A Thanksgiving Story (Maybe)

I’m not sure if this is about Thanksgiving or not. Mostly it’s about Debbie.

When my son, David, graduated from college years ago, he came home and took a job at Johns Hopkins University. He set his sights on vet school, so this job was interim at best. But there was a surprise waiting. Debbie.

They were an unlikely pair from the start. She was much older, never married, and a lover of cats and monkeys. She was bubbly and an avid reader and extremely religious. They became friends.

As Thanksgiving approached that first year, David asked if we could invite Debbie. There was nothing unusual in the request, as we held a long tradition of an open table. It had seen some of my former students, college friends of my kids, neighbors, and several people whose names have now been washed away with time.

Debbie seemed thrilled, and she fit right in. She brought a flower arrangement in a wicker cornucopia, which I placed in the middle of the table. She was a perfect guest, really. She talked to my parents about growing up in New York City. She got right down on the floor with the little kids and played Legos. And as easily as she did those things, as I got to know her, she was not shy with words like “depression” or “medication.” She allowed you to get the whole picture of who she was.

Even after David got accepted to vet school and left Baltimore, Debbie still came to our house on the day the turkey was carved.

And then, on a nondescript evening while I was watching TV, the phone rang. A woman identified herself as someone who worked at Hopkins. “We need to get a message to David,” she said. “Debbie committed suicide.” The woman cried, apologized for crying, and then cried some more.

At Debbie’s funeral, the minister invited anyone who wanted to tell a story to come to the pulpit. Almost everyone who spoke told a tale that involved a holiday. “She was always with us at Christmas,” a friend said through her tears. “We shared many Thanksgivings,” said another. By the time the speeches were finished, I wondered if Debbie had ever taken her last bite of pumpkin pie at our house and then driven to her second (or third) Thanksgiving in another neighborhood. Everyone loved her. She lit up a holiday table, apparently all over town.

Today I’m deep in preparations. Along with Pilgrim candles and my fancy napkins, I take Debbie’s cornucopia out of the closet. I picture the group that will congregate in a few days. And this is the moment, every year, when I get sad all over again that I won’t see her there. But then, when I put some gourds and Indian corn inside it and look at it in its place of honor, I can so easily remember the best thing she always brought to the table — her.

So I guess this is a Thanksgiving story after all. Thanks to Debbie. And thanks for Debbie.

A Date Seven States Away

The Writer lived seven states away — in Maine. His profile read: “I’m tall, my mother thinks I’m handsome, and I always finish the Sunday New York Times crossword in ink.”

A little breathless, I wrote, “Really? In ink?”

He answered, “Indelibly.”

I’m not exactly proud of this, but one clever adverb was all it took to launch a long-distance love affair. One thing was sure — The Writer and I were simpatico from the start, and we kept amazing ourselves with how much we had in common. I’d become a good cook later in life. Him, too. He wasn’t afraid of béchamel sauce or a flambé if the situation called for it. He recited Yeats from memory, and we were both loyal to Joni Mitchell, even in her smoky voiced years. And there were the technical merits I was always on the lookout for. He never butchered an irregular past participle, and that counted for a lot.

Before I knew it, I was scooting out of my office abruptly at 5PM because, in the days before smart phones, the only way I could get or receive a message from him was to sit at my desk, at home, and log on. I couldn’t wait to get home and be with him, even if he was 630 miles away, and the only things we were touching were our keyboards. Our screen repartee went on for hours.

We started talking on the phone. His New England accent was wildly seductive. His stories, too — from the salmon almandine he shriveled to hell at his latest dinner party to the juicy gossip at his newspaper. I made him laugh. We talked music, books, old loves. We began to share secrets.

By our two-month “anniversary” we’d exchanged photographs in the mail, the kind that used to be delivered to the metal box attached to your house, because in 1999 people would have said things like, “A phone that’s also a camera? Ridiculous!” The photos I sent were careful to feature my face and sidestep those parts of me now migrating south. The pictures he sent were grainy and distant. Did he seem shorter than he described himself? Who cared? I started getting flowers at work. Delphinium and roses. Sunflowers and purple orchids.

By month three, it was official. We began and ended each day on the phone. And this: “I love you.” My friends looked at me funny, but I thought being in long marriages had clouded their ability to see the magic of the moment.

I reserved my flight and my love would meet me at the Bangor International Airport.

“I’m going to Maine!” I told my two best friends.

“What?” they said in unison. “No, no, no. This is not the kind of thing you do.”

The “you” they were talking about had been in a long marriage. I kept an emergency preparedness kit in my basement. I’d spent a childhood afraid of bears in the suburbs. I changed the batteries in my smoke detectors twice a year. They had a point.

I countered all their logic with, “When you know, you know,” and other sentences just as elliptical. Before I left, I told them to be thinking of the bridesmaid color they might want to wear.

“Something understated,” I added, “because, you know, second marriage and everything.”

I had to endure a bumpy flight to LaGuardia and then get on a 50-seat commuter plane, the kind that always ends up in an FSA investigation because it didn’t clear trees on take-off. And then, after all the buildup, all the waiting . . . I landed in Bangor, and there he was, attempting a casual pose as he leaned against a bank of seats.

“Wow!” he said as he pushed flowers into my hand.

The voice was right. But it was coming from the wrong mouth. Not the wrong mouth, exactly, just smaller than the tantalizing one I’d imagined all those hours on the phone. We leaned in to hug. My lips met his nose. I’d been more comfortable at every junior high dance I ever attended.

In the car leaving the airport, we spoke over each other’s sentences, which had never happened before in our marathon phone chats. I was thankful for the dark because it was easier to say, “I’m sorry, what were you going to say, no you go first” without looking at him.

When we got to his apartment, I noticed a rash moving up his neck, about to reach his left ear. I wondered if I had one, too.

“To us,” he toasted with wine he’d mercifully thought to buy.

“To the great state of Maine!” I said, as if I were on some sort of weekend retreat for middle-aged women who’d lost their minds.

When he left to go to the bathroom, it was my first moment alone since I’d walked off the plane and into his arms. Okay, I thought, We’re just nervous. Shake it off, Linda. I came up with a great plan for the morning. We’d go to the market and plan a sumptuous dinner to cook together. I pictured us chopping and sautéing in a steamy kitchen, with lots of laughter and deliberate touching.

Maybe we could restart with a spirited discussion of his favorite chili recipe, the one he made for his hordes of friends at his famous football parties (though looking around, I wasn’t sure where he actually sat them all. Or stood them all).

Okay — sue me — I began opening The Writer’s cupboards. And here’s what I found: three plastic plates and five mismatched glasses. Here’s what was missing: pots, pans, olive oil, whisks. No chicken stock, no garlic, no convection oven. His cookbook collection? Mastering the Art of French Cooking still in the bag with the receipt peeking out. He’d bought it the day before.

I might as well have found bodies under the sink.

In that first panicked moment, I considered grabbing my suitcase and heading for the door. Then I heard the toilet flush and the water running in the sink. And that’s when I saw the pencil — with an eraser — sitting next to the unfinished NY Times puzzle. From Tuesday.

The bathroom door opened, and there were wan smiles all around.

I understood. I did. The Writer wanted to be a great cook, and handsome, and tall. He would have loved to have a beer once in a while with Will Shortz and talk to him about his crossword strategy. It was too easy for The Writer to type his hopefulness on to a page and think, Well, I’ll work on making it true later.

I know because I was doing the exact same thing back at my house, all those evenings we’d spent “together.”

And then we hit Send, and it all took on a life of its own.

What I wanted to do, but didn’t, was tell The Writer we should just start over, this time with the truth closer to the top. I’d go first. Breakfast this morning was two Milk Duds. I have less energy than I pretend to; a yellow spot on my front tooth that will never go away; an ache, deep and persistent, from the great love of my life. Some days I’m flawed and regretful. I can also be optimistic and graceful. I’m still able to pull off a pretty fine boeuf bourguignon for eight. There you have it.

I stayed the weekend with The Writer. I ate lobster (twice, in restaurants), and we filled Saturday driving to Acadia National Park, probably so we wouldn’t have to look at each other so much. He told me he was the youngest person ever to climb Cadillac Mountain. I told him I’d won a speech contest in college. Technically it was third place, but I don’t think he got himself all the way up that mountain either.

His final email was waiting for me when I got home. Apparently The Writer had spent lots of time in the bathroom that first night trying to think of ways to let me down easy. He stopped short of “pig in a poke,” but barely. He hoped I hadn’t traveled home with my hopes still in place.

I’m rooting for anyone who still gets on a plane and throws caution to the wind. I’m not big on advice to people in love, but if I were, I’d tell you to be aware that very few people can finish the Sunday Times crossword in ink. And unless you want to hear about it into the next decade, you might want to skip the part about the bridesmaid colors.

The Writer moved south and got married. My boeuf bourguignon is still killer.

A Date When I Got to Be Dorothy Parker

Bud. I almost disqualified Bud based on his name alone. I was 50, but I thought I was still too young to go out with a person named Bud. On the other hand — as a divorced woman — I was flush with a need for fiscal responsibility, so I was determined to make good on my dating service investment. My strategy was to date all candidates who didn’t ask about threesomes or sound psychotic in their introductory email message.

Bud led me to believe he was a football coach by telling me, “I’m a football coach.” Technically, he turned out to be a little less than this. But by this point I was actively telling potential dates I was a writer. The bigger truth was happening 9-5 in a drab cubicle, with me hunched over, straightening out murky paragraphs that someone else (a real writer) had constructed.

He suggested we — who in the cold light of day had become a lowly editor and a defensive coordinator at a high school known only for its mathematics department — meet at a sports bar. It’s noisy in those places, yes. But you can lose yourself in a bank of televisions on the wall, everything from NASCAR to a tennis tournament in France if there’s a lull in the conversation. We settled in and ordered a pitcher of beer to share.

It turned out he loved the idea of what I did for a living. This hardly ever happened to me. Most men thought something like brain surgeon or sex therapist would have been livelier, so I was surprised when Bud wanted to delve into my occupation.

We moved quickly beyond the difference between semicolon and comma. Then he started quizzing me on the definitions of homonyms that had always confused him, like “except” and “accept.” I found I was even boring myself, which was hard to do. But whatever answer I’d come up with, Bud did a little hitting himself on the side of the head in wonderment as if I’d written the Oxford English Dictionary.

You can’t underestimate the power of someone mistaking you for a member of the Algonquin Round Table just as you take that first sip of cold Yuengling. As you may have figured out by now, it’s usually all about me.

I liked the place, too. I could tell that pleased him. He confided that he came here often, that it was the usual meeting place for him and his friends. And then . . . what do you know? They started streaming through the door, one or two at a time.

“Ask her a question about words. Ask her anything,” he said to the group that had now slid into our booth. I felt like the guy at the sideshow who could guess your weight within two pounds. There was nothing to it, but these men thought I was a genius. I did what I imagine Dorothy Parker would have done. I went with it. Between quick tutorials on stuff most people remembered from 6th grade, I took long, deep, delicious sips. And against my better judgment, I ate loaded potato skins and Buffalo wings for dinner.

At home, I got on my computer and — with an immediacy born of three unfortunate dates in a row — I started going through profiles. I stopped at one of a writer who lived in Maine. He was a long way from home, in every sense of the word. But I felt my fingers on the keys. And then I hit send.