HARD TO GET
BY EVA LANGSTON PATRONE - UNITED STATES
I was going to move to Thailand, but now I'm not.
This is what I tell Aunt Beth as I pull off my coat in her foyer. Of course, it's the first thing she asks about as my mother and I walk in.
“I thought you had rekindled the romance with Rob?” Aunt Beth squints at me through her heavily-mascaraed eyelashes.
“False alarm,” I say. Aunt Beth is the family gossip, so I'm hoping she'll spread this around, and I won't have to go through the whole spiel with everyone.
“He was a looker,” she says, still squinting. She never wears her glasses because she thinks they make her look old.
My mother makes a grunting noise behind me. She never liked Rob. She says he reminds her of my father.
“Those blue eyes,” Aunt Beth continues loudly. “So handsome. But love isn't just about looks, is it Danny?”
“Hey! What's that supposed to mean?” Uncle Danny shouts. He's stuffing our coats into the front closet.
“Don't yell! We're all right here,” Aunt Beth shouts back. It's a wonder they haven't gone deaf after twenty years of marriage.
We follow Aunt Beth into the kitchen. My other two aunts are stirring pots on the stove. My mother and I politely offer to help, but they shoo us away, which is a relief, because Aunt Beth is going into full-panic Thanksgiving mode, yelling about not having enough mashed potatoes.
In the living room, a few of my teenage cousins sit on the floor in front of the TV, and my grandpa is on the couch. He stands when he sees us and gives us big hugs.
Things have changed a lot for my grandpa in the three years since my grandma died. When she was in the hospital he started getting rid of their things: furniture, books, paintings, clocks. “What do I do with it all?” he kept asking. After Grandma died, he moved into one of those Senior Living complexes where they have game nights and potluck dinners. He seems to be doing okay now, but it's hard to tell. He calls up my mother sometimes to ask how to do laundry or boil an egg.
While my aunts cook, my mother and grandfather and I drink white wine and make small talk with the cousins who float in and out of the living room. I'm the oldest cousin, and I remember them all as toddlers. Now they’re in high school and college. My younger brother arrives with his girlfriend, but soon they disappear out back to play with Aunt Beth's dogs.
My mother refills our wine glasses, and then she, too, disappears, upstairs to one of the bedrooms to call the man she's currently dating. My grandpa looks at me. His cheeks and nose are pink, but the rest of him is white: white hair and eyebrows, pale, papery skin. “Gina,” he says. “Tell me about this moving to Thailand business.”
I sigh. “I was going to. But now I'm not.”
Three years ago my college boyfriend Rob moved to Thailand to teach English, and when he emailed to tell me, I thought maybe him living in another country would help me stop fantasizing about us getting back together. And it did help...he shifted to the back burner of my mind. Although still, on the rare occasion I’d get an email from him, my heart would leap to my throat at the mere sight of his name in my inbox. He emailed me out of the blue every so often, usually with a book he’d read that he thought I might like, or a weird poem he’d written and felt he couldn’t show to anyone but me. I’d write him back immediately then not hear from him for another six months or so, until he had another book recommendation or weird poem to share.
Then, this past April, he came to Northern Virginia to visit his parents for a few weeks, and I happened to be in the area, too, for a friend's wedding. Rob sent me a message, suggesting we meet up for drinks, and I said okay.
I hadn't seen Rob in almost eight years, and I wondered if he would still look the same, if he would still think I was pretty. I had a boyfriend, so I didn't really expect anything to happen between us, although of course the possibility crossed my mind.
As it turned out, he didn't look the same. He was thicker – from working out at the gym, he said, something he'd never done in college. His sandy hair was shorter and receding a bit around the temples. His forehead was lined, and there were dark circles under his eyes. Oh, but those eyes were the same brilliant blue, and he had the same plump lips. That same chicken pox scar above his right eyebrow. The chicken pox scar alone would have done me in.
I don't remember what we talked about over drinks. I just remember watching his thumb rub down the condensation on the side of his beer glass. We barely made it back to my car. We were frantic at first. He actually ripped my underwear, which was something that had never happened to me before, and he sucked on my lips until they were practically numb. He told me I was even hotter than he remembered, and we laughed about how we were both staying with our parents and thus forced to have sex in the backseat of my Toyota like teenagers.
I know I'm making it sound good, and, oh God, in some ways it was, but the thing about me and Rob... it was always a little too passionate. He needed me desperately, and I desperately needed him to need me. It had taken a lot of fucked up situations in college for me to finally end things with him, shortly before graduation.
After our fast and furious sex, Rob buried his face in my neck and sobbed, saying he still thought about me after all these years, and he wished he didn't have to go back to Thailand. And then I cried, too, because being with Rob always made me cry. My love for him was so intense it hurt.
We lay there, cramped in the stuffy car, and talked, and it was like old times. We decided that maybe, as people grow older, the outside layers of their personalities harden or warp. They change to be who they want to be, or have to be, or think they should be. But inside, there's this core that stays the same. And if someone gets to know you deep down to your core, it doesn't matter how much time goes by, you'll forever have a connection.
Then we cried again and kissed snotty kisses and rubbed each other's sweaty backs. And we didn't even care that we were half-naked in the backseat of a car in the middle of a parking lot. I guess I should have known then how it would end. Desperate, overwhelming passion like that is not the stuff real relationships are made of, but oh, Hollywood had sure made me think that it was, and I was ready for my happily ever after.
Rob went back to Chiang Mai, and I went back to Baltimore, but we messaged every day and talked for hours on Skype. I broke up with my boyfriend.
Rob sent me pictures of his life in Thailand: lush hikes, golden mountain-top temples, a colorful nighttime bazar. I started to imagine myself there: zipping around with Rob on his motorbike, my arms tight around his waist, the air perfumed with coconut and spice.
After a while the idea arose that maybe I could move to Thailand and teach English, too, and Rob and I could try being together again. It was crazy, but maybe it was fate. I started telling people I was moving and I applied for teaching positions. Rob and I discussed all the places we’d visit when I got there.
If my life was a movie, it would have ended with me arriving at the airport in Chiang Mai, loaded down with my bags. I would see Rob. He would see me. I'd drop my luggage, and we'd run to each other for a crushing embrace. Our lips would lock. The music would swell as we went off together into the sunset.
“Tell me again why you were moving to Thailand?” Grandpa asks. “For romance, wasn't it?”
“I know.” I twist the stem of my wine glass between my fingers. “It was silly.”
I'm just glad no one has mentioned my old boyfriend, Gus. I'm sure that's what they're all thinking – that I'm an idiot for ditching a nice, upstanding guy like him for a flighty bum like Rob.
“Well, I'm not so sure,” Grandpa says. “You've got to go for it sometimes, in the case of romance.”
This is a strange thing for my grandpa to say. He's never struck me as particularly romantic. When I was in high school I asked him about courting Grandma, and he said something along the lines of, “well, it was time for me to settle down, and Trudy was nice, good-looking gal.”
At the time I had been appalled, but as I got older it seemed to make more and more sense. Maybe it didn't have to do with butterflies in your stomach or passionate declarations of love. Maybe it was as simple as saying, “hey, I'm tired of being alone. Who seems like a person I could spend my life with?” It was a decision, not an inevitable fate. And it had worked for my grandparents. They were happily married for over fifty years.
That’s what I’d been thinking about when I started dating Gus. He was stable and thoughtful and good at Scrabble. He didn’t write poetry, and my heart didn't ache for him, but maybe that was okay. He cooked me nice dinners and got along with my friends. He didn’t have panic attacks or bouts of crushing depression. Of course, I ruined things by cheating on him with Rob.
“What happened to make you change your mind?” Grandpa asks.
“More like he changed his mind.” I drain the last of my wine. “I guess he had always dreamed about us getting back together, but when the dream started turning into reality, he got scared and broke it off. It's probably for the best.” I shrug.
I don't tell Grandpa how I spent a month sobbing after Rob told me he was freaking out because he wasn't “ready for all this.” He was worried he wouldn’t know how to make me happy, and maybe me moving to Thailand wasn't a good idea right now. “Maybe in a year or two,” he’d suggested, “when I’ve got my head screwed on straight.” I told him I wasn’t waiting around for him, and maybe we shouldn’t talk anymore, like, at all.
Then I cried and cried until my head pounded and my eyes swelled shut. I was mad Rob, but mostly I was mad at myself. That I could still, at the age of thirty, be so stupid as to believe in fate. That I was so naïve, or maybe so desperate, that I’d been willing to give up my whole life and move across the world to be with my unstable ex-boyfriend because I thought he was my “true love.” And, worst of all, maybe the reason I was willing to give up everything was because I didn't have much to lose.
Grandpa knocks his empty glass against mine. “Be a good girl and get us some refills.”
In the kitchen, Aunt Beth and Uncle Danny are fighting loudly. Meanwhile, Aunt Gail is getting ready to send Uncle John to the grocery store to pick up more potatoes. She hands him a list. “And if they don't have whole milk, two percent is fine.”
“Copy that.” Uncle John takes the list and moves towards the door. He and Aunt Gail always seem more like business partners than husband and wife. They're very efficient together.
The kitchen is steamy and smells like turkey and yeast rolls. My stomach growls, and I head back to the living room to deliver Grandpa his glass of wine.
As soon as I sit down, he puts his hand on top of my wrist. His fingers are cold and dry. “Gina,” he says. “I'm going to tell you a story.”
We're alone in the living room. The cousins have abandoned the television, and I can see them through the window – they're outside kicking a soccer ball around in the dried-out grass. The dogs run back and forth, following the ball, and my brother and his girlfriend stand off to the side, by the old, rusted swing set, their arms crossed against their chests. Grandpa takes a sip of wine and clears his throat.
“It was 1953, and I was living in Des Moines,” he says. “I was working for the magazine Better Homes and Gardens – you’ve heard of it?”
“Yes. Of course.” I figure this is going to be one of his career stories like he used to tell me when I was in college and he was trying to convince me to study journalism.
“Well, I was having a pretty good time back then as a bachelor.” He smiles. “There were some girls I took out, but there was one girl from the office I was especially keen on. Beautiful. And smart. She had this fiery personality that really knocked my socks off.”
“Grandma?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “Her name was Rita.”
“Oh.” This was different.
“But Rita wouldn't let me take her out. She didn't think it was a good idea to mix work and play.
Which was funny, because most of the gals at the office were working there to find a man. Rita was actually interested in a career.”
“Uh huh,” I say, reminding myself that Grandpa is eighty-seven. I wonder where this is going.
“So me and Rita,” he continues, “we were “just friends.” I'd stop by her desk to chat, and we'd talk when we ran into each other at parties. Sometimes a group of us from the office would go to lunch, and I'd make sure to sit next to her. Rita always had something to say – and boy, she would argue with me, any chance she got! Sometimes she made me so mad, but it was good for me. I was too sure of myself back then.”
“She was a challenge.”
“Well, I tell you, I liked her a lot. I'd lie in bed at night and think about her. I liked her so much it hurt. Like I couldn't contain it.” Grandpa pats his chest, over his heart, and I nod.
“One night, we were both at a party, and Rita had a bit too much champagne. We went out on the back porch, just the two of us, and she said, you know I like you, Philip. I tried to act surprised, but I'd had a hunch all along she was just playing hard to get.
She said she knew I was looking for a woman who would cook dinner every night and stay home with the kids, and she wasn’t that kind of woman. So I asked her, what kind of woman was she? And she said she hadn't figured that out yet, but she didn’t think she was the type to get married.
I have to tell you, I didn't know what to say. I guess I was looking for a woman who would cook for me and take care of the kids, but I was also looking for someone I loved, and I was pretty sure I loved Rita. I told her she didn't have to cook me dinner. We'd go out to eat. And we'd hire a nanny for the kids. She just laughed. Then I kissed her. And boy, could she kiss! The next thing you know, we're getting in a taxicab and heading back to my apartment.”
“Grandpa!” I swat at his arm. He's grinning.
“Well, that's what happened. And it was pretty wonderful. She was a smart, good-looking gal, and we were very attracted to each other. She told me, well Philip, you won me over.” He takes a sip of wine and stares off into the backyard. It's only one in the afternoon, but the day is dark, and the sky is low and gray.
“So then what happened?” I ask. “Did you date Rita?”
“No. I started thinking. She said she didn’t want to get married. But I did. I wanted someone to come home to every night. I wanted a house and kids, but Rita didn’t want those things, and I didn’t know it could be any other way. I guess I was scared. I didn’t know if I could make her happy. And, I'll admit, it worried me, what happened that night. I wondered if she did that sort of thing all the time, with different men. Just the thought of it made me sick with jealousy.
So, the next day at work, I asked her to lunch. And I told her I didn't think it was a good idea for us to see each other anymore. That was the only time I remember Rita having nothing to say. She nodded and ate her salad, and she didn't say a word. I knew I had hurt her, and it broke my heart.
The next thing I knew, she got a job with a magazine in New York, and she left Des Moines, and that was it.”
“You never saw her again?”
“Never did. A few months later, your grandmother started working as a secretary at the office. And Trudy was very pretty. Serious, but she wore this bright red lipstick that knocked my socks off. So I asked her out. She was a good, Catholic girl, and she wanted to get married and have lots of babies. We got married six months later.”
“Why so fast?”
Grandpa sets his empty wine glass down on the coffee table. “I made up my mind, and that was it. We liked each other and we didn't want to wait.”
“Did you ever think about Rita?”
“Sure I did. I thought maybe if things didn't work out with Trudy, I'd find Rita, and I'd be with her, in whatever way she'd have me.”
“But things...worked out with Grandma, right?”
“Of course they did!” Grandpa pats my knee. “She was a good wife and a good mother to my children, and I loved her very much. We made a real good show of it.”
“So you made the right decision.”
“I made my decision. But now,” he says, “I'm ready to find Rita.”
When it's time to eat, we all gather in the kitchen to say the blessing and tell what we're thankful for. My mind wanders to Gus, and I wonder if I should try to patch things up with him. Maybe we could make “a real good show of it.” Or maybe not. Maybe I need to move somewhere else, get a new job. Baltimore doesn’t exactly set my heart aflame.
“I'm thankful for my husband and kids,” Aunt Beth says. “They drive me up a wall, but they make my life fun, and I love them.”
“I'm thankful for Gail and all the cooks,” Uncle John says. “For making sure we have enough mashed potatoes.”
After all the prayers and thanks, we load up our plates. There are twenty-three of us in all, so we can't fit at one table. Aunt Beth has set up folding tables in the living room and den. I choose to sit in the dining room with my mother and her sisters and Great-Aunt Rhodie. This turns out to be a mistake because immediately they start discussing my mother and the man she’s dating.
“Our relationship is mostly sexual,” my mother says through a mouthful of turkey. “Which is fine with me. I have my own life and my own friends. I don't have time for anything serious. But it's nice to have regular sex a few times a week.”
“Mom, please.” An unwelcome mental image flashes in my mind.
“A few times a week?” Aunt Linda asks. She's divorced, too, but she doesn't go on dates the way my mother does.
When it’s time for dessert, I decide to move to the kids' table, which is a joke, because there are no kids left in our family. My youngest cousin is sixteen. Our family is in this weird limbo right now, waiting for the next generation. Everyone's holding their breath to see when my brother and his girlfriend will tie the knot and start procreating. Or when I will finally find someone and settle down. Like it’s a decision I can make all on my own.
After pie and coffee, I feel like it should be time to go back to my mother's house and fall asleep, but it's only five o'clock in the afternoon. My grandpa is back on the couch, and the cousins are back in front of the television, watching football.
“Rita,” Grandpa says, patting the cushion next to him, “come sit next to me.”
His face is flushed, and I wonder how many glasses of wine he's had.
“Gina, Grandpa,” I say. “My name is Gina.”
“What?” He looks startled. “What did I say?”
I sit next to him. “You said Rita.” I hope he isn't going senile. I hope he's not going to start putting the moves on me, thinking I'm Rita.
He sighs. “I got Rita on the brain. I called her up, you know.”
“You did? When?”
“Yesterday. I got your brother to do some sleuthing on my behalf. Somehow he figured out she’s living with her daughter now, and he got me a phone number. And an address.”
“So what happened when you called?”
“I left a message, but she hasn’t called back.” Grandpa fishes a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “She lives in Alexandria now.”
“Oh, wow.” Alexandria is thirty minutes away.
“Your brother also found out she’s a widow.”
“So she got married and had kids after all.”
“What do you say?” Grandpa grins at me. “Want to take a road trip?”
“I don't know if that's a good idea. You don't want to barge in and disrupt their Thanksgiving. Maybe we should try calling again.”
“I've waited years to see Rita,” he says. “I don't want to wait any longer.”
I can think of a hundred reasons why this is a bad idea. Grandpa remembers the young Rita. What's going to happen when he comes face-to-face with a Rita who is eighty-something years old? What if she doesn’t live up to his expectations?
On the other hand, I'm one to talk. I was ready to move to the other side of the world to rekindle a romance with Rob. I was the one who talked about an inner core, a connection that lasts a lifetime.
“Let me get my keys,” I say. “You tell everyone we'll be back later.”
Outside it's cold, and the sky is heavy. The weather is calling for snow flurries. In the car, I turn up the heat and try to find a radio station Grandpa will like. He looks out the window, watching as we pass strip malls and brightly-lit gas stations. “I don't want you to think,” he says after a while, “that I didn't love your grandma. Because I did. Very much.”
“But I had such passion for Rita. I did think about her sometimes. Maybe if we'd gotten married, we would have driven each other crazy. Probably. But I never felt about anyone else the way I felt about her.”
I could say the same thing about Rob. My love for him was immense. I loved Gus, too, but that love was small and practical. It didn't hurt so much to lose it. Maybe that's better, in the long run. Maybe love shouldn't weigh you down.
“I think it's all working out according to fate,” Grandpa says quietly. “I was supposed to marry Trudy and have my girls. But I'm supposed to die in the arms of my true love.”
I feel my nose tingle with tears. At the age of eighty-seven my grandfather still believes in fate.
The GPS tells me to turn right, and soon we're driving into Rita's daughter's neighborhood. “We're almost there.” I reach over and put my hand on top of his. He's shaking.
I pull up in front of a large, brick colonial. All the lights are on, and there are five cars jammed into the driveway. We sit silently in the car for a moment. “We don't have to do this,” I say. “You can always call her in a few days.”
“No,” Grandpa says. “I want to see her.” He opens the car door.
“Do you want me to stay here?”
“No. Come with me.”
I walk behind him as he shuffles up to the house. I wonder if Rita will even recognize him.
We stand on the stoop, and Grandpa pats his hair down with one hand before reaching out to ring the bell. I feel my own heart beating fast. This is it.
The door opens halfway, and a middle-aged woman looks out at us.
“Hello,” my grandpa croaks. He clears his throat. “Is Rita here?”
The woman cocks her head to the side. “One second.” She walks down the hall, and we hear her say, “Mom? Are you expecting anyone?”
A moment later, an old woman inches down the hallway with a walker. A cloud of white hair surrounds her head, and she wears a pale pink blouse with a blue cardigan over top.
“Rita!” Grandpa says loudly as she approaches. “How's it going?”
I try to see the young, beautiful Rita in this old woman's face. She has large, dark eyes behind her glasses, but they are surrounded by creases. Her pale eyebrows are finely arched, and she wears pink lipstick, but her chin sags, and she has spots of discoloration on her wrinkled cheeks.
I glance at Grandpa. I've never seen him smile so widely. “It's me, Phil!”
She stares at him. “Who?”
“Phillip,” he shouts. “From Des Moines.”
Rita mashes her thin lips together, and her eyebrows draw in towards the bridge of her nose. “Who are you?” she asks again.
“We worked together.” Grandpa's voice begins to lose its joviality. “At Better Homes and Gardens.”
“Do you remember working there?” I ask. Maybe we need to establish how strong her memory is overall.
She looks at me and frowns. “Of course I remember working there.” She turns to Grandpa. “But I don't remember you.”
Rita's daughter reappears in the hallway. She seems suspicious of us.
“Phillip DeCicco. Don't you remember me? Don't you remember that night after the Hanson's party?”
“I remember the Hanson’s party.”
“But you don't remember me? Not at all?” Grandpa pulls his wallet from his back pocket and starts flipping through the contents. “Let me see if I have a picture. I look different now. Maybe if you saw a picture of me, from back then.”
“I don't remember you,” she says loudly.
Her daughter puts one hand on Rita's back. “I'm sorry,” she says to us, “but we're getting ready to eat, so...”
“Oh, sure, it’s just…” I pause. Maybe this isn’t even the right woman. But then I notice the way she’s looking at Grandpa. She’s studying him carefully, her lips twitching.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “We’ll let you get back to your Thanksgiving.” I make a move to go, but Grandpa just stands there, staring at Rita. “You really don't remember me?”
Rita shakes her head, but something in her eyes says otherwise.
“Have a nice night,” I call as I take Grandpa by the arm and lead him away from the door, down the steps and towards the car. It's starting to snow. I see one white flake, and then another.
I help him into the car, and when I get in on the driver's side, he turns to me and says, “do you think she really can't remember me, or is she just playing hard to get?” His face is dead serious.
And then I laugh. I can't help it. After a moment, Grandpa starts laughing, too. Maybe he's crying a bit as well because from time to time he touches the corners of his eyes with the back of his hand.
I start the engine. The radio is playing one of my favorite oldies songs, and I sing along softly as I pull away from the curb, feeling like I might cry, too. Grandpa reaches over and pats my knee. I drive through the neighborhood, passing houses with their windows glowing yellow. The snow swirls down from the sky, and Grandpa starts singing, too, loudly and off-key.
“I need you, more than anyone darling, know that I have from the start,” we sing together. “So build me up, Buttercup, don't break my heart!”
I pull out onto the main road and turn up the volume. We sing even louder as we head back to the house filled with all the people who wouldn’t exist if things had gone differently.
Eva received her MFA from The University of New Orleans, and her work has appeared in various literary journals. She is currently working as a manuscript consultant and runs a successful writing blog with over 2,000 followers.