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I Don’t Know How This Works
After some more lifting in the basement, I put on my trash bag and run my ten miles. Afterward, I shower, spray some of my father’s cologne, and walk into the mist – just like Mom taught me to do back in high school. I roll on some underarm deodorant and then don my new khakis and my Hank Baskett jersey.
When I ask my mother how I look, she says, “Very handsome. So handsome. But do you really think you should wear your Eagles jersey to a dinner party? You can wear one of the Gap shirts I bought you, or you can borrow one of your father’s polo shirts.”
“It’s okay,” I say, and smile confidently. “Dr. Patel said wearing this shirt was a good idea.”
“Did he?” my mom says with a laugh, and then she removes an arrangement of flowers and a bottle of white wine from the refrigerator.
“Give these to Veronica and tell her I said thanks. Ronnie’s been a good friend to you.” And then Mom looks like she is going to cry again.
I kiss her goodbye, and with my hands full of flowers and wine, I walk down the street and across Knight’s Park to Ronnie’s house.
Ronnie answers the door wearing a shirt and tie, which makes me feel like Dr. Patel was wrong after all and I am underdressed. But Ronnie looks at my new jersey, checks the name on the back – probably to make sure I am not wearing an outdated Freddie Mitchell jersey – and says, “Hank Baskett is the man! Where did you get that jersey this early in the season? It’s great!” which makes me feel so much better.
We follow the meaty aroma through their swanky living room and their swanky dining room to the kitchen, where Veronica is feeding Emily, whom I am surprised to see looking much older than a newborn baby.
“Hank Baskett’s in the house,” Ronnie says.
“Who?” Veronica answers, but she smiles when she sees the flowers and the wine. “Pour moi?”
She stares at my puffy cheek for a second, but doesn’t mention it, which I appreciate. I hand her what my mother has sent, and Veronica kisses me on my un-puffy cheek.
“Welcome home, Pat,” she says, which surprises me because she sounds sincere. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve invited someone else to dinner,” Veronica adds. She winks at me and then lifts the lid off the single pot on the stove, releasing a warm tomato and basil aroma.
“Who?” I ask.
“You’ll see,” she says without looking up from stirring her sauce.
Before I can say more, Ronnie is lifting Emily from her high chair, saying, “Meet Uncle Pat,” which sounds strange until I realize he is talking about me. “Say hello to Uncle Pat, Emily.”
She waves her little hand at me, and then I have Emily in my arms. Her dark eyes examine my face, and she smiles as though she approves. “Pap,” she says, pointing at my nose.
“See how smart my girl is, Uncle Pat,” Ronnie says, petting the silky black hair on Emily’s head. “She already knows your name.”
Emily smells like the mashed carrots that coat her cheeks until Ronnie wipes them clean with a wet napkin. I have to admit that Emily is a cute kid, and I instantly understand why Ronnie has written me so many letters about his daughter – why he loves her so much. I start to think about having children with Nikki someday and I become so happy that I give little Emily a kiss on the forehead, as if she were Nikki’s baby and I was her father. And then I kiss Emily’s forehead again and again, until she giggles.
“Beer?” Ronnie says.
“I’m not really supposed to drink, because I’m on medications and – “
“Beer,” Ronnie says, and then we are drinking beers on his deck as Emily sits in her father’s lap and sucks on a bottle filled with watered-down apple juice.
“It’s good to have a beer with you,” Ronnie says, just before clinking his Yuengling Lager bottle against mine.
“Who’s coming over for dinner?”
“Veronica’s sister, Tiffany.”
“Tiffany and Tommy?” I say, remembering Tiffany’s husband from Ronnie and Veronica’s wedding.
Ronnie takes a long swig of his beer, looks up at the setting sun, and says, “Tommy died some time ago.”
“What?” I say, because I hadn’t heard. “God, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Just make sure you don’t bring up Tommy tonight, okay?”
“Sure,” I say, and then drink a few large gulps of my beer. “So how did he die?”
“How did who die?” says a woman’s voice.
“Hi, Tiffany,” Ronnie says, and suddenly she is standing with us on the porch. Tiffany’s wearing a black evening dress, heels, and a diamond necklace, and her makeup and hair look too perfect to me – as if she is trying too hard to look attractive, like old ladies sometimes do. “You remember Pat, right?”
I stand, and as we shake hands, the way Tiffany looks into my eyes makes me feel really funny.
We move back into the house, and after some small talk, Tiffany and I are left alone on opposite ends of the living-room couch as Veronica finishes cooking the meal and Ronnie puts Emily to bed.
“You look very pretty tonight,” I say when the silence grows awkward.
Before apart time began, I never ever complimented Nikki on her looks, and I think this really hurt her self-esteem. I figure I can now practice complimenting women on their looks so it will come naturally to me when Nikki returns, although Tiffany really does look pretty, even if she is trying too hard with the makeup. She is a few years older than me, but has a fit body and long, silky black hair.
“What happened to your cheek?” Tiffany asks without looking at me.
She just stares at her hands, which are folded in her lap. Her nails have been recently painted a blood red.
“So where are you working now?” I say, thinking this is a safe question.
Her nose crinkles, as if I had farted. “I got fired from my job a few months ago.”
“Does it really matter?” she says, then stands and walks into the kitchen.
I down the remainder of my second beer and wait for Ronnie to come back.
Dinner is elegant, with candles going and fancy plates and special silverware, but awkward, as Tiffany and I are completely silent while Veronica and Ronnie talk about us as if we aren’t there.
“Pat is a big history buff. He knows everything about every single U.S. president. Go ahead. Ask him anything,” Ronnie says.
When Tiffany fails to look up from her food, Veronica says, “My sister is a modern dancer and has a recital in two months. You should see her dance, Pat. So beautiful. My God, I wish I could dance like my sister. If she allows us this year, we’re all going to her recital, and you should definitely come with us.”
I nod carefully when Tiffany looks up for my response, thinking I’ll go just so I can practice being kind. Also, Nikki would probably want to go to a dance recital, and I want to do the things Nikki likes from now on.
“Pat and I are going to work out together,” Ronnie says. “Look how fit my buddy is. He puts me to shame. I need to get in that basement with you, Pat.”
“Tiffany loves the shore, don’t you, Tiff? The four of us should take Emily to the beach one weekend in September after the crowds have left. We could have a picnic. Do you like picnics, Pat? Tiffany loves picnics. Don’t you, Tiff?”
Ronnie and Veronica trade facts about their guests for almost fifteen minutes straight, and then finally there’s a lull, so I ask if any of them knows anything about the Vet being imploded, and to my surprise Ronnie and Veronica both confirm that it was demolished years ago, just like my father said, which worries me tremendously because I have no memory of this or the years that have supposedly transpired since. I think about asking how long ago Emily was born, because I remember getting a letter and picture from Ronnie soon after her birth, but I get scared and do not ask.
“I hate football,” Tiffany offers. “More than anything in the world.”
And then we all eat without saying anything for a while.
The three courses Ronnie had promised turn out to be beer, lasagna garnished with baked asparagus, and key lime pie. All three are great, and I tell Veronica as much – practicing again for when Nikki comes back – to which Veronica replies, “Did you think my food would be bad?”
I know she means it as a joke, but Nikki would have used the question to prove just how witchy Veronica can be. I think about how if Nikki were here, after we went home, we’d stay up talking in bed like we used to when we were both a little drunk – and sitting now at Ronnie’s dinner table, the thought makes me feel sad and happy at the same time.
When we finish our pie, Tiffany stands and says, “I’m tired.”
“But we’ve hardly finished eating,” Veronica says, “and we have Trivial Pursuit to – “
“I said I’m tired.”
There is a silence.
“Well,” Tiffany finally says, “are you going to walk me home or what?”
It takes me a second to realize that Tiffany is talking to me, but I quickly say, “Sure.”
Since I am practicing being kind now, what else could I have said – right?
It is a warm night, but not too sticky. Tiffany and I walk a block before I ask where she lives.
“With my parents, okay?” she says without looking at me.
“Oh.” I realize we are only about four blocks from Mr. and Mrs. Webster’s house.
“You live with your parents too, right?”
“So no big whoop.”
It is dark, and I guess it’s about 9:30 p.m. With her arms crossing her chest, Tiffany walks pretty quickly in her clicky heels, and soon we are standing in front of her parents’ house.
When she turns to face me, I think she is simply going to say good night, but she says, “Look, I haven’t dated since college, so I don’t know how this works.”
“How what works?”
“I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking at me. Don’t bullshit me, Pat. I live in the addition around back, which is completely separate from the house, so there’s no chance of my parents walking in on us. I hate the fact that you wore a football jersey to dinner, but you can fuck me as long as we turn the lights out first. Okay?”
I’m too shocked to speak, and for a long time we just stand there.
“Or not,” Tiffany adds just before she starts crying.
I’m so confused that I’m speaking and thinking and worrying all at the same time, not really knowing what to do or say. “Look, I enjoyed spending time with you, and I think you’re really pretty, but I’m married,” I say, and lift up my wedding ring as proof.
“So am I,” she says, and holds up the diamond on her left hand.
I remember what Ronnie told me about her husband having passed away, which makes her a widow and not married, but I do not say anything about that, because I am practicing being kind instead of right, which I learned in therapy and Nikki will like.
It makes me really sad to see that Tiffany is still wearing her wedding ring.
And then suddenly Tiffany is hugging me so that her face is between my pecs, and she’s crying her makeup onto my new Hank Baskett jersey. I don’t like to be touched by anyone except Nikki, and I really do not want Tiffany to get makeup on the jersey my brother was nice enough to give me – a jersey with real stitchedon letters and numbers – but I surprise myself by hugging Tiffany back. I rest my chin on top of her shiny black hair, scent her perfume, and suddenly I am crying too, which scares me a lot. Our bodies shudder together, and we are all waterworks. We cry together for at least ten minutes, and then she lets go and runs around to the back of her parents’ house.
When I arrive home, my father is watching television. The Eagles are playing the Jets in a preseason game I did not know was on. He does not even look at me, probably because I am such a lousy Eagles fan now. My mother tells me that Ronnie called, saying it’s important and I should call him back immediately.
“What happened? What’s on your jersey? Is that makeup?” my mother asks, and when I do not answer, she says, “You better call Ronnie back.”
But I only lie down in my bed and stare at the ceiling of my bedroom until the sun comes up.
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