written by Leah Freiwald
Alice sees no point in spending money on anti-aging creams. “What can they do for me?” she mutters to herself, “Make me look seventy-one instead of seventy-two?” Neither does she believe in tinting her hair. Steel gray, cut short the way she’s had it for the past thirty years, why change? She doesn’t waste time fiddling with her hair. Or her makeup. A dab of cologne is her only splurge.
Another matter entirely is her figure. She prides herself on weighing only ten pounds more than when she married Jack. To keep in shape she power walks a mile each day, does all her own housework, monitors her BMI, and attends a weekly Pilates class for senior citizens. “Move it or lose it,” she advises her friends, some of whom already require a cane or, worse, a walker.
Alice has always been organized. That was how she was able to run the house capably while she managed Jack’s dental office full-time after the children left until he sold his practice last year. To accommodate their both being at home, she’s devised a routine that gives them some space. Mornings she straightens up and performs one household task, such as cleaning the refrigerator. Afternoons she catches up on her email, especially if there’s a note from their daughter Anne in Paris or the briefest update from their son Theo in Syracuse.
Sometimes she shops online for bargains; however, she rarely buys new clothes. She can still wear whatever is in her closet, even her favorite twenty-year-old jacket. Nobody pays attention to how she looks anyway, she tells herself. Not even Jack. The last time she wore a new dress, he didn’t notice. He sits most of the day at his computer analyzing the stock market, occasionally talking to his broker.
Alice has never been the sort of person who chats on the phone. When she needs to call someone, if perhaps one of the members of her book club is ill, she sticks to the reason for the conversation and makes it as brief as she can. Anne is the exception. Once a week she and Jack skype Anne, usually early Sunday morning when it is early evening in Europe. They can see and hear their grandsons, almost as if they are in the same room. Of course, it’s not really as good as if Anne and family lived nearby; the boys are really thousands of miles away. Theo texts and emails but usually does not call. He’s too busy writing his latest scholarly article.
In good weather Jack often goes with Alice for a stroll around their San Francisco neighborhood. They’ll pass the nail salons and bars and stop at a coffee house. “Would you like a pastry?” Jack will say. She’ll shake her head, “No, not for me, you go ahead.” Half-consciously she’ll pull in her stomach and straighten her posture. Her mother, dead now for many years, would have approved. She told Alice from the time she was tiny that no well brought up girl slumps or lets her tummy pooch out.
Jack has never needed to watch his weight. All in all, he’s an attractive older gentleman. Silvery hair, trim goatee. He is always presentable. When Alice looks at him, when he is unaware, she glimpses the handsome young man she fell in love with. She does not try to imagine what he sees when he looks at her now. No doubt should she go first, there’ll be a crowd of women eager to console him for his loss. And it might not, after all, seem to him a great loss. Ages ago she stopped worrying he might become interested in someone else. Well, not entirely. She did pick his dental hygienists carefully, turning away those who were too pretty or too sexy. If he did—does—find another woman attractive, he’s never said so. To seem nonchalant, a good sport, good old Alice, she jokes that should he ever decide to leave her, he should replace her with a young nurse. It’s not a very funny joke.
That over time Jack was less and less interested in her, to tell the truth, that hurt. Hurts. So what if that’s what everyone says is inevitable. A pat on the arm, a brief hug, a more than perfunctory dry kiss on the cheek when they part or come together again—she misses those small intimacies. They still share their king-sized bed these days, but they rarely touch during the night. At least, not on purpose. What, she wonders, would happen if she reached out to him? Would he cringe, back away? Even in his sleep? At her annual checkup with her primary physician, the nurse asked, “Are you sexually active?” Alice blushed.
A couple of times a week they go out for dinner. Otherwise, they can be together the entire evening in the same room, Alice with one of her English mysteries, Jack with the newspaper or his laptop, each on an island of silence until she stands up, says “Goodnight, dear,” and waits for his nod of acknowledgment.
Jack calls from downstairs. “Al, are you ready?”
“Almost. In a minute.” She grabs her purse and a scarf. “Where do you want to go tonight?”
“You choose. It’s your turn.”
Alice saves the restaurant reviews for such an opportunity. There’s always a new place to try, at least one highly rated “for foodies” that should appeal to them both. There’s a new Korean barbecue storefront, and a modern comfort food diner nearby. A surprise winner of two Michelin stars on the other side of the city. But tonight she wants to be somewhere familiar. No surprises. She’s had a long day sorting clothes for Goodwill and reorganizing the pantry. A quiet spot where she knows the menu and can be sure of a good meal will do just fine.
“How about Chez Pierre?”
“Really, Al? We’re going to Paris next month. Won’t you have enough French food then?”
“You know, we’ll be with Anne and Michel and the kids, and they’ll vote for the Paris McDonald’s.”
“OK. Chez Pierre it is.”
The restaurant is crowded on a pleasant June evening. The waiter recognizes them and bows slightly to Alice. He offers to seat them outdoors on the front patio. The street is quiet, twilight is settling in. “That’s good,” Jack says, following the waiter out to the sidewalk. Only one other couple is opting for fresh air. They are young, and they seem completely absorbed in themselves.
Alice doesn’t bother to consider the specials. “I’ll have the duck confit,” she says, “with a glass of Pinot.”
Jack laughs. “You’re so predictable, Al. I could have ordered for you in my sleep.”
The waiter looks at him expectantly.
“I’d like the mussels. Are they good tonight?”
“But of course,” the waiter says, reaching for the menus.
“Now who’s predictable,” Alice says, a bit louder than she intended. “You always have the mussels.”
The couple at the next table looks up. They’ve been holding hands while waiting for their dessert. Ignoring the implicit wall that lets diners pretend they are alone, unobserved, the young man says, “The mussels are fantastic.” He points to his bowl of empty shells. The young woman smiles.
Alice tries not to stare. How old can they be? Twenty-two? Twenty-five? That’s how old she and Jack were when they met. The young woman gazes at her partner adoringly. They are both so palpably in love. A tiny diamond twinkles. Oh, they’re engaged. Time and responsibilities have not yet dimmed their glow.
Did she and Jack ever behave like this? Alice searches her memory. At last she recalls a day at Golden Gate Park. She’d fixed a picnic—homemade burritos and a ripe peach apiece. Afterwards they lounged on the blanket outside the glass-walled Conservatory of Flowers and talked quietly. About what? She can’t remember. What she does remember is how incredibly happy she was. It must have been before Theo’s birth. Yes, she was six or seven months along, starting to bulge and waddle. She lay back against Jack’s shoulder, and he gently stroked her belly.
“You’re so beautiful,” he murmured.
“I’m a whale,” she said.
“Not to me.” He leaned down to kiss her.
Then he did the oddest thing. He pulled her up, held her as close as her belly allowed, and said, “Let’s dance.”
“Do you mean it? Here?”
“Sure.” He crooned in his best Elvis interpretation, “Love me tender, love me true,” and they swayed together in the grass.
It was so long ago. Would Jack remember if she mentioned it? She’d rather not find out.
At that moment the waiter comes through the doorway. He balances on one arm the duck and the mussels and, for the lovers, two flaky pastries, each smothered by a mound of ice cream coated in chocolate.
“Bon appetit,” he greets them.
Frowning, Alice concentrates on scraping the last bit of flesh from the duck leg.
“How’s your food?” Jack says.
“Very nice, as always. Maybe a little dry.”
“Here. Try a mussel.” He puts one on her plate.
She glances at it with distaste. “Oh. I don’t know.” She pokes it tentatively.
“Go ahead. It won’t bite you. These are really good.” He turns to the couple to confirm the young man’s judgment.
They are once more aware only of one another. She scoops up a last spoonful of ice cream, eats exactly half, and offers the rest to him, giggling. As if they can read each other’s mind, they both fumble in pockets for cash and pile it on the table. Without a word they rise, join hands, and run down the street.
“What in the world did they order?” Alice asks the waiter.
“Ah, Madame. They had the profiteroles.” He hands Jack the dessert menu. “Toujours l’amour.”
Without looking at the menu, Jack gives it back and says firmly, “We’ll have the same.”
“Are you serious? You can’t be serious.” Alice tightens her diaphragm.
“Why not? We’ve never had profiteroles.” Jack smiles. “Don’t you think it’s time we did?”
“But, but, they must have a thousand calories. Pure sugar.” She didn’t add that they look messy.
“What do we care? Take it from your dentist, at our age we’re not likely to get cavities. I say let’s risk it.” He winks at the waiter. “One profiterole, two spoons, s’il vous plais.”
Alice calculates how far she’ll have to walk tomorrow if she’s to avoid an extra pound or two. She twists the ring on her finger. Maybe Jack is right. They ought to take a risk now and then. Be a little bit unpredictable.
“Relax, Al, you might actually like it. Here’s the deal. You can try it. And if you don’t like the profiterole, I’ll eat the whole thing.” Jack smiles again and, despite her uncertainty, she wants to please him.
When the waiter approaches, he holds the plate with both hands as if it is precious and puts it down in the middle of the table. Unfurling a napkin, he removes two spoons, polishes them, and places one in front of Jack, the other in front of her. “Voila!”
Alice watches while Jack cracks the chocolate surrounding the ice cream and captures some of the pastry, balancing the concoction on its way to his mouth. He beams. “No kidding, you’ve got to have this, Al. It’s terrific.”
“OK. You’ve convinced me. One spoonful. Although I can’t imagine what all the fuss is about,” she says. “And remember our deal. If I don’t like it, you get it all.” She takes a small spoonful. Delicately wipes her mouth.
Suddenly she cannot speak. Words are inadequate. The vanilla ice cream slides down her throat all too quickly, a chill tingle. The chocolate sauce is richly thick, the pastry is a fluffy bit of air. The combination is complex, a hint of bitter, yet overwhelmingly, deliciously sweet. It deserves a five star review.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“No,” she smiles. “I love it. It’s a treat.”
The profiterole is soon demolished. She and Jack reach for the last spoonful at the same time, and their hands touch. Alice trembles when Jack puts down his spoon and, with his hand wrapped around hers, guides it to her mouth.
“For you,” he says.
Alice laughs and accepts the gift. Almost against her will, she feels her stomach muscles relax. Then, before she can check the impulse, she stands up and awkwardly clasps Jack’s hands, pulling him up.
“Let’s dance,” she says.
To her immense relief, he laughs and holds out his arms. Slowly they begin to circle the table. In her ear he hums a waltz, “La da da DA DA, la la, la la. La da da la la.”
“Is that the Blue Danube?”
“Oh no, my dear, can’t you tell? Listen carefully. It’s the Profiterole Waltz.”
Round and round they waltz. Alice sinks into Jack’s arms. He hums louder. “La da da Da Da.” They are now oblivious to all but Jack’s voice.
The people inside the restaurant cease eating. They clap and cheer. The waiter stands in the doorway clapping. He tiptoes out and drops the bill on the table. Jack and Alice ignore him. The cheering grows louder and louder. One man whistles.
The dancers finally look up. Alice hides her face against Jack’s chest.
“Let’s go home,” she whispers.
“Yes, let’s go home.”
I live in San Francisco with my husband and a frisky terrier who walks me up and down the hills. After a PhD at Berkeley, I taught at UC San Diego, the University of Surrey in the UK, and in the graduate writing program at the University of San Francisco.Leah Freiwald