by Jessica Levine
Jessica Levine's stories, nonfiction, poetry, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in California Quarterly, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Old Red Kimono, North American Review, RiverSedge, and The Southern Review. She earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also the author of "Delicate Pursuit: Literary Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton" (Routledge, 2002). Originally from New York, she lives with her husband and two daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works as a hypnotherapist. You can visit her at www.jessicalevine.com, where you will find links to some of her work.
1. Object, Lost
She had removed her wedding ring with the intention of putting it in the sonic jewelry cleaner, and it had disappeared. Again and again she went to the little blue ceramic dish, the Japanese one with the single fish on it, where she thought she'd placed it, and ran her finger around the edge, as though by this magical gesture she could make it reappear. Then she searched in and around the dresser. But the ring was gone. A small diamond and two smaller rubies set in gold.
She walked around the house running her hands over things, as though she might feel what she couldn't see.
She was in a period of disturbance about her marriage, and her first thought was that she had lost it unconsciously on purpose because she wanted to be free.
She said nothing about the loss when her husband came home. She used her right hand to pass the salt, keeping her left in her lap. She dreaded the moment when he would notice her finger was bare.
Then she decided to test him. She used both hands to pass the salad. He said nothing and she thought, He never notices anything about me. She stopped herself. No, there I go again. He doesn't see me because we have a one-year-old throwing spaghetti on the floor and a three-year-old kicking the table.
She finally said, "David, I lost my ring today." She quickly added, "I'm sure it'll turn up."
He glanced at her left hand and said sharply, "Well, if it doesn't turn up, I'm not buying you another one."
The next morning she was floating up from sleep when she dreamt that the ring had fallen from the top of the dresser into the heating vent. As soon as her husband left for work, she took the grater off the hot air return and looked down into it.
She was on her hands and knees with a flashlight and, sure enough, the ring was sitting at the bottom of the return, where it made an L before going off to join the main duct.
She could see the rubies sparkling in the light. She put the flashlight down and thought for a second.
She decided to leave it there.
2. A Table in Paris, Long Ago
Hoping to regain something lost, she suggested on the second day after they arrived that they visit her old neighborhood. They got off at Métro Saint-Georges, climbed the stairs, and took in the street where she had rented an apartment 30 years before.
"It looks the same," her husband said.
"Not quite. The paint isn't peeling anymore." She had loved the old Paris with the flaps of loosened paint that fluttered in the wind like the curling bark of birch trees. "And our restaurant is gone." She pointed to a little papeterie where there had once been a restaurant chinois.
"Remember the beignet de banane?" he asked.
The taste of the fried banana dessert came back. "It sure was good," she said.
They'd met as students in Paris so long ago that it felt like an episode in a movie about someone else.
They came to a used furniture store across from the stationer's.
"It's still here!" she said. "I got my table here."
"The desk I had in my apartment bedroom, remember? I bought one here for my apartment." Another memory returned, but she decided to save it for later.
At the end of the day, when they got into their bed at the hotel, he reached, as he always did, for the newspaper. He liked to finish it before turning the light off. She was happy The International Herald Tribune didn't have many pages.
Looking at him, she reflected that she couldn't remember the last time they'd made love. Had it been in this calendar year or the one before?
"I never told you about what happened when I wanted to sell it back." She was interrupting his reading, which she knew he hated.
"Sell what back?" Hours had passed and he didn't make the connection.
"So what happened? Tall, handsome salesman?" He continued reading.
"Oh, no. Just the opposite. Short—I mean, very short, like up to here," she gestured to her breasts with a straight hand. "And fat and very middle-aged."
Her husband was middle-aged but neither short nor fat, so all he said was, "And?" He finally put down the newspaper, intrigued.
"He came over to my apartment to check it out—to make sure it was still in good condition. And we were standing—"
"In the bedroom—"
"Yes, in the bedroom, next to the table, and he threw himself at me, saying que vous êtes belle, please come have an aperitif with me, chérie."
"Were you scared?" He looked at her.
"No, I was rather amused, because he was so short. It was like having a large dog jumping on me. Though somehow he managed to kiss me."
"'Somehow?' What do you mean by 'somehow?'"
"His being so huge made him very powerful."
"And then what happened?"
"Nothing. I refused to have an aperitif with him and I pushed him out the door."
"All right, then." He picked up his newspaper again.
"But the thing is," she said as she slid up to him and passed her arm across his waist hopefully, "that the episode left me with an erotic fantasy I've never shared with you."
He put the newspaper back down. "Yes?"
"For years I had this fantasy of me lying on that table and him—you know—fucking me."
"So you're telling me that at the age of 20 you were turned on by short, fat, middle-aged men?"
"No. On the contrary. The thing that turned me on was the idea of having sex with someone who wasn't attractive—"
"Jesus," he said. "Sometimes I just don't get you." He picked the newspaper up, then after a beat, put it back down. "There's another thing I don't quite understand in this story—did he finally agree to buy the table back from you or not?"
3. Opportunity, Regained
She was 28 and he was 48 when they met in a studio art class in the Village and fell in love. She didn't think about their age difference much until his fiftieth birthday party, when she saw him surrounded by friends of his generation. She heard herself gasp and think: they're old; he's old. That was when she started doing the math: when she was 40, he'd be 60; when she was 50, he'd be 70; when she was 60, he'd be 80—and maybe nearing the end.
The math was morbid, and she wasn't interested in death, she was interested in life—specifically in having a baby. A normal preoccupation for a woman of 30.
Finally, as though to test the confines of the situation, she asked him, "What about a child?"
"You know I already have two," he said. "And in college."
She was lying in his arms looking at him; he was looking at the ceiling.
"What about a third?"
The force behind the way he said no cut her. It made her realize he'd been waiting for the question in calculated stillness, like a cat preparing to pounce. And she, like a mouse, had been gobbled.
In a city of millions, she thought, there must certainly be tens of thousands of available men of her generation who wanted a family; if only one percent of those tens of thousands were compatible (in terms of taste, temperament, and so on), that would still leave hundreds of prospective mates.
She loved Mark more than any other man she had known, but less than the child she hoped one day to hold. Moreover, she knew that if she stayed with him, she would spend the rest of her life doing additions and subtractions.
She was in the middle of this obsessive algebra when he asked her to marry him. She said no and, summoning all her willpower, broke it off.
Twenty years and many relationships later, she was still without a partner or a child when she ran into him at a Christmas party on the upper East Side. He had been brought by a guest to swell the merriment, and so had she. At first she was shocked by how much he'd aged. His face was sunken, his lower lip a bit more protrusive, and his fine black hair completely gray. As he approached, she saw herself in his eyes—paler, with eyes and lips barely defined by makeup.
"How are you?" he said.
"Fine," she said.
They drifted into a quiet corner of the living room and brought each other up-to-date. Her chest contracted with grief as they talked. But she was relieved to learn that he, too, was still single. Her heart began to beat harder with longing.
Finally they left together. They were quiet riding down in the elevator, then faced each other on Lexington Avenue to say good-bye. Their breath in the cold made clouds that danced between them.
"Well, it was nice to see you again," he said—too casually, she thought.
She lunged at him, grabbing the lapels of his wool coat with both her hands.
"Mark," she said, "I made a terrible mistake when I broke up with you."
"Really?" he said, his voice so tender.
"There was joy flying at me in the face, and I said no to it."
"You wanted a younger man. You wanted a child."
She dropped her head and fell forward against him.
"Instead, what I got was 20 years without you."
He put his arms around her. "Well then, what are we going to do about it? I'm even older now."
"Did you ever forgive me?"
"No, I can't say that I did."
"Let's walk," she said.
He took her gloved hand in his and then they walked down to her apartment on Irving Place. She was glad to see he still had the stamina for such a walk.
Upstairs they talked for hours. At 2 a.m. she pulled him toward the bed. He resisted at first, then gave in. She thought him clumsy, clearly out of practice, but that didn't stop her, at 3 a.m., from asking him to marry her.
"I can't marry you," he said. "I should have told you this before. I'm about to start an anti-testosterone drug treatment for prostate cancer—it'll make me impotent for months."
"I don't care," she said.
"And then I have to have surgery, which could have the same effect, but permanently."
She begged him.
"No," he kept saying. "I can't do that to you."
They went round and round about it amid the ashes of the years they'd lost, with her pleading and him resisting. And then finally, at dawn—in a splash of color—he consented, and she knew she had been forgiven.
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