Over time it developed into a more personal prayer that was used as a way to memorialize the dead and ask for God’s protection over them throughout eternity.”
“I guess that’ll be okay,” Lizzie replied, tired of the issue, of the last difficulty her parents had directed her way, however unintentionally. But what kind of parents would neglect to tell their daughter what she should do with them after they die? Lizzie’s kind, obviously.
* The Outside Linebackers *
One of the outside linebackers was Brandon Melandandri (nicknamed, inevitably and, as it turned out, ironically, Dandy). The
best years of Dandy’s life were the years he spent in high school. Once he graduated, Dandy disappeared into drug addiction and homelessness. The last Lizzie knew he was living on the streets in Detroit. It was a pretty undandy ending. The other was Anoush Shashvili, who went on to become a semisuccessful writer of horror films. Because Lizzie felt that real life was scary enough without the addition of the supernatural, she never saw any of his movies. In fact, she made a point of studiously avoiding them, and refused to let George see them either. Anoush’s first film, which received a lot of praise, was Slash/Dot/Vampire Blood. Lizzie thought the title probably said it all.
* Playdates *
Lizzie and George loved the weekends most especially during the fall and early winter when it was pretty much all football all the time. Late in August, between James and Marla’s wedding and their own, George surprised Lizzie with season tickets to both the football and basketball games. Saturday afternoons were spent either watching the Wolverines play in the Big House, as the Michigan stadium was known, or else watching the away games on television. Of course it wasn’t just the Michigan games that were important. Naturally George wanted to watch Oklahoma State play, and then there were the postgame shows, and then he and Allan rehashed the OSU game and sometimes the University of Oklahoma game as well. Usually, after talking to Allan, George would call his grandfather to talk some more. The Goldrosens really loved football. Every once in a while Lizzie thought it was ironic that she couldn’t tell George about the Great Game and those twenty-three guys whose names she would never forget.
The Wolverines were only a so-so team in the early years of
George and Lizzie’s marriage. Their best season was 1997, when the Associated Press ranked them number one, but Lizzie’s fondness for the game never depended on her team winning. What she liked was learning about the different players. The quarterback who came to Ann Arbor from Selma, Alabama, and spoke with such a deep southern accent that none of the other players could understand him, and Lloyd Carr, the head coach, convinced him to become a wide receiver, where communication skills were not so vital. The linebacker who graduated from hated in-state rival Michigan State and then transferred to Michigan for his fifth year in order to study accounting and play one last season. The cornerback who won every award, including the Heisman Trophy, the first defensive player to do so. The freshman punt returner who was paralyzed the fifth play of the Wolverines’ opening game. That sort of thing.
Sundays were spent watching the pro games. To please Lizzie, George adopted Detroit as his second favorite team. He saw this as an enormous sacrifice, because it practically guaranteed a frustrating Sunday, since the hapless Lions went down to defeat nearly every week. The pain of the Lions losing was always exacerbated when the Dallas Cowboys games weren’t televised. “They’re America’s team,” he’d mutter. “Why can’t those idiots make them the game of the week?” And when the Cowboys lost he was pretty inconsolable for a few hours.
Lizzie especially loved the Sunday-night game no matter who was playing. She’d pop a huge bowl of popcorn, cut up some apples and carrots, and pour them each glasses of beer, and she and George would sit close to each other on the sofa and watch the game unfold, forgoing dinner. Lizzie enjoyed listening to George respond to the action on the field. She liked hearing him analyze different plays. She was happy to let him exclaim over illegal chop blocks, successful blitzes, and missed field
goals. She enjoyed his rants about abysmal time management and horrible red zone calls.
George sometimes joked that he was relieved that the Cowboys didn’t play the Lions in the regular season until 2002. He told Lizzie that he wasn’t sure they could have handled being on opposite sides of a football game before then, when they were an old married couple—seven years!—and could deal with all their differences as adults. Lizzie couldn’t tell if George intended this to be a joke or not. She rather thought not.
Lizzie was sometimes of the opinion, disloyally (whether to George or to the basketball team itself was never clear to her), that there were way too many games on the schedule. George wanted to attend as many of them as his and Lizzie’s schedules allowed. She once suggested that they just move into Crisler Center during the basketball season. Lizzie found going to the games—basketball or football—exceptionally relaxing, because she knew that Jack would never in a million years attend a game of either sport, so there was no chance she’d run into him there, and that knowledge was a huge relief tinged with sadness.
One issue Lizzie had with basketball was the last few minutes of close games. To some extent the same was true for football, but the pace of a basketball game made it much more intense. Lizzie couldn’t take it. She worried too much about the players who were under the enormous pressure of making a free throw when the game depended on it, or who were called for walking and were thus responsible for turning the ball over to the opposition. She couldn’t stand it when a coach screamed at a player. George supposed that he understood Lizzie’s feelings, but it still boggled his mind that if the score was close and the clock down to three or so minutes to play, Lizzie couldn’t watch the rest of game. If they were at home she would leave the living room, go into the kitchen or bedroom, and shut the door behind her so she couldn’t hear the cheers or groans. Sometimes she
was unable to stay away, but mostly she just waited for George to come and tell her the outcome. It was less painful that way. When they were watching the games in person and Lizzie felt too stressed, she’d close her eyes and cover her ears, trying not to hear or see what was going on. Or if it was too excitingly nerve-racking, she’d make her way to the closest bathroom and sit on the toilet, reading the graffiti on the walls and door until the game ended and she and George could go home. After a few too many evenings in the first year of their marriage spent like that, Lizzie would bring a book to the game.
* Honeymoon for Four *
When George started college in Stillwater, Allan and Elaine called him, without fail, at nine o’clock every Sunday morning. Although the knowledge that he’d have to talk to his parents early the next day occasionally put a crimp in his Saturday-night activities, he never told them that he’d rather talk to them at, say, nine at night. The calls followed a basic pattern. He and Allan would discuss in minute detail the Cowboys’ latest football or basketball game, even if they’d already been at said game together (along with his grandfather Sam) the day before and had had a similar discussion after the game was over. Their discussions were longest and most intense about football, and during these extended conversations Elaine could be heard on the extension, breathing impatiently. When it was her turn she’d lovingly grill George about the state of his emotional and physical health, then move on to the books they were reading, interesting articles they’d read, and films they’d seen or wanted to see.
She’d conclude by relating the latest absurdity his grandmother had either said or done and the kerfuffle that resulted.
This last almost never came as a surprise to George, since his grandmother had usually given her version of whatever outrage it was when he had a Sabbath dinner with them the Friday evening before, another regular occurrence. During his four years in Stillwater, at no time did it occur to George that his family was taking up an awful lot of his time. In fact, spending every Friday night with his grandparents was a good opportunity to invite his friends for a taste of real rather than dorm (and later, fraternity) food. That Gertie never liked any of the people he brought over, especially the girls, he attributed to the fact that not one of them was Jewish. She had been particularly outraged when he brought the girl he was dating sophomore year to their Passover seder and Melody came in wearing shorts, a somewhat snug T-shirt, and sandals. “Do you believe the rudeness?” George heard Gertie mutter to Sam. Did this cause him to break up with Melody shortly after the dinner? He had a suspicion it did.
The Sunday-morning conversations with his parents continued when George graduated and moved to Ann Arbor to begin dental school, but immediately after Lizzie and George got engaged they increased exponentially in duration. It turned out that Allan and Elaine now wanted to talk to Lizzie as well as their younger son every week. That took time. And now that George and Allan weren’t attending football games together, their conversations about the Cowboys (both the OSU and Dallas teams) intensified and lengthened. There was much sports news to discuss.
Roughly the first six months of 1995 were taken up with discussions about the wedding: where and when and what kind it would be. Once that was settled, the conversation turned to honeymoons. Lizzie loved these weekly phone calls with Allan and Elaine, but was glad to be done with the subject of weddings.
One Wednesday evening early in July, Lizzie and George were just finishing dinner, when the phone rang. Since Lizzie refused on principle to ever answer a ringing phone except when she knew it was Marla or George, she ignored it. It was George’s parents.
“Hey, Georgie,” Elaine said. “Daddy and I had a great idea about your honeymoon. Can we talk to Lizzie too?”
“Our honeymoon,” George mouthed as he handed Lizzie the phone and then went into the bedroom to get on the extension.
Elaine began. “I guess the first thing is, have you decided on where you’re going yet?”
Lizzie waited for George to respond and George waited for Lizzie.
“No, nothing really final,” George finally said. “We haven’t talked about it much.”
“We did think about Australia,” Lizzie said quickly, “since Todd won’t be at the wedding. The real wedding, I mean. I know he might come to Tulsa.”
Lizzie actually liked the idea of going to Sydney. It seemed to her to be a city that Jack would choose to live in. Maybe she’d find him there.
This diverted Elaine from the subject at hand. “Yes, and even if he does come we have no idea whether he’ll bring someone,” Elaine said. “I swear, he goes through girlfriends like we used to go through boxes of Cheerios when you boys were little. I can’t keep track of them.”
“He’s changed his name to Kale, did he tell you that, George? Legally changed it, I mean. I suppose that’s what we’ll have to call him, but I’m not sure I can do it with a straight face. Kale, a leafy green vegetable,” Allan said gloomily. “It might as well be chard or parsley. I hope he’s still wearing his retainer,” he added in a tone that conveyed the all-too-futile hope that this might be the case.
“Oh, stop, Allan, you’re getting off the point of the call. So, kids, we had this great idea, or at least we think it’s a great idea.”
There was a longish pause.
“Yes,” George said encouragingly.
Allan said, “We’d like to pay for the honeymoon as a wedding present.”
“No, Dad, that’s too much,” George immediately said. “You’re already giving us the party. You don’t need to pay for our honeymoon too.”
“Well, we do have a bit of an ulterior motive.”
“Uh-huh, an ulterior motive,” George echoed. “I should have known. And what might that ulterior motive be?”
“So”—Elaine took over—“you know that Daddy and I have always dreamed of going on a walking trip in Cornwall, right? The South West Coast Path is supposed to be really amazing.”
“You have? Since when? Why haven’t you ever mentioned it before?”
Elaine brushed off his incredulity. “Oh, years and years. I can’t believe we never told you and Todd—”
“Kale,” Allan interrupted. “We’ve got to remember to call him Kale now.”
“Yes, but he was Todd when we didn’t tell him, wasn’t he?”
George interrupted this potentially interesting but distracting discussion about names and verb tenses. “Look, Mom, Dad, we’re touched by your generosity, but please get to the point. I have to be at the office early tomorrow.”
“Okay, okay, here’s our idea,” Allan said. “If you two really haven’t any strong feelings about where to go on your honeymoon, how about if you come with us to Cornwall and we’ll go on a walking trip together?”
George’s chin hit the bottom of the phone, resulting in a loud thunk and perhaps internal injuries to his jaw.
“You want to come on our honeymoon?”
“Well, why not?” Allan said reasonably.
George’s voice rose. “Because it’s our honeymoon. Nobody’s parents—nobody’s sane parents, anyway—want to accompany their child and his wife on their honeymoon.”
“But, George,” Elaine said, “that’s the point. You’re not a child. We love spending time with you and Lizzie. And we wouldn’t have to be together every minute. We’d just walk together. We have it all planned.”
Lizzie got up from the chair she’d been sitting in and started clearing the table. She loved the idea of spending more time with Elaine and Allan; their presence would dilute the icky stickiness of the whole honeymoon experience. Besides, did she and George really need to be alone together on a honeymoon? Lizzie thought not. They were already alone together for much of every day. “I think going to Cornwall is a great idea. It would be much more fun if we all went together. I say yes.”
It appeared to be three against one and George was smart enough to recognize a fait accompli when he met one.
“I guess we could look at it as an amusing story for our children. ‘Daddy, what did you do for your honeymoon?’ ‘Well, kiddos, we went walking in Cornwall with Grandma Elaine and Grandpa Allan. We all had a blast.’ ‘But, Daddy, isn’t a honeymoon supposed to be just for the bride and groom?’ ‘Normally yes, but in this case Grandma and Grandpa asked us to make an exception. And your mommy wanted them to go with us. Oh, yeah, and Grandma and Grandpa paid for it too.’”
“Very funny,” Elaine said. “Just don’t think about it as a honeymoon but rather a vacation that we’re all taking together. It doesn’t even have to be connected with your wedding at all.”
George ignored her and said, “I can see that this will give us lots to talk about at dinner parties for the foreseeable future too.”
This reminded Lizzie of the time when she and Andrea had said almost exactly the same thing about the Great Game, and look how that worked out. She started rinsing the dishes so she wouldn’t have to hear the rest of the conversation.
They planned to go the following May, but because of the deaths of Mendel and Lydia earlier that year, there was some discussion about whether they should cancel their trip. Lizzie had never known a family that discussed as much as the Goldrosens did. Depending on the topic and the participants’ feelings about it, they chewed over, considered the pros and cons of, or thrashed out everything that came up.
Allan thought they should postpone going to Cornwall out of respect for the Bultmanns, while George and Elaine agreed that going ahead with their original plan would take Lizzie’s mind off the deaths of her parents. Lizzie didn’t particularly care. Her parents’ deaths hadn’t seemed to make any difference in her life at all. In the event, they went as planned and everyone had a wonderful time. Lizzie thought that she might never again be as happy as she was on the walk. Although the Post (Great) Game show was still going on in her head, the hours of walking in the sunshine muted the voices. Most of the time she couldn’t make out much of what was said, and what she did understand—“loser,” “inadequate,” “fraud”—didn’t have nearly the power to hurt her, or at least not so badly. Once, though, she distinctly heard someone call her name, and she stopped so suddenly that Elaine ran into her from behind.
Plus, since they met almost nobody on the path, either going their way or coming toward them, Lizzie thought the odds were excellent that Jack was not in Cornwall, also trudging along the Coast Path, so she could stop thinking about what she’d say to him if he suddenly appeared in front of her.
They walked for ten days, staying at different B&Bs each night. Starting off about nine each morning, they made their way from St. Ives to Falmouth on a path that was sometimes stony and sometimes just dirt. Sometimes they had an easy time of it, sometimes they had to climb over wet rocks where the path had been diverted because of heavy rain, or clamber up and down the cliffs overlooking the water. Lizzie soon discovered that she didn’t care for edges and ledges, so occasionally she found the going extremely scary. Elaine and George tended to stride on ahead fearlessly, with Lizzie and Allan bringing up the rear.
When the walk wasn’t too frightening or she wasn’t harassed by the voices in her head, Lizzie found she loved being so close to the water. She marveled at how it was one shade of blue close to the base of the cliffs and then subtly changed hues the farther you looked out. It was when she was struck by the changes in the colors that Lizzie thought most acutely of Jack, how he should be there with her, rather than the troika of Goldrosens. Oh, wait, it was a quartet, wasn’t it? She was now a Goldrosen too. Lizzie shook her head and kept walking. They couldn’t get too far off the path, and certainly not lost, if they kept the ocean on their right, George told them solemnly. They passed coves far below them where surfers braved the waves and the icy water, paddling far out and then triumphantly coming back in for another go. The sun shone hotter as the days went on. Lizzie got a farmer’s tan—her ankles and feet below her socks were stark, winter white. George insisted everyone slather sunscreen on their arms, face, and legs at least twice a day, prompting Elaine to wonder if maybe he shouldn’t have gotten a job hawking Coppertone instead of going to dental school. “Or,” she asked, “did you take some of the money you two got for wedding presents and buy Bayer stock?”
The day before they were to fly home, they took a train to
London and stayed at a small hotel near Hyde Park Corner. They sat around at dinner and reminisced about the trip. They remembered the time in Porthcurno when a bee unaccountably dived into Lizzie’s cider and the man at the table next to them advised her to “drink up, luv, that’s good protein for ye.” And the time Allan was so busy looking at the map that he fell farther and farther behind the other three and soon lost sight of them entirely, at which point he mistakenly took a turn inland. The ocean was no longer on his right. By the time Elaine finally noticed that Allan was missing, he had gone some distance in entirely the wrong direction. George ended up rushing back the way they’d come to try to find him. It turned out that Allan was so busy looking at the map that he hadn’t seen that the path turned one way while he went the other. “Sort of like missing the trees for the forest,” George said, sighing. After that they all decided it was best for Allan not to hold the map while they were walking and to stay in the middle of the group, not the back.
When dessert came they moved on to reciting the limericks they’d composed together along the way. Limerick writing began after lunch one afternoon in a pub in Mousehole (which, Allan told them, was pronounced Mauzel), when the first line of a limerick presented itself to Lizzie, and they all spent the rest of the day working on it. They found that writing the limerick took their minds off some especially fiendish climbs and descents. Finally, late in the day, they came up with one that they all agreed should be the finished version. After this success, they vowed to write limericks about all the towns they stayed in.
Their two favorites were:
A lusty young sailor from Mousehole
Hied home for his rights: they were spousal.
His wife acquiesced,
The sex was the best.
And he left in no state of arousal.
There once was a lass from Porthleven
Who died and ascended to heaven
She said, “What a treat!
There’s plenty to eat.
But I’d rather have cream tea in Devon.”
Lizzie cried as the plane flew back over the ocean. George tried to comfort her. “I know it’s over and I know how happy you were there, but please, Lizzie, don’t cry, we’ll do another walk all together again. I promise.” Lizzie couldn’t tell him how much she dreaded going home, where the Great Game announcers were louder and went on and on and on, where she wasn’t sure what to do with her life, where she might run into Maverick, or Andrea, or any of the (still, she presumed) angry cheerleaders whose football-playing boyfriends she’d fucked. These possibilities were bad enough, but what if she really never saw Jack again? When she was home in Ann Arbor, it seemed more and more likely that she wouldn’t. So she wept, inconsolable.
* Lizzie Meets Kale *
Todd, now known to one and all as Kale, didn’t make it to either the real or fake wedding or the Bultmanns’ funeral, but came to Tulsa the next year at Christmas. The day after George and Lizzie arrived they were back at the airport, waiting for his plane to land.
“He’ll be here soon,” George said.
“Is that a slight lack of enthusiasm I detect in your voice?” Lizzie asked.
“No, not really. Well, maybe. He’s just so damn handsome. Maybe you’ll think you married the wrong brother.”
“Impossible,” Lizzie assured him, squeezing his hand. It wasn’t that George was the wrong brother, it was just that Lizzie was still afraid that he was the wrong man. “Besides, looks only go so far.”
“Plus, when he wants to, he oozes charm. That plus looks takes you even farther, right?” George said gloomily when he came into view.
“Hey, Todd, uh, Kale,” George said, giving him a hug that more resembled a typical Bultmann clasp than the usual Goldrosen embrace. That done, Kale turned to Lizzie.
“And this, I presume, is my not-so-brand-new sister-in-law. Well done, Georgie Porgie. I like her already.” Lizzie couldn’t decide if his Aussie accent was put on just for the occasion or if it was acquired naturally during the decade he’d lived in Sydney.
At the same time that George said, “Don’t call me Georgie,” in a hangdog sort of voice, Lizzie said, “You don’t know me well enough to like me already,” which immediately cheered George up.
They walked toward baggage claim. “I guess we should go straight home. I’m sure Mom and Dad are on pins and needles waiting to see how much I’ve changed.”
“When did you last see them?” Lizzie asked.
“About five years ago. You remember, George, they came to Sydney for a couple of days and then flew to Auckland and took a cruise down the coast of New Zealand and ended up in Melbourne. They stayed with me, and it was a disaster for all concerned. I know you think they’re the best parents in the world, George, and maybe they were for you, but I was always beyond their capabilities.”
George punched his brother on the arm, not lightly. “You were an awful son, you know.”
Kale winced and rubbed his arm, although Lizzie could tell he was just faking. “Well, especially compared to you, anyway, that’s true. But do you ever think maybe you were too easy on them? What’s your opinion, sister mine?”
“My opinion is that we should walk faster, collect your suitcases, and go home,” Lizzie said.
Kale groaned. “Okay, if it has to be done, let’s get it over with. Oh, there’s one of my suitcases already.”
With some difficulty, George took it off the conveyer belt. “What’s in here? Gold doubloons?”
“You’re close.” Kale grinned. “It’s your Christmas and late wedding present. Emma, my former girlfriend, found it. Wait till you see it.”
“What is it?”
“Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie,” Kale said, putting his arm around her. “The Goldrosens never tell what our gifts are in advance of giving them. Haven’t you learned that yet?”
Lizzie laughed, but George took his brother seriously. “I would’ve thought you’d have forgotten those little rules by now, since you’ve been gone so long.”
“I’ve forgotten very little, actually,” Todd said.
In the evenings, after everyone else went to bed, the three youngsters, as Allan insisted on calling them, headed out to one of the bars on Cherry Street and talked. Mostly Lizzie listened. Maybe it was the beer, although she never had more than a couple of glasses, but she felt as though she belonged right where she was, sitting between George and his brother in this pretty awful dive bar in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was a rare feeling.
“I have to thank you guys for getting married,” Kale said one night. “You took a lot of pressure off me.”
“Your status as unmarried older brother definitely figured into our plans,” George said.
“Yeah,” Lizzie agreed. “We talked a lot about how it would save you from being hassled by the family so much.”
“Right, that’s good to hear. Now, can you continue your good works and have a kid soon? I’d like to be rid of that responsibility too.”
“That’s harder,” George said. “It’ll be a few years at least. You’ll have to be patient.”
“Never my strong suit,” Kale admitted.
His wedding present to them was an Art Deco sterling silver coffee and tea set, which included an octagonal silver tray, a pot for coffee and one for tea, a creamer, and a sugar bowl. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful and Lizzie felt that it, like her ring, had really been meant for the next girl over, certainly not the one sitting here tonight in her in-laws’ house. She couldn’t imagine living up its demands of gracious hospitality and wondered how Elaine and Allan had described her to their older son that he would think she (and George) deserved such a stunning gift.
George spoke first. “Unbelievable. Thanks, bro. Did you ransom your inheritance to pay for it?”
“Nah, I told you my ex-girlfriend found it. She haunts flea markets and antique stores and as soon as she saw it she called and told me I had to get it for you two. She drives a hard bargain.”
“I wish you’d brought her, Todd,” Elaine said. “We’d love to meet her.”
“Did you hear me say she was an ex-girlfriend, Ma? And it’s Kale.” Although his smile took away some of the sting of his words, Lizzie could see how family life must have been before Todd left the red clay dirt of Oklahoma behind and moved to the other end of the world.
“You know, George,” she said to him one night when they were back in Ann Arbor, “when people look at you, what they
immediately see is someone trustworthy. You just have that look somehow. Solid. Todd, Kale, doesn’t. I like him a lot, but I wouldn’t have wanted to go out with him. He has this way of making me feel like I’m not important, like he’s always looking beyond me for the next best thing.”
“Do you think that’s why none of his girlfriends stick?”
“Maybe. I can imagine a scenario where he takes some girl to a party, abandons her there, and leaves with someone else. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad you’re you and not Todd.” Lizzie tried not to think about another possible way to end that sentence, tried not to let the words “but it would be even better if you were Jack” even enter her mind.
* George’s Road to Fame *
The first question reporters always asked George was what inspired him to put a thriving dental practice on hold and embark on what Lizzie called his happery-quackery crusade. His one-sentence answer was that he had a patient named Cynthia Gordon and she was sad. Then he’d add, trying (and pretty much succeeding) not to sound smug, “I realized that no matter how gratifying it might be to help people have healthy gums, it was so much more important to help someone live a happy and satisfying life.”
The second question—“What influenced your theories of suffering?”—was impossible to answer in one sentence. As George grew more experienced with the media, and discovered that most reporters only have a very limited attention span, he’d worked out a short handy-dandy guide to his ideas.
When George was a senior in college, facing hours of chemistry and biology labs and studying madly for the Dental Admission Test, he decided on a whim to sign up for a class on something
as different from dentistry as he could get. Perusing the catalog, he came across a course called Buddhist Insight Meditation and the Psychology of Spiritual Development. Whew! The title, which didn’t appear to have anything to do with dentistry, was a mouthful and way too long to fit the space it was allocated in the catalog; it was abbreviated Budd Ins Med/Psych of Sprtual Dev, and was popularly known on campus as Hippie 101. Dr. Robert Kallikow, aging beatnik, taught the course. He wore a beret (even in the heat of the Oklahoma summer) and the only Earth shoes ever seen in Stillwater, Oklahoma (which he wore sockless, even in the occasional chill of the Oklahoma winter). His many odd tics and traits were widely thought to have been the result of his taking part in Tim Leary’s experiments with psilocybin at Harvard.
George initially regarded the class as a sort of mini-vacation, a chance to relax in the midst of his pressured academic life. To his surprise, though, the main theme of the course—what the Buddha taught on the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, and the way to end suffering—fascinated him, though not quite enough to abandon his career plans and go to Thailand and become a monk. At the end of the semester, he turned his full attention back to his predentistry studies but remembered the course fondly and entertained a vague hope that one day, when his dental practice was well established, he could do some more reading on the topics covered in the class.
This somewhat abbreviated background (he left out the beret and Earth shoes and the psilocybin) was what he told reporters about his first meeting with Cynthia Gordon. She was his last patient on a late Monday afternoon in January of 2001. Cynthia hated her ugly teeth, she told George, and didn’t believe that, given those teeth, anyone at all would ever find her attractive. George could tell at a glance that hers were the teeth of someone whose parents hadn’t been able to afford braces for their daughter. Now, as a reporter for the Ann Arbor News who was
often interviewing people for the stories she was writing, Cynthia felt increasingly self-conscious about how other people judged her teeth. “I just hate the gap between my front teeth. It’s like you could drive a truck through it,” she said.
(When George first told Lizzie about what Cynthia Gordon said, Lizzie wanted to be sure that George reminded her that in The Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath, who’s a sexy babe, also has a gap between her two front teeth. Or, Lizzie, offered, she’d be happy to call Cynthia and fill her in on the literary precedent of her dental situation. George assured Lizzie he’d relay that information to Cynthia, who turned out not to be noticeably impressed. “Chaucer, right,” she said. “He wrote a long time ago and in that funny English. If she lived now she’d get them fixed too.”)
George really enjoyed dentistry and sincerely liked all his patients, even the ones who blatantly, flagrantly, refused to floss, but there was almost nothing that he loved more than doing aesthetic dentistry. All the root canals, routine fillings, and crowns were swell, but it always gave George an extra-good feeling to know that through the work he did he was helping someone feel better about herself. Not to be sexist, George would add, but when it came right down to it, it was almost always a “her,” only occasionally a “him.”
At that first appointment, George recommended that they do veneers on Cynthia’s front teeth and the two adjoining them on either side. That would fix the gap and straighten out the others. “Perfect,” she said, and they’d been moving ahead on the project in weekly appointments ever since—first whitening all her teeth and then attaching the veneers. Porcelain veneers were not cheap, and George wanted to make absolutely sure that Cynthia would never feel her hard-earned money hadn’t been well spent. During these appointments, he’d learned a few facts about her life. She’d grown up in Hamtramck, a small city adjoining Detroit. She’d gone to Macomb Community College
for two years, and then finished up at Wayne State, where she’d majored in journalism.
About a month later, when the whitening process was over and the serious work was about to begin, George found Cynthia Gordon sitting in the dental chair, sobbing. He was not unused to tears. No dentist is. No matter how hard you might work to make things painless for the patient, it often took a fair amount of pain to ultimately ease the pain, and tears were a common response. But what he was currently doing didn’t involve anything that could possibly hurt: the drills and picks and scrapers and gum-depth readers were all still on a tray, unused. Yet here Cynthia was, in tears, while George simply held up tooth-color samples to find the best shade to match her unveneered teeth.
“What’s wrong, Cynthia? Are you in pain?”
If possible, although George doubted his perception, the quantity of her tears increased. “Oh, Dr. Goldrosen, I didn’t get the promotion I was hoping for. I just feel so unappreciated. Like I work hard, I do. And I really wanted the chance to write a column—you know, sort of a society column, what’s happening, what’s hot, what’s new—and now it just seems as though I’ll never get to do that. And what’s worse is that they hired someone just out of the J-school at Michigan State, somebody with no real newspaper experience at all. And I’ve been there for six years. It’s just not fair.”
George’s first thought, luckily unspoken, was that he’d never want to read such a column, but he could see how unhappy Cynthia was. He put down the sheet of colors and sat on a stool so he was facing her.
George would have sworn that he had no recollection of what Dr. Kallikow said about suffering, but now he unexpectedly remembered bits and pieces of what he’d learned. He began talking slowly, feeling his way through his memories and trying to be as clear as possible in what he said to Cynthia.
“You know, Cynthia, I had a class in college that I probably haven’t thought about since I took the final exam. But now I see how it could apply to you. Listen, most of us think that getting what we want will make us happy. You know, because not getting what we want isn’t pleasant, like how you’re feeling now. But if that’s how you’re going to define ‘happiness’—getting a raise or a promotion, having a successful marriage, being the best at beer pong, whatever it is that you want—then sooner or later you’re doomed to unhappiness, because we just don’t get what we want all the time.
“See, what my professor said was something like what’s important is learning how to respond the right way, the healthy way, when you don’t get what you want. It’s the difference between responding to something and reacting to it.”
Cynthia’s tears slowed. “I don’t get the difference between ‘react’ and ‘respond.’ I’m pretty sure that I’ve always used them as synonyms.”
The more George talked, the more his memories of the class came back to him. He could see Dr. Kallikow in full lecture mode, walking back and forth in front of the class, sockless in his Earth shoes, talking about suffering. “What he said was that a reaction is more like a reflex, sort of like a sneeze. It just seems to happen. But you can choose how to respond. Dr. Kallikow talked about how to train yourself to respond skillfully to not getting what you want.”
Cynthia was doubtful. “‘Skillfully’? That’s a weird word to use. Are you sure he said that?”
George nodded. He was absolutely sure because he’d had the same questions about the word that Cynthia had. “What he said when I asked was that ‘skillful’ in this context was more or less a technical term, which makes it sound unfamiliar. So we could say ‘respond wisely’ instead, or even ‘respond well.’ The point is, we can learn to respond so that the experience of losing, or not getting what we want, isn’t a problem for us.”
He paused for a moment, to see if she had any questions for him, but she just waited for him to continue. The tears had stopped.
George went on. Whole paragraphs of Kallikow’s lectures had now come back to him, almost verbatim. “See, we’re always writing the narrative of our lives, and when you respond badly you turn the event into a burden, something that you carry forward into the next moment, the next hour, the next day, and the rest of your life. It fills up your narrative. It weighs you down. You never forget it. But when you respond well, you have nothing to add to the narrative. You simply experience the unpleasantness, then let it naturally pass away, and then greet the next moment of your life with no trace of the last.”
Cynthia seemed doubtful. “That sounds impossible. How can I do that?”
“It’s not so easy,” George admitted. “One problem is that trying to avoid unpleasantness only makes it worse. The smart response is to relax, to accept the experience, instead of turning away from it. It might seem counterintuitive, but that’s what makes it better.”
“So having an experience of failing at something doesn’t mean that I’m a failure?”
He nodded.. “Yes, that’s it exactly. Think about it. Give it a try. But now”—picking up the sheet of colors—“here’s the one that I’m thinking will work best for you.”
When they’d agreed that was the right shade, Cynthia got up out of the chair and shook his hand. “Thank you, Dr. Goldrosen.”
“It was amazing, what happened with this patient,” George told Lizzie excitedly over dinner that evening. “It was so strange; it’s never happened to me before. It must be what people who have a photographic memory can do. It’s like all of a sudden I could remember in great detail everything I’d read for that class, and everything that Kallikow said. When I needed it, there it
was.” He began to tell Lizzie what he’d said to Cynthia Gordon but then stopped. What if Lizzie’s unhappiness could be eased by the same method? How would that work? How could he convince her to try it, to start responding to her unhappiness—hell, to her life—in a more skillful way?
George didn’t say anything to Lizzie about that—he needed to think about it more—but he did finish telling her what exactly he’d said to Cynthia Gordon. Lizzie replied that she had never understood a word that he’d said all throughout their married life, and now had given up any hope of doing so. George thought that perhaps that didn’t bode well for his developing plan to make Lizzie give up her sadness. But he was determined to try.
The following Sunday George was showering after his morning jog when he heard Lizzie calling. He ran out of the shower, forgetting to turn off the water and neglecting to grab a towel, only to find Lizzie sitting at the kitchen table, reading the paper.
“What? What’s happened?”
“Oh my God, George, look at this: that Cynthia Gordon wrote an op-ed about you in the Ann Arbor News!”
“What? Really? What’s it say?”
Lizzie handed him the paper, open to the editorial page. “The headline’s ‘My Dentist Doesn’t Just Know Teeth.’”
When he sat down and read the whole article, it was clear that not only had Cynthia heard what he’d said to her, she remembered most of it, nearly word for word. She either had an awfully good memory or carried a voice-activated tape recorder around with her. Since she was a reporter, either one was a reasonable possibility.
Then the Detroit News ran Cynthia’s op-ed, and as a result USA Today sent a reporter and a photographer to Ann Arbor to do a story on George, which they called “The Philosophizing Dentist.”
The first invitation to speak came from the Michigan Dental Association. They wanted George to talk about dealing with patients who found going to the dentist to be an “unpleasant experience.” Michigan Public Radio had him on for half an hour: the response was so positive that the next time they asked him to come on the show for a full hour and take phone calls from their listeners. He started appearing on the morning show monthly. He began receiving a significant amount of fan mail from all over the country.
Scott Simon from Weekend Edition at NPR featured him on a segment. The dentists from Ohio came calling, and Wisconsin, and as far south as Atlanta. When the Ontario (Canada) Dental Association asked him to keynote their annual meeting, George felt himself on the verge of something big; but when he was asked to speak at the annual meeting of the Estonian Dental Association (Eesti Hambaarstide Liit), he knew his life was changed for good. And so did Lizzie.
* More About Estonia *
They had a wonderful time in Estonia. The dentists drove them around the country, from the Russian-speaking Narva, where the women in their babushkas looked like George imagined his great-grandmothers must have, to Kuressaare, where Lizzie dozed off in the midst of a massage. But on their last night in Tallinn, Lizzie had trouble falling asleep. Rather than wake up George, she got out of bed quietly and put on the thick towel-y bathrobe the hotel furnished for guests, rummaged through her purse for a notebook and pen, then took her pillow and got into the waterless bathtub. She listened to the voices in her head—they were quieter tonight, perhaps because they were transmitting from far away—and thought about Jack’s
absence from her life. She thought about how much fun she and George had when they were traveling together. Finally, she wrote a poem:
In this fall-away-moment, between
(ago) that fall-away-moment and
(then) that fall-away-moment, you lie, cocooned
under a symphony of ivory linen.
The cold has invaded my heart.
You are asleep
in room 205
Hotell St. Petersbourg
Europe, the Western Hemisphere, the world, the solar system.
And I am writing this—so as not to disturb—
in the darkness
of room 205
in this one fall-away-moment between ago and then.
When she finished writing she was very tempted to wake George up, give him the poem, tell him about Jack, about the Great Game, about the voices, about everything that kept her from loving him the way she felt she should. She got back into bed and scrunched as close as she could to George to absorb his warmth and finally fell asleep.
* George’s Secret *
Lizzie read every newspaper and magazine story about George avidly and with great pleasure. What amazed her was that every article, every interview showed the real George, the George she was married to. She knew—from the personal experience of her own lying and devious heart, if from nothing else—that most people have a private self that’s often deeply at odds with their public persona. But with George there was no persona. The real George was kind, good-natured, and evidently very concerned about the unnecessary suffering of the peoples of the world. Probably he would have eventually achieved sainthood, if the Jewish religion had saints. Certainly in the tiny world that constituted George and Lizzie’s marriage, George was almost endlessly patient in putting up with Lizzie’s crankiness, her emotional distance from him, and her constant pessimism.
For in George’s world there were no tragedies: rained-out picnics, famine in China, lost library books, monsoons in Bali, divorce, children drinking at ten, mainlining heroin at twelve, and dead at fifteen: of course these events occurred regularly, but George refused to see them as tragedies. In his world there were no irretrievable bad choices or wrong turns. Each one was, instead, an Opportunity for Growth, which would come if you were able to respond skillfully to events as they occurred.
George understood early in their marriage that his life with Lizzie was not going to be easy, despite being desperately in love with her. He thought she was smart and beautiful and would have loved to possess the dazzlingly agile mind she had, which was able to perform backflips and front flips with ease. He was eternally grateful for Lizzie’s place in his life and for his place in hers, although he was never quite sure what that place was, or how important he was to her, or how seriously she took his
feelings. He knew, for example, that she didn’t consider herself either beautiful or brilliant. On the other hand, so what if their life together didn’t come even close to perfect? Really, what marriage is? Bring on the difficulties, George often felt, because Lizzie is his own personal Opportunity for Growth.
Lizzie was the catalyst who brought his inchoate feelings about tragedy and sorrow into focus and clarity. He believed he owed his success entirely to her, to the depth and scope of her unique unhappiness and self-hatred. Given the profundity of Lizzie’s feelings, it made total sense that much of their marriage was difficult. George would give anything at all, including every bit of his fame and certainly the money he’d earned from that success, to make Lizzie happy. Where did all her sadness come from? She never told him. George was incapable of violence of any sort, but sometimes he had this fantasy of shaking Lizzie so hard and for so long that she’d be forced to tell him what was making her so damn miserable so damn much of the time.
Not surprisingly, Lizzie and George had a huge disagreement about suffering. To George, it was a valuable stimulus to emotional and spiritual growth; to Lizzie, it was merely suffering. Suffering was something she knew well. It went a long way (too long, George said, frequently) in defining Lizzie’s very existence, and yet it always felt alien to her, as though she had an extra hand, or an eye in the back of her head. She knew that extra appendage should be removed because then she’d be less of a freak, but it felt like such an integral part of her that to stop suffering would be like getting rid of something necessary to her being, perhaps the purest, most honest, most important part. Despair made her a whole person. And, of course, it gave George his life’s mission.
Here was a typical evening at home in Ann Arbor with Lizzie and George: they’d be sitting next to each other on the couch, shoulders touching, watching the news, Lizzie reading
and drinking tea, George eating a bowl of low-fat ice cream, when Lizzie would put down her book and say, perhaps apropos of some news story, “Listen, George, I know that pain is not gain, no matter what you say. I know it’s your philosophy, but you will never convince me that the lousy things that happen in this awful world wouldn’t be so terrible if we thought about them differently. Maybe you’ve convinced a lot of idiotic people looking for answers, but you haven’t convinced me.”
“Oh, Lizzie,” George replied sadly, putting down the bowl. “Just because you haven’t come to terms with your own unhappiness, just because you wallow in it, just because you’re afraid to look at it honestly and then turn away from it, is exactly why you don’t believe that what I have to say is important. You romanticize suffering because you believe it gives you some crazy kind of nobility. But how else can we learn, except by using our despair skillfully?”
Lizzie always chose the words she used to counter George’s statements with great care, since she didn’t want George to give up on her entirely. She needed him to be pathologically optimistic. As he began his rebuttal, and the discussion segued into what any normal person would deem an argument, Lizzie, who, like many of his fans, found George’s voice extraordinarily soothing, would sidle into their bedroom, with George following close behind her. He kept talking while she put on an old T-shirt of his, got into bed, piled the blankets over her, and drifted off to sleep. Meanwhile, George was still trying to get her to see the world his way.
Lizzie hoped that George, being the kind, generous, pathologically optimistic, etc., etc., person that he was, was never going to leave her despite the fact that she refused to take him seriously, refused to accept the truth of his theories, and never acknowledged or applauded his deepest-held beliefs about suffering. Yet every speech he gave, every television or radio interview he sat
down for, was aimed at Lizzie, trying his best to show her how to be happy. The audiences that hung on every word he said? They were chopped liver. That was George’s one great secret.
* What Does Lizzie Do All Day? *
This was a question that George spent much time mulling over. In the middle of drilling a patient’s tooth, say, he’d all of a sudden start to wonder what Lizzie was doing at that very moment. Was she home? Was she thinking about him? Was she at one of her many and varied part-time jobs? Later on in his and Lizzie’s marriage, the same thing would happen when he was standing at the lectern, waiting to give one of his speeches. It was of course a no-brainer if she’d come with him—he could then find her in the audience: she always sat as far back as she could, as close to one of the aisles as possible. He knew what she’d be doing, both before he began to speak and all during what plenty of reliable people told him was a rousing presentation: she’d be reading a book. He’d watch her long enough to see her turn a page or two and then he’d start his speech. She almost never looked up at him, except at the end, when she clapped enthusiastically. George was never sure whether she was applauding out of genuine approval or whether she was clapping because she was relieved that it was over.
But when she wasn’t with him, George wondered about it a lot. He’d come home from work and they’d talk about their days, or rather George would talk about his day. When he asked Lizzie what she’d done with her time, her standard answer was “Nothing much.” This was probably three or four shades darker and quite a bit bigger than a little white lie, because Lizzie was spending most of the hours from eight to five trying to find Jack using the public library’s collection of
city phone books, a fact that she didn’t ever intend to share with George. George wanted to bang his head against the nearest wall and pull out his hair strand by strand whenever she answered him that way.
“Come on, you must have done something. Did you talk to my mother?”
Lizzie acknowledged that, yes, she and Elaine had had a good conversation; Elaine and Allan were fine and looking forward to seeing them sometime soon.
“Yeah, and then? How did you occupy yourself for the next seven or so hours?”
“I went to the library, I walked some dogs, I dusted at Billy and Sister’s, and then I did some indexing. Then I read a little, made dinner, read some more, and waited for you to come home, and now we’re eating.” She smiled the Lizzie smile that George loved. “So what did you do all day?”
On one of their first dates they’d talked about how they saw their futures unfolding. It was a pretty short conversation. George was going to finish dental school and set up or buy into a practice somewhere, maybe Ann Arbor, maybe Tulsa, maybe somewhere entirely new that he’d always wanted to explore, like Sitka or Salt Lake City or St. Paul.
Lizzie laughed. “That’s your criterion for a place to explore, is it? Anywhere as long as it begins with an S?”
“I never thought of that. They all just sounded like interesting places to me. But what about you?”
“What places sound interesting to me, you mean?”
“No, what your future is going to look like. What you’re going to be when you’re all grown up.”
“People have been asking me that since I was a little girl,” Lizzie said. “I remember that once in third grade I didn’t do the career assignment at first. You were supposed to interview someone who did what you wanted to do when you grew up.
I mean, clearly you were supposed to interview your father or mother, which I wasn’t going to do. So I just wrote ‘I don’t NO!!!!’ with four exclamations at the top of a piece of paper and turned it in. I thought I was so clever—I mean, of course I knew the difference between ‘no’ and ‘know,’ but the teacher wasn’t at all impressed with me.”
Lizzie shrugged. “Oh, first she wanted my parents to come in for a conference, but of course Mendel and Lydia weren’t about to interrupt their busy schedules to talk to her, so they had my babysitter, Sheila, schedule an appointment with the teacher and meanwhile I pretended that being a babysitter was my goal in life, so I interviewed Sheila. The point is, I still don’t know what I want to do with the rest of my life, except that I know that there’s no way I would ever be a psychologist like my parents are.”
“Really? That’s always seemed like an interesting career.”
“Trust me, George, it’s absolutely not,” Lizzie assured him. “It’s deadly. I wouldn’t major in psychology in a gazillion trillion years. So I’m majoring in English because I’ve always liked to read, but I’m finding those classes pretty awful too. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll marry someone really wealthy and not do anything. Or just live with Marla and James after they get married and take care of their children after they have them.”
“That would validate your third-grade paper, right?”
Lizzie smiled appreciatively. “That’s good, George. I never thought of that.”
While they were dating, George refrained from bringing up Lizzie’s future, but after they were married he sometimes couldn’t help himself. It wasn’t that George was super-eager for money or renown for himself—he really just wanted to make the world a better place—but he wanted more than anything else for Lizzie to be happy, and he had trouble understanding how
she could possibly be happy when she was doing nothing with her life. It became one of their earliest and ongoing Difficult Conversations.
“That’s not fair, George. I do plenty.”
“Oh, right,” George would correct himself. “You actually do a lot, except it doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Having gotten nowhere so far in her search for Jack, Lizzie was guiltily aware that George had unknowingly described her predicament. He went on, “I just don’t see how you can be satisfied with all the part-time jobs you’re doing. Are you? Satisfied, I mean.”
“I don’t know. I guess so. If this is the first day of the rest of my life, I still don’t know what I want to do with the rest of it.”
“I can’t even keep up with what you’re doing every day,” George complained.
She patted his hand. “You don’t need to, you know. I keep track of them.”
“But . . .” he began.
“Don’t let’s talk about it anymore, George.”
So they didn’t, that night.
In fact, Lizzie considered her real job to be finding Jack, but naturally this wasn’t something she was ever going to share with George. She tried to divert his concern at her lack of ambition or worry about how she was spending her days by keeping busy at several part-time jobs. Sometimes she had three or four going at the same time, so over the course of a week, say, she’d have to run from one to the other to cover them all. This led to a busy series of days, days that Lizzie considered wasted because she didn’t have much time to go to the library to search through phone books for Jack. Other weeks she’d be barely busy at all and after spending time at the library she’d come home and bake cookies or, after consulting Marla and/or Elaine, concoct an elaborate dinner for George. He was happy about that too.
In no particular order, these were the jobs that had occupied Lizzie’s time since she graduated from college:
Dog walker: Lizzie was an excellent dog walker, although she came to that career only after she and George married. As a child, she’d always wanted a dog for a pet, but when she was eleven and first raised the issue with her parents, they told her absolutely not, that dogs carried germs. Plus they were just too much trouble. In any case, Mendel and Lydia didn’t want to find hair all over the house, not to mention fleas. Lizzie did some research and found that poodles (a) didn’t shed and (b) were actually incredibly intelligent. A potential pet’s high IQ was something that she felt would impress her parents; her attempt to convince them by the use of this factual information was duly noted, but their answer was still no.
Lizzie found that it was quite easy to set yourself up as a professional dog walker. One morning she posted an ad on the bulletin board at Gilmore’s and by evening she’d heard from three dog owners who wanted her to start walking their beloved pets the very next day. Lizzie enjoyed the work. She found that the busyness of wrangling three or four dogs at a time was a good way to prevent her from wondering if she’d ever find Jack. She didn’t mind picking up the not-inconsequential amount of poop that three dogs produced. Her regulars were Princess, Foucault, and Andrew; she took one or more of them almost every day to the park, where they could run free for an hour or so. Somewhat surprisingly to Lizzie, it turned out that she was wildly in demand by other owners. She wondered if it was the dogs themselves who recommended her to other dogs, who in turn somehow communicated with the people in their life, who then got in touch with Lizzie. In any event, there was a long waiting list of dogs eager for Lizzie’s expert handling.
Indexer for the Midwest Fire Protection Association: this job involved studying magazines and newspapers in search of
articles about fires, big or little. She read about house fires, forest fires, gasoline fires, electrical fires, fires set deliberately, and the occasional chemical fire. For every fire she found, Lizzie created an index card, noting where the article had appeared, its author and title, date of publication, date of the fire, pages the article was on, and a brief summary, which often included the number of deaths in said fire. The days she worked at this job she had a lot to talk to George about at dinner, although it was often gruesome stuff, and she secretly prided herself on knowing the details of any fire in the whole country that someone might bring up in the course of a conversation. Fires were only very rarely the topic of conversation, but whenever they were, Lizzie had much to contribute.
Proofreader: George was in the habit of reading the want ads while he and Lizzie ate breakfast. He’d helpfully point out any potential jobs he thought might interest her.
“Oh, look,” he said one morning. “Some company called Michigan Printing and Bindery is looking for a proofreader. You’d be good at that, Lizzie, and I bet they’d love to have you as an employee. You should check it out.”
It was true that as far as it went Lizzie appeared to be a natural proofreader, which basically meant that she got annoyed at the typos and grammatical errors that were constantly showing up in the books, magazines, and newspapers that she read. Radio and television announcers who used ungrammatical language were also an irritation. Though she was loath to admit it, Lizzie knew that her annoyance at misspeaking and miswriting evildoers had been passed down to her from her mother. One memory involved Lydia groaning loudly whenever someone said “between her and I.” Lizzie knew she grumbled in exactly the same way.
To make George happy, Lizzie called and was invited to come in for a short interview. The specific question of her knowledge
of grammar and usage was never raised. Instead the interview involved the woman in HR asking Lizzie about her background and then telling her that she seemed overqualified for the job. Evidently having an undergrad degree in English from the University of Michigan opened more doors than Lizzie had been led to believe. She’d always been told that a master’s degree at minimum and even better a PhD was necessary in order to find useful work. And here was Michigan Printing and Bindery willing to hire her once she assured them that proofreading for them was exactly the kind of work she was looking for. She’d start the next morning, directly after finishing her dog-walking chores.
Lizzie didn’t know exactly what she expected Michigan Printing and Bindery to actually print and bind, but when she reported for work her first day she was told she’d be proofing a manual for Bendix repairmen. The manual consisted of page after page of numbers, which she was then supposed to compare to the numbers on thousands of pieces of loose paper. The only words on each page were “Bendix Model,” followed by yet another number. How could anyone proofread column after column of numbers? Lizzie admitted defeat almost immediately. Her choices seemed clear. She could either ensure—through her ineptness (and boredom)—that the repairmen who used the manual would be unable to complete their repairs correctly or she could quit. Half a day was the shortest amount of time she’d ever held a job.
Duster at Billy & Sister’s: Lizzie went into the Billy & Sister’s shop for the first time when she was looking for an anniversary gift for Marla and James. She discovered that you could find almost everything there, from framed pictures of birds that actually came from the hand of Audubon himself to Sheraton sideboards, from ceramic Staffordshire dogs that always made Lizzie think of the ceramic dogs in Anne of the Island, her favorite
of the Anne of Green Gables books, to a genuine Morris chair that Billy never really wanted to sell. Sister was a connoisseur of antique jewelry, so there was an exquisite (and expensive) collection of that, as well as a carefully curated section of out-of-print books. There were, for example, no Danielle Steel titles to be found at Billy & Sister’s.
Before Billy hired her, Lizzie hung around the store a lot, admiring a pair of wooden sheep, life-size, with very realistic woolly coats. Sister would decorate them for every holiday with cleverly tied ribbons and nosegays and put them in the front window. Lizzie coveted those sheep with all her imperfect heart. She was sure George would love them as much as she did. But, alas, Billy refused to let them go. In her life of major regrets, not being able to buy those sheep was among the major minor sorrows Lizzie experienced.
Perhaps to make up for not parting with the sheep, Billy asked Lizzie if she’d be interested in a part-time job dusting the merchandise and occasionally, when they were particularly rushed, gift wrapping purchases, and she agreed enthusiastically. Dusting, Lizzie felt, especially played to her strong suit of being unable to do anything that required talent. She hoped she’d never have to wrap anything, though. The resulting package would not advance the shop’s reputation. Also, dusting allowed her to eavesdrop on the customers, who were almost all women, as they chatted to one another. Whenever she saw someone from high school come in, she’d tiptoe around behind them and energetically pass her dust mop over the items in whatever section they were in so that she could easily hear what they were saying. Nobody ever recognized or even acknowledged her, although this was how she learned that Andrea had gotten married to some guy she met at Stanford and Maverick was working as a sports commentator in Seattle.
* George & Lizzie Take Many Trips Together *
Lizzie was happy for George in his growing success as a public speaker, even though she personally didn’t buy a word of what he was telling people. She considered him not so different from those annoying door-to-door salesmen, except that he was proffering real happiness rather than vacuum cleaners or encyclopedias. He wanted his brand of happiness to go to unwashed and hungry children, to unfulfilled bespoke-suited stock traders, to housewives without hope and kindergarten teachers and butchers and mealymouthed politicians around the world. She accused him of trying to create his own religion, or at the very least his own multinational company. George halfheartedly denied it, but Lizzie was pretty sure she was right about this. It inevitably led to yet another Difficult Conversation.
Oh, George wanted to take her in his arms and tell her that everyone’s Difficult Conversations, about sex, child rearing, nuclear proliferation—everything, in fact—would be much easier if people didn’t insist on thinking of their differences as a zero-sum game. If you took part in these Difficult Conversations (okay, call them arguments) but didn’t feel you had to come out a winner—I’m right, you’re wrong—then each of these DCs was an Opportunity for Growth. Each discussion was a simply grand Opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of oneself and others, to embrace differences, to grow as a human being. To have the emotional age of an adult.
Lizzie was mightily unconvinced, although George mightily tried to convince her, just as he had convinced the thousands upon thousands of people who read his books and attended his lectures, which Lizzie somewhat snidely called the performative aspect of George’s life.
After dental conventions, where no one came close to his
popularity as a speaker, George got his biggest audiences at college campuses. This was fortunate, Lizzie felt, because the sole reason she accompanied George to his speaking gigs was that it meant that she could look for Jack in every city they visited, and she thought that of all the places Jack might have ended up, a college campus was the most likely. They’d normally arrive the day before the speech, and after his hosts picked him up for a round of media interviews and meet and greets the next morning, Lizzie would walk out to buy some bottles of Diet Pepsi, then find a library and settle in with the area phone book.
Whenever they got to a new hotel, Lizzie would feel energetic, ready to get started. She’d unpack their suitcases and put their clothes away neatly in the dresser, even if they were just staying there overnight. She’d fill the ice bucket and pour herself some soda. But when it became clear, once again, that she wouldn’t find Jack in that particular city, she’d be in an abyss of loss, with her arms feeling so heavy that she could barely pick up the phone.
“Jack there?” she’d ask, trying to still sound nonchalant after the fourth hopeless call. “Oh, sorry, I must have the wrong number. D’you happen to know a Jack McConaghey? No? Well, thanks anyway.”
She talked to a Jerusha McConaghey in Newark, Delaware; a Jon McConaghey in Pittsburgh; a Jesse McConaghey in Tunica, Mississippi; and a Jackson McConaghey in Denver, but it wasn’t Jack. There were a relatively large number of McConagheys in Austin, Texas, and at first Lizzie had high hopes she’d find him there. Austin seemed like a perfect home for Jack. It was especially frustrating on those trips when she’d discover that there were no McConagheys in the city at all. How could there be not one McConaghey in Lincoln, Nebraska? It seemed impossible.
But still she tried.
* The Alphabetical Marriage *
On nights when Lizzie slept and George sat at his desk, supposedly preparing for his next talk, he was actually compiling an alphabetical list of all the ways that he and Lizzie were different. As probably could be predicted by anyone but George, the list turned out to be profoundly depressing, but there it was.
It ran, as lists should, from A to Z. In this case, from “apples” to “zoos.”
Apples: Winesaps (preferred by George); Granny Smiths (preferred by Lizzie).
Bubble gum: George was horrified when he discovered quite early in their relationship that Lizzie still chewed bubble gum. “You’ve got to stop,” he implored her. “It’s just terrible for your teeth. And your jaw.” But Lizzie loved the taste of Dubble Bubble gum and adored blowing bubbles, and had not yet given it up.
Children: George couldn’t wait to be a father; Lizzie couldn’t wait for George to stop saying that he couldn’t wait to be a father.
Dogs: Irish setters (George); cocker spaniels (Lizzie). Lizzie’s preference for cockers was almost entirely due to a book called Bonny’s Boy, which she’d checked out from the library at the impressionable age of ten. After searching for years, she finally found herself a copy at a book sale run by the Ann Arbor Public Library. The copy she bought might even have been the copy she’d read over and over as a child.
Eggs: over easy (George); over hard (Lizzie).
Forgiveness: Naturally George believed in forgiveness; it was a core tenet of his philosophy. Lizzie, as she once told George, did not have a forgiving bone in her body. This worried him, as he felt that, whatever was causing Lizzie’s unhappiness, the first step to ameliorating the pain was to forgive herself. It didn’t, however, look to George like this was happening anytime soon.
Grapes: green and seedless (Lizzie); red with seeds (George, because he thought the seeds made him slow down and eat fewer).
Hamburgers: George ordered his burgers medium rare, while Lizzie wouldn’t eat anything that looked un- or undercooked. George couldn’t fault her for this, though, knowing she had many memories of those mostly raw turkeys at the Bultmanns’ Thanksgivings.
Itching: George left mosquito bites strictly alone; Lizzie scratched them until they bled, which meant that after a Michigan summer she had scabs and scars in various stages of healing all over her arms and legs.
Jazz: George’s favorite album of all time was Miles Davis’s Shades of Blue; Lizzie only liked music with lyrics. She didn’t get jazz at all and, sadly for George, found listening to jazz (or classical music) boring. “So shoot me,” she said to George when he expressed amazement at this.
Kimchi: George, having been introduced to it by his Korean American roommate his freshman year at OSU, loved it. There were no Korean restaurants in Stillwater, but Jae’s mother always brought some with her when she flew in from Los Angeles. Lizzie tried it once at a fancy restaurant in New York but disliked it intensely. Too spicy.
Listerine: George actively discouraged his patients from using this particular brand of mouthwash. He didn’t think it was worth the trouble or was at all necessary to subject oneself to the burning sensation taking a capful would cause. Lizzie loved that sort of painful experience. It felt like an appropriate punishment for everything she’d done wrong. You might as well also add love in here too, George thought gloomily. He still held on to the hope—fat chance of it happening, though—that someday Lizzie would love him as much as he loved her.
Magazines: George’s favorite magazine was Consumer Reports. It was his holy book, his scripture. He read it cover to cover every
month and never bought anything—from towels to tires—without checking it first. One year the editors raved about the Toyota Camry and afterward George refused to buy any other make or model of car. To George’s shock (and, it must be admitted, a bit of awe), Lizzie never checked any reviews at all before she made a purchase. Lizzie preferred the New Yorker, which she read in this order: cartoons, poetry, “Talk of the Town,” stories, “Shouts and Murmurs,” and finally the articles. George could never really connect with the short stories and felt that much of the time the New Yorker’s articles were, quite frankly, way too long. They did both read Sports Illustrated cover to cover.
Nightclothes: briefs (George); T-shirts belonging to George (Lizzie).
Opera: George tolerated it; Lizzie didn’t have the patience to sit still through even one performance. Ditto ballet.
Patience: George had it in unlimited quantities. Lizzie had none.
Queen of spades: George played it safe while playing Hearts, only rarely trying to shoot the moon. Lizzie’s favorite card in the game was the queen of spades, and whenever it looked even remotely likely she went for broke.
Regret: George didn’t believe in it. There was nothing to be gained from regret. You can learn from your experiences and decide to do something different next time, but that’s different from regret. Regret was a dead-end street, a dark alley on a cold night. It took you nowhere. Edith Piaf could sing (in French) with great conviction that she regretted nothing, but Lizzie regretted almost everything she’d ever done. She reveled in regret, George believed. He found it greatly frustrating.
Sex: Obviously, but George didn’t want to think about that. Shampoo, then, instead. George grew up with a terrible hang-up about dandruff and thus relied on Head & Shoulders shampoo. He kind of liked the smell of it too. Lizzie hated its medicinal
odor (it reminded her of Mendel) and kept begging George to switch to another brand.
Tea: No, thank you (George), give him coffee anytime; Assam (Lizzie).
Umbrellas: George appreciated the usefulness of umbrellas but only for other people. A harsh thought would never cross his mind when, during an Ann Arbor drizzle, a small person uneasily navigating with a too-large umbrella blocking much of her peripheral and even face-on vision bumped into him. Lizzie, on the other hand, took an umbrella with her if the forecast even hinted that rain was possible. Rain frizzled her hair. She bought umbrellas like other people buy packs of gum at the airport. Nearly every place she and George had traveled to, every conference, every speaking gig, she’d found it necessary to purchase a new umbrella because she’d neglected to bring one. But because Lizzie refused to spend the money necessary to buy an umbrella that might actually last longer than one or, at the most, two uses, she had accumulated a large collection of them, most now in various states of disrepair.
In downtown Ann Arbor once—because she was, indeed, one of those small people whose vision is blocked by their overly large umbrellas—Lizzie ran into a policeman who then indicated in no uncertain tones that he was not particularly happy with her. “You can’t even call this rain,” he snarled. “Put that damn thing away.” She got the feeling that he wished he could have given her a ticket for reckless walking and endangering a police officer.
Valentines: George, blessed (according to himself) or cursed (according to Lizzie) with extreme sentimentality, would have given Lizzie a valentine every day of the year. Lizzie considered February 14 a manufactured holiday and bought George a card only because she knew it would make him happy. “Here’s your Valentine’s card, George,” she’d say. “You know I only got it
because I knew it would make you happy.” Well, in fact it did make him happy.
Wine: red (George). Red wine gave Lizzie a headache. If she was going to indulge, she’d rather have prosecco. Or Riesling. Even better was switching away from wine and drinking beer. Oh yes, and the memory of vodka, straight from the freezer.
X-Men comics: George began buying these when he was about ten. Although he lacked the earliest ones from the decade before he was born, he had what almost anyone would consider an enviable collection. In recent years he’d begun scouring eBay to fill in the ones he was missing; Lizzie didn’t see the point of them and George hadn’t been able to convince her to read more than one issue.
Yams: George couldn’t tell the difference between a yam and a sweet potato. Unless it was clearly labeled at the store, he was unable to tell which was which. This was fine with him, since he didn’t find any difference in the way they tasted either. Lizzie disagreed. They did taste different.
Zoos: George enjoyed visiting zoos. When he was in nursery school, his class went on a field trip to the Oklahoma City Zoo. Just at the point that all the kids were standing directly in front of the elephant cage, the biggest elephant trumpeted. Everyone (probably including one or two of the teachers) began screaming in panic. Was the elephant now going to wrap his trunk around the bars and twist them enough to set himself and the other elephants free, thereby trampling the mostly three-year-old crowd underfoot? But George was entranced with the noise itself and the way it echoed and reechoed throughout the stone building. He knew that old elephant wasn’t going anywhere but rather just showing off for the audience. He wasn’t scared at all. Lizzie, on the other hand, wouldn’t set foot in a zoo. Seeing the animals caged in, no matter how spacious the cage, made her too sad.
It was all so depressing, right?
* The Strong Safety *
Leo deSica’s dad, born and raised in Italy, taught in the Romance languages department at the U. He really wanted a soccer-playing son instead of one who played strong safety on the football team, but when Leo pointed out to his dad that they lived in America now and his high school didn’t even field a soccer team, Dr. deSica acquiesced to his son’s choice. Gaby Craft, Leo’s girlfriend, was one of the girls who were particularly vicious to Lizzie when the news of the Great Game trickled out. In truth, Lizzie didn’t much blame her. Leo was incredibly sexy and Lizzie often wondered if his Italianness had anything to do with it. A different kind of girl might have tested this theory out by traveling to Italy and picking up men to sleep with, but Lizzie had stopped being that different kind of girl once the Great Game ended.
* A Long Drive with Lizzie, Marla, * Beezie, Lulu, & India
Late in August 2000, James flew to Santa Fe to start preparing for his job at St. John’s College. George was busy working on a book he’d sold to Crown, so Lizzie and Marla and the girls drove from Ann Arbor to New Mexico by themselves, transporting, among other possessions, a plastic swimming pool that they did their best to securely fasten to the car’s roof.
It was a great trip. Beezie (four), Lulu (three), and India (two) took to the long hours in the station wagon as though they were born to travel the interstates. Marla attached India’s pacifier to a piece of ribbon and pinned it onto her shirt so it would always be there for her. They stopped at every rest area (and often supplemented those stops with the bathrooms at gas
stations or McDonald’s) because Lulu was still nervous about her big-girl pants. Beezie read Frog and Toad Are Friends over and over again to her sisters, even when they weren’t listening. They had Dairy Queen cones every night (it seemed that every town had a Dairy Queen near the highway) and slept in the same room, which inevitably made for unevenness of sleep quality but gave them all a lovely sense of togetherness.
They stopped in Tulsa and stayed with Elaine and Allan for a few days, then hit I-40 for the final push into Albuquerque and finally on to Santa Fe. Marla and Lizzie talked and talked and talked. It was almost like being back in college.
“Why are you still wearing that bracelet?” Marla asked. “Doesn’t George wonder why you always have it on?”
“George is the most uncurious person that I’ve ever known. He never really notices anything. I could lose all my hair overnight and the chances are he wouldn’t even comment on it,” Lizzie said. “But if he ever did ask, I’d tell him I found it at a garage sale or something. He’s also gullible,” she added unnecessarily.
Marla took her eyes off the road for a second and looked at her. “Don’t lie to George anymore, Lizzie. It’s not fair to him. It’s sad enough that you’re really lying to him by not sharing things, but an out-and-out lie is so destructive. Is what happened with Jack still so important to you? It’s been years. Why does it still matter?”
“That’s sort of what George says. Oh, not about Jack, but about how much I still despise my parents, even though they’re moldering in their graves. Or why I hate myself so much. He thinks that I’m much too attached to my thoughts. That I hold on to things too long. But I have no idea what he means. They’re your thoughts, right? How can you not think them?”
Marla struggled to answer. “I don’t know, but people do it.
I think I let go of things, or at least try to. You have to, really, otherwise you’re weighted down with all those cumulative bad memories. James and I used to talk about that baby missing from our lives, whether it was a boy or a girl, whether we could find out who adopted it, whether we’d ever forgive our parents, why we just didn’t say ‘Screw you’ to them back then and get married after I got pregnant. I mean, you know, it was so present. It was always there in our lives. But if we kept that up there’d be no place for anything else. And now we just acknowledge that all that awful stuff happened, that maybe we made the wrong decision, that we were just kids. We were just kids. You have to forgive yourself eventually, right?”
Marla used the rearview mirror to check on the girls. Beezie was turning the pages of her book from back to front, Lulu was eating graham crackers, and India was napping. They were fine.
“It’s going to be so hard with you not in Ann Arbor,” Lizzie said. “We have to write at least once a week.”
Marla agreed. “I don’t really know what I’m going to do without you. We should set a regular time every week to talk too.”
“We have to stay in each other’s life,” Lizzie said.
“Of course we will. How could we not? We’re going to spend our golden years together, remember, playing with our grandchildren.”
Marla returned to their earlier topic. “You know that James and I never liked Jack all that much, right? I know you’ve said the sex was great. So what? It’s not doing you any favors, this obsession with him. It’s never done you any favors. I still can’t believe you don’t see that.”
“I did know how you felt about him. James told me one night when I couldn’t sleep, but, Marla, you didn’t really know him. Jack loved me. I know he did, and I loved him.”
“Okay, fine, I accept that you loved him. But, Lizzie, it’s been,
like, seven years since he left. You’ve been married to George for almost five of those years. Give it up already. Literally, give up that bracelet.”
“Well, he can’t get in touch with me now since I became a Goldrosen,” Lizzie said. “Why did I ever let George convince me to change my name?”
Marla ignored what seemed irrelevant to her and focused on what was central to the discussion. “If he’d wanted to get in touch with you, he would have found a way. You know that.”
Lizzie did know. She just didn’t want to admit it either to Marla or herself.
“I still think that he was so freaked out about the Great Game he couldn’t stand being with me.”
“But you told me he said he was fine with it.”
“I don’t think I said that. Oh, he compared me to some girl in his high school who everyone would sleep with but no one would date. He apologized, sort of, but who knows if he meant it? And then he left for home so soon after that. God, I wish he’d never seen that article. I wish he’d only read the Paris Review and never picked up Psychology Today. I hate myself for what happened. And the Ouija board said so, do you remember?” Lizzie continued stubbornly. “It predicted that I’d marry a Jack M. And who else could that be but Jack? It’s definitely not a George G.”
“Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie, I cannot believe you’re quoting a Ouija board. You’re being ridiculous. Probably James pushed that thingy around to make you happy.”
“He said he didn’t. He promised.”
“Let it go, Lizzie.”
“If only I’d had different parents. Or if only Maverick and I hadn’t broken up. Or if I hadn’t known Andrea in high school. None of this would have happened the way it did.”
“Oh, Lizzie,” Marla said sadly. “George is right. You definitely do think too much.”
* Dr. Sleep (2) *
Before George met Lizzie, he’d considered himself a good sleeper. That is, he’d stay up until a decent hour, say eleven p.m., watch the news, floss, brush his teeth, get into bed, close his eyes, and lie awake for five minutes or so thinking (in the fall and winter) about how the Cowboys (Dallas and OSU) were doing. In the spring and summer he was usually so tired from the pickup basketball games he played that no sooner did he close his eyes than he was asleep. The ups and downs of real life didn’t cause him any trouble. That, however, was “BL”—before Lizzie showed up in his life.
George’s current ongoing sleep problems were due to two issues. The first was that Lizzie seemed incapable of having a Difficult Conversation between the hours of nine and five, or even early in the evening. Whatever else happened in their bed—be it good, bad, or indifferent—for too many years Lizzie lured George into having their most Difficult Conversations just as they were moving toward sleep. This was not pleasant for either of them, yet Lizzie seemed unable to alter her behavior. The second was that Lizzie’s insomnia was infectious. Sometimes George felt that Lizzie’s anxiety was radiating out into the atmosphere, so that it was impossible not to inhale some of it if you breathed at all. Once George got even a whiff of Lizzie’s agitation, he was a goner, and the two of them would get out of bed and sit in kitchen together, companionably drinking hot milk.
But whenever George fell asleep before Lizzie did or if she woke up in the middle of the night and heard George quietly snoring next to her, she’d toss and turn with great abandon and, when that didn’t work, she’d first kiss his back, then nudge him, not gently, and whisper, “Are you awake?” even when she knew
he wasn’t. In response to his reluctant admission that, well, yes, he just happened to be awake, she’d say plaintively, “I can’t sleep. Will you play a game with me?”
Though he hated being woken up, George really enjoyed the word games they played, although it was a shame that the only time they played them was in the middle of the night. George was especially grateful that they didn’t have to get out of bed. He just wished Lizzie would be happy playing them during the day. Having George right there in bed with her broadened Lizzie’s scope of ways to trick herself into sleep. Sometimes they’d make up sentences out of five- or six-letter words. Thus “Marla” became “Maybe a rabbi left already” or “Many accountants remembered little addition” and “Elaine” was “Even Leon and Inez nodded eagerly.”
They often played $100,000 Pyramid, with the top prize being, of course, sleep.
George (host), speaking slowly and deliberately, with a longish pause between each name: George, Marla, James, Mendel, Lydia.
Lizzie (contestant): Thinking out loud, “Well, I thought I knew, but the last two make it impossible to be ‘People who Lizzie loves.’” Hmm.
George added: “Allan, Elaine.”
Lizzie unceremoniously gave up.
“Ha,” George said triumphantly. “It’s ‘People who love you.’ Now go to sleep.”
“I strongly object. Mendel and Lydia never loved me. You know that.”
“They did too. They just weren’t successful at showing you that they did. Now go to sleep,” he repeated.
Lizzie turned her pillow over to the cool side and tried to obey him, occasionally successfully.
* The Defensive Ends *
The two defensive ends were Richard “Dickhead” Dickman and Jeff “Stinky” Smelsey. Richard joined the Peace Corps, was sent to Liberia, and stayed on there to teach at the high school in Tubmanburg. He sometimes contributed articles about Liberia to the Ann Arbor News. Stinky Smelsey became a successful podiatrist in Laurel, Maryland. If there was nothing else having to do with the Great Game that made Lizzie laugh (and there wasn’t), the thought of the perfectly named Stinky Smelsey spending his days considering people’s feet could almost make her smile.
* A Difficult Conversation *
It was unusual for George to get home first, but one afternoon Lizzie found him there, waiting for her. “Let’s go out to dinner,” he said. This was also very unlike George, who felt that because of all their traveling they ate out way too much and he’d much rather stay home and relax.
They went to Yummy Café, the incongruously named Chinese restaurant down the street from their apartment. While they waited for their food, Lizzie told George about her day. “I felt like I was running behind all day, because Foucault insisted on seeking out a fire hydrant that he’d never made use of before, so I didn’t get to Billy & Sister’s until way late, which was why I was late getting home.”
“You weren’t really late. I came home at lunchtime to do some work and decided to cancel my afternoon appointments.”
This was unprecedented. George never canceled on his
patients. He didn’t believe in it. Plus his tone of voice sounded slightly off to Lizzie.
Lizzie was just about to ask what was wrong, when the waiter came by for their order. Once he left, George asked abruptly, “Who’s Jack?”
“Jack?” Lizzie asked stupidly, stalling for time and hoping that there was some innocent explanation for his question, that he wasn’t really asking about her Jack. When George just continued to stare at her, with an expression that made it clear this wasn’t a casual question, she said, “How do you know about Jack?”
“I don’t know about Jack,” George told her in the patient tone of voice you would use with someone for whom English was not her native language. “That’s why I’m asking you.”
Naturally Lizzie’s first thought was to lie, but her second thought was that if George knew about Jack’s existence, maybe he knew all about what happened and was just testing her truthfulness. Her third thought was that this didn’t seem like something George would do; he wasn’t the gotcha type. Her fourth thought was that maybe Marla was right, that omitting a fact or two from the résumé of your life was one thing, but telling an enormous whopper to the man you were married to was quite another. Lizzie took a deep breath, trying not to panic.
“Jack is who I dated spring quarter of my freshman year. He went home for the summer and then didn’t come back to start grad school like he was going to. That’s who he is, just someone I dated for a little while.” Lizzie knew that the most inaccurate word in that sentence was “just.” It was the word that made the statement false. She tried not to look at her bracelet. Here she was, lying even when she tried not to. It was pathetic, really.
Days, months, years went by before George spoke. The waiter brought their food, moo shu vegetables and orange chicken. Lizzie felt too sick to eat. Finally George said, “I read Marla’s most recent letter to you. You know, the one you left on the
counter in the bathroom. As if you wanted me to read it. That’s the letter where Marla asks if there’s any news on the Jack front.”
“You shouldn’t have read it.”
“If it was so private, why did you leave it out? Do you want to tell me what’s going on?”
No, not really. Lizzie definitely didn’t want to tell him anything at all. “I just couldn’t,” she began. “I just can’t seem to get over him. I think about him a lot and I’m always looking for him, wherever we go.” There. Surely that was enough. She didn’t have to go into a detailed description of all those phone calls in the various cities they visited for George’s speaking gigs, did she?
“How come you never told me about him?”
“Oh, George, come on. Look how upset you are, and you have all that Opportunity for Growth stuff to fall back on. Of course I couldn’t tell you. And anyway, what would I have said? Did you want me to say, ‘No, George, I can’t marry you because I’m still in love with this old boyfriend who walked out of my life and I’ve never heard from him again’?”
A gaping hole opened between them. George said quietly, “And are you? Still in love with him?”
This was getting more difficult by the moment. Lizzie tried to figure out what she wanted to say. “I don’t know, George. It sounds crazy, even to me, to think that I could still be in love, whatever that means, with a guy I haven’t seen for longer than we’ve been married. All I know is that I can’t seem to stop thinking about him.”
“Do you still want to be married to me?”
“Yes, of course! I love you, George, really. I usually think our life together is great. But it’s different from the way it was with Jack.”
“Of course it’s different; all relationships are different, one from the other. And are you sure you remember what it was like with Jack? Sometimes you can’t even remember to return your library books on time.”
“Don’t be mean to me, George.”
“Mean to you? Are you kidding me? Don’t you think your lying to me for our entire marriage justifies a little hostility on my part?”
Neither of them had eaten anything. They refused the offer of boxes to take the food home. George paid the bill and left the restaurant, not waiting for Lizzie to catch up. Back at the apartment, he pretended to watch the news on TV, and Lizzie pretended to read her book. They avoided looking at each other. When Lizzie went into the bathroom to brush her teeth, George said, “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“No, don’t,” Lizzie said, suddenly terrified of being alone in their bed. “I don’t want us to be apart tonight. Can we pretend until tomorrow that this never happened?”
They got up the next morning still without looking at one another. Lizzie carefully measured out the coffee and made sure to use the filtered water for the French press, both of which she knew were important to George and both of which she usually blew off. She sat down at the table with her toast, waiting for him to finish showering. A stranger watching wouldn’t have been able to tell that it was any different (other than the filtered water and the carefully measured coffee) from virtually every other morning of their marriage, but to Lizzie it felt momentous, as though she and George were about to enter into unknown, previously unexplored territory. Everything had changed.
After pouring his coffee, George sat down across from her and began the next part of the conversation. “Look, Lizzie, I love you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can have our life together or you can go off and chase your fantasy. You have to choose. You don’t need to decide this minute. I’m willing to wait, but I want you to know that it can’t go on this way forever. And you have to be honest with me about your feelings, even if that’s hard for both of us.”
Once George left for work, Lizzie called Marla, to tell her what happened.
* The End of Many Things *
James was dying.
Marla phoned early one morning about a week after the Difficult Conversation to tell Lizzie that James was still coughing a lot, which of course Lizzie had noticed the last time she visited, but that now he’d started coughing up blood, which was something frighteningly new. Their family doctor immediately sent James to a specialist. The future wasn’t bright.
“Ironic, isn’t it, that the only thing he ever smoked was pot. He never touched tobacco,” she added. Lizzie could hear that Marla was starting to cry. “Although his parents were cigarette fiends, so maybe it’s all that secondhand smoke.”
“Oh, jeez, Marla, I am so sorry. You don’t need to deal with this by yourself. I’ll see if I can get a flight for later today, or at worst I’ll be there tomorrow morning.”
“No,” Marla said tiredly, “don’t come now. My mother’s been visiting us for the past few days; she leaves at the end of the week. Come then. I’d much rather have you here than her, but at least she can take care of the girls so I can go with James to his appointments. And the whole situation is . . . just so weird. It’s all happened so quickly. I feel as though I’m in the middle of a particularly awful nightmare. I keep thinking that if I could wake myself up everything would be okay. Oh, Lizzie, evidently there was so much blood two days ago that James finally realized he needed to tell me, and of course I panicked and insisted he finally see a doctor, and here we all are.”
“Is he home? Can I talk to him? What does the doctor say?”
“He’s lying down. You’re probably the only person he could bear to talk to now, but I don’t want to disturb him. We have an appointment this afternoon to discuss the next steps, but nobody’s hopeful. I can tell that from the way they look at us.
Oh God, Lizzie, he’s going to die, I know he is. I wish you were here. I always wish you were here, but I feel like I need to save you for the even worse times that are coming.”
“That’s ridiculous. You don’t need to save me for anything. I’m coming now,” Lizzie said. “And I’ll be with you whatever happens.”
“That would be nice, wouldn’t it,” Marla said, “to live in the same place again.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can get a flight to Albuquerque, and I’ll rent a car,” Lizzie promised, “so you don’t have to come get me.”
“Do you remember Mama Marla and Auntie Lizzie?” Marla asked.
“Of course I remember.”
“That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Lizzie said simply. “It was a pretty long time ago. Tell James I love him, and the girls too.”
Nothing had exactly returned to normal in the days since George and Lizzie had their Difficult Conversation. They were being very careful with each other. Lizzie made sure to turn off the lights when she left a room (a pet peeve of George’s) and to put whatever she took out of the refrigerator back in the exact same place she’d found it (another pet peeve of George’s). She tried her best to roll up his clean socks the way George liked them (yet another of his pet peeves) and when she failed he didn’t remind her that he’d showed her how to do it numerous times in the past and couldn’t understand why she didn’t grasp the process. She made dinners from George’s childhood that she knew from Elaine he loved, especially the mac and cheese from The Joy of Cooking and the pork chops with scalloped potatoes from the I Hate to Cook Book. She baked mandel bread, which took hours of her time, but since she made the decision not to go to the library to try to find Jack in the city phone books, she
had a lot of time for baking. George bought a whole gallon of peanut-butter-cup ice cream because it was Lizzie’s favorite. He ironed two of her blouses that she’d left on top of the dryer. He cleaned out the drains in both the kitchen and bathroom sinks. He formally thanked Lizzie for making his favorite dinners and Lizzie formally acknowledged his thanks. Besides that, and a few stray comments like “I’m going to take a bath” or “We need more Life cereal,” silence reigned. When they were both home they tended to stay in different rooms, and at night in bed George didn’t put his arm around her and draw her close to him, which Lizzie had always found a great comfort. Neither one slept well. A lot of warm milk was drunk, but they didn’t play any word games. Lizzie thought it was like living with a ghost. George was concentrating on all the tips and techniques that he taught in order to resist looking ahead to a future that didn’t include Lizzie.
As she was dialing the phone to tell George about James, a passing thought occurred to her. How had it happened, when had it happened, that nothing in her life seemed completely real until she shared it with George? Was it possible that having told George about Jack would change her memories of Jack in some way? Maybe not the specific details, but the important place that he still had in her life?
“There’s terrible news,” she blurted out without any preliminary niceties when he answered. She went on without giving him a chance to reply, “But, George, promise that you’re not going to get all Opportunity for Growth-ish. Please don’t tell me it’s not terrible. I’m not one of your feel-good groupies, remember?”
“C’mon, Lizzie, don’t be ridiculous. I’m not going to promise that. What’s happened?”
“It’s James: he has stage-four small-cell lung cancer. Marla told me that the doctors think it’s probably past the point that chemo will help, but she wants to try it anyway. I don’t know yet what James wants to do. I need to be there with them.”
For a moment George remained silent, then said, “Of course you should go, as soon as you can.”
“It’s a tragedy, right? I mean, if anything can qualify as a tragedy in your philosophy of life, it has to be this. He’s young, he has a devoted wife, three beautiful daughters, a job he loves and is good at, and he’s going to die. And don’t tell me that we’re all going to die. I know we are, but it’s not the same.”
Once again George paused before speaking. “Do you want me to tell you what I think?”
“You might as well. I know you’ll insist on telling me eventually, or it’ll come up in some speech you’re giving. I already know I’m going to hate what you say and totally disagree with it. You’re going to say it isn’t a tragedy, right? Go ahead, then, and when you’re done I’ll call the airlines.”
Taking a deep breath, George began. “Someone backing out of the driveway and running over their child is a tragedy. The Holocaust is a tragedy. People abusing their children is a tragedy. None of those things have to happen. But it’s in the nature of things for people to get sick and die, sometimes of cancer. And the outliers get it young. It’s just statistics. Contrary to what you might believe, even I am nowhere near optimistic enough to believe that we can ever have a world in which there’s no disease. That’s the realm of science fiction.”
“George, listen to me for once. James is dying. Don’t you care?”
“I hear that he’s dying, and of course I care. What kind of person do you think I am that I wouldn’t care? I feel terrible that James is dying. I feel terrible for Marla and the girls. And you, I feel terrible for you too, because I know how much he means to you. And I feel terrible for me, because he’s become a good friend. All our lives are going to change because of his death. But that’s not a tragedy. Don’t you see that?”
“No, I don’t see. And you can’t make me.”
George laughed. “Are you sticking your tongue out at me? Nyah, nyah, you can’t make me agree with you.”
Lizzie couldn’t help smiling. “I don’t know why I said that. It just sort of came out that way.”
“Go make your reservation,” George said. “I’ll be home as soon as I can. See if you can get an afternoon flight; I’ll take you to the airport.” He called back almost immediately. “Listen, don’t go there just for a few days. I think you should plan on staying with them as long as Marla needs you. And, Lizzie, this is a good time for you to think about what you want to do with your life. Our lives.”
For the next four months, the time James spent dying, Lizzie stayed in Santa Fe. Neither Marla nor James wanted their parents there. Lizzie and later the hospice nurses who came in daily to check on James were the only people they wanted to see. Lizzie slept on the trundle bed in Beezie’s room, and whatever Marla wanted her to do, she did. She took Beezie to her swimming classes. She stepped in as co-leader of Lulu’s Brownie troop. She took India to her speech therapy appointments. She made drugstore runs to pick up prescriptions, and supermarket trips to buy ice cream and hot fudge sauce. She made cookies with the girls. She cooked dinner and did the dishes.
Surprisingly, she and George talked every night. The evening she got there she called to fill him in on the results of James’s consultation with the top oncologist in Santa Fe, who sent him to Albuquerque for more tests. The next night she felt he needed to know what the tests revealed (nothing to provide any basis at all for optimism). The next night George called to say she’d left her parka at home and did she want him to send it, and that he’d been thinking about how good it was that she was there to help out and that she should give his love to Marla and James. The next night George called to tell Lizzie that Elaine had a touch
of the flu and would probably love to talk to her. The night after that Lizzie called George to tell him that his mother seemed to be feeling better but that it was good she’d called. After that it began to seem natural to share all the events, big and small, of their days—India finally learning to say R at the beginning of words; meeting the team of hospice nurses who would see the family through what was to come; George’s invitation to speak in Reykjavik and how if the timing worked out maybe Lizzie could come with him, since he knew she’d always wanted to see the northern lights; the amazing sunsets in Santa Fe that were in such stark contrast to everything that was happening to James; Lizzie reading Phaedo, Plato’s dialogue about the death of Socrates, aloud to James; Marla’s decision to become a vegetarian; how much renting a hospital bed cost; Beezie jumping off the three-meter diving board at the pool where the girls took lessons. They never talked about George’s ultimatum or Lizzie’s feelings about Jack.
On a week when he had no other out-of-town travel scheduled, George flew to Santa Fe and he and Lizzie drove the three girls to Tulsa. It was I-25 to I-40, I-40 to I-44, and finally I-44 to Allan and Elaine’s. They stayed for a whole week. All the way there they sang songs and tried to be the first one to see all the letters of the alphabet on license plates and billboards. Lizzie read Alice in Wonderland to them on the way to Tulsa and Through the Looking Glass on the way home. She taught them how to play “A . . . My Name Is Alice.” George told jokes and funny stories about when he was a little boy. Elaine and Allan spoiled all of them and most importantly the trip gave Marla and James some time alone with each other.
Early one afternoon when the girls were at school and Marla was napping, Lizzie tiptoed into James’s room to check on him. She expected to find him dozing—he was on massive amounts of pain medication—but he smiled when she came in. She sat
down in the chair next to his bed and took his hand. “Dearest James, I know you’re worrying about how Marla is going to manage, but I want you to know that of course I, George and I, will always be there for them. I promise you that with all my heart. You and Marla and the girls are my family . . .” Her voice trailed off.
James squeezed her hand. In the months since his diagnosis it had gotten more and more difficult for him to speak, but he said hoarsely, “I know you will.” They sat quietly for a few moments and Lizzie could see that his eyes were starting to close, but before he fell asleep he whispered, “Lizzie, I have to tell you something. I pushed that Ouija-board thingy around, even though I promised I wouldn’t. Do you think that’s going to go on my permanent record?”
“Oh, James, I think I’ve always known you did. I love you,” Lizzie said, leaning over and kissing his cheek.
The service at the graveside was not to be borne, but of course everyone had to bear it. They stood in a line, clutching each other’s hands, George, India, Marla, Beezie, Lulu, and Lizzie. While James’s colleagues and students spoke movingly and sincerely about how fortunate they’d been to know him, Lizzie had the confusing thought that the only way this funeral could even be marginally okay was if James were there with them, someone else was dead, someone they didn’t know or at least didn’t care about, and the three of them—she and Marla and James—were all completely stoned on some of his best weed, as they had been so much of the time in college. It was too bad, Lizzie thought, that the one single person in the whole world who would appreciate this thought was Marla. It was certainly no use telling George; he disapproved of drugs on principle. George. A huge wave of resentment and anger swamped Lizzie. How could George have that stupid way of looking at the world? How dare he say that James’s death wasn’t
a tragedy? She caught his eye and said, silently but distinctly, “This is a tragedy. You are absolutely, totally, completely wrong.” George shook his head, but whether he’d been able to read her lips was unclear. All those adverbs. The chances were he hadn’t.
When they lowered the casket into the ground, India turned to George and said, with wonder in her voice, “That’s my daddy down there.”
Someone behind them heard her and let out a sob. Lizzie thought it was James’s mother. George squatted down so he was close to India’s height. “I know it is, honey,” he said. “Should we say good-bye to him now?”
India nodded. They all said their last good-byes to James, husband, father, and dearest friend.
Later that afternoon, after everyone else had gone, Lizzie and Marla were sitting on the big screened porch, watching another beautiful sunset, while inside George played Parcheesi with all three girls. There were simultaneously shrieks of laughter and groans of despair as the four of them moved their counters around the board. From what Marla and Lizzie could tell, Lulu had just landed on the square George was on, sending his piece back to the beginning.
“George is wonderful,” Marla said. “He’s so good with them. They love him. Kids can tell the difference between someone really having fun playing with them, like George, and pretending to have fun, like my parents.”
“I know,” Lizzie said. “I know that.” She sighed and spoke again. “Do you think there’s a statute of limitations on being punished for all the awful things we did when we were kids?”
“I hope so,” Marla said. “But when James got sick I started thinking that maybe it was some sort of retribution for giving up the baby.”
“Oh, no, Marla, don’t think that. It’s absolutely not true.
You should talk to George. He could help you see how wrong thinking that is.”
“Lizzie, do you hear what you’re saying? As if you listened to anything George says.”
“Oh, me. Don’t go by me. I’m George’s only failure. The black cloud in his sky of cerulean blue. You should read his fan mail. Evidently immediately after people listen to George, they suddenly become happy. They’re cured, if that’s the right word.”
The Parcheesi game was over. Lulu had won, George finishing a very distant last.
A few days later Marla told Lizzie that it was time she and George went home. “I’ve got to see if I can do this on my own. There’s a lot I have to figure out, and you guys have stuff to figure out too.”
“You know that if you need me for anything, anything at all, I’ll be back.”
“I know that,” Marla said.
Everyone piled into the car to take George and Lizzie to the Albuquerque airport. They all cried as they hugged and kissed good-bye. Lordy, we’ve sure done a lot of crying on this trip, Lizzie thought as they started walking into the terminal. “Wait,” India yelled, bolting after them, leaving Marla, Beezie, and Lulu standing by the car. “I want to hear the story of the paste fight again.” Which was probably the best thing that could have happened, because the three adults started laughing. Marla gave Lizzie a final hug and whispered, “Go home and make a life with George.”
“Next time,” George promised, hugging each of the girls again. “I’ll tell it as often as you want.”
The flight to Dallas was uneventful and on time, but now Lizzie and George were stuck there. The terminal was shut down until a torrential rainstorm, with its accompanying lightning,
passed through. It would be at least, the gate agent’s voice underlined and then repeated his last two words, at least ninety minutes before they’d begin boarding the plane. And maybe longer. They should all just relax. Easier said than done, Lizzie thought. She’d finished reading Ian McEwan’s newest novel, Atonement, just the night before and couldn’t imagine starting another novel until Briony didn’t feel quite so real to her. She thought she shouldn’t have left Marla alone. Hadn’t Lizzie promised James as much? That she’d always be there? What did that mean exactly, “always be there”? This was the sort of question that George most loved, and in the past he and Lizzie had many excellent Non-Difficult Conversations about issues that didn’t revolve around Lizzie’s unhappiness.
“I’m going for a walk,” she told George. “I’ll be back.”
She was just getting a drink of water when she heard the static-y stutter that preceded a loudspeaker announcement in every airport that Lizzie had ever been in. She waited, thinking it might be about their flight. It was not.
“Will Dr. Jack McConaghey please check with the gate agent at gate seventeen.” And once again: “Will Dr. Jack McConaghey please check with the gate agent at gate seventeen.”
Whomp. Lizzie felt the same way as when she’d been slammed in the stomach trying to dodge that malevolent ball during recess in elementary school. She leaned over and put her hands on her knees and tried to breathe normally. Could it really be Jack, after all this time? Was it really possible she could walk—she double-checked the number of her own gate—twelve gates away and find him?
Yes. It was obviously possible, because she was now on her way there.
But wait. She paused and asked herself why she wanted to do this.
Because it might be Jack.
But what if it was? What would that accomplish, finally seeing Jack? Really, Lizzie, what would it accomplish to see him?
You know that I always look for him in the cities I go to. So if it isn’t Jack I can just forget it and go back to my gate and wait for the plane.
Ah, but what if it is Jack? How would she feel if he didn’t even recognize her? After all the years of his living so large in Lizzie’s memories, what if she couldn’t pick him out from all the other men at gate seventeen? And what would she possibly say to him after more than a decade? Was she going to accuse him of abandoning her? We were in college, Lizzie told herself. In college, girls break up with the boys they’re dating all the time, and vice versa. It’s normal behavior that often leaves people unhappy. Look how it’s made me desperately unhappy for such a long time.
But then you went and built up this elaborate fantasy that if only you were with Jack everything about your life would be different and better, she thought. And I see that that’s ridiculous. First of all, James would still be dead. Second, and this is the important part, it’s your own unhappiness, Lizzie. It’s always been yours. Maybe, just maybe, George has been right all along, that you’ll never be happy until you can believe in the possibility of happiness. Maybe you’ve been using Jack all these years to avoid confronting that.
Lizzie slipped the bracelet off her wrist and ran her finger over the engraved words. They had been worn down a bit, but she could still make them out. “Shall love you always.” Perhaps that sentence was no longer true, although she had certainly believed it to be true, once. She started to put it back on and stopped. Quickly, so she wouldn’t get cold feet, she went into the nearest bathroom and, making sure that no one was looking at her, left the bracelet on the side of a sink and walked purposefully back to gate five.
She could see George, now sitting on the floor, laughing while he did coin tricks for a little boy. George, who loved her despite everything she was or had said or done. There’d been no more loudspeaker announcements since the first two, so presumably Dr. Jack McConaghey, whether he was her Jack or not, had made his way to gate seventeen. He was there. No planes had left. She was here, moving steadily toward George, and, finally, home.