A Leo, Like Jackie O

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Jil­lian Jack­son

On Wed­nes­days I have lunch with Estelle. We al­ways go to Amy’s in the Square. Let me tell you about Amy’s: the sand­wiches are fine, but what keeps us com­ing back are the Ital­ian so­das. The so­das are a mir­a­cle. Estelle and I can hardly agree on any­thing, and we agree on th­ese so­das. For a while we were try­ing a new one ev­ery week, but then Estelle set­tled on blood or­ange. I had a thing for amaretto for a while. One day we were feel­ing ad­ven­tur­ous, so we tried the Chi­anti, but we were both over­come with re­gret. “Oh god,” Estelle said. “Hon­estly, this is aw­ful. Hon­estly. Je­sus. What is this? What’s in here? What did they do to it?” I am a wait­ress, so when Estelle tried to flag the wait­ress down to send the so­das back, I nearly leapt across the ta­ble to stop her. There is a code, a se­cret wait­ress code. The code is to not make things dif­fi­cult. It’s an easy code to fol­low. Estelle does not know about the code, or any code, be­cause she’s never had to work a day in her life. There might be a housewife code; I don’t know. It is the last gasp of sum­mer in Bos­ton. Our piti­ful three months of sun­shine are com­ing to a close, so I join the line of peo­ple clam­or­ing to sit out­side. The pa­tio! The pa­tio! Give us a pa­tio ta­ble! Please! We need to sit on the pa­tio! I join the cho­rus. I hate to do this, but I do it for Estelle, be­cause she loves sit­ting in the sun more than any­one I’ve ever met. From May un­til Au­gust she spends as much time as she can ly­ing out in her back­yard all day. She rubs oil into the creases of her ag­ing skin un­til she’s slick and shines all over. It gives her a year-round golden color—the color you look for on a roast tur­key to know that it is done. Be­lieve it or not: Estelle has never had a raised mole, or blis­ters, or any of the other strange and gross freak spots that can hap­pen when your skin goes nuts from too much ex­po­sure to harm­ful UV rays. She has never looked in the mir­ror and said to her hus­band Sam, “Sam, come over here. What is this? I need you to take a look at this.” The Adlers, all of them, have those lucky genes, the ones that defy con­ven­tional mod­ern sci­ence. Even though Estelle wasn’t born an Adler, only mar­ried one, she has the genes, too. An­other thing about Estelle: she is a Leo, like Jackie O. If you don’t know about as­trol­ogy, I will tell you: Leo women are fierce, but re­strained. They are strong yet grace­ful, el­e­gant yet pow­er­ful. I have come to find that as­trol­ogy is an easy and help­ful way to cat­e­go­rize and

re­mem­ber peo­ple. Try it. Once you get started, you will find that once you know your boss is a Libra, your boyfriend an Aries, your mother a Pisces, life will be eas­ier for you. I am a Taurus, so you can trust me, and I know about as­trol­ogy. I am work­ing to­ward be­ing able to guess some­one’s astrological sign with ninety per­cent ac­cu­racy. Right now, I fig­ure it hov­ers around forty per­cent, but I haven’t given up. It’s one of those things I’d like to do, like knit a hat, or swim in an ocean other than the At­lantic. As I sit down at a lit­tle metal ta­ble, I spot Estelle like a fash­ion­able bea­con in a crowd of graphic T-shirts and flip-flops. I watch her cross Mass Ave. She’s wear­ing big sun­glasses and hot lit­tle pants that hit right above her an­kle. She’s got on her leop­ard-print sneak­ers that kill me. “Hi, honey.” She kisses my cheek and sits across from me. “Have you been wait­ing long?” “No, not at all!” I say with a big smile. “But I sure am thirsty!” I am try­ing to be en­thu­si­as­tic, to pump us up, but it’s clear I’m over­com­pen­sat­ing. Estelle just nods coolly. The wait­ress comes over, and I or­der a black cherry soda and Estelle or­ders a blood or­ange; we each get a panini. I get some­thing sea­sonal, some­thing fresh and or­ganic, with toma­toes and basil. Estelle gets an Ital­ian with ev­ery kind of cured meat they have. “Thank you so much,” I say, look­ing up at the wait­ress. “You look good,” Estelle says, fix­ing her­self, ad­just­ing her blouse, tuck­ing her pink bra strap un­der­neath. “Did you do your hair dif­fer­ent?” “Man, I wish. I’ve been think­ing about cut­ting it. Short short, like a pixie cut.” “That’s dread­ful. Don’t do that. Any­way, I wouldn’t trust your stylist. Not af­ter the bangs.” “I know, I know, I know.” “You have a pretty face, Alice. No one could see your face for weeks,” she says. “Any­way, don’t do that, be­cause like I said, your hair looks good.” She takes a minute. “It must be the weather. It’s good hair weather.” I’m watch­ing Estelle as she goes about her busi­ness. She’s tak­ing off her sun­glasses and look­ing around at all the peo­ple. She’s check­ing the other women out, in that non­sex­ual way that women check each other out, and she’s tak­ing note of who has the nicest shoes. I’m a lit­tle an­noyed about the hair com­ment, but I can’t help feel­ing sen­ti­men­tal, be­cause this is my last lunch with Estelle. Estelle thinks it’s just an­other Wed­nes­day.

When I first met Estelle, I’d been dat­ing Jimmy for three months. I was twenty-four, Jimmy twenty-six, and even though every­body we knew was get­ting mar­ried all around us, Jimmy wasn’t in any rush to in­tro­duce me to his mother. Nei­ther of us were in any rush for any­thing. I re­mem­ber that night was a Sun­day, and we were lazy at his place to­gether in sweat­pants. We’d been close to each other on the couch for hours, watch­ing TV with his room­mate Bill, and Bill’s cat Ge­orge. We were at that point when we’d been in phys­i­cal con­tact all day, when your pheromones get all mixed up, and you don’t want to be away from each other. He wrapped his arm around my neck and kissed the top of my head and said, “It’s my sis­ter Janet’s thir­ti­eth birth­day tonight. My par­ents are hav­ing fam­ily over. You don’t hap­pen to want to come, do you?” So I show­ered and put on a party dress, and Jimmy drove us out to the sub­urbs. The house his par­ents set­tled in was more mod­est than the house Jimmy grew up in, the house on Jarvis Av­enue, part of Adler fam­ily leg­end. Estelle made sure you knew about the glory days on Jarvis Av­enue. If you ever came over, she’d point at pic­tures of the fam­ily posed and smil­ing by the in-ground pool, and she’d sigh, but this new house seemed fine to me. It was big­ger than any­thing I’d ever lived in, and it was on a quiet street, had a nice back­yard with a weep­ing wil­low. That night we ate din­ner and had drinks, and Janet sat at the head of the ta­ble. Estelle, Janet, and Estelle’s sis­ter June chain-smoked the en­tire time. Jimmy’s fa­ther Sam ate alone in the liv­ing room, and Estelle brought food out to him. I sat next to Jimmy and held his hand un­der the ta­ble, while we ate birth­day cake with Cool Whip on top. When Estelle started fix­ing me a sec­ond mar­tini, Jimmy said, “Ma, maybe Alice is fine, maybe she doesn’t need an­other,” but Estelle ig­nored him. She bent over to get the vodka and ver­mouth from the cabi­net un­der the sink. As soon as I was done with my mar­tini, Janet poured some white zin­fan­del and gave it to me with ice cubes in a wine glass dec­o­rated with hand-painted roses wind­ing up the stem. We laughed at the wine glass to­gether, and that was when I re­al­ized this was how the Adler women said “hello.” This was how they said “wel­come.” They didn’t say, “Who are you, what do you do?” They said, “Please, have an­other. Here, have some of what I have.” From then on, I felt like we all un­der­stood each other, and it felt nice to be un­der­stood. On the ride back to Jimmy’s, I was drunk in the pas­sen­ger seat, the vent blow­ing dry heat onto my face. “My mother,” he said. “What a

piece of work. And Janet, too. God, I’m sorry, Alice. I hope you didn’t feel pres­sured.” He reached over to put his hand on my thigh. “What are you talk­ing about?” I asked. “What are you sorry about? I had a good time. You didn’t?” “I was too busy try­ing not to get drunk. Be­cause I am driv­ing home. Not that my mother cares.” He shook his head. “Can you imag­ine grow­ing up in that kind of en­vi­ron­ment?” “Re­ally, Jimmy?” “Wait, Alice,” he said. “Just wait.” Jimmy said this as if Estelle was in dis­guise and sooner or later would trans­form into some vil­lain, some hor­ri­ble beast. I never, the en­tire time we were to­gether, had the re­ac­tion to her that he wanted me to have. I couldn’t help that Estelle and I got along, that I was drawn to her. I can’t help that I still am.

Estelle and I tip our so­das to­ward each other. “Cheers,” I say, and we clink, and we take a sip. “My god,” she says, “how do they do it?” We take a mo­ment to mar­vel at how de­li­cious the so­das are. It is a rit­ual to help us get back to each other, to a shared place, be­cause our lives are so sep­a­rate. She talks about buy­ing a new two-piece and tells me that she spent the morn­ing at Macy’s. “It’s Au­gust, you’d think they’d have some de­cent suits on sale.” I am try­ing to be sym­pa­thetic and in­ter­ested. I am not do­ing well. “So,” Estelle says, “how are things at the restau­rant?” “Oh, you know. The money is fine. I’m just tired of talk­ing to peo­ple,” I say. I take the elas­tic off my wrist and put my hair up in a pony­tail. It is a habit. Hair up, hair down. Hair up, hair down. “I’m just tired of all the ques­tions: ‘What’s kohlrabi? What’s a gre­mo­lata? Is this pas­teur­ized?’ It would be nice to sit in an of­fice alone and be quiet.” She says, “Then, why don’t you? Look for an of­fice job. A job in your field.” “Good idea, Estelle. Thanks.” I take my hair down. She shrugs. “You don’t have to get that way. I’m just try­ing to help.”

The sec­ond time I spent time with Estelle I told her I thought I’d never own a house. It was at a bar­beque Jimmy threw at his apart­ment, in a neigh­bor­hood just out­side of Bos­ton, which meant that his apart­ment was nicer than mine and cheaper, be­cause I lived in the city. He had a spa­cious first floor with a small back­yard with some over­grown bushes that he and Bill man­aged to keep in de­cent shape. Bill bought a grill that sum­mer, so they de­cided to have a mod­est lit­tle get-to­gether. I brought up invit­ing Estelle, and Jimmy said he hadn’t planned on it, but she ended up there any­way, with her sis­ter, June.

Estelle and I ended up sit­ting to­gether on a pair of lawn chairs turned to­ward each other with paper plates in our laps. I re­mem­bered, at one point, early, smil­ing at Jimmy as he was run­ning back and forth from in­side, grab­bing more po­tato salad from the fridge. I thought I re­mem­bered him smil­ing back. While we sat and ate, Estelle told me about all the par­ties she used to throw when the fam­ily lived on Jarvis Av­enue. She was a born sto­ry­teller. She made it all come to­gether in front of me, for me: she built Jarvis Av­enue in my head; she pop­u­lated it with all the peo­ple pool­side hold­ing mar­ti­nis in their hands; she dressed her­self in a lit­tle mod dress, and I watched in awe as she danced bare­foot on her shag car­pet. “I can’t count how many times Sam had to drag me up­stairs at the end of the night, the poor bas­tard.” I nod­ded while she drank and drank and drank. I kept drink­ing too; I found my­self lift­ing my hand when she did. I was feel­ing a lit­tle loose, so I told her I was jeal­ous, that I didn’t think owning a house was in the cards for me. Estelle thought I was ridicu­lous. “Of course you will, Hun,” she said. “I don’t know if things nec­es­sar­ily al­ways work that way any­more,” I said. I didn’t say, be­cause, you know, the econ­omy, or be­cause a wait­ress’s salary doesn’t leave much for a mort­gage, but she didn’t re­ally look like she un­der­stood me. I was feel­ing sad for my­self, sad for my own mother, who spent most of those same years when Estelle was throw­ing par­ties work­ing as a mid­dle school sec­re­tary and then, af­ter work, driv­ing from su­per­mar­ket to su­per­mar­ket look­ing for the best sales, stock­ing up on half-price cans of peas. I looked around and re­al­ized most of Jimmy’s friends had left, and the mos­qui­toes had de­scended. I kept swat­ting my legs, but Estelle didn’t no­tice. She was too busy squint­ing at me, ask­ing me to re­peat my­self. “What was that you said, Hun? I’m sorry. Would you say it again?” All of a sud­den, she stood up, her heels sink­ing into the lawn. June, who is dis­ap­prov­ing but lov­ing and loyal, who makes me long for a sis­ter of my own, grabbed her by the arm and drove her home. Jimmy ig­nored me the whole night. I didn’t even no­tice he was do­ing it on pur­pose un­til we brushed our teeth and got into bed, and I turned to him, and he turned away.

Be­lieve it or not: with all Estelle drinks, her liver is in fine shape. It’s those genes, those lucky genes. Also her daily work­out rou­tine, which con­sists of a brisk walk in the morn­ing, fol­lowed by twenty reps with lit­tle ten-pound plas­tic weights, then vac­u­um­ing and watch­ing Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal. It’s mostly the genes.

Jimmy al­ways said he wanted to be just like his un­cle Louie, who is ninety-two and sturdy and sharp, who reads Thomas Clancy nov­els and eats ba­con and scram­bled eggs for break­fast ev­ery morn­ing. I al­ways thought he would. But the Adler ge­net­ics don’t do any good in a car ac­ci­dent. They won’t save you when you’re driv­ing down the high­way late at night and some­body else isn’t pay­ing at­ten­tion. It had never hap­pened like that, not for any of them, not for any­body they’d loved. They just couldn’t be­lieve it. They still can’t, espe­cially Estelle.

Now she’s lean­ing back in her chair, bask­ing in the sun, open­ing her­self up un­der the heat. She makes a show of it to me. She lets out a huge sigh, con­tent. Then she sits up again, and she starts pray­ing for In­dian sum­mer, for global warm­ing, all ex­ag­ger­a­tion and the­atrics. “I won’t sur­vive an­other New Eng­land win­ter,” she says. She won’t move down south. “June’s eye­sight is fail­ing. This is the third deer in two months,” she shakes her head. “We can’t con­vince her to stop driv­ing at night. It’s ter­ri­ble. Those poor things.” We get our pani­nis. I look at the wait­ress and smile too hard and thank her again. She looks tired and un­ap­pre­cia­tive. That’s okay. The code al­lows for the code to go un­ac­knowl­edged. There is no pomp or cir­cum­stance with the pani­nis. No cer­e­mony, like with the soda. Th­ese are just pani­nis—just hot, pressed sand­wiches, noth­ing to see here. I put my hair up and cut mine in half im­me­di­ately while Estelle starts tak­ing small bites. Be­tween bites, she is go­ing on about her La­bor Day plans, and I am half lis­ten­ing and eat­ing and wip­ing my hands, but, also, plan­ning my es­cape. I’m try­ing to think of ways to di­vert the con­ver­sa­tion from its usual path. But now Estelle is tak­ing off her sun­glasses, and she’s reach­ing across the ta­ble to touch me. I know when she does this, it’s al­ready too late. She squeezes my wrist. “Let’s talk about you,” she says as she leans in a lit­tle closer. “Tell me.” Her voice lowers. “Re­ally, hon­estly. How are you? I mean, re­ally. How are you do­ing?” Re­ally re­ally, hon­estly hon­estly: I know Estelle is hop­ing I’ll fall apart right in front of her. There was a time when I thought she and I might be real friends, that I thought maybe we had a real con­nec­tion. I’ve come to learn that Jimmy is all I am to her. If Estelle had her way, she’d chain me to this ta­ble and keep me talk­ing about Jimmy for the rest of my life. “You know what?” I say, lean­ing to­ward her. We’re both lean­ing over our sand­wiches now, star­ing each other down. “I feel great, Estelle. I do. I am happy to re­port that I’m feel­ing good.” She lets go of my wrist and sits back. “Is that so,” she says.

“It is. It is so. You know, I have th­ese mas­sive crazy bursts of en­ergy lately. I even wake up early and do yoga some­times. Sun salu­ta­tions. I bought a mat. I fol­low along with a video on­line. I eat oat­meal for break­fast, some days. I’ve been drink­ing less cof­fee. Things are look­ing up.” She takes a gi­ant bite of her panini. “Sounds nice,” she says, with her mouth full. I take my hair down and shake it out. “I would take a class, but they’re just so ex­pen­sive.” She’s nod­ding, and then she’s quiet. We’re both qui­etly eat­ing. I watch the pi­geons walk­ing all around the pa­tio. One is right near my foot. It’s eat­ing the crumbs off the ground where the per­son be­fore me dropped some crust, but it doesn’t even look like it’s eat­ing any­thing. Its beak is so small it is amaz­ing any­thing can fit. It pecks the sand­wich to dust— peck­ing and peck­ing, over and over. “Well, Alice,” Estelle says, fi­nally, “I’m glad to hear it.”

Maybe she is glad, in some way. I could never tell her that I met some­body, which I did. A lit­tle. Kind of. It counts, be­cause it was a man. It was a man I met at a bar. This man was wear­ing a shirt with an out­ra­geous blue flo­ral print, bor­der­line Hawai­ian, when he asked for my num­ber. There is a forty per­cent chance this man was an Aquarius. I’m not re­ally sure how I feel about any of that. Ex­cept, if I’m be­ing hon­est, I guess I would have to say I feel pretty aw­ful. At the time, I gave it an hon­est try. I flirted with this man for a while. He bought me a beer. I drank it. I smiled re­ally sexy, hugged him good­bye, and then I walked straight to the bath­room and cried. I lost it. I’m op­ti­mistic next time won’t feel as bad. I think see­ing Estelle less, or not at all, will make it eas­ier.

The first time I said good­bye to Estelle was Jimmy’s funeral. I thought, with cer­tainty, that it would be the end of my re­la­tion­ship with her. The thought of any­thing else didn’t seem right at the time. I hugged her. She smelled the same as al­ways: heavy per­fume and Aquanet and cig­a­rette smoke. I wanted to be dra­matic, so as I was hug­ging her, I thought to my­self, this woman could have been your mother-in-law, but now it’s all over, Alice, it’s all over. I made a whole pro­duc­tion out of the thing, and a few days later, she called me up and asked me out to lunch, and now here we are. The thing about her be­ing my mother-in-law is a lie. Jimmy and I were never close to mar­riage. In the en­tire year-and-a-half span of our re­la­tion­ship, we didn’t talk about it once. But I’d like to em­pha­size that just

be­cause we didn’t want to marry each other doesn’t mean we weren’t any good, that we didn’t shine some­times. I feel strongly about this. In fact, our first Christ­mas to­gether was my only Christ­mas, I think in my en­tire life, that was close to per­fect. We cel­e­brated af­ter Christ­mas Day but be­fore New Year’s. Peo­ple who are in on it know this is the best time to do most things: all of the store­fronts are still lit up, and every­body is re­laxed and well rested and wear­ing new boots, and it’s hard not to feel good when you’re wear­ing new boots. Jimmy wore his vel­vet blazer and did his hair retro, a fifties-style comb up, be­cause he knew I loved it that way. I put on a dress with se­quins, and we went out for Korean. The restau­rant was small and crowded, and we sat in a cor­ner ta­ble un­der­neath big red paper lanterns. We or­dered and were im­me­di­ately brought ten lit­tle cir­cu­lar dishes filled with ten dif­fer­ent uniden­ti­fi­able things. We picked from the dishes with our chop­sticks. We said to each other, “What do you think this is?” and we said, “I don’t know.” We ate it any­way, what­ever it was. Jimmy said, “This tastes sweet, try it.” And it was: sweet, with a lit­tle bite to it, cov­ered in a thick sauce. I said, point­ing with my chop­sticks, “This one looks like sliced hot dogs.” Be­cause it did: it looked like they’d opened a pack­age of Os­car Mey­ers and boiled them and sliced them up and put them on a plate. He ate one, and he said, “I think it is. I think it’s just sliced hot dogs,” and we laughed. We were baf­fled but also charmed by the au­dac­ity of it. We ate the hot dogs gladly. They served us steam­ing hot tofu soup with a raw egg on the side. We cracked the eggs into the soup, watched them cook from the heat of the red broth, while we stirred with our chop­sticks. We made jokes to each other and laughed out loud, and when I looked at him, I knew we were hav­ing the best time of any­one in the room. We walked back to my apart­ment on side­walks that hadn’t been shov­eled, and we felt tall, lifted inches on mounds of snow frozen with grit. When we got in, we made strong whiskey drinks and sat near my tree, which was the size of a tod­dler, bare ex­cept for a strand of blue lights and some plas­tic snowflakes and sil­ver baubles I’d got­ten at a dol­lar store. We opened our gifts to each other, which were thought­ful but wholly un­ro­man­tic, prac­ti­cal: warm socks, a shav­ing kit, a scarf and match­ing mit­tens, a pil­low, an elec­tric blan­ket. We weren’t try­ing to se­duce each other: we were try­ing to take care of each other. I said, “Hey, what are we do­ing for New Year’s? Prac­ti­cally ev­ery­one we know is hav­ing a party. That restau­rant we like down­town, that one

we went to with Bill and that girl he was see­ing, re­mem­ber, the one with the tat­toos? That place is do­ing a prix fixe menu, so that might be nice.” Jimmy said, “What­ever you want to do is fine.” He paused. “Let’s do the restau­rant thing. I don’t re­ally like house par­ties on New Year’s. Grow­ing up, my mother al­ways had one.” I knew what was com­ing, and I braced my­self. “One year,” he be­gan, “I had the flu, and Janet was out with some friends, and Ma didn’t want to send me to a sit­ter, so she locked me up in my room. But it was so god­damn loud I couldn’t sleep.” I still think about the way Jimmy slid his whiskey back and forth across the floor as he spoke, over and over, knock­ing the ice against the side of the glass. How he stared at it and wouldn’t look up at me. “I fi­nally, fi­nally fall asleep, and she shakes me awake at mid­night. She says, ‘Wake up! Jimmy, dar­ling, it’s the new year, I wanted to spend it with you.’” I didn’t speak for a minute. I looked at him, and he looked down into his whiskey. “But that’s al­most sweet, in a way. Isn’t it? She wanted to be with you.” Of course, this was the wrong thing to say. I knew it, too, and I knew it would sting him. I said it any­way. Why did I say it any­way? “For­get about all that.” I moved closer to him. “We had a good night tonight.” He looked up af­ter a while and let me kiss him.

I am not a re­li­gious per­son, and I don’t re­ally be­lieve there is any re­mote pos­si­bil­ity that this could ac­tu­ally be hap­pen­ing, and yet: some­times dur­ing lunch with Estelle, I imag­ine Jimmy watch­ing us. Look­ing down, I guess. Hov­er­ing over? He would hate this, our lunches to­gether, Estelle and I laugh­ing like old pals, hav­ing girl talk about nail pol­ish col­ors. Estelle is wear­ing a shade of red called Vi­cious Trol­lop and I am wear­ing Barbados Blue. He would say to me, “Alice, what are you do­ing?” He would re­mind me of that time Estelle ru­ined his life, when she was too hun­gover to chap­er­one his grade school field trip, when she got his lunch mixed up with Janet’s and al­most killed him with a peanut but­ter sand­wich, when she hit on his best friend on prom night. He would say, “Isn’t it funny, Alice? Now she wants to talk about me.” When Estelle and I first started get­ting lunch to­gether two weeks af­ter the funeral, we couldn’t keep Jimmy’s name from fall­ing out of our mouths. Estelle told me sto­ries. “Jimmy was a weird kid,” Estelle said over our third lunch, which was kind of like a third date. It was when

we re­ally got down to busi­ness. We knew this was some­thing, and we started giv­ing. “He had all th­ese quirks. Janet was noth­ing com­pared to Jimmy. I used to find him in our back­yard rub­bing sand into his ears. When I asked him why, he said it was be­cause he liked the way it felt. Alice, I caught him do­ing this con­stantly, all the time.” I couldn’t get enough. I wanted more. What did he do then? What hap­pened next? We laughed about what a nerd he was. We called him a nerd, and it felt good, it felt so good; it felt like it was heal­ing us both, to make fun of him like he was sit­ting right next to us. I said, “Did you know that Jimmy talked in his sleep? He had this re­oc­cur­ring dream where he was a gi­ant, and he leapt over cliffs with th­ese crazy long legs.” Af­ter I told her some­thing, I al­ways got this burn­ing feel­ing in my chest, like be­trayal. He wanted to keep him­self from her, and I was giv­ing him away. She told me he used to hate it when his socks got bunched up in­side his shoes. “When I put his shoes on be­fore school, he used to pull his socks up, as tight and high as he could,” she said. “If they fell down or didn’t feel right, he used to cry and cry, Alice, like you wouldn’t be­lieve.” Some­times, when Estelle talks about Jimmy, I start to feel like I’m fall­ing in love again, or, maybe, if I’m be­ing truth­ful, for the first time. And what good is that? Fall­ing in love with some­one who’s al­ready gone. So now when she starts with the same sto­ries, I stop her.

Estelle puts away her sun­glasses and reaches into her bag to grab her cig­a­rettes and lighter. “So.” She is hold­ing the cig­a­rette in her mouth and light­ing it while she talks. “June and I are go­ing to the ceme­tery next week. We’ve got this tree we’re go­ing to plant. It gets th­ese gor­geous pink flow­ers that just knock you right over. I was think­ing it might be nice if you came with us. June can only do it on a Wed­nes­day.” “I don’t know. I don’t think so, Estelle.” “I don’t think so? What kind of an­swer is that?” “I’m just not sure I can make it, that’s all.” “Just say you don’t want to come if you don’t want to come, Alice.” “I didn’t say that be­cause that’s not why.” “Good, then. So you’ll go.” I smile and nod be­cause I don’t want to push her, and I can see it all over her face: she’s pulled tight, her mouth thin; she keeps smok­ing and smok­ing, and she’s quiet, but she’s throw­ing a fit. “Stop look­ing at me like that,” Estelle says. “I’m not look­ing at you like any­thing.” We’re quiet.

“I’ve been think­ing.” I say this slowly, putting em­pha­sis on ev­ery word. “And I want you to know some­thing. Jimmy used to al­ways tell me what a good mother you were. He used to say all the time that he couldn’t have asked for a bet­ter mother.” At Amy’s in the Square, in front of all the peo­ple dressed in khaki shorts, tak­ing pic­tures of the store­fronts, rid­ing tour buses, eat­ing medi­ocre pani­nis, Estelle starts to sob. Maybe she sees through me, and she’s cry­ing be­cause of her own fail­ures, or maybe she needs to be­lieve what I’ve said so bad that she ac­cepts it as it is, or maybe it’s some com­bi­na­tion of the two. I think about how brains have tools to en­sure sur­vival and how one of those tools is de­nial. Af­ter only a mo­ment of this, she is a mess. Her mascara is streak­ing thick black lines down her face, her nose is run­ning, and she’s sniff­ing it up, wip­ing it on the back of her hand. She starts dig­ging in her purse for a hand­ker­chief but keeps com­ing up empty, so she grabs the dirty nap­kins on the ta­ble and uses them, smear­ing her lip­stick. I walk over to her, and I put my arms around her as she’s sit­ting in the chair. I hold her for a few min­utes, and when she’s un­der con­trol, I get up, and I ask po­litely for the check. Estelle usu­ally pays, but I in­sist on pay­ing this time, and her eyes are wet and warm and thank­ful. On the walk home, I try to guess ev­ery­one’s sign. Then, I think about every­body, all around me, get­ting dressed in the morn­ing, tak­ing care of them­selves, gen­tly. I think about the man driv­ing the bus, care­fully comb­ing his hair; I think about the woman walk­ing her dog in front of me, wash­ing her face in the morn­ing, putting on makeup, mak­ing sure her hair is just so. I won­der how we can be so cruel to each other when we’re all like that, with that vul­ner­a­bil­ity, that in­se­cu­rity in how we present our­selves to the world.

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