A Leo, Like Jackie O
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.