Early Saturday morning, Eli and Charlotte lie in bed drinking coffee, enjoying what grainy sunlight the park allows into their window. Their silence is so companionable, each other’s presence so soothing, that they can listen, in perfect contentment, to the noises outside their loft. Traffic, car horns, parents packing to leave for the weekend, shouting at kids, slamming car trunks.
They talk about Daisy, who’s begun kindergarten at the local public school and seems happy. They talk a little about their work.
It’s only when they get to the question of what to have for dinner that Charlotte says what she’s avoided saying too soon after Eli wakes up.
“You do remember that Rocco’s bringing his new girlfriend for dinner?” How could Eli remember when she hasn’t told him?
She’s never sure why her brother always wants them to meet his girlfriends, most of whom have turned out to be seriously unbalanced. He wants to see if they approve, but it’s never clear how, or if, their feelings influence his.
Eli says, “Great. Hide the valuables and don’t cook anything too delicious.”
Charlotte laughs, a giggle she makes when someone (usually Eli) kills a hope that she knows is unrealistic. Each time Rocco brings over a girlfriend, Charlotte hopes she’s the one, though she hates the idea of the one. She wants her younger brother to be happy, to have someone to love him and help him, someone kind and decent and conscious. Or at least sane.
In therapy, Charlotte and Ted have discussed the possibility that Charlotte might be ever so slightly possessive and territorial about her brother—the way she is about her daughter. And maybe that’s why she’s so critical—hypercritical—of Rocco’s women.
But Charlotte didn’t imagine what those women actually did. Mae-Lynn came to dinner with a bag of organic broccoli crowns and a beaker of distilled water in which she insisted they steam them. The girlfriend after that, Kathy, stole from them, never anything expensive, but always something treasured, which was the point. Daisy’s beloved stuffed giraffe, Eli’s favorite fountain pen, a business card from a man who told Charlotte he’d developed a solution that made cut flowers last longer. Each time there was a frantic search, especially for Raffi, the giraffe. Kathy is out of Rocco’s life, but Charlotte will never forgive her for pretending to look for the toy when she had it all along. Charlotte had been so afraid that the dust kicked up by their search would bring on one of Daisy’s asthma attacks.
Rocco has trouble breaking up with these women. Underneath his surface toughness is a good guy who can’t bear to hurt anyone and has that male terror of women’s tears. He re- fused to believe Charlotte when she suggested that Kathy was a kleptomaniac. He didn’t end the relationship until he found, in her tote bag, a framed photo of him and Charlotte, on the steps of their childhood farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. The photo must have been taken not long before their mother burned down the house and got sent away.
Rocco couldn’t look at Charlotte when he returned the photo. She didn’t need to see his face. She knew that his expression (detached or dreamy, depending on what you wanted to see) would be just like the look on twelve-year-old Rocco in the picture.
Before Klepto Kathy, he dated a woman who ripped out her hair in clumps, and before her the cutter, and before her the nudist, and before her the one who locked herself in their bath- room and swallowed a fistful of antibiotics from the medicine chest.
The stable ones never last long. Boring, Rocco says. He jokes about his love life. But he doesn’t learn from his mistakes.
Why should Charlotte feel responsible? If she wants some- one to blame (and who doesn’t?), it should be their mother, who, acting on some selfish childish romantic impulse, named them after Charlotte Brontë and Mr. Rochester. Mom should have been a character in a nineteenth-century novel; that’s how she imagined her life until Dad took off and moved to the city to live with an intellectual property lawyer who consulted for his law firm.
That stress must have been too much for him. He died two years later, of a heart attack.
Mom survived, more or less. After Dad left, she evicted their tenant, who taught at a college nearby and lived in the attic rental apartment in their family home—on the farm they’d inherited from Mom’s parents and rented out to local farmers.
Mom moved into the apartment and left the house—and Rocco—to Charlotte. When that failed to bring Dad back, Mom really went off the rails. After she burned down the house, a fire that almost killed Rocco, she had a choice: either jail or a stay at a hospital, the latter of which she agreed to because its inmates included movie stars. After a while she was released, more or less cured. For a short time she lived with Rocco in an apartment in Hudson while Charlotte went to college. Neither Mom nor Rocco did well, and Rocco got into trouble, drinking and doing stuff that Charlotte doesn’t like to think about now.
Not long after Rocco left home, Mom moved to Mexico. Now she’s living in Oaxaca, still partly on the money from the family farm, which they sold to Andrew John, the Argentine billionaire hobby farmer for whom Rocco works now, trucking perfect vegetables to the Greenmarket in the city.
When Rocco first went to work for Andrew John, he had been drinking heavily. He’d been twice in and out of rehab, for which Charlotte and Eli paid. At the beginning Charlotte feared that her brother might resent working for the owner of the farm they used to own, but Rocco seems to like it.
He’s been sober ever since.
Eli has asked a question that Charlotte is supposed to have heard.
“What’s this woman’s name?”
“We shouldn’t think of her as ‘this one.’ It’s Ruby. No, wait.
Ruth. Rachel. Robin—”
“Don’t worry, he’ll introduce us. Hush. Daisy’s awake.” Their daughter stands in the doorway, clutching the bat-
tered, pouchy giraffe she hasn’t let out of her sight since Klepto Kathy returned it. Daisy took it to kindergarten and over the summer took it to day camp in her backpack. Five seems border- line old for that, but Eli and Charlotte let it go. They feel guilty for exposing her to an adult who would steal a toy.
Inch by inch, Daisy materializes in a white nightgown and a silver headband with two glittery kitty-cat ears.
“Have you guys been smoking?”
“Of course not,” says Charlotte. “You know Daddy and I don’t smoke. You know who it is.” She points down at the floor—at Ariane’s loft, beneath theirs—then puts her finger to her lips, as if Ariane and Drew could hear them talking.
“Right,” says Daisy. “It’s the bad people downstairs.”
Without looking at Eli, Charlotte can feel him looking at her. He’s asked her not to make Daisy so frightened of their downstairs neighbors, who so far haven’t actually done any- thing wrong—except smoke. Charlotte has told Daisy to never ever let Drew get her alone, no matter what he offers her, no mat- ter what he says. All right, Eli’s said. It’s probably a good thing to warn Daisy about. But Charlotte doesn’t have to remind Daisy every few days.
“They’re not bad,” says Eli. “They’re just . . . unhappy.”
Daisy looks from her father to her mother and back. Whom should she believe? Charlotte notices, as she often does, that Daisy looks nothing like her. She takes after Eli’s Panamanian mother. When Charlotte and Daisy are alone, strangers assume she’s adopted, but when Eli’s there, they remark on how much she resembles her father.
As always, Charlotte wonders: Who is that beautiful child?
Then comes the rush of feeling, the pressure in her chest, the shock of a love for which she has no words. She loves Daisy more than anyone. Even Eli, Charlotte secretly thinks, a secret even from herself.
“Climb on board, little. Cuddle up.”
“Pasa, amor,” says Eli.
Daisy approaches cautiously, as if she hardly knows them, as if her real parents have been replaced by actors. She lies down on Charlotte’s side of the bed, stiffly, on the far edge. Charlotte pulls her closer, and Daisy leans into her mother.
Should Charlotte tell her that Rocco is coming? Daisy adores her uncle, but when she finds out he’s bringing someone, she might worry all day. Like Charlotte, she’s a worrier. Both hate surprises. It’s possible that when Rocco and Rachel or Ruby or Ruth arrives, Daisy won’t leave her room, which will cast an awkward pall on the new-girlfriend welcome dinner.
The asthma is the most serious but only one of the things Charlotte frets about. Daisy is too formal, too polite for a little girl. And Klepto Kathy did nothing to lessen Daisy’s distrust of strangers.
This week, in therapy, Charlotte will tell Ted how anxious she was about how Daisy was going to react to Rocco’s new girl- friend.
“Your Uncle Rocco’s coming for dinner.” Silence. “Just him?”
“No,” Eli says. “He’s got a new girlfriend.” “What’s her name?” says Daisy.
“Something with an R. Definitely not Kathy.”
Charlotte can feel her daughter’s relief.
Even better news, for Daisy, is that she won’t have to clean up her toys. Charlotte fears that Rocco’s women will be intimidated by the tasteful perfection of their loft. But she doesn’t like feeling apologetic. So she lets Daisy make more of a mess than usual, to humanize things a little.
Still holding on to her giraffe’s hoof, Daisy half surrenders Raffi to Charlotte.
“Hide him,” Daisy says. “Please. Lock him up somewhere safe.”
“It’s not the same girlfriend,” Charlotte says.
“I know that. You just told me. But I don’t care,” Daisy says. “Lock Raffi up, or I’ll have to stay in my room and guard him.”
“Fine,” Eli weighs in. Finally! “I’ll put Raffi in the safe.” “He’s changed his name,” says Daisy. “To Moses.” “Why ‘Moses’?” Charlotte says.
“Because,” Daisy says.
“Because he was found in the bulrushes?”
Daisy looks up at her mother: coolly, dead-eyed, appraising. “Moses it is.” Eli breaks their mini-standoff. “Moses is going to jail.”
“Not jail,” Daisy says. “We’re protecting him, Daddy.” “He’ll be safe in the safe,” Eli says. “That’s why they call it that.”
When the intercom buzzes, Daisy runs to push the button. She likes to be in control. Eli and Charlotte converge at the door.
Rocco has never gone out with a woman who wasn’t pretty, which may be part of the problem. This one (Ruth? Ruby?) has stylishly streaked red-blond hair and the startled expression of someone who has cultivated a perpetual air of surprise: intelli- gent, but still girlishly sweet and attentive. She’s graceful, and looks even more slight beside Charlotte’s tall, solid brother. But there’s a tensile strength about her; she could defend herself if she had to. There’s something doll-like about how her eyes blink: too fast and then too slowly—Charlotte finds it unsettling. Please, she prays. Not another lunatic. What exactly is she pray- ing to? The god of her brother’s love life?
There’s no reason to think this one’s crazy just because the others were. And her smile is friendly and (even Charlotte has to admit) genuine.
She wears a blue-and-white-striped T-shirt, cropped white cotton pants. A large straw tote bag completes the look of an early-autumn weekend guest.
“This is Ruth,” says Rocco. “My friend Ruth Seagram. My sister, Charlotte; my brother-in-law, mi hermano, Eli. Where’s Daisy?” Rocco pretends not to see Daisy pressed against the back of Eli’s legs.
“I don’t know,” says Eli. “She was here a second ago. Daisy?” Silence. Silence. A braver child would have giggled, would have wanted to give herself away. It’s likely that Daisy won’t say a word to Ruth all evening. Charlotte hopes that Rocco has warned her: It’s not personal.
When Charlotte hugs Rocco, he pats her back, a little too hard, but he means it as love. She hopes. Then she leans over to give Ruth the full-on big-sister open-hearted, open-armed welcome.
Ruth’s embrace is light and relaxed. She neither freezes nor hangs on as if to keep from drowning, like some of Rocco’s girl- friends had. Charlotte finds that reassuring.
For some reason no one seems capable of moving out of the doorway. Either Charlotte or Eli should step back and make some welcoming gesture, but neither does.
Ruth reaches into her tote bag and thrusts a package at Char- lotte. Thinking of Mae-Lynn and her organic broccoli crowns, Charlotte flinches, even as she reminds herself that it’s normal— polite!—to bring a hostess gift.
“Sticky buns,” Ruth says. “Caramel butter walnut. My grandma baked them this afternoon. They’re practically warm from the oven. They’re delicious. Try one.”
“Thank you,” Charlotte says. “I will. We can have them with dessert—”
“I mean . . . try one now.” Ruth means now.
Charlotte waves vaguely back into the loft, toward the kitchen, as if calling as her witness the delicious smell of fry- ing potatoes. Potato pasta—pasta with tiny, deliciously browned potato cubes—is her fallback dish when someone (let’s say her brother) is bringing a guest and doesn’t tell her, or doesn’t know, if the person is vegetarian.
“Smells delish,” Ruth says.
Charlotte dislikes that word, delish—it sets her teeth on edge. And now she gets to dislike herself: her petty snobbishness about language.
“Potato pasta?” says Rocco.
“Duh.” Charlotte regrets her impatience. Her poor brother! He was only trying to show . . . what? Belonging, familiarity. He knows what foods they eat. Around him, Charlotte often wants a do-over. It’s not her fault if her life seems—is—easier than his. Maybe she has better luck.
Growing up in the country with a crazy mother, they were in a class of their own. But after Charlotte married Eli, it got harder to pretend that the differences between her life and Rocco’s life don’t matter. Charlotte wants to hug Rocco again, but doesn’t want Ruth to think she’s being possessive.
“Go ahead. Try them.” Ruth brandishes the paper bag at Charlotte.
Insisting? Imploring? Both.
Charlotte can’t help feeling annoyed. Extremely annoyed. Day after day, she struggles to keep her daughter from eating excessive amounts of sugar, and now their guest has brought a sugary dessert.
Charlotte looks at Rocco. From the corner of her eye she sees Eli silently asking his brother-in-law, hermano, Who have you brought us now?
Rocco smiles a dopey grin that Charlotte can’t remember seeing before. A new expression. That must mean something, or maybe not. Maybe it’s just new.
Eli says, “Why are we standing in the doorway? Please, come in.” But he can’t move without pushing Daisy, who’s still behind him, clinging to his legs, taking baby steps backwards when he does.
Charlotte can’t move, either. It’s as if Ruth’s parcel is casting a spell. Doing the wrong thing could ruin the entire evening. Their whole relationship with Ruth.
Ruth says, “I know this is crazy, but I really want you guys to try these.” Crazy? Now she has their attention. She sets the bag down on the bare wooden floor.
There will be a grease spot! How can Ruth not know? How can Rocco not say anything? Charlotte almost moans. Rocco is watching Ruth. His gaze is approving, or at least not disapproving. In the past Charlotte and Eli noticed he hardly looked at his girlfriends. He didn’t seem to see them. Okay, Charlotte can live with Ruth bullying them into trying her grandma’s sticky buns if Rocco looks at her. If making them eat sweets before dinner is the worst thing she ever does. If Daisy tries a tiny piece and no more.
Ruth repeats, “I know this is crazy.” She’s talking to Charlotte now, the judgmental sister she needs to win over. Maybe she also intuits that Charlotte distrusts women who are overly friendly to Eli, her handsome husband.
“You know how they say that when you pick fresh corn, even if you bring it straight to the table, the sugar starts converting to starch? Well, that’s how it is with my grandma’s baking. They’re best right out of the oven, and then they’re still great but . . . less. Taste them. Every minute that passes, they’re less perfect. Though they’re still pretty good.”
“Fine,” Charlotte says, if only to make Ruth pick the bag up off the floor.
It would never occur to Charlotte to eat a sticky bun stand- ing in the front hall. But Ruth makes it seem as if it would be hostile to refuse or even insist they wait for later. Ruth pries the gooey pastry from a corrugated plastic tray.
“Here. Take a whole one,” says Ruth. “You need to see how my grandma does the icing. It takes her hours and a lifetime of practice to get it right. She says she puts the sun on each one because she wants to bring light and warmth to everyone who eats them. She has this mystical spiritual thing about suns having eight rays. It’s the number of infinity, or balance. I never remember. She knows magical stuff like that.”
The buns are elaborately iced, each with a sugar starburst. It’s the sort of thing that people did before they were working two jobs and raising kids. Charlotte is always touched by home skills passed through generations.
“It’s great your grandma can do this,” she says. “Taste it,” Ruth urges. “Come on. Just a little.”
Daisy emerges from behind her father, unable to resist the spectacle of her mom and her uncle’s girlfriend facing off about sugar.
“I want some too,” Daisy says.
“That decides it,” says Ruth, giving Daisy a double thumbs-up, as if to say: Let’s stand up to your mom.
Ruth doesn’t know that Daisy isn’t so easily won over. Charlotte feels badly for enjoying the fact that Ruth has made a mistake with Daisy.
“Whatever you want, sweetheart,” Ruth says. Charlotte thinks: She’s not your sweetheart.
“Please,” says Daisy. “I really want some.” This can only go one way. Daisy rarely throws tantrums anymore, but there’s no point pushing their luck.
Ruth tears off a feathery chunk and gives one to Eli. Then she pries off an even bigger piece and hands it to Daisy.
No, thinks Charlotte. No. Absolutely no!
Daisy tastes the pastry and breaks into an enormous grin. It’s only a sticky bun, Charlotte knows, but she will never forgive Ruth for this.
She hears her voice shake with rage as she asks Rocco if he wants a sticky bun too.
Rocco says, “I ate one on the way over.”
The older sister in Charlotte thinks a warning about ruining his dinner, even as the grown-up hostess eats the buttery pastry.
“Wow,” says Eli. “This is excellent.”
Charlotte savors the burnt sugar, licks icing off her fingers. “It really is,” she says.
The prickly moment is over. Sugar has beveled down the edges.
Sometimes Charlotte worries that she and Eli care too much about food, another aspect of privilege. Lots of people care about food. Rocco does too, and so, it seems, does Ruth.
“My grandmother is a genius cook.”
“Obviously.” She’s nice, Charlotte thinks. She’s open. She’s just a little . . . jittery.
“Ruth can be bossy,” Rocco says.
Ruth doesn’t miss a beat. “You could call it bossy. Or you could say: Ruth knows when something is good and wants to share it.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Charlotte says, at the same moment Rocco mumbles, “Touché.” It’s hard to tell if he’s being glum or flirtatious. His girlfriends never challenge him. Maybe he’ll like being with someone who shows a little spirit.
Ruth is the first who’s ever brought something good to eat. That alone is endearing. Even if she’s bullied them into eating it before dinner. Even if she’s given Daisy more sugar than Charlotte normally lets her eat in a week.
Eli says, “Ruth, would you like a drink? White wine, red wine, beer, something stronger? Rocco, club soda?”
Charlotte holds her breath, even though Rocco has been sober since before Daisy was born.
“Sure,” Rocco says. “Club soda would be great. Got any lemon?”
“You know we do. You got it,” says Eli. “Ruth?”
“I’ll take club soda too. With lemon.”
“I’m hungry,” Daisy says.
The ease with which Ruth glides onto her knees in front of Daisy reminds Charlotte that Ruth must be at least ten years younger than she is. Daisy shrinks back, as if from a scary dog, but Ruth keeps her in focus.
Ruth says, “Look.” She puts her straw bag aside. Then she puts her hands up, palms out, as if she’s being arrested and waiting to be cuffed.
“I’m not going to take anything,” she says. Rocco must have told her about Klepto Kathy. Maybe this relationship is more serious than Charlotte thought.
Charlotte sees Daisy wondering how this stranger can read her mind. Daisy relaxes, a little. Anyway, Moses the giraffe is safely locked away.
“Watch,” says Ruth. Charlotte has to bend down to see that Ruth is crossing her eyes and jiggling them in their sockets.
“Yuck,” says Daisy.
Ruth bursts out laughing, and Daisy laughs too.
The sound of Daisy laughing with a stranger is as shocking as a scream.
“I bet you’re starving, honey,” says Ruth. “Your Uncle Rocco
and his friend Ruth were almost an hour late. For which we’re so sorry. The traffic, the—”
“Are you Uncle Rocco’s friend?” The subject of friendship
has been newly important since preschool, when Daisy noticed that some girls got more birthday invitations than she did. Daisy was mostly bewildered, but it had caused Charlotte pain, prob- ably more than Daisy. Is there something she should be doing to help her daughter make friends? And what will she do when Daisy does have friends—and she asks to spend the night at a friend’s house?
“I am,” says Ruth. “Your uncle and I are friends.”
“Are you his best friend?”
“I don’t know about that.”
Charlotte wants to hear what Ruth says next. But Daisy gives her mother a warning look. Stay out. This is her conversation. For just an instant, Charlotte feels almost breathless with shock.
Eli gestures at the couch and says, “Please. Everybody sit down.”
In the kitchen, Charlotte slips the pasta into the boiling water. She sees Daisy streak past on the way to her room. Charlotte’s relieved when no one comes in, offering to help.
Finally Eli looks in and says, “What do you need? Give me something to do. I’m begging.”
“She seems nice,” Charlotte says.
“You always think that. At first.” He kisses her forehead, damp with steam.
“Well, isn’t she? Nice?”
“So far so good,” he says. “No special broccoli, nothing sto- len so far, no suicide threats, no . . . But the jury’s still out. Let’s say the jury has learned its lesson.” Charlotte loves the faint traces of accent in Eli’s speech, the way he says yury for jury.
Charlotte says, “I need everybody to sit down. Call Daisy.”
By the time Charlotte brings in the platter of steaming pasta, everyone’s at the table. They all applaud, even Daisy. Charlotte’s mood improves. Her daughter glows in the candlelight. Daisy has parents who love her, good food, a comfortable home. A happier childhood than Charlotte’s was. Isn’t that what everyone wants for their kids?
Charlotte dishes out the pasta. Steam fogs her glasses, and Daisy gently removes them from her mother’s face, wipes the lenses with a napkin, and tenderly replaces them.
“Thank you,” Charlotte says, resenting how the sweetness of the moment is partly spoiled by her awareness of Ruth watching her and Daisy. It almost makes it seem as if they’re performing for this outsider.
“You’re welcome,” says Daisy.
Eating keeps them quiet until Ruth says, “Charlotte, it’s a miracle you can do this. Work all day, run a hugely successful business, and come home and cook something delicious. I mean . . . Rocco told me a little, plus I Googled Buddenbrooks and Gladiola. I love how you said that you named the company after the flower and the novel you’d always overlooked until you understood how amazing they are. I’m so happy when some- thing makes me wake up and smell the coffee. Of course I’d heard about you. Everybody has, if they live in New York and go to parties. Which I used to, all the time. Though not so much anymore.”
Charlotte feels she’s supposed to ask why Ruth doesn’t go to so many parties anymore, but the moment passes.
Ruth says, “Gosh, I hope you don’t think I’m your internet stalker.”Charlotte looks up people, but sometimes she feels uneasy—violated—if people say they’ve looked her up, and at other times she’s insulted if they clearly haven’t.
“Not at all,” Charlotte says. Charlotte looks up people, but sometimes she feels uneasy—violated—if people say they’ve looked her up, and at other times she’s insulted if they clearly haven’t. “And I don’t know about ‘hugely successful.’ Every- body’s working overtime and struggling.”
Ruth says, “This pasta is fantastic.”
“Thanks. It’s really an everyday meal. Anyhow, I didn’t work today. I make time for family. We don’t have a nanny. I try to get out of work in time to pick Daisy up from after-school.” Why is Charlotte trying to prove what a hands-on mom she is?
“Rocco tells me that Daisy’s in public school.”
“Admirable,” says Ruth.
Charlotte’s promised herself not to become one of those parents who ramble on about where their kids go to school and why. She likes Daisy’s school; so does Daisy. It’s nearby, the kids live in the neighborhood, the principal and teachers seem kind and smart and committed. She adores the after-school teachers, who always come up with interesting projects. Charlotte loves the women in charge. They’re all memory prodigies who learn your name—and which child is yours—after meeting you only once.
She’s lost the thread of what Ruth’s saying.
“I wish this was my everyday meal. Though when I went to culinary school—”
“Culinary school?” Charlotte says.
“Those three Tuscan grandmas? Remember? They had quite a moment and then . . . Eli, Rocco tells me you made some genius business decisions.”
“What I said was that my brother-in-law never has to work another day in his life. Go to sleep.com. Justthefood.com. Happytrails.com. That’s mi hermano.”
Rocco’s fond of Eli, but around his girlfriends, he’s critical, even dismissive, as if he fears they might prefer the handsome brother-in-law with the wife, the daughter, the money, the beautiful loft.
“That’s awesome,” says Ruth. “So are you like . . . retired?”
Why has she Googled Charlotte and not Eli? Unless she’s pretending ignorance, the party trick some women learn to make men talk about themselves. Or maybe she’s just being po- lite. There is always that chance.
Eli says, “The fact is . . . now I can do what I want . . .” “Which is . . . ?”
“Set design. I’m working on a production of Macbeth.”
“I love Macbeth. I played Lady Macbeth in high school. ‘Out, out, damned spot. All the perfumes in Arabia . . .’” Ruth stares in mock horror at her hands as if they’re covered with blood, then giggles. “I was good at it. I wanted to be an actress until my drama teacher told me that people would always be telling me to lose weight and fix my nose. And that was a total buzzkill.”
Eli says, “Maybe Lady Macbeth ruined it for you. The bad- luck part, as you probably know. The role that ends a career.”
“Maybe. Well . . . When does your play open? Where?” “You’ve probably never heard of—”
“Try me,” says Ruth. “New Lights.”
“That’s amazing. I’ve been there a million times.”
Charlotte thinks: Has she really?
“I love that you can bring cocktails from the lobby into the theater.”
Maybe she has. Or maybe she did Google Eli.
“So how’s it going?”
“Not great,” Eli says. “The director is a maniac. He wants the witches to fly through the air on harnesses, even though the theater isn’t insured. No one can talk him out of it—”
“Can I be excused?” Daisy has heard this before. “Look! I finished all my pasta.”
“Good girl!” says Ruth. Charlotte shoots her a look that she hopes isn’t as resentful as she feels. Who is this stranger to praise her daughter?
“Sure, sweetheart,” Charlotte says. “I’ll call you for dessert.” “See you later, alligator,” Ruth says.
“In a while, crocodile,” says Daisy.
Eli and Charlotte look at each other. What did their daugh- ter just say? If Daisy has so readily accepted Ruth, maybe she senses something positive. Sometimes Charlotte thinks that her daughter is better at reading people than she is. And maybe it’s not a bad thing that Daisy has taken to someone outside the family.
Suddenly they hear noises coming up through the floor: shouting, screaming. It’s impossible to make out the words, but a slamming door makes everyone jump.
“You crazy bitch!” a man yells.
Eli puts his hands over Daisy’s ears. “Yikes,” says Ruth. “Unhappy couple?”
“The neighbors,” says Charlotte. “Mother and son. Ariane and Drew.”
“Did you say Drew? I used to have a boyfriend named Drew. A total loser, trust me. Definitely one of my worst mistakes.”
There’s a silence.
“Well, then! Does anyone want seconds?” Charlotte says. “I think we need more Parmesan.” Everyone still has pasta on their plates; there’s plenty of cheese in the grater. But she needs to escape to the kitchen and take a breath.
When she returns to the table, Eli and Rocco are deep in conversation. Ruth looks at Charlotte. Talk to me. Please.
“How did you and Rocco meet?”
Charlotte can tell she’s said the wrong thing. Is she sup- posed to know or not know? Did they meet on Tinder or some edgy dating/hookup app?
“Rocco didn’t tell you?”
Now Charlotte gets it. Ruth is upset that Rocco didn’t rush to tell them the thrilling story of his new romance.
“We’ve hardly seen him,” lies Charlotte. Rocco stays with them every Friday and Saturday night when he sleeps over in the city and isn’t staying with a girlfriend. He hadn’t mentioned Ruth until he called to say he was bringing her to dinner.
“We met at the Greenmarket. I was buying kale.”
“Tell them how much kale.” Despite himself, Rocco’s been drawn into the conversation.
“Ten pounds,” Ruth says.
“That’s a lot of kale,” Charlotte says. “Big party? Restaurant work? What do you do, exactly?”
“I’m a survivalist,” Ruth says. “I mean, a survivalist consultant. I help rich people freeze-dry healthy organic foods to stock their panic rooms and bomb shelters.”
“Seriously?” So this one is crazy too. It’s always something they didn’t expect and couldn’t have predicted.
“Ruth’s messing with you.” Rocco smiles. There’s something about her he likes. Her joke hints at a sense of humor. Sort of.
She says, “I work for a start-up.”
Of course you do, Charlotte thinks.
“Every Friday one of the staff cooks lunch for the others, and the day I met Rocco was my turn. I thought I’d make them that amazing kale salad they do at Kanji. The kale is fried tempura-style, then mixed with raisins and walnuts. This young chef worked with David Chang, whom I sort of know. Have you guys eaten there? We should all go sometime. Early. For Daisy.”
“Sure,” says Rocco. “Sometime.”
“You should find out about supplying them, Rocco,” says Ruth. “That would be a whole new market for the farm, organic Chinese greens and whatever.”
“Good idea. I’ll look into it.” Rocco has no such intention. “So what does your start-up do?” Eli asks.
“God’s work,” Ruth says.
Her messing with them is becoming a little much. Unless this time she means it.
“Relief work in Sudan, free schools in Haiti. We finance the saintly stuff by selling rich people junk they don’t need. One of our most profitable ventures has been a website called Experience Hunters International. We have contacts in cities all over the world willing to adopt, for up to five days, a business traveler or a tourist. Not for sex, though we don’t judge. We do track customer reviews.
“The point is to experience life in a different country. Our carefully vetted contacts’ friends are your friends, their hangout spots are your hangout spots. Our algorithms match you with a person who you would be friends with, if you lived there. It’s been very successful, as you can imagine.”
“Charlotte and Eli probably can,” says Rocco. “I can’t imagine, myself.”
“STEP is what the start-up is called,” says Ruth. “Solutions to Everyday Problems. We plow the dirty money from Experience Hunters back into our public-minded programs.” So that’s what Rocco likes about her. She has a social conscience and (unlike Charlotte) is apologetic about working for the rich.
“That’s great,” Charlotte says. Pieces are falling into place. When they were in high school upstate, Rocco led a student- faculty strike to raise the lunch ladies’ salaries and to get them name tags and make the students stop calling them “lunch la- dies,” which they hated.
“How was the kale salad?” Charlotte says.
“Awesome,” says Ruth. “The guys loved it. So . . . Charlotte and Eli, how did you two meet?”
Eli says, “I walked into Charlotte’s flower shop to buy a Valentine’s Day bouquet.”
“For someone else,” says Charlotte. They’ve told this story so often they could do it in their sleep.
“And as she was putting it together, I realized I was buying the flowers for the wrong person.”
“Eli paid for it. Then he handed me the bouquet and asked me to have dinner with him. And here we are, twelve years later.”
Ruth says, “Wow. Can I ask you something else?”
“Of course.” Charlotte braces herself.
“Are you Italian? Rocco’s an Italian name, but he claims he isn’t.”
“We’re not Italian. Rocco’s telling you the truth.” It’s up to Rocco to tell her that his real name is Rochester. Their mother knew whole paragraphs from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by heart. Charlotte assumes Mom’s forgotten all that. Living in Mexico, she mostly speaks Spanish now.
Ruth says, “Have you done Ancestry.com? I did it for my grandparents and me. We’re ninety percent Scandinavian. With a dab of Central Asian. A drop of Genghis Khan. I know this sounds strange, but it felt empowering to be related to one of history’s greatest mass murderers.”
Another silence follows that.
“Just kidding,” Ruth says. “Really.”
“How’s business, Charlotte? Flowers for the One Percent.” Rocco has never hidden his feelings about the fact that most of Charlotte’s clients are rich, or trying to raise money from the rich.
“Blooming,” Charlotte says, as she always does. It drives Rocco crazy.
Ruth says, “What’s your favorite flower, Charlotte?”
Charlotte pretends to think about this as if she hasn’t been asked before. “I’d say foxglove. They look like outer space aliens. You have to see them in the wild.”
One summer, before Daisy was born, Eli drove Charlotte up- state to an enclave built for Victorian billionaires: massive summer mansions with turrets and verandas. A path led through the forest where huge stands of gorgeous foxglove bloomed. They never returned there. Sometimes Charlotte thinks she dreamed it. Foxglove Brigadoon.
“I love foxglove,” says Ruth. “How could something that
gorgeous be . . . natural? But aren’t they . . . poisonous? Loaded with digitalis? Didn’t Van Gogh or somebody like that take giant doses of digitalis and that’s why he painted like that?”
Rocco bristles. “Lots of people take drugs, and there was only one Van Gogh. There was no ‘somebody like that.’”
“Whatever,” says Ruth. “Excuse me. One more question,
Charlotte, and I’m done, I promise. How come you have no flow- ers in your house?”
“I have enough flowers in my work life.” Eli says, “Daisy has asthma.”
“That must be hard,” Ruth says. “You can’t imagine,” says Charlotte.
It’s the truest thing she’s said all evening. No one who doesn’t have an asthmatic child can know. Not even Eli, though that’s not strictly true. The two of them handle it, but not always well. Watching Daisy struggle to breathe, they sometimes snap at each other. It’s just fear, they know that, so they forgive each other. But it’s not ideal. And Charlotte can’t rid herself of the idea that it’s her fault—though she knows that’s not possible.
A voice says, “Can we eat Ruth’s sticky buns yet?” They hadn’t noticed Daisy return. How much has she overheard? They try not to talk about her asthma. Daisy has covered her ears and run out of the room when the subject’s come up.
“That must be tough,” Ruth says to Daisy. Charlotte is holding her breath.
“It’s not so bad,” Daisy says. “The hard part is when I lose my inhaler and my mom gets mad at me. Sometimes—”
“Not mad,” Charlotte says, louder than she means to. “I get scared, is all.”
Ruth says, “If that’s the hard part . . . there’s got to be some practical solution. Let me think about it, okay?”
Why is she asking Daisy?
“The sticky buns?” Daisy says. “Can we have more now?”
“Give us five minutes, honey,” says Charlotte. “We’re getting to it.”
“That’s what you said last time,” Daisy says.
“I know,” says Charlotte, though she’s pretty sure she hadn’t. Eli says, “Eye roll alert. Five going on fifteen.”
“I’m six,” Daisy says.
“Not for a while,” Charlotte says.
“Happy birthday in advance, Daisy,” says Ruth. “What are you doing for your birthday?”
“It’s not for a while,” Charlotte repeats.
Daisy looks like she’s about to cry, which is definitely not what Charlotte wants.
“Okay, come on, Daisy,” says Charlotte. “You can help bring in the dessert.”
She’d prepared a bowl of clementines and shelled walnuts. But next to the sticky buns, the fruit and nuts seem overly health-conscious, no fun. Daisy arranges the buns on a platter. She gently slides the pastries around to get the arrangement right. Watching her, Charlotte feels happier than she has all evening. Now if only she could keep Daisy from eating more sweets.
When Daisy carries in the platter, Ruth beams as if she’s being brought a birthday cake topped with lit candles. She looks around, delighted, slightly embarrassed, as if she’s waiting for them to sing.
“This is awesome,” she says. “Being able to share my grandma’s baking. I can’t wait to tell her.”
Don’t, Charlotte thinks. Don’t tell your grandmother yet. Don’t tell her anything about us. If she’s hoping you’ll find someone to love, maybe even marry, you’ll only disappoint her. Ruth says, “The most amazing thing about my grandparents is they’re still madly in love after fifty years.” Her already flushed face brightens as she describes how her grandparents spend their evenings snuggling on the couch.
Charlotte senses that Ruth has said this before, maybe even to Rocco. But shining through the performance is her love for her grandparents, a good sign. She’s able to love, a gift that people don’t recognize as a gift, as something you have or don’t. Maybe Ruth can love Rocco. Maybe she already does.
Charlotte yawns. “Oops. Excuse me.”
“Don’t apologize,” says Ruth. “We should let you put Daisy to bed. And you guys should get some rest.”
Is she saying they look like they need some rest? Why is
Charlotte so defensive?
“Can we eat the rest of the sticky buns after you leave?” Daisy asks.
“Save them for breakfast,” says Ruth. “Heat them at 350 degrees for exactly five minutes. Can you do that?”
“Mom, can we do that?”
“We can.” Charlotte thinks: There is no way that’s going to happen, even if she has to eat all the rest herself. Which, at the moment, doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. The truth is, there’s nothing like sugar and butter . . .
Even a neutral goodbye is risky. In the past, Charlotte has said, “See you soon.” And she never saw that person again. So now she says, “It was lovely to meet you.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Ruth bows and rolls her hand down from her forehead.
“Talk to you soon,” says Rocco.
No one has to explain that he’s staying with Ruth.
Kiss kiss, and then the sweet silence after the guests have gone home.
Charlotte’s thankful that Daisy is so proud of being able to put on her own pajamas that she’s eager to hurry off to her room and change for bed. Her pajamas are printed with little ice cream cones and slices of pizza.
Charlotte retrieves Moses from the safe, tucks Daisy in with her giraffe, and turns off the light.
“Wait! Can you read to me?” Daisy’s favorite book is about a pig named Pearl who finds a talking bone. Daisy has heard the story so often she knows it has a happy ending, but she still acts scared when Pearl is kidnapped by a fox who wants to cook and eat her. One night Daisy asked Charlotte if they eat pigs. Charlotte didn’t want to lie, but neither did she want to create a vegetarian, so she said, We eat potatoes.
“Mom’s tired.” Only now does Charlotte realize how knocked out she is.
“Okay,” says Daisy. “Then we read two books tomorrow night.”
“Promise,” Charlotte says.
“Rocco’s friend is nice,” Daisy says.
Of course you think she’s nice, Charlotte thinks sourly. She gave you sweets.
“She is nice.” Charlotte kisses Daisy’s forehead. “Good night.”
“Good night.” Daisy’s voice is like a tiny hand squeezing Charlotte’s heart.
Eli’s already in bed. Charlotte puts on one of his T-shirts and a pair of his pajama bottoms. A signal. Sex is out of the question. They’re both exhausted.
They turn to face each other and don’t speak for a while. Eli smells of toothpaste. What a blessing, to be able to look so deeply into someone’s eyes that he turns into a cyclops.
“She’s a little much,” Eli says. “Don’t you think?” Which makes her love him even more.
“Nice enough. Even Daisy liked her.” Charlotte wishes she didn’t feel so proud of herself for being big enough to say that. “And we did great. We welcomed her with open arms.”
“Your poor brother,” Eli says.
“Poor everyone,” Charlotte says.