Holiday ’16 Fiction: Friday Night Dinner

written by Laurie Jacobs

Friday morning I kept to the routine Ted and I had developed over the past two months, even though I had hours of cooking ahead of me. After we had sex in my guest room, I made him coffee.  He sat at my kitchen table, his blue eyes practically glowing with endorphins. I smoothed back his thatch of white hair, still a shock after decades of Robert’s baldness. I considered kissing his forehead, but wasn’t ready yet to bestow on him that kind of wifely affection, especially since his wife was still alive.

“I didn’t tell you about the offer I made Daniel,” I said, handing him a mug. “I told him if he decides to go through with his divorce, I’d pay for him to go to graduate school to get his MFA.”

“You’re bribing your son to get a divorce?”

“Not bribing. Encouraging. Before he met Julia, he had dreams of being a playwright. If she’s out of the picture, he can take a leave from teaching and devote himself to writing full-time.” I sat back in the seat that had once been Robert’s. I was pleased with my plan. “Daniel has been so depressed since he and Julia separated, he can’t think straight. I’ve given him the necessary incentive to move on.”

“Ah,” Ted said.

This was not the response I wanted. Years ago when Ted and Mary’s daughters had played soccer with Claire, Robert had declared that Ted was as dull as lead. He wasn’t dull, but he was slow to grasp things.

I felt like a teacher again, taking a reluctant student by the hand. “They’re all coming for dinner tonight—Claire and Jonathan and the kids and Daniel. I haven’t cooked a traditional Friday night dinner since Robert died. I’m making the works: brisket, kugel, chicken soup. Daniel needs to know he has his family’s support. Get him going on the right path.”

“Away from his wife.”

“Yes.” I stirred my coffee.

“Mary’s mother didn’t like me much. She was a thorn in my side until the day she died.”

“This is not about me!” He’d smacked my heart right on the deep and jagged wound I’d suffered when Robert died. I ached for Robert. He would have appreciated what I’d done. “Julia has been awful to him! She’s pushed Daniel around from the day they met. This whole business about her insisting they spend more on a house than they can afford is just one example. She’s done far worse things. Things I’m not free to share.”

He held up his hand. “Then don’t.”

If Ted knew the truth about Julia, he’d feel differently about my offer. But Daniel had begged me not to tell anyone that Julia had confessed she’d slept with her boss. Not even Claire. Though I knew Claire had her suspicions. The reason Daniel gave for their separation didn’t ring true. It wasn’t like him to deny Julia anything, even a ruinously expensive house.

“I shouldn’t have told you any of this.” I grabbed the pitcher so fast, milk sloshed onto the table.

“Aw Joan, I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sure you’re doing what you think is best for your son. But I’ve learned the hard way to keep out of my daughters’ lives.”

There was no point in quarreling with him. We weren’t romantic partners. We’d fallen in together because of loneliness and grief; mine over Robert’s sudden death, his over Mary’s slow disappearance. I knew I couldn’t expect more from him.

“That’s okay,” I said. “We all parent differently.”

He smiled and ran his fingers through his hair.

I let it stay messy.

“Before I forget, I brought some oil for your squeaky door.” He’d left a sweater hanging on a hook in the mudroom. From its pocket, he pulled out a small bottle of oil.

I watched the slow patient care he took with those hinges. I itched to push him to move faster.

“There,” he said, demonstrating the squeak-free door. “I’ve got some time yet before Mary’s sitter has to leave. Anything else you need help with?”

“All under control. I’ve got to start cooking.”

“Well, then.” He kissed my cheek. “Enjoy your dinner. For your sake, I hope you get what you want from Daniel. I’ll see you on Monday.”

He had to walk through my backyard to get to his car. I’d asked him to park around the corner where the neighbors would not so easily notice. I didn’t want our kids to find out about the two of us. People in my grief support group had warned me how difficult children could be about their surviving parent’s renewed love life. My children had enough to worry about.

Red roses engulfed my arbor. Ted turned back to me.

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, and—” He put his hand to his forehead. “Oh sugar, I forget the rest. Something, something, the sweet musk rose.’”

I waved goodbye. He was no Robert, but he was a good man, even if he didn’t understand about Daniel and Julia.

I worked like a dog all day in surprising heat, and then just after I’d finished cooking, the sky filled with clouds and the air grew chilly. I put on my coral silk blouse and black wool pants and tied on the “World’s Best Grandmother” apron Claire and the girls had given me for Mother’s Day.

The girls brought me crayon drawings: Sydney brought a house, Chelsea a duck. Jonathan carried two bottles of wine. Claire had a white cardboard bakery box.

With every five pounds Claire gained, she’d dye her hair a few shades lighter. Today she was very blonde and her black sweater was long and loose.

Jonathan said he was going to open the wine and let it breathe in the dining room.       The girls ran outside.

I asked Claire if she’d talked to Daniel.

“I did.” Claire reached to take a knife from the block on the counter.

“And?”

Knife poised over the box, Claire said, “I told him not to let anyone push him into doing something he didn’t want to do.”

“I thought you’d support me!” I didn’t hide my disappointment. “We have to help him make a clean break.”

We don’t need to do anything.” Claire sawed the string on the box. “Leave Daniel alone. Save your money.” She opened the box. “I brought babka. Which plate do you want me to use?”

I held my tongue and reached for one of my mother’s blue willow serving plates.

My children could be infuriating.

A car horn honked. Claire looked out the window. “Daniel’s here.”

The door on the passenger’s side opened and out stepped Julia.

The plate fell from my hand and bounced on the hardwood floor.

Claire snorted. “There goes that MFA.”

“She cheated on him!” I said. “With her boss!”  I thought my heart would explode.

Claire touched my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

I told her not to say anything about Julia’s affair, that Daniel hadn’t wanted me to tell her.

Jonathan came in, holding a wine glass. “This has spots on it.”

Claire said, “Julia had an affair.”

I wanted to slap her.

Jonathan said it was none of his business what Daniel and Julia did.

Claire put her babka on the blue willow plate. I should have told her to wipe it off first—it was dusty. But what did dust matter. My son was ruining his life.

In they walked, holding hands. Julia wore a sleeveless dress. Daniel wore a big smile.

“Hi,” Claire said. “Julia. I love your dress.”

“I dressed for summer. Now I’m shivering. The weather changed so suddenly.”

“That’s a New England spring,” Claire said. “Not to be trusted.”

“Julia and I have wonderful news.” Daniel’s smile widened. “She’s pregnant.”

I felt a scalpel slide into my heart.

“That’s great!” Claire said. “Congratulations! Isn’t that great news, Mom?”

“Yes,” I said. “Great news.” I couldn’t talk, could scarcely breathe.

“When are you due?” Claire asked.

“In the fall,” Julia said.

“We plan to name the baby for Dad,” Daniel said. He held out a giftbag to me. “Julia and I brought you a vase.”

“For your beautiful roses,” Julia added. “I’ll go outside and cut some.”

As soon as Julia was out the door, Claire stepped in.

“You should insist on a paternity test,” she told her brother. “It could save you enormous grief.”

His face flushed. “Thank you so much for your advice, Claire. I think I’ll join my wife outside.”

He wouldn’t look at me, not even when I told him that I thought his plan to name the baby for Robert was a lovely idea.

I was furious with Claire. Furious with Daniel. Furious I had to set a place at the table for Julia.

After knocking over two wine glasses, I sat to catch my breath and calm my shaking hands. My son was a fool. But I could do nothing about that. I had to accept what was and move on. There would be a baby, another grandchild. If it looked anything like Daniel, I would love it, even with Julia for its mother.

When they all came back inside complaining about the cold, Julia was wearing a sweater that looked vaguely familiar. It was Ted’s, the one he’d left in the mudroom that morning. She asked Claire about the message Roseanne Lewin had posted on Facebook about running in a race to raise money for Alzheimer’s research, which I thought was odd because I didn’t think Julia knew Ted’s daughters. And then Claire was telling her that Roseanne’s mother had advanced Alzheimer’s and her father was this big goofy guy who was devoted to his wife.

She tilted her head to catch my gaze and asked me, “Have you seen Ted Lewin lately?”

The heat that rose up my neck and face could boil water.

“We run into each other,” I said.

Julia handed me Ted’s sweater and said she’d borrowed it off the mudroom hook but maybe there was somewhere else I wanted to put it.

I took it from her and said it belonged in the front hall closet and when I went to the living room and began to fold it, I felt a lump in the pocket. I reached into the pocket and pulled out a medicine bottle labeled “Ted Lewin” and the words “CIALIS” and “Take Prior to Sexual Activity.”

I hadn’t felt so exposed since I was sixteen and my mother walked in on me making out with a boy whose hand was in my pants.

When I turned around, there was Julia, pale as the moon.

“Daniel told me about your generous offer to pay his way in graduate school,” she said.

I told her I wanted my son to be happy.

“So do I,” she said. “We’re both so thrilled about the baby.”

“Are you? Thrilled?” Did she think I didn’t know what she’d done?

Julia flushed crimson. “Daniel and I are putting the past behind us. Of course, we’ll need to work to make our marriage stronger. And avoid relationships that are toxic.”

The way she looked at me, her thin lips drawn back in a tight smile, left me no doubt she thought I was poison.

“You’re so close to Chelsea and Sydney. It would be a shame if you didn’t have that connection to our baby. Though I understand you’ve got a lot going on in your life now. With Ted Lewin and all.”

A shaft of late afternoon sunlight illuminated her face. I saw clearly the dark hairs on her upper lip and fine lines in her forehead. Dread immobilized me.

“I’m afraid Daniel will be pretty upset when he finds out about Ted. Robert’s death hit him hard. He might not understand you getting over it so quickly.”

If my hands hadn’t found the back of the sofa, I’d have sunk to the floor. The light winked out. The room again was dim. I couldn’t see her clearly, but I’d heard her message. She meant to take them away from me—the baby and Daniel.  Unless I did—what?

Before she could tell me, she put her hand to her mouth and ran retching to the bathroom.

Once I’d had a vicious dispute with a principal and Robert had advised me to be humble. Though it had cost me mightily, I’d followed his advice and survived.

Julia was gagging into the toilet bowl.

I’d be more than humble, I’d be compassionate— a regular Mother-in-law Theresa.

“Sometimes a damp towel on your neck can make you feel better,” I said.

“Is she okay?” Daniel asked.

“A damp towel on her neck might help.”

“I’ll do it.” He shut the door behind me.

He would not forgive me that slip to Claire. He would not forgive me Ted.

“Is everything okay?” Claire called from the kitchen. “The girls are hungry.”

“Julia’s not feeling well. We’ll give her and Daniel a few minutes.”

I locked myself in Robert’s study and called Ted.

He waited for me to stop sobbing. I told him that Julia would probably post a picture of his pill bottle on Facebook.

“Let her. My friends will be happy for me.”

“Not your daughters.”

His voice was gruff. “Whatever crap anyone wants to dish out, we’ll face together. As for your children, grapple them to you with hoops of steel. Call me when they’ve all gone home. I’ll be waiting for you.”

I wiped my eyes on my apron. Hoops of steel?

Money forged the tightest bonds.

The checkbook for the investment account was still in Robert’s desk drawer. His gifts had always been in eighteen-dollar increments, the numeric value of chai—the Hebrew word for life. I jotted down some numbers. In the end I decided on several thousand more than the MFA would have cost. This gift would not be painless. It would probably mean I’d have to sell my house. I’d give mine up so Julia could have the one she wanted. Later, I’d share the irony with Ted. Maybe he’d help ease the ache in my head and heart.

Claire and her family were already sitting at the dining room table.

“We’ll be leaving,” Daniel said, his arm around Julia. “Julia isn’t feeling well.”

“Before you go, I have a gift for the two of you,” I said. I presented the check.

“Mom,” Claire said. “What are you doing?”

“Giving your brother and Julia a down-payment on a house. Your father and I did the same for you and Jonathan when you started a family.”

Claire made a choking sound. Jonathan put his arm around her shoulders and whispered something to her.

Julia looked at the check.  “Why, thank you, Joan. This is very generous.”

Apparently my ransom was adequate.

“Mom.” Daniel’s voice was thick.  “You don’t know what this means to me. To us.”

He hugged me. I had him now, no matter what Julia told him. But I’d beat her to it.

“While we’re all here,” I said, “I have something to tell you. Ted Lewin and I have been seeing each other.  It is a bit awkward with Mary still being alive, but we enjoy each other’s company. Next time we have a Friday night dinner, I’m going to invite him.”

Daniel folded and refolded the check. Claire stared so hard I feared she’d damage her eye balls.

“Are you done talking, Grandma?” Sydney said. “I’m hungry.”

I had one more act of binding before I let my son go. I handed him his father’s silver Kiddush cup, and asked him to say the traditional blessing over the wine before he left.

He looked at Julia. She nodded.

“Ok,” he said. “But, Mom, will you bless us first?”

I was stunned by his request. “If you want me to—”

This blessing business had been one of Robert’s rituals. He’d done it for Claire and Daniel every Friday night they’d spent with us, as Robert’s father had done for him and his sisters. How disappointed Robert’s family had been that I wasn’t more observant; what bitter fights I’d had with him over his family’s interference.

Daniel tugged Julia along with him. Claire rolled her eyes but she held hands with Sydney and Chelsea. Standing beside me, Chelsea called out to her father to join us.

Jonathan held up his phone. “Someone has to take photos of the matriarch in action.”

I had to stand on tiptoe to put my right hand on Daniel’s head. My left went on Claire’s. Claire put her arms around her girls; Daniel put his hand on Julia’s belly.

I knew the words. I’d heard Robert say them often enough.  “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”

Even though I don’t believe in God, the words struck me hard. There was so much I wanted for my children.

“May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.”

My eyes welled. Despite everything, these were the souls that were dearest to me.

“May the Lord lift up his face to you and grant you peace.”

I kissed Daniel’s cheek and then Claire’s. It wasn’t so much peace I wanted for them but strength—enough to bear life’s blows and to strike a few of their own.

“I’m calling my doctor and making an appointment for you next week,” Claire whispered. “You’ve been acting stranger than usual.”

“Oh, Claire.” I squeezed her hand.

And then I sat, exhausted.

“All right, Daniel,” I said. “I did my part. It’s your turn.”

_______________________________

Laurie A. Jacobs has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Her short stories have appeared in a number of literary magazines, including Bartleby Snopes, Litro (NY), and Crack the Spine.