Rain lashed my windows and yanked me out of a dream that left no trace. Lightning rent the darkness, and my eyes snapped shut. Barely a second later, thunder rumbled in. Way too close. Daylight thunderstorms, I had learned to cope with, but if one came in the middle of the night, my heart would galop unbridled. Lightning struck again. I sprang off the bed and ran to the hallway. Disoriented, I barged into Joel’s room and climbed in with him. Without waking, he held me in his arms. Had he taken me for Chloe? Feeling naked in my summer nightgown, I disentangled myself and ran back. As sleep gained on me, I regretted leaving his arms.
My life had crashed five years before. As a commuter jet tried to land under sullen skies, an apocalyptic thunderstorm slammed it into the ground. No one survived. Among the passengers were my husband Eric, and Joel’s parents. They were returning from a conference on the resurgence of fascism. Hobbled by a painful Achilles tendon, I hadn’t gone. Joel’s parents were first generation Italian immigrants with no relatives in the US. That concerned them. And so, Eric and I agreed to care for Joel, should the worst happen. Which is why, barely twenty-one, I became the legal guardian of a sweet boy of sixteen. Another two years, and he’d be a financially secure adult. That, I could deal with. Everything else, I was unprepared for.
By the time I came down the next morning, Joel had gone to Penn. A first-year graduate student, he worked in a group investigating stress failure in semiconductors. Something like that.
On the kitchen erase board was a message: Check warmer. An olive and tomato omelet awaited me in the range’s top oven. In Bologna the summer before, Joel’s maternal grandfather had turned him into an Italian cuisine aficionado. On his return, I was banned from Friday and Saturday cooking. Sunday was for leftovers. Since I worked from home, weekdays were on me. Now twenty-one, Joel paid rent.
Strangely hungry, to the omelet I added an Italian breakfast: toast and raspberry jam. I better check in with the bathroom scale. The super-automatic espresso machine, which Joel had diligently researched, got me a latte. And I wondered if my fleeting stay in his arms had registered. I might soon find out. We didn’t let anything, big or small, fester unresolved. Not once in our five years together.
I carried the breakfast tray to the back patio and sat in the shade of the parasol table. The sun was warm, the breeze cool. Fall hadn’t quite settled in yet. We were in Haverford, on the Philadelphia Main Line. Across the street to my right, a yellow ten-foot wall enclosed a gated community. Chloe lived there. To my left was a narrow stream. It separated us from a wilderness my grandparents had deeded to the township, in return for some tax abatement. And so, we had no close neighbors.
My dishes added to Joel’s in the drain, I went out for the previous day’s mail. Only one thing stood out, a postcard of the Eiffel Tower from Chloe to Joel: Can’t wait to “see” you. I was amused by her quotation marks. Friends since middle school, they had begun “seeing” each other in their high school senior year. They didn’t seem in love, but with teenagers it’s hard to tell. Her parents were hardworking lawyers in the city. That let her and Joel pretend that studying was all they did at her house after school.
Shaking that off, I went to the extension that served as my office. As I sat at the desk, my eyes went to the picture on top. With the Rome Colosseum as background, Eric has an arm over my shoulders. Looking at that picture was for me a kind of pilgrimage. It had been taken by a white-mustachioed carabinieri. Romans of all kinds take seriously their duty to help tourists, especially couples in love. That night we ate gnocchi in extra virgin olive oil laced with cream, along with mushrooms and toasted pine nuts. The bottle of Frascati wine had surely contributed to what came later. With the Trevi fountain as prop, we played slutty Anita Ekberg and suave Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. At the pensione we made love without bothering to completely dry out. And we decided I’d have my IUD removed when we got home. Memories can be two-edge swords. They can make you lose things you never had. In our case, a baby. Eric died two weeks after we got home.
I opened the laptop, and up came my report on the manuscript on the ancient Middle East. It was quite interesting, even surprising. But Kaufman, the author, needed more babysitting than most. A free-lance editor for small publishers all over the English-speaking world, my beat was history. Now and then I took historic fiction, never romances or bodice rippers. My Kaufman report was due in a week. Another project awaited, two more soon to come. Thanks to Joel, everything came and went as encrypted PDF files.
After Eric died, I had spent the rest of the summer with my grandparents in Denver. Retired there, they had brought me up since I was eight and lost my parents to a drunk driver. Joel had spent the whole summer with his maternal grandparents in Bologna, Italy. His parents were buried there. He came back for his senior year in high school. I had just received a BA in contemporary English literature from Penn.
I went to get him at the Philadelphia airport. We barely knew each other, but I wasn’t worried. As the Rome flight disgorged passengers around us, we stood just out of reach. I didn’t remember him being so tall. The reluctance keeping us apart soon melted, maybe due to all the hugging and kissing around us. Somehow, I ended up in his arms, head on his shoulder.
With almost everyone gone, Joel pulled away but kept my hands. “Molly, I’m so sorry about Eric. You’re very kind to take me in. I’ll do my best to help and be no trouble.” The drive home was often silent but neither strained nor memorable. As we turned into my driveway, he said, “Molly, what will I do with my life?”
“You’ll save mine,” I said, no thought involved.
At times that night, I awoke to a replay of the swirl of emotions that exchange had brought me. By morning I knew that I must stay afloat for his sake too. Those would be our darkest early days together. We were barely treading water.
A responsible kid, Joel was never a problem. Well, just once. He had straight As and off-the-wall SATs. Two weeks before his high school graduation, a fight got him suspended three days. Composed but unyielding, he refused to tell me why the fight. I guessed it was about Chloe. With his valedictorian status rescinded, I went to war with the school board. Thanks to my congressman, on whose campaign I had twice volunteered, Joel remained class valedictorian. Not old enough to be his mother, I felt like a big sister.
Not much past noon, I heard Joel’s bike wind down in the driveway, then echo and die in the garage. I just sat there, trying to guess what would come next. He finally appeared, in t-shirt, shorts, and running shoes. As usual, he rounded the desk, tousled my hair, and kissed me on the cheek. That was an innocent pleasure for both of us, I thought.
Instead of leaving, he sat across the desk from me. “Molly, about last night. I was half asleep, but I do remember the whole thing.” Breathe in, breathe out. “I’ve been in love with you since you took me in. My love for you has grown deep, stubborn roots. I’ll say just one more thing. That love has no claim, not to your body and not to your heart. It’s just there, should you ever want it.”
I had long anticipated something like that, just not in such a take-no-prisoners mode. So, I barely avoided a flat-footed reaction. “Joel, I’m in love with a man I can no longer have. But to you and to no one else, I can say: I — love — you. And I love you for the caring, smart, and beautiful man you’ve turned into. In our darkest days together, you were my only shelter. I’d have fallen apart without you.” Had I just delivered some kind of brush-off?
He took it gracefully. “And vice versa.”
Overcome by feelings that hurt without revealing themselves, I grappled for a saving grace. An epiphany brought me an undeserved one. “Want me to run with you?”
It took its time, but a smile burst out. “Molly, Molly, Molly! I thought you’d never ask. And by never, I mean never, ever.”
“I need to change. Start, and I’ll catch up.”
As I came out, Joel was turning around. I ran alongside. He outran me slightly, so I accelerated. It happened again, and I slapped his arm. He laughed but gave up. After a mile by the stream, the walking path ended as the road merged into traffic. We turned back. Back home, we dropped on the grass by the stream. A frog croaked. As we looked up at the river birch shading us, a strange, exhilarating foreboding pushed a shiver through me.
After a while, Joel said, “Classes start in two weeks, but Clyde will be back next week and wants me there.” Clyde was the Penn engineering professor in whose lab Joel had started working as a first-year graduate student. Waiting for his lodging plans had been a losing strategy, but he now said, “I decided to take a room in that apartment I told you about.”
“I see.” For nearly five years he had biked to Penn without a care. Now this. Would Chloe be one of his roommates? And would he come home on weekends?
He got on one elbow and looked down. “Molly, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong.”
“The suspense is killing me.” And making me feel no end bitchy.
“The room is just for the experiment that goes haywire and needs babysitting. Come on, Molly. It wouldn’t be the first time. And you don’t want me groggy on the bike. Besides, I’d miss your company.” He eyed me way too long. “What’s going on?”
“I’m just frustrated with Kaufman.” Little white lies can be a godsend, but they often get tangled in their covers. “That suspension the last week of your high school senior year, was it about Chloe?” Why not get it over with and ask: Are you still doing Chloe?
He laughed. “Molly, what’s with the ancient history?”
“Ancient history has lessons for all of us.”
“Okay, then. It was about you, not Chloe. You had just dropped me off at school, then ran after me with a reminder that I had a dentist appointment after school. You looked breathtaking. The guys drooled, Mr. Kennedy too, and the girls stared. The guy I punched was of the opinion that you were asking for it. Meaning —”
“I know what it means. Joel, you gave him a black eye. He could have pressed charges.”
“Yada yada yada. On a different subject, what’s your position on Italian cuisine?”
I burst out laughing. “Pizza.”
A horrified gasp. “Heaven forbid! Tonight, you’re in for a delicacy that will curl your toes and make you swoon. And what’s your position on women dating younger men?”
“I’m open to it, but my suitor has to be no more than five years younger. And he has to wine and dine me at exotic places. If all goes well, I might let him kiss me goodnight. No groping, or I knee him in the balls. In college I was a known ball breaker, just about literally.”
“Yikes!” He eyed me pityingly. “Molly, sweet Molly! With me in Italy, did you go on even one date?” He waved a schoolmarmish finger at me. “I knew it! And what about those intriguing overnights in New York?”
“Pathetic.” He dropped on his side and, hand pulling on my hip gently, made me turn to him. “Molly, what’s your position on premarital sex?”
I laughed. “I’m no stranger to it.” Then I babbled who knows what, but clarity did return. “Joel, do I ask for it?”
He went for a theatrical frown. “Not that I’ve noticed. Well, except with Mr. Baxter.” That was our fatherly mailman.
I punched his chest. “And with you, do I ask for it?” The rest came in a rambling, hyperventilating rush that didn’t quite register. What did register was the breathless finale: “In case you’re interested, I still have an IUD in place. It’s 99.3 % effective. Oh! and my bra unhooks in the front. We could go inside, fool around on the couch, see how it goes. Or we could always —”
“Molly, shut up!”
He nudged me onto my back and loomed over me. His lips brushed mine. Finding them parted, his tongue pushed in as if unsure of its welcome. Before Eric, I had dated just one other guy and just one time. His idea of a goodnight kiss at my parents’ door was to shove his tongue down my throat. Eric knew better. But Joel had the whole thing incredibly fine-tuned. After a pause to avoid suffocation, his lips inched up my jaw line, just wet enough to lubricate his progress. Reaching the earlobe, they enlisted the tip of his tongue to push aside the gold loop. That allowed a gentle suck, which made me shiver. I had never been so aroused so fast and with so little ado. Not easy to admit, but there was only one way to describe how all that left me: I was in heat. This was an expression learned from a 4H girl I knew in junior high. She had taken me to watch a stallion “cover” a mare. Had I been ten years younger now, I’d make Joel cover me right there. And never mind that Mr. Baxter was due at any moment.
Punishment for my slutty ways came swiftly. My lips were parched, but my eyes gushed tears. Sobs followed, interspersed with embarrassing hiccups.
Italian to the core, Joel pulled out an immaculate, colorful hankie. It staunched my tearful sniveling. “Keep it,” he said. When I did, he pulled me into his arms and held me until I came to my senses. Then he said, “Was that about Eric?”
“Not your fault. But if I let go of him, I’ll be at your mercy.”
“You don’t need to let go of him. Just don’t let go of me. But is there any chance you’d fall in love with me?”
I was caught by surprise. “That used to scare me.” Meaning what?
He smiled. “I’ll take that for now.”
Wise to what would surely happen if we went inside right away, I said, “Joel, can you hold me just a bit longer?” He agreed, and I fell asleep before that one bit.
Then a man’s voice said, a tad impatient as if not for the first time, “Mrs. Giordano, I do need your signature.” That was Mr. Baxter.
Joel showed no sign of waking but wouldn’t let go of me. Eventually free, I stood to find Mr. Baxter just a couple of feet away. One advantage of short, naturally curly hair is that you never look disheveled. Blushing as if sunburned, I signed for an envelope. With it came an unruly handful of mail and circulars. Mr. Baxter was all business. I didn’t worry about him tattling on my slutty ways. He owed me. Steered to my uncle Richard for a second opinion, he had dodged major surgery.
He went on to delicately reassure me. “Your Joel did a real good job with that picket fence.” With a wave, he got into his truck and drove to the gated community.
With Joel playing Rip Van Winkle, I gave up on him. In the office, I dropped the mail on the desk. As I turned to go for a shower, my cell phone chirped. It was Ron Burkett, Kaufman’s publisher. He wanted a whiff of my coming report. I reminded him of my no-whiffs policy. And I assured him the report would be on time. He gave me a heads-up on another promising book. We had met in person a few times, and I was positive he hadn’t thought I was asking for it.
Tired and sweaty, I lumbered up the stairs and into my room. In the inside bath, a long shower revived me. Dressed in blouse and jeans, I went down to the kitchen. There, I poured myself a glass of orange juice, took a sip, and carried the rest to the office.
The juice fueled another go at Kaufman. I was almost done when Joel appeared. He had donned his chef’s white outfit, the kind with knotted cloth buttons. Who wants a plastic button in their foie gras. A curtsy, and he beamed. “Dear landlady, tonight you’ll savor none other than an exquisite spaghetti alla Bolognese.”
I frowned. “Dear tenant, did you get a tiramisu cake like I asked?”
He waggled a finger at me. “Molly, Molly, Molly. You’ll get so fat that your legion suitors will abandon you, and you’ll be stuck with just me. Carlino’s were out of whole cakes, but I got the only slice left. Will you please share?”
“Depends on your spaghetti.”
“Molly, you’re heartless!” He sighed. “I’ll come for you when it is.”
“Is this going to be a date? If so, shouldn’t we dress up?”
“Yes, and yes! Meet in the dining room in, say, twenty minutes?”
After endless waffling in my room, I settled on the dress that had produced an ad-lib marriage proposal from Eric. The bathroom scale had predicted it wouldn’t feel tight, and it didn’t. Downstairs I found Joel in a light gray suit with thin, darker gray stripes, a blue square showing off in the breast pocket. The dark blue shirt highlighted the pale blue tie with a small Bologna coat of arms.
I ogled. “Joel, you look good enough to eat.”
“So do you. Let’s skip dinner.”
“Forget it! Maybe we can work out something later.”
He took me by the waist, sniffed my neck and leaned back in fake shock. “Molly, who’s the discriminating suitor you nearly ruined by more than hinting at a desire for the aphrodisiac scent of Arpège?” That was him the Christmas before.
Aroused for no conceivable reason, I shuddered. With him eying me, I came up with the first thing that popped into my head. “Joel, I didn’t thank you enough for the Arpège. I mean to. And you won’t be disappointed.”
He smiled. “I look forward to it. And the chef would also like a gratuity, preferably in kind.”
Flirting to seduce the seduced is a waste of time all around, so I grimaced. “Joel, I’m starving here. Salivating.”
In the dining room, my best tablecloth highlighted the two fancy place settings. Two chairs had been moved to a corner of the table. Joel’s spaghetti was fabulous, the wine an inexpensive Lambrusco I favored. And I did share my tiramisu slice. The talk ranged wide, but avoided the question: How would the evening end?
After decreeing Sunday as the new kitchen cleanup day, Joel said, “Want to call it a night?”
Prone to babbling under stress, I was now economical: “No.”
We agreed on a sip of Port and a movie. The Port sipped along with desultory talk about everything and nothing, Joel said, “I vote for Bambi?”
“No way!” With clothes on, I was no pushover.
We settled on My Friend the Octopus, a still-unwatched nature film. In the living room we took the ends of the couch, so we both could have an armrest. The movie was beautifully made, very sweet too. Shoes off, Joel fell asleep with the end credits rolling and let me pull him down, head on my lap. Fingers running through his tight curls, I kept going until he stirred. Still groggy, he kissed me on the cheek and left. That routine goodnight kiss now stirred me weirdly. Exhausted, I straggled upstairs, slipped into my nightgown, and crashed on my lonely bed. Drifting to sleep, I noticed my door was still open. Let it be, easier for Joel to come and ravish me.
He was a no-show.
I awoke to a sunny room and a sunny Joel at the door. “You look gorgeous,” he said.
“Not good enough to eat?” My nightgown had shunned my legs almost entirely. Joel had seen me in a two-piece, so why bother.
“That too. But I like to rotate my pickup lines.” He sat at the edge of the bed and took my hand. “Molly, are you going to break my heart?”
“I don’t plan to. Maybe we should eat btreakfast, wake up our brains.”
“And I need to show you something.”
Our breakfast together had to be the longest ever. After we cleared the table, Joel returned with what looked like a term paper graded. A+. He had once showed it to me, but just the cover. That was a product of the fiction writing course at Penn, required of all freshmen. It had made Joel “gag”, his word.
He tousled my hair. “Molly, I’ll be in the office.”
Leafing through the twelve printed pages, I saw the tale of our darkest days together. He had disguised it with the sinking of a cabin cruiser as the precipitating event. Steeling myself not to rush, I took in his unrequited love for me. Before long I came to a page where the instructor had circled one sentence and added an exclamation mark: With us, I love you isn’t just like pass the salt. I did my best not to cry, but tears slid out anyway. I jumped up and raced to the office, alarming Joel.
Over his laptop, he said. “Molly, what’s wrong?”
I took in a deep breath. “Joel, my love for you has grown deep, stubborn roots. Meaning, I’m in love with you. Must have been a good while.” I held out my hand. “Come.”
We went upstairs slowly, fingers interlaced as if we had just become an item in high school. Joel stopped at his room, but I pulled him into mine. He watched as I undressed. It was slow but not striptease, just a woman getting ready for a man in love with her.
A good while later, with me slack in his arms, he said, “Do you think much about Eric?”
“Now and then, but only as a man I can no longer have, who satisfied me as you just did, who made me as happy as I know you will.”
He smiled. “Molly, what’s your position on having the cutest ever baby at your breast? And would I get the leftovers? At the source, I mean.”
I swatted him. “You wouldn’t like the taste. Besides, you’d have to change every single diaper.”
“I’d study the diaper manual.”
“Joel, what’s your position on marrying me?”