Luck, Love & Lemon Pie
It took MJ one hour forty-seven minutes and three old-fashioneds to eat the entire anniversary pie herself. All that remained in the empty tin were a few smudges of lemon cream sprinkled with flakes of crust, but her stomach didn’t seem to mind the alarming influx of calories. She waved to the nearby waiter to order another cocktail and have the pie tin removed. In minutes, the gluttonous evidence had vanished and she sipped her next drink, letting the brandy burn as it went down—and appreciating that it was more booze than soda. Somehow, bartenders always knew when to give a generous pour.
Fellow patrons had arrived, dined, and left, all while she had waited for Chris. She sat alone on the small patio behind their favorite local restaurant. The late-summer sun found the first changing leaves in the nearby trees that lined the meandering stream below the deck, speckling the few afternoon diners who shared the patio, finishing their bowls of handmade pasta. A waiter peeked around the corner, clearly checking to see if
she was ready to pay her bill. She knew he wanted her to leave soon so he could collect his tip, but now she was too tipsy to drive herself home. Time to hydrate.
MJ reached for her phone on the edge of the small table but missed on the first attempt. With a shaky swipe across the screen, she saw the time. Three thirty. She sent him a quick, fairly passive-aggressive text.
Still at restaurant. Sorry you couldn’t make it.
Chris was supposed to have met her three hours ago for lunch, but he had never appeared, so she’d eaten without him.
It wasn’t until the server had appeared with the pie that MJ had remembered special-ordering it for today’s lunch. She’d called the chef weeks ago to arrange for her to make this particular pie and serve it at lunch, when Chris wouldn’t be expecting it. For anniversaries past, Chris had always baked it, but last year he had said he didn’t have time. So after twenty years, she decided it was her turn to bake. She’d attempted and failed to make it three times before accepting her culinary limits, and gave his recipe to the chef. It was meant to be a surprise, a romantic gesture on their twentieth anniversary—a celebration. Instead, alone, she had grabbed the pie and a fork and settled into her dining chair, mollifying her disappointment one flaky bite at a time, ignoring the judgey looks of the other restaurant guests.
She set her half-empty old-fashioned on the cleared table and rested in her chair, embracing the rare afternoon solitude and booze-induced tipsiness. With her right thumb, she rubbed the inside of her left wrist where a tiny faded tree marred the
thin skin. Covering an area no bigger than a dime, the scraggly ink branches were dotted with tiny purple-pink flowers as familiar to her as the sound of her children thumping through the house. Her head rested on the deck railing behind her chair, and her eyes drooped closed behind her large sunglasses as she relished the sun soaking into her skin.
Nineteen years ago, she had come home to an apartment glowing with enough candles to trigger a flash of worry about their cost. Scents of lemon and recently extinguished matches mingled to set her at ease as MJ kicked off her shoes with a sigh and yanked off her too-tight control-top panty hose, her skin prickling with relief. Leaving the offending items by the door with her purse and keys, she scampered to the kitchen with a quick adjustment to her lace underwear, noticing the freshly vacuumed carpet.
Still wearing his suit, Chris stood at the kitchen counter spreading the last swirl of whipped cream onto the top of a pie. She hugged him from behind, wrapping her arms around his taut torso, her nose buried in the back of his shirt, inhaling the smell of Chris. It wasn’t just his deodorant or shampoo or the dryer sheets she used, but a little bit of everything combined with him to create a scent that was indescribable and uniquely Chris. She could pick him out in a pitch-black room by that scent alone. When he was gone on overnights for work, she’d wear a dirty shirt from the hamper just to smell him near her.
“Happy anniversary,” MJ whispered in his ear.
Chris turned in her arms, still holding the spatula covered in whipped cream.
“You’re just in time, Moon,” he said, tapping the spatula on her lips. But before she could lick them clean, he leaned down for a kiss, the whipped cream sweetening the moment.
MJ pulled back, sucking the remaining cream off her mouth.
“So what did you make?” she asked. Chris was the cook in their marriage, conjuring up delicious creations for the two of them.
Chris tilted his head and smiled.
“Lemon custard pie.”
MJ leaned to look around him at the dessert.
“The lemon custard pie?”
“It seemed like the right way to celebrate our first anniversary.”
MJ put her hands on each side of Chris’s face. Every fiber of her wanted to flip with giddiness that she had found the very best man to marry. His faded blue eyes brightened as they soaked up her smitten face. He completed her, filling up the empty cracks from her childhood, convincing her that marital bliss could be hers, that happy endings were possible.
Oh, how times had changed. As MJ drifted off in the afternoon sun, the table wobbled and a hand skimmed up her bare leg, pushing back the soft fabric of her black skirt.
“What the hell!” MJ said, kicking out as her eyes sprang open, her foot making solid contact with an upper thigh.
Clutching his leg in the chair next to hers sat Chris. He wore wrinkled khakis and a cream-colored Cuban shirt, pulled tight over his broad shoulders while hiding the small belly that had formed over once-taut muscles. They both had grown softer with the years—on the outside, at least. His short, brown hair, spiked from a day of running his hands through it, combined with stubble to make him look younger—if she overlooked the scattering of silver peppered among the darker scruff. His familiar blue eyes squinted at the sun, deepening the wrinkles at the corners.
Her stomach used to flip when she looked at him. Perhaps the alcohol and pie were weighing it down, trapping the butterflies that once zigzagged with glee. She still loved him—of course she did—but the wings had stilled. Missing their anniversary would do that to delicate insects.
“You know better than to sneak up on me,” MJ said, tamping down the mild satisfaction of kicking her husband, but he really should have known better than to surprise her like that. She brushed away the last few pie crumbs still on the table, keeping secret her failed attempt at a romantic surprise. Their knees bumped beneath the cozy table and she tucked her legs under the chair to give him more space so they wouldn’t need to touch. When did I start doing that?
Chris turned his head to look at her, setting a hand on her knee. MJ refrained from pulling back. That would start an entirely new discussion she didn’t want to have right now. Best to just let his hand rest there.
“I suppose I deserved that,” he said. “I’m so sorry I’m late. I didn’t expect to get as deep in the tournament as I did.”
MJ wanted to get angry, to wave her arms and shout or fold them and pout, but she couldn’t muster the ire for more than a shrug. She reached for her drink, pulling her leg out of her husband’s reach, then looked at him levelly over her sunglasses.
“And your phone doesn’t work?” she began, but her words lacked the bite of accusation. Perhaps the brandy had burned off the edge, she reasoned.
He tilted his head down as his lips curved, showing his perfect teeth—a genuine smile, just for her—then squeezed her knee. Chris had two smiles. His polite smile, the I-don’t-want-to-be-here-but-have-to-act-like-I-do one, was for when a smile was expected but not earned, like at work events and extended-family gatherings. He would part his lips, crinkle his eyes, and keep them trained on whoever was speaking. But when he really meant it, when smiling was an uncontrollable instinct, he dipped his head and closed his eyes, almost as if he was trying to hide it—a secret amusement just for himself. And when he laughed he threw his head back, unable to keep his mirth inside, no longer caring who noticed. She once lived for those head-tossing moments, proud that she could draw the laughter out of him. It was his laugh she’d fallen in love with first, but that was a long time ago.
She wished he had laughed just now but was relieved to have at least earned a genuine smile.
A tiny butterfly flopped to life.
“I brought you something.” His voice rose a bit at the end. He did that when he was hiding something. “Hopefully it will ease that line on your forehead.”
Who didn’t love a little bribery? MJ leaned forward while
running a finger across her forehead, trying to smooth it out. Probably a lost cause.
“You did? What is it?”
From his pocket, Chris pulled a clear plastic bubble. Inside jangled a ring with a bright yellow smiley face. He popped open the container and slid it onto her finger, adjusting the cheap metal to fit. MJ held out her hand, admiring the new bauble for her ever-growing collection—though additions had been fewer in recent years. She’d always loved the bright colors and whimsical designs of the gum-ball machine rings, starting with the one he had given her on the night he had proposed.
“Lovely, as always,” she said, the butterfly becoming more persistent.
“I’m assuming you ate without me?” he asked.
“I waited, but when you didn’t show, I ate a big lunch.”
“I really am sorry I missed our lunch date, Moon. Not much of an anniversary, is it?”
MJ’s nerves began a low hum. He hadn’t used that nickname in months, maybe even years. He’d given it to her after learning her full name (and her strong preference that it never be used), Margaret June, during one of Barbara’s making-sure-my-daughter-is-still-alive visits during college. It had become their private joke, a mash-up of the despised name into a beloved nickname.
Chris twisted his torso while looking around the deck, taking in the view he’d been missing. “I got to the final table in the tournament, so I need to go back in an hour to finish. But I could win enough for a trip. Maybe something for the two of us?” He turned to her.
She knew what he was waiting for, what he wanted her to say. He wanted her concession that his poker playing wasn’t ruining their anniversary. He wanted her permission to not feel guilty for abandoning her. Her heart thudded dully as she realized that she wasn’t even mad or frustrated with him. She was . . . relieved? Tonight, maybe she’d finish her book and binge-watch the DVR with the kids before taking a long bath. She might even start another novel. A perfect Saturday evening—just, without her husband.
MJ smiled and squeezed Chris’s hand.
“Go. Win big.”
Chris squinted his eyes, trying to find hers behind the sunglasses. He could always tell when she was lying by looking into her eyes. Thank God for Ray-Bans.
“Really?” he asked.
Chris’s lips twitched at her word choice, his shoulders sagging with relief as he let out the breath that had held in all his spousal guilt.
“I don’t deserve you.”
He stood, then bent so his face was close to hers. His whiskers tickled her face before his lips found hers in a functional kiss. For an instant, she remembered a time when she fantasized about nibbling on his bottom lip for hours. Now she focused on the wintergreen taste of his kiss and waited for him to pull away so she could return to her peaceful solitude. Chris straightened with one final rote smile. MJ took another sip of her old-fashioned, erasing the mint taste.
His eyes moved from her to her drink; his lips opened to form words. Over her sunglasses, she raised her eyebrows and he closed his mouth immediately. After setting enough money on the table to cover her bill and a generous tip, MJ stood, swaying from the change in position. She wasn’t just tipsy—she was drunk. Dammit, I can’t drive home like this. Chris watched as she stabilized, knowing better than to help her. She estimated how long it would take her to walk the three miles back to their house and the number of blisters she’d get from doing so in her strappy wedge sandals. She took a sip from the previously untouched water and gritted her teeth against her lifelong hatred of having to ask for help.
But she swallowed her pride enough to quietly request, “Can you give me a ride home?”
The car eased up the driveway to their cozy saltbox house, tucked among tall oak trees still clinging to their summer green while the towering maples down the street were already starting to turn. Chris coasted the car into the garage, and as soon as the car stopped, their Muppet-like dog, Daisy, danced outside MJ’s door, waiting to greet her with kisses and dirty paw prints, as if she’d been away for days, not hours. MJ took a deep breath, trying to shake off the daytime-booze-induced fogginess. Chris turned his head to her.
“I don’t have to go back to the casino.” He thought she was sighing about him. How could she explain without triggering a fight? She fumbled for a benign response when two teenagers
opened the garage door and raced out in stocking feet. MJ smiled, as she always did when she saw her littles, even though they were little no more.
“Mom, can we eat soon? Tommy ate all the food,” said Kate. As usual, her long, dark hair hung in a wavy ponytail down her back. She wore her glasses, lending an air of studiousness to MJ’s already-smart girl. Sometimes too smart. It was unnerving to lose arguments to your own child, and MJ had been losing them to Kate since she was eight. She had her father’s height, MJ’s earthy brown hair and eyes, and an attitude all her own. MJ never worried about boys getting the best of Kate. At seventeen, she loathed the teenage boys crawling the high school halls. MJ hoped that sense of superiority would last one more year until her girl was far away at college.
“Like you were even home, nerd. She’s being lame, Mom. I didn’t eat everything and I’m hungry.” Tommy shoved his sister. MJ didn’t doubt he ate most of the food, even in the few hours she had been gone. She’d heard about teenage boys and food, but the reality was more like the gaping maw of a black hole, sucking all edible matter into its void, never filling up. God help her when his friends came over, especially after baseball practice. Recently, Tommy was never without a baseball in one hand and food in the other. As tall as his sister, he had his father’s brown, unruly curls, which he kept too long in Chris’s opinion, but MJ liked the boyish mop.
“Fine, you left the edamame and brown bananas,” Kate said.
“Hey, guys. Can we at least get out of the car before we have to listen to that?” Chris said.
“Way to go, dumbass.” Kate shoved her brother.
“I went grocery shopping this morning, but I didn’t have time to put it all away. The nonperishables are in the laundry room.”
MJ walked through the door into the back hall, past the messy mudroom into the kitchen, the heart of her home—the home she could have sworn she’d left neat and tidy after breakfast. Now, dishes filled the sink and a stack of Kate’s college brochures peeked out from under the crumbs and used paper towels dotting the island. Cereal skittered across the kitchen floor as she walked. MJ started strategizing the best plan of attack when Chris walked in behind her followed by the kids, crunching some of the cereal as they walked. Nope, not this time. She couldn’t clean the kitchen a second time in one day. Chris disappeared into the laundry room.
“And now you two can clean up the kitchen,” MJ said, pointing.
“It’s all him.” Kate glared at Tommy.
“Do I look like I care?” MJ said. “Tommy, you empty and load the dishwasher. Kate, you win sweeping and mopping. I’ll handle the island counter later.”
“I can do the counter, too,” Kate said, shoving the brochures into her backpack.
“Did you have a good lunch?” Tommy smiled as he opened the dishwasher. MJ loved his smile. It was like his father’s, but full of innocence and promise. He never could tell a lie, so you always knew where he stood. She worried that someday some femme fatale would crush her boy’s joie de vivre, but that was far in the future.
Chris reentered the kitchen carrying the bottle of Hawaiian barbecue sauce MJ had bought that morning. Using a Sharpie, he wrote “Not for MJ” on it, then added it to the shelf containing a handful of similarly marked items—that’s where he put all the food containing pineapple that she accidentally bought. If she ate any of it, her throat would start to swell shut. If she didn’t take Benadryl in time, it could get dangerous. Chris paused to answer Tommy’s question.
“Your mom did. My morning tournament went long, and now I need to get back for the final table.” He kissed Kate’s forehead and dashed out the door. He moved so quickly, he appeared blurred to MJ’s brandy-fuddled brain.
MJ kept quiet, but Kate noticed and her eyes flicked to the closed door.
“Mom?” Tommy asked.
“I enjoyed dessert.” MJ smiled at him and left the room, the sound of clanking silverware following her up the stairs.
She slid the new happy-face ring onto her dresser-top elephant ring holder. It settled atop several dusty rings, the bottom one covered in chipped faux-gold plating with a clear-plastic center stone. She brushed at the dust, remembering when Chris had given it to her twenty-six years ago, on a bended knee with shaky hands. He had spent five dollars in quarters trying to get it from the machine; it was the one most similar to an engagement ring. At the time, they hadn’t yet discussed marriage and certainly couldn’t afford it, but that cheap ring had delighted her.
She picked up Chris’s clothes from the floor in their shared bathroom and shoved them into the laundry basket. How was a man who so precisely lined up his toiletries on the bathroom counter incapable of getting his dirty underwear into the hamper?
Bending over and standing up had made her more light-headed. The room spun, replacing her fuzzy brain with a nauseous stomach. MJ sat down on the edge of their queen bed, willing the mountain of dirty laundry to shrink. That technique never worked, but she tried it at least twice a week anyway.
Lunch, complete with surprise anniversary pie, was supposed to bring them closer together, not the opposite. But here she was, alone, with the laundry pile. And her growing terror at the realization she preferred spending time apart from Chris.
There was a hole in her chest in the space where the caring was supposed to go. She could feel it—just under her breastbone, surrounded by a wall of bricks. When she took a deep breath, the to-be-expected tenderness and wifely warm-fuzzies tried to creep in, but the bricks held them at bay.
Distantly, she could hear Kate yelling at Tommy to get out of her way. She looked around at her empty bedroom. Other than a looming hangover, nothing was different after her apparently lame stab at romance. In fact, things might be worse. She needed to come up with a new plan.