The Chicken Box has been around since I was a kid. It’s narrow and dark and smells like a basement but I like the fact that no one gives a shit how much you drink there, or at what time of day, and if you get so drunk you can’t drive yourself home, the bartender gently takes your keys and phone and calls you an Uber without a whiff of judgement. The bartender’s name is Noddy. He’s big enough to physically throw someone out, but he’s a sweetheart who would remind me of my dad if Dad were thirty years younger, two feet taller, and Latino. I have no idea why the bar is called The Chicken Box. I don’t think they’ve ever served chicken.
I’m meeting my best friend Javier here. We’ll have some drinks and move on to a tapas restaurant downtown that I read about in Baltimore Magazine. I used to work in the editorial department of Baltimore Magazine twenty-five years ago, but I was only there a couple of months before I was encouraged to resign. After that, I processed life insurance claims, then ran a balloon bouquet business out of my apartment for a while. I’ve done a lot of different things. Right now, I work for a textbook publisher, a job which, though dull, isn’t dull all the time because my boss is bipolar, so you never know what he’ll do, like ordering a gross of dental picks from an ad on Instagram. Not everyone is interested in having a big career. I can’t count how many times I’ve said that to people who are like, “but didn’t you go to Harvard?”
Javier comes in and gives my shoes a look. He thinks flats are dowdy. He has green eyes like kaleidoscopes and a triathlete’s body because he really does triathletic things like swimming and riding a bike. “We have a reservation at the restaurant in an hour,” he says. “One drink, that’s all.”
I rattle the ice in my glass and say, “I’ve already had one drink.”
“Tendré un Martini,” he says to Noddy. They often speak to each other in Spanish.
“Mara and Clark are meeting us at the restaurant,” I say.
Javier opens his mouth and doesn’t speak for a second. “What? Why?”
“I couldn’t help it because Mara called me and asked what I was doing tonight.”
“You’ll never understand women,” I say. Noddy gives me another gin-and-tonic, which is in fact my third.
“We agreed it would be just us tonight,” Javier says. “Why does it always have to be a party with you, Laura?”
Does it always have to be a party with me? I know a lot of people, plus I’m single, so I’m on the lookout for a guy. If your best friend is gay and you only hang out with him, your dating opportunities are nil.
“Haven’t you heard of Tinder?” Javier says.
“It’s easy to find someone to fuck, I’m looking for someone to marry.”
“Why in the world?”
“You’re acting like this is new news. You know I’ve always wanted to get married. I’m not that old.” Javier is hardly a baby at forty-four, an age he doesn’t admit to. I’m not as precious about my age.
“You’re old enough to join AARP,” he says. When I turned fifty, I got a lot of AARP crap in the mail. I told Javier about it because I thought it was funny.
“Why are you being so nasty?”
“Only speaking the truth. Older guys either want a twenty-five-year-old piece of arm candy who will screw their brains out, or a mature woman who’ll take care of them.”
“You’re not twenty-five and you think Gummi bears are a meal. You don’t qualify either way.”
I see his point and yet I say, “I’m hotter than most twenty-five-year-olds.”
He puts his elbow on the bar and rests his cheek in his hand. “Oh honey,” he says. “Tell yourself that.”
Javier and I take a break from each other, and I sign up for a cooking class at a Sur La Table in Roland Park, so I’ll learn how to serve an impressive meal to a prospective middle-aged husband. My classmates are the type of women who drive carpool and volunteer for good works; if I asked if any of them knows my sister Nadine, they’d probably all raise their hands. Except they’re decades younger than Nadine and me. They talk excitedly about their children. One of them asks me if I have kids and I tell her I have a daughter who is a Broadway actress currently playing the role of Glinda in Wicked. This is the most interesting lie I’ve told in a while, but more interesting to these women is having recently given birth, which a surprising number have done. I can’t fathom how a newborn trumps a Broadway star. I tell the ladies I never learned to cook because I’ve been busy being an attorney. One of them asks what firm I work for—her husband is a lawyer in town—and I tell her I work for the federal government in a mysteriously evasive tone.
“Puff pastry!” our instructor says with startling enthusiasm. Puff pastry is used in many delicious dishes, and you can find it in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. We will be using puff pastry a lot, he says, because “a dish en croute never fails to please.” His name is Guy Richard, which he pronounces Ghee Reeshar, as if he just got off la bateau from Marseille. Total bullshit. You can’t kid a kidder. His accent says Baltimore and nowhere else.
“You’re French?” one of my classmates says, clasping her hands to her shelf of a chest. Oh, come on, I think, don’t be a moron. Ghee avoids answering the question by asking us to introduce ourselves and tell why we’re in the class. There are seven of us, so this takes a while, even though everyone says basically the same thing, they want to add to their repertoire and give a fabulous dinner party. I say I haven’t got a repertoire. Ghee looks concerned.
“There’s a beginner’s class on Saturday mornings at the Towson store,” he says.
“What’s your point?” I say, and he shuts up. Don’t mess with me mister. I am not getting up at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning and driving all the way to the Towson Mall.
Ghee starts us off with a puff pastry tart made with brie and chutney. I’m delighted because it is incredibly easy: you put chunks of brie on a slab of raw pastry, smear the chunks with some jarred chutney, then fold up the edges of the pastry so nothing falls out and put it on a cookie sheet in a 350-degree oven.
“Add a salad and you’ve got dinner!” I say. A few of the ladies frown into the air as if thinking they might have locked the keys in their car.
“It’s an appetizer,” one of them says. I don’t care for her tone. Unlike the other women, she is wearing a skirt. There’s a matching jacket on the back of her chair. She has a job, I realize. She’s not one of these blathering breeders.
“But I order an appetizer as an entrée in restaurants all the time, don’t you?” I say.
“It depends on the restaurant,” she says.
“At Savore, for instance, I’ll order the fried artichokes in pesto and that’s plenty.”
“Oh, I love Savore,” she says. “Their orecchiette!”
“To die for,” I say. The other women look at us as if we dropped in from outer space. You can have babies, you can go to restaurants, but it appears you cannot do both.
The brie and chutney tart comes out of the oven, and we eat it like dogs at dinnertime. Then Ghee hands out little Sur La Table cards with the tart recipe printed on them, and class is dismissed until next week.
“Want to go for a drink?” I ask the skirt and jacket woman. Her name is Sandra Something. She checks the time on a dainty wristwatch, not an Apple watch or her phone, which tells me she’s at least forty. She doesn’t look it, though. She’s a strawberry blonde with a lot of freckles but only a suggestion of crow’s feet around her eyes. Probably she’s thirty and thinks watches are quaint. I wore a watch for years until Javier told me to stop being an old bag and to use my phone like everyone else.
It’s eight o’clock and almost dark when we leave Sur la Table. The evening air feels deliciously warm after the store’s sub-arctic climate. Sandra follows me in her car to The Chicken Box, which is several blocks toward downtown. Noddy is on duty as usual. Otherwise, there’s only Skinny John, a skeletal alcoholic who is always at the far end of the bar.
Sandra looks around. There’s not a lot to see; the bar is the size of a railway car. “What is this place?”
“It’s called The Chicken Box,” I say. “It’s one of the oldest bars in town. It was originally a speakeasy.” I don’t know what hat I pulled that out of. The vibe of the place screams 1970.
She turns to me and puts her hand on my arm. Her long fingernails are polished a pinkish-beige that’s not far from naked fingernail color. She is prettier than I first thought. She has an impressive pair of breasts peeking out from the neckline of her blouse. “That’s interesting, Laura, but it’s super gross in here. Why don’t we go back to my house and put our feet up and drink some good wine?”
I am torn between being offended on behalf of The Chicken Box, myself, Noddy, even Skinny John, and a strong desire to see this woman’s house. I live in an apartment, but I am a real estate slut. I scroll through Zillow with the same fascinated envy that others bring to social media.
“Won’t your husband mind?” I say. I know she’s married because she wears a gold wedding band along with a diamond the size of a cough drop.
“He’ll be in the den watching a movie. I’ll call him now and let him know I’m bringing a friend home. He won’t bother us.”
The den, I think longingly. I want her to say it again. My apartment doesn’t even have a separate dining room, which I don’t need since I eat standing up near the kitchen sink, but I love the idea of multiple rooms with specific uses. I read somewhere that Aaron Spelling’s wife has a whole room for wrapping presents.
“Terrific,” I say. The Chicken Box doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea. I avoid looking at Noddy as we leave.
We come into the house through a side door that leads to a large kitchen with blue marble counters that someone who is unquestionably not Sandra has polished to spotless perfection. There is a two-foot-tall appliance I assume is a juicer, and a chrome toaster that has eight slots. Sandra takes an open bottle of Sauvignon Blanc out of her gleaming stainless steel fridge and pours not nearly enough of it into two stemless wine glasses. The fact that the bottle is more than half full tells me she’s the type who will savor a single glass. When I pour myself wine, I fill it to the top of the glass and proceed to drink the whole bottle while watching TV.
“Let’s go outside.” She leads the way to a high-ceilinged foyer where there is a double door to a terrace. The stairway to the second-floor curves up to a landing, then turns and continues on to what I imagine is a collection of elegant use-specific rooms that I am determined to see. From the street, the house looks like a villa from the set of The Godfather, but the terrace is tastefully furnished with cushioned rattan furniture and terracotta pots of flowers. Sandra lights a trio of candles in square glass jars and sits down across from me on the couch.
“You wouldn’t know you’re inside the ugliest house on the block, would you,” she says. “My husband was married before; this is his house. I wish his ex-wife had wanted it. She got the beach house, which I wouldn’t have minded having.” She tucks one foot beneath her and takes the tiniest sip.
“What does your husband do?” I say. Hedge fund, I bet.
“He’s a surgeon,” she says. “He was my surgeon. My gallbladder was infected, and he removed it. He asked me for a date while I was still in the hospital, which charmed me, of course. He was married, though, and I don’t date married men, so that was that, or so I thought. But apparently his ex-wife wanted out of the marriage as much as he did. She’s a pistol, I like her. It was totally amicable; they were divorced in two months.” She snaps her fingers, ta da.
“I had a thing with a surgeon once,” I say. I can see by her phony interested expression that she thinks I’m one-upping her, and I don’t blame her, I’d think so too. But I’m telling the truth. I met Dan while we were both waiting to renew our licenses at the DMV, and we were involved for over a year. I’m not as high-minded as Sandra. I’ll screw a married man if I feel like it.
“What,” Sandra says.
“What do you mean, ‘what,’” I say.
“You looked like you were going to cry there for a second.”
“That’s my resting face,” I say. “The guy was married. We wanted to be together, but his wife had just been diagnosed with MS, and he had an autistic son, so it wasn’t ever going to work out for us. I think if you’re lucky, you get one true love, one soul mate, in your life. So I was lucky, just not lucky enough.” My face is hot from this sudden unburdening. I feel like a sappy character in a novel. I never even told Javier how I felt about Dan, I can’t think why I’m telling a stranger five years after the fact. It must be because I’m sober way past the time I should be drunk.
“What a sad story,” Sandra says in a smarmy voice. “But honestly, Laura, is your daughter really a Broadway actress? Do you even have a daughter?”
“What makes you think I don’t?” I have no right to be as offended as I am, but who accuses their guest of lying?
She shifts on the couch and takes another little sip of her wine. Mine is long gone. I downed it in two gulps. I imagine going into the kitchen and drinking the rest of it straight out of the bottle. “It’s something about you. No offense, but you don’t look like a mother.”
“How old are you?” I say.
“You don’t look like a mother either. But I’m guessing you’re not one.”
“I’d like to be,” she says. She frowns into her wine as if there’s an insect in it. The candles are the only lights, and our faces flicker like Halloween.
“Your husband doesn’t want kids,” I say. I am completely sure that this is the number one problem in her life, and I am happy to rub it in. What is a mother supposed to look like, anyway? My mother looked like a fashion model, always perfectly turned out. Mrs. Hudson next door looked like a prostitute and was pregnant all the time. “He probably had a few with the first wife, right?”
“One,” she says. “Grown up and living in L.A.”
“But he wants to be the center of your attention, doesn’t he. And he won’t be if you have a baby.”
She blinks at me as if waking from a doze. “Not at all, he’s not like that!”
He is like that. I almost feel sorry for her.
I ask to use the bathroom so I can snoop around inside, but then I realize I really do need to go, so I find the powder room off the front hall. It’s wallpapered in a conventional pattern of flowering vines on a flat pea green background. If I had a powder room, I’d glue seashells all over its walls, or paper it with a map of the world—something more interesting than this, for sure: money is wasted on the rich. I wash my hands with a previously untouched bar of green soap and wipe them thoroughly on a pressed linen towel. As I come out of the bathroom, I cross paths with Sandra’s husband, who is walking from the kitchen to the den. He is wearing khaki-colored shorts and a yellow polo shirt and is carrying a bottle of Heineken. Tall, mid-fifties, graying blond hair.
“Dan,” I say. If we had never met before, he’d stop and introduce himself. He was always a gentleman that way. He flinches almost imperceptibly when I say his name, then goes into the den and closes the door as if I never existed.
I call in “sick” on average twice a month, fooling no one, of course, but because I sound so croaky and stuffed-up from crying my boss has the receptionist send over a container of matzoh ball soup and tells me to take the rest of the week off. I both need to talk to Javier and am too ashamed to call him. He used to say there was “something hinky” about Dan and I don’t want him to know he was right. We’ve always agreed I’m the smarter one and that he’s the more intuitive, but I ignored him when he said he didn’t trust Dan because at that point I was in too deep. I call him and hang up before he can answer several times over the course of the day. When he calls me back, I don’t pick up, then I call him back and hang up. I peel away a patch of wallpaper beside my bed and cut my cuticles until they bleed. I put on the most comfortable thing I own, a red velour robe with a Santa Claus appliqué on its left breast that my sister Nadine gave me two Christmases ago.
Javier lets himself into the apartment with my key. At the moment I can’t remember why he has it, though obviously I gave it to him for a reason. “What the hell, Laura?” he says. “Why do you keep calling me?”
“Dan,” I say. I can’t say more. I’m overcome by a fit of hard, silent weeping. I continue crying until Javier lights a joint and puts it between my lips. After a couple of tokes, I am able to tell him what happened. It’s a simple story that takes less than a minute to recount, but it feels as lengthy and complex as a maze. He stares at me for what feels like a long time, then no time. I rarely smoke pot because the time thing freaks me out.
“Shit no,” he says after a while. Or maybe he says it immediately. “What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking of taking a bath, but I can’t find the drain stopper.”
He sits back on my hard little couch and crosses his arms. I am crouched in the one comfortable chair I own. “No, I mean about Dan. You can’t let him get away with this.”
“He already got away with it, Javier.”
“You have to confront him.”
“I was in love with him.” It’s a big deal for me to admit this to Javier, especially knowing what we know now, but when he looks uninterested, I am not surprised: there are several emotions he doesn’t “do,” and love is at the top of the list. Tears well in my eyes again. I’ve never understood the expression “have a good cry.” I hate crying, it makes me feel like shit.
“You’re going to meet with him,” he says. He looks strangely inspired, as if channeling from the Other Side. “You’re going to make him feel like such an asshole he’ll want to shoot himself.”
“He won’t agree to see me,” I say. I don’t want to see him either. Once was enough, I felt like I’d been kicked in the throat. I walked out the front door immediately afterward without saying a word to Sandra. Ghee’s brie and chutney tart will have to be the extent of my repertoire because obviously I’m not going back to Sur La Table.
“Absolutely he will see you,” Javier says. He seems so confident I believe him. He looks at me as if he smells something rank. “Where in God’s name did you get that robe?”
“Nadine,” we both say at once.
I have hundreds of useless numbers in my phone. Businesses that no longer exist, doctors I never consulted, former work friends I failed to keep in touch with—I even have my grandmother’s number and she’s been dead for eleven years. I wonder if my number is still in Dan’s contacts. If it’s not, and I bet it isn’t, he won’t know who it is when I call. He answers on the second ring.
“Laura,” he says. I feel flattered for half a second that he has kept my number, though I know it’s as meaningless as me keeping my grandmother’s. I have worked myself up for three days and now I am mute. I’m at The Chicken Box, but it’s only Noddy and me because it’s early afternoon on a Sunday. He frowns and mouths you okay? I nod and flash a smile.
“I hear your ex-wife is a pistol,” I say to Dan.
“Ah,” he says. “What do you want?”
He sounds like he expects me to ask him for money. Maybe I will. “An explanation,” I say. “For starters.”
There’s a long silence, then, “Isn’t it obvious, Laura?”
He’s right, it is obvious, painfully so. “Meet me at The Chicken Box in an hour,” I say.
“That dive? You’re still going there?”
“An hour,” I say and hang up. Too late, I realize he didn’t say he would come. I wonder if I should call back. Skinny John comes in and orders a shot of tequila. I don’t ask for it, but Noddy pours two shots and gives me the second one. The place smells strongly of Pine Sol and the floor has mirrors of water here and there from being recently mopped.
I sit down in one of the vinyl booths beyond the bar and text Javier that I have secured a rendezvous with Dan. Then I scroll through Zillow and find Dan’s home. Four bedrooms, four and a half baths, 4052 square feet, 1.33 acres. A lot of room for a childless couple. The house is worth a million six. I try to imagine living there myself, but I can’t keep the fantasy afloat in my mind.
I am startled when Dan slides in across from me. He is wearing the same shorts he had on the other night, while I look like I’m going to an afternoon fete in a dress made of scraps of lace that I found at a vintage store.
“I don’t want to hear it,” he says before I can speak. “So I lied to you. So what. You’re the biggest liar I’ve ever known. People in glass houses, Laura. Take a look at yourself. Sure, we had fun for a while, but no way was I going to uproot my life for you.”
“I never lied to you,” I say. That’s true, but it doesn’t matter now. The familiar scent of his aftershave stirs something in me, but I can’t connect the breathless love I once felt with the man sitting before me. His head seems overly large, his face fleshy; his drooping brow creates a dark crease at the bridge of his nose and his eyelids weigh heavy on his eyes. I am ashamed he humiliated me, shocked by my naiveté, but I wouldn’t look twice at him now and the fact feels magical, wondrous. Splendid, I think. Let’s have some fun. “I want to tell you something I think you should know. Sandra and I had a long talk. She’s just lovely, by the way. The thing is, she’s seriously thinking of leaving you.”
Noddy puts a glass of beer on the table before Dan. Dan takes a generous sip that leaves a residue of foam on his upper lip. “Bullshit,” he says. “Don’t even try.”
“Okay.” I signal for the check.
“What did she say,” he says. I’m surprised it’s that easy.
“Well.” I sigh as if it pains me to tell him. “She wants a baby. Tick, tock. You know. The old biological clock. She’s still young enough to find someone else who will give her all the babies she wants.”
He sits back and drags his hand across his face. Pow! I think gleefully. A nerve has been hit.
“Is she seeing someone?” he says.
“Yes, but it’s not serious yet. Just flirting and lunches. He’s a gynecologist.” I always thought a gynecologist would make a great lover, and it seems Dan agrees because he raises his eyebrows.
I shiver at the grossness of the idea. Only a man would think that up. “No. She met him at some party you two went to, so he probably works at your hospital.” There couldn’t be that many male gynecologists at the hospital. I watch him mentally shuffle through them. “My impression is she’d give up this guy if she got pregnant. But you don’t want kids.”
He opens his mouth and closes it. “I do too,” he says hotly, as if I’ve accused him of something.
It kills me a little how much he wants to hang on to Sandra. He and I broke up because he’d had enough of me. Javier says I’m too “extra,” that I exhaust the guys I date.
“Have you ever been unfaithful to Sandra?” I say. “Will you be?’
“Never,” he says. “That’s the truth.”
“She wants a beach house,” I say. Why the hell not. He’s always been tight with a buck and a beach house will gouge his bank account. I can feel myself forgetting I ever cared, like air escaping a balloon. Sandra can have him and good luck to her. When she’s fifty he’ll be seventy-five.
He looks as if he’s dying to use the bathroom, but really he just wants to leave. He puts a twenty on the table and practically runs out of the bar. He’ll knock up his wife and buy her a beach house and at least someone will be happy for what will doubtless be a limited period of time.
Noddy comes over and slips the twenty into his apron pocket. “I remember that guy,” he says.
“We had a thing a few years ago,” I say. “He wanted to marry me.”
“Not near good enough for you,” he says and lumbers away with Dan’s half-empty glass.