By Jane Finlayson
“Arils?” Deb stopped digging the flesh from the out-of-season pomegranate imported from god-knows-where and held up sticky hands in surrender. The juice dripped and wound around her wrists like a henna tattoo. She squinted up at Doug sitting on the porch.
“That’s what they’re called.” He pointed at the pomegranate. “The seeds.”
“How do you even know that, since you never eat them.”
“Don’t know. Read it, I guess.” He shrugged and went back to reading his paper.
Doug’s trivia quotient was staggering. He might as well have been Alex Trebek, the way he made her feel like it was always Final Jeopardy and she had to come up with the answer in thirty seconds to win with him. Last week it was “flaunching” or “flange”, whatever, when he described a chunk of old mortar that had sailed down from the chimney and crash-landed on his deck. There was Doug, seriously explaining stuff about the structural base of the chimney pot. Yada, yada, yada. A pity he didn’t have a mute button. And thank Christ she still had her condo, even if she was rarely there and spent most of her time at Doug’s.
Ever since they ended up sort of living together in an unspoken arrangement designed mostly around convenience, Deb had tried – tried hard – to feign interest in some of the mundane household details that eternally fascinated him. Composting without attracting raccoons. (As if!) His rain barrel. Shaving cents off his hydro bill. No more pesticide, which meant hours of digging out dandelions at the root and then complaining about his sore back. He had gone very Green. She supposed that was a good thing, since even she had started using her appliances during off-peak hours. She also bought a rack to avoid using the dryer, except for the towels because why fake that rough was okay when fluffiness and the sweet soft smell of Fleecy are what anybody really wanted. The home spa effect, was it so bad? On the occasions when she felt guilty about little indulgences, she consoled herself that she had stopped buying plastic bottles and happily drank tap water.
Still, she thought Doug was increasingly odd these days. Now that they were both on the wrong side of forty-five, he had started to obsess about his sometimes erratic, somewhat softer erections (his interpretation). Never mind the bum knee that sometimes locked at the worst possible moment. Not that she was any big prize, of course, with her baggy breasts sliding south and sideways, and, god knows, the thinning of her once-luxuriant bush that used to pretty much guarantee unbridled excitement in the eye of the beholder. Wonderful it was, back in the day when no one had heard of a Brazilian and thongs were something you wore on your feet. Another thing, it was hard to get him to sit still, be still, never mind the meditation classes he had taken and the fact that he thought he was the very picture of Zen, or at least a sensitive New Age kind of guy.
Deb made no secret of the fact that her one true talent was sitting, quite happily, watching paint dry. She figured it made up for the dim, desperate years drowning in diapers and non-stop demands when she was in her Intense Mother phase and never sat down for an uninterrupted meal or had any decent conversation. No wonder Tom just walked out, got a perm and moved back West with a bouncy sweet young thing who also promised to adore him forever but then dumped him anyway. Deb had finally figured it out: He had found the age-old excuse and called it love to just kiss his unexamined life goodbye because that was easier than finding out why he had evaporated in the baby equation. She often puzzled over who had really disappeared first and realized she still hadn’t a shred of understanding of what had gone wrong.
Sometimes Doug’s devotion to detail and precision made her laugh; sometimes it pissed her off. Today, as she sat on his front step enjoying the soft, lush hum of this June afternoon, she was surprisingly neutral, going with the flow. Just chugging along, digging at her arils (who knew?) and thinking Hey, a Baltic cruise would sure be nice in the fall if only I would just win one of the splashy grand-prize packages in that cancer hospital lottery. Doug would love it, a chance to bone up on somewhere he had never been and then grill her about the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
There were new neighbors moving in next door, and Deb had been mildly conscious of the crew unloading furniture and an infinite number of boxes throughout the afternoon. She was still digging at the arils when the moving van pulled out of the driveway, unloading all done. She sensed motion and turned to see a tall, slender woman wandering across the lawn, smiling and waving a bottle of wine at them. Deb had been moping around like some Queen of Doom ever since her son Rob and the new girlfriend went north to work for the summer, maybe longer. So this new person floating toward her bearing gifts was worth thinking about.
“Hey, new neighbors. I’m Nicky. That’s Dave,” she tossed her head toward the driveway at a gangly guy hip-hopping along the asphalt like a reluctant dance partner with a box marked “Tools”.
“Hiya. Welcome. Need a hand?” asked Doug.
“Nah, we’re good. But thirsty! Can we tempt you?”
“Sure thing. Twist my arm,” laughed Deb, folding her arm high behind her back and faking agony. “I’m Deb. Nice to meet you. This is Doug.”
Deb was glad to see it was a nice bottle of rose in that curvy bottle from Provence because she and Doug were deep into Anything-But-Chardonnay as they slowly moved from winter reds into summer whites. Oak, schmoak. Who needed to be chewing on a pencil, they had agreed.
“Grab a seat and I’ll get some glasses,” Doug said, jumping up from his chair.
Nicky fell into the chair gratefully and smiled at Deb.
“What are you going to do with them?” pointing at the arils.
“Make a fabulous dessert someone at work emailed me. Easy as pie, but not actually pie. Basically my kind of baking. No measuring or fiddly shit or even cooking anything. Just three ingredients all mixed up at the last minute!”
“So what is it?”
“Blood-on-the-mountain. Something like that.”
“Great name, eh? Definitely a showstopper. Okay. Here’s the secret: Pomegranate seeds. Do you know the real name is arils? Whipped cream and crushed meringues. You buy a box of those President’s Choice meringue nests, dump them into a Ziploc bag and smush them until they’re chunky. Then just mix it all together and serve it as fast as you can before anything gets too soggy. Let me tell you, it’s a wow.”
“Very cool,” said Nicky. “Gotta try it. That is if I ever get unpacked and actually cook again. God, how I hate moving.’
“You and me both. Totally exhausting, no matter how you do it.”
“How long have you lived here?” asked Nicky.
“This is Doug’s house. I have a condo in midtown.”
“Oh, sorry. I just assumed.”
“Don’t be sorry. I’m here a lot. Most of the time, really. We just like to keep our own space, even though we aren’t, if you know what I mean. It’s kinda crazy, keeping up two places,” said Deb. “But …”
“I get it,” said Nicky. “The space thing, I mean. No need to explain. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to live with Dave, never mind get married. But here we are,” she laughed.
Doug and Dave were nowhere in sight.
“Hang on a sec,” Deb stood up. “I’ll go see what’s up with the guys and the wine.”
From the kitchen window, she saw Doug looking up at the chimney and Dave following the arc of his pointing hand and nodding like he also had an important opinion about mortar. Deb assembled the tray and wine glasses and rooted around for the corny cocktail napkins that somebody gave Doug for his birthday that always got a laugh –“Please go home it’s past our bedtime!” Then she thought Nicky and Dave must be hungry after moving all day, so searched for something – anything – that could do as an appetizer.
The thing was, if they truly were living together as a couple, Deb knew she would always have something presentable on hand to serve in a pinch. At least a bag of almonds, or some olives and a small log of garlicky goat cheese that she could serve with rice crackers. But no, she was not the Domestic Goddess here. All along, she’d been kind of half-in. Lately, she’d maybe been half-out. Finally she found half a bag of stale No Name pretzels. She wondered: What does this man eat when I’m not around?
“Head on back to the porch, I’ll be right out with the vino,” she heard Doug tell Dave.
When Doug walked into the kitchen, he was surprised to see her. “Hey, hon, I was getting the drinks. Just wanted to show Dave around. He seems like an okay guy. Works at a trust company. Has a couple of kids, one of each, I think he said, away at school. Anyway, they’re not Nicky’s. Belong to the starter wife.”
Doug wandered out, probably to get Nicky’s details. When followed with the pretzels, Doug was giving Dave and Nicky the lowdown on the neighborhood, ticking off his carefully thought out random tips one-by-one on his fingers. The recycling schedule. The kid across the street who shoveled snow for almost nothing. The memorial stone in the triangle park at the end of the block for that girl who was lured from home and murdered by some wacko posing as a sports photographer at the university. The dog that roamed off leash and always crapped on the same spot on their lawn. The avid gardener who happily gave away the perennials he divided each year when he was mucking about doing his yard clean up. The neighbor on the other side who peed in his garden then smoked a cigar at five every morning and sometimes borrowed their Globe but always put it back on the front door mat before Doug and Deb got up.
“You’re kidding, right?” asked Dave.
Doug paused: “About what?”
“The guy peeing, smoking and stealing your paper.”
“Nope. That’s what he does, like clockwork.”
“Don’t you say anything to him?”
“Why would I?” Doug looked puzzled. “He’s harmless. A geek engineering professor. Retired. He always returns it, folded up. What the hell.”
Dave looked at Doug as though he were the geek professor. Take that Mr. Trust Company, thought Deb as she passed the stale pretzels. There was a momentary lull before Nicky finished the last of her wine and broke the silence.
“We’d better get going. Tons to get settled tonight. Hey, you guys have been lifesavers. Thanks a lot. We’ll have you over once we figure out what goes where.”
After they left, Doug returned to his paper and Deb carried the empty glasses to the kitchen sink. She turned on the tap and squirted in a shot of the putrid citrus dish soap Doug always bought. Next time she went shopping she was going to pick up the aloe-almond-papaya dish soap she’d seen last week. Maybe get some good goat cheese and those pricey organic seed crackers for the next time they had company. Yeah, time to make the place more her own. And maybe they’d invite that engineer over. Hell, a guy who pees in his garden at five every morning – he’s gotta be fun to know.
Category: Featured, Short Story