First Date

Ping Pong Players by Milton Avery

 
 

“I see London, I see France,” Benny coos as Fay, ahead of him, climbs the sunlit stairs to the gallery.

 

They are at the Art Institute, where Fay works as a conservator. Today isn’t a workday. It’s a beautiful fall Saturday, and she’s dragging him to a Milton Avery exhibit. It’s also six months to the day that they first met – had their first date, so to speak.

Her dress isn’t scandalously short. It’s that she doesn’t have a slip to wear beneath its thin cotton. She threw away the only one she owned when its elastic grew so tired that it trailed down her hips and peaked from her hem.

Fay turns to shush him, and to smile – Benny has no shame, calling notice to her underwear on a crowded stairwell.

The gallery is as packed as the stairs. It’ll be hard to get him to stay. Should she have picked another day, waited for the crowds to slacken? No. She loves Avery, she’s eager to have Benny love him too.

Together, they move too quickly through the first room, trying to beat the surge. Already, she senses Benny doesn’t like the paintings. Where are the faces, he wants to know. “The colors, they’re kind of washed out, wouldn’t you say?”

“Saturated,” she counters.

She takes his arm and draws him close to a pair of faceless ping-pong players. To the detail he seems unwilling to see: the ice-blue crisscross of net, the shaded white ball striking the table.

“I love his wit,” she says.

By the time they are three rooms on and surrounded by the soft hues of dunes and grasses and sea, she’s given up on winning him over to Avery.

“Sandbar and Seabirds,” Benny reads indifferently. Then claims, “I see a woman on her back.”

As if they were playing I Spy. She half listens as he traces the silhouette in the line of the shore.

“Look. She’s pregnant.”

Fay grunts, reluctant to concede the bulging belly of the sandbar, the hint of a breast above it. If only he’d be quiet.

At the next painting, Fay closes her eyes so she can open them to a red sea, brushed with purple waves, and find the faint tangerine moon sitting on the horizon.

She can feel Benny impatient behind her. When she turns to him, he pulls her close, puts his hands to her face and kisses her, here in the gallery, amidst all these people. Mortified, she holds her lips tight, but then gives in to the thrill of it, to his chutzpah.

His hands linger on her face as he pulls his lips away. He hesitates, then smiles.

“Marry me, Fay. Will you?”

She can’t believe he’s asking her now. In the museum. Among strangers. Jealous of her affection for Avery.

He loves her, and she, him. She whispers, “Yes.”

***

 

Weeks later, Fay sits across from Benny’s uncle, Sam, at a linen-draped table.

In the amber light of Roza’s Kitchen, Sam almost looks healthy. His bones stand out more sharply than when she first met him, and his skin sags from them a little, reminding Fay of the pumpkins that will soon go soft on people’s stoops.

Sam’s vetting her, Fay knows. She’s worn her best fall outfit despite the lingering heat: a buttery corduroy skirt, a muted orange turtleneck with sleeves to her elbows. She won Sam’s approval early on, but it’s one thing to approve the girlfriend of the nephew you’ve fathered like a son, another to accept his bride.

Their waiter serves them pork and dumplings, the house specialty Sam’s insisted she try. Fay looks at her plate, and with her fork, gingerly, lifts a slice of the pork. It’s pink on both sides.

Sam watches her, clearly amused. “Forget what your mother always told you. It won’t kill you. It’s smoked. That’s why it’s still pink.”

She cuts a bite and chews. Swallowing, she says, “It’s good.”

“You see. I’m a dying old man who knows good.”       

“Sam, don’t,” she says gently. He is dying, of lymphoma.    

But who is she to stop him from acknowledging his fate?

Benny would like to. It’s too much for him to hear Sam allude to his funeral, to mock the rabbi droning on about him. Instead of saying so, Benny sulks. And she, and Sam, must coax him back to civility.

“I’m sorry,” Sam says. “Naming it – my death – in everyday conversation. Making fun sometimes. It seems to be … my way to carry on. I don’t think enough about the effect it has on all of you.”

“You shouldn’t,” Fay decides. (How pleased she is to be included in his ‘all.’)  “I shouldn’t have … objected. It’s up to us. I mean, we can cope. Surely we can do that for you.”

She will talk to Benny.

Sam bows his head. “I don’t – ”  He closes his eyes for moment, presses his lips. Then he sets his knife and fork across a good portion of his pork and nudges his plate away. He’s barely nibbled his dumplings.

“Won’t you eat a little more?”

“Not yet. When you finish, we’ll get a pot of their coffee. It’s creamy and sweet and tastes slightly of orange. I’d come here every day for it if I could.”

“But it’s too far!” Fay says, alarmed at the prospect of Sam driving from Evanston to the southwest side of the city.

“Today is an exception. I was up to it, and I remember that you grew up not far from here.”

She nods. “Just south of the expressway.”

“Now remind me, because I’ve already forgotten, how you and Benny met.”

“We met at the Newberry. The Newberry Library. He had just argued his way into the rare book room, by telling the librarian he was a doctor. Neo-natal ward. Preemies. The worst cases. We could all hear him.

“We were rooting for him. Well, I was. Because I knew what he meant when he told Ms. Thompkins that the room had always calmed him.”

“I used to take him there sometimes when he was young.”

How pleased Fay was that day when Benny sat down across from her and pulled on the required gloves, pressing the cotton down between his fingers. She watched him and felt a tug – as if the cotton was pulling taut inside her. His presence had already changed the room, the library lamps shone brighter, the book cradles beneath them gleamed. She watched him accept the book he’d requested and set it into its cradle, as if it were a newborn. He had an elegant nose, full lips.

“When we went for coffee after the library – that was our first date – he told me he’d lied because he couldn’t talk about you and the diagnosis you’d gotten.”

“He sensed that you were special,” Sam says with satisfaction.

Fay raises her shoulders, but she’s pleased that he thinks so. Benny had taken her hand in his that day, when he talked about Sam, when she, in turn, told him her father had died a year before.

“He thought I was a chef when I told him I was researching a recipe. A recipe for a seventeenth century pigment was what it was. We each started out thinking we were someone else.”

“But now you know.”

“I hope so,” she says with a laugh.

 

Does she know? This man she’s agreed to marry. An ardent lawyer. A Jew, though not a practicing one. Fathered by this man who sits across from her because his own father left, went back to Italy and had a life there, a second wife, and died there. Now Sam is dying.

Sam’s quiet as she eats, and she thinks that she should ask about his work. He is still working. Men of his generation, and even their nephews, expect that. But how to frame an intelligent question, when she knows nothing of his field. Sam’s a virologist, he works on DNA.

She finishes her pork, and Sam signals the young man who is their waiter.

“Is it Joseph?” she asks. “Is that his name?”

“Yes, it is.”

Joseph smiles and teases, could it be Roza’s coffee that they’d like to have?   

It’s not long before he brings it in a ceramic pot. When he asks to clear Sam’s plate, Sam says he’ll keep it.

“Let me warm it for you then.”

At once Fay realizes the care with which Sam is treated here, understands his fond connection to the place, the wide net of his friendships.

“Thank you for bringing me here.”

“I’m glad you like it – even the pink pork.”

Sam’s plate is whisked to the kitchen, and Joseph returns with a sugar bowl and creamer to match the pot of coffee. He pours it into small white cups and sets the pot beside its mates.

Fay admires them. “These are mid-century modern.”

It’s not just their shapes, both slender and squat. All three pieces are speckled with mint green dots the size of nickels. Their centers are brown.

“They’re like little galaxies,” she says, “speckled with stars.” She runs her fingers over the warm pot. “They’re indented. Like brown black holes. Or maybe suns. Beautiful.”

Sam sets his cup on its saucer. “That’s what you bring to your work, isn’t it? That sensibility. I’m glad to get a glimpse of it.”

Self-conscious, she takes a long breath, and then her first sip of coffee. “My God, this is good.”

Sam is presented, not by Joseph but by someone who’s come directly from the kitchen, with an entirely new meal, this time in smaller portions.

“Now I’ll have to eat,” he says to Fay.

She agrees.

 

“Most people,” she tells him, “mistake me for a curator – that’s always the confusion. Once they get the right word – conservator – they’re quick to reframe it. Oh, a restorer. And it’s easier to agree that I fix broken things than to explain that restoration is only a part, not the whole of the field.”

Even Benny loses sight of the distinction. His work is filled with contract reviews, the minutiae of mergers, other absorbing corporate issues. He has yet to visit her lab.

“In your lab,” Sam says, “what’s your day like? No, I take that back. My lab hasn’t had a typical day in years. Why should yours? What will you do on Monday? That’s what I’d like to know.”

What a man.

She tells him how she’s working on a seventeenth-century altarpiece – Mary and the Christ child surrounded by angels. How the polychromy then used a technique called Lüsterfassung. Basically, illumination. After the ground was applied, parts of the sculpture were gilded with gold or silver leaf and the color applied over that. The metal leaf underneath brightened this last layer.

Sam, chewing, nods. Fay’s pleased that he’s eating.

“What’s unusual about this piece is that the colored glaze on Mary’s robe and on the wings of the angels is so thick that the silver leaf has little illuminating effect. The glaze was made of coarse particles of smalt.”

“And smalt is?”

“It’s deep blue. A mixture of silica, potash, and cobalt oxide. But the smalt on our piece is greenish-blue. Damaged, I think, by the binding media when the piece was overpainted. Most likely in the nineteenth century.”

She stops. She is wary of explaining her work. She left out just now the gesso, the bole, terms that make Benny droopy with boredom.

“God is in the detail,” Sam says, clearly delighted, and Fay smiles in relief.

“So, what will you do?”

“Clean it first. I’ll take off the layers of overpaint.”

“And how do you do that?”

“Slowly. With a solvent and a cotton swab.”

“The devil is in the detail too.”

“Yes! Maybe the pigment and the binding media in the overpainting were mixed improperly. That could be why the piece is discolored.”

 

She could go on, she could so easily go on, but suddenly she’s aware of the two of them, in this Polish restaurant in Cicero. Of Sam listening. That he’s eaten most of his food. That she has most of a cup of flawless coffee, now cold.

“Top up your coffee,” Sam tells her. “It will have gotten cold.”

Isn’t it for the best that when she’s with Benny, he keeps her from going on? As if he’s minding her art capital, making sure she doesn’t squander it.

But Sam, Sam’s the one who should be selfish, who ought to be filling his needs – not hers. His wants and whims, like coming here, ordering his favorite coffee.

Suddenly, too, his generosity floods her. That he should choose to spend time with her, a woman he barely knows, will not have time to know. Listening, asking.

If she doesn’t do something to distract herself, she’ll cry. She picks up the coffee pot, shakily fills her cup, before she looks up. There are tears on Sam’s cheeks.

“I want to see your work,” he says quietly. “Not only now. I don’t want to die.”

Fay puts her hand over his, circles his wrist with her fingers. His skin is as smooth as a young man’s. Cool.

Sam dabs his tears. Fay closes her eyes to give him a moment, though she still holds his hand. She surprises herself, thinking, if. If he were a generation younger. If it were he she had met in the Newberry.

He slips his hand from hers and seems to sense that they need a few moments more before they speak. He unbuttons the cuff on the wrist she’s just held, folds back his shirt sleeve in a negligible way. The other sleeve as well, as if he were about to carry their dishes to the sink and plunge them into hot suds.

Fay watches as she watched Benny in the library – unabashedly. She hasn’t seen a thing so … seductive. The pale white of his inner arms as his pushes his sleeves to his elbows. The now faint blossom beneath one arm’s crease, where he’s had an intravenous. The vein itself, blue … as smalt.

She brings her cup to lips, as if she could hide her face with it. Her face that must divulge what she’s feeling.

“You know of course,” Sam says solemnly. “You must know. That you have my blessing. You and Benny.”

What can she say? No? Don’t. She bows her head over her cup, as if to accept it.

 

 

 

Author's Comment

I’m in the process of turning a loose and gangly draft of a novel into a collection of stories. In “First Date,” I expanded and deepened a scene in which Sam takes Fay, his nephew’s fiancée, out to lunch. Over the course of that meal, Fay sees the startling difference between the man she’s about to marry and the one who sits across the table from her.

Bio

Jacqueline Ariail has been writing fiction since 1978, alongside mothering and university teaching. Early stories appeared in Woman’s World, O. Henry Festival Stories, and Redbook. Her erotica was published in Fever: Sensual Stories by Women Writers, and in Libido: The Journal of Sex and Sensibility. More recently, two of her short stories were finalists in contests at Glimmer Train and at Narrative magazine. She’s at work on a collection of related stories, and “First Date” is one of these. More than ever, she believes that good fiction provides insight and solace.

8 Comments on “First Date

  1. Rich and touching and believable — I was quite captured by the details of “restoring’ the altar piece…and the narrator’s tender response to the old man’s bare pale arm…her awareness of his gracious interest and superior generosity, compared to her fiance. Thanks for rescuing this material from your “loose novel” and making a stand-alone story from it, the essence is beautiful. you encourage me to try the same!

    1. By all means, do! Try the same. And thank you for your comments. I’m particularly glad you liked the restoring bits. The novel in stories that’s to come will definitely have more of that.

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