“Mom, I’m not going to screw my gynecologist.”
“Don’t be crass,” Helen responded without looking up from the airmail envelopes she was tearing into quarters. “I just said buy him dinner, you claim he is a nice guy. You’re 34 sweetie. If you want a family you have to decide that is going to be a part of your life.”
Allie was fairly certain that the sum total of all communication she ever shared with her parents, there was no indication she wanted children. She was nearing the end of the two busiest days of her life and didn’t want to spar with her mother over her reproductive plans again.
“Michael says hello, by the way,” Allie said. Her mother finally stopped what she was doing and met Allie’s gaze. Helen got up and walked to the counter where she pulled a Capri from the pack. Her primary inspiration for smoking these days was Allie’s relationship with Michael. The mention of his name or, heaven forbid, his presence in the house was met with the snap of a cigarette of a lighter. Helen took several drags before responding.
“It’s a shame he couldn’t pick up your mail while you were away,” she finally said.
“It would have been difficult to do from Honduras,” Allie sliced back.
Helen shrugged her disapproval. The amount of time that Michael spent traveling on business was unappealing to Helen despite the fact that he always returned with remarkably well written articles that were picked up by major newspapers.
They looked at each other for another moment and Allie stifled a sigh. “I’ve got to go,” she said turning away. Allie swept up her things and snatched her purse off the chair as she headed out of the kitchen. “Thanks for getting the mail while I was in California. I’ll call you later in the week. Tell Daddy I love you.”
Allie tossed the pile of papers onto the passenger seat as the Honda door slammed. She hit Michael’s speed dial on her handheld. These conversations with her mother were getting more surreal since her 30th birthday and she couldn’t pull away from the house fast enough.
Her concern for Michael was also growing because he always let her know ahead of time when he was going to be out of touch for a while. She clicked off the call as the voice mail picked up. “Damn it, Michael.”
Her mother’s voice still fresh in her mind and preoccupied with Michael’s whereabouts, Allie didn’t notice the gray Toyota with the Associated Press sticker on the windshield in the back of the parking lot as she pulled up to her condo. She made it all the way to the door, arms full, suitcase in tow, keys at the ready before she noticed the post-it note on the door written in Michael’s tell-tale chicken scratch. “I’m not a rapist. Don’t call the police.” She rolled her eyes and pulled the note off the door as she let herself in.
Max, who was not so much a black Labrador as a ball of chaos covered in fur, ran up and slobbered his usual greeting all over her slacks. “Oh, you picked him up,” she called out to the apartment as she knelt down, allowing her things to fall to the ground as neatly as possible. She scratched Max behind the ears and kissed the top of his head. “Did you miss me honey?”
“He must have,” Michael said has he walked around the corner, “he’s been checking the window for the last two hours.”
“Is that true?” still addressing Max. He lowered his head and snorted approval as his amazingly strong tail thumped against the legs of the hallway table causing the table lamp to jitter around.
Allie stood up and slapped the post-it note onto Michael’s forehead. He smiled as he pulled it off.
Allie slipped her arms around his neck and kissed him deeply. When she released him, Michael’s arms were around her waist holding her snugly. For the first time in days, the tension in her upper body began to unravel. She let her arms slide down between them as her head dropped forward onto his shoulder. She desperately wanted to slip off her pumps but she wasn’t about to give Max a $357 chew toy.
“How was the conference?” Michael asked.
“Not bad, though at one of the meet-and-greets Pearson insisted that my aversion to champagne was simply because I’ve never had… the good stuff.” She waved away the rest of the story with a wince as through the taste was still in her mouth.
“I don’t get to see you like this very often,” Michael said as he pulled out her clip allowing her chestnut hair to unfurl onto the shoulders of her caramel suit jacket.
“Like what? Completely strung out?”
“No, I meant the corporate attire. You look like you are all set to burst through the glass ceiling.”
A surprised chuckle escaped Allie, “Yeah, Anne Klein brings out the best in me,” raising a tired fist in the air, “don’t screw with the sisterhood baby. You know,” nuzzling his neck, “cutting your trip short so that you can pick up your girlfriend’s dog from the kennel, some girls would consider that foreplay.”
“Yeah? What about cleaning the bedroom?”
“Mmmmmm. I’ve got goose bumps.”
Michael slipped one hand under her suit jacket and began massaging the muscles of her lower back. Allie wanted to melt into the contours of his chest. Then she caught a whiff of the aroma floating through the apartment and met his eyes with a jerk. “What is that smell?”
“Dinner. Chicken should be done in a few minutes.”
“Okay, now I’m hot,” she said smiling. “I was kidding before, but now I actually want to have sex.”
“Well,” he said grazing her lips with his as he spoke, “you’re waiting until after dinner because I just spent an hour and a half cooking this meal,” and he kissed her again.
Michael took the bottle of water from Allie and placed it back on the night table. “Your gynecologist?” he asked as he adjusted the pillows. He was lying on his back, she on her side resting her head on his bicep.
“Amazing, huh? Much as it kills me to admit it, she’s right. He is a really sweet guy. I ran into him once in Booklovers and we had a great conversation. Then I spent about a month trying to set him up with friends of mine until he finally admitted that he was gay.” A chuckle popped out of Michael. “Yeah,” Allie continued, “I don’t get it either, but he is a great doctor.”
I wouldn’t have thought there could be anything more ironic than your own mother suggesting that you date your GYN.”
“While tearing up my Dad’s love letters,” she added. Michael looked as though she’d struck him. “I didn’t mention that?” His head gave a barely perceptible shake. “Casualties of a cleaning binge.” she continued, “They were from when Daddy was stationed in Germany. She figures he hung around for 32 years, she’s pretty sure he loves her by now.”
Allie fanned her fingers out across Michael’s bare chest to feel his warmth. Despite his average build he was incredibly strong and she felt utterly safe in his arms. It was her guilty pleasure of their relationship that she admitted only to him and even then, only rarely. She’d dated enough guys whose interests barely extended beyond their stock portfolios or how much they could bench press. Michael was rare and his intellect was the bigger turn on.
At the moment she was grateful for the erotic chemistry that allowed her body the faint pulsing memory of their lovemaking. It was the only thing keeping her awake so that she could listen to the sound of his voice.
“Anyway,” she continued, “let’s not talk about my parents’ love life while we are in bed, huh? Tell me about your trip.”
“I’d rather talk about how to put an end to Helen’s mission to find a suitable replacement for me.”
Allie groaned as she rolled on top of him, planting her elbows on either side of his head so she could look into his steely gray eyes. “Why worry about it? She’s not going to succeed. Where did you spend your time in Honduras?”
“You don’t want to marry me?” Michael asked pecking her on the lips.
“Do you want to marry me?” prodding him playfully.
“Yes actually,” unmistakably serious.
After a moment Allie sat up and pulled the covers around her shoulders. “Where is this coming from?”
“We’ve been together for more than a year, I love you,” caressing her thigh with is fingertips, “we rarely sleep apart when we are in the same area code.”
“Which could be for 3 days or 3 weeks depending on your next assignment. I thought…”
“I’ve been offered a job as an editor. I’ll be based here in New York. No more flying off to Jerusalem on 2 hours notice.”
“But you like being a field reporter.” Allie said almost as though she was trying to convince herself.
“Alexandra,” taking her hand and pulling her toward him, “what the hell’s the matter?” His voice was getting softer as he spoke, “it’s not like we haven’t discussed this.”
She settled in next to him again resting her head on his shoulder. They laid there in silence for a while. She kissed his neck, “I don’t want you giving anything up for me.”
“Sometimes we make choices that are best for both of us.” he sighed.
“So you would rather be a reporter.”
“I would rather be a husband.” After a long silence, “Maybe it’s not what you want. If…”
Allie pulled his face to hers and kissed him. “I never said that. Babe, I love you…” holding his gaze as her eyes glazed over, “but I can’t go from the redeye to a full day’s work to my Mom suggesting I screw my homosexual gynecologist to a marriage proposal all in the same 24 hours.” Encircling him with her arms and laying her head on his chest, “I just want to wake up with you in bed next to me tomorrow morning,” hugging him tightly.
“Well, when you are up for it, you just go ahead and pick up this conversation where we left off.” Allie smiled but before she could come up with a smartass response she was asleep.
Allie woke up, lying on her side, to gentle kisses on her neck. As she bent her head to rub her cheek against his the kisses became slurps accompanied by hot overpowering breaths. Her eyes snapped open, “Dear God in Heaven, Max!” Michael was lying on his side smiling from ear to ear and the dog was standing on the bed between them.
“You are going to pay for this, you bastard,” glaring at Michael, who had donned a look of mock innocence. “And you,” she said grabbing Max’s collar and pulling him off the bed, “have a bed of your own, you are not supposed to be up here.” She looked at Michael who was still silently smiling, sipping a cup of coffee.
“Please tell me we aren’t going to pick up this conversation first thing…”
“I didn’t say a word,” cutting her off as he reached over his shoulder to get her coffee cup from the night table. He handed it to her and kissed her on the forehead. “Good morning,” propping himself up on one arm just a few inches from her. They stared at each other for a moment.
“I flew into Tegucigalpa,” he finally said with a smirk.
She smiled and sipped her coffee. “Is it pretty?”
“The mountains surrounding it are pretty. The city centre is really congested and polluted which, of course, is where I spent most of my time…”
Michael had actually planned to fly straight from Honduras to Boston to visit his parents this weekend so he left to catch a train a little after 10:00 am. He promised to be back in time for dinner on Sunday. He also took the opportunity to remind her that she should feel free to pick up the conversation whenever she was ready, but assured her it was the last time he’d bring it up.
Allie sat in the kitchen in her robe, listening to Max crunch his food, going through her mail. She plucked out the red and blue bordered airmail envelope she snagged from her mother’s kitchen table the day before.
It might have seemed intrusive or creepy to read your parents love letters but Allie never got a straight answer from her parents about anything that happened when she was a kid. Her father always said they were madly in love and happily married for years. Her mother never struck Allie as the type to feel madly about anything.
Mom, were you and Daddy in love when you got married?
“Don’t be ridiculous, we got married didn’t we?”
Mom, is it fun being an accountant?
“Don’t be ridiculous, I make a good living don’t I?”
Mom, were you excited about becoming a mother?
“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re here aren’t you?”
Allie learned at a young age not to be ridiculous, especially about her feelings. But in her teen years she put her ability to do basic arithmetic together with her recently acquired knowledge of the birds and the bees and wondered if her father had a shotgun pointed at the back of his head at the alter.
So Allie was surprised standing in Helen’s kitchen watching these little bits of history being drawn and quartered. Not the surprise that Michael, or most people, would feel as Helen destroyed these artifacts. Allie was surprised that they had existed in the first place. That anything of pure emotional value could survive in her parents’ house was miraculous. Allie couldn’t resist the urge to salvage one.
Now in the quiet of her own home she flipped it over to remove the contents and dropped it on the table as if she’d been stung.
“Oh, you miserable bitch.” It was still sealed. Allie seethed as she wondered just of her father’s love letters had gone unopened. She left the letter and her half empty cup of coffee on the kitchen table and walked straight to the bathroom to take a shower.
Allie avoided the kitchen table for the rest of the morning and spent most of the late afternoon and evening out running errands. She’d have probably found a few excuses to stay away longer had it not been for Max. The moment she walked through the door he practically jumped into her arms. “Okay, okay hun. I know I’m a bad mom, I know,” tossing her packages off to the side and grabbing his leash from the coat rack. “Let’s go.”
After they returned from his walk and she fed him Allie opened the bottle of pino grigio Michael had stashed in the fridge, poured herself a glass, walked into the living room and drew back the blinds on the picture window. She stared out at the night sky sipping the wine, thinking about what she could possibly find in the letter that would make it worth opening. It is a letter from her father to her mother.
What? She thought as she took another sip, Do you think that of the hundred or so letters on her kitchen table, you happened to steal the one that has a post script that says, “in case, 30 years from now, our presently unborn daughter should commit a federal crime by stealing our unopened mail and read it without or knowledge, please know that while you were an accident that irrevocably changed our lives we really do love you.” Or would you feel better if it was Daddy’s angry reply to the news that she has trapped him into marriage by getting pregnant on their last leave together, confirming your long held opinion that your mother is a cast iron bitch.
She went back to the kitchen, refilled her wine glass, plucked the letter off the table and returned to the living room where she sat down on the couch. She took another sip of wine, put the glass down on the floor next to the couch and slouched down looking at the sealed flap of the airmail envelope.
Allie turned the letter over several times in her hands. She stopped and stared at the sealed flap again.
“Hell with it,” she said as she finally slipped her finger under it and ripped it open. She pulled out the contents, a single greeting card.
You see Alexandra. All that drama over a goddamn greeting card. On the cover were a couple dozen hearts of different sizes, most of the circled in ink or pencil. Allie opened the card and for a moment didn’t understand what she was seeing. The inside of the card was covered with little dated messages a line or two long. Some by her mother and some by her father. She went back and read them in order.
“Sweetie, I saw this card and thought of you. Can you guess which heart is mine? I love you. Helen. ps. Don’t say it’s silly!”
“Helen, I don’t think it’s silly, is it this one? I love you too baby. Carl.”
“My love, good guess, but wrong. Do you want to try again? I can’t wait to see you again. Helen.”
“Darling, it won’t be long until we are back together again. Carl.”
“My Dearest, I just can’t help but cry when I think of you so far away. Stop making my makeup run! Come home soon. Helen.”
Both sides were covered from top to bottom as well as the back cover of the card. They must have sent it back and forth for months. Every time she wrote to him it was, dearest, my love, darling. How she enjoyed their brief time on his leave and how hard it made their time apart.
Allie briefly toyed with the idea that her father had an affair with another woman named Helen, but there was no mistaking her mother’s handwriting. She reread the lines, whittling away a bit more of her disbelief each time. Mom really was happy with him. Allie finally closed the card.
Well look at you Nancy Drew. Now you know they were happy.
Allie traced the circles around the hearts with the tip of her fingernail. She was vaguely aware of Max pattering around.
Does it really matter if you were their bundle of joy or the 7 and 1/2 lb bowling ball that knocked down all their pins? It’s not y…
Allie picked up the envelope, turning it over slowly to look at the postmark. Nov 17 1974. She continued to stare at it. 1974. At some point she became aware there were tears rolling down her cheeks. November. There was the lapping sound of Max drinking in the background. November 1974. Helen was happy. The card slipped out of her grasp onto the floor. Allie was holding the envelope closer to her face. November 1974, Helen was happy. November 1974, Helen was 8 months pregnant.
She looked at the postmark until she realized that the sound of lapping liquid was to close to be the dog’s water dish in the kitchen. Allie looked down to find a big pink tongue repeatedly dipping into her wine glass. “MAX!”
Allie put the empty glass in the sink, poured herself a fresh glass and stood in the kitchen looking at Max, shaking her head.
“Are you hammered, you idiot?” wiping the tears from her face. He walked over to her and the last few steps he took had a slight wobble to them. “Unbelievable. You are lucky I don’t have a charged battery for the video camera, pal.” She looked over at the postmark again, now sitting on the kitchen table and she looked back at Max who, despite his best efforts to remain upright, couldn’t keep his legs from sliding out from under him.
How many guys would pick up your dog from the kennel as a surprise? Allie picked her handheld from the kitchen counter. What the hell are you waiting for? She brought up the address book and scrolled to Michael’s name.
She held her thumb over the send button for a moment and then she looked at Max again.
“He cut an international business trip short to pick you up. He cleaned the bedroom,” closing the address book on the phone. “He made me dinner.” Looking at her wine glass as she placed it on the table, “He brought pino but didn’t serve it with the meal,” walking from the kitchen into the bedroom, “because he knows I hate champagne.”
Tossing the cell on the bed, “he cleaned the bedroom”, she walked over to the side where Michael slept when he stayed over and checked the night table drawer. Nothing. She got on her knees and looked under the bed. Nothing. She sat for a moment considering where else it could be and then slipped her hand between the mattress and box spring. “Mr. I’m ready to fly to Jerusalem on 2 hours notice,” sliding her hand along under the mattress, “are you telling me you planned this whole thing down to the wine and you didn’t,” her had connected with something hard.
Allie’s breathing stopped and her pulse skyrocketed. She pulled the small jewelry box from under the mattress. She placed it on the bed and put her hands down on either side of it, not sure what to do. She still wasn’t breathing. She held the box with the tips of her fingers and pushed the top open.
Breathe! She slowly let the air come back into her lungs.
In front of her was an emerald cut diamond engagement ring so big she was afraid she might need a crane to lift it out of the box. She slowly pulled it out and slid it onto her finger. Her face was hot and wet with tears again. She grabbed the phone and dialed Michael, willing herself to breathe in and out slowly, eyes still fixed on the ring.
“Hey sweetie,” he answered.